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Niemoller Redux

July 6, 2006
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This is the junior partner writing on this blog, and I’ve been even more absent than MizM, although I do actually have an excuse: six weeks-plus of radiation treatments following excision of a small, well-contained ductal carcinoma in situ that was detected by mammography in February. Say what you will about health care in the US (and there’s plenty to be said), but I am grateful for the technological advances that made this very early detection possible.

One of the effects of the radiation was a pretty stunning case of skin irritation that made it impossible for me to focus on anything else for a few weeks. It’s pretty much over now, but even if it hadn’t been, I would have been just as jolted by the message below, which arrived in my inbox this morning courtesy of the Rev. Tim Simpson of the Christian Alliance for Progress. It put me in mind of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s poem, ending (more or less) “and by the time they came for me, there was no one else left to stand up for me.” Read and weep, and then vow to stand up for someone who needs it.

“Take Your Yarmulke Off, Jew-Boy”

I hope that line grabbed your attention like it grabbed mine. Along with taunts of “Christ killer,” these are some of things to which sixth grader Alexander Dobrich claims he has been subjected since his family became embroiled in an attempt to protest the encroachment of Christianity into their public school system in Delaware. Alexander’s older sister Samantha had protested explicitly Christian prayers at her graduation ceremony, during which she was actually singled out by the one leading the prayer. The Dobrich family, which has been in litigation since 2004, offered a settlement last year, which was rejected by the school board who seemed to want to make a point that they have the right to force Christianity on children in their care (It was such a reasonable settlement that the board’s insurers promptly sued them and refused to pay any more of the board’s legal expenses for not accepting it).. Now comes word that right-wing zealots in an outfit called Stop the ACLU have gone so far as to publish the address and phone number of the Dobriches, who in the face of such harassment and abuse have been forced to move. Never mind that the Dobriches are NOT being represented by the ACLU in their lawsuit and instead by a local legal firm, but facts don’t matter much to people like
this..

This sounds like something out of 1930s Germany, not something out of 21st century America. The pathetic part is that it is being done by people who claim to be followers of Jesus, ostensibly undertaken to advance the ends of his kingdom. The Religious Right loves to use the buzz word “Judeo-Christian tradition” in all of their pronouncements in order to make them sound like pluralists, but instances such as this one show this for what it really is: Jews are welcome so long as they keep quiet.

I am an unapologetic Christian who confesses faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and I am appalled that the Dobriches and families of other religious traditions, as well as those who have no religious affiliation, have been subjected to this kind of treatment in the name of my faith. Authentic Christianity understands that people come to faith in Christ as they are moved by the Holy Spirit, not by being force fed the faith against their will by means of state organs. It does nothing to advance the values of the Gospel to oppress people who do not share Christian beliefs and is in fact the very antithesis of such values. Increasingly, however, this is becoming a regular feature of the American political landscape created by the Religious Right, who is committed to undoing the historic American commitment to the separation of church and state.

In his newly released book, Thy Kingdom Come , one of the most prominent scholars of American religion, and himself an evangelical Christian, Randall Balmer points out that evangelical outsiders like Baptists were the very first in the New World to champion the idea that churches ought not be tethered to the government nor have privileged status. Baptists in the 17th and 18th century like Roger Williams and Isaac Backus laid the foundation for the longstanding principle that governments should stay out of religion. Amazingly, however, as the descendants of these Baptists have moved from the margins of society into the mainstream and now into ascendancy in public life, they have dumped the beliefs of their forbears and are now seeking state-sponsored recognition and special treatment for their particular brand of Christianity.

As Balmer notes, not only is this an egregious capitulation of their tradition’s core values, it is also the fast track to the ruin of evangelical faith in the United States . What Williams and Backus knew that their modern descendants have forgotten is that state-sponsored religion quickly turns into a barren and desiccated faith. Using the state to disciple those who accept their religion and compelling to endure the religion’s rituals in public those who don’t is the surest way possible for the Religious Right to kill a vibrant American Christianity. To see the difference such state attachments can make, one need only look at Europe, where established churches have been empty for decades. By contrast, America is the most religious of the Western industrial democracies, to the point that government-sponsored churches in countries such as Sweden and Norway are moving to sever their ties to the state in order to embrace an American model of church-state separation. How ironic that American evangelicals want to move our country in the opposite, failed direction.

An authentic Christianity will defend people like the Dobriches from the bullies in our own ranks. It will also stand up for the separation of church and state so that the Gospel will be free from government influence or filtering and thus be allowed to flourish as it should. It is time for those who hold this authentic faith to stand up for what is right. America needs to see that the Gospel is about love and not oppression, that it is about tolerance and acceptance rather than exclusion and ostracism. In a country where the vast majority claims the name of Jesus Christ, we cannot expect the Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Atheists to be the sole defenders of the good. So if we are to maintain our long tradition of church-state separation and protect religious minorities it is necessary that Christians take up this task as well.

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