Awake to Religious Freedom

Dr. Malcolm Cross

Religious Americans frequently care too much about what government officials think of religious issues, impute too much hostility towards religion from government, and have too little appreciation of the power they already have to practice their respective faiths, regardless of what they think government wants.  Religious Americans should understand they have far more freedom to practice their respective faiths, and should not hesitate to act accordingly.

In the 1730s the First Great Awakening swept the American colonies.  Influenced by charismatic evangelical Christian preachers, more and more Americans began to reject the authority, doctrines, and rituals of established churches in favor of establishing their own personal relationships with God as the surest means of achieving salvation.  Two more Great Awakenings followed, one in the late 1700s and the other 1800s, both emphasizing that salvation rested with the individual decisions of those who would be saved and not with the authority of established churches.

The need of yet another Great Awakening, in which the religious reject not the authority of today’s churches, but the perceived and frequently overestimated authority of our governments at all levels to regulate the beliefs and practices that the religious want to follow.  The need to do so was most recently illustrated by the silly controversy on some conservative news outlets over President Biden’s recognition of something called “Transgender Day of Visibility” which, since 2009, has always been observed on March 31, which by an unfortunate coincidence was also this year’s date for Easter.  True, creating such a day and signing proclamations recognizing it are inane virtue signaling, but doing so in no way affected the right of anyone to observe (or ignore) Easter.  Biden’s meaningless proclamation had no discernible impact on any church services, Easter picnics, or any other form of holiday celebrations.  The only people disturbed by it were those who had WAY too much time on their hands and probably had no means of pursuing a healthy means of celebrating Easter.  They attributed too much power to the government to promote transgenderism over Easter and thereby allowed themselves to hyperventilate and thereby be distracted by a non-event. A far healthier approach to Easter would have been for the religious to attend services and then participate in fun celebrations with everyone else, without caring in the least about Joe and transgenderism.  He has a perfect right to preoccupy himself with such an issue, but everyone else has the right to ignore him on it.  Those who took him seriously on this matter accorded him too much power to mess with their minds.

We see this same preoccupation with what governments want to do about school prayer as well.  For more than 60 years many of the most religious among us have believed the myth that government at all levels has forbidden school prayer.  The myth is neatly illustrated by a Facebook meme which frequently appears on my news feed, especially after a school shooting.  In a typical version, someone—frequently a child—asks Jesus why He didn’t protect students and teachers from being murdered by the monsters who shot up their schools.  Jesus replies that He could not do so because He and God had been banned from the public schools.

The problem with that meme is that it is flat-out FALSE.  True, the Supreme Court ruled that MANDATORY school prayer led by teachers or other school officials was unconstitutional—in other words, children can’t be FORCED to pray by government officials, which are what school teachers and administrators really are.  And it’s also true that some school administrators have misinterpreted the Supreme Court’s rulings to prohibit all student prayer, but that’s not what the Supreme Court has ever said.  Students have a personal right to pray whenever and wherever they choose, provided they don’t force their beliefs on others or disrupt normal school operations.  They can thereby ALWAYS bring Jesus, or Mohammad, or the Buddha, or even the Great Pumpkin to school whenever they choose.  Besides, there’s plenty of time and opportunity to pray before or after school as well.  So who needs some school official to govern school prayer?  They can’t do so anyway, except to promote religious freedom for all.

To be certain, government can be at times heavy handed, and we must be vigilant enough to detect government abuse of its power and proactive enough to resist it when it takes place.   It was perfectly legitimate to question proposed plans developed within the FBI to investigate “radical traditional Catholics” and to support the right of some school officials to pray in public, contrary to the demands of their employers, as long as public prayer didn’t affect the rights of anyone else.

But for the most part we should recognize that the legitimate powers of government to affect our religious beliefs and practices is far weaker than many imagine and if we do so we’ll be far less likely to worry about what government officials may think or say about our religious beliefs.  We should not let meaningless proclamations from presidents, governors, mayors, or anyone else distract us from observing holidays in ways meaningful to us while respectful of others’ beliefs as well.  We should not pay the slightest attention to whether government officials talk about Christmas trees or “Holiday” trees, or say “Merry Christmas” or “Seasons Greetings.”  And we must never let any government or anyone else prevent us from praying to anything for anything, as long as we do so for the same regard to others as we demand for ourselves. 

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.