An Apology on Behalf of My Fellow Christians

The myth of Christian persecution in America is dangerous, and it is leading to reverse oppression by a faith I love that is not just, moral, or democratic. In South Carolina a high school valedictorian ‘stunned’ the audience by ripping up approved remarks and reciting the ‘Our Father’ after speaking extemporaneously about his Christian faith. His example is merely the latest problem.

This newly-minted graduate will now go into a pluralistic world championed by the Christian Right for his  stunt, and affirmed in the corrupted notion that Christian dominance is acceptable in American society. The article in The Washington Times reports applause broke out when this young graduate began praying as a protest against the school district’s removal of prayer from graduation ceremonies. Ignorant of civics it seems, this valedictorian’s parting intellectual act was to obliterate the separation of Church and State instituted by the framers of our nation for the explicit protection of religion.

An apology is owed to the public, especially those students, family, and friends celebrating graduation at (the ironically named) Liberty High School. It is owed to everyone because unhinging the wall of separation harms each American resident, not exclusively those who are not Christian.  The legal issue, however, is not what I take issue with most – for the case could be made he spoke under the 1st Amendment or that his prayer was not government sanctioned. I leave that for the lawyers.

The underlying reason for an apology is this valedictorian’s actions were immoral, and created an injustice against his community. The Christian response is to ask forgiveness and seek healing when you cause rupture. Assuredly, this student must apologize to non-Christian and non-theist communities who should not be subjected to Christian prayer at secular, governmental events. Christians, including myself, are also owed an apology for this young man’s pretense that he acts in our name or that his actions are Christian in the least.

Since Vatican II, Catholics defend religious liberty as a right accorded to each person regardless of how they exercise it.  I recognize that this student, being in South Carolina and speaking in the language he did, is most likely not Catholic – and many evangelical Christians possess a different take on religious liberty. I speak from the Catholic position because it is what I believe to be Truth.

For centuries, the Church enacted the morally bankrupt and ineffective practices of forced conversion and “Christendom,” and while I was not alive then it appears obligation and not liberation was the primary motivator in faith. Not exactly desirable for a growing and dynamic faith community.

Pacem in terris from Pope John XXIII (expanded upon in Vatican II and all of which drew off the once-silenced John Courtney Murray, SJ) reversed how society should treat religion:

“14. Also among man’s rights is that of being able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his own conscience, and to profess his religion both in private and in public.”

Now, Catholics were to respect the right of each and every person to live out their religion, or not, according to conscience. This meant that theocracy was not desired nor should Christians  hijack public forums to make their views heard disrespectfully any more.

Enacting God’s will into law is a desired goal through the legislative process, but always balanced by a respect for the individual’s conscience – to paraphrase Peter Maurin (and add some), we seek a society where it is easier to be good and yet one that respects our free will to act according to conscience. It is a challenge we may never get right, but we cannot excuse ourselves from engaging this tension.

Growing the Christian community through our witnesses of faith and love should also be a priority in the life of each person who professes Christ, but never through oppression or disrespect. Obviously, the call to evangelize and make disciples of all nations remains – and it is one I hope to write more about from a progressive Catholic angle.

This valedictorian’s remarks, his prayer – none of these are respectful civic engagement or Christian proselytizing, and nothing he spoke was said out of love. I readily confess the Catholic faith, the one expressed by Christ through the Spirit, and I wish to draw all into it – but never by imposition of my will, only through invitation that is freely accepted. For the many times Christians impose, rather than invite we must ask the apology of all those around us.

–Bob

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “An Apology on Behalf of My Fellow Christians

  1. You do realize this is the Year of Faith, calling Catholics to evangelize right? Are you only a Catholic when you go to church. As one of the hosts of Crossing the Goal on EWTN said last night, if you were to tall a friend that you were going to church, would they be surprised to find out you were a Catholic, or would they already be aware? Prayer had formerly been allowed, and it was taken away to appease the atheists. Our country was founded on freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion. I applaud his refusal to deny the Lord because of political pressures.

    • Christina – thanks for reading! I’ve been spending much of my time in this Year of Faith focusing on evangelizing in new ways, which might speak more to my young adults peers. It is doubtful anyone who knows me would not know I am Catholic, but not because I am forceful with my faith or seek to impose its will on others. Evangelization is good and necessary, but this student’s prayers aren’t evangelical.

      This student’s actions harm evangelical efforts to bring new people to Christ because it’s a model that is about coercion and power – you frame it as the atheists being appeased and taking away Christian prayer. How does this student forcing his prayer on a crowd of Christians, but also non-theists, Muslims, Hindus, etc. advance anything?

      In reality, our Constitution does not allow for prayer at government events – that is how our laws are, and that is how we should make them work. It is still a freedom of religion because it doesn’t force people to remain silent about their faith, but it does force the government to remain neutral. I’m a fervent Catholic, but I also don’t want the government to be involved in religion – it’s not appeasing the atheists, it is appeasing anyone who supports the legitimate separation of church and state (the Catholic Church being one such supporter).

      The legal arguments aside, the most important thing is this student shows disrespect to those graduates and their families who are not Christian by praying an overtly Christian prayer. I want to make disciples of all nations as much as you, but I also know we must respect those who using their consciences choose different paths. This student completely disrespects that right.

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