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.