Friday, February 25, 2011

Debate Over the Constitution and Christian Nationalism (Part Six)

After we gave our closing summaries, each debater responded to questions from the audience. One person asked me to respond to "the fact" that, at the time of the revolution, the word "religion" was understood to refer exclusively to Christianity and that disestablishment referred only to the disestablishment of the Christian denominations or sects.

I don't remember my precise words, but I do remember denying that the questioner had a firm grasp of "the facts." Here are the quotations I used to correct this common misperception:

On October 17, 1788 James Madison wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson that discussed objections being raised against the Constitution at the ratification debates within the states. He wrote: "One of the objections in New England was that the Constitution by prohibiting religious tests opened the door for Jews, Turks & infidels."

That Madison himself was in favor of religious liberty for persons of all faiths is clear from a statement in his Memorial and Remonstrance:

3. . . . "Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?"

Evangelist John Leland, leader of Baptist efforts for religious liberty in Virginia, clearly supported religious liberty for persons of all faiths:

"Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three gods, no god, or twenty gods, and let government protect him in so doing."

The fact is, at the time the Constitution was written, it was clearly understood that religious liberty and opportunity for public service was being granted to persons of every faith and no faith.

Debate Over the Constitution and Christian Nationalism (Part Five)

Once debaters responded to each other's second question, we made each gave a closing statement. Here is the statement that I prepared to give, the one delivered at the debate differed slightly:

Round 3: Closing Summary (3 minutes)

What is most misunderstood in debates over the meaning of the Constitution is its connection with the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence is not a legal document in the sense that the Constitution is a legal document. It is a revolutionary document that offers the reasons why the American colonies revolted against the British monarchy. Listening to some people today you could easily get the impression that the founders of our country were really revolting against “atheistic secular humanism” to announce their belief in God.

The truth is, the founding fathers were revolting against the basis upon which all governments had been founded until 1776 -- and the foundation they were rebelling against was a religious foundation. The declaration of independence was addressed to an English king and his loyal subjects -- people who believed that sovereignty was bestowed by divine right of birth and that the king was the vicar of Christ responsible for the souls of all his subjects. What our founding fathers did was to risk their lives to boldly assert that the time when kings and tyrannical governments could lay claim to divine authority -- in both worldly and in spiritual matters -- was passed. They were declaring that, in America, government was going to be based upon the consent of the governed. In doing so, the founding fathers themselves were accused of being “atheists” and “anarchists.” They were establishing the first “secular government” in the history of the world.

This nation was the first nation in the history of the world that was not founded on religious authority. It was founded on the consent of the governed. We have a government that is of the people, by the people and for the people, because every person in our society has an equal right to liberty and justice.

The secular nature of our government is made clear on the very first line of our Constitution. “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union” etcetera. The people formed this government. No god came down from mount Olympus. No divine decree commanded that this nation be founded. No pillar of fire appeared to lead our founding fathers to the promised land. This nation was founded on the consent of the governed.

The Constitution is our social contract. That contract guarantees an equal right to liberty and justice for citizens of every faith and no faith.

In this nation we expect the institutions of government to be fair and impartial. We expect our courts to secure justice for all citizens without regard for their religious convictions. As long as people do not infringe on the rights of others, we permit everyone to pursue the happiness of a “good life” as defined by their own personal conscience and religious convictions. We designed a system of government that could assure that every citizen has an equal right to the liberties necessary to contribute to the “common good” of a pluralistic civil society.

Note: The following remarks were not delivered because time ran out.

These are the principles that made America great. Americans are some of the most religious people on the face of the earth. The reason why we are so religious is that we separate church and state. This is the first country in the history of the world in which everyone has the freedom to practice their faith without fear of oppression from the government or from persons of a different faith.

Debate Over the Constitution and Christian Nationalism (Part Four)

Debaters were offered an opportunity to ask the opposing side a second question. My second question to Dr. Kern was:

In Supreme Court decisions like Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), justices asserted that putting “IN GOD WE TRUST” on coins and references to God in the Pledge of Allegiance serve "secular purposes" not religious purposes. They call it a form of "ceremonial deism" that is permissible only because these references to God "have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content."

In essence, the court is saying the word "God" doesn’t mean anything whenever it is used with something associated with the government.

My understanding of one command in the ten commandments is that meaningless recitation of God’s name – treating it as though it doesn’t mean anything -- is precisely what is being prohibited. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” Exodus 20:7 (KJV)

If this is true, when Christians endorse the government stripping God’s name of meaning and using it for secular purposes are they not encouraging people to commit a grave sin and offense against God and his name?

Debate over the Constitution and Christian Nationalism (Part Three)

After each of us gave a response to the question posed to us, we were each required to respond to the following statement:

Round 2: The United States Constitution DOES NOT ADVOCATE for a Christian nation. (1-3 minutes)

The Constitution does not advocate for or against Christianity or any other religion.

Frankly, many Americans at the time of the revolution thought the government had no business promoting religion. This was most certainly true of Baptists. In 1785 Patrick Henry submitted a bill in Virginia that proposed that a tax be used to support the teachers of the Christian religion. Baptist churches throughout Virginia circulated petitions opposing the bill. 4899 Baptists in Virginia signed petitions that said:

That it is believed to be repugnant to the spirit of the gospel for the legislature thus to proceed in matters of religion; that the holy author of our religion needs no such compulsive measures for the promotion of his cause; that the gospel wants not the feeble arm of man for its support; that it has made and will again through divine power make its way against all opposition; and that should the legislature assume the right of taxing the people for the support of the gospel it will be destructive to religious liberty.
James Madison’s in his Memorial and Remonstrance, written in opposition to the same bill, shared similar sentiments:

6. Because the establishment proposed by the Bill is not requisite for the support of the Christian Religion. To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian Religion itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world: it is a contradiction to fact; for it is known that this Religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them, and not only during the period of miraculous aid, but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence. Nay, it is a contradiction in terms; for a Religion not invented by human policy, must have pre-existed and been supported, before it was established by human policy. It is moreover to weaken in those who profess this Religion a pious confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author; and to foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that is friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits.

The history of attempts to amend the Constitution also make it obvious that the Constitution does not advocate for Christianity. The most serious attempt began with Horace Bushnell’s sermon after the First Battle of Bull Run. The famous Connecticut Congregationalist blamed the civil war on the "godless theorizing" of the Constitution. He proposed to add a preamble to the Constitution declaring God’s authority over the nation. Shortly thereafter the National Reform Association was founded to lead national efforts to amend the Constitution to have it explicitly constitute "a Christian government." The Reform Association was very active between 1864 and 1874 and later in 1894 and 1910. Their crusade was picked up by the National Association of Evangelicals in 1945 which led campaigns to amend the constitution in 1947 and 1954. None of those attempts ever gained popular support.

When the issues are fully explained to the public, Americans have always preferred that the government remain neutral in regard to religion.

Separation of church and state is good for both the church and the state. It prohibits the government from choosing sides in religious matters and favoring one religion over the others. It also forbids the government from infringing on the right of every citizen to choose their own religion. It guarantees that everyone is free to worship, or not worship, according to the dictates of their own conscience.

Most definitely the Constitution DOES NOT ADVOCATE for a Christian nation.

Debate Over the Constitution and Christian Nationalism (Part Two)

Once each debater had given their opening statement, we were each given an opportunity to ask a question of the person debating the opposing position. My first question to Dr. Steve Kern, pastor of Olivet Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, was:

Both Rev. Kern and I are Baptist ministers. Both of us know some Baptist history.

In the beginning, Baptists were a persecuted minority struggling to gain the freedom necessary to worship in accordance with our interpretation of the Bible. We were opposed to the union of church and state.

Historically, as a denomination, we were among the staunchest advocates for religious liberty for all persons because we believed that the preaching of the gospel – without the aid and assistance of the government -- was all that was necessary to win hearts and change lives.

What happened? Why have Baptists changed?

Have Baptists lost confidence in the power of the gospel alone to change hearts and transform lives?

Do Southern Baptists today really believe that people can be born again by living in a Christian culture?

If not, what is the point for the crusade to declare America a Christian nation?

Debate Over the Constitution and Christian Nationalism (Part One)

Last night I was engaged in a debate over whether the U.S. Constitution establishes and/or advocates for a Christian nation. A number of people have asked for a transcript of my remarks. The format of the debate was highly structured and complex. I will be posting my remarks in a series of blog posts. Here is my opening statement:

Round 1: The United States Constitution DID NOT ESTABLISH a Christian nation. (1-3 minutes)

From the time that the colonies were founded, the faith of the American people has been predominantly Christian. There is no debate about that. We are not debating the cultural history of personal faith in America. We are debating about the meaning of our Constitution. This debate is about the language of the legal document that defines the institutional character of our system of government.

The Constitution of the United States makes no reference to Christianity or any other faith. There is nothing in it that either explicitly or implicitly suggests that our government has a religious foundation. The Constitution, as ratified in 1789, mentions religion one time only. The third clause of Article VI reads: "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

The framers of the Constitution wanted the federal government to remain neutral in regard to religion. They had fresh memories of Christians killing each other while trying to force everybody to believe the same things about God – and they were sick of religious conflict. They made sure that the Constitution explicitly prohibited any requirement that citizens affirm the Christian faith or any other faith. They guaranteed that every citizen would have an equal right to hold public office without regard for their religious beliefs.

This was controversial and provoked much discussion at the state ratifying conventions. Nevertheless, it was adopted. It also proved controversial at election time. In the Presidential election of 1800 Thomas Jefferson was denounced as an atheist for saying,"It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Nevertheless, he was elected.

A second reference to religion was added to the Constitution when the bill of rights was ratified in 1791. The First Amendment says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;" The First Amendment makes no reference to Christianity or any other faith. The amendment clearly prohibits the union of Church and State. Equally clear is that it prohibits uniting the state with any other religion.

As long as Article VI and the First Amendment remain in force, under Constitutional law, the United States cannot be a Christian nation.

This fact was clearly acknowledged by Congress in the language of a Treaty with Tripoli. The treaty was unanimously approved by Congress in July 1797 and signed by President John Adams. It states explicitly: "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion;"

Most definitely the Constitution of the United States DID NOT ESTABLISH a Christian nation.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Broadway Fights Payday Lending

Michael Broadway, a Baptist minister and ethics professor, and Suzi Paynter of the Texas Baptists Christian Life Commission recently testified in opposition to payday lending before a committee at the Texas State Legislature.

Great work Texas Baptists! It is a shame that Oklahoma Baptists remain bystanders on this issue.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Caravaggio: Mad, Bad and Dangerous

Caravaggio's first masterpiece, The Card Sharps, circa 1594.

BBC has posted a story about Caravaggio, the renaissance artist famous for combining dramatic lighting and realistic style, that unveils the artist's rap sheet with the Italian police.

Reporter David Willey calls Caravaggio "mad, bad and dangerous" and for good reason.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Al Jazeera Ignores Rape of Journalist in Egypt

I was impressed with Al Jazeera's coverage of the revolution in Egypt during the demonstrations.

Their lack of coverage of the "sustained sexual assault" of CBS News reporter Lara Logan is deplorable.

Spreading Non-Violent Revolution

The New York Times has posted an article that credits Gene Sharp's writings on non-violent revolution as having an impact on the recent revolution in Egypt. Count me among those who are just learning about Sharp's work:

Few Americans have heard of Mr. Sharp. But for decades, his practical writings on nonviolent revolution — most notably "From Dictatorship to Democracy," a 93-page guide to toppling autocrats, available for download in 24 languages — have inspired dissidents around the world, including in Burma, Bosnia, Estonia and Zimbabwe, and now Tunisia and Egypt.

When Egypt's April 6 Youth Movement was struggling to recover from a failed effort in 2005, its leaders tossed around "crazy ideas" about bringing down the government, said Ahmed Maher, a leading strategist. They stumbled on Mr. Sharp while examining the Serbian movement Otpor, which he had influenced.

When the nonpartisan International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which trains democracy activists, slipped into Cairo several years ago to conduct a workshop, among the papers it distributed was Mr. Sharp’s "198 Methods of Nonviolent Action," a list of tactics that range from hunger strikes to "protest disrobing" to "disclosing identities of secret agents."

Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian blogger and activist who attended the workshop and later organized similar sessions on her own, said trainees were active in both the Tunisia and Egypt revolts. She said that some activists translated excerpts of Mr. Sharp’s work into Arabic, and that his message of "attacking weaknesses of dictators" stuck with them.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Deadly Budget Cutting

Yesterday, David Blatt of the Oklahoma Policy Institute provided the Oklahoma Conference of Churches a sobering look at the impact of proposed budget cuts in Oklahoma. Most alarming was the effect the cuts will have on public health in a state that is already ranked 49th in the overall health of its citizens. Here are the chief concerns given by Blatt:

The Health Department has been cut by 15 percent in two years, forcing 300 layoffs.

If the Health Department budget is cut by 5 percent or more this year, it will eliminate the Office of Child Abuse Prevention.

Further cuts to the Oklahoma Health Care Authority (OHCA) would threaten payments for kidney dialysis, prescription drugs, and wheelchairs for low-income residents.

Oklahomans receiving Medicaid assistance are at an all-time high of 865,000 and expected to increase to 950,000 by 2012.

News reports paint an even bleaker picture. Bloomberg Businessweek reports:

Nico Gomez, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, said the agency would have to target health services that are not legally required by the federal Medicaid program. Those include dialysis for adult kidney patients, dental care, prescription drugs, medical equipment, such as oxygen for respiratory patients, and treatment for the mentally ill.
. . .

In Oklahoma, more than 2,000 adults received end-stage renal disease treatment, or dialysis, in the last fiscal year. About 110,000 received some prescription drug benefit, according to the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.

State legislators opposed to deep cuts in health care said they would fight to preserve the most crucial treatments for low income people.

"If you cut dialysis, you're killing people," said state Sen. Clark Jolley, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees health care funding.

Meanwhile, the Governor and leaders of the marjority party in Oklahoma insist on preserving a state income tax cut passed in 2008 and scheduled to go into effect the first year that state revenues increase by 4%. State revenues increased by 4% last year, but have not yet returned to the level they were when the legislation passed in 2008. The tax cut will reduce already depressed state revenues by an additional $61.5 million dollars.

Senate minority leader Andrew Rice's proposal that the tax cut be deferred until revenues reach the level of revenues in 2008 continues to fall on deaf ears at the Statehouse.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Oklahoma's Deadly Eating Habits

Yahoo News is running a story about the ten states with the deadliest eating habits. Oklahoma ranks fifth:

5. Oklahoma

Grocery Stores Per 1,000 Residents: 0.25 (24th)
Amount Spent on Fast Food Per Capita: $676 (15th most)
Gallons of Soft Drinks Purchased Per Capita: 69.8 (8th most)
Pounds of Sweet Snacks Purchased Per Capita: 103.2 (3rd least)

The rate of household-level food insecurity, including households with food access problems as well as households that experience disruptions in their food intake patterns due to inadequate resources for food, is 15.2% in Oklahoma. The national rate is 13.5%. Oklahoma also has the third-lowest rate of adults who meet the recommended two fruit/three vegetable daily intake, with only 9.3% of adults doing so. Perhaps this is part of the reason Oklahoma's obesity rate is 31.4%, the fifth-worst in the country.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Timothy Dwight on the U.S. Constitution

I just received an e-mail asking me for a statement for a press release about a debate in which I am a participant. The debate is over whether the constitution says that the United States is a Christian nation.

Here's my statement:

"When the constitution was written ministers denounced it for being a "godless constitution." Today, ministers are determined to read between the lines to find God. I appreciate this opportunity to discuss what the constitution actually says."

One of the prominent ministers who labelled the constitution "godless" was Timothy Dwight, grandson of the famous Joanathan Edwards and President of Yale University. In a chapel service at Yale as the war of 1812 broke out, Dwight said:

"The nation has offended Providence. We formed our Constitution without any acknowledgement of God; without any recognition of His mercies to us, as a people, of His government, or even of His existence. The [Constitutional] Convention by which it was formed, never asked even once, His direction, or His blessings, upon their labors. Thus we commenced our national existence under the present system, without God."
For a more complete discussion of this issue, it is hard to beat Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore's, The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness. An updated version is entitled The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Former BP Executive on the Arrival of Peak Oil

Former BP Chief Petroleum Engineer Jeremy Gilbert has produced a Powerpoint presentation that debunks the arguments against peak oil.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Mama Don't Let Your Children Grow Up in Oklahoma Schools

For several years, I've been explaining, to mostly sceptical audiences, that the Radical Religious Right in Oklahoma wants to destroy what they deride as "government schools."

Displeasure with public schools began with racial integration and was aggravated by the fairly timid teaching of evolution and enough sex education to describe how to prevent the transmission of the HIV virus.

The Radical Right in Oklahoma now has the political clout to remake public schools to suit themselves. In November, they managed to elect a School Superintendent who is hostile to public schools. Now, they are in the process of reducing the State Board of Education to a rubber stamp.

In my opinion, anyone with primary and secondary school age children and a lick of sense would be wise to get them out of Oklahoma schools as soon as possible.

Friday, February 04, 2011

On Principles and Leadership

An article at Ethics Daily quotes me today in a story about Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and a member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, quitting a group promoting religious liberty for Muslims:

"The whole world is watching how Baptists relate to Muslims," Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists and president of the Norman chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wrote in an email to

"Richard Land heads an agency that purports to stand for the principle of religious liberty. Principled leaders stand on their principles. Land admittedly lacks the courage of his principles. Southern Baptists should be ashamed to follow his example."

Thursday, February 03, 2011

How to Get Al Jazeera English

Common Dreams has posted a link to an article from the Kansas City Star that tells readers the easiest way to get Al Jazeera English.

Al Jazeera English is far and away the best source for up-to-date news about the revolution taking place in Egypt.

While being snowed in, I have watched Al Jazeera English from an internet connection, but found that I had trouble staying connected. Yesterday I discovered that I could get a feed on my Roku player which I ordinarily use only to watch Netflix.

It is way past time for Mubarak to resign.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

What's Going on at the Oklahoma State Board of Education?

The last meeting of the Oklahoma state board of education was contentious. Some members of the board made some caustic comments and I wrote a blog suggesting that they needed to apologize.

Board members have apologized and one of them, Tim Gilpin, has written a Guest Editorial for the Oklahoma Gazette to explain the points of contention at the meeting. He makes it clear that the new Superintendant of Schools fully intends to overstep the bounds of her authority.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

On Egypt and Ethanol

McClatchy Newspapers are carrying a story about how rising food prices have contributed to the unrest in Egypt.

The story talks about how the effects of the extreme weather have reduced the world's supply of food stuffs, how the accelerated development in emerging markets has increased worldwide demand, and how the U.S. Federal Reserves' policy of quantitative easing has exported inflation to the rest of the world.

The glaring lacunae in the McClatchy's coverage is how the production of ethanol as a replacement for gasoline has reduced the supply of food that the U.S. exports to other countries. As Larry Kudlow notes in the National Review Online:

To be fair, not all of the food inflation can be blamed on the Fed. A good part of this problem can also be placed at the doorstep of bipartisan U.S. policies to subsidize ethanol.

According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2001, only 7 percent of U.S. corn went to ethanol. By 2010, the ethanol share was 39 percent. So instead of growing wheat, our farmers are growing corn in order to cash in on ethanol subsidies. Egyptians who can't afford to buy bread and have taken to the streets in protest might be very interested to know this.

A story about soaring prices for Rice offers another ripple to the effects of subsidies for ethanol:

U.S. farmers are planting the fewest acres with rice since 1989 just as global demand surpasses production for the first time in four years, driving prices as much as 12 percent higher by December.

Plantings in the U.S., the third-biggest shipper, may drop 25 percent this year because growers can earn more from corn and soybeans, according to the median in a Bloomberg survey of nine analysts and farmers. Rice, the staple food for half the world, declined 4 percent last year, extending a 2.9 percent drop in 2009. The other crops jumped 34 percent or more.