Thirty-five years ago, following my freshman year in college, I flew to Switzerland to live and study at L’Abri, a Christian community in Huemoz sur Ollon, then run by its founder, the Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer. Although I have never regretted the time I spent at L’Abri, I have come to question the Christianity embraced by Schaeffer and L’Abri’s tutors.
My objections to this variety of Christianity were once again brought to light in a piece written by Erik Eckholm published in this morning’s NYT (Wed., December 28, 2011). At issue in this piece, “Battling Anew Over the Place of Religion in Public Schools,” is not, as the ACLU and FFRF mistake the issue, when students, faculty, or administrators cross the line separating church from state. Rather, the issue is how far Christ’s dominion will extend around the world. Should Christ’s dominion stop when it reaches the property line of our public schools? Should it stop at 8 a.m. with the opening bell? Should Christ’s dominion stop at the public school auditorium? The public school football stadium? The classroom?
Where should Christ not enjoy dominion? These questions illuminate the conviction articulated by Principal Stinson, cited in Mr. Eckholm’s article:
Mr. Chapman quotes the school principal, Larry Stinson, as saying, “I want these kids to know that eternal life is real, and I don’t care what happens to me, they’re going to hear it today.”
Principal Stinson believes that Christ’s dominion should extend to all areas of life, including the public school. Clearly there is nothing that the authorities could do to him or threaten him with that would change this belief. “I don’t care what happens to me.”
A book on my shelf by the Reformed theologian Norman de Jong bears the title “Christianity and Democracy.” The title on the cover page actually reads “Christianity versus Democracy.” In his book, de Jong shows how democracy as a political philosophy conflicts with Christianity, which demands that all believers submit only to Christ. Moreover, differing both from Lutheranism and from the free church traditions (e.g., Congregationalism, Evangelical Free, etc.), de Jong shows how the Reformed tradition demands that we bring the full counsel of God to bear in all of our daily affairs, including especially our public and political affairs.
From this it follows that the so-called separation of “church and state” is anti-Christian. God wishes to extend Christ’s dominion to all spheres of life, including obviously the state and public schools.
Here Norman de Jong is more honest than most. De Jong is quite explicit. The U.S. Constitution and its framers were not true Christians. Their philosophies, though still influenced by historical and biblical Christianity, were not Christian, but Enlightenment. And the institutions and values that the framers wrote into the Constitution and (more to the point) the Bill of Rights were likewise anti-Christian.
Which is why 1789 can be viewed as the opening volley in a battle that runs straight through the War between the States (i.e., the Civil War), Reconstruction and Jim Crow, the battles of Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s, right up to the Christian dominionist coup d’etat over the Republican Party in the 1980s.
Dominionists are not looking for a little more of Christ’s dominion over the world or over the classroom: prayer before and after school, Bible verses on pencils, equal time for Creationism and Evolutionism, the right to free speech, etc., as though Christ could be a little bit more Kingly, a little bit more of a Savior, a little bit more the Ruler of the Universe. Dominionists are in this battle for the long haul, until Christ dominates every corner of this world, this nation, this Congress, this White House. Now!
The ACLU and FFRF view this battle in Constitutional terms. And they are right to do so. But a constitution only enjoys validity so long as the public continues to place faith in its principles. Should then the freedom to practice religion extend to the freedom to challenge the very constitutional principles that guarantee that freedom?
Our freedom of speech suggests that it should and our courts have guaranteed that it does. But, what happens when public officials entrusted with the publication and enforcement of a Constitution have become some of its most vocal critics, actively working to undermine its legitimacy and ignore its enforcement? (Mind you, this is substantively different from the case where a fierce defender of Enlightenment principles and values fails to grasp how official prayer in public school might be at odds with these principles and values.) Or, what happens when a preponderance of political representatives and office holders no longer embrace the principles and values embodied in their Constitution?
What happens is that that document, at that very moment, ceases to hold general validity. “I want these kids to know that eternal life is real, and I don’t care what happens to me, they’re going to hear it today.”
We have been here before, more often than we care to remember: 1776, 1860, 1932, 1945, 1962, 1970, 1980, 2001. And each time it has weakened us in some fundamental way, rendered us more cynical, less certain about the institutions and values we hold in common, more ready to abandon those values and institutions and give up the struggle.
So, what might maintaining this struggle look like in the face of such despair?
To begin with, maintaining the struggle would entail our being at least as forthright as good Norman de Jong. There is a kind of religion that is inimical to the U.S. Constitution, to American institutions and American values. De Jong was honest enough to say directly: his variety of Christianity is fundamentally at odds with the institutions and values of the United States of America. All of the bluster and militarism aside, dominionist Christianity is anti-American. It is openly seditious and self-admittedly treasonous.
Principal Stinson did not say that he would defend the Constitution to the death or the values of the framers. Principal Stinson is a soldier in a battle on behalf of Christ to assume full dominion over America. And in this battle, Principal Stinson does not care what happens to him. Fair enough.
What this means, however, is that fighting Principal Stinson’s variety of Christianity is not simply a liberal cause or a conservative cause. It is an American cause, a fight over the very essence of our nation, its constitution. Principal Stinson knows this.