How James Dobson Convinced me to Keep Prayer Out of Schools

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Somewhere in the turbulence of high school, I found myself at a rally to protect traditional marriage. The rally was led by the (in)famous James Dobson, leader of Focus on the Family and well-known advocate of “traditional marriage.” It consisted of Dobson bellowing a very convicted and passionate speech about how we must protect our children from a future America that will throw God away and ignore his commands. The event center full of people cheered with wild but Midwest-polite fury. I was there willingly, having not yet committed myself to the burning questions that destroyed my religious foundations and rebuilt them unconventionally. I’ve already come to terms with the fact that I think Dobson and his supporters are pretty straight-up wrong about how they interpret marriage, but I vividly remember something else he said that has had me confused for years. In the midst of Dobson’s pleas to “remember God” during these trying and confusing times, he prompted the crowd—“We want prayer in schools again!!” and the crowd would cheer uncontrollably; “We want the name of God on our nation’s currency!” Again, people clapping and screaming; “we want the religion of our fathers in this country again! We want to be one! Nation! Under! God!” and people are just going insane. But even then, I was confused, and I guess I still am. So here I am to ask a few questions about this agenda.

There is a strong demand by traditional Christians to involve their religion in the politics and government of the United States. It really only starts with legislating morality like bans on gay marriage, but it also includes things like demanding prayer in public schools, erecting religious statues on state grounds (the famous Texas courthouse) and basically protecting the religious rhetoric that seeps into all politics (don’t get me started on presidential speeches) and essentially denies the worth of the other religions and lack of religions that live and thrive in this country. And I truly cannot understand why. How could keeping “In God We Trust” on our currency help anyone to actually know God? Has it ever? Because in my experience, pushy Christianity does exactly that: pushes. A prayer at a public school graduation only makes people that don’t pray uncomfortable and unwelcome. Which church agendas strive to make visitors uncomfortable and unwelcome? It seems to me like we’re letting our sentimentality get the best of us here. Isn’t it kind of like when a high school football team refuses to change its name from the “Fighting Chiefs” because “it’s always been like that?” The team is choosing to hurt a group of people with a violent label rather than take a few steps to change their name. I’m already anticipating the “This is a Christian Nation!” plea, but there is already more than enough great writing disputing that fact that I will not waste keystrokes on it.

Perhaps these people have historical interests in pushing intrusive religion. That’s fine with me, but they should be passionate historians, not passionate Christians.

What if Christians went out of their way to learn about other religions and whole-heartedly respect them—without the intent to evangelize? What if they listened when atheists talked about the reasons they don’t believe? What if we took scientific questions seriously? Could we shed our reputation as pushy truth-deniers? Or will we strive to maintain our very comfortable and politically powerful spot in the supposed majority? 

 Christians should put everyone else’s comfort ahead of their own. They should be willing to duck into a corner to pray with their families; to put themselves out for the sake of the group. That would be a cool reputation to have—I think one that Jesus (and Gandhi) would approve of.

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How James Dobson Convinced me to Keep Prayer Out of Schools

Are We Becoming Slave-Holding Christians?

Today, DOMA was overturned by the Supreme Court. This does not grant equal marriage rights to every couple in the US, but it is a step in the right direction. Even months before all the DOMA hype, though, I have been hearing Christians say this one specific thing in regards to gay rights that I think is a misconception: “Can’t we give up all of these politics and focus on Jesus?” I hear it all the time. They see politics such as discussions about gay rights to be divisive and unnecessary when we should just be “focusing on the Gospel.” To a point, I think there are things we can do in the mean time. I think there are fights we can fight as we process this question (for instance, sex trafficking, local and global poverty, etc.), but no, dropping questions like these in favor of the Gospel is counterproductive.

 

Here’s where we can learn from American slave-holders. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Charles Colcock Jones was a devoted Christian and a notorious proponent of the institution of slavery. He fought tooth and nail to preserve the traditions of the Confederacy, then he came home and evangelized to his slaves.

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At first, this baffled me. How could someone preach the message of Jesus that I understand: peace, overwhelming love, uninhibited freedom, and in the same breath tell a group of people that they are less than deserving of equality. I came to realize that it was not logically possible for Jones to have understood the Gospel as I do. Jesus preached social justice without tiring. Jones was preaching salvation, not the Gospel. And that is, I think, the problem today. The church is so caught up in our evangelizing that we neglect the Gospel—a message that cannot leave out social justice. To “forget politics and focus on Jesus” doesn’t make any sense, because Jesus was inherently political. He made rifts in the social world as he taught about God. If Jesus is any indication, the two go together.

 

We must learn from the slave-holding Christians so we do not become them—we cannot continue to shrug off political questions as “divisive” and “worthless” because they are not. They have to do with people. They have to do with how we treat people and how and whether we love them. This cannot be separated from the Gospel. Perhaps if our gospel does not include any political implications, we have watered it down. 

Are We Becoming Slave-Holding Christians?