For decades I’ve been told by my adversaries in the religious right that they only seek a “place at the table” for their Christian worldview – well, their version of Christianity, that is.
But evidence has mounted recently that what they really want is something else entirely: to own the table, determine what goes on it and force-feed everyone the same gruel they consume.
Consider the outcry over the U.S. Air Force Academy’s decision to alter the Honor Oath cadets take every academic year. It formerly concluded, always, with the phrase “So help me God.”
The problem is that some cadets didn’t want to say a religious oath. Since it makes no sense to force a person to swear an oath that he or she disbelieves, academy officials made the eminently sensible decision to make the God part optional.
Religious right groups immediately went ballistic. The Tupelo, Miss.,-based American Family Association is urging its legion of followers to write to the commandant of the Academy to “preserve religious liberty by defending the oath and recommending the Academy keep the current language intact.”
The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins asserted in a radio broadcast that even giving non-believers the option not to say “God” would somehow reflect an “anti-Christian bias.” According to Perkins, making these four words optional would not be “inclusive” since it would not include military personnel like George Washington, whom he claims initiated that phrase. (Washington didn’t do that, but that’s another column.)
Think about this for a moment. How does it protect “religious liberty” in this multi-cultural and multi-religious nation to force all cadets to affirm support for something an increasing number of them do not believe is true?
In fact, isn’t it silly – and perhaps even blasphemous – to demand that newly0minted defenders of the republic lie about their belief in God? This is an “honor code” after all. The pedestal on which to erect a system of moral commitment is probably not perjury. (Nevertheless, two members of Congress have actually introduced legislation to make it illegal for the military to alter such oaths without congressional approval.)
Furthermore, since no one is told they cannot say “So help me God” how does this change to an individual option possibly harm some future military leader who is devout and includes the phrase as she or he is still permitted to do?
Perkins holds a so-called Values Voter Summit every autumn in Washington and has been known to actually have Jewish people on the platform. Does the fact that U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) may bow his head but not pray in the name of Jesus mean that the assembled Christian masses at the conference are suddenly having their rights violated? Person A’s decision to opt out of Person B’s theology in no way lessens Person B’s right to participate.
Our second table-grabber is Sarah Palin. She has returned to the talk-show circuit with a new book called “Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas.” This tome asserts that our nation is at war with Christianity, with the secularist assault on Christmas becoming the bloody Antietam of the conflict.
According to the former governor, one of the many fronts in this anti-yuletide blitzkrieg is the tendency by in-store greeters and advertising executives at certain big box stores to replace “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays.”
Like the oath defenders, Palin seems to assume that a retailer’s failure to affirm a certain aspect of Christianity at every moment is somehow an assault on her faith. The horror she sees in “inclusion” – and her preposterous demand that non-Christians greet people with a religious sentiment alien to them — turns what is good about a diverse culture into some badge of shame.
Tables are especially important in public schools. They should be open to all there. Yet recent news reports from several Southern states have found a breathtaking level of “You are welcome at my table – as long as you’ll pray with me” sentiments from public high school football coaches.
Mark Mariakis of the public Ridgeland High School in Georgia told the Chattanooga Times Free Press, “We as coaches fail if we only teach football, so we try to set an example of how a Christian man handles any situation.”
Another coach boasted about the players he had converted to his faith through a Bible camp, asserting, “I want to win as much as anybody, but if I don’t win a single football game this year I feel successful because of those 21 kids who became Christians. Nothing is more important than that.”
Thus, in spite of numerous court decisions to the contrary, these coaches support official Christian team prayer, as did virtually every respondent to the newspaper’s survey of coaches in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. No fig leaves of “non- proselytizing prayers” or rotation of prayers here; just good old Christian triumphalism every Friday night.
My final example concerns a table that, while privately owned, could be big enough for lots of people – if only its owners had a more charitable vision. According to reports in the Kansas City Star, the Kansas City Rescue Mission has decided not to accept the offer of the Kansas City Atheist Coalition to help with distribution of 2,000 Thanksgiving meals to the poor and elderly.
The Mission apparently decided to include a religious message in this year’s meal boxes, and it was unclear if the atheists would go along with that. It seemed irrelevant anyway, as the Mission made it abundantly clear that it didn’t want the non-believers’ help, calling the partnership a bad fit. And that was the end of any communication.
That struck me as a missed opportunity. I’ll bet that there are more than 2,000 poor and elderly people in the area. Wouldn’t it have been more polite, more decent and more “Christian” even, to call the atheists, tell them what neighborhoods the Christians were not covering and give them some advice about how to serve those who might otherwise go hungry? In other words, shouldn’t the Mission have at least helped the atheists set up their own table?
Alas, to those who are fearful of other beliefs, there can be only one table, one place to sit and one seatmate to converse with. Their world begins and ends in the confines of that tiny table.
I say let a thousand tables bloom. I encourage visiting every one. After all, a person can sometimes gain a whole new perspective by occasionally switching seats.
Image courtesy of Roger H. Goun.