I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State.
in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, Connecticut
As we approach July 4 with its celebration of the Declaration of Independence and the birth of our country, it’s fitting for Christians to reflect upon the role of religious liberty in our nation’s history and in our current day. The living out of the ideals of religious liberty has always been complicated and messy, as our country has wrestled with adjudicating among competing interests. Democracy is hard work, after all. Despite protests to the contrary in certain vocal Christian circles, the idea of the separation of church and state does not sideline people of faith. The first amendment offers protection for religious communities from interference from the secular state, regardless of their position of influence in our larger society. The flip side of that protection is equally vital—religious communities are restrained from imposing particular religious views onto society at large. When one particular religious institution aligns itself with government power in order to legislate its particular worldview onto others, our rights to religious liberty are diminished.
One of the rallying mottos long embraced by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” The maxim predates our founding as a denomination, first appearing in Lutheran and German Reformed churches in the 17th century. While not unique to Disciples the motto has been a distinctive of our religious identity, affirming together that “Jesus is the Christ,” and also embracing individual discernment of matters of faith and morality. Disciples recognize that people of faith will have varying views on ethical issues, and we have long struggled to live out that commitment to diversity of belief while maintaining a welcoming faith community and living out our understanding of God’s call to justice.
Among several recent troubling rulings from the Supreme Court is the opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton, which upends protections for public school students from teacher-led religious practices. A Christian high school football coach regularly offered prayer in the middle of the football field immediately following games and also gave Christianity-laced motivational talks in the locker room. Apprised of his actions the school administration told the coach he could pray privately, but he could not lead students in prayer while he was on the job. They offered accommodations so that the coach might continue his private prayers in a less conspicuous place. Let me be clear: the coach could have prayed on the sidelines, privately in the press box, in his car on the way home, and in any number of other places. Instead, after finding legal backers who were looking for a Supreme Court fight, the coach resumed praying on the field at the 50 yard line. He was subsequently fired.
At issue was not the coach’s freedom to practice his faith through personal prayer at his place of employment, but rather his performance of a religious act in such a way that students, players, or staff might feel pressured into participation. This Supreme Court decision seriously weakens the rights of families to raise their children according to their own religious or secular traditions. As people of faith who hold to the idea of personal liberty with respect to religious practices, this decision by the court should trouble us.
Alexander Campbell would write in his memoirs that the United States was “a country happily exempted from the baneful influence of a civil establishment of any peculiar form of Christianity, and from under the direct influence of an anti-Christian hierarchy." I fear we have entered a time in which such dedication to religious liberty for all no longer holds sway.
Justice is what love looks like in public,
just as tenderness is what love feels like in private.
There is so much more to do. The jury in the Derek Chauvin murder trial returned a verdict last week, guilty on three charges. While in some ways it is a relief, the verdict is not an ending. Nor is it a beginning. Rather it is one more story which reveals the lingering legacy of our nation’s original sin of racism. It confronts us in an eight minute and 46 second video recorded by a 17 year old bystander, as a black man lays on the ground, struggling to breathe, calling out for his mother, all the while a white police officer presses his knee into his neck. But it is just one tragic story, in a long history of horrific stories.
We wonder what we can do? We don’t live in Minneapolis, or Boston, or Chicago, or Elizabeth City, NC, or Louisville—the list of cities grows longer. Yes, we must educate ourselves, on the full history of our nation and its complicated history of race. And yes, we as a denomination have committed ourselves to being an anti-racist/pro-reconciling church. In March I participated in the new anti-racism training required for Kentucky Disciples clergy. The Northern Lights region of which I was a part for 20 years has long required regular anti-racism training for clergy and expanded resources for congregations, too. Even so, book studies and training will not suffice. We know that.
In small groups recently several people have expressed their desire to become better listeners. It’s as if we know there are stories out there we haven’t heard, perspectives we don’t understand. The ability to listen openly, deeply to another is not easy for many of us. I confess in important conversations my mind often rushes forward to what I might say in response, rather than slowing down to receive what another person is saying. The practice of listening takes time and requires intention. As individuals and as a congregation there is work for us to do here.
In 2020 Disciples at the national level provided a series of conversations online called, “Love Is an Action Word.” The videos are available on the Disciples YouTube channel. The town halls featured voices from around our denomination focusing on anti-racism/pro-reconciliation issues and the church. The series begins with a conversation among white Disciples clergy on avoiding complicity in racism, and follows up with seven sessions with indigenous, North American Pacific Islander/Asian Disciples, Hispanic, African-American, and LGBTQ+ Disciples. If you missed the series, I invite you to watch them. The conversations are a good place for us to begin to listen to voices outside of our usual circles.
It is easy to despair, to think things will never change, but we are Easter people. In this Easter season we Christians are given another story, not of death and violence, but a story of resurrecting life. Easter gifts us with the ability to imagine another way of living together, of liberating ourselves from the systems of oppression which trap us all in cycles of violence and injustice. May we learn to listen with compassion, and may God open our hearts and minds to imagine a world shaped by God’s holy shalom.
Through the looking glass,
down the rabbit hole,
into the wardrobe and out
into the enchanted forest
where animals talk
and danger lurks and nothing
works quite the way it did before,
you have fallen into a new story.
--Lynn Unger, “On the Other Side”
As I write to you our governor has just announced new measures to help our state stop the rising number of COVID-19 cases. The trend lines in our state are disturbing. We may feel insulated here in Rowan County, but our numbers have been increasing in July, and we are only a short drive away from areas with rising rates.
Our recent survey of the congregation included questions about COVID-19 and how it affects our worship practices. From the responses to the survey nearly 50% indicated they had an underlying risk which would prevent them from worshiping in-person in our sanctuary. Last week the elders discussed the pandemic, the results of our survey, the recommendations of our region and national Disciples leaders, and our own concerns. We talked about the struggles local businesses, the school district, and Morehead State University are having as they attempt to create safe environments for opening back up this fall.
Through it all we remain committed to the ministries of our congregation and our call to be a voice for hope and inclusion in our community. The elders and I recommended to the board that we continue with on-line only worship through November 2020. As we enter the fall, we will have a better understanding of how the unique dynamics of our county are responding to the pandemic, and we will reassess our worship practices going forward into 2021.
We recognize how disappointing this decision is. We are keenly aware of the longings many of us have to come back together in person, to worship side by side with one another, and to share in communion in one place. We do not come to this conclusion lightly, but through much prayer and reflection. It is our intention to focus on our current worship offerings and to provide the best possible worship experiences we can. Our worship will continue to be streamed live on Facebook every Sunday, and we will gather on Thursday night for Vespers services on Zoom.
I continue to trust that this unsettled time can be a gift to the church. I know it’s frustrating; I know we are all exhausted. Nothing is easy as we are navigating these changes. Trust me, the learning curve for online technology can be daunting! Nonetheless, in many ways this crisis has forced the church to acknowledge we have been slow to recognize the massive cultural, technological, and generational changes that have already been shifting the world around us. A recent Barna survey on Christianity in the U.S. found only 25% of Americans are practicing Christians down from 45% in 2000 (State of the Church 2020, Barna Group, March 2020). That decline has occurred in every age demographic. What we’ve been doing hasn’t been effective, and simply starting back up things just like we were doing before the pandemic won’t change that.
Why do I see this time as a gift? Because we follow a God who is constantly at work to bring life into the world, who is always innovating, never satisfied with the status quo. The prophet Isaiah gives voice to God, writing,
Do not recall the first things, and what came before do not consider.
I am about to do a new thing,
now it will spring forth and you shall know it. (Isaiah 43:18-19)
We Christians tend only to hear these words during the season of Advent, as we prepare for Christmas. When we read it through the lens of Advent, we know what the “new thing” is—Jesus. But God continues doing new things throughout history, and today is no exception. The hard part sometimes is tearing our eyes away from the past so that we are able to catch a glimpse of the Spirit at work in our world right now.
The Scottish hymnwriter John Bell composes many of my favorite contemporary music for congregational worship. In one of his short songs for worship, rooted in words from 2 Corinthians and Revelation, he gives us these reassuring words of faith,
"Behold, behold I make all things new,
beginning with you and starting from today.
Behold, behold I make all things new,
my promise is true for I am Christ the way."
We are a new creation in Christ, even amid a pandemic, perhaps especially now. We have fallen into a new story, a new story which God is writing with us. Now is not the time to despair. For this is the day we have been given. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!
A native of Illinois, Rev. Nancy Gowler lived for 26 years in the Pacific Northwest. She joined the ministry of First Christian Church in Morehead, KY, in July of 2020.