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Resolution C040, Engle v. Vitale, and Romney/Graham

Resolution C040, Engle v. Vitale, and Romney/Graham

By the Rev. Dr. Robert Sanders
Special to Virtueonline
October 20, 2102

Resolution C040 is the resolution presented at the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church, seeking an "open table," that is, that all be allowed to communion, even the non-baptized. Engle v. Vitale is the 1962 court case that outlawed school-sponsored prayer in school. And recently, Billy Graham and Mitt Romney got together, had a photo-op, and prayed. Do these three have anything in common? Yes, very much so. Let me explain.

Let us begin with a distinction. There is such a thing as the official theology, and then there is the operant theology. The official theology is what people think they are supposed to believe by virtue of their membership in a particular religious body. The operant theology is what people actually live and feel, the power that drives their lives. Official theology will be proclaimed on official occasions, in church for example. Operant theology is revealed by what people say and do.

Officially, the Episcopal Church believes the Nicene Creed, and in general, it is said every Sunday in Church. For those who affirm the open table, the operant theology is quite different. According to the operant theology, and there are many variations on this, Jesus meets the world with open arms. He practiced radical hospitality, eating and drinking with sinners, asking nothing of them in advance. He was love incarnate, revealing that God loves all.

Not all know they are children of the one God, but when all come before the table, it is revealed that Christ's love includes each and every one. Therefore, all should be free to come to the table to experience the unity given by God's inclusive love. To exclude any is to deny that God includes all. To impose prior restrictions, such as baptism, is to deny that all belong to the one God. That is an approximate summary of the operant theology affirming the open table.

Engle v. Vitale concerned a prayer that was said in the Hyde Park, New York school system. It read like this: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen." In 1962, family members of some of the children objected to this prayer, saying that it contradicted their beliefs. The court decided in their favor and the prayer was no longer said by school personnel in classroom settings or official school gatherings.

Since then, prayer in school has become something of cause celebre among evangelicals. For example, last July 1, I heard a patriotic sermon at a large church belonging to the Southern Baptist Convention. The preacher read the prayer rejected by Engle v. Vitale, and then described how, in the years since 1962, life among school children, their parents, their teachers, and the country had sunk to abysmal depths. He proved this with a bevy of statistics, such things as divorce rates, drug use, teen pregnancy, and student test scores. Listening to this sermon, and I have heard this in other quarters as well, one would conclude that the ills of America could be traced to the 1962 court decision.

What is the operant theology at work here? By and large, those who affirm prayer in school sincerely believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the only savior of the world. That is their official belief. At the same time, however, they have a general sense that America was founded by God, and although there was a diversity of religious beliefs at the time of the founding, God established the country along Christian lines. This God is the God of the republic, and when we pray to him, he hears all of us because we are, by and large, Americans, and he is the God of us all. As a consequence, it makes sense to pray on public occasions, and although we may not call him "Father," or end the prayer in the name of Jesus, the prayer is still heard since he really is, by virtue of our citizenship, the God of all Americans. And when we fail to acknowledge him on public occasions, the result will be the destruction of our public life.

The operant theology of the school prayer contingent concurs with the open table advocates in that both believe in a general God who brings people together in spite of great differences. How they are brought together differs in part, although there is a similarity. In the one case participants are brought together by the Holy Eucharist whether one believes or disbelieves in Christ, and in the other, a classroom prayer to a general God of the republic, whether those present are committed to Christ or not. By virtue of citizenship the prayer is vital, and if left undone, leads to disaster.

About a week ago, Mitt Romney met with Billy Graham. I first became aware of this when I saw a picture in Yahoo News of the two seated together in Billy Graham's home in North Carolina. Later I learned that Billy Graham's son, Franklin, was there as well. According to the news report, Billy Graham said he would do what he could to help Mitt Romney get elected. Apparently, as a result of that meeting, a section of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association web page was deleted. This page defined a cult as "any group which teaches doctrines or beliefs that deviate from the biblical message of the Christian faith." The site went on to name certain cults, namely, "Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, the Unification Church, Unitarians, Spiritualists, Scientologists, and others." I got on the website to see if that information was available. It wasn't. When the Graham people were questioned by CNN on the matter of deleting the section on the cults, the reply was, "We removed the information from the website because we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during this campaign." In other words, deference to politics took priority over Christian truth.

Who was the target of the picture of Mitt Romney and Billy Graham seen on Yahoo News? Clearly the target audience was evangelical America. When they see the picture, they instantly think that Romney is a believer of the likes of Billy Graham. Some of them probably wonder if Mormonism is Christian, and some have definite ideas. Many have probably seen the recent spate of Mormon ads that show Mormons are everyday folks like the rest of us. Or perhaps they have heard Romney say that he believed Jesus to be the Son of God. Seeing Mitt Romney and Billy Graham together, however, reinforces the operant impression that Romney is more or less worshipping the same God as Billy Graham or other Christians. Further, Romney is an American, and as an American, he falls under the aegis of the God of the Republic. So, it all slides together in the evangelical soul, a body of people united before God, believing in Jesus across denominational lines, supporting Romney, and called by God to save the republic from godless socialism.

Officially, the evangelical leadership, by and large, must know that Mormonism is not Christian. They know that. It is hard to imagine otherwise. But, at least for some of them, that is not their operant theology. Their operant theology is that politics is more important than Christian truth, and they are willing to reinforce Romney's claim that he believes Jesus is the Son of God by keeping silent about the real content of his faith.

There is a pattern here. For the last three or four decades the Republican Party has presented itself as the "Christian" party, that is, the party that espouses Christian norms and beliefs. George Bush, for example, marketed himself as a born again Christian and only got elected because of massive evangelical support. Nevertheless, once elected, the Republicans, by and large, forgot about their Christian ideals and got down to their real agenda, concentrating wealth in the hands of a few and pursuing an aggressive foreign policy to protect American interests (the need to make money) overseas. The official theology is Christian, the operant theology is pagan, and the conduct of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has reinforced the pagan program by subverting Christian truth for political purposes. This has been true all along, but now, the nomination of a Mormon dedicated to making and banking money all over the world should, but quite possibly won't, bring the operant theology into clearer view, or at least make it more difficult to hide.

In all three cases we have a similar picture - a universal God who bridges vast divides of belief and practice. This universal God, this cipher for general religious feeling and pagan agendas, welcomes people at his table regardless of their faith or lack of it, judges a nation by whether or not it practices a public religion with no mention of Jesus, and presides over a political process in which we are all more or less spiritually united provided we agree on certain political objectives.

According to the Nicene Creed, Jesus Christ is Lord, "the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father." He is the one, decisive revelation of God, the "only-begotten Son of God." This one God is the Father, the transcendent creator of heaven and earth. He sent his Son for our salvation and one enters into this salvation through faith, repentance, and baptism. According to the third article of the Creed, the church is "one holy catholic and apostolic" where these words have reference to the Lord Jesus Christ and to a community that "confesses one baptism for the remission of sins." There is no other community by which all are one before the transcendent Father, the living God of love. There is no other unity sanctioned by the transcendent Father except the unity given by faith in Christ.

To form "Christian" communities on other grounds, to use the name of Christ to establish a political community whose real agenda is pagan, to assume that a public religion has access to the Father apart from baptism and faith in Christ, to use the name of Jesus to baptize a political candidate, is to profane the holy name of God. It is to prostitute the body of Christ, to compromise her witness, and to turn her into congeries of false unities dedicated to goals other than the eternal praise of the living God.

I am not averse to Christian faith informing politics. I am not averse to having a non-Christian as president, provided his or her goals reflect values I think important. I am against profaning the name of God, using the term "Jesus" to get elected. It is wrong. It is evil. It destroys life. Politicians do this, but I must say, in the recent decades, the Republican Party has been the most egregious in this regard. Both parties, by and large, all lip-service aside, pursue pagan ends, and both have sold out in varying ways and degrees to the pagan social, economic, and military agenda, but the worst of it is using the name of Christ, the prince of peace, the man who had no place to lay his head, to crown the headlong pursue of wealth and power with a patina of Christian sanctity.

What will be the result of profaning the name of God? Christian teaching on the Holy Communion can shed some light on that question. Scripture, with many examples, tells us that holy things cannot be profaned, and if they are, there can be severe consequences. Here are the words of St. Paul, as well as the words taken from the Articles of Religion on the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist,

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died (1 Corinthians 11:27-31).

And in such only as worthily receive the same [the sacraments] they have a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith (Article 25).

How can people who do not know Christ and have no commitment to him discern his body? The church has never allowed those without baptism to take communion, and among her reasons for this, is that it damages those who do. Some doubtless act in ignorance and God may well have mercy on them, but it is not a Christian norm and it risks God's judgment, not only on those who receive but do not believe, but upon those Christians who promote this toxic innovation.

As to prayer in school, the courts allow prayer by believers who come together on school grounds as religious clubs or other private forums. I believe this is a good thing since God answers prayer. What the court denied was prayers by school officials, prayers in which believers and non-believers were both present. For spiritual reasons, I am thankful that the court denied this. Why is that? When students are led in prayer to a generic God, and as they learn that many of their classmates are not Christian, the very act of the prayer itself teaches that there is access to God apart from faith and belief. It teaches that a community can be formed that relates to a common God, a community supposedly blessed or cursed depending upon whether they pray or not, and this community is not bound together by the blood of the Lamb, but rather, by being American in a public school. In the past when this country was more Christian, when so many shared a similar faith, when local life was not massively saturated by media depicting radical diversity, such common prayers may not have been deceptive. But even then, in the mid-nineteenth century, for example, Protestants and Catholics fought over the forms to be used in school prayer, and of course, the result of these battles was the generic prayer, a prayer that now teaches, at least from a Christian perspective, a lie.

As to profaning the name of God in the pursue of wealth and power, to taking the name of Jesus in vain, to hiding Christian truth for political ends, I must say that the entire practice fills me with dread. How can God condone such behavior? What will happen to those who do these sorts of things, who pursue pagan goals draped in the garments of Christ? Are they not wolves in sheep's clothing? And what do wolves do? They rend and tear the sheep. And does God permit this? Apart from repentance, he does, and he will allow the wolves, as with his son, to tear at the very entrails of our national life.

What then shall we do? Where do we stand now?

"When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour" (Revelation 8:1).

The Rev. Robert J. Sanders, Ph.D.

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