I love reading history (although unlike “Christian nation” propagandist David Barton, I don’t believe this habit qualifies me as a historian). Recently I’ve been enjoying Phillip Jenkins’ Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years.
If you’ve ever wondered why Christianity is in such steep decline in Western Europe, this book is a good place to start. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that for hundreds of years, fanatical believers of various stripes believed they had a God-given right to impose their faith on others, often using the government to help them out.
People eventually grew weary of that and lost interest in organized religion. Thus, Europe, where church attendance rates are anemic and religion has taken on a largely ceremonial role, would seem to be a poor model for any serious American believer. If anything, the continent serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen when church and state get too close.
But don’t tell that to Alan Sears. The president and CEO of the Alliance Defense Fund – the megabucks legal outfit founded by TV preachers – penned a column recently actually arguing that the situation in Europe may be preferable to America’s when it comes to religious freedom.
Sears is pleased because the European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that crucifixes could stay in Italian public school classrooms. Sears’ evangelical co-religionists in Italy were not as pleased as he was with this ruling. After all, Protestants don’t use the crucifix in their churches. But no matter. Sears is happy, and in fact his group represented members of the European Parliament who intervened in the case.
“Ironically, with this ruling, the Council of Europe now allows Europeans more legal leeway for acknowledging their national history and religious heritage – even if it is Christian – than many U.S. courts grant Americans,” Sears wrote.
I almost laughed out loud when I read that line. I had to check to make sure I wasn’t on a parody website. Yes, Europe acknowledged its “religious heritage” – and that’s all it has done. Thoughtful religious people know that rulings like this, far from being victories for faith, relegate religion to symbolic status. Government embrace, they say, often drains sacred symbols of their spiritual power.
The European court has essentially relegated the crucifix to the pages of history. The judges might as well be saying, “Look at this object on the wall. It used to mean something to us, so we keep it around for old time’s sake. Tradition, you know!”
Perhaps Sears is pleased that Italian children are seeing crucifixes in school because most of them aren’t seeing them in church. In a country where many people claim to be at least culturally Catholic, a 2007 study found that only 15 percent of the population attends mass weekly.
Government cooption of sacred symbols does not help genuine religion. Discerning clergy have tried to get this through to Religious Right leaders for years without any luck. How many people do you know who have had a life-changing encounter with faith because they see “In God We Trust” on a nickel? Do most schoolchildren ever stop to think what it means to be “one nation under God” as they mumble their way through yet another by-rote recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance?
Today, we actually have people – including some justices on the Supreme Court – arguing that the cross, the central symbol of the Christian faith, isn’t really religious. It’s just a generic place marker to memorialize the dead.
Sears and his Religious Right allies often complain that atheists, secular humanists, radical secularists and other favorite bogeymen are trying to drive every vestige of religion out of public life. It’s not true, and, frankly, there’s no need for anyone to do that. Sears and his cronies, who are so eager to win government support for their faith, are slowly strangling it. And for what? A pat on the back from a political leader, a Ten Commandments display in a public park and a few of Caesar’s coins.
This is not a healthy trend for religion. If you doubt this, just ask any European. The best time to find them is Sunday morning, when they’re doing just about anything but going to church.