I decided that it was time to say something about the legal battle currently underway in Kountze, Texas over bible verse banners made by the cheerleaders for the football team to run through before their game. The cheerleaders were briefly barred from using bible verses on the banners after the superintendant of schools verified it was illegal. A group of the cheerleaders and their parents have sued and the case is expected go to trial in June 2013. In the meantime, a state court has ruled that the school district cannot prohibit the banners. The cheerleaders are back to creating their bible verse banners for the time being.
As expected, Governor Rick Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott, and people running for local office in that part of Texas are all on the side of the cheerleaders, citing their right to free speech and religious freedom. Texas has a long history of championing Christian beliefs in state classrooms, assemblies, graduation ceremonies, football games, and other events. The few who are challenging the championing of Christianity as the official religion of Texas are being overtly bullied as being unChristian, anti-God, and unAmerican. I know.
Here’s why I, as clergy, am offended with bible verses, prayer, and anything religious at public events:
1. Briefly, the Bible is the sacred text I read and study to deepen my understanding of and relationship to God, humanity, and creation. Splashing a bible verse on a banner to inspire a football team’s victory is not only theologically questionable, but is like casting pearls before swine. Scripture is precious, but not everyone appreciates its value. Glibly tossing about verses is not going to edify or convict anyone of their need or desire for God.
2. Public prayer makes me cringe. I wonder if the people praying ever listen to what they’re saying? Are they aware that they exclude or alienate many of the people in the audience? Are they aware of their gender-biased language? Have they considered that there are some in the audience who may not have any orientation to or understanding of the terms used in their prayer? Are they praying or are they preaching?
3. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are important rights we possess and must guard as Americans. That means in order for me to have those freedoms, others must also have full freedom as well. A public institution must maintain a neutral position in matters of speech and religion in order to guarantee that all are free from intimidation and persecution for their own beliefs.
4. Finally, I believe we earn the right to share our faith. At the end of the Beatitudes, Jesus talks about a Christian’s influence as salt and light:
‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:13-16).
If the beatitudes describe the essential character of followers of Jesus, the salt and light metaphors indicate their influence for good in the world. Ronald Reagan should never have equated the United States as a city built on a hill. The United States is not a Christian nation, although many citizens are Christian. The metaphor of salt and light is for individual believers, not a nation.
I love sharing about my faith, but believe I must be invited to do so. No one is interested in having my beliefs forced upon them. The only way anyone’s faith can be developed is if it is internalized by the person seeking. Scripture is full of stories of how God approaches individuals, inviting them into relationship, living out their faith through actions, and through those actions others will be interested in joining the faith community.
God does not need me, or anyone, to champion God’s cause. God needs faithful believers who will do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God (Micah 6:8).