Saturday, May 26, 2007

When Religious Intolerance Hits Close to Home

Last week Keith Hamblen, pastor of Calvary Bible Church in Lima, Ohio, offered the prayer that opened the day's proceedings in the Ohio House of Representatives. Hamblen had been invited to offer this prayer by Matt Huffman, the Representative from Lima. Hamblen was the principal of the Christian school I attended throughout my childhood, and after I left for college he succeeded his father as the pastor of the church I had attended throughout my teen years.

I'd encourage you to watch Huffman's introduction and Hamblen's prayer. Hamblen makes three errors that politicians and journalists found heinous. First, he named Jesus. Second, he gave thanks for the freedom to operate a Christian school that is not chartered by the state. Third, he prayed that the legislators would have wisdom during their debate over three issues that day. He compounded this mistake by naming the issues, some if not all of which had clear moral components (though Hamblen in no way implied how the legislators ought to vote).

Two legislators bravely walked out in protest, and the legislator who invited Hamblen and said amen at the end of his prayer promptly threw him under the bus in his comments to the press.

The Columbus Dispatch picked up on the story and published an editoral the following week. Now I like the Dispatch for its Ohio State football and basketball coverage, but this editorial demonstrates about as much muddled thinking as I have ever read in an editorial not written by Ted Rall. The editorial may be right to point out that the House needs to enforce its policy requiring all prayers to be submitted 72 hours in advance for review. It's never wise to have policies you don't intend to enforce. But its suggestion that this non-sectarian prayer policy ensures that "invocations are required to speak to Ohioans of all beliefs" is one of the most ignorant and asinine ideas I can imagine.

The simple fact is that a prayer that speaks to people of all beliefs in reality only speaks to people with no beliefs. Isn't a belief something you are convinced is true? But this policy insists that those who pray must hold their personal convictions of what is true so lightly that they are willing to say words that are inconsistent with what they believe is true in order to propagate a sham. This sham creates the illusion that some god—any god—actually matters in our public policy process. It's a comical attempt to delude ourselves into thinking that we can appease whatever god/gods is/are out there even though we don't have the fortitude to pick one. Shouldn't even an agnostic be perceptive enough to recognize that if there is a god out there, he isn't going to be too impressed by this kind of contented ignorance or cowardly reluctance?

A prayer offered to every god is a prayer to no god at all. Our tolerance for public displays of "religion" has reached the point that the only people permitted to pray publicly are the people who are willing to pray to a god of our own imagination.

In addition to the Dispatch's editorial, they also published a report on the day's events. Fortunately, a couple people quoted in the article got it right.

One of them said, ""Our country is based on freedom of religion, not a freedom from religion. Clergy of any religion should have freedom to say the opening prayer of their wish." Another said, "Our country is based on freedom of religion, not a freedom from religion. Clergy of any religion should have freedom to say the opening prayer of their wish." So who are these bastions of evangelical religious liberty? One is a Jewish legislator, and the other is pastor of the "Journey of Faith Fellowship."

I really wouldn't be too disappointed if the Ohio House suspended this program. I wouldn't be bothered much at all if every courtroom in the country removed its display of the Ten Commandments. I certainly wouldn't mind if politicians stopped inserting biblical language and imagery into their speeches in a cynical attempt to curry favor with certain voting blocs. There would be a certain honesty in that. We would at least be admitting that we're a long way from the days when God actually mattered.

Most importantly, in a very ironic way, our public violation of the third commandment as a nation would finally come to an end. I simply can't think of any more egregious way to take God's name in vain than to invoke his name regularly, but only in a way that ensures his name means nothing whatsoever to anyone.


Dan said...

This may be the best commentary I've ever read of yours, Ben...and that's saying something. Well said!

Donette said...

For what it's worth, Ben, I totally agree with you in your ten commandments remark. I've long since retired the belief that having the commandments posted would make a hoot of a difference in unbeliever's lives. It didn't do a whole lot in unbelieving Israel's life . . .

By the way, I'm in Louisville at the NA conference. Just heard your pastor speak for the first time and he blew me away. God's good to allow you to hear such great preaching all the time! I saw Justin W. at the 9Marks table and thought maybe you'd be around also. Give us a call next time you are in WI!

Donette said...

I should qualify the first statement - no amount of law can change an unbelieving heart to a believing one without the opening of eyes that only comes from God. You knew I meant that, right?!?!

Ben said...

Hey Donette,

Say hi to the Neislers and Justin for me. I just saw on you blog yesterday that you were heading down there. Hopefully Ken B caught up with the Neislers.

MD read his talk to a few of us Friday night, but I'm looking forward to hearing it with his personality injected. Glad to hear it went well.

Hope to make it up for Alumni Weekend. We'll see. Enjoy NA.