Public Prayer and "The Jesus Crusade"

By: Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

Posted July 19, 2002

A US federal judge made unpopular headlines when he questioned the constitutionality of the phrase “one nation under God” - igniting the old debate about the separation of Church and State. I do recall the outpour of opinions touching on this age-old controversy. The press had a field day; the clergy thanked God for the opportunity to turn away from the responsibility of tackling real social issues in the society to take cheap shots at the apparent agnostic judge. And, of course, members of Congress, those paid politicians who take pride in every opportunity to pose for a photograph or be quoted by the mass media, rallied to show their support for “God”. The poor judge was denounced for being the “anti-Christ” and his judgment came under sharp attack from various segments of society.

In the meantime, I listened, read and digested as much as I could - silently. I kept my opinions to myself while I went about the pressing issues of earning a dollar a day to put some bacon (rice) on the table. That is until recently when I received an e-mail from an old friend in Oklahoma. He sent me a poem written by a kid in Arizona - dealing with the same controversial issue ignited by the judge. The kid expressed his disgust that prayer is restricted (or opposed) in certain public gatherings in the United States.

I read it silently and the matter would have ended there and then except that my friend wrote: “Send this e-mail to a few people, if you are not ashamed”. Ashamed? I thought to myself, what have I done to be ashamed of? I don’t know what the reader infers from the aforementioned statement. But to me it clearly implies the notion that if you don’t agree with those who advocate prayer in public places, in schools, at work, etc.- you must be ashamed of yourself. That implied notion touched off an old nerve in me that had been dormant for sometime now. Here is the story:

When I was a teenager at Bishop Ferguson High (an Episcopal school) in Liberia, I skipped going to chapel to attend some religious rituals, which I thought should have been voluntary. Our principal and resident priest thought and demanded that attendance should be compulsory. I stood my ground and expressed my opinion, respectfully begging to differ with him. But he labeled me a ‘non-conformist’ and threatened to throw me off campus.

This matter finally reached the attention of my father who sternly warned me that he wasn’t ‘paying all that money to have me question authority’. He told me, “You are on that campus to learn, not to challenge the rules”. And I remember thinking to myself: Why can’t I do both?

My fellow students thought it was hip to be so bold and daring and “non-conformist” became my new nickname. Some also called me “radical”, “revolutionary”, “outsider”, and even “pagan” among other unflattering (playful) nicknames. To me it was simply a matter of forming an independent mind. Wasn’t it my right to be different? The entire high school scenario came to me in a flash and this is the reply I sent my friend.

Thanks for sending the prayer. Sorry, I wont pass it on, but it's not because I'm ashamed. Everyone should be moved by his own conviction or conscience to seek the "Higher Being". No one should be intimidated to choose how he worships.

There is plenty of time at home and other private places to worship whomever one chooses. When people of varied belief systems meet in a public space, the rights of the majority should not be imposed on the minority. To respect the rights of the minority in a society is a central and fundamental tenet of democracy. And guess what? The US Constitution guarantees that right under the law.

For your information, I am also severely opposed to the so-called "Jesus Crusade" in Liberia. No group of people has a right to declare and commit a nation to their own peculiar brand of religion. The country Liberia belongs to Christians, Moslems, Animists and even Heathens. Yes, pagans have rights, too.

Recently I did a quick research on opinions expressed on the issue of “Religious Freedom”. Contrary to what some misguided individuals may think, this controversy has been around for ages and quite a number of prominent figures have expressed opinions.

This is what George Washington, the father of the country, wrote in a letter to the United Baptist Churches in Virginia in May, 1789: “ I have often expressed my sentiments, that every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience”.

A few years later, another founding father, Thomas Jefferson, wrote: “I will never, by word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance, or admit a right of inquiring into the religious opinions of others”.

Not to be outdone, the great orator and statesman Henry Clay, in a speech in the House of Representatives, on March 24, 1818 said: “All religions united with government are more or less inimical to liberty. All, separated from government, are compatible with liberty”.

How can anyone who is interested in pursuing liberty, justice and freedom for the Liberian people reconcile the image of Charles Taylor, the dictator, masquerading before cameras as a Christian convert? Mr. Taylor is putting on a show for his political survival and buying sympathy from whatever source he can. The church should not be a part of such buffoonery or trickery.

Richard M. Johnson, in his second Report on the Transportation of the Mail on Sundays, in 1830 said: “It is not the legitimate province of the legislature to determine what religion is true, or what is false”.

Over a hundred years later, the outstanding sociologist Margaret Mead, in February 1963 wrote: “We will be a better country where each religious group can trust its members to obey the dictates of their own religious faith without assistance from the legal structure of the country.

In that same year (1963) the incorruptible Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority”.

This is quite an appropriate warning to organizers, creators and supporters of the “Jesus Crusade” of Liberia. Your unholy alliance with the tyrannical regime of Charles Taylor could cost the church dearly. Remembers, those who sleep in bed with dogs are liable to get fleas. Is it worth ruining the reputation of the church for political expediency? I should think not.

The most surprising quotation comes from none other than the arch conservative and rightist politician of our time, the late Senator Barry Goldwater in a speech in 1981. Surprising to me because I consider myself a liberal and leftist in political philosophy. But the senator and I shared a viewpoint on religious freedom in the political arena. This is what he said: “Religious factions will go on imposing their will on others unless the decent people connected to them recognize that religion has no place in public policy. They must learn to make their views known without trying to make their views the only alternatives”. I say Amen. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

So, in a nutshell, I have just realized that I’m in good company when it comes to my views on religious freedom: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Margaret Mead, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barry Goldwater and I agree on the basic premise of separation of church and state. And they called me a non-conformist?

There is no need to cheapen the authority of the church by imposing it on the citizenry by government and calling it “state religion”. What sense does it make to ignore the pressing issues of health care, education, transportation, food production and clean water to deal with the issue of “state religion”. Who needs a governmental decree to establish the value of the church in a society? Let’s leave the issue of religion to the dictates of each individual conscience.

A gentleman named Henry George, speaking on the Irish Land Question in 1881 had this to say: “The religion which allies itself with injustice to preach down the natural aspirations of the masses is worse than atheism”.

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