Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Pit and the Pendulum


In Edgar Allen Poe’s story, The Pit and the Pendulum, a prisoner is placed in a room in which there is a pit in the center. As the walls mechanically contract the prisoner is forced closer and closer to the pit. That powerful image of inevitable doom resembles the situation the conservative Evangelical church has placed itself in today. But strangely it is both the inventor of the contracting chamber as well as the potential victim of it.

A vocal, and politically influential segment of the Evangelical Christian community has bought into the idea that the greatness of the United States is owed to an imagined Christian founding and that its continued greatness requires a return to the Christian principles upon which they imagine it to have been founded, not voluntarily, by convinced believers, but forcibly through legislation, Constitutional Amendments, and gerrymandered court decisions.

In other words they believe they can force all U.S. citizens into a room with ever contracting walls that will ultimately result in putting people into the place they would assign for each of them; Christians (of their stripe) in charge and all others relegated to the pit of subservient second class citizenship.

There are, in my opinion, two flaws in that thinking: 1) the Christian founding that they imagine is a myth and 2) the process they have devised to put everyone under their control can easily, and will almost certainly, draw them into the pit they have designed for their enemies.

The documents the Founders drew up to establish the United States are starkly bare of any reference to the Christian God, and for good reason; they were well aware of the repressive system of state mandated religious affiliation that they had recently escaped. They purposely devised a document that avoided any Divine sanction of, or constraint upon, the government they were establishing. The fact that it was mostly Christian men who created our “Godless” Constitution only argues more strongly that they knew exactly what they were doing when they penned the foundational document in secular terms.

In order to achieve acceptance of the new Constitution, and to allay fears among the citizens that they had not sufficiently constrained the government in matters of, among other things, religious practice, a Bill of Rights (10 amendments) was added. It only emphasized more explicitly, in the First Amendment, the principle of governmental non-interference in matters of religion. Again, these were religious men who penned that amendment and an overtly religious nation that ratified it. They knew what they were saying to the Government. “Keep your hands off of our religion convictions.”

Some point to references to the “Divine” in the Declaration of Independence as “proof” that the nation was founded on Christianity. That overlooks the fact that it was primarily written by the decidedly non-evangelical – some would say, non-Christian – Thomas Jefferson. The fact that he appealed to “Nature’s God” for justification of the colonial revolt, and cited the “Creator” as the source of man’s non-religious rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, and sought the help of “Divine Providence” in achieving the nation’s independence, only shows that he understood the gravity of their enterprise and wanted to marshal every moral argument that could add weight to the colonist’s right to rebel. Further, the fact that he couched his references to the “Divine” in terms acceptable to all religions, avoiding specific Christian terminology, indicates that he sought not to endorse or alienate any particular religion.

So, the Founding Fathers, nearly all of whom were professing Christians of a variety of different traditions, purposely established the nation as religion-neutral, not because they wanted its citizens to be a Godless people, but because they wanted to leave their choice to be Godly, or not, to the conscience of every individual person. The current attempt by conservative Evangelical Christians to “restore the values and principles of the founders” is really doing the opposite, violating them in ways that may ultimately do as much harm to themselves as they wish to do to others.

That brings us to the second and final objection to the policies they are pursuing. It might seem good if one’s own party could find a way to force all others to observe their laws and preferences, or in the case of these conservative Evangelicals, their religious beliefs, squeezing them, law by law, amendment by amendment, and court decision by court decision toward a “pit” of subservient acquiescence to the will of the “majority”. But they well may find themselves, at some point, in a larger room, with contracting walls around them, constructed by those who wish to make them conform to some kind of society that they object to.

Already those forces are at work building such walls, beginning to insist that Evangelicals yield to the “new mores” of our society, hire practicing homosexuals to work in their churches and other institutions, permit abortions in their hospitals, provide benefits to same sex couples. There will be – and already are – new issues to follow.

Perhaps our conservative Christian friends are prepared to do battle over these issues. I believe Christians will have to, but our battle needs to be one to retain the rights given us under our “Godless” Constitution, not to change the very document that would protect us and keep others from imposing their set of beliefs on all others. Christians have a work to do in this world, and that is to be messengers of God’s redemption in Christ, not to be warriors against any particular Godless lifestyle. The Gospel is the only sword that can win that battle. The love of Christ in a believer is the cure for sinful living.

The Founding Fathers built into the Constitution of the United States protections, dear to Evangelical Christians, against incursions upon matters of conscience. But now we have a group of Evangelicals who believe they can safely dismantle, through legislation, Constitutional Amendments, and Judicial reinterpretations, the very protections they will need to rely upon in days to come.

We can’t have it both ways; either we are content to be a nation granting – and guaranteeing – freedom of conscience and religious practice to ALL, or we must accept the fact that someday those who see our belief system as evil will possess the power to force us into subservience or martyrdom.

It is not a bad thing to suffer and die for Christ. Neither is it a bad thing to preserve the freedoms granted to us in this land that allow us – and all those who disagree with us – to live, and practice our respective faiths according to the dictates of our own conscience.

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