Category Archives: Church and State

A Victory for Solemn Civility, I Guess

Uncle Sam in PrayerSome things don’t change. Two thousand years after Paul’s sermon at Athens, Greece is still free to invoke the gods. Now it’s in Greece, New York, where, in Town of Greece v. Galloway the Supreme Court has held that “government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates.” This is thought to be a good thing because “Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing” lends gravity to civic occasions and that prayer “reflect[s] values long part of the Nation’s heritage.” Perhaps civil religion does help what is civil, thought it’s another question altogether whether it helps religion.

Noting that this was a 5-4 decision does not adequately show the depth of the Court’s division, which was accompanied by two concurring opinions and two dissents. The majority opinion was written by the moderate Justice Kennedy, and I suspect his motivation was moderate as well. The motivation behind this decision to allow prayers prior to board meetings in Greece might be no more than his observation that “A test that would sweep away what has so long been settled would create new controversy.” Since so much of the country is still reeling from same-sex marriage decisions, Kennedy might have a point.

As for the law, the establishment clause is not offended if there is no coercion involved. That is, it is not enough that someone is offended by the prayer, as long as there is no govermental coercion. On this pont, the SCOTUS explains:

Nothing in the record suggests that members of the publicare dissuaded from leaving the meeting room during the prayer, arriving late, or even, as happened here, making a later protest. …board members and constituents are “free to enter and leave with little comment and for any number of reasons.”… Should nonbelievers choose to exit the room during a prayer they find distasteful, their absence will not stand out as disrespectful or even noteworthy. And should they remain, their quiet acquiescence will not, in light of our traditions, be interpreted as an agreement with the words or ideas expressed. Neither choice represents an unconstitutional imposition as to mature adults, who “presumably”are “not readily susceptible to religious indoctrination or peer pressure.”

I suppose I should be excited about this. Let me work on that.

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Filed under Church and State, Courts, Establishment of Religion

The Broader Significance of Notre Dame v. Sebelius

Richard Posner

Richard Posner

Current litigation pitting the religious conscience against Obamacare is obviously of interest to those who follow such things from a purely legal perspective. But it can be more than that – it can provide the opportunity for people of faith to ponder how they are to live among others who do not share that faith.  The latest decision (released yesterday) invites us to consider how much separation we should or must have from those things we find objectionable.

Consider the latest scenario in the United States Court of Appeals: Notre Dame is exempt from having to provide contraceptives.  But in order to claim that exemption the institution must complete a form that substantially says

I certify that, on account of religious objections, the organization opposes providing coverage for some or all of any contraceptive services that would otherwise be required to be covered; the organization is organized and operates as a nonprofit entity; and the organization holds itself out as a religious organization.

Notre Dame is required to give copies of the signed form to its health insurance company and the plan’s administrator. EBSA 700Notre Dame objects to this on religious grounds by asserting that, by supplying copies of this form, they are “the cause” of the provision of contraceptives. But in Notre Dame v. Sebelius Judge Richard Posner replies “not so.”

Another way to describe the central issue is whether Notre Dame serves as a “trigger” to the procurement of contraceptives by filling out the form and mailing it. Posner sets forth several reasons why they do not.  To Posner, a more substantial cause is the legal obligation:

The delivery of a copy of the form to [the administrator] reminds it of an obligation that the law, not the university, imposes on it—the obligation to pick up the ball if Notre Dame decides, as is its right, to drop it.

If there’s any joke intended by next using the Quakers to determine if Notre Dame is a “trigger” to contraceptive use, Posner never lets on.  In any case, he asks us to consider the hypothetical of a Quaker who is given exemption from military service, only to raise a religious objection that, because someone else must be drafted in his place, his religion is burdened by the mere existence of a draft.  Posner’s illustration is not entirely analogous to Notre Dame because of the paperwork, but presumably Posner would counter this objection by suggesting that even if the required paperwork is a burden, it is not a substantial burden.

Moreover, Posner points out that, even if Notre Dame were to refuse to sign the form and mail it, its employees and students would still have the right under the law to procure contraceptives through its insurer and administrator.

Generally addressing litigation like that of Notre Dame and Little Sisters , Posner sounds a bit flummoxed:

What makes this case and others like it involving the contraception exemption paradoxical and virtually unprecedented is that the beneficiaries of the religious exemption are claiming that the exemption process itself imposes a substantial burden on their religious faiths.

On the one hand, individual conscience is not to be slighted. On the other hand, there are numerous religious faiths, and to accommodate them all according to their necessarily subjective consciences makes it difficult to have laws of general application. Such is the predicament of courts in this latest wave of litigation.

For case-specific reasons, it is not of great significance that Notre Dame lost this battle. More significant is whether subsequent judicial decisions will view these cases by assuming that religious objectors are burdened just because they say they are, or whether courts will analyze the relationship of legal obligations to the alleged religious burden to determine if the religious burdens are objectively substantial.

Roman coinGetting back to how we are to live in a pluralistic society, there are historic models to consider.  If we go back to New Testament times, there is the model of the Pharisees, with barriers constructed between them and the loathsome Gentiles.  Clearly that was not the model of the New Testament Christians.  Christians are not “of the world” but are called to live “in the world.”  There is a presumption that Christians are to even obey “Caesar” unless that obedience is entails disobedience to God. Does a person sin or cause sin if he sells a wedding cake for a gay marriage? For that question as well as the questions raised by Obamacare requirements, the form of Posner’s analysis is likely more helpful than jumping on any bandwagon.


Filed under Church and State, Courts, Culture Wars, Ethics, Free exercise of religion

Edouard Convictions Reversed

The Iowa Court of Appeals has reversed the Patrick Edouard convictions. Continue reading

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Reformed in America Conference – November 1 & 2


D.G. Hart

Is there an American form of Christianity? Many believers who live in the United States would be content simply to identify themselves as Christians, others as American Christians, and still others would be inclined to say they are Christians in America. But are believers in any of these groups able to identify distinctive traits of American Christianity? Do you know enough of the history of Christianity in this country to recognize how your own expression of Christian faith and practice has been shaped by America in the modern age, for good or ill?


Alan Strange

None of us are simply “biblical Christians” but have a history that has shaped us in one way or another. Reformed Christians have a rich heritage going back to the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe, but they also have a peculiar history in the United States. Join us for this free two day conference which will explore some of the major outlines of the history of Reformed & Presbyterian Christianity in the United States.

Friday, November 1

Session 1 at 7:00pm

Alan Strange: “The Tumultuous Beginnings of American Presbyterianism.”  The beginnings of American Presbyterianism, with a focus on the First Great Awakening and the Old Side/New Side controversy. We’ll also briefly reflect on the Reformed in America and the phenomenon of “becoming American.”

Session 2 at 8:15pm

Darryl Hart: “The Challenge of Americanism.”  The talk will cover the problems posed by new ways of recruiting and sustaining Christians (through the Second Great Awakening).  It will cover Reformed responses to the predicament from German Reformed, Dutch Reformed, and Presbyterians.


J. Gresham Machen

Session 3 at 9:30am

Alan Strange: “Politics and the Pulpit.”  Charles Hodge developed his doctrine of the spirituality of the church in a subtle and nuanced fashion that permitted him to distinguish the church from the state and its political concerns while allowing the church to retain a prophetic voice to society. We’ll examine Old School Presbyterianism with respect to the spirituality of the church and the place of the doctrine among the Reformed.

Session 4 at 10:45


Abraham Kuyper

Darryl Hart: “Kuyper & Machen–Models of Reformed Witness.” This talk will examine the differences between Machen and Kuyper’s attempts to recover a consistent Reformed witness, especially those that stem from the differences between church life in the United States and Netherlands.

Lunch 12:00pm ($5.00 Fee for all participating)

Session 5 at 1:00pm

Alan Strange: “Unity without Union — Beyond Acronyms.”  The CRC recognized and congratulated the OPC on its formation and the OPC did the same with the URC on its formation. We’ll look at OPC/CRC union talks, the formation of the URC and OPC/URC relations.

Session 6 at 2:15pm

Darryl Hart: “Anti-Modernism.” This presentation will examine the efforts of conservative Presbyterians in the United States and Reformed Protestants in the Netherlands to combat theological liberalism and indifference in the dominant churches.  It will also discuss the need for secession or separation when those efforts were no longer viable.

Session 7 at 3:30

Q&A with speakers

Reformed in America” will take place at Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church (3615 University Avenue, Des Moines, Iowa).  This conference is hosted by Providence Reformed Church and Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church, which are both congregations in Des Moines.

Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church (OPC):

Providence Reformed Church (URCNA):

Please RSVP to:


Filed under Church and State, Culture Wars, Presbyterianism, Spirituality of the Church

Yes, They Really Prayed For That

jim-halpert-john-krasinski-the-office-Favim_com-173662By now the Congressional Prayer offered by URCNA minister Brian Lee has been discussed at Christian in America, Old Life, and by Pastor Lee himself. That’s plenty. But what about other Congressional prayers? The discussion surrounding Pastor Lee is whether he should have prayed, not the content of his prayer. But if you spend a little time clicking through the Congressional prayer archives, you might find yourself saying “wow, they really prayed for that.”

First, to pick some low-hanging fruit, there have been at least two prayers to a god associated with Hinduism:

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What Hath Pulpit Freedom Sunday Wrought?

Tax_The_Churches[5]Pulpit Freedom Sunday may not have prevented the Obama re-election, but it seems to have had at least one effect: getting the Secular Coalition agitated. They are now calling for increased IRS scrutiny of the church:

Specifically, the Coalition is asking that two exemptions are removed from the tax code. The two provisions are 26 USC §6033(a)(3)(A)(i) and (iii) and (C)(i) which exempts churches, their integrated auxiliaries and exclusively religious activities from the requirement to file an annual return-something every other organization exempt from taxation must do-and 26 USC § 7611, which includes five pages of restrictions on the IRS’s ability to investigate churches engaged in activity that would void a 501c3 tax exemption. Continue reading


Filed under Church and State, Culture Wars, evangelical politics

The Bible in the Public Square vs. Our Natural Law Foundation

In considering the propriety of arguing from the scriptures in the public square (to advocate in the civil realm) it is well to think of the characteristics of that square. In this regard, the question is not what may be said; the right of free speech does and should allow for scriptures in the public square. Rather, the focus should be on the nature of the public square, i.e., its foundation and consequently the language suitable for the public square. And with that understanding, it is well to consider the Declaration of Independence:

Declaration-of-independence-broadside-croppedWhen in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them,

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Filed under Church and State, Culture Wars, Establishment of Religion, Natural Law

Two Kingdom Momentum

Is two kingdom thinking gaining momentum? From sources as diverse as Front Porch Republic and the New York Times, by men affiliated with denominations as diverse as the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Free Church, we get two angles critical of a too-close relationship between church and state.

From Front Porch Republic is an article about the West Point cadet who resigned in protest against that institution’s religiosity. Andrew Bacevich, a Catholic, reflects on that decision, and wonders if the church is not better off when it is more distinct from the state:

blake-page-mikey-weinstein-cnnYet beyond the military realm, the ongoing debate that Mikey is promoting raises questions that call for especially serious reflection. It’s we believers who are not soldiers who ought to reflect. After all, when agents of the state promote religiosity, their primary interest is not necessarily saving souls. Throughout history, states have employed religion to advance their own purposes, which they routinely insist coincide with God’s own. Religion thereby becomes an adjunct of state power. Continue reading


Filed under Church and State, Culture Wars, Two Kingdom

City on a Hill: Final Chapter

In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth is written by Richard M. Gamble, Hillsdale College professor and Ruling Elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Today we focus on the final chapter, The Once and Future City.

For those wondering if Marco Rubio is the future of the Republican Party, you may be interested to know that he continues the “city on a hill” myth: Continue reading


Filed under Church and State, City on a Hill, evangelical politics

City on a Hill: Ronald Reagan


Tenuously Connected But Cool

In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth is written by Richard M. Gamble, Hillsdale College professor and Ruling Elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Today we focus on Ronald Reagan with excerpts you can find in the sixth chapter.

Between 1981 and 1989 Ronald Reagan mentioned the “city on a hill” in more than 20 speeches. Reagan described his vision of the city:

I’ve spoken of the shining city on a hill all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.

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Filed under Church and State, City on a Hill, evangelical politics, Two Kingdom