North Carolina will not vote for an official state religion after all—despite an impassioned move toward that end by a handful of the state’s politicians. And that’s probably a good thing.
A little background: For the last few days, North Carolina has been enmeshed in a pretty remarkable political brouhaha regarding state-sanctioned prayer. The American Civil Liberties Union (on behalf of three plaintiffs) filed a lawsuit against a county board of commissioners for opening 97 percent of its meetings with Christian prayer.
Now, anyone who follows this stuff knows that these sorts of suits are fairly common: The ACLU often files lawsuits against governments, schools or other state-run institutions that (they say) push Christianity in public settings. Sometimes, these lawsuits are dismissed after the institution promises to never, ever pray in the name of Jesus again. Sometimes, they go to court—with mixed results. The First Amendment is a tricky thing.
But this is the first time that I remember a state saying, in essence, that governmental Christian prayer is so important that they’d be willing to write a law that would, essentially, supersede the First Amendment. It said, in part:
North Carolina General Assembly asserts that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.
The proposal was nixed before it could come to a vote. And I think all of us, religious and secular alike, can be grateful.
Christian thinker Os Guinness has done a great deal of ruminating on the themes of faith and freedom. Last year, in his book “A FreePeople’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future,” he talked quite a bit of something he called the “golden triangle of freedom”—a dynamic absolutely critical to, he says, the success and future success of America.
In The Christian Post, he described the triangle like this: “Freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith of some sort, and faith of any sort requires freedom. And like the recycling triangle, it goes round and round -- freedom requires virtue which requires faith which requires freedom which requires virtue, and so on.”
Guinness says that freedom is great and all—but it can’t be just sort of a willy-nilly, hedonistic freedom that some would like. Our personal freedoms have to be tempered by virtue—a moral code of some sort that helps us govern ourselves. And Guinness doesn’t believe that such virtue is possible without faith of some kind. Atheism just doesn’t have the ethical oomph to provide it.
But there’s another side to that: Faith needs freedom to flourish—not just freedom to worship Christ, but freedom to worship, or not worship, anything at all.
I heard Guinness speak several years ago, and I remember him stressing how brilliant the First Amendment—protecting the rights of all faiths—was to the character of the country. Europe (he pointed out) has always been filled with countries that sanctioned official state religions. But when religion is tied too closely to a government, it often grows corrupt and, as such, it often doesn’t look much like the work of God at all. Guinness said at the time that the First Amendment—and the freedom of religion it guarantees—is a prime reason why the United States is still so religious compared to much of Europe. Faith needs freedom to flourish, even if folks use that freedom to reject faith completely.
And really when you think about it, that philosophy mirrors the whole concept of God-given free will. God doesn’t force us to love Him. Jesus never twisted anyone’s arm to follow him. He simply asked if they’d like to. And that still seems like a pretty good strategy to me.
I know that Christians can grow kinda tired of secular assaults on faith and tradition. And hey, I like Nativity displays in the town square as much as the next person. But the solution, I don’t think, is to replace our spiritual liberty with a state religion—even if the religion is one I agree with.