UPDATE: Sen. Stacey Campfield, who proposed the original welfare bill in Tennessee and responded to this post in the comments, has withdrawn the bill, asking it be studied over the summer. Clergy and activists in Tennessee and around the country put the pressure on and quashed the bill.
I was profoundly saddened to hear the state legislature of North Carolina won’t be considering a bill that would have allowed it to establish a state religion.
Of all the hackneyed ideas put forward by conservatives, this one at least was interesting.
Not because I think everyone should be Christians or that the state should force everyone to be Christians or even that one should have to believe in God to hold elected office.
Rather, I thought it might be helpful to establish Christianity as the state religion, particularly in light of all the unloving and uncharitable (read: oppressive) laws Southern states have been considering in recent days.
Now, I realize establishing a state religion is unconstitutional, and plainly offensive to people of other faiths or of no faith. I’m not seriously advocating abolishing the establishment clause. But it is interesting to think, if Christians were to take their faith seriously, exactly what that might mean for a state.
The first result of establishing Christianity as the state religion, of course, would be to abolish private property and require that it be held in community for the benefit of all. All laws related to private property, including tax incentives and loopholes, would be immediately repealed. Following the teachings of Jesus and the early church presented in Acts, the state would ban excessive wealth and any policy that contradicts the equality of all, including equality of religion. This, of course, would essentially dismember capitalism in the state.
Maybe the North Carolina Speaker of the House Thom Tillis considered all this when he decided to kill the bill today.
Perhaps he decided it would be unwise to establish as the state religion whose founder told wealthy landowners to sell all they had and give to the poor, who instructed his followers to give to all who ask, who said it was easier for a camel to squeeze its hump through a needle’s eye than for a rich person to be a part of God’s kingdom.
Or maybe he considered all the jobs and military bases he would have to kick out of the state. Maybe he thought about how it would be impossible to square the military drones that are piloted from a base in his state with a state religion of Christianity. Maybe he realized he didn’t want to uproot the already established civic religion of the military-industrial complex with the faith of a man who willingly went to crucifixion rather than pick up a sword and fight.
In this light, one might not be surprised the bill was killed so quickly.
Now, again, to be clear, I am an advocate of the separation of church and state, and am not in any way suggesting that Christianity should be established as an official religion of the state. I love the pluralism and diversity of faith in this world and in our country, and I have had my own faith deepened through the open-hearted faith of Hindus, Muslims and Jews and the open-minded dialogue with atheists.
But, when I see an unholy and cruel bill like the one in Tennessee’s legislature, which ties parents’ welfare benefits to their children’s school performance, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if the state house did indeed get a little religion. It doesn’t have to be Christianity or really even religion per se, just any ethical framework other than the one currently operating in Tennessee whose dehumanizing, paternalistic, racist, classist and selfish values supports this bill.
Jesus didn’t ask his followers to interrogate the poor about their work ethic (which is usually unrelenting) or about their grades (which is profoundly affected by poverty, environment and hunger). He asked them instead to throw feasts and invite those that could not repay them, to invite the destitute and downtrodden and give them the honored seats at the table.
Jesus didn’t ask what the little children’s grades were before he welcomed them with open arms. He didn’t ask how involved their parents were in their lives before he told his disciples to let them come to him.
Jesus didn’t ask his followers to require the destitute to degrade themselves by requiring them to document their destitution, but instead to give to all who beg. Not only that, but Jesus says that he is the destitute, that he is incarnated by the least of these and that if we want to see him, we should look among the oppressed, the very people who would be subjected Tennessee’s welfare bill.
Is this how we would treat the hungry and impoverished Christ? Indeed, I dare say we do already.
To be honest, considering all this, the Way of Jesus really is no way to run a government.
But, then, Jesus didn’t ask his followers to build a state religion. His kingdom, he says, isn’t of the world. Instead, Jesus invites his followers to be citizens in a kingdom that turns the world and its conventional wisdom of power and violence upside-down.
Establishing Christianity as a state religion would be an easy way out, a way to conflate the Way of Jesus with the American way.
It is much harder to follow Jesus than it is to establish religion, much harder to live into the faith of the kingdom than to live under the religion of a state.