How establishment corrupts religion: A case study

Jessica Ahlquist was right.

The sectarian banner that hung at Cranston West High School in Cranston, Rhode Island, should not have been there. Its presence there was both unjust and illegal. And, being unjust, it was also a sin.

The First Amendment is very clear. It defends the free exercise of religion and, therefore, also forbids the establishment of religion. To establish any particular sect — to privilege it with official state sanction — is unfair to everyone who is not a member of that particular sect. And, just as bad, such privileging is extremely corrosive to the privileged sect, pushing it toward either impotent irrelevance or toward inquisitorial coercion. When any sect is privileged with establishment, the free exercise of religion is constrained for everyone outside and inside of that sect.

Cranston’s “school prayer” banner was an obvious establishment of religion and is therefore wrong — not just illegal, but unjust and thus ethically, morally and spiritually wrong. In the big picture, this may not seem like an important matter. It’s just a little evil thing, to borrow a phrase, but this sectarian banner still should not have been there. Its presence was unfair to everyone — students, teachers, staff — who did not subscribe to its particular sectarian version of Christian-ish civil religion. And its presence was a dangerous, subtly corrupting influence for everyone — students, teachers, staff — who was any sort of Christian.

School officials had no business allowing that sectarian banner to remain. Christians ought to have demanded its removal. (And, given that this was in Rhode Island, every history teacher who walked by that banner without tearing it down in the name of Roger Williams ought to be fired for incompetence.)

That it took a teenager to point all of this out should be deeply embarrassing to all the adults and officials who ought to have known better.

You may be thinking that some of the language above is a bit disproportionate. All that talk of justice and injustice and that business about any establishment of religion being “corrosive” and “dangerous” for the established sect.

But consider what happened after U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux handed down the obvious ruling earlier this year, saying that the school prayer banner had to come down. Ahlquist, the 16-year-old plaintiff in a case that ought to have been decided decades before she was born, became the focus of a nasty backlash from civil religion devotees in Cranston.

Student Faces Town’s Wrath in Protest Against a Prayer,” the New York Times reported:

A federal judge ruled this month that the prayer’s presence at Cranston High School West was unconstitutional, concluding that it violated the principle of government neutrality in religion. In the weeks since, residents have crowded school board meetings to demand an appeal, Jessica [Ahlquist] has received online threats and the police have escorted her at school, and Cranston, a dense city of 80,000 just south of Providence, has throbbed with raw emotion.

State Representative Peter G. Palumbo, a Democrat from Cranston, called Jessica “an evil little thing” on a popular talk radio show. Three separate florists refused to deliver her roses sent from a national atheist group.

That’s a tribal response. It shows that, for these angry Cranston residents, this “school prayer” was no longer a prayer at all, but a tribal symbol, a tribal battle flag.

A prayer that included an appeal for divine help “to be kind” ceased to have anything to do with either kindness or prayer once it became an established, state-sanctioned symbol of privilege for a particular sect. Whatever that sect may have been about originally, its establishment as the official, privileged sect of Cranston turned it into something else — into the same thing that every privileged sect becomes.

This is what happens when religion is established and made official. This is what always happens when religion is established and made official. The privileges that arise from being the official, established sect become the entire substance of that sect. The defense of that privilege replaces every other purpose, meaning or reason for existence until it is all that is left.

Jessica Ahlquist was right. So was Roger Williams.

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  • Anonymous

    I find it appropriate the the appointed gospel reading for this coming Sunday is Mark 8:31-38 which has as its focal point this verse:  But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

    Personal fantasy:  Attend a Cranston school board meeting and say to all of those followers of Jesus, “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

    I guess I forgot that line in the Beatitudes that says, “For you shall know them by the banners they hang in gymnasiums.”

  • But Fred, don’t you see that the tribe is right? That the tribe is on the side of the Truth?

    That banner isn’t a ‘battle flag’, it’s an announcement, sharing the Good News!

    OK, maybe it is a ‘battle flag’, but that’s because there’s a battle going on for eternal souls!

    Even if you reject the idea of Hell, isn’t it more immoral, more sinful, to let innocent people wander into sin, to allow the unenlightened to suffer in darkness and ignorance? Are you not commanded to go forth and spread His word?

    The science classroom has a poster of the Periodic Table of Elements, and we allow that because it’s true. So too, that banner proclaimed a higher Truth, a vital truth that all our young people should be exposed to!

    Maybe that banner does seperate the students and the teachers into two groups, but let’s call those groups what they truely are: the Saved and the Damned!

  • Anonymous

    I hope she stays safe, and I hope things settle down her in hometown. It’s depressing as hell that some, too many, Christians will sooner sprout wings than look after the needy but love death threats, on children no less.

  • Ian needs a nickname

    Even if you reject the idea of Hell, isn’t it more immoral, more sinful, to let innocent people wander into sin, to allow the unenlightened to suffer in darkness and ignorance?Some people impose their religions on others because “it’s for their own good.”  Their sinful behaviour is causing them more harm than any punishment we can dish out.  They need the truth so badly that we’ll beat it into them if necessary.  What alarms me most about this horrifyingly misguided concern for wayward “sinners” is that it’s relatively benign compared to the more militant variety of dominionism.  

    Some people impose their religion on others because the other is the enemy.  The enemy is willfully sinful, and wherever we see them standing in the way of God’s work we need to smack them down.  This is what they’re doing to Ahlquist.  Her congressman, the people shunning her and the people threatening her do not care about her soul.  They are not trying to chastise her in the hope that she will come to see that the banner was a good thing all along.  She is “an evil little thing” to them, not a soul to be saved but a thing to be squished.

  • friendly reader

    A prayer that included an appeal for divine help “to be kind” ceased to have anything to do with either kindness or prayer

    Well there ya go, you took down the prayer asking God for aid to be kind, and everyone stopped being kind! Stopping school prayer destroys schools! QED!

  • Anonymous

    It’s a prayer that reflects universal values. Everyone, Christians and non-Christians, should be able to appreciate these values.

    Values that, unfortunately, it seems that no one else at this school seems to have taken to heart. Here’s a hint — Christ didn’t command Christians to only be kind to people who agree with your political views.

    The prayer itself says “help us to be good sports, to smile when we lose as well as when we win.” They lost the court case. Where are the smiles?

    This is religion as it’s practiced in too much of the world — where you only take the safest, most comfortable positions available and only take a “brave stand” when the other side is made up of a single sixteen year old girl.

  • I look forward to a time when more people try to be like Jesus.  I hear a lot of talk about it, but folks seem more concerned about a banner than being like him.

  • Matri

    but folks seem more concerned about a banner than being like him.

    They are more concerned with appearing to act like him than actually acting like him.

  • The thing that just amazes me is that a Democrat is acting the way I’d expect a Republican to do here. Didn’t that dude realize that the majority of votes against the Istook Amendment were from the Dems in Congress?

  • Dan Audy

    I love her comment used closing out the NYT article

    Does she empathize in any way with members of her community who want the prayer to stay?

    “I’ve never been asked this before,” she said. A pause, and then: “It’s
    almost like making a child get a shot even though they don’t want to.
    It’s for their own good. I feel like they might see it as a very
    negative thing right now, but I’m defending their Constitution, too.”

  • My best friend experienced this as a sophomore in high school. At the time we were both very conservative Christian columnists for the school newspaper. He decided to write an article about how Contemporary Christian Music tends to be, well, not very good, and unwittingly ignited a witch hunt the likes of which we had never seen before. The president of Youth Alive (not knowing he was my best friend) told me he wanted to bash his teeth in. We both received death threats. Someone tried to run him over in the school parking lot. People started calling him “the Antichrist.”

    The irony is that a lot of his most vocal detractors didn’t even listen to Christian music. As you might have already guessed, my friend did not long remain a Christian in this environment.

  • arc

    The remark about it obviously not being about this or any prayer per se but rather about it being a line in the sand to fight over is a good one.

    It wasn’t lost on me that these sorts of things are more battlegrounds than anything else.  I just hadn’t seen how obvious it was until reading Fred’s remark just now.

  • Patrick

    The banner was a symptom, not the disease.  Establishment cases don’t make Christians viciously attack children.  Christians viciously attack children for the same reasons they violate the establishment clause.

  • Quinnthebrain

    (And, given that this was in Rhode Island, every history teacher who walked by that banner without tearing it down in the name of Roger Williams ought to be fired for incompetence.)

    Fred, if I didn’t already have a sizeable intellectual crush on you, this line would have done it. 

  • Enoch Root

    The threats against Ahlquist demonstrate perfectly why the minority must be protected from the majority. This also underlines Fred’s point about how the majority suffers in this kind of circumstance: They are driven somehow to hate a teenager who believes in their rights. They are damaged by their own power.The problem isn’t that people are ‘bad Christians’ or whatever. The problem is that people are small, by default. People who haven’t opened up their own personal preferences window and moved the sliders around will, generally speaking, behave in the small way. They won’t even acknowledge that there’s a non-default setting, much less that it’s a valid way to live.

  • These Christians aren’t that way because they’re Christians — they’re that way because they’re part of the dominant group. Whenever a political minority asserts its right not to be trampled by the majority, the majority reacts with threats and violence. 

    In 1822, James Madison wrote: “Notwithstanding the general progress made within the two last centuries in favour of this branch of liberty, and the full establishment of it in some parts of our country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Government and Religion neither can be duly supported. Such, indeed, is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded against.”

  • Quinnthebrain

    Yeah, but what did Madison know about the Constitution?

  • Anonymous

    “Our Heavenly Father,” the prayer begins, “grant us each day the desire to do our best, to grow mentally and morally as well as physically, to be kind and helpful.” It goes on for a few more lines before concluding with “Amen.”

    Perhaps the incensed citizens can take a break from their persecution of the teenager who dared to exercise her Constitutional rights — perhaps they can take a break from their anger and actually contemplate the meaning of the prayer.

  • Anonymous

    The prayer of the non-Christian:

    “O Jesus, please save me from your followers.”

  • Anonymous
  • FangsFirst

    I became enamoured of the term “Christianist” (which I swear I saw here) as it describes someone who worships “Christianity” (in some sense) as opposed to “Christ.”

    It’s not about being “Christ-like,” it’s about being “Christian”–which may or may not mean the same thing.

    …It often doesn’t.

  • MaryKaye

     I have been morosely reading a lot of reports from the American Association of University Professors about administration/faculty conflicts at various universities, and it seems that there’s a common pattern.  You get wicked acts when (a) the administration has come to think it has, and is entitled to, the final say in everything, and (b) at the same time it is under some kind of (usually external) pressure or threat.  A university maybe has some issues with politics and freedom of speech.  Then Katrina hits–and suddenly it has HUGE issues.  Or there is a budget crunch, or some adverse publicity.  The threatened administration reacts by trying to eliminate troublemakers and increase its control, and things spiral downward.

    It seems as though the US right wing is in a similar situation.  It believes it ought to be in control (a common reaction, I felt, to Obama’s election was “this can’t happen!” shock) and yet it is under enormous pressure, both from the left and from external forces such as the world economy, changing US demographics, etc.  And somehow the instinctive response is hyper-controlling behavior and squashing of dissent.

  • Anonymous

    “O Jesus, please save me from your followers.”

    Reminds me of this:

  • arc
  • hagsrus

    Florists refusing to deliver roses? And she wasn’t even trying to celebrate a samesex marriage!


  • hagsrus

    Memory from childhood many many years ago: a religious procession of some kind involving children – first communion, perhaps – accompanied by men who had looked upon the wine when it was red, freely offering to punch in the mouth any passing spectator “to teach them a bit of respect”.

  • Anonymous

    The prayer itself says “help us to be good sports, to smile when we lose as well as when we win.” They lost the court case. Where are the smiles?

    Silly, they took the banner down. There’s nothing to remind them how they’re supposed to behave when they lose!

  • Hoys

    Very astute post! I would even extend the sentiment of the last paragraph:
    “The privileges that arise from being the official, established [X] become the entire substance of that [X].” (See racism, sexism, patriarchy, colonialism, classism, caste, etc.)

  • Anonymous

    Fred, you are *very* American (and very Baptist). Establishment does not do what you claim to any & all religions. Some time living in England, Scotland or Denmark would be very instructive.

    Certainly if Cranston got to establish a religion, it seems likely it would be an oppressive established religion.

  • Nathaniel

     You didn’t read the other bit, where he said “And, just as bad, such privileging is extremely corrosive to the
    privileged sect, pushing it toward either impotent irrelevance or toward
    inquisitorial coercion.”

    The Church of England would be the first choice.

  • Kevin Alexander

    You describe very well the essential flaw in what most people consider the morally perfect Golden Rule.
    Some people think that ‘If I were wandering around in sin, I would want someone to save me so me saving others, by force if necessary, is doing God’s work’

  • Tonio

    I don’t share Fred’s concern over a privileged religion being pushed into impotent irrelevance, because religion and religious freedom are ultimately about the individual and his or her conscience. (And I agree with Fred that employers who oppose contraception have no standing to deny coverage to their employees.) Although church/state separation involves protecting minorities from majority tyranny, the principle would be little different if we were talking about 300 million personal “religions” instead of organized ones.

    The background below suggests that many Catholics and fundamentalists are incapable of understanding this, because they see religion as being about how society should be ordered.

  • Anonymous

    Right.  Because we aren’t seeing Christians in the UK get upset about the fact that they were just told that official meetings shouldn’t be opened by a Christian prayer, and we aren’t seeing MPs put forth legislation to reverse that judicial decision.

    Oh wait – yeah we are.  Fred’s point wasn’t that established religion becomes oppressive, it’s that established religion ceases to be about the religion and starts to be about perpetuating the privilege of the members of the established religion.  And anything that threatens that privilege gets attacked, even if the attack is something that to an outsider looks like an ugly violation of their own purported religious beliefs.

  • Anonymous

     Here’s the link…

  • Patrick

    “These Christians aren’t that way because they’re Christians — they’re
    that way because they’re part of the dominant group. Whenever a
    political minority asserts its right not to be trampled by the majority,
    the majority reacts with threats and violence. ”

    That’s certainly a human tendency.  And when dominant groups create religions, they enshrine that tendency into their holy books, and work that tendency deeply into their theology.

  • Anonymous

    We do not often enough see Fred’s point about the baleful effects of establishing a religion on the religion which is being established.   This can go several ways.  It can result in oppressive tribalism of the majority, as in the Rhode Island case, but it can also lead to spiritual irrelevance.  If your taxes go to support the church, then once you have paid your taxes you have fulfilled your duty:  no need to actually get out of bed on a Sunday morning.   Neither is there any need for the church to provide anything beyond the cultural imperatives such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. 

    I commend the semi-autobiographical novel “The Way of All Flesh” by Samuel Butler.  He was a 19th century Church of England vicar until he got out and emigrated to New Zealand to raise sheep.  In the book he goes for years as a vicar without encountering actual religion, and with neither he nor anyone who mattered noticing or caring.

  • Tonio

    I’m somewhat concerned that atheist groups have been the most visible on this specific issue. But I don’t blame them, I blame the media and the spin by the opposition. Any ideas on how we can emphasize that there are millions of Christians like Fred and others here who recognize that Ahlquist is right?

  • Tonio

     What you describe is religious affiliation becoming a civic obligation. By “spiritual irrelevance,” are you talking about the organized religion itself, or are you suggesting that adherents simply stop being spiritual at all?

  • Otrame

    I agree. I ranted for thirty minutes about Roger Williams to a friend while we talking about this. Fred encapsulated my entire rant in a single sentence.

    And yeah, I’ve been in love with Fred for a while now. I’d offer to have his babies if I wasn’t old and he wasn’t married.

  • Tonio

     Sorry, I meant to ask if you were suggesting that adherents would stop being spiritual.

  • Otrame

    Well, saying so a lot would help. Letters to the editor, comments on blogs demonizing people like Jessica (though the latter can be a problem, since such blogs often do not allow comments that disagree with the blogger to be posted–which, in my opinion, tells you everything you need to know about them).

    Atheists have been at the forefront on this because we consider that maintaining the seperation of church and state is vital to freedom. It helps that we don’t have to worry about co-religionists attacking us if we stand up for what is right.

  • Jenora Feuer

     It’s worth noting (and has been mentioned in many of the other articles about this case) that from the very start of this, the school was given the option to keep the banner in place as long as the “Our Heavenly Father” and “Amen” parts were removed, so it would become a non-denominational ‘blessing’, but still encouragement to do their best.

    The school refused, preferring to go through a court case any sane lawyer would have known was doomed and layering on the persecution complex instead of taking the legal and easy way out they had been given.

    That in itself tells you that, public protestations to the contrary, for many people it was all about (their version of) religion and not the ‘tradition’ of the banner.

  • Anonymous-Sam

    But don’t you see? Christians are being persecuted! They’re the ones being oppressed here! :P

  • StealthMarmot

    It begins “Our heavenly father” and ends in “Amen”

    Even without that it implies pleading to a divine force of some sort, implying an anthropromorphic deity that listens and cares about prayers. This is pretty clear bias of certain types of religion.

    What good is an amendment if people don;t insist on it being enforced?

    Could the “prayer” be adapted into a school motto? One that stated the same virtues without pleading to a deity or mentioning a god at all? Sure! And it would be constitutional.

    But I am willing to bet even if it were, people would still complain about how they took God out of their school.

  • I don’t know. While no doubt the judge decided correctly it seems like not much to get upset over either way. It’s not like the banner is advocating premilleneal dispensationalism or substutionary atonement, or kneecapping Brights. The banner in question says, Let’s do our best, be helpful to classmates, be good sports, and value true friendship. If it didn’t say “SCHOOL PRAYER” the top and “AMEN” at the bottom, it would just sound like the usual well-meant advice to young folk. Can we worry more about content and less about form? 

    Is there a difference between an Atheist saying nobody can use the word “God” in a public place, and a Bishop saying nobody can use contraception if a Catholic is involved?

  • Patrick

    See now, this is the sort of thing I get all het up about…

    No one is saying that “nobody” can “use the word God” in a “public place.”  They’re saying that government institutions can’t promote religious messages.

    Students, meanwhile, will continue to be able to talk about God all they like.

    I feel like this is clear enough that I am justified questioning the motives of people who don’t understand.  Their motives, or at least the motives of the people they trust and listen to on this subject, who are sorely misleading them.

  • Tell me, what is the problem with the banner except that it uses the word “Prayer”? Is there anything objectionable about telling kids to be good sports and helpful to classmates? As I said no doubt the judge decided rightly under the law, but speaking of good sports ….

  • Marshall – do you really consider “SCHOOL PRAYER: Heavenly Father, grant us each day the desire to X, AMEN” entirely equivalent to “Be X”?

    If so, great… we can replace that sign with an entirely equivalent (according to you) sign that tells kids to be good sports and helpful to classmates and so forth, and everybody’s happy.

    If not, then it ought not surprise you that other people don’t consider them equivalent either.

  • Patrick

    The message in the prayer doesn’t have to be objectionable for the fact that its a prayer being offered by the state to be objectionable.  This is not a difficult subject, nor have liberals been unclear about it, nor has constitutional law been unclear about it.  This is basic civics.

    And thank you for backing down on the “nobody can use the word God” nonsense.  I appreciate you ceasing to bear false witness.

  •  I am a Christian and I’ve prayed that one a couple of times. 8-)