A Virginia high school teacher has been instructed by school officials that she must remove a Bible verse from the signature of her work email messages. For years, since she was first hired by the district, she has included John 3:16 with her signature. However, the district’s acting superintendent claims that emails sent in her capacity as a school employee “constitute school-sponsored speech bearing the ostensible endorsement of the School Division.”
In his view, the district’s stance avoids a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause which bars government from favoring one religion over another. He added that the district’s determination “is not based on any particular religious viewpoint” and would be made “with respect to any religious expression” incorporated in an employee’s email signature block.
The Christian legal group Liberty Counsel disagrees, pointing to a recent Supreme Court ruling that it was constitutional for a high school football coach to pray on the field after football games and be joined by students in prayer. Liberty Counsel also cited a unanimous Supreme Court ruling that Boston unconstitutionally refused a request to fly a Christian flag on a City Hall flagpole when hundreds of other requests to fly flags of different types had been approved.
At issue is the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In this case, would the school district establish religion by permitting an employee to cite a Bible verse in emails sent in her capacity as an employee? Or by taking its current stand, is it “prohibiting the free exercise thereof”?
This issue is far larger than an email signature. In fact, it goes to the heart of the cultural and spiritual crisis we face today.
A “gigantic global conspiracy against transcendence”
The school district’s position is entirely consistent with the cultural narrative of our day in which religion, to the degree it is tolerated at all, is to be privatized. If you won’t give up your archaic superstitions, at least keep your myths to yourself, or so our secular society thinks.
It is conventional wisdom today that the “separation of church and state” means the “separation of faith and state.” Consequently, despite victory after victory for religious liberty in the courts, it remains the cultural consensus that religious speech must be treated differently than any other kind and must be confined to the personal rather than the public.
In Signals of Transcendence: Listening to the Promptings of Life, Os Guinness writes that we have a “gigantic global conspiracy against transcendence” today “which helps us to be superachievers materially but underachievers spiritually.” I agree.
Satan is happy with this state of affairs. He is willing for us to be happy in this world if such happiness keeps us from the abundant life of Christ here and eternal life beyond. And he is less concerned about religion if it is a means to the end of temporal happiness than if it is our commitment to a transcendent Lord.
Tragically, his strategy is working quite effectively. For example, in The Secular Mind, Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles quotes the poet William Carlos Williams, who knew a woman born in Italy who raised her family in America. According to Williams, she “told me a few weeks ago that it’s become different going to church here than it was when she was in Italy and when she first came here. . . .
“She said to me, ‘It used to be I prayed to God, that I would learn what he wanted from me, and how he wanted me to behave . . . but now I pray to God that he help us with this problem, and the next one—to be a Big Pal of ours! It used to be, when I prayed to God, I was talking to him; now . . . I’m only asking him to help out with things.’”
How to know if God is your king
All across the Bible, God is a king. Jesus began his ministry in Matthew’s Gospel with the proclamation, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). He taught us to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33) and to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). When he returns, his name will be “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16).
For many in our culture, by contrast, God is a “Big Pal” who exists to “help out with things.” How do you know which is true for you?
If God is only your Father, you can disobey him. If he is your Savior, you can trust him for your salvation but reject his word in other areas of life. But if he is truly your king, you have to do what he says.
In fact, the best way to know whether God is your king is to measure the degree to which you do what he says when you don’t want to. When last did you do something you didn’t want to do, or stop doing something you wanted to do, purely out of obedience to Jesus?
The fact is that the more we make God our king, the more we experience his best in our lives. And the more we experience his best, the more we impact our culture with his transforming power and grace.
“When you would guide me I control myself”
Our secular culture, by separating God from life, is missing the life only God can give. Let’s refuse to join them.
In his small but helpful book Intimacy with the Almighty, Chuck Swindoll quotes this Puritan prayer of confession and commitment:
When you would guide me I control myself.
When you would be sovereign I rule myself.
When you would take care of me I suffice myself.
When I should depend on your providings I supply myself.
When I should submit to your providence I follow my will.
When I should study, honor, trust you, I serve myself;
I fault and correct your laws to suit myself.
Lord, it is my chief design to bring my heart back to You.
What is your “chief design” today?