“In contemporary American culture, the religions are more and more treated as just passing beliefs – almost as fads, older, stuffier, less liberal versions of so called New Age – rather than as the fundaments upon which the devout build their lives. (The noes have it!) And if religions are fundamental, well too bad – at least they’re the wrong fundaments – if they’re inconvenient, give them up!”
- Stephen Carter – “The Culture of Disbelief” (1993)
Sometimes bad news comes under the radar like the attack on Pearl Harbor. In a June 2, 2006 decision, Robert Pratt, Chief Judge of the Des Moines, Iowa circuit, ruled against Prison Fellowship Ministries in a lawsuit that had been filed against the ministry by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The net effect of the ruling was to declare Prison Fellowship’s faith based ministry unconstitutional. Judge Pratt has given Prison Fellowship sixty days to vacate its work, pending an almost certain appeal.
Judge Pratt’s primary rationale for the ruling was that:
“The program was “pervasively sectarian,” requiring participants to attend worship services, weekly revivals and religious community meetings. Participating inmates also were ordered to “engage in daily religious devotional practice.”
Barry Lynn, American’s United for Separation of Church and State’s executive director, couldn’t contain his joy over the rendered decision:
“There is no way to interpret this decision as anything but a body blow to so-called faith-based initiatives.”
The decision, if upheld, will have a major impact, there’s no doubt about it. For example, the nation’s prison recidivism rate is, according to Prison Fellowship’s president Mark Early, currently running at fifty percent. With 600,000 inmates being released from prison annually, it means that we can count on 300,000 doing something within three years to merit re-incarceration. The recidivism rate among those inmates who have worked their way through Prison Fellowship’s program is, while it’s still functioning, running at eight to eleven percent. The potential of that number is enormous. Think of it. Prison Fellowship’s number, applied to the current release rate, could mean that thousands fewer former prisoners would find their way back into the prison system. It could also mean that thousands and thousands fewer Americans might become victims of crime.
And this is the kind of decision that Barry Lynn is hailing! Apparently, higher recidivism was a much more favorable outcome in his mind than excoriating a fellow Christian. His anti-faith bias is much in keeping with the 2000 Santa Fe School Board vs. Doe decision that brought this withering dissent from Chief Justice William Rehnquist:
“The Court distorts existing precedent to conclude that the school district’s student-message program is invalid on its face under the Establishment Clause. But even more disturbing than its holding is the tone of the Court’s opinion; it bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life. Neither the holding nor the tone of the opinion is faithful to the meaning of the Establishment Clause, when it is recalled that George Washington himself, at the request of the very Congress which passed the Bill of Rights, proclaimed a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.” Presidential Proclamation, 1 Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789—1897, p. 64 (J. Richardson ed. 1897).”
While I have no doubt that Prison Fellowship will survive this battle, regardless of the outcome of the appeal, I’m troubled by this decision. I read the full transcript of the decision earlier today and I can now see clearly just how hostile our courts and culture are becoming to religion, particularly Evangelical Christianity. Having read the decision I can now see that, beyond the logistics and rationales for recent anti-faith decisions, some within our judiciary and other organizations (Americans United, for example) are using the nation’s courts as a testing ground to decide which religious beliefs are normative and which aren’t. The circuit court in Des Moines made what amounted to a theological decision, enshrining its view of normative religion and subtly declaring that Evangelical Christianity was not in the mainstream of any religion, particularly the Christian religion. Lest you think I’m a conspiracy theorist I’ll cite some examples directly from the decision. The first, written early on in the decision follows:
“Throughout this Memorandum and Order, the Court will describe Prison Fellowship and
InnerChange’s theological position, as reflected in its public statements, curriculum, and in practice at the Newton Facility, as Evangelical Christian rather than simply Christian or Non-Denominational Christian.”
About a page later the following judicial opinion was rendered:
“As will be evident from the facts set forth, the religious nature of the InnerChange program is not only distinct from non-Christian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Native American practices, and Judaism, for example) as well as atheist or agnostic practices, it is also quite distinct from other self-described Christian faiths, such as Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, and Greek Orthodoxy. Evidence shows that the Evangelical Christian message is also distinct from the beliefs held by self-described Protestant Christian denominations such as Lutheran, United Methodist, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian, again, to name only a few.”
What was so egregiously out of the mainstream of current Christian thought? The court cited Prison Fellowship’s statement of faith:
“We believe in one God, Creator and Lord of the Universe; the coeternal Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We believe that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, lived a sinless life, died a substitutionary atoning death on the cross, rose bodily from the dead, and ascended to heaven where, as truly God and truly man, He is the only mediator between God and man.
We believe that the Bible is God’s authoritative and inspired Word. It is without error in all its teachings, including creation, history, and its own origins, and salvation. Christians must submit to its divine authority both individually and corporately, in all matters of belief and conduct, which is demonstrated by true righteous living. We believe that all people are lost sinners and cannot see the Kingdom of Heaven except through the new birth. Justification is by grace through faith in Christ alone. We believe in one holy, universal, and apostolic Church. Its calling is to worship God and witness concerning its Head, Jesus Christ, preaching the Gospel among all nations and demonstrating its commitment by compassionate service to the needs of human beings and promoting righteousness and justice.
We believe in the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit for the individual’s new birth and growth to maturity and for the Church’s constant renewal in truth, wisdom, faith, holiness, love, power, and mission. We believe that Jesus Christ will personally and visibly return in glory to raise the dead and bring salvation and judgment to completion. God will fully manifest His Kingdom when He establishes a new heaven and new earth, in which He will be glorified forever and exclude all evil, suffering, and death.”
Once you’ve read the statement of faith I hope you’ll find it eerily reminiscent of statements the Christian Church has made throughout human history, such as the Nicene Creed, which follows:
“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
But, the court didn’t stop there. It ended with this flourish, which was enough to make what little hair I have on my head stand on end:
“Evangelical Christianity tends to be anti-sacramental, which means it downplays the traditional sacramental Christian events—baptism, holy communion or Eucharist, marriage, ordination, etc.—as appropriate ways to interact or meet with God. Along with initial adult conversion, contemporary Evangelical Christianity emphasizes religious experience—the actual experience of God in the believer’s life. Evangelical Christians, therefore, are receptive to overt, actual displays of this experience much like those manifested in Pentecostal Christianity. Additionally, for Evangelical Christians, everything that happens in the world is understood through and interpreted by religious language. For many Evangelical Christians, the belief in creationism and suspicion of evolutionary theory is also present. Finally, the Evangelical Christian stance toward religious institutions is one of suspicion. This is most obviously seen in the worship style. Whereas traditional, organized religious groups, such as Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, and Lutherans, employ a structured, highly liturgical style of worship, Evangelical Christian worship is free form with individual pastors given authority to determine how services are planned. For instance, Evangelical Christians have embraced contemporary music forms and multi-media presentations.”
I’m sure that Judge Pratt would insist that he made his decision in the matter based on the merits, and would be able to provide enough legal smokescreens to prove his point. I don’t for a moment believe him, nor do I believe in the good will of Barry Lynn and the folks at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. What the decision says, clearly, is that anyone else who takes their faith as seriously as Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Intelligent Design proponents, and others who actually have the temerity to believe in “actual, overt displays” of faith in the public square will have no standing in this nation’s courts. They’re heretics, living and thinking in direct opposition to the prevailing religion, whatever the courts determine it to be. Not only is the decision rendered by Judge Pratt bristling with hostility, it’s bristling with the kind of theological insanity that could effectively shut religion out of American public life and policy.
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