NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)—-Religion “can’t be forced on anybody by the government or anybody else,” said Albert Pennybacker as the nation’s tussle over moral values aired once again.
Pennybacker, executive director of the Clergy and Laity Network that describes itself as opposing “the cynical rhetoric of the conservative right,” told a “Hardball with Chris Matthews” audience in Nashville, “We’ve begun to understand that we are a religiously diverse country and that we have different understandings of the nature of God and we can’t inflict this on each other.”
Several evangelical leaders participated in the hour-long MSNBC show with Pennybacker and others with opposing views, alongside several individuals representing minority faiths.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, took issue with Pennybacker, pointing specifically to the previous day’s Supreme Court rulings that Ten Commandments displays in American courtrooms are unconstitutional but those displayed on public grounds are acceptable.
“There are those that want to exclude even the acknowledgement of God,” Perkins said. “Seventy –- over 70 percent -– of the American people have no problem with the Ten Commandments being on public property. But yet five members of the Supreme Court have decided for the rest of the nation that that is not going to happen if, in any way, their intent or motives can be questioned.”
Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore also weighed in on the Supreme Court decision.
“I think that it’s a devastating blow to Christianity for a court to tell people they could do something as long as they didn’t profess a belief in it,” said Moore by satellite hookup for the June 28 broadcast from Nashville’s Two Rivers Baptist Church. “[This case] wasn’t about separation of religion or something; it was about God…. We are a nation established on a particular God, and to deny that God is to deny our organic law.”
Though the panelists agreed that the days of formal Bible reading and formal prayer time in public schools will not likely return, evangelicals asserted that Christians should still have the same basic rights as other faiths.
“Evangelical Christians and other people of Christian faiths, regardless of their faith, don’t want to be ghettoized and they don’t want to have to check their Christianity at the door when they go into the marketplace and into politics,” said Bobbie Patray, president of the Eagle Forum’s Tennessee organization.
Jerry Sutton, senior pastor of the host church, spoke from personal experience of being asked to pray in public settings “but don’t use the name Jesus.”
Sutton said as a Baptist preacher, he will always use the name Jesus when he prays but that he would never expect a friend who serves as a rabbi to do so.
“If you’re asking him to pray, he prays his way; I pray my way,” Sutton said.
Concerning the Supreme Court’s stance on the Ten Commandments, Patray noted, “I thought it was very schizophrenic…. The Ten Commandments are the Ten Commandments. And they’re the basis for our law in our country and played a huge role in the founding documents and the way that the founders thought about our country. And to say that you can just sort of bless them in one way and say they’re OK and then, in another setting, they’re not OK, they are what they are.”
The question of the rights of the minority frequently came up throughout the program and originated with author/speaker Tony Campolo, Eastern University professor emeritus of sociology.
“The problem that I have is that a democracy is not where the majority rules, but where the rights of the minority are protected,” Campolo said. “And I worry about a government that imposes itself on a minority against its will…. [T]hat’s the real problem in a democracy.”
Reza Aslan, a Muslim author, acknowledged that the United States was founded on “a Christian pluralism … out of necessity and a response to the diversity of faiths that founded this country.”
“[But] we’re not a Christian pluralist country, we’re a religiously pluralist country,” Aslan said.
“It is a matter of sensitivity to the complexity of our life,” Pennybacker said. “I don’t want any school district anywhere to do those things that exclude and offend fellow Americans who are not Christian and who are not part of a predominant culture.”
But the discussion quickly turned when a woman from the audience raised a question.
“My thought is, you’re sitting here defending the rights of the minority,” she said. “Whatever happened to the rights of the majority? We seem to have forgotten this among some of the people here on the panel.”
With a tinge of cynicism, Aslan bristled at the notion that the rights of the majority of American citizens are endangered.
“I think that most Americans would be shocked to think that somehow Christianity is under attack in this country,” Aslan said. “Christians are doing just fine. There are certain issues, anecdotal issues, in which perhaps there are religious freedoms being stepped upon. But I think it is absurd … to think that the majority has no rights or that somehow Christianity is an oppressed faith.”
Perkins, Patray and Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, all pointed out recent stories of Christians’ rights being violated: An elementary school student banned from singing a Christian song in a non-state-sponsored talent contest. A Knoxville boy stopped from bringing his Bible to read at recess and sent home as punishment. Young students stopped or ridiculed for saying a prayer over their food at lunch in the school cafeteria.
“What about the schoolchildren in California that were forced to wear Muslim attire and read from the Koran …?” Patray asked. “If that was done and if it had been Christians, people would have gone bananas over that.”
Land also countered Aslan’s statement on Christians’ rights.
“I think that Christians are probably better judges of whether they’re being discriminated against and persecuted then people who aren’t Christians,” Land said. “There is no question that there is discrimination against Christians in this country in the public sector all the time.”
Land stated that Christians “have a right to decide, along with other citizens, public policy. And if our views on these issues, if our moral values on these issues are based upon our religious convictions, we have the right to bring these religious convictions to bear.”
Perkins said the church “historically has been at the center” of the nation’s important debates, “and we’re not trying to exclude anyone of any persuasion.”
“But what we’re saying is that Christians, evangelicals, those people of faith have every right to participate in this process,” Perkins said. “And we’re seeing a growing hostility, really government-sponsored, like what we saw from the Ten Commandments decision yesterday, towards a Judeo-Christian heritage in this country.”