Recently, Rutherford County Commissioner Steve Sandlin inserted a rogue Christian prayer during the dedication ceremony of a new county school. It was not part of the program. It was reminiscent of the young valedictorian, Roy Costner, who ripped his pre-approved speech in two and proceeded to share his Christian testimony at his South Carolina high school’s graduation ceremony.
In both cases Sandlin and Costner were met with erupting applause and lauded as heroes. Many said that they were proud of them for standing up for their faith; that what they did was “impressive.” Tennessee State Rep. Mike Sparks, a Republican from Smyrna, praised Sandlin’s courage: “I applaud Commissioner Sandlin for praying over those students and praying over the school. I think we need more of it this day. If there’s ever been a time in our history in which we need to be on God’s side, it’s now.”
For those who do not appreciate this kind of thing, allow me to help you understand why people do this. It is clear that Sandlin, Costner, and their devotees justify little insurgences such as these because of the greater good that the community will reap. The key to understanding this is seeing what they see. We need to know what is at stake for them.
First, they know full well that what they’re doing is disrespectful to all others whose beliefs do not match theirs. They are intentionally hijacking a public ceremony and injecting it with personal and private religious content for a noble reason. They know it is not a kind thing to do, but neither was Jesus’ overturning of the tables, so it remains a Christlike act. Secondly, they’re doing it for the betterment of the polity, thus it is deeply patriotic. Never mind that our forebears left a theocracy to flee religious bullying, and that Jesus specifically condemned public prayer, instead advised to lock one’s self in a closet and personally sought secluded places to pray in solitude.
But the real reason they did has to do with keeping God happy (or what they call “glorifying God.”) The Bible illustrates over and over that people suffer when they ignore God. In the theology of divine retribution, tragedy is an indication of God’s disfavor. This naturally leads to a need to find blame. From Job to Jonah to Jesus, when tragedy struck the question was always, “Who sinned?” The underlying assumption is that God’s good world is supposed to work. People are not supposed to be blind; storms are not supposed to be destructive; we are not supposed to get sick and die. And when these things happen, it’s thought to be an indication that we’re out of God’s will, that God is not on our side.
Christianity is not alone in this line of thinking. For millennia, humanity has interpreted difficulty and hardships as the workings of an angry, offended God. To win back his favor and convey sincere penitence, sacrifices were offered to lift the curse—the more precious the sacrifice, the more sincere the penance. Perhaps this is why children were the ultimate sacrifice.
In contrast, the “sacrifice” that Sandlin and Costner made seems small. But we’re starting to see what would motivate a person to step out of their comfort zone, risk controversy, and rock the boat—it’s a way of getting God’s attention. What could be more valiant? God sees the hero “standing in the gap” between his anger and humanity’s sin, fending off God’s wrath, and demonstrating that ‘there are still those who care about you.’ The fact that what they did was rude is part and parcel to sacrifice. Sacrifices were an ugly, bloody mess and cost their performer greatly—by design. Surely this is how the Westboro Baptist folk view their hideous behavior. It’s a tremendous act of love to care that much for America, is it not? With all the difficulties that our society is experiencing, obtaining God’s blessing is tantamount. Given such high stakes, it’s surprising that we don’t see even more radical religious demonstrations. Of course, nothing will ever beat 9/11.
But what do these public demonstrations say about God’s character? His jealousy for our full attention and exclusive worship paints a picture of a deeply insecure and needy patriarch. His threatening, love-me-or-else fear mongering smacks of an abusive, controlling wife-beater, whose “love” is entirely conditional, who throws tantrums and hurts people when he doesn’t get his way. And just when we start to notice the emperor is naked, we’re told to trust in him with all our hearts, lean not on our own understanding, and in all our ways pay tribute to him.
Fortunately, such a God is a counterfeit, man-made superstition. The real solution for America’s woes is to put on our big-boy pants, get over our fear of ourselves, each other, “god,” life, death, and responsibility. We waste our energy erecting sides and making sure we’re on God’s side, when neither “god” nor “sides” exist. It’s just us here. No outside force is going to save us. As a species, we’re past the age of looking to Mom or Dad for help. Our failure to launch is evident. We need to repent: “We must increase, and He must decrease.”
If you’re still reading, you realize that, in the spirit of Sandlin and Costner, I just wrote a rogue column that might offend some but is justified because my beliefs can save America, and I’m brave to do so.