In his new book, “So Help Me God,” Judge Roy Moore makes the claim that he is bound by his oath as a public official, by the very words “so help me God,” to acknowledge God as the foundation of our government.
The failure to do this, he argues, erodes the “moral foundation of law.” In fact, he writes, such erosion is already at work. Godless atheists and secularists have been busy for the past 50 years trying to remove God from the public sphere.
And in his view they have succeeded. The removal of prayer and Bible reading from schools are symptoms of God’s absence from our public lives. This absence of the divine presence from public life has resulted in increased crime, a rising drug problem, unwed mothers and an overall decline in the moral fabric of our society. Until we return God to the center of our public lives, this decline will continue and get worse.
Such claims have been in the air since the Supreme Court ruled in the 1962 landmark case Engle v. Vitale that teacher-led prayer in public schools violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. There are many faithful Christians who believe there is an undeniable link between this ruling and every social ill that has appeared since.
But if we blame all of our country’s current problems on the failure of the state to acknowledge God, what does that say about the church? After all, isn’t the church a “public acknowledgement of God?” When congregations pray, aren’t they engaged in public prayer? When the Bible is read, doesn’t that count as Bible reading?
To put the matter more pointedly, is the church such an inadequate institution that if God is not acknowledged in the court house and school house God is removed from the public sphere?
People of faith who accept these arguments need to realize how they demean the role of the church in the world. After all, wasn’t it the faith community that was ordained by God to provide settings for worship, instruction, and for breaking the bread of communion? And can you really acknowledge God properly without these things?
This diminished view of the church is evident in Judge Moore’s book. In the one and only paragraph in the whole book that approaches any traditional Christian testimony, Judge Moore says he “walked the aisle,” and later met with the preacher for two hours. That’s it, that’s all we get on the role of the church in his spiritual pilgrimage. From there his life is heavy on the founding fathers but light on the teaching of Jesus.
I am not suggesting that Judge Moore is not a Christian or that his Christian experience is not valid. What I am suggesting is that Judge Moore’s views are part of a growing trend in evangelical Christianity which seems to believe that unless the state acknowledges God, God has not been acknowledged. Such a notion invalidates the role of the church entirely.
Where this takes us, of course, is where we are. The acknowledgement of God that takes place week in and week out in local faith communities is discounted. Meanwhile, there is weeping and wailing because a monument of the Ten Commandments is not on display at the court house.
Jesus said on the occasion of establishing the church that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. I guess we’ll have to hold our breath and hope he was right.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.