Making America Safe for Atheism

The Supreme Court has struck another blow for liberty--liberty for the secularist and the atheist, that is. Recently, the Court prohibited the use of nonsectarian prayers in graduation ceremonies in public junior and senior high schools claiming prayers create "peer pressure" on kids to participate, or at least to stand and listen respectfully. Now, I don't see any requirement in the Constitution to avoid peer pressure. And I always thought listening respectfully was exactly the kind of thing we wanted to teach kids, in the name of tolerance. At a typical graduation, you might hear a mayor exhort students about civic responsibility. A local businessman might seek to inspire them vocationally. And a local religious leader--well, what would you expect a religious leader to do?--he might pronounce a benediction over the students or recite a prayer on their behalf. People don't have to agree with what the priest or minister says, any more than they might agree with the mayor's politics or the businessman's financial policy. The First Amendment wasn't designed to protect us from ever listening respectfully to a person we disagree with. What it was designed to do was to protect the free exercise of religious beliefs and to prohibit the establishment of a national church. Many of the early American colonists came from England, where every citizen was required to give financial support to the state church. the church tithes were collected by government officials just like taxes--under threat of legal penalty. And the English government appointed the church's bishops. This is what the American founders were adamantly opposed to. The First Amendment was meant to protect religious people from legal coercion. It was not meant to protect atheists from psychological discomfort or "peer pressure." Why have the courts moved so far from the original meaning of the First Amendment? The answer is not so much legal as cultural: a shift across American culture from an objective view of truth to a subjective view. Americans have come to see truth claims as individualistic and privatized--especially religious ones. They resent any suggestion that Christianity is a universal truth. Judges aren't immune to these cultural attitudes. Like everyone else, judges read the papers, listen to the news, and belong to associations. Eventually the Supreme Court justices, even conservative ones, may absorb the prevailing cultural mood--where it's more important to protect a junior high girl from feeling excluded than to protect America's historical religious heritage. If the cause of this shift is cultural, the solution must likewise be cultural. Beginning in our churches, families, and neighborhoods, we must win over people's hears and minds. We must show them that the political system we cherish--the religious liberties we enjoy--are rooted in a biblical view of the world. The lesson of the recent Supreme Court decision is that is we lose on the cultural front, we will also lose in the courts--even with judges we thought would be friendly to religious rights. We cannot place our hope in the courts. Legal battles will be won only when the church truly acts as salt and light in our culture.


Chuck Colson


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