Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Counterfeits of Faith

The language of faith is like the supply of money. Print too much currency and it begins to lose its value.

We’ve all heard of grade inflation. Getting an “A” no longer means much when professors begin to hand out top marks indiscriminately, to mediocre students.

The theory of inflation applies to religious vocabulary, as well. When every campaign speech ends with the stock phrase, “God Bless America,” the invocation begins to cheapen. Surely the commandment about not taking the Lord’s name in vain is partly intended to prevent overuse of the word God. The “G” word has to be used sparingly—otherwise we tend to forget that “God” is not God’s name so much as our human name for the un-nameable mystery behind existence.

But the admonition to not take God’s name in vain isn’t just intended to prevent over-use. It’s also supposed to stop mis-use. When politicians profess their Christian commitment at every whistle stop, the language of reverence and prayer, which ought to turn our minds toward the transcendent, becomes just another gimmick for gathering votes. This isn’t like inflation. It’s more like counterfeiting, dealing in false currency.

Maybe that’s why the Founders rarely spoke of their religion on the political rostrum. They didn’t want to pander, or use sacred words and deeds to attain profane ends.

George Washington, for example, during his first term as President, was scolded from the pulpit of Christ Church in Philadelphia by the rector there, James Abercrombie. Abercrombrie upbraided Washington in front of the whole congregation for refusing to partake in communion, and questioned the “unhappy tendency of example, particularly of those in elevated stations, who uniformly turned their backs on the Lord’s Supper.” Washington’s reaction was simple; he stopped going to services on Sundays when he knew the eurcharist would be celebrated. As our first President explained to a friend, “as he had never been a communicant, were he to become one then, it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of religious zeal, arising altogether from his elevated station.” Washington probably refrained from participating in communion because he never fully believed in all the doctrines of the Anglican Church, and didn’t wish to make himself a hypocrite. But regardless of his convictions, he didn’t want to parade his religion to evoke public admiration for his piety. That would be a false use of religion—a counterfeit of real faith.

Interestingly, Washington rarely used the “G” word in his public pronouncements. It’s an example today’s politicians might study and emulate—if they want to restore the value of theological language.

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