"A religious freedom group is offering pro bono legal representation to any Florida school that is threatened with a lawsuit for taking part in a state reading contest that features a book in C.S. Lewis's 'Chronicles of Narnia' series," according to Jim Brown and Jody Brown of Agape Press. "As part of Governor Jeb Bush's 'Just Read, Florida!' program, students are being encouraged to read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe in conjunction with the December release of the Disney movie. The director of the program, Mary Laura Openshaw, said the goal is 'to get kids reading.'"
"However, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) is arguing that the contest violates the First Amendment because it promotes a 'religious story.' Barry Lynn, director of AU, calls the reading contest 'just totally inappropriate' because the book 'is simply a retelling of the story of Christ.' Openshaw responds that the story can be read without references to Christianity, and children can 'read the book and decide for themselves.' The Alliance Defense Fund has already offered to provide free legal representation to any schools threatened with legal action."
The question of church and state is certainly a hot button issue in this contemporary climate of political correctness in which we find ourselves. Christians who understand the issues surrounding and the implications of state sponsored religion should desire and actually promote a separation of church and state. At the same time, such desire and promotion should not seek to erase God-talk from the public square. Those seeking to rid the schools of books like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe are in error on a variety of grounds. An understanding of biblical principles and the First Amendment is necessary if Christians are to navigate through the maze of cultural and political forces being brought to bear upon this important issue.
First, the promotion of a "religious story" is not prohibited by the First Amendment. What is prohibited is the establishment of state sponsored religion and the squelching of the free exercise of religion. State sponsored religion, the issue in question here, has to do with forcing persons to participate in a religion or denomination against their wills. Forcing school children to participate in a Christian communion service at school would fall under that prohibition. But, the reading of different stories, even a story grounded in a particular worldview, is not prohibited as such reading is not the establishment of religion or forced participation in religious exercises.
Second, by way of elaboration upon the above assertion, all literature is grounded in a particular worldview. The reading of religious stories from a host of world religions is pervasive in public education and has been for years. Even secular stories are grounded in a secular worldview and are in many cases objectionable to some. J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was required reading for me in high school twenty-five plus years ago for example. Such material should be a matter of parental choice even as The Lion, The
Witch, and The Wardrobe is a matter of choice. No one is forcing children to read the story.
Third, in light of the foregoing, these attacks are almost exclusively upon Christian material. The world hates Christ and will not tolerate anything to do with Him if they can usher Him from the public square. No doubt exists that a full frontal assault on multiple fronts is being brought to bear upon Christ and His church. Those fronts include hate crimes legislation and the homosexual agenda, the removal of long standing religious symbols from public display, the banning of certain words in certain arenas such as Merry Christmas (never mind the right to free speech), the ridicule of Christianity and the promotion of all other truth claims as valid by the mass media, the prolific nature and inundation of things designed to offend Christ and those who follow Him, and a number of other issues of which we are all well aware. Of course, these things should not surprise us as our Lord said, "If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you (Jn. 15:18-20a).'"
Fourth, persecution of this nature is not real persecution when compared to three school girls in Indonesia having their heads severed from their bodies simply because they claim Christ, or two school girls shot in the head just a few days later in the same area, or Chinese children just a few days ago being rounded up by the state and having their own lives as well as the lives of their parents threatened if they did not renounce Christianity, or a Christian worker shot to death in front of his family in Sudan recently. At the same time, what is happening in America may be a precursor of such things. Spiritual preparation is vital for all American Christians in light of such prospects. Those of us above twenty-five years of age could not have imagined the political climate we find ourselves in today in this country. Suddenly, real persecution is no longer unimaginable.
Fifth, Christians should seek to promote by all legal and biblical means God-talk in the public square. Freedom to preach the gospel and bring the Christian worldview to bear upon the thinking, culture, political process, and public policy of the nation should be promoted and maintained for the sake of souls and other cultural considerations.
Sixth, while such freedom should be promoted and while sleeping Christians must wake up and engage, we must continue to promote a biblical and constitutional separation of church and state. For one thing, we don't want the majority imposing their religion upon us, and make no mistake; we are no longer in the majority. For another thing, it is unbiblical to impose our religion on others. Coming to Christ must not be coerced but voluntary. Otherwise, persons are not really coming to Christ. They are only cowering in the face of state power. Tyranny is evil in the sight of God, regardless of who is in charge.
Seventh, Jeb Bush is on to something when he proclaims "Just Read, Florida!" Certainly the ability to read and comprehend is the most important educational dynamic an individual can acquire (apart from an apprehension of Christ in an ultimate sense). Christians must also be informed with regard to cited cultural issues and a biblical response. Too many Christians are asleep while too many others seem to be pushing for state religion at least in some form. Blue laws, for example, are a form of state religion and oppression. The answer for the Christian is to read and understand the Scriptures and apply them to his own heart and life in this culture. In the words of Jeb Bush, I hear the faint cry of a young girl, "Tolle Lege (Take up and read)." Upon hearing those words, Augustine took up his bible, read it, and was converted. Let us take up the mantra, "Just Read, Church!"
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About Paul Dean
Dr. Paul Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. He serves as a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors, speaks at several conferences throughout the year, and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. Paul resides in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife and three children.
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