Dr. Fred Craddock tells about the time he was teaching Homiletics and New Testament at a small school in Oklahoma. They were hanging on by their financial fingernails. The president of the school said to Fred, “I’m in touch with a man who is concerned about improving the quality of preaching in Oklahoma. He has a lot of money and I believe he’s going to give a sizable gift to our preaching program. Will you go with me to talk to him?”
Fred was delighted to go, so Fred and the president went to visit the man at his office. He was ready for them; he had the gift ready. He said, “Before we finish this I think we ought to pray.” Neither Fred nor the president prayed. The man prayed. He had the money and he had the prayer. Amen.
He took his pen and was about to sign the check. His lawyer had everything prepared. This was a large donation. But before he signed he looked up and said, “Now, this all goes for the preaching program?” They said, “Yes sir, that’s what it goes for.” He started to write, but paused again and said, “Now, you do understand, none of this goes for women or for blacks.”
The president stood up. Fred stood up. The president said, “I’m sorry, we cannot accept your money under those conditions.” They started to leave. Then the man said, “Well, there are plenty of schools that will.”
And he was right. That man had given to schools and churches over sixty million dollars, but not a penny to women or African-Americans.
In the same way that this wealthy Christian wanted to restrict the preaching ministry to white males, there are many Christians today who would like to restrict religious freedom to Christians.
There are those who get all worked up over the prohibition of public prayer in educational institutions (there is no prohibition on personal prayer; those who pray, however, cannot require others to pray with them). Yet many of the same Christian people who are pushing for prayer over the loud speakers in public schools would get worked up to a frenzy if a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist led in public prayer.
They want public prayer in school, but only a particular kind of prayer: Christian prayer. But that’s not religious freedom. Being an American is not to be equated with being a Christian and vice versa.
This is why patriotic services make me nervous. Waving the American flag and singing “God Bless America” in the house of worship comes close to idolatry. The Christian view is that “God so loved the world” that he sent Jesus to show us the way into truth and life.
I am glad to be an American and in many ways I’m very patriotic, but authentic Christianity calls for God to bless the world, not just America.
Even if I want to argue that my Christian faith is superior to all other religions and philosophies of life, religious freedom means that I also allow others to believe and argue that their faith or philosophy is superior to mine. Religious freedom means that the freedom I want for myself I concede for everyone else.
When Christians gather as a community of faith for worship, they are there not to pay allegiance to their country (however appropriate that may be in other contexts), but to offer allegiance to the Christ whose kingdom transcends all national, political, and territorial boundaries.
Christians in worship kneel, not before the American flag, but before the cross, the Christian symbol for true spiritual freedom, representing the wisdom and redemptive power of God.