Presidents Sing Kum-Ba-Yah?

It’s newsworthy here because it involves a local college president and the president of the United States. And because my wife and a few good friends are graduates of the college.

The president of Elizabethtown College has been invited to the White House to receive accolades for initiatives engaging E-town students in the wider community by participation in various service projects. That’s nice–really. What makes this a bit different from other attempts to display the character of college kids as something more than self-absorbed party animals is that the program is intentionally built on a multi-faith platform, placing students of various religious commitments side-by-side in the projects to be completed. Apparently, the White House staffer who took note of this thinks it more worthy of attention when Wiccans and Muslims distribute food alongside Christians and Jews than when one of the other of these groups does it alone.

It is quite clear that it is not the doing of good things for struggling people that matters to President Obama. It is the multi-faith aspect that is being highlighted at the photo-ops which accompany the visit. Translating this, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the president is making a statement of what religion in America ought to look like. So much for the myth of separation. The “unofficial” position is that religious faiths are to be noted for their willingness to forget about their distinctive beliefs and lauded for their charitable spirit–provided it is exercised in company with others who disagree about the matter of what is true. As long as we can sit around the campfire and hold hands, it’s all good.

Several thoughts run through my mind as I think about the issues raised in this event; not all of them can be easily distilled into a coherent conclusion. I’m very interested in responses to any of the thoughts below–again, noting that they may conflict with one another.

1. The president is really out to set the tone of religion in the nation, and it is to be affirming of religion in general, but not in the specific. The more one insists on a connection between his or her faith and the truth about the world, the less welcome that voice will be. And the same tone seems to be hummed by the college president, who is elated over the presence of all faiths among the student body at a Church of the Brethren school–not to convert them, but to encourage them in their present practice.

2. When it comes to accomplishing the relief of suffering, the immediate effect outweighs the particular motives of those involved in the providing of that relief. And maybe in the process, Christian participants will have the opportunity to demonstrate to the Hindus and Muslims the superior grounding of faith in Christ.

3. All good gifts are from the Father of Lights. They should be shared with any who need them, regardless of any faith at all. Keep all the discussion of those things out of the relief work entirely.

4. When all faiths are viewed as equals, what is really being affirmed is agnosticism, if not atheism. There are undeniably incompatible beliefs about the way the world works, the character of the divine, the nature and purpose of human life, and the direction (or lack thereof) in which the world is heading. To say that these do not matter is to take none of them seriously and so to adopt a practical, if not a theoretical atheism. When all faiths are believed to be saying the same things, none of them are really believed to be saying anything; so score one for the atheists.

This list barely scratches the surface. I’m anxious to read how anyone might respond to it and what might be added.