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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What I Want from My Government

Lots of people are wanting things from the government these days. Some neighbors of mine in Point Pleasant Beach are wanting Borough Council meetings to convene with a unison recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, as they have for many years (a practice the ACLU is trying to stop, by means of a recent lawsuit). Speaking as the pastor of a local church, and as a seminary adjunct professor of church history, here’s what I want.

I want the Lord’s Prayer to be banned at public meetings. We’ll continue to recite it every Sunday in our church, with reverence. But, in Borough Hall? No way. Doesn’t belong there.

A couple weeks ago, I was reminded anew of why it doesn’t. I was teaching my seminary church history class about a nearly-forgotten figure from our nation’s past: a Presbyterian minister by the name of Francis Makemie.

In 1707, Lord Cornbury, Royal Governor of New York, threw Makemie into jail. His crime? “Preaching without a license.” And where had Makemie committed this heinous offense? On some street corner? Blocking pedestrians on the sidewalk, to wave religious tracts in their faces? No, it was at a worship gathering in the private home of some friends in New York City.

As the King’s agent in the Royal Colony of New York, Cornbury considered it his duty to promote the Church of England as the established, state-sanctioned religion. “Dissenters” – non-Anglicans – were permitted to gather for worship, but only as the Governor gave them leave to do so. Makemie – an energetic evangelist based in Maryland, who had established Presbyterian churches all over the Middle Atlantic colonies – had blown into town without first asking the Governor’s permission. (Makemie wasn’t forgetful; the omission was deliberate on his part.)

The problem was that Lord Cornbury was a little behind on his legal reading. He either didn’t know, or more likely didn’t care, that Parliament had approved an Act of Toleration eighteen years earlier. That law forbade discrimination against “dissenting” groups (those other than the two established state religions in the British Isles: Anglicanism in England and Presbyterianism in Scotland).

It’s a little hard for us to comprehend, but in that day the now-familiar idea of a religious denomination was brand-new. It all began with the Act of Toleration of 1689. Before then, it was winner-take-all in the religious wars. If your religious group ended up on top for a while (as Lord Cornbury’s Team Anglican did, in England), you were entitled to say to everyone else: “It’s our way or the highway.” In Scotland – which shared the same monarchs, King William and Queen Mary, with England – Makemie’s Presbyterianism prevailed. Whenever William and Mary crossed the border into Scotland, they became Presbyterians – as Queen Elizabeth still does, to this day. No British monarch had ever visited the far-off American colonies, so what spiritual transformation might take place here, in the event of a royal walkabout, was anybody’s guess.

Cornbury was attempting to establish the legal precedent that New York was an Anglican colony, and that – as the King’s agent – he was entitled to personally regulate all religious gatherings. Makemie, who argued before the court that his only license to preach came from God, had just spent 6 weeks in the slammer trying to prove otherwise.

Makemie had his day in court. He cited the Act of Toleration so convincingly that the judge – evidently a person of some considerable backbone, since the Governor was sitting right there – acquitted him.

So, what do I want from my government, three centuries later? What I want is for my government to zealously guard my First Amendment rights, and those of my church community, to practice our religion unhindered. That means – as the First Amendment unambiguously puts it – “no establishment of religion.” A moment of silence is fine, at the start of a Borough Council meeting, if that’s what people want. Yet, I would feel deeply ashamed of my community if our elected leaders were to continue to forget the principles my distinguished Presbyterian forbear, Mr. Makemie, defended for 6 weeks in a dank, New York City jail cell.

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