5 Easter C – May 2, 2010 – Religion in the Public Square
Next Thursday, May 6, 2010, is a National Day of Prayer … maybe.  President Barack Obama signed the proclamation in spite of the ruling by a US District Judge that the 1952 federal law requiring a national day of prayer was unconstitutional. This ruling was a victory for the Freedom from Religion Foundation which filed the suit back in 2008. The foundation does not want the government involved in religion in any way. At the other end of the spectrum, of course, there are those who believe religion should play a defining role in the affairs of this country … providing it is their religion.
According to the American Religious Identification Survey our society, the USA, is becoming more secularized. Some of the estimates show 15% of the population claims no religious affiliation and the number of atheists has nearly doubled since 2001.
The issue over a national day of prayer begs a bigger question for you and me this morning. How does a republic that describes itself as one nation under God and places trust in God on its currency invoke the wisdom of God from time to time? When is it appropriate for a nation, as a nation, to pray to God? That the government should stay out of religion is one thing. Does it mean that religion, however, should stay out of the public square? If so, would it put the US on a path that is already being experienced in the European Union where any mention of God or religion has been removed from its new constitution. It that where this country is headed?
Paul and Barnabas faced a similar situation as they worked hard to preach Christianity in Anatolia, present day Turkey, in the middle of the first century. That region of the Mediterranean was once called the cradle of civilization. Under Roman rule it was prosperous and secure. The people there lived in a social system that had a theocratic form of government. It combined obedience to the gods (like Zeus and Apollo) with loyalty to the emperor. 4  One can imagine how difficult the challenge was for missionaries to promote Christianity to the Jews and Gentiles who lived there.
Today’s first reading was part of a letter written by Luke the author of the third gospel. It tells of a message that was meant to buoy up the spirits of the disciples who were constantly threatened by those who opposed their message. They were reminded that God had done great things for them and that the door of faith was open to all. Has God done great things for us? To provide new visions and ongoing support for the communities different ministries were established and new elders were appointed.
Organized religions need a booster shot every so often to give them credibility in the larger community. Otherwise we are talking to ourselves. Sometimes outsiders from other religions or nonbelievers can challenge mainline sects to examine who they are and what they do inside and outside their religious group. We are reminded in the psalm today that the kingdom of God is for all ages, for all peoples. However, John in the second reading suggests that in order for a new world to rise the old order has to pass away. It’s an image of a time when there is no more war, poverty, sickness; no more tears and suffering. This seemingly untenable time of peace and justice is the vision of the Church.
There are signs right here in this parish that the kingdom of God will endure for all ages, that there is a future for our church. At Easter we welcomed new members. Over the next few weeks we will baptize infants, we will share the Eucharistic meal with elementary school students for the first time and we will celebrate the holy spirit in the lives of our teenagers. Also, as our high school seniors graduate we trust they will pack their Christian values with them wherever they go. These are good signs, that the Catholic church does have a future.
If you read newspapers, watch TV or listen to the radio lately you could get the impression that Catholicism is the most evil religion on this planet. It is easy for us to be embarrassed to be Catholic. Some even deny it or leave it. There are over one billion Catholics in the world and we are good people. We have to behave like good people and let others know we are good people; that we have a a future. We take wrong turns every so often but we keep going on because we have a vision.
Although these life-cycle events are occasions for families they are significant for us all. They are signals that God has done great things for us and that we are doing great things for one another. We take delight that there is a religious context for our lives, a framework that sustains us in all we do. Thus, religion has a place in our lives, in our country.
Whether next Thursday is officially a national day of prayer or not will not affect who we are and what we do as Catholic Christians. However, we can be concerned about our country becoming so secular that it forgets about the diverse faith traditions that helped to spawn this nation and continue to give it life. The gospel today tells us that Jesus Christ invited us to love one another. This is not a love reserved for insiders — families, spouses, partners — the members of our religion only. Rather, it is a respect for all of God’s creatures and creation as well. According to that scripture, that is how others will come to know who we are and what we stand for. Faith alone without good work doesn’t get anyone very far and can leave an opening for some to protest the role of religion in the public square. To keep religion alive in the public square faith and good work are required.
1 President Harry Truman signed the law in 1952 that each year there should be a National Day of Prayer