Rant and Chant

Ironically, while the Supreme Court was debating the role of religion in American public life and whether the monuments of the Ten Commandments could stand on public property, one group of Americans has settled the question for themselves. Medical students in Boca Raton, Florida, recently filled their classroom with the smell of incense and the sound of ancient chants. They lit candles and spoke about the body being the "temple of the soul." And they did it all "on a state university campus, in facilities funded with . . . tax dollars." Did I mention that all this chanting and candle-lighting was in accordance with Buddhist ritual? You didn't really think that it would be Christian, did you? The rites followed the final exam in Gross Anatomy on the Florida Atlantic University campus. Students, led by a professor, used them to pay their respects to the four cadavers they had used in class. What the Palm Beach Post called a "solemn closing ritual" ended with the exhortation to "go out and make a new world." The obvious question here is: What if Christian, not Buddhist, rites had been used? As columnist Terry Mattingly asked, how would the university have reacted if "rose incense" and "Byzantine" or "Gregorian" chant had filled the air? What if students had been told to "go in peace to love and serve the Lord"? I'm not begrudging Buddhism its place in the public square. Nor I am particularly bothered by the obvious double standard. What does bother me is the denial that there is a double standard. The question of "whether or not to welcome religion to the public square" is really about whether or not to welcome Christianity to the public square. As the rites in Boca Raton demonstrate, nobody is worried about Buddhism's undue influence on our public institutions. Part of the reason why is that what usually passes for Buddhism in American popular culture has already been modified to suit American tastes. Whereas in classical Buddhism salvation consists of escaping the cycle of death and rebirth, Americans revel in the possibility of reincarnation -- 25 percent believe in it. While the Buddha believed he had been a monkey and a goose in previous lives, Americans all think that they were Pharaohs or princes or kings. This pre-digested kind of religion doesn't threaten the cultural status quo. On the contrary, it props it up by providing Americans with a way to feel "spiritual" without changing the way they live or abiding by any religious commands. Christianity, on the other hand, does threaten the status quo and does make demands. Allowing the Christian position a fair hearing can change the course of our society. Look what William Wilberforce, the Christian leader, and the American abolitionists did to the slave trade. And in fighting that villainy, Lord Melbourne rose on the floor of the House of Lords and famously said, "Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life." As in Wilberforce's day, there's no shortage today of Lord Melbourne's. And what they mean by "religion," of course, is Christianity. Thank God in Wilberforce's day, it did not stop them, because Christians brought an end to the slave trade. And Christians must have the courage to stand for their views today, notwithstanding the double standard.


Chuck Colson


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