Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Faith Works 9-13-08
Jeff Gill

Politicians at Prayer

With our bicentennial year winding down for Licking County, I’ve been doing a last few presentations of my Chaplain David Jones research, which is (in my opinion) a fun and fascinating look at Revolutionary and early American history through the lens of a Welsh Baptist preacher who pointed many of our earliest settlers to these valleys.

Key to my story is the setting of northern New Jersey in 1772, and the role of “the established church” in the debates over independence.

The reason the Founders were so specific about “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” the first words of the Bill of Rights, was that “establishment” means, essentially, that the pastor’s salary and basic church expenses are paid out of the general revenue. The “state church” is paid for out of everyone’s taxes, and while “nonconformists” and “recusants” and other “separatists” had varying rights through English history to gather and worship on their own, you still paid your church tax like everyone else, and then had to dig deeper to pay for your Welsh Baptist pastor and chapel.

This is still true in England for the Church of England, for the Lutheran Church in Germany and other Nordic nations, and was true for Congregationalists in Massachusetts into the 1830s.

Huh? After the Constitution passed?

Yup, we had a constitutional provision that there would be no national established church, but this being a federal republic, the states could and did have “establishment” in the early United States, Virginia holding onto her Anglican establishment beyond the point where Governor Thomas Jefferson hoped she would let go of such un-liberal institutions.

So Welsh Baptists in Freehold, New Jersey were very open to discussions of freedom and even independence, while fervent Tories loyal to Great Britain, like their Governor William Franklin, Ben’s son, were furious at such “traitorous talk.”

You’ll note, then, that “establishment” has a very particular meaning – taxes going directly to support faith communities – while it is counterbalanced by “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Anxieties all around seem to have been provoked by video footage of the Governor of Alaska, speaking at a youth leadership conference in a church, while referring to the impending deployment of her own son to the Middle East.

It might be useful to look directly at a transcript of what she actually said:

“Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right also for this country,” says Gov. Sarah Palin (in video of the talk posted at the church’s Web site). Pray “that our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God. That’s what we have to make sure we’re praying for: that there is a plan and that plan is God’s plan.”

I have to admit that I’m baffled by what folks are getting into such a lather about. I’ve heard almost exactly those words used in churches where I know the pastor praying is quite strongly against the Iraq war. No one wants to assume that we know the full and precise application of God’s will in any one given situation, but to ask for guidance and the wisdom and strength to follow divine promptings is S.O.P. (standard operating procedure) in the life of faith.

In fact, some weeks back Barack Obama wrote in a note he thought would remain private, but that his campaign confirmed once it appeared in print, after his visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem: “Lord, Protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will.”

Good for him!

Neither of these candidates for high public office are talking about anything even remotely like establishment of religion, and the fact that they have a humble and hopeful understanding of what “the free exercise thereof” looks like is encouraging to a country parson like myself.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your story of prayer in the public square at

Monday, September 08, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack 9-11-08
Jeff Gill

Seven Years, Uneasily Considered

That morning, as the heroic passengers of United Flight 93 began to roll their cart towards the cockpit, I was leaving a jail ministries meeting I had chaired through a long, weary morning, and drove towards Granville.

Peter Jennings was talking, I gathered, about some civil defense exercise on the radio, and then I began to wonder. First, it was too late in the morning for mid-half hour news to be on, and second, this was NPR and Jennings was the anchor for ABC. Huh?

By the time I rolled into the parking by Slayter Center up on campus where I was heading next, it was clearly time to think those words that belonged in history books or movies, but were very unpleasant to consider right in front of me: “this is not a drill.”

Obviously, my next meeting was toast, as we all stood and watched TVs in the commons area, many Denison students around me well versed in New York street names and numbers, as we watched the Twin Towers burn.

And then fall.

We hung onto our denial for some moments – “must have been an internal explosion of fuel,” “the dust sure does obscure . . .” and then we all realized, just before the anchor of the moment spoke the words, that the first tower had fallen. Entirely.

The shock and nausea had not quite sunk in when we saw the first footage of crowds running as if in 79 AD from Vesuvius in the streets of Pompeii. Just when that unimaginable scene had settled into a new category quickly summoned up in our minds, the second tower fell.

As we all know, the day’s terrorist acts were over, but the realizations and recategorizations were not. It did not seem like things were slowing or getting any better for days.

And as we all know, President Bush committed the biggest blunder of his eight years in office shortly after that. He asked us to “keep on shoppin’.”

Look, I understand the need to keep the economy going, and that stopping our economy was one of the goals of the hijack killer thugs, but it was an opportunity missed and more.

I thought of that again just last week on the campus of OSU-Newark, sitting under the bright white awning of the Martha Grace Reese Amphitheater, our State Sen. Jay Hottinger (Rep.) in front of me, State Treasurer Richard Cordray (Dem.) next to me, county elected officials of both parties in the crowd along with so many busy agency directors who no doubt had important business to conduct and maybe even some shopping they needed to do for their families.

But they took time out to help the honor and swear in the dozen-plus newest AmeriCorps members in Licking County and the region around us (and it’s “member,” not volunteers, not employees, as they just get stipends and an education grant on completion of their service).

Positive Balance, the financial literacy program that we’ve had going with AmeriCorps members for two years in our county, has worked so well the state has asked us to take it out to 20 more counties across southeastern Ohio. Actually, Mr. Cordray asked if we could do all 88, and Deb Tegtmeyer, our Executive Director, decided that we could only pull so many rabbits out of the Licking County Coalition for Housing hat. As board chair, I agreed . . . but who knows what the future holds?

What we both know is that this effort doesn’t work without people who decide to make some personal sacrifice for a greater good. AmeriCorps service is something like Peace Corps or Marine Corps or USAID service, and it is at the heart of what this country does best, and we need to do a little more of.

On September 11 of any year, that kind of “Let’s roll” towards service beyond self is what we really ought to honor, and what Americans will welcome being asked to do.

Yes, even more than shopping.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; ask him about Positive Balance or anything else at