"Keeping Faith and Mourning Private," a Commentary by Christa Byker

April 24, 2007

Author: Christa Byker

Source: Cavalier Daily


RELIGIOUS FAITH meets the public square. For many decades this subject has confounded and tested the American judicial system. From a cross atop Mt. Soledad to the phrase "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, the issue never seems far from our conscience. The impulse, both social and legal, in American life has often been to separate declarations of faith and public life, but not always. In the face of great tragedy, the image or idea of God seems particularly comforting. And so it was last week that we heard, in Virginia and across the nation, public invocations of God in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings.

As one whose life has been rooted in the religious, specifically Christian, impulse, these public pronouncements of faith are neither foreign nor offensive to my ears. But given American sensitivities to the mingling of the public with the religious, public officials who espouse overtly Christian ideas through the invocation of scripture should not be left unquestioned simply because the circumstance is extraordinary. Under a rigorous interpretation of the First Amendment and the doctrine of separation of church and state, public officials should either refrain from religious sentiment all together -- even in times of tragedy -- or should acknowledge their public transgression beyond the precedence of using vague statements such as "God Bless America" on our currency and in public speech.

If strong religious sentiments were poured out during any other large assembly such as graduation at a public school, one might expect eyes to roll or, at least, loud objections. But no atheist or ACLU lawyer in their right mind would challenge the use of religious language in this tragic context. I do wonder, though, for those either offended by or unaccustomed to Biblical scripture, are large secular convocations the appropriate place? And are non-religious peoples' intuitive objections unfairly ignored during times of crisis?

Granted, the organizers of the Virginia Tech memorial service took pains to be tolerant. Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Buddhist religious leaders prayed for the souls of the lost and mourned with the memorial attendees in about five-minute segments during the middle of the ceremony.

Some speakers were more overt in their message.Governor Tim Kaine quoted the gospel of Matthew in reference to Jesus' last cry on Calvary: "My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?" President Bush said during his speech, "In times like this, we can find comfort in the grace and guidance of a loving God. As the Scriptures tell us, 'Don't be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.'" And our own President Casteen looked to the gospel of Luke to draw a comforting message for all of us at the University still grieving. This is not surprising; according to the Adherents, a website dedicated to tracking worldwide religious affiliations, 76.5 percent of the American population professes the Christian faith. Perhaps calling on God and Biblical scripture during times of great tragedy reflect more on the magnitude of the event rather than on our intent. Still, in public space Americans must be more considerate of religious diversity.