What is religion?

Those who define the term hold the trump card

Issue: "Surviving the Y2K panic," April 3, 1999

Just suppose that next week sometime President Clinton calls a quickie press conference to announce that he is authorizing the establishment of a new federal department dedicated to the development of a grand new ecumenical Sunday-school curriculum for use in churches, synagogues, and mosques across the country. Well, sorry there; I meant, of course, to refer to Saturday- and Sunday-school curricula.

Even in a day when nothing that comes from Washington any longer seems preposterous, such an announcement might strike the American public as preposterous. Whoa, back up, Mr. President. Now we think you've gone just a bit too far-even with all the experience you've developed in such nuanced expressions of the moral and ethical issues of life.

The fact is, though, that even a veteran Sunday-school teacher like Jimmy Carter might have a tough time selling a federal curriculum to the American churchgoing public. Furthermore, he ought to have a tough time. Somehow, most of us know deep down that it's not a proper function of government to coordinate our so-called religious instruction. We'd rather compromise on a hundred other fronts than on that one. We'll let government be in charge of trade and agriculture and welfare and teacher accreditation and meat inspection and space exploration and a zillion other functions. But never, we affirm resolutely, will we let them tell us what we are to believe religiously.

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Or will we?

The problem is that the government still holds a trump card-or at least throws around enough of its weight to be a very effective bluffer. The trump card is that in so many situations, government and its agencies get to define what they think is "religious" and what they think is not.

In my hometown, for example, local churches shiver and shake these days when they begin talking about expansion of their physical facilities. Zoning experts have decided that while churches should enjoy freedom on some issues, the city will in its wisdom decide just how far such freedom should extend. And in making those decisions, the city has concluded-in writing-that "worship" facilities are uniquely religious, but "educational" facilities are not.

Here at God's World Publications Inc., we've run into a parallel snag with the United States Postal Service. A major part of our publishing task, in addition to WORLD magazine, is the God's World Book Club-a service for families and schools that provides, by mail order, more than 3,500 choice titles for toddlers, elementary kids, and high schoolers. The books are so much in demand that we regularly ship about a thousand packages a day to schools and families in all parts of the country. (If, by the way, you haven't seen a God's World Book Club catalog, write me and ask for a copy; you've missed the best feast of books available for kids available anywhere.)

But I might wish that some eager-beaver inspector for the Postal Service had never seen our catalog. For when he did, he decided that by his categories of thinking, we weren't as "religious" an organization as we claimed to be. Our catalog, for example, included a book for children titled How To Draw Horses-but based on his philosophy of life, such a book is not a religious book. Although our original application to mail at nonprofit rates indicated we were a religious organization, this inspector concluded we were not now living up to that standard. Our nonprofit privileges were therefore rescinded last fall, and our annual mailing costs jumped by over $200,000.

We're now appealing the postal ruling. But even if relief is granted, the very process of having to defend against such a ruling is grating. While the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society go blithely on promoting their humanistic, naturalistic, and even atheistic philosophies of life to millions of children, enjoying the virtually automatic benefits of tax exemption and nonprofit mailing privileges, smaller organizations like God's World Publications operate in growing fear that some third-level bureaucrat somewhere might soon make the discovery that we aren't sufficiently "religious" by his definition to enjoy parallel advantages.

In our scheme of things, of course, all of life is religious-even for the atheist. For all of life is a declaration either of our submission to the truth of God or of our rebellion against it. For us, it's not just when we're drawing pictures of angels or burning bushes that we're thinking "religiously." It's also when we talk about lawmaking and music and families and yes, even when we talk about drawing horses. For all of those activities-along with absolutely everything else in life-are part of God's creation and part of His order of how we live obediently before Him.

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