Thoughts on the Pastor at Rehoboth Beach and The Star Spangled Banner

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of visiting a special exhibition at The New York Public Library. They had on display the original handwritten draft of the Declaration of Independence, written in Thomas Jefferson’s own handwriting. They also had one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights. The Library did a great job, as always. There was about a 30 minute line, but it went smoothly.

What struck me first was Jefferson’s handwriting. It was neat cursive writing, but it was surprisingly “plain”, not the fancy calligraphy we’re used to seeing in the final copy of the Declaration of Independence, but just a regular man’s handwriting, the kind you might see in an elementary school primer.

Something else I never knew before is that in Jefferson’s original draft, he put in several paragraphs decrying the British government’s support of slavery. In order to get South Carolina and Georgia to sign, these paragraphs had to be redacted in the final version. Jefferson made a point to send out his notes and to underline the parts that had been removed. It was a nice reminder that our Founding Fathers were human, like us, and they struggled with their own sets of deep political problems.

A few days ago, the Senior Pastor of the New Covenant Presbyterian Church near Rehoboth, Delaware, Robert Dekker, applied for a permit but was told that he could not hold services on a public beach. The reason the town manager Greg Feresse gave? “I cannot mix church and state”. Even more ironic, according to a historical marker, this beach had originally been established in 1873 by a Methodist church group originally as a church campground.

When I served on my church board years ago, I would regularly write to the State of New York to request permits for us to hold baptisms on Staten Island beaches. Usually, I’d get a kind reply with approval. But we seem to be in a world now where our free exercise of religion has been supported by the State, to one where it’s barely tolerated, to one where soon it will not be permitted at all.

The phrase “Separation of Church and State” were originally a throwaway line in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association. That’s right, not an atheist group, not a civil liberties group, but a Baptist church. Specifically, this group was worried that the government would interfere with the church, not that the church would interfere with the government. The Danbury Baptists were a minority denomination, and feared that the government, like the government of Britain, would start establishing state-run churches.

This simple line “a wall of separation between Church and State” has been misinterpreted over the years (both unintentionally and intentionally) to mean that government can have nothing to do with religion and vice-versa. A lot of people who would like to see all religious belief disappear from our society use it as a bludgeoning club. Do you believe that homosexuality is not ideal behavior in God’s eyes? Sorry, the government says it’s okay, so you’re a bigot. Do you believe that treating abortion simply as another form of birth control is not the best thing to do? Sorry, the Supreme Court declared it legal and so therefore you must hate women. Do you believe that funding unlimited contraception is not the best use of tax dollars? Sorry, that’s a religious opinion and has no place in public discourse.

Of course, most of the people who tout the “Separation between church and state”, including the administrators in Rehoboth, have a fundamental misunderstanding of what this means. The Constitution says it very clearly: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise whereof”. When the town of Rehoboth denies this church from getting a permit, especially if it freely grants permits to secular groups with similar needs, it’s clearly discriminating based on religion and violating their First Amendment obligations.

Do you see what’s happening here? Those who quietly want to believe in and practice the Word of God are being painted into more and more of a corner. From the first time pilgrim stepped onto Plymouth Rock in 1620 to the time of the “Greatest Generation” of the 1940s and 50s, this nation was one that feared God and kept His commandments, and as such it enjoyed enormous blessings. Sure, not every man, women, and child in the country was religious, but our leaders relied on prayer and on God; more families attended church together than not; and we were a praying nation. On June 6, 1944, General Eisenhower ended his speech with the line “Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”. President Franklin D. Roosevelt also said a prayer for the country the night before.

Look through every Presidental speech before the 1960’s and you’ll see much more than the current platitudious “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America”, whether it’s President Wilson in the Great War telling Congress that “God is helping” the nation, to Lincoln at Gettysburg emphasizing that “this nation, under God…shall not perish from the earth”.

But in 50 short years since the 1950’s and 1950’s, our nation has undergone a fundamental transformation from a religious society to a secular one. A lot of religious leaders have gotten in trouble by suggesting that tragedies such as terrorist attacks and school shootings were “punishments from God” for leaving Him. Personally, I wouldn’t put it that way. But you can’t deny two things: first, that the country has veered away from a lot of the moral principles that once guided it, which happen to be codified in the Word of God, and second, that we’re seeing a lot more horrific things happening to this country. If anyone has eyes to see, let them see if there’s a cause and effect between the two.

The pastor in Delaware has decided to defy the local government and the preach a sermon anyway. Appropriately, he’s calling it “a line in the sand”. This can have a couple meanings, of course. On the one hand, it can refer to stopping the trend of hostility of ignorant government officials contributing to the marginalization of those who believe in God. But the second meaning hearkens back to when Jesus was being attacked by the Pharisees, and instead of yelling back at them, decided to stoop down and draw in the sand. I see the Reverend Dekker’s actions here as following Jesus’s example. He’s not screaming at the top of his lungs, or rounding up gaggles of lawyers, or calling for boycotts or demonstrations. He’s just going to preach a sermon, and if he gets arrested in the process, he’s willing to do that as well.

In the 21st Century, being a Christian is looking more and more like it was in the 1st Century. We don’t need to form underground churches, but through political correctness, secularism, and the name of “tolerance”, our thoughts and words are going to be silenced as much as if we did. I see Pastor Dekker’s example here as being a good one to follow.

If you’re in the Delaware area tomorrow, please consider stopping by Rehoboth Beach at around 9:30 AM to listen to the Pastor’s sermon. And keep the pastor, and religious liberty, in your prayers.

As I always close these hymn devotionals with a hymn, I’ll close this one with our National Anthem by Francis Scott Key. We all know the first verse, but how many of you know the last verse? It says a lot about where we used to be as a country, and how every citizen of the country knew how this land was “heaven rescued”, time and time again. Regardless of what happens in society in this next century, as long as YOU keep this in your heart and teach it to your kids, our nation still has hope.

Happy Independence Day.

O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro’ the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen thro’ the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever when free-men shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation;
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust!”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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