Chuck Colson

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 ?goout 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.

Chuck Colson

Chuck Colson was the Chief Counsel for Richard Nixon and served time in prison for Watergate-related charges. In 1976, Colson founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, which, in collaboration with churches of all confessions and denominations, has become the world's largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, crime victims, and their families.
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