More than a decade ago, former Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court installed a massive granite monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama State Judicial Building. Two years later it was removed by court order as a violation of the separation of church and state. Shortly thereafter, Justice Moore was also removed by court order from the Alabama State Judicial Building.
Not long after these events played themselves out across our cable television news shows, Roy Moore’s Ten Commandments monument went on tour. Loaded onto the flatbed of a heavy-duty truck, it went town to town so onlookers could see for themselves this controversial work of stonemasonry. I watched the monument make its first stop in Dayton, Tennessee. This was a calculated move for the organizers of the tour. Dayton was home of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, where many feel Christian America was first besieged.
An atheist was there in Dayton (or “Monkey Town” as it’s called) at that first stop, protesting the monument being placed on display. This man barely escaped with his life. Moore’s supporters, about a hundred I guess, were screaming out for the death of this single protestor. “Shoot him…hang him…put him before a firing squad!” These were all yelled from the crowd. One man speaking of the “godless” protestor said, “I’m glad I didn’t bring my gun. I’d be in jail right now.” The shady and twisted irony was not lost on me. Here were ardent supporters of the Ten Commandments – they had come out on a rainy day to see a stone rendering of them – wishing to violate those commandments as they called for the killing their enemy.
In spite of the threats like those made in Dayton, Tennessee that day, there has actually been less, not more, religiously motivated violence in United States history than in some other places. This has been due precisely because of court rulings like the one that evicted Moore’s rock pillar from the Alabama State Judicial Building. Because a commitment which requires government to remain as neutral as possible toward religion and not endorse any particular religious belief – even Christian belief – is the only environment where true faith can grow and flourish.
Roger Williams, theologian, founder of Rhode Island, America’s first Baptist, and champion of religious and civil liberty a hundred years before the United States Constitution was penned, said communities of faith were like vulnerable, flowering gardens. Governments, on the other hand, were what he called the wilderness. Williams believed that those churches and faith groups that choose to mingle their religion with political power were permitting the wilderness to intrude upon their gardens. As such, they would be manipulated by politicians, policies, and the government, thus compromising on issues of love, justice, and mercy.
Or those same churches would become the manipulators themselves, using political power to force their beliefs on others. Either way, when church and state drank from the same cup, it would be the church that would be poisoned. Roger Williams’ counsel to the Christian church in his day is lasting: Learn to live in the world, but don’t be a part of it. Or he might say, “You can plant a garden in a wilderness without having the wilderness in the garden.”
As Christians, we have the right, privilege, and freedom to live out, practice, and share our faith in this country we love. But we do not have the right to force our faith on others or demand that society at large, endorse our particular religious view. When we as Christians do make these kinds of demands, we violate the spirit of Christ. We lay down the instrument of love for the devices of manipulation, coercion, and force. We let the weeds and vines of the wilderness overtake the garden of faith.
I hope we can continue to tolerate a variety of fruits and nuts in our religious garden; even those we have little taste for. It’s the only way we can maintain a garden at all.