Separation of Church and State: A Case of the Sillies

Some days it’s really hard to find anything much to write about, except maybe the elections, and some days there’s so much to write about that it’s hard to decide which topic to pick. That’ sort of what happened yesterday. There was so much good stuff in the news that I could not make up my mind which one to talk about.

That’s not going to happen today. This morning I found A Town and a Baptist Pastor Vie Over ‘Eternity,’ a New York Times article about a small Southern Baptist church in, appropriately enough, Cathedral City, CA.

Now, theologically speaking, I am about as far from being a Southern Baptist as you can be and still claim to be a Christian, so my defence of the pastor of this church is not based on denominational sympathy. Rather, it is based on my theolgoy of the separation of church and state and my vired on the role of religion in society. For this article, we will start with the mundane and work up to the sublime.

The pastor of the church, im response to some unknown urge, painted the word ‘Eternity’ on the roof the church, and now the city fathers want it removed because it is a distraction/ If you read the whole Times article, you should come to the same conclusion that I did: given the location of the church and the physical nature of the sign, it hardly qualifies as a distraction.

Second, the justification for the requested removal of the sign is an ordinance banning rooftop commercial signs. That raises a less mundane concern: is a church a commercial establishment? In some cases, I would most definitely say ‘yes,’ especially if you look at some of the more popular of the fundamentalist evangelists. These people raise millions of dollars every year. The impression I got, was that this is a relatively poor church.

Now, a city official talks in the article about the use of the sign commercially to recruit new members. Are church members now a commercial commodity, something used to measure the profitability of a curch? I think that’s stretching the point just a bit.

Finally, the pastor commented that he started getting anonymous phone calls complaining about the sign almost as soon as he got back from painting it. Given the difficulty seeing the sign, unless you happen to be flying over the church, and the fact that the caller or callers are unwilling to identify themselves, this strikes me as a clear sign someone has it in for the pastor and/or the church.

So, we come to the sublime. Religious tolerance is morally Good. Religious intolerance is morally Evil. Religious tolerance is also guaranteed by the US Constitution. Seeing as how this church is in the US, the city has no leg to stand on if this goes to federal court, which his lawyer is contemplating. But, first, the pastor has an administrative hearing with the city fathers. Hopefully, they will come to their senses during that hearing and let the sign stay.

Finally, I want to say that I admire the courage of conviction expressed by the pastor. Facing hundreds of dollars worth of fines, he said the church cannot afford that, but he was willing to go to jail instead. “The message is worth standing up for,” he said. “And worth dying for.”

And that is the most sublime element of all this. His message is that people focus too much on temporary things like possessions and not enough on ‘eternity,’ the real focus of religion. His willingness to take such a forceful stand on that makes him a rare treasure in this materialistic world.

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