After the diversions of the conflict over the Ten Commandments monument in the Judicial Building in Montgomery and the campaign and election regarding an amendment that would have reformed the tax structure of the state, the rural folk of Alabama can settle down to the really important issue of the fall–college football.
Conservative Christians took a hit with the Ten Commandments, and moderates took a hit on the tax vote. Everyone suffered when both the University of Alabama and Auburn University lost early games on the gridiron—usually the UA and AU faithful have something to rib each other about. The mood in worship services had improved by last Sunday, following wins by both teams on Saturday.
In what may be a workable compromise, the Ten Commandments are now displayed along with other important historical documents at the Capitol in Montgomery. Reportedly, Judge Roy Moore is not happy with this course of action. He feels that the basic issue of acknowledging the authority of the Christian God over our state and our nation has been sidestepped.
And Gov. Riley is calling the legislature into special session to deal with the shortfall in state government income. New taxes, expanding gambling and drastic cuts in both staffing and programs are being proposed. Capitol Hill will be alive with lobbyists seeking alternately to protect and to promote the interests they represent.
The talk over platters of pork barbeque at the Town Square Diner recently has centered on personal financial stress, distrust of the legislature, governmental waste and the irresponsibility of many poor people for whom the proposed tax relief was targeted. These were the reasons given for opposing the amendment to increase taxes.
In many cases the conversations would move to the subject of the Ten Commandments. Most did not see any harm–or for that matter, much good–in putting them on display. A knowledgeable Baptist chimed in that historically Baptists have opposed the interference of the state in matters of the “first tablet” of the Ten Commandments. He declared that it might have been more appropriate, from a Baptist perspective, to display Commandments 4 through 10, the ones where the state and its courts do have authority.
On both topics, these animated discussions often circled back to individual responsibility, and the work of churches to change hearts and minds and thereby improve society.
Usually, after generating a little light and a lot of heat, the conversation would move on to the true central issue–what to do about Alabama and Auburn football.
Baptists understand personal piety well. We know we are to worship and revere God. We know that we are to love one another. We know that we are to be truthful, respect the reputation of others, be persons of marital fidelity, refrain from killing one another, respect the property rights of others and care for our parents. We know this even when we fail, and experience guilt because of our failures. And we want others to acknowledge their sins, repent, trust in Jesus to forgive, be discipled and live pious lives.
But getting from personal piety to public policy continues to be very elusive for us. Baptists long ago rejected the idea of a theocracy. And we broke with the practice of the state requiring that everyone belong to a particular church, because this undercuts personal responsibility and accountability for what one believes and how one lives.
However, like almost any good thing, there are always those who can twist it and make it into something bad or evil. Those around the table at the diner sense that someone out there is trying to push our society far beyond what our Baptist forefathers championed, into a secularized society where God is no longer acknowledged at all.
We do not like this notion, and so we push back. Consequently and unfortunately, we often become prey for demagogues. They offer to be our champions and “protect” God for us. But it usually turns out they have their own agenda of power, fame and fortune.
Finding a course between the extremes of a theocracy on the one hand and a secular society on the other is not easy, but it is the Baptist way, and I would contend the New Testament way.
We must first of all be citizens of the Kingdom of God. Then we follow the commandments of Jesus. Where we can, and as we can, we critique public policy from the principles that Jesus taught. We are careful not to ask the state or the nation to directly enforce all of the teachings of Jesus. We hope that we can convince others to join us as citizens of the Kingdom.
Further, we hope that we can shape public policy in ways that will allow us to practice the teachings of Jesus in our daily lives without penalty or hardship.
Perhaps that is why we like football. The boundaries are marked, the rules are set and violation of either is penalized. Equipment is standardized. Activities are understood. Hard work usually is rewarded. The world is divided into “us” and “them”. The game begins and ends. Teamwork, it is understood, is necessary for success. And there is always next year with its hopes and its challenges.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.