In South Carolina a U.S. district judge ruled on Nov. 10 that it was illegal for the state to promote Christianity on license plates. At issue was a plan by Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer to offer a car tag with the words, “I Believe.” The tag would also feature a large cross and a replica of a stained-glass window.
In striking down the law that would have allowed the distribution of the holy tags, Judge Cameron Currie wrote, “Such a law amounts to state endorsement not only of religion in general, but of a specific sect in particular. The statute is clearly unconstitutional, and defense of its implementation has embroiled the state in unnecessary and expensive litigation.”
Given our current economic climate, you would expect government leaders to be more circumspect. Everyone involved had to know that the move to promote Christianity in this way would result in legal action. And beyond that, it is absolutely ludicrous to believe that religion can be positively promoted on a car tag. Of course, what can be promoted is a political career. Bauer knows his base even if he doesn’t know his Bible.
That’s the really sad thing about this. If Christians would simply take the time to consult our founder on the matter of religion on display, litigation would never be an issue.
For instance, recall what Jesus said about “phylacteries?” A phylactery was a leather strip with a Bible verse etched on it. Religious devotees in Jesus’ day would attach these verses to their garments as a way of showing respect for God’s word. What happened over time, however, is that the leather strips became badges of honor. The more phylacteries you had, the more devoted you seemed to be.
But Jesus wasn’t buying it. He warned his disciples not to be like these spiritual show-offs. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.”
Jesus also had other things to say about faith for show. Here are a few tidbits from the Sermon on the Mount:
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”
“And when you pray do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray…so that they may be seen by others…But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door.”
None of this should be interpreted as Jesus wanting us to be invisible in the world. In fact, the opposite is true. That’s why Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God.”
I don’t think Jesus had in mind those two little lights that illuminate our car tags at night when he said “let your light shine.”
I understand the motivation. People of faith want to demonstrate their faith, to declare their identity as followers of Jesus. But I just can’t imagine Jesus ever saying, “They shall know you by your advertising.”
Jesus seemed to believe that the most convincing testimony his followers can give in this world is to live positive and committed lives of service and compassion. We demonstrate our devotion to Jesus by following him and living by his words.
Words like, “They shall know you by your love.”
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.