Being Judged by the Company You Keep

20140714_182249_resizedYou have to give credit to Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee for either sticking by his principles, or at least for properly interpreting the handwriting on the imaginary wall that separates his state from  neighboring North Carolina, and doing something about it.

North Carolina just passed and signed into law the ballyhooed “bathroom” bill; a bill designed to keep transsexuals  out of their preferred bathrooms and banished to the bushes or back alleys to do their business; and the bill that was to become the most recent rallying point against the discriminatory root at the foundation of similar legislation in several states around the country dealing with sexuality, gender identification, women’s health, and legal interpretations of marriage. North Carolina was immediately shown lots of anti-love by corporate headquarters and performing artists with cancellations of business and concert appearances.

The fact that all of these bills are based on moral concepts based on religious scripture—usually of the Abrahamic variety, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam— and favor dogmatic, two-thousand year-old  mores over the modern understanding of a liberal and open government of laws and a pluralistic method for making those laws. The Founding Fathers saw how the effects of doctrinal adherence of religion, or the favoring of one religion over another, or efforts to incorporate any  of it into the law of the land could upset the concept of an open government. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, Director of Media Relation at the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said “ Politics by its very nature is an institution of compromise; the church by its nature holds to that fact there are certain absolutes. There is, and must always be, a natural divide between them.” 

Let’s assume Governor Haslam was sticking by these principles—the separation of church and state, written into the first of the Bill of Rights—when he vetoed legislation passed by representatives in the statehouse resolving that the Holy Bible was to be the official state book. Let’s assume the governor was not looking at the immediately negative economic impact the bathroom bill had had on North Carolina. And let’s further assume he was not looking and the legal costs the state would pay defending this law from challenges to its constitutionality.

The ultimate decision seemed to have been based on a rarely-cited insight of the wisdom of the separation of church and state expressed by some of the most devout followers of the faith: that maintaining the strict divide between matters of religion and matters of state prevents, or at least reduces, the debasing effect of the association of the purity of religion with the rude machinations and corrupting influences of governmental affairs. As Jimi Jobin, a Nevada pastor so eloquently wrote in an open letter  admonishing a pastor in South Dakota for endorsing a certain gubernatorial candidate, “It desecrates our pulpit to yield it to politics. We are called to something higher than to meddle in the affairs of ambitious men. We are not so Holy that we can merely baptize a candidate, and never drink the poison of his words. We do not stump for senators, we do not campaign for congressman, we do not preach for presidents, because the name of Christ is too precious to risk on a common election, no matter how important the issues at stake may seem.” Running a government is a dirty, rough-and-tumble enterprise, so why risk sullying the simple goodness of the logos, or invite bureaucratic tinkering and probing of your day-to-day operations (least of all your financial statements)?

This abstract notion was brought to a real world perspective by the governor. He showed that the newly anointed state book would assume its place in a list of other state official favorites, where to be found are some rather average critters, vegetation, and other unremarkably common things found in everyday life; none nearly what would be readily assumed to be the materials or life forms of the heavenly realm.

Some examples of the Volunteer State’s favorite and official things, with the governor’s possible objection to the Bible’s insertion into a list with them:

The Official State…

Amphibian—the Tennessee Cave Salamander. Too snake-like. And the snake was the single most catastrophic agent in the Bible. An obviously bad choice.

Fish (1 of 2)—Channel Catfish. The filth associated with bottom-feeders just doesn’t work in this morality.

Beverage—Milk. This is bearing false witness: everyone knows it is Jack Daniels.

Rock—Limestone. Not a strong, solid rock that one could expect to build an eternal church upon.  Try igneous— granite, marble, etc.

Reptile—Eastern Box Turtle. At least they got away from their snake and salamander fetish; but, no.

Horse—Tennessee Walking Horse. The male Tennessee Stud, popularized in a 1950s song could be suggestive of the fantasies of sisters Ahola and Aholibah in the Book of Ezekiel.

Whether Governor Haslam was authentically sticking to principles when he vetoed this bill would be hard to say for sure; mainly because we don’t know that he even held a strong opinion on this matter before the case presented itself. But we should recognize that he was clever enough to learn from the backlash now swamping North Carolina; and that he was, if not principled, at least crafty enough to play this seldom-used defense of the Wall of Separation by using a political legerdemain which (temporarily) stopped the bill, while at the same time maintaining the appearance of a good shepherd of biblical morality by shielding the Good Book from the debasing results of close contact with the vulgar, or just the average and the earthly.