With friends like Caesar, the church doesn’t need enemies

Two red-state stories about the dismal state of church and state, both of which feature pious government officials “helping” the church by treating it as servant and subsidiary the state.

First up, a story from Oklahoma, where a judge has sentenced someone to church.

OK, so, I’m a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you haven’t seen it, I think you should. I want you to watch it and to enjoy it as much I have enjoyed it the many times I’ve seen it.

Because of that, I would be upset if some judge somewhere decided to make watching Buffy a punishment. That would ruin it. It’s a terrific bit of storytelling, but if you’re sentenced to watching that story, you’ll never experience it the way you should. Turning it from something voluntary into a mandatory punishment would change the experience and change the thing itself.

That’s one part of why I think Oklahoma district judge Mike Norman is an idiot for sentenced a 17-year-old to 10 years of church attendance.

I want everyone to attend church — to experience church and enjoy church just as much as I have enjoyed it. By making church a punishment for this kid, Judge Norman changes the meaning and the experience of church — twisting it into something mandatory, onerous and punitive.

That’s not what church is for. It is not a tool of the state or a tool of the courts.

Judge Norman’s abuse of church — the damage he is doing to church — is one half of why the separation of church and state is so important. It protects citizens from the government establishment of religion — a constitutional clause that Norman’s decision clearly violates. But it also protects the church from the kind of distortions that Norman is imposing on it.

I agree with the Rev. Prescott:

The Rev. Bruce Prescott, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he is sure the sentence doesn’t pass constitutional muster, but he is equally worried about the spiritual ramifications.

“I’m a minister,” Prescott said. “I want people to go to church, but it’s not helpful for a judge to sentence someone to church. What will the judge do if the young man changes his affiliation in the next few years? Will he be allowed to switch to a mosque or become an atheist? Religion is not a tool of the state, and it’s certainly not for the state to use as a tool of rehabilitation.”

Which brings us to our second story, from Kentucky, where Democratic state Rep. Tom Riner says he’s a Baptist minister. Riner may be some kind of a minister, but he ain’t no Baptist:

The law and its sponsor, state representative Tom Riner, have been the subject of controversy since the law first surfaced in 2006, yet the Kentucky state Supreme Court has refused to review its constitutionality, despite clearly violating the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.

“The church-state divide is not a line I see,” the inquistor explains to Maria of Montjoie.

… The law states, “The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God as set forth in the public speeches and proclamations of American Presidents, including Abraham Lincoln’s historic March 30, 1863, presidential proclamation urging Americans to pray and fast during one of the most dangerous hours in American history, and the text of President John F. Kennedy’s November 22, 1963, national security speech which concluded: “For as was written long ago: ‘Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.'”

The law requires that plaques celebrating the power of the Almighty God be installed outside the state Homeland Security building — and carries a criminal penalty of up to 12 months in jail if one fails to comply. The plaque’s inscription begins with the assertion, “The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God.”

Tom Riner, a Baptist minister and the long-time Democratic state representative, sponsored the law.

“The church-state divide is not a line I see,” Riner told The New York Times shortly after the law was first challenged in court. “What I do see is an attempt to separate America from its history of perceiving itself as a nation under God.”

Look, it’s not easy to be a bad Baptist. We really only have one rule, and it’s embodied right there in the name: Baptists. We don’t baptize anybody who doesn’t choose it for themselves. We don’t baptize infants just because their parents are part of the church. And — more importantly — we don’t baptize infants believing that anyone born in the state belongs to the church (or that anyone born in the church belongs to the state).

The definition of the category “Baptist,” in other words, is an expression of a bold, dark, uncrossable line dividing church and state.

Tom Riner can call himself whatever he likes, but the word Baptist does not describe him.


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