I live in Georgia’s newest city, which actually won’t be a city for a couple of months yet. But we have to get organized, and so we have to elect a mayor and city council to get the city up and running. Last evening I attended a forum for city council candidates in my district. Much of the conversation focused quite appropriately on the bread and butter of local governance—police services, planning and zoning, parks and recreation, all in the context of promises of good stewardship and fiscal responsibility. The candidates are all thoughtful, decent people, deeply involved in the affairs of the community, coaching youth sports, working on PTAs, serving on the boards of homeowners’ associations, and active in their churches. The audience consisted largely of people like them, willing to spend a couple of hours to hear out the candidates who aspire to be their public servants.
Oddly enough, however, the question (and answers) that got the biggest rise out of the audience was one that was at best peripheral to our most pressing concerns. Someone asked how the candidates would respond to an effort to post the Ten Commandments on the walls of our as yet non-existent City Hall. All four candidates said that they would resist such an effort, citing in more or less articulate ways concerns about the establishment of religion and sensitivity to the diversity of our community. Those responses elicited the only spontaneous applause of the evening.
Perhaps I’ve been blissfully unaware of the hordes of Bible-toting (or rather tablet-toting) theocrats just raring to invade and transform our little slice of, er, heaven. But my neighbors surely think it’s important for our elected officials to stand against them. This is symbolic politics at its best (or worst).
Had there been the opportunity for impromptu statements from the floor (I’m really glad there wasn’t), I might have explained to my neighbors that the issue was a lot more complicated than they (or the candidates) imagined. I would have cited the relevant Supreme Court decisions, which leave open the possibility that there is no First Amendment objection to posting the Ten Commandments, properly contextualized, on the wall of a public building, especially if the exhibit is donated by private citizens. (I would for the moment set aside my reservations about the contortions required by our current First Amendment jurisprudence.) And I would have wondered about the irony of their objections, given the fact that our meeting was taking place in a church sanctuary—the largest readily available meeting space in the neighborhood—whose appearance had in no way been altered to accommodate this particular event. If they were so worried about sending a message of exclusion, why meet here?
As I said, the question and the answers were all about symbolism. “We” are sensitive and tolerant, scrupulous about not marginalizing anyone. Except for those bigoted Bible-tumpers who live and worship somewhere else. I’ve got news for them: We’re your neighbors too. And our new city bucket list really isn’t any different from yours. What a “revelation” that would be.