Writing and poetry
From the 1990's

by Richard Van Ingram

[A letter to the editor, The Dahlonega Nugget, 1999; THE SECULAR & SACRED]]

To the editor,

Our form of government is founded on a paradox. It is rule by the majority, but a majority that restrains itself from violating the rights of the minority. In a real sense, at certain crucial moments, the majority rules by serving the minority. In the face of "common sense," which might have had us live by the motto "might makes right," we have instead a beautiful equilibrium. Reason has found a better way for us to live than accepting obvious - and therefore banal - solutions to the basic problem of being a nation. For this reason our country has decided that church and state are separate, to make certain that a majority sect will never hold sway over the consciences of the minorities.

In order for democracy to work, though, we must abandon any separatist inspirations we might openly or secretly harbor, and that calls for a genuine love of both freedom and equality. Unfortunately, more often than not, the fact is that democracy is like a dying relative: everyone loves it when it is weak and on its deathbed. But let it threaten to heal up and gain strength! Let it threaten to get up out of the bed and walk around and go to work! It is at that moment that we find out who the real supporters of democracy are --and who were merely vultures waiting around to pick the bones.

The Ten Commandment plaque controversy is an instance of democracy, here in this county, trying to get up out of the bed.

The (alleged) majority has opted for the easy way out, to have its desire for the mixing of the sacred and the secular made official, no matter what the law says. And our political leaders are allowing the masses to point the direction for them: an ad hoc solution has been formulated by way of some additional "secular" plaques that are supposed to camouflage the original problem. Democracy has been sent back to bed.

But, in a democracy, does the majority really have the right to impose its religious viewpoint on the minorities of our community? Let's look at that question from another angle. Most of the recent pro-plaque letters to the editor began or ended by denying one thing: that the secular has a real and legitimate existence. For the majority it appears that only the sacred has a right to exist and flowing from this they believe that the church should control the state - if not actually establish itself as the state. And not just any church or faith will do; the church in question must be fundamentalist/charismatic Christian. Yet see what this entails - without the secular realm, there is no room or need for democracy which is essentially about sharing power between majorities and minorities, between those who are the same and those who are different.

For all Christians, there is a problem here. Why did Jesus say, in St. Matthew's Gospel, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's" if He did not intend to suggest that that there is a definite secular realm right along side the sacred - a realm meant to stay secular? And why did God tell Moses to "put off" his shoes because the ground was holy if Moses hadn't been walking on un-holy ground a moment before? For it seems that God has created and ordained a secular world and its institutions, an Earth alongside Heaven just as clearly as He has made the sacred things.

This theological principle applies to courthouses, too.

The upshot of this: In a public building that, by its nature is shared by people of all faiths, it is unwholesome for a religious text to be displayed religiously. That is, to pretend as if the state were an extension of a religion or religion an extension of the state. If the text is part of an historical display - part of a display, not merely surrounded by one - its function is no longer primarily sacred and no entanglement exists. Hanging a religious text or symbol in a purely public area (i.e. any governmental building) violates the function of the secular space, which is by design supposed to accommodate people of all backgrounds. Carrying certain forms of secular literature or entertainment into a church would equally disrupt a sacred space. If one case is apparent to the reader, the other ought to follow.

The display of purely religious material in public buildings is both offensive and threatening to minorities. Their right to freedom of conscience is violated at the very least because their tax money is going to support a building that advertises a religion to which they do not adhere. This is obvious enough. Yet, our majority is not interested in rational discussion of this matter; they feel no need to justify their actions - instead they vilify their opponents or simply ignore them. Not theological or political reflection, neither philosophical argumentation or legal scholarship will ever penetrate the dogmatic stance of one who has decided that might makes right; and, so long as that is the case here, democracy is not loved in Lumpkin County.

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