Monday, April 13, 2015

Reason for Skepticism on the Sawdust (or Catfish) Trail

Years of observation of the political system have made me very skeptical of overt religiosity by political leaders – or anyone for that fact.  Excessive outward piety is a sign of a potential fraud, opportunist, or huckster.  Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry seared that skepticism into my spirit.

Having observed political leaders, sometimes close-at-hand, has informed and reinforced that skepticism.  I remember all-too-well Richard Nixon’s close and manipulative relationship with the iconic Billy Graham (once even borrowing a 20-spot from Graham to place in the offering plate at Graham’s crusade in Knoxville, Tennessee).  The tapes of Graham’s conversations with Nixon in the Oval Office were not flattering to either of the men, and Graham has appropriately apologized for his part in those conversations.

Other, more graphic, tapes show how cynical Nixon’s use of the great evangelist was.

We have seen over the years the use and manipulation of the political system by those who would wear their piety outwardly and prominently.  We do not have to go back very far in Mississippi’s history to see how we have been led down the primrose path by politicians who said one thing publicly and acted another way in private.  In fact, some of the evidence is very recent.

Oliver Wentzell, the late, long-time owner of a Mobile seafood restaurant which bears his name, supposedly ran for sheriff of Mobile County, Alabama.  He is reputed to have said, “I’ll stand for whatever the public will fall for.”  If that story is not true, it still bears a lot of truth.

I have watched – in my travels up and down Highway 49 – as a spectacularly tall metal cross has been erected adjacent to an all-you-can-eat catfish restaurant (What is one of the seven deadly sins?).  It is like others I have seen elsewhere – like at the Interstate 55 Winona exit.  I find it to be gaudy and a bit pretentious, but it was the dedication ceremony of that cross which really raised questions for me.

The Clarion-Ledger’s account of that dedication may be found here: I was struck by several quotations from that story.  Here are a few:

Governor Phil Bryant: "Ladies and gentlemen the old rugged cross stands here today, a bright shining emblem of the salvation that has been eternal and with God's blessing it will remain so."

U. S. Congressman Gregg Harper: "As the souls that are driving by right now, I dare say that there are more who do not know Jesus Christ than do know Jesus Christ and we need to remember to pray for those. And, I think this cross is an incredible reminder of the love that we have.”

Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves was there, too, but apparently not as quotable.

Perhaps most telling were some of the comments from the restaurant’s owner:  "Ain't it an awesome thing… that we have a governor, a lieutenant governor and congressman that still stand on the values that this country was founded over 200 years ago on?"

"If everybody was like this, this country wouldn't be going to hell like it is. Period. I'm not going to sugar coat it," he said.

I am reminded of the questions and controversy which arose after some similar, ill-advised comments by then-Senator Trent Lott, at the birthday of then-Senator Strom Thurmond (see comments above).

I thought another quotation was interesting, as well – also from the owner: "You're gonna get people coming against you of course, your atheists, your critics, they're out there. But, when you take a stand for Christ, he'll take a stand for you," he said.

I am aware of what Jesus said about practicing piety in public.  I am aware of his castigation of those who wore their religion very prominently and publicly. I am aware of his concern for the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the least of these. 

Questions I would pose to Congressman Harper, who spoke those words, and to those who listened:  What does it mean to know Christ?  How can we ascertain that those who embrace this tall, outward symbol in Florence, Mississippi are more faithful than those who find it a bit tacky and the political leaders’ words to prompt skepticism?

I am conscious of the facts that we live in a state which has the lowest level of education of any state, the lowest per capita income, and the highest level of obesity. Our political system is still energized by the third rail of politics (race) and, largely because of that residual animus, our Legislature has refused to enact expansions of Medicaid – which would help those about whom Jesus was most concerned.

I am a Christian.  I am proud to be one.  My life has been touched – repeatedly – and transformed by the presence of the living Christ moving in my life.  But I refuse to join this bandwagon. Call me what you will. The life I find compelling is not one of prideful piety, but the one of quiet, generous, humble, and gracious faith.

Howard K. Smith, the longtime ABC newscaster, said one time, “When someone says they’re just a country lawyer, you better check for your wallet.”  The same could be applied in this case.

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A great column on this subject may be found at the following link: