Why Jesus Is Welcome In the Public Square

By Jennifer Moses
Thursday, November 3, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La. -- It's not news that the Christian right often appears to want nothing other than to impose its values, religious and otherwise, on the rest of the nation. But liberals would be mistaken to assume that it's only people on the far right who rely on the word of God for everything from Sunday sermon topics to public policymaking. In towns like Baton Rouge, religion is so much a part of public life that most folks can't begin to fathom that there might be something less than healthy in the blend. Of course, the religion in question is always a fairly distinct brand of down-home Protestantism, but what the hell. If you don't like Jesus, that's your business.

Actually, for a Jewish girl, I'm on pretty good terms with him. Despite my initial discomfiture with living in a place where people routinely ask "Where do y'all go to church?" I don't mind, and even welcome, being on the receiving end of blessings, Christian or otherwise. Being told "Jesus loves you, baby," by my favorite postal clerk doesn't offend me. Nor do I mind the billboards dotting the interstate ("Looking for a Sign from God? Here it is!") or the inclination of most of my neighbors to talk about their personal quests in terms of divine will.

Given the human habit of unleashing violence in the name of God, perhaps I'm naive, but I tend to believe that the Christian religiosity that's the common currency of great swaths of our country generally does more good than harm, giving people a sense of purpose and community where they might not otherwise have either. But I'm talking mainly about what I call the "good" Jesus -- the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, the one who, through his people, clothes the naked and feeds the hungry. In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it's that Jesus who's been making the rounds, so much so that Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, came to Baton Rouge to praise the efforts of local churches. (Well he should, too, since the federal government has all but abandoned us to our own resources.) The local newspaper covered the visit in detail. What it failed to do was mention that there might be something suspect in having a White House office of faith-based anything.

Welcome to the Bible Belt, y'all -- or at least to my small and not particularly dogmatic corner of it. (If you want the real thing, you have to go farther north, to Shreveport or Monroe.) South Louisiana is famously laid-back, and while there are those who believe, for example, that Catholics are going to burn in hell because they worship the pope, most folks just want to get along. That said, part of getting along means accommodating local norms, maybe even trampling on the Constitution now and then, because, after all, what's the big deal if the fellows pray before the high school football game? It's not like anyone's making them, and, anyway, most of the kids, maybe even all of them, are Christian.

So prevalent is this last sentiment that even the Louisiana State University law school follows it, hanging an enormous Christmas wreath over its imposing neoclassical entrance every December -- to the annual protests of faculty who point out that while such a display may be constitutionally kosher, it's also, at the very least, obnoxious. But the religious sentiments don't come only from the right. In March, the Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco, endorsed publicly sponsored prayer at Tangipahoa Parish School Board meetings. The black community, which is generally liberal, uniformly voted in favor of a state amendment banning anything that so much as hinted at the legalization of same-sex unions. It's not unusual for a preacher to start things off at political rallies, either. I attended one rally last year, where, on the steps of the state Capitol, people carrying signs that read "Leave No Millionaire Behind" and "When Clinton Lied, No One Died" bowed their heads in the name of Jesus. Not to mention that Christian ministry is a major part of what passes for rehabilitation in the state prisons.

If one common mistake liberals make is assuming that the great majority of Bible-thumping (or tapping) comes from the right, a second -- and to my mind, more important -- mistake is equating this style of religiosity with something as simple as narrow-minded ignorance. Rather, bringing God and his word as expressed in the Bible into the debate points to a profound lack of meaning and vision in our public discourse, and a searing pessimism that anyone, or any institution, in public life might put things right. It points, also, to disgust: disgust not only with our elected leaders but also with the cheapening of life around us, whether by blatant sexuality on television, soaring drug abuse, the acceptance of out-of-wedlock birth or the loss of the communal ties that once grounded us.

As far as I can tell, progressives and liberals of all stripes don't even begin to fathom the despair and confusion most ordinary Americans feel when they hear the latest violent rap song or see a billboard plastered with an image of a 16-year-old clad only in Calvin Klein underwear. The right wing of the Republican Party, on the other hand, has long understood that most Americans yearn for something nobler in our national life, but it doesn't care unless it can use frustration and despair to harvest rage, and rage to harvest votes.

What's the answer? I don't know, but it might help if our political leaders stopped spinning and, like the prophets of old, spoke the truth.

Jennifer Moses is a writer who grew up in McLean and has lived in Baton Rouge for 10 years.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company