So just a few miles from where I live in sleepy, hyper-Christian Wilmore, Kentucky, there’s a debate going on about the suitability of having a big ole cross on the town’s water tower. About 40 years ago, the water tower was on Asbury University’s (a very Christian private university that requires employees to affirm their commitment to Christian principles) campus, but the school transferred it to the city (though they continue to maintain it). A nontheistic organization, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, has recently requested that they take the cross down. They claim that it’s unlawful for a city government to maintain religious symbols on a public building and that doing so is alienating the approximately 30% of Americans who are not Christian.
I’m pretty ambivalent on this case. I think that we should allow people to freely express their religion, but I agree that the separation of church and state is an integral part of our nation that must be better enforced. However, I’ve also never been one of those people that sees saying, “Merry Christmas” or wearing a cross as anything inherently harmful or insulting to non-Christians, so I have a hard time finding the cross as detrimental to anyone. It seems to me that the path of least resistance is to just leave the tower and the town alone – at least, until Wilmore’s actual citizens file a claim.
All of that being said, I should also disclose that, while I’m neither Christian nor religious, I was raised Catholic and have worked for a highly Christian organization (which I hated). I celebrate Christmas and Halloween but do so in a secular way that’s based more on the opportunity for fellowship, gratitude, and happiness than any religious convictions. Finally, I’m pretty irreverent towards religion as a whole but Christianity in particular and have been for the past 20 years. All of that makes it very possible that I don’t understand the harm of that cross or the complexities and boundaries of religion. Fair enough.
What I do understand is vindictiveness, which is what Wilmore resident Sheila Nighy is currently engaging in. When she and her husband Lewis saw the news, they said, “Take down our cross? We’ll put up more!” and immediately went out and started constructing dozens of small white crosses that read “United in Christ.” Apparently, she’s already made 130, which many of her neighbors and fellow citizens are posting in their front yards.
I think that the reason this rubs me the wrong way is because it’s very aggressive. It’s obvious that Ms. Nighy and Mayor Rainwater (who called the request “leftist” and “liberal”) aren’t willing to have a discussion about this issue, despite the fact that our country has a long tradition of the separation of church and state. Instead, both felt the need to go Old Testament on everyone’s asses, slinging names and monomaniacally building cross after cross after cross. I understand the impulse to be defensive, and I understand how irritating it must be to have an outside group take umbrage with a symbol of your town, but can’t we all learn to act like reasonable adults and have a respectful discussion first? Sign a petition, go to a town meeting, testify, or do an op ed piece? Did the first response really have to be, “This is Christian land, get out, ye heathens!”?
Christians need to be more opinion to a discussion of the appropriateness of their symbols and beliefs in government and how their actions affect others. Yes, it’s important to practice your belief and to believe in your God, whomever he may be, but it’s equally as important to respect others and reflect on how your words and actions affect them. No, we cannot change our whole lives to accommodate others, but we do need to be able to shift and wiggle around to make room for them.
That extends to the Freedom from Religion Foundation as well. While I fully support the separation of church and state and am becoming increasingly alarmed with our government’s oversaturation in Christian principles, I also think that we should respect the will of the people. If Wilmore citizens don’t want the cross removed and Asbury continues to maintain it, why launch a law suit? Why impose the will of someone who doesn’t live in the town and doesn’t actually have a stake in it? Why wander the country starting lawsuits? Is it necessary? Is there a way to compromise while maintaining the separation? I think there is, and I think if we can hold off on the litigation and put down the crosses, we can find it.