God Did Put Me Here

Yes, Florida 5th grade teacher Jenna Barbee is under a state investigation for showing her class a Disney movie because the film features a gay character, and screening that in the classroom, currently violates state law.  Rather ironically, the movie is called Strange World, which is pretty much how most people feel about what is happening here, regardless of where they stand on the issue.

The world feels increasingly strange — even dangerously so — both to those who are concerned that screening a Disney movie with a gay character can land a teacher in hot water, and also to those who experience the world as increasingly strange — even dangerously so — that the teacher did so. While I do not see the two sides as equally valid, nothing I write here, beyond appealing to each side to more fully appreciate the feeling of dangerous strangeness that they share, will bring greater sanity to the conversation. So I won’t say more about that. I am writing here instead about God, public leadership, and the current state of the fight for the free exercise of religion in our nation.

Shannon Rodriguez, the parent who lodged the complaint which launched the investigation against Ms. Barbee, also happens to be an elected member of the Hernando County School District Board, and she bases the legitimacy of using her authority as a Member to pursue her investigation, on the fact that “God did put me here.”  That is where things get truly problematic. In using those five words, Ms. Rodriguez failed not only to reach the right policy conclusion, as I think she did, but much more importantly, where she failed as a public official and did so in a way that serves nobody well, regardless of their views on what movies should be shown in Florida classrooms.

This is the United States of America, and we are not led by prophets invoking their certainty about God’s will but by elected officials whose job is to follow, make, and adjudicate the law of the land, not the laws of scripture or the word of God. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the all-too-common liberal conflation of the free expression of religion with the more limited freedom to pray as one might want to in their chosen house of worship is fundamentally wrong and an overly narrow misreading of the Constitution. In fact, I even appreciate Ms. Rodriguez’s belief in Divine providence and that God’s plan for her life includes her being elected to the local school board. I appreciate that she believes that because, like her, I, too, believe in Divine providence — in the notion that God plays a role in the unfolding of our personal lives.  But there is a world of difference between what one believes and using that belief as a prophetic calling to mess with other people’s lives.

As a parent, Ms. Rodriguez is free to complain about what her kid’s teacher did. As a school board member, she is free, and perhaps even obligated, to jump into the issue, no matter how much some of us disagree with the side onto which she jumped. As an elected official, however, she is also obligated to stay clear of acting the prophet, declaring with certainty God’s plan for her or for anyone else. Full stop. In failing to make that distinction, Board Member Rodriguez failed as a public servant, as does any official from any party, who fails to distinguish between their own words and the word of God.

In failing to make that distinction, Rodriguez also planted the seeds of undermining her own religious freedom.  After all, once we govern by prophecy, what is to stop another official — one with an opposing prophetic view — from invoking a new prophecy that declares Ms. Rodriguez to be an enemy of God’s will? The answer is obvious. Nothing.

And therein lies the other piece of this story — the evolution, over the past 35 years in this country, of what it means to fight for freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion, going back to Thomas Jefferson’s defense of Baptist faith and practice, with which he clearly disagreed on many fronts, and moving on in US history to the fight for the religious freedom of Mormons, Catholics, and Jews, and the more recent struggles faced by Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus, has been a fight for religious minorities’ right to be present — to practice their respective faiths fully and freely. The current case in Florida is the latest example of how that has changed.

What was once a fight for presence has now become a fight for absence. Religious freedom and faith-based politics as practiced by Ms. Rodriguez and those who support her based on Divine providence, have shifted to a fight, not to secure their own free expression but to secure the absence of those with whom they disagree.

Don’t get me wrong, in many settings, I am considered a “knuckle-dragging gorilla,” both culturally and theologically, so I appreciate the hurt and fear that many cultural and theological conservatives experience in a rapidly changing world, even though I disagree with them on many issues. I even appreciate some of the underlying concerns that led to the passage of the laws, which are the basis of the investigation against Ms. Barbee, even though I oppose those laws. But that should all be beside the point. Policies change. Laws come and go, and politics is about getting in the fray and trying to make things better in the many differing ways we understand that.

What must not change, however, is keeping prophecy and public leadership as far away from one another as possible and always distinguishing between the fight for greater presence, which is generally sacred, and the fight to make others absent, which is almost always the opposite.

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