Fightin’ Words

I head south on I-75, getting on at Fletcher Avenue in Tampa. “Fletcher.” One who fletches arrows, placing the feathers on the back end so the arrow flies true. I fly like an arrow southward. Until… I see it, a billboard, looming over the highway on the passenger’s side. “This is a Christian nation.” Red on white, attributing it to the Supreme Court. It reads like a shout. My right hand goes from the shifter to the pentacle at my neck, and I am suddenly small.

I can know that it is referencing the 1892 Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States decision, I can know how this decision is viewed by justices today, and I can know that Justice Brewer, who was involved in the decision, also upheld Oregon’s limitations on the working hours of women not because of worker’s rights, but because women’s child-bearing health was considered a thing to be protected. I can know these things. But they don’t help when a large billboard in red towers over my drive, telling me I’m not wanted in the country of my birth because my religion isn’t right.

How do Muslims, Jews, Buddhists feel driving under that billboard? As small as me? Smaller? Angry? Indignant? How do atheists feel on their way to work, looking up and being told “you’re not wanted here”?

It is a tactic employed by a select group to make others feel “othered.” Like the young man in the Smithsonian calling the timeline of European history “bullshit” because it didn’t conform to the Bible, there is rage and anger in this billboard’s outburst. There is a fight here. It isn’t a fight about the soul of the nation, though some would have you believe it. It isn’t even about which religions are socially okay to practice. No, it’s about privilege. It’s about who gets to feel comfortable all the time, and who has to walk around feeling ashamed of themselves because they are secretly or not so secretly part of a pariah group. It’s about who gets the freedom to express their religious devotion publicly, and who has to fight to get days off to worship. It’s about belonging.

The sign had its effect, though: I drive under the shadow of the billboard, curled inward on myself, nursing a mental punch to the gut. “This is a Christian nation.” And I am not a Christian.

Edited on 2/24/11 to add clarifying detail.

2 thoughts on “Fightin’ Words”

  1. It made me angry when I saw it months ago.

    Justice Brewer was obviously overreaching when he wrote that opinion, but the country was much different in 1892. I have no doubt that the vast majority of the nation was Christian, but the implications of his statements infringed upon what was supposed to be a secular state. As it set a precedent, courts have played with interpreting that decision for over a hundred years now.

    Don't forget that you are entitled to equal respect for your own religion.

    And, incidentally, we should rent a billboard.

    Like

  2. “Entitled to” doesn't necessarily mean one is going to get it, sadly.

    As for Brewer, the current justices have held up his opinion in the Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States case as one of the worst examples of legislating from the bench, and as exactly what not to do– basing the decision on the “spirit,” rather than the letter, of the law.

    Like

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