Opinion Columns & Blogs

Pious pandering in the Legislature

A few years ago, it was common for people to sport WWJD bracelets, signifying the rhetorical question, "What Would Jesus Do?" If Jesus were a South Carolinian today, I think he would drive down to Columbia and chase legislators out of the Statehouse.

Our General Assembly recently passed bills authorizing governments to display copies of the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer and creating an "I Believe" auto tag.

Predictably, the latter measure has led to a lawsuit from people of several faiths, including Christians, who argue it endorses one religion over all others.

Lawmakers were warned that these bills would be challenged and likely would fail judicial scrutiny. When you're pandering for votes, however, such technicalities don't matter.

Opponents of these ill-advised bills could have made a case by quoting Scripture. They might, for example, have cited the text where Jesus lectures critics about rendering Caesar and God their respective dues.

The case that the Lord's Prayer may be posted in public buildings is trickier than defending the Ten Commandments. With all their "shalt nots," the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai probably did have at least indirect influence over the formation of our governmental institutions.

And if lawmakers truly felt that Christian prayer should be displayed in public buildings, why choose the Lord's Prayer over, say, "Sermon on the Mount"?

Frankly, I think it would be more inspiring if Palmetto State tags bore the phrase, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" than "I Believe," which could be interpreted as prideful. Didn't Jesus warn us about the sinfulness of praying so everyone could see our piety?

A cynic might be offended less by the self-righteous breast-beaters in the General Assembly than by their actions -- or lack thereof.

Among the bills that didn't get passed during the recent session were one that would have raised the tax on tobacco purchases and another to restrict payday lending.

These bills would have benefited poor people and children -- two of Jesus' favorite constituencies -- but were opposed by industries that rip off our most vulnerable citizens and that -- not coincidentally -- contribute heavily to political campaigns.

The payday lending measure would have reined in the money changers who charge rates in excess of 300 percent annual interest, but it never got out of committee. A bill to raise the cigarette tax, which, at 7 percent, is the lowest in the nation, was vetoed by Gov. Sanford.

Our libertarian governor wasn't swayed by arguments that raising the tobacco tax would deter children from smoking, but his veto shouldn't have surprised anyone. Last year, he vetoed a bill to make it illegal for little kiddies to operate all-terrain vehicles!

Sanford didn't object to raising the cigarette tax per se, but he wanted to designate proceeds for cutting the taxes of rich folk. Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell railed against the bill because some of the revenue would have helped moderate-income citizens afford health insurance.

It's difficult for me to believe that Jesus would have bought either politician's arguments. Likewise, he would have had some choice words for those who opposed payday lending reform.

Neither bill comes close to being as un-Christian as the illegal immigration bill our solons passed. In addition to foisting unwieldy -- some say unworkable -- rules on businesses, it makes it a crime for undocumented high school graduates to attend state universities and colleges.

How many children this will affect is anyone's guess, but clearly thousands -- through no fault of their own -- have grown up in this country, attended school and worked hard to learn how to become good citizens. Now, they're being denied opportunity to better themselves further.

Jesus wouldn't have liked that. Did he not say, "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for such is the kingdom of God"?

In the interest of truth in government, I hope some lawmakers next year will sponsor a bill to change the name of the General Assembly to the South Carolina Sanhedrin.

The governor and the speaker can duke it out over who gets to be Chief Pharisee.