"The state is stumbling along the road to theocracy. ... "
More than 200 years ago, Virginia was the most powerful state in the fledgling United States of America, spawning visionary leaders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. How times have changed in the Old Dominion.
Instead of leaders such as Jefferson and Madison, who fought state-established religion and labored to bring full religious liberty to all, Virginia’s government today is saddled with a collection of ideologues who kowtow to the Religious Right and constantly seek to fan the flames of the “culture war.”
The latest assault on the Constitution comes from Gov. Robert McDonnell, who has rescinded a directive stating that State Police chaplains must use non-sectarian prayers at public events. W. Steven Flaherty, superintendent of the state police, in 2008 directed the department’s 17 chaplains to use non-denominational language at events such as trooper graduation ceremonies and public memorial services for officers who have died in the line of duty.
None of this mattered to McDonnell, of course. The governor, a graduate of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Regent University, is more interested in undermining the Constitution than supporting it.
McDonnell spoke at Regent earlier this month, vowing to implement what he called “servant leadership” in Virginia.
They were certainly excited over the new prayer rules, confident that every public event will now feature their form of Christian prayers. They may be less so when the state ends up wasting tax funds trying to defend the measure in court.
Federal courts, University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told the Virginian-Pilot, have
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn agreed. The new policy, Lynn told the newspaper,
But McDonnell’s action does more than potentially waste taxpayer funds. It sends a message that religious majoritarianism is acceptable at governmental events. It gives a green light to chaplains who want to use public ceremonies to proselytize for their specific faith. It sends a message of second-class citizenship to anyone who belongs to a minority faith.
It’s also – dare I say it? – not very Christian. Jesus himself warned against making a big, showy display of public prayers. He called the people who do that hypocrites but lauded those who pray privately at home. (Matthew 6:5-6) The prayer directive is merely the latest in a series of embarrassing stunts from Virginia’s new leaders. Earlier this year, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II mailed letters to public universities across the state, warning them that they have no right to adopt gay-friendly policies. Not long after that, McDonnell issued a proclamation recognizing “Confederate History Month” that failed to mention slavery.
Add to this McDonnell’s decision to appoint voucher advocate Gerard Robinson as secretary of education, his proclamation of “Christian Heritage Week” and his decision to ban public funding of abortions for poor women and you can see that the state is stumbling along the road to theocracy.
What’s really scary is that I fear all of this is just a start. McDonnell has been in office for just four months. What else does he plan to do to appease the Religious Right?
Virginia has a proud heritage. If McDonnell would invoke the spirit of Jefferson and Madison, he might achieve something of value. Instead, he seems intent on taking his cues from the Religious Right. That misguided movement takes it inspiration from quite a different historical period. We call it the Dark Ages.