Living in Alabama can sometimes be a strange thing. Every election cycle, commercials air for political candidates that you probably would not see in any other state. Judicial candidates list teaching Sunday School as one of their qualifications for office. Men running for State Senate show video of their families walking out of church with a Bible under their arm. Even though Alabama is becoming increasingly unchurched, the state is still quite conservative and candidates know that showing their religious side will benefit them. This is why three recent events in the Alabama politics have perplexed, saddened, and infuriated me.
The Ten Commandments
Thursday morning Representative DuWayne Bridges, a Republican from Valley, introduced a bill which would allow the citizens of Alabama to vote to allow the display of the Ten Commandments in government buildings in the state. This is no new issue for Alabamians, as this issue has come up from time to time since Judge Roy Moore displayed the Ten Commandments in his courtroom in the late 1990’s and later in the Supreme Court building when he was the Chief Justice. Representative Bridges bill led to a long debate on the floor of the House of Representatives. The debate, which Kyle Whitmire summarized, was bizarre and revealed that many of our Representatives do not know the Bible as well as they would have us think they do.
My issue with this debate is that I’m not sure what our Representatives hope to accomplish by displaying the Ten Commandments in our public buildings. There are several options. The first is that they are pandering to conservative Christians in the state and this just happens to be an election year. I hope this is not the case, but we are a cynical people and many will believe that this is the motivation. It is also possible that our Representatives want to pay homage to the Christian roots of our nation. (This is a huge debate too. We are on pretty safe ground though if we acknowledge that our nation has foundations that were borrowed from both Christianity and the Enlightenment.) If this is the motivation, it is a nice gesture, but it doesn’t make sense to take up the House’s time when there are some really pressing matters facing our State. The final possibility for their motivation is their desire to fight back at the perceived alienation of religious people in our culture. There are too many examples of this phenomenon to list, so we know what they could be pushing back against. Again, if this is the motivation, our Representatives spent precious time trying to make a point in the culture war instead of working on some systemic issues in our State.
What could be accomplished by the public display of the Ten Commandments? The answer is nothing that is the role of the State Government. Some people will read the Ten Commandments and resolve to be more moral. This sounds nice, but the Bible is clear that no one can keep the commandments apart from the work of the Spirit in their lives. The person reading the Ten Commandments and resolving to be more moral will be greeted with frustration and despair. There will be others who will read these commandments and have the opposite reaction. The Apostle Paul said he did not know what coveting was until he read “do not covet,” and reading these words produced all types of coveting in his life. Therefore it is possible that reading the Ten Commandments could make some people worse. The best case scenario would be if people read the Ten Commandments, realize how they fail at them, and recognize their need for Jesus. This is one of the Law’s chief functions. We see how we have failed to live up to God’s standard, feel deep inward remorse, and trust in Jesus who gave His life for our sins. That would be a fantastic thing to happen, but that is not the role of the government.
By the way, the House of Representatives approved the measure by a vote of 77-19, and Alabama voters will have the final say. You can read more about this debate here and here.
Last week, a House of Representatives Committee entertained a bill that would cap the amount of interest on Payday Loans at thirty-six percent. Currently, Payday loans can charge interest up to four-hundred fifty-six percent and Title loans can charge up to three-hundred percent. Typically these establishments are found in poor communities where residents are more likely to need short term loans. However, once they receive them they have to pay interest rates that would make the mob jealous. The result is the most vulnerable among us are trapped by a system that the House had an opportunity to put an end to. (Yes, I realize people should know not to get one of these loans, but some people do and our government should protect vulnerable citizens from businesses who are entrapping people in a difficult position.)
The committee considering this bill consisted of nine people who are part of the same body that spend several hours discussing the Ten Commandments. This committee would have done well to think about another passage in the Bible. While Nehemiah was rebuilding the Wall around Jerusalem, some concerned members of the Jewish community visited him. Some had to mortgage their fields because of a famine and others needed to do so to pay the King’s tax. Some of their children were being forced into slavery as a result and they had no means to do anything because other men now had their fields. He brought together the nobles and officials. He confronted them for exacting interest from their brothers. They had just returned from exile and now the nobles were making their fellow citizens into slaves again. He commanded them to abandon the exacting of interest and to restore the lands they had taken away. In this, He also charged them with failing to fear the God of Israel.
What did the House Committee do with the bill to limit the interest on Payday loans? They did not let the bill out of committee. That action is inexcusable in and of itself, but a report in The Montgomery Advertiser reveals something more sinister which could have been in play. Seven of the nine committee members received campaign contributions from these businesses. Some of the contributions were as high as $4,500. Instead of protecting the vulnerable, it appears that some of our Representatives sacrificed them to the highest bidder. Thankfully Senator Scott Beason is introducing a form of this bill in the Senate and we pray for it to pass. At the same time, it is hard to take seriously a body that one day votes to display the Ten Commandments and another day refuses to protect the poor from their campaign contributors.
TRIGGER WARNING: The following section deals with content that may be difficult for some readers.
Tutwiler Prison in Wetumpka has been the subject of Federal attention in recent months. In fact, the Justice Department sent a letter to the Governor last month detailing problems and abuses. You can read the entire letter here, but this is the most disturbing paragraph and summarizes one of the main issues there.
“For nearly two decades, Tutwiler staff have harmed women in their care with impunity by sexually abusing and sexually harassing them. Staff have raped, sodomized, fondled, and exposed themselves to prisoners. They have coerced prisoners to engage in oral sex. Staff engage in voyeurism, forcing women to disrobe and watching them while they use the shower and use the toilet.”
Those words should send shivers down the spine of every person reading them. Thankfully, some members of the Alabama Legislature, like Senator Cam Ward, have advocated for changes at the Prison. Can I ask a question on behalf of all Alabama citizens- Why on earth are we not hearing about this every single day? Why would our House of Representatives discuss any other issue, much less displays in buildings, when men in positions of authority are abusing female prisoners?
Since our Representatives like talking about the Bible, lets talk about the words of Jesus in Matthew 25. Jesus discusses the Day of Judgment, when the sheep are on Jesus’ right hand and the goats on his left. What is one of the things that distinguishes the sheep from the goats? It is their mercy and compassion for prisoners, knowing that what is done for the least of these has been done to Jesus himself. Our Representatives want us to believe they really believe the Bible, and these issues put them to the test. Instead of showing us how much they believe the Bible by displaying it in public places, they have the opportunity to obey it by putting an end to predatory lending and prison rape.
These issues will demonstrate whether Christians in Alabama have genuinely believed the Gospel or have bought into a superficial facade of religion. Are we going to choose Representatives who will display the Ten Commandments but ignore prison rape and the exacting of four-hundred percent interest? Or will we begin to ask people to be our leaders who will not line their pockets at the expense of the poor and who will make serious strides to reform our prisons even though it won’t garner a lot of votes. Then again, if Christians take their Bibles seriously, maybe we will consider Prison reform and protecting the poor to be more important than displays in public buildings.