EDITOR’S VIEWPOINT/Following the script
I t’s rare, and oddly comforting, when conservative groups agree with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and apparently they have found some common ground in a place where, ironically, the ground is always shifting: a river. Winding its way through a public park near Fredericksburg, Va., the Rappahannock River became center stage for another episode in the ongoing Church vs. State reality show. On May 23, representatives of the Fredericksburg-Stafford Park Authority attempted to stop Rev. Todd Pyle from baptizing a dozen new members of his church. Park officials interrupted the ceremony saying that the baptism might be offensive to other people using the park. The preacher was allowed to continue, but was asked to leave when the ceremony was over.
Like any good reality show, the players responded on cue. First, the Christian Defense Coalition jumped into the river skirmish, followed by The Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville, Va.-based conservative civil liberties group. Entering on stage left, to swim alongside the defenders of the faithful was an old friend of the First Amendment, the ACLU, who said that if the park allows swimming in the river, then baptisms should be a wash.
Nevertheless, as the first scene closed with a wave of lawsuit threats, the next opened with the announcement by another local church that it would baptize a mentally retarded man who is a member of its flock. Once again on cue, the Christian Defense Coalition prepared a lawsuit to sue the Park Authority if it tried to stop the baptism.
Park Manager Brian Robinson reportedly said the controversy has been “twisted beyond recognition.” The park doesn’t prohibit religious activities, he says, but requires any large group to get a permit in advance. Robinson also says the park will not interfere with the upcoming baptism. It was either that or the river becomes the Ganges of baptismal rights.
For decades, local officials have had to react to emotional issues inflamed by differences in religion, sexual preference and race. I have noticed, though, that over time, people have developed — and are more likely to use — a conditioned response to those issues, rather than reasoned response. Conditioned responses are often based on the fear of prejudice or, in the case of Virginia park officials, fear that the religious ceremony would offend some residents. As it turns out, the baptism story really isn’t about religion, park officials say, but about equal treatment (and bureaucracy, of course).
But who could blame the park officials or the church congregation for their reactions? They, like many of us, have become bad actors in a reality show scripted by our enemies. Possibly the most damaging result of 9/11 has been to increase our fears and mistrust of each other, especially on the issues that divide us.
Similar to the 1960s — which began with the Civil Rights movement and ended with a country consumed by the Vietnam War — today we are living in a period drenched in social stress. However, now, like then, local government can make a profound difference by practicing restraint over conflict and encouraging reason over fear. We may be a nation of laws, but that only works if we are a community of leaders.