Funk on Faith

Lincoln commissioners chairman, meet Thomas Jefferson

Carrol Mitchem, chairman of the Lincoln County board of commissioners.
Carrol Mitchem, chairman of the Lincoln County board of commissioners. Courtesy of Carroll Mitchem

In the film “Annie Hall,” Alvy Singer (played by Woody Allen) gets annoyed as the guy behind him in a line to buy movie tickets spews a stream of uninformed opinions. When the guy begins pontificating about famed communications guru Marshall McLuhan, the real McLuhan magically appears and confronts the blowhard.

“I heard what you were saying,” McLuhan tells him. “You know nothing of my work.”

I thought of that scene this week as I read comments from Lincoln County Board of Commissioners Chairman Carrol Mitchem. He told WBTV and the Lincoln Times-News that only Christian prayers would be said at government meetings in his county.

“I don’t believe we need to be bowing to the (religious) minorities,” said Mitchem, a Republican. “The U.S. and the Constitution were founded on Christianity. This is what the majority of people believe in, and it’s what I’m standing up for.”

He added: “I don’t need no Arab or Muslim or whoever telling ... us here in the county what to do about praying. If they don’t like it, stay the hell away.”

I first wondered if Mitchem had read the U.S. Constitution, which never mentions God or Jesus. In the First Amendment, it even prohibits Congress from establishing an official religion.

But then I imagined what it would be like if I could duplicate the trick in “Annie Hall” and get a real Founding Father to confront Mitchem – say, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and our third president.

Jefferson would acknowledge that the Declaration famously says that we are endowed by our Creator with certain rights. But “minority” religions – including Judaism and Islam – believe in a Creator-God, too.

And the Sage of Monticello would admit that he admired Jesus’ moral teachings. But he rejected Jesus’ divinity and produced “The Jefferson Bible” by cutting out all the passages about miracles and claims that Jesus was God.

Jefferson would end by recounting how, in a letter during his presidency, he said his view of the First Amendment was that there was “a wall of separation between Church & State.”

It seemed from his comments as if Mitchem wanted to tear down that wall. His words about Muslims sounded like what the Islamic theocrats who run Iran might say about Christians.

I called him Thursday, and he said he wished he could take back some of his words. He was guilty, he said, of “talking without thinking” in his comments about the rights of those of other religions. And while Mitchem stood by his belief that the Founding Fathers were mostly Christians, he said that would not affect how he treated his non-Christian constituents. “I’ll treat them with utmost respect,” he said.

Mitchem’s comments came the same week as a new Pew poll that found America is actually becoming less Christian (down to 71 percent from 78 percent in 2007). Meanwhile, the percentage of “nones” – those claiming no religious ties – is growing rapidly, especially among “millennials” (18-to-34 year olds.)

As a lifelong Catholic, I am not cheered by news that fewer Americans seem to see organized religion, including Christianity, as relevant to their lives. I’d find it sad if, some decades from now, America’s churches are as empty as those in Europe are now.

Still, maybe the message of all this is that our Founding Fathers and Mothers got it right: that the United States should be a place where everybody has the freedom to worship – or to not worship – as they see fit.

Funk: 704-358-5703; tfunk@charlotteobserver.com

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