Can the 1st Amendment be ode to civility?

KC church’s clever pun showcases its 1st Amendment rights. Photo courtesy Asbury UMC, Prairie Village, Kan.

KC church’s clever pun showcases its 1st Amendment rights. Photo courtesy Asbury UMC, Prairie Village, Kan.

Can the 1st Amendment be ode to civility?

Will Rogers used to quip that all he knew was what he read in the papers, but actually he was a voracious reader of many things. We suspect he found out about Open Records laws begotten of the 1st Amendment and is using them with glee in Heaven. He and our churches are both models for distilling days of Open Meetings and thousands of once-hidden documents into the short attention span of the Twitter age.

Will never shied away from the 1st Amendment. Though gone since 1935, he still stands stern watch in the chosen spot of Capitol’s Hall of Statues where Congressmen give live television interviews and carefully parse their words on his watch.

They know he said, “With Congress, every time they make a joke it’s a law, and every time they make a law, it’s a joke.” His specific examples ran on front pages of most newspapers nationwide, and reprints continue in many today.

Yet the satirist “never met a man I didn’t like,” and abhorred trashing politicians’ family, home towns or loved ones.

 He’d join hands with someone he’d skewered the day before—especially for a drive to raise jobs, food or money for those hurt by the Great Depression.

“We’ve got people starving,” he told national radio audience in a joint appearance with frequent foil President Herbert Hoover, whose heart and caring he praised. “These people that you are asked to aid, why they are not asking for charity, they are naturally asking for a job…You know, there’s not a one of us has anything that these people that are without it now haven’t contributed to what we’ve got…(T)he most unemployed or the hungriest man in America has contributed in some way to the wealth of every millionaire in America.”

The 1st Amendment guarantees freedom of religion—allowing free choice while banning any government-endorsed religious beliefs--speech, the press, and the right of people to assemble peaceably and seek redress for their grievances from their government. One of the pithiest portions of the Constitution, it covers all that in 263 characters, 17 under Twitter’s limit.

The limit was half that until 2017, so a 140-character Tweet would have eliminated the 1st Amendment’s guarantees halfway through free speech and not covering free press or public assembly to redress grievances at all.

Open Meetings and Open Records Laws, born of the 1st Amendment, are worthless unless citizens exercise them. Whether a confrontational or a gentle or even slightly whimsical approach bears the best fruit, in today’s Twitter-verse, complex concepts must be reduced to catchy slogans way under 280 characters long.

Churches face the even more complex balancing act of getting across their doctrinal or theological message without treading into the forbidden land of either directly endorsing or trying to squelch an election issue. That because the religion clause of the 1st Amendment bans any “law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

 Street prophets with  signs predicting, “The world will end tomorrow,” have been depicted in countless cartoons, but now the churches themselves are weighing in on societal, cultural and political issues.

Friendship Baptist Church’s pastor posted an “America: Love It or Leave It,” sign in Appomattox, Va., quoting a centuries-old chestnut.

That spurred a worldwide uproar which the local newspaper said may have doomed the church. Its phone and website are shut down and most of its congregation is MIA, at least temporarily.

 But others in the community famed for the Union-Confederation confrontation that ended the Civil War sided with the pastor. (On April 8, 1865 Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army tried to break through Union lines, but discovered his 26,000 troops were outnumbered almost 3 to 1. After casualties of just under 600—quite low for decisive Civil War action—Lee arranged for a cease fire and surrendered the next day to Ulysses S. Grant, essentially ending the war.

Meanwhile in Kansas City last weekend we passed Asbury United Methodist Church on a busy 8-lane throughway in suburban Prairie Village. A lighted sign on the front lawn visible for ¼ mile each way read: “We believe in separation of church and hate,” a clever pun rebutting Friendship’s interpretation of the 1st Amendment by jabbing words associated with both but found in neither.

The 1st Amendment clause defining freedom of religion is said to require “separation of church and state.” As long as Americans have voices or can hold a pen, they will debate its precise meaning.

Asbury has always preached a gospel of replacing hate with love—even inviting players and fans of the hated New York Mets to pre-game worship on its sign before a Sunday World Series game. Friendship’s pastor says he preaches God’s word untainted by changing earthly trends or mores.

Philosophical transparency comes in three stages: Identifying a question about government, using public meetings and public records to research a position, and describing it with a slogan that fits on an electric sign.

Churches have been honing the religious version of that skill for centuries, going from half-day marathon sermons in Latin or other tongues to today’s 15-minute messages. Now they’re racing into the Twitter world.

 Stay tuned—the 1st Amendment says churches can neither endorse nor repress religious speech on political issues, but doesn’t bar churches from promoting underlying values. They’ve got Twitter down to a science on signs.