One of the greatest inventions of modern time for those of us who travel is the GPS device. It stands for “global positioning system.” You put it on the inside of your windshield and plug it into the cigarette lighter. It shows you a map on a screen and tells you – and I mean that literally because there is a robotic voice that talks to you – what route to take from where you are to where you want to go.
It’s all done by satellite. I rely on my GPS when traveling to strange cities where I usually arrive alone long after darkness has fallen. I no longer have to ask the Hertz guy to give me directions to my destination or, worse, have him give me a map that I can’t read in the dark.
I arrived in Charlotte, N.C., one recent afternoon and thought, “It will be easier than ever to get to my destination because it is still light out.” I typed in the name of the state (fine) and then typed in the name of the town, Ridegcrest (not so fine; the GPS said no town with that name existed in North Carolina).
I knew the place was near Asheville, so I thought I could probably find it as I got closer. After a number of false turns, I reached Ridgecrest, a crossroads that seemed to consist entirely of the LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center.
I had come to do a debate about the First Amendment before a crowd of about 800 people at a conference sponsored by American Vision, a Christian Reconstructionist outfit. I didn’t expect a warm reception. As I pulled into the parking lot, the first bumper sticker on a van I saw read, “Imagine Abortionists On Trial For Murder.” This might be a really tough crowd.
Reconstructionists believe not only that all of the Bible is literally true and that there are no inconsistencies to be found, but that the laws of the Old Testament should literally be the laws by which people in the United States and every other nation should live by today. Reconstructionists don’t just oppose church-state separation, they frankly espouse theocracy. You have to give them points for candor if nothing else.
The topic of the debate was: “Resolved: That the No Establishment of Religion Clause Bars A Bible-Based Public Policy.” My opponent was Herb Titus, the former dean of Pat Robertson’s Regent University Law School. Titus had left that position with less than happy feelings. Some even said Herb was just “too conservative” for Pat.
The debate itself was quite civil and a bit dry. Titus’ argument, in a nutshell, is that the only real source of understanding of the meaning of the “no establishment of religion” principle is the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Although drafted by Thomas Jefferson, this legislation was pushed through the legislature by James Madison.
Titus asserted that Madison had strong religious beliefs, and thus the First Amendment reflects the full collection of Madison’s sentiments. Madison, Titus insisted, would be highly upset by the sweeping claims of Americans United and the ACLU about how government can’t promote religion.
I took issue with all of this, pointing out the more expansive view of “non-establishment” in what is recorded about the congressional debate (notes, not a verbatim record) and state ratification debates (even less actual recording done). I also noted that Madison was a strong separationist and not known as a particularly devout man.
I then asked Titus about some of the views of the Reconstructionists. Do they, for example, really believe that “incorrigible children” should be stoned to death? I didn’t get a very clear answer.
After the formal debate ended, some people came up for one-on-one conversation. The talk was polite but a bit strange. Most of the attendees were true believers. They detest public schools, and nearly all of them engage in home schooling. One man even vowed that he might not let his daughter out of the house to attend college if she hadn’t reached a point of “good character.” All I could say was, “Good luck with that.”
Evolution was another hot topic. The attendees hate evolution; there is, one told me, “absolutely no evidence for it at all” and that its conclusions are based “on a particular worldview that is just like the worldview of Christianity,” except, of course, for it being totally wrong. (Earlier in the day, the group had been lectured by a writer named Gary Bates, who argues that people who claim to have been abducted by space aliens have probably been seized by “fallen angels” – sure, the evidence for that is overwhelming).
I finally had to excuse myself for bed. Being a Baptist retreat center there was, of course, no television in the room, so if CNN had announced the end of the world, no one there would have known about it.
I didn’t replay the debate in my head on the way back to Charlotte the next morning, something I sometimes do as I kick myself for not making some brilliant (in hindsight) observation. No, heading back to my real world, I mainly thought: “I need to find the instruction manual for this GPS so I can change the voice to the British accent version. Even if it gets me lost again, at least it’ll sound sophisticated.”
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.