Christians Under Attack in South Carolina
Yes, it’s true, according to the Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina, Andre Bauer. A U.S. District Court held this week that a State-sponsored vehicle license plate featuring a cross superimposed over a stained glass window with the words “I Believe” violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. As reported by The State newspaper, the Lt. Governor declared in response that the ruling was “another attack on Christianity.” (BBC coverage here with a picture of the plate).
Who knew that in South Carolina Christians were under attack? Perhaps the U.N. should open an investigation into religious oppression in South Carolina by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief? I jest, though as we have seen, the U.N. doesn’t always investigate the most obvious places.
The “I Believe” license plate originated with the Lt. Governor, whose role was highlighted in the court’s opinion. In public comments, he claimed: “So we have become a silent majority quite frankly, folks. When a secular group can get a license plate and nobody challenges it, but Christians can’t, there’s a problem in the system.” Such persecution rhetoric does lend itself to a particular kind of resentment—the Lt. Governor is in the majority, but cannot enact his preferred agenda. Of course, there is an important reason why he cannot do so, other than the oppression of a “silent majority”: constitutional constraint in the form of the Establishment Clause. The Lt. Governor’s rhetorical strategy highlights how constitutional discourse migrates and transforms as it is applied in new circumstances. Equality discourse, usually deployed on behalf of those occupying a minority status, is redeployed here to assert claims by a majority against others. Thus, the Lt. Governor can gin up outrage that Christians, who are an overwhelming majority, are not being treated equally in the public sphere. Equality arguments have worked in other contexts to support inclusion of Christian viewpoints in state-sponsored fora. Though, the problem here is that the Christian viewpoint is one the State of South Carolina adopted itself, rendering the Lt. Governor’s position clearly untenable. As creative as the equality argument may be, we see that constitutional rhetoric is not always closely aligned with commitment to particular forms of constitutional constraint.