This is not a Christian nation. The First Amendment refuses to give precedent to any particular religion and enshrines freedom of religion. Several of our colonies experimented with various forms of Christian religious establishment. But when the founders drew up the Constitution and Bill of Rights, they explicitly rejected that notion. This is not a Christian nation. It is a nation of religious freedom.
So in the spirit of religious freedom, I write my thoughts in this regular column about the intersection of religion and social life, including politics. As a Christian pastor, I write particularly from a Christian perspective, but I share many moral and ethical principles with non-Christians and non-believers. So I hope readers may find some place of connection or agreement with me nonetheless.
The Arkansas Legislature is now in session. It is interesting to note that many of our legislators list their religious affiliation, and a remarkable percentage of them are Christian. So from a Christian perspective, I would like to look at some of the decisions they will be asked to consider.
Christians see Jesus as our model. His work was characterized by healing. His taught his followers to be compassionate and generous, caring especially for the vulnerable and needy. Though most of his work was among the peasants and poor, his love seemed boundless. He healed and loved foreigner and native, Jew and Gentile alike. He broke down the social boundaries of his world in order to embrace everyone as his neighbor. He summarized the divine law simply: "Love your neighbor as yourself." How can we fashion human law within that mandate? Our predominately Christian Arkansas Legislature has many opportunities to put Jesus' values into practice.
Their most important opportunity is to re-authorize Arkansas Works, our successful expansion of Medicaid. Since its passage in 2014, Arkansas dropped our rate of uninsured adults from over 1-in-4 to fewer than 1-in-10. The state has saved around $440 million. Neighboring states that did not enact expanded Medicaid closed 57 rural hospitals; we've lost only one. Arkansas Works saves money, protects hospitals and opens health care access to many. What could make Jesus-the-healer happier than expanding access to health care?
In his teaching like the Sermon on the Mount and in his other stories and actions, we see Jesus emphasizing our responsibility to the vulnerable – the poor, the stranger, the sick, the needy. He was non-violent, a peacekeeper. Using his moral lens, let's look at some other issues our legislators will decide.
There are several bills expanding opportunities and responsibilities for our neighbors from the Marshall Islands who live here under the Compact of Free Association agreed to after the U.S. tested atomic bombs on their islands. Many Marshallese have settled in Northwest Arkansas and they contribute significantly, especially to our poultry industries.
State Sen. Greg Leding of Fayetteville has proposed an amendment to the Arkansas Constitution to make evictions a civil issue rather than a criminal one, and to create some basic standards for rental units. House Bill 1009 would allow public schools to distribute excess food to students. House Bill 1176 would allow Medicaid to continue successful behavioral and mental health services in telehealth. Good.
Senate Bill 295 would make it harder to provide Medicaid and SNAP services to low-income neighbors. Not good, especially in a time of pandemic.
Considering Arkansas' long history of racial discrimination, legislators should be particularly sensitive to bills that negatively affect racial minorities.
One of the worst bills is House Bill 1112, another voter suppression act. In the tradition of the poll tax and other Jim Crow laws, this new form of voter ID would target the elderly, poor and minorities to solve a problem that does not exist.
The Legislature had the good sense to reject Rep. Mark Lowery's school censorship plan. But today the House Legislative Committee is schedule to rehear Senate Bill 24, the "Stand Your Ground" bill. It would remove the duty to retreat, under certain circumstances, from Arkansas' self-defense laws. Laws like this in other states are especially dangerous for people of color. Many religious leaders oppose this bill. It seem that Jesus addressed the question definitively when an armed band came to arrest him. One of his disciples took his sword and struck an attacker. Jesus healed the injured man and gave us a sharp command, "No more of this." (Luke 22:51)
I would commend Christian values to our legislators. Seek to protect the weak, the stranger, the ill and the marginalized. The rich and powerful, like me, have a duty to underwrite and support equal opportunity for all.