The relationship between America and religion has been quite interesting to watch over the country’s relatively short history. After all, some could say the country was founded by the Pilgrims: those seeking freedom from religious intolerance. Of course, the Lenape, the Lakota and the Navajo, among many others, were here first. But that’s a different article.
Founded on the ability of its citizens to practice religion peacefully – no matter what religion that happened to be – there’s a saying we all know that’s supposed to inform government decisions: the separation of church and state. In other words, while those who lead are free to believe in whatever they’d like, they can’t use their power to force people to believe similarly.
Which brings us to an interesting case that’s sprouted up in Indiana.
Does Jesus write traffic tickets?
In August, Ellen Bogan was pulled over in Union County for an alleged traffic violation.
Everything seemed to be perfectly normal. In fact, some could argue it worked out even better than normal for Bogan, who received a warning instead of a ticket.
But just before Bogan thought the traffic stop was winding down, Indiana State Police Trooper Brian Hamilton decided to ask her a series of questions: Does she go to church? Does she believe in Jesus Christ? Does she realize Jesus died for her sins?
“It’s completely out of line and it just – it took me aback,” Bogan recently said. After those questions were asked, Hamilton allegedly took out a religious pamphlet from his cruiser before presenting it to her and letting her go on her way.
Partnering with the American Civil Liberties Union, Bogan filed a lawsuit against Hamilton in a federal court in September. It remains to be seen how that case will unfold, and in the meantime, the police department says it’s taken some sort of disciplinary measures. But that statement lacked specifics.
What’s going on here, anyway?
At the very basic level, Hamilton should be ashamed of himself for his actions after pulling Bogan over.
Even though he might have been well-intentioned, the fact is that as an officer in uniform, he is a representative of the government. More specifically: a government that prides itself on keeping church and state affairs separate from one another.
Because of what they represent, most law-abiding Americans are going to be pretty scared during even the most routine of interactions with police officers. After all, state troopers are physical manifestations of law enforcement. We are taught from an early age to respect and/or fear them, lest there be consequences.
And that respect usually entails listening to what they have to say and keeping quiet in order to not dig yourself into an even deeper hole.
Bogan did what most smart Americans would do: behaved cordially and kept quiet. But the experience to her, a non churchgoer, was so odd that she couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie. And I guess that’s understandable given today’s political climate.
But at the end of the day…
While Hamilton was clearly out of line here – after all, officers aren’t allowed to detain you for longer than they need to if you’re not going to be arrested for a crime – let’s keep in mind that his actions, no matter how you want to phrase them, aren’t grievous.
We of course can’t just hop into Hamilton’s mind and understand exactly what was going through it at a certain point, but it appears as though his offense is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. Just consider the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma City officer accused of sexually assaulting women he pulled over.
Police officers are humans, too. Even the calmest, coolest and most collected officer will from time to time remember that he or she is more than a badge and a gun. That officer will show attributes that make him or her, well, human.
So is this story so outrageous because Hamilton was trying to convert a constituent to his religion? Would it be a nonstory if he asked Bogan whether he’d buy Girl Scout cookies that his daughter was trying to sell? Or would that be going over the line, too?
I have to admit: I do expect things to be different in the private sector. I’ve been accosted about my contribution to global warming while shopping at a local business. I didn’t really expect it, but that’s Free Speech at work. Perhaps the better example would be another public servant, such as a teacher. Should teachers be able to proselytize to their captive audience? Of course not; some of the teachers I respected the most over the years were the ones who were obviously opinionated but didn’t let their feelings enter into their work “personas.”
The bottom line here is that, as a country, we are too easily offended by just about everything. There was even a considerable uproar over a recent Jeopardy! category called “What Women Want.” While the category might have been poorly conceived, particularly in today’s perpetually offended society, take a step back and realize that the family-oriented quiz show likely wasn’t trying to make some grandiose political commentary on a touchy subject.
The easier answer? The producers made a mistake.
While Hamilton was certainly in the wrong in this particular scenario, is it really that big of a deal? Did anyone else come forward to say that the trooper had done the same thing to them? Would people care if an atheist asked a religious constituent whether he or she believed in no god?
We will never live in a perfect society. But with all the other craziness going on across the globe, it might be time for America to take a deep breath and pick bigger battles.
Image Credit: Keoni Cabral (via Flickr)