Not Quite Guilty

Not Quite Guilty as Charged

JimCoffinBy James Coffin

Recently a city commissioner who’s up for re-election in the Central Florida town of Apopka raised a stir by posting an unrestrained statement on Facebook: “HORRIFYING ALERT!!! IF YOU ARE A CHRISTIAN, AS I AM, WAKE UP!!!”

Judging by her word choice, her wholesale use of capitalization and the ubiquity of her exclamation marks, the candidate seems to have found it . . . well . . . “horrifying” . . . that anyone who isn’t a Christian might presume to run for public office.

In a sort of modern-day equivalent of Paul Revere’s ride, the incumbent commissioner absolutely had to let the citizenry know they were in danger of being taken over by someone who was godless.

“Much to my surprise last night,” the horrified commissioner wrote on Facebook, “I found out that my opponent is not a Christian. She does not have faith in God and feels there is no heaven.”

(It came out later that the “non-Christian” actually is a Christian–just one who’s wrestling with too many questions and has too little certainty to justifiably wear the name Christian, at least in the opinion the candidate who posted on Facebook.)

The U.S. Constitution says there shall be no religious test for public office–which means that the government can’t prevent anyone from running just because they have an “unacceptable” religious viewpoint. No one can be excluded. Not Catholics. Not Protestants. Not Jews. Not Hindus. Not Muslims. Not Buddhists. Not even atheists.

Certainly, voters can base their decisions about whom to vote for on any set of factors they so choose. But the pluralistic spirit of the Constitution runs counter to the intensity of concern contained in the warning posted by the incumbent commissioner.

When the Orlando Sentinel printed an article about the incumbent’s shrill warning, one reader, pouncing on what she claimed was the incumbent commissioner’s inability to use apostrophes correctly in her Facebook warning, wrote: “As a former English teacher, I expected students to know how to properly use an apostrophe. As a voter, I am obligated to understand that being a Christian is not a requirement for holding public office.

“Arguably, things would be much better if our elected officials actually lived and governed by the values of Jesus Christ, and I look for candidates who reflect his example in their lives and voting record. However, it isn’t always the candidate who proclaims his or her Christianity the loudest who accomplishes this goal, and it can even be someone who is Jewish, Muslim or (gasp) a nonbeliever.

“Sadly, by her hysterical tone and focus on her belief that her opponent views her as “easy pickin’s [sic]” as a “dumb” Christian . . . [she] missed an opportunity to seriously and soberly present information about important city issues. . . .”

I appreciated the letter writer’s recognition that many of the social/moral values promulgated by Christianity may at times be lived out as well or even better by those who don’t wear the name “Christian.” And she was right in trying to help the incumbent commissioner understand what any elected official should already know: There is no religious test for public office.

But if my English teachers taught me correctly, “easy pickin’s”–which seemingly is an intentional attempt at colloquially saying “easy pickings”–deserves neither ridicule nor the label “sic.” The rules of punctation, as I read them, say that when a single letter is omitted–as is often done when trying to convey a colloquial tone–the missing letter is indicated by an apostrophe.

Ironically, the incumbent commissioner may have had a whole arsenal of legitimate reasons why her opponent doesn’t deserve the job. But what she chose as her prime, up-front reason wasn’t legitimate. And the letter writer was actually correct that the commissioner had a problem with the proper use of that little mark called “apostrophe.” But the alleged “misuse” that she chose to highlight in her letter to the editor was, in fact, a correct usage.

Traditionally, stories have a moral. I guess the moral of this one is that it’s highly advantageous to know your facts before you make strident public pronouncements. And that cautionary note applies both to political candidates and former English teachers. Not to mention, to all the rest of us.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.