All rational Kentuckians want the Commonwealth to emerge under your leadership into “a better place.” I am one of them. You promised to seek out common ground to make the state “the best version of itself.” Such an approach honors our state motto: ”United we stand, Divided we fall.” Given the current highly polarized nature of our current political and civil life, we face a monumental challenge together. As did many of us, I looked to your first major address as Governor last week for signals of how you would proceed – the example you would set for the executive and legislative branches of our government. To be truthful, I felt that even your very opening words were at odds with your promises. Let me explain.
During two fellowships in Kentucky’s Cabinet of Health Services, and as a former government affairs representative of the University of Louisville, I attended innumerable legislative sessions in Frankfurt. Each day’s formal session typically began with an invocation, virtually always delivered by a Christian minister. I assume, but cannot in the remoteness of time confirm, that a rabbi opened at least an occasional session. I do not personally recall an invocation by a Muslim, Hindu, and certainly not by a Wikkan! I thought it improper then, that no matter how usefully inspiring, ecumenical or non-denominational the text of an invocation was, that it always seemed to end with a declaration that the legislators were doing their work in the name of Jesus Christ – variously amended as the Redeemer, Savior, or with some other doctrinal qualifier of that day’s confession.
So it was last week before your introductory budget address before both legislative chambers, the judiciary, and the Commonwealth. At first, I thought the minister on duty was delivering an appropriately inspirational introduction. As he neared its end, I unwillingly found myself holding my breath, hoping like Charlie Brown spotting the football that this time the end result would be different. Alas, it was not. Our legislators were asked once again to act “in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.” Moments later, with your very opening words, you reinforced the commingling of church and state by expressing how “fortunate we are to be able to open in prayer … to pray in the name of Jesus Christ.” I think the politician in you anticipated that this would be the big applause line it was. In my view, aligning the mechanism of our democracy with the dogma of any religion is the antithesis of seeking common ground. Frankly, after my disappointment at your opening, I was no longer in a receptive state of mind to hear the rest of your comments in the way you may have hoped for.
You are taking some heat this week about your statements that while our university students were free to study French if they wanted to, that they were not worthy of public support such as from state-sponsored scholarships. Did you consider that in this promised era of performance-based funding of our public institutions of higher education, that your comments will in fact diminish the number of scholastic offerings available? This would be an unfortunate outcome indeed. Let me suggest that a student of French language and history would have learned well how the never-ending battles over whose god was the right one and to establish state religions tore Europe apart for centuries and killed millions. One need not be a historian at all to see that religious conflict, or actions in the name of religion underlie virtually every conflict or genocide in today’s world! It can happen here. It has happened here.
Your words, even if you did not intend them to do so, hurt me. They said to me that “United as Christians, We stand,” and by inference, “United as white, straight, Christians – We stand against those who are not.” You had an opportunity to express a different vision and you did not. I am confident that your words will dissuade some folks from coming to from Kentucky to live and work who could help us be the best version of ourselves. Sadly, it is obvious that more than a few in our Commonwealth think that would be a good idea. They should not be getting even unintended encouragement.
I have had a good life in Kentucky and am glad to be here. It pains me to hear others, especially from elsewhere in the nation, portray us as a commonwealth of intolerance towards others because of their skin color, or their national or ethnic origin, because of their sexual orientation, their intellectual aspirations, or yes, their religion. If there were a Scopes trial today, I fear it would be in Kentucky. (Indeed, we may yet have such a thing this year over the issue of same-sex marriage.) Such perceptions, even if wildly incorrect, harm us all. This is not what Kentucky is all about.
Perhaps you were simply giving a nod to some of the voters who put you in office – but this with an unintended result of reciprocally putting a thumb into the eyes of others. Perhaps it truly never occurred to you that you could be perceived as endorsing a state religion. Either possibility is distressing to me. I take no pleasure in offering this criticism in the opening weeks of your tenure, but to say nothing at all would be to support a position I would like to believe you did not mean to imply. Sadly, I believe you did. I think we can do better in presenting the best of ourselves – to each other, and to the world.