Many Americans don?t feel they?re being listened to. Polls show we?re dissatisfied with our government and in the overall direction the country is headed. After eight years of the Bush administration, Americans are getting used to being distracted by red herrings. Countless hours have been wasted by bureaucrats at the federal level endlessly debating controversies like the perils of gay marriage, giant illegal immigrant-impeding border fences and faith-based initiatives, when they should have been figuring out how to give everyone health care and how to get us out of Iraq.
Indeed, politicians and the media gravitate toward ideologically charged controversies that have very little relevance in the domain of public policy for the very purpose of preventing action on the issues that actually affect real people. After all, a divided and dissatisfied public is much easier to control.
Unfortunately, even local governments like the one in my hometown of Green Bay, which are supposed to focus on issues of local importance that affect peoples? lives, are diving headfirst into these sorts of ideological boxing matches.
It all began in the city of Peshtigo. Dan Barker, co-president of the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation was driving through this small city north of Green Bay in early December when he noticed a nativity scene in a city park. He sent a letter to the mayor of Peshtigo complaining about the display, alleging it was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
Pestigo Mayor Tom Strouf argued the display was constitutional because, according to a Supreme Court ruling, such displays are allowed on public property as long as they include secular symbols like reindeer and allow symbols from other religions. The FFRF disagreed and decided to file a lawsuit.
This alone would have been bad enough, but the enterprising president of the Green Bay City Council, Chad Fradette, decided to escalate matters by pushing through a motion establishing a nativity scene on top of Green Bay?s city hall in solidarity with Peshtigo and against those rabid atheists from the FFRF. He even referred to the FFRF as purveyors of ?Madison values,? which are presumably morally inferior to ?Green Bay values.? He then began to speak of bringing in outside assistance from the conservative Alliance Defense Fund and from the Liberty Counsel ? a group affiliated with the late Jerry Falwell ? to help defend the city in the event of a lawsuit.
Things became very ridiculous very quickly. Since the only legal way to have a religious display like the nativity scene in a public place like city hall is to allow other religious displays alongside, many local groups began constructing displays with a, shall we say, different flavor. The Wiccans, a religious group associated with witchcraft, installed a 5-pointed star known as a pentacle alongside the nativity scene. Another group prepared a cross covered in American flags protesting the entanglement of church and state. There were requests to display a peace sign by Unitarians, several Buddhist and Hindu symbols and a 6-foot tall pole commemorating the holiday Festivus.
Someone eventually took down and vandalized the Wiccan pentacle. On Dec. 20, Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt declared a moratorium on all religious displays at city hall. The City Council was deadlocked on whether the nativity scene should remain, and the mayor broke the tie in favor of the display despite the objections of the council vice president and many outside groups. The whole matter is now pending a lawsuit.
I don?t want to argue about whether the display was an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion (although it was). But public temper tantrums like those displayed by civil servants, including mayors and city council presidents, don?t help build confidence in government. The fact that they would spend a month decrying ?Madison values? and provoking a lawsuit on behalf of something as trivial as a nativity scene on public property is outrageous.
What else could we have been discussing? Well, it turns out the Green Bay City Council has been discussing a whole host of controversial issues including illegal immigration penalties, sex offender restrictions and stonewalling a new homeless shelter. This indicates a pattern of disengagement from those values the council is supposed to represent in favor of ideological red meat. The result was both a polarized community distracted from important issues and a very sour holiday season.
Green Bay?s is not the only city council recently getting involved in ideological controversies that it has no place confronting. For example, the Madison City Council took up a resolution in September calling for the impeachment of President Bush. Needless to say, they are not members of Congress and had no jurisdiction over such a resolution. The resolution did not pass, but local government bodies have a limited amount of time. Voters need to decide whether they would rather have that time be spent on ideological pandering or issues that actually affect them.
Ryan Greenfield ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in political science and economics.