editorial (2008-08)

The God Oddity


The greatest advantage of the County Commissionâ’s recent â“God Resolutionâ” is its meaninglessness. The resolution, as passed by an exhausted commission in the wee hours of the morning last week, urged â“all American citizens who have similar beliefs to proclaim to every level of government its responsibility to publicly recognize God as the foundation of our National Heritage.â”

Similar beliefs to whose? County Commissionâ’s? That puzzling phrase was added by Commissioner Mike Hammond, and, regardless of his intent, we should be grateful for it. If the resolution were phrased in its original, more coherent fashion, it would have come awfully close to being an open violation of the First Amendment, that government â“shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.â” The State of Tennesseeâ’s Constitution underscores that â“no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship,â” (Section 3) and â“No...religious test, other than an oath...shall ever be required as a qualification to any office.â”

No, the God Resolution doesnâ’t mention a particular denomination, and maybe the commissioners felt they were being generous-hearted and open-minded in using terminology that would theoretically include Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, and certain of the more theistic strains of Unitarianism. But the word God itself definitely implies religion, and moreover a specifically monotheistic religion unlike Buddhism or Hinduism. And urging government agencies to acknowledge God as the source of â“National Heritageâ” seems like legislation aimed at establishing religion.

Several other, mostly rural, counties in the South have passed some version of the resolution, generally a more coherent one. In some respects, itâ’s not hard to see the motive, which may well be a reaction to fastidious efforts to remove religion entirely from the public sphere, resulting in random but much-publicized absurdities like the â“holiday tree,â” and references to â“the Winter Holidaysâ” in posted government-building closing hoursâ"when, after all, a phrase like â“the Holidaysâ” would suffice.

We have heard that some members of the community may take the matter to the American Civil Liberties Union, which could lead to an expensive and embarrassing lawsuit for the county. If only it werenâ’t phrased in such an obviously nonsensical way, we might have something to worry about.

This theocratic pratfall once again raises the risk inherent in the current shape of commission, even for the short term. Given the term-limit chaos, commission is still short eight commissioners. There are supposed to be 19; 11 were there to vote on the God Resolution; eight, fewer than half Knox Countyâ’s prescribed complement of elected officials, voted for it. One entire district, the once-influential fourth district of near-west Knoxville, is entirely unrepresented on the version of commission that passed the God Resolution. But it passed, albeit in a wonky form.

A total of 73 candidates will be running for the open seats in February, and under ordinary circumstances, it might make sense to bite the bullet and just wait another six months until the general election picks new commissioners.

But loony deviations like the God Resolution make filling the empty commission seats now seem all the more urgent.

Dr. Oliver King Agee, 1922-2007

We mourned to hear of the passing, earlier this month, of Dr. Oliver King Agee. Raised in Knoxville, Dr. Agee became better known in Maryville, where he had been a beloved physician and community leader for decades. Working in turn as a general practitioner, an anesthesiologist, and a nursing-home physician, he made a reputation for himself as a kind and able doctor. His chief failure was retirement; Dr. Agee was still practicing as a physician at the age of 85. He saw patients the week he died, unexpectedly, after a fall.

He represented a union of several strains of local history; he was descended from the Wrights of Wrights Ferry fame; his first two names were shared by one of the last riverboats of the steam era, the well-known Oliver King, which happened to be owned by Dr. Ageeâ’s grandfather; and he was the first cousin and closest living local relative of the author James Agee. The author was about 13 years Dr. Ageeâ’s senior, and lived in town only when Oliver was a small boy.

Dr. Ageeâ’s funeral last week in Maryville was well attended, a testament to a life well lived.


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