he biblical book of Daniel tells a tale from the times of the Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar the Great. Babylon today is a pile of ruins about 50 miles south of Baghdad. But about 600 B.C. Babylon was the center of the world and its largest kingdom; founded by force of arms and culture. On the plain of Dura just outside the city), Nebuchadnezzar erected a 90-foot golden statue of a figure he had seen in a dream. Daniel, a Jewish captive from the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem, gave a meaning to the dream, which had eluded the king’s soothsayers. Daniel told the king that the figure, divided into different metallic parts, was a succession of world powers—and that he, Nebuchadnezzar, was the golden head of the edifice.
Therefore the statue: transformed by the king’s hubris into a head-to-toe golden monument to himself. He had the object erected on the Plain of Dura. His idea was to require all his subjects to worship it. It was a clever idea to a point. The empire was made up of many peoples and many gods—what better way to unite it than to introduce a common deity, the god king? Worship of the state would supersede all other loyalties.
It is interesting that about 160 miles south of Atlanta, Georgia, there is another Plains of Dura, the original name of the little town of Plains, home to 776 people, including the thirty-ninth president of the United States President Jimmy Carter. There have been many types of president of the United States, President George Washington, while Masonically religious, governed in a distant, secular manner. Thomas Jefferson had a healthy respect for faith, but his contemporary reputation was that of an atheist. Another type was Andrew Jackson, frontier swashbuckler who was more likely to duel an opponent than try Christian persuasion. Abraham Lincoln played the religion card very well without revealing much of his own religious identity. In many ways Jimmy Carter was the first really religious president: willing to discuss the nature of personal temptation and sin, always wearing his Baptist identity on his sleeve—but keeping his personal faith at a good First Amendment remove from the job. It is worth remembering that the U.S. road to Baghdad, Beirut, and the tango with Isis began during Carter’s tenure with the fall of Iran to Islamic rule and the U.S. hostage situation. But Carter knew better than to insert a narrow or particular religious viewpoint into America’s public persona. One can only wonder how the history book narrative would have run if the Islamic Republic of Iran had opted to release the hostages before the election and not after, as they were asked to do by the Reagan campaign team. But there was no chance for Carter to erect any sort of golden figure for his tenure. It was too humble a faith vision for that.
A few days ago I drove down to Plains, Georgia, in hopes of catching Jimmy Carter teach his regular Sunday schoolclass at the Maranatha Baptist Church. For years I had intended to make the pilgrimage, and news that the former president had been diagnosed with brain and liver cancer made me think that I had put it off for too late. Then came the follow-up news that the treatment appeared to have stopped the disease in its tracks, and I knew it was now or never. After Saturday Sabbath religious liberty meetings in Atlanta I drove down to nearby Amercus, Georgia, for a short night’s sleep and was up early and at the Maranatha Baptist Church by 4:30 in order to get ahead of the lines that quickly ensure the little church will be overfilled. I ended up first in line, and by the time the president made his 10:00 a.m. entrance I was on the front seat at the end he favored for addressing the class.
This current presidential campaign has indeed featured religious issues and identity themes, even if a little more obscurely than some years. I always get the impression that there is a voter calculus to all the positions taken, and rarely do I sense personal investiture. But sitting there in front of an aged president as he held forth, without notes, on a Bible lesson, I was struck by how authentic this surely is for him. Even now the president and his wife, Rosalynn, travel a lot with the Carter Center and Habitat for Humanity projects. But whenever he is in town, Jimmy Carter takes the lesson. In fact, I looked at his schedule for March, April, and May and noted that he is on post for 10 weeks in total.
I sat and absorbed the lesson from this sage who at one point said in passing, “I was president once,” as a sort of apology, and thought that this is part of true greatness. Not the Nebuchadnezzar boasting. No gold-plated statue in that little church—we were told that carpenter Carter had carved and donated the wooden cross and wooden offering plates, which, I noted, are carved with the initials “J.C.”
What was the issue back those many years on the Babylonian plain of Dura? It must have been easy for most to have bowed before the symbol of power and “pay meet adoration to my household gods,” as Tennyson puts it in another ancient setting. State-sponsored religion is an easy take for most, because they want to appear loyal and it can be easily excused as just a sort of ceremonial deism. But as always, there is the issue of coercion lurking behind the call to worship and obedience. Coercion is the litmus test for bad governance and the marker for a lack of religious freedom, even if the coercion is toward “good” morals.
You probably remember the story from Sunday school days or some childish retelling of the great confrontation between three captive “boys” and the autocratic king Nebuchadnezzar. All the others in the crowd bowed at the signal to worship. Three stayed on their feet. On pain of death they said, “We will not serve thy Gods.” Of course the king was “full of fury,” to put it mildly. He ordered them thrown into a fiery furnace. The only mystery in the story is why a king who had been given such a supernatural dream of passing kingdoms and its interpretation should have been so shocked to discover the three men unharmed in the fire; and with them “a fourth who looked like one of the gods.” (Daniel 3:25, NIV).*
Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."