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Religious Faith at the Heart of Georgia Flag Debate

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Jesus’ position was referenced often during a heated four-hour debate in the Georgia state Senate Jan. 30 over changing the state flag, which resulted in a diminished Confederate battle emblem.

Addressing the Senate, Gov. Roy Barnes quoted a letter from former Sen. Clint Day saying “people of faith must be guided by a moral compass that goes beyond political expedience. The Christian faith may ask ‘What would Jesus do?’ about the flag. I believe Jesus would change the flag to unite people.”
The Senate voted 34-22, with five more votes than the minimum needed for passage, adopting a new flag design in which the rebel banner, added to the flag in 1956, is reduced to one of five historic flags displayed on a ribbon below the state seal.  It previously occupied two-thirds of the flag.
The new flag was raised at the State Capitol Jan. 31.
During the debate, Sen. Tommy Williams, R-Lyons, said he had asked the question about what Jesus would do.
“And I really didn’t like the answer I got, because it went against my constituents,” said Williams. “I think [Jesus] would change the flag. But he wouldn’t use secrecy to do it.”
The bill changing the Georgia flag needed 29 votes to pass. Four of the Senate’s 32 Democrats voted against the measure, but six Republicans voted for it, according to The Associated Press.
Sen. Joey Brush, R-Appling, said he voted against the new flag because he believed it was the right thing to do.
“I’m a Christian,” he said. “I cannot let those [Civil War] boys who left their homes and fought for Georgia be forgotten or let ’em down. I love this flag… I don’t feel guilty.”
Sen. Charlie Tanksley, R-Marietta, approached the Senate citing the Bible in an effort to point out the arrogance and pride which often arise from the stories of the past when they are detached from their purposes and taken out of context.  Speaking in favor of the new banner, he urged the leaders “not to repeat the mistakes of the past in the light of God’s loving effort to reconcile us to him and to each other.”
“When we vote on matters like this, we have to rely on faith,” said Tanksley. “God tells the faithful, ‘I will prosper you and keep you safe until you are old and your hair is gray.’ The time has come to unify under a new banner. The time has come to be faithful.”
After four hours of religious and political debates revolving around old southern heritage, Governor Barnes urged the lawmakers to “vote their conscience.”
“The debate over the Georgia stage flag dramatizes the South’s profound understanding of how race, religion and politics interact,” said Cliff Vaughn, associate director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. “As Southerners, we have consistently exhibited a genuine preoccupation with how religion informs political action.”
Senators agreed that faith played a key role in their vote.
“I prayed for divine guidance in making the proper decision,” said Sen. Rene Kemp, D-Hinesville, according to Augusta Chronicle.
Sen. Richard Marable, D-Rome, said his vote to change the flag came after he “looked deep into [his] heart and prayed” before Tuesday’s historic vote, according to AP.
Following the bill’s passage by the Georgia House of Representatives, the St. Louis-based Council of Conservative Citizens announced on its Web site that the vote went against the popular opinion.
“The Georgia legislature rammed through a bill to dump the state flag and replaced it with a contrived substitute designed by an outspoken adversary of the current flag,” said the Web site. “The new flag was designed by architect Cecil Alexander, an Atlanta Jew whose son has been a vocal critic of the current flag for years.”
Alex Smirnov is a research associate at the Baptist Center for Ethics.