We folks in Florida tend to be incredibly tolerant when it comes to religion. Take what happened in tiny Bradford County last month.
A year ago, a group called the Community Men's Fellowship paid to erect a Ten Commandments monument. They put the big slab of engraved black marble in front of the county courthouse in Starke, a town best known as the dateline for news stories on death row executions at nearby Florida State Prison.
That prompted a New Jersey-based group called American Atheists to sue Bradford County to get the monument removed. The Community Men's Fellowship then filed a suit to make sure the commandments stayed put. During court-ordered mediation, the three parties reached a very Floridian agreement: The atheists would drop their suit and in exchange could put up a monument of their own.
So at the end of June, 200 people crowded into downtown (if you can call it that) Starke to witness the unveiling of the first public marker in the United States dedicated to atheism. A few protesters showed up holding signs that said, “If you don't like our Christian culture, go back home!” and one guy waved a Confederate flag. But most of the crowd seemed supportive of the dual monument idea.
So as you can see, folks in Florida are pretty laid back when it comes to religion. We tolerate Santeria priests sacrificing animals—at least, until their headless carcasses wash ashore behind a waterfront condo. We tolerated the Church of Scientology establishing its world spiritual headquarters in Clearwater—even though church leaders plotted to smear the town's mayor with sex allegations and a phony hit-and-run. We tolerated Pastor Terry Jones barbecuing a Koran in 2011—although when he did it again last year, the local fire department cited his church for violating fire ordinances.
Perhaps we’re so tolerant because so many of our men of the cloth have demonstrated the biblical admonition that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Take, for instance, the minister accused of stealing $70,000 in taxpayer money from a children’s trust. Or the three Central Florida megachurch pastors who resigned after admitting they committed adultery (though not, apparently, with one another). Or the two priests convicted of fraud in the worst case of embezzlement in the U.S. Catholic Church’s history. One of them spent his Florida parish’s money on gambling trips to Vegas with his (much younger) mistress.
Or take the Rev. Henry Lyons, onetime head of the National Baptist Convention. He seemed to be leading a charmed life until his wife, Deborah, spotted some expensive gifts in the trunk of their Mercedes, then wondered why she didn’t get them come Christmastime. That led to her discovery that he’d bought a house for one of his mistresses—a house the wife then torched. That led to a lengthy newspaper investigation that not only turned up more girlfriends but also led to criminal charges that put Lyons behind bars. (As part of the newspaper investigation, I was dispatched to Milwaukee to try to talk to one of Lyons’ mistresses, which is how I came to own the record for the most expensive no-comment in my paper’s history.)
Still, we do have standards. When people on ultra-ritzy Star Island in Miami Beach saw the Ethiopian Coptic Church take over a waterfront mansion and advocate smoking dope as a religious ritual—one in which even the children were puffing on Cohiba-sized joints—they objected, and the local prosecutor swung into action. The Florida Supreme Court ended up telling the Coptics: Sorry dudes, you’re in the wrong.
And then Yahweh Ben Yahweh—aka the Black Messiah, aka Hulon Mitchell Jr., brother of noted opera singer Leona Mitchell—wowed so many people with his church’s abundant good works that the mayor of Miami declared a Yahweh Ben Yahweh Day. But he was dumped from everyone’s social calendar when the feds swooped in a month later and arrested him and 12 followers on charges of racketeering and extortion. The racketeering charges covered 14 killings, two attempted killings, extortion, and arson. Witnesses said he would tell new followers “Kill me a white devil and bring me an ear.”
Floridians frequently feel stirrings of strong religious belief, especially when one of the many disasters that constantly threaten finally befalls us. When a hurricane roars through the land, we drop to our knees. When floods wash away our homes, we seek the aid and comfort of the church. When a sinkhole swallows our house or car or swimming pool, we ask, “Why, Lord?”
And when the crisis was over, as with the hurricanes, floods and sinkholes, everyone went back to doing exactly what they’d done before, building our houses on the sand, pumping more water from underground. Because the secret to our great tolerance is that we don’t think too much about what’s going to happen in the hereafter, or even what might happen next week. We’re too busy angling for a fast buck in the here-and-now.