If I were to tell you that some guy was arrested for inviting people over for Bible studies in his own home, you’d probably would think that I was talking about the victim of an anti-Christian witch-hunt somewhere in North Africa or the Middle East. Thank God folks here in America aren’t burned at the stake for wearing the Holy cross around their neck, gathering ‘round to sing hymnals, or bowing before statues of that virgin lady everybody seems to love so much Freedom of religious expression is pretty much guaranteed in this country, right? Didn’t the holier-than-thou Puritans – who spoke like those melodramatic drama queens in the Shakespeare plays – escape the British Kingdom for these shores precisely because they were reviled and crucified for the way they chose to express their faith? Can’t a sweet-tempered goody two-shoes – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or atheist – simply live in peace? Isn’t that what this nation is all about?
Nope. Apparently, your neighbors’ property values trump your right to worship freely on your own land – as one unfortunate sap found out the hard way during these past few ker-azzzzzy months. Meet Michael Shalman, a good-natured, if somewhat whimsical, family man with a loving wife and six children to call his own. For quite some time now, he’s worked as a pastor in more churches and chapels than you can count on one hand. He’s a YouTube sensation who’s inspired thousands with his divinely-inspired tirades. For years, he’s been trying to get his non-denominational religious group, the Harvest Christian Fellowship, off the ground and running. If he asked his congregation to kiss his feet, lick his face, and give him a sponge-bath, they’d probably do it. That’s how much they adore him.
The moral fabric of our society, they believe, is being mercilessly torn apart. Our current spate of mind-numbing TV programming, irrepressibly off-color and vulgarian Hollywood picture shows, and smutty, cuss-happy pop divas are setting the groundwork for America’s cultural demise. The family unit and the institution of marriage are coming apart at the seams. Long-term goal setting, financial planning, self-restraint, and old-fashioned thrift now take a backseat to self-gratifying hedonist indulgences. Liquor, marijuana, and heroin are cleaved to as acceptable “quick fixes” for the emotional ups-and-downs of life – an easy, relatively painless way to wash all our worries down the drain. Religion is mocked. The misery of the vulnerable and downtrodden is the object of derision and ridicule. Unwed motherhood, even in adolescence, is glorified on cable networks – trivializing the very real hardships these families face in real life. Traditional values are portrayed as regressive, backwards, stone-age relics of the distant past. People are too hopelessly distracted by the crooners and minstrels on American Idol, undignified beauty pageants, good ol’ “my team”-“your team” NFL battle royales, meaningless Facebook chatter, shop-a-holic credit card binges, and materialistic ways to see the destruction all around us – the cultural decay, the blurring distinction between right and wrong, and the breakdown of all the spiritual institutions that built our civilization.
God no longer has a place in our society. Our moral compass is lost. Respect for life is on the wane. We’re becoming a nation of soulless heathens. Our divinely-ordained duty is to deliver the message of the Lord’s grace to all those who will listen, but instead, we are worshipping golden images – IBM, Paramount Pictures, and the Almighty State.
Like any other garden-variety congregation, these people just want a House of Worship to honor their Heavenly Father in. There’s just one itsy bitsy problem: They’re dead broke and have but a living room – and now a tiny pavilion – to gather in mass for their weekly ceremonies.
“Hold on there, buster,” say Progressives. “Don’t twist this to fit your quaint little fundamentalist agenda. Are you seriously going to believe everything Glenn Beck and the right-wing, sycophant FOX News talking heads tell you, flag-waving yuppie? Read the city’s fact sheet. Type in the man’s name on Google. Do a few minutes of independent research, on objective, non-biased news mediums like the Huffington Post, MSNBC, and ThinkProgress. This isn’t some war against religious freedom, you dolt. The city’s nailed him for zoning and permit technicalities. This is the story, not of some anti-Christian inquisition, but of a law-breaking, flim-flam charlatan who needs to be put in his place. This is the story of someone who was out to pick a fight with his neighbors, refused to cooperate with local authorities, and cares little about disrupting the peace in a humble community of ranchers and senior citizens who just want to spend the rest of their days in quiet, serene, undisturbed solitude. We also know,” they righteously huff, “that he’s an ex-felon with a jaw-dropping history of criminal wrong-doings. What do you have to say for yourself, you deceitful, rabble-rousing pariah?”
To that I say: I’m getting there. Don’t get your Eleanor Roosevelt scarves and endangered species jammies twisted up in a bundle.
Back to our story. Pastor Shalman has turned the city of Phoenix upside-down and right side-up searching for a “For Sale” sign next to a church building somewhere. Time and time again, he’s come up short – but one day, as luck would have it, his prayers were finally answered. The moment he stumbled upon this spacious, larger-than-life lot nestled in the gorgeous residential villa of North Glen Square, the possibilities seemed endless. Perfect, he thought. I’ll just check in with city council to see if this area is zoned for churches. It is? Thank my lucky stars! Now I can –
Not so fast, say the agitated denizens of North Glen. You think you can just barge in here and do whatever the hell you want – just because the own the deed to the land, just because you purchased it with your own sweat, blood, and tears? They’re stomping their feet, faces red with fury, fists pumped in the air. You’d almost think they’re about to blow steam out of their ears, like an overheated popcorn kettle. I wouldn’t want to be the waiter who gets their order wrong … or the long-lost uncle who calls them by their sister’s name. They’re howling with animalistic rage. Who does this Mike person think he is? Strutting around like he owns the place! We’ll show him. Administrative offices are ringing off the hook. Outraged neighborhood residents are calling in with complaints about all the trouble that good-for-nothing varmint is up to. And what, exactly, is it they have against him? “Why, once he puts the finishing touches on that there ‘church’ of his, our property values are going down the tube. And why wouldn’t they? Cars will be clogging up the street twice every week. Loud music will be blaring out of amplified boom boxes and rattling up the soil like some off-the-Richter-scale earthquake. And we’ll have a mini-Empire State building towering over our backyards. Happy-go-lucky, sing-song children will be chirping like birds and dancing with sickening glee. Think of the all commotion. Think of all the traffic congestion. Think of all the unwashed, smiley-faced, so-nice-it-makes-me-want-to-barf religious zealots crooning to their mystical Sky Spirits.”
And now, after doing battle with the city over alleged code violations for weeks on end, Salman was handcuffed by the Phoenix SWAT Team wannabes at the local police station, and his home was raided. This man neither laid a finger on anyone nor smashed open any windows. But the way they swooped in and made a spectacle of everything, you’d think he was cooking up an illicit, blood-gurgling baby-kitten-panda stew. “But Phil, even if you do think the coppers were up to the Wazoo on this one, don’t you think you’re kinda leading readers astray? I mean, yeah, I can see where you’re coming from with your righteous indignation. Is he being arrested for all the wrong reasons? Maybe. Are these trumped up charges that no court worth its salt would even consider – unless they want the judge’s name published in some “wacky facts” booklet for kids? Perhaps. But c’mon, does this really have anything to do with his religious convictions?” Okay, I’ll admit that maybe it isn’t just Christianity itself that’s being put on trial here. It’s probably his philosophical radicalism and condemnation of the oh-so-beloved status quo that gives locals the goosebumps.
Whatever the case, let’s call a spade a spade here. The city never took issue with the all the horses trotting around. They never took issue with folks throwing hoot-a-nannies in celebration of the Sunday football game, with twenty or more guests at a time in some cases. How about poker night? Did that ever ruffle their feathers? Nope. Neither did little Susie’s birthday bash, with all her little sugar-crazed, rabidly hyper school-aged friends and their bouncy houses, costumed entertainment, popular children’s songs playing on CD, firecrackers, and noise-makers – I presume. Other get-togethers and recreational events have rarely caught their attention. If this isn’t selective discrimination, I don’t know what is.
Furthermore, one of the head honchos on the city council has, behind closed doors, called Salman a liar, basically accused the pastor of being a money-grubbing shyster, obsessed over his “criminal” record (like nobody else among us has skeletons in their closet), stuck up his nose at the very idea of building a church in a residential neighborhood (anywhere, not just in North Glen Square), and – get this – called Mark a “religious zealot.” Clearly, it’s just not legal technicalities and “ordinances” that are driving the city’s vilification campaign against this man. I mean, seriously, why would there be so much hatred directed toward someone simply for not drilling something in the ceiling that goes “beep, beep” at the first of smoke, having a few basketball games at his joint, and not owning a permit that says, “This is a church, not some secret society of elves and mole people?” Some of the sleazebags in the upper echelons of the city hierarchy, we can only assume, have something against the evangelical community itself.
Progressives say we should save our sympathy for a more deserving bloke. Salman, after all, is a former jailbird – a crook, a thug, a ruffian – who’s merely getting kicked in the shin with a heavy does of karmic retribution. And, yeah if you do a simple background check on the guy (this information is open to the public), he’s had some run-ins with the law in the past, sure. For awhile, he liked to hang around gangs and got nabbed by the fuzz for possession of LSD and other narcotics – although why that makes him the scum of the earth is beyond me, as many of the folks pointing fingers at him probably experimented with some pretty wacky herbs and powders in their youth. That seems to be case with most of our chief executives in recent decades. (Here’s looking at you, Barry. And yet, here you are, cracking down on medical marijuana vendors and robbing cancer patients of the relief they deserve. This, of course, flies in the face of all your empty campaign promises. If you’d been dragged into court for the things you did as a kid, you wouldn’t be rehearsing your scripted speeches in front of a White House mirror right now, would you?)
Flip through the documents, and you might even find “drive-by shooting” somewhere in the thicket of papers listing his numerous offenses over the years. Woah, so he’s a cold-blooded killer, eh? Mm, no. He did fire a bullet into the home of a punk he thought was picking on his ex-lover’s dear old brother, but he didn’t think anybody was actually inside the place. Obviously, that’s not the right way to show a bully you mean business, and there’s no excuse for what Salman did, but he wasn’t planning to draw any blood that night … and he didn’t. The bullet missed the poor kid’s mom by a paper-thin, projector sheet-sized hair. Again, that’s some Cirque de Freak-style stuff, but that sweet ol’ octogenarian farm couple next door has probably done worse for all you know.
Yes, there’s more dirt on Salman – which, to be truthful, does make the hairs on the end of my head stand up (though I can brush it off in light of the fact that it happened way back when). After word got out that one of the teen girls in his old congregation – back before he became the leader of his own fledgling worship group – was sleeping with an older boy, her parents asked him (and don’t ask me where they got this nutty idea) to dress-up in police garb, march over to her beloved paramour’s house, storm in, and scare the living daylights out of the poor young man. I can’t help but recoil in disgust at the outmoded, demeaning, dinosaur-age sexism behind all that. Why is the torch-and-pitchfork mob always chasing after the boy whenever an unmarried teenage couple decide to sleep together? We always assume that males are just sex-crazed wolves out to pounce on whatever piece of pure, unspoiled piece of flesh they can dig their teeth into, even though females are hormonally goofed up at that age, too, and often are the ones to suggest doing the deed in the first place. Salman did the time for this one, and rightfully so. But it’s not like any of us haven’t played some pretty screwed up practical jokes in our “glory days.”
Mike’s gossip queen neighbors want to dramatize this as some kind of surprise twist of events, the likes of which you’d see in a daytime soap opera. Actually, though, the pastor’s pretty open about it. Like many of the Good Book’s most prolific figures, Salman is a recovering “ex-dirtbag” trying to atone for his sins. Sure, he slips up every now and then, but that’s all part of the journey. He’s even trying to get prison inmates to realize the error of their ways. What’s wrong with putting the past behind you and moving on with your life? Why must the nosy, meddlesome busybodies in North Glen be so darn judgmental?
The Progressive smear-bund against Salman is especially rich when, all things considered, they’re usually quick as a flash to stress rehabilitation and emotional healing over harsh, disciplinary prison sentences for criminals that are even more cold-blooded than Mike over here. Sadistic child-murderers are just misunderstood, they say. Why is our first impulse to send them on a one-way ticket to Alcatraz? Can’t we at least try to get them some psycho-therapy first? Like, role-play with bunny puppets and have a heart-to-heart over a cup of tea or something? Whenever African Americans riot in the streets or a redskin robs a bank somewhere, it’s always society’s – or somebody else’s fault – that they didn’t grow up with their heads screwed on straight. Did their parents hug or praise them enough? Were they read bedtime stories before being tucked into bed at night? The white man is keeping him down. The social safety net is skimpy. Our inner city schools are hitting the skids, and politicians are just standing by as the whole system wears away to dust. Any number of excuses are made as to why the criminal took it upon himself to commit such savage atrocities. But if it’s a lily-skinned, suburban, Jesus-loving “religious zealot,” all bets are off. (For the record: I’m in favor of the “soft” rehabilitation-oriented approach when it comes to non-violent drug offenders, tax evaders, prostitutes, and perpetrators of victimless crimes. Hell, even the most hardened of criminals can mend their ways with a little work.)
But even if you forgive Shalman’s wayward past, Progressives say, there’s no way you can justify what he’s doing now. He’s been cited by Phoenix law enforcement officials for innumerable violations of city zoning rules. While advertising his project as a church on social media networks, he first claimed that he was putting up a garage on the permit applications, and then a “game room,” the papers of which expressly prohibit the building of a framework for any disruptive, high-traffic business enterprise – secular or religious. He was reported for not having the proper fire exits in place, or automatic sprinklers to fan the flames in the event that an actual burning occurs. And when the fire department paid him a visit, they delivered a letter from the city council telling him that he can’t have church meetings at his residence until every last brick of the Lord’s House is stacked. Dear ol’ Mike, of course, told them to go pound sand and continued to invite his troupe of Jesus-loving votaries over, in open rebellion to the city’s decrees. Such lawlessness needs to be met with swift legal retribution, say Progressives.
But since when, in American history, does disobeying government orders automatically make one the spawn of Satan? Liberals, along with most decent Americans, romanticize Civil Rights area blacks who actively resisted discriminatory Jim Crow laws and legally segregated busing policies. Technically speaking, they were lawbreakers, but the laws they rebelled against were oppressive, inhumane, immoral, and unbefitting of a civilized society where all men were supposed to be “created equal,” but obviously weren’t treated that way. Schoolchildren everywhere still idolize Gandhi, who defied the motherland in protest of the caste system. When the American colonists, prior to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, unequivocally refused to pay the “tea tax” imposed by the British monarchy – which required them to pay extra fees on most paper products – and smuggled illegal goods in and out of the country in defiance of the trade embargo, they, too, were guilty of supposedly “egregious” offenses under the law. Civil disobedience is a cherished American tradition. Yet liberals pounce on Shalman for trying to express his religious freedom on his own property because he hasn’t jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops yet – as if you should need the State’s permission to worship God in your own way.
It’s sad, really. No one in America today truly owns their property anymore. As in Medieval times, when feudalistic barons practically ran the show, some coercive, parasitic force is claiming first dibs on our earnings (skimming a fixed percentage off the top), second-guessing the changes we’d like to make to the buildings and landscape, and micromanaging our every decision – without the hassle of having to do any of the work. Do you really own your property if, when you fail to pay your “dues” to the State (through your property taxes, for instance), they auction off or seize all your assets and land, without so much as allowing your family their day in court? Your name is the one scribbled on the deed, and yet ultimately it is they who determine whether you get to keep the home you bought with the proceeds of your own labor. The moment you croak, they confiscate a portion of the inheritance, just like the feudal overlords did to their serfs back in the Middle Ages.
You earn a living by growing crops, working the assembly line, slaving in the mines, tilling the land, managing company finances, managing your stores and shops, and a great multitude of other difficult tasks. And yet it is the State that is claiming – not that you permit them to reap a tiny portion of what you sow for the supposedly “greater good” of society – but that they are the ones who permit you to keep a portion of it. The money that the IRS, state collection agency, or local department of revenue doesn’t pick from your pocket is an allowance that you are allowed to keep through their generosity and graciousness. As a business owner, they’ll tell you what products to manufacture, who to hire, how to organize the production process, what safeguards to put in, size specifications for the building, whose approval you need, and so forth. The State is the final arbiter of everything.
It’s not like Pastor Mike dumped piles of rotten garbage on the lawns of his neighbors. It’s not like he’s forcing them to attend mass or contribute to his collection plate. He’s not cranking the speakers to maximum volume in their backyards. His followers aren’t raiding refrigerator drawers and cabinets in the dwellings of area residents. Sure, you have a right not to have your property rights invaded. You do have the right to preserve the physical integrity of land you own and drag to court anyone who tries to pin obnoxious pink flamingos in the ground, throw crumpled up litter on the grass, and use your property for parties and social gatherings without first seeking your permission. But you do not have the right to boss somebody else around about what they can do with theirs. There is no such thing as a “right” to keep your property values from falling. There is no such thing as a right to use bureaucratic busybodies to impose your preferences on others. If you don’t like it, move somewhere else. No one is forcing you to live in that area. That’s the way the housing market is supposed to work. It’s all about risk and return, and sometimes people make mistakes. They miscalculate. But it’s not the government’s job to mold other people, like clay, into your ideal image.
Let the man build the damn church.