Church and State

By lex, on Sun – April 24, 2005


A continuing dialogue ** between correspondent DM and your humble scribe.

We talk past each other, sometimes. But we do it with mutual respect, I think.

I’m OK with that.

Many of you are probably tired of this conversation already. I’m OK with that too.

A sea story next. I promise.

DM writes, in response to my last * :

Are we the moral beacon, or the Capitol of freedom? I steer towards the Capitol of Freedom for several reasons. First and foremost, the concept of the Moral Beacon really doesn’t seem to allow for much relativity. We can talk about how this country was founded on Christian ideals (or if we’re being generous, Judeo-Christian ideals), but there are still many people for whom that simply doesn’t apply. How does that include people from a completely different background? I work with a whole bunch of people from all over the world (Mostly India, I think, but it would be rude to ask, so I’m not totally sure.), and lots of them are in the process of trying to get citizenship here. They all want the American dream. My thought is that if they are going to work hard, pay their taxes, and obey the laws, they’re welcome to come here, and they shouldn’t feel like the government has chosen sides on religion.

Additionally, I have a hard time with the Moral beacon argument because it seems to imply perfection. America is not perfect, and it never will be. I’m sure that it is better than lots of other places (I can’t actually prove this, because I haven’t spent enough time away to really have a strong position on this one, so I will remain vague.), but it is still and will always be a work-in-progress. I am happy to do my part to work towards perfection, but I shy away from the position that we are the embodiment of heaven on earth.

Slippery Slope- You’re right, a moment of silence isn’t hurting anyone. My concern is less with the act itself, and more with the precedent that is being set. On one day, one of the students might volunteer to offer a request for guidance. No explicit reference to a supreme being, certainly nothing that could be tied to any specific faith, just a simple request for guidance. That wouldn’t hurt anyone either, for it was fairly benign. The next day, someone offers a request to god, an anonymous supreme being, and therefore lower-cased. Same request for guidance. Should be fine for anyone who believes in a generic supreme being, a generalization that covers ~90-ish% of the population of the earth. The atheists shouldn’t mind, it’s only a moment, and if they don’t believe, they don’t have to do anything. Each day, the ‘moment of silence’ becomes less so, and more reflective of the faith of that particular leader. The supreme being starts getting capitalized, and there are more references to the Supreme Being’s co-workers. That is my fear of things that may only be implicitly religious: It takes very little effort to marginalize those who don’t share the beliefs of the majority. My take on the First Amendment is that at the very bottom of the paragraph is the premise that the minority, in whatever respect, should never be overwhelmed by the majority. They may be outnumbered and outvoted, but they at least have the right to be left alone.

Freedom OF Religion, or Freedom FROM Religion? My idealistic view of this would be that in private, (and by this I mean ‘Not related to government’), you should be able to practice your faith without any interference from the government. In public, the government should have no leanings one way or the other about religion. In the ideals of DM-land, that’s how it would be. No single group or individual is EXcluded, because no single group or individual is INcluded.

The ‘Pushing comes from my side’… Yeah, you’re right. I’m not always proud of the arguments put forth by those who do the pushing, and there have been a few times when I could appreciate the ideological arguments, while wanting to wrap rolls of duct tape around their heads to get them to shut up. I was disappointed with the thing in [South Carolina? North Carolina?], where there was an argument that the stickers in the text books (which said something to the effect that the book did not intend to imply that Evolution was the only source of life on earth & diversity of species), and the ACLU said that it was too watered down. Meanwhile, the school district could not afford to change the stickers, and were indignant that their original effort ‘wasn’t good enough’. For every Tennessee vs. John Scopes, or Brown vs. Board of Education, there are a dozen or more cases that are totally frivolous. I would still prefer that we have the dozen or more goofy lawsuits, if that means that there is someone ready for the next Scopes trial. If the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, then the price of vigilance certainly includes much pushing and shoving over things that on their own didn’t cause anyone any harm, but establish a questionable precedent. [I don’t know anything about the controversy about the cross on Mt. Soledad, so I’m staying away from that one.]

I may be paranoid on this subject; I would even be against legislation with whose ends I agreed, if the legislation in question were put forth with a religious theme. It would bother me if John Kerry argued for legislation banning the death penalty because that was the position of the Catholic Church. I am also against capital punishment, but for a litany of secular reasons (If you think this message is long, I’m sure I could write many more pages on my arguments against the death penalty.). Why? Because of the precedents that would be set.

[This whole discussion reminds me of that Lawyer/Doctor Atheist guy who took his case to the Supreme Court because his daughter (of whom he did not have custody, or shared custody with the girl’s Christian mother, or something) was compelled to recite the Pledge as it is currently written. While I don’t disagree with his argument that the mention of ‘…under God,…’ should not be there in the first place, he just gave me the willies. Listening to him on the radio just made me want to take a shower. It must have endeared him to the Secular Humanists, though. More about them later…]

Secular Humanism- I have never thought about if I would consider myself a secular humanist or not. Certainly, when it comes to matters of American government, my beliefs are such that all issues of faith should be kept as far from policy as possible. I went looking, and I found a site dedicated to secular humanism. While I have not changed my views, I also have no desire to be lumped in with them. I can see how you would say that the foundations of their arguments were shaky, even from a casual perusal of their site. They sound like the most intolerant, sanctimonious people on God’s green earth (yes, pun intended). I may not agree with what others believe or don’t believe, but I certainly think that their beliefs may be worthy of respect. The SH site almost sounded like anyone who had any faith that could not be proven empirically was silly and superstitious, and that the SH’s, by virtue of being official Smart People (TM), knew better. I believe in God, but 35 years later (Actually 34 years, 10 months. Gotta claim those victories while I can.), and I still haven’t figured out what that means to me. I guess I’m silly & superstitious.

Well, if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the trip.

And I reply:

You know, you and I are not so very part on this issue. The difficulty lies in the fact that the remaining distance is, I fear, unbridgeable. I agree with you that the government should not choose sides on religion – but I also believe that the constitution prevents government from choosing sides against religion. In other words, I do not believe the founders intended an all-embracing agnosticism (here I’m being generous) to be the state’s response to people of faith. And fundamentally, I do not understand what it means to be moral outside of a religious tradition of faith.

I fully understand the reason why Jews, in particular, view all talk of religion and the state with unease (at least, it is presumed, outside of Israel – although I have never been there myself, it is my sense from my many Jewish friends and neighbors that religion is very much a part of the dialogue in that free country). “Christian” nations have treated the Jews quite abominably through history. Muslims in America are no doubt feeling oppressed as well, right now. Probably for good reason. But I also think that our traditional embrace (this is much more than tolerance) of people of different faiths, free to worship God in whatever way they see fit worked quite well in the Republic for a couple of hundred years – not much was broken, not much needed fixing.

I have always insisted that religion is nothing more or less than a statement of philosophy – what is a good life, and how does one live it? Morality, in other words. And I am not putting forward that the Christian God must be paramount in all public discourse. It is the idea of a higher, organizing force, whether that be called God, Y-weh or Allah (or any of His other aliases) to whom we are accountable as individuals for the character and quality of our actions. Like it or not, our culture has made its choices on right or wrong based on our received understanding of morality, based on our predominantly Judeo-Christian tradition. If there is to be a new moral foundation for our legal philosophy, many of us would like to see it first, turn in over in our heads, see how it comports with our received wisdom. Many of us are quite proud of the country we have come to be, while acknowledging that we are not perfect, that perfection is a path rather than a destination, but knowing also that we need signposts along that path to lead us closer. We are, I think quite rightly, shocked by some of the decadent excesses we see in the post-Christian (really, with the exception of the Muslim immigrants and their heirs, post-religious) continent. Euthanasia, drug proliferation, the collapse of traditional marriage – the Europeans are nearly breeding themselves out of existence, on top of everything else. One last example, and I’ll leave it be: How do you feel about polyamory? I suppose, based on nothing really, that you strongly believe that marriage should be between two consenting adults. Mr. Jones in Utah may feel differently. From purely mechanistic reasons of state, who are we to judge what is, after all, a personal decision – a contract between one man and however many wives he can support? I could go on and on, but I know this gets tedious, so I’ll let that go for now.

Hmm. In thirty years or so, at current rates, the majority faith in France will be Islam. It will be interesting to hear us make judgments then, if you and I are still alive, as to the merits of church and state separation, and cultural relativism.

You can argue that I am free to worship in any private place that I choose, but I am arguing that if you (generically) tell me that I am not free to worship in certain places, then I will tell you in return that you have restricted my freedom of religion. Certainly fundamental freedoms may be restricted by the state, but to do so usually requires some statement of compelling interest. The idea that a person, or even a definable group of people, might get their feelings hurt by my profession of faith I find unconvincing. I think we spend far too much time in contemporary America trying to keep people from having their self-esteem rubbed wrong. (By the way, in person my faith is a very private matter, one I have trouble discussing even with my family at times – you’d be highly unlikely to see me protesting the removal of the ten commandments from a state courthouse, for example, nor spending any energy on creationism in school textbooks.)

The thing that gets my goat is this relentless driving of the word “God” out of the public discourse by pinched and mean people for whom any public manifestation of faith equates to a state sponsoring of a religion. This is the coalition of the perpetually aggrieved, always seeking new windmills to tilt against, new causes to agitate upon. The Mt. Soledad thing is instructive: 50 years ago some public land was set aside for a group of war dead from the Korean conflict. A large cross was set above their tombstones, quite non-controversially at the time. Over the years of course, what we regard as controversial has changed, and this cross upon public land, visible from the main coastal highway (although you have to know where to look – as an object of resentment it’s actually quite small) must be torn down as an impermissible sanctioning of a religion by the state. If it had been raised on private land a hundred yards to either side it would be protected, but as it was not it must be torn down. This sort of civic zealotry gives many of us traditionalists as much cause for unease as the reverse does for our philosophical antagonists. And a part of why we sometimes feel the constitution has been flipped on its head, to where “freedom of religion” is now a mirthlessly enforced “freedom from religion.” We wonder, “Where are we going? Where does this path take us?” A new promised land we are told, but we see that promise only dimly and in order to get there must leave behind what is comfortable, what has worked to get us to safety here.

Alexis de Toqueville was rumored (falsely as it turns out) to have said, “America is great because America is good. When America ceases to be good, America will no longer be great.” Although this quotation is apocryphal, it is nevertheless instructive – it is a part of who and how we (used to) see ourselves. A moral beacon indeed, if morality means making choices between good and evil. Through history our better angels are activated by this spirit in our relations with the world, while our less honorable instincts of mercantilism and Realpolitik are energized in its absence.

Finally, one of my last concerns is the gap between what is intended and what is perceived: I agree with practically everything you’ve said above, share many of your concerns (although not to the same degree) and wonder if we’ve gotten any of this right. But what I worry about is that by making faith such a very private affair, we risk marginalizing it, almost shaming it. Will the children, as they grow, learn to embrace all traditions, or will they learn that religion is something done behind closed doors, out of the public view, away from the light of day? People of faith are locked in a struggle with the forces of materialism and commercialism for the souls of their children. I am afraid that it is a losing campaign, but one worth fighting in any case – yeah, I know – The Cause, again. From my perspective, the forces of intolerant atheism (the odious Dr Needow is but one example, in his campaign against the pledge of allegiance) are working arm in arm with folks who are on the side of angels in terms of promoting religious freedom outside the public square. The latter group of folks (I include you among them) tend to treat the former as allies, someone who “just believes something different.” But the militant atheists (and they are not so many, but their partnership with your group gives them strength outside their numbers) consider you not as allies in the same cause, but as tools for their use. These are charter members of the perpetually aggrieved set, people that will never be content until all of us join them in their discontent and hopelessness, I fear.

And if they win, then when the barbarians come knocking at the gate, we can all congregate within the chapel of no particular belief, while those who believe passionately that we ought to die debate whether to batter down the door or merely burn the building down around us.

* 07-07-18 Link Gone; no replacement found – Ed.

**07-07-18 Added link to earlier conversation – Ed. 

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Lex, Politics and Culture

One response to “Church and State

  1. Pingback: The Posts of Neptunus Lex –  Carroll “Lex” LeFon – Back on the Web | The Lexicans

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