Religious Expression and the Public Square
Powerline, one of the conservative Blogs on my daily reads, notes what it describes as "the least gracious apology of the week," referring to a recent remark by Democratic Senator from Colorado, Ken Salazar.
Senator Salazar referred to James Dobson and his group, Focus on the Family, "the anti-Christ." Quickly thereafter, he issued a "sort of" apology, amending his remarks to call Dobson "unchristian, meaning self-serving and selfish."
I get this sort of thing a lot from my liberal friends and family. The questions I want to pose are:
1. How come when a Christian, especially a Fundamentalist, makes a statement of religious conviction, it makes them bigoted, intolerant, oppressive, fascist, etc., but when someone of another faith tradition makes a similar statement, that goes unmentioned? If we have religious views, wouldn't it be both logical and expected that such views might inform our decisions and views about social policy?
2. As a born-again Christian, I can tell you that we have an incredibly wide spectrum of views, in all areas of social policy, legislation, spiritual lives and lifestyles, and attitudes about public and private interactions. But when secular or non-religious commentators speak of Christians, they mention either Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson? For us, that's like comparing every African American clergyman to the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
3. Separation of church and state is a derived constitutional doctrine that the founders never envisioned would be used to eradicate religious expression from public life, just prevent the Federal Government from establishing a state religion. Otherwise, it conflicts with our freedom of religion, the right to worship our conception of God as we see fit. Evangelicals see the current state of affairs as being very antagonistic towards religious expression. Shouldn't freedom of religion apply to Fundamentalists? To legislators? To judges?
1. I'm sure that we could both find numerous examples where the opposite situation to what you present in your question happened. That being said, I understand what you mean and I will attempt to answer.
There are several factors at work here.
First, was what the hypothetical fundamentalist said indeed bigoted, intolerant, oppressive, etc? If it was, then it is right for them to be called on it. There is no shortage of bigoted, intolerant and oppressive rhetoric in the world. Some of it is going to come from American Christian fundamentalists. When it happens I would hope that we aren't looking the other way.
The same should apply to non-Christians when they say things that are bad as well.
When the standard is misapplied, I think it has to do with the fact that Christianity is the dominant religion in this country. If a Rastafarian says "Christians Suck," this is wrong, but he is doing so from an almost non-existent power base. On the other hand if a Christian says "Rastafarians Suck," speaking for myself, I would be concerned about the power that Christians could possibly wield over a Rastafarian.
If Rastafarians declared a jihad against Christians in America, would that impact your life here? Would you be constantly looking over your shoulder for men in dreadlocks? I think not.
If Christians declared a jihad against Rastafarians, what sort of impact could Christians have on Rastafarians in this country? I this happened and I was a Rastafarian, I would shave my head and start going to church.
As far as informing decisions about social policy goes, this clearly happens all of the time and there is nothing wrong with this on most levels. It is when Christianity becomes the justification for discriminatory social policy where this is a problem. The easiest example has to do with laws that are discriminatory to homosexuals. The basis for the lobby for anti-homosexual legislation is that homosexuality is a Christian sin. There are a lot of homosexuals in the world. Creating social policy against them when homosexuality is not a sin in *my* worldview nor in theirs is intolerant at best.
#2. Falwell and Robertson are the ones that we know about - and they are the ones who continue to make the most noise. They certainly go to great lengths to portray themselves as God's messengers and leaders of contemporary American Christianity. I almost think that your problem should be with them, not us. If they are embarrassing you, make them stop.
I also think that it is somewhat disingenuous to completely disavow them. They do have millions of supporters in this country and they have tens of millions of dollars at their disposal every year. Somebody's sending them checks and watching them on television and it's not me or anyone in my circle of family and friends.
#3. I don't think that anybody is saying that people in public service must be non-religious. The issue is that people in public service must not use their civil power to impose their religious beliefs, rules, mores or morality on anyone else. It seems so obvious. It boggles the mind that this comes up as an issue.
According to some, homosexuality is a sin, right? At the same time, in Massachusetts, homosexuality is legal. So the civil law says that it is OK while religious doctrine says that it is not.
Hypothetically, let's imagine a homosexual on trial for his homosexuality in front of a judge. The judge is a strict Christian, which is in of itself not a problem. If you're saying that the judge should be allowed to punish the gay guy because homosexuality is a Christian sin, then that is wrong. The law must trump that judge's personal religious beliefs. This is an extreme example, but it is indicative.
The other part of this issue has to do with being fair to the rest of us who aren't Christians - who are either atheists like me or who are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. There is a negative conservative cry about how America is "supposed to be" a Christian country. Times have changed and the people crying about that need to realize that we are a country of all people and all faiths now. Yes - Christians are the vast majority of us, but in a system where we all pay taxes and we are all subject to the authority of the government, the fact that Christians are in the majority doesn't make the American Hindu any less important in the eyes of the law.
I believe that there is an everpresent dishonest undertone in the "faith in government" movement and that is that when they are speaking about faith in government they mean Christianity in government. They are all for dismantling whatever barriers exist between church and state to let Christianity in but not Hinduism, etc.
Tell me the truth: I would imagine that you don't see the problem with a statue about the Ten Commandments in the lobby of the courthouse. How would you feel if instead of the Ten Commandments statue it was a statue of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god. Or how about if the "Call to Prayer" was broadcast over the courthouse's PA system 5 times a day to remind Muslim employees and visitors when to pray. The praying itself isn't mandatory, but sitting through a recording of the Call to Prayer five times a day is.
How would you feel? If you don't see a problem with this, then think about the folks in your church back home. How do you think they would feel?
As an atheist, my position is that none of it belongs in the courthouse. And to be honest, while it is easy enough to walk by the Ten Commandments statue or the Ganesh figure or to sit through the call to prayer, the real problem is the perception that the standard of justice dispensed in this courthouse is going to be stacked against me as a non-believer. If the judge let's his perception of the Ten Commandments or the story of Ganesh or Sharia Law influence his handling of my matter in court, this would be unacceptable.
One might respond to this by saying, "I am Christian and I don't mind having a judge use Christianity as a basis for his ruling." This is disingenuous, too, I believe, because if we allow one, we have to allow them all.
1. I think you and I will settle into loose agreement on this point, as I have often found myself offended by remarks made by some fundamentalists. I think the "tethered majority" on both sides of these kinds of disputes need to be more proactive at keeping discussion on both sides civil, and at least try to rein in intemperate speech.
I do think that a statement like, "Christians are in the majority in this country" can mislead unless viewed as a very general statement. Much like the statement today that "whites are in the majority," it depends on how far you Balkanize the populations in question. "Christian" in the sense of non-Animist, non-Muslim, or non-Jewish can usefully describe an entire panoply of descendants of a tradition, but in no way defines a population of likeminded individuals. That is precisely because, in the context I mention, these "Christians" include many people (the majority of this majority if you know what I mean) who neither ascribe to matters of the faith, nor would even consider themselves Christian. Calling Christians a majority requires you to ignore some pretty serious distinctions of faith, religious practice, belief systems, attitudes, and degree of affiliation.
(This is like the South African Bantustan ploy in reverse, the method by which Africaaners tried to keep native blacks in subjugation by breaking their lands up into tiny and disassociated "Bantustans" that tried to prevent native South African blacks an opportunity to unite or form a single consciousness. But the reality is, a non-practicing Roman Catholic bears almost no political resemblance to a devout fundamental Baptist.)
Broken down finely enough, we are all minorities of one flavor or another. Identity politics and over-attention to the rights of the minority can be an exercise of that latin expression which I think means, "reduction to absurdity." I would certainly argue that Fundamentalist Christians, of the sort that you may perhaps be more concerned about, are definitely in a minority. And from their standpoint, the "majority" (everyone else, as represented by legislatures and the courts) have taken quite a toll on what they consider their rights to worship as they see fit.
Your last point, that the consideration of homosexuality as a sin is the basis for legislative efforts is only partially true, and then only for some. Many conservatives object to redefinition of marriage less because of homosexuality itself, and more because of what they perceive as an abrogation of longstanding social policy. We would argue that marriage preferences were meant to protect children and improve their well-being. Marriage as an institution is worthy of support. If marriage can be self-defined, then why can't anyone sign up. If anyone can sign up, then the policy no longer incents or builds in preference for 2 parent households. There is a utilitarian position in support of traditional definitions of marriage, one supported by recent research.
I don't agree with laws being passed or left standing that in any way punish homosexuals. But by the same token, I think citizen-elected legislative bodies may have good cause to limit individual rights when they conflict with broader community interests (the balancing of rights). In other words, a community may decide through their legislators that homosexual partners should not be allowed to adopt if there are traditional two parent homes available for them, or that surrogates be allowed to sell their services so others can be parents.
2. I think you are right that Falwell and Robertson make the most noise, but of course you wouldn't know that if the press didn't delight in publicizing every outrageous thing they say. (And I wonder why that is? Possibly because it sells in the way it stirs people up against them?)
But making them stop? How exactly would we do that? They are public figures making public comments. They have big audiences, many of whom react favorably to them not so much based on what say in their attacks, but who or what they're perceived to attack -- decadence, immorality, moral relativism, debased culture, etc. They are demagogues of the old school, only more "religiously" focused than political (but they are way too much that in my opinion. I think this is the Elmer Gantry school of evangelism, and they aren't the only ones.
Personally, I think they inherited the good will and esteem that many in the heartland felt towards PTL (Praise the Lord ministries) and Jim and Tammy Fay Baker. Many otherwise sincere and devout Christians were very confused by what happened to the Baker's, the scandals, and were I think vulnerable to anyone who could step in and say, that's okay the mission of PTL is still important. I don't think its any accident that ministries of this kind need to keep raising money (for what except grander efforts to raise more money) and finding scapegoats in the classic sense on which to base their appeals.
There are many quiet Christians, many in important ministry, who shy away from and are uncomfortable with these kinds of public expressions. And I do think they are reluctant to criticize and condemn, but as much because they avoid doing that in general, rather than letting a "brother" off the hook.
3. There is a big flip side to your argument here. What many (Evangelical, Fundamental) Christians object to in the current legislative and judicial spheres is precisely what we view as (secular) public servants using "their civil power to impose their religious beliefs, rules, mores or morality" on society (Christian and non Christian alike).
The enforced absence of deity, religious practice, moral judgments, discrimination (in the sense of saying one thing is bad, another good) or ethical benchmarks is religious in nature. Call it the absence of religion in you want, but it is a religious framework. And the more legislatures and judges and executives impose a ban on religious expression on the public square, the more than looks more and more like state establishment of religion, against the establishment clause in the Bill of Rights.
I am a strong and unwavering advocate that justice needs be blind. My biggest problem with the liberal fight against conservative justices is the logical fallacy that somehow atheist or agnostic jurists can somehow set aside their religious beliefs (or lack thereof, but there is still a set of beliefs that they hold about the absence of something supernatural), while a religious minded jurist (of any religion) can not.
I believe you exaggerate the tearing down of that "wall of separation." Frankly, the wall has grown ever thicker over the years, not thinner. You can't possibly convince me otherwise, for my own eyes and experience have proven it. I also lived down south for a year, where there is a church every block and services held in high schools (on the weekends), where life still goes on pretty much as it did when the wall had to do with state sponsorship of religion (faithful establishment clause constructivism) and not public religious expression (first, do not offend those of other faiths).
While I don't think a plaque or statue of the Ten commandments is a big deal or worth a big fight over (aren't there civil liberties being violated in more important ways than that to fight against?), I also don't think fighting to keep them in the courthouse was right, and I think Judge Moore abdicated his primary responsibilities in representing all of his community, especially when he violated an order from a superior judge. Likewise, I would be equally against any enforced or mandated religious expression on a captive population. I don't think we need to insist on organized prayer in school, for instance. But and its a big but, out of fear of lawsuits from an almost vindictive and certainly antagonistic "rights community," local communities are eradicating legitimate public expressions of religion in the public square.
Let me ask you something. If you find yourself suddenly lost and alone in a strange neighborhood, and you see some teenagers heading your way, would you rather they be atheists, or devout Christians? (Or orthodox Jews, or Hindus, or whatever, maybe not Muslim however, given the state and extent of radical Islamic teaching.) My point is, perhaps even an atheist can acknowledge the great public utility of religion and religious expression. (Again, as long as the state does not impose it.)
Your examples seem to suggest that as a society we should care about and strive to prevent unwanted exposure to religious expression people don't agree with or submit to receive. I think society would be much better off if we require our citizens to be more mature and thick skinned, and recognize that there exist people of other faiths, and that of course as we move through our communities and the larger world, we will come into contact with them. This should be a great opportunity for learning and growth. And isn't that what you are asking Christians to do?
On last point about jurists relying on their faith to render religious decisions. I think this goes on all the time, we shouldn't be surprised, and we harm society if we try to eliminate those jurists we think will be "more liable" to do so. The determination of who such jurists would be is grossly subjective, and in the end, discriminatory (and this gives rise to devout Christians smelling the whiff of persecution for their religious beliefs). And a Jewish jurist may use his faith and faith traditions in rendering a more just decision based on law, as might a Muslim, or Roan Catholic, or even an Atheist (see my argument above that the avowed denial of deity and faith objects is a set of religious beliefs).
Any judge, any good judge, and even quite a few bad ones, gets the whole point that one bases one's decisions on law and precedent. Christian's want that even more than many atheists. And that is because legal principle and constitutional bases have been constructed out of thin air by jurists knowing what outcome they want to promote, and constructing unprecedented legal constructs where none had existed before, intended to and successful at overturning legislative law making.
At its best, such legal activism brought us the Civil Rights Amendment, the abolishment of Jim Crow laws, and the end of enforced segregation and separate but equal. But (arguably) at its worst, this has resulted in very poor constitutional decisions and judicial overreach, with Roe v. Wade only the most egregious example.
(On the instigation of my brother in law, and the course he took on Constitutional Law, I read Roe v. Wade in its entirety. Blackmun I believe it was actually penned a paragraph in which he said the termination of pregnancy at any time should be the absolute right of a mother, even if for no other reason than that a continued pregnancy or birth of a child might be inconvenient to the mother. Not a fine or heroic moment in Supreme Court jurisprudence.
(Obviously, this last issue could consume us for days. But it is the 800 Pound Gorilla in the room, so one of us had to touch on it. I will only add that I agree with the proposition that the Supreme Court in 1973 recklessly short-circuited and short cut a vital and necessary public debate on abortion. Each state was ready and prepared to enact the will of their citizens on this issue, and work through legislative bodies a divisive public issue. We would have been better off if this had happened, it is inevitable, and it will be worse for being delayed.
And it set a dangerous precedent for the Supreme Court and the Judiciary in general, whereby activists can circumvent citizenry and their legislative bodies by effecting through court edict what they cannot achieve by referendum or passing of law.