Thursday, June 30

A Church-State Solution

Some comments:

The "two sides" - one wonders why these two? are these meant to be exclusive, or merely indicative? - are that of "values evangelicalism" and "legal secularism." So right from the beginning, who would not want to be in the first category? People of faith have something called "values," and they want a unifed nation based upon shared values. Sounds great. And on the other hand, what do we have? Secularists (practically anathema in the US) who replace faith in god with faith in the legal process. Now in these days of supreme court bashing, what on earth could be more patently eggregious?!

Listen: "You might call those who hold this view ''legal secularists,'' not because they are necessarily strongly secular in their personal worldviews -- though many are -- but because they argue that government should be secular and that the laws should make it so. To the legal secularists, full citizenship means fully sharing in the legal and political commitments of the nation. If the nation defines itself in terms of values drawn from religion, they worry, then it will inevitably tend to adopt the religious values of the majority, excluding religious minorities and nonreligious people from full citizenship."

Notice what this debate is NOT about. It is not about what, in the words of what a former Republican congressman from Missouri and current episcopalian priest said on NPR today - namely, that a great number, perhaps even the vast majority of both republicans and christians in this country are decidely unconfortable with the loud, aggressive, and divisive rhetoric of the evangelical christians in the current government who have been getting all the media attention. That it is NOT about, as Justice Scalia recently wrote, that 98% of Americans are christian, so why not go ahread and enshine christianity as the state religion, but rather that there are a vast majority of moderate christians who, because their views on social topics tend to be less loud and boiserous, even less decided, are being completely left out of a national debate. That a few angry evangelicals, spreading their message of social conservativism, intolerance, even hate, are claiming the support of a vast majority of christians who would, in fact, never support such things, and who constantly wield the rhetorical pick-axe of "morally degenerate atheist" and/or "judicial activist" to
create an enemy whom they can easily and assuredly vanquish.

With the terms of the "debate" stated so absurdly from the beginning, the stacked desk plays out as one would obviously expect.

"But instead of attacking religion directly, as some antireligious secularists did earlier in the century with little success, organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union argued more narrowly that government ought to be secular in word, deed and intent. In 1971, in Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Supreme Court made this position law, requiring all government decisions to be motivated by a secular purpose, to have primarily secular effects and not to entangle the state with religious institutions. This new standard -- known thereafter as the ''Lemon test'' -- did much more than simply reaffirm a deeply rooted American norm of no government money for religion; it prohibited school prayer and Bible reading, which had been practiced in the public schools since their founding, and in many instances it removed Christmas decorations from the public square. The framers had neither known nor used the category ''secular'' as we understand it, but the court made secularism an official condition of all acceptable government conduct. In many quarters of religious America, there was outrage at this court-mandated secularism, which to many believers soon came to seem of a piece with the Supreme Court's 1973 guarantee of abortion rights in Roe v. Wade."

Begins by associating the court's attempt to maintain the establishment clause with "an attack on religion" in order to switch the topic away from the obvious constitutional roots to which conservatives are supposedly hold so dear. Then to the melodrama of christmas decorations being removed, we are told that bible reading goes back to the founding, and that the framers had not known "secularism." These two relative non-sequitors, while not logically advancing anything, are marshalled as a sort of stand-in for the absent constitutional argument about the establishment clause. Before we can think about this, we're on to "court-mandated secularism" which sounds like we're in the Soviet Union.

Despite his desire to return to the early days of American history when he thinks it helps a point, we get no history whatsoever when he turns to the Pledge of Allegiance. "When a California man" [here using the popular California = moral degenerates neocon link] "named Michael Newdow pressed the court to find that the words ''under God'' in the Pledge of Allegiance impermissibly endorsed religion, the court ducked the issue. The more liberal justices seemed afraid to rule the pledge unconstitutional..." No intimation that the phrase itself was of an extremely recent vintage, and in fact, added by a McCarthyite congress that, in hindsight, was probably one of the worst of the 20th century.

Finally, we come to see that this very setup was something of a rhetorical straw-man:
"Even a joint commitment to ''the culture of life'' turns out to be very thin. Catholics and conservative Protestants [where are liberal or even moderate Catholics or Protestants - do they even exist for this writer?] may agree broadly on abortion and euthanasia; but what about capital punishment, which Pope John Paul II condemned as an immoral usurpation of God's authority to determine life and death but which many evangelical Christians support as biblically mandated? To reach consensus, the values evangelicals have to water down the ''values'' they say they accept to the point where they would mean nothing at all. They are left either acknowledging disagreement about values or else falling into a kind of relativism (I'm O.K., you're O.K.) that is inconsistent with the very goal of standing for something rather than nothing."

The "I'm Ok you're Ok" is a cheap shot at the 60s cultural revoltion in disguise - an attempt to link non-religious examination of both the personal and the political to a kind of kitchy self-help genre. But more importantly, we have the underlying (conservative) idea that to "stand" for something - stand upright, stand erect, as it were, is to have some kind of iron-clad rule and to hold fast to it come what may. Whereas that is certainly NOT the only alternative to "relativism." Any number of modern writers about philosophical ethics have any attempt to hold fast to a single rule or worldview against all that would oppose it almost assuredly leads to the greatest kinds of ethical failing through a failure to imagine the Other.

"Meanwhile, the legal secularists have a different problem. They claim that separating religion from government is necessary to ensure full inclusion of all citizens. The problem is that many citizens -- values evangelicals among them -- feel excluded by precisely this principle of keeping religion private. Keeping nondenominational prayer out of the public schools may protect religious minorities who might feel excluded; but it also sends a message of exclusion to those who believe such prayer would signal commitment to shared values."

This is borderline incoherent. To what "shared values" is he referring? The shared values of christian evangelicals to insist on everyone being like them? That's not a shared value. The whole point is that they are NOT excluded by school prayer the way that minorities are BY it. This incoherent line of argument is common though. It was used by the Southern whites to maintain slavery, and then to uphold segregation and laws against miscegination. Today, it is the fight against gay marriage.

In every case, you have one side which is actively being discriminated against, being treated as unequal, and on the other side, you have a group which claims that it has a god-given right to discriminate, and to treat others AS unequal. Obviously these two positions come into conflict, but it is fallacious to seem them as similar. Slaves weren't telling slave-owners what they could do, blacks weren't telling whites what they could do, mixed-race couples weren't telling "racially pure" couples what they could do, and gay couples aren't telling straight couples what they can do. In each case, you have a group that wants to be allowed to enter the national conversation about what an American is, and another group which wants to not even HAVE a conversation, but simply wants to tell everyone else what they KNOW an American is.

By the time he gets around to his actual argument about cutting public financing of religion or state coercion, he's on much better ground, and the arguments gain solidity.

But before too long, we get more annoying examples: "If many congressmen say that their faith requires intervening to save Terri Schiavo, that is not a violation of the rules of political debate. The secular congresswoman who thinks Schiavo should have the right to die in peace can express her contrary view and explain why it is that she believes a rational and legal analysis of the situation requires it." Why is the religous person on the side of keeping Shavio alive in a vegetative state rather than letting her die naturally, as one might readily argue the Creator here intended?

And again: "Once in a while they may, if the composition of the Supreme Court is just right, thwart the values evangelicals' numerical superiority with a judicial override; but in the long run, all they will accomplish is to alienate the values evangelicals in a way that undercuts the meaningfulness of participatory democracy." So the country is really evangelical, and the only reason everything isn't is that a secular supreme court keeps sticking its nose in and undermining Democracy.

"To give a religious reason for passing a law is still to run the risk of that law being held unconstitutional as serving a religious rather than a secular purpose. So evangelicals end up speaking in euphemisms (''family values'') or proposing purpose-built dodges like ''creation science'' that even they often privately acknowledge to be paradoxical. A better approach would be for secularists to confront the evangelicals' arguments on their own terms, refusing to stop the conversation and instead arguing for the rightness of their beliefs about their own values. Reason can in fact engage revelation, as it has throughout the history of philosophy. The skeptic can challenge the believer to explain how he derives his views from Scripture and why the view he ascribes to God is morally attractive -- questions that most believers consider profoundly important and perfectly relevant."

I doubt this. I doubt that, if in a televised debate, or even on the senate floor, or anywhere, for that matter, challenging someone's faith in this way would be responded to with enthusiasm. I rather think that it would engender incredible anxiety and defensive aggression, as it always now does. Only very intellectual christians would feel perfectly confortable seriously questioning their own belief that the christianity does, in fact, lead to better ends than secularism. Belief is, for the most part, a highly irrational affair - I seriously doubt an interesting debate between a rationalist and an irrationalist would take place. Given this, a politician would be crazy to do this sort of thing on TV - a medium which almost inevatably seeks the lowest common intellectual and cultural denomenator in order to be "inclusive."

"Secularists who are confident in their views should expect to prevail on the basis of reason; evangelicals who wish to win the argument will discover that their arguments must extend beyond simple invocation of faith."

Again, no. Because people can vote on the basis of either, and thus it would look just like it does today - rationalists explaining their reasoning, evangelicals explaining their faith, and voters making their decision based on mixed-criteria - either faith or reason, or some combination of hetergeneous factors that, for them, add up to a persuasive claim.

The final arguments about cutting all public funding for religious social programs or school vouchers strike me as convincing, but I remain uncertain why they should for the evangelical christians he's trying to convince.

Ultimately, a very strange, flawed, but interesting piece.