Monday, December 8, 2008

more church/state

I feel like Conor is being a little coy with this.

First off, the Declaration of Independence has no binding legal effects on the United States, so there's no reason to Amend it. Second, if the idea is to demonstrate the Christian origins of our nation, that's a famously difficult question, as many of our founding fathers publicly and explicitly denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. The constitution, the actual document outlining federal governance, is explicit in its denial of a state-established religion. Perhaps germane to the discussion is our treaty with Tripoli, written by the Washington administration and signed by John Adams, which states "the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."

Look, depending on how you define the question, you can answer affirmatively that the United States is a Christian nation, just in terms of the history of having a dominant Christian majority. But in terms of the legal establishment of a state religion, we should privilege what our basic governing document actually says. Now, like I said in the post in question, I am little moved by things like Christmas trees in the town green or similar, though, no, in a perfect world I would probably remove such symbols. I find "in god we trust" on money and that sort of thing pointless religious symbolism where it doesn't belong. (Who is served, exactly, by that little bit of writing? Unless the god we're talking about is money....) Again, though, as a matter of political will, I'm not compelled to make it a big deal, although my instinct is that one day, such symbols will disappear-- not because of a death of religiosity but because of a healthy respect for the division of church and state.

Conor's other concerns seem like weak brew to me. I certainly don't think we should stop having holidays, but we could easily make Christmas a "winter celebration" day. Again, that'd be way down on my list of priorities, and that should wait until we as a country have more comfortably separated religion and government. It isn't, I think, a monumental task to preserve the actual observation of federal holidays while removing the religious trappings.

Do I want to pull the accreditation of parochial schools? Not at all. But they need to pass the same basic process of validating their educational value, and they must not receive any government money, in any way, shape or form. Government has a duty to respect the right of parents to put their children into accredited schools of any tradition; it has absolutely no duty to pay the way of parents who don't like the public schools. As far as religious charities go, I actually said this explicitly in the previous post. Provided that a religious charity fulfills the same requirements of charitable giving a secular charity does, they might receive federal money. As far as special religious use of illegal drugs, that's kind of a moot point for me, as I support the legalization of all drugs on libertarian grounds.

As far as the First Amendment goes, I'm not getting the same reading Conor is. The constitution already protects expression and the right to gather. It seems clear to me that saying that you can't abridge the freedom to practice a particular religion, while preventing the privileging of any particular tradition, leads to exactly the kind of distance between church and state I'm looking for. The government can't come in and say "no Quakers", but neither can it come in and say "Quakers above all". I don't think the constitution establishes any special privileges for religion at all. It merely explicitly forbids the kind of religious oppression that had been common in Europe.

To me, the heartening thing about all of this is that the divide between a secular sphere of government and a religious private sphere is that it seems very natural, and in keeping with the American character. People would continue to go to their houses of worship and pursue their religious inclinations in their homes. They could still meet for fellowship and worship with their peers. But they would do so understanding that it would inappropriate for the government to sanctify or privilege their observation in any way, and would expect no recognition of it in the civic sphere. That permits a robust and functioning religious community while ensuring that religious arguments and religious trappings have no place inside government.

Update: Seems Alex Knapp at Heretical Ideas beat me to most of this.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

"...the United States is a Christian religion..."

While I'm quite found of the US, this Christian has yet to actually worship his country. ;)

Anonymous said...

"fond", that is.

Freddie said...

Haha whoops! Thanks, fixed.

Jake said...

Fred wrote: The only project atheism should be concerned with is the project of cleanly and finally separating the spheres of religion and governance.

* * * * *

1) What does the ideal religion-free government look like to you? You tick off a few examples of religious influence in government that are low on your priority list, but you don't say what are HIGH on that list.
2) I'm not sure a religion-free government is even possible. If you push out all influence of christians, jews, muslims, etc., then the government would be guided by secularist principles. While secularism is not a religion, per se (south park vampire episode, anyone?), I fail to see a difference between a comprehensive belief system premised on the existence of god and a comprehensive belief system premised on the non-existence of god. In other words, religious neutrality is a mirage.

For example, how does the government take a religiously neutral position on:
1) abortion, without favoring the position that abortion is morally permissible at the expense of those who believe the opposite?
2) creation, without favoring darwinism at the expense of those who believe in intelligent design?
3) gay marriage, without favoring the equivalence of gay and straight marriages at the expense of those who believe there are legitimate differences between the two?

You can make the argument that the secular positions on these issues are superior, but I don't think you can say that the secular positions are religiously neutral.

ryan said...

Freddie, Freddie, Freddie. Come now. You're privileging your own position at every step in your argument, and I call bullshit. Do you honestly think that there is any possible construction of a "basic process of validating [schools'] educational value" or the "requirements of charitable giving" that doesn't implicate religious issues? I would think one as generally insightful as yourself would spot the problem there.

Unless there's agreement about what counts as a religious issue and what doesn't, your interlocutors get shafted. To paraphrase Kuyper, there is no aspect of life to which Christ does not lay hold of as his own. So by saying that, for instance, religious schools can be accredited if they meet secular accreditation standards, you're essentially saying that religious schools are permissible to the extent that they're willing to compromise their beliefs.

Lest you think this is inconsequential or that I'm exaggerating, this is already a big deal. Religious traditions, particularly conservative religious traditions, have drastically different concepts of proper child-rearing than the secular world would permit. Corporal punishment is just one example, but all pedagogy is implicated. There are already people advancing the argument that not offering the kind of pluralistic moral education regarding sexuality (inter alia) is a violation of childrens' Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection. Don't believe me? It won't be long before someone these kinds of arguments gain currency.

So don't gimme this "basic process of evaluating educational value" bullshit. It's not that simple, and you of all people ought to know it.

Bob said...

At the risk of being called a fanboy, wilding shaking the pom-poms for Freddie, let me thank you for making that point regarding the Declaration of Independence. I wish supposedly smart people would stop invoking that document as a basis for constitutional arguments. It is pre-constitutional, it does not count! Thanks F.

Freddie said...

My beliefs on accreditation aren't restrictionist; I'm not in favor of saying that schools can't be accredited if they teach religious classes. But they must teach a basic curriculum that conforms to certain agreed upon standards of inclusive material. You have to be able to read, to write a paper, to do some math, and, yes, you need to have a background in conventional science. Now if your school also wants to teach that the rain is a demon crying, be my guest; but to be accredited by the state educational system, you need to teach a scientific perspective too. Sorry, thems the breaks. If recognition of education is going to mean anything, there have to be certain minimums of mutual intelligibility.

ryan said...

Freddie, as an initial, snarky-yet-serious response, what makes you think that there can be mutual intelligibility without religious content? I'm pretty sure that you have no idea what I'm getting at here, because you don't share my religious persuasions. As a result, you insist that what I want to do is religious, but what you want to do is not. Can you give me a single reason why I should take your word for it?

In addition, you're using a minimalist version of your position which completely ignores the maximalist consequences of that position. Reading and mathematics, as technical skills, look like they might be religion-neutral, at least from a results perspective. But the teaching of them is not. Whether you believe that children are inherently virtuous little snowflakes or miserable cretins like the rest of us is 1) a distinction which hinges at least in part on religious belief and 2) will determine the method of pedagogy you use. Furthermore, it completely ignores the idea that mathematical and literacy instruction can be an integral part of inculcating religious virtues like self-control, patience, and respect for authority which have nothing immediately to do with either subject. If accreditation includes educational methods as well as educational "results" then there's no way of avoiding this issue.

But even restricting it to "results" is questionable. How are you going to measure those? Testing? Okay, who gets to write the tests? And are you completely confident that there are no relevant religious issues which might cause me to write the test one way and you to write the test another? And are you completely confident that if those issues do exist that the differences will be non-trivial? Because I'm not at all confident of either of those things.

You seem to be working from the premise that education is more or less the imparting of certain information and skills which are free of any ideology. Even if I were to skip over the latter for the purposes of brevity, the former isn't anywhere close to being universally accepted. Religiously conservative actors such as myself view education as a process by which the young are shaped into the kind of adults they ought to be. As a result, there is no possible aspect of a child's education that is not religiously relevant.

You want to be imperialist about this, hey, you can probably get away with it, and that is the way politics works. No questions there. But as long as you persist in your delusion that there are no religious issues at stake here, concluding that the First Amendment supports your position but not mine, I will continue to call bullshit.

You're asking me and religious persons everywhere to kiss Caesar's ring. Unless you're willing to reopen the coliseum, I wouldn't go there.

Freddie said...

Isn't that natural, ryan? I am an atheist. My definition of the appropriate space for religion in civic society is going to necessarily be smaller than yours. I don't, actually, think that your objections about education are restricted to education at all; of course, people are going to have fundamental disagreements about what the mission of education is. Religious opinion on that is no different from any other. Somehow, we still craft basic educational standards in the America we already have. Through compromise. Through democracy.

Do I think my America of strict divisions between church and state is likely anytime soon? No, probably not. That's no different from many of the positions I hold. Meanwhile, the vast majority of other self-identified atheists agitate for a vastly more restrictive and religion-intolerant vision of the American future. I don't know if they'll get there. I hope not. But my suspicion is that the religious in this country are going to have to get used to a smaller religious majority, and eventually a declining role of religion in the public sphere; and if I'm right, and that happens, I think you should all hope that my vision wins out over the mainstream of atheist thought.

Bob said...

Freddie, In your response to ryan you say, "Meanwhile, the vast majority of other self-identified atheists agitate for a vastly more restrictive and religion-intolerant vision of the American future. I don't know if they'll get there. I hope not." Please provide the evidence that support the claim. Are there individuals or groups fighting for some sort of governmental action to bring about your supposed(?) "religion-intolerant vision of the American future"? "Vast majority"?

ryan said...

Don't flatter yourself. Your vision isn't different in substance from mainstream atheist thought, only in style. The very way you use the term "religion" betrays you: you assume that there are aspects of life to which religion is not relevant, or at least aspects that religious people must compromise. I appreciate your style, but I'm not fooled by it. You're just as content to restrict exercise of religion as anyone else.

You're still missing my point. I have no issue with democracy and compromise as tools of resolving public disputes. But the First Amendment is not about democracy or compromise. If anything, it is intended to set limits to the power of those tools, setting boundaries which democracy and compromise are not permitted to cross. There is no such thing as a decline of religion in the public sphere. There is only the substitute of one religion for another. This isn't compromise. So even if 90% of the country disagrees with me, the First Amendment is supposed to protect my rights to free exercise.

It usually doesn't, but this just serves to demonstrate the impossibility of removing religion from politics. Just can't happen. All you get is the substitute of one set of religious values for another. And I don't care how many people are of a certain religious persuasion: you'll sooner kill me than get me to "compromise" away my beliefs, and make no mistake, that's the position you're putting me in.

Freddie said...

The one constant in all of your comments, ryan, is that you are guilty of precisely the same failings you constantly critique. You constantly attack me for considering things from an ideological viewpoint, never realizing that, of course, that's the very substance of your critique.

But I imagine that you're so dedicated to appearing clever that you'll have some sort of pithy putdown to come. Won't you?

ryan said...

I'm not criticizing you for operating from an ideological viewpoint. I'm just trying to get you to admit that you do in fact do operate in such a manner, that that fact shows up in your argument, and that your ideology should not be inherently privileged over mine if you're serious about "democracy and compromise." You've gone on at length elsewhere about viewing self-determination as an inviolable right, yet somehow this principle doesn't seem to pop up when we're talking about religion. If anything, all I'm trying to do is demonstrate that much of what you treat as solvable by "democracy and compromise" is in fact incommensurable.

You treat religion as a kind of patina which can be added to or subtracted from "real life" without any fundamental change to the "underlying" issues. Religious persons who take their religion seriously, such as myself, view their faith as having an impact on every aspect of life. This is a problem if we're trying to build a single, coherent polity, particularly if we want to separate church and state (as I generally do, for what it's worth).

My conclusion to this dilemma is to insist that not only the religious content of particular beliefs but the right to determine what counts as religious content should be points of discussion, and that the mere fact of a particular belief having a religious aspect to it should not be an a priori reason for banning it from the realm of politics, because if we can't have religion in politics, we can't have politics, period.

Your solution is that anything that you characterize as having religious content would ideally be automatically excluded from politics, even if you can't work up the enthusiasm to advocate for that yourself.

You ought to be able to figure out why I find this objectionable.

If that's a "pithy putdown," then my apologies.

Take the Kash said...

Freddie, I find you "vast majority" comment way out of line. As an atheist/rationalist I think the religious right pose a more substantial threat to civil society than nonbelievers. I am more than willing to debate ryan and other like minded, but I don't seek governmental prohibitions to silence them or any group.

Freddie said...

Boy, I'm taking it on the fucking chin today.

Take the Kash said...

Well if you are referring to my comment, I think you had your chin way out there. I just don't see any evidence to back up your comment. I do agree with your stands in general, but not the "vast majority" thing. I'm still saying "over the top" until you show me some support for your statement.