Theocrats, Moral Relativism & the Myth of Religious Tolerance, Part III: Consequences of Excluding Religion From the Public Square

Part I in this series discussed how there is an important distinction between “tolerance” and “freedom.” Justin, in a subsequent email to me, described it this way:

Tolerance asserts authority; freedom implies autonomy, perhaps even precedence.

Part II in this series noted how both the role of religion in the public square of our society has been steadily marginalized and Americans largely do not know their history well enough to understand how much has changed just in our lifetime.
This Part III posting describes some of the consequences when religion is excluded from the public square in America.
Richard John Neuhaus wrote these words in 1984:

Politics and religion are different enterprises…But they are constantly coupling and getting quite mixed up with one another. There is nothing new about this. What is relatively new is the naked public square. The naked public square is the result of political doctrine and practice that would exclude religion and religiously grounded values from the conduct of public business…
When religion in any traditional or recognizable form is excluded from the public square, it does not mean that the public square is in fact naked…
The truly naked public square is at best a transitional phenomenon. It is a vacuum begging to be filled. When the democratically affirmed institutions that generate and transmit values are excluded, the vacuum will be filled by the agent left in control of the public square, the state. In this manner, a perverse notion of the disestablishment of religion leads to the establishment of the state as church
Our problems, then, stem in large part from the philosophical and legal effort to isolate and exclude the religious dimension of culture…only the state can…”lay claim to compulsive authority.”…of all the institutions in societies, only religion can invoke against the state a transcendent authority and have its invocation seconded by “the people” to whom a democratic state is presumably accountable. For the state to be secured from such challenge, religion must be redefined as a private, emphatically not public, phenomenon. In addition, because truly value-less existence is impossible for persons or societies, the state must displace religion as the generator and bearer of values…
[T]he notion of the secular state can become the prelude to totalitarianism. That is, once religion is reduced to nothing more than privatized conscience, the public square has only two actors in it – the state and the individual. Religion as a mediating structure…is no longer available as a countervailing force to the ambitions of the state…
If law and polity are divorced from moral judgment…all things are permitted and…all things will be done…When in our public life no legal prohibition can be articulated with the force of transcendent authority, then there are no rules rooted in ultimacies that can protect the poor, the powerless and the marginal…
Politics is an inescapably moral enterprise. Those who participate in it are…moral actors. The word “moral” here…means only that the questions engaged [in politics] are questions that have to do with what is right or wrong, good or evil. Whatever moral dignity politics may possess depends upon its being a process of contention and compromise among moral actors, not simply a process of accomodation among individuals in pursuit of their interests. The conflict in American public life today, then, is not a conflict between morality and secularism. It is a conflict of moralities in which one moral system calls itself secular and insists that the other do likewise as the price of admission to the public arena. That insistence is in fact a demand that the other side capitulate

Therein lies the great debate and the great struggle in America and throughout Western Civilization.

Do we believe in reason and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong?
Do we believe in and teach the uniqueness of our Western Civilization tradition?
Has the relativism of multiculturalism dumbed it all down to where there are no standards of excellence and no truth discoverable by some combination of reason and faith?

Or, as William Voegli said:

Justice, rights, moral common sense – either these are things we can have intelligent conversations about or they aren’t…

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klaus
klaus
14 years ago

There are several issues that are not being addressed here.
First, why is it “perverse” to separate religion and the state. Saying it don’t make it so. Care to offer some evidence that this bald assertion is true?
Second, there is no attempt to address the disestablishment clause. If we are going to speak of “religion” in the public square, whose religion will it be? If you chose Christianity, that is a de facto establishment of religion. How do you square that? Why do I suspsect Wicca or Islam isn’t on your mind when you discuss “religion.” Again, we come to the buried assumption that
religion = christianity.
And, quite honestly, I suspect a lot of the readers here would be appalled by the idea of religion held by many of the Founding Fathers. For example, Jefferson and Franklin were deists, as were a lot of enlightenment-era persons of education. That is, they were arguably not even Christian, in any strict sense of the word.
So, what are your responses to these issues? Again, we throw out this lovely theory, while entirely neglecting how any of this works in The Real World.

Justin Katz
14 years ago

Refusing to read the words on the page don’t make them unwritten, klaus. “Why is it ‘perverse’ to separate religion and the state”? Because it “leads to the establishment of the state as church.” Explanation follows in the text.
You give the impression of one who likes to think about these matters, yet it seems to me that you’ve thought about them just enough to have concocted a series of rhetorical steps, which you employ regardless of the content of the initial statement.
“If we are going to speak of ‘religion’ in the public square, whose religion will it be?” To ask this question is to betray complete disregard for the discussion as posed by he who began it. Whose religion? Anybody’s. How to resolve disputes is one of the challenges that religious freedom requires of us. Supposing (insisting on) a prior conclusion on the religious author’s part isn’t discussion; it’s ideological bullying of the sort that has enabled secularists to establish their own religion within our legal system (by way, of course, of a judicial oligarchy).

Bobby Oliveira
Bobby Oliveira
14 years ago

Dear Joe Mahn, Where did you learn about the founders? Please name the “early document” that refutes Separation. I suggest you start with Jefferson’s “Gospel” which conveniently, and intentionally, omits the Resurrection. With regards to the money, there are 4 slogans. 2 of them are Coeptic, 1 of them is “Christian”, and “E Pluribus Unum” is undoubtedly Catholic in origin. By your reasoning, were we supposed to be a Coeptic nation? They also included Pagan symbols and those of the Freemasons. Do you suggest that it was their intent to “establish” these groups via the government in some way? The British burned just about everything that was standing during the Revolution. On most of the buildings built later, the “characters” are denoted in a historical and not “religous” fashion. I would submit the “representation” of Moses on the Supreme Court Building, built 1935, as an example. Confucious and Solon are also there. Inside, you can find Hammurabi and Justinian. It should be noted that whenever Moses is depicted with tablets, they are either blank or only contain Commandments 6 thru 10 due to their secular nature. As far as what goes on in the buildings, when the “prayer” was adopted in 1789, Madison was a key opponent. A 2002 case, Newdow v. US, filed to end this practice, is still pending. The First Amendment is clear in both its intent and meaning. The Founders of Rhode Island where clear in why they chose this place to reestablish themselves. There are some of us willing to die, as I take an oath when I entered the United States Army, to defend the Constituion. As far as I’m concerned, that same oath applies to the Separation of Church and State. The only reason that the words “oligarchy” or “activist judges” have entered… Read more »

Bobby Oliveira
Bobby Oliveira
14 years ago

Dear Joe,
I would never support a law that would keep you from doing anything anywhere you wanted provided it was not on public grounds.
“Separation” is taken from Jefferson’s letter written to the Danbury Baptists in 1802. By the way, he refers to “building a wall of …..”
I am often personally conflicted about the “prayer before” issue. These invocations often seem more traditionally and historically based than “religous” in nature. Therefore, if I was on the Supreme Court, as I would decide in the San Diego Cross case, “history” that has a religous flavor should not be consdiered as a violation. This may be the one place where I slightly disagree with my hero Madison. However, I have some 367 years to look back on and he had the taste of England fresh upon his palette.
It should be noted that I find Islam’s attempts at indoctrination far more serious than anything the Christian Right is up to in the United States. If I choose to say the Rosary, and by doing so, worship the Virgin mary, a Southern Baptist who disagrees with this practice is not very likely to unload an AK-47 in my direction.
(On a side note, this is what makes the most recent Al-Queda video most disturbing. Mohammed taught that before an atack, you most approach the enemy, give them a chance to repent, give them a chance to join, and then destroy them. This is the exact order of the statements in the video.)
If sometimes my vigilance, through an expression of passion, comes across as biogtry, I apologize. Don’t expect me to sacrifice the passion though. I know it makes St. Thomas Aquinas proud.

klaus
klaus
14 years ago

Just two quick questions that, I believe, cut to the chase.
The public square in Tehran is full of religion, and there is no moral relativism there. May I assume you feel that this is the sort of environment you are advocating?
Second, if you were at a public gathering, and it began with an invocation to Zeus, or Vishnu, or Wotan, that you would be OK with this?

Joe Mahn
Joe Mahn
14 years ago

klaus:
To your first question: No, and that was a stupid question.
To your second question: No, but not because it violates the establishment clause.
J Mahn

klaus
klaus
14 years ago

Joe:
Thanks for having the guts to answer the questions, and in no uncertain terms.
May I ask why it’s a stupid question? It seems to satisfy the criteria set out by the original post. The author wants religion in the public square, and doesn’t think much of moral relativism. Iran seems to embody both of those characteristics. What’s the problem?
And what’s wrong with Wicca, or Wotan, or Vishnu? Vishnu is one of the principle gods of Hindus, a religion with a history that predates Christianity by thousands of years and has millions of adherents today.
What’s the problem, Joe. As you and Mr Hawthorne and others have pointed out many times, I’m not very bright.
So, care to elaborate on why the first question is “stupid” and the second is unacceptable? After all, the original response to my first post was that “Anybody’s” religion was acceptable. Why do you disagree with Mr Hawthorne?
And one final thing: the world of the Founders is long since gone. It’s simply not possible to turn back the clock to the good old days that never existed. Hence, my request that we speak about the real world, as it exists today. Maybe that’s why practices that were part of the fabric of our nation are no longer such a good idea. Slavery was part of our country for a long time, too. Times change. Circumstances change.

citizenjane
citizenjane
14 years ago

Klaus, I’ve got a big smile on my face right now. Big. You are doing an amazing job of causing even the most ridiculous among these puritan idealists to THINK, for God’s sake (yes, that’s intended).
Think, for God’s sake, THINK.
See you in church Sunday, my fine-minded friend.

Justin Katz
14 years ago

I would never support a law that would keep you from doing anything anywhere you wanted provided it was not on public grounds.

Ha! Allow me to rephrase: hahaha! Can’t you see that this is entirely contrary to the establishment clause? The one place closed to religious activities is the public square? Come on. How much more obvious could it be that you are explicitly excluding religious citizens specifically for the reason that they are religious?
Forgive the mild attempt at mindreading, but I can’t help but see the same telltale signs of the liberal a priori conclusion in your statement as I previously found in your insistence that fetal viability be judged without allowing the possibility of machines.
How much clearer could it be that the establishment clause would apply to the public square so as to ensure that religious practices could in fact take place there?

Bobby Oliveira
Bobby Oliveira
14 years ago

Dear Joe Mahn, It sounds like you are arguing John Jay’s position which although I do not agree with, I respect. He said, greatly paraphrasing, that the Providence of a Christian God has led us here and therefore we should choose Christian rulers. It is indeed a tough balance to strike. At no time do I want to interfere with your or Justin’s or anyone’s else’s right to practice as you choose. This is an enumerated right and even it weren’t, I would argue that the 9th provided for it. At the same time, we have be careful about the word “God”. The moment God is invoked to “take a side” or ratify a tradition, I think we have overstepped the founders. For instance, a prayer to God before a High School Football Game petitioning for all the players safety is not something I find problem with. However, a prayer that would suggest “our team” or only those of our faith be protected has problems. The Founders were all over the place with regards to religous tradition. These are the same people who outlawed Christmas, but, as you correctly point out, mention God 5 times in the declaration. These are the same people who decided on “self-evident” as opposed to the original language and then filled their letters with phrasing like “may God keep you in his Providence.” As to Justin’s public square question: imagine for a moment that a Pagan rape victim enters into a court to testify on her behalf through a set of doors which displays ALL the 10 Commandments. How can we then argue that this display in the public square what was the Founders intended? The same goes for manger scenes (there is no evidence that any founder ever had one while there is much… Read more »

Justin Katz
14 years ago

“imagine for a moment that a Pagan rape victim enters into a court to testify on her behalf through a set of doors which displays…”
1. Advertisements for handguns
2. Advertisements for abortion
3. Therapy information for sexual miscreants
4. Advertisements against abortion
5. Therapy information for victims
6. Literature on becoming a nun
7. [Insert whim here]
What’s your point, Bobby? You suggested that I could practice my religion anywhere but public grounds, yet public grounds are clearly made available for non-public events. Why exclude religion — one of the few categories explicitly named in the Bill of Rights?

Joe Mahn
Joe Mahn
14 years ago

klaus:
Also, when will you suck it up and answer my questions (to you specifically) here and in about four other posts. I am losing what little respect for you I have. This is an anonymous blog so respect comes and goes rather fast.
J Mahn

Bobby Oliveira
Bobby Oliveira
14 years ago

Dear Justin,
Advertisements are commerical in nature. They are the “speech” of an entity, not the state.
It is impossible for the state to speak on religion without giving the impression that one has been preferred. As you increase “liberty” for one, you decrease it for others. The Founders wanted balance for all.

Justin Katz
14 years ago

I listed more items than advertisments. How about we use the generic term “information.” Or alternately, how about we specify that the Ten Commandments appear on an advertisement for a local church.
In other words, is it the context of the statement or the content of the statement?

Bobby Oliveira
Bobby Oliveira
14 years ago

Dear Justin,
There’s definitely a context angle here. Statements on their own in the ether cannot be judged. However, once a statement is “made”, we can immediately judged whether the enity that made the statement is governmental or not. We can further judge whether the statement, if made by a governmental entity, seems to provide preference over historical/traditional value.
I go back to the San Diego case. The Cross there no longer indicates preference. It just happens to be a cross.
As Freud taught us, sometimes a good cigar is just a good cogar.

Justin Katz
14 years ago

Let me remind you of your statement above, Bobby:

I would never support a law that would keep you from doing anything anywhere you wanted provided it was not on public grounds.

So: Can I display the Ten Commandments in city hall, as long as it is clear that I am the entity (as you put it)? Can I hold church meetings on public property?

Bobby Oliveira
Bobby Oliveira
14 years ago

Dear Justin,
It’s not you that’s the problem.
When you do those things, you are making an in-kind contribution. I won’t stop you from doing it, but I will stop the Government from accepting it.
I don’t why this is so hard. Government and religion do not mix. You have the right as an individual to advocate. The Government does not have the right to allow one advocacy over another even if we can’t figure out what the other is.

George
George
14 years ago

-So: Can I display the Ten Commandments in city hall, as long as it is clear that I am the entity (as you put it)? Can I hold church meetings on public property?-
I think the Supreme Court got this right. There were two cases around 2000 one in kentucky and one in Texas. I think Texas had a set up in a public square showing the ten commandments, kentucky had it in a court room.
If you are displaying it in a court or say a government office, it has the appearence of telling people that if you do not accept the ten commandments you are not going to be represented or helped by your government because you believe in something diffrent.
If it is in a public area, however, one can just ignore it and not have to deal with it.

Justin Katz
14 years ago

The Government does not have the right to allow one advocacy over another even if we can’t figure out what the other is.

OK. So: Are you saying that the government cannot allow any advocacy, or that it must allow all advocacy (including my hypothetical display of the Ten Commandments)?

Bobby Oliveira
Bobby Oliveira
14 years ago

Dear Justin,
Therein lies the problems. We can never figure out what “all” advocacy is.
In a perfect world, every one who advocated would come forward and advocate in a pretty similiar fashion. However, this is not true. The 7th Day Adventists come to mind. They choose not to participate at all. They should not be penalized for that tenet.
Since the “all” universe cannot be determined, the only way to keep balance is the “no” universe.

Justin Katz
14 years ago

OK, then. Before we move on, I’d like to make sure I can paraphrase your position:
It is your position that constitutional guarantees of free speech and religious freedom require that nobody can advocate for anything on public grounds.

Bobby Oliveira
Bobby Oliveira
14 years ago

Dear Justin,
A small but significant change:
The Government cannot allow the advocacy of religion on public grounds because it limits the freedoms of others to express their religous views when they are not advocated. The non advocated position has been deestablished by the government.
You, as an individual, are welcome, and may I say encouraged, to test the boundaries of free speech as far as the government will let you.
Joe Mahn,
The moment you allow one, you have curtailed the others. Majority rule, much like under the 15th, does not apply here. By the way, no court since the 7th Day Adventist cases has held to your position. The moment you curtail one by advocating another, you have created a de facto establishment position.

Justin Katz
14 years ago

Bobby,
I’m not sure what it was that you changed in my paraphrase. Is it your position, then, that anybody can advocate for anything except religion on public grounds?

Bobby Oliveira
Bobby Oliveira
14 years ago

Dear Justin,
There are other things you cannot do on public grounds. For instance, if they are crowded, you cannot yell “Fire” unless there is one. All individual rights have some limits.

SusanD
SusanD
14 years ago

This has been a Constitutionally enlightening conversation. Now I understand better what it says and what the Founders intended.
In that vein, then, what was wrong with the display in Cranston of a couple of years ago that included, as I recall, symbols from all religions and a pink flamingo?

Justin Katz
14 years ago

It’s a “yes” or “no” question, Bobby:
Is it your position that anybody can advocate for anything except religion on public grounds?

SusanD
SusanD
14 years ago

“[T]he notion of the secular state can become the prelude to totalitarianism. That is, once religion is reduced to nothing more than privatized conscience, the public square has only two actors in it – the state and the individual. Religion as a mediating structure…is no longer available as a countervailing force to the ambitions of the state…” – Richard John Neuhaus
I do take issue with the notion that an overreaching gov’t can only be countered by religion and the supposition that morals and principles emanate only from a religion. Not everyone is inspired to recognize and be guided by certain standards of behavior, certain values by religion or a transcendent authority.

Bobby Oliveira
Bobby Oliveira
14 years ago

Dear Susan D,
The problem is it never represents “all” because some, or even one, will always choose not to participate.
Dear Justin,
Phrased that way, as a yes or no, the answer’s no. I was thinking on the way to Mass this morning. A simle word like “advocacy” just won’t do. It takes out too many things I think should be allowable.
Therefore, like every thing else at this level, a “test”, like “clear and present danger”, must be developed. That’s the only fair way to allow for free speech of the individual while still checking the government on the establishment end.
One last note: Aren’t some of you worried that the closer religion and government get, the more likely it becomes we have another Christmas on our hands?

SusanD
SusanD
14 years ago

“The problem is it never represents “all” because some, or even one, will always choose not to participate.”
So no one can participate if everyone doesn’t participate? Haven’t you come full circle to that which you oppose – mandatory participation in a religion?

Bobby Oliveira
Bobby Oliveira
14 years ago

Dear SusanD,
Let me try this way:
About 100 years ago, there was a case called San Antonio v. Rodriguez. The court ruled that “separate but equal (this dealt with railcar accomodations)is not equal.”
This is the inverse.
Since everyone will not choose to participate, based on belief systems, you cannot allow some belief system to obtain an advantage because they choose to participate. Therefore, no one gets to participate.
Lest we not forget that this is the same Mayor Laffey, he of the pink flamingo, who tried to bring us an Iraq War Pledge of Allegiance.

Joe Mahn
Joe Mahn
14 years ago

“The moment you allow one, you have curtailed the others.”
Bobby:
This is a false statement. You are wrong. Like Justin, I ask you to answer the question and make a rebuttal. Until you do that you are just another fan and not a player.
The amendment says “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, …”
Advocacy and law are not even remotely similar.
J Mahn

Joe Mahn
Joe Mahn
14 years ago

SusanD:
There was nothing wrong with the holiday display since the City opened the front lawn of City Hall for any holiday displays as submitted by the citizens of Cranston.
J Mahn

Bobby Oliveira
Bobby Oliveira
14 years ago

Dear Joe Mahn,
Again, Madison intended that the Constitution be a living and breathing document.
The Court has ruled time and time again, correctly I may add, that it takes a lot less than a law to “establish” a religion. Even the most “Conservative” members proceed this way. This follows the same line of thinking that it takes a lot less than an overt act to establish discrimination.
Therefore, it can be argued, through the associative property of addition, that if you demean one, you have raised the others. I do note that for someone who thinks government can’t do anything right, it is rather odd that you would invite government to participate in any religious fashion at all.
The Holiday display you reference exemplifies what happens whenever religion and government get together: a laughingstock is created out of one or the other or both.

SusanD
SusanD
14 years ago

“The Holiday display you reference exemplifies what happens whenever religion and government get together: a laughingstock is created out of one or the other or both.”
If it is a laughing stock, how is it a threat?

Bobby Oliveira
Bobby Oliveira
14 years ago

Dear SusanD,
In that respect, it’s not. This is how “In God We Trust” stays on the money. The Court has ruled, “It has no meaning.” This is somewhat akin to watching Christmas turn into a secular holiday.
We approach these thigs from 2 angles:
1.) What did the Founders intend through the Constitution. Some of the revisionist history conservatives have been “exposed” to since the demise of the Fairness Doctrine is somewhat funny. There is a reason the term “activist judge” does not show up until about 1988 in any other than racist lexicon. This tells us how to relate to each other.
2.) As people who more than likely believe something, how do we wish to see that belief system treated? I would submit that mixing your belief system with government is kind of like adding axle grease and ice cream together. The axle grease might still work, but the ice cream has a real odd taste.

Joe Mahn
Joe Mahn
14 years ago

Bobby:
I didn’t invite the government, the government has been doing it since its inception some 230 years ago.
The first year, when the lawn was opened to public holiday displays, the only non traditional display was the flamingos. They were a tongue-in-cheek attempt by the installer to make a mockery of the other displays. Free speech? The following year there were no flamingos just traditional displays.
Both years citizens brought complaints about the “separation issue” and lost or dropped their cases.
Now about your contentious remark that I don’t think government can do anything right and therefore blah, blah, blah, all I can say is:
Vir prudens non contra ventum mingit
When you don’t understand the reason something exists you will surely err when you try to explain it. I never said what you say I said, and that says a lot about you.
J Mahn

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