Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Church v. State

I'll get into this more, but up front, I wanted to discuss an important concept: The basis for a healthy society is that we all have the right to be free and happy, but only to the point of not infringing upon other people's right to be happy and free. Our rights do not extend to denying other people the same rights that we enjoy. And rights that one person have must extend to all other people, as much as possible. That is the basis for society, and it is entirely mandatory. One simple test for any law or right: Is this something that I would want my enemy to use, or does this rule only work properly when I use it? This is a fundamental concept of the understanding of rights, laws, society, and democracy which no discussion can exclude.

I mention this because Joseph at brought up a recent article in the NY Times Magazine titled A Church-State Solution, by Noah Feldman, a professor at the New York University of Law and fellow at the New America Foundation. This article discusses the issue of separation of church and state, and what to do about it. In short, Professor Feldman believes that we should permit Christians to display their religion on government buildings, school prayers, public parks, etc; while denying them taxpayer funds for any activities. And the reason we should allow them to display their religion is because we are denying them basic expressions of their beliefs by disallowing it. He believes that this compromise, while disliked by both sides, is more fair and a better resolution than the current battles being waged today.

And I disagree fully with Professor Feldman. I believe that he gives an overly simplistic view of history, a flawed view of the groups involved, and most importantly, an incorrect idea of what society means and how things should work. Beyond that, I believe that his compromise is typical of the Compromise Battleground of the day, in which one side has a different standard for the goalposts than the other side. In this case, we see Professor Feldman offering a compromise to evangelicals by giving them special rights which are denied to everyone else, rights which are based entirely upon a false sense of victimhood and persecution. In essence, the right they are being denied is the right to deny others equal rights. And that is a basic violation of the principles of human rights, as I gave above.

The main point of all this: Do Christians have a right to place their symbols in government buildings, and in government places? Professor Feldman completely ignores this question, and assumes that it is an unqualified yes. His point is that, because Christians need to evangelize, we are discriminating against them if we deny them that right. But he never doubts that they have this right. It's a built-in premise which he never addresses, and it completely shapes his entire argument. If Christians do have this right, and if we are discriminating against them by denying it, then of course we need to stop discriminating against them. But what if they don't have that right? Then Feldman's solution is completely wrong.

And as I argue below, rather than bestowing basic rights to an abused minority, Professor Feldman is restoring special rights to an abusive minority. Making a proposition in a vacuum absent the actual issues, Feldman is a compromiser inventing his own problem; striving to find middle-ground between two savage opponents. But some things cannot be compromised. Some things are not negotiable. And that includes our basic rights. Without context, Feldman's piece implies the issue is a childish battle of symbols; bruised egos looking to save face. And his solution is to allow one side to have their meaningless symbols. But if we listen to both sides, we quickly see that this is not about the symbols. This is a battle for America; and thus, the world.

And to sum up for those short on time, the reason we cannot compromise is because we are the compromise position. We "legal secularists" aren't trying to force our values or symbols on anyone. We're simply denying other groups the ability to do that. All groups. We want a level playing field which favors no one. We represent a truce between all sides which acknowledges that no group has special rights over any other group. That is what offends the evangelicals. They believe this is a Christian Nation, which should represent Christian values; and they say this every day. So the battle isn't between two groups trying to impose their values on one another, as the professor's compromise assumes. The battle is between the compromise position and a group which despises the compromise, because it denies them the special rights they see as their due. And any compromise beyond that is an injustice to America, democracy, and the world.

Obligatory Disclaimer

And let this serve as the obligatory disclaimer of the post: I am not referring to all Christians when I write this. It only applies to the Christians it applies to. I believe that most Christians do not think as the evangelicals do. Additionally, many Christians who sympathize with the evangelicals are being hoodwinked by them, and wouldn't actually support their agenda, were they to really understand it. "Family Values" makes a great rhetorical argument, but things get a bit iffy in the specifics. And if you don't understand what I mean by "evangelical", well tough. Go read the good professor's article. I'm fine using whatever definition he's giving it.

Frankly, I don't think this disclaimer is necessary, as all intelligent people should assume that it applies; but I don't like to take any chances with this stuff. Too many people will grab on to any opportunity they can find to avoid debating the substance of my arguments; and latch onto the technicalities and perceived generalities. I've had too many arguments end with "Oh, I thought you meant all Christians. You should have clarified it first." Blaming me because they over-generalized what I was saying. And I'm just not having it anymore. You've been warned.

Bullying Victims

Here's the thing. People love to see themselves as victims. No matter how big or strong or abusive someone is, they always like to see themselves as the underdog. The little guy who stood up against the powerful, and prevailed. This is often the rationalization people use to justify their abusive actions. And the more powerful somebody is, the more they'll invoke their own defeats and denials in defense of their abuses.

Nixon felt justified in wire-tapping McGovern because he believed that Kennedy and Johnson had wire-tapped him. Warhawks feel justified in bombing innocent Muslims because other Muslims bombed innocent Americans. And conservatives believe that distorting the news is acceptable because the "liberal" media has always been doing this to them. Nobody sees themselves as the aggressor. They're either getting vengeance or protecting themselves.

And in a way, they're right. Everyone's got a story. Everyone's been a victim. Everyone's been hurt. And nobody's evil. Nobody can see themselves as being the "bad guy". Everyone can find justification for their actions by believing that their rights were being trampled, and that they were just acting in self-defense. Even Hitler had his excuses. Hitler believed the Jews had intentionally ruined and humiliated Germany. And the land he took? That was either land that rightly belonged to Germany, or was direly necessary for Germany's security. In his crazy mind, he was a victim fighting back against the man.

And everyone does that. Our brains are just not equipped to see ourselves as being "evil", even when we are doing evil. So it shuffles the information into a way which focuses on the bad things which happened to us, and minimizes the damage that we cause. That's just an unfortunate part of human nature, and I don't exclude myself from this.

And Christians do the same thing. They're by far the majority. The specific numbers fluctuate, but it is safe to say that over 75% of Americans are Christian. Yet the evangelicals portray themselves as the victims of non-Christians. And Professor Feldman accepts that status without question. As he wrote:
"Observing the political clout of the values evangelicals, many legal secularists cannot imagine how the former could possibly feel marginalized from American society. They must realize, however, that the evangelicals' political strength has not often extended to the cultural realm, about which values evangelicals care the most. These evangelicals feel defensive not only because they believe they are losing the culture war and have trouble enacting religious values into public policy -- though, in fact, they have made some strides on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage -- but because they have difficulty making the religious sources of their ideas acceptable in the cultural-political conversation."

And I agree with him that this is how evangelicals think. But does that make it correct? Are evangelicals a victim because they don't get enough power? Are their rights being denied in the culture war? Again, Professor Feldman doesn't touch this issue and assumes it closed, but we can't possibly discuss this issue without asking these questions. It's not enough that these people perceive themselves to be victims. It needs to be reality too, or no rights have been denied. And to determine if their rights are being denied, we have to determine what exactly it is that they are being denied.

What an Evangelical Wants

So exactly what is it that the evangelical Christians want? Is it just the Ten Commandments in the Courtroom? Is it just prayer in school, or at football games? Is it just nativity scenes in front of the city hall? No, of course not. Those are just symbols of what they want. They want America to be theirs. They want their rules written into law. They want their values placed before all others. They want Christianity to reign supreme over our country. One nation, under God. That's what they are being denied, and all these little battles are efforts to make that reality.

This isn't a strawman I invented to have someone to attack. This isn't the "slippery slope" argument. This is exactly what they tell us every day. They're not after empty symbolism and cheap theatrics. They want to tell us what kinds of movies and television we can watch. What kinds of video games we can play. They want to deny me the ability to drink alcohol, and jack-off to my porn. They want to dictate what is taught in our science and history classes. And they want to tell us who we can't marry and when we can't divorce. And most of all, they believe the government should play a strong role in our personal lives, based entirely on what they think our personal lives should be. They're not losing the culture wars because we're forcing our stuff on them. They're losing because they can't force their stuff on us, and they hate it.

And we know that these are the things that they want, because these are the things they have denied us before. When they complain of modern culture destroying America, this is exactly what they're talking about. They're not saying they want the symbolism back. They want the power back, which they believe to be their right. That's what we're denying them, and they tell us this every day. They believe they deserve these public symbols for the same reason they deserve all these other things.

So this isn't about a god damn statue in a courthouse. That's a symbol they use to showcase their argument. It's not an empty symbol to them, and it's not a feel-good gesture to remind them of the historical basis of laws. This is an active symbol of them claiming what they believe to be theirs. This is an assertion of rights. A statement saying: These laws are God's laws. They intend the Ten Commandments to be an active symbol to let everyone know that. They believe our laws to be their laws, and that they know best how to use them.

Personal Dictatorships

Overall, they want America to represent their interests and their values and their vision of America. And who doesn't want that? I'd like my personal rules to become law. I'd like my values placed before all others? I want America molded into my vision. And who the hell doesn't? When you're stuck in rush-hour traffic, don't you dream of having your own personal expressway that only you could drive on? Of course! We all have our desires and our dreams. We all want to be the dictator.

But these aren't our rights, and this isn't a dictatorship or oligarchy or whatever. This is a democracy, and in a democracy we have certain rules and certain ways of doing things. And that includes having a judiciary that can overrule the whim of the majority, when needed. This is the way our system works, and I don't believe that we need to compromise with any group if that means that they have special rights which are denied to others.

These are the rights that they're being denied. This is how we are "victimizing" them. And I can live with denying people those rights. Because at it's heart, democracy is a power-sharing compromise which gives all the people equal say in how things are run. It's a compromise which says that we all share the same rules and privileges. And while people can game the system by combining their votes together and voting as a bloc, the basic principle must continue to give everyone the same rights. And that means that Joe Evangelist can't deny me the right to watch The Last Temptation of Christ, and I can't deny him the right to watch The Passion of the Christ. And we can all watch Christ crucified any damn way we like (within reason).

This is position of the "legal secularists", which gives all members of society equal standing in the law. This is the compromise that our citizens agreed to when we chose democracy as our form of government. And this is what the evangelicals are trying to knock down. We can't compromise with this position, without compromising everything else.

1 comment:

PublicOrgTheory said...

Dr. B - Great post, and quite thoughtful. Here are some quick thoughts about it, most of which reflect more about my thought process than what you or Feldman wrote.

PublicOrgTheory values the question over the position. I'm much more interested in a healthy debate than in advocating a position. That should not be taken to mean that I don't have positions and beliefs, but rather that I'm not so arrogant to think I'm necessarily right about everything (although I am right a lot of the time, which is perhaps a little arrogant).

With that in mind, I dropped the Feldman reference to spark a little dialogue, not necessarily to support his position, about which I haven't come down either way yet.

You and I read Feldman a little differently, I think. Perhaps you read him more closely; I skimmed it at times. What I thought I read was that he was advocating cutting off all money for all expressions of faith (which I heartily support and cheer) and allowing all expressions of any faith, the outcome being that those expressions duke it out for people's attention and support.

Now, that second part seems to be where we read him differently, and I'm willing to admit that I may have missed his portrayal of evangelicals as victims, which I do not believe they are. They don't achieve currency in the cultural realm because they're dicks, and I'd like to see them meet the same fate in the public sector. That's not necessarily logical, just a personal wish. I don't like being told how to live.

You probably recall my "evolution wins in a fair fight" post. That's a belief that's perhaps a bit naive on my part, but I like carrying it just the same. Seems to me nothing makes the case against a hellfire-and-brimstone Baptist like hearing one of them advance their own arguments. Of course, there are plenty of people who gravitate to those arguments because something is missing in their lives, something that can only be filled with the divine but conditional love of a jealous god. Which is a pity.

I'll need to read Feldman again to have a more informed opinion about his argument, but let me throw out these points from my current view:

- Government money should not be spent on expressions of faith.

- Evangelicals are not victims so much as bullies.

- Expressions of faith are everywhere, and neither offend nor move me.

I like your writing and your thinking, which is why I chose you as someone who could handle a dialogue like this calmly and logically. I'm keeping an open mind here, and I'm very interested in what you think.

By the way, you're going on the blogroll. People need to know about the good doctor.