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Friday, May 13, 2005

Revival Hype

Both Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum believe, based upon findings in the recent Pew poll, that we would be better off if we liberals lightened up and accepted the 10 Commandments on public buildings and certain other somewhat trivial religious issues. I'm not sure how we do this, considering that this has been the interpretation of the courts rather than a legislative battle, but I'm sure that if we just give in on Pricilla Owen et al, we'll see some change on this and other issues of importance to the Religious Right. I'm also sure we can then cherry pick those issues that are really important to us, but I'm not certain at all if the principle on which we make our argument will still be operative once we've tossed it aside for these trivial reasons.

As it happens, I couldn't care less whether the 10 Commandments are displayed on public buildings as long as all religions are treated equally. I certainly hope that when a Hindu requests that his religion be equally represented that we liberals will also uphold his rights. Otherwise, we will have established a state religion, which I think is a really bad idea considering the millenium's worth of blood that was spilled by our forebears in Europe over these issues.

Unfortunately, it seems we are on course to do just that. Or at least establish a "Judeo-Christian umbrella" state religion.

A federal appeals court has ruled that a Virginia county can exclude a member of a minority religion from offering prayers at county board meetings -- even though adherents of "Judeo-Christian" religions are allowed to lead invocations.

In a unanimous ruling April 14, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against county resident Cynthia Simpson, whom officials denied the opportunity to offer prayers at meetings of the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors.

Simpson is a practitioner of Wicca, a neo-pagan religion that she has described as interchangeable with witchcraft. She is a leader in a Wiccan congregation in the suburban county near Richmond. When she asked to be put on a list of those who could lead invocations at board meetings, the county attorney told her she would not be allowed, claiming that "Chesterfield's non-sectarian invocations are traditionally made to a divinity that is consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition."

Simpson, working with attorneys from a pair of civil-liberties groups, sued the county. A federal district judge in Richmond sided with her, ruling in 2003 that the practice unconstitutionally discriminated against religions that do not stem from the dominant Western monotheistic traditions.

But the latest ruling reverses that decision, citing the Supreme Court's 1985 Marsh vs. Chambers decision allowing "non-sectarian" legislative prayers before the Nebraska legislature. Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, authoring the 4th Circuit's opinion, said the content of the prayers Chesterfield County officials allowed was broad enough, and the fact that Simpson was barred from offering one was immaterial to the case.

"The Judeo-Christian tradition is, after all, not a single faith but an umbrella covering many faiths," Wilkinson wrote. "We need not resolve the parties' dispute as to its precise extent, as Chesterfield County has spread it wide enough in this case to include Islam. For these efforts, the County should not be made the object of constitutional condemnation."

Wilkinson has been widely rumored to be among the candidates for a Supreme Court appointment, should any slots on that body come open before the end of President Bush's term.

Apparently, all religions that fall under the Judeo-Christian "umbrella" are non-sectarian, which I suppose is a form of progress. But you can't just let any old religion be officially recognized in public functions. Ones that aren't drawn from the old testament, anyway.

Clearly, just like guns and the death penalty and dozens of other things, the Democrats are going to cave on this issue. And in and of itself, it will not make much difference. Ever since the entire congress stood on the steps of the congress and sang "God Bless America" I knew that any pretense toward religious neutrality was over.

But, what makes anyone think that this will be enough to sway any votes or stop the rest of the theocratic agenda? Are people voting on the single issue of the 10 Commandments and if we give in on that we can start talking about the minimum wage? Just as people like Kevin and Matt and I don't care deeply about whether the 10 commandments are displayed or a creche is put in front of city hall at Christmas, I doubt whether the full 70%+ of Americans who thinks the 10 Commandments should be allowed on public buyildings actually vote on the issue. Most people agree, just like us, that it isn't a big deal --- all except those who are fighting for the principle of it. Those people aren't changing sides politically --- and the rest just don't give enough of a damn to change their voting behavior over it.

The danger is that the ones who are fighting on the principle that Christianity should be part of civic life are also the ones who are not giving any ground. And they won't. They are thinking long term -- patiently chipping away at the principle of separation of church and state, while the rest of us say "lighten up" to the ACLU, who is taking a principled stance on trivial issues so that we can make a consistent argument when it comes to fighting for the important ones. Like teaching creationism in the public schools.

As Matt points out, the other interesting finding in the PEW poll is that a majority believe that creationism should be taught along side evolution in the schools. (I suspect that most people do not realize that the goal of the Christian Right is to replace the teaching of evolution, and think instead that creationism is a worthy subject for a class on comparative religions, not science. But that's just a hunch.) Kevin says we shouldn't give in on that, but really, what's to stop it?

I realize that we liberals believe that this is a matter of teaching fact based science as opposed to faith based religious belief, but the truth is that schools that aren't funded by public money can teach creationism till the cows come home already. The state cannot compel anyone not to teach religion in place of science in the public schools unless we believe there is a constitutional prohibition against the schools promoting one religion over another.

So, on what will we hang our hat on once we've decided that religion --- or more specifically the "judeo-christian umbrella" --- is sanctioned by the state in regards to prayer in schools, the 10 commandments on public buildings and public displays of religion on community ground. These things are all trivial in themselves (although for some people, putting little kids in the position of having to pray or abstain is unconcionable.) But regardless of whether each little instance of religious tradition in the public square is in itself pernicious, taken together, if sanctified by the courts, it erodes one of the basic tenets of our system, which is the prohibition against the establishment of state religion. And that adds up to a greenlight to teach creationism or promote any other Christian dogma --- with my tax dollars.

On a pracical political level, I might point out that electorally, getting religion may not be the bonanza everyone thinks it will be long term. The largest growing religious cohort in the United States is "non-religious", doubling in the past decade and growing stronger. And it's particularly true in the western states where there is a growing preference for "spirituality" over formal religion.

Contrast this with the studies that show Protestants losing ground for decades, perhaps stabilizing now, but certainly not growing, while Catholics remain fairly stable, but divided politically. The Barna group, which does the most in-depth polling on religion in America recently wrote:

"There does not seem to be revival taking place in America. Whether that is measured by church attendance, born again status, or theological purity, the statistics simply do not reflect a surge of any noticeable proportions.

If we are to look at the electoral landscape, we will see that the hard core religious cohort is most influential in the south, which is no surprise. But if you take a look at this interesting map, created by USA today, you' will see that "non-religious" is a rather large minority in the west and midwest swing states; when you combine it with liberal mainline protestant churches and liberal catholics you will see that the Christian Right is not the electoral powerhouse it's cracked up to be. We should not fear them like this.

And needless to say, as our ethnic make-up continues to change, in which Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians and others continue to immigrate and pass their belief systems to their children, we are going to see a continuance of the explosive growth in those religions and philosophies as we've seen in the last thirty years. There is a huge potential for strife in our future if we continue down this road of establishing the "Judeo-Christian" umbrella as a quasi official religion.

There is good evidence that we are the victims of Republican hype on this religious issue, which perpetuates itself in the servile media, creating a faddish obsession with religiousity at a time when more people are actually leaving religion than coming into it. Like the phony campaign against Christmas, they are tying us up in knots with this theocratic correctness. For both practical and principled reasons, we shouldn't let them do it.


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