March 03, 2005
Avert Your Eyes, Folks--It's Just the Constitution Being Torn to Shreds
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I gotta tell you, I can only pray that Bush never gets a chance to replace any Supreme Court justices, especially ones not already on the far right--or else Americans might eventually be forced to pray. The court is teetering so that one single justice could wipe out any hope of maintaining the spirit of the constitution.
Case in point: when discussing the constitutionality of having public displays of the Ten Commandments on public grounds such as courtrooms, two of the justices forwarded a startling suggestion: first, Kennedy said, "If an atheist walks by, he can avert his eyes." Then Scalia added, "Turn your eyes away, if it’s such a big deal to you."
These guys are supposed to be protecting and preserving the Constitution? This is their answer to a violation of the First Amendment, when the state endorses a religion? Avert your eyes?
The idiocy of this suggestion should be plain: the issue has nothing to do with the idea of atheists being offended, it has to do with whether or not the state is endorsing a specific religion. A public display of the commandments is, in essence, an endorsement of not just religion but also a specific religion; especially in the context of present-day, well-known claims (false, of course) that the commandments are the basis of American law, the display of the commandments is nothing less than a prohibited endorsement of Christianity.
Kennedy and Scalia here display their subscription to the hype: they seem to have bought into the idea that protests against such displays are about hatred of religion and people being personally offended. The true reason for protests is that such displays are clearly proselytizing; they promote not just religion, but a specific religion, in a way that makes it clear that the state endorses it--and is using taxpayer dollars to accomplish the endorsement. Such an sanction of a specific belief would act to the detriment of all people with differing beliefs, threatening their religious freedom by signaling a step down the path to a society legally dominated by a single faith. The statement that "atheists" (as if they were the only ones who object) should "avert their eyes" can most charitably be regarded as a solution if the justices thought that personal offense were the only issue at hand.
But Kennedy and Scalia must be painfully aware that it is not just about personal offense, in which context the "avert your eyes" suggestion becomes startling and distressing. Is the view from the right wing of the court now one that suggests the government can violate the Constitution so long as large swaths of society that don't like it can "avert their eyes"? After all, if the government decides to start abridging the freedom of the press, and you don't like it--avert your eyes! If the government starts torturing its citizens and denies them due process--well, just avert your eyes, silly! That'll make it all better.
We can only pray that the wiser minds on the court will prevail; still, it is no comfort that men who sit on the bench could actually accept, let alone propose, an "avert your eyes" practice to constitutional violations.
Posted by Luis at March 3, 2005 10:10 AM
I've never understood this manic desire to 'separate church and state' ... it's part of my horror in general at how these days the entire western world seems to be so determined to abandon every facet of its own culture to appease every (vocal) minority that wants to make a fuss.
Our (Western) culture is largely based on Christian values and beliefs. I'm comfortable with that. The majority of the people are comfortable with that. As long as we *don't* start force-feeding it down people's throats and violently proselytizing everyone in sight then little things like public displays of the Ten Commandments are fine with me. I don't think a fear of little things like this growing by several draconian orders of magnitude into the dystopia you're worried about should be deemed sufficient on their own to warrant taking them down. Wait until the kids are forced to attend religious classes or something like that, Luis.
That said - a bit assertively, but still politely, I trust - I'm not an American. If your first amendment says in black and white that 'thou shalt separate Church and State' then it should be as simple as that, and I agree with you that the commandments should therefore be taken down as a matter of course. I don't like it; but if enough people don't like it then I guess you have a mechanism for recidivating that amendment with a referendum or something?
What do you think about that fol-de-rol a couple of years ago with the Californian parent chucking a wobbly over his girl having to recite your Pledge of Allegiance with the word 'God' in it? Again, I would cite this as an ideal example of how the Western World has lost the plot - along with common sense - but, strictly speaking, if you're going to slavishly obey your amendment then you would be in favour of changing the US pledge too?
Posted by: Brad at March 3, 2005 02:47 PM
I've never understood this manic desire to 'separate church and state' ... it's part of my horror in general at how these days the entire western world seems to be so determined to abandon every facet of its own culture to appease every (vocal) minority that wants to make a fuss.Who said anything about "abandoning" culture or religion? "Every facet"? A slight exaggeration there. Religion is in the society, the culture, the community, the church, the family, the individual... and a thousand other places. The single place--not all places, but just the one and only place--where it cannot be is in the government. For the express reason, taught to us endlessly in history, that when a state endorses a religion, that religion dominates to the pain and suffering of all other religions and beliefs. Why did the first European colonists come to the U.S.? Because the state had endorsed a single church, and all others were thereafter persecuted. The founders didn't put the separation of church and state in the constitution for no reason, after all. We have become complacent to that history, and are in grave danger in failing Santayana's warning. Our (Western) culture is largely based on Christian values and beliefs. I'm comfortable with that. The majority of the people are comfortable with that. As long as we *don't* start force-feeding it down people's throats and violently proselytizing everyone in sight then little things like public displays of the Ten Commandments are fine with me.What you don't see is that the public display of the Ten Commandments is the camel's nose under the tent. You ask later about whether I would change the pledge--did you know that the present version of the pledge is the changed one? That it did not originally contain the words "under God," but that those were later added, when resistance to religious incursions in matters of state was weakened by fear of Communism? Read your history. And read up on the principles of the separation of church and state--I have the feeling you don't fully understand the issue. Show me a state which married itself to a religion, and I'll show you a state where religious freedom was violated. For every mild success of such a marriage, history holds dozens of examples of cruel tyrannies where those not of the "official" faith were crushed. One of the pillars of American greatness has been our ability to avoid that fate.
Most important to note is that this is a matter of slow change, like the proverbial frog that boils to death when the water is heated slowly. And each incursion of religion into state is used as a further justification for the next.
Remember the granite monument to the ten commandments in Alabama? Know what it had chiseled onto three of its four sides? "Under God," "So Help Me God," and "In God We Trust." These were added as justifications to the placing of the monument: America is based upon Christianity and these religious words integrated into government-sanctioned acts confirm it. America is a Christian nation.
Except it's not true--just the reverse, in fact. "Under God" was added long, long after the pledge was written. "In God We Trust" was never on coinage, originally--all coins bore the single word, "Liberty." And "So Help Me God" was not only another example of something added a century or more after the Constitution was written, but the Constitution itself forbids the requirement of a religious oath in the taking of public office. Go ahead, read the Constitution. It's right there, in black and white. Now, people would point out that it is a voluntary addition to the oath of office--but what would happen if a president decided not to utter the words? He wouldn't be impeached, but he'd be crippled politically.
And that's where the whole camel starts following the nose through the tent flap. Now it is a virtual requirement for a president to take the oath, in violation of the Constitution. And yet these religious incursions, each one violating the principle of church and state, are used to justify the next step, the new religious incursion. And don't think it couldn't happen quickly, either--did you know that in the 19th century, there were two attempts to amend the Constitution to read that "humbly acknowledging almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the ruler among nations, his revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government [...]"? That would have done it, right there, in one fell swoop. The Constitution and its first amendment have been under attack for a long time now, by well-meaning people who think that marrying church and state is a swell idea. In other words, people who don't read history--or do, and are OK with the results so long as their religion is the dominant one.
I will make you a bet, right here and now, that if the Supreme Court approves of the display of the Ten Commandments, that in ten years they will be hearing a case in which the ornate display of the Christian bible in a place or honor and respect in government buildings will be before the high court--and as justification, they will use the Ten Commandments ruling. After all, the commandments are scripture--so is the bible. The principle is the same, quantity should not matter at all. And that, in turn, would be used as justification for the next step, and pretty soon, your kids are forced to study religion in school. By which time it is cemented in law, and any attempt to take it out is met with hostility and scorn.
Don't think so? Look at your own ending to your comment, where you express disdain at the idea that I'd actually be so callous as to just remove two words from the pledge. "Slavishly obey," you said. Look at how my suggestion that we should not display the ten commandments in public buildings prompted you to exclaim that I was abandoning "every facet" of our culture. And this is just for the relatively small stuff now. You think that by the time it's so ingrained and cemented that our kids are forced to study it, that my protests will be greeted with less scorn? Quite the opposite--people will justify the marriage of church and state with Supreme Court decisions and historical precedent in addition to all that they personally believe, and I'll be screwed.
And principle is at the heart of the issue: you don't compromise on principles. Once you do, you're sunk. I don't think a fear of little things like this growing by several draconian orders of magnitude into the dystopia you're worried about should be deemed sufficient on their own to warrant taking them down. Wait until the kids are forced to attend religious classes or something like that, Luis.God help us from people who want to wait for it to come to that, because it will be far too late. Should Europeans have waited until Jews were being carted off to the concentration camps, or should they have spoken out and fought anti-semitism as soon as it reared its ugly head? No, they "averted their eyes." And by the time anyone thought it was high time to protest, protest would have just gotten them killed.
By the time our kids are forced to take mandatory religion classes, it will be far too late. As I said, for that to have happened, the law will have to have been firmly cemented. No thank you, I have no desire to wait for the house to have burnt to the ground before I call up the fire department. I dial 911 when I see smoke coming from under the door. If your first amendment says in black and white that 'thou shalt separate Church and State' then it should be as simple as that, and I agree with you that the commandments should therefore be taken down as a matter of course. I don't like it; but if enough people don't like it then I guess you have a mechanism for recidivating that amendment with a referendum or something?Agreed--that's what amendments are for. And if Americans decide to repeal the first amendment, they are free to do so--but then America will no longer be America, not the one I believe in.
Posted by: Luis at March 3, 2005 10:08 PM
Posted by: Dignan at March 4, 2005 12:00 AM