Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Chistianity in public

Cross-posted from Left2Right
Dr. Velleman, the first thing I think of with “a cross on a city seal” is the recent controversy over the LA city seal; this has been a big deal in religious circles. (To recap, the cross was on a mission, which was one of 6 tableaux of in a seal dominated by Pomona—it was quite clearly a historical, not a religious reference.)

Josh Jasper, a good part of the “unpopularity” of being an atheist in red-state America has to do with incomprehension, not dislike. When religion is one of the three big organizations in your life and that of everyone you know, the idea that someone could be unreligious is just strange. It’s the same kind of incomprehension as that of most academics for an 18-year-old who is not planning to attend college.

In general, on discussions of religion in the public sphere, I find Stephen Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief to be very instructive; I recommend it to all of you. (And as a law professor, he documents well how laws can affect religious practice.)

There are numerous people urging the view that “America is a Christian nation”; they don’t all understand that to mean the same thing. Here are some of the recent issues that make Christians believe they’re under threat:

1) The banning of prayer in public schools. Regardless of your position on the issue, Christian prayer was the norm in many public schools until Supreme Court decision in the 1960’s; the interpretation of the Establishment Clause that forbids it is relatively new.
2) The banning of prayer at school events. This happened in the 80’s and 90’s; it is a logical extension of the jurisprudence banning prayer in school generally, but again, changes established practice to the disadvantage of Christians.
3) The frequent statements opposing “imposing your morality on others.” All law reflects a moral commitment of some sort; this language is almost always used to oppose the imposition of Christian morality, in favor of the imposition of some other moral commitment. (e.g. Canada’s use of “hate speech” laws to punish religious statements opposing homosexual behaviour.)
4) The increasingly loud opposition to religious government officials. A good deal of the opposition to Ashcroft initially, and to Judge Prior, was explicitly based on their Christian faith. (This tendency reached its culmination in the EU with the argument over confirming Buttiglione to the European Commission).
5) At Christmas, there are the inevitable fights over exactly how Christmas is presented in schools. Why is a menorah less religious than a crèche? Taken to the extremes that self-protective bureaucrats take them, such questions reach to nonsensical extremes (well-parodied in the South Park Christmas special with the “Inoffensive Winter Celebration”, and self-parodied in this year’s ban by a school principal on red and green napkins.)

All the problems of religious actions and symbolism are hugely aggravated by the size and reach of the government. If schools were chosen by parents and included both religious and secular schools, exactly what is taught about religion would not be a political fight.