Church and State: Two Disputedly-Valued Things that Go Terribly Together

Ok, here comes part two of my reply to Mark Shea’s post about New Atheism’s War Kinetic Military Action on Christmas.  Part one focused on the reasons you might want to think twice before you complain a group hasn’t been victimized enough by a crime to be entitled to be upset.  Now, on to the specific tactic of resolving those disputes in court.

If you hate the lawsuits, change the law

It’s one thing to contend that declaring a statewide Day of Prayer (with or without reference to a specific deity) doesn’t violate the Establishment clause, but I have no patience for Christians who acknowledge that this kind of behavior is illegal, but atheist lawsuits are worse because they’re in such poor taste.

I don’t agree with every suit the Freedom from Religion Foundation or the American Atheists file, but the merits are decided in front of a judge, not by my personal sense of propriety.  As I wrote when discussing the World Trade Center cross suit, if we only litigate the Establishment violations that are universally acknowledged as over the line, we’re doing a shoddy job of protecting the law.  If the system is working, we’ll bring some ‘obvious’ cases, some ambiguous ones, and some that provoke a lot of outcry, we’ll win and lose on the merits, and the cases can give guidance and precedent to guide government agents in future situations.

We don’t live in a common-law system.  Everyone is poorly served when we ignore bad law instead of repealing it.  If you oppose these lawsuits, join the folks who want to change the law or amend the Constitution to let the State openly endorse certain religions or religious practices.  And that way you’ll need to make an affirmative case for your change in the public square instead of sighing about how whiny and petulant the atheists are.  (We’re the reason you can’t have nice things).

Seriously, Church/State crossover is bad for you guys too

If I had a nickel for every time this month I saw a Catholic blogger complain the penitential spirit of Advent had been eclipsed by the commercialist spirit  of American-style Christmas, I’d have enough money to buy my own Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle.

When government appropriates religion, its ecumenical vision tends to look a lot like Moral Therapeutic Deism.  It’s all pablum and satisfaction with the status quo and none of the demands that (right or wrong) makes the truth of a religion a consequential question.  Bland state-sponsored worship will almost always eschew the intense blood-and-humor attitude Shea champions in favor of boring old warm fuzzies.

And your religion’s not likely to do much better if it gets enough power to impose the nuances of its faith by fiat.  Conversions under duress tend not to ‘count’ in most soteriologies and are arguably blasphemous.  Yoking spiritual and moral guidance to all the unpleasant compromises required to administer a government tends to engender cynicism.

So, by all means have your church evangelize and organize public shows of faith, but recognize that if your parishoners  or targets are depending on the governor of Arizona to feel spiritually fed, you’ve already lost them (and deservedly so).

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • No One Important

    You’ve nailed it! Obviously, those who are advocating for Catholicism (or any other form of Christianity) are finding that they are not making their case successfully. Ergo, the “commercialization” of Christmas. Rather than admit that they need to fine-tune their evangelizing skills or perhaps abandon them in favor of other methods that might work better, they’re settling for blaming others. And it’s not even that they want state sponsorship of religion, really, because that would unleash a whole new set of problems that would need to be addressed. It’s simply that they won’t admit that their arguments are unpersuasive.

  • Lukas Halim

    I agree that, “Yoking spiritual and moral guidance to all the unpleasant compromises required to administer a government tends to engender cynicism.” My beef with the liberals is that the liberal project of expanding the governmennt ends up having a crowding out effect on other institutions – family, free associations, and churches. Also, as the government controls a larger portion of the economy, it is more difficult to keep church and state separate.

    Let me give you just one example – Christendom College refuses federal funding: http://www.christendom.edu/giving/why.php. I’m guessing that this puts them at a huge finanical disadvantage, but as they say on their website, they believe that when you accept federal funding you open the door to state control.

    • Brandon

      So, your beef is that you believe there’s a zero sum game in which the government somehow crowds out family, free association, and churches. I literally have no idea at all what you’re driving at there. I’m unaware of government programs tearing apart families, government prohibition of free association is explicitly forbidden, and churches are propped up by special government laws (tax exemption, faith-based charities) that don’t apply to others.

      • Lukas Halim

        @Brandon – it’s not necessary to believe it is a zero sum game in order to believe that there is a crowding out effect. Government doesn’t prohibit free association, but when government engages in the same activities as free association (education, care for the poor), the two are in some sense competitors. This link explains further: http://mises.org/daily/5388/Welfare-before-the-Welfare-State

        • Kogo

          I don’t agree. We’ve gotten by okay with state-sponsored education for nearly 400 years in the United States. Considerably longer elsewhere.

          And by every available measure–literacy rates, graduation rates, infant mortality rates, health of elders, maternal mortality rates–government involvement in health care and social welfare has been a good thing.

          • Concerned Citizen

            Yes, but that involves looking at evidence. Libertarianism is about faith. They have FAITH that if you released the free market, everything would be better.

          • keddaw

            Compared to what? You are mistaking correlation for causation. We do not know if things would be better with less government involvement because whenever national wealth increases so does government. And once it’s there it rarely goes away.

            Still, Concerned Citizen can be ironically named and be against libertarianism while the mighty government passes laws allowing for the indefinite detention of US citizens, Presidential kill orders on US citizens who are not a clear and present danger, the stripping of the 2nd, 5th and 6th Amendments, authorize enhanced interrogation, start illegal wars, and justify incredible amounts of collateral damage on the basis a suspected terrorist might be nearby, just so long as the kids are educated, yeah?

          • http://www.allourlives.org TooManyJens

            keddaw: So the only two alternatives are to be a Libertarian or to be in favor of all those bad things you list? That’s crap.

          • keddaw

            TooManyJens, I did not posit an either or, I pointed out the lack of evidence of what would actually happen if we tried to reduce the size and scope of government in a wealthy 21st century country. I also pointed out the poor things that must always happen with a government that is rarely criticised by liberals because of the good it does and the fact that a libertarian position, in addition to being against many potentially useful functions of government, are ALWAYS against all the things I listed.

            It was a reaction to Kogo’s point lacking evidence and Concerned Citizen’s attack on a worldview that, while often skewed towards corporatism in the US, still tries to protect us against the evils that the current government is perpetrating.

          • http://www.allourlives.org TooManyJens

            “the poor things that must always happen with a government that is rarely criticised by liberals because of the good it does”

            [citation needed]

          • Brandon

            I also pointed out the poor things that must always happen with a government that is rarely criticised by liberals because of the good it does and the fact that a libertarian position

            What a dishonest (or delusional) thing to say. Each of things you so helpfully point out are US specific problems, which the American left has been overwhelmingly against. These aren’t problems that run rampant in the left-wing states as a general rule; looking at Denmark, Sweden, and others shows us exactly the opposite, in fact. If you’re going to offer such dishonest critiques, why should people think you have any points at all?

          • keddaw

            Ah yeas, those lovely Scandinavian countries that aided and abetted the US in transporting detainees around the globe, the oh-so liberal countries that refuse to issue a warrant for the arrest of former President Bush and Vice-President Cheyney over their torture of suspects in direct violation of treaties the Scandanavians and Americans have signed up for? Or Denmark, Norway and Iceland who all sent troops to Iraq? Or Sweden’s apparent wish to arrest Julian Assange with the intent to hand him over to the Americans for doing something in Sweden that is not a crime in Sweden (we’ll see if this happens).

            Turning a blind eye to torture and injustice leaves you almost as culpable as those perpetrating those crimes.

            It is also worth pointing out that the Scandinavian countries have become less free over time, as have almost all countries, as governments have grown. This is not a causal link, an informed and concerned citizenry can control a government but the US, and most of the west, are usually neither.

            “which the American left has been overwhelmingly against”

            Funny how the most egregious attack on civil liberties has come from the Democrats… It would appear delusions are contagious.

        • Brandon

          I can’t see I’ve ever seen someone rail against right-wing policies while blaming Democrats for them. I’ve got to give you credit for that, it’s a new one.

          In what respect would you say the West is “less free”?

          • keddaw

            “I can’t see I’ve ever seen someone rail against right-wing policies while blaming Democrats for them.”

            Then Democrats should stop voting for, and introducing, right-wing policies! Who voted against the USA PATRIOT Act? The NDAA? Not many Dems, that’s for sure. And what did the “Constitutional Scholar”-in-Chief do about closing Guantanamo, illegal domestic wiretaps, and restoring trial by jury? He asked for MORE power over the citizenry.

            “In what respect would you say the West is “less free”?”

            The two US Acts above, the former Labour government in the UK stripping more of the basic rights enshrined in the Magna Carta in 10 years than in any century since it was signed, from wiki: “In 2008 a law was passed allowing warrantless wiretapping of all communications (including internet and telephone calls) crossing the border. This law went to effect on the 1st December 2009 when all affected ISPs had to provide a copy of border crossing traffic to the authorities. While it is believed that other states have similar wiretapping programs, Sweden is the first nation to publicize it.

            Due to the architecture of internet backbones in the Nordic area, a large portion of Norwegian and Finnish traffic will also be affected by the Swedish wiretapping.”

            “In 2002 German citizens were tipped off about wiretapping, when a software error led to a phone number allocated to the German Secret Service being listed on mobile telephone bills”

            When the government spies on citizens we are less free. When the government introduces new legislation to stop things that you may not even want to do, you are less free. I really didn’t think this would have been a controversial point!

          • Brandon

            Of course it’s controversial, as you don’t cite what it’s less free compared to. Are there specific laws that strip freedoms away? Sure, but nothing in recent years even approaches the measures that were taken during WW2, up to an including internment camps. When one compares the internment camps of the 40s or the McCarthyism of the 50s to the possibility of someone tapping your phone, it’s pretty clear that there’s a wildly disproportionate view of the world that’s needed to see the modern world as less free.

          • keddaw

            Brandon, obviously there were times in the past when governments massively overstepped the mark, mainly in war time Japanese interment, but the McCarthyism of the 50′s is not entirely dissimilar to what we have now. Only the government have it in their power to intercept all your communications, without even suspicion, track all your movements, purchases and contacts, and detain you indefinitely without charge.

            Would such a power have been conceivable at the start of the 20th century? How about gun laws? How about drug laws? What about the ability to start a business, there are often a ridiculous amount of hoops to go through that were not there previously. Seat belts and motorcycle helmets, drink driving laws, voicing a positive opinion about a “terrorist/freedom fighter” organisation, paying by cash, voting without govt. ID, sorry, I could go on and on but I think the point is clear – WHITE MEN are much less free now than before. (Civil rights act, womens rights – both VERY good things for freedom overall, but didn’t impact white male freedom, I’d rather the freedom that white males enjoyed could simply have been given to everyone.)

    • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

      @Lukas Halim:

      Here’s the thing. There are people who either don’t have families or whose families disown them for leaving the religion, being gay, all sorts of other reasons. Not everyone has a family they can go to for help. Also, there are religious charities that discriminate, so if you’re a member of a minority religion in an area where there aren’t charities of your religion nearby, you have to deal with people’s proselytizing in order to get the help you need if there aren’t secular charities. Likewise for religious schools. What you see as “crowding out” I see as more people having the opportunity to get an education, help in difficult times, etc. instead of just people of one religion having access to these things.

      And yes, if someone accept federal funding they should have to follow anti-discrimination laws, etc. A Christian school can’t get federal funding if it discriminates for the same reason a Muslim school can’t get funding if it discriminates against Christians.

      While I don’t think government is perfect (far from it, as we see with various civil rights abuses from both parties here in the US and even more egregious abuses in other countries) we have the opportunity change the laws to combat these abuses and discrimination, whereas the religious institutions are allowed to continue to discriminate under the protection of the First Amendment (though I think they should not be tax-exempt if they do so).

      @Leah:

      So, by all means have your church evangelize and organize public shows of faith, but recognize that if your parishoners or targets are depending on the governor of Arizona to feel spiritually fed, you’ve already lost them (and deservedly so).

      I do tend to see faith as a personal thing, and I even felt that way when I used to believe in God. I don’t know why people want the governor to have a day of prayer, as it just opens the door for the government to pick favorites between the religions.

  • FCCG

    It is important to note that the “law” surrounding the Establishment Clause is one of the most tortured and least clear aspects of American Law. It is entirely possible to argue from good faith that all of the examples mentioned in the last two posts are legal or illegal. I tend to believe that the Establishment Clause was concerned with specific Reformation era English policies which required people to believe certain things to be members of society or largely made illegal other beliefs. Under my, view the state could go much further than it does currently without breaking the law (although I admit this is an outlier view).

    What gets my goat about the annual lawsuits is that they tend to focus narrowly on the frivolous things. Having a nativity in the courthouse isn’t going to convert anyone. For most it is simply a nice seasonal decoration. Religious sure, but even the staunchly religious items can lend themselves to non-religious feelings. Similarly, a cross is both a symbol for Christ, and sorry boys and girls, it is also a fairly universal western symbol for grief and the dead. Whether or not these creepings is bad for religion is less clear to me, but I definitively think that lawsuits of this type represent a further stop on the road to general American wussification. “If anyone makes me fell uncomfortable I should sue” is a philosophy at the heart of the issue and bound to take us bad places.

    Also, the increasing commercialization of Christmas is not a church/state issue, but a church/store issue. You will continue to see these effects even if every one of the lawsuits succeeds. It will only stop when people stop buying loads of Christmas presents.

  • Brandon

    Similarly, a cross is both a symbol for Christ, and sorry boys and girls, it is also a fairly universal western symbol for grief and the dead.

    The only person I’ve ever heard make that argument is Scalia. Can you provide any examples of non-Christians using a cross in that fashion?

  • http://twitter.com/blamer @blamer

    I’m relieved at surveys showing most of religious America isn’t so one-eyed.

    Jefferson’s church/state wall is the soapbox that we see the Perry’s of the world using to preach to one-eyed Jesus fans about “not being afraid to called himself Christian” (read: afraid of minorities).

    Until the religious majority – with their far more pluralistic approach to divinity than those with the microphones – can talk down these rabble rousing Christian spokesmen, America’s church/state seperation isn’t an theist issue so much as it is an issue of Christian compassion for non-Christians.

    It’s an atheist issue when we’re talking about erecting a god/state wall… presumably a legal and political impossibility.

  • Hibernia86

    Leah, I find it hilarious that Mark Shea thinks that you having intelligent discussions with both theists and atheists is going to inevitably make you religious. We should tell Mark to advocate that anyone on the fence about the existence of God have intelligent talks with both theists and atheists and we’ll see which side comes out on top of that one!

  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

    I call sampling bias. The blogs I read have no such thing. Not Steven Greydanus, nor Ed Peters, nor Patrick Vandapool, nor Fr. Z, nor Shameless Popery, nor “Young Evangelical Catholic” mentioned even commercialism yet far, and not even Fr. Longenecker nor John C. Wright nor Michael Flynn — these last three writers especially are hardly afraid of Kulturkampf language. Of those I read that address materialistic temptations, Matt Warner has a gentle admonition, Jennifer Fulweiler and Simcha Fischer are suitably self-deprecating, and Marc Barnes posted a video and wrote one sentence regarding one of those flash mob adorations. Jimmy Akin stands alone as perhaps a legitimate example, but note that he wrote his piece in direct response to a prominent piece of blather.

    (To Mark Shea’s defense, a blogger I don’t read except at the Register, please note that his professional blogging there doesn’t even include the offending post. He kept Culture War grousing on his home blog. If this distinction is unclear, an illustration: It rubs elbows with the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo.)

    There are lame whinings and molehills made mountains, and you do have a legitimate point — but only to a point. I say instead that you’re still hanging around the wrong crowd, and I think you by these impressions exaggerate the case. Presuming the good, I add “unintentionally.”

    P.S. This is not rhetorical but meant sincerely: Is there a right crowd of atheists to counterpart my right crowd of Catholics? This is to say, a step above the commbox but not overloaded with jargon?

    • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

      The Curt Jester, of all bloggers, agrees fundamentally. Leah, I think you’re aiming too broadly when you mean to hit the Christmas with a Capital C treacle. So far as I’ve noticed, Catholics by-and-large agree with you.

      (For that matter, we largely agree with you on the parallel issue of public school prayer invocations starting off the day, too, as has been shot down by the Supreme Court. We were on the receiving end of Protestant propaganda long enough, thank you very much. Why do you think we reactionaries started our own parallel, for-a-time superior school system?)

    • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

      More to the point: Mark Shea declares himself a “conscientious objector” in the War on Christmas. Methinks what he wrote was not substantially the same topic as your responding posts.

    • Brandon

      This is not rhetorical but meant sincerely: Is there a right crowd of atheists to counterpart my right crowd of Catholics? This is to say, a step above the commbox but not overloaded with jargon?

      Some of the bloggers at freethoughtblogs.com may suit you, depending on what exactly you’re looking for. The Camels with Hammers blog can get a little philosophy heavy for my tastes, but is often interesting, and Crommunist Manifesto often has solid writing on various social issues. Some are probably less to your tastes, but it’s worth taking a couple minutes to check out.

      • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

        PZ Meyers gets top billing there, so I don’t hold out much hope. Still, it’s worth a look.

        • leahlibresco

          Try LessWrong. It’s not primary about atheism, but it is philosophy/truth searching done by weird creative atheists.

          • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

            Wonderful! I’m loving the “Best of Rationality” quotes archives. There’s a fair mix of — what’s this I see? — Chesterton! There’s hope yet!

            (For what? I shan’t say.)

  • HMSBeagle

    Leah,

    Well argued, well written. However, I’m wondering if Mark Shea’s endorsement is not symptomatic of some problem in the original article to which he responded–something which only you, not me, could assess.

    “And your religion’s not likely to do much better if it gets enough power to impose the nuances of its faith by fiat.”

    For those who want the governor and other state officials endorsing Prayer Days and whatnot, power is better. They have different criteria than you do. Power is their major objective here. They want to use the megaphone and propaganda power of the state to spread and maintain their belief.

    “Conversions under duress tend not to ‘count’ in most soteriologies and are arguably blasphemous.”

    I’m not sure about most, meaning most religions, but in mainstream Christianity and Islam, there is a common view that belief is necessary for salvation from the threatened hell-fire. I think this constitutes a form of duress or coercion, especially if taught to children by parents.

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