With friends like Caesar, the church doesn’t need enemies

With friends like Caesar, the church doesn’t need enemies November 24, 2012

Two red-state stories about the dismal state of church and state, both of which feature pious government officials “helping” the church by treating it as servant and subsidiary the state.

First up, a story from Oklahoma, where a judge has sentenced someone to church.

OK, so, I’m a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you haven’t seen it, I think you should. I want you to watch it and to enjoy it as much I have enjoyed it the many times I’ve seen it.

Because of that, I would be upset if some judge somewhere decided to make watching Buffy a punishment. That would ruin it. It’s a terrific bit of storytelling, but if you’re sentenced to watching that story, you’ll never experience it the way you should. Turning it from something voluntary into a mandatory punishment would change the experience and change the thing itself.

That’s one part of why I think Oklahoma district judge Mike Norman is an idiot for sentenced a 17-year-old to 10 years of church attendance.

I want everyone to attend church — to experience church and enjoy church just as much as I have enjoyed it. By making church a punishment for this kid, Judge Norman changes the meaning and the experience of church — twisting it into something mandatory, onerous and punitive.

That’s not what church is for. It is not a tool of the state or a tool of the courts.

Judge Norman’s abuse of church — the damage he is doing to church — is one half of why the separation of church and state is so important. It protects citizens from the government establishment of religion — a constitutional clause that Norman’s decision clearly violates. But it also protects the church from the kind of distortions that Norman is imposing on it.

I agree with the Rev. Prescott:

The Rev. Bruce Prescott, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he is sure the sentence doesn’t pass constitutional muster, but he is equally worried about the spiritual ramifications.

“I’m a minister,” Prescott said. “I want people to go to church, but it’s not helpful for a judge to sentence someone to church. What will the judge do if the young man changes his affiliation in the next few years? Will he be allowed to switch to a mosque or become an atheist? Religion is not a tool of the state, and it’s certainly not for the state to use as a tool of rehabilitation.”

Which brings us to our second story, from Kentucky, where Democratic state Rep. Tom Riner says he’s a Baptist minister. Riner may be some kind of a minister, but he ain’t no Baptist:

The law and its sponsor, state representative Tom Riner, have been the subject of controversy since the law first surfaced in 2006, yet the Kentucky state Supreme Court has refused to review its constitutionality, despite clearly violating the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.

“The church-state divide is not a line I see,” the inquistor explains to Maria of Montjoie.

… The law states, “The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God as set forth in the public speeches and proclamations of American Presidents, including Abraham Lincoln’s historic March 30, 1863, presidential proclamation urging Americans to pray and fast during one of the most dangerous hours in American history, and the text of President John F. Kennedy’s November 22, 1963, national security speech which concluded: “For as was written long ago: ‘Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.'”

The law requires that plaques celebrating the power of the Almighty God be installed outside the state Homeland Security building — and carries a criminal penalty of up to 12 months in jail if one fails to comply. The plaque’s inscription begins with the assertion, “The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God.”

Tom Riner, a Baptist minister and the long-time Democratic state representative, sponsored the law.

“The church-state divide is not a line I see,” Riner told The New York Times shortly after the law was first challenged in court. “What I do see is an attempt to separate America from its history of perceiving itself as a nation under God.”

Look, it’s not easy to be a bad Baptist. We really only have one rule, and it’s embodied right there in the name: Baptists. We don’t baptize anybody who doesn’t choose it for themselves. We don’t baptize infants just because their parents are part of the church. And — more importantly — we don’t baptize infants believing that anyone born in the state belongs to the church (or that anyone born in the church belongs to the state).

The definition of the category “Baptist,” in other words, is an expression of a bold, dark, uncrossable line dividing church and state.

Tom Riner can call himself whatever he likes, but the word Baptist does not describe him.


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  • I’m reminded of the bit in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, where it is observed that people who attended the earlier Mass got more credit than the people who attended the later Mass…except the earlier attendees were the ones who had stayed up all night already, drinking and partying, so just stayed up and got Mass over with, then went to bed all day.

  • arcseconds

    While it is generally a true statement that good Christians go to church, it is emphatically not true that going to church will make you a good Christian.

    I suspect the first only true if we read ‘good’ as a modifier to ‘Christian’, in the same way as we would normally read ‘a good knife’, i.e. something that fulfills all the requirements of being a knife (or a Christian) well.

    In that case it probably ends up being a tautology, because church attendance is expected of Christians, so someone who meets the expectations of being a Christian will by definition attend church.

    If it’s short-hand for “someone who is both (morally) good and a Christian” I doubt it’s very true at all.   There’s plenty of people who identify themselves as Christian, are fairly good people, but don’t attend church very regularly, if at all.

    Anyway, I don’t think affirming the consequent or confusing material implication (or correlation (*)) and causality is really what’s going on here.  It seems far more likely to me that the judge has thought church is good for people all his adult life — he doesn’t need to get there by a faulty reasoning process.

    (*) you say formal logic, but interestingly conflating correlation with causation would have a similar argument.

  • arcseconds

    That reminds me of an anecdote about some famous scholar (whom I’m sure was Scottish, possibly 18th-century, and maybe Thomas Reid), who attained some chair of something-or-other at a university.

    When informed that church attendance on Sunday morning was a requirement of the position, his response was “aye, I’m sure I can stay up that late”.

  • Andrew

     “The biggest problem I have with sentences like this is that killing
    someone with a car should be treated exactly like killing someone with a

    That’s the way it once was, according to this historian


    “But at the beginning of the 20th century, traffic deaths – particularly the deaths of children – drew enormous attention.

    “If a child is struck and killed by a car in 2012, it is treated as a
    private loss, to be grieved privately by the family,” Norton says.
    “Before, this stuff was treated as a public loss – much like the death
    of soldiers.” Mayors dedicated monuments to the victims of traffic
    crimes, accompanied by marching bands and children dressed in white,
    carrying flowers.

    “We’re talking less about laws than we are about norms,” says Norton. He cites a 1923 editorial from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
    – a solidly mainstream institution, as he points out. The paper opined
    that even in the case of a child darting out into traffic, a driver who
    disclaimed responsibility was committing “the perjury of a murderer.”

    Norton explains that in the automobile’s earliest years, the principles
    of common law applied to crashes. In the case of a collision, the
    larger, heavier vehicle was deemed to be at fault. The responsibility
    for crashes always lay with the driver.”

  • mud man

    I’m in favor of sending evildoers up in front of the judge, but I don’t exactly want them sent there for punishment. Grace is what we need, not Judgement.

    Either way, mandatory church attendance is unlikely to be effective. I’ve been thinking along these lines about the junior youth group. 

  • stardreamer42

     I approach it as formal logic because that’s where I learned about this particular fallacy. The Reader’s Digest version, for those who might be unfamiliar:

    If you have two propositions, A and B, there are 4 possible ways for them to be related by implication:
    1) A implies B (statement)
    2) B implies A (converse)
    3) Not-A implies not-B (inverse)
    4) Not-B implies not-A (contrapositive)

    A statement and its contrapositive are logically equivalent; the converse and inverse of a statement are logically equivalent to each other, but not to the statement. In this particular instance, proposition A is “good people” and proposition B is “go to church”, and I think you can fill in the rest from there.

  • EllieMurasaki

    proposition A is “good people” and proposition B is “go to church”
    Which is logic fail in any event. Not all good people go to church; some go to synagogue, some to mosque, some to temple of one flavor or another, some–crap, brainfart, what’s the word for the meeting place of a neopagan group assembling for religious purposes? And some of course are atheist, agnostic, otherwise nonreligious, don’t do the group worship thing, and/or simply have other things to do during designated religious assembly time.

  • godlessveteran

    The judge may think he can do that, but all it will take is one pissed-off non-believer challenging such a sentence to get the sentence overturned and quite possibly get the judge dismissed for judicial malpractice.  It’s illegal, no matter how deep in redneck America you go.

  • Lori

    It sounds as if he only applies the sentence in the case where all involved parties agree and therefore won’t challenge it, and until someone with legal standing challenges it he can go right on doing it. I think the likelihood of him getting dismissed from the bench for this is really, really tiny.  The only way I can see that happening is if someone challenges it, it gets struck down due to the obvious Constitutional issue and he continues to sentence people to attend church.

    What I’m wondering is what happens to this kid when the ACLU or some similar group figures out a way to get standing and the sentence is struck down. Does he then end up going to prison? Would the same judge get to decide that?

  • arcseconds

    “good people” and “goes to church” aren’t propositions, though.  They’re predicates (well was ‘”is a good person” is)  You need ‘c is a good person’ and ‘c goes to church’  (where ‘c’ is a proper name, picking out a single individual, I choose ‘c’ because you’ve already used A and B, and conventionally proper names are drawn from the beginning of the alphabet) to make this work as a case of propositional logic.

    Well, sort-of work.

    The problem is that, under the usual reading of ‘implies’ in propositional logic,

    ‘c is a good person implies c goes to church’

    is true so long as c goes to church.  So, for example, to a logician:

    Tony Perkins is a good person implies Tony Perkins goes to church

    is true, despite the fact that Tony Perkins is not a good person.

    if ‘c is a good person implies c goes to church’ is false, then the only way that can be the case is if c in fact doesn’t go to church but is a good person, so we might fill in AnonymousSam(*) for that:

    AnonymousSam is a good person implies AnonymousSam goes to church.

    Here, the converse (did you mean to say ‘converse’, by the way? it’s not surprising that the contrapositive isn’t true if the statement itself isn’t true)  is indeed true in real life:

    AnonymousSam goes to church implies AnonymousSam is  a good person.

    for the same reason the Tony Perkins example is true.

     To anyone who thinks this is odd, well, you’re not alone, and there’s a complex reason for this, which basically boils down to anything else would be too complicated. 

    A better formulation of this would be to deploy the more powerful (and hence more complicated) predicate logic:

    ∀x(x goes to church ⊃ x is a good person)  ‘all people who go to church are good people’

    put like that it’s obviously false: we only need one counter-example to show that, and Tony Perkins will do.
    If you like naming all these logical relation thingies, Tony Perkins is an example of the contradictory of the above statement:

    ∃x(x goes to church & x is not a good person) ‘there is a person who goes to church and isn’t good’.

    (*) he doesn’t think of himself as a good person, but he’s just wrong about that. I am making an assumption that he doesn’t go to church, though.

  • arcseconds

     Hmm, might have got sidetracked there to a certain extent.

    Anyway, I think the fallacy you are accusing Norman of is ‘affirming the consequent’, that is,  concluding from

    A implies B


    B implies A

    In other words, he believes something like

    If Tyler goes to church then Tyler is a good person

    (maybe it would be better as ‘If Tyler would only go to church, then he will become a good person’ )

    and concludes:

    If Tyler is a good person, then Tyler goes to church

    (Or maybe ‘If Tyler is to become a good person then he will go to church’)

    Does that sound right? if not, I’ll have to get you to be more explicit about exactly what logical fallacy you think Norman is committing.

    While that is indeed fallacious reasoning, the premise is also questionable, as maybe Tyler isn’t already or won’t become a good person, whether or not he goes to church.

    However, I doubt Normal would agree to any of this.  He probably would agree there’s a chance that church won’t work for Tyler, so his argument probably has a statement like:

    (j) If Tyler goes to church, then he will probably become a better person.

    in it.   And he probably thinks this is causal, i.e. that going to church brings about the betterment. 

    Propositional logic can’t really deal with probabilities, and causality has always been a thorny, thorny issue to even reason about, let alone formalise.   So I don’t think this is really a logical fallacy, properly speaking.   He’s probably got to (j) from something like

    (i)  ∀x(if x goes to church then x will probably become a better person)

    And the step from (i) to (j) looks OK to me – it looks like an instance of universal instantiation.

    If we want to critique this reasoning, then, it’s the reasoning that leads to (i) that’s the problem.

    If there is any reasoning, which I doubt, as I said.  I think he’s probably believed (i) all his life, and is emotionally invested in it, and never really thought about it.  He may well give some kind of reasoning if challenged, but it’ll be post-factum rationalization.

    Assuming he has reasoned about it, then the kinds of mistakes to look for would be confirmation bias and maybe confusing correlation with causation.   Does he actually know sufficiently enough about what happens to people who don’t go to church?  Maybe where he lives only social outcasts don’t go to church, in which case the causality might be both working in the wrong direction and proceeding from a common cause.

    But who knows. Maybe Norman is an excellent epistemic agent and hasn’t made any mistakes at all, he’s just working with data that really does suggest (i).   Moreover,  (i) could actually be true.  Does anyone have any empirical data on this?

  • Münchner Kindl

    So one Judge violates his oath to uphold the constitution and nothing happens because everybody agrees; One unconstitutional law has been on the books for 6 years and not been struck down – tell me again how soldiers keep your freedom or how the 2nd amendment guns keep your democracy?
    Or, more serious, why are not more people worried about this? Why does there have to be “legal standing” to challenge an unconstitutional law, instead of “every concerned citizen”?

  • MikeJ

    Does he then end up going to prison?

    Most likely, which is why nobody is going to challenge it. The judge can withdraw his offer of leniency at any time.  You would have to be willing to argue your case from in prison.

    As repulsive as this is, nobody is going to pick being locked up rather than spending an hour a week ignoring a boring person.

  • Or, more serious, why are not more people worried about this?

    Because to many people in the US, including some of my relatives, this is what “religious freedom” means. Their freedom to imposed their religion on others.

    Why does
    there have to be “legal standing” to challenge an unconstitutional law,
    instead of “every concerned citizen”?

    Interesting question. The need to have someone violate an unjust law to bring it before the court system is a pretty significant limitation. What other processes are available that you consider effective?

  • Münchner Kindl

     Like I said, any “concerned citizen” or, if you think that would result in too many nonsense appeals, limit it to groups like the ACLU and political parties.

  • Dan Audy

    Many (most?) countries don’t have the same exacting standards regarding standing that the US does.  Instead of having to prove that you’ve already been harmed by a law most countries allow that someone in your position could potentially be impacted by it to allow a challenge.  Which avoids the stupidity of being unable to challenge to stop the government from illegally spying on you because you can’t prove that it is illegally spying on you.

  • Lori

    Why does there have to be “legal standing” to challenge an unconstitutional law, instead of “every concerned citizen”?  

    Does your country have a system where anyone can bring a court case just because they’re concerned about something? I’m guessing that you don’t because the burden on the court system would be unsupportable.

    I realize that you have very strong beliefs in the near-magical qualities of “how it obviously ought to be”, but sometimes things actually have to be hashed out.

  • Münchner Kindl

     I wasn’t talking about court cases in general, but in the special case of Constitutional Court and laws that are unconstitutional. And yes, political parties for example (usually the opposition) can take laws to the Constitution, because it’s one of the things that was fixed from the earlier version where people had Constitutional rights but no way to pursue them in courts, and thus no actual way to get their rights recognized.

    I realize that you have very strong beliefs in the near-magical
    qualities of “how it obviously ought to be”, but sometimes things
    actually have to be hashed out.

    No, I don’t believe in magic. I believe however, in looking at how other countries are doing it, asking if this makes more sense or is better, and if yes, then implementing it. That’s because I don’t believe that magically the US constitution is the bestest ever because the Founding Fathers had magic powers. I also don’t magically believe that the US is the only home of freedom and real democracy in this world (because every other country is socalist and not-democratic or whatever) and thus the only lightbringer to bring these goods to other countries by sending soldiers.

  • Tricksterson

    Not as far off as you think.  He’s probably referencing Section 1 of the 13th Amendment:

    Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted

    Probably subsequent cases have nuamced that though.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Does the Eighth Amendment not exist anymore? Because it is plausible that all the other constitutional rights go poof upon conviction (it is blatantly false and the very thought is abhorrent, but it is plausible), but the Eighth Amendment talks about fines and punishments, which means that amendment (the bits that aren’t about bail, anyway) cannot come into play until after conviction.

  • Christine

     Actually if he goes to church anyway then the sentence makes sense. “I need you to keep structure and community in your life”, rather than “go to church and you’ll magically become a better person”.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Which invites the question of why was the mandate for going church,
    instead of mandated weekly structured communal activity to be approved
    by the court, choices including but not limited to church and the
    library’s teen book club.