From April 23, 2010, “Establishment“:
A federal judge has ruled that the establishment by Congress of a National Day of Prayer conflicts with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
I’m not a constitutional scholar, but I believe the legal term for this ruling is “no duh.”
I happen to like the idea of a day of prayer, and of a nationwide day of prayer. But I’m utterly opposed to the idea that such a day of prayer ought to be nationalized. Once the thing becomes nationalized and official and established it becomes another thing entirely. Prayer is not something to be rendered unto Caesar, nor is it something Caesar ought to be put in charge of, asked to bless, permit, allow or establish. A Nationalized Day of Prayer defeats the purpose and will inevitably wind up with pious posturing in which repentance and thanksgiving are transposed. Politicians offer pompous thanksgiving for national shames about which we ought to be begging God’s forgiveness while at the same time lamenting many of the things most pleasing to God. A Nationalized Day of Prayer — or a nationalized prayer breakfast — is bound to wind up backwards and upside-down.
So my primary objection to the Nationalized Day of Prayer is a religious objection — a sectarian, Baptist objection, in fact.
But I also don’t think the constitutional question is terribly complicated. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” “Congress established the National Day of Prayer in 1952.” “Congress established … prayer.”
Seriously, is that too complicated for anyone?
For many Americans, however, the First Amendment is complicated.
For those who subscribe to what my old friend Dwight Ozard called “hegemonic religion,” the First Amendment seems incoherent and contradictory. The core belief of hegemonic religion is that religion cannot be freely exercised unless it is also established in law. Those who subscribe to a form of hegemonic religion therefore view the First Amendment as presenting a conflict or, they like to say, a “tension” between its two religious clauses.
Those of us from other, non-hegemonic religious traditions do not see this supposed conflict. Here is what the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says about religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”
Sometimes a comma is just a comma and not a vast chasm separating two competing and incompatible ideas. The two clauses there do not conflict. At all. They are logically necessary counterparts of one another. Congress may not make any law establishing religion and Congress may not prohibit the free exercise of religion. Congress may not make any law establishing religion because to do so would be to prohibit the free exercise of religion.
Hegemonic believers don’t seem to appreciate this point. They can grasp that the establishment of one, official state religion might inhibit the freedom of those not belonging to the One True Official Sect, but they don’t perceive how such an establishment also fundamentally alters the relationship of members of that official sect to their own church — requiring lockstep assent to its official doctrines and practices as set forth thereafter by its official and legal enforcers.
The establishment of any sect casts suspicion on all members of that sect. Coerced belief is belief that cannot be trusted. Coerced belief, therefore, will never be trusted — it will be dis-trusted, inspected, codified, measured and forced to demonstrate its loyalty and legitimacy time and again.
This is no less true when the coercion is softer, the result of a set of privileges, incentives and disincentives. All such privileges and incentives incentivize disingenuous claims of religious belonging. To privilege any one set of believers, therefore, requires the implementation of mechanisms to challenge and sort out the genuine believers from the mere pretenders claiming allegiance only in order to gain access to those privileges that accompany membership in the established sect. Such sorting mechanisms are never perfect — allowing many hypocritical posers to slip past while unjustly condemning many sincere and genuine believers. And such sorting mechanisms are never pretty. This is where inquisitions come from.
There’s only one way to have an established religion without having an inquisition and that is to go without any such tests to distinguish genuine from disingenuous allegiance to official doctrine. That results in a different kind of disaster for the official, established sect. It means that nominal, indistinct, content-less faith becomes the norm. It turns the established sect into something toothless and vague — the C&E faith of the C of E (Christmas, Easter, Church, England).
These are the unavoidable options for any sect that becomes official and established. It can become monstrous or it can become mundane, but either way it cannot continue to be exercised as freely. Establishment restricts the religious freedom of those belonging to the official sect just as surely as it restricts the freedom of the religious minorities it disenfranchises.
All of which is why here in America support for a secular state (a redundant phrase) comes not just from Baptists and Anabaptists, pagans and freethinkers and other sects with a history as dissenting, persecuted minorities, but also from adherents of sects that are or have been legally established, official religions — from Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Hindus, Jews, Sunnis, Shiites, Anglicans, etc. The free exercise of those traditions is freer in a country with a secular state than it is in a country in which any one of them is legally enforced and officially privileged.
Many of the most vocal proponents of hegemonic religion in America understand all of that, but they don’t really care because they’re really just lying bastards who don’t give a damn about religion and aren’t arguing in good faith. …