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December 22, 2004

a Christian nation?

Don Herzog, Herzog: "A Christian Nation?": December 22, 2004

A while ago I wondered what would change if we publicly affirmed that this is a Christian nation.  My dilemma shapes up this way.  I don't want to believe that the people urging that are doing right-wing identity politics, slinging around vacuous slogans; I assume they want concrete policy change, not feel-good gestures.  But on the other side, I don't want to believe that the people urging that are what I'd style extremists who might think, for instance, that a public university could fire me as a faculty member if I couldn't demonstrate that I was a Christian in good standing.  (If there are people who'd do that, I'd argue against them.  Strenuously.  Not just label them extremists.  But hey I'd do that too.  Any port in a storm.)  So I keep looking around for some position that skirts the horns of that dilemma.

And then I found this language from the 2004 Texas Republican party platform:

Christian Nation – The Republican Party of Texas affirms that the United States of America is a Christian nation, and the public acknowledgement of God is undeniable in our history. Our nation was founded on fundamental Judeo-Christian principles based on the Holy Bible. The Party affirms freedom of religion, and rejects efforts of courts and secular activists who seek to remove and deny such a rich heritage from our public lives.
Free Exercise of Religion – The Party believes all Americans have the right to practice their religious faith free from persecution, intimidation, and violence. While recognizing one’s freedom from religion, this recognition should not limit others’ free expression of their religious beliefs. Our Party pledges to exert its influence to restore the original intent of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and dispel the myth of the separation of Church and State. We support the right of individuals and state and local governments to display symbols of our faith and heritage. We call on Congress to sanction any country that is guilty of persecuting its citizens because of their religious beliefs.
Religious Institutions – The Party acknowledges that the church is a God–ordained institution with a sphere of authority separate from that of civil government; thus, churches, synagogues and other places of worship, including home Bible study groups, seminaries and similar institutions should not be regulated, controlled, or taxed by any level of civil government, including the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service. We reclaim freedom of religious expression in public on government property, and freedom from governmental interference.

Now we don't in this country have what political scientists describe as "responsible party government":  this language is manifestly not a concrete set of policy proposals that the Texas GOP pledges to try to pass in the next session.  Obviously much of it is just exhortation about federal policy, and I assume more generally that all party platforms in this country are some mix of what the activists really believe and what they think will appeal to their members and the broader public, spiced heavily with declarations of victory over vanquished party factions.

I don't suppose that the Texas GOP would adore me or my politics.  And their language isn't boilerplate.  (Here's the only mention of Christianity in the 2004 national party platform:  "America is a working example of religious liberty, home to millions of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and people of many other faiths who live in harmony and contribute to our culture."  Yes, I suppose they could have included atheists and agnostics, but we're a long way from Texas.  I dug up half a dozen other state GOP platforms and none of them whispered a syllable about Christianity.)  But none of this language makes me shudder or grimace or roll my eyes derisively.  I don't support a blanket exclusion of religion from public or government settings.  (Neither does current first amendment doctrine.)  I think it contemptible to teach American history and pretend Christianity has made no difference, though I also think some people overplay or misunderstand the differences it has made.  But that's just business as usual in the liberal arts, where we try carefully to sort out the merits of competing views.  (When Pat Robertson applauds Jefferson for his "eternal enmity against every form of tyranny over the mind of man," I want to say, wait! Jefferson was talking in part about priestcraft.)  I do worry about the state throwing its weight behind one religion, or religion generally, if that looks like carving the community into first- and second-class citizens.  (So does current doctrine.)  And I think the position that all religious institutions must not be taxed or regulated, no matter what, isn't right, but actually most jurisdictions are pretty hands-off.  So maybe under this proposal the Texas GOP would favor doing some things that I'd strenuously oppose; maybe not.  It's too early to tell on the basis of language this abstract.

I guess I'm still looking for some position that skirts the horns of my dilemma.  And though I fear some of you will think I'm facetious, I really don't want to believe all this talk of Christian America is cheap identity politics.  I'd like to find some concrete policy proposals that reasonable people could disagree about.  I'll keep looking.  Meanwhile, call this a lack-of-progress report.


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Posted by: Jeremy Pierce

Here is one suggestion that I don't myself agree with (because I think a Christian nation is a contradiction in terms, given how Christianity presents itself in the New Testament). Still, I think it gets around your dilemma.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | Dec 22, 2004 10:56:51 AM

Posted by: Steve Shiffrin

The question can be looked at in a variety of ways. Presumably, a genuine Christian nation would be one that acted on Christian values. But Christians disagree on principles and policies. Consider abortion, capital punishment, and the role of government in caring for the poor. That there is disagreement need not mean that that Christianity is a meaningless tradition; it does mean that the nature of a Christian nation can depend upon which Christians are in power. Perhaps the question addresses what a nation run by evangelical Christians would be like. That would produce some predictable policies on abortion and homosexuality, but evangelical Christians are not homogeneous either (many resist faith based programs - including Fallwell and Robertson, as I recall). I assume the question is not historical. The U.S. was a Christian nation as were many states as was much of Europe. Perhaps the question is simply addressed to church/state relations. Even there, evangelical Christians are deeply divided. Consider the historic stance of Baptists in favor of considerable distance between church and state. Finally, would it make a difference if the United States declared itself a Christian nation and did nothing to act upon it? The declaration would mark some citizens as insiders and others as outsiders, encourage discrimination, and damage Christianity - just a few good reasons for the Establishment Clause.

Posted by: Steve Shiffrin | Dec 22, 2004 11:58:04 AM

Posted by: Andy

I love it when people forget there's a second part to the First Amendment.

Posted by: Andy | Dec 22, 2004 12:01:53 PM

Posted by: Andy


But it is cheap identity politics. Like people who want to make English the national language, people who want to establish a national religion suffer from some sort of malignant narcissism, a strange insecurity of the majority that only some aspiration of tyranny can explain.

I think we shouldn't ignore Christianity as history but the people from the Texas GOP want to include in the government as dogma. Take for example, the matter of the 10 Commandments. The Christian Fundamentalists will say that are laws are based on this Judeo Christian codification, but nowhere in our Constitution does it say that we can't diss God, or cheat on our spouses, or covet our neighbor's spouses.

And who believes that before Judaism people thought it was perfectly acceptable to kill one another? And did the practice stop after the Commandments?

The Commandments are a nice bit of history but hardly relevant to modern law. Why they should be anywhere near a courthouse is beyond my understanding.

Posted by: Andy | Dec 22, 2004 12:11:36 PM

Posted by: Josh Jasper

Well, I'd have to maintain a map of the US that listed states that I'd be wanted as a criminal in. The 2004 Texas Republican Platform still insists I ought to be a criminal in Texas.

On the other hand, we'd be sanctioning half the world, so that'd be interesting. I have no idea where we'd be buying oil from, given that every oil producing nation I can think of persecutes people based on religious beliefs. Perhaps we'd all end up a nation of EV drivers getting power from nuclear plants.

On the gripping hand, Henry Hyde once tried to bar Wiccans (Goddess based neo-pagans) from the US armed forces based on his Christian beliefs. So part of me expects that if we're going to let the evangelicals run things, there will be a sufficient amount of zealots among them to make life really hard for us practitioners of non-standard religions. I feel marginalized enough already by the current Republican party. Any neo-pagan I know of who's grown up in evangelist dominated areas has told me that those people are fairly likely to try and use the law to make life difficult. I personally know a neo-pagan school teacher who nearly lost her job because evangelists tried to run her out of town because they didn't want a "witch" teaching in a public school.

That's a lot worse than excluding atheists or agnostics in party platform language. It's real, and it affects people's lives deeply. Evangelists being in control of an area I'm living in scares the living heck out of me, because I have good reason to believe they'll try and regulate my life, restrict my behavior, and in some cases, make me into a criminal.

Posted by: Josh Jasper | Dec 22, 2004 12:14:50 PM

Posted by: Bernard Moon

As a conservative Christian, the platform stated by the Texas Republican Party concerns me in practical terms. C.S. Lewis in "The Screwtape Letters" warned not to be a "Christian with a cause" but simply a Christian. While Satan in the book wanted Christians to be deceived:

"Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the "cause," in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism... Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing."

So I don't know about the personal faith of the Texas Republican Party leadership, but I would tend to think they are slightly off in their focus. They shouldn't be looking to establish a "Christian Nation" on earth, but keep their eyes on the nation in heaven. They lose focus as some of Jesus's disciples did when they asked to have a seat next to him in his kingdom, which they thought incorrectly would be an earthly one.

Also I don't believe you can legislate "morality" or a religious practice. It's not effective or pratical. This is why I'm against such measures as an enforcement of prayer in school. It would become ritualized and not meaningful to people.

Posted by: Bernard Moon | Dec 22, 2004 12:35:04 PM

Posted by: slarrow

What an illustrative dilemma this is. On the one hand, you don't want to think that Christian-nation types are posturing grandstanders, but on the other you don't want to rush to the conclusion that they're 21st century Torquemadas. Hmmm, my opponents, shallow or evil...however will I come up with a third position?

Okay, I admit it: that was snarky. But I simply find it incomprehensible that you struggle so mightily--and so openly--about your difficulty in moving past your stereotypes of Christians in the political scene.

About your dilemma: you're already well on your way to agreeing with and understanding several of the positions that Political Christians (for lack of a better handle) take. Your difficulty lies in your failure to recognize that there are real, committed opponents to several of those positions. There are people out there who want blanket exclusions of religion (or sometimes mere Christianity) from public or government settings. They make the unreasonable (and unconstitutional) demand that private religious belief may not spill over into public lives. There are organizations with sufficient financing to cow little towns and businesses into submission over including an ichthus on a city seal, saying a prayer at a graduation, or putting a Nativity scene in the public park. Attempts by Political Christians to consider this a Christian nation is not to mandate nationwide lip service but rather to set up a bulwark against these types of narrowly-focused forces.

In other words, you mistake the nature of the motivation that encourages Political Christians to declare this a Christian nation. It is not an offensive manuever, it is a defensive one. It is a reaction against attempts by some to disqualify Christian involvement in public policy simply because it is Christian, and it didn't used to be this way. To claim this is a Christian nation is to expose those often well-financed and professionally loudspoken opponents as petty tyrants who would use intimidation and illicit power grabs to force the majority to do the minority's will.

So here's the answer to your dilemma: think of those espousing that this be a Christian nation as people just like you who don't want to be told they can't participate in public life because of the nature of their belief, who will not accede in being treated as losers when they've won, who will not accept they cannot say they're right just because there are competing beliefs, and who will not accept "keep it to yourself" as a legitimate shackle. Once you get past this curious characterization of yours, I think you'll find the actual policy questions of Political Christians work much like any other list of policy questions by any other group.

Good grief, Professor Herzog, we're not aliens!

Posted by: slarrow | Dec 22, 2004 12:40:28 PM

Posted by: AlanC9

Can someone please explain how both religious people and secular people manage to feel they're on the defensive simultaneously?

Posted by: AlanC9 | Dec 22, 2004 12:52:32 PM

Posted by: Josh Jasper

There's a large chunk of Red State America that, when you move into a new town, one of the first questions you get asked is "What church do you go to?". Try answering "I'm an athiest" and see how unpopular you become all of a sudden.

As an urban blue state resident, the idea that my religious practises, or lack thereof should matter to anyone is rather alien.

In that sense, a lot of you are aliens. Not in how you vote, but in how you interact with each other, and how you treat us.

You claim you've "won". As far as I can tell, that means a country where I'm not welcome.

Posted by: Josh Jasper | Dec 22, 2004 12:52:41 PM

Posted by: Jeff

As an agnostic conservative, I perhaps have no dog in this particular fight.

Nor am I particularly enthralled with an affirmation that the US is a "Christian" nation since there are quite a few members of the nation that are not Christian.

It is historically true that Western culture fostered democratic government and grew out of a Judeo-Christian matrix. There should be no dispute about acknowledging and indeed celebrating that history.

It is also true that the US was founded in large part by people of intense religious belief who sought freedom of religion. There should be no dispute about celebrating that history.

It is also true that most religions imply certain moral codes, and it is certainly no bad thing to constrain politics by morality, whether it comes in religious garb or not.

Finally it is true that the great majority of religious people in the US happen to be Christians. A certain amount of respect for the beliefs and symbols of that majority's religion seems to me be incumbent upon us, out of civility if nothing else.

What generates the outrage from Christians is a seemingly well-founded perception that their beliefs are denigrated and that traditional, minor tokens of respect for their religion are under attack. A museum, partially supported by public funds, justifies an exhibit deliberately offensive to Christians on the grounds of "freedom of speech." A court, despite the ancient maxim that the magistrate should ignore trifles, amends the pledge of alliegance. That Bush's politics seem partially informed by a sincere religious sensibility is used to dismiss those politics as illegitimate. And on it goes. People whose views are under attack tend to respond.

Posted by: Jeff | Dec 22, 2004 12:58:02 PM

Posted by: David Velleman

They make the unreasonable (and unconstitutional) demand that private religious belief may not spill over into public lives. There are organizations with sufficient financing to cow little towns and businesses into submission over including an ichthus on a city seal, saying a prayer at a graduation, or putting a Nativity scene in the public park.

think of those espousing that this be a Christian nation as people just like you who don't want to be told they can't participate in public life because of the nature of their belief, who will not accede in being treated as losers when they've won, who will not accept they cannot say they're right just because there are competing beliefs, and who will not accept "keep it to yourself" as a legitimate shackle

You've mixed up all sorts of different cases. Of course "private religious belief" must be allowed to "spill over into public lives". Of course people must not be "told they can't participate in public life because of the nature of their belief". Of course no one should be told, "Keep it to yourself."

But incorporating a symbol of your religion into the official seal of our (that is, everyone's) city, or installing a symbol of your religion in our (that is, everyone's) park, is going far beyond participating in public life, or letting your beliefs spill into public, or speaking your mind. It's imposing your beliefs on others, which you may not do. Display the ichthus on your car, on your home, on your T-shirt, on the sign in front of your church. Display it as conspicuously as you like. No one may tell you to keep it yourself. But don't ask that the ichthus be displayed by the city, which belongs jointly to everyone, not to you or to any particular religion.

I suspect that what's behind your view is the insistence that Christians "will not accede in being treated as losers when they've won". What is it that Christians have won? And what would it be for Christians to be treated as losers? Is the idea that when Christians hold the mayors office and all of the seats on city council, then they've won the city, and they're entitled to make it a Christian city with an ichthus on its seal?

Posted by: David Velleman | Dec 22, 2004 1:10:52 PM

Posted by: Heidi

Calm down. I doubt that Don's agitating for a literal establishment of religion. I don't even think that the Texas GOP is either; there's a difference between saying that this is a Christian nation (something that is, to some extent, true) and saying that therefore, everyone in the nation must become Christian as a result. Somewhere between establishing a theocracy where infidels burn at the stake and pistol-whipping people who mention religion or morals in public discourse lies -- it's not entirely a happy medium, so let's call it -- some medium of minimal malcontentedness.

I've been thinking about this in the context of what we can actually teach in public schools. So, on the one hand, you have very harsh critics of intelligent design and creationism, who say "this is not science; it is religion." Which I agree with. But the next step -- "because this is religious, it should not be taught in the classroom" -- is not something I'm prepared to say yet. (aside: there are additional reasons intelligent design shouldn't be taught in the classroom) How can you possibly teach what science is without talking about what it isn't? How do you demonstrate where the boundaries are if you don't go beyond them?

And so I worry that removing religion from public schools, or from the public discourse itself, will result in the further dumbing down of America. Like it or not, religion has been a great animating cause. If we can't talk about religion -- if we can't acknowledge that religion shapes our public discourse -- we're kind of hosed, because then we basically have to lie. And that's somewhat suboptimal.

I don't have any answers either.

Posted by: Heidi | Dec 22, 2004 1:14:56 PM

Posted by: Craig Duncan

I think Slarrow is both right and wrong in his/her comments on the "Christian nation" issue.

He/she is *right* in the claim that those who speak the "Christian nation" language want the option to hang the Ten Commandments on the walls of courthouses and schools, put nativity scenes on the city hall lawn, have a prayer at graduation and at other times in school. (It is unclear to me, though, how many advocates of school prayer specifically demand *Christian* prayer; my sense is that most seem content with generically monotheistic prayer.)

These are largely symbolic issues. But that does not make them trivial. Symbols matter in the political sphere.

Slarrow is *wrong* in the claim that liberals are telling "Political Christians" that "they can't participate in public life because of the nature of their beliefs" (slarrow's words, from above). If you can't hang the Ten Commandments in the courthouse, is this really a ban on participating in public life? You can still vote, run for office, organize anti-abortion rallies, oppose stem cell research, or whatever.

Granted, living in a secular state puts some limits on what ideally you might like, especially regarding symbols on public display. But this is true for atheists like me too. I would never dream of having school children recite each day in class a Pledge of Allegiance that ended "one nation, in a godless universe, with liberty and justice for all."

Posted by: Craig Duncan | Dec 22, 2004 1:19:06 PM

Posted by: slarrow

Why are both sides defensive, AlanC9? I'll take a stab at it:

(1) What are in large part cultural issues have been pulled into the court system over the past several decades, changing them into legal and political issues. As such, they've transformed differences in lifestyles and preferences into contests where there are winners and losers.
(2) In an ongoing struggle, you win some, you lose some. However, with a media that can turn a local or regional episode into a national story, each of these struggles becomes more immediate, even though it might not (or ought not) afffect you. Also, since the story involves people you don't know or can't influence (because of distance, sometimes), a sense of powerlessness arises. That's where the sense of "the other side's winning" comes from and why it's widespread across the aisle, I think.
(3) Due to recourse to federal law and attempts to make things constitutional issues, actions in faraway localities really DOES affect one in one's own backyard. What the media provides in perception, the law provides in fact, adding to the feeling of powerlessness and a need to justify the actions taken against an apparently immovable tide (conceived as such, at least, in one's darker hours.)

So since this has become about winners and losers and since your side's losses anyway can be brought home to you immediately and emotionally...I think that accounts for the defensiveness on both sides.

Posted by: slarrow | Dec 22, 2004 1:22:37 PM

Posted by: David Velleman

Heidi --

I don't advocate "removing religion from public schools" if that means "we can't talk about religion". Of course we should talk about religion in public schools. I don't advocate removing religious symbols from public schools, if that means that no cross or star of David or crescent-and-star is to be allowed in sight.

The crucial distinction is between the symbols or words, on the one hand, and the acts in which they are used, on the other. A concert performance of a Mozart Mass is fine -- more than fine, it's wonderful -- but celebrating mass in the school auditorium is not. The first is artistic performance of a religious work; the second is a religious rite. Similarly, it's fine for children to wear symbols of their own religions, or for classes to view religious artwork and study religious symbolism, but the school itself must not display those symbols for the purpose of making a religious statement -- as it would, for example, if a cross were incorporated into the school flag.

To incorporate the ichthus into a city seal is to enlist the city in making a religious statement. It is deeply offensive, even for those of us who think that religion and religious symbols should be more in evidence in public life.

Posted by: David Velleman | Dec 22, 2004 1:38:58 PM

Posted by: AlanC9

slarrow, I'll have to disagree with one part of that. Things like school prayers, creches on city property, and posting the Ten Commandments in courtrooms were always political matters; these are, by definition, government action. They just didn't appear to be political as long as one side had such an overwhelming majority that it was useless to raise the issue. There weren't "winners" and "losers," but that's only because non-Christians couldn't even get in the game.

Posted by: AlanC9 | Dec 22, 2004 1:46:57 PM

Posted by: slarrow

David, the problem with your position is that it assumes a neutral ground that does not exist. You make the common claim, "It's imposing your beliefs on others, which you may not do." This is self-stultifying. This is itself a moral position; it is itself a belief.

To make it clearer: Suppose I reject that belief and say, rather, that you can impose your beliefs on others (which we do all the time, anyway). In other words, suppose I take the opposite position from you. On what grounds do you then try to limit me, since to do so would be to force me to accede to a view I myself do not hold?

Put more broadly, to say that a group can't put a religious symbol on a city because it's everyone's city is not to carve out neutral ground. It's to give precedence to the non-religious "everyone" faction--especially when we're not talking about adding a symbol but subtracting it because of the objections of a small minority. David would like to assume that the exclusion of religious imagery from the public square is the default position. It is not. He would like to say that incorporating an ichthus into a city seal is a religious statement but pretend that stripping it from that seal is not. (And when it comes to being "offensive", that works two ways; neither is particularly useful.)

What is behind my "will not accede in being treated as losers when they've won" is not all that complicated: it's about a majority refusing to be ordered about by a minority. To say that others can't have Christian imagery in public places because "we're not all Christians here!" is to demand a limit on their behavior to make you happy. If the numbers are 4 to 1 in the Christians' favor, then I charge that the non-Christian is making an unneighborly and unreasonable demand.

Posted by: slarrow | Dec 22, 2004 1:50:01 PM

Posted by: Josh Jasper

What generates the outrage from Christians is a seemingly well-founded perception that their beliefs are denigrated and that traditional, minor tokens of respect for their religion are under attack.

That'd be a lot more convincing if so many of them didn't either attack or exclude people who don't share the faith.

Personaly, I'd be happy to include personal minor tokens of the faith as personal observances. It's when I or any children I might have are obligated or encouraged by the state to mimic the tokens that I get offended.

Posted by: Josh Jasper | Dec 22, 2004 2:01:20 PM

Posted by: Yes

Alanc9 wrote: "There's a large chunk of Red State America that, when you move into a new town, one of the first questions you get asked is "What church do you go to?". Try answering "I'm an athiest" and see how unpopular you become all of a sudden.

As an urban blue state resident, the idea that my religious practises, or lack thereof should matter to anyone is rather alien."

How do you know about the "large chunk?!" People like you make me sick, trying to attribute lies to those who think differently from yourself. Do you see that you contradict yourself in the above comments? Why is it that liberals are facist about their ideas?

Posted by: Yes | Dec 22, 2004 2:08:12 PM

Posted by: Bret

Here in San Diego, on the highest hill along the coast, sits a small park with a large white cross at the center of it. It's been there a long time. Someone sued the city a few years back and at the moment it looks like it is going to be taken down.

Being Jewish, I don't have a natural affinity for crosses in general, but I have to say that I'm going to miss this one. I've seen it virtually everyday for the past few decades, driving to work or to play, and in a city like San Diego that has been growing very rapidly, the constancy of this one landmark is a sort of comfort to me.

I understand that support for these sorts of actions is aimed at trying to prevent a tyranny of the religious majority. In the case of this cross, I'd bet at least 80% would like to see it stay and another 19% couldn't care less. Is it really so bad that an object that also happens to be a religious symbol happens to sit on public land when the vast, vast majority would like to keep it? Is the sight of the cross really so painful to those few citizens that brought the suit forward that it's okay to eliminate the enjoyment of a landmark by two million people? It's cases like these that make me question the blanket prohibition of Christian symbols from public spaces.

Posted by: Bret | Dec 22, 2004 2:11:28 PM

Posted by: slarrow

AlanC9, point taken, at least as a matter of definition. Looking again, I think it's better to say that it moves from a cultural question enforced by local politics to a larger political question that removes the question from local control. So local cultural questions all of a sudden become larger political ones that take on a life of their own.

But it illustrates two points in question. One is that of the will of the majority, the other the idea of that authority within nested jurisdictions that we loosely refer to as "federalism." That's what I'm getting at here. If you don't like that the majority of your town approves of displaying the 10 Commandments or that your school board schedules a prayer for graduation, either move or work within your community to get the political power to change it. The complaint Christians have is that those principles are trumped or short-circuited based on principles such as the "don't impose your beliefs" standard that we just can't find in the First Amendment.

Posted by: slarrow | Dec 22, 2004 2:12:40 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

I'm against religious icons on city seals, displays of the ten commandments in courthouses, and the like. I don't think the state should greet its citizens by saying, "this is a (Judaeo-)Christian state. Don't worry, we're fair, maybe for denominational reasons, so the rest of you will be treated fairly." I don't think the numbers settle the question. "No ten commandments in the courthouse" needn't be read as "This jurisdiction rejects the ten commandments." It can, and should, be read as, "The ten commandments don't belong here." As is already clear in the comments on this thread, plenty of devoutly religious people will take that view too: recall the Christian indictment of Caesarism.

As to religous displays in public settings, it makes all the difference whether they are put there by private speakers who enjoy equal access to what the law calls a public forum. Roughly, if the space in question is open to any and all comers, on a sign-up or first-come-first-served basis, with no regard to what they have to say, then absolutely it is outrageous to exclude religious speakers. That's very different from saying the state can and should endorse a religious message. For the same reasons, I've no constitutional worries about a schoool voucher program where the vouchers could be used at parochial schools. (I do have policy concerns, but those are another matter.)

And slarrow, no, absolutely you're not aliens. You're friends, neighbors, loved ones, as well as fellow citizens. And I see no reason to map symbolic/policy onto stupid/wicked. I'm pushing on this question partly out of genuine curiosity, partly because of a longstanding concern about what I'll call "antiliberalism without tears." A favorite example is George Will's Statecraft as Soulcraft, where a take-no-prisoners assault on liberalism, largely indebted to the likes of Leo Strauss and Alasdair MacIntyre, leads to the lame afterthought that maybe we should tighten up anti-obscenity laws. Lots of bold principled arguments against liberalism are offered by people who continue furtively to rely on liberal principles. I want to know whether the Christian America crowd really means to reject any basic liberal views -- none of which are properly captured in slogans like "separation of church and state" or "naked public square" -- and if so, which ones.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Dec 22, 2004 2:18:47 PM

Posted by: pedro

Since when can slarrow speak for the majority of Christians in this country? I know a considerable number of them who have utter distaste for the erosion of the separation of Church and State. A Christian, slarrow, is not invariably someone who wishes to politicize his or her religious beliefs, let alone someone who endorses the idea that the State ought to declare itself Christian.

Posted by: pedro | Dec 22, 2004 2:20:16 PM

Posted by: David Velleman


Again, the question is not whether we can "have Christian imagery in public places". The question is what speech-act is being performed with that imagery, and by whom. You, a private citizen, may preach a sermon in the public square, or display religious placards there, etc. The question is whether the city council may install a religious display for the purpose of making a religious statement.

The statement that you may not impose your beliefs on others is not a universal statement. The constitution expresses beliefs that are binding on all -- not in the sense that individuals can be forced to believe them, of course, but in the sense that the state and its officers are required to act in accordance with them. And the non-establishment clause is part of the constitution.

Removing the ichthus from a city seal is not a religious statement. Insofar as it's a statement, it's a civic statement. It says, "Our city does not have an official religion" -- which is what the non-establishment clause requires. This statement is neither anti-religious nor anti-Christian: it is pro-constitutional.

Of course, if you think that not having a state religion is ipso facto anti-religious, and not having Christianity as the state religion is ipso facto anti-Christian, then we have reached an impasse.

Posted by: David Velleman | Dec 22, 2004 2:27:35 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

If only to prove that the devil can quote scriptures, I am inclined to note that the founder of Christianity finessed the issue nicely at Matthew 22:21. Of course, working out the details has proved to be a bit tricky.

I don’t think Mr. Herzog needs to worry for the immediate future about his tenured position. I know a few folks who actually do want to establish an American Christian theocracy, but if they can’t gain any traction in Virginia, they’re unlikely to make much headway in Michigan, either.

Clearly, much of the rhetoric is just that. Clearly, also, something is behind some of it. Many Christians continue to believe ‘their’ public schools were wrested from them by Washington and that Christianity (perhaps because it is the putative majority religion) continues to be singled out by ‘you secular humanists’ for the slightest hint that they might be sneaking a little evangelism into the public sphere while nobody’s noticing. Litigation-shy public schools have, as it were, thrown the Christ-child out with the baptismal water. (My 5th grade son’s “Winter Festival” concert included several Hanukah songs and one medley of otherwise unidentified ‘carols’ – are there such things as non-Christmas carols?)

Now, I don’t know how many people walking past a town hall Christmas crèche ever said to themselves “By golly, if Christianity is the official religion of the municipality of Springfield, it’s dang sure good enough for me!” but I don’t want to trivialize the genuine concerns Mr. Jasper and others have raised, either. For the life of me, I don’t see why our money should read “In God We Trust,” Congress should have a chaplain, the White House should have a Christmas tree or the Supreme Court’s bailiff should proclaim “God save this honorable court.” And, hell, I’m a Christian! Religious ceremonies of any sort should not be conducted by public officials in their official capacity, and that includes public schools. (Of course, my answer to that would be to privatize those schools, but I guess that’s a different thread.)

Even so, slarrow is correct in noting that many Christians believe themselves to be on the defensive. Moreover, many of them believe they are in a cultural war not only with ‘you secular humanists’ in the U.S. but increasingly on a global scale with another major monotheistic religion (and it ain’t Judaism, either). Now, you can think that’s absurd or that they are the ones being overly sensitive or whatever, but if you want to understand them better you’re going to have to get to know them better. Forgive me if I am mistaken here, but I would be willing to bet that, just as many of the authors of this blog probably don’t have many close friends who are conservatives or libertarians, few of you also know that many evangelical Christians very well. (The fact that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell’s names keep getting dropped is a pretty good sign. Anyone here familiar with John Stott? Read Rick Warren? Heard of Willow Church?) I don’t mean to condescend; I only suggest that there is a thriving sub-culture out there about which you are unreasonably concerned, perhaps because you haven't done your homework about it.

Then again, having done some more research, you might start to get *really* worried.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Dec 22, 2004 2:49:03 PM

Posted by: David Velleman


I think that you have raised an excellent test case. In order to know what to say about it, though, I would have to know more of the details. The question is: what is being said by this symbol, and who is saying it?

Is the cross part of a war memorial? Is an artwork? Does it have some historical significance -- say, as a landmark that was present before the area became a park? The mere fact that it is a cross, or even the fact that it was originally erected as a religious statement, does not necessarily entail that its continued presence makes a religious statement on behalf of the city.

One of the reasons why these cases are sometimes difficult to judge is that the statement being made is sometimes ambiguous, or the speaker is indeterminate. Maybe the cross was originally erected by a religious order whose land was later donated to the city, which decided to preserve the site for its historical value. Who then is saying what to whom? I am very much in favor of finding permissible interpretations wherever possible, and hence of allowing religious symbols in many cases.

Now, maybe I misinterpreted slarrow's example of the ichthus on the city seal. I assumed that it had been placed there recently as a religious statement -- like the words "under God" that were inserted into the pledge of allegiance. If that isn't the case, then I should reconsider what I said about it.

But another of slarrow's examples was opening a graduation ceremony with a prayer, and that really isn't susceptible to different interpretations. It's an unambiguously religious statement, performed on behalf of a public institution at one of its official functions, and addressed to the public at large.

Posted by: David Velleman | Dec 22, 2004 2:55:16 PM

Posted by: JeffS

The case of Israel is instructive. Leaving aside the still-to-be-decided status of the territories (West Bank and Gaza), the official policy of Israel is that it is a “Jewish” state in name and cultural identity and, besides that, in only one single policy, namely the Law of Return, which grants immediate and automatic citizenship to Jewish refugees (while non-Jews get it the same way they do in other countries, more or less automatically after certain amount of time and procedures). The law is unique; it was envisioned in the post-Holocaust era, as a kind of “international affirmative action”: roughly, the idea was that Jews are specially endangered refugees, so they need corrective legal action – a special privilege – in their pursuit of a safe haven. The law has been under steady attack in Israel ever since, as the Holocaust has faded from the public spotlight.

But, what is important for the present discussion is this: the Israeli situation, as it is officially and legally formulated (leaving aside practice!), is an example of a nation’s adoption of religious identity that is supposed to be in harmony with pluralism and democracy. It is mostly cultural and formal, but in at least one respect legal. At the same time, Islamic Arab Israeli citizens, for example, have run for Prime Minister, participate in government and have all civil and political rights.
So, question: 1) is such a religious national identity as Israel’s (in theory!!) per se oppressive to a liberal observer? Is national religious identification automatically problematic? 2) Are such polices totally OK, liberally speaking, as long as they don’t obviously yield oppressive consequences? AND, 3) Do such national identifications by nature predictably slide into more substantive inequality?

Posted by: JeffS | Dec 22, 2004 3:06:56 PM

Posted by: Josh Jasper

How do you know about the "large chunk?!"

Um, mostly because I have freinds and family in rural America. I travel a fair bit. "What church do you attend" is an icebreaker for a lot of the people I've met. It's sort of expected that there will be a polite answer, and they don't know how to deal with an exception.

People like you make me sick, trying to attribute lies to those who think differently from yourself.

OK, so perhaps my exprience is singular. But that dosen't change the fact that, in small-town America, church culture dominates, and if you don't pray, you can't play. In a social sense, and in a buisness sense. And Goddess help you if you're a neo-pagan in a lot of small towns in America. I'm not lying when I say that multiple federal and state congressional representatives thought it was an OK to bar neo-pagans from the US Army.

Why is it that liberals are facist about their ideas?

I'm actualy not trying to regulate anyone's speech. I regularly vote against measures like the one trying to remove crosses from the CA state seal. I'll keep doing so even if you think I'm a fascist.

That said, don't try and tell me I have submit to a religious test to get a job in a tax funded school. I don't want to live in a nation where there's one sense of "fair" that allows you to get anti-Christian artwork taken out of tax funded galeries, but dosen't allow me to teach in tax funded schools because I'm not Christian.

Posted by: Josh Jasper | Dec 22, 2004 3:06:58 PM

Posted by: David Velleman

D.A. Ridgely has introduced another good case. My children's school also had winter assemblies at which there were Hanukkah songs and Kwanzaa songs but no Christmas carols (unless I'm mistaken and the Magi really were accomplied by Frosty the Snowman). I always found this insulting -- not to my religion, but to my intelligence. Of course Christmas carols should have been included.

The point in this case, as before, is that none of the songs were being sung with their original religious intent. When the (gentile) teachers led the (mostly gentile) school chorus in singing Hanukkah songs, they weren't performing an act of Jewish worship, and so they weren't making a religious statement. They were, so to speak, quoting or portraying a Jewish religious celebration, and they should have quoted or portrayed the season's Christian celebration as well. Insofar as they were celebrating anything, it was the fact that, at this season, our several communities celebrate their several religious holidays. And how can we celebrate that fact by leaving out one of the communities?

Yes, the purging of religious symbols from public spaces can go too far -- way too far. But the remedy is not to enlist public entities in making religious statements

Posted by: David Velleman | Dec 22, 2004 3:08:37 PM

Posted by: Josh Jasper

D.A. Ridgely states: I know a few folks who actually do want to establish an American Christian theocracy, but if they can’t gain any traction in Virginia, they’re unlikely to make much headway in Michigan, either.

They certainly seem to be doing fine in Texas. The Republican Party Platform reads like instructions for establishing a theocracy as far as I'm concerned.

And Alan Keyes really does want to establish a Theocracy. He is no-kidding in favor of interpreting the constitution to allow state religions and religious law on a state-by-state basis, so long as the majority agrees to it.

If we had enough citizens of a state practicing Islam in New Mexico, Sharia Law could become New Mexico State Law. As far as Alan Keyes in concerned, at least.

How many Republicans would have actualy voted for him instead of, say, Clinton?

Posted by: Josh Jasper | Dec 22, 2004 3:15:21 PM

Posted by: Daniel M.

D.A. Ridgely commented that "many Christians continue to believe ‘their’ public schools were wrested from them by Washington." I wonder if he ascribes that to the decisions of secular humanists?

Because the reason 'their' schools were wrested from them is that they were forcing their particular protestant version of Christianity down the throats of those who ascribed to other creeds.

As a member of the Catholic Church, and therefore outside the pale of the "religious right," I would like to suggest that the dialogue in America is not between secular humanism and the religious, but between the competing religions.

Also, the phrase "separation of church and state" is a carefully packaged lie, regardless of what some people on this board might call the "current interpretation of the first." It amuses me that adults would discuss this point at all, as it is a totally invalid line of argument unless one is decietfully endeavoring to sneak revisionist history into our porridge.

Philip Hamburger's History of the so-called "Separation" is required for anyone who has been put under the spell of demagoguery.

Posted by: Daniel M. | Dec 22, 2004 3:16:05 PM

Posted by: slarrow

I must leave soon, so this will have to be my final contribution to this thread (at least for a day or more, by which time the conversation will have moved on.)

Don, I read the statement of your dilemma as a difficulty in characterizing those whom I have chosen to call Political Christians. It was unclear to me that you were looking for the particular liberal idea(s) Political Christians rejected. Indeed, I don't really know which liberal idea(s) this group rejects simply because of being Political Christians (as opposed to ones they reject because of general conservatism, federalism, originalism, or other principles/topics not specifically tied to Christianity.) So I wrote what I did to suggest that Political Christians could deal very well with you on an issue-by-issue basis...but you're not the type to bring high-dollar lawsuits against communities to remove what seems to be all vestiges of Christian symbolism. Those folks have a stronger position than you do, and the response from Political Christians is correspondingly stronger too. It is that dynamic, I think, that leads to such difficulties in understanding.

David: the point in my original set of examples was just to show cases where (in most cases) small-town people had cultural traditions that included specific religious references that were intimidated or forced into eradicating those practices. I think it undercuts the case when people swoop in and say, "you can't tell other people what to do!"...thereby telling other people what to do. (I'm going to have to write this up soon on my own blog to get all of it lined out, but that sentence is it in a nutshell.)

Finally, my contention is that people try to get both symbolic and practical actions into law all the time, and I think the trend has become that this is legitimate only if the action/idea is secular is nature. I think that to be a misreading of the Establishment Clause (which was a limitation on the national Congress to create a national Church, I contend). I can appreciate your arguments as whether ichthus symbols are indeed religious statements and whether cities ought to make religious statements. But I charge that while Political Christians are content with these as competing arguments, they do not recognize them as constitutionally authoratative, and they regard the actions of certain judges and political groups to make them authoratative as stealing a march and bending the rules. As such, their reaction makes more sense if evaluated as a civic complaint rather than a religious one.

And am I a Political Christian? Only on every other Tuesday, probably. *wink* I am closer to that side of the spectrum than you are, though, and I'm doing my level best to make it intelligible to you guys. I'm out. Cheers.

Posted by: slarrow | Dec 22, 2004 3:17:50 PM

Posted by: David Velleman


A great way of putting the question. And here is how I, for one, would respond. Israel's identity as a Jewish state and its identity as a democracy are incompatible. Just consider the possibility of Palestinian Arabs' becoming a majority -- a outcome whose prevention is a guiding aim of Israeli policy on repatriation of refugees. A state that is committed by its very identity to keeping one community in the minority cannot be genuinely democratic. (I don't know the history of the Law of Return specifically, but the idea of Israel as a Jewish state goes back far before the Holocaust, to the origins of Zionism in the 19th century.)

Posted by: David Velleman | Dec 22, 2004 3:24:46 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Hmmmmm... Alan Keyes versus Bill Clinton for president? In terms of entertainment value, that's a tough pick. As a Republican politico in D.C. replied when I teased him about Keyes being fobbed off on the Illinois senate race after Ryan’s unfortunate predilection for swingers clubs surfaced, “Now you know why we’re called the stupid-party.”

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Dec 22, 2004 3:26:09 PM

Posted by: SamChevre

Just a few points to particular arguments, then I’ll get to my own points.

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.

Posted by: SamChevre | Dec 22, 2004 3:44:06 PM

Posted by: David Velleman

(My last comment here -- gotta run.) SamChevre: thanks for the example of the LA seal. I hope that my comments make clear that, given your description of the case, I would not have supported the change.

Posted by: David Velleman | Dec 22, 2004 3:59:47 PM

Posted by: Josh Jasper

Sam: a good part of the “unpopularity” of being an atheist in red-state America has to do with incomprehension, not dislike.

I'm not sure I buy that. The discrimination may not be in-your-face, but it is there in employment and social senses. In the case of neo-pagans, it's less subtle. I can document plenty of cases of people being discriminated against. You may not hear about them because, well, neo-pagan in small towns often *have* to hide who they are in order to get along.

If you have to hide your religion because you're afraid of being treated poorly, I'd say that's beyond incomprehension, and is actualy a hostile atmosphere.

Posted by: Josh Jasper | Dec 22, 2004 4:09:59 PM

Posted by: Josh Jasper

Sam: 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.

My problems with Ashcroft stem entirley from his work on the Patriot Act, and the DOJ's actions reguarding Gitmo detainees and torture. My problem with Pryor was that he as a f*cking nutcase who thoought that the state had a " legitimate legislative interest in discouraging prurient interests in autonomous sex"

As far as I can tell, he based that interest on "Christian" values. I'm sorry, but I draw the line way before someone telling me how I can masturbate, and if you don't, that's a whole other discussion.

I don't know if Ashcroft bases the decision that torture is OK on Christian values (Who Would Jesus Torture?). He probably does, but that's besides the point. I may make fun of his prudery and fear of calico cats, but I don't think it has any bearing on his office as long as he keeps it to himself.

Posted by: Josh Jasper | Dec 22, 2004 4:21:38 PM

Posted by: Simon

I'm wondering if it is possible to say three things and be consistent:

1) the doctrine Don mentions of allowing all speakers "first come first serve" access to public fora is a good and necessary one, a natural protection of free speech.

2) religious beliefs of all sorts are not interchangable with (or a wholly-incorporated subset of) political beliefs, with the implication being that sometimes analogies between what law permits re religious beliefs and what law permits re political beliefs fail.

3) giving religious reasons for public action are undesirable, unnecessary and insufficient, but they are also not impermissible. Which I guess makes them irrelevant.

Posted by: Simon | Dec 22, 2004 4:36:35 PM

Posted by: Marty Sch.

You folks interested in a proper relationship would be served well by looking at recent scholarship in the Reformed/Calvinist tradition - particularly that associated with Abraham Kuyper. Look for example at the idea of sphere sovereignty in the work of Nick Wolterstorff, James Skillen, Stephen Monsma, and others. William Galston has recently said that he has been influenced by this position as well.

Posted by: Marty Sch. | Dec 22, 2004 4:48:42 PM

Posted by: Stuart

David, your comment that Israel's being Jewish state is incompatible with democracy needs some examination. The UK has an official state religion, and the monarch is the defender of the faith: is Britain democratic? I'd say yes. Your'e confusing democracy with separation of church and state. And if you look at the ethnic rather than religious aspect of it, well, Germany has a similar law of return. Is Germany a democracy? Of course it is. And most pointedly, if you think that providing a national home for an ethnic group - which is what it means to have a Jewish state - is incompatible with democracy, then the entire notion of national self-determination is suspect -- which means that the case for a Palestinian state collapses as well, unless you are prepared to say that the Palestinian state need not or won't be democratic. Basically, my point is that you are rigidifying the definition of democracy to mean something very close to the American model. But the whole point of America is that (other than the NAs) there is no aboriginal American people with self-determination. It's a nation of immigrants. That is unique. Other states can organize themselves differently, using some different assumptions, and still adhere to democratic norms and be, in practice, democracies.

The other point is that I'd use the UK as an example of a country without separation of church and state that nonetheless has religious freedom and democracy. The entanglement of government in religion is far greater in the UK than anywhere in the US, but no one is concerned about religious coercion or exclusion.

This is all my way of saying that people in the US who want to find things to be offended about will be offended. I'm Jewish, I live in the US and whether I like it or not the US is a Christian country. Christmas or Christmas-like adornment is everywhere in December. From my point of view there is no difference whatsoever between putting up a creche and putting up a sleigh - one is as tied to a religious holiday (Christmas) as the other. Trying to say it's a celeberation of the solstice is just cant, because we don't celebrate the other solstice or either of the equinoxes. But I really don't care - some astronomical percentage of my neighbors celebrates Christmas, and I'm happy to let them. It doesn't hurt me or offend me. They wish me a merry Christmas and I wish it back to them. Having a creche in front of the courthouse is a very very far cry from establishing a religion and an even further cry from the auto-da-fe. I'm genuinely mystified by the people who want to scrub public life of all religious references or symbols, no matter how noncoercive. That cross on the LA seal is there because, for goodness sakes, ol' Junipero went up the coast and established missions - and missions have crosses on their roofs. That's how settlement of California got started.

As for why Christians feel under assault, I think a look at how religious people in public life get described in the press and by nonreligious people is enlightening. I hold no particular brief for John Ashcroft, but he was described as some sort of freak for not drinking or dancing, and the fact that he and some other religious sorts had prayer sessions was the subject of fretting. Why? He should be judged on his abilities and politics, not on whether one of the reasons he has the politics that he does is that he is religious. If he had the same politics but was an atheist (and yes, there are conservative atheists), he would still be criticized on his politics but the atheism would go unremarked. I had a law school classmate who was a Marxist and opposed abortion. If he went on the bench, I doubt he'd be subjected to the kind of grilling Bill Pryor was - Pryor was pilloried because his opposition to abortion was informed by his religious beliefs. But religious beliefs (or lack) are part of everyone's background, and there is no reason to single out people who take their religion seriously as having their views disqualify them for public life -- attack the views themsleves, yes, but not the fact that they are the product of religion. Otherwise we come perilously close to setting up a religious test for public office, in contravention of the constitution.

OK, I have gone on long enough here.

Posted by: Stuart | Dec 22, 2004 5:59:32 PM

Posted by: Josh Jasper

As for why Christians feel under assault, I think a look at how religious people in public life get described in the press and by nonreligious people is enlightening. I hold no particular brief for John Ashcroft, but he was described as some sort of freak for not drinking or dancing, and the fact that he and some other religious sorts had prayer sessions was the subject of fretting.

He's a politician. If you're going to feel under attack because politician is made fun of, you need to get a bit thicker skin.

Pryor was pilloried because his opposition to abortion was informed by his religious beliefs.

I thought it was that he was a raving bigot. But what do I know?

Posted by: Josh Jasper | Dec 22, 2004 6:17:52 PM

Posted by: Craig Duncan

Stuart wrote: "If he [John Ashcroft] had the same politics but was an atheist (and yes, there are conservative atheists), he would still be criticized on his politics but the atheism would go unremarked."

If he was an (out of the closet) atheist, he probably would never have gotten elected to office as a Senator, or appointed to the cabinet. Right? Or am I wrong in thinking that admitting to atheism would be the kiss-of-death for an would-be candidate for federal political office?

Posted by: Craig Duncan | Dec 22, 2004 8:51:23 PM

Posted by: Yehudit

"I have no idea where we'd be buying oil from, given that every oil producing nation I can think of persecutes people based on religious beliefs."


Posted by: Yehudit | Dec 22, 2004 8:53:43 PM

Posted by: Yehudit

"(I don't know the history of the Law of Return specifically, but the idea of Israel as a Jewish state goes back far before the Holocaust, to the origins of Zionism in the 19th century.)"

Actually, it goes back about 2500 years, to the formation of the first Jewish nation, which was certainly recognized as a nation by its peers in the ancient world. Jews stopped trying to revive it as a state after repeated destruction by the Romans, but we kept moving there whenever we were allowed, and kept getting ethnically cleansed from the area by assorted Muslim and Christian rulers.

19th c Zionism took its inspiration from nationalist movements prevalent at the time, like Garibaldi's. Until then, no one was thinking in nationalist terms, so the Jewish aspiration to return to Israel was expressed mostly in religious terms.

Leftists like to forget that there WAS a Jewish nation.

Right now every nation in Europe is trying to figure out how to preserve their unique cultures in the face of a growing population of Muslim citizens who show no inclination to assimilate at all, and which, if allowed to grow, will destroy their cultures. Israel is just a few years ahead of them, that's all.

I notice the racism of the Japanese democracy never bothers anybody. Israel is many times more multicultural than Japan. Or the UK, for that matter.

Posted by: Yehudit | Dec 22, 2004 9:05:25 PM

Posted by: Yehudit

"My children's school also had winter assemblies at which there were Hanukkah songs and Kwanzaa songs but no Christmas carols (unless I'm mistaken and the Magi really were accomplied by Frosty the Snowman). I always found this insulting -- not to my religion, but to my intelligence. Of course Christmas carols should have been included."

Agree. However, I would like to see a school have a religious Christmas concert, a Jewish presentation for the Days of Awe or Passover, and a Muslim presentation for their main holiday. That way you give each religion its due and have interesting cultural sharing throughout the year.

Posted by: Yehudit | Dec 22, 2004 9:15:02 PM

Posted by: DNL

Prof. Herzog (and given his comments, Prof. V too):

What do you think about Californian courts making malls -- private malls -- into quasi-public institutions?

Posted by: DNL | Dec 22, 2004 10:06:52 PM

Posted by: bakho

Declaring us a Christian nation would force the American public to rediscover the separation of church and state. The arguments about "whose Christianity" would again be brought to the fore.

Today Christians across the board praise Catholic Schools. Do they remember why we have Catholic Schools? We have Catholic Schools because the Protestants that controlled America demanded that the KJV of the Bible be taught in public schools. Of course, Catholics considered the KJV Bible hetertical. Rather than expose their children to this heresy, they formed their own schools.

This happened during the mid 1800s when many Irish immigrated to America. This saw the rise of nativist parties and the Know-nothings which are about the equivalent of today's fundamentalists.

Posted by: bakho | Dec 22, 2004 10:15:49 PM

Posted by: Jim Hu

The Texas GOP that holds conventions and writes state platforms is pretty far out there, even relative to the massively GOP-voting population of Texas. In 1996, Phil Gramm had to blackmail the convention into letting Kay Baily Hutchinson be a delegate to the National GOP convention. Here's a PBS story about the fight. This was two years after she won her Senate seat by a huge margin. I think the post says more about how whackos on both sides can take over the two main political parties than it says about the danger of theocracy...but of course those are linked. My take is that this is an unintended consequence of campaign finance reform: when people with lives and jobs can't use money as a proxy for political activism, power goes to those who make activism their life's calling.

That said, as a small "l" libertarian atheist who lives in Texas after moving from Boston, I don't feel especially pressured by the religiousity of my neighbors. It's better than being pro-war in a group of blue-state academics. I don't wear atheism on my sleeve, but I don't feel the need to hide it if asked about what church I go to. I think that sometimes in-your-face atheism deserves the hostility it engenders. Check out the sign that the Freedom From Religion Foundation has near the "Holiday tree" in the Wisconsin State Capitol (scroll down).

I don't buy the "Christian Nation" schtick, btw. It is undeniable that the nation has a lot of Christians, has had a lot of Christians, and will have a lot of Christians for the foreseeable future. So what? It's not useful to declare the US a "White Nation" or a "Right-Handed Nation" or a "Meat-eating Nation" or a "Monogamous Heterosexual Nation". I can live with "Los Angeles" and "In God we Trust" and chaplains in the Congress because I mostly think they're not that big a deal. I can even live with the Xmas carols at school (as long as the teachers aren't making the kids embrace the religious significance). Christmas has been secularized, IMHO...but then I grew up in a nonreligious Chinese immigrant family that accumulated both religious and secular Xmas tchotchkes as part of assimilationism toward being an American.

But giving an official stamp to Christianity does make it OK to use the power of the state to prosyletize, if not persecute, seems to me.

Posted by: Jim Hu | Dec 22, 2004 10:46:40 PM

Posted by: LPFabulous

I don't have too much to add to this thread, so I'll mostly just say that I like Prof. Velleman's take on the issue. As long as the state isn't sermonizing religious beliefs (or giving them a stamp of approval), everything is fine and everyone needs to take a chill pill.

I do see some small difficulty though. How can we (is it possible to) separate the actions of a public official from the actions of the state? What if my senator is a fervent Christian and decorates his office with all kinds of religious paraphernalia? What if he has a giant oil painting of Jesus above his desk? Is that okay? (I think it is.) What about Judge Moore and his Ten Commandments? Would it be okay for him to have put his giant grantie block in his office? And how is that substantially different from putting it on the front lawn?

Posted by: LPFabulous | Dec 23, 2004 12:05:42 AM

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