May 06, 2005

What Kind of Theocracy?

James Taranto defends the Religious Right today. Pick over what you like, but I'm sticking a fork in this little morsel:
The hysterical talk about an incipient "theocracy"--as if that is what America was before 1963, when the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools--is either utterly cynical or staggeringly naive.
Okay, no, America never quite had a theocracy, although certainly for a long time many states had established churches. Virginia, for instance. What prevented America as a whole from ever becoming a theocracy, though, wasn't the Establishment Clause or any provision in the Bill of Rights. No, it was the fact that there was enough religious diversity among the different states that no one sect could rule them all. (In fact, James Madison, a devout church/state separator, didn't even want the religious clause in the Bill of Rights, because he thought nurturing multi-sectarianism would do a far better job of keeping America anti-theocratic than any scrap of paper ever could.)

But what was America? Well, look at the public schools. When public schools first came about in the 19th century, the point wasn't to teach math and science—there wasn't much math and science to teach, and besides, who needs to teach a future factory worker how to long divide? No, public schools were bult to create good citizens, moral citizens, upstanding citizens. But at the time, "morality" was more or less inseparable from "religion"—almost no one thought otherwise—so public schools generally endorsed a generic "nonsectarian Christian" curriculum. You read the Bible, and got edified, but you weren't being indoctrinated in the specific ways of the Baptists or Presbyterians or Quakers or anything else.

The problem, though, was that Catholics were mighty upset by all this, and who could blame them? Having your young'uns learn the Bible from Joe Schoolteacher is a pretty Protestant concept if there ever was one. So the infamous "Bible Wars" kicked off, as Catholics pushed for funding for separate Catholic schools that would learn their kids right and proper. In response, Republicans across the country, led by Senator James Blaine (right), pushed for state constitutional amendments to ban sectarian public schools, largely for cynical political reasons—to force Democrats to choose between sticking up for their Catholic base and placating angry Protestant supporters. But notice, no one considered the nonsectarian Christian education to violate any sort of church/state principles. After all, what were public schools if not for moral edification? And how else could you have edification without teaching the Bible? Impeccable logic. Eventually Catholics were beaten to a bloody pulp, gave up their fight, and sent their kids to the nonsectarian Christian schools anyway.

Well, now flash forward to the post-WWII era, at which point secularism had grown as a movement, and more importantly, a legal movement. First, the Supreme Court ruled that the Establishment Clause applied to states, and not just Congress. Then, in a whole series of cases, the Court declared that the government couldn't even support nonsectarian Christian stuff. No, government activities had to be secular.

Now this sounds like a random innovation, but there were some good reasons for it besides the mere fact that secularists got very, very good at working the courts. For one, the Jews. Jewish-Americans were immigrating en masse to America, they were quite obviously not part of the "non-sectarian Christian" culture, so that culture was becoming de facto more exclusionary. Now some intellectuals tried to invent a "Judeo-Christian" heritage for America—to jibe with the idea that government could do things to promote this heritage, but had to refrain from supporting any one particular sect—but that didn't really fly. Legal secularism prevailed.

Now this all came to a head in the 1970s with, among other things, Roe vs. Wade. It's important to note, I think, that evangelicals were caught completely off guard by the Roe decision. It was only afterward that an actual evangelical movement was formed, by people like Pat Robertson and the rest, which argued that the courts were becoming anti-religion, and more importantly, that without religion, there could be no "moral values" in America. Framing the argument this way allowed the movement to gain support from a wide swath of different sects, including conservative Catholics and Orthodox Jews. The line from this point down to James Dobson and Bill "nuclear" Frist today seems clear enough.

Why am I recounting all this? Well, three tentative thoughts. One, Taranto's right, America was not a "theocracy" before 1963. Government promoted non-sectarian Christianity, which was thought to be the foundation of this country and the key to producing good, upstanding citizens. No one really thought twice about this state of affairs, except the Catholics. Which brings me to point two: Many Catholics were badly mistreated under the old state of affairs; they felt, quite rightly, that their freedom of conscience was being violated by Bible-teaching in school. Although eventually many Catholics more or less signed on to the nonsectarian Christian project, the road forward was bloody. That's not the sort of thing we want to have happen again. And it's even more likely to happen nowadays because there are far more varieties of religions here in America—we've got more Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, etc. than ever before.

Third, it's fair to say that today's religious right would like to go much, much further than their predecessors. Now that they know exactly what secularism can do, and what its aims are, many religious conservatives feel embattled and threatened in a way they simply didn't prior to the 1970s. So they're a wee bit more militant nowadays. Judges, on the new view, ought to be able to have a judicial philosophy that's grounded in faith, rather than mere secular legalism. (Certainly Antonin Scalia seems to agree.) What exactly this all means in concrete terms is still unclear. Obviously it means they'd like judges with a zero-tolerance stance on gay marriage, striking down abortion rights, no sodomy unless you're a Republican mayor, allow creationism to be taught, etc. And probably a constitutional doctrine that supports public funding for sectarian religious organizations, even though that would be beyond anything that's ever been done in the past. (Indeed, it's the sort of thing Republicans used to oppose!)

But what's the broader aim here? Certainly now, as in the past, no one religious sect can dominate any other and set up an established church in the United States. Basically, that would never happen. A more likely goal is government backing for the sort of state-endorsed non-sectarian Christian culture that has existed for most of this country's history. And on this very general level, maybe there's a compromise to be reached here with secularists, and perhaps our side could be more accomodating here. Maybe. But on the specific hot-button issues being fought over here—gay rights, abortion rights, etc.—the debate has nothing, really, to do with respect or lack of respect for religion, and everything to do with two irreconcilable moral points of view clashing against each other.
-- Brad Plumer 6:34 AM || ||