June 27, 2005

Thoughts on Ten Commandments

The SCOTUSblog coverage of the Ten Commandments cases is pretty thorough and it would be hard to add anything substantive here. One point though. I'm fairly sympathetic to the view that a government that endorsed a particular belief system, however broadly conceived, would be marginalizing a wide array of people who don't share that belief system. A Muslim or an atheist visiting the Texas State Capitol, seeing the Ten Commandments display, would have good reason to feel uncomfortable, excluded, and perhaps even unwelcome.

But those reasons, I think, have very little to do with the Ten Commandments per se. Take all the statues down and Muslims and atheists will still have good reason to feel excluded or marginalized around the Texas State Capitol, thanks to all sorts of cultural and social factors that are really quite pervasive. By the same token, if those cultural and social factors somehow up and vanished, if Muslims felt accepted by American society and their beliefs considered part of the mainstream, then it's hard to imagine that a Ten Commandments statue would have any effect at all. So it's hard to believe that the monuments are either necessary or sufficient for creating those ill feelings of exclusion. (In fact, I think the same could apply for school prayer—neither necessary nor sufficient to make non-praying kids feel uncomfortable and excluded.) Now perhaps one could stand by the idea that it doesn't matter if these symbols are important or not, the government shouldn't be in the business of promoting any sort of symbol with even the potential for discrimination. Well, fair enough, so long as the anti-monument forces are clear that they're fighting for a principle rather than a practical victory.

Another point worth noting was Douglas Laycock's: "The Congregationalists learned [to keep religion out of politics] when the Unitarians started winning elections." That's right. I'm trying to remember my history here, but wasn't it James Madison, atheist extraordinaire, who argued against the Establishment Clause? His reasoning, I think, was that all the different religious sects in America would act as a check on each other, ensuring that no one religion triumphed, and do it far more effectively than any law on paper ever could.

Something along those lines is still correct today. Right now the religious wars are fought largely between a tiny secularist minority and a tiny evangelical right minority, with the bulk of religious America somewhat apathetically siding with the evangelical right on these issues, just because they too are "religious" in a broad sense. On the other hand, if there was no Establishment Clause, my hunch is that different religious sects would be far, far more wary of each other, they'd all be battling it out over government endorsements of religious symbols, and that, I think, would be more effective at keeping religion out of politics than the current dynamic. Maybe that's wrong. It's also worth noting that that tiny evangelical right minority, the James Dobson crowd and the like, has so watered down its faith in order to appeal to their fellow religious conservatives—transmuting actual theological beliefs and differences into a vague and mushy alliance of "values"—that they've pretty much turned religion into a set of meaningless platitudes. Someday I'll write a long and appropriately disdainful post about how the values evangelicals are the biggest bunch of relativists operating in the world today. But not now.
-- Brad Plumer 10:01 PM || ||