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2001 was a bad year. For almost all of us, for the obvious reason: the 9/11 attacks. For many of us, because of the frightened and deeply counter-patriotic legislative reaction to those attacks: the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, the so-called Patriot Act. For me, additionally and personally, because I crashed my bike and broke my left hip. But the event that may be viewed by those of us who survive, in a generation or so, as the most negative and destructive event of that bad year is the Supreme Court’s June 11, 2001, decision in Good News Club v. Milford Central School.
In that opinion – written by Justice Thomas and joined by Justices Rehnquist, O’Connor, Scalia and Kennedy – the Court decided that the Child Evangelism Fellowship could establish a Good News Club at the Milford K-12 school, notwithstanding the school’s rejection of the Fellowship’s application on Establishment Clause grounds, following its policy of limiting its property to non-religious purposes. The Court invalidated the school’s rejection of this overtly religious organization by redefining religion. After this decision, religion is no longer that special case carved out by the First Amendment for government neutrality through the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses. Now it is merely speech from a religious viewpoint. And, as we all know, the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment forbids viewpoint discrimination. You see where this is going.
So did Justice Souter in his dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Ginsberg. He expressed his concern that “this case would stand for the remarkable proposition that any public school opened for civic meetings must be opened for use as a church, synagogue, or mosque.” [Emphasis mine.] And that is what began happening almost immediately after the Milford decision and has continued to happen (though almost exclusively for one flavor of monotheism which, as you might guess, isn’t Islam). The continuing takeover of what were once secular public schools, funded with our tax dollars, by fundamentalist entities for narrow and evangelistically religious purposes, but still funded with our tax dollars, is documented in Katherine Stewart’s eye-opening new book The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.
The explicitly evangelical purpose of the Good News Club was not hidden from the Supreme Court. Justice Souter reviews it at some length in his dissent. The current website of the parent organization proclaims it in bold font heading the “Purpose” page:
Child Evangelism Fellowship® is a Bible-centered, worldwide organization composed of born-again believers whose purpose is to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, disciple them in the Word of God and establish them in a Bible believing church for Christian living.
The Statement of Faith on that website makes it clear that those who do not succumb to the evangelizing efforts, presumably including children, will be cast into a “lake of fire” after death and subjected to “everlasting destruction,” an important point unlikely to be hidden from Good News Club children. Given this clear proselytizing purpose of the Good News Club, why did Thomas represent at 533 US 108 that “it is clear that the Club teaches morals and character development to children”? Was he confused?
If so, his confusion was surely not about the purpose and methods of this religious group. His clerks would have informed him of that in some detail. No, any confusion must have had to do with the connection, or rather lack thereof, between character and morals (or ethics, which is what Thomas may have meant) on the one hand and religion on the other. Justice Thomas, a sometimes member of the anti-gay Episcopalian Truro Church and of various Catholic and other churches, who apparently considers himself a practicing Catholic now, likely rather confused an avowal of certain supernatural beliefs with moral/ethical behavior, a common confusion in this country. “How can you be moral if you don’t believe in God?” as it is often stated.
In the wake of 9/11 the more pertinent, and not rhetorical, question is “How can you be moral if you do believe in a god?” It is unchallenged that the 9/11 murderers believed absolutely in their God and that they were doing his bidding, for which they would be greatly rewarded immediately after their deaths. Justice Thomas knows that his own god or gods can tell people to engage in all manner of inhumane behavior: to murder your only son; to slaughter entire peoples – men, women, children (but you can keep the virgin girls as sex slaves); to abandon your family; to respect and obey those who enslave you; and on and on through a cascading litany of Biblical cruelty, divinely commanded and inspired. Even if Thomas were to reject the Biblical gods, he knew that the Good News Club fully embraced them. Neither Thomas nor anyone else can reasonably pretend that gods, or the religions that create them, are “moral” in the broad, human understanding of the term. Indeed, religions and their gods create their own worlds of right and wrong. To paraphrase Richard Nixon, If a god does it, it’s not immoral.
This disconnect between morality and religion has been darkly on display during the Republican debate gatherings, where the presumptively strongly religious audiences booed one of our war zone soldiers because he was gay and cheered the idea of letting an hypothetical young man die because he hadn’t bought his own health insurance. But the distance between religion and morality was most starkly exemplified during the Myrtle Beach, SC, gathering when the audience booed what must be the foundational principle of all human morality, the so-called Golden Rule. This intuitively obvious moral/ethical principle, called more widely the Ethic of Reciprocity and often stated in the negative as “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you,” has been found in all major religious/ethical traditions, long pre-dating Christianity. Try to imagine any modern, even moderately complex, society operating successfully in the absence of this concept. And then think about how the Good News Club’s primary purpose, to badger children into joining a particular kind of church, runs counter to this concept.
No, what motivated the majority in Milford to permit the Club to do its proselytizing in a public school was not the moral/ethical betterment of the next generation. It was instead the majority’s need to continuously feed and support the alternate reality that feels comfortable to them, a reality created by language, in this case religious language. I’ve earlier addressed this alternate reality of language at some length. In this instance of the Milford opinion the Club’s expected proselytizing language would strengthen and validate the majority’s alternate language reality. This always feels good and true and right to an inhabitant of that alternate reality.
And that was the almost preternatural foresight of the Founders when they included the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses in the First Amendment. They knew how powerful is the attraction of particular language to sustain a religious language reality. They knew how tempting it is for persons in positions of control to use the power of government to strengthen and sustain their own religious language reality. And they knew how unpleasant, disruptive and alienating that is for those who don’t participate in that alternate reality.
Since both an urge to control others and a gravitation toward certain alternate language realities seem to be aspects of human nature, the way to avoid such disruption and alienation that presented itself to the Founders was to separate the power of government from the attraction of alternate realities created by religious language. They had to protect themselves from their own desires (and through the Constitution, to protect us from ours). That was the concept that Jefferson expressed in his graphic metaphor, “a wall of separation between Church & State“.
The Milford majority chose to breach that wall. To do that they had to imagine, or pretend, that religious language differs from nonreligious language only in its “viewpoint.” This is manifestly untrue. The concept of viewpoint presumes a common reality that can be viewed from different points. But religion, certainly Good News Club religion, denies the legitimacy of different viewpoints; it denies any ground that can be common, for example, to Baptist fundamentalists, moderate Catholics, progressive Episcopalians, Muslims, Hindus, nontheists, antitheists, Wiccans, animists, etc. The religious language used does not express a viewpoint of a common reality; it creates a reality, it’s own unique reality. This is the difference between representational language and performative language.
One of the important social advantages of free mandatory public education, perhaps the most important, is its capacity to describe a common ground of reality that all citizens can access. Such common ground permits national values, goals, policies. It permits the residents of Maine and Mississippi and Minnesota and Montana to perceive interests that they all have in common; it allows differing viewpoints that can be disputed and resolved. It permits, in short, national identity. It makes possible the “United” in “United States.”
The Milford decision works against that common ground by granting a governmental blessing to the alternative realities that religions create. That blessing is particularly pernicious because the religionists who seek to proselytize in public schools are specifically attracted to young children. They understand that susceptibility to the alternative realities they create is greatest in the decade between 4 and 14 years of age. They refer to it as “the 4/14 window” and the drive to proselytize that cohort of students is referred to as the 4/14 Movement.
This post isn’t about the psychological effects of teaching young children, in a public school, that they are sinners, that if they don’t believe the message of the Good News Clubs they will suffer eternal torment after they die, and that “the Devil” is a real person, as the CEF’s 15-point Statement of Faith describes. Each parent or guardian of a young child can think about that child’s impressionability and vulnerability to such messages coming from someone perceived as a teacher, a trusted adult. Rather, the concern here is for our national unity, because some of those kids will grow up living in an alternate reality that cannot be shared by those of us who view such teachings as absurd fantasies, an alternate reality that cannot be common ground.
The First Amendment’s separation of religion from government acknowledges the human fact that unevidenced beliefs can be deeply rooted and intensely felt. It is fruitless for government to try to constrain such beliefs, but for that very reason it is necessary that government avoid aligning itself with any such belief because some citizens will inevitably and just as strongly hold beliefs that are directly contrary. Since such beliefs are not readily amenable to modification, the result for believers whose beliefs are not favored by government is the continuing sense of alienation from government and thus from the nation. The current Tea Party movement has demonstrated the deleterious effects of such alienation. Imagine the extent of that alienation in another generation if one alternate reality is inculcated by our government in our public schools. Where then will be that common ground that is required for an United States?
During the past two days the media have been full of reports that one of the Republican presidential candidates, Rick Santorum, is attacking President Obama on the ground that his agenda and policies are not “based on the Bible.” Whatever exactly that might mean, it is clearly not a criticism based in the reality we can all share but based in some alternate reality shared by only some of our citizens. Imagine how many more citizens may participate in that alternate reality in another generation with the wall of separation breached and the government favoring, through its schools, some variant of that alternate reality. What then will serve as the common ground required for an United States?
Common ground can never be one of those alternative religious realities. There are too many religions and their gods vary too greatly. One loves all his children; another hates fags. Some have human intermediaries; others demand unmediated communication. Some require specific, detailed rituals; others revel in spontaneity. The only rock a nation can be founded upon in this tossing sea of denominations, cults and sects is the nonreligious external reality accessible to all of us. While this is not perfectly common ground and while it calls for a problematic commonality of learning, it is the only unifying possibility.
If you have watched most of the Republican debate gatherings, you will have heard each of the candidates assert that our rights do not come from government but from a god, and you will have heard each quote the Declaration of Independence in support of that claim, presuming that the term “Creator” means not only “God” but the specific god separately particular to each of them. In none of the gatherings have I heard that presumption challenged. No one has pointed out to any of the candidates that the drafters of the Declaration, having used the term “Nature’s God” (a term associated with the noninterventionist god of Deism) a mere four lines above, were demonstrably capable of using “God” in place of “Creator” if that was the meaning they intended. Nor has anyone pointed out that, since humans were obviously created, we had to be created by something and thus to assert that we had a creator is a statement of mere tautology, not a claim of divine intervention.
While it seems most likely that the drafters predominantly believed that “Creator” to have been an entity, an agent – Darwin’s demonstration in On the Origin of Species, that the creator was a process, being yet 83 years in their future – it is consistent with the fact-based tone of that Declaration that substituting the actual creator-process for a mistakenly presumed creator-agent does not alter the argument. We all still get those “unalienable Rights”, including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, as an automatic endowment of birth. This foundational Declaration thus rests comfortably on the government side of the wall of separation. You don’t have to believe in any particular god, or in any god at all, to accept the premise that human rights are inherent, not granted by governments.
But how long can the common-ground, nonreligious source of our rights survive when each candidate can presume without challenge that his or her god is that source? Given the muted and distant defense of that common-ground source today, what defense will there be after a generation of the government’s favoring one or another divine source through its schools? Surely if some god is the source of those precious rights, we owe that god gratitude and obeisance. But which god? And how would we decide which god prevails? Do we divide our nation, ourselves along god A, god B and not-god lines?
The government that unites the States cannot do so if it abandons its common-ground neutral reality. When it takes sides, when it favors one or another alternate reality, it not only alienates some of its citizens, it also diminishes the chance of unity in the future. The upshot of the government religion allowed by Milford can only be an exacerbation of our present national division. And that division would persist even if we formally became the “Christian nation” that the Republican candidates assert and long for.
ARC – 2/20/12
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