Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Another wrong reading of the First Amendment

I will if you will.
Some wag once said, "There are two types of people: those who believe people can be separated into two types, and those who don't."

In the real world, of course, people defy neat and easy categorization. Not all atheists are progressives, and not all progressives are atheists, just as not all black people are fans of hip-hop and not all fans of hip-hop are black. This is especially relevant when it comes to discussing moral values, because atheists, agnostics, secularists and secular humanists are not all of a piece. Nor are religious people, even people from the same faith community. Among political scientists this phenomenon is known as "cross-cutting cleavages" (please refrain from breast jokes).

Allen Clifton has posted a rather intemperate diatribe against conservatives on ForwardProgressives.com titled "Enough! This Nation was NOT Founded on Christianity". There are groups of conservatives who do argue that position. It's truer to say that the vast majority of the Founding Fathers were Christians of some strain, and that deists like Thomas Jefferson partook of cultural Christianity even while they rejected creedal Christianity. But it's also true to say that the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment was written to stave off the establishment of a state church, and that we give it a somewhat generous interpretation to avoid appearing to favor one religion over another.

But to fight against the America-founded-on-Christianity position, Clifton makes a mistake a lot of progressives make: "... the First Amendment clearly states that we're given the freedom of religion. It also says Congress can't make any laws based on religious beliefs."

Um, not quite. What it says is that Congress can make no law "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". Moreover, the two clauses ("establishment" and "free exercise") occur in an amendment that also guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and the right of petition. Put differently, it occurs in an amendment that's intended not to restrict but to maximize participation in the public square.
Or, more simple yet: The intent of the "establishment clause" was never to shut religious people out of policymaking. That's not the way that clause has been understood these last 226 years; there's no reason for us to take that interpretation now.

On second thought, there's no valid reason to take that position; what we have are mostly inapt protests concerning "theocracy" and the intellectually dishonest pretense that "only religious people support X/oppose Y". I defy anyone to find a law passed within the last hundred years that refers to any specific church's moral code as grounds for its passage, that define any act as "contrary to God's will" or "required by God's eternal command" .... at very minimum, one that hasn't long since been struck down as unconstitutional. There is no religious test for voting, and by the Constitution there can be no test asking, "Do you support/oppose this law due to your religious convictions?"

Religious and irreligious people aren't neatly separable into "conservative" and "progressive" no matter how desirable such alignments may appear. So sorry, but the Constitution doesn't give the irreligious veto power; in fact, since the irreligious must be considered religious groups to be covered by the First Amendment, by Clifton's argument the irreligious have no right to impose their values on us. Stalemate.

So yeah, this nation wasn't founded on Christianity. But neither was it founded to exclude Christians' voices from the democratic process; neither was it founded to be run solely by those with no religious loyalties or convictions. If you don't like it ... well, there's always China, or North Korea, or Cuba. They may be totalitarian hellholes, but at least they're not run by religious folk.