Saturday, April 24, 2010

Jon Rowe understands history, but not non-establishment

In his recent blog Competing Traditions & Abstract Ideals that Trump Dominant Historical Practice [Monday, April 19, 2010], Jon Rowe made the following misdirected comments regarding the recently federal court decision that the National Day of Prayer Act "has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience.”

"The harder questions are how to get there in a 1) constitutional and 2) policy sense (the two aren't always supposed to be the same).

Do we need a naked public square where the state is always silent on religious beliefs? Or perhaps a more open pluralistic public square where the state, in its public supplications, sometimes says things that you or I agree with, sometimes not.

I'm willing to endorse the latter position as long as its understood that if the pious Christians get the state chaplain microphone, sometimes the Hindus and the atheists get it too.

And I think that pluralism perfectly "fits" with the ideals of the American Founding."

Regarding the question about whether we need a "naked public square where the state is always silent on religious beliefs?": There are two major misconceptions in that one sentence. The first falsehood is the adjective "naked", the second falsehood is the phrase "always silent".

It should be obvious that a public square where government is silent on the truth of, or need for, religious beliefs would not be "naked". Such a public square would be fully clothed with the associated partisan voices of the individuals who are citizens of this country. This court decision does not strip the public square of any individual belief or expression. Government employees, including elected officials, can go to any public square and add their voices on any subject as free individuals on the same terms as everyone else, just like everyone else. What government employees don't get to do is speak on behalf of government on matters of religious beliefs just because they are government employees or elected officials. That makes the public square equitable, it doesn't render the public square naked. There is a critical distinction here that Jon Rowe, and other opponents of non-establishment of monotheism, keep failing to acknowledge. A President’s statements of his own beliefs about prayer are less likely to be viewed as an official endorsement than a permanent statement from the government in the form of a statute encouraging all citizens to pray to "God" every year.

This court decision does not require that the state be "always silent on religious beliefs". Again, there is a critical distinction here that Jon Rowe, and other opponents of non-establishment of monotheism, keep failing to acknowledge. In her decision, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb asserted that government involvement in prayer could be constitutional provided that it does not call for religious action, which the prayer day does. "It goes beyond mere 'acknowledgment' of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context," Crabb wrote. "In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience." Exactly right. Why is this distinction between acknowledgement and promotion so difficult for those who oppose non-establishment of monotheism to acknowledge? Could it be that their reasoning is clouded by anti-atheism animus? Maybe there is a prevailing anti-atheist bias in this country as evidenced by Judge Scalia's attitude that atheists and polytheists can be disregarded? Have you considered that possibility and its implications for this discussion, Jon Rowe?

Regarding Jon Rowe's final prescription for a policy of inviting non-Christians and atheists to the state chaplain microphone: How does that comment apply in the context of the NDOP Act? The NDOP Act allows for no accommodation of atheists and atheists don't want a National Day of Blasphemy Act. Multiple competing establishments of religion are not better than no establishment of religion and the constitution calls for the latter. In any case, there is no justification for a state chaplain microphone. There is no chaplain at my place of work, indeed there is no chaplain microphone at the workplace of anyone I know. I guess that means we all have naked workplaces where the state is always silent on religious beliefs. Can Jon Rowe explain why there is this need for introducing a chaplain microphone into official business at government workplaces?

While it is true that 'pluralism perfectly "fits" with the ideals of the American Founding', it is also an irrelevant, trite, one-sided statement. Anything ranging from every citizen has a different belief to every citizen has the same belief fits with the ideals of the American Founding. It is not true that pluralism of beliefs is a goal of government according to the constitution, and an active government role in sponsoring a diversity of beliefs is what Mr. Rowe appears to favor. The constitution no more permits the government to promote a diversity of different beliefs then it permits the government to oppose a diversity of different beliefs. It is not the role of government to select which beliefs it will favor and which it will not favor regardless of the quantity or diversity of the beliefs it theoretically could choose to favor. People can pray individually and in voluntary groups before and after business and during breaks, privately or publicly. Why is that insufficient? Why must government sponsor prayers and assert in laws that a single God exists?

As Jon Rowe knows, the constitution was written by refugees seeking freedom of conscience and freedom from religious tyranny. They wanted a land where government would not tell them which church to support, what religious rituals to engage in or what to believe or disbelieve. They knew there can be no true religious liberty without the freedom to dissent. Whether to pray, or believe in a god who answers prayer, is an individual decision protected under our First Amendment as a paramount matter of conscience. Jon Rowe is mistaken in his refusal to acknowledge that the NDOP, which annually compels partisan religious speech on the president of the United States as an act of government, is a direct, and rather blatant, violation of the Bill of Rights, just like Judge Scalia is mistaken when he says the constitution permits the disregard of atheists and polytheists.

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