Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy Holidays!

And so with that once-innocuous expression, I throw my support in the War on Christmas to the side of the unholy warriors. Okay, I'll be among the first to admit that the whole concept of a War on Christmas is absurd. The notion that religious Christians in 2007 America are an oppressed group is mostly a clever political strategy for a powerful group to claim the mantle of victimization.

That said, in a country of 300 million people and almost as many bloggers, one can always find someone to say something legitimately hurtful. Thus, when I googled "war on Christmas 2007," the first entry to pop up was this blog entry from something called the Atheist Revolution blog. Tooling around a bit on the blog, I concluded that its author is a reasonable person who does not mean to deliberately insult religious people. Nonetheless, the "war on Christmas" entry does contain the following addressed to a local school board member who defended the posting of "Merry Christmas" on a public school entrance with an admittedly incoherent explanation that the sign was there as an expression of inclusiveness:
What we are trying to do is make sure that the kids who don't live in a fantasy world aren't ridiculed for it by those who are as deluded as you claim to be. You see, we think you and your children should have the right to practice your religion in the privacy of your own home. We don't think you have any right to expect the schools to do it for you or to expose other children to it.
One way for a liberal
to make sense of the offense a religious person legitimately takes at such a statement is to imagine that instead of objecting to a pro-Christmas message, the blogger were objecting to a pro-sexual freedom message by saying that, e.g., gay and lesbian Americans are entitled to do what they want in the privacy of their own homes but shouldn't expect the schools to expose other children to their "lifestyle." People (like me) who favor LGBT rights would legitimately object in turn that this sort of tolerance-rather-than-acceptance is inconsistent with full citizenship. And likewise with religion, putting the best face on the complaints from religious people about the "war on Christmas," what they object to is the notion that their religious faith is something vaguely shameful that will be tolerated so long as it is kept private.

To understand the religious perspective is not, of course, to agree with it. As a legal matter, we have grounds for distinguishing a demand that our schools not promote religion---namely the First Amendment's Establishment Clause---that don't apply to demands that our schools not "promote homosexuality." Moreover, most people who believe that religion should be a private matter think that because of the risks---too often realized throughout world history---of oppression and violence when religion and the state become entwined. One can worry about these risks without believing that religious faith is in any way shameful.

Nonetheless, I do think it important to understand that, however silly the notion of a "war on Christmas" may be, the anxiety which provokes it is real. Accordingly, I think it's important for those who strongly favor secular public institutions to take pains not to give the impression that we disrespect people with strong religious beliefs. It's theoretically possible to say, as some prominent atheist writers say, that you disrespect the religious views of religious people (because you think they are illogical, harmful or whatever) while respecting the religious people themselves, but in the actual hurly-burly of public debate, it's very hard to distinguish ridiculing beliefs from ridiculing the people who hold those beliefs.

So, that said, Happy Holidays to all. I'm going to take a break from blogging for the next week and a half, which means I may post once or twice as a means of avoiding grading exams, but regular posts from me won't resume until after the new year.

Posted by Mike Dorf


Paul said...

I don't buy the analogy - on two levels.

On the important one - I think the concept of equating sexuality with religion in the manner of your hypo is completely conceding the gay marriage argument (among others) to their playing field. It does not necessarily mean you will lose the day, but you have certainly conceded to playing on their field.

Religious beliefs in Christianity should be given no more accord than unicorns, leprechauns or flying spaghetti monsters.

For example, if you are a person who adamantly believes that unicorns find same sex relations to be offensive, you are welcome to your personal insanity but I don't see why society should take your feelings into consideration.

Sure, in this particular case, the vast majority of society believes in the unicorn and all it entails. Still, from a substantive view point I do think it is completely fair to say to those persons afflicted with whatever mental disorder causes otherwise rational beings to believe in a giant, invisible best-friend in the sky that they are perfectly welcome to their beliefs in their own homes, but the government isn't going to help support that delusion.

Saying the same thing to gays is, well, just not the same thing.

Paul said...

Oh, the second level - forgot about that one.

Last time I checked gays had not intentionally slaughtered millions because those millions didn't believe being gay was good.

The bigotry and violence of Christianity has a long history that continues today. There is just no reasonable comparisons between these two groups.

egarber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul said...

Oh. Merry Christmas.

I could support a war on Christians, but not a war on Christmas.

A fat guy in a red suit giving out presents - what is there to complain about?

egarber said...

Good post.

Personally, I think it's a mistake to say things like: "keep your religion in the privacy of your own home."

I favor strict separation of church and state, but I don't read that to mean there's nothing public about religion. "Public" here means the free exercise for an individual anywhere (in the home or out and about).

So when I talk to friends who tell me that "you're not allowed to be religious anymore" (which is maybe the most ridiculous argument I've ever heard), I usually say something like this:

"Hold on there. Those of us who favor Madison's brand of religious freedom only oppose state endorsement of religion -- we don't want the state to enter and poison the sacred sphere of religion by proselytizing. We favor something close to absolute religious freedom -- LIMITED GOVERNMENT in the purest sense. So I favor strict separation BECAUSE I value faith, not because I oppose it.

[I think the best way to understand religious liberty is in the context of limited government -- i.e., it's not that we want to keep religion out of government; it's that we want to keep the state constrained to its island, where religion is out of its "cognizance" (Madison) and instead in the hands of the people].

There is no court ruling anywhere that says you can't pray or show your faith as an individual at say, a high school football game. If a group of parents / students wants to voluntarily get together and pray before a game, they have every right to. The line is only crossed when the *school* endorses the ceremony / observance. That's when the state engages in proselytizing."

Now granted, some folks won't accept the distinction -- but I suspect it's because they believe Christianity deserves preferential treatment, and that the state *should* promote their faith.

BUT, because I readily acknowledge that religious freedom clearly includes the right of INDIVIDUALS to proudly and publicly act religiously, they sometimes cut me some slack. I even tell them that I welcome their attempts to convert me. As long as they're not acting on behalf of the state, that's free association -- and surely religious association is part of that.

That being said, I have to run off to my WOC (War on Christmas) organizing meeting. We're tearing down Christmas trees tonight in the neighborhood :)

Paul said...

"The line is only crossed when the *school* endorses the ceremony / observance."

No, that is not the only place it is crossed. Go try and have a prayer session in a public high-school to say - Satan. See how well that goes.

When you are saying that it's perfectly ok for private people to pray in school, you really only mean it if the prayer is about a religion that is accepted. The School's permitting is effectively endorsing.

egarber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
egarber said...

And in my football game example, assume it's not done over the loud speaker, or in a way that carries the school's imprimatur -- like it was in the Sante Fe case.

egarber said...


That's a pretty good test case.

Prof, what do the precedents imply about say, a group worshipping satan on their own before a game -- or a group of students praying to the devil in their free time before lunch?

If free exercise means anything, these folks would have a strong case. Or at least they SHOULD have a strong case.

egarber said...

When you are saying that it's perfectly ok for private people to pray in school, you really only mean it if the prayer is about a religion that is accepted. The School's permitting is effectively endorsing.

This seems more like an equal protection issue than one of state endorsement of religion. Seems to me the individuals would be presumed to have the right, but the state could prevent it if some test was passed -- school disruption, etc. I would think that the state deciding which religions are accepted or not wouldn't pass muster. I'm not sure what the precedents are here, so I'm only offering a construct.

Carl said...

Last time I checked gays had not intentionally slaughtered millions because those millions didn't believe being gay was good.

The bigotry and violence of Christianity has a long history that continues today. There is just no reasonable comparisons between these two groups.

If the recent scandals in the Catholic Church are any indication, there may be reason to believe there is substantial overlap here....

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