Posts tagged government

Is secularism hostile towards religion?

J. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee argues on the Huffington Post that the principle of separation of church and state does not outright ban religion from playing some role in politics, but rather provides citizens the comfort of knowing government will not push religion on them; that government will remain neutral on the subject.

The First Amendment requires, and we should be happy to embrace, a “secular” government in the sense that it is prohibited from promoting religion or taking sides in religious disputes, favoring one over another. It should and must be neutral toward religion.

A secular government does not mean it is hostile to religion. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The institutional separation of church and state does not mean the segregation of religion from politics nor does it strip the right of people of faith to speak forcefully in the public square. It means only that government cannot pass laws that have a primary purpose or effect that advances religion. Religious speech in the public square and even some government venues is commonplace. Examples abound. One need only to look at Tuesday’s planned Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service. The president, vice president, dignitaries and Americans of diverse faiths will gather to celebrate the inauguration through prayer, readings and musical performances. And at the inauguration itself, an invocation and benediction will be offered. That doesn’t sound like religion is getting short shrift or that the public square is naked. Actually, it is dressed to the nines.

Walker is correct: secularism allows, and one could argue encourages, people to promote and defend their religious or other views in the public square. It also allows elected officials who are religious to be guided in their profession by their religious beliefs. Barring them from doing so would be both immoral and impractical. In this way, secularism is not hostile towards religion.

Yet few people seem to realize that the lack of separation between religion and politics poses a threat to the institutional separation of church and state. If lawmakers are making policy decisions based on their religious beliefs — especially as often as they do in these highly religious United States — then government is not truly secular. In this way, I think it’s fair to say that secularism is unfriendly towards religion.

To be clear, I do not think there is a problem with the lack of separation between religion and politics. As I said, it would be both immoral and impractical to ask our elected officials to leave their religious beliefs at their office door each morning. Rather, I think there is a problem with elected officials not realizing that making decisions based on religion is not necessarily wise. 

All of that aside, Walker goes on to make an important point which is not often heard. 

Yes, our culture can be crude and some people are indifferent or hostile to religion. But the answer is not to malign the separation of church and state, which would do away with religious freedom and give government the job of promoting religion. Jefferson’s radical Virginia statute created a vital marketplace for religion that must be based on voluntary belief, not government assistance. It is for us — people of faith and religious institutions, like the church — to take up the task of making our religion winsome to the world and count on government to do no more than to protect our right to do so.

In other words: those concerned with the fact that religion has taken a beating in the public square the last ten years (say, due to the New Atheists) should not attack seperation of church and state. They should try to defend their religious beliefs. 

Good luck. 

The importance of local activism

Hey, look, I’m in the newspaper! The Deseret News, to be exact, in an article focusing on states as prime battlegrounds for political battles over religious freedom.

"I try to tell our people, ‘You might think that what’s going on in Congress right now is the most important thing right now, but it’s absolutely not,’" said Michael De Dora, public policy director for the Center for Inquiry, a secularist group the advocates against government involvement in religion. "You need to pay attention to what’s going on at the school board, city hall and state levels because that’s where things are happening."

That’s true. If you are interested and have some time to devote to political activism, think local. There’s a lot that can be done, and probably less people trying to do it than you imagine. Give them a hand.  You never know what could come of it. 

Legality of drones does not justify their use

Kevin Jon Heller, writing on the blog Opinio Jurisrecently did a great job of making the important point that while the U.S. government might be able to provide some legal justification for the continued use of drone strikes abroad, that would be different than providing a moral justification. Replying to responses on an earlier post, Heller writes: 

I still want to resist an idea that seems to underly all of the responses to my post: namely, that we cannot (or at least should not) consider collateral deaths caused by drone strikes to be immoral as long as those strikes were legal.  I strongly disagree with that idea; I think it is possible — indeed important — to insist that the drone program is profoundly immoral even if no individual drone strike ever violates the laws of war.  There is a vast philosophic literature on the difference between legality and morality, which I do not have time to discuss here. … Suffice it to say that very few people are such thoroughgoing positivists that they believe legality and morality are coterminous, even if they disagree dramatically with each other concerning the particulars of the difference. Two obvious examples: “pro-lifers” don’t consider abortion to be moral even though it is legal, while the pro-euthanasia crowd doesn’t consider assisted suicide to be immoral simply because it is almost always illegal.  Both groups simply reject the morality of the laws in question.

You can read about my views on this subject here

"Why Tolerate Religion?" symposium in D.C.

As I’ve previously said, I try not to concern this blog, which is more focused on my personal interests, with my professional work at the Center for Inquiry. However, there is some overlap between my personal interests and professional work, and every so often I share Center for Inquiry-related things on this blog based on the idea that I think my readers would find them interesting. I think this symposium on freedom of religion and conscience, to be held this April 27 in Washington, D.C., fits the bill:

Should a corporation operated by religious believers be exempt from a federal rule mandating contraceptive coverage for employees, while an organization run by nonreligious persons is not? Should an employee who objects to performing certain tasks on the basis of their religion be accommodated, while objections by a nonreligious employee are ignored? Should a religious organization receiving government funding be allowed to hire only adherents of their particular worldview, while a secularist organization cannot do the same?

In cases like these, religious conscience has traditionally been considered to provide a legitimate exemption from standing laws, whereas nonreligious commitments generally have not. But in his controversial new book Why Tolerate Religion? philosopher and legal scholar Brian Leiter argues that governments are wrong to single out religion and religious demands as deserving any special legal protection. Leiter contends that the reasons for tolerating religion are not specific to religion, and instead apply to all claims of conscience—and that governments are not required to grant exemptions of anykind, religious or otherwise, from laws that promote the general welfare.

To examine this contentious issue, the Center for Inquiry is proud to host a day-long symposium on April 27, 2013, at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Threatre. Speakers include Brian Leiter, Jacques Berlinerblau, Caroline Mala Corbin, Wendy Kaminer, Ronald A. Lindsay, Barry Lynn, and John Shook. 

You can find more information, including registration details, here.

Why people oppose, support marriage equality

Gallup yesterday released the findings of its latest survey on marriage equality. The good news is that a majority of Americans (53 percent) support marriage equality. But more interesting (at least to me!) than the overall oppose or support percentages were the survey’s findings regarding why people oppose or support marriage equality:

In other words: most people who oppose marriage equality do so for religious reasons, while people who support marriage equality do so based on secular reasons, such as equality and fairness. Perhaps this doesn’t come as a surprise, but simply a confirmation of what we all assumed was the case. Yet I would argue that it is important to know exactly why people oppose and support certain policies, because such knowledge allows those involved in the fight to hone their arguments and make them more likely to be accepted by others.

Hat tip to the Friendly Atheist.

A secular state is not an amoral state

Back in October I wrote on this website that people concerned with secularizing discourse on public policy, and thus secularizing government, might have more success in achieving their goal if they appeal to pluralism (“let’s make arguments all Americans can understand”) rather than strict church-state separation (“hey, you can’t say that!”).

Some religious believers countered that the more secular our discourse on public policy becomes, the less it will involve discussion on moral beliefs and values, if at all.

Yet as Christian blogger Robert Hunt points out, a secular state doesn’t abandon talk of moral beliefs and values. It simply requires a different approach to discussing them.

Does the secular state abandon the possibility of being a moral state?

The answer is no. The secular state does not abandon being moral. Indeed moral discourse remains firmly a part of political discourse. One need only examine the recent US presidential campaign to see this. It does, however, shift the basis for moral decision making in two ways. First, determining what is moral is moved away from decisions made by a religious establishment to decisions made by the majority of citizens (at least in a democracy.)  And secondly this decision making process takes place through public debate and appeal to information available to and known by all or a majority of citizens rather than to a privileged revelation or interpretation.

So to use a contemporary American example, if you want to argue that marriage should only be between a man and a woman you must show that your view is based on information and analysis available to everyone (or at least a majority) rather than a particular sectarian interpretation of scripture. You cannot appeal to the Bible, the Qur’an, or a particular interpretation of either and necessarily expect that your fellow citizens will accept its validity.

This is even more the case in the United States, where the constitution explicitly forbids the government to engage in establishing sectarian religious views in law.

The great advantage of the secular state is that it requires citizens to be engaged across religious and sectarian divides in order for it to implement a moral order. Citizens and their leaders must seek the universal rather than the particular for the state to function.

The transition to a secular state has not been easy in the Muslim world, or indeed in the non-Western world. Secular states are associated with both colonialism and Western nations that appear to many  to be highly immoral. Yet the alternative, a religious state, appears from its modern manifestations to be the way only toward endless sectarian violence and the oppression of religious minorities. 

Well put, Mr. Hunt. 

Decency, as required by law

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, stories are emerging that some New York City residents did not act in the most ethical of ways. Consider this example:

On Staten Island, according to several news accounts, a woman named Glenda Moore tried to flee the storm on Monday by driving herself and her sons to safety in their blue Ford Explorer. But the vehicle got trapped in the swirling waters, so Ms. Moore unbuckled the two boys — Connor, 4, and Brandon, 2 — to head for dry land. They got separated from her, and were swept away. Battling water and wind, Ms. Moore frantically knocked on neighbors’ doors asking for help, but her pleas were ignored. On Thursday, the boys’ lifeless bodies were found nearby.        

Which has spurred St. Thomas University law professor Jay Sterling Silver to propose that a new law might make some bad samaritans act decently:

A sensible statute might read like this: “Any person who knows that another is in imminent danger, or has sustained serious physical harm, and who fails to render reasonable assistance shall be fined up to $5,000, imprisoned for up to three months, or both.” Civil liability could also be established, as in other countries.

A duty to help would not require bystanders to endanger themselves or provide help beyond their abilities; it could simply require warning someone of imminent danger or calling 911. It wouldn’t bring back the two boys, but it would require us to accept our fundamental moral duty to help those in grave peril.        

But Jess Coleman isn’t buying it:

Whether it was in response to Prohibition or the recent war on drugs, Americans have long rejected government efforts to alter their moral code. Indeed, as the author C. S. Lewis once said, “You cannot make men good by law.”

Mandating that bystanders take action in cases of emergency would in effect diminish the “moral duty” Mr. Silver believes that it will create, and instead replace it with a legal duty.

If we are to extend Mr. Silver’s view that the law is a powerful moral tool, why not make it law that high school students read a certain number of books a year, or criminalize certain curse words?

We would all benefit from a better, stronger display of moral duty. But true morality can come only from within, and that requires experiencing the bad as well as the good.

Coleman is correct that laws requiring citizens to pursue certain actions do not necessarily cultivate their senses of moral duty. Legislating morality does not always work perfectly. But that doesn’t mean legislating morality is a waste of time. 

In this case, a law punishing people for not helping others whatsoever in emergency circumstances could still be just given that any sensible person in the same situation would help, and society has good reason to make examples of those who don’t. Such a law might not cultivate a person’s sense of moral duty in any immediate way, but it would, at the least, push not just the person who didn’t act, but in fact all members of society to contemplate their moral duties — in which case, similar situations might occur less often going forward.

Keep religious views out of goverment

Take a look at this interesting letter to the editor, written by Dan Denney and published in the Watertown Daily Times :

All the pubic discourse on same-sex marriage of late is getting on my nerves. It seems so clear-cut to me that this is a social issue and not a political one. The government has no place here except to guarantee the rights of its citizens regardless of sexual orientation. Let the churches sort out the sinners and exact spiritual sanctions. Just because the government says health care insurance has to cover abortion does not mean those who disagree have to use those benefits. Churches should not expect the government to help them enforce their moral views on their congregants or others. And why do some people want to control everyone else? In a nation of 300 million and a planet of 7 billion, I’d say that borders on the delusional.

Baseball and steroids, Terry Schiavo, abortion, same-sex marriage, and when a fetus becomes human are all personal choices to be made by individuals in counsel with their God, their church or their doctor and their own morality. Congressional hearings on these things are as egregious a waste as taxpayer-funded junkets for lawmakers and immoral wars in the name of democracy.

You can keep reading here.

Your state’s integrity

Take a look at what I found last night:

The State Integrity Investigation is a $1.5 million public collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International, designed to expose practices that undermine trust in state capitols — and spotlight the states that are doing things right.

The State Integrity Investigation is an unprecedented, data-driven analysis of each state’s laws and practices that deter corruption and promote accountability and openness. Experienced journalists graded each state government on its corruption risk using 330 specific measures. The Investigation ranked every state from one to 50. Each state received a report card with letter grades in 14 categories, including campaign finance, ethics laws, lobbying regulations, and management of state pension funds.

Find out how your state scored by clicking here.

Why we should legalize marijuana

The debate on how much power the government should have over controlling what its citizens eat, drink, and smoke is a tense one, to say the least. I have previously argued that the government should be concerned with what its citizens ingest, as a matter of protecting public health of both the consumer and those around him or her. But it’s a more complex situation that many people make it. Pace some libertarians, I believe government should exert some power, but pace some big government liberals, I don’t believe said power is “all-encompassing.”

For example, one instance of the government properly exerting power is the founding and operating of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has protected American consumers from countless instances of tainted food and drink.

And while there are many instances of the government improperly exerting such control, perhaps the most glaring is its making marijuana illegal. That’s the topic of a new article by Jonathan Miller, who writes that there is a compelling scientific, economic, and moral case for the legalization of marijuana:

Legalizing cannabis would enable our government, as well as our society, to better reflect universally-shared moral values, such as compassion toward the sick, justice in our legal system, and economic opportunity for all. … as a matter of public policy, our focus shouldn’t be on the private morality of individuals who choose to smoke pot, but on the public morality of the nation. And the beneficial impacts of legalizing marijuana — for our neighbors who struggle with serious illness; for our heavily-burdened system of criminal justice; and for the job creation and economic opportunity it would bring to our nation — would only serve to strengthen America’s moral fiber.

I am in full agreement.