I’m committed to becoming another brick in the wall – one that makes it stronger – rather than becoming another sucker who punches a hole in that wall. What wall am I talking about? The wall of separation between church and state.
The Establishment Clause provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” Jefferson later famously referred to this clause in a letter as having built “a wall of separation between church and state.” Like all walls (the Gaza wall, the US-Mexican border, the Great Firewall of China), this wall is not impermeable. It protects us from being forced by the government to join or financially support a church, but it does allow in streams of personal religious expression – the other right we hold so dear. The Constitution ensures that religious expression on a personal level is acceptable, as long as our government does not endorse one religion over another. However, there are many times when it does just that, whether purposely or simply because the majority thoughtlessly and naively sees itself as the default mode.
For example, when a crèche turns up in front of city hall, minority faiths who want equal representation in the public sphere often have to ask for inclusion after the fact. In many cases– in Wisconsin and Washington state, for example – the consequent opening of the door to all faiths is quickly followed by a swift slamming of it when too many requests flood in or the displays cause too much controversy. Baby Jesus and a menorah are one thing, but a Wiccan pentacle? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? The Festivus Pole? The mainstream can’t take it!
A poll last year found that “83% [of respondents] say a nativity scene on city property should be legal, but only 60% say a display honoring Islam during Ramadan should be legal. Overall, 58% of all Americans feel both should be legal, while 15% feel both should be illegal.” If the majority of Americans are for the nativity but only slightly more than half would open up that space to all faiths regardless of their personal religious views, you have the majority effectively suppressing the minority’s religious expression. We need to put a stop to this practice altogether, or else this stream could become a flood that washes away our Constitutional protection against such state-sanctioned oppression. The Constitution is supposed to protect the rights of minorities, not strengthen those of the majority – that’s what the Civil Rights movement was all about.
While not all Christians are trying to push their religion on us, not all non-mainstream religions are without ulterior motives of their own…
Should we support proselytizing by non-mainstream religious groups?
You may remember Jason blogging about the case of a fringe religious group called Summum trying to get its Seven Aphorisms erected in a city park in Pleasant Grove, UT, on equal standing with the Ten Commandments already displayed there.
However, Summum had challenged another city for the same reasons – the city of Duchesne, UT. While the Pleasant Grove case proceeded to the Supreme Court, Duchesne instead reluctantly moved its Ten Commandments piece to a cemetery to avoid further litigation. Surprisingly enough, this was not seen as a victory in Summum’s eyes; in an article published after the monument had been moved,
“We are saddened that the Ten Commandments monument has been removed from the city park in Duchesne,” Summum President Su Menu said.
“Summum has never requested that religious monuments be removed from government property. We have only asked that all religions be given equal access,” Menu said. “Just as the citizens of Duchesne have benefited from the display of the Decalogue, so, too, would they have benefited from the display of our Seven Aphorisms.”
So was Summum ultimately just trying to win converts, or did they believe that all beliefs could peacefully coexist if everyone had equal access to them? Would we ever want to erect a statue of the 42 Principles of Maat, or the Nine Noble Virtues, or the Wiccan Rede in a public park simply because others “may benefit” from its display? Proselytizing is not a central tenet of any Pagan faith I can think of, but does that mean we should bar others from doing so? If we are all for tolerance and acknowledging the validity of an infinite number of other paths, why would we be intolerant of a Ten Commandments statue in a park or courtroom?
And if we went to all the courthouses of the nation to dismantle any Christian-themed decorations, then what of Pagan decorations like Lady Liberty? Would you get rid of Moses yet keep Confucius? What of Mars in front of the US Capitol, or the Three Fates and the four elements in front of the Supreme Court building? Obviously we live in a society where religious expression is not easily extracted from the public sphere; indeed, in many cases it makes our lives richer.
Conversely, if tolerance is one of our core beliefs as Pagans, how can we tolerate intolerance and religious aggression? Wiccans say “An’ it harm none, do as ye will” – so the question then becomes whether Christians are actually doing harm by erecting the Ten Commandments in public places, placing nativities on City Halls, and so forth.
Pagans and Atheists – strange bedfellows?
Unfortunately what may have once been the simple, well-intentioned decorating of buildings and parks in the past is now being pushed as part of a malicious and divisive political agenda. That fits the definition of “harm” well enough for me. You can see this again and again as part of the “Culture Wars” that fundamentalist Christians believe they must wage to stop the secularization of America. In the words of Green Bay City Council President Chad Fradette, who placed the nativity on government property, “I’m trying to take this fight to the people who need to be fought. I’ll keep going on this until this group imposing Madison values crawls back into its hole and never crawls out.”
Because of people like Chad, I’m more inclined these days to crawl into bed with the atheists – to stop, or at least to impede, the progress of the Christian right juggernaut that is hell-bent on tying up taxpayer’s money in long, drawn-out court battles revolving around their supposed “persecution” by a secularized America. I realize that in not supporting religious displays on public land I’m in a small minority of Americans – but what else is new?
It’s not just Chad fighting to get us back in our hole – many Christians are organizing to be more proactive in thrusting their nativities into the public sphere, to deliberately inflame others. The response of setting up a Wiccan pentacle is just feeding into that – a retribution against having the nativity on government property. And then that pentacle gets trashed, which is just more revenge visited upon retribution. Does it make any sense? Can’t we just nip it in the bud by saying no to everyone before it gets ugly? Can’t religious displays be simply relegated to private homes, churches and temples? Why bring it to city property or schools in the first place?
A huge chorus of secularists saying “no” to these displays will probably be heard more loudly than one or two minority faiths’ disjointed efforts to fight these assaults or gain equal standing on their own.
One atheist organization, the Secular Coalition for America, has been lobbying Washington of late for initiatives that Pagans may also support, such as eliminating faith-based policies that impose mainstream religious tenets on the rest of us through discriminatory hiring, weakening science-based education and health services, and proselytizing through charity. They are also urging more atheists to come out of the closet; this article about their lobbying efforts reveals that of 23 privately self-proclaimed atheists in the House and Senate, only one was willing to go public with it! Ultimately they, too, fear PR damage on the basis of the mainstream American belief that only Christians can be moral or ethical and that atheists are necessarily evil, deluded, liberal or untrustworthy. (Sound familiar? Such labels are often applied to Pagans, too.)
As Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition, wrote to me in an email,
“Our mission is twofold: to promote non-theism and work for the separation of religion and government. We are on your side on just about all cases. […] I think it is a good idea for all of our groups to work together on the main issues and also to work for the visibility and respectability of our constituencies. The more Atheists and Pagans come out of their closets, the better off we will all be.”
Besides the Secular Coalition and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, there are more inclusive groups fighting for the same ideals (because believers of any faith can be secularists, too), such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State – the very same organization that helped Roberta Stewart and Circle Sanctuary with the pentacle quest.
What do you think? Do you want to join the atheists and other secularists to ensure that minority rights don’t get trampled by keeping faith out of the public sphere, where we still can? Or will it be more effective to fight for better minority faith inclusion in the long run? How should we respond when “culture warriors” provoke us to action?