Friday, March 3, 2006

The Latest First Amendment Crisis

I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of conservatism. ~Barry Goldwater



It's a long quote, but, coming from the godfather of modern American conservatism, it's a telling one. I have to put Goldwater in the same category as Bob Dole as a man who probably would have been a pretty good president if: a) he had run at a different time (each was going against a popular incumbent); and b) he had spoken with his true voice rather than trying to appeal to the far right. But I didn't intend to talk about Barry Goldwater.
What tickled my little gray cells was something that seems to be all over the news suddenly the other day. It seems that Someone Took A Survey (a subsidiary of Someone Did A Study) and found that more people could name more than two characters from the Simpsons than could recall two or more of the rights spelled out in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.

Big whoop. I don't even watch the Simpsons, but I could name several characters from the show. As to the First Amendment, I'd score about three of five. I could list the items as various rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, but I doubt I could tie them to a specific amendment. It's important that we know what the Constitution grants, not necessarily which paragraph or amendment spells it out.

However, just to set the record straight, here is the First Amendment in all its glory:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Putting in as it is more commonly stated by us ordinary types, the amendment includes freedom of (or from) religion, freedom of speech, the establishment of a free press, the right to peaceful assembly, and the right to complain to the government, Patriot Act be damned. Not bad for for 44 words.

Notice that the amendment specifically prohibits laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” Not only Congress is supposed to leave religions alone, but it's not supposed to favor any one faith. Barry Goldwater knew his Constitution. He recognized that “political preachers” and others who would impose their morality and beliefs on others were as dangerous as those who would try to squash those beliefs.

So where does this leave prayer in schools, prayer at school football games, and other public displays of belief? And does this mean that atheists like the fellow who is panicked at “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance have a point?

First of all, we need to separate belief in a supreme being (AKA “God”) from the strictures of religion. Many religions believe in a supreme being. Even polytheistic faiths have a “head god” who runs the whole show. So a professed belief in God does not, by itself, favor a particular religion or, in fact, even favor the idea of religion, since many people who do not actively practice any religion still accept the existence of God. The Founding Fathers were well aware of the problems caused by government-sponsored religion, and they went to great lengths to avoid them. At the same time, they seemed uniformly to believe in the existence of God, although they were not necessarily uniform in their interpretation of God's nature.

That's the problem with some public prayer. The Lord's Prayer is a very generic paying of respect to God, making it a good prayer for anyone of any faith. Even though it's a Christian prayer, it does not push a particular doctrine in any way. People get bent out of shape because it happens to be Christian, but if they ever took the time to actually pay attention to the words, they might get over it. On the other hand, public prayer that invokes Jesus, however lovely and meaningful the prayer, is exclusionary of other faiths. If those who wish to use a public event to proselytize could keep this distinction in mind, and if those who feel any mention of God without identifying their own religious tenets is wrong could learn a little respect for others, we wouldn't keep making lawyers richer.

What about the atheists? Taken dispassionately, which is bloody hard to do when discussing faith, belief in a supreme being is a philosophical question. In fact, almost every first-year philosophy course in the world has a section dealing with proofs (or the lack of same) for the existence of God. And every course comes to the same conclusion: You can neither prove or disprove the existence of a supreme being. It is, therefore, a matter of faith.

I can certainly understand that an atheist wouldn't want to be ostracized because his belief system precludes a God. Whenever someone, no matter how well-meaning, does things that cause discomfort for a group, or, worse, discriminate against a group, or, far, far, worse, persecute a group based on belief or lack of belief, then that person must be forced to desist.

The trouble is that some atheists feel that they must impose their view on society as a whole. They may not see it like that, but that is precisely what their attempts have amounted to. Their actions are no different than those of the “political preachers.” Neither one respects the values of others.

If we could just respect the needs and beliefs of others, as Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed all said in slightly different ways, there would be no issue here. The First Amendment protection would be sufficient, perhaps even unnecessary. Because we can't seem to follow that simple path, we have persecution, unrest, and richer lawyers.

The next time you want to take a my-way-or-the-highway view of prayer in schools or “In God We Trust” on coins, think about that. Barry Goldwater did.

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