Curious things often don’t go away. So I am motivated to return to a topic I have discussed before in this blog—the campaign by fundamentalist secularists (I like to call them Kemalists) to expunge religion from the public common.
On December 5, 2013, Law and Religion Headlines (the online newsletter published at Emory University) reported on two court decisions on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The United States Supreme Court rejected a suit protesting the erection of a large commemorative cross overlooking a public highway. The European Court of Human Rights rejected a rather similar suit, this one protesting the long-standing practice of crucifixes on the walls of Italian government buildings. In both cases the judges (a category of people for whom my respect is generally minimal) decided that neither event is a violation of religious freedom, by the state giving preference to one religion as against others. I think that this constitutes two modest victories for common sense against Kemalism run amok. Neither American nor European democracy is the worse for it.
The Kemalists typically make two arguments in cases like these. One is that allowing the display in a public place of symbols belonging to one religion implies that the state gives that religion a privileged position. The other argument is that such a display offends members of other religions, making them feel excluded. I think that both arguments are spurious. Since the history of Western civilization has been significantly shaped by Christianity, most of the contested symbols are Christian. Displaying them publicly in no way implies endorsement by the state, but rejecting their display implies a denial of history, and a judgment that this history was fundamentally wrong and therefore should be erased from memory as much as possible. In any case, a cross on an American highway or a crucifix in an Italian government office is not an exercise of Christian missionary outreach. What is more, there is no constitutional right never to be offended. In a pluralistic society, some people will always be offended by the symbols of communities other than their own. An Italian Catholic may be offended by a gay pride parade, an Italian atheist by a Corpus Christi procession. Whether these events take place on government or private property, the offended parties should be able to shrug off their annoyance as the price of living in a democracy. And just how many people, in America or in Europe (unless they are members of a militant secularist pressure group), are really deeply hurt by coming across a Christian symbol on a walk through town?
There has been a flurry of such cases on both sides of the Atlantic. The two contexts have both similar and dissimilar features: Both are democracies with strong protections for religious freedom and both are pluralistic (America, still, more so than Europe, though the latter is catching up). But while Europe is, still a highly secularized continent, America harbors a vibrant and tumultuous religious scene. The flurry of secularist campaigns in America is more visible: Precisely because religion is more prominent in the US, it attracts opposition. Also, the Constitution as a whole and its First Amendment have a quality of Holy Scripture, with no parallel in Europe. And also, Americans are a people prone to litigation—starting a lawsuit is as American as apple pie. Everyone seems to want to get into this particular game: Thus even the Anti-Defamation League, whose main (praiseworthy) agenda has been alertness to every sign of anti-Semitism, has recently been moved to issue a guide for “constitutional holidays” (that is, purely secular ones). [The ADL seems to think that Kemalism is good for the Jews. That is a very doubtful idea, especially in America. Come to think of it, it is doubtful even in Turkey: Jews did quite well under Ottoman rule; serious anti-Semitic measures were enacted under the Turkish Republic.]
Why the recent flurry of church/state issues? In America it is part of the politics surrounding the so-called “culture wars”: The rising influence of conservative Protestants in the Republican party has mobilized liberals against any political role of organized religion—especially since conservative Catholics have been allied with conservative Protestants on most of the issues “south of the navel” (issues, that is, that liberals are personally anxious about). The politics in Europe is different: Conservative Christianity (Protestant or Catholic) is not very significant politically, but the perceived threat of militant Islam has made secularism (such as French laicite) appear as a defense of European values against theocracy.
I think there is also the factor of lawyers looking for business, and then the professional deformation of this group comes into play. Lawyers live, literally and emotionally, on the making of fine distinctions. Thus the distinctions made in American courts, on where a particular instance violates or does not violate the First Amendment, are veritably scholastic (or, if you will, Talmudic). These considerations tend to be sovereignly free of common sense. Imagine a (humane) prison regulation that accords every inmate the right to a monthly haircut. Imagine further that a prisoner, whom the naked eye would judge to be bald, insists on the monthly haircut because he has ten hairs (his lawyer photographed them). Never mind why this bald (or insufficiently bald) individual wants to visit a barber in the first place; such trivial questions are legally irrelevant: a right is a right. The court will have to decide how many hairs are required to determine that an individual is not bald. In a French court, how small (in centimeters) must a cross worn around the neck be so as to be considered sufficiently “inconspicuous” and thus legally permissible? In an American court, in a soup kitchen run by an order of nuns, how much overtly religious activity (perhaps measured in man-hours, or rather nun-hours) is permissible before the legitimate secular purpose (feeding the homeless) is undermined and the activity loses its First Amendment protection? Am I exaggerating? Of course I am. But I do so for a reason: I am applying the old casuistic method of reductio ad absurdum.
Let me “reduce” some more: The Kemalist assault on religion in public space is related to an old progressive notion, the abolition of history. It goes back to the Enlightenment and particularly to its political expression in the French Revolution. It was not for nothing that the latter abolished the old calendar and substituted a new one (with months like brumaire and thermidor). That particular exercise did not last long, but the underlying progressive idea persisted: By the very notion of progress, the present is further on the march toward the glorious future than anything in the past. It affected America too: see the motto about the “new order of the ages” emblazoned on the Grand Seal of the United States (and on the dollar bills in your wallet). But in this country these utopian fantasies have often been modified by common sense and by Protestant suspicions about human nature. Be this as it may, the abolition of history continues to be a dream that haunts the progressive imagination. Imagine a secularist project in Europe: Every medieval cathedral and much of the art in all the great museums reminds of Christianity, so let’s raze the cathedrals and remove all religiously inspired art from the museums (at least cathedrals and museums supported by the taxpayers). And in America: Every military cemetery, here or abroad, has a huge number of religious symbols on every tombstone—many crosses, here and there a Star of David—and there can be absolutely no doubt that these are on government ground. In the secularist book, these are clearly violations of the First Amendment. Remove them all, beginning with Arlington National Cemetery. And then there all these favorable references to religion in history textbooks used in public schools—surely an advocacy of religion. Edit them: The Pilgrims should be described as political refugees, Martin Luther King as a community organizer, and so on.
As I write this, we are on the eve of the Christmas season (the ADL guide would surely prefer just plain “holiday season”). There is the usual orgy of shopping, the favored season for shopkeepers to be merry. Christmas carols blare through the PA systems, jolly Santa Clauses (fully evolved from their saintly ancestor, St. Nicholas) listen to the wishes of small children perched on their knees, everyone smiles with good will. This synthesis of religion and secularity is regularly criticized from opposite sides. The secularists don’t like the religious part. They can’t do much about the shopping malls, but they can surely agitate and litigate against any trace of Christianity in the holiday season insofar as it is acknowledged on government property—maybe crèches can be allowed, but without baby Jesus or any other New Testament characters. If any values are to be celebrated, they are family ties, the happiness of children and general good will. And on the other side are those who want to “bring Christ back into Christmas”, doing away with all the supposedly fake jolliness and commercial exploitation, instead restore the original religious character of this holy-day. I think that both criticisms are misguided. There is nothing fake about the secular cheer of the season, nor about the expressions of general amiability – and there is nothing wrong about the fact that some people are making money out of it. Those who want to focus on the birth of Christ the savior, are free to do so. Let me admit it: I do celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas. I also like the secular cheer that is also celebrated. I even like the commercialism—it is a source of happiness for many people, especially children.