March 11, 2011

Re: The Direction of Imposition

Justin Katz

I've been at a loss as to how to respond to the comments to my post this morning about the Cranston school prayer banner, because those who advocate for the removal of the banner are so extreme in their beliefs (even those who are typically reasonable and moderate in their approach) that they appear to lack any sense of proportion or capacity for compromise on this issue. Fortunately, Mangeek has phrased the position in a way that facilitates my response:

I'm an atheist dues-paying member of a conservative Christian church (figure that one out).

It would be one thing if there was a prayer/religious group in the school that met weekly and put something like this up in their 'wall space', but it's not. When a school itself puts a banner up that starts with 'Heavenly Father', it's an overt endorsement of religion, and it gives people like me the willies.

I've also been omitting the (recent) McCarthyist addition of 'Under God' line from the pledge since I was twelve. When I was a scout leader, I made an effort to drop the 'God stuff' from our various daily oaths and sayings. I also allowed my scouts who weren't religious to stay back at the campsite during mandatory 'religious hours' at Yawgoog so we could engage in somber, silent reflection of the week's successes and failures.

Keep in mind, I'm in no way anti-religious, I'm anti-authoritarian, and putting 'heavenly father' banners up, adding 'God' to a pledge spoken at the opening of school, and mandating religious service attendance at camp all fall under the 'authoritarian' category for me.

You want religion in school? Fine, have it from students on the same terms that groups meet to discuss the environment or school governance, but keep it firmly separated from school administration.

By what conceivable measure is it possible to see the first of the following as more authoritarian than the second?

  • A local school committee, with the apparent backing of a majority of town residents, keeping in place a banner that has been with the school since the very beginning, even though it hails from a time when it was acceptable to urge prayer in public
  • A national advocacy organization (and certain commenters from Pawtucket, Providence, Arizona, and other places that are not the town in question) trying to use the expense of legal action as a means of bullying the district into taking the banner down on the grounds that a handful of residents do or might object to it

I'm especially confused about how Mangeek could choose the former as more authoritarian because he also believes it's authoritarian for a religiously founded private group (the Boy Scouts) to require prayers and attendance at some kind of religious service).

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I'm with mangeek on that one, and I think Phil was right to point out that you'd be singing a different tune if it were a prayer reflecting the views of a minority belief that were officially sanctioned by the local public school (consider what these folks would be saying if a teacher posted a satanic prayer in a classroom).

I say it's real easy to champion the rights of the majority but quite a different matter when it's the rights of "a handful of residents."

As for "sense of proportion." It's a decoration, Justin! Just take it down and put something else up. Heck, hold a contest and let the kids create a new tradition in its place.

Posted by: Russ at March 11, 2011 12:59 PM

The Constitution precludes the government from favoring one religion over another (i.e. no State religion can be established) but nothing precludes the government from endorsing religion, whether overtly or otherwise, or to protect anyone from religion. The Cranston banner prayer is non-denominational and in no way could be construed as preferential toward one monotheistic religion over another. Given the current financial situation, only 4 of the 7 school committee members had the courage to do what they felt was right rather than opting for the financially prudent alternative to take the banner down in response to the threat of costly litigation. They should be applauded.

Posted by: Jon at March 11, 2011 1:05 PM

"By what conceivable measure is it possible to see the first of the following as more authoritarian than the second?"

Times change. We're no longer near as much of a monoculture. I wouldn't want most of the stuff from the textbooks of the 1950s era to be found in a school today, either (except as reference to how things used to be). Just because something was non-offensive decades ago doesn't mean that it's fine today, just try teaching 1950s feminine hygiene curricula to students today; Lysol, anyone?

"also believes it's authoritarian for a religiously founded private group (the Boy Scouts) to require prayers and attendance at some kind of religious service"

It's a congressional charter that founded the scouts, if I recall correctly. Part of my job as a leader was to accommodate the beliefs of the minority scouts while not watering-down the institutional mission as a whole or the beliefs of the majority. My troop took other stands against the authoritarianism of the scouting organization, too. We were the first to pen a petition to allow gay scouts to join. I'm proud to say that we had many gay scouts over the years, and never had a problem with it. Several of them are deployed to the far ends of the world now, defending democracy in uniform.

Sure scouting is private, but our 'modifications' bent the rules while maintaining the full substance of the mission. National leadership is based in a different culture, southern evangelical conservatism; it doesn't jive out here. I'd rather bend the rules and have dozens of boys get the lifelong benefits of scouting than turn away people for not adhering to the social norms of faraway national leadership.

Letting a few 'physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight' atheist (or Quaker, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Muslim, or Buddhist) boys opt-out of a Christian or Jewish service so they can reflect on their week seemed like a good way to make use of mandated religious time.

Anyway... I intend to do similar stuff in the church, once I find the time. I'd like to use the church as a base for helping those in need, but I won't push a religious message myself. In return, the church will have my membership, money, and help. I'll have access to a community who cares, and they'll have me to put to use on non-religious stuff that matches-up with their mission.

Posted by: mangeek at March 11, 2011 1:09 PM

"heavenly father" is a 100% religious reference. Can't be argued.

religion + home = awesome
religion + church = awesome
religion + Warwick Mall = awesome religion + cars, trucks, screaming from rooftops = awesome
religion + banner wrapping the blue bug (it's still privately owned, right?) = awesome

It's not extreme to want some religion free zones:
religion + schools, gov't places, gov't supported books, etc = wrong.

By the way I can't stand even uttering the word.....D..e...mocrat!!!!

Posted by: Bob at March 11, 2011 1:14 PM

And I'm VERY open to compromise on this issue:

One side wants it up and has lawyered-up.
One side wants it down and has laywered-up.

I'll settle for two strips of tape over the first and last line. Fifteen cent fix.

Posted by: mangeek at March 11, 2011 1:14 PM

Jon - the Constitution also protects the non-religious. It's not just a free option between an arbitrary selection of monotheistic religions. Nondenominational is irrelevant when it's clearly favoring a religious viewpoint over nonreligious viewpoints.

Like I said in more detail in the other comments section, I don't particularly care about the banner because it doesn't really hurt me. When my government is literally robbing me blind through taxes, some stupid prayer is at the bottom of the priorities list. But that doesn't make it objectively okay. There is no legitimate historical or cultural purpose to it - not in 1963 and not in 2011. Being an atheist, I would definitely take the banner as a "screw you" aimed at people of my non-religious viewpoint. It doesn't make me appreciate our culture. When it's a government entity that's doing it, I admit that it is a little unsettling. If we get enough "banners" up everywhere, it implies that it might be okay for me to be denied other rights based on my religious choices or lack thereof.

Posted by: Dan at March 11, 2011 1:53 PM

Joe was right to point out that I am sh%t stirrer (Joe has a wonderful way with words) ,but my point about a majority not seeing any offense in public displays that mirror their private beliefs pushes up against those who do not share those beliefs. I choose in my life not to take offense at these displays, but I must admit that sometimes I do get weary of turning the other cheek. Why must I sit through a religious sermon while attending a public school's graduation? Why must I have to enter a Christian community center to vote? It may not seem like alot to the majority but the public space should be neutral. Those who wish to practice their private beliefs get to do so in tax exempt places. Isn't that enough?

Posted by: Phil at March 11, 2011 3:15 PM

"I've been at a loss as to how to respond to the comments to my post this morning..."

Sounds like someone misplaced their thesaurus!

Posted by: Russ at March 11, 2011 3:20 PM


It is extreme to insist, from wherever your town might be, that no community in the entire United States of America can continue to tolerate a non-denominational banner that has been a part of the school since the day it opened on the grounds that the First Amendment prevents Congress from establishing religion, that the Fourteenth Amendment (geared toward slavery) required certain federal rights to carry over into the states, and that local cities and towns are subentities of their respective states.

It is a declaration that your understanding of church and state, as well as the rights of self governance, must apply from sea to sea and be enforceable by the threat of litigation from a left-wing interest group.

Posted by: Justin Katz at March 11, 2011 7:19 PM

I think the militant atheists who raise all this ruckus are so extreme in their positions precisely because deep down they feel guilty and abandoned in their lack of a moral compass.

Those who are comfortable in their beliefs, whatever they are, do not feel threatened by expressions of other religious beliefs. (Note that the political triumphalism and violent militancy of Islam do not count as legitimate religious belief.)

Why do the same people who criticize opponents of homosexual "marriage" as intolerant and -phobic exhibit their own extreme paranoia about religion? Isn't that a direct contradiction? Isn't that the most base hypocrisy?

Posted by: BobN at March 11, 2011 8:56 PM

Whether intentionally or not, atheism has become a religion like any other. And in this case, ONE member of that religion in 50 years has her panties in a twist, so its going to cost the city tens of thousands of dollars.


Posted by: EMT at March 12, 2011 3:24 PM
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