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May 13, 2005

Holy Skirmishes

Kevin writes:

Matt Yglesias wonders if liberals spend too much of their energy fighting meaningless fights against religious symbolism...I think he's right, and I say that from the perspective of someone who's such a stone atheist that I'm pretty sure it's not philosophically possible to be more atheist than me. Still, there are fights and there are fights, and some are more worth fighting than others.

Evolution? Worth fighting over, even if it costs us. Prayer in public classrooms? I'm agin it, but let's face facts: we won 98% of this battle long ago. The last 2% probably isn't worth too much bloodshed. Creche scenes in front of city hall? Lighten up.

That's right, and I hear it a lot. The problem is that liberals, broadly defined, aren't the folks fighting these battles. Democratic legislators aren't scouring the nation's public lawns for nativity scenes. In fact, most of us just don't care. It's a small set of liberally-affiliated organizations waging these battles. The ACLU, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and a handful of others are bringing the court cases, while the whole Democratic party is getting blamed for the sentiment.

Worse, I'm not quite sure how you fix it. There's no way to reign in the ACLU, nor should there be. Independent organizations can do what they want. Neither is there some technologically advanced muzzle we can slap on O'Reilly's jaw and engage whenever he's disingenuously equating us with some small advocacy group we disagree with. So what do you do? Sister Souljah the ACLU? I'd rather not, all things considered. Whine loudly to O'Reilly's producer? Don't waste my time.

I'm really not sure, in the end. I guess some counter-demagoguery where we do a better job of tarring mainstream Republicans with the opinions of the Friends of the Confederacy might work, at least to prove how ridiculous it all is, but maybe not. In any case, Kevin's right on the merits, but we're really not fighting these battles. It's a few independent groups repeatedly riding off to war and the Democratic party getting blamed for it. What's needed isn't a discussion of whether we should be fighting over creche scenes, but how we stop being grouped in with those who are.

May 13, 2005 | Permalink


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» Good-Faith Compromise from The Debate Link
Kevin Drum links not once, but twice, to posts dealing with religion in the public square. The latest is a Los Angeles Times editorial by Amy Sullivan criticizing the Republican party for trying to monopolize faith. Sullivan, a Baptist herself, ha... [Read More]

Tracked on May 13, 2005 8:36:21 PM

» The First Amendment MUST be preserved from SocraticGadfly
Because I'm an atheist who notes that American religious beliefs have evolved in the last 200 years, I'm a demogogue for wanting 1st Amdt interpretations to evolve with that? Would you tell that to a gay rights supporter? [Read More]

Tracked on May 14, 2005 5:02:31 PM


It isn't using the issue affirmatively, but defensively: make everyone think that that's what the other side obsesses about.

Like it or not, this, as you refer it, "counter-demagoguery" does work. Make the GOP explain whether they agree with Dobson's condemnation of the Cartoon Outrage Du Jour, etc...

They've been doing the same thing to us for years and their combination of overconfidence (sorry, guys, 52% aren't comfortable with religious politics) and ambition (Frist and others are courting the religious right for 08') works in our favor.

Posted by: Chris Rasmussen | May 13, 2005 3:15:09 PM

It would also help a lot if the Supreme Court could work out a coherent theory of the First Amendment that accommodated "ceremonial deism" in a more sensible way than the current approach, which seems to be that a creche is bad unless you combine it with Frosty the Snowman, a menorah, and some Kwanzaa candles. Unfortunately, if such a theory were easy to work out, they'd have done it by now.

Posted by: DaveL | May 13, 2005 3:30:08 PM

You and Kevin are both spectacularly wrong on this Ezra. In fact, I'm amazed you even considered writing what you did.

The First Amendment doesn't say "Congress shall not make many laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free excercise thereof." It says "Congress shall make no law..." None. Nada. Zip. The civil right that's just a little bit infringed is like the woman who's just a little bit pregnant, or the guy that's just a little bit dead.

Look around you. Do you seriously think that if we just "gave in" on, say crèches on public property, or "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, the fundagelical wingnuts would stop there? Because I sure as hell don't. The most vehement of them won't be happy until we bring back public stoning for adultery and other crimes. That's not my idea of a legal system--or a country in which I want to live and support with my tax dollars.

Lastly, when you're talking about holding someone back from doing something, the expression is "rein in," not "reign in," which is what a queen does in her country.

Posted by: Michael | May 13, 2005 3:38:05 PM

So what do you do? Sister Souljah the ACLU?

No, do the opposite. Keep the Democratic Party separate from the ACLU, yes, but somehow make sure the ACLU criticizes Democrats as well as Republicans for not being sympathetic enough to their aims. That way the ACLU is on one extreme, public-opinion-wise (while still being as effective in the courts as it always has), while the Democrats look more reasonable.

Note that the Republicans have somehow worked it that at the same time as extremist theocrats are unanimously voting for Republicans, those same theocrats are constantly criticizing the Republicans for not enforcing the Biblical laws against homosexuals, adultery and the minimum wage. Because right-wing activists are obsessed with changing policy in ways that will help nobody and hurt lots of people, they can afford to take risks by temporarily alienating their allies in order to solidify their position. Because failing to enact their agenda does not cause them or anyone else any damage - the rich can survive without becoming richer immediately, and people who are going to hell because of the lack of theocracy have themselves to blame anyway - they don't mind waiting years and years until the perfect opportunity presents itself.

Us left-wingers, because we actually want to get the government to help people, are more inclined to strike bargains, latch onto people who share some but not all of our goals, and avoid cutting off our nose to spite our face. This becomes a handicap in ages like the present one, when the cowboy-worshiping press and political establishment views it as weakness instead of common sense and sanity.

Oh well.

Posted by: Cryptic Ned | May 13, 2005 3:39:00 PM

Ned is right. We need to
a) stop being ashamed of people that are part of our party, and,
b) start tarring the GOP with all the most disgusting elements of their party

Posted by: jkd | May 13, 2005 3:56:29 PM

What's needed isn't a discussion of whether we should be fighting over creche scenes, but how we stop being grouped in with those who are.

There is only one way....and that is to denounce these groups. Until that happens, your silence will make you a party to them. The same thing happens to the Muslims who get lumped in with the militant jihadist extremists. Their silence also condems them in the public's mind.

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | May 13, 2005 4:18:10 PM

"The same thing happens to the Muslims who get lumped in with the militant jihadist extremists. Their silence also condems them in the public's mind."

Thank you, Robert, for providing the most inane comparison of this week. Well, at least you didn't compare anyone to a Nazi.

Posted by: Chris Rasmussen | May 13, 2005 4:32:23 PM

Do you think Republicans are ashamed of the NRA's zero-tolerance policy for ANY infringement on gun rights?

The NRA did not settle for 99.999%, and they have done so well that association with their brand is now coveted by the GOP. In other words, an NRA endorsement now pays non-cash dividends.

This isn't 1988, when Bush pére tried to make the ACLU membership of Dukakis into an albatross. In the new wave of assaults on the Bill of Rights, Dems will do well to be proud, card-carrying members of the ACLU.

Posted by: Mimir | May 13, 2005 4:33:47 PM

Fuck em. Falwell Robertson & Co mount an ever increasing campaign against pluralism and tolerance and the seperation of church and state. This is not the time to back down. We'll only 'have won this battle' so long as we keep fighting it.

Afterall we won the battle on Social Security a long time ago. We won the battle on taxes a long time ago. We won the battle on church and state a long time ago. Eh?

"Under God" is just a symbol to be put in the pledge to signify our opposition to the godless commies. It certainly won't cause any confusion, now will it?

Posted by: Sandals | May 13, 2005 4:46:00 PM

Dems will do well to be proud, card-carrying members of the ACLU.

Listen up... Ezra asked the question of how not to be blamed for what the ACLU did, and I answered him.

What you are saying is that you shouldn't want to distance yourself from the ACLU. That's great, but it's a different premise.

Well, at least you didn't compare anyone to a Nazi.

Yeah, I was grateful to you for that as well, Chris.

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | May 13, 2005 4:52:02 PM

"Do you seriously think that if we just "gave in" on, say crèches on public property, or "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, the fundagelical wingnuts would stop there? Because I sure as hell don't."


The point here is that the majority of Americans support having nativity scenes and saying "under God," but the majority also oppose the things fundamentalists would try to push if they got those minor concessions. So if we just say, fuck it, we'll keep these innocuous things, we'll get the support of the religious moderates and undermine the fundementalists. Also, I mean, come on, the people who wrote the Constitution were into this kind of stuff. God is all over the Dec. of Independence. The phrasing of the establishment clause doesn't particularly strike me as an edict that the US must remain completely secular. I don't particularly care what the framers thought about church and state, and if we can finagle the Constiution to our benefit thats fine, but if we're having a realistic, non-political discussion about it, I think you're misreading it. And I don't think having a nativity scene outside of Town Hall in some small town amounts to the federal government establishing a religion.

Posted by: B. Schac | May 13, 2005 4:55:18 PM

Listen up... Ezra asked the question of how not to be blamed for what the ACLU did, and I answered him.

What you are saying is that you shouldn't want to distance yourself from the ACLU. That's great, but it's a different premise.

You're correct. Ezra's Vichy Dem premise is wrong.

Posted by: Mimir | May 13, 2005 5:04:56 PM

I like the ceremonial deism concept. I could give two shits what it says on the dollar.

Posted by: praktike | May 13, 2005 5:30:41 PM

Well, since someone else has already used the "N" word above, here is an imagined version of Ezra's and Kevin's approach to the burgeoning Nazi regime. "Gee, they are only taking away a few of the more obstreperous Jews and flamboyant homosexuals. Why put our necks on the chopping block for them? Do we really want to be associated with their shenanigans? Let's just fight the battles we can win, and for which we have broad public support. We'll disavow our friends if they keep espousing unpopular ideas."

Posted by: zeke | May 13, 2005 5:38:35 PM

No, he's exactly right. We're not talking about giving a lot of ground here.

I happen to labor under the handicap of being a Doesn't Give a Shit about Football-American. There are times when this causes me to be left out of important public rituals. I survive. And the state of play in American culture today is such that in much of the country, being non-Christian in the midst of various bits of mildly Christian stuff is no worse than not giving a shit about football. And in those parts of the country where being non-Christian is an actual handicap, litigating against every little effort to sneak the church into the public arena (a) doesn't work, and (b) just further enflames their sense of persecution. Evolution in schools is important. The Christmas program isn't.

Posted by: DaveL | May 13, 2005 5:40:32 PM

I'm with Michael and Zeke on this one. Whether they want to publicly admit it or not (and I think they should publicly admit it), the Democrats should be grateful for the ACLU and other advocacy groups fighting these battles for us out on the frontiers. If we give in on these battles where they are now being fought we will end up having to fight and, due to the precedents that will have been set, and lose battle that materially affect more people. The people who are out there fighting for public creches (would the world be spiritually poorer if at Christmas time we only had to deal with the millions of creches on church and other private property?) and tablets in the court house want nothing less than the absolute right to indoctrinate the rest of us on public property with tax dollars.

Posted by: mrgumby2u | May 13, 2005 6:30:23 PM

I'm not a "card carrying member of the ACLU" nor do I intend to be. I agree with Ezra about getting lumped, as a fairly progressive Democrat, in with organizations I don't entirely agree with, but that's what happens. The alternative would be being lumped in with the NRA and Operation Rescue, which have not been entirely win-win associations for the Republicans, and strike me as much worse as the ACLU.

Look, I'm not a big fighter against creches or the Ten Commandments (and I love the ironic humor of conservatives racing to defend plaques helpfully placed by Cecil B DeMille to market a film). I don't even feel strongly about the Pledge of Allegiance, partly because we were not terribly forced to say it when I was in school (ah, the seventies/early eighties when kids had a little power).

But Dalia Lithwick's observation of the Pledge hearing at the Supreme Court sort of hit it for me - nobody likes the fact that the guy who's opposing the pledge is basically right - "Under God" is establishing religion, and it's not hard to see that. Creches are pretty benign - except, of course, if you're not Christian. Ten Commandments? Swell, although, as others point out, what, maybe six, really apply in court?

Let's have arguments, and let's hash things out, and let's not be doctrinaire. That's for conservatives. Sometimes a "Happy Holidays" scene is benign and sometimes it's not. And sometimes the Commandments are a big deal and sometimes they're not. Let's be grown ups and allow for a variety of situational ethics, that are sometimes complicated and hard to sort out. If nothing else it would co-opt what is, ultimately a silly point the right makes - that there is a place for religion in public life. Of course there is. Now let's move on and stop trying to Christianize the public schools and the courts, where it's not appropriate.

Posted by: weboy | May 13, 2005 6:46:20 PM

I have to say that none of this discussion would be taking place if we were talking about Muslim symbols or Jewish ones. One Nation, under Allah would not fly. Majority religious politics is a bad way to go...we "are" a Christian nation, but then again, we are NOT, and I like it that way.

For what it's worth, Andrew Sullivan, while sometimes being articulate, is a real wanker because he fails to have what most liberals have, that is, a sense of personal outrage about things that don't affect him directly. Sure, he's on board with gay issues, but his other points of view and insensitivities are simply outrageous. Matt and Ezra are showing signs of this habit (and I know both are Jewish and I think, secular, I mean this in the "it's no big deal TO ME sense"). The point is, if you can't imagine the outrage of others, or the potential consequences, you are giving ground for no apparent reason (and the slippery slope argument is tiresome, but then again, I think Matt showed how early feminist victories have led to the fact that we actually debate same-sex marriage today). In short, giving an inch to the crazies who want the commandments and the creches in this political climate is insane.

If so many "moderates" think these issues are important, I suggest we focus on the fact they are moderates and not that they personally, in response to a poll, express an opinion that seems a bit off (and, if pressed, not worth fighting for in their own political calculus). People who spend time thinking about the Commandments and nativity scenes will turn their attention to much more nefarious purposes if we simply crater. Keep 'em occupied with the current issues and be proud of organizations like the ACLU that support freedom of expression from lefties and righties alike.

Posted by: abjectfunk | May 13, 2005 7:22:37 PM

One more thing, please feel free to tar me with the sentiment that it is better to have "no law" than it is a "law that allows all religions equal access."

It does not take much of a practical or theoretical imagination to understand why the former is preferable. This doesn't mean I'm going to waste time getting God (merely monotheistic) off my dollar, but I will waste my time trying to prevent religious symbols of particular religions (even multiple) in my courthouse, at my school, etc. Also, I don't like praying, and I don't want to ever feel like I'm supposed to be doing it, which is why I don't have a problem with folks who oppose the pledge of allegiance, although I personally take pride in saying it. My point is, I get where they are coming from, and yes, it is a big deal to them, but maybe not to me.

Posted by: abjectfunk | May 13, 2005 7:30:09 PM

I could see compromising with some moderates about religious symbology. However, it's not the moderates who are pushing "intelligent design" and 10 commandment tablets. It's like abortion. The true believers will keep chipping away until they get all their wishes. Besides, whether you agree with the ACLU or not, just when is it OK to start compromising the Bill of Rights. If you lose because of your priciples, it hurts, but you can try to persuade others to your point of view. If you compromise your principles and still lose, you have no where to go.

Posted by: marvtoler | May 13, 2005 7:33:42 PM

I'm a Christian who is deeply ofended when I see a creche in front of a government building. It is Caesar claiming what is God's, pure and simple. God is not the property of the US government, to be used as a prop for the December Foyer Display, and chunked into the dumpster on 12/26.

And I'm kind of confused why the Democratic Party would be ashamed to be associated with an organization dedicated to upholding the rights of the citizenry, ie the ACLU: is the Democratic Party saying it is opposed to the rights of citizens? Or that stuff like freedom of conscience* shouldn't be part of the Constituion? I didn't realize being in favor of simple human decency and respect for your neighbors were such un-Democratic values.

* I'm cool with atheists, so freedom of religion seems a little confining.

Posted by: Phalamir | May 13, 2005 7:42:51 PM

What if liberal Democrats started championing ACLU causes that supported free speech on religion and decried things they disagreed with?

I remember about six months ago reading about an ACLU case involving street preachers in Las Vegas, with the ACLU on the side of the "religious right" and the preachers. A little celebration of that would show Democrats support religion just as much as Republicans.

It's just an idea that struck me. The biggest problem would be a lack of cases that fit those parameters. But if liberals are going to be lumped with the ACLU anyway, you've got to find an advantage in it somewhere.

Posted by: Scott | May 13, 2005 8:31:57 PM

To be clear, no one, least of all a former-ACLU intern like me, is suggesting we disavow them. That's why I explicitly rejected them above. But you know what? The ACLU picks stupid, stupid fights sometimes and I'd much prefer the Democratic party didn't seem like an appendage.

As Scott suggested, you join with them when the cause is just and important and you stay behind when it's piddling and nitpicky. Frankly, I think the ACLU was wrong to try and rip the cross from the official Seal of Los Angeles, anchored as it is by the pagan goddess minerva. If you don't, fine, but let's not pretend that a few less suits like that would push us down the path to theocracy.

And by the way, Zeke? Flagrant violation of Godwin's law. Yellow flag.

Posted by: Ezra | May 13, 2005 10:04:58 PM

Look, we already HAVE compromises. We HAVE situational ethics. That is how the judiciary works. Sometimes these things are unconstitutional, sometimes they are not. Compromise, in this case, seems to mean that liberals should agree with the Christian Right and support the idea that it is NEVER unconstitutional for Christian religious symbols to be displayed on government property. We need to do a far better job showing the public that, in fact, these situtations are nuanced, and every public display of religion does not get declared unconstitutional. But I have to admit, I don't really understand what kind of compromise everyone here is imagining.

Posted by: Tim Sackton | May 13, 2005 10:05:24 PM

Did the ACLU win that suit to rip the cross from the seal of Los Angeles? I don't know enough about the case, but if they didn't win, then hey, the system works, right?

Posted by: Tim Sackton | May 13, 2005 10:11:18 PM

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