Friday, June 14, 2013

Freedom From: The Failure of Majority Thinking

This morning, reading about Rick Perry's comments from yesterday regarding the Texas legislature's so called "Merry Christmas Bill" hit a nerve with me. To be specific, he said "Freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion." Let that sink in for a moment.

The argument at the heart of his comment is that the First Amendment guarantees the right to practice one's own religion, but not the right to not be infringed upon by the practices of others. Quick refresher time:

"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 the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Swell. Now let's look at how the courts have interpreted that. In 1947, you know, back in the "good old days" that so many people hearken back to as a time when the country allegedly had a more firm grip on it's relationship with Jesus, in Everson v. Board of Education, Justice Black expounded on the Establishment clause of said Amendment, explaining "Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion to another ... in the words of Jefferson, the [First Amendment] clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and State' ... That wall must be kept high and impregnable." No, the Everson v. Board of Education was not the first instance* of the court's quoting Jefferson's "Separation between church and state" doctrine, but it is the germane instance, because it is the instance in which the court extends the First Amendment into state legal issues, and let's face it, Texas is a state.

It is also interesting to note that our fledgling nation also ratified the Treaty of Tripoli which clearly states "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." This is pertinent to arguments regarding the government's relation to establishments of religion because there is often the underlying argument that our nation was founded on the basis of religion, but apparently, in 1797, some eight years after the United States Constitution went into effect and only six years after the Bill of Rights was amended to said Constitution, the same founding father's ratified a treaty further establishing that ours was in fact not a nation founded on religious principles.

So, let's think about what Rick Perry said. "Freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion." But how can you have one without the other? Many early settlers in the Americas came here because some group in power was telling them how they had to conform religiously. Every kid in grade school learns how "mean" it was to make people who believed something different than the local Powers that Be, and so the brave little pilgrims set out to find a new land where they wouldn't be forced to do and believe what they were being told to do. As much as they were seeking a freedom to do their own thing, they were seeking a chance to get away from being told to do something else.

"But they weren't trying to avoid schools saying Merry Christmas," you might argue, and you'd be right. They were seeking freedom from being told that they had to believe in points of doctrine like transubstantiation and good works vs. grace. We all know what really happened though. Once here they started telling everyone that they had to believe the same things as all the other members of their villages. I'd like to think the initial drive for individualism was the only thing we, as a nation, inherited from those settlers,** but it appears the longest lasting impact is the drive to assimilate others.

That's what's Rick Perry's comments really mean. They mean "Because I am a member of the privileged majority, I have the right to impose my majority's beliefs on others because I have the power to make my ideas pervasive and silence dissenters." Consequently, the freedom FROM religion is as imperative as the perceived freedom to choose one's own religion. We seem to have come full circle, where state legislatures try to pass laws making it okay to tell kids, from the earliest ages and at the taxpayer's expense, that Christmas and thereby Jesus, and thereby Christianity should be part of his or her life. If you're a Christian, on the surface, it seems like that shouldn't be a big deal. Now let's change the players. Let's say instead a school wanted to start honoring Samhain, or display a large pentacle on the school grounds? Maybe there should be a Menorah in the hallway and the children could be greeted at morning announcements with the Muslim call to prayer.  Zarathustra could maybe use a poster in the hallway.  That would all be kind of awesome, don't you think? I do, in a private school in which parents have chosen to have their kids exposed to the religions of the world (which is also a great elective course in most colleges and universities, I highly recommend taking it).

That said, a lot of people would be upset if their kids were being inundated with non-historical but rather cultural actions indoctrinating them into a religion which was not their own. That sort of promotion by a government entity borrows the ethos of said entity and applies it to what is being taught and modeled. In effect, the "Merry Christmas Bill" means that the state of Texas wants to endorse religious statements, and it must be considered patently wrong to do so.

This isn't just about Atheists who don't want their child coming home from the school their property taxes support with some newfound cultural pressure to convert, but also about members of every religion who shouldn't be pressured into the religions which their teachers decided were the best to espouse. Minority religions and sects within major religions look to the First Amendment (and Fourteenth Amendment, which extends the Bill of Rights to the states) to protect their right not to have the majority's beliefs thrust on them just as much as the dreaded Atheists look to have their right to not cede fealty to anyone's deity.

Freedom from religion is an intrinsic component to freedom or religion, because freedom from precludes the coercive effect when a majority decides to use it's privilege to alienate the minority.

This is the land of the free, and Governor Perry has apparently forgotten that.

*The Supreme Court first used the phrase in 1878
** Interlopers really. There were already people here, you know, the ones converted at bayonet point.

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