Monday, January 7, 2008

Joe's Response to Some Good Christmas Tolerance III

This is part of an ongoing discussion that I have been having. For the earlier parts see Some Good Christmas Tolerance, Joe’s Response I and Joe’s Response II.

You raise some good points. You are quite right in that we must be careful about our assumptions of other people's actions, it is not a bad thing to be reminded of that from time to time. The following is a bit long and delves into personal experiences I have witnessed, but it may help to understand how I came to have a different opinion of this matter than you. Not saying I'm right, I just have different experiences which have given me a different perspective, but it has been refreshing and thoughtful to consider my own views more deeply by reading your thoughts on the subject, so thanks for the discussion!

To address your point about failing to catch a person and the police's feelings: the particular incident that I was thinking of was a case in which two Wiccans opened a store in Russelville, AR for those that practiced "Pagan" beliefs. In that area, most Wiccans were very secretive about their faith because many in the town were vehemently opposed to them, having the misapprehension that Wiccans were Devil worshippers. Nevertheless, these two bold people refused to cowtail to local intolerance and opened a legally operated store. The police repeatedly tried to close them down due to trumped up drug charges (the claim was that they were selling drug paraphernalia, no illegal drugs were ever found). That failed in the courts. The police ignored several complaints by the store owners of people smashing their windows with bricks and making threats. The store was torched and the people who did it were amazingly quite open about the whole affair. Concerning the obvious criminal behavior, the police did nothing. The police were also quite open about their opinion that Pagans should not be allowed in their town. In this instance, it is difficult to ascribe the actions of the police as anything other than a willful disregard for the rights of the Wiccans based on the intolerant religious views of the police and surrounding population. Many Wiccans have seen similar acts of abuse and have reason to not trust the authorities. Thankfully, this attitude is not universal and there are many places Wiccans and others can live in the US without the constant fear of violent assaults.

Thus, I should say more correctly that while freedom of religion is a US legal right, it is not upheld in all parts of the country. It is also my opinion from reading numerous articles by others that there are many in the country who feel that we should only have freedom of religion for their beliefs, but not for those who disagree, which I think is a dangerous attitude.

I agree that the concept of freedom for all is certainly not the only way, nor even the historically most popular way to run a society. But I think we can agree that most people would accept the statement that they would rather be free than a slave. I would disagree with your definition of slavery. It is not just about having a legal power over someone else. Would not we all qualify as slaves under that definition? You are quite right in that objecting to slavery a moral judgment. I have no moral outrage to past societies. They were what they were and serves me no good to attempt to judge them for how they were set up. I agree it is unfair to judge past cultures for not having our modern views. But that is no reason to accept past behaviors as acceptable today. We cannot simply say that because slavery existed in the past that it is acceptable for slavery to exist today.

I think what makes the crucial difference between a hired worker and a slave is choice. A hired worker can always quit and find a new job elsewhere. A slave has no choice. They cannot simply leave if they want. It is my belief (mind you, only my opinion), that any society that tolerates slavery like this harms everyone because if they tolerate for one group of people, there is nothing that prevents the society from tolerating for any other group of people. All that needs happen to have a society expand its acceptance of slavery to other groups is for people to not complain about the injustices to others. People will continue to transgress against others until they are stopped.So, is the concept of freedom as good and slavery bad a moral judgment? Absolutely. But then, if given the choice, which would you prefer? As a free person, you have this choice, as a slave you do not.

So, how is the government hurting you by putting up a Christmas tree. Well, they are not, right now. But then, it doesn't sound like you have been the victim of religious discrimination. Would you have the same opinion if you had bricks thrown through your window for putting up a manora? I doubt it. Allowing the government to sponsor a specific religion gives an implicit acceptance for religious zealots to impose their beliefs on others. You should feel fortunate (which it seems apparent that you do) that you have not grown up in a place where people are forced to say a pledge to a god they did not belief or were punished for believing differently than the mainstream. I however, have known too many people in the US that were not so fortunate. I think they would disagree that they have not been hurt. Since we as a society are not of one faith, I think it is wrong for our government to favor one over the other.

I should say that, as a Christian, I have not been seriously harmed by religious intolerance. But I have had several friends that have. I have known people that took the fact that since God is mentioned on our money and is mentioned in our pledge of allegiance that the government openly supports Christianity as the "right" faith and so feel emboldened to commit acts against those of other faiths. I have actually had an acquaintance tell me that since the US is Christian and that all Muslims want to kill us, that we should exterminate all Muslims. She amazingly enough thought that was still in keeping with her Christian faith. I personally think that is an incredibly twisted anti-Christian belief, but that attitude is surprisingly more popular than I used to think, judging by the many times I have heard that recently. This is why I think that the government putting up a Christmas tree while not also doing similar acts for other religions is a dangerous thing.

What I would like to see is a government sponsored highly publicized event that welcomed people of all faiths to freely celebrate together. There are privately sponsored events, but thus far I have only seen Christian-dominated government events. I think we could get over some of these culture wars by having a government that openly said it was ok to belief whatever religion you like rather than a government that said you can technically believe whatever you want, but you should really be Christian, which is how our government seems to me. But then, I have often been told that I am an idealist. :)

I say better to have ideals to strive for than condone a broken reality. Accept what is, but don't let acceptance of reality stop efforts to change it.

My Response: At the end of the day we both agree that not all policemen follow the law. The police are taken from the general population and like the general population they are capable of committing crimes. I suspect we differ in that you assume that it happens more often than I would assume. The question becomes how does this relate to the issue of how far you want to go to keep the government out of religion? This is not a question of whether or not there should be a separation between church and state. This is about what that separation should be. To give you an example from Judaism. On Passover I do not eat unleavened bread (chametz). My step-mom's family also does not eat unleavened bread on Passover. On Passover I eat in the same dining room in which I have eaten unleavened bread during the year. My step-mom's family is so careful to avoid any unleavened bread that they do not eat in their regular dining room but instead eat in the basement. They would say that I lack due diligence in keeping Passover and I would say that they have left the practice of Judaism behind and have taken on insanity. (They happen to be really nice people though.)

Another thing you have to consider is where do you draw the line? Considering the nature of our political discourse, it is very tempting for groups to call wolf and say they are being persecuted anytime someone does something they do not like. I am a student of Medieval and Early Modern History. When I talk about the use of state power to promote religion what I have in mind are things like the Spanish Inquisition and the religion wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. I assume this is also what the founding fathers had in mind to avoid when they created the first amendment. Coming from this perspective it seems to me to bad joke to say that putting up a Christmas tree or a baby Jesus, on state property, is an act of persecution.

For an example of the government sponsoring a Jewish event see Micah Halpern’s recent column, Eating Latkes at the White House.

There actually was a recent incident in which the governor of Florida, who is a Christian, got in trouble with the ACLU for putting a mezuzah, a Jewish ritual object put on doorposts, given to him by a Jewish supporter on his office doorpost. The ACLU charged that he was in violation of the first amendment. (See here) Explain this one to me a Christian puts up a Jewish ritual object and is accused of trying to create an established religion.

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