Monday, December 29, 2008

Limits on a Politician's Religious Expression

This morning I complained about a lawsuit aimed at eliminating many religious elements imported into President Obama's inauguration (and all Presidential inaugurations for that matter). I complained that this lawsuit violates a moral prohibition against using violence (including state violence) to control what other people say.

I am – as many readers know – emphatically in favor of legal action taken to remove "under God" from the Pledge and to remove "In God We Trust" as a national motto. So the question comes up: What is the difference between these cases?

On the other side of the equation I want to address the question, "Should we prohibit political leaders from ever attending church or some other religious service while they are in office? Should we interpret the act of attending church to be an endorsement of religion that violates the First Amendment of the Constitution? After all, if the politician attends a Catholic Mass (as a Catholic), is he not communicating that this is the correct religion and all other religious beliefs are incorrect?

So, what is the moral line to be drawn between legitimate and illegitimate expressions on the part of Government?

The first thing that I want to point out is that my objection to "under God" in the Pledge and "In God We Trust" as the national motto does not hinge on any specifically religious objections. Rather, the Pledge, as written, says, "A person who does not support a nation under God is hereby to be regarded the same as a person who supports rebellion, tyranny, and injustice for all."

The National Motto, as written, says, "A person who does not trust in God is not to be thought of as one of us."

These are examples of blatantly bigoted hate speech whose function and purpose is to promote hostility towards atheists and, in particular, to provide a social barrier that keeps atheists out of public office. Change the text so that the Pledge identifies blacks as being rebellious, tyrannical, Yet, it would not be based on any type of religious objection. It is based on the objection that the government is wrong to brand any of its citizens using such derogatory language.

However, if we interpret going to church to be an act that insults atheists by publicly denigrating their beliefs, then we are going to have to interpret the act of not going to church as denigrating the beliefs of those who go to church. We are going to have to accept the objection that not mentioning God when talking about biology denigrates the beliefs of those who accept creationism.

Those attitudes put us in a no-win situation, where somebody gets the right to declare themselves the victims of an unjust slight no matter what the politician does.

A politician's right to freedom of speech and right to freedom of religion should be understood the right to speak freely about his religious beliefs, just as he speaks freely about his beliefs regarding God. And that we get to praise or criticize him based (in part) of those beliefs.


Burt Likko said...

You and I are thinking of pretty much the same issue tonight, Alonzo. Agreed that Obama can and should be allowed to have prayers as part of his inauguration if he wishes to -- the man is a Christian, after all, and made no secret of that during his campaign. It's his party, his Presidency, and he gets to call shots like that. There's every indication he'll not be going to church much while in office, and I think that's for the best whether he's a believer or not.

With that said, I'm trying an idea on for size here -- a politician ought to pledge to not exploit anyone's religious beliefs (including their own) for political advantage. Just as a politician ought to not exploit other personal sorts of things -- marital status, race, whether they've had kids or not -- religion ought to be seen as a dishonorable way to gain political support. So a politician doing what Obama is planning to do will be within his rights, but demonstrating that the way in which he is exercising those rights is questionable.

I'd welcome your input and that of your readers.

Zerotarian said...

Alonzo, I'm getting rather frustrated that in yesterday's comment thread and in today's post, you haven't been criticizing the actual content of the lawsuit, but an entirely separate issue that you seem to have erroneously read into it.

The full text of the lawsuit is linked from Friendly Atheist's post that you linked to yesterday. Can you point to where it says anything about preventing Obama or any other politician from privately attending a religious service?

The actual complaints are twofold: First, that Chief Justice Roberts (not Obama) is amending the Presidential oath to include the phrase "so help me God". Second, that Obama and the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies have included an invocation and benediction ceremonies of a religious nature as part of the official government swearing-in ceremony -- emphatically not a private religious service.

To try to get back to the original topic, do you think it's permissible to take legal action through the courts on either or both of these issues? On the second one, do you agree or disagree that the inauguration is an official government ceremony? (As I understand it, if you want to witness in person the Constitutionally prescribed swearing-in, you pretty much have sit through the invocation and benediction before and after it also.)

Burt Likko said...

Zerotarian, don't you think that if Obama asked Roberts to not add in the SHMG, Roberts would oblige him? Including the SHMG may be a "default," but the inauguration is the new President's party, so Obama, not Roberts, gets to call all the shots about how the ceremony is to be performed. I understand that Newdow's lawsuit is aimed at Roberts but the real target is Obama.