Friday, February 24, 2006

Religion in the Public Square

Yesterday, I used events in Iraq to illustrate the importance of three fundamental principles of justice:

(1) Punish the guilty; let the innocent go free.

(2) Presume innocence unless guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

(3) Prove guilt by presenting evidence to an impartial judge and/or jury.

A society's widespread devotion to these principles -- not just a nodding agreement but a dedication to apply and abide by these principles -- provide a significant defense against civil war and other forms of civil violence.

I also hinted at a fourth principle that I now want to make much more explicit and cover in more detail.

(4) Disqualify anybody who cannot be impartial between different legitimate groups in a dispute, and allow no displays in the courtroom or the public square that suggests that the government favors any ligitimate side in a dispute over any other.

Let us pop back into the imaginary Iraq I created in my last article. We have introduced the three principles of justice. Let us assume that under these principles, the Iraqi government has arrested some people who are thought to be responsible for some of the violence in recent days. Some of the people arrested are Sunni Muslims, while others are Shiite.

We bring a Shiite prisoner into the courtroom, along with the relatives of the Sunni victims of his alleged crimes. Imagine that the prisoner and victims alike find that they have entered a room filled with the religious trappings of the Shiite sect. The Shiites, being in the majority, have picked only Shiites to be judges. Furthermore, they have only selected Shiites who have a proven history of favoring Shiites in their decisions. In this courtroom, a Shiite prisoner now stands accused of a crime with Sunni victims.

What kind of justice can the Sunni victims expect in this type of court? What type of justice could a Sunni accused of harming Shiites expect to find in this kind of court? Is it at all reasonable for the Sunnis to expect such a court to serve as a fair and impartial arbitrator of disputes between Shiites and Sunnis?

If you cannot see the basic unfairness in this of system, perhaps a sports analogy can bring them to light.

Imagine that you are a member of a sports team. You show up the game and you discover that all of the referees and judges are wearing your opponent’s colors. They make no attempt to hide the fact that they are on the opposing team and, in fact, have placed bets that the opposing team will win. They have gotten their position precisely because the leaders of the opposing team selected them. In selecting them, they made it obvious that they were looking for judges and referees who will unflinchingly favor their team in all disputes that may arise. Would you expect this to be a fair game?

This sports analogy is useful because it shows that we know what it is obvious what types of judges and referees we need if we are to have a fair game. We need judges and referees who do not have a personal stake in one side winning over the other. If a judge or referee shows up wearing symbols indicating that he belongs to one of the teams we instantly know that he is not somebody that we would want to have refereeing the game insofar as we are interested in having a fair contest.

These symbols and signs are just an outward expression of a basic and fundamental failure to comprehend fairness and justice. We could tell this judge to remove the symbols indicating his support for his team. However, we would have done nothing to promote fairness and justice. Having the judge remove the symbols displaying his prejudice does not is not the same as removing the prejudice itself.

Fairness and justice requires judges who do not merely appear impartial, but who are impartial in fact. It requires a mindset that says that the judge or jury does not care which team wins, or (by analogy) has no particular preference with whether the Shiite triumphs over the Sunni. Just as the referee’s primary interest should be in promoting a fair game, the judge should be interested in promoting a fair trial concerned only with whether the accused is guilty and cares nothing about religious membership.

The fact that the judge or jury does not allow symbols that show his support for one side over the other does not prove that he is impartial. However, the presence of those symbols proves that he is not impartial. If he insists that he has a right to wear those symbols, then he insists that he does not comprehend even the most basic fundamentals of the principles of fairness and justice. By this act he proves that he is not qualitied to be a referee or judge.

In this country, there are people who claim that they have a right to select the referees in disputes between their sects and other legitimate members of the American community. Rather than selecting judges by their impartiality, they insist that judges be selected that conspicuously endorse their team. They insist that those judges be permitted to wear their team's symbols and colors while arbitrating those disputes. When others protest and insist that such people are not qualified to be judges, these people complain that the rest of society is engaging in a “war against” their team.

Their claims are as false and malicious as those of any Shiite Muslim who claims that insisting that the judges who hear disputes between Shiite and Sunni citizens not wear the symbols that suggest that they favor the Shiites over Sunnis in any dispute they may hear. Insisting that no such symbols be shown is the same as insisting that judges be fair and impartial. The public square decorated in the symbols and trappings of one of these sects can no more be trusted to be fair and impartial than the referee who wears the colors of one of the teams in a sporting event.

On March 27th and 28th, there will be a conference in Washington DC called "The War on Christians and the Values Voter," that follows this pattern. It will be a gathering of people who have abandoned the fundamental principles of fairness and justice. They are people who demand that judges and referees be selected from their team, that those judges not only be allowed to wear their team colors and symbols, but that those who do not wear their team's symbols are not qualified to be judges.

These are people who prove by their words that they do not have any comprehension of what it means to be fair and to promote justice.

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