Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Michael Medved: No Atheist President

Michael Medved wrote an article recently in in which he declared that Americans are right to resist an atheist as President. It has brought a lot of attention to this blog, particularly from people who think that my post, “More Perspective on the Pledge” (and the book that came out of it, "A Perspective on the Pledge") provides an effective counter to Medved's claim.

Medved used as a part of his argument that America is right to reject an atheist President because the Pledge of Allegiance contains the word "under God".

Then there's the significant matter of the Pledge of Allegiance. Would President Atheist pronounce the controversial words "under God"? If he did, he’d stand accused (rightly) of rank hypocrisy. And if he didn't, he'd pointedly excuse himself from a daily ritual that overwhelming majorities of his fellow citizens consider meaningful.

In other words, he is arguing that the Pledge of Allegiance, as written, is a de facto religious test for public office in that only a person who can sincerely say the Pledge of Allegiance as written is fit to be President. Or, to put it another way, the purpose that 'under God' serves in the Pledge of Allegiance is to help keep atheists out of public office.

The story, More Perspective on the Pledge, aimed to show the bigotry in the Pledge of Allegiance by examining the effect of a similar pledge – a pledge to “one white nation” in a country called 'Ameryca' – on the life of a black high school student named Shawn Henry. Shawn argues in the book that the word 'white' was added to the Pledge of Allegiance primarily as a way of putting black candidates at a political disadvantage and, thus, to make sure that government power remains in the hands of white Amerycans - the same way that 'under God' was inserted to keep political power out of the hands of atheists and in the hands of religious Amerycans. This is one of several arguments that Shawn uses in the course of the book to reject the Pledge.

Using the arguments in that book, it would be a simple matter to create a parody of Medved's argument by introducing a character into the book that argues why Ameryca is right to resist a black President.

This Amerycan version of Medved would start off with arguments that Ameryca is right to resist a black President because of "Hollowness and Hypocrisy at State Occasions." I would only need to introduce a number of popular rituals, such as a Pledge of Allegiance to 'one white nation', designed by white Amerycans declaring the great value to be found in being a white Amerycan.

Then, my Amerycan Medved could sensibly write:

[B]ut truly overwhelming majorities cherish such traditions. The notion of dropping or altering all references to the superiority of the white race on public occasions to avoid discomfort for a single individual amounts to a formula for a disastrously unpopular presidency.

Well, yes, we may assume that a black Presidency in such a heavily racist society would be 'unpopular'. Yet, we must remember that Medved is attempting to argue that it is right for Ameryca to resist a black President. The fact that a black President would not be a popular leader is hardly an argument for saying that keeping blacks out of public office is the right thing to do. It may well be the case that the right thing to do would be to start fighting the prejudice (including the state rituals that maintain the prejudice) that keep blacks out of public office.

The Amerycan version of Medved would continue his argument by claiming that a black President would simply not be able to relate to Ameryca's white citizens. He would write about how it must be the case that, if the President were black, white Amerycans would only be able to take this as a put-down – as, itself, a denigrating statement – about white Amerycans.

To break the analogy for a moment, Medved argues that we could have a Jewish President, but not an atheist President. For some reason, "A leader who touts his non-belief will, even with the best of intentions, give the impression that he looks down on the people who elected him."

But, then, isn't the Jewish religion a form of non-belief? Isn't it an expression of a non-belief in the divinity of Jesus? If so, then why is it not the case that touting this non-belief (in the divinity of Jesus) will ‘give the impression that he looks down on the people who elected him'?

The difference is that Medved is using the existence of a prejudice to justify prejudice. "Because we are anti-atheist bigots, we have a moral right to resist an atheist President. The reason we do not have the same right to resist a Jewish President is because we are not anti-Jewish bigots." Medved blinds himself to the fact that, by his own argument, if Americans saw the denial of the divinity of Jesus as a sign that the Jew 'looks down on' the Christian, then Americans would also be right to resist a Jewish President.

Now, back to the analogy. The Amerycan version of Medved would then close his argument by noting that Ameryca is surrounded by countries that have an even stronger dislike for blacks than Ameryca. The reason Ameryca should not elect a black President, according to this argument, is that a black President would be unable to negotiate with those countries where – well, to be honest, they simply do not tolerate blacks in those countries.

Being surrounded by such a prejudice would in fact, be an important practical consideration. It has practical value in the same way that if our United States were surrounded by cultures that refused to deal with women as political equals, then we would have reason to resist having a female President.

However, there is a distinction here between a practical consideration and a moral consideration. Immoral people, when they put a gun to our head or threaten to harm the people we care about (or even strangers we don’t know but who do not deserve to be harmed) can sometimes force us to do things that are otherwise wrong.

Bigoted foreign powers might force us to reject an otherwise well qualified President. However, this would be an example of performing an immoral act while under an external threat that has power over us. It would not be an example of performing a moral act. It would be an argument for getting out from under that external threat – to weaken it, so that it no longer has the ability to threaten those whom we love in order to get us to do things that are wrong.


There are three main points that are relevant to this posting.

(1) Michael Medved is a hate-mongerng bigot, as are any readers who read through his trash and nod in agreement.

And the world is a worse place because of him. People are worse off than they would have otherwise been if Medved had decided to be a fair and just individual, rather than a hate-mongering bigot.

A fair and just person would begin with the assumption that there should be no discrimination against an atheist candidate. He would look with suspicion on any argument that claims otherwise as a sign that the person making it is embracing the argument to rationalize his own bigotry. He would be forced into the conclusion – recognize the need to yield to discriminatory practices – only when the weight of the arguments forced him into it.

Medved was so eager to embrace arguments of such stunning weakness, that we may conclude that he did not approach this issue the way a fair and just person would have done so. He approached it with the mind of a bigot, looking for any excuse that would give his bigotry even an illusion of legitimacy. He was not driven to his conclusions by the weight of the evidence. Rather, his fondness for the conclusion drove him to accept evidence that a fair and just person would have recognized as seriously flawed rationalizations.

(2) Medved has a very low opinion of what Christians are morally capable of doing.

Medved’s argument depends on a description of a Christian as somebody who cannot accept the idea of an atheist as a political equal. On Medved's account of what a 'Christian' is, it would be impossible for a Christian to have an atheist as a friend or a peer (a co-worker or a team member), or to love an atheist child or sibling or parent. Medved's 'Christian' must view the mere existence of an atheist as an insult to his religious beliefs. (But not, for some reason, the Jew.)

Contrary to Medved’s view of Christians, I suggest that there are a lot of Christians who are on friendly terms with atheists and able to give atheists the same respect they give Jews and Muslims. Every one of these instances belies Medved’s description of a Christian as somebody who must necessarily find atheism unacceptable.

In fact, Medved's account goes beyond claiming that Christians are incapable of seeing atheists as political ppers. He says that it is 'right' to resist an atheist President. This suggests that, if one has to choose between being a Christian who accepts atheists as fellow citizens and being a Christian who cannot do so, the 'right' option is to choose to be the intolerant Christian. By which we can infer that, according to Medved, it would be 'wrong' to choose to be the tolerant Christian.

(3) 'Under God' and 'In God We Trust' are de facto religious tests for public office. Their purpose is to put atheists at a political disadvantage – to make it harder for voters to support atheist candidates. And they are very effective in that regard. "If you can't say the Pledge of Allegiance at your own political rallies, then you cannot get my vote."

Now, it is widely known that while the Constitution prohibits a religious test for public office, it is not illegal for citizens to use a religious test. However, 'Under God' and 'In God We Trust' are both government-supported religious tests for public office. Their practical (and intended) effect is to put such a heavy disadvantage on any candidate who does not support ‘one nation under God’ or who does not 'trust in God' that their practical effect is to disqualify those candidates from public office.

Between now and the end of June, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will render a decision on 'under God' and 'In God We Trust'. When that happens, remaining silent on whether these practices should continue implies giving consent to a principal that no atheist is fit to hold public office – that to be a qualified public servant one must support 'one nation under God' and be a member of the group 'we' mentioned in 'In God We Trust'.

I wrote the story, "More Perspective on the Pledge", to highlight the bigotry inherent in these practices, and I wrote the book, "A Perspective on the Pledge", to gather the arguments surrounding this issue in one convenient location.

I think it would be a good idea to give the matter some attention, and to be ready with a course of action when the 9th Circuit Court of Opinion’s decision hits the news. I think it would be a good idea to prepare to be very loud in one's protest that practices aiming to keep atheists out of public office are both immoral and unconstitutional. So that, some day, we can have a country that does not resist an atheist President.


CrypticLife said...

I would like to thank Michael Medved. Several people, on hearing the argument that "Under God" in the Pledge is a means to denigrate atheists, have denied the reality of the argument. They claim instead it's intended to show "freedom of religion". Michael Medved capably shows this is untrue.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say this is a great post, and thank you for keeping up the good work. I often comment in here, but I don't think I express my gratitude very often. :)

Anonymous said...

Why don't YOU run for office, Alonzo?