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Friday, August 05, 2011

Responding to "the Response"

Tomorrow is the date set for "the Response."  It's an all-day affair of fasting and prayer -- specifically Christian prayer in more or less an evangelical mode -- meant as a "response" to the various crises, financial, natural, etc., that are said to plague the nation and that the Response's organizers pin in part on America's loss of a moral compass.  The only solution to these crises, its organizers say, lies in prayer.

Big deal.  These kinds of things happen every day, right?  What has made it more controversial is the extensive involvement of Texas governor Rick Perry, who has been the chief promoter of the Response (and who, perhaps not incidentally, has been loudly whispering about the possibility of running for president).  His actions promoting it include issuing an official gubernatorial proclamation on the subject, declaring August 6 as a day of prayer and fasting and urging people to attend the Response.  The proclamation urges "people of faith" to pray, but the event itself is fairly explicitly meant only for those who acknowledge Christ as the sole source of salvation.  The Freedom From Religion Foundation sought to enjoin Perry for using his office to promote the event, although it made clear he was welcome to attend it as a private citizen.  A district court rejected that argument, on the grounds that no one was being coerced to attend and that the proper remedy for the plaintiffs lay in the political process, not the courts.

I won't say much about the event right now, because I will, with any luck, have an op-ed on the subject coming out tomorrow.  But I do want to say one or two things by way of preview.  

The most important is that, although there are surely many problems with the idea that Americans are engaged in a culture war, to the extent that description is true I think we are better off actually fighting that war than trying to preempt it through litigation.  That's not to say I think anything goes; I do think there are things the state simply cannot say, although I think that public officials themselves have a much wider scope of freedom when it comes to engaging in openly religious speech.  But those absolutely forbidden actions aside, I think we diminish ourselves when we try to short-circuit the culture wars by invoking constitutional prohibitions.  That's not just because those gambits rarely succeed.  More importantly, it's because it ends up depriving us of the vocabulary we need to actually engage our opponents in meaningful public discussion.  If we grow accustomed to the idea that a subject like religion is off-limits because it's ostensibly private, then we end up robbing ourselves of the impetus and language with which to actually engage with those religious arguments with which we disagree.  

The second and related point is that those of us who believe that religion has a role to play in public debate must abandon that classic rule of etiquette that says you ought never talk about religion, let alone someone else's religion, because it's impolite.  The result of this rule is ultimately more rather than less disrespectful to religion.  To take seriously in public debate, we must not view it as being above or beyond criticism.  We must find new ways of treating religion with genuine respect -- which means engaging with it, sometimes critically and vociferously, rather than relegating it to the private sphere or treating it as something we're not allowed to discuss or criticize.  If we want a vigorous politics that both allows religion in and doesn't kowtow to it, we need to respond to it, sometimes quite directly, on something like its own terms.  The best way to respond to the Response is not to try to prevent Governor Perry from participating in it, but by saying: "You have a right to engage in this religious speech.  But here's why I reject it, from an openly religious (or non-religious) perspective."  The point of these conversations shouldn't be to argue that the speech is impermissible, but (at least if one so believes) that it's reprehensible.  That's not a polite version of politics, to be sure, but it's a more honest, equal, mutually respectful, and powerful conversation.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on August 5, 2011 at 08:55 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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How ironic that this is timed to be during Ramadan... and reflects what devout members of the Faith are supposed to be doing every day during that month. (Of course, that's 1/12 of the year, so such a "coincidence" is not so hard to arrange.)

I'll just go off muttering about how the similarities between the Abrahamic/Semitic-origin faiths tend to undermine their various adherants' screeching claims of uniqueness and why that justifies, and indeed requires, a far higher and more impenetrable wall between church and state than even Jefferson understood... let alone that we have.

Posted by: C.E. Petit | Aug 5, 2011 11:43:29 AM

"But those absolutely forbidden actions aside, I think we diminish ourselves when we try to short-circuit the culture wars by invoking constitutional prohibitions."

We can't short circuit "culture" wars this way to the extent that "culture" includes a lot of stuff (like believing things) that aren't constitutionally prohibited. The statement is vague -- in effect, we shouldn't use the courts, except when we should. To the degree "absolutely" sounds rather extreme, I do find it troubling.

"a subject like religion is off-limits because it's ostensibly private"

This is too close to those who think people are merely trying to keep "religion out of the public square" like there are many out there saying no one should say "God" in public or something. Anyway, no fears there, really. Religion as a good or bad thing is talked about in public all the time. I realize what you are saying -- talking "religion" is touchy, but it still is done all the time.

We can use speech to criticize Gov. Perry, but at some point, "an official gubernatorial" act is not merely something to debate. If some small group is harmed, for example, there is often little chance of that working. So, at times, court action is sought. People can merely say how wrong starting a class in public school with a Christian prayer is too. On some level, isn't the governor, and potential Republican nominee for President, more important in that respect? He is in effect the "head of state" of Texas. And, he is officially, in that role, promoting Christian ceremonies. This is beyond the pale.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 5, 2011 10:58:02 AM

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