The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Why the Constitution is Pretty Damn Cool

This weekend happens to be "Blog Against Theocracy Weekend 2008."
( Wacky!

Unlike many folks who share my general views on religion, I do not believe that the US is on the precipice, about to be plunged into a full-blown (or even semi-formed) theocracy. Certainly religion is currently playing a dangerously large part in the national political ethos (as demonstrated by the fact that someone such as John Hagee, a nutjob who advocates for nuclear war with Iran in order to bring about Armageddon, is apparently taken seriously by the White House []), but this is part of the ongoing pendulum-swing that has been occurring since before the founding of the nation. The alleged viciousness of the "new atheists" is really just symptomatic of the fact that many people, religious and non-religious alike, are plenty pissed and have begun working to re-take ground that had been ceded to religious-political groups such as the Christian Coalition. In other words, things are beginning to right themselves, and the pendulum will likely soon swing the other way (though we shouldn't be too sanguine about this - sitting back and expecting the pendulum swing to happen naturally is part of what let yahoos like Hagee gain as much clout as they currently have to begin with).

Nonetheless, I do find the focus on religion in contemporary politics and policy to be deeply troubling - and I believe that a large number of religious people agree with me on this.

Discussions of the separation of church and state often focus around the fact that the Founders wished to prevent the sorts of violations of people's rights, civil war, and strife caused by the establishment of state religions in the nations of Europe. The only way to do this was to have the government play the part of a non-partisan in religious life - and religion is only mentioned twice in the constitution, both times to prohibit it from being a significant factor in government*.

In protecting religions and religious people from government interference, the Constitution succeeded brilliantly. Indeed, without such laws, it is unlikely that religion would have its current vigor within the US. But this separation of religious belief from law has had a likely unintended, but nonetheless wonderful, side-effect. By largely separating religion from lawmaking, the Constitution creates a situation where the default for policy is evidence and reason, and not faith. This is not to say that there are not currently (and have not been in the past) laws that had more to do with religious beliefs than careful consideration of the nature and impact of the laws, but these laws have routinely met with Constitutional challenges, and routinely lost in recent years. Indeed, when these laws are passed today, they typically have more to do with political grandstanding and demagoguery than any expectation by their advocates that the laws will stand. As a result, people in most locations within the US are free to follow or not follow religious dictates as their conscious deems necessary, while they are assured of a reliable social order due to a secular legal system.

And this is as it should be. Whether one believes that religious faith is a good thing or not, the problem with basing policy on it is the fact that faith is a essentially a non-argument. If a person makes a claim based on faith, another person can just as easily make a contrary claim also based on faith. As both are based on what is, by definition, an arbitrary belief lacking evidential backing (or even opposed to available evidence), there is no way to differentiate whether one is superior to the other. And the fact that faith is often held contrary to available evidence means that not only do faith-based decisions contradict each other, they often contradict reality (for an example, just take a look at young-Earth creationism).

And this is why it disturbs me to see the focus on faith in contemporary politics. The notion that faith is inherently a good thing that should not be scrutinized is both wrong and dangerous - arbitrary beliefs based on no evidence make a poor basis for public policy and tend to lead to a rigidity of thought that prevents both policymakers and the public from accepting that policies are not working or are counter-productive. For example, look at the way that many people cling to abstinence-only sex education programs because they agree with their religious beliefs, despite the fact that it is ineffective or even counterproductive to reducing teen pregnancies, STD rates, and abortions. Likewise, approximately 25% of the US population believes that the Book of Revelation is prophetic and predicts events that will happen in the very near future - a fact that appears to have had some influence of international relations and may have had impacts on environmental policy during the Reagan administration.

But, again, I don't think this will last for much longer. Call me a Pollyanna, but it looks as if the far-sighted religious folks see the menace posed by those who wish to use the law to impose their religion. The non-religious are beginning to speak up in a way that they have not before. And it looks like these two groups together are becoming a more potent political force. However, for this to happen, we need to continue being vocal, we need to continue to call politicians on their bullshit when they pander to groups that wish to control the way that the rest of us live, and we need to demand more from our politicians than the lowest-common denominator politics that they have been practicing.

By the way, if you've not done so recently, read the constitution itself at:

* In Article 6, which prohibits religious tests as a bar to public office, and in the First Amendment, which prohibits congress from making laws that promote religion or prohibit its practice.

Many people will refer to the Declaration of Independence and note that it mentions "the Creator" - but:

1) this is rather a generic term that can easily be applied to the Christian god, Deist god, Lord Shiva, Helldiver of Paiute mythology, or even the Big Bang...

2) what the Founders understood, but many folks seem to not get today, is that the Declaration of Independence was a Declaratory statement, but the Constitution was the law. The Declaration served to tell England that she and the Colonies should start seeing other people - an international break-up letter, while the Constitution tells us how the government is to be structured and the laws formulated.


Kay said...


(consider yourself so called)

Liberty said...

Drat..kay beat me to it. I realy like the analogy of the declaration as a dear john letter.

Mr. Bud said...

Well polly,
First, can I use #2? (as a quote of course) perfectly stated.

and b)...
As a government of representation, if there are more churches then bars in a town, politicians plead to the church goers. cause then they'll have a job.

The problem is, some of those church goers frequent the bars. and are now admitting it. I think that is where the change is.

some churches say there's supposed to be 3 nails on the cross, others say only 2, and we hate 'them that show 3', while other churches even say no cross at all, and then there those that say; well 'ok' but only if you show it on a super big screen tv in a theater like setting.

my point? politicians can't seem to serve the growing diversity of the religions. And each church can't seem to pull all it's members together. I think that is letting go of the pendulum and allowing it to swing the other way. so in the end, bars rule.

the minds that wrote the constitution, amaze me.... (in my opinion..)

CrankyOtter said...

I really, really, really hope you're right about the backswing of the pendulum. The number of emails I've received recently about how the basis for our laws was Christian really alarms me. I thought the basis of our laws was the desire not to be disappeared off the streets for speaking truth and thrown in jail with no recourse, and other such injustices. But that could be my own wacky delusions.

A friend of mine from Canada who reads your sister's(?) blog thought I might like yours and she's right. I'm going to have to make use of "reality-obsessed Factanista" at some point.

Anthroslug said...

Cranyotter (if that is in fact your real name) - if the blog you refer to is Deathchic, then yes, that is my sister.

Thank you for the compliment, and please, keep reading and commenting as long as I remain interesting.