Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Society Safe for Sectarianism

The genius of the American religious culture is that we have created a society in which a huge variety of religious institutions can live together, without anyone having to believe that they are all equally true.

European religion gave us established churches and dissenting sects, each of which thought it was the one true embodiment of the faith. In America, though, all these One True Churches were thrown together. None could become legally established everywhere, nor could any dominate the whole culture. Europeans invented the original terms of the sociology of religion out of their experience, especially when Ernst Troeltsch turned the Christian words “church” and “sect” into universal concepts. American sociology added another crucial term, based on our experience: denomination. In this culture, each church and each sect was obliged to become just another denomination – none of them culturally dominant, none of them the One True way of the faith. Instead, each was obliged to recognize the other as a legitimate expression of the faith, differing in the way they are named (“de-nominated”).

The idea of the denomination turned the fact of religious diversity in America into the idea and ideal of religious pluralism. Eventually the law caught up with the culture. The most important pillar of that law is in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As with many products of the legislative sausage factory, the first amendment is a curious compromise. It does not say, as James Madison initially proposed, “No State shall violate the equal rights of conscience.” Instead, our first amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first part, the establishment clause, reads in this peculiar way because the individual states could and did make laws establishing religion – official, tax-supported denominations – for some time after the U.S. Constitution was ratified. The second part, the free exercise clause, actually strengthens Madison’s idea. The free exercise of religion protects actions, as well as conscientious thoughts.

We did not create a society free from religion. We created as society safe for every religious thought, and just about every religious action. We created a society safe for sectarianism.

Kevin Seamus Hasson, head of the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, makes a similar point in his fine new book, The Right to Be Wrong. The Beckett Fund defends all kinds of religious practices from governmental restriction. They don’t do this because they are relativists, thinking all religions are equally right, but because they think American religious pluralism protects the right of every denomination -- theirs, yours, and mine – to be wrong.

Hasson, a Notre Dame-trained lawyer, argues that freedom of conscience is a natural right. He believes that it is human nature to seek the truth about why we exist and what we are supposed to do about it. And our free consciences require us to not only seek, but find, to commit to what we believe to be true. Beyond finding, we must also act on what we believe. The American right to be wrong protects our search, and our commitments, and only limits our conscientious actions in extraordinary circumstances that threaten public welfare or the free consciences of others. Our public sphere is to be governed neither by what he calls Pilgrims, who only allow their own faith, or Park Rangers, who don’t allow any.

I agree with Seamus Hasson. I think that human nature does seek to know the meaning of our existence, and that our conscience prods us to act on what we believe to be our vocation and duty. I do part company with him on one point. He allows that Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and the cranky pioneer of religious liberty in America, argued for a God-given right to freedom of conscience, too. Hasson thinks Williams’ solution is inadequate for us today, though, because it only convinces those who believe in God. Yet I don’t see how Hasson’s argument for a human nature-given right to freedom of conscience is any different – it only convinces people who believe in natural rights. I think that Roger Williams and Seamus Hasson are both right, because I think God created the nature, both human and otherwise, from which our conscience comes.

American religious freedom rests on a conviction that allowing everyone freedom of conscience is right. This conviction cannot be proven to be true. But we have good reason to believe that it is true from our religion, our philosophy, and our experience.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Conservative Magic and Liberal Magic

There has been a fuss about posting the Ten Commandments in public schools and other public places.

A recent Kentucky case, McCreary County v. ACLU, went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the pro-posters lost. But in the same decision, about the parallel Texas case of Van Orden v. Perry, the pro-posters (or in that case, carve-in-stoners) won. The upshot was that if you want to post the Ten Commandments in a public building to make a religious statement, you lose; if, on the other hand, you post them as part of a series of legal codes, you win. SO, if you really want the Commandments in the courthouse, you can do it. Likewise, it is easy to post the Ten Commandments in public schools legally. All you have to do is teach about them. In fact, you post just about anything on the walls of schools, if you are willing to do the work of actually including the poster in the curriculum. Again, it is not hard to win, if that is what you really want to do.

I think we have had the fuss, though, because the pro-posters don’t really want to win – they want to lose so they can claim that the Christian majority is being religiously persecuted by secularists. Now, there is some truth to this. In my job I run across plenty of secularists who do want to drive all religion out of the public square. They want to do so not just despite massive public support for displaying the icons of biblical religion. They want to exclude those symbols because the majority supports them, so that the secularists, in turn, can feel persecuted by the backlash. Two can play at “oppression envy.”

But really, I don’t think that posting the Ten Commandments is about displaying the faith of the majority, or acknowledging a fundamental code of American law, or even of helping people be literate about a crucial building block of Western civilization.

Conservatives want to post the Ten Commandments as an act of magic.

I think that some people believe that if the text is physically on the wall of the courthouse or the schoolhouse, the people under its eye, so to speak, will behave better. This gesture is mostly futile. Worse, I think that treating the printed commandments this way violates the second commandment against making “graven images.”

If you want people to behave better, it would be more effective to post pictures of Mr. Rogers, or Mother Teresa, or even Barney. This would not be a great improvement, but the magical thought would be more out in the open.

I think there is a parallel kind of magical thinking for liberals. Conservatives think kids will be better behaved if we put the Ten Commandments in schools. Liberals think kids will be smarter if we put computers in schools. They expend much more effort in getting computers into schools than they do in making sure they that they work, that they have any kind of relevant software, that teachers and students know how to use them, or that the computers have anything to do with the curriculum.

The computer becomes a graven image for thinking, the way the Ten Commandments becomes a graven image for morals. Magic.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Top Public Intellectuals are Not Moms

The hand that rocks the cradle may rule the world, but it does not lead the list of public intellectuals.

The Prospect/Foreign Policy poll of the world’s leading public thinkers was just released. As the editors note, this is a parlor game, and should not be taken too seriously. The editors listed 100 candidates they had chosen, and offered a “bonus ball” option to readers to write in others. About ten percent of the original list were women, and no women made it to the top ten on the write-in list. The top ten are men:

Noam Chomsky
Umberto Eco
Richard Dawkins
Václav Havel
Christopher Hitchens
Paul Krugman
Jürgen Habermas
Amartya Sen
Jared Diamond
Salman Rushdie

The first women comes in at #11, and begins an interesting trend: very few of them are mothers, and fewer still are married mothers. So who is #11? Naomi Klein, activist journalist and author of No Logo. She is the daughter of two well-known Canadian activists, and married to another. As far as I can tell, though, she does not have children. Her work, which is a critique of globalization, is not about family life, so it is hard to know directly what her attitude is toward marriage and children. At the least we can say that children have not been central to her work.

The other women in the top 50 are:

Camille Paglia (20), a famously single, childless, every-sexual critical feminist;
Ayaan Hirsi Ali (46), a Muslim feminist and Dutch parliamentarian who fled an arranged marriage;
Julia Kristeva (48) and Germaine Greer (49), feminist icons who do not treat motherhood as a primary female role, to say the least;

The one exception to the “subordinate motherhood” rule is Shirin Ebadi (12), the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Ebadi, a married Iranian lawyer and mother of two grown daughters, is a crusader for the rights of women in post-revolutionary Iran. She has been successful, in part, because she works as a wife and mother, and makes her arguments within the Muslim tradition.

The Prospect poll was of public intellectuals. I imagine that if we could have such a thing as the list of top “domestic intellectuals,” the list would be much richer in married mothers.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

"Marry Your Baby Daddy" Day

In September, novelist Maryann Reid and Rev. Herbert Daughtry made the dream of marriage a reality for 10 lucky couples. Hundreds of couples who already had children together and who hoped to marry “someday” responded to a contest. The prize: ten all-expenses-paid weddings, presided over by Rev. Daughtry. This contest was aimed at African-American couples, and most of the couples and wedding-makers were black. The idea, though, is a good one for the whole nation to ponder and pursue.

The single most urgent family problem is to get single moms to marry their baby daddies.
(That’s what I think today, anyway. I am still puzzling on this.)

In the long run we need to create a culture which authoritatively supports marriage and careful childrearing. In the short run, though, we already have couples who have children and plan to marry someday, in the pie-in-the-sky future.

Communities could make this dream of marriage a reality. All they need is the wedding.

Suppose every congregation in town agreed to take part in a “Marry Your Baby Daddy Day” – or “Parents’ Wedding Day,” or “Mommy and Daddy Get Married Day,” or whatever name works best. Each minister would agree to perform the wedding, and members of the congregation would find a way to get the dress, the cake, the rings, the flowers, the pictures, the reception, and so forth, and do it nicely. As with the original Marry Your Baby Daddy Day, there could be a contest – which would itself get many couples to get down to cases about getting married, even if they didn’t win the contest. On that happy day, the front-page news would be that the whole community had worked together to make marriage dreams come true for the couples and, especially, for their children.

Promoting marriage among parents would, I am convinced, pay for itself in happier and healthier grownups, and better cared for kids. Men, who would probably resist the idea the most at first, would benefit the most in the end. Yes, we should build in a marriage preparation course, even for cohabiting couples with kids. Yes, we should screen out likely wife-beaters, and get them some other kind of help. Yes, we would probably need to reach beyond each congregation to find the money. But it would be worth it.

The spin-off benefit of a community Marry Your Baby Daddy Day would be to make clear how much the community as a whole supported marriage for all children’s parents – not just those who think they can afford a wedding.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Amending the Definition of Marriage

In an earlier blog I wrote about Kentucky’s mysterious definition of marriage, which reads:

402.005 Definition of marriage.
As used and recognized in the law of the Commonwealth, "marriage" refers only to the civil status, condition, or relation of one (1) man and one (1) woman united in law for life, for the discharge to each other and the community of the duties legally incumbent upon those whose association is founded on the distinction of sex.

All of this I find clear and sensible, until the last clause: “legally incumbent upon those who association is founded on the distinction of sex.” In a reply to the earlier blog, Nancy Jo Kemper, the executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, suggested that this phrase was a delicate 19th century way of saying that the husband was responsible for the wife’s debts, and that the wife could not deny the husband sex. This may be so.

In any case, I propose to amend this definition to make it clearer and, perhaps, more up to date. I propose to strike the puzzling final clause, and rewrite the definition this way:

402.005 Definition of marriage.
As used and recognized in the law of the Commonwealth, "marriage" refers only to the civil status, condition, or relation of one (1) man and one (1) woman united in law for life, for the discharge to each other and the community of the duties of mutual material support, sexual fidelity, and the raising of the children they may produce.

I see three advantages in revising the definition of marriage this way.

First, it makes clear that the duties of marriage are mutual and equally incumbent on husband and wife.

Second, it names three particular duties of marriage which are of greatest benefit to society as a whole. Husbands and wives who support one another materially are much more likely to make a net contribution to the wealth of society, and not be a drain on the surplus produced by others. Couples who are sexually faithful to one another avoid a world of trouble for themselves; moreover, if all sex took place only within faithful marriage, the domestic violence rate would go way down, the murder rate would go way down, and sexually transmitted diseases would disappear from the earth. Parents who raise their own children produce the greatest benefit to society, and to their children – and the more carefully they raise their children, the greater the benefit to everyone.

The third reason to amend the definition of marriage this way is to use the bully pulpit of the state to say clearly what marriage is for as far as the government is concerned. Marriage has become a politicized issue today in large part because we have lost a clear conception of what marriage is for.

Before governmental family policy can help support and shape family life, the state needs to have and promote a clearer idea of what it thinks marriage is for. The process of amending the definition would allow us to have a richer discussion of what marriage is for. Improving the state’s definition of marriage would give substantive guidance to the government and to married people about how the state and the married should relate to one another.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Heart of Blueness

Our travels on my daughter’s college trip have taken us far from Kentucky, to some of the iconic places of “Blue America” – Swarthmore, PA, Princeton, NJ, Middletown, CT, Williamstown, MA, and, especially, Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was asked by an academic friend in Cambridge, as an emissary from Red America, if I could explain why most Americans voted in a way that seems to Cambridge folk to be just plain irrational.

I think I do understand the difference between the two views of the world – and they begin with a difference over what counts as rational. Cambridge extracts a kind of intelligence from all over the world and concentrates it in one place and in a narrow set of careers. Danville, Kentucky, and the thousands of other Danvilles in the great Flyover Country of America, draws people with a different kind of practical wisdom (as well as the usual kind of brains) and spread them over a broader range of The Good Life. The wisdom of Cambridge is that if individuals get their work done, any kind of family life they choose to make is good enough. The wisdom of Danville is that if most people marry and raise their children with care, many kinds of work life that they might choose are good enough.

I heard Thomas Frank, the author of What’s the Matter With Kansas? speak at a panel of the American Sociological Association this summer. The gist of his book is that Kansas and places like it vote for Republicans and against their economic interests because they believe that the Democratic leaders are an arrogant elite who look down on ordinary, faithful, family-first Americans. Frank's presentation, and the others like it from the panel, drew an approving, “ain’t it awful” response from the gray heads in the audience. Then a young woman rose to ask a question. She said that as a Midwestern liberal she had read Frank's book and joined in lamenting the paranoia of her neighbors. Then she went to Cambridge as a graduate student and discovered that it was all true. Her professors and their peers did routinely denigrate the intelligence of religious people and disparage the morals of those who value marriage and careful childrearing. The panel could offer no reply.

What does this have to do with family life? The great meritocratic experiment of picking who we will educate from the top IQ scores, and then picking who will manage our economy and design our social policies from the top of this intellectual heap, has a serious sociological flaw. The “cognitive elite,” as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein called them, are chosen as individuals, educated as individuals, put through the elite job selection sieve as individuals. Is it any wonder, then, that they are likely to put individual achievement ahead of forming rich and stable families? In particular, it is, it seems to me, a deep flaw in our current meritocratic culture that the highest achieving women are more likely to skip marriage and children the higher they go in the power structure.

There is much that is great and amazing about our meritocratic system. It is certainly better than any system in which rulers are chosen simply because their ancestors were rulers. But the weakness of Blue America is that it creams individuals with only one kind of intelligence, while leaving out other, family-oriented kinds of wisdom. Worse, the highly individualistic way in which we construct our meritocracy makes it less likely that they will have families to pass their intelligence and achievements and work ethic on to. This is a double loss for American families and American society.