The Only Wall We Need

The “wall of separation” between church and state grew out of the first amendment – as most any student of American history knows. But like so many other constitutional issues, the anti-establishment clause remains open to interpretation even today.  While the meaning of “religious liberty” itself seems to be more fraught than ever, I am particularly concerned that religion has a way of encroaching on the public square – permeating that wall – because so many Americans believe that a god or higher power is necessary to ensure morality – the very morality upon which our civic life is built.  

But given our history, it’s really no wonder. Many of the early European colonists who settled in North America came here explicitly to practice their own religion without persecution. The Founding Fathers could not – nor did they attempt to – take away anyone’s brand of religion. The framers wisely devised a church/state separation that kept state-sanctioned religion out of the constitution yet provided for individual religious freedom in the Bill of Rights. It was a monumental feat for its time. 

But few of the Founding Fathers – let alone ordinary citizens of the new republic – were ready to disavow religion’s moral authority.  Thomas Jefferson was the most notable outlier in that regard.  Not only had he edited the Gospels to exclude all supernatural references and is credited with coining the phrase “wall of separation,” Jefferson is also quoted as saying – “Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.” On the other hand, in his Farewell Address of 1794, George Washington warned: “[L]et us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. . . [R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” 

 While the Founders were successful in designing our government not to be the repository of religious authority, the locus of moral authority remained unsettled in our country.  Hence throughout much of our history, Bible reading was part of the moral and character education of students in our public schools – and in some regions – well into the 20th century.  Without a state religion, the culturally dominant religion came to be used in the public arena as the source of moral authority and provided the competitive advantage in culture wars and public policy debates.  Our history is replete with social movements – antislavery, women’s rights, worker’s rights, prohibition, civil rights – to name a few – that religious folks on all sides have both championed and contested.

Even with so many competing religious values at work in our society, religion remains widely accepted as the wellspring and the warden of all morality.  It makes no sense, but so many people and politicians still draw on some religious precept or another to bring gravitas to important events and decisions.  Our politicians look to religious leaders for blessing and they frame their policies according to the religious values of their most ardent supporters.  And they often invoke a higher power to guide their deliberations – just as many of them do on the National Day of Prayer – here early in May.

As a humanist and proponent of secular government, I would argue that we not only need to protect the church/state wall of separation, but we must also strengthen it.  Humanists in particular – but most secularists, freethinkers and atheists as well – believe that we ourselves possess the moral agency needed to govern our civic lives.  The democracy envisioned by our Founding Fathers is based on that same understanding of human moral agency. 

Now in our own time, we must be diligent in getting that message across – that the moral authority of our government – our civil, secular government – resides with us – the people.  It’s a kind of humanity-based moral authority that exists when everyone counts, when everyone’s voice is heard and respected, and when everyone uses informed reason and verifiable evidence as the common currency of our shared civic lives. We as human beings have the capacity, and we as citizens have the responsibility, to determine public policy and establish the rule of law based on this moral authority – a moral authority that arises out of our mutual deliberation and our inter-dependent lives. 

This is democracy at its best and that is what we celebrate on the Day of Reason – the first Thursday of May.  This year, May 4th, 2017 secular people took a stand at the Minnesota state capitol and many others around the country to counter the National Day of Prayer which is held the same day.

People, Power and Perseverance

There was an election, and an inauguration.  Then a transition of governmental power.  Followed immediately thereafter with some mammoth marches.  Wow! Many kinds of power have been on display the past few weeks.   Power is a fact of life; it is neither good nor bad in and of itself.  It all depends on how it is used. Certainly it gives one pause that now one of the most powerful people on the planet is a person of such disreputable character. But as recent events demonstrate, we all have power and now is not the time to relinquish it.  As Yoda says:  “Do . . . or do not.  There is no try.”

At this telling moment in American democracy, the power of human agency is being expressed in mind-boggling ways.  Like it or not, Trump galvanized lots of people to step up and use their latent power to outwit and defeat the entrenched political establishment.  In a pre-inaugural speech, Trump referred to his supporters as “the forgotten” and vowed that they would be forgotten no more.  

Eight years ago, Barrack Obama fired up millions of people—many who also felt forgotten, disenfranchised or dismissed--and encouraged them to exercise their power.  But Obama never lived up to the expectations of those who voted for him.  The tremendous “people power” that propelled Obama to the presidency was not magically conferred upon him in taking the oath of office—as too many people imagined would happen. Those who did not share the values of the Obama administration acted tirelessly and relentlessly to make sure he would accomplish little.  Though many worked diligently to support Obama’s agenda, in the end, it was not enough to counter-balance the force of the opposition.

Democracy functions through the power-sharing of those who take human agency seriously.  Remember Yoda—“Do…or do not.  There is no try.”  A one-time vote is not enough to maintain an inclusive and healthy democracy.  And a one-time march however large is not enough to sustain a movement.    Power is only as good as the quality and consistency of those who own it.  Everyone who exerts their power of human agency with the skills, effort, oratory, and yes—even money—with which they have been endowed helps determine the course of our common life. Democracy, by its very nature, is power-sharing and power-balancing among those who participate.

And there’s the catch--participation. In the U.S., when people feel aggrieved by circumstances beyond their control, some can be motivated by the right leader to exercise their civic duty—to vote—from time to time.  Many of us argue that too many people are unjustly denied the right to vote, but it is most certainly true that even more, having that right, never bother using it.  And then, most people relinquish their power after they do vote.  Too few take up the discipline of democracy.  History proves over and over again that the race belongs to the tactical and the tenacious—whether it be in ending slavery or war-mongering, advancing women’s rights, civil rights, workers’ rights or environmental protections.

Star Wars is perhaps not the right allegory for our times. In the real world, it is not enough for a Luke Skywalker to embrace his power of “the force.” Or even a Princess Leah her power. A strong leader is important but only a part of the story.  When we set our goals to make a world where all can thrive, everyone must be engaged in the work.  Continuously and cooperatively--like an ant colony or bee hive. The campaign does not end when a leader is chosen; it is but the beginning of the work that lies before us.  Whether it be to support or thwart the leader of the day. 

A better story to inspire us might be the old folktale—The Tortoise and the Hare.  To live with greater purpose for the long haul, one must have the mindset of the Tortoise--and not the Hare who is unduly impressed with his speed and agility.  Human agency entails many attributes and each of us must contribute what we can to maintain a healthy and thriving society.  Humanism not only embraces the dignity and worth of everyone but also affirms our ability and responsibility to affect ethical change in our lives and world.  Democracy is collective human agency in action; it is not entertainment, spectator sport or self-aggrandizement.

The way forward, however, need not be as hard as some might imagine in these times.  Many good organizations have been doing the work of compassion and justice and democracy and environmentalism and sustainability for a long time.  We don’t have to re-invent the wheel to get the world moving in a better direction.  But more of us do need to take up our own mantle of power to help shoulder the work.  Our community of humanists can and should join forces with other advocacy groups on our shared goals.  Let’s challenge that hare!  And let’s do it now!

Commonsense Gun Laws

Stand your ground!  That is the rallying cry of the gun lobby.  But this is no defensive strategy; they have gone on the offensive.  The gun lobby would like to take us back to the Wild West. With a good friend in the White House and Republican majorities in both Houses of Congress, second amendment zealots across the country are emboldened to further dismantle every sort of regulation on gun use and ownership. Their distorted views of the constitution and the second amendment fuel their movement and this should be of concern to us all. 

Countries around the world struggle to implement democracy—to negotiate differences through the ballot box as opposed to the barrel of a gun.  Disturbingly a few years ago, right here at our state capitol I met gun zealots who were prepping for an insurgency—building up their arsenals--insisting it was their second amendment right and duty!  But now the plentiful money and fear-mongering of the gun lobby has successfully pre-empted the need for any armed insurgency to take over the government.  These extremists won big time last November at the ballot box.  So what’s in store?

Here in Minnesota, a “Stand Your Ground” bill was recently introduced in the state legislature.  It would eliminate the legal obligation to retreat from danger before using deadly force – even outside one’s home. If Trayvon Martin being shot by George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012 comes to mind, yes, you get the picture.  Also introduced was a “Permitless Carry” bill which grants anyone the right to carry, transport, buy, sell (etc.) any firearm or self-defense device without a state permit or restriction of any kind.  Heretofore Minnesota had been able to withstand such provocative gun laws unlike many other states around the country.  But things are changing. As they say, elections have consequences.

On the national front the gun lobby is aggressively seeking to overturn longstanding gun safety measures along with some recently enacted by Obama.  Common-sense rules that prohibit people with mental disabilities from obtaining guns--including the elderly with dementia.  Common-sense regulations that keep people from buying silencers that would make it more difficult for bystanders or law enforcement officers to hear gunshots.  And common-sense measures that allow states to enforce their own conceal-carry laws as opposed to practicing reciprocity with those states whose laws are more lenient.

 

 

Second amendment zealots would have us believe that gun rights cannot be regulated or abridged in any way.  That is total bunk!  The Founders established our constitution to promote the general welfare and provide for our common defense. They chose democracy, the process by which citizens come together to govern themselves through peaceful law enforcement. The Bill of Rights was added for reassurance that the individual still had standing within majority rule—not that individuals could be above society’s laws. Two-hundred and fifty years of our democratic experiment reveals that there is no perfect formula for balancing individual rights with legal social regulation.  Societies are not static; historical contexts change and so do our laws.

 

 

Every day, we as citizens are accountable to the government and ultimately to each other as we dutifully comply with the myriad of regulations we choose to impose upon ourselves for the common good.  Think traffic laws and car licenses, property taxes and house deeds—just to name a few. Of course, seldom is there consensus on just the right amount of regulation, but that is the nature of democracy.  Compromise.  None of us gets exactly what we want.  And none of us can do whatever we want, whenever we want-- living as we do among our fellow human beings in ever closer proximity.

 

 

American democracy continues to be a radical experiment in rule by law—i.e. regulation—and in the peaceful resolution of differences and conflicts.  Many gun-rights zealots want to hedge their bets that democracy won’t work.  On the one hand, they insist that they are law-abiding citizens, but these so-called defenders of the second amendment claim to need no regulation. Further, they insist that guns aren’t the problem; it’s the people behind the guns.  But any attempt for universal, thorough background checks on the people behind the guns is also off-limits to these gun extremists.  In effect, they are positioning themselves beyond the reach of law—above democratic governance.  That is a very troubling thought.

 

 

As Americans, we watch countries around the world struggle to govern--working to keep peace amidst conflicting parties and establish effective law enforcement agencies with disciplined police officers. Those that cannot provide adequate safety to their citizens are viewed as “failed states.”  Is that where we are headed?

We are at a turning point in our own country.  We can further arm our citizens—as the gun lobby would have us do—so self-appointed extremists can take “justice” into their own hands.  Or we can re-commit ourselves to building a more perfect union that works for the well-being and prosperity of all our citizens.  Double-down on our own efforts to establish effective law enforcement agencies with disciplined police officers.  Let’s stop the veneration of gun-toting extremists and debunk their distorted interpretation of the second amendment.  And let’s support common-sense gun violence prevention measures now.

Supreme Court Heterodoxy

The Supreme Court confirmation process for Neil Gorsuch is currently underway. As an engaged citizen, I have listened with great interest to much of the Senate hearings.  As a former civics teacher, I shudder to think what little understanding of judicial philosophy, the role of the Supreme Court and our history as a nation is brought to bear on these hearings.  While we learn of Gorsuch’s many stellar attributes as a jurist and his likeable personality as a public figure, given his heterodox judicial philosophy, he may well be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Since his confirmation is all but assured, believe me, I hope I am wrong about Gorsuch.  However, one does not need to be a scholar to be troubled by the judicial philosophy he espouses—that of “originalism.”  It is a philosophy that has gained traction in the past three decades as a backlash to the successful use of constitutional law to advance civil and human rights in the early to mid-20th century.  At which point conservative scholars got themselves funded and organized to promulgate the idea that ascertaining the “original intent” of the Founding Fathers was the best way to reign in the increasingly progressive trajectory of history.  Any change from the “original intent” of the Constitution should only be made by an amendment.

That philosophy is contrary to long-established jurisprudence and certainly my education as a civics teacher in the 1980s.  Most mainstream constitutional scholars taught that we are governed by a “living constitution” – a document intentionally written rather sparingly and mostly in generalities to be able to adapt to changing times. Even now the Supreme Court’s current webpage states: “. . . constitutional interpretation and application were made necessary by the very nature of the Constitution. The Founding Fathers had wisely worded that document in rather general terms leaving it open to future elaboration to meet changing conditions.”  

Historically the role of the Supreme Court has been as the final arbiter in interpreting the Constitution when conflicting views remain intransigent.  That ever-growing body of constitutional law has become part of this “living document” by which we are governed; still written most often by wise but fallible men—along with the Founding Fathers.  A foundational governing document to be sure, but always a work-in-progress.  Ever-changing through the amendment process and judicial review.

But today’s conservatives who espouse “original intent” seem to view the Founding Fathers as some kind of holy men—whose words and intent are immutable law.  Excuse me, but these men did not think of themselves that way—and if any of them succumbed to that view, one of their ever-so-mortal peers would put them in their place.  Today’s political conservatives are looking for “Truth” with a capital “T” and they mistakenly try to imbue the Constitution with a transcendent and absolute quality.

For the record, the Constitution was extremely controversial at its inception.  It was a second attempt at a governing document for the newly formed United States after the first one failed—the Articles of Confederation.  It was conceived in conflict and established through unseemly compromises; e.g. the continuation of slavery and women’s subjugation.  It was a pragmatic document; circumscribed by its time--both innovative and restrained. But what has made it resilient has been its ability to adapt to the emerging complexity of contemporary society and respond to new generations of Americans by incorporating ever-evolving inclusive democratic ideals and governmental protections.

Present day jurists who espouse “originalism” misrepresent their philosophy as value-neutral—when in fact it is no more value-neutral than “living document” proponents.  The Founding Fathers were mortal men shaped by their 18th century worldviews—not demi-gods of democracy or liberty.  They encapsulated no singular “intent.”  They were not of one mind.  They compromised to come up with a workable document that ever-so-tenuously held the country together in those early days. Through the last two centuries, the Constitution has been stretched and flexed by the American experience to give shape and relative cohesion to the country we know today.

Consider, for example, how women today would be regarded by the “original intent” of the Constitution.  Be given equal rights?  Hardly.  Nowhere in the Constitution are women expressly accorded such rights.  While the 19th Amendment gives women the right to vote, it is only through historical jurisprudence—the living constitution--that women have any expectation of equal rights.  Feminists and other progressives have lobbied for decades for an equal rights amendment to explicitly ensure those rights.  Yet conservative “originalists” have insisted that such an amendment is unnecessary while any coherent application of their “original intent” philosophy would deny women equal standing. Are “originalists” hypocritical, inconsistent or perhaps just unabashed modern-day chauvinists?

Constitutional “originalists” cherry-pick judicial “truths” like religious fundamentalists cherry-pick biblical wisdom.  Who knows how Gorsuch will come down on any particular controversial issue.  Maybe he won’t be as bad as some fear; his cherry-picking may be actually—judicious. Or, maybe he will live up to all the expectations of the political right.  But whatever happens, beware of any judicial arguments based on “originalism.”  We seek jurists who are adept at meshing the highest ideals of the entire American experiment with real-life circumstances. Not those who employ pie-in-the-sky “truths” conjured out of a mythical past.  We can’t begin to settle our differences if we don’t have an honest assessment of our history, our governing documents and a judicial philosophy that’s based in the real world.