Friday, May 13, 2005

Why we have to fight for church/state freedom [UPDATED]
I completely disagree with Kevin Drum's suggestion, following Matt Yglesias, that we liberals should compromise on more church-state issues if they seem trivial, because so much of the country takes personal offense at those battles. They cite a new comprehensive Pew research poll that shows by a 74-22 margin, Americans believe it is "proper" for "the Ten Commandments to be displayed in a government building."

Kevin and Matt believe we can give up on these "slabs of stone" arguments if it means having the chance to make gains in areas that really "matter."

there are fights and there are fights, and some are more worth fighting than others.
[SNIP]We've won 90% of this battle, and that's good enough for me. Beyond that, I'm happy to allow local communities some leeway. It makes them happy and it doesn't do much harm unless you're just aching for a fight. On this issue, it might be time to declare victory and go home.
Look, I'm happy to compromise, and I also think getting elected is a priority if Democrats are going to be in a position to have our important policy positions govern. But there are so many things wrong with Kevin and Matt's manner of acquiescence here I have no choice but to bludgeon you all with a list.

1. There's no deal on the table. It's not like there's a reason to believe that voters will join us on important issues if we start attacking public religious display bans. We can win over more of the 74% the same way we've already got 1/3 of them: by being principled on issues that matter to them and smart/reasonable about the way we talk about the other issues.

2. Christian conservatives will use that concession against us. They want more than just ten commandments. They want evolution out and sanctioned prayer in schools. They already use trivial facts to make their point: that "In God we Trust" is on our money, and in our courthouses, that the Congress and the Supreme Court start each day with prayer, etc. Once the 10 commandments are up, and the nativity scenes adorn the town squares, that's not a compromise, that's ammunition in their next fight--and what will that be?

3. It's the judiciary, stupid. These "trivial" matters come up because individuals or organizations sue and judges apply important constitutional principles and rule. The campaign issue isn't the 10 commandments, it's the rule of law and the Constitution. Democrats aren't out there foolishly running on tearing up the 10 commandments. What Kevin and Matt are suggesting is nothing short of joining the attack on the judiciary. How else will could this new concession be expressed? And so once we're against judges on this issue and vow to get different kinds of judges in, like Republicans, we're not going to end up with judges who have made similar trival compromise, we will end up with judges that have different fundamental principles. And they get to rule on all kinds of things, not just a slab of stone fight.

This mistake is essentially an agreement with those on the right that claim small-town values are under assault by our judiciary. We liked it when they helped us win the heart of the church-state argument (and Kevin is right, we've won 90% of the issue), but now those judges are really going too far?

4. We already compromise. We do, at least in the sense that we don't bring up fights that we don't need. And when they do come up, like the Pledge of Allegiance decision from last year, Democrats aren't exactly fighting. I seem to remember Democratic Congressmen on the Capitol steps reciting the pledge with Republicans, and where did that get us? We don't clamor about "In God we Trust" on our buildings and money, or "so help us God" in our oaths because those fights aren't worth fighting. And do we get any credit for that? No.

5. Kevin's last arguments are uncharacteristically silly:
we can be in favor of the principle of separation of church and state without feeling like we have to fight every single battle to the death. Just like we can be in favor of progressive taxation without favoring 90% marginal rates and we can be in favor of the minimum wage without favoring a ten dollar increase. There's no law that says every principle has to be carried to its absolute logical limit.
Apple, meet oranges. First, like I said, we don't fight every single battle, much less to the death. And in most of them, we're not players, it's judges and lawsuits so we've only to decide whether to join the assault on judges. I suggest we do not. We oppose 90% marginal rates and a 10-dollar minimum wage hike because they would be bad economic policy, and the first, especially, would be couter-productive to our goal: a strong economy for all Americans. We don't oppose them because we're compromising principles for political expediency. They are fundamentally different questions in type, and have a different kind of spectrum of answers, than does the question of public entanglement in religious matters.

Finally, shouldn't we start calling it church-state freedom or liberty, and not church-state separation?

[UPDATE] Kevin responds to his critics by saying we're in danger of becoming (or at least looking like) crazy absolutists. I think he's not really thinking it through to the point of action. The issue is: most church-state separationists like me think that the legal balance at present is an acceptable one. Even the ACLU (who really should be the most vigilant among us) is not fighting every conceivable battle. Conservatives do not (and will never). The only thing to register our disapproval with that I can see is with court decisions. I just think that's a bad idea. If I'm missing another reasonable step, I'd like to hear it.

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