Saturday, August 15, 2009

Higher Law at Netroots Nation

8/15/2009—Yesterday, a distinguished panel debated my proposal for A New Progressive Version of Church and State. The moderator of the panel was Chuck Freeman, known to many on the religious left as the host of Soul Talk Radio. I presented the proposal, which was then responded to by Rev. Janet Edwards, Fred Clarkson and Vic Walczak.

Edwards is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Charges were brought against her twice in the church because she presided at the wedding of two women. She was acquitted of all charges by the church court with a vote of 9-0. She is Co-Moderator of More Light Presbyterians which advocates for LGBT equality in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and is a member of the board of Demos. Clarkson s an independent journalist, whose writing about politics and religion (especially the Religious Right) has appeared in magazines and newspapers from Mother Jones, Ms. and Church & State magazines to and The Christian Science Monitor. His book, Dispatches from the Religious Left, is being read widely. Walczak has been Legal Director of ACLU-PA since 2004. Although known for a variety of high profile cases, his particular expertise on the panel stemmed from his role as one of three lawyers who successfully tried Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, the first case challenging the teaching in public schools of “intelligent design” (ID), which a federal judge concluded was simply creationism repackaged.

The proposal being debated was that government may use religious language in the public square without violating the Establishment Clause when that language may plausibly be asserted to represent a nonreligious commitment. For example, the word “God” can refer to the ceaseless creativity of the universe and the objective validity of human rights. Arguably, this was the role of the “Creator” language in the Declaration of Independence.

The panel deserves a longer setting than this blog and I need some time to process the experience. Certainly, most people in the room opposed the proposal and objected to the use of God language and other religious imagery by government. There was a general feeling that fighting over the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance would be politically harmful to progressive causes, but the opposition in principle remained. As Clarkson reminded the crowd, the Constitution does not mention God and, he argued, that is the appropriate model for the Establishment Clause. Walczak objected that if the word God can be used by government, then why not “God opposes abortion”? At the same time, all the speakers reasserted the right of religious believers to participate in the public square in their own, private speech on their own terms, including their use of sectarian religious speech. There was some concern about this point among the audience but time ran out as the issue was being raised.

Two large questions seem to me to be raised by yesterday’s event. First, what is the constitutional ideal of the left in terms of religion in the public square? Is it that government should not itself ever use religious imagery, including the word God, and that such religious language should not be used at government sponsored events, such as Presidential inaugurations? Whether politically palatable or not, people should be clear about their commitments. Second, as America grows more secular, is there a need to turn to religious traditions for sources of wisdom and meaning, or is there not? These two questions might be distinct, but I think they are related.

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