The Illusion of Neutrality

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We have all heard what has come to be a liberal dictum, that the State must remain neutral as regards religion or irreligion. One can show fairly easily that the men who wrote our constitution had no such neutrality in mind, given the laws that they and their fellows subsequently passed, their habits of public prayer at meetings, and their common understanding that freedom without virtue, and virtue without piety, were chimeras. To show that that understanding persisted, all one need do is open every textbook for school children published for almost two hundred years; or recall that Catholic immigrants established their own schools not so that their pupils might read the Bible, but so that they might choose which translation they were to read.

Still, there are two more fundamental reasons for rejecting the dictum. One is that it is not possible. The other is that it is not conceivable, even if it were possible. It is a contradiction in terms.

The Nude Beach Principle
On the impossibility: consider the effects of a permission that radically alters the nature of the context in which the action is permitted. We might call this the Nude Beach Principle. Suppose that Surftown has one beautiful beach, where young and old, boys and girls, single people and whole families, have been used to relax, go swimming, and have picnics. Now suppose that a small group of nudists petitions the town council to allow for nude bathing. Their argument is simple—actually, it is no more than a fig leaf for the mere expression of desire. They say, “We want to do this, and we, tolerant as we are, do not wish to impose our standards on anyone else. No one will be required to bathe in the raw. Live and let live, that’s our motto.”

But you cannot have a Half-Nude Beach. A beach on which some people stroll without a stitch of clothing is a nude beach, period. A councilman cannot say, “I remain entirely neutral on whether clothing should be required on a beach,” because that is equivalent to saying that it is not opprobrious or not despicable to walk naked in front of other people, including children.

Two factors must be at work, for the Nude Beach Principle to apply. One is whether we can expect some people to act upon the permission. The other is an easily predictable harm that the permission so acted upon will bring to people who do not act upon it, or who, because of moral disapprobation, disgust, fear, or pain, would never act upon it. In Surftown, it means that ordinary people will have lost their beach. They will have lost it to the intolerance of the nude bathers, who, even if they were correct about the moral permissibility of their parading their wares, will not forbear with their more scrupulous neighbors. In this matter, to pretend not to choose is to choose.

Nor do we need physical proximity to invoke the principle. A few years ago in Nova Scotia, after losing a string of referenda, proponents of all-day any-day business won out, meaning that, for the first time, businesses other than hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, and gas stations could remain open on Sunday. Opponents of the referendum appealed to the good that families and neighborhoods enjoyed, because they could rely on almost everyone being at home at least one day in the week. They understood that it was illogical to say that no particular business would be compelled to keep the strange hours, since the permission would mean almost immediately that many would do so—just as the permission to wear nothing on a beach will bring out many sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. They saw that that in itself would compromise or destroy the good they sought to preserve.

Now, you could say that that lost good was outweighed by the good of some purported economic development, just as you could say that the lost good of a beach friendly to families was outweighed by the good of exhibitionism or what have you. But you could not plead neutrality. To say, “I remain neutral on whether a people should set aside one day in a week for cessation of most business,” is to say that it is not important that such a day be set aside. Again, to pretend not to choose is to choose.

The referendum in Nova Scotia illustrates something else, too, beyond the particular issue. Sometimes to permit is not only to alter the context of the permitted action, but to alter the whole social order. You cannot say, as Stephen Douglas tried to say, that you will allow slavery in those states whose citizens vote for it, and then pretend that that is an act of calm and statesmanlike neutrality. A society that says that some people may own slaves is an utterly different society from one that says that no one may own slaves. That is not a distant consequence of the permission; it is immediate, indeed implied in the permission itself.

You cannot say, as liberals try to say, that you will allow abortion for people inclined to procure one, and then pretend that that too is to remain blissfully neutral and tolerant, no more than if you tried to say that you would allow infanticide for parents who decide, after all, that the diapers are too messy, or the baby too ugly or too sickly or handicapped. A society that allows some people to kill babies is a society that does not protect babies, period. It is a society that does not view them as possessing any inherent claim upon our protection. A society that freely permits pornography is, by that very permission, a society that sees nothing especially sacred in the human body and the marital act. You can say all you want that no one is required to leap into the open sewer. They still have to live with it right there, with all its stench, among people who have grown accustomed to it, or fond of it.

You will be deprived of the help that a very different kind of society might have conferred upon you, as you try to discipline yourself and your children to virtue. There’s a scene in Eugenio Corti’s semi-autobiographical novel about the Second World War that illustrates the point quite well. One of the soldiers from their district—the writer and intellectual among them—has fallen in love with a chaste and beautiful girl. But his imagination has not been formed or deformed by the vices of military life or the brutalities he witnessed on the Russian front. It has been formed by his faith. The girl is sure not only that Michele loves her, but “that his love was great, the kind of love given by a real man who had held himself ready for an only love.” When she daydreams about the children she will give him, she does not dwell on the physical expression of love, though that, says Corti, was to be great and joyful: “Her Christian morals at present forbade that, and she would obey that in her docile way, realizing that her so splendid love was in no small way brought about by her faithful acceptance of the moral code.” Without that code publicly acknowledged and fostered, there is no such marriage, for “Michele’s love for her would have been less, perhaps limping along, spent.” No Ferdinand and Miranda, no Orlando and Rosalind, no Renzo and Lucia.

The Principle of the Empty Distinction
And these considerations bring us to the edge of recognizing that neutrality in many questions is not only practically impossible, but perfectly meaningless. We might call this the Principle of the Empty Distinction. Suppose you say you are agnostic on the issue of whether you will recognize a man’s property as his own. You have just contradicted yourself. You are not agnostic at all; that is but a hand-washing distinction without a difference. You have in effect refused to recognize the right of property, and where the right of property is not recognized, what is yours is mine if I have the inclination and the power to take it. Given the same object, there is no conceivable compromise between (sometimes or somewhere) permissible and (always and everywhere) impermissible.

The illogic is most acute when the professed agnosticism applies directly to the duties of the party so professing. If I say, “I must remain assiduously neutral on the question of honoring my father and mother,” I have declared that I do not owe them the honor that they are due, and that is in itself to dishonor them. If I say, “I am strictly agnostic on the question as to whether I owe gratitude to the man who has paid for my college education without any expectation of return,” I have declared that there is no debt, nothing that binds me. I am saying that my gratitude is a matter of indifference or caprice; and that is itself ungrateful.

It does not matter whether the party is a person or a nation. The virtue of religion, as our founders used the word, pertains to the duty that a person or a people owe to God. Now there either is a duty or there is not. You cannot say, “The People must remain absolutely neutral as to whether the People, as such, owe any allegiance to God, to acknowledge His benefits, and to pray for His protection.” To say it is to deny the debt. It is to take a position while trying to appear to take none. To decline to choose to pray, now and ever, is to choose not to pray. It is to choose irreligion. One should at least be honest about it.

The reader will no doubt know which side I take on these issues. My point here is that for certain questions, neutrality is an illusion. The nakedly secular state is not a neutral thing. It is something utterly different from, and irreconcilable with, every human polity that has existed until a few anthropological minutes ago. It is itself a set of choices which, like all such, forecloses others; a way of living that makes other ways of living unlikely, practically impossible, or inconceivable.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared September 11, 2014 on Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute and is reprinted with permission.

Anthony Esolen

By

Professor Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • publiusnj

    “Neutrality” is in fact a compromise that the American Framers arrived at on a narrow issue (whether Congress could specify an established church) that has now been used by anti-Catholics to hurt the Catholic Church and then been applied more broadly by anti-religionists. That initial compromise was the result of the development of sectarian divisions in the peculiar historical circumstances of 16th-18th Century Britain and its American colonies. In Continental Europe, the kings-nobles just expropriated the properties of the Roman Church and called them their own. There was just one Protestantism per territory (the principle “cujus regio; ejus religio) in almost all of Europe.

    On the Isle of Britain, though, there were two countries. In one of them (England), the king and two of his three children-successors sought to impose a king-run bishop-staffed Protestantism; in the other (Scotland), the nobles–seeing how much plunder their royalneighbor to the South had stolen from the Church–sought to set up a noble-run “elder-staffed” Protestantism in the absence of their Queen (Mary Stuart off in France). Nobles couldn’t really oversee bishops because they were equivalent powers; so, the nobles sponsored churches and nominated elders to run the churches.

    Things got even more complicated in England, because Mary Tudor (Henry’s other child) sought to reestablish Catholicism and that led to the creation of a new more radical form of Protestantism in England opposed to the Queen’s (Catholic) Church. So, in Britain, there were three distinct strands of Protestantism: Episcopal-based (England’s Established Church); Presbyterian (Scotland’s Established Church once the nobles got rid of Mary Stuart) and Independent (the Puritans who had opposed Mary and were then leery of her half-sister Elizabeth), all of which got pushed into the same polity when James I succeeded Elizabeth and held the throne of both countries.

    James tried to smush the three Protestantisms together in one King-run, Bishop-staffed Church but that eventually led to the Bishops’ Wars between England and Scotland and then to the English Civil War because the Scots nobles liked running their local churches. That war in turn led to the multiplication of Protesantisms within England with all kinds of sects splitting off on their own. Those divisions found their way into the American colonies, some of which had been started with Puritan colonists (New England) while others had Anglican colonists (the more Southerly colonies) and still others were settled first by non-English and taken over after the Civil War (the Mid Atlantic colonies). Indeed, one of the colonies was given to the Quakers by Stuart King Charles II after the Restoration that ended the Civil War and its Protectorate residue.

    Now, it is true that in the wake of the 1660 Restoration, Anglicanism seemed to triumph in Britain, but the Anglicans soon found themselves needing to give other Protestants more or less formal tolerance as part of the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 in large measure to overcome the fact that the Stuart kings had spent long years in Europe during the Civil War and had decided to become Catholics themselves (“how are you going to keep them down on the farm when they’ve seen Paris”?). The only way to keep assuredly Britain Protestant was to unify against the king and impose Protestantism of any kind as preferable to Catholicism. that was a war cry that was finally able to bring together the Scots nobles and English bishops And so, a permanent split in Protestantism was mandated by history and that led 100 years later and an ocean away to a political need for Congressional “neutrality” on establishments of religion solely as a political compromise.

  • Vinnie

    Exposes what “pro-choice” really means.

    • GG

      Exactly. There is no such thing. It is pro abortion.

      • Vinnie

        Now it’s “women’s health.” Except for the woman in utero.

  • JERD2

    Is this another way of proposing that a community’s recognition of the “natural law” is a necessary prerequisite of a just society? And, that the written law made by man cannot contradict the natural law imprinted on our hearts, for if the written law does indeed so contradict, we tend to diminish the good that would otherwise be derived from our conformance to the natural law?

    Great article Professor Esolen. Thank you.

  • Fred

    Interesting analogy to the beach-combers. I often associate modern liberalism to the old tale of the emperor wearing no clothes – supporting policies that defy morality and natural law that takes the innocence of child to point out the obvious.

  • TERRY

    If Joe Biden & Nancy Pelosi & Kathleen Sebelius and all those other catholics (small c) whose mantra is “personally I’m against abortion but I would never seek to impose my beliefs on others” were to read this piece – assuming of course that they can – and actually THINK about it and then pray for a while, things would be better – a lot better.

    • CR89

      The three of them, collectively, could not possibly comprehend what Professor Esolen has written here. It would be as incomprehensible to them as nuclear physics would be to a 2-year-old.

      • Nick_Palmer3

        Must we insult children just to make a point??

        • DE-173

          More to the point, there is a hope that given a certain aptitude, effort and More proper objects of this analogy would be a dead squirrel or a protozoa.

          • R. K. Ich

            Indeed, and moreover, children have natural barriers that can be overcome with time and effort; on the other hand, the pseudo-catholics St. John warned us about are essentially dead in their trespasses, “for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (I John 2:9). They require supernatural grace to turn from this wickedness.

        • CR89

          A bad analogy, maybe, but no insult to children was intended. The insult was exclusively directed at the three aforementioned formal heretics.

          • DE-173

            He was being humorous.

      • Catholic, Irish & lovin’ it!

        Do we really need Pelosi/Biden/Cuomo’s brains to explode (which is what would happen if they read the Professor’s article)? Baby steps, baby steps.

  • pbecke

    Atheism, just like religion, shapes a nation’s culture, a continent’s culture, in the case of Europe. Like nature, Supernature abhors a vacuum.

    On a lighter note, the Christian apologist and Oxford University mathematics professor said on one of his talks, recorded on a YouTube video-clip, that Northern Ireland was the only place where you had Catholic atheists and Protestant atheists!

    • Catholic, Irish & lovin’ it

      I like your endnote. Most of the violence instigators in the Catholic side of Northern Ireland were Atheist Catholics; but Northern Irish Protestant violence instigators were more of a mix- devout Protestants (like Rev Ian Paisley, MP) & Atheist Protestant. Also, in the recent Scottish rise of Nationalism, it’s interesting to note that Scottish Nationalism is no longer Presbyterian nor Calvinist but Leftist/Socialist. Ireland needs an authentic revival, Ireland needs to get back to her true Catholic Christian roots (enough of this Protestantism & Atheism crap). Bring back St. Patrick & the great Irish saints & martyrs.

      • pbecke

        Hear! Hear! Especially back to her true Catholic Christian roots; and even more especially, the pervasive Christianity in which we shall all be in the same marvellous fold, let us hope, very soon..

  • Tamsin

    Very interesting. Permissions given in the name of neutrality may alter the social order for all.

    The open sewers of pornography on the internet being one such alteration. I say “on the internet” because I recently had a talk with my teenage boys, ending with the fact that I wish I didn’t have to discuss it at all, but times have changed since I was a kid and the worst temptation my brother and others faced would be still photos in comparatively immobile Playboy magazines. Now, every smartphone can bring the worst of the worst of the worst right to your child, if only by bringing it to the smartphone of the child sitting next to him or her. I’m so old, I can remember when public schools used to publicly worry about teachers having child pornography on their home computers.

  • Diplomatic Sedevacantist

    The very idea of tolerance as a principle is a contradiction.

    Consider this argument:

    Tolerance=”permitting what I don’t like”

    I like tolerance

    Therefore tolerance=intolerance.

    Quite the opposite is true; the first axiom of morality is intolerance or rigorousness & “tolerance” when it exists, is simply a policy adopted to secure your own interests. For instance, the only reason that Catholics should tolerate the existence of other religions is because not doing so would result in danger to Catholics. But if it is safe to do so, then Catholics should destroy other religions. Accepting false religions is a matter of strategy and not a matter of principle.

    That’s why Vatican II is an invalid, heretical council. Dignitatus Humanae basically goes against my above argument but also the infallible preaching of The Syllabus of Errors. For more info about the abominable Vatican II “council” check out http://www.mostholyfamilymonastery.com/.

  • Justin L

    “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Thomas Jefferson

    The problem with Esolen’s piece is that he would like to determine for all of society what should and shouldn’t be permitted under the law, but he doesn’t want to extend that right to anyone who disagrees with him. He wants not only a strict theocracy but one based on his opinions and interpretations alone. Let us assume that Joe Bloggs becomes president and decides to enact his own interpretations of what is religious into civil law. President Bloggs is a biblical fundamentalist. He decides to issue an executive order that makes being a stubborn and rebellious son an offense punishable by being stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21: 18-21). Next he issues an executive order banning all women from teaching men or having any sort of authority over them (Timothy 2:12.) He wants all women professors and administrators to be fired unless they only work with other women.

    There is no way either executive order would ever be accepted by society. Joe Bloggs wouldn’t last long as president and would quickly be overruled by Congress. However we can remain neutral about individual choice on the second issue. If there are men who for religious reasons refuse to take classes taught by women, that is their choice (and their loss, in my opinion.) I would not presume to enforce their presence in a women’s classroom, and I would oppose any legislation that made their presence in such a classroom compulsory. Any idea that I’m choosing to support these men’s bigotry by opposing legislation that would prevent it is ludicrous. I think men who indulge in this sort of anti-women bigotry are jerks, but it’s not my place (or the law’s) to stop them from being jerks.

    We may not all agree with civil legislation or with one another’s interpretation of religious rules. The good news is that we all have equal say, we are free to advocate for laws we believe in, we live in a religiously tolerant society, and we don’t have to be compelled by a minority or an individual to follow certain behaviors.

    • DE-173

      “The problem with Esolen’s piece is that he would like to determine for all of society what should and shouldn’t be permitted under the law”.

      I’m afraid you have Mr. Esolen confused with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals or many other parts of the government. The great theocratic edicts are coming from the god state and statists. Statists are a particularly confused and psychotic group of individuals. They so routinely swing between prescription, permission and prescription that it is not surprising that they have civic cognitive dissonance.

      Once should be free to procure an abortion, but not a firearm, one should be free from any religious compulsion, but the state can mandate the purchase of insurance. We can’t even attempt to persuade 16 year olds from postponing intercourse, but we will use whatever means necessary to prevent them from having a beer. We will lecture people on the dangers of theocracy, but ignore the dangers of state atheism.

      “but he doesn’t want to extend that right to anyone who disagrees with him. ”

      There’s nothing in this piece that would lead a reasonable person to such a conclusion.

      • GG

        Well said.

      • R. K. Ich

        Well put. It’s not ever a choice between gods or no gods. Somebody will assume that role in social order. The question is for us: will our Republic humbly acknowledge it cannot subsist without fearing the God that sets it up or tears it down by His own dread decree? Or will our Republic take up the mantle of Originator of Rights and Liberties and not a servant of the Most High (Romans 13)?

        A strong wickedness holds sway over our land.

      • Justin L

        Yes, and an 18yo can buy a gun but can’t buy a beer. And not everyone has health insurance under our current laws, which by Esolen’s logic means we live in a society that doesn’t care about people. We can all whine all we want about the laws we don’t agree with. That’s the price of living in a democracy, which is the worst form of government apart from all the others that have ever been tried.

        • DE-173

          “Yes, and an 18yo can buy a gun but can’t buy a beer.”

          Are you trying to make my point? We don’t live in a democracy, but a democratic republic, that’s beginning to look more and more like democratic despotism, where there’s elections, but the real rules are made by the unelected.

    • Tony

      I have pointed out a logical error: the impossibility of neutrality as regards certain kinds of questions. Kindly focus on the logic. There are certain kinds of questions which do not admit of neutrality. Neutrality on the matter of slavery, in the days of Stephen Douglas, was an illusion, or an evasion. Neutrality on the matter of abortion is another illusion or evasion.

      Your President Bloggs is an idiot. Kindly tell me just what was wrong with the status quo ante, which allowed for genuine tolerance, and a general understanding that religion is central to human life — before the court began to blast it to smithereens. Absolutists on the supposed wall of separation between religion and civic life are the ones who are really intolerant.

      • R. K. Ich

        Truth! Any cursory search on YouTube will yield videos of Christians being arrested in Western countries and states for merely speaking out against homosexuality (in the context of decrying other sins) in the public square.

        The intolerant secularists aren’t after coexisting (as that wretched interfaith bumper sticker pleas); they are after demolishing the conscience of the state (religion) for the sake of “progress”.

      • Justin L

        But there is no logic here. You’re confusing allowing individual choice in certain areas with “alteration of the whole social order.” I go to church on Sunday, but I’m completely neutral on whether other people go. I don’t spank my children, but I’m neutral on other parents’ choices of discipline, as long as they are not abusive. I’m not gay, but I have no wish to legislate what other people decide to do in the privacy of their bedrooms. In a free society, there has to be freedom of choice in certain areas. You talk about “genuine tolerance” in the past? You are aware, I presume, that the founding fathers agreed to tolerate slavery and many of them actually practiced it? It’s not just that you want a theocracy. You want a theocracy of your own design that forces everyone to comply with your own particular interpretation of Christianity. Now THAT is something none of us should feel neutral about.

        • Tony

          Oh, don’t be silly. Come now. We are talking not about private actions but about things which are public and which affect the whole public, immediately and intrinsically. What on earth can you possibly mean by “theocracy”? When I hear that word used, all I can understand by it is that somebody doesn’t want the body politic to revisit the purported wisdom of the sexual revolution. That’s it, and that’s all. By that definition, almost every American before 1960 was a theocrat. It’s silly.

          Yes, I am quite aware that the Founders who inherited slavery did not instantly abolish it. It is the great blot upon our nation. What does that have to do with the question? That the Founders are not to be trusted about anything? They themselves did not justify slavery; Jefferson himself said that he trembled with fear when he considered that God is just.

          Here’s the thing. NOBODY among our Founders envisioned a secular state such as we have now, so hostile to religion that atheists can bring a public school’s football team to court for wearing crosses on their uniforms in honor of a deceased teammate. NOBODY, not even Jefferson. Were they theocrats too? I can point you to Protestant progressives circa 1890 (see the Divorce Reform League) who believed that the growing numbers of divorces, reaching in some places near to one in ten, was a grave threat to the social order. Were they theocrats? The anti-pornography crusader Anthony Comstock died a national hero, praised by leaders of both parties. Is everybody who looks out for public morals a theocrat? How, when they don’t all belong to the same church? All nonsense.

          In my ideal state, local people with their local customs determine almost everything of importance to them. People get to argue things out face to face, and then live with their decisions. If you want to include swill in your school’s curriculum, I’m not going to get in your way. But don’t you get in my way if I’d like to return to the wisdom of older textbooks written by people who didn’t have to reach for the inhaler when somebody read the 23rd psalm.

          • Justin L

            “They themselves did not justify slavery;”

            As a matter of fact, the Founders from North and South Carolina and Georgia did justify slavery, and some of them even invoked the Bible to support the institution. Even the Catholic Church has not held a consistent position on the issue of slavery, and we all know what St. Paul said to Philemon. Religious views change as society changes (and thank God in this case.) On the issue of slavery, all of the Founders chose to sign a document that allowed slaves to count as 3/5 of a person. They did this in spite of the fact that some of them opposed slavery, some supported it, some did both (claimed to oppose it but owned slaves), and some were NEUTRAL. Guess what? That’s the way it works when a group of people try to forge agreements.

            You rather strain credulity when you personally appoint the Founders — actually not the Founders, but your own opinion of what the Founders would collectively decide — as the ultimate arbiters of today’s morality. What you really want to believe is that the Founders, to a man, would support your own personal convictions, thus lending them the gravitas to form … a modern-day Constitution and all federal law. This is what I mean when I say you want a one man theocracy, with you, of course, in charge.

            • Tony

              I am not claiming that the Founders were saints. I am saying that they, the framers of the law in question, had NO intention of creating a naked secular state. And since they are the lawmakers in this case, what they believed they were doing when they made the law is of great importance.

              You must know that the 3/5 compromise was insisted upon by the North? The pro-slavery delegates wanted the slaves counted in full. It implied nothing metaphysical.

              You want to show me a Founder who believed that the First Amendment implied radical secularism in the public sphere. Name one among the signers of the Declaration or the Constitution. Just one. You can’t do it.

          • M

            Tony writes, “In my ideal state, local people with their local customs determine almost everything of importance to them. ” Need I point out that local people are not always going to agree with one another either, meaning that we are all going to have to accept being overruled on occasions. We’re all free to advocate for what we believe is right, but the idea that nobody should “get in my way” is very egotistical. In a nation of over 300 million people, I’m afraid that we all run into people who disagree with us and the truth is we don’t get to decide for the majority. In a local community of 30,000 people, that is still true.

            • Tony

              You’re still not grasping my point.

              It has nothing to do with disagreements in general. You may say that we should accept Company X’s proposal to take over the town landfill. I think the proposal is inadequate. Then we argue it out.

              You may say that we should not teach Milton in our local school. I say that you’re crazy. We argue it out.

              There are certain issues, though, which do not admit of neutrality. It’s not like leaving the Milton up to the discretion of the English teachers. They are issues for which there is an excluded middle. That was Stephen Douglas’ ploy, and Lincoln saw through it. You cannot be agnostic on the question of whether someone may own slaves. The very agnosticism implies that you do NOT believe that human beings possess so inherent a dignity as to make chattel slavery evil. That is to take a position while pretending to be above the fray.

              I do not require people to agree with me. I am asking that they be honest, and that they use their reason. It is either dishonest or irrational to say, “I am of no opinion regarding the inherent dignity of human life.” The very statement affirms that you do not affirm the dignity. It is a denial.

              • M

                One doesn’t have to be agnostic on every issue (although one can be that too,) but one can be pragmatic. A good example of this is that the Founders were pragmatic when they agreed to the 3/5 compromise, but it’s very clear that there were advocates and proponents on both sides of the issue and perhaps some who were sufficiently “agnostic” that they didn’t have a strong opinion either way and felt that the issue should be decided by individual states. That is why we have compromises. The issues of states’ rights trumping the rights of humans

                There’s a lot of nuance in every issue. Things aren’t so cut and dried. For example, I am genuinely agnostic as to whether homosexual behavior is wrong. I’ve studied theologians on both sides and neither side has convinced me. That doesn’t mean, as you suggest above, that my agnosticism affirms a belief one way or the other. This isn’t an issue that effects me personally (since I’m straight,) so I’m not forced to make a choice. I feel comfortable being agnostic, remain non-judgmental, and support other people. I think many people feel this way, and I find it reasonable. I don’t think the State needs to step in and make a choice. It should remain neutral.

                To use your own example of the “inherent dignity of human life,” I doubt many would disagree. What most of us would disagree about is how belief in the dignity of human life translates into law. We could be talking about pacifism, war, guns, universal health care, government safety regulations, law enforcement, abortion, the death sentence, respect for personal sexual choices, the right to education, child protection, and on and on. You appear to be saying that your own political views should receive precedence over others and that you wish to impose your own personal religious beliefs on the State and therefore on our whole society. That’s not going to happen in a society as complex and diverse as our own. We each have just one vote.

                • Tony

                  No, we don’t each just have one vote. In fact, very few of us have any votes at all. We are governed by unelected bureaucrats, and life-appointed archons. Ordinary people in their ordinary dealings with one another could (and did) come up with all kinds of fruitful ways in which local governments and local, civic interests might cooperate with local churches. There need be no vicious and doctrinaire severance. The Founders envisioned no such.

                  The State cannot be neutral about certain things, because it is LOGICALLY impossible. A decision must be made. You cannot have a State that pretends neutrality on the matter of abortion, no more than one that pretends neutrality on the matter of lynching. To pretend to be noncommittal is, in such cases, itself to offend. If you say, “I refuse to say whether a mother may kill her child in the womb,” you have already made a choice. You cannot say that you have not. You have chosen to view the child in the womb as not deserving of the utmost protection.

                  We can argue all day long about prudential policies regarding this or that aspect of the common good. Such matters should be up for vigorous debate. And sometimes people need to make a decision that forecloses all the alternatives. But that is not neutrality. Again — you can’t make clothing be optional on a beach, and then say that you are only neutral about the matter. That is not logical. You have, in effect, a nude beach, period.

                  As for “respect for personal sexual choices,” give me a break. What that “respect” means can be seen all around us, in the chaos that my young students must face, in their broken homes, in missing parents, in the poisoned relations between the sexes, and the coarsening of the culture. Why should anybody respect the irresponsible, the slack, the dissolute, the hard-hearted, the treacherous, the licentious, the obscene, and the crude? I’m going to “respect” the open-marriage movement? Respect some guy who has fathered seven children by five different women? Respect people parading naked down the street? Respect a woman for dumping her husband because he doesn’t light her fire anymore? Respect pornographers, and teachers who peddle obscenity to their students? Respect people who snuff out the lives of babies? Respect them for that? For exactly what great and difficult moral virtue? I’m supposed to love sinners, not least because I am one. I’ll be damned if I kiss their feet for the sake of the sin.

                  The Sexual Revolutionists are like teenage brats, I think. They want what they want, and to hell with what that does to everybody else. They used to justify their program by saying that it would bring in the Age of Aquarius, or some other such nonsense. They don’t even bother to say that anymore. They are downright offended if you ask them even to consider the common good. They have a RIGHT to — whatever they please. I can point to plenty of children whose lives have been made subordinate to the frictional pleasures of their parents. Those would include children whose bodies fill the dumpsters of hospitals and clinics. Unutterably foul — to wring your pleasure from the hearts of the innocent.

                  But it all comes down to sex, doesn’t it? What’s a “theocrat”? Somebody who believes in a moral code that is more than three days old, and that puts some healthy restraints upon people’s sexual frolics, for the sake of the common good and the love that ought to be fostered between the sexes. It means that everybody of any moral decency when my parents were dating were theocrats. Amazing, that all those people, from all those various churches and synagogues, and some from none at all, were theocrats. I prefer to think that they were ordinary grownups….

                  • M

                    Now really, Tony, when have you ever seen “people parading naked down the street,” much less been expected to respect them? Your point, as far as I can gather, is not only that there is sexual sin in the world (how many children did Abraham father with how many different women?), but that you want to legislate your own version of morality and that you believe the Founding Fathers (some of whom were apparently not the most straight-laced in their own personal lives) would back you up.

            • DE-173

              “run into people who disagree with us and the truth is we don’t get to decide for the majority. ”

              Unless of course if you are a regulator, or a judge or an impatient guy with a pen and a phone, and a coffee cup.

  • jacobum

    Venerable Archbishop Sheen pretty much nailed in his inimical way…to wit:

    “There is no other subject on which the average mind is so much confused as the subject
    of tolerance and intolerance. Tolerance applies only to persons, but never to principles.
    Intolerance applies only to principles, but never to persons”

    “America,it is said, is suffering from intolerance. It is not. It is suffering from tolerance: tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos. Our country is not nearly so much overrun with the bigoted as it is overrun with the broad-minded. The man who can make up his mind in an orderly way, as a man might make up his bed, is called a bigot”

    “Our Lord was Crucified by the nice people who held that religion was all right in it’s place, so long as it’s place was not here, where it might demand of them a change of heart. The gravest error of the nice people in all ages is the denial of sin.”

    The good Archbishop has been dead for 30 years now. He really knew what he was talking about. He is as relevant today as ever…probably even more so. Where are today’s Bishop Sheens’? Certainly not in New York, Boston or Chicago (now or soon to be)

    • BillinJax

      Bravo!!
      I’d love to see someone with a huge picture of Bishop Sheen leading the Parade in place of Cardinal Dolan. But again, today that would be seen as intolerant.

      • jacobum

        Outstanding idea! Organizer’s probably would find a reason to deny it though…such as Abshp Sheen hasn’t been dead long enough or he is only a “Venerable” or “it would be an uncharitable act” to gender confused marchers.

    • Chad Koenig

      I see blame the bishops right? It is not our own responsibility to shape the world we live? As Chesterton said, there is something wrong with the world and thing is me!

      • jacobum

        Observing empirical evidence of a lack/failure of leadership by those charged with the position, authority, duty and responsibility to do so never excuses one of their own personal responsibility. We are all individually responsible for our own salvation. However, your illogical if you think that you have to be perfect before making a prudential “judgment”. Using that argument makes no sense. We make judgments everyday on a myriad of issues and choices. Using your sophistry would give everyone a pass….”After all who am I to judge”….Oh wait…where have we heard this before. As to Chesterton? Taking him out of context is common.

  • LHJ

    http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/213898/death-privacy/mark-r-levin

    This is part of an excerpt from an article in National Review of Mark Levin’s book. It is a very insightful look at the reasoning in Roe v. Wade. Judge Blackmun tries to remain neutral on when life begins.
    Above is the link,well worth reading.

    Blackmun wrote that what really mattered was the unborn baby’s viability outside the womb. A fetus capable of life outside the womb, Blackmun believed, was more deserving of protection than one in its earliest stages of development. He also shot down Texas’s attempt to define life as beginning at conception, which “by adopting one theory of life,” would have then allowed Texas to extend its interest to the earliest stage of pregnancy. Blackmun wrote, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man¹s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”

    Blackmun gave deference to medicine, philosophy, and theology (from his own perspective), but not to the Constitution, the people, the states, or the other branches of the federal government. In truth, Blackmun did establish, at least for constitutional purposes, when life begins by recognizing abortion as a constitutionally protected right to privacy. He did precisely what he lectured should not be done.

  • Eric

    I find this editorial very confused. Dr. Esolen is arguing that the separation of church and state is a bad idea. Then he goes ahead and makes nonsensical comparisons to justify his position such as a nude beach, etc. The greatest gift to Founders bequeathed to us is the separation of church and state. And it is precisely because of the arguments Dr. Esolen makes. He believes his world view is the ‘right’ world view and, thus, everyone should believe as he does. The religious wars is France were based on Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots) fighting for religious supremacy. Well, maybe not quite supremacy. For Catholics, without doubt. For Protestants, the right to exist and practice their religion freely. Thousands died some, in just one day. Do we need to talk about Ireland? Europe? The Middle East today? All of these problems were or are caused by religious intolerance. The Founders saw and understood this (the majority of Founders) and for the first time in history, created a Constitution that was completely neutral on issues of religion. The radical right in this country has taken the word secular and turned it into an evil word so I will use the word neutral.
    We have had no religious wars in this country. The radical religious right that lost trying to force religion on the government has continued to try and do so ever since. Dr. Esolen’s argument is nothing more than those who were in the minority at the founding of the nation continuing to try to force their religious views on everyone else.
    Reading many of the comments posted here, almost everyone is fixated with the issue of abortion. This is very much a church and state issue. And, I believe, Roe vs. Wade was a brilliant court decision. Opposition to a woman’s right to choose is about religion. Those who oppose a woman’s right to an abortion base their argument on their interpretation of god. But many religions and certainly most non-believers (now approximately 20% of the US population) don’t have the same religious views. Under a Catholic government, many of these folks would be persecuted and even put to death for apostasy. The same under a Southern Baptist administration. Before long Catholics and Protestants would be killing each other again over who should control our government. So the argument that Dr. Esolen is making, to destroy the ‘wall’ that separates church from state is first and foremost un-American but, equally as important, an extremely dangerous concept because history has shown us repeatedly that it leads to religious persecution and then to death and destruction.
    We need to be more educated about the benefits of the separation of church and state and be eternally grateful and on guard to protect the greatest gift the Founders bequeathed to us: the separation of church and state.

    • Tony

      Wrong on many counts, I’m afraid.

      Historically, the “separation of Church and State,” a phrase that does not appear in the Constitution, meant simply that the national government could not set up an established church. It did not mean that people in their public capacities had to scrub away any vestiges of religious faith, religious profession, religiously based argument, religious reading, prayer, and so forth. I beg you to observe the behavior of Americans of all sorts for the better part of 200 years.

      There is not the slightest indication anywhere in the world that Christians are so hostile to one another that they would break out into war. The actual facts are utterly different. Doctrinaire secularism is steeped to the eyeballs in blood. In fact, the “religious wars” of the seventeenth century, now four hundred years old, were largely wars among the new nation-states, and did not follow doctrinaire religious lines.

      Anyone paying any attention at all must notice that the one thing doctrinaire secularism has done, ironically, is to bring Christians of all kinds together. They pray together, they celebrate together, they marry one another, they attend one another’s schools, they read one another’s books, and so on. I am delighted to speak at Protestant colleges, where I am treated like a prince; but I am never invited to secular colleges, unless by a Christian group there.

      Please pay attention to what the Founders meant and what they did. THEY provided for the establishment of schools, where they assumed that children would of course read Scripture. They SAID as much, in the Northwest Ordinance.

      My opposition to abortion is not based upon Scripture. It is based upon reason. The fetus is human (not canine) and it is alive (not dead). It must therefore be protected. To deny that is ultimately to subject all human beings to a judgment, about whether they are “human enough,” based upon some qualitative measure, to deserve protection.

      Islam is the outlier — something that the Left in this country refuses to acknowledge. Leave Islam out of the equation, and you see that in the long history of mankind, almost every war you can name had nothing whatever to do with religion. They have to do with power, glory, ambition, vengeance, fear, bloodlust, wealth, poverty, and general madness. How anybody can look upon the history of the last miserable century and conclude that the biggest threat to peace in the world is the possibility that a kid in a public school might read Milton, or the people in Anytown might begin their council meeting with a prayer, I have no idea.

      You will find, if you take the trouble to learn about what the Founders did, that all I am asking for is a modest return to their wisdom. It’s the Progressives who have led us backward into a centralized rule by bureaucrats and judges. What did Lincoln DO? What books for school children did Adams take for granted?

      • Eric

        Tony, you are entitled to your opinion but not your own facts. The Founders made very clear they wanted government to be completely neutral by writing a Constitution that does not mention god anywhere. The only two places anything religious is mentioned in the Constitution. The first is in Article VI, Section 3 which is knows as the “No religious test Clause” and in the First Amendment where it states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …””

        The Founders were not anti-religion. Many were very religious themselves. Some were Deists. Some were atheists. But our Constitution, for the first time in human history, created a government that allows each one of us to follow the dictates of our own conscience. Not the dictates of a government condoned religion or church. Whether that leads to religious belief or non-belief does not matter. What matters is that each one of us has the right to follow the dictates of our conscience. Why you would find this problematic is really very hard to understand. This is what it means to be an American.
        To argue that in the long history of mankind war had nothing to do with religion is absolute nonsense. Have you ever heard of the Crusades? The Protestant/Catholic religious wars? The inquisition which was really a war on Jews? And yes, you are right, atheism has no bragging rights either. But we in the United States have not had religious wars and that is dues to one thing: the separation of church and state. The Founders were brilliant men. And they gave us this great gift. You need to really grasp the importance of keeping religion out of government and government out of religion. The alternative is documented throughout history.
        Some of your other comments are too ideologically driven to waste my time responding.

        • Tony

          I believe I said that Islam was the great outlier, and the Crusades were an example, belated and generally ineffectual, of Europe’s attempt to defend herself against Islamic aggression.

          I believe I also alluded to the Thirty Years’ War, which was more of a war among modern nation-states than a war of religion; hence we have Richilieu’s France fighting on the side of the Protestants.

          There is no such thing as “the” Inquisition. You have to specify which one you are talking about, and then you have to examine the historical circumstances. Of course, Stalin and Mao did more evil in a single day than did the worst of the inquisitors over the centuries.

          And history teaches exactly what I’ve said. Almost every war that the human race has ever fought — with Islam providing the most remarkable exception — has had nothing to do with religion. Our own wars have had nothing to do with religion.

          Not one of the signers of the Declaration or the Constitution was an atheist. There are one or two Deists in there, but odd Deists at that; a true Deist, a la Spinoza, does not believe in the efficacy of prayer. That would leave out Franklin and Jefferson.

          The Constitution was never meant to be a cultural declaration. It is a set of by-laws regarding the relationships of various branches of government. That’s all. The Declaration mentions God in several places, and they are very important places.

          Please pay attention to what the Founders did. The meetings of the Continental Congress began with prayer. Why? The Founders who passed the Northwest Ordinance explicitly said that schools should be established for the proliferation of knowledge and piety. Why? They knew their history, too.

          • Eric

            Again, you have created a world view made of rose colored glasses. First of all, there is no such thing as a Christian church. There are two broad divisions in the West; Catholic and Protestant. Within Protestantism, there are literally hundreds of denominations. Your argument that Christians have never fought each others is simply not true. Even in your argument about the Thirty Year’s War being more about modern nation-states, religion was used as a blunt instrument to kill either Catholics or Protestants. The acceptance of Protestantism was primarily for political purposes to overthrow the theocratic rule of Rome. You can’t simply separate the church from the state when the state and church are the same as was true throughout history until the birth of the United States and its Constitution. By the way, the Declaration of Independence uses the term ‘creator.” That is not a Christian term. That’s a Deist term.
            The Declaration of Independence has nothing to do with the laws of the land. The Constitution and the Ten Amendments or Bill of Rights are the laws that govern our country. That fact that god is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution makes very clear the intent of the Founders. During the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin offered to begin each day with a prayer. That idea was tabled and never brought up again. Once the Constitution was ratified, religious extremists as they have done throughout U.S. History, have incrementally forced their religious beliefs on everyone else. And, like yourself, continue to do so to this day.
            Probably the most important personage of the Revolution was Tom Paine, an atheist. Without him, there never would have been a Revolution. It was his brilliance that stirred Americans to revolt.
            Finally, when you speak of Colonial times and schools, all of them were Protestant except for Maryland.. When Catholics began to arrive in numbers the discrimination and hatred of them, especially the Irish, is well documented. Catholics despised the public school system because it was used to indoctrinate Catholic children into the Protestant religion. That’s why Catholics started their own private school system. Catholic private schools were the only alternative other than private schools for the children of the very rich, until around the 1980’s. That’s when Christian Fundamentalists began to push for home schooling and also started to create their own private schools and then pushing for vouchers and charters.
            Again, you are justified have your opinion but not your own facts.

            • Tony

              I know about the Maryland colony.

              One thing at a time here.

              On Tom Paine: he was a Deist, perhaps an agnostic. He was not at all universally admired. He took no part in the Continental Congress. Franklin himself admonished him for his radical views, and Adams called Tom Paine’s “Reason” “a whore.”

              “Creator” is not a Christian term? What are you drinking? There are two brands of Deism, as far as I can gather. One, springing from Spinoza, asserts the existence of God, but one who is coterminous with the universe — hence, NOT a Creator. The other brand is a little closer to Unitarianism. It posits a Creator, but NOT a Providential God, that is, not a God to whom you would pray. If you are PRAYING TO GOD, you are not a Deist. You may be a Unitarian, as Adams became, later in his life, but you are not a Deist.

              The Catholics did start their own schools, sure. That was because they were wary of what was going on in the public schools. That implied, of course, that some religious instruction was going on in those public schools; and that only proves my point. There was NOT any crazy allergic reaction against religion playing a part in public life.

              The Continental Congress did begin meetings with prayer. You will find the Founders constantly talking about religion and piety. Madison himself said that the Constitution was framed for a religious people and no other. Remember what the Constitution is. It is not a cultural document. It is a set of by-laws, a blueprint for the mutual relations among bodies of government. Do you expect Christians to mention God in their owners’ manuals for automobiles? Pay attention to what these men DID when they passed our laws, when they gathered in public, et cetera. Pay attention to the books they promulgated in the schools.

              For you, anything other than the scrubbed-clean naked public square is a “theocracy.” That’s nuts. The USA was not a theocracy during all those years before the SCOTUS sided with Angela Davis and made a cultural expression, school prayer, “unconstitutional.” Was Grover Cleveland a theocrat when he insisted that Utah be admitted to the Union only provided that the Mormons renounce bigamy? Were the drafters of the Northwest Ordinance theocrats? That’s a bullsh*t word that you throw around. It means only, “Gosh, these people want us to reconsider the Sexual Revolution!” That’s all it means.

              And exactly which Christians, where, are killing each other over points of doctrine? Don’t mention the atheist Protestants fighting atheist Catholics in Ireland over land, power, vengeance, and tribalism. The fact is, NO Christians in the western world are fighting one another. That is as true in Canada (where there is no Constitutional wall of separation) as it is in the US. It is as true in Italy as it is in Sweden.

              Meanwhile, secularists have drowned the world in blood over the last 100 years.

              • Eric

                Tony,
                Tom Paine: “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches … appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

                George Washington used Paine’s writings to inspire his troops to remember what they were fighting for, and even suggested that no other individual had done more for the cause of American independence.
                After writing the Age of Reason religious folk turned against him. The person most responsible for the American and French revolutions was shunned by religious folks like yourself. Why? Because everyone is supposed to believe like they do.
                Deism is basically a belief in a god that does not partake in human affairs. It is equated to a Swiss watch. God wound up the watch and started it running and has left the world to its own devices. The beauty of a Deist religious approach is that it makes man responsible for what happens to world around him not some bearded guy in the sky.
                The Constitution is the body of laws under which we live. The Founders were brilliant in keeping god out of the Constitution. In this way, every American had the right to follow the dictates of their conscience. You seem to find this problematic. This is the very definition of what it means to be an American.
                The public square needs to be religiously neutral, even more so today than at our founding. Generally speaking, at the founding of our nation (and I’m only speaking about the East Coast because in other parts of what today is the United States there were different religious traditions) most citizens were Protestants. In different states, there were different Protestant denominations running the government or involved with the government. You could be imprisoned or put to death if you didn’t pay taxes and convert to the dominant state religion depending on what state you lived in. The founders were highly influenced by the Enlightenment (many had travelled to Europe and had been exposed to Enlightenment ideas) and religious leaders like Roger Williams of Rhode Island called for a “wall of separation” between church and state. Massachusetts (John Winthrop) found William’s views so dangerous that it banished him and threatened to hang him if he ever returned. Williams founded Providence as a refuge for those persecuted for their “conscience.”
                Today, the United States is very different religiously from its founding. There are nearly 100 million Catholics, the largest religious tradition in the country. Atheists make up the second largest group at approx. 20%. Third is that wacko group knows as the Southern Baptists (16%). After that there are innumerable Protestant denominations, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims (Shiite and Sunni), Hindi, and so on. As a Catholic, I am astonished that you don’t understand how difficult Catholics had it in this country until very recent times.
                I find your argument that Christians are pure as the driven snow and secularists evil garbage a very dangerous world view. You start to sound more like ISIS than a man of reason. To blame all your fears on secularists is a sickness. I don’t recognize my god in anything you say. The god I believe in is a much more generous soul and much less ideological driven than the god you profess to worship.
                Finally, I have stayed away from the issue of abortion because the entire discussion, once brought up, can go on endlessly. But you have mentioned it in almost each of your posts and I would like to clarify something. Being anti-abortion is not being pro-life. It is being anti-choice. I am pro-choice because I am pro-life. We are at 7 billion people on this planet. Another 7 billion people and the suffering and death that will result from this overpopulation is already raising its ugly head. Don’t for one moment think you have the higher ground on this debate. Being anti-abortion is being anti-life. Not pro-life. That is the propaganda of the radical religious right. One is either pro-choice or anti-choice. If it comes to being pro-life, I am much more pro-life than you are. I see someone who is anti-abortion as a death merchant.

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