Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The Great Big Coffee-House

Hugh Hewitt and Jeff Jarvis are talking about religion. Are secular elites bullying people of faith in America, or is the supposed secular coup a fiction in a nation that remains essentially Christian?

I'm following the conversation with interest. I tend to agree with Jarvis. There's a deep hostility to evangelical Christianity in many places in America (I work in one of them), but most such people have no design to eradicate Christianity. They just want to keep it at arm's length. Fair enough.

On the other hand, I do agree with Hewitt that there's a deep unfairness, and a destructive power, in the double standard that says it's OK for private persons and commercial media to spout despicable depictions of evangelical Christianity that rightly would be execrated if they were aimed at other faiths (or unbelief).

If you close one eye and look at America, you can see basic ideas of right and wrong -- a bulwark of a robust, free people -- eroding under attack from reckless and embittered relativists. Close the other eye and you see just as clearly blind fundamentalist morality on the march, threatening to enshrine an un-democratic Old Testament creed as the higher law.

Open both eyes, then, and see what Madison saw. The tension, the negotiation, the struggle for consensus and a common view, is the unscripted balancing act that keeps America safe.

But the best thing about this Hewitt-Jarvis discussion is what it isn't. So far, the focus isn't on government and religion. That's in there, but the posts are largely about We the People and our faiths and our joint ownership of the nation. I like that. Too often talk of religion in America presumes Americans are passive little leaves buffeted by the whims of a few fundamentalists in the corridors of Congress, or a few secularists on the 9th Circuit Court.

We're citizens, not subjects. Use common sense and talk out the problem, the way Hewitt and Jarvis are doing. If you wouldn't like someone to talk that way about your religion (or your philosophy), don't talk that way about theirs. That doesn't preclude honest debate, a good-natured joke, or hard questioning of other people's moral foundations. But it does take the wind out of bitter invective and a lot of pointless bickering.

If you don't want to bring Hawaiian volcano worshippers into your kid's classroom, don't try to bring the preacher into it, either. The rest is details. My suggestions? Put the manger scene on private property, not the lawn of the town hall. Let the middle school students and their parents organize the Christmas caroling. The more often the people, and not the courts or the government, work things out, the better the solutions will be.

George Washington, the practical plantation-manager among the learned Founders, often spoke about the political importance of religion. He did so in his "Farewell Address" (based on a draft by Hamilton), where he named it along with education and public credit as things productive of "public felicity." He was not talking about government-sponsored religion. He was talking about the people and their faiths. Plural. When it came to the government, Washington was no less a separationist than Madison and Jefferson. He had had first-hand experience with the problem -- or rather the twin problems -- of the people failing to accomodate one another's beliefs and the government's heavy-handed impositions.

As commander in chief during the Revolution, Washington outlawed New England regiments' "Pope's Day" buffoonery because it offended his Catholic soldiers. Politically correct? He had a war to win and he needed everyone. In 1777 he opposed a congressional plan to appoint brigade chaplains in the Continental Army. "Among many other weighty objections to the Measure," he wrote to John Hancock (then president of Congress), "it has been suggested, that it has a tendency to introduce religious disputes into the Army, which above all things should be avoided, and in many instances would compel men to a mode of Worship which they do not profess."


American courts overturn official public school prayer and city-sponsored manger scenes. They outrun popular opinion in many cases, but it's not the judges' fault. Separating the strands of civic religion from state religion has grown difficult because government has seeped into fields of American life that were, in Washington's or de Tocqueville's days, purely private or communal.

That, not judicial activism, caused the seeming retreat of religion from the civic realm in the United States in the late 20th century. The courts are just following where the government goes (usually with the invitation of the people), and making sure the government keeps to its constitutional rules.

Here's a story you may have seen in the news over the past few years. It unfolded in my hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania. Because of a lawsuit, a 50 inch-by-29 inch bronze Ten Commandments plaque on the courthouse now has been "disappeared" behind a 50 inch-by-29 inch slab of blank plastic.

I see that courthouse, and the fight about the place of religion on its wall, as a miniature model of the national debate: a tension between two ways of seeing America. On the one hand, America is a group of people ruled by a government that each of us wants to see as sharing our values but essentially impartial. (That itself is a tension.)

At the same time, Americans are a set of very opinionated people sharing the same public space. The small-town Pennsylvania courthouse has two historical identities. It is the seat of the legal system. But it also was the people's public parlor. Courts met there four times a year, for sessions lasting a few weeks. The rest of the time, the courthouse was everyone's property. West Chester was a town big enough to have a thriving social and political life, but too small to have a large meeting hall of its own. The courthouse served that purpose.

West Chester's main Baptist and Presbyterian churches grew from preaching done in the courthouse in the 1820s. Chester County Horticultural Society showed off its prize vegetables in the grand jury room. Abolitionists met there, and anti-abolitionist mobs attacked them. Political parties nominated their candidates there. Private recruiters banged the drum there to rally men for the Civil War regiments.

Over the years, the citizens paid to beautify and improve the building -- or persuaded the commissioners to tax the rest of the county to do it. They rebuilt the courthouse in 1846, then expanded it, then expanded it again. They added a sundial and a clock; and in 1869 they erected a fountain in front with one spigot for people, one for horses, and a little trough at the bottom to dispense drinks for dogs.

None of this was accomplished without a tempest of public indignation. One person's philanthropic gesture is the ugliest thing another person has ever seen. And even when two agree on the ends, they rarely think alike on how it should be done. West Chester town meetings -- held in the courthouse, of course -- to resolve public issues were tumultuous: "Everything looked harmonious but the very first resolve brought down the whole house in a storm of opposition," one account from the 1850s reads. "Nobody was in favor of anything, and everybody was opposed to everything."

During 134 years of building, and rebuilding, and expanding the courthouse, nobody proposed posting a Ten Commandments plaque. The plaque arrived in 1920. It belongs to the civic face of the courthouse's identity, not its legal side. A committee of citizens, headed by a Bible class teacher, bought it. It was put up with the consent of the county commissioners, but the idea wasn't theirs.

It was erected at a time of great fear among the Protestant majority in middle America, which felt threatened by the tide of immigration from southern and Eastern Europe and the nebulous menace of atheistic Bolshevism. Darwin's teachings seemed to derail traditional Bible-based morality. None of this was explicit in the erection of the plaque. But the Ku Klux Klan played on these fears and claimed hundreds of members in West Chester in those years. There were intense fundamentalist revivals in the borough churches, under huge banners printed with: "Christ For West Chester: West Chester for Christ."

U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell, in his decision ordering the plaque taken down, wrote about separation of church and state. He wrote about the mistake government makes when it appears to endorse one religion over others.

What he might have talked about as well was the ever-shifting, never-ending American public discussion of our religions. The idea that atheists (or Hindus, or Buddhists, or wiccans) could come to that building seeking justice, but meet effrontery at the door, simply was not part of the public discourse in West Chester in 1920. It is so now.