01 July 2007

Dividing the nation

I've written before about how any serious intrusion of religion into politics threatens both technological progress and individual freedom. But even the apparently milder forms of establishment of religion pose a subtler danger -- the risk of creating a category of second-class citizens, a situation where some Americans are a little less American than others.

The endless conflicts about whether crosses and nativity scenes and the Ten Commandments should be displayed on government property are far more than mere arguments about what kind of kitsch is appropriate where. Symbols are, well, symbolic -- they have a significance far beyond themselves. The hammer-and-sickle logo displayed on government buildings and official documents in the Soviet Union did not just mean that its rulers were interested in nails and wheat; it meant that the state supported and identified with a specific ideology, privileging it above other ideologies. The presence of that symbol, and its disappearance from such settings after 1991, both sent clear messages about the official identity of the whole society.

Just as the hammer and sickle in official settings proclaimed the Soviet Union to be a Communist state, as opposed to one in which Communism was merely one of a number of accepted ideologies, so Christian symbols in official settings in the United States (if they became as pervasive as their proponents hope) would inexorably assert that our country was a Christian nation, one in which Christianity had a privileged connection with national identity which other religions would not have.

What would be wrong with that, some might ask? Isn't it simply a fact that Christians are the majority of the population (even if not so overwhelming a majority as we are usually told)? And isn't it simply a fact that the United States is part of Western civilization, a civilization whose history was influenced far more strongly by Christianity than by Buddhism or Zoroastrianism or whatever?

To see more clearly what is wrong with this, try to imagine that that there were a drive under way to lace official settings with symbols representing the white race, with the aim being to assert the identity of the United States as a "white nation". No one would accept the claim that this was merely an innocuous recognition of the fact that white people are a statistical majority of the US population, or that our society is part of Western civilization which was built mostly by white people. It would immediately be seen for what it would in fact be: an effort to make non-white Americans feel that they were second-class citizens, that the state was not really theirs, that they were a little less American than the majority.

That's why I can never accept displays of superficially-innocuous Christian symbols on government property, or inscriptions of the Ten Commandments in the courtrooms where the laws of the state are interpreted. These symbols have meaning. Their meaning is that I and millions of other Americans are second-class citizens, that the state belongs primarily to a defined category of people of which I am not a member, that I am not quite as American as they are.

The Russians banished this kind of ideological branding of the state from their country sixteen years ago. Let's not allow the fundamentalists to take our own country in the opposite direction.

Note: this posting is a contribution to the July 2007 Blogswarm against Theocracy project. For other contributions and more information, see here. Also recommended is First Freedom First, an organization dedicated to separation of church and state.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. Too often the "what's the harm?" line of reasoning obscures the fact that proponents of religious symbols in public places have the burden of proving their constitutionality, not the other way around. You've succinctly summed up just what the harm is, and why theocracy must be resisted.

01 July, 2007 07:47  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Infidel, the comparison you made with a white nation symbol... I am filing that away to use in the future when people ask how Christian symbols in government places hurt anything. With credit to you, of course. This is a great post.

01 July, 2007 18:17  
Blogger Batocchio said...

America is a Christian nation by demographic only, not legally, and was expressly set up not to be a Christian nation. There's no reason people can't decorate their places of worship, their homes and their bodies with as many religious symbols as they want, but there's harm in the state endorsing any religion.

06 July, 2007 15:33  

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