The Cultural Hostility to Religion

By Garry, Patrick M. | Modern Age, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Cultural Hostility to Religion


Garry, Patrick M., Modern Age


WITH FIRST AMENDMENT FREEDOMS, the courts act as guardians, protectors from whatever social and cultural attitudes might threaten those freedoms. In the area of religion, however, the courts have not been so steadfast. According to a recent study completed by legal scholars from the University of Virginia, political attitudes and conflicts have shaped the Supreme Court's Establishment Clause opinions more than have original intent or constitutional precedent. (1) Indeed, liberal justices find Establishment violations more often and readily than do any other justices. (2)

Overall, the Court has been far more hospitable to free speech cases than to cases involving religious expression or exercise. In the speech area, the courts have taken a somewhat monolithic approach: protecting the speech no matter what the argument for censorship is. Everything from sexually explicit speech to hateful insults to flag-burning to offensive art to profanity is protected, all under the theory that the marketplace of ideas requires the most speech possible. Almost never do the courts look into what discomfort or antagonism the speech might cause, nor into how valuable the speech is for a democratic society. And yet, in Establishment Clause cases, judges justify their restricting of religious expression on any number of grounds, many of which relate to perceptions of the social divisiveness or alienation that religion might cause. But if fear of social strife were sufficient to counteract expressional or associational freedoms, then clearly racial speech and affirmative action programs could be censored or prohibited. As Alan Schwarz has written, "if avoidance of strife were an independent constitutional value, no legislation could be adopted on any subject which aroused strong and divided feelings." (3)

Religion's Critics

Since the 1960s, critics in the media and academia have argued that religion should not be allowed to have any public presence. In stark contrast with the views of the constitutional period, these critics have pushed for complete separation of church and state, on the grounds that religion should be an entirely private matter. But such privatization can end up eliminating religion totally from the public sphere. The case of Sechler v. State College Area School District, for instance, shows how far school administrators have gone in trying to rid holiday celebrations or displays of any Christian identity. In Sechler, the school's winter holiday program was filled with symbols for Kwanzaa, Chanukah, and the Swedish festival of St. Lucia, but no Christian symbols were allowed. And reflecting how a once religious holiday has been consumerized, the song sung during the program was called "Bruno's Christmas at the Mall."

An anti-religious secularism was even revealed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. To many secularists, it was religion that had prompted the attacks. As philosopher Richard Rorty sees it, religion fosters intolerance and extremism. (4) Critics claim that religion is undemocratic and encourages a blindly obedient, herd-like mentality. According to Professor Ira C. Lupu, religion undermines the ability of citizens to exercise independent and critical judgment. (5) In a similar vein, Professor Steven Gey states that religion is "fundamentally incompatible" with the requirement that in a modern democratic state "there can be no sacrosanct principles or unquestioned truths." (6) Political theorist Amy Gutman, now the president of the University of Pennsylvania, argues that education must serve as a mechanism to "convert children away from the intensely held [religious] beliefs of their parents." (7) Educator John Goodlad agrees that schools "should liberate students from the ways of thinking imposed by religions and other traditions of thought." (8) These views, according to Frederick Mark Gedicks, reflect a secular individualism that sees religion as "a cynical, disintegrating force bent on subverting" (9) the civil rule of law through "the irrational, passionate, and violent overthrow of rationality, reason and peace.

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