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October 30, 2013

On the Insulting Claim That Religious Displays Are Insulting

Hurt feelings are unreliable bases for constitutional law. People are insulted by all sorts of things, Charles_I_Insulted_by_Cromwell's_Soldiers their feelings of insult can change at breathtaking speed, and it is difficult to explain what ought to count as a constitutionally cognizable insult, and what ought not to, and why. And there is no area of constitutional law that is more dependent on judicial investigation and perception of insult or hurt feelings than the Establishment Clause--particularly the standard used to evaluate the constitutionality of religious displays by the government. Readers of this blog are probably familiar with the endorsement test, which demands that judges inquire after the degree to which a display might make someone feel like an outsider, or not fully part of the political community. That is a standard that depends on both judicial perception of insult and comparative valuations of insult (not all insults count).

My aim in this post is not to talk about that category of hurt feeling or insult, but about a related but less prominent argument about insults that one sometimes hears in connection with state-sponsored religious displays. It is the argument that for a religious person, when the government displays a religious symbol, it thereby robs or despoils the symbol of its sacredness. And when government then describes the nature and value of the symbol in non-religious terms (in cultural terms, for example, or in historical terms, or in secular terms), that constitutes an insult to religious people. So, for example, the constitutional category of "ceremonial deism" that is used to describe the phrase "In God We Trust" on money, or the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, is said to be deeply offensive to religious believers. Similarly, the description of the crucifix by Italian judges in the Lautsi v. Italy litigation as a symbol of national historical importance is said to cause hurt feelings among Catholics. By describing (or perhaps defining) a symbol in cultural or historical terms, the government thereby appropriates and degrades the symbol in the eyes of religious believers--and it's "their" symbol, after all--draining it of religious content. One can see strong traces of the claim and the sense of indignation and insult in Justice Thomas's concurring opinion in Van Orden v. Perry: "Telling either nonbelievers or believers that the words 'under God' have no meaning contradicts what they know to be true. Moreover, repetition does not deprive religious words or symbols of their traditional meaning. Words like 'God' are not vulgarities for which the shock value diminishes with each successive utterance." This argument from insult certainly is understandable and it resonates with many people, including some of my friends.

But not with me, I'm afraid. If anything, I find the argument itself insulting. The argument assumes that religious people are so thick-headed, or so culturally illiterate, or so confused about the nature of their faith and its symbols' meanings, or so hyper-attentive to the government's activities, or so insular, parochial, and unsophisticated, that they cannot understand the difference among (a) a cross that is displayed in a church; (b) a cross that is displayed at a cemetery; and (c) a cross that is displayed as a Halloween joke. Who doesn't understand those differences, and the differences in meaning that they convey? Who is confused? And is not the imputation of confusion, hurt feelings, and cultural simple-mindedness itself offensive? Those poor hayseed religious believers, bearing the psychological cross of their egg-shell sensitivities about their symbols! To argue that any act of the state--least of all its display of a cross at a war memorial or some statement about God on money or in a secular national pledge--could adulterate what a religious symbol like the cross means to Christians is to make a very unflattering claim about the strength with which those Christians believe, about the quality of their intellectual awareness and cultural acumen, and about just how little it takes to shake them up and distress them.

The argument also assumes that a government's decisions about a symbol really command, and ought to command, the attention of the religious. But what difference should it make that government "degrades" a symbol like the cross? Does the government have the power to degrade the Christian meaning of the cross? Do we look to the government to define the Christian meaning of the cross? That meaning is not the government's to define, or to degrade! To fret about state-sponsored religious degradation is implicitly to acknowledge the state's authority in an area where it has none. That the government (or anyone else, for that matter) may use a symbol for secular purposes of its own should do nothing to trivialize the Christian meaning, or to destabilize religious commitment or religious understanding, unless the suggestion is that the religious commitment runs no deeper than attachment to the symbol's secular meanings. Brand dilution may work for trademark law, where all symbols operate and compete at the level of the profane market, but it has little place here.

But as I say, it is difficult to tell someone not to feel hurt or insulted. I can certainly understand the sense of insult at a perceived usurpation of a religious symbol, but it is not a feeling I share at all when the Supreme Court trots out such coarse euphemisms as "ceremonial deism" to justify and explain the sorts of secular uses of religious symbols and religious language that have been going on at least as far back as the late Roman empire. For myself, I am more offended by what the arguments from insult imply about religious believers' savvy and understanding of the world, as well as of their own beliefs.

All of that, I suppose, is to return to the beginning, and to repeat my view that feelings of insult and offense are unsound grounds for constitutional law.

[Image: Delaroche's "Charles I Insulted by Cromwell's Soldiers"]

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on October 30, 2013 at 09:49 AM in DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink