Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

No, We Shouldn't Care (At Least Not Much)

Tom Berg's post on the 10Cs case I think raises an important question about whether we should care about that case, or, more generally the legal status of government displays of religious symbols. Before I saw Tom's post I was thinking about asking  a similar kind of question:  "Which case is more important: Kelo or the 10Cs?"  I was thinking about that because I felt kinda bad that our fruitful discussion of Kelo seemed to have been dropped immediately as everyone ran off to get in their 2 cents on the 10Cs. I realize the 10Cs was a big Supreme Court case and a politically incendiary topic, and that most of my co-blogistas are professionally focused on the First Amendment Church/State area (which I am not), but in terms of actual importance in the "real world", isn't Kelo far more important -- especially if the dire interpretations of its significance for the integrity of private property emanating from the right are true ("You'll have to pry my Motel 6 out of my cold, dead hands")? But the question is more than one of relative significance.

As Tom suggests, should Catholics or people of faith care at all about the issue in the 10Cs case? I would anwer that we should not, or at least not much. We shouldn't care because the impetus behind the erection of many of these displays, and much of their current defense, comes from the kind of Christian nationalism (both Catholic and evangelical)that I find distinctly un-Catholic and un-Christian, and which I have called wrapping the Cross in the flag. This is a specific complex of values and beliefs that I don't share: that the US is providentially blessed, that we are a "Christian Nation," and that we can reestablish Christendom in America. Note that I believe very strongly that there should be a well-established place for faith in the public square, and in both the rhetoric and actions of religious politicians and decisionmakers, but this kind of symbology does little to advance that agenda, and suggests a type of identification of government with a particular religious symbol that is quite a different goal. It also does little, as Tom suggests, to protect the integrity of religious belief in a secularizing society through more substantive actions such as recognition of vouchers and protecting religiously-affiliated hospitals from government overriding of their ethical norms.

But note my qualication of "not much." Maybe we should care a little. Here's where the "proxy" argument that Tom mentioned comes in. This battle about public symbols is iself a symbolic battle between people who think that religion should be important in the nation's public life and those who do not. In other words, it really is about the whole "religion in the public square" debate, which I've just said is very important. On one level the "proxy" analysis is true -- it expresses the significance that some people on both sides have given  the dispute. I would argue, however, that this argument is a very poor proxy: the symbology of the 10Cs on public buildings is tainted by a narrow and contestable conception of the relationship between Christianity and the state; the stakes are trivial in comparison to those in more substantive disputes about the status of religion and religious actors in the polity; and the dispute distracts attention from the important issues, creating a hill on which those who support a robust conception of religion in the public square should not choose to die.

That being said, and despite my distaste for much of the rhetoric supporting the 10Cs displays, I am very troubled by the highly exclusionist and anti-religious rhetoric used against the displays. I thus can't say "I just don't care" about the issue. It's just "not much."



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