The ACLU Has it All Wrong
Religious Diversity and the Public Square
2004 Jefferis Kent Peterson, I
African-Americans have often criticized White America’s attempts to build a colorblind society as another form of subtle racism, for in refusing to recognize the real differences of color, ethnicity, and culture, White Americans treat African-Americans as if they don’t exist or pretend that African-Americans are just an extension of White society. The injustice of this colorblind approach is that it robs the country of the beauty of its diversity through a process of denial. We act as if we can only be equal if we are all the same, but that is not true unity. What makes us truly great as a nation is our mutual respect for our differences of culture and history. The fact that we can get along even though we are different, is part of the amazing miracle of the United States, where the motto is E Pluribus Unum : Out of Many One! We have forged one people out of many cultures and races. Compare our imperfect unity, with all our problems and past evils of slavery and mistreatment of Native Americans, to present day Serbia, Iraq, or Turkey, and we come out looking pretty good. In those places, being of a different tribe (being Kurdish, e.g.) or different religion (Sunni or Shiite) is reason enough for government-sponsored programs of ethnic extermination. In contrast, we not only appreciate our different backgrounds, we celebrate them in parades. Most Americans do take note of their ancestry and roots, but we easily fall in love across racial, religious, and ethnic divides. We do not gain our strength by pretending our differences do not exist, what makes us strong is our ability to accept each other with full knowledge of our diversity. That is the unique gift of the United States to the world.
That is why the ACLU has it all wrong when it wants to cleanse the public square of all expressions of religious diversity. By denying the people their freedom of expression and by repressing the popular celebrations of their faiths, the ACLU has tried to create a “religion-blind” secular society, whose perverse effect is to rob all Americans of their religious diversity and uniqueness. The subtle message of the ACLU’s stance is that we can only be unified if we each agree to deny our commitments to our religious values and agree to remain silent about our beliefs in a secular and empty public square. In its zeal to create a wall of separation between church and state, the ACLU has trampled the First Amendment’s second clause: “ Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” When the people are not free to express their faith in the public square and give evidence of that expression by religious symbols, the people are being prohibited from their "free exercise." What makes far more sense, from a freedom of expression standpoint, is to allow the public square to have menorahs set up on Hanukkah, crescents on Ramadan, and crches on Christmas. The free expression of our different faiths is part of the tapestry of our diversity that makes our nation great. The repression of that difference is creating a new “white” society of enforced secular blindness. By refusing to acknowledge our diversity, we are creating a fictitious unity that exists only by repressing our differences. That is neither free, honest, nor true to the American vision.
When diversity is repressed and uniformity is enforced, you come up with atrocious and offensive attempts to find the lowest common denominator between people. You have religious celebrations reduced to shallow and meaningless instruments of commerce, where Christmas and Hanukkah are called something inane like “Sparkle Season.” Such a shallow attempt at being inoffensive is a slap in the face to all people who are truly religious. It is offensive precisely because it attempts to dismiss deeply held beliefs and reduce them to unimportant aspects of our culture. No! Let the Jew be Jewish, the Christian be Christian, the Muslim be Islamic, and the person of no faith hold his head up high. It is our ability to get along despite our differences which makes us capable of true unity.
The ACLU’s argument is that if the people are allowed to set up symbols of their faith in the public square from time to time to reflect the season, such permission would constitute an establishment of religion by the state - the state giving its sanction to one religion over another. If we were to take the logic of the ACLU’s approach to restricting free, religious speech to the next level, then public rallies by people of faith could be considered an endorsement because the public streets are being used with city permission and permit. If someone preaches the Gospel in the park that could be considered endorsement because the parks are owned by the state. So, the next logical step is to forbid public religious rallies and public preaching, because the very permission by the city council constitutes and endorsement and establishment of religion. That doesn’t make sense, and the ACLU would not pursue that course (hopefully), because it would trample on the rest of our First Amendment freedoms. But, how is allowing each religious group freedom to set up their icons of faith an establishment of religion? In fact, by allowing all religions to set up their symbols of celebration, the state would be declaring its neutrality by not favoring one over another. It would be allowing all the people their free exercise, without forcing them to pretend that their religious holidays are just extensions of the state’s interest in secular commercialism. It is a farce to be told that you can only have a crche if you have a Santa Claus along side it, because it reduces Christianity to an agent of the state’s interest in commerce. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense to be told that a menorah can be set up at the same time on the same city hall steps as the crche because Hanukkah falls in the same season.
The ACLU is now looking to support lawsuits where other plaques and placards of historic interest are excised from public consciousness, as if our national history is so offensive and the people so unable to cope with religious diversity that the reminders of our religious past must be quarantined and removed from public display. This secularism, rather than express neutrality towards religion, makes the state an agent of hostility towards all religious expression. Removing ”under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance is just the most notorious example. However, the next steps are to efface all religious quotations and references to God from public monuments, the Supreme Court building, our money, and all public and historic buildings. Such a tactic constitutes an “animus” against religion and makes the state a persecutor of the people’s religious expression, both historic and present. This “neutrality” is a neutrality enforced through a legal fiction, rather than one which leaves the people of the United States truly free. It is one thing to separate the church from the state, it is quite another to prohibit the people from publicly expressing their faith, which is what the ACLU is doing by attacking the second clause of the First Amendment.
We are not so thinned skinned that a quote from Isaiah on a public monument is going to destroy our personal religious beliefs, nor are we so stupid to think the state is therefore endorsing our brand of faith. Perhaps atheists are so offended by the very idea of religion that they can only conceive of a neutrality in which all religious beliefs are eradicated and all religious expression forbidden, but then that betrays the intolerance of secularists towards people of faith and makes their use of the ACLU a covert attempt to repress diversity in the U.S. The ACLU now considers historic quotes on public buildings evidence of an establishment of religion. They want to remove chaplains from the military and the Congress, since these religious servants are supported by the public purse. They want to remove references to Christmas and Hanukkah from public schools and enforce a de facto secularism on the student body, teaching them in effect that the only valid way to acknowledge our diversity is to ignore it and the only way to acknowledge religion is to forbid all mention of it. It would be far healthier to teach all the children a little bit about each faith as the occasion arises rather than teach the children that the idea of religion is so dangerous it must be constantly suppressed.
To my mind, there is no better representation of the beauty and diversity of America than The Strip in Pittsburgh. (For all you non-Pittsburghers, The Strip is the import and food warehouse district.) Walking down that street, you will see a Vietnamese restaurant across from a Mexican food store, next to an Italian bakery and pasta shop, near Korean and Asian food dealers, coffee importers, chocolate and pastry shops, Greek food suppliers, vegetable and fish wholesalers, and street vendors selling everything from Thai kabobs to soul food and barbeque. This diversity is the spice of life which makes the ingredients of the American stew so much richer to the taste. Here, people of all colors and backgrounds work side by side and enjoy each other. Here, you can taste the richness of our country and appreciate the beauty of our cultural cloth. We are stronger for our differences. Our ability to accept one another with these differences makes us one nation. It is this multicultural vision, where race and ethnicity are celebrated for their contribution to the whole, which is the true American hope and ideal. We would be a much poorer nation if we did not have each other’s gifts to sample and exchange. That is the vision of American we need to celebrate in our religious diversity as well: we should not repress it but express it, and the state needs to get out of the way and let the people be themselves by being free.
If the ACLU wants to help that vision, it needs to protect minorities from persecution, surely, but it also needs to stop trying to make the public square a place devoid of religion. That vision isn’t American, it isn’t human, and it isn’t real. Only cardboard people live without beliefs and values, and censoring our deeply held beliefs does nothing for the foundations of our freedoms.
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