The Roberts Court,
the Establishment Clause
by RICHARD E. WACKROW
Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association
The May 5 U.S. Supreme Court decision endorsing opening prayers at public meetings is the latest nail to be pried from the wall separating church and state.
The Roberts Court ruled that prayers that open town council meetings do not violate the Constitution even if they routinely stress Christianity (Town of Greece v. Galloway), thus overturning a 2012 federal appeals court ruling to the contrary.
Writing the dissenting opinion for the Court’s four liberal justices, Justice Elena Kagan said the case differs from a 1983 Court decision upholding opening prayers because in that case the invocations did not involve public participation. The issue in Greece v. Galloway, on the other hand, was that predominantly Christian invocations are given directly to, and involve participation by, citizens.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the five conservative justices, said the prayers are ceremonial and in keeping with the nation’s traditions. Some of these traditions are:
If you’re a Jew, Hindu or any other Non-Christian, you are well-advised to participate — or pretend to participate — in the Christian prayer to avoid being treated as an outsider or troublemaker by the political body involved, or by your fellow citizens who are Christians.
If you are not religious, you must pretend to be so in order to be elected to public office. Americans vote for political candidates based on their religious beliefs, not on their records or the policies they propose. They mistake open expressions of faith for honesty, integrity, morality and noble intentions. And they won’t vote for atheists regardless of their qualifications.
Christianist political bodies and electorates discourage public participation by non-Christians who might otherwise make valuable contributions to their communities.
In a nation that is more religiously diverse than when the Bill of Rights was written in the 18th century, it is important to note that the Court’s decision will exclude or deter an ever-growing segment of our society from participating in the political process.
Given the current leaning of our Supreme Court, the only practical difference between the United States and theocracies such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Nepal or Tibet might well boil down to which holidays we celebrate.
This piece, in various lengths, appeared as a letter to the editor or column in several Montana newspapers.
CFI president visits with FASHA
Center for Inquiry President and CEO Ronald A. Lindsay did some “missionary work” in Montana in April, presenting the talk “The Necessity of Secularism” before the Missoula Area Secular Society on the 21st and FASHA on the 22nd. The talk was partially based on his latest book The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do, scheduled for publication in November by Pitchstone Publishing.
CFI is the parent corporation of the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Besides pursuing the interests of atheists and secular humanists on an international level, CSH provides support to local groups, such as FASHA.
CSI examines claims about UFOs, Bigfoot, lake monsters, deadly alternative medicine, and the like — and religious claims, such as those regarding stigmata, the Shroud of Turin, and miracles. CSI also holds the Skeptic’s Toolbox at the University of Oregon in Eugene each August.
While in Montana, Lindsay had a dynamite interview with Montana Public Radio’s Sally Mauk.
Ethics not contingent on religion
Column by RICHARD E. WACKROW
Hungry Horse (Montana) News
Tuesday, January 1, 2013
I was amused by [Redacted]’s letter to the Hungry Horse News (Dec. 19) in which he stated that the underlying cause of the shootings of 26 adults and children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on Dec. 14 was a decline of religion in America. Moreover, I was personally offended by his self-righteous assertion that moral behavior is strictly contingent on adherence to the Judeo-Christian ethic.
For starters, one does not need an imaginary friend to behave morally. Contrary to what [Redacted] says, nonbelievers do not automatically regard others as subhuman. Ethical treatment of each other (the Golden Rule) in fact preceded any religious belief. And moral behavior by both the religious and the non-religious, therefore, is not contingent on any religious dogma but rather on parental guidance and common sense.
Theologically speaking, in fact, devout Christians — by virtue of Jesus’ “dying for our sins” — have no ethical imperative whatsoever. They can do as they like to their fellow human beings without fear of divine retribution (although in some cases certain ritualistic niceties, such as confession and “penance,” are required to avoid the “fires of hell”).
[Redacted] apparently has forgotten that on Sept. 11, 2001, 19 devout followers of the very same God of Abraham that he worships hijacked four airliners and used them to kill 3,000 innocent people. (We’ll leave it to [Redacted] to tell us whether there was school prayer in the hijackers’ home countries.)
And mysteriously, [Redacted] makes no mention of the religious beliefs of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza and his mother. For the record, they both attended St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newton, Conn., where several of his victims’ funerals were conducted. And Adam, in fact, attended school at the church for a time.
On closer examination then, America’s religious “morality” isn’t about “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s about public expressions of faith. Someone having the Ten Commandments displayed in his shop window or on the tailgate of his pickup truck tells me nothing about whether or not he would cheat me in a business transaction, run me off the road, poison my dog — or bomb an abortion clinic, beat a homosexual to death, sexually molest an altar boy, or massacre innocent school children.
Finally, [Redacted]’s blatant insinuation that adherence to the “Judeo/Christian ethic on which America was built” is the only guarantor of ethical behavior is an insult to every Buddhist, Hindu, animist, atheist, agnostic, pagan or adherent of any of the hundreds of other non-Christian, non-Judaic or non-monotheistic religions practiced in this country. But as any student of current events or history can tell you, religion has never been about religious tolerance, has it?
A shorter version of this column appeared as a letter to the editor in the Kalispell Daily Inter Lake.
Theology and Falsification
By Antony Flew, 1950
Let us begin with a parable. It is a parable developed from a tale told by John Wisdom in his haunting and revelatory article Gods. Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, “some gardener must tend this plot.” The other disagrees, “There is no gardener.” So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. “But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.” So they, set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last the Sceptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?”
In this parable we can see how what starts as an assertion that something exists or that there is some analogy between certain complexes of phenomena, may be reduced step by step to an altogether different status, to an expression perhaps of a “picture preference.” The Sceptic says there is no gardener. The Believer says there is a gardener (but invisible, etc.) One man talks about sexual behaviour. Another man prefers to talk of Aphrodite (but knows that there is not really a superhuman person additional to, and somehow responsible for, all sexual phenomena). The process of qualification may be checked at any point before the original assertion is completely withdrawn and something of that first assertion will remain (Tautology). Mr. Wells’s invisible man could not, admittedly, be seen, but in all other respects he was a man like the rest of us. But though the process of qualification may be, and of course usually is, checked in time, it is not always judiciously so halted. Someone may dissipate his assertion completely without noticing that he has done so. A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications.
And in this, it seems to me, lies the peculiar danger, the endemic evil, of theological utterance. Take such utterances as “God has a plan,” “God created the world,” “God loves us as a father loves his children.” They look at first sight very much like assertions, vast cosmological assertions. Of course, this is no sure sign that they either are, or are intended to be assertions. But let us confine ourselves to the cases where those who utter such sentences intend them to express assertions. (Merely remarking parenthetically, that those who intend or interpret such utterances as crypto-commands, expressions of wishes, disguised ejaculations, concealed ethics, or as anything else but assertions, are unlikely to succeed in making them either properly orthodox or practically effective.)
Now to assert that such and such is the case is necessarily equivalent to denying that such and such is not the case. Suppose then that we are in doubt as to what someone who gives vent to an utterance is asserting, or suppose that, more radically, we are sceptical as to whether he is really asserting anything at all, one way of trying to understand (or perhaps it will be to expose) his utterance is to attempt to find what he would regard as counting against, or as being incompatible with, its truth. For if the utterance is indeed an assertion, it will necessarily be equivalent to a denial of the negation of that assertion. And anything which would count against the assertion, or which would induce the speaker to withdraw it and to admit that it had been mistaken, must be part of (or the whole of) the meaning of the negation of that assertion. And to know the meaning of the negation of an assertion, is near as makes no matter, to know the meaning of that assertion. And if there is nothing which a putative assertion denies then there is nothing which it asserts either; and so it is not really an assertion. When the Sceptic in the parable asked the Believer, “just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?” he was suggesting that the Believer’s earlier statement had been so eroded by qualification that it was no longer an assertion at all.
Now it often seems to people who are not religious as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding “There wasn’t a God after all” or “God does not really love us then.” Someone tells us that God loves us as a father loves his children. We are reassured. But then we see a child dying of inoperable cancer of the throat. His earthly father is driven frantic in his efforts to help, but his Heavenly Father reveals no obvious sign of concern. Some qualification is made — God’s love is “not a merely human love” or it is “an inscrutable love,” perhaps — and we realise that such sufferings are quite compatible with the truth of the assertion that “God loves us as a father (but, of course, ...).” We are reassured again. But then perhaps we ask: what is this assurance of God’s (appropriately qualified) love worth, what is this apparent guarantee really a guarantee against? Just what would have to happen not merely (morally and wrongly) to tempt but also (logically and rightly) to entitle us to say “God does not love us” or even “God does not exist”? I therefore put to the succeeding symposiasts the simple central questions, “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?”
Big Mountain Jesus
Updated September 1, 2015
In 1955, during the McCarthy era, the Knights of Columbus erected a statue of Jesus on Big Mountain, on the Flathead National Forest, outside of Whitefish, Montana. The purpose of the shrine has been the pivotal issue in a lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation to have the shrine removed.
According to some modern accounts, the statue was erected as a memorial to World War II veterans — rather than as a religious shrine. However, as this story in the February 10, 2011, Flathead (Montana) Beacon says, “While fighting in the Swiss and Italian Alps during World War II, many American soldiers encountered the religious shrines ... that dot the mountains of Europe. Amid war, it’s likely the soldiers drew some reassurance from these unexpected encounters. So upon returning to the Flathead Valley, several Knights of Columbus at St. Matthew’s parish in Kalispell discussed the idea of erecting a similar religious tribute to what they had encountered as soldiers.” This account of the intention of Knights is corroborated by newspaper stories from the period when the statue was being erected on the mountain.
In February, 2012 the FFRF — with the endorsement of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and with the support of the Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association — filed a lawsuit in federal court to have the shrine removed from the mountain. A couple FASHA members later became party to the suit in order to give it standing in the court.
On June 25, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen dismissed the FFRF lawsuit, ruling that “[the] government neither owns the statue nor exercises control over the property on which it is located. Big Mountain Jesus constitutes private speech reflecting the personal views of its private owners and therefore cannot be seen by the reasonable observer as reflecting government promotion of religion.” His ruling allows the U.S. Forest Service to issue another 10-year special-use permit allowing the statue to remain on the Big Mountain. That bizarre decision is under appeal by the FFRF. See the June 26, 2013, Missoulian.
According to a story in the
February 4, 2014, Kalispell Daily Inter Lake, the Freedom from Religion Foundation has officially appealed this ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Ian Cameron, who was the head of FASHA during this period, meticulously chronicled efforts to have the statue removed on the FASHA Web site.
As you read through these news stories, note how Flathead County news reporters never fail to mention that the Freedom from Religion Foundation is based in Wisconsin — as if
the U.S. Constitution applies there but not in Montana.
Update May 7, 2014: The American Legion, represented by Liberty Institute, and Montana Attorney General Tim Fox have filed an amicus brief to prevent removal of the monument from Big Mountain. See the press release.
Update September 1, 2015: The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland, Oregon, has ruled that the Big Mountain Jesus statue will stay. See the story in the Daily Inter Lake.
No, Clayton Fiscus.
“The Flintstones” is not a documentary
In February 2013, Republican Representative Clayton Fiscus introduced a bill to the House Education Committee of the Montana Legislature that would have required the teaching of creationism (the latest mutation of “intelligent design,” et al.) in Montana public schools.
The bill, HB 183: “Emphasize critical thinking in science education,” was killed in committee as representatives of the National Center for Science Education, the Secular Coalition for Montana, the Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association and other groups and individuals who care about the education of Montana’s children testified against it. The bill’s only proponent at the hearing was Fiscus himself. Apparently, Fiscus’ idea that the full Montana Legislature would even consider his creationism bill was “only a theory.”
Watch the YouTube video of the hearing, including Fiscus’ comical testimony, here.
Read the National Center for Science Education’s account of the proceedings here.
By Lawrence W. Britt
Reprinted by permission from FREE INQUIRY Magazine.
© 2003 the Council for Secular Humanism.
Free Inquiry readers may pause to read the “Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles” on the inside cover of the magazine. To a secular humanist, these principles seem so logical, so right, so crucial. Yet, there is one archetypal political philosophy which is anathema to almost all of these principles. It is fascism. And fascism’s principles are wafting in the air today, surreptitiously masquerading as something else, challenging everything we stand for. The cliché that people and nations learn from history is not only overused, but also overestimated; often we fail to learn from history, or draw the wrong conclusions. Sadly, historical amnesia is the norm.
We are two and a half generations removed from the horrors of Nazi Germany, although constant reminders jog the consciousness. German and Italian fascism form the historical models that define this twisted political worldview. Although they no longer exist, this worldview and the characteristics of these models have been imitated by protofascist 1 regimes at various times the twentieth century. Both the original German and Italian models and the later protofascist regimes show remarkably similar characteristics. Although many scholars question any direct connection among these regimes, few can dispute their visual similarities.
Beyond the visual, even a cursory study of these fascist and protofascist regimes reveals the absolutely striking convergence of their modus operandi. This, of course, is not a revelation to the informed political observer, but it is sometimes useful in the interests of perspective to restate obvious facts and in so doing shed needed light on current circumstances.
For the purpose of this perspective, I will consider the following regimes: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Papadopoulos’s Greece, Pinochet’s Chile, and Suharto’s Indonesia. To be sure, they constitute a mixed bag of national identities, cultures, developmental levels, and history. But they all followed the fascist or protofascist model in obtaining, expanding, and maintaining power. Further, all these regimes have been overthrown, so a more or less complete picture of their basic characteristics and abuses is possible.
Analysis of these seven regimes reveals fourteen common threads that link them together in recognizable patterns of national behavior and abuse of power. These basic characteristics are more prevalent and intense in some regimes than in others, but they all share at least some level of similarity.
1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism. From the prominent displays of flags and bunting to the ubiquitous lapel pins, the fervor to show patriotic nationalism, both on the part of the regime itself and of citizens caught up in its frenzy, was always obvious. Catchy slogans, pride in the military, and demands for unity were common themes in expressing this nationalism. It was usually coupled with a suspicion of things foreign that often bordered on xenophobia.
2. Disdain for the importance of human rights. The regimes themselves viewed human rights as of little value and a hindrance to realizing the objectives of the ruling elite. Through clever use of propaganda, the population was brought to accept these human rights abuses by marginalizing, even demonizing, those being targeted. When abuse was egregious, the tactic was to use secrecy, denial, and disinformation.
3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause. The most significant common thread among these regimes was the use of scapegoating as a means to divert the people’s attention from other problems, to shift blame for failures, and to channel frustration in controlled directions. The methods of choice – relentless propaganda and disinformation – were usually effective. Often the regimes would incite “spontaneous” acts against the target scapegoats, usually communists, socialists, liberals, Jews, ethnic and racial minorities, traditional national enemies, members of other religionists, secularists, homosexuals, and “terrorists.” Active opponents of these regimes were inevitably labeled as terrorists and dealt with accordingly.
4. The supremacy of the military/avid militarism. Ruling elites always identified closely with the military and the industrial infrastructure that supported it. A disproportionate share of national resources was allocated to the military, even when domestic needs were acute. The military was seen as an expression of nationalism, and was used whenever possible to assert national goals, intimidate other nations, and increase the power and prestige of the ruling elite.
5. Rampant sexism. Beyond the simple fact that the political elite and the national culture were male-dominated, these regimes inevitably viewed women as second-class citizens. They were adamantly anti-abortion and also homophobic. These attitudes were usually codified in Draconian laws that enjoyed strong support by the orthodox religion of the country, thus lending the regime cover for its abuses.
6. A controlled mass media. Under some of the regimes, the mass media were under strict direct control and could be relied upon never to stray from the party line. Other regimes exercised more subtle power to ensure media orthodoxy. Methods included the control of licensing and access to resources, economic pressure, appeals to patriotism, and implied threats. The leaders of the mass media were often politically compatible with the power elite. The result was usually success in keeping the general public unaware of the regimes’ excesses.
7. Obsession with national security. Inevitably, a national security apparatus was under direct control of the ruling elite. It was usually an instrument of oppression, operating in secret and beyond any constraints. Its actions were justified under the rubric of protecting “national security,” and questioning its activities was portrayed as unpatriotic or even treasonous.
8. Religion and ruling elite tied together. Unlike Communist regimes, the fascist and protofascist regimes were never proclaimed as godless by their opponents. In fact, most of the regimes attached themselves to the predominant religion of the country and chose to portray themselves as militant defenders of that religion. The fact that the ruling elite’s behavior was incompatible with the precepts of the religion was generally swept under the rug; propaganda kept up the illusion that the ruling elites were defenders of the faith and opponents of the “godless.” A perception was manufactured that opposing the power elite was tantamount to an attack on religion.
9. Power of corporations protected. Although the personal life of ordinary citizens was under strict control, the ability of large corporations to operate in relative freedom was not compromised. The ruling elite saw the corporate structure as a way to not only ensure military production (in developed states), but also as an additional means of social control. Memebrs of the economic elite were often pampered by the political elite to ensure a continued mutuality of interests, especially in the repression of “have-not” citizens.
10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated. Since organized labor was seen as the one power center that could challenge the political hegemony of the ruling elite and its corporate allies, it was inevitably crushed or made powerless. The poor formed an underclass, viewed with suspicion or outright contempt. Under some regimes, being poor was considered akin to a vice.
11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts. Intellectuals and the inherent freedom of ideas and expression associated with them were anathema to these regimes. Intellectual and academic freedom were considered subversive to national security and the patriotic ideal. Universities were tightly controlled, politically unreliable faculty harassed or eliminated. Unorthodox ideas or expressions of dissent were strongly attacked, silenced, or crushed. To these regimes, art and literature should serve the national interest or they had no right to exist.
12. Obsession with crime and punishment. Most of these regimes maintained Draconian systems of criminal justice with huge prison populations. The police were often glorified and had almost unchecked power, leading to rampant abuse. “Normal” and political crime were often merged into trumped-up criminal charges and sometimes used against political opponents of the regime. Fear, even hatred, of criminals or “traitors” was often promoted among the population as an excuse for more police power.
13. Rampant cronyism and corruption. Those in business circles and close to the power elite often used their position to enrich themselves. This corruption worked both ways; the power elite would receive financial gifts and property from the economic elite, who in turn would gain the benefit of government favoritism. Members of the power elite were in a position to obtain vast wealth from other sources as well: for example, by stealing national resources. With the national security apparatus under control and the media muzzled, this corruption was largely unconstrained and not well understood by the general population.
14. Fraudulent elections. Elections in the form of plebiscites or public opinion polls were usually bogus. When actual elections with candidates were held, they would usually be perverted by the power elite to get the desired result. Common methods included maintaining control of the election machinery, intimidating and disenfranching opposition voters, destroying or disallowing legal votes, and as a last resort, turning to a judiciary beholden to the power elite.
Does any of this ring alarm bells? Of course not. After all, this is America, officially a democracy with the rule of law, a constitution, a free press, honest elections, and a well-informed public constantly being put on guard against evils. Historical comparisons like these are just exercises in verbal gymnastics. Maybe, maybe not.
Ian Kershaw, Hitler (two volumes). Norton, 1999.
John Cornwell, Hitler as Pope. Viking, 1999.
Joachim C. Fest, The Face of the Third Reich. Pantheon, 1970.
Antonio de Figuerio, Portugal — Fifty Years of Dictatorship.
Max Gallo, Mussolini’s Italy. MacMillan, 1973.
Frederico Chabod, A History of Italian Fascism. London: Weidenfeld, 1963.
Jose Yglesias, The Franco Years. Bobbs-Merrill, 1977.
Andreas Papandreau, Democracy at Gunpoint. Penguin Books, 1971.
Kevin Andrews, Greece in the Dark. Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1980.
Patricia Verdugo, Chile, Pinochet, and the Caravan of Death.
North-South Center Press, 2001.
Marc Cooper, Pinochet and Me. Verso, 2001.
M.E. Sharp, Indonesia Beyond Suharto. Armonk, 1999.
Roger Eatwell, Fascism, A History. Penguin, 1995.
Walter Laqueur, Fascism, Past, Present, and Future. Oxford, 1996.
Peter Phillips, Censored 2001: 25 Years of Censored News.
Seven Stories, 2001