Saturday, February 24, 2007

Freedom of Religion: Under Attack?

A Pennsylvania school district is being sued after school officials allegedly informed a student that he would not be able to participate in the school's Halloween parade dressed as Jesus. They also allegedly instructed him to remove the "crown of thorns" from his costume and state that he was dressed as a Roman emperor if asked.

Some people simply don't get the point of the First Amendment and the separation of church and state. The principles of freedom of and yes, freedom from religion were never meant to deny private individuals the right to express their religious beliefs or lack thereof in the public square. In fact, the opposite is true.

As a regular reader and writer of materials dealing with recent controversies over religion and its role in our society, I have often encountered those who believe that religion is a "private" matter, one that should be kept out of the public square. Oddly, this attitude is often linked to political correctness run amok.

Not content to stop at the bounds of constitutional principle and seemingly lacking understanding of and respect for the necessary foundations of liberal society, some have argued that they will only respect a person's right to "pray in his own house" while others have argued for the abolition of religion (an act that, considering the nature of religion and even humanity itself, would ultimately require force). We will leave the latter for another day, but we must ask, "How private is religion supposed to be?"

If we are speaking of religion as a "private" matter in which the government and its agents are not permitted to interfere, religion is private indeed. Originally, the First Amendment applied only to the federal government, so state and local governments were permitted to have official religions. With the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, states became bound by provisions that once applied only to the federal government, including prohibitions against official religions. Since that time, perhaps hundreds of cases have gone before the Supreme Court (the final arbiter of constitutionality). The principles that have been derived from those cases have defined freedom of and from religion as we now know it.

So, public funds cannot be used to support religious activity. Government agents and employees cannot publicly support religious doctrines while acting in their official capacity. Mandatory prayer in schools is outlawed. While public schools may teach about religion, they cannot teach religious doctrines. Religious displays on public property are forbidden. Etc. The government cannot coerce, force, intimidate, or convince any citizen into accepting any religious doctrine nor can it officially endorse any religious belief or lack thereof.

If we are speaking of religion as a "private" matter which individual citizens have no right to express in the public square, religion is not private at all. The right to freedom of and from religion protects the individual's right to express his or her opinions about religious matters as publicly as he or she chooses. We are free to pray in public buildings, to evangelize on public street corners, to display symbols of our faith on our person, and yes to march in school parades dressed like Jesus.

The attitude that we only have to respect a person's right to "pray in his own house" runs counter to the principles of our constitution and the foundations of modern liberal societies. Yes, public displays of religious belief or public attacks on religious belief may make many people uncomfortable. It may downright offend others. But comfort is not now nor should it ever be a limit to human freedoms.

In my humble opinion, this idea that your right to swing your fist ends not at my nose but at the moment that I become uncomfortable or offended is ridiculous, extreme, and authoritarian. It is unfortunate, indeed, that this attitude is linked (tenuously perhaps) to the ideals of political correctness.

Political correctness, at its best, is the voluntary submission to the rules of polite and respectful discourse. We treat others with the respect and dignity they merit as human beings. We refer to groups and individuals by the names which they prefer, eliminating slurs and epithets in our speech. The undue offense and division provoked by hateful and derogatory language and attitudes is conscientiously avoided.

However, political correctness can go too far. From hate speech regulations on college campuses to the condemnation of a politician for using the word "niggardly" beoause it sounds somewhat like a racial epithet to arguments that people should not express their religious or political beliefs in public less they offend someone, the extremes of PC have turned a unifying and liberating tool into a weapon for the authoritarian control of "proper" belief and expression.

Too many feel that they should remain silent rather than be forced to check every single word for every possible offense it may cause to every possible group. Others buck the system, abandoning even the best aspects of political correctness and the respect and dignity they engender in favor of intentionally politically incorrect speech where rebellion against "proper form" is held as evidence of merit. Others still are so careful to pack their language so full of feel-good euphemisms that solid opinions and ideas disappear beneath a cloud of "persons" and "challenged" and "everyone's special" and lots of hyphenated nonsense.

Thus these extremes lead to a muddying of our language and thus our thought, very nearly erradicating the possibility of intelligent, engaging discourse. Public speech waivers between sterile platitudes and virulent diatribes.

And yes, occasionally, as in campus hate speech regulations and this Pennsylvania school's instructions that a student change his costume and (to some extent) hide his religion, PC run amok can lead not just to degraded language and insipid thought but to the actual violation of human rights.

For more on the relationship between language and thought, see George Orwell's Politics and the English Language. For Orwell's take on political correctness (although it was not referred to by that term when the book was written), read 1984 and keep in mind that Newspeak is Orwell's version of PC writ large and the dangers it poses to political thought.

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