Peter Berger has an interesting column this week, well worth reading in full, about the display of religious symbols by the government and the culture war features of legal disagreement. The legal cases he discusses are not new–the Utah public highway cross case (Davenport v. American Atheists) which the Supreme Court declined to hear and the Lautsi case. Professor Berger might have noted that in declining to hear the case, the Supreme Court left intact the Tenth Circuit’s ruling striking the crosses down as an Establishment Clause violation.
But that’s largely irrelevant, for the insights of the column lie in his comparative cultural analysis:
Why the recent flurry of church/state issues? In America it is part of the politics surrounding the so-called “culture wars”: The rising influence of conservative Protestants in the Republican party has mobilized liberals against any political role of organized religion—especially since conservative Catholics have been allied with conservative Protestants on most of the issues “south of the navel” (issues, that is, that liberals are personally anxious about). The politics in Europe is different: Conservative Christianity (Protestant or Catholic) is not very significant politically, but the perceived threat of militant Islam has made secularism (such as French laicite) appear as a defense of European values against theocracy.
I think there is also the factor of lawyers looking for business, and then the professional deformation of this group comes into play. Lawyers live, literally and emotionally, on the making of fine distinctions. Thus the distinctions made in American courts, on where a particular instance violates or does not violate the First Amendment, are veritably scholastic (or, if you will, Talmudic). These considerations tend to be sovereignly free of common sense. . . . Am I exaggerating? Of course I am. But I do so for a reason: I am applying the old casuistic method of reductio ad absurdum.
Let me “reduce” some more: The Kemalist assault on religion in public space is related to an old progressive notion, the abolition of history. It goes back to the Enlightenment and particularly to its political expression in the French Revolution. It was not for nothing that the latter abolished the old calendar and substituted a new one (with months like brumaire and thermidor). That particular exercise did not last long, but the underlying progressive idea persisted: By the very notion of progress, the present is further on the march toward the glorious future than anything in the past. It affected America too: see the motto about the “new order of the ages” emblazoned on the Grand Seal of the United States (and on the dollar bills in your wallet). But in this country these utopian fantasies have often been modified by common sense and by Protestant suspicions about human nature. Be this as it may, the abolition of history continues to be a dream that haunts the progressive imagination . . . .
As I write this, we are on the eve of the Christmas season (the ADL guide would surely prefer just plain “holiday season”). There is the usual orgy of shopping, the favored season for shopkeepers to be merry. Christmas carols blare through the PA systems, jolly Santa Clauses (fully evolved from their saintly ancestor, St. Nicholas) listen to the wishes of small children perched on their knees, everyone smiles with good will. This synthesis of religion and secularity is regularly criticized from opposite sides. The secularists don’t like the religious part. They can’t do much about the shopping malls, but they can surely agitate and litigate against any trace of Christianity in the holiday season insofar as it is acknowledged on government property—maybe crèches can be allowed, but without baby Jesus or any other New Testament characters. If any values are to be celebrated, they are family ties, the happiness of children and general good will. And on the other side are those who want to “bring Christ back into Christmas”, doing away with all the supposedly fake jolliness and commercial exploitation, instead restore the original religious character of this holy-day. I think that both criticisms are misguided. There is nothing fake about the secular cheer of the season, nor about the expressions of general amiability – and there is nothing wrong about the fact that some people are making money out of it. Those who want to focus on the birth of Christ the savior, are free to do so. Let me admit it: I do celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas. I also like the secular cheer that is also celebrated. I even like the commercialism—it is a source of happiness for many people, especially children.