Sunday, February 26, 2012

More Discussion Topics following Rob Boston’s Talk

By Gary Berg-Cross

A previous post has summarized Rob’s main points and another one on the big discussion topics of united approaches during Q and A. With Edd Doerr as our March speaker talking about“ Humanist Priorities and Strategies in an Election Year” we are likely to have another good session including the several hot button issues this year such as school vouchers, attacks on public education, the “invasion of the soul snatchers”, abortion rights, the new HHS birth control regulations, and what Humanists can do about all that. I hope that readers of this blog will turn out for this and participate

Rob’s February talk was a good warm up for this and for those who didn’t hear the Q & A here is a quick listing of six other topics and questions discussed in February with some links for more information:

  1. Originalism
  2. The Rhode Island prayer banner case
  3. George Washington’s letter to Touro Jews
  4. 19th century Blasphemy laws
  5. United States military chaplaincy
  6. Fights we might be able to win: Religion and Holding Public Office

1. Originalism the principle of interpretation that tries to discover the original meaning or original intent of the constitution was discussed. There is a kernel of truth to it but the constitution is neither rigid nor silly putty. It is more a set of general priniciples from which we progress. These general principles (perhaps derived from the experience o the tine) get expanded in the context of new times and in the face of experperience.

In a phrase used by Rob “Scalia is a phony” on orignialism (although his 1988 Taft Lecture, entitled Originalism: The Lesser Evil has been influential.

As Randy E. Barnett (G
eorgetown University Law Center) noted in his artiicle Scalia's Infidelity: A Critique of Faint-Hearted Originalism that Justice Scalia allows himself three ways to escape originalist results that he finds to be objectionable:

(1) when the text is insufficiently rule-like,

(2) when precedent has deviated from original meaning and

(3) (when the first two justifications are unavailing) just ignore Originalism

to avoid sufficiently objectionable results.

2. The Rhode Island prayer case where the public school district case committee voted not to appeal a federal court decision ordering the removal of a prayer banner displayed in Cranston High School West auditorium since 1963. It was a school tradition but then again slavery was a tradition.

The dispute began after student Ahlquist noticed the prayer banner displayed in the school auditorium at the end of her freshman year. Ahlquist, who has been an atheist since age 10, started a Facebook page to support removing the banner and argued for taking it down before the school committee, according to court filings.

3. George Washington’s letter to Jews of Touro synagogue (Newport, Rhode Island) on religious liberty and the expression:

To bigotry no sanction,to Persecution No Assistance”

4. Rob’s commentary on the Old Blasphemy laws that came back in the late 19th century and involved free thinking societies.

The summer of 1886 was a bad time for Charles B. Reynolds. The iconoclastic religious skeptic (and former Methodist minister) took his free-thought message to Boonton, New Jersey. If Reynolds expected Bosntonians to abandon Christianity and embrace free thought, he must have been disappointed. Instead, an unruly mob pelted him with rotten eggs, tore down his podium, and tried to hurl him into a pond.

The following spring Reynolds appeared in Morristown, where he was jailed on charges of blasphemy based on his remarks in Boonton. Reynolds was found guilty by a local jury and fined $25, but he was defended ably by the spirited Robert Green Ingersoll who in his famous address to the jury in the New Jersey blasphemy trial of 1897, described the wretched nature of the concept of blasphemy as well as the unconstitutional nature of the New Jersey law under which his client was being prosecuted.

“Now, gentlemen, what is blasphemy? Of course nobody knows what it is, unless he takes into consideration where he is. What is blasphemy in one country would be a religious exhortation in another. It is owing to where you are and who is in authority. And let me call your attention to the impudence and bigotry of the American Christians, We send missionaries to other countries. What for? To tell them that their religion is false, that their gods are myths and monsters, that their saviors and apostles were impostors, and that our religion is true. You send a man from Morristown -- a Presbyterian, over to Turkey. He goes there, and he tells the Mohammedans -- and he has it in a pamphlet and he distributes it -- that the Koran is a lie, that Mohammed was not a prophet of God, that the angel Gabriel is not so large that it is four hundred leagues between his eyes -- that it is all a mistake -- there never was an angel so large as that. Then what would the Turks do? Suppose the Turks had a law like this statute in New Jersey. They would put the Morristown missionary in jail, and he would send home word, and then what would the people of Morristown say? Honestly -- what do you think they would say? They would say, "Why, look at those poor, heathen wretches. We sent a man over there armed with the truth, and yet they were so blinded by their idolatrous religion, so steeped in superstition, that they actually put that man in prison." Gentlemen, does not that show the need of more missionaries? I would say, yes.

Now, let us turn the tables. A gentleman comes from Turkey to Morristown. He has got a pamphlet. He says, "The Koran is the inspired book, Mohammed is the real prophet, your Bible is false and your Savior simply a myth." Thereupon the Morristown people put him in jail. Then what would the Turks say? They would say, Morristown needs more missionaries," and I would agree with them.

In other words, what we want is intellectual hospitality. Let the world talk. And see how foolish this trial is. I have no doubt that the prosecuting attorney agrees with me today, that whether this law is good or bad, this trial should not have taken place. And let me tell you why. Here comes a man into your town and circulates a pamphlet. Now, if they had just kept still, very few would ever have heard of it. That would have been the end. The diameter of the echo would have been a few thousand feet. But in order to stop the discussion of that question, they indicted this man, and that question has been more discussed in this country since this indictment than all the discussions put together since New Jersey was first granted to Charles II.'s dearest brother James, the Duke of York. And what else? A trial here that is to be reported and published all over the United States, a trial that will give Mr. Reynolds a congregation of fifty millions of people. And yet this was done for the purpose of stopping a discussion of this subject. I want to show you that the thing is in itself almost idiotic -- that it defeats itself, and that you cannot crush out these things by force. Not only so, but Mr. Reynolds has the right to be defended, and his counsel has the right to give his opinions on this subject.”

….the late-nineteenth-century, post-Civil War period is probably the time the United States came the closest to being a "Christian nation," an ideal looked upon with great fondness by today's Religious Right. Indeed, if America ever was "Christian," the late nineteenth century--when courts boldly declared the country a "Christian nation" and the tenets of Protestantism received government favor--was the time.

5. The United States military chaplaincy traces its origins to the French and Indian War.

In a letter dated September 1756, Colonel George Washington noted that, "the want of a chaplain does, I humbly conceive, reflect dishonor upon the regiment."

But George Washington’s appointing of chaplains later in the revolution was a bit of reflection of his ideas about social utilitarianism. He wanted no looting after battles and thought chaplains useful in this way. This evolved a bit as there was more of a need for chaplains if soldiers were far from home.

6. Fights we might be able to win: Religion and Holding Public Office
In the early 1960
s, the Governor of Maryland appointed Roy Torcaso to be a Notary Public. As reported

"When the time came for him to actually assume his duties, he was denied his commission and had his appointment rescinded because he refused to declare his belief in God."

"Article 37 of Maryland's Declaration of Rights stated: '[N]o religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God'."

Torcaso filed suit in state court because he felt the test unfairly penalized him for his lack of belief in God. He argued that the religious test had violated his rights under U.S. Constitution.

He lost but e appealed to the State Court of Appeals where he lost again. Finally, he won before the U.S. Supreme Court… The question of whether the no religious test clause binds the states remains unresolved. Given the Court's First Amendment holding, that issue is largely academic….. But the MD law is still on the books and we might get it changed..Not too many ballots are needed to make amendments in MD.

Rob’s parting advice:

Some people believe that if you have no religion you have no morals. Just live your life to disprove that notion and show your humanistic values.

1 comment:

Edd.Doerr said...

Good historical summary. By the way, I have a long section (26 pages) on "The Founding Fathers" (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Paine) and their views on religion and religious liberty in S.T. Joshi's 2008 book Icons of Unbelief (Greenwood Press, 463 pp, $75). I'll send a copy of the section for $5 (Box 6656, Silver Spring, Md 20916).

My talk to the WASH group at the Wheaton library on March 3 will deal with the hot church-state issues in this year's elections.