Atheist Exceptionalism: Religion, Atheism, and the United States Supreme Court

The following will consist of shameless self promotion.

I wrote a book recently. I isolated myself in a small little cabin on the north edge of a lake in Upper Valley Vermont, and I wrote a book that I have thought about for years, always felt was an important topic, and believe is a story about America that needed to be told.

book cover.jpg

It tells the story of American Atheism and the First Amendment. More specifically, though, it tells the story of American Atheists fighting not only for their own First Amendment religious rights, but for the rights of all Americans to live, practice, and promote their beliefs within an environment that constitutionally guarantees a separation between church and state. It tells the stories of these essential Supreme Court case decisions:

  • McCollum v. Board of Education (1948)
  • Torcaso v. Watkins (1961)
  • Abington v. Schempp/Murray v. Curlett (1963)
  • Welsh v. United States (1970)
  • Elk Grove v. Newdow (2004)
  • Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation (2007)
  • Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014)

In these stories there are remarkable characters, both men and women who faced remarkable challenges, who were isolated and outcast, not just for their religious beliefs, but because they were seen as enemies of the norm. And in their own ways they changed history. They ensured no child would feel that same isolation through forced religious education or prayer, that no American would be required to swear they believed in a particular deity in order to work for their country, and that no American would need to do the same if their personal morals restricted them from taking human life. Additionally, they challenged a number of the erroneous assumptions held by many Americans, such as the idea that ceremonial references to ‘God’ as part of patriotic rituals, like the Pledge of Allegiance, have somehow become secular by rote repetition. Or that there is no harm in the Federal Government offering financial assistance to Faith-Based Social Programs, regardless of the reality that those aren’t always founded on Christian, or even equitable, beliefs. Or that benign prayers, regardless of their content, somehow don’t tell those attending official government meetings that, unless they agree, they are not welcome as equal members.

In these ways, then, these stories also tell the larger story of the complexity that is religion in America. Of the differences and difficulties inherent in ensuring religious freedom in a religiously diverse environment. And of the constant struggle against politicians, teachers, judges, and any other person in a role of power or leadership, who might feel that the rest of the world needs to agree with what they believe, simply because they have the arrogance, or perhaps the lack of empathy, to accept that the world itself is not as they think it is, nor is as small as they would like.

So why had no one written about this before? I don’t really know. Whenever I would tell people about the book these last two years they’d get excited. Both Christians and Atheists, and everything in between, thought it was such an interesting topic. They’d ask questions like: are Atheists guaranteed the same First Amendment religious rights as other, religious Americans? Or: sure, while Atheists might be able to argue that they have been forced to practice someone else’s religion in a manner that violates the Constitution’s religious disestablishment clause, how might an Atheist fight for the right of his or her free exercise?

How do Atheists practice their Atheism? Is Atheism a religion? And if it is, how does that change any and all definitions of religion? Especially in America?

With this book I tried to address these questions.

So here I am with my shameless self-promotion (it’s an academic book, after all, so we need to do that from time to time). This book is the first of its kind. The first of its size dealing with this exceptional topic.

And while I know people always say things like ‘I’m real proud of this,’ etc., in this instance that’s definitely true. I love this book, and the story it tells, and I loved writing it. I had an amazing experience working with the copy editor, and helping collate the whole thing, and editing the index and case lists. It was more fun than it perhaps should have been. And it was, in many ways, a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I guess now I am.

Hopefully people will read it and share it and make use of it for the reasons we write these things. And love it the way I do.

Now on to the next one.

PS.

The image I used here is the one I had wished to use for the cover, but we weren’t able to.

As well, just in case, here are links to both Routledge’s description of the book as well Amazon’s:

https://www.routledge.com/Atheist-Exceptionalism-Atheism-Religion-and-the-United-States-Supreme/Quillen/p/book/9781138242418

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The Justice Potter Stewart Definition of Religion

On the night of November 13th, 1959, Nico Jacobellis, manager of the Heights Art Theater at the corner of Euclid Heights Boulevard and Coventry Road in Cleveland, Ohio, held a screening of the Louis Malle film, Lea Amants. The Lovers.

The film itself was controversial for the time, with, what some thought (particularly the state of Ohio), were graphic depictions of a sexual nature. Or, pornography.

Jacobellis was arrested, and convicted, on two counts of possessing and exhibiting an obscene film in direct violation of section 2905.34 (repealed in 1974) of the Ohio Revised Code, which stated:

Selling, exhibiting, and possessing obscene literature or drugs for criminal purposes.

No person shall knowingly sell, lend, give away, exhibit, or offer to sell, lend, give away, or exhibit, or publish or offer to publish or have in his possession or under his control an obscene, lewd, or lascivious book, magazine, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, photograph, motion picture film, or book, pamphlet, paper, magazine not wholly obscene but containing lewd or lascivious articles, advertisements, photographs, or drawing, representation, figure, image, cast, instrument, or article of an indecent or immoral nature, or a drug, medicine, article, or thing intended for the prevention of conception or for causing an abortion, or advertise any of them for sale, or write, print, or cause to be written or printed a card, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice giving information when, where, how, of whom, or by what means any of such articles or things can be purchased or obtained, or manufacture, draw, print, or make such articles or things, or sell, give away, or show to a minor, a book, pamphlet, magazine, newspaper, story paper, or other paper devoted to the publication, or principally made up, of criminal news, police reports, or accounts of criminal deeds, or pictures and stories of immoral deeds, lust, or crime, or exhibit upon a street or highway or in a place which may be within the view of a minor, any of such books, papers, magazines, or pictures.

Whoever violates this section shall be fined not less than two hundred nor more than two thousand dollars or imprisoned not less than one nor more than seven years, or both.

He was fined $500 on the first count and $2,000 on the second. If he could not pay the fines, he would be sentenced to a stint in the local workhouse until his debt was paid.

On appeal, both the Cuyahoga County Court of Appeals and the Ohio State Supreme Court upheld his initial verdict.

And then, in 1963, the United States Supreme Court voted to hear his case.

On June 22nd, 1964 in a 6-3 decision, it reversed Jacobellis’ verdict.

Justice William J. Brennan wrote the decision for the Court.

The lead question before that it considered dealt with whether the state courts in Ohio were correct in their assessment that Les Amants was indeed ‘obscene,’ and if so, whether it was not entitled to the Constitutional protections of free speech and expression, as granted by the First Amendment.

After all, the latter clearly states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

And, since the Court’s previous decisions in Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940), Everson v. Board of Education (1947), and McCollum v Board of Education (1948) declared that the First Amendment, or at least the two religion clauses of the First Amendment (disestablishment and free exercise), were federalized (applicable to the individual states) via the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, then so too would be the free speech one.

More specifically, and in direct reference to the dangerous complexity of America’s highest judiciary (which could overrule both state and lower federal court decisions) agreeing with one particular state’s definition of ‘obscenity,’ Justice Brennan, citing his earlier decision in the similar case of Smith v. California (1959), concluded:

[…] to sustain the suppression of a particular book or film in one locality would deter its dissemination in other localities where it might be held not obscene, since sellers and exhibitors would be reluctant to risk criminal conviction in testing the variation between the two places. It would be a hardy person who would sell a book or exhibit a film anywhere in the land after this Court had sustained the judgment of one ‘community’ holding it to be outside the constitutional protection. The result would thus be “to restrict the public’s access to forms of the printed word which the State could not constitutionally suppress directly.”

In other words, just because a law in Ohio decided Les Amants was pornographic, no other state would need to agree. Neither, of course, would the Federal Government.

Now, there are two aspects of the Court’s decision that stand out here as especially interesting.

First is the fact that though the  six Justices in agreement to reverse Jacobellis’ conviction agreed to do so, they could not agree, as a whole, as to why. Each had a different argument, and in fact, alongside Justice Brennan’s decision for the Court, three others were submitted as well. Not to mention the two dissents from Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justice John Marshall Harlan.

The second interesting aspect has to deal with Justice Potter Stewart’s concurrence, and especially his simplicity in how we might distinguish between that which is pornographic and that which is art.

He famously argued:

I have reached the conclusion, which I think is confirmed at least by negative implication in the Court’s decisions since Roth and Alberts, that, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard core pornography. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

But I know it when I see it.

Were we to replace the term ‘hardcore pornography’ here with ‘religion,’ then Justice Stewart’s following proclamation (“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so”) seems an all too familiar observation of the scholar of religion.

And that’s the point I’m trying to make here.

Religion is mysterious. It is numinous and odd and alien. And we’ll likely never get a grasp on it. We’ll never define it, at least not in any accurate essentialist way that anyone, anywhere would in any way agree with. Which means defining what constitutes ‘the religious’ will likewise also be out of reach.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t try. And, boy, do we ever.

Generations of scholars have fought and fought over definitions, or worse, ways of reaching definitions, or theories of definitions. Categories of definitions. Critical definitions. Substantive. Functionalist. So on, and so forth.

And sure, while I’d agree that the debate is far better than simply sticking with one definition (let the theologians have that one, yes?), I’d also argue that there’s something a bit distracting there as well. Too often, I think, we get so wrapped up in debates about ‘unpacking’ terminology (the refrain, I’ve learned, of those scholars carrying LOTS of baggage), about the ‘politics’ involved. About making sure we stay objective and yet empathic. Dispassionate and yet ardent. Observer and yet participatory. That we stop actually doing the work. To the point, in fact, that were we to step outside and look inward, we might to our surprise suddenly view all of this as as some ridiculous pedantic circus, asking ourselves in the process: shouldn’t we take a break from all this nonsense, and just get back to work. I mean, how many times can we really discuss how our discussing things gives meaning to the things in which we are discussing? (Lots. Like, lots and lots.)

To that endeavor, I offer the Justice Potter Stewart definition of religion: I know it when I see it.

I accept that I will never know the definition of religion. Or Atheism. Or nonreligion. Or unbelief. Or any other synonymous (and yet relatable, dammit!) terminology. And I’m quite happy with that. Because I’m also confident that I’ve been trained well and have a sincere work ethic. That when I do the work I make sure that I produce quality. Detailed, heavily researched, and, yes, objective work. Work that doesn’t, in all that it does say, tell people what they should think, or how they should think, about religion. All it does is offer them information. Details. Discourse.

Because, and perhaps its the ‘theologian’ in me (or whatever) but when I see something that looks like Atheism, or religion, or something akin to either, you know what, I know it when I see it. And so do our readers. Which is why I prefer to present it that way. As discourse. As information. That way, it’s entirely up to them to decide whether or not what I have presented aligns with, or disagrees with, their opinions.

Of course, the irony is not lost on me that this, in fact, will produce the same sort of discussion that I just earlier up there decried. And that’s fine. I’m also perfectly fine with being ironic. And besides, the debates are often far too fun not to have. Right?

Fight or Flight

Donald Trump is my President.

Last Friday, we went to Burlington, Vermont.

As we entered City Hall Park we found ourselves standing (rather accidentally) amongst a growing crowd of individuals. They began to gather around the steps of City Hall. Three young women started speaking through a megaphone.

We quickly realized we had found ourselves within an anti-Trump rally.

People took turns speaking to the crowd. They varied in age and gender, and their messages, though about the same topic, were diverse.

People held up signs, pieces of cardboard with pithy statements in black marker.

Some women chanted, “pussy grabs back!”

When a young woman began her story with the declaration, “Trump is not my President,” the crowd cheered.

After that, most of the stories began the same way.

While we stood there, listening, I began to think about what I would say.

Of course, there’s no way I’d climb the steps and share. It’s not in my nature. Rather listen than participate.

And after all, we had discovered this peaceful gathering by accident. We were there to buy a sandwich.

But I couldn’t shake the thought. The crowd had succeeded in forcing my curiosity, and not just in empathizing with their fear and worry and anger. They got me thinking about what my story would be.

Whatever it might be, I know one thing is for sure.

I’d begin with the declaration: “Donald Trump is my President.”

No, I did not vote for the man.

I never had any intention to. Nor would I had, even if his central aim was to forgive all student debt (I didn’t support Jill Stein, either).

Donald Trump is an abhorrent, sexual assaulting, racist, misogynistic, asshole.

He is the epitome of contemporary evil.

A demagogue. A hate-filled child. An insecure, chauvinist, elitist, piece of human shit.

Donald Trump is my President.

One thing I love about America is the democratic process. The peaceful transition of power. The fact that we have checks and balances. We have a constitution. We have freedom. We welcome all colors and creeds. We disagree, and find value in our differences. We support one another, and fight for each other, because we are all congregants of the same civil religion.

Last Tuesday we held a free and peaceful election and the American people (via the Electoral College) elected a new President. Regardless of who that person is, or what they stand for, the democratic process worked. It did what it did.

To deny that, to reject it, is an affront to that process.

Merely arguing that the man elected is not my President, because I didn’t vote for him, is the opposite of a democracy. And while it might be cathartic, it’s mere denial.

Best to accept it.

Not blindly, of course.

Not quietly.

The other thing I love about America is my right to free speech.

My right to speak my mind when I feel the circumstance requires it.

Sure, salute the rank, not the man. But sometimes, you need to admonish the man, in order to protect the rank.

This, as much as the election last week, is democracy in action.

Why are People Mourning?

Over the weekend I thought about my story, and how I might write it, and I realized that perhaps my story is not the point. Or, at least, maybe it shouldn’t just be about me.

Sure, stories have a central character, but it’s those who surround that character that make it a story. As we know, a narrative can’t just be one sided.

My story, then, should begin with a question I’ve seen asked less with an inflection of curiosity, and more as a statement of reproach: why are people mourning?

This is often followed by an argument in support of one’s opinion that ‘mourning’ is an odd reaction. Something like, “the world didn’t end,” or “it’s not that big of a deal.”

Some have even adopted the sort of tone we’d expect from an adolescent: “Get over it, you lost.”

Regardless of the judgment in these follow-up statements, there’s a puzzlement there.

A curiosity from one perspective about how, or why, the opposition is acting so strangely. After all, this is good for us, isn’t it? America will be great again. Finally.

There’s a lack of empathy here.

And let’s be fair, it’s a similar lack of empathy as the declaration “Trump is not my President.”

Opinions have two sides, usually. An alterity, as the French might call it. A mirrored reflection of myself that helps me come to define who I am.

But good alterity needs empathy to succeed.

Without empathy we aren’t human.

Without empathy we can accomplish great horror.

We can fly planes into buildings, or be complicit in genocide.

Empathy is what gives us compassion. It makes us fair and loving people. It’s what drives us to comfort someone else’s crying child.

And it’s what I’ve seen missing the last few days.

Mostly from one side.

So allow me this divagation of sorts, with the caveat that I do indeed empathize with those who voted for Donald Trump. I’ll get to that later.

Besides, this is my story, and all stories need a narrator.

And, as we know, narrator’s tend to have their own opinions, even if they’re made up.

Laziness

Watching the election results was difficult.

Waking up the next day was difficult.

Going to the library at Dartmouth, working, avoiding the internet.

Difficult.

The people I know who are in mourning feel this way because the man we elected President is a representation of irresponsibility. Of bullying. Of racist profiling. Of raising the fears and hatred and anger of ignorant Americans toward an entire religion.

He is lazy.

He represents the normalization of sexual assault. Of empty threats. Of arrogance, built on the sand of insecurity.

The man we have elected President will set us back socially a hundred years.

He is lazy.

Lazy is a curious word.

Here’s what I mean: tolerance takes work. It’s difficult. Understanding someone else, and acknowledging them their right to express themselves, even when that expression might upset or offend me, isn’t easy.

Being a straight Christian and seeing a gay couple is difficult.

Growing up in a white, middle-class community, and seeing aspects of black culture is difficult.

Being lazy is seeing these things and hating them. Being lazy is never changing your mind. Being lazy is not empathizing.

Being lazy is the instinct to start a fight, rather than listen to the other side.

Being lazy is the opposite of being the bigger man.

We elected an individual who isn’t just lazy, he promotes laziness. He inspires it in others.

His central issues were lazy.

How, we might ask, does one actually stop an entire religion from entering the country?

It’s an asinine question.

Think about what’s required, simply in the context of international travel:

  • Do we close all international airports?
  • Do we require international airlines to put a litmus test on their websites for people buying tickets?
  • Do we click a special button that only non-Muslims can see when we purchase a ticket?
  • Do we have to somehow prove we’re not Muslims?
  • What if we’ve read or are familiar with Muslim texts? Where’s Joseph McCarthy? He had this whole thing figured out.

Or, do we instigate this ‘extreme vetting’ he was talking about?

  • What does that demand?
  • Is it nothing more than just denying entry into the United States to an individual who ‘looks’ Muslim?
  • Who polices this?
  • Who oversees it?
  • Who pays for it?
  • Who trains these people to ‘sniff’ out the Muslims?
  • Can’t Muslim people simply pretend they aren’t Muslim?
  • Can’t they just lie?
  • Should we just ban all people from entering the country who might, according to some expert, look ‘suspiciously Muslim?’
  • What about American Muslims, born here, two to three generation Americans, what happens to them if they fly to another country and come back? Do they get a free pass?
  • But wait, what about those who’ve been radicalized in America?
  • Do we extend our extreme vetting beyond the borders?
  • Do we register them?
  • Make them carry a special ID card?

This is lazy thinking, beloved by the ignorant proud.

How about the next one:

  • How does one actually build a wall that separates the border between the US and Mexico?
  • Doesn’t that require a lot of material? Perhaps the same amount of material as every interstate in the entire United States combined?
  • Who builds it?
  • Do we hire laborers?
  • What do we do about Big Bend National Park? I’ve stood there. I’ve looked out across that desert. Only an idiot would think we could build a wall there. It’s a horrific desert. There’s nothing there. That’s why it’s so beautiful.
  • How do we get a foreign nation to pay for something they don’t want? Sanctions? Threats?
  • What about the Gulf of Mexico? Do we just ignore the fact that people who are fleeing from rape and murder probably don’t mind getting their clothes wet? What about boats? Do we reposition the Navy in the Gulf of Mexico? Who pays for that?
  • What about other borders? Do we build walls on the shorelines of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, etc.? What about California, and Oregon, and Washington? What if people fly to Canada and then come down? So, two walls?

When you actually think about them, these are dumb ideas.

They’re not actionable.

And even if they were, for the sake of argument, the larger question still persists: who pays for all this? These things cost money, especially the second one. And let’s be honest, no amount of ‘deal making’ will force a foreign nation, already choking on its own debt, to pay for a billion dollar wall with money they don’t have.

We will pay for it. Just like we’ve paid for everything else.

With taxes.

These are lazy ideas, but they’re accepted and loved by lazy people who don’t think beyond the sound bite.

And it’s these ideas that make us mourn for our country.

They make us sad because they represent a national narrative that promotes lazy, hateful thinking.

When we elect a President, or any political representative, we’ve made an agreement. We’ve hired someone. We’ve asked that person to represent us to the rest of our country. To the world.

Donald Trump now represents America.

His lazy ideas are now ours.

I did not vote for him, but my country hired him, and just like how an employee represents the company at which he works, Donald Trump is the American who represents the American people.

His discourse of racism, of hatred and fear, is what will shape the civil religion of his Presidency. And as a member of that religion, I must answer for him.

When he assaults a woman and brags about it, I have to answer for it.

When he makes a racist comment, he makes it on behalf of the American people.

When he supports killing the families of our enemies, or disregards the collateral damage of innocent people killed in the name of ‘bombing the shit out of them,’ I have to defend myself.

When he shows prejudice against an entire religion because his fear of terrorism blinds his ability to see the actions of insecure assholes, rather than an entire faith, I have to say that these are not my ideas, even though they are now American.

An endorsement by proxy.

We are in mourning because we realize that the American church sits before the pulpit of the priesthood of the Presidency.

We are in mourning because we value our political system as sacred. We are proud members of this congregation, willing to fight and die for the principles provided us by men of honor, endowed by their creator with the ability to construct a government for and by the people.

And now, as the mantle is passed from one President to the next, we watch as tolerance and empathy and rational thinking give way to laziness.

The American President is America’s greatest ambassador and we’ve elected a bully, the definition of which is someone too scared not to lash out.

Think of the bullies you’ve known.

They taunt you for the way you dress, the way you look, the way you sound. They project their own insecurities onto you, and then try to beat them away. They assault you and threaten those you love.

As children we were told never to fight the bully. Don’t give in and give him what he wants. Listen to him. Understand why it is that he’s bullying. Ask him what he is afraid of? What is making him so angry?

While we might be able to empathize and listen to Trump, and try in earnest to understand what it is that drives him, the fact is we’ve chosen a bully to represent us.

And while that might look attractive to the lazy Americans who voted for him, consider again what happens when two bullies confront each other. While a playground skirmish might be benign to the average child enjoying his or her recess, imagine those bullies with guns.

Imagine them with nuclear weapons.

Maybe all of this is mere hyperbole.

Maybe my words here really are, as I’ve seen told to others, just a bitter response to losing.

Which I would accept, were we to have elected John McCain or Mitt Romney.

But those were men of honor.

I do not agree with them on many political and social issues, but they would have made exceptional Presidents.

Donald Trump is a joke.

He is a deplorable person.

He is my President.

Where is My Empathy?

It would be unfair to simply assume that half of those Americans who voted did so for less than honorable reasons, such as their laziness. Or to say that maybe they were simply bored and wanted something fun to watch for the next four years.

Likewise, it would be unfair to simply argue here that they were perhaps too ignorant themselves to realize what they’d done. To compare their actions with a clever metaphor: voting for Donald Trump is like hating property taxes so much you burn down the house, only to realize you now have no place to live, and still have to pay the tax.

It would be unfair to judge them for simply voting party. I’ve seen this argument come up a few times. It’s used as an excuse, an attempt by the user to disassociate themselves from Donald Trump. As if they might further argue that while they hate the man and everything about him, they still support their party. I mean, all judgment aside, this is an irresponsible argument, isn’t it? Voting party does not excuse one’s support of the party’s candidate. After all, to be that party’s candidate, the party must accept that person, and everything he brings with him. You can’t just say, “I didn’t vote Trump, I voted Republican,” because an aegis ‘Republican vote’ was a vote for Trump. After all, you could have written in the name of another Republican, such as John McCain said he would. At least that would have been more responsible.

It would be unfair to point out that Donald Trump represents the complete opposite of the religious right’s position on absolutely everything. It would be additionally unfair to assume, then, that he received their votes because, though he might not be a man of God, at least he hates their enemies (everyone who isn’t Christian) as much as they do.

It would be unfair to point out the ignorant futility of a white middle-class, angry at its lack of representation for the last eight years, that just elected a man whose economic plan has been predicted by experts (in all their uselessness, see below) to directly hurt the white middle-class.

It would be unfair to point out the hypocrisy of those who voted for Trump because he was the candidate who showed himself as a man who ‘supports our troops,’ especially since he thinks he knows more about military thinking simply because he successfully dodged the draft five times.

It would be unfair to assume one of the major reasons he won America’s vote is simply because, unlike any other candidate, he seems more likely the type of person you’d want to have a beer with. A clever way of saying a candidate seems more like ‘one of us,’ and less like the typical, out of touch, politician. Except that it’s a stupid qualification for President. Sure, being able to sit and chat with the man who holds the nuclear codes would be fun, but I wouldn’t want it. Look, politics is hard. It takes focus and concentration and tactical moves across a chess board of players all better at it than you are. It’s a game. A hard game. It takes training and skill. It takes subtlety and nuance. It isn’t just about showing your hand every time you think you’ve won. It’s also a job, and just like any other job, it’s not something you want the average beer drinking Joe to have, regardless of how ‘down home’ and ‘relatable’ he seems. That’s why we tend not to elect people who run under ‘nicknames’ or on platforms of free nacho night every third Tuesday. It’s because politics is serious, with serious repercussions. I would not vote for a man or woman to the Presidency simply because I felt like I could have a beer with them. Voting is a job interview, after all, and I’d want them to do the job, not hang out. Save that sort of thinking for people you wouldn’t think to send to speak on behalf of America in Iran or China.

How does this lead back to empathy?

America has its issues, and our fragile political system, with its flaws and corruption, shouldn’t be immune to change. Occasionally electing an outsider whose rhetoric and policies diverge from the path of the same old empty promises can seem like a useful remedy. The status quo can only work for so long before it begins to work against the American people.

Donald Trump fit that description well.

So did Bernie Sanders.

Now, before we distract ourselves with conversations about corruption within the DNC, and arguments about why Clinton should have accepted that she could not have won against Trump, my summoning Bernie Sanders into this rant is not meant as an endorsement, but instead as an empathic understanding of one side’s thinking.

These two candidates seem to have grown out of a discourse that demanded change. They arose out of frustration, on both sides, of a Presidency mired in ‘do nothingness.’ Out of the frustration of watching Barack Obama either act in a manner that didn’t benefit the American people at large, or constantly battling a Congress that refused to work with him.

These two candidates represented a shift, especially toward the more extremes of each party: one toward the anger and racist bigotry associated with far-right thinking, and the other toward socialism.

Were I a supporter of Bernie Sanders I would, if nothing else, better understand how Trump came to crystalize the discourse of the Republican Party. How he kept his momentum and seemed ever more resilient against each disparaging and damning fact that came out about him.

I can empathize with this.

It makes sense.

If only the Democratic Party had realized that as well, I can’t help but think (from a liberal perspective at least) that we wouldn’t have a deplorable man as President.

The New Deplorables

During the campaign, Hillary Clinton referred to certain members of Trump’s support base as ‘deplorable.’

This is an apt description, given their, well, deplorable nature.

You’ve probably seen them. I have.

They wear t-shirts that support lynching members of the press.

They wear t-shirts that in some ‘clever’ way call Hillary Clinton a bitch.

They accost protestors.

They kick the wheelchair of a child with disabilities peacefully protesting at a Trump rally because of the way he mocks the disabled (side note: where you at, Sarah Palin, with your ire over the use of the term ‘retarded’ in even a benign context?).

They take to the internet with chants of MAGA!

They spread disinformation and hate.

They feed on discord and violence, and Trump eggs them on and supports them and blames the victims for their actions. The classic, well if you weren’t such a (insert insult here), I wouldn’t have called you that.

I’ve known a lot of these types of people in my time. They used to call me a ‘faggot’ for dressing a certain way or for reading during my lunch breaks.

For going back to school.

I sat once and listened to a group of them talk angrily about President Obama with statements like, someone should just kill him, while their children nodded in agreement.

They argued for years that Obama wasn’t an American, even after he supplied his birth certificate. They kept the argument alive by denying its accuracy, or incorrectly stating that Hawaii wasn’t a state when he was born there (he was born in 1961, and Hawaii became a state in 1959).

Out of curiosity, I checked the Facebook pages of the people I knew who were like this.

They voted Trump.

Now, whether any of this is correlative to the deplorable nature of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, and whether it is (again) fair to categorize all republican-voting Americans in this list of people (it isn’t, of course), it begs the greater question: perhaps they aren’t the deplorable ones.

A majority of Americans elected Donald Trump.

Maybe the people we thought were deplorable aren’t really the deplorables.

Maybe I am?

Maybe my type of thinking, or even just my way of life, is the new deplorable?

Here’s what I mean.

Prior to this election, the academic world was in great decline. Funding for state universities has been lessening more and more, and especially in the humanities, jobs are dwindling to nothing. People are being fired and tenured positions are disappearing. ‘Adjuncting’ is the new norm. A form of teaching where we receive less than minimum wage, no benefits, and no funding for research and/or conferences. It’s actually better to simply get a full-time job and do the whole academic thing as a hobby.

As well, there persists this notion that a college education isn’t valuable anymore. But I’d argue that this stems more than anything from a misunderstanding about what an ‘education’ means. Of course it doesn’t just mean a four-year degree. An education can be gained from courses taken at a community college, courses that vary from the most basic level of the humanities to more direct vocational training. Both of which share inestimable benefits. Or even from skills learned outside the context of a college setting. But this isn’t the misunderstanding I mean here. Rather, I’m referring to the idea that an ‘education’ consists mostly of taking classes and graduating. A misunderstanding, then, about the ‘college experience’ in general. For me, college is where people discover how to deal with difficulties. Where we are faced with the challenge of addressing different subjects all at once. Where we ‘grow up.’

Here’s an example: I was terrible at math. I failed every class in High School. When I finally went back to college I had to start at the beginning. Adding and subtracting. My homework was writing out numbers. One hundred. Four thousand, two hundred, and twenty five. I hated it. I worked hard. I studied. I got tutoring. I passed every class. Asked now, I couldn’t possibly remember how to do the things I learned in order to pass. But the point is, I learned them. I forced myself to learn a task and excel at it, regardless of how much I disliked it. Tell me that isn’t the sort of knowledge that might come in handy in the ‘real world.’

Nevertheless, the nation’s mood toward academia was bad before. It’s worse now.

From inside this context I’ve seen the rhetoric on the right side of things getting more and more combative against the ‘educated elite.’ When Britain’s own end-of-the-world scenario was decided (‘Brexit’), one of the rallying cries from the ‘leave’ campaign was the notion that we’re “tired of the experts.”

Anti-intellectualism is becoming more and more normalized. It’s being filled with conspiratorial accusations, the worst of which dealing with ‘Global Warming.’ I’ve known intelligent, rational people, for whom I hold great respect, deny any and all aspects involving the pollution and direct influence humankind has on the environment with passionate claims that the whole thing is a hoax in order to get us to pay more taxes. They reject academic articles on the subject, and published scientific findings because, in their lives, they’ve known academics who were corrupt or opinionated. I myself have been asked on a few occasions what my ‘agenda’ is in my own research, a response that stems directly from a mistrust of the academic world. A mistrust, I believe, that arises from negative personal experiences. It’s sort of like dismissing scientific data about the dangerous repercussions of fracking because a lecturer once gave you a poor grade for a paper you wrote about feminist narrative in 19th century southern fiction.

I’ve also seen angry contempt over the building of wind and solar farms, punctuated by the central issue of their aesthetic appeal. I’ve found myself arguing that perhaps the ugliness they see in wind turbines and solar panels is not necessarily the objects themselves, but what they represent. In this sense, a physical embodiment of the liberal lie that is Climate Change.

Conspiratorial thinking, based on feelings rather than facts.

Donald Trump, after all, thinks ‘Global Warming’ was invented by the Chinese.

My larger point here is that I’ve seen myself and others depicted as the new deplorables. This has been especially evinced over the last few days by colleagues who have described scenes of students crying in class, or the fact that here at Dartmouth a number of professors cancelled their lectures and instead held open office hours for those who wanted to talk.

Why, you might wonder?

Because the future for academia, for creativity and exploration, and especially for rational and objective thinking, seems to be heading toward an end.

And this isn’t just because some of the things we research are so easily politicized.

As a quick example, allow me to move away from the emotions of undergraduates at an IV university in New Hampshire to my own experiences.

I finished my PhD about a year ago and have been writing articles and chapters and books to ‘boost’ my CV. In that time I’ve applied for about 20 or so teaching positions or post-doctoral fellowships. The rejections I receive tend to have the same response. Thanks for the application, you look great, we’d love to have you, but we had about 200-500 applicants and only had space for one. This is pretty normal.

It also doesn’t help me that I research something that’s kind of sexy, but not really sexy enough. That’s my own fault.

Right now the academic market is currently flooded with applicants, and there just aren’t enough jobs for us. Which is getting worse. As I mentioned above, funding for new positions is getting cut. Departments are downsizing. Current lecturers and professors are fighting just to keep their own jobs.

In America, an academic CV just isn’t what it used to be.

Which is a direct result of the sort of discourse that will find support in Trump’s America. A PhD used to mean something. Now it’s something we might be better off hiding about ourselves.

Here’s another issue: since academia seems to be losing its support, and since the outcome is the adjunct solution mentioned above, where we might have found financial and beneficial support in the past, we are now finding ourselves in the position of having to decide whether or not to dismiss ever getting the PhD in the first place.

One of the first things Trump has vowed to do as President is repeal the Affordable Care Act, removing this basic service for millions and millions of Americans. Which means those of us surviving on an adjunct basis no longer have the medical benefits our universities don’t offer us. Meaning, while we could have nominally survived a few years before finding a full-time position, that option seems impossible now. Which makes it harder to boost one’s CV, which makes us less and less qualified for a full-time position.

In other words, it no longer makes financial sense working as an academic grunt if a basic injury might send me deeper in debt beyond the money I owe for the education I got in order to be an academic grunt.

See, it’s little actions like this, seemingly unrelated, that cause the biggest effect. The Affordable Care Act, from an academic perspective, was something that supported academic thinking by making the terrible situation of finding a job that much easier. Now, I’m better off working at Home Depot.

So in the end, people like me but without the benefit of an amazing wife whose employer offers spousal benefits are finding themselves at a crossroads. Which is why, even at the undergrad level, people are worried.

Couple this with the notion that in contemporary America, and especially in Trump’s America, academics are becoming personae non gratae, and we begin to see a growing issue.

Yet, and regardless of this, some of you might find yourselves asking if academics really matter that much? Why should we support people who just think about stuff or who have circle-jerk arguments about theories? Who don’t have ‘real jobs?’

To that I’d answer: because people who devote their passions to research and study and teaching provide a service immeasurable to the benefits of society.

We thrive on furthering intellectual thought.

We study religion, and law, and science, and provide the basis on which culture not only starts, but grows.

Because we are storytellers, and the world does not exist without stories.

Because without academic thought there is no democracy.

There is no dissemination of knowledge.

Because without academic thought, ignorance thrives.

And so does laziness.

Fight or Flight

So here it is, the end of this rant.

Here’s where I wrap up the whole thing and end on a positive note.

During the campaign, and especially since it ended, I’ve seen a lot of people talking about leaving America.

I admit, last Wednesday I thought about contacting friends and colleagues abroad for advice on attaining research visas. Maybe going back for another PhD. Which I would love to do. We loved living in Scotland. We loved traveling Europe. The last year has been difficult. The reverse culture shock is only getting worse.

And for many of us, Donald Trump’s success has brought us to a crossroads of fight or flight. The nightmare we thought just couldn’t happen has happened, and suddenly we’ve come to find ourselves as the new deplorables.

We find ourselves in the minority for promoting racial equality, same-sex marriage, the separation of church and state. We support the dangers of objectivity. Of rationality. Of not being lazy.

Maybe we should just run away. Run and hide someplace where this sort of thinking is welcomed and loved. What America used to be.

When I think about these two options I can’t help but consider one of them weaker than the other. What does it say about me as a person that when faced with an orange Mussolini Presidency I immediately run away?

What does it say about me if I don’t stand and fight for the democracy I hold so dear and sacred?

The idea of a Trump Presidency is a nightmare. Not just for those of us who didn’t vote for him, but for all of us.

Empathy and fairness aside, this man is the least qualified individual to have ever attained a political position of power in the history of the United States.

And it’s our job to ensure he doesn’t destroy it outright.

For that reason, I am staying here.

For that reason, I wholly accept that I am the new deplorable.

I embrace it.

I will be the constant annoying reminder that the America I have always known and loved is still here.

That they can’t just have what they want. That America doesn’t work like that. That this isn’t a monarchy. This isn’t a theocracy.

I will remind him and his followers that the First Amendment does not promote religion. It does not quiet Free Speech. It does not deny me the right to protest.

I will remind our new Vice President, our actual President by everything but name alone, especially after Trump realizes how hard the job is, that though he may be a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican (in that order), the American people are not. I will remind them both that this is not a Christian nation.

I will remind them that the First Amendment protects religious freedom by not infringing on it. By not promoting one belief over another. By keeping it out of political decisions. By removing it from state capitols and courthouses.

That the First Amendment protects their own religious beliefs from their own machinations.

I will remind the new Supreme Court that it is its job to ensure all Americans find equal protection under the Constitution. That it does not serve to promote, protect, and defend the Americans with whom the majority of Justices agree politically or religiously. That decisions are, and should be, difficult. That they need to look no further than their own history, to the history of Judicial America, to find the foundations of equality on which decisions like Snyder v. Phelps (2011) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) have been made.

Rather than lowering to his level and insulting his ‘tiny hands,’ I will remind President Trump why American democracy is so great. Every time he tries to do something unconstitutional, I will remind him why that document exists. When he tries to gag the press because he doesn’t like how the media (or the public) treats him, I will make sure he sees it.

I will remind him that equality is better than racism. That homosexuality is not a sin. I will normalize these things by living a life that accepts people, regardless of their ‘differences’ from me.

I will implore others to empathize. To understand why people might act out with violence, and argue that responding with violence isn’t always the best approach.

I will ask them to consider the heartache someone might feel in not being allowed to sit with the person they love as they die. To hold their hand. To kiss them. To cry with them. To be with the person they love more than themselves during a moment of fear and loneliness. And then I will ask them if they think the type of sex these people have should restrict them from this.

I will remind Trump’s America that as parents of daughters, and as grandparents to granddaughters, that normalizing sexual assault is an insult to humanity.

I will remind them that children need to learn that sexual assault is a crime, even if their President does it.

I will remind them of this because they’ve elected a President who thinks sexual assault is permissible because of someone’s financial worth or fame. I will force them to justify this decision. To explain their choice to their children. To explain why they decided to normalize these actions. Why they thought a ‘strong leader’ was worth electing a sexual deviant.

I will remind them that Planned Parenthood isn’t about abortion, it’s about women’s health. It’s about offering women a place where they can responsibly care for themselves, a place to find support and treatment.

I will remind them that abortion is legal in the United States, that American women have the right to make that choice, even when I don’t agree with it.

I will remind them that though America has immigration issues, and though we have illegal immigration issues, there are better resolutions than militarily rounding up and deporting people. That this was never a part of our social and civil infrastructure. That it only breeds more hate, and this is not how I want the world to see us.

I will remind President Trump that he must now do the job. That perhaps his own worst nightmare has come true.

I will remind him that this job requires more than just making empty threats built on the foundation of ignorant fears. That it is more than just riling up hateful crowds. That he must now do more than simply wave his hands and tell people that his plans are the best, really the best, better than anyone else’s.

I will remind our new Secretary of State that feelings are not more essential than facts.

I will remind them both that they have to speak to foreign leaders on behalf of all Americans and, worse for Trump, respect them. Especially the women. I will remind him that he can’t just dismiss Angela Merkel, perhaps soon to be leader of the free world, because, as we’ve seen, he has no respect for educated, rational women.

I will remind him that he now has to make decisions. Difficult decisions.

I will remind him that his decisions might cost America billions of dollars. That his decisions cannot only benefit Republican ideals, if he even knows what those are, beyond what is told to him by aides.

I will remind him that his decisions cannot only support white, Christian men.

I will remind him that his decisions cannot simply benefit Vladimir Putin.

I will remind the baby-boomers who elected him, who lived through the Cold War, that they might have just elevated a ‘useful idiot’ to the Presidency. That we are perhaps set to see America’s involvement in, and support of, a Russian invasion of Europe. Under the guise of protecting it from Islamic terrorism. Of our becoming a part of the new Axis Powers in a third World War: Russia, Britain, the United States. Do the bad guys know when they’re the bad guys, or does that realization only occur after they’ve lost?

I will remind him that he has to make decisions that don’t cause further damage to the already weakened peace of racial America. I will remind him that in the inevitable event of another Ferguson, he cannot simply militarize the police. That in the face of racial violence, from both sides, the best solution is found in locating the source of this violence, and resolving it there.

I will remind him that when he calls the spouses and parents of soldiers killed in the service of their country he cannot disrespect them or insult them because they’re Muslim or supported a different candidate.

He can’t call them cowards if they get captured.

I will remind Republican Americans that the next time they ask me to ‘thank a sniper’ or admonish me for not properly celebrating Memorial or Veterans day by thanking a veteran, that this man was their choice. That before they demand this sort of respect from me, they should first demand it of their Commander in Chief.

I will remind Trump’s America that anger is not an option.

That fear and hate are not American ideals. They are his.

They are not mine.

I will make myself inclusive to other’s beliefs, as I always have been. As I was taught by my parents and my grandparents.

I will find commonality with people who think me their enemy.

I will show them love and compassion and empathy when they show me hate.

I will defend their right to speak freely, to protest. Even when I don’t like what they say.

I will defend our right to do this together, and I will do it peacefully.

I will invite Republicans and Democrats to join me in this, in being the new deplorables. In finding harmony in our disharmony in an effort to preserve and protect all that has been great about America. To ensure America is as great as it always has been. To keep it safe during the inevitable hard times to come.

I will defend the disestablishment of religion in America, and I will do it by continuing my research. By writing about and publishing and teaching others about religion.

Mine will be a voice of American Atheism, a reminder that regardless of our own beliefs, the sacred right of religious free exercise, even in our darkest hour, remains sacrosanct and enduring.

Donald Trump is my President, and I will proudly be the new deplorable.

 

 

Very Beautifully Reviewed

The United States is currently 28 days from electing its next President, and while that fact alone might inspire both anxiety and excitement for individuals both in and out of the US, this recent election seems to be doing both in greater detail. Perhaps it has something to do with the candidates that we, as a nation, have elected to represent our two political viewpoints.  Or, perhaps it’s something else.

A few days ago these two candidates met on stage at the second Presidential debate, where they discussed, amongst other things, campaign finance reform, combating ISIS, racial violence, Iran, Russia, tweeting as a modern form of communication, and whether or not assaulting women by “grabbing them by the pussy” is permissible due to one’s celebrity status.  All important topics in a Presidential debate, and perhaps that ‘something else’ I just mentioned.

In addition to these, one of the audience members, Beth Miller, asked the poignant question: “What would you prioritize as the most important aspect of selecting a Supreme Court justice?”

I refer to this as poignant because, since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court of the United States has been limited to eight members. This is problematic for two reasons:

  1. The Supreme Court (the ‘Judicial Branch’ of the United States) shapes American law via decisions about how American law is interpreted.
  2. When the justices of the Supreme Court disagree, having an odd number of justices shifts that disagreement toward a majority decision.

As it is right now, the second reason is limiting the first. That is, because the Court is limited to eight members, when it comes to a ‘tie,’ a swing opinion is not there to grant a proper decision.

Here’s an example.  Let’s say the Court chooses to decide on the legality of a prayer given at the beginning of a town board meeting (which, on the surface, looks unconstitutional when we consider the disestablishment of religion granted by the First Amendment of the US Constitution).

Many issues are present here.

  • Does having a prayer at a town board meeting represent a governmental establishment of religion when the prayer invokes a specific religious belief, or any in general?
  • Does this represent an historical precedence, and thus an action of tradition?
  • If it is tradition, is it secular or benign?
  • What about the language used by the man or woman providing the prayer? Is it specific? Or general?
  • What is the majority religious affiliation of the members of the board, or even the city, in which the board meets? Does this matter under the Constitution’s strict separation of Church and State?
  • What about past precedence in similar cases where the Supreme, District, or Circuit Courts have had to make similar decisions?

So the Court meets and hears testimony and debates and discusses these issues and then the individual Justices come to their individual conclusions. Which also means that they confer and either agree or disagree with each other on the central question pertaining to this particular case: does the action of having a clergy member give a prayer at a town board meeting indeed represent an unconstitutional act.

Now, in this hypothetical example, let’s imagine there exists a tie, four against four. We would need a tie breaker, a Justice who sides with one or the other, and thus provides us, the American people, with a decision. In this case, the decision would be represented by a 5-4 majority.

This scenario actually happened recently, in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014). In this instance the Court ‘split,’ with the final opinion being drafted by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

What’s also interesting here, and which leads me to the point of this post, is that the ‘split’ that occurred here took place along a ‘right/left’ line. That is, the decision to legally declare that sectarian (the majority of which was Christian) prayer is is entirely constitutional because it represents an historical understanding that America has a long tradition of being ‘Christian,’ resulted from the combined decisions of five Catholic Justices, appointed by conservative Presidents. Not surprisingly, the dissenting opinions came from Justices appointed by Liberal Presidents, three of which are Jewish.

In other words, thanks to the Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, non-Christian individuals, who either identify with a different religious organization, are Atheists, or do not identify religiously at all, must participate in the opening prayer, because board meetings in the past got away with it. Likewise, this also opens (and did open) the opportunity for any religious organization to offer an opening prayer.

Thus, the Court essentially ensured that at any meeting there might be someone who feels oppressed, awkward, or marginalized.

So, Beth Miller’s question to the two candidates on Sunday night is all that more poignant because the person who is elected President will be appointing a Justice to fill Scalia’s absence. The assumption with this, of course, is that this person will appoint a Justice that might ‘shift the balance’ of the Court from a conservative majority to a liberal one, or keep it as it currently is. This would in turn either maintain decisions like Town of Greece v. Galloway, or shape them differently.

For those curious, here’s how the candidates responded:

While both responses are guilty of tangential wandering, particularly toward each individual’s political ideologies (duh), Mr. Trump’s is quite worrying, particularly because it demonstrates his utter lack of understanding about how the Court works, as well as his inability to hold one single thought longer than thirty seconds or so.

Here’s his response, taken from this transcript:

Justice Scalia, great judge, died recently. And we have a vacancy. I am looking to appoint judges very much in the mold of Justice Scalia. I’m looking for judges — and I’ve actually picked 20 of them so that people would see, highly respected, highly thought of, and actually very beautifully reviewed by just about everybody.

But people that will respect the Constitution of the United States. And I think that this is so important. Also, the Second Amendment, which is totally under siege by people like Hillary Clinton. They’ll respect the Second Amendment and what it stands for, what it represents. So important to me.

Now, Hillary mentioned something about contributions just so you understand. So I will have in my race more than $100 million put in — of my money, meaning I’m not taking all of this big money from all of these different corporations like she’s doing. What I ask is this.

So I’m putting in more than — by the time it’s finished, I’ll have more than $100 million invested. Pretty much self-funding money. We’re raising money for the Republican Party, and we’re doing tremendously on the small donations, $61 average or so.

I ask Hillary, why doesn’t — she made $250 million by being in office. She used the power of her office to make a lot of money. Why isn’t she funding, not for $100 million, but why don’t you put $10 million or $20 million or $25 million or $30 million into your own campaign?

It’s $30 million less for special interests that will tell you exactly what to do and it would really, I think, be a nice sign to the American public. Why aren’t you putting some money in? You have a lot of it. You’ve made a lot of it because of the fact that you’ve been in office. Made a lot of it while you were secretary of state, actually. So why aren’t you putting money into your own campaign? I’m just curious.

While his ramblings about campaign finance might make some sense if we attempt to empathize with him and assume he is here trying to point out Clinton’s hypocritical use of funding from donations she herself has criticized, his central point (if there is one) is that his Supreme Court nominee would be a carbon copy of Justice Scalia. Which, to be fair, is not that different from Clinton’s intention to appoint a Justice who will ensure more liberal decisions (such as supporting Roe v. Wade or overruling Citizen’s United v. FEC). However, given his rhetoric during the campaign, and his general discourse, his decision is problematic in that he seems to believe the proper nominee is one who would make decisions based on the interests of a select few, rather than the whole of the American people. Like we saw in Town of Greece v. Galloway.

The Supreme Court does not exist to protect certain Americans, it exists to ensure all Americans are granted the rights and protections granted them by the United States Constitution. So, while yes I do concede that there is inherent bias in both candidate’s answers, I would likewise argue that Mr. Trump’s is representative of an intention to shift the Court toward the former.

Here’s an example of what I mean here.

I’m currently in the early stages of writing a book on the certain Supreme Court decisions that have either focused on, or influenced, American Atheists and the protection of their beliefs under the First Amendment’s clauses about Free Exercise and Disestablishment.

At the start of one of these cases (Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow2004), Justice John Paul Stevens makes a reference to Texas v. Johnson (1989), a case that addressed the question as to whether or not the act of burning the American flag in protest constituted an illegal action.

Here’s some brief facts of the case:

  • During a protest outside the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas Texas, the defendant, Gregory Lee “Joey” Johnson, set fire to an American flag.
  • He was arrested, charged with desecrating a ‘venerated object’ (an actionable offense in Texas), convicted, sentenced to one year in prison, and fined two-thousand dollars.
  • He appealed to the Texas Fifth Court of Appeals, but was denied.
  • He then appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which overturned his conviction, citing his permission to burn the flag as an action permitted by the First Amendment’s protection of Free Speech.
  • The case found its way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the Criminal Appeals decision.
  • Interestingly, the Court’s decision was ‘split,’ with Justices Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, Scalia, and Kennedy concurring in the decision against Justices Rehnquist, White, O’Connor, and Stevens.

The decision in Texas v. Johnson was a controversial one.

It still is.

This is even more apparent when we learn more about Johnson himself. Not only was he a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, an organization that, during the Cold War, would represent a direct assault on ‘American values,’ his actions, along with other protestors at the time, were peppered with violence and the destruction of both public and private property.

Here’s an image of Johnson with his lawyer,William Kunstler:

william_kunstler_and_gregory_lee_johnson

Case decisions like these are hard.  They’re supposed to be.  They should be challenging and difficult and make us think objectively about how different each and every American is from each other.

Yet, this decision also demonstrates a clear representation of the Supreme Court ensuring the protection of the First Amendment to all US Citizens. After all, if an American citizen, whose contrarian actions and opinions make him seem ‘un-American,’ isn’t equally protected as everyone else, then the First Amendment loses it’s essential meaning.

We see this as well in the case of Snyder v. Phelps (2011). Here, the Court (in an 8-1 decision) upheld the Free Speech of the Westboro Baptist Church, an organization that has become famous for, among other things, protesting funerals with hateful signs declaring “God Hates Fags.”

It is (and was) the Court’s duty to ensure that grotesque and moronic individuals like those who belong to the Westboro Baptist Church are granted the same freedom of speech as every other American citizen (such as Johnson). Otherwise, we get back to the erroneous idea that particular beliefs and actions are granted more protection than others.

Again, that’s why case decisions like these are hard.

So let’s go back to the beginning.

While yes, I might personally agree with Clinton that the Supreme Court has been shifting in a more dangerous direction (particularly concerning American religion), I’d also argue that perhaps the better answer, from both candidates, would have focused on the argument that the proper Supreme Court Justice would be someone who can look at each and every case through a dispassionate lens of objectivity. This would be someone who could review the material, learn the facts, weigh the options, and ultimately come to a decision founded upon the singular intent of ensuring fair and balanced protection for each and every United States citizen under the Constitution. Even when the defendants of these cases represent foul, oppressive, and disgusting individuals, they should still be granted the same rights as everyone else.

Of course, that’s perhaps not as sexy as the answers most people might want to hear. Nor does it fit within the present discourse coming out of this election cycle, particularly from Mr. Trump’s campaign. Then again, it’s difficult being objective. It’s difficult making sure people who disagree with you or repulse you are allowed their ‘day in court.’ It isn’t easy, and it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be complex. It’s supposed to require rational, patient, intelligent, and unbiased thought.

It’s also why, in all likelihood, Mr. Trump won’t be granted the opportunity to appoint the next Justice come election day.

 

Happy Christmas

Around this time of year, an occasional debate comes up about the ‘inappropriateness’ of saying either ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays.’  Here’s a funny anecdote.

A few years back I was working at a rather famous department store, before I got distracted with all this ‘academia’ nonsense.

It was the first day of Chanukah.  This wasn’t unknown to people.  It was on the news.

A phone call came in on our cash wrap desk and I answered it: ‘Happy Chanukah.’  This was, I admit, an unorthodox response, considering we were all told to say: ‘Happy Holidays.’  I answered the caller’s question, and all was fine.  About two hours later, I received a message to see the manager of our department.  It turns out a complaint was filed, and I was given a written warning.  I was told that I had offended a caller with an inappropriate holiday greeting.  I was reminded how to properly answer the phones, and was sent back to work.

Since then, and after all these years, I’ve come to a simple conclusion when it comes to this, dare I say, ‘nonsense.’  It is, admittedly, once again rather unorthodox.


In 1984, the United States Supreme Court announced its decision on the case of Lynch vs. Donnelly.  Here’s a brief description of the case from the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law website, Oyez:

The city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, annually erected a Christmas display located in the city’s shopping district. The display included such objects as a Santa Claus house, a Christmas tree, a banner reading “Seasons Greetings,” and a nativity scene. The creche had been included in the display for over 40 years. Daniel Donnelly objected to the display and took action against Dennis Lynch, the Mayor of Pawtucket.

The lead question facing the Court’s decision is described as such:

Did the inclusion of a nativity scene in the city’s display violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

The answer they provided is described as such:

No. In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court held that notwithstanding the religious significance of the creche, the city had not violated the Establishment Clause. The Court found that the display, viewed in the context of the holiday season, was not a purposeful or surreptitious effort to advocate a particular religious message. The Court found that the display merely depicted the historical origins of the Holiday and had “legitimate secular purposes.” The Court held that the symbols posed no danger of establishing a state church and that it was “far too late in the day to impose a crabbed reading of the [Establishment] Clause on the country.”

The key element of this case is the statement here: “legitimate secular purposes.”  In essence, the court had stated that the image of the nativity scene was just as secularly innocuous as that of a Christmas Tree or Santa’s house.  The sacred element of the image no lounger remained.  It, and what it stood for, had become secular.

 In a similar case in 2010, the court decided in favour of the placement of a latin cross on government property in the Mojave desert in California.  Originally placed by members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars foundation as a memorial to those killed in battle in 1934, the cross became an issue worthy of the court’s attention as it appeared to challenge the disestablishment clause of the First Amendment.  A former member of the National Park Association, Frank Buono, eventually filed suit, and the case worked its way to the Supreme Court.

The decision of the Court was very similar to that in Lynch vs. Donnelly, namely that the cross itself, as a memorial, represented a secular image.

 So what does all of this have to do with ‘Merry Christmas?’

 By means of an explanation, consider the fact that we, as a western society, tend to not work on Sundays, and have built our culture around a particular calendar.  We take time off for Christmas and Easter, regardless of the fact that this often gets disguised by ‘winter’ and ‘spring’ breaks.  Now, this does not mean that these days are not still ritually ‘sacred’ to certain individuals.  It does, however, mean that they might accommodate two meanings.  After all, Sundays are used for football viewings and BBQs, as well as for church-going.

 In this way, then, and in taking the Supreme Court’s lead, there’s nothing seemingly wrong with saying ‘Merry Christmas’ as, like the nativity scene in Rhode Island, the cross in the Mojave, and our use of the ‘sabbath’ for secular purposes, ‘Christmas’ is no longer, or at least, no longer needs to be, sacred.  It’s a holiday we can all enjoy.  We can find pleasure in the twinkling lights, the trees, the markets, and even the nativity scenes, without needing to ‘believe’ in the myths that give these objects sacred meaning.

 With that in mind, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!

 

 

 

 

I Know It When I See It

A few days ago, we said farewell to two American friends who are moving back to the United States after living here for two years.  To celebrate their departure, a group of us met at a local bar, where we drank heartily and, as might be expected of inebriated academics, engaged ourselves in loud and non-sensory debates about the definition(s) of religion.

At one point, I interrupted a colleague, well into his animated defence for some sort of non-normative stipulation concerning the acts and actions of the religious individual, with a rather slurred (and, so I thought, final) argument:

‘Religion’ is like pornography.  I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it! 

A day or so later, I was reminded of my impressively theoretical comparison of ‘religion’ with ‘pornography’ whilst watching an episode of Parks and Recreation.  Throughout the episode, Leslie Knope, the kind-hearted, passionate, and frighteningly meticulous protagonist of the show, finds herself defending a painting, within which a female centaur (that happens to look like her) is shown topless.  Because the painting is to be placed within City Hall, there is an almost immediate objection to the art as ‘pornography.’

Here’s an important clip from the episode:

So, aside from the fact that in my drunken brilliance I had, rather than determine an astute means of defining ‘religion,’ merely plagiarised a hilarious television show, I still think there is some value to my comparison.

Here’s what I mean.


The origin of Justice Potter Stewart’s expression, “I know it when I see it,” comes from his concurrent opinion on the 1964 Supreme Court case, Jacobellis vs. Ohio.  The case itself dealt with the conviction, and fining, of Nico Jacobellis, the manager of the Heights Art Theater in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  Jacobellis had played a film, Louis Malle‘s The Lovers, which both the Cuyahoga County Court, as well as the Supreme Court of Ohio, had found to be ‘obscene’ and ‘pornographic.’

Here’s the trailer of the film, for those curious:

While the United States Supreme Court reversed the conviction, and thus found the film, and Jacobellis’ showing it, to be protected under the First Amendment’s permission of free speech, they struggled to present a definition of ‘pornography,’ against which they could determine the obscene from its opposite, whatever that might be.

In his short concurrence, Justice Stewart tried to sum up, as simply as possible, his reasoning for the decision.

He stated:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

In a curious backstory, shared to Yale Law School librarian, Fred Shapiro, by fellow alumnus, Ray Lamontagne, Justice Stewart’s claim that he would ‘know it when he saw it,’ actually came from his clerk, Alan Novak:

You might be interested to know that the Potter Stewart quote was actually provided to him by his law clerk, Alan Novak ’55, ’63 LLB. Justice Stewart was a great justice and I do not want to take anything away from him. But he was stuck on how to describe pornography, and Novak said to him, “Mr. Justice, you will know it when you see it.” The justice agreed, and Novak included that remark in the draft of the opinion. 

Regardless, Stewart’s simple test became somewhat standard, until the 1973 case of Miller vs. California, when the Court created a three-pointed test for gauging obscenity:

  1. The average person, applying local community standards, looking at the work in its entirety, must find that it appeals to the prurient interest.
  2. The work must describe or depict, in an obviously offensive way, sexual conduct, or excretory functions.
  3. The work as a whole must lack “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific values.”

So, what does all this have to do with my conversation at the bar?

Part of our debate that night picked up on the old standard argument about not only what religion is, but how we might determine the difference between something religious and something that is not religious.

We did the rounds of the usual theoretical conclusions: the biased failures of substantive approaches, the broad implications of functionalist definitions, the trouble with comparisons when categorising, and the de facto determination of just about anything as religious when considering the dimensions that make up one’s religious beliefs and actions.

After concluding our short journey through the standard method and theory syllabus, we ended up back where we started: how do you tell the difference between something that is religious (religion), and something that is not (secular)?

How, we might have phrased the question, do we tell the difference between the ‘sacred’ beliefs of someone who is sitting in a church, speaking to their ‘God,’ and someone who is sitting in a stadium cheering on their local team?

My answer, thanks to the confidence one finds after his or her second pint, was:

I don’t know how to tell the difference, but I know it when I see it.

Is this a bad answer?

It’s leans perhaps a bit too precariously toward the substantive side of the debate, essentially arguing that what I think is religious is defined as such for no other reason than my own convictions, yet it’s also rather clarifying in its simplicity.

Yes, while I do indeed accept that my opinion on the matter is biased by my purview, I also believe there is definite value in the fact that what I think is ‘religious,’ by means of knowing it when I see it (a young boy reading the Torah vs. a young boy attaining the rank of Eagle Scout), dismisses much of the ambiguous, dare I say, often unhelpful, discourse on which we tend to focus perhaps a bit too much of our time.

That is, while deconstructing and theorising the limits and layers of the two rites of passage listed above, it’s rather obvious that these are not identical things.  One is religious, and one is not.

In other words: while my argument here that we might simply ‘know’ the difference between these two rituals isn’t perfect, and though it is biased by means of its dependency on one’s opinion, at least it isn’t mired in years and years of theoretical debate.

After all, just like how I might be able to determine something as ‘religious’ when I see it, this methodological approach seems to me that much better than the theoretical discourse of the last century, merely because I know it is.