Monday, April 24, 2017

So Many I's because I am Undecided

I said here a couple of weeks back that I intended to broaden my lecture-sermon listening from my year long concentration on the oceanic work of Walter Brueggemann.  As you might have guessed from recent posts, I've been concentrating on the work of someone Brueggemann said had been hugely influential on him, the eminent 20th century Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel who, unfortunately, isn't as easy to come by on online recordings.  I have yet to start on one of his books.

I didn't expect that something Rabbi Heschel would say would throw a major curve into my thinking on the initial Supreme Court hearing that Neal Gorsuch was involved in, the church-state issue of whether or not the state of Missouri is right to deny funds to a Lutheran school in a program the state sponsors to encourage playground safety for children through the use of used tires.  I'm pretty much a wall of separation absolutist, though I will note that, as reported, such stalwarts of church-state separation on the court as Bryer and Kagan offered some points that could favor such funding, and I will admit, they make good points in the argument.

Liberal justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer joined some of the conservative justices in questioning the state about what line should be drawn when the church said it planned to use the grant money not for religious activities but to protect children on the playground.

Kagan pointed out that the selective program was offered to nonprofits. "Everyone is open to compete (for the grants) on various neutral terms," she said. "And you're depriving one set of actors from being able to compete in the same way everybody else can compete because of their religious identification."

Later, Kagan said,"But it does seem as though this is a clear burden — looked at that way, this is a clear burden on a constitutional right. And then your interests have to rise to an extremely high level."
"I'm asking," Breyer said at one point, "does the Constitution of the United States permit a state or a city to say, 'We give everybody in this city police protection, but not churches? We give everybody fire protection, but let churches burn down?'"

Still, the two justices I like the most Ginsburg and Sotomayor had arguments against the church position.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had the toughest questions for the church.

"I believe that this playground is part of the ministry of this church," Sotomayor said.
Ginsburg pointed to court precedent from 1947. "This court said in no uncertain terms what the framers didn't want was tax money imposed to pay for building or maintaining churches or church property." Ginsburg asked whether that precedent was "passé".

I hadn't paid that much attention to the case when it was in the news to think much about it, as I said, I'm kind of an automatic supporter of the wall of separation.   But, the next day I listened to that old interview that Carl Stern did with Rabbi Heschel shortly before his death and this exchange gobsmacked me at about 21:10 in the video.  My transcription.

Carl Stern: I think in most of your writing you've indicated that even where one religion has been adopted in the state there is no evidence that that has brought any happiness or any new high points of religious feeling.  Isn't that correct

Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel:  Yes I think it is the will of God that there should be religious pluralism.  One of the most important things in life a human being faces is not only to know how to build a machine but also how to overcome envy.  It's an irrational destructive power in every man!  What are the schools do about (it)… the secular schools.  Nothing!  So I'm disappointed.  (The) American educational system.. are no levels…  has proved to be a terrible disappointment.  Religious schools… it's a new problem.  I only wish I could tell you the religious schools are doing a perfect job.  I would say religious schools deserve should support because they are doing partly a good job.  At least teach people some of the great classical ideas of the religious tradition.   And we cannot live without religious tradition because take away the religious tradition what is left – you know what is left – read contemporary literature and give the contemporary literature the novels the source of inspiration for young people… that's all they get… the Psalms no one reads.  You're not allowed to read the Psalms in the school.  How can you… how can you be human … without being able… without being able to pray.  We need religious education.  The problem begins whether religious education is in such a splendid state, it isn't.  But a separate problem.  I think that I think that the aid to religious schools, in some form that would not contradict the constitution on regulations,  could in the long run prove a blessing.  The original… I fear supporting religious schools … well,  because the religion will have tremendous power … at that time….  a power we were afraid of that would compete with the state …. the idea of equality.  By now religions are so weak in America there's little to be afraid of religious power.   Therefore, I would definitely say aid for religious schools in some form would be a great contribution.

I can't say that I'm entirely comfortable with the idea but if someone like Rabbi Heschel thought this in 1972, it would be stupid to not consider what such a person had to say.  And in light of the continuing degeneration of morality in the United States, to the point where we have Trumpian fascism, brought to us by the free press, the free speech industry, the idiocy of the secular left, etc.  I'm beginning to suspect that this was just one more thing I should consider I might have been wrong about all these years.

I agree, entirely, that the abandonment of the schools and, more importantly, the media abandoning any responsibility to promote and teach even basic standards of moral content necessary for egalitarian democracy and a peaceful, decent life - in the case of the media (The Rabbi said "contemporary literature" in other places he mentioned "best sellers" in a similar indictment) they have been in the business of promoting immorality and depravity.  TV, Hollywood, and the internet have gone even farther into the sewer.  And it has had a serious effect on real life.  Rape culture, white supremacy, and a myriad of other malignancies have been a direct result of the program to not only exclude morality but to attack it in order to appeal to the basest parts of our personality and the culture which we comprise.

I am not ready to completely abandon church-state separation but I am entirely against an alternative which leaves moral nihilism as the default position.  I'd rather take my chance on a country in which the public schools and, even more so, the media are required to teach the Golden Rule and other bases of egalitarian democracy and a decent, peaceful society than one which figures it's unconstitutional to do that.  I'd certainly rather have a religious person who believes they are to treat people, as a gay man, my beloved nieces, my African-American cousins, etc. as they would have us treat them than someone who is a safely secular moral nihilist.   Secularism is not a value except in so far as it promotes that morality, when it is used to attack it, it is mostly a solution worse than what it's supposed to prevent.

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