Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Further Thought on "America's Spiritual Heritage Week"

This business still sticks in my craw. Part of it, of course, is that it's a further manifestation of the religious right's pathological obsession with declaring America to be a "Christian nation" — which to me is objectionable not just because it's so clearly wrong, but also because I see so little to be gained from such a pronouncement. Will a proclamation about America's religious identity save the banking system, create jobs, or lift Midwestern cities out of ruin? No, it won't. It's nothing more than a symbolic gesture — which might be harmless enough, if the gesture were noncontroversial and generally appealing (like, say, a Congressional resolution honoring an Olympic gold medalist). In that case, it would surely and simply be a waste of time and government resources, but at least not divisive and obnoxious and therefore counterproductive to the national interest.
But Congressman Forbes et al. have "divisive and obnoxious" squarely in their crosshairs with America's Spiritual Heritage Week. That's the whole point of the exercise, after all: the resolution's proponents mean to score points with a particular constituency. In short, they're playing religious politics. And that brings me (belatedly) to the first new and interesting (I hope) comment in this post: does or should the Constitution allow Congressmen to fritter away taxpayer-funded resources proposing blatantly unconstitutional actions for the very purpose of promoting a religious point of view in the political arena?

Of course the resolution itself — if it ever passes — is unconstitutional. (And yes, I've taken into account that Christmas is a "national holiday" observed by federal employers. But allowing postal workers a day off on December 25 is rather a far cry from the "entanglement" with religion that would follow from Congress setting aside a week each year for the specific purpose of acknowledging and promoting the role of religion in American culture and public life.) So those of us who take Thomas Jefferson's side in this matter can at least count on the fact that this proposed Congressional kick in the teeth to nonbelievers would not stand for much more than forty-five minutes.

But if the use of public funds for the promotion of religion really does, as Supreme Court jurisprudence routinely holds, run counter to the command of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause — then why don't those of us whose tax dollars power the legislative sausage grinder in DC have a legit constitutional beef when Congressmen spend those dollars and turn that grinder's gears (successfully or not) in self-conscious efforts to promote religion? We shouldn't have to wait for this resolution to pass into law before finding an Establishment Clause violation, when the first federal penny spent on this nonsense breaches the wall between church and state.

To be sure, our cowed Supreme Court justices, wary of any further charges of judicial activism and already chastened for (gasp!) driving mandatory prayer out of the public schools, would never presume to intrude upon the legislative process while the wheels are still turning. And despite the tone I took in that last sentence, I'm not entirely sure I could blame them for refusing. That said, if we accept that all branches of government have a responsibility to interpret the Constitution and act lawfully (even if the courts have the final say on these matters), someone in the House of Representatives might consider making the following principle clear to the several self-important sectarians in its midst:

The House should not and will not expend any federal resources advancing any member of Congress's effort to promote religion through his public office. Amen.

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