Is freedom from religion neutral?

The ACLU wins some and loses some. They sometimes have trouble getting monuments to the Ten Commandments out of public parks, but have managed to suppress “With God, all things are possible” as the Ohio state motto.

The distinction is that the monuments can be viewed as historical rather than religious. The Ten Commandments, like Magna Carta or the Roman Empire, have played an important role in the development of American secular institutions and might be thought worthy of commemoration simply for that reason. In contrast, “With God, all things are possible” is a quotation from Jesus proclaiming faith in the power of God. Very few people except some Anglican bishops and a few like-minded souls would interpret it in a strictly secular fashion.

If that’s the distinction then the discussion is proceeding on the wrong basis. The problem is that all parties seem to admit the basic ACLU argument that “citizens … have a right to a government which does not choose a ‘favorite’ religion to promote.” (WorldNetDaily does make the jurisdictional argument that the First Amendment does not apply to the states.) While it is not altogether clear what constitutes a “religion,” it seems that it would include any system that proposes goods and standards that transcend both actual human desires and formal constraints such as equality. It is not clear why theistic systems should be treated different from other understandings of the transcendent. The ACLU thus seems committed to the claim, which no one seems to dispute, that government should take only human desires and formal constraints into account, and if it does so it will favor no particular religion over any other.

It should be obvious that government can’t do so. Desires and formalism don’t give you a reason for doing anything whatever. Simply knowing you want something is not a reason for me to do anything about it, even if I admit that your desires have the same moral status as mine. Desire and formalism don’t tell me why I should care about the moral status of anything. Before your desires can become a reason for me an additional principle is needed that transcends both desire and fomalism, like “it’s good to satisfy people’s desires.”

Moral obligation can’t even get started without appeal to the transcendent. Since government depends on some idea of moral obligation, it thus depends on an understanding of the transcendent. But there are several such understandings, and it is unclear what justification there can be for picking out one and forcing it on everyone on the grounds that unlike all the others it is somehow “neutral.” Does limiting the array of transcendent principles to “satisfying preferences and equality are good” mean neutrality? Isn’t it obvious that if an understanding differs from other understandings, and sometimes conflicts with them, it isn’t neutral?

In fact, neutral government is impossible. All ideas of obligation, and all systems of politics, are based on understandings of what man and the world are. All such understandings are contestable. There is nothing at all neutral about attempts to eliminate from the understanding everything except the goodness of equal satisfaction. The claim of neutrality is simply an attempt to silence opposition so that a highly disputable moral and religious theory, a sort of pantheistic humanism that makes desire equivalent to value, can win before the discussion even begins. Why should anyone put up with it? Why should we treat a monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. as more neutral and permissible than a cross?

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