Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Don't Mess With Texas: Football and Faith

I wrote this piece a while ago but didn't post it b/c it's rather incomplete.  I'm posting it now despite its incompleteness as I tidy up in the new year:


It being football season, I pretty much am listening to sports radio all the time these days.  Earlier this week, the talk show hosts mentioned a dust-up at Kountze ISD, where the superintendent forbade the cheerleaders from displaying Biblically, and specifically Christian-inspired messages, on paper banners through which the football team ran through before each game.  One cheerleader said, "We're fighting for God's word.  We're not fighting for our rights or anything, we're fighting for God."  I'm pretty sure that even as a prepubescent, I would have found that distinction less than fully compelling.  But let's not pick on cheerleaders.

One parent said in a different segment, "I don't see a problem with it, I don't understand.  If you don't like it, don't look."  This is an interesting comment because it could reflect at least two attitudes that shade into one another but I think deserve to be differentiated.  The comment might reflect the attitude, "This happens to be something I agree with so I don't care that you disagree with it," or the attitude of indifference.  That attitude can normally be challenged with the norm of fairness or reciprocity (as survey research makes abundantly clear). 

But it can also mean, "I don't see the harm."  We can call this the attitude of "no harm, no foul" or "live and let live."  I am sympathetic to this attitude.  In case my blogger profile doesn't make it apparent enough, I am no Christian.  But it doesn't bother me when people open a ceremony or event with a prayer.  I once attended a hearing in a rural county in Texas where the judge recited a prayer before conducting the business of the court.  I was amused rather than offended.  Even in my high school days, when I was a virulent atheist, I wouldn't have cared about some Christian banners being paraded around.  Like the Kountze parent, I also find it hard to understand why anyone, including athesists, would get all worked up over a prayer.  Where's the harm?

But though I am sympathetic to that attitude, it is not one I share.  I just said that I don't really get the harm in letting the religious express their convictions.  However, that's because religion is not important to me.  Therefore, the benefits and harms that other people experience from expressing or not expressing their religious beliefs, or being subjected to the expression of other people's religious beliefs, are not entirely transparent to me.  I acknowledge that defect in my understanding and hence take a tolerant attitude.  But precisely for the people for whom such expression is important, one would think that they would understand why believers of a different stripe (and atheists are believers in this sense) might take offense and rebel against said expression.  The same reasons that make religious expression highly cherished to the one group make it anathema to the other group.
 
I think what the parent is trying to express is actually more directly articulated by the football player who said, "The one parent that did complain, it's just one--you know, if you don't like it don't come to our games."  The young man's "if you don't like it don't come" langauge captures the parent's "If you don't like it, don't look" language.  However, willy or nilly, the student ties that sentiment to something else: the principle of majority rule.  Perhaps being a football player, being part of a greater whole, a collective whose good may not completely coincide with his own, has attuned him to this aspect.  Now we begin to approach the constitutional issue: the issue of the conflict between the free exercise clause and the anti-Establishment Clause.

Clearly there are limits on free exercise.  The majority cannot go so far as to establish an official state religion.  The question is how far the majority can go, and when expression in a public sphere turns into state endorsement or establishment.  The cheerleaders' lawyers craft the controversy as a free exercise issue, naturally.  However, the cheerleaders' lawyers have to admit that the school, being public, is an extension of the State.  They therefore have to admit that there are at least Establishment concerns.  They seem to want to ignore that aspect of the case, which, I think, is very poor legal strategy, even if it is a winning political strategy.  Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority in Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992), declared, "What to most believers may seem nothing more than a reasonable request that the nonbeliever respect their religious practices, in a school context may appear to the nonbeliever or dissenter to be an attempt to employ the machinery of the State to enforce a religious orthodoxy."
 
Now perhaps you are one of my Texas neighbors, in which case you are likely to think, "Well, but that's Kennedy, and his conservative credentials are highly suspect."  Let us turn to someone whose conservative credentials are well-nigh unimpeachable, then.  Here now Scalia, writing in dissent in the aforementioned case: "I ... concede that our constitutional tradition, from the Declaration of Independence and the first inaugural address of Washington, quoted earlier, down to the present day, has ... ruled out of order government-sponsored endorsement of religion ... where the endorsement is sectarian."  Even Scalia would have to admit that there is an issue regarding Establishment in Kountze, even if in his judgment there is ultimately no state endorsement.  What amazes me is how blithely my neighbors in Kountze ignore or brush aside the Establishment concerns.  And this from people most eager to avow their dedication to the Constitution.  Perhaps my Kountze neighbors should, along with boning up on the Constitution, call to mind those Biblical passages that address hypocrisy.  It is worth remembering that the Biblical condemnation of hypocrisy is one flip side to its high praise of humility, and that humility tends to support Christian charity and the brotherhood of men in Christ.  Something for my Christian neighbors to keep in mind, if they wish, as they undertake to spread the Word of God.

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