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29.8.03

Supporters of Judge Roy Moore's Ten Commandments monument often decry the creeping influence of secularists (which presumably includes the large number of religious people who support the separation of church and state) who want to eliminate God from the public sphere. Generally this complaint is treated as either the morally incorrect assertion that God ought to be positively endorsed by the government, or the factually incorrect assertion that government neutrality on matters of religion is tantamount to a positive endorsement of atheism. But I think it might be proftable to look at it as a confusion between two types of public/private distinction that shows up elsewhere in social conservative thought.

The public/private distinction turns on the distinction between individuals (and voluntary associations thereof) and collectives (i.e., the whole society, with membership not optional). In legal terms, this distinction is important because of its association with the coercive nature of the collective. Public things -- those done by the collective, generally through its agent the government -- are done in the name of, and with the willing or unwilling support of (e.g. though taxes), everybody. This fact is the ground of the restrictions, such as separation of church and state, laid on public actions in order to prevent them from being unduly oppressive to the views and desires of minorities (or majorities, in the case of non-democratic systems that espouse liberal values). On the other hand, the fact that private conduct is to some degree voluntary on the part of all involved, and is forbidden to be coercive (through the public monopoly on the use of force), is the ground for ascribing broad freedom to private conduct.

The other public/private distinction is based on access to an activity -- what I'll refer to as "visibly" public and private. Public activities are those open for viewing, and perhaps even participation, to anyone who happens by (i.e., things said to be done "in public"). Private conduct, on the other hand, is done out of sight of those not invited, often sheltered by the walls of a home. The idea of a right to privacy is based on this notion of privacy.

When Ten Commandments supporters and others talk about God being removed from the public sphere, there is a sense in which they fear God's removal not only from the legally public sphere but also from the visibly public sphere. The extreme version would be a situation in which a sort of anti-religious speech code bars legally private but visibly public religious behavior, forcing Christians to worship in secret. The gap between the two notions of public/private is bridged by the blurry line between coercion, pressure, and influence. If (say) a school wall displaying the Ten Commandments is harmfully coercive, the reasoning goes, it must be just as harmful, and hence just as prohibitable, to see (for example) people all around you with Jesus fish on their cars. Legally private peer pressure can indeed be quantitatively more powerful than public endorsement, which threatens to swamp the qualitative difference. The problem is that traditional liberalism assumes a highly atomistic model of humanity, and thus has trouble explicitly dealing with the unavoidable interconnectedness of people (unless it resorts, like libertarianism, to the very high bar of "physical violence or the threat thereof" to define coercion and assumes all other pressures and influences to be negligible).

Liberals often reinforce this confusion -- most notably through the rhetoric of things done "in the privacy of your own home/bedroom" used in sexual rights issues. This sort of claim defends legally private conduct on the basis of being visibly private. When such conduct is not hidden away in a visibly private situation -- for example, if a gay couple walks down the street holding hands -- those who object to such conduct take its visible publicness as similar to legal publicness. Their complaint that acknowledgement of homosexuality is being "forced on them" by the couple recalls the idea of coercion associated with the legal public sphere. (Note that a similar argument is made by many secularists who complain of having religion forced on them. Both seem to indicate a translation of a fear of legally private peer pressure into the language of legally public coercion.)

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