History and Import of Religious Liberty, Part 2 of 3: A Tale of Two Opinions and the Further Thinning of Society

Image result for pledge of allegiance

The ultimate foundation of a free society is the binding tie of cohesive sentiment. Such a sentiment is fostered by all those agencies of the mind and spirit which may serve to gather up the traditions of a people, transmit them from generation to generation, and thereby create that continuity of a treasured common life which constitutes a civilization. ‘We live by symbols.’ -Justice Frankfurter in Gobitis.

I began this series with a brief history of religious freedom, emphasizing the shift from “thick” to “thin” societies from prehistorical days through the founding of America. I concluded by asserting that the establishment clause was a radical new experiment: never before had a nation forsworn any religious ties. Nor was it certain whether a nation could survive in the long term without the kind of civic belonging and shared beliefs that a common religion fosters perhaps better than anything else. The experiment, while neither so radical nor so new as it was in 1789, is ongoing, and its success is not yet assured: for as we have less and less in common regarding our most fundamental beliefs and commitments, we seem to experience a shallower and shallower sense of civic belonging.

Conditions of the Experiment’s Success

Under what conditions is liberalism’s experiment most likely to succeed? How can plurality as to comprehensive doctrine be reconciled with a sufficient degree of unity to preserve the nation? First and foremost, as John Rawls suggests, a certain degree of “overlapping consensus” is necessary.[1] We may not agree on all things but we must agree on some things. A society united by nothing other than the accident of existing together under the same government—not by a general approbation of the form of government and its laws; not by common values and traditions; not by a commitment to seeking and pursuing a common vision of the good—is a society that is doomed to disintegrate, for it is incapable of inspiring loyalty and sacrifice, or even maintaining law and order. Continue reading

Jane the Virgin and A Case for Guilt



The third season of Jane the Virgin starts on Monday. I just complete the first two seasons (though I may have skipped a few, okay maybe like ten, episodes). And I have to admit, I enjoyed myself, though I have some serious reservations.

According to critical consensus at Rotten Tomatoes, the show manages to be charming despite its  “dubious premise.” Here’s the premise: a girl has agreed to practice abstinence until marriage but then a whole bunch of drama happens after she is accidentally artificially inseminated. So what’s so dubious about this premise? It risks becoming sanctimonious. People don’t want to watch a show that even hints at religious dogmatism. Continue reading

History and Import of Religious Liberty, Part 1 Of 3: The Shift to “Thin” Societies

This is the first in a series of essays in which I hope to examine the history of American religious liberty—in particular, the backstory, interpretations, and shifting moral valence  of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the Constitution.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”[1] The immediate historical backstory against which the Establishment Clause is set is the institution of the European state churches that impelled many colonists to leave Europe in pursuit of religious freedom. Most historical accounts of the Establishment Clause begin and end here. But the background of European state churches is the Peace of Westphalia, the religio-political wars that preceded it, and the Reformation.[2]  Some historical accounts reach this far back. But to thoroughly understand the significance of the Establishment Clause I think we need to reach further—all the way back to pre-history. Continue reading

The Accidental Christianity of Hollywood


I’m watching Star Trek Beyond and Krall just threatened to kill Sulu in order to coerce the crew into giving him the Abronath (a bioweapon capable of huge destruction). But rather than letting a crew member die, an Ensign named Syl turns over the weapon from its hiding place in the back of her head. It’s a very familiar scene. You find similar scenes in Star Wars, most of the superhero films, and even children movies like Disney’s Hercules. Remember when Hercules gives up his power to save Meg and thus allows Hades to terrorize the city and even assault Mount Olympus?

My complaint is not that this trope has become repetitive (here’s a long list of similar scenes), but that we simply accept it as a legitimate ethical decision. Do we agree that it is appropriate to surrender thousands, millions, possibly billions of lives (the stakes keep getting higher) in order to save Sulu? Why does this ever make sense? Spaceballs even parodies this trope when The King sacrifices himself and the entire population of his home planet just so the princess doesn’t get her old nose back. When it’s a nose, we understand the absurdity, but that absurdity is harder to recognize when someone’s life is at stake. Continue reading

Simplistic Political Morality Won’t Heal Our Country; It Will Make Things Worse



I thought about beginning this post with a not-so-subtle comparison of the current political situation and discourse with the most gossipy and mean-spirited parts of the elementary school playground. Although something about this metaphor appeals to me, I decided against it because I risked doing that which I intend to critique: Dogmatically retaliating against the expression of opinions that oppose mine. So, instead of beginning with satire, let me begin with a confession: I used to think of pubs and bars as immoral places. Continue reading

Single Narratives About Terrorist Attacks And Police Shootings


This last week two things coincided: I attended a panel discussion on islamophobia and my facebook friends reacted to the news of Keith Scott being shot by a police officer. These might seem unrelated, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that these experiences were really about the exact same thing: the human capacity to form narratives and hold on to them. Let’s start with the panel.

Three professors took turns speaking. Their point was that the narrative people have developed about Arabs and Islam is not accurate. People fear Arabs because they’re Muslim. But this is often not the case. There are a lot of Christians, Sikhs, and even agnostic Arabs. And people fear Muslims because of all the terrorist attacks. However, you are much more likely to be killed by lightning than by an Islamic extremist. According to one of the lecturers, Islamic extremism has only killed 109 Americans since September 11th 2001. That might sound like a lot, and every life is precious, but if you run the numbers, there is an infinitesimally small chance that you’ll be one of them. More people die falling out of bed. A lot more: it kills 737 Americans annually. Continue reading