“The sword of Damocles is hangin’ over my head …”

Be careful what you wish for, the consequences may be more than you expected: “Isn’t that what you wanted all along – freedom of religion? That freedom means all religions – even ones you don’t happen to like.” [via]

In this article, an elementary school is forced to open up a system by which kids are used to distribute flyers to families so that one religious group in the community can distribute flyers. Then, other religious group in that community use it too.

The myopic view of the advocates is that they think the community is only like themselves, or at least that they have some privilege that makes them the only ones that matter in a community. But, it seems this disingenuous advocacy for privilege matched with hatred and intollerance for others is the point.

(This isn’t just about religious issues either. Just take, for example, the advocacy of line-item veto that was hated once Clinton started to use it. Or, think about the way the 109th used their power against the minority party, and now is scared they will face the same, or, you know, might have to work more than 3 days a week for their 6 figure incomes. Or, partisans pleading for bipartisanship once they’re on the outs.)

This turns out to be exactly reason why the debate over putting monuments, like the 10 commandments, in public places is so myopic and manipulated. The question about the 10 commandments was on the questionnaire sent out by the Christian Coalition of Washington to candidates for city council last year, and was worded in a way that showed absolutely no subtlety and allowed no nuance in response … in other words it was merely a doctrinal litmus test. But, getting religious monuments in public places is a sword of Damocles hanging over their ultimately intollerant heads while they complain of persecution.

Political surveys seem to fall in that category of thing that most resembles a catalog of indexical or symbolic links to an ideology. For example, the Christian Coalition of Washington includes, in a survey sent to candidates, the following “cultural diversity” question:

“Voluntary display of the Ten Commandments on public property? Support, Oppose, or Undecided?”

The sinister beauty of this question is beyond compare. There’s no context. There’s no subject to the verb in this sentence. In fact, it’s not a sentence at all. The nouns are general. The choices of response offer no room for thoughtful consideration. And, whether intended or not, none of the answers can be chosen. I am not undecided, except that I have an open mind to future contexts. I am opposed to some aspects of the issues, but I support others.

At a fundamental level, the question is a horrid distraction from seriously pressing issues of social inequity and injustice. At a more complex level, the question begs for an answer from the supporter of the Christian Coalition that is fantastically dangerous and self-defeating.

Historically, it has been possible for non-public entities to offer displays intended for public spaces. The distinction between whether the volunteering entity is itself a public or private entity is intentionally lost in this question.

If a society chooses to allow expressions of culture on public property, that society must be prepared for expression with which it disagrees. If a display of the Ten Commandments is given to the public by a public entity, like the Lyons Club, and allowed to be placed, then the Pastafarians are likely to follow with a display of their faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Logically, it follows that this is so and this is an unintended consequence of the answer that, I suspect, is expected. At least one double bind in this question is that it asks for a logical answer to a question based on non-logical reasoning. There are more than this one.

On reflection, it becomes clear the entire survey, which could appear to be completely straightforward, is of a similar nature.

In a section on “growth management” the survey asks another zinger.

“Eminent domain – U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London, 6/23/2005? Support, Oppose, or Undecided?”

Again, a simple question that is wildly suited to trip up, and trip out, the thoughtful person.

I do believe that the government should reserve the rights of eminent domain and the ability to escheat the land for the common, greater good. This ability has been steadily chipped away, so there is a value in the Kelo decision. However, the SCOTUS decision seems to implicitly link the common, greater good to economic interests, essentially extrinsic use of property. This tends to deny the intrinsic value of property, such as the value to future generations and other needs which are balanced in a triple bottom line. I have a concurring opinion on this issue. While I tend to agree with the overall decision, I do not follow the logic or reasoning that was used to get there. However, concurrence is not an option provided. Kelo does seem to lead down a road that parallels the misuse of the 14th amendment by the courts. It is a good outcome that will come to no good.

The fact that I have spent so long unpacking these questions is, in and of itself, a victory for the framers. I have been well and truly monkey-wrenched.

These are post-modern koans. Just try to not fall into the spiral. Witness the bumper sticker on a local car:

“Pray that President Bush keeps God’s promise to Israel.”

Lewis Black’s voice echoes in my head, “If it weren’t for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college.”

I’m at the end, and I don’t even know where to begin. One can hardly imagine another, more concise welcoming message for those on a trip down the rabbit hole than this except, perhaps, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

Update 25feb09 @ 2:01pm:

Looks like there’s some more on the issue of monuments like the donated ten commandments in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum which moves the issue more firmly into the realm of establishment clause conflicts than first amendment by making monuments in public areas actually government’s speech. I’m not sure that’s better. I’m not sure it’s worse, but it seems worse to me. The whole issue is still wonderfully complex; which is too much for some people to be bothered with thinking about, but probably still useful for shallow and knee-jerk litmus tests.

Update 25feb09 @ 2:59pm:

Somewhat randomly, or maybe guided by forces beyond my knowing, I ran across an interesting article at h2g2: “The Ritual Decalogue versus the Ethical Decalogue“.