Religious Agitation and the Limits of Principled Libertarianism

I’m not a very “principled” person. I am in the sense that my actions are guided by a number of principles defined loosely and amorphously, but I’m not dogmatic, I don’t subscribe to Kant’s categorical imperative, I’m not a utopian or an idealist. I’m a realist and a pragmatist before I’m even a libertarian.

I was recently considering a conversation between Penn Jillette and Glenn Beck on the subject of libertarianism. If you haven’t watched it, I urge you to, it’s very good viewing. Penn Jillette was one of the guiding lights that lead me out of my socialist slumber, and Glenn Beck himself makes some great contributions too. They don’t just discuss libertarianism; a friendly conversation about atheism also takes place. Glenn Beck raises an example:

In Pennsylvania, a mostly Catholic Italian town had to relocate their nativity scene…it was outside of city hall…because of an outside atheist group, the ‘Freedom from Religion Foundation’, they came in and threatened legal action. Thomas Jefferson, in his writings, was proud that city hall was being used for meetings, church meetings on Sundays, four different ones. He thought that was not a problem…it’s not freedom from religion it’s freedom of…if I can put a menorah and everything else on the town square, why do atheists get so pissy about this…as long as it’s not the endorsement of one religion?” (lightly paraphrased)

This case, boasted by the ‘Freedom from Religion Foundation’ (based in Wisconsin, several states away), is not unique. The same group have had similar symbolic “successes” as happened in Iowa last year. The group almost reached a compromise in their Pennsylvania battle, which would have allowed them to host their own banner claiming that “there is no God…religion is a myth that enslaves minds” (nothing but incendiary to a Catholic town) to which the mayor respectably refused. A similar case occurred recently in Florida, in which a small Southern town was pressured to remove a statute featuring the ten commandments from a courtyard. This was perpetrated by a group named the American Atheists, from New Jersey (1800 km away, or 1120 miles). A compromise was reached and the atheist group was allowed to erect their own monument to atheism alongside it. As lamented in this article, this was pushed onto a small town community without petition, referendum or any indication of local support by a group located a 17-hour drive away that would get no enjoyment out of the statue other than a superficial symbolic (or ‘principled’) victory in that they’d forced a small Christian community to compromise its identity and freedom of religious expression. The author of the article suggests that secession and strong state’s rights would resolve this sort of problem, I warmly agree.

Back to the conversation with Glenn, Penn explains why he thinks this (the Pennsylvania case) was not unreasonable. He offers the scenario of there being just one person in the entire town that does not want the nativity to be hosted in the town centre, he practices an offshoot of Christianity that does not celebrate Christmas but maintains his constitutional right to keep his religion private. If this person, perhaps concerned about their job and general social ostracisation, doesn’t speak out, then his personal rights to religious freedom are being violated and he ends up paying for the nativity scene. Penn backs this up by explaining that the town centre is public property, and is therefore being paid for via taxes. Penn states that he only cares about these issues when it concerns something he has to pay for, and that any form of religious ornamentation should only be hosted on private property. He gives the example of the Boy Scouts of America: “they leave out gays, they leave out atheists, I’m totally okay with that, but you don’t get to do your jamborees on public land.”

I really like his example, but I think that on this particular issue I disagree with Penn, despite finding his logic sound and agreeing with virtually everything else he has to say in the rest of this discussion. In principle, the whole thing makes sense, but looking at it realistically and pragmatically it falls apart in my eyes. Besides some shallow satisfaction that they had bullied a small town halfway across the country and gained some paltry victory, purely symbolic in nature, what did this atheist group actually gain from their exploit? Meanwhile a mostly Christian town (if we take Glenn’s words at face value) has to deal with the indignation that an outside group had the arrogance to show up in their state and dictate to them what they can and can’t display in their own town centre.

Penn’s example is reasonable, but in a way it is unrealistic and for me, too idealistic and ‘principled’ in the categorical imperative sort of way, it makes sense on paper but produces more harm than good in actual practice. What does it even do for the reputation of atheism as a force for good? All it does is make atheist groups (which, lest we forget, have done plenty of great things for American liberty, especially in the days when atheists were not very popular) seem pedantic, obnoxious, querulous and, in Glenn’s words, “pissy”.

Even when we treat of Penn’s hypothetical religious minority and take it at face value, despite his right to religious privacy I still think it is this individual’s fault if the religious decorations are erected as planned. He may have the right to silence on this issue, but that right comes with a cost: not an imposed cost, but a natural social cost. An individual has the right to remain silent in court, but if this person answers lots of questions and then is silent when asked certain discerning and revealing questions, this is absolutely his right, but he shouldn’t be surprised when the jury takes this into consideration when deciding on the verdict. If we’re going to oppose a nanny state, we can’t just have this attitude towards economics; this religious minority has the opportunity to speak out and must weigh up the costs and decide one way or the other, but the country can’t hold his hand when they can’t even be sure that he exists and treat every conflict of religion and anti-religion by assuming that there is a silent minority in every single scenario.

Still, Penn makes a brilliant case for his side of the argument. He says that he agrees America was founded by Christians, but that the most important Christian principle that it was founded on was the Lutheran idea that the individual communes with their own God, and in the ideal Protestant America there would be 323 million different views of God, and “you can’t fit all those in city hall.” I’m not saying that my mind is made up on this issue, and Penn makes further strong arguments in favour of his case, but I side more with the religious communities for the time being.

If you’re interested in libertarianism, I urge you to take 45 minutes out to watch the whole discussion, it’s full of brilliant insights and golden quotes. I’ve embedded the video below along with relevant links to the stories I mentioned, plus the websites of the atheist groups in question (who I still attest behaved obnoxiously and counter-productively in all of these cases) with links to their take on these cases.

Glenn Beck: Atheists demand nativity scene removed (Glenn Beck)
Joey Aguirre: Freedom From Religion Foundation installs a Bill of Rights “nativity” scene in the Iowa Capitol (The Des Moines Register)
Brynn Grimley: No baby Jesus this year for Gig Harbor (The News Tribune)
Tiffany Gabbay: You and God Are Under Attack: Beck Breaks Down Atheism and the Religious Left (The Blaze)
Michael Cushman: The Beauty of Pan-Secessionism & the Ugliness of Consolidation (Attack the System)
Kimberly Winston: American Atheists suit against Ten Commandments monument advances (Religion News Service)
NY Daily News Associated Press: Florida atheists unveil monument to nonbelief in God to sit alongside slab of Ten Commandments (NY Daily News)
Brendan Farrington: Atheists unveil monument next to Ten Commandments at Florida courthouse (The Washington Post)

Freedom From Religion Foundation
FFRF victory in Ellwood City, Pa. — crèche will go
FFRF continues battle against theocratic Pa. county symbols
FFRF “nativity” display debuts at Iowa Capitol

American Atheists
Atheists Win Motion in Florida 10 Commandments Lawsuit

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