Not depicted: Satanism
Jonah Goldberg writes today about a case that was already on my radar. Oklahoma has a monument to the Ten Commandments near its statehouse, and a Satanist group has petitioned the state to add a statue of Baphomet:
“The statue will serve as a beacon calling for compassion and empathy among all living creatures,” Lucien Greaves, a spokesman for the Satanic Temple, said in a prepared statement.
And unlike the Ten Commandments, Baphomet would serve a public function:
“The statue will also have a functional purpose as a chair where people of all ages may sit on the lap of Satan for inspiration and contemplation.”
The press release includes an artist’s rendering in which smiling children sit on Satan’s lap and gaze up at his grim, more or less blank-faced visage.
This is clearly a stunt, intended to expose the hypocrisy of current constitutional law on public displays of religion. In this, it succeeds brilliantly. The current state of the law really is ridiculous; the only way to conclude that it is not rampantly hypocritical would be to argue that it is now so incoherent and irrational that it really could not rise to the level of something as coherent as hypocrisy. Say what you want about total chaos, it’s not hypocritical.
What we need is a policy that simultaneously recognizes three truths:
1) Religion is one of the fundamental components of human life, and in particular it is one that cannot be walled off into a separate compartment. The structures of civilization (political, economic, familial, etc.) cannot be legitimate if they are not moral, and they cannot be moral without being intimately tied to religion.
2) Unity in religion is neither expected nor necessary for society. We can agree on the basic moral premises of society, which are necessary for a shared life and shared institutions, without agreeing about everything metaphysical.
3) Nonetheless, not everything that is called a “religion” is equally consistent with the moral agreement we need to share a life, a civilization and its institutions.
It is the third point that is the most uncomfortable for us now, but we cannot escape it, as the Satanists are reminding us in Oklahoma. (Actually the Satanist group is headquartered in New York, and I wonder if that will not have some bearing on the outcome of the case.)
Satanism is nothing if it is not a rejection of the moral assumptions that underlie the shared institutions of our society. Believe in one God or twenty gods or a vast divine force, but you can’t affirm the foundations of American civilization if you think the purpose of life is to please yourself.
The fact that the Satanists dare to invoke “compassion” shows how the freedom to make up the meaning of words for yourself is right at the heart of this problem. Our institutions urgently need to recover the moral courage to have a point of view about what concepts like compassion do and don’t mean.
Eisenhower said in 1952 that “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” That does point to how this failure to find a way of distinguishing religions without giving up on religious freedom has been an unsolved problem in American history. On the other hand, read the full statement and you’ll see that the problem was never as bad as all that:
And this is how [the Founding Fathers in 1776] explained those: ‘we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator…’ not by the accident of their birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but ‘all men are endowed by their Creator.’ In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with ‘all men are created equal.’
Read that last sentence again: It must be a religion with “all men are created equal.”
This does not mean we must conclude, as Locke did, that those who deny the moral foundations of a free and virtuous society have no right to advocate their view. However, at the very least, religions and viewpoints that are at war with the moral foundations of our culture should not enjoy equal rights to public recognition.
We cannot make the public square neutral by stripping it of all religious symbols; neither can we make it neutral by welcoming them all indiscriminately. We cannot make the public square neutral at all. What we can do is make it welcoming of all who affirm our moral foundations.