The illusion of neutrality

The secular state cannot be neutral in matters of religion.
Anthony Esolen | 19 September 2014
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We have all heard what has come to be a liberal dictum, that the State must remain neutral as regards religion or irreligion. One can show fairly easily that the men who wrote our constitution had no such neutrality in mind, given the laws that they and their fellows subsequently passed, their habits of public prayer at meetings, and their common understanding that freedom without virtue, and virtue without piety, were chimeras. To show that that understanding persisted, all one need do is open every textbook for school children published for almost two hundred years; or recall that Catholic immigrants established their own schools not so that their pupils might read the Bible, but so that they might choose which translation they were to read.

Still, there are two more fundamental reasons for rejecting the dictum. One is that it is not possible. The other is that it is not conceivable, even if it were possible. It is a contradiction in terms.

The Nude Beach Principle

On the impossibility: consider the effects of a permission that radically alters the nature of the context in which the action is permitted. We might call this the Nude Beach Principle. Suppose that Surftown has one beautiful beach, where young and old, boys and girls, single people and whole families, have been used to relax, go swimming, and have picnics. Now suppose that a small group of nudists petitions the town council to allow for nude bathing. Their argument is simple—actually, it is no more than a fig leaf for the mere expression of desire. They say, “We want to do this, and we, tolerant as we are, do not wish to impose our standards on anyone else. No one will be required to bathe in the raw. Live and let live, that's our motto.”

But you cannot have a Half-Nude Beach. A beach on which some people stroll without a stitch of clothing is a nude beach, period. A councilman cannot say, “I remain entirely neutral on whether clothing should be required on a beach,” because that is equivalent to saying that it is not opprobrious or not despicable to walk naked in front of other people, including children.

Two factors must be at work, for the Nude Beach Principle to apply. One is whether we can expect some people to act upon the permission. The other is an easily predictable harm that the permission so acted upon will bring to people who do not act upon it, or who, because of moral disapprobation, disgust, fear, or pain, would never act upon it. In Surftown, it means that ordinary people will have lost their beach. They will have lost it to the intolerance of the nude bathers, who, even if they were correct about the moral permissibility of their parading their wares, will not forbear with their more scrupulous neighbors. In this matter, to pretend not to choose is to choose.

Nor do we need physical proximity to invoke the principle. A few years ago in Nova Scotia, after losing a string of referenda, proponents of all-day any-day business won out, meaning that, for the first time, businesses other than hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, and gas stations could remain open on Sunday. Opponents of the referendum appealed to the good that families and neighborhoods enjoyed, because they could rely on almost everyone being at home at least one day in the week. They understood that it was illogical to say that no particular business would be compelled to keep the strange hours, since the permission would mean almost immediately that many would do so—just as the permission to wear nothing on a beach will bring out many sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. They saw that that in itself would compromise or destroy the good they sought to preserve.

Now, you could say that that lost good was outweighed by the good of some purported economic development, just as you could say that the lost good of a beach friendly to families was outweighed by the good of exhibitionism or what have you. But you could not plead neutrality. To say, “I remain neutral on whether a people should set aside one day in a week for cessation of most business,” is to say that it is not important that such a day be set aside. Again, to pretend not to choose is to choose.

The referendum in Nova Scotia illustrates something else, too, beyond the particular issue. Sometimes to permit is not only to alter the context of the permitted action, but to alter the whole social order. You cannot say, as Stephen Douglas tried to say, that you will allow slavery in those states whose citizens vote for it, and then pretend that that is an act of calm and statesmanlike neutrality. A society that says that some people may own slaves is an utterly different society from one that says that no one may own slaves. That is not a distant consequence of the permission; it is immediate, indeed implied in the permission itself.

You cannot say, as liberals try to say, that you will allow abortion for people inclined to procure one, and then pretend that that too is to remain blissfully neutral and tolerant, no more than if you tried to say that you would allow infanticide for parents who decide, after all, that the diapers are too messy, or the baby too ugly or too sickly or handicapped. A society that allows some people to kill babies is a society that does not protect babies, period. It is a society that does not view them as possessing any inherent claim upon our protection. A society that freely permits pornography is, by that very permission, a society that sees nothing especially sacred in the human body and the marital act. You can say all you want that no one is required to leap into the open sewer. They still have to live with it right there, with all its stench, among people who have grown accustomed to it, or fond of it.

You will be deprived of the help that a very different kind of society might have conferred upon you, as you try to discipline yourself and your children to virtue. There's a scene in Eugenio Corti's semi-autobiographical novel about the Second World War that illustrates the point quite well. One of the soldiers from their district—the writer and intellectual among them—has fallen in love with a chaste and beautiful girl. But his imagination has not been formed or deformed by the vices of military life or the brutalities he witnessed on the Russian front. It has been formed by his faith. The girl is sure not only that Michele loves her, but “that his love was great, the kind of love given by a real man who had held himself ready for an only love.” When she daydreams about the children she will give him, she does not dwell on the physical expression of love, though that, says Corti, was to be great and joyful: “Her Christian morals at present forbade that, and she would obey that in her docile way, realizing that her so splendid love was in no small way brought about by her faithful acceptance of the moral code.” Without that code publicly acknowledged and fostered, there is no such marriage, for “Michele's love for her would have been less, perhaps limping along, spent.” No Ferdinand and Miranda, no Orlando and Rosalind, no Renzo and Lucia.

The Principle of the Empty Distinction

And these considerations bring us to the edge of recognizing that neutrality in many questions is not only practically impossible, but perfectly meaningless. We might call this the Principle of the Empty Distinction. Suppose you say you are agnostic on the issue of whether you will recognize a man's property as his own. You have just contradicted yourself. You are not agnostic at all; that is but a hand-washing distinction without a difference. You have in effect refused to recognize the right of property, and where the right of property is not recognized, what is yours is mine if I have the inclination and the power to take it. Given the same object, there is no conceivable compromise between (sometimes or somewhere) permissible and (always and everywhere) impermissible.

The illogic is most acute when the professed agnosticism applies directly to the duties of the party so professing. If I say, “I must remain assiduously neutral on the question of honoring my father and mother,” I have declared that I do not owe them the honor that they are due, and that is in itself to dishonor them. If I say, “I am strictly agnostic on the question as to whether I owe gratitude to the man who has paid for my college education without any expectation of return,” I have declared that there is no debt, nothing that binds me. I am saying that my gratitude is a matter of indifference or caprice; and that is itself ungrateful.

It does not matter whether the party is a person or a nation. The virtue of religion, as our founders used the word, pertains to the duty that a person or a people owe to God. Now there either is a duty or there is not. You cannot say, “The People must remain absolutely neutral as to whether the People, as such, owe any allegiance to God, to acknowledge His benefits, and to pray for His protection.” To say it is to deny the debt. It is to take a position while trying to appear to take none. To decline to choose to pray, now and ever, is to choose not to pray. It is to choose irreligion. One should at least be honest about it.

The reader will no doubt know which side I take on these issues. My point here is that for certain questions, neutrality is an illusion. The nakedly secular state is not a neutral thing. It is something utterly different from, and irreconcilable with, every human polity that has existed until a few anthropological minutes ago. It is itself a set of choices which, like all such, forecloses others; a way of living that makes other ways of living unlikely, practically impossible, or inconceivable.

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child andIronies of Faith. He has translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata and Dante's The Divine Comedy. This article first appeared in The Public Discourse and is reporduced here with permission.

Copyright © Anthony Esolen . Published by MercatorNet.com. You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

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