Monday, March 8, 2010

Pragmatism V. the Constitution of the United States

Pragmatism and Constitutionality can often be in conflict. Perhaps there are times when pragmatism seems to be the best policy, but following the Constitution is far more important. My fellow columnist for the Dickinsonian, Drew Robinson, wrote an article about, for all intents and purposes, the power of pragmatism (though the actual title was "The Power of Belief"... excuse me while I try not to throw up).

The article had so many things wrong with it, I had to take a few minutes to calm myself down. Not only did I need to let the anger at what he was saying disperse, I needed to get the jumbled thoughts of the many holes in the argument organize themselves.

To begin, Robinson claims there is a "clearly defined" line of separation between church and state in this country. This is very much untrue. The line is extremely blurry and often crossed. He later uses the words "insurmountable wall" to describe the separation. Again, Robinson is way off track. If the line were so clear, would we have so many court cases about prayer in schools, waiver systems for students who choose not to attend public schools, religious words in our Pledge and our on national buildings, and all other similar issues? No, we would not have those cases because the line would be clear enough not to cross it.

The second hole I see in Robinson's argument: the assumption he makes or takes as given that the two programs mentioned work. He mentions two programs, one is a faith-based abstinence program to prevent AIDS and the other is something about rebuilding Mosques in Iraq. He offers no evidence that the programs actually work, he just assumes that little problem right out the window. I have to ask, why do either of these programs need any faith-based reason at all? We can easily teach abstinence programs without invoking religion (though I would like to see more evidence supporting their efficacy). Rebuilding mosques, to me, does not have to fall under a religious program. Is it not just rebuilding something that was destroyed because of our government? So long as hospitals and other buildings are rebuilt, I think we can rebuild the mosques. Also, do we need to teach abstinence based on faith? Why not abstinence based on reason? You know, the whole you-could-easily-get-AIDS-and-suffer-a-terrible-death type reasoning?

Even if those programs do work, why does that make it okay to ignore a very popular interpretation of the Constitution? That's not to say what's popular is always correct. It is just that Robinson seems to border on saying our government is too secular without ever actually saying it. This branches into two problems. The first is a matter of the principles set down in the Constitution, the second is a matter of a slippery slope.

Religious belief may (or may not) actually be used to solve problems, but in the government of the United States of America, there is a separation between the church and the state. By using any belief in any type of program, the government endorses belief over non-belief. That alienates secular citizens and likely other religions as well, since it is hard to endorse faith without choosing a religion specifically.

On to the slippery slope. If we ignore any part of the Constitution, the door is opened to ignore any other part. If we do it solely based on pragmatism, we risk support for ignoring due process, right to trial, criminal rights, freedom of speech and press, the right to bear arms, and who knows what else? Do I even need to continue? Think about this: if we killed rapists and murderers after their first offense, they could never do it again. Does that make it the right thing to do? If cops shot people before they had a chance to instigate violence, a lot fewer people would die. Does that make it right? (Minority Report, anyone?) If gun control actually worked (from what I know it doesn't), does that mean the second Amendment should be interpreted differently? If torture as an interrogation technique worked, should the Eight Amendment be interpreted to apply only to citizens and only to actual punishment for crimes? (Interrogation, you see, would not be punishment and therefore not fall under the 8th.) I hope I have made my point.

Robinson seems to claim that faith has a unifying power, but I must disagree. As can be seen by the recent slaughter of 500 Christians in Africa by Muslims, faith can be quite divisive. Major changes in several religions would need to occur to make it unifying - namely that they all become one faith and not several. Faith is divisive, it always has been. Christians slaughtered "Pagans", Muslims and Christians slaughtered each other, followers of Hinduism fought with Muslims, etc., etc. Many religions see others as wrong, and not everyone is willing to say, "we are all kind of right, only we are different." People unite under one faith, not different ones, and most "faiths" are religions, religions are different. Faith or belief is not unifying, it divides. Until enough of religion and accompanying beliefs are eliminated and all the faiths become like enough, religion and faith will continue to divide this world.

My last issue with Robinson's article is that it implies that secularists cannot help the world or solve problems. That we need some higher power to make cooperation possible, but every human being was gifted with the power to reason. What needs to happen for cooperation is education and appeal to logic and reason. We can be progressive and secular, I know I am.

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