The New York Times > Opinion > Guest Columnist: Chipping Away at the Wall
In his wonderful book, "Summer for the Gods," Edward J. Larson paints a picture of America in the mid-1920's that's oddly familiar: torn between modernism and religious fundamentalism, Americans felt an old-time burning need for a burning bush. Horrified by the moral and cultural declines of the Jazz Age, they turned away from internationalism and intellectualism.
Welcome to 2004 and "Summer for the Gods Part 2: Revenge of the Public Officials."
So far so good. I'm firmly in favor of internationalism, intellectualism and moral decline as well as stem cell research, socialism, the legalization of recreational drugs and putting redneck Fundamentalists in their place. But why should we worry that--
A crèche on government property is constitutional so long as the manger includes a Malibu Barbie; and state aid to religious schools is constitutional if it's triangulated through the alchemy of parental choice.
I have an idiosyncratic taste for religious displays, from creches in the park to Buddhas in Chinese restaurants. I'd like to see as much of this stuff in public space as possible. Where is the harm anyway? Every English town and village has a market cross but this doesn't seem to have made the Brits religious in any objectionable sense. I don't even understand why state support for religious schools or for that matter churches is a problem. Godless Scandanavian countries support churches but are not considering anything comparable to the Defense of Marriage Act.
Whatever meaning religious believers attach crosses, creches or restaurant Buddhas, to non-believers they are simply decor: I do not see why they should be objectionable to anyone. Churches are de facto public facilities like museums and theme parks: I don't see why they shouldn't be subsidized. We might not want to subsidize all such de facto public facilities but it seems to me we should fund those that provide access to important cultural artifacts and, similarly, we should subsidize churches that have historic interest or architectural merit.
The Scopes trial locked in a peculiarly American take on the role of religion in public life. We either see it as the bulwark of a decent society, imposing a code of conduct on citizens and exerting social control, or as a reactionary force and threat to individual liberty. In either case we see it as a potent ideology with the potential to transform public life, for better or worse. We do not see it as a package of myths, customs and visible symbols--church buildings, market crosses, holidays, ceremonies and practices--which are inherently powerless.