The Separation of Church and State in Early 19th Century England

When my brother-in-law died a couple of years ago, I inherited from him a pristine set of The World’s Orators, a multivolume collection of “the greatest orations of the world’s history,” edited by Guy Carleton Lee and published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1900. The other day, I opened Volume 7, Part 2 completely at random and came upon Sir Robert Peel’s speech, “On the Disabilities of the Jews,” which, according to the editorial note, Peel made in order to support a bill intended “to place the Jew on the same footing, so far at least as civil rights, as the Christian.” The editorial note continues, “Peel, who was usually to be found on the side of toleration and justice, [gave a] speech replete with a dignified breath of tolerance….” I have not yet finished the entire speech, but, early on, he makes an argument for the separation of church and state that I find disturbing, not because anyone is explicitly endorsing this way of thinking today, but because I think it is implicit in the notion put forth by some Republican candidates for president, and certainly by more than a few Evangelical Christian voices I have heard, i.e., that the United States is, at heart, a Christian nation and that our government and our laws ought to reflect that fact. This is what Peel said:

I must in the first place disclaim any concurrence in the doctrine that to us, in our legislative capacity, religion is a matter of indifference. I am deeply impressed with the conviction that it is our paramount duty to promote the interests of religion and it influence on the human mind. I am impressed by a conviction that the spirit and precepts of Christianity ought to influence our deliberations; nay, more, that if our legislation be at variance with the precepts and spirit of Christianity we cannot expect the blessing of God upon them. I may, indeed, say with truth that whether my decision on this question [of the Jews' civil rights] be right or wrong, it is influenced much less by a consideration of political expediency than by a deep sense of religious obligation.

Between the tenets of the Jew and of the Christian there is, in my opinion, a vital difference. The religion of the Christian and the religion of the Jew are opposed in essentials. Between them there is complete antagonism. I do not consider that the concurrence of the Jew with the Christian in recognizing the historical truths and divine origin of the moral precepts of the Old Testament can avail to reconcile the differences in respect to those doctrines which constitute the vital principle and foundation of Christianity. If, as a legislature, we had the authority to determine religious error and a commission to punish religious error, it might be our painful duty to punish the Jews. But we have no such commission. If the Jews did commit an inexpiable crime nearly two thousand years ago, we have had no authority given to us–even if we could determine who were the descendants of the persons guilty of that crime–to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, not unto the third or fourth, but unto the three hundredth or four hundredth generation. That awful power is not ours. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”

In other words, if we were a religious Christian government, not merely a secular government guided by Christian principles, we would, perhaps, be in a position to make the Jews pay for their sins–in particular the sin of killing Christ, but, more generally, the sin of being Christianity’s antithesis. We are, however, not that kind of government and so (this summarizes Peel’s argument as far as I have gotten) we really have no choice; if we are going to be consistent, but to grant the Jews their civil rights.

What I find disturbing in these words is the, to me at least, clear implication that there is a part of Peel that would not mind having “the painful duty” of punishing the Jews, though, to be fair, I don’t know where the logic of the rest of the speech leads Peel and so it is possible that these two passages are part of a rhetorical strategy that does not necessarily reflect the actual position that he takes. Nonetheless, Peel’s implication that a theocratic government would, indeed, be justified in discriminating against, if not outright punishing the Jews is one that I hear echoes of in the US-is-a-Christian-nation rhetoric of some of our Christian politicians; and perhaps I will trace that echo in another post when I have the time. For now, though, while I am not suggesting that any of those politicians are out to get the Jews or even that any of them actively desire a theocracy, I will not deny the fact that their rhetoric makes me wary.

Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.

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43 Responses to The Separation of Church and State in Early 19th Century England

  1. 1
    nobody.really says:

    [I]t is possible that these two passages are part of a rhetorical strategy that does not necessarily reflect the actual position that [Peel] takes.

    Reading the passage immediately gave me this suspicion. The subtext seems to be, “HEY! Don’t dismiss me as a Jew-lover. Far from it — I’m a good ‘ol boy, just like you! I fully recognize and affirm your world view! Nevertheless, just between us good-ol’-boys, can’t we all agree that this whole throw-the-Jew-down-the-well thing has gotten outta hand…?”

    What I find disturbing in these words is the, to me at least, clear implication that there is a part of Peel that would not mind having “the painful duty” of punishing the Jews….

    I don’t draw that conclusion. Peel forthrightly concludes that even a theocracy would not be justified in seeking to impose punishment on the three hundredth or four hundredth generation of a criminal, and that any effort to do so would run afoul of the Biblical injunction to rely on God to avenge wrongs. I can’t see what rhetorical advantage he gains by making these assertions, so I’m inclined to take them at face value.

    Peel’s implication that a theocratic government would, indeed, be justified in discriminating against, if not outright punishing the Jews is one that I hear echoes of in the US-is-a-Christian-nation rhetoric of some of our Christian politicians….

    I don’t have that impression either.

    To my ear, people in the US-is-a-Christian-nation camp seem quite solicitous of Jewish people, and especially supporters of the state of Israel, in seeking allies in their war against secularists. I don’t doubt that many fundamentalists would agree, if pressed, that there remains “a vital difference” between Judaism and Christianity. But no one presses them on the issue because the difference between religious people and secular people seems so much more vital.

    Then again, I’m not Jewish so my radar may be tuned to a different frequency than yours….

  2. 2
    james says:

    In other words, if we were a religious Christian government, not merely a secular government guided by Christian principles…

    I think his point is it isn’t Parliament’s job to judge and enforce religious truth. It’s not a broader point about secularism or the seperation of Church and State. There was no separation of Church and State in 19th Century England, the Queen was (and is) the head of the Church and the PM got to appoint the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s just that Parliament isn’t a religious assembly with the jobs of decreeing religious truths.

  3. 3
    chingona says:

    I read it as nobody.really read it. It reminds me somewhat of rhetoric I’ve heard from some liberal religious people for gay rights: Yes, it says in the Bible that homosexual sex is a sin, but there is no hierarchy of sin and you have no business saying homosexual sex is a worse sin, than, say, pride, which we don’t outlaw, and it’s wrong to use legal means to enforce religious values that aren’t shared by everyone. After all, how would you feel if the government told you you couldn’t eat ham or had to pray five times a day while facing Mecca?

    Maybe some people making that kind of argument really believe exactly that, but more frequently, I think the person doesn’t have a problem with X group (or, not much of one) and both still wants to maintain their larger religious framework and … probably more importantly … wants to convince people who share key aspects of their world view that they don’t have to give up that world view in order to expand political rights.

    It’s still somewhat uncomfortable to hear Jewish depravity be such a given that it would be the “common ground,” so to speak, offered up by a Christian supporter of Jewish civil rights. (I suspect lots of gay people don’t much care for the “It’s no worse a sin than pride” argument either.)

  4. 4
    AMM says:

    I don’t have Peel’s whole speech, only what you’ve quoted, but the only part I see that deals with “punishing the Jews” is this:

    If, as a legislature, we had the authority to determine religious error and a commission to punish religious error, it might be our painful duty to punish the Jews. But we have no such commission.

    Notice that the first sentence is what my Latin teacher referred to as a “contrary-to-fact conditional,” along the same lines as “if I were a frog, I would…” (which BTW in both English and Latin requires the past subjunctive, a.k.a the conditional.) The second sentence merely makes explicit what the grammar of the first one implies.

    The rest of the paragraph you quoted continues using the same contrary-to-fact conditional structure, also with a concluding sentence that makes the contrary-to-fact-ness explicit.

    As for what a theocracy would be obligated to do: I think that’s pretty much implicit in the whole idea of theocracy. The point of a theocracy is to use human force (violence) to impose a particular religion’s idea of truth and divinely commanded behavior on other people; to serve as God’s enforcers, so to speak.

    But there’s a difference between theocracy and religion. Theocracy demands a particular interpretation of a religion. You can be religious and still believe that you shouldn’t impose your religious ideas by force. There’s plenty of precedent in all major religions for the idea that God is perfectly capable of handling His affairs Himself, thank you, and you should pay more attention to doing your job (i.e., the usual mitzvahs: giving to the poor, feeding the hungry, defending the downtrodden, etc.)

  5. 5
    Miriam says:

    Peel’s speech, in which he reverses his anti-emancipation position of 1830 (see here for that speech), is pretty complicated when it comes to the question of “depravity.” He starts from the position that Judaism the religion is wrong–which, honestly, is exactly what you’d expect from the average Christian, even of the “tolerant” variety, in 1848. But the speech proceeds to disentangle religious “error” from both practical morality and civil rights, and indeed to denounce anti-Semitism in the harshest of terms. If the Jews are second to none “[i]n point of courage, of moral worth, of intellectual power, of mental acquirements”, then their ongoing disabilities cannot be justified on that score. Indeed, he’s not arguing that Christian legislatures should punish the Jews; he’s arguing that they were wrong to do so, and that they owe the Jews “reparations.” That being said, there’s a fair amount of imperial self-interest at work here, too: he thinks that the current position of the Jews makes Christian missionaries look hypocritical!

    Peel shares a core argument with T. B. Macaulay (whose campaign for Jewish emancipation is now more famous): if the Jews are expected to discharge all the obligations of citizenship–in other words, they’re paying taxes, aren’t they?–then there’s a pretty fatal contradiction in arguing that they cannot, in turn, be admitted to all the privileges of citizenship. Moreover, he’s arguing, the claim that you can’t have Jews dealing with matters having to do with the C of E makes no sense in 1848, now that there are Roman Catholics, Quakers, and &c. sitting in Parliament as well. (You can insert the very heated Victorian arguments about whether or not Catholics counted as “Christian” here.) So the speech’s context in part has to do with the state of mid-Victorian pluralism.

    Incidentally, Peel’s Christianity was of the middle-of-the-road Anglican variety; the opponents he takes on in this speech are both more liberal Anglicans like Thomas Arnold and evangelicals like Henry Goulburn.

  6. 6
    RonF says:

    I agree with the majority of the posters above – I don’t see from the passage you cite that Peel either a) desires a theocratic government or b) wants to punish the Jews.

    I do want to draw you out some on this statement:

    that the United States is, at heart, a Christian nation

    What does that mean? What is a “Christian” nation? Or, for that matter, an “Islamic” nation or a “Hindu” nation? If it means simply that a majority of the population of said country professes a given religion, then I should think that given the right data the statement is simply true. But if it doesn’t mean that, then what does it mean?

  7. To all: thanks for those responses. I have learned some things. And, Miriam, thanks for that explanation. I still have not had time to finish the speech, but you’ve given me reason to move it closer to the top of my list.

    RonF:

    If it means simply that a majority of the population of said country professes a given religion, then I should think that given the right data the statement is simply true. But if it doesn’t mean that, then what does it mean?

    I don’t have the time to hunt for the quotes from people on the Christian right, including some who have and are running for office, who use the term “Christian nation” to mean something other than the fact that the majority of the people in the US are Christian. But I am pretty sure that’s not what Jerry Falwell meant when he said it, for example. If I have time, I will go looking for some specific quotes.

  8. 8
    RonF says:

    If by “Christian nation” it’s meant that we have an official religion or that Christianity enjoys specific privileges before the law not granted to other religions then that’s factually wrong for multiple reasons. If by that it’s meant that our system of laws and our culture were and are greatly influenced by Christianity in general to that point that they broadly conform to Christian ideals more than those of other religions, there’s a better case that the assertion is true.

  9. 9
    mythago says:

    RonF, evangelical speakers who talk about the US being a “Christian nation” are making an observation about how in their opinion the laws ought to bend; not merely commenting on the general leanings of the population in general.

    To my ear, people in the US-is-a-Christian-nation camp seem quite solicitous of Jewish people, and especially supporters of the state of Israel, in seeking allies in their war against secularists.

    Yes. They have a sort of bemused reverence, the way you might of your slightly-not-all-there grandpa, the one who fought bravely in World War II and pulled himself up by his bootstraps, but doesn’t know how to operate a computer and tends to ramble about the Good Old Days.

  10. 10
    Elusis says:

    They have a sort of bemused reverence,

    My understanding is that especially for the Dominionist types, it’s somewhat more sinister (from my outsider perspective) – they need the Jews in Israel to fulfill Biblical prophecy about the End Times, so Christ can return to earth.

    BTW “Christian nation” is a Dominionist dog whistle. It’s code for their belief that all secular offices should be filled by Christians and their denial of the Enlightenment beliefs of the Founding Fathers and therefore the secular roots of the US Constitution. It’s tied up in the Seven Mountains Mandate and other theocratic beliefs.

  11. 11
    RonF says:

    Mythago:

    RonF, evangelical speakers who talk about the US being a “Christian nation” are making an observation about how in their opinion the laws ought to bend;

    Bend in what fashion? That they should be in general accord with (their interpretation of) Christian doctrines, or that they should specifically enforce those doctrines in the same fashion as majority-Islamic nations tend to have a statement along the lines of “All laws will be founded in the Quran”?

    I’d certainly be willing to say that our laws are fundamentally grounded in Christian morality. It was after all the religion that almost all of the Founders were raised up in, even those who at one point or another identified as Deist. That’s different from saying that the government should promote Christianity or that Christianity should have special status above other religions (a violation of the First Amendment) or that only Christians should be legally permitted to hold office (Article VI, Paragraph 3); strictures of that nature can be found in the fundamental laws of other countries.

    Are there any statements from these guys where they themselves explain what they mean by “America is a Christian nation”? A Google search on the phase mostly loaded up links denying that the U.S. is a Christian nation, without defining the phrase. Newsweek ran a poll in April of 2009 saying that the number of people who consider the U.S. a Christian nation declined rfrom 71% in 2005 to 69% in 2008 and 62% in 2009 – but if they asked me my question would have been “What’s a Christian nation?” and I would have been unable to respond.

  12. 12
    nobody.really says:

    The beauty of the phrase “America is a Christian nation” is its ambiguity. By proclaiming it, you can appear to be all things to all people – yet have plausible deniability with all people, too.

    Are there any statements from these guys where they themselves explain what they mean by “America is a Christian nation”?

    I’m reminded of the ol’ anecdote:

    - Excuse me, ma’am, if you don’t mind answering a survey question: Are you a Christian?

    - Well, I suppose you had better ask my neighbors….

  13. 13
    Robert says:

    “My understanding is that especially for the Dominionist types, it’s somewhat more sinister (from my outsider perspective) – they need the Jews in Israel to fulfill Biblical prophecy about the End Times, so Christ can return to earth. BTW “Christian nation” is a Dominionist dog whistle. It’s code…”

    Well, I will concede that it certainly CAN be a dog whistle, but to say that it simply IS is way over the mark. Hardcore Dominionist Christians of the sort you are talking about are a pretty tiny fraction of the whole; the vast majority of Christians who I have personally heard or read using the phrase aren’t Dominionist, even of the softer (and somewhat more numerous, but still minoritarian) ordinary Christianity-First types. They mean it the way RonF means it, possibly more tendentiously – IE, this is the way things ought to be – than descriptively, but with a strong descriptive component.

    And that descriptive component is accurate; although some forms of Christianity are losing ground rapidly, others are growing. The net trend is toward secularization, but it isn’t a fast train; the odds that the US will be majority Christian in 25 years are good, and I’d bet that will still be true in 100 years as well. Christmas is a national holiday and Eid-ul-Fitr is not, and that’s not from a systemic bias against Islam but from simple demographic reality. The day may well come when Eid IS a national holiday – but the odds are long that, like most employers’ recognition of Jewish holidays, it will be a courtesy and a politeness extended to a minority, not the result of a huge demographic shift.

    None of this matters much anyway. Soon enough, the US will be reinvigorated by the Palin Regency and the Mormon theocracy will take charge. (Sorry, reference to a roleplaying background I invented for a time-traveler from 2300 AD, a background designed pretty much solely to annoy and amuse the liberal and secular members of our group.)

  14. 14
    mythago says:

    Christmas is a national holiday and Eid-ul-Fitr is not, and that’s not from a systemic bias against Islam but from simple demographic reality.

    Sure. But the “War Against Christmas” annual bullshit-o-rama is not about demographic reality, but about Dominionist beliefs with a not very well hidden undercurrent of anti-Semitism. There is a difference between recognizing that the town hall shuts down because most people observe Christmas as a holiday, and having a tantrum because the City Council doesn’t open meetings with a prayer to Jesus.

  15. 15
    KellyK says:

    There is a difference between recognizing that the town hall shuts down because most people observe Christmas as a holiday, and having a tantrum because the City Council doesn’t open meetings with a prayer to Jesus.

    Absolutely. I think that a large number of evangelicals who talk about America being a Christian nation mean this sort of thing—that Christian holidays and Christian scripture and Christian prayer should be publicly promoted, and that a little bit of lip service should be given to tolerating other religions, but they shouldn’t really be treated equally. “Freedom of religion” gets applied very selectively.

  16. 16
    nobody.really says:

    Christmas is a national holiday and Eid-ul-Fitr is not, and that’s not from a systemic bias against Islam but from simple demographic reality. The day may well come when Eid IS a national holiday – but the odds are long that, like most employers’ recognition of Jewish holidays, it will be a courtesy and a politeness extended to a minority….

    Like Festivus?

    I suspect this statement is accurate, but not because the US is a “Christian” nation in any theological sense. Consider, what is the greatest theological event of the Jewish and Christian religious calendar? Hint: It ain’t Hanukkah or Christmas. So why do these holidays get such outsized attention? Hint: It ain’t about theology.

    Theologically rigorous people may well concede that Jesus is emphatically NOT the “reason for the season” (except to the extent that he’s the reason for all seasons….) The New Testament provides no support for the idea that Jesus was born on Dec. 25 or any other specific date. People have been celebrating the harvest/winter solstice since long before Christ was born. Indeed, I am not aware of any controversy about the theory that early church leaders picked that time of year to celebrate Christmas precisely BECAUSE pagan celebrations were already occurring at that time. It’s noteworthy that certain devout Christian sects – inclulding the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Amish Mennonites, most sabbatarian denominations such as the True Jesus Church and the Church of God (7th-Day), the Iglesia ni Cristo, some Independent Baptist, Holiness, Apostolic Pentecostal, and Churches of Christ congregations — eschew the celebration of Christmas because they regard it as a bastardization of the One True Faith.

    Thus, Christmas is about as secular a holiday as you might want. Over the millennia Christians have taken great pains to give it a Christian veneer, but its secular nature keeps poking through.

    Consequently I could well imagine people embracing Eid-ul-Fitr with wild abandon – provided we give it a sufficiently appealing secular purpose. If we circulate the idea that Eid-ul-Fitr is a day for getting laid, I bet it could become just as popular in the US as Christmas is in Japan.

  17. 17
    mythago says:

    Thus, Christmas is about as secular a holiday as you might want.

    Is it in fact your argument that because Christmas incorporates and syncretizes some pagan imagery, that this operates to completely cancel out all Christian elements of the holiday such that it’s just as secular as Labor Day?

    Because that’s a profoundly disingenuous argument, and I don’t want to attribute it to you if you were saying something else.

  18. 18
    RonF says:

    In fact, when the Pilgrims and then later the Puritans established settlements that had at least some theocratic elements in Massachusetts the celebration of Christmas was penalized. But they weren’t much of a fun crowd. While there may be pagan elements in Christmas, the bottom line is that Christmas is what it is because at that time of year Christians celebrate the birth of Christ, not because the ancient Romans celebrated the Saturnalia at that time.

    Everyone wants in on the action, though. I work in a network operations center that runs 24/7. Everyone wants Christmas off. Which doesn’t make the Muslim guy working in the center too happy, as it has been taken as a matter of course that because there’s no religious significance for him to the day he should be the one who works it. But it’s a holiday and he wanted it off. He didn’t – he’s the most junior guy there, so on pure seniority he has to take the least desirable times. We are giving him the Islamic holidays off (and we’re learning what the Islamic holidays are, just like when I got my graduate degree at a medical school I learned what the Jewish holidays are). But we have to take Sunday shifts, so he takes Friday shifts, that’s all equal.

    It’ll be a long time, if ever, that Islamic holidays become national holidays in the U.S.

  19. 19
    chingona says:

    Does he get Islamic holidays off as holidays or does he have to use his PTO?

  20. 20
    Robert says:

    From what I understand, many Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet (and even more Mary) quite sincerely, particularly if they are from a place or group that is not in regular conflict with Christian populations. (Such conflict tends to attenuate shared cultural figures for obvious reasons, the same way that sauerkraut became ‘victory cabbage’ during WWI and never really regained its former stature.)

    Tell your Muslim co-worker that he needs to come in and say “Wait a minute! Because of all the Santa Claus nonsense I didn’t quite understand before. But now I am reliably informed that this Christmas holiday is all about Jesus. I love Jesus! Jesus was awesome! I DEMAND that you give me a fair chance at spending this day in reverence to this respected figure!”

  21. 21
    nobody.really says:

    Thus, Christmas is about as secular a holiday as you might want.

    Is it in fact your argument that because Christmas incorporates and syncretizes some pagan imagery, that this operates to completely cancel out all Christian elements of the holiday such that it’s just as secular as Labor Day?

    Because that’s a profoundly disingenuous argument….

    Uh … ok. I offer the argument sincerely with no ulterior motive (of which I am aware). I regard Christmas as a secular holiday that religious people have commandeered, and I believe the secular qualities of the holiday dominate the sacred ones. My argument may not persuade you, but I offer it in earnest.

    I concede, I am not aware that anyone attaches religious connotations to Labor Day while I am aware that people attach religious connotations to Christmas. That said, I grew up in, and currently live in, the suburbs. It was and is pretty common that schools have spring breaks that coincide with Easter, and that many kids go on church-sponsored work camps during that period. Other people go to Daytona Beach. What is the one, true nature of spring break? Who cares?

    Perhaps I should have said, “Christmas is about as secular a holiday as *I* might want; apparently some people have more exacting wants than I do.”

    Tell your Muslim co-worker that he needs to come in and say … “I DEMAND that you give me a fair chance at spending this day in reverence to this respected figure!”

    Ha!

    I recall a re-telling of A Christmas Carol designed to make Scrooge more sympathetic. Both Scrooge and Bob Cratchit were Jewish, and Scrooge had already provided Cratchit with paid time off for various Jewish holidays. When Cratchit demands paid time off for Christmas, too, Scrooge scolds him in the presence of people who had come to collect donations for a Christian proselytizing event. This triggers a cascade of brow-beating – with many intimations about the sinful nature of “you stingy people” — to which Scrooge eventually capitulates. Ah, perhaps this really is the true spirit of the season!

  22. 22
    RonF says:

    chingona:

    Does he get Islamic holidays off as holidays or does he have to use his PTO?

    I have no idea. I do know that when people have to work a shift on a company holiday – as always happens, we are a 24/7 shop – they get compensatory time off. I imagine he’d be free to choose an Islamic holiday to take that time. If the extent of such holidays exceeds the compensatory time he gets, then he’ll have to take PTO for the balance, just like anyone else would have to.

    Robert:

    Tell your Muslim co-worker that he needs to come in and say “Wait a minute! Because of all the Santa Claus nonsense I didn’t quite understand before. But now I am reliably informed that this Christmas holiday is all about Jesus. I love Jesus! Jesus was awesome! I DEMAND that you give me a fair chance at spending this day in reverence to this respected figure!”

    Hell, I’m tempted to tell him I’ll donate $50 to his favorite (non-religious) charity if he does that in one of our team meetings.

    nobody.really:

    I regard Christmas as a secular holiday that religious people have commandeered, and I believe the secular qualities of the holiday dominate the sacred ones.

    Christmas was never a secular holiday. Christians piggy-backed on the time of a pagan holiday, which for those pagans had a religious origin. As paganism fell away (encouraged greatly when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire) the main religious content shifted from paganism to Christianity.

    It’s fairly argued that non-Christian elements have been grafted onto Christmas, but that does not change the core. It’s also fairly argued that much of the activity surrounding Christmas today is a celebration of materialism. But again the core of Christmas is a celebration of the coming of our Savior. If you removed that the rest would fall away.

  23. 23
    nobody.really says:

    Christmas was never a secular holiday. Christians piggy-backed on the time of a pagan holiday, which for those pagans had a religious origin.

    Yeah, perhaps I’ve been sloppy with the secular/pagan distinction. But I think it would not be difficult to find examples of non-Christian societies holding harvest/winter solstice festivals. Whether to characterize those events as secular or pagan, I’ll leave to the anthropologists.

    [T]he core of Christmas is a celebration of the coming of our Savior. If you removed that the rest would fall away.

    What’s the core meaning of Halloween? How relevant do you think that meaning is to the vast majority of people who celebrate Halloween?

    For what purpose was the tradition of shaking hands invented? How relevant is the purpose to the ritual of shaking hands today?

    Heck, let’s take a quick poll: How many people on this list celebrate the coming of our Savior on December 25? And how many celebrate Christmas?

    I hold Jesus in high regard and even attend church occasionally. But seriously, Christmas is just too busy a time to squeeze in religious activities, too. Perhaps I’m just an outlier. But I suspect otherwise.

  24. 24
    mythago says:

    nobody.really: so, again, your argument is that the secular and pagan incorporations into Christmas operates as some kind of Christ-neutralizer that renders the holiday wholly secular?

    Do you also believe that Hanukkah is a wholly secular holiday because the dreidel game probably originated as a German gambling game? Or that Sukkot is wholly secular because it most likely incorporated a pre-existing harvest festival?

    If your argument is not disingenuous, then it is simply facile. You are arguing that a Christian holiday meant to celebrate the birth of Jesus (hint: what is the name of that holiday?) is not actually Christian after all, and to the degree that you are willing to concede Christmas is actually a Christian holiday, you pretend that’s just an afterthought. Ron is correct: you are handwaving and minimizing the fact that in the US, Christmas is primarily a religious holiday, and it is an important and central holiday to the religion that follows it.

    I’ve heard this Christmas-is-really-Holidaymas argument before, and only from two groups of people: militant atheists who are not comfortable enough to say “Yes, I know it’s irrational and emotional for me to have a tree in December, but I like having a tree and I’m OK with that”; and Christians who don’t understand, or don’t want to understand, why anybody could possibly object to the City Council paying for an erecting a Nativity scene on the courthouse lawn.

  25. 25
    nobody.really says:

    [S]o, again, your argument is that the secular and pagan incorporations into Christmas operates as some kind of Christ-neutralizer that renders the holiday wholly secular?
    * * *
    You are arguing that a Christian holiday meant to celebrate the birth of Jesus (hint: what is the name of that holiday?) is not actually Christian after all….

    I fear I’ve been unclear.

    As I tried to suggest with my discussion of spring break, I don’t think of the world in such dichotomous terms. I believe that different people may attach different significance to different things. When you characterize your own thinking (“In the US, Christmas is primarily a religious holiday….”) you seem to acknowledge that a holiday does not have be purely religious or purely secular, but could have both primary and secondary characteristics. This comes closer to my thinking – although I may disagree with you about which characteristics are primary and secondary.

    That said, I don’t attach the same significance to the name Christmas as I sense others do. For what it’s worth, while I regularly refer to Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, I really attach very little significance to the worship of the sun, the moon, Tiu (Mars), Woden (Odin), Thor, Frigga/Freida, and Saturn. To me, it’s just a name.

    (If I DID attach significance to the name, then I’d be l likely to assume that the Christ Mass was specifically a Roman Catholic holiday and therefore only observed by a minority of the population — except on the Supreme Court. But I don’t, so I don’t.)

    I concede, I may be generalizing too much from my own perspective. I’m more than willing to consider evidence, if we can think of a relevant metric and get the data.

    Can anyone think of an empirical test for weighing the Christian/non-Christian nature of Christmas? If we could find data comparing the growth of donations to Christian churches during Dec. 1-25 to the growth of retail sales during Dec. 1-25, would that influence anyone’s thinking on this question? Or compared minutes of Christian Christmas music to non-Christian Christmas music on the radio? Or viewership of Christian-themed Christmas specials to non-Christian-themed Christmas specials? (I’d defer to our resident cartoonist to rule on which side gets to claim A Charlie Brown Christmas.)

    I’ve heard this Christmas-is-really-Holidaymas argument before, and only from two groups of people: militant atheists who are not comfortable enough to say “Yes, I know it’s irrational and emotional for me to have a tree in December, but I like having a tree and I’m OK with that”; and Christians who don’t understand, or don’t want to understand, why anybody could possibly object to the City Council paying for erecting a Nativity scene on the courthouse lawn.

    Ah, dichotomous thinking: And which group do I – the occasional church-goer who did his winter term projects with the ACLU – belong to? If I’m going to live in this black or white, with-us-or-against-us world, I need to know which team’s jersey to wear to the big game…!

  26. 26
    Robert says:

    “What’s the core meaning of Halloween?”

    Give me candy or I will shit in a paper bag, set it on fire, put it on the doorstep, ring the bell, and run. It’s a lot of work for both of us, old man, so make with the Snickers bars and nobody gets hurt.

  27. 27
    mythago says:

    As I tried to suggest with my discussion of spring break, I don’t think of the world in such dichotomous terms.

    Don’t strain your back moving those goalposts! Remember, lift with the knees.

    First you tell us that “Christmas is about as secular a holiday as you might want” because it incorporates pagan and secular elements; now you’re saying that if any holiday has lost much or all of its religious significance (Halloween), therefore any holiday that is not 100% religious in every aspect is not a “religious holiday”. The term for ‘Tuesday’ referred to the god Tyr many centuries ago and we’ve inherited the terminology, therefore the reference to ‘Christ’ in ‘Christmas’ is meaningless, QED!

    You’re right, though, I should have included a third group: Christians who, being a member of the majority religion in the US, have the privilege of being oblivious to just how religious their “public” and “secular” holidays actually are, and just can’t understand why people who aren’t of their faith wouldn’t be themselves with joy at the opportunity to praticipate.

  28. 28
    nobody.really says:

    “What’s the core meaning of Halloween?”

    Give me candy or I will shit in a paper bag, set it on fire, put it on the doorstep, ring the bell, and run.

    So that was you?

  29. 29
    RonF says:

    Give me candy or I will shit in a paper bag, set it on fire, put it on the doorstep, ring the bell, and run.

    I used dog shit, of which there was a plentitude at my house. I also used lighter fluid to get the bag going good. And then there was the stink bomb, placed between the screen door and the weather door before lighting up the bag and ringing the bell. My command of chemistry far beyond my years was how I became, at 12 years old, an essential part of the team that otherwise was comprised of high school kids on Halloween night.

  30. 30
    RonF says:

    But I think it would not be difficult to find examples of non-Christian societies holding harvest/winter solstice festivals.

    I should think that there have been festivals and observances of the date when the sun rose at it’s southernmost (for the Northern Hemisphere) point, when the days started getting longer and warmer for as long as humans were able to distinguish the occurrence.

    Whether to characterize those events as secular or pagan, I’ll leave to the anthropologists.

    I would imagine that it always had a religious content. It’s not like they understood celestial mechanics or astrophysics.

    What’s the core meaning of Halloween? How relevant do you think that meaning is to the vast majority of people who celebrate Halloween?

    The original spiritual meaning of Halloween hasn’t been part of Halloween celebrations for the general population for a very, very long time. The spiritual content of Christmas has been and is a consistent part of it’s celebration. The two are not comparable.

    How many people on this list celebrate the coming of our Savior on December 25? And how many celebrate Christmas?

    I’m in church Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. There’s a lot of singing to do for both services, the practice for which generally starts before Thanksgiving. We also have Lessons and Carols the week before, which consists of tossing out the usual order of worship prior to the Eucharist and alternating anywhere from 5 to 9 readings from Scripture that fortell and then celebrate the coming of Christ with carols or hymns and anthems that correspond in some fashion to the reading (the carols or hymns being sung with the congregation and the anthems, less familiar and more difficult, being sung by the choir alone). Sometimes that’s on Sunday morning and sometimes it’s a separate service. I also end up singing about 4 or 5 gigs during Advent (for you non-Christians, the 4 or 5 weeks prior to Christmas) with another choir I’m a member of. Some of those are services at various churches, but at least one of them is a two-hour gig walking around the downtown shopping district of one of the local towns singing Christmas carols on the street and in the shops and restaurants.

    Getting and handing out gifts on December 25th (and 24th with my wife’s relatives after the Christmas Eve service) is nice. So is having the house all decorated (we leave it all up until Epiphany Sunday). But while the logistics of all that requires a lot of attention, it’s not my top priority.

    I hold Jesus in high regard and even attend church occasionally. But seriously, Christmas is just too busy a time to squeeze in religious activities, too.

    Well, then – I must say that I think you’re rather missing the point.

    mythago:

    Christians who don’t understand, or don’t want to understand, why anybody could possibly object to the City Council paying for an erecting a Nativity scene on the courthouse lawn.

    I can understand that objection and am willing to accommodate it. I am a whole lot less willing to accommodate those who would block the erection of a privately-funded Nativity scene on public land because they find it (or it’s presence on public land) offensive.

  31. 31
    chingona says:

    I do know that when people have to work a shift on a company holiday – as always happens, we are a 24/7 shop – they get compensatory time off. I imagine he’d be free to choose an Islamic holiday to take that time. If the extent of such holidays exceeds the compensatory time he gets, then he’ll have to take PTO for the balance, just like anyone else would have to.

    I don’t work in a 24/7 shop, but I do work in a 18/7 shop and we work all holidays. And we get comp time for any holidays worked. However, that comp time has to be used before the next paid holiday and when it’s at the end of the year, it has to used before the end of the year. So when I work Christmas, which I usually do, I get a day off during the week of Christmas. Which is fine. Working four days and getting paid for five is nice, just like it would be any time of year. But it doesn’t help me at all when it comes to High Holidays or Passover.

    The “just like anyone else would do” is the problem. Christians don’t have to use PTO because it’s already a holiday. The “anyone else” only includes non-Christians.

    Is it the worst injustice in the world? No. But it’s a benefit to Christians that other people don’t get. You basically get more PTO than non-Christians.

  32. 32
    nobody.really says:

    What is the core meaning of Halloween?

    Give me candy or I will shit in a paper bag, set it on fire, put it on the doorstep, ring the bell, and run.

    I used dog shit, of which there was a plentitude at my house.

    Gee, it’s great to see how the Christians on the list celebrate All Saint’s Day Eve. Who says holidays have lost their meaning?

    And speaking of shit-bombing, let me apologize to Richard Jeffrey Newman for my part in derailing his erudite thread.

    Now we resume our discussion of pyrotechnical scatology, already in progress….

  33. 33
    RonF says:

    The “just like anyone else would do” is the problem. Christians don’t have to use PTO because it’s already a holiday. The “anyone else” only includes non-Christians.

    If he works on Christmas he gets compensatory time. If he then uses that time for an Islamic holiday he’s not using PTO, he’s using compensatory time. Essentially what he’s done is move holiday time from Christmas to some other day. He’s still got all his PTO. The only way he’d need to use PTO would be if the holiday he wants to celebrate is longer than Christmas.

    Gee, it’s great to see how the Christians on the list celebrate All Saint’s Day Eve.

    I was 12. I’m not 12 anymore. Physically, anyway. And according to my priest All Saint’s Day is a Christian feast day but the day before – “All Saint’s Eve” – is not.

  34. 34
    Robert says:

    I want to see more of Nobody and Mythago going at it hammer and tongs. Nothing is more fun that watching two lawyers argue, when it isn’t costing $500 an hour.

  35. 35
    mythago says:

    Oh, Robert. This isn’t hammer and tongs. I haven’t even opened the toolbox yet.

    RonF: I am really unwilling to cut slack to people who want to use the government as a sock puppet. The issue is whether the public space is being allowed for the use of various groups to express messages, or whether it’s being used to quietly show approval of a particular message.

  36. 36
    nobody.really says:

    RonF:

    I was 12. I’m not 12 anymore. Physically, anyway.

    Yet, still a boy scout?

    ‘Nuf said.

  37. 37
    nobody.really says:

    Christians who don’t understand, or don’t want to understand, why anybody could possibly object to the City Council paying for an erecting a Nativity scene on the courthouse lawn.

    I can understand that objection and am willing to accommodate it. I am a whole lot less willing to accommodate those who would block the erection of a privately-funded Nativity scene on public land because they find it (or its presence on public land) offensive.

    I am really unwilling to cut slack to people who want to use the government as a sock puppet. The issue is whether the public space is being allowed for the use of various groups to express messages, or whether it’s being used to quietly show approval of a particular message.

    At a MINIMUM, where governments provide a forum for free speech – that is, speech the government is not endorsing, and that is unrelated to a legitimate governmental purpose — government should refrain from discriminating.

    If government is going to put up signs saying “This highway maintained by Girl Scout Troop 2391,” at a MINIMUM government needs to provide all groups with an equal opportunity to get such a sign. If government does not want to let Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) have such a sign – that is, if government wants to discriminate based on the content of the message – then government had better refrain from letting any private group onto its signs.

    Similarly, if government is going to let individual kids lead prayers over the public school public address system, before a public school football game, or at a public school graduation ceremony, at a MINIMUM government needs to provide all students with an equal opportunity to that forum to discuss whatever they have on their minds – sex, pot, violence, whatever. If government is not willing to do that – that is, if government wants to discriminate based on the content of the message – then government had better refrain from providing the forum for ANY kids. (The Supreme Court ruled that public schools get to engage in content-based discrimination in the school newspaper because the paper isn’t really covered by the 1st Amendment; it’s just a pedagogical exercise.)

    Thus, if government is going to provide a forum for a private group to put up a nativity scene, at a MINIMUM government needs to provide all other people with equal opportunity to use that forum for their own messages – defending abortion rights, opposing drug laws, advertising the strip joint at the edge of town, denouncing the mayor, whatever. If government is not willing to do that – that is, if government wants to engage in discrimination based on the content of the message – then government had better refrain from providing the forum to anyone.

    (Ah, those ol’ ACLU days come back to me…!)

  38. 38
    RonF says:

    Actually, n.r, I don’t find much to argue with there. I’d argue that advertising is something you could legitimately ban. But this otherwise takes me back to one of my arguments regarding the position that the various Occupy groups were taking in trying to occupy public property for indefinite periods – it’s not a violation of their First Amendment rights to limit them to a specific time, place and duration because access to public property has to be shared among all the members of the public who wish to use it. Given that freedom of speech and freedom of exercise of religion are both protected in the First Amendment it makes sense to me that people should be free to exercise their religion on public property – as long as the various religions in the community all get their share of such access.

    Similarly, if government is going to let individual kids lead prayers over the public school public address system, before a public school football game, or at a public school graduation ceremony, at a MINIMUM government needs to provide all students with an equal opportunity to that forum to discuss whatever they have on their minds – sex, pot, violence, whatever.

    I don’t know what the courts have said about this, but I disagree with you here to an extent. If someone wants to lead a prayer before a school football game to bless everyone there and that no one gets hurt, I can see where that shouldn’t always be a Christian prayer, especially if there’s other religions in the community. In fact, the Boy Scouts have worked up all kinds of non-denominational stuff for this kind of thing. But I wouldn’t agree that anyone with any message about any topic should have equal time to talk about it.

    Yet, still a boy scout?

    a) You forgot the capitalization.
    b) To be a bit pedagogical, no, I”m not. A Boy Scout is a boy/young man between the ages of 11 to 18 who is registered as a Boy Scout. Adults of either sex registered in any position (get your mind out of the gutter) in any of the BSA’s traditional programs is referred to as a “Scouter”.
    c) Growing old is mandatory. Growing up is optional.

    I was just out there having fun this weekend, as a matter of fact. The annual Klondike Camporee was held in Wisconsin. Temperatures hit a maximum of 28 degrees. I was director of the event for 5 years, but this year all I did was run a skill station. The Scouts pulled up in their sleds and had to lift a 5′ long x 12″ diameter pine log up onto a crossbuck. Then I gave them a 6′ long 2-man crosscut saw and they had to cut a slice off the end of the log – 2 kids on the saw and the rest holding down the log. It was enough work that they had to trade off. The bigger kids would act like they were lumberjacks and wail away on it, and tire out a lot faster than they thought they would. The smaller kids had never even seen anything like that before and had to work out how to handle it. But everyone got a section cut (with a little adult help if the patrol was all smaller Scouts), and every single one of them took their “saw cookie” as a trophy. These are suburban kids. Mom and Dad don’t usually let them even touch something like a 6′ long saw blade that needs two people to handle it. At the end we gave them “gold nuggets” (the amount depending on how well them demonstrated competence, leadership and teamwork) that they could use later when we auctioned off camping gear, candy and a bunch of other stuff.

  39. 39
    mythago says:

    I don’t know what the courts have said about this

    Mostly, they’ve observed that a lot of people who think pre-game prayers SHOULD always be Christian and SHOULD always be mandatory try to get around the Establishment Clause in all kinds of ways. From the perspective of a well-meaning prayerful person, this is why you can’t have nice things.

  40. 40
    nobody.really says:

    Given that freedom of speech and freedom of exercise of religion are both protected in the First Amendment it makes sense to me that people should be free to exercise their religion on public property – as long as the various religions in the community all get their share of such access.

    Ah, but there’s the rub: what is a “religion”? Who should have the power to characterize some world views as a religion – thereby granting them special status in the law – while denigrating all other views?

    I tend to the view that EVERYONE practices a religion – that is, everyone has a point of view and values, and acts more or less according to them. The fact that some points of view have fancy building, large hierarchies and long histories should not grant them a privileged status in the law. Every point of view should have equal standing for purposes of the Free Exercise clause and the Disestablishment clause. The practical consequences of this view are generally to have government restrict itself to doing only those things for which it has a legitimate governmental purpose. If a policy passes this test, then whether the policy would enhance or impede religious practice or expression should be irrelevant.

    The practical consequences of this view would eliminate the tax-exempt status of churches – because ALL organizations would be considered the equivalent of churches. Government would need to stop discriminating on the basis of religion.

    The likely practical consequence of this view would be to eliminate the Conscientious Objector exception to the military draft. EVERY objection to going to war would be of equal status. Similarly, religious organizations would not get a special exemption from laws banning controlled substances. Religious building would not get any special historical or zoning status. Religious organizations would not get any special exemptions from civil rights laws. Government would need to stop discriminating on the basis of religion.

    A Supreme Court decision upheld a state’s practice of offering grants to facilitate education in any field except religion. The practical consequence of my view would be to overturn that ruling. States would be free to offer grants for whatever legitimate state purpose they chose, but they could not discriminate on the basis of religion.

    The practical consequence of my view would likely be the repeal of special accommodation laws for religions purposes. Your desire to pray to Mecca and the bosses desire for you to keep working would have equal status. Government would need to stop discriminating on the basis of religion.

    Many Disestablishment cases hold that government should not merely refrain from favoring religion, but also avoid “undue entanglements” with religion. My view would likely strike down that type of test. Darned near everything the government does reflects some kind of viewpoint, and government would have no basis for avoid “undue entanglements” with some viewpoints more than others. Government would need to stop discriminating on the basis of religion.

    In short, most people regard religion as some special, discrete part of life which can be addressed with special, discrete laws distinct from the laws that govern the rest of life. Religion as I understand it suffuses ALL of conscious life – and thus it makes no sense to try to establish “special” laws for dealing with it. (Understood in this manner, it really makes no sense for me to say that I don’t have time for religion at Christmas time; EVERYTHING I do, and refrain from doing, manifests my religion.) But if religion seems like a good enough reason to let Native Americans use peyote, it should be a good enough reason to let EVERYONE use peyote.

    Needless to say, courts have not adopted this view entirely….

  41. 41
    mythago says:

    But if religion seems like a good enough reason to let Native Americans use peyote

    It isn’t, per Employment Division v. Smith.

  42. 42
    nobody.really says:

    But if religion seems like a good enough reason to let Native Americans use peyote…

    It isn’t, per Employment Division v. Smith.

    Maybe….

    Don’t get me wrong; I like a lot of the language in that decision. “To make an individual’s obligation to obey such a law contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs, except where the State’s interest is ‘compelling’ – permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, ‘to become a law unto himself,’ — contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense.” According to O’Connor, the Court’s decision had the effect of reducing the test for the 1st Amend. Free Exercise clause to “the barest level of minimum scrutiny that the Equal Protection Clause already provides.” Sounds good to me!

    Here’s the set-up: Two Native Americans guys working at a drug rehab clinic in Oregon get fired for testing positive for peyote, a banned substance, and then were denied unemployment comp. on the grounds that the dismissal was for “misconduct.” The guys claimed – truthfully, as far as the record shows – that they used the drugs as part of their religious practices. They argued that requiring people to abandon their religious practices in order to qualify for unemployment would violate the Free Exercise clause. The US Supreme Ct rejects this view…

    …but only because Oregon had not already chosen to embrace that type of discrimination. Rejecting my view of the Free Exercise clause, the Court emphasizes that states are free to adopt policies that discriminate on the basis of religion, and cites with approval various states that had adopted policies privileging the religious use of peyote. The Court proceeds to cite with approval the practice of discriminating on the basis of religion with regards to the application of licensing requirements for publishers, taxes on solicitors, childhood education, and the awarding of unemployment comp. for people fired for refusing to work on Saturdays.

    And Blackmun’s dissent calls into question the premise that Oregon has NOT concluded that religion is a good enough reason to let Native Americans use peyote. He notes that, even though years have passed between the time the plaintiffs filed their suit and the time it has been addressed by the US Supreme Court (twice!), the State of Oregon has yet to prosecute the plaintiffs – or indeed any “religious” users — for the use of peyote. In other areas of law we call this selective prosecution, and it’s a big fat violation of the Equal Protection clause. But not here.

    As an unhappy epilogue, note that the case of Employment Division v. Smith became part of a chain of events that prompted Congress to adopt the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, bolstering the special status accorded to “religious” groups over other groups – such as society at large.

  43. 43
    mythago says:

    I remember Justice Scalia’s angry denial that his opinion in Smith could be used to prohibit the use of sacramental or religious wine in dry counties. Uh, no, Your Honor, that’s exactly what your opinion says.

    If you can find a copy of the law review article “Free Exercise on the Mountaintop”, which wittily dissects the Smith decision, you should read it posthaste.