New Blog on Education

For musingandmotion subscribers:

You’ve probably notices that I have written very infrequently on this blog over the past few years.  It is mostly due to lacking a clear focus and to having little interaction with readers over content, as I had hoped.

I recently started a new blog that is focused on just on education.  It aims to generate conversation about the kind of education that is needed to sustain freedom in this country by renewing it for each generation.

Please check it out and if you like what you see, I would be honored if you subscribed.

 

 

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Reflections on Reason: Response to Schindler, part 1

I started reading this week D.C. Schindler’s The Catholicity of Reason (2013). It is an excellent work of philosophy that profoundly challenges our modern notions of reason and truth. It is a difficult read (I can only process a few pages at a time and I have to re-read many paragraphs), but far worth the effort. Since most of the people that read this blog will never pick up the book, I would like to share and interpret some of its important ideas with you. Doing so will help me digest and internalize what I am reading by explaining it in my own words.

Schindler uses “catholic” in the sense of universal, or “according to the whole.” Reason is a way of knowing universal truths, a way of knowing that extends beyond our immediate perceptions in space and time. Through reason we make inferences – logical conclusions from truths we know to truths we didn’t know. Through reason we discern coherence, which is an essential quality of meaning. Through reason, we make generalizations from experience so that we can learn from our experiences across time.

Historically, reason as a way of knowing is associated with the Enlightenment, which is commonly called the Age of Reason. The philosophers of this era hoped that reason would lead to certain knowledge of all things. This modern optimism toward reason has been countered in the 20 and 21st century with postmodern skepticism, which emphasizes the limitations and even liabilities of reason. Postmodern thought characteristically rejects the possibility of knowing universal truths and is suspicious of the “totalizing” (imposing artificial absolutes on the world) effects of the primacy of reason. It criticizes the “arrogance” produced by the belief that reason can lead to absolute certainty.

Schindler argues, surprisingly, that the problem with modernism is not that it put too much faith in reason, but too little; not that it made reason too expansive, but not expansive enough. Contra post-modernism, he argues that the only way to resist “totalizing” is not to limit reason’s excesses, but to embrace its “wholeness.”

According to Schindler, there are four senses in which reason is catholic:

(1) It is defined by its relation to being as a whole, and (2) it involves the whole person in its specific operation, (3) it always grasps the (whole as) universal, on the one hand and (4) the (whole as) concrete, composite being or individual thing in each particular act, on the other hand.

I will close this post commenting why these principles are especially important to grasp in our cultural moment.

(1). In spite of being more connected via technology to the rest of the world, we see ourselves more and more as atomistic individuals, and less and less as members of a community. We live moment to moment, historically disconnected, not understanding our relation to the whole of time. We need to recover a sense of how we are related to the whole of reality; reason enables us to do this.

(2). Our internal lives are fragmented. Reason is divorced from emotion; the mind from the heart.  We associate the rational with public life and science, but our private lives and religion are the domain of the irrational. Matters of faith, beauty, meaning are cutoff from matters of fact/truth. We need to recover sense of how all aspects of our being are involved in engaging with reality.

(3) We are skeptical about the possibility of knowing universal truths and are even ashamed to claim to know them, believing that it is offensive to those who do accept our claims, and fearing that such claims threaten diversity. We need to recover confidence in human capacity for knowing universals, for the progressive search for them brings meaning to human existence.

(4) We do have to reckon, though, with a cultural history that has devalued concrete particulars and diversity in the pursuit of universals, whether that be from religious or secular totalitarianism, from the right or the left, seeking to impose a monolithic view of reality and squash dissent. We need to recover a way of knowing that affirms unity (universals) and differences (particulars)

My Letter to Indiana Governor Mike Pence

Dear Gov. Pence,

As a former IN resident, and concerned Christian and constitutionalist, I have been watching with keen interest the news this week about the response to your state’s passing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. For what it is worth, I am writing to encourage you to stand your ground against the forces that are aligned against you.  The firestorm you are facing should come as no surprise, as it is created by forces in this culture that are maligned against the kind of religious freedom envisioned by the U.S. Constitution.  Your opponents on this issue believe that religion convictions are fine, so long as they are kept private.  They oppose those who would seek to act on their convictions in public.  But their opposition is not principled; it is discriminatory, selective: it supports the expression of moral convictions based on religious beliefs that they agree with (for all moral convictions are manifestation of some kind of religious faith), but seeks to suppress those they do not.  More grievously, they want to use the state to enforce their own convictions on the rest of us.  They seek to trump the first freedoms of the Constution with a presumed freedom to act out one’s desires without having to worry about being judged or offended by anyone who disagrees with them.

So, please sir, take the patient and long view here.  The opposition will soon fade but in the end you can rest assured that the citizens of Indiana will be freer in the truest sense of the word.

Kind regards,

Jeremy Noonan

Can State Governments Impose Religious Beliefs on Private Business Owners? – Arlene’s Flowers v. Ferguson

Arlenes

A news report out of Washington State reenergized my interest in writing about the threats to First Amendment Rights in this country, largely from those who hold to the doctrine that sexual freedom is an ultimate right.  According to the Daily Signal, a Washington judge ruled this week that a 70 year old florist was guilty of violating the states anti-discrimination laws when she refused to make floral arrangements for a gay wedding. In his 60-page opinion, the judge writes: “No court has ever held that religiously motivated conduct, expressive or otherwise, trumps state discrimination law in public accommodations. Religious motivation does not excuse compliance with the law.”

It is worth nothing in this case that the florist, Mrs. Barronelle Stutzman, gladly serves gay customers, and the man who filed the lawsuit was a long-time customer of hers.  But when he asked her to provide services for his wedding, she declined on grounds of conscience informed by her Christian faith.  She recalls: “I put my hand on his and said, ‘I’m sorry Rob, I can’t do your wedding because of my relationship with Jesus Christ. We talked a little bit, we talked about his mom [walking him down the aisle]…we hugged and he left.”

The court ruling ignores the difference between moral discrimination and amoral discrimination.  To “discriminate” simply means to recognize a distinction between.  Thus moral discrimination means to recognize the difference between good and evil.  Every human being does this; it is a function of the human conscience.  The kind of discrimination that has come to give the word such a toxic connotation is of an amoral nature.  It is a prejudicial judgment of a person’s worth based on characteristics that lack moral properties. The reason while racial discrimination is generally unjust is because it, as MLK Jr. famously said, judges someone “by the color of their skin, not the content of their character.” Other amoral characteristics that may be a basis for discrimination include gender and age.

As an aside, it is highly questionable whether the government ought to regulate even amoral discrimination in the first place, especially over private businesses. The oft quoted liberal aphorism (used in relation to eliminating anti-abortion and anti-sodomy laws) that it is not the government’s job to legislate morality applies here. Our country has a tradition of upholding private business owner’s freedom of association (i.e. freedom to refuse business on any grounds they see fit).  Thus, even if a business owner discriminates on amoral grounds, and such behavior is morally objectionable, why should the government get involved in the first place? People should be able, normally, do to business with whom they please.  The free market will punish those who turn away business and thus lose market share or refuse to hire the most qualified employees based on such characteristics.

But this ruling in Washington goes beyond such discrimination and attempts to regulate moral discrimination of private citizens. That is it seeks to use the force of the state to coerce people into suppressing moral judgments the state disagrees with, and act according to those moral judgments the state approves of.

In this case, Mrs. Stutzman, on religious grounds, finds gay marriage to be objectionable. This is not some fringe, cultish religious conviction, but one that is held by tens, if not hundreds, of millions of U.S. Citizens, and represents consensus across all major religious traditions. It is firmly grounded in widely and sincerely held religious belief. She believes that she would be sinning against God if she supported a gay wedding by providing services for it. You may disagree with her moral convictions, and her religious basis for them, but the U.S. Constitution constrains the state from using its power to suppress the expression of them. Clearly, the state of Washington’s anti-discrimination laws are prohibiting her free exercise of religion.

But they are doing even more than that. I argue that such rulings interpret anti-discrimination laws in such a way as to establish religious belief. This is because they are forcing people to accept an certain concept of marriage which is not and indeed cannot be religiously neutral. The state of WA is in effect saying, “You cannot express publicly this religious-based belief that marriage should only be between one man and one woman; instead, you can only express publicly the state sanctioned belief that marriage is whatever arrangement two adults please.” These beliefs about marriage are themselves derived from faith commitments concerning the purpose of human existence, the meaning of life, the nature of man, etc. And in instances like these throughout the country, state and local governments are punishing those that disagree with these doctrines and express disagreement publicly.

Friends, such actions are a threat to our fundamental freedoms. I urge you to fight for our First Amendment rights to differentiate between right and wrong on religious grounds and act publicly on such judgments. Without this first freedom, other freedoms will gradually be eroded.

When Rights Conflict, Part 1: Natural Rights versus Socially-Constructed Rights

First Amendment rights increasingly collide with other rights in our courts.   The right to equal protection under the law clashes with the right to exercise one’s conscience freely when Christian business owners refuse to service gay marriages.  A right to health care conflicts with the free expression of religion when a religious school refuses to cover certain contraceptives in its health insurance plans.  When rights conflict, how do we know which rights should take precedent?

This question may be too complex to take on in the medium of a blog.  It’s a question that I recently raised in the Ethics portion of my Theory of Knowledge class. Answering it requires an exploration of the nature of rights.

The Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution is based on the Enlightenment notion of natural rights.  A belief in natural rights is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Rights are described as “unalienable,” a term borrowed from property law.  James Rogers explains, “An “alienable” right over property means that the property can be sold or given away by the owner. Property that is “inalienable” cannot be transferred by the owner (First Things, “Rights You Can’t Give Away,” June 2012).” Hence, “unalienable” signifies something that cannot be given or taken away.  A natural right is unalienable because it is not foreign or external to human nature (such that it could be given away), but inherent in human nature (and thus cannot be given away since it is inseparable from us).  So while I can give my time and treasure to the State (alienable), I cannot give away my conscience (inalienable).

In contrast to natural rights, which the State recognizes and secures, socially-constructed rights are invented and conferred by the State.  They are not inherent to human nature, but are contingent on the power of the State.  Simply, natural rights are discovered while socially-constructed rights are created.  Thus, natural rights are the same for all humans everywhere, transcending time and space, whereas socially-constructed rights vary with time and space.

This distinction may help resolve conflicts in rights.  If the conflict (meaning that protecting legally one right requires violating another) is between a natural right and a socially-constructed right, , the natural right should upheld first Natural rights should take precedent because they constrain the power of the state, setting limits on what demands the state can make of us. Rights that originate with State power cannot by nature restrain State power:  if the State creates them, the State can violate them.

This argument requires, of course, that one can discern which rights are natural: a question I will explore in my next post.

Facing Real Threats to Religious Freedom: the City of Houston and Free Speech from the Pulpit

Last week I promised to focus next on a recent victory for religious freedom in the U.S. federal court system.  Due to a serious and stunning event this week in Houston, I instead want to turn attention to how real are current threats to religious freedom in this country.

Some prominent local pastors’ sermons were subpoenaed by the city of Houston. The reason? These pastors were thought to oppose the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (known by the Orwellian acronym HERO) – a city law which gives transgendered people the right to use public restrooms for the sex they identify with.  So, a biologically-endowed male would have access to women’s bathrooms if he claimed a transgender identity (how transgender claims would be validated is not at all clear; the problems this could cause are glaring). If prevented from using opposite sex restrooms, transgendered people have the right, under this ordinance, to file a discrimination complaint.

After HERO was passed by the city council, a petition was filed to submit the ordinance to a public referendum.  In spite of having over 50,000 signatures, the petition was rejected by the city.  Citizens filed suit against the city.  In response a subpoena was issued, seeking “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”

The sheer audacity of this move is stunning.  Here we have a local government using subpoena power to intimidate pastors into silence on moral issues that conflict with the government’s agenda. This is not only a direct threat to the free exercise of religion but obviously stifles free speech.

The good news is that the pastors refused to comply and the public outcry from around the country created such a public relations nightmare, that the mayor of Houston backed down, even blaming the attorneys who filed the subpoenas ‘pro-bono’ for the city. Thankfully, efforts to stand up to violations of First Amendment rights in this country will likely still succeed. But this can change in less than a generation if citizens refused to take stand.

To learn more, please see this commentary:

http://www.focusonthefamily.com/socialissues/defending-your-values/houstons-religious-freedom-problem

Preserving Religious Freedom: Understanding the “Establishment Clause”

bill of rights

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

According to the Bill of Rights page at archives.gov, our Bill of Rights was written to mollify criticisms of the Constitution that it did not do enough to check the power of the central government and would lead to the same kind of tyranny the former colonists knew under Britain. These critics demand that citizens’ immunities be spelled out explicitly.

This simple context is important to interpreting the First Amendment rightly.  These amendments were written to limit the central government’s, especially the legislative branch, power over its citizens.  They are an enumeration of the natural rights referenced in the Declaration of Independence as the transcendent grounds of revolution – the God-given rights which government exists to preserve.

It is significant then that the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment is about what Congress cannot do in terms of supporting or suppressing religion. It is not about what you cannot do as a citizen, what families cannot do, what businesses cannot do, what schools cannot do, what churches cannot do, or even what state and local governments cannot do (which makes me wonder about the extent to which state and local laws must abide by amendments directed toward the federal government – any contributions here would be appreciated).  Too often the First Amendment is misconstrued and misused by applying it too broadly to discourage other persons or institutions (who are not Congress!) from advancing the influence of religion in society. It is meant to protect us from the central government, whose inclination, as the history of Europe attests, is to wed itself to religion to advance its power interests, not from those who would freely exercise their religion by trying to promote it.

Such abuse of the First Amendment is often accompanied by appeals to the so-called “separation of church and state.”  This specious argument is used, it seems, when someone is uncomfortable with religious adherents engaging in religious activity in any kind of public space. Notice that this phrase has no part of the Bill of Rights.  Its origins lie in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Baptist pastors in Virginia, assuring them that the Baptist church would not be oppressed by the government. This concept has no legal authority!

A second observation is that religious freedom is the first one enshrined in the Bill of Rights.  The order is no accident; this is not arbitrary.  The order speaks to the importance:  other rights/freedoms follow from the right to exercise religion without interference from the federal government. Why this is the case is a question I will explore in later writing.  Suffice to say that religion limits the power of the legislature by affirming the existence of and promoting the knowledge of divine Law, which limits the obligations the central government can impose on us, and that all men – the powerful and the penniless – are accountable to obey.

A final observation is that the two criteria laws must satisfy are in an either/or relationship.  In other words, a law is unconstitutional if it violates either of these standards.  More secular minded people are often very sensitive to the not establishing religion standard but ignore or downplay the free exercise part. Establishing religion has to do with using the power and resources of the federal government to establish a national Church.  It is not a license for suppressing the influence of religion in the public sphere, which the ‘free exercise of religion’ entails.

In my next post, I will look at some recent Supreme Court decisions where the First Amendment has been applied faithfully to uphold religious freedoms.