Cracks in the Wall


A recent Pew survey shows overwhelming support among Americans for things like public posting of the Ten Commandments and (to a lesser extent) public-school prayer, prompting Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum to contemplate standing down on some of these marginal-seeming culture war issues.

Now, I'm sympathetic to this position—while I don't think the state has any business plopping religious monuments in courthouse rotundas, there are several thousand other awful things government does that are a good deal higher on my list of concerns. But I remember an old parenting manual I flipped through many years ago, about setting boundaries. The idea was that teens are always going to push whatever limits you set as a way of asserting their autonomy, so there's something to be said for being a little stricter than you actually think is necessary—better junior be able to rebel by breaking an early curfew than by shooting heroin.

Whatever the merits of that approach as a parenting strategy, I think there's something to be said for it in this arena. I'd rather the church/state separation fights be over a creche on the lawn at city hall—a fight I could live with losing—than about something more serious. And, on a related but semi-distinct note, I think there's a value to keeping a pretty high wall even on these more trivial matters because it reinforces the idea that while our broader culture may be deeply religious in many ways, our public, political culture is not. While support for these kinds of minor religious expression may be broad, I don't think it's terribly deep in most cases. That is, I doubt Dems (or whomever) have a huge amount to gain by lying down on this one, just because I doubt very much this issue is a dealbreaker for most people who, in principle, would like to see the Commandments posted in the abstract. But the minority for whom it is a high-salience issue recognize, I think, the symbolic potency of whatever cracks they can drive in the "wall of separation." It is, as Roy Moore love to say, a question of whether we will "acknowledge God." And each apparent sanction of that sort becomes fuel for future advances of that agenda. Note how the "In God we Trust" on currency is routinely trotted out as an analogy to some further God-ification of the state sphere.

Also, on the school prayer question, while it's nice to learn that Matt "was forced to engage in sectarian Christian prayer in my (non-public) school and it was fine," I suspect that the vibe at a fairly posh-looking Manhattan school is rather different from the one kids who're members of minority religious groups encounter in many other parts of the country.