Church, State and Other Stuff

Yesterday I read the NY Times review of Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement. According to the review (I haven’t yet read the book), Caldwell’s thesis is that America since the ‘60s has been in a tug-of-war between the Constitution of 1787-89 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which latter has arguably usurped the older document’s place in defining the national ethos.  (The review and book cite an article by Angelo Codevilla as proposing this idea.)

This got my attention because I had long felt the distinctions made in civil-rights law – whom I serve in my establishment but not whom I invite to my cookout; protected classes but not others – are somewhat tortured and indicate an understanding that something weird is going on.

Mind you, I think the CRA was fundamentally a good thing, but as an extraordinary measure to meet an extraordinary set of problems.  Sharing this perspective, though, had never got me anything but blank stares (nobody suspected me of being a crypto-Klansman, they just couldn’t make sense of an America without protected classes), so it was particularly gratifying to read the following in the review (how much of this can I quote, I wonder, without getting into trouble?):

In Caldwell’s telling, the Civil Rights Act, which banned many forms of discrimination, was a swindle. Billed as a one-time correction that would end segregation and consign race consciousness to the past, it actually started an endless and escalating campaign of race-conscious social engineering.

Now one could scoff at the naivete of thinking that we have “consign[ed] race consciousness to the past” and can safely retire the law.  I assume that Caldwell would say such scoffing exhibits Parmenides’ Fallacy, in that it’s comparing a current situation to one that never had a chance to happen.

So far all I’ve mentioned are a couple of essays and a book, any of which is probably better written than this post and certainly more informative, but this has been necessary to set up an idea that I’ll now present.

I often hear people making the argument – or at least the claim – that a strict separation of Church and State is actually beneficial to religion; that government exhibitions of religiosity and government mandates of religious observance actually drive people away from religion; that temporal authority comes at the expense of Divine, or at least ecclesiastical, authority; that the sacred is trivialized… things like that.  So the discussion of the CRA prompted me to wonder why those people don’t make the same case about… let’s call it Tolerance.  Why wouldn’t the State’s establishment of Tolerance cause people to reject it, as it supposedly would Religion?

Of course there are significant differences between Tolerance and Religion, especially if one thinks that joining a specific country club or having coffee in a specific shop is a civil right.  (Me, though I understand that the CRA has made it so, and think that was an appropriate, if extraordinary, measure, on a fundamental level I don’t see it.)  Anyway, there are also big similarities:  Each includes an ethos, a worldview and a set of dos and don’ts.  If we want people to internalize the ethos, view the world in that way and observe the dos and don’ts, why would government coercion work for one and to the detriment of the other?

I don’t have an answer, but who knows?  Maybe this will spark a bit of useful discussion.

About the Author
Michael and family moved from NYC to Alon Shvut in 1986. He works in Software; blogs sporadically on education, public policy and whatever else comes to mind; chairs the boards of two educational institutions and practices philosophy in the ancient tradition of corrupting the minds of youth.
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