Friday, October 10, 2008

Prop 8 and the Decline of Civic Education

Although the Church's recent Prop 8 broadcast had a positive tone and effectively leveraged the Church's religious arguments for Prop 8, there was still something unsettling about the whole thing. In making purely theological arguments on one hand, and only the most dubious civil arguments on the other, the Church didn't make any attempt to explain how or why our private, religious morals should also be the law of the land.

The Church's theological position on marriage is very clear. Although ancient and modern scripture may be ambivalent on the subject, the recent Proclamation on the Family and Church Newsroom releases draw an unequivocal line in the sand on the issue of same sex marriage. I have no problem at all with this theological position and applaud the Church's efforts to stress this to its members. A lot of time on the broadcast was spent reiterating the fact that marriage between a man and a woman was ordained of God. OK.

The problem I have is the way that is increasingly seen by members of our Church and other religious people as an automatic argument as to why that value should be reflected in the civil law. I'm not saying that our religious teachings shouldn't be reflected in civil law, just that we need to think about and understand the difference between theological and civic values and have good reasons why some religious positions make good civil law while others don't. The broadcast offered nothing along these lines.

I fear that this blurring of the lines between civil and religious authorities is part of a larger decline in civic education in our society and, perhaps, especially within the Church. For example, the whole line of attack on the judiciary that is a centerpiece of this campaign (and other right-wing campaigns for the past several years) is based on a complete misunderstanding of our civic institutions. The fact that this line of attack can be used to reliably rouse the religious right indicates a profound lack of knowledge of the role of the judiciary and, perhaps, a lack of respect for the foundational documents of our country.

A particularly cringe-worthy moment in the broadcast was during the video clip of the group of young people organizing a Prop 8 meeting, when one of them said it didn't feel very American to have judges overturn the majority vote of the people. Do I need to respond here that overturning the majority will when constitutional rights are involved is one of the most profound reasons for why we even have a judiciary? (Never mind that the video included the canard that 61% of the population of California voted against same sex marriage in 2001). That in a healthy republic, we would expect judges to overturn ballot initiatives fairly frequently? That our founding fathers were distrustful enough of majoritarian outcomes to design a republican system to temper them?

Overall, the lack of any language or framework with which to describe how we translate religious values into civil laws, together with the lack of respect for our most basic civic institutions, makes me wonder whether there is something wrong with the state of civil education ("social studies" or whatever you want to call it) manifesting itself during this campaign.

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