February 9, 2008

Debate notable for lack of debate

Mike Plaisted is not going to be pleased with me. Neither is Renato Umali. I really wanted to get down to the Bremen Café in Riverwest last night, where both of them were performing. But I've been fighting off a nasty cold for the last few days and wound up snoozing under a blanket for most of the evening. Next time, gentlemen, I promise.

Renato is an easygoing guy, and I'm sure he'll forgive me. He probably won't even take back my 2005 Umali Award (long story). So is Plaisted, I imagine, and so will he, I hope. But maybe not when he finds out what I ended up doing instead of catching his acoustic set at the Bremen: I watched his arch-nemesis, Rick Esenberg, on the teevee.

Esenberg, along with three other local worthies, appeared on Milwaukee Public Television's long-running panel discussion series, 4th Street Forum, to debate religion and politics. Only one problem: they were all religious! And things didn't even start getting close to feisty until there were only about ten minutes left in the one-hour programme.

The Shark's fellow panelists were the Interaith Conference's Marcus White (he of "Coexist controversy" fame), Susan Vergeront, a former State legislator and "Christian Nurturer," and Renee Crawford, associate director of the local ACLU.

Ms. Crawford was pretty cool, although she didn't appear much inclined to mix it up with her fellow panelists. Man, I wish I'd been there, if only to pass Renee a few talking points. As a friend of mine comically described — I believe it was — Duran-Leonard II, "The lack of violence was sickening."

Some of the discussion was directed toward the religiosity of the current and past presidential candidates, and the appropriateness of their advertising their various religious beliefs as some kind of qualification for public office. To her credit, Ms. Crawford mentioned the No Religious Test Clause of the Constitution, but Esenberg the lawyer was quick to point out that this is purely an "institutional" proscription, in that it only prevents actions by the government.

The obvious response to that is two-fold: (1) the language of that clause is among the most forceful in the Constitution, and it's not unreasonable to extend its admonition as a directive, or at least a suggestion, to the populace and (2) the Constitution famously begins with the words, "We the people," not "We the lawyers." See (1).

Esenberg finally did get a chance, however, to enunciate his curious hypothesis that government neutrality toward religion is impossible, and its pretense should be abandoned, because government's influence is nowadays so pervasive that no matter what it does, it's bound to offend someone and possibly even interfere with somebody's "free exercise" of religion, which is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

He gave, as a rather unfortunate example in my view, the idea of public schools informing students that sexual orientation is primarily an objective matter of biological imperative and should be regarded as such may impinge on some students' rights to freely exercise their own religious beliefs that gay people are icky and Hellbound.

Esenberg was challenged by a woman in the audience, who essentially asked — and I'm paraphrasing liberally here, but I believe this was the import of her inquiry — 'Do you mean to tell us, Mr. Esenberg, that secular notions of respect for individual human dignity should be sacrificed in favor of atavistic devotion to ignorance and bigotry?'

Score. You go, lady in the gray sweater.

Other than that, there was little friskiness to be had, and my own favorite religio-political subject, creationism, didn't pop up until nearly the end of the show, when Pastor Vergeront made some sideways appeal to making room in science for irrationality, and lamented the fact that creationists are often not treated respectfully.

Now, I'm no Christian Nurturer myself, but it's my understanding that the man they call Christ had little patience for liars, hypocrites, and deceivers either. At that point, Ms. Crawford suggested that "intelligent design" be taught as a separate course, which begs the question, "What will they do after the three minutes it takes to explain, and enumerate the evidence for, 'intelligent design'?"

They need to have me on that show. I could shake 'em up a bit. Or at least get myself Tasered by security for insolence.


Mike Plaisted said...

Yeah, and I would be at the "American Dream Summit" if the whole thing wouldn't make me sick to my stomach after I got there.

Sorry you missed the show, IT. Renato did one of the most amazing things I ever saw -- singing a book about British colonialism in India, in charactor with the English guy. Incredible.

Me -- I made some noise. Man, I need some new songs.

Next time, brother.

Rick Esenberg said...

I haven't watched the thing other than to show my grandson, who was staying over, that "Bampa Teeny" was on TV. (He thought that was funny.)

The nice lady in the gray sweater is Jullily Kohler and we had a nice conversation about the matter after the show.

But you forgot to mention what my response to her was which was, essentially, "no" at least not as a constitutional matter.

My view, expressed more fully in a law review article last year, is that nonendorsement ought not to be the measure of nonestablishment because there is no way that government will not pronounce on some things that, as Justic O'Connor puts it, will make persons feel feel like disfavored members of the political community because of their religion. If the establishment clause is read to mean that government cannot give offense to religious groups or do anything that reminds them that they are in the minoroty, then neutrality is impossible. The example I gave illustrates that and the fact that you disagree with people who have religious objections to homosexuality does not change that.

For that reason, I think nonestablishment needs to be a less rigorous concept than the court has often made it precisely because there is no way to make sure that the government never offends anyone on the basis of their religion (or lack thereof.)

I wouldn't expect you to agree if you think that nonestablishment means the imposition of a public secularity but there's no justice on the Court who says that's what it means.

As for the "religious test" thing, I am sure that you will agree that there is no way to stop people from voting on whatever basis they choose and I certainly hope that you are not suggesting that we try.

As far as what people should do, I believe my point was that, while people certainly ought to concern themselves with what their faith (and that of candidates)means for public policy, they ought not to worry about whether they pray and how.

Other Side said...

"It's nice to be nice to the nice." -- Colonel Frank Burns

capper said...

As far as what people should do, I believe my point was that, while people certainly ought to concern themselves with what their faith (and that of candidates)means for public policy, they ought not to worry about whether they pray and how.

Um, Rick, praying and the method of praying is often an integral part of the religion. They are not exclusive of each other.

Please choose a side, and stick to it.

Jay Bullock said...

IT, you still have a chance to catch me next Saturday ...

Jay Bullock said...

Oh, and I was going to add--I've worked the past couple of summers with Renato. Seems like a really cool guy.