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Criticizing Religion:

OpinionJournal reported yesterday (quoting the WAFB-TV Web site):

People on the religious right often accuse their counterparts on the secular left of antireligious bigotry, a description the secular left regards as unfair. But here's someone who seems to be guilty as charged: Joe Cook, head of the American Civil Liberties Union in Louisiana, who's fighting with the Tangipahoa Parish school board over religious speech in government schools. Baton Rouge's WAFB-TV quotes him as follows:

"They believe that they answer to a higher power, in my opinion. Which is the kind of thinking that you had with the people who flew the airplanes into the buildings in this country, and the people who did the kind of things in London."

If you don't find this troubling, imagine someone saying the reverse: They don't believe in God, which is the kind of thinking you had with the people who imprisoned dissidents in the gulag and murdered millions through famine.

One can equally imagine someone criticizing a group of Muslim government officials on the grounds that "They believe that they answer to Allah and can therefore ignore court orders restricting Muslim prayer in government institutions, which is the kind of thinking that you had with the people who flew the airplanes into the buildings in this country, and the people who did the kind of things in London." Fairly criticizing religions is perfectly proper: Religious ideologies, like any other ideologies, are eminently sound targets for public debate (though I recognize that sometimes such criticism is unlikely to be terribly persuasive). But, as I'll discuss a bit more below, the quoted argument does not strike me as fair criticism.

I should note that there seems to have been some context missing from the WFAB quote: The ACLU spokesman reports (and I have no reason to doubt him) that he wasn't just condemning the school board, but alleging that they were persistently violating the law and violating a court order. His comment was thus apparently focused not just on the board's belief in a higher power, but on its view that this belief justifies their resistance to a court order. (I include his entire e-mail to me, responding to my query to him, below.)

But as my Muslim official hypothetical suggests, that's still no reason for analogizing the government officials' religious beliefs — even beliefs that lead them to nonviolently resist a court order that they think improper — to beliefs that spawn terrorism. Lots of people have violated lots of laws because of their religious beliefs: We've seen this in the abolitionist movement, the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, the "sanctuary" movement aimed at protecting illegal immigrants from certain countries, and more.

Sometimes an insistence on following what one sees as a higher authority has been noble, and sometimes misguided and pernicious. But when it's nonviolent — even if one thinks it's improper or even unconstitutional — it seems to me quite wrong to tar the religious officials with an analogy to terrorism, as if all religiously motivated violation of the law is alike.

I can't speak with complete confidence as to whether Mr. Cook's quote represents religiously bigoted belief on his part. But it does rest on a guilt by association based on group membership — here membership in the group of religious believers, or at least religious believers who believe religious law sometimes justifies violation of secular law — that is in many ways similar to classic religious bigotry (as I think the atheist and Muslim hypotheticals suggest).

In fairness to Mr. Cook, here's his e-mail:

Mr. Eugene Volokh,

In answer to your inquiry, my quote was taken out of context and sensationalized. As background, the media inquiry was about the system wide training that the Tangipahoa Parish School Board was undertaking on Monday. It was in response to an ACLU sponsored lawsuit and consent judgement signed off by the Board nearly a year ago on August 27, 2004. The Board finally acted belatedly to supposedly do in-service training and inform everyone of the contents of the consent judgement. That agreement prohibits prayers over the intercom and at all school sponsored events, including football games and other athletic activities.

Since the consent agreement, four motions for contempt have been filed against the Board and individuals within the system for violations related to the agreement and a court order in February:

At an Amite High School annual awards banquet a student gave a prayer over the speaker system, while the principal endorsed it and did not intervene or admonish the student. This followed on the heels of a teacher who wrote a prayer for a student to give during an end of year banquet. A loudspeaker prayer at a baseball game and a prayer by a student at a school board meeting preceded that incident.

I made a statement against this backdrop of defiance toward the federal courts exhibited by the Board (Defendants Pre-trial Inserts): Defendants reject the notion that the government can tell them how they can and cannot pray, or otherwise place restrictions on the manner in which they choose to open their meetings.

I made a much longer statement to the reporter in reference to the Board's [lack] of respect for the Constitution and the rule of law related to the current case, Doe v. Tangipahoa Parish School Board (USD ED La., 03-2870), and three others filed against them on church state issues over the past eleven years. Against that backdrop, I said something as I recollect to the effect that the Board has exhibited a disrespect for the Constitution and the rule of law as interpreted by the courts. They don't want to abide by the agreement. They have always crossed the line of separation of church and government and that is dangerous to our freedom and democracy. They believe they answer to a higher power than the rule of law, in my opinion, based on their past statements and actions. That is the kind of thinking and mindset that tragically and unfortunately led people to fly airplanes into buildings.

In retrospect, I regret the use of that hyperbole and analogy because the media and others have drawn erroneous conclusions and diverted attention from the real issues at stake. Now, I would say, "The School Board and their supporters who want the government to endorse prayers and religion in the schools are violating the Constitutional speed limit by going 100 mph in a 20 mph school zone. That kind of mindset endangers our freedom and democracy."

Joe Cook, Executive Director
ACLU of Louisiana

Anderson (mail) (www):
But as my Muslim official hypothetical suggests, that's still no reason for analogizing the government officials' religious beliefs -- even beliefs that lead them to nonviolently resist a court order that they think improper -- to beliefs that spawn terrorism.

Begging to differ, but there's a very precise analogy. That's always been the problem with civil disobedience -- how do you know you're right, and how far is going too far?

I agree with the ACLU fellow that the analogy was imprudent (in the "what the hell was he thinking?" sense of "imprudent"), but it's very dangerous to assume that there's some kind of bright line separating my Higher Law of ignoring my country's laws with Mohammed Atta's Higher Law. Kind of a slippery-slope thing, if I may say so.
8.17.2005 3:47pm
Shelby (mail):
I sympathize with the guy's complaints, but that's the analogy he came up with upon reflection? His communication skills seem sufficently poor to explain his initial statement; no need to resort to a label like "bigot".
8.17.2005 3:48pm
Chris of MM (mail) (www):
"If you don't find this troubling, imagine someone saying the reverse: They don't believe in God, which is the kind of thinking you had with the people who imprisoned dissidents in the gulag and murdered millions through famine."

Umm... people say it in reverse all the time. That's why the persecution complex of so many on the religious right is so comical. They feel persecuted because of comments like Cook's, but often have no qualms about making the reverse comment.
8.17.2005 4:08pm
Noah Snyder (mail):
One might not need to imagine such a claim about atheism. That scenario is pretty much how we ended up with "under God" and "In God We Trust." See Slate's article. Because without "Under God" we were just like Stalin: "I could hear little Moscovites [sic] repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag with equal solemnity" was apparently the line that changed Eisenhower's mind.

Doesn't make either justified of course. I'd be more than happy to see Cook's quote condemned and the modern pledge of allegiance was condemned along with it.
8.17.2005 4:12pm
Rob Lyman:
Certainly we hear the reverse of Mr. Cook's quote all the time. That's Taranto's point: equating atheists with Stalin and religious believers with terrorists are both wrong. To say that one form of moral equivalence is OK and the other is unacceptable is bigotry.

Taranto picked an anti-atheist quote he knew would be unacceptable to liberal secularists, and said "If you find this unacceptable, you must also condemn Mr. Cook, or be guilty of bigotry." That seems eminently fair to me.
8.17.2005 4:27pm
Duncan Frissell (mail):
Another problem with Cook's argument is that he has no evidence that the school district's disobedience to the court order (if any) was motivated by religious belief. I don't suppose anyone stated this directly. They could be libertarians (small government libertarians) or anti-federalists or sympathizers of Southern Culture whose opposition to such court orders is political rather than religious.
8.17.2005 4:29pm
Grant Gould (mail):
It seems to me that Cook is not criticizing religion per se, but rather a particular religions idea: The notion that believers are not bound by temporal law. This would seem to be what Cook is indicating when he refers to "They believe they answer to a higher power than the rule of law."

It is perfectly possible to criticise particular religious ideas without cricising religion as such; indeed many religious groups have supported and even today support obedience to temporal law and legitimate government.

By pointing out that a particular tendency that some religious groups has has motivated some terrible things is not anti-religious. It is, rather, a perfectly legitimate line of argument embodying a legitimate criticism of a real religious idea.
8.17.2005 4:29pm
Medis:
Mr. Cook admitted his comparison was hyperbole. That seems about right to me.
8.17.2005 4:33pm
Steve:
I think Prof. Volokh misses the point as to why Mr. Cook misses the point. The danger is not that individuals may put loyalty to God/Allah/etc over loyalty to their country or its laws; that's a personal choice. The problem arises when PUBLIC OFFICIALS place their religious devotion above their obligation to uphold the law and the Constitution.

If a private citizen disobeys a court order because of his religious beliefs, he will face punishment from the court, of course, but I don't believe any normative judgment is appropriate. But I think it is entirely reasonable to expect that public officials will honor court orders first, and their religious beliefs second. Mr. Cook complains that the out-of-context quote obscures his real point, which is that these officials improperly put religion above their duty to the law, but then he employs an analogy that has nothing to do with that point anyway.
8.17.2005 4:38pm
Medis:
Steve,

Aren't we all responsible for encouraging a law-abiding attitude by criticizing law-breakers? It is a good bet that official sanctions alone would not be sufficient to maintain an orderly society (and certainly not without an extremely intrusive state).

Of course, we might allow exceptions, but I don't think we should say that in general it is only the court's business if one of our fellow citizens is disobeying a court order.
8.17.2005 4:43pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Another problem with Cook's argument is that he has no evidence that the school district's disobedience to the court order (if any) was motivated by religious belief.

A friend of mine has been covering this for her La. newspaper, and trust me, it's religious. Not that you don't get bonus points for bucking the feds.
8.17.2005 4:54pm
trotsky (mail):
A typical Taranto debating trick, but he doesn't expend any more energy hunting down and condemning anti-atheist bigotry (wouldn't take much looking; I'd suggest the transcript of any Michael Reagan show) than members of People for the American Way members do fighting anti-religious statements.

Guess what. Believers and nonbelievers disagree about a fundamental issue. They'll say nasty things about each other from time to time, even engaging in hyperbole. Please wake me up when I'm supposed to be impressed.
8.17.2005 4:56pm
Steve:
Well, maybe I shouldn't have used the phrase "normatively wrong," since it's unclear what norms are being applied. Presumably the higher power, if there is one, would not have a problem with someone placing the higher power's wishes above the law. And we have a government of laws, so presumably government does nothing wrong when it states that obedience to the law (and court orders) is the highest value.

But as a society, applying societal norms, do we value religion, or do we value obedience to the law? Your mileage may vary, but my take is that as an overall society we value both.
8.17.2005 4:56pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
A school board is in a different position than the private acts of an antiwar protestor. School boards rely on their state sanctioned monopoly of violence, to compel attendance and compel tax support. This gives rise to a set of duties under the constitution and laws. The incidents of apparently board-sanctioned majoritiarian prayer were not during school hours, but would have been unlikely without compulsory attendance and tax support. So describing it as nonviolent is somewhat incorrect. The ACLU would have no problem with prayer at a private school (although even private schools profit by compulsory attendance schemes.) Was it bad PR? Sure. The aclu staff are sometimes motivated by atheism or by belonging to a non-majoritiarian religion (jewish, hindu, etc.) but to win the battle for heart and minds, they need to convince the majority that it is dangerous to allow their religions to be encroached on by government. (Alternatively, they can seek to play the Catholics against the protestants, the Lutherans against the baptists, and the second baptists against the western baptists, etc., so that it's in everybody's interest to prohibit governments from preferring one religious group over another.)
8.17.2005 5:03pm
Jack (mail) (www):
As a thought experiment: instead of recasting the quote to involve traffic violations, as Mr. Cook does in his email, how about this rephrasing?

"They believe that they answer to a higher power, in my opinion. Which is the kind of thinking that you could sit at the front of the bus, when the law clearly states you must give up your seat to a white person."

I am not sure of the precise distinction between Civil Liberties and Civil Rights, but the latter movement was religious in its inception and had no problem violating unjust laws in order to focus attention on them.

That said, I do take Steve's point that there is a difference between private protest and the duties of public office. There is no constitutional right to be a school principal, per se. One could, of course, challenge the constitutionality (or at least the political philosophy) of the establishment of public school systems, but there is a certain dissonance in doing so as an official of the institution in question.
8.17.2005 5:21pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
A school board is in a different position than the private acts of an antiwar protestor. School boards rely on their state sanctioned monopoly of violence, to compel attendance and compel tax support.

Wow, running for the school board never seemed so ... cool before.
8.17.2005 5:23pm
Jack (mail) (www):
Oops. I messed up the quote. Should have been:

"They believe that they answer to a higher power, in my opinion. Which is the kind of thinking that you had with the people who thought they could sit at the front of the bus, when the law clearly states they must give up their seat to a white person."
8.17.2005 5:25pm
=0=:
We should make a list of people who liken liberalism religion to terrorism.
8.17.2005 5:27pm
=0=:
More seriously,

Sometimes an insistence on following what one sees as a higher authority has been noble, and sometimes misguided and pernicious. But when it's nonviolent — even if one thinks it's improper or even unconstitutional — it seems to me quite wrong to tar the religious officials with an analogy to terrorism, as if all religiously motivated violation of the law is alike.

And:

In retrospect, I regret the use of that hyperbole and analogy because the media and others have drawn erroneous conclusions and diverted attention from the real issues at stake.


Eugene: I take it that in retrospect you regret publically endorsing state sponsored torture/killings. Shall we continue to hold that against you, too?

If not, in what way is this different?
8.17.2005 5:41pm
Artemis (mail):
Sheesh.

I don't get how someone who is as unfailingly civil in his discourse as Eugene can still get so many braying asses in his comments section. What does the existence of anti-atheist bigotry have to do with Eugene's post? Does that mean that anytime someone writes a post criticizing racist (anti-African-American or anti-Hispanic) bigotry, someone else can chime in with the brilliant observation that the victims of such bigotry sometimes engage in anti-Semitic bigotry?
8.17.2005 5:44pm
N (mail):
I do think there are merits to his comments. After all, when pushed, we can all become fanatics. I feel his comment has drawn a very serious parallel that is often diluted as it has been in the earlier comments on this article. Just how far will we go to protest what we perceive as our rights?

All it takes is one or two folks who feel they are oppressed because they can't have a prayer read over the intercom. They fume with their buddies for a while, possibly get backing from an "interested" party...and then you have a bomb exploding in a federal building somewhere.

Ultimately, it's about principal. Each of us gets his own set and is "free" to stand on them...as long as it doesn't adversely effect others. Prayer in a gov-backed school effects people negatively...if you disagree then you assume that everyone in the "captive" audience agrees with the prayer by virtue of their faith. Which is another incorrect assumption...that the students are all practicing the same faith...

If folks want to have prayer over the intercom, they need to have it in a non-gov backed school. I for one, do not wish to hear prayer over the intercom...especially that which might be from some faith other than what I practice.

Okie...from OKC
8.17.2005 5:48pm
Random Guy (mail):
Thank Goodness that Joe Cook is on the case to make sure that high schools reading prayers to a God he doesn't believe in don't destroy "freedom and democracy"!

However did this country keep freedom and democracy alive more than 2 centuries without ACLU lawsuits? Luckily, our democracy is safe now!
8.17.2005 6:05pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Another problem with Cook's argument is that he has no evidence that the school district's disobedience to the court order (if any) was motivated by religious belief. I don't suppose anyone stated this directly. They could be libertarians (small government libertarians) or anti-federalists or sympathizers of Southern Culture whose opposition to such court orders is political rather than religious.


That raises an interesting philosophical point. What about the situation where someone believes that the SCOTUS has no authority over what a local school board does- unless it’s an Article 3 diversity case – and only recognizes their State’s supreme court as being the court of highest jurisdiction? Many people in the school district in question might be just a little curious as to how “Congress shall make no law” now means “your local school board” particularly seeing as how there is little evidence to be found in either the text of the Fourteenth Amendment or the intent of the Framer’s that that was to be the case.
8.17.2005 6:29pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Thorley, I believe Roy Moore tried a similar argument out in Alabama, with little success.

Which reminds me to check the comment thread with the fervent anti-incorporationist ...

P.S.---I'm a white Mississippian, and looking at the horrors that the states sought to protect with their arguments for strict federalism, I think the trend to federal-gov't supremacy has been the best thing to happen in the South since Appomattox. "States' rights" may be an abstract position, like the swastika is an abstract design, but they both stood for deeply racist ideologies.
8.17.2005 6:39pm
Jamie Appleton (mail):
While Cook's analogy was definitely hyperbolic, and not especially useful, I'm not sure that it's so unreasonable to criticize on the grounds that Prof. Volokh does; to me it seems clear that Cook intended the connecting thread between the two events to be that both parties believe it right to disregard the law based on their religious beliefs.

Essentially creating an unintended thread - saying that Cook's analogy is that religious belief leading to non-violent civil disobedience is equivalent to it leading to violent acts of terrorism - is increasing the specificity of his argument too much to be useful and in my mind knocking down a strawman. Hyperbolic yes, but indicative of ACLU-fueled anti-religious bigotry? I highly doubt it.
8.17.2005 6:41pm
Byomtov (mail):
Comparing school officials with Rosa Parks is laughable. These board members, principals, and teachers are acting in the role of government officials and employees. They have no right to use these positions to impose their religious views on others, nor, to anticipate an argument, is it up to them to determine what does and does not constitute imposing their views. More generally, it is plain that they have acted outside their authority.

If they object to the rules they have every right as citizens to try to change them. But as long as the rules are there they can either stick to them or seek other employment.
8.17.2005 6:44pm
Robert Lyman (mail):
But Jamie, mass murder is rather more than just "disregard[ing] the law."

I am generally favorably disposed to civil disobedience even when I think the motivation behind it is wrongheaded*; I'm strongly opposed to mass murder even if I agree with the perpetrator's beliefs 100%.

*That is, I'm impressed by the willingness of protesters to suffer for their beliefs. I'm not impressed by people who deliberately do something illegal as a protest and then whine when they're arrested--being unjustly imprisoned being, of course, the entire point of civil disobedience.
8.17.2005 6:48pm
Jack (mail) (www):
@Byomtov: The comaparison is hardly laughable. The original discussion was whether or not Cook was making an appropriate analogy between the officials and terrorists, an analogy he later retracted (though not, I think, publicly?) The comparison with Rosa Parks seems like a much more reasonable fit, since they and she were both non-violently challenging the justice of a law by disobeying it.

As I'm sure you saw in my original comment, I share your criticism of their actions being taken while acting in an official capacity. I would prefer that such people resign in protest and start a private school or home-schooling movement. But that doesn't directly address the question of religious bigotry that started this discussion. I suggest that if Mr. Cook had been a little less inclined to distrust religious people as such, or a little more familiar with their concerns, he might not have been so quick to offer an inappropriate analogy.
8.17.2005 7:17pm
Challenge:
Cook clearly does NOT believe disobeying the law is the equivalent to mass murder. So why does religion change the scenario much? It's clear he views religion as an irrational basis to form conclusions about whether or not to engage in civil disobedience. Is that suprising coming from an ACLU lawyer?
8.17.2005 7:50pm
Anand H (mail):
Taranto's analogy comparing the (allegedly) anti-religious statement to an anti-atheist one is actually incorrect. Simply not believing in God is not a reason for doing something - imprisoning dissidents or murdering millions (or eating breakfast). Rather, the statement regarding atheists to make sense must be read "Atheists don't believe in God, and this must indicate a character flaw, as some people who don't believe in God have imprisoned dissidents and murdered millions and eaten breakfast." The logical flaw becomes clear. The bigotry part of this becomes clear as well in that what one must assert is something about the kind of person an atheist must be. Such a claim about the kind of person a religious person must be is missing from Cook's statement. What Cook asserts is that the Board is engaged in illegal behavior not because of the kind of people they are, but because of their belief that their duty to pray and ensure that other people pray is more important than their duty to uphold the law. In other words "They flout the law (and eat breakfast) because they believe their duty to God demands that they do so." No bigotry - it doesn't say anything about religious people as religious people, but rather about a way of connecting belief and respect for the law.

Eugene, your analogy makes the same error - you claim that Cook is saying something about religious people (or in analogy about Muslims) but in fact he isn't. Religious people, and by extension religious muslims, can make the point that the belief that duty to God demands that a particular law be broken (or breakfast be eaten) is a mistaken belief. And if it isn't, then that is a legitimate cause for criticism of religion (not a criticism that Cook is making though).

Now the place where I think Cook is mistaken is in the implicit assumption that the significant aspect of 9/11 was that the terrorists thought they were above the law. But the breaking of laws against murder, etc. were only incidental to the terrorists goals, and we judge them primarily on the immorality of their actions, not the illegality of them. The terrorists considered themselves to be above morality (or their victims to be beneath it) which we find to be abhorrent.
8.17.2005 8:00pm
Challenge:
"Simply not believing in God is not a reason for doing something."

Except, maybe, founding the ACLU. ;)

I'm agnostic. Don't tell me that has nothing to do with any of the judgments I make. I would imagine that an Atheist would not attend church (attending church is "doing something," right?)
8.17.2005 8:11pm
Robert Lyman (mail):
They flout the law...because they believe their duty to God demands that they do so.

If that was Mr. Cook had asserted, he would be entirely correct. And it is true that terrorists also kill because they believe it is their duty to God. And your criticism of the atheist comparison is apt. So let's try something different:

Government Official X asserts that he must obey the law there is a "higher law" which compels a different result. That's the kind of thinking that led Germans to send Jews to the camps when Hitler ordered it.

Is that a good enough comparison? Official X believes he must obey the law; some Germans within Hitler's administration believed they had to obey the law. Their motivations are similar, yet the comparison is ridiculous and offensive; Offical X is not a craven servant of Nazis because he follows the decisions of the Supreme Court.

Perhaps we have a new form of Goodwin's law: everything winds up getting compared to terrorists.
8.17.2005 8:38pm
Robert Lyman (mail):
That should have been: "Government Official X asserts that he must obey the law although there is a "higher law..."
8.17.2005 8:40pm
Anand H (mail):
Challenge: An Atheist might attend church (I believe a significant portion of the atheists and agnostics of France and Italy for example, do, attending for the social/cultural/sentimental value, rather than through belief.) One who does not believe in God might even worship, agreeing with Pascal's argument.
To clarify, though - the main point of my comment was that Cook's statement does not state something about religious people, and thus is not bigotry. It is a statement about the reasons particular people are breaking the law.
This does not mean that Cook was correct in his analogy, but he is incorrect for different reasons than bigotry.
As opposed to this, Taranto's statement would reflect bigotry in the speaker because it depends on the speaker believing in something generally about atheists.
8.17.2005 8:55pm
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
The school board's actions resemble terrorism in at least one significant way: they substantially impact the lives of others in order to further the beliefs of those who make them. Terrorists have a much greater impact, of course, but the principle is the same: "I want the world to be as I think it should be, and I'm willing to harm others in order to get my way since doing so will make success more likely."

I don't know what the school board did, but I presume it violated the Establishment Clause in some way and that the religion its actions support was Christianity (or a particular branch thereof). Making non-Chirstian children spend their days in an environment that treats their religions less favorably is a serious harm to them and to their families. The board is causing this harm by wilfully violating the law in order to further the agenda of its members. This is why its actions resemble terrorism.

Eugene's comments about nonviolent civil disobedience are generally correct, but generally those disobeying the law are the only ones to bear the consequences of their actions. Here the board members are externalizing those consequences so that they fall upon innocent third parties. And the third parties are not picked at random but rather deliberately targeted -- on the basis of their religion.

Sounds like a low-key version of the terrorism principle to me.
8.17.2005 9:00pm
Robert Lyman (mail):
Sounds like a low-key version of the terrorism principle to me.

Yes, just as obedience to the law is a "low-key" version of the "Good German" principle.
8.17.2005 9:22pm
Anand H (mail):
Robert Lyman:

Re: New Goodwin's Law. Heh, I think you're right, that's what's going on here. If you want a metaphor to make a point, this is the obvious one to choose... as inappropriate as it might be

Re: Example. I think I see what you're saying. Put even more simply, "I breath, Hitler breathed, therefore I am like Hitler." is (I hope) ridiculous to the extent that it makes any sort of claim that I would write crap like Mein Kampf, etc. based on what I do in fact share with Hitler.

What I fail to see though is how an accusation of bigotry would fit here, and that is what I am arguing against. The crucial point is one that Eugene makes - does Cook's point rest on guilt by association based on whether someone is religious? It does not.
8.17.2005 9:30pm
Robert Lyman (mail):
does Cook's point rest on guilt by association based on whether someone is religious? It does not.

As a matter of strict grammatical analysis, you're right. But then what is his point? Why mention terrorism at all if not to imply a guilt by association?

The salient characteristic of terrorists which we find blameworthy isn't that their religion comes before earthly law, it's their propensity for mass murder. Just as the salient characteristic of Nazis isn't obedience to civil authority (or making the trains run on time, or wearing miltary uniforms, or pioneering rocket technology), it's mass murder. So you shoudn't--and people generally don't--mention Nazis or terrorists (or Stalin, or Mao) unless you're dealing with someone you think or want to imply is comparable to mass murderers.

If Cook thinks that conservative Christians are equivalent to mass murderers, as his poorly chosen analogy suggests, he is unquestionably a bigot. If he doesn't think that, he should pick a different analogy.
8.17.2005 9:47pm
=0=:
For the record, that's Godwin's Law, not goodwin, after Mike Godwin, with whom, IIRC, Eugene had some lively conversations, back in the day.
8.17.2005 10:06pm
Byomtov (mail):
Jack,

See this part of Edward Hoffman's comment:


generally those disobeying the law are the only ones to bear the consequences of their actions. Here the board members are externalizing those consequences so that they fall upon innocent third parties. And the third parties are not picked at random but rather deliberately targeted -- on the basis of their religion.


The fact is that the officials, unlike Parks, are not being deprived of any rights whatsoever. Their authority in their official capacities is being limited in accordance with law, as is the authority of all public officials. That's all. This is basically no different than limiting their authority to, say, inflict corporal punishment on students. If it's prohibited it's prohibited, their personal opinions notwithstanding.
8.17.2005 10:43pm
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
Robert Lyman wrote:

Yes, just as obedience to the law is a "low-key" version of the "Good German" principle.


This is a non-sequitur. The "Good German" principle involves obeying directives to do specified things, while obedience to the law generally involves obeying directives not to do specified things. There is a big difference -- morally, at least -- between acting and not acting, so your analogy is not a good one.

Remember that the school board's actions violate the law instead of heeding it. The board has limited authority under the law and has chosen to exceed that authority in order to further the interests of its members. I would expect most people on this board to object whenever a government entity exceeds its authority regardless of its motives. Cheering such an action because of the underlying motives seems rather unprincipled.

Do you think the government should generally be free to take actions that are unauthorized but well-motivated? If you don't, why is this situation special? And if you do, could you explain (a) who should decide what is well-motivated and what isn't; and (b) whether you think restrictions on government authority matter it all?
8.17.2005 10:55pm
Challenge:
I wonder what Cook's view is on this. I wonder if he'll be comparing Newsom to terrorists any time soon?
8.17.2005 10:58pm
Robert Lyman (mail):
Do you think the government should generally be free to take actions that are unauthorized but well-motivated?

No. I don't support the school board here; Byomtov has captured my thinking quite well.

Nor am I at all convinced that the action/inaction distinction really saves the comparison of the school board to terrorists but not mine of functionaries to Nazis; surely we could find an example of a law compelling complicit inaction on the part of German government officials (e.g., "Don't tell the American press what we're doing") or one compelling action by a school board ("Integrate your high schools"). I still can't see the terrorist or Nazi comparison.

Because if the action/inaction distinction is so very morally critical, then surely the mass murder/no mass murder distinction is even more so. Disobeying the law in a nonviolent manner doesn't make you remotely like a terrorist.
8.18.2005 6:26am
Robert Lyman (mail):
So long as we're making hairsplitting distinctions to save Mr. Cook here, let's make one to damn him. The guys in the planes on Sept. 11 weren't government functionaries at all. So comparing their "civil disobedience" to a school board is also a non-sequitur.
8.18.2005 6:40am
rsimmons (mail):
"I don't know what the school board did, but I presume it violated the Establishment Clause in some way and that the religion its actions support was Christianity (or a particular branch thereof). Making non-Chirstian children spend their days in an environment that treats their religions less favorably is a serious harm to them and to their families. The board is causing this harm by wilfully violating the law in order to further the agenda of its members. This is why its actions resemble terrorism. "

If this is true, then would making Christian children spend their days in an educational environment that treats their beliefs not only "less favorably," but oftentimes as completely backwards and/or ignorant resemble terrorism? And in what way does a less-than-pleasant environment for the agrieved parties resemble bombing/beheading, etc?
8.18.2005 8:24am
Medis:
Robert,

I think the essence of your point is that the actions in question are so different that even if there are some plausible analogies, using this particular analogy is hyperbole. But Mr. Cook has already conceded as much.

Incidentally, although this has nothing to do with your point, the Nazis were not law-obeyers in any normal sense. The laws on the books were often "interpreted" (read: twisted or ignored) in the name of serving "the higher purposes" of the Nazis (read: whatever high-placed party officials told them to do). In that sense, the Nazis were not following the rule of law as we know it, but rather were much like a theocracy with Nazi ideology taking the place of religion, and party officials taking the place of clerics. The same is true of the Stalinists and Maoists, with communism in the place of religion.

I also think that is part of why the claim that all atheists are like Stalinists or Maoists is obviously bad. Stalinists and Maoists are actually more like theocrats, because even though they were atheists, their political ideology served a similar role to the religion of theocrats. But atheists in general don't necessarily have such an ideology, because they are defined simply by their lack of religious beliefs.
8.18.2005 8:31am
Rob Lyman:
Medis,

I'd take the point one step further: this is hyperbole so inappropriate that it betrays Mr. Cook's animus (that is, bigotry) toward religious believers. And I certainly conceded that lumping American atheists in with Stalin is both bigoted and slightly different than what Mr. Cook did.

As for the Nazis/Communists "interpreting" (twisting) the law in a manner which suited their (perhaps religion-like) ideology, I would be rather inclined to say that exactly what the Supreme Court does on a regular basis. But I would never say in response to a constitutional decision I disagreed with, "that's the kind of thinking you had with the Nazis." And if I (or, say, a school board member) did say something like that, I suspect Mr. Cook and his allies would be quick to denounce me as a nutcase, and rightly so.

So thanks for yet another example of why what Mr. Cook said was beyond the pale, and why he should have known better than to say it to begin with.
8.18.2005 10:31am
Aultimer:
Lessons for today:
1. Hyperbole is "unfair".
2. It's "quite wrong" to use violent analogies to nonviolet acts.
3. Bigotry involves "guilt by association based on group membership," which is bad (but only if group membership doesn't compel the guilt).

Thanks for ruining the sports page.
8.18.2005 10:32am
Justin (mail):
For someone who likes to assume arguendo that radical conservatives may go too far, Volokh's often spending way too much of his most recent time apologizing and carrying water for them. I expert this from Juan and Jim, but Eugene Volokh's "you can't say that" approach to politics lately is a disconcerting departure from his usual posting style. I haven't been this disappointed in Volokh since he decided to go off on Judge Calabresi, and even that was all legalese talk rather than "let's condemn people" talk.
8.18.2005 10:57am
T. Gracchus (mail):
A comparison to E. Volokh's posts here and here regarding use of the phrase 'ban the bible' is appropriate. It appears the interpretive theory may have changed.
8.18.2005 11:19am
Phil (mail):
If the Washington Times is to be believed, it is apparently uncontroversial for Presbyterians to break the law based upon their religious beliefs.

Another U.S. group, known as No More Deaths, set up an aid camp last month near Arivaca, Ariz., helping stranded border-crossers with food, water and medical assistance. The Ark of the Covenant camp will remain in operation through September.
The group has received much of its support from Presbyterian churches in Arizona and elsewhere. Last year, 500 volunteers -- including doctors and nurses -- took part in a similar camp.

Washington Times, August 18, 2005
8.18.2005 12:01pm
Rob Lyman:
Phil, is it illegal to give food, water and medical care to illegal aliens? I doubt it.
8.18.2005 12:10pm
Tom952 (mail):
Disrespect of the law by public officials elevates individual, conscience driven anarchy to something far more serious. When public officials ignore the law, they subvert the democratic process and indulge in tyranny. I find this highly frustrating and infuriating, perhaps because it is so easy for the local officials to do and so difficult for wronged individuals to stop.
8.18.2005 12:23pm
Joshua (mail):
From Mr. Volokh's original post:
Sometimes an insistence on following what one sees as a higher authority has been noble, and sometimes misguided and pernicious. But when it's nonviolent — even if one thinks it's improper or even unconstitutional — it seems to me quite wrong to tar the religious officials with an analogy to terrorism, as if all religiously motivated violation of the law is alike.


I only agree with this up to a certain point. Now, it is unclear whether the school board members in this case have a specific agenda, much less a sinister one, in breaking civic law in favor of some "higher" law. But in cases where there is an agenda involved, and that agenda is reprehensible in its own right, the fact that the means of furthering that agenda are non-violent - or even within the law - would not make their proponents or their agenda any less fair game for criticism.

For instance, consider the Islamist - and putatively non-violent - organization of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which has come under scrutiny in the wake of the London terrorist bombings. Even if their professed commitment to non-violence is genuine, their long-term goal is still the establishment of totalitarian Islamic rule across the entire planet. Their difference from al Qaeda (who shares this long-term goal but isn't exactly non-violent) is therefore one of degrees at best. Likewise, the difference between violent and non-violent civil disobedience with any other given religious motivation strikes me as insignificant if the motivation itself is bad.
8.18.2005 2:19pm
Medis:
Rob,

I'm a bit less confident in my ability to know Mr. Cook's reasons for engaging in hyperbole. Suppose, for example, I compared those who supported public schools to Stalinists. Am I guilty of bigotry, or just hyperbole?

Alternatively, suppose Mr. Cook had compared these people to the mullahs in Iran (a comparison that I think would be a bit more apt, albeit still hyperbolic). Is that necessarily representative of bigotry?

The basic problem with that assumption, as others have noted, is that Mr. Cook was not saying that all religious people were given to ignoring the rule of law, let alone that all religious people were given to doing terrible things. Rather, he was drawing a comparison on the basis that religious people who are willing to violate the law because of their religious views have sometimes done terrible things. And that happens to be a fact, even if he chose an example that was completely out of scale with the events at hand.
8.18.2005 2:37pm
mrkmyr (mail):
Joe Cook's comments went too far, but I think Eugene Volokh's counter-examples about atheists or Muslims are not appropriate.

1. "They don't believe in God, which is the kind of thinking you had with the people who imprisoned dissidents in the gulag and murdered millions through famine."

The difference here is that the Communists were not motivated by their lack of belief in God. Here, the violators of the law are motivated by their religious belief.

2. "They believe that they answer to Allah and can therefore ignore court orders..."

The problem with this example is that it identifies a specific, unnecessary, sub-set of people who believe religious law defeats the rule-of-law. The sentence then indicates that something about being Muslim increases the likelihood of violating the law. Cook’s comments do not differentiate between different beliefs based on the supernatural. Cook makes a statement about all people who follow their own law rather than the US Constitution. And this is an appropriate distinction: atheists will not violate the law or commit terrorist acts thinking they are fulfilling the will of a higher power, based on their personal faith.
8.18.2005 2:54pm
Rob Lyman:
Medis,

Now we're debating semantics, definitely outside of my field of expertise. I think the question of bigotry comes down partly to a willingness to lump superficially similar but fundamentially different groups of people in order to tar a less offensive group with the acts of a more offensive one.

For instance, I think everyone would agree that the fact that some criminals have dark skin would not justify one saying of someone else with dark skin, "that's the sort of person who commits crime." Everyone would regard that as racial bigotry; the superficial resemblence doesn't justify the linkage. And besides, one could just as easily have said, "that's the sort of person who becomes Secretary of State in the Bush II Administration." Choosing to draw the unfavorable comparison says something about my attitude towards that group.

(Aside: I realize that religion and lawbreaking are both choices, while skin color is not. I don't think it much matters here, but if it does, then it may well be impossible to be "bigoted" against any volutary group, which I think is the wrong result.)

Here, the link is "people who defy the law because of religion." That happens to be a catagory that includes (some) terrorists, this school board, conscientious objectors, anti-nuclear protestors, anti-Soviet Polish Catholics, abolitionists, anti-Communist Chinese Christians, and much of the American civil rights movement. Now, does this school board (regardless of whether you approve or not, and I've already said I don't) more closely resemble terrorists, or one of the other choices on the list?

By insisting on comparing the school board to terrorists instead of Martin Luther King, and by single out their religiosity as the point of concern, Mr. Cook has, it seems to me, made a connection so unjustified that it rises to bigotry.

And yes, I think calling supporters of public schooling "Stalinists" rises to bigotry, although of a very unusual kind. And I thought Rod Paige was wrong (and bigoted) to call the NEA a "terrorist organization," but if we're allowed to make the kind of excessive justifications that people have made for Mr. Cook here, I suppose we could call a teachers' strike a "low-key form of terrorism," since it externalizes costs in an effort to force a political resolution.
8.18.2005 3:28pm
Rob Lyman:
Medis,

On the school board/mullah government question, I think that's terribly overstated, given that the mullahs do far more than say a prayer in school. Not as bad as the terrorists since the connection is closer (religion influencing lawmaking), but still farther than I think a decent respect for others should allow.

If I had to reach for a hyperbolic comparison instead of rationally explaining my position, I'd go for segregationist school boards. Unfair to compare this school board to serious racists, but the similarities are thick on the ground. Plus, you avoid the swipe at religion generally by pointing out that the problem is not the existence of "higher law," but the disobedience of temporal law.
8.18.2005 3:37pm
Medis:
Just to be clear, I offered the mullah example as something I thought was more apt but still hyperbolic, so I agree that it would be "terribly overstated".

Anyway, I understand that Mr. Cook engaged in hyperbole, and that he was doing so pejoratively. I guess I just don't see how that is necessarily religious "bigotry." Note that in your race case, the person moves from black criminals to all black people. But Mr. Cook didn't move from religious terrorists to all religious people. Instead, he moved from terrorists who used religious beliefs to justify breaking the law to all people whose belief in a higher power leads them to violate the rule of law.

So, at most, I think you could accuse Mr. Cook of "bigotry" against religious people who use their belief in a higher power to justify breaking the law. And while I agree that it is wrong to imply that all such people are bad (as in the civil rights context), I'm not sure it makes sense to call that "bigotry". I would go so far as to say that is a little bit of hyperbole on your part, in fact ... but I won't accuse you of anti-ACLU bigotry.
8.18.2005 4:38pm
Rob Lyman:
As I said, semantics, a field beyond my expertise. And subtle, hairsplitting distinctions that no normal person makes when choosing what to say to a reporter.

Would it make anyone feel better if I just said Mr. Cook is a jerk instead of a bigot?

As for me being an ACLU bigot, let's just say I'm not a big fan--but my objection has nothing to do with the fact that they defend unpopular causes that lose at the polls, just like terrorists defend unpopular causes that lose at the polls.
8.18.2005 5:00pm
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
rsimmons wrote:

"If this is true, then would making Christian children spend their days in an educational environment that treats their beliefs not only 'less favorably,' but oftentimes as completely backwards and/or ignorant resemble terrorism? And in what way does a less-than-pleasant environment for the agrieved parties resemble bombing/beheading, etc?"

I didn't say that an improper school environment resembled bombing or beheading. I said that forcing third parties to pay the price of advancing your own agenda is a basic aspect of terrorism (it is part of what distinguishes terrorism from other violence), and that the school board is doing this by forcing its religious views on the children in its district.

Would a school board that treats Christianity as "completely backwards and/or ignorant" also resemble terrorists by so doing? Yes, and for the same reason. An anti-Christian agenda is no different from a pro-Christian agenda in my analysis. But you seem to think these are the only options. There is such a thing as being religion-neutral. The vast majority of school districts manage to do this, and each student has the Constitutional right to a religion-neutral public education. That is the whole point.

In this country, few if any governmental entities have ever had official anti-Christian policies. Pro-Christian policies, however, are rather common and would be much more prevalent but for the First Amendment and the court decisions which have interpreted it. How would you feel iuf your children went to public school which promoted the tenets of Judaism -- including that the Messiah has yet to arrive? Wouldn't you be outraged? Why is it so different when a school promotes the message that the Messiah has arrived and that he did so in the person of Jesus Christ?

Your dismissive attitude about government actions which promote Christianity suggest that you have never been a minority member treated as a second-class citizen by your own government. The Constitution protects all of us -- Christians and non-Christians alike -- from such treatment. People who disagree with this rule are free to say so and even to work toward changing the Constitution, but they are not free to disregard it in ways which trammel on the rights of others.
8.18.2005 7:17pm
Joe Bell (mail):
Will someone explain to me how identification of bigotry as an evil is not an appeal to a higher power?
8.19.2005 4:00am
Phil (mail):
Rob Lyman

I believe that 8 USC § 1324 of the INA makes it a felony to engage in any conduct that tends to substantially help an alien to remain in the United States unlawfully. US v. Lopez, 521 F.2d 437 (2d Cir. 1975); US v. Kim, 193 F.3d 567, 574 (2d Cir. 1999). It is worth emphasizing that the mens rea does not require that the actor know the person is illegal, reckless disregard is sufficient.
8.19.2005 4:00am
trotsky (mail):
Since I may be one of Artemis' "braying asses," I'll note that Taranto -- in the post the host cited -- raised the far from imaginary specter of anti-atheist bigotry.
8.19.2005 2:55pm
Artemis (mail):
Trotsky,

When did I suggest that anti-atheist bigotry was an "imaginary specter"? I asked what it had to do with Eugene's post, which was meant to express concern about the (perhaps) anti-religious bigotry of Cook's statement. Since neither Eugene's post (nor Taranto's item, for that matter) suggested that anti-atheist bigotry didn't exist, what was the point of the "I know you are but what am I?" responses?
8.21.2005 4:13am