We remarked some time ago that David Brooks of the *New York Times* discovered a new fallacy: the *argumentum pro homine*. It’s a fallacy of relevance akin to the ad hominem argument, though instead of attacking a person, you praise him for traits that have nothing to do with the conclusions you mean to draw about him. One might wonder, however, whether Mr. Brooks employs this sort of praise in a backhanded sort of way. In today’s op-ed, “Mr.Bush, Pick a Genius,” we can’t tell whether Brooks means to malign or praise the poor Michael McConnell, a man who strikes him as a “genius” and a terrific Supreme Court nominee.
>McConnell (whom I have never met) is an honest, judicious scholar. When writing about church and state matters, he begins with the frank admission that religion is a problem in a democracy. Religious people feel a loyalty to God and to the state, and sometimes those loyalties conflict.
To be precise–which is what honest, judicious judicial scholars do–religious people feel a loyalty to what *they* take to be their own religion’s–or better, their own demonination’s–interpretation of Divine requirements. Considering the sheer number and diversity of Christian denominations alone, these loyalties will very likely conflict. The genius, as Brooks describes him, has discovered hot water.
This is all set up for the grand argument.
>So he understands why people from Rousseau and Jefferson on down have believed there should be a wall of separation between church and state.
“Wall of separation” is a suggestive, though wholly and unfortunately imprecise phrase. It’s the kind of phrase that will have the imprecise non-geniuses among us arguing at cross-purposes. In other words, it’s the kind of phrase that cries out for argument, justification, clarification, application, interepretation. But how, one wonders:
>The problem with the Separationist view, he has argued in essays and briefs, is that it’s not *practical.* As government grows and becomes more involved in health, charity, education and culture issues, it begins pushing religion out of those spheres. The Separationist doctrine leads inevitably to discrimination against religion. The state ends up punishing people who are exercising a *constitutional right*. [emphasis added]
It seems like the problem with the separationist view is that it’s *not constitutional*, not that’s it’s not practical. But that’s not the real point. This is:
>McConnell argued that government shouldn’t be *separated* from religion, but, as Madison believed, should be *neutral* about religion. He pointed out that the fire services and the police don’t just protect stores and offices, but churches and synagogues as well. In the same way, he declared in Congressional testimony in 1995, “When speech reflecting a secular viewpoint is permitted, then speech reflecting a religious viewpoint should be permitted on the same basis.” The public square shouldn’t be walled off from religion, but open to a plurality of viewpoints, secular and religious. The state shouldn’t allow school prayer, which privileges religion, but public money should go to religious and secular service agencies alike.
The rest of the article spins out the evidence for this view in the usual fashion–cherry picking cases of misguided or confused local officials discriminating against religious people. We’ve all heard these cases, so we won’t bother going through them in order to point out that much more than these anecdotes would be needed to demonstrate systematic religious discrimination.
But back to the point, notice how “neutral” is an interpretation of “separated.” And notice also how this view is supported by one wickedly specious analogy–the fire department and police have fairly well-defined objectives–property and life. Nonetheless, the problem with McConnell’s view is that he falsely contrasts secular with religious. “Secular” is not religious, or any particular religion; it is not another religion alongside the many religions. Some might even claim that “secular” is a kind of “neutrality” with regard to religion.