Its been over a week since the undue attention was paid to a grandstanding Florida cleric. My thoughts are definitely out of synch with the news cycle but hey, the country was founded on letters that took weeks to deliver. I might still be in some window of opportunity.
Let me say up front: the threat to burn Koran’s by Terry Jones’ congregation should be seen exactly as they meant it to be seen. It is an aggressive provocation of another faith through desecration of its sacred objects, and a cynically intentional piece of political shock theater based on a Nazi trope. Their intention to “fan the flames” to create an increasingly visceral climate of intimidation toward muslims as a people in this country is obvious, and equivalent with the painting of a swastika on a synagogue by the KKK. (One point of exception here--the Klan itself never bothered to buy any synagogue before bombing or defacing it. Perhaps if that were required they might have been thwarted by the demands of frugality). Still, although its probably assumable that Jones’ tiny group of yahoos don’t have the stones to engage in violence on their own, there is every reason to treat them as if they intend to foment violence. If they can ignore decency and the lessons of history to play the Brownshirt, we can take it at face value. If they’re only faking, then as the Lerner and Lowe song says, “Well aint that too darn bad”.
However this does raise the issue of what to do when an American community of faith comes under threat from other parts of the populace. A fundamental obligation of all civil authority is to protect freedom of worship, but no less than for any other civil liberty constitutionally proscribed. We have to understand that this is true even to the threat or application of deadly force: as when the National Guard escorted students into schools ordered to integrate. The message needs to be unequivocal. A segment of the population may have rights properly granted through due process. Some other antagonist segment may vow that those rights will be exercised only over their dead bodies. If they force the issue to that extreme, then the civil authority must be ready saying, “If you really won’t reconsider. If you’re really calling our bluff, so be it”. If this results in the antagonist’s corpses gracing the occasion per their own draconian ultimatum, that’s unfortunate. It’s sad, but not necessarily bad. This does not justify a hair trigger in such cases. Such action must always be a remedy of last resort. Still there’s a core of principles that must lead us to say at the appropriate time “No, I’m afraid we’re really going to have to insist you leave people to the rule and protection of the law. We’ll repeat this up to a point, but then we’re just going to open fire”. That’s the backstop behind the rights, as Hobbes duly pointed out. It’s also the essence of what President Jefferson told the Baptists of Danbury regarding the Congregationalists of Danbury whom they feared. Jefferson’s letter is a beautiful essay on religious freedom and separation of church and state, but also a tacit reassurance that the government would behave as outlined above should the Congregationalists fail to leave the Baptists to live and worship in peace.
It’s a mistake to think that the driver behind this reality was a desire to assure the preservation and promotion of religion per se. This view has kind of grown up to inform many people’s understanding of the first amendment. Believers and even a considerable portion of unbelievers think this. But the peaceful promulgation of faiths in order to enjoy benefits from them we can’t otherwise obtain was not the thing about the rights that everyone agreed on. To think this is nonsense. The purpose of separation of church and state was to blunt the repeatedly demonstrated transgressions by religious authority, and to keep them from competing to get their hands on the levers of civil power. It’s a civilized alternative to sentiments exemplified in Diderot’s call to “hang the last tyrant with braided entrails of the last cleric”, which he believed would be necessary to fight the compulsion of religions to make men and the world over in their own image.