Thursday, June 22, 2006

An Alabama Tradition

One thing that you learn quite rapidly when doing research into primary source texts of a historical period is that things are never as monolithic as popular parlance portrays them. For example, while the American South was definitely (and brutally) racist, it was not uniformly so, in that the people were entirely unaware that racism might even be wrong. These arguments were indeed being presented, albeit often by outsiders and always in the minority. As such, it provides an interesting riposte both to those who would caricature the American South as being in a state of complete moral darkness, as well as those who would apologize for their crimes with the cry of "they knew not what they did."

While looking up the local coverage of the Scottsboro trials, for example, I found a really interesting editorial in the Montgomery Advertiser defending the political rights of atheists. Commenting on a State Court of Appeals ruling which held that atheists were not "competent" to take oaths because they did not believe in an almighty God who could mete out justice and punishment, the editorial powerfully defended the rights and privileges of a group which undoubtedly was not any more popular in 1931 Alabama than it is today. Responding the court's argument that:
The whole fabric of this nation from its inception to the present time is founded on a belief in a Supreme Being whose guiding hand is recognized and involved in our most solemn governmental pronouncements

the editorial proclaimed:
What 'governmental pronouncement' is more 'solemn' than the constitution of the United States? It is a purely political document. It is a purely secular document. Not one line in it refers to a Supreme Being.... The reference to 'Almighty God,' etc., in the Declaration of Independence is cited, but the citation lacks weight for the reason that the Declaration of Independence is a war-cry and is not in any sense a part of the law of the Republic.
The genius of our governmental institution is affronted by the laws of Alabama, if the laws of Alabama are correctly interpreted by the State Court of Appeals when it says:
There is no place in our whole governmental structures for a belief which ties men to the rocks and clods and places him on a level with the beasts of the field

But we prefer to regard this as rhetoric rather than a statement of the laws of the Medes and Persians. Actually, there is a place in our "governmental structures" for all dissenters and all believers. If there is no place for dissenters, then this is a theocracy rather than the "republic of republics" where the conscience of the individual of goodwill is inviolable.

If the Court of Appeals is right, then Alabama has a state religion. ["Alabama's State Religion," Montgomery Advertiser, March 26, 1931 at pg. 4]

There are so many things that strike me about that passage. The imputation that "Alabama has a state religion" is not just used as an insult, but is assumed to be one on face (in other words, an assumption that the readers are not just constitutionally literate to know that state religions are prohibited, but constitutionally committed so they'd agree). The blunt dismissal of the Declaration as a document that is part of our contemporary body of law (I'd agree, but nobody would get away with putting it that plainly today). Even the idea that someone could write in one of Alabama's largest daily papers and boldly defend atheists as equal American citizens (and the piece pulled no punches in that regard) is surprising. I'm not sure you'd see such a clear commitment to religious equality in Montgomery today.

Also interesting was that a few days later, someone wrote in responding to the editorial. He claimed that "oath" definitionally implied swearing to a deity or higher power, and "religion" cannot definitionally encompass atheism (which is a lack of religion). The editors of the Advertiser responded by pulling across the pragmatic arguments they made in the first editorial--that the position of the court (and the letter-writer) would mean that atheists could not testify in their own defense, serve on a jury, or be elected to office (all of which require oaths). Are we really comfortable with denying them those rights (and if we do, are we seriously going to say we treat all citizens equally?). But I'd simply point out that, if we are to take these traditional definitions of "oath" and "religion" seriously, then to protect atheist rights will require not just accommodation but a bona fide change in the law or its understanding. So when conservatives today say that "atheists don't want equality anymore, they want special exemptions from long-standing laws," remember that this objection is essentially unchanged from 75 years ago. There is no "anymore," the folks who want to deny atheist rights can always frame it as "special rights" rather than fair accommodation.

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