In May I taught a short course at the University of Lisbon – five consecutive days, two hours per day– on “Government-Sponsored Religious Symbols and Expressions.” After the usual adding and dropping, there were twenty students in the class, about half from Portugal and the other half from countries throughout Europe, including France, Belgium, Germany, and Poland. I don’t know whether the students were anything like a representative cross-section, but in any case it was interesting to see how their perspectives differed from those I encounter in classes here.
I had written up a hypothetical case based on the Mt. Soledad cross case that the Supreme Court declined to review (for now anyway) last week. On the first day, one of the students “stated the case”– quite capably– and ended with “So the challengers are suing to have the cross removed . . . . I’m really not sure why.”
At one point in the discussion, I took a “straw poll,” as I sometimes do. The vote was 18-2 for letting the cross stay. I rephrased the question: How many think the court should order the cross removed. Now the vote was 19-1 against judicially-ordered removal. And the lone dissenter changed his vote when reminded that the cross had ostensibly been erected as a war memorial.
This consensus surprised me, considering Europe’s legendary secularity; and it also worried me, not because I disapproved, exactly– given my views, this was an unusually sensible bunch– but because it looked to make for a boring (and maybe very short) class. So of course I started to argue the other way. I told them about my lunch with Mike Newdow, an intelligent and sincere and generally reasonable fellow. I asked how they’d feel if they were atheists (which some of them were, not surprisingly, and said so). No one budged.
When we discussed the Lautsi v. Italy case a couple of days later, opinion was much more mixed. Some students felt strongly that a cross on the wall of a classroom was inappropriate. But on public property on a high hill overlooking the city? Just not a problem.
I told them that my students in the US would be much more divided in their views; many would find the cross quite offensive– and unconstitutional. I wondered out loud why attitudes would be so different. Someone blurted out, half-seriously, “That’s because Americans are paranoid.” I think that was the word, anyway; it was something to that effect.
So I wonder. Was he right? Is there something excessive, maybe a little unmoored, about American attitudes in these matters?
– Steve Smith