Unmoored Americans?

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

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5 responses to “Unmoored Americans?

  1. By the way, thanks to Marc and Mark for inviting me to guest blog for a few days.

  2. Steve, great first post. On the difference between reactions to Lautsi and the Mt. Soledad case, one of the speakers at a conference that Mark and I were just at made a distinction based on the nature of the “public” space. Some spaces are public generically, while other spaces are institutionally public. The distinction was used to highlight the difference between the display of a religious symbol in a public square, or on the outside of a church, and display of a religious symbol in a courthouse or, more ambiguously, a classroom. The latter, this presenter said, was more problematic than the former.

    I’m not sure what I think of the distinction, but do you think something like this was behind the differences in your students’ reactions?

  3. It’s certainly possible that that students were acting on more refined distinctions in their concepts of “public” space. I also thought that maybe their attitudes reflected the fact that schools are actually teaching, or indoctrinating, children, so a sectarian symbol would be more objectionable in that context. It’s also possible that religious symbols are just more common in Europe– there’s a big statue of Jesus looming over the road by a major bridge leading into Lisbon, don’t know whether it’s on public property or not– so this seems familiar and unobjectionable. In general, students in the class did seem to give a lot more respect to “national identity and tradition” considerations than I think most students would here. In my experience, here you mention tradition and people say, “Right, like the tradition of slavery,” and that’s pretty much it. Who knows? But whatever the causes, the differences in attitudes really surprised me.

  4. Matt LeMieux

    For past eight years I have been offering a course that is part of the University of Münster’s foreign law program. The course basically teaches German law students how to conduct a moot, and we use the Ten Commandments cases from 2005 as one of the topics. By the end of the course the students have become quite familiar with this sliver of American Constitutional Law, and I can confirm that their attitudes about these displays is likely tied to their views on public space. The students rarely stuggle with the conclusion of the Court in McCreary County as they see the placement of the Commandments in a courthouse as quite problematic. They also have no problem with the Texas display in Van Orden, as this space seems more public to them.

    As an aside, German students, at least the one’s I have taught, seem to think some of separation of church/state is necessary in America because in their eyes there is a concerted effort by a vocal, yet powerful minority, to push religion on others via the government. The students simply don’t see the same thing happening here in Germany. They are relatively unconcerned about old religious symbols in the public square here in Germany because they don’t see an overt attempt to indoctrinate behind them. With that said, they also acknowledge that their Muslim fellow citizens likely have a different view on this.

  5. “that’s because Americans are paranoid.”

    Most likely it is because Americans have been conditioned over the years to the point that they no longer believe that our Founding Fathers desired to protect our Religious Liberty because they believed our Religious morals and values would serve to enhance the value of the State.

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