The Polite Liberal

A rant-free discussion of liberal philosophy and policies.


The Polite Liberal is the pseudonym of a "nontraditional" graduate student in mathematics (for nonacademics, "nontraditional," is a polite way of saying, "older than 25.") The Polite Liberal is an attempt to spur real policy debate, instead of partisan insults and conspiracy theories. Conservatives (and liberals, of course!) are welcome.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Secularism I -- Prayer in public schools

The first amendment to the US constitution begins:

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;...

The fourteenth amendment, ratified in 1868, broadened the reach of the first, in its second sentence:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States...

Since US Public schools are state institutions, they cannot abridge their students' first amendment rights. In Engel v. Vitale (1962), the Supreme Court ruled that official prayer in public schools violates the US Constitution.

Since this is a matter of straightforward constitutional law, there isn't much room for debate about what the law allows. A more interesting question is: Is this a good idea? Should the constitution rule out prayer in schools?

There are several reasons why the answer is "yes", of which two are the most important:

(1) The government simply can't enforce belief in this fashion. By this I don't mean that it's immoral; I simply mean that it doesn't work. Compare the level of religion in the US, where school prayer has been banned for more than forty years, to that in the UK, where it's still prevalent.

Think about the Pledge of Allegiance for a moment. Every schoolchild recites it every day. Is it anything but a ritual at this point? Does it do anything to create real patriotism? Do you really want religion to be like the pledge--words recited mindlessly by children counting the seconds until lunch?

(2) In regions where there's a majority religion--and particularly if the majority is overwhelming--there has historically been an overwhelming temptation to try to use school prayer to enforce that religion. In such regions, the prayer tends not to be generic (although even generic prayers can be offensive to some faiths or to atheists); the prayers are instead explicitly Christian, or Protestant, or even Evangelical. The more specific such a prayer becomes, the more it tends to alienate those of other faiths. This sort of thing led to bloody wars in Europe; in the US it tends to conflate religious belief and citizenship in a manner that we should avoid at all costs.

The problem is that it's hard to be asked to swear against you conscience. Ask an atheist child to swear "by God", or a Jewish child to swear that "Jesus is Lord", and you're putting them in an impossible position of either lying or visibly standing apart from their class's (and their teacher's) beliefs. That isn't the proper business of a school.

To be honest, I don't understand the argument for prayer in schools--I'm an athiest born a dozen years post-Vitale. Could anyone with a reasonable pro- arguement post it in the comments?

Friday, August 05, 2005

The term is "liberal Democrat"

Time for a rant, and a break from policy. Apologies in advance.

On my way home from work today, a substitute anchor on a liberal radio show was describing liberalism by some ludicrous, contrived term along the lines of "progressive individual-liberty promoters".

The term is "liberal", folks. Remember us? We're the ones that took the ruins of a country that unrestrained plutocracy had run into the ground and forged a superpower. We destroyed fascism and pinned communism down for forty years. We ended segregation. In California, we built the aquaduct, the universities, and the freeways.

Yes, we got complacent after too long in power. Yes, our wingnuts started trying to enforce ludicrous speech codes on campuses and were absurdly forgiving of left-wing dictatorships. For all that, I'll be damned before I abandon the proud term "liberalism" because the same nitwits that wrecked the country in the twenties have decided that it'd be fun to spit "Liberal" as though it were an insult.

So don't call me something nuts like "self-libertizing progressive." I'm a liberal Democrat.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Mr. Bush has just stated that he believes that the theory of Intelligent Design should be taught in science classes alognside evolution.

In case anyone hasn't been following this issue, the theory of evolution is the basic framework of modern biology--it's the theory that life on has evolved and differentiated over many millions of years from common ancestors. Intelligent Design, by contrast, is a crackpot theory supported by a small handful of scientists (generally working outside their fields), which basically recapitulates the original argument from incredulity of the ninteenth century. It does so as follows:

(1) It defines the concept of "irreducible complexity"--a structure that could not have evolved (usually the argument is that the structure has no purpose if any piece were altered, and so could not have evolved).
(2) It points to specific structures and claims, without proof, that those structures are irreducibly complex, and so could not have evolved.
(3) It argues that therefore the structure must have been created by an intelligent designer (carefully left unspecified to avoid the obvious argument that this is simply religious creationism).

The problematic step, of course, is (2). Whenever any specific strucutre is shown (as has happened repeatedly since Intelligent Design was first formulated) to have a perfectly reasonable evolutionary path from simpler structures, the old infinite regression game begins: "Aha! But those pieces are irreducibly complex!"

The fact that the President of the United States is advocating abandoning our leadership in biology at this time (and that is exactly what he is proposing--intelligent design is useless as a scientific tool, doesn't itself meet the standard of a scientific theory, and has led to no results to date, despite years of work) is a disaster. Technological leadership is a cornerstone of our superpower status, which Mr. Bush seems bound and determined to destroy.