How Freely Can the President Speak About Religion?

The other interesting thing I wound up thinking about over the weekend is the issue of free speech when it comes from the presidency. When speaking in his official capacity, of course, the principle of separation of church and state dictates that he should not endorse any one religion over another, and therefore, presumably, he also should not endorse any one interpretation of a religion over another.

Out of context that seems clear, but a very clever and thoughtful friend of mine pointed out to me recently that, by this principle, he objects to the following statement (and numerous others like it) that President Obama made recently:

“As Americans we are not-and never will be- at war with Islam. It was not a religion that attacked us that September day- it was Al Qaeda a sorry band of men which perverts religion.”

I wound up arguing extensively about this on facebook so I don’t want to go into too much detail now, but just to summarize, I think this demonstrates a frustrating problem common to many political debates, in that it essentially can’t be resolved because it just amounts to a question of where you draw the line.

To see this, recognize that, as my friend is arguing, it is obviously not alright for the president to label things as a “perversion of a religion” whenever he feels like it. After all, if taken to an extreme, this would permit a sitting president to declare mormonism a perversion of Christianity, or perhaps atheism to be a perversion of religion as a whole, and in either case make it the official position of the US government that such things should be stamped out like terrorism.

But I think it’s equally obvious on the other side that the president shouldn’t be obliged to always express the opinion that any legitimately held religious view is just as good as any other. After all, this would permit any regime that wanted to engage in massive human rights violations to do so without criticism from the US as long as they concocted some interpretation of Islam or Judaism or whatever under which they claimed their actions were moral (don’t try to get out of this one by claiming these aren’t legitimately held beliefs– you could never prove that they weren’t.)

So it’s pretty clear that there should be a line, right? In fact there should be two lines, which the president’s rhetoric on religion should not cross on either side.

And yet, I suspect, that you probably had a knee-jerk reaction to the quotation above either as completely, self-evidently true and permissible, or as blatantly across the line, and I doubt that I could ever convince you to change your mind. In fact as time goes by and I encounter more and more strange opinions held by people in the world, the more I realize that line-drawing issues are some of the hardest to resolve. Why? Because it’s almost never possible to explain, empirically, where the line should go, and as a result, people resort to their intuition to sort of “feel out” where they think the line is. But one’s intuition is the product of the sum total of their life experiences*, the collected effect of their past interactions, their human relationships, and even their mood at the moment in question. And since there is no empirically correct placement of the line I can argue for, all I can try to do is convince people that my intuition is better, maybe by recounting some of the life experiences that led me to feel that way. Now that may work sometimes, but most of the time, your attempts to share some small sliver of the things that guide your intuition will pale in comparison to the vast array of things informing your opponent’s intuition, and the task of changing their minds becomes completely hopeless.

It sound like a bleak assessment, and I suppose it is to some extent. As a mathematically-minded fellow, I always want everything to have an absolute, unambiguously correct answer**. But when it doesn’t, I take solace in the fact that the things we can agree on reduce the overall errors in our policy. For example, my friend and I may never agree over whether Obama should have said that. But on most all of the more egregious transgressions of that sort which you might imagine, we probably would agree, meaning that at least we are only quibbling over the details. I may never get the exact policy positions I want enacted in the government, but it’s important to keep things in perspective and realize how much of what I want I’m already getting.

*Math joke: By associativity, this means that we must have some “dual” intuition which is just the sum of the product of our life experiences.

**Tragically , this isn’t even true in mathematics anymore.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

One Response to How Freely Can the President Speak About Religion?

  1. Pingback: I Still Hate Petty Partisan Sniping, Double Standards, and Bad Faith (In Order of Ascending Hatred) « WLOG blog

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