Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Chuck Norris can kick the Establishment Clause's scrawny little butt

Recently hotair.com, a conservative blog, posted an item about actor and tough guy Chuck Norris, who—along with his pretty and much younger wife—supports the notion of teaching Bible classes in America’s public schools. (Here is the piece, including a youtube video:)


When such a suggestion is offered, it’s common for the objection to be raised that for government schools to offer Bible study would be a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment clause, which mandates that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Modern interpretation of the later Fourteenth Amendment has held that this restriction on government action also applies to the states; e.g. Cantwell v. Connecticut 310 U.S. 296 (1940), Everson v. Board of Education 330 U.S. 1 (1947).

That’s fine; a discussion on whether or not Bible reading in a public school runs afoul of the Establishment clause is exactly the kind of meaty topic I hope in the future to address in this blog. If you conclude Chuck Norris is wrong, it’s perfectly acceptable to criticize him on the grounds that his interpretation of the Constitution is suspect.

But something else should be, I think, out of bounds in the discussion. That is the notion that nobody can endorse the idea of religious based values not because the Constitution won’t allow it, but because the person advocating such a position is (of course) a flawed person himself. Responding to the item posted at hotair.com, one of the readers there sneered: “Let’s not start taking lessons in morality from a guy that dumped the mother of his kids so he could marry his blonde trophy wife. Chuck Norris is as bogus as a three-dollar bill.”

I checked various websites purporting to give a fair biography of Norris; all the ones I’ve seen state that he divorced his first wife in 1988 and married his current one in 1998. If that is true, it hardly needs to be said that a man who marries his second wife a full decade after jettisoning his first absolutely did not “dump the mother of his kids to marry a trophy wife.” Of course, even if Norris had said “I do” to wife number two twenty minutes after saying “get lost” to wife number one, and he’d done the whole thing in Las Vegas with an Elvis impersonator presiding, this is not good evidence that the Constitution prevents public school children from being taught in class that “A word fitly spoken/ Is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” (Proverbs 25:11).

Whatever argument there may be that reading the Bible in public schools is an affront to the Establishment clause, I think that no one should rationally argue that Chuck Norris doesn’t get to use his other First Amendment rights—freedom of speech, freedom to use the media to advance his position, and freedom to associate with others to petition the government for change—because he’s in his second marriage. Yet that basically is what the hotair poster is suggesting.

One hears this sort of thing occasionally in the form of shouts such as “Who is Sam to argue that we should not be in the current conflict in Iraq when he suddenly decided at age 19 in 1969 that it was time to look for an apartment in Toronto?” or “I can’t believe that candidate has the nerve to talk about family matters when her son got nailed on a DUI!” or “How can you fairly express an opinion on abortion; you are a MAN!!!!” When you hear things like that, you are hearing total nonsense. Nobody loses his First Amendment freedom to speak, write, or petition because he was a rowdy youth, made mistakes as a parent, or was born with (or without) a penis.

The irony is that the very authorship of the First Amendment in a sense confirms what I’m saying. It may be one of the most sublime expressions ever of what liberty really means—and one of the most concise as well, coming in at forty-five words. One might suspect that whoever wrote it couldn’t possibly be as good as those words—and indeed, James Madison wasn’t.

To his credit, on June 8, 1789, Madison presented to the House of Representatives a rough draft of what would eventually become the First Amendment (Farber, D.A. & S. Sherry, A History of the American Constitution, 1990, pp. 227-231.) To his discredit, Madison owned slaves. In fact, as historian Joseph Ellis pointed out in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Founding Brothers (2000, pp. 113-118), Madison used a good deal of parliamentary wrangling to keep Congress from even debating slavery issues. Free speech for Congress, thus, was in a sense shut out by the same man who advocated free speech for everyone.

So if someone implies that by virtue of having been divorced Chuck Norris has lost his First Amendment right to tout Biblically based morality, gee, why not go all the way and just say that the whole first Amendment itself is irrelevant because its main draftsman embraced slavery? Nobody ever gets to that point, of course, because muddled thinking eventually is understood to be just that.

But any suggestion that someone doesn’t even deserve to be heard because of something in his personal life is a few steps down that muddy path. You still get your First Amendment rights even if you’ve divorced or made silly martial arts movies.

No comments: