Friday, March 05, 2004

Judge Fortunato: Secularist Supreme

Stephen J. Fortunato Jr., Rhode Island Superior Court judge, took issue in today's ProJo with Attorney General Patrick Lynch and Rhode Island Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams. Lynch presided over, and both spoke at, an interdenominational convocation at the First Baptist Church in America to honor former attorneys general on Feb. 23. Religious leaders also spoke at the event, and both Lynch and Williams spoke about the Judeo-Christian influences on the founding of our nation. Additionally, both seem to talk about this influence fairly regularly, according to Fortunato. To him, these actions reveal that "judicial officials were becoming improperly entangled with a religious ceremony and religious proselytizing."

Fortunato seems especially disturbed by Lynch's statement that "the three great monotheistic religions -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- form the basis of the criminal-justice system." He believes that they tread into "dangerous territory" and that "they breach the 'hedge or wall' that Roger Williams said must separate church and state." Further, he qualifies that "[l]iberty of conscience permits anyone to hold any faith they wish, but judicial officers should not proclaim their views from a church pulpit provided to them solely because they hold public office." As Fortunato points out, it would be hard to believe that either Lynch or Williams would have been invited to speak at the event had they not been prominent statewide offices.

Fortunato uses Roger Williams, "a man ahead of his times", to buttress his argument about the separation of church and state. Williams believed that such a separation would be beneficial to both, that much is correct, but Fortunato implies that Williams conception of the separation of church and state was the equivalent of what Fortunato believes today. He also charges that secular officials have historically attempted to pander to the their constituents by using religion for political gain and have misinterpreted history, purposefully or ignorantly, in the process.

While he correctly points out that the myth of "the Founding Fathers huddled over the Bible or other religious tracts in designing our government" is inaccurate, he goes to far in downplaying the role played by Judeo-Christian traditions. He is correct in pointing out the influence of "pagans" like "Plato, Aristotle and Cicero" and the "philosophers of the Enlightenment, who were committed much more to reason than to faith." Yet, he errs when he concludes that, because they did not necessarily subscribe to the mainstream views of religion in their day (namely, they were Deists), that they discounted or minimized the role of religion in their thinking. One of the great early thinkers of the Enlightenment, John Locke, wrote an essay regarding the importance and rational basis of Religion. Many of the leaders of the Enlightenment in America were themselves preachers. Rational Religion was a major result of the combination of Religion with Rationalism. Thus, while the founders were heavily influenced by reason, even they, the leaders of rationalism, believed in God and that without an ultimate, moral being - without God - their rational theories and concepts could not be sustained.

However, Fortunato's true point of view is revealed in the following harangue:

"However, one can fairly inquire as to what Judeo-Christian principles justified the theft of land from Native Americans, allowed slavery and later Jim Crow, denied the vote to women, permitted child labor and justified the locking up of Japanese-Americans for no reason other than the color of their skin and the land of their ancestors. More currently, what Judeo Christian principles allow the incarceration of human beings without charge, without trial and without counsel. What Judeo-Christian principles support laws that let some people accumulate vast fortunes, while others work for substandard wages?"

Fortunato accuses Judeo-Christian principles of falling short in many areas when, in fact, the opposite is true. The abolitionist movement was firmly rooted in New England churches and eventually brought an end to slavery. Need I remind Fortunato that Dr. Martin Luther King was a Reverend? I'm not going to attempt to counter all of Fortunato's attacks, but all of the examples cited by Fortunato have been addressed, one way or another with varying degrees of success, in an attempt to correct past misdeeds. Americans have a conscience, this conscience isn't a result of some rationally and humanistically moral "immaculate conception." Rather, it is based on the Judeo-Christian beliefs of our country's founding generations, the same beliefs that Fortunato chooses to belittle and downplay.

The above paragraph indicates to me that Fortunato does not approach this topic from some idealistic belief in the separation of church and state. Rather, it seems clear the he is antagonistic to religion, especially that of the Judeo-Christian variety, and that he takes an idealist, anachronistic view of history. He seems to be conflating Judeo-Christian beliefs with the failure of its practitioners to uphold its ideals. This is a common error made by secularists, the non-religious, or the historical idealists. They assume because the application of moral, religious ideals is not always successful, such is in marriage, than the authority that prescribes these ideals is itself flawed. To use a tired old phrase, they "throw the baby out with the bath water."

No person and no law in our democracy can stop anyone, including Attorney General Lynch and Chief Justice Williams, from worshipping as he or she pleases and holding any religious views they wish. Moreover, if the attorney general and the chief justice wish to share with a group of scholars, or any interested members of the public for that matter, the beliefs and experiences that undergird their political and legal viewpoints, they are free to do so -- but not from a pulpit at a religious, quasi-religious or pseudoreligious ceremony.

Finally, Fortunato states that everyone, including Lynch and Williams, can worship as they wish. He even says they can discuss their beliefs and how those beliefs influence their professional thought without being subject to criticism of the sort Fortunato has engaged. Instead, the problem Fortunato really has is that they did so "from a pulpit at a religious, quasi-religious or pseudoreligious ceremony." This last bit is a throwaway. This is merely the legal side of Fortunato speaking; the real Judge Fortunato was revealed in his accusatory paragraph quoted in full above. That someone so antagonistic towards the belief system of the majority of our nation is a Rhode Island Superior Court judge is disturbing. I wonder how he feels about person after person coming into his courtroom and swearing on the Bible to tell the truth? It seems that, according to Fortunato, such an act is merely symbolism and is worthless. Perhaps he should remove this religious relic of a ceremonial vow from his courtroom. After all, it really doesn't mean anything, does it?

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