April 2000

Humanism Beliefs and Practices

~Book Review~

HUMANISM: Beliefs & Practices, written by Jeaneane Fowler and published by Sussex Press, 1999, is the most definitive book on humanism since Corliss Lamont published the Philosophy of Humanism 50 years ago. The author is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Wales College. She says the life stance of humanism must take its place alongside of the attitudes of the Christian, Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Sikh.

In the foreword Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism, says, “The meaning of the term humanism has often puzzled friend and critics alike: Is humanism a religion? Is it simply equivalent to humanitarianism? Is it so inclusive that it applies to everyone?

“Dr. Jeaneane Fowler has attempted to answer these questions, and she has done so with objectivity and sensitivity, skill, and virtuosity. Indeed, in my judgment, she has written the best source book on humanism that is currently available.”

I found this outstanding book while browsing the new books display at the University of Utah Marriott Library, read it, then ordered a copy for my own library.

–by Flo Wineriter


Bill of Rights

Utah State History Professor Dan McInerney presented a historical perspective on the Bill of Rights. His first point was that the context of the lecture was the history of the subject, not the legal ramifications. McInerney painted an interesting, and to most, a surprising picture of the social climate when the first 10 amendments to the Constitution were adopted in 1791.

Professor McInerney delineated 10 “surprises” that most people now are unaware of:

  1. The Bill of Rights was the product of suspicion and distrust, not confidence and security. Advocates were NOT confident in the continued blessings of liberty. They feared the impending collapse of liberty — not because of anything the people might do, but because of what the government might do. They were doubtful, fearful, even paranoid about the new federal government.
  2. The original proponents were more interested in states’ rights than individual rights. Some historians take the argument further, claiming that proponents were not trying to restrict all government; they wanted to restrict a particular level of government. Rather than protecting individual liberties against government power in general, advocates of a Bill of Rights wanted to protect states’ rights from federal encroachment
  3. There was strong opposition to a bill of rights. The Bill of Rights was REDUNDANT. There already was a “bill of rights”: the Constitution! (Hamilton wrote, “The Constitution is itself, in every rational sense, and to every useful purpose, a bill of rights.”) It already protected privileges and rights, protected the most important privileges and rights in a republican system: the right of habeas corpus (to prevent wrongful detention); the prohibition of ex post facto laws (that defined an act as a crime after it happened); and the prohibition of titles of nobility.
  4. The Bill of Rights was not, originally, ten amendments added to the constitution. Originally, states and political leaders offered over 200 proposals! Madison whittled that number down to 17 and submitted them to Congress. The House approved all 17 amendments; the Senate, by rejecting some of the House proposals, and combining others, dropped the number to 12. Recall, also, that the Senate dropped the one amendment Madison thought most important: the one concerning state government infringement on conscience and press.
  5. The 1st amendment was not “first.” The original first amendment to the Constitution had nothing to do with the stirring guarantees of free speech, press, assembly and the free exercise of religion that we know today. Instead, it concerned a clunky mathematical formula for proportional representation in the House. The original second amendment dealt with Congressional pay: it would have prevented Congressmen who voted themselves a raise from collecting until after the next election. The states rejected both ideas.
  6. The amendments do not declare rights clearly and comprehensively. They are filled with ambiguities. In trying to decipher the Bill of Rights, we ought to turn to experience rather than language for the meaning of the text. The amendments, seemingly specific injunctions, are not self-defining and do not necessarily exclude exceptions. There were probably no constitutional absolutes in 1791 and no guarantees that were clear and precise in meaning. It is tough to construe ambiguities strictly.
  7. For most of American history, most Americans have not paid much attention to the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights has been around for 200 years. But when historians consider the effect of the first ten amendments on America’s political culture, the two centuries do not seem to have made all that great an impression. For most of American history, most Americans have either slighted, disregarded, or ignored the Bill of Rights.
  8. Some of the key “founding fathers” did not think much of the Bill of Rights. In June 1789, Madison rose in the House to present formal proposals for Constitutional amendments. Other speakers followed. Every one either opposed the Bill of Rights or tried to postpone discussion; they felt “there were several matters before them of more importance. The discussion would take up more time than the House could now spare.”
  9. In the 1790’s, some states did not approve the Bill of Rights. Connecticut, Georgia, and Massachusetts never got around to ratifying the Bill of Rights until the sesquicentennial of the Constitution in 1939!
  10. The actual document has been treated carelessly. There were copies of the Bill of Rights made for each state, plus one for Congress. Each copy was signed by Vice-President John Adams (the President of the Senate) and Speaker of the House Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg. Congress did not handle its copy in a particularly reverential way as historian Michael Kammen notes. In 1789, the Secretary of State was named custodian for the Declaration, the Constitution, and (later) the Bill of Rights. The documents were bundled with scores of other government papers, shuttled around from New York City to Philadelphia to D.C., and housed where few people could see them. From 1875 to 1921, the Constitution was kept in a cellar. Finally, in 1921, the Declaration and Constitution were transferred to the care of the Library of Congress. But the Bill of Rights stayed in a basement in a plain green cabinet. And the states? Five of them, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Maryland, New York, and North Carolina, can’t find their copies of the Bill of Rights!

There are ten surprises about the Bill of Rights. I mean no disrespect towards the amendments by noting these historical curiosities. I’m very grateful that we have a Bill of Rights, because of 4 key achievements of the amendments:

  1. Although it took many weeks for the first Congress to take up the business of the Bill of Rights, it is important to recognize that one of the first acts of the new national government was to limit its authority. That’s a remarkable story in any historical period.
  2. The first ten amendments stated popular rights in a dramatically new way. Most states expressed their bills of rights in the subjunctive voice: “Liberty of the press ought not be restrained.” How do you like the sound of that? Does it fill you with confidence? I don’t think I’d pay my magazine subscriptions too far in advance. The Bill of Rights makes its points in a far different manner, not in the subjunctive voice but in the declarative or imperative voice: Congress shall or shall not. The old expression holds true: it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.
  3. Passage of the Bill of Rights helped ease years of debate over America’s form of national government. It made the new, enlarged, unprecedented experiment in republicanism more acceptable. It provided a sense of legitimacy that the new government badly needed. In practical terms, when Congress passed measures in Sept. 1789, it helped encourage “hold-out” states (NC and RI) to finally join the Union.
  4. Over time, the amendments have hindered the government’s power from extending over the thoughts and consciences of citizens.

Professor McInerney’s presentation was sponsored by the Utah Humanities Council as part of its Front Porch Series.


The Politics of Sanctimony

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

George W. Bush and God Himself are on notice: “The Democratic Party is going to take back God this time,” Gore operative Elaine Kamarck announced a few months ago as the vice president made his play for the Almighty. He declared his disdain for “hollow secularism,” his support for state funding of sectarian social service programs, and his conviction that “the purpose of life is to glorify God.” Gore said of his religious faith, “I don’t wear it on my sleeve, but faith is the center of my life.”

The above paragraph opens Wendy Kaminer’s article in The American Prospect, November 23,1999, with the same title as the present article. She further observes that a lack of faith in the intelligence of the American people inspires educated candidates like Gore, Bush, Steve Forbes, and Elizabeth Dole to waffle on evolution. All of them responded sympathetically to recent efforts by the Kansas Board of Education to purge the science curriculum of evolution. A perceived lack of faith in the morality of the American people has inspired a crusade in Congress against popular culture. Congressional moralists leave us no choice but virtue.

What do they mean by virtue? “Godliness in the form of allegiance to an established, mainstream religion (New Age will not do)…we cannot be good without God–a Judeo-Christian God, or maybe an Islamic one,” Kaminer says. Virtue is supposedly attendant on respectable religions as shown by the conviction that America is in a state of moral decline grounded in the 1960’s and evidenced largely by sexual permissiveness in real life and the media. Only lately has violence in the media become a focus for conservatives.

It could be argued that America made significant moral progress in the ’60’s. The Civil Rights Movement, feminism, and the Supreme Court’s imposition of constitutional restrictions on the prosecutorial power of the state challenged us to turn ideals of freedom and equality into realities for all Americans. The emphasis on the losses associated with the 1960’s, such as chastity and traditional religiosity, instead of the gains, dominates the anti-vice campaigns today. The drive to sanctify life by imposing new restrictions on speech and lifting old restrictions on state sponsoring of religions has been evident throughout the 1990’s and would have dominated the 2000 campaign if it hadn’t gained political momentum from recent mass shootings. These shootings have provided social-issue conservatives with unexpected opportunities for culture control, which Clinton Democrats seem afraid to oppose.

The juvenile justice bill pending in Congress includes amendments aimed at introducing sectarianism into the public schools. It mandates posting the Ten Commandments in the schools and denies attorneys’ fees to people who successfully sue a school that has violated rules against establishing religion by conducting sectarian services or erecting sectarian memorials. A majority of House members also voted for a resolution exhorting all Americans to engage in “prayer, fasting, and humiliation before God.” It failed on a vote of 275 for and 140 against (less than the two-thirds needed for passage). Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback introduced a resolution to create a Special Committee on American Culture “to study the causes and reasons for social and cultural regression,” to determine the impact of unspecified “negative cultural trends” on “the broader society” and on “child well-being,” and to “explore means of cultural renewal.” This agenda “represents one of the periodic campaigns against popular entertainments and the people who enjoy them…Congress has been tenacious in its efforts to censor images of sex and violence it doesn’t like,” says Kaminer. She points out that in 1996 Congress also passed the Communications Decency Act, prohibiting “indecency” on the Internet. When CDA was invalidated by the Supreme Court, Congress passed The Children On-Line Protection Act, prohibiting speech that a federal prosecutor might consider “harmful to minors.” In 1996 Congress also passed a law requiring cable operators either to scramble fully or consign to limited late-night hours sexually explicit programs in order to prevent the “signal bleed” that accompanies partial scrambling and exposes fleeting images and sounds of sex. A challenge to the signal bleed prohibition, brought by the Playboy Entertainment Group, will be argued before the Supreme Court. Another proposal currently before the Senate would classify violent “audio and visual media products” with cigarettes and subject them to federal labeling requirements.

All these laws take it as an article of faith that children are harmed by any exposure to virtual sex. Like God’s love it needn’t be proved empirically. In an evidentiary hearing, Playboy Entertainment Group’s experts testified that there is no empirical evidence that sexually explicit videos harm minors psychologically, a point the government’s witness did not dispute. Kaminer asks, “If this law is enacted, will film adaptations like Shakespearean tragedies or movies like the Thin Red Line or Bonnie and Clyde be treated like toxic wastes, which must be labeled to the satisfaction of federal bureaucrats?

“Liberals repelled and frightened by hate speech or anxious to restore ill-defined spiritual values to society, as well as centrists and conservatives, need to be reminded of the moral illegitimacy of censorship,” says Kaminer. “Liberals troubled by congressional visions of culture control need to address its political implications unapologetically.”