George Will opened his column on the recent Supreme Court decision about invoking God at a public meeting with a mild irony:
After the marshal on Monday spoke the traditional “God save the United States and this honorable court,” the Supreme Court ruled that the upstate New York town of Greece doesn’t violate the First Amendment’s prohibition of “establishment of religion” by opening its board of supervisors’ meetings with a prayer.
This ruling would not scandalize James Madison and other members of the First Congress, which drafted and sent to the states for ratification the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights. The Congress did this after hiring a chaplain.
Will described the court’s 5-4 decision:
The majority held that ceremonial prayer — an encouragement to gravity and sobriety — is not harmful to the plaintiffs, who felt somehow coerced when present at public prayers, and who said such prayers are necessarily divisive. The court should have told them: If you feel coerced, you are flimsy people, and it is a choice — an unattractive one — to feel divided from your neighbors by their affection for brief and mild occasional expressions of religiosity.
In a nation whose currency declares, In God We Trust, where presidents take the oath of office by putting a hand on a Bible, where everyone pledges allegiance to a nation “under God,” some secularists wish to eliminate all manifestations of religion from public life.
Surely, it is strange that the plaintiffs feel coerced by prayer when they themselves seem to want to eliminate religion altogether. By their enlightened minds, religion is a hotbed of superstition and illusions. When a Christopher Hitchens declared that religion poisoned everything was he not hinting that we would be better off without it. Many of today's militant atheists have mistaken freedom of religion with freedom from religion.
Their own character is such, Will suggests, that they cannot make a conciliatory gesture toward their fellow citizens by sitting through a public prayer.
To Will, the debate is a symptom, not only of American litigiousness but also of American hypersensitivity. We as a nation have become excessively thin-skinned:
Taking offense has become America’s national pastime; being theatrically offended supposedly signifies the exquisitely refined moral delicacy of people who feel entitled to pass through life without encountering ideas or practices that annoy them. As the number of nonbelievers grows — about 20 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, as are one-third of adults under 30 — so does the itch to litigate believers into submission to secular sensibilities.
One suspects that some of the thin-skinned masses are using moral outrage as a way to get their way. If throwing tantrums to get your way is thin-skinned, so be it. I suspect that, in some cases, those who are doing so are more manipulative than sensitive.
Being a moral individual no longer involves getting along with your neighbors, respecting their beliefs and even their practices. Now it involves showing how quickly and easily you can take offense. And using that attitude to impose your views on then.