There is a lot of confusion about what it means to remain “neutral” with regard to various situations or states of affairs in the arena public policy and politics. In this brief article I will attempt to bring some clarification to the discussion.
Let’s say country X and country Y are in a war. Country Z provides weaponry and munitions to country X, while at the same time the political leaders of country Z claim to be neutral in the conflict because they are not sending any troops to support ground operations on the battlefield.
This would be an example of not knowing what it means to be neutral, since country Z is clearly an ally of country X in the fight against country Y. In order to remain neutral in this conflict country Z would need to refrain from offering military support to country X in any capacity.
Following this example, a working definition of “neutrality,” as applied to political speculation, would be something like – remaining impartial toward any political position or state of affairs by refraining from positive or negative action concerning said position or state of affairs.
By utilizing this definition we can examine what it would look like if a government were to be “religiously neutral.”
Within State A there are two counties, county B and county C. County B has a majority of citizens that are professing atheists, and county C has a majority of citizens that are professing Roman Catholics. During the Christmas season, the local population of county C decides that they would like their public institutions – police stations, fire stations, schools etc. – to be decorated according to the teachings of the Catholic Church concerning the Incarnation of the Son of God. So basically, there will be a lot of Nativity scenes and other religious decorations throughout the community. During this same Christmas season, county B does not do any of these things. They do not take the time to decorate their public institutions according to the celebration of the Incarnate Christ. They simply go about their business according to their materialistic views.
The governor of state A happens to be an atheist, and the state constitution contains an amendment allowing for the free exercise of religion. Now, if the governor were to remain “religiously neutral” would he tell county C that they are not allowed to publicly celebrate Christmas according to the Catholic faith even though that is what their citizens have decided to do? No. He would not be permitted to do so because neutrality means to remain “impartial” toward the free exercise of religion or lack thereof for any given community of people within a so-called free society. In this situation, the state is not compelling either county to refrain or participate in Christmas in a religious or non-religious manner. The state is simply allowing the citizens therein to govern themselves according to their own deeply held beliefs. Neutrality would be allowing both counties to go about their business.
Contemporaries of the New Atheist movement, however, believe remaining neutral entails either the forced removal of religious symbols from public property when said citizens are merely expressing their will as a body of religious peoples; or that the local community must allow the expression of any “religion” seeking to build a monument on public property. Under the banner of equality, new atheists have advance the idea that if a statue of a Crucifix is allowed on public property, a statue of Satan should be allowed if a group of Satanists so desire. Concerning the first position of removing religious symbols, this is clearly not neutrality; it is the advancement of atheistic secularism. Concerning the second position, giving honor to Satan is madness.
If my brief assessment is close to accurate, we can posit a theory of neutrality that is easily comprehended. Although we can construct a theory of neutrality, I maintain that there is no such thing in practice. Just as there is no such thing as moral neutrality, there is also no such thing as religious neutrality. The governing authorities will exercise their reign according to a totalizing schematic that will eventually push contrary views of their ultimate guiding principles out of the public square and into obscurity.
– Lucas G. Westman