ABSOLUTISM….Yesterday was not the first time I’ve suggested that liberals should calm down over the issue of minor displays of religious symbolism in the public square, but it provoked the usual storm of disagreement. The most common protest is that I just don’t get it: these things may seem small to me, but they’re the camel’s nose under the tent. The wingnuts won’t give up just because we toss them a few bones, and before long we’ll be beaming videotapes of the 700 Club into classrooms across the country to start the school day.

At its core, this is an argument that absolutism should always be met with absolutism, a notion that I think is wildly mistaken. Consider freedom of speech, for example.

Free speech is protected by the First Amendment, and the text is clear: “Congress shall make no law….” And yet, take a look at the state of free speech in America today. There are laws galore.

The Supreme Court long ago carved out exceptions in which prior restraint is acceptable (no yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater). Libel and slander laws are commonly used to punish unacceptable speech. Privacy laws restrict speech. Judges can issue gag orders during trials. Communities can (and do) routinely restrict time, place, and manner of acceptable speech. Commercial speech is highly regulated. Campaign finance law restricts political speech during election seasons.

You may disagree with some or even all of these restrictions. But their existence does not mean that America is sliding down a slippery slope toward fascism. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, the United States has the strongest protections of free speech in the world.

The analogy with religious symbolism is obvious. I’m certainly not suggesting that, say, the ACLU should stop litigating free speech cases. Of course not. On the other hand, if they engaged in a quixotic campaign to get every vestige of libel law overturned on First Amendment grounds, I’d think they had gone nuts. Americans agree almost unanimously that deliberate libel should be actionable and that the existence of libel law is not an imminent threat to free speech in America. If the ACLU fought like banshees against every libel judgment in the country, they would quickly be dismissed as cranks and the result would be less respect for free speech protections, not more.

The fact is that absolutism doesn’t sell very well in America except among small outposts of wingnuttery. Free speech is as close to an absolute as we have in America, but even so there are exceptions ? and rightfully so. Ditto for church/state separation. The answer to wingnuttery is not equal and opposite wingnuttery.

If you want public support, you have to pick your fights wisely. Not everything is the first step down a slippery slope, and if blind absolutism causes you to pick too many fights, or pick the wrong ones, you’re dismissed as a crank instead of a crusader for justice. Sure, I’d just as soon not have creche scenes in front of city hall or “In God We Trust” on dollar bills, but face it: they aren’t slippery slopes on the road to theocracy. Abington v. Schempp is settled doctrine despite 40 years of howling from the Christian right, and the minuscule amount of religious symbolism left in public life just isn’t worth being outraged about. Fighting like banshees over stuff that has so little real-life consequence just undermines support for real church/state separation issues and makes liberals look like cranks.

And the Christian right? Who cares? They’re never going to vote for us no matter what we do. But there are plenty of centrists who will ? unless they decide that we’re every bit the absolutist wingnuts the Jerry Falwells of the world are. Personally, I think we should give them a choice.

UPDATE: Elayne Riggs makes the case for the opposition.