There are certain topics on which our letter writers and online commenters talk past the author of the piece who prompted them to respond. They don't address points raised in the original article; instead, they use the piece as a way to express whatever unassailably strong opinions they have on an issue. Examples of topics that touch off this kind of dialogue -- if you can call it that -- include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, abortion and religion.
Some of the letters and comments below typify what we often get in response to an editorial on religion; in this case, they're replying to the most recent editorial in our series exploring the meaning of citizenship in the 21st century, "Patriotic Americans have the right not to believe in any God."
I've noted as recently as last week that for a discussion so often diminished by intransigence, the letters we have been receiving in response to our editorials and Op-Ed articles on citizenship have been on point, thoughtful and civil. The letters and comments responding to our most recent editorial include several that deserve publication, but much more than with previous 21st Century Citizen installments, readers dig in rather than engage.
Here are some of the more thoughtful letters and comments we received in response to the editorial. The letters are edited for clarity, style and grammar; the comments, on the other hand, have already been published, so they are reproduced here completely unedited.
Rebecca Hertsgaard of Palm Desert remembers the days before "under God" was in the Pledge of Allegiance:
I remember clearly when, as a 7-year-old schoolgirl, I happily placed my hand over my heart every morning and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The words, "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all," held so much meaning for me even then, proudly announcing to the world that our strong, magnificent country happily welcomed everyone to freely pursue "the dream" (except, perhaps, for the Native Americans we so cavalierly displaced with our declaration of Manifest Destiny).
We were united, indivisibly.
And then, one day, we all had to re-learn the Pledge, and the words "under God" suddenly became part of our national credo. And with those words, intended to unite us against the unthinkable threat of "godless Communism," our indivisible nation was instantly divided. And "God' has, sadly, continued to divide us, perhaps irreparably.
I am a nontheist. But I am still an American. The Constitution tells me so.
Whittier resident Craig Allen, a pastor at an evangelical Christian church, puts Thomas Jefferson's remarks on church-state separation in context:
In referencing Thomas Jefferson's usage of the phrase "wall of separation" between church and state, the Los Angeles Times co-opts the apparent intention of Jefferson's purpose.
Jefferson's singular usage of this metaphor was in a private letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut in 1802. Unlike the editorial, Jefferson also quotes the free exercise clauses of the 1st Amendment. Jefferson's specific affirmation is to restrain the "powers of government" to "reach actions only." Jefferson insisted that no one is accountable to another for one's faith or worship. The immediate context was the freedom of the Danbury Baptists not to have to join or be ruled by a state church. Jefferson politely reciprocates prayers and refers to man's creator to close the letter.
Meanwhile, The Times disparages the "commingling of citizenship and Christianity," desires chaplains' prayers to omit Christian references and opposes even nonsectarian prayers among local governments.
Jefferson's intent was to assure the Danbury Baptists that their religious practice would not be restricted. There was a wall to protect them from governmental intrusion. The Times, meanwhile, is aiming to restrict free exercise in the public arena -- against both Jefferson and the Bill of Rights.
Devra Mindel of Santa Monica hopes for decisive action from the Supreme Court:
The outrageous Mississippi initiative to "commingle citizenship and Christianity" would go farther than to officially endorse Christian prayers at meetings of government bodies.
The initiative would mandate the state's flag salute to be recited verbatim immediately following the national Pledge of Allegiance in public schools and other state institutions: "I salute the flag of Mississippi and the sovereign state for which it stands with pride in her history and achievements and with confidence in her future under the guidance of Almighty God."
Orwellian as this proposal sounds, if approved, it may serve one productive purpose: Reviewing courts will no longer be able to pretend that certain states aren't set on installing a Christian theocracy; they will be compelled to uphold the 1st Amendment's bar against endorsement of religion.
The day when the U.S. Supreme Court decisively rules to keep government separate from religion can't come soon enough.
Mission Hills resident Sam Chaidez says nonbelievers face no infringement of their liberties:
The Times seems to suffer from a severe case of religious paranoia. No American is being coerced to utter the phrase "one nation under God. Any American can simply remain silent during a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance without feeling like a second-class citizen.
Do these same individuals feel like second-class citizens when they read the Declaration of Independence, which makes direct reference to God and a creator? Talk about political correctness run amok.
Commenter scream63 draws a bright line between church and state:
Freedom is the distance between church and state. If you must abdicate your morality and reason to the supernatural do so in your homes, churches, mosques and temples. Have some respect for the secular nature of our government and its founding principals and quit demanding the state impose your religious edicts and biases on those who reject your faiths. When religion was the law of the land, that period was known as the Dark Ages. I don't wish for a return to those awful times and conditions and neither do millions of other Americans.
Commenter reed464 targets easily offended secularists:
The Times felt the need to post this divisive editorial which addresses a non-issue and which is really red meat for a certain constituency that would love nothing more than to banish the influence of religion in the public square. Why is the Times commenting on what is happening in Mississippi? Why not editorialize more on the fact that political correctness has run amok in the US and is really stifling free speech. How does the Times feel about pundit Bill Maher's comments on Islam? That would be interesting to hear. Or the narrow mindedness of colleges that boycott graduation speakers based on their ideology. To me, a 21st century citizen is also one that knows the real meaning of the word tolerance, not the contrived 'tolerance' that is more and more practiced today which says that you can voice your opinion as long it is consistent with the tenants of a left wing, 'progressive' worldview. Otherwise, keep quiet.
This is part of an ongoing conversation exploring the meaning of citizenship in America today. For more, join us at latimes.com/citizenship and #21stCenturyCitizen. We’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts, rebuttals and experiences with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion.