Today, by federal statute, is the National Day of Prayer. Many of our foreign readers will find it odd, but the U.S. Code requires that the President issue an annual proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a day on which Americans “may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.” Note the phrasing. The President is not to direct people to pray — that would be unconstitutional, obviously — or even to request that they pray. He is required only to designate the day as one on which Americans may pray. And meditate. But not “pray or meditate.” Lots of lawyers’ hours must have gone into all this.
Anyway. Although the statute only dates from the 1950s, the practice of declaring national days of prayer goes back to President Washington. Consistent with the American tradition of public religion, the prayers have tended to be non-sectarian. In fact, a group calling itself the “National Day of Prayer Task Force,” which promotes observance of the day around the country, highlights its “Judeo-Christian” character. On Monday, President Obama issued this year’s proclamation, which invites Americans to pray and “give thanks for our democracy that . . . protects the religious freedom of all people to pray, worship, or abstain according to the dictates of their conscience.”
That’s about as inclusive as you can get in a National Day of Prayer proclamation, but not everyone is satisfied. The Freedom from Religion Foundation brought suit a while ago to declare the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. The Seventh Circuit dismissed the case on standing grounds (no injury). This year, the American Humanist Association has declared a “National Day of Reason” to compete with the “National Day of Prayer.” I suppose reasonable theists can observe both.
An absolutely wonderful looking book dealing with religion and political and legal authority round about the 15th century by Ian Christopher Levy (Providence College), Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages (Notre Dame 2012). And note some very similar issues of textual interpretation which we see in our own day. The publisher’s description follows.
All participants in late medieval debates recognized Holy Scripture as the principal authority in matters of Catholic doctrine. Popes, theologians, lawyers—all were bound by the divine truth it conveyed. Yet the church possessed no absolute means of determining the final authoritative meaning of the biblical text—hence the range of appeals to antiquity, to the papacy, and to councils, none of which were ultimately conclusive. Authority in the late medieval church was a vexing issue precisely because it was not resolved.
Ian Christopher Levy’s book focuses on the quest for such authority between 1370 and 1430, from John Wyclif to Thomas Netter, thereby encompassing the struggle over Holy Scripture waged between Wycliffites and Hussites on the one hand, and their British and Continental opponents on the other. Levy demonstrates that the Wycliffite/Hussite “heretics” and their opponents—the theologians William Woodford, Thomas Netter, and Jean Gerson—in fact shared a large and undisputed common ground. They held recognized licenses of expertise, venerated tradition, esteemed the church fathers, and embraced Holy Scripture as the ultimate authority in Christendom. What is more, they utilized similar hermeneutical strategies with regard to authorial intention, the literal sense, and the appeal to the fathers and holy doctors in order to open up the text. Yet it is precisely this commonality, according to Levy, that rendered the situation virtually intractable; he argues that the erroneous assumption persists today that Netter and Gerson spoke for “the church,” whereas Wyclif and Hus sought to destroy it.
Levy’s sophisticated study in historical theology, which reconsiders the paradigm of heresy and orthodoxy, offers a necessary adjustment in our view of church authority at the turn of the fifteenth century.
For those who haven’t seen it yet, the first issue of the fantastic new law & religion journal – the Journal of Law, Religion and State – just came out. The JLRS has an impressive editorial board and describes its focus as follows:
The Journal of Law Religion and State is an international forum for the study and discussion of the interactions between these domains. It is focusing on the following areas: religion and state; legal and political aspects of all religious traditions; comparative research of various religious legal systems and their interrelations.
The first issues includes articles from Michael Walzer (Princeton), Mark Rosen (Chicago-Kent), Jeff Spinner-Halev (UNC), and Jonathan Fox (Bar-Ilan). The JLRS will undoubtedly serve as a great forum for exchange on the intersection of law & religion.
Starting this afternoon, Touro Law Center will be hosting the 2012 Religiously Affiliated Law Schools Conference, which will explore “The Place of Religion in the Law School, the University, and the Practice of Law.” The conference was organized by Samuel Levine who put together a fantastic program. Highlights of the program include keynote speaker Nathan Lewin, plus presentations by some of the very best in the law & religion field (including CLR Forum’s own Mark Movsesian and Pepperdine University School of Law’s Dean Deanell Tacha).
If you’re able to go (which I regretfully am not), I’d strongly recommend attending this impressive event.