There is a fair amount of moral preening in this article from Slate on an ill-advised (at best) move by a city council in Coolidge, Arizona to allow Christian-only prayers at their meetings. The piece, by Dahlia Lithwick, is a little overheated. The resolution went nowhere. She acknowledges that prayers at council meetings are allowed under a 2014 Supreme Court decision. Town of Greece v. Galloway, so long as there is no intent to discriminate, and that the Coolidge City Council rescinded the resolution shortly after the 4-2 vote in favor (which in any event needed to be voted on again to pass). Not to mention that the council assured one member that if he didn’t like what he was hearing from another faith, he didn’t have to listen.
Lithwick thinks both the actual proposed Coolidge resolution and one that simply permitted religious groups within the town limits to offer prayers at council meetings are examples of religious “intolerance” (Lithwick calls the latter “sneaky and subversive” even though it is perfectly reasonable and constitutional to only allow those groups actually present in a town to offer prayers). This theocracy-under-every-bed approach is tiresome and implausible, without disagreeing that the council’s decision was not a good one.
What interests me here is that Lithwick and others (such as historian Kevin Kruse, who has written a very interesting book on the rise of the Religious Right) mocked the proponent of the resolution for saying that Christianity was “our heritage.” As a historical matter, I don’t think this is remotely debatable, and Lithwick has the losing side. Further, as a constitutional matter, there is voluminous evidence that the Founders were very much influenced by the Reformed Protestant tradition, which is reflected in the documents they wrote.
This topic came up during a recent Libertas conference I had the privilege of attending, and has deep roots. (Thomas Jefferson, for example, argued that Christianity did not form part of the “law of the land.”) Lithwick’s view dovetails with a good article by Stuart Banner on Christianity and the common law. Banner finds that the decline of the belief that “Christianity forms part of the common law” coincides with the rise of a notion that the law was made by judges and not simply reflective of underlying truths, be they religious or otherwise. He writes: “Law was a body of principles separate from other bodies of principles, not just in its source (the decisions of government officials), but in its field of application. Religious norms, even those universally subscribed to, did not qualify as ‘law,’ not just because they were not made by government officials, but also because they were not enforced by government officials.” This conception of law increased (unsurprisingly) the power of lawyers and judges, who now presided over an autonomous realm untouched by the beliefs of the people, yet somehow superior to it.
Holding that law and culture are not the same is different from believing that culture need not influence law. Lithwick’s position has its own history, one that is not self-evidently true (and, in light of the “clerisy” theme these posts have been developing, arguably not desirable as well).