Liturgy Matters

I thought I was reasonably well informed about the English Reformation, but a new book from Yale recounts an episode of which, I confess, I had never heard, the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549, in which the people of Cornwall and Devon revolted when the government forbade Latin liturgies and required use of the new, English-language Book of Common Prayer. The government quickly put down the rebellion–but at the cost of 4000 lives. I’m not sure if the rebellion passed out of general knowledge, or if their antipathy to Catholicism led the Framers to pass over it, but I have never seen a reference to the Prayer Book Rebellion in the Framers’ frequent warnings about the dangers of establishment. Odd, because the rebellion seems a good example of such dangers–as well as the importance of liturgy to religious identity. Few things matter more to believers than the language they use to pray, as current controversies in the Catholic and other Christian churches reveal even today.

The book is A Murderous Midsummer: The Western Rising of 1549, by historian Mark Stoyle (University of Southampton). The publisher’s description follows:

The fascinating story of the so-called “Prayer Book Rebellion” of 1549 which saw the people of Devon and Cornwall rise up against the Crown

The Western Rising of 1549 was the most catastrophic event to occur in Devon and Cornwall between the Black Death and the Civil War. Beginning as an argument between two men and their vicar, the rebellion led to a siege of Exeter, savage battles with Crown forces, and the deaths of 4,000 local men and women. It represents the most determined attempt by ordinary English people to halt the religious reformation of the Tudor period.

Mark Stoyle tells the story of the so-called “Prayer Book Rebellion” in full. Correcting the accepted narrative in a number of places, Stoyle shows that the government in London saw the rebels as a real threat. He demonstrates the importance of regional identity and emphasizes that religion was at the heart of the uprising. This definitive account brings to life the stories of the thousands of men and women who acted to defend their faith almost five hundred years ago.

Pojanowski on Authenticity and Free Speech

This past July, the Center co-hosted a conference in Rome, “Liberalism’s Limits: Religious Exemptions and Hate Speech.” The conference, which addressed the challenges that religious exemptions and hate-speech regulations pose for liberalism, was divided into three workshops, for which participants submitted short reflection papers. Professor Jeffrey Pojanowski (Notre Dame) submitted the following paper for Workshop 1, on the general themes of the conference, which we are delighted to publish here:

Consider two very different works of art. The first is the 1943 Norman Rockwell painting, Freedom of Speech. There, a workman in a New England town hall stands resolute amid his nattier neighbors, preparing to say his piece. The painting’s model was the Arlington, Vermont farmer, Jim Edgerton, the sole dissenter to the town selectmen’s decision to build a new school. This painting, one in a series commemorating Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” links freedom of speech with republican self-governance, deliberation about a shared good, and an idea of equality that elevates the dignity of the common man to the plane of his more aristocratic fellow citizens. Edgerton’s mien is reminiscent of Lincoln.

The second is a 2002 Joseph Frederick banner, 14-feet-long and emblazoned with the message “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS.” This banner, which the Juneau, Alaska high school senior created just before he displayed it at an Olympic torch parade, was, in the words of its creator, “just nonsense meant to attract television cameras.” The Supreme Court of the United States explained that this message, displayed at a school-sponsored event, could be reasonably understood as advocating illegal drug use, but it was “plainly not a case about political debate over the criminalization of drug use or possession.” Over a vigorous dissent, the Court held that the First Amendment did not prohibit Frederick’s school from disciplining Frederick. Frederick’s claim links free speech with a bare right of self-expression, even if the message that the autonomous self seeks to assert is admittedly “nonsense.” Frederick is reminiscent of Cartman.

Frederick could be forgiven for thinking he could prevail, which he did before the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment as protecting lying about military honors, virtual child pornography, and crush films (don’t google the term). Now, this protective agnosticism in the Court’s doctrine need not reflect a deep skepticism about truth or beauty; it could flow from a sincere interpretation of the Constitution’s positive-law strictures or reflect prudential worries about empowering government to limit speech. There are many threads in American free speech jurisprudence and culture. Even so, one of the more vibrant ones is the notion that expression is good for its own sake, is self-constituting, and that interferences with, or even judgments about, such autonomous expression in the name of standards outside the self are unjustified and tyrannical.

This thread in jurisprudence and culture has given rise to powerful post-liberal critiques of free speech. Neutrality, the argument goes, is impossible because it presupposes this postmodern celebration of standard-less self-assertion and substantively demands its enforcement through law and culture. Alternatively, even if it does not share such premises, it is no defense against that worldview’s imperialistic designs. To invoke Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’s “law”: “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.” This debate about the compatibility of liberal legal forms like free speech protections and non-liberal culture is challenging, fascinating, and important, and I am hesitant to claim I have anything important to add, especially through short-form scholarship. Rather, I would like to suggest that even those who celebrate—or regard as irreversible—modernity’s departure from more fixed, prescriptive ways should pause before drawing a straight line from liberal individualism to free speech libertarianism. (A caveat: I am operating here primarily at the level of normative argument, not legal doctrine. I don’t claim, and am not qualified to claim, to offer an argument about the best reading of the First Amendment and/or its subsequent implementing doctrines.)

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