A draft of a short paper for a recent symposium I participated in at Notre Dame Law School. Here’s the abstract:
A mystery of faith is a truth of religion that escapes human understanding. The mysteries of religion are not truths that human beings happen not to know, or truths that they could know with sufficient study and application, but instead truths that they cannot know in the nature of things. Religious mysteries tend to designate the unfathomable matters of religion, those that the merely human mind cannot grasp.
In this short paper, I suggest that “mysterizing” religion may change the stakes in some of the most controversial conflicts in law and religion. To mysterize (not a neologism, but an archaism) is to cultivate mystery about a subject, in the sense described above—to press the view that a certain subject or phenomenon is not merely unknown, but unknowable by human beings. That is what I propose to do for religion in American law, and what may well alter the landscape of the conflicts between advocates of religious liberty and the forces opposing it. Fortunately, I have had some help. The mysterization of religion seems already to be well under way in American constitutional law. It is a central feature of the Supreme Court’s current conception of religion.
The specific context I consider concerns the question whether the government may make public funds available to private religious schools—either directly or through mechanisms of independent, private choice—on condition that the schools accept and implement nondiscrimination rules regarding the sexual identity or conduct of their students and faculty. The mysterization of religion probably alters the legal landscape by rendering the claim that conditions concerning the admission or hiring of LGBTQ persons interfere with religious free exercise stronger than it otherwise would be. And the argument for mysterization itself derives strength from the Supreme Court’s own conception of religion as ineffable, unintelligible, and unevaluable, as well as from the Court’s recent ministerial exception cases.
I conclude by briefly reflecting on what the mysterization of religion may mean more generally for law and religion. It is not all good news for religion. In fact, upon closer inspection, it turns out that mystery in traditional religions, conceptualized as a partial, incomplete, or imperfect apprehension of the transcendent, is quite different than mystery in the contemporary legal understanding of religion as psychological, interior, personal unfathomability. Almost its opposite.