Dreisbach, “Reading the Bible With the Founding Fathers”

I’m very pleased to give this notice of Professor Daniel L. Dreisbach’s new book, Reading the Bible With the Founding Fathers, which will be published by Oxford University Press in dreisbach-bookDecember. Professor Dreisbach is one of the most important scholars of religion in the founding generation. His earlier book, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State, as well as his edited volumes, Religion and Politics in the Early Republic: Jasper Adams and the Church-State Debate, and The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, offer vital and erudite insight about the relationship of church and state in the early republic. This volume looks to be essential reading for anyone interested in this area. The publisher’s description follows.

No book was more accessible or familiar to the American founders than the Bible, and no book was more frequently alluded to or quoted from in the political discourse of the age. How and for what purposes did the founding generation use the Bible? How did the Bible influence their political culture?

Shedding new light on some of the most familiar rhetoric of the founding era, Daniel Dreisbach analyzes the founders’ diverse use of scripture, ranging from the literary to the theological. He shows that they looked to the Bible for insights on human nature, civic virtue, political authority, and the rights and duties of citizens, as well as for political and legal models to emulate. They quoted scripture to authorize civil resistance, to invoke divine blessings for righteous nations, and to provide the language of liberty that would be appropriated by patriotic Americans.

Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers broaches the perennial question of whether the American founding was, to some extent, informed by religious-specifically Christian-ideas. In the sense that the founding generation were members of a biblically literate society that placed the Bible at the center of culture and discourse, the answer to that question is clearly “yes.” Ignoring the Bible’s influence on the founders, Dreisbach warns, produces a distorted image of the American political experiment, and of the concept of self-government on which America is built.

Michael McConnell, “Tradition and the Constitution”

Here is a story with some details of the Center’s Tradition Project conference last week-end, which also links to pictures of the event and various recent reflections by conference participants.

And here is Professor Michael McConnell’s lecture, “Tradition and the Constitution”:

Meshugas About Chickens

That’s the title of this post I have over at the Liberty Law blog, discussing a recent controversy in California related to Yom Kippur. A bit:

As a society becomes more secular, what happens to religious rituals, customs, and ways of life that cannot be explained or justified in secular terms? When the freedom to engage in such practices is no longer presumed to be a good because of a firm commitment to religion as a social value, little stands in the way of its becoming just one more special interest. Religious freedom is then thrown into the bin of social oddities, to be haggled over and negotiated against whatever other idiosyncratic predilections one happens to find in there.

Witness the case of United Poultry Concerns v. Chabad of Irvine. The plaintiff is a California organization devoted to “promoting the respectful and compassionate treatment of domestic fowl” that leads protests, for example, against the use of eggs in the White House Easter-Egg Roll. Indeed, UPC seems to observe a fairly regular schedule of outrage, no doubt because many holidays, religious and otherwise, tend to involve an adversarial relationship with poultry. (With Thanksgiving on the horizon, the group’s web site is showcasing a book called More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality.)

Over the last two weeks, UPC has been involved in a legal effort to stop a Jewish practice called kaparot that is performed on the day before Yom Kippur. Only a small number of Jews in the United States perform this ceremony, and it involves a trained rabbi swinging a chicken in the air and then slaughtering the animal. (“Kaparot” means atonement.)

The tireless Josh Blackman, who has been involved with the case, has a very complete description of the proceedings. The long and short of it is that a federal District Court judge issued a temporary restraining order against the practice earlier this month, citing a California state animal-cruelty provision, though the judge would have been well advised to consider both the federal Humane Slaughter Act and the Supreme Court’s decision in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993) before acting. The judge ordered pre-trial conferences, briefs, and hearings to be conducted and filed immediately thereafter, right smack dab during the most important week in the Jewish calendar.

Perhaps most telling of all was that the hearing on the temporary restraining order was scheduled for October 13, the day after Yom Kippur, which Professor Blackman amusingly analogizes to scheduling a hearing for December 26 on an order to prohibit a ceremony performed on Christmas day. The judge eventually lifted the order just hours before sundown on October 12, rendering it impossible as a practical matter for the synagogue’s members to perform the ceremony.

Indeed, as Professor Blackman notes, the timing of the legal proceeding was obviously calculated by the plaintiffs to cause as much disruption and distress as it possibly could (the lawsuit could have been filed really at any other time), respectful treatment of chickens being one thing and respectful treatment of religious believers quite another. The judge seems to have been either utterly unaware of these issues or utterly uninterested in them.

How Rights Are Like Taffy

I have this short reflection over at the Liberty Law blog, my own contribution of sorts to the symposium on Professor Muñoz’s fine paper and the set of posts it has generated. A bit:

Exemption from laws interfering with such interests might be granted as a matter of legislative grace, but were not constitutionally compelled. The constitutional right of religious freedom was intended to protect a natural right, and like other natural rights, its authority was supreme until precisely the point where its natural limits ran out. Beyond that point, the authority of the state to protect the peace and the rights of others was supreme.

Muñoz is not the first to make this general claim, though he supports it with some important new evidence. Indeed, the claim has been made by, among others, Professor Philip Hamburger in his fine 2004 essay, “More Is Less,” and the general idea can be made to apply to rights of all kinds. The greater the coverage of the right, the more likely that the right will conflict with other interests that a government might wish to protect, and the more qualified the right may become.

As Hamburger puts it:

If a right is defined with greater breadth, will this necessarily stimulate demands for a diminution of its availability? Surely not. Nonetheless, the danger may be inherent in every attempt to expand a right, for at some point, as the definition of a right is enlarged, there are likely to be reasons for qualifying access.

The danger, moreover, is not only that more coverage means greater opportunity for conflict with governmental interests at the periphery of the right. It is that by conceiving of natural rights broadly, and as by their nature in a kind of perpetual give-and-take with governmental interests, even the core of the right becomes negotiable. By and by, we become accustomed to thinking of natural rights just in this way—as just one more set of interests to be balanced by the government as it pursues its own purposes. Rights, in sum, are like taffy. They may be chewy and tough out of the wrapper, but as you stretch them out they become ever thinner, and ever weaker.

Some have contested this general account. Professor John Inazu, for example, has argued that the rights-confinement claim ignores the cultural context within which some rights grow more powerful while others decline. Free speech, after all, seems as powerful as ever, while religious freedom declines. But the ambit of both has expanded greatly over the last century, which suggests that the latter has declined for reasons other than rights-expansion.

I wonder, though, whether rights-expansion and cultural devaluation may be mutually supportive rather than mutually exclusive explanations for the decline of a right. Free speech, for example, has both grown exponentially as a right over the last several decades and has itself come under threats of all kinds in more recent years, as the government plays an ever larger role in the life of the citizenry. In that sense, we could say that more is more, because every inch gained is a gain for the right, and every inch lost is a gain for the state.

An Awful Report by the USCCR

I have a post up at Law and Liberty on the recent report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties.” It is not positive. A bit:

The recommendations begin with the ominous observation that civil rights protections ensuring nondiscrimination “are of preeminent importance in American jurisprudence.” Preeminent over what, exactly? That quickly becomes crystal clear: over religious freedom. Supreme Court decisions that the commissioners celebrate for reflecting this preeminence include Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (2011), EEOC v. Abercrombie and Fitch (2015), and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). It is telling that the commission includes Abercrombie and Fitchan utterly unremarkable case involving the interpretation of the standard for an employer’s state of mind in a disparate treatment action under Title VII—because it thereby squeezes and deforms religious freedom into the only framework it can accept or understand: nondiscrimination.

After this, we are treated to the following hodgepodge of inanity: “Schools must be allowed to insist on inclusive values.” Apparently this is meant as a defense of Martinez; but it ought to read, “schools must be allowed to insist that everybody espouse the values we have canonized.”

The commissioners go on to say that “throughout history, religious doctrines accepted at one time later become viewed as discriminatory, with religions changing accordingly.”Really? Is this statement made in promotion of “peaceful coexistence” and “reconciliation”? It sounds more like a crude bit of pseudo-history capped by a fairly direct threat.


DeGirolami, “Religious Accommodation, Religious Tradition, and Political Polarization”

I have posted a new paper, Religious Accommodation, Religious Tradition, and Political Polarization (UPDATE: link fixed). Though my subject is not the same as Professor Muñoz’s, the two are related in several ways, and I’ll have a post or two about the connections soon. Here’s the abstract:

A religious accommodation is an exemption from compliance with the law for some but not for others. One might therefore suppose that before granting an accommodation, courts would inquire about whether a legal interference with religious belief or practice is truly significant, if only to evaluate whether the risk of political polarization that attends accommodation is worth hazarding. But that is not the case: any assessment of the significance of a religious belief or practice within a claimant’s belief system is strictly forbidden.

Two arguments are pressed in support of this view: (1) courts have institutional reasons for acquiescing on the burden question; and (2) courts have anti-establishment reasons for doing so. Courts, it is said, do not decide about the quality of religious burdens. Claimants do that. Courts defer so as to reduce the political polarization that might result if some should perceive that their religious beliefs and practices are comparatively powerless to obtain exemptions. Deference on the burden question preserves the religious neutrality of courts and mitigates the politically polarizing dangers of accommodation.

This essay contests that view. It argues that this approach to religious accommodation has generated considerable difficulties of its own that have aggravated the political polarization they were intended to reduce. Political polarization is now a pervasive feature of religious accommodation, but this essay focuses on only some explanations for this unfortunate state of affairs—those that relate to the antagonistic relationship between religious accommodation and established religious groups and traditions.

First, hyper-deference as to the burden on religion systematically undermines the view that religions are institutional phenomena with established, stable, and longstanding traditions. In doing so, it damages the argument that courts are institutionally incompetent to evaluate religious ideas. Claims about the institutional incompetence of the judiciary to inquire into religious burdens proceed on the assumption that there is something unique—and intelligibly unique—about religious beliefs and practices that make them different from, say, individual foibles, fraudulent schemes, flights of fancy, or private predilections. Arguments about the judiciary’s institutional incompetence as to religious questions contemplate the existence of other institutions that are competent as to those questions. Lacking such other institutions, the institutional competence of courts to evaluate religious claims is greatly strengthened. Courts are perfectly competent to evaluate fraud, idiosyncrasy, gibberish, and personal preference. Yet when courts are disabled from evaluating some varieties of idiosyncratic eccentricity (denominated “religious”) but not others (not so denominated), then “religion,” and therefore religious accommodation, is bound to be politically polarizing. The category of religion, having been stripped of its institutional character for legal purposes, designates nothing coherent at all. And people begin to suspect with some justice that decisions about accommodation are being made on the basis of other reasons altogether.

Second, the hyper-deferential approach to religious accommodation assumes and promotes a particular and decidedly non-neutral view of religion as irrational and utterly incomprehensible to anybody other than an individual believer. Accommodation is not for established religious groups or traditions—groups that are organized, enduring, and that might offer substantial resistance to prevailing political and cultural orthodoxies. Accommodation is for the exotic, the personal, the unthreatening, and the peculiar. That view is part of the heritage of the highly individualized, subjective approach to religion steadily constitutionalized by the Supreme Court since the mid-twentieth century, and that now seems to be the foundation of one powerful strain of the contemporary cultural understanding of religion in America. It is a view whose promotion in law has profoundly entangled the state with religion. The refusal of courts to make any serious inquiry into the nature of the asserted religious burden has encouraged increasingly aggressive, self-indulgent, and ephemeral assertions of religious freedom. It will—and indeed, it already has—promoted unserious religion. Small wonder that religion as a legal category is in such disreputable odor. Small wonder that religious accommodation is increasingly perceived in politically partisan terms.

Law and Tradition in America: My Reply

I have a reply to the essays of Professors Bernstein, Levinson, and Stoner up at the Liberty Tradition ProjectFund blog. It is the last in this series, and I’ve enjoyed it very much. Here is a portion from the middle, responding to some of Professor Levinson’s challenging remarks:

It is a somewhat different thing to reply to Professor Levinson, who has earned more attention in this reply by being considerably less sympathetic than my other interlocutors to the value of exploring the relationship of tradition in law. He makes three primary points: 1) My essay was pitched at a sufficiently abstract level so as to be criticized with the aphorism that we are all traditionalists in America so long as we are essentially liberal Progressives (or libertarians). 2) American Founders such as the authors of the Federalist Papers were revolutionaries, not traditionalists, so that the predominant American political-legal tradition is liberal Progressivism, if not radicalism. 3) To the extent a non-liberal-Progressive traditionalism has been part of American intellectual history, it has been responsible for terrible things—slavery most prominent among them—that have rightly been abandoned.

As to the first point, it is difficult to think of anybody (not even Professor Levinson’s traditionalist incarnation, Edmund Burke, would qualify) who holds that a positive view of tradition implies or requires stasis or the total absence of change. Even for those, like Burke, well-disposed to adhere to past patterns of behavior, it is necessary to devise new ones if only because the situations to which those traditional patterns must be applied are different than those that preceded them—“confirming the wisdom of what remains,” as Professor Stoner has it. At any rate, though the relationship between tradition and social change is complex, at least this much may be said: It is not a one-sided affair. It is not all tradition and no change or progress. Otherwise, we would all be liberal Progressives.

Perhaps the differences between Professor Levinson and me are therefore more matters of mood, disposition, or emphasis. He lights up at those moments in American culture and history in which people exercise their freedom to “denounce” the inheritance of the past. It is probably fair to say that I find such moments less electrifying, though I agree with Professor Levinson that they do exist.

I offer the Madison of the National Bank controversy. He counters with the Madison of Federalist 14 (though I might observe that a “decent regard to the opinions of former times” is not the same as an indecent contempt for them).

I could parry with language in Federalist 15 (“experience” as “the best oracle of wisdom”) or the very final Federalist 85 (“No human genius, however comprehensive, is able by the mere dint of reason and reflection to effect it. The judgements of many must unite in the work.”). Or even Federalist 2, in which John Jay notes with some pride that “Providence” has seen fit to give the country to a people “very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long ad bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.”

Doubtless Professor Levinson would have a riposte at the ready, and so it would go on. He characterizes these as internal “contradictions” within The Federalist but they may simply be different features of the moral and political experience of these three authors, each representing its own portion of wisdom. Many of them do not vindicate liberal Progressivism in the least.

In fact, it severely distorts the American Founding to call it either committed to a liberal Progressive ideological program or rabidly radical. True, there were elements of the Old World that were cast off by the new nation, but as historians from Forrest McDonald to Eric Nelson have (in their own ways) shown, the temper of the American Founders may have been even more traditionalist than their English progenitors. Early Americans were the inheritors of an English constitutional traditionalism that was centuries old. Their revolution was motivated by the Crown’s denial of what they perceived as their traditional, ancient rights as Englishmen, rather than by the desire to denounce and exchange those rights for something altogether and radically different. What they desired for themselves was what they already knew well as the tradition of self-government in liberty.

The English Bill of Rights was a model for ours, just as the Act of Union was a model for our federalism. As Greg Weiner has put it in his fine recent essay for Law and Liberty, “Of course, the colonists were deeply affected by the ideas of the Enlightenment, as they were by the ideas of antiquity (far more essentially a staple of their curricula).” Tradition and change were at least equally parts of their political and intellectual constitution. As they should be (but regrettably are not) of ours.

Stoner’s Response: “Legal Realism, Legal Revolution”

The final response to my essay on law and tradition has been posted over at Liberty Law, Tradition Projectand it is superb: Professor James Stoner’s Legal Realism, Legal Revolution. Jim’s work has been formative for my own learning about the relationship of the common law tradition and American constitutionalism–and in particular about the erroneous and all-too-common characterization of constitutional law as “judge-made law.” It’s wonderful to have his contribution. A bit from the end of Jim’s piece:

Just a little over two months after praising Americans for discarding a “blind veneration” of legal tradition, Madison wrote a most interesting passage in Federalist 49. In that February 2, 1788 essay he explained the need for the Constitution to earn what I infer must be enlightened “veneration” (he repeats the noun, without an adjective) from the people. This would come over time, as the system established by the Constitution demonstrated its capacity to insure good government. I think Madison had in mind a respect that inclines people to work within the system to seek improvements, and an inclination to wonder whether even what appear to the most agitated of us to be “stupidities” or “rigging,” might not have a reasonable purpose, even if that purpose has come to be overlooked or forgotten.

“In a nation of philosophers,” he continued, “this consideration ought to be disregarded. A reverence for the laws would be sufficiently inculcated by the voice of enlightened reason. But a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected, as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato.” The impossibility of such a nation, moreover, is not accidental, but somehow essential, if the limits of human reason are understood. As Madison explains a few papers later, “Had every Athenian citizen had been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

DeGirolami seems right on point in describing the anti-traditionalism of the legal academy today and, since this has been the case for more than a generation, of the bar and bench that they have trained. The thirst for novelty, driven by academic practices that ultimately imitate the natural sciences without showing anything like scientific progress, except perhaps to partisans of dominant opinion, has corrupted the respect for tradition that once imbued the law and that—let me repeat by way of emphasis—made possible genuinely successful reform.

Perhaps, as DeGirolami hopes, something can be salvaged of the common law tradition, in its new guise as “judicial process,” to guide pragmatic reformers who don’t want to scrape their shins on the furniture—even if the brightest and most ambitious eschew Holmes’ path of “profound interstitial change” in favor of openly promoting causes they think noble. I confess to being a bit skeptical that tradition can be recovered as a formal category and an independent good apart from the actual, concrete tradition of common law and constitutionalism which we inherited, developed, and now seem eager to spend down. I doubt, too, whether that tradition could be restored unless the difficult philosophical work were done inside the law schools and outside of them—the work that would be needed to revive the thought, the experience, and even the faith in human reason out of which our tradition first emerged.

Levinson on Law and Tradition (a Skeptical View)

Professor Sandy Levinson has an enjoyable and highly critical take on my essay about law and tradition. It’s a pleasure and an honor to be in conversation with him. I’m already at work on my reply. Last up next week will be Professor Jim Stoner. A bit from the beginning of Professor Levinson’s essay:

Professor DeGirolami has written an interesting Liberty Forum essay in behalf of paying respectful attention to tradition as a major aspect of our legal order. However, I think there are two major problems with it. The first is theoretical, particularly in relation to the American political and legal experience. The second has to do with actual practices or examples. The essay, albeit interesting, is written from a lofty perspective; there are too few concrete examples that truly allow the reader to ascertain the implications of his argument. Almost always, when it comes to politics or law, the devil (or saving grace) is in the details, and Professor DeGirolami needs to put more real flesh on his otherwise skeletal argument….

Professor DeGirolami tellingly quotes both Khloe Kardashian and Oliver Wendell Holmes. One is hesitant to embrace Kardashian as a normative exemplar of American culture, and Holmes, of course, has become a central target of those who view “Progressivism” as a defining moment in the decline of that culture and Holmes as a central figure in that decline.  So let me offer two other sources that call into question another notion that there was an Edenic period in America when tradition, however defined, reigned before the Fall instantiated in figures like Holmes and Woodrow Wilson.

Consider one of the ur-texts of American political thought, The Federalist. Needless to say, any series of 85 essays, written by three authors in a remarkably short period, will have its share of contradictions. That being said, my own favorite paragraph among the 85 is the conclusion of Federalist 14, which is, among other things, about the virtues of the “extended republic,” in contrast with what might be said to be traditional notions of republican political thought that emphasized the importance of relatively small and homogeneous societies as a prerequisite for republican governance. Publius dismissed such arguments:

Hearken not to the voice which petulantly tells you that the form of government recommended for your adoption is a novelty in the political world; that it has never yet had a place in the theories of the wildest projectors; that it rashly attempts what it is impossible to accomplish. . . . Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience? . . . They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe. (emphasis added)

Bernstein, “The Courts and Tradition: A Begrudging Respect”

Professor David Bernstein (George Mason) has a thoughtful response to my essay on lawTradition Project and tradition. Here is a bit:

When it comes to American constitutional law, by the late 19th century there was widespread agreement on two principles: that when interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court’s role was to protect those natural rights that had been crucial to the development of Anglo-American liberty; and that the United States had an unwritten Constitution based on traditional principles, much like Great Britain’s, that informed constitutional analysis.[3]

For the most part, the Supreme Court justices of the pre-New Deal period did not engage in a jurisprudence of originalism that would be recognizable to modern advocates of originalism. Rather than focusing on the original public meaning of discrete portions of the text, they instead interpreted the Constitution in light of the classical liberal values they believed were embedded in America’s written and unwritten constitutions. They sought to protect those liberties that underpinned the development of Anglo-American liberty. Their Progressive critics recognized this as a form of originalism, and accused them of allowing the dead hand of the past to rule the present. The critics instead advocated a “living Constitution” that would privilege social science and the perceived needs of modernity over the protection of traditional American liberties.[4]

The old Court permitted the government to impinge on recognized liberties when the government was acting within the contours of the so-called police power. Importantly, that power included not simply the protection of public health and safety, but also the protection of public morals, as defined by Anglo-American tradition. For example, despite the Court’s endorsement of liberty of contract, it had no difficulty unanimously upholding a law that restricted work on Sundays.[5]

The Supreme Court’s concern for protecting natural rights as understood in the context of Anglo-American history did not survive the New Deal and the triumph of legal progressivism. That triumph was so complete that for a long time the only significant debate in American constitutionalism was in effect between old Progressives who wanted to severely limit judicial review, and new Progressives who agreed that judicial review should generally be limited, but who sought to carve out certain preferred freedoms for special judicial protection. These freedoms were not defined by reference to tradition or history, but by the need to ensure that the modern special-interest state had democratic legitimacy. As the American state-building project continued, it was considered crucial to ensure that freedom of speech allowed for public debate and input, that criminal suspects received federal procedural protections, and that minorities such as African Americans did not become a permanent underclass, with their status imposed by government.

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