Conference at Washington University on the Religion Clauses

I’m at Washington University in St. Louis today for a conference put together by Professor John Inazu on “The Religion Clauses.” I’ll be talking about my recent piece, First Amendment Traditionalism, which extends the arguments about traditionalism in constitutional interpretation that I first made in The Traditions of American Constitutional Law. If you happen to be in the area, please do come by and say hello, as the conference is free and open to the public.

Christianity and Liberalism before the Fall

Nathan Chapman (Georgia) has posted a very interesting new paper on SSRN, Forgotten Federal-Missionary Partnerships: New Light on the Establishment Clause. His paper relates to a specific, historical example of federal funding for religious schools, but has implications for much broader Establishment Clause issues as well.

Chapman explains that, for much of the 19th Century, the federal government gave significant financial support to Christian missionary schools that educated Native Americans. Even more: virtually no one saw the financial support of these schools as an Establishment Clause problem. Evidently, Americans at the time–or at least the elites whose opinions mattered–did not perceive public support for instruction in Christian morality as a constitutional issue. That is so, Chapman argues, because elites at the time did not perceive basic Christian morality as sectarian and threatening in the way their counterparts do today. Borrowing from sociologist Charles Taylor, Chapman writes that “elite white Americans shared a ‘social imaginary’—or social paradigm—of ‘civilization’ that merged education, republicanism, and at least a modicum of Christianity.”

This is an extremely important insight for understanding American culture, and, therefore, American law. Historically, Americans have seen Christianity, especially its Protestant iteration, as consistent with liberalism and progress. Writing in the 1830s, Tocqueville observed that in the Old World, everyone understood that Christianity and liberty were rivals; but Americans had so completely run the two together in their minds that it was impossible for them to conceive of the one without the other. The conflict between Christianity and liberty that informs today’s culture wars simply did not exist for most of our history. As a consequence, the issues that preoccupy us today had little salience.

Of course, things are very different now. Maybe something went wrong, or maybe, as Patrick Deneen argues, the conflict was always there, waiting to hatch out. Anyhow, American elites today, especially legal elites, do not see Christianity and liberty as natural allies. This makes “translating” (Chapman’s term) the nineteenth-century practice into contemporary constitutional law rather tricky–even assuming translation is appropriate. The Establishment Clause was fashioned in a very different culture from our own, one that assumed a harmonious relationship between revelation and reason and that little relied on law to mediate conflicts between them. That is no longer the case, and the implications for our law have yet to be worked out.

“First Amendment Traditionalism”

That’s this new paper, which I’ve just posted, and accompanies this earlier paper discussing the nature of traditionalist interpretation. Here’s the abstract of the newer piece (comments welcome):

“Traditionalist constitutional interpretation takes political and cultural practices of long age and duration as constituting the presumptive meaning of the text. This essay probes traditionalism’s conceptual and normative foundations. It focuses on the Supreme Court’s traditionalist interpretation of the First Amendment to understand the distinctive justifications for traditionalism and the relationship between traditionalism and originalism. The first part of the essay identifies and describes traditionalism in some of the Court’s Speech and Religion Clause jurisprudence, highlighting its salience in the Court’s recent Establishment Clause doctrine.

Part II develops two justifications for traditionalism: “interpretive” and “democratic-populist.” The interpretive justification is that enduring practices presumptively inform the meaning of the words that they instantiate. Generally speaking, we do what we mean, and we mean what we do. The democratic-populist justification is that in a democracy, people who engage in practices consistently and over many years in the belief that those practices are constitutional have endowed them practices with political legitimacy. Courts owe the people’s enduring practices substantial deference as presumptively constitutional. The populist element in this justification is that traditionalism is a defensive interpretive method against what abstract principle in the hands of elite actors has wrought: intolerance, the corrosion of lived experience, and the distortion of text to mirror a particular class of contemporary moral and political views.

In Part III, this essay compares traditionalism with originalism, reaching two conclusions. First, traditionalism’s reliance on practices as presumptively constitutive of constitutional meaning is most distant from originalist theories that rely on abstract principle as constituting the meaning of text and that reject practice-based evidence as the equivalent of irrelevant “expected applications.” It is closest to varieties of originalism that read text concretely. Yet traditionalist judges are not engaged in making guesses about “expected applications,” but in making decisions about retrospective applications—drawing on old and enduring practices either to include within, or exclude from, a tradition the specific practice under review. Second, the essay investigates the connection between so-called “original law” theories of originalism and traditionalism. Original law theorists argue that originalism is “our law” as a sociological and cultural fact. But traditionalism may be more “our law” than originalism in some areas within the First Amendment and outside it. If the positivist defense of originalism truly counts as a justification for any theory of constitutional interpretation (an issue on which this essay takes no position), then it may support traditionalism as much as originalism.”

CLR in the HJLPP

I’m delighted to note the Center for Law and Religion edition of the latest issue of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. (Actually, it was entirely happenstance that one of Mark’s articles and one of my articles were published in the same issue.)

Mark’s piece is Masterpiece Cakeshop and the Future of Religious Freedom.

Mine is The Sickness Unto Death of the First Amendment.

“The Traditions of American Constitutional Law”

Here’s a new draft of an article I just posted to SSRN: The Traditions of American Constitutional Law (forthcoming in the Notre Dame Law Review). Of course, the piece has strong resonances with our Tradition Project here at the Center and is the product of thoughts that have been stimulated by the project over the last few years. But it’s a long time marinating. Comments most welcome on what is still very much a work in progress. Here is the abstract.

“This article identifies a new method of constitutional interpretation: the use of tradition to inform constitutional meaning. It studies what the Supreme Court means by invoking tradition and whether what it means remains constant across the document and over time. The task is worth pursuing inasmuch as traditional interpretation is pervasive, consistent, and recurrent across the Court’s constitutional doctrine. So, too, are criticisms of traditional interpretation. There are also more immediate reasons to study the role of tradition in constitutional interpretation. The Court’s two newest members, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, have indicated that tradition informs their understanding of constitutional meaning. The study of traditional interpretation seems all the more pressing to understand certain possible jurisprudential moves in the Court’s future.

The article concludes that when the Court interprets traditionally, it signals the presumptive influence of political, legal, or cultural practices of substantial duration for informing constitutional meaning. Traditional interpretation is thus constituted of three elements: (1) a focus on practices, rather than principles, as informing constitutional meaning; (2) a practice’s duration, understood as a composite of its age and continuity; and (3) a practice’s presumptive, but defeasible, interpretive influence. Traditional interpretation’s emphasis on practices that are given tangible form in a people’s lived experience suggests that it is preferable to speak about politically, legally, and culturally specific traditions rather than an abstracted concept of tradition. Hence, “the traditions of American constitutional law.” 

The article identifies traditional interpretation as its own method; shows its prevalence and methodological consistency across the domains of constitutional interpretation; isolates and examines its constituent elements, comparing them against other prominent interpretive approaches; and infers and explains the justifications of traditional interpretation from the doctrinal deposit. While there may be some irony about a claim of novelty in an article about tradition, what this article identifies as new is not the invocation of tradition as such, but the isolation of a recurrent and consistent method—traditional interpretation—adopted by the Court across its interpretive work. It aims to bring to light an overlooked and yet frequently used interpretive practice, and to understand its structure, situation, and purpose within the Court’s constitutional doctrine.”

Chapman on Government Funding of Christian Education for Native Americans (and the meaning of the Establishment Clause)

Pretty neat paper by Nathan Chapman on the history of federal funding of Christian education for Native Americans from the Revolution to Reconstruction, and its implications–if any–for the meaning of the Establishment Clause. Here’s the abstract:

In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Supreme Court stated two principles that continue to animate Establishment Clause doctrine. The first is that courts should look to founding-era history—especially the history of “religious assessments,” or taxes used to fund churches—to interpret the Establishment Clause. The second is that, based on this history, the government may provide limited secular goods to religious schools, but the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from directly funding religious education.

What Everson ignored, and what subsequent legal scholarship has likewise overlooked, is that the founding-era government did directly fund religious education: from the Revolution to Reconstruction, the federal government partnered with Christian missionaries to “civilize” American Indians. Initially ad hoc, this practice was formalized with the Civilization Funds Act of 1819, which authorized the government to distribute $10,000 per year to “persons of good moral character” to educate and “civilize” the tribes. For over fifty years, the government funded Christian missionaries who incorporated religious instruction and worship into their curricula. Curiously, no one ever raised a constitutional objection.

This Article is the first to provide a thorough analysis of the government-missionary partnerships and to explore why no one objected to their constitutionality. The evidence strongly suggests eighteenth and nineteenth-century Americans supported them because of a shared view of social progress that merged Christianization, education, and civilization. They simply could not have imagined separating Christianity and education. This evidence reshapes the conventional narrative of the historical development of non-establishment norms in the United States, especially the centrality of the Jeffersonian “taxpayer conscience” objection to religious assessments.

This history also has important implications for Establishment Clause doctrine. The challenge is ascertaining a constitutional principle from a practice that itself went unquestioned. The history does, however, suggest that the government may directly fund general education, even when that education entails incidental voluntary religious instruction. This principle complements the theoretical norm of “substantive neutrality” and supports the Supreme Court’s current doctrinal trajectory of easing restrictions on government funding of religious education.

New Article: Masterpiece Cakeshop and the Future of Religious Freedom

I’ve posted a new article on SSRN, “Masterpiece Cakeshop and the Future of Religious Freedom.” The article, which will appear in the current volume of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, uses last term’s decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop as a vehicle for exploring deep trends in American culture, politics, and religion. Here’s the abstract:

Last term, the Supreme Court decided Masterpiece Cakeshop, one of several recent cases in which religious believers have sought to avoid the application of public accommodations laws that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Court’s decision was a narrow one that turned on unique facts and did relatively little to resolve the conflict between anti-discrimination laws and religious freedom. Yet Masterpiece Cakeshop is significant, because it reflects broad cultural and political trends that drive that conflict and shape its resolution: a deepening religious polarization between the Nones and the Traditionally Religious; an expanding conception of equality that treats social distinctions—especially religious distinctions—as illegitimate; and a growing administrative state that enforces that conception of equality in all aspects of our common life. This article explores those trends and offers three predictions for the future: conflicts like Masterpiece Cakeshop will grow more frequent and harder to resolve; the law of religious freedom will remain unsettled and deeply contested; and the judicial confirmation wars will grow even more bitter and partisan than they already have.

You can download the paper here.

New paper: “The Sickness Unto Death of the First Amendment”

I’ve posted a new draft, forthcoming in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy: The Sickness Unto Death of the First Amendment. Here is the abstract.

The sickness unto death, in Søren Kierkegaard’s work of the same name, is the anxiety and despair an individual experiences in recognizing that the self is separated from what is collective, extrinsic, or transcendent. Something like this condition now afflicts the First Amendment. The sickness unto death of the First Amendment is that the spectacular success of free speech and religious freedom as American constitutional rights on premises of liberal, individual autonomy has been the very cause of mounting and powerful collective anxiety. The impressive growth of these rights has rendered them fragile, if not actually unsustainable, in their current form. Their unprecedented expansion has brought on an awareness of their emptiness in serving the larger, common political good. The yearning for political community and shared purpose transcending individual interest has in turn generated vigorous calls for First Amendment constriction to promote what are claimed to be higher ends — in some cases ends that were promoted by the hypertrophy of the First Amendment itself.

What binds these claims is the view that expansive First Amendment rights harm others or are more generally socially or politically harmful. In some cases, the same people who argued for the disconnection of free speech rights from common civic ends are now advocating free speech constriction to reconnect free speech to new ends said to be constitutive of the American polity. The same is true for religious freedom. But in a society that is deeply fractured about where the common good lies, imposing new limits on First Amendment rights in the name of dignity, democracy, equality, sexual freedom, third party harm, or any of the other purposes championed by the new constrictors is at least as likely to exacerbate social and civic fragmentation as to reconstitute it.

This paper describes the development of the First Amendment — and in particular of its ends and limits — through three historical periods. Part I concerns early American understandings, which conceived rights of free speech and religious freedom within an overarching framework of natural rights delimited by legislative judgments about the common political good. Part II traces the replacement of that framework with a very different one in the twentieth century, describing the judicial turn toward self-regarding justifications of speech that prioritize individual autonomy, self-actualization, and absolute anti-orthodoxy. The paper describes the crisis or despair of free speech and the coming of the First Amendment constrictors in Part III. It concludes briefly in Part IV by recapitulating the parallel paths of the rights of free speech and religious freedom. It is, in fact, remarkable that over the centuries, some of the most prominent justifications for and objections to the scope of these rights have proceeded pari passu and assumed nearly identical shape.

Micah Schwartzman at the Colloquium in Law and Religion Today

We are delighted to welcome Professor Micah Schwartzman to the Colloquium in Law Micah.jpegand Religion today.

Micah will be discussing his co-authored piece with Professor Leslie Kendrick about the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, The Etiquette of Animus, forthcoming in the Harvard Law Review. Welcome, Micah!

Movsesian on Markets and Morals

CLR_Bug_Logo_NoTextFor today’s Scholarship Roundup post, I’m going to exercise the host’s privilege and post a new essay of my own, “Markets and Morals: The Limits of Doux Commerce.” The essay, which I wrote for a symposium on Nate Oman’s book, The Dignity of Commerce, will appear in a forthcoming issue of the William and Mary Business Law Review. The doux commerce thesis holds that the market tends to promote the liberal virtues of pluralism and religious tolerance. Following Burke, I argue that the thesis gets things backwards. This was a fun essay to write, as it allowed me to go back and re-read the actual Enlightenment thinkers, as well as Alan Bloom’s great essay on The Merchant of Venice, which play figures prominently in Nate’s book.

Here’s the abstract:

In this essay for a symposium on Professor Nathan Oman’s new book, “The Dignity of Commerce,” I do three things. First, I describe what I take to be the central message of the book, namely, that markets promote liberal values of tolerance, pluralism, and cooperation among rival, even hostile groups. Second, I show how Oman’s argument draws from a line of political and economic thought that dates to the Enlightenment, the so-called “doux commerce” thesis of thinkers like Montesquieu and Adam Smith. Finally, I discuss what I consider the most penetrating criticism of that thesis, Edmund Burke’s critique from tradition, which suggests we should be careful attributing too much to markets’ ability to promote liberal pluralism. According to Burke, it is the Western tradition, including religion, and not commerce, which creates the tolerant, pluralist marketplace of the doux commerce thesis. That Burke was correct is suggested by several historical examples and by contemporary events in the United States and across the globe. That is not to say that Oman is entirely wrong about the potential political benefits of the market, only that we should be careful not to overstate them.