The Ideological Fragmentation of Public Law

I am recently back from the annual AALS meeting, during which I attended some of the offerings of the annual “shadow” Federalist Society Conference as well. Both meetings had several worthwhile programs. One of the most interesting features of both conferences was the extent to which political and ideological fragmentation has become more ordinary and prevalent in public law disciplines. I found this to be quite comforting. In this post, I want to explain why, and to describe some of what I saw at the two conferences in this respect. But first, some thoughts on law and religion as a discipline today.

For some time now, I have believed that the political and ideological divides among legal academics in the law and religion field have been growing. They have now reached cavernous dimensions. Paul Horwitz argues in this (superb) piece that law and religion scholars have been in a state of general consensus about free exercise/accommodation issues until extremely recently, but I see things a little differently. The disagreements about free exercise have been manifest at least since I have been studying and writing in the area–about a decade now and probably longer than that. But Paul is right that they have increased dramatically even within that period.

Paul is also right that there was a period of such consensus. But it was a much earlier time. It was the period when, for example, giants including Kent Greenawalt and Doug Laycock and Vince Blasi and Jesse Choper came of scholarly age, the period when Leo Pfeffer’s views were dominant in this area, and only a few outliers arguing for non-preferentialism like James O’Neill existed. One could be a liberal nel vecchio stile and with great complaisance in those days, but still support exotic religions (traditional Christian religions were never really on the agenda), confident in the view that the “great minds” of the past—Jefferson and Madison (Marshall, Adams, and so many others were rarely mentioned)—were on board in spirit. One bought one’s bona fides to argue for relatively expansive free exercise protections (it was the ‘60s and ‘70s, and people should be free to follow their stars and make themselves into whatever they wanted) with iron separationism when it came to establishment. But the bottom line was that one’s Establishment Clause views always drove the boat then, as, it seems to me, they do now. Free exercise in that period was an afterthought—a concession to the unusual and the strange. Sort of like the way many discuss the nature of excuses in criminal law. One is excused for one’s conduct because, notwithstanding its wrongfulness, one makes a concession to human weakness by allowing that one is not blameworthy for that conduct. That’s how religion was perceived—as basically somewhere between odd and wrongful, but not culpable, and therefore excusable conduct which should be accommodated where possible for those in need of such ministrations.

That period is dead. It has been dead since long before Paul or I started writing about these matters. For those who followed in the wake of the liberal consensus, what happened was—again, beginning from an ever-hardening view of what the Establishment Clause demanded—the end of the ‘60s and ‘70s with its taste for exoticism and weird pluralism. In its place arrived a new zest for notions of equality, nondiscrimination, leveling, and so on. To argue for “pluralism” full stop and for its own sake today is something of an anachronism (this comes through nicely in the column Paul reacts to today by Frank Bruni). Exactly what is there of worth about pluralism as an intrinsic good? In the interim from then to now, sexual equalities of various sorts have gone mainstream (they were not so when the earlier consensus reigned; at least one liberal law and religion scholar of the ancien regime only began to support gay marriage in the last decade or so). Equalities of other kinds have taken center stage.

The illusion of consensus could be maintained, for a time at least, but only until the new egalitarian mandarins were challenged. Those challenges have come in the abortion context and other substantive due process areas. With some exceptions, the challenges have largely failed. But they had never come from the religion clauses proper (or their statutory analogues). Now they have. And they have made manifest the instability of the former consensus and the fact of its breakdown over many years. To invoke religious freedom is no longer to appeal to a commonly recognized constitutional freedom; it is to whistle to your favorite mangy dog.

The consequence today is that increasingly, law and religion scholars share far less common ground than they did 40 years ago. Outside their own political/ideological constituency, they have much more work to do to convince one another of their arguments. Indeed, the fact that some scholars squarely within the liberal consensus are now felt to be raving right-wingers is itself a marker of the fragmentation and polarization of the legal academy. Doug Laycock may be many wonderful and admirable things; but conservative is not one of them. These movements within (and also outside) the legal academy sometimes–perhaps oftentimes—make it feel like legal scholars have less and less to say to one another. On occasion, I have felt this to be an unfortunate feature of law and religion scholarship–exhausting and depressing. More work feels political; less work feels scholarly; and so it goes. One begins to long for other sorts of work.

But the panels that I attended last week at the AALS and Federalist Society Conferences began to persuade me of two things. First, ideological fracture is a more general development in public law in the legal academy. Second, that fracture–and all that it brings–has positive as well as negative features.

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