walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: May 14, 2014
A Setback for Kemalists
May One Pray While One Smokes?

The recent Supreme Court ruling about prayer before town meetings is a setback for militant Kemalists in the United States.

There are many jokes about Jesuits. Such as the following: In a Benedictine monastery there is a chain smoker. He smokes all the time. He smokes during work, during meals, even during communal prayers. He says that he would become seriously ill if he stopped. The abbot is solicitous about the smoker’s addiction, but this has become such a scandal that he feels constrained to consult the relevant authorities in Rome. He asks, “May one smoke while one prays?” Rome doesn’t act quickly, but after a few months the answer comes back –“No, one may not.” It so happens that a Jesuit is visiting on the day the reply from Rome arrives and the abbot tells him the story. The Jesuit thinks for a moment, and says: “You asked Rome the wrong question. What you should have asked—May one pray while one smokes?”

One could say that, in a decision of May 5, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States was guided by Jesuit logic. On that day the Court decided that it was constitutional to open a town meeting with prayer, even if the prayer was in the language of one particular faith (in this instance, that of Christianity). I read about it both online by Religious News Service and in the New York Times. As was to be expected, the decision was greeted with anger by the usual suspects, the American Civil Liberties Union and other liberal believers in a very strict interpretation of the separation of church and state, while conservatives hailed it as one small victory over the secularists intent on persecuting Christians.

Are Christians persecuted in America? It is true that a demographically minute group of militant secularists seeks to push religion out of public places; since a majority of Americans are Christians, this campaign hits them more than other faith communities. But persecution? A sense of proportion is called for here. Persecution is an appropriate term to describe what happens to Christians in many countries, especially in the Muslim world—Jihadist terrorists kidnapping Christian schoolgirls to become sex slaves in Nigeria, Christians sentenced to death for so-called “blasphemy” in Pakistan—but also lynched by Hindu mobs in India, and  thrown into unspeakable prisons for “proselyting” in North Korea. The Obama administration trying to force nuns to buy contraceptives for employees of Catholic hospitals, while both objectionable and stupid, hardly falls into the same category. However, since (thank God) I am writing this in Boston rather than Islamabad, let me have another look at the case just decided by the Supreme Court in Washington.

The case, Greece v. Galloway, was brought by two women, one a Jew, the other an atheist. The Greece at issue is not the country in Europe but a town in New York State. Its board meetings have always been opened with prayer, as is customary in many American communities. The plaintiffs stated, apparently correctly, that these prayers have been preponderantly “sectarian”, in this instance Christian. The plaintiffs then proposed that this practice violated their First Amendment rights, or anyone’s, made to listen to such prayers if having business before the board. The court ruled in favor of the defendant, the town of Greece. Of course this outcome had a long prehistory. The suit was first brought in 2007 by the two women, who maintained that all the references to Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and the like, meant that the town had “established” Christianity as an official religion, thus violating the Constitution. Thirty years ago, in Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court held that the Nebraska legislature acted constitutionally by paying a chaplain to offer daily prayers, since such prayers, if they neither propagate one faith nor disparage another, were “part of the fabric of our society” and had been this since the beginning. The Court has not exactly been consistent since then. In 1989 it ruled that a Christmas crèche put up in in a courthouse staircase in fact “endorsed” Christianity. I am not clear why the offending prayers at a town board meeting are so different (trust legal minds to invent a difference). The Court now overruled the earlier decision by a lower federal court, which had decided against the town. It is worth noting that the town of Greece, evidently worrying about the pending lawsuit, made an effort to recruit non-Christian candidates to invoke some other deity before board meetings. They landed a Jewish and a Baha’i lay person, and a Wiccan priestess. If they had known how the Supreme Court would rule, they could have saved themselves the trouble. (I wonder if they are stuck with the priestess.)

Be this as it may, in this case the Court ruled out two equally unpalatable alternatives to letting the current practice stand—forbidding all prayers at legislative sessions on any level of government—the U.S. Congress has had staff chaplains since 1789, a practice never successfully challenged and formally approved by the Court in Marsh v. Chambers—or having the town dictate a standard text for such prayers. The first option (apart from retroactively criminalizing most of American history) would have violated the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment, the second would have done so with regard to the “no establishment” clause.

The present Court decision was, as so often now, by a 5-4 vote of the justices. All the liberals voted for the plaintiffs, all the conservatives for the town, with Justice Kennedy casting the decisive vote with the conservatives. No surprises there. But there was one surprise: The Obama administration strongly supported the town. I would imagine that its ideological instincts would favor the other side. I have some difficulty figuring out the political motive to go the other way. Mending fences with the Godders in North Carolina?

I have in earlier posts on this blog warned against putting too much weight on the increase of “nones” in surveys of American religion (that is, of people who enter “none” when asked about their religious preference). This has been interpreted as evidence of secularization. That, I think, is a mistake. We have some data now about who these people are. The number of atheists or agnostics is very small. Mostly these are people who haven’t found a church or religious community they are comfortable with. In other words, the growth of the “nones” is evidence of the combination of religious pluralism in the society and the protection of religious freedom by the state.

At the same time there is a phenomenon of militant secularism in America . It is represented by a small, very active band of ideological secularists, supported by well-funded organizations like the ACLU. Their chances of success through the democratic process are close to nil (far too many Godders—apart from one of the two plaintiffs, how many atheists vote in Greece, NY?). Therefore, as in this case, they must operate through the least democratic of the three branches of government, the judiciary (especially the federal courts, whose judges are best shielded from democratic pressures). I like to call the secularist ideology Kemalist, after Kemal Ataturk, who in 1923 founded the emphatically non- if not anti-religious Turkish republic. This worked quite well as long as the regime was authoritarian. The policy was a form of disease control—religion (in this instance Islam) was tightly controlled, kept out of the public sphere, and secularism was the established doctrine of all elite institutions. Democratization was bad for this policy. The non-elite masses could vote; not surprisingly they voted their convictions; especially in the Anatolian hinterland these were strongly religious. The result was the (as yet mildly) Islamist government now in power. Kemalism has not worked very well in Turkey. It is even less likely to work in the United States.

show comments
  • Boritz

    “The Obama administration trying to force nuns to buy contraceptives for
    employees of Catholic hospitals, while both objectionable and stupid,
    hardly falls into the same category.”

    It’s true that the nuns can solve the problem by leaving their chosen field or by caving on their beliefs with the accompanying personal question of whether they are eternally judged for doing so. In neither case will they be imprisoned or killed. Yeah, I guess you’re right. Not persecution.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    “On land, at sea, at home, abroad, I smoke my pipe and worship God” — Johann Sebastian Bach

    EXCERPT FROM THE WEBSITE: THE WITTENBERG TRAIL – The Online Community for People Exploring and Confessing the Lutheran Faith

    Comment by Wesley Tetsuji Kan on March 28, 2012 at 6:27am

    It has been said that the Baroque era Lutheran composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, was so wedded to his tobacco that on one occasion when he appeared in the house without his pipe in his mouth, one of his many children failed to recognize him and burst into tears. To date, I have been unable to find any documentation for this story, but the very fact that the story is still circulating nearly three centuries after his death indicates that at the very least the musical titan was fond of his pipe.

    Bach presented to his second wife two notebooks that are known by their title page dates of 1722 and 1725. The title “Anna Magdalena notebook” usually refers to the latter. The primary difference between the two collections is that the 1722 notebook contains works composed exclusively by Johann Sebastian Bach (including most of the French Suites), while the 1725 notebook is a compilation of compositions by a handful of composers of the era beside Johann Sebastian, most notably his successful son, Carl Phillip Emanuel. The Notebook provides a nearly unparalleled glimpse into the incidental music of the 18th century and the musical tastes of the Bach family.

    The aria, “Edifying Thoughts of a Tobacco Smoker,” is from the 1725 Notebook. In it Bach drew parallels between his clay pipe and his mortal frame fashioned from the dust of the earth. Notice how Bach, a staunch confessional Lutheran and arguably the world’s best composer, transformed the mundane activity of smoking his pipe into an allegory of life and death, of soteriology (theology of salvation).

    The libretto appears below:

    The aria ends with the words most often quoted by Christian pipe smokers:

    Zu Land, zu Wasser und zu Haus, Mein Pfeifchen stets in Andacht aus.
    (On land, at sea, at home, abroad, I smoke my pipe and worship God.)

    Whene’er I take my pipe and stuff it
    And smoke to pass the time away
    My thoughts, as I sit there and puff it,
    Dwell on a picture sad and grey:
    It teaches me that very like
    Am I myself unto my pipe.
    Like me this pipe, so fragrant burning,
    Is made of naught but earthen clay;
    To earth I too shall be returning,
    And cannot halt my slow decay.
    My well used pipe, now cracked and broken,
    Of mortal life is but a token.
    No stain, the pipe’s hue yet doth darken;
    It remains white. Thus do I know

    That when to death’s call I must harken
    My body, too, all pale will grow.
    To black beneath the sod ‘twill turn,
    Likewise the pipe, if oft it burn.

    Or when the pipe is fairly glowing,
    Behold then instantaneously,
    The smoke off into thin air going,
    ‘Til naught but ash is left to see.

    Man’s fame likewise away will burn
    And unto dust his body turn.
    How oft it happens when one’s smoking,
    The tamper’s missing from it’s shelf,

    And one goes with one’s finger poking
    Into the bowl and burns oneself.
    If in the pipe such pain doth dwell
    How hot must be the pains of Hell!

    Thus o’er my pipe in contemplation
    Of such things – I can constantly
    Indulge in fruitful meditation,
    And so, puffing contentedly,
    On land, at sea, at home, abroad,
    I smoke my pipe and worship God.

  • amoose1960

    Wake up readers! Berger is not a scholar but a Frankfurt School disciple. He is a social marxist to the bone. He is intent on squashing all religions especially Christianity. His style as l have pointed out many times is predictable and he does not fail us in this piece.

    • gipper11

      Berger a Frankfurt school disciple? I don’t think so. He did go to the New School but that wasn’t in vogue at the time. He is a unique kind of liberal Protestant– probably disconcerting to evangelicals and conservative Catholics who have valued his work.

  • Fred

    I agree that “persecution” is too strong a word, at the moment, for what Christians face in America, especially in comparison to places like Saudi Arabia and North Korea. However, I would make two points: 1) The slippery slope may be a fallacy in formal logic, but it is all too often a reality in politics, where successful power grabs tend to breed further power grabs. Today nuns are forced to provide contraception and religious business owners to serve gay weddings. Tomorrow? 2) America should be held to a higher standard vis a vis religious freedom than fanatical savages like the Saudis or evil totalitarians like the North Koreans.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Not only do local governments allow prayer before town council meetings, in my community when a controversial issue arises the city council often holds public meetings in various churches first instead of at city hall. Mayors and city councilpersons often are the targets of verbal attacks and protesters when a contentious issue is heard at city hall. Such meetings often become media spectacles and outlets for emotional catharsis about everyone’s gripe with life.

    But when held in a church the verbal attacks become more civilized and the protesters less likely to try and carry out some stunt to get media attention.

    Local governments often need religious institutions to serve as the “mediating structure” (Berger’s term) between government and the people. I don’t think city officials will be beating down the doors of the meeting halls of Atheists United or Socialists International or the Occupy Movement any too soon to hold their meetings in.

    • Wayne Lusvardi

      I should have added that typically such city council or city planning and zoning meetings are not held in the upscale and ultra-liberal Episcopal church but in either conservative Protestant churches (Baptist, Assemblies of God, or Non-denominational Bible churches) or in Orthodox Christian churches (Orthodox Greek or Armenian churches). Now why would you guess the “city fathers” prefer the more conservative churches?

      (And, oh, parenthetically, no smoking in church).

  • ShadrachSmith

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”

    It sounds so straightforward and simple. Anybody can pray to anything whenever they want. What sort of Sophistical contortions do you have to do to make those words mean,…”Nobody can pray if anybody objects.”?

    The Constitutional instructions are clear. Let ‘em pray.

  • gipper11

    “We have some data now about who these people are. The number of atheists or agnostics is very small. Mostly these are people who haven’t found a church or religious community they are comfortable with. In other words, the growth of the “nones” is evidence of the combination of religious pluralism in the society and the protection of religious freedom by the state.” What is this data? All I have seen shows the nones to be teetering toward nonreligion or spiritual but not religious.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2015 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service