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.