Whither Christendom?

August 26, 2004

I am digging back into chapter one, my discussion of state sovereignty and religious establishments. Last night, while I was thinking about how exactly I wanted to frame my argument about the relationship between religious belief, state formation, and inalienable rights, I stumbled on Allen Brill's explanation of the Darla Wynne Case in Great Falls, South Carolina.

Allen links to the decision by the 4th circuit, one of the more conservative circuit courts, and also to a narrative of the events that led to the case by Darla Wynne.

Ms Wynne had a perfectly reasonable request to make at her town council meeting; she wanted extra law enforcement at a stop sign where crack dealers were harassing motorists. When she arrived at the meeting the commissioners noticed that she had Wiccan bumper stickers. Things went downhill from there: when she stood to speak they asked about her religion and did not let her make her point; they have always started meetings with a prayer, those meetings always mention Jesus Christ, and when she stopped bowing her head during those prayers (after going to five or six meetings without getting a chance to deliver her petition) they began to harass her further. I just skimmed her account, but it appears that her property has been repeatedly vandalized - 20 to 50 tires slashed, pet animals killed, etc - the town officials and police have made a policy to deny her all permits and condemn her at all inspections, she is being harassed, intimidated, and yelled at. All because she has Wiccan bumper stickers and asked the town council to either use a generic theism in their prayers "giving thanks to the almighty" rather than "giving thanks to Jesus Christ" or at least ask members of other faith traditions to rotate in giving the prayers. In short, because she has unusual religious beliefs she has been denied her rights as a citizen, denied the protection of the law, and become a target of government rather than a member of society.

So, she sued the town for its policy of using its opening Christian prayer to intimidate and coerce. The 4th court opinion above is very solid and very straight-forward. It repeats the court consensus on ceremonial religion, as laid down in Marsh and Allegheny, namely that while legislative meetings may open with prayer and government may provide funds for civic ceremonies that include religious elements, official prayers and displays can not provide any sectarian preference and can not systematically exclude or drive away people because of their religious belief. i.e. You can have a chaplain or open with prayer, but those chaplains should not all be from the same sect and that prayer must be inclusive - a generic "God" is OK but Jesus, the Mother, and Adonai are all sectarian phrasings that should be avoided.

The 4th circuit is repeating the legal consensus, a consensus that many commentators attack for being internally inconsistent but that I argue is close to the founders' intentions: they did not want to see sectarian preference, did not want religious-political conflict for control of government, but did think that religious belief led to better magistrates and better society -- especially a belief in some future reward and punishment.

Ceremonial deism has been attacked because it turns the divine from an Awesome spectacle to a banal recitation, but there is a long acceptance of ceremonial deism as a workable compromise between free conscience and civil religion. Newdow's argument in the Pledge was an attack on that consensus, arguing that belief in the divine is itself a sectarian belief that should not be allowed. His arguments convinced Justice Thomas, who mentioned in passing that if the court had accepted the case and if it had followed its precedents involving the 14th amendment, then he would have agreed with Newdow. They did not convince those who try to argue that atheism is itself a firmly held belief about divinity, and that the state should remain agnostic about belief, supportive of citizens who wish to practice faith.

I bring Newdow in because Wynne's experience turns on the same questions: What, exactly, is religion in general? What, exactly, is sectarian religion?

Several members of the Great Falls council tried to argue that they were expressing "just plain religion" or religion in general: God is Jesus, so when we pray to Jesus we are praying to God and she should pray with us because there is only one God. (paraphrase) In that locality, before Darla Wynne moved to town, they could reasonably believe that they lived within a religious consensus. They almost certainly did not, but Wynne's experience shows why none before her had publicly challenged the local assumption of consensus and uniformity, and so they could tell themselves that everyone agreed.

We like to tell ourselves that the United States has always been a land of movers and mixers; everyone comes from somewhere else. Certainly colonists moved around, Jacksonians moved around, the antebellum South was a constant hive of relocations and resettlements. And with that mixture of place came a mixture of experience, one of the most common comments made by people who moved to Ohio, Kansas, or California was that people came from all over, and mixed, and saw how each other thought, spoke, and worshiped.

At some point we lost that mobility, or we lost it in pockets. There are now towns in the South and the Midwest where everyone who lives there was born there; people move out but they don't move in. It is not merely a rural condition, think of all the neighborhoods in Philadelphia and the other cities where people spend their lives within blocks of where their parents or grandparents lived. We put down roots as a nation sometime between the Civil War and the Great Depression, or rather, despite the massive waves of migration that started then and still continue, there are and always will be little eddies in the stream where people live like peas in a pod, all alike.

I titled this rambling rant Whither Christendom for a reason. Emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, replacing pagan gods and emperor worship. The Romans had long held that the only thing that tied their empire together was that all worshiped the same gods - you did not have to believe, but you had to partake in the civil rituals, and to do otherwise led to things like the Judean revolt. Constantine took this imperial policy and combined it with the new and successful Jewish heresy. Now the empire was Christian, Christianity was no longer a subversive religion but the bulwark of the state, and the state would only be secure so long as all belonged (or at least publicly attended) the new faith.

The tie between church and state continued, and through the Reformation we continued to define the boundaries of the state by the boundaries of the church; if you owed allegiance to a prince you also attended whatever church he chose, and Anglicans and Englishmen were the same thing. Even with the changes of the enlightenment, some of that thought continued and some of that thought shaped early American definitions of their states. South Carolina was one of many to include a formal establishment of religion; they dropped their state establishment by the 1790s but retain a strong sense of homogeneity as a source of social strength. (An aside, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, founded as a colony for religious freedom, explicitly restricts office holding to people who acknowledge "the being of a God, and a future state of rewards and punishments.")

However, the new nation defined its religious establishments and religious tests in broad, theistic terms. Pennsylvania makes a good example - "the being of a God" (emphasis added). What matters on the state level is that people believe in something, not that they all believe in the same thing.

And so, the 4th circuit is absolutely right to overturn Great Falls, and the town is absolutely wrong to continue to appeal. But, seeing social strength in outward consensus just like Constantine did, and defining themselves around the God rather than a God, they will continue to appeal, they will continue to lose, and the scare mongers on the religious right will probably moan about religion being forced out of the public square.

Religion still defines the borders of a state, that is part of what the conflict with Al Quaeda and the islamofascists is all about. The difference is that we define our state around the dual notion that religion is a good thing, and religion need not be uniform, while they are pursuing their own version of Christendom (Islamdom?), with one sect imposing its version of religion on all of society just as the town fathers of Great Falls are trying to pressure Darla Wynne into either converting or moving out.

Posted by Red Ted at August 26, 2004 11:22 AM | TrackBack