Room to Pray
A small victory for civilization


Kevin D. Williamson

The vandals have lost one at the Supreme Court. The psalmist surely did not have Anthony Kennedy in mind when he proclaimed “Let the daughters of Judah rejoice because of thy judgments,” but the trumpets should sound any and every time Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s grubby little cult suffers a political defeat.

The case was Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Susan Galloway et al., and the question was whether the town fathers of a Rochester suburb you’ve never heard of were doing violence to the Bill of Rights by allowing citizens and clergymen to lead prayers before meetings of the town board. The plaintiffs in the case were Susan Galloway, a Jewish woman who describes her history of activism as beginning with a refusal to sing Christmas carols as a junior-high student, and Linda Stevens, a retired public-school functionary and atheist who served in the august position of president of the Greater Rochester Chapter of the National Organization for Women and as vice president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Ms. Stevens complained that the overwhelmingly Christian character of the locals’ prayers made her feel like she would “stick out,” and so, naturally enough, she filed a lawsuit, apparently immune to the irony that her response to what she perceived as a situation encouraging conformity through social pressure was to seek federal action mandating conformity at gunpoint.


After the lawsuit was filed, the powers that be went out and recruited a Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess, and a Baha’i believer to help lead prayers, in order to better reflect the rich cultural mosaic that is suburban Rochester. I do wonder how one goes about recruiting a Wiccan priestess; I suspect Craigslist is a factor in that quest. But such ecumenical gestures were not enough for Ms. Stevens and Ms. Galloway, though they were sufficient for five members of the Supreme Court, who did us all the favor of keeping their noses out of the penumbras and leaving be arrangements that have been in place since before the founding of this republic and that have continued uninterrupted since. Justice Elena Kagan, working in the characteristic progressive mode of more or less subordinating the law to her own prejudices, which no doubt are very enlightened prejudices, pouted that the prayers on offer in Greece “betray no understanding that the American community is today, as it long has been” — can you guess? — “a rich mosaic of religious faiths.”

Justice Clarence Thomas, who has done the people of this country a magnificent service over the years by restraining his imagination and boring us all to death with the letter of the law, noted in his concurrence that the First Amendment is a constraint upon Congress, not upon the township of Greece, N.Y.; that it explicitly permits not only the encouragement of religious belief but the actual establishment of churches at the state and local level; that the men who wrote the First Amendment and who fought in the Revolution did not seem to believe that the Bill of Rights was in conflict with Massachusetts’s deciding to have an established Congregationalist church or with Pennsylvania’s choosing not to establish any church, in deference to the nonconforming sensibilities of its Quaker-dominated public culture, but rather that the First Amendment ensured that the federal government was bound to permit either outcome; and, finally, that even if the “no establishment” rule were to be applied to Greece, N.Y., permitting the offering of prayers before a board meeting is not the same thing as establishing a church. An established church is a government-supported ministry paid for by tax dollars, not a social convention that makes the local NOW president feel like she sticks out, which experience with that organization suggests she very well may under many diverse circumstances.

Evangelical atheism is a puzzling phenomenon, and one that should not be confused with simple nonbelief. My National Review and “Mad Dogs and Englishman” colleague Charles C.  W. Cooke is an atheist in the sense that he maintains a positive belief that there is no supernatural power in the universe, which is a very different kettle of metaphysical supposition from the positive belief that there is no supernatural power in the universe and that by God every detail of our community life shall be organized around that belief. Strange as evangelical atheism is, it is easier to understand as a social phenomenon when you understand that its public ministry is not grounded in a possibly erroneous quest for truth but in the simple desire to commit vandalism. What stands in the way of utopian progressivism is not organized conservatism, despite the best efforts of this magazine and its many allies; what stands in the way of utopian progressivism is Christian civilization — which, in the context of the Western world, might as well simply be rendered “civilization.” The project of evangelical atheism is to purify the public square of vestigial Christianity through the forcible actions of the state. The public square is to be tagged with the marks of evangelical atheism the same way that overpasses are tagged by graffiti painters marking their territory. The issue is not a few atheists or non-Christians made to feel awkward; if being made to feel awkward were unconstitutional, we’d have to send in teams of federal marshals to shut down high-school homecoming dances.