Room to Pray

by Kevin D. Williamson
A small victory for civilization

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.

No serious adult human being who is not suffering from some sort of deep and grievous personal defect could possibly be made to feel authentically oppressed by the presence of the words “In God We Trust” on a quarter, though Thomas Jefferson might wince at those words next to his likeness on a nickel. But one imagines that Mr. Jefferson was, despite his eccentricities, a mature man. There are many rituals in American public life that might cause one to wince, for example the singing of our unsingable national anthem before athletic competitions, which lends a nationalistic and gladiatorial air to such already crass enterprises as professional basketball games. In maintaining a slight and (until now) secret dislike for the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance before most kinds of public events, I may be in a minority among conservatives, but I suspect very strongly that it is not a minority of one. Public loyalty oaths simply rub my republican skin the wrong way, and in general the presence of large groups of people chanting together in any context other than a Mass, preferably in Latin, creeps me out. But it has never occurred to me to literally make a federal case out of it and petition the Supreme Court to make my tastes mandatory from sea to shining sea. That takes a special kind of evangelical mentality that I simply do not possess. Most Christians don’t, but many atheists do. The Void, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.

There is a perverse part of me that almost wishes that evangelical atheism would succeed in court, if only because the extension of its tenets to their logical conclusion would hasten the bankruptcy of the state of California as it would be forced to abandon almost every place name in the state. Texas can afford new signage for Corpus Christi and San Antonio, but California cannot afford to re-badge all of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, Sacramento, Asuncion . . .

The conundrum for evangelical atheism is that there is nothing in Western civilization that comes close to rivaling the beauty, the power, or the intellectual force of Christianity. There is no crowd of hundreds of thousands camped out on 42nd Street in anticipation of the New York Times’s naming a new editor or in Cambridge when the presidency of Harvard is vacant. And while our second-most-important public institution, the scientific method, has made possible remarkable achievements in the past 200 years, it operates for the most part above and outside of culture, being largely disconnected, as it must be, from the common experiences of human life, which is why the Catholic Church provides so much raw material to everything from high art to conspiracy theories while disputes involving Hawking radiation do not.

“Cult” is the first word in “culture,” so, when there is an opportunity to do so, the progressives will attempt to hijack Christianity. You’ll notice, for instance, that a great many people on the left are enthralled by the current pope’s thinking on economics but are noticeably less interested in his views on abortion, homosexuality, marriage, etc. The current dispute over the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, which is almost certainly a fraud, is a matter of interest outside of scholarly circles only because the Left wishes to use it as a cudgel against conventional Christian views on sexuality and marriage; likewise, the tendentious and intellectually dishonest work of John Boswell on adelphopoiesis, which he attempted to construe as an early Christian blessing on homosexual marriages, was and is celebrated not because it is true, which it isn’t, but because it is useful for contemporary political ends.

Where Christianity cannot be put to use, the Left will seek to suppress it. Thus we are treated to a contemporary debate on gay marriage in which its proponents argue that prohibitions against it are Leviticus throwbacks that violate the First Amendment while at the same time arguing that the early Christian church sanctified such unions; we are similarly treated to a debate on poverty in which we are informed that Jesus loves food stamps and that Jesus should shut up about single-mother households. On and on it goes.

There has not been a serious debate about the establishment of religion in this country since 1833, when Massachusetts became the last state to disestablish its official church. The case of Greece, N.Y., was not about the First Amendment or establishment or anything else: It was about the culture that will prevail in the public square and who will have the power to shape it. It is not enough for evangelical atheism that its own tendencies and tastes should be permitted — they must be made mandatory.

 — Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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