Religion and Division

Printer-friendly version
Richard W. Garnett

Crosspost from Balkinization

A particular narrative has, for many years, informed and shaped both our thinking about the meaning and purpose of the First Amendment’s no-establishment-of-religion rule and the construction-by-courts of the doctrines, standards, and tests used to enforce that rule. The narrative goes something like this: Europe suffered through many years of war, persecution, and political turmoil, in large part because of the failure to appropriately separate church and state, religion and politics. As Madison put it, in the Memorial and Remonstrance, “[d]uring almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” Our Founders learned from this experience, the narrative goes, and so sought to guard against “divisiveness” in politics by privatizing religion.

Obviously, there is something to this narrative. As I have tried to explain in more detail elsewhere, though, I believe it is a mistake – one that for several decades misshaped our constitutional doctrines and debates and one that “progressives” and “conservatives” alike should want to see abandoned well before 2020 – to think that observations or predictions of “divisiveness” should have any significant place either in the judicial enforcement of the no-establishment rule or in citizens’ participation in what Jack Balkin calls the broader “tradition of redemptive constitutionalism.” After all, and to quote Madison again, “[l]iberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

Noah Feldman and Bill Marshall contributed thoughtful essays to The Constitution in 2020 on the challenge of “protecting religious diversity” through our Constitution. I agree with much – most, in fact – of what they wrote, notwithstanding the fact that the “constitutional vision” developed and defended in the volume is, for the most part, not my own. This short comment is not intended as a criticism, or even a direct response, to their essays. It was, instead, merely prompted by what seemed to me to be each scholar’s embrace of the idea that the First Amendment was designed to be, and should be, understood and enforced with an eye toward avoiding or soothing “divisiveness.” (Professor Feldman, for example, follows Chief Justice Burger – and, more recently, Justice Breyer – in stating that a no-money-to-religion rule can be justified “on the ground that debates over government funding are likely to lead to political polarization – an especially great risk in our vibrantly diverse society.”)

In my view, though – and in John Courtney Murray’s words – we should “cherish only modest expectations with regard to the solution of the problem of religious pluralism and civic unity.” Pluralism, Murray thought, “is the native condition of American society” and the unity toward which Americans have aspired – e pluribus unum – is a “unity of a limited order.” As I see it, those who crafted our Constitution believed that both authentic freedom and effective government could be secured by harnessing, rather than homogenizing, the messiness of democracy.  It seems both misguided and quixotic, then, to employ the First Amendment to smooth out the bumps and divisions that are an unavoidable part of the political life of a diverse and free people and, perhaps, best regarded as an indication that society is functioning well, and engaging in precisely the “larger dialogue” and “conversation” for which The Constitution in 2020 calls.

Roberto Unger suggested, more than a decade ago, that one of the “dirty little secrets of contemporary jurisprudence” is its “discomfort with democracy.” And, in a similar vein (though not with regard to the Establishment Clause), Rick Pildes has voiced the worry that “in the political realm, judges and others cling . . . tenaciously to the fear that too much politics, or too competitive a political system, will bring instability, fragmentation, and disorder.”  In my view, our thinking about religious liberty and church-state relations, and about the role of courts in protecting that liberty and policing those relations, should not – today or in 2020 -- be affected or colored by this “fear.”
_________________

Richard W. Garnett is Associate Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Nortre Dame Law School. He will be appearing on Saturday's "Individual Rights Panel" with Elizabeth Emens (Columbia Law School, "Disability's Force"), Paul Horwitz (The University of Alabama School of Law, "The First Amendment in 2020: An Institutional Perspective"), and Alice Ristroph (Seton Hall University School of Law, "Discrimination, Violence, and the Constitution").