Category: Religion


Law, Revelation, and the Power of Interpretation

MormonsInJail.jpgI realize that this is antediluvian in blog time, but last Friday Paul Horwitz had a very interesting post at Prawfs about teaching the Mormon Cases in his Law & Religion class. The Mormon Cases, of course, are the series of the decisions issued by the U.S. Supreme Court at the end of the nineteenth century holding that various laws designed to punish Mormons for polygamy — criminal sanctions, disenfranchisment, and confiscation of property — did not violate the Free Exercise Clause. These cases hold a special place in my heart, in part because it was in first studying them that I became interested in law and second because of my family and religious history, I can’t help but think of these cases as my constitutional patrimony. (Paul’s post also reminds me that I really need to get my paper on the Reynolds case finished and sent off to the law reviews!)

His provocative suggestion is that profs who teach these cases ought to include in their materials the Revelation that Wilford Woodruff, then president of the Mormon Church, published in 1890 announcing the Church’s abandonment of polygamy. He writes:

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Shechem and Consideration

biblepage.jpgI have been thinking about the value of the Bible as a pedagogical tool. I am not much of a fan of the notion that the common law somehow rests on the Judeo-Christian tradition or that the Ten Commandments are the basis of our modern legal system. To be sure, I do think that the Bible has had its influence on our law, but if one is seeking for origins of the common law, I think that feuding norms among the pagan barbarians of northern Europe is a better bet. Still, the Bible is full of law, and I think that this law is useful for its very strangeness. (Also, as a Mormon, I labor under some religious guilt due to the fact that Brigham Young and other early Mormon authorities taught repeatedly that lawyers were the spawn of Satan and essentially on the road to hell. I take comfort in the fact that God is clearly a lawyer.)

For example, a few days ago I gave a brief lecture on the history of contract to my students. One of the points I wanted to make is that contract law is a relatively late development. Early legal systems seem to go to work immediately on issues like ownership of land, inheritance, and crime. Contract comes only later. I illustrated the point by noting that there is an enormous amount of law in the Pentateuch governing everything from ritual purity to what oxen may or may not eat while plowing the fields. There is not much in there, however, on contracts. To be sure there are rules about debt, and covenant, which is a vaguely contract-y idea, figures prominently in Biblical stories. Still, you’ll search Exodus to Deuteronomy in vain for anything like a general theory of contract.

Here is another possible example: Understanding the usefulness of consideration as a formality can be tricky. Fuller argued that forms serve an evidentiary function, but what exactly do we mean by an evidentiary function? Consider the following story from the Book of Joshua. At the end of his life, Joshua gathers the Children of Israel together at Shechem and offers them a choice: Will they promise to serve the God of Israel or not? The Children of Israel insist that they want to covenant to follow Yahweh, and Joshua then leads them through various formalities to make the commitment binding. The text says:

So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem. . . . And he took a great stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. And Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord which he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.” (Joshua 24:25-27 (RSV))

Why the rock? It is a formality that Joshua goes through to make the promise binding, and its purpose is to provide future evidence of the covenant. Should any Israelite in the future try to serve other gods, then Yahweh can insist that he or she has promised to serve only him. Should the erring Israelite have a convenient lapse of memory, then God can point to the rock. “Look,” he can say, “that rock stands there under the oak tree because you made the promise at Shechem with Joshua.” The formality reduces the problem of proving the contract ex post.

I love this story because of its strangeness. (I always imagine Dell and Microsoft entering into a licensing agreement and setting up a sacred rock someplace in Seattle to memorialize the deal.) Furthermore, it is precisely the strangeness of the story that makes it useful for thinking about the law. Our problem is that we forget how weird our own laws are and therefore can have a hard time seeing clearly what they are doing. In this sense, the Bible is pedagogically useful precisely because it has lost most of its salience in our culture. Most students (even in southern Virginia) are unlike to have the story of the Shechem Covenant at their fingertips. It sounds wierd to them, and that is useful.

Or it may simply be my perverse love of legal anachronism.


Going to Church to Sue Your Neighbor

puritan_men.jpgOf late I have been doing research on the resolution of civil disputes — tort, contract, and property cases — in ecclesiastical courts. Of course there are still religious communities that handle all intra-member litigation “in house.” I am surprised, however, how common this was among Americans in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. It turns out that many American denominations are descended from either Calvinists or Anabaptists. Despite various nasty theological disputes in the 16th century, both groups were enthusiastic about the idea of church discipline and thought that one of the things that true Christian churches needed to do was excommunicate members who misbehaved. It was only a hop, skip, and a jump from this basic commitment to discipling members to a literal reading of passages in Matthew and Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians where the New Testament insists that disputes between brethren ought to be brought before the church rather than being taken before the ungodly. The result is that groups like the Quakers, the early Baptists, and the Mormons were all at one time or another quite aggressive about disciplining church members who sued other church members in secular court. However, rather than simply punishing members for hiring a lawyer, these disciplinary proceedings became a way in which congregations took jurisdiction over the underlying dispute, provding an ultimate settlement on the merits.

I wonder, however, if there was something more than theology and the perennial quest for low-cost dispute resolution at issue here. In particular, early Americans seem to have been a litigious lot. Roger Williams, for example, described one of his neighbors as “the salamander always delighting to live in the fire of contention as witnesses his several suits in law.” (In the folk cosmology of early America, the salamander was a creature that could live the heart of a fire.) Many of his compatriots seems to have shared this trait. That being the case, litigation was, if not a major life activity for many early Americans, at the very least was a very significant one. By shifting the forum in which this activity occurred from secular to ecclesiastical courts, religious groups were able create yet another bond with their members. Home is not only where the heart it. It is also where you litigate, particularlly if you are a salamander.

Finally, there seems to have been theatrical component to the interaction between litigation and religion. Brigham Young, for example, delivered a facinating sermon in 1856 denouncing litigation not only for the way in which it created discord among litigants but also as a demoralizing spectacle that tempted people to the courthouse to watch the show. Indeed, his denunciation of litigation sounds in many ways like contemporary denunciations of the theatre by Evangelical Protestants. The Mormon reaction to courts was much like the Mormon reaction to theatres (or dancing, another moral bugbear of the Second Great Awakening): rather than prohibiting it, they brought it in-house. Hence, dances were held in temples and church houses, plays were sponsored by ecclesiastical associations, and litigation was brought before “judges in Israel.” Once within the religious fold, however, litigation continued to be a spectacle and a show. Religious groups, however, radically changed the moral content of the performance. The amoral tourney of wits between trickster lawyers was transformed into a passion play of confession, repentance, and reconciliation as parties in ecclesiastical cases were frequently required as part of their settlements to perform acts of public atonement before their congregations.


The Law & Economics of Quaker Litigation

quakers.bmpI feel duty bound to write a post defending the honor of 17th century Quaker grandees. Their reputation has suffered enough. The Quakers had (still have?) a tradition of discouraging intra-Quaker litigation in the secular courts. In England, Quaker eschewal of litigation was founded in part on the religious inaccessibility of the courts. Courts required oaths, and Quakers, taking Christ’s admonition in the New Testament to “swear not” literally, refused to take oaths. Once the Quakers started founding settlements in America, however, this problem went away, as Pennsylvania law allowed for “affirmations” in place of oaths, an explicit religious accommodation that eventually found its way into the Constitution. Nevertheless, Quaker sermons and pamphlets continued to insist that Friends should resolve their disputes amicably before the Monthly Meetings of the Society rather than sue in the secular courts.

In his book Of “Good Laws” and “Good Men”: Law and Society in the Delaware Valley, 1680-1710, William Offutt compared the records of the Monthly Meetings with the local court records to determine the extent to which Quakers actually lived up to their own sermons. What he found was that despite the nominal threat of excommunication for filing suit against another Friend, Quakers were quite enthusiastic about suing one another. Looking at the records of the Monthly Meetings, in turn, he found that congregational leaders were more likely to “sue” other congregational leaders before the Monthly Meetings but that Quaker leaders were perfectly happy to sue ordinary Quakers before the secular courts. Offutt rather archly suggests that the reasons for this had to do with the (hypocritical) desire of Quaker elites to maintain their images with other Quaker elites. Economics, however, suggests a more charitable reading of the actions of Quaker leaders.

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Praising Allah In The Military

Congress is considering legislation that would allow military chaplains to use sectarian prayers at nondenominational events. Supporters argue that Chaplains should be free to pray as their faith demands. Opponents worry that such prayers (lets be more precise: prayers that invoke the name of Jesus) will have the effect of excluding some in attendance and erode cohesion within the unit. (The Pentagon, which opposes the bill, actually frames it less in terms of marginalized troops, and more in terms of marginalized chaplains, saying “This provision could marginalize chaplains who, in exercising their conscience, generate discomfort at mandatory formations.”)

This proposal is really a one-way ratchet which is likely to create discomfort for various non-Christian soldiers, but which will rarely marginalize Christian soldiers. For example, few Christian soldiers will be troubled by Jewish prayers since they always reference a single God, referred to typically in English as “God.” They are sort of like “lesser included” versions of Christian prayers. (It is possible that a rabbi might use a Hebrew term, and this would potentially be alienating…though in my experience, many might simply find it “curious.”) Christian prayers which invoke Jesus exclude all Jews and Muslims (and people of many other faiths, not to mention agnostics and atheists) because they involve praying to a person who, in other religions, is explicitly not God. Sooner or later, at a non-denominational event, a Muslim chaplain will praise Allah, an Arabic term for God (and indeed essentially the same singular God as one would find in Christianity and Judaism). But though Allah may reference the same God, the term now carries loads of cultural baggage, such that many may hear that invocation as an explictly anti-American or anti-Christian statement.

If I truly believed that the Representatives supporting this legislation were ready – even eager – to hear chaplains praise Allah at non-religious events, I’d be more sympathetic to their cause. Call me a cynic, but I suspect that they’re simply trying to promote Christianity in circumstances where they see little downside. Twenty years from now, if Islam has grown in importance within the military, I suspect that these folks would be the first to argue for non-sectarian prayer. “It’s just not fair to our Christian troops”, they’d argue.


The accidental bigamist?

Warren Jeffs is in the news lately, and you may find yourself discussing bigamy at a cocktail party some time. Given that possibility, let me forearm you with a genuine, certifiable cocktail-party question guaranteed to dazzle and impress your friends and co-workers (or your money back):

In order to be convicted of bigamy in Utah, what is the minimum number of wives (or husbands) a person must have?

(answer below the fold)

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An Unusual Call to the Law

woodruff.jpgLaw seems to be a profession that produces family dynasties. For example, I clerked for a judge who was the scion of a great Southern legal family that had a duo of distinguished federal appellate judges and a couple of state supreme court justices to its credit. The Oman family, however, is but one generation removed from high country ranching on the western slope of the Rockies. I have, however, unearthed some judicial ancestors through my paternal grandmother.

My great, great grandfather was a man named Justin Call. He was born in Utah in the last half of the 19th century and came of age as the confrontation between the Mormon Church and the federal government reached white-hot intensity. The Mormons had committed themselves to creating a religious (indeed theocratic) commonwealth in Great Basin that was to include communitarian economic experiments, religious direction on political questions, and — most notoriously — polygamy. Not surprisingly, an America devoted to ideals of companionate monogamy and economic individualism was not about to let the Mormon viper rear its ugly head on the nation’s hearth. The result was a series of ever more punitive laws between the 1860s and the 1880s directed against Mormon polygamists and the Mormon Church as an institution. By 1890, thousands of Mormons had been incarcerated for polygamy and “unlawful cohabitation,” the Mormon Church lay in financial ruin with essentially all of its assets confiscated by the federal government, tens of thousands of Mormons had been disenfranchised, and Congress stood poised to pass legislation that would purge all Mormons from the voting rolls. Faced with institutional annihilation and permanent political subjugation for his people, Wilford Woodruff, president of the Mormon Church, issued the so-called “Manifesto,” which began the tortuous process of abandoning plural marriage and Mormonism’s 19th-century utopian ambitions.

Ironically, the Mormon efforts to resist the federal legal campaign had been hindered by their own anti-legalism. Zion — the name that Mormons gave to their vision of the godly society — was to be a place ruled by love and justice, not by the pettifogging technicalities of the common law. Accordingly, Brigham Young and his associates treated Mormons to a good generation or two of sermons denouncing the evils of lawyers and “going to law” against one’s brothers and sisters. Hence, when the legal confrontation came, Mormons found themselves without many — in Young’s phrase — “lawyers of their own to defend them.”

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Finding Jupiter Optimus Maximus

jupiter.gifIt is not a horribly original point, but Americans expect a great deal from their courts. If we have some nasty and apparently insoluble social problem, we take it to the men in black robes and expect them to give us wonderful oracular solutions to our problems. (Amazingly, despite two centuries of failing to provide wonderful oracular solutions to social problems, we still go to court!) And of course, we surround our courts with this oracular mystique. The judges wear priestly robes. They emerge from within an inner sanctum in which they commune with the ineffable wisdom of the law. The Supreme Court Building is modeled on a Greek temple, not only in its exterior architecture, but also in its inner lay out. An entrant to the building passes through a succession of courts, each grander than the last. Admission to each court is more closely controlled, until finally one is ushered into the soaring court room where the justices emerge from behind the veil. In ancient and less judicially ambitious times, this architectural experience would have marked a symbolic assent into the presence of the gods, where the priests emerged from behind the veil that shrouded the Ark of the Covenant or the statue of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.

Apparently, we Americans learn this reverence (idolatry?) for the law early. A few weeks ago, I took my four-year-old son with me to the law library to pick up some books. As we walked past shelf upon shelf of the federal reports, my son asked me what those big books were. I pulled down a volume to show him, thinking that I would explain to him what a case and an opinion are. No need. He took one look at the double columned agate type on foolscap paper, and said, “Oh. It’s the scriptures.” I looked down and realized that the reporters do look suspiciously like the family Bible. It would seem that even in our book binding, the law apes the sacred.


The Real Bellweather Elections?


Bob Dylan was right. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. The best way to learn that is by following major church elections. Before I moved to Birmingham, I would never have noticed the incredibly important votes being held at the annual conventions of Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Southern Baptists. If you want to get a sense of the American mainstream, look no further than these meetings.

The Episcopalians, desperately trying to maintain a balance between their American progressive membership and the broader Anglican church, rejected a ban on gay bishops, but then adopted a non-binding resolution urging Episcopal leaders “to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any (bishop) candidate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.” And here in Birmingham, Alabama, of all places, Presyterians (by which I mean Presbyterian Church USA, the largest group of American Presbyterians) gave local church groups leeway to decide whether to ordain gay clergy, or allow gay members to become deacons and elders. While hardly an endorsement of gay clergy, the vote – by a relatively narrow 57% margin – was a significant step for the recognition of gay people as full members of the church.

Meanwhile, all three groups elected new leaders. The Episcopalians elected their first woman leader, a Nevada bishop named Katharine Jefferts Schori. (Schori voted in support of naming the first openly gay Episcopal bishop back in 2003.) Many Anglicans continue to believe that women should not be priests so, notwithstanding the generally progressive approach of American Episcopalians, this remains a “fashion forward” move. The Presbyterians elected their own new female leader; Rev. Joan Gray was elected moderator for the next two years. And most interestingly of all, the Southern Baptist Convention elected Frank Page their new president. Page is no liberal – for most northeasterners he’d be viewed as extremely conservative – but he is what I’d call a “lifestyle Baptist.” He seems willing to soften SBC on some of the edges in order to compete with the mega-churches (known for cutting parishoners a break when church demands conflict with lifestyle) and the likes of Rick Warren (author of “A Purpose Driven Life.”) As Page put it, “I believe in the word of God. I’m just not mad about it.” Page may be plenty conservative, but for a convention that has often cottoned to the radical right (former SBC prez Jerry Vines once said that Mohammed was a “demon-possessed pedophile” – a comment which inspired my article, Terrorism, Panic and Pedophilia), the election of Page suggests that some vaguely moderate winds might be blowing over at the SBC.


The epicurean ecumenical

One effect of living in a religiously plural society is an ability to reap epicurean rewards. I’m reminded of this every time I take the opportunity to stock up on Passover Coke. Passover Coke is made with sugar, rather than corn syrup. As such, it is acceptable for Passover use by observant Jews. It is also considered by most Coke drinkers to be a tastier beverage, and so non-Jewish buyers like myself take advantage of this opportunity to buy tastier Coke.

(When I buy Passover Coke, I only do so from full shelves. My inner ethical meter won’t let me buy the last, or even close-to-last bottle of Passover Coke from any store. I find myself imagining that such action on my part would affect some poor observant Jew shopping at the same store few minutes later — that I would deprive her of her chance to buy Coke, and she would have to sit through a Passover without Coke because of my selfish actions. So, no last bottles for me — but if the shelf is full, I make sure to stock up.)

It’s not just Passover Coke, either. It’s fun to hit a diner and order some Matzo ball soup. (That stuff is tasty, particularly on a chilly New York day) Also, during Hannukah, my old law-firm cafeteria sold cute little Hannukah chocolates that I regularly took home for the kids. And so on.

I hope that this epicurean ecumenicalism isn’t a one-way street. I hope that some of my Jewish friends enjoy the (probably more limited) epicurean benefits of Christian holidays — chocolate Easter bunnies and Cadbury eggs, candy canes and gingerbread.

And while I don’t want to overstate the point, I can’t help but think that enjoying the tasty celebrations of other religious groups has to have a salutary effect on inter-group tolerance and understanding. Perceptions of a group’s gastronomic profile can certainly affect society’s thinking. If lies about Jewish dietary habits (among other things) spread by the Czar’s secret police can lead to pogroms and hatred, then can’t a shared bowl of Matzo ball soup, washed down with some Passover Coke, lead to greater understanding and appreciation of diverse religious culture and tradition? I like to think so.

In the meantime, there’s a strictly-vegetarian Indian place up the 15 a ways, next to a Hindu temple, that I’m hoping to get to some time soon.