In her much-admired dissent to the recent Supreme Court decision allowing town boards to open their meetings with sectarian prayer, Justice Elena Kagan demonstrated a crude, reductionist view of the nature of religious diversity in America. Kagan repeatedly described Christianity as “a single faith,” ignoring the vast differences among various Christian denominations that have fueled the most consequential religious conflicts in the nation’s history. Because she views Christian faith as an undifferentiated, monolithic blob, she portrays that complex religious tradition as uniquely domineering and distinctly dangerous.
In her impassioned opinion (in Town of Greece v. Galloway), Kagan laments the fact that the citizens of a small city in upstate New York heard “month in and month out for over a decade, prayers steeped in only one faith.” In other words, the fact that city officials invited “Chaplains of the Month” from more than a dozen disparate denominations– ranging from Catholic to Baptist, from Pentecostal Assemblies of God to liberal Methodists — did nothing to prevent Kagan from declaring that the opening prayers “always identified with a single religion.” Later, she indignantly denounced a town board that selects “prayergivers who will reliably speak in the voice of Christianity, and so places itself behind a single creed.”
Never mind the fact that the inclusive church directory for the Town of Greece shows a wide variety of Christian congregations, but not a single Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or other non-Christian place of worship operating within the city limits; she still blames city officials for failing to “involve, accommodate, or in any way reach out to adherents of non-Christian religions.”
This designation of Christianity as a single, unified faith community might surprise the more than five million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the United States, who chafe at the idea that most other denominations still refuse to accept them as Christians. It might also produce a bemused reaction on the part of the more than 15 million American Pentecostals who are regularly mocked and derided by other elements in the Christian world for their exaltation of “gifts of the spirit” like speaking in tongues. Above all, Kagan’s prose remains stubbornly blind to the huge historical chasm between Catholics and Protestants which has constituted the most important religious divide in American history.
As early as 1655, Catholics and Puritans fought the bloody “Battle of the Severn” for control of the colony of Maryland. Less than 200 years later the anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia in the blistering summer of 1844 became the most devastating religion-based pogroms in the nation’s history, claiming at least 15 lives, with more than 50 grievously injured and a dozen church-buildings destroyed; it took the mobilization of more than 5,000 militia troops to finally quell the violence. Whatever the persistent fears of Anti-Semitism and “Islamophobia,” no major political party ever arose based primarily on hostility to Jews or Muslims. But the virulently anti-Catholic American Party (or “Know Nothings”) flourished in the 1850’s, capturing governorships and prominent positions in Congress, while winning 22 percent of the popular vote for their presidential candidate (former President Millard Fillmore) in 1856.
This history matters, because the admirable pluralism that the nation began to achieve in the later years of the nineteenth century involved a truce among squabbling Christian denominations, not so much accommodation between those denominations and the tiny minority (never more than 5 percent) who never affiliated with the Christian tradition. When the Founders crafted the First Amendment and decreed that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” the legislative history makes it clear that they sought to prevent one Christian denomination from gaining precedence over all the others, not to deny or repeal the new nation’s indelible Christian character.
In a sense, Kagan’s view of Christianity (in an opinion signed by the court’s other two Jewish justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer) provided a mirror image of the mistaken impression of the Jewish community by many or our well-meaning Christian neighbors. I’m always amazed, for instance, by my otherwise well-informed non-Jewish friends who assume that virtually all Jews share common values and religious priorities, thinking that we universally try to avoid ham, teach our children Hebrew, or consider support for Israel a personal imperative. Unfortunately, no such unanimity exists on any item of belief or practice, and the theological gap between an Orthodox rabbi and his Reform counterpart will be at least as wide and broad as the division between that Reform clergyman and his colleagues in similarly liberal Christian denominations, like the Unitarians or the United Church of Christ. Woody Allen and I both count ourselves as Jewish but I can’t think of a single point of ethics, observance, politics or philosophy on which we agree; and I even find myself disliking many (but not all) of his movies.
Of course, the divisions within the vast Christian community (representing more than 85 percent of the US population) count as even more significant and substantial than the disagreements within the miniscule Jewish community (that amounts to 1.8 percent of the populace). Today, the advancing tide of militant secularism has encouraged many Christian churches to cooperate on issues like abortion and the defense of traditional marriage, constructively transcending even the traditional Catholic-Protestant divide that once polarized the public and claimed literally millions of lives in brutal European conflicts. Whatever spirit of unity Kagan now perceives among Christians represents progress for pluralism, not a threat to it. Contrary to the short-sighted view of the honorable Justice, the flourishing Christian America of today– exemplified by the varied pastors and priests who led prayers in Greece, New York– offers a demonstration of wholesome diversity in action rather than the danger of dominance by any single denomination.