The Warm Glow of Tradition

One of the smartest and funniest guys I know is a Catholic priest. This is a never ending source of jokes, which he takes with aplomb, because he knows that I don’t share his enthusiasm for Jesus, pomp and circumstance and trappings. I insist he’d be Buddhist except that black is slimming.

But why does his tribe get to invoke the name of his God before petty officials meet to decide mundane issues of state town?  Tradition.  The Supremes, in what is aptly described as a deeply fractured decision, upheld the tradition of the Town of Greece, New York, in having a clergy-guy give a ceremonial invocation before their monthly meetings.

It’s not that they’re Christian-centric, they say, but there aren’t any other churches in the phone book, and so they end up with a prayer like this:

“Lord, God of all creation, we give you thanks and praise for your presence and action in the world. We look with anticipation to the celebration of Holy Week and Easter. It is in the solemn events of next week that we find the very heart and center of our Christian faith. We acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. We draw strength, vitality, and confidence from his resurrection at Easter. . . . We pray for peace in the world, an end to terrorism,violence, conflict, and war. We pray for stability, democracy, and good government in those countries in which our armed forces are now serving, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. . . . Praise and glory be yours, O Lord, now and forever more. Amen.”

This is a perfectly fine prayer, if one happens to believe in Christianity.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Justice Kennedy, to the extent anyone wrote for the Court, glossed over the big issue of Marsh v. Chambers, where the Court glossed over why this happens in the first place.

Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs. The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

Tradition.  When the clergy invoked Jesus, it’s not religious, but ceremonial.  It’s “but a recognition” that this is an American tradition.  This rhetoric is unadulterated nonsense, wrapping overt religion in a pretty, red ceremonial bow and calling it ceremonial.

The Court went on to hold that as long as the Greekers weren’t limiting their invocations to Christianity, but were constrained by availability and were otherwise open to any religious invocation, there was no unconstitutional establishment.  It was just “meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the nation’s heritage, ” a limited holding which sated some voices on the secular right, like Walter Olson and Eugene Volokh.  To my surprise, they both seem to embrace the dogma that a meeting of petty officials cannot begin without some ceremonial invocation.

The American Humanist Association announced that it is launching a program training people in the giving of secular invocations. So did the Freedom from Religion Foundation, but with very different aims in mind: the AHA wants to show that unbelievers can fully join in and be an equal part of the civic ideals traditionally symbolized by invocations, while the FFRF is more intent on upsetting the applecart and creating enough discomfort with the whole idea of such a ceremony to cause its discontinuance.

Both favor the AHA approach, perhaps because petty officials make far better decisions when there is a ceremony up front to remind them of the solemnity of their duty?  In Eugene’s case, I’m less surprised as he’s fairly slavish toward precedent like Marsh.  As for Wally, it beats the heck out of me. I suppose he’s more of a split-the-baby type of guy when it comes to pointless ceremonial nonsense.

And no, it’s not a big deal that the Town of Greece conducts this ceremony before its monthly meetings.  And it may well be that there are no alternative clergy to Christians in the phone book.  Of course, nobody is talking about the atheists, but that glaring hole has no peg to fill it, and so it’s best left out of the ruling.

It’s not that I’m antagonistic toward tradition. I really enjoyed the Queen’s Jubilee, and Prince William’s wedding was great to watch.  But when a tradition facially conflicts with a basic tenet of the Constitution, the fact that it’s a tradition does not provide a rationale for ignoring unconstitutionality.  Not even if a wrong decision was made in 1983, throwing empty words on a page to circumlocute the obvious, that religious prayers have no business in secular government functions.

You want to hold ten-hour masses? Knock yourself out. Sing psalms all day long. Just do it in your Church, your home, as you walk down the street in your head if that’s your thing.  But when a line item in a government agenda is “invoke Jesus’ glory,” there has been an inexplicable and needless crossing of a line.

The only way the Supremes could blow by the problem is to wipe it away with invocation of tradition.  It’s not religion. It’s tradition. It’s not religion. It’s ceremonial. It’s not religion. It’s what we have always done to show respect.

Cut the crap. It’s religion. And yes, it is most assuredly a tradition.  So too was keeping the darkies to their own schools and water fountains so they wouldn’t contaminate our beautiful, pure, white children. The same rationale that allows the Supreme Court to leap over separation of Church and State would allow it to approve separate but equal. It’s not racism. It’s tradition. And that’s what makes this wrong, no matter how many adjectives Justice Kennedy wraps around this doctrinal absurdity.

My priest friend knows a prayer when he gives one.  He can’t believe that local governments still let him in the door to spew some of his Jesus juice to the conclave, but he will keep selling as long as they keep buying.  I close my eyes when I’m forced to sit through this claptrap. People think I’m meditating on some godly matter, but I’m not. In my head, I’m listening to Joe Rogan’s Voodoo Punanny.

We each have our preferred flavor of voodoo, and no clergyman’s invocation is going to change mine.

25 thoughts on “The Warm Glow of Tradition

  1. Pingback: SCOTUS approves invocations at town council meetings - Overlawyered

  2. Richard G. Kopf


    Despite who and what I am, and where I do what I do, I am not religious. Not exactly an atheist, but very close and certainly an agnostic. I once blew up an old monument in a park ’cause it was an obvious endorsement of religion I thought. At least that is how I read the Ten Commandments inscribed on the rock. Got reversed ’cause the Circuit said it was just an old monument despite the sole reliance on Judeo-Christian slogans and the fact that it was the only such declaration in the park.

    So, my bona fides established, I sort like the majority opinion in Town of Greece. It sticks a finger in the eyes of some really obnoxious secular holy warriors who insist on screwing with ordinary folk who live in small towns and do no real harm with their devotion to what they honestly perceive is a civic virtue. Maybe you have to have lived in one of these places to understand how innocent these things are.

    When I go to the Catholic church (seldom and mostly for funerals or weddings or baptisms), I don’t knell, sing, cross myself or do anything of that stuff. I smirk (but only slightly) at the trappings, although I confess I think some of them are neat (like that swinging incense thingie). The priest (and I really like most priests) doesn’t give a shit what I don’t do and, more importantly, I wouldn’t give a shit if he did. After all, he let me in to see his magic show.

    The Supreme Court could have done us all a service by not talking this and other similar cases. But, having given the kid law clerks a perfectly meaningless little case upon which to wax grand, the end result is no harm nor foul. With Town of Greece, I can go to my maker secure in the happy knowledge that heads are exploding among some very smart people who need to let little folks alone.

    All the best.


    *Side Note: The Town of Greece majority opinion is based upon an earlier Supreme Court case from Nebraska. Marsh v. Chambers. Ernie Chambers, the black legislator who objected to the chaplain giving an invocation at the start of each state legislative session, is a brilliant guy, an outspoken atheist, a well-educated lawyer who works as a barber in north Omaha, and is now (again) serving in the legislature after being term limited. Ernie (who slightly older than I am) has a razor wit. He is a treasure.

    1. SHG Post author

      My wife (who I affectionately call Dr. SJ here as she prefers to remain under the radar) is a non-practicing Catholic. Soon after my daughter was born, she came to me hat in hand, asking if I would mind if we had her Baptized. It seemed my father-in-law was deeply disturbed that she wouldn’t go to heaven, and my wife didn’t want him to lose sleep.

      I told her it was fine with me, as there could be no harm from a priest sprinkling some water on her. While it would bring comfort to my father-in-law, to me it was just an unsatisfying bath (I asked my wife if the priest could use soap, and she gave me a dirty look).

      Your tempest-in-a-teapot point is true, but ironically only to those of us who aren’t overly caught-up in the necessity of religious intervention in secular affairs. That someone in a funky collar gets up to utter the J-word doesn’t ruin my day. It irks me a bit, but that’s the worst of it. The words spoken by petty officials afterward tend to bother me far more, and there isn’t much I can do about that either.

      But what disturbs more more, and is really a criticism of Marsh v. Chambers more than Greece, is the rationalization that this flagrant establishment violation is justified by cheap words like heritage, ceremonial, tradition. It’s intellectually empty and just plain nonsense. When something that does matter with religion happens, these are the opinions that are held up to diffuse constitutional honesty. And if the rationale held true, it would similarly be available to do some real harm to justify historic constitutional wrongs under the rubric of tradition. Just because we’ve historically violated the Constitution doesn’t mean it’s okay to perpetuate the wrong.

      My kids were raised Jewish, not because of the religion but because of the ethnicity. The teachings of the Holocaust are still with me, and no baptismal certificate will save them should someone decide their type are unworthy of living. But I feel no better when it’s a rabbi giving the invocation as a shaman. We all know that secular government has no need for these trappings.

    2. ExCop-LawStudent

      Sir, may I bring to your attention the following?

      “And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.” James Madison, letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822.

      I’m sorry, but SCOTUS is wrong. I’m reminded of another saying. “If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.” What many do not recall is the moral to that story, “It is a wise rule to resist the beginnings of evil.” Horace Scudder, The Book of Fables and Folk Stories 71-72 (1919).

      While it is true that most Americans are christians, there are many that are not, and the First Amendment exists to protect them. It exists to protect the one lone atheist or muslim or pagan that lives in that town and is offended by the town’s support of christianity. It exists to protect the muslim student at a high school graduation, who is required to sit through a christian prayer and exhortation for non-believers to accept christ. It exists to protect the one atheist at a city council meeting, regardless of the civic intent of the council.

      In the case you mentioned, you were right and the Court of Appeals was wrong for precisely the reason they said it was OK – that it was the only such religious monument in the park. And had you been in the Sixth Circuit, you would have been upheld. The less that government and religion are mixed, the better off we all are.

      Anyway, that’s my two cents on the issue.

    3. Robert L. Abell

      I was raised in small town rural Kentucky and grew up in and attended a variety of Baptist churches. The types of churches were 100 was a big crowd, and the message from the pulpits was very much fire and brimstone, some would say, along the lines of “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could move mountains” type. That line I heard in a sermon when I was a child perhaps 45 years ago; that I remember says something. The ordinary folk in small towns of which Judge Kopf speaks are the people that made up the congregation of these churches. When I think of them now, I think of them as straight, honest and true.

      I don’t think of it as straight, honest and true if you say a prayer before your city council meeting to stick it in the eye of an obnoxious secular holy warrior or anyone else. So the prayers must be about something else: the marginalization and exclusion of anyone that might deign to be or think different not just with regard to the church and prayer issues but whatever else the council might take up. You could write this off as just theoretical and, in truth, most of the time perhaps almost always it is, but not for the plaintiffs in this case. And it would seem (or so I had thought) this would be where the First Amendment comes in. Since the Court got the case wrong, I wish it had not taken it. But they did and as a result of their decision we all will have to suffer and endure an endless stream of jake-leg politicians professing their piety and demanding we bow our heads for prayer before they start doing the job they were hired to do. Probably they would insult our intelligence in some other way anyway, but the Supreme Court has not helped things by encouraging them. And the Court’s decision will be taken as encouragement.

      One more point: more recently, the pastor at one of our local churches, what would be considered a modern mega-church, said something that the Supreme Court might have considered better: “You want to know the seven most dangerous words in the English language? ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it.'”

      1. Brett Middleton

        “as a result of their decision we all will have to suffer and endure an endless stream of jake-leg politicians professing their piety and demanding we bow our heads for prayer before they start doing the job they were hired to do”

        Perhaps we would be better off to keep the prayer and drop the council meeting. Prayers can’t do any harm regardless of their sincerity or insincerity or accordance with the beliefs of the listener, but town councils can be downright dangerous to anyone and everyone. Unlike the church, the council has a police force backing it up. Who’s up for a trip to Hampton, Fl?

  3. spencer neal

    I am an atheist. I would not like my city council to open its sessions with a prayer. I won’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Maybe the judge thinks that I am small-minded but I get tired of people trying to shove their ideology on me.

    I would like to see the reaction in the City of Greece if a Muslim or a Hindu gave an invocation to start a city council session. Like that would ever be allowed.

    I recall a story about a Christian minister who was in Hawaii and was made uncomfortable by some Buddhist ceremony at a football game. Imagine that.

    1. SHG Post author

      I don’t say the pledge of allegiance either. I think it’s a remnant of Vietnam protest days, but I stand, respectfully but silently. I do, however shed a tear at the Star Spangled Banner. It always chokes me up when they sing, “gave proof through the night that the flag was still there.”

    2. Levi

      If they didn’t object to the Jewish layman, the Baha’i chairman or the Wiccan priestess that were invited after people started complaining, I’m not sure how their reaction would have been particularly different if a Muslim or a Hindu gave the invocation.

      1. SHG Post author

        The Jewish layman, the Baha’i chairman and the Wiccan priestess were beards, invited to offset complaints. It’s like having a token black to prove you’re not prejudiced, when it proves just the opposite.

        1. Levi

          The commenter’s point is that they would not have been tolerated, which surely would have been pointed out in trial somewhere since it occurred while the record was still open. At least one of those individuals voluntarily asked to give the invocation, rather than the town seeking her out. Also, the Baha’i person was back last year at least [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules.] (I have not inspected all of their minutes, just looked at some recent ones). My point here is that the disparity almost certainly arose from laziness and the lack of desire to spend any more effort than was absolutely necessary to arrange a trivial ceremonial function (much like finding some ROTC kids to march in the flag, etc.) rather than anything deliberately prejudicial, and without some evidence that commissioners or other audience members care who gives the invocation or even pays any attention to what other people are doing at the time.

          It would be different if anyone could have alleged that adults at any one of the meetings were acting like kids who punch classmates for omitting “under God” from the pledge [Ed. Note: Link deleted again].

  4. Wheeze The People™

    Last I looked, every phone book has at least one listing for an Italian restaurant, each of which contains the spirit of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But I haven’t seen an actual phone book in awhile, as something called the internet seems to have made such an eco travesty more than a bit obsolete . . .

      1. Wheeze The People™

        Currently on a low-carb diet, so no pasta for this one. Fish, yes, loaves, no. Bacon, yes, maple, no, donuts, no. I need to be properly cut when I pose for my statue (and/or statute) . . .

  5. Brett Middleton

    “ordinary folk who live in small towns and do no real harm with their devotion to what they honestly perceive is a civic virtue”

    What’s the point of the Constitution if not to protect the non-ordinary folk who live in those same small towns from having the traditions and ceremonies of the ordinary folk rammed down their throats? If the ordinary folk believe that their devotion is a civic virtue, then the non-ordinary folk — the agnostics, atheists, Pastafarians, etc. — must be regarded as lacking in civic virtue. Under the right circumstances, this kind of thinking does not lead to a good place, at least for the little people who don’t share the common devotion of the majority.

    Perhaps what the ordinary folks need is a new tradition. If they need to be reminded of “precepts far beyond the authority of government to alter or define,” then begin each meeting with readings from Jefferson, Madison, and others of their ilk on the concept of limited government. Or maybe readings from St. Rand (Ayn, not Paul), St. Rothbard, St. Spooner, and their fellow travelers. Selected passages from the speeches of John Galt might be just the ticket, with a little Twain and Mencken thrown in for spice.

    Granted, that will probably do no more to inculcate a little humility among the town councilors than does a prayer. But what could it hurt?

      1. Brett Middleton

        I meant to, honest! But there was no do-over when it popped up in the wrong place and I realized I didn’t click the right “Reply” button. I’ll try not to let it be a precedent.

        1. william doriss

          It’s an easy mistake, of which I’m guilty more than once, perhaps chronically. Don’t feel bad.
          Here’s my take: Some people worry about Separation of Church and State. I worry about Separation of Church From Estate. Or, more accurately, Separation of the State from MY
          estate. Ha. (What’s left of it!)
          I agree with the judge. This case never should have been brought to the Supremes. And once brought, should not have achieved cert. It seems to me that there are a lot more
          important cases which would like to be heard by SCOTUS, and should be heard. Remember: You have the right to petition the Sovereign for “redress of grievances”, but you do NOT have the right to be heard. It is the ultimate Amerikan irony, IMO. Heads, they win; tails, you lose. Hi Mom!
          This was a walk-thru for them, not requiring too much conscientious cognition. It fell to the predictable liberal-conservative divide. What a shame.

    1. Marshall

      If the ordinary folk believe that their devotion is a civic virtue, then the non-ordinary folk — the agnostics, atheists, Pastafarians, etc. — must be regarded as lacking in civic virtue.

      I’ve noticed that people on this side of the argument often seem very defensive on this point. It is not true that there’s a logical imperative there. If marching in the parade is a civic virtue, staying home is not civic neglect. For an alcoholic, staying sober is a civic as well as a private virtue, but its OK for there to be bars. Money in my pocket doesn’t make you poor.

      It is very true that this point is not always well understood by institutions such as organized religious bodies and town councils. I for one intensely wish that Modernism would quit painting its one-size-fits-everything mentality on my marketplace, of ideas as well as vegetables. On to the next thing, I say.

      1. SHG Post author

        It’s not a logical imperative. It is, however, a fair inference. I’m never entirely sure what “ordinary folk” believe, and not sure there is such a thing as “ordinary folk,” but if they believe devotion is a civic virtue, then I would suspect they similarly believe that anyone antagonistic to devotion has civic issues, if not neglect.

        No, that may not be accurate entirely about non-ordinary folk, but beliefs held by “ordinary folk” may not need a logical basis in the first place. That’s the nature of beliefs.

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