Law and Religion in Contemporary U.S.
Bill Long 8/21/06
A Syllabus for an Eight-Week Course
Beginning on Sunday, September 10 and continuing through October 29, 2006 I will be leading an adult education forum at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, OR entitled "Law and Religion in Contemporary America." The purpose of this post is to lay out how I am planning to approach such a course. My goal is not only to establish a method for how to interrelate these two powerful and fascinating phenomena in American life in our day but to encourage other teachers to use a format such as this or develop one on your own. This essay will give an overview "from 30,000 feet," while subsequent essays, which I hope to post, will explore each of the themes in more detail. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to comment on this.
My chief methodological observation at this point is that in order for this subject to be considered responsibly, it needs to be done historically. To that end, I will, after an introductory class, begin with America during and immediately after WWII. Both law and religion (as well as America as an economic and political superpower) really took on a different "look" and flavor in the post-WWII world. Here then is my approach.
Week I: An Overview
The purpose of this week will be to introduce two foundational documents from American history which emphasize different values which keep recurring in America's religious and political life. We will look at John Winthrop's sermon "A Model of Christian Charity" from 1630 and Abraham Lincoln's "Second Inaugural Address" from 1865. Both are rich with ideological and theological themes.
Week II: From FDR through the Late 1940s
The mid-late 1940s is foundational time for understanding the approach to religion which is currently being attacked in much of American life today. So, we need to explore patiently the way that religion functioned during and near the end of WWII and then how the US Supreme Court framed its approach to religion in two important cases in 1947 and 1948. I will call this approach separationism, and I will go into it in some detail on Sept. 17.
Week III: Eisenhower Through Mid-1963
It might appear that this division is arbitrary, but it makes a lot of sense. We will examine the flourishing of "civil religion" during the Eisenhower Administration through the addition of "Under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. Then, we will consider two major US Supreme Court decisions in the early 1960s which removed prayer and Scripture reading from the regular religious exercises in the public schools.
Week IV: The Civil Rights Movement, 1963-68
We will examine in this week the interplay between the work of Martin Luther King, his "March on Washington" speech, the march from Selma to Birmingham, and its relationship to a new emphasis in law on equal rights and affirmative action. I will place the discussion in the context of the workings of Jim Crow laws, which were supported by the US Supreme Court in a decision near the end of the 19th century.
Week Five: The First Conservative Reaction: 1973
I will only probe two ideas in this week, but the ideas are important enough to consider in some detail. The most important US Supreme Court decision of the decade of the 1970s came out in January 1973. It was Roe v. Wade, which made legal a woman's right to end pregnancy without the intervention of the state in the first trimester of pregnancy. It was this decision that triggered a reaction in a pastor named Jerry Falwell, of Lynchburg VA, who would dedicate the rest of his ministry to overturning this decision. I also would like to speak here about the origin and development of the Evangelical movement in modern America.
Week Six: The Conservative Movement Strengthens
The purpose of this class will be to emphasize the pivotal importance of President Ronald Reagan in highlighting a new approach to the relationship of law and religion in the US. Coming out of WWII the emphasis, as I mentioned above, was on separationism. Beginning in the early 1980s there will be an ever-so-quiet but insistent move towards what I call accommodationism--that the organs of government ought not to be separate from religion but, indeed, ought to cooperate with religion in many ways. Chief Justice William Rehnquist was important in this change.
Week Seven: Three Issues
In the 1990s and 2000s, three "hot-button" religious and legal issues were considered by the courts, all the way from US District courts to the US Supreme Court. We will look at how the Court(s) handled the idea of "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance; the propriety of posting the "10 Commandments" in various public venues; and the teaching of what proponents called "Scientific Creationism" as an adjunct of evolutionary theory in the high school science classroom. I will look at these issues as the points where the battle between the accommodationists and separationists was joined.
Week Eight: Beyond 9/11
In the past five years the religious landscape of America has further evolved. There is the continued division between the "liberals" and "fundamentalists" but now other religious groups, like Muslims or Mormons, are entering more and more into the American reality. I will close by focusing on the recent elections in, of all places, Kansas, for (state) school board members. Some interesting things are happening in my old state...
Hope to see you and some of your friends there at my class!
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long