First Amendment Understandings

I was disappointed in Michael W. McConnell’s article (“Taking Religious Freedom Seriously,” May) because of his efforts to link the reason for the First Amendment with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. There simply is no such link. For example, McConnell argues: “This is not to say that everything the court has done under Lemon is wrong. There are, indeed, practices that advance a particular view of religion (usually, if not always, generic Protestantism), and these should be invalidated. Spoken school prayers are the most notorious example . . . .”

There is not a scintilla of evidence to support the theory that those who formulated the First Amendment intended explicitly or implicitly to bar “spoken school prayers.”

The First Amendment is literally a prohibition against federal law: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” On its face the First Amendment has nothing whatsoever to do with practices in local schools. The U.S. Supreme Court created such a link when arbitrarily deciding that the Fourteenth Amendment “incorporated” the First Amendment.

The recent Supreme Court cases which have invalidated laws or practices because in conflict with the First Amendment are not directed at federal laws. In fact, as Justice Stewart pointed out in Engel v. Vitale, the First Amendment”as interpreted by the majority”“imposes a lesser restriction upon the Federal Government than does the Fourteenth Amendment upon the States.”

Again, Mr. McConnell can search high and low and he will not find any evidence that those who framed the Fourteenth Amendment intended it to have an effect on “spoken school prayers.”

The First Amendment was adopted, inter alia, to prevent Congress from passing a law establishing a religion or prohibiting the free exercise of a religion. There is no nexus between these purposes and recent Supreme Court invalidations of state law under the authority of the First Amendment. Any effort to articulate a connection is bound to fail because it cannot withstand a reading of the words of the First Amendment itself. Take “religious freedom” seriously. Yes, but also take the Constitution seriously.


Michael Minnis
Oklahoma City, OK


Michael W. McConnell responds:

Mr. Minnis is, of course, correct that the First Amendment originally applied only to the federal government. The question, however, is whether the rights protected by the First Amendment are among the “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” that were extended to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment. There is substantial (though not unequivocal) historical evidence that this was intended by the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment. The school prayer decision (Engel v. Vitale) is a logical application of that principle.

Homosexuality and Religion

I must agree with Richard John Neuhaus when he argues in “Homosexuality and the Churches” (May) that the gay movement does raise the possibility that “Christian doctrine and morality are fundamentally in error.”

Neuhaus gives credit to religious celibates for “offering up the entirety of their being to God.” In the next paragraph, he claims “homosexuality is sterile.” Either you accept on faith that gay sex is more “sterile” than celibacy, or you don’t. Neuhaus doesn’t mention Genesis, but I will: it’s not at all plain to me why gay sex is more perverse or unnatural than God removing Eve from Adam’s side. From this founding myth, much else follows in Judeo-Christian ethics. My own belief is that it is our distinctly human nature which allows us to create diverse cultures, and that Eve deserves honor for eating first from the Tree of Knowledge. Knowledge is risky, not sinful in itself . . . .

When the Supreme Court denied gays the right to privacy, Judeo-Christian tradition was explicitly cited against us. Defending separation of church and state, seven hundred of us were arrested at the Supreme Court. Even privacy must be defended publicly. As for the psychic destruction of gay people within churches, those gay people who choose to reform their religions have serious work to do. Others of us do not share the faith; and in the public realm of civil rights, we advise the churches to lead, follow, or get out of the way, because we’re coming through . . . .

Scott Tucker
Philadelphia, PA

Capitalism and Conservatism

Jerry Muller’s “Minding Our Manners and Morals” (April) scored several good points in an argument devoted to the thesis that capitalism can support as well as subvert conservative values. Nevertheless, his argument completely ignored two of Christopher Lasch’s most telling critiques.

First, Lasch points out that the drive for efficiency and greater productivity in the market has so eroded wages that in 1976 fewer than 40 percent of wage-earners’ salaries were sufficient to support a family. Thus economic constraints more than the “culture of consumption” are exerting the pressures presently pulling many lower-middle and working-class families apart by drawing both spouses into full-time, inflexible jobs and pushing the kids into inadequate day care, after-school care, even evening care.

Technological “remedies” for this problem such as microcomputers linked by modem are often class-specific: jobs that permit individuals to gain greater flexibility by such devices usually require a costly college education, while excluding the craft skills in which many working-class people excel. In fact, technologies that can give middle-class people greater flexibility have impoverished the working experience of many wage-earners by taking over tasks that formerly required great skill, permitted liberty for creativity, and engendered pride in workmanship.

Second, Muller’s assigning of “therapeutic culture,” “some strands of contemporary feminism,” and the “Playboy philosophy” to a space outside the market ignores Lasch’s contention that all express the spirit of acquisitive individualism and the exaltation of choice par excellence. Indeed, the rise of the therapeutic culture is inextricably bound up in marketing physical and psychological “cures” for ills which owe their identity and sometimes their very existence to expectations and pressures produced by the market. The Playboy philosophy’s embodiment of a culture of consumption is obvious. So also feminism’s deification of choice, whose exaltation several historians have linked to the rise of markets.

Conservatives’ reluctance to address market-generated inequities has historically driven lower-middle and working-class people to alliances with cultural radicals despite their overwhelming preference for traditional, family-oriented values. Lasch’s communitarianism may not answer working people’s problems, but dismissing them with banalities about capitalism’s “double-edged” properties vis- -vis traditional values will do little to win the crucial support of families laboring under capitalism’s constraints.

Timothy D. Hall
Skokie, IL

Against Muddling Through

Thomas Derr’s remarks (“In Favor of Muddling Through,” May) stand out like an iceberg in an otherwise well-ordered sea, encouraging relativism instead of “absolutism” in our politics at a time when the latter has won out over the former on almost all fronts and when our remaining problems have resulted from the former. Instead of prodding our legislators to be more forthright on the issues, Derr seems to want more of foggy bottom’s traditional and at times comic evasiveness. Perhaps Thomas Sowell is right in his remark that “politics is the art of misstating issues.”

History shows that compromise is a policy of good government only as a last resort, not as the central, gliding principle Derr promotes. All too many examples in this century alone show the error of such thinking. Besides, Americans are too fuzzy-minded as it is without further encouragement. The battle of ideas, whether in the journals of opinion or the halls of Congress, must proceed. For it is through ideas that we achieve consequences, as Richard Weaver taught forty years ago. And Ludwig von Mises warned us that “only by a battle of ideas can a decision be reached.” And he added, “In this conflict of opinions everybody must make up his mind and take a definite stand.”

W. Edward Chynoweth
Sanger, CA

Newspeak?

Surely many of your readers must have trembled as I did at “Post-Cold War Newspeak” (June/July). Was our cherished First Things to become another voice of right-wing reaction rather than of Christian conservatives?

Will First Things be telling us that we are not responsible ourselves for our nation’s problems, that Sojourners did it or the liberals and the left? Are we to be reading that it is the politicians who ruin society or will we (as I continue to hope) read that we have nothing to fear as long as we citizens care and tell ourselves the truth?

Before we write about “the right emphasiz(ing) civil and political rights” needn’t we remember Joseph McCarthy and Jesse Helms and Theodore Bilbo and Richard Nixon and Representative Smith from Virginia? Were those [men] representing “civil and political rights”? Surely we cannot claim they were representing the “liberal left.”

Conservatives [would] do better to be concerned with the awful legacy of the Reagan Right”not paying our way. James Baker can tell us that we should be pleased that foreigners are willing to buy our national assets with their yen and marks. But the inexorable fact is that every year since Reagan cut taxes we sell about $200 billion of heritage permanently to foreigners. In exchange for that we take trinkets”Infinitis and VCRs.

We can be certain that capitalism is an engine which produces huge wealth without pretending that conservatives can be proud of our postwar record. I am one who believes that, more than any one thing, our nation needs a credible moral authority. Conservatives would be much more credible if we separated ourselves very recognizably from the racism and greed and excessive self-concern that is so much the hallmark of the reactionary right.

Thank you for so much in previous issues. But please let truthfulness and the log in our own eye be among the “ First Things .”

John E. Conner
Strafford, PA

Prolife Passion

I was offended by Christopher Lasch’s suggestion in “Conservatism Against Itself” (April) that some complex sociological explanation is necessary to explain why abortion “elicits such passionate emotions or why it has become the object of political attention seemingly disproportionate to its intrinsic importance.”

If there is anything more intrinsically important than the abortion debate I can’t imagine what it could possibly be. To deny its importance is like denying the importance of rape, lynching, or the Nazi Holocaust.

I can’t speak for abortion advocates, but abortion is extremely important to prolifers because of our compassionate concern for the millions of innocent children who are being aborted. The lives of our unborn brothers and sisters are as precious as the lives of us who have already been born. Why anyone with any moral sense would find it difficult to see the issue this clearly is what I find difficult to understand.

Jerry C. Stanaway
Elmhurst, IL