Paying the Debt of Civility

I’m often asked whether it’s challenging to be a Jewish professor at a Catholic college that takes its religious identity seriously, to which my answer is, first, no, and, second, I certainly prefer it to being a Jewish professor at a Catholic college that takes its religious identity casually. In any event, my contributions to the institution’s Catholicity through participating in its intellectual life are warmly welcomed, and to the extent I am involved in ritual events, I treat them like I would treat being a guest in someone else’s home. Still, my colleagues have been accommodating nearly to a fault. In more than one setting, prayers have been ecumenically tailored to my presence—wholly unnecessarily, but considerately nonetheless.

Which brings us to the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which the Supreme Court ruled that sectarian prayer at public meetings was permissible. I’ve read the decision twice now. The opinions on both sides are thoughtful, and reasonable cases can be made for both; there is, moreover, broad consensus that some kind of prayer in public settings is permissible. Still, the constitutional question I can’t get past is: Why the fuss? Why, especially in the setting of a small town in which interactions are face-to-face and relationships are presumably as close to personal as federalism permits, could this dispute not be resolved by common courtesy rather than judicial intervention?

There is a debt of civility either side could have paid. Prayers—and some, to read the opinions, were sufficiently stridently sectarian that I confess they might have unsettled me in the pressure of a political setting—could have been more ecumenical without being less meaningful. Those in the religious minority could have modulated their own feelings of personal offense to the reality of the situation, which was almost certainly that no offense was usually intended, and barring that, they might have left the room.

In either event, what disturbs one about the case is the evident incapacity of either side to accommodate to the situation without resorting to the courts. One would expect that in the anonymity of national politics, but a core argument for federalism is that political relationships operate more productively in more personal local encounters.[1]

Justice Kagan’s dissent, by contrast, argued that it was the very localness of the interaction that would place pressure on minorities to conform. Yet republicanism ultimately rests on an assumption of mutual reasonableness without which the very idea of self-governing citizens accommodating to one another’s needs and regulating the boundaries of rights collapses. On whose part, precisely, that assumption failed in this case is a matter known only to the denizens of Greece, New York. The fact that it did, though, ought to concern us all. If self-government does not work face to face, it is difficult to imagine how it endures coast to coast.

 

[1] To be sure Madison felt factions—including those pressing to establish a national religion, which was not at issue in Town of Greece—were likelier to form locally than nationally. But his solution in Federalist 10 applied to national majorities deciding national issues—again, not the case here.

Greg Weiner, who teaches political science at Assumption College, is a former political consultant and the author of Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule and the Tempo of American Politics. He is currently working on a book on the political thought of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

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Comments

  1. z9z99 says

    Some people view the courts as an “Antiques Road Show” for petty grievances. They search out, or stumble upon potential affronts, then run down to the court house to see if they are politically worth anything.

  2. says

    Greg, I would like to make a comment coupled to the following.
    1. “… (C)ould this dispute not be resolved by common courtesy rather than judicial intervention?”
    2. “Those in the religious minority could have modulated their own feelings of personal offense to the reality of the situation, which was almost certainly that no offense was usually intended, and barring that, they might have left the room.”
    I would like to preface first that I was fortunate enough, in my youth, in a community where I had (as in most communities) different religious friendships; been to the different churches at one time or another. One of my best friends, then, was from a Jewish family. I was a young WASP w/Irish, Italian and Greek neighbors. THERE WAS a common courtesy among us all.) Time, for me, has never changed w/these friendships.
    Now, for one and two, above. The “common courtesy”, we refer to, has never left the community’s civility. We both understand that it really never came from the minority either. It came about from what you made reference to – “judicial intervention”. I personally believe that this judicial interventionism was of a complicit nature w/the progressive mindset that had been set in motion by, first, the Executive branch, and the liberal democratic congress and likeminded republicans over the past seventy years — the process of nation democracy building – here and abroad.
    I hope your students take heart to what you have addressed here.
    Thank you,
    Respectfully, John

  3. R Richard Schweitzer says

    “The institutional arrangements required for the freedom of expression of beliefs and representation of interests and ideals – both of which can be divisive – can function effectively in society **if** those who use them for their own particularistic ends are at the same time restrained by an admixture of civility.” Edward Shils (1992)

    “Substantive civility is the virtue of civil society. It is the readiness to moderate particular, individual or parochial interests and to give precedence to the common good. The common good is not susceptible to an unambiguous definition; consensus about it is probably not attainable. It is however certainly meaningful to speak about it. Wherever two antagonistic advocates arrive at a compromise through the recognition of a common interest, they redefine themselves as members of a collectivity the good of which has precedence over their own particular interests. The good which is accorded precedence by that decision might be no more than the continued existence of the collectivity in which they both participate. The common good is acknowledged whenever a more inclusive collectivity is acknowledged.” From section XII, “The Virtue of Civility” (1997)

    Both of those can be found in “The Virtue of Civility” essays by Edward Shils; Liberty Fund (1997).

    “Why, especially in the setting of a small town in which interactions are face-to-face and relationships are presumably as close to personal as federalism permits, could this dispute not be resolved by common courtesy rather than judicial intervention?

    “There is a debt of civility either side could have paid.”

    In one larger scale perspective this event exemplifies the change in our social order from a civil society to a managed society. A managed society is ordered by rules; and those – “institutional arrangements required for the freedom of expression of beliefs and representation of interests and ideals” – are displaced by rules requiring intermediation because those rules have not resulted from the compromises, mutual adjustments, cooperation and understandings derived from interpersonal determinations.

    It takes but short reflection to compile categories of what were once interpersonal relationships that are now conducted vicariously through intermediation and indirection; yielding no result of understandings between the individuals and groups involved as to the needs and objectives of others.

    • gabe says

      Richard:

      Once again, you border on the poetic.
      Luv’d it!!! So we are apparently fully immersed in the “law of rules” regime – more’s the pity!!!

    • gabe says

      In case any firefox users were having trouble posting today (such as I before I dumped Firefox) I am told it was due to Firefox update that may not have been incorporated into LLB site.
      Oh well, am glad to be rid of Mozilla.

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