July 18, 2014

Genre Interventions: Taming Lawmakers through Prayer, Poetry, and Song

 [Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Law’s Prayer: Town of Greece v Galloway” by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan.] 

Speaking in the tongue of Christianity in an age of pluralism, the praying citizens of Greece, New York knew enough to keep it vague when bringing their supplications to town council. Winnifred Sullivan’s reflections on the legal wrangling over public prayer in the town council of Greece included examples of how Christians prayed for their town leaders to be “filled with the spirit of wisdom” and asked that their neighbours would come to see the virtues of “interrelationship.” Though recognizably Christian, these prayers addressed to a “Heavenly Father” were nevertheless “tamed by the law,” as Sullivan puts it, in their avoidance of Jesus-language and their studied evasion of deity specificity (except in terms of their gendered language of kinship).

Heading northward across Lake Ontario to Toronto, home of an infamous mayor, the idea of turning to banal, or better yet prophetic, prayers to bring some order to the chambers of City Hall seems like an eminently sensible plan. At a time when many politicians converse with each other in a manner disrespectful, mocking, and even lewd—when they care more about how their words will translate to sound bites and celebrity than how their exchanges will forward the cause of deliberative democracy—perhaps the call to prayer in public could also be understood as a call for genre intervention and not only divine intervention.


May 8, 2014

Court Rules in Favor of Public Prayer in Town of Greece v Galloway

Taconic-prayingsymbol300x357.jpg (JPEG Image, 300 × 357 pixelIn November, Winifred Fallers Sullivan contributed an essay on a case that was being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, The Town of Greece v. Galloway. At town meetings held in Greece, NY, an opening prayer was—and continues to be—common practice. While town officials claim that members of any faith would be welcome to give these opening prayers, the overwhelming majority of these prayers have been led by Christians, and many have drawn on explicitly sectarian references. Two town residents, one atheist and one Jewish, sued on the basis that the prayers “ran afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion.”

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court handed down their ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway, splitting 5-4 in favor of the town continuing to open its board meetings with prayer. It is interesting to note that the five justices in the majority decision are Catholic, while three of the four in the minority are Jewish. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority; Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the dissent. 

The New York Times provides an overview of the case and the majority and dissenting opinions, and writers at both Slate and The Economist have responded to the ruling.

February 13, 2014

The Legal Unintelligibility of Prayer

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Law’s Prayer: Town of Greece v Galloway” by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan.] 

Winnifred Sullivan begins her post with Bruno Latour’s delicious metaphor from his volume, The Making of Law: that trying to understand life through law is akin to trying to fax a pizza. She moves from that insight to an important set of reflections on how the world of religion fares in an atmosphere of juridification, setting American constitutional law in a critical frame in a way that few of her colleagues are able to do.


February 7, 2014

Praying According to the Law

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Law’s Prayer: Town of Greece v Galloway” by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan.]

In response to Winni Sullivan’s astute analysis of Town of Greece v. Galloway, I want to probe her claim that “prayers are tamed by law,” before looking in a little more detail at the content of these public prayers. On one level, the claim is straightforward enough. Scholars of law and religion use “law’s words and law’s aesthetics” to “describe and judge” the prayers. Public prayers come under the jurisdiction of legal terminology in an analysis that is highly textual. But the more fascinating and challenging claim is that, prior to this academic surveillance operation, the pray-ers/prayers themselves have already spontaneously become law. This sounds like a contemporary Foucauldian story about the internalisation of law’s discipline. But there are also echoes of an older story, told by (for example) Aristotle, Seneca, and Paul. Law is not the real thing, the thing in itself, but an eikon (image) of the good society. The good person, the god-like person, becomes living law.


January 29, 2014

Laughter and the Supreme Court

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Law’s Prayer: Town of Greece v Galloway” by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan.]

With her citation of Latour’s faxed pizza, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan argues that law in Town of Greece v. Galloway traces, delimits, and “tames” prayer such that the facsimile produced is a mere reproduction framed by the technology—in this case, the legal concepts—translating it. The work of the law, Sullivan suggests, is to transform religion, “to obscure the actual practices in the case, reducing them to types in service of law’s own logics.” As a result, she notes, “law does not need courts” because the power of law extends beyond courts and provides rules structuring daily practice. In its work of transformation and concealment, however, the unfolding of the law through its institutional manifestations—hearings, court briefs, amici curiae, transcripts—reveals to us not only, as Sullivan suggests, “the juridification of life in its very subjectivity,” but also how such manifestations authorize particular beliefs and practices as acceptable civil norms. As a result of this attempt of inclusion and authorization, an always inescapable moment of exclusion occurs and it is this moment of exclusion, I argue, that helps us explore Benjamin Schonthal’s observation of a moment of religious practice or belief that remains untamed despite the classificatory and performative aspects of legalizing discourse at work upon it.


December 6, 2013

Legalizing Prayer and Politics

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Law’s Prayer: Town of Greece v Galloway” by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan.]

Years ago, before I was a parent and obsessively risk averse, I took an eventful, if short, research trip. The trip was to northern-central Sri Lanka to visit the quasi-independent region that had been set up by the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers. It was a de facto state complete with its own roads, hospitals, school system, police force, customs officers, ministries and, of course, judicial system. All this was intriguing because the Tamil Tigers were an armed rebel group who since the late 1970s had been fighting a violent campaign against the Sri Lankan state. To most, they were known not for their visa forms and traffic cops, but for their brutal guerilla military tactics and devastating suicide bombings.

I had crossed the border into the ‘state of Tamil Eelam’ with the hopes of examining the Tamil Tigers’ practices of memorializing dead soldiers, such as elaborate burials and commemoration rituals. Yet, keen to make the most of the trip, I also thought I’d conduct some general journalistic interviews about rebel leaders’ grievances and goals.  Contacting the Tamil Tigers was a remarkably easy process. I emailed the “LTTE Peace Secretariat” and made an appointment with their media attaché (of course they had one), a former English teacher from Jaffna. The attaché gave me directions to a compound in Kilinocchi where I was ushered into a well-appointed two-storied house. On arrival, I was seated on a large couch and offered a cup of tea. The media attaché soon entered with two other men, each with large purses that I recall as being suspiciously pistol-sized. Although the purses alarmed me slightly, I had vaguely expected this. After all, it was violence (and the threat of violence) that had made the LTTE what it was. I assumed that this was precisely the sort of thing to be expected when talking to a representative of an armed insurgent group.


November 5, 2013

Law’s Prayer: Town of Greece v Galloway

Taconic-prayingsymbol300x357.jpg (JPEG Image, 300 × 357 pixelIn his ethnography of the French Conseil d’Etat, Bruno Latour describes the effect that law has on life as being analogous to faxing pizza. The Making of Law brilliantly and hilariously shows how law flattens life, remaking it for law’s own purposes. One sees all of the color and taste drained out of the drama of local government and politics as it makes its way up through the relentless contouring of each fact to suit the public purposes of the French administrative courts. Similar effects can be seen in any legal system. But, as Talal Asad and others have shown, the shaping of life to suit the law has backstream effects as well, beginning long before life enters the courts. One feature of the modern world is the thorough juridification of life in its very subjectivity. Law does not need the courts. Law reaches in and tells us what it is that we experience and even how we are religious—how we must choose to be religious. It is not just that religion, when it appears in court, must answer to law’s demands, but that religion, in its daily life, is shaped by the modern church/state accommodation and what Benjamin Berger calls law’s aesthetics. That accommodation and those aesthetics take a particular form in the U.S. context.