Our Non-Christian Nation
How Atheists, Satanists, Pagans, and Others Are Demanding Their Rightful Place in Public Life
- ISBN: 9780804798990
- Published By: Stanford University Press
- Published: June 2019
Demanding the opportunity to participate in public religious activities such as solemnizing marriages, giving invocations, serving as a prison chaplain, giving public invocations, or placing monuments is key to new religious movements taking their place in public life. These demands have produced a notable series of Supreme Court rulings, detailed here by Jay Wexler in Our Non-Christian Nation: How Atheists, Satanists, Pagans and Others Are Demanding Their Rightful Place in Public Life.
Examples include the (nontheistic) Satanic Temple’s efforts to place a military veterans’ monument in Belle Plaines, Louisiana, “a black steel rectangle measuring two feet by two feet by three feet with embossed inverted golden pentagrams on each side and an upside-down soldier’s helmet, also made from black steel, on the top” (3), as well as multiple public monuments and holiday displays with religious themes, all of which have lead to precedent-setting court decisions.
These demands are educational. If, for instance, a person sees a Druid give a public prayer or views a Druidic monument, “the person will know that Druidism exists in the community and will learn at least a little bit about what it means to be a Druid” (11). But it is not just small or new religious bodies that have pushed these boundaries; Wexler notes: “Christians have taken advantage of these cases to participate widely in American public life. … Public spaces are speckled with Christian displays and monuments” (149). This, to him, is a dangerous trend.
His attention, however, is more on those minority religious groups—and atheists—who leverage the same court cases to add their displays to public buildings at Christmas, to give public invocations (as at city council meetings), and to seek public school-voucher money. These moves, he notes, have been met by pushback in some areas, such as the vandalizing of holiday displays. Nevertheless, Wexler concludes, “the relatively new phenomenon of non-Christians demanding their rightful place in American public life is something that should be applauded, celebrated, and continued” (159).
He visits, among other sites of new religious movements, the Pagan farmstead called Circle Sanctuary in southern Wisconsin, home of one of this nation’s first recognized Pagan cemeteries and also of the well-known Wiccan priestess Selena Fox, who helped to lead a successful effort in the early 2000s to permit Wiccan military veterans to have a pentagram carved on their government-provided tombstones (there are now eight such in Arlington National Cemetery).
Some readers, however, may be put off by Wexler’s classist attitudes toward, for example, the people of “sleepy” Greece, New York, a suburb of Rochester, which he visits for its importance in a 2013 Supreme Court decision on whether invocations before a city council meeting must represent all religions (Town of Greece v. Galloway). Wexler travels to Greece to hear the “soft-spoken” atheist plaintiff give her first official invocation, although it means subjecting himself to a place that is “no [nation of] Greece,” has a town hall that is “no Parthenon” and “lacks historical character,” where people play an obscure sport called pickleball. (“If you’ve never heard of pickleball, don’t worry; I had never heard of it either” 79.) He eavesdrops outside the meeting room, hoping for juicy quotes but hears none, leaving him no choice but to roll his eyes at the simple piety of a man seated by him who took “his baseball hat off” in advance of the “prayer,” but then donned it again “when he realized that nobody was really giving a prayer” (82). The placid council meeting is so strenuous for Wexler that afterward he retires to his motel—once adequately fortified with a supply of Jameson Irish whiskey (83). But this is Main Street America where First Amendment battles are fought.
Overturning an appellate court decision in the case (brought by an atheist and a Jew), the Supreme Court ruled that “the town of Greece does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition and does not coerce participation by nonadherents.” In addition, the court ruled that the city could not discriminate against spokespeople for other religions. “It took about five minutes after the decision was issued for Atheists [sic] and members of minority faiths to start taking advance of this part of the opinion” (63). He insightfully dissects the whole question of nonsectarian prayer that presumably offends no one, concluding “there is no such thing as a prayer that will appeal to everyone” (69). Wexler’s analysis of this and other cases is refreshingly nontechnical and would be useful to nonlegal specialists reviewing recent First Amendment law. (His partisanship is open; for instance, he labels Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as “characteristically nasty.”)
As a quick introduction to several decades of court rulings on religion in public, such as the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings and ensuing disputes, Our Non-Christian Nation can be useful. Readers should realize, however, that Wexler’s personal preference is for a wholly secular public sphere, to which end he makes a sort of “accelerationist” argument for increasing minority-religion participation in it: “demanding minority participation in public life is likely, however counterintuitively, to be the best hope for creating a secular public square in the United States” (160). In other words, secularism is the goal, but “religious cacophony” would be an acceptable halfway stage. Anything to get rid of a “public square … populated entirely by Christianity” (161, italics original). The Druids mentioned in the introduction, therefore, are by the conclusion revealed to be merely “useful idiots” in the march toward complete secularism. A “healthy pluralistic public square,” while desirable, is not the goal.
Chas S. Clifton (Colorado State University-Pueblo) edits The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, published by Equinox, UK.Chas S. CliftonDate Of Review:March 18, 2021