rThe Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America by Sarah Barringer Gordon, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (April 30, 2010)
Don’t be misled by the seemingly bland title—itself a pun, referring both to religious groups’ encounter with the law and the tension between law’s letter and spirit.
The Spirit of the Law is no ordinary history of the church and state battles of the past century. Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Supreme Court’s much reviled and much amended Establishment Clause standard, is not even mentioned in the text. Even if this were the book’s only virtue, it would be cause for great praise.
As many readers will know, the First Amendment of the Constitution lays down two seemingly irreconcilable dictates: Congress cannot establish a religion, but it also cannot abridge believers’ free exercise of religion.
Like other scholars employing the hot new perspective known as popular constitutionalism (prominently associated with Stanford Law School dean Larry Kramer), Sarah Barringer Gordon draws not just on technical court decisions but also on popular understandings of the Constitution in recounting the past century’s Religion Clause battles.
Gordon charts these battles through finely detailed studies of six different religious groups whose encounters with the First Amendment helped to shape the evolving Religion Clause doctrine.
The first chapter features the rowdy early years of the Salvation Army. Boisterous, noisy, and often booted out of the towns to which they brought their campaigns, the Salvationists marshaled the Free Exercise clause in their defense in an era when it was interpreted quite narrowly.
David Skeel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, blogs about Christianity, law, literature, and other topics at lessleast.com (and is our favorite legal blogger!)