The history of church-state relations in the United States is a very complicated subject, the kind of intellectual terrain that you could spend several semesters exploring in a graduate degree (as I once did, late in the Vietnam War era).
In recent decades, roughly the era defined by the rise of the Religious Right, there have been several distinct stages in church-state affairs. At one point, it was rare for thinkers on the left and right to communicate with one another. Then came the Clinton White House years when -- I know this will be hard for some readers to believe -- there was serious progress and constructive dialogue, primarily because conservatives began to enthusiastically embrace the First Amendment. Yes, even though the politics of abortion loomed in the background.
As I wrote in a post early in the Barack Obama administration:
You see, once upon a time there was a wide coalition -- roughly from the ACLU to Pat Robertson -- that was focused on another issue altogether, which was free speech, freedom of association and trying to find ways (think "equal access" laws) that treated religious believers and nonbelievers the same when it came time for them to express their beliefs. ...
It was crucial, you see, for believers and nonbelievers to have the maximum amount of freedom without the government getting entangled (the key word) in determining which doctrines were acceptable and which were not. If the chess team got to use a room after school, then so did Campus Crusade for Christ (or the young atheists circle).
Can you imagine that kind of truly liberal (in the old sense of that word) coalition existing today, in an era defined by bitter battles about gay marriage and, in a strange healthcare flashback, birth control? I know, it's hard to imagine.
This is the reality that framed a recent Washington Post story that ran under this headline: "Question of beard and religious freedom unites groups who’ve been opponents." As often happens, this story has little or no sense of history. "History" is something that happened, oh, last year. The story pivots on the rights of a prisoner:
Gregory Houston Holt is an Arkansas prison inmate who is also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad. According to his brief to the court, he feels his Muslim faith requires him to follow this dictate: “Allah’s Messenger said, ‘Cut the moustaches short and leave the beard (as it is).’ ”
Holt said he is willing to compromise with prison officials and keep his beard trimmed to one-half inch. But Arkansas corrections officials allow beards only for dermatological conditions -- not religious beliefs -- and even then they must be trimmed to one-quarter inch.
Of such, Supreme Court cases are made.
The Post team is interested in Holt, but at the heart of this story is the fact that -- in the eyes of the dominant news source here in Beltway land -- it is strange that cultural conservatives (think Becket Fund for Religious Liberty) are rising to the defense of, well, someone other than an evangelical ministry leader or an order of Catholic nuns who back the Vatican on issues of sexual morality.
Can you feel the love? Well, maybe not. Can you sense the presence of raised eyebrows in the newsroom?
Holt’s case has attracted an outpouring of support from groups who divided last term on important Supreme Court cases involving the health-care act and whether local government meetings could open with sectarian prayer.
In this case, conservative legal organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Rutherford Institute are on the same side as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union.
And Holt has the support of the Obama administration.
So what is the journalistic issue in this story, which is actually pretty good?
I think it's fascinating that the Post team seems to think that this broad church-state coalition is a new thing. In other words, the news is that this team has REUNITED to work on this case, in defense of a unique religious believer, a man that many would view with distrust. Truth be told, strong advocates of the First Amendment once stood together to defend the rights of neo-Nazis to march through a Chicago suburb that included many, many Holocaust survivors.
So here is my question: What shattered the Clinton-era coalition?
That question doesn't interest the Post team. This is as close as readers will get:
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is one of the groups supporting Holt that was on opposite sides of conservative legal groups in the legislative prayer and contraceptive mandate cases.
Gregory Lipper, an attorney for the organization, said the difference is that the previous cases would affect third parties, such as those who don’t want to hear prayers at municipal meetings or employees who want access to all forms of birth control.
Holt’s request for a beard imposes no burden on any other inmate or anyone else, Lipper said. His group urges the court to make sure that when government accommodates the needs of an individual’s religious beliefs, it does so in a way “conditioned on the equal rights of others.”
Well, what about the rights of the Jews in Skokie?
Once upon a time, groups on the political left were much more consistent in their defense of First Amendment rights, even when freedom of expression caused tension and sometimes pain. But times have changed and First Amendment liberalism is not as popular as in the past. In fact, it is often called "conservatism" these days.
There is a story in there, but one that requires knowing a bit of history.