Friday, August 3, 2007

A Supreme Court Chronicler Tackles the Kulturkampf

Peter Irons, emeritus professor of political science at the University of California - San Diego and co-editor of the groundbreaking May It Please the Court series of audiotapes and transcripts of key Supreme Court decisions, has published God On Trial (Viking 2007), a travelogue of sorts through half a dozen American communities that have been impacted by the religious cultural wars of the last twenty years.

Irons reminds us that just as “all politics is local,” so also is all jurisprudence, and particularly constitutional law. Irons’ thesis is that the big decisions about the constitutionality of religious symbols such as public memorial crosses and Ten Commandments displays that emanate from the Supreme Court have their genesis in local political struggles between factions that view the symbols as vibrant and meaningful and those who regard them as exclusionary and imperious. The seeds of the book, Irons says, are found in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ aphorism, “We live by symbols,” and he seeks to tell the stories of the people who have played key roles on both sides of these so-called “symbol cases.”

The book’s readability and unpretentiousness have Irons sounding like an Ernie Pyle of the Kulturkampf. Irons combines solid, fact-combing legal journalism with fascinating interviews of the personalities who instigated the cases or found themselves swept up in them, from trial lawyers and politicians to preachers and regular folks. These are presented in unbroken monologues spoken in the subjects' own voices, like an oral folk history, and are deftly edited and detailed. The effect is refreshingly different from the stale Q&A format - rather like being taken on a personal walking tour by, for example, Barry Lynn, through his early life as a Goldwater Republican in blue-collar Bethelehem Steel country, or by Jay Sekulow as he recounts growing up Jewish on Long Island.

As a strict separationist himself, and a veteran of several of the court battles he discusses, Irons cannot help but cast the conflict (perhaps unconsciously) as one between those who desire to impose their religious beliefs on others and those who want tolerance. He maintains the overall balance of the book fairly well, though, and he is clearly trying to be honest and accurate in his portrayals of both sides. For its small flaws, God On Trial is a delightful summer read.