What is the role of faith in our democracy? For starters, freedom of religion is the first right enshrined in the First Amendment. While amendments are not listed in order of importance, it’s hard not to read something into that drafting choice. Yet constitutional meanings frequently play hide-and-go-seek with text. This is especially the case for religion, which is never defined in the Constitution.
Maybe the Founders’ generation assumed the meaning was self-evident. I would hope, however, that they knew there is little that is obvious or uncontested in religion. The etymology of the word itself suggests how difficult it is to define. Religion comes from the Latin term religio. The Latin phrase itself likely came from the root ligare, to bind. Joined with the prefix re-, religion is the process of “binding together again.”
The question is: what does religion bind together? Some believe it bound an individual to the discipline of moral discernment. It referred to epistemic responsibility, the responsibility to properly know what you know. A related but distinct interpretation was that it referred to the oaths taken by members of cults or religious orders. It emphasized the practical, ritual, and ecclesial dimensions of religious life. Over time, as religion started to assume more individualistic and mystical associations, the root was understood as referring to the re-connection between the human and the divine.
“Go home. Be with your family. Live simply and with integrity. Consume only what you need. Be generous with each other.”
That is the gist of much of Leviticus 25, where God issues instructions for the Jubilee. The jubilee is a kind of year-long Sabbath, occurring after “seven weeks of years, seven times seven years”—i.e., every 50th year. But in addition to the typical Sabbath’s rest and worship, the Jubilee is also a time of mercy and compassion: enslaved people are freed, debts are forgiven, and economic relations are subordinated to fundamental human needs. God assures Moses that the land will be capable of feeding and sheltering the people and so they must, “observe my statutes and faithfully keep my ordinances, so that you may live on the land securely.”
I never liked elevator speeches. I struggled with reducing my purpose in life or work to a rush of words that I could get out before reaching the figurative lobby. Now that I’m in law school, the task is a little easier. People generally have some sense of what it is to be a lawyer. But prior to this I was studying philosophy of religion at a divinity school. Fewer people have a clear sense of what that’s about. And these days, if I happen to divulge both of those pieces of my biography—law school and divinity school—I can often see the confusion work its way through their faces.
Often they’re wondering why a pastor, minister, or priest would become a lawyer. I explain that I, like most students at my school, went for a degree in religious studies, not ordination. Another reason for the dissonance seems to come from that old dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. Even as fewer people in our country identify with organized religion, there still seems to be some notion that those who take religion seriously at least have the courage of their convictions. Lawyers, on the other hand, are known for their moral promiscuity. Both generalizations need to be questioned. Still, when quickly explaining how I ended up at BC Law, I often try and fail to reconcile that perceived tension.
So I’m using this blog to break free from the limitations of an elevator speech and offer one explanation of how divinity school and law school go hand in hand. A warning up front: as an occupational hazard of divinity school education, I sometimes reason allegorically, and this will be one of those times.