The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America

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A new constitutional world burst into American life in the mid-twentieth century. For the first time, the national constitution's religion clauses were extended by the United States Supreme Court to all state and local governments. As energized religious individuals and groups probed the new boundaries between religion and government and claimed their sacred rights in court, a complex and evolving landscape of religion and law emerged.

Sarah Gordon tells the stories of passionate believers who turned to the law and the courts to facilitate a dazzling diversity of spiritual practice. Legal decisions revealed the exquisite difficulty of gauging where religion ends and government begins. Controversies over school prayer, public funding, religion in prison, same-sex marriage, and secular rituals roiled long-standing assumptions about religion in public life. The range and depth of such conflicts were remarkable—and ubiquitous.

Telling the story from the ground up, Gordon recovers religious practices and traditions that have generated compelling claims while transforming the law of religion. From isolated schoolchildren to outraged housewives and defiant prisoners, believers invoked legal protection while courts struggled to produce stable constitutional standards. In a field dominated by controversy, the vital connection between popular and legal constitutional understandings has sometimes been obscured. The Spirit of the Law explores this tumultuous constitutional world, demonstrating how religion and law have often seemed irreconcilable, even as they became deeply entwined in modern America.

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Editorial Reviews


Sally Gordon turns the accepted wisdom neatly on its head by demonstrating that it is the extraordinary power of the religious impulse that has shaped—and continues to shape—American law, not the other way around...[An] excellent book.
— Burt Neuborne

Books & Culture

The Spirit of the Law subtly suggests that the era of strong evangelical influence in America culture may be at least temporarily over.
— David Skeel

Mark Silk
A masterful study…insightful and provocative, well-written and entertaining. I know of no other book like it.
Laura Kalman
This dazzling book explores the Jehovah's Witnesses, Black Muslims, white evangelical Protestant women, and others who, beginning in the 1940s, made law crucial to religious life. It is a wonderful read that brilliantly illuminates the creative tension between law and religion in recent American history.
Steve Shiffrin
Gordon puts flesh and blood on the most heated law and religion disputes of the last seven decades. Looking at these disputes primarily through the religious eyes of colorful activists committed to making a constitutional difference, she makes legal and religious history come alive in an important and engaging way.
William E. Nelson
Gordon demonstrates how the dazzling variety of religious expression in America since the 1930s has outpaced the capacity of judges and legal theorists to construct a stable constitutional law of religion. By implication, the book also raises questions about whether any constitutional theory can keep pace with the dynamic pluralism of American constitutional argument.
Hendrik Hartog
By exploring the odd and interesting lives and lawsuits of dissenting twentieth-century believers, Sarah Barringer Gordon provides us with a novel and compelling modern constitutional history of American religion.
Forward - Burt Neuborne
Sally Gordon turns the accepted wisdom neatly on its head by demonstrating that it is the extraordinary power of the religious impulse that has shaped--and continues to shape--American law, not the other way around...[An] excellent book.
Books & Culture - David Skeel
The Spirit of the Law subtly suggests that the era of strong evangelical influence in America culture may be at least temporarily over.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674046542
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 4/30/2010
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 1,331,099
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Sarah Barringer Gordon is Arlin M. Adams Professor of Law and Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania.
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Table of Contents

  • Preface

  1. The New Constitutional World
  2. The Worship of Idols
  3. The Almighty and the Dollar
  4. Faith as Liberation
  5. Holy War
  6. Covenants of Love

  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index

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