Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

03/24/2010 (1:21 pm)

A Nation of Philistines

First the music, then the explanation.

The performance is Up Above My Head, by Iris & Ofer Portugali’s Gospel Choir, an Israeli ensemble. It’s just shy of 6 minutes long. Frankly, I don’t think it’s quite as hot as Kirk Franklin’s version, on which this arrangement is based, but it’s hot enough, I love live performance, and I couldn’t find Franklin’s version as a live video recording. So… enjoy, and here’s a hint what this is about: play it really, really loud so your atheist neighbors have to hear it and grind their teeth.

Yesterday’s news contained a report from Monday’s US Supreme Court review of pending cases, announcing that the case of Nurre v. Whitehead had been refused certiorari, meaning that the Court decided that it will not hear the case. As a result, the decision of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (yes, that 9th Circuit) will stand. The decision upholds the right of the Everett School District Superintendent, Carol Whitehead, to prohibit graduating seniors from performing music of their choice if that music has a religious theme. You can read the Circuit Court’s decision here.

Here’s what happened:

During the 2005 graduation ceremony of the Henry M. Jackson High School in Everett, WA, students performed a gospel piece entitled Up Above My Head, probably based on an arrangement by Kirk Franklin and God’s Property, a black gospel jazz/hip-hop band (they rock.) After the ceremony, several parents complained because of the religious content of the song, which says “Up above my head, I hear angels singing; there must be a God somewhere.” One parent wrote an angry letter to the editor of the Everett Herald, complaining that the piece was a violation of the Establishment clause. Various federal courts have been unanimous in declaring that this is not true, but that’s what the letter complained.

Roll the clock forward to graduation in 2006. The band director allowed seniors in the band to choose pieces for performance at graduation that would best display their ability. This year, among other pieces, senior Kathryn Nurre and her fellow band members chose Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria to be played by a woodwind quintet. The band director, recalling the flap over the gospel hymn the previous year, asked the Associate Superintendent for approval, and a representative from the Superintendent’s office emailed all principals in the district instructing that all musical numbers must be completely secular in nature. Nurre and her quintet reluctantly chose instead to play the fourth movement of Gustav Holst’s Second Suite in F for Military Band.

Yes, you read that correctly. A woodwind quintet was too religious for the school district. They were afraid to print the title of the piece in the program. (Ironically, the previous three years the band had performed On a Hymnsong of Philip Bliss, a musical arrangement of the Evangelical hymn It Is Well With My Soul, without complaint from the community.)

Now, I don’t want to say that school administrators have no right to exercise oversight over students’ choices; they do, and it’s important. But I have to make a plea for sanity here.

The Establishment clause of the US Constitution was written in the wake of centuries of religious wars in Europe. The authors of the constitution regarded those wars as the consequence of the entanglement of religious institutions — church governing bodies — with civil magistrates. They reasoned that so long as church politics and civil politics were kept separate, the government would not be able to interfere with church practice, so that no particular religious body — say, the Archbishop of Canterbury representing the Church of England — could use the power of the state to persecute other churches.

Will somebody please explain to me how a high school woodwind quintet, playing a piece chosen primarily for displaying the skill of the artists, could possibly present a danger of a particular religious institution oppressing other religious groups by abusing the power of government? Where is the danger here? The Catholics are going to see “Ave Maria” printed in the program and go pass laws requiring thumb screws for Protestant heretics?

I am not a legal scholar, but in my humble opinion, the majority garbled the Lemon test(1), in that the effect of the decision very clearly constitutes an inhibition of religious expression; and furthermore, the court ignored clear precedent declaring that the State must not discriminate on the basis of viewpoint. US Supreme Court Associate Justice Sam Alito, in his dissent from the Supreme Court’s refusal of certiorari, observed that the school district’s decision was very clearly “viewpoint discrimination” focusing on the religious content of the piece, and thus prohibited by the 1st Amendment. (Read his dissent here: you’ll have to scroll down to page 22 to find the beginning of it.)

But leave that aside. What’s clear is that Establishment clause litigation has gone far afield from its intended outcome. In fact, it has become a tool of oppression; it is being used by progressives to perform Orwellian scrubbing of Western culture to excise any mention of the religion that formed the West. It’s deliberate, it’s anti-intellectual, it’s unconstitutional, and it’s winning.

The choice of Ave Maria was not even intended to be a religious statement, according to the plaintiff; she just liked how the piece highlighted her skills. But the objection was very definitely a religious statement, and was intended to be. The effect of the decision was to make the complaints of a few, anti-religious bigots, who hate the fact that they have to hear God mentioned in the music of the culture, the law of the land.

Keeping high school music completely secular eviscerates Western music. According to testimony in the case Doe v. Duncanville Ind. Sch. Dist., 70 F.3d 402, 407 (5th Cir. 1995,) somewhere between 60 and 75 percent of all serious choral music in the West contains religious themes, and probably close to half of all Western music likewise recalls religious themes. In the medieval, baroque, and classical periods, it was the Church that sponsored most of the music. Judge Miland Smith, dissenting in part in Nurre’s case, makes this point in his dissent. He adds this:

I am concerned that, if the majority’s reasoning on this issue becomes widely adopted, the practical effect will be for public school administrators to chill—or even kill—musical and artistic presentations by their students in school-sponsored limited public fora where those presentations contain any trace of religious inspiration, for fear of criticism by a member of the public, however extreme that person’s views may be.

The First Amendment neither requires nor condones such a result. The taking of such unnecessary measures by school administrators will only foster the increasingly sterile and hypersensitive way in which students may express themselves in such fora, and hasten the retrogression of our young into a nation of Philistines, who have little or no understanding of our civic and cultural heritage.

Alito, in his dissent, feared the same retrogression. Let’s not be naive; that is precisely the effect the complaining parents were hoping to have. They don’t mind a nation of Philistines, so long as they never have to hear any reference to God. In their view, the Constitution guarantees them that they will never have to hear an opinion that they despise. And they call themselves “open-minded.”

The Establishment clause is a good idea. It works to prevent sectarian oppression. So does the Free Exercise clause, which is the second half of that sentence from the 1st Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

I recall here the argument presented by Elisha Williams in The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants, the 1744 pamphlet I reported on a year ago in my Theological Foundations of a Just Rebellion series. The civil magistrate has neither right nor power to dictate matters of religious conscience to the individual; preventing him from trying protects believers from government intrusions on their liberty, intrusions like the government telling Kathryn Nurre that the music she chooses to play is too religious.

I’m beginning to see some of the major issues of the day as “Reset Button” issues — issues where we need to start over from scratch with a new Constitution and a clear understanding of the purpose of each clause therein. This is one of those issues. If bigots can intimidate enough people into neutering Western music on the mere threat of a specious 1st Amendment challenge, one that’s already been decided in favor of religious expression half a dozen times, and they get the protection of a misinformed court, then we need new guards to protect our liberties. This is one of the bases for pursuing partition of the nation. so we can re-establish proper boundaries on government intrusion. There is no libertarian cause that requires quashing good music just because the composer adored Jesus’ mom.


(1) The Lemon test refers to the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). The test, usually applied to instances of the government favoring a religious expression, requires three criteria: the conduct must (a) have a secular purpose, (b) not have as its principal or primary effect the advancement or inhibition of religion, and (c) not foster an excessive governmental entanglement with religion. In the Nurre case, the Lemon test was applied to the school district’s decision to stop seniors from choosing music with a religious theme — incorrectly, in my view, because its principle effect is to inhibit religion.

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March 24, 2010 @ 3:20 pm #

Strangely enough, this is one that really hits home to me, one that brings out my worst, ugliest impulses toward anyone associated with the left that would countenance this $#**&@!%. I read of secession in your blog and in other sources, and think of leaving my friendsand exended family, many of whom are liberal, and it’s tough to imagine. Then I read this, and I think I could be gone in a heartbeat and never look back.

My son is in high school chorale, and the highlight each year at the Christmas concert is the grand finale of Ave Maria. Lots of chorale alumni attend and they are all invited to come up and sing with the current group. All of them do and the stage is packed.

The chorale and their instructor work hard at this and rehearse every single day for months. When these sons and daughters in their tuxes and gowns perform this song in their young, yet skilled, high school voices, there are very few dry eyes in the auditorium. It’s one of those truly magic, wonderful moments.

And this just won’t work for the left. They just can’t let it be, can’t bear it. I have not had a fight outside the confines of a boxing ring and haven’t thrown a punch other than at a heavy or speed bag for decades, and I go out of my way to avoid confrontations. But if I met one of these people and the wrong things were said, it might turn into the worst day one of these lefties had in a long, long time. Sorry for the vent, I’m normally very slow to anger, but these people are simply beyond the pale.

March 25, 2010 @ 6:11 am #


I have an LP of my wife’s High School Concert Choir performance from 1966. Almost every song on the album is of a religious nature.

March 25, 2010 @ 7:31 am #

John Cooper,

It’s kind of the nature of the beast with Christmas music, isn’t it?

The director of the chorale keeps threatening to record a CD, but is always too busy. I may try to record the concert this year.

March 25, 2010 @ 12:17 pm #

Wonder how long it’s going to be before they manage to eliminate Christmas as a legal national holiday…

I already wonder how anybody with any brains can object to using the name “Christmas” when in fact it _is_ a national legal holiday.

The holiday that must not be named…

What idiocy!

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