Rites and Wrongs

Published January 4, 2007

National Review Online

Tuesday’s beautiful state funeral for former president Gerald R. Ford at the Washington National Cathedral was, as the Washington Post aptly put it, “”a classic Washington affair, soaked in power and pageantry,” that memorably defined Ford’s legacy. The solemnity of the Christian burial rite, from its opening words — “With faith in Jesus Christ, we receive the body of our brother Gerald for burial” — through the many prayers, readings from Scripture, and homily, to the dismissal “in the name of Christ,” surely magnified the impact of the funeral on the millions of Americans who viewed it.

Ford’s state funeral stands in sharp counterpoint to Ford’s statement last year that he was “prepared to allow history’s judgment” of his presidency to rest exclusively on his appointment of Justice John Paul Stevens — and that he specifically agreed with Stevens’s positions on the establishment clause. For the ceremony at National Cathedral that Ford himself so carefully planned could never have taken place as it did — and probably could not have occurred at all — if Stevens’s radically secularist misreading of the establishment clause were governing law.

In every major establishment-clause case during his three decades on the Court, Stevens has concluded that government policies that accommodate or support religion are unconstitutional, even if they are an accepted part of our political and cultural heritage. In the 1983 case of Marsh v. Chambers, for example, Stevens dissented from the Court’s holding that it was constitutionally permissible for a state legislature to open its session with a prayer by a chaplain paid by the state. Even more aggressively and idiosyncratically, Stevens has opined that a legislative declaration of the biological fact that human life begins at conception violates the establishment clause.

Ford’s state funeral is impossible to reconcile with Stevens’s extremist views of the establishment clause. Most conspicuously, members of the United States military played a prominent role in the pervasively religious ceremony, both as pallbearers and as musical performers. The United States Marine Orchestra and the Armed Forces Chorus not only performed; they sang explicitly Christian hymns. During the prelude, for example, the Marines sang “When Jesus Wept.” During the service itself, the Marine Orchestra provided the musical accompaniment for Denyce Graves’s singing of the Lord’s Prayer, and the Armed Forces Chorus sang “Eternal Father, strong to save” — a prayer to the trinitarian God. The closing hymn, “For All the Saints,” was sung by all and included lyrics like “thy Name, O Jesus, be for ever blessed.” 

Perhaps, it might be thought, the fact that the funeral reflected Ford’s choice would salvage it from Stevens’s constitutional dustbin. But as Stevens argued in his dissent in the 2002 school-choice case, “the voluntary character of the private choice … seems to me quite irrelevant to the question whether the government’s choice to pay for religious indoctrination is constitutionally permissible.” In other words, Ford could have his religious service without having the government subsidize it. Nor can any exceptions to Stevens’s absolute wall of separation be permitted. As Stevens declared in that same case, “Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy.”

Indeed, Stevens must find especially troubling the dominant role played by the National Cathedral in presidential funerals. The National Cathedral touts on its website that it has been the location of funeral and memorial services for 10 of the 14 presidents (now 11 of the 15) who have died since it was built. Indeed, the very fact that this Episcopal cathedral has come to be known as the National Cathedral reflects the prominence of Episcopalians in American public life. And just as Stevens found it inevitable and objectionable in Marsh that the “religious beliefs of the chaplain tend to reflect the faith of the majority of the lawmakers’ constituents,” so he should find it objectionable that Christianity generally, and Episcopalianism in particular, are so prevalent in the government-sponsored funeral services of this country’s presidents.

Moreover, the very existence of the National Cathedral ought to be constitutionally objectionable in Stevens’s eyes. The National Cathedral is part of the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, which was chartered by an Act of Congress, signed into law by President Benjamin Harrison on the Feast of the Epiphany in 1893, “for the promotion of religion and education and charity.”

Justice Stevens was among the powerful who were present at the final rites of the president who appointed him to the Court. One can only hope that he might have recognized that those rites were a resounding repudiation of his misguided establishment-clause views.

— Edward Whelan is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and is a regular contributor to NRO’s “Bench Memos” blog. 

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