On April 6, 2012, Religion News Service carried a story originally reported in the Dallas Morning News. Judge Martin Hoffman, of the Dallas district court, dismissed a lawsuit brought by Mikey Weinstein against Gordon Klingenstein. Weinstein, a former Air Force lawyer, is an avowed atheist and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which opposes what it claims to be unconstitutional religious activities in the armed forces. Klingenstein is a former Navy chaplain and an ordained minister of the Dallas-based Full Gospel Church, a very conservative Protestant congregation. What led to the lawsuit was the fact that Klingenstein had made public a so-called “imprecatory prayer” directed against Weinstein—that is, a prayer that asks God to harm somebody.
People of Klingenstein’s theological orientation like to claim Biblical warrants for any of their views. The New Testament is not without invocations of God’s wrath against those who reject the Gospel, but the Old Testament is a richer source. A favorite source is Psalm 109, in which God is asked to do any number of terrible things to an enemy of the psalmist: “May his days be few; may another seize his goods! May his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow! May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit!”—and so on and on for many more verses. The Dallas story does not tell in detail just what misfortunes God was asked to inflict on Weinstein in the prayer at issue, but Klingenstein apparently quoted Psalm 109. The solemn pronouncement of curses against enemies could not have been an unusual occurrence in ancient Israel, for we are told in Deuteronomy 11 that two mountains (near today’s Nablus) were officially designated for two distinct religious ceremonies—Mount Gerizim for blessings, Mount Ebal for curses. It seems that some conservative Protestant preachers have uttered solemn curses against President Obama—also against the Internal Revenue Service (that one, I think, could acquire broad bipartisan support!).
It is not difficult to figure out why Weinstein might be considered a plausible candidate for a malediction from Mount Ebal. One just has to go to the website of his Foundation and read its motto: “When one proudly dons a U.S. Military uniform, there is only one religious symbol: the American flag. There is only one religious scripture: the American Constitution. Finally, there is only one religious faith: American patriotism.” If one wanted a definition of blasphemy from a traditional Christian (or Jewish, or Muslim) point of view, this text would do. Many people in America take blasphemy seriously, and some are not content to leave retribution to God. Quite a few unpleasant things have been happening to Weinstein and his family—death threats, vandalism, a dead animal left outside the house. The legal issue came down to the question whether Klingenstein’s curse caused these actions.
Judge Hoffman ruled that such causation could not be established. Klingenstein did not drag, or enjoined others to drag, the carcass to Weinstein’s house, or did not otherwise directly threaten or harm him. Therefore, the curse fell under the category of protected speech. Apparently an appeal is being planned. But for the time being, cursing people is legal in Texas.
There are a few things to be noted about this episode. As far as I can tell, Judge Hoffman’s ruling follows an established tradition in American law: Speech, no matter how offensive or hurtful, is protected under the first amendment—unless it directly threatens or harms the targeted individuals. A classical case for this legal doctrine was the 1977 incident in Skokie, Illinois, where the United States Supreme Court ruled that a group that called itself the National Socialist Party of America had the right to parade with full Nazi regalia through the streets of this largely Jewish suburb of Chicago—despite the fact that one in six inhabitants was a Holocaust survivor. The same doctrine was invoked when the Supreme Court ruled that a Protestant fundamentalist group had the right to demonstrate at military funerals with the message that God was punishing America for its sins—despite the fact that this action inflicted great hurt to the grieving families. I wonder whether this doctrine will come unglued, as the new concept of “hate speech” makes its way through the courts: Could not an atheist claim that a ceremonial curse constitutes “hate speech”? There is also the delicious irony in the fact that, if Weinstein had stipulated that a curse in the name of God could have real effects in the empirical world, he might not have won in a Texas court in 2012, but he would surely have won in a Salem, Massachusetts court in 1692—though thereby implicitly denying his atheist worldview. (Of course both defendant and plaintiff might have been hanged eventually, the former for witchcraft, the latter for atheism.) Needless to say, he would also have won for many centuries in any court in so-called Christendom. (Incidentally, the British law against witchcraft was only revoked in 1951.)
The Dallas case raises interesting questions of free speech and religious freedom. But for the moment I just want to make one different point: The court assumed that the curse itself was ineffective—not as a point in law, but as a matter of fact. I think that this points to an interesting phenomenon: America (as, for example, compared with Europe) is not a highly secularized society—certainly not in Texas. But, as a result of a number of historical developments, there has developed a secular public discourse—in the legal system, as well as in a number of other important institutions. The history of this has been traced in a much discussed book edited by Christian Smith, The Secular Revolution (2003). I tend to view this development as the quest for a “formula of peace” for the management of an increasingly pluralistic society. This secular discourse co-exists with any number of religious discourses. The co-existence has been generally successful, though with intermittent conflicts (in recent years accentuated by the “culture wars”). The secular discourse functions in everyday life as providing a sort of naturalist default explanation for anything that may have a supernatural flavor; even religious people have immediate recourse to explanations free of any supernatural implications, even though they may also believe that God intervenes in the matter at issue. (For all I know, Judge Hoffman is a fervent Baptist believer—a belief he must bracket while he sits on the bench—or has a cup of coffee with an agnostic neighbor.)
Most of us, however religious we may be, operate at first, especially in public life, within a discourse which the scholastics called “etsi Deus non daretur”—“as if God were not given”. Later on, best of all in the company of fellow believers, we may feel free to switch to a discourse in which God is very much “given”. In the matter of curses, I think, most of us today gravitate toward naturalist explanations: If an individual is under a curse, and knows it, he may indeed become sick—but the sickness is psychosomatic—or the sickness can be explained, curse or no curse, by contact with a source of infection—or, simplest of all explanations, there is such a thing as coincidence. Naturalist explanations can take us a long way. Sometimes, though, doubt creeps in.
An old anthropologist friend of mine, Richard Lieban, did research on witchcraft around Cebu in the central Philippines. (A book which describes some of this research is Cebuano Sorcery, 1967). He was returning from one of his field trips via Europe, and we happened to meet up in Paris. I remembered an evening we spent together. It was in the summer, and we sat in an outdoor café. Lieban told one story after another about his adventures with sorcerers. One point he made had to do with specialization—some sorcerers specialized in blessings, others in curses, with various sub-specialties in each category (rather like practitioners of modern medicine—don’t expect a cardiologist to suggest a treatment for your arthritis). Needless to say, the malevolent sorcerers (who did black magic) were more interesting than the benign ones (the specialists in white magic). It was getting late and quite dark as Lieban went on about the former group. He told about people who were cursed and fell very ill. Some of them died. I asked him the obvious (naturalist) question: Did they know that they had been cursed? He did not answer right away. He looked troubled. Then he replied: “Not always”.