Traditionalism is a constitutional theory that focuses on concrete political and cultural practices, and the endurance of those practices before, during, and after the ratification of the Constitution, as the presumptive determinants of constitutional meaning and constitutional law. The Supreme Court has long interpreted traditionally but now says explicitly that it uses a method of “text, history, and tradition” in several areas of constitutional law. Foremost among these is the Establishment Clause. This Essay examines two questions about traditionalism, both of which concern the Establishment Clause in distinct but related ways. First, why has traditionalism had special salience in this area? Second, is traditionalism more a mood or disposition than a theory, more a matter of the heart than of the head?
On the first matter, traditionalism did not materialize out of thin air in the 2021 term, and it has had unusual power in the interpretation of the Establishment Clause for decades. The question is why, and answering it has implications for constitutional theory more generally. For if some do- mains of constitutional law are more amenable than others to traditionalist interpretation, the same may be true of other theories. The answer for the Establishment Clause is that establishments are made up of politically foundational traditions. Political establishments are constituted by the concrete, authoritative, and enduring practices and institutions that make up the essential settlements of a polity. To interpret the phrase, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” is immediately to be directed by the text not to an idea or an abstraction, but to some- thing solid, authoritative, and lasting—“an establishment.” This is a reading supported by the other uses of “establishment” and its cognates in the Constitution. “An establishment of religion,” therefore, is a political practice that sits outside the limits of the constitutionally permissible practices of the American political establishment. Unconstitutional establishments of religion depend upon the prior existence of constitutional establishments, and those establishments are often instantiated in a people’s most powerful political traditions. More than certain other domains of constitutional law, the text of the Establishment Clause is inherently traditionalist because its meaning takes shape against a network of concrete, authoritative, and enduring institutional political practices. And the practices of establishment are essential to fostering the civic trust that is necessary for any polity’s survival. Without them, the political community fractures. In time, it dies.
As for the second question, some critics have argued that traditionalism is not a full-fledged theory so much as a mood or disposition and that traditions are too manipulable and insubstantial to form the raw material for a theory of constitutional meaning or constitutional law. The question matters because it concerns whether traditionalism is an independent constitutional theory in its own right or, instead, at most a feature of others, dependent on their methods and justifications. I will argue that traditionalism is as much a constitutional theory as any of its rivals, though that claim will depend on just what it means to count as a theory. It is, in fact, its application in Establishment Clause cases that most clearly demonstrates its comparative systematicity, generality, and predictability of application, three critical elements for qualifying as a constitutional theory. Traditionalism is, to be sure, not a decisional algorithm, but neither is any attractive constitutional theory; it acknowledges and even welcomes reasonable disagreement within shared premises, as do other plausible theories. Still, the critics are in a sense correct: traditionalism has a charactero- logical or dispositional component that other approaches may lack, and this, too, is illustrated in its application to the Establishment Clause. Its character, and the kind of disposition it develops in interpreters subscribing to it, is preservative and custodial. That is not a flaw but a distinguishing virtue. It makes traditionalism preferable to other interpretive possibilities because it makes traditionalism more than just an interpretive theory, reflecting and shaping character even as it provides a coherent framework for adjudicating constitutional cases.
Marc O. DeGirolami, Establishment as Tradition, 133 YALE L. J. FORUM 372 (2023).