Sacred and Profane

November 20, 2003 | one comment
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In the spirit of getting some content on this site, I offer the following from the archives of A Good Oman:

A thought on First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake v. Salt Lake City Corporation, 308 F.3d 1114 (2002), the Salt Lake City Main Street case:

In his wonderful book The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade discusses the idea of sacred space. According to Eliade one of the things that religion does is orient the believer in the cosmos. It does this by interrupting the normal flow of space with sacred places — shrines, temples, etc. — that mark points of reference for man’s relationship to the divine and his place in the world. Mormon thinkers such as Hugh Nibley have used this concept to understand the place of the temple in Mormon theology and religious experience. It is the place where human beings ritually ascend into the presence of God, and thus marks the place where the sacred interrupts the plane of profane space. The temple then acts as an axis mundi, providing an orienting point within that profane space. (Think of the way that all of the streets in the towns of Mormondom are measured from either the temple or the tabernacle.) When the LDS Church purchased Main Street in Salt Lake City, it turned it into a plaza and broke down the wall that separated the Salt Lake Temple (arguably the most sacred structure in Mormonism) from the old street. The idea was to create a single space with the temple at its center: a sacred space, if you will. The restrictions on the easement were to insure that the space around the temple retained its religious character. The Church wanted the ability to exclude blasphemy and contention from the axis mundi in order to preserve its sacred character.

However, as Eliade points out, secularism also has its own sacred spaces, and certainly constitutional law has one: the public forum. One need only peruse the Supreme Court’s opinions to see what is at stake philosophically in this concept. The public forum is the site where democratic debate and discussion occurs. It is the place where individuals meet and work out their differences non-violently under the canopy of liberal democracy. It is the place where the sacred in liberal philosophy — individual rights — becomes manifested (one might say incarnated) in the toleration of dissent, minority speech, and uninhibited discussion. There is a sense in which the idealized public forum of free speech jurisprudence serves as an axis mundi of the liberal polity. It is the point that orients and gives meaning to the space around it. It is the place that defines the space of the liberal community.

Interestingly, in order to reach its decision in the Main street case, the Tenth Circuit had to ignore this conflict of sacred spaces. It refused to consider the possibility that the nature of the space that once was Main street had changed, not because of state sponsored speech restrictions (a possibility that the court did consider and — properly in my view — reject) but because that space was now opened to and assimilated within a Temple, a sacred axis mundi that transformed it from profane to sacred space.

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One Response to Sacred and Profane

  1. greenfrog on March 9, 2004 at 10:55 am

    I wonder if Elder Packer’s recent talk about Constitutional law was made with this situation in mind?

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