Friday Night Lights, Santeria & Reinforced Courage

Holy Hullabaloos
A Road Trip to the Battlegrounds of the Church/State Wars
Jay Wexler, Professor of Law, Boston University School of Law
July 24, 2009
I remember practically the exact moment when I came up with the idea for Holy Hullabaloos. I was sitting on my gray couch reading Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, really enjoying her bizarre road trip to all these places having something to do with the country's three non-Kennedy-related-presidential-assassinations (Lincoln, McKinley, Garfield) when I suddenly realized-hey, I can go on a road trip too! I was about to begin a sabbatical after six years of teaching church/state law, and what better way to spend my time than to go check out these places I had been teaching about and writing about for so long? I had always wondered what the Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel was like (was everyone there a Satmar?). I had always wanted to view some legislative prayers (how many people were on the Senate floor during the prayer?). I had always wanted to see a Friday Night Lights football game at Santa Fe High School in East Texas (are they still praying before kickoff even after Santa Fe v. Doe?). I think I got up from the couch and started knocking out the proposal that very day.

It's one thing to take a road trip and see a bunch of places, though, and quite another to discover stuff that people might want to read about. In the back of my head I think I always knew that I would have to actually talk to some people in these places if the book was going to be at all interesting. But since I'm kind of an anti-social weirdo, the prospect of interviewing people was kind of terrifying. I hadn't conducted an interview since junior year of high school, when I interviewed Mr. Robinson, a young new physics teacher at our school. I asked him if he wanted to teach for his entire career, and he told me he planned at some point to go back to grad school. Unfortunately, in the paper "grad school" came out as "grade school," and Robinson, who was already kind of struggling as it was, subsequently lost control of his class entirely. Oops.

Thank goodness for beer. The night before my family and I were set to leave for Kiryas Joel, I did that thing I often do where I drink a bunch of beers. I tend to have a lot more courage when I'm under the influence, and occasionally this leads me to do things I would not ordinarily do. For instance, back in 2002 I had some beers and then booked my wife and I a night at the Ice Hotel in Quebec. In case you're wondering, the Ice Hotel is really, really cold. Nobody should ever sleep in an ice hotel, much less pay $500 and drive eight hours for the privilege. Anyway, the night before we left for Kiryas Joel, I drunkenly sent an email to some random KJ information address, and the next morning I got back a lovely email from the head of the school department there offering to talk with me about its famous case. It suddenly looked like writing my book might get much more exciting.

I was very nervous during that first interview. Not only was I wearing a salty beach hat with my suit (you'll have to read the book to find out why), but I had no idea what I was doing. I brought along a little red notebook and a pen, and I asked a bunch of questions and wrote down the answers. Barbara Walters I wasn't (or even Geraldo Rivera, frankly), but after it was over I thought it had gone pretty well. I certainly had some interesting stuff for the book, and I felt exhilarated from doing something I had never done before.

I felt this exhilaration after every interview I did on the trip, no matter how petrified I was going into the encounter. And petrified I was, on several occasions, particularly when I was in the U.S. Senate asking the Chaplain about whether his office was unconstitutional or in the living room of a Santeria Priest asking about animal sacrifices as a machete leaned precariously against the front doorjamb or trying to explain to a plaintiff from a famous 1970s case involving the Amish why I didn't believe in Jesus Christ. I'm still pretty far from being any sort of real journalist, but I'm pretty sure that if I ever do another road trip book (A religion sequel perhaps? An environmental law road trip?), I won't have to drink five beers before setting up an interview. Probably two should suffice.