Just in time for the Christmas Wars, the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies has published papers from a symposium on state-sponsored religious displays that the Center for Law and Religion co-sponsored with our our sister school, the Libera Universita Maria SS Assunta (LUMSA), in Rome last year. The papers compare the treatment of such displays in the United States and Europe. Contributors include Silvio Ferrari of the University of Milan (“State-Supported Display of Religious Symbols In The Public Space”); Thomas Berg of the University of St. Thomas (“Can State-Sponsored Religious Symbols Promote Religious Liberty?”); Monica Lugato of LUMSA (“The ‘Margin of Appreciation’ and Freedom of Religion: Between Treaty Interpretation And Subsidiarity”); and Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain of the US Court of Appeals (“Religious Symbols and the Law”). There’s also an introduction by me. You can download the articles here.
In the blogging world, what follows is known as a “bleg”:
As some First Things readers know, in my day job, I’m the Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University in New York. The Center has its own blog, the Center for Law and Religion Forum, which contains regular updates on law and religion cases, news, and scholarship from across the globe, as well as commentary by me, my St. John’s colleague, Marc DeGirolami, and frequent guests. The blog has been in operation for a couple of years now and has filled an important niche in the American legal academy: fair and balanced coverage of vital issues at the intersection of law and religion.
We were delighted to learn yesterday that the American Bar Association Journal has named the Center for Law and Religion Forum as one of the top 100 blogs on law and lawyers in its annual “Blawg 100” survey. The ABA quoted a reader: CLR Forum “highlights interesting news in law and religion that no other such blawg highlights. Its commentary is incisive and fair. Its point of view is unique among blawgs for taking seriously varied religious traditions rather than mocking them or treating them in a lowest-common-denominator fashion.” We’re very grateful to the ABA and the readers who nominated us.
Now for the bleg: The ABA is asking readers to select their favorite blogs from each of the survey’s categories, including the “Niche” category, where the ABA has placed CLR Forum. Voting began yesterday and will continue until December 20. If you think that it’s important to have a blog that fairly covers law and religion issues and offers commentary that departs from conventional academic secularism, please check out CLR Forum and, if you like what you see, vote for us by clicking here and following the links. Thanks!
At the Center for Law and Religion Forum today, we have a podcast on the legislative prayer case just argued at the Supreme Court, Town of Greece v. Galloway. The podcast will be particularly useful for students and others interested in the history of legislative prayer and an analysis of oral argument in the case. We end with a prediction of how the justices will vote. You can listen to the podcast here.
Here’s what looks to be the final update on that interview Pope Francis gave to Eugenio Scalfari of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica this fall. Readers of this website will recall that the interview quotes Pope Francis as saying, among other things, that “proselytism” is “nonsense” and that, with respect to conscience, everyone must follow his own idea of good and evil. Progressives swooned; traditionalists grumbled; everyone wondered what it all meant.
Shortly after the interview ran, it emerged that Scalfari had reconstructed the pope’s words from memory. Scalfari had not tape-recorded the pope nor taken notes during the meeting. In other words, the La Repubblica “interview” was not an interview at all. Why a respected newspaper would publish an imaginative reconstruction as though it were a real interview is beyond me—but the Vatican stated at the time that the interview was basically “trustworthy,” if not verbatim. And the Vatican posted the interview on its website.
Last week, however, the Vatican decided to take the interview down. According to this report from the Catholic News Agency, Pope Francis became concerned that people might misunderstand the interview—particularly the discussion of conscience. According to a Vatican spokesman, “The information in the interview is reliable on a general level but not on the level of each individual point analyzed: this is why it was decided the text should not be available for consultation on the Holy See website.” The music was right, I guess, but the lyrics were bit off. Probably the interview is still available at La Repubblica, though.
The annual conference on Christian Legal Thought, co-sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute and the Law Professors Christian Fellowship, will take place in New York next year on January 3. This year’s theme is the work of the late Jean Bethke Elshtain. Details, including a link for registration, are here.
At the Center for Law and Religion Forum, my colleague Marc DeGirolami has a rundown of the various appellate court rulings to date in the ACA Contraceptives Mandate litigation, including last week’s Seventh Circuit decision. Check it out.
At Mirror of Justice, my friend Rick Garnett has an interesting post about Guy Fawkes Day, which, for those of you who don’t know, was yesterday. The day commemorates the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a conspiracy by British Catholics to blow up Parliament and end the Protestant Stuart dynasty. (Amusing, in its way, because the Protestantism of the Stuarts was always a little suspect.) Guy Fawkes was one of the conspirators—the one in charge of the explosives—and for centuries Britons commemorated the day by burning effigies of Guy and the Pope. Nowadays, the holiday has morphed into Bonfire Night, in which Britons across the country light huge fires and set off fireworks. Probably the whole thing will morph into Halloween one of these days.
As an American, I’ve always thought knowing about Guy Fawkes Day was a mark of anglophile eccentricity, rather like reading P. D. James or renting Elizabeth R on Netflix. But here comes Rick, who writes that his public school celebrated Guy Fawkes Day as a holiday. And Rick comes from Alaska! Obviously, this great country is more than I know.
. . . here in New York City, and reader John McGinnis points me to an interesting New York Times column on the election’s likely effect on some important law-and-religion controversies. Whether the heavily-favored Democrat Bill de Blasio or the Republican Joe Lhota prevail in today’s mayoral contest, the Times reports, the next administration will likely be friendlier than the Bloomberg Administration to the city’s faith communities:
After 12 years of a mayor who has resisted making concessions to religious groups, New York City is in for a change.
The two leading candidates for mayor—Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, and Joseph J. Lhota, a Republican—have pledged to break with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on a range of issues at the nexus of government and religion. They say they would accommodate two of the most important Muslim holy days, allow church services on school property, and work with Jewish leaders to ease the city’s supervision of circumcision rituals.
Religion in New York City is typically (though not always) an ethnic phenomenon. New Yorkers are not so comfortable with overt religiosity; but tribe, we understand. The greater solicitude for faith communities likely reflects a return to classic interest-group politics more than a resurgent piety. Still, it’s interesting to observe the change in tone from the hyper-secular Bloomberg Administration, which actually banned clergy from 9/11 commemorations. By the way, here’s another sign of changing religious politics. When asked to describe his religious views, de Blasio answered, “I have my own spirituality, but it doesn’t take the form of any particular religion.” Our likely next mayor is a None.
Religion without God is the late Ronald Dworkin’s last work, published posthumously in September. It’s a short book; a publisher’s note explains that Dworkin planned to expand the work greatly before he fell ill. Still, the book is important. Not that it says anything especially new. As far as I can tell, in fact, the book repeats familiar, even ancient, objections to the idea of a personal God and proposes a legal definition of religion that is decades old. Religion without God is important, rather, because it reflects the worldview of a celebrated liberal philosopher sympathetic to religion but unable to believe in God, and because it reflects an increasingly important strategy in the left’s battle to minimize protection for traditional religion.
Religion without God has two main points, one about the nature of religion and the other about religious freedom. In the first part of the book, Dworkin argues that religion, properly understood, does not require a belief in God. Religion requires only a belief in objective meaning and a sense of wonder at the sublime quality of the universe. Many atheists believe in objective meaning and view the universe with a sense of wonder, Dworkin writes, and are thus, in their way, “religious.” Dworkin hopes this insight will dampen the conflict between atheists and believers in contemporary Western culture. Both sides agree on the essential things, he argues; disagreement on the existence of God is only a minor detail.
Take objective moral values, for instance. Many theists believe moral values depend on the existence of a personal God. If God had not told us, or implanted the knowledge in us, we would not know what is right and what is wrong. This is logically incorrect, Dworkin says. Objective values must exist independently of God’s will. Otherwise, God could make conduct ethical simply by commanding it, and that would be entirely arbitrary. What if God ordered you to murder your family members? Would that make the murders right? No, the murders would be wrong, whatever God told you. So God is superfluous to moral reasoning–no more than a possibly helpful guide. Once they recognize this, Dworkin argues, believers will see that their differences with atheists—at least with “religious atheists”—are insignificant.
This argument tracks the famous Euthyphro dilemma, to which Dworkin alludes at the very end of his book. Christianity—I don’t know about other traditions—has an answer to this dilemma, though Dworkin dismisses it rather summarily. The Christian answer is this: the Euthyphro dilemma assumes that God is a being like any other in the universe, subject to the same logical disconnect between fact and value. But God, in Christian understanding, is not like that. Unlike human beings, God is not born into a preexisting universe. He is eternal. As Peter Leithart writes here at First Things, no gap exists between God and objective reality, including objective moral reality. In the Christian conception, God is objective moral reality.
This is all pretty complicated. But one doesn’t have to follow the entire argument to recognize that theists are unlikely to be persuaded that a belief in God is optional—and that atheists are unlikely to be persuaded that their disagreement with theists is only minor. Dworkin himself recognizes that his irenic project is likely to fail, which gives Religion without God a melancholy tone. He apparently believed it important to try to narrow the conceptual gap between theism and atheism, however, in order to advance a legal project: expanding the legal definition of religion to include non-theistic, ethical convictions.
Here’s the argument. If religion is “deeper” than conventional theism, as Dworkin insists, protection for religious exercise must, in fairness, extend to non-theistic belief systems as well. In fact, protection should extend to any passionately held ethical conviction. This observation isn’t new. In the Draft Act cases decades ago, the Supreme Court indicated that religion could include deeply-held, non-theistic beliefs. But extending “religion” in this way creates a serious practical problem. In our legal system, religion enjoys a specially-protected status. In many instances, government accommodates citizens’ religious beliefs by granting exemptions from otherwise applicable legal requirements. If religion means all deeply-held ethical convictions, how can the state possibly accommodate it? Chaos would result.
Here Dworkin makes his final move. Because of the practical impossibility of accommodating religion, the state should not bother to try. We should abandon “the idea of a special right to religious freedom with its high hurdle of protection,” he writes, in favor of a more general right to “ethical independence.” The payoff? “If we deny a special right to free exercise of religious practice, and rely only on the general right to ethical independence, then religions may be forced to restrict their practices so as to obey rational, nondiscriminatory laws that do not display less than equal concern for them.” Religion, in other words, will take a back seat to progressive politics. A general right of ethical independence, he writes, would restrict public religious displays, unless the displays were genuinely drained of all religious meaning, and would mandate “the liberal position” on same-sex marriage, abortion, and gender equality in marriage.
Dworkin’s definition of religion thus seems tendentious, a way to dilute religion so as to minimize the potential for conflict with the progressive state. This is not surprising. Traditional religion opposes many of the left’s priorities; for the left to succeed, it must continue to marginalize traditional religion. And Dworkin’s argument that religion as such does not merit special protection is very much in the air today. Prominent law professors like Brian Leiter and Micah Schwartzman make versions of this argument, for example. In the Hosanna-Tabor case, the Obama Administration maintained that religious freedom, as such, had nothing to do with a church’s decision to fire its minister.
So far, courts appear to be rejecting the religion-isn’t-special argument (though, it must be said, the Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, the peyote case, gives the argument rather more traction than it should possess). In Hosanna-Tabor, for example, the Supreme Court rejected the Obama Administration’s argument by a vote of 9-0. You never know how future courts will see things, though. Dworkin’s last book suggests that the fight over the special status of religion in American law is only beginning.
A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the FBI’s arrest of two rabbis who allegedly orchestrated the kidnapping and torture of dozens of men in New Jersey. The rabbis allegedly did this in order to force the men to consent to their wives’ requests for divorce under Jewish law. Under Jewish law, a woman cannot unilaterally divorce her husband; the husband must give permission, or a get. If he refuses, the wife becomes a chained woman, or agunah, who cannot remarry.
The women in these cases were apparently desperate for Jewish divorces and took extreme measures to obtain them. They allegedly paid the rabbis tens of thousands of dollars to convene Jewish law tribunals and issue decrees allowing violence against the recalcitrant husbands. The rabbis then allegedly arranged for thugs to torture the husbands until the husbands granted the gets. This conduct would obviously be criminal under US law and the rabbis will not be able to escape punishment by arguing that their religion authorized what they did.
I expressed doubt in my post that ordering violence against a recalcitrant husband would be consistent with Jewish law. It turns out that I may have spoken too soon. My friend Michael Helfand at Pepperdine University, an expert in Jewish law, explains in the The Forward that “the use of violent sanction in these circumstances has been a feature of Jewish family law for millennia.” Under traditional Jewish law, he writes, if a husband refused to comply with a tribunal’s judgment and give his wife a get,
the rabbinical court could authorize the use of violent force against the husband. While divorces [could not] be executed under duress, it was simply unimaginable that a husband would so cruelly leave his wife trapped in a nonfunctional marriage. Thus, force simply served as a vehicle to free the husband’s inner desire to do the right thing and grant his wife a divorce.
Michael doesn’t advocate this practice, I hasten to add, and he notes that the strong implication of bribery would likely invalidate the religious decrees in the New Jersey cases. In fact, Michael advocates a very American fix for the problem of agunot—a prenuptial agreement. The Beth Din of America, a major Jewish law tribunal in the US, has adopted a model prenup “that requires a husband to provide his wife with a daily support payment, typically $150, for each day the two no longer live together and the husband still refuses to grant his wife a religious divorce.”
The prenup is not a panacea. A wealthy husband could make the payments and refuse to give a get, and a wife without such a prenup wouldn’t benefit at all. But the prenup might solve the problem for some agunot, and wouldn’t require locking your husband in a van and torturing him. It’s like they used to tell us in law school: In America, when the going gets tough, the tough contract out.
Religion News Service has an interesting interview with Northwestern’s Elizabeth Shakman Hurd on the promotion of religious freedom in international human rights law. A number of states and regional organizations–including Canada, the EU, and the US–now have special diplomatic offices devoted to promoting religious freedom across the globe. Shakman Hurd thinks this is a mistake:
When the United States promotes religious freedom and pursues religious engagement, groups that favor American political, economic and strategic interests are likely to be engaged and promoted, while those that the U.S. disfavors are likely to be classified as cults or extremists and cast aside. In this scenario, it’s surprisingly easy for the particular version of a religion that the U.S. supports to carry more weight politically than others.
A second concern involves the social effects of emphasizing and privileging religion as a fixed, stable, and politically and legally meaningful category. Protecting religious freedom pressures states and courts to eliminate the gray areas surrounding identities, and incentivizes them to classify and govern citizens as “religious” subjects. Not only does this exclude the “non-religious,” however defined, it also risks contributing to the very tensions that these projects are designed to eliminate by hardening what were once more fluid lines of difference between groups and inserting international dimensions into what were once local matters.
To illustrate, she discusses outsiders’ attempts to promote the rights of Coptic Christians in Egypt:
Take the example of Copts in Egypt. One concern is that outside lobbying on behalf of local groups identified as “religious minorities” arguably underscores the very lines of division between Copts and other Egyptians that one hopes would become politically irrelevant in a democratic society and polity. A second concern is that defending the rights of Egyptians as Copts not only obscures the internal diversity of the Coptic community but also erases those who might not choose to identify as Copts but as Egyptians, humans, environmentalists or something else.
I worry that these campaigns may actually inflame existing tensions by making it more likely that social difference is conceived through the prism of religion. Pro-Coptic intervention by U.S. and other governmental and non-governmental actors may fan the flames of intercommunal violence. Individuals and groups that face persecution and discrimination deserve outside support, but not on the basis of religious affiliation.
Shakman Hurd is very thoughtful, and she has a point about inflaming existing tensions. Muslim cultures historically view Christian minorities as fifth columnists, only too eager to work with outsiders to destroy the state. If Western powers intervene in a clumsy way, they will likely expose Christians to a vicious backlash–as happened in the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century and Iraq in the twenty-first. So, to the extent Shakman Hurd cautions against clumsy interventions, I completely agree with her.
On her larger points, though, I disagree. (That won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s read my posts on Mideast Christians!). For example, I don’t think it’s all that difficult to identify religion as a category, at least not for diplomatic purposes. True, there are interesting academic debates. And, in the US, the rise of the Nones is putting pressure on our understanding of religion. But most people have a pretty good idea of what religion is, for most purposes, even if they can’t define religion exactly. And these commonsense understandings are good enough for diplomacy.
With respect to her other main point, that by advocating for religious freedom in a foreign country, the US will inevitably pick a side in an internal debate–well, picking a side is really unavoidable. If the US doesn’t stick up for Copts, for example, Egyptians will perceive the US as backing the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. In fact, that is the perception in Egypt and throughout the Middle East today. Neutrality in these matters is impossible. Which side do you choose?
But this isn’t the place for a long debate. The interview is very much worth reading for a different perspective on things. You can read the whole thing here.
Often, in my class on law and religion at St. John’s, we address difficult questions about where to draw the line on religious autonomy. How far should the state go in accommodating religious practices that conflict with state rules? Or, put in reverse, how much freedom from state control can religious organizations legitimately expect? The recent contraceptives mandate is an example of this sort of conflict.
But one of my students yesterday emailed me an article from the New York Times that discusses an an easy case–at least as the facts have been reported. Federal authorities in New Jersey this week accused two rabbis of orchestrating the kidnapping and torture of dozens of men. The rabbis did this in order to force the men to consent to their wives’ requests for divorce under Jewish law.
According to traditional Jewish law, as I understand it, women have no right unilaterally to divorce their husbands. For a divorce to be final, the husband must give his permission, or get. If the husband declines to give a get, the marriage is not dissolved, and the woman becomes an agunah, or chained woman. This means the woman cannot marry again under Jewish law. Of course, the woman could divorce and remarry civilly, but many observant Jewish women decline to take this route, as it would render them, and their future children, outcasts in their own communities.
In theory, a husband must give a get of his own free will. There are ways for Jewish law tribunals to encourage obstinate husbands to give gets, however. A tribunal might ban a husband from his synagogue until he does so, for example. And some civil jurisdictions, like New York, have passed “get laws,” which try, in various ways, to create incentives for husbands to give their wives gets.
But the two New Jersey rabbis allegedly took things much further. They allegedly kidnapped men and tortured them with tasers and electric shocks until the men agreed to give their wives gets. Apparently the rabbis charged $10,000 for a tribunal ruling allowing the use of violence against the men, and $50,000 for hiring people to do the work. The rabbis were caught in a federal sting operation:
The undercover female F.B.I. agent told Rabbi Epstein that she wanted to divorce her husband, described as a businessman in South America, who refused to grant her request. Rabbi Epstein urged her to lure the man to New Jersey, which she pledged to do.
Next Rabbi Epstein and Rabbi Wolmark convened their own rabbinical court, complete with legalisms and formalities, to issue a religious edict “authorizing the use of violence to obtain a forced get,” according to court records. The undercover agent offered testimony before the two rabbis, who were joined by other religious figures.
Told that the husband was arriving in New Jersey, eight of Rabbi Epstein’s associates met at a New Jersey warehouse to finalize the kidnapping plan, according to court documents. At that point F.B.I. agents moved in to arrest the group. The agents seized masks, ropes, scalpels and feather quills and ink bottles used for recording the get they anticipated.
I’m no expert, but I can’t imagine this sort of thing is legal under Jewish law; the whole thing seems a parody of legal process. From the point of view of civil law, however, I’m sure this is an easy case. However much discretion the state allows religious tribunals–and, in my opinion, we should allow them a great deal of discretion, as a matter of religious freedom–it can’t go this far. Banning someone from your synagogue is one thing. Tying someone up in a van and torturing him is quite another, even if you have a tribunal decree that allows you to do it.
You can read the Times article here.
The Washington Post has a story this week about vandalism at a Protestant cemetery in Jerusalem. The vandals toppled stone crosses from graves and smashed them to pieces. The incident is the latest in a string of recent attacks on Christian sites in Israel:
The attack joins a list of high-profile Christian sites that have been vandalized within the past year. They include a Trappist monastery in Latrun, outside Jerusalem, where vandals burned a door and spray-painted “Jesus is a monkey” on the century-old building, a Baptist church in Jerusalem, and other monasteries. Clergymen often speak of being spat at by ultra-Orthodox religious students while walking around Jerusalem’s Old City wearing frocks and crosses.
As to this last fact, Armenian Apostolic priests from the Old City have told me they personally have been spat upon, usually during processions. As the Post report states, the culprits in these spitting incidents, and the suspects in the most recent attack on the cemetery, are students at ultra-orthodox yeshivas. Everyone agrees, according to the Post, that Jewish-Christian in Israel are better than they have been in the past, and that the Israeli police have started to do more to address attacks on Christians. But Christians complain that the attacks continue unabated.
You can read the whole piece here.
You know that interview Pope Francis gave to Eugenio Scalfari of the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica? The one in which the pope made some puzzling comments about conscience and proselytism? The one that so many people, including me, have been poring over for insights into the pope’s thoughts on religion, politics, and law? It turns out it’s not an interview at all, but an after-the-fact reconstruction. Apparently, Scalfari neither tape-recorded his interview nor took notes at the time. Some errors have already begun to emerge. The Vatican has “confirmed the basic ‘trustworthiness’” of the interview–whatever that means. But, John Allen writes:
None of this, of course, is to excuse La Repubblica‘s sloppiness in not making clear to readers that what was being presented as the literal words of the pope was actually a reconstruction, not a transcript.
Barring further clarification from the Vatican, it’s now impossible to cite any particular lines or formulae from that interview and attribute them directly to the pope, since we don’t know quite where Scalfari ends and Francis begins.
Oh, well, never mind, then.
Is this any way to run a newspaper?
Well, I said you couldn’t tell much from one interview.
Last week, I posted about Pope Francis’s much discussed interview in an Italian Jesuit journal. I observed that the Pope seemed to be a mystic trying to place the Catholic Church outside politics–either progressive or conservative politics. He seemed to me to be advocating a radical Christian orthodoxy, a return to saving souls. Some of my friends told me I was mistaken. “There’s no getting the Church away from politics,” they said. What I perceived as introspection was really progressivism.
Pope Francis has now given another interview, this time to La Repubblica, and my friends are saying, “We told you so.” And I have to concede this new interview suggests Pope Francis is more of a straightforward progressive than I appreciated. Some things he said in the interview are a frankly a little shocking. He told the interviewer, Eugenio Scalfari, “Proselytism is solemn nonsense.” That’s a rather dismissive way to treat millennia of Christian apologetics. The pope’s views on conscience were also odd, from a Christian perspective. “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them,” the pope said. “That would be enough to make the world a better place.” With respect, “do what you think is right” is not the Christian view of conscience. That sounds more like Anthony Kennedy than St. Paul. And would the world really be a better place if everyone did what he thought was right? How about jihadis?
All this being said, I don’t think this second interview completely disproves my first assessment of Pope Francis. You have to put it in context. When you read the whole interview, you see how cleverly and gently Pope Francis is nudging Scalfari, a non-believer, to a Christian perspective. Combativeness is not necessarily the mark of piety. And I suspect future pronouncements will clear up some of the more questionable things the pope said. On proselytism, for example, Pope Francis this week gave a sermon in which he quoted his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, as saying that the Church doesn’t grow through “proselytism,” but “attraction” and “witness.” I believe this refers to Pope Benedict’s statement that the best testimonies for Christianity have been art and the lives of the saints. In other words, the Christian appeal is more about intuition than intellect. At least from my own Orthodox perspective, there doesn’t seem anything terribly wrong with that. I imagine Pope Francis will have more to say about conscience at some future time.
How about mysticism? It’s true that in the La Repubblica interview, the pope rather coyly denies being mystical (“What do you think?”). But that doesn’t prove he isn’t. Read his description of the great light that filled him as he contemplated whether to accept his election. Besides, would you really trust someone who told you he was a mystic? Such a declaration would pretty clearly show the speaker wasn’t a mystic.
Finally, it does seem Pope Francis’s politics are quite progressive, at least when it comes to economics, and that he wishes to emphasize that aspect of the Church’s social teaching rather than others, like sexual ethics. He talked about the worldwide economic crisis, said it was an urgent matter for the Church, and that he personally faulted unrestrained liberalism—that is, free market capitalism. He said the state might have to intervene in some circumstances to correct extreme inequalities.
The pope also said, however, more than once, that the Church should not deal in politics. Political institutions are “secular by definition” and operate in a sphere different from religion—all his recent predecessors had said so, he told Scalfari. Individual Catholics could engage in politics and carry their values with them. But the Church would “never go beyond its task of expressing and disseminating its values, at least as long as I’m here.” What the Pope seems to mean is that the Church as an institution should avoid getting involved in the workings of government and political parties, but that its prophetic role remains.
You can’t tell too much from two interviews, either. It will be interesting to see how all this develops. One thing hasn’t changed since the first interview, though. Pope Francis seems a remarkable and profound man with real spiritual charisma, a pastor. And he apparently answers letters.
Here’s something that makes me wish I had a research leave coming up. The Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, has announced a year-long project on law and religious freedom, which it will host in cooperation with Princeton University’s program in law and public affairs:
From the beginnings of human society, religion has shaped lives, formed identities, and held communities together. In the modern world, religious freedom is both a demand of individual conscience and a requirement of social peace. Religious diversity and religious conflict force governments and societies to ask, “How much religious freedom can we allow?” New inquiries in history, anthropology, psychology, and sociology suggest that religion remains essential to human identity and social cohesion, even in a modern, pluralistic society. Perhaps, then, the question is also, “How much religious freedom do we require?” Answering those questions invites critical thinking about how a rule of law that preserves religious freedom can be reconciled with the requirements of many different religions. This calls for a series of interrelated theological inquiries in an interdisciplinary context:
• Do religious traditions sustain their own distinctive ideas of religious freedom?
• What internal limits do religious traditions impose on religious constraint?
• What forms of public activity (worship, education, charity, etc.) are essential to religious life?
• Is there a general understanding of religious freedom that can be formulated as a universal human right? Or does religious freedom necessarily take different forms in different contexts?
• How does the right to religious freedom relate to other rights?
The Center is soliciting applications for resident research fellowships, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Details are here.
The Pew Religion and Public Life Project released its most recent survey yesterday, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” It turns out that Jews, who make up a little less than two percent of the population, mirror larger trends in American religious life. For example:
- The Rise of the Nones: More and more American Jews say they have no religion–that is, they view their identity as ethnic or cultural. According to Pew, 22% percent of American Jews now qualify as “Nones.” This percentage is close to the percentage of Nones in the general population (20%). As with the general population, religious disaffiliation is more pronounced among Millennials (ages 18-29). Here the numbers are exactly the same: 32% of Millennial Jews say they have no religion, the same percentage as among Millennials generally.
- Increased Intermarriage: In their 2010 study, American Grace, sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell estimate that something like half the marriages in America today are religiously mixed. For Jews, the rate of interfaith marriage is similarly very high. Indeed, according to Pew, the majority of Jews who marry today choose non-Jewish spouses.
- Religious Politics: As many observers have noted, the key political divide in America today is not between religions–Catholics vs. Protestants–but between people who are religious, in any faith tradition, and people who are not. People who are religiously active tend to vote Republican, and people who are not religiously active tend to vote Democrat. A similar pattern holds true for American Jews. As a whole, Jews favor the Democratic Party by more than three to one. For Orthodox Jews, however, the trend is reversed: 57% of Orthodox Jews are Republican or lean Republican, while only 36% of Orthodox Jews are Democrat or lean Democrat.
You can read Pew’s summary of the survey here.
As readers of this site know, the situation for Copts and other Christians in Egypt is truly dire. On October 1, the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations will hold a hearing on the situation. Speakers include Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church, author Samuel Tadros, and Rutgers Professor Morad Abou-Sabe. The hearing will be webcast live. Details are here.
This month, Ashgate releases Volume III of Religion in the Public Space, part of its Library of Essays on Law and Religion series. The volume is edited by Silvio Ferrari (Milan) and Rinaldo Cristofori (Milan), and contains essays by, among others, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, Mary Ann Glendon, and, I blush to say, yours truly–my essay, Crosses and Culture, on religious displays in the US and Europe. Here’s the publisher’s description:
“Religion in the public sphere is one of the most debated issues in the field of law and religion. This volume brings together articles which address some of the more prominent recent cases relating to religion and education, religion and the workplace, family law and religious symbols. The essays discuss the meaning of secularism today and the difficult issue of religion in the public sphere and reflect a wide variety of viewpoints. This volume maps the key elements of this multi-faceted problem, offers essential material and provides an important starting point for an understanding of the issues in this century old debate.”
An update on the California headscarf litigation I discussed earlier this month. Abercrombie & Fitch has settled the lawsuit and agreed to allow Muslim employees to wear headscarves while on the job. A federal district court in California recently ruled that A&F’s refusal to allow headscarves on the job violated US employment discrimination law. A&F has agreed to pay the plaintiff in the case, Hani Khan, $48,000 and unspecified attorneys fees. The Guardian has the full story, as well as information about other headscarf litigation against A&F.
You can’t tell too much from one interview, of course, but the interview Pope Francis gave an Italian Jesuit journal last month, and which was released last week, seems like a blockbuster. Everyone understands this. Progressive Catholics are elated. After long years in the wilderness, they believe, they have one of their own as pope. Traditionalists have been more circumspect, but it’s hard to miss the sense of alienation. Traditionalists are used to thinking that, however much they have to battle with progressives at the local level, the pope has their back. Now, that’s very unclear.
As an outsider, I don’t feel right getting involved in intra-Catholic debates. There’s too much I don’t know, and anyway it’s not polite. But this interview does suggest three observations. First, Pope Francis has a definite vision for the Catholic Church. When he gave his airborne interview on the way back from Brazil last month–the interview in which he famously said, “who am I to judge?”—some traditionalists consoled themselves that he had spoken off the cuff or allowed himself to be misunderstood. After this interview, it’s impossible to think so. He knows what he means and means what he says.
Second, I’m not sure the pope is correct to suggest that the Church has been obsessing over sexuality—abortion, gay marriage, contraception. Catholic friends tell me they almost never hear sermons on these subjects. One might say, with justification, that the wider society is obsessing about these issues and the Church is only responding. If the government adopts a new rule that says you must pay for your employees’ contraceptives and abortifacients, and you think such drugs are gravely wrong as a matter of conscience, what should you do? I suppose you could readjust your priorities and say nothing. But if you were to object to such a rule, you would hardly be “obsessing.”
Third, it’s striking that in a long interview the pope said virtually nothing about politics. Only twice did he refer to the Church’s position on public policy questions, once to state that the Church should stop talking so much about sexuality and once to refer to the proper approach to “social issues”:
When it comes to social issues, it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a slum neighborhood and quite another thing to go there, live there and understand the problem from the inside and study it. There is a brilliant letter by Father Arrupe to the Centers for Social Research and Action on poverty, in which he says clearly that one cannot speak of poverty if one does not experience poverty, with a direct connection to the places in which there is poverty. The word insertion is dangerous because some religious have taken it as a fad, and disasters have occurred because of a lack of discernment. But it is truly important.
Note a couple of things here. For Pope Francis, the phrase “social issues” connotes what Americans would call “economic issues”–an interesting distinction. More important, to address these issues, Pope Francis did not call for political action. He did not say, “When it comes to social issues, the important thing is to redistribute wealth and nationalize health care.” He may favor such programs, I don’t know. But he apparently does not think political programs are terribly important. The essential thing is for the Church to live among poor people, to share their lives, to minister to them–in order to witness to the Gospel.
In other words, Pope Francis’ interview does not suggest he would like the Catholic Church to adopt a “progressive” politics any more than a “conservative” politics. It suggests he thinks the Church is beyond politics. To me, this is the key take-away from the pope’s interview. There is an old, old debate in Christianity. Is the faith about healing souls or social justice? It’s about both, of course, but which is more important? If I read him correctly, Pope Francis leans strongly in the first direction: Christianity is an interior matter, a question of salvation, of walking humbly in the company of the Lord and his followers. Christians can never be completely beyond politics, of course, and it will be interesting to see how this all develops. But Pope Francis seems, in his way, a mystic. And mystics don’t do politics.
A post yesterday by my St. John’s colleague Marc DeGirolami about Augustine’s two cities—the earthly and heavenly—reminded me of something I read in Peter Brown’s recent book on wealth in ancient Rome. Brown argues that a decisive shift in the conception of generosity accompanied the transition from pagan to Christian society. Both pagans and Christians could be generous. But the objects of their generosity differed.
In pagan Rome, generosity meant adorning one’s city–nowadays, we would say, “country”—contributing to its stature, power, and beauty. Benefactors gave money for magnificent buildings, games, and banquets. Such generosity was understood as a form of love, the “amor civicus,” or “love for the city and its citizens.” A rich person who gave money to glorify his city, Brown writes, “was acclaimed as an amator patriae—a lover of his or her hometown. It was the most honorable love that a wealthy person could show.” A pagan benefactor would not think of looking beyond his city when making a gift. That would have been a snub to his hometown and fellow citizens.
Christian giving was a different thing. The ideal recipients of Christian generosity were not one’s fellow citizens, who might be quite well-off, but the poor and marginalized, whether they were citizens of one’s patria or not. The point was still to give money in a way that would glorify the city. But the heavenly city, not the earthly city, was the proper object of glorification. Christian charity, Brown writes, was “a transfer of wealth from this world to the next, summed up in the notion of placing treasure in heaven.”
Obviously these are generalities; there were pagans who gave to the poor and Christians who tried to beautify Rome. But the change in focus was essential, and dramatic. From a Christian perspective, the things of this world, although important and necessary, can never be the main concern. Friends, family, home, country—of course one loves these things. Only a monster would not. But it is foolish to glorify or invest too much in them, particularly country. “For here we have no lasting city,” the author of Hebrews says, “but we are looking for the city that is to come.”
In Browning’s “Love Among the Ruins,” a shepherd muses over the ruins of an ancient capital, now a pasture. I’ve always imagined that Browning was talking about the ruins of the Roman Forum, which for centuries, before the archaeologists started to dig, were known as the Campo Vaccino, or cow pasture. The love that Browning describes isn’t Christian love, exactly, but it strikes me as a lot closer to that ideal than the amor civicus:
Here’s an interesting case that reveals much about the way American mass marketers view religion and “diversity.” This week, a federal district court in California ruled in favor of Umme-Hani Khan, a Muslim teenager who sued her employer, the retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, for religious discrimination. A&F fired Khan, whose job required her to restock clothes on the sales floor of an A&F store in San Mateo, because she insisted on wearing a Muslim headscarf, or hijab, on the job. The headscarf, A&F told her, was inconsistent with the firm’s “Look Policy,” a set of grooming and clothing requirements for employees.
The Look Policy is meant to project a consistent A&F identity to consumers who favor the brand—mostly kids between 18-22. You can see an illustration in the photo above, from A&F’s London store. Head coverings are out; shirts, apparently, are optional. A&F occasionally grants exemptions from the policy to employees who wish to wear religious garb or symbols, but only if the garb or symbols are not visible to others. Just judging by the outfits in the photo, that can’t be the case very often.
But back to Ms. Khan. A&F obviously fired Khan because of her attempt to exercise her religion. Under federal and state employment laws, though, a firm can fire an employee if accommodating the employee’s religious practice would create an undue burden for the firm. Here, A&F argued, allowing Khan to wear her headscarf would create such a burden. Allowing departures from the Look Policy would confuse customers and detract from their in-store experience. And consumer confusion would injure A&F’s brand identity and detract from sales. Simply put, allowing Khan to wear the headscarf would cost A&F money.
The problem was that A&F didn’t show that it had lost any sales because of Khan’s hijab. A&F speculated that consumers would be confused or irritated by the sight of Khan in a headscarf, but could point to no actual incidents. Nor did A&F offer convincing evidence about the negative effect employee headscarves had on sales at other clothing firms. On the record presented, the court ruled, there was no reason to believe that allowing Khan to wear her headscarf would pose an undue hardship for A&F. So Khan prevailed on her claim.
All this is straightforward employment discrimination law. What makes the case interesting is what it reveals about the mindset of mass-market retailers like A&F. Like many such retailers, A&F makes a big deal about its commitment to “diversity,” including religious diversity. According to its website, A&F recognizes the “25 different dimensions of diversity that make up who we are” (only 25?), such as “race, gender, family, sexual orientation, work experience, physical ability, and religion.” So it’s a little strange that A&F would fire a teenage stocking clerk who did nothing more offensive than wear a headscarf to work for religious reasons, and compound the PR mistake by litigating the case in federal court. What gives?
I can think of three possibilities. First, the people at A&F are clueless. Other recent PR disasters for A&F—like the suggestion that the firm doesn’t want heavy women wearing its clothes—render this explanation somewhat plausible, but I doubt it. You don’t become a successful retailer by being clueless. Second, the people at A&F are hypocrites. They talk a good game about tolerance and diversity, but are secretly bigots. This explanation is more plausible than the first, but still unsatisfying. I expect the people at A&F, especially the marketers steeped in our media culture, have internalized the diversity imperative. They really do wish to be “inclusive” and would be shocked to find out they’re not.
So here’s a third explanation. In our mass-market culture, “diversity” means something very specific: the right to purchase and wear (but principally purchase) the same products as everybody else. Wherever you come from, whoever your parents are, whichever God you pray to—whatever the precise mixture of those “25 different dimensions of diversity” that make you who you are—you have a right to the Abercrombie Look. To hold that diversity means something more than that, that it might require people to tolerate religious garb and symbols in the workplace, could be divisive and bad for business. And who knows where it would lead? Someone might actually try to wear a visible cross to work.
President Obama’s astonishing decision to reverse course and seek congressional authorization for military action in Syria has given Americans an opportunity to think about the situation a bit more. One important consideration is the fate of Syria’s Christians. This group, which numbers in the millions, has consistently opposed outside military action against Assad. Not only do Christians deplore the suffering an American missile strike would bring, they also worry about anything that would tend to benefit Islamists in the opposition. Assad is a brutal dictator, but most Syrian Christians would rather take their chances with him than risk Islamist government. A dictator, as Samuel Tadros wrote recently, can sometimes be bought off. With the Islamists, there’s no chance.
Yet the debate taking place in the United States this week virtually ignores the impact an American campaign would have on Syria’s Christians. A couple of commentators, like Philip Jenkins and Rod Dreher, have raised the issue, as has Senator Rand Paul. But most politicians and pundits apparently don’t care to address the subject. The fate of millions of people doesn’t figure in the national conversation. Why is that?
There are two reasons. First, it’s a matter of realpolitik. A small and shrinking minority, Mideast Christians can do little to advance American interests. So the American foreign policy establishment ignores them. This is hardly new; the US declined to accept a mandate for Armenian Christians 100 years ago, and the Bush Administration seemed largely indifferent to the fate of Iraq’s Christians during the recent occupation. Besides, American foreign policy elites are quite secular and uncomfortable with religious identity. Seeing Christians as sympathetic victims doesn’t come naturally to them.
Second, Mideast Christians lack a powerful lobby in the US. American Christians could form such a lobby, of course, but they tend not to identify with their co-religionists in the Mideast. Although Christianity was born in the Middle East—in Syria, Christianity dates to biblical times –to most American Christians, Mideast Christians seem quite foreign, theologically and culturally. An Evangelical in Minnesota probably feels he has more in common culturally with a secular Jew from Tel Aviv than a Syriac Orthodox Christian from Tur Abdin. And, indeed, American Christians are much more likely to view Israelis as their proxies in the Middle East. Just yesterday, a congressman from a conservative Georgia district told constituents that he would oppose an American campaign in Syria unless he believed the Assad regime posed a threat to Israel.
Moreover—and I confess have no way to prove this, it’s just a hunch—even those American Christians who do feel an affinity for Mideast Christians might be uncomfortable lobbying for them as Christians. For some of these American Christians, it’s a matter of religious conviction: Christianity means that one should not favor one’s own. “We don’t help people because they’re Christians,” someone once told me, “but because we’re Christians.” For others, it’s a matter of civic loyalty. Some American Christians may feel it’s illegitimate to take a public policy position on the basis of a shared religious identity. These Christians might believe that, as Americans, they shouldn’t oppose a war because of the possible effect on their “favorites” in the target country. American interests should take priority.
These are complicated questions, and I probably shouldn’t address them in a short post, but here goes. In my view, neither of these concerns should discourage American Christians from speaking out on behalf of their co-religionists in Syria. From a Christian perspective, Christians do owe special duties to other Christians, at least in some circumstances. The church, St. Paul said, is one body; Christians are supposed to be in communion with each other, as well as with God. I don’t mean that charity is limited to Christians or that the church should always put Christians first; of course not. The parable of the Good Samaritan strongly suggests the contrary. But Christians surely can show special care for other Christians who are in very serious trouble. And Syria’s Christians—like Egypt’s Christians—are in very serious trouble.
As to the second concern, the vaguely Rawlsian idea that people should put aside religious commitments when they take a position on a potential military strike—well, there are many responses, but I’ll just give two. First, it’s not at all clear that a military strike, which likely will benefit Islamists in the opposition, is in America’s interest. Second, the Rawlsian objection reflects an entirely unrealistic understanding of how the world works. In a pluralistic society, people have multiple commitments–religious, ethnic, ideological, familial—that cut across national borders. Everyone knows these commitments influence people’s decisions about foreign policy. African-Americans cared deeply about US policy with respect to South African apartheid in the 1980s and care deeply about US policy in Africa today; Americans Jews care deeply about US policy toward Israel; American Muslims care deeply about US policy toward Palestine; and so on. Should Christians alone check their commitments at the door? Should they alone be embarrassed to raise the dire situation of co-religionists in other countries? Where’s the sense in that?
At this writing, it’s unclear what Congress and the President will decide about a military strike in Syria. The dire situation of Syria’s Christians should be a factor in the decision.
In a recent essay, “Tocqueville’s America and Ours,” University of St. Thomas Law Professor Robert Delahunty asks whether Christianity has served its purpose as a foundational political theory in America and may now be discarded:
I do not know the answer and I do not mean to overstate the risk. One must acknowledge the evidence that democracy can survive without Christian—or, indeed, any—metaphysical foundations. Consider the cases of Sweden and Denmark, two Scandinavian countries in which liberal democracy appears to be in good health, but which are among the most radically de-christianized nations in the West. The sociologist Paul Zuckerman spent fourteen months in the two countries, interviewing hundreds of Swedes and Danes. He found in each country “a markedly irreligious society that was, above all, moral, stable, humane and deeply good.” Although most of his interviewees denied the traditional teachings of Christianity, they nonetheless were not anti-religious, demurred at being called atheists, preferred to be called Christians, and had undergone ceremonial rites such as baptism and church marriage. But their inherited or cultural Christianity did not go deep. One Danish pastor told Zuckerman that “In Denmark, the word ‘God’ is one of the most embarrassing words you can say.” Another man recounted that a colleague who confessed, after a few drinks, to believing in God, then begged him not to consider him “a bad person.” Overall, Zuckerman found that Denmark and Sweden were societies in which most people did not fear death or give thought to the meaning of life. Yet by and large the people he encountered were happy, led productive lives, and behaved morally and humanely.
It may well be, then, that American democracy could survive in the face of radical de-christianization, such as has happened in Denmark and Sweden. It may be our democracy is not in need of “foundations,” or that a vestigial, undoctrinal Christianity can provide whatever foundations were needed. D.H. Lawrence perhaps got it right in his poem Tortoise Shell (1921):
The Cross, the Cross
Goes deeper in than we know,
Deeper into life;
Right into the marrow
And through the bone.
Perhaps Christianity has served its world-historical purposes and can safely depart the scene, leaving behind a society deeply and lastingly permeated with its precepts about humanity.
But one may doubt this, no?
You can read the whole essay here.