Thursday, September 5, 2013, 10:50 AM
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.
Thursday, September 5, 2013, 8:04 AM
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.
Wednesday, September 4, 2013, 7:57 AM
At the Center for Law and Religion Forum today, I interview the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros about his new book, Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity. In the interview, Tadros talks about the history of the Coptic Church, its important contributions to Christian thought and life, and its conduct during the Arab Conquest and under Muslim rule. He describes how the liberalism of the twentieth century actually injured the church and why Anwar Sadat, whom the West lionized, was a problem for Egypt’s Christians. Moving to the present day, Tadros explains why the Arab Spring has been such a disaster for Copts, and discusses the church’s prospects in Egypt and abroad. Here’s a link.
Friday, August 30, 2013, 12:20 PM
Donald Drakeman modestly describes himself as “a businessman with a doctorate in religion.” In fact, he is on the faculty at Cambridge and has written an important book on originalism and the Establishment Clause. In a recent essay, he discusses the continuing importance of the humanities, even in a period of economic decline. Conceding that hard times will inevitably drive college students to more “practical” majors, Drakeman insists that we not neglect the important, real-world impact of the humanities:
Humanities scholars often cite the intrinsic value of studying the humanities—that it is good in and of itself, and requires no defense on the basis of pragmatism. That may well be true, but the humanities also have immense practical relevance to how we, as a society, make some of our most critical political and economic decisions, from the nature of our constitutional rights to the shape of our health-care system.
For example, the opinions in the Supreme Court’s recent decision on the right to bear arms read like a history of firearms in the 18th century, and we owe the idea of a wall of separation between church and state as much to the historian George Bancroft as to Thomas Jefferson. The Affordable Care Act has deeper roots in philosophical notions of distributive justice than in the latest advances in medical science.
Follow the links here to read the whole thing.
Thursday, August 29, 2013, 8:08 AM
In his important new book, Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity, the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros explores the crisis facing the Coptic Orthodox Church today. The Copts are the indigenous Christians of Egypt and one of the oldest Christian communions, dating back millennia. St. Anthony, the founder of monasticism, was a Copt, as was St. Athanasius, the great champion of Nicene Christianity. Coptic history is marked, in Tadros’s words, by a dual legacy of “decline and survival.” Persecuted by Byzantine Christians and Arab Muslims, Copts have endured tremendous hardship down the centuries. Periodically, their very existence has seemed in doubt. That, Tadros maintains, is the case today.
Tadros shows how the liberal nationalist movement in twentieth-century Egypt betrayed Coptic hopes. By encouraging Copts to seek legal equality and government attention to their grievances, the movement actually exposed Copts to a vicious backlash. (Much the same pattern occurred with respect to Armenian Christians in Ottoman Turkey, a matter I have discussed elsewhere). Demands for equality were interpreted as a threat to Muslim superiority and an attempt to embarrass the country abroad. In the name of national unity, Coptic demands for justice were ignored and the Coptic Church suppressed. The situation improved a bit under Nasser, but deteriorated under Sadat, who attempted to placate Islamist opposition by making life difficult for Copts–it didn’t work. Nonetheless, Tadros shows that the Church experienced a spiritual rebirth during the twentieth century, largely as a result of the lay-inspired Sunday School Movement. Monasteries were revived and Christian education improved. The Church has expanded abroad in recent decades–there is an increasing presence in the US–and has had missionary success in Africa, where, unlike other Christian communions, it is not weighed down by the legacy of colonialism.
The Arab Spring has been a disaster for Copts. Under the Muslim Brotherhood, violence against Copts increased dramatically. Tadros’s book predates the July 2013 revolution, but a reader can readily understand why the Church has taken a strong position in favor of the generals. History, Tadros writes, has taught Copts “the eternal lesson of survival.” A “persecuting dictator” is “always preferable to the mob,” since the dictator can “be bought off or persuaded to back off, or constrained by foreign powers.” With the mob, by contrast, one has “no chance.”
Tadros ends his book on a sad note. The prospects for Copts in Egypt, he says, are bleak: domination by a Muslim Brotherhood that seeks to return them to the status of dhimmis or a military dictatorship that could sacrifice them at any moment. The only option, for many, is escape to the West–an option that may end a Christian presence that has endured in Egypt since St. Mark the Evangelist arrived 2000 years ago. “The feeling of sadness and distress is impossible to overcome as I watch the faces of the new immigrants,” Tadros writes, describing his Coptic parish in Virginia. “A church that has withstood diverse and tremendous challenges is now threatened in its very existence.”
Tuesday, August 27, 2013, 7:52 AM
Armenian Church in Istanbul
This story will strike many readers as odd, but it is nonetheless true. For decades, religious minorities in Turkey, especially Christians, have complained that the state assigns them secret identity codes. Christians maintain that government officials use the codes to discriminate against them when it comes to jobs, licenses, building permits, and so on. Of course, such discrimination would be illegal under Turkish law, which has banned religious discrimination since the Kemalist revolution. And complaints about secret identity codes surely must seem a bit paranoid to outsiders, a kind of conspiracy theory–though, given the genocide of Armenians and other Christians in Turkey 100 years ago, one could forgive Christians for being anxious.
The rumors turn out to be true, however. This month, for the first time, Turkey’s interior ministry acknowledged that the secret identity codes do, in fact, exist. When an Istanbul family tried to register its child at a local Armenian school recently, officials asked the family to prove it had the so-called “2” code. The family had never been notified of any code and inquired what the officials meant. The education ministry passed the buck to the interior ministry, which eventually acknowledged that it indeed categorizes religious minorities by secret numeric codes: “1” for Greek Orthodox Christians, “2” for Armenian Apostolic Christians, “3” for Jews, and so on. The family’s lawyer states that his clients are now “waiting for an official document saying, ‘Yes, your race code is ‘2,’ you can register in an Armenian school.’”
In acknowledging the secret classification system, the interior ministry said the information about religious identity comes from Ottoman records, which the ministry uses in order to help religious minorities exercise their rights under the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. With respect to education, for example, the ministry supplies the codes to school officials so that Armenians can attend Armenian schools. The government no longer collects information about religious or racial identity, the ministry claims.
Minority communities in Turkey are skeptical. If this was all on the up-and-up, why deny for so long that such codes exist? And why hide their existence from the so-called beneficiaries? After all, if the codes are meant to help minorities, you’d want to let the minorities know about them, not wait for local officials to reveal them by accident. And, given twentieth-century history, can anyone blame Christians in Turkey for thinking the codes are used to discriminate against them? The main opposition Republican People’s Party has threatened to make the issue of the secret codes a problem for the ruling AKP. “If this is true,” an opposition leader said, “it is fatal. It must be examined.” We’ll see.
Tuesday, August 20, 2013, 1:46 PM
The Hudson Institute’s Nina Shea has an excellent post on the campaign of violence currently underway in Egypt against the country’s Christians, especially Copts. Frustrated at the overthrow of the Morsi government and enraged by the military’s campaign to eliminate them, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists are taking out their anger on Christian targets. Here’s Shea:
“The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has been inciting the anti-Christian pogroms on its web and Facebook pages. One such page, posted on August 14, lists a bill of particulars against the Christian Coptic minority, blaming it, and only it, for the military’s crackdown against the Brotherhood, alleging that the Church has declared a “war against Islam and Muslims.” It concludes with the threat, “For every action there is a reaction.” This builds on statements in the article “The Military Republic of [Coptic Pope] Tawadros,” carried on the MB website in July, about the Coptic Church wanting to “humiliate” Muslims and eradicate Islam….
“As of Sunday night, some 58 churches, as well as several convents, monasteries, and schools, dozens of Christian homes and businesses, even the YMCA, have been documented as looted and burned or subject to other destruction by Islamist rioters. The Coptic Pope remains in hiding and many Sunday services did not take place as Christian worshipers stayed home, fearing for their lives. A dozen or so Christians have been attacked and killed for being Christian so far.”
Not all Muslims condone the persecution, of course. There are reports of Muslim crowds surrounding churches to protect them from attack. But the Brotherhood has clearly decided to take the fight to Christians in a serious way. Knowledgeable observers say it is the worst persecution Copts have suffered in 700 years.
Outside observers may wonder why the Islamists are doing this. From a practical point of view, isn’t burning churches a waste of time and energy? Why spend resources attacking Christians when the military is hunting you down?
There are three answers. First, Islamists attack Christians because they can. Christian churches, monasteries, and schools are soft targets, especially when the security forces are occupied elsewhere. If you take on soldiers who have live ammunition, you might get hurt. If you attack nuns and march them through the street like POWs, by contrast, you’re likely to emerge unscathed.
Second, the Coptic Church has taken an uncharacteristically strong stand in support of the military. Coptic Pope Tawadros appeared in the video announcing the overthrow of the Morsi regime in July–as did the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, it should be noted– and last week, he endorsed the military’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. The Coptic Church, he said, is on “the side of Egyptian law, the armed forces and all the Egyptian civil institutions when it comes to confronting violent armed organizations and terrorizing forces, either within the country or from abroad.” He criticized Western media for sentimentalizing Islamists–those “blood-thirsty radical organizations”–and called for more objective coverage of events in Egypt. Islamists are furious at these statements and seek to punish Copts and other Christians, to intimidate and silence them.
That Pope Tawadros would come out so strongly on one side of a political conflict suggests the stakes for Christians. Traditionally, Copts and other Christians in Egypt, who make up 10% of the population, keep a low profile. As a vulnerable minority, they try to avoid antagonizing anyone. Attacks on Christian sites increased dramatically under the Muslim Brotherhood, however, and Tawados must figure he has no choice but to side with the military. The generals, at least, offer Copts a chance at safety; with the Muslim Brotherhood, there can be none.
Third, one must recognize the perception Islamists have of Christians. Although not all Islamists advocate a return to dhimma restrictions, most have a nostalgia for classical Islamic law, which tolerates Christians as long as they accept a subservient status in society. Equality is out of the question. For Christians to assert equality with Muslims, or cooperate with Muslims’ enemies, is, in classical thought, a grave affront to the community which must be punished–a declaration of war, in the words of the Muslim Brotherhood statement to which Shea refers. In the Islamist mind, Copts and other Egyptian Christians have declared war on Islam. They have asserted their rights and criticized Muslims before the outside world. As a result, they have betrayed the pact that guarantees them protection, and they must pay the price. It is a high price, indeed.
Monday, August 19, 2013, 2:13 PM
FT readers might be interested to know that the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion and Villanova Law School will host a joint colloquium in law and religion during the Spring 2014 semester. Leading law and religion scholars will make presentations to an audience of selected students and faculty. The schools will be connected through a video link that allows students and faculty at both schools to participate synchronously in a virtual seminar experience.
The following speakers have confirmed:
January 27: Michael Walzer (Institute for Advanced Study) (at St. John’s)
February 10: Sarah Barringer Gordon (University of Pennsylvania Law School) (at Villanova)
February 24: Kent Greenawalt (Columbia Law School) (at St. John’s)
March 17: Donald L. Drakeman (Cambridge University) (at St. John’s)
March 31: Kristine Kalanges (Notre Dame Law School) (at St. John’s)
April 14: Steven D. Smith (University of San Diego Law School) (at Villanova)
Topics will be announced at a future date.
For more information, or if you would like to attend any of the sessions, please email me (email@example.com) or my colleagues Marc DeGirolami (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Michael Moreland (email@example.com).
Thursday, August 15, 2013, 8:59 AM
For FT readers in the area, I’ll be participating next week in the biannual conference of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, being held this year at the University of Virginia Law School. I’ll present a paper, “Psychic Sophie and the Rise of the Nones.” Here’s the abstract:
The most important story in American religion today is the rise of the “Nones,” the category of people who declare no religious affiliation. The numbers are contested, but, by some accounts, one-fifth of American adults are in this category, and the group has exploded in the past two decades. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Nones tend to be believers; very few of them say they are atheists or agnostics. They reject not belief but organized religion, and draw on a variety of traditions to create their own, a la carte, spiritualities. In this paper, I explore the rise of the Nones and the tensions it exposes in American law, particularly with regard to the definition of religion. To illustrate, I rely on a recent US appeals court case in which the plaintiff, “Psychic Sophie,” argued that the state had interfered with the exercise of her religion — which she defined, in typical None fashion, as “following her inner flow.”
Details about the conference are here. Stop by and say hello!
Wednesday, August 14, 2013, 2:43 PM
At the Center for Law and Religion Forum today, Professor Perry Dane has a response to my post last week on the controversy surrounding the re-interment of Richard III. Dane thinks the debate about whether Richard should receive a Catholic burial reflects more profound concerns about the meaning of religious identity through time:
Many Anglicans would deny that Richard III was “Catholic” in the limited contemporary sense of the word that would exclude his membership in the “Church of England.” The simple reason is that Anglicans claim a direct line back from their Church to the Church to which Richard belonged. As the COE’s website puts it, “The roots of the Church of England go back to the time of the Roman Empire when Christianity entered the Roman province of Britain. Through the influences of St Alban, St Illtud, St Ninian, St Patrick and, later, St Augustine, St Aidan and St Cuthbert, the Church of England developed, acknowledging the authority of the Pope until the Reformation in the 16th century.” Thus, Henry VIII might have split the English Church from Rome, but he did not create it anew. To be sure, Catholics have a different view. But neither position is self-evident by sheer definition.
Read the whole thing.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013, 9:17 AM
How time flies. It hardly seems possible that almost a year has passed since last September’s controversy over an offensive YouTube video, “The Innocence of Muslims.” The video led to protests at American embassies in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, drew the attention of the U.S. President (“The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam”), and had serious people questioning American free speech principles. Things have gotten much worse in the Middle East since then—in Egypt today, there are reports of massive violence in Cairo and the burning of churches across the country—for reasons that have nothing to do with a video that, one suspects, gets very few hits any longer. At one point, the U.S. Government asserted that the video had led to the storming of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the murder of four Americans there, including the U.S. ambassador. But that explanation is no longer operative, and the media seems mostly uninterested in finding out what really happened. What difference at this point does it make?
One person for whom time has not flown, however, is the video’s American producer, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, also known as Mark Basseley Youssef. He has spent the past year in federal prison. Nakoula has been in jail for violating parole on a prior fraud conviction, but there can be little doubt that as a practical matter authorities seized him because of the controversy over the video. Federal authorities have now moved him to a halfway house to serve the remaining weeks of his sentence. The location is undisclosed, presumably to protect Nakoula. In an interview this week with CNN, Nakoula says he was shocked at the allegation that his film caused the Benghazi attack. He also—much less convincingly—expresses surprise that people would think his video was anti-Islam. Nakoula will be on probation for a few more years and will also need to face civil suits by the film’s actors, who allege he misled them about the video’s content.
Monday, August 12, 2013, 9:24 AM
The BBC reports that Pope Tawadros of the Coptic Orthodox Church (below) has cancelled his weekly public Bible study because he fears for the safety of his audience. At these weekly gatherings, Tawadros takes questions on Bible passages from a congregation gathered inside St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo. Since the fall of the Morsi government, however, threats have increased against Copts throughout Egypt. In one incident recently, someone raised an al-Qaeda flag outside a Coptic church while people worshipped inside. A large public gathering at Cairo’s main cathedral might provide too tempting a target.
Things have been bad for Copts for some time. Even under Mubarak, Copts complained that the state failed to protect them from sectarian violence. The situation has worsened, however, in the weeks following the fall of the Morsi government. Several Copts have been murdered and scores injured. “We had never experienced the kind of persecution we suffer now,” one Copt from the south of Egypt, a pharmacist and mother of two, recently told the AP. “We are insulted every day.”
Traditionally, Copts avoided Egyptian politics. That changed during the Arab Spring. Copts were prominent in the protests that led to the overthrow of Mubarak and vocal in protesting their treatment under the Muslim Brotherhood. Then, Pope Tawadros appeared in that famous TV broadcast announcing the overthrow of the Morsi regime–along with the leader of Al-Azhar, it should be pointed out–to voice his support for the military. His appearance seems to have exposed Copts to even more danger than usual. Pointing to the broadcast, Islamists now allege that the overthrow of Morsi was a Christian-orchestrated plot against Islam.
I’ve written before about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and the lack of interest among American elites, even in the human rights community. But the situation for Copts has become truly dire, and Americans are beginning to take notice. There isn’t too much the US can do to help, unfortunately. Expressions of support for Mideast Christians can easily backfire. As Nina Shea has argued, however, America can do more to ensure that humanitarian assistance actually reaches Mideast Christians–in Syria, for example. And the US can fast-track asylum applications from Copts and other Mideast Christians in order to provide a haven for those who wish to leave. This last option isn’t a great solution, as it would only accelerate the depopulation of Christian communities in the Middle East. But leaving these Christians to their fate shouldn’t be an option either.
Friday, August 9, 2013, 8:41 AM
Yoga Class in Encinitas Public School (NYT)
Last month, a California state court ruled that including yoga in an elementary school phys ed program does not violate the Establishment Clause. The program was funded by a half-million dollar grant from the Jois Foundation, a private organization that promotes the form of yoga known as Ashtanga. The court ruled that the Encinitas Union School District had scrubbed religious references from the classes, so that what remained was simply a fitness and stress reduction program for kids. To use the language of the so-called “endorsement test,” the court concluded that a reasonable observer would not believe the school district had impermissibly endorsed a religion–in this case, Hinduism.
This week, the Oxford University Press blog published an interesting interview with Candy Gunther Brown, an Indiana University religious studies professor who served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the case. Brown argues convincingly that Ashtanga yoga is in fact deeply religious. “Ashtanga,” she says, “emphasizes postures and breathing on the premise that these practices will ‘automatically’ lead practitioners to … ’become one with God’… ‘whether they want it or not’”:
Although EUSD officials reacted to parent complaints by modifying some practices, EUSD classes still always begin with “Opening Sequence” (Surya Namaskara) [a prayer to the sun god] and end with “lotuses” and “resting” (aka shavasana or “corpse”—which encourages reflection on one’s death to inspire virtuous living), and teach symbolic gestures such as “praying hands” (anjalimudra) and “wisdom gesture” (jnanamudra), which in Ashtanga yoga symbolize union with the divine and instill religious feelings.
It’s quite possible for people, especially kids, to be influenced by these religious messages, she says:
Scientific research shows that practicing yoga can lead to religious transformations. For example, Kristin is a Catholic who started Ashtanga for the stretching; she now prefers Ashtanga’s “eight limbs” to the “Ten Commandments.” Kids who learn yoga in public schools may also be learning religion.
Perhaps Brown overstates the difficulty of separating religious and non-religious elements in yoga, I don’t know. After reading her interview, though, the question I have is this. How could anyone not think Ashtanga yoga is religious, and that by sponsoring this class–especially with funding from an organization that promotes Ashtanga’s religious message–the school district has endorsed religion in a manner that current law forbids?
Perhaps, with our deeply Protestant religious culture, Americans simply dismiss the notion that physical practices can be genuinely “religious.” Religion is a matter of mind and spirit, not body; stretching is purely physical, just a nice way to relax. Stretching isn’t prayer, after all. Brown’s point, however–and it is a very important one–is that these practices are a kind of prayer. Ashtanga yoga purports to instill religious feelings and lead one to God, whether one intends it or not. (In fact, Hindus might find the claim that yoga is just a stretching exercise rather insulting). And the school district has students participate in these prayers, not just learn about them from a book. The Supreme Court has said the Constitution forbids even displaying the Ten Commandments inside a public school classroom, lest students feel pressured to read and meditate on them. But this is OK?
Let’s try a thought experiment. Orthodox Christianity has a tradition known as hesychasm, in which hermits discipline themselves to meditate, shut out the world, and experience God inside them. It’s a very difficult mystical practice, not for everyone–though some people like to dabble. Apparently it gives great inner peace. The key element is repetition of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, a Sinner.” Suppose some enterprising Orthodox Christian foundation adapted these practices, put the Jesus prayer in an esoteric language, and proffered the package to a public school district as a stress-reduction program for kids. Would anyone think such a program constitutional under present law?
The plaintiffs in the case have indicated they plan to appeal. I hope they do, because this could turn out to be be a very significant case. As Eastern religious practices continue to seep into mainstream culture, situations like this are bound to recur. They may lead to a change in the way Americans understand religion.
Tuesday, August 6, 2013, 8:38 AM
Readers of First Things probably know this already, but here’s a follow up on a story from earlier this year. In February, archaeologists confirmed that they had discovered the remains of King Richard III beneath a parking lot in Leicester. Richard died in battle at Bosworth Field in August 1485; the Tudor victors gave him a rather unceremonious burial in what was then a local abbey. Richard will now be re-interred in Leicester’s Anglican cathedral, most likely next May. Back in February, some Catholics objected that Richard, who was Catholic, should by rights be buried in a Catholic ceremony in a Catholic sanctuary. According to the Law and Religion UK blog, however, the Catholic Church in the UK will not insist. The Catholic Bishop of Nottingham states:
The Bishop is pleased that the body of King Richard III has been found under the site of Greyfriars Church in Leicester, in which it was buried following the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and that it will be reinterred with dignity in the city where he has lain for over five hundred years. Richard III was one of the last Catholic monarchs of England and his death was a decisive moment in British history, but the ultimate decision as to what form the interment takes lies with the Government and the Church of England, since he will be buried in Leicester Cathedral. In accordance with long-established ecumenical practice, Bishop Malcolm will be happy to take part in any form of ceremony which takes place to mark his final burial.
A little hard to follow, but the meaning seems to be, as the government has already decided to bury Richard in the Church of England, the government can also decide on the ceremony. So that’s that. The event will surely be less tense than Richard’s coronation. But will they serve strawberries at the reception?
Monday, August 5, 2013, 11:06 AM
The Center for Law and Religion Forum has an interview today with Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark about his recent book, America’s Blessings. The book critiques public opinion surveys that purport to show the decline of religion in America and an increase in Americans without a religious affiliation, the so-called “Nones.” In the interview, Stark discusses church attendance in America, now at an all-time high; the surprisingly traditional beliefs of the Nones; and the reasons why the media and academy often ignore the socially beneficial effects of religion–lower crime rates, for example. He also explains why regular church goers may report greater satisfaction in their marriages and talks about his future projects. Check it out.
Friday, August 2, 2013, 8:55 AM
Photo from The Economist
The Economist has a couple of interesting stories this week on the continuing plight of Christians in the Middle East. First, from the magazine’s valuable religion blog, Erasmus, is this story about the continued disappearance of two bishops in Syria. One hundred days ago, Islamists in the Syrian opposition kidnapped the two clerics, one from the Greek Orthodox and the other from the Syriac Orthodox Church. Their whereabouts have not been revealed; some reports say they have already been murdered, though that is very unclear. A Jesuit priest from Italy, who has been working in Syria for 20 years, has also gone missing recently. Meanwhile, the magazine reports that a court in Trabzon, Turkey, has agreed with Turkey’s ruling AKP party that the Byzantine Church of the Holy Wisdom (above) in that city should be reconverted to a mosque. The church had been converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in the 15th Century; in the 20th Century, under the Kemalist regime, it became a museum. Turkey’s tiny Greek Orthodox population worries that another Byzantine church by the same name, Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia, may be next.
Thursday, July 25, 2013, 8:25 AM
Mosaic in S. Costanza, Rome
Here’s a puzzle. The mosaic in this photo is in Rome’s Santa Costanza, a lovely fourth-century church with some of the oldest surviving Christian art. The mosaic is famous among scholars of Christian iconography, even among scholars of Christian jurisprudence. It depicts Christ–blond, beardless, looking like the god Apollo–giving a scroll to St. Peter. Christ is dressed in a golden toga. Scholars believe the image is meant to represent Christ giving the Law to the Church.
According to French scholar Rémi Brague, during the patristic period, “Christianity came to think of itself as a law brought by Christ in the same way that Judaism is a law brought by Moses.” This understanding, he says,
received artistic representation in images such as that of a lawgiver Christ giving St. Peter the scroll of the Law in a mosaic in the church of Santa Costanza in Rome, on the sarcophagus of Probus in Rome, or in the basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan.This scene is adapted from the pagan model of the investiture of a high functionary by the emperor. After Constantine, the ideology of the Christian empire utilized the notion of a unique law. This iconographic theme is present from the fourth century to the sixth, when it was replaced by another image in which Christ gives Peter not the Law but rather the Keys to the Kingdom.
If this reading is correct, the mosaic is an important object, not only in the history of Western art, but Western law as well. A key piece of evidence that supports the reading is the inscription on the scroll Christ holds. According to most scholars, the inscription is “DOMINUS LEGEM DAT,” or, “The Lord Gives Law.” If that’s what the scroll says, it does indeed confirm the reading of scholars like Brague.
Except that isn’t what the scroll says. As the photo, which I took this summer, shows, the scroll reads, “DOMINUS PACEM DAT,” or “The Lord Gives Peace.” Not “Law,” “Peace.” Now, I suppose, the inscription may be elliptical: Christ gives Law, the Law of Christ gives Peace, so Christ gives Peace. But that’s a strain. Besides, in Christian teaching, the Law of Christ is usually described as Love, not Peace. Does the scroll refer to Christ’s words at the Last Supper, “My peace I give to you”? Maybe. But that would definitely change the meaning of the image.
So, what’s the explanation? Perhaps, as Brague suggests, this was a conventional image in late antiquity, so the mosaic must be about law. One scholar I’ve read thinks the word “PACEM” on the scroll is an simply an incorrect reconstruction of the original “LEGEM.” Sounds plausible. But when did the reconstruction take place? The Middle Ages? Why are scholars so confident that the image is about law, when the words on the scroll are about peace? Anybody know?
Monday, July 22, 2013, 6:14 PM
At Commonweal, Notre Dame law professor Rick Garnett has some interesting reflections on the implications for religious freedom of last month’s Supreme Court decision in the Defense of Marriage Act case, United States v. Windsor:
It is easier to respect religious freedom in law and policy when everyone agrees or when governments do not do very much. With disagreement and regulation, however, inevitably comes conflict between religious commitments and legal requirements and, when it comes, the majority tends to take care of itself. What about the rest? In a constitutional democracy like ours, we are generally willing to absorb some costs and suffer some inconveniences in order to accommodate the invocation of rights by dissenting or idiosyncratic minorities, especially when the majority thinks that it has a stake in those rights. For example, America still takes a robustly libertarian approach to the freedom of speech, and protects offensive and worthless expression to an anomalous extent, because most Americans still think that protecting misuses and abuses of the right is “worth it.”
However, as religious liberty increasingly comes to be seen as something clung to by a few rather than cherished and exercised by many, as religious traditions and teachings start to strike many as the expensive and even dangerous concerns of quirky, alien margin-dwellers, and as the “benefits” of allowing religious believers’ objections or religious institutions’ independence to stand in the way of the majority’s preferred policies begin to look more like extractions by small special-interest groups than broadly shared public goods, we should expect increasing doubts about whether religious liberty is really “worth it.” We should be concerned that the characterization by the majority in Windsor of DOMA’s purpose and of the motives of the overwhelming and bipartisan majority of legislators that supported it reflects a view that those states—and religious communities—that reject the redefinition of marriage are best regarded as backward and bigoted, unworthy of respect. Such a view is not likely to generate compromise or accommodation and so it poses a serious challenge to religious freedom.
Read the whole thing.
Monday, July 22, 2013, 3:34 PM
Riots broke out in a Paris suburb this weekend after police ticketed a woman wearing the full Islamic veil, or burqa, on a local street. Since 2011, France has banned the burqa in public places on pain of a €150 fine. The details of this weekend’s incident are unclear, but police apparently asked the woman to remove her veil as part of an identity check. An altercation ensued, and the woman’s husband allegedly assaulted the officers. The officers then arrested the husband, and in response at least 250 people besieged the local police station, throwing fireworks and setting refuse bins and vehicles on fire. According to France 24, four police officers have been injured. The violence has continued for three nights.
The burqa ban has been controversial from the beginning. Supporters argue that it’s a necessary safety measure: terrorists could use the burqa as a disguise. But, observing the debate from this side of the Atlantic, safety issues don’t seem central. Most of the emotion in the debate relates to the burqa’s symbolic impact. The French Right supports the ban because the burqa suggests the presence of an alien culture that refuses to be French. The Left is divided. Some on the Left support the ban because the burqa suggests the subjugation of women; others argue that the burqa controversy is a sideshow to distract from France’s real social problems. And of course many French Muslims–though not all–see the ban as evidence of racism and Islamophobia. Not to mention a violation of religious freedom.
Behind the controversy is a debate about the meaning of laïcité, that peculiarly French contribution to law and religion. Often translated loosely as “secularism,” laïcité is one of the foundations of French republicanism. But its meaning is, and always has been, contested. On one view, laïcité means only that the state should have no official ties to religion and that citizens should be free to follow whatever religion they wish. On this understanding, the ban is problematic. What legitimate reason does a liberal state have for banning religious dress in public? (A liberal state, note — not a state with a religious foundation or a “thick” conception of the public good). Public safety, surely: but the French government doesn’t ban knapsacks or raincoats, which pose greater risks. What about the fact that some women are forced to wear the burqa by family members? That’s a legitimate state concern, too. But there must be ways to address that concern that don’t involve forbidding public religious expression by women who do wish to wear the veil.
Perhaps laïcité means something different, though, something more aggressive. Perhaps laïcité requires a naked public square, in order to rid society of the influence of religions that stand in the way of progress. This view has a long lineage in France as well. Rousseau, recall, taught that society must force people to be free. On this view of laïcité, the burqa ban makes more sense. The burqa is forbidden even if women wear it voluntarily–indeed, especially if women wear it voluntarily. How else is equality to be achieved?
A few hundred women have been cited for wearing the burqa since the ban went into effect. Almost none of the citations, apparently, have led to incidents like this weekend’s. This weekend’s riots suggest, though, that the burqa ban remains deeply unpopular in some French neighborhoods, and that the controversy is far from over.
Friday, July 19, 2013, 10:58 AM
As Matt Cantirino notes today, Christianity Today has posted about a new list, published by the real-estate blog, Movoto, of the “saintliest” cities in the United States. Can you guess number one on the list? Bet you can’t. It’s Babylon on the Hudson–and my home town–New York City!
However did the nice people at Movoto come up with this? Christianity Today explains:
Movoto says it reached its conclusions by reversing the data it collected to compile its “sinful cities” list, which it released last month. It based those calculations for the country’s 95 most populous cities on data selected to represent each of the seven deadly sins, including:
Strip clubs per capita (Lust) Cosmetic surgeons per capita (Pride) Violent crime per year per 1,000 residents (Wrath) Theft per year per 1,000 residents (Envy) Percentage of disposable income given to charity each year (Greed) Percentage of obese residents (Gluttony) Percentage of physically inactive residents (Sloth)
Whichever cities ranked highest in those categories were determined to be “sinful.” To determine which cities were most saintly, however, Movoto looked “at the same criteria (the sins) from the opposite perspective…. This time around the cities with the least amount of these things would rank highest and thus be the most saintly.
The most saintly city, according to these criteria, is good old Gotham. I’m sure Evangelical readers will be offended by the obvious works-righteousness of this reasoning, but, really, it makes a lot of sense, when you think about it. It’s like the old parenting advice: busy kids stay out of trouble. We New Yorkers are far too busy pursuing money and career advancement to fall into temptations. Greed and pride, for example.
Tuesday, July 16, 2013, 11:52 AM
At the Center for Law and Religion Forum today, my colleague Marc DeGirolami has a very thoughtful post on whether separation from the state, in the American model, really strengthens religion. One often hears the claim, of course, from both the Right and the Left: Religion is strong in America because America strictly separates religion from the state. Marc expresses some doubts:
But is the claim true? In part, perhaps, but only with substantial qualifications of a kind that make it problematic. There is nothing inevitable (or “logical,” as George Will might put it) about religious strength that follows ineluctably from its complete separation from government. There is no iron law that says: the more we separate religion from government, the stronger religion must become. Such a claim would run headlong into many counterexamples, contemporary and ancient. The ancient examples make the claim appear patently absurd. One wants to ask: “Do you actually mean to tell me that no society which has not observed strict separation between church and state has had a flourishing religious life? So there was no flourishing religious life in any of countless pre-modern societies that existed before Milton or Locke or Roger Williams or whoever got busy?” And to take only one modern case, religion and the state have been strictly separated for some time in laic France and in other extremely secular European countries, and the strength of religious life in those countries is by all accounts much weaker than it was in prior historical periods when there was greater proximity and interpenetration of church and state. . . .
If some notion of separation did in fact at one time contribute to a stronger collective religious life in the United States, the reason had little to do with any necessary connection in this respect, and more to do with the unique historical and cultural circumstances of the United States–circumstances in which the Puritan evangelicalism represented by Roger Williams’s particular style of fire-and-brimstone, garden-and-the-wilderness religiosity was much more powerful in the United States than it is today. Church-state separation may be a strategy that makes religion seem stronger, provided that one is beginning from the evangelical paradigm of the twice-born soul. But it is a different matter if religion is commonly perceived in wildly different terms and expected to perform entirely different functions.
At any rate, the action of separation on religion’s strength in America was situational and circumstantial; it was hardly causal or inevitable; and it is hardly inevitable that a policy of more stringent separationism at this juncture in the country’s history and cultural circumstances will result in a more vibrant religious life. Countries with other backgrounds and other histories who look to the United States as a model in this respect may well be misled. The pre-existing evangelical bulwark made church-state separation look like a real shot in the arm for religion, not the other way round.
Read the whole thing.
Monday, July 15, 2013, 2:35 PM
Pew’s Forum on Religion and Public Life has released the latest version of its periodic survey of public attitudes toward various professions in America. The survey asks whether a given occupation contributes to society’s well-being. The results? The military tops the list, with almost 80% responding that the military contributes “a lot” to society. Teachers come in second, with 72%. The percentages then drop through various professions, until the list reaches the bottom with–lawyers. Only 18% of respondents said that lawyers contribute a lot to society. (The survey didn’t ask what people thought of “law teachers” like me. Perhaps it’s better only guessing).
Clergy rank roughly in the middle. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said that clergy contribute a lot to society, but the percentages vary greatly among religious groups. For example, 52% of white Evangelicals say clergy contribute a lot to society, but only 28% of Hispanic Catholics say the same. Somewhat surprisingly, one-fifth of the religiously unaffiliated say that clergy contribute a lot to society–another indication that, in America, even the Nones have a soft spot for religion. For more analysis of the Pew Survey, click here.
Tuesday, July 9, 2013, 3:34 PM
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights today handed down its decision in the much-anticipated Sindicatul Pastoral cel Bun v. Romania, a case involving the right of priests to unionize against the wishes of their church. Relying on the principle of church autonomy, the court held that clergy do not have a right to unionize in such circumstances. For a quick analysis, follow this link to the Center for Law and Religion Forum at St. John’s.
Wednesday, July 3, 2013, 8:42 AM
The Economist’s religion blog, “Erasmus,” has an interesting post on the sympathetic response of American Christians to the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Erasmus says this is a new development: Until recently, politically active American Christians, particularly on the right, have “seemed deeply ambivalent” about Mideast Christians. Recent events may have changed things. Erasmus notes the appearance at a congressional subcommittee hearing last week by the Hudson Institute’s Nina Shea, who spoke about the suffering of Mideast Christians and America’s responsibility to them.
It’s true that for the past few decades, the situation of the Mideast Christians hasn’t been a priority for American Christians. This wasn’t always so. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American churches agitated for aid to persecuted Christian minorities in Ottoman Turkey. More recently, though, American Christians, especially conservatives, have viewed Israelis, not Christians, as their natural allies in the region.
There are a few reasons for this. Ignorance is one. Many Americans don’t realize that there are Christians in the Middle East. In America, Christians who speak Arabic are repeatedly mistaken for Muslims. A Christian immigrant from Egypt who wears a cross once told me that Americans ask her about her mosque. Theological, cultural, and political factors play a role as well. For most American Christians, especially Evangelicals, Mideast Christians are decidedly “other.” Most are Orthodox; some are Eastern-rite Catholics; hardly any are Protestants, even mainline Protestants. In terms of worship and ecclesiology, most Mideast Christians are about as far from contemporary American Christianity as you can get and still be in the Christian fold.
Culturally, most Mideast Christians are, well, Middle Eastern. Their values with respect to family and identity are apt to differ from those of the West. In purely cultural terms, a Christian from Minnesota may feel he has more in common with a secular Jew from Tel Aviv than a Christian from Tur Abdin. Politically, Christians in Arab countries have tended to be nationalists. Those that live in Israel feel like outsiders; they complain, with some justification, that the state is indifferent to their concerns. All this differentiates Mideast Christians from American Christians, who strongly support Israel as an embattled democracy to which the West owes a moral obligation. And this is putting aside the “end times theology” that persuades some American Evangelicals to support the Jewish state–a theology, needless to say, that Christians in the Middle East do not share.
So what explains the new sympathy for Mideast Christians? Part of the explanation, Erasmus argues, is politics. Conservative Christians who didn’t object when Bush Administration policy led to the displacement of half the Christian population of Iraq are quite vocal now. There is some truth to this charge.
But, as Erasmus explains, it isn’t simply politics. Across the Middle East, the rise of Islamism has made the situation of Christians truly dire. Just in the last couple of weeks, Islamists in the Syrian opposition murdered a Catholic priest. Unfortunately, this example of anti-Christian brutality is not unusual. Two Orthodox bishops kidnapped by Islamists in Syria have yet to be found. In Egypt, the Copts suffer greatly. In Turkey, the government is seizing the land of Syriac Christians on the basis of phony claims. One could give many other examples.
It bears repeating: Christianity in the Middle East faces an existential threat. And the Obama Administration–like the Bush Administration before it–has other priorities. Reportedly, the US ambassador to Egypt recently asked the Coptic Pope, Tawadros, to discourage Christians from taking part in anti-Morsi protests. And the Administration has decided to arm the Syrian opposition–a decision that seems likely, over time, to result in arming the Syrian Islamists.
The Administration undoubtedly believes that democracy is the only long-run hope for the Middle East, and that democratically-elected Islamist governments, if that is what the region’s people wish, are the short-term price one has to pay. I suppose an argument could be made. But of course Americans aren’t the ones paying the price. Christianity in the Middle East is going to the wall. As this tragedy becomes known, largely through the work of people like Shea, American Christians are taking notice.
Tuesday, July 2, 2013, 8:21 AM
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The Crisscross-Applesauce Position (NYT)
An update on a case I wrote about in May: a California state court has ruled that including yoga in an elementary school phys ed program does not violate the Establishment Clause. Under current Supreme Court precedent, public schools may not endorse any particular religion (or, for that matter, religion generally). In yesterday’s ruling, the San Diego Superior Court reasoned that the Encinitas Union School District has scrubbed religious references from its yoga classes–the Lotus position has been renamed the “Crisscross-Applesauce” pose, for example–so that what remains is merely a fitness and stress-reduction program for kids. The court apparently did not find persuasive the testimony of an Indiana University religious studies professor, Candy Gunther Brown, who argued that yoga, a Hindu practice, is inherently religious. A lawyer for parents who brought the lawsuit against the school district says his clients will likely appeal.
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