Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 8:56 AM
Yesterday, the US House of Representatives held a joint subcommittee hearing on the situation of religious minorities in Syria, Religious Minorities in Syria: Caught in the Middle. Co-sponsored by the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations and the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, the hearing heard from four witnesses, including USCIRF Commissioner Zuhdi Jasser. The hearing extensively addressed the plight of Syria’s Christians.
The whole hearing is worthwhile, but the testimony of the Hudson Institute’s Nina Shea is particularly useful. Shea concedes that “no religious community has been spared suffering” in Syria’s civil war. But “Syria’s ancient Christian minority” faces an existential threat:
Christians, however, are not simply caught in the middle, as collateral damage. They are the targets of a more focused shadow war, one that is taking place alongside the larger conflict between the Shiite-backed Baathist Assad regime and the largely Sunni rebel militias. Christians are the targets of an ethno-religious cleansing by Islamist militants and courts. In addition, they have lost the protection of the Assad government, making them easy prey for criminals and fighters, whose affiliations are not always clear.
Shea documents anti-Christian incidents, some of them quite harrowing. She recommends, among other things, that the US Government direct aid to institutions caring for Christian refugees (who often fear going to refugee camps); expedite immigration applications from Syrian Christians; and ensure that none of its assistance to the Syrian opposition finds its way into the hands of Islamist groups responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Christians.
Tuesday, June 25, 2013, 6:24 PM
Yesterday, a federal district court ruled that the US Forest Service did not violate the Establishment Clause by renewing a permit for “Big Mountain Jesus” (left), a six-foot-tall statue on land the Service leases to a private ski resort in Big Mountain, Montana. The statue has been in place since 1954, when the Knights of Columbus donated it–though this part is a matter of some dispute–as a war memorial. In response to an objection from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the Service decided not to renew the statue’s permit in 2011. This decision led to public outcry–the service received 95,000 comments in less than two months–and the Service reversed itself, whereupon the FFRF sued.
Under current Supreme Court precedent, official display of a religious symbol violates the Establishment Clause if a reasonable observer would think that the government is endorsing a religious message. In yesterday’s opinion, the court ruled that a reasonable observer would not perceive an official endorsement of religion in the case of Big Mountain Jesus. The statue is on land the government leases to a private owner and is maintained by a private organization–facts an inscription on the statue’s base explains. Many observers would be unaware of any governmental involvement at all. Moreover, although a statue of Jesus is obviously a Christian symbol, the secular, even irreverent associations of this particular statue minimize any religious message. At least some people think of the statue as a war memorial. Some people value the statue’s historical significance. And most observers, the court suggested, see the statue as a kind of campy joke: “Typical observers of the statue are more interested in giving it a high five or adorning it in ski gear than sitting before it in prayer.”
It’s unfortunate that current doctrine favors the trivialization of a religious symbol as evidence of its constitutionality, but that’s where we are. (Remember the candy canes and reindeer around the creche?) The court also noted that Big Mountain Jesus had been around for about 60 years before anyone had thought to object. This, too, is an important factor under Supreme Court precedent: “longevity demonstrates that ‘few individuals, whatever their system of beliefs, are likely to have understood the monument as amounting, in any significantly detrimental way, to a government effort to favor a particular religious sect.’”
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which intervened in the case on behalf of the Knights of Columbus and other parties, has a press release about the case here. The FFRF says it will likely appeal.
Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 11:12 AM
When it comes to mixing religion and politics, I’ve often thought, the principle seems to be, it’s wrong when the other guy does it. For example, conservatives become annoyed when Christians call for liberalizing immigration laws or for universal healthcare. Don’t impose your religious beliefs on society! When Christians argue for abortion restrictions or against same-sex marriage, by contrast, conservatives don’t complain too much. And it works in reverse. In fact, in my experience, liberals have a greater blind spot about the subject. Liberals object vigorously when conservatives like Judge Edith Jones defend capital punishment on religious grounds, but go strangely quiet when liberals, like President Obama, cite Christianity’s influence on their policy positions.
Here’s a good example of the liberal discomfort with religion from a New York Times profile of Barnard College sociologist Jonathan Rieder. According to the Times, Rieder, an expert on Martin Luther King, has focused on an aspect of King’s thought that receives little attention from scholars: King’s Christianity. How, you might ask, could King scholarship ignore Christianity? The man was a Christian minister. The Times explains:
Dr. Rieder’s book stakes very specific turf in the corpus of King scholarship with its relentless focus on Dr. King the preacher. By doing so … Dr. Rieder is restoring the overtly religious element to Dr. King and the freedom movement. While African-Americans readily grasp the link, many white liberals diminish or ignore it out of discomfort with religion being granted a role — even a positive one — in political discourse.
“The image of liberal secular King misses the essential role of prophetic Christianity,” [Rieder] said in a recent interview. “Jesus wasn’t just an interesting historical figure to King. He saw Jesus as a continuation of the prophets. He has a powerful association with Jesus.”
Would America have had the civil rights movement without Christianity? It’s impossible to know, of course, and it’s true that Christian support for King wasn’t uniform. But it’s crazy to ignore Christianity’s profound influence on King and, though him, the movement as a whole. The willingness to do so says a great deal about the state of scholarship in America today.
Friday, June 14, 2013, 9:09 AM
The third largest religious affiliation in the United States is “None.” Roughly one-fifth of adult Americans tell surveyors that they have no religious affiliation at all. The rise of the Nones, which began in the 199os, is perhaps the most important development in American religious life today, raising difficult questions for traditional religious institutions and the legal system as well.
We shouldn’t think of the Nones as a uniquely American phenomenon, though. (Only Americans would be tempted to do so, probably). Here’s an interesting report from The Weekly Number, a religion website, on the percentages of Nones worldwide. The overall percentage of Nones across the globe is lower than in the US: 16%. They are distributed very unevenly. Almost 80% live in the Asia-Pacific region. About 60% live in one country, China. The entire continent of North America, by contrast, accounts for only five percent of Nones worldwide. In sub-Saharan Africa, Nones make up about two percent of the population. In the Middle East and North Africa, religiously unaffiliated people are even scarcer, comprising less than one percent of the population.
One might expect that, as China continues to rise, Nones will become an even more powerful global force. But here’s another interesting statistic. Unlike in the US, where Nones are disproportionately young, as a global population, Nones skew old. Their median age (34) is significantly higher than the median age of the overall global population (28). Who knows? Perhaps the rise of the Nones among America’s youth will be offset by the much-noted rise of Christianity among young people in the global South.
Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 7:49 AM
When he died, roughly 50 years ago at the age of 59, Raphael Lemkin was impoverished and embittered, an unnoticed man. Only 7 people attended his funeral. Yet he was one of the most influential international human rights lawyers of the twentieth century. Lemkin, whom Jay Winter describes in a recent piece as a “one-man NGO,” coined the word “genocide” for the destruction of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, and was the driving force behind adoption of the UN Genocide Convention of 1948.
He came up with the term “genocide” in reflecting on the massacres of Armenian Christians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I–events we now know as the Armenian Genocide–but he had an example closer to home as well. A Polish Jew, he lost about 50 relatives in the Holocaust, and himself escaped the Nazis only after taking a bullet in the hip. He made his way to America, where he joined the law faculty at Duke, wrote his most important book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, and worked, successfully, for adoption of the UN Convention.
What explains his bitterness and isolation at the end? Lemkin was a loner and a difficult man; that was part of it, no doubt. And he could surely see, as Winter writes, that naming a crime, even legislating against a crime, does not necessarily reduce its frequency. It’s hard to argue that the Genocide Convention has been a great success. Still, Lemkin’s career had a public impact which most of us, especially in the legal academy, would be proud to claim.
I reflect on all this because, this month, Yale University Press releases Lemkin’s unfinished autobiography, Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin, edited by historian Donna-Lee Frieze. It looks very interesting. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Among the greatest intellectual heroes of modern times, Raphael Lemkin lived an extraordinary life of struggle and hardship, yet altered international law and redefined the world’s understanding of group rights. He invented the concept and word “genocide” and propelled the idea into international legal status. An uncommonly creative pioneer in ethical thought, he twice was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Although Lemkin died alone and in poverty, he left behind a model for a life of activism, a legacy of major contributions to international law, and—not least—an unpublished autobiography. Presented here for the first time is his own account of his life, from his boyhood on a small farm in Poland with his Jewish parents, to his perilous escape from Nazi Europe, through his arrival in the United States and rise to influence as an academic, thinker, and revered lawyer of international criminal law.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013, 9:52 AM
For reasons I’ve discussed before, elite opinion in the West is uncomfortable with the idea of Christians as a persecuted minority. At least since the Enlightenment, Western intellectuals, as a class, have seen traditional Christians as adversaries to be resisted, not victims to be rescued. The idea that in some circumstances Christians might actually be victims complicates the narrative in unpleasant ways.
To be fair, traditional Christians in the West sometimes overstate their difficulties. There are worrisome signals, to be sure. In ways that one would not have imagined even 20 years ago, governments seem willing to require traditional Christians to give up their religious convictions as the price for entering the marketplace, or even doing charitable work. But that’s not persecution, exactly. No one is forcing Christians to the catacombs.
Persecution of Christians in other parts of the world is a fact, however, and one that needs repeating. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s Permanent Representative, thus deserves credit for raising the topic at a meeting of the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva yesterday. Tomasi deplored the fact that, according to credible estimates, more than 100,000 Christians around the world are killed each year because of their faith. Many others are subjected to rape, displacement, destruction of their places of worship, and the abduction of their leaders. As to that last item, the whereabouts of the two Orthodox bishops whom elements of the Syrian opposition kidnapped last month remain unknown.
It’s certainly true that other religious minorities suffer too; human rights advocates often give this as a reason for not singling out Christians in particular. But what sense does that make? One hears a great deal about the persecution of other religious minorities by name, and rightly so. It’s time the global human rights community spoke of the persecution of Christians, as Christians, as well.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013, 8:44 AM
Law has an outsized influence on American culture. And, according to University of Michigan Law Professor Dan Crane, religious skeptics have an outsized influence on the legal profession. He refers to a recent survey of students at an elite law school:
According to Pew Forum data, people who identify as atheist or agnostic account for about 4% of all respondents nationally and about 7% of respondents in the 18-29 age cohort. Skeptics are well educated overall, claiming 8% of all post-graduate diplomas (basically doubling their base 4% share). In the law student survey, they accounted for a whopping 28% of all respondents, more than all Protestant categories (evangelical, mainline, and traditionally African-American) combined.
Those are striking numbers. Crane argues, in fact, that the study and practice of law favor religious skeptics. It’s not altogether one-sided, of course. Religious believers’ feel for ritual may help them appreciate the ceremonial aspects of law, he says. And of course a thirst for justice is an important part of many religious traditions.
One has to wonder, though. If religious skeptics are so overrepresented among American lawyers–particularly among elite lawyers–that must have an impact on American law. The overrepresentation of skeptics would help explain why American legal institutions tend to be more indifferent and even hostile to religion than the nation as a whole, and why controversies the Supreme Court thinks it has settled continue to recur. (Ever wonder why all these school prayer cases keep coming up, notwithstanding the Court’s clear objections?) Maybe the Legal Realists had a point: Much depends on who decides.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013, 2:29 AM
For FT readers in the area, I’ll be giving a talk, “Psychic Sophie and the Rise of the Nones,” next week at the European University Institute in Florence. My talk will be sponsored by the Institute’s ReligioWest project. 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. Approximately one-fifth of American adults are in this category, and their numbers have 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 are here. Stop by and say hello!
Friday, May 24, 2013, 8:02 AM
Last month, I wrote about a controversy surrounding the White House’s inclusion of a yoga garden in its annual Easter Egg Roll. The problem is this: yoga is a Hindu spiritual practice. Arguably, therefore, state-sponsored yoga is a religious endorsement that violates the Establishment Clause under existing Supreme Court case law.
Yoga Class at Encinitas School (New York Times)
It turns out that very issue is being litigated this week in a California court. The Encinitas Union School District has introduced yoga as part of the phys ed program in elementary schools. Some parents object that the program highlights yoga’s spiritual elements and amounts to religious indoctrination. The school argues that it has eliminated religious references and that what remains is nothing more than an enriched gym class. An Indiana University religious studies professor who testified at trial demurs. She says that that it would be odd, from a Hindu perspective, to separate yoga’s physical and spiritual elements.
Under Supreme Court precedent, government can separate “cultural” from “religious” messages and promote the former. That’s why official Christmas displays with reindeer and elves survive constitutional scrutiny, but not solo nativity scenes. The logic is that the secular decorations swamp the religious message and ensure that passersby don’t think the government is endorsing Christianity, as opposed to Christianity’s cultural accretions.
This logic has saved some Christmas displays, but offended some Christians. To them, the Supreme Court’s reasoning suggests an unfortunate hostility to their religion: Christmas is acceptable in the public square only if its spiritual associations are diluted. To be sure, the Supreme Court has said only that official displays must avoid religious associations, but people rarely compartmentalize things so logically. Culture often follows law.
So here’s a question: if official yoga programs are allowed on the theory that they have been scrubbed of religious associations, will pious Hindus object? Will people start demanding to keep the yoga in yoga?
Monday, May 20, 2013, 12:38 PM
The Supreme Court today agreed to hear Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case out of New York in which the Second Circuit held, in an opinion by Judge Guido Calabresi, that the town’s practice of allowing private citizens to open town board meetings with a prayer violates the Establishment Clause. The last legislative prayer case at the high court was thirty years ago. My colleague Marc DeGirolami has the details at the Center for Law and Religion Forum.
Sunday, May 19, 2013, 2:33 PM
A report in last week’s Telegraph suggests that British Christianity is declining more rapidly than previously understood. Initial reports about the 2011 census showed the number of people in England and Wales who describe themselves as Christians had fallen by 10 percent since 2001. But it turns out those figures included Christian immigrants, such as Polish Catholics and African Pentecostals. When one looks only at the native born, the percentage of people who describe themselves as Christians has fallen by an even greater amount–by 15% in the space of one decade. The decline is particularly pronounced among the young. At this rate, the Telegraph predicts, Christianity could become a minority religion in Britain within the next decade.
These numbers have worrisome implications for the future of the Established Church. In a country where only a minority is willing to describe itself as Christian, what would be the basis for maintaining state Christianity? A spokesman for the Church of England admits the census numbers present a challenge, but notes that recent attendance figures have been stable, and that the committed core “of the faithful remains firm.” Maybe so, but state churches, almost by definition, need to draw support from society as a whole, not only the people who attend every Sunday. Perhaps those respondents who said they weren’t Christians nonetheless think the established church serves a useful social function and want it to endure. But maybe not.
Monday, May 13, 2013, 7:11 PM
According to reports in the Arab media and Reuters, Saudi Arabia has convicted a Lebanese man of “evangelism” and sentenced him to six years in prison and 300 lashes. According to reports, the man, an Evangelical Christian, converted a Saudi woman in her 20s to Christianity and spirited her out of the country to Lebanon. The Saudi Gazette notes that the man had the woman’s personal belongings sent ahead of her to Lebanon, thus proving that “he had planned out the whole thing and premeditated the woman’s conversion to Christianity.” Not only conversion, but premeditated conversion! The case has been a cause celebre in Saudi Arabia, where proselytism is illegal and converting from Islam to another religion is a capital offense.
Friday, May 10, 2013, 9:28 AM
Elizabeth Prodromou, a former Vice Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, has some harsh words for the commission’s annual report, issued last month. Prodromou sharply criticizes USCIRF and the entire U.S. foreign policy team for ignoring human rights violations endured by Orthodox Christians in the Middle East.
For example, Prodromou complains that neither the U.S. administration nor USCIRF (an independent agency) has issued a statement about the kidnapping in Syria last month, most likely by Islamists in the opposition, of two Orthodox bishops. The kidnapping of two bishops sends an ominous message to Syria’s Christians, and Prodromou is outraged that the U.S. did not see fit to introduce a Security Council resolution condemning the kidnapping. Russia, she notes, did introduce such a resolution.
I share Prodromou’s outrage about what is happening to Christians in Syria, most of whom are Orthodox, and her frustration at the West’s lack of attention to the problem. (This lack of attention is nothing new; the last U.S. administration seemed more or less indifferent to the plight of Iraq’s Christians). But I’m not sure that official American statements would help the situation. Perversely, official expressions of concern from the outside often increase the danger for Christians in the Middle East. When Pope Benedict spoke about the obvious mistreatment of Copts a while ago, for example, Egypt withdrew its Vatican ambassador in protest. Things have not improved for the Copts since.
Moreover, it’s not plain how much credibility U.S. government statements have in Syria at the moment. The U.S. has worked itself into a situation in which neither of the major players in the conflict, neither Assad nor the Islamists who dominate the opposition, have an incentive to listen to what the U.S. says. I’m not suggesting the U.S. and the West should ignore the plight of Syria’s Christians and leave them to their fate; not at all. I mean only that official statements, without the wherewithal to back them up, do little, and often backfire.
Prodromou is on firmer ground when she criticizes the USCIRF report’s about-face on Turkey. Last year’s USCIRF report declared Turkey a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, a designation that signified that Turkey had an especially problematic record on religious freedom. This year’s report upgrades Turkey’s status from a CPC to a country that merely warrants monitoring. But, Prodromou notes, there hasn’t been any appreciable improvement of the situation for Orthodox Christians (and other religious minorities) in Turkey over the last year:
By the USCIRF’s own report in 2013, Halki [a famous Greek Orthodox seminary] remains shuttered 42 years after its closing and 10-plus years into the Erdogan era; there has been no overhaul of the property rights regime used to economically disenfranchise the country’s Orthodox Christian citizens and strip Orthodox foundations of their lands, so that the USCIRF characterized random returns of property, as in the case of forest lands around Halki returned to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as “commendable” but “not codified by law.” The 2013 USCIRF report also cited rising fear amongst Armenian Orthodox citizens of Turkey, because of hate crimes committed against members of their community, the most grotesquely emblematic case being that of an 84-year-old Armenian woman who was murdered in her Istanbul home with a cross carved into her chest. The Commission obliquely commented that the “Turkish local police promptly launched investigations into three cases, but it is not known if any arrests have been made connected to any of these incidents.”
It does seem very strange that a country could go from being a “country of particular concern” to one merely “worth watching” in the space of a year, especially a country with Turkey’s spotty religious-freedom record. In fact, four commissioners dissented from USCIRF’s decision, including current Vice Chair Mary Ann Glendon and Commissioner Robert P. George, both of whom are affiliated with First Things. USCIRF shouldn’t have named Turkey as a CPC in the first place, the dissenters wrote, but, having made that decision, USCIRF is now making the opposite mistake. “We believe that Turkey has not shown nearly enough improvement in addressing religious freedom violations over the past year to justify its promotion to the status of a country that is merely being monitored,” they explained. The dissenters would have placed Turkey in an intermediate category–among “Tier 2″ religious freedom violators, in the parlance of USCIRF.
You can read Prodromou’s entire post here.
Monday, May 6, 2013, 5:25 PM
At the Center for Law and Religion Forum, University of Michigan law professor Dan Crane has been doing an interesting series of posts on the under-representation of Evangelicals within America’s legal elite. Dan notes that Evangelicals do not seem overly bothered by the fact that relatively few of them occupy positions at the top of the legal profession–no Evangelicals sit on the Supreme Court, for example–and wonders why. One explanation, he says, is that Evangelicals believe, and are comfortable with the fact, that Catholics represent their outlook on things. For example, he writes,
[A]fter the Supreme Court nomination of evangelical Harriet Miers fell apart (and to repeat a point from yesterday’s post, observe that Miers, an SMU Law grad, lacked “elite” credentials), there seemed to be no great reaction from evangelicals when John Roberts, a Catholic (who undoubtedly had elite credentials), was picked instead. The choice of Sam Alito, a Catholic, over one of the (very few) plausible evangelicals (like Mike McConnell) barely registered. . . .
Another implication—and I’ll go ahead and say it although I know I’ll get pushback (perhaps even assassination)—is that evangelicals care about identity, but increasingly understand evangelical and conservative Catholic identity as converging. Is it possible that, in the post-Vatican II world, evangelicals and Catholics are beginning to see themselves less as mere political allies and more as sharing a common identity in the loyal and traditionalist wing of Christendom? This is clearly happening at least at the margins (witness the growth of evangelical Catholicism and liturgical revivals within Protestant evangelicalism, for example).
One could understand the phenomenon Dan describes as part of a larger convergence among traditionalists generally. Nowadays, traditionalists often find they have more in common, politically speaking, with traditionalists in other religions than they do with progressives in their own. Some of these alliances will no doubt stop at political cooperation. But some could go further. Five hundred years after the Reformation, will the Living Constitution be the catalyst for restoring Christian unity in the West? Read Dan’s whole post here.
Friday, May 3, 2013, 12:14 PM
I posted earlier this week about the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s special report on violations of religious liberty in Syria. Also this week, USCIRF issued its annual, comprehensive (364 pages) report on religious freedom around the world. It makes for interesting reading.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan government advisory body that monitors global religious freedom and makes non-binding policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state, and Congress. Two of the Commissioners have ties to First Things. Vice Chair Mary Ann Glendon sits on the Board of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which publishes the magazine, and Commissioner Robert P. George sits on the Advisory Council.
Each year, USCIRF suggests countries for inclusion on the State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern”–countries whose governments engage in or tolerate especially bad violations of religious freedom. In this year’s report, USCIRF names fifteen such countries, including Burma, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, and Vietnam.
Iraq’s appearance on the list is especially noteworthy. Notwithstanding the Iraqi government’s “efforts to increase security for religious sites and worshippers, provide a stronger voice for Iraq’s smallest minorities in parliament, and revise secondary school textbooks to portray minorities in a more positive light,” the report states, the government “continues to tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, including violent religiously-motivated attacks.” Please note: Ten years after a U.S.-led war to topple a dictator and establish the rule of law, things are so bad that a U.S. government commission has named Iraq as a particularly worrisome country with respect to religious freedom. Let’s hope the people running our Syria policy are paying attention.
With respect to American policy on religious freedom generally, the report shows some frustration. One gets the distinct sense that the commissioners think the Obama administration should make global religious freedom more a priority. For example, the report decries the downgrading of the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and the downsizing of her staff. And it criticizes the administration for not taking more concrete action with respect to “countries of particular concern” that the State Department already has named.
The report contains a thematic section with helpful material on a variety of issues; this section will be especially useful for scholars. Among the issues addressed are constitutional changes in Muslim-majority countries and the increasing adoption and enforcement of anti-blasphemy laws around the world.
Thursday, May 2, 2013, 7:06 AM
You might not have noticed it, but today is the National Day of Prayer. I should say, a National Day of Prayer, as that’s what the US Code calls it. Every year, by law, the President issues a proclamation “designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, or as individuals.” President Obama’s proclamation this year is rather moving. It stresses the comfort that Americans draw, in times of suffering, from the simple fact that other Americans are praying for them:
Prayer brings communities together and can be a wellspring of strength and support. In the aftermath of senseless acts of violence, the prayers of countless Americans signal to grieving families and a suffering community that they are not alone. Their pain is a shared pain, and their hope a shared hope. Regardless of religion or creed, Americans reflect on the sacredness of life and express their sympathy for the wounded, offering comfort and holding up a light in an hour of darkness.
The proclamation itself ends with a prayer: “I join the citizens of our Nation in giving thanks, in accordance with our own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings, and in asking for God’s continued guidance, mercy, and protection.”
The day is not without its critics. The Freedom from Religion Foundation once filed a lawsuit, dismissed on standing grounds, arguing that a National Day of Prayer violates the Constitution, and the American Humanist Association hosts a competing National Day of Reason every year. (You might not have noticed that, either.) Orthodox theists of various sorts might find the day objectionable as well. To whom or what are Americans being invited to pray? Doesn’t officially-encouraged prayer to a nondescript deity lead to confusion and least-common-denominator religion? Not everyone finds generic prayers so harmless.
I’m not sure what the answer is, except to say that designating a National Day of Prayer seems entirely American. Public religious references of a nonsectarian character have long been a part of the American tradition, for better or worse, and there’s no stopping them now. The wisdom of our ancestors is in such things, as Dickens once observed in another context, and if we disturb them, the Country’s done for. Purists, of the secular and orthodox variety, have to adjust.
Tuesday, April 30, 2013, 8:43 AM
At the Center for Law and Religion Forum, Michigan Law School’s Dan Crane writes about the absence of Evangelical Christians among America’s legal elites:
My strong intuition is that evangelicals are grossly underrepresented in the legal elite. To focus again on the (admittedly idiosyncratic) Supreme Court, it’s not just that there are currently no Protestants on the court, it’s that at least since the rise of modern evangelicalism as a political force in 1970s, there has never been an evangelical on the Court. Even though evangelicals have had great success in politics writ large, including the Presidency, Congress, and governorships, they have been conspicuously absent from the top echelons of the federal judiciary.
It’s a good bet that that this underrepresentation stretches back to the beginning of the elite pipeline that feeds the elite echelons.
Dan’s planning a series of posts on the topic. You can follow them here.
Monday, April 29, 2013, 9:16 AM
At Via Meadia, Walter Russell Mead has been doing a great job covering the controversy surrounding visits last week by top Japanese officials to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Yasukuni is a Shinto shrine; in Shinto belief, it houses the souls of millions of people who died in the service of the Japanese Empire, including during World War II. Among the millions commemorated are approximately 1000 convicted war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.
Japan’s neighbors, China and Korea, perceive official visits to the shrine as an outrageous insult and a sign that Japan has not fully repudiated the imperialism of its past. (In response to last week’s visits, China sent a fleet of patrol ships into Japanese territorial waters.) The latest controversy erupted when top officials in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet, as well more than 150 parliamentarians, visited the shrine for the annual Shinto Spring Ceremony–the largest official delegation in decades. In response to Chinese and Korean complaints, Abe doubled down, declaring in a parliamentary debate, ”It’s only natural to honor the spirits of those who gave their lives for the country. Our ministers will not cave in to any threats.” Abe doubtless feels buoyed by opinion polls showing that he has a 70% approval rating from the Japanese public.
Official participation in ceremonies at Yasukuni have been controversial inside Japan as well. The Japanese Constitution, adopted after the war, disestablished Shintoism and effected, in the words of the Japanese Supreme Court, the “separation of state and religion.” In fact, in 1997 the Supreme Court ruled that the government officials could not make financial contributions to Yasukuni for use in Shinto ceremonies. With respect to this month’s visits, the officials involved were careful to point out that they were participating only as private citizens, not government officials, but that explanation has not satisfied critics. “”It doesn’t matter how or in what role Japanese leaders visit the Yasukuni shrine,” a Chinese spokesman said. “We feel it is in essence a denial of Japan’s history of militarist invasion.” And Japanese legal scholar Keisuke Abe (no relation to the Prime Minister, I believe) argues in a symposium in the St. John’s Law Review that most Japanese wouldn’t recognize the distinction, either. “Whatever the purpose of” a visit to the shrine, he writes, “the general public is likely to consider it as the government giving special support to Shintoism, associated with ancestor worship.”
Sunday, April 28, 2013, 12:09 PM
Last week, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a report, Protecting and Promoting Religious Freedom in Syria, that describes the religious contours of Syria’s civil war and makes recommendations for US policy with respect to the conflict. The report accuses both the Assad regime and the opposition of sectarian violence. The regime, the report says, has targeted Sunni Muslims, while Islamists in the opposition have targeted Alawites and Christians. Indeed, the report accuses the regime of deliberately setting religious communities against one another as a way of maintaining control.
Exploiting religious tensions in Syria is not too difficult. Although Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Alawites historically have lived in peace under Ba’ath rule, tensions always have existed beneath the surface. The Assads, who are Alawites, have kept the country’s Sunni majority in check, and Sunnis deeply resent it. I remember a Christian friend who grew up in Syria once telling me that his Sunni classmates had a slogan, which apparently rhymes in Arabic, about their proposal for Syria’s future: ”The Christians to Beirut and the Alawites to the grave.” The report says that the regime is now paying people to pose as opposition figures and chant that slogan at pr0tests, in order to frighten minority communities into supporting Assad.
The regime probably doesn’t have to work too hard to get that support. Just looking at the numbers, and knowing the fault lines in Syrian society, it’s obvious that minority groups like Christians have much to lose if Assad falls. The report suggests as much:
Many minority religious communities have tried to stay neutral in the conflict, but opposition forces increasingly see their non-alignment, or perceived non-alignment, as support for the al-Assad regime. Minority religious communities thus have been forced by circumstances to take a position either in favor of the al-Assad regime, which historically provided them some religious freedom protections, or in favor of the uncertainties of the opposition. As these sectarian fissures deepen, it is increasingly likely that religious communities will be targeted not for their political allegiances, but solely for their religious affiliation. . . .
It is clear that sectarianism is increasing and religiously-motivated attacks are being perpetrated by the al-Assad regime and its proxies, as well as at times by opposition forces seeking his overthrow, resulting in severe violations of religious freedom. These violations also threaten Syria’s religious diversity by increasing the likelihood of religiously-motivated violence and retaliation continuing in a post-al-Assad Syria, where religious minorities will be particularly vulnerable.
Three commissioners dissented from the report, arguing that its policy recommendations go beyond the commission’s mandate. In other Syria news, the two Orthodox bishops kidnapped at gunpoint last week, presumably by opposition forces, remain missing.
Thursday, April 25, 2013, 7:04 AM
A few days ago, I wrote about the persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt and the failure of many in the West to recognize it for what it is. The Arab Spring has made the Copts’ situation even more unsafe than it used to be. The Muslim Brotherhood is even less concerned with protecting Copts from violence than the Mubarak regime was.
As Mathew Block’s post below suggests, a similar pattern may be unfolding in Syria. On Monday, two bishops from Aleppo–Bishop Paul Yazigi of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Bishop John Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church–were kidnapped at gunpoint near the Turkish border. (The two churches, one “Eastern” and the other “Oriental” Orthodox, are not in full communion, but their relationship in Syria is very close). Some reports say the kidnappers were Chechen fighters working with the Syrian opposition, though the opposition denies involvement. At this writing, the bishops’ location and condition are unknown; early reports of their release, credited to an Antiochian bishop named “Tony” who turned out to be non-existent, were false. The kidnappers murdered the deacon who was serving as the bishops’ driver.
It’s certainly true that Muslims in Syria are suffering as well. Only yesterday, the minaret of the famous Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, dating from the 12th Century, was destroyed. But Christians are particularly vulnerable and are often caught in the crossfire. Although they have tried to remain neutral, they are associated with the Assad regime; they are suspected by the opposition, especially by Islamist elements. Plus, Christians have connections outside Syria that make it possible for them to emigrate. In a way, this fact makes Christians’ situation more precarious. Islamists reason that, if pushed enough, Christians will simply leave the country. So why not push them?
The kidnapping of two senior church figures is obviously meant to send a message to Christians: your position here is not secure. If revolution develops in Syria the way it has in Egypt, the country’s Christians have much to fear.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 10:22 AM
Today is the 98th anniversary of the start of the Armenian Genocide, an ethnic cleansing campaign in the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Although the Genocide had many causes–political, economic, social—law and religion were major factors.
As Christians, Armenians had a precarious position in Ottoman society. They could exist, even thrive, but only if they accepted the second-class status that classical Islamic law allowed them. In the 19th Century, under pressure from European governments, the Empire had adopted a reform program, known as the Tanzimat, that granted legal equality for the first time to Armenians and other Christians. Conservative Muslim opinion could not accept this, and the Tanzimat led to a violent backlash against Christians in the 1890s, particularly in the Anatolian provinces, in which hundreds of thousands of Christians, mostly Armenians, died. A pattern of resistance and oppression ensued, until finally, under the cover of World War I, the Ottoman government decided to remove the Armenian population of Anatolia. Historians estimate that between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians, as well as tens of thousands of Syriac Christians, died during the death marches into the Syrian desert.
The story of the Genocide, and how it led to the first international human rights campaign in American history, is told well by Colgate Professor Peter Balakian in his book, The Burning Tigris. For my own reflections on how the failure of Ottoman reform contributed to the Genocide, please see here.
Monday, April 22, 2013, 7:45 AM
At an academic conference a while ago, I made an offhand reference to the contemporary persecution of Christians. My remark was greeted with some incredulity, even derision. There are, one scholar responded sarcastically, something like two billion Christians in the world today. “Next you’ll be telling us a billion Chinese are also in need of protection.”
The failure of many opinion leaders in the West to acknowledge what’s happening to Christians around the world results from many factors, including, as I’ve written, a kind of psychological disconnect. Western liberals are not accustomed to seeing Christians as sympathetic victims, but as adversaries to be resisted. The idea that Christians might be suffering from persecution ruins the narrative.
An article from last week’s Washington Post might change some minds. In response to increasing attacks on them since the revolution that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, Egypt’s Copts are showing a new assertiveness. Traditionally, Coptic leaders keep a low profile, avoiding confrontation with authorities. Now, however, Copts are adopting a more confrontational approach, vocally protesting the wrongs being done them:
Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, has vowed to promote equality between Egypt’s Muslim majority and Christian minority. But Christians have been worried by the growing influence in society and government of Muslim conservatives and hard-liners, many of whom espouse rhetoric consigning Christians to second-class status.
A mob attack this month on the Cairo cathedral that serves as the seat of the Coptic pope raised alarm bells among Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s 90 million people. There has been a surge in attacks on Christians and churches in the two years since the ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. But for Christians, the cathedral violence laid bare their vulnerability. Morsi quickly condemned the violence, saying attacking the cathedral was like attacking him personally. But the Coptic Pope Tawadros II accused him of failing to protect the cathedral in an unprecedented direct criticism.
Copts have no illusions about the possible consequences of their new assertiveness: more persecution. But it seems a price they’re willing to pay. A senior Coptic monk told the AP, “Our church grows stronger with martyrdom. My faith and confidence tell me that so long as our church is in the hands of God, no one can hurt it.”
Wednesday, April 17, 2013, 12:13 PM
At the Center for Law and Religion Forum yesterday, my colleague Marc DeGirolami wrote about the establishment-clause implications of a yoga garden at the White House’s Easter Egg Hunt. His post reminded me of something I saw twenty years ago as a lawyer for the federal government. In those days, and I assume today, too, the US Government’s Office of Personnel Management used to publish “employee wellness” newsletters to encourage healthful practices among government workers. Most of the time, the newsletters stressed things like exercise, nutrition, and avoiding drug abuse. On one occasion, though, the newsletter had a section on meditation and mindfulness. It advocated Eastern mind-calming techniques and offered a piece of advice about one’s behavior. I still remember it today: “The Universe doesn’t judge you, but there are consequences.”
Now, meditation can have very helpful effects on the mind. Whenever I can discipline myself to practice it, I find my concentration greatly improved. And I don’t perceive anything un-Christian about meditation; if I did, I’d avoid it, frankly. But I thought then, and think now, that the line about the Universe not judging us was a government religious endorsement. After all, one obvious implication of the statement, which seems vaguely Buddhist, is that the Christian concept of the Last Judgment is wrong: there is no God, only an impersonal Universe, which will not demand a final accounting from us. Surely these are religious concepts. Yet there the statement was, in an official government publication, meant for employees to consider and apply in their daily lives.
I think it’s fair to say most Americans would not think of this sort of statement, or the yoga garden at the White House event, as government religious endorsements. But why not? Meditation is closely associated with Buddhism and yoga with Hinduism. If a government publication endorsed Christian prayer–a highly effective mind-calming technique for many people–lawsuits would surely follow. So why aren’t people suing about government-sponsored meditation and yoga gardens?
I can think of a few possibilities:
- The religious messages are minimal and attenuated. One can encourage meditation without endorsing Buddhism and yoga without endorsing Hinduism. People who object are busybodies and cranks.
- The religious messages are imperceptible to most Americans, who know little about Eastern religions.
- The messages are “spiritual, not religious,” and therefore unobjectionable.
- The messages are included in the interests of multicultural harmony and religious tolerance. Heck, it was an Easter Egg Hunt!
- The messages are religious in a good way, not like those bad, judgmental messages associated with theistic religions like Christianity. So it’s OK for government to endorse them.
Which of these explanations seems most plausible? I leave it to you, gentle reader.
Monday, April 15, 2013, 8:44 AM
This time it’s in South Carolina. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal reports (subscription required) on litigation between two rival factions in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. One faction, representing the leadership and about two-thirds of the membership, broke away from the national Episcopal Church in November over the national body’s liberal approach to sexuality and other issues. The minority faction has remained loyal to the national body. Both factions assert ownership of the diocese’s property, including St. Michael’s Church in Charleston (left). In total, the diocese’s church buildings, grounds, and cemeteries are worth around $500 million.
Church property disputes have become increasingly common in America, as local congregations distance themselves from more liberal national church bodies. In the Episcopal Church alone, there have been a dozen such disputes in the past few decades. Human nature being what it is, each side in such a dispute thinks of itself as the true depository of the faith, with a moral, and legal, right to church property.
Civil courts have adopted a couple of different approaches to resolving such disputes, depending on how the relevant legal instruments are written: the “deference” approach, which defers to the decision of the highest authority within the church structure, and the “neutral principles of law” approach, which attempts to resolve disputes using standard property law principles. Both approaches try to promote church autonomy by insulating internal church government and theological questions from civil court review.
I’m not sure which approach the South Carolina courts take. At the moment, the fight is whether the litigation should be in South Carolina courts at all. The national body is seeking to remove the action to federal court, where, I assume, it thinks it will get a more receptive hearing. Whichever court hears the case, the track record of prior litigation suggests the national body should be confident of ultimate victory –though of course it depends on how the deeds, trust documents, and bylaws are written. For civil-law purposes, the Episcopal Church is a hierarchical church, and courts would normally defer to the highest authority within the church–I assume that’s the national body– on ownership of church property. That’s what happened in a recent case involving the Fall Church in Virginia. If the national body wants to recognize the smaller, loyal faction as the rightful owners of church property, the majority faction will likely have to find somewhere else to pray.
Monday, April 15, 2013, 8:06 AM
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In a thought-provoking essay at Center for Law and Religion Forum, University of Michigan Law School’s Dan Crane wonders how Jesus might have responded if someone had asked him about same-sex marriage, the way people asked him about taxes to Caesar and divorce:
Chances are that Jesus’ answer would go to issues far beyond the narrow question presented. This was almost invariably Jesus’ pattern when confronted with hot-button legal issues. He always found the question itself less important than the darkness it exposed. Thus, he turned the question about paying taxes to Caesar into condemnation of his questioners’ failure to honor God, the adultery penalty question into an indictment of his interlocutors’ self-righteousness, and the divorce question into an exposé of spiritual hardness. I shiver to think of how he might turn the same-sex marriage question back on us. All of us.
Read the whole thing.
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