Friday, November 22, 2013, 11:20 AM
Three notable men died on this date fifty years ago. Most of the attention on this anniversary belongs to John F. Kennedy, assassinated in Dallas by a lone communist (somehow it is necessary to use both the adjective and the noun to quash various conspiracy theories). A strong runner-up for attention is C.S. Lewis, who collapsed and died in his home, “The Kilns,” on the outskirts of Oxford, England, weakened by recent heart and renal ailments.
The third famous man to die on this day was Aldous Huxley, transplanted Englishman, who died in Hollywood, California, of cancer, at the last receiving two injections of LSD (a drug he had long experimented with) administered by his wife Laura. Huxley’s claim on our attention comes in a very distant third after Kennedy and Lewis. Although many of his works remain in print, they are all—unlike those of Lewis—quite dated, and it is highly doubtful that by the end of the present century anyone will be reading anything by Huxley.
With just one exception: Brave New World, published in 1932, sells briskly to this day, is widely read in schools and universities, and is regularly invoked as one of the great prophetic dystopias written in the twentieth century. Today, as Huxley himself once told George Orwell, Brave New World seems a much more prescient and disturbing work than Orwell’s 1984.
In the forthcoming fall issue of The New Atlantis, online in December, I will have an essay on Brave New World, and its surprising parallels to a great work of political philosophy. Today I will just say thanks to Aldous Huxley, a kind of tormented seeker whose end was neither as shocking and tragic as the death of Kennedy nor as quiet and peaceful as that of Lewis. To have published even just one book as good as Brave New World is to merit some remembrance, a half century after one’s passing.
Sunday, November 17, 2013, 1:32 PM
That’s the title of a lecture the Witherspoon Institute is very proud to sponsor, this Tuesday, November 19, at 4:30 p.m. on the Princeton University campus (co-sponsored by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions). It’s the first in a new annual lecture series, the William E. and Carol G. Simon Lecture on Religion in American Public Life, and the first lecturer is Allen C. Guelzo, the distinguished Lincoln scholar and Civil War historian, and Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Professor of History at Gettysburg College. The occasion is, of course, the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address. For more information see here. We hope First Things readers in the area on Tuesday can come hear Professor Guelzo.
Monday, November 11, 2013, 4:34 PM
Intrepid New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein has gone out and interviewed seven—count ‘em, seven!—individuals, three of them in the same room, each more or less “conservative” in his or her Catholicism, and she found some of them—not all—willing to criticize Pope Francis. This was somehow considered, by her editors, to be a “news” story worthy of the front page on a Sunday, when the paper’s readership is at its greatest.
One can only conclude that her editors really wanted the headline to travel round the world, while people skip reading the actual article. ”Conservative U.S. Catholics Feel Left Out of the Pope’s Embrace” is a humdinger of a headline. But the story itself? No humdinger, only ho-hum.
Monday, November 11, 2013, 4:18 PM
When an experienced columnist makes an argument this bad, it’s hard to judge whether he is disingenuous or just dimwitted. Today’s example is from the Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, who says that if conservatives were really pro-life, as they claim, they wouldn’t be “positively obsessed with trashing the Affordable Care Act’s regulation requiring insurance policies to include maternity coverage.” Pregnant women whose maternal care is covered, you see, are more likely not to choose abortion, you see, so we should be in favor of forcing everyone to pay for maternal care in their health insurance policies.
Even families (e.g. elderly couples) in which everyone is past childbearing age? Even young single men with no dependents? Sure, says Dionne:
Never mind that we who are lucky enough to have health insurance end up paying to cover conditions we may never suffer ourselves. We all want to avoid cancer, but we don’t begrudge those who do get it when the premiums we pay into our shared insurance pools help them receive care.
Yet critics of Obamacare apparently think there is something particularly odious when a person who might not have a baby pays premiums to assist someone who does. It’s true that men cannot have babies, although it is worth mentioning that they do play a rather important role in their creation. In any event, it is hardly very radical to argue that society is better off when kids are born healthy to healthy moms.
There is nothing to the rest of the column but feeble attempts at point-scoring against pro-lifers. Not his fellow pro-lifers, you understand. E. J. Dionne, for more than two decades as a Post columnist who presents himself as a Catholic, has never written a pro-life sentence, and this column is not a sign that he has become concerned about abortion. Indeed, by his own strange logic, Dionne ought to be perfectly indifferent to the issue he raises today, since he is on record as being agnostic whether women bear their unborn children or kill them.
But the paragraphs quoted above reveal something else, and that is Dionne’s perfect incomprehension of what health insurance is. It is indeed about the pooling of risk, but no one willingly buys insurance against risks that, in the nature of things, do not and cannot concern him. Dionne thinks insurance is a scheme for the social redistribution of costs, but that is another thing entirely. By his reasoning, the social costs of insuring against floods at the Jersey shore should be addressed by requiring homeowners in Death Valley to buy flood insurance. The social costs of insuring against the death of airline passengers should be addressed by requiring people to buy flight insurance who never fly. And so forth.
I cannot imagine a pro-lifer dumb enough to be taken in by this foolishness. I could be readily convinced, on the other hand, that E. J. Dionne was not being disingenuous. And that’s very sad.
Thursday, November 7, 2013, 12:00 PM
There is much hubbub these days over President Obama’s endlessly repeated, and quite false, claim that “if you like your health plan, you can keep it.” We now know pretty certainly that this was a knowing falsehood when uttered, over and over and over. And the effort to wriggle out of admitting it was false has lately reached comic proportions.
The president said many times, “if you like your health plan, you can keep it, period”–and “period” can only mean “with no equivocations, conditions, or qualifications.” Now he says that what he meant all along was “if you like your health plan, you can keep it, if it hasn’t changed since the law passed.” So when he said “period” he had his fingers crossed behind his back, and all along he meant the opposite of “period”? For the “if” clause he now adds introduces . . . equivocations, conditions, and qualifications!
But really, was no one paying attention? For over two years scores of litigants have been challenging the HHS mandate, which forces nearly all non-grandfathered employee health plans to change their terms, if they do not already cover sterilization, contraception, and abortifacient pharmaceuticals as “free preventive care” for female employees and dependents. In short, if Notre Dame, or Belmont Abbey College, or Tyndale House Publishing, or Hobby Lobby, or any other employers “liked their plans” without such coverage, they could not keep them that way. The whole point of Obamacare is to make everyone conform to the government’s idea of what is fitting and proper in health care. Your own calculation of your self-interest, and your own moral and religious beliefs about ethical health care coverage, matter not at all under Obamacare.
“You can keep your plan” is a falsehood both old and obvious, and folks are just now figuring it out.
Monday, October 28, 2013, 1:50 PM
At National Review Online over the weekend, the familiar-to-First Things-readers George Weigel published a talk he gave recently in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in the course of which he argued:
The argument today isn’t about assimilation. The argument today is about who “gets” America: who understands the true character of America and the nature of freedom. And that puts Catholics—and those allies in the Evangelical Protestant, Mormon, and traditional Jewish worlds who, with serious Catholics, still hold to Murray’s four foundational truths of American democracy—in a challenging position. For the challenge now is to give America a new birth of freedom rightly understood as built upon those four truths; a new birth of freedom re-cemented to a foundation of transcendent moral truths about the human person, to the principle of government-by-consent, to a recognition of the priority of civil society over the state, and to an existential affirmation of the linkage between personal and civic virtue and liberty lived nobly.
This challenge will not be met by Catholic Lite. Indeed, one of the most powerful indicators that the Catholic Lite project is finished has been the uselessness of “progressive” Catholicism in the battle for religious freedom this past year and a half, a battle the stakes in which most Catholic “progressives” manifestly have not grasped.
The challenge also won’t be met by Catholic traditionalists retreating into auto-constructed catacombs.
The challenge can be met only by a robustly evangelical Catholicism . . .
I urge our readers to go read the rest of Weigel’s piece, which is as cogently argued as they will have come to expect.
Yesterday evening, however, at NRO’s Corner, Nicholas Frankovich directed all of his attention to the one line above concerning “Catholic traditionalists.” This he understood to be a remark contemning all those “who are attached to the traditional Latin Mass.” On he goes, then, for several hundred words elaborating his grievance, and celebrating these “traditional” Catholics (he objects to the “-ist” suffix).
But George Weigel—whom I barely know but have enjoyed reading for years—is a writer of considerable care, and only someone determined to take offense could have read this lone sentence as Frankovich has read it. Syntactically and grammatically, this sentence:
The challenge also won’t be met by Catholic traditionalists retreating into auto-constructed catacombs.
functions exactly as this sentence does:
The challenge also won’t be met by [those] Catholic traditionalists [who are intent on] retreating into auto-constructed catacombs.
One cannot say, from anything Weigel has written here, that he would classify all “Catholic traditionalists” as intent on such a retreat. Those who do display such an intention would, of course, be unable to meet the challenge he describes.
Could it be that Weigel defines “traditionalist” in some way distinct from the merely “traditional,” such that all the former but not all the latter are subject to his criticism here? Does he hold all those fond of the Latin Mass to be “traditionalist” in the way he is criticizing?
Perhaps it would be worth asking him before assuming it to be so. But all we know from what he says is that those Catholics who would retreat “into auto-constructed catacombs” will be little use in meeting the challenge he describes. This seems both a mild and a self-evident judgment.
Sunday, October 27, 2013, 5:14 PM
At a blog called Above the Law, which presents itself as a site for serious news and commentary on legal affairs, blogger Joe Patrice opines that Trinity Western University in British Columbia should not have its new law school accredited by the powers that be in Canada who are responsible for such an imprimatur (the Federation of Law Societies of Canada). The Council of Canadian Law Deans has come out against TWU Law’s accreditation, and Patrice thinks the deans got it right. So what’s the flap about?
Trinity Western is a Christian university that takes its Christianity seriously, and expects students to do likewise. The university requires all incoming students to sign a “Community Covenant” in which they agree to regard “the Bible as the divinely inspired, authoritative guide for personal and community life.” They agree to refrain from lying, cheating, stealing, and harassing one another, to treat one another with respect and dignity, and not to possess or use alcohol or tobacco on campus. Could any of these be cause for alarm among TWU’s critics? Nah. So what is it? It won’t take you three guesses. It’s the expectation that they shall
observe modesty, purity and appropriate intimacy in all relationships, reserve sexual expressions of intimacy for marriage, and within marriage take every reasonable step to resolve conflict and avoid divorce.
And the requirement that they shall voluntarily abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”
It’s obvious that this traditional Christian sexual ethic makes demands on everyone’s sexual proclivities, especially those of the many young law students who are not likely to be married during their studies. But predictably, this is read through just one lens these days, and the cry of “homophobic bigotry!” goes up.
Blogger Patrice is just another mindless minnow in this current, writing that TWU seeks to “ban” gay students from studying law there. And, he says, it’s not “anti-Christian bigotry” to oppose TWU Law’s accreditation because—ready for this?—no one is proposing to disenfranchise Christians, or physically assault them!
This is setting the bar for decency pretty low, don’t you think? As long as Christians aren’t being hunted down, rounded up, and fed to lions in the arena for the amusement of the crowd, they have no cause for complaint. (Seriously, Patrice himself uses exactly this example.) Now I know that we Christians look back to the early martyrs for the faith—or the modern martyrs being persecuted in other parts of the world today—and marvel at their courage and their witness. And who among us has not wondered whether he would crack, and betray the faith, if martyrdom were the only road that Truth offered? But it’s interesting to see a calm statement–on a website devoted to the law!—that essentially says “as long as we are not killing you or sending you into internal exile in your own country purely for your beliefs with which we disagree, quit yer bitchin’.”
Trinity Western University has a calm, rational FAQ page devoted to patiently explaining why it is not “anti-gay” to ask students choosing the university to be, well, Christians. But for the leading lights of the New Toleration, a simple question about the law school’s accreditation is in order: Can you explain how it is that dedicating oneself to the moral teachings of Christianity is inconsistent with pursuing a career in Canadian law?
Thursday, October 24, 2013, 11:46 AM
As a fellow left-handed person, I cannot subscribe to Russell Saltzman’s lament in his “On the Square” essay today. I don’t really know anything about the comparative life expectancy (or accident-proneness) of lefties and righties. But I do know that whenever I am in a group of really smart people, and happen to observe what hand they write with, I notice that lefties are disproportionately represented. They are only 10-12 percent of the global population (says the oracular Wikipedia), but they count for much higher proportions of Nobel winners, for instance. Also U.S. presidents, at least since we’ve been paying attention in the last century, and since it became less common to compel children to switch to right-handedness. (The fact that no Canadian prime minister has been left-handed since at least 1980 may explain a good deal . . .)
I confess I never had any trouble with pay phones, or any other wall-mounted or table-top phone with the cord coming out of its left side—and I am old enough to have used a rotary phone, employing my right index finger to dial
counterclockwise [oops, correct that!]. Lefties learn early that they must adapt, and all of us are at least quasi-ambidextrous, having more facility with our right hands than most righties have with their left. Some things I have always done as though I were right-handed, without giving them another thought (swinging anything two-handed, like a bat or an axe); other things are merely annoying because the world seems to be made with righties in mind (like blackening the heel of my hand with ink or graphite as I write). It’s true that mutual obstinacy between a teacher and me kept me from becoming the Jimi Hendrix of the violin at the age of ten. But often I am very grateful to be an adaptable lefty. Driving a manual-shift car in the UK is hard enough for me, but at least I am using my dominant hand on the stick; it must be even worse for righties.
Then there are scissors—the one implement that nine times out of ten gives a lefty a maddening experience of failure and torn paper. Thank goodness for the manufacturers of left-handed scissors!
Wednesday, October 23, 2013, 10:39 AM
This is the sort of thing The Onion should be covering, but there it was today at Inside Higher Ed, a story titled “Ignoring the Pope?” Faculty at two Catholic colleges in California are upset that their administrations have dropped coverage for elective abortions from the employee health plans. After all, hasn’t the pope himself famously said that Catholics should be less “obsessed” with such matters?
The real scandal, of course, is that Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara University ever offered coverage for abortions in their health plans in the first place. It is high time this grievous injustice was rectified, and it could not matter less who sits in the Chair of Peter when the right thing needs doing.
But the Schadenfreude of my title concerns the liberal faculty quoted by IHE. University faculty are supposed to be professionals when it comes to “critical thinking,” close attention to texts and contexts, and skepticism about conventional wisdom, particularly as propagated by big media corporations. So did they really think that Catholic doctrine about the intrinsic wrongfulness of abortion (or, in another episode reported in this story, about the true meaning of marriage) was being changed unilaterally by the pope in the course of a couple of magazine interviews?
Notwithstanding the guff disseminated by the New York Times, Washington Post, and Associated Press, Pope Francis has not changed the doctrines of the faith one iota, nor signaled an intention of doing so. Properly understood (and here William Doino and Robert Royal are invaluable guides), he has not even told Catholics to lighten the burdens many of them have shouldered in the struggles to preserve life, family, and freedom. (If anything, he has asked them to do more.) Much less has he informed Catholic institutions that it is now okay to betray the morality the Church consistently preaches.
Still, if you are going to be taken in when NARAL sends the Holy Father a valentine, you deserve all the disappointment a cruel world can strew in your path.
Monday, August 26, 2013, 11:03 AM
Over the weekend, many newspapers ran an Associated Press story by religion correspondent Rachel Zoll, about the emerging conflicts between same-sex marriage and religious freedom–such as are exemplified in the unfortunate decision last week by the New Mexico supreme court in Elane Photography v. Willock. I was among the sources for Zoll’s article, which was quite well done–I certainly have no complaints, as I was paraphrased accurately, quoted (I think) to good effect, and nothing was either taken out of its original context or placed into a new one that would cast my views in a bad light. In short, I’d like to thank Rachel Zoll for some good reporting here.
Still, when one (inevitably) says more than a reporter can use, one wishes, well, that more had been used. I answered Zoll’s questions by e-mail over a month ago, and just for the record (and because two can be journalists in a case like this), I reproduce those questions and answers in full here. Zoll had read an essay I published at Public Discourse in June, and this provided the backdrop to her questions.
Zoll: Would it be accurate to summarize your argument this way: that the only sound way to protect religious freedom is by defending traditional marriage?
Franck: I think it is the only safe bet for religious freedom. One can imagine it is logically possible for same-sex marriage to be established, while those who believe it is not marriage are fully protected in their religious freedom to act on that belief. But there are scores of millions of Americans who would choose not to recognize same-sex “marriage” as the real thing, if they were fully free to choose, as employers, educators, landlords, providers of goods and services, social service providers, and so on. Full protection of such freedom would create such a honeycomb of “recognition here, but not there” that advocates of same-sex marriage would find it intolerable. So far all signs are that those advocates will not tolerate such deviations from the “new normal” they wish to create. This is why robust religious freedom protections have regularly failed almost completely when state legislatures have enacted same-sex marriage laws. For same-sex marriage advocates, victory means a new moral consensus, which seems more important to them than other people’s consciences.
Zoll: In your view, are the scholars you mentioned in your article [Robin Fretwell Wilson and Douglas Laycock, both also interviewed by Zoll for this AP article.--MF] undermining efforts to uphold one man-one woman marriage by focusing on exemptions for religious groups as a way to protect religious freedom?
Franck: I am sure the scholars I mentioned mean well. In some cases, however, it might encourage a wavering legislator to vote for same-sex marriage if he or she is concerned about religious freedom and is persuaded that some token or partial “protection” of it makes that vote easier to cast. And if only “religious groups” are given protection, we are a long way from full, robust protection for religious conscience, which belongs to everyone who can be a moral agent: individuals, groups, churches, ministries, nonprofit-sector corporations, and for-profit corporations too (as in the case of Hobby Lobby in the HHS mandate controversy).
Zoll: In your view, is there any value for faith groups to pursuing religious exemptions as a stand-alone effort–meaning independent from defending marriage?
Franck: In my view, such efforts are a rearguard action retreating from a field one has surrendered. But we have not lost the fight for the truth about marriage, and surrendering the field is premature. I continue to hope that it will never finally be necessary, and I work to make that hope a reality.
Friday, August 23, 2013, 4:35 PM
Joseph Bottum, once the editor of this magazine, has unburdened himself of a change of mind on the subject of same-sex marriage, in Commonweal (and thereby earned himself also a grateful, and perfectly timed, pilgrimage by a New York Times writer to his home in South Dakota). Others who really know the author may wish to comment at greater length on an essay that is avowedly very personal. But what I detect in it is the work of someone who was never all that interested in investigating the arguments on either side of the same-sex marriage debate; whose scant interest in it has now been fully exhausted, both intellectually and morally; and whose present conclusions hover in mid-air without anything to support them other than a wistful regret that he has lost a hoedown partner in a gay man who has come fairly unglued over the issue.
Nothing other than intellectual and moral exhaustion (I am sure it cannot be native incapacity) can explain such howlers as this: “under any principle of governmental fairness available today, the equities are all on the side of same-sex marriage. There is no coherent jurisprudential argument against it—no principled legal view that can resist it.” No one with the least comprehension of legal reasoning who has followed the actual jurisprudential arguments in the relevant cases could have written such lines. Bottum refers later to the “infamous ‘mystery passage’” in the 1992 Casey ruling, and he seems to know what nonsense it was. But since it is actually the best constitutional argument for a right of same-sex marriage—and it fails entirely to be an argument—what then are we to make of his bold pronouncements on what is and is not a “coherent jurisprudential argument”?
At one point in this bloated, interminable essay, meandering hither and yon, Bottum allows as how the authors of the Manhattan Declaration were chiefly thinkers and not writers. Never was it more obvious that the reverse is true of Bottum.
Wednesday, August 21, 2013, 11:25 AM
Charles J. Reid, Jr., who teaches law at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, recently posted something at a blog (tellingly called www.religiousleftlaw.com), which the National Catholic Reporter picked up and ran as an op-ed, in print and online, under the title “Archbishop Chaput’s right-wing funk.” Responding to an interview that the archbishop had given to the Reporter’s John L. Allen, Jr. in Rio during World Youth Day, Reid describes Chaput himself as feeling an “anxiety” about Pope Francis’s “extraordinary popularity.” Reid further claims that Chaput is “worrie[d] . . . in particular” that “outsiders are thrilled by the new pope’s friendliness and his warmth.”
Reid is appalled at what he takes to be Archbishop Chaput’s critical stance toward the new Holy Father. Why, he’s behaving just like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, “the one who stayed home and toiled with his father and grew resentful when the old man slew the fatted calf upon his brother’s return.” Doesn’t Chaput realize, Reid says, that the stagnation of the Catholic Church in America can be chalked up to “the right wing” like Chaput himself that “has controlled the Church hierarchy for some three decades now”?
It’s quite a little exercise in J’Accuse. But Reid has completely misunderstood Archbishop Chaput’s interview with Allen. (In fact, so completely has he misunderstood it that one wonders why the Reporter, which ran Allen’s interview, decided to repost and publish a commentary that gets it so wrong—unless the editors themselves didn’t understand Chaput’s meaning.)
It is plain in every line of Chaput’s interview with Allen that he himself is unequivocally delighted with Pope Francis. Literally his first comment on the Holy Father is, “Thanks be to God that the Lord has given us a pope with such universal appeal to so many people.” The very next thing he says is this:
My sense is that practicing Catholics love him and have a deep respect for him, but they’re not actually the ones who really talk to me about the new pope. The ones who do are nonpracticing Catholics or people who aren’t Catholic or not even Christian. They go out of their way to tell me how impressed they are and what a wonderful change he’s brought into the church. It’s interesting to see that it’s the alienated Catholic and the non-Catholic and the non-Christians who have expressed their enthusiasm more than Catholics have. It’s not that Catholics aren’t impressed, too, but they’re ordinarily impressed with the pope.
How Reid can interpret this, as he does, that Chaput is alarmed, worried, or anxious about the appeal of Francis to “nonpracticing Catholics or people who aren’t Catholic or not even Christian” is beyond me. (Goodness, what kind of interpreter of legal texts is he, in his scholarship and teaching? This isn’t hard, by comparison.)
Allen follows up about these newer, more unexpected enthusiasts, and Chaput suggests that maybe some of them “would prefer a church that wouldn’t have strict norms and ideas about the moral life and about doctrine, and they somehow interpret the pope’s openness and friendliness as being less concerned about those things. I certainly don’t think that’s true.”
It’s just after this that we get the exchange with Allen that gave the Reporter its headline on the interview, and gives Reid all the ammo he has for his misinterpretation: (more…)
Tuesday, July 30, 2013, 10:24 AM
It looks like I really stirred things up yesterday with my post “Reza Aslan Misrepresents His Scholarly Credentials,” especially after Drudge linked to it in the afternoon. Some folks in the comments and on Twitter thought I had destroyed Aslan’s credibility in toto–which wasn’t my intent. Some folks thought that I was attacking him because he is a Muslim–which only recapitulates an overly sensitive reading of the Fox interview that started all this. Others wanted to make this all about me and my own credentials to make my observations–and they’re welcome to go down that rabbit trail, but I won’t follow.
But the overwhelming response of people disagreeing with me was that I was hair-splitting about Aslan’s credentials. Last night his dissertation advisor Mark Juergensmayer weighed in:
Since i was Reza’s thesis adviser at the Univ of California-Santa Barbara, I can testify that he is a religious studies scholar. (I am a sociologist of religion with a position in sociology and an affiliation with religious studies). Though Reza’s PhD is in sociology most of his graduate course work at UCSB was in the history of religion in the dept of religious studies. Though none of his 4 degrees are in history as such, he is a “historian of religion” in the way that that term is used at the Univ of Chicago to cover the field of comparative religion; and his theology degree at Harvard covered Bible and Church history, and required him to master New Testament Greek. So in short, he is who he says he is.
I don’t think this defense will altogether suffice. Professor Juergensmayer does provide information not readily available on the surface of Aslan’s record, about his course work in religious studies from a historical point of view. (This path to a sociology doctorate, with a dissertation employing sociological perspectives, is a bit unusual, but odd things happen in grad school all the time.) But look again at the relevant statements Aslan made on Fox:
I am a scholar of religions with four degrees including one in the New Testament . . . I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions . . . I am a professor of religions, including the New Testament–that’s what I do for a living, actually . . . To be clear, I want to emphasize one more time, I am a historian, I am a Ph.D. in the history of religions.
After the words “I am a scholar of religions with four degrees,” there is nothing more here that is altogether true. He is certainly not “a professor of religions” teaching the New Testament “for a living.” When does exaggeration become fabulism? Right here, I think.
Place the whole thing in context–if you can bear it, watch the video again. Aslan reacts to the innocuous question “why would a Muslim write a book about Jesus” by turning defensive, arrogant, petulant, and condescending all at once. Instead of answering the question (as Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry says, a perfectly inoffensive one in itself), he recites, and in escalating fashion inflates, his scholarly credentials. He seems intent on browbeating his interviewer into accepting that he is a younger version of Peter Brown, Robert Louis Wilken, N.T. Wright, or John Dominic Crossan. In short, he insists on being treated as a recognized, academically credentialed expert on the subject about which he has written his latest book. And that’s why I wrote what I did. Because he is not one.
As Alan Jacobs writes (my emphasis):
First, Reza Aslan is not a New Testament scholar. In Zealot, he is writing well outside his own academic training. This does not mean that his book is a bad one, or that he shouldn’t have written it, only that it is primarily a sifting and re-presenting of the work of actual NT scholars. . . .
Reza Aslan’s book is an educated amateur’s summary and synthesis of a particularly skeptical but quite long-established line of New Testament scholarship, presented to us as simple fact.
I suggested yesterday that maybe Aslan took the high-dudgeon approach because he didn’t really want to talk about his book; he certainly turned the ten minutes into an interview about himself far more than about his book (his doing, not the interviewer’s). Gobry has it about right:
Oh sure, Fox News had its own agenda. But Aslan could have played it cool, or presumed good faith at least on the first question. That’s if he hadn’t been coming on the interview just for this. To assume bigotry on the part of Fox News, to talk about his academic bona fides, and therefore to generate a viral moment and juice his book sales.
A better interview (but one drawing less attention) would have been achieved if Aslan had been charming and disarming. Imagine this:
Interviewer: Why did you, a Muslim, write a book about Jesus?
Aslan: Well, many Christians and Jews have written about Islam, of course. The answer is that Jesus is a fascinating historical figure, viewed from any perspective. I have scholarly training in the study of religion–more than one degree in it, including my Ph.D. in sociology–and I have written mostly about Islam up until now. This is new territory for me, doing a book-length study of Jesus and the origins of Christianity, but I have read everything I could get my hands on, weighed all the scholarly debates, and hope my book will be useful to the book-reading public in explaining what we can really know, historically, about Jesus.
Unfortunately, such a becoming–and wholly accurate–modesty was not the path Aslan chose in his Fox interview.
Monday, July 29, 2013, 11:03 AM
There is a bit of a hubbub in the interwebs about an interview conducted by Lauren Green, religion correspondent for Fox News Channel, with Reza Aslan, author of a new book on Jesus titled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Our friend Joe Carter, over at GetReligion, has the basic story. Green launched the interview (available here in full) with a question about why a Muslim should want to write a book about Jesus. A reasonable question, and not a hostile one on its face–but by the end of the interview Green has returned to it in a somewhat more accusatory fashion. As Joe says, the interview is a mess. But as he also points out, Green’s critics are passing right by something far more interesting: that Aslan has misrepresented his scholarly credentials.
In fact, it is Aslan who immediately turns the interview into a cage match by reacting very defensively to Green’s first question. And here is where the misrepresentations begin. For roughly the first half of the interview Aslan dominates the exchange with assertions about himself that seem intended to delay the substance of the discussion:
I am a scholar of religions with four degrees including one in the New Testament . . . I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions . . . I am a professor of religions, including the New Testament–that’s what I do for a living, actually . . . To be clear, I want to emphasize one more time, I am a historian, I am a Ph.D. in the history of religions.
Later he complains that they are “debating the right of the scholar to write” the book rather than discussing the book. But the conversation took that turn thanks to Aslan, not Green! By the final minute he is saying of himself (and who really talks this way!?) that “I’m actually quite a prominent Muslim thinker in the United States.”
Aslan does have four degrees, as Joe Carter has noted: a 1995 B.A. in religion from Santa Clara University, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and wrote his senior thesis on “The Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark”; a 1999 Master of Theological Studies from Harvard; a 2002 Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of Iowa; and a 2009 Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
None of these degrees is in history, so Aslan’s repeated claims that he has “a Ph.D. in the history of religions” and that he is “a historian” are false. Nor is “professor of religions” what he does “for a living.” He is an associate professor in the Creative Writing program at the University of California, Riverside, where his terminal MFA in fiction from Iowa is his relevant academic credential. It appears he has taught some courses on Islam in the past, and he may do so now, moonlighting from his creative writing duties at Riverside. Aslan has been a busy popular writer, and he is certainly a tireless self-promoter, but he is nowhere known in the academic world as a scholar of the history of religion. And a scholarly historian of early Christianity? Nope.
What about that Ph.D.? As already noted, it was in sociology. I have his dissertation in front of me. It is a 140-page work titled “Global Jihadism as a Transnational Social Movement: A Theoretical Framework.” If Aslan’s Ph.D. is the basis of a claim to scholarly credentials, he could plausibly claim to be an expert on social movements in twentieth-century Islam. He cannot plausibly claim, as he did to Lauren Green, that he is a “historian,” or is a “professor of religions” “for a living.”
It may be that Aslan sensed a tougher interview from Lauren Green than he is accustomed to. Hence he immediately went into high-dudgeon mode, and made the ten minutes all about her alleged disrespect of him and his alleged scholarly credentials. But in order to change the subject he told a string of gratuitous falsehoods about himself. Perhaps that master’s in fiction writing came in handy.
Is Aslan’s book worth reading? I have no idea. But he has earned enough distrust from me that I haven’t any interest in finding out.
Wednesday, July 24, 2013, 11:10 AM
A couple of weeks ago, I boarded a New Jersey Transit train near my home to go to Newark airport. From my seat near the rear of the car, I saw a poster with a photograph of five pretty young women of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, all smiling and laughing. Above the photo the poster read, “Become an Egg Donor and Help a Family Grow.” Below the photo: “Have you considered becoming an Egg Donor?” And then the real lure for the many young college-age women (from Princeton, Rider, Rutgers, Seton Hall, etc.) who ride these trains: “Not only will you earn $8,000, you will be helping fulfill someone’s dream of having a child.”
Altruism–and a nice chunk of change to take home too! You yourself, of course, may well (if the process “takes”) have a child somewhere, since it will not cease to be your egg, contributing your DNA to your son or daughter once you part company with it. And you will undergo certain risks, pains, and discomforts in “fulfilling someone’s dream.” These facts are not part of the sales pitch. Nor does the “reproductive medicine” clinic (which I will not name) say more here, with its pretty, happy poster, about how many eggs one must “donate” to get the $8,000. Nor about how many women are told “no, thanks” because they are not tall enough, slender enough, educated enough, or because the marketable supply of eggs of their race or ethnic groups is already in surplus.
Americans are very, very good at making crass commercial transactions seem like acts of virtue. We may have invented the expression “doing well by doing good.” We are also not laggards in the general Enlightenment project of turning tools of science to “the relief of man’s estate.” But the “dream of having a child” is not so easily translatable into a good to be attained by any means science–and commerce–make possible. The young women who board the trains of the Garden State might just think about that, as well as whether their bodies’ precious potential is something worth a great deal more than $8,000.
Wednesday, July 24, 2013, 10:28 AM
There is no shortage of coverage and commentary on the latest revelations about Anthony Weiner (or “Carlos Danger”) and his, shall we say, poor impulse control. I hope readers will forgive me for adding to it.
Some folks are weighing in about how dignified his wife Huma Abedin was during Weiner’s bizarre press conference yesterday. At the Wall Street Journal, the editors write, apropos of both Weiner (a candidate for New York mayor) and Eliot Spitzer (running for city comptroller) that city voters should “at least defeat these two to spare their wives.”
But spare them what? Yesterday Mr. Weiner, while admitting that he continued to behave badly for at least a year following the previous revelations that drove him out of Congress, indicated that he has no intentions of withdrawing from the mayoral race. Ms. Abedin offered no public demurral about the wisdom of her husband’s decision, indeed appears to support him fully. We cannot know what passed between them in private. But if she wished, she could do her husband and herself a world of good by torpedoing his career in public life. All she would have to do is oppose him publicly.
Yes, that “all” is a great deal, and would take courage–but even a credible threat of doing so would no doubt have convinced Mr. Weiner that out of the public eye is where he belongs. That he remains a candidate today can be chalked up to his wife’s support–even if it is only non-opposition, or ineffective private opposition. A firm, and if necessary, public “No, Anthony!” on Ms. Abedin’s part would put an end to this farce, would be good for Mr. Weiner’s soul, and might even in the long run help their marriage. It would certainly be good for New York City and the rest of the country to be permanently rid of Carlos Danger, Public Servant.
Anthony Weiner is in the grip of various compulsions, it seems. One of them–a compulsive conviction that he has something positive to offer to our political life–appears to be shared by Huma Abedin. That is a sad mistake.
Tuesday, July 23, 2013, 10:17 AM
On college campuses, where I have spent most of my life, it is not that hard to gin up faculty outrage when administrators are credibly accused of assaults on “academic integrity.” Mitch Daniels, former governor of Indiana and now president of Purdue University, has been so accused–but not at all credibly–because of some remarks he made a few years ago in an e-mail, while he was governor, about the tired old ideology pedlar Howard Zinn, whose widely used book, A People’s History of the United States, Daniels called “disinformation.”
For a good rundown on the Daniels vs. Zinn flap, see Peter Wood’s account at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Zinn, who died in 2010, has had an undeservedly outsized influence in the teaching of American history, and Daniels was rightly concerned about the use of Zinn’s work in training primary and secondary schoolteachers to teach American history to youngsters.
Now the Chronicle reports that 90 Purdue faculty have signed an open letter addressed to President Daniels, saying the “very legitimacy of academic discourse” has been threatened by Daniels’ expression of a negative opinion of Zinn’s work. Good grief.
But Mitch Daniels can count (he was, after all, once head of the Office of Management and Budget). There are roughly 1,800 faculty at Purdue University, and just 90 of them signed this letter. There are 34 active full-time faculty in the History department, and just 15 of them signed it. There are 17 specialists in one branch or another of American history in that department, and just seven of them signed it. The History department at Purdue appears to be in better shape than one might have guessed, for a major American university these days.
Sleep tight, President Daniels. The tumbril is not arriving for you any time soon.
Wednesday, July 3, 2013, 11:37 AM
While the Obama administration finds its own signature health care legislation so complicated to administer that it is now putting off implementation of the large-employer insurance mandate until 2015 (i.e., after the congressional midterm elections), it is forging ahead with its oppressive HHS contraception-sterilization-abortifacient mandate, despite repeated condemnations of it from countless religious leaders for nearly two years now.
Last Friday, HHS published its “final rule” formalizing the so-called “accommodation” of religiously affiliated employers who object to facilitating and paying for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs in their employee health plans. Read it if you want to punish yourself, but the long and the short of it is that nothing has changed since this came out in a draft form in February. Notwithstanding the claims of the Obama administration, employers will still be facilitating the coverage to which they object, in the contracts they make with insurance companies, and in most cases will actually still be paying in full for the coverage. Administrations assurances to the contrary are falsehoods.
I explained all this in February at Public Discourse, and then again here at First Thoughts (and here and here), in response to a supporter of the Obama rule (or at least a critic of my criticism). Nothing has changed since then, as Yuval Levin, Sarah Torre, and James Capretta can explain as well.
Yesterday Dr. Russell Moore, the new president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, stood with Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, at the National Press Club. They were speaking for a large group of leaders of many different faith groups who have signed a letter denouncing the HHS mandate as an attack on religious freedom.
The assault is real; it is serious; it is recognized as such by millions of Americans in scores of different faith communities. The Obama administration persists in claiming that it has “accommodated” the concerns of the various people who say it has done no such thing.
Whom do you believe?
Thursday, June 20, 2013, 3:55 PM
The redoubtable Fr. Robert Barron, in one of his regular (and regularly illuminating) forays into film criticism (when does this guy have time to go to the movies?), reviewed the new Superman movie Man of Steel at RealClearReligion. I recommend the review–not sure about the movie, on the other hand–but I was struck by Fr. Barron’s reliance on Karl Popper for his interpretation of Plato’s Republic, in an essay otherwise pretty sensible.
Popper, hitherto known chiefly for his work in philosophy of science, ventured into political theory with The Open Society and Its Enemies in 1945, and identified Plato as one of the “enemies” for the alleged teaching of his Republic, with its famous abolition of private property, censorship and tight control of education, and its abolition of the natural family and eugenic breeding among the guardian class. Popper’s book has remained perennially in print. But what really is the teaching of the Republic? Perhaps under the influence of Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom, I have always read it (and frequently taught it) as a comedy, which gets funnier every time I reread it. Like the best comedies, it has a very serious teaching to impart to us, in this case about political life and much else besides. And that teaching is not the wonderfulness of philosopher-kings, selective breeding, the employment of women as soldiers, and so on. Plato, in short, was not an idiot.
As for Karl Popper, some smart people thought he was one. In 1950 he gave a lecture at the University of Chicago, evidently a kind of audition for an appointment there. This prospect alarmed Leo Strauss, who had arrived on the faculty there just a year before. He wrote to Eric Voegelin, at LSU, to solicit his view of Popper, whose Chicago lecture on “social philosophy,” Strauss said,
was beneath contempt: it was the most washed-out lifeless positivism trying to whistle in the dark, linked to a complete inability to think “rationally,” although it passed itself off as “rationalism”–it was very bad. I cannot imagine that such a man ever wrote something that was worthwhile reading, and yet it appears to be a professional duty to become familiar with his production.
Voegelin replied just eight days later, with a letter that would be framed and displayed with a dedicated spotlight if there were a Museum of Academic Smackdowns. Herewith just some of the choicer parts of it (these excerpts are from Peter Emberley and Barry Cooper’s compilation of the Strauss-Voegelin correspondence, published twenty years ago as Faith and Political Philosophy): (more…)
Tuesday, June 18, 2013, 3:16 PM
“Democrats Defend Killing of Viable Fetuses to Appease Vocal Base”
But of course, we are not surprised to see “G.O.P. Pushes New Abortion Limits to Appease Vocal Base.”
It’s good to know there some constants in the universe that we can rely upon.
Tuesday, June 18, 2013, 10:11 AM
That’s my argument at Public Discourse today:
Some astute observers have noticed the dimensions of the problem and called attention to it. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a brief in both marriage cases now pending in the Supreme Court, arguing that the Court should not interfere with democratic legislative processes in this field, because only such processes can result in public policies that will prevent church-state conflict in the future. The brief describes many of the problems I will discuss below, but in the end I think it is too hopeful that same-sex marriage and religious freedom may be reconciled by lawmakers to any significantly greater extent than by judges.
Two groups of prominent religious liberty scholars (one led by Robin Fretwell Wilson, the other by Douglas Laycock) have written letters (such as this one from Wilson’s group) to state legislators and governors considering same-sex marriage bills, imploring them to include various statutory provisions that would afford some protection to religious freedom. Both groups have signally failed to achieve much, if any, meaningful accommodation of religious freedom in the recent legislative enactments of same-sex marriage in New York, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Delaware.
The victorious legislators either do not see the conflict, don’t care about it, or actually welcome its arrival, relishing the further victories yet to come over the “bigotry” of religious dissenters. The last of these possibilities may be the likeliest, as Robert P. George suggested nearly a year ago here at Public Discourse. If so, our situation is dire indeed.
Read the rest here.
Friday, May 24, 2013, 3:53 PM
While everyone is quite rightly outraged by the abuses of the IRS in singling out conservative group for audits, intrusive inquiries, and endless delays on approval of their tax-exempt status, it has occurred to me that there is one simple solution to the problem that would not require nearly as much reform of the politically corrupt agency.
Get rid of the corporate income tax.
As David Rivkin and Lee Casey explained at the Wall Street Journal the other day:
The IRS crackdown on tax-exemption approvals for conservative groups was directed at nonprofit social-welfare groups, often called 501(c)(4)s after the Internal Revenue Code section granting them tax-exempt status. Such groups do not have to disclose their donors and are exempt from most taxation, although donations to them generally aren’t tax deductible.
Social-welfare organizations are permitted to engage in a range of political activities promoting their causes or beliefs, so long as these activities aren’t their “primary purpose.” This has been generally understood to mean that they must spend less than 50% of their total resources on political activities.
The IRS had little interest in 501(c)(4) political activities until the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform. That law barred dedicated political-advocacy groups from soliciting and spending soft money—funds that aren’t subject to tight federal campaign-contribution limits and are used for issue advocacy and party-building. . . .
Yet McCain-Feingold had the unintended effect of making 501(c)(4) political activities far more important than they had been, since the law’s ban on soft money doesn’t apply to such groups. . . .
So the entire hang-up in the IRS bureaucracy was whether groups claiming 501(c)(4) status could deservedly claim that designation. Did they devote the majority of their resources to non-political (educational or social) activities? How to determine which activities were political? And so on, and so on. The law is a veritable invitation to bureaucratic abuse, if one is inclined to succumb to such temptations.
But the point of claiming the status is so that your incorporated 501(c)(4) “social welfare organization” doesn’t have to pay corporate income taxes on the money it raises. If there were no corporate income tax in the first place, the issue simply wouldn’t arise.
It would, of course, be a nice bonus that eliminating the corporate income tax (which many economists believe is a deeply stupid form of taxation anyway) would give a nice boost to the economy. As one also learned in the Journal this week, America’s high corporate tax rate leads to all sorts of nonsense that intelligent lawyers and accountants have to cope with as creatively as they can. If we suddenly had the world’s lowest corporate rate—zero—in the world’s largest economy, imagine the effects.
So just get rid of it. No more corporate income tax, no more worries about which corporations have to pay it, and no more proctological exams from the IRS about what degree of “politics” people are engaged in under the corporate form.
The only question that would remain is whose donors get the charitable tax deduction now allowed under section 501(c)(3). I would extend it to any nonprofit—even to the two great political parties—and eliminate the “Johnson amendment” barring 501(c)(3) entities from engaging in lobbying and electoral politics. That’s of dubious constitutionality anyway, especially as applied to the question of “pulpit politics” in churches.
Friday, May 24, 2013, 2:58 PM
Responding to a recent piece by Anne Hendershott on the decision of Cardinal Sean O’Malley not to attend the commencement at Boston College because Irish prime minister (and abortion-rights advocate) Enda Kenny was selected for an honorary degree and address to the graduates, a letter-writer in the Wall Street Journal thinks he has his “gotcha” for the Boston archbishop in a quotation from Cardinal John Henry Newman. J. Dennis Delaney of Vermont writes that O’Malley should have “consulted” Newman:
In Newman’s remarkable “The Idea of a University,” he wrote that he had no intention of bringing “the authority of the Church, or any authority at all.” At the time he was rector of the Catholic University of Dublin.
Among the blessings of the information age (along with its curses) is that so much textual matter is now searchable. The invaluable website The Newman Reader has placed online, so it appears, everything John Henry Newman ever published. The few words Delaney quoted might be rapidly located by people with particularly dog-eared copies of Newman’s famous Idea of a University, but in a split second those of us with less familiarity can find them on the website.
Delaney’s quotation comes from the first of the “discourses” in the book, simply titled “Introductory.” Here Newman is, so to speak, clearing his throat, and explaining that he will attempt to give an account of the university and its purposes that will be intelligible to all readers, whatever their own religious views, and that he will in fact take his bearings–initially–from what had been done and said regarding “liberal education” in the great Protestant universities of England. Here is the quotation (in bold below) in its native paragraph:
And here I may mention a third reason for appealing at the outset to the proceedings of Protestant bodies in regard to Liberal Education. It will serve to intimate the mode in which I propose to handle my subject altogether. Observe then, Gentlemen, I have no intention, in any thing I shall say, of bringing into the argument the authority of the Church, or any authority at all; but I shall consider the question simply on the grounds of human reason and human wisdom. I am investigating in the abstract, and am determining what is in itself right and true. For the moment I know nothing, so to say, of history. I take things as I find them; I have no concern with the past; I find myself here; I set myself to the duties I find here; I set myself to further, by every means in my power, doctrines and views, true in themselves, recognized by Catholics as such, familiar to my own mind; and to do this quite apart from the consideration of questions which have been determined without me and before me. I am here the advocate and the minister of a certain great principle; yet not merely advocate and minister, else had I not been here at all. It has been my previous keen sense and hearty reception of that principle, that has been at once the reason, as I must suppose, of my being selected for this office, and is the cause of my accepting it. I am told on authority that a principle is expedient, which I have ever felt to be true. And I argue in its behalf on its own merits, the authority, which brings me here, being my opportunity for arguing, but not the ground of my argument itself.
Now one would want to read the several paragraphs that begin the discourse before this point to get the full context; after all, Newman is introducing a third point and we cannot see here what the first two were. But there is enough here to see that Newman is so far from affirming what Mr. Delaney appears to believe he was affirming that it would be fair to say, just on the basis of this paragraph alone, that he rejects the sort of “all views are equally worthy of honor and respect” nonsense that Delaney espouses. It is certainly quite ridiculous to enlist John Henry Newman in the cause of rejecting “authority” tout court, whatever that would mean if any intelligent person attempted it. (Have any?)
Tuesday, May 14, 2013, 10:46 AM
In general I agree with Jon Shields (in his post below) about the absurdity of marking birth as the decisive moment when a child acquires moral worth under our laws. And I admired his powerful Weekly Standard article very much. But I want to make two comments by way of mild dissent on a couple of points.
First, as I note at Public Discourse today in “Kermit Gosnell and the Logic of ‘Pro-Choice,’” the most up-to-the-minute philosophers in bioethics are dispensing with any “sharp distinction,” as Jon puts it, between the unborn child and the one who has been born. The Journal of Medical Ethics has an entire symposium on infanticide in its latest issue, in which one can see scholars at prominent institutions reasoning (plausibly, alas) that if the unborn child can be licitly aborted, then “after-birth abortion” can be permitted as well.
Second, Jon is wrong about what Pennsylvania law says on late-term abortions. He writes below, “Had Gosnell killed his victims in the womb and complied with a few other minor requirements, he would have committed no crime under the laws of Pennsylvania or the United States.” In his original Standard article, Jon wrote:
Pennsylvania is one of nine states that require a second physician to concur with the “professional judgment” of an abortionist who wants to perform a third-trimester abortion. Gosnell failed to seek second opinions. One has to wonder: Is that failure really a capital crime? Gosnell ignored a procedural requirement of Pennsylvania law.
There’s a good deal more to the Pennsylvania late-term abortion law than that. As I explain at Public Discourse:
The Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act provides that unless a physician can establish that he “reasonably believes” an unborn child is younger than 24 weeks, or, if the child is older, he can establish that continuing the pregnancy will result in either the death of the mother or “the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function,” the physician cannot perform a late-term abortion.
If he knowingly commits a post-24 weeks abortion, based on such stringent life and health criteria, the doctor must certify his judgment about the threat in writing; acquire the concurrence of a second doctor in that judgment based on a “separate personal medical examination” of the woman; perform the abortion in a hospital; employ procedures designed to maximize the unborn child’s chances to survive; and have a second physician present, ready to consider any surviving child his primary patient.
The purpose of this Pennsylvania statute is, in substance, identical to that of the federal Born-Alive Infants Protection Act (BAIPA), and state laws similar to the latter. Whereas BAIPA protects the right to life of the child who survives an abortion, the Pennsylvania act protects the child who could survive an abortion, making it criminal in most cases to abort the child and, where an abortion is permissible within narrow limits, requiring doctors to treat the child as a second patient who should be brought into the world alive and unharmed if possible.
Gosnell was convicted of twenty-one counts of illegal abortions under this statute, passed in the late 1980s when pro-life Democratic governor Robert Casey, Sr. was in office. The law is a direct challenge to the anything-goes abortion license established forty years ago in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton (as I also explain at PD). We’ll see if these convictions are upheld. If they are—as they should be—we could begin to see the unraveling of the regime of abortion on demand.
Tuesday, May 7, 2013, 10:40 AM
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I’m glad that Matthew Schmitz posted excerpts yesterday from the statement released by Southern Baptist leaders regarding recent reports about religious freedom in the military. Russell Moore (familiar to FT readers), president-elect of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Kevin Ezell, president of the SBC’s North American Mission Board (which endorses all Southern Baptist military chaplains), engage in no fearmongering. They note that some recent stories have been blown out of proportion (no, the notorious Mikey Weinstein of the misnamed “Military Religious Freedom Foundation” is not guiding policy decisions on military law), but they zero in on some genuine concerns for the hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women who want to satisfy the demands of both their military duty and their faith.
Here are some portions of the Moore-Ezell statement that Matt omitted yesterday (beginning with a sentence he did include):
What incidents have taken place, we wonder, that would call for this seemingly arbitrary distinction between ‘evangelizing’ and ‘proselytizing’? Proselytizing, after all, includes a range of meaning, encompassing a definition of ‘seeking to recruit to a cause or to a belief.’ With a subjective interpretation and adjudication of such cases, we need reassurance that such would not restrict the free exercise of religion for our chaplains and military personnel.
After all, who defines what is proselytizing and what is evangelism? What could seem to be a friendly conversation about spiritual matters to one serviceperson could be perceived or deliberately mischaracterized as ‘proselytizing’ to the person on the receiving end. The fact that this has been raised at all in such a subjective fashion could have a chilling effect on service personnel sharing their faith at all.
We believe in a free marketplace of ideas. Moreover, evangelical Christianity is, by definition, a faith that believes all Christians are to share the gospel with our neighbors and friends. To insist on a privatized, non-missional Christianity is to establish a state religion of non-conversionist faith that renders evangelical Christianity as well as other faiths — such as the Latter-day Saints — out of bounds. For a religion to be free, it must be unbound by restrictions that unfairly limit its advance.
This statement is both thoroughly Christian and thoroughly American. In the free marketplace of religious ideas, the joyful sharing of the good news with one’s fellows is an act of charity, and so too is listening respectfully. The talking and the listening are acts of good citizenship as well, and are no conceivable threat to military discipline, good order, or the lawful carrying out of one’s duties. To insist on a Weinstein-esque “separation of church and state” turns a garden of faiths into a desert, and is nowhere commanded by our Constitution. Military norms that bar coercion, harassment, or untimely distractions from carrying out one’s duties–norms that would apply equally to religious speech and, say, soapbox political orations or invitations to get-rich-quick schemes–are adequate to the task of policing the boundaries of permissible religious speech.
After calling for clarification of this seemingly arbitrary “proselytization vs. evangelization” distinction, Moore and Ezell conclude thus:
Our military men and women have submitted themselves to the authority of the United States armed services. They have not placed their souls or their consciences or their constitutional rights in a blind trust. Moreover, we reaffirm what our country has always recognized, that chaplains do not serve a merely civic function. They are there in order to facilitate the First Amendment-guaranteed free exercise of religion for our servicemen and women. That is only possible if these chaplains are free to be, respectively, Baptists or Catholics or Jews or Muslims or Latter-day Saints, etc., rather than merely ministers of some generic American civil religion.
We pledge to continue meeting with military leaders to ensure civil conversation about religious liberty. We also pledge to continue meeting with elected and appointed officials in the political arena, to ensure that constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms are maintained. We further pledge to work with persons of good will to ensure that our First Freedom is maintained, in the military and in the civilian arenas, as we render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but not that which belongs only to God.
Well said. There is much wisdom in these lines about how men and women of faith can proudly serve, as free citizens, the defense of a free country.