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Poole, “Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost”

9780674971073-lgBesides being one of the greatest poets in the English language, John Milton was a major public figure, an official in the Commonwealth government and a political writer whose works addressed many church-state issues, including divorce laws (he favored their liberalization) and religious toleration (he favored that. too). A new book from Harvard University Press, Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost, by Oxford scholar William Poole, touches on Milton’s political and religious writings as well as, obviously, his greatest poem. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:

Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost tells the story of John Milton’s life as England’s self-elected national poet and explains how the single greatest poem of the English language came to be written.

In early 1642 Milton—an obscure private schoolmaster—promised English readers a work of literature so great that “they should not willingly let it die.” Twenty-five years later, toward the end of 1667, the work he had pledged appeared in print: the epic poem Paradise Lost. In the interim, however, the poet had gone totally blind and had also become a controversial public figure—a man who had argued for the abolition of bishops, freedom of the press, the right to divorce, and the prerogative of a nation to depose and put to death an unsatisfactory ruler. These views had rendered him an outcast.

William Poole devotes particular attention to Milton’s personal situation: his reading and education, his ambitions and anxieties, and the way he presented himself to the world. Although always a poet first, Milton was also a theologian and civil servant, vocations that informed the composition of his masterpiece. At the emotional center of this narrative is the astounding fact that Milton lost his sight in 1652. How did a blind man compose this staggeringly complex, intensely visual work? Poole opens up the epic worlds and sweeping vistas of Milton’s masterpiece to modern readers, first by exploring Milton’s life and intellectual preoccupations and then by explaining the poem itself—its structure, content, and meaning.

Shea, “Newman’s Early Roman Catholic Legacy”

Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose Feast Day has just passed by (October 9–Newman.jpegthe date of his conversion), was one of the most interesting, penetrating, and important minds by which the Church has been graced. Cardinal Newman is the author of, among other things, one of the greatest explications and defenses of the university ever written (“The Idea of a University”), countless magnificent theological works (including many memorable sermons), a fascinating religious autobiography and defense of his views against attack (the “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” containing one of my favorite lines: “I account it a gain to be surveyed from without by one who hates the principles which are nearest to my heart, has no personal knowledge of me to set right his misconceptions of my doctrine, and who has some motive or other to be as severe with me as he can possibly be.”), and many others. His influence was enormous and he is insufficiently studied today (perhaps one reason is that he so rarely wrote about politics). Here is a very interesting looking new work by C. Michael Shea on his early writing and impact on his Catholic contemporaries, Newman’s Early Roman Catholic Legacy, 1845-1854 (Oxford). Here is the description.

For decades, scholars have assumed that the genius of John Henry Newman remained underappreciated among his Roman Catholic contemporaries. In order to find the true impact of his work, one must therefore look to the century following his death. Newman’s Early Roman Catholic Legacy, 1845-1854 unpicks this claim. Examining a host of overlooked evidence from England and the European continent, C. Michael Shea considers letters, records of conversations, and obscure and unpublished theological exchanges to show how Newman’s 1845 Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine influenced a host of Catholic teachers, writers, and Church authorities in nineteenth-century Rome and beyond. Shea explores how these individuals employed Newman’s theory of development to argue for the definability of the new dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary during the years preceding the doctrine’s definition in 1854. This study traces how the theory of development became a factor in determining the very language that the Roman Catholic Church would use in referring to doctrinal change over time. In this way, Newman’s Early Roman Catholic Legacy, 1845-1854 uncovers a key dimension of Newman’s significance in modern religious history.

Kukla, “Patrick Henry”

Patrick Henry: committed anti-federalist and constitutional skeptic, brilliant orator and Henryattorney, and eloquent expositor of the Washingtonian view of Christianity and civil religion. Here is a new biography, Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty (Simon & Schuster) by John Kukla on this somewhat neglected founder.

This authoritative biography of Patrick Henry—the underappreciated founding father best known for saying, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”—restores him and his fellow Virginians to their seminal place in the story of American independence.

Born in 1736, Patrick Henry was an attorney and planter, and an outstanding orator in the movement for independence. A contemporary of Washington, Henry stood with John and Samuel Adams among the leaders of the colonial resistance to Great Britain that ultimately created the United States. The first governor of Virginia after independence, he was re-elected several times. After declining to attend the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Henry opposed the Constitution, arguing that it granted too much power to the central government. Although he denounced slavery as evil, like many other southern slave-owners he accepted its continuation. Henry pushed vigorously for the ten amendments to the new Constitution, and then supported Washington and national unity against the bitter party divisions of the 1790s. He was enormously influential in his time, but his accomplishments, other than his oratory, were subsequently all but forgotten. Kukla’s biography restores Henry and his Virginia compatriots to the front rank of advocates for American independence.

Jon Kukla has thoroughly researched Henry’s life, even living on one of Henry’s estates. He brings both newly discovered documents and new insights to the story of the patriot who played a central role in the movement to independence, the Revolution, the Constitutional era, and the early Republic. This book is an important contribution to our understanding of the nation’s founding.

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“Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression” (Temperman & Koltay, eds.)

These are complex times for the freedom of speech, and one of the most interesting of Blasphemythe new complications is the revival of blasphemy laws, once thought vanquished by secular thinkers and political actors. This new book, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression: Comparative, Theoretical and Historical Reflections After the Charlie Hebdo Massacre (CUP), edited by Jeroen Temperman and András Koltay, explores subjects at the intersection of free speech, hate speech, and blasphemy.

The tension between blasphemy laws and the freedom of expression in modern times is a key area of debate within legal academia and beyond. With contributions by leading scholars, this volume compares blasphemy laws within a number of Western liberal democracies and debates the legitimacy of these laws in the twenty-first century. Including comprehensive and up-to-date comparative country studies, this book considers the formulation of blasphemy bans, relevant jurisprudential interpretations, the effect on society, and the ensuing convictions and penalties where applicable. It provides a useful historical analysis by discussing the legal-political rationales behind the recent abolition of blasphemy laws in some Western states. Contributors also consider the challenges to the tenability of blasphemy laws in a selection of well-balanced theoretical chapters. This book is essential reading for scholars working within the fields of human rights law, philosophy and sociology of religion, and comparative politics.

New paper: “On the Uses of anti-Christian Identity Politics”

Here’s another new paper of mine: On the Uses of anti-Christian Identity Politics. The abstract is below.

This short essay, written for a conference on “Faith, Sexuality, and the Meaning of Freedom” held at Yale Law School in January 2017, briefly explores the emerging phenomenon of anti-Christian identity politics. The essay focuses on one particular legal source of it: a recondite provision of the so-called Treaty of Tripoli of 1796, which states that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The uses to which the phrase has been put, it turns out, are more important than its confused and obscure historical meaning. In evaluating anti-Christian identity politics in only some of these uses, the essay considers the recent claim by Professor Mark Lilla that contemporary Americans — and American liberals in particular — ought to abandon “the politics of identity” in favor of a politics of shared citizenship.

Lilla is right that identity politics as practiced today have further corroded the commonalities that remain among Americans. Identity politics also render compromise on various culture-war issues more difficult: any policy or legal victory for the opposition, however small, assumes additional symbolic power and must therefore be resisted all the more fiercely. Yet the pathologies of identity politics are only symptoms of a more potent sickness in American political and cultural life. Americans, as citizens, share less and less. They disagree in deepening ways about the nature of the political and moral good, about justice, and about what sort of people they are and aspire to be. In short, identity politics are not the cause of, but a response to, political and cultural fragmentation. And anti-Christian identity politics, like Christian identity politics, represent one strain of that response — one ostensible point of rendezvous for a nation whose people are increasingly disaffected with and alienated from one another.

New paper: “The Two Separations”

Here’s a new paper of mine, The Two Separations. Here’s the abstract:

There is nothing self-evidently attractive about separation — whether of church and state or anything else — as a model for individual or collective life. Pursuing separation is not like pursuing knowledge or friendship — ends that are intrinsically good. Separation must be justified by some contingent reason. Though the Constitution speaks of the free exercise of “religion” and “religion’s” non-establishment, much of the confusion about separation as an American civic ideal results from a failure to focus on the specifically historical and contingent justifications for it. These justifications concern not “religion” in general or in the abstract but Christianity in specific — Christianity being, as a historical and cultural matter, the central religious tradition of the United States.

These historical justifications have taken two cardinal forms. The first concerns the politico-theological benefits that are believed to devolve onto Christian churches, or onto Christian believers, from division from the state, and the general social and political advantages derived therefrom. The second involves the secular benefits to the liberal democratic state of unbreachable barriers against the civic and cultural influence of Christianity. The first justification is more ancient, but the second is more powerful today. The first is oriented positively, and the second negatively, toward the cultural and political value of Christianity in the United States. The first sees Christianity as precious. The second sees it as irrelevant or even obnoxious.

This chapter distinguishes and explores the two separations — separation as a specifically Christian piece of political theology, in large part for the benefit of a Christian civil society; and separation as a specifically secular position for the benefit of a liberal society that wishes to divest from and repudiate Christianity. It then describes the allure of equality and nondiscrimination as church-state ideals, their ascendancy in late twentieth century constitutional law, and the sense in which they are believed to have supplanted separation.

But neither equality nor nondiscrimination delivers what it promises: a valueless perspective on the social and political worth of Christianity. In fact, their perspective is decidedly negative. The chapter explains this claim by comparing the use of these principles in the contexts of race and sex discrimination, where the overriding assumption is that race and sex are fundamentally irrelevant considerations, and obnoxious and illegitimate bases on which to make laws and to order society. Transposed to the context of religion — and, as this chapter argues, the transposition in reality concerns Christianity specifically — a similar assumption holds: that Christianity is fundamentally an irrelevant, or even an obnoxious, and illegitimate, influence in the making of laws or the structuring of the cultural and political realms. Indeed, in a society in which Christianity has had such overwhelming predominance, insisting on equality is tantamount to squelching it. This view is not neutral as to the value of Christianity in contemporary American politics and society. It is nothing less than an expression of the second separation.

Wicker, “The Simple Faith of Franklin Delano Roosevelt”

The place of religion in the American presidency is a source of endless historical and FDRpolitical interest. But Franklin Delano Roosevelt is not too often highlighted by scholars and biographers interested in this particular genre [ADDENDUM: but my colleague and historian of the period, John Barrett, says I am wrong about this]. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter, Reagan…these and others spring immediately to mind, but not FDR–the champion and architect of the New Deal. This new book by religion reporter Christine Wicker (author of a book a few years ago about the demise of Evangelical Christianity in America), The Simple Faith of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Religion’s Role in the FDR Presidency (Penguin Random House) discusses FDR’s religious convictions and the place of religion in the FDR presidency.

In The Simple Faith of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, religion journalist and author Christine Wicker establishes that faith was at the heart of everything Roosevelt wanted for the American people. This powerful book is the first in-depth look at how one of America’s richest, most patrician presidents became a passionate and beloved champion of the downtrodden–and took the country with him. Those who knew Roosevelt best invariably credited his spiritual faith as the source of his passion for democracy, justice, and equality. Like many Americans of that time, his beliefs were simple. He believed the God who heard his prayers and answered them expected him to serve others. He anchored his faith in biblical stories and teachings. During times so hard that the country would have followed him anywhere, he summoned the better angels of the American character in ways that have never been surpassed.

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