Lilla, “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics”

Mark Lilla is the author of a very interesting book concerning political theology (The LillaStillborn God) as well as other excellent work on Giambattista Vico, reactionary thought, and Isaiah Berlin. I was fortunate to have him as a teacher in a seminar on the thought of William James. Here is comes out swinging in a new book on political liberalism–The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics–which has identity politics in its sights. The publisher is HarperCollins and the description is below.

In The Once and Future Liberal, Mark Lilla offers an impassioned, tough-minded, and stinging look at the failure of American liberalism over the past two generations. Although there have been Democrats in the White House, and some notable policy achievements, for nearly 40 years the vision that Ronald Reagan offered—small government, lower taxes, and self-reliant individualism—has remained the country’s dominant political ideology. And the Democratic Party has offered no convincing competing vision in response.

Instead, as Lilla argues, American liberalism fell under the spell of identity politics, with disastrous consequences. Driven originally by a sincere desire to protect the most vulnerable Americans, the left has now unwittingly balkanized the electorate, encouraged self-absorption rather than solidarity, and invested its energies in social movements rather than in party politics.

With dire consequences. Lilla goes on to show how the left’s identity-focused individualism insidiously conspired with the amoral economic individualism of the Reaganite right to shape an electorate with little sense of a shared future and near-contempt for the idea of the common good. In the contest for the American imagination, liberals have abdicated.

Now they have an opportunity to reset. The left is motivated, and the Republican Party, led by an unpredictable demagogue, is in ideological disarray. To seize this opportunity, Lilla insists, liberals must concentrate their efforts on recapturing our institutions by winning elections. The time for hectoring is over. It is time to reach out and start persuading people from every walk of life and in every region of the country that liberals will stand up for them. We must appeal to – but also help to rebuild –  a sense of common feeling among Americans, and a sense of duty to each other.

A fiercely-argued, no-nonsense book, enlivened by Lilla’s acerbic wit and erudition, The Once and Future Liberal is essential reading for our momentous times.

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Gregory, “Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our Modern World”

Here is a new book by Brad Gregory, author of the excellent The Unintended Reformation, Martin Lutherthat focuses on Martin Luther in specific. Gregory’s thesis in his first volume was that to understand the conflicts of modernity, one needs to begin with the Reformation. This appears to be another book in the same vein, and well worth reading. The publisher is HarperCollins and the description is below.

On the 500th anniversary of the Reformation comes this compelling, illuminating, and expansive religious history that examines the complicated and unintended legacies of Martin Luther and the epochal movement that continues to shape the world today.

For five centuries, Martin Luther has been lionized as an outspoken and fearless icon of change who ended the Middle Ages and heralded the beginning of the modern world. In Rebel in the Ranks, Brad Gregory, renowned professor of European history at Notre Dame, recasts this long-accepted portrait. Luther did not intend to start a revolution that would divide the Catholic Church and forever change Western civilization. Yet his actions would profoundly shape our world in ways he could never have imagined.

Gregory analyzes Luther’s inadvertent role in starting the Reformation and the epochal changes that followed. He reveals how Luther’s insistence on the Bible as the sole authority for Christian truth led to conflicting interpretations of its meaning—and to the rise of competing churches, political conflicts, and social upheavals. Ultimately, he contends, some of the major historical and cultural developments that arose in its wake—including the Enlightenment, individual self-determination and moral relativism, and a religious freedom that protects one’s right to worship or even to reject religion—would have appalled Luther: a reluctant revolutionary, a rebel in the ranks, whose goal was to make society more Christian, yet instead set the world on fire.

Corvino et al., “Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination”

Now here’s something you don’t see everyday: a book from a major university press, written jointly by people on opposite sides, on the conflict between religious freedom and anti-discrimination laws. The book is Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination (Oxford), by LGBT rights advocate John Corvino (Wayne State) and two social conservatives, Ryan Anderson (Heritage Foundation) and Sherif Girgis (PhD Candidate at Princeton). Here’s the description from the Oxford website:

9780190603076Virtually everyone supports religious liberty, and virtually everyone opposes discrimination. But how do we handle the hard questions that arise when exercises of religious liberty seem to discriminate unjustly? How do we promote the common good while respecting conscience in a diverse society?

This point-counterpoint book brings together leading voices in the culture wars to debate such questions: John Corvino, a longtime LGBT-rights advocate, opposite Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Girgis, prominent young social conservatives.

Many such questions have arisen in response to same-sex marriage: How should we treat county clerks who do not wish to authorize such marriages, for example; or bakers, florists, and photographers who do not wish to provide same-sex wedding services? But the conflicts extend well beyond the LGBT rights arena. How should we treat hospitals, schools, and adoption agencies that can’t in conscience follow antidiscrimination laws, healthcare mandates, and other regulations? Should corporations ever get exemptions? Should public officials?

Should we keep controversial laws like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or pass new ones like the First Amendment Defense Act? Should the law give religion and conscience special protection at all, and if so, why? What counts as discrimination, and when is it unjust? What kinds of material and dignitary harms should the law try to fight-and what is dignitary harm, anyway?

Beyond the law, how should we treat religious beliefs and practices we find mistaken or even oppressive? Should we tolerate them or actively discourage them?

In point-counterpoint format, Corvino, Anderson and Girgis explore these questions and more. Although their differences run deep, they tackle them with civility, clarity, and flair. Their debate is an essential contribution to contemporary discussions about why religious liberty matters and what respecting it requires.

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Sarah Ruden’s New Translation of Augustine’s Confessions

I’ve greatly enjoyed classicist Sarah Ruden’s work, ever since reading her Paul Among the People (2010), which situates St. Paul in the classical world and corrects the image of him as a repressed killjoy. Her 2012 translation of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass is readable and a lot of fun. So I very much look forward to her latest work, a new translation of Augustine’s Confessions. Here’s the description from the Penguin Random House website:

9780812996562One of the great works of Western literature, from perhaps the most important thinker of Christian antiquity, in a revolutionary new translation by one of today’s leading classicists

Sarah Ruden’s fresh, dynamic translation of Confessions brings us closer to Augustine’s intent than any previous version. It puts a glaring spotlight on the life of one individual to show how all lives have meaning that is universal and eternal.

In this intensely personal narrative, Augustine tells the story of his sinful youth and his conversion to Christianity. He describes his ascent from a humble farm in North Africa to a prestigious post in the Roman Imperial capital of Milan, his struggle against his own overpowering sexuality, his renunciation of secular ambition and marriage, and the recovery of the faith his mother had taught him during his earliest years. Augustine’s concerns are often strikingly contemporary, and the confessional mode he invented can be seen everywhere in writing today.

Grounded in her command of Latin as it was written and spoken in the ancient world, Sarah Ruden’s translation is a bold departure from its predecessors—and the most historically accurate translation ever. Stylistically beautiful, with no concessions made to suit later theology and ritual, Ruden’s rendition will give readers a startling and illuminating new perspective on one of the central texts of Christianity.

Himmelfarb, “Past and Present”

Tradition’s continuing role in law, politics, and culture is the main focus of our Center’s ongoing Tradition Project, a multi-year research initiative. It’s also one of the central themes of a new book from Encounter Books, a collection of essays by the famous American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, Past and Present: The Challenges of Modernity, from the Pre-Victorians to the Post-Modernists (Encounter). Looks very worthwhile. Here’s the description from the Encounter website:

Past-and-Present-310x460“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” wrote William Faulkner. In Past and Present, an eminent American historian and cultural critic shows the truth of that statement. The common theme of the twenty essays gathered here is the intriguing, often unexpected ways in which the past continues to illuminate the present.

Gertrude Himmelfarb helps us find a new perspective on contemporary issues through a trenchant analysis of debates and thinkers from earlier times.

The topics of the essays vary widely, from the disorders of modern democracy to the challenges of postmodernism, from the Victorian ethos to the Jewish question. The thinkers examined range from Edmund Burke to Leo Strauss, from Cardinal Newman to Lionel Trilling. The political figures who appear here are also diverse, from Benjamin Disraeli to Winston Churchill, from the American founders to Queen Elizabeth II.

Running through all the essays as a first premise is the conviction that the pursuit of knowledge and truth, however difficult or discomfiting, matters immensely in the “practical life,” to use Trilling’s terms, as it does in the “moral life.” Past and Present is a notable contribution to this endeavor—to understanding where we have been, where we are today, and where we may be (or should be) going.

 

Gonzalez, “A Brief History of Sunday”

Strict Sunday observance is less and less common among Christians in the West, and Sunday closing laws–although the US Supreme Court famously upheld their constitutionality in McGowan v. Maryland (1961)–have fallen into disuse, in those jurisdictions where they haven’t been repealed. As Robert Louis Wilken once said, the only thing that currently distinguishes Sunday from other days of the week is that the malls open a little later. At one time, though, Sundays were a day of observance, and the laws reflected that fact.

A new book from Eerdmans, A Brief History of Sunday: From the New Testament to the New Creation, by Justo González, offers a history of Christians’ Sunday observance and of laws that date back to Constantine, and reflects on current practice in the West and beyond. Here’s the description from the Eerdmans website:

9780802874719In this accessible historical overview of Sunday, noted scholar Justo González tells the story of how and why Christians have worshiped on Sunday from the earliest days of the church to the present.

After discussing the views and practices relating to Sunday in the ancient church, González turns to Constantine and how his policies affected Sunday observances. He then recounts the long process, beginning in the Middle Ages and culminating with Puritanism, whereby Christians came to think of and strictly observe Sunday as the Sabbath. Finally, González looks at the current state of things, exploring especially how the explosive growth of the church in the Majority World has affected the observance of Sunday worldwide.

Readers of this book will rediscover the joy and excitement of Sunday as early Christians celebrated it and will find fresh, inspiring perspectives on Sunday amid our current culture of indifference and even hostility to Christianity.

Sangiovanni, “Humanity without Dignity”

Human dignity is the fundamental principle of international human rights law. Dignity has also begun to make inroads into American constitutional law. And yet, no one has yet come up with a definition of dignity that commands a consensus. This lack of agreement causes increasing problems for human rights law, especially with regard to issues like religious liberty and same-sex marriage.

Andrea Sangiovanni, a Reader in Philosophy at King’s College London, has written a new book, Humanity without Dignity: Moral Equality, Respect, and Human Rights (Harvard) that argues against grounding human rights in human dignity. Instead, Sangiovanni argues, human rights can be justified on the grounds of avoiding cruelty. I’m not sure how well a non-cruelty principle would work as a justification for human rights, myself. Most people believe there is a duty not to be cruel to animals; but that would not entail “animal rights,” it seems to me. Anyway, here is the description of the book, from the Harvard website:

9780674049215-lgName any valued human trait—intelligence, wit, charm, grace, strength—and you will find an inexhaustible variety and complexity in its expression among individuals. Yet we insist that such diversity does not provide grounds for differential treatment at the most basic level. Whatever merit, blame, praise, love, or hate we receive as beings with a particular past and a particular constitution, we are always and everywhere due equal respect merely as persons.

But why? Most who attempt to answer this question appeal to the idea that all human beings possess an intrinsic dignity and worth—grounded in our capacities, for example, to reason, reflect, or love—that raises us up in the order of nature. Andrea Sangiovanni rejects this predominant view and offers a radical alternative.

To understand our commitment to basic equality, Humanity without Dignity argues that we must begin with a consideration not of equality but of inequality. Rather than search for a chimerical value-bestowing capacity possessed to an equal extent by each one of us, we ought to ask: Why and when is it wrong to treat others as inferior? Sangiovanni comes to the conclusion that our commitment to moral equality is best explained by a rejection of cruelty rather than a celebration of rational capacity. He traces the impact of this fundamental shift for our understanding of human rights and the norms of anti-discrimination that underlie it.

 

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