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Divided America

9780815736912_FCTo say that we have yet another book to post on religious and political divides in America sounds a bit sarcastic, but I don’t mean it that way. The fact that so many serious books are appearing on polarization in America reflects something that all of us recognize. Deep fissures are appearing in our culture and no one knows quite what to do about them–assuming that we want to do something about them, which also is unclear. A new book from Brookings, Divided Politics, Divided Nation: Hyperconflict in the Trump Era, by Brookings scholar Darrell West, offers a personal perspective, from someone who began life in conservative Christian culture and now works in elite progressive culture. Here’s the description from the publisher:

Why are Americans so angry with each other? The United States is caught in a partisan hyperconflict that divides politicians, communities—and even families. Politicians from the president to state and local office-holders play to strongly-held beliefs and sometimes even pour fuel on the resulting inferno. This polarization has become so intense that many people no longer trust anyone from a differing perspective. Drawing on his personal story of growing up as a fundamentalist Christian on a dairy farm in rural Ohio, then as an academic in the heart of the liberal East Coast establishment, Darrell West analyzes the economic, cultural, and political aspects of polarization. He takes advantage of his experiences inside both conservative and liberal camps to explain the views of each side and offer insights into why each is angry with the other. West argues that societal tensions have metastasized into a dangerous tribalism that seriously threatens U.S. democracy. Unless people can bridge these divisions and forge a new path forward, it will be impossible to work together, maintain a functioning democracy, and solve the country’s pressing policy problems.

American Saints

9781469649474Last October, I posted a new biography of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the Catholic Church’s first native-born American saint. This month, the University of North Carolina Press releases A Saint of Our Own: How the Quest for a Holy Hero Helped Catholics Become AmericanJudging from the publisher’s description (below), this book focuses not so much on the inner lives of Seton and other American saints, but on why American Catholics believed it so important to have the Church recognize them. American saints, the author maintains, helped American Catholics feel more at home in their culture. The author is historian Kathleen Sprows Cummings (University of Notre Dame):

What drove U.S. Catholics in their arduous quest, full of twists and turns over more than a century, to win an American saint? The absence of American names in the canon of the saints had left many of the faithful feeling spiritually unmoored. But while canonization may be fundamentally about holiness, it is never only about holiness, reveals Kathleen Sprows Cummings in this panoramic, passionate chronicle of American sanctity. Catholics had another reason for petitioning the Vatican to acknowledge an American holy hero.

A home-grown saint would serve as a mediator between heaven and earth, yes, but also between Catholicism and American culture. Throughout much of U.S. history, the making of a saint was also about the ways in which the members of a minority religious group defined, defended, and celebrated their identities as Americans. Their fascinatingly diverse causes for canonization—from Kateri Tekakwitha and Elizabeth Ann Seton to many others that are failed, forgotten, or still under way—represented evolving national values as Catholics made themselves at home. Cummings’s vision of American sanctity shows just how much Catholics had at stake in cultivating devotion to men and women perched at the nexus of holiness and American history—until they finally felt little need to prove that they belonged.

Flying Bishops

9780520300378Being a bishop has not always been a safe job. In late antiquity, in fact, it could be positively dangerous–as it remains in some parts of the world today. Not surprisingly, bishops sometimes survived Roman persecution by fleeing (or worse–see the Donatist Controversy), which occasioned considerable consternation among the members of the flock who stayed behind. A book out today from the University of California Press, Bishops in Flight: Exile and Displacement in Late Antiquity, addresses the sad history. The author is religion scholar Jennifer Barry (University of Mary Washington) Here’s the publisher’s description:

Flight during times of persecution has a long and fraught history in early Christianity. In the third century, bishops who fled were considered cowards or, worse yet, heretics. On the face, flight meant denial of Christ and thus betrayal of faith and community. But by the fourth century, the terms of persecution changed as Christianity became the favored cult of the Roman Empire. Prominent Christians who fled and survived became founders and influencers of Christianity over time.

Bishops in Flight examines the various ways these episcopal leaders both appealed to and altered the discourse of Christian flight to defend their status as purveyors of Christian truth, even when their exiles appeared to condemn them. Their stories illuminate how profoundly Christian authors deployed theological discourse and the rhetoric of heresy to respond to the phenomenal political instability of the fourth and fifth centuries.

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Jefferson the Lawyer

9780691187891Many readers of this blog will know of the famous disagreement between Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Story on whether Christianity formed part of the common law. Jefferson, unsurprisingly, thought the answer was “no.” How he came to that conclusion is perhaps revealed in a new edition of his legal notes, Jefferson’s Legal Commonplace Book, published by Princeton and edited by David Konig (Washington University-St. Louis) and Michael Zuckert (Notre Dame). The publisher’s description follows:

As a law student and young lawyer in the 1760s, Thomas Jefferson began writing abstracts of English common law reports. Even after abandoning his law practice, he continued to rely on his legal commonplace book to document the legal, historical, and philosophical reading that helped shape his new role as a statesman. Indeed, he made entries in the notebook in preparation for his mission to France, as president of the United States, and near the end of his life. This authoritative volume is the first to contain the complete text of Jefferson’s notebook. With more than 900 entries on such thinkers as Beccaria, Montesquieu, and Lord Kames, Jefferson’s Legal Commonplace Book is a fascinating chronicle of the evolution of Jefferson’s searching mind.

Jefferson’s abstracts of common law reports, most published here for the first time, indicate his deepening commitment to whig principles and his incisive understanding of the political underpinnings of the law. As his intellectual interests and political aspirations evolved, so too did the content and composition of his notetaking.

Unlike the only previous edition of Jefferson’s notebook, published in 1926, this edition features a verified text of Jefferson’s entries and full annotation, including essential information on the authors and books he documents. In addition, the volume includes a substantial introduction that places Jefferson’s text in legal, historical, and biographical context.

Justice Scalia “On Faith”

Seven years ago, we were deeply honored to host Justice Antonin Scalia at our inaugural Colloquium in Law and Religion. We prepared all of the Justice’s cases in the field and then listened, in a small setting, as the Justice discussed them and answered our questions. I had the chance to co-teach a constitutional law class with the Justice. I won’t ever forget it.

It therefore brings me special pleasure to note this new book, published posthumously, collecting Justice Scalia’s occasional essays, lectures, and reflections on religious faith. The book is On Faith: Lessons from an American Believer (Penguin Random House) (with a foreword by Justice Clarence Thomas).

“Antonin Scalia reflected deeply on matters of religion and shared his insights with many audiences over the course of his remarkable career. As a Supreme Court justice for three decades, he vigorously defended the American constitutional tradition of allowing religion a prominent place in the public square. As a man of faith, he recognized the special challenges of living a distinctively religious life in modern America, and he inspired other believers to meet those challenges.

This volume contains Justice Scalia’s incisive thoughts on these matters, laced with his characteristic wit. It includes outstanding speeches featured in Scalia Speaks and also draws from his Supreme Court opinions and his articles. In addition to the introduction by Fr. Scalia, other highlights include Fr. Scalia’s beautiful homily at his father’s funeral Mass and reminiscences from various friends and law clerks whose lives were influenced by Antonin Scalia’s faith.”

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The Conformity of Diversity

Very few ideas have come to dominate higher education more completely in the past decade or so than “diversity and inclusion.” No university I know of doubts the value of “diversity and inclusion” in any of its several meanings, and all have undertaken extensive administrative, personnel-oriented, and programmatic initiatives on its behalf. It is widely thought to be one of the unquestioned, and unquestionable, intrinsic goods of higher education–perhaps even one of its preeminent goods to rival the pursuit of knowledge itself. Conformity with the orthodoxy of “diversity and inclusion” is today expected and, in many cases, enforced through various accrediting and other administrative mechanisms.

A new book of essays puts the intrinsic worth of “diversity” into question and debate: Diversity, Conformity, and Conscience in Contemporary America (Rowman & Littlefield), edited by Bradley C.S. Watson, and with contributions by some of our Center friends including Matt Franck and Phillip Muñoz.

“America is a nation that celebrates diversity and freedom of conscience. Yet, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, democratic times often demand conformity. Nowadays, conformity might be enforced in the name of diversity itself, and go so far as to infringe on the rights of conscience, expression, association, and religious freedom. Americans have recently been confronted by this paradox in various ways, from federal health care mandates, to campus speech codes, to consumer boycotts, to public intimidation, to vexatious litigation, to private corporations dismissing employees for expressing certain political views. In this book, Bradley C. S. Watson brings together leading thinkers from a variety of disciplines to examine the manner and extent to which conformity is demanded by contemporary American law and social practice. Contributors also consider the long-term results of such demands for conformity for the health—and even survival—of a constitutional republic.”

The Central Symbol of American Conflict?

In recently thinking about the disagreements–many of them extremely acrimonious and deeply felt–about the presence of the large cross in Maryland to honor fallen soldiers in World War I (which the Supreme Court will pronounce on, but not resolve, shortly), I’ve wondered whether those disagreements reflect a deeper set of conflicts, or whether they instead sit on the surface of relative concord and agreement about American political and social life.

A new book seems to suggest something like the former possibility, that religion very often has been the key or central symbol of our deepest national political conflicts (though I would think race has at least an equal claim). The book is America’s Religious Wars: The Embattled Heart of Our Public Life (Yale University Press), by Kathleen M. Sands. Indeed, even the way that the blurb puts the constitutional status of the wall-of-separation metaphor is a hotly contested matter in American public life.

“When Americans fight about “religion,” we are also fighting about our conflicting identities, interests, and commitments. Religion-talk has been a ready vehicle for these conflicts because it is built on enduring contradictions within our core political values. The Constitution treats religion as something to be confined behind a wall, but in public communications, the Framers treated religion as the foundation of the American republic. Ever since, Americans have translated disagreements on many other issues into an endless debate about the role of religion in our public life.

Built around a set of compelling narratives—George Washington’s battle with Quaker pacifists; the fight of Mormons and Catholics for equality with Protestants; Teddy Roosevelt’s concept of land versus the Lakota’s concept; the creation-evolution controversy; and the struggle over sexuality—this book shows how religion, throughout American history, has symbolized, but never resolved, our deepest political questions.”

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