Scruton & Manent on Politics & Religion

I’m now reading Daniel J. Mahoney’s short book on the political thought of the late Sir Roger Scruton (whom Mark and I had the honor of hosting for the second leg of the Tradition Project–see below for his talk) and Pierre Manent. Dan argues that these philosophers share a common project to “recover the meaning of politics, civilization, and the soul” from the depredations of various “late modern dogmas.” He is aware of their differences but he focuses in these essays on their many affinities, including their similar views of secularism and the modern state (in my office, I have a signed copy of Scruton’s The Soul of the World, where he takes on some of these matters with great sensitivity and depth). Dan’s book is Recovering Politics, Civilization, and the Soul: Essays on Pierre Manent and Roger Scruton (St. Augustine Press).

The Western inheritance is under sustained theoretical and practical assault. Legitimate self-criticism has given way to nihilistic self-loathing and cultural, moral, and political repudiation is the order of the day. Yet, as Daniel J. Mahoney shows in this learned, eloquent, and provocative set of essays, two contemporary philosophic thinkers, Roger Scruton and Pierre Manent, have––separately and together––traced a path for the renewal of politics and practical reason, our civilized inheritance, the natural moral law, and the soul as the enduring site of self-conscious reflection, moral and civic agency, and mutual accountability.

Both Scruton and Manent have repudiated the fashionable nihilism associated with the “thought of 1968” and the “Parisian nonsense machine,” and have shown that gratitude is the proper response of the human person to the “givenness of things.” Both defend the self-governing nation against reckless nationalism and the even more reckless temptation of supranational governance and post-political  democracy, what Manent suggestively calls a “kratos” without a “demos.” Both defend the secular state while taking aim at a radical secularism that rejects “the Christian mark” that is at the heart of our inheritance and that sustains the rich and necessary interpenetration of truth and liberty. Scruton’s more “cultural” perspective is indebted to Burke and Kant; Manent’s more political perspective draws on Aristotle, St. Thomas, Tocqueville, and Raymond Aron, among others. By highlighting their affinities, and reflecting on their instructive differences, Mahoney shows how, together, the English man of letters Scruton, and the French political philosopher Manent, guide us to the recovery of a horizon of thought and action animated by practical reason and the wellsprings of the human soul. They show us the humanizing path forward, but first we must make the necessary spiritual decision to repudiate repudiation once and for all.

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

  • In White v. Goforth, the Sixth Circuit ruled that Sheriff’s Deputy Jacob Goforth had qualified immunity in a suit accusing him of failing to intervene in a coerced baptism by Officer Daniel Wilkey. The court explained that while Wilkey’s actions might have violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, there was no evidence that Goforth knew of the improper quid pro quo. The court further clarified that even if there had been perceived government endorsement of religion, it would not have been clearly established that Goforth had a duty to intervene.
  • In Sangervasi v. City of San Jose, a California federal court dismissed police officer William Sangervasi’s lawsuit challenging the San Jose Police Department’s refusal to adopt his proposed patch and flag designs, some featuring religious themes. The court rejected Sangervasi’s claims of free exercise, free speech, and equal protection, stating, “the City has not created a public forum in which Mr. Sangervasi has a right to express any views” and “the SJPD’s patch designs amount to government speech and do not burden Mr. Sangervasi’s religious practice.”
  • In Caekaert v. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, a Montana federal district court addressed the clergy-penitent privilege regarding documents withheld by the Jehovah’s Witnesses parent body concerning reports of known child molesters. The court stated that while it recognizes deference to religious groups in organizing their internal affairs, this doesn’t grant the religious organization the right to define what is privileged solely based on its doctrine. The court also noted that the privilege extends to non-penitential statements made during the church’s disciplinary process.
  • Muslim and Christian parents filed suit against the Montgomery County School Board in Maryland, objecting to the introduction of “Pride Storybooks” in pre-K and elementary school education. They allege the policy violates their rights to free exercise and free speech, and their right to control their children’s education, claiming that it “discourages a biological understanding of human sexuality” and “precludes religious viewpoints on the topics of sexual orientation and gender identity,” which they argue is unconstitutional.
  • The Texas legislature passed SB763, permitting public schools to employ or accept volunteer chaplains to support students, without needing teacher certification. Proposed amendments requiring chaplain accreditation similar to prison or military standards, parent consent for chaplain interaction, and requirements to provide chaplains from any faith requested, were all defeated. The bill stipulates that chaplains undergo a criminal history review and not have been convicted of specific sex-related offenses.
  • The White House has released “The U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism,” a 60-page strategy with four pillars aimed at addressing antisemitism in America. The document provides over 100 planned actions to increase awareness of antisemitism and improve safety for Jewish communities. The strategy also defines antisemitism as “a pernicious conspiracy theory that often features myths about Jewish power and control” and endorses the 2016 International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism.

A New Study of Fatwas in Islamic Law

Even people who know little about Islamic law have heard of the fatwa: an opinion, issued by a qualified scholar, or mufti, on a question of Islamic law. In classical thought, a fatwa is not binding in itself; its authority is persuasive and dependent largely on the learning and reputation of the mufti who issues it. The relationship in Islamic law between fatwas and court judgments, which are binding, is a fascinating one and worthy of sustained study.

A new book from Cambridge, Fatwa and the Making and Renewal of Islamic Law
From the Classical Period to the Present
, explores the history of the practice. The author is Omer Awass (American Islamic College). Here’s the publisher’s description:

In this book, Omer Awass examines the formation, history, and transformation of the Islamic legal discourse and institutions through the lens of a particular legal practice: the issuance of fatwas (legal opinions). Tracing the growth of Islamic law over a vast geographical expanse -from Andalusia to India – and a long temporal span – from the 7th to the 21st century, he conceptualizes fatwas as the ‘atomic units’ of Islamic law. Awass argues that they have been a crucial element in the establishment of an Islamic legal tradition. He also provides numerous case studies that touch on economic, social, political, and religious topics. Written in an accessible style, this volume is the first to offer a comprehensive investigation of fatwas within such a broad spatio-temporal scope. It demonstrates how instrumental fatwas have been to the formation of Islamic legal traditions and institutions, as well as their unique forms of reasoning.

Legal Spirits 051: The Biden Administration’s Guidance on Prayer in Public Schools

In this episode, Marc and Mark offer some thoughts about the Biden Administration Department of Education’s guidance issued earlier this month (the first since 2020) on prayer and religious expression in public schools. The new guidance largely avoids much discussion of the newest Supreme Court decision on the matter, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, and does not mention the Court’s new text and tradition test at all. Marc and Mark offer some explanations (and entertain a few gentlemanly disagreements!) about just why that might be. Listen in!

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

  • In United States v. Hari, the 8th Circuit upheld the constitutionality of 18 USC §247, which prohibits the damaging of religious real property because of the religious character of the property. The case involved an attack on the Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota.
  • In Keene v. City and County of San Francisco, the 9th Circuit reversed and remanded a ruling that denied preliminary relief to city and county employees who were denied religious exemptions from San Francisco’s COVID vaccine mandate. 
  • In Williams v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, the Northern District of Illinois denied summary judgment on an Establishment Clause challenge to a high school’s elective instruction in Transcendental Meditation .
  • In The Satanic Temple, Inc. v. City of Chicago, the Satanic Temple filed suit in the Northern District of Illinois alleging that the city’s exclusion of its clergy from delivering an invocation before Chicago City Council violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
  • The EEOC announced that it filed a Title VII religious discrimination suit in a North Carolina federal district court against a Charlotte IHOP restaurant for failing to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious exercise. The restaurant allegedly fired an employee who refused to work on Sundays.
  • The U.S. Department of Education issued an updated Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools that states in part that “The Constitution does not . . . prohibit school employees themselves from engaging in private prayer during the workday where they are not acting in their official capacities and where their prayer does not result in any coercion of students.” However, “teachers, school administrators, and other school employees may not encourage or discourage private prayer or other religious activity.”

The Catholic (or catholic?) and the Common Law traditions

Taking a break from the regular book posts to flag a very interesting article by Professor Samuel Bray (Notre Dame Law School). The piece is The Influence of the Catholic Tradition on the Common Law, and it discusses three ways in which Catholic thought shaped the common law tradition. One of the difficulties in such a project, Sam says, is that the common law tradition is largely a post-16th century English phenomenon, when the role of Catholicism was, shall we say, diminished. Here is the abstract of the piece, followed by a few little reflections:

This essay considers the influence of the Catholic intellectual tradition on the common law. As a preliminary matter, the essay notes that the term “Catholic intellectual tradition” is of recent vintage, though its referent is much older. It identifies three mechanisms of influence: inheriting, conversing, and generating. For inheriting, the essay notes that some common law doctrines, such as the Chancellor’s conscience, were inherited from the Catholic intellectual tradition. For conversing, the essay notes the conversation across confessional boundaries in early modern Europe, which was facilitated by the use of Latin and scholastic curricula well after the Reformation. This point, while familiar to early modern intellectual historians because of revisionist work over the last quarter century, may be surprising to legal scholars. Finally, for generating, this essay shows that the common law judges, by their own lights, were participants in the Catholic intellectual tradition. This is demonstrated, for example, by analysis of Chief Justice Vaughan’s opinion in Thomas v. Sorrell (1673/4). When this intellectual tradition is viewed without anachronistic narrowness, its influence on the common law is substantial.

The piece is short, sweet, and full of great learning and insight. I highly recommend it. One rapid thought on the “anachronistic narrowness” point quoted above in the abstract. On what he calls the “generative” influence of Catholic thought on the common law, Sam argues very interestingly that the division of Catholic Intellectual Tradition from Protestant thought is likely of relatively recent vintage (say, the 19th century or so, especially in the resistance of the Church to modernity during that period), and that the common lawyers of the early period of the common law did think of themselves as working from (and perhaps even within) the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. One might call it instead the catholic intellectual tradition that is, Sam suggests, the tradition that had influence on the early common law–the Western Christian or Christian apostolic tradition unbound by today’s anachronistic divisions.

There are some comparatively small questions I had about some of Sam’s more specific claims. He says, for example, that each “side”–“Roman” and “non-Roman”–argued in “Newmanesque” fashion that “whoever did not change or augment the deposit of faith was the truly catholic side.” But is this really a full description of the disagreements that were themselves generated in and just after the period Sam surveys? There are not too many people in this world who would like more to believe that everybody is actually, deep down, a traditionalist. But disagreements about tradition and development (a/k/a change), it seems to me, eventually led to Cardinal Newman’s own position, decisions, and intellectual contribution. I wonder whether they materialized quite as late as Sam suggests.

Nevertheless, in highlighting one of Sam’s perhaps more controversial points above, I want to emphasize that Sam seems to me quite correct on all three influences with respect to the thought of learned commentators such as Coke, Hale, St. German, and others (perhaps even as late as Mansfield and Blackstone, for example), as well as judges such as the one who wrote the lead opinion in cases like Thomas v. Sorrell (1673/4). “[G]iven the cross-confessional argument and pollination in the early modern period across the republic of letters,” Sam contends, “it is plausible to think that sharply demarcated “Catholic” and “Protestant” intellectual traditions are from a later time.” As I say, just when that “later time” began is difficult to determine, as Sam properly acknowledges (the 19th century seems quite late, indeed), but at least as to the earlier common law writers, his view seems (to this admitted non-expert in English legal history) persuasive.

At any rate, check out this very fine piece.

Movsesian on Defining Religion

In First Things this month, I have an essay arguing that religion, for legal purposes, presumptively means a collective rather than a purely personal pursuit. It’s a question that already has perplexed courts in the context of COVID-19, and is likely to become more pressing with the rise of the Nones.

Here’s an excerpt:

It’s time for the Court to establish that religion, at its core, denotes communal beliefs and practices rather than idiosyncratic personal commitments. A communal definition makes sense for several reasons. First, the existence of a community captures something important about the social reality of religion. In lived experience, religion suggests a group of people linked with one another, through time, in worship. As sociologist Christian Smith writes, “religions are almost invariably social activities—communities of memory engaged in carrying on particular traditions.” Without a communal structure to give them meaning, religious practices such as prayer, fasting, and so on are incoherent, “simply the strange doings of odd people.”

Second, a focus on community accords with an important goal of religious freedom: the promotion of private associations that encourage cooperative projects and check state power. As Tocqueville explained, the despotic state desires nothing more than for individual citizens to feel isolated from and indifferent to others, so that it can divide and dominate them all. By encouraging people to identify with and look out for one another, private associations militate against self-centeredness and social isolation and help keep the state in check. Religious groups perform this function especially well. No associations have been better, historically, at promoting cooperative social projects and defying state oppression—as dictators down the centuries have learned.

Third, the existence of a religious community reduces the possibility of fraud. Everyone agrees that courts need not honor a religious claim that a litigant does not genuinely hold or raises merely as a pretext. But sincerity, which depends on a claimant’s subjective state of mind, is notoriously difficult for courts to evaluate. The existence of a religious community to which the claimant belongs can provide objective evidence of the claimant’s good faith. A continuous tradition of teaching and worship, and an organized body that enforces discipline, can go a long way toward demonstrating the claimant’s genuineness about his religious convictions.

Fourth, the existence of a community helps ensure that religious commitments are not frivolous and fleeting, but serious and lasting. It is one thing for the state to accommodate a citizen’s profoundly held beliefs. To do so honors the citizen’s dignity and accords him respect. It is another thing to defer to commitments that may be temporary and superficial. Not all idiosyncratic commitments fit that description, of course, and beliefs can be religious even if novel. But the existence of an established religious community can screen out passing whims that the state need not honor.

Finally, making the definition of religion turn at least in part on the existence of a religious community reduces the potential for administrative disorder. Long ago, the Supreme Court warned that if personal spiritual convictions were sufficient to override legal obligations, “every citizen [would] become a law unto himself.” One should not overstate this concern, but the rise of the Nones makes it important today. Requiring a claimant to show that his or her objections are not merely personal but derive from the teachings of an organized body of believers can reduce the potential for conflict with state laws—especially in a society in which very large numbers claim to follow their own spiritual paths.

You can find the rest of the First Things essay here. A much longer version of the essay will appear in a forthcoming symposium issue of the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal.

On the Autonomy of Religious Communities

Marc has written before about the rise of what he calls the “Australian School” in law and religion, a group of scholars, many fairly young, which “offers justifications for religious freedom rooted in theological considerations.” Marc identifies Alex Deagon (Queensland University of Technology) as a member of this school. Earlier this year, Bloombsury published Deagon’s latest work, A Principled Framework for the Autonomy of Religious Communities: Reconciling Freedom and Discrimination, which takes a comparative perspective and argues for “a peaceful coexistence of difference which supports both religious freedom and equality.” Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

This book engages in a theological critique of the legal frameworks and theoretical approaches of Australia, the US and England to create a peaceful coexistence of difference which supports both religious freedom and equality.

It develops a new framework for reconciling religious freedom and discrimination in Western liberal democracies and presents a unique approach to practically supporting both religious freedom and equality as fundamentally important objectives which promote more compassionate and cohesive communities.

The book applies the idea of peaceful coexistence of difference by assuming the dignity and goodwill of different people and perspectives, and proceeds upon shared virtues such as love which are affirmed by all.

2022-2023 Year-End Review

It’s been a productive 2022-2023 academic year at the Center. We’re pleased to share below some of the highlights (PDF). We have lots more planned for next year, so please stay tuned–and if you’d like to get on our mailing list, please let us know. Meanwhile, best wishes for a great summer!

Turning and turning in the widening gyre…

It is nothing new to observe that the center of American political and cultural life is having difficulty, as Yeats once put it, “holding.” It is instead increasingly extremes of various kinds that are gaining greater traction. “Extreme” carries a negative rhetorical charge, of course. One might say instead that Americans are coming to see the attraction of values long alien to their own largely optimistic, pragmatic, and open tradition–the values of commitment, hierarchy, tragedy, identity, and others–values that have their own claims on human hopes and fears. Some believe this to be a change from America of the past–a deeply and widely divided America has some precedents, but it is perhaps not the main stream–and one interesting question is just why the change has come upon us with such force today.

A new book out this fall makes the case for a return to balance: Why Not Moderation? Letters to Young Radicals (Cambridge University Press) by Aurelian Craiutu. Worth checking out, especially by those of us who might react with some (moderate) skepticism to its claims.

Moderation is often presented as a simple virtue for lukewarm and indecisive minds, searching for a fuzzy center between the extremes. Not surprisingly, many politicians do not want to be labelled ‘moderates’ for fear of losing elections. Why Not Moderation? challenges this conventional image and shows that moderation is a complex virtue with a rich tradition and unexplored radical sides. Through a series of imaginary letters between a passionate moderate and two young radicals, the book outlines the distinctive political vision undergirding moderation and makes a case for why we need this virtue today in America. Drawing on clearly written and compelling sources, Craiutu offers an opportunity to rethink moderation and participate in the important public debate on what kind of society we want to live in. His book reminds us that we cannot afford to bargain away the liberal civilization and open society we have inherited from our forefathers.