Daniel Dreisbach et al., eds., “The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life”

This book, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life (Notre Dame Press 2009),  is not brand-new, but it is a wonderful introduction to some lesser-known but deeply interesting thinkers in early America.  The book is a collection of essays on the views of these early Americans with respect to the role of religion in civil society, authored by several highly respected historians, most especially Daniel Dreisbach.  The publisher’s description follows.  — MOD

This interdisciplinary volume brings together essays on eleven of the founders of the American republic—Abigail Adams, Samuel Adams, Oliver Ellsworth, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Thomas Paine, Edmund Randolph, Benjamin Rush, Roger Sherman, and Mercy Otis Warren—many of whom are either little recognized today or little appreciated for their contributions. The essays focus on the thinking of these men and women on the proper role of religion in public life, including but not limited to the question of the separation of church and state. Their views represent a wide range of opinions, from complete isolation of church and state to tax-supported clergy.

These essays present a textured and nuanced view of the society that came to a consensus on how religion would fit in the public life of the new nation. They reveal that religion was more important in the lives and thinking of many of the founders than is often portrayed and that it took the interplay of disparate and contrasting views to frame the constitutional outline that eventually emerged.

Sukkahs in TriBeCa

Tonight, according to the New York Times, the Community Board for New York’s neighborhood of TriBeCa (if the Times spells it that way, so will we) votes on whether to allow a Jewish group to erect a sukkah, a ritual hut associated with the Jewish autumn holiday of Sukkot, in a neighborhood park. It’s not clear how the Board will vote.  A few members apparently have concerns about allowing religious symbols like the sukkah in a public park.  As a legal matter, the sukkah is probably acceptable.  Once the state opens up a public forum for private speech, it cannot discriminate on the basis of content. The state must treat religious and non-religious speech equally — and it seems that the city does allow private speech in Duane Park.  Also, although the Supreme Court’s case law on religious displays is famously unpredictable, past decisions suggest that a private group may erect a religious display on public property as long as reasonable observers would not conclude that the state had endorsed the group’s religious message.  So it might be a good idea for Chabad, the group seeking permission for the sukkah, to include some sort of disclaimer that makes clear that the sukkah is not an official city structure.  However the Board decides, this case could well reach the courts. — MLM

Nadler on Spinoza’s Political Theory

From Steven Nadler, what looks to be a very interesting treatment of Baruch Spinoza’s political philosophy, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton 2011). A description follows. — MLM

When it appeared in 1670, Baruch Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise was denounced as the most dangerous book ever published–“godless,” “full of abominations,” “a book forged in hell . . . by the devil himself.” Religious and secular authorities saw it as a threat to faith, social and political harmony, and everyday morality, and its author was almost universally regarded as a religious subversive and political radical who sought to spread atheism throughout Europe. Yet Spinoza’s book has contributed as much as the Declaration of Independence or Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to modern liberal, secular, and democratic thinking. In A Book Forged in Hell, Steven Nadler Read more

Faith no More: The Moral Atheist

Professor of Sociology at Pitzer College, Phil Zuckerman, will publish Faith no More: Why People Reject Religion, in October.  This text illuminates some of the suppositions I posited about atheism, atheists, and atheists’ discontent in the first part of my recent commentary on the New York Timesprofile of outspoken anti-religionist, Richard Dawkins.  Faith No More, based on interviews and other studies of persons who have left their faith or otherwise opted against observance, finds that, far from being a uniform bloc, atheists in America are a group with varied and complex reasons for their lifestyle choice.

But perhaps most compelling and relevant is Zuckerman’s revelation that atheists are not the amoral nihilists that politicians have so often found it convenient to portray; rather, as I posited in my first Dawkins post, they are, on a whole, people deeply concerned with morality—perhaps, I suggested, persons who have encountered, and been deeply troubled by, religiosity in one of its more immoral incarnations.  I suggested that for many atheists, their choice of non-religion stems from a deep sense of moral conviction—a belief that atheism is more moral than the religion they have encountered in history books and in their lives.

This conclusion only supports the legitimacy of nonreligious persons’ defensive stance in contemporary society, a stance that could easily lead to Dawkinsesque anti-religiosity and contribute to Dawkins’ widespread popularity among the reading public.  (Note, in particular, the sharp difference between the mention of the non-religious in President Obama’s inaugural speech [see the reference after the jump] and Mitt Romney’s complete avoidance of the constituency in his 2007 Faith in America Speech.)

The publisher’s description of Faith no More follows:

[Update (DRS, 12/26/11): See Louise M. Antony’s discussion of atheism and morality in her recent NYT.com post, Good Minus God (Dec. 18, 2011).  Antony—who teaches philosophy at UMass Amherst—argues that atheism usually has nothing to do with nihilism, but is an alternative moral perspective.  For atheists, she says, morality does not depend on the existence of God; rather, morality and the good are “immanent in the natural world”—right and wrong are inherent in the interactions and reactions between rational, feeling beings.]

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Jones on Internal Church Schism, Property Law, and Constitutional Limitations

In September, Bernie D. Jones of Suffolk University Law School posted Litigating the Schism and Reforming the Canon: Orthodoxy, Property & the Modern Social Gospel of the Episcopal Church.  Her article explores the issues that arise when intra-church dogmatic schisms encounter property jurisprudence and the thorny predicament that American courts, in turn, face when asked to decide questions of doctrinal accuracy under a system in which the Establishment Clause forbids courts’ taking sides in internal theological debates.  Jones ultimately recommends the development of internal Episcopal processes for resolving such disputes.

This article relates to a host of present-day schisms in the Anglican Communion.  Doctrinal controversies over issues such as the ordination of female priests have resulted in more than twenty American Episcopal congregations’ opting to align themselves with conservative bishops in Nigeria, Uganda, and Rwanda; forming new domestic provinces in the United States; and English congregations’ leaving the Communion for Catholicism.

When controversies that are, at their root, theological lead to legal questions over the ownership of property, what, if anything, can an American court do without violating constitutional limitations?

See the abstract of Jones’ article after the jump:

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