USCCB to Congress: Protect Food Aid & the Environment, Domestically & Internationally

On October 20, the Most Reverend Stephen E. Blaire, Bishop of Stockton, California, and the Most Reverend Howard J. Hubbard, Bishop of Albany, New York, penned a letter on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (“USCCB”) expressing concern about budget cuts to conservation, rural development, and international food-aid programs.

Bishop Blaire, the Chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop Hubbard, Chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote to emphasize that domestic and international budget considerations must take into account the “least of these” among us.  See Matthew, 25:40.  The letter focuses on the need, in determining government spending priorities, always to respect the fundamental right of the poor to adequate nutrition and the necessity of promoting responsible environmental stewardship.  The letter urges Congress, despite its legitimate fiscal concerns, not to lose sight of these priorities in its rush to cut spending.

Excerpts from the letter, addressed to the Chair and Ranking member of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, follow the jump. Read more

Announcing the Colloquium in Law: Law and Religion

The Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law is pleased to announce an exciting new seminar for Spring 2012, Colloquium in Law: Law and Religion.

This course invites leading law and religion scholars to make presentations to a small audience of students and faculty.  The following speakers have confirmed:

January 30: Philip Hamburger (Columbia University School of Law)

February 13: M. Cathleen Kaveny (Notre Dame Law School)

March 5: Joseph Weiler (NYU Law School)

March 19: Michael McConnell (Stanford Law School)

April 2: Justice Antonin Scalia

April 16: Ayelet Shachar (University of Toronto Faculty of Law)

Topics will be announced shortly.

Each session of the Colloquium will run from 4:00 to 6:00 in the third-floor faculty library.  Interested faculty members in the New York area and beyond  are invited to attend and participate.

Please email the Colloquium’s co-organizers, Marc DeGirolami ( or Mark Movsesian (, if you would like to attend.  — MOD

LDS in the USA: Its Theology of Gender and the Problem of Same-Sex Marriage

Joseph Smith (1805–1844)

Seth R. Payne has posted Mormonism and Same-Sex Marriage: Towards a Mormon Theology of Gender.  Payne’s article chronicles the theological tenets that make acceptance of same-sex marriage in the present-day Mormon Church a virtual impossibility—yet he also suggests that there is reason to believe this position, at least in theory, could change.  The piece adds additional context to my post on the recent book, LDS in the USA, which can be viewed here.

Brigham Young (1801–1877)

Most people know that Mormons and the institutionalized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints played an integral role in the passage of Proposition 8, which overturned the ruling of the California Supreme Court’s decision in In re Marriage Cases, 183 P.3d 384 (Cal. 2008) that prohibiting same-sex marriage was a violation of the California and United States’ constitutions.  See Jesse McKinley & Kirk Johnson, Mormons Tipped Scale in Ban on Gay Marriage, N.Y. Times, Nov. 15, 2008, at A1.  Donations by Mormons were instrumental in mobilizing the forces that supported Proposition 8’s passage.  In certain respects, Payne articulates exactly why such donations were crucial to Mormon theological integrity.

For more on Payne’s exposition of these tenets of the Mormon Church, please follow the jump.

Read more

Stroumsa on Maimonides

Non-Jews mostly know Maimonides as a medieval philosopher who, much like Aquinas in the Christian tradition and Averroes in the Islamic, attempted to reconcile Aristotelian thought with Abrahamic faith. He was also one of the great scholars of Talmudic law, whose works are still regarded as canonical within Judaism. Sarah Stroumsa (Hebrew University) has written a new book, Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker (Princeton University Press 2011), that positions Maimonides within the larger  Mediterranean world of which he was a part. The publisher’s description follows. — MLM

While the great medieval philosopher, theologian, and physician Maimonides is acknowledged as a leading Jewish thinker, his intellectual contacts with his surrounding world are often described as related primarily to Islamic philosophy. Maimonides in His World challenges this Read more

Christmas Wars Kicked Off… and a Thought About “Neutrality”

The embattled governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, has announced that the tree decorated with baubles of various sorts for the upcoming winter season and located on capitol grounds is, in fact, a Christmas tree and not a holiday tree.  Naturally, the move has elicited consternation from some persons (the Freedom From Religion Foundation spokeswoman, for example), who are reported to have complained that the governor’s declaration amounts to a “discourtesy” and a “snub to non-Christians.  Otherwise he wouldn’t do it.”

Apart from the notion that there may well be other reasons to call a pipe a pipe than to injure the feelings of others, this exchange got me thinking about the arguments from religious “neutrality” that are sometimes made to justify the endorsement test in establishment disputes.  The FFRF spokeswoman says that the reason the name of the tree was changed from “Christmas” to “holiday” is “to avoid this connotation that the governor chooses one religion over another.”  That is a standard move in neutrality argumentation: we change the name to avoid even the hint of the suggestion that government is non-neutral when it comes to religion.

Obviously we are not talking about neutrality from the God’s-eye point of view, however.  We can only judge whether a practice is neutral by reference to some base line of social behavior.  Frank Ravitch and Andrew Koppelman (in a forthcoming book), among others, make and turn over these sorts of questions, but consider the following example.  In times of peace, the United States provides non-military aid to the small (and imaginary) country of Blorb.  Blorb now enters into a war with the country of Snorp, and it is very important to the US government that it remain “neutral” between the sides.  What does neutrality demand?  Presumably it would require the US not to begin granting military as well as non-military aid to Blorb (this is part of the reason that I believe neutrality is not an empty concept).  But does it also demand withdrawing non-military aid from Blorb?  Does it require keeping things the same as they were before the conflict?  Does it demand beginning to supply Snorp with non-military aid as well?  Or perhaps with non-military as well as military aid, in order to balance the former aid given to Blorb and withheld from Snorp?

Any one of these answers can be characterized as both neutral and non-neutral — or, as the FFRF rep. put it, as a “discourtesy” or as the public perception of “choosing” this over that.  Calling, as well as not calling, the Christmas tree a Christmas tree is a snub and a discourtesy.  The reason is that the historical base line from which judgments of neutrality operate admit of multiple reasonable interpretations of government action.  Does this mean that neutrality is empty?  I do not think so, as I said above.  If Governor Walker had announced that in addition to the Christmas tree, he was erecting a gigantic golden statue of Jesus right on top of the capitol building, one can quite sensibly speak of that decision as non-neutral.  But though neutrality can do a little bit of work along these lines, its conceptual resources rapidly run out in more difficult cases.  — MOD

Day, “Believing in Belonging”

From Abby Day (Sussex) comes this study in the sociology of religion, with complex implications for legal policy.  The book is Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World (OUP 2011).  Of particular interest is the finding that “nominal” religious affiliation — long dismissed as empty — may be nothing of the kind.  The publisher’s description follows.  — MOD

Believing in Belonging draws on empirical research exploring mainstream religious belief and identity in Euro-American countries. Starting from a qualitative study based in northern England, and then broadening the data to include other parts of Europe and North America, Abby Day explores how people ‘believe in belonging’, choosing religious identifications to complement other social and emotional experiences of ‘belongings’. The concept of ‘performative belief’ helps explain how otherwise non-religious people can bring into being a Christian identity related to social belongings.

What is often dismissed as ‘nominal’ religious affiliation is far from an empty category, but one loaded with cultural ‘stuff’ and meaning. Day introduces an original typology of natal, ethnic and aspirational nominalism that challenges established disciplinary theory in both the European and North American schools of the sociology of religion that assert that most people are ‘unchurched’ or ‘believe without belonging’ while privately maintaining beliefs in God and other ‘spiritual’ phenomena.

This study provides a unique analysis and synthesis of anthropological and sociological understandings of belief and proposes a holistic, organic, multidimensional analytical framework to allow rich cross cultural comparisons. Chapters focus in particular on: the genealogies of ‘belief’ in anthropology and sociology, methods for researching belief without asking religious questions, the acts of claiming cultural identity, youth, gender, the ‘social’ supernatural, fate and agency, morality and a development of anthropocentric and theocentric orientations that provides a richer understanding of belief than conventional religious/secular distinctions.