Religious Conversion and Presidential Candidates

In The New Republic, Mark Oppenheimer remarks on the fact that so many major American politicians have had religious conversions while adults: Barack Obama, Newt Gingrich, Harry Reid, and George W. Bush, to name only a few. He can’t help but wonder whether their motivations were at least partly political. For Gingrich, conversion to Catholicism might be a way to obscure his earlier adulteries; in fact, on the campaign trail, he has pointed to his conversion to show he’s a changed person. For Obama, baptism in “a prominent, black, urban mega-church” would have been a way to ignite his political career in Chicago. And so on.

Oppenheimer notes that religious conversions do not seem to hurt American politicians. It’s easy to see why. Voters switch religions all the time, too. According to a recent study by Putnam and Campbell, at least one-third of Americans have switched their religion as adults; about 25% have searched for a new place of worship, not counting those who have searched for a new place because of a move. These are astonishingly high numbers in comparison with the rest of the world. In their propensity to change religions as adults, American politicians reflect the remarkable “churn” that characterizes American religious culture. Perhaps this is Mitt Romney’s real problem: he’s been in the same church his whole life.

Dagan and Fisher on Commodification

It doesn’t address religion as such, but a new piece on SSRN, The State and the Market–A Parable: On the State’s Commodifying Effects, raises issues that law and religion scholars may find interesting. Over the last generation, more and more aspects of life have become matters of the market. People can make contracts about lots of things that once were off limits. Some scholars argue that this trend has gone too far, that certain subjects, like family relationships, relate so closely to human personality that their commodifcation does violence to something essential. The authors of this new piece, Tsilly Dagan (Bar-Ilan) and Talia Fisher (Tel Aviv) are skeptical of the anti-commodification position, arguing that state regulation may have commodifying effects as well. Their paper is entirely secular, but religious jurisprudence traditionally opposes commodification as well, and scholars who work in that field may find the discussion of commodification suggestive. The abstract follows.

Commodification has become the central parameter in delineating the contours of the market and in the division of labor between the market and the state. The commodification critique has become a ‘buzz word’ against the market and thus in support of State intervention. In what has been termed “taboo trades” – human organs, reproductive capacities, sexuality and the like – market-based orders have been condemned on the basis of commodification, thus leaving the floor open for state-intervention by regulation. The central argument of this article is that the commodificatory effects, often associated with monetary transactions, are not exclusive to monetized exchanges nor to the market arena. Rather, State intervention, as such, involves similar reductive effects, in light of its inherent itemizing, categorizing and ranking nature. This understanding has a significant implication for the structuring of the market-state debate: In light of the fact that upon closer scrutiny state ordering shares similar commodificatory effects with the market – we argue that it is not enough to raise the commodification banner in order to justify state intervention. Put differently, an implicit premise in the prevailing commodification discourse is that where the market commodifies, the state is necessarily neutral. However, state intervention – we will show – suffers from similar flaws. Another purpose of viewing commodification through the prism of State intervention is to expose the multi-faceted nature of the anti-commodificatory sentiment. Expanding the horizons of the commodification discourse beyond the traditional contexts of taboo markets to the unexplored terrain of state regulation exposes the fact that money is but one instance of a whole family of cases where thick social interactions are translated into a uni-dimensional currency that has a reductive effect on them.

“Keep Christ in Christmas” Banner Rankles FFRF

A story out of Pitman, New Jersey.  It seems that a local chapter of the Knights of Columbus has hung a banner, attached on both sides to private property but spanning a public street, stating, “Keep Christ in Christmas.”  There is no question that the Knights are responsible for the banner, since it says so right on the banner itself.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, however, has asked the town to remove it.  But as the mayor points out, the banner is actually affixed to private property, so it is not exactly clear that the town has the authority to take it down, even if it wanted to.  (There seems to be some disagreement in the news stories I looked at about exactly what the sign is attached to; some stories say private property, others say public streetlamps and such.  This may be an important fact legally.)

Undaunted, FFRF is now searching for a suitable place to display its own sign: “At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”  No word yet on whether they have found a banner big enough.

Helfont Reviews Lacroix’s “Awakening Islam”

A superb review at The New Republic’s on-line book review, The Book, by Samuel Helfont (a Ph.D. student at Princeton) of Stéfane Lacroix’s Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Saudi Arabia (HUP 2011).  After noting that Saudi Arabia has always posed something of a “blind spot” to scholars of Islamic societies, Helfont gives a very good summary of this book and concludes with this:

In the era of the Arab Spring, it is enticing to see Arab history as moving steadily toward a more democratic and less authoritarian future: the will of the people has finally challenged and even overthrown entrenched dictatorial regimes. But again the kingdom of Saudi Arabia seems like a holdover from a past era, and in the surge of scholarship that is beginning to appear on popular movements and democracy in the Arab World, Saudi Arabia may again seem passé and unimportant. This would be a mistake. If the history of Saudi Arabia teaches anything, it is that Western social scientists often miss the mark when assessing where the Middle East is headed. While it would be tempting to assume that the Saudi monarchy will fade into the ancient sands of the Arabian Peninsula, destined to be replaced by a more modern and democratic state, it would be incredibly dangerous to do so.

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: A propos of this review, see also this dreadful news story about the execution of a woman in Saudi Arabia for practicing sorcery.  (h/t Volokh).

Brewer et al, “Religion, Civil Society, and Peace in Northern Ireland”

Very interesting-looking book about the role of organized religion in contributing to the peace process in Northern Ireland, Religion, Civil Society, and Peace in Northern Ireland (OUP 2011), by John D. Brewer (Aberdeen), Gareth I. Higgins (lecturer at Queens, Belfast, and Trinity College, Dublin), and Francis Teeney (Aberdeen).  The publisher’s description follows.

Religion was thought to be part of the problem in Ireland and incapable of turning itself into part of the solution. Many commentators deny the churches a role in Northern Ireland’s peace process or belittle it, focusing on the few well-known events of church involvement and the small number of high profile religious peacebuilders. This new study seeks to correct various misapprehensions about the role of the churches by pointing to their major achievements in both the social and political dimensions of the peace process, by small-scale, lesser-known religious peacebuilders as well as major players. The churches are not treated lightly or sentimentally and major weaknesses in their contribution are highlighted. The study challenges the view that ecumenism was the main religious driver of the peace process, focusing instead on the role of evangelicals, it warns against romanticising civil society, pointing to its regressive aspects and counter-productive activities, and queries the relevance of the idea of ‘spiritual capital’ to understanding the role of the churches in post-conflict reconstruction, which the churches largely ignore.

This book is written by three ‘insiders’ to church peacebuilding in Northern Ireland, who bring their insight and expertise as sociologists to bear in their analysis of four-years in-depth interviewing with a wide cross section of people involved in the peace process, including church leaders and rank-and-file, members of political parties, prime ministers, paramilitary organisations, community development and civil society groups, as well as government politicians and advisors. Many of these are speaking for the first time about the role of religious peacebuilding in Northern Ireland, and doing so with remarkable candour. The volume allows the Northern Irish case study to speak to other conflicts where religion is thought to be problematic by developing a conceptual framework to understand religious peacebuilding.

Oshatz, “Slavery and Sin”

Here is a historical work connecting the anti-slavery movement in early America to liberal Protestant theology, Slavery and Sin: The Fight Against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestant (OUP 2011), by Molly Oshatz (San Francisco State University).  The publisher’s description follows.

In this groundbreaking examination of the antislavery origins of liberal Protestantism, Molly Oshatz contends that the antebellum slavery debates forced antislavery Protestants to adopt an historicist understanding of truth and morality.

Unlike earlier debates over slavery, in antebellum America the key question was whether slavery was a sin in the abstract. Unable to use the letter of the Bible to answer the claim that slavery was not a sin in and of itself, antislavery Protestants argued that biblical principles required opposition to slavery and that God revealed slavery’s sinfulness through the gradual unfolding of these principles. Although they believed that slavery was a sin, antislavery Protestants’ sympathy for individual slaveholders and their knowledge of the Bible made them reluctant to denounce all slaveholders as sinners. In order to reconcile slavery’s sinfulness with their commitments to the Bible and to the Union, antislavery Protestants defined slavery as a social rather than an individual sin. Oshatz demonstrates that the antislavery notions of progressive revelation and social sin had radical implications for Protestant theology.

Oshatz carries her study through the Civil War to reveal how emancipation confirmed for northern Protestants the notion that God revealed His will through history. She reveals how, after the war, a new generation of liberal theologians drew on this experience to respond to evolution and historical biblical criticism. Slavery and Sin provides critical insight into how the theological innovations rooted in the slavery debates came to fruition in liberal Protestantism’s acceptance of the historical and evolutionary nature of religious truth.