Butler, Habermas, Taylor & West, “The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere”

Those wishing for quite an eclectic range of views on this subject by a suite of famous philosophers and public intellectuals will enjoy The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (Columbia University Press 2011), edited by Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and with contributions by Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West.  The publisher’s description follows.

The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere represents a rare opportunity to experience a diverse group of preeminent philosophers confronting one pervasive contemporary concern: what role does—or should—religion play in our public lives? Reflecting on her recent work concerning state violence in Israel-Palestine, Judith Butler explores the potential of religious perspectives for renewing cultural and political criticism, while Jürgen Habermas, best known for his seminal conception of the public sphere, thinks through the ambiguous legacy of the concept of “the political” in contemporary theory. Charles Taylor argues for a radical redefinition of secularism, and Cornel West defends civil disobedience and emancipatory theology. Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen detail the immense contribution of these philosophers to contemporary social and political theory, and an afterword by Craig Calhoun places these attempts to reconceive the significance of both religion and the secular in the context of contemporary national and international politics.

Threats of Impeachment and Signaling

The rather impetuous comments of Newt Gingrich over the weekend on Face the Nation have received some warranted scrutiny, including over at Prawfsblawg by my friend Paul Horwitz.  In response to some questions by the host about his view of the Supreme Court and of courts in general, Gingrich said a few things about the secularism in evidence in the Mt. Soledad Cross case out of the Ninth Circuit as well as the “under God” Pledge of Allegiance case decided by the Ninth.  Early in the interview, he also said this:

I think part of the advantage I have is that I’m not a lawyer. And so as historian, I look at the context of the judiciary and the constitution in terms of American history. The fact is, I’ll just give you two examples — Judge Biery’s ruling on June 1st that he would jail the superintendent if anybody at the high school graduation used the word benediction, used the word invocation, asked for a moment of silence, asked the audience to stand, or mentioned God, he would jail the superintendent was such an anti-American dictatorship of speech that there’s no reason the American people need to tolerate a federal judge who is that out of sync with an entire culture. So I have to ask the question, is there an alternative? What’s the recourse? Well, one recourse is impeachment.

One interesting feature of the discussion is the move to threaten impeachment.  This is, of course, nothing new.  One of the first articles I wrote (and which has all the marks of an early piece) had to do with congressional threats of impeachment against federal judges; the practice is very old, indeed, in no small measure because it is so difficult to actually impeach a judge (or anybody else for that matter) — I document the context of successful and threatened judicial impeachments in the piece.

Threats of removal against the judiciary, whether by Congress or the executive, can also, in appropriate cases, serve a kind of signaling function.

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The Passing of Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident, playwright, and president, died this weekend at the age of 75. His 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” which critiqued Communism as a morally bankrupt system based on lies, is a classic of human-rights literature. Havel personally experienced totalitarianism from the inside of a prison; his bravery and decency gave him a legitimacy that few politicians in Europe, or anywhere, can claim. Here is a tribute by Czech academic Jiri Pehe, who served as Havel’s political adviser from 1997 to 1999.

Why Presidents Can’t Belong to a Church

In Time, Amy Sullivan (liberal Evangelical and author of a widely-noted book on the “God gap” in American politics) observes that American Presidents can no longer maintain church membership. It’s not because of any constitutional strictures. Rather, the intense public attention that surrounds anything a President does nowadays makes church membership a practical impossibility. Any church that a President regularly attended would find itself deluged with Secret Service and members of the media, to say nothing of spectators who would crowd the church for a peek at POTUS. Sullivan regrets this situation:

It’s hard to imagine any future President being able to attend church–much less teach Sunday School [as Jimmy Carter did]–without an attendant hullabaloo. And that’s too bad. The men and women we put in that office will confront serious questions on life-and-death issues and find themselves under enormous amounts of stress. For those for whom religion has been important, it could be helpful to have the outlet of a congregation where they could reflect and be renewed. The individuals who serve as President give up many personal freedoms in order to do so. A community of worship shouldn’t have to be one of them.


Iraq’s Christians: Those Who Remain

The US pulled its troops out of Iraq this weekend, ending the 9-year long Iraq war. The ultimate consequences of the war — for Iraq, the Middle East, and the United States itself — remain to be seen. We won’t really know for generations. One thing that seems clear at the moment, though, is that the US-led invasion was a catastrophe for Iraq’s Christians. Before the war, Iraq had about 1.5 million Christians. The fall of the secular Ba’ath government left them exposed to killings, threats, and intimidation by radical Islamic elements. About a million Christians have fled the country. This LA Times piece offers a sad reflection on the state of those who remain.