Thank You

Just a quick note thanking Mark and Marc for allowing me to litter their blog with my posts for the month of June.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and hope that at least some of your readership did as well!

Unmoored Americans?

In May I taught a short course at the University of Lisbon – five consecutive days, two hours per day– on “Government-Sponsored Religious Symbols and Expressions.” After the usual adding and dropping, there were twenty students in the class, about half from Portugal and the other half from countries throughout Europe, including France, Belgium, Germany, and Poland. I don’t know whether the students were anything like a representative cross-section, but in any case it was interesting to see how their perspectives differed from those I encounter in classes here.

I had written up a hypothetical case based on the Mt. Soledad cross case that the Supreme Court declined to review (for now anyway) last week. On the first day, one of the students “stated the case”– quite capably– and ended with “So the challengers are suing to have the cross removed . . . . I’m really not sure why.”

At one point in the discussion, I took a “straw poll,” as I sometimes do. The vote was 18-2 for letting the cross stay. I rephrased the question: How many think the court should order the cross removed. Now the vote was 19-1 against judicially-ordered removal. And the lone dissenter changed his vote when reminded that the cross had ostensibly been erected as a war memorial.

This consensus surprised me, considering Europe’s legendary secularity; and it also worried me, not because I disapproved, exactly– given my views, this was an unusually sensible bunch– but because it looked to make for a boring (and maybe very short) class. So of course I started to argue the other way. I told them about my lunch with Mike Newdow, an intelligent and sincere and generally reasonable fellow. I asked how they’d feel if they were atheists (which some of them were, not surprisingly, and said so). No one budged.

When we discussed the Lautsi v. Italy case a couple of days later, opinion was much more mixed. Some students felt strongly that a cross on the wall of a classroom was inappropriate. But on public property on a high hill overlooking the city? Just not a problem.

I told them that my students in the US would be much more divided in their views; many would find the cross quite offensive– and unconstitutional. I wondered out loud why attitudes would be so different. Someone blurted out, half-seriously, “That’s because Americans are paranoid.” I think that was the word, anyway; it was something to that effect.

So I wonder. Was he right? Is there something excessive, maybe a little unmoored, about American attitudes in these matters?

— Steve Smith

Permanent Injunction Issued in Bronx Household Case

The latest decision in this long legal battle (which began back in 1995) was written last Friday by United States District Judge Loretta Preska, who issued a permanent injunction against the City of New York from implementing its policy of excluding Bronx Household of Faith and other organizations engaged in “worship services” from using public school facilities on equal terms with other groups.  For some previous discussion of the case, see this, this, and this.

The court readopted its legal findings from the preliminary injunction, but addressed the City’s new claims as well.  It held that the policy violated the Free Exercise Clause because it (a) was not neutral, therefore lifting it out of the framework of Employment Division v. Smith; and (b) does not satisfy strict scrutiny. 

Read more

Preston, “Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith”

From Knopf, an  interesting new book by Cambridge historian Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (2012). Preston addresses a topic historians often neglect: the role of religion in American foreign policy. Americans are, by and large, a religious people, and this has influenced the way their government has acted on the world stage for centuries. Religion’s influence has been complex, inspiring progressive internationalists like Franklin Roosevelt (Prestons’s discussion of FDR’s religiosity was for me the most unexpected and intriguing part of the book) and conservative nationalists like George W. Bush. Nonetheless, Preston identifies a unifying theme, “Christian republicanism,” which he defines as “a blend of Protestant theology and democratic politics.” This worldview prizes religious liberty as the foundation of democracy and views it as the most important of human rights. Indeed, Preston shows how the protection of religious liberty abroad has been a constant theme in American diplomacy. In the nineteenth century, the State Department advocated for missionaries, including Mormons, with foreign governments, even though the Department often found the missionaries a nuisance. In the twentieth century, Henry Kissinger’s attempts to get Congress to grant the Soviet Union most-favored-nation status failed largely because Kissinger underestimated American sympathy for the plight of Soviet Jews. CLR Forum readers will be interested in the shifting perceptions of Catholicism. Although for much of American history, the Catholic Church was seen as adverse to Christian republicanism – McKinley famously justified the annexation of the Catholic Philippines in order to “Christianize” the Filipinos – that view changed during the Cold War, perhaps as a result of a common enemy America and the Church had in Communism. Preston closes his book with a prediction: although religion “may not always determine the direction” of American foreign policy, it “will be an ever-present factor.” That seems a good bet.

Review of Steven Green’s Book

I’ve got a review up over at The New Republic on line of Steven Green’s fine book, The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash that Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine (OUP 2012).