Getting Out of Our Grooves — Part 3: Where Does Religious Liberty Come From?

The canonical view of American religious liberty was set out in Justice Hugo Black’s opinion in the Everson case (1947):  A “large proportion” of the “early settlers of this country . . . came from Europe to escape the bondage of laws which compelled them to support and attend government favored churches.”  Religious persecution “shocked the freedom-loving colonials into a feeling of abhorrence,” a feeling, he noted “which found expression in the First Amendment.”  Ultimately, the leadership for our national commitment to religious liberty came from Virginia, since Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religion Freedom and the First Amendment “had the same objective and were intended to provide the same protection . . . .”

This classic statement of the Jeffersonian origins of the religion clauses basically says that “ideas have consequences.”  And it’s hard to disagree with that principle in the abstract.  But it is also worth looking at some more pragmatic concerns that led Revolutionary America to embrace a greater level of religious freedom.  As discussed in my earlier blog, religious liberty, in addition to being a good idea, can be a useful strategy for governments seeking to expand or consolidate their power.

Scholars have suggested, for example, that the War itself may have had a beneficial trickle down effect on religious liberty.  Most recently, John Ragosta’s Wellspring of Liberty (2010) shows how Virginia’s dissenters, particularly the Baptists and Presbyterians, negotiated for greater religious liberty from the Anglican-dominated state in return for their support of the war effort.

Meanwhile, Charles Hanson’s Necessary Virtue: The Pragmatic Origins of Religious Liberty in New England (1998) shows how events in Massachusetts, where anti-Catholicism had been ingrained for a very long time, led to a “wartime accommodation” of Catholic France.  Hanson’s story touches in part on the oldest endowed university lecture in America, Harvard’s Dudleian Lecture.  Donor Dudley’s carefully drawn will required that, at least once every four years, the distinguished lecturer would be required to address the following topic:  “The detecting and convicting and exposing the idolatry of the Romish Church, their tyranny, usurpations, damnable heresies, fatal errors, abominable superstitions, and other crying wickedness in their high places.”

And so, while New Englanders had blasted the 1774 Quebec Act guarantying Canadian Catholics the “free exercise of religion,” the colonists’ formal alliance with Catholic France in 1788 led to wartime “accommodations,” including far milder Dudleian Lectures during the war years.  Old prejudices tend to die hard, however, and Harvard didn’t look seriously at changing the anti-Catholic focus of the lectures until the end of the 19th century, a move that we may choose to applaud for its liberalness or to criticize for its violation of the principle of upholding donor intent in charitable giving.

Don Drakeman

What Really Matters

This fall, as the Eurozone’s constitutional and economic crisis deepened, some observers suggested a religious explanation: the crisis had resulted from different worldviews in the Protestant north and the Catholic (and Orthodox) south. The Protestant culture of the north is thrifty, sober, and bourgeois: a contract society. The Catholic (and Orthodox) culture of the south is profligate, emotional, and traditional: a status society. Among the observers who have offered such explanations are Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Harvard Professor Steven Ozment.

As First Things’s Matt Schmitz points out in a fun post yesterday, these observations have an implicit moral component: Protestant values are better, or at least better promote economic efficiency. Maybe, says Schmitz, morality cuts the other way. The “passionate and ecstatic culture” of the Catholic and Orthodox south, he writes (quoting Christopher Dawson), a culture which “finds its supreme expressions in the art of music and in religious mysticism,” may, in fact, be morally superior. Schmitz would doubtless agree with Hillaire Belloc’s famous observation:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino!

I need to think some more about all this. But it’ll have to wait till tomorrow. Here at the Center, we knock off early on Fridays, so we can drink ouzo and listen to Monteverdi.

Wolterstorff, “The Mighty and the Almighty”

This July, Cambridge University Press published The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology by Nicholas Wolterstorff (Yale). The publisher’s description follows.

For a century or more political theology has been in decline. Recent years, however, have seen increasing interest not only in how church and state should be related, but in the relation between divine authority and political authority, and in what religion has to say about the limits of state authority and the grounds of political obedience. In this book, Nicholas Wolterstorff addresses this whole complex of issues. He takes account of traditional answers to these questions, but on every point stakes out new positions. Wolterstorff offers a fresh theological defense of liberal democracy, argues that the traditional doctrine of ‘two rules’ should be rejected and offers a fresh exegesis of Romans 13; the canonical biblical passage for the tradition of Christian political theology. This book provides useful discussion for scholars and students of political theology, law and religion, philosophy of religion and social ethics.

Studying Conflict Without Solving It: An Agenda

I participated in a terrific conference yesterday organized by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown. The master of ceremonies, Tom Farr, did a wonderful job of putting interesting panels together. And our own moderator, Tom Banschoff, put a series of provocative questions to our panel. I learned a lot from my good co-panelists, Cathy Kaveny and Mark Rienzi, and was happy to see and listen to many old friends and meet new ones (I am now on the train home with some spotty internet access, and so will forbear from linking to the various places where you can learn about the conference — at some point, a video will be available for those who need a sleep aid).

Our panel’s overarching subject was conflict between religious liberty and other rights. My initial comments had to do with the importance of conflict — not only its inevitability, but indeed (and more controversially), its positive desirability as a reflection of the reality of our respective and very different backgrounds, traditions, and memories, but also as a reflection of our internal struggles to manage the clash of sundry values as to which we each hold strong allegiances.

But I realized — both throughout the day and during the panel itself — that my approach and that of others may be slightly different, and in a way that maybe it would be helpful to spell out. During the conference, there was sometimes mention, by some of the speakers, about the need to “build bridges” or to reach mutual agreements or to “solve” conflicts with those with whom one disagrees. Provided that compromises are undertaken at the right level of particularity, I think these are all very worthy goals. They are important as a matter of practical getting along. They are important as a political and legal matter. And they are important inasmuch as an irenic state of affairs is generally welcome.

But I do not think that bridge-building is the only activity that needs pursuing. There are other projects too. Because of the depth and complexity of the conflicts at issue in many of the contemporary controversies addressed by the conference — indeed, because of the central importance of conflict — it seems to me that some study of the conflicts themselves is worthwhile — a study which would be undertaken without the self-conscious and more specifically practical aim of “solving” them. The project would be simply to understand them, and if that were accomplished, it’d be a good day’s work. It also might be the case that taking the measure of a conflict can be achieved more effectively and more deeply without an underlying impulse or motivation to reach a state of harmony, and without the conviction that harmony must somehow be possible.

Perhaps it might be useful to offer some concrete examples of the beginnings of an agenda for the study of conflict as applicable to some of the specific controversies swirling about today. The list surely is not and is not intended to be complete. The main point of this post is methodological. It is about what projects are worth pursuing.

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Gorski, Kim, Torpey & VanAntwerpen (eds.), The Post-Secular in Question: Religion in Contemporary Society

This past March, New York University Press published The Post-Secular in Question: Religion in Contemporary Society edited by Philip Gorski (Yale University), David Kyuman Kim (Connecticut College), John Torpey (Cuny), and Jonathan VanAntwerpen (NYU). The publisher’s description follows.

The Post-Secular in Question considers whether there has in fact been a religious resurgence of global dimensions in recent decades. This collection of original essays by leading academics represents an interdisciplinary intervention in the continuing and ever-transforming discussion of the role of religion and secularism in today’s world. Foregrounding the most urgent and compelling questions raised by the place of religion in the social sciences, past and present, The Post-Secular in Question restores religion to a more central place in social scientific thinking about the world, helping to move scholarship “beyond unbelief.”

Heneghan on Christian-Muslim Relations in the Middle East

This article by Reuters’s Religion Editor Tom Heneghan in Al Arabiya is, quite simply, the best I have read in the popular press on the complicated relationship between Christians and Muslims in the contemporary Middle East. Reporting on a Istanbul conference attended by Christian and Muslim intellectuals, Heneghan explains that the two sides sometimes seemed as if they were “talking about two different places and using divergent meanings for the same words.” For example, Muslim participants spoke with pride about Islam’s history of “tolerance” for Christians. Christian participants were less impressed: for them, historical Muslim “tolerance”connoted a requirement that Christians accept subordination as the price of peaceful coexistence. Christian participants also discounted the importance of formal legal equality, since, even today, social customs in the Middle East often dictate inferiority for Christians. For their part, Christian participants spoke with pride about Christianity’s insistence on separating church and state. But Muslim participants viewed this concept with suspicion, arguing that Islam does not admit such a separation. “In the West, religious liberty emerged when Christianity was weakened,” one Turkish scholar explained. “This does not give Muslims much confidence.” On the eve of the papal visit to Lebanon, a very worthwhile read.