Things I Thought I Knew — Part 2: The Simple Cobbler from Connecticut

American statesman Roger Sherman is best known to us for not being very well known.  We find him mostly in collections of works by “Forgotten Framers.”  Or, for those of us raised in the era of the Broadway play and film, 1776,  he is “just a simple cobbler from Connecticut,” whose intellect isn’t up to helping draft the Declaration of Independence.

Mark David Hall’s excellent new book, Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic (2012), shows us what we’ve been missing by focusing too much attention on the more famous founders.  Hardly just a simple merchant, Sherman was smart, articulate and thoughtful, and he was a deeply religious and intellectually engaged Calvinist in the New England tradition. Sherman’s Reformed Protestant faith was not only important to him, but, thanks to Sherman and his New England colleagues, it ended up contributing as much to American nation-building as the much more commonly credited Enlightenment.

Meanwhile, the original “simple cobbler” from New England is always worth revisiting.  Nathaniel Ward was a Puritan minister who wrote, under a pseudonym, a satiric 1646 essay titled, “The Simple Cobbler of Aggawam in America.”  The Simple Cobbler sets out a New England view of religious toleration not long after Roger Williams was banished, as follows:   “Antinomians, Anabaptists, and other Enthusiasts shall have free Liberty to keep away from us, and such as will come to be gone as fast as they can, the sooner the better.”

Don Drakeman

Schielke, “The Perils of Joy”

This October, Syracuse University Press will publish The Perils of Joy: Contesting Mulid Festivals in Contemporary Egypt by Samuli Schielke (Zentrum Moderner Orient research institute, Berlin). The publisher’s description follows.

Mulids, festivals in honor of Muslim “friends of God,” have been part of Muslim religious and cultural life for close to a thousand years. While many Egyptians see mulids as an expression of joy and love for the Prophet Muhammad and his family, many others see them as opposed to Islam, a sign of a backward mentality, a piece of folklore at best. What is it about a mulid that makes it a threat to Islam and modernity in the eyes of some, and an indication of pious devotion in the eyes of others? What makes the celebration of a saint’s festival appear in such dramatically different contours? The Perils of Joy offers a rich investigation, both historical and ethnographic, of conflicting and transforming attitudes toward festivals in contemporary Egypt.

Schielke argues that mulids are characterized by a utopian momentum of the extraordinary that troubles the grand schemes of order and perfection that have become hegemonic in Egypt since the twentieth century. Not an opposition between state and civil society, nor a division between Islamists and secularists, but rather the competition between different perceptions of what makes up a complete life forms the central line of conflict in the contestation of festive culture.

Confusion About the Freedom of Speech and Incitement to Violence

I’m having a hard time understanding the claim — if it is a claim, or perhaps it’s just the suggestion of a claim — by some in the media that the video, “The Innocence of Muslims” (discussed by my colleague Mark) is not protected by the freedom of speech.  But I’m not a speech scholar, and the byways of speech law are as byzantine as any in the law.

What is it about the video that would not warrant free speech protection?  I have not watched it, but I believe that the speech here relates to criticism — crude, ignorant, and thoughtless criticism, to be sure — of Islam, Muslim countries, and Muslim people.  I will also assume that it is offensive to Muslims. 

Offensiveness to particular constituencies, including religious constituencies, is not the test for speech protection.  How could it be?  One only has to read the newspaper to see offensive and ignorant commentary about religion and religious people produced all the time.  That speech is clearly protected, and nobody — certainly not the LA Times — would ever suggest otherwise. 

The claim in the LA Times piece seems to be that speech which is intended to incite violence is unprotected.  The author of the op-ed is relying on the exception set out in the Brandenburg case, which permits regulation of speech where (1) the violence or illegal activity is imminent; (2) the speaker intends to cause the violence or illegal activity; and (3) the speech is likely to cause the violence or illegal activity.  But I have questions about this. 

First, what is the evidence that the video’s makers actually did intend to incite violence, as opposed to intending to say something provocative?  In fact, I doubt that anybody intended to incite a violent mob to murder our diplomatic personnel in Libya, but before doing away with speech protections here, I’d like to see the evidence that they did.  Second, what is the evidence of “imminence”?  The best that the op-ed writer can come up with is that the video was published around September 11, and that “the timeline of similar events after recent burnings of religious materials indicates that reactions typically come within two weeks.”  I had not thought that “imminence” is as context-dependent as this author suggests.  In the law of self-defense, imminent means imminent, as in right now, immediate, not two weeks later, or perhaps even later than that.  Third, I’ve always been curious about the third leg of the Brandenburg test.  Why should a greater likelihood that a particular constituency will rise up in violence in response to provocative speech mean that the speech itself is less deserving of protection than speech which targets a constituency which is not likely to react violently to the offense?  Does the third leg of the test not reward the sort of behavior that we have been witnessing?  Does it not stimulate similar behavior?  Perhaps a free speech expert can help me out.

Hogue, “Stumping God”

In August, Baylor University Press published Stumping God: Reagan, Carter, and the Invention of a Political Faith by Andrew P. Hogue (Baylor University). The publisher’s description follows.

For more than three decades, American presidential candidates have desperately sought the conservative Evangelical vote. With an ever broadening base of support, the Evangelical movement in America may now seem to many a very powerful lobbyist on Capitol Hill. As Andrew Hogue shows, however, this was not always the case.

In Stumping God Hogue deconstructs the 1980 presidential election, in which Ronald Reagan would defeat Jimmy Carter and John B. Anderson, and uncovers a disproportionately heavy reliance on religious rhetoric—a rhetoric that would be the catalyst for a new era of presidential politics. Until 1980, the idea that conservative politics was somehow connected with conservative theology was distant from the American imagination. Hogue describes the varying streams of influence that finally converged by the Reagan-Carter election, including the rapidly rising Religious Right. By 1980, candidates were not only challenged to appeal rhetorically to a conservative religious base, but found it necessary to make public their once-private religious commitments.

In compelling and illuminating fashion, Stumping God explains the roots of modern religious politics and encourages readers to move beyond the haze of rhetorical appeals that—for better or worse—continually clouds the political process.

Egypt Issues Arrest Warrants for American Filmmaker and Others

According to the AP, Egyptian prosecutors have issued arrest warrants for several American citizens connected with the production and distribution of the YouTube video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that has sparked violent protests in that country and throughout the Muslim world.  Egypt charges the defendants — who include the video’s maker and publicist, assorted Coptic Orthodox Christians, and Florida pastor Terry Jones — with “harming national unity, insulting and publicly attacking Islam, and spreading false information.” Some of the charges carry the death penalty.

What happens now? Some reports indicate that Egypt has contacted Interpol, the  international police cooperation organization in Lyon, France, for help in executing the warrants. In a press release, however, Interpol says  it has  not received any such request and that, in any case, its Constitution forbids it from undertakings “of a political, military, religious or racial character.” The strong implication: don’t expect us to help. The US and Egypt have an extradition treaty that dates back to Ottoman times, but, according to this unofficial version on the web, the treaty doesn’t cover offenses of the sort Egypt alleges here. Anyway, it’s inconceivable that the State Department would assist Egypt any more than Interpol, or that American courts would ever allow these defendants to be transferred to Cairo. Observers expect Egypt will end up trying them in absentia.