The Economist Launches a Religion Blog

The Economist magazine has launched a new blog on religion and public policy, “Erasmus,” named for the Renaissance Dutch humanist who tried to chart a middle course between scholastic Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation. “Hard clogs to fill,” as the first post admits, but Erasmus looks like a very welcome contribution to the blogosphere. We look forward to reading it. 

Becket Fund on the Hasidic Dress Code Controversy

Eric Rassbach of the Becket Fund writes about NYC’s lawsuit against Hasidic-owned stores in Brooklyn. The city’s lawsuit alleges that the stores’ dress code discriminates against women. CLR Forum covered the story here.

You Are Not a Religion

In Habits of the Heart, written almost 30 years ago, sociologist Robert Bellah and his co-authors came up with a term to describe a new American religion: “Sheilaism.” The phrase comes from an interview Bellah conducted with a woman called  Sheila, who described her religion as follows:

I believe in God. I am not a fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice. . . . My own Sheilaism . . . is just to try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other.

You don’t have to be a sociologist to appreciate how well Sheila’s comments reflect the mindset of millions of Americans. You can dismiss that mindset as empty and self-indulgent, but in the land of  postmodern individualism, Sheilaism has powerful rhetorical appeal. It is preached relentlessly in advertising, books, movies, music, TV programs, even presidential politics (“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”). It is the effective religion of the “Nones”– the rapidly increasing cohort of Americans who claim no formal religious affiliation–and, one imagines, many churched people as well.

Yet Sheilaism is not a constitutionally recognized religion, at least in the Fourth Circuit. That’s one lesson of the recent, fascinating Psychic Sophie case that Marc described in his post this week. In the case, a Virginia fortune teller, “Psychic Sophie,” argued that local licensing and zoning rules violated her First Amendment right to freely exercise her religion. She described her religion this way:

I am very spiritual in nature, yet I do not follow particular religions or practices, and “organized” anythings are not for me. I pretty much go with my inner flow, and that seems to work best.

She didn’t use the phrase, but Psychic Sophie’s religion is Sheilaism. And, as Marc notes, the Fourth Circuit held that this worldview does not constitute a religion for purposes of the First Amendment. For constitutional purposes, the court reasoned, religion means some organizing principle or authority other than oneself.  Going with one’s inner flow does not qualify.

That makes a good deal of sense. Sheilaism is a very useful concept in sociology, but it doesn’t really work in constitutional law. Recognizing Sheilaism as a religion for constitutional purposes would create all sorts of problems. We’d have millions of religions in America, each of which could claim a right to free exercise. We’d be courting anarchy. 

Or would we? The really interesting thing about the Psychic Sophie case is that it’s so unusual. With so many Sheilaists in America claiming to follow their own paths, surely we should be seeing many more claims for religious exemptions from generally applicable laws. There should be much more friction in American life. But there isn’t. All these free spirits wind up believing pretty much the same things and acting in pretty much the same ways. Perhaps Sheilaism isn’t really about following one’s inner voice, but the voice of the mainstream culture. In which case, Sheilaism isn’t really about individualism, but conformity. Like the guy said, you can have a car painted any color you like–as long as it’s black.

Welcome to Pasquale Annicchino

This month, CLR Forum is delighted to welcome guest blogger Pasquale Annicchino. Pasquale is a Research Fellow at the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute in Florence and the book review editor for Religion and Human Rights. He has his doctorate in law from the University of Siena, as well as degrees from the European Academy of Legal Theory in Brussels and University College London. This semester, he’s teaching at the law school at BYU. Welcome, Pasquale!

Around the Web This Week

Some interesting law & religion stories from around the web this week:

Bergen & Tiedemann (eds.), “Talibanistan”

Talibanistan2This past December, Oxford University Press published Talibanistan: Negotiating the Borders Between Terror, Politics, and Religion edited by Peter Bergen (National Security Analyst at CNN) and Katherine Tiedemann (deputy editor of AfPak Channel). The publisher’s description follows.

The longest war the United States has ever fought is the ongoing war in Afghanistan. But when we speak of “Afghanistan,” we really mean a conflict that straddles the border with Pakistan–and the reality of Islamic militancy on that border is enormously complicated.

In Talibanistan, an unparalleled group of experts offer a nuanced understanding of this critical region. Edited by Peter Bergen, author of the bestselling books The Longest War and The Osama Bin Laden I Know, and Katherine Tiedemann, these essays examine in detail the embattled territory from Kandahar in Afghanistan to Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. They pull apart the distinctions between the Taliban and al Qaeda–and the fractures within each movement; assess the effectiveness of American and Pakistani counterinsurgency campaigns; and explore the pipeline of militants into and out of the war zone. Throughout, these scrupulously researched studies challenge convenient orthodoxies. Counterterrorism expert Brian Fishman criticizes the customary distinction between an Afghan and Pakistani Taliban as being too neat to describe their fragmented reality. Hassan Abbas paints a subtle portrait of the political and religious forces shaping the insurgency in the Northwest Frontier Province, uncovering poor governance, economic distress, and resentment of foreign troops in nearby Afghanistan. And Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann try to identify the real numbers of drone strikes and victims, both militants and civilians, while disputing claims for their strategic effectiveness.

These and other essays provide profound new insight into this troubled region. They are required reading for anyone seeking a fresh understanding of a central strategic challenge facing the United States today.