A Bunny is a Bunny

I guess it was bound to happen. A public elementary school in Alabama has renamed its annual Easter Egg Hunt to avoid giving offense to non-Christian children and parents. According to the school’s principal, Lydia Davenport, the hunt will still take place; it will just no longer have the word “Easter” attached to it. The seasonal rabbit will likewise go nameless:

“Kids love the bunny,” smiles Davenport, “and we just make sure we don’t say ‘the Easter bunny’ so that we don’t infringe on the rights of others because people relate the Easter bunny to religion; a bunny is a bunny and a rabbit is a rabbit,” Davenport concluded.

Well, you can’t argue with that. Most disputes about public holiday displays in America involve Christmas, of course. This is so, I think, because Easter, although far more important as a religious holiday, is relatively minor as a public holiday. Perhaps that’s because it falls on a Sunday. Compared to Christmas, Easter passes by almost without notice in America. But there’s no reason we can’t fight over it as well. Let the Easter Wars begin.

Allitt Reviews Frazer’s “The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders”

I’m also a little late in noticing this very well-done review by Patrick Allitt (history, Emory), some of whose on-line courses I have listened to in the car.  He discusses a book by Gregg Frazer, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, Revolution (2012).  A bit from Professor Allitt’s thoughtful conclusion:

I learned much from The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders, but closed it unsure of how the author would address two possible criticisms. First, he offers a narrow definition of “Christianity” likely to offend many readers. Millions of liberal Protestants today would certainly describe themselves as Christians while actually holding to a faith Frazer himself would call theistic rationalism. In his view, it’s not enough to call yourself a Christian; you must also affirm the doctrinal fundamentals. He comes from a circle of evangelical historians that has transformed American historiography in the last 30 years. Its superb leading figures—George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, and Mark Noll—have forced American historians to take evangelical religion more seriously than ever before as a major factor in the nation’s history. So far as I know, however, they never denied the term “Christians” to members of the diverse groups that make up most of the American religious landscape.

Second, and on a closely related matter, Frazer never says of most figures in his book whether they did or did not call themselves Christians. It is clear that Washington and Franklin avoided using the term and that Jefferson only occasionally accepted it. But what about Madison, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, or Alexander Hamilton? Frazer admits that the evidence about them is rather more ambiguous but never says outright whether they accepted or applied the term to themselves. In other words, while adding “theistic rationalism” to “deism” and “Christianity” as possible categories of belief among America’s founders, he has shrunk “Christianity” to mean rather less than it did at the time of the Revolution itself.

State Court Says Orthodox Jewish Prenup Is Constitutional: Husband Must Give Get

We’re a little late getting to this, but the Jewish Daily Forward reports on a recent Connecticut trial court’s decision to enforce a prenuptial agreement that requires a husband to grant his wife a religious divorce under Jewish law. The prenup between two Orthodox Jews, Rachel and Eben Light, provides that, in the event the couple divorce, Eben must give Rachel a get, or ritual document recognizing the divorce in Jewish law. In fact, the prenup has a liquidated damages clause: for each day Eben refuses to give the get, he must pay Rachel $100 in damages. As of today, the damages may exceed $100,000.

The Connecticut court held that the prenup does not violate the Religion Clauses. Although there have been other cases enforcing Jewish prenups, this is apparently the first recorded case in which this particular prenup, drawn up by the Beth Din of America, a major Jewish-law arbitration tribunal,  has been enforced in the civil courts. The decision will be appealed. 

Anthony Kennedy: Catholic Jurist?

At the Huffington Post, U-Texas grad student William Blake writes about a study he conducted on the impact of the justices’ religious views on Supreme Court decisions. (The study, published in the Political Research Quarterly, is here). Although not as important as other factors, Blake maintains, the justices’ religious views do have a limited impact on their decisions. In cases “connected to religion,” he writes, Catholic justices are “more likely to support the position of the Catholic Church” than their Protestant and Jewish colleagues.

Now, I’m no expert in statistics, so perhaps I’m missing something. But the main example of religious influence Blake cites in his Huffington Post piece is a bit surprising. It’s Justice Anthony Kennedy. According to Blake, the Catholic concept of “human dignity” has influenced Kennedy’s jurisprudence. For example, “Kennedy has written two important majority opinions in support of gay rights using dignity as a concept”:

In Roemer v. Evans, Kennedy viewed a Colorado constitutional amendment that prevented gays from seeking discrimination protection as a disadvantage imposed out of “animosity” to gays. In Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court struck down a state law criminalizing gay sexual conduct. Justice Kennedy began his majority opinion in Lawrence with the following observation: “Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.”

It’s not at all clear that the Catholic concept of human dignity, which informs so much of international human rights law, has very much in common with the understanding of autonomy in cases like Lawrence. And things get even stranger when Blake turns to Kennedy’s abortion jurisprudence:

Justice Kennedy’s record on abortion, on the other hand, is more conservative. Biographer [Frank] Colucci describes some of Kennedy’s abortion opinions as containing “paternalistic and moralistic language.” In one abortion case, Justice Kennedy wrote: “Respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in the bond of love the mother has for her child. Whether to have an abortion requires a difficult and painful moral decision…[S]ome women come to regret their choice.”

The case Blake quotes is Gonzales v. Carhart, in which the Court upheld the constitutionality of the federal partial-birth abortion ban. That’s certainly a “conservative” decision, as the Court’s abortion jurisprudence goes. But it’s difficult to see how the statement Blake quotes reflects a specifically Catholic sensibility. Plenty of secular-minded judges would say similar things. And there’s the even more glaring fact that Justice Kennedy co-wrote the joint opinion in Casey, with its famous “sweet mystery of life” passage–an opinion that hardly reflects a Catholic view of abortion.

Maybe Blake has better evidence in his paper. Actually, it wouldn’t shock me if religion had some influence on the justices’ decision-making in Religion Clause cases–though I suspect it would be very hard to disentangle religion from factors like upbringing and general worldview. But Anthony Kennedy as a Catholic jurist? Not too convincing. (H/T: John Barrett).

Şahin, The Empire and Power in the Reign of Süleyman

Empire and PowerNext month Cambridge University Press will publish Empire and Power in the Reign of Süleyman: Narrating the Sixteenth-Century Ottoman World by Kaya Şahin (Indiana University). The publisher’s description follows.

Kaya Şahin’s book offers a revisionist reading of Ottoman history during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent (1520–1566). By examining the life and works of a bureaucrat, Celalzade Mustafa, Şahin moves beyond traditional, teleological approaches and argues that the empire was built as part of the Eurasian momentum of empire building, and demonstrates the imperial vision of sixteenth-century Ottomans. This unique study shows that, in contrast with many Eurocentric views, the Ottomans were active players in European politics, with an imperial culture in direct competition with that of the Habsburgs and the Safavids. Indeed, this book explains Ottoman empire building with reference to the larger Eurasian context, from Tudor England to Mughal India, contextualizing such issues as state formation, imperial policy, and empire building in the period more generally. Şahin’s work also devotes significant attention to the often-ignored religious dimension of the Ottoman-Safavid struggle, showing how the rivalry redefined Sunni and Shiite Islam, laying the foundations for today’s religious tensions.

Schaeffer, Kapstein, and Tuttle, Sources of Tibetan Tradition

Sources of Tibetan TraditionThis month Columbia University Press will publish Sources of Tibetan Tradition edited by Kurtis R. Schaeffer (University of Virginia), Matthew T. Kapstein (University of Chicago), and Gray Tuttle (Columbia University).  The publisher’s description follows.

 The most comprehensive collection of Tibetan works in a Western language, this volume illuminates the complex historical, intellectual, and social development of Tibetan civilization from its earliest beginnings to the modern period. Including more than 180 representative writings, Sources of Tibetan Tradition spans Tibet’s vast geography and long history, presenting for the first time a diversity of works by religious and political leaders; scholastic philosophers and contemplative hermits; monks and nuns; poets and artists; and aristocrats and commoners. The selected readings reflect the profound role of Buddhist sources in shaping Tibetan culture while illustrating other major areas of knowledge. Thematically varied, they address history and historiography; political and social theory; law; medicine; divination; rhetoric; aesthetic theory; narrative; travel and geography; folksong; and philosophical and religious learning, all in relation to the unique trajectories of Tibetan civil and scholarly discourse. The editors begin each chapter with a survey of broader social and cultural contexts and introduce each translated text with a concise explanation. Concluding with writings that extend into the early twentieth century, this volume offers an expansive encounter with Tibet’s exceptional intellectual heritage.