Christians in America and the Middle East

The Economist’s religion blog, “Erasmus,” has an interesting post on the sympathetic response of American Christians to the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Erasmus says this is a new development: Until recently, politically active American Christians, particularly on the right, have “seemed deeply ambivalent” about Mideast Christians. Recent events may have changed things. Erasmus notes the appearance at a congressional subcommittee hearing last week by the Hudson Institute’s Nina Shea, who spoke about the suffering of Mideast Christians and America’s responsibility to them.

It’s true that for the past few decades, the situation of the Mideast Christians hasn’t been a priority for American Christians. This wasn’t always so. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American churches agitated for aid to persecuted Christian minorities in Ottoman Turkey. More recently, though, American Christians, especially conservatives, have viewed Israelis, not Christians, as their natural allies in the region.

There are a few reasons for this. Ignorance is one. Many Americans don’t realize that there are Christians in the Middle East. In America, Christians who speak Arabic are repeatedly mistaken for Muslims. A Christian immigrant from Egypt who wears a cross once told me that Americans ask her about her mosque. Theological, cultural, and political factors play a role as well. For most American Christians, especially Evangelicals, Mideast Christians are decidedly “other.” Most are Orthodox; some are Eastern-rite Catholics; hardly any are Protestants, even mainline Protestants. In terms of worship and ecclesiology, most Mideast Christians are about as far from contemporary American Christianity as you can get and still be in the Christian fold. 

Culturally, most Mideast Christians are, well, Middle Eastern. Their values with respect to family and identity are apt to differ from those of the West. In purely cultural terms, a Christian from Minnesota may feel he has more in common with a secular Jew from Tel Aviv than a Christian from Tur Abdin. Politically, Christians in Arab countries have tended to be nationalists. Those that live in Israel feel like outsiders; they complain, with some justification, that the state is indifferent to their concerns. All this differentiates Mideast Christians from American Christians, who strongly support Israel as an embattled democracy to which the West owes a moral obligation. And this is putting aside the “end times theology” that persuades some American Evangelicals to support the Jewish state–a theology, needless to say, that Christians in the Middle East do not share. 

So what explains the new sympathy for Mideast Christians? Part of the explanation, Erasmus argues, is politics. Conservative Christians who didn’t object when Bush Administration policy led to the displacement of half the Christian population of Iraq are quite vocal now. There is some truth to this charge.

But, as Erasmus explains, it isn’t simply politics. Across the Middle East, the rise of Islamism has made the situation of  Christians truly dire. Just in the last couple of weeks, Islamists in the Syrian opposition murdered a Catholic priest. Unfortunately, this example of anti-Christian brutality is not unusual. Two Orthodox bishops kidnapped by Islamists in Syria have yet to be found. In Egypt, the Copts suffer greatly. In Turkey, the government is seizing the land of Syriac Christians on the basis of phony claims. One could give many other examples.

It bears repeating: Christianity in the Middle East faces an existential threat. And the Obama Administration–like the Bush Administration before it–has other priorities. Reportedly, the US ambassador to Egypt recently asked the Coptic Pope, Tawadros, to discourage Christians from taking part in anti-Morsi protests. And the Administration has decided to arm the Syrian opposition–a decision that seems likely, over time, to result in arming the Syrian Islamists.

The Administration undoubtedly believes that democracy is the only long-run hope for the Middle East, and that democratically-elected Islamist governments, if that is what the region’s people wish, are the short-term price one has to pay. I suppose an argument could be made. But of course Americans aren’t the ones paying the price. Christianity in the Middle East is going to the wall. As this tragedy becomes known, largely through the work of people like Shea, American Christians are taking notice.

California Court Rules School Yoga Program Does Not Violate Constitution

The Crisscross-Applesauce Position (New York Times)

An update on a case I wrote about in May: a California state court has ruled that including yoga in an elementary school phys ed program does not violate the Establishment Clause. Under current Supreme Court precedent, public schools may not endorse any particular religion (or, for that matter, religion generally). In yesterday’s ruling, the San Diego Superior Court reasoned that the Encinitas Union School District has scrubbed religious references from its yoga classes–the Lotus position has been renamed the “Crisscross-Applesauce” pose, for example–so that what remains is merely a fitness and stress-reduction program for kids. The court apparently did not find persuasive the testimony of an Indiana University religious studies professor, Candy Gunther Brown, who argued that yoga, a Hindu practice, is inherently religious. A lawyer for parents who brought the lawsuit against the school district says his clients will likely appeal.

Event: “Faith, Values and the Economy”

On July 18 in Washington, Brookings will release a new survey on economic policy and the views of religious progressives and conservatives:

On July 18, the religion, policy and politics project at Brookings will co-host an event with the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) to release a new survey and accompanying report co-authored by Brookings Senior Fellows E.J. Dionne and William Galston and PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones, PRRI Research Director Daniel Cox, and PRRI Research Associate Juhem Navarro-Rivera.

The 2013 Economic Values Survey tackles a range of topics, including perceptions of economic wellbeing and upward mobility; the role of government; how well capitalism is working; the importance and availability of equal opportunity; values that should guide government policy on economic issues; and specific economic policies. With its large sample size, the survey explores a range of fault lines on these issues, including racial and ethnic or generational divides. Additionally, the survey takes up the question of the existence and vitality of religious progressives compared to religious conservatives, and examines the relationship between theological beliefs and the views of both groups on capitalism and economic policy.

After the program, the speakers will take audience questions.

Details and the event registration form are here.

New York Times Editorial on the Contraception Mandate

Here is the New York Times offering an opinion about the Obama Administration’s decision to press on ahead with the contraception mandate and about the Tenth Circuit’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case (the case was handed down when Mark and I were at a conference last week, and it is quite long, so I haven’t quite yet had a chance to review it). The Times quotes Professor Marci Hamilton as saying that the Tenth Circuit decision is a “fantasy.” The opposition in the Times editorial has almost nothing to do with the specific issue decided in Hobby Lobby–whether for-profit corporations may exercise religious liberty rights. The Times’s position is that the mandate is “an important advance in public health” and that the Obama Administration “has gone further than fairness or the First Amendment require to reach a compromise that respects the concerns of some religious entities without sacrificing an employee’s right to make her own decisions regarding contraceptives and not to conform to the religious beliefs of her employer.” It then says this:

Contrary to the majority opinion, a corporation like Hobby Lobby is plainly not a “person” covered by the Restoration Act. In any case, the contraceptive rule still leaves the company’s owners free to rail about the different forms of birth control to which they object and to try to convince employees not to use them. As the Justice Department cogently argued, the burden imposed on any religion is trivial in allowing employees to make their own independent decisions to obtain free contraceptives.

Note that unless one is putting a whole lot of emphasis on the phrase “like Hobby Lobby,” this opinion really has nothing to do with the issue in Hobby Lobby itself. And the points thereafter about freedom of owners to object (is it a great concession that the Obama Administration did not curtail the freedom of individuals to object?) and the triviality of the burden on religion do not depend on the status–for-profit or non-profit–of a particular corporation. All of these points would apply with equal force to a non-profit, like a church. If the burden imposed on religion is “trivial,” then it would be important to understand why it is so in the case of for-profits and not in the case of non-profits. Otherwise, it’s trivial as to both (to be clear, some people take this view. But that’s not a particular claim about the issue in Hobby Lobby, so much as skepticism that “fairness” requires any accommodation at all).