Religious Division and Identity – Richard III and the Rest of Us – Part I

Thanks to Mark Movsesian for inviting me to guest blog here.  I’ll mainly be posting in October, but here’s a down payment inspired by Mark’s entry about the decision to re-inter the recently-discovered remains of King Richard III in Leicester’s Anglican Cathedral rather than give him a Catholic burial.  The Catholic bishop of Nottingham  has approved the plan, and Mark’s post was appropriately relaxed, even tongue-in-cheek, about the whole thing.  But some Catholic commentators are genuinely upset.  They argue that Richard was Catholic, not Anglican, and deserves a Catholic ceremony.  They insist that, for that matter, the Anglican Church didn’t even exist when Richard died.

Fights over long-dead bodies, famous or not, are often both religiously fraught and emotional.  Consider the efforts of American Indian tribes, bolstered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, to reclaim remains that have ended up in museum collections.  But they can also implicate deeper issues about religious identity and continuity — questions that end up involving theology, history, and law.  For example, are prehistoric remains, such as those of Kenwick Man, genuinely the patrimony of modern native tribes?  The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit famously said no.

Back to Richard III, though.  Many Anglicans would deny that Richard III was “Catholic” in the limited contemporary sense of the word that would exclude his membership in the “Church of England.”  The simple reason is that Anglicans claim a direct line back from their Church to the Church to which Richard belonged.  As the COE’s website puts it, “The roots of the Church of England go back to the time of the Roman Empire when Christianity entered the Roman province of Britain. Through the influences of St Alban, St Illtud, St Ninian, St Patrick and, later, St Augustine, St Aidan and St Cuthbert, the Church of England developed, acknowledging the authority of the Pope until the Reformation in the 16th century.”  Thus, Henry VIII might have split the English Church from Rome, but he did not create it anew.  To be sure, Catholics have a different view. But neither position is self-evident by sheer definition.

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Tocqueville on materialism

In my last posting, I discussed Tocqueville’s view that religious belief in “natural” to human beings, but that religion loses its hold when it is instrumentalized to serve a political purpose. On that view, it would seem to follow that religion should be secure in a nation like the United States, where the government seeks to avoid any entanglement with religion. However, Tocqueville also thinks that American democracy has a tendency to corrode religious belief, so that our democratic environment is not as hospitable to religion as it might have seemed. The primary reason why American democracy is predisposed to unbelief, Tocqueville seems to say, is that it gives rise to “materialism.” In this posting, I shall probe that thought.

The religious sentiment is not, for Tocqueville, the only or even the dominant passion within the human heart. “What most sharply stirs the human heart is not the quiet possession of a precious object but the as yet unsatisfied desire of owning it and the constant fear of losing it.” Democracy in America at 616 (Bevan trans.). In an aristocratic society, where the opportunities for gaining wealth are limited, neither the rich, who already enjoy material prosperity, nor the poor, who have no hope of attaining it, are driven by this passion. In that type of society, “the mind of the poor man is cast forward to the next world; his imagination is cramped by the wretchedness of real life, yet it escapes to seek for joys beyond.” Id. at 617. But in more open and egalitarian societies, where the poor have the chance of becoming wealthy and the rich have more cause to fear the loss of their fortunes, both rich and poor will be “constantly engaged in the pursuit or the preservation of these precious, imperfect, and fugitive delights.” Id. Hence both the hedonism and the restlessness of American society; hence also the threat that American affluence poses for American religion. “Religion is often powerless to restrain man in the face of the countless temptations offered by wealth and cannot moderate his eagerness to become rich, which everything around him helps to stimulate.” Id. at 340.

Tocqueville is both impressed and dismayed by the Americans’ unrelenting drive for wealth. “The passions which stir Americans most deeply are commercial not political ones or more accurately they transfer into politics the methods of business. . . . One must go to America to understand the power of material prosperity over political actions and even those opinions which ought to be governed by reason alone.” Id. at 333. The American pursuit of wealth is “feverish;” it leaves them “ceaselessly tormented.” Id. at 623. Yet their enjoyment of their acquisitions is shadowed by a “secret anxiety.” Id. at 624. They cannot rest content. “In the United States, a man will carefully construct a home in which to spend his old age and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and will rent it out just as he was about to enjoy its fruit; he will clear a field and leave others to reap the harvest.” Id. at 623. Thus we find “unusual melancholy” and “distaste for life” “in the midst of plenty.” Id. at 625-26. “The man who has set his heart exclusively on the search for the good things of this world is always in a hurry for he has only a limited time to find, grasp, and enjoy them.” Id. at 624. The thought of his mortality “floods his mind with agitation, fear and regret; it holds his soul in a sort of ceaseless nervousness.” Id. Yet if Americans could finally “be[] satisfied with their physical possessions alone,” that would bring them ruin rather than repose: “they would gradually lose the skill of producing them and would end up enjoying them without discernment or improvement like the animals.” Id. at 636.

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“Innocence of Muslims” Filmmaker Released from Prison

How time flies. It hardly seems possible that almost a year has passed since last September’s controversy over an offensive You Tube video, “The Innocence of Muslims.” The video led to protests at American embassies in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, drew the attention of the US President (“The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam”), and had serious people questioning American free speech principles. Things have gotten much worse in the Middle East since then–in Egypt today, there are reports of massive violence in Cairo and the burning of churches across the country–for reasons that have nothing to do with a video that, one suspects, gets very few hits any longer. At one point, the US Government asserted that the video had led to the storming of the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the murder of four Americans there, including the US ambassador. But that explanation is no longer operative, and the media seems mostly uninterested in finding out what really happened. What difference at this point does it make?

One person for whom time has not flown, however, is the video’s American producer, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, also known as Mark Basseley Youssef. He has spent the past year in federal prison. Nakoula has been in jail for violating parole on a prior fraud conviction, but there can be little doubt that as a practical matter authorities seized him because of the controversy over the video. Federal authorities have now moved him to a halfway house to serve the remaining weeks of his sentence. The location is undisclosed, presumably to protect Nakoula. In an interview this week with CNN, Nakoula says he was shocked at the allegation that his film caused the Benghazi attack. He also–much less convincingly–expresses surprise that people would think his video was anti-Islam. Nakoula will be on probation for a few more years and will also need to face civil suits by the film’s actors, who allege he misled them about the video’s content.

Ferrari & Christofori, “Law and Religion, an Overview”

This September, Ashgate Pub. Co. will publish Law and Religion, an Overview by Silvio Ferrari (University of Milan) and Rinaldo Cristofori (University of Milan). This is the first in a very useful four-volume set by these authors. We previously noted Volume II (“Freedom of Religion and Belief”) and here is Volume III (“Religion in the Public Space”) and Volume IV (“Current Issues in Law and Religion”). The publisher’s description follows.

The focus of this volume is on the historical and geographical elements of law and religion. The first part delineates and analyzes the relation between church and state from the Gregorian Revolution to the human rights era and gives a sense of the evolution of the church and state relationship, whilst the second part explores law and religion issues around the world. The volume redresses the tendency towards a western-centric approach in the discipline by including essays from regional experts which present local approaches to law and religion in Asia, Africa, and South America. The collection is unique in that it brings together wide-ranging case studies and out-of-print papers and is an important resource for established and new scholars in the field.

Formichi, “Religious Pluralism, State and Society in Asia”

This September, Routledge will publish Religious Pluralism, State and Society in Asia by Chiara Formichi (City University of Hong Kong). The publisher’s description follows.

Taking a critical approach to the concept of ‘religious pluralism’, this book examines the dynamics of religious co-existence in Asia as they are directly addressed by governments, or indirectly managed by groups and individuals. It looks at the quality of relations that emerge in encounters among people of different religious traditions or among people who hold different visions within the same tradition. Chapters focus in particular on the places of everyday religious diversity in Asian societies in order to explore how religious groups have confronted new situations of religious diversity. The book goes on to explore the conditions under which active religious pluralism emerges (or not) from material contexts of diversity.