Around the Web This Week

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

A Christian Country

Not a Hater

It used to be the case that Americans referred unselfconsciously to their country as “a Christian nation.” The phrase had multiple meanings. A few speakers, no doubt, used it as a taunt: non-Christians (which, for many, would have meant non-Protestants) should keep quiet or get out. Others used the phrase to indicate that Christianity, in a general way, informed American law and government. That’s what Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story meant, for example, when he wrote that Christianity was part of the common law. Still others used the phrase in a theological sense: America was the New Zion, Chosen of God.

But most people throughout our history have used “Christian nation” in a milder, less formal way. When they called America a Christian nation, they referred to the obvious fact that the vast majority of Americans were Christian, and to the equally obvious fact that Christianity had shaped American society and culture: its traditions, ethics, educational and charitable institutions, art and commerce. They meant that Christianity was deeply embedded in American life–and that it was a good thing, too.

In this looser sense, to say that America is a Christian nation remains true today, almost trivially so. The large majority of Americans are still Christian, something like 80% in a recent Pew Survey. In fact, as countries go, America is not especially diverse, religiously. Many Asian countries are much more so. Christianity continues to shape American culture–less and less, in our secular age, but still. And Christianity continues to benefit American society in terms of the schools, hospitals, soup kitchens, and many other charitable works it sponsors.

Notwithstanding all this, it’s hard to imagine an American leader using the phrase “Christian nation” today. That’s perhaps wise. Some people would think such a statement deliberately provocative and insensitive to non-Christians, whose contributions to American life are enormous. The grievance industry would get to work exaggerating the offense. Pundits and professors would tweet self-righteously about bigotry and  exclusion. Cable news channels would run special reports. It would be a mess.

Something like this is happening in Britain right now. Last week, Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech in which he referred to Britain as “a Christian country.” Mind you, Britain has a state church and no fewer that three crosses on the national flag. Its monarch is a religious figure, the Defender of the Faith. In such a context, you’d think the Prime Minister’s comments would pass without notice. But they have sparked a very loud protest. Prominent atheists have accused Cameron of fostering “alienation and division.” Besides, the protesters say, Cameron is simply wrong. In terms of religious observance, contemporary Britain is not a Christian place–and it’s a good thing, too.

The protest is a huge overreaction. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said it very well:

[T]he Prime Minister and other members of the Government have not said anything very controversial. It is a historical fact (perhaps unwelcome to some, but true) that our main systems of ethics, the way we do law and justice, the values of society, how we decide what is fair, the protection of the poor, and most of the way we look at society . . .  All have been shaped by and founded on Christianity. Add to that the foundation of many hospitals, the system of universal schooling, the presence of chaplains in prisons, and one could go on a long time. Then there is the literature, visual art, music and culture that have formed our understandings of beauty and worth since Anglo Saxon days.

It is clear that, in the general sense of being founded in Christian faith, this is a Christian country. It is certainly not in terms of regular churchgoing, although altogether, across different denominations, some millions attend church services each week. Others of different backgrounds have also positively shaped our common heritage. But the language of what we are, what we care for and how we act is earthed in Christianity, and would remain so for many years even if the number of believers dropped out of sight (which they won’t, in my opinion).

Political leaders, as well as everyone else, should avoid saying hateful things or disparaging minority religions. In a pluralistic society, everyone should be treated with respect. But it is not disparagement to point out obvious truths about a nation’s religious heritage, or to acknowledge the benefits that heritage continues to have. Referring to Britain–or America, for that matter–as a Christian country doesn’t make the speaker a hater.

Photo from the BBC

Emon, Levering & Novak, “Natural Law: A Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Trialogue”

9780198706601_450This May, Oxford University Press will publish Natural Law: A Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Trialogue by Anver M. Emon (University of Toronto), Matthew Levering (Mundelein Seminary), and David Novak (University of Toronto). The publisher’s description follows.

This book is an examination of natural law doctrine, rooted in the classical writings of our respective three traditions: Jewish, Christian, and Islamic. Each of the authors provides an extensive essay reflecting on natural law doctrine in his tradition. Each of the authors also provides a thoughtful response to the essays of the other two authors. Readers will gain a sense for how natural law (or cognate terms) resonated with classical thinkers such as Maimonides, Origen, Augustine, al-Ghazali and numerous others. Readers will also be instructed in how the authors think that these sources can be mined for constructive reflection on natural law today. A key theme in each essay is how the particularity of the respective religious tradition is squared with the evident universality of natural law claims. The authors also explore how natural law doctrine functions in particular traditions for reflection upon the religious other.

Russo (ed.), “International Perspectives on Education, Religion and Law”

9780415841474This May, Routledge will publish International Perspectives on Education, Religion and Law edited by Charles Russo Jr. (School of Law, University of Dayton). The publisher’s description follows.

This volume examines the legal status of religion in education, both public and non-public, in the United States and seven other nations. It will stimulate further interest, research, and debate on comparative analyses on the role of religion in schools at a time when the place of religion is of vital interest in most parts of the world. This interdisciplinary volume includes chapters by leading academicians and is designed to serve as a resource for researchers and educational practitioners, providing readers with an enhanced awareness of strategies for addressing the role of religion in rapidly diversifying educational settings. There is currently a paucity of books devoted solely to the topic written for interdisciplinary and international audiences involving educators and lawyers, and this book will clarify the legal complexities and technical language among the law, education, and religion.