Here’s another new paper of mine: On the Uses of anti-Christian Identity Politics. The abstract is below.
This short essay, written for a conference on “Faith, Sexuality, and the Meaning of Freedom” held at Yale Law School in January 2017, briefly explores the emerging phenomenon of anti-Christian identity politics. The essay focuses on one particular legal source of it: a recondite provision of the so-called Treaty of Tripoli of 1796, which states that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The uses to which the phrase has been put, it turns out, are more important than its confused and obscure historical meaning. In evaluating anti-Christian identity politics in only some of these uses, the essay considers the recent claim by Professor Mark Lilla that contemporary Americans — and American liberals in particular — ought to abandon “the politics of identity” in favor of a politics of shared citizenship.
Lilla is right that identity politics as practiced today have further corroded the commonalities that remain among Americans. Identity politics also render compromise on various culture-war issues more difficult: any policy or legal victory for the opposition, however small, assumes additional symbolic power and must therefore be resisted all the more fiercely. Yet the pathologies of identity politics are only symptoms of a more potent sickness in American political and cultural life. Americans, as citizens, share less and less. They disagree in deepening ways about the nature of the political and moral good, about justice, and about what sort of people they are and aspire to be. In short, identity politics are not the cause of, but a response to, political and cultural fragmentation. And anti-Christian identity politics, like Christian identity politics, represent one strain of that response — one ostensible point of rendezvous for a nation whose people are increasingly disaffected with and alienated from one another.
Here’s a new paper of mine, The Two Separations. Here’s the abstract:
There is nothing self-evidently attractive about separation — whether of church and state or anything else — as a model for individual or collective life. Pursuing separation is not like pursuing knowledge or friendship — ends that are intrinsically good. Separation must be justified by some contingent reason. Though the Constitution speaks of the free exercise of “religion” and “religion’s” non-establishment, much of the confusion about separation as an American civic ideal results from a failure to focus on the specifically historical and contingent justifications for it. These justifications concern not “religion” in general or in the abstract but Christianity in specific — Christianity being, as a historical and cultural matter, the central religious tradition of the United States.
These historical justifications have taken two cardinal forms. The first concerns the politico-theological benefits that are believed to devolve onto Christian churches, or onto Christian believers, from division from the state, and the general social and political advantages derived therefrom. The second involves the secular benefits to the liberal democratic state of unbreachable barriers against the civic and cultural influence of Christianity. The first justification is more ancient, but the second is more powerful today. The first is oriented positively, and the second negatively, toward the cultural and political value of Christianity in the United States. The first sees Christianity as precious. The second sees it as irrelevant or even obnoxious.
This chapter distinguishes and explores the two separations — separation as a specifically Christian piece of political theology, in large part for the benefit of a Christian civil society; and separation as a specifically secular position for the benefit of a liberal society that wishes to divest from and repudiate Christianity. It then describes the allure of equality and nondiscrimination as church-state ideals, their ascendancy in late twentieth century constitutional law, and the sense in which they are believed to have supplanted separation.
But neither equality nor nondiscrimination delivers what it promises: a valueless perspective on the social and political worth of Christianity. In fact, their perspective is decidedly negative. The chapter explains this claim by comparing the use of these principles in the contexts of race and sex discrimination, where the overriding assumption is that race and sex are fundamentally irrelevant considerations, and obnoxious and illegitimate bases on which to make laws and to order society. Transposed to the context of religion — and, as this chapter argues, the transposition in reality concerns Christianity specifically — a similar assumption holds: that Christianity is fundamentally an irrelevant, or even an obnoxious, and illegitimate, influence in the making of laws or the structuring of the cultural and political realms. Indeed, in a society in which Christianity has had such overwhelming predominance, insisting on equality is tantamount to squelching it. This view is not neutral as to the value of Christianity in contemporary American politics and society. It is nothing less than an expression of the second separation.
The place of religion in the American presidency is a source of endless historical and political interest. But Franklin Delano Roosevelt is not too often highlighted by scholars and biographers interested in this particular genre [ADDENDUM: but my colleague and historian of the period, John Barrett, says I am wrong about this]. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter, Reagan…these and others spring immediately to mind, but not FDR–the champion and architect of the New Deal. This new book by religion reporter Christine Wicker (author of a book a few years ago about the demise of Evangelical Christianity in America), The Simple Faith of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Religion’s Role in the FDR Presidency (Penguin Random House) discusses FDR’s religious convictions and the place of religion in the FDR presidency.
In The Simple Faith of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, religion journalist and author Christine Wicker establishes that faith was at the heart of everything Roosevelt wanted for the American people. This powerful book is the first in-depth look at how one of America’s richest, most patrician presidents became a passionate and beloved champion of the downtrodden–and took the country with him. Those who knew Roosevelt best invariably credited his spiritual faith as the source of his passion for democracy, justice, and equality. Like many Americans of that time, his beliefs were simple. He believed the God who heard his prayers and answered them expected him to serve others. He anchored his faith in biblical stories and teachings. During times so hard that the country would have followed him anywhere, he summoned the better angels of the American character in ways that have never been surpassed.