Spiritualism, the belief that the living can communicate with the dead, goes back a long way in America. The nineteenth-century Transcendentalists dabbled in it, some of them, and Mrs. Lincoln conducted seances in the White House. A new book from Harvard University Press, Other Worlds: Spirituality and the Search for Invisible Dimensions, by Vassar College religion professor Christopher White, suggests spiritualism may be coming back, re-enforced by new scientific theories about the multiverse. These theories, he argues, make spiritualism more plausible. Which makes me wonder, actually: how many of the growing number of American Nones are spiritualists? Anyway, here is the description from the Harvard website:
What do modern multiverse theories and spiritualist séances have in common? Not much, it would seem. One is an elaborate scientific theory developed by the world’s most talented physicists. The other is a spiritual practice widely thought of as backward, the product of a mystical world view fading under the modern scientific gaze.
But Christopher G. White sees striking similarities. He does not claim that séances or other spiritual practices are science. Yet he points to ways that both spiritual practices and scientific speculation about multiverses and invisible dimensions are efforts to peer into the hidden elements and even the existential meaning of the universe. Other Worlds examines how the idea that the universe has multiple, invisible dimensions has inspired science fiction, fantasy novels, films, modern art, and all manner of spiritual thought reaching well beyond the realm of formal religion. Drawing on a range of international archives, White analyzes how writers, artists, filmmakers, televangelists, and others have used the scientific idea of invisible dimensions to make supernatural phenomena such as ghosts and miracles seem more reasonable and make spiritual beliefs possible again for themselves and others.
Many regard scientific ideas as disenchanting and secularizing, but Other Worlds shows that these ideas—creatively appropriated in such popular forms as C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, the art of Salvador Dalí, or the books of the counterculture physicist “Dr. Quantum”—restore a sense that the world is greater than anything our eyes can see, helping to forge an unexpected kind of spirituality.
Last month in New York, Sir Roger Scruton gave the keynote speech at our second Tradition Project conference, “Tradition, Culture, and Citizenship.” A video of Sir Roger’s speech is now available below:
One of the most interesting aspects of comparative law is the way legal terms migrate across borders and, in the process, acquire different meanings. “Secular” is one such term. Both the French and Turkish Constitutions declare that the state is “laic,” usually translated as “secular.” But “secular” can have different meanings, depending on the local context. A new book from Columbia University Press, The Politics of Secularism: Religion, Diversity, and Institutional Change in France and Turkey, by Murat Akan (Boğaziçi University) explores the topic. Here is the description from the publisher’s website:
Discussions of modernity—or alternative and multiple modernities—often hinge on the question of secularism, especially how it travels outside its original European context. Too often, attempts to answer this question either imagine a universal model derived from the history of Western Europe, which neglects the experience of much of the world, or emphasize a local, non-European context that limits the potential for comparison. In The Politics of Secularism, Murat Akan reframes the question of secularism, exploring its presence both outside and inside Europe and offering a rich empirical account of how it moves across borders and through time.
Akan uses France and Turkey to analyze political actors’ comparative discussions of secularism, struggles for power, and historical contextual constraints at potential moments of institutional change. France and Turkey are critical sites of secularism: France exemplifies European political modernity, and Turkey has long been the model of secularism in a Muslim-majority country. Akan analyzes prominent debates in both countries on topics such as the visibility of the headscarf and other religious symbols, religion courses in the public school curriculum, and state salaries for clerics and imams. Akan lays out the institutional struggles between three distinct political currents—anti-clericalism, liberalism, and what he terms state-civil religionism—detailing the nuances of how political movements articulate the boundary between the secular and the religious. Disputing the prevalent idea that diversity is a new challenge to secularism and focusing on comparison itself as part of the politics of secularism, this book makes a major contribution to understanding secular politics and its limits.
Here is an interesting-looking article by Luke Goodrich and Rachel Busick, both of the Becket Fund, on religious freedom cases since the Hobby Lobby case, Sex, Drugs, and Eagle Feathers: An Empirical Study of Religious Freedom Cases, forthcoming in the Seton Hall Law Review. Goodrich and Busick argue that, notwithstanding predictions that the Hobby Lobby case would open the proverbial floodgates, religious liberty cases actually remain rare. Here’s the abstract:
This Article presents one of the first empirical studies of federal religious freedom cases since the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Hobby Lobby. Critics of Hobby Lobby predicted that it would open the floodgates to a host of novel claims, transforming “religious freedom” from a shield for protecting religious minorities into a sword for imposing Christian values in the areas of abortion, contraception, and gay rights.
Our study finds that this prediction is unsupported. Instead, we find that religious freedom cases remain scarce. Successful cases are even scarcer. Religious minorities remain significantly overrepresented in religious freedom cases; Christians remain significantly underrepresented. And while there was an uptick of litigation over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate — culminating in Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor — those cases have subsided, and no similar cases have materialized. Courts continue to weed out weak or insincere religious freedom claims; if anything, religious freedom protections are underenforced.
Our study also highlights three important doctrinal developments in religious freedom jurisprudence. The first is a new circuit split over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The second is confusion over the relationship between the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses that is currently plaguing litigation over President Trump’s travel ban. The third is a new path forward for the Supreme Court’s muddled Establishment Clause jurisprudence.
When one thinks about the historical role of the religion in American foreign policy in Asia, the first religion that comes to mind is Christianity. The need to protect Evangelical missionaries dictated much American foreign policy in China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example. A new book from Yale University Press, Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia, by scholar Eugene Ford, suggests another example. During the Cold War, the book maintains, the US Government enlisted Buddhism as a vehicle for opposing the spread of Communism. Here’s the description from the Yale website:
The groundbreaking account of U.S. clandestine efforts to use Southeast Asian Buddhism to advance Washington’s anticommunist goals during the Cold War
How did the U.S. government make use of a “Buddhist policy” in Southeast Asia during the Cold War despite the American principle that the state should not meddle with religion? To answer this question, Eugene Ford delved deep into an unprecedented range of U.S. and Thai sources and conducted numerous oral history interviews with key informants. Ford uncovers a riveting story filled with U.S. national security officials, diplomats, and scholars seeking to understand and build relationships within the Buddhist monasteries of Southeast Asia.
This fascinating narrative provides a new look at how the Buddhist leaderships of Thailand and its neighbors became enmeshed in Cold War politics and in the U.S. government’s clandestine efforts to use a predominant religion of Southeast Asia as an instrument of national stability to counter communist revolution.
Happy Thanksgiving to all of our readers. Here is President George Washington’s mighty Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of 1789 to inspire your own tables today.
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation—for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted—for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions—to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually—to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed—to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord—To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New-York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
The first two books of the week offered critical perspectives on and diagnoses of contemporary liberalism–one by a political theorist and another by a law professor. This book, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It (Harvard University Press), by the political scientist Yascha Mounk, also offers a diagnosis for what he sees as deep and growing pathologies within secular liberal states, but Mounk does so in a salvific spirit. Mark has discussed some of Mounk’s research before; here Mounk offers an extended treatment of the problem and proposes solutions.
The world is in turmoil. From India to Turkey and from Poland to the United States, authoritarian populists have seized power. As a result, Yascha Mounk shows, democracy itself may now be at risk.
Two core components of liberal democracy—individual rights and the popular will—are increasingly at war with each other. As the role of money in politics soared and important issues were taken out of public contestation, a system of “rights without democracy” took hold. Populists who rail against this say they want to return power to the people. But in practice they create something just as bad: a system of “democracy without rights.”
The consequence, Mounk shows in The People vs. Democracy, is that trust in politics is dwindling. Citizens are falling out of love with their political system. Democracy is wilting away. Drawing on vivid stories and original research, Mounk identifies three key drivers of voters’ discontent: stagnating living standards, fears of multiethnic democracy, and the rise of social media. To reverse the trend, politicians need to enact radical reforms that benefit the many, not the few.
The People vs. Democracy is the first book to go beyond a mere description of the rise of populism. In plain language, it describes both how we got here and where we need to go. For those unwilling to give up on either individual rights or the popular will, Mounk shows, there is little time to waste: this may be our last chance to save democracy.
A second book that is critical of liberalism for this Thanksgiving week, this one by my old teacher and friend, Philip Hamburger. Hamburger’s work on separation of church and state has been formative for my own understanding of that particular model in the United States. In this new book, Liberal Suppression: Section 501(c)(3) and the Taxation of Speech (University of Chicago Press), he explores the ways in which this provision of the tax code has been used to silence what he has elsewhere called “idealistic organizations”–particularly those with orthodox religious views–in exchange for exemption from taxation (image of the book not yet available).
In the course of exempting religious, educational, and charitable organizations from federal income tax, section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code requires them to refrain from campaign speech and much speech to influence legislation. These speech restrictions have seemed merely technical adjustments, which prevent the political use of a tax subsidy. But the cultural and legal realities are more disturbing.
Tracing the history of American liberalism, including theological liberalism and its expression in nativism, Hamburger shows the centrality of turbulent popular anxieties about the Catholic Church and other potentially orthodox institutions. He argues persuasively that such theopolitical fears about the political speech of churches and related organizations underlay the adoption, in 1934 and 1954, of section 501(c)(3)’s speech limits. He thereby shows that the speech restrictions have been part of a broad majority assault on minority rights and that they are grossly unconstitutional.
Along the way, Hamburger explores the role of the Ku Klux Klan and other nativist organizations, the development of American theology, and the cultural foundations of liberal “democratic” political theory. He also traces important legal developments such as the specialization of speech rights and the use of law to homogenize beliefs. Ultimately, he examines a wide range of contemporary speech restrictions and the growing shallowness of public life in America.
His account is an unflinching look at the complex history of American liberalism and at the implications for speech, the diversity of belief, and the nation’s future.