Later this spring, Penn Press will publish Religion in the Public Square: Sheen, King, Falwell, by Ave Maria politics professor James Patterson. The book covers three preachers–not often linked–who influenced American public policy in the 20th Century. I wonder about Patterson’s point about Falwell: did Falwell instigate a breakdown in the post-war Judeo-Christian consensus or did he simply reflect it? Anyway, looks interesting. Here’s the publisher’s description
In Religion in the Public Square, James M. Patterson considers religious leaders who popularized theology through media campaigns designed to persuade the public. Ven. Fulton J. Sheen, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rev. Jerry Falwell differed profoundly on issues of theology and politics, but they shared an approach to public ministry that aimed directly at changing how Americans understood the nature and purpose of their country. From the 1930s through the 1950s, Sheen was an early adopter of paperbacks, radio, and television to condemn totalitarian ideologies and to defend American Catholicism against Protestant accusations of divided loyalty. During the 1950s and 1960s, King staged demonstrations and boycotts that drew the mass media to him. The attention provided him the platform to preach Christian love as a political foundation in direct opposition to white supremacy. Falwell started his own church, which he developed into a mass media empire. He then leveraged it during the late 1970s through the 1980s to influence the Republican Party by exhorting his audience to not only ally with religious conservatives around issues of abortion and the traditional family but also to vote accordingly.
Sheen, King, and Falwell were so successful in popularizing their theological ideas that they won prestigious awards, had access to presidents, and witnessed the results of their labors. However, Patterson argues that Falwell’s efforts broke with the longstanding refusal of religious public figures to participate directly in partisan affairs and thereby catalyzed the process of politicizing religion that undermined the Judeo-Christian consensus that formed the foundation of American politics.
A few years ago, I wrote on this blog about controversial yoga program for elementary school students in California. Some parents complained that the program subtly indoctrinated their kids into Hinduism. The school district responded that its yoga program was just a stretching exercise, without religious content–which response led Hindu organizations to complain the the school had co-opted their religious tradition and transformed it into something else. It is a fascinating story that reveals how difficult it is to negotiate religion in the public schools.
Yoga and mindfulness activities, with roots in Asian traditions such as Hinduism or Buddhism, have been brought into growing numbers of public schools since the 1970s. While they are commonly assumed to be secular educational tools, Candy Gunther Brown asks whether religion is truly left out of the equation in the context of public-school curricula. An expert witness in four legal challenges, Brown scrutinized unpublished trial records, informant interviews, and legal precedents, as well as insider documents, some revealing promoters of “Vedic victory” or “stealth Buddhism” for public-school children. The legal challenges are fruitful cases for Brown’s analysis of the concepts of religious and secular.
While notions of what makes something religious or secular are crucial to those who study religion, they have special significance in the realm of public and legal norms. They affect how people experience their lives, raise their children, and navigate educational systems. The question of religion in public education, Brown shows, is no longer a matter of jurisprudence focused largely on the establishment of a Protestant Bible or nonsectarian prayer. Instead, it now reflects an increasingly diverse American religious landscape. Reconceptualizing secularization as transparency and religious voluntarism, Brown argues for an opt-in model for public-school programs.
In the Turkish language, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the first primate among equals in the Orthodox Church, is known as the “Rum,” or “Roman” Patriarch. This is no accident: the Ecumenical Patriarch is the direct descendant of the Patriarch of the Eastern Roman Empire–what we commonly refer to today as the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines spoke Greek, but thought of themselves as thoroughly Roman. That we think of them as something else reflects Western suspicion and hostility, as well as an effort to retain the heritage of Rome exclusively for its descendants on the European continent.
A new book from Harvard University Press, Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium, by classicist Anthony Kaldellis, explains how, in the Western mind, Byzantine Romans became Greeks. Looks fascinating. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:
A leading historian argues that in the empire we know as Byzantium, the Greek-speaking population was actually Roman, and scholars have deliberately mislabeled their ethnicity for the past two centuries for political reasons.
Was there ever such a thing as Byzantium? Certainly no emperor ever called himself “Byzantine.” And while the identities of minorities in the eastern empire are clear—contemporaries speak of Slavs, Bulgarians, Armenians, Jews, and Muslims—that of the ruling majority remains obscured behind a name made up by later generations.
Historical evidence tells us unequivocally that Byzantium’s ethnic majority, no less than the ruler of Constantinople, would have identified as Roman. It was an identity so strong in the eastern empire that even the conquering Ottomans would eventually adopt it. But Western scholarship has a long tradition of denying the Romanness of Byzantium. In Romanland, Anthony Kaldellis investigates why and argues that it is time for the Romanness of these so-called Byzantines to be taken seriously.
In the Middle Ages, he explains, people of the eastern empire were labeled “Greeks,” and by the nineteenth century they were shorn of their distorted Greekness and became “Byzantine.” Only when we understand that the Greek-speaking population of Byzantium was actually Roman will we fully appreciate the nature of Roman ethnic identity. We will also better understand the processes of assimilation that led to the absorption of foreign and minority groups into the dominant ethnic group, the Romans who presided over the vast multiethnic empire of the east.
Here is an interesting-looking new book from Princeton on an historical episode (or legend) of which I’d never heard. In the middle ages, the crusading French king and Catholic saint, Louis IX, allegedly converted a significant number of Muslims to Christianity and settled them in France. Most historians dismiss the episode as apocryphal, but, in The Apple of His Eye: Converts from Islam in the Reign of Louis IX, Princeton historian William Chester Jordan takes the story seriously. Whether true or not, the story is certainly suggestive of how the Catholic Church historically has viewed Muslims, a topic that recent comments by Pope Francis have revived. Here’s a description of the book from the Princeton website:
The thirteenth century brought new urgency to Catholic efforts to convert non-Christians, and no Catholic ruler was more dedicated to this undertaking than King Louis IX of France. His military expeditions against Islam are well documented, but there was also a peaceful side to his encounter with the Muslim world, one that has received little attention until now. This splendid book shines new light on the king’s program to induce Muslims—the “apple of his eye”—to voluntarily convert to Christianity and resettle in France. It recovers a forgotten but important episode in the history of the Crusades while providing a rare window into the fraught experiences of the converts themselves.
William Chester Jordan transforms our understanding of medieval Christian-Muslim relations by telling the stories of the Muslims who came to France to live as Christians. Under what circumstances did they willingly convert? How successfully did they assimilate into French society? What forms of resistance did they employ? In examining questions like these, Jordan weaves a richly detailed portrait of a dazzling yet violent age whose lessons still resonate today.
Until now, scholars have dismissed historical accounts of the king’s peaceful conversion of Muslims as hagiographical and therefore untrustworthy. Jordan takes these narratives seriously—and uncovers archival evidence to back them up. He brings his findings marvelously to life in this succinct and compelling book, setting them in the context of the Seventh Crusade and the universalizing Catholic impulse to convert the world.
American politics is increasingly polarized along religious lines: the Democratic Party is increasingly secular, and the Republican Party increasingly religious. (I discuss this polarization, among other things, in a forthcoming article). But a religious left nonetheless exists: members of traditional faith communities who are committed to progressive causes. How strong the religious left is, and whether it will find a continuing place in the Democratic Party, is a matter of some debate.
I thought about the religious left when I saw the announcement for Daniel Mahoney’s new book, The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity (Encounter). Mahoney, a political philosopher at Assumption College, argues that progressivism is itself a kind of religion, one that divorces social justice from Christianity’s twin concern with transcendent truth. If Mahoney is right, then, at least with respect to Christianity, the attempt to harness Christianity to progressivism is doomed to fail. In any event, the book looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the Encounter website:
This book is a learned essay at the intersection of politics, philosophy, and religion. It is first and foremost a diagnosis and critique of the secular religion of our time, humanitarianism, or the “religion of humanity.” It argues that the humanitarian impulse to regard modern man as the measure of all things has begun to corrupt Christianity itself, reducing it to an inordinate concern for “social justice,” radical political change, and an increasingly fanatical egalitarianism. Christianity thus loses its transcendental reference points at the same time that it undermines balanced political judgment. Humanitarians, secular or religious, confuse peace with pacifism, equitable social arrangements with socialism, and moral judgment with utopianism and sentimentality.
With a foreword by the distinguished political philosopher Pierre Manent, Mahoney’s book follows Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in affirming that Christianity is in no way reducible to a “humanitarian moral message.” In a pungent if respectful analysis, it demonstrates that Pope Francis has increasingly confused the Gospel with left-wing humanitarianism and egalitarianism that owes little to classical or Christian wisdom. It takes its bearings from a series of thinkers (Orestes Brownson, Aurel Kolnai, Vladimir Soloviev, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) who have been instructive critics of the “religion of humanity.” These thinkers were men of peace who rejected ideological pacifism and never confused Christianity with unthinking sentimentality. The book ends by affirming the power of reason, informed by revealed faith, to provide a humanizing alternative to utopian illusions and nihilistic despair.
Traditional thinkers from Michael Oakeshott to Josef Pieper to Roger Scruton have emphasized, in different ways, the relevance of “high culture” for the ongoing health of any given society. A new and very interesting book suggests that technology–and specifically media technology–has destroyed that ideal. The book is The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of New Media (MIT Press), by Jay David Bolter.
“Media culture today encompasses a universe of forms—websites, video games, blogs, books, films, television and radio programs, magazines, and more—and a multitude of practices that include making, remixing, sharing, and critiquing. This multiplicity is so vast that it cannot be comprehended as a whole. In this book, Jay David Bolter traces the roots of our media multiverse to two developments in the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of elite art and the rise of digital media. Bolter explains that we no longer have a collective belief in “Culture with a capital C.” The hierarchies that ranked, for example, classical music as more important than pop, literary novels as more worthy than comic books, and television and movies as unserious have broken down. The art formerly known as high takes its place in the media plenitude. The elite culture of the twentieth century has left its mark on our current media landscape in the form of what Bolter calls “popular modernism.” Meanwhile, new forms of digital media have emerged and magnified these changes, offering new platforms for communication and expression.
Bolter outlines a series of dichotomies that characterize our current media culture: catharsis and flow, the continuous rhythm of digital experience; remix (fueled by the internet’s vast resources for sampling and mixing) and originality; history (not replayable) and simulation (endlessly replayable); and social media and coherent politics.”
Not too much need be said about the relevance of this collection of essays, which seems to focus on interdisciplinary possibilities for law and the academic study of religion, for those interested in law and religion–Religion, Law, USA (NYU Press), edited by Joshua Dubler and Isaac Weiner.
“Why religion? Why law? Why now? In recent years, the United States has witnessed a number of high-profile court cases involving religion, forcing Americans to grapple with questions regarding the relationship between religion and law. This volume maps the contemporary interplay of religion and law within the study of American religions.
What rights are protected by the Constitution’s free exercise clause? What are the boundaries of religion, and what is the constitutional basis for protecting some religious beliefs but not others? What characterizes a religious-studies approach to religion and law today? What is gained by approaching law from the vantage point of religious studies, and what does attention to the law offer back to scholars of religion? Religion, Law, USA considers all these questions and more.
Each chapter considers a specific keyword in the study of religion and law, such as “conscience,” “establishment,” “secularity,” and “personhood.” Contributors consider specific case studies related to each term, and then expand their analyses to discuss broader implications for the practice and study of American religion. Incorporating pieces from leading voices in the field, this book is an indispensable addition to the scholarship on religion and law in America.”