Judicial Restraint Revindicated

Here’s an entry that is not centrally about religion, but about constitutional theory, though it would have important implications for the interpretation of the Religion Clauses. Judicial restraint once was one of the chief objectives of interpretive theories like originalism. But new scholars of originalism tend to downplay judicial restraint, if not to reject it altogether as a justification for originalism. Some, in fact, embrace what has been called “judicial engagement”–the interpretation of the Constitution to serve distinctively political ends drawn from libertarian political theory.

This new book, however, defends judicial restraint as a constitutional virtue: The Political Constitution: The Case Against Judicial Supremacy (University of Kansas Press), by Greg Weiner. (I’m looking forward to reviewing this book for the Liberty Fund)

“Who should decide what is constitutional? The Supreme Court, of course, both liberal and conservative voices say—but in a bracing critique of the “judicial engagement” that is ascendant on the legal right, Greg Weiner makes a cogent case to the contrary. His book, The Political Constitution, is an eloquent political argument for the restraint of judicial authority and the return of the proper portion of constitutional authority to the people and their elected representatives. What Weiner calls for, in short, is a reconstitution of the political commons upon which a republic stands.

At the root of the word “republic” is what Romans called the res publica, or the public thing. And it is precisely this—the sense of a political community engaging in decisions about common things as a coherent whole—that Weiner fears is lost when all constitutional authority is ceded to the judiciary. His book calls instead for a form of republican constitutionalism that rests on an understanding that arguments about constitutional meaning are, ultimately, political arguments. What this requires is an enlargement of the res publica, the space allocated to political conversation and a shared pursuit of common things. Tracing the political and judicial history through which this critical political space has been impoverished, The Political Constitution seeks to recover the sense of political community on which the health of the republic, and the true working meaning of the Constitution, depends.”

A Critique of Religion as Conversation Stopper

Richard Rorty was a famous and influential American philosopher of pragmatism some of whose ideas were adopted and applied by prominent pragmatic legal thinkers like Richard Posner. One of the phrases for which Rorty is known is that religion is a “conversation stopper”–the sort of appeal to authority for any social or moral question that ends rational discussion and should therefore itself be abandoned.

Here is a new book that considers Rorty’s thought about religion in specific and offers a criticism of it: Rorty, Religion, and Metaphysics (Rowman & Littlefield, Lexington Books), by John Owens.

“Believing that humanity would be better off if it simply dropped its traditional religious and metaphysical beliefs, Richard Rorty proposes an alternative approach, drawn from the American pragmatist tradition, where things get their significance against a background of broad human interests, and knowledge is regarded as part of the active pursuit of a better world. Rorty, Religion, and Metaphysics argues that while Rorty’s case is clearly and robustly made, it is fundamentally challenged by the phenomenon of human recognition, the relationship that arises between people when they talk to one another. John Owens demonstrates that recognition, so central to human life, cannot be accommodated within Rorty’s proposals, given that it precisely attributes a reality to others that goes beyond anything a pragmatist framework can offer. It follows that there is more to human interaction than can be explained by Rorty’s pragmatism.”

A Catholic-Enlightenment Hybrid

Francois Fénelon is a very interesting figure of the late 17th and early 18th centuries marking the transition between Catholic and Enlightenment world views in Europe. Fénelon was at one time Archbishop of Cambrai, and so in a position of high authority in the Church. And yet his writing, particularly as respects the French monarchy (as in his Adventures of Telemachus), offer a kind of proto-Enlightenment critique.

Here is a new book translating some of Fénelon’s major work into English and discussing the thought of this important hybrid figure: Fénelon: Moral and Political Writings (Oxford University Press), by Ryan Patrick Hanley.

“Fénelon is arguably one of the most neglected major philosophers of early modernity. His political masterwork was the most-read book in eighteenth-century France after the Bible, and yet today even specialists rarely engage his work directly. This problem is particularly acute in the Anglophone world, where only a small fraction of Fénelon’s vast and influential corpus has appeared in modern English translation.

This collection of new translations of Fénelon’s moral and political writings renders one of the leading voices of early modern philosophy accessible to English-language audiences. Reflecting the impressive breadth of Fenelon’s thought, the volume includes work on topics ranging from education to literature to religion and statecraft. In the realm of political philosophy and ethics, Fénelon was an uncompromising critic of Louis XIV and absolutism, committed to reforming France’s social, political and economic institutions. In the Enlightenment, he came to be celebrated as a pioneering theorist of education and rhetoric, a prescient student of economics and international relations, and a key voice in the philosophical debates among the heirs of Descartes – not to mention his fame as one of the seventeenth-century’s most preeminent theologians and spiritualists and masters of French prose. With an extensive introduction to Fénelon’s life and work, this volume is a critical resource for students and scholars of French history, political philosophy, economics, education, literature, and religion.”

The Clash of Civilizations at 30

The “Clash of Civilizations” thesis made famous by the social theorist Samuel Huntington is that conflicts in the future will be driven primarily by cultural–rather than national, economic, or political–factors, very much including religion. The thesis has been deeply influential and has impacted the work of many scholars, very much including Mark’s own work.

Here is what looks like an extremely worthwhile retrospective on the Huntington thesis (which the author argues was actually first devised by the historian of religion, Bernard Lewis) from then to now: From Huntington to Trump: Thirty Years of the Clash of Civilizations (Rowman & Littlefield, Lexington Books), by Jeffrey Haynes. This one is in the must-have category for me.

From Huntington to Trump argues that the “clash of civilizations,” an idea first raised three decades ago by Bernard Lewis and endorsed by Samuel Huntington, has created a template for understanding the world which has been adopted by both the United Nations and right-wing populist politicians in Europe and the United States of America. Haynes traces the development of the “clash of civilizations” from the colonial period through the end of the Cold War and 9/11 and analyzes its effects on society.”

Christian Universalism

Professor Olivier Roy is an old acquaintance of the Center and a participant in our 2014 conference on international religious freedom in Rome. We are consequently happy to notice his new book, arguing against the importance of distinctively European cultural and national connections to Christianity, and in favor of a Christian universalism. I have some differences of opinion with Professor Roy, but his work is always worth reading. The book is Is Europe Christian? (Oxford University Press), by Professor Roy and translated by Cynthia Schoch.

“As Europe wrangles over questions of national identity, nativism and immigration, Olivier Roy interrogates the place of Christianity, foundation of Western identity. Do secularism and Islam really pose threats to the continent’s ‘Christian values’? What will be the fate of Christianity in Europe? 

Rather than repeating the familiar narrative of decline, Roy challenges the significance of secularized Western nations’ reduction of Christianity to a purely cultural force- relegated to issues such as abortion, euthanasia and equal marriage. He illustrates that, globally, quite the opposite has occurred: Christianity is now universalized, and detached from national identity. Not only has it taken hold in the Global South, generally in a more socially conservative form than in the West, but it has also ‘returned’ to Europe, following immigration from former colonies. Despite attempts within Europe to nationalize or even racialize it, Christianity’s future is global, non-European and immigrant-as the continent’s Churches well know. 

This short but bracing book confirms Roy’s reputation as one of the most acute observers of our times. It represents a persuasive and novel vision of religion’s place in national life today.”

Association After Christ

The freedom of association–the freedom to form groups with common bonds of practice, belief, and affiliation, and to exclude those from the group who do not share these bonds–is thought to be one of the key justifications for some of our cherished civil rights. Far from being an exclusively liberal idea, the importance of associations may be traced at least to Paul, who speaks at length about the nature and obligations of Christian communities.

Here is a new book that explores some of these matters: Christ’s Associations: Connecting and Belonging in the Ancient City (Yale University Press), by John S. Kloppenborg.

“As an urban movement, the early groups of Christ followers came into contact with the many small groups in Greek and Roman antiquity. Organized around the workplace, a deity, a diasporic identity, or a neighborhood, these associations gathered in small face-to-face meetings and provided the principal context for cultic and social interactions for their members. Unlike most other groups, however, about which we have data on their rules of membership, financial management, and organizational hierarchy, we have very little information about early Christ groups.

Drawing on data about associative practices throughout the ancient world, this innovative study offers new insight into the structure and mission of the early Christ groups. John S. Kloppenborg situates the Christ associations within the broader historical context of the ancient Mediterranean and reveals that they were probably smaller than previously believed and did not have a uniform system of governance, and that the attraction of Christ groups was based more on practice than theological belief.”

On Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and a physician and statesman of the early Republic, is perhaps best known for his long and warm correspondence with John Adams. Here’s a fragment from a letter to Adams from 1807, concerning the Bible: “By renouncing the Bible, philosophers swing from their moorings upon all moral Subjects. Our Saviour in speaking of it calls it “Truth,” in the Abstract. It is the only correct map of the human heart that ever has been published. It contains a faithful representation of all its follies, Vices & Crimes. All Systems of Religion, morals, and Government not founded upon it, must perish, and how consoling the thot!—it will not only survive the wreck of those Systems, but the World itself. “The Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.””

Here is a new biography of this less well-known but important figure of the founding period: Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father (Penguin RandomHouse), by Stephen Fried.

“By the time he was thirty, Dr. Benjamin Rush had signed the Declaration of Independence, edited Common Sense, toured Europe as Benjamin Franklin’s protégé, and become John Adams’s confidant, and was soon to be appointed Washington’s surgeon general. And as with the greatest Revolutionary minds, Rush was only just beginning his role in 1776 in the American experiment. As the new republic coalesced, he became a visionary writer and reformer; a medical pioneer whose insights and reforms revolutionized the treatment of mental illness; an opponent of slavery and prejudice by race, religion, or gender; an adviser to, and often the physician of, America’s first leaders; and “the American Hippocrates.” Rush reveals his singular life and towering legacy, installing him in the pantheon of our wisest and boldest Founding Fathers.”

Marx as a Jewish Thinker

Here’s an interesting looking account of Karl Marx’s life and thought that emphasizes something not often discussed: the Jewish roots of and connections to his thought. The book is Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution (Yale University Press), by Shlomo Avineri.

“Karl Marx (1818–1883)—philosopher, historian, sociologist, economist, current affairs journalist, and editor—was one of the most influential and revolutionary thinkers of modern history, but he is rarely thought of as a Jewish thinker, and his Jewish background is either overlooked or misrepresented. Here, distinguished scholar Shlomo Avineri argues that Marx’s Jewish origins did leave a significant impression on his work. Marx was born in Trier, then part of Prussia, and his family had enjoyed equal rights and emancipation under earlier French control of the area. But then its annexation to Prussia deprived the Jewish population of its equal rights. These developments led to the reluctant conversion of Marx’s father, and similar tribulations radicalized many young intellectuals of that time who came from a Jewish background.

Avineri puts Marx’s Jewish background in its proper and balanced perspective, and traces Marx’s intellectual development in light of the historical, intellectual, and political contexts in which he lived.”

Christian Democracy

The Italian political model of Christian Democracy has an illustrious past, beginning with its founder, Alcide de Gasperi, but it seemingly died an ignoble death in the mid-90s amid scandal and corruption. Nevertheless, as a political ideal, I’ve often thought one could do a whole lot worse, and sometimes that one couldn’t do too much better.

Here is a very interesting new book about this fascinating political movement and party: What is Christian Democracy? Politics, Religion and Ideology (Cambridge University Press), by Carlo Invernizzi Accetti. This one falls into the “must-have” category for me.

“Christian Democratic actors and thinkers have been at the forefront of many of the twentieth century’s key political battles – from the construction of the international human rights regime, through the process of European integration and the creation of postwar welfare regimes, to Latin American development policies during the Cold War. Yet their core ideas remain largely unknown, especially in the English-speaking world. Combining conceptual and historical approaches, Carlo Invernizzi Accetti traces the development of this ideology in the thought and writings of some of its key intellectual and political exponents, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. In so doing he sheds light on a number of important contemporary issues, from the question of the appropriate place of religion in presumptively ‘secular’ liberal-democratic regimes, to the normative resources available for building a political response to the recent rise of far-right populism.”

At the Hertog Foundation today

I’m delighted to be a guest today at the Hertog Foundation in Washington, DC, where I’m speaking at a class for college students and graduates taught by Adam White on “The Constitution, the Courts, and Conservatism.” Professor Randy Barnett, Judge Neomi Rao, and Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute are among the other speakers. I’ll be speaking about some of my work on traditionalism in constitutional interpretation.

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