Laicite in Quebec

Je Me Souviens?

When profoundly Catholic societies go off religion, they really go off religion. Religion doesn’t become simply a matter of indifference; people seem to feel they must uproot religion entirely from public life, in order to compensate for and distance themselves from the benighted ways of the past.

Societies need some common identity to bind them, though, and when shared religion is no longer an option, they substitute other things. In a First Things essay this week (“Canada Divided Against Itself”), David Koyzis observes this dynamic at work in Quebec. Once a famously Catholic place, he says, since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, Quebec has become an overwhelmingly secular society. (Strangely, they have kept a very Catholic-looking flag (above)). The province’s motto may be “Je me souviens,” but the Quebecois are trying to forget all about their religious tradition. What unites the province today, he says, is not Catholicism, but Quebecois national identity:

Ironically, despite the secularizing impact of the Quiet Revolution, Québec has not abandoned religious faith; it has simply redirected that faith toward a state-centered nationalism, around which the province’s main parties are largely united. What was once a French Canadian nationalism bent on defending a Catholic society whose traditions harked back to pre-revolutionary France has become Québec nationalism, which looks to the state to protect the province’s linguistic majority in a sea of English-speaking jurisdictions. If protecting this majority comes at the expense of minority interests within the province, then so be it.

As evidence, Koyzis adduces a new law that prohibits public employees from wearing religious symbols–crucifixes, kippas, hijabs–while on the job. The idea, he says, is to encourage the Quebecois to think of themselves, not as members of distinct religious communities, but simply as Quebecois. This is the same reasoning behind the ban on burkas in public places, and the ban on “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools, in France.

Koyzis says that the forceful laicite of Quebec is in tension with the multiculturalism that animates Canadian public life outside the province. I don’t know enough about Canada to evaluate that argument. But his point about nationalism as a substitute for religion seems sound. You can read the whole piece here.

Is American Christianity in Decline?

In his column in last week’s Times, the always interesting Ross Douthat sifts through recent data on the decline of Christianity in the United States. It’s true, he writes, that the percentage of people declaring themselves Christian is declining, and that the percentage of Americans who tell pollsters they have “no religion” is increasing. But that doesn’t indicate an across-the board decline in Christian belief and practice. Seriously committed Christians remain so. It’s the nominal, weakly committed Christians who are leaving the churches:

The relative stability of the Gallup data fits with analysis offered by the sociologists Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock in a 2017 paper, “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion.” Drawing on the General Social Survey, they argued that the recent decline of institutional religion is entirely a function of the formerly weakly affiliated ceasing to identify with religious bodies entirely; for the strongly affiliated (just over a third of the American population), the trend between 1990 and the present is a flat line, their numbers neither growing nor collapsing but holding steady across an era of supposedly dramatic religious change.

That resilience should not be entirely comforting for Christian churches, since both their everyday work and their cultural influence depends on reaching beyond their core adherents, and inspiring a mix of sympathy and interest among people who aren’t at worship every week. Indeed, combining an enduring core of belief with a general falling-away could make the Christian position permanently embattled, tempting the pious to paranoia and misguided alliances while the wider culture becomes more anticlerical, more like 19th-century secular liberalism in its desire to batter down the redoubts of traditional belief.

But for now that resilience also puts some limits on how successfully anti-Christian policies can be pursued, how easily religious conservatism can be marginalized within the conservative coalition (not easily) and how completely the liberal coalition can be secularized — not completely at all, so long as its base remains heavily African-American and Hispanic. (The tragic racial polarization of American Christianity, in this sense, may have one positive effect: preventing a complete polarization of our politics between Christian and post-Christian coalitions.)

Douthat is right about this. As I’ve written elsewhere, the real story in American religion is its increasing polarization. The middle is dropping out in favor of extremes on either end: the Nones and the Traditionally Religious. Whether the departure of the Laodecians from America’s churches will be on the whole a good thing, for the churches and the society at large, remains to be seen.

Legal Spirits Episode 015: SCOTUS Grants Cert in the Louisiana Abortion Case

Photo: CNN

In this podcast, we discuss the Supreme Court’s decision to grant cert in June Medical Services v. Gee, a constitutional challenge to a Louisiana law regulating abortion. We explore what the decision to hear the case suggests about the Court’s changing dynamics and ask whether the standing issue the case presents offers the Court’s conservatives, especially Chief Justice Roberts, a way to cut back on the right to abortion without actually overruling Roe and Casey. Listen in!

A Critique of Human Rights

Here is an interesting-looking book from Princeton University Press that critiques the concept of universal human rights: Rights as Weapons: Instruments of Conflict, Tools of Power, by political scientist Clifford Bob of Duquesne University. (Full disclosure: Professor Bob was a participant in a conference our Tradition Project co-sponsored in June 2017, on the differing conceptions of tradition in American and Russian politics, at the Bruno Kessler Foundation in Trento, Italy). Here’s the description of the book from the Princeton website:

Rights are usually viewed as defensive concepts representing mankind’s highest aspirations to protect the vulnerable and uplift the downtrodden. But since the Enlightenment, political combatants have also used rights belligerently, to batter despised communities, demolish existing institutions, and smash opposing ideas. Delving into a range of historical and contemporary conflicts from all areas of the globe, Rights as Weapons focuses on the underexamined ways in which the powerful wield rights as aggressive weapons against the weak.

Clifford Bob looks at how political forces use rights as rallying cries: naturalizing novel claims as rights inherent in humanity, absolutizing them as trumps over rival interests or community concerns, universalizing them as transcultural and transhistorical, and depoliticizing them as concepts beyond debate. He shows how powerful proponents employ rights as camouflage to cover ulterior motives, as crowbars to break rival coalitions, as blockades to suppress subordinate groups, as spears to puncture discrete policies, and as dynamite to explode whole societies. And he demonstrates how the targets of rights campaigns repulse such assaults, using their own rights-like weapons: denying the abuses they are accused of, constructing rival rights to protect themselves, portraying themselves as victims rather than violators, and repudiating authoritative decisions against them. This sophisticated framework is applied to a diverse range of examples, including nineteenth-century voting rights movements; the American civil rights movement; nationalist, populist, and religious movements in today’s Europe; and internationalized conflicts related to Palestinian self-determination, animal rights, gay rights, and transgender rights.

Comparing key episodes in the deployment of rights, Rights as Weapons opens new perspectives on an idea that is central to legal and political conflicts.

What is the Muslim Brotherhood?

From Harvard University Press, here is a forthcoming book on the history of the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the West, The Muslim Brotherhood and the West: A History of Enmity and Engagement, by historian Martyn Frampton (Queen Mary University of London):

The Muslim Brotherhood and the West is the first comprehensive history of the relationship between the world’s largest Islamist movement and the Western powers that have dominated the Middle East for the past century: Britain and the United States.

In the decades since the Brotherhood emerged in Egypt in the 1920s, the movement’s notion of “the West” has remained central to its worldview and a key driver of its behavior. From its founding, the Brotherhood stood opposed to the British Empire and Western cultural influence more broadly. As British power gave way to American, the Brotherhood’s leaders, committed to a vision of more authentic Islamic societies, oscillated between anxiety or paranoia about the West and the need to engage with it. Western officials, for their part, struggled to understand the Brotherhood, unsure whether to shun the movement as one of dangerous “fanatics” or to embrace it as a moderate and inevitable part of the region’s political scene. Too often, diplomats failed to view the movement on its own terms, preferring to impose their own external agendas and obsessions.

Martyn Frampton reveals the history of this complex and charged relationship down to the eve of the Arab Spring. Drawing on extensive archival research in London and Washington and the Brotherhood’s writings in Arabic and English, he provides the most authoritative assessment to date of a relationship that is both vital in itself and crucial to navigating one of the world’s most turbulent regions.

Israel and the American Left: A History

Here is a new book from Stanford University Press that explores the history of the American Left’s relationship to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As everyone knows, that conflict has created real tensions in progressive politics in the US and the UK as well. The book is The Movement and the Middle East: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Divided the American Left, by historian Michael Fischbach (Randolph-Macon College). The publisher’s description follows:

The Arab-Israeli conflict constituted a serious problem for the American Left in the 1960s: pro-Palestinian activists hailed the Palestinian struggle against Israel as part of a fundamental restructuring of the global imperialist order, while pro-Israeli leftists held a less revolutionary worldview that understood Israel as a paragon of democratic socialist virtue. This intra-left debate was in part doctrinal, in part generational. But further woven into this split were sometimes agonizing questions of identity. Jews were disproportionately well-represented in the Movement, and their personal and communal lives could deeply affect their stances vis-à-vis the Middle East.

The Movement and the Middle East offers the first assessment of the controversial and ultimately debilitating role of the Arab-Israeli conflict among left-wing activists during a turbulent period of American history. Michael R. Fischbach draws on a deep well of original sources—from personal interviews to declassified FBI and CIA documents—to present a story of the left-wing responses to the question of Palestine and Israel. He shows how, as the 1970s wore on, the cleavages emerging within the American Left widened, weakening the Movement and leaving a lasting impact that still affects progressive American politics today.

A Comparative Study of Religion and Politics

Politics in America increasingly divides on the question of religion. Religious Americans tend to gravitate to the Republican Party; secular Americans, to the Democrats. Religion also figures prominently in the politics of other countries. Later this year, Routledge will release a collection of essays on the ways religion and politics intersect across the world: The Routledge Handbook to Religion and Political Parties. The editor is Jeffrey Haynes (London Metropolitan University). Here’s the description from the Routledge website:

As religion and politics become ever more intertwined, relationships between religion and political parties are of increasing global political significance. This handbook responds to that development, providing important results of current research involving religion and politics, focusing on: democratisation, democracy, party platform formation, party moderation and secularisation, social constituency representation and interest articulation.

Covering core issues, new debates, and country case studies, the handbook provides a comprehensive overview of fundamentals and new directions in the subject. Adopting a comparative approach, it examines the relationships between religion and political parties in a variety of contexts, regions and countries with a focus on Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and Hinduism. Contributions cover such topics as:

Religion, secularisation and modernisation

Religious fundamentalism and terrorism

The role of religion in conflict resolution and peacebuilding

Religion and its connection to state, democratisation and democracy, and

Regional case studies covering Asia, the Americas, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa.

This comprehensive handbook provides crucial information for students, researchers and professionals researching the topics of politics, religion, comparative politics, secularism, religious movements, political parties and interest groups, and religion and sociology.

Highlights from The King’s College

The King’s College has posted a video of excerpts from my Constitution Day Address last month, on how cultural trends, including the rise of the Nones, will likely affect the legal debate on religious accommodations. Here’s the link:

Roger Williams’s Baptists

The Baptist Movement has had an outsized influence on American church-and-state law. The movement’s American founder, Roger Williams, popularized the “wall of separation” metaphor that so greatly influenced Jefferson–and, through him, much of the Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence in the 20th Century. A new book from Baylor University Press, Retracing Baptists in Rhode Island: Identity, Formation, and History, explores the Baptist legacy in the American state where Williams made his home. The author is historian J. Stanley Lemons (Rhode Island College). The publisher’s description follows:

Rhode Island can legitimately claim to be the home of Baptists in America. The first three varieties of Baptists in the New World—General Six Principle, Particular, and Seventh Day—made their debut in this small colony. And it was in Rhode Island that the General Six Principle Baptists formed the first Baptist association; the Seventh Day Baptists organized the first national denomination of Baptists; the Regular Baptists founded the first Baptist college, Brown University; and the Warren Baptist Association led the fight for religious liberty in New England.

In Retracing Baptists in Rhode Island, historian J. Stanley Lemons follows the story of Baptists, from their founding in the colonial period to the present. Lemons considers the impact of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration upon Baptists as they negotiated their identities in an ever-changing American landscape. Rhode Island Baptists, regardless of variety, stood united on the question of temperance, hesitated on the abolition of slavery before the Civil War, and uniformly embraced revivalism, but they remained vexed and divided over denominational competition, the anti-Masonic movement, and the Dorr Rebellion.

Lemons also chronicles the relationship between Rhode Island Baptists and the broader Baptist world. Modernism and historical criticism finally brought the Baptist theological civil war to Rhode Island. How to interpret the Bible became increasingly pressing, even leading to the devolution of Brown’s identity as a Baptist institution. Since the 1940s, the number of Baptists in the state has declined, despite the number of Baptist denominations rising from four to twelve. At the same time, the number of independent Baptist churches has greatly increased while other churches have shed their Baptist identity completely to become nondenominational. Lemons asserts that tectonic shifts in Baptist identity will continue to create a new landscape out of the heritage and traditions first established by the original Baptists of Rhode Island.

Comparative Conscience Exemptions

Religious accommodations figure prominently in current debates about law and religion. This past summer, Hart released a collection of essays on such exemptions in the UK, Canada, and the United States, Religious Beliefs and Conscientious Objections in a Liberal State. The editor is John Adentire (University of Birmingham). Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

The central focus of this edited collection is on the ever-growing practice, in liberal states, to claim exemption from legal duties on the basis of a conscientious objection. Traditional claims have included objections to compulsory military draft and to the provision of abortions. Contemporary claims include objections to anti-discrimination law by providers of public services, such as bakers and B&B hoteliers, who do not want to serve same-sex couples. The book investigates the practice, both traditional and contemporary, from three distinct perspectives: theoretical, doctrinal (with special emphasis on UK, Canadian and US law) and comparative. Cumulatively, the contributors provide a comprehensive set of reflections on how the practice is to be viewed and carried out in the context of a liberal state.

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