Last week, the Center hosted a conversation on church-and-state issues before the US Supreme Court with federal appeals court judges Kyle Duncan (5th Circuit) and Richard Sullivan (2nd Circuit). The two newly-appointed judges discussed legislative prayer; public religious displays; the conflict between anti-discrimination laws and religious freedom; and state aid to religious schools. Here’s a write-up of the event from the Law School webpage.
We close out the week with a new history of the religious left, Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left, by historian Vaneesa Cook. Cook says it’s wrong to see the American left as hostile to religion. It’s just that the left has had its own religious tradition, which she calls “spiritual socialism.” The tradition is continued today, she says, by figures such as Bernie Sanders, Pope Francis, William Barber, and Cornel West. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:
Refuting the common perception that the American left has a religion problem, Vaneesa Cook highlights an important but overlooked intellectual and political tradition that she calls “spiritual socialism.” Spiritual socialists emphasized the social side of socialism and believed the most basic expression of religious values—caring for the sick, tired, hungry, and exploited members of one’s community—created a firm footing for society. Their unorthodox perspective on the spiritual and cultural meaning of socialist principles helped make leftist thought more palatable to Americans, who associated socialism with Soviet atheism and autocracy. In this way, spiritual socialism continually put pressure on liberals, conservatives, and Marxists to address the essential connection between morality and social justice.
Cook tells her story through an eclectic group of activists whose lives and works span the twentieth century. Sherwood Eddy, A. J. Muste, Myles Horton, Dorothy Day, Henry Wallace, Pauli Murray, Staughton Lynd, and Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke and wrote publicly about the connection between religious values and socialism. Equality, cooperation, and peace, they argued, would not develop overnight, and a more humane society would never emerge through top-down legislation. Instead, they believed that the process of their vision of the world had to happen in homes, villages, and cities, from the bottom up.
By insisting that people start treating each other better in everyday life, spiritual socialists transformed radical activism from projects of political policy-making to grass-roots organizing. For Cook, contemporary public figures such as Senator Bernie Sanders, Pope Francis, Reverend William Barber, and Cornel West are part of a long-standing tradition that exemplifies how non-Communist socialism has gained traction in American politics.
One typically thinks of secularism as a Western phenomenon. A new collection of essays from Princeton argues that that perception is wrong: “a worldview based on rationalism and individual autonomy” is not simply a creation of Reformed Protestantism and the Enlightenment. Secularism appears in other religious cultures as well. Moreover, the discontents with secularism today, worldwide, reflect the failure of secularism to respond to people’s spiritual needs. The book is Formations of Belief: Historical Approaches to Religion and the Secular, edited by Princeton historians Philip Nord, Katja Guenther, and Max Weiss. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:
For decades, scholars and public intellectuals have been predicting the demise of religion in the face of secularization. Yet religion is undergoing an unprecedented resurgence in modern life—and secularization no longer appears so inevitable. Formations of Belief brings together many of today’s leading historians to shed critical light on secularism’s origins, its present crisis, and whether it is as antithetical to religion as it is so often made out to be.
Formations of Belief offers a more nuanced understanding of the origins of secularist thought, demonstrating how Reformed Christianity and the Enlightenment were not the sole vessels of a worldview based on rationalism and individual autonomy. Taking readers from late antiquity to the contemporary era, the contributors show how secularism itself can be a form of belief and yet how its crisis today has been brought on by its apparent incapacity to satisfy people’s spiritual needs. They explore the rise of the humanistic study of religion in Europe, Jewish messianism, atheism and last rites in the Soviet Union, the cult of the saints in colonial Mexico, religious minorities and Islamic identity in Pakistan, the neuroscience of religion, and more.
Based on the Shelby Cullom Davis Center Seminars at Princeton University, this incisive book features illuminating essays by Peter Brown, Yaacob Dweck, Peter E. Gordon, Anthony Grafton, Brad S. Gregory, Stefania Pastore, Caterina Pizzigoni, Victoria Smolkin, Max Weiss, and Muhammad Qasim Zaman.
Here at the Forum, we’ve been following with interest Justice Neil Gorsuch’s developing religion clause jurisprudence, in cases like Trinity Lutheran, Masterpiece Cakeshop, and American Legion. This week, Penguin Random House releases a new collection of essays and other short pieces by the Justice, A Republic, If You Can Keep It, exploring his views on the Constitution and its principles. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:
Justice Neil Gorsuch reflects on his journey to the Supreme Court, the role of the judge under our Constitution, and the vital responsibility of each American to keep our republic strong.
As Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, he was reportedly asked what kind of government the founders would propose. He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” In this book, Justice Neil Gorsuch shares personal reflections, speeches, and essays that focus on the remarkable gift the framers left us in the Constitution.
Justice Gorsuch draws on his thirty-year career as a lawyer, teacher, judge, and justice to explore essential aspects our Constitution, its separation of powers, and the liberties it is designed to protect. He discusses the role of the judge in our constitutional order, and why he believes that originalism and textualism are the surest guides to interpreting our nation’s founding documents and protecting our freedoms. He explains, too, the importance of affordable access to the courts in realizing the promise of equal justice under law—while highlighting some of the challenges we face on this front today.
Along the way, Justice Gorsuch reveals some of the events that have shaped his life and outlook, from his upbringing in Colorado to his Supreme Court confirmation process. And he emphasizes the pivotal roles of civic education, civil discourse, and mutual respect in maintaining a healthy republic.
A Republic, If You Can Keep It offers compelling insights into Justice Gorsuch’s faith in America and its founding documents, his thoughts on our Constitution’s design and the judge’s place within it, and his beliefs about the responsibility each of us shares to sustain our distinctive republic of, by, and for “We the People.”
I am always struck by how accessible Augustine is to us today–I mean, compared to Aquinas, for example. (Don’t @ me). It’s not just his personal, confessional style, though that is part of it. I think his accessibility more reflects the fact that Augustine lived in a demi-pagan era in the West, like ours, in which Christianity was only one religious option among many, and not necessarily the most-favored option for many in the ruling class. Just as in Augustine’s day, Christianity cannot simply be accepted as the norm and taken for granted. One has to choose it, and choose to remain with it, notwithstanding the many other choices the religious marketplace provides.
A forthcoming book from Brazos, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts, by philosopher James K. A. Smith (Calvin College) looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the Brazos website:
This is not a book about Saint Augustine. In a way, it’s a book Augustine has written about each of us. Popular speaker and award-winning author James K. A. Smith has spent time on the road with Augustine, and he invites us to take this journey too, for this ancient African thinker knows far more about us than we might expect.
Following Smith’s successful You Are What You Love, this book shows how Augustine can be a pilgrim guide to a spirituality that meets the complicated world we live in. Augustine, says Smith, is the patron saint of restless hearts–a guide who has been there, asked our questions, and knows our frustrations and failed pursuits. Augustine spent a lifetime searching for his heart’s true home and he can help us find our way. “What makes Augustine a guide worth considering,” says Smith, “is that he knows where home is, where rest can be found, what peace feels like, even if it is sometimes ephemeral and elusive along the way.” Addressing believers and skeptics alike, this book shows how Augustine’s timeless wisdom speaks to the worries and struggles of contemporary life, covering topics such as ambition, sex, friendship, freedom, parenthood, and death. As Smith vividly and colorfully brings Augustine to life for 21st-century readers, he also offers a fresh articulation of Christianity that speaks to our deepest hungers, fears, and hopes.
Years ago, when the media was filled with optimistic treatments of the Arab Spring, I remember reading a quote from a Mideast bishop, who remarked that there was no such thing as an Arab Spring, “only Winter.” Certainly the Arab Spring hasn’t worked out terribly well for the region’s Christians. It hasn’t been a great success for others, either. A new book from Yale, however, has a more optimistic assessment of the future of the movement. Readers can judge for themselves. The book is The Levant Express: The Arab Uprisings, Human Rights, and the Future of the Middle East, by University of Denver professor Michelene Ishay (international relations). Here’s the description from the Yale website:
The enormous sense of optimism unleashed by the Arab Spring in 2011 soon gave way to widespread suffering and despair. Of the many popular uprisings against autocratic regimes, Tunisia’s now stands alone as a beacon of hope for sustainable human rights progress. Libya is a failed state; Egypt returned to military dictatorship; the Gulf States suppressed popular protests and tightened control; and Syria and Yemen are ravaged by civil war. Challenging the widely shared pessimism among regional experts, Micheline Ishay charts bold and realistic pathways for human rights in a region beset by political repression, economic distress, sectarian conflict, a refugee crisis, and violence against women. With due attention to how patterns of revolution and counterrevolution play out in different societies and historical contexts, Ishay reveals the progressive potential of subterranean human rights forces and offers strategies for transforming current realities in the Middle East.
Next month, Cambridge will release a study of a terrorist group called “The Emigrants,” whose goal was to create an Islamic state in the United Kingdom. I’ve never heard of this group, myself, but the blurb suggests it was involved in a number of terrorist incidents and eventually supplied fighters for ISIS in the Middle East. The book is The Islamic State in Britain: Radicalization and Resilience in an Activist Network. The author is international affairs scholar Michael Kenney (University of Pittsburgh). Here’s the description from the Cambridge website:
Drawing on extensive field research with activists on the streets of London, Michael Kenney provides the first ethnographic study of a European network implicated in terrorist attacks and sending fighters to the Islamic State. For over twenty years, al-Muhajiroun (Arabic for ‘the Emigrants’) strived to create an Islamic state in Britain through high-risk activism. A number of Emigrants engaged in violence, while others joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Kenney explains why young Britons joined the Emigrants, how they radicalized and adapted their activism, and why many of them eventually left. Through an innovative mix of ethnography and network analysis, Kenney explains the structure and processes behind this outlawed network and explores its remarkable resilience. What emerges is a complex, nuanced portrait that demystifies the Emigrants while challenging conventional wisdom on radicalization and countering violent extremism.
That young Americans affiliate with religion much less than past generations seems irrefutable. But does that mean twentysomethings lack interest in religion? Maybe–but most Nones, young and old, say something different. Nones lack interest in traditional religion, but typically say they believe in God and think it possible to follow their own, individuated, spiritual paths. A new book out this month from Oxford, The Twentysomething Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults, by sociologist Tim Clydesdale (College of New Jersey) and religious studies scholar Kathleen Garces-Foley (Marymount), explores the phenomenon. I wonder how it compares with Smith and Denton’s Soul Searching, from 2005? Here’s the description from the Oxford website:
Today’s twentysomethings have been labeled the “lost generation” for their presumed inability to identify and lead fulfilling lives, “kidults” for their alleged refusal to “grow up” and accept adult responsibilities, and the “least religious generation” for their purported disinterest in religion and spirituality. These characterizations are not only unflattering — they are wrong.
The Twentysomething Soul tells an optimistic story about American twentysomethings by introducing readers to the full spectrum of American young adults, many of whom live purposefully, responsibly, and reflectively. Some prioritize faith and involvement in a religious congregation. Others reject their childhood religion to explore alternatives and practice a personal spirituality. Still others sideline religion and spirituality until their lives get settled, or reject organized religion completely.
Drawing from interviews with more than 200 young adults, as well as national survey of 1,880 twentysomethings, Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley seek to change the way we view contemporary young adults, giving an accurate and refreshing understanding of their religious, spiritual, and secular lives.
Here is a very odd-looking book from Yale University Press: Polygamy: An Early American History, by historian Sarah Pearsall (Cambridge). Based on the blurb and the reviews, the book argues that polygamy was much closer to the center of early American culture than we understand today–a “shocking” discovery, in the words of one of the reviewers. I haven’t read the book, but I have to say I’m skeptical, both because I’m skeptical generally when historians claim to have discovered a salient feature of the long-ago past that no one has noticed, and also because the thesis fits so well with the current policy goals of so many academics. Wouldn’t it be great to learn that our ancestors approved of polygamy all along, and thought of it as one marital option among many?
To learn that polygamy historically existed in America would not be “shocking.” It exists today. But, as today, it seems to have been very much a fringe phenomenon. There’s a reason polygamous groups, like 19th Century Mormons, had to move repeatedly and finally settle in the frontier. Americans at the time precisely did not see polygamy as one option among many. Anyhow, readers can judge for themselves. Here’s the description of the book from the Yale website:
A groundbreaking examination of polygamy showing that monogamy was not the only form marriage took in early America.
Today we tend to think of polygamy as an unnatural marital arrangement characteristic of fringe sects or uncivilized peoples. Historian Sarah Pearsall shows us that polygamy’s surprising history encompasses numerous colonies, indigenous communities, and segments of the American nation. Polygamy—as well as the fight against it—illuminates many touchstones of American history: the Pueblo Revolt and other uprisings against the Spanish; Catholic missions in New France; New England settlements and King Philip’s War; the entrenchment of African slavery in the Chesapeake; the Atlantic Enlightenment; the American Revolution; missions and settlement in the West; and the rise of Mormonism.
Pearsall expertly opens up broader questions about monogamy’s emergence as the only marital option, tracing the impact of colonial events on property, theology, feminism, imperialism, and the regulation of sexuality. She shows that heterosexual monogamy was never the only model of marriage in North America.
“Brooklyn is peculiarly a city of churches, and what is better, they are generally well filled.” So proclaimed The Brooklyn Evening Star in 1841, and the nickname has stuck–even if, alas, the borough’s religiosity has fallen somewhat over time. Brooklynites historically thought of themselves as more pious and sober than their wild neighbors across the East River. Who’s to say? But the borough still hosts lovely, vibrant churches–and synagogues, mosques, and temples–in a way that belies easy assumptions about godless New York
Last week, Princeton University Press released a new history, Brooklyn: The Once and Future City, by Cornell professor Thomas Campanella (Urban Studies and City Planning). Looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:
America’s most storied urban underdog, Brooklyn has become an internationally recognized brand in recent decades—celebrated and scorned as one of the hippest destinations in the world. In Brooklyn: The Once and Future City, Thomas J. Campanella unearths long-lost threads of the urban past, telling the rich history of the rise, fall, and reinvention of one of the world’s most resurgent cities.
Spanning centuries and neighborhoods, Brooklyn-born Campanella recounts the creation of places familiar and long forgotten, both built and never realized, bringing to life the individuals whose dreams, visions, rackets, and schemes forged the city we know today. He takes us through Brooklyn’s history as homeland of the Leni Lenape and its transformation by Dutch colonists into a dense slaveholding region. We learn about English émigré Deborah Moody, whose town of Gravesend was the first founded by a woman in America. We see how wanderlusting Yale dropout Frederick Law Olmsted used Prospect Park to anchor an open space system that was to reach back to Manhattan. And we witness Brooklyn’s emergence as a playland of racetracks and amusement parks celebrated around the world.
Campanella also describes Brooklyn’s outsized failures, from Samuel Friede’s bid to erect the world’s tallest building to the long struggle to make Jamaica Bay the world’s largest deepwater seaport, and the star-crossed urban renewal, public housing, and highway projects that battered the borough in the postwar era. Campanella reveals how this immigrant Promised Land drew millions, fell victim to its own social anxieties, and yet proved resilient enough to reawaken as a multicultural powerhouse and global symbol of urban vitality.