A New Book on Catholicism and Human Rights

From Cambridge University Press, here is a new book on the often forgotten contribution of Catholic thought to human rights law: Catholic Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights, by scholar Leonard Francis Taylor (National University of Ireland–Galway). The publisher’s description follows:

It is because Catholicism played such a formative role in the construction of Western legal culture that it is the focal point of this enquiry. The account of international law from its origin in the treaties of Westphalia, and located in the writing of the Grotian tradition, had lost contact with another cosmopolitan history of international law that reappeared with the growth of the early twentieth century human rights movement. The beginnings of the human rights movement, grounded in democratic sovereign power, returned to that moral vocabulary to promote the further growth of international order in the twentieth century. In recognising this technique of periodically returning to Western cosmopolitan legal culture, this book endeavours to provide a more complete account of the human rights project that factors in the contribution that cosmopolitan Catholicism made to a general theory of sovereignty, international law and human rights.

  • Provides an engaging narrative on the integration of democratic and human rights norms into Catholicism, which in turn promoted those values through Christianity’s global reach
  • A valuable historical survey of Catholicism as a cosmopolitan project from the medieval to the modern era
  • Undertakes to provide a critical narrative of the development and direction of international law as it was characterised by Catholic preoccupations from the medieval and early modern era

“My Faith in the Constitution is Whole”

As recently as a generation ago, America’s civil religion centered on the Constitution. A good example can be found in the speeches of progressive Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, famous as a member of the Watergate committee, who often referred to her “faith” in the Constitution as the guiding principle of her public life. Times change; it’s hard to imagine progressive politicians referring to the Constitution in such an uncomplicatedly affirmative way today. Readers can decide for themselves why that is so. The book is “My Faith in the Constitution is Whole”: Barbara Jordan and the Politics of Scripture, by Robin L. Owens (Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles). The publisher is the Georgetown University Press. Here’s the publisher’s description:

US Congresswoman Barbara Jordan is well-known as an interpreter and defender of the Constitution, particularly through her landmark speech during Richard Nixon’s 1974 impeachment hearings. However, before she developed faith in the Constitution, Jordan had faith in Christianity. In “My Faith in the Constitution is Whole”: Barbara Jordan and the Politics of Scripture, Robin L. Owens shows how Jordan turned her religious faith and her faith in the Constitution into a powerful civil religious expression of her social activism.

Owens begins by examining the lives and work of the nineteenth-century Black female orator-activists Maria W. Stewart and Anna Julia Cooper. Stewart and Cooper fought for emancipation and women’s rights by “scripturalizing,” or using religious scriptures to engage in political debate. Owens then demonstrates how Jordan built upon this tradition by treating the Constitution as an American “scripture” to advocate for racial justice and gender equality. Case studies of key speeches throughout Jordan’s career show how she quoted the Constitution and other founding documents as sacred texts, used them as sociolinguistic resources, and employed a discursive rhetorical strategy of indirection known as “signifying on scriptures.”

Jordan’s particular use of the Constitution—deeply connected with her background and religious, racial, and gender identity—represents the agency and power reflected in her speeches. Jordan’s strategies also illustrate a broader phenomenon of scripturalization outside of institutional religion and its rhetorical and interpretive possibilities.

Christian and Muslim Approaches to Law

One of the very earliest recorded encounters between a Christian and a Muslim, a public debate between a Syriac patriarch and an Arab emir shortly after the Arab conquest of Syria, concerns the role of law in religion. Without a body of law, the emir insisted, Christianity could not call itself a religion; Christians should convert to Islam, a real religion that had the Sharia. The patriarch responded that Christians indeed had law, though not as Muslims understood it; Christians had no need to convert. I thought of this debate when I saw a notice for a forthcoming book from Cambridge, Law and the Rule of God: A Christian Engagement with Sharia, by Joshua Rallston (Edinburgh). Law–or, rather, the proper conception of law–is a major point of contention between these two world religions, and a comparative study like this one seems very promising. The publisher’s description follows:

Sharī’a is one of the most hotly contested and misunderstood concepts and practices in the world today. Debates about Islamic law and its relationship to secularism and Christianity have dominated political and theological discourse for centuries. Unfortunately, Western Christian theologians have failed to engage sufficiently with the challenges and questions raised by Islamic political theology, preferring instead to essentialize or dismiss it. In Law and the Rule of God, Joshua Ralston presents an innovative approach to Christian-Muslim dialogue. Eschewing both polemics and apologetics, he proposes a comparative framework for Christian engagement with Islamic debates on sharī’a. Ralston draws on a diverse range of thinkers from both traditions including Karl Barth, Ibn Taymiyya, Thomas Aquinas, and Mohammad al-Jabri. He offers an account of public law as a provisional and indirect witness to the divine rule of justice. He also demonstrates how this theology of public law deeply resonates with the Christian tradition and is also open to learning from and dialoguing with Islamic and secular conceptions of law, sovereignty, and justice.

“Roma Traversata”

This might seem a little far afield for us, but the Center regularly sponsors conferences in Rome and Marc and I are there a lot for our work. One of the great pleasures of Rome is wandering through its streets. It’s such a dense city, and practically every corner has an interesting history. A new book out this month from Cornell University Press looks like it will be a welcome addition to the literature on the city. And the book’s focus on how a great city grows organically over centuries is very much in keeping with our Tradition Project. The book is Roma Traversata: Tracing Historic Pathways through Rome, by scholar Allan Ceen (Penn State). Here’s the publisher’s description:

Roma Traversata analyzes pathways to decipher the complexity of Rome’s urban layout. Nearly all of the prehistoric country paths converging on what was to become the Roman Forum (the ancient city center) are still traceable in the modern city. To these were added other major streets in ancient times. Additional Medieval and Renaissance streets developed the city further as its center shifted from the Forum toward the Vatican. Some of these provided the framework for Rome’s late 19th century urban development.

Ceen follows nine routes: three prehistoric, three ancient, and three post-classical pathways through the city, showing us that streets are not merely the space left over between buildings but have a formal character of their own and even determine certain aspects of buildings. Rather than insisting upon the greater importance of streets over buildings, Ceen studies the interactions between buildings and public space, something he describes as urban reciprocity.

Profusely and beautifully illustrated, Roma Traversata shows that streets and pathways of Rome are not merely ways of getting from place to place. They are places.

The Church of Saint Thomas Paine

A few years ago, while a fellow in the Madison Program at Princeton, I did a little research on a relative of mine, Mangasar Mangasarian, who had attended Princeton in the 19th Century. I had always heard that Mangasar, one of the earliest Armenian immigrants in the US, had gone on to become a Protestant minister. That was the story our family told, and it was true, as far as it went. What they failed to mention (maybe they didn’t know), and what I came to learn at Princeton, was that Mangasar eventually left his pulpit in the Presbyterian Church to found his own, rationalist sect, the “Independent Religious Society of Chicago,” which had some success around the turn of the century. I guess my relatives found that part of Mangasar’s story less edifying.

I’ve always wanted to do some more research to find out why Mangasar took the path he did. We’re a little late getting to it here at the Forum, but a book published last year by Princeton seems like it will provide some very helpful information. The book, The Church of Saint Thomas Paine, by Leigh Eric Schmidt (Washington University in St. Louis) describes 19th century secular “religions” in the United States. I checked the index online and Mangasar’s name appears quite prominently! Can’t wait to see what the book says. Meanwhile, here’s the publisher’s description:

In The Church of Saint Thomas Paine, Leigh Eric Schmidt tells the surprising story of how freethinking liberals in nineteenth-century America promoted a secular religion of humanity centered on the deistic revolutionary Thomas Paine (1737–1809) and how their descendants eventually became embroiled in the culture wars of the late twentieth century.

After Paine’s remains were stolen from his grave in New Rochelle, New York, and shipped to England in 1819, the reverence of his American disciples took a material turn in a long search for his relics. Paine’s birthday was always a red-letter day for these believers in democratic cosmopolitanism and philanthropic benevolence, but they expanded their program to include a broader array of rites and ceremonies, particularly funerals free of Christian supervision. They also worked to establish their own churches and congregations in which to practice their religion of secularism.

All of these activities raised serious questions about the very definition of religion and whether it included nontheistic fellowships and humanistic associations—a dispute that erupted again in the second half of the twentieth century. As right-wing Christians came to see secular humanism as the most dangerous religion imaginable, small communities of religious humanists, the heirs of Paine’s followers, were swept up in new battles about religion’s public contours and secularism’s moral perils.

An engrossing account of an important but little-known chapter in American history, The Church of Saint Thomas Paine reveals why the lines between religion and secularism are often much blurrier than we imagine.

Christianity’s American Fate?

I have to confess the publisher’s description of a new book from Princeton on American Christianity lost me at the get-go. “How did American Christianity become synonymous with conservative white evangelicalism,” the blurb for Christianity’s American Fate by Berkeley historian David Hollinger earnestly asks? I guess such a framing attracts an academic audience, always on the lookout for reassurance about its priors. But it’s misleading. First, of course, American Christianity comprises a lot more than Evangelicals. Second, although the majority of American Evangelicals are white, the most interesting fact about them is that they are becoming much less so over time. A PRRI study a few years ago revealed that one third of Evangelicals are members of racial and ethnic minorities. Among younger Evangelicals, the transformation is even more pronounced. About half of Evangelicals below the age of 30 are minorities. “PRRI found that ’22 percent of young evangelical Protestants are Black, 18 percent are Hispanic, and 9 percent identify as some other race or mixed race.'” The short answer to the question, how did American Christianity become synonymous with conservative white evangelicalism is, it’s not.

Readers of the book can judge for themselves. The publisher’s full description follows:

How did American Christianity become synonymous with conservative white evangelicalism? This sweeping work by a leading historian of modern America traces the rise of the evangelical movement and the decline of mainline Protestantism’s influence on American life. In Christianity’s American Fate, David Hollinger shows how the Protestant establishment, adopting progressive ideas about race, gender, sexuality, empire, and divinity, liberalized too quickly for some and not quickly enough for others. After 1960, mainline Protestantism lost members from both camps—conservatives to evangelicalism and progressives to secular activism. A Protestant evangelicalism that was comfortable with patriarchy and white supremacy soon became the country’s dominant Christian cultural force.

Hollinger explains the origins of what he calls Protestantism’s “two-party system” in the United States, finding its roots in America’s religious culture of dissent, as established by seventeenth-century colonists who broke away from Europe’s religious traditions; the constitutional separation of church and state, which enabled religious diversity; and the constant influx of immigrants, who found solidarity in churches. Hollinger argues that the United States became not only overwhelmingly Protestant but Protestant on steroids. By the 1960s, Jews and other non-Christians had diversified the nation ethnoreligiously, inspiring more inclusive notions of community. But by embracing a socially diverse and scientifically engaged modernity, Hollinger tells us, ecumenical Protestants also set the terms by which evangelicals became reactionary.

The Tudors

Love them or hate them, there’s no denying that the Tudor Family had an outsized impact on church and state in the West. A current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York explores Tudor politics and personalities–as well as the dynasty’s artistic legacy. The Yale University Press has released a companion volume, The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England by Met curators Elizabeth Cleland and Adam Eaker. The publisher’s description follows:

A fascinating new look at the artistic legacy of the Tudors, revealing the dynasty’s influence on the arts in Renaissance England and beyond

Ruling successively from 1485 through 1603, the five Tudor monarchs changed England indelibly, using the visual arts to both legitimize and glorify their tumultuous rule—from Henry VII’s bloody rise to power, through Henry VIII’s breach with the Roman Catholic Church, to the reign of the “virgin queen” Elizabeth I. With incisive scholarship and sumptuous new photography, the book explores the politics and personalities of the Tudors, and how they used art in their diplomacy at home and abroad.

Tudor courts were truly cosmopolitan, attracting artists and artisans from across Europe, including Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8–1543), Jean Clouet (ca. 1485–1540), and Benedetto da Rovezzano (1474–1552). At the same time, the Tudors nurtured local talent such as Isaac Oliver (ca. 1565–1617) and Nicholas Hilliard (ca. 1547–1619) and gave rise to a distinctly English aesthetic that now defines the visual legacy of the dynasty. This book reveals the true history behind a family that has long captured the public imagination, bringing to life the extravagant and politically precarious world of the Tudors through the exquisite paintings, lush textiles, gleaming metalwork, and countless luxury objects that adorned their spectacular courts.

“Stealing My Religion”

I’ve been thinking about the Rise of the Nones, particularly, the significant percentage of Americans who are “unaffiliated believers.” Something like 20% of us, according to surveys, claim to have non-institutional religious commitments that draw from many different sources. This is an old story in America, going back at least as far as Thoreau, who drew heavily from Hinduism and Zoroastrianism. (About Christianity, he was much less enthusiastic). But eclectic, expressive individualism has now gone mainstream. There are a lot more Thoreaus than there used to be.

Not everyone loves the new eclecticism–including, especially, practitioners of the old traditions themselves, who sometimes feel wronged. For example, can one just “do” yoga, without accepting the spiritual commitments on which yoga is based? Is treating yoga as an exercise regimen an affront to Hindus for whom yoga has transcendental meaning? An interesting-looking new book from Harvard, Stealing My Religion, addresses these questions. The author is Northeastern religion professor Liz Bucar. Here’s the publisher’s description:

From sneaker ads and the “solidarity hijab” to yoga classes and secular hikes along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, the essential guide to the murky ethics of religious appropriation.

We think we know cultural appropriation when we see it. Blackface or Native American headdresses as Halloween costumes—these clearly give offense. But what about Cardi B posing as the Hindu goddess Durga in a Reebok ad, AA’s twelve-step invocation of God, or the earnest namaste you utter at the end of yoga class?

Liz Bucar unpacks the ethical dilemmas of a messy form of cultural appropriation: the borrowing of religious doctrines, rituals, and dress for political, economic, and therapeutic reasons. Does borrowing from another’s religion harm believers? Who can consent to such borrowings? Bucar sees religion as an especially vexing arena for appropriation debates because faiths overlap and imitate each other and because diversity within religious groups scrambles our sense of who is an insider and who is not. Indeed, if we are to understand why some appropriations are insulting and others benign, we have to ask difficult philosophical questions about what religions really are.

Stealing My Religion guides us through three revealing case studies—the hijab as a feminist signal of Muslim allyship, a study abroad “pilgrimage” on the Camino de Santiago, and the commodification of yoga in the West. We see why the Vatican can’t grant Rihanna permission to dress up as the pope, yet it’s still okay to roll out our yoga mats. Reflecting on her own missteps, Bucar comes to a surprising conclusion: the way to avoid religious appropriation isn’t to borrow less but to borrow more—to become deeply invested in learning the roots and diverse meanings of our enthusiasms.

The New Thoreaus: A Video of My Talk at UT Law

I had a wonderful time yesterday at the Bech-Loughlin First Amendment Center at the University of Texas Law School, where I spoke about my draft paper on the New Thoreaus. I enjoyed meeting some students before my talk, and the talk itself. Excellent questions and a lot of fun. My thanks again to Steve Collis and the folks at UT for having me. A video of the talk is available below:

A New Book on Salafism

Salafism is a movement within Islam that seeks to return to what it understands as the earliest, and therefore purest, expressions of Islamic law and practice, from the time of the first few generations of Muslim believers. In a sense, it can be seen as a kind of originalism, opposed to the more conventional Islamic law traditionalism that views the earliest expressions as mediated through the writings of succeeding legal scholars.

A new book from Stanford University Press, On Salafism: Concepts and Contexts, by scholar Azmi Bishara, argues that Salafism is best understood as a contemporary phenomenon based, not in early Islam, but in the current social and political context. Here is the publisher’s description:

On Salafism offers a compelling new understanding of this phenomenon, both its development and contemporary manifestations. Salafism became associated with fundamentalism when the 9/11 Commission used it to explain the terror attacks and has since been connected with the violence of the so-called Islamic State. With this book, Azmi Bishara critically deconstructs claims of continuity between early Islam and modern militancy and makes a counterargument: Salafism is a wholly modern construct informed by specific sociopolitical contexts.

Bishara offers a sophisticated account of various movements—such as Wahabbism and Hanbalism—frequently collapsed into simplistic understandings of Salafism. He distinguishes reformist from regressive Salafism, and examines patterns of modernization in the development of contemporary Islamic political movements and associations. In deconstructing the assumptions of linear continuity between traditional and contemporary movements, Bishara details various divergences in both doctrine and context of modern Salafisms, plural. On Salafism is a crucial read for those interested in Islamism, jihadism, and Middle East politics and history.