Corvino et al., “Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination”

Now here’s something you don’t see everyday: a book from a major university press, written jointly by people on opposite sides, on the conflict between religious freedom and anti-discrimination laws. The book is Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination (Oxford), by LGBT rights advocate John Corvino (Wayne State) and two social conservatives, Ryan Anderson (Heritage Foundation) and Sherif Girgis (PhD Candidate at Princeton). Here’s the description from the Oxford website:

9780190603076Virtually everyone supports religious liberty, and virtually everyone opposes discrimination. But how do we handle the hard questions that arise when exercises of religious liberty seem to discriminate unjustly? How do we promote the common good while respecting conscience in a diverse society?

This point-counterpoint book brings together leading voices in the culture wars to debate such questions: John Corvino, a longtime LGBT-rights advocate, opposite Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Girgis, prominent young social conservatives.

Many such questions have arisen in response to same-sex marriage: How should we treat county clerks who do not wish to authorize such marriages, for example; or bakers, florists, and photographers who do not wish to provide same-sex wedding services? But the conflicts extend well beyond the LGBT rights arena. How should we treat hospitals, schools, and adoption agencies that can’t in conscience follow antidiscrimination laws, healthcare mandates, and other regulations? Should corporations ever get exemptions? Should public officials?

Should we keep controversial laws like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or pass new ones like the First Amendment Defense Act? Should the law give religion and conscience special protection at all, and if so, why? What counts as discrimination, and when is it unjust? What kinds of material and dignitary harms should the law try to fight-and what is dignitary harm, anyway?

Beyond the law, how should we treat religious beliefs and practices we find mistaken or even oppressive? Should we tolerate them or actively discourage them?

In point-counterpoint format, Corvino, Anderson and Girgis explore these questions and more. Although their differences run deep, they tackle them with civility, clarity, and flair. Their debate is an essential contribution to contemporary discussions about why religious liberty matters and what respecting it requires.

Sarah Ruden’s New Translation of Augustine’s Confessions

I’ve greatly enjoyed classicist Sarah Ruden’s work, ever since reading her Paul Among the People (2010), which situates St. Paul in the classical world and corrects the image of him as a repressed killjoy. Her 2012 translation of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass is readable and a lot of fun. So I very much look forward to her latest work, a new translation of Augustine’s Confessions. Here’s the description from the Penguin Random House website:

9780812996562One of the great works of Western literature, from perhaps the most important thinker of Christian antiquity, in a revolutionary new translation by one of today’s leading classicists

Sarah Ruden’s fresh, dynamic translation of Confessions brings us closer to Augustine’s intent than any previous version. It puts a glaring spotlight on the life of one individual to show how all lives have meaning that is universal and eternal.

In this intensely personal narrative, Augustine tells the story of his sinful youth and his conversion to Christianity. He describes his ascent from a humble farm in North Africa to a prestigious post in the Roman Imperial capital of Milan, his struggle against his own overpowering sexuality, his renunciation of secular ambition and marriage, and the recovery of the faith his mother had taught him during his earliest years. Augustine’s concerns are often strikingly contemporary, and the confessional mode he invented can be seen everywhere in writing today.

Grounded in her command of Latin as it was written and spoken in the ancient world, Sarah Ruden’s translation is a bold departure from its predecessors—and the most historically accurate translation ever. Stylistically beautiful, with no concessions made to suit later theology and ritual, Ruden’s rendition will give readers a startling and illuminating new perspective on one of the central texts of Christianity.

Himmelfarb, “Past and Present”

Tradition’s continuing role in law, politics, and culture is the main focus of our Center’s ongoing Tradition Project, a multi-year research initiative. It’s also one of the central themes of a new book from Encounter Books, a collection of essays by the famous American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, Past and Present: The Challenges of Modernity, from the Pre-Victorians to the Post-Modernists (Encounter). Looks very worthwhile. Here’s the description from the Encounter website:

Past-and-Present-310x460“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” wrote William Faulkner. In Past and Present, an eminent American historian and cultural critic shows the truth of that statement. The common theme of the twenty essays gathered here is the intriguing, often unexpected ways in which the past continues to illuminate the present.

Gertrude Himmelfarb helps us find a new perspective on contemporary issues through a trenchant analysis of debates and thinkers from earlier times.

The topics of the essays vary widely, from the disorders of modern democracy to the challenges of postmodernism, from the Victorian ethos to the Jewish question. The thinkers examined range from Edmund Burke to Leo Strauss, from Cardinal Newman to Lionel Trilling. The political figures who appear here are also diverse, from Benjamin Disraeli to Winston Churchill, from the American founders to Queen Elizabeth II.

Running through all the essays as a first premise is the conviction that the pursuit of knowledge and truth, however difficult or discomfiting, matters immensely in the “practical life,” to use Trilling’s terms, as it does in the “moral life.” Past and Present is a notable contribution to this endeavor—to understanding where we have been, where we are today, and where we may be (or should be) going.

 

Gonzalez, “A Brief History of Sunday”

Strict Sunday observance is less and less common among Christians in the West, and Sunday closing laws–although the US Supreme Court famously upheld their constitutionality in McGowan v. Maryland (1961)–have fallen into disuse, in those jurisdictions where they haven’t been repealed. As Robert Louis Wilken once said, the only thing that currently distinguishes Sunday from other days of the week is that the malls open a little later. At one time, though, Sundays were a day of observance, and the laws reflected that fact.

A new book from Eerdmans, A Brief History of Sunday: From the New Testament to the New Creation, by Justo González, offers a history of Christians’ Sunday observance and of laws that date back to Constantine, and reflects on current practice in the West and beyond. Here’s the description from the Eerdmans website:

9780802874719In this accessible historical overview of Sunday, noted scholar Justo González tells the story of how and why Christians have worshiped on Sunday from the earliest days of the church to the present.

After discussing the views and practices relating to Sunday in the ancient church, González turns to Constantine and how his policies affected Sunday observances. He then recounts the long process, beginning in the Middle Ages and culminating with Puritanism, whereby Christians came to think of and strictly observe Sunday as the Sabbath. Finally, González looks at the current state of things, exploring especially how the explosive growth of the church in the Majority World has affected the observance of Sunday worldwide.

Readers of this book will rediscover the joy and excitement of Sunday as early Christians celebrated it and will find fresh, inspiring perspectives on Sunday amid our current culture of indifference and even hostility to Christianity.

Sangiovanni, “Humanity without Dignity”

Human dignity is the fundamental principle of international human rights law. Dignity has also begun to make inroads into American constitutional law. And yet, no one has yet come up with a definition of dignity that commands a consensus. This lack of agreement causes increasing problems for human rights law, especially with regard to issues like religious liberty and same-sex marriage.

Andrea Sangiovanni, a Reader in Philosophy at King’s College London, has written a new book, Humanity without Dignity: Moral Equality, Respect, and Human Rights (Harvard) that argues against grounding human rights in human dignity. Instead, Sangiovanni argues, human rights can be justified on the grounds of avoiding cruelty. I’m not sure how well a non-cruelty principle would work as a justification for human rights, myself. Most people believe there is a duty not to be cruel to animals; but that would not entail “animal rights,” it seems to me. Anyway, here is the description of the book, from the Harvard website:

9780674049215-lgName any valued human trait—intelligence, wit, charm, grace, strength—and you will find an inexhaustible variety and complexity in its expression among individuals. Yet we insist that such diversity does not provide grounds for differential treatment at the most basic level. Whatever merit, blame, praise, love, or hate we receive as beings with a particular past and a particular constitution, we are always and everywhere due equal respect merely as persons.

But why? Most who attempt to answer this question appeal to the idea that all human beings possess an intrinsic dignity and worth—grounded in our capacities, for example, to reason, reflect, or love—that raises us up in the order of nature. Andrea Sangiovanni rejects this predominant view and offers a radical alternative.

To understand our commitment to basic equality, Humanity without Dignity argues that we must begin with a consideration not of equality but of inequality. Rather than search for a chimerical value-bestowing capacity possessed to an equal extent by each one of us, we ought to ask: Why and when is it wrong to treat others as inferior? Sangiovanni comes to the conclusion that our commitment to moral equality is best explained by a rejection of cruelty rather than a celebration of rational capacity. He traces the impact of this fundamental shift for our understanding of human rights and the norms of anti-discrimination that underlie it.

 

Masterpiece Cakeshop and the Passion for Equality

At the First Things site today, I have an essay on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, in which the Supreme Court granted cert at the end of its term a couple of weeks ago. In the case, a cake shop owner argues that the First Amendment grants him the right to decline to design and bake a cake for a same-sex marriage. I use Masterpiece Cakeshop, and a hypothetical question I posed to my class in law and religion, to explore Tocqueville’s observation that the concept of equality inevitably expands in democratic societies, and to explain how a case in which same-sex marriage is so central may, in fact, have little to do with sexuality:

Conservatives often assume that controversies like Masterpiece Cakeshop reflect changing sexual norms and an intolerance of resistance. That’s correct, in part; one definitely senses a “you-lost-get-over-it” sentiment on the other side. And yet, the students’ reaction to my hypothetical case suggests that something else is going on as well, that the dispute is not about sexuality as such. Rather, it’s about not allowing people to draw moral distinctions that exclude others and hurt their feelings, no matter what the justification. That’s what the florist was doing in my hypothetical case—and that, I think, was what bothered the students.

Tocqueville saw this coming long ago. Democracies, he wrote, prize equality above all other values. Their “passion for equality,” he observed, is “ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible.” It is not simply a matter of assuring every person equal rights under law. Tocqueville believed, in Patrick Deneen’s words, that democracies inevitably seek to do away with “any apparent differences” among people—“material, social, or personal.” No distinctions are to be tolerated. In fact, Tocqueville wrote that democratic societies have an inevitable tendency toward pantheism, since, in the end, even a distinction between Creator and created becomes intolerable.

If I’m right that, in the long run, social intuitions drive the law, and if I’m also right that my students’ reaction reflects something about social intuitions in America today, then litigants like the shop owner in Masterpiece Cakeshop will have an increasingly hard time prevailing in American courts. As the concept of equality inevitably extends further and further, distinctions like the one he is trying to maintain will appear more and more rebarbative. People will fail to empathize at a basic level.

You can read the whole essay here.

The Clash of Traditions

tradition_banner_1_navyAt the Liberty Law site this morning, I have an essay on our recent Tradition Project conference in Trento, and what it reveals about the different understandings of tradition in American and Russian thought. For me, the conference shows how Samuel Huntington was right 20 years ago, when he described how a clash of civilizations would characterize the post-war world:

I thought a great deal about Huntington at a conference I helped organize last month in Trento, Italy, on tradition in American and Russian thought. Cosponsored by the Tradition Project at the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion, the Postsecular Conflicts Project at the University of Innsbruck, and Center for Religious Studies at the Fondazione Bruno Kessler, the conference brought together American, European, and Russian commentators to discuss the use of tradition in law and politics in the two countries. Given the way that Russo-American relations have dominated world politics lately, it seemed an important topic.

Tradition is an exceptionally complicated concept and the participants in the conference expressed a variety of views. The Russian scholars, in particular, disagreed among themselves about precisely what is going on in their country right now (more on this in a bit). But, for me at least, the conference confirmed the basic correctness of Huntington’s insights. People disposed to favor tradition in Russia and America often understand the concept very differently.

Consider religious freedom. For the past several years, Russian church and government officials have argued strenuously that cultural traditions can legitimately limit the exercise of religion. Both Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and President Putin have argued that cultural traditions deserve respect because they reflect eternal truths and embody a people’s morality. Because traditions have a moral character, states can legitimately act to protect them from outside forces. States can, for example, legitimately limit proselytism by new religious groups that threaten to undermine traditional religious communities and values. This attitude is behind a ban Russia recently imposed on the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a ban the country’s Supreme Court sustained.

Some American traditionalists have a similar understanding of the moral value of tradition. But most, it’s fair to say, do not. As a rule, American conservatives do not defend tradition on the basis of unchanging moral verities or the right of nations to defend their cultures from foreign threats. American traditionalism is more pragmatic and empirical.

With all that’s going on now–and I mean right now, as the Trump-Putin meeting today and Trump’s speech in Warsaw yesterday–readers might find the essay interesting. You can find it here.

 

Slaboch, “A Road to Nowhere”

We began this week with a history of the reform impulse in American society. We close with a forthcoming book from the University of Pennsylvania Press that casts doubt on the whole progressive project, A Road to Nowhere: The Idea of Progress and Its Critics, by political scientist Matthew Slaboch (Denison University). Seems pleasantly pessimistic. The publisher’s description follows:

PennPressBlueLogoSince the Enlightenment, the idea of progress has spanned right- and left-wing politics, secular and spiritual philosophy, and most every school of art or culture. The belief that humans are capable of making lasting improvements—intellectual, scientific, material, moral, and cultural—continues to be a commonplace of our age. However, events of the preceding century, including but not limited to two world wars, conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, the spread of communism across Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, violent nationalism in the Balkans, and genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, have called into question this faith in the continued advancement of humankind.

In A Road to Nowhere, Matthew W. Slaboch argues that political theorists should entertain the possibility that long-term, continued progress may be more fiction than reality. He examines the work of German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Oswald Spengler, Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and American historians Henry Adams and Christopher Lasch—rare skeptics of the idea of progress who have much to engage political theory, a field dominated by historical optimists. Looking at the figures of Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, and Adams, Slaboch considers the ways in which they defined progress and their reasons for doubting that their cultures, or the world, were progressing. He compares Germany, Russia, and the United States to illustrate how these nineteenth-century critics of the idea of progress contributed to or helped forestall the emergence of forms of government that came to be associated with each country: fascism, communism, and democratic capitalism, respectively.

Turning to Spengler, Solzhenitsyn, and Lasch, Slaboch explores the contemporary relevance of the critique of progress and the arguments for and against political engagement in the face of uncertain improvement, one-way inevitable decline, or unending cycles of advancement and decay. A Road to Nowhere concludes that these notable naysayers were not mere defeatists and presents their varied prescriptions for individual and social action.

Smith, “Religion”

Continuing our sociology of religion theme this week, here is a forthcoming book from Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, Religion: What It Is, How It Works, Why It Matters (Princeton University Press). Defining religion is a notoriously difficult task, and this book, by the scholar who came up with the concept of Moral Therapeutic Deism, is bound to be interesting and helpful. The description from the Princeton website follows:

k11200A groundbreaking new theory of religion

Religion remains an important influence in the world today, yet the social sciences are still not adequately equipped to understand and explain it. This book builds on recent developments in science, theory, and philosophy to advance an innovative theory of religion that goes beyond the problematic theoretical paradigms of the past.

Drawing on the philosophy of critical realism and personalist social theory, Christian Smith answers key questions about the nature, powers, workings, appeal, and future of religion. He defines religion in a way that resolves myriad problems and ambiguities in past accounts, explains the kinds of causal influences religion exerts in the world, and examines the key cognitive process that makes religion possible. Smith explores why humans are religious in the first place—uniquely so as a species—and offers an account of secularization and religious innovation and persistence that breaks the logjam in which so many religion scholars have been stuck for so long.

Certain to stimulate debate and inspire promising new avenues of scholarship, Religion features a wealth of illustrations and examples that help to make its concepts accessible to readers. This superbly written book brings sound theoretical thinking to a perennially thorny subject, and a new vitality and focus to its study.

Nicolaou, “A None’s Story”

The rise of the Nones has been the most remarked upon development in American religion since the turn of this century. A recent book from Columbia University Press, A None’s Story: Searching for Meaning Inside Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam, by author Corinna Nicolaou, is an insider’s depiction of what it’s like to follow the Nones’ path–or, perhaps, it’s better to write, a None’s path. The publisher’s description follows:

9780231173957The rising population known as “nones” for its members’ lack of religious affiliation is changing American society, politics, and culture. Many nones believe in God and even visit places of worship, but they do not identify with a specific faith or belong to a spiritual community. Corinna Nicolaou is a none, and in this layered narrative, she describes what it is like for her and thousands of others to live without religion or to be spiritual without committing to a specific faith.

Nicolaou tours America’s major traditional religions to see what, if anything, one might lack without God. She moves through Christianity’s denominations, learning their tenets and worshiping alongside their followers. She travels to Los Angeles to immerse herself in Judaism, Berkeley to educate herself about Buddhism, and Dallas and Washington, D.C., to familiarize herself with Islam. She explores what light they can shed on the fears and failings of her past, and these encounters prove the significant role religion still plays in modern life. They also exemplify the vibrant relationship between religion and American culture and the enduring value it provides to immigrants and outsiders. Though she remains a devout none, Nicolaou’s experiences reveal points of contact between the religious and the unaffiliated, suggesting that nones may be radically revising the practice of faith in contemporary times.

 

 

%d bloggers like this: