Justice Alito Keynotes Tradition Project Session in Rome

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Here’s a report on last month’s meeting of the Tradition Project in Rome, on “The Value of Tradition in the Global Context.” Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito of the Supreme Court of the United States delivered the keynote address:

As a highlight of this year’s Tradition Project session, Justice Alito spoke about the relationship between international and national law in the context of human rights. “The conflict between global human rights norms and local legal traditions has become acute over the past decade,” says Professor Mark L. Movsesian, who directs the Center for Law and Religion and co-directs the Project with Professor Marc O. DeGirolami. “Justice Alito’s keynote addressed a timely topic in a substantive way. We were so honored to have him with us.”

After Justice Alito’s remarks, the Project convened a panel of respondents that included Giuseppe Dalla Torre, president of the Vatican City Tribunal; Ugo De Siervo, president emeritus of the Italian Constitutional Court; Chantal Delsol of the Academie des Sciences Morales et Politiques; and Andrés Ollero of the Spanish Constitutional Tribunal.

The session also included four invitation-only workshops on “Understandings of Tradition in the Global Context”; “Local Traditions and Global Government”; “Liberalism, Populism, and Nationalism”; and “Tradition and Human Rights.” Participants prepared short reflection papers on the various topics. “There was a lot to discuss in the workshops, and there will be a lot to keep elaborating and deepening in the near future,” says LUMSA Professor Monica Lugato, one of the Tradition Project session organizers. “It was a challenging and rewarding academic meeting.”

Thanks to our partners at LUMSA and at Villanova for co-sponsoring the Rome meeting. Watch this space for news about future Tradition Project events!

A New American History Text

Land-of-Hope_lowres-310x460I was surprised to read an ad in the current Claremont Review criticizing the American history text I used in high school, The American Pageant, as hopelessly anti-American. As a student, I thought the book was great. The author, Thomas Bailey, had a talent for identifying anecdotes that made history come alive. (I heard later that he paid his grad students to find the anecdotes, but I don’t know whether that’s true). Maybe things have changed in the new editions, or maybe I simply didn’t notice the problems at the time. The Wikipedia page about the book says that the new authors have simplified the language to make it more accessible to contemporary teens, which sounds ominous. Anyway, this forthcoming American history textbook from Encounter Books by scholar Wilfred McClay (University of Oklahoma) Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, looks like a good buy for readers with kids in high school. Here’s the publisher’s description:

We have a glut of text and trade books on American history. But what we don’t have is a compact, inexpensive, authoritative, and compulsively readable book that will offer to intelligent young Americans a coherent, persuasive, and inspiring narrative of their own country. Such an account will shape and deepen their sense of the land they inhabit, and by making them understand that land’s roots, will equip them for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship in American society, and provide them with a vivid and enduring sense of membership in one of the greatest enterprises in human history: the exciting, perilous, and immensely consequential story of their own country.

The existing texts simply fail to tell that story with energy and conviction. They are more likely to reflect the skeptical outlook of specialized professional academic historians, an outlook that supports a fragmented and fractured view of modern American society, and that fails to convey to young people the greater arc of that history. Or they reflect the outlook of radical critics of American society, who seek to debunk the standard American narrative, and has had an enormous, and largely negative, upon the teaching of American history in American high schools and colleges.

This state of affairs cannot continue for long without producing serious consequences. A great nation needs and deserves a great and coherent narrative, as an expression of its own self-understanding; and it needs to convey that narrative to its young effectively. It perhaps goes without saying that such a narrative cannot be a fairy tale or a whitewash of the past; it will not be convincing if it is not truthful. But there is no necessary contradiction between an honest account and an inspiring one. This account seeks to provide both.

A New Book on Threats to Academic Freedom

9780231190466This month, Columbia University Press releases Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom by Joan Wallach Scott (Institute for Advanced Studies). The book mounts a defense of academic freedom in the contemporary American university. The author apparently sees the dangers for academic freedom arising largely from “right wing groups threatening dissenters” and from anti-intellectuals like Donald Trump. That seems quite wrong to me. Right-wingers outside universities occasionally call for scholars to be disciplined, that’s true. But the overwhelming threat to academic freedom today comes from the left. Given the makeup of most faculties, a scholar is much more likely to get in trouble for defending Trump than opposing him. The real threat to someone’s career, in other words, is not that he’ll be the subject of a 5-minute segment on Hannity, but that he’ll find himself protested by students and hung out to dry by faculty colleagues and administrators. Those are the sort of threats that chill academic discourse. But it’s nice to see a defense of academic freedom, all the same. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Academic freedom rests on a shared belief that the production of knowledge advances the common good. In an era of education budget cuts, wealthy donors intervening in university decisions, and right-wing groups threatening dissenters, scholars cannot expect that those in power will value their work. Can academic freedom survive in this environment—and must we rearticulate what academic freedom is in order to defend it?

This book presents a series of essays by the renowned historian Joan Wallach Scott that explore the history and theory of free inquiry and its value today. Scott considers the contradictions in the concept of academic freedom. She examines the relationship between state power and higher education; the differences between the First Amendment right of free speech and the guarantee of academic freedom; and, in response to recent campus controversies, the politics of civility. The book concludes with an interview conducted by Bill Moyers in which Scott discusses the personal experiences that have informed her views. Academic freedom is an aspiration, Scott holds: its implementation always falls short of its promise, but it is essential as an ideal of ethical practice. Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom is both a nuanced reflection on the tensions within a cherished concept and a strong defense of the importance of critical scholarship to safeguard democracy against the anti-intellectualism of figures from Joseph McCarthy to Donald Trump.

How Belief Came to Transcend Religion

9780691174747_0The last sentence of the announcement of this new book from Princeton University Press–The Birth of Modern Belief: Faith and Judgment from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, by Berkeley historian Ethan Shagan–caught my attention. It confirms an essential, conservative critique of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment didn’t put an end to “belief” as a basis for one’s deepest commitments; it merely changed the objects of belief from traditional Christian concepts to new ones. I’m not sure what Shagan’s position is on all that, but the book looks very interesting indeed. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:

This landmark book traces the history of belief in the Christian West from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, revealing for the first time how a distinctively modern category of belief came into being. Ethan Shagan focuses not on what people believed, which is the normal concern of Reformation history, but on the more fundamental question of what people took belief to be.

Shagan shows how religious belief enjoyed a special prestige in medieval Europe, one that set it apart from judgment, opinion, and the evidence of the senses. But with the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, the question of just what kind of knowledge religious belief was—and how it related to more mundane ways of knowing—was forced into the open. As the warring churches fought over the answer, each claimed belief as their exclusive possession, insisting that their rivals were unbelievers. Shagan challenges the common notion that modern belief was a gift of the Reformation, showing how it was as much a reaction against Luther and Calvin as it was against the Council of Trent. He describes how dissidents on both sides came to regard religious belief as something that needed to be justified by individual judgment, evidence, and argument.

Brilliantly illuminating, The Birth of Modern Belief demonstrates how belief came to occupy such an ambivalent place in the modern world, becoming the essential category by which we express our judgments about science, society, and the sacred, but at the expense of the unique status religion once enjoyed.

Happy New Year!

For our readers who don’t live in New York and so can’t watch the annual Honeymooners marathon, here’s a little seasonal music to welcome in the New Year. Back to our regular programming tomorrow!

McHugo on Sunni and Shia Islam

9781626165861We’re a little late getting to this one, but earlier this year, Georgetown University Press published an interesting looking book on a religious divide that gets insufficient attention from Americans: A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is by John McHugo (University of St. Andrews). The Sunni/Shia divide forms the background for many contemporary conflicts in the Mideast, especially between Saudi Arabia and Iran. An understanding of the conflict is thus essential to appreciating the politics of the region. Here’s the description of the new book from the Georgetown website:

The 1,400-year-old schism between Sunnis and Shi’is is currently reflected in the destructive struggle for hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran—with no apparent end in sight. But how did this conflict begin, and why is it now the focus of so much attention?

Charting the history of Islam from the death of the Prophet Muhammad to the present day, John McHugo describes the conflicts that raged over the succession to the Prophet, how Sunnism and Shi’ism evolved as different sects during the Abbasid caliphate, and how the rivalry between the Sunni Ottomans and Shi’i Safavids ensured that the split would continue into the modern age. In recent decades, this centuries-old divide has acquired a new toxicity that has resulted in violence across the Arab world and other Muslim countries.

Definitive, insightful, and accessible, A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is is an essential guide to understanding the genesis, development, and manipulation of the schism that for far too many people has come to define Islam and the Muslim world

A New Book on Eusebius

9781108474078Lately, law-and-religion scholars have been turning their attention to the Patristic period, during which Christians first began to think in earnest about the relation between church and state. To give just two examples, there’s Steve Smith’s new book on pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, and Robert Louis Wilken’s forthcoming book on early Christian concepts of religious liberty, which he presented at our Center’s colloquium this past fall. And so it might be a good time for us to reconsider Eusebius, that chronicler of Christianity in its formative centuries. A forthcoming book from Cambridge, Eusebius and Empire: Constructing Church and Rome in the Ecclesiastical History, does just that. The author is historian James Corke-Webster (King’s College London). Cambridge presents the book as a “radical” new treatment, which makes a traditionalist like me a little skeptical, but readers will be able to judge for themselves. Here’s the description from Cambridge’s website:

Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, written in the early fourth century, continues to serve as our primary gateway to a crucial three hundred year period: the rise of early Christianity under the Roman Empire. In this volume, James Corke-Webster undertakes the first systematic study considering the History in the light of its fourth-century circumstances as well as its author’s personal history, intellectual commitments, and literary abilities. He argues that the Ecclesiastical History is not simply an attempt to record the past history of Christianity, but a sophisticated mission statement that uses events and individuals from that past to mould a new vision of Christianity tailored to Eusebius’ fourth-century context. He presents elite Graeco-Roman Christians with a picture of their faith that smooths off its rough edges and misrepresents its size, extent, nature, and relationship to Rome. Ultimately, Eusebius suggests that Christianity was – and always had been – the Empire’s natural heir.

Bacevich, “Twilight of the American Century”

9780268104863I think of Andrew Bacevich as a conservative of the old-fashioned, non-interventionist sort. You could forgive me for this, as he writes a column for The American Conservative. But he also has a column in The Nation, which suggests that his writing transcends easy categorization. Bacevich, an emeritus professor of history and international relations at Boston University, has a new collection of essays, Twilight of the American Century, which the University of Notre Dame press released last month. The title suggests that the book will join the ranks of many recent works documenting the decline of American hegemony. Here’s the description from the Notre Dame website:

Andrew Bacevich is a leading American public intellectual, writing in the fields of culture and politics with particular attention to war and America’s role in the world. Twilight of the American Century is a collection of his selected essays written since 9/11. In these essays, Bacevich critically examines the U.S. response to the events of September 2001, as they have played out in the years since, radically affecting the way Americans see themselves and their nation’s place in the world. Bacevich is the author of nearly a dozen books and contributes to a wide variety of publications, including Foreign AffairsThe NationCommonwealHarper’s, and the London Review of Books. His op-eds have appeared in the New York TimesWashington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, among other newspapers. Prior to becoming an academic, he was a professional soldier. His experience as an Army officer informs his abiding concern regarding the misuse of American military power and the shortcomings of the U.S. military system. As a historian, he has tried to see the past differently, thereby making it usable to the present. Bacevich combines the perspective of a scholar with the background of a practitioner. His views defy neat categorization as either liberal or conservative. He belongs to no “school.” His voice and his views are distinctive, provocative, and refreshing. Those with a focus on political and cultural developments and who have a critical interest in America’s role in the world will be keenly interested in this book.

Zaretsky, “Catherine and Diderot”

9780674737907-lgHistorians have often remarked on the affinity between intellectuals and authoritarian rulers during the Enlightenment. Lots of factors explain this affinity, but one stands out in particular: the two groups shared a common enemy in traditional Christianity, which placed restrictions on both of them. Intellectuals hoped that enlightened despots would break the power of the church and promote liberty, and despots relied on intellectuals to provide arguments for the aggrandizement of state power. The alliance was always shallow and rather tenuous, but it could make for amusing episodes. One such episode is discussed in a forthcoming book from Harvard University Press, Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment, by Robert Zaretsky. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

A dual biography crafted around the famous encounter between the French philosopher who wrote about power and the Russian empress who wielded it with great aplomb.

In October 1773, after a grueling trek from Paris, the aged and ailing Denis Diderot stumbled from a carriage in wintery St. Petersburg. The century’s most subversive thinker, Diderot arrived as the guest of its most ambitious and admired ruler, Empress Catherine of Russia. What followed was unprecedented: more than forty private meetings, stretching over nearly four months, between these two extraordinary figures. Diderot had come from Paris in order to guide—or so he thought—the woman who had become the continent’s last great hope for an enlightened ruler. But as it soon became clear, Catherine had a very different understanding not just of her role but of his as well. Philosophers, she claimed, had the luxury of writing on unfeeling paper. Rulers had the task of writing on human skin, sensitive to the slightest touch.

Diderot and Catherine’s series of meetings, held in her private chambers at the Hermitage, captured the imagination of their contemporaries. While heads of state like Frederick of Prussia feared the consequences of these conversations, intellectuals like Voltaire hoped they would further the goals of the Enlightenment.

In Catherine & Diderot, Robert Zaretsky traces the lives of these two remarkable figures, inviting us to reflect on the fraught relationship between politics and philosophy, and between a man of thought and a woman of action.

Denysenko on the Ukrainian Church

7898This past weekend in Kiev, two independent Orthodox bodies united to form a new communion, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and elected a 39-year old bishop as the church’s patriarch. The patriarch will travel to Istanbul next month to receive a tomos of autocephaly from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople — a recognition that the new church is autonomous from the Moscow Patriarchate, or Russian Orthodox Church, which claims jurisdiction under a 17th-century decree from the Ecumenical Patriarch, now overruled.

All this might seem esoteric to Western Christians, but in the Eastern Christian world, it is very big news, with geopolitical implications. Indeed, at this weekend’s ceremonies, Ukraine’s President, Peter Poroshenko, lauded the creation of the new body as a national declaration of independence from Russia.

The situation of Orthodoxy in Ukraine has been deeply contentious for at least 100 years, as Valparaiso University Professor Nicholas Denysenko recently wrote over at the Public Orthodoxy blog. Last month, Denysenko published a longer history of the conflict, The Orthodox Church in Ukraine: A Century of Separation (Northern Illinois University Press), which looks to be very helpful in understanding what’s going on. The publisher’s description follows:

The bitter separation of Ukraine’s Orthodox churches is a microcosm of its societal strife. From 1917 onward, church leaders failed to agree on the church’s mission in the twentieth century. The core issues of dispute were establishing independence from the Russian church and adopting Ukrainian as the language of worship. Decades of polemical exchanges and public statements by leaders of the separated churches contributed to the formation of their distinct identities and sharpened the friction amongst their respective supporters.

In The Orthodox Church in Ukraine, Nicholas Denysenko provides a balanced and comprehensive analysis of this history from the early twentieth century to the present. Based on extensive archival research, Denysenko’s study examines the dynamics of church and state that complicate attempts to restore an authentic Ukrainian religious identity in the contemporary Orthodox churches. An enhanced understanding of these separate identities and how they were forged could prove to be an important tool for resolving contemporary religious differences and revising ecclesial policies. This important study will be of interest to historians of the church, specialists of former Soviet countries, and general readers interested in the history of the Orthodox Church.

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