On the Armenian Question and Mideast Christians Today

At the Liberty Law blog this morning, I have an essay on historian Charles Laderman’s fine new book, Sharing the Burden: The Armenian Question, Humanitarian Intervention, and Anglo-American Visions of Global Order. At the turn of the 20th Century, American officials repeatedly voiced support for an independent Armenian state in Anatolia. The state was meant to compensate Armenians for the effects of genocide and offer them protection from hostile forces that surrounded them. Laderman explores why, notwithstanding the best intentions, the US Government ultimately abandoned Armenians and other persecuted Mideast Christians at the end of World War I. In my review, I explain what this history suggests for Mideast Christians today:

Congressional resolutions are very welcome, but history suggests that these Christians should not expect much more from America. Just as in the last century, despite the best intentions, America’s commitment to Christians in the Middle East today is limited: well wishes, exhortations for equality and tolerance, some humanitarian assistance—though nothing like the massive humanitarian campaign that took place in the last century and saved so many lives. Ultimately, nations act in their political and economic interests, and America does not perceive long-term interests that would justify putting at risk the large number of troops necessary to defend Mideast Christians on an ongoing basis. Many private citizens and charities continue to help Mideast Christians, thank God. But the sad lesson of Laderman’s book is this: if Christians in Syria expect the American government to do more to help them, they will find themselves on their own.

The full essay is available here.

Center Fellows Earn Prestigious Judicial Clerkships

Vitagliano (left) and Nania (right) take a brief break from Center duties to pose for a photo

Marc and I are delighted to announce that our two graduating student fellows, Anthony Nania ’20 and Dan Vitagliano ’20, have earned wonderful judicial clerkships for after graduation. Anthony will clerk for Chief Judge Fiore of the New York Court of Appeals from 2020-2022 and Dan will clerk for Judge Vyskocil on the Southern District of New York from 2020-2021 and then for Judge Duncan on the Fifth Circuit from 2021-2022. Congrats, guys! Full story here.

Christianity and Liberalism before the Fall

Nathan Chapman (Georgia) has posted a very interesting new paper on SSRN, Forgotten Federal-Missionary Partnerships: New Light on the Establishment Clause. His paper relates to a specific, historical example of federal funding for religious schools, but has implications for much broader Establishment Clause issues as well.

Chapman explains that, for much of the 19th Century, the federal government gave significant financial support to Christian missionary schools that educated Native Americans. Even more: virtually no one saw the financial support of these schools as an Establishment Clause problem. Evidently, Americans at the time–or at least the elites whose opinions mattered–did not perceive public support for instruction in Christian morality as a constitutional issue. That is so, Chapman argues, because elites at the time did not perceive basic Christian morality as sectarian and threatening in the way their counterparts do today. Borrowing from sociologist Charles Taylor, Chapman writes that “elite white Americans shared a ‘social imaginary’—or social paradigm—of ‘civilization’ that merged education, republicanism, and at least a modicum of Christianity.”

This is an extremely important insight for understanding American culture, and, therefore, American law. Historically, Americans have seen Christianity, especially its Protestant iteration, as consistent with liberalism and progress. Writing in the 1830s, Tocqueville observed that in the Old World, everyone understood that Christianity and liberty were rivals; but Americans had so completely run the two together in their minds that it was impossible for them to conceive of the one without the other. The conflict between Christianity and liberty that informs today’s culture wars simply did not exist for most of our history. As a consequence, the issues that preoccupy us today had little salience.

Of course, things are very different now. Maybe something went wrong, or maybe, as Patrick Deneen argues, the conflict was always there, waiting to hatch out. Anyhow, American elites today, especially legal elites, do not see Christianity and liberty as natural allies. This makes “translating” (Chapman’s term) the nineteenth-century practice into contemporary constitutional law rather tricky–even assuming translation is appropriate. The Establishment Clause was fashioned in a very different culture from our own, one that assumed a harmonious relationship between revelation and reason and that little relied on law to mediate conflicts between them. That is no longer the case, and the implications for our law have yet to be worked out.

More on Motive in Law

A followup to Marc’s post on motive in law. Marc notes that motive remains salient in constitutional law, but not in tort or criminal law. I’d like to add just a couple of points.

First, when it comes to constitutional law, motive is especially important in contemporary Religion Clause jurisprudence. The Lemon test (much-derided, but still extant, in my opinion, even after last term’s Bladensburg Cross case) makes government motive central to Establishment Clause cases. In the Free Exercise context, government motive figures prominently as well. The Masterpiece Cakeshop decision turned almost entirely on the Court’s inferences about the anti-religious motives of Colorado state officials.

Marc wonders why motive should be relevant in constitutional law, when it has lost its relevance in tort law. It’s a good question. Because motive is even more elusive in public law than in private law. Take contract law, for example. Classical contract law disregards a party’s motives for making a contract. It doesn’t matter why someone makes a contract. The only thing that matters is that the person intends to make a contract–or, rather, that an objective observer would understand that the person intends to make a contract. This is so because a party may have several motivations for making a contract: profit, affection, indifference, etc. To try to figure which motive was the most important is a hopeless task.

The problem is even more compounded when it comes to government motive. In contract law, we’re talking about the intentions of two actors. But government actions turn on the decisions of potentially hundreds of actors, all of whom may have multiple motives. The problem of ascertaining motive is even more difficult in this context.

I’m not sure where all this leads. But Marc is right in pointing out the continued relevance of motive in constitutional law, and its continued irrelevance in private law. It’s a puzzle that demands an answer.

What Does the Methodist Divide Mean?

Logo of the United Methodist Church

In the past couple of decades, American Protestant churches have suffered divisions on the question of homosexuality, and same-sex marriage in particular. Conservative congregations and dioceses have seceded from progressive national bodies, which has led, in some cases, to acrimonious, high-profile litigation over church finances and property. For lawyers and scholars who study law-and-religion, these disputes raise complicated and interesting legal questions. For the litigants, they are often emotional and painful conflicts–divorces, really–that leave everyone, winners and losers, worse off.

It seems that the United Methodist Church (UMC), America’s second-largest Protestant denomination, will not be able to avoid a split over LGBT issues. The Methodists may, however, avoid litigation. This week, a group of church leaders announced a plan for the dissolution of the worldwide church that would allow conservative congregations and conferences to leave the main body and join a new conservative denomination. Under the proposal, the UMC would give the new denomination $25 million and allow departing congregations to keep their property, and departing clergy, their pensions. The UMC seems likely to approve the plan at its next general conference in May.

Observers believe that most American Methodist congregations, which support same-sex marriage, will stick with the main body. But the UMC is a global entity, and, worldwide, the opposite may be the case. In a post at Juicy Ecumenism, Mark Tooley observes that the majority of Methodists today live in Africa, where the church is growing. African Methodists are quite conservative on LGBT and other issues. As a global matter, then, the large majority of Methodists may end up in the new, conservative denomination. If that is the case, Methodism will reflect the same dynamic that exists in Christianity worldwide: growth in conservative churches in the developing world, decline in progressive churches in the developed world. Another sign that Christianity’s center of gravity may be shifting from the global North to the global South.

On the Armenian Genocide Resolution

On the First Things website, I have an essay on Lindsey Graham’s decision earlier this month to block a Senate measure commemorating the Armenian Genocide of 1915, and how his decision threatens Christians who live in the Middle East today. Senator Graham’s decision was inexplicable, I wrote, given what he has said about Turkey’s aggression in Syria, which has revived ISIS and led to new attacks on Christians, including one that killed a Catholic priest:

What is one to make of Senator Graham? He has expressed outrage at Turkey’s invasion of Syria. He recently suggested that NATO should expel Turkey for threatening the Kurdish militias who helped destroy ISIS. But his comments and his vote to block the Genocide resolution will only embolden Turkey and threaten the region’s Christians even more. Turkey does not see ISIS as a terrible problem and would happily accept the group’s revival, if that means injuring the Syrian Kurds. 

That local Christians like Fr. Bidoyan will pay the price for the revival of ISIS is, to put it mildly, not a difficulty for Turkey. What difference would it make? In 100 years, people like Graham will suggest the suffering was all a fantasy, anyway. It won’t be the Armenian Christians who died in 1915 who will pay for Graham’s actions. It will be the dwindling and threatened Christian minority in the Middle East today.  

Graham now says he was complying with requests from White House staff, who did not want to scuttle negotiations with Turkey over the placement of a Russian missile-defense system. If that was his reason, he should have said so, rather than accuse the resolution’s supporters of trying to “sugercoat” history. Graham says this was a one-off and he will not oppose the resolution in the future. So now the White House has reached out to other GOP senators to do the same thing. Stay tuned.

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.

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