On the Alliance between Evangelicals and Orthodox Christians

At the First Things site this morning, I have an essay challenging conventional wisdom on the nascent political alliance between American Evangelicals and the Russian Orthodox Church. Here’s a sample:

With respect, I am skeptical of the consensus on both these points. First, I doubt that this alliance can be deep or long-lasting. True, some Evangelical leaders have spoken well lately of Vladimir Putin, who makes Orthodoxy a major part of his public image, and some Evangelical organizations have cooperated with the Russian Orthodox Church in international conferences on the family. But profound differences in belief and practice exist, which will be very difficult to overcome, assuming either side even wishes to overcome them. Evangelicals are not likely to see the value of venerating icons, for example, and the Orthodox are not likely to accept Evangelical ecclesiology. An alliance between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, which share much more in terms of practice and spirituality, would make more sense. I also wonder how many people outside the leadership know about the nascent alliance or take it seriously. International conferences are one thing; actual commitment in the pews (assuming there are pews!) is quite another.

Nevertheless—and here is the second point—if an alliance is forming, it does not strike me as necessarily insincere. Politics no doubt play a role. But Evangelicals and Orthodox may also see each other, genuinely, as allies in a conflict with an aggressive progressivism that sets the agenda in the US and on the world stage. Religious conservatives could easily feel under siege and look for reinforcements.

You can read the whole essay here.

New Pew Study on Orthodox Christianity

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Ethiopian Orthodox Cathedral, Addis Ababa

 

All this week, I’ll be posting items on Orthodox Christianity, an important but understudied (at least in America) Christian communion. To start, here’s a new report from the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, “Orthodox Christianity in the 21st Century,” released this month. Orthodox Christianity has relatively few communicants in the United States, mostly immigrants from Orthodox countries and their descendants, as well as a small number of converts, especially from Evangelical denominations. But, globally, Orthodoxy is the third largest Christian communion, after Catholics and Protestants, with a combined number in the hundreds of millions.

Orthodox leaders are becoming increasingly visible in global affairs. For example, the Ecumenical Patriarch has been active on environmental questions. Thanks to an increasingly assertive Russian Church, Orthodoxy is beginning to have an impact in human rights fora like the UN Commission. In fact, even in the US, Orthodox Christians may have had an impact on the last presidential election. At a panel at Fordham University earlier this month, scholar Nicholas Gvosdev pointed out that Donald Trump appealed to Orthodox Christians in places like Michigan–which Trump won with a narrow margin.

The Pew report reveals that although their numbers across the globe are growing in absolute terms, the number of Orthodox Christians has declined relative to Catholics and Protestants. In the Middle East, at least, that decline is explained in part by persecution against Orthodox (and other) Christians in the twentieth century, which continues today. Seventy years of Communist repression in the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc also didn’t help. But the report reveals a hopeful resurgence of Orthodox Christianity in former Communist countries.

The report pays a lot of attention to the largest Orthodox Church outside Europe, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (36 million members), one of the five so-called Oriental Orthodox Churches. This is commendable, as people often assume that Orthodoxy is an entirely European phenomenon. Although declining in its historic European home, Christianity is soaring in the global south, including in Africa. In fact, the Ethiopian Church, an ancient Christian body without any colonial associations, may be well positioned to do missionary work across the continent in the coming century.

The report details many interesting facts about Orthodox practice and belief — compared to Catholics and mainline Protestants, for example, the Orthodox are deeply conservative on social issues like gender and marriage — as well as prospects for ecumenism. It will be very valuable for anyone interested in the sociology of Christianity today. (H/T: George Demacopoulos at Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center, who served as a scholarly adviser on the report).

FDR’s 1937 Columbus Day Proclamation

Happy Columbus Day! I was surprised to learn recently that Columbus Day was made a national holiday by Franklin Delano Roosevelt Columbusin 1937 (though previous presidents had urged the country to celebrate Columbus), who recognized it in the following proclamation (note the invitation to churches to observe it with “appropriate ceremonies”!):

NOW, THEREFORE, I, FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, President of the United States of America, under and by virtue of the authority vested in me by the aforesaid public resolution, do by this proclamation designate October 12, 1937, as Columbus Day and do direct that on that day the flag of the United States be displayed on all Government buildings ; and, further, I do invite the people of the United States to observe the day with appropriate ceremonies in schools and churches, or other suitable places.

Supreme Court Roundup at First Things

Kevin Walsh and I have the annual Supreme Court Roundup at First Things, A Less Corrupt Term. In it we look back at some of the cases from last term and forward too. The range of cases looking back span the Obergefell-inflected genre, free speech (Packingham and Matal), law and religion (the church plan case and Trinity Lutheran), and Trump v. IRAP. We also discuss the political gerrymandering case on the upcoming docket (Gill v. Whitford) as well as Masterpiece Cakeshop. Here is a bit from the beginning:

In these unusually turbulent times for the presidency and Congress, the Supreme Court’s latest term stands out for its lack of drama. There were no 5–4 end-of-the-term cases that mesmerized the nation. There were no blockbuster decisions.

Even so, the Court was hardly immune to the steady transformation of our governing institutions into reality TV shows. Over the weekend leading into the final day of the term, speculation ignited from who-knows-where about the possible departure of its main character, Justice Anthony Kennedy. To us, the chatter seemed forced—as if the viewing public needed something to fill the vacuum left by a season of episodes with fewer sex scenes and less louche intrigue than usual.

But the scriptwriters did not disappoint entirely. In the season finale, the justices delivered split opinions in two cases that had not even been fully briefed and argued on the merits—one about President Trump’s limits on immigration from six majority-Muslim nations, the other about the right of a female same-sex spouse to be listed as a parent on a birth certificate alongside the birth mother. These opinions hint at some of the stories that will shape next year’s plotline—the first full term for the new character, Justice Neil Gorsuch.

And the producers promise a thrilling new season. For readers of this journal, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission is likely to be the most prominent case, one about the freedom of a Christian baker to decline to design a custom cake for a same-sex wedding celebration. Other potential showstoppers include a case about partisan gerrymandering and another round on President Trump’s executive order on immigration. We may also see more shake-ups in the cast. Before peering ahead to what may be coming, though, we look back at some of the signal events of the past term.

Supreme Court End of Term Podcast

In this podcast, Mark and I discuss three law and religion cases either decided by the Supreme Court this term or to be decided next term: Trinity Lutheran, Masterpiece Cakeshop, and IRAP v. Trump.

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.

Happy Independence Day

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In honor of the Fourth of July, the Forum is taking off today. Happy Independence Day and see you tomorrow!

“Blaine Amendment” Case Decided, Without Reference to Blaine Amendments or Animus Inquiry

Trinity Lutheran Church has just come down, and Tom Berg has a nice summary and set of good comments on it at Mirror of Justice. I agree with much of what he says, though I have a different sense of the considerable staying power of separationism than he does. More on that in the coming months.

For now, here’s one thought: this case concerned Missouri’s Blaine Amendment, which is quoted in full by the Court. Many states have similar amendments, enacted frequently sometime after the failure of James G. Blaine’s proposed federal constitutional amendment. The Blaine Amendments are the subject of great controversy in legal scholarship because of the anti-Catholicism that has been shown to have motivated them–the “animus” in the conventional argot. Some scholars believe that this motivational evidence is overblown. Others believe that even if the evidence exists, these provisions can be justified today on “neutral” grounds, or grounds of public reason liberalism, or some such grounds. Discussion about the Blaine Amendments’ tainted genesis–their anti-Catholic animus–has been on the law and religion scholarly agenda for years. And in Locke v. Davey, the opinion of CJ Rehnquist for the Court focused very much on animus issues (Justice Scalia, in his dissent, disputed that animus was relevant, insisting instead that what the law did was relevant). In Mitchell v. Helms, another funding case that was challenged on Establishment Clause grounds, Justice Thomas devoted a chunk of his plurality opinion to disavowing the claim that aid to “sectarian” schools is justified on Establishment Clause grounds as tainted by wicked animus:

Finally, hostility to aid to pervasively sectarian schools has a shameful pedigree that we do not hesitate to disavow….Although the dissent professes concern for “the implied exclusion of the less favored,” the exclusion of pervasively sectarian schools from government-aid programs is just that, particularly given the history of such exclusion. Opposition to aid to “sectarian” schools acquired prominence in the 1870’s with Congress’ consideration (and near passage) of the Blaine Amendment, which would have amended the Constitution to bar any aid to sectarian institutions. Consideration of the amendment arose at a time of pervasive hostility to the Catholic Church and to Catholics in general, and it was an open secret that “sectarian” was code for “Catholic.”

Mitchell did not involve a state Blaine Amendment. Trinity Lutheran did. And yet you will search in vain for any reference to Blaine Amendments, the constitutional history of the period, “animus” analysis (or even the word “animus”), the motivation of those who excluded Trinity Lutheran from the funds at issue, or indeed any inquiry as to motivation. The focus is squarely on what the law did here, in this case, seemingly for this day only. In classic Roberts style, it is exquisitely minimalist. Just like Hosanna-Tabor, it goes in for hyper-particularism. This is why I very much agree with Tom’s point # 3 below. Indeed, the Chief’s opinion is taken to task by Justice Gorsuch for being insufficiently “principled.” Justice Gorsuch would have preferred a decision more maximal in nature.

But quite apart from the scope of the decision, nobody, but nobody, went in for deep dives into motivational inquiry in this case. It will be interesting to see just how that methodological preference works itself out in future disputes.

On the Religious Liberty Order

At the First Things site, I have a post on last week’s executive order on religious liberty. I argue that the order doesn’t do very much about religious accommodation, but that doing little may be a strategic choice by the Trump administration. I also argue that weakening the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax exempt religious organizations from electioneering, would be a bad thing, and inconsistent with American tradition.

Here’s a sample:

[A]voiding partisan political contests is a longstanding tradition for American churches, and a very beneficial one. In the nineteenth century, Tocqueville observed that Christianity had a powerful influence in American politics; religion was, he famously said, “the first” of our “political institutions.” But Christianity’s influence on politics was an indirect one, and powerful precisely because it was indirect. Churches shaped Americans’ attitudes and morals, and Americans’ attitudes and morals shaped our politics. But churches studiously avoided party contests as such, and clergy “maintained a sort of professional pride in remaining outside of” them. As a result, Tocqueville observed, churches were never mixed up in the public mind with the vicissitudes of electoral campaigns, and maintained people’s confidence and respect.

This practice has served us very well. This is not to say that churches should avoid commenting on public questions, only that churches should refrain from endorsing or opposing particular candidates and parties, and avoid electioneering as such. In fact, I’ve never known a member of the clergy, liberal or conservative, who said he wanted to endorse or oppose a particular candidate from the pulpit. I suspect that, deep down, they all understood that mixing to that extent in partisan contests would interfere with their mission of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments. If last week’s order signals a change in our longstanding American tradition, it’s not a change conservatives should celebrate.

You can read the post here.

Fake Law

Though that could well describe President Trump’s “Executive Order on Religious Liberty” issued yesterday, I have something different in mind in this article. A bit:

Welcome to the rise of fake law. Just as fake news spreads ideologically motivated misinformation with a newsy veneer, fake law brings us judicial posturing, virtue signaling, and opinionating masquerading as jurisprudence. And just as fake news augurs the end of authoritative reporting, fake law portends the diminution of law’s legitimacy and the warping of judges’ self-understanding of their constitutional role.

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