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:

Movsesian in Texas This Week

I’m looking forward to traveling to the University of Texas this week, where I’ll present my draft paper, “The New Thoreaus,” at the Bech-Loughlin First Amendment Center. The paper addresses the Rise of the Nones and what it means for the Free Exercise Clause. Details are available here. Center friends, stop by and say hello!

Podcast on the Situation in Armenia

Last Friday, I sat down (virtually) with Geoff Shullenberger to record an episode of “Compact Conversations,” Compact Magazine’s podcast series. Geoff and I discussed my recent essay in Compact on Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenia–specifically, on how the West’s indifference to the invasion of this aspiring democracy by a dictatorship reflects a combination of hypocrisy, cynicism, and shortsightedness. Here’s the link. Listen in!

Why Armenia Stands Alone

Last week, an aspiring democracy–Armenia–was invaded by an authoritarian neighbor–Azerbaijan. The invasion threatens to reduce Armenia by half and start a new round of ethnic cleansing in the South Caucasus. And yet the West, so eager to defend Ukraine, has mostly turned a blind eye. The reason, I argue today in Compact, lies in a combination of hypocrisy, cynicism, and shortsightedness. Here’s an excerpt:

Yet the initial Western reaction to Azerbaijan’s aggression has been tepid, limited mostly to expressions of concern and calls for calm on both sides. American neoconservatives have generally been disgraceful, mocking Armenian losses and rooting for the Azeri dictatorship, mainly because they see Baku as a useful speartip against Iran and Russia. The Christian right in America, which one might think would feel affinity with the world’s first Christian nation, has remained silent.

Indifference doesn’t quite capture the Western posture. On the contrary, the West has been courting Azerbaijan in recent years, inking new gas deals and supplying millions of dollars in military assistance annually.

The contrast with the Ukraine crisis, another conflict in which an authoritarian state has attacked an aspiring democracy, is jarring. President Biden has described that war as part of an existential struggle “between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression”—a grandiose framing shared by the hawkish usual suspects on the American right. The United States alone has committed a staggering $50 billion to Kiev since the Russian invasion, in the name of democracy, self-determination, and international borders. Blue-and-yellow flags fly everywhere. So why ignore Armenia?

The answer lies in a combination of hypocrisy, cynicism, and shortsightedness. The West’s indifference to Armenia reveals once more that its concerns for democracy are highly selective, operative only where the West sees its interests at stake. Here, the West has concluded that its interest lies in appeasing Azerbaijan, which can help supply gas to Europe and check Russia and Iran in the South Caucasus.

You can read the whole article here.

Legal Spirits Episode 043: The New Thoreaus

In this episode, Marc interviews Mark about his new article, “The New Thoreaus,” on the rise of the Nones and its impact on free-exercise law. Fifty years ago, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court famously dismissed the idea that a solitary seeker–the Court gave the 19th Century Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau as an example–could qualify as a “religion” for constitutional purposes. “Religion,” the Court explained, means a communal activity, not a purely personal quest. Mark argues that recent demographic changes in America have made this question an urgent one. Perhaps 66 million Americans today are unaffiliated believers–people who, like Thoreau, reject organized religion and follow their own, idiosyncratic spiritual paths–and more and more of them seek “religious” exemptions, including in the context of recent vaccine mandates. Mark examines some of these cases and argues that Yoder‘s dicta was basically correct: although religion cannot be an exclusively collective activity, the existence of a religious community is a crucial factor in the definition of religion for legal purposes. Listen in!

Legal Spirits Episode 040: Raising the Christian Flag at City Hall

Boston City Hall (Brutalist architecture)

In this episode, Center Co-Directors Marc DeGirolami and Mark Movsesian explore another law and religion case recently argued at the Supreme Court, Shurtleff v. City of Boston, concerning whether a municipality can decline a private group’s request to fly a religious flag on a city hall flagpole pursuant to a policy where it flies flags at the request of other private constituencies. The case involves issues of free speech and religious freedom, as well as raising some questions about broader themes or patterns in the religion cases the Supreme Court seems to be taking–particularly as respects the Establishment Clause. Listen in!

More on The Merchant of Venice

At Law and Liberty today, I have an essay on law in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice,” in which I expand on some themes that Marc and I discussed in our recent Legal Spirits episode. Specifically, I explore the play’s lessons about the limits of law in a pluralist society:

For the people of Shakespeare’s day, Bloom writes, Venice represented the hope that society could transcend religious and cultural differences through commerce—or, rather, through commercial law. Classical liberal thinkers would call later it the doux commerce thesis: allow people to trade freely with each other and they would ignore religious and other differences, which get in the way of profit, and live together peaceably. The give-and-take of the market would train people to cooperate with one another and forego proselytizing. All that was necessary was that the state enforce people’s contracts on equal terms, neutrally and fairly, without giving one group or another the upper hand. Everything else would follow.

Venice was less serene and indifferent to religion than portrayed. But, as a symbol, the city was important. And by drawing the conflict as starkly as he does, Shakespeare means to ask whether the Venetian system can work where intercommunal divisions concern bedrock beliefs and ways of life. His answer is not hopeful. The dispute between Antonio and Shylock over charging interest reflects a deeper conflict about ultimate values that commerce and commercial law cannot resolve. “The law of Venice can force” the two men “to a temporary truce,” Bloom writes, “but in any crucial instance the conflict will re-emerge, and each will try to destroy the spirit of the law; for each has a different way of life which, if it were universalized within the city, would destroy that of the other. They have no common ground.”

Where such common ground does not exist, the law cannot create it. Law, even a neutral law of contracts, inevitably requires judgment: Which agreements should be enforced, and which should not? And judgment inevitably depends on the values people bring to the law from the wider culture. Where people share values, law does a tolerably good job resolving their disputes. One party wins and the other loses, but both can accept the legitimacy of the system. Where moral divisions run deep and the stakes are high, this is not possible. Law alone cannot persuade people to accept decisions that violate their most basic sense of right and wrong.

You can read the whole essay here.

The Center’s 10th Anniversary Video

Mark and I hope you enjoy this new video, which we put together for the Center’s 10th anniversary (plus one!). It describes the people, activities, projects, and opportunities that make the Center what it is. Here’s to another 10 (plus more)!

Webinar on Religious Liberty in France and the US

I’m looking forward to participating this afternoon in a panel on religious liberty issues in the U.S., part of a webinar on Secularism in France and the United States organized by the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Our very first Center event eleven years ago was a conference on laicite at our Paris campus and I’m looking forward to revisiting these issues. Details at the link: https://snfagora.jhu.edu/event/secularism-and-its-discontents/.

Interviewed in the Deseret News

Religion journalist Kelsey Dallas, a past guest on Legal Spirits, interviews me in the Deseret News about my forthcoming essay in the Journal of Law and Religion on courts’ responses to Covid restrictions on public worship. Here’s a sample:

The COVID-19 pandemic has created all sorts of religious freedom conflict, as people of faith fight gathering restrictions, mask requirements and, more recently, vaccine mandates.

Your view on these legal battles likely depends on your professional, spiritual and political interests. Mark L. Movsesian, co-director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University in New York, saw them as opportunities to study the limits of the United States’ approach to religious liberty protections. . . .

When there are no easy, obvious answers, judicial bias can creep in. That’s always problematic, but it’s especially so at a time when liberal and conservative judges often have very different views on the value of faith and what should win out when religious freedom is in conflict with other rights.

“As long as we don’t have a common baseline for how important religion is compared to other things, we’re going to have inconsistent opinions” from the legal system, Movsesian said. And with inconsistent opinions comes political and social strife.

You can read the whole interview here.