Legal Thought in Eastern Orthodox Christianity

Orthodox Christianity doesn’t receive too much attention in the Western Christian world, including the law-and-religion academy. Mostly, I think, that’s a matter of demography. The numbers of Orthodox Christians in the West are comparatively small, and, consequently, Orthodox Christianity doesn’t figure in many legal debates. But that situation seem to be changing. Earlier this fall, I posted about a new monograph on Orthodox canon law. And here is a new collection of essays from Routledge: Legal Thought and Eastern Orthodox Christianity: The Addresses of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. The editors are Norman Doe (Cardiff) and Aetios Nikiforos (Ecumenical Patriarchate), and contributors include Center friends like John Witte, Andrea Pin, Frank Cranmer, Mark Hill, and Christy Green. Looks very interesting. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide, has thought profoundly about the role of law as it applies to the church, to civic life in Europe, to human rights, to religious freedom, and to the environment. In this book, leading scholars across the world reflect critically on the significance of his legal thought for human flourishing, for Christian social teaching, and for Christian unity. His legal thought is summed up in five key public addresses that he has delivered around the world in recent years, on: church law as an ecumenical instrument; the role of religion in a changing Europe; Orthodoxy and human rights; religion and freedom; and climate change, ecumenical imperatives. The collection presents critical reflections on the legal thought in these five important, distinct, and topical fields of human life. Its ten chapters, with two chapters devoted to each of his five addresses, are written by leading scholars across the world from different Christian traditions with expertise in the fields studied. They provide an analysis of the legal thought of the Patriarch, explain its significance legally, theologically, and politically, and propose its unifying value for the whole of global Christianity today. The book will be essential reading for academics and researchers working in the areas of law and religion, legal philosophy, comparative canon law, theology, and ecumenical studies.

A Tome of Essays on Christianity and the Law

In our most recent podcast, Mark and I spoke with Professors Julia Mahoney and Steven Smith about the prospects for a revival of classical law in America. That retrieval would depend, at least in part, upon the systematic reintroduction of Christian concepts and categories. Our guests had mixed views on the matter, reflecting different feelings about what the future might hold.

Here is a new volume of essays that seems to support Professor Mahoney’s sense of things (and to which Professor Smith contributed a chapter!): The Oxford Handbook of Christianity and Law, co-edited by our friend and law-and-religion titan, Professor John Witte, Jr., and Professor Rafael Domingo. The book is massive, and I don’t see a single chapter I am not interested to read. A must-have to usher in the season of Advent.

This volume tells the story of the interaction between Christianity and law—historically and today, in the traditional heartlands of Christianity and around the globe. Sixty new chapters by leading scholars provide authoritative but accessible accounts of foundational Christian teachings on law and legal thought over the past two millennia as well as the current interaction and contestation of law and Christianity on all continents. Several chapters explore the ways in which Christianity shaped and was shaped by core public, private, penal, and procedural laws. Other chapters analyze various old and new forms of Christian canon law, natural law theory, and religious freedom norms as well as Christian teachings on fundamental principles of law, politics, and legal order. A final cluster of chapters probe Christian contributions to controversial and cutting legal issues of migration, biotechnology, environmentalism, and racial justice. Together, the chapters make clear that Christianity and law have had a perennial and permanent influence on each other over time and across cultures, albeit with varying levels of intensity and effectiveness.

George Washington’s Political Writing

Thanksgiving is the holiday that most perfectly reflects the political theology of America. Its distinctive blend of religious politics, and political religion. And there are few better representatives of this fusion than George Washington. Listen to the music of his political theology in this, the beginning of his famous Thanksgiving Day proclamation of 1789:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

As it happens, an excellent edited collection has just been published by Carson Holloway and our dear friend and outgoing executive director of the James Madison program at Princeton, Bradford P. Wilson: The Political Writings of George Washington (Cambridge University Press). I’m told a paperback edition is in the offing as well, but this one looks well worth a holiday splurge.

The Political Writings of George Washington includes Washington’s enduring writings on politics, prudence, and statesmanship in two volumes. It is the only complete collection of his political thought, which historically, has received less attention than the writings of other leading founders such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton. Covering his life of public service—from his young manhood, when he fought in the French and Indian Wars, through his time as commander-in-chief of the revolutionary army; his two terms as America’s first president, and his brief periods of retirement, during which he followed and commented on American politics astutely—the volumes also include first-hand accounts of Washington’s death and reflections on his legacy by those who knew or reflected deeply on his significance. The result is a more thorough understanding of Washington’s political thought and the American founding.

Criminal Law in the Acts of the Apostles

Just the other day in my seminar, I told students one of my favorite episodes of legal process in the New Testament: Paul’s insistence that the magistrates who had illegally ordered him beaten and imprisoned without a trial–for Roman law prohibited treating Roman citizens that way–come to the prison to apologize and publicly exonerate him. And, according to the account in Acts, that’s just what the magistrates did: “The police reported [Paul’s] words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Romans, so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city.” Which goes to show that the early Christians knew how to use legal process to their advantage, at least occasionally.

I’m sure this episode appears in a new book from Cambridge University Press, Criminalization in Acts of the Apostles: Race, Rhetoric, and the Prosecution of an Early Christian Movement, by New Testament scholar Jeremy Williams (Texas Christian University). Here’s the publisher’s description:

In this study, Jeremy L. Williams interrogates the Book of Acts in an effort to understand how early Christian texts provide glimpses of the legal processes by which Roman officials and militarized police criminalized, prosecuted, and incarcerated people in the first and second centuries CE. Williams investigates how individuals and groups have been, and still are, prosecuted for specious reasons – because of stories and myths written against them, perceptions of alterity that render them subhuman or nonhuman, the collision of officials, and financial incentives that foster injustices, among them. Through analysis of criminalization in Acts, he demonstrates how Critical Race Theory, Black studies, and feminist rhetorical scholarship enables a reconstruction of ancient understandings of crime, judicial institutions, militarized police, punishment, and socio-political processes that criminalize. Williams’ study highlights how the criminalization of Jesus followers as depicted in Acts enables connections with contemporary movements. It also presents the ancient text as a critique against the shortcomings of some contemporary understandings of justice and human rights.

A New Book on Orthodox Canons

In the debate–mostly friendly nowadays, thankfully–between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, the importance of canon law has a major place. For the Orthodox, the idea of canon “law” is suspect, since it suggests legalism and an unfortunate focus on abstractions at the expense of economia and the life of the church. That’s why one typically refers to Orthodox “canons” as opposed to “canon law.” For Catholics, the failure to systematize things reflects an unfortunate lack of clarity and logic–and, therefore, a misunderstanding of the proper role of law in promoting justice in the church and in the state as well.

A new book out last month from one of the great figures of Orthodox scholarship, Lewis Patsavos (Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology), Introduction to Orthodox Canon Law, does use the phrase “canon law” to describe the East’s approach. I’m curious why. But I’m sure the book is worthwhile for anyone seeking to understand more of the Orthodox understanding of these matters. The publisher is Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Here’s its description of the book:

Based on course notes of forty years of teaching, this Introduction to Orthodox Canon Law is a foundational text for students. Chapters cover basic issues for anyone interested in canon law: its sources; the organization, structure, and governance of the Church; the qualifications for ordination, as well as its impediments; and issues of church membership, including reception of non-Orthodox and marriage. Throughout the Introduction, the canonical tradition is presented and thoroughly explained.

Dissolving Liberal Democracy’s Substrata

The sociologist and cultural critic, James Davison Hunter, is well known for his discussion in the 1990s of the concept of “culture war.” Hunter is an astute and insightful diagnostician of the present political and social discontents. On a personal note, his work has influenced my own thinking and writing on many of the matters we often take up at the Forum.

I’m a little early to notice this new book (no cover quite yet), which comes out in February of next year, but here Hunter is with a new volume in the same vein, but which seems to make the point that liberal democracies depend for their survival on other, non-liberal premises and commitments, and these (so he argues) have now been dissolved so completely as to make the political project deeply unstable. The book is Democracy and Solidarity: On the Cultural Roots of America’s Political Crisis (Yale University Press). One to pre-order and to anticipate.

Liberal democracy in America has always contained contradictions—most notably, a noble but abstract commitment to freedom, justice, and equality that, tragically, has seldom been realized in practice. While these contradictions have caused dissent and even violence, there has always been an underlying and evolving solidarity drawn from the cultural resources of America’s “hybrid Enlightenment.”
James Davison Hunter, who introduced the concept of “culture wars” thirty years ago, tells us in this new book that the historic sources of national solidarity have largely dissolved. While a deepening political polarization is the most obvious sign of this, the true problem is not polarization per se but the absence of cultural resources to work through what divides us. All political regimes require some level of consensus. If it cannot be generated organically, it will be imposed coercively.
Can America’s political crisis be fixed? Can an Enlightenment-era institution—liberal democracy—survive and thrive in a post-Enlightenment world? If, for some, salvaging the older sources of national solidarity is neither possible sociologically, nor desirable politically or ethically, what cultural resources will fund liberal democracy going forward?

Japanese Integralism?

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There’s a lot of discussion in the American academy today about integralism. The word has various meanings, but the basic definition, as I understand it, is a melding of the spiritual and the political. That is, integralism opposes the Lockean separation of religion and state that has been an essential feature of classical liberalism.

A forthcoming book from Rowman and Littlefield, Religion, State, and Political Culture in Japan: Implications for the Post-Secular World, discusses the relationship of state and religion in Japan. Although it doesn’t use the word, it suggests that Japan has always been rather integralist, in that the country has never had socially influential religions that exist apart from the state. The author, Tokihisa Sumioto (Tokyo Institute for Global Peace and Humanity), appears to argue that Japan should chart a new path. Looks interesting. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Japan had developed a secular civilization long before going through its modern period, characterized by the officially-sanctioned unification of nationalism and state-worship that reached its apotheosis during World War II, followed by the economic growth-oriented post-war period. While the relationship between religion and state has varied significantly over time, what has been consistently observed throughout Japan’s history is the absence of religions that are socially influential but independent from the state, or the absence of a dualistic relationship between religion and state. The kind of political ethos that should underpin democratic principles such as the rule of law and human rights has remained underdeveloped. 

This book examines the concept of “reconstructive postmodernism,” a perspective that has emerged from a normative approach to international relations that emphasizes the need to democratize and humanize the secularistic civilizations based on the reconstruction of spirituality and religiosity. Using this concept, this book offers a number of implications of its findings to the case of Japan and for global governance in the post-secular age more broadly. 

Online Symposium: RFRA at 30 (Oct. 19, 2023)

I’m greatly looking forward to participating in an upcoming online symposium, “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act at 30,” sponsored by Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion. I’ll present a paper on how the rise of the Nones will put pressure on the concept of religious exemptions. Details here. Register to listen in!

“Establishment as Tradition”

I have posted a new essay, Establishment as Tradition, forthcoming in the Yale Law Journal Forum. It brings together two things I have been thinking about only separately to date: what binds a political community, and what fosters mutual trust and forbearance within it, in its “establishments,” apart from whatever “establishments of religion” may be forbidden in our polity; and traditionalism’s civic character-forming qualities. Comments from interested readers are welcome, as the piece is still a draft. Here is the abstract:

Traditionalism is a constitutional theory that focuses on concrete political and cultural practices, and the endurance of those practices before, during, and after ratification of the Constitution, as the presumptive determinants of constitutional meaning and constitutional law. The Supreme Court has long interpreted traditionally but now says explicitly that it uses a method of “text, history, and tradition” in several areas of constitutional law. Foremost among these is the Establishment Clause. This Essay examines two questions about traditionalism, both of which concern the Establishment Clause in distinct but related ways. First, why has traditionalism had special salience in this area? Second, is traditionalism more a mood or disposition than a theory, more a matter of the heart than of the head?

On the first matter, traditionalism did not materialize out of thin air in the 2021 term, and it has had unusual power in the interpretation of the Establishment Clause for decades. The question is why, and answering it has implications for constitutional theory more generally. For if some domains of constitutional law are more amenable than others to traditionalist interpretation, the same may be true of other theories. The answer for the Establishment Clause is that establishments are made up of politically foundational traditions. Political establishments are constituted by the concrete, authoritative, and enduring practices and institutions that make up the essential settlements of a polity. To interpret the phrase, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” is immediately to be directed by the text not to an idea or an abstraction, but to something solid, authoritative, and lasting—“an establishment.” This is a reading supported by the other uses of “establishment” and its cognates in the Constitution. “An establishment of religion,” therefore, is a political practice that sits outside the limits of the constitutionally permissible practices of American political establishment. Unconstitutional establishments of religion depend upon the prior existence of constitutional establishments, and those establishments are often instantiated in a people’s most powerful political traditions. More than certain other domains of constitutional law, the text of the Establishment Clause is inherently traditionalist because its meaning takes shape against a network of concrete, authoritative, and enduring institutional, political practices. And the practices of establishment are essential to fostering the civic trust that is necessary for any polity’s survival. Without them, the political community fractures. In time, it dies.

As for the second question, some critics have argued that traditionalism is not a full-fledged theory so much as a mood or disposition, and that traditions are too manipulable and insubstantial to form the raw material for a theory of constitutional meaning or constitutional law. The question matters because it concerns whether traditionalism is an independent constitutional theory in its own right or instead at most a feature of others, dependent on their methods and justifications. I will argue that traditionalism is as much a constitutional theory as any of its rivals, though that claim will depend on just what it means to count as a theory. It is, in fact, its application in Establishment Clause cases that most clearly demonstrates its comparative systematicity, generality, and predictability of application, three critical elements for qualifying as a constitutional theory. Traditionalism is, to be sure, not a decisional algorithm, but neither is any attractive constitutional theory; it acknowledges and even welcomes reasonable disagreement within shared premises, as do other plausible theories. Still, the critics are in a sense correct: traditionalism has a characterological or dispositional component that other approaches may lack and this, too, is illustrated in its application to the Establishment Clause. Its character, and the kind of disposition it develops in interpreters subscribing to it, is preservative and custodial. That is not a flaw but a distinguishing virtue. It makes traditionalism preferable to other interpretive possibilities because it makes traditionalism more than just an interpretive theory, reflecting and shaping character even as it provides a coherent framework for adjudicating constitutional cases.

Finding Gold in the Dark

Had John Aroutiounian lived, he would have been a great political essayist. A graduate of Yale, where he was the speaker of the Yale Political Union (as a member of the Federalist Party), he was a student at Columbia Law School when he died of an aggressive cancer in 2019. The Abigail Adams Institute and Cluny Media have now published a posthumous collection of his writings, Finding Gold in the Dark: Reflections on Modern America, Virtue, and Faith, which display remarkable wit, insight, and eloquence, especially for so young a person. Worth reading. Here is the publisher’s description:

“A true citizen must always consider how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country–each tradition is a potential treasure and the past is filled with gifts.”

These are not the words of some eminent statesman with the wisdom of years at his disposal; nay, they are the words of a young man but twenty-one years of age, given to a gathering at Yale University. For John Aroutiounian, fidelity to truth, elegance in style, and brilliance in wit and humor went hand in hand, as this collection of his writings so aptly shows. A prolific essayist, John wrote scores of pieces over the course of his life, engaging on matters of faith and culture, national identity and political discourse, societal disparity and religious persuasions—always, in sundry fashion, in light of the Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions. Finding Gold in the Dark: Reflections on Modern America, Virtue, and Faith is a testament to this fact: the reflections of a conscientious, principled gentleman on the realities and aspirations of his time.