The Religion of Prison Abolition

A stirp of liberation theology, as it were. A new book discussing religious features or religious phenomena attending the movement from the far left to abolish all prisons. The book is Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons (Oxford), by “activist-scholars” Joshua Dubler and Vincent Lloyd.

“Changes in the American religious landscape enabled the rise of mass incarceration. Religious ideas and practices also offer a key for ending mass incarceration. These are the bold claims advanced by Break Every Yoke, the joint work of two activist-scholars of American religion. Once, in an era not too long past, Americans, both incarcerated and free, spoke a language of social liberation animated by religion. In the era of mass incarceration, we have largely forgotten how to dream-and organize-this way. To end mass incarceration we must reclaim this lost tradition. Properly conceived, the movement we need must demand not prison reform but prison abolition.

Break Every Yoke weaves religion into the stories about race, politics, and economics that conventionally account for America’s grotesque prison expansion of the last half century, and in so doing it sheds new light on one of our era’s biggest human catastrophes. By foregrounding the role of religion in the way political elites, religious institutions, and incarcerated activists talk about incarceration, Break Every Yoke is an effort to stretch the American moral imagination and contribute resources toward envisioning alternative ways of doing justice. By looking back to nineteenth century abolitionism, and by turning to today’s grassroots activists, it argues for reclaiming the abolition “spirit.””

A Defense of Religious Freedom from the Human Rights Perspective

At our 2014 conference in Rome with LUMSA on international religious freedom and the global clash of values, we were delighted to meet Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, then the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. He gave an impassioned talk at the conference.

Professor Bielefeldt, who teaches at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, has a new co-authored book: Religious Freedom Under Scrutiny (University of Pennsylvania Press), together with Michael Wiener.

“Freedom of religion or belief is deeply entrenched in international human rights conventions and constitutional traditions around the world. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as does the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the United Nations General Assembly adopted in 1966. A rich jurisprudence on freedom of religion or belief is based on the European Convention on Human Rights, drafted in 1950 by the Council of Europe. Similar regional guarantees exist in the framework of the Organization of American States as well as within the African Union. Freedom of religion or belief has found recognition in numerous national constitutions, and some governments have shown a particularly strong commitment to the international promotion of this right.

As Heiner Bielefeldt and Michael Wiener observe, however, freedom of religion or belief remains a source of political conflict, legal controversy, and intellectual debate. In Religious Freedom Under Scrutiny, Bielefeldt and Wiener explore various critiques leveled at this right. For example, does freedom of religion contribute to the spread of Western neoliberal values to the detriment of religious and cultural diversity? Can religious freedom serve as the entry point for antifeminist agendas within the human rights framework? Drawing on their considerable experience in the field, Bielefeldt and Wiener provide a typological overview and analysis of violations around the world that illustrate the underlying principles as well as the relationship between freedom of religion or belief and other human rights.

Religious Freedom Under Scrutiny argues that without freedom of religion or belief, human rights cannot fully address our complex needs, yearnings, and vulnerabilities as human beings. Furthermore, ignoring or marginalizing freedom of religion or belief would weaken the plausibility, attractiveness, and legitimacy of the entire system of human rights.”

On the Hospital

Here is an extremely interesting book on the rise of the hospital in the twelfth and thirteenth century, and how it owes its origins to Christian commitments and medieval political economy. The book is The Medieval Economy of Salvation: Charity, Commerce, and the Rise of the Hospital (Cornell University Press), by Adam J. Davis.

“In The Medieval Economy of Salvation, Adam J. Davis shows how the burgeoning commercial economy of western Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, alongside an emerging culture of Christian charity, led to the establishment of hundreds of hospitals and leper houses. Focusing on the county of Champagne, he looks at the ways in which charitable organizations and individuals—townspeople, merchants, aristocrats, and ecclesiastics—saw in these new institutions a means of infusing charitable giving and service with new social significance and heightened expectations of spiritual rewards.

Hospitals served as visible symbols of piety and, as a result, were popular objects of benefaction. They also presented lay women and men with new penitential opportunities to personally perform the works of mercy, which many embraced as a way to earn salvation. At the same time, these establishments served a variety of functions beyond caring for the sick and the poor; as benefactors donated lands and money to them, hospitals became increasingly central to local economies, supplying loans, distributing food, and acting as landlords. In tracing the rise of the medieval hospital during a period of intense urbanization and the transition from a gift economy to a commercial one, Davis makes clear how embedded this charitable institution was in the wider social, cultural, religious, and economic fabric of medieval life.”

Against Federalism

Federalism, the enduring political and legal arrangement that government in the United States is an affair divided between the states and the nation–and, indeed, the broader idea that decentralization, diffusion of power, and local experimentation are positive political goods–sometimes seems to come and go into and out of favor depending upon the political trade-winds. It is invoked as an instrument of resistance by states when the national policy is for some substantive reason thought objectionable; it is decried as an instrument of obstruction when the national policy is for some substantive reason thought attractive. These pragmatic considerations in favor of and against federalism often rear their heads in the law and religion context (think, e.g., sanctuary cities now, decisions about religious displays and legislative prayer, and so many others, at other times). Of course there are some committed theoretical types that champion federalism systematically, one reason for which is to lower the national blood pressure on very contentious issues in the face of increasing political polarization.

But some people seem to want to go the other way for the sake of various substantive objectives, and it is not too surprising to see “equality” as one of these. This new book against federalism is The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn’t Work (Princeton University Press), by Donald F. Kettl.

“Federalism was James Madison’s great invention. An innovative system of power sharing that balanced national and state interests, federalism was the pragmatic compromise that brought the colonies together to form the United States. Yet, even beyond the question of slavery, inequality was built into the system because federalism by its very nature meant that many aspects of an American’s life depended on where they lived. Over time, these inequalities have created vast divisions between the states and made federalism fundamentally unstable. In The Divided States of America, Donald Kettl chronicles the history of a political system that once united the nation—and now threatens to break it apart.

Exploring the full sweep of federalism from the founding to today, Kettl focuses on pivotal moments when power has shifted between state and national governments—from the violent rebalancing of the Civil War, when the nation almost split in two, to the era of civil rights a century later, when there was apparent agreement that inequality was a threat to liberty and the federal government should set policies for states to enact. Despite this consensus, inequality between states has only deepened since that moment. From health care and infrastructure to education and the environment, the quality of public services is ever more uneven. Having revealed the shortcomings of Madison’s marvel, Kettl points to possible solutions in the writings of another founder: Alexander Hamilton.

Making an urgent case for reforming federalism, The Divided States of America shows why we must—and how we can—address the crisis of American inequality.”

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him

So spoke Voltaire, and Maximilien Robespierre agreed, for he recognized the need that the new world brought on by the French Revolution would have for an alternative godhead now that Catholicism had been deposed. From that insight sprang the “Cult of the Supreme Being” whose principal tenets concerned a kind of rationalist faith and republican civil religion. The Cult itself did not last too long before Napoleon did away with it. But its effects have been…long-lasting.

Here is a new history of the French Revolution that is sure to touch on these and many other matters concerning religion in the 18th century French world order: A New World Begins: A History of the French Revolution (Basic Books), by Jeremy Popkin.

“The principles of the French Revolution remain the only possible basis for a just society — even if, after more than two hundred years, they are more contested than ever before. In A New World Begins, Jeremy D. Popkin offers a riveting account of the revolution that puts the reader in the thick of the debates and the violence that led to the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a new society. We meet Mirabeau, Robespierre, and Danton, in all of their brilliance and vengefulness; we witness the failed escape and execution of Louis XVI; we see women demanding equal rights and black slaves wresting freedom from revolutionaries who hesitated to act on their own principles; and we follow the rise of Napoleon out of the ashes of the Reign of Terror.

Based on decades of scholarship, A New World Begins will stand as the definitive treatment of the French Revolution.”

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.

What is the Muslim Brotherhood?

From Harvard University Press, here is a forthcoming book on the history of the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the West, The Muslim Brotherhood and the West: A History of Enmity and Engagement, by historian Martyn Frampton (Queen Mary University of London):

The Muslim Brotherhood and the West is the first comprehensive history of the relationship between the world’s largest Islamist movement and the Western powers that have dominated the Middle East for the past century: Britain and the United States.

In the decades since the Brotherhood emerged in Egypt in the 1920s, the movement’s notion of “the West” has remained central to its worldview and a key driver of its behavior. From its founding, the Brotherhood stood opposed to the British Empire and Western cultural influence more broadly. As British power gave way to American, the Brotherhood’s leaders, committed to a vision of more authentic Islamic societies, oscillated between anxiety or paranoia about the West and the need to engage with it. Western officials, for their part, struggled to understand the Brotherhood, unsure whether to shun the movement as one of dangerous “fanatics” or to embrace it as a moderate and inevitable part of the region’s political scene. Too often, diplomats failed to view the movement on its own terms, preferring to impose their own external agendas and obsessions.

Martyn Frampton reveals the history of this complex and charged relationship down to the eve of the Arab Spring. Drawing on extensive archival research in London and Washington and the Brotherhood’s writings in Arabic and English, he provides the most authoritative assessment to date of a relationship that is both vital in itself and crucial to navigating one of the world’s most turbulent regions.

Israel and the American Left: A History

Here is a new book from Stanford University Press that explores the history of the American Left’s relationship to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As everyone knows, that conflict has created real tensions in progressive politics in the US and the UK as well. The book is The Movement and the Middle East: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Divided the American Left, by historian Michael Fischbach (Randolph-Macon College). The publisher’s description follows:

The Arab-Israeli conflict constituted a serious problem for the American Left in the 1960s: pro-Palestinian activists hailed the Palestinian struggle against Israel as part of a fundamental restructuring of the global imperialist order, while pro-Israeli leftists held a less revolutionary worldview that understood Israel as a paragon of democratic socialist virtue. This intra-left debate was in part doctrinal, in part generational. But further woven into this split were sometimes agonizing questions of identity. Jews were disproportionately well-represented in the Movement, and their personal and communal lives could deeply affect their stances vis-à-vis the Middle East.

The Movement and the Middle East offers the first assessment of the controversial and ultimately debilitating role of the Arab-Israeli conflict among left-wing activists during a turbulent period of American history. Michael R. Fischbach draws on a deep well of original sources—from personal interviews to declassified FBI and CIA documents—to present a story of the left-wing responses to the question of Palestine and Israel. He shows how, as the 1970s wore on, the cleavages emerging within the American Left widened, weakening the Movement and leaving a lasting impact that still affects progressive American politics today.

A Comparative Study of Religion and Politics

Politics in America increasingly divides on the question of religion. Religious Americans tend to gravitate to the Republican Party; secular Americans, to the Democrats. Religion also figures prominently in the politics of other countries. Later this year, Routledge will release a collection of essays on the ways religion and politics intersect across the world: The Routledge Handbook to Religion and Political Parties. The editor is Jeffrey Haynes (London Metropolitan University). Here’s the description from the Routledge website:

As religion and politics become ever more intertwined, relationships between religion and political parties are of increasing global political significance. This handbook responds to that development, providing important results of current research involving religion and politics, focusing on: democratisation, democracy, party platform formation, party moderation and secularisation, social constituency representation and interest articulation.

Covering core issues, new debates, and country case studies, the handbook provides a comprehensive overview of fundamentals and new directions in the subject. Adopting a comparative approach, it examines the relationships between religion and political parties in a variety of contexts, regions and countries with a focus on Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and Hinduism. Contributions cover such topics as:

Religion, secularisation and modernisation

Religious fundamentalism and terrorism

The role of religion in conflict resolution and peacebuilding

Religion and its connection to state, democratisation and democracy, and

Regional case studies covering Asia, the Americas, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa.

This comprehensive handbook provides crucial information for students, researchers and professionals researching the topics of politics, religion, comparative politics, secularism, religious movements, political parties and interest groups, and religion and sociology.

Roger Williams’s Baptists

The Baptist Movement has had an outsized influence on American church-and-state law. The movement’s American founder, Roger Williams, popularized the “wall of separation” metaphor that so greatly influenced Jefferson–and, through him, much of the Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence in the 20th Century. A new book from Baylor University Press, Retracing Baptists in Rhode Island: Identity, Formation, and History, explores the Baptist legacy in the American state where Williams made his home. The author is historian J. Stanley Lemons (Rhode Island College). The publisher’s description follows:

Rhode Island can legitimately claim to be the home of Baptists in America. The first three varieties of Baptists in the New World—General Six Principle, Particular, and Seventh Day—made their debut in this small colony. And it was in Rhode Island that the General Six Principle Baptists formed the first Baptist association; the Seventh Day Baptists organized the first national denomination of Baptists; the Regular Baptists founded the first Baptist college, Brown University; and the Warren Baptist Association led the fight for religious liberty in New England.

In Retracing Baptists in Rhode Island, historian J. Stanley Lemons follows the story of Baptists, from their founding in the colonial period to the present. Lemons considers the impact of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration upon Baptists as they negotiated their identities in an ever-changing American landscape. Rhode Island Baptists, regardless of variety, stood united on the question of temperance, hesitated on the abolition of slavery before the Civil War, and uniformly embraced revivalism, but they remained vexed and divided over denominational competition, the anti-Masonic movement, and the Dorr Rebellion.

Lemons also chronicles the relationship between Rhode Island Baptists and the broader Baptist world. Modernism and historical criticism finally brought the Baptist theological civil war to Rhode Island. How to interpret the Bible became increasingly pressing, even leading to the devolution of Brown’s identity as a Baptist institution. Since the 1940s, the number of Baptists in the state has declined, despite the number of Baptist denominations rising from four to twelve. At the same time, the number of independent Baptist churches has greatly increased while other churches have shed their Baptist identity completely to become nondenominational. Lemons asserts that tectonic shifts in Baptist identity will continue to create a new landscape out of the heritage and traditions first established by the original Baptists of Rhode Island.

%d bloggers like this: