Judicial Restraint Revindicated

Here’s an entry that is not centrally about religion, but about constitutional theory, though it would have important implications for the interpretation of the Religion Clauses. Judicial restraint once was one of the chief objectives of interpretive theories like originalism. But new scholars of originalism tend to downplay judicial restraint, if not to reject it altogether as a justification for originalism. Some, in fact, embrace what has been called “judicial engagement”–the interpretation of the Constitution to serve distinctively political ends drawn from libertarian political theory.

This new book, however, defends judicial restraint as a constitutional virtue: The Political Constitution: The Case Against Judicial Supremacy (University of Kansas Press), by Greg Weiner. (I’m looking forward to reviewing this book for the Liberty Fund)

“Who should decide what is constitutional? The Supreme Court, of course, both liberal and conservative voices say—but in a bracing critique of the “judicial engagement” that is ascendant on the legal right, Greg Weiner makes a cogent case to the contrary. His book, The Political Constitution, is an eloquent political argument for the restraint of judicial authority and the return of the proper portion of constitutional authority to the people and their elected representatives. What Weiner calls for, in short, is a reconstitution of the political commons upon which a republic stands.

At the root of the word “republic” is what Romans called the res publica, or the public thing. And it is precisely this—the sense of a political community engaging in decisions about common things as a coherent whole—that Weiner fears is lost when all constitutional authority is ceded to the judiciary. His book calls instead for a form of republican constitutionalism that rests on an understanding that arguments about constitutional meaning are, ultimately, political arguments. What this requires is an enlargement of the res publica, the space allocated to political conversation and a shared pursuit of common things. Tracing the political and judicial history through which this critical political space has been impoverished, The Political Constitution seeks to recover the sense of political community on which the health of the republic, and the true working meaning of the Constitution, depends.”

A Critique of Religion as Conversation Stopper

Richard Rorty was a famous and influential American philosopher of pragmatism some of whose ideas were adopted and applied by prominent pragmatic legal thinkers like Richard Posner. One of the phrases for which Rorty is known is that religion is a “conversation stopper”–the sort of appeal to authority for any social or moral question that ends rational discussion and should therefore itself be abandoned.

Here is a new book that considers Rorty’s thought about religion in specific and offers a criticism of it: Rorty, Religion, and Metaphysics (Rowman & Littlefield, Lexington Books), by John Owens.

“Believing that humanity would be better off if it simply dropped its traditional religious and metaphysical beliefs, Richard Rorty proposes an alternative approach, drawn from the American pragmatist tradition, where things get their significance against a background of broad human interests, and knowledge is regarded as part of the active pursuit of a better world. Rorty, Religion, and Metaphysics argues that while Rorty’s case is clearly and robustly made, it is fundamentally challenged by the phenomenon of human recognition, the relationship that arises between people when they talk to one another. John Owens demonstrates that recognition, so central to human life, cannot be accommodated within Rorty’s proposals, given that it precisely attributes a reality to others that goes beyond anything a pragmatist framework can offer. It follows that there is more to human interaction than can be explained by Rorty’s pragmatism.”

A Catholic-Enlightenment Hybrid

Francois Fénelon is a very interesting figure of the late 17th and early 18th centuries marking the transition between Catholic and Enlightenment world views in Europe. Fénelon was at one time Archbishop of Cambrai, and so in a position of high authority in the Church. And yet his writing, particularly as respects the French monarchy (as in his Adventures of Telemachus), offer a kind of proto-Enlightenment critique.

Here is a new book translating some of Fénelon’s major work into English and discussing the thought of this important hybrid figure: Fénelon: Moral and Political Writings (Oxford University Press), by Ryan Patrick Hanley.

“Fénelon is arguably one of the most neglected major philosophers of early modernity. His political masterwork was the most-read book in eighteenth-century France after the Bible, and yet today even specialists rarely engage his work directly. This problem is particularly acute in the Anglophone world, where only a small fraction of Fénelon’s vast and influential corpus has appeared in modern English translation.

This collection of new translations of Fénelon’s moral and political writings renders one of the leading voices of early modern philosophy accessible to English-language audiences. Reflecting the impressive breadth of Fenelon’s thought, the volume includes work on topics ranging from education to literature to religion and statecraft. In the realm of political philosophy and ethics, Fénelon was an uncompromising critic of Louis XIV and absolutism, committed to reforming France’s social, political and economic institutions. In the Enlightenment, he came to be celebrated as a pioneering theorist of education and rhetoric, a prescient student of economics and international relations, and a key voice in the philosophical debates among the heirs of Descartes – not to mention his fame as one of the seventeenth-century’s most preeminent theologians and spiritualists and masters of French prose. With an extensive introduction to Fénelon’s life and work, this volume is a critical resource for students and scholars of French history, political philosophy, economics, education, literature, and religion.”

The Clash of Civilizations at 30

The “Clash of Civilizations” thesis made famous by the social theorist Samuel Huntington is that conflicts in the future will be driven primarily by cultural–rather than national, economic, or political–factors, very much including religion. The thesis has been deeply influential and has impacted the work of many scholars, very much including Mark’s own work.

Here is what looks like an extremely worthwhile retrospective on the Huntington thesis (which the author argues was actually first devised by the historian of religion, Bernard Lewis) from then to now: From Huntington to Trump: Thirty Years of the Clash of Civilizations (Rowman & Littlefield, Lexington Books), by Jeffrey Haynes. This one is in the must-have category for me.

From Huntington to Trump argues that the “clash of civilizations,” an idea first raised three decades ago by Bernard Lewis and endorsed by Samuel Huntington, has created a template for understanding the world which has been adopted by both the United Nations and right-wing populist politicians in Europe and the United States of America. Haynes traces the development of the “clash of civilizations” from the colonial period through the end of the Cold War and 9/11 and analyzes its effects on society.”

Christian Universalism

Professor Olivier Roy is an old acquaintance of the Center and a participant in our 2014 conference on international religious freedom in Rome. We are consequently happy to notice his new book, arguing against the importance of distinctively European cultural and national connections to Christianity, and in favor of a Christian universalism. I have some differences of opinion with Professor Roy, but his work is always worth reading. The book is Is Europe Christian? (Oxford University Press), by Professor Roy and translated by Cynthia Schoch.

“As Europe wrangles over questions of national identity, nativism and immigration, Olivier Roy interrogates the place of Christianity, foundation of Western identity. Do secularism and Islam really pose threats to the continent’s ‘Christian values’? What will be the fate of Christianity in Europe? 

Rather than repeating the familiar narrative of decline, Roy challenges the significance of secularized Western nations’ reduction of Christianity to a purely cultural force- relegated to issues such as abortion, euthanasia and equal marriage. He illustrates that, globally, quite the opposite has occurred: Christianity is now universalized, and detached from national identity. Not only has it taken hold in the Global South, generally in a more socially conservative form than in the West, but it has also ‘returned’ to Europe, following immigration from former colonies. Despite attempts within Europe to nationalize or even racialize it, Christianity’s future is global, non-European and immigrant-as the continent’s Churches well know. 

This short but bracing book confirms Roy’s reputation as one of the most acute observers of our times. It represents a persuasive and novel vision of religion’s place in national life today.”

Human Rights Anti-Universalism — From the Left

Most critics of human-rights universalism come from the Right. Conservatives oppose human-rights universalism because they believe it slights important local traditions, is anti-historical, and pretends to a global agreement on the nature and definition of rights that does not exist. A book released this year by Palgrave Macmillan, Human Rights and Relative Universalism, suggests that some Progressives also have their doubts about the globalizing project. The author is Marie-Luisa Frick (University of Innsbruck). Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

This book argues that human rights cannot go global without going local. This important lesson from the winding debates on universalism and particularism raises intricate questions: what are human rights after all, given the dissent surrounding their foundations, content, and scope? What are legitimate deviances from classical human rights (law) and where should we draw “red lines”?

Making a case for balancing conceptual openness and distinctness, this book addresses the key human rights issues of our time and opens up novel spaces for deliberation. It engages philosophical reasoning with law, politics, and religion and demonstrates that a meaningful relativist account of human rights is not only possible, but a sorely needed antidote to dogmatism and polarization.

A New Book on the Islamic State

The Islamic State (or ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh) had a meteoric rise in 2014 and at one point controlled a sizable territory in Iraq, in which it attempted to reimpose classical Islamic law, including dhimmi restrictions on Christians and other non-Muslims. The group has lost its territory since then, but no doubt plans a comeback. A new book from Stanford University Press, Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, assesses the group. The author is journalist Abdel Bari Atwan. The publisher’s description follows.

Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) stunned the world when it overran an area the size of Great Britain on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border in a matter of weeks and proclaimed the birth of a new Caliphate. In this timely and important book, Abdel Bari Atwan draws on his unrivaled knowledge of the global jihadi movement and Middle Eastern geopolitics to reveal the origins and modus operandi of Islamic State.

Based on extensive field research and exclusive interviews with IS insiders, Islamic State outlines the group’s leadership structure, as well as its strategies, tactics, and diverse methods of recruitment. Atwan traces the Salafi-jihadi lineage of IS, its ideological differences with al Qaeda and the deadly rivalry that has emerged between their leaders. He also shows how the group’s rapid growth has been facilitated by its masterful command of social media platforms, the “dark web,” Hollywood blockbuster-style videos, and even jihadi computer games, producing a powerful paradox where the ambitions of the Middle Ages have reemerged in cyberspace.

As Islamic State continues to dominate the world’s media headlines with horrific acts of ruthless violence, Atwan considers the movement’s chances of survival and expansion and offers indispensable insights on potential government responses to contain the IS threat.

The Minds and Hearts of the People

John Adams famously reflected, many years after the fact, that the American Revolution took place long before the war itself began. “The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People,” he wrote, “a Change in their Religious Sentiments of their Duties and Obligations.” When enough Americans came to believe that the King and the Royal Family, for whom they had long been accustomed to pray, actually desired their harm, they began to pray instead “for the Continental Congress and all the thirteen State Congresses, &c.” To be sure, religion was not the only factor in the Revolution. Adams conceded that some people cared less about religion than habitual ties of interest in and affection for the Mother Country. But religion, he believed, had played an essential role.

A new book from Harvard University Press, The Will of the People: The Revolutionary Birth of America, discusses the indispensable contribution of ordinary citizens in making the American Revolution a success. No doubt the author, historian T.H. Breen (Library of Congress) addresses the religious commitments of those citizens. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:

A prize-winning historian provides the missing piece in the story of America’s founding, introducing us to the ordinary men and women who turned a faltering rebellion against colonial rule into an unexpectedly potent and enduring revolution.

Over eight years of war, ordinary Americans accomplished something extraordinary. Far from the actions of the Continental Congress and the Continental Army, they took responsibility for the course of the revolution. They policed their neighbors, sent troops and weapons to distant strangers committed to the same cause, and identified friends and traitors. By taking up the reins of power but also setting its limits, they ensured America’s success. Without their participation there would have been no victory over Great Britain, no independence. The colonial rebellion would have ended like so many others—in failure.

The driving force behind the creation of a country based on the will of the people, T. H. Breen shows, was in fact the people itself. In villages, towns, and cities from Georgia to New Hampshire, Americans managed local affairs, negotiated shared sacrifice, and participated in a political system in which each believed they were as good as any other. Presenting hundreds of stories, Breen captures the powerful sense of equality and responsibility resulting from this process of self-determination.
With striking originality, Breen restores these missing Americans to our founding and shows why doing so is essential for understanding why our revolution ended differently from others that have shaped the modern world. In the midst of revolution’s anger, fear, and passion—the forgotten elements in any effective resistance—these Americans preserved a political culture based on the rule of law. In the experiences of these unsung revolutionaries can be seen the creation of America’s singular political identity.

Is Vatican II to Blame?

Last week, Pew released a survey showing that fewer than one-third of American Catholics believe that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ during Communion. You’ve got to take such surveys with a grain of salt; people can misunderstand what’s being asked. And I wonder what percentage of adherents in any religion in America today really knows the religion’s core doctrines. Still, the results are striking. The belief that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood is a major doctrine of the Catholic Church–the Reformation was fought over it, in part.

On Twitter, there was a lot of discussion about the role Vatican II had in encouraging ignorance of Church teaching. Moving to a more modern, accessible liturgy was supposed to increase religious participation and knowledge, after all. Perhaps, by encouraging an informality and lack of seriousness in the liturgy, it has led to the opposite? I’m a liturgical traditionalist, myself (though not a Catholic), so I’d like to believe liturgical modernization is a mistake. But maybe Vatican II can’t be blamed on its own–perhaps other factors played more of a role. A new book from Oxford, Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America Since Vatican II, addresses the general fall-off in observance among Catholics since the Council and suggests the Council was actually more successful than critics allege. The author is theologian and sociologist Stephen Bullivant (St. Mary’s University-London). Here is the description from the Oxford website:

In 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council with the prophecy that ‘a new day is dawning on the Church, bathing her in radiant splendour’. Desiring ‘to impart an ever increasing vigour to the Christian life of the faithful’, the Council Fathers devoted particular attention to the laity, and set in motion a series of sweeping reforms. The most significant of these centred on refashioning the Church’s liturgy–‘the source and summit of the Christian life’–in order to make ‘it pastorally efficacious to the fullest degree’.

Over fifty years on, however, the statistics speak for themselves. In America, only 15% of cradle Catholics say that they attend Mass on a weekly basis; meanwhile, 35% no longer even tick the ‘Catholic box’ on surveys. In Britain, the signs are direr still. Of those raised Catholic, just 13% still attend Mass weekly, and 37% say they have ‘no religion’. But is this all the fault of Vatican II, and its runaway reforms? Or are wider social, cultural, and moral forces primarily to blame? Catholicism is not the only Christian group to have suffered serious declines since the 1960s. If anything Catholics exhibit higher church attendance, and better retention, than most Protestant churches do. If Vatican II is not the cause of Catholicism’s crisis, might it instead be the secret to its comparative success? 

Mass Exodus is the first serious historical and sociological study of Catholic lapsation and disaffiliation. Drawing on a wide range of theological, historical, and sociological sources, Stephen Bullivant offers a comparative study of secularization across two famously contrasting religious cultures: Britain and the USA.

The Lives of Other Christians

A while ago, Marc and I were discussing the great German film, The Lives of Others, about the tactics of the secret police, the Stasi, in East Germany. The film powerfully depicts the soul-destroying nature of life in a police state, in which one never knows who is an informant and when one’s career, or life, may come to an end based on an anonymous report. A new book from Eerdmans, God’s Spies: The Stasi’s Cold War Espionage Campaign inside the Church, by Elisabeth Braw, documents how the Stasi infiltrated the country’s Lutheran churches. Here’s the description of the book from the Eerdmans’ website:

The real-life cloak-and-dagger story of how East Germany’s notorious spy agency infiltrated churches here and abroad.

East Germany only existed for a short forty years, but in that time, the country’s secret police, the Stasi, developed a highly successful “church department” that—using persuasion rather than threats—managed to recruit an extraordinary stable of clergy spies. Pastors, professors, seminary students, and even bishops spied on colleagues, other Christians, and anyone else they could report about to their handlers in the Stasi.

Thanks to its pastor spies, the Church Department (official name: Department XX/4) knew exactly what was happening and being planned in the country’s predominantly Lutheran churches. Yet ultimately it failed in its mission: despite knowing virtually everything about East German Christians, the Stasi couldn’t prevent the church-led protests that erupted in 1989 and brought down the Berlin Wall.

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