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.

Highlights from The King’s College

The King’s College has posted a video of excerpts from my Constitution Day Address last month, on how cultural trends, including the rise of the Nones, will likely affect the legal debate on religious accommodations. Here’s the link:

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.

“Thy Godlike crime was to be kind…And strengthen Man with his own mind”

In America, the spiritual seekers and do-it-yourselfers can claim as ancestors American transcendentalists like Emerson and Whitman. But there is also a distinctively English analogue of the late Victorian period. That is the subject of this new book, The New Prometheans: Faith, Science, and the Supernatural Mind in the Victorian fin de siècle (University of Chicago Press), by Courtenay Raia. [For the lines in the title of this post, and much more in the same high Romantic vein, see Lord Byron, “Prometheus”]

“The Society for Psychical Research was established in 1882 to further the scientific study of consciousness, but it arose in the surf of a larger cultural need. Victorians were on the hunt for self-understanding. Mesmerists, spiritualists, and other romantic seekers roamed sunken landscapes of entrancement, and when psychology was finally ready to confront these altered states, psychical research was adopted as an experimental vanguard. Far from a rejected science, it was a necessary heterodoxy, probing mysteries as diverse as telepathy, hypnosis, and even séance phenomena. Its investigators sought facts far afield of physical laws: evidence of a transcendent, irreducible mind.

The New Prometheans traces the evolution of psychical research through the intertwining biographies of four men: chemist Sir William Crookes, depth psychologist Frederic Myers, ether physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, and anthropologist Andrew Lang. All past presidents of the society, these men brought psychical research beyond academic circles and into the public square, making it part of a shared, far-reaching examination of science and society. By layering their papers, textbooks, and lectures with more intimate texts like diaries, letters, and literary compositions, Courtenay Raia returns us to a critical juncture in the history of secularization, the last great gesture of reconciliation between science and sacred truths.”

A New Defense of Religious Freedom Drawing on Maimonides, Ibn Rushd, and Tertullian

Several years ago, Professor Winnifred Fallers Sullivan wrote an influential book titled, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Sullivan’s core thesis was that protecting “religious” freedom was impossible in contemporary America because nobody can agree, for purposes of the law, about what religion is.

Here is a new book that represents at least an implicit critique of the Sullivan thesis, drawing on very ancient sources to define religious freedom today: The Possibility of Religious Freedom: Early Natural Law and the Abrahamic Faiths (Cambridge University Press), by Karen Taliaferro.

“Religious freedom is one of the most debated and controversial human rights in contemporary public discourse. At once a universally held human right and a flash point in the political sphere, religious freedom has resisted scholarly efforts to define its parameters. Taliaferro explores a different way of examining the tensions between the aims of religion and the needs of political communities, arguing that religious freedom is a uniquely difficult human right to uphold because it rests on two competing conceptions, human and divine. Drawing on classical natural law, Taliaferro expounds a new, practical theory of religious freedom for the modern world. By examining conceptions of law such as Sophocles’ Antigone, Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, Ibn Rushd’s Middle Commentary on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and Tertullian’s writings, The Possibility of Religious Freedom explains how expanding our notion of law to incorporate such theories can mediate conflicts of human and divine law and provide a solid foundation for religious liberty in modernity’s pluralism.”

La Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes

The enduring quarrel between the ancients and the moderns is about which group has the greater wisdom. Here is a posthumous book of essays by the great writer, Umberto Eco, that tackles that question through the themes of beauty, ugliness, the absolute and the relative, the sacred, and many others: On the Shoulders of Giants (Harvard University Press).

“In Umberto Eco’s first novel, The Name of the Rose, Nicholas of Morimondo laments, “We no longer have the learning of the ancients, the age of giants is past!” To which the protagonist, William of Baskerville, replies: “We are dwarfs, but dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of those giants, and small though we are, we sometimes manage to see farther on the horizon than they.”

On the Shoulders of Giants is a collection of essays based on lectures Eco famously delivered at the Milanesiana Festival in Milan over the last fifteen years of his life. Previously unpublished, the essays explore themes he returned to again and again in his writing: the roots of Western culture and the origin of language, the nature of beauty and ugliness, the potency of conspiracies, the lure of mysteries, and the imperfections of art. Eco examines the dynamics of creativity and considers how every act of innovation occurs in conversation with a superior ancestor.

In these playful, witty, and breathtakingly erudite essays, we encounter an intellectual who reads comic strips, reflects on Heraclitus, Dante, and Rimbaud, listens to Carla Bruni, and watches Casablanca while thinking about Proust. On the Shoulders of Giants reveals both the humor and the colossal knowledge of a contemporary giant.”

Human Rights as Holdover

We’ve noted the work of Pierre Manent on the site before, and here is a new translation of a book by Manent that should be of great interest: Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason (Notre Dame Press).

“Pierre Manent is one of France’s leading political philosophers. This first English translation of his profound and strikingly original book La loi naturelle et les droits de l’homme is a reflection on the central question of the Western political tradition. In six chapters, developed from the prestigious Étienne Gilson lectures at the Institut Catholique de Paris, and in a related appendix, Manent contemplates the steady displacement of the natural law by the modern conception of human rights. He aims to restore the grammar of moral and political action, and thus the possibility of an authentically political order that is fully compatible with liberty rightly understood. Manent boldly confronts the prejudices and dogmas of those who have repudiated the classical and (especially) Christian notion of “liberty under law” and in the process shows how groundless many contemporary appeals to human rights turn out to be. Manent denies that we can generate obligations from a condition of what Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau call the “state of nature,” where human beings are absolutely free, with no obligations to others. In his view, our ever-more-imperial affirmation of human rights needs to be reintegrated into what he calls an “archic” understanding of human and political existence, where law and obligation are inherent in liberty and meaningful human action. Otherwise we are bound to act thoughtlessly in an increasingly arbitrary or willful manner.

Natural Law and Human Rights will engage students and scholars of politics, philosophy, and religion, and will captivate sophisticated readers who are interested in the question of how we might reconfigure our knowledge of, and talk with one another about, politics.”

Comparative Conscience Exemptions

Religious accommodations figure prominently in current debates about law and religion. This past summer, Hart released a collection of essays on such exemptions in the UK, Canada, and the United States, Religious Beliefs and Conscientious Objections in a Liberal State. The editor is John Adentire (University of Birmingham). Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

The central focus of this edited collection is on the ever-growing practice, in liberal states, to claim exemption from legal duties on the basis of a conscientious objection. Traditional claims have included objections to compulsory military draft and to the provision of abortions. Contemporary claims include objections to anti-discrimination law by providers of public services, such as bakers and B&B hoteliers, who do not want to serve same-sex couples. The book investigates the practice, both traditional and contemporary, from three distinct perspectives: theoretical, doctrinal (with special emphasis on UK, Canadian and US law) and comparative. Cumulatively, the contributors provide a comprehensive set of reflections on how the practice is to be viewed and carried out in the context of a liberal state.

Why Byzantium Matters

I’ve written a few times in this space about why historians of law and Christianity should spend more time on Byzantium. A new book from Princeton, released last month, makes the case for studying the New Rome–especially its conflicts with Catholicism and with Islam, which continue to resonate today. The book is Byzantine Matters, by Oxford historian Averil Cameron. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:

For many, Byzantium remains byzantine—obscure, marginal, difficult. Despite the efforts of some recent historians, prejudices still deform understanding of the Byzantine civilization, often reducing it to a poor relation of Rome and the rest of the classical world. In this book, renowned historian Averil Cameron addresses misconceptions about Byzantium, suggests why it is so important to integrate the civilization into wider histories, and lays out why Byzantium should be central to ongoing debates about the relationships between West and East, Christianity and Islam, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and the ancient and medieval periods. The result is a compelling call to reconsider the place of Byzantium in Western history and imagination.

%d bloggers like this: