Hudnut-Beumler, “Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table”

9781469640372While on a recent trip to Charlotte, North Carolina — home of the Billy Graham Library — I attended Sunday Liturgy at St. Sarkis Armenian Church, founded about a dozen years ago. St. Sarkis is not the only Orthodox Church in Charlotte. There is a Coptic church, at least two Greek Orthodox churches, a couple of Russian Orthodox churches, a couple of Ethiopian Orthodox churches, and at least one Syriac church. The point is that if one thinks of Southern  Christianity as strictly Evangelical, one is making a mistake — though I should point out, in the interests of full disclosure, that the line of cars outside the Evangelical church a couple blocks away was a lot longer than the one at St. Sarkis!

A new study from the University of North Carolina Press, Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table: Contemporary Christianities in the American South, by Vanderbilt University historian James Hudnut-Beumler, describes the Christianities of the New South. Looks interesting. Here’s the publisher’s description:

In this fresh and fascinating chronicle of Christianity in the contemporary South, historian and minister James Hudnut-Beumler draws on extensive interviews and his own personal journeys throughout the region over the past decade to present a comprehensive portrait of the South’s long-dominant religion. Hudnut-Beumler traveled to both rural and urban communities, listening to the faithful talk about their lives and beliefs. What he heard pushes hard against prevailing notions of southern Christianity as an evangelical Protestant monolith so predominant as to be unremarkable.

True, outside of a few spots, no non-Christian group forms more than six-tenths of one percent of a state’s population in what Hudnut-Beumler calls the Now South. Drilling deeper, however, he discovers an unexpected, blossoming diversity in theology, practice, and outlook among southern Christians. He finds, alongside traditional Baptists, black and white, growing numbers of Christians exemplifying changes that no one could have predicted even just forty years ago, from congregations of LGBT-supportive evangelicals and Spanish-language church services to a Christian homeschooling movement so robust in some places that it may rival public education in terms of acceptance. He also finds sharp struggles and political divisions among those trying to reconcile such Christian values as morality and forgiveness—the aftermath of the mass shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church in 2015 forming just one example. This book makes clear that understanding the twenty-first-century South means recognizing many kinds of southern Christianities.

Johnson et al., “Ekklesia”

9780226545585In popular discourse, the American Framers had one of two, mutually-exclusive positions on church-state relations: Either the Framers were Deists who believed that church and state must be completely separate, or the Framers were proto-Evangelicals who thought of America as a Christian nation. In fact, the record is murkier. From the beginning, the two views of church-state relations have existed together in a productive tension, with neither side completely dominating the other. Many of our bitter fights today, in fact, arise because each side is trying to eliminate the other, rather than adjusting and figuring out a way to get along. At least that’s how it seems to me.

A new anthropological study from the University of Chicago Press, Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church and State, discusses the tensions surrounding church and state in the New World, addressing not only the United States but Latin America and Canada as well. The authors are Paul Christopher Johnson, Pamela E. Klassen, and Winnifred Sullivan. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church and State offers a New World rejoinder to the largely Europe-centered academic discourse on church and state. In contrast to what is often assumed, in the Americas the relationship between church and state has not been one of freedom or separation but one of unstable and adaptable collusion. Ekklesia sees in the settler states of North and South America alternative patterns of conjoined religious and political power, patterns resulting from the undertow of other gods, other peoples, and other claims to sovereignty. These local challenges have led to a continuously contested attempt to realize a church-minded state, a state-minded church, and the systems that develop in their concert. The shifting borders of their separation and the episodic conjoining of church and state took new forms in both theory and practice.

The first of a closely linked trio of essays is by Paul Johnson, and offers a new interpretation of the Brazilian community gathered at Canudos and its massacre in 1896–97, carried out as a joint church-state mission and spectacle. In the second essay, Pamela Klassen argues that the colonial church-state relationship of Canada came into being through local and national practices that emerged as Indigenous nations responded to and resisted becoming “possessions” of colonial British America. Finally, Winnifred Sullivan’s essay begins with reflection on the increased effort within the United States to ban Bibles and scriptural references from death penalty courtrooms and jury rooms; she follows with a consideration of the political theological pressure thereby placed on the jury that decides between life and death. Through these three inquiries, Ekklesia takes up the familiar topos of “church and state” in order to render it strange.

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Breidenbach, “Conciliarism and the American Founding”

In the book, “Silence,” by Shusaku Endo, concerning the, shall we say, cool reception of Jesuit missionaries in Japan, there is a powerful line uttered by the despairing old Jesuit about Japanese resistance to Christianity: “This country is a swamp…a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot, the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.”

I thought about this in reading historian Michael Breidenbach’s careful and superb article (which I am late in noticing), Conciliarism and the American Founding (unfortunately behind a pay wall, but well worth it). Breidenbach argues that the extension of toleration to Roman Catholics in America was highly unusual: so what explains it?

Breidenbach points to one issue in particular: early American Catholics’ rejection of papal infallibility and their preference for “conciliarism”–the location of true ecclesiastical power in councils rather than in popes. Breidenbach writes, “Conciliarists provided important intellectual contributions to the transition from the hierocratic, church-over-state arrangements of the Middle Ages to early modern theories on the juridical separation of church and state.” Conciliarism smoothed the way for Catholics to “fit” their religion within the overarching political theory of the United States (including, I would add, its potent and still-thriving civil religion), and in consequence made toleration for their views more probable. Breidenbach includes a long and illuminating history of the Jansenist defense of conciliarism in 17th century France–again, well worth your time–that was important in the development of conciliarism.

Connected to the conciliarism of American Catholics was their rejection of any political aspirations for the Church–a kind of non-interventionism which rendered them possible subjects for toleration in the new American dispensation. The civil state was the unquestioned sovereign for these Catholics, not the Church.

Breidenbach writes as a historian, of course, and does not openly praise or condemn these developments. The plant of Christianity (and Catholicism specifically) obviously did not encounter the same type of soil that it did in Japan. The soil changed the plant–made the plant accommodate itself to the soil’s demands, or else die. Indeed, it is often said that in America, all religions become Americanized, and the talk of conciliarism reminds me a bit of Professor Sally Gordon’s discussion of the flattening out (hierarchically speaking) of Christianity in America once it adopted the corporate form. Breidenbach’s article made me wonder, in the long run and as the American state continues to grow, which soil actually will prove the less hospitable. Read Breidenbach!

Besançon, “Protestant Nation”

The eminent French historian, Alain Besançon, specialized early in his writing life on communist Russia. One of his better-known themes is that the Soviet Union was one of the first cases of the purely “ideological” regime–the regime founded solely on political ideas disconnected from the lived experience of its people. Besançon has more recently written interestingly and controversially about Islam, arguing that Islam is neither a “revealed” religion nor a “natural” religion (in the way Roman paganism was), but instead represents a “third way”–as embodying “the natural religion of the revealed God.”

Here is a new book in which Besançon turns his attention to the United States: Protestant Nation: The Fragile Christian Roots of America’s Greatness. The publisher is St.Besancon Augustine’s Press.

Alain Besançon’s studies, over decades, on Russia, France, Islam, and art have convinced him that “that nothing is comprehensible if one neglects the religious choices that determine a historical destiny.” His aim is to comprehend the most powerful nation on the earth, and he was convinced that Protestantism was the key to America. The question of Protestantism and its origins implicated, in turn, the origins of the Reformation and thus the problem of the moral and political meaning of Christianity itself. And Besançon traces theological dynamic that was to stamp the Reformation, behind Luther’s break with Rome, to the late medieval nominalists’ failure to maintain the fragile communion that Thomas Aquinas had articulated between love and intellect.

This then is the ambition of this elegant and magisterial essay: to explore the question of the spirit of America as bound up with the most fundamental and most problematic promise of Christianity: the union of heart and mind. This exploration leads the reader, after a deft analysis of Nominalism, through a luminous tour of the sources of modern Christianity that includes the revival of speculative mysticism in authors such as Meister Eckhart and Tauler, the devotion moderna, the main figures and movements of the Reformation proper, a brilliant digest of Anglicanism, and a survey of Puritanism in England and America. This uniquely synoptic exploration concludes with the emergence of a democratic religion of humanity, a faith whose future is as uncertain as its grasp of the modern spirit’s Christian sources that Alain Besançon has so judiciously laid bare.

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Galston, “Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy”

Influential policy adviser in the Clinton Administration (including in matters respecting Galstonreligion) and in the campaigns of several other Democratic presidential candidates. Prominent exponent of liberal pluralism (see, for example, his eponymous book, which was, at the time, a sort of practical manual for implementing Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism in contemporary American political life). William A. Galston has been a leading American public intellectual for the last several decades. In this interesting looking new book, Anti- Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy (Yale University Press), Galston takes a hard look at some of the foundational challenges to his own favored and long-defended liberal pluralism that have emerged in recent years, and that are likely to persist in the future.

The Great Recession, a growing divide between urban and rural prospects, and failed efforts to effectively address immigration have paved the way for a populist backlash that disrupts the postwar bargain between political elites and citizens. Whether today’s populism represents a corrective to unfair and obsolete policies or a threat to liberal democracy itself remains up for debate. Yet this much is clear: these challenges indict the triumphalism that accompanied liberal democratic consolidation at the turn of the century. To respond to today’s crisis, good leaders must strive for inclusive economic growth while frankly addressing fraught social and cultural issues encompassing legitimate demographic anxiety. Although reforms may stem the populist tide, liberal democratic life will always leave something to be desired. This is a permanent source of vulnerability, but liberal democracy will endure so long as citizens believe it is worth fighting for.

“Homo Religiosus” (Shah & Friedman, eds.)

The problem of defining religion–or even of identifying its core–is one of the mightiest peaks in the law and religion sierra. Many have attempted to scale it; but the mountain has beaten back more than a few aspirants. The difficulties in definition are so great that an increasing number of scholars has concluded that there is nothing “special” about religion as a category of legal rights (which, of course, is not the same as saying that religious freedom should not be protected, constitutionally or otherwise, though such a conclusion does have implications for the nature of that protection). Others have responded that religion is “special enough”–distinctive enough, as compared with other rights such as the right to free speech, to warrant separate legal protection (I am probably somewhere in this group, since I believe that the reasons for any right’s protection are historically and contingently grounded). And still others, particularly among the sociologically and philosophically-minded, have been prompted to undertake new studies and explorations of religion’s essence or true nature.

Here is a new volume in the last category, Homo Religiosus: Exploring the Roots of Religion and Religious Freedom in Human Existence (CUP), edited by Timothy SamuelHomo Religiosus Shah and Jack Friedman. The book is nicely organized as a series of principal essays by leading scholars on the subject followed by (what appear to be highly critical) responses.

Are humans naturally predisposed to religion and supernatural beliefs? If so, does this naturalness provide a moral foundation for religious freedom? This volume offers a cross-disciplinary approach to these questions, engaging in a range of contemporary debates at the intersection of religion, cognitive science, sociology, anthropology, political science, epistemology, and moral philosophy. The contributors to this original and important volume present individual, sometimes opposing points of view on the naturalness of religion thesis and its implications for religious freedom. Topics include the epistemological foundations of religion, the relationship between religion and health, and a discussion of the philosophical foundations of religious freedom as a natural, universal right, drawing implications for the normative role of religion in public life. By challenging dominant intellectual paradigms, such as the secularization thesis and the Enlightenment view of religion, the volume opens the door to a powerful and provocative reconceptualization of religious freedom.

Gingras, “Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue”

We are delayed in noticing this book by Yves Gingras, a historian of science, concerning Gingrasthe very popular idea of “dialogue” between religion and science. Gingras takes the unfashionable view that there may be nothing much to talk about in Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue (Wiley Press). Indeed, “dialogue” is one of those platitudes that is easily mouthed for seemingly all occasions of conflict, as if talking is both a kind of cure-all for conflict and an independently desirable end. Gingras clearly does not agree:

Today we hear renewed calls for a dialogue between science and religion: why has the old question of the relations between science and religion now returned to the public domain and what is at stake in this debate?

To answer these questions, historian and sociologist of science Yves Gingras retraces the long history of the troubled relationship between science and religion, from the condemnation of Galileo for heresy in 1633 until his rehabilitation by John Paul II in 1992. He reconstructs the process of the gradual separation of science from theology and religion, showing how God and natural theology became marginalized in the scientific field in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  In contrast to the dominant trend among historians of science, Gingras argues that science and religion are social institutions that give rise to incompatible ways of knowing, rooted in different methodologies and forms of knowledge, and that there never was, and cannot be, a genuine dialogue between them.

Wide-ranging and authoritative, this new book on one of the fundamental questions of Western thought will be of great interest to students and scholars of the history of science and of religion as well as to general readers who are intrigued by the new and much-publicized conversations about the alleged links between science and religion.

And I should also point out this highly critical review of the book by Peter Harrison, which is illuminating in its own right. The review covers a lot of ground, but here is an especially interesting reflection on the book that has considerable application to law as well.

More generally, on a number of occasions, Gingras makes much of prohibitions and book censorship on the assumption that this is a sign of an enduring battle between science and religion, or at least between the institutions that stand in for them. But this reading results from a failure to understand the universality of regimes of censorship and their ultimate goal. Legislative restrictions placed on the expression of religious, political, moral — and, in a small minority of cases, scientific — views might have served to maintain the power of particular institutions, but their goal was also the preservation of social order. It is patently clear, moreover, that religious views were far more likely to be subjected to the coercive powers of the state (and, in those cases where it could exercise temporal power, the Church) than were scientific ones. The most determined and courageous instances of resistance to such attempts at control, overwhelmingly, were religiously motivated. The history of censorship, then, does not pick out anything distinctive about science and religion, since “religion” itself was the most common target of censorship.

Wuthnow, “The Left Behind”

In the late 1980s, the noted sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, reconceived and Wuthnowcriticized the idea of American “civil religion” made famous by Robert Bellah in prior decades. In his book, The Restructuring of American Religion, Wuthnow argued that Bellah’s communitarian and unifying American civil religion had fragmented into two competing and utterly irreconcilable religious visions for the country: a conservative vision that saw the legitimacy of American government as dependent on its Christian past; and a progressive vision that saw American legitimacy as dependent on its efforts systematically to overcome the injustices and inequalities of its Christian past.

This was the 1980s. The dynamics are quite different today, notwithstanding popular distortions. And now comes a new book from Wuthnow, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, in which Wuthnow studies an American demographic that was not helped much at all either by the previous generation’s religious conservatives or progressives. The publisher is Princeton.

What is fueling rural America’s outrage toward the federal government? Why did rural Americans vote overwhelmingly for Donald Trump? And, beyond economic and demographic decline, is there a more nuanced explanation for the growing rural-urban divide? Drawing on more than a decade of research and hundreds of interviews, Robert Wuthnow brings us into America’s small towns, farms, and rural communities to paint a rich portrait of the moral order–the interactions, loyalties, obligations, and identities—underpinning this critical segment of the nation. Wuthnow demonstrates that to truly understand rural Americans’ anger, their culture must be explored more fully.

We hear from farmers who want government out of their business, factory workers who believe in working hard to support their families, town managers who find the federal government unresponsive to their communities’ needs, and clergy who say the moral climate is being undermined. Wuthnow argues that rural America’s fury stems less from specific economic concerns than from the perception that Washington is distant from and yet threatening to the social fabric of small towns. Rural dwellers are especially troubled by Washington’s seeming lack of empathy for such small-town norms as personal responsibility, frugality, cooperation, and common sense. Wuthnow also shows that while these communities may not be as discriminatory as critics claim, racism and misogyny remain embedded in rural patterns of life.

Moving beyond simplistic depictions of the residents of America’s heartland, The Left Behind offers a clearer picture of how this important population will influence the nation’s political future.

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