As recently as a generation ago, America’s civil religion centered on the Constitution. A good example can be found in the speeches of progressive Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, famous as a member of the Watergate committee, who often referred to her “faith” in the Constitution as the guiding principle of her public life. Times change; it’s hard to imagine progressive politicians referring to the Constitution in such an uncomplicatedly affirmative way today. Readers can decide for themselves why that is so. The book is “My Faith in the Constitution is Whole”: Barbara Jordan and the Politics of Scripture, by Robin L. Owens (Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles). The publisher is the Georgetown University Press. Here’s the publisher’s description:
US Congresswoman Barbara Jordan is well-known as an interpreter and defender of the Constitution, particularly through her landmark speech during Richard Nixon’s 1974 impeachment hearings. However, before she developed faith in the Constitution, Jordan had faith in Christianity. In “My Faith in the Constitution is Whole”: Barbara Jordan and the Politics of Scripture, Robin L. Owens shows how Jordan turned her religious faith and her faith in the Constitution into a powerful civil religious expression of her social activism.
Owens begins by examining the lives and work of the nineteenth-century Black female orator-activists Maria W. Stewart and Anna Julia Cooper. Stewart and Cooper fought for emancipation and women’s rights by “scripturalizing,” or using religious scriptures to engage in political debate. Owens then demonstrates how Jordan built upon this tradition by treating the Constitution as an American “scripture” to advocate for racial justice and gender equality. Case studies of key speeches throughout Jordan’s career show how she quoted the Constitution and other founding documents as sacred texts, used them as sociolinguistic resources, and employed a discursive rhetorical strategy of indirection known as “signifying on scriptures.”
Jordan’s particular use of the Constitution—deeply connected with her background and religious, racial, and gender identity—represents the agency and power reflected in her speeches. Jordan’s strategies also illustrate a broader phenomenon of scripturalization outside of institutional religion and its rhetorical and interpretive possibilities.
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. Madison’s famous observation from The Federalist captures the Framers’ unromantic view of human nature. Given the very obvious flaws in human character, they thought, it would be unwise for a state to depend on citizens’ moral progress. In fact, as the twentieth-century liberal political theorist Richard Hofstadter once observed, with frustration, the Framers had a Calvinist outlook that stubbornly rejected any idea of human perfectibility: they were quite sure human nature was weak and would never change. Much safer, they thought, for the state to contain checks on ambition, treachery, folly, and pride, which were bound to assert themselves in time, no matter what people’s better intentions.
A new book from Oxford University Press, The Character Gap: How Good Are We?, by Wake Forest philosophy professor Christian Miller, shows the Framers were more or less correct about human nature. We really are, in the author’s words, “a mixed bag”: not altogether terrible, but not so great, either. The Framers were right to design our institutions as they did. Whether those institutions can survive over the long run remains to be seen. Here’s the description of the book from the Oxford website:
We like to think of ourselves, our friends, and our families as decent people. We may not be saints, but we are still honest, relatively kind, and mostly trustworthy. Miller argues here that we are badly mistaken in thinking this. Hundreds of recent studies in psychology tell a different story: that we all have serious character flaws that prevent us from being as good as we think we are – and that we do not even recognize that these flaws exist. But neither are most of us cruel or dishonest. Instead, Miller argues, we are a mixed bag. On the one hand, most of us in a group of bystanders will do nothing as someone cries out for help in an emergency. Yet it is also true that there will be many times when we will selflessly come to the aid of a complete stranger – and resist the urge to lie, cheat, or steal even if we could get away with it. Much depends on cues in our social environment. Miller uses this recent psychological literature to explain what the notion of “character” really means today, and how we can use this new understanding to develop a character better in sync with the kind of people we want to be.
I wonder it it’s fair any longer to refer to John Adams as a forgotten founder. His stock has risen among American historians in the past 20 years or so. He even got an HBO mini-series–though, so far, no Broadway musical. In law and religion circles, Adams most famous for his observation that the US Constitution “was made only for a moral and religious people” and “is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Whether or not one agrees with Adams on that, his contributions to American constitutional theory are increasingly acknowledged.
This past year, the Johns Hopkins University Press published a new study of Adams’s political thought, John Adams’s Republic: The One, the Few and the Many, by historian Richard Alan Ryerson. The publisher’s description follows:
Scholars have examined John Adams’s writings and beliefs for generations, but no one has brought such impressive credentials to the task as Richard Alan Ryerson in John Adams’s Republic. The editor-in-chief of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Adams Papers project for nearly two decades, Ryerson offers readers of this magisterial book a fresh, firmly grounded account of Adams’s political thought and its development.
Of all the founding fathers, Ryerson argues, John Adams may have worried the most about the problem of social jealousy and political conflict in the new republic. Ryerson explains how these concerns, coupled with Adams’s concept of executive authority and his fear of aristocracy, deeply influenced his political mindset. He weaves together a close analysis of Adams’s public writings, a comprehensive chronological narrative beginning in the 1760s, and an exploration of the second president’s private diary, manuscript autobiography, and personal and family letters, revealing Adams’s most intimate political thoughts across six decades.
How, Adams asked, could a self-governing country counter the natural power and influence of wealthy elites and their friends in government? Ryerson argues that he came to believe a strong executive could hold at bay the aristocratic forces that posed the most serious dangers to a republican society. The first study ever published to closely examine all of Adams’s political writings, from his youth to his long retirement,John Adams’s Republic should appeal to everyone who seeks to know more about America’s first major political theorist.
In November, Cambridge University Press will release “What’s Wrong with the First Amendment?” by Steven Shiffrin (Cornell University). The publisher’s description follows:
What is Wrong with the First Amendment? argues that the US love affair with the First Amendment has mutated into free speech idolatry. Free speech has been placed on so high a pedestal that it is almost automatically privileged over privacy, fair trials, equality and public health, even protecting depictions of animal cruelty and violent video games sold to children. At the same time, dissent is unduly stifled and religious minorities are burdened. The First Amendment benefits the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable. By contrast, other Western democracies provide more reasonable accommodations between free speech and other values though their protections of dissent, and religious minorities are also inadequate. Professor Steven H. Shiffrin argues that US free speech extremism is not the product of broad cultural factors, but rather political ideologies developed after the 1950s. He shows that conservatives and liberals have arrived at similar conclusions for different political reasons.
This June, Palgrave MacMillan will publish Congress, the Supreme Court, and Religious Liberty: The Case of City of Boerne v. Flores by Jerold Waltman (Baylor University). The publisher’s description follows.
In the landmark case City of Boerne v. Flores, the Supreme Court struck down a major federal statute – the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. This decision raised questions not only about religious freedom in America, but also about federalism and separation of powers. Using the narrative framework of a tense dispute that divided a small Texas town, Waltman offers the first book-length analysis of the constitutional jurisprudence involved in the passage of the act. Congress, the Supreme Court, and Religious Liberty shows how this case and others like it stimulated and advanced an intense legal debate still ongoing today: Can and should the Supreme Court be the exclusive interpreter of the Constitution?
I’ve been thinking a little bit about the difference between establishments and disestablishments of religion. Constitutions serve several functions, but for this post, I’m interested in one in particular: to entrench the idea that there is a law above the state’s law — a law that cannot be changed by ordinary legislation. Could one say this about established religions in constitutional states? The argument would be that established religions in constitutional states place the constitutional state above its ordinary law, and they thereby control and restrain (the reach of) ordinary law. If the claim works, then as a functional matter, one might think of the Constitution as an establishment of religion. The Constitution — and, even more specifically, the First Amendment — is our establishment. It enshrines limits on the power of government, and in the case of the Free Exercise Clause, it can even subordinate the ordinary acts of government to higher law. And the First Amendment is an establishment inasmuch as it incorporates certain relationships between the state and religion right into the fabric of the governmental structure — relationships which it then fixes and removes from the purview of ordinary law. The difference between constitutional states with establishments of religions and those without them is that in the former, God or the gods establish the state, while in the latter, people do. But in both cases, constitutions ‘establish’ the (for lack of a better term) sacredness of the state and cement its position above ordinary law. And so, from this perspective, the opposite of establishment is not so much disestablishment as tyranny.
This past November, Juta – Academic published Traditional African Religions in South African Law by Tom Bennett (University of Cape Town). The publisher’s description follows.
Traditional African beliefs, together with African cultural traditions, are enjoying a new-found respect in South Africa, due in large part to the advent of the country’s democratic constitution. In fact, a large majority of the South African population adheres to some form of traditional belief, often in combination with observance of other religions. Even so, the traditional faiths are poorly understood and, in spite of constitutional guarantees, receive far from equal treatment, a situation quite at odds with the country’s commitment to equality and religious and cultural diversity.
While there are numerous works on the subject of religion in Africa, there are no works on traditional African religions and their legal implications. The issue is nevertheless of serious political and legal concern in South Africa, since it raises diverse questions involving freedom of religion, the equal treatment of religions, traditional healing, witchcraft, animal sacrifice, circumcision, marriage and burial.
This December, Columbia University Press will publish The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament by Wael B. Hallaq (Columbia University). The publisher’s description follows.
Wael B. Hallaq boldly argues that the “Islamic state,” judged by any standard definition of what the modern state represents, is both an impossible and inherently self-contradictory concept. Comparing the legal, political, moral, and constitutional histories of pre-modern Islam and Euro-America, he finds the adoption and practice of the modern state to be highly problematic for modern Muslims. He then conducts a more expansive critique of modernity’s moral predicament, which renders impossible any project resting solely on ethical foundations.
The modern state not only suffers from serious legal, political, and constitutional issues, Hallaq argues, but it also, by its very nature, fashions a subject inconsistent with what it means to be, or to live as, a Muslim. By Islamic standards, the state’s technologies of the self are severely lacking in moral substance, and the Muslim state, as Hallaq shows, has done little to advance an acceptable form of genuine Shari‘a governance. The Islamists’ constitutional battles in Egypt and Pakistan, the Islamic legal and political failures of the Iranian Revolution, and similar disappointments underscore this fact. Nevertheless, the state remains the favored template of the Islamists and the ulama (Muslim clergymen). Providing Muslims with a path toward realizing the good life, Hallaq turns to the rich moral resources of Islamic history. Along the way, he proves political and other “crises of Islam” are not unique to the Islamic world nor to the Muslim religion. These crises are integral to the modern condition of both East and West, and recognizing such parallels enables Muslims to engage more productively with their Western counterparts.
Last Month, Georgetown University Press published An Argument for Same-Sex Marriage: Religious Freedom, Sexual Freedom, and Public Expressions of Civic Equality by Emily R. Gill (Bradley University). The publisher’s description follows.
The relationship between religious belief and sexuality as personal attributes exhibits some provocative comparisons. Despite the nonestablishment of religion in the United States and the constitutional guarantee of free exercise, Christianity functions as the religious and moral standard in America. Ethical views that do not fit within this consensus often go unrecognized as moral values. Similarly, in the realm of sexual orientation, heterosexuality is seen as the yardstick by which sexual practices are measured. The notion that “alternative” sexual practices like homosexuality could possess ethical significance is often overlooked or ignored.
In her new book, An Argument for Same-Sex Marriage, political scientist Emily Gill draws an extended comparison between religious belief and sexuality, both central components of one’s personal identity. Using the religion clause of the First Amendment as a foundation, Gill contends that, just as US law and policy ensure that citizens may express religious beliefs as they see fit, it should also ensure that citizens may marry as they see fit. Civil marriage, according to Gill, is a public institution, and the exclusion of some couples from a state institution is a public expression of civic inequality. Read more