For all who are interested, here’s a writeup of our symposium last week on the rise of the Nones and its potential impact on the Religion Clauses. I participated in the symposium, which was co-sponsored by the St. John’s Law Review, along with Steve Collis of the Bech-Loughlin First Amendment Center at UT-Austin and Greg Sisk of the St. Thomas Law (Minnesota). We’re planning a podcast soon, so keep your ears open for that!
Symposium on the Rise of the Nones and American Law
The Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s Law School invites you to attend: The Rise of the Nones and American Law. Millions of Americans—perhaps as high as 30% of the adult population—now tell surveyors that they have no religious affiliation. Most of these Americans, the “Nones,” do not reject belief, but traditional religious organizations. They have their own, personal spiritual commitments that draw on many sources. The Nones, who are beginning to show up in the case law, have the potential to transform establishment and free exercise jurisprudence.
Join us for a panel discussion about these issues with Professors Steven Collis (University of Texas Law School), Mark Movsesian (St. John’s), Gregory Sisk (University of St. Thomas School of Law), and Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil (U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York). This event is co-sponsored by the ST. JOHN’S JOURNAL OF CATHOLIC LEGAL STUDIES.
Thursday, March 23, 2023
5:30 – 8:30 p.m.
New York Athletic Club
180 Central Park South
New York, NY 10019
Register to Attend
The event is free, but space is limited, so please register in advance (When registering, use password SPRING).
The Church of Saint Thomas Paine
A few years ago, while a fellow in the Madison Program at Princeton, I did a little research on a relative of mine, Mangasar Mangasarian, who had attended Princeton in the 19th Century. I had always heard that Mangasar, one of the earliest Armenian immigrants in the US, had gone on to become a Protestant minister. That was the story our family told, and it was true, as far as it went. What they failed to mention (maybe they didn’t know), and what I came to learn at Princeton, was that Mangasar eventually left his pulpit in the Presbyterian Church to found his own, rationalist sect, the “Independent Religious Society of Chicago,” which had some success around the turn of the century. I guess my relatives found that part of Mangasar’s story less edifying.
I’ve always wanted to do some more research to find out why Mangasar took the path he did. We’re a little late getting to it here at the Forum, but a book published last year by Princeton seems like it will provide some very helpful information. The book, The Church of Saint Thomas Paine, by Leigh Eric Schmidt (Washington University in St. Louis) describes 19th century secular “religions” in the United States. I checked the index online and Mangasar’s name appears quite prominently! Can’t wait to see what the book says. Meanwhile, here’s the publisher’s description:
In The Church of Saint Thomas Paine, Leigh Eric Schmidt tells the surprising story of how freethinking liberals in nineteenth-century America promoted a secular religion of humanity centered on the deistic revolutionary Thomas Paine (1737–1809) and how their descendants eventually became embroiled in the culture wars of the late twentieth century.
After Paine’s remains were stolen from his grave in New Rochelle, New York, and shipped to England in 1819, the reverence of his American disciples took a material turn in a long search for his relics. Paine’s birthday was always a red-letter day for these believers in democratic cosmopolitanism and philanthropic benevolence, but they expanded their program to include a broader array of rites and ceremonies, particularly funerals free of Christian supervision. They also worked to establish their own churches and congregations in which to practice their religion of secularism.
All of these activities raised serious questions about the very definition of religion and whether it included nontheistic fellowships and humanistic associations—a dispute that erupted again in the second half of the twentieth century. As right-wing Christians came to see secular humanism as the most dangerous religion imaginable, small communities of religious humanists, the heirs of Paine’s followers, were swept up in new battles about religion’s public contours and secularism’s moral perils.
An engrossing account of an important but little-known chapter in American history, The Church of Saint Thomas Paine reveals why the lines between religion and secularism are often much blurrier than we imagine.
Fall 2022 Reading Society Meeting: A Conversation with Tara Isabella Burton
Almost 30% of Americans today tell pollsters they have no religious affiliation. Yet the large majority of these “Nones” claim to be believers: they reject institutional religion, not faith. Drawing on her book, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, author Tara Isabella Burton will share her insights about the Nones: what they believe, why their numbers have grown, and the impact they will have on American life.
Date: Tuesday, November 1, 2022
Time: 6:30 p.m. (Pizza will be served)
Location: St. John’s University School of Law
The New Thoreaus: A Video of My Talk at UT Law
I had a wonderful time yesterday at the Bech-Loughlin First Amendment Center at the University of Texas Law School, where I spoke about my draft paper on the New Thoreaus. I enjoyed meeting some students before my talk, and the talk itself. Excellent questions and a lot of fun. My thanks again to Steve Collis and the folks at UT for having me. A video of the talk is available below:
Movsesian in Texas This Week
I’m looking forward to traveling to the University of Texas this week, where I’ll present my draft paper, “The New Thoreaus,” at the Bech-Loughlin First Amendment Center. The paper addresses the Rise of the Nones and what it means for the Free Exercise Clause. Details are available here. Center friends, stop by and say hello!
Legal Spirits Episode 043: The New Thoreaus
In this episode, Marc interviews Mark about his new article, “The New Thoreaus,” on the rise of the Nones and its impact on free-exercise law. Fifty years ago, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court famously dismissed the idea that a solitary seeker–the Court gave the 19th Century Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau as an example–could qualify as a “religion” for constitutional purposes. “Religion,” the Court explained, means a communal activity, not a purely personal quest. Mark argues that recent demographic changes in America have made this question an urgent one. Perhaps 66 million Americans today are unaffiliated believers–people who, like Thoreau, reject organized religion and follow their own, idiosyncratic spiritual paths–and more and more of them seek “religious” exemptions, including in the context of recent vaccine mandates. Mark examines some of these cases and argues that Yoder‘s dicta was basically correct: although religion cannot be an exclusively collective activity, the existence of a religious community is a crucial factor in the definition of religion for legal purposes. Listen in!
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Movsesian to Appear at UT-Austin Later This Month
A programming note: later this month, I’ll present my paper, “The New Thoreaus,” at the Bech-Loughlin First Amendment Center at the University of Texas School of Law. The paper discusses the increase in the number of unaffiliated believers–people who reject organized religion and follow their own spiritual paths–and whether the Free Exercise Clause should apply to them. Details are here. Very much looking forward to this. Center friends in Austin, please stop by and say hello!
Around the Web
Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:
- The State of Texas filed an original action in the U.S. Supreme Court opposing the State of California’s ban on state-funded travel to 11 states (including Texas) that have adopted policies California deems discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation or gender.
- The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals remanded a suit to Michigan district court for misapplying RLUIPA, in a case where prisoners contended they could not engage in group worship because the Department of Corrections does not recognize their religion (Christian Identity).
- A Maryland federal district court ruled against a private Christian school and removed it from the state’s school voucher program for low-income students because the school’s handbook does not include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in its statement on discrimination.
- A Maryland federal district court held that an ordinance violated RLUIPA because it required a special exception process for churches, but not schools, to build in conservation zones.
- New research from three political scientists suggests that the rise of the “Nones,” Pew Research’s term for Americans who claim no religious affiliation, may be slowing.
- An Associated Press survey suggests more than 20% of Fortune 100 companies have established faith-based employee resource groups.
- The Vatican published Pope Francis’ “Querida Amazonia,” which rejected calls to ordain married men as priests and women as deacons.
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: