“Religion and the Exercise of Public Authority” (Berger & Moon, eds.)

In June, Hart Publishing released “Religion and the Exercise of Public Authority,” edited by Benjamin Berger (York University) and Richard Moon (University of Windsor).  The publisher’s description follows:

In the burgeoning literature on law and religion, scholarly attention has tended to focus on broad questions concerning the scope of religious freedom, the nature of 9781849467155toleration and the meaning of secularism. An under-examined issue is how religion figures in the decisions, actions and experiences of those charged with performing public duties. This point of contact between religion and public authority has generated a range of legal and political controversies around issues such as the wearing of religious symbols by public officials, prayer at municipal government meetings, religious education and conscientious objection by public servants.

Authored by scholars from a variety of disciplines, the chapters in this volume provide insight into these and other issues. Yet the volume also provides an entry point into a deeper examination of the concepts that are often used to organise and manage religious diversity, notably state neutrality. By examining the exercise of public authority by individuals who are religiously committed – or who, in the discharge of their public responsibilities, must account for those who are – this volume exposes the assumptions about legal and political life that underlie the concept of state neutrality and reveals its limits as a governing ideal.

Eberstadt, “It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies”

In June, Harper Collins will release “It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies” by Mary Eberstadt. The publisher’s description follows:

Mary Eberstadt, “one of the most acute and creative social observers of our time,” (Francis Fukuyama) shines a much-needed spotlight on a disturbing trend in American society: discrimination against traditional religious belief and believers, who are being aggressively pushed out of public life by the concerted efforts of militant secularists.

In It’s Dangerous to Believe, Mary Eberstadt documents how people of faith—especially Christians who adhere to traditional religious beliefs—face widespread discrimination in today’s increasingly secular society. Eberstadt details how recent laws, court decisions, and intimidation on campuses and elsewhere threaten believers who fear losing their jobs, their communities, and their basic freedoms solely because of their convictions. They fear that their religious universities and colleges will capitulate to aggressive secularist demands. They fear that they and their families will be ostracized or will have to lose their religion because of mounting social and financial penalties for believing. They fear they won’t be able to maintain charitable operations that help the sick and feed the hungry.

Is this what we want for our country?

Religious freedom is a fundamental right, enshrined in the First Amendment. With It’s Dangerous to Believe, Eberstadt calls attention to this growing bigotry and seeks to open the minds of secular liberals whose otherwise good intentions are transforming them into modern inquisitors. Not until these progressives live up to their own standards of tolerance and diversity, she reminds us, can we build the inclusive society America was meant to be.

“Public Religion and the Politics of Homosexuality in Africa” (Klinken & Chitando, eds.)

In April, Routledge will release “Public Religion and the Politics of Homosexuality in Africa” edited by Adriaan van Klinken (University of Leeds, UK) and Ezra Chitando (University of Zimbabwe). The publisher’s description follows:

Issues of same-sex relationships and gay and lesbian rights are the subject routlogoof public and political controversy in many African societies today. Frequently, these controversies receive widespread attention both locally and globally, such as with the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda. In the international media, these cases tend to be presented as revealing a deeply-rooted homophobia in Africa fuelled by religious and cultural traditions. But so far little energy is expended in understanding these controversies in all their complexity and the critical role religion plays in them. This is the first book with multidisciplinary perspectives on religion and homosexuality in Africa. It presents case studies from across the continent, from Egypt to Zimbabwe and from Senegal to Kenya, and covers religious traditions such as Islam, Christianity and Rastafarianism. The contributors explore the role of religion in the politicisation of homosexuality, investigate local and global mobilisations of power, critically examine dominant religious discourses, and highlight the emergence of counter-discourses. Hence they reveal the crucial yet ambivalent public role of religion in matters of sexuality, social justice and human rights in contemporary Africa.

Holidays of Forgetting

Halloween-Hero-1-AThis article is another installment in the ongoing holidays wars. As I have previously noted, how and what we celebrate has reached a tipping point, due to two competing and perhaps ultimately irreconcilable trends. Our calendar, which marks out sacred space as “holidays,” either civil or in recognition of some religious tradition, is being pummeled between secularization on the one hand, but also a blossoming pluralism on the other.

There are still the annual Christmas wars, where fidgety towns debate how many reindeer can neutralize a crèche, or where to place the menorah in relation to the Christmas tree. The Supreme Court jurisprudence on this point is a hopeless morass, and so many places have tried simply to ignore it, one town famously referring to this time of year as “the sparkly season.”

The Christmas wars were largely a debate between those who think the Constitution enacts some impenetrable boundary between religion and government, and those who did not. Most of the former were generally, but not always, antipathetic specifically to the background Christian culture of the United States. To impose a secularist view would by definition, make the culture less Christian and also less religious. But the more current controversies are adding a new wrinkle.

The underlying theory of the Connecticut schools profiled in the article seems to be that one cannot publicly observe a holiday where some people feel “excluded” or “offended.” Such a position runs against the equally strong current in public schools of multiculturalism. Even if some people don’t like Halloween, shouldn’t the traditions of all people be reflected and invited to understand those holidays? On the other hand, some evangelical Christians also do not like Halloween, so it is easy to understand a decision to ban the holiday by your average school administrator.

Other school systems are taking exactly the opposite tack , and designating more holidays, across a number of traditions, such as Muslim holidays and the Chinese New Year, to accommodate the various traditions present. The logical conclusion of this reasoning is of course, to have no holidays at all, except perhaps secular ones (though some, like Columbus Day are also under attack).

As Paul Connerton writes in his book, How Societies Remember, holidays and the rites associated with them, “have as one of their defining features the explicit claim to” commemorate continuity with the past. It makes a difference therefore whether Halloween is meant to claim continuity with some pagan past, real or imagined, or whether it looks forward to All Saints’ Day. But the real trouble Halloween, as well as other holidays, may have is that it is emptied of memory. In a secular culture, such holidays express nothing but themselves and the passing moment. And that ritualized forgetting may be the real lasting danger to how we celebrate.

Is Christianity Part of the National Heritage?

There is a fair amount of moral preening in this article from Slate on an ill-advised (at best) move by a city council in Coolidge, Arizona to allow Christian-only prayers at their meetings. The piece, by Dahlia Lithwick, is a little overheated. The resolution went nowhere. She acknowledges that prayers at council meetings are allowed under a 2014 Supreme Court decision. Town of Greece v. Galloway, so long as there is no intent to discriminate, and that the Coolidge City Council rescinded the resolution shortly after the 4-2 vote in favor (which in any event needed to be voted on again to pass). Not to mention that the council assured one member that if he didn’t like what he was hearing from another faith, he didn’t have to listen.

Lithwick thinks both the actual proposed Coolidge resolution and one that simply permitted religious groups within the town limits to offer prayers at council meetings are examples of religious “intolerance” (Lithwick calls the latter “sneaky and subversive” even though it is perfectly reasonable and constitutional to only allow those groups actually present in a town to offer prayers). This theocracy-under-every-bed approach is tiresome and implausible, without disagreeing that the council’s decision was not a good one.

What interests me here is that Lithwick and others (such as historian Kevin Kruse, who has written a very interesting book on the rise of the Religious Right) mocked the proponent of the resolution for saying that Christianity was “our heritage.” As a historical matter, I don’t think this is remotely debatable, and Lithwick has the losing side. Further, as a constitutional matter, there is voluminous evidence that the Founders were very much influenced by the Reformed Protestant tradition, which is reflected in the documents they wrote.

This topic came up during a recent Libertas conference I had the privilege of attending, and has deep roots. (Thomas Jefferson, for example, argued that Christianity did not form part of the “law of the land.”) Lithwick’s view dovetails with a good article by Stuart Banner on Christianity and the common law. Banner finds that the decline of the belief that “Christianity forms part of the common law” coincides with the rise of a notion that the law was made by judges and not simply reflective of underlying truths, be they religious or otherwise. He writes: “Law was a body of principles separate from other bodies of principles, not just in its source (the decisions of government officials), but in its field of application. Religious norms, even those universally subscribed to, did not qualify as ‘law,’ not just because they were not made by government officials, but also because they were not enforced by government officials.” This conception of law increased (unsurprisingly) the power of lawyers and judges, who now presided over an autonomous realm untouched by the beliefs of the people, yet somehow superior to it.

Holding that law and culture are not the same is different from believing that culture need not influence law. Lithwick’s position has its own history, one that is not self-evidently true (and, in light of the “clerisy” theme these posts have been developing, arguably not desirable as well).

“Is God Back? Reconsidering the New Visibility of Religion” (Hjelm, ed.)

In July, Bloomsbury released “Is God Back? Reconsidering the New Visibility of Religion” edited by Titus Hjelm (University College London). The publisher’s description follows:

Is God Back? Reconsidering the New Visibility of Religion examines the shifting boundary between religion and the public sphere in Europe and the Middle East. Asking what the ‘new visibility of religion’ means and challenging simplistic notions of living in a ‘post-secular’ age, the chapters explore how religion is contested and renegotiated in the public sphere – or rather, in different publics – and the effects of these struggles on society, state and religion itself.

Whereas religion arguably never went away in the USA, the re-emergence of public religion is a European phenomenon. Is God Back? provides timely case studies from Europe, as well as extending to the Middle East, where fledgling democracies are struggling to create models of governance that stem from the European secular model, but which need to be able to accommodate a much more public form of religiosity. Discussions include the new visibility of neo-Pagan and Native Faith groups in Europe, Evangelical Christians and Church teaching on sexuality in the UK, and Islamic social Movements in the Arab world.

Drawing from empirical and theoretical research on religion and national identity, religion and media, church-state relationships, and religion and welfare, Is God Back? is a rich source for students and scholars interested in the changing face of public religion in the modern world, including those studying the sociology of religion, social policy, and theology.

Mahmood, “Religious Difference in a Secular Age”

In November, Princeton University Press will release “Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report” by Saba Mahmood (University of California, Berkeley). The publisher’s description follows:

The plight of religious minorities in the Middle East is often attributed to the failure of secularism to take root in the region. Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges this assessment by examining four cornerstones of secularism—political and civil equality, minority rights, religious freedom, and the legal separation of private and public domains.

Drawing on her extensive fieldwork in Egypt with Coptic Orthodox Christians and Bahais—religious minorities in a predominantly Muslim country—Saba Mahmood shows how modern secular governance has exacerbated religious tensions and inequalities rather than reduced them. Tracing the historical career of secular legal concepts in the colonial and postcolonial Middle East, she explores how contradictions at the very heart of political secularism have aggravated and amplified existing forms of Islamic hierarchy, bringing minority relations in Egypt to a new historical impasse. Through a close examination of Egyptian court cases and constitutional debates about minority rights, conflicts around family law, and controversies over freedom of expression, Mahmood invites us to reflect on the entwined histories of secularism in the Middle East and Europe.

A provocative work of scholarship, Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges us to rethink the promise and limits of the secular ideal of religious equality.

Wuthnow, “Inventing American Religion”

This month, the Oxford University Press releases “Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith,” by Robert Wuthnow (Princeton University). The publisher’s description follows:

Today, a billion-dollar-a-year polling industry floods the media with information. Pollsters tell us not only which political candidates will win, but how we are practicing our faith. How many Americans went to church last week? Have they been born again? Is Jesus as popular as Harry Potter? Polls tell us that 40 percent of Americans attend religious services each week. They show that African Americans are no more religious than white Americans, and that Jews are abandoning their religion in record numbers. According to leading sociologist Robert Wuthnow, none of that is correct. Pollsters say that attendance at religious services has been constant for decades. But during that time response rates in polls have plummeted, robotic “push poll” calls have proliferated, and sampling has become more difficult. The accuracy of political polling can be known because elections actually happen. But there are no election results to show if the proportion of people who say they pray every day or attend services every week is correct. A large majority of the public doubts that polls can be trusted, and yet night after night on TV, polls experts sum up the nation’s habits to an eager audience of millions.

Inventing American Religion offers a provocative new argument about the influence of polls in contemporary American society. Wuthnow contends that polls and surveys have shaped-and distorted-how religion is understood and portrayed in the media and also by religious leaders, practitioners, and scholars. He calls for a robust public discussion about American religion that extends well beyond the information provided by polls and surveys, and suggests practical steps to facilitate such a discussion, including changes in how the results of polls and surveys are presented.

“Handbook of Religion and the Asian City” (van der Veer, ed.)

Last month, the University of California Press released “Handbook of Religion and the Asian City: Aspiration and Urbanization in the Twenty-First Century,”  edited by Peter van der Veer (Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen and University Professor at Large at Utrecht University). The publisher’s description follows: 

Handbook of Religion and the Asian City highlights the creative and innovative role of urban aspirations in Asian world cities. It does notassume that religion is of the past and that the urban is secular, but instead points out that urban politics and governance often manifest religious boundaries and sensibilities—in short, that public religion is politics. The essays in this book show how projects of secularism come up against projects and ambitions of a religious nature, a particular form of contestation that takes the city as its public arena.

Questioning the limits of cities like Mumbai, Singapore, Seoul, Beijing, Bangkok, and Shanghai, the authors assert that Asian cities have to be understood not as global models of futuristic city planning but as larger landscapes of spatial imagination that have specific cultural and political trajectories. Religion plays a central role in the politics of heritage that is emerging from the debris of modernist city planning.

Megacities are arenas for the assertion of national and transnational aspirations as Asia confronts modernity. Cities are also sites of speculation, not only for those who invest in real estate but also for those who look for housing, employment, and salvation. In its potential and actual mobility, the sacred creates social space in which they all can meet. Handbook of Religion and the Asian City makes the comparative case that one cannot study the historical patterns of urbanization in Asia without paying attention to the role of religion in urban aspirations.

“Religious Literacy in Policy and Practice” (Dinham & Francis, eds.)

This month, Policy Press at the University of Bristol released “Religious Literacy in Policy and Practice” edited by Adam Dinham (University of London) and Matthew Francis (Lancaster University). The publisher’s description follows:

It has long been assumed that religion is in decline in the West: however it continues to have an important yet contested role in individual lives and in society at large. Furthermore half a century or so in which religion and belief were barely talked about in public has resulted in a pressing lack of religious literacy, leaving many ill-equipped to engage with religion and belief when they encounter them in daily life – in relationships, law, media, the professions, business and politics, among others. This valuable book is the first to bring together theory and policy with analysis and expertise on practices in key areas of the public realm to explore what religious literacy is, why it is needed and what might be done about it. It makes the case for a public realm which is well equipped to engage with the plurality and pervasiveness of religion and belief, whatever the individual’s own stance. It is aimed at academics, policy-makers and practitioners interested in the policy and practice implications of the continuing presence of religion and belief in the public sphere.

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