“My Faith in the Constitution is Whole”

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.

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.

Christianity’s American Fate?

I have to confess the publisher’s description of a new book from Princeton on American Christianity lost me at the get-go. “How did American Christianity become synonymous with conservative white evangelicalism,” the blurb for Christianity’s American Fate by Berkeley historian David Hollinger earnestly asks? I guess such a framing attracts an academic audience, always on the lookout for reassurance about its priors. But it’s misleading. First, of course, American Christianity comprises a lot more than Evangelicals. Second, although the majority of American Evangelicals are white, the most interesting fact about them is that they are becoming much less so over time. A PRRI study a few years ago revealed that one third of Evangelicals are members of racial and ethnic minorities. Among younger Evangelicals, the transformation is even more pronounced. About half of Evangelicals below the age of 30 are minorities. “PRRI found that ’22 percent of young evangelical Protestants are Black, 18 percent are Hispanic, and 9 percent identify as some other race or mixed race.'” The short answer to the question, how did American Christianity become synonymous with conservative white evangelicalism is, it’s not.

Readers of the book can judge for themselves. The publisher’s full description follows:

How did American Christianity become synonymous with conservative white evangelicalism? This sweeping work by a leading historian of modern America traces the rise of the evangelical movement and the decline of mainline Protestantism’s influence on American life. In Christianity’s American Fate, David Hollinger shows how the Protestant establishment, adopting progressive ideas about race, gender, sexuality, empire, and divinity, liberalized too quickly for some and not quickly enough for others. After 1960, mainline Protestantism lost members from both camps—conservatives to evangelicalism and progressives to secular activism. A Protestant evangelicalism that was comfortable with patriarchy and white supremacy soon became the country’s dominant Christian cultural force.

Hollinger explains the origins of what he calls Protestantism’s “two-party system” in the United States, finding its roots in America’s religious culture of dissent, as established by seventeenth-century colonists who broke away from Europe’s religious traditions; the constitutional separation of church and state, which enabled religious diversity; and the constant influx of immigrants, who found solidarity in churches. Hollinger argues that the United States became not only overwhelmingly Protestant but Protestant on steroids. By the 1960s, Jews and other non-Christians had diversified the nation ethnoreligiously, inspiring more inclusive notions of community. But by embracing a socially diverse and scientifically engaged modernity, Hollinger tells us, ecumenical Protestants also set the terms by which evangelicals became reactionary.

“Stealing My Religion”

I’ve been thinking about the Rise of the Nones, particularly, the significant percentage of Americans who are “unaffiliated believers.” Something like 20% of us, according to surveys, claim to have non-institutional religious commitments that draw from many different sources. This is an old story in America, going back at least as far as Thoreau, who drew heavily from Hinduism and Zoroastrianism. (About Christianity, he was much less enthusiastic). But eclectic, expressive individualism has now gone mainstream. There are a lot more Thoreaus than there used to be.

Not everyone loves the new eclecticism–including, especially, practitioners of the old traditions themselves, who sometimes feel wronged. For example, can one just “do” yoga, without accepting the spiritual commitments on which yoga is based? Is treating yoga as an exercise regimen an affront to Hindus for whom yoga has transcendental meaning? An interesting-looking new book from Harvard, Stealing My Religion, addresses these questions. The author is Northeastern religion professor Liz Bucar. Here’s the publisher’s description:

From sneaker ads and the “solidarity hijab” to yoga classes and secular hikes along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, the essential guide to the murky ethics of religious appropriation.

We think we know cultural appropriation when we see it. Blackface or Native American headdresses as Halloween costumes—these clearly give offense. But what about Cardi B posing as the Hindu goddess Durga in a Reebok ad, AA’s twelve-step invocation of God, or the earnest namaste you utter at the end of yoga class?

Liz Bucar unpacks the ethical dilemmas of a messy form of cultural appropriation: the borrowing of religious doctrines, rituals, and dress for political, economic, and therapeutic reasons. Does borrowing from another’s religion harm believers? Who can consent to such borrowings? Bucar sees religion as an especially vexing arena for appropriation debates because faiths overlap and imitate each other and because diversity within religious groups scrambles our sense of who is an insider and who is not. Indeed, if we are to understand why some appropriations are insulting and others benign, we have to ask difficult philosophical questions about what religions really are.

Stealing My Religion guides us through three revealing case studies—the hijab as a feminist signal of Muslim allyship, a study abroad “pilgrimage” on the Camino de Santiago, and the commodification of yoga in the West. We see why the Vatican can’t grant Rihanna permission to dress up as the pope, yet it’s still okay to roll out our yoga mats. Reflecting on her own missteps, Bucar comes to a surprising conclusion: the way to avoid religious appropriation isn’t to borrow less but to borrow more—to become deeply invested in learning the roots and diverse meanings of our enthusiasms.

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

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!

Evangelicalism and Migrants

We’ll see what happens, but one of the big political stories of 2022 seems to be a movement of Latino voters to the Republican Party. I’ve thought for some time that an underreported element in this story is a movement of Latinos to evangelical Christianity. A new book from Princeton University Press, In the Hands of God: How Evangelical Belonging Transforms Migrant Experience in the United States, by anthropologist Johanna Bard Richlin (University of Oregon) explores the latter phenomenon. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Why do migrants become more deeply evangelical in the United States and how does this religious identity alter their self-understanding? In the Hands of God examines this question through a unique lens, foregrounding the ways that churches transform what migrants feel. Drawing from her extensive fieldwork among Brazilian migrants in the Washington, DC, area, Johanna Bard Richlin shows that affective experience is key to comprehending migrants’ turn toward intense religiosity, and their resulting evangelical commitment.

The conditions of migrant life—family separation, geographic isolation, legal precariousness, workplace vulnerability, and deep uncertainty about the future—shape specific affective maladies, including loneliness, despair, and feeling stuck. These feelings in turn trigger novel religious yearnings. Evangelical churches deliberately and deftly articulate, manage, and reinterpret migrant distress through affective therapeutics, the strategic “healing” of migrants’ psychological pain. Richlin offers insights into the affective dimensions of migration, the strategies pursued by evangelical churches to attract migrants, and the ways in which evangelical belonging enables migrants to feel better, emboldening them to improve their lives.

Looking at the ways evangelical churches help migrants navigate negative emotions, In the Hands of God sheds light on the versatility and durability of evangelical Christianity.

A New History of the Transcendentalists

The 19th century Transcendentalists cast a long shadow in American religious culture. Their insistence that the individual is the sole measure of religious truth has greatly affected our law as well, notwithstanding Chief Justice Burger’s famous dismissal of Henry David Thoreau in Wisconsin v. Yoder. And you might say Transcendentalism is having a moment today, with the rise of the Nones, a movement that represents a mainstreaming of many ideas bruited about in Concord parlors in the 1830s and 40s.

A new history from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, The Transcendentalists and their World, by Robert Gross (University of Connecticut) situates the Transcendentalists in their hometown, showing the ways that their daily interactions influenced their ideas. Looks very interesting. Here is the publisher’s description:

In the year of the nation’s bicentennial, Robert A. Gross published The Minutemen and Their World, a paradigm-shaping study of Concord, Massachusetts, during the American Revolution. It won the prestigious Bancroft Prize and became a perennial bestseller. Forty years later, in this highly anticipated work, Gross returns to Concord and explores the meaning of an equally crucial moment in the American story: the rise of Transcendentalism.

The Transcendentalists and Their World offers a fresh view of the thinkers whose outsize impact on philosophy and literature would spread from tiny Concord to all corners of the earth. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Alcotts called this New England town home, and Thoreau drew on its life extensively in his classic Walden. But Concord from the 1820s through the 1840s was no pastoral place fit for poets and philosophers.

The Transcendentalists and their neighbors lived through a transformative epoch of American life. A place of two thousand–plus souls in the antebellum era, Concord was a community in ferment, whose small, ordered society founded by Puritans and defended by Minutemen was dramatically unsettled through the expansive forces of capitalism and democracy and tightly integrated into the wider world. These changes challenged a world of inherited institutions and involuntary associations with a new premium on autonomy and choice. They exposed people to cosmopolitan currents of thought and endowed them with unparalleled opportunities. They fostered uncertainties, raised new hopes, stirred dreams of perfection, and created an audience for new ideas of individual freedom and democratic equality deeply resonant today.

The Transcendentalists and Their World is both an intimate journey into the life of a community and a searching cultural study of major American writers as they plumbed the depths of the universe for spiritual truths and surveyed the rapidly changing contours of their own neighborhoods. It shows us familiar figures in American literature alongside their neighbors at every level of the social order, and it reveals how this common life in Concord entered powerfully into their works. No American community of the nineteenth century has been recovered so richly and with so acute an awareness of its place in the larger American story.

Why Religion is Good for Democracy

We hear a lot these days about how religion threatens American democracy. The view almost amounts to a consensus in some parts of the academy. But that was not always the case. For most of American history, observers have thought that religion, and religious communities especially, help promote democracy. That was Tocqueville’s view, obviously, and he wrote the most insightful description of American society ever.

A new book from Princeton, Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy, by leading sociologist Robert Wuthnow, picks up the theme. Anything from Wuthnow is worth reading, and this new book looks like no exception. Here’s the description from the publishers website:

Does religion benefit democracy? Robert Wuthnow says yes. In Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy, Wuthnow makes his case by moving beyond the focus on unifying values or narratives about culture wars and elections. Rather, he demonstrates that the beneficial contributions of religion are best understood through the lens of religious diversity. The religious composition of the United States comprises many groups, organizations, and individuals that vigorously, and sometimes aggressively, contend for what they believe to be good and true. Unwelcome as this contention can be, it is rarely extremist, violent, or autocratic. Instead, it brings alternative and innovative perspectives to the table, forcing debates about what it means to be a democracy.

Wuthnow shows how American religious diversity works by closely investigating religious advocacy spanning the past century: during the Great Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement, the debates about welfare reform, the recent struggles for immigrant rights and economic equality, and responses to the coronavirus pandemic. The engagement of religious groups in advocacy and counteradvocacy has sharpened arguments about authoritarianism, liberty of conscience, freedom of assembly, human dignity, citizens’ rights, equality, and public health. Wuthnow hones in on key principles of democratic governance and provides a hopeful yet realistic appraisal of what religion can and cannot achieve.

At a time when many observers believe American democracy to be in dire need of revitalization, Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy illustrates how religious groups have contributed to this end and how they might continue to do so despite the many challenges faced by the nation.

Movsesian on Courts’ Responses to COVID Restrictions

I’m happy to announce that my essay, “Law, Religion, and the COVID-19 Crisis,” is now available in the Journal of Law and Religion (Cambridge). The essay discusses courts’ responses to COVID restrictions on public worship worldwide, and what the response of American courts indicates about our deep polarization in this country. Here’s the abstract:

This essay explores judicial responses to legal restrictions on worship during the COVID-19 pandemic and draws two lessons, one comparative and one relating specifically to U.S. law. As a comparative matter, courts across the globe have approached the problem in essentially the same way, through intuition and balancing. This has been the case regardless of what formal test applies, the proportionality test outside the United States, which expressly calls for judges to weigh the relative costs and benefits of a restriction, or the Employment Division v. Smith test inside the United States, which rejects judicial line-drawing and balancing in favor of predictable results. Judges have reached different conclusions about the legality of restrictions, of course, but doctrinal nuances have made little apparent difference. With respect to the United States specifically, the pandemic has revealed deep divisions about religion and religious freedom, among other things—divisions that have inevitably influenced judicial attitudes toward restrictions on worship. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed a cultural and political rift that makes consensual resolution of conflicts over religious freedom problematic, and perhaps impossible, even during a once-in-a-century pandemic.