here & there

July 18th, 2014

Church of England votes to allow women bishops

posted by

On July 14th, the General Synod of the Church of England voted to allow women to become bishops, taking a step toward resolving a long-running controversy that has divided traditionalist and progressive Anglicans all over the world, and caused friction between the church and the British government.

The Church of England is recognized by law as the country’s official church and enjoys special privileges. But the church’s decision in 2012 to continue barring women as bishops threatened relations between the church and the government, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, who supported the change, as did the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg.

“This is a watershed moment for the Church of England and a huge step forward in making our society fairer,” Mr. Clegg said in a statement. “Allowing women to become bishops is another long overdue step towards gender equality in senior positions.”

The governing body, which consists of a House of Bishops, a House of Clergy, and a House of Laity, voted in 1992 to ordain women priests. A previous attempt to admit women to the bishopric failed in 2012, when the House of Laity rejected the changes by a small margin.

The Most Reverend Justin Welby, who as Archbishop of Canterbury is the spiritual head of the church, said he was “delighted” with the “hugely exciting” decision in an interview with the BBC. He acknowledged the role of changing attitudes toward gender in the broader society, but insisted that the church’s decision was “essentially about theology, more than about culture.…It was a question of, what is right? Before God, in obedience to Jesus Christ, to be the church that he wants us to be, loving one another, and above all loving the society in which we live.”

Traditionalists like Susie Leafe, an member of the House of Laity, expressed discomfort with the decision. “I believe that the Bible teaches us that men and women are equal, and they’re different,” she explained. “And therefore, within the Church and within the family, we have different roles to play. I think women will be undermined by this, rather than freed.”

In a concession to opponents of the move, parishes that refuse to accept a woman bishop will be permitted to request a man instead.

The first women bishops could be appointed by the end of this year.

July 15th, 2014

Blood: A Critique of Christianity

posted by

The starting point for Gil Anidjar’s ambitious and daring new book, Blood: A Critique of Christianity, is that modern concepts such as capital, state, and nation have entirely Western-Christian origins. Or as Anidjar—borrowing an analogous line from the German jurist Carl Schmitt—puts it: “All significant concepts of the history of the modern world are liquidated theological concepts. This is so not only because of their historical development but also because of their systematic fluidity, the recognition of which is necessary for a political consideration of these concepts.”

But how can Christianity, asks the curious reader, account for all significant concepts of the history of the modern world, especially in cases where no obvious correlation exists between such concepts and the historical teachings of Christianity?

Without reducing Christianity down to an essence, the answer for Anidjar is clear: Christianity extends beyond its theological and religious dimensions; “[it] ebbs and flows between spheres and across them…[it] circulates through, over, and beyond a number of other spheres, and ultimately as law and culture, from economics to sciences, and beyond.” Christianity, so the argument goes, thus persists as something entirely different than what it calls itself.

Perhaps Christianity’s liquidity best explains Anidjar’s surprising suggestion that nation, state, and capital became “available, sustainable, and readable in their multifarious structure and historical development” by way of Christian blood. Anidjar’s aim, then, is to formulate what he calls a “political hematology” sensitive to the presence—or absence—of blood “through the realms and collectives that have constituted the modern state, from law to society, from economy to class, and from nation to science.” By attending to Christian blood, Anidjar believes he can account not only for the political form of western modernity, but also the emergence of scientific racism, embryology, modern medicine, the one-drop rule, and so forth.

But let us take a step back and ask the simple question: What is Christian blood? In Anidjar’s rendering, Christian blood takes on apophatic proportions: it is not a thing, an idea, a concept, an object, or a subject, and it possesses no identity. Anijdar wisely refuses to offer a precise definition of blood, since this would make his argument for the Christian origins of all significant concepts of modernity seemingly impossible—although blood does sound a lot like an invisible god who created a visible world. It is for this reason that blood becomes for Anidjar the “privileged figure” or “element” by which Christianity could engender new notions of politics, kinship and race.

If Christian blood is as slippery and seemingly undefinable as Anidjar claims, locating its emergence in history would seemingly present challenges. Anidjar, in fact, states that his book does not offer a history of blood. Yet this does not prevent Anidjar from making a historical argument for when and how blood became Christian. The medieval period, suggests Anidjar, marks the advent of an entirely new way of understanding community and kinship—one that bases identity and lineage entirely on bloodlines.

In defending this claim Anidjar first offers a number of engrossing rebuttals to the anticipated argument that blood lineages have either Semitic or ancient origins. Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible, Anidjar maintains, does blood constitute the elementary basis of the communal bond. The Hebrew Bible is, of course, filled with violence and blood sacrifices, and there is an undeniable link between blood and covenant. Yet its basis for kinship, affirms Anidjar, is to be found in the notion of “flesh and bone.” Hence Adam’s statement after the creation of Eve: “this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh (Genesis 2:23). For Anidjar, flesh and bone do not signify continuity across generations, but rather imply contemporaneous equality (see for example 2 Samuel 19:13; Nehemiah 5:5). Names and memory—not blood—act as the material bases for kinship in the Hebrew Bible.

Things, however, are a bit trickier for Anidjar when it comes to the association of blood and kinship in ancient Greek philosophy and literature. Anidjar readily admits, for instance, that Homer depicted blood as—among myriad other associations and functions—an element constitutive of kinship, especially in the Odyssey. Moreover, Aristotle explicitly invoked blood when stating “the same person is called ‘my son’ by one man and ‘my brother’ by another . . . whether of blood or by affinity of marriage.” Anidjar cites other ancient authors that confirm similar affiliations of blood and kinship in Greek antiquity. Yet instead of seeing any potential connection between Greek views of blood and kinship and “Christian blood,” Anidjar argues that they are categorically different.

In making this move Anidjar sidesteps the Aristotle text he has cited—and other similar ones—by stating that the connection it makes is “beyond simple.” Instead a series of unanswered questions are raised over what such statements could even mean. Anidjar presumably makes this rhetorical move for one reason: He does not think the relationship between blood and kinship in ancient Greece can connect with “any contemporary or near contemporary medical and, more precisely embryological views.” Blood meant a lot of things for the Greeks. But most importantly for Anidjar, its association with kinship did not entail individual or group superiority, even if the Greeks did understand themselves to be collectively superior to barbarians.

But what, then, about the New Testament? The idea of flesh and blood are famously present in Paul the Apostle’s letters. For instance, Paul remarks that Christians are justified by Christ’s blood (Romans 5:9). Yet Anidjar is clear that Pauline references to the blood of Christ are at best a prefiguration of the Christian blood to come. Paul emphatically denied any connection between genealogical standing and salvation: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:50). Hence Anidjar’s conclusion that Paul’s genealogical understanding is rooted in spirit rather than in blood.

Nevertheless, Anidjar does seem to think that something new with blood is happening in the New Testament. After all, did Jesus not command his followers to consume his blood (John 6:53-56)? Moreover, 1 Peter 1:19 associates purity with “the precious blood of the lamb.” Hence Anidjar’s conclusion that such innovations constitute the essential building blocks of a “peculiar history” that will require a few more centuries to “fully coagulate.”

This occurred during the medieval period, when blood becomes, according to Piero Camporesi, “thick with magical significations, mystical claims, pharmacological prodigies, alchemisterical dreams,” where “the torments of Christ, along with the cult of his body and blood” all become a “collective passio.” It is here that Anidjar detects a watershed moment where for the first time biology and soteriology became inseparable.

Anidjar makes two major arguments for this claim. Citing Carolyn Walker Bynum’s Wonder Blood, Anidjar suggests that partaking in the Eucharist had become “a relation of the body and blood of Christ to each other and to his person, and on the other hand, a question of how Christians gain access to the sanguis Christi that saves.” From this vantage point, the Eucharist seems to involve something more than spiritual purification: it also equates the believer’s blood with the blood of Christ.

The implications seem clear enough: Christianity is becoming a biological division between those who do and do not possess the right blood.

Anidjar’s second argument is connected to his claims about the medieval “Eucharist matrix.” With its emergence the idea of the church as a mystical body alters. The body of Christ is now no longer invisible, but embodies the visible members of the Church who are unified by blood. To what degree someone is socially excluded or embraced is determined by the purity and origins of their blood lineage. Such concerns were explicitly implemented into canon law so that the Church could authorize or forbid marriage alliances. It is in this manner, claims Anidjar, that the “nobility could be reinvented as a “social category” grounded in blood as genealogy or lineage, along with others.” This reconceptualization of blood is also on display in the Iberian limpieza de sangre (“cleanliness of blood”) statutes, which distinguishes Old Christians—those without Muslim or Jewish ancestry—from New Christians. Thus the ease by which Anidjar can explain the bio-theological origins of the Spanish Inquisition.

Yet strangely, Anijdar’s argument is devoid of any substantial interaction with how medieval theologians actually viewed blood. Rather there is a great deal of discussion on the medieval politicization of blood and its social, historical setting. Unlike with his analysis of ancient texts, however, Anidjar’s remarks on blood in the medieval period are heavily reliant on secondary works of social, intellectual and cultural history. There is, for instance, no serious engagement with medieval views on the doctrine of transubstantiation. But why would a book that stresses the theological origins of modernity actually spend so little time discussing theology proper in the medieval era? Is it not strange that Thomas Aquinas’s views on transubstantiation are nowhere mentioned in a text that roots modernity in medieval understandings of the Eucharist? Perhaps Anidjar would suggest this line of inquiry misses the point. Such an omission, however, is undoubtedly a curious one.

Anidjar’s main aim is to challenge the position that modern scientific racism, and racism in general have secular origins. But recall, Anidjar wants to claim something much more ambitious, namely that all significant concepts of the modern world emerged out of the “Eucharistic matrix” of medieval political theology. Not only is proving this no easy feat, but it also suggests that a significant portion of Europe and the entire Western Hemisphere are fundamentally Christian; Anidjar excludes the Eastern Orthodox Church from his analysis because the concepts he is interested first emerged in the West.

The argument for such a bold position, which is much more nuanced than can be presented here, seems to be the following: the medieval Eucharist cult established the language of blood ties, which must inform any understanding of political modernity. As put by Anidjar, blood is “the substance, site, and marker of collective identity…that binds us still to the “Middle Ages.” In this reading, the rise of nationalism becomes inseparable from theologico-political context that bases collective identity on blood divisions; the modern state—with its long history of racism—is conceived as a metamorphosis of the medieval body politic; while the circulation of Christ’s blood is linked with the circulation of modern capitalism.

Note, however, that Anidjar has not either reduced Christianity to some essence or to a theological doctrine. Rather he is trying to articulate “real existing Christianity,” which has left an indelible mark on law, culture, science, and economics. In this way Christianity can be stretched and reconfigured to account for a long list of modern notions. Said differently, for Anidjar the “secular age” is a profoundly Christian one.

Blood is bound to provoke heated discussion, perhaps most notably by those critics who deny that Western Christendom is ultimately responsible for the greatest evils of the age, not to mention those who play up the secular origins of modernity. What Blood does represent, at least for this reader, is the revival of an older way of approaching the debate over Christianity and political modernity, something analogous to a Marxist critique of political theology as presented in On the Jewish Question; yet with the caveat that Anidjar believes the young Marx should have been raising the Christian question. At the same time, Anidjar accepts the thesis of Carl Schmitt, which reduces all significant modern concepts of the state to secularized theological notions. How then can blood, as Anidjar describes, ever be overcome? There seems to be only one obvious solution to this problematic: a revolutionary project of de-theologizing the modern world.

June 12th, 2014

With Cantor loss, only Christian Republicans in Congress

posted by

Lecture by Congressman Eric Cantor | Image via Flickr user Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan's PhotostreamThe unexpected primary defeat of Virginia Representative and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday is already having seismic effects on the Republican leadership and Congress as a whole. (Cantor has just announced he’ll step down from the Majority Leader post, prompting an immediate effort to reorganize.) But Cantor’s exit will also likely prove an interesting demographic marker for the 114th Congress. The Representative, who is Jewish, is the only non-Christian Republican on the Hill. As Aaron Blake pointed out over at the Washington Post, it looks like Republican Christian dominance will soon be complete:

According to data collected by the Pew Forum at the start of the 113th Congress last year, the GOP conference was 69 percent Protestant, 25 percent Catholic, 4 percent Mormon and 1 percent Orthodox Christian.

Cantor (Va.) was the only member of any other faith on the Republican side in either the House or the Senate — out of 278 members. There are no non-religious Republicans in Congress either.

That last statistic represents a stark departure from the preferences of the nation as a whole. According to the Pew data, “about one-in-five U.S. adults describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular.’”

The Democratic delegation is much more religiously diverse—including 32 Jewish members, three Buddhists, two Muslims, a Unitarian Universalist, a Hindu, an “unaffiliated” member, and 10 delegates who didn’t specify any particular denomination.

The primary loss dashes Cantor’s dreams of becoming the first Jewish Speaker of the House. As Michelle Boorstein reports in The Washington Post, Jewish figures in both parties are reacting to his defeat with some disappointment:

Much of Cantor’s conservative domestic politics are anathema to Jews, 70 percent of whom say they are Democrats or lean that way. But he played a unique role by advocating in the areas where many Jews are more conservative, particularly around the security of Israel and in public support for Jewish institutions.

“The partisan in me can’t help but be amused,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic media strategist who worked in Bill Clinton’s White House and now serves many Jewish organizations. “But the Jewish communal professional in me thinks it’s not a good thing for the community.”

Read more The Immanent Frame coverage on religion in Congress here, and check out Blake’s and Boorstein’s pieces over at the Post.

June 2nd, 2014

Jesus, religion, and revolution in the South African elections

posted by

In 2004 and 2008, South African president Jacob Zuma notoriously declared that his party, the African National Congress, will “rule until Jesus comes back.” The recent national election results favor his prediction, with the ANC winning its fifth national election since 1994.

To outsiders, the audacity of President Zuma’s statement can seem puzzling. The truth is that the ANC has managed to win election after election since 1994 because it continues to be seen by the majority of citizens as the political organization that ended apartheid, the party of heroic leaders like Nelson Mandela, and the party of black liberation and freedom. However, this narrative is becoming more complex, in part because new stories of discontent and resistance are emerging. In fact, the real surprise this election season was not the ANC’s victory, but rather the increasing number of black opposition voices who leveled stinging moral critiques at the ANC. Moreover, religion dramatically re-entered the political sphere. Critics deployed religious rhetoric in the service of radical leftist politics, and religious leaders embarked on protest campaigns aimed at holding the ANC (rather than the apartheid government) accountable, prompting President Zuma to assert: “bishops and pastors are there to pray for those who go wrong, not to enter into political lives.”

Certainly, religion has not been absent from politics over the last twenty years. Because the majority of black South Africans identify as Christian, churches frequently attract the attention of ANC leaders, especially during election season. But compared with heightened mobilization under apartheid, the noticeable political withdrawal of Christian churches and other religious bodies since 1994 has been a constant source of anxiety for progressive clergy and theologians. During the course of my fieldwork, I have heard many religious activists express frustration about the complacency of religious institutions in comparison with the “prophetic” role that religiously-affiliated organizations like the South African Council of Churches played during apartheid.

This election season, however, saw religious leaders from all sectors, including those from evangelical, charismatic, and Zionist churches, increasingly comfortable speaking out against the ANC government. The issues of concern? Poverty, unemployment, violence, police brutality, corruption, labor rights, land distribution, education, racial inequalities, and the ever-rising gap between the rich and the poor. While linked to South Africa’s tortured past, the persistence of these problems also implicates the current ANC leadership. For example, in an incident reminiscent of apartheid era violence, 34 striking miners were shot dead by police in 2012. The “Marikana Massacre” shocked the nation and the world, but to date no one has been held accountable for the decision to use lethal force.

Shocking events like Marikana help explain why founding Barney Pityana, black liberation theologian and member of the Black Consciousness Movement, lent his public support to the “Vote No” campaign, which encouraged the public to vote against the African National Congress in protest. In a scathing opinion piece, Pityana wrote, citing Hannah Arendt, that “South Africa under the Zuma ANC has all the makings of a descent into an authoritarian one-party state.” With crime and corruption rising, Pityana reminded his readers that “the overwhelming victims of this state of insecurity are the poor, women and black people.” For Pityana, the ANC has failed to create a compelling vision of transformation and instead pushed the poor into greater dependency and dehumanization. He goes on to suggest that the ANC has systematically undermined “the vision of a new South Africa” founded on values of human dignity, equality, and social justice.

I was particularly struck by the high level of political activity that took place in churches, or that involved clergy, over Easter weekend. This weekend proved an opportune time for activism because it fell just prior to Freedom Weekend, when the country celebrated twenty years of democracy, just two weeks before the national election on May 7, 2014.

In Durban, the ecumenical Diakonia Council of Churches used its annual Good Friday service to demand that “things must change.” Citing inequality, greed, violence, poverty, and corruption, over 3,000 people marched to City Hall. The tone of the day’s address mirrored that of the 1980s. Participants were called to confront “the powers” of this world and encouraged not to “lose sight of the real choices to be made.”

On Easter Saturday, April 19, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town emeritus Desmond Tutu and current Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, along with Jewish and Muslim leaders, marched to Parliament in a “Procession of Witness.” The procession saw a wide range of ecumenical and inter-religious support, once again recalling anti-apartheid activism of the 1980s. The aim of the march was to send a direct message to President Zuma and the ANC. In his statement, Archbishop Makgoba called on political leaders to “live up to the national values established by the Constitution.” He further asked those with influence and power to “return to Nelson Mandela’s way of governance and leadership”—a style not threatened by social debate and mindful of the marginalized. Makgoba’s words gesture towards two widespread critiques of the “ruling” party: its autocratic leadership and neoliberal economic policies, both perceived to be at odds with Nelson Mandela’s vision of a democratic and transformed South Africa. Perhaps most significant was a public confession that faith communities had lost sight of their moral responsibilities to the poor and remained silent for far too long.

Occurring on the same day, Pastor Xola Skosana of Way of Life Church organized his own march called “Welcome to Hell – SA Townships.”

The march, based on an “out of body” vision Skosana says he received, is now in its fourth year. Skosana has made it his life’s mission to draw attention to what he calls the “gruesome violence of township life.” Townships are residential areas originally designed to provide racially segregated labor to urban centers. Many townships have large sections of middle class homes, but overcrowded living conditions and lack of sanitation remain the norm. Skosana does not mince words about the current state of affairs:

“Townships are nothing but glorified refugee camps, rat infested hellholes that must be exposed for what they really are. In many parts of South Africa, townships exist as readily available hubs of cheap labour to keep labour intensive industries going for the benefit of the few. Let it be known across the breath and length of this country that the continuation of separate development, and integration based on affordability, is the perpetuation of the notorious Group Areas Act of yesteryear.”

This is not the first time Skosona has used controversial tactics to draw attention to the plight of the poor. In 2011, he went on a month-long hunger strike. The march began in the township of Gugulethu and ended in Khayelitsha, both near Cape Town. Throughout the 11.5 K march, Pastor Skosana carried a large wooden cross.

While much smaller than the “Procession of Witness,” the “Welcome to Hell” march is especially noteworthy because it attracted the support of a newly formed political party—the Economic Freedom Fighters. Formed by expelled ANC youth leader Julius Malema, the EFF views itself as a “revolutionary” movement in the tradition of Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko. Known for their red berets and militant discourse, its supporters have been instrumental in provoking national debate about economic policies that continue to favor white elites. Their agenda includes land redistribution without compensation and the nationalization of all mines. Although their message is directed towards the poor, many middle-class black South Africans and intellectuals are also attracted to their urgent call for social change. The EFF received over a million votes this year, an impressive showing for the renegade party, making it now the second largest opposition party in South Africa.

Perhaps the most shocking challenge to the ANC came on Easter Sunday, when Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane, the main leader of the Zionist Christian Church, appeared to use his sermon to encourage millions of members to vote against the ANC. Though the ZCC is often considered apolitical because of its emphasis on African self-reliance, its massive Easter service occupies a special place in South Africa’s political landscape. Nelson Mandela delivered a rousing Easter address in 1992, and President Zuma was an invited guest of honor in 2012. In this year’s sermon, the Bishop urged members to elect “smart and intelligent” leaders who do not “confuse public funds” with their own. This can be interpreted as a double swipe at President Zuma, who is often derided for his lack of formal education and has been accused of corruption. A recent report by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela found that President Zuma improperly used public funds for a $25 million dollar upgrade to his private Nkandla estate—all while unemployment hovers at 25 percent.

As a result of this report, Madonsela gained recognition from Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. The profile praised her “ability to speak truth to power and to address corruption in high places.” But her office has become the site of intense spiritual struggle. An unknown group called the Concerned Pastor Organization sought to cast out the “demons” in her office, prompting statements of condemnation from the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa and Archbishop Thabo Makgoba. Religious leaders in Cape Town, including Desmond Tutu, also held a silent protest in support of the Public Protector’s Office and her Nkandla report.

The resurgence of dramatic and symbolic forms of protest in South Africa, and the active presence of religious leaders in the public sphere, underscores the complexities of postcolonial “liberation” in one of the most unequal societies in the world. While ghosts of apartheid and colonialism continue to haunt, new specters of repression loom on the horizon.

In response, a renewed emphasis on moral and political struggle by religious leaders and activists suggests that the principles of anti-apartheid activism are increasingly being recalibrated for a post-Mandela era. In a public message on Facebook, posted on Good Friday, resident ideologue and EFF leader Andile Mngxitama shared a message from a follower: “We remember Jesus the communist who walked into the temple and unleashed an armed struggle on the exploiters!” This sounds not too different from the statement made by Black Consciousness activists on trial in 1973, when Jesus was named “the first freedom fighter to die for the oppressed.” Whether Jesus, the armed communist, will be a rallying cry in the future remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Jesus no longer simply serves as the ANC’s election barometer. The fact that those once heralded as liberators are now considered exploiters will certainly have political reverberations for years to come.

May 28th, 2014

The imaginary “war on religion”

posted by

Over at The Atlantic, Peter Beinhart recounts the results of a new survey on religious observance in America. Unsurprisingly, he reports, Americans across the political spectrum tend to lie about how often they attend services.

However, perhaps counterintuitively, American liberals are actually more likely to inflate their religious attendance than American conservatives:

Over the past few decades, liberals have—far more than conservatives—turned away from religious affiliation, though not necessarily belief in God. But while they may feel proud of their views on religion-informed issues like evolution and gay marriage, they’re not particularly proud of their lack of religious observance per se. Indeed, they’re aware that they’re violating a cherished social norm. Asking liberals to admit that they are disproportionately secular is like asking conservatives to admit that they are disproportionately white. It’s a truth they find embarrassing.

The point, says Beinhart, is that the liberal “war on religion” trumpeted by the likes of Rick Perry and Ann Coulter turns out to be imaginary. Far from scorning religious Americans, as conservatives charge, liberals seek to appear more religious than they are.

Beinhart suggests that secular liberals are right to be cautious about expressing their lack of faith. A 2006 study found that atheists are one of the least accepted of American society’s “marginalized” groups—and furthermore, tolerance for atheists has barely increased over the past several decades:

Americans are today more likely to say they would vote for a Muslim or a gay or lesbian for president than an atheist. In a recent Pew study, even nonreligious Americans said they wanted their presidential candidates to be believers—regardless of what faith they profess. Seven states still officially bar atheists from holding office.

Read the full piece at the Atlantic, and read more about the “social cost of atheism” here.

May 21st, 2014

Free religion and free markets in Guatemala

posted by

Is freedom of religion really “good for business”? The Immanent Frame contributor Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has a new essay at Al Jazeera America exploring the problems with the idea that neoliberal economics and religious freedom go hand in hand. Hurd tells the story of the K’iche’, a Maya ethnic group living in western Guatemala, whose cultural and religious life depends on access to the highlands where they live. A community organization representing the K’iche’ has been fighting to stop mining and hydroelectric projects that would affect their land. As Hurd explains,

Part of that story involves what counts as religion. Those who tie religious freedom and free markets fail to recognize the K’iche’ people’s relationship to their land (and their associated cultural and religious practices) as religious, so the fact that the changes associated with economic liberalization make it impossible for the K’iche’ to continue their cultural and religious life does not register as depriving them of anything of significance. Neoliberal advocates convince governments to accept the property and resource rights of companies, and then religious freedom advocates reassure the indigenous population and others that they haven’t suffered a religious setback. Both moves ensure that indigenous people lose their culture and capacity to carry on the lives they were living — as well as any claim to harm.

Moreover, Hurd writes, most legal protections for religious rights have a limited and partial understanding of what constitutes religious practice, “reflecting and privileging particular understandings of religion and particular conceptions of freedom.”

Read the full essay at Al Jazeera America. Read our extensive discussion on the politics of religious freedom here.

May 15th, 2014

The complicated case of Narendra Modi’s visa

posted by

Monday, May 12th, marked the ninth and final phase of India’s general elections, and the results announced in coming hours will likely declare Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister. Modi, the candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance, would then lead the world’s largest democracy—one with a staggering 814.5 million registered voters—but has been denied entry into ours: for almost a decade, the Department of State has banned Modi from entering the United States. Looking back at how this came to be highlights the uneven history of religious freedom as part of American foreign policy.

In 2005, Modi applied for a diplomatic visa to travel to the United States for a conference sponsored by the Asian American Hotel Owner’s Association. David C. Mulford, US Ambassador to India at the time, issued a statement that rejected Modi’s visa application as he was “not coming for a purpose that qualified for a diplomatic visa.” Additionally, the Department of State revoked Modi’s tourist/business visa, citing section 212 (a) (2) (g) in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which “makes any foreign government official who ‘was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom’ ineligible for a visa to the United States.” The provision was added to the INA in 1998, as a result of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA); Modi remains the only person ever to have been banned under this clause.

The “severe violations” in question refer to his actions (or lack thereof) during the 2002 Gujarat riots, a three-day period of sectarian violence triggered when a train caught fire. Both the causes of and the circumstances surrounding the train incident and the widespread violence that followed have been contested. The train was carrying Hindu activists and pilgrims when it was attacked by a mob; it went up in flames and eventually killed 59 people. Further attacks, destruction of property, and looting soon followed, causing the death of more than 1,000 people, most of whom were Muslim.

Modi was (and remains) Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time, and was accused by multiple human rights activists and organizations of allowing—and possibly fostering—the anti-Muslim violence that occurred under his watch. However, the Gujarati commission of inquiry into the events has concluded that “there is absolutely no evidence to show that either the Chief Minister and/or any other Minister(s) in his Council of Ministers or Police offices had played any role in the Godhra incident or that there was any lapse on their part in the matter of providing protection, relief and rehabilitation to the victims of communal riots.” Later, a 2012 Supreme Court-appointed special investigation team probe found no “prosecutable evidence” against Modi, who has expressed sadness over the events, but has denied culpability. Human Rights Watch, in their 2002 report, directly implicates state officials in the violence against Muslims, and the Department of State, in its 2005 decision to revoke Modi’s existing visa, cited the Indian National Human Rights Commission report, which stated that Modi and the Gujarati government clearly failed to act to protect its people from the violence.  The ban has been in place ever since.

Why the Immigration and Nationality Act includes a provision that punishes foreign officials for violations of religious freedom goes back to 1998, when the IRFA was passed by Congress. The issue of religious persecution abroad gained momentum throughout the 1990s among Jews, Catholics, and human rights activists, and especially among Evangelical Protestants. Members of Congress took notice, and the issue took legislative shape when congressmen Frank Wolf and Arlen Specter introduced The Freedom from Religious Persecution Act in 1997. A modified version of that bill would eventually become the IRFA, which in Section 604 details the “inadmissibility of foreign government officials who have engaged in particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” and amends the INA to include the clause that would later be used to ban Modi.

Since its passage, the IRFA has been subject to criticism for its perceived Christian bias, and skepticism about its diplomatic potential. Modi’s visa application, then, was a chance for the IRFA and the newly created United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to show their effectiveness. In the words of Felice D. Gaer, chair of the USCIRF at the time: “I wanted to turn this around, to make our focus broader.” Additionally, it may have helped that Modi was not a national figure at the time—perhaps the Department of State did not see his ban as a big deal. But India’s placement on USCIRF’s “Watch List” (for the 2002 riots, as well as for its anti-conversion laws) has not been without dissent (even from Gaer herself), and the denial of Modi’s visa has been called misguided.

Narenda Modi is running on a platform of economic growth and clean government, emphasizing his humble beginnings (and downplaying his Hindu nationalism). This stands in stark contrast to his main rival, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance and heir to the Nehru–Gandhi political dynasty, whose party has been criticized for corruption and poor governance. But while Modi has many supporters, others, like Amartya Sen, have come out against him for his record on religious minorities and his style of rule.

In the likely case that Modi does indeed become India’s prime minister (you can follow live results through Google), it is unlikely he would be kept out of the United Sates; leaders with far more questionable histories have entered the country, without issue, for official visits. House Resolution 417 reaffirms the denial of Modi’s visa, but a new Congressional Research Service report indicates that a head of state is automatically eligible for a A-1 diplomatic visa and welcome to apply. Modi’s ban may soon be over, but the history behind the ban illuminates the inconsistencies and tensions of religious freedom as a foreign policy objective, a subject discussed at length elsewhere on the site.

May 9th, 2014

Pope Francis and liberation theology

posted by

One year into Francis’s papacy, many observers—both inside and outside the Catholic community—are still holding their breath. He has certainly made a good first impression. Yet it is still very early in the unfolding of Francis’s legacy, and we are only just beginning to understand how his papacy will affect some of the deeper tensions facing the Catholic Church today.

From the beginning, commentators have identified Francis’s relationship to liberation theology as a window into one of those deeper tensions. The Vatican’s critiques of Latin American liberation theology have often been interpreted, fairly or not, as exemplifying a more general mistrust of critical politics. Would the election of a Latin American pope change that posture? Francis might bring with him a sharper awareness of and sensitivity to the realities of poverty and oppression. But early rumors suggested that as Provincial Superior of the Argentinian Jesuits he had been no friend of liberation theology.

It should be said that the relationship between the Vatican and liberation theology has never been as absolutely antagonistic as it is often portrayed. To be sure, church officials have worried—consistently and publicly—about liberation theology’s use of Marxist categories, and about the specific ways that some liberation theologians have integrated solidarity with the poor into their theological method. But with one exception, their interventions have come in the form of “instructions” and “notifications” rather than direct condemnations. And at the same time, magisterial documents have adopted (and adapted) key elements of liberationist language—most importantly, the idea of a “preferential option for the poor,” the idea that, as Gustavo Gutiérrez puts it, “God demonstrates a special predilection toward those who have been excluded from the banquet of life” and therefore so should we. (Despite sensationalist declarations to the contrary, Pope Francis is not bringing the preferential option “back,” nor does his Evangelii Gaudium bring it “close to becoming official doctrine.” The preferential option for the poor is already doctrine.) Moreover, liberation theologians themselves draw deep inspiration from the Second Vatican Council and from the tradition of papal social teaching.

Still, Pope Francis clearly has begun to open new doors for liberation theologians. To begin with, in a papacy that puts great stock in symbols and gestures, it is important to acknowledge Francis’s overtures towards founding figures of liberation theology—meeting with Gustavo Gutiérrez, re-opening the canonization process for Oscar Romero, and tapping Leonardo Boff, once silenced, for help with an encyclical on the environment.

But there have also been more substantial rapprochements. Francis not only affirms, like his predecessors, that the poor have a special claim on our love; he also suggests that the poor have a special kind of wisdom and therefore authority within the Christian community. “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor,” he writes in Evangelii Gaudium. “They have much to teach us… We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.” With many liberation theologians, Francis thus affirms what is sometimes called the hermeneutical dimension of the option for the poor, the idea that seeing God and the world rightly requires seeing from the vantage of the poor. It is precisely this hermeneutical dimension of the preferential option that some have argued is missing from earlier magisterial documents. Francis, by contrast, seems to be making it a pillar of his papacy, just as he has taken visible steps to foreground the voices of Christians outside Europe and North America.

It would be too much, however, to claim total reconciliation. One of the pathbreaking elements of early Latin American liberation theology was its argument for the use of the social sciences in theology. The dependency theory of Andre Gunder Frank and Theodonio dos Santos was particularly influential, along with a more generically Marxist account of the class struggle within capitalism, but their dependence on non-theological social analysis came to be seen as an Achilles’ heel. The main critique, put most polemically perhaps by John Milbank, was that the social sciences depend implicitly on a set of normative and even theological commitments that theologians must examine. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were much more open to the use of social sciences than someone like Milbank, but they still always emphasized the ultimate inadequacy of analytical tools that bracketed transcendence.

Francis’s comments on contemporary politico-economic realities, fiercely perceptive though they often are, have so far relied much more on a kind of ad hoc cultural phenomenology than on any engagement with the social sciences. He thus sidesteps a major concern of liberation theology’s critics, but only by scaling back one of liberation theology’s most important contributions. It will be worth watching whether he continues to shy away from directly engaging the social sciences in his future writings. If he does, what will be the cost?

One crucial consequence may be seen in the way Francis deals with the deceptively simple question of who exactly belongs to “the poor.” More recent liberation theologians—and it is important to be clear that liberation theology has continued to grow and change since the 1960s and ’70s—have critiqued some of the movement’s founders for thinking about “the poor” too monolithically. Latin American reality, they argue, is shaped by various intersecting forms of oppression that require different forms of critical attention. An all-encompassing critique of capitalism is not enough. Pope Francis similarly argues in Evangelii Gaudium that “it is essential to draw near to new forms of poverty and vulnerability,” and calls special attention to refugees and migrants, indigenous peoples, and women, among others. Yet it is not clear whether Francis believes that these “new forms of poverty” require differentiated lines of social analysis. If he keeps his distance from the social sciences, he may oversimplify patterns of power and recognition of which he is less immediately aware.

How, for example, will Francis follow up his own call for “a profound theology of the woman”? The singularity and abstractness of that reference is disconcerting: it suggests that Francis will continue to insist on the essentializing and alienating phenomenology of gender articulated by his predecessors. In keeping with his own hermeneutical option for “the poor,” will Francis let himself be evangelized by women describing their own challenges and their own aspirations? Will he be open to empirical descriptions of the specific vulnerabilities, the specific patterns of violence, that women face across the globe? Such questions are integral to any discussion of Francis’s relationship with liberation theology.

We should avoid treating either magisterial thought or liberation theology as a fixed and exclusive point of reference. Both are complex, and the two are intertwined—now more than ever. Pope Francis is a kind of liberation theologian; it would be hard to argue otherwise. His theology is defined by the question of how to speak good news to the poor. And it is good news for the Catholic world, no doubt, to have a liberation theologian sitting on Peter’s chair. For that matter, it is good news for everyone: Francis will help keep the poor at the center of public discourse. What we need to watch now is how we will work through the difficult questions he brings with him from that tradition.

May 6th, 2014

Churches and public schools

posted by

On April 3rd, 2014, The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld (by overturning the judgment of a lower court) the decision of the New York City Board of Education to exclude groups (in this case, churches) from using school facilities outside of school hours “for the purpose of holding religious worship services.” The decision (PDF) follows a long legal battle. It is a defeat for churches that wanted to submit applications to use school buildings for church services and pay the schools accordingly. The decision did not pass unanimously. Judge Pierre N. Leval and Judge Guido Calabresi ruled in favor of the exclusion, and Judge John M. Walker Jr. ruled against it. The majority opinion endorses the following conclusion: “permitting religious worship services in its [the Board’s] schools might give rise to an appearance of endorsement in violation of the Establishment Clause, thus exposing the Board to a substantial risk of liability.”

In his dissenting opinion, Judge Walker states: “In my view, the Board of Education’s policy that disallows ‘religious worship services’ after hours in public schools—limited public fora that are otherwise open to all—violates the Free Exercise Clause because it plainly discriminates against religious belief and cannot be justified by a compelling government interest.” In Walker’s judgment, “This case presents substantial questions involving the contours of both religion clauses and the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, the resolution of which are ripe for Supreme Court review.” He cites Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), which states: “First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a new hopeful candidate for the left wing of the U.S. Democratic Party, has expressed support for the religious groups and their paid use of the school buildings after fair application. Those churches that cannot afford their own buildings will be affected by this decision.

The recent decision brings a few important sentences to memory from the 1948 “Statement on Church and State.” It was published in the journal Christianity and Crisis. Twenty-seven professors and clergy members signed the statement, including Harry Emerson Fosdick and Reinhold Niebuhr. The signers declared that they favored “the separation of church and state in the sense which we believe to have been intended in the First Amendment. This prohibited the state from giving any church or religious body a favored position, and from controlling the religious institutions of the nation.” They held that “cooperation, entered into freely by the state and church and involving no special privilege to any church and no threat to the religious liberty of any citizen, should be permitted.”

The idea of the “appearance of endorsement,” as opposed to actual endorsement, is very complex. It requires significant hermeneutical deliberation to determine whether an action gives the “appearance of endorsement” or not. For example, do swearing on the Bible in court or the pastoral invocation at Presidential inauguration services give the “appearance of endorsement”? Do politicians going to church provide the “appearance of endorsement”? When school boards permit churches to do volunteer work at public school facilities, like helping with grounds-keeping and painting, are they effectively giving the “appearance of endorsement”? Of course, in none of these cases is there any actual endorsement, in the sense of a legal agreement on the part of the politicians or public institutions.

The desire to avoid an “appearance of endorsement” may spring from an idealized conception of society in which public institutions operate from the standpoint of a supposedly objective worldview. This does not reflect the reality of the everyday work of public institutions and political figures, who often give the “appearance of endorsement” by working with religious groups. The old tradition of American church-state policy is not built upon conceptions of an idealized society of worldview neutrality; it is rather concerned with rejecting a specific political order in which the state designates a religion for the country and thus establishes it with formal institutional backing. Free cooperation between religious communities and public institutions was a reality in the eighteenth century, as it is today.

Judge Leval and Calabresi’s decision could be interpreted as encouraging public institutions to free themselves from any “appearance of endorsement” in order to avoid the “substantial risk of liability.” Because of the vacuity of the term “appearance,” this would be a virtually impossible task. It also lacks a solid constitutional basis. Apart from these arguments, the decision has unfortunate practical consequences. At a time when American schools need more financial support and volunteers, the court has sent the wrong signal to the churches and to the members of religious communities who often provide money, time and volunteers to their communities. It diminishes the spirit of cooperation which is essential to American’s diverse civil society. This principle of cooperation was affirmed in the New York City Department of Education’s “Citywide Standards” (PDF) from 2013. There pupils are encouraged to establish “positive relationships,” for this is one of the “fundamental skills for life effectiveness.” Of course, developing positive relationships is not only an aim of pupils and employees of public schools. It is also one of the important tasks of both public and ecclesial institutions. Such a task should not require a compromise in core values or guiding principles. On the contrary, the spirit of cooperation calls for a deepening of the commitments to these foundations and maxims and a rediscovery of their basic constitutions. This is because cooperation is most effective when it is grounded in the specific ethos of the different institutions involved, and when there is an elementary agreement about some general shared goals and a common good.

April 29th, 2014

How (Not) to Be Secular

posted by

In a forthcoming book, James K. A. Smith offers readers what the author calls a “hitchhiker’s guide to the present.” Engaging with Charles Taylor’s monumental A Secular Age, Smith makes a daunting but influential piece of work accessible to a wider audience. From the publisher:

Even more, though, Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular is a practical philosophical guidebook, a kind of how-to manual on how to live in our secular age. It ultimately offers us an adventure in self-understanding and maps out a way to get our bearings in today’s secular culture, no matter who “we” are — whether believers or skeptics, devout or doubting, self-assured or puzzled and confused. This is a book for any thinking person to chew on.

To read more about the book, please click here. Read our extensive discussion of A Secular Age here.