here & there

December 18th, 2014

Church of England has its first female bishop

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Following a July 2014 vote to allow female bishops, the Church of England has named the Reverend Libby Lane as its first female bishop. Speaking on her appointment, Lane said:

I am grateful for, though somewhat daunted by, the confidence placed in me by the Diocese of Chester. This is unexpected and very exciting. On this historic day as the Church of England announces the first woman nominated to be Bishop, I am very conscious of all those who have gone before me, women and men, who for decades have looked forward to this moment. But most of all I am thankful to God.

The church faces wonderful opportunities, to proclaim afresh, in this generation, the Good News of Jesus and to build His Kingdom. The Church of England is called to serve all the people of this country, and being present in every community, we communicate our faith best when our lives build up the lives of others, especially the most vulnerable. I am excited by the possibilities and challenges ahead.

Over at The Guardian, Haroon Siddique has a short profile of Lane’s life in the clergy:

Libby Lane, who has been chosen by the Church of England as its first female bishop, has long been one of the most influential women in the church.

She is one of eight clergywomen from the church elected as participant observers in the House of Bishops, as the representative from the dioceses of the north-west, and has been a bishop’s selection adviser for 10 years, making recommendations to the church about candidates offering themselves for ordination.

Meanwhile, Alan Cowell at The New York Times highlights some of the divisions that the issue of female bishops has caused within the Anglican Communion:

The halting process toward her consecration reflected deep divisions between liberals and conservatives in the Church of England that are likely to be cemented rather than resolved by the move.

“Without prayer and repentance, it is hard to see how we can avoid some serious fractures,” said the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, who backed the push for female bishops, after a final vote on the matter last month.

Read the Church of England’s full statement on Bishop Lane’s appointment here.

December 9th, 2014

Why Prayer? A Conference on New Directions in the Study of Prayer

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New Directions in the Study of PrayerThe Social Science Research Council’s program on Religion and the Public Sphere announces Why Prayer? A Conference on New Directions in the Study of Prayer (February 6-7, 2015). This two-day gathering will showcase the work of over 30 scholars and journalists exploring what the study of prayer can tell us about a range of topics.

Please join us February 6-7, 2015, for panels and presentations on topics including religious technologies, embodiment, material culture, language, politics, and the mind. Beginning Friday afternoon, the conference will also feature the Prayer Expo—a pop-up installation of multi-media presentations and material objects that call attention to the myriad representations of prayer shaping discourse and practice. On Saturday, two plenary events will highlight the multiple registers of engagement occasioned by new, transdisciplinary research on the practice of prayer.

For more information on the conference and how to register, please click here. Registration is free, but space is limited.

December 4th, 2014

CFP: The Psychology of Religion/The Religion of Psychology

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On Friday, March 6th, 2015, the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Martin Marty Center will host “The Psychology of Religion/The Religion of Psychology,” a conference exploring the relation between two problem children of modernity.

Both to the discomfort and excitement of psychologists, scholars of religion, and religious practitioners, the overlap between the histories of psychology and religion is rather significant. Like philosophy, psychology was once pegged, in the words of Frank E. Manuel, as the “newest handmaiden of true religion.” However,with the emergence of new experimental methods in the late nineteenth century and of psychoanalysis (an inherently anti-religious discipline, according to its founder) in the early twentieth, psychology attempted to distance itself from religion, though with mixed results. Although psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals today understand their respective disciplines to have grown increasingly scientific and thus less “religious,” the various ways in which psychology and religion were interrelated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries could be used to tell a different story.

The conference will be keynoted by a roundtable discussion by Jeffrey Kripal, Jonathan Lear, and Tanya Luhrmann. Proposals for this conference are due by January 5th, 2015. Read the full call for papers here.

December 3rd, 2014

Book launch for Queer Christianities

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TONIGHT at 6PM, Eugene Lang College will host a book launch party for Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms, edited by Kathleen T. Talvacchia, Michael F. Pettinger, and Mark Larrimore. The event will feature a brief discussion with remarks from Pettinger and Talvacchia, followed by a reception. About the book:

Queerness and Christianity, often depicted as mutually exclusive, both challenge received notions of the good and the natural. Nowhere is this challenge more visible than in the identities, faiths, and communities that queer Christians have long been creating. As Christians they have staked a claim for a Christianity that is true to their self-understandings.  How do queer-identified persons understand their religious lives? And in what ways do the lived experiences of queer Christians respond to traditions and reshape them in contemporary practice?

Read the full announcement here.

November 24th, 2014

The Devil: A New Biography

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A great deal of ink was spilled in the medieval and early modern period on the nature of demonic copulation. Could demons engage in sodomy and other “perverted” sexual practices with human beings? No, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) opined, because demons retained a residue of their original angelic nature, which prevented them from engaging in sexual acts against nature. Why was sex with demons so pleasurable for women? Because, the philosopher Francesco Pico Della Mirandola (1470-1533) suggested, their “virile members were uncommonly large … and stimulate something very deep inside the witches” (104). The jurist Pierre de Lancre (1553-1631), who had interrogated a number of accused women during the witch hunts he conducted in Bordeaux, disagreed: Satanic sex was not pleasurable, he wrote, because the Devil’s organ was covered in scales that tightened and pinched the skin during intercourse.

What do these seemingly bizarre inquiries into the nature of Satanic sexuality tell us about Christian thought in the pre-modern period? Far from being the delusional products of over-sexed minds, these accounts remind us that for the greater part of Christian history, the Devil was seen as a tangible, active agent in the natural world. Handling a textual canon spanning nearly two and half millennia, Philip C. Almond’s new book The Devil: A New Biography reconstructs the evolution of this idea of an embodied, interventionist Devil, from its inception in Jewish Biblical and extra-biblical sources in the sixth century BCE, to its decline at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Almond shows that the story of Satan, emerging in its definitive form in the second-century BCE, provided a solution to a paradox that was at the heart of the Christian tradition: how to explain the persistence of evil within a world that was governed by a just and benevolent God?

In the Satanic story inherited from the early Church Fathers, Satan and his demons were fallen angels who retained their free will despite their rebellion against God. They were thus tacitly sanctioned by God to intervene in human affairs. Yet questions about the nature and extent of demonic power remained, eventually giving rise to the theological subfield of demonology in the Middle Ages. For Saint Augustine (354-430), demons had subtle corporeal bodies made of thin air that gave them extraordinary mobility and allowed them to enter the bodies of human beings. Peter Lombard (1100-1160) believed that demons possessed bodies made of thick gloomy air, derived from the dark layer of the atmosphere beneath heaven within which they resided. Thomas Aquinas, for his part, denied the corporeality of demons, but wrote that they were capable of condensing air into visible shapes and bodies. In Aquinas’s influential account, demons were spiritual beings with preternatural powers: only God possessed the power to create miracles, but demons had the power to create visible and marvelous effects through their sophisticated knowledge of the occult laws of nature.

Far from being a matter of sterile academic debate, demonology provided the intellectual foundations for the great witch hunts of the early modern period. The possibility of demons that could assume the shape of visible bodies, engage in copulation with witches to seal Satanic pacts, leave physical marks on the bodies of sorcerers and witches, and take control over human bodies through possession crucially depended upon the reality of their corporeal interactions with human beings. Determining the boundaries of demonic agency within the physical world thus became essential to adjudicating the trials of men and women accused of invoking the power of demons. It is not coincidental that the most influential of Catholic demonologies of the period, the 1486 Malleus Maleficarum [The Hammer of Witches], was penned by a Dominican inquisitor, Heinrich Kramer, in the course of a career spent persecuting witches in the Holy Roman Empire.

If the period between 1450-1700 marked the “golden age” of the demoniac, Almond notes, it also produced the first currents of open skepticism about the reality of Satanic intervention. Paradoxically, the juridical criteria developed to try accused witches and sorcerers were eventually turned against the edifice of demonological thought itself. Physicians, increasingly called upon to investigate such cases during the 16th and 17th centuries, played an important role in developing secular, naturalistic explanations for apparent cases of demonic possession. While few medical men in the 16th and 17th centuries denied the possibility of demonic possession outright, a firm distinction was drawn between symptoms produced by illness and by satanic intervention. Physicians thus developed a secular etiology of demonic possession that unwittingly opened the door for the “medicalisation of demonic possession” (150).

Yet the most decisive challenge to the idea of a corporeal devil, Almond argues, came from new forms of Christianity that appeared in the early modern period. His account thus provides more weight to the now-familiar claim that the origins of secularization are to be found principally within Christianity itself, rather than in currents of skepticism, materialism, and atheism. Protestant theologians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries increasingly denounced exorcisms and cases of demonic possession as Popish superstitions in their promotion of rational forms of Christianity that emphasized individual faith over divine revelation. The Protestant interiorization of spirituality, arising out of the doctrine of sola scriptura, eventually relocated the devil from the natural world to the minds of men. Yet if Protestantism provided the escape from a world besieged by demons, one wonders why Puritans in New England and Calvinist Scots continued to persecute witches so vigorously into the late seventeenth century. Almond would likely argue that these forms of Christianity were already being marginalized by the liberalizing impulse of natural theology, which relegated the idea of a corporeal devil to the “distant corners of the educated European mind” (196). There would be no place for the demonic in the disenchanted world of Enlightened natural theologians, deists, and liberal Protestants who grounded their faith in the rational contemplation of a predictable, orderly universe.

By attributing the “death of the devil” to changing theological and spiritual sensibilities, Almond casts further doubt on the once-canonical narrative of the Enlightenment as a period of secularization spurred on by declining faith and atheism. Nevertheless, much like the standard secularization narratives that he jettisons, Almond insists too strongly on the monolithic, metaphysical unity of Enlightenment religion and thought. As a result, Almond is at pains to explain the purportedly anomalous persistence of belief in the demonic from the likes of the Newtonian mathematician and natural theologian William Whiston (1667-1752). Almond rather unconvincingly attempts to explain away Whiston’s belief in the immanence of the Antichrist’s reign on earth, by claiming that he was “something of a scholarly anachronism” (168). Yet one wonders, given the plurality of metaphysical positions in Enlightenment philosophy and theology, and the popularity of supposedly irrational forms of thought like hermeticism and mysticism, to what extent such beliefs were indeed anachronistic anomalies. We get no indication from Almond’s book, for his account abruptly ends with a discussion of the Dutch Calvinist Balthasar Bekker’s (1634-1698) The World Bewitched, a controversial text that, he claims, definitively expelled the demonic, and spiritual entities more generally, from the domain of the secular natural world. Given how embedded Satan and his demons were within the Christian tradition, one would expect this expulsion to have been fraught with far more difficulties and contestations than Almond allows.

The road to the disenchanted world of modern liberal Protestantism and Catholicism seems unusually smooth in Almond’s account. It is perhaps slightly churlish to criticize this book for failing to engage with the complex field of Enlightenment theology and natural philosophy, given the breathtaking chronological sweep of the rest of the book, yet one cannot help but feel that Almond has “killed off” the Devil in all too unceremonious of a fashion. The Vatican’s recent pronouncements on the threat posed to Catholics by the Devil and the occult and its formal recognition of the International Association of Exorcists, not to mention the persistence of belief in an interventionist devil by millions of Catholics and Protestants around the world, should force us to consider such pronouncements with a degree of skepticism.

November 18th, 2014

Political backlash and the rise of “nones”

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In an article that appears in the open access online journal Sociological Science, sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fisher take a look at the relationship between religious disaffiliation and backlash against right-wing religio-political movements. Like David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam in American Grace, the authors find that the rise of “nones” can partially be explained by changing political preferences. They update the argument with additional data and analysis:

Twenty percent of American adults claimed no religious preference in 2012, compared to 7 percent twenty-five years earlier. Previous research identified a political backlash against the religious right and generational change as major factors in explaining the trend. That research found that religious beliefs had not changed, ruling out secularization as a cause. In this paper we employ new data and more powerful analytical tools to: (1) update the time series, (2) present further evidence of correlations between political backlash, generational succession, and religious identification, (3) show how valuing personal autonomy generally and autonomy in the sphere of sex and drugs specifically explain generational differences, and (4) use GSS panel data to show that the causal direction in the rise of the “Nones” likely runs from political identity as a liberal or conservative to religious identity, reversing a long-standing convention in social science research. Our new analysis joins the threads of earlier explanations into a general account of how political conflict over cultural issues spurred an increase in non-affiliation.

Read the full article here.

November 7th, 2014

David Gushee shifts on homosexuality

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On November 8, David P. Gushee, Distinguished University Professor at Mercer University, leading evangelical ethicist, and TIF contributor, will give the keynote speech at The Reformation Project Conference (which “seeks to reform church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity”) and affirm his support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues. Over at Religion News Service, Jonathan Merritt notes that given his role in the evangelical movement, it “is difficult to overstate the potential impact of Gushee’s defection.” In a draft obtained by RNS, Gushee’s prepared remarks state:

I do join your crusade tonight. I will henceforth oppose any form of discrimination against you. I will seek to stand in solidarity with you who have suffered the lash of countless Christian rejections. I will be your ally in every way I know how to be… Traditionalist Christian teaching produces despair in just about every gay or lesbian person who must endure it…It took me two decades of service as a married, straight evangelical Christian minister and ethicist to finally get here. I am truly sorry that it took me so long to come into full solidarity with the Church’s own most oppressed group.

Gushee’s transformation is not a particular surprise given his changing views over the last few years. Over at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner elaborates further on what this means, including Gushee’s new book that makes a biblical and philosophical case for LGBT affirmation, as well as the evangelical response to his shift on homosexuality:

Reaction, Gushee says, has ranged from “predictable invectives from people who are fixated on the sexual question” to “extraordinary outpourings of gratitude.”

Indeed Gushee has been the target of harsh, dismissive criticisms from fellow evangelicals. Robert Gagnon, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, writing in the Christian Post, called Merritt’s article “a tendentious puff piece” and contested Merritt’s description of Gushee’s “intellectual heft” with the accusation that “Dr. Gushee has ignored nearly all the major arguments against his embarrassingly bad exegesis.” Denny Burk, a professor of biblical studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, charged Gushee with “adopting the rhetoric of Christianity’s fiercest critics who routinely accuse us of being bigoted and hateful simply for believing what the Bible says about sexuality,” saying that he could not “understand why Gushee would stake-out such an uncharitable and intolerant stance against Christians who hold the very same views that he once held.”

Read the full articles here and here.

November 6th, 2014

Faith as an Option

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Hans Joas’s Faith as an Option is concerned with debunking two myths: first, the idea that modernization—advances in technology and the sciences—renders religious belief obsolete; second, the argument that secularization leads to moral decay. Joas, a leading European social theorist, is more than aware that criticisms of these claims are hardly new—contemporary scholars no longer prove keen to establish a law or rule connecting modernization and secularization, and there seems to be little or no correlation between societies with higher rates of atheism and moral decline. Joas’s study aims to provide a series of illuminating explanations for why these views captured the imaginations of so many for so long.

Yet Faith as an Option is much more than a descriptive attempt to explain a longstanding scholarly misnomer. Joas also provides an alternative conceptual framework for how modernity and faith can now facilitate and enrich one another. On this reading, the modern secular world does not signify religion’s demise, but rather speaks to the emergence of new challenges and ever-changing conditions that push faith traditions to adapt or evolve. This does not at all mean, suggests Joas, that modernity is hostile to faith; in fact, they can benefit one another. Ultimately, Joas’s exhortation for greater ecumenism is inseparable from his desire to secure and revitalize transcendent and universal sources of meaning. This is where Faith as an Option enters controversial territory: Joas does not believe secular reason alone is capable of providing adequate solutions for today’s biggest political challenges.

Who invented the thesis that modernization inevitably leads to secularization? The answer, according to Hans Joas, remains unclear. At the end of the eighteenth century the idea that Christianity would eventually die out had only scattered supporters throughout Europe. Just a century later, argues Joas, “everybody who was anybody in philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences supported the thesis of secularization.” The luminaries of the age—Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, etc.—all expected modernization to weaken religion. In believing so, Joas argues, they—and their twentieth century ilk—made an assumption that history has now proven wrong.

This does not mean the idea of secularism should be rejected. Joas seeks to provide an understanding that is less ideologically driven and more empirically based. The old model of secularization, he maintains, has failed to provide compelling answers for why religious belief persists in the United States—the most modernized country in the world. Moreover, religious faith seems to be increasing alongside so called “modernizing processes” in South America and Africa.

Joas even argues that if Europe remains the world’s “secular exception,” it is simply because proponents of the secularization thesis have failed to recognize that Europe was only “superficially and imperfectly Christianized in the first place.” The ultimate shortcoming of the secularization thesis, suggests Joas, is that it overlooks a crucial consideration: that secularization can occur without modernization.

But before putting forward his alternative model of secularization, Joas aims to shoot down another myth: the longstanding belief that secularization wrecks incentives for behaving morally. Nineteenth century advocates of this view did not live to see actual secularism, but examples of secularized societies today—Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden, etc.,—show little sign of moral decline. In fact, Joas, cites the comparative study conducted by the paleontologist, Gregory S. Paul, who suggests that nations which boast  higher percentages of belief in God also have higher rates of “homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection, teen pregnancy, and abortion than nations in which belief in God is relatively low.”

Joas provides two responses for why sources of morality are not weakened by secularization. First, he claims that social reciprocity is a non-religious source of morality that can be learned—by children, for example—through the observation of games and shared play. Second, and more substantially, Joas suggests that secular societies, specifically Europe, are living on borrowed capital by affirming that “even under conditions of secularization an older imagination may continue to guide morality.” Clearly, the “imaginary” that Joas is most interested in is Christianity. He believes that Christianity possesses a certain feature that its rivals—whether religious or philosophical—cannot match: “the strongest imagination of universalism ever bestowed upon humanity.”

What Europe needs to secure itself from moral decline is not Christianity per se, but universal imaginaries, which by default makes Christianity, according to Joas, vitally important for the well-being of Europe. Clearly Europe’s dark history of nationalism hangs over Joas’s analysis—alongside his silent dialogue with Jürgen Habermas’s idea of post-secular societies. Yet Joas’s position also appears difficult to square with his previous argument that Europe has only ever been superficially Christian, which undermines, to some degree, the ghostly role that Joas sees Christianity still playing in secular Europe. But, as we will see, there are clear reasons for why Joas makes this move.

Joas’s constructive task is to articulate a model of secularism that reflects reality and is empirically plausible. Therefore, a critical understanding of secularism will reject the teleological underpinnings that the secularization thesis presumes without sufficient evidence. What history does demonstrate about secularization and modernization, suggests Joas, are their “highly conflictual, heterogeneous, contingent” histories. For this reason Joas sees secularization as occurring in historical waves—such as the French Revolution, the Revolutions of 1848, and the student protest movements of the 1960s—and for entirely different reasons. In turn Joas, who is very much influenced by Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, stresses that these secular waves were followed by religious rip currents that often revitalized religious traditions or facilitated new religious options.

Joas’s rather brief historical snapshot of secularism acts as subterfuge for his main thesis: that there is no uniform process of modernization. This “Age of Contingency,” as Joas calls it, is marked by an increase in “individual action options and the growing number of experiences that result from this massive increase.” These increased action options give rise to new forms of social life, which are anything but clear and distinct. Our “secular age,” then, is really an amalgam of impulses derived from religious and non-religious sources that constantly take on novel shapes and forms.

In this reading, religion will never die out, because increased action options facilitate novel conditions that allow religion to constantly evolve in creative ways. But this is exactly where Joas’s Taylorian inspirations take a back seat to his Habermasian anxieties. Increased action options, Joas observes, allow for decisions that run the gamut between universal and anti-universal discourses. Having multiple options thus seems to weaken universalist commitments, since they can so easily be fused with anti-universal sentiments and ideas.

This is problematic, Joas observes, since the foundation for human rights and the liberal democratic state is moral and legal universalism. Hence Joas’s observation that the “most important front running through moral and political disputes today is not that between believers and non-believers but that between universalists and anti-universalists, and both of these groups include both religious and nonreligious people.” What, then, asks Joas, can provide a bulwark against anti-universalism, which is once again rearing its head via the anti-immigrant and Islamophobic platforms of emerging European nationalist parties?

Joas borrows a line from Habermas but takes it in a different direction. Like Habermas, he calls for greater dialogue between religious and secular adherents of moral and legal universalism in their mutual fight against racism and other forms of anti-universalism. But this conversation must not—contra Habermas—reduce religious dialogue simply to a means for benefiting public discourse.

As far as Europe is concerned, Joas is clear that Christianity should have pride of place in this dialogue. This is because he agrees with Habermas that secular universalisms are limited by their tendency to be too rational, individualistic or utilitarian. What Joas calls “the essence of the superiority of the Christian ethos of love” can help check egocentric and utilitarian limitations of secular thought. More importantly, suggests Joas, Christian love enriches notions of justice—the key concept of moral and legal universalism. Of course, Joas is quick to acknowledge that the superiority of Christian universalism is not cause for boasting.

Joas recognizes that some “dogmatic secularists” will view his argument as a religious apologia. In rejecting this idea, Joas states that he has no desire to defend religion and is only interested in opening a space for a conversation. A few sections of Faith as an Option make it clear that part of this dialogue is aimed at Joas’s fellow Christians. In one revealing section, Joas exhorts them to remember that Christianity failed to issue an adequate response to National Socialism and Fascism because its message of love and peace has been weakened by secularism.

This and many other examples reveal a tendency throughout Faith as an Option to separate the supreme message of Christian universality from the secular, tribal and nationalist influences that potentially corrupt or weaken it. Doing so allows Joas to make a distinction between his idealized Christian universalism and the injustices of Christianity as it actually existed, which dovetails nicely with Joas’ insistence that Europe has never really been Christian. Hence the ease by which theology’s political baggage can be downplayed for the purposes of inventing a political theology made safe for democracy and human rights; two concepts whose Christian reception is long and complicated. One need not be a dogmatic secularist to see in such analytic maneuvering a religious apologia of sorts.

October 30th, 2014

Pope Francis reaffirms belief in evolution

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Addressing the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 27, Pope Francis stated that the Big Bang and evolution are not only consistent with God and creation, but in fact require a divine presence. Over at The Independent, Adam Withnall reports:

“When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so,” Francis said.

He added: “He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfilment.

“The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but, rather, requires it.

“Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

Writing at Religion News Service, Josephine McKenna notes:

Unlike much of evangelical Protestantism in the U.S., Catholic teaching traditionally has not been at odds with evolution. In 1950, Pope Pius XII proclaimed there was no opposition between evolution and Catholic doctrine. In 1996, St. John Paul II endorsed Pius’ statement.

Some wondered if Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wanted to change that when he and some acolytes seemed to endorse the theory of intelligent design, the idea that the world is too complex to have evolved according to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, a close associate of Benedict, penned a widely noticed 2005 op-ed in The New York Times that said “Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense — an unguided, unplanned process … is not.”

Francis’ speech is in line with Catholic doctrine, established since Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani generis, and extended further by John Paul II’s 1996 speech, also before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in which he noted that “new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis.” Even Benedict XVI, who has been characterized as less accommodating towards evolution, said in 2007 that the debate between creation and evolution was an “absurdity” since the two can coexist.

Read the full reports on Francis’ speech here and here.

October 24th, 2014

CFP: Religion, Gender and Body Politics

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The “Interdisciplinary Innovations in the Study of Religion and Gender: Postcolonial, Post-secular and Queer Perspectives” project has announced its final conference, initiated and coordinated by Anne-Marie Korte (Utrecht University) and Adriaan van Klinken (University of Leeds). This conference on “Religion, Gender and Body Politics” will take place February 12-14, 2015 at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. Keynote speakers will include Minoo Moallem, Yvonne Sherwood, Ulrike Auga, Scott Kugle, and Sarojini Nadar.

From the call for papers:

In this conference we want to explore why and how the gendered body has become a highly contested and constitutive site of dynamic secular and religious (identity) politics, ideologies and practices in contemporary societies worldwide. In this we suggest to regard the body as simultaneously an empirical entity (e.g., the human or animal body), a discursive practice (e.g., the body politics or the body of Christ), and a focus of technologies of the self (e.g., ecstatic or ascetic bodies). The body as a contested site in contemporary societies is often the body of a gendered, sexual, religious or ethnic other (e.g., women, LGBT’s, migrants, or colonial others). These discursive practices of “othering” presuppose a clearly defined “we” superior to the “other”, thereby reinforcing related dichotomies (e.g., West-East, male-female, religious-secular, straight-gay) and their power relations. The disciplining of bodily practices appears to take place mainly at the level of institutionalised religion and secularism where ideologies and politics of gender, sexuality and ethnicity are imposed. However, when we look at how people live their bodies, creative and non-normative body practices can be identified that question, resist or inform these ideologies and politics. The deconstruction of the normative regulation and representation of the body should therefore not be investigated along the lines of the public-private divide, but in a manner that questions this divide and that is attentive to the ways in which lived religion and lived secularism permeate the until recently virtually uncontested boundaries between the visible, public and institutional on the one hand and the invisible, private and personal on the other. We aim to question the ways in which intersecting ideologies of religion, secularism and gender materialise through individual and collective body-politics drawing from a range of contemporary critical perspectives in the humanities and qualitative social sciences, such as postcolonial criticism, post- secularism and queer theories. With these critical perspectives, we want to challenge persisting dichotomies in the study of religion and gender, like the public/private and religious/secular binaries, and Western and heteronormative dominant models of knowledge.

Click here for the full CFP and information on how to submit paper titles and abstracts.

October 22nd, 2014

Futures of the American Religious Past

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On January 3, 2015, as part of the winter meeting of American Society for Church History, four interlocutors will speak on TIF contributor John Lardas Modern‘s book Secularism in Antebellum America, and Mark Noll’s book America’s God, with comments from both authors.

Why now? In her 2013 ASCH presidential address, Maffly-Kipp described the field of church history in the midst of a “transitional moment.” Tensions are mounting between more traditional ecclesiastical paradigms and the theoretical developments of religious studies. Readers of this blog know that American religionists feel these tensions especially strongly. New works like Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America, among others, put pressure on many of the commitments and conventions of our discipline.

Yet though American religionists may greet the arrival of Secularism with caution, they cannot easily ignore it. Modern responds directly—if not always affectionately—to church historians and to Mark Noll in particular. The book is deliberately provocative, posing all sorts of challenges to the central paradigms of our field.

The event will be held at the New York Hilton from 10:30 AM to 12:00 PM. Read more about the panel here.

October 21st, 2014

Conference: Toward a Critique of Secular Reason?

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LeuvenOn December 10-11, 2014, the Institute of Philosophy (KU Leuven) will host the international conference Towards a Critique of Secular Reason? in Leuven, Belgium. The conference aims to explore the meaning of the concept of secularization in 20th and 21st century thought.

The notion of secularization has often been used to define or characterize the nature of modern culture. Today, however, the validity of this concept is questioned ever more radically. The conference wants to take a step back from these recent discussions by examining the history and philosophical scope of the concept of secularization itself: What does secularization actually mean? More specifically, what does it mean for societies, theories, ideas or concepts to be secularized? Although secularization is often reduced to a political or sociological concept – designating the separation between church and state or the decline of religious belief – this conference aims to explore its meaning from a much broader and decidedly interdisciplinary perspective. In this regard, secularization appears as a theoretical concept with important implications for the study of intellectual history, metaphysics, religion, literature and politics alike.

Participation is free, but registration is required. For the program and further details on the conference read more here.

October 20th, 2014

Millennial storytelling

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The Immanent Frame editor-at-large Nathan Schneider recently talked to radio host Krista Tippett for her Peabody Award-winning show “On Being.” In the interview, the fourth in a series on “The American Consciousness,” Tippett and Schneider discussed Schneider’s writing; the intersections of technology and religion; the Occupy movement’s legacy; and the growing influence of “nones”—Americans who don’t identify with any religious group.

“Could the growing number of non-religious young people be a force for the renewal of spiritual traditions?” Tippett asks. “How might the Internet of the future look utterly different from the Internet of now? And what did the Occupy movement really tap into—and what has it become below the radar?”

Listen to the podcast or read a transcript, and check out the rest of Schneider’s work for TIF here.

October 17th, 2014

A “pastoral earthquake” in Rome?

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On October 13th, the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, an assembly convened by Pope Francis, released a relatio post disceptationem—a snapshot of the discussion thus far—that has triggered much coverage and debate across the media landscape. As church leaders try to determine what exactly makes a Catholic family, the document seems to signal a softening stance on, among others things, divorce, homosexuality, and unmarried cohabitation. While reasserting Catholic doctrine that proclaims the “irregular” nature of such relationships and families, the document also acknowledges their “positive elements,” and frames the pastoral challenge as follows:

It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations. This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy.

Longtime Vatican journalist John Thaviswho called the document’s release a “pastoral earthquakehas an excellent breakdown and summary of the relatio on his blog. He notes in particular the document’s emphasis on the gradualness which advocates patience and understanding for individuals to walk their own paths towards salvation.

In particular, the section of the relatio initially titled “Welcoming homosexual persons” has caused a stir. It originally reads:

Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.

The shift in tone on homosexuality (though not in doctrine or teaching) has been greeted with enthusiasm by some observers, such as GLAAD and the Reverend James Martin, who called the document “a stunning change in the way that the Catholic church speaks about gay people.” But not all responses have been positive. Critics have described the language of the document as confusing—how can Catholicism avoid “any language or behavior which might be construed as discrimination” (section 46) if biblical and doctrinal teachings are very clear on some of these issues? R. R. Reno, the editor of religion journal First Things, describes such framing as a “route to the dictatorship of relativism,” while other commentators have stated that the document “[dilutes] Church teaching.”

The unofficial English translation of the document from the Vatican has added another complication. The synod, which was conducted in Italian instead of Latin, first created controversy by translating the word valutando as “valuing,” as opposed to “considering” or “weighing.” Then just yesterday, the translation underwent new edits, changing “Welcoming homosexual persons” to “Providing for homosexual persons,” and replacing “fraternal space” with “fellowship” and “precious support” with “valuable support.” It should be noted that the original Italian remains unaltered.

Many media outlets have highlighted the document’s section on homosexuals, including The New York Times (“At the Vatican, a Shift in Tone Toward Gays and Divorce”) and BBC (“Catholic synod: Vatican family review signals shift on homosexuality”). Given that the document is not so much a formal statement on theology as the minutes of a meeting, writers such as George Weigel at The National Review and Tim Stanley at The Daily Telegraph have criticized the coverage of the relatio as overstating its significance.

Meanwhile, church leaders themselves, including those at the synod, disagree about the document’s content. Some clergy have pressed for clarification on specific sections. Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, has said that the relatio was “[lacking] a solid foundation in the Sacred Scriptures and the Magisterium,” while Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, emphasized that it is a “draft document,” one that would need “major reworking.” Indeed, on October 14th, the Vatican released a statement emphasizing the relatio‘s status as a “working document,” saying that it does not want to create “the impression of a positive evaluation” of same-sex relationships or cohabiting couples.

Pope Francis looms large in discussions over the relatio, as he convened the synod and picked many of the committee members. Perhaps not surprisingly, the document largely calls for dialogue, listening, and understanding, in keeping with Francis’ policy of more discussing pastoral care and less affirming doctrinal puritysee his “who am I to judge” or “shepherds living with the smell of sheep” comments. Popes can choose what teachings to emphasis and what issues to downplay, and Francis’ papacy has been different in image and tone from his predecessor. But without any meaningful changes to catechism on these sensitive topics, it remains to be seen whether Francis will actually usher in a “Vatican Spring.”

October 16th, 2014

A response to Borja Vilallonga

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Over at his Academia.edu page, Thomas Pfau responds to Borja Vilallonga’s review of his book Minding the Modern:

In the 1,745 words that comprise his “response” to Minding the Modern, Vilallonga does not once engage or contest my various accounts of any of these figures. Neither does he pay attention to (or, perhaps, summon the requisite intellectual generosity and acumen) to identify my book’s conceptual architecture. He thus fails the most elementary standards of what it means to offer a critical and considered response to intellectual work done by someone else. For to do so one must begin by restating the book’s objectives, identifying and appraising its methodological procedures, its organization, and its various claims. Only when these steps have been taken in clear and dispassionate form may one proceed to articulate whether the book succeeds or, if not, how it may be said to fail on its own terms, rather than those that the reviewer happens to have espoused.
Read the full response here.
October 15th, 2014

Mapping “American values”

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PRRI-logoThe Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Social Science Research Solutions (SSRS) have recently teamed up for a foray into “digital religion,” in the form of an ambitious mapping project called the “American Values Atlas” (AVA). The PRRI and SSRS conducted 50,000 telephone interviews in 2013, and built their results into an interactive map that they promise will “deliver an unprecedented level of detail about the United States’ cultural and religious landscape.”

The map is designed to show the connections between three “topics”—religious affiliation, demographics, and politics. Users can compare:

Religious affiliation, by religious tradition or Christian denominations

Demographic information, by traits such as race and ethnicity, age, gender, marital status, educational attainment, household income, and health insurance status,

Political information, by party identification, political ideology, and voter registration status

Searching by the religious tradition category (under the topic religious affiliation)  in Ohio, for example, reveals that while the largest single religious group is “White evangelical Protestant” (21%), an equal percentage of respondents described themselves as religiously “unaffiliated.”

The AVA also offers a “Highlights” section, with summaries of particularly interesting or noteworthy survey findings. We learn, for example, that a full third of American Muslims live in the South:

Thirty-four percent of American Muslims reside in the South, mostly in just two cities: Atlanta (4 percent) and Washington, DC (6 percent). In contrast, fewer than 1-in-5 Muslims live in the Midwest (17 percent) and the West (18 percent). Nearly one-third (32 percent) of Muslims live in the Northeast, predominantly in New York City (23 percent).

We also learn that marriage rates vary widely among religious groups:

If you’re single, you may want to try visiting your local Buddhist center; more than half (54 percent) of Buddhists are single. This may be because Buddhists are, on average, much younger than other Americans. At the other end of the spectrum are Mormons. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Mormons are currently married, 16 points higher than the national average (48 percent).

The AVA is particularly noteworthy for its wealth of data on minority religious groups in the United States—Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, for example—which the team contends are often excluded from broad narratives about religious change in America. In addition, data collection for the project is ongoing: PRRI and SSRS expect to conduct 50,000 new interviews each year, in order to provide an up-to-date portrait of changing American values.

October 2nd, 2014

In whose name? ISIS, Islam, and social media

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Commentators routinely remark on the sophisticated use of media by the organization that calls itself the Islamic State, but in the past few weeks many Muslims have been using the Twitter hashtag #NotInMyName to offer a counter-narrative about Islam. The campaign began earlier this month with a video released by the London-based Active Change Foundation, featuring British Muslims speaking out against the organization (variously known as ISIS and ISIL), which, they say, does “not represent Islam or any Muslim.” A recent tweet using the hashtag stated that, “ISIS is not a representation of Islam. My religion is based upon principles of respect, love and harmony.”

Response to the #NotInMyName campaign has generally been positive, but some Twitter users have expressed reservations. A few suggested that the social media response to ISIS atrocities was too muted: “A mild rebuke, all things considered,” tweeted New Yorker staff writer Jon Lee Anderson, who went on to compare the campaign to the “Ice Bucket Challenge.”

Others objected to what they perceived as background presumptions of collective guilt that oblige Muslims—but not, for example, non-Muslim U.S. or British citizens—to repeatedly publicly disavow violence: “I do & don’t like the #NotInMyName campaign. It’s right to speak out but it sends out the message we are to be held accountable every time.” The latter sentiment has since spawned a rival Twitter meme of Muslims satirically “apologizing” for such cultural achievements as algebra using the hashtag #MuslimApologies: “I’m sorry that we gave to the world Algorithms through which PCs, FB, Twitter etc are built on!”

Still others used the phrase “Not In My Name”—popularized among objectors to the last Iraq war—to denounce another military intervention in the Middle East: “Sickened that we’re going to war again. Actually, am furious.” Nevertheless, the campaign won plaudits from President Barack Obama, who referred to it in a speech before the U.N. last week: “Look at the young British Muslims who responded to terrorist propaganda by starting the Not in My Name campaign, declaring, ‘ISIL is hiding behind a false Islam.’”

Reactions were ambivalent, though, when, on September 10, the White House tweeted the following remarks from the president’s speech promising military action: “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents.” “Psst. . . I think that’s what the ‘I’ stands for!” one user replied. Another wrote, “Always amusing to watch non-Muslims lecturing Muslims on what Islam is and isn’t.” Why was the message better received when delivered by young British Muslims than when echoed by the president of the United States?

Presumably part of the answer is that the #NotInMyName campaign appears to represent a grassroots intervention by self-identified Muslims in the normative debate over what constitutes true Islam, whereas the President’s message came across as a strategic political maneuver by an outsider. By denying that the Islamic State is Islamic (or, for that matter, a state), Obama sought to fend off the potentially damaging perception that the U.S. is engaged in a war against Islam, or that Muslims as such are the enemy—perceptions that would not only have played into ISIS’s propaganda campaign but also put Muslim Americans at risk of hate crimes. The claim that no religion condones the killing of innocents is no doubt tendentious—who is truly innocent is often in dispute—but the rhetoric allowed the president to position the United States as religiously tolerant, and ISIS as “a terrorist organization, pure and simple.”

But on what authority—in whose “name”—does Obama, the president of a country whose constitution has long been interpreted to prohibit government from interfering in religion, speak when he enters into the debate over what constitutes Islam or religion? Is he not only the country’s “commander in chief” but also its “theologian in chief”? Though a minor footnote in the history of American civil religion, the affair serves to remind us that terms like religion are invested with political significance, and that states, even (or perhaps especially) when they claim to be religiously neutral, have an interest in how such language is deployed. The struggle against ISIS is, among other things, a struggle over definitions, which is to say that it is a struggle over the authority to control meanings. Moreover, the comparatively open space of social media is increasingly a site of conflict in that struggle. Is ISIS Islamic? What is at stake is not a factual question but a normative one with global political implications.

A German-language version of this article will appear in the Fall 2014 issue of the Bulletin des Zentrums für Religion, Wirtschaft und Politik.

September 30th, 2014

Religious exemption in the National Football League

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During last night’s victory over the New England Patriots, Kansas City safety Husain Abdullah, a practicing Muslim who once missed the entire 2012 season for the pilgrimage to Mecca, intercepted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and returned it for a touchdown. After scoring, he was penalized for unsportsmanlike conductspecifically excessive celebration in the form of “going to the groundfor sliding to his knees and praying. Or in GIF form:

The National Football League has been disparagingly called the “No Fun League” for its policing of celebrations over the years, such as the recent ban on dunking over the goal posts. However, the “going to the ground” rule actually has a religious exemptionnamely for “praising the Lord.” One such example came during Super Bowl XLV, where Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings knelt down in prayer after a touchdown and was not penalized.

Multiple commentators from across the web have highlighted the inconsistency in penalizing Abdullah, noting in particular former quarterback Tim Tebow’s outspoken Christianity and his practice of genuflecting. But while the treatment of Islam (and other faiths) compared to Christianity certainly deserves an extended discussion, bringing up Tebow’s actions (and his lack of punishment) perhaps misses the point. His prayers always occurred on the sidelines when he was not on the playing field, meaning that they were not covered by the excessive celebrations rules. Abdullah, for one, believed that his penalty was for his slide and not his prayer.

Instead of a statement about different religious beliefs, the penalty was more likely the result of the NFL’s complex rule book as the league attempts to regulate everything about the game and its players, from celebrations to player conduct. At a time when the NFL is already under heavy scrutiny, the league reacted quickly, as NFL Vice President of Football Communications, Michael Signora, released a statement on Twitter, saying that Abdullah should not have been penalized, and reaffirmed the religious exemption: “Officiating mechanic is not to flag player who goes to ground for religious reasons.”

September 26th, 2014

Egypt’s uncertain future

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Since the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt has experienced significant turmoil, from temporary rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to the military coup that led to the election of current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Mounting chaos in the region —including unrest in Egypt and fighting in Gaza-Israel, Iraq, Libya, and Syria—has forced Egypt to the forefront of the conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as US Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized during a recent visit to Cairo. As a report in Al-Monitor attempts to explain, the “Islamic Caliphate” model touted by ISIS poses problems for Sisi’s plans for a hypernationalist, secular state. As he attempts to consolidate power at home, President Sisi also finds himself playing a key role as mediator of the resurgent conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. A Foreign Policy analysis described the “Sisi Doctrine” as “based on repression and stability,” an “outgrowth of [Egypt’s] own domestic concerns about Islamism, militancy, terrorism, and instability.”

In the recent series on “The future of Egyptian democracy,” contributors to The Immanent Frame have tackled the various complexities of this situation. Many of our authors argued against the simplistic framing of Egyptian political forces as “Islamist vs. secularist.” Others highlighted the role of divine intervention and religious legitimacy in Egyptian politics, analyzed and critiqued democracy as a form of government, and reported on disturbing events in the aftermath of Sisi’s election, including the rise of the “deep state” and attempts to control mosques and pulpits. As part of a joint project with Religion Dispatches, contributing editor Austin Dacey has raised additional issues, including the exact role of secularism in the ongoing unrest and the Egyptian government’s crackdown on nongovernmental organizations.

September 10th, 2014

CFP: Religious and Political Values

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On November 26-28, 2014, Adyan and the Lebanese American University will host a conference on “Religious and Political Values” in Byblos, Lebanon. The conference builds on Adyan’s last international conference on “Religion and Democracy in Europe and the Arab World,” where participants emphasized the need for a paradigm shift in the role of religions in the public domain.

Adyan’s International Conference for 2014 attempts to respond to this intuition by providing a forum for different sectors of society to reflect on how to actualize definitions of political values and norms in Muslim and Christian discourse on the one hand, and to explore and promote dialogue about these values based on different worldviews on the other hand. This exploration is meant not only from an interfaith perspective but also from a public and scholarly perspective, where religions are invited to operate a shift from a normative discourse, and to endorse a dialogical role as part of the diverse society.

In doing so, the Conference seeks to put recent scholarship in social and political philosophy in more direct conversation with social and political theology, in Christianity and Islam specifically, and to confront both with questions and recommendations from leaders and policy makers active in the public domain.

A 300-word abstract and a 200-word bio should be sent to conference@adyanvillage.net by September 14th, 2014. For further details on the conference, and on the submission of proposals, read more here.

August 23rd, 2014

White House announces new women’s healthcare rules

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In the wake of this summer’s Hobby Lobby decision and Wheaton College order, the White House has announced a new regulation designed to reconcile recent accommodations for nonprofits and closely-held for-profits with the requirements of the Affordable Care Act.

Today, the Administration took several steps to help ensure women, whose coverage is threatened, receive coverage for recommended contraceptive services at no additional cost, as they should be entitled to under the Affordable Care Act.  The rules, which are in response to recent court decisions, balance our commitment to helping ensure women have continued access to coverage for preventive services important to their health, with the Administration’s goal of respecting religious beliefs.

—US Department of Health and Human Services

Read the full press release at HHS.gov.

Read more at MSNBC.

August 15th, 2014

On Religious-Secular Alliances

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In the most recent issue of The Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study (NDIAS) Quarterly, TIF contributor Slavica Jakelić, in an excerpt from her book manuscript The Practice of Religious and Secular Humanisms, argues that in order to understand the moral foundation and democratic potential of religious-secular alliances, it is important to move beyond the discourse of power.

Although religious-secular alliances transformed the political and social landscapes of the contemporary world, they are still mostly shrouded in a veil of silence. What are the reasons for that silence? Why don’t we talk more and know more about the collaboration between socialist and Catholic labor union leaders, between [Martin Luther] King and Asa Philip Randolph, between Father Józef Tischner and Adam Michnik in Poland, between Bishop Desmond Tutu and Chris Hani in South Africa?

One of the important reasons for the lack of discussions about such collaborations is the focus on conflict that has long defined our thinking about religions and secularisms. The emphasis on conflict, it is important to underline, is not without foundation. Historically, it highlights the real events in which religions and secularisms confronted each other—from various religious rejections of the secularizing aspects of modernity (liberalism and revolutions, religious freedom, and even democracy) to the anti-religious policies of the Soviet communist states (ranging from direct religious persecutions to more sophisticated modes of religious oppression and control). Sociologically, the view of religious-secular relations as defined by confrontation mirrors growing doubts about the secular states’ ability to address the challenges of pluralism. This view also stems from the persisting suspicions that some secularists and some believers have toward religious organizations and communities that demand a place and voice in public life.

Read the full essay here.

August 6th, 2014

Now broadcasting: Atheist TV

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Penn Jillette's Pink Mini Cooper with Nevada Atheist vanity plates | Image via Flicker user  Thomas AndersonStarting last week, atheists and nonbelievers everywhere now have a new station to add to their television lineup: Atheist TV. The channel, available online and through the Roku streaming service, is a project of American Atheists, an organization that dedicates itself to “fighting for the civil liberties of atheists and the total, absolute separation of government and religion.”

The organization’s president, David Silverman, has big dreams for the little channel, which he hopes will “provide a breadth of content, from science to politics to comedy, all centered around our common freedom from religion.”

As the New York Times reports, at a party celebrating Atheist TV’s launch, Mr. Silverman focused particular ire on Discovery Communications. The company has produced shows such as “Finding Bigfoot” on Animal Planet and the History Channel’s miniseries “The Bible.”

The channel, Mr. Silverman said in the first streamed broadcast, will have no psychics, no ghost hunters, no “science fiction presented as science fact,” and will be “a place we can call our own, where we can speak the truth as frankly as we want.” It intends, he said, “to promote the idea that religion can and should be criticized.” … “The TV networks kowtow to the liars who make money off of misinformation,” he said, singling out for special contempt outlets that mix silly supernatural gunk with more serious science and nature shows.

“The Discovery Channel treats ghosts like they’re real,” he said, adding later, “Bigfoot, psychics, aliens, ghosts, spirits, gods, devils — all bunk, all pushed by the so-called truthful and scientific stations in an effort to placate the waning religion segment at the expense of the growing segment of atheists who should be, but are not, their target audience.”

To counter, as they see it, this kind of content, Atheist TV currently hosts interviews with prominent atheists, footage from atheist meetings and conventions, and broadcasts of long-running cable show “Atheist Viewpoint.” As it is currently funded solely by donations, its content is limited. However, Silverman hopes Atheist TV will eventually host original programming, and he’s brought Liz Bronsteina veteran TV producer who also happens to be a veteran of Discovery Communicationsaboard.

As the BBC reports, atheists and nonbelievers in the US and Canada face high rates of discrimination, especially in comparison to other minority groups.

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre shows Americans would rather have a president who was either in their 70s, or openly gay, or who had never held any public office than one that was atheist.

One of Atheist TV’s new phone-in programmes, The Atheist Experience, has already had a taste of how many Americans perceive “non-believers”.

“So you were studying to be a minister, and now you don’t believe in God? You’re the devil,” one caller tells the host. “You’re a Marxist, you’re an atheist and you’re from Russia,” says another. …

The new TV channel is part of atheist groups’ own civil rights movement. But real acceptance, particularly for those serving in public office, in a country where no serving congressman or woman is openly atheist, could still be some way off.

Read more about Atheist TV via the American Atheists’ website.

July 31st, 2014

The renaissance of political theology

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When it comes to political theology, everything old is new again. At least that is the impression given by the growing interest in political theology within early modern literary studies—a dynamic relationship between past and present that often blurs our conventional delineations of what is new and what is old. Although political theology is traditionally recognized as a distinct problem of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—often understood as a stubborn and pervasive entanglement between the philosophical roots of religion and modern statecraft—early modern literary scholars have extended the boundaries of such a dilemma back into the early modern age, demonstrating the historical reach and enduring urgency of the fraught and fecund intersections of theology and political theory. Victoria Kahn’s The Future of Illusion: Political Theology and Early Modern Texts (2013), reviewed here on The Immanent Frame, is only the most recent example in a spate of studies dedicated to questions of political theory, theology, and the literary imagination in early modern England. Such work includes Debora Kuller Shuger’s Political Theologies in Early Modern England (2003), Julia Reinhard Lupton’s Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology (2005), Graham Hammill’s The Mosaic Constitution: Political Theology and Imagination from Machiavelli to Milton (2012), Joseph Jenkins’s Inheritance Law and Political Theology in Shakespeare and Milton (2014), and edited collections by Adrian Streete, Early Modern Drama and the Bible (2012), and Hammill and Lupton, Political Theology and Early Modernity (2012). With fourteen contributors included in the latter collection, the early modernist interest in political theology only seems to be increasing.

Such an outpouring of scholarship on early modernism and political theology raises the question: what does Renaissance London have to do with Athens and Jerusalem—or, as the case may be, twentieth-century Germany? To be fair, political theology is not entirely new to early modern studies. Ernst Kantorowicz’s 1957 study, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, has long been regarded as a classic among early modernists. Previous early modern scholars, however, have mined Kantorowicz’s work primarily for its insights into sacred kingship—less interested in its theological content per se than in using such content to translate religion into more comfortable social, economic, and political terms.

But the subject of political theology has taken on new direction and urgency in the past decade. Recent work takes as its starting point the global political crises and eruptions of the twenty-first century. This scholarship historicizes such crises, tracing these same fissures, gaps, and frictions between religion and politics to the divisive theologico-political environment of post-Reformation England. Nevertheless, such scholars eagerly step outside the chronological boundaries of the Renaissance, engaging twentieth- and twenty-first-century theorists of political theology such as Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and Giorgio Agamben.

This approach to political theology conceives of its enterprise as a “form of questioning that arises precisely when religion is no longer a dominant explanatory or life mode”; such a framework “finds its questions rather in the moments where religion is not working—but neither are the secular solutions designed to replace it.” Accordingly, it is the religiously fractured moment of post-Reformation England—precipitating the wars of religion on the continent; the execution of Catholics, Protestants, and Catholics again; and, later, the overweening divine right of Charles I—that undoes easy alliances between the religious and the political and instead produces the modern problems that plague their relation.

But if these events have always been evident to early modernists, why has political theology become of interest now? What shifts and re-orientations within early modern literary studies have cleared the way for such a focus? It would be natural to see this interest as a corollary to the oft-mentioned religious turn. Certainly the recent openness toward religion in early modern studies has enabled greater attention to the theological component of the political theology dynamic. Yet while some scholars have without hesitation seen their work in political theology as an extension of the turn to religion, others have tried to distance themselves from purely religious approaches. In what feels like an opening salvo, for example, the first sentences of the introduction to Hammill and Lupton’s edited collection declare, with a hint of exasperation: “Let’s get this straight. Political theology is not religion.” That the authors felt this distinction warranted attention in their opening sentence suggests that this newer coterie of scholars is made uncomfortable by a too-easy association with religion; Hammill and Lupton later admit that their political theology seeks to critique the religious turn as much as it draws inspiration from it. No doubt a portion of these scholars seem decidedly more interested in political theory than theology, while Kahn’s book goes so far as to seek an adequate secularism that can supersede religious models altogether. But if the turn to religion did not entirely propel the recent scholarly early modernist interest in political theology, then what other factors are at play?

Perhaps another appeal of the political theology approach emerges from a growing discontent with the field’s dominant framework of historicism. Since the 1980s, the “New Historicism,” inaugurated by Stephen Greenblatt, has been the lingua franca of early modern literary criticism. Such an approach insists on the otherness of the past; scholars working in this vein approach literary texts as shaped by and shapers of a robust yet foreign historical milieu, the recovery of which is crucial to making sense of a culture and its literature. Over the course of three decades, the successes of this approach have been made eminently clear, but other implications have begun to sit uneasily with early modern critics—especially the assumption that literature, ideas, and humanist inquiries can be explained by, and thus reduced to, their participation in a particular and ephemeral historical moment. Such an assumption does little to explain the purchase that authors like William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and John Milton have had over time and on us today.

In turn, scholars have started to look in many new critical directions, inciting, among other trends, a tenuous “return to theory.” Political theology was one of many such approaches, for example, included in Paul Cefalu and Bryan Reynolds’ edited collection The Return of Theory in Early Modern English Studies (2011). By engaging a chronological range of thinkers extending from St. Paul to Giorgio Agamben, political theology turns away from new historicist assertions of the otherness of the past, insisting instead that the relation of the political to the religious is not simply a local phenomenon; that questions of their relation are enduring and transhistorical; and that the tensions they embody are, as Lupton writes, “born out of historical traumas and debates, but not reducible to them.” While historicism certainly isn’t going anywhere, the interest in political theology indulges a growing critical desire to attend to broader questions of meaning that persist beyond and outside the circumscribed borders of a local environment or period.

Despite this general transcending of chronological boundaries, one troubling implication of the more recent recourse to political theology is its endorsement—sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit—of a categorical “break” separating the early modern period from the Middle Ages. Because this particular brand of political theology takes as its premise that religion is no longer compelling or explanatory, it often seems to assume that the Reformation is the primary font of such a phenomenon, and that political theology was thus an invention, or symptom, of the early modern age.

But, as with other histories of modernity, this formulation implicitly characterizes the Middle Ages as a monolithically Christian, harmonious theocracy and thus unfairly disqualifies it from consideration. Such an assumption was certainly not shared by Kantorowicz, whose historical study reaches deeply into the Middle Ages and characterizes political theology as a “quid pro quo” that “had been going on for many centuries, just as, vice versa, in the early centuries of the Christian era the imperial political terminology and the imperial ceremonial had been adapted to the needs of the Church.” More broadly, such scholars silently consent to the myth that modernity radically springs from the dull, aching head of the premodern past.

Despite this tendency, the pursuit of political theology in early modern literary studies tends to be more oriented toward gathering and including rather than limiting and excluding. Indeed, because this work so deliberately engages the realms of philosophy, theology, and political theory—allowing Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Milton to converse not only with Niccolò Machiavelli, Baruch Spinoza, and Thomas Hobbes but also with Schmitt, Arendt, and Agamben—it recognizes literature as an equal interlocutor with these other realms, a form of thinking unto itself and not simply an illustrative aid for more rigorous disciplines. Work that continues to affirm this truth can only be beneficial for literary studies and the disciplines it interacts with.

July 18th, 2014

Church of England votes to allow women bishops

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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

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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

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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

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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”

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

April 21st, 2014

Christianity grows in China

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Over at The Telegraph, Tom Phillips writes about the rapid growth of Christianity in China. The end of the Cultural Revolution has seen religiosity grow rapidly among the Chinese population; The Immanent Frame contributor Fenggang Yang calculates that China will become the most numerous Christian nation by 2030. Reporting from a newly built megachruch in Liushi, Zhejiang, Phillips talks about the change and growth in its Christian congregation over the last 50 years:

It was founded in 1886 after William Edward Soothill, a Yorkshire-born missionary and future Oxford University professor, began evangelising local communities.

But by the late 1950s, as the region was engulfed by Mao’s violent anti-Christian campaigns, it was forced to close.

Liushi remained shut throughout the decade of the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, as places of worship were destroyed across the country.

Since it reopened in 1978 its congregation has gone from strength to strength as part of China’s officially sanctioned Christian church – along with thousands of others that have accepted Communist Party oversight in return for being allowed to worship.

Today it has 2,600 regular churchgoers and holds up to 70 baptisms each year, according to Shi Xiaoli, its 27-year-old preacher. The parish’s revival reached a crescendo last year with the opening of its new 1,500ft mega-church, reputedly the biggest in mainland China.

“Our old church was small and hard to find,” said Ms Shi. “There wasn’t room in the old building for all the followers, especially at Christmas and at Easter. The new one is big and eye-catching.”

The Liushi church is not alone. From Yunnan province in China’s balmy southwest to Liaoning in its industrial northeast, congregations are booming and more Chinese are thought to attend Sunday services each week than do Christians across the whole of Europe.

This comes on the heels of a recent informal Foreign Policy study of Sina Weibo (China’s microblogging platform) that indicated searches for “God” or “Jesus” far outnumbered those for “Mao Zedong” or “Xi Jinping.” Read the full Telegraph article here. Read our discussion on the state of religion in China, as well as a historical survey of religion in China.

April 16th, 2014

The Charter of Quebec Values derailed

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On April 7th the Quebec Liberal Party won a majority government in the 41st Quebec general election, with incumbent Parti Québécois, and its controversial Charter of Quebec Values, finishing second. The principal architect of the bill, Bernard Drainville, noted that “It’s over, the Charter. We did what we could to get there. Unfortunately, things ended rather abruptly.” Over at Religion Dispatches, Jeremy Stolow writes further on his contribution to our “off the cuff” on the topic and explains how issues over religious identity and inclusion will continue to exist in Québécois politics, despite the collapse of the bill.

However, a longer view of the debate surrounding Bill 60, and of the social factors that fueled this debacle, suggest that the Charter’s underlying politics of religious identity and inclusion have far from subsided.  What follows is a closer analysis of some of the terms on which the previous government sought to regulate religious difference in the public sphere.  It remains to be seen how the newly elected Liberal government in Quebec will manage these questions of religious identity and diversity, and whether they will end up entangled in the very same language of ‘liberal tolerance’ one finds at the root of previous government’s Charter initiative.

Read the full essay here. For more on the Charter of Quebec Values, read our “off the cuff.”

April 15th, 2014

Reverberations is nominated for a Webby!

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We are proud to announce that Reverberations, the site on prayer produced in conjunction with the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer (NDSP) initiative, has been selected as one of five nominees for a Webby Award in the Religion and Spirituality Category. These awards are distributed annually by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (IADAS). Previously, The Immanent Frame had been selected as an official honoree.

Two awards will be given in each category: The Webby Award, the winner of which will be selected by members of IADAS, and The Webby People’s Voice Award, the winner of which is selected by the voting public. Please help Reverberations win the People’s Voice Award by voting for us here. There are 9 days left in the voting period, so head on over there and cast your vote now!

April 3rd, 2014

Faith in diplomacy

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When Secretary of State John Kerry launched the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives (OFBCI), he extolled the importance and urgency of religious studies: “In fact if I went back to college today I think I would probably major in comparative religion because that’s how integrated it is in everything we are working on, and deciding, and thinking about in life today.” Despite these claims about the virtue and political utility of religious studies, many academics voiced critique and caution about how OFBCI might be haunted by political agendas, subjected to idealistic visions of liberal democracy, and premised on a particular concept of religion as an analytical category. The Immanent Frame’s “off the cuff” feature provided insightful critiques by an impressive group of scholars across the academic spectrum. I would like to revisit some of these anxieties about OFBCI and offer preliminary insights about the vision and strategy of its director, Professor Shaun Casey.

As the Persian Sufi Jalal al-Din Rumi once said, “The best of princes is he who visits scholars.” Secretary Kerry described Dr. Casey—a professor of theology, with a graduate degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government—as the “perfect person” to lead OFBCI. Casey visited Emory University on February 6-7, 2014 and granted an interview with Sacred Matters in which he described his intellectual and political influences, discussed his vision for the future of OFBCI, and addressed the academic critiques of OFBCI.

During Casey’s comments at his formal appointment, he summoned the legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous moral theologian who sought to influence foreign policy in the earliest years of Cold War politics. While Casey admires Niebuhr’s belief in pragmatism and incremental action (also adored by President Barack Obama), he was careful to mention that he does not necessarily look to Niebuhr for moral and intellectual vision. In this respect, Casey noted that he is “deeply influenced by Catholic social teaching…by some of the radical interpreters of Karth Barth, some of the Helmut Gollwitzer folk…and the sort of cultural-linguistic-ethnography turn in religious studies.” Thus it would not do justice to Casey’s eclectic intellectual and political interests to reduce OFBCI to a single narrative of hegemonic post-Enlightenment political Protestantism.

Casey told me that he understands academics’ anxieties about OFBCI and welcomes the critique. As an anthropologist studying Islam, I was relieved to hear that he sympathizes with the critique that most people around this world do not view religion as a distinct analytical category in the manner of the Post-Enlightenment West. As a scholar, Casey enjoys the graduate seminar. But he cautioned that the seminar model does not necessarily fit the State Department. Conscious that academic jargon can put diplomats to sleep, Casey takes a different approach: “What I try to do at the State Department is try to show how the scholarly religious perspective might shed light that can generate some solutions or mitigation in the conflict of the hour. And then you look for other opportunities…for second order reflection to reflect on, ‘well, what is the religious dynamic in this space?’ And it’s so complicated that, as I often tell my colleagues at the State Department, we’re all pupils with respect to religion and global politics. There is no global expert who has the answer.”

It was heartening to learn that Casey does not cling to some vision of a Protestant ideal for American politics and civil religion. With respect to the concern that an allegiance to liberal democracy would be the price of admission, Casey was adamant that he is “radically inclusive” and has already met with well over 300 groups across the religious and political spectrum. Even if Casey has a critical and inclusive approach to religion, it will not be easy to transform an institution entrenched in its own ways of thinking and beholden to the political tides. It is still too early to know how this approach will play out on the ground. Citing the example of OFBCI’s recent role in conflict mitigation in South Sudan, Casey was surprised that the Department of State did not have a centralized list of official religious contacts who might help coordinate relief efforts.

During a lunchtime conversation with faculty, I pressed Casey on the cultural and religious politics involved in the production of such a list. It is not that he does not understand the inherent politics of creating a list of contacts. As Casey described it, pragmatic concerns can trump theoretical curiosities when he walks into work with “the planet on fire.” I can appreciate the urgency of pragmatism when dealing with crises, refugees, and conflict mitigation in places like South Sudan and Syria. At the same time, however, there is no simple divide between pragmatism and social theory. Political interventions in places like Syria and South Sudan are premised on implicit theories about identity politics (religious, ethnic, or otherwise).

Professor Casey asks that we judge OFBCI by what they do over the course of the next three and a half years, after which he will, in his words, “turn back into a pumpkin and return to academia.” Casey seeks new modes of engagement and shows little interest in occupying himself with the pleasantries of the interfaith seminar circuit. In terms of hiring priorities, he seeks people who can interpret complex contexts in sophisticated ways. Knowledge of religion is important, but not sufficient. Casey wants to build institutional capacities that extend beyond his tenure, and to integrate a religion component into the Foreign Service exam.

What might a Foreign Service religious studies curriculum look like in the case of contemporary Syria? Hopefully it would depart from a religious literacy of the E.D. Hirsch variety, consisting of a list of ahistorical, decontextualized timelines and tenets of sectarian difference. It was not too long ago that then-Senator Joe Biden advocated a three state solution for Iraq, premised on a naive notion of natural sectarian divides. Rather than thinking in terms of the religious causes of political conflict, Foreign Service officers must also cultivate an understanding of the political causes of religious conflict.

Casey ordered case studies of three countries so that his office can gain a better understanding of best practices and lessons learned with regards to religion and diplomacy. Imagine that one such country is Indonesia (where I conduct research). How might knowledge of Islam enhance a Foreign Service officer’s understanding? Indonesia is heralded as the home of “moderate Islam,” but historian Michael Laffan reminds us that such concepts have roots in colonial histories connecting Dutch scholars and Muslim clerics. In this country of over 200 million Muslims, public piety is important, yet Islamist parties have not fared well at the ballot box. Islam plays an enigmatic role.

Perhaps a graduate seminar is precisely what Foreign Service training needs, though I’m not convinced it must be in religious studies. Like many who study religion, I was flattered to hear Secretary Kerry laud its importance. However, as Lila Abu-Lughod observed with respect to the burgeoning interest in Islam after 9/11, politicians and pundits sought answers from Islam when Cold War politics actually offered better explanations for the injustices experienced by Afghan women: “Instead of political and historical explanations…we were offered ones that worked to artificially divide the world into separate spheres—recreating an imaginative geography of West versus East, us versus Muslims, cultures in which First Ladies give speeches versus others where women shuffle around silently in burqas.”

One potential contribution of OFBCI, as I see it, is making sure that Foreign Service officers in Syria, South Sudan, and elsewhere comprehend that conflicts cannot be explained by neatly parsed categories of religion, ethnicity, or economics. Despite Secretary Kerry’s exuberance about religious studies, those of us who study religion should peddle our knowledge with caution. For, as Rumi also said of the scholar, “Whether it is the prince who formally visits him or he who goes to visit the prince, he is in every case the visitor and it is the prince who is visited.”

For more on the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, read our original “off the cuff” feature here.—ed.

March 27th, 2014

Four patriarchs and a Baptist preacher

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A brief glance back at the history of Ukraine reveals a religiously diverse assortment of leaders. According to myth, the area was settled by pagan Varangians from the north. Then, with the help of two Greek missionaries, the local Slavs were converted to Christianity and Christian princes reigned until the Mongols conquered the territory in the thirteenth century. Eventually, the Orthodox Russian Empire emancipated Kiev, but the following centuries would bring Catholic Polish dominion, a return of Orthodox tsarist rule, further Catholic control at the hands of the Austro-Hungarians, and in the twentieth century the warring atheistic Soviets and Nazis. Post-Soviet leadership has been largely Orthodox, until today’s interim president, who is, among other things, a Baptist preacher.

To say that Ukraine has historically negotiated multiple religious and cultural identities is an understatement. 2014 finds the country—and here I include Crimea in spite of recent events—with a much-studied arsenal of religious and cultural identities: Ukrainian, Russian, Crimean, European, Orthodox, Catholic, non-religious, Muslim, Tatar. None of these categories are entirely exclusive and the people of Ukraine have shown that they can, at times, more fluidly navigate these categories than the institutions that aim to serve them. This is particularly clear in the case of religious identity and ecclesial jurisdiction.

The majority of Ukrainians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians; however, in a country with one canonical Orthodox church and two more Orthodox churches unrecognized by the greater Orthodox community, it can be difficult to ascertain exactly what type of Orthodoxy is being practiced. Surveys disagree and the various Orthodox churches—one under Moscow and two claiming independence—all offer rather differing numbers in terms of their Sunday attendance. One likely reason is that real people themselves don’t often make much of jurisdictional differences that result in no functional differences in style of worship or the daily life of the faithful. But, as with Crimeans who have historically identified more with Russia and Crimea than with Ukraine, when political power demands that lines be drawn in the sand, seemingly symbolic differences suddenly matter.

Ukraine is unique because its main Christian confessions represent contested historical, linguistic, and religious claims. In the most simple of terms, Ukraine is historically Orthodox in the East and Catholic in the far West, around Lviv. At first glance, then, it seems as though the religious dimensions of Ukraine’s complicated self-identity may comfortably map onto simplistic binaries of Russian language vs. Ukrainian language, Putin vs. the European Union/NATO, or even the medieval schism between Rome and Byzantium. In reality, national and religious identity and authority are far more complicated and, more often than not, a problem of top-down politics and attempts by church leaders to increase the autonomy of their own offices. Moreover, the painful history of religion in Ukraine—where all faithful, but particularly the Muslim Tatars and the Catholics, were violently oppressed under Joseph Stalin—makes religious affiliation a marker of historical memory as well as of faith.

The majority of Ukrainians are Orthodox, followed by non-believers, then Catholics, and then various other confessions (including Protestants and, in Crimea, a significant number of Muslims). There are three Orthodox churches in Ukraine and one Byzantine Rite Catholic church—known as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest so-called sui juris Eastern Rite Catholic church—and a significant number of Latin Rite Catholics who often worship in Polish. The existence of three Orthodox churches in one nation—all which can celebrate the liturgy in Ukrainian—is evidence of the fractious history of the state of Ukraine in the twentieth century and the legacy of Soviet religious suppression. Of the three Orthodox churches –the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP), and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC)—only the UOC-MP is in communion with the rest of the global Eastern Orthodox Church, while the others are regarded as schismatics by most non-Ukrainian Orthodox.

The UOC-Kiev Patriarchate came into being in 1992, after a split from the Moscow Patriarchate. It is led by Patriarch Filaret, a former priest from the Moscow Patriarchate, who was defrocked amidst allegations of financial and sexual misconduct. The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) was first created in the 1920s, when the Moscow Patriarchate was considered compromised by the Soviet government. The UAOC, one of many splinter churches that resulted from early Soviet persecution of religion, has survived in various incarnations, underground, both in Ukraine and in the Ukrainian diaspora, particularly in Canada and the United States.

With no intention of diminishing the theological importance of ecclesial authority, one might say that the three Orthodox churches stem from disputes over leadership and autonomy rather than differences in theology or liturgical practice. And in the case of all four churches, authority and ethnic identity play roles as important as theological doctrine or liturgical tradition. In the case of the current Baptist interim president, we see the rise of religious traditions exported from America into Ukraine’s public sphere; indeed, Ukraine has been host to rapidly growing Protestant movements, particularly Evangelical and Baptist.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, like all three of the Orthodox Churches, traces itself back to the beginnings of Christianity in Kiev, but functionally began in the late sixteenth century with the Union of Brest, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth forcibly converted its Orthodox subjects to Catholicism, but allowed them to continue to use the Byzantine rite and to retain Eastern customs, such as married priests. Indeed, the head of the Catholic church in Ukraine is popularly referred to as “patriarch”—patriarch being the highest rank within the Orthodox Church and a misnomer in multiple senses in this case, as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has not been designated a patriarchate by Rome and Rome has, instead, given its leader the unique title of “major archbishop.” The unorthodox use of patriarch, highly significant in Orthodoxy as a marker of hierarchy, underscores the Greek Catholic Church’s appropriation of Orthodox symbols in its culturally hybrid environment. While its followers form only 6 to 7 percent of the population, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is well known for its vocal pro-Western position in politics and was disproportionately represented in the recent protests (by some estimates, 25 percent of the Euromaidan protestors identified as Catholic). Centered in the western city of Lviv, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and its major archbishop have vehemently protested Russian involvement in Ukraine, and have advocated a Ukrainian-speaking Ukraine aspiring for European integration. The Catholics have warm relations with the UOC-KP, and both the major archbishop of the Catholics and the patriarch of the Kiev Patriarchate have sought support from America and Europe—ranging from Brussels to the Heritage Foundation—in their campaign against any form of intervention from Moscow, be it ecclesiastic or military.

Since Crimea’s announcement to hold a referendum, Patriarch Filaret and Major Archbishop Sviatoslav have been urging for Russian troops to pull out of Crimea and for the priests of the Moscow Patriarchate to use their influence to defend the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Filaret has expressed fears that the Kiev Patriarchate churches may be transferred to (that is, seized by) the Moscow Patriarchate. Sviatoslav has warned of threats of violence against Catholic clergy, a reasonable fear considering that Orthodox clergy and property were likewise targeted in different areas of Ukraine during the Maidan protests. Last Sunday, the day of the Crimea referendum, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow gave a speech that did little to assuage their fears: while demanding an end to violence, he emphasized that the Ukrainians were brothers, and that Russia and Ukraine were part of “Holy Rus,” the medieval Slavic kingdom that began in the tenth century. This language of Rus and brotherhood only stoked fears that Moscow saw Crimea—if not all of Ukraine—as its own, and despite Kirill invoking Rus, his detractors were reminded of the Soviet Union and its imperial legacy.

However, on Wednesday, March 19, the Moscow Patriarchate announced that the churches of Crimea would remain under Ukrainian leadership. This came as a surprise to nearly everyone. In effect, the Holy Synod (the leadership body of the Moscow Patriarchate) has doubled down on its promise of treating the Ukrainian church under its jurisdiction as a sister and not as offspring. In fact, Crimea’s political but not ecclesial redefinition has allowed the Moscow Patriarchate to trumpet the Orthodox Church as a dynamic and global communion, rising above petty political squabbles, much as it did during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. Citing the example of Montenegro, which is now a sovereign nation, but whose churches are part of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Synod said that (translation my own): “the borders of the local Orthodox churches quite often do not coincide with the borders of the state and they do not change under the influence of political pressures.” This was hardly the case in the wake of the catastrophic events surrounding the creation and destruction of the U.S.S.R—one might read the Synod’s address as a smart and lasting strategy for attempting to maintain its religious unity (and thereby authority) without appearing to be in Putin’s shadow.

While quiet may be falling over Crimea and Kiev’s Maidan, one ought to bear in mind that religious differences, real or perceived, were never the catalyst for the protests and referendum of the last months. Studies from Ukraine and the United States resoundingly confirm that the people of Ukraine are most concerned about their economic lives—employment, inflation, healthcare—and are most angry about political corruption, cronyism and the oppression of protesters. If churches—Orthodox, Catholic, Baptist or other—want to show their support for the well-being and self-determination of the Ukrainian people, they would be best off using their social, cultural, and political leverage to ensure better lives and better governance for their congregations.

March 26th, 2014

Varieties of Religious Establishment

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In a recently published edited volume, Varieties of Religious Establishment, editors Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and Lori G. Beaman ask contributors to think about religion in public life by considering varieties of religious establishment, rather than of religious freedom. From the publisher:

Advocacy for religious freedom has become a global project while religion, and the management of religion, has become of increasing interest to scholars across a wider range of disciplines. Rather than adopting the common assumption that religious freedom is simply incompletely realized, the authors in this book suggest that the starting point for understanding religion in public life today should be religious establishment. In the hyper-globalized world of the politics of religious freedom today, a focus on establishments brings into view the cultural assumptions, cosmologies, anthropologies, and institutions which structure religion and religious diversity.

Leading international scholars from a diverse range of disciplines explore how countries today live with religious difference and consider how considering establishments reveals the limitations of universal, multicultural, and interfaith models of religious freedom. Examining the various forms religion takes in Tunisia, Canada, Taiwan, South Africa, and the USA, amongst others, this book argues that legal protections for religious freedom can only be understood in a context of socially and culturally specific constraints.

To read more about the book, please click here. Read a preview here.

March 21st, 2014

The Muslim Marvel

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At Religion Dispatches, TIF editorial associate Wei Zhu reviews the landmark first issue of Ms. Marvel, which features a teenaged Muslim girl from Jersey City.

The introduction of Kamala Khan is the latest in the longstanding tradition of comic books diversifying their characters to better reflect and reach out to their audiences. More specifically, Ms. Marvel #1 is part of the All-New Marvel NOW!, an initiative with the explicit aim of attracting new readers, much like DC Comics’ The New 52 revamp.

The last few years have seen several other notable attempts at creating a more diverse comic universe, from the creation of the Jewish and lesbian Kate Kane (as Batwoman) and the Black and Hispanic Miles Morales (as Spider-Man), to the same-sex wedding of X-Men member Northstar.

Of course, these efforts were not received entirely without controversy. Some saw them as mere publicity stunts, while others decried the minority aspect as feeling forced and tokenish.

Kamala’s creators, then, faced a difficult task. She needed to be shaped by her Muslim background, but not an embodiment of all that is Islam. She needed to be more than a one-dimensional stereotype, but not completely free of cultural specificity.

Fortunately, writer G. Willow Wilson, editor Sana Amanat, and artist Adrian Alphona have created a superheroine who stands well on her own.

Read the full piece here.

March 17th, 2014

Securing the Sacred: Religion, National Security, and the Western State

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In his new book, Securing the Sacred, Robert M. Bosco examines how secular states attempt to understand and engage religious ideas and actors in the name of national security. Specifically, Bosco argues that religion became a “national security enigma” for Western, secular states after 9/11. The book compares and contrasts the framing of religion as a national security referent by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States following 9/11, and traces the successes and failures of the policies that flowed from these framings. From the publisher:

Despite significant theoretical distinctions between securitization on the domestic and the international levels, he finds that the outcome of addressing religion within the context of security hinges upon partnerships. Whereas states may harness the power of international allies, they cannot often find analogous domestic allies; therefore, states that attempt to securitize religion at home are more vulnerable to counterattack and more likely to abandon their efforts. This book makes a significant contribution to the fields of political theory, international relations, Islamic studies, and security/military studies.

To read more about the book, please click here.

March 10th, 2014

Egypt after the coup

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EGYPT-POLITICS-UNREST, by Flickr user Globovisión | CC BY-NC 2.0

On July 3, 2013, after four days of intense public protests, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was removed, by force, from elected office. A violent backlash against Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, quickly followed his ouster. Hundreds of protesters—perhaps thousands—were killed when Egyptian security forces raided a pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque. Several news outlets sympathetic to the Brotherhood have been shuttered and journalists have been detained. Morsi himself is on trial on various charges filed after the coup, and has been kept in a soundproof cage during recent proceedings.

The backlash against Morsi and the Brotherhood reflects deep tensions in Egyptian society over the place of religion in politics and public life. Though the turmoil in the streets has subsided over the last eight months, debate has raged around Egypt’s new constitution, which was approved in a referendum in January 2014. Critics of the constitution focused, in particular, on a provision that bans parties formed “on a religious basis,” which could have consequences for opposition voices on both ends of the spectrum. As Marwa Yaha reports, though Islam remains the state religion, scholars of Egypt predict that Islamic parties will be banned, forcing them to move underground and narrow their focus to a “virtually singular goal: resistance to the military-backed government.”

Meanwhile, the government is expanding its crackdown to an “ever-widening list of enemies,” including Islamic charities, all the while blaming the Brotherhood for the unrest. Some commentators, notably Ashraf El-Sherif and Ed Husain, have argued that the Brotherhood must adapt if it hopes to reenter Egyptian politics, primarily by distancing itself from ultraconservative Islamic sects and moving to the center.

In addition, several observers have examined the “problem of religion” in Egypt. At openDemocracy, Egyptian scholar Amr Osman predicts that the fundamentally conservative scholars in Egypt’s “religious establishment” will draw closer to the military government, providing religious justifications for violence and repression. In her interview with scholar Saiyad Ahmad, Johana Bhuiyan details the use of fatwas for this purpose:

"Religion is for God, and the revolution is for all," by Joseph Hill | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“WPJ: Simply stated, have fatwas become politicized?

S.A.: Absolutely. How could they not? I think that people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, invariably commit an unintentional error when discussing and studying Islam and Muslims, and that is that even with the advent of modern times the vast majority of Muslims who do not live in the West simply do not separate politics and religion. They do not consider religion to be one compartment and politics to be another. For them, religion is politics, and politics is religion.”

Meanwhile, at Religion Dispatches, Asma Afsaruddin writes that all sides in the Egyptian conflict are guilty of exploiting religious rhetoric to advance their goals:

“The cynical use of religion to justify calculated political strategies is in fact disturbingly evident on both sides. Al-Sisi and his allies have declared Morsi’s supporters to be “terrorists” guilty of inciting violence against the government, drawing a ready equation between Islamism and terrorism.…

Certain members of the Muslim Brotherhood on the other hand claim to be carrying out a “jihad” against the military government and have been willing to register their moral outrage by risking death at the hands of the army.

Well-established Islamic political thought and history would prove both sides to be abusing Islamic legal terminology. From the viewpoint of classical scholarship, Muslims do not wage jihad against one another; the military form of it was reserved for external aggressors only.”

The crisis in Egypt has also proved thorny for U.S. policymakers, many of whom express disappointment in the apparent “failure” of the democratic experiment there. However, writes Dr. Kent Davis-Packard, Americans and Egyptians disagree on a fundamental level about the meaning and importance of democracy:

“What has democracy done?” lamented a cab driver, who said he would prefer Egypt to go back to the days of ousted President Hosni Mubarak. “People have died. We have more violence and no security.” For Egyptians like him, democracy was the process by which a government—the Muslim Brotherhood—was elected, failed and then was removed from power by a dramatic street uprising with the help of the military. They heard the West’s encouragement to turn back to the ballot box. But from the people’s perspective, the ballot box did not bring “bread, freedom and social justice”—their demands at Tahrir Square. Instead, it brought constant conflict, uncertainty and no relief from increasingly dire security and economic problems. Like two ships passing in the night, western leaders continue to call for democratic transition in Egypt—while Egyptians increasingly wonder whether democracy can really get them what they want.”

The 2013 coup has also prompted reflection on both the fruits and challenges of the 2011 “Arab Spring.” At the Washington Post, Max Fisher questions the objectives of a new documentary about the uprising. Khaled Famy asks what has really changed in Egypt since 2011. For the French magazine OrientXII, Peter Harling and Yasser el-Shimy reflect on “Egypt’s Quest for Itself.” Finally, on his blog, journalist Patrick Galey looks back on the events he covered last year, asserting that “2013 was the year the revolution died.”

March 10th, 2014

Scientology as religion

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As part of the discussion and workshop on “Beyond Critique,” Lorenzo Zucca, Reader in Jurisprudence at King’s College London, writes about the definition of religion as it relates to Scientology. At I·CONnect, the blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law, he writes:

Scientology is a religion: this much is clear in the UK Supreme Court’s December 11 ruling in the high profile case of Hodkin v Registrar. The facts of the case are simple. Mrs. Hodkin wants to get married in Church with her fiancé. The only problem is that the Church of Scientology is not registered as a place of worship according to the Place of Worship Registration Act 1855 (PWRA). Moreover, a 1970 precedent of the Court of Appeal (Segerdal) ruled that Scientology is not a religion because it does not believe in any God (Lord Denning), and in any case it does not worship in a manner that can be compared to any other established religion (Winn & Buckley LJ).

Last week, the UK Supreme Court overruled its precedent in a clear and forceful way. Scientology is a religion and its premises should be registered for the purpose of solemnizing a religious marriage. This result is not surprising and largely expected. It seems to be the correct result since there was no readily available principled reason to exclude Scientology from a religious benefit that applies to all other religions.

Read more here.

March 5th, 2014

Are academics cloistered?

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Recently, The New York Times published an article by Nicholas Kristof that lamented how academics, cloistered like medieval monks, have retreated from the public policy arena. Kristof cites a few institutional reasons for this phenomenon, including the decline in humanities funding, but also critiques academics for marginalizing themselves. The column has, unsurprisingly, triggered a debate among academics, policy-makers, and journalists about the merits of Kristof’s arguments, as well as potential causes and solutions. Some are sympathetic to Kristof’s points, but note the occupational, political, and structural factors that incentivize academic work that is not always accessible to non-academics. One such response comes from Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics who contributes frequently to a variety of media outlets. Having interacted with “Beltway types and money folks” throughout his career, he writes:

For example, in my career the piece of research that has had the greatest impact in Washington was an article that argued China’s ownership of U.S. debt did not and would not translate into political leverage. This argument seemed very counterintuitive to D.C. insiders, who insisted that this was a serious problem and that Beijing’s debt holdings “gives the Chinese de facto veto power” over U.S. policymaking. It seemed manifestly obvious to my international political economy colleagues, however. I wrote that article to get the ear of policymakers, and I succeeded in that task. Among my academic colleagues, I’ve received fainter praise. That article did not develop a new theory or uncover a new hypothesis; it merely confirmed what most scholars already believed. This kind of research isn’t seen as “cutting edge” – the kiss of death in the academy. Because it rests on settled wisdom, it would be hard for me to claim the argument as my innovation. So the incentive for junior faculty to perform this kind of scholarship is still pretty minimal.

Drezner, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, is in the curious position of having his CEO agree with Kristof’s thesis, tweeting that academic articles are often “opaque, abstract, incremental, dull”a characterization seemingly shared by the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haas, who calls much of the work of university departments irrelevant. But Drezner is one of the many academics who are arguably more engaged publicly than they previously would have been, thanks to the increasing number of ways to reach a wider public audience via the Internet. However, academia’s view of writing on the web has been complicated; Drezner, for one, has touched on this topic many times before, and it is a relationship that is still sometimes tense. As Joshua Rothman explains at The New Yorker, the Internet has not changed the processes of academic research and writing in the same ways that it has changed journalism:

It may be that being a journalist makes it unusually hard for Kristof to see what’s going on in academia. That’s because journalism, which is in the midst of its own transformation, is moving in a populist direction. There are more writers than ever before, writing for more outlets, including on their own blogs, Web sites, and Twitter streams. The pressure on established journalists is to generate traffic. New and clever forms of content are springing up all the time—GIFs, videos, “interactives,” and so on. Dissenters may publish op-eds encouraging journalists to abandon their “culture of populism” and write fewer listicles, but changes in the culture of journalism are, at best, only a part of the story. Just as important, if not more so, are economic and technological developments having to do with subscription models, revenue streams, apps, and devices.

In academia, by contrast, all the forces are pushing things the other way, toward insularity. As in journalism, good jobs are scarce—but, unlike in journalism, professors are their own audience. This means that, since the liberal-arts job market peaked, in the mid-seventies, the audience for academic work has been shrinking. Increasingly, to build a successful academic career you must serially impress very small groups of people (departmental colleagues, journal and book editors, tenure committees). Often, an academic writer is trying to fill a niche. Now, the niches are getting smaller. Academics may write for large audiences on their blogs or as journalists. But when it comes to their academic writing, and to the research that underpins it—to the main activities, in other words, of academic life—they have no choice but to aim for very small targets. Writing a first book, you may have in mind particular professors on a tenure committee; miss that mark and you may not have a job. Academics know which audiences—and, sometimes, which audience members—matter.

Over at The Washington Post, Erik Voeten, a professor of government, takes a stronger stance by emphatically refuting Kristof’s argument, with the headline: “Dear Nicholas Kristof: We are right here!“:

I think that Kristof means well, and there is surely something to the general themes he touches upon. I am not saying that all is well in the land of pol-sci academia. Yet, the piece is just a merciless exercise in stereotyping. It’s like saying that op-ed writers just get their stories from cab drivers and pay little or no attention to facts. There are hundreds of academic political scientists whose research is far from irrelevant and who seek to communicate their insights to the general public via blogs, social media, op-eds, online lectures and so on. They are easier to find than ever before. Indeed The New York Times just found one to help fill the void of Nate Silver’s departure. I am with Steve Saideman that political scientists are now probably engaging the public more than ever.

Voeten writes from the “The Monkey Cage,” a blog started in 2007 by a group of academics with the explicit mission of publicizing academic research and indulging in their own non-academic interests. The site has been successful in doing so, and its move to The Washington Post last year only serves to further increase and broaden its audience. Writing at “Crooked Timber,” another such academic blog, Corey Rubin, a professor of political science, builds further on Voeten’s critique, and notes that Kristof’s understanding of “public engagement” is rather specific:

So what is he really talking about, then? You begin to get a clue of what he’s really talking about, then, by noticing two of the people he approvingly cites and quotes in his critique of academia: Anne-Marie Slaughter and Jill Lepore.

Kristof holds up both women—one the former dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, the other the holder of an endowed chair at Harvard—as examples of publicly engaged scholars. In addition to their academic posts, Slaughter was Obama’s Director of Policy Planning at the State Department (George Kennan’s position, once upon a time) and a frequent voice on the front pages of every major newspaper; Lepore is an immensely prolific and widely read staff writer at The New Yorker.

Beyond these two examples of public intellectuals, Kristof also harkens back to the Kennedy era in his follow-up pieces at The New York Times and on Facebook. He cites the administration’s “‘brain trust’ of Harvard faculty members,” and insists that “university professors were often vital public intellectuals who served off and on in government,” singling out former National Security Advisor McGeorge “Mac” Bundy as an example. Of course, as Samuel Goldman writes at The American Conservative, intellectuals like Bundy often moved between “Harvard Yard and Washington, usually without encountering many members of the public along the way.” In fact, some of the same medieval monks that Kristof deridesHildegard of Bingen and Bernard of Clairvaux, for examplewere arguably more “public” than the intellectuals from the Kennedy administration, wielding tremendous political and theological influence during their lifetimes and beyond. One issue with the narrative of the decline of the public intellectual is that it is difficult to define what, exactly, “public” means. News media is certainly not the only venue for public engagement; many scholars are, in fact, active on social mediawitness the rise of the #EngagedAcademics on Twitter (triggered by Kristof’s column). Moreover, overlooked in much of these discussions is perhaps the most important “public” for academics: students.

Kristof’s complaint is not particularly new—the charge that academia is a field divorced from the practices and concerns of the real world dates back at least to Aristophanes, who satirized Socrates and his ilk in the play The Clouds. It is true that some academics study topics and use language unfamiliar to the average person, but so do athletes, mechanics, and generals. (Sports, particularly baseball and basketball, is an interesting comparison, given the growing acceptance of analytics and quantitative data in understanding players and games among both teams and fans, which is due, in part, to academic work.) Academic journals and working papers remain the standard method of disseminating and publishing research, though their unwieldinessthe time it takes to process a paper, the costs of subscribing to a journalhas been increasingly recognized. The rise of the Internet has, however, diversified the ways people can engage with a wider audience, and academics are increasingly taking advantage of its new platforms, be it through a tweet or a post at a digital forum.

February 26th, 2014

Theorizing religion in modern Europe

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Theorizing ReligionOn March 7-8, 2014, Harvard University will host an international conference entitled “Theorizing Religion in Modern Europe.” The conference will bring together a number of leading and up-and-coming scholars to explore the subject of religion, secularism, democracy and law in modern European thought.

Participants will include: James KloppenbergJoan Scott, José Casanova, Slavica Jakelic, James Chappel, Judith Surkis, Mayanthi Fernando, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Samuel Moyn, Piotr Kosicki, Giuliana Chamedes, Aristotle Papanikolaou, Brad Gregory, Eric Nelson, Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, Sarah Shortall, Friedrich Wilhelm Graf, Malika Zeghal, Brenna Moore, Charles Lockwood, Charly Coleman, David Nirenberg, Jonathan Sheehan, Ann Blair, Peter E. Gordon, Gil Anidjar, and Hent de Vries.

A conference schedule can be found here.

February 24th, 2014

Boundaries of Toleration

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In Boundaries of Toleration, editors Alfred Stepan and Charles Taylor ask: “How can people of diverse religious, ethnic, and linguistic allegiances and identities live together without committing violence, inflicting suffering, or oppressing each other?” From the publisher:

In this volume, contributors explore the limits of toleration and suggest we think beyond them to mutual respect. Salman Rushdie reflects on the once tolerant Sufi-Hindu culture of Kashmir. Ira Katznelson follows with an intellectual history of toleration as a layered institution in the West. Charles Taylor advances a new approach to secularism in our multicultural world, and Akeel Bilgrami responds by offering context and caution to that approach. Nadia Urbinati explores why Cicero’s humanist ideal of Concord was not used in response to religious discord. The volume concludes with a refutation of the claim that toleration was invented in the West. Rajeev Bhargava writes on Asoka’s India, and Karen Barkey explores toleration within the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires. Sudipta Kaviraj examines accommodations and conflicts in India, and Alfred Stepan highlights contributions to toleration and multiple democratic secularisms in such Muslim-majority countries as Indonesia and Senegal.

To read more about the book, please click here.

February 20th, 2014

The Charter of Quebec Values in the media: Panic, contempt, and division

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The recent media buzz stirred up by a sad story captures well the sense of uneasiness pervading Quebec since the ruling Parti Québécois (PQ) began working to implement a bill known as the “Charter of Quebec Values,” which would ban state employees from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols.” On January 30th, in the morning rush hour of Montreal, a woman descended toward the subway train. While riding down the escalator, her scarf got caught in the mechanism, and as she was trying to get it out, her hair also got stuck. When she reached the ground, the scarf was firmly cinched around her neck, so tightly that she quickly died by strangulation. As tragic as it is, such an accident would not have made the front pages under normal circumstances.

But the deceased was a veiled woman. Before she was even identified, journalists, bloggers and social media enthusiasts started asking: was the woman strangled by an “ordinary scarf” or by an Islamic veil? The fact that a woman had actually died became peripheral. “Is a veil the cause of her death?” was the hot question. Less than an hour after the drama, Quebec’s most watched TV channel (TVA) reported that the women was “strangled to death by her hijab.” The day after, Quebec’s most widely read newspaper (Le journal de Montréal) ran the headline, “A woman dies, strangled by her hijab.” The escalator, the mechanism, and other basic elements of the story were now out of the picture. All that was left was a poor woman and a malicious hijab. While nasty comments such as “hijab kills” were filling the social media sphere, the rest of Quebec’s media stuck to the narrative of the police report, which alluded to a “scarf.” Newspapers like Le Devoir and The Gazette even avoided referring to any kind of garment in their titles.

The Terms of the Debate

This sad episode is instructive on at least three counts. First, it shows that Quebec’s media are not only divided about the government’s proposed Charter; they also differ markedly in their coverage of news events involving “religious symbols.” Second, it teaches us that the media outlets that most forcefully support the contentious aspects of the Charter (Le journal de Montréal, Le journal de Québec and TVA) do so primarily through the reporting of current affairs and human interest stories. These three media giants do not run editorials on the government’s proposal; they cover the topic in a way that speaks to what William Connolly has called the “visceral register.” Odds are that the Charter’s popularity owes a lot to these media giants—which, incidentally, all belong to the same corporation: Québecor Média.

Finally, this media hype around an ordinary drama leads us straight into the heart of the disputed issue: the proper place of “religious symbols.” It is worth stressing, however, that the proposed Charter (also named Bill 60) is a much more encompassing program. It articulates three interlinked projects. The first seeks to set “clear rules on religious accommodation” and thus complete the process initiated by the consultation commission chaired by Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor (for more on the Taylor-Bouchard report, see Audrey-Ann Lavallée Bélanger’s piece). The second project aims to affirm Quebec’s values (among them, sexual equality and the predominance of the French language) in order to “clarify the social contract that binds us together.”

The fact that the Charter does more than ban religious symbols is commonly overlooked. And yet, it is crucial to note that each of the above projects enjoys a broad and rare consensus in the public as well as in the media. The debate therefore revolves around the third project, that of “establishing the religious neutrality of the state.” Even here, nearly no one objects to the principle of state religious neutrality; the puzzle is to decide what such neutrality entails. The government claims that individuals representing a neutral state must appear religiously neutral before the public, and therefore refrain from wearing religious symbols. But not everyone agrees with this line of reasoning.

State Neutrality and Religious Symbols: What does the Press Say?

In addition to the sensationalist tabloids Journal de Montréal and Journal de Québec, four daily newspapers dominate Quebec’s media scene: La Presse, Le Devoir, Le Soleil and The Gazette. The oldest of all, La Presse, has opposed the ban of religious symbols from day one. Pragmatically, the center-right newspaper argues that if parliament passes the bill, religious minorities will feel “ostracized,” and will prefer to live (and work) in other provinces of Canada. Polemically, La Presse adds that prohibiting religious symbols not only contravenes religious freedom; it also violates Quebec values. Echoing the Quebec Liberal Party, it suggests transferring the task of managing religious diversity to local state institutions (schools, hospitals, universities, etc.).

Published in Quebec City, Le Soleil belongs to the same news corporation: Gesca. Without great surprise, its take on the Charter resembles that of La Presse. Right after the unveiling of the Charter, the capital’s newspapers conjectured that its enforcement would cause a wave of brain drain, citing as evidence the slogan created by an Ontarian hospital as a means to attract Muslim medical students: “We don’t care what’s on your head. We care what’s in it.” Le Soleil and La Presse regularly deploy economic arguments in their campaign against the Charter, whether by insisting on the judiciary cost of its enforcement or on its negative impact on Quebec’s economic performance.

By contrast, the position of Le Devoir (center-left) is more overtly political. Quebec’s only independent large-circulation newspaper has been fairly sympathetic to the government’s project. Like nearly all newspapers, it supports the religious neutrality of Quebec’s state. But unlike most, Le Devoir endorses the government’s rationale according to which employees of a religiously neutral state ought not to display religious symbols. Supportive of the project of Quebec’s independence, Le Devoir called early on for a moderate and consensual Charter, one that could be integrated into a future Constitution of Quebec. As the proposed Charter failed to forge consensus, it asked for compromises, while insisting that the debate is worth having and must be held in the public sphere (rather than in the more limited legal sphere).

Of all the media coverage, that of The Gazette has arguably been the most critical in Quebec. The proposed Charter is “unnecessary, intolerant, hypocritical and cynical,” wrote Montréal’s premier English language newspaper. This “abomination,” argues the editorial board, is meant to “exploit fears and divisions in Quebec society.” Still, despite the radical and moralistic tone, The Gazette has never condemned the debate on the public expression of religion being held in Quebec since last August. On the contrary, the newspaper maintains that “Quebec might yet be better in the long run for having had this debate, depressing as it may be in some of its aspects.” Here, perhaps, lies the decisive contrast between the media coverage in Quebec and in the rest of Canada. Top national newspapers such as The Globe & Mail and The National Post have mocked the “laughable Charter” from the get-go. But in addition, they have constantly scorned the debate launched by the PQ, stressing the “absurdity of [the] entire exercise” and blaming “Quebec politicians’ xenophobic instincts” for it (oblivious to the fact that most politicians in Quebec reject the proposed Charter).

Navigating the narrow path between the sense of panic whipped up by the sensational tabloids and the contempt of the English-speaking press outside Quebec, Quebecers carry on with the debate. But as the parliamentary consultations over the Charter are in full swing in Quebec City, the public is—like the media—utterly divided. More importantly, it is divided along unconventional lines. Feminists, syndicalists, entrepreneurs, immigrants, and sovereignists all have to deal with quarrels in their ranks as the Charter cleaves apart political parties, social movements, and media houses. If The Gazette is right in saying that aspects of this debate are depressing, perhaps we should tell ourselves (paraphrasing Sartre) that a quarrel is another way of living together without losing sight of one another.

February 19th, 2014

Mourning a political saint in Johannesburg

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On December 6, 2013, I, along with millions of South Africans, woke to the news that Nelson Mandela had died. For the next ten days, South Africans would be plunged into a liminal period of commemoration: one marked by scenes of celebration, protest, and jubilation rather than tears and lament. As a white North American, conducting field research for my dissertation, this proved an incredible time of reflection. In what follows, I offer some snapshots of how Mandela was memorialized in Johannesburg and what this reveals about the current religious, political, and racial landscape.

A friend remarked on Facebook that she always thought when Mandela died the whole world would stop and weep for days. Instead, life went on. The reaction in South Africa was largely muted —no weeping, no wailing, just a sense of relief that at last their beloved icon was no longer suffering. For the past year, the country had been preparing itself for this moment. So when the news finally broke, people largely went about their business. But by the end of the day, things started to shift. Hundreds of people began to make spontaneous pilgrimages to the home where Mandela died in Houghton, a wealthy suburban neighborhood in Johannesburg, and to Mandela’s former home in the historic black township of Soweto, which has now been turned into a museum. A third memorial site emerged in the wealthy suburb of Sandton at Nelson Mandela Square. Known as the “richest mile in Africa,” Sandton is an economic powerhouse. Bolstered by “white flight” from Johannesburg starting in the 1980s, and the relocation of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in the late 1990s, Sandton is a symbol of South Africa’s “world-class” market competitiveness. Its gleaming sky scrapers and luxurious malls face the skyline of a dilapidated, though vibrant, city center.

The differences between these sites could not have been starker. Taken together, they illuminate much about the multiple and conflicting legacies of Madiba. Mourners could choose which Mandela they were going to celebrate: Mandela the struggle hero and freedom fighter; Mandela the icon of reconciliation; or Mandela the economic savior. On Vilakazi Street in Soweto, the focus was not so much on the man, but on a larger political struggle. While international tourists regularly visit Soweto, during the Mandela mourning period, it was the locals who flocked there to bring flowers, to sign posters, but more importantly to drink, dance, and sing. In particular, the singing of protest songs by younger black South Africans became a way to express pride and hopes for a better future, an alcohol-fueled tribute to the promise of black political power in a local context still plagued by mass poverty and unemployment.

In Houghton, the crowd was much more racially diverse and predominantly middle-class. Also visible were Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish South Africans. Here, perhaps more than any other site, St. Mandela was honored. Parents accompanied their children as they laid flowers and wrote notes to Madiba, thanking him for the gift of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace. A massive wall of flowers, notes, and candles sprawled anarchically into the street.

Though visitors near the wall were somber, the deafening sound of struggle songs and the constant flash of cameras created a festive mood. Hawkers also descended, quickly finding a way to brand anything and everything with Mandela.

In Sandton, at Nelson Mandela Square, the tone was completely different. The square, adjacent to two luxury shopping malls, is lined with upscale eateries. At one end, stands an imposing 20 foot bronze statue of Nelson Mandela: a visible reminder that the first democratically elected president traded protection of white wealth in return for black political enfranchisement. At this memorial site, everything was neat, ordered, and efficient. No music, no dancing, no alcohol, no hawkers. Uniformed personnel directed the well-dressed multi-racial crowd to a roped off memorial area.

Perhaps because the environment was so controlled, one black woman stood out to me. Wearing a bright wig of South African colors, she had her own message to offer on a hand-painted sign: Mandela, 2nd Jesus Christ.

Much has been said about the “official” memorial service at FNB stadium in Johannesburg, where current South African president Jacob Zuma was unceremoniously booed. Less commented on was the Day of Prayer and Reflection called by President Zuma the previous Sunday. Churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues were encouraged to celebrate Mandela on Dec. 8. The choice of Sunday, rather than a weekend of reflection, points to the dominance of Christianity in South Africa despite religious pluralism and a secular state. The church I attended is a well-known charismatic mega-church in suburban Johannesburg, which sees itself at the forefront of a religious revival in Africa. This church is predominantly black, while its leadership is almost exclusively white. It appeals to upwardly mobile African immigrants and black South Africans, as well as white South Africans who want a sense that they are worshiping in a “Rainbow Nation.”

I was curious to see how this congregation, which views itself on a mission to bring South Africa “back” to God, would choose to mark Mandela’s death. This is a church that seamlessly blends eschatological language of building “God’s Kingdom” with the political rhetoric of nation building. Twenty years after the formal end of apartheid, the idea of creating a new nation still resonates deeply with many. Within this context, Mandela often emerges as the “saint of political miracles” who secured peace and economic prosperity. In charismatic mega-churches, especially, wealth creation is vigorously embraced. Personal wealth is considered the means through which God intends to bless the poor and marginalized: a divine trickle-down plan that mirrors the neo-liberal economic policies adopted by the African National Congress. Thus, as the worship band launched into the national anthem, the congregation responded with visible and heightened emotion. Several black congregants raised their fists in the air —a defiant symbol of the black struggle for liberation and the power of the people. After the national anthem, a carefully orchestrated multiracial group of leaders took a moment to “honour the gift the Lord has given to the nation” through prayer. They also jubilantly reported that Mandela died a “believer,” giving congregants full permission to embrace the fallen hero as a divine agent.

Prior to Mandela’s death, it was not unusual to hear white North Americans worry about what would happen in South Africa when Mandela died. I suspect some of these racial fears are influenced by those white South Africans who remain pessimistic about shifts in power relations. Yet, the lack of panic reported in the wake of Mandela’s death convinced me that a sizable number of white South Africans increasingly feel secure about their social position. Many black middle-class urbanites are also relatively optimistic, an attitude reinforced by the lyrics of a song sung at the church I attended: “South Africa belongs to Jesus.” They believe that South Africa has an important global role to play and that the future is one of prosperity.

On the other hand, most South Africans confess that the country is far from achieving Mandela’s vision, even if they disagree as to the reasons why. Today, South Africa is marked less by unity and a common vision than by a sense of polarization and contestation. The current president Jacob Zuma, in comparison with Mandela, is viewed as a national sinner—besieged by allegations of corruption and sexual assault. Many worry that extreme social inequalities (which are still indexed by race) remain too complex for Mandela’s vision of forgiveness and inclusion to solve. Thus, it is no surprise that what seemed to be really mourned at the grassroots, in places like Soweto, was the notion of struggle itself. The project of black liberation has yet to be fully realized.

Nevertheless, Mandela’s death provided something rare: a multiplicity of opportunities for South Africans, who are so often divided by race and class, to unite around a common cultural symbol (Mandela) and participate in “grey” zones. The memorial sites, and the figure of Mandela himself, offered momentary freedom from ordinary social constraints and renewed hope for a more just and non-racial society. A deep longing to embody the values and ideals associated with Mandela, even if these values are understood differently, was exemplified by the thousands who visited the sites. These memorials provided much needed space to reflect, but more than that, they offered an alternate social experience. The non-stop struggle songs sung from morning to night in Soweto and in Houghton, the passionate singing of the national anthem in the middle of a church service, proves that the revolutionary spirit did not die with Mandela. His mythic legacy will live on because the majority of South Africans will remember Mandela as a freedom fighter who was willing to suffer and die for his beliefs. Despite Mandela’s claim that “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying,” the pilgrimages made in Johannesburg, and across South Africa, suggest that the public felt otherwise.

February 18th, 2014

CFP: Rethinking Political Catholicism

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On May 22-23, 2014, John Cabot University, as part of its Summer Summer Graduate Studies in Religion and Global Politics will host an international conference called “Rethinking Political Catholicism: Empirical and Normative Perspectives.”

Although the study of religion and politics has blossomed over the past decade, the normative debates over the appropriate place of religion in modern democracies often remain divorced from the study of the actual practices and meanings of religion in these democracies. Consequently, many new normative concepts and arguments have not filtered down to the empirical study of religion, while normative debates are often inadequately informed by the empirical realities of contemporary religious practices and beliefs.

Rethinking Political Catholicism aims to bridge this divide by focusing on the fertile case of political Catholicism in Italy. Empirically, the conference aims to take stock of political Catholicism in Italy today, compare it with Catholic and Muslim politics elsewhere, and use contemporary theoretical and normative insights to better understand its post-secular dynamics. Normatively, the conference aims to evaluate the practices of contemporary political Catholicism in Italy and elsewhere, and thus contribute to developing a more sophisticated debate about the proper roles of religious politics in contemporary democracies.

A 500-word abstract of a paper should be sent by March 15, 2014, to the organizers, Tom Bailey (tbailey@johncabot.edu) and Michael Driessen (mdriessen@johncabot.edu). For further details on the conference, and on the submission of proposals, see the full call for papers.