here & there

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 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 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

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.