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January 22nd, 2015

Corporate veil or wall of separation?

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We stand unitedThe U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby raises a series of important questions for public debate. If for-profit corporations are entitled to exercise freedom of religion, then as a civil society we must consider certain questions that follow from this extension of the prerogatives traditionally granted to churches and other religious organizations, as well as to individuals acting in their private capacities. My analysis will focus on these larger questions of policy and attempt to provide some further context for the debate that should now occur.

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, whose insights are always penetrating on these issues and worth pondering carefully, has missed the mark in her earlier reaction to the decision. She uses Hobby Lobby as an example of the reductio ad absurdum of the logic of freedom of religion, and argues that we (especially liberal exponents of toleration) are unable to reasonably deny freedom of religion in cases where the substantive rights guaranteed seem intolerable to many. I respectfully disagree.

January 21st, 2015

Twitter, scripture and practice: A twessay on #ttQuran

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In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful #ttQuran

What is #ttQuran?
We will tell you what is #ttQuran.

What is #ttQuran?
Truly you do not know what is #ttQuran.
To know #ttQuran is beyond.
It is only my ability to tell you about #ttQuran.
#ttQuran is a revelation.

Again, #ttQuran is a revelation.

January 20th, 2015

Corporation as sect

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We stand unitedIt is easy to forget that religious freedom wasn’t an only child: she was a part of a family of counter-measures listed in the First Amendment. The naming of religion in the Constitution was, and is, a defensive move: whatever government does, it should not get in the way of its citizens trying to articulate their opinions—opinions articulated through speech, through the press, through assemblage, and through petition. Religion appears in the Establishment Clause as a reminder that religion has been one of the things that has kept people from being able to reply freely to their governments. Free from influences within government, and free from religions that compete with government in their authority.

January 16th, 2015

How to make someone famous for the wrong reason

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Shahin Najafi - Unplugged Concert in Toronto | Image via Flickr user Reza VaziriShahin Najafi never set out to be a rapper, much less “Salman Rushdie of Rap,” but in early 2012, global notoriety was thrust upon the exiled Iranian singer after an ayatollah issued a fatwa against his single, “Naghi.” No doubt the young songwriter aimed to provoke—the track’s cover art depicts the dome of a well-known Shiite shrine re-imagined as a woman’s breast with a rainbow flag flying from the summit—but his satirical rhymes took aim at much more than Islam or conservative clerics. Nevertheless, Najafi became both victim and beneficiary of “catastrophic celebrity.”

How do you create “catastrophic celebrity”? First, find an artist whose work outrages some representative of a religious tradition, landing the artist in dire circumstances. Next, export the story of the outrage and the resulting drama out of its original cultural context, and count on others to disseminate the story without discovering or exploring this context. Several things result, the combination of which creates catastrophic celebrity.

January 14th, 2015

The privilege of spirit: The liberal concern with religious liberty claims

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Defend Religious Liberty | Image via Ronit Y. StahlA few blocks from my apartment, a neighbor has displayed a placard proclaiming “Defend Religious Liberty.” These words could encompass a range of meanings and raise any number of questions. What, exactly, does religious liberty entail? Who claims it? Who attacks it? But no one is left wondering for long, as the graphics define the intent of the sign more explicitly. Behind the capitalized words, an eagle shares space with an American flag and a cross. Defending religious liberty in the United States, the illustration bellows, is patriotic. And it means protecting Christianity.

This sign, I think, signifies the key issue for liberals in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2014 term major religion decisions—Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Wheaton College v. Burwell, and Town of Greece v. Galloway. The core concern is not with the mixing of religion and profit, or sexual matters. Instead, it is a gnawing sense of unease about the solicitude granted to the type of religion that has long been powerful, but is presented by its adherents as marginalized; in short, the problem lies in the twin-set of power and privilege.

January 12th, 2015

Religion: The Game

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Envy the life of a Harry Potter fan. Her imaginary world is barely imaginary. She can walk into the halls of Hogwarts through dozens of not-so-secret doors: eight major-studio films, role-playing chat rooms, video game franchises, a theme park roller coaster, a local Quidditch league, dress-up conventions, fan-authored stories or—and these are completely optional—the books written by J. K. Rowling.

Our twenty-first-century stories have evolved—or returned—to a more participatory format, a phenomenon which in the academy is coming under the critical rubric of cross-media or trans-media. Such stories are no longer discreet entities that exist between two covers but cultural experiences, a wide space to explore. Play Downtown Abbey: the Game. Watch Battleship: the Movie. Jump on the Transformers roller-coaster ride. The “real” form of a story dwindles in importance. On opening night of the 50 Shades of Grey movie, it’s barely a footnote that the story began as fan-fiction on a Twilight message board.

January 8th, 2015

On the unreasonableness of legal religion

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We stand unitedToward the end of her Burwell v. Hobby Lobby dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg finally gets to the heart of the problem. Describing a slew of contentious claims that might follow the Court’s decision, she asks, “Would RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] require exemptions in cases of this ilk? And if not, how does the Court divine which religious beliefs are worthy of accommodation, and which are not?” Yes, a chorus of religion scholars might respond, how indeed? How can the Court possibly countenance all the claims advanced under the mantle of religious freedom without drawing some highly questionable distinctions? How can it possibly demarcate the limits of religious freedom without deeming some beliefs more worthwhile than others? Lines will have to be drawn.

January 7th, 2015

The digital is a place to hide

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In the digital age, is anything a secret? What comprises the unknown when a search engine is at hand? These questions have technical answers; they also have existential replies. Perhaps there is no greater artifact of what hides in this information age than the office workplace.

In 1975 BusinessWeek predicted a future we now occupy. “In almost a matter of months,” the article began, “office automation has emerged as a full-blown systems approach that will revolutionize how offices work.” It includes a quotation from George E. Pake, who then headed Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center. “There is absolutely no question that there will be a revolution in the office over the next twenty years. What we are doing will change the office like the jet plane revolutionized travel and the way that TV has altered family life.”

January 6th, 2015

Why corporations have religious freedom

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We stand unitedThe legal status of corporations as fictive persons is well-lampooned in the bumper sticker that reads, “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.” As entities with legal status as persons, corporations do not bleed or feel pain except metaphorically, for example, when they hemorrhage cash, perform anemically, or suffer from an economic downturn or shortage of labor. Nevertheless, as fictive persons recognized by law, corporations are building blocks of commerce, government, and religion in the United States, and they have operated as organizing mechanisms in Western society since ancient Roman times. Of course, shielded by legal protection, corporations have done great harm—think of the Royal Africa Company and its role in stimulating the rapid growth of slavery in the Atlantic world in the eighteenth century. Accordingly, in the United States, constitutional amendments and labor and civil rights legislation have been enacted to constrain or outlaw numerous forms of corporate activity deemed unsafe or unfair.

December 29th, 2014

The zero effect doctrine

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We stand unitedIn the wake of last summer’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Wheaton College v. Burwell decisions, many wondered how corporations could exercise religious liberty. Liberal discussions focused on the apparent absurdity of extending constitutional rights to ethereal legal fictions rather than flesh-and-blood human beings. While those who decried the decisions often focused on the Supreme Court’s tenuous definition of personhood, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s essay shifted critical attention to shaky assumptions about religion. According to Sullivan, liberal critics have overlooked tensions within their own models of religious freedom. These tensions reveal “the ramshackle structure of current religious freedom jurisprudence in the U.S.”

In this post, I want to revisit Sullivan’s focus on the category of religion. Rather than expand on her critique of the “rotten core” of religious freedom, however, I would like to use the Hobby Lobby decision to consider what kind of religious exercise the court protects. In my view, the court has invented a novel form of religious practice in which people protect their property from the polluting contact of other people.