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January 20th, 2017

Seinfeld, Roger Williams, and religious toleration

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Mere CivilityGeorge: This is what she said to me, “Can we change the subject?”

Jerry: See, now that I don’t care for.

George: Right. I mean, we’re on a subject. Why does it have to be changed?

Jerry: It should resolve of its own volition.

George: That’s exactly what I said, except I used the word “momentum.”

Jerry: Momentum – same thing.

(Seinfeld S7E02, “The Postponement”)

This comedic blip from Seinfeld might seem miles away from the early modern debates around religious toleration, but Teresa Bejan’s Mere Civility demonstrates that early modern thinkers expressed similar concerns about the power of free-flowing conversation. In this reading, Martin Luther, George, and Jerry stand on one side, defending the importance of ongoing debate. On the other side stand early-modern strategies of tolerance that use speech norms to keep peace in the face of religious argument. For both sides of this debate, republican notions of civility can provide important ways of situating a demand to either continue or avoid further discussion.

January 19th, 2017

Mere Civility and Jeremiah Wright

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Mere CivilityReporters who covered the Jeremiah Wright controversy during the 2008 United States presidential campaign would have benefited from reading Mere Civility. Barack Obama’s Chicago pastor was briefly famous when ABC News aired a video of him crying “God damn America” from the pulpit of his church. Mere Civility suggests that Wright’s insults not only mimic his Biblical namesake, but also channel Martin Luther, who frequently damned Catholics, and Roger Williams, who offered similar imprecations and felt that doing so should be considered civil.

In this impressive new work, Teresa Bejan does the contextual and interpretative analysis necessary to exhume Williams’s theory of civility, and she compares it favorably with those of Williams’s more famous contemporaries, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. She claims Williams’s view brings analytical clarity to contemporary discussions of civility and should be adopted today.

January 19th, 2017

Mere Civility—An introduction

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Mere CivilityAt the height of the 2016 American presidential election, a colleague asked whether I was worried that my forthcoming book on civility might be overtaken by events. . . . With the inauguration of our new Incivilitarian-in-Chief, a man who has apparently elevated ad hominem to new heights of electoral success, surely the once perennial bloom is, at long last, off the “civilitarian” rose?

Yet, as lamentations about our pathological public sphere continue to mount in some quarters—met by calls for conscientious incivility as a sign of one’s intolerance towards the new regime in others—deeper reflection on the meaning of civility and its vexed relationship to toleration appears more timely than ever. As a marriage of political theory and intellectual history, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration explores our contemporary crisis of civility by way of an in-depth examination of seventeenth-century debates about religious toleration.

January 12th, 2017

Writing religion for the IPSP

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1510623_1375984419369773_2230796617787010338_nCan we hope for a better society? That is the animating question behind an ambitious project, the International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP). It exists to “harness the competence of hundreds of experts about social issues” and to “deliver a report addressed to all social actors, movements, organizations, politicians, and decision-makers, in order to provide them with the best expertise on questions that bear on social change.”

Also modeled on the IPCC, drafts of the chapter reports are available for public comment. These are the collected responses to Chapter 16- Religions and Social Progress: Critical Assessments and Creative Partnerships, gathered from readers of The Immanent Frame.

To read the original call for comments, written by coordinating lead authors Nancy Ammerman and Grace Davie, click here.

January 9th, 2017

Catholic Humanitas: Notes on Critical Catholic Studies

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napolitano

Contemporary engagement with embodied practices of Latin American transnational migrancy, as well as the long durée of the return of Catholic religious materialities, ideas, and fantasies from the Americas to Rome, shows the reignition of an old conflict within the Catholic Church and a lasting paradox within a Catholic Humanitas. This is the paradox growing from the Catholic fantasy of “full” conversion of the Other/Indian, with her imagined docile, childlike, as well as barbaric qualities—a fantasy that positions the Other/Indian as at once within and without a Catholic Humanitas. This constitutive dimension of Catholic Humanitas infuses the tension between Sameness and Otherness that still permeates Western cosmologies and, for better and worse, political practices toward migration and hospitality in Europe . . . .

Under a present condition—in which a part of the clergy in Rome foregrounds personhood based on a Roman civic heritage, rather than multiple ways of being Catholic—attacks to Catholic Humanitas are seen as an attack on everyday civitas (conceived as a Sameness in the singular). If Catholicism has been a self-evident, “cultural” root of secular Europe, it has just as clearly shaped a potent political aesthetic of exclusion.

December 20th, 2016

Religion and the new populism

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Light trailThe push for stronger cultural identities and political borders in the new populism is inseparable from the general concern about Islam and immigration. Most of the new populists are promoting a one-sided criticism of Islam. This is connected to the public fears of terrorism, angst about Sharia, the status of women in Muslim communities, demographic tensions (aging European populations with lower birth rates and younger immigrant populations with higher birthrates), and issues surrounding the social integration of immigrants. In this context, talk about the Jewish and Christian heritage of the West has reemerged in secular Europe and in the United States as an alternative identity-forming heritage. . .

In light of this religious and political discourse today across the Western world, there is a need to have an open discussion about this idea of the Jewish and Christian heritage of the Western world. While some are using this concept to exclude others, the religious heritage of the West can actually be a positive resource for multiculturalism, peaceful social integration, and humanitarian aid.

December 19th, 2016

The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction

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The Shipwrecked MindThinkers like Joseph de Maistre and the attitudes they embody are the subject of Mark Lilla’s new book, The Shipwrecked Mind, an important and timely study of political reaction. The fantasy of returning to a bygone era is, Lilla argues, the crux of reactionary thought: “Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has,” he writes, “the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes.” Whether the goal be monarchical restoration, a new caliphate, or to “make America great again,” the reactionary mind is, more than anything, haunted by nostalgia—the longing for those “fresh Eden[s]” that arise during periods of disorienting social upheaval. Yet to indulge such fantasies, Lilla believes, is to succumb to “magical thinking.” In every reactionary, he thinks, there lies a bit of Don Quixote, pining for the Golden Age—and making a fool of himself in the process.

Most of the volume’s essays first appeared in The New York Review of Books and were composed without political reaction as their explicit theme. They are written with enviable clarity. Lilla has an uncanny knack for distilling complex ideas to their intuitive essence in lucid, jargon-free prose. Yet while these essays are illuminating to a fault, one wonders if it is always on the reactionary mind that they shed their light.

December 19th, 2016

Beheading the Saint: An introduction

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Beheading the SaintBeheading the Saint is about the shifting relationship between nationalism, religion, and secularism in a society which was, until the late 1960s, exemplary of what Charles Taylor calls the “neo-Durkheimian” link between national identity and religion, wherein “the sense of belonging to the group and confession are fused and the moral issues of the group’s history tend to be coded in religious categories” (2007, 458). I examine how the relationship between French Canadianness and Catholicism was configured in the nineteenth century, how it was reconfigured as Québécois and secular in the 1960s, and why and how that transition informs recent debates over secularism in Québec. The secularization of national identity during the Quiet Revolution remains the key to understanding the role and place of religion in the public sphere in today’s Québec.

December 12th, 2016

Radical Secularization?

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Radical Secularization?In a discussion in the German press about the displacement of continental philosophy in Europe by the increasingly triumphant advance of analytical philosophy, Charles Taylor warned against ideals of purity in philosophy. He argued that questions concerning the philosophy of religion, political philosophy, and philosophical anthropology cannot adequately be addressed within the sterile categories of a self-sufficient philosophy. Rather, they require hermeneutic engagement with the social sciences and the humanities.

The book Radical Secularization? An Inquiry into the Religious Roots of Secular Culture, edited by Stijn Latré, Walter Van Herck and Guido Vanheeswijck, shows such courage towards “impurity,” making it a particularly stimulating new contribution to the current debates about secularization and the role of religion in contemporary secular societies. Its focus is on the genealogy of secularization, and the title “Radical Secularization” refers to both the roots, or radices, of secularization and the end of secularization—where “end” could either mean that the process of secularization has been completed or, conversely, that it has been stopped by the “return of religion.”

December 7th, 2016

Obama, the Democratic Party, and Islamophobia

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Islam | Image via Flickr user FirasWhile reasonable people might disagree with him for his compromises on questions involving universal health care and his approach to the Great Recession—especially given the fact that he had to deal with a thoroughly intransigent Congress—it is much harder to let Obama off the hook for his failure to take a strong stand against Islamophobia. This is especially puzzling insofar as the facts that he bears a Muslim name and was born to a Muslim father were repeatedly used by his Republican enemies to delegitimize him. Yet, to my knowledge, he never once responded to these charges in a fashion that reinforced the equal citizenship of Muslims in the United States. While he ridiculed the claim that he was a Muslim, he did not, unlike Colin Powell, state the constitutionally appropriate answer: that whether or not he was a Muslim was not relevant to whether he could or should become president of the United States, much less did it disqualify him from being president of the United States.