The Obama Effect?

President_Barack_ObamaIn The American Interest this week, sociologist Peter Berger has a provocative essay on the controversy over the City of Houston’s demand for sermons several pastors have delivered on the topics of homosexuality and gender identity. Berger says the roots of the controversy lie in the Obama Administration’s disregard for religion. He makes a powerful point, but I wonder whether he overstates things.

The City of Houston’s demand came in the form of subpoenas in a lawsuit over a petition to repeal a city anti-discrimination ordinance. As I explained in an earlier post, the city’s demand was outrageous, even given the freewheeling standards of American litigation, and the city has in fact narrowed its request. Some smart observers think this “narrowing” is just a publicity stunt. In my opinion, the new subpoenas, which ask only for communications that relate to the petition and ordinance themselves, stand a better chance of surviving. We’ll see how the court rules.

But leave aside that narrow, procedural matter for now. Here’s a more important question. Why did the city issue the offensive subpoenas in the first place? America has a long tradition of respecting religion, and the idea that government would demand to know what pastors were saying in their own churches should have set off all kinds of alarms. We don’t do that sort of thing in our country.

Berger says the episode reflects America’s decreasing regard for religion and religious believers. And he lays the blame largely at the door of the Obama Administration:

This episode in the heart of the Bible Belt can be placed, first, in the national context of the Obama presidency, and then in a broad international context and its odd linkage of homosexuality and religious freedom. I’m not sure whether President Obama still has a “bully pulpit”; at this moment even close political allies of his don’t want to listen to his sermons, if they don’t flee from the congregation altogether. All the same, every presidency creates an institutional culture, which trickles down all the way to city halls in the provinces. This administration has shown itself remarkably tone-deaf regarding religion. This was sharply illuminated at the launching of Obamacare, when the administration was actually surprised to discover that Catholics (strange to say!) actually care about contraception and abortion. Eric Holder’s Department of Justice has repeatedly demonstrated that it cares less about religious freedom as against its version of civil rights. Perhaps one reason for the widespread failure to perceive this attitude toward the First Amendment is that Barack Obama is seen through the lens of race–“the first black president”. I think a better vision comes through the lens of class–“the first New Class president”–put differently, the first president, at least since Woodrow Wilson, whose view of the world has been shaped by the culture of elite academia. This is evident across the spectrum of policy issues, but notably so on issues involving gender and religion.

Now, there’s much in what Berger says. The Obama Administration has shown little enthusiasm for religious freedom. True, the Administration  intervened recently to protect a prison inmate’s right to wear a 1/4-inch beard for religious reasons. But in the two major religious freedom cases of its tenure, Hobby Lobby and Hosanna-Tabor, the Administration created obstacles for religious freedom in needlessly inflammatory ways. It insisted on the Contraception Mandate, even though it knew the mandate would gravely trouble some Christians and even though alternatives existed that could have given the Administration most of what it wanted. It accepted compromise only grudgingly and litigated the case to the bitter end. And in Hosanna-Tabor, the Administration argued that the Religion Clauses had nothing at all to do with a church’s decision to select its own minister–a position a unanimous Supreme Court rejected as “remarkable.”

Still, when it comes to a declining respect for religion in America, I’m not sure the Administration is a cause so much as an effect. Perhaps its actions reflect a broader cultural shift to secularism. Most likely, there is mutual reinforcement. A growing cultural secularism, embodied, for political purposes, in the Democratic Party, contributed to the President’s election; and the President’s election in turn has contributed to a growing secularism. This growing secularism leads many people to view religion–traditional religion, anyway–with antipathy. And that antipathy leads to things like the Houston subpoenas. It’s a vicious circle–or virtuous one, I suppose, depending on your view of things.

Also, it’s not clear things are so bad for traditional religion now, or that they were so good before. As Yuval Levin wrote recently in First Things, religious conservatives seem to have overestimated their cultural ascendancy during the Bush Administration–so did their opponents, as I recall; remember those cartoon maps of “Jesus Land”? –and may underestimate their influence today. According to a recent Pew survey, almost 50% of Americans think churches and houses of worship should express their views on political and social issues, an increase of six percent since 2010. Three-quarters of the public think religion’s influence in our national life is declining–and most of those people think it’s a bad thing. If anything, the Obama Administration seems to be contributing to a pro-religion backlash.

Well, these are complicated issues. Berger’s essay is very worthwhile. You can read the whole thing here.

Around the Web this Week

Some interesting law and religion news stories from around the web this week:

“Religion, Violence and Cities” (O’Dowd & McKnight eds.)

In November, Routledge Publishing will release “Religion, Violence and Cities” edited by Liam O’Dowd (Queen’s University Belfast) and Martina McKnight (Queen’s University Belfast). The publisher’s description follows:

In exploring the connections between religion, violence and cities, the book probes the extent to which religion moderates or exacerbates violence in an increasingly urbanised world. Originating in a five year research project, Conflict in Cities and the Contested State, concerned with Belfast, Jerusalem and other ethno-nationally divided cities, this volume widens the geographical focus to include diverse cities from the Balkans, the Middle East, Nigeria and Japan. In addressing the understudied triangular relationships between religion, violence and cities, contributors stress the multiple forms taken by religion and violence while challenging the compartmentalisation of two highly topical debates – links between religion and violence on the one hand, and the proliferation of violent urban conflicts on the other hand. Their research demonstrates why cities have become so important in conflicts driven by state-building, fundamentalism, religious nationalism, and ethno-religious division and illuminates the conditions under which urban environments can fuel violent conflicts while simultaneously providing opportunities for managing or transforming them.

Mullin, “Constructing Political Islam as the New Other: America and Its Post-War on Terror Politics”

In December, I. B. Tauris Publishers will release “Constructing Political Islam as the New Other: America and Its Post-War on Terror Politics” by Corinna Mullin (Richmond American International University in London). The publisher’s description follows:

Why did political Islam so readily occupy the position of enemy ‘other’ for the United States in the context of what the American political leadership of the time labelled the ‘War on Terror’? In a wide-ranging analysis of the historical and ideological roots of U.S. discourse on political Islam, Corinna Mullin examines the ways in which this new ‘other’ came to perform both an identity-constructing role for Americans and a politically expedient, rhetorical justification for mainstream U.S. political thought and action concerning the Muslim world. After a new U.S. administration under President Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Mullin explores the prospects for a truly ‘post-war on terror’ politics.

Panel at AAR Meeting Next Month

The Religion and American Law Discussion Group will host a panel at the upcoming meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Diego (November 22-25). Topics will include “Religion and American Law, Applied” and “The Meaning and Ramifications of Greece v. Galloway.” Speakers include Dusty Hoesly (UC-Santa Barbara), Michael Barber (UC-Santa Barbara), Michael Graziano (Florida State), Charles McCrary (Florida State), Alan Brownstein (UC-Davis), Steve Smith (San Diego), and Steven Green (Willamette). Details about the conference are here.

Upcoming Natural Law Colloquium Lecture at Fordham

Fordham University School of Law’s Natural Law Colloquium Fall 2014 lecture will be held on November 19th. Jennifer Nedelsky (University of Toronto) will speak on “Part-time for All: Creating New Norms of Work and Care.” CLE credit is available for this lecture.

Get more information and register here.

 

 

Abraham, “Islamic Reform and Colonial Discourse on Modernity in India”

This December, Palgrave Macmillan will release  “Islamic Reform and Colonial Discourse on Modernity in India: Socio-Political and Religious Thought of Vakkom Moulavi” by Jose Abraham (Concordia University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Islamic ReformColonialism was much more than another account of imperialism in human history. It introduced European categories and concepts into everyday habits of thought of the colonized. Focusing on writings of Vakkom Moulavi, who is known as the father of ‘Islamic reform’ in Kerala, South India, Abraham argues that the socio-religious reform movements of the colonial period was largely shaped by the discourse on modernity. In the wake of the socio-political changes initiated by colonial rule in Kerala, Vakkom Moulavi motivated Muslims to embrace modernity, especially modern education, in order to reap maximum benefit. In this process, to counter the opposition of conservative leaders and their followers, he initiated religious reform arguing that the major themes of colonial discourse were fully compatible with Islamic traditions. However, though modernization was the overall purpose of his socio-reform movement, he held fairly ambivalent attitudes towards individualism, materialism and secularization and defended Islam against the attacks of Christian missionaries.

O’Connell, “God Wills It”

This November, Transaction Publishing will release “God Wills It: Presidents and the Political Use of Religion” by David O’Connell (Dickinson College).  The publisher’s description follows:

God Wills ItGod Wills It is a comprehensive study of presidential religious rhetoric. Using careful analysis of hundreds of transcripts, David O’Connell reveals the hidden strategy behind presidential religious speech. He asks when and why religious language is used, and when it is, whether such language is influential.

Case studies explore the religious arguments presidents have made to defend their decisions on issues like defense spending, environmental protection, and presidential scandals. O’Connell provides strong evidence that when religious rhetoric is used public opinion typically goes against the president, the media reacts harshly to his words, and Congress fails to do as he wants. An experimental chapter casts even further doubt on the persuasiveness of religious rhetoric.

God Wills It shows that presidents do not talk this way because they want to. Presidents like Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were quite uncomfortable using faith to promote their agendas. They did so because they felt they must. God Wills It shows that even if presidents attempt to call on the deity, the more important question remains: Will God come when they do?

Martin, “Politics, Landlords and Islam in Pakistan”

This month, Routledge Publishing releases “Politics, Landlords and Islam in Pakistan” by Nicolas Martin (University College London). The publisher’s description follows:

Politics, Landlords and Islam in Pakistan explores the linkages between politics, religion, class, and caste in politics in rural Pakistan. It documents how landlords continue to wield arbitrary and despotic power over much of Pakistan’s rural population in the 21st century, and how participatory democracy has been subverted and has largely benefitted rural elites.

“Transformations of Religion and the Public Sphere: Postsecular Publics” (Braidotti et al. eds.)

Next month, Palgrave Macmillan will release “Transformations of Religion and the Public Sphere: Postsecular Publics”  edited by Rosi Braidotti (Utrecht University), Bolette Blaagaard (Aalborg University), Tobijn de Graauw (Utrecht University), and Eva Midden (Utrecht University). The publisher’s description follows:

Transformations of Religion and the Public Sphere: Postsecular Publics contributes a counter-discourse to the myth of secularism. This myth is a strongly-held belief, predominantly advocated in the westernised world, that progress and modernity is intimately linked to secular politics and social relations. This book develops a range of critiques of this myth through discussions on the current political, social, and technological conditions in which we find ourselves. It explores the political implications of the myth, as well as exploring postcolonial relations, liberal-secularism and religious sentiments, and the mediated public sphere, with an in-depth focus on the Dutch case. Transformations of Religion and the Public Sphere: Postsecular Publics takes issue with the secular condition and accepted beliefs of its liberal emancipatory foundations.