Author Archives: Mark L. Movsesian

Thomas More, Villain

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Anton Lesser as Thomas More in Wolf Hall (BBC)

When it comes to up-market historical fiction, nobody delivers like the Tudors. There’s so much entertainment value in that Renaissance dynasty: royalty; costumes; cool accents; lust and murder; political and religious intrigue; the works—plus enough history to make you feel virtuous for watching. In the 1930s, studios turned out films like The Private Life of Henry VIII and Fire over England, which, for my money, still has the best portrayal of Elizabeth on film, by the great British actress Flora Robson. In the 1960s, there was Anne of the Thousand Days. Forty years ago, PBS broadcast Elizabeth R and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. More recently, there was Showtime’s The Tudors. And now on PBS’s Masterpiece there is Wolf Hall, a BBC dramatization of Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel.

All historical fiction involves anachronism, of course, and depictions of the Tudors often reveal more about contemporary issues than they do about the past. Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons portrayed Thomas More as a liberal dissenter from state ideology, a man committed to individual conscience and the rule of law. (In the 1960s, liberals identified with such people). Glenda Jackson’s 1971 portrayal made Elizabeth an icon for the rising feminist movement.

I was able to catch an episode of Wolf Hall on Sunday, and it seems to me the new series likewise reflects our current cultural moment. Maybe I spend too much time thinking about these things, but to me it is impossible to miss the allusions to current debates about rational government and religious belief. The message, for religious liberty, is not a congenial one.

Wolf Hall—which, incidentally, has great production values and wonderful performances, especially by Damian Lewis as Henry VIII—inverts the conventional portrayal of the Henrician Reformation. Most past film and television versions, even those sympathetic to Henry, show More as a kind of hero, a noble, if misguided, martyr for freedom of conscience. In Mantel’s version, by contrast, it’s Cromwell, the supporter of state orthodoxy and More’s tormentor, who is the hero. And More, the man who resisted the state from religious conviction, is the unalloyed villain.

Now, More was a more complicated figure than widely understood. Even saints have failings. He may have been, as Swift famously wrote, “a person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced,” but, as chancellor, he persecuted Protestants and approved burning heretics at the stake. Mantel’s portrayal goes beyond offering a helpful corrective to the conventional wisdom, though. Her More is not deeper or truer to the historical record. He is simply evil, a nasty piece of work—cold, fanatical, and sadistic.

Mantel’s Cromwell, by contrast, is warm, self-effacing, and pragmatic, even wistful—a family man, though with a ruthless edge. As between him and More, he is easily the more reasonable. Religious enthusiasm is not for him; he is far too insightful and levelheaded. He is also more compassionate. When More tells him that torture is for the victim’s own good—the real More forcefully denied that he ever tortured anyone—Cromwell is aghast. Cromwell is far too tender-hearted to believe something like that. He cannot bear to see someone burned at the stake for heresy. More, we gather, would be delighted.

I know nothing about Mantel’s politics. Perhaps her choices in Wolf Hall are purely aesthetic. Maybe she set herself the artistic challenge of portraying Cromwell, one of British history’s great villains, in a favorable light. But I’m guessing she has an agenda. Increasingly, secular liberals are losing patience with claims for religious liberty, particularly from traditionalists who dissent from progressive orthodoxy. Only fanatics could object to progressive goals like the Contraception Mandate and same-sex marriage, they believe, and it’s wrong to accommodate such people. Accommodation encourages backward and malevolent attitudes that cause innocent people grave harm.

In its biased portrayal of More, British history’s great example of religious resistance to state orthodoxy, Wolf Hall is sending its audience a message: Don’t think this man was at all admirable. He was a dangerous head case. And, by extension, be careful of his analogues today, who continue to oppose religious fanaticism to tolerance, reason, and progress. Cromwell, and pragmatic people like him who protect us from the forces of reaction, are the real heroes.

It’s a powerful message, and one with increasing influence. Perhaps this explains why PBS is advertising Wolf Hall as “a historical drama for a modern audience.” The fact that this hatchet job on Thomas More appears in an impeccably well-done BBC production—surely the gold standard in upper middle class entertainment—shows how fast our culture is changing, and how much work defenders of religious liberty have before them.

Movsesian to Speak at Conference on the Islamic State & Religious Minorities

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be a speaker at the Hudson Institute’s upcoming conference, “The Islamic State’s Religious Cleansing and the Urgency of the Strategic Response,” scheduled for May 7 in New York. The conference will be lead by Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Professor Walter Russell Mead; other speakers include Kirsten Powers and Samuel Tadros. Here’s a description:

Nearly a year after the Islamic State swept through northern Iraq and enforced its convert-or-die ultimatum, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians and members of other ancient religions remain in encampments in Kurdistan and neighboring countries. They subsist on international humanitarian aid and their children lack access to education. Many are losing hope of ever returning to their homes and, with few options to resettle within the region, many are seeking to leave.

Is there any hope that these Christians and other religious minorities can remain in the Middle East?

I’ll be on the first panel, “Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity: the Islamic State’s Impact on Vulnerable Religious Minority Communities.”

For the conference schedule and information about registration, please click here.

 

Pope Francis on the Armenian Genocide

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Pope Francis Greets Armenian Apostolic Patriarch Karekin II on Sunday (NYT)

Last Sunday in Rome, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, an ethnic cleansing campaign that took place at the end of the Ottoman Empire. In the course of a two-hour liturgy in the Armenian rite, and in the presence of the Armenian Catholic patriarch, patriarchs of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the president of the Republic of Armenia, and many Armenian pilgrims from around the world, Pope Francis made what should have been an entirely uncontroversial statement. The Armenian Genocide, he said, quoting his predecessor Pope St. John Paul II, “‘is generally referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century.’”

The essential facts are well known. Armenian Christians made up a significant percentage of the population in the Ottoman Empire’s eastern provinces. For a few decades, there had been unrest. In religious and political reforms known as the Tanzimat, the Ottomans had formally granted equal status to Christians and Muslims. Equality for Christians caused a backlash among Turkish Muslims, though, and oppression of Armenians and other Christians continued, particularly in the countryside. Armenian paramilitary groups began to resist. When World War I began, the Young Turk government worried that these groups would side with Christian Russians. So it decided to solve the “Armenian Question” once and for all by deporting the entire Armenian population from Anatolia to Syria, through the Syrian desert. Deportation through a desert, without adequate protection or supplies, is obviously a recipe for mass extermination. And that is what happened. Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenian Christians perished, under horrible conditions, in the death marches and slaughters. The enormities are well documented.

Nonetheless, the Turkish side refuses to acknowledge what happened as genocide, denying that there was any plan to eliminate Armenians from Anatolia, while also arguing, inconsistently, that the Armenians were a potentially disloyal population and that the Ottomans had a right to do what they did. Besides, they say, many Turkish Muslims also suffered and died in World War I—surely true, but a non-sequitur. Because of Turkey’s sensitivities on the subject, and because of geopolitical realities, many Western governments, including our own, dance around the issue. When running for office, President Obama promised that he would officially recognize the Genocide, a promise he immediately broke as president. So Pope Francis’s forthright statement—even if he was, in fact, only quoting a predecessor, who was in turn referring to a general consensus—was remarkable, and praiseworthy. (The words on paper don’t capture the tone of the pope’s remarks. Watch this video of the event from Rome Reports. Francis is not simply reading from a text. He obviously means every word of it).

In response, Turkey has condemned the pope’s remarks as religious hatemongering and recalled its ambassador from the Vatican. The repercussions will no doubt continue. Yesterday, Turkey’s minister for European affairs suggested the pope had been brainwashed by the Armenian community in Argentina. Today, Turkish President Recip Erdogan reacted in rather personal terms. According to the English-language Turkish Daily News, Erdogan–who actually has gone farther than many Turkish leaders in acknowledging the suffering of the Armenians in 1915–said the pope’s remarks were characteristic of a “politician” rather than a religious leader. “I want to warn the pope to not repeat this mistake and condemn him,” Erdogan said.

In his remarks, Francis correctly linked the Armenian Genocide to the persecution of Mideast Christians generally—100 years ago, and today. Religion was not the only factor in the Genocide, of course, but it had a major role. Armenians who converted to Islam were often spared; some of their descendants still live in Turkey today. Many Armenians died as Christian martyrs; indeed, the Armenian Apostolic Church will canonize these victims of the Genocide at a ceremony in Armenia this month. Moreover, as the pope told the crowd at St. Peter’s, the Genocide struck not only  the “Armenian people, the first Christian nation”—here the pope is referring to the fact that Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity as its religion, in 301 A.D.—but also “Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks.”  In all these communions, “bishops and priests, religious, women and men, the elderly and even defenseless children and the infirm were murdered.”

In addition, as everyone knows, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East continues today. The pope referred to these new martyrs as well: “Sadly, today too we hear the muffled and forgotten cry of so many of our defenseless brothers and sisters who, on account of their faith in Christ or their ethnic origin, are publicly and ruthlessly put to death – decapitated, crucified, burned alive – or forced to leave their homeland.” Many Christian communities in Syria and Lebanon took in the refugees of 1915, saving their lives, giving them a place to raise their children and preserve their faith. Now those communities themselves are the victims of ethnic and religious cleansing. To whom shall they go?

In an insightful column, Walter Russell Mead argues that Pope Francis’s remarks show that he has decided to raise the rhetorical stakes in the crisis facing Christians in the Mideast. Up till now, the Vatican has taken a “‘softly, softly’” approach to the conflict, so as not to endanger the lives of vulnerable Christians still there. Outside intervention often makes things worse for Mideast Christians, after all. But how much worse can things get? Mideast Christians face extinction.

Today’s Turks are not responsible for what their ancestors did 100 years ago. God willing, Turks and Armenians will one day be able to reconcile in a way that honors justice. Acknowledging the truth about what happened to the Armenians is a start. Meanwhile, drawing attention to the Armenian Genocide may be a way to mobilize the world to save suffering Christians now—before it is too late.

Happy Easter

A Happy Easter to all who celebrate. Christ is Risen.

Ironies in Indiana

Some readers have asked me what I think about the Indiana RFRA controversy, as an academic who studies law and religion. To my mind, opponents of the law have succeeded in creating a false sense of crisis about the evil this allegedly unprecedented law would unleash in America. In this, they have been greatly assisted by the media’s framing of the issue and and by the support of corporate titans like Apple and Walmart, which have decided to intervene in the dispute–incidentally proving, as Justice Alito argued in Hobby Lobby, that for-profit corporations sometimes do express goals other than merely making money.

In addition, it seems to me that the controversy contains three very significant ironies, two for the law’s opponents and one for its supporters.

First, notwithstanding opponents’ efforts to portray the Indiana statute as an innovation, the balancing test it establishes is nothing new. The test, which holds that government cannot impose substantial burdens on citizens’ religious exercise without showing a compelling need to do so, and without choosing the least-restrictive means for doing so, was American constitutional law for decades, until the Supreme Court jettisoned it for most purposes in 1990. It is the test embodied in the federal version of RFRA, enacted without opposition more than 20 years ago; in the many state versions of RFRA; and in the constitutional law of many other states. Indeed, according to scholars Cole Durham and Brett Scharffs, the compelling-interest test is the majority rule in the United States today. It’s true that there are a couple of differences in the Indiana law, but those differences are pretty minor, and anyway the debate has not focused on them.

Even more: something like the compelling-interest test is the rule in liberal societies around the world. The European Convention on Human Rights, for example, provides that a member state can interfere with citizens’ exercise of religion only where the state shows that the interference is “necessary” to achieve an important interest. Many countries have similar balancing tests, including Canada, Israel, and South Africa. From a global perspective, there is nothing unusual about the Indiana statute.

Second, the Indiana statute leaves ultimate determinations to the courts. It does not, as some of its opponents  misleadingly claim, legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians. In the unlikely event that an Indiana business refused, in violation of any applicable anti-discrimination laws, to serve gay people, and claimed a religious justification for doing so (how many such businesses are there, anyway?), the case would proceed to litigation, in which a court would determine (1) whether requiring a business to serve gay customers is, genuinely,  a substantial burden on its religious exercise; (2) if so, whether the state’s interest in preventing discrimination against gays is compelling; and (3) whether there is some way other than requiring the business to serve gay customers that could advance that interest equally as well. I wouldn’t bet on the business’s chances in such a lawsuit. Given the great success supporters of gay rights have had in American courts in recent years, it is ironic that they would lose faith in the courts now.

And this leads to the third irony, one for the statute’s supporters. Some supporters evidently are confident the Indiana statute would allow a business to refuse, on religious grounds, to participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies—caterers and photographers, for example.  (This is not the same thing as refusing generally to serve gays and lesbians, incidentally, and it is not helpful to conflate the two situations). That’s why they are fighting so hard for the law. But it is not at all clear they are correct. Whatever one thinks about the merits of a religious exemption in these circumstances, it is uncertain that a court would actually rule in favor of the business. Maybe the business would prevail in a RFRA lawsuit, maybe not.

On the basis of distortions, mistakes, and uncertain predictions, we seem ready to abandon a foundational principle that exists, not only in American law, but in legal systems across the world. The New York Times refers, without irony, to “so-called religious freedom laws.” On Morning Joe this week, Mika Brzezinski suggested that stopping the Indiana statute would not be enough; it’s time, she hinted, to revisit the federal RFRA itself.  We seem ready, in other words, to take courts out of the business of protecting religious minorities. Does that seem a good idea?

Gigantor Takes Over Blogging at CLR Forum

GIGANTOROur good friend John McGinnis is always warning us that technology is marching relentlessly through the legal profession. So we’ve decided to be ahead of the curve. Starting today, posting at CLR Forum will be done by robot, specifically, by the robot from the old TV series, “Gigantor.” That’s a picture of him above. He hasn’t been busy since his show got canceled a few decades ago and is eager to get back to work. A pretty nice fellow, for a space-age robot, though it turns out he has rather strong feelings about religious establishments. His random-post generator program will free up our resources for other important projects, like writing mystery novels, to which Marc and I plan to apply ourselves. Let us know what you think.

Movsesian Review of “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms”

The Library of Law and Liberty has posted my review of Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, a new book on Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. Russell describes the history and present circumstances of these groups, including their struggle to emigrate and find new homes in places like the United States:

Will these communities survive in their new environments? Russell hopes so. He describes some touching examples of endurance, like the time he heard a clerk speaking Aramaic in a supermarket in suburban Detroit. But he wonders how long it can last. For all its great achievements, America has a way of destroying traditional identities, and it’s difficult to maintain one’s distinctive customs for very long. He wonders whether escape to the West isn’t “a back-loaded contract for immigrant communities—get the benefit of prosperity now, pay the loss of identity later.” Still, it beats annihilation, which is what threatens these groups at home.

You can read the whole review here.

CLR Participates in International Moot Court in Venice

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Posing a Question in Venice

As regular readers know, I’ve spent this week at a terrific new program at the Fondazione Marcianum in Venice, an international moot court competition on law and religion. The Marcianum gathered law student teams from the US and Europe to argue a hypothetical case before two courts, the European Court of Human Rights and the US Supreme Court. Along with Notre Dame’s Bill Kelley and Judge (and CLR Board member) Richard Sullivan of the SDNY, I served as a judge on the American court. That’s us, in action, above. Mark Hill of Cardiff University, Renata Uitz of Central European University, and Louis-Leon Christians of Catholic University of Louvain made up the European side. Both courts were ably assisted by PhD students from the Marcianum, who served as our shadow clerks, helping us with research and the development of our ideas.

The case was a very topical one. A private, family owned firm had dismissed an employee for making a negative comment about creationism, in violation of the business’s code of conduct, which prohibited anti-religious statements. In the European version, the domestic courts ruled in favor of the firm, and the employee brought a claim under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In the American version, the employee sued for employment discrimination, arguing that he had been dismissed on account of his religious views; the employer maintained that, even if Title VII applied, RFRA allowed for an accommodation in these circumstances.

Lots of issues here, and the student teams did a remarkable job addressing them. Special credit goes to the two Italian teams, from the Universities of Milan and Macerata,who had to learn an entirely new legal system and argue in a foreign language. In the end, our panel gave the 500 euro award for best team to the entrants from Emory Law School. They did their school, and especially Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, proud. On the European side, the award went to the team from Inner Temple.

This was an absolutely wonderful event. It was a lot of work for the students and the judges (not that I’m complaining!), but extremely valuable and tremendous fun. I imagine the most valuable aspect, for the students, was learning how another legal system would handle these issues. The Americans were struck by the argument style in the European Court — 30 minutes of presentation followed by five minutes to answer questions from the bench — and the Europeans were surprised at the more assertive, freewheeling style of argument in an American court. But they adjusted very well.

I hope the Marcianum continues this event. Law and religion has gone global, and comparative law is an increasingly important component of a legal education on both sides of the Atlantic. I’ll write more when I return to NY, but, for now, a very warm thank you to the Marcianum for hosting this event, and especially to Professor Andrea Pin, who invited me and had a major role in the entire enterprise. And thanks to the readers of our blog who stopped by to say hello!

Movsesian at International Law & Religion Moot Court in Venice Next Week

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Home of the Marcianum in Venice

Next week, I’ll be in Venice for a new, three-day international law-and-religion moot court competition. Hosted by a research institute, the Fondazione Studium Generale Marcianum, the competition brings together law students from the US and Europe to argue a case on religious accommodation. I’ll be one of the American judges, along with Judge Richard Sullivan of the SDNY (and one of CLR’s Board members) and Professor William Kelley of Notre Dame Law School.

The organizers of the competition have come up with an interesting new approach. Two noted scholars, Silvio Ferrari of the University of Milan and Brett Scharffs of BYU, will offer an overview of the issues for the audience, and then the student teams will argue the case before two moot courts, one simulating the American Supreme Court and the other simulating the European Court of Human Rights. (The European judges are Louis-Leon Christians of the Catholic University of Louvain, Mark Hill of Cardiff University, and Renata Uitz of Central European University Budapest.) On the final day of the competition, each court will render a judgment and announce the winning team.

The Marcianum”s approach to the competition highlights the fact that law and religion issues have gone international. And it introduces students, especially American students, to the comparative legal method. It should be a wonderful learning experience and a lot of fun, and I’m grateful to the organizers, especially Professor Andrea Pin of the University of Padua, for inviting me. Any of our readers at the competition, please stop by and say hello. I’ll try to blog from Venice if occasion allows. Not sure you can blog from a gondola, though.

Podcast on Mideast Christians and ISIS

ep26For those who are interested, I sat for an interview yesterday on Mideast Christians and ISIS, part of a podcast series produced by Fr. Nareg Terterian of St. Sarkis Armenian Apostolic Church in Douglaston, New York. Fr. Nareg, a St. John’s grad, did a wonderful job and I appreciated the opportunity. You can listen to the interview here; my segment starts around the 10:00 minute mark and runs for 30 minutes.