Category Archives: Commentary

The Death of the Divine Augustus

blessedToday is the 2000th anniversary of the death of Caesar Augustus. For anyone who has ever seen it, the Divine Augustus will always be associated with Brian Blessed’s portrayal of him (left) in the BBC adaptation of the wonderful Robert Graves novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God. And so, to commemorate the day, here’s a snippet of dialogue, on a law and religion theme, which captures the charming, cynical urbanity of the series. For those of us nerds of a certain sort, it’s a real guilty pleasure. I’m sure the whole thing is available on Netflix. Watch it — or, better yet, read the books!

[Herod and Augustus are watching a gladiatorial contest.]
Augustus: Herod, what about a little bet? I’ll take the fat one for twenty gold pieces.
Herod: Caesar, it would be against my religion to bet on the life of a man.
Augustus: Oh, really? I would have thought it against your religion to bet on anything.
Herod: Caesar, it’s true: Jews love gambling. But we fear our god more.
Augustus: Which one?
Herod: We have only one, Caesar.
Augustus: I’ve never understood that, it’s quite insufficient. Why don’t you take some of our gods? You know, plenty of people do.
Herod: Believe me, Caesar, the one we have is hard enough to live with.

 

 

Pope Francis on the Crisis in Iraq

Pope_Francis_in_March_2013In an airborne press conference on the way back from Korea yesterday, Pope Francis addressed the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Iraq. In response to a question about the American bombing of ISIS targets, the Holy Father made three important points. One, unfortunately, was not helpful.

First, the Pope said, under Just War theory, it is “licit” for third parties to intervene in order to “stop” the “unjust aggression” by ISIS. Pope Francis emphasized that he did not endorse bombing, specifically, but action to stop ISIS generally. Second, the decision how best to deal with ISIS must be made by nations acting together in consultation, at the United Nations. Consultation is necessary, he said, in order to prevent any one nation–implicitly, the United States–from succumbing to the temptation to become an occupying force.

There isn’t very much danger of the US seeking to occupy Iraq at this stage, frankly. If anything, Americans in 2014 are disposed to avoid the region altogether. But the Pope’s statements are consistent with Just War theory and entirely appropriate. And perhaps Pope Francis feels justified in offering an oblique criticism of the US, which ignored his predecessor’s plea to get UN approval for the 2003 Iraq invasion, and reaped the consequences.

The Pope seems to have gone a little astray, though, in his third point. Responding to a question about religious minorities, including Catholics, he said this:

Secondly, you mentioned the minorities. Thanks for that word because they talk to me about the Christians, the poor Christians. It’s true, they suffer. The martyrs, there are many martyrs. But here there are men and women, religious minorities, not all of them Christian, and they are all equal before God.

Pope Francis is right that minorities other than Christians are suffering in Iraq. And Christians would not object to the idea that God loves all people equally, Christians and non-Christians. But the implication of the Pope’s statement– at least in the way his remarks have been translated and transcribed–is that the suffering of Christians gets disproportionate attention, and that it’s necessary to widen the focus to make sure other groups are not forgotten.

With great respect, this misstates the situation. The danger is not that the outside world pays too much attention to Christian suffering, but too little. The media routinely downplays that suffering, notwithstanding the fact that Christians–as Pope Francis himself recently stated–suffer the greatest share of religious persecution in the world today. As for the great powers, they typically look the other way. The United States, for example, did absolutely nothing to help the 100,000 Christian refugees displaced by ISIS in recent weeks, but sent in helicopters to distribute relief to 40,000 Yazidis.

As I say, the transcript may not fairly reflect the sense of Pope Francis’s remarks. Transcripts do not capture inflections. But many in the media will no doubt seize on the  remarks to justify their comparative inattention to Christian suffering. That would be most unfortunate. Although non-Christians are surely suffering in Iraq, and although it’s entirely appropriate to remember and help them, there is nothing wrong with stressing the suffering of Christians, especially when one is Pope. Unless people speak out, continually, there is a grave danger that Iraq’s Christians will simply be forgotten.

Church of England: UK Ignores Iraq’s Christians

I don’t follow British ecclesiastical politics too closely, but the media in the UK is treating this like a big deal. Over the weekend, the Church of England issued a strongly worded condemnation of the government’s policy of neglect toward Iraq’s Christians. The letter, written by Bishop Nicholas Baines and endorsed by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Wellby, makes the same point that commentators in the US, including CLR Forum, have made with respect to American policy: the United States has rushed to help Yazidi refugees, but has done relatively little to alleviate the plight of the much larger number of Christian refugees. According to the Guardian,

Cameron is accused of turning his back on the suffering of Christians. The letter asks why the plight of religious minorities in Iraq, such as the Yazidis, seems to have taken precedence. It notes that, though the government responded promptly to reports of at least 30,000 Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, the fate of tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians fleeing jihadists from Mosul, Iraq’s second city, and elsewhere appears to have “fallen from consciousness”.

Baines asks: “Does your government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others? Or are we simply reacting to the loudest media voice at any particular time?” He condemns the failure to offer sanctuary to Iraqi Christians driven from their homes: “The French and German governments have already made provision, but there has so far been only silence from the UK government.”

The Guardian describes the letter as “bitter” and “extraordinary.” If you want to read the letter in its entirety, the Guardian‘s article has a link.

Annicchino on Religious Freedom as a (Non-)Priority in Italy and the EU

Our friend and former guest blogger Pasquale Annicchino (European University Institute) has a strong column on the extent to which religious freedom has, and has not, been a priority for the Italian government and the European Union in general over the last decade or so. He criticizes what he describes as vague sloganeering and lack of action, particularly in the context of the many grave threats posed by ISIS. The column is in Italian, but here is a bit of the original with a quick and dirty translation:

Quello che avviene in queste ore era largamente prevedibile, non era forse evitabile. Sono anni che i principali centri di ricerca, tra tutti il Pew Forum, segnalano la crescita di discriminazioni e persecuzioni ai danni di diverse minoranze religiose in varie zone del mondo. La reazione rispetto a questi dati è stata spesso quella di fare spallucce, di dire che poi, effettivamente, niente di così grave stava succedendo. Il governo italiano, tramite l’azione del Ministero degli Esteri, ha provato negli ultimi anni ad interessarsi al tema della libertà religiosa nel contesto della sua politica estera ma i risultati sono stati praticamente nulli.

[What is happening in these moments was largely foreseeable, though perhaps not avoidable. For years, the principal research centers, foremost among them the Pew Forum, signaled the growth of discrimination and persecution of diverse religious minorities in various regions of the world. The reaction to this data was frequently that of shrugging, or of then saying that, effectively, nothing very serious was happening. The Italian government, through the actions of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, has tried in the last years to become interested in the subject of religious freedom in the context of its foreign policy but the results have been almost nothing.]

Drakeman on Garnett on the Freedom of the Church

Our friend and board member Don Drakeman has a typically smart and interesting response to Prof. Rick Garnett’s excellent piece on the freedom of the church. Over the last few years, Rick has been developing an account of the freedom of the church that depends on the idea of institutional rights (see also Paul Horwitz’s work). 

Don applies the same sorts of methodological insights that he uses in this very good piece about originalism to the idea of the freedom of the church. That is, he considers the sense in which the freedom of the church is, in fact, deemed by the public to be a fundamental right, but also how, as one moves out of the church “sanctuary” and into the world, the world begins to resist. A bit from Don’s piece:

If we were to commission a survey asking, “Should churches have the right of religious freedom?,” I suspect that, except for some parts of académe, the most common response would be: “What is this, some sort of trick question?” After all, two-thirds of the public have recently said that corporations should have “certain religious freedoms.” (From a 2014 “State of the First Amendment” poll that can be found here.) If that many people would, at least in the abstract, give businesses the freedom of religion, it seems likely that nearly all would give that right to churches as well.

It is also likely that the public doesn’t really know what it means for companies, or even churches, to have religious freedom—just that it makes sense. Could we gain more insight on this by considering a contemporary controversy? A “hot button” issue at the moment is what many have called the “contraception mandate.” Here, the pollsters have some interesting data, but first a methodological question: If people are asked about exemptions from the mandate, won’t they just use the question as a proxy for their views on either contraception or healthcare reform, or both? Separating those issues is admittedly hard, but the data may nevertheless tell us something about the public’s sense of the freedom of the church—in particular, what counts as “the church.”

In a March 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll, Americans were asked if publicly held corporations should be required to provide health plans including contraception at no cost. A total of 62 percent said yes. For “churches, and other places of worship,” only 42 percent said yes. In between were religiously affiliated colleges (54 percent) and hospitals (57 percent). Since the underlying issues of contraception and the Affordable Care Act were the same in each case, the percentages for these three types of institutions should provide us with at least a rough reflection of the public’s sense of the relative strength of each one’s claim for a religiously based exemption.

The take-home here, I think, is twofold. First, the public does seem to believe that there is something to the concept of the freedom of the church; and second, there is a stronger claim for the exercise of that freedom for churches as places of worship than for, say, Notre Dame, Baylor or the country’s large network of religiously-affiliated hospitals.

Don’t Forget the Christians

This past weekend, the United States began to intervene in the humanitarian crisis unfolding in northern Iraq. The Islamist group, ISIS, has made a lightning conquest of much of the region, persecuting religious minorities, and even some Sunni Muslims, everywhere it goes. In response, the US has begun air drops of food and water to up to 40,000 Yazidi refugees stranded on Mt. Sinjar, where ISIS militants have them surrounded. And the US undertook airstrikes against ISIS positions threatening the Kurdish city of Erbil, where hundreds of American advisers are stationed. Other Western nations have begun to get involved as well. The United Kingdom dropped supplies to the Yazidis on Mt. Sinjar, and France’s Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, visited Erbil to assess the situation.

BBC

Christian Refugees in Erbil (BBC)

In planning and delivering assistance to Iraqi refugees, the West — and particularly the United States, which has taken primary responsibility — should not ignore the plight of Christians. It may seem odd to voice this concern. After all, President Obama specifically mentioned Christians in his statements about American action. But Mideast Christians are often an afterthought for the United States, and it seems they are in this situation again. A Wall Street Journal report, which quotes unnamed members of the Obama administration, indicates the threat of genocide against Yazidis was the primary factor in the American decision to intervene. “This was qualitatively different from even the awful things that we’ve confronted in different parts of the region because of the targeted nature of it, the scale of it, the fact that this is a whole people,” the official said.

That is a rather myopic view of the situation. We’re offering assistance to 40,000 Yazidi refugees whom ISIS has driven from their homes and threatened to slaughter. Great—we should. But in the weeks before ISIS turned on the Yazidis, it had displaced more than 100,000 Christians from their homes and driven them into the desert. ISIS eliminated major Christian communities in Mosul and Qaraqosh, and the US responded only with a concerned statement from its UN ambassador. And this is to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Christians who have become refugees since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. If genocide correctly describes what threatens the Yazidis, it also describes what’s happening to Iraqi Christians. Indeed, many of these Christians are the descendents of people who suffered genocide at the beginning of the 20th century.

There are reasons why America tends to treat Mideast Christians as an afterthought. Mideast Christians lack a natural constituency in American public life. They are, as one commentator observed, too foreign for the Right and too Christian for the Left. Most of our foreign policy elites have a blind spot about them. And I don’t mean to single out the Obama administration. Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute has recounted her attempts to get the Bush administration to focus on the plight of Iraq’s Christians, only to be told by Condoleezza Rice that assistance for Christians would make the United States appear sectarian.

To draw attention to the plight of Iraq’s Christians is not special pleading. The US should not concern itself only with Christians; other religious minorities deserve our attention, too. But, in the Middle East and around the world, Christians are often targeted for persecution in particularly severe ways, and the human rights community often seems not to notice. Indeed, as Pope Francis explained in remarks at a conference the Center for Law and Religion co-sponsored in Rome this summer, Christians suffer perhaps the largest share of religious persecution in the world today:

It causes me great pain to know that Christians in the world submit to the greatest amount of such discrimination. Persecution against Christians today is actually worse than in the first centuries of the Church, and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era. This is happening more than 1700 years after the edict of Constantine, which gave Christians the freedom to publicly profess their faith.

It’s good that the United States has begun attempts to alleviate a human rights crisis for which it bears much responsibility. Let’s hope it does not ignore some of the principal victims of that crisis.

Satanists Claim Hobby Lobby Exemption from Abortion Informed-Consent Laws (via Huffington Post)

The Huffington Post reports that The Satanic Temple believes that its religious rights are infringed when its members receive anti-abortion pamphlets and information in those states that require informed consent before proceeding with an abortion. The Satanists seem to believe that they can use the Hobby Lobby decision to press their claim. You can see some of the other beliefs of the Satanists at the link.

But the informed-consent laws that the Satanists object to are state laws. This is the document that the Huffington Post pastes onto its story purporting to evidence the claim. Although it does tend to be forgotten and get lost in the nonsense (even by some Supreme Court Justices who took part in the decision), it’s important to remember that Hobby Lobby was a decision under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. RFRA applies only against the federal government. Perhaps there are some federal abortion informed-consent laws that the Satanists object to as well (though the Huffington Post did not list any of those). At any rate, RFRA won’t be of much help to the Satanists if they are objecting to state informed-consent laws.

That’s of course all before getting to the test that RFRA actually sets out, even if RFRA applied (which it doesn’t). The Satanists would need to show that the mere reception of information about abortion intended to render their consent to an abortion informed imposed a substantial burden on their religious exercise. That seems rather different to me than the threats of financial penalty imposed by the contraceptives mandate on Hobby Lobby. The Satanists would also need to counter the government’s compelling interest in ensuring that a person’s consent was indeed informed before proceeding with an abortion, as well as satisfy the least restrictive means analysis. That would be a challenging standard to meet as well.

Iraq’s Christians Still Need Our Help

For people seeking to understand the crisis facing the Christians of Iraq, there’s an interesting panel discussion on the website of France 24, an English-language news station based in Paris: “Iraq’s Christians: Nowhere to Run?” The discussion is in two segments, here and here. It features a French senator, Nathalie Goulet; the New York Times Paris Bureau chief, Alissa Rubin; lawyer Ardavan Amir Aslani; and Christelle Yalap of the Committee for the Support of Iraqi Christians, a French NGO.

The panel is worth watching in full, if only to learn about the discussion taking place in another Western country. The panelists disagree about the responsibility America bears for the situation. Although the invasion of Iraq destabilized the country and exposed Christians and other minorities to grave danger, Islamism is not simply a response to American actions. It results from factors internal to the Muslim world. America has been only a peripheral actor in the Arab Spring. And yet, as one of the panelists says, the Arab Spring always seems to become an Islamist autumn.

One thing stood out for me in particular. Ms. Yalap, who offers a succinct description of the Christian community of Mosul, makes the very important point that the ordeal of this community did not end with expulsion from its home. Her NGO has been in touch with these Christians, who have taken refuge in Erbil, in Kurdistan. Apparently, ISIS has continued to pursue them there, and has succeeded in cutting off  their water and electricity. It’s summer in Erbil, and the temperature is around 113°. The Christians of Mosul continue to face a humanitarian crisis. Will the international community do something to help?

This weekend, rallies in support of Iraq’s Christians are planned around the world, including here in New York, at the UN. For information, please click here.

The Civil Religion of the First World War

Yesterday was the centenary anniversary of the beginning of World War I. On July 28, 1914,  one month after Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, the Austro-Hungarian empire made its first moves against Serbia. The Great War would end more than four years later.

This weekend, I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which was hosting a very fine exhibit of American World War I posters. I was struck by the powerful imagery of civil religion in many of them. Here are two exhorting the purchase of war bonds that stood out to me as particularly representative of the genre:

World War I #2

World War I #1

And this afternoon, to remember the War, Mark and I visited the Flag Pole Green in Queens, New York, which has this lovely memorial to the men of Queens who died in the War:

World War I #3Just a few fragments of civil religion–that perennial social coagulant–in memory of the war to end war.

France to Facilitate Asylum for Iraqi Christians

France has offered to facilitate asylum for Iraqi Christians who have fled Mosul since the takeover of that city by ISIS, the jidahist group. The announcement came in a joint communiqué by Foreign Minister Laurence Fabius and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.

Granting asylum is a very imperfect solution to the crisis Mideast Christianity currently faces. Indeed, Mideast Christian leaders typically resist the “escape option,” out of concern that Christian emigration will put an end to faith communities that have endured for thousands of years. For many Mideast Christians, though, emigration may be the only option left.

Fast-tracking asylum is the least the West can do for Iraqi Christians–but it may also be, sadly, the most. France, which traditionally has seen itself as the protector of Christians, especially Catholics, in the Middle East, deserves credit for taking this step. It would be nice if the United States, which bears principal responsibility among Western countries for what has happened to Iraqi Christians, would do the same thing. (H/T: Rod Dreher).