Category Archives: Conversations

Hoover Institution Reprints Interview with Samuel Tadros

The Hoover Institution at Stanford has reprinted my interview with Samuel Tadros, author of Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity. In the interview, Tadros answers questions about the history of the Coptic Church, its important contributions to Christian thought and life, and its conduct during the Arab conquest and under Muslim rule. He describes how the liberalism of the twentieth century actually injured the Church and why Anwar Sadat, whom the West lionized, was a problem for Egypt’s Christians. Moving to the present day, he explains why the Arab Spring has been such a disaster for Copts and speaks about the Church’s prospects in Egypt and abroad.

Conversations: Samuel Tadros

Last week, I reviewed a new book by the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros, Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity. The book, a compelling read, explores the profound challenges that face the Coptic Church today. This week, Tadros (left) kindly answers some questions. He discusses the history of the Coptic Church, its important contributions to Christian thought and life, and its conduct during the Arab Conquest and under Muslim rule. He describes how the liberalism of the twentieth century actually injured the church and why Anwar Sadat, whom the West lionized, was a problem for Egypt’s Christians. Moving to the present day, he explains why the Arab Spring has been such a disaster for Copts, and talks about the church’s prospects in Egypt and abroad.

CLR Forum: Sam, let’s begin with some background. Although the Coptic Church has millions of faithful in Egypt—10% of the population, according to most estimates–and an increasing worldwide presence, most people in the West know very little about it. Who are the Copts? What are the salient features of Coptic Christianity?

Tadros: The lack of knowledge about the Coptic Church is regrettable yet quite understandable. The Coptic Church has been isolated from the rest of Christendom since 451 A.D. The word “Copt” is derived from the Greek word for “Egypt,” itself derived from the Pharaohnic word for it, so in a sense the word “Copt” means Egypt. The word, however, is specifically used to refer to Egyptians who refused to embrace Islam throughout the centuries and remained Christian, maintaining their ancient faith and rituals. Theologically, the Coptic Church belongs to a group of churches called Oriental Orthodox, which includes the Armenian, Ethiopian, Indian Orthodox and Syrian churches. Those churches rejected the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon regarding the nature of Christ.

CLR Forum: You discuss the important role the Coptic Church played in Christian history, especially in the early centuries. What do you think qualifies as the church’s most important contribution, historically? Would it be its defense of Trinitarian theology? Monasticism? 

Tadros: The three most important contributions of the Coptic Church can be summed up in the names of three men: Origen, Athanasius and Anthony. Origen, more than anyone else, attempted to reconcile Greek philosophy with Christian theology. The Catechetical School of Alexandria was instrumental in giving Christianity a ground to stand on intellectually against pagan attacks. Athanasius, as he himself declared, stood against the world. The contributions of other Church fathers, such as the Cappadocian Fathers, are important in the defense of Nicene Creed, but Athanasius carried the greatest burden. Cyril the Great follows in the same path with his anathema against Nestorius.  Finally, Anthony the Great, as the founder of monasticism, made an invaluable contribution to Christianity. Many of the early Western fathers such as Jerome traveled to Egypt to drink from the wisdom fountain of the desert fathers.

CLR Forum: Describe the Coptic Church in the world today—its relations with other Christians, for example. 

Tadros: 1954 is the year when the Coptic Church came out from its historical isolation by attending the World Council of Churches in Illinois. The late Bishop Samuel championed ecumenical relations and his efforts eventually led to the Coptic Church opening up to the rest of Christendom. The Joint Theological Declarations with Rome in 1973, and the Eastern Orthodox Churches in 1989-1990, have opened the doors to the dream of a true unity in Christ.

CLR Forum: You discuss the debate among historians about whether Copts initially welcomed the Arab Conquest of Egypt in the seventh century. The Copts would have had reasons, of course, as they were being persecuted by Byzantine Christians and might have seen the Arabs as deliverers. Could you describe this debate? Do you have a view?

Tadros: More than just among historians. The question is being contested in the public sphere, as a tool in shaping a current identity and narrative. For Egyptian nationalists, this claim would form the foundation of the national unity discourse–the eternal harmony of the two elements of the Egyptian nation, Muslims and Copts. Islamists would portray the story as Continue reading

Conversations: Marc DeGirolami

This summer, Harvard University Press published The Tragedy of Religious Freedomby our very own Marc DeGirolami (left), CLR’s Associate Director. In the book, Marc argues for a “tragic” understanding of religious freedom, one “that avoids the twin dangers of reliance on reductive and systematic justifications, on the one hand, and thoroughgoing skepticism about the possibility of theorizing, on the other.” This week, Marc answers some questions about his book. Among other things, he discusses the differences between “tragic” and “comic” legal theories; the value of history and tradition in judicial decision-making; and the inevitability of judicial discretion. He also explains why the Court got religious freedom wrong in Employment Division v. Smith and right in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC. 

CLR Forum: Marc, explain what you mean by “comic” and “tragic” approaches to law generally. Why do you think religious freedom, in particular, should be addressed from a tragic perspective?

DeGirolami: The terms comic and tragic are ancient and have been used in classical, literary, and philosophical settings. I draw on some of these meanings in the book, but I use comic in the legal context to mean two things: (1) a preference for systematic ordering of the law by reducing legal values either to one or to a small set, in the belief that human society is progressively improved by that reduction; and (2) the marginalization of the loss of other values in the process of accomplishing (1). Tragic approaches to the law resist both of these points. A tragic approach to law says that the reasons we value a practice like religious freedom are plural and cannot be reduced. Each value struggles to avoid absorption and subordination by the others. The clash of values results both from the limits of human reasoning and from the conflict of human interests and aspirations. So in the face of conflict in law, a tragic approach affirms that the comic impulse to reduce legal values, and systematically to marginalize those that are subordinated, will exacerbate conflict and end up deforming, and perhaps eventually destroying, important social practices and institutions.

CLR Forum: You single out Employment Division v. Smith, Justice Scalia’s famous opinion in the peyote case, as an example of the misguided “comic” approach and argue that it should be gradually dismantled. What’s so wrong with Smith? And why not just overrule it? 

DeGirolami: Yes, I am critical of Smith and believe it to be an example of a comic approach. Smith reduced all possible values of free exercise under the Constitution to a single value: formal neutrality. A neutral rule that is applied generally no longer can violate the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution after Smith, no matter how severely the rule burdens the religious free exercise of an individual or a group and no matter how insubstantial the government’s interest in enforcing the rule on a religious claimant. The Smith decision attempted to accomplish both of the comic points I listed above. It wanted to bring system Continue reading

Conversations: Rodney Stark

Last week, we reviewed a recent book by Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark, America’s Blessings. In the book, Stark (left) critiques public opinion surveys that purport to show the decline of religion in America and an increase in Americans without a religious affiliation, the so-called “Nones.” This week, Stark kindly agrees to answer some questions. He talks about church attendance in America, now at an all-time high; the surprisingly traditional beliefs of the Nones; and the reasons why the media and academy often ignore the socially beneficial effects of religion–lower crime rates, for example. He also explains why regular church goers may report greater satisfaction in their marriages, and talks about his future projects.

CLR Forum: Rod, we’ve heard a great deal in the past year about the rise of the “Nones.” According to reports, about 20% of Americans, the highest percentage ever, tell surveyors that they have no religious affiliation. Yet in America’s Blessings you note that 70% of Americans, also the highest percentage in our history, belong to religious congregations. What explains these two, apparently contradictory, developments?

Stark: First of all, few of the “Nones” aren’t religious.  Most of them even pray. What they mean when they say “None” is that they do not belong to a specific church. As for the increase in their numbers over the past 20 years, that probably is mostly caused by the decline in the percentage of Americans willing to take part in a survey. Those who do are very disproportionately the less affluent and less educated. Believe it or not, repeated studies going back to the 1940s always show that this is the group least likely to belong to a local church—the more educated Americans are the more religious segment (excluding PhDs). Meanwhile, partly because Americans move less often than they used to, and many more remain in their home towns as adults, membership in local churches has been rising—now estimated at 70 percent, the all-time high.

CLR Forum: You point out that the large majority of the Nones are rather religious, in their own way. How would you describe the religion of the religiously unaffiliated? What are its salient features?

Stark: The unaffiliated are religious in the traditional ways. They believe in God and in life after death–many believe in guardian angels. But, since they do not attend a local church (and probably never attended Sunday school) their faith is unsophisticated and often includes non-Christian supernaturalism—belief in ghosts and the like.

CLR Forum: You criticize the academy and media for ignoring many reliable surveys that suggest the socially beneficial aspects of religion, while focusing on unreliable surveys that show the anti-social impact of religion. Why is this, do you think? How do you think these academics would respond to your criticisms?

Stark: Surveys have demonstrated the irreligiousness of the media and of academics (especially social scientists and at the elite schools).  I am Continue reading

Conversations: Paul Horwitz

I had the pleasure and good fortune of sitting down with my good friend, Paul Horwitz (Alabama), a Paul Horwitzcouple of  weeks ago to talk with him a little about his superb new book, First Amendment Institutions (2013), under the auspices of a Federalist Society program that considers interesting and important new books.  I will post the podcast of that interview when it is ready.  But Paul also generously agreed to answer some written questions about the book, which ranges over all manner of First Amendment subjects, including, of course law and religion, for our ‘Conversations’ feature here at CLR Forum.

Q: The book, as its title indicates, is concerned with examining First Amendment disputes from an institutional point of view.  You define institutions as organizations comprised of individuals bound together by some common purpose to achieve certain objectives.  Why are institutions particularly important phenomena to study when it comes to the First Amendment?  After all, when one thinks of personal expression or religious practice, one does not think immediately of institutions.  Indeed, the paradigmatic case of speech or religious exercise is, for many, not about institutional or organizational rights but about individual rights.

A: I don’t think they’re uniquely important phenomena to study when it First Amendment Institutionscomes to the First Amendment. But I absolutely believe that they’re important phenomena to study, for at least three reasons. 1) A good deal more individual speech is formed or influenced by or within those institutions than the paradigm case may acknowledge. 2) Much important speech or activity takes place within those institutions. 3) These institutions often play an important structural role in public discourse.

Q: One of the major methodological issues that you raise – applicable both to the First Amendment and, you suggest, to all of law – is the law’s tendency toward acontexualism.  You say, for example, that law is indifferent to real world context and is instead only interest in analysis according to concepts of its own making.  Judges think about the cases that come before them in distinctively legal categories.  Could you say more about this and how it pertains specifically to the sorts of issues that you tackle in FAI?  More than this, can you explain why it is an inapt way to think about such cases?

A: Of course, there are lots of reasons why it is not a bad thing for judges to think acontextuality. Most of them involve what we think of as rule of law values, while others have to do with reasons of the particular institutional competences of the judiciary. That said, like any reasoning device or habit of mind, acontextuality can end up obscuring or missing important facts, contexts, and details. The point of acontextuality, in part, is to think only about morally relevant differences or similarities between things; but too acontextual a view can end up missing some of those morally relevant distinctions, especially where First Amendment institutions are concerned.

Q: A different question about acontextuality.  Sometimes it seems that what you describe as the snare of acontextuality is just as much a debate about whether facts or doctrine should rule as it is a fight about which facts are the (morally) salient ones.  For example, in your discussion of Arkansas Educational Television Comm’n v. Forbes, you say that the 8th Circuit got hung up in trying to slot the commission as a public entity, and so it did not see that it was simply exercising its journalistic discretion like a private broadcaster might.  But one might recharacterize what the court did as valuing certain types of facts (the issue of the commission’s private status) MORE than other sorts of factors.  Even though the Supreme Court reversed, isn’t this really a fight about which facts are relevant, more than a fight about whether facts or legal categories matter.

A: This is a fair pushback, I think. But I suppose I would say that cases like Forbes were more about finding what the court considered legal categories than about considering facts or context as such. Certainly, however, there is a relationship between legal categories and morally relevant facts. The question is whether the fixation on legal categories can end up failing to see other kinds of relevant categories.

Q: A question about the relationship of institutionalism and acontextualism. Can one be a formalist about institutional categories?  It seems that Professor Fred Schauer’s approach, which is important for your own, espouses something like this position.  Is there a necessary connection between a focus on institutions and a contextual method?

Continue reading

Conversations: Stanford’s Religious Liberty Clinic

Last month, we posted the welcome news that Stanford Law School has founded the nation’s first law school clinic focused on religious liberty. This week, the new clinic’s director, Jim  Sonne (left), kindly agrees to answer some questions for us. He discusses, among other things, the clinic’s background, the sort of cases and clients it hopes to attract, the reception the clinic has received at Stanford, and the difference between a “religious liberty” and a “religion” clinic.

CLR Forum: Jim, congratulations on starting the country’s only law school clinic devoted to religious liberty. How did you come up with the idea? And why Stanford?

Thanks Mark! The original idea for the clinic was not mine, but Eric Rassbach’s at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Eric and the Becket Fund work closely with Professor Michael McConnell at Stanford. Eric, Professor McConnell, and the folks at Becket thought it would be a great project to bring here.

Coincidentally, while the Becket group was busy preparing a proposal to Stanford in concert with the Templeton Foundation, then-dean Larry Kramer and dean of clinics Larry Marshall were exploring with the faculty ways to expand and diversify the law Continue reading

Conversations: Andrew Preston

Last week, we reviewed Cambridge historian Andrew Preston’s very worthwhile new book on religion in American foreign policy, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith. In the book, Preston (left) addresses religion’s complex, but constant, role in American diplomacy from colonial times to the present. This week, Preston kindly agrees to answer some questions from CLR Forum. He discusses historians’ tendency to ignore the influence of religion, the place of “Christian republicanism”  and anti-Catholicism in American foreign policy, and the ways in which today’s secular human-rights campaigners echo the universalist notions of nineteenth-century Protestant missionaries. He also discusses the impact of post-War secularization, tensions between the religious right and religious left, and the place of religion in President Obama’s foreign policy.

CLR Forum: Andrew, you note that, although religion has greatly influenced the formation and execution of American foreign policy, most diplomatic histories neglect its role. Why do you think that is? Does the neglect reflect a realist approach that denies the importance of ideology in foreign relations generally or a failure of diplomatic historians to come to terms with religion in particular? 

Preston: It’s an impossible question to answer definitively, but I think the general neglect of religion reflects both the prevailing dominance of the realist approach and the fact that religion is still poorly understood, and even seen as strange and alien, by most academic historians of international relations and foreign policy. This is despite the cultural turn’s phenomenal impact on diplomatic history, which now avidly incorporates non-traditional categories of historical analysis such as race, gender, and post-modernism.

CLR Forum: An important theme in Sword of the Spirit is the impact on American foreign policy of what you call “Christian republicanism,” a unique “blend of Protestant theology and democratic politics.” According to this worldview, Christianity is compatible with political freedom; indeed, Christianity is the source of political freedom. How did this ideology develop, and how is it distinctively American?

Preston: I’m not sure it’s distinctively American, though its endurance in American political thought for several centuries is unique. But the ideology of Christian republicanism developed out of the English and Scottish Reformations, when Protestant reformers argued that anyone who put Continue reading