Category Archives: Mark L. Movsesian

Kalkandjieva, “The Russian Orthodox Church: From Decline to Resurrection”

Last month, Routledge released “The Russian Orthodox Church, 1917-1948: 9781138788480From Decline to Resurrection,” by Daniela Kalkandjieva (University of Sofia, Bulgaria). The publisher’s description follows:

This book tells the remarkable story of the decline and revival of the Russian Orthodox Church in the first half of the twentieth century and the astonishing U-turn in the attitude of the Soviet Union’s leaders towards the church. In the years after 1917 the Bolsheviks’ anti-religious policies, the loss of the former western territories of the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union’s isolation from the rest of the world and the consequent separation of Russian emigrés from the church were disastrous for the church, which declined very significantly in the 1920s and 1930s. However, when Poland was partitioned in 1939 between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Stalin allowed the Patriarch of Moscow, Sergei, jurisdiction over orthodox congregations in the conquered territories and went on, later, to encourage the church to promote patriotic activities as part of the resistance to the Nazi invasion. He agreed a Concordat with the church in 1943, and continued to encourage the church, especially its claims to jurisdiction over émigré Russian orthodox churches, in the immediate postwar period. Based on extensive original research, the book puts forward a great deal of new information and overturns established thinking on many key points.

Greengrass, “Christendom Destroyed”

Last month, Penguin released Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648, by 9780670024568Mhistorian Mark Greengrass (University of Sheffield (Emeritus)). The publisher’s description follows:

From peasants to princes, no one was untouched by the spiritual and intellectual upheaval of the sixteenth century. Martin Luther’s challenge to church authority forced Christians to examine their beliefs in ways that shook the foundations of their religion. The subsequent divisions, fed by dynastic rivalries and military changes, fundamentally altered the relations between ruler and ruled. Geographical and scientific discoveries challenged the unity of Christendom as a belief community. Europe, with all its divisions, emerged instead as a geographical projection. Chronicling these dramatic changes, Thomas More, Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Cervantes created works that continue to resonate with us.

Spanning the years 1517 to 1648, Christendom Destroyed is Mark Greengrass’s magnum opus: a rich tapestry that fosters a deeper understanding of Europe’s identity today.

Dixie & Eisenstadt, “Visions of a Better World”

Last month, Random House released the paperback edition of Visions of a Better9780807001721 World: Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolence, by Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt. The publisher’s description follows:

In 1935, at the height of his powers, Howard Thurman, one of the most influential African American religious thinkers of the twentieth century, took a pivotal trip to India that would forever change him—and that would ultimately shape the course of the civil rights movement in the United States.

When Thurman (1899–1981) became the first African American to meet with Mahatma Gandhi, he found himself called upon to create a new version of American Christianity, one that eschewed self-imposed racial and religious boundaries, and equipped itself to confront the enormous social injustices that plagued the United States during this period. Gandhi’s philosophy and practice of satyagraha, or “soul force,” would have a momentous impact on Thurman, showing him the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance.

After the journey to India, Thurman’s distinctly American translation of satyagraha into a Black Christian context became one of the key inspirations for the civil rights movement, fulfilling Gandhi’s prescient words that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” Thurman went on to found one of the first explicitly interracial congregations in the United States and to deeply influence an entire generation of black ministers—among them Martin Luther King Jr.

Visions of a Better World depicts a visionary leader at a transformative moment in his life. Drawing from previously untapped archival material and obscurely published works, Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt explore, for the first time, Thurman’s development into a towering theologian who would profoundly affect American Christianity—and American history.

CLR Board Member Vyskocil on Short List for Court of Appeals

vyskocilI’m delighted to announce that Mary Kay Vyskocil (left), a member of the Center’s advisory board, has been named to the short list of candidates for an upcoming vacancy on New York’s Court of Appeals. The New York State Commission on Judicial Nomination selected her, along with six other candidates, for inclusion on the short list; Governor Andrew Cuomo must choose his nominee to high court from among these candidates. Vyskocil is a graduate of St. John’s Law and a partner at Simpson Thacher. Congratulations!

Removing Christmas (and Everything Else) from the School Calendar

Here’s a lesson in how to irritate everybody. Last week, the Board of Education in Montgomery County, Maryland, a wealthy suburb of Washington, DC, voted to remove references to religious holidays from its public school calendar. Starting next year, students will have off for “Winter Break” rather than Christmas, “Spring Break” rather than Easter, and two unnamed holidays rather than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The decision came after a Muslim group requested that schools also close for a Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha. Rather than declare Eid a holiday, the board decided to remove religious references altogether.

The board apparently believed that retaining the names of religious holidays is constitutionally problematic. That is not so. Naming school holidays after widely celebrated religious observances does not violate any of Supreme Court’s many Establishment Clause tests, even the so-called endorsement test. Consider Christmas, for example. Closing on December 25 does not endorse the religious meaning of the holiday. It simply acknowledges the fact that most students and staff would stay home. And as everybody, including the state and federal governments, refers to the holiday as Christmas, it’s natural for the school calendar to do the same. In fact, expunging the word “Christmas,” after it has been in the calendar for so long, suggests hostility to the religious meaning of the holiday. Such a suggestion itself creates problems under the endorsement test.

What about the fact that the schools recognize the holidays of some religions, but not others? Doesn’t that suggest hostility for religions the schools ignore? Obviously some Montgomery Country Muslims took it that way, and one must respect their feelings. But there’s a very good administrative reason why Montgomery County schools don’t close on Eid. Only about 1% of the county’s population is Muslim. There are simply not enough Muslim students and staff to justify closing the schools–just as there are not enough Hindus to justify closing schools on Hindu holidays, or Buddhists to justify closing schools on Buddhist holidays. That’s not a reflection of disrespect for those religions, but an acknowledgement of demographic reality. It’s worth noting that the Montgomery County schools excuse absences for Muslims who observe Eid.

I could explain why the other Establishment Clause tests also would allow schools to close for some religious holidays but not others, but there’s no point belaboring things. The Constitution does not require what the board did. But the board’s decision is worse than wrong; it’s pernicious. Striking the names of religious holidays has only served to create religious conflict. Many Christians and Jews have expressed dismay, as has the Muslim organization that requested the Eid holiday in the first place. That organization now worries, not implausibly, that angry parents and students will blame Muslims for the board’s decision. That would be unfair. The organization didn’t ask the board to rename these other holidays; that was entirely the board’s doing. But many people will ignore that fact.

In a pluralistic society like ours, respect is a crucial value. Respect for religious traditions other than one’s own promotes harmony and social peace. But recognizing a religious holiday that many students and staff observe doesn’t express disrespect for other religions, and the board’s decision to rename Christmas–as well as the other holidays–has done nothing to promote religious harmony. The board has created an entirely unnecessary, uncomfortable situation in which everyone feels aggrieved. One could hardly call that progress.

Kobani, Then and Now

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Kobani, Syria, Last Weekend

For the past several weeks, the world has been watching Kobani (in Kurdish, Kobanê), a small city on the Syrian-Turkish border. In September, militants from ISIS, the Sunni Islamist group that has declared a restored caliphate in the Middle East, laid siege to the city, which is mostly Kurdish and currently in the hands of the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish group that opposes the Assad government. Kobani’s strategic significance is debatable, but the city has symbolic importance, and its fall would be a huge morale boost for ISIS. Consequently, the US has instituted a bombing campaign to push ISIS back. As of this weekend, the siege was at a standstill.

A bewildering set of parties is involved. In addition to the two main antagonists, ISIS and the YPG, there are the Iraqi Kurds – who, unlike the YPG, do not have good relations with the PKK, the Kurdish militants who seek to establish a homeland in Turkey – the Free Syrian Army, part of the “moderate” secular opposition to Assad; the Assad regime itself; the Iraqi government; regional powers like Turkey and Iran; and the international anti-ISIS coalition, led by the US. Each of these parties has its own interests to protect, which makes cooperation very difficult. Most observers think the city will fall unless outsiders supply substantial ground troops. That seems unlikely. Although Turkey last week said it would open its border and allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters, as well as members of the Free Syrian Army, to reinforce Kobani, it’s not clear whether that will occur.

One group that does not have a significant representation in Kobani is Christians. This is ironic, because Kobani was in fact founded by Christians during the last great wave of persecution in the region, about 100 years ago. In the wake of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, an ethnic-cleansing campaign that killed millions of Armenians and other Christians in the Ottoman Empire, Armenian refugees established a village near a recently-built train station on the Baghdad Railway, at a place called Ayn al-Arab in the Aleppo Province. The Kurds came later and called the village “Kobani,” apparently after the German company that had built the railway.

The Turks pushed many of Kobani’s Armenians further south. Those who avoided deportation built churches and schools in Kobani, but most eventually decided to move on, to other cities in Syria or to Soviet Armenia. Doubtless, many of them wished to leave a place with so many bad memories. According to political scientist Cengiz Aktar of the Istanbul Policy Center, the area surrounding Kobani is known as “‘the Armenian cemetery’ because of the thousands of Armenians who died there during the deportations. It was a terrible place when the Armenians arrived back then, and the area has a tragic history. It is being repeated now.”

Hardly anyone today remembers the Christian presence in Kobani. I didn’t know the story, myself, until a friend said his grandfather, one of the refugees, once had a shop there. The churches are gone. New humanitarian disasters succeed the ones of 100 years ago; history moves on. Still, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the great suffering that led to Kobani’s foundation, and the great suffering that continues there now. It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood.

Photo from CNN

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.

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.

Podcast on Holt v. Hobbs

Mark and I have recorded another in our podcast series, this time on the “prison beard case,” Holt v. Hobbs, argued this week at the Supreme Court. We discuss the claim and the oral argument, and make some predictions. To get our other podcasts, click here.

The Armenian Church in Myanmar: A Follow-Up

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Photo from the BBC

A follow-up to last month’s post on the Armenian Orthodox church in Myanmar: This summer, the BBC did a lovely story about a 150-year old Armenian parish church in the city of Yangon, St. John the Baptist (above). Hardly any parishioners remained, the BBC said, maybe 10 people on a good Sunday. Most of the congregation were not Armenians, either, the Armenians having left Myanmar, with the British, decades before.

A small group of holdouts had continued to maintain the church, however, led by a priest, Father John Felix. Father John was not Armenian Orthodox, the story indicated, but Anglican. Nonetheless, the Armenian Church had, in an ecumenical gesture, invited him to use St. John the Baptist for the small number of faithful who remained, even though he had a very limited knowledge of the Orthodox liturgy. (Most of the parishioners had a very limited knowledge, too). Apparently he was starting to attract a following from among Christian believers of many communions.

The BBC got its information straight from Father John. It turns out, however, that he’s not really “Father” John at all. The Anglican archbishop says that John Felix was never ordained a priest, only a deacon, and that, for unspecified reasons, the Anglican Church no longer allows him to conduct religious services. How he ensconced himself at St. John the Baptist is a mystery. He apparently inserted himself a few years ago, after the last “full” member of the congregation passed away. The Armenian Church hierarchy seems not to have known about it. To be fair, they have many more pressing issues with which to contend.

This summer’s story drew a lot of attention. As I say, once the Anglicans found out about John Felix, they spread the word he wasn’t one of theirs. The story got noticed in Armenia as well. Last week, the Catholicos, or Patriarch, of the Armenian Church, Karekin II, visited Yangon to reconsecrate the altar and conduct a proper liturgy; a large crowd attended. The Catholicos also announced that henceforth an Orthodox priest from Calcutta would fly in on weekends to conduct liturgies at the church. As for John Felix, he’s indicated he intends to remain at the church and has refused to turn over the keys. The BBC says legal action seems likely.

The BBC has posted a video interview with John Felix. He seems like a nice enough man, and gamely tries to chant the Kyrie Eleison (in Armenian, Der Voghormia) to show his bona fides. But, if the BBC is to be believed, he’s been deceiving everyone for years. He has actually purported to conduct weddings and baptisms for unsuspecting parishioners. Is he well-meaning but misguided, or an out-and-out scoundrel? It’s impossible to tell. What a very strange story.