Tag Archives: Civil Rights

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.

Is More Less? Or is More More?

The titular questions refer to the issue of the reduction in the strength and integrity of rights by the increase in their number and scope. The issue is: do you weaken rights by multiplying them and broadening them? Or instead, as the size and scope of government itself expands, is the concomitant expansion of rights (in number and coverage) necessary simply to keep pace?

The best defense of the view that more is less with respect to the First Amendment belongs to Philip Hamburger. Hamburger’s key claim is that as one expands the scope of the rights protected under the First Amendment, one weakens those rights inasmuch as the degree to which one conceives of them as something approaching inviolable (though never actually inviolable) decreases. Where the scope of rights is limited, it requires some really and truly compelling rival concern to overcome the right. But as the scope of the right increases, so too does the need to “balance” the right against rival interests.

That particular “more-is-less” claim depends on the scope given to a protected right. A related “more-is-less” claim focuses on the expansion of the number of protected rights. That’s the claim Steve Smith makes in a hot off the presses post at the Liberty Law blog (if you haven’t seen it, Steve is writing up a storm over there). Steve writes:

[S]uppose we relax our standards, and relax them again, and expand our thinking, and fine-tune our sensibilities and sensitivities, to the point that anything that any favored constituency really, really wants comes to be viewed as a “right.” In other words, we follow the path that the Warren Court– and, truth be told, the Burger Court, and to a significant extent the Rehnquist Court, and even in some respects the Roberts court– followed. Or we heed the prescriptions of political theorists and constitutional scholars to codify as “rights” all manner of privacy and dignitary and equality and self-fulfillment interests. Perhaps we use as a guide Martha Nussbaum’s list of essential human “capabilities” without which it is ostensibly impossible to be “truly” or “really human.” These would include things like the use of senses, imagination, and thought; bodily health; and bodily integrity (including “opportunities for sexual satisfaction”). Without “opportunities for sexual satisfaction,” your life is not “really human”; so surely you must have a right to such opportunities.

Under this impulse, rights would multiply like rabbits. But given some such vastly expanded inventory of rights, it will be impossible to give all of these rights…“compelling interest” protection. For one thing, government would thereby be effectively paralyzed, because just about anything government might do will run up against one of more of the newly articulated “rights.” For another, some of these diffuse rights are sure to conflict with others. For still another, government’s rights-oriented obligation now is not just to leave people alone in certain respects, but affirmatively to supply people with lots of desired things: and in a world of scarcity there is only so much that government can supply (or can mandate that employers, say, must supply)….

Now, to say that something is a right is basically to say that it should be taken into account, or given “weight,” in the balancing of competing interests that goes into the formulation and assessment of laws and government policies. Government should not infringe the “right”– unless, of course, there is some good reason to do so.

Though this is strictly speaking a claim about how the increasing number of rights weakens the protection of such rights, the connection to the issue of scope is evident. Take the RFRA rule that only those religious burdens that are “substantial” trigger the law’s protection. A religious burden isn’t enough. It has to be a really, really big, terrible burden. The more-is-less claim is that by broadening the scope of protection and increasing the number of things that we protect in the name of religious freedom, we’ve now got to have some mechanism to limit the kinds of claims that merit protection in the first place. So we superimpose the language of “substantiality” and we talk about the shifting of burdens and the balancing of interests because we’ve watered down the basic right so much that we don’t even really know what it is that counts as the right in the first place any longer.

But there is another side to the story. That side is admirably represented by John Inazu in this paper–More is More: Strengthening Free Exercise, Speech, and Association. John argues, to the contrary, that the thesis of “rights confinement” as giving strength to existing rights does not account for the ways in which cultural developments can affect the scope of rights. In the First Amendment context, some explanations for weakening of the right of religious freedom include decline in popular support for the right, the ideological cabining of the right (as, John argues, has happened to religious freedom but not to the freedom of speech), and (most importantly I believe) changing cultural views about what constitutes a government interest–that is, in what government ought to be interested in at all.

Here I want to note an overlapping position in the more-is-less and more-is-more views. They seem opposed. But I wonder. Both recognize that a major part of the difficulty is not the individual right in question and our feelings about it, but the expanding scope of what is deemed a concern of the state. Both, that is, locate the crux of the more/less debate in changing societal perspectives on the fundamental nature of government and its role in the lives of the citizen.

If that is true, let me offer a point of agreement with John Inazu, and then perhaps a point of difference. The point of agreement is that in a society in which the government takes on more and more of a place and a role in the life of the citizenry, the protection of rights becomes a zero sum game. More is more, because every inch gained is a gain for the right, and every inch lost is a gain for the state. The point of difference is that if this is so, then one should expect that with time it will begin to affect all rights, very much including the right of free speech. That is, the particular explanations for the more is more thesis that affect religious freedom (loss of the right’s prestige in popular sentiment) will eventually hit other freedoms too. That is because the key issue is not evolving cultural perceptions of the right’s strength and ambit, but evolving cultural perceptions of the strength and ambit of the state’s proper power.

Christianity and King

When it comes to mixing religion and politics, I’ve often thought, the principle seems to be, it’s wrong when the other guy does it. For example, conservatives become annoyed  when Christians call for liberalizing immigration laws or for universal healthcare. Don’t impose your religious beliefs on society! When Christians argue for abortion restrictions or against same-sex marriage, by contrast, conservatives don’t complain too much. And it works in reverse. In fact, in my experience, liberals have a greater blind spot about the subject. Liberals object vigorously when conservatives like Judge Edith Jones defend capital punishment on religious grounds, but go strangely quiet when liberals, like President Obama, cite Christianity’s influence on their policy positions.

Here’s a good example of the liberal discomfort with religion from a New York Times profile of Barnard College sociologist Jonathan Rieder. According to the Times, Rieder, an expert on Martin Luther King, has focused on an aspect of King’s thought that receives little attention from scholars: King’s Christianity. How, you might ask, could King scholarship ignore Christianity? The man was a Christian minister. The Times explains:

Dr. Rieder’s book stakes very specific turf in the corpus of King scholarship with its relentless focus on Dr. King the preacher. By doing so … Dr. Rieder is restoring the overtly religious element to Dr. King and the freedom movement. While African-Americans readily grasp the link, many white liberals diminish or ignore it out of discomfort with religion being granted a role — even a positive one — in political discourse.

“The image of liberal secular King misses the essential role of prophetic Christianity,” [Rieder] said in a recent interview. “Jesus wasn’t just an interesting historical figure to King. He saw Jesus as a continuation of the prophets. He has a powerful association with Jesus.”

Would America have had the civil rights movement without Christianity? It’s impossible to know, of course, and it’s true that Christian support for King wasn’t uniform. But it’s crazy to ignore Christianity’s profound influence on King and, though him, the movement as a whole. The willingness to do so says a great deal about the state of scholarship in America today.

The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

There are many reasons why America seems to be moving inexorably toward legalizing same-sex marriage. The Sexual Revolution that has swept American society since the 1960s is probably the main explanation. There’s plenty of evidence that Americans, especially Americans below a certain age, accept the Sexual Revolution’s basic premise that sex is a harmless pleasure without much moral content, at least when it does not involve coercion or, sometimes, adultery. Divorce, once seen as a traumatic, though perhaps necessary, last resort for very troubled marriages is no longer regarded as an exceptional event. People speak without irony of “starter marriages;” fewer and fewer people marry at all. And these cultural changes are not limited to the Secular Left. An Evangelical pundit got in trouble recently because, he said, he didn’t realize that being engaged to one woman while simultaneously being married to another was frowned upon in Christian circles.

Given their views about sexuality and marriage, SSM seems to many Americans a non-issue. But there is something else at work, too. Much of the success of the campaign for SSM has to do with supporters’ adoption of the language of civil rights. In our national discourse, the phrase “civil rights issue of our time” immediately suggests SSM; last week’s NYT editorial is a good example. As a rhetorical device – and I don’t mean to suggest that SSM advocates are being insincere – this is a brilliant strategy. In American politics, a group that can successfully appropriate the language of civil rights is bound to win.

That’s why I was struck recently when I saw that Rick Warren, perhaps the most influential Evangelical pastor in America today, has adopted this language on behalf of conservative Christians. In an interview about the ACA’s Contraception Mandate, Warren called religious liberty “the civil rights issue of the next decade.” He was echoing, among others, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has also emphasized the civil rights aspect of resistance to the mandate. This is a very shrewd rhetorical move – and, again, I don’t mean to suggest anyone is being insincere. If religious conservatives are going to prevail on issues like the Contraception Mandate, they can’t hope to persuade people on the merits of traditional sexual morality, much of which the American public now finds incomprehensible. They will have to persuade people that they represent the advance of civil rights.

Rights and Judgment

This story reports that the Obama Administration has issued a statement questioning the “judgment” of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in publishing insulting pictures of the Prophet Mohammed (discussed by Mark immediately below).  The Administration — through its “porte-parole” Jay Carney — was careful to distinguish the issue of the magazine’s constitutional “right” to publish the pictures and its judgment in doing so because the Administration “know[s] that these images will be very shocking for many people,” and “might provoke violent reactions.”

The reaction of the Administration reminds me very much of the controversy over the construction of the so-called September 11 mosque in New York City.  I recall distinctly that the position of some at the time was that though there was and surely should be no legal barrier to the use of particular property vaguely proximate to the site of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, it would be unwise, or evince a lack of good judgment, for the rights-holders to exercise their rights.  I recall the cute statement, made somewhere by someone, that it is “not a question of rights, but a question of what is right.”  I also remember that the President came out at first quite strongly in support of the mosque and cultural center (as did Mayor Michael Bloomberg), but then backed off a bit when the issue was put not in terms of rights, but of judgment: ““I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” the President said. “I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.” 

How about it readers?  Are the situations formally identical (with the exception that the President has commented negatively on the wisdom of publishing the cartoons, while he declined to do so with respect to the Ground Zero mosque)?  If so, are there nevertheless other salient differences between them?  Are there categorical differences, for example, between the wisdom of exercising a speech right and the wisdom of exercising the freedom of religion?

Weiss & Gross-Horowitz, “Marriage and Divorce in the Jewish State”

This December, Brandeis University Press will publish Marriage and Divorce in the Jewish State: Israel’s Civil War by Susan M. Weiss (Center for Women’s Justice) and Netty C. Gross-Horowitz (Jerusalem Report). The publisher’s description follows.

A comprehensive look at how rabbinical courts control Israeli marriage and divorce

Israel currently has two recognized systems of law operating side by side: civil and religious. Israeli religious courts possess exclusive rights to conduct and terminate marriages. There is no civil marriage or divorce in Israel, irrespective of one’s religious inclinations. All Muslims must marry and divorce in accordance with shariya laws, all Catholics in accordance with canon law, and all Jews in accordance with Torah law (halakha). The interpretation and implementation of Torah law is in the hands of the Orthodox religious establishment, the only stream of Judaism that enjoys legal recognition in Israel. These religious authorities strenuously oppose any changes to this so-called “status quo” arrangement between religious and secular. In fact, religious courts in Israel are currently pressing for expanded jurisdiction beyond personal status, stressing their importance to Israel’s growing religious community.

This book shows how religious courts, based on centuries-old patriarchal law, undermine the full civil and human rights of Jewish women in Israel. Making a broad argument for civil marriage and divorce in Israel, the authors also emphasize that religious marriages and divorces, when they do occur, must benefit from legislation that makes divorce easier to obtain. Using this issue as their focal point, they speak to a larger question: Is Israel a democracy or a theocracy?

District Court Dismisses Muslims’ Suit Against FBI Under State Secrets Doctrine

A federal district court in California ruled Tuesday that the state secrets doctrine precludes a religious-discrimination lawsuit local Muslims had filed against the FBI. Plaintiffs alleged that the FBI had violated their constitutional and civil rights by conducting “an indiscriminate ‘dragnet'” that “gathered information about them and other innocent Muslim Americans in Southern California” solely on the basis of their religion. Specifically, they alleged that the FBI had employed a covert operative to conduct surveillance of mosques and Muslims in southern California. The court ruled that litigation of plaintiffs’ claims would “require or unjustifiably risk disclosure of secret and classified information regarding the nature of the FBI’s counterterrorism investigations, the specific individuals under investigation and their associates, and the tactics and sources of information used in combating possible terrorist attacks on the United States and its allies.” The court made its decision, with obvious reluctance, on the  basis of Attorney General Eric Holder’s formal invocation of the state secrets privilege and the court’s own “skeptical” examination of the FBI’s public and classified, ex parte, submissions. Plaintiffs, represented by the ACLU, plan to appeal. The case is Fazaga v. FBI, 2012 WL 3327092 (C.D. Cal., Aug. 14, 2012).

Augustine on The First Amendment, Freedom Riders and Passage of the Voting Rights Act

Jonathan C. Augustine (Louisiana Workforce Commission) has posted The Theology of Civil Disobedience: The First Amendment, Freedom Riders and Passage of the Voting Rights Act. The abstract follows.

In 2011, usage of the term “civil disobedience” resurged in the American lexicon for at least two reasons: (1) there was widespread civil protest in Egypt; and (2) America observed the fiftieth anniversary of the now-celebrated Freedom Rides. Both reasons demonstrate the continued relevance of the twentieth century American Civil Rights Movement (“the Movement”).

American media widely covered Egyptian citizens’ nonviolent acts of civil disobedience as Egyptians peacefully protested governmental corruption in demanding free and fair elections. Further, since 2011 marked the golden anniversary of the Freedom Rides in the United States, Americans were reminded of the nonviolent civil disobedience undertaken by an interdenominational movement of clergy and laity, undergirded by a Judeo-Christian suffering servant theology. Dissident adherents literally sacrificed themselves for the democratic cause in which they believed. Continue reading

Skeel on Hauerwasian Christian Legal Theory

David A. Skeel Jr. (U. of Penn. Law School) has posted Hauerwasian Christian Legal Theory. The abstract follows.

This Essay, which was written for a Law and Contemporary Problems symposium on Stanley Hauerwas, tries to develop an account of public engagement in Hauerwas’ theology. The Essay distinguishes between two kinds of public engagement, “prophetic” and “participatory.” Christian engagement is prophetic when it criticizes or condemns the state, often by urging the state to honor or alter its true principles. In participatory engagement, by contrast, the church intervenes more directly in the political process, as when it works with lawmakers or mobilizes grass roots action. Prophetic engagement is often one-off; participatory engagement is more sustained. Because they worry intensely about the integrity of the church, Hauerwasians are more comfortable with prophetic engagement than the participatory alternative, a tendency the Essay calls the “prophetic temptation.” Hauerwasians also struggle to explain what can or should participatory engagement look like.

After first comparing Hauerwas’s understanding of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount with that of his two twentieth century predecessors, Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Neibuhr, the Essay turns to Hauerwasian public engagement and the prophetic temptation. The Essay then considers the implications of Hauerwas’s theology for three very different social issues, the Civil Rights Movement, abortion, and debt and bankruptcy.

Martin Luther King on Just and Unjust Laws

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. In commemoration, here’s a passage from Dr. King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which he wrote in 1963 to answer clergy who had criticized his willingness to break laws as part of his anti-segregation campaign:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a Continue reading