Tag Archives: History of Religion

Williams, “Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade”

In December, Oxford University Press will release “Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade” by Daniel K. Williams (University of West Georgia). The publisher’s description follows:

On April 16, 1972, ten thousand people gathered in Central Park to protest New York’s liberal abortion law. Emotions ran high, reflecting the nation’s extreme polarization over abortion. Yet the divisions did not fall neatly along partisan or religious lines-the assembled protesters were far from a bunch of fire-breathing culture warriors. In Defenders of the Unborn, Daniel K. Williams reveals the hidden history of the pro-life movement in America, showing that a cause that many see as reactionary and anti-feminist began as a liberal crusade for human rights.

For decades, the media portrayed the pro-life movement as a Catholic cause, but by the time of the Central Park rally, that stereotype was already hopelessly outdated. The kinds of people in attendance at pro-life rallies ranged from white Protestant physicians, to young mothers, to African American Democratic legislators-even the occasional member of Planned Parenthood. One of New York City’s most vocal pro-life advocates was a liberal Lutheran minister who was best known for his civil rights activism and his protests against the Vietnam War. The language with which pro-lifers championed their cause was not that of conservative Catholic theology, infused with attacks on contraception and women’s sexual freedom. Rather, they saw themselves as civil rights crusaders, defending the inalienable right to life of a defenseless minority: the unborn fetus. It was because of this grounding in human rights, Williams argues, that the right-to-life movement gained such momentum in the early 1960s. Indeed, pro-lifers were winning the battle before Roe v. Wade changed the course of history.

Through a deep investigation of previously untapped archives, Williams presents the untold story of New Deal-era liberals who forged alliances with a diverse array of activists, Republican and Democrat alike, to fight for what they saw as a human rights cause. Provocative and insightful, Defenders of the Unborn is a must-read for anyone who craves a deeper understanding of a highly-charged issue.

“Migration and Religion” (Beckford, ed.)

In January, Edward Elgar Publishing will release “Migration and Religion: Volume I” edited by James A. Beckford (University of Warwick, UK). The publisher’s description follows:

The complex and changing relations between religion and migration are central to many urgent questions about diversity, inequality and pluralism. This wide-ranging collection of articles explores these questions in different periods of history, regions of the world and traditions of faith. There is particular emphasis on how religions inspire, manage and benefit from migration as well as how the experience of migration affects religious beliefs, identities and practices. These volumes examine the interface between religion and migration at levels of analysis ranging from the local to the global, and from the individual to the faith community.

“Living in the Ottoman Realm” (eds. Isom-Verhaaren & Schull)

In January, the Indiana University Press will release “Living in the Ottoman Realm: Empire and Identity, 13th to 20th Centuries,” edited by Christine Isom-Verhaaren (Brigham Young University) and Kent F. Schull (SUNY Binghamton).  The publisher’s description follows:

Living in the Ottoman Realm brings the Ottoman Empire to life in all of its ethnic, religious, linguistic, and geographic diversity. The 9780253019431_medcontributors explore the development and transformation of identity over the long span of the empire’s existence. They offer engaging accounts of individuals, groups, and communities by drawing on a rich array of primary sources, some available in English translation for the first time. These materials are examined with new methodological approaches to gain a deeper understanding of what it meant to be Ottoman. Designed for use as a course text, each chapter includes study questions and suggestions for further reading.

Heilbronner, “From Popular Liberalism to National Socialism”

In January, Ashgate will release “From Popular Liberalism to National Socialism: Religion, Culture and Politics in South-Western Germany, 1860s-1930s,” by Oded Heilbronner (Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel).  The publisher’s description follows:

‘Long live liberty, equality, fraternity and dynamite’

So went the traditional slogan of the radical liberals in Greater Swabia, the south-western part of modern Germany. This book investigates the development of what the author terms ‘popular liberalism’ in this region, in order to present a more nuanced understanding of political and cultural patterns in Germany up to the early 1930s. In particular, the author offers an explanation for the success of National Socialism before 1933 in certain regions of South Germany, arguing that the radical liberal sub-culture was not subsumed by the Nazi Party, but instead changed its form of representation. Together with the famous völkish fraction and the leftist fraction within the chapters of the Nazi Party, there were radical-liberal associations, ex-members of radical-liberal parties, sympathizers with these parties, and notables with a radical orientation derived from family and regional traditions. These people and associations believed that the Nazi Party could fulfil their radical – liberal vision, rooted in the local democratic and liberal traditions which stretched from 1848 to the early 20th century. By looking afresh at the relationship between local-regional identities and national politics, this book makes a major contribution to the study of the roots of Nazism.

Reiff, “Born of Conviction”

In December, the Oxford University Press will release “Born of Conviction: White Methodists and Mississippi’s Closed Society,” by Joseph T. Reiff (Emory & Henry College).  The publisher’s description follows:

The dominant narrative of the role of white citizens and the white church in Mississippi’s civil rights era focuses on their intense resistance to change. The “Born of Conviction” statement, signed by twenty-eight white Methodist pastors and published in theMississippi Methodist Advocate on January 2, 1963, offered an alternative witness to the segregationist party line. Calling for freedom of the pulpit and reminding readers of the Methodist Discipline’s claim that the teachings of Jesus permit “no discrimination because of race, color, or creed,” the pastors sought to speak to and for a mostly silent yet significant minority of Mississippians, and to lead white Methodists to join the conversation on the need for racial justice. The document additionally expressed support for public schools and opposition to any attempt to close them, and affirmed the signers’ opposition to Communism. Though a few individuals, both laity and clergy, voiced public affirmation of “Born of Conviction,” the overwhelming reaction was negative-by mid-1964, eighteen of the signers had left Mississippi, evidence of the challenges faced by whites who offered even mild dissent to massive resistance in the Deep South.

Dominant narratives, however, rarely tell the whole story. The statement caused a significant crack in the public unanimity of Mississippi white resistance. Signers and their public supporters also received private messages of gratitude for their stand, and eight of the signers would remain in the Methodist ministry in Mississippi until retirement. Born of Conviction tells the story of “the Twenty-Eight” illuminating the impact on the larger culture of this attempt by white clergy to support race relations change. The book explores the theological and ethical understandings of the signers through an account of their experiences before, during, and after the statement’s publication. It also offers a detailed portrait of both public and private expressions of the theology and ethics of white Mississippi Methodists in general, as revealed by their responses to the “Born of Conviction” controversy.

Kezer, “Building Modern Turkey”

In December, the University of Pittsburgh Press will release “Building Modern Turkey: State, Space, and Ideology in the Early Republic,” by Zeynep Kezer (Newcastle University).  The publisher’s description follows: 

Building Modern Turkey offers a critical account of how the built environment mediated Turkey’s transition from a pluralistic (multiethnic and multireligious) empire into a modern, homogenized nation-state following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Zeynep Kezer argues that the deliberate dismantling of ethnic and religious enclaves and the spatial practices that ensued were as integral to conjuring up a sense of national unity and facilitating the operations of a modern nation-state as were the creation of a new capital, Ankara, and other sites and services that embodied a new modern way of life. The book breaks new ground by examining both the creative and destructive forces at play in the making of modern Turkey and by addressing the overwhelming frictions during this profound transformation and their long-term consequences. By considering spatial transformations at different scales—from the experience of the individual self in space to that of international geopolitical disputes—Kezer also illuminates the concrete and performative dimensions of fortifying a political ideology, one that instills in the population a sense of membership in and allegiance to the nation above all competing loyalties and ensures its longevity.

Moussa, “Politics of the Islamic Tradition”

In October, Routledge released “Politics of the Islamic Tradition: The Thought of Muhammad Al-Ghazali,” by Mohammed Moussa (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies).  The publisher’s description follows:

Over the last two centuries the Muslim world has undergone dramatic transformations, impacting the Islamic tradition and throwing into question our understanding of tradition. The notion of tradition as an unmoving edifice is contradicted by the very process of its transmission, and the complex role human beings play in creating and sustaining traditions is evident in the indigenous mechanisms of change within the Islamic tradition.

Politics of the Islamic Tradition locates the work of Egyptian cleric Muhammad al-Ghazali within the context of this dynamic Islamic tradition, with special focus on his political thought. Al-Ghazali inherited a vast and diverse heritage which he managed to reinterpret in a changing world. An innovative exploration of the change and continuity present within Muslim discourses, this book brings together disparate threads of the Islamic tradition, religious exegesis, the contemporary Arab Middle East, the Islamic state and idea of renewal in al-Ghazali’s thought. As well as being one of the first complete treatments of al-Ghazali’s works, this book provides an original critical approach to tradition and its capability for innovation and change, countering the dichotomy between tradition and modernity that typically informs most scholarly studies on contemporary Islam.

Offering highly original insights into Islamic thought and engaging with critical notions of tradition, this book is essential reading for students and scholars of Islamic Politics and History.

Soden, “Outsiders in a Promised Land”

This month, the Oregon State University Press releases “Outsiders in a Promised Land: Religious Activists in Pacific Northwest History,” by Dale Soden (Whitworth University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Outsiders in a Promised Land explores the role that religious activists have played in shaping the culture of the Pacific Northwest, particularly in Washington and Oregon, from the middle of the 19th century onward. The region’s earliest settlers came to work in the mines and forests, and a culture of saloons, gambling halls, and brothels grew up to serve them. When migration to the region intensified, newcomers with families and religious traditions often saw themselves as outsiders in opposition to the prevailing frontier culture.

As communities grew in population, early activists found common ground in a desire to protect women and children, and make their towns more hospitable to religious values. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews worked together to transform communities. Together they introduced public and private schools, health care institutions, libraries and orphanages, and lobbied for the prohibition of alcohol.

Beginning in the 1930s, religious activism played a crucial role in the emerging culture wars between liberals and conservatives. Liberals rallied around the protection of civil rights and the building of social safety nets, while conservatives decried the rise of secularism, liberalism, and communism. Today, religious activists of many faiths are deeply engaged in matters related to women’s and gay rights, foreign policy, and environmental protection.

Outsiders in a Promised Land is a meticulously researched, comprehensive treatment of religion in Pacific Northwest public life. The first book of its kind, it is destined to be an essential reference for scholars, activists, and religious leaders of all faiths.

Su, “Exporting Freedom”

In January, the Harvard University Press will release “Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power,” by Anna Su (University of Toronto).  The publisher’s description follows:

Religious freedom is widely recognized today as a basic human right, guaranteed by nearly all national constitutions. Exporting Freedom charts the rise of religious freedom as an ideal firmly enshrined in international law and shows how America’s promotion of the cause of individuals worldwide to freely practice their faith advanced its ascent as a global power.

Anna Su traces America’s exportation of religious freedom in various laws and policies enacted over the course of the twentieth century, in diverse locations and under a variety of historical circumstances. Influenced by growing religious tolerance at home and inspired by a belief in the United States’ obligation to protect the persecuted beyond its borders, American officials drafted constitutions as part of military occupations—in the Philippines after the Spanish–American War, in Japan following World War II, and in Iraq after 2003. They also spearheaded efforts to reform the international legal order by pursuing Wilsonian principles in the League of Nations, drafting the United Nations Charter, and signing the Helsinki Accords during the Cold War. The fruits of these labors are evident in the religious freedom provisions in international legal instruments, regional human rights conventions, and national constitutions.

In examining the evolution of religious freedom from an expression of the civilizing impulse to the democratization of states and, finally, through the promotion of human rights, Su offers a new understanding of the significance of religion in international relations.

The Unwritten Laws of Greece

The Spectacle of Death

Ancient Greek cities were frequently at war with each other, and death took its toll. Male citizens must often have been battle-hardened veterans, accustomed to the spectacle of battlefield carnage. Families and near relatives, who took part in washing the corpses and readying them for burial, must also have become sickeningly familiar with the look of violent death. The Greek preoccupation with the honorable interment of the combat-dead may have stemmed from a desire to hold the horror of such spectacles at a certain remove.  It must surely have been hard to forget such sights as those that the First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon described in his Counter-Attack:

           The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs

          High-booted, sprawled and groveled along the saps

          And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,

          Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;

          And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,

          Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.

          And then the rain began, — the jolly old rain!

The Fifth Century: Sophocles

By the fifth century, the Greeks had come to conclude that an enemy’s battle-dead were entitled to respect and should not be mistreated. In Miasma (1983), an important work on Greek religion, the Oxford classicist Robert Parker summarized the outcome that had been reached by the fifth century:

The individual’s right to receive burial was, of course, supported by powerful social and supernatural sanctions. The ‘common law of the Greeks’ agreed with the ‘unwritten, unshakeable laws of the gods’ in insisting that even the body of an enemy should be given up after battle for burial.

The “Antigone”

The “unwritten, unshakeable laws of the gods” to which Parker alludes are those expounded in the great speech of Antigone, in the play of that name by the fifth century Athenian tragic poet Sophocles. (Sophocles’ Antigone is fashioned from the same body of mythic material as Euripides’ Suppliants.) Antigone, daughter of King Oedipus of Thebes and sister of his son Prince Polynices, wishes to bury her brother’s remains after he has died at the hands of their brother Eteocles, whom Polynices has himself killed in their battle at one of the seven gates of Thebes. While Creon, Eteocles’ successor as King of Thebes, gives honors to Eteocles’ remains, he refuses to allow Polynices to be buried. Antigone defies Creon’s orders and attempts to bury Polynices. Challenged by Creon as to whether she had disobeyed him, she replies:

          Of course I did. It wasn’t Zeus, not in the least,

          Who made this proclamation—not to me.

          Nor did that Justice, dwelling with the gods

          Beneath the earth, ordain such laws for men.

          Nor did I think your edict had such force

          That you, a mere mortal, could override the gods,

          The great, unwritten, unshakable traditions.

          They are alive, not just today or yesterday:

          They live forever, from the first of time,

          And no one knows when they first saw the light.

Antigone, ll. 499-508 (Robert Fagles trans.).

Bear in mind that Polynices was not merely a fallen enemy warrior but also (in Creon’s view) a rebel, a regicide and a fratricide, a leader in an invading foreign army and a pretender to the crown of Thebes. Refusing him burial might therefore arguably be seen as a permissible exception to the obligation to grant burial which, as Parker notes, was “never absolute,” and which allowed Greek cities to cast away the bodies of at least some criminals.  The city’s treatment of corpses, as Parker shows, was “one of the means by which men could hurt, humiliate, or honour one another, express contempt or respect;” hence, “the theme could be of central importance in great works of literature.”

In the Antigone, as Hegel famously argued (Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Pt. II, sec. 2, c. 1), Sophocles revealed the very essence of tragedy, which arises when “the ethical substance” is “divided against itself,” or in other words when there is an irreconcilable collision between two valid and compelling norms: here, the right of the family to bury its dead as against the State’s prerogative to punish those who disloyally take up arms against it. Antigone argues: “Death longs for the same rites for all;” and Creon answers, “Never the same for the patriot and the traitor” (ll. 384-85).

As legal scholar Martha Nussbaum (following Hegel) has pointed out, both major protagonists in The Antigone have unduly narrow and unreflective moral views. Surely the claims of the city do not always count for more than those of the family; for what is a city but an association of families? On the other hand, is not Creon right to say that our country is our safety (l. 211)?  See The Costs of Tragedy: Some Moral Limits of Cost-Benefit Analysis (2000),

In the end, however, it is Antigone, not Creon, whose claim prevails in Sophocles’ drama: Creon’s treatment of Polynices’ brings pollution and plague to Thebes.   Nature itself rises up against the violation of the unwritten and unshakeable laws. The blind prophet Tiresias tells Creon that the birds of the sanctuary where he sits, which used to hover at his hands, began to scream madly and to rip each other apart with flashing talons. The fires over which the sacrifices were offered would not light; the birds, gorged with blood and fat, drop scraps of Polynices’ body on the altar. Prophecy becomes impossible; the city’s link to the gods is entirely severed. And the fault, Tiresias tells him, is Creon’s:

And it is you—

Your high resolve that sets this plague on Thebes.

The public altars and sacred hearths are fouled,

One and all, by the birds and dogs with carrion

Torn from the corpse, the doomstruck son of Oedipus!

And so the gods are deaf to our prayers, they spurn

The offerings in our hands, the flame of holy flesh.

No birds cry out an omen clear and true-

They’re gorged with the murdered victim’s blood and fat.

Take these things to heart, my son, I warn you. . .

Where’s the glory, killing the dead twice over?

Antigone ll. 1123-40.

Readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers may recall the last march of the Ents, an ancient race of tall, human-like trees, against the fortress of Saruman at Isengard, which they destroy. There too, nature itself rises up against the unholy forces that would violate it.

Oedipus the King

Sophocles also addresses the subject of the “unwritten” and “unshakeable” laws of the gods in a Chorus in Oedipus the King. (Rémi Brague suggest that Sophocles is writing here in response to the Sophists who had attacked the divine origin of those laws. See The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea (English trans. 2007 (2005)). Although the context here is that of Oedipus’ violations – parricide and incest – not that of burial, the lines reinforce the action and speeches of the Antigone:

Great laws tower above us, reared on high

          Born for the brilliant vault of heaven—

          Olympian Sky their only father,

          Nothing mortal, no man gave them birth,

          Their memory deathless, never lost in sleep:

          Within them lives a mighty god, the god does not grow old. . .

          God, my champion, I will never let you go.

 Oedipus the King, ll. 957-971 (Robert Fagles trans.).

 What were these laws, variously called “unwritten laws,” “common laws” or laws “of the gods”?  Edith Hall of King’s College, London, finds that they “constituted simultaneously an expression of the most fundamental and ancient taboos, and a didactic charter of ‘decent’ behavior which was invested at times with a sanctity far greater than the strict observance of ritual. . . [T]hese laws seem to have enshrined such integral taboos as the killing of guest or host, family member or suppliant, incest, and the failure to bury the dead.” See Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (1989).

In grasping that the norm forbidding the non-burial of the dead was, for the Greeks, of the same magnitude as the prohibition on incest, we can understand Euripides’ Suppliants more deeply. The cause that drove King Theseus and Athens to war against Thebes touched a matter of the utmost sensitivity for the Athenian audiences that watch Euripides’ drama.

Divine law or human law?

The questions whether the laws in question were divine (without beginning or end) or human (customary), and whether they applied universally or only to the Greeks, were debated in fifth and fourth century Athens. In the Rhetoric (though not elsewhere), Aristotle drew this distinction, and in a passage that refers to the Antigone, see Rhetoric 1373b, places on one side the law that is proper to a particular city (which may or may not be written) and the universal law, which is according to nature (“kata phusin”).

We see signs of both views in The Suppliants, and perhaps they had not yet been fully distinguished. (Indeed, they are arguably not distinguishable when fully thought through.)  King Theseus describes the norm about burial as “the law of all Hellas” (Philip Vellacott trans.)), but he also speaks of it as “this ancient, divine ordinance.” Aethra, Theseus’ mother, at first characterizes them as “the gods’ law,” but later calls them “the established laws/Of all Hellas.” Other Euripidean dramas also leave the question in some doubt. In The Hecuba (l. 1247 (E.P. Coleridge trans.)), the Greek King Agamemnon says to the Thracian Polymester, “Perhaps among you it is a light thing to murder guests, but with us in Hellas it is a disgrace,” implying that the norms surrounding guest-friendship are characteristic of (a higher) Greek civilization, but are not universal. The latter view – if indeed it is Euripides’ – would seem to resemble the post-Enlightenment non-foundationalism of the late Richard Rorty.

So much for the treatment of the warrior burial norm in Sophocles. In the next installment, we shall consider evidence of that norm in the historians Herodotus and Thucydides.