In September, the University of Chicago Press will release “Secular Faith: How Culture has Trumped Religion in American Politics,” by Mark A. Smith (University of Washington). The publisher’s description follows:
When Pope Francis recently answered “Who am I to judge?” when
asked about homosexuality, he ushered in a new era for the Catholic church. A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable for a pope to
express tolerance for homosexuality. Yet shifts of this kind are actually
common in the history of Christian groups. Within the United States, Christian leaders have regularly revised their teachings to match the beliefs and opinions gaining support among their members and larger society.
Mark A. Smith provocatively argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is. In fact, in the long run, religion is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them. Smith makes his case by charting five contentious issues in America’s history: slavery, divorce, homosexuality, abortion, and women’s rights. For each, he shows how the political views of even the most conservative Christians evolved in the same direction as the rest of society—perhaps not as swiftly, but always on the same arc. During periods of cultural transition, Christian leaders do resist prevailing values and behaviors, but those same leaders inevitably acquiesce—often by reinterpreting the Bible—if their positions become no longer tenable. Secular ideas and influences thereby shape the ways Christians read and interpret their scriptures.
So powerful are the cultural and societal norms surrounding us that Christians in America today hold more in common morally and politically with their atheist neighbors than with the Christians of earlier centuries. In fact, the strongest predictors of people’s moral beliefs are not their religious commitments or lack thereof but rather when and where they were born. A thoroughly researched and ultimately hopeful book on the prospects for political harmony, Secular Faith demonstrates how, over the long run, boundaries of secular and religious cultures converge.
In August, the Indiana University Press will release “Shi’i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa: Lebanese Migration and Religious Conversion in Senegal,” by Mara A. Leichtman (Michigan State University). The publisher’s description follows:
Mara A. Leichtman offers an in-depth study of Shi‘i Islam in two very different communities in Senegal: the well-established Lebanese diaspora and Senegalese “converts” from Sunni to Shi‘i Islam of recent decades. Sharing a minority religious status in a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, each group is cosmopolitan in its own way. Leichtman provides new insights into the everyday lives of Shi‘i Muslims in Africa and the dynamics of local and global Islam. She explores the influence of Hizbullah and Islamic reformist movements, and offers a corrective to prevailing views of Sunni-Shi‘i hostility, demonstrating that religious coexistence is possible in a context such as Senegal.
In July, the I.B. Tauris International Library of Iranian Studies will release “Political Islam in Post-Revolutionary Iran: Shi’i Ideologies in Islamist Discourse,” by Majid Mohammadi (Stony Brook University). The publisher’s description follows:
The relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Western World is fraught with challenges and tensions. In order to generate the capacity for greater engagement and dialogue, there is a need for the West to better understand the complex ideological developments that are central to Iran. Majid Mohammadi charts the central concepts and nuances of the ideological map of post-revolutionary Iran, and examines the rise and development of Shi’i Islamism. He recognizes that the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iranian political discourse are the outcome of contesting perspectives and ideologies: identity-oriented, socialist, nationalist, authoritarian, Shari’a, scripturalist, mystical, militarist and fascist. This is a comprehensive, comparative contribution to one of today’s most important topics: that of the relationship between Political Islam and the West.
This September, the Harvard University Press will release “Under the Ancestors’ Eyes: Kinship, Status, and Locality in Premodern Korea,” by Martina Deuchler (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London). The publisher’s description follows:
Under the Ancestors’ Eyes presents a new approach to Korean social history by focusing on the origin and development of the indigenous descent group. Martina Deuchler maintains that the surprising continuity of the descent-group model gave the ruling elite cohesion and stability and enabled it to retain power from the early Silla (fifth century) to the late nineteenth century. This argument, underpinned by a fresh interpretation of the late-fourteenth-century Koryŏ-Chosŏn transition, illuminates the role of Neo-Confucianism as an ideological and political device through which the elite regained and maintained dominance during the Chosŏn period. Neo-Confucianism as espoused in Korea did not level the social hierarchy but instead tended to sustain the status system. In the late Chosŏn, it also provided ritual models for the lineage-building with which local elites sustained their preeminence vis-à-vis an intrusive state. Though Neo-Confucianism has often been blamed for the rigidity of late Chosŏn society, it was actually the enduring native kinship ideology that preserved the strict social-status system. By utilizing historical and social anthropological methodology and analyzing a wealth of diverse materials, Deuchler highlights Korea’s distinctive elevation of the social over the political.
Culture and law have a mutually-reinforcing relationship. Cultural transformation typically promotes legal change, and legal change often speeds up cultural transformation. A good example is the sexual revolution of the 1960s. As the revolution became mainstream, it put pressure on family law concepts that had been based on traditional Christian sexual ethics. And changes in family law have no doubt accelerated the weakening of traditional Christian sexual morality.
Next month, Harvard University Press will publish a book that describes another cultural transformation that had an effect on law: the movement from pagan to Christian sexual ethics that occurred in late antiquity. In some ways, this seems the mirror image of what is happening today. As Christian values displaced the pagan sexual ethic, Roman law changed as well. Doubtless, pagan traditionalists grumbled about the revolution, just as religious traditionalists grumble today. It’s a good reminder that history doesn’t really move in a one-way direction.
The book is From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity by Kyle Harper (University of Oklahoma). Here’s the publisher’s description:
When Rome was at its height, an emperor’s male beloved, victim of an untimely death, would be worshipped around the empire as a god. In this same society, the routine sexual exploitation of poor and enslaved women was abetted by public institutions. Four centuries later, a Roman emperor commanded the mutilation of men caught in same-sex affairs, even as he affirmed the moral dignity of women without any civic claim to honor. The gradual transformation of the Roman world from polytheistic to Christian marks one of the most sweeping ideological changes of premodern history. At the center of it all was sex. Exploring sources in literature, philosophy, and art, Kyle Harper examines the rise of Christianity as a turning point in the history of sexuality and helps us see how the roots of modern sexuality are grounded in an ancient religious revolution.
While Roman sexual culture was frankly and freely erotic, it was not completely unmoored from constraint. Offending against sexual morality was cause for shame, experienced through social condemnation. The rise of Christianity fundamentally changed the ethics of sexual behavior. In matters of morality, divine judgment transcended that of mere mortals, and shame—a social concept—gave way to the theological notion of sin. This transformed understanding led to Christianity’s explicit prohibitions of homosexuality, extramarital love, and prostitution. Most profound, however, was the emergence of the idea of free will in Christian dogma, which made all human action, including sexual behavior, accountable to the spiritual, not the physical, world.
Dan Awrey (University of Oxford), William Blair, and David Kershaw (London School of Economics) have posted Between Law and Markets: Is There a Role for Culture and Ethics in Financial Regulation? The abstract follows.
The limits of markets as mechanisms for constraining socially suboptimal behavior are well documented. Simultaneously, conventional approaches toward the law and regulation are often crude and ineffective mechanisms for containing the social costs of market failure. So where do we turn when both law and markets fail to live up to their social promise? Two possible answers are culture and ethics. In theory, both can help constrain socially undesirable behavior in the vacuum between law and markets. In practice, however, both exhibit manifest shortcomings.
To many, this analysis may portend the end of the story. From our perspective, however, it represents a useful point of departure. While neither law nor markets may be particularly well suited to serving as “the conscience of the Square Mile,” it may nevertheless be possible to harness the power of these institutions to carve out a space within which culture and ethics – or, combining the two, a more ethical culture – can play a meaningful role in constraining socially undesirable behavior within the financial services industry. The objective of this article is to explore some of the ways which, in our view, this might be achieved.
This exploration takes place across two dimensions. In the first dimension, we hold constant the core internal governance arrangements – corporate objectives, directors’ duties, board composition, committee structures and remuneration policies – within financial institutions. Continue reading
Yale sociologist Philip Gorski has written a thoughtful essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) on the need to accommodate both secular and religious values in American politics. Both secular and religious Americans should give up their maximalist claims, he argues, in favor of “civil religion,” a concept most closely associated in the United States with sociologist Robert Bellah:
What is needed, then, is a mediating tradition that allows room for both religious and political values, without subordinating one to the other. Such a tradition does exist. The sociologist Robert N. Bellah sought to describe it almost a half century ago in his famous article on “Civil Religion in America.” It comprises two main intellectual strands: civic republicanism and prophetic religion. Where liberalism emphasizes individual autonomy and a free market, republicanism is more concerned with civic virtue and participatory government. Consequently it is less wary of religion. Where religious conservatism stresses individual salvation and personal accountability, prophetic religion emphasizes human flourishing and collective responsibility. Consequently it is less wary of the state.
It’s an interesting idea, but I wonder whether civil religion would really do the job Gorski asks of it. At an abstract level, civil religion may resolve tensions between individualists and communitarians, between secular and religious Continue reading
Judging by church attendance and the percentage of people who say religion plays an important role in their lives, Europe is a secular place. And yet, as sociologists of religion have observed, Christianity continues to have a major cultural and legal role. Nowhere is this clearer than in Britain, where the Monarch is the “Supreme Governor” of the state church. Britain today commemorated the Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II with a Thanksgiving service in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Prime Minister read from the New Testament and the Archbishop of Canterbury delivered a sermon praising the Queen for manifesting the values of St. Paul himself:
Dr Rowan Williams paid tribute to the Queen’s selfless devotion, saying: “I don’t think it’s at all fanciful to say that, in all her public engagements, our Queen has shown a quality of joy in the happiness of others; she has responded with just the generosity St Paul speaks of in showing honour to countless local communities and individuals of every background and class and race.”
One would think such ceremonies, to borrow the phrase from American law, send a message of exclusion and disparagement that religious minorities resent, but that is apparently not the case, or at least not typically. It’s not the American way of doing things, but, as Joseph Weiler has written, “there is something inspiring and optimistic by the fact that even though the Queen is the Titular Head of the Church of England, the many Catholics, Muslims and Jews, not to mention the majority of atheists and agnostics, can genuinely consider her as ‘their Queen’ too.”