Tag Archives: Public Religion

Barack Obama and the Politics of the Nones

She means it as a compliment. At OnFaith, author Diana Butler Bass writes that President Barack Obama is reinventing American civil religion for the spiritual-but-not-religious age. It is “obvious,” she writes, “that the God of Obama’s public speech is not the God of previous presidents.” He has “moved beyond specifically biblical images and language toward a broader set of spiritual themes to speak to for a diverse American future.”

To illustrate, Bass offers the president’s use of the term “journey” in his second inaugural address. Journey, she explains, “is not only a biblical image”:

It is a central theme to many faiths: the Buddhist seeking enlightenment; a Native American on a vision quest; a Muslim embarked on the Hajj; a Jew hoping for “next year in Jerusalem” at Passover; a Catholic visiting a shrine; a Protestant tracing the footsteps of Martin Luther; a Wiccan making a way to Stonehenge; a humanist celebrating Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. We are a nation of spiritual migrants and immigrants, a restless sort of people, on innumerable sojourns paying homage to our saints and heroes, always searching out new meaning in the universe we inhabit. . . .

President Obama proposed … a journey toward a deep realization of community, prosperity, mutual care, stewardship of the Earth, peacemaking, and human rights. These six ideals form an American creed, the fundamental aspects of the democratic project. Each one of these could be interpreted as Christian or Jewish (as they have traditionally been) or could be much more widely understood through other religious perspectives. The address ended with a call to action: Serve the poor, have hope in the future, renew your hearts. Make new the nation’s ancient covenant of justice and equality in this uncertain world. Create a new American future.

Bass writes that future historians may well see President Obama’s redefinition of our civil religion–what she calls his “innovative form of pluralistic post-religious civil discourse”–as one of his “greatest achievements.” I assume she’s not being ironic.

It’s easy to chuckle at Bass’s earnest enthusiasm, but she may be onto something. America is now, and will for the foreseeable future remain, an overwhelmingly Christian nation. That’s just demography. The percentage of Americans who adhere to non-Christian religions, although growing, remains very small. But, since around 1990, there has been a large increase in people who claim no religious identity at all–the so-called “Nones.” By some accounts, Nones now make up about 20% of the general population and about 30% of young Americans. These are dramatic numbers, indeed.

The sort of all-inclusive, vaguely spiritual language Bass cites seems crafted to appeal to Nones. Surveys show that Nones don’t object to spirituality as such. Rather, they object to organized religions, especially organized religions that make exclusive truth claims. So the president’s language may reflect a recognition of a new force in American politics. If the evangelical imagery of George W. Bush was, as critics complained, a kind of dog whistle to call out his base, perhaps the New Age imagery of Barack Obama is a kind of dog whistle to call out his. It seems to be working. According to Bass, in the 2012 election, Nones overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama.

REMINDER: Register for the 2014 Lumen Christi Conference!

Just a gentle reminder that the 2014 Conference on Christian Legal Thought is only a few weeks away! The conference is sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago and the Law Professors Christian Fellowship and occurs in conjunction with the annual AALS meeting, which is being held in Manhattan this year. This year’s conference celebrates the life and thought of Professor Jean Bethke Elshtain and explores the theme of public engagement with law and religion. It’s a topic that should be of broad interest in this period of great ferment in the field.

The schedule is below. Please register here!

Friday, January 3, 2014, 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm

The University Club

One West 54th Street, New York, NY 10019

Conference Topic: Public Engagement With Law and Religion: A Conference in Honor of Jean Bethke Elshtain

Noon: Registration, Luncheon, and Opening Remarks

1:15 pm – 2:45 pm: Session One. Public Engagement With Law and Religion: The Thought of Jean Bethke Elshtain

Chair: Zachary R. Calo (Valparaiso University School of Law)

* Thomas C. Berg (University of St. Thomas School of Law)

* Eric Gregory (Princeton University, Department of Religion)

* Charles Mathewes (University of Virginia, Department of Religious Studies)

2:45 pm – 3:00 pm: Coffee Break

3:00 pm – 4:30 pm. Session Two. Public Engagement With Law and Religion: Journalistic Perspectives

Chair: Marc O. DeGirolami (St. John’s University School of Law)

* Matthew Boudway (Associate Editor, Commonweal)

* Susannah Meadows (Contributor, New York Times)

* Rusty R. Reno (Editor, First Things)

4:45 PM – 5:15 pm: Vespers

5:15 pm: Reception

Seales, “The Secular Spectacle: Performing Religion in a Southern Town”

Next month, Oxford will publish The Secular Spectacle: Performing Religion in a 9780199860289Southern Town, by Chad E. Seales (University of Texas at Austin). The publisher’s description follows.

Tracing the religious history of Siler City, North Carolina, Chad E. Seales argues that southern whites cultivated their own regional brand of American secularism and employed it, alongside public religious performances, to claim and regulate public spaces. Over the course of the twentieth century, they wielded secularism to segregate racialized bodies, to challenge local changes resulting from civil rights legislation, and to respond to the arrival of Latino migrants.

Combining ethnographic and archival sources, Seales studies the themes of industrialization, nationalism, civility, privatization, and migration through the local history of Siler City; its neighborhood patterns, Fourth of July parades, Confederate soldiers, minstrel shows, mock weddings, banking practices, police shootings, Good Friday processions, public protests, and downtown mural displays. Offering a spatial approach to the study of performative religion, The Secular Spectacle presents a generative narrative of secularism from the perspective of evangelical Protestants in the American South.

Gardella, “American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred”

Next month, Oxford University Press will publish American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred by Peter Gardella (Manhattanville College). The publisher’s description follows.

The United States has never had an officially established national church. Since the time of the first British colonists, it has instead developed a strong civil religion that melds God and nation. In a deft exploration of American civil religious symbols-from the Liberty Bell to the Vietnam Memorial, from Mount Rushmore to Disney World-Peter Gardella explains how the places, objects, and words that Americans hold sacred came into being and how Americans’ feelings about them have changed over time. In addition to examining revered historical sites and structures, he analyzes such sacred texts as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, the Kennedy Inaugural, and the speeches of Martin Luther King, and shows how five patriotic songs-”The Star-Spangled Banner,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America,” and “This Land Is Your Land”-have been elevated into hymns.
Arguing that certain values-personal freedom, political democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance-have held American civil religion together, Gardella chronicles the numerous forms those values have taken, from Jamestown and Plymouth to the September 11, 2001 Memorial in New York.

Gould & Messina (eds.), “Europe’s Contending Identities: Supranationalism, Ethnoregionalism, Religion, and New Nationalism”

Next month, Cambridge University Press will publish Europe’s Contending Identities: Supranationalism, Ethnoregionalism, Religion, and New Nationalism, edited by Andrew Gould (University of Notre Dame) and Anthony Messina (Trinity College). The publisher’s description follows.Europe's Contending Identities

How “European” are Europeans? Is it possible to balance national citizenship with belonging to the European Union overall? Do feelings of citizenship and belonging respond to affiliations to regions, religions, or reactionary politics? Unlike previous volumes about identity in Europe, this book offers a more comprehensive view of the range of identities and new arguments about the political processes that shape identity formation. The founders of European integration promised “an ever closer union.” Nationalists respond that a people should control their own destiny. This book investigates who is winning the debate. The chapters show that attitudes toward broader political communities are changing, that new ideas are gaining ground, and that long-standing trends are possibly reversing course.

Bonney, “Monarchy, Religion and the State: Civil Religion in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the Commonwealth”

This November, Manchester University Press will publish Monarchy, Religion and the State: Civil Religion in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the Commonwealth by Norman Bonney (Edinburgh Napier University). The publisher’s description follows.

This most thorough and contemporary examination of the religious features of the UK state and its monarchy argues that the long reign of Elizabeth has led to a widespread lack of awareness of the centuries old religious features of the state that are revealed at the accession and coronation of a new monarch. It is suggested that the next succession to the throne will require major national debates in each realm of the monarch to judge whether the traditional rituals which require professions of Christianity and Protestantism by the new monarch are appropriate, or whether they might be replaced by alternative secular or interfaith ceremonies.

It will be required reading for those who study the government and politics of the UK, Canada, Australia and the other 13 realms of the monarch. It will also appeal to as well as students and lecturers in history, sociology and religious studies and citizens interested in the monarchy and contemporary religious issues.

Movsesian Essay Appears in New Anthology on Public Religion

This month, Ashgate releases Volume III of Religion in the Public Space, part of its Library of Essays on Law and Religion series. The volume is edited by Silvio Ferrari (Milan) and Rinaldo Cristofori (Milan), and contains essays by, among others, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, Mary Ann Glendon, and, I blush to say, yours truly–my essay, Crosses and Culture, on religious displays in the US and Europe. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Religion in the public sphere is one of the most debated issues in the field of law and religion. This volume brings together articles which address some of the more prominent recent cases relating to religion and education, religion and the workplace, family law and religious symbols. The essays discuss the meaning of secularism today and the difficult issue of religion in the public sphere and reflect a wide variety of viewpoints. This volume maps the key elements of this multi-faceted problem, offers essential material and provides an important starting point for an understanding of the issues in this century old debate.

“The Religious in Responses to Mass Atrocity” (Brudholm & Cushman, eds.)

9781107624757This November, Cambridge University Press will publish The Religious in Responses to Mass Atrocity: Interdisciplinary Perspectives edited by Thomas Brudholm (University of Copenhagen) and Thomas Cushman (Wellesley College). The publisher’s description follows.

A peculiar and fascinating aspect of many responses to mass atrocities is the creative and eclectic use of religious language and frameworks. Some crimes are so extreme that they “cry out to heaven,” drawing people to employ religious vocabulary to make meaning of and to judge what happened, to deal with questions of guilt and responsibility, and to re-establish hope and trust in their lives. Moreover, in recent years, religious actors have become increasingly influential in worldwide contexts of conflict-resolution and transitional justice. This collection offers a critical assessment of the possibilities and problems pertaining to attempts to bring religious – or semi-religious – allegiances and perspectives to bear in responses to the mass atrocities of our time: When and how can religious language or religious beliefs and practices be either necessary or helpful? And what are the problems and reasons for caution or critique? In this book, a group of distinguished scholars explore these questions and offer a range of original explanatory and normative perspectives.

Howard, “Law and the Wearing of Religious Symbols: European Bans on the Wearing of Religious Symbols in Education”

This June, Routledge published Law and the Wearing of Religious Symbols: 9780415602648European Bans on the Wearing of Religious Symbols in Education by Erica Howard (Middlesex University, UK). The publisher’s description follows.

Written in accessible language, Law and the Wearing of Religious Symbols is a comprehensive analysis of a topical subject that is being widely debated across Europe. The book provides an overview of emerging case law from the European Court of Human Rights as well as from national courts and equality bodies in European countries on the wearing of religious symbols in educational settings. The author persuasively argues that bans on the wearing of religious symbols in educational institutions in Europe constitutes a breach of an individual’s human rights and contravenes existing anti-discrimination legislation. The book offers a discussion of developments in Europe, including the French ban on Islamic head scarves which came into force in April 2011. In addition to an in depth examination of recent bans, the book also assess the arguments used for imposing them as well as the legal claims that can potentially be made to challenge their validity. In doing this, the book will go beyond merely analyzing the bans in place to suggest ways in which educational institutions can most fairly respond to requests for accommodation of the wearing of religious symbols and whether perhaps the adoption of other provisions or measures are necessary in order to improve the present situation.

This book will be of particular interest to students and academics in the disciplines of law, human rights, political science, sociology and education, but will also be of considerable value to policy makers and educators as well.

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.