Tag Archives: Public Religion

Holidays of Forgetting

Halloween-Hero-1-AThis article is another installment in the ongoing holidays wars. As I have previously noted, how and what we celebrate has reached a tipping point, due to two competing and perhaps ultimately irreconcilable trends. Our calendar, which marks out sacred space as “holidays,” either civil or in recognition of some religious tradition, is being pummeled between secularization on the one hand, but also a blossoming pluralism on the other.

There are still the annual Christmas wars, where fidgety towns debate how many reindeer can neutralize a crèche, or where to place the menorah in relation to the Christmas tree. The Supreme Court jurisprudence on this point is a hopeless morass, and so many places have tried simply to ignore it, one town famously referring to this time of year as “the sparkly season.”

The Christmas wars were largely a debate between those who think the Constitution enacts some impenetrable boundary between religion and government, and those who did not. Most of the former were generally, but not always, antipathetic specifically to the background Christian culture of the United States. To impose a secularist view would by definition, make the culture less Christian and also less religious. But the more current controversies are adding a new wrinkle.

The underlying theory of the Connecticut schools profiled in the article seems to be that one cannot publicly observe a holiday where some people feel “excluded” or “offended.” Such a position runs against the equally strong current in public schools of multiculturalism. Even if some people don’t like Halloween, shouldn’t the traditions of all people be reflected and invited to understand those holidays? On the other hand, some evangelical Christians also do not like Halloween, so it is easy to understand a decision to ban the holiday by your average school administrator.

Other school systems are taking exactly the opposite tack , and designating more holidays, across a number of traditions, such as Muslim holidays and the Chinese New Year, to accommodate the various traditions present. The logical conclusion of this reasoning is of course, to have no holidays at all, except perhaps secular ones (though some, like Columbus Day are also under attack).

As Paul Connerton writes in his book, How Societies Remember, holidays and the rites associated with them, “have as one of their defining features the explicit claim to” commemorate continuity with the past. It makes a difference therefore whether Halloween is meant to claim continuity with some pagan past, real or imagined, or whether it looks forward to All Saints’ Day. But the real trouble Halloween, as well as other holidays, may have is that it is emptied of memory. In a secular culture, such holidays express nothing but themselves and the passing moment. And that ritualized forgetting may be the real lasting danger to how we celebrate.

Is Christianity Part of the National Heritage?

There is a fair amount of moral preening in this article from Slate on an ill-advised (at best) move by a city council in Coolidge, Arizona to allow Christian-only prayers at their meetings. The piece, by Dahlia Lithwick, is a little overheated. The resolution went nowhere. She acknowledges that prayers at council meetings are allowed under a 2014 Supreme Court decision. Town of Greece v. Galloway, so long as there is no intent to discriminate, and that the Coolidge City Council rescinded the resolution shortly after the 4-2 vote in favor (which in any event needed to be voted on again to pass). Not to mention that the council assured one member that if he didn’t like what he was hearing from another faith, he didn’t have to listen.

Lithwick thinks both the actual proposed Coolidge resolution and one that simply permitted religious groups within the town limits to offer prayers at council meetings are examples of religious “intolerance” (Lithwick calls the latter “sneaky and subversive” even though it is perfectly reasonable and constitutional to only allow those groups actually present in a town to offer prayers). This theocracy-under-every-bed approach is tiresome and implausible, without disagreeing that the council’s decision was not a good one.

What interests me here is that Lithwick and others (such as historian Kevin Kruse, who has written a very interesting book on the rise of the Religious Right) mocked the proponent of the resolution for saying that Christianity was “our heritage.” As a historical matter, I don’t think this is remotely debatable, and Lithwick has the losing side. Further, as a constitutional matter, there is voluminous evidence that the Founders were very much influenced by the Reformed Protestant tradition, which is reflected in the documents they wrote.

This topic came up during a recent Libertas conference I had the privilege of attending, and has deep roots. (Thomas Jefferson, for example, argued that Christianity did not form part of the “law of the land.”) Lithwick’s view dovetails with a good article by Stuart Banner on Christianity and the common law. Banner finds that the decline of the belief that “Christianity forms part of the common law” coincides with the rise of a notion that the law was made by judges and not simply reflective of underlying truths, be they religious or otherwise. He writes: “Law was a body of principles separate from other bodies of principles, not just in its source (the decisions of government officials), but in its field of application. Religious norms, even those universally subscribed to, did not qualify as ‘law,’ not just because they were not made by government officials, but also because they were not enforced by government officials.” This conception of law increased (unsurprisingly) the power of lawyers and judges, who now presided over an autonomous realm untouched by the beliefs of the people, yet somehow superior to it.

Holding that law and culture are not the same is different from believing that culture need not influence law. Lithwick’s position has its own history, one that is not self-evidently true (and, in light of the “clerisy” theme these posts have been developing, arguably not desirable as well).

“Is God Back? Reconsidering the New Visibility of Religion” (Hjelm, ed.)

In July, Bloomsbury released “Is God Back? Reconsidering the New Visibility of Religion” edited by Titus Hjelm (University College London). The publisher’s description follows:

Is God Back? Reconsidering the New Visibility of Religion examines the shifting boundary between religion and the public sphere in Europe and the Middle East. Asking what the ‘new visibility of religion’ means and challenging simplistic notions of living in a ‘post-secular’ age, the chapters explore how religion is contested and renegotiated in the public sphere – or rather, in different publics – and the effects of these struggles on society, state and religion itself.

Whereas religion arguably never went away in the USA, the re-emergence of public religion is a European phenomenon. Is God Back? provides timely case studies from Europe, as well as extending to the Middle East, where fledgling democracies are struggling to create models of governance that stem from the European secular model, but which need to be able to accommodate a much more public form of religiosity. Discussions include the new visibility of neo-Pagan and Native Faith groups in Europe, Evangelical Christians and Church teaching on sexuality in the UK, and Islamic social Movements in the Arab world.

Drawing from empirical and theoretical research on religion and national identity, religion and media, church-state relationships, and religion and welfare, Is God Back? is a rich source for students and scholars interested in the changing face of public religion in the modern world, including those studying the sociology of religion, social policy, and theology.

Mahmood, “Religious Difference in a Secular Age”

In November, Princeton University Press will release “Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report” by Saba Mahmood (University of California, Berkeley). The publisher’s description follows:

The plight of religious minorities in the Middle East is often attributed to the failure of secularism to take root in the region. Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges this assessment by examining four cornerstones of secularism—political and civil equality, minority rights, religious freedom, and the legal separation of private and public domains.

Drawing on her extensive fieldwork in Egypt with Coptic Orthodox Christians and Bahais—religious minorities in a predominantly Muslim country—Saba Mahmood shows how modern secular governance has exacerbated religious tensions and inequalities rather than reduced them. Tracing the historical career of secular legal concepts in the colonial and postcolonial Middle East, she explores how contradictions at the very heart of political secularism have aggravated and amplified existing forms of Islamic hierarchy, bringing minority relations in Egypt to a new historical impasse. Through a close examination of Egyptian court cases and constitutional debates about minority rights, conflicts around family law, and controversies over freedom of expression, Mahmood invites us to reflect on the entwined histories of secularism in the Middle East and Europe.

A provocative work of scholarship, Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges us to rethink the promise and limits of the secular ideal of religious equality.

Wuthnow, “Inventing American Religion”

This month, the Oxford University Press releases “Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith,” by Robert Wuthnow (Princeton University). The publisher’s description follows:

Today, a billion-dollar-a-year polling industry floods the media with information. Pollsters tell us not only which political candidates will win, but how we are practicing our faith. How many Americans went to church last week? Have they been born again? Is Jesus as popular as Harry Potter? Polls tell us that 40 percent of Americans attend religious services each week. They show that African Americans are no more religious than white Americans, and that Jews are abandoning their religion in record numbers. According to leading sociologist Robert Wuthnow, none of that is correct. Pollsters say that attendance at religious services has been constant for decades. But during that time response rates in polls have plummeted, robotic “push poll” calls have proliferated, and sampling has become more difficult. The accuracy of political polling can be known because elections actually happen. But there are no election results to show if the proportion of people who say they pray every day or attend services every week is correct. A large majority of the public doubts that polls can be trusted, and yet night after night on TV, polls experts sum up the nation’s habits to an eager audience of millions.

Inventing American Religion offers a provocative new argument about the influence of polls in contemporary American society. Wuthnow contends that polls and surveys have shaped-and distorted-how religion is understood and portrayed in the media and also by religious leaders, practitioners, and scholars. He calls for a robust public discussion about American religion that extends well beyond the information provided by polls and surveys, and suggests practical steps to facilitate such a discussion, including changes in how the results of polls and surveys are presented.

“Handbook of Religion and the Asian City” (van der Veer, ed.)

Last month, the University of California Press released “Handbook of Religion and the Asian City: Aspiration and Urbanization in the Twenty-First Century,”  edited by Peter van der Veer (Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen and University Professor at Large at Utrecht University). The publisher’s description follows: 

Handbook of Religion and the Asian City highlights the creative and innovative role of urban aspirations in Asian world cities. It does notassume that religion is of the past and that the urban is secular, but instead points out that urban politics and governance often manifest religious boundaries and sensibilities—in short, that public religion is politics. The essays in this book show how projects of secularism come up against projects and ambitions of a religious nature, a particular form of contestation that takes the city as its public arena.

Questioning the limits of cities like Mumbai, Singapore, Seoul, Beijing, Bangkok, and Shanghai, the authors assert that Asian cities have to be understood not as global models of futuristic city planning but as larger landscapes of spatial imagination that have specific cultural and political trajectories. Religion plays a central role in the politics of heritage that is emerging from the debris of modernist city planning.

Megacities are arenas for the assertion of national and transnational aspirations as Asia confronts modernity. Cities are also sites of speculation, not only for those who invest in real estate but also for those who look for housing, employment, and salvation. In its potential and actual mobility, the sacred creates social space in which they all can meet. Handbook of Religion and the Asian City makes the comparative case that one cannot study the historical patterns of urbanization in Asia without paying attention to the role of religion in urban aspirations.

“Religious Literacy in Policy and Practice” (Dinham & Francis, eds.)

This month, Policy Press at the University of Bristol released “Religious Literacy in Policy and Practice” edited by Adam Dinham (University of London) and Matthew Francis (Lancaster University). The publisher’s description follows:

It has long been assumed that religion is in decline in the West: however it continues to have an important yet contested role in individual lives and in society at large. Furthermore half a century or so in which religion and belief were barely talked about in public has resulted in a pressing lack of religious literacy, leaving many ill-equipped to engage with religion and belief when they encounter them in daily life – in relationships, law, media, the professions, business and politics, among others. This valuable book is the first to bring together theory and policy with analysis and expertise on practices in key areas of the public realm to explore what religious literacy is, why it is needed and what might be done about it. It makes the case for a public realm which is well equipped to engage with the plurality and pervasiveness of religion and belief, whatever the individual’s own stance. It is aimed at academics, policy-makers and practitioners interested in the policy and practice implications of the continuing presence of religion and belief in the public sphere.

Jouili, “Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe”

In May, Stanford University Press will release “Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe” by Jeanette S. Jouili (College of Charleston). The publisher’s description follows:

The visible increase in religious practice among young European-born Muslims has provoked public anxiety. New government regulations seek not only to restrict Islamic practices within the public sphere, but also to shape Muslims’, and especially women’s, personal conduct. Pious Practice and Secular Constraints chronicles the everyday ethical struggles of women active in orthodox and socially conservative Islamic revival circles as they are torn between their quest for a pious lifestyle and their aspirations to counter negative representations of Muslims within the mainstream society.

Jeanette S. Jouili conducted fieldwork in France and Germany to investigate how pious Muslim women grapple with religious expression: for example, when to wear a headscarf, where to pray throughout the day, and how to maintain modest interactions between men and women. Her analysis stresses the various ethical dilemmas the women confronted in negotiating these religious duties within a secular public sphere. In conversation with Islamic and Western thinkers, Jouili teases out the important ethical-political implications of these struggles, ultimately arguing that Muslim moral agency, surprisingly reinvigorated rather than hampered by the increasingly hostile climate in Europe, encourages us to think about the contribution of non-secular civic virtues for shaping a pluralist Europe.


“Sacred Selves, Sacred Settings: Reflecting Hans Mol” (Davies & Powell, eds.)

In February, Ashgate will release “Sacred Selves, Sacred Settings: Reflecting Hans Mol” edited by Douglas J. Davies (Durham University, UK) and Adam J. Powell (Lenoir-Rhyne University, USA). The publisher’s description follows:

Significantly influencing the sociological study of religion, Hans Mol developed ideas of identity which remain thought-provoking for analyses of how religion operates within contemporary societies. Sacred Selves, Sacred Settings brings current social-religious topics into sharp focus: international scholars analyse, challenge, and apply Mol’s theoretical assertions. This book introduces the unique story of Hans Mol, who survived Nazi imprisonment and proceeded to brush shoulders with formidable intellectuals of the twentieth century, such as Robert Merton, Talcott Parsons, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Offering a fresh perspective on popular subjects such as secularization, pluralism, and the place of religion in the public sphere, this book sets case studies within an intellectual biography which describes Mol’s key influences and reveals the continuing import of Hans Mol’s work applied to recent data and within a contemporary context.

More on Subway “Viewpoint” Ads

Here’s a follow up to last week’s post about disclaimers on “viewpoint” ads in the New York City subway. In the post, I complained about the unfair treatment the policy affords to ads with religious messages, like the one I described from Marble Collegiate Church.

As Perry Dane explains, though, the disclaimer policy is not directed at religion per se. It applies generally to noncommercial ads that express viewpoints on “political, religious, or moral issues or related matters.” The Metropolitan Transit Authority adopted the policy after losing a 2012 lawsuit over display of anti-Islam ads. A federal district court ruled that, because the subway is a public forum, the MTA could not constitutionally refuse to display the ads. So the MTA decided to add the disclaimer to them and all other “viewpoint” ads, in order to avoid any implication of government endorsement. (The sponsor of the 2012 ads, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, is currently suing the MTA over display of a new anti-Islam ad, which the MTA refuses to display even with the disclaimer, on the ground that the ad may incite violence).

Still, whatever the formal policy, the MTA appears to apply it in a rather arbitrary way. I did a little research over the weekend. From what I could find, the policy has been applied to the AFDI ads; an ad for a Spanish-language Catholic television station; an ad from the Brooklyn Diocese featuring Pope Francis; and the Marble Collegiate ad I wrote about last week. All religious. What about disclaimers on ads that express viewpoints on political, moral, and related matters? Perhaps there are examples, but I couldn’t find any. More importantly, in no time at all I found three such ads without disclaimers.

IMG_20141221_174338_374First, there’s this ad for New York Cares, a volunteer organization that runs an annual coat drive. The ad clearly expresses a moral viewpoint, namely, that many New Yorkers go without winter coats, and the community has a moral obligation to respond. In fact, the ad’s use of the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of America and the refuge it has provided for the world’s “huddled masses,” adds a political dimension. How can we tolerate such poverty in this great republic of ours? To be sure, these messages are non-verbal, but that’s what makes them so powerful. There’s no MTA disclaimer.

08-airbnb-2.w529.h421.2xOr take this ad for Airbnb, a website that helps people rent space in their apartments to strangers for short stays. This ad campaign, which features New Yorkers saying how great Airbnb is for the city, has a political message as well, though you might not spot it if you’re not from New York. The company is trying to get the state legislature to loosen a law that restricts the use of private apartments as hotels. The ads are an obvious attempt to win public support for that effort. Still, notwithstanding the ad’s political implications, there’s no MTA disclaimer.

HillaryFinally, here’s the latest ad campaign for Manhattan Mini Storage. The company is famous for ironic, edgy ads that appeal, I guess, to sophisticated New York subway riders. Here, the political message seems pretty clear. True, this might be just another ironic ad (“Can you believe she’s running again?”) but I don’t think so, given the partisan messages in the company’s past ad campaigns, like ones poking fun at Michelle Bachmann and advocating gay marriage. Yet, again, no MTA disclaimer.

Now, the MTA would presumably defend its choice not to put disclaimers on the Airbnb and Manhattan Mini Storage ads because the policy formally applies only to noncommercial ads. But that seems arbitrary. As Marc DeGirolami pointed out last week, it’s very difficult to disentangle “commercial” from “noncommercial” expression. To my mind, the Hillary ad is the most obviously political, even though its sponsors are only trying to make money. Besides, the New York Cares ad is surely noncommercial–it’s for a volunteer organization.

As I say, perhaps the MTA has put disclaimers on non-religious viewpoint ads and I simply haven’t found them. It’s significant, though, that it’s so easy to find the disclaimer on religious viewpoint ads, and so easy to find political and moral viewpoint ads without the disclaimer. Here’s a thought: perhaps the MTA should stop trying to distinguish among ads and put disclaimers on all of them–commercial, noncommercial, political, moral, and religious. That would solve the appearance-of-endorsement problem, if the problem genuinely exists, and free up MTA resources for doing something important: running the subway.