Tag Archives: Religion in America

The Obama Effect?

President_Barack_ObamaIn The American Interest this week, sociologist Peter Berger has a provocative essay on the controversy over the City of Houston’s demand for sermons several pastors have delivered on the topics of homosexuality and gender identity. Berger says the roots of the controversy lie in the Obama Administration’s disregard for religion. He makes a powerful point, but I wonder whether he overstates things.

The City of Houston’s demand came in the form of subpoenas in a lawsuit over a petition to repeal a city anti-discrimination ordinance. As I explained in an earlier post, the city’s demand was outrageous, even given the freewheeling standards of American litigation, and the city has in fact narrowed its request. Some smart observers think this “narrowing” is just a publicity stunt. In my opinion, the new subpoenas, which ask only for communications that relate to the petition and ordinance themselves, stand a better chance of surviving. We’ll see how the court rules.

But leave aside that narrow, procedural matter for now. Here’s a more important question. Why did the city issue the offensive subpoenas in the first place? America has a long tradition of respecting religion, and the idea that government would demand to know what pastors were saying in their own churches should have set off all kinds of alarms. We don’t do that sort of thing in our country.

Berger says the episode reflects America’s decreasing regard for religion and religious believers. And he lays the blame largely at the door of the Obama Administration:

This episode in the heart of the Bible Belt can be placed, first, in the national context of the Obama presidency, and then in a broad international context and its odd linkage of homosexuality and religious freedom. I’m not sure whether President Obama still has a “bully pulpit”; at this moment even close political allies of his don’t want to listen to his sermons, if they don’t flee from the congregation altogether. All the same, every presidency creates an institutional culture, which trickles down all the way to city halls in the provinces. This administration has shown itself remarkably tone-deaf regarding religion. This was sharply illuminated at the launching of Obamacare, when the administration was actually surprised to discover that Catholics (strange to say!) actually care about contraception and abortion. Eric Holder’s Department of Justice has repeatedly demonstrated that it cares less about religious freedom as against its version of civil rights. Perhaps one reason for the widespread failure to perceive this attitude toward the First Amendment is that Barack Obama is seen through the lens of race–“the first black president”. I think a better vision comes through the lens of class–“the first New Class president”–put differently, the first president, at least since Woodrow Wilson, whose view of the world has been shaped by the culture of elite academia. This is evident across the spectrum of policy issues, but notably so on issues involving gender and religion.

Now, there’s much in what Berger says. The Obama Administration has shown little enthusiasm for religious freedom. True, the Administration  intervened recently to protect a prison inmate’s right to wear a 1/4-inch beard for religious reasons. But in the two major religious freedom cases of its tenure, Hobby Lobby and Hosanna-Tabor, the Administration created obstacles for religious freedom in needlessly inflammatory ways. It insisted on the Contraception Mandate, even though it knew the mandate would gravely trouble some Christians and even though alternatives existed that could have given the Administration most of what it wanted. It accepted compromise only grudgingly and litigated the case to the bitter end. And in Hosanna-Tabor, the Administration argued that the Religion Clauses had nothing at all to do with a church’s decision to select its own minister–a position a unanimous Supreme Court rejected as “remarkable.”

Still, when it comes to a declining respect for religion in America, I’m not sure the Administration is a cause so much as an effect. Perhaps its actions reflect a broader cultural shift to secularism. Most likely, there is mutual reinforcement. A growing cultural secularism, embodied, for political purposes, in the Democratic Party, contributed to the President’s election; and the President’s election in turn has contributed to a growing secularism. This growing secularism leads many people to view religion–traditional religion, anyway–with antipathy. And that antipathy leads to things like the Houston subpoenas. It’s a vicious circle–or virtuous one, I suppose, depending on your view of things.

Also, it’s not clear things are so bad for traditional religion now, or that they were so good before. As Yuval Levin wrote recently in First Things, religious conservatives seem to have overestimated their cultural ascendancy during the Bush Administration–so did their opponents, as I recall; remember those cartoon maps of “Jesus Land”? –and may underestimate their influence today. According to a recent Pew survey, almost 50% of Americans think churches and houses of worship should express their views on political and social issues, an increase of six percent since 2010. Three-quarters of the public think religion’s influence in our national life is declining–and most of those people think it’s a bad thing. If anything, the Obama Administration seems to be contributing to a pro-religion backlash.

Well, these are complicated issues. Berger’s essay is very worthwhile. You can read the whole thing here.

Mullin, “Constructing Political Islam as the New Other: America and Its Post-War on Terror Politics”

In December, I. B. Tauris Publishers will release “Constructing Political Islam as the New Other: America and Its Post-War on Terror Politics” by Corinna Mullin (Richmond American International University in London). The publisher’s description follows:

Why did political Islam so readily occupy the position of enemy ‘other’ for the United States in the context of what the American political leadership of the time labelled the ‘War on Terror’? In a wide-ranging analysis of the historical and ideological roots of U.S. discourse on political Islam, Corinna Mullin examines the ways in which this new ‘other’ came to perform both an identity-constructing role for Americans and a politically expedient, rhetorical justification for mainstream U.S. political thought and action concerning the Muslim world. After a new U.S. administration under President Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Mullin explores the prospects for a truly ‘post-war on terror’ politics.

O’Connell, “God Wills It”

This November, Transaction Publishing will release “God Wills It: Presidents and the Political Use of Religion” by David O’Connell (Dickinson College).  The publisher’s description follows:

God Wills ItGod Wills It is a comprehensive study of presidential religious rhetoric. Using careful analysis of hundreds of transcripts, David O’Connell reveals the hidden strategy behind presidential religious speech. He asks when and why religious language is used, and when it is, whether such language is influential.

Case studies explore the religious arguments presidents have made to defend their decisions on issues like defense spending, environmental protection, and presidential scandals. O’Connell provides strong evidence that when religious rhetoric is used public opinion typically goes against the president, the media reacts harshly to his words, and Congress fails to do as he wants. An experimental chapter casts even further doubt on the persuasiveness of religious rhetoric.

God Wills It shows that presidents do not talk this way because they want to. Presidents like Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were quite uncomfortable using faith to promote their agendas. They did so because they felt they must. God Wills It shows that even if presidents attempt to call on the deity, the more important question remains: Will God come when they do?

“The Oxford Handbook of American Islam” (Haddad & Smith, eds.)

Next month, Oxford University Press releases “The Oxford Handbook of American Islam”  edited by Yvonne Y. Haddad (Georgetown University) and Jane I. Smith (Harvard Divinity School, retired). The publisher’s description follows:

Islam has been part of the increasingly complex American religious scene for  well over a century, and was brought into more dramatic focus by the attacks of September 11, 2001. American Islam is practiced by a unique blend of immigrants and American-born Muslims. The immigrants have come from all corners of the world; they include rich and poor, well-educated and illiterate, those from upper and lower classes as well as economic and political refugees. The community’s diversity has been enhanced by the conversion of African Americans, Latina/os, and others, making it the most heterogeneous Muslim community in the world.

With an up-to-the-minute analysis by thirty of the top scholars in the field, this handbook covers the growth of Islam in America from the earliest Muslims to set foot on American soil to the current wave of Islamophobia. Topics covered include the development of African American Islam; pre- and post-WWII immigrants; Sunni, Shi`ite, sectarian and Sufi movements in America; the role and status of women, marriage, and family; and the Americanization of Islamic culture.

Throughout these chapters the contributors explore the meaning of religious identity in the context of race, ethnicity, gender, and politics, both within the American Islamic community and in relation to international Islam.

 

Ward, “Modern Democracy and the Theological-Political Problem in Spinoza, Rousseau, and Jefferson”

This December, Palgrave Macmillan will release “Modern Democracy and the Theological-Political Problem in Spinoza, Rousseau, and Jefferson” by Lee Ward (University of Regina).  The publisher’s description follows:

Modern Democracy and the Theological-Political ProblemThis study examines the intersection of two philosophical developments that arguably have come to define contemporary life in the liberal democratic west. First, it considers how democracy has transformed historically from being one among several plausible forms of government into the only legitimate and publicly defensible regime. Second, it considers how modern democracy attempts to solve what has been called the ‘theological-political problem,’ that is, the competing claims to rule grounded in conflicting appeals to reason and revelation, by determining that consent of the people would replace divine authorization as the source of political authority. Understanding the emergence of modern democracy requires examining the manner in which democratic political thinkers, most importantly Benedict Spinoza, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson re-conceptualized the traditional understanding of the relation between politics and religion. This book will show that Spinoza, Rousseau and Jefferson were the three who made the democratic west we know today.

Gans & Shapiro, “Religious Liberties for Corporations?”

Next month, Palgrave Macmillan will release “Religious Liberties for Corporations? Hobby Lobby, the Affordable Care Act, and the Constitution” by David H. Gans (Director of the Human Rights, Civil Rights, and Citizenship Program, Constitutional Accountability Center, USA) and Ilya Shapiro (Senior Fellow, Cato Institute).  The publisher’s description follows:

9781137484673.inddThis engaging book provides a comprehensive analysis of the issues in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the blockbuster legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act regulation that requires employer-sponsored health plans to provide contraceptive coverage. Through a series of debates between advocates on both sides of the case, the book tackles questions such as: whether for-profit corporations can assert religious-exercise claims under the First Amendment or federal law, whether businesses with religious objections to certain contraceptives should be exempt from coverage requirements, and what the consequences are of the Supreme Court’s June 2014 ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby. This case will be discussed for years to come, and the spirited debate between the authors provides fascinating and informative food for thought to scholars, students, and the public as they grapple with fundamental questions of corporate personhood, religious liberty, and health care policy.

“Mediating Religion and Government: Political Institutions and the Policy Process” (den Dulk & Oldmixon, eds.)

In November, Palgrave Macmillan will release “Mediating Religion and Government: Political Institutions and the Policy Process” edited by Kevin R. den Dulk (Calvin College) and Elizabeth A. Oldmixon (University of North Texas). The publisher’s description follows:

The empirical study of religion and politics emerged as a strongly behavioral sub-discipline within political science within the late 20th Century. Particularly in the American context, scholars have placed tremendous emphasis on religion’s influence on political attitudes and behaviors. As a result, we have a much better understanding of the potency of religion in shaping voting patterns, party affiliation, and views of public policy, among other behavioral aspects of American politics.

In the context of a democracy, however, political institutions mediate the effect of religion on political attitudes and the policy process. In a Madisonian sense, institutions are at the fulcrum of mass politics and policy outputs. This volume investigates the influence of religion on and within political institutions. Each chapter provides a synthesis of the literature with respect to a particular institution and makes an original research contribution to the literature. By addressing the historical, contemporary, constitutional, and policy-based elements of religious interactions within politics, the volume creates a wide-ranging assessment of the sometimes contentious relationship between these two pillars of American culture.

Mason, “Brigham Young”

This November, Routledge Press will release “Brigham Young: Sovereign in America” by David Vaughn Mason (Rhodes College, Tennessee).  The publisher’s description follows:

Brigham YoungBrigham Young was one of the most influential—and controversial—Mormon leaders in American history. An early follower of the new religion, he led the cross-continental migration of the Mormon people from Illinois to Utah, where he built a vast religious empire that was both revolutionary and authoritarian, radically different from yet informed by the existing culture of the U.S. With his powerful personality and sometimes paradoxical convictions, Young left an enduring stamp on both his church and the region, and his legacy remains active today.

In a lively, concise narrative bolstered by primary documents, and supplemented by a robust companion website, David Mason tells the dynamic story of Brigham Young, and in the process, illuminates the history of the LDS Church, religion in America, and the development of the American west. This book will be a vital resource for anyone seeking to understand the complex, uniquely American origins of a church that now counts over 15 million members worldwide.

Meadors, “American Public Religion in Frankfurter and Scalia Opinions”

This November, LFB Scholarly Publishing will release “American Public Religion in Frankfurter and Scalia Opinions” by David C. Meadors (Pastor at Broadus Memorial Baptist Church, Charlottesville, VA).  The publisher’s description follows:

Meadors demonstrates weaknesses in the originalist methodology for interpreting the religion clauses of the First Amendment. He concludes that even though courts have an important role to play in protecting religious liberty via the First Amendment this protection needs supplementation by robust advocacy among citizens and mediating institutions in the democratic process. His thesis is that Felix Frankfurter and Antonin Scalia found different forms of American public religion constitutional in their religion clause jurisprudences. Both applied originalist methodology in their religion clause opinions, but came to different conclusions. More specifically, Frankfurter focused primarily on the views of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison whereas Antonin Scalia has looked more broadly to the views and practices of John Adams, George Washington, and John Marshall in addition to Jefferson and Madison.