Tag Archives: Religious Symbols

“Writing Religion” (Ramey, ed.)

In August, the University of Alabama Press will release “Writing Religion: The Case for the Critical Study of Religion,” edited by Steven W. Ramey (University of Alabama). The publisher’s description follows:

In 2002, the University of Alabama’s Department of Religious Studies established the annual Aronov Lecture Series to showcase the works of nationally recognized scholars of religion capable of reflecting on issues of wide relevance to scholars from across the humanities and social sciences. Writing Religion: The Case for the Critical Study of Religions is an edited collection of essays that highlights critical contributions from the first ten Aronov lecturers.

Section one of the volume, “Writing Discourses,” features essays by Jonathan Z. Smith, Bruce Lincoln, and Ann Pellegrini that illustrate how critical study enables the analysis of discourses in society and history. Section two, “Riting Social Formations,” includes pieces by Arjun Appadurai, Judith Plaskow, and Nathan Katz that reference both the power of rites to construct society and the act of riting as a form of disciplining that both prescribes and proscribes. The writings of Tomoko Masuzawa, Amy-Jill Levine, Aaron W. Hughes, and Martin S. Jaffee appear in section three, “Righting the Discipline.” They emphasize the correction of movements within the academic study of religion.

Steven W. Ramey frames the collection with a thoughtful introduction that explores the genesis, development, and diversity of critical analysis in the study of religion. An afterword by Russell McCutcheon reflects on the critical study of religion at the University of Alabama and rounds out this superb collection.

The mission of the Department of Religious Studies is to “avoid every tendency toward confusing the study of religion with the practice of religion.” Instruction about—rather than in—religion is foundational to the department’s larger goal of producing knowledge of the world and its many practices and systems of beliefs. Infused with this spirit, these fascinating essays, which read like good conversations with learned friends, offer significant examples of each scholar’s work. Writing Religion will be of value to graduate students, advanced undergraduates, and scholars interested in the study of religion from a critical perspective.

Hamilton’s Religion, and Ours

A Complicated Man

This past weekend was the 210th anniversary of the death of Alexander Hamilton in a duel with Aaron Burr. Commemorations took place around New York City–at the Weehawken, New Jersey dueling site; at Hamilton’s home in upper Manhattan, recently restored and relocated in St. Nicholas Park; and at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, where Burr, who somehow survived the scandal, later married his wealthy second wife. Commemorations conclude this afternoon with a ceremony at Hamilton’s grave in Trinity Churchyard.

Hamilton was a complicated man–brilliant, handsome, charming, visionary; but also reckless, prideful, and a schemer. He had remarkable achievements. He attended the Constitutional Convention and wrote most of the Federalist Papers, including Number 78, on the judiciary; he established the finances of the United States as first Secretary of the Treasury; he founded a nationalist, commercial conservatism that survives to this day. Although this is somewhat less known, he also wrote one of the most important texts on the place of religion in American public life.

Most people know the story of his duel with Burr, the sitting Vice President, which took place on the morning of July 11, 1804. Burr challenged Hamilton after reading some disparaging remarks Hamilton allegedly had made about him during a gubernatorial election. Hamilton could have avoided the duel, had he wanted. But he chose not to, inflaming the situation with his lawerly, evasive answers to Burr’s questions. He told friends before the duel that he did not intend to shoot Burr, and indeed his bullet that morning drifted harmlessly into the trees. Perhaps he expected Burr to act the same way. Duels often ended with both parties wasting their shots.

Some historians believe, though, that Hamilton no longer cared much about living. He was approaching 50 and his political career was over, largely as a result of his own unsuccessful machinations. “Every day proves to me more and more,” he wrote Gouverneur Morris in 1802, “that this American world was not made for me.” He was heavily in debt. And he was shattered by the death of his son, Philip, in a duel two years before–defending his father’s honor, at that same Weehawken dueling ground, with the very pistols Hamilton selected for his own duel with Burr. Did Hamilton court death that July morning? Who knows? In any event, Burr shot to kill and hit his target. Hamilton lingered for a while in agony and died, back in New York, the next day.

But about Hamilton and American religion. Even after he left the Cabinet in 1795, Hamilton continued to advise President George Washington, who was a father figure to him. As Washington’s retirement neared in 1796, he asked Hamilton for help with his Farewell Address, and Hamilton prepared a draft. The ideas were Washington’s own. But the words were Hamilton’s.

One famous section of the Farewell Address relates to the proper place of religion in public life:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

How very American this is. Note the generic reference to “religion,” as opposed to Christianity. From the beginning, American public religion has had a non-sectarian cast. Most Americans in 1796 were Christians, as most are today. Most would have understood the reference to religion to mean the Christian religion. But our public expression of religion typically avoids expressly Christian imagery. In part this reflects the Deism of many of the Founders. But it also reflects an Evangelical faith that is comfortable with biblical non-sectarianism. In America, religious conservatives demand public display of the Ten Commandments. In Europe, they demand public display of the crucifix.

Note, too, the practicality of Hamilton’s appeal. Why is religion important? Because it’s true? Because people need salvation? No–it’s because of the pragmatic benefits religion provides, benefits even the “mere politician” can understand. To work properly, republicanism requires citizens to be moral; and to be moral, citizens require religion. To be sure, every now and then, one might find an exceptional person who is moral without religion. But that can never be true for most people. And it doesn’t matter what the religion is. This, too, is very American. As a twentieth-century American president famously remarked, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”


Hamilton’s Grave, Trinity Churchyard

Hamilton’s own faith ebbed and flowed. As a young man, he was a pious Christian. His college roommate remembers him praying every morning and evening. But he leaned toward Deism as he matured. Indeed, he appears to have been a bit of a scoffer. When someone asked him why the Constitution failed to mention God, he famously joked, “We forgot.” Later in life, though, he appears to have returned to his boyhood Christianity, dismayed, as many American conservatives were, by the anti-Christianity of the French Revolution. Two years before he died, he proposed a Christian Constitutional Society to counter Jacobinism in the United States. Perhaps he was thinking as a “mere politician.” But on his deathbed, he requested, and received, Communion.

Barras, “Refashioning Secularisms in France and Turkey”

9780415821780This month, Routledge publishes Refashioning Secularisms in France and Turkey: The Case of the Headscarf Ban by Amelie Barras (University of Montreal). The publisher’s description follows.

Over the past few years, secularism has become an intrinsic component of discussions on religious freedom and religious governance. The question of whether states should restrict the wearing of headscarves and other religious symbols has been particularly critical in guiding this thought process.

Refashioning Secularisms in France and Turkey documents how, in both countries, devout women have contested bans on headscarves, pointing to how these are inconsistent with the ‘real’ spirit of secularism. These activists argue that it is possible to be simultaneously secular and religious; to believe in the values conveyed by secularism, while still remaining devoted to their faith. Through this examination, the book highlights how activists locate their claims within the frame of secularism, while at the same time revisiting it to craft a space for their religiosity.

Addressing the lacuna in literature on the discourse of devout Muslims affected by these restrictions, this book offers a topical analysis on an understudied dimension of secularism and is a valuable resource for students and researchers with an interest in Religion, Gender Studies, Human Rights and Political Science.

Chagall and the Meaning of a Crucifixion

Readers in NYC should make sure to visit a current exhibition at the Jewish Museum, “Chagall: Love, War, and Exile,” before it closes on February 2. Besides being a lovely show, the exhibition illustrates well a point my colleague Marc DeGirolami and others have made in the context of public religious displays: religious images can have multiple meanings.

The exhibition focuses on Chagall’s work in the 1940s, which he spent, in exile, in the United States. Several canvases suggest the tender love he had for his wife, Bella. These paintings are quite touching, particularly the dreamlike portrayals of their wedding day. Chagall seems to have been genuinely broken up when Bella died suddenly in 1944, though he did shortly find a new love. He was a famous artist, after all.

The most interesting paintings at the exhibition, however, and the ones that have drawn most attention, are the religious images. Chagall famously used Jewish themes throughout his work. Although he wasn’t observant, he drew inspiration from his upbringing in a Hasidic family in Russia. Here, however, Chagall uses Christian imagery. As the notes to the exhibition explain:

The most prevalent image Chagall used during World War II was of Jesus and the Crucifixion. For Chagall, the Crucifixion was a symbol for all the victims of persecution, a metaphor for the horrors of war, and an appeal to conscience that equated the martyrdom of Jesus with the suffering of the Jewish people and the Holocaust. While other Jewish artists depicted the crucified Jesus, for Chagall it became a frequent theme.

Chagall didn’t paint the Crucifixion, in other words, to convey a Christian message about the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and no one seeing the paintings would draw that message. Rather, he used images of the Crucifixion for a political purpose. The Crucifixion “means” unjust suffering; we Jews in Europe are suffering now, at your hands, Chagall was saying. He was making an appeal for solidarity to the wider Christian world, especially artists in the wider Christian world.

The results disappointed him: “After two thousand years of ‘Christianity’ in the world—say whatever you like—but, with few exceptions, their hearts are silent… I see the artists in Christian nations sit still—who has heard them speak up? They are not worried about themselves, and our Jewish life doesn’t concern them.” But that doesn’t suggest the meaning of his paintings was incomprehensible. Whether or not they acted on Chagall’s appeal, most people who saw his paintings in the 1940s surely would have understood the message. So will most who see the paintings today.

Symposium on State-Sponsored Religious Displays Now in Print

Just in time for the Christmas Wars, the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies has published papers from a symposium on state-sponsored religious displays that the Center co-sponsored with our our sister school, the Libera Universita Maria SS Assunta (LUMSA), in Rome last year. The papers compare the treatment of such displays in the United States and Europe. Contributors include Silvio Ferrari  of the University of Milan (“State-Supported Display of Religious Symbols In The Public Space”); Thomas Berg of the University of St. Thomas (“Can State-Sponsored Religious Symbols Promote Religious Liberty?”); Monica Lugato of LUMSA (“The ‘Margin of Appreciation’ and Freedom of Religion: Between Treaty Interpretation And Subsidiarity”); and Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain of the US Court of Appeals (“Religious Symbols and the Law”). There’s also an introduction by me. You can download the articles here

1000 Mots

On the Insulting Claim that Religious Displays are Insulting

Hurt feelings are unreliable bases for constitutional law. People are insulted by all Charles_I_Insulted_by_Cromwell's_Soldierssorts of things, their feelings of insult can change at breathtaking speed, and it is difficult to explain what ought to count as a constitutionally cognizable insult, and what ought not to, and why. And there is no area of constitutional law that is more dependent on judicial investigation and perception of insult or hurt feelings than the Establishment Clause–particularly the standard used to evaluate the constitutionality of religious displays by the government. Readers of this blog are probably familiar with the endorsement test, which demands that judges inquire after the degree to which a display might make someone feel like an outsider, or not fully part of the political community. That is a standard that depends on both judicial perception of insult and comparative valuations of insult (not all insults count).

My aim in this post is not to talk about that category of hurt feeling or insult, but about a related but less prominent argument about insults that one sometimes hears in connection with state-sponsored religious displays. It is the argument that for a religious person, when the government displays a religious symbol, it thereby robs or despoils the symbol of its sacredness. And when government then describes the nature and value of the symbol in non-religious terms (in cultural terms, for example, or in historical terms, or in secular terms), that constitutes an insult to religious people. So, for example, the constitutional category of “ceremonial deism” that is used to describe the phrase “In God We Trust” on money, or the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, is said to be deeply offensive to religious believers. Similarly, the description of the crucifix by Italian judges in the Lautsi v. Italy litigation as a symbol of national historical importance is said to cause hurt feelings among Catholics. By describing (or perhaps defining) a symbol in cultural or historical terms, the government thereby appropriates and degrades the symbol in the eyes of religious believers–and it’s “their” symbol, after all–draining it of religious content. One can see strong traces of the claim and the sense of indignation and insult in Justice Thomas’s concurring opinion in Van Orden v. Perry: “Telling either nonbelievers or believers that the words ‘under God’ have no meaning contradicts what they know to be true. Moreover, repetition does not deprive religious words or symbols of their traditional meaning. Words like ‘God’ are not vulgarities for which the shock value diminishes with each successive utterance.” This argument from insult certainly is understandable and it resonates with many people, including some of my friends.

But not with me, I’m afraid. If anything, I find the argument itself insulting. The argument assumes that religious people are so thick-headed, or so culturally illiterate, or so confused about the nature of their faith and its symbols’ meanings, or so hyper-attentive to the government’s activities, or so insular, parochial, and unsophisticated, that they cannot understand the difference among (a) a cross that is displayed in a church; (b) a cross that is displayed at a cemetery; and (c) a cross that is displayed as a Halloween joke. Who doesn’t understand those differences, and the differences in meaning that they convey? Who is confused? And is not the imputation of confusion, hurt feelings, and cultural simple-mindedness itself offensive? Those poor hayseed religious believers, bearing the psychological cross of their egg-shell sensitivities about their symbols! To argue that any act of the state–least of all its display of a cross at a war memorial or some statement about God on money or in a secular national pledge–could adulterate what a religious symbol like the cross means to Christians is to make a very unflattering claim about the strength with which those Christians believe, about the quality of their intellectual awareness and cultural acumen, and about just how little it takes to shake them up and distress them.

The argument also assumes that a government’s decisions about a symbol really command, and ought to command, the attention of the religious. But what difference should it make that government “degrades” a symbol like the cross? Does the government have the power to degrade the Christian meaning of the cross? Do we look to the government to define the Christian meaning of the cross? That meaning is not the government’s to define! To fret about state-sponsored religious degradation is implicitly to acknowledge the state’s authority in an area where it has none. That the government (or anyone else, for that matter) may use a symbol for secular purposes of its own should do nothing to trivialize the Christian meaning, or to destabilize religious commitment or religious understanding, unless the suggestion is that the religious commitment runs no deeper than attachment to the symbol’s secular meanings. Brand dilution may work for trademark law, where all symbols operate and compete at the level of the profane market, but it has little place here.

But as I say, it is difficult to tell someone not to feel hurt or insulted. I can certainly understand the sense of insult at a perceived usurpation of a religious symbol, but it is not a feeling I share at all when the Supreme Court trots out such  coarse euphemisms as “ceremonial deism” to justify and explain the sorts of secular uses of religious symbols and religious language that date back at least to the late Roman empire. For myself, I am more offended by what the arguments from insult imply about religious believers’ savvy and understanding of the world, as well as of their own beliefs.

All of that, I suppose, is to return to the beginning, and to repeat my view that feelings of insult and offense are unsound grounds for constitutional law.

[Image: Delaroche’s “Charles I Insulted by Cromwell’s Soldiers”]

Haupt on Active Symbols

Our friend and former Center for Law and Religion Forum guest Claudia Haupt (Columbia) has posted her paper, “Active Symbols,” forthcoming in the Boston College Law Review. The abstract follows.

Visual representations of religious symbols continue to puzzle judges. Lacking empirical data on how images communicate, courts routinely dismiss visual religious symbols as “passive”. This Article challenges the notion that symbols are passive, introducing insights from cognitive neuroscience research to Establishment Clause theory and doctrine. It argues that visual symbolic messages can be at least as active as textual messages. Therefore, religious messages should be assessed in a medium-neutral manner in terms of their communicative impact, that is, irrespective of their textual or visual form.

Providing a new conceptual framework for assessing religious symbolic messages, this Article reconceptualizes coercion and endorsement—the dominant competing approaches to symbolic messages in Establishment Clause theory—as matters of degree on a spectrum of communicative impact. This focus on communicative impact reconciles the approaches to symbolic speech in the Free Speech and Establishment Clause contexts and allows Establishment Clause theory to more accurately account for underlying normative concerns.

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.

Adhar on Secularism

Rex Adhar (University of Otago, New Zealand) has published an article, “Is Secularism Neutral?”, in this month’s edition of Ratio Juris (subscription required). The abstract follows:

This article argues that secularism is not neutral. Secularization is a process, the secular state is a structure, whereas secularism is a political philosophy. Secularism takes two main forms: first, a “benevolent” secularism that endeavours to treat all religious and nonreligious belief systems even-handedly, and, second, a “hostile” kind that privileges unbelief and excludes religion from the public sphere. I analyze the European Court of Human Rights decision in Lautsi v Italy, which illustrates these types. The article concludes that secularism as a political philosophy cannot be neutral, and the secular state is not neutral in its effects, standpoint, governing assumptions or treatment of religious truth claims.