Raboteau, “American Prophets”

In September, Princeton University Press will release “American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice,” by Albert J. Raboteau (Princeton University).  The publisher’s description follows:

American Prophets sheds critical new light on the lives and thought of seven major prophetic figures in twentieth-century America whose social activism was motivated by a deeply felt compassion for those suffering injustice.k10655

In this compelling and provocative book, acclaimed religious scholar Albert Raboteau tells the remarkable stories of Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer—inspired individuals who succeeded in conveying their vision to the broader public through writing, speaking, demonstrating, and organizing. Raboteau traces how their paths crossed and their lives intertwined, creating a network of committed activists who significantly changed the attitudes of several generations of Americans about contentious political issues such as war, racism, and poverty. Raboteau examines the influences that shaped their ideas and the surprising connections that linked them together. He discusses their theological and ethical positions, and describes the rhetorical and strategic methods these exemplars of modern prophecy used to persuade their fellow citizens to share their commitment to social change.

A momentous scholarly achievement as well as a moving testimony to the human spirit, American Prophets represents a major contribution to the history of religion in American politics. This book is essential reading for anyone who is concerned about social justice, or who wants to know what prophetic thought and action can mean in today’s world.

The Ten Commandments in the Courthouse

Recently, I visited the New York State Courthouse here in Jamaica, Queens. For readers who don’t know, Queens is one of New York City’s outer boroughs. It is the most ethnically diverse county in the United States, perhaps the most ethnically diverse place in the entire world. About half its population of 2.3 million is foreign born. More than half speak a language other than English at home. About 40% of its residents are white; Asians and African-Americans each make up about a fifth of the population; Latinos a bit more. Statistics on religious affiliation are harder to come by, but apparently about half of the borough’s residents are Christians; of them, Catholics make up the largest percentage, about one-third of the total population. As to the other 50%, Queens has significant numbers of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and people without formal religious affiliation—the Nones. In terms of religious and cultural variety, Queens has it all.

Given the ethnic and religious diversity of Queens, a work of art I saw in the Queens courthouse surprised me. Decorating the building’s central, ceremonial staircase are a pair of two large WPA-style murals, executed when the courthouse was built during the Great Depression. They make up a unified work. The one on the left, titled “Mosaic Law” (above) shows a crowd of Hebrews surrounding Moses as he descends from Mt. Sinai with the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, written in Hebrew script. The one on the right, titled “Constitutional Law” (below) shows a crowd of historical figures—Washington, the Framers, and Chief Justices from John Jay to Charles Evans Hughes—gathered around a stone plaque with the words of the Preamble: “We the People.”

In one sense, of course, the murals should not have surprised me. Displaying the Ten Commandments in courthouses is an American tradition. It has become an extremely controversial one, however. Litigants have brought numerous constitutional challenges in the last few decades. Courts have reached different conclusions, based largely on the facts of specific cases. About 10 years ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that the display of the Ten Commandments in one Kentucky courthouse violated the Establishment Clause under the so-called “endorsement test.” A reasonable observer, the Court held, would perceive the display as an impermissible, official endorsement of religion. Such an endorsement would send a message of exclusion to non-adherents and make them feel like outsiders in their own community—like disfavored, second-class citizens.

I stood on the staircase for a while and watched people go up and down. Aside from me, no one seemed to notice the murals at all. And I wondered, how could it be, in a place as religiously diverse as Queens, that no one had objected? How could it be that no one had claimed that the murals made him feel like an outsider, a second-class citizen? With thousands of people from different religious backgrounds passing by these murals every day, surely someone would have taken offense and brought a lawsuit. Were people too polite or intimidated to complain? That hardly seems possible, not in Queens. And if someone did bring a constitutional challenge, wouldn’t it have a good chance to succeed? What explains the quietude—the dog that doesn’t bark?

It seems to me there are two explanations. First, it’s quite possible that people in Queens, even the many people from religious traditions other than Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—all of which venerate the Ten Commandments—do not find the display at all offensive. They likely accept it as the tradition of the society in which they have chosen to live. Many of them have immigrated here at great personal cost and are not put off by American customs. Peter Berger and others have written about this phenomenon in the European context. Although European elites often argue that religious minorities find public Christian displays insulting, he explains, little evidence exists that the minorities themselves actually feel offended. Berger describes this misguided, or pretextual, solicitude for religious minorities as the “‘battering ram’ approach to policy making: secular elites make use of other faith communities in order to further their own—frequently secular—points of view.”

Of course, there are plenty of secular elites in New York City, and many of them are lawyers. So why has no one brought a lawsuit over the display at the Queens courthouse? Here we come to the second explanation: such a lawsuit would very likely fail. For one thing, notwithstanding its earlier decisions, it’s not clear that the Supreme Court would continue to apply the endorsement test to courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments. A couple of terms ago, in the Town of Greece case, the Court applied a different test to uphold the constitutionality of official, legislative prayer. Such prayer is constitutional, the Court said, because it is an important part of American tradition—and also because it does not coerce listeners to participate. Courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments are part of American tradition as well, and they also coerce no one. If the Town of Greece test applies, Ten Commandments displays would be constitutional as well.

The Court is notoriously unpredictable in Establishment Clause cases, though, and it could well continue to apply the endorsement test to courthouse displays. Even so, it’s unlikely the Queens murals would be unconstitutional. True, an observer could perceive a religious message. Perhaps the implication is that our fundamental law is of a piece with its divine predecessor, and that we, like the ancient Hebrews, are united by our worship of God. But observers could draw a variety of other messages as well. One very plausible interpretation is this: our Constitution is part of the great tradition of Western law, in which the Ten Commandments play a vital role. Another would be, these are two parallel episodes of lawgiving: Just as the ancient Hebrews were a community bound by a received law, so are we Americans today—although our law comes, not from God, but from the people itself. Perhaps there is no special meaning at all. Perhaps the artist was simply trying to dignify the building in a way that people of the time would find familiar and appropriate.

In short, the mural is not clearly an endorsement of religion. Moreover, it has been there for about 70 years now. As Justice Breyer reasoned in one of the Ten Commandments cases, the fact that a display has gone unchallenged for decades suggests that people do not perceive it as an insult or a religious endorsement. To remove the mural now, on the ground that it impermissibly endorses religion, would suggest that government has an affirmative hostility to faith—a suggestion bound to insult believers and cause even greater social tension than allowing the mural to remain. Although the Court might not allow the mural to be installed in a courthouse today, the fact that it is already in the Queens courthouse gives it a kind of grandfathered status.

So, it seems likely the mural will remain. If you’re in the neighborhood, go take a look. You might also visit the nearby Rufus King Museum, the home of one of the Framers of the Constitution—though not, as far as I can tell, one of the Framers depicted in the mural—and the last Federalist candidate for President of the United States. What he would have thought of the murals’ constitutionality, I’m pretty sure I know.

Loimeier, “Islamic Reform in Twentieth Century Africa”

In September, Edinburgh University Press will release Islamic Reform In Twentieth-Century Africa by Roman Loimeier (University of Göttingen). The publisher’s description follows:

Islamic Reform in AfricaBased on twelve case studies (Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar and the Comoros), this book looks at patterns and peculiarities of different traditions of Islamic reform. Considering both Sufi- and Salafi-oriented movements in their respective historical contexts, it stresses the importance of the local context to explain the different trajectories of development.

The book studies the social, religious and political impact of these reform movements in both historical and contemporary times and asks why some have become successful as popular mass movements, while others failed to attract substantial audiences. It also considers jihad-minded movements in contemporary Mali, northern Nigeria and Somalia and looks at modes of transnational entanglement of movements of reform. Against the background of a general inquiry into what constitutes ‘reform’, the text responds to the question of what ‘reform’ actually means for Muslims in contemporary Africa.

“Pope Innocent II (1130-43)” (Doran & Smith, eds.)

In June, Routledge released “Pope Innocent II (1130-43): The World vs. The City,” edited by John Doran (University of Chester) and Damian J. Smith (St. Louis University).  The publisher’s description follows:

The pontificate of Innocent II (1130-1143) has long been recognized as a watershed in the history of the papacy, marking the transition from the age of reform to the so-9781472421098called papal monarchy, when an earlier generation of idealistic reformers gave way to hard-headed pragmatists intent on securing worldly power for the Church. Whilst such a conception may be a cliché its effect has been to concentrate scholarship more on the schism of 1130 and its effects than on Innocent II himself. This volume puts Innocent at the centre, bringing together the authorities in the field to give an overarching view of his pontificate, which was very important in terms of the internationalization of the papacy, the internal development of the Roman Curia, the integrity of the papal state and the governance of the local church, as well as vital to the development of the Kingdom of Sicily and the Empire.

MacCulloch, “All Things Made New”

In September, Oxford University Press will release All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy by Diarmaid MacCulloch (Oxford). The publisher’s description follows:

All things made newThe most profound characteristic of Western Europe in the Middle Ages was its cultural and religious unity, a unity secured by a common alignment with the Pope in Rome, and a common language – Latin – for worship and scholarship. The Reformation shattered that unity, and the consequences are still with us today. In All Things Made New, Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of the New York Times bestseller Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, examines not only the Reformation’s impact across Europe, but also the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the special evolution of religion in England, revealing how one of the most turbulent, bloody, and transformational events in Western history has shaped modern society.

The Reformation may have launched a social revolution, MacCulloch argues, but it was not caused by social and economic forces, or even by a secular idea like nationalism; it sprang from a big idea about death, salvation, and the afterlife. This idea – that salvation was entirely in God’s hands and there was nothing humans could do to alter his decision – ended the Catholic Church’s monopoly in Europe and altered the trajectory of the entire future of the West.

By turns passionate, funny, meditative, and subversive, All Things Made New takes readers onto fascinating new ground, exploring the original conflicts of the Reformation and cutting through prejudices that continue to distort popular conceptions of a religious divide still with us after five centuries. This monumental work, from one of the most distinguished scholars of Christianity writing today, explores the ways in which historians have told the tale of the Reformation, why their interpretations have changed so dramatically over time, and ultimately, how the contested legacy of this revolution continues to impact the world today.

Hanaoka, “Authority and Identity in Medieval Islamic Historiography”

In August, Cambridge University Press will release Authority and Identity in Medieval Islamic Historiography: Persian Histories from the Peripheries by Mimi Hanaoka (University of Richmond). The publisher’s description follows:

Authority and Stuff in the Medieval IslamicIntriguing dreams, improbable myths, fanciful genealogies, and suspect etymologies. These were all key elements of the historical texts composed by scholars and bureaucrats on the peripheries of Islamic empires between the tenth and fifteenth centuries. But how are historians to interpret such narratives? And what can these more literary histories tell us about the people who wrote them and the times in which they lived? In this book, Mimi Hanaoka offers an innovative, interdisciplinary method of approaching these sorts of local histories from the Persianate world. By paying attention to the purpose and intention behind a text’s creation, her book highlights the preoccupation with authority to rule and legitimacy within disparate regional, provincial, ethnic, sectarian, ideological and professional communities. By reading these texts in such a way, Hanaoka transforms the literary patterns of these fantastic histories into rich sources of information about identity, rhetoric, authority, legitimacy, and centre-periphery relations.

Around the Web this Week

Here are some interesting law and religion news stories from around the web this week:

Rebhun, “Jews and the American Religious Landscape”

In September, Columbia University Press will release Jews and the American Religious Landscape by Uzi Rebhun (Hebrew University of Jerusalem). The publisher’s description follows:Jews and the American Religious Landscape.png

Jews and the American Religious Landscape explores major complementary facets of American Judaism and Jewish life through a comprehensive analysis of contemporary demographic and sociological data. Focusing on the most important aspects of social development—geographic location, socioeconomic stratification, family dynamics, group identification, and political orientation—the volume adds empirical value to questions concerning the strengths of Jews as a religious and cultural group in America and the strategies they have developed to integrate successfully into a Christian society.

With advanced analyses of data gathered by the Pew Research Center, Jews and the American Religious Landscape shows that Jews, like other religious and ethnic minorities, strongly identify with their religion and culture. Yet their particular religiosity, along with such factors as population dispersion, professional networks, and education, have created different outcomes in various contexts. Living under the influence of a Christian majority and a liberal political system has also cultivated a distinct ethos of solidarity and egalitarianism, enabling Judaism to absorb new patterns in ways that mirror its integration into American life. Rich in information thoughtfully construed, this book presents a remarkable portrait of what it means to be an American Jew today.

 

Geffert and Stavrou, “Eastern Orthodox Christianity”

Eastern Orthodox Christianity.jpgIn May, Yale University Press released Eastern Orthodox Christianity: The Essential Texts by Bryn Geffert (Amherst College) and Theofanis Stavrou (University of Minnesota). The publisher’s description follows:

Two leading academic scholars offer the first comprehensive source reader on the Eastern Orthodox church for the English-speaking world. Designed specifically for students and accessible to readers with little or no previous knowledge of theology or religious history, this essential, one-of-a-kind work frames, explores, and interprets Eastern Orthodoxy through the use of primary sources and documents. Lively introductions and short narratives that touch on anthropology, art, law, literature, music, politics, women’s studies, and a host of other areas are woven together to provide a coherent and fascinating history of the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition.

Dunn, “A History of Orthodox, Islamic, and Western Christian Political Values”

In September, Palgrave Macmillan will release “A History of Orthodox, Islamic, and Western Christian Political Values,” by Dennis J. Dunn. The publisher’s description follows:

The book reveals the nexus between religion and politics today and shows that we live in an interdependent world where one global civilization is emerging and where the Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 12.29.47 AMworld’s peoples are continuing to coalesce around a series of values that contain potent Western overtones. Both Putin’s Orthodox Russia and regions under the control of such Islamist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda resent and attempt, in a largely languishing effort, to frustrate this series of values. The book explains the current tension between the West and Russia and parts of the Muslim world and sheds light on the causes of such crises as the Syrian Civil War, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and acts of terrorism such as 9/11 and the ISIS-inspired massacres in Paris.  It shows that religion continues to affect global order and that knowledge of its effect on political identity and global governance should guide both government policy and scholarly analysis of contemporary history.