Posts tagged with: religion

A new blog has been added to our blogroll sidebar (along with a much-needed round of housecleaning on old and out-of-date links). Announcement below:

The Social Science Research Council is pleased to announce the launch of The Immanent Frame, a new SSRC blog on secularism, religion, and the public sphere.

The blog is opening with a series of posts on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, including recent contributions from Robert Bellah, Wendy Brown, Jose Casanova, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, and Colin Jager. Robert Bellah has called A Secular Age “one of the most important books to be written in my lifetime,” and there will be more to come on Taylor’s major work in the weeks ahead, with posts by Rajeev Bhargava, Akeel Bilgrami, Hent de Vries, Amy Hollywood, Tomoko Masuzawa, Joan Scott, and others. Meanwhile, Charles Taylor himself has just made his own contribution to the already ongoing conversations.

But The Immanent Frame won’t be limited to discussions of A Secular Age. Later this fall we’ll also host a series of posts responding to Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. And there will be posts on a variety of other topics too-from pluralism and the “post-secular” to international relations theory, religious freedom, and the future of shari’a.

This new SSRC blog will draw on, and is closely linked to, the Council’s expanding work on religion and the public sphere. We invite readers to email us with comments or questions at religion@ssrc.org.

I remember riding back to seminary in Kentucky a couple years ago with a young lady and we pulled off the expressway to grab a bite. As we were getting ready to pay our bill, the young lady, who happened to be from Mississippi, said, “God is telling me to give 100 dollars to this young man behind the counter of this restaurant. ” Needless to say this young man was thankful of God’s decision to speak through the young woman in this manner.

An article by Heather Donckels and a study by empty tomb, inc shows that Southerners as a group give the most to church and religious organizations. Empty tomb, inc. is a Christian research organization in Champaign, Illinois.

If there are any Southern evangelicals who have been a member of a church during a building campaign, this study makes even more sense. Midwesterners placed second in the study. While Southerners lead in overall charitable giving, they give less as a group to charities outside of the religious domain.

Donckels notes in her piece:

The North American Religion Atlas, using data from the 2000 census, shows a high concentration of Protestants in the South while Catholics dominate the Northeast. For example, only 8 percent of people in the South are Catholics, compared to 42 percent of New Englanders.

Francis Butler, president of the Washington-based Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, said research shows Catholics give about 1 percent of income to charity. Protestants, meanwhile, generally give double that, he said.

While this may be one factor of many, there is obviously more to giving than denominational demographics. One obvious factor may be that religious participation and church attendance is higher in Southern states, compared with other regions. Cultural differences are probably more of a factor than denominational factors.

Also in the article, University of Mississippi professor Charles Reagan Wilson is quoted as saying:

The South’s approach to giving has stressed private charity over governmental assistance. Southerners have long tended to be conservative on issues of government, stressing provision from family and churches rather than government intervention in times of crisis.

So it seems, there is still a flickering spirit of Jeffersonian political philosophy alive in Dixie.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, October 11, 2007

Freemasonry has been deemed to be worthy of protection under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).

Does this mean that freemasonry is a “religion”? A California court of appeals statement said in part, “We see no principled way to distinguish the earnest pursuit of these (Masonic) principles … from more widely acknowledged modes of religious exercise.”

That’s a stance the Christian Reformed Church would probably agree with. As I’ve noted before, the CRC’s position on membership in the Masonic Lodge, and other “occult” societies, has been, “There is an irreconcilable conflict between the teachings and practices of the lodge and those of biblical Christianity, and therefore simultaneous membership in the lodge and in the church of Jesus Christ is incompatible with and contrary to Scripture.”

This is also one of the three opinions that have historically separated the CRC from the Reformed Church in America (hymn-singing and use of English in worship being the other two).

See also, “The Freemasonry Threat.”

The US State Department issued its annual religious freedom report late last week (HT).

And earlier this month, Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute discussed the forthcoming book, Religious Freedom in the World 2007. He had this to say about economic and religious freedom:

If you take the worst 30 countries in terms of economic freedom, every one scored low with religious freedom. The top 30 countries all scored high. Why is that? We see two connections. First, wealth could help religious freedom. But we also believe that religious freedom helps general health, well-being, and wealth broadly understood. To the degree that people are not free to organize and manage their lives, you cut down on the possibility of independent economic activity. People are simply used to not doing things unless they’re told to do them.

China remains one of the most interesting case studies in terms of how necessary the correlation is between religious and economic (and political) freedom.

Hey everybody, Richard Dawkins is selling T-shirts! Get ‘em while they’re hot!

Scandalous! And available for men and women!

One of my favorite bloggers, Allahpundit (who just happens to be an athiest himself), calls this “…a new stage in the transformation of ‘new atheism’ from rational argument to aggrieved identity group,” and has this to say about the t-shirts themselves

Some of our commenters call this sort of thing evangelical atheism but a moron with a scarlet “A” on his chest really isn’t trying to convert you. He’s just trying to get in your face in his own passive way and remind you that nonbelievers exist in case you missed Hitchens’s last thousand appearances on cable news or somehow avoided his, Dawkins’s, and Sam Harris’s ubiquitous books. I hate to frag a guy on my own side but honestly, we can do without these pity parties.

I’ll drink to that. But honestly, the part of this that really caught my attention was the following statement on Dawkins’ homepage:

It is time to let our voices be heard regarding the intrusion of religion in our schools and politics. Atheists along with millions of others are tired of being bullied by those who would force their own religious agenda down the throats of our children and our respective governments. We need to KEEP OUT the supernatural from our moral principles and public policies.

I wonder just how Dawkins and his out-and-proud atheist brethren would propose to accomplish that goal. (An aside – it would be just as fair to say that millions of Christians are tired of being bullied by the much smaller group of quite militant atheists who seem determined to wipe away any acknowledgment of God or the supernatural in all realms of our public life.) Is the argument from Dawkins that those of us who are religious should not allow the principles that form the core of our existence on Earth and inform all of the decisions that we make should be kept completely out of politics and the public square? Or should we be allowed in, but only if we strictly segregate our moral and religious beliefs in our decision making on any public issue? How would such a restriction be enforced? How is that compatible in any way with human freedom? I imagine the discussion going something like this:

Dawkins: I DEMAND THAT YOU NOT ALLOW YOUR BELIEFS TO INFLUENCE YOUR DECISION MAKING ON PUBLIC ISSUES!
Me: Uh… Sorry. No dice.

What is Dawkins’ next move at this point? How does he propose to stop me from ramming my religious agenda down his throat (or, as I like to call it, acting according to the dictates of my conscience within the legal bounds of our political system)?

One other point – One of my former pastors, a big booster of Christian education, often made the point that a non-religious education is impossible, in that all education must have at its root some sort of central organizing principle – some fundamental truth about who man is and how he relates to the world that he lives in. Christianity has a distinct view on that issue – that man is created in the image of God, and because of that has a unique and intrinsic value as a created person, and also has important rights and responsibilities within God’s creation. That worldview has distinct consequences for how a Christian approaches education, and the same could be said for any religious system, including humanism, which is, in reality, the core religious principle of a “non-religious” education.

I’ve always thought that this speaks to a basic truth about mankind – that we were created to be religious. We all have a need to orient our lives toward something, a set of beliefs that we hold to be true and supreme. We’re all religious. Even if you don’t believe in God, you believe in something. So why do the new atheists feel so comfortable accusing believers of trying to “force their own religious agenda down the throats of our children and our respective governments” when that’s exactly what they’re trying to do themselves?

Just a thought.

Here’s the text of a letter sent this morning to the editor at Woman’s Day magazine (don’t ask why I was reading Woman’s Day. I read whatever happens to be sitting in the rack next to our commode):

Paula Spencer’s commentary on the Pledge of Allegiance (“Pledging Allegiance,” September 1, 2007) sounds incredibly McCarthy-esque. Are we to now believe that having qualms about mandatory recitation of the Pledge constitutes an un-American activity?

Spencer dismisses the many reasons that one might object to the Pledge in the context of public schools. These schools are, after all, institutional arms of the government itself, and attendance is mandatory (unless one can afford private or parochial options). A cynic might suggest that when combined with an obligatory recitation of allegiance to the nation, such education runs the risk of becoming indoctrination for the purposes of social control. As to whether nationalism can be such “a bad thing,” consider Germany in the 1930s.

There are also religious reasons why a person might feel compelled to abstain from pledging to a physical object (the flag). For Christians, whose citizenship is finally in heaven and whose ultimate loyalty is due to God alone, concerns about idolatry might compel a person to conscientiously refrain from making such a pledge. Indeed, those two little words “under God” which have occasioned such controversy in recent days are perhaps the only elements of the Pledge that make it even permissible for Christians to profess allegiance to any particular nation.

Patriotism too often can morph into xenophobia and nationalism. Whatever your views of the Pledge, I would think that the educational potential contained in having a “conversation with your child about your family’s approach to the Pledge” would be the sort of engaged parenting that your publication ought to praise and endorse rather than disdain.

The free exercise of religion, not to mention the freedom of speech and independent thought, are thoroughly American. A coerced, perfunctory, and unreflective patriotism is no true patriotism at all.

Jordan J. Ballor
Associate Editor
Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty

As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “The nation will always claim a portion of man’s loyalties. Since it usually claims too large a portion, it is necessary that other communities compete with it.”

By my way of thinking, for Christians the Church ought to be that community of primary loyalty (for Niebuhr, it’s the class: “There is no reason why a class which is fated by its condition of life to aspire after an equalitarian society should not have a high moral claim upon the loyalty of its members”).

It seems to me that American churches have a particularly hard time separating out what elements of their worship and piety are merely the trappings of civil religion and which are the indispensable elements of catholicity.

At the recreation center where my wife plays softball, and which is explicitly supported by the denomination, players, coaches, and umpires only pause to pray after the national anthem has been played. In itself its a small thing, perhaps even unimportant, but when combined with all the other similar elements (American flags near the pulpit, for example), it raises in my mind the perennial questions about ultimate loyalties and the proclivity for Christian denominations, particularly Protestants, to align themselves along national boundaries.

See also: “Which of These is More Offensive?”

Speaking of the “priestly” voice of science,

Given all the atheist militancy raising a ruckus lately, I suppose it isn’t too surprising that I am stumbling upon more regular and more baldly dismissive declarations these days about the ineradicable incompatibility of science and religion among Science’s self-appointed Elite Champions online.

I’ve been a perfectly convinced and rather cheerfully nonjudgmental atheist for well over twenty years at this point, but I must say that I think it is arrant nonsense to claim that scientific and religious practices or scientific and religious beliefs are incompatible, given the overabundant evidence of people who weave them together in their lives every day so conspicuously. A little respect for the facts you claim so to cherish, people?

Check out the rest of “Priestly ‘Science’ and Democratic Politics” from Dale Carrico, Ph.D., a fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.

On the way to the airport in Atlanta last week, I stumbled upon a radio debate between Michael Medved and Christopher Hitchens on the topic of Hitchens’ latest book – namely, whether or not religion poisons everything. It’s obvious that Hitchens is guilty of a vast overreach with that contention; at the very least, any fair minded person must acknowledge the great contributions of Jewish and Christian religious thought to the foundations of Western society, and one could spend a lot of time listing names of individuals and groups who – motivated by religious conviction – have changed the world for the better. And that doesn’t even begin to touch upon the major contributions religion has made to the world of art and culture.

That being said, one can’t dismiss Hitchens or the other atheist voices that have gained a following in our current cultural marketplace. And so it was refreshing to read this response to Hitchens and his allies by Peter Berkowitz in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

Like philosophy, religion, rightly understood, has a beginning in wonder. The most wonderful of creatures are human beings themselves. Of all the Bible’s sublime and sustaining teachings, none is more so than the teaching that explains that humanity is set apart because all human beings–woman as well as man the Bible emphasizes–are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

That a teaching is sublime and sustaining does not make it true. But that, along with its service in laying the moral foundations in the Western world for the belief in the dignity of all men and women–a belief that our new new atheists take for granted and for which they provide no compelling alternative foundation–is reason enough to give the variety of religions a fair hearing. And it is reason enough to respect believers as decent human beings struggling to make sense of a mysterious world.

I ran across this review essay by J. Daniel Hammond responding to S.J. Peart and D. Levy’s The Vanity of the Philosopher: From Equality to Hierarchy in Postclassical Economics over at SSRN, “In the Shadows of Vanity: Religion and the Debate Over Hierarchy.”

In Hammond’s words, he wants to fill in a gap in Peart’s and Levy’s account: “The purpose of this paper is to make a start at casting light on the role of religion in the debate over race and hierarchy in 19th century England.”

One of the key turning points in Hammond’s argument is the following supposition: “Catholicism may have played a larger role in the debates over racial hierarchy than would be suggested by the Roman Catholic proportion of the English population and clergy.” Rehearsing the history and nature of the English reformation, Hammond, who is an economist at Wake Forest, writes that in the late nineteenth century, religious liberty for Catholics in Britain increased.

Here’s where Hammond’s analysis gets somewhat strange. He writes that “the brotherhood of the entire human race was a Catholic doctrine. This principle is repeated over and over in papal encyclicals, and having been forcibly removed from the Catholic Church by the English reformers under Henry, Edward, and Elizabeth, the English people were for 300 years outside the ambit of the Catholic magisterium.”

Hammond relates a litany of papal statements against slavery. His conclusion: “If Englishmen were to conclude that slavery was wrong, or that African Blacks and Irish were their brothers, this would be on grounds other than exhortation from the Catholic Church. Not being in communion with the Church of Rome, Anglicans were without doctrinal protection from the very human temptation to treat only those humans who are like us as our brothers.” This absence of Catholic influence on Britain apparently opened up the nation to increasing support for racism.

Although Anglicans and British Protestants were not influenced to any great extent by papal teachings, it does not follow that they “were without doctrinal protection” from racist social forces.

Let me give just one example. The Puritan Richard Baxter, writing in the late 17th century, articulates an argument for the essential similarity shared by all human beings.

He writes, “It’s well known, That the Natives in New England, the most barbarous Abassines, Gallanes, &c. in Ethiopia, have as good natural Capacities as the Europeans. So far are they from being but like Apes and Monkeys; if they be not Ideots or mad, they sometime shame learned men in their words and deeds.”

Indeed, given the appropriate occasions for the actualization of their capacities, these people have proven themselves capable of the equal intellectual feats. After all, says Baxter, “I have known those that have been so coursly clad, and so clownishly bred, even as to Speech, Looks, and Carriages, that Gentlemen and Scholars, at the first congress, have esteemed them much according to your description, when in Discourse they have proved more ingenious than they. And if improvement can bring them to Arts, the Faculty was there before.”

While the “brotherhood of the entire human race” is a Catholic doctrine, it is certainly not exclusively a Catholic doctrine, as cases like Baxter and William Wilberforce show. Hammond’s instinct to better integrate religious contexts into the historical account is laudable. The execution of this idea could be done in a much more nuanced and historically responsible way, however.

In today’s WaPo, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson opines on Senator Barack Obama’s recent address to a gathering of UCC faithful (HT).

In “The Gospel Of Obama,” Gerson writes, “By speaking at a gathering of the United Church of Christ — among the most excruciatingly progressive of Protestant denominations — he was preaching to the liberal choir. And he did not effectively reach out to an evangelical movement in transition.”

Gerson bases this judgment on the contention, citing a Pew Forum researcher, that the younger generations of evangelicals “tend to be more concerned about the environment than are their elders, more engaged in international issues such as HIV-AIDS, a little more open on homosexual rights and less attached to the religious right. This should provide an opening for Democrats. But there is evidence, according to Green, that young evangelicals are as conservative on abortion as their parents and grandparents, if not more so.” The apparent “liberalizing” of young evangelical interests is no doubt an expression of a broader cultural phenomenon.

In addressing the UCC gathering, it would seem that Senator Obama was simply taking a page out of Rev. Jim Wallis’ playbook. For Wallis, Democrats need to get comfortable talking about matters of faith. I’ll admit that I found this passage rather curious:

Yet what we also understand is that our values should express themselves not just through our churches or synagogues, temples or mosques; they should express themselves through our government. Because whether it’s poverty or racism, the uninsured or the unemployed, war or peace, the challenges we face today are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten-point plan. They are moral problems, rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness – in the imperfections of man.

I guess I would see the “perfect ten-point plan” more the realm of government, and the “moral problems” as the realm of the church, synagogue, temple, or mosque rather than the other way around. It seems that from framing something as a “moral” issue it immediately follows that it is a political issue.

Gerson calls Obama’s speech, “a class in remedial religion,” and perhaps that’s all the Democratic party is ready for. But Gerson realizes that this “remedial religion” wasn’t presented to the Democratic faithful, but to a much more narrow slice of the liberal movement: religious progressives.

What really needs to be done, says Gerson, is a three-step process of recovering religious rhetoric effectively. “First,” says Gerson, “candidates should talk about their own faith and the importance of religion in public life, both of which Obama did well.” That’s in part what Wallis’ CNN forum on faith was intended to do…to give Democratic candidates a primer on speaking about religion in public.

But on two other fronts, Gerson finds Obama’s speech lacking: “Second, Democrats should emphasize common-ground issues that credit the moral concerns of religious conservatives while calming the waves of the culture wars — such as confronting the toxic excesses of popular culture, encouraging character and discipline in public schools, and promoting religious liberty abroad,” and “Third, leading Democrats could make real policy changes on abortion, by adopting a more moderate position than abortion on demand.” This last point is one that has been echoed by a number of others (although it’s not a prominent plank in Wallis’ platform for faithful Democrats).

I do wonder, however, how this third element would go over among the UCC mainstream, who themselves are not representative of this younger evangelical mindset. The UCC is a supporting member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and according to one source, the UCC “has strongly supported the legalization of abortion since 1971. The UCC supported FOCA and strongly opposed the PBA ban to the point of joining the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARRAL) in a statement affirming President Clinton’s veto of the PBA Ban Act in 1996. The UCC has also called for the church to support abortion in any national health care bill.” There’s a real disconnect at this point in Gerson’s piece, in that he seems to confuse the progressively mainline UCC with “young evangelicals.”

In the end, Gerson’s analysis seems to line up with what Tony Campolo wrote recently, “It is time for us to name the hypocrisy of the Left in complaining about how the Religious Right is violating the first amendment while turning a blind eye to their own candidates’ use of churches as places to campaign.”

Gerson observes in the same vein,

Obama’s criticism of the religious right for baptizing the agenda of economic conservatism — making tax cuts their highest legislative priority — had some justified sting. But then he proceeded, in the typical manner of the religious left, to give a variety of more liberal causes a similar kind of full-immersion baptism: passing a “universal health care bill,” withdrawing quickly from Iraq, approving comprehensive immigration reform. Agree with these proposals or not, none is a test of true religion.

And this points to the flaw, I think, in Wallis’ program for making the Democratic party religion-friendly: “Obama is clearly more fluent on religious issues than most in his party. But to appeal broadly to religious voters, he will need to be more than the candidate of the religious left.” Connecting the mainline churches to the Democratic party will not do much to attract young evangelicals, no matter how diverse their policy interests.

Joe Knippenberg criticizes Gerson for using “rights” language in describing the status of the poor and oppressed. Here’s the offending passage from Gerson:

The essential humanism of Christianity requires an active, political concern about human dignity and the rights of the poor and weak. But faith says little about the means to achieve those ideals. The justice of welfare reform or tax cuts or moving toward socialized medicine is measured by the outcome of these changes. And those debates cannot be short-circuited by the claim “Thus sayeth the Lord,” spoken by the Christian Coalition or the United Church of Christ.

It seems correct that we should judge policy not only by motive but also by outcome. That’s an important point, one that folks like Jim Wallis should consider more often.

Knippenberg writes that such an invocation of rights “tends to short-circuit prudence and the kind of balancing political judgment always requires. I can have a duty toward someone and he or she can have a claim on my attention and compassion without requiring me to take political action on his or her behalf. Stated another way, by emphasizing the political as opposed to the charitable element of the concern with widows and orphans, Gerson already begins to distort the debate.”

I think Knippenberg’s instinct is right to try to protect the realm of moral duty and obligation apart from political action itself. But in allowing “rights” to become a strictly political term, I think we’d be making the same mistake that some libertarians make with regard to conflating moral duty and political rights. That is, political rights should be understood as a sub-group or species of the broader category of human rights.

Gerson doesn’t make this distinction, but it’s not clear that he means to conflate political rights with all kinds of human rights either. Defining the necessary faith as both “active” and “political” makes that a valid conclusion. But it seems to me that “the means to achieve those ideals” may not be political at all, and that’s a big part of where the prudential argument should be at. The political element may enter in only by defending and upholding the liberty necessary for elements of civil society or individual action to respect those rights and fulfill those duties.

Update: Terry Mattingly at GetReligion weighs in on the Gerson piece. He writes of abortion, “There is room for political compromise here, but I have met very few young Christians who actually disagree with traditional Christian doctrines on sexuality and marriage. Would Democrats be willing to compromise and meet people in Middle-American pews in, well, the middle on this hot-button issue? Would the party’s leadership be able to convince its secular/religious liberal alliance to compromise?”