What is Happening to Religious Pluralism in Quebec?

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I just read Michael W. Higgins’s piece at Commonweal: “Quebec’s Moral Quagmire.”  Higgins explores Quebec’s “Bill 21,” a law that, in Higgins’s words, “bans police, civil servants, teachers, government officials, jail guards, and other state employees from wearing any form of religious garment–the Sikh turban, the Jewish kippa, the Muslim hijab, niqab, and burka, and the Christian cross–while on the job.”

Here is a taste:

Sheema Khan, a Harvard-educated scientist and inventor, writes regularly on the status of Muslim women in Canada; Khan wears a hijab, and struggles to find common ground between secular Canada and her own religious tradition. Shortly after the passing of Bill 21, while visiting Montreal, Khan writes that she witnessed a terrible auto accident. Having provided a statement to the police, she muses: “What if I am called to testify and denied the opportunity to do so because of my hijab? Will the court be deemed a space laique, where no religious symbols are allowed?” Noting that on two occasions, Quebec judges have unsuccessfully tried to bar women with hijabs, she asks: “Will judges be emboldened to try again? In the future, a turbaned Sikh police officer cannot take a witness statement; an observant Jewish lawyer won’t be allowed to prosecute a case on behalf of the province.” Decrying a Quebec that is “march[ing] to its own tune of folly,” Khan envisions “religious dress” police, and urges her fellow Canadians to “not remain silent while their fellow citizens are denied basic human rights.”

Indeed, many organizations are not remaining silent, including the major universities of the province; the Montreal English-speaking school board and teacher unions both French and English; law firms; journalists and editors of the premier media organs in Quebec; and religious bodies of every stripe, including the Assembly of Quebec Bishops. The Archbishop of Montreal, Christian Lepine, called Bill 21 an erosion of individual freedoms and a diminishment of human dignity. The Fédération des femmes du Québec warned of the damage that will be done to Muslim women through the bill’s discriminatory bias.

Most important, the federal government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a native Quebecker, stand vigorously opposed to the bill, and are resolved to appeal it to the Supreme Court as a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Their challenge will be amplified by the Legault administration’s intention to invoke the so-called “notwithstanding clause,” also known as the “override clause,” which allows federal or provincial governments temporarily to override, or bypass, certain Charter rights. The clause, a controversial amendment since its inception as part of the Canada Act of 1982, which completed the country’s constitutional independence from the U.K., was deemed necessary at the time to ensure the cooperation of all the provinces, and Quebec specifically. Invoking the clause has been rare; but when a provincial government does so, it usually gets its way.  

Legault knows that the province’s prerogative can be tested in the courts, but he also knows the bar for revocation is high, and that in a national election year the governing party in Ottawa will be reluctant to alienate the population of a province it depends on for elected Members of Parliament. The Prime Minister, however, given his very public opposition to Bill 21, will have little choice but to intervene at some point. While this is more likely to happen after the election, Trudeau might conceivably choose to make it an election battleground: Ottawa defending religious freedoms over the populist-secularists keen on scrubbing the public landscape clean of religious markers. Given the wide antipathy to Bill 21 outside Quebec, that might work, but he will need to weigh in the balance the collateral damage of pitting English Canada against la belle province.

Support for the bill within Quebec has come from various constituencies: rural residents hostile to the urban monoliths of Montreal and Quebec City; native Quebeckers uncomfortable with significant immigration in recent years from former French colonies, principally in Africa and the Caribbean; rising anxiety over the perceived threats to the linguistic and cultural identity of Quebec by the expanding Muslim population; the relentless denigration of the old values in an ever-changing Quebec; and the emergence of populist politicians further to the right of Premier Legault, like Maxime Bernier and his People’s Party, who feed the fears of a citizenry under siege. But support has also come from leftist circles, including sovereigntists keen on democratic socialism in the European mode, and some feminist organizations that see the veil as a cultural prop of an oppressive patriarchy.

Read the entire piece here.   It is interesting to see nativists, secularists, and feminists coming together in this way.  This bill illustrates how opponents of religious freedom and religious pluralism can be found on both sides of the political aisle.

The “Fate of Pluralism” in America

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The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has released a new study titled “American Democracy in Crisis: The Fate of Pluralism in a Divided Nation.”   Maxine Najle and Robert Jones are the authors.  Here are some of my quick takeaways:

  •  The number of white evangelicals who have a favorable view of Donald Trump was higher in 2018 than it was in 2016.  (It is, however, slightly down from 2017).
  • White evangelicals “remain the only major religious group in which a majority holds a favorable view of the president.”  For more on why I think this is the case, see my argument in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.
  • White Americans with a college degree (78%) are “substantially likelier than whites without a college degree (56%) to say they interact with someone who does not share their race or ethnicity at least once a week.”
  • “Fully half (50%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans say they interact with people who do not share their religious affiliation within their family, compared to 32% of white mainline Protestants, 30% of Catholics, 26% of nonwhite Protestants, and 25% of white evangelical Protestants.”  If I am reading this correctly, it appears that Protestants of all varieties (mainline, nonwhite and white evangelical) do not spend much time with family members who do not share their faith.   Religious faith trumps blood?
  • Americans are “most likely to view their interactions with people who do not share their political affiliation in a negative light.” There are “no significant differences between partisans on this question.”  This, of course, reveals the incivility of our political discourse in the United States.
  • Republicans are three times more likely as independents and Democrats “to say they would be unhappy if their child married someone of a different religious background.”  White evangelicals stand out among religious groups on this question by a significant margin over nonwhite Protestants, Catholics, and mainline white Protestants.
  • “When faced with the prospect of their child marrying someone who identifies with the opposite political party, Democrats are likelier than Republicans to say they would be unhappy.”  Interesting.
  • Nearly 30% of white evangelicals would “be unhappy if their son or daughter married a Democrat.”
  • 66% of white evangelicals would “be at least somewhat unhappy if their son or daughter married  someone of the same gender.”  Frankly, I thought this number would be higher.
  • 60% of white evangelicals prefer “a nation primarily made up of people who follow Christian faith.”  Only 8% of white evangelicals prefer a “nation made up of people belonging  to a wide variety of religions.”

There is a lot more here.

Why Evangelicals Struggle With Pluralism

A small piece of my recent Franz Lecture at Gordon College:

Despite all of the obituaries written about the death of the Christian Right, the “culture wars that were born in the 1980s are still raging.  Too many self-professed followers of Jesus in the United States today embrace an unhealthy blend of religion and politics that hurts the witness of the church and further polarizes the nation into warring camps.  The old saying that the evangelical movement in America has become the “Republican Party at prayer” seems to have been confirmed again in November 2016 when 81% of evangelical voters pulled the lever for the GOP candidate for President.

Too often evangelical engagement in politics is understood in terms of “reclaiming” America or restoring America to its Christian roots.  Evangelicals have never had a robust vision for how to live together with our differences.  We have never been very good at pluralism because we have always held, to one degree or another, a position of cultural power. 

Immanent Frame Forum on Islam and the Founding Fathers

TJ-Quran-195x300The other day I was Skyping with a colonial America class at another college.  One of the students asked me what the founding fathers would have thought about Islam.  I answered the question, but after I got done with the class I realized I should have also recommended Denise Spellberg’s 2013 book Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders.

Check out the recently announced forum at Immanent Frame on Spellberg’s book.

Here is what you can expect:

Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an was released in 2013, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term as president of the United States. As we were reminded during the 2016 election season, both of President Obama’s campaigns for presidency were marked by accusations that he was a practicing Muslim and debates as to the legitimacy of a president with such a religious identity. Spellberg’s book was published as a timely history of the religious freedom debates during the founding of the United States, emphasizing the choice that the Founding Fathers made to create a new nation open to all religions. As Spellberg describes in her historical account, Thomas Jefferson argued for the inclusion of Muslims without knowing a Muslim individual; his theoretical sense of welcome toward them extended hospitality and legal protection to other religious minority groups at the time, including Jews and Catholics.

Detailing these debates around religious pluralism, Spellberg contributed to the defense against Islamophobia championed by those such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who in response to questions of Obama’s Muslimness asked, “What if he is? Is there something wrong with being Muslim in this country?” Now, in 2017, Powell’s question back to his interviewers is more potent, as support for Muslim Americans as fully American citizens seems to be up for debate. Though similar conflicts are happening in other countries as well, the history of American religious pluralism as a founding principle shapes the conversation in a certain way in the United States.

In this short series, four scholars reflect on re-reading Spellberg’s text in 2017.

Follow along here.

 

InterVarsity Press and Society of Biblical Literature Issue a Joint Statement

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Last night I posted on a report that the Society of Biblical Literature is banning InterVarsity Press from displaying books at its forthcoming meeting.  This morning I learned about a joint statement–yes a JOINT statement–put out by IVP and SBL.

I am encouraged by this statement.  Some of the concerns I expressed in my post last night still stand (about principled pluralism), but I am encouraged.  The statement corrects some misconceptions and illustrates the kind of dialogue on this matter that I hope will result in the SBL permitting IVP to display books at its next conference

Here is the statement:

InterVarsity Press Publisher Jeff Crosby has confirmed that the Society of Biblical Literature’s Council, at its next meeting on October 29-30, is taking up the question of IVP Academic’s right to exhibit at the 2017 annual meetings of the jointly-hosted AAR-SBL. That conversation is a part of a larger discussion the SBL Council will have regarding its protocols and standards for exhibitors at its events.

Crosby was notified of this intent in a letter of October 12, 2016 from John Kutsko, SBL’s executive director, who made clear that it is a question — not a decision — regarding whether or not IVP Academic will continue to have access to the exhibit space.

“I have been grateful for the cordial conversations I’ve had with John Kutsko of SBL, and appreciate the many complexities a person in his role is navigating at any given time,” Crosby said. “For 70 years, IVP has been committed to fostering dialogue and a robust exchange of ideas. All of us who represent the IVP Academic program genuinely hope the Council will continue to make room for the particularity of the discourse that IVP Academic brings to the theological academy via SBL’s annual events. Indeed, the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature gatherings have been an essential component for our academic program for more than three decades.”

“While many concerned scholars have commented on social media and by email about a supposed ban of InterVarsity Press from exhibiting at the SBL-AAR Annual Meeting, IVP has not been banned or limited in any way at the Annual Meeting or for other matters relating to SBL. At its meeting later this month, the SBL Council will discuss protocols and standards for exhibitors and other groups associated with SBL in the context of ongoing discussions involving academic freedom and the disciplinary standards of discourse the organization fosters. Indeed, IVP was invited to contribute to this conversation. Further, SBL was not speaking for the American Academy of Religion, though any protocols for exhibitors would be drafted in conjunction with it. Finally, SBL values the contribution of IVP, and many SBL members have published with the Press,” John F. Kutsko, Executive Director, Society of Biblical Literature, said.

Report: Society of Biblical Literature Bans InterVarsity Press From Selling Books at Annual Meeting

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Here is Rod Dreher at The American Conservative:

This is extraordinary. The Society of Biblical Literature describes itself like this:

Mission, Visions, and Values
The following Mission Statement and Strategic Vision Statements were adopted by the SBL Council May 16, 2004, and revised October 23, 2011.

Mission Statement:
Foster Biblical Scholarship

Strategic Vision Statement:
Founded in 1880, the Society of Biblical Literature is the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible from a variety of academic disciplines.* As an international organization, the Society offers its members opportunities for mutual support, intellectual growth, and professional development through the following:

  • Advancing academic study of biblical texts and their contexts as well as of the traditions and contexts of biblical interpretation
  • Collaborating with educational institutions and other appropriate organizations to support biblical scholarship and teaching
  • Developing resources for diverse audiences, including students, religious communities, and the general public
  • Facilitating broad and open discussion from a variety of critical perspectives
  • Organizing congresses for scholarly exchange
  • Publishing biblical scholarship
  • Promoting cooperation across global boundaries

Here are what the SBL says are its “core values,” in a statement revised in 2011:

Accountability

Openness to Change

Collaboration

Professionalism

Collegiality

Respect for Diversity

Critical Inquiry

Scholarly Integrity

Inclusivity

Tolerance

You might wonder why an academic organization devoted to Biblical scholarship holds as its core values “respect for diversity,” “openness to change,” “inclusivity,” and “tolerance”? Isn’t this just one of those typically euphemistic liberal ways of saying, “No Biblical scholars who don’t accept progressive views on LGBT issues allowed”?

Why yes, apparently, it is. SBL has reportedly banned InterVarsity Press from having a booth at the 2017 SBL convention in Boston because of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s recent decision to hold firmly to orthodox Christian teaching on homosexuality, and to ask employees who dissent to resign.

Read the entire piece and the links for the full context.

Here is another piece on the topic from World magazine.  If someone is aware of any other posts or articles please let me know.

I am holding judgment on this story until I get some more information.  Certainly the Society of Biblical Literature is not suggesting that men and women and organizations (IVCF) who believe that the Bible teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman should be banned from their annual meeting.  There must be more to the story.

InterVarsity Press publishes some great books.  Some excellent historians and theologians have published with the press, including Mark Noll, Tracy McKenzie, Harry Stout, David Bebbington, Thomas Oden, Douglas Sweeney, Justo Gonzalez, Crystal Downing, Alister McGrath, Gerald McDermott, Roger Olson, G.R. Evans, Brian Stanley, Richard Mouw, and Kevin Vanhoozer.  I don’t know what most of these authors think about gay marriage, but it would be a shame if their scholarship is banned from the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion meetings.

I am also an InterVarsity Press author.  I wrote the foreword to John Wilsey’s excellent American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea

I mentioned the American Academy of Religion above.  They have not made any announcement yet on the fate of IVP.   I have never been to a meeting of the AAR, but in November there will be an entire session at this conference devoted to my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible SocietyTo be honest, I am not sure what to think about attending a conference that plans to have an entire session on one of my books, but will not allow another book with my name on the title to be displayed in the book exhibit.

Let me be clear:  For me this whole thing is not a matter of the correct definition of marriage.  It is a matter of principled pluralism or what George Marsden describes as a “more inclusive pluralism.”

I need to think this through a bit more and, as I mentioned above, gather more information.

Religious Leaders Oppose California Senate Bill 1146

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Azusa Pacific University, a Christian college in Azusa, California

Christianity Today’s website has published a statement, signed by Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders, opposing a bill sitting before the California State Senate that will essentially punish religious colleges that uphold traditional views of human sexuality.

Here is the statement, in full:

The California Assembly has proposed legislation that is harmful to the free exercise of religion in higher education. In particular, the legislation disadvantages low-income minority students who want an education at private religious colleges. Though it purports to eliminate discrimination, Senate Bill 1146 results in its own form of discrimination by stigmatizing and coercively punishing religious beliefs that disagree on contested matters related to human sexuality. If SB 1146 were to pass, it would deny students’ ability to participate in state grant programs—programs that exist to help low-income students, and which are overwhelmingly used by racial minorities—at schools that are found in violation of the bill. Moreover, it would severely restrict the ability of religious education institutions to set expectations of belief and conduct that align with the institution’s religious tenets.

While we do not all agree on religious matters, we all agree that the government has no place in discriminating against poor religious minorities or in pitting a religious education institution’s faith-based identity against its American identity. This legislation puts into principle that majoritarian beliefs are more deserving of legal protection, and that minority viewpoints are deserving of government harassment. Legislation of this nature threatens the integrity not only of religious institutions, but of any viewpoint wishing to exercise basic American freedoms, not least of which is the freedom of conscience.

We, the undersigned, do not necessarily agree with one another’s religious views, but we agree on the necessity of the liberty to exercise these views. At the root of the American experiment is the idea that conscience and religious conviction come before the demands of the state. Some of us disagree with the sexual ethics of orthodox Jews, Christians, and Muslims giving rise to this legislation, but we are unified in our resistance to the government setting up its own system of orthodoxy. As the American founding father Benjamin Franklin once said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” No less is this true than on matters of religious liberty. Where the state can encroach on one religion’s free exercise, it can just as easily trample on any other religion’s free exercise. We therefore join in solidarity across religious lines to speak against Senate Bill 1146.

We call on the California Assembly to abandon Senate Bill 1146. To ensure the future of the free exercise of religion in higher education in California and across America, we respectfully call on the supporters of Senate Bill 1146 to immediately withdraw their support of this bill, with the commitment to disavow similar intrusions in the future. Opposition to this bill is not grounded in the protection of religious liberty only, nor for the special pleading of one religion in particular, but for the protection of American society and American democracy. Such protection requires a civil society welcoming of religious diversity.

The future of a free America requires the full participation of religion in public life. Religious higher education cultivates both the mind and the soul. Senate Bill 1146 endangers the integrity of religious education institutions and discourages them from acting according to their conscience for fear of government retribution. As Americans with a rich legacy of freedoms afforded to us by the laws of nature and of nature’s God, and enshrined in the Constitution, we can do better. As we renew our commitment to religious pluralism in the public square, we should embrace debate, welcome dissent, and encourage civility as we work together for the sake of the common good and of a country we are all unreservedly blessed to call our home.

The bill is signed by many prominent religious leaders and thinkers.  Names that might be familiar to readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home include Russell Moore, Rick Warren, Robert George, John Inazu, Ron Sider, Samuel Rodriguez, Michael Cromartie, Timothy George, Thomas Kidd,  Richard Land, Gerald McDermott, Richard Mouw, Marvin Olasky, Paige Patterson,  Ramesh Ponnuru, Karen Swallow Prior, and R.R. Reno.

Frankly, I am disappointed that the list of signers is not more politically and theologically diverse.  Why are there so few liberals (political and theological), mainline Protestant thinkers, or Catholics endorsing this?  Did the authors of the statement reach out to people who are not part of either mainstream evangelical or conservative intellectual circles?

Having said that, I wholeheartedly affirm this statement.

As my readers know, I am no fan of the idea that America is a Christian nation. So I would not put myself in the camp of people who suddenly jumped on the “religious liberty” bandwagon because Christian attempts to reclaim the nation have failed in the wake of the Obergfell decision.

I do, however, believe in religious liberty and religious pluralism. There seems to be some legitimate models out there for living together with our deepest differences.  They include George Marsden’s idea of “principled pluralism” as set forth in his book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief and John Inazu’s idea of “confident pluralism” as set forth in his book Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Our Deepest Differences.

Confident Pluralism

Confident PluralismI am looking forward to reading and possibly reviewing John Inazu‘s new book, Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference (University of Chicago Press, 2016). If Inazu’s argument in the book is anything like his recent piece with Tim Keller at the Christianity Today website, I think I am going to enjoy it.

Here is a taste of Inazu and Keller, “How Christians Can Bear Witness in an Anxious Age.”

…One way that we can engage with the world around us is by attending to the practical needs of our neighbors. When tragedy strikes any community, Christians ought to be among the first to give time, money, and other resources to help those who have been harmed and to mend the social fabric. We can respond with compassion and love for the sake of our neighbors, with actions as well as with words. We can do so in response to tragedies that unfold in seconds, and to those that take shape over the course of decades.

Sometimes, loving our neighbors means engaging in politics. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson recently observed that the maxim “politics always follows culture” is most often espoused by those who have the luxury of reflecting on culture. For many people, however, politics is not an afterthought but an urgent need. That is particularly true in areas where the social fabric is torn. In these settings, politics—and law, government, and public institutions—can often be a matter of life and death. Christians have a role to play in these settings, not as self-interested rulers but as active participants seeking the good of our neighbors. Of course, politics is messy, and Christians who engage in it will quickly find themselves working with people and institutions whose purposes are not gospel-oriented. But practical partnership does not require endorsing all of the goals or values of those with whom we partner.

Another area where Christians can bear witness in an anxious age is by committing to the work of racial justice. Despite the many failures of white-majority churches to take action in this area, the gospel has tremendous resources for seeking justice and peace across racial divisions. The death and resurrection of Jesus has broken down cultural barriers throughout history—no other major religion has spread as far and across as many cultures as Christianity.

For many people of color, frustration has outpaced hope. Yet Christians, as Thabiti Anyabwile notes, can resist “the temptation to hopelessness,” even in the “thick fog of despair that settles on entire blocks of families mangled and maligned by mass incarceration.” The consequences of mass incarceration are enormous, as are the ongoing realities of neighborhood and school segregation, education inequity, and employment and health care disparities. Christian hope is not blind optimism. But neither is it utter despair.

Christians of all races can learn how longstanding policies and practices around housing, education, and criminal justice disproportionately harm some of their neighbors. We can take the time to listen to the pain of our neighbors without presuming either easy solutions or insurmountable challenges (and sometimes we will need first to learn how to listen). Instead of walking away from challenges that seem “too big,” Christians who confront the barriers of race and class disparities can draw near to their affected neighbors through the power of the gospel. Suburban churches can engage in the hard work of understanding the personal and structural consequences of generational injustice. Through a posture of reconciliation and humility (not merely a vision of “community service”), they can engage urban communities through volunteering with early-stage literacy programs, partnering with ministries in underserved neighborhoods, and investing financial and human capital in local urban businesses.

Finally, Christians might engage in the cause of religious liberty with more hope and less anxiety. Many Christians today feel increasing legal pressures on their institutions and the ways of life they are accustomed to. Some of these challenges are significant: campus ministries experience hurdles to campus access, Christian adoption and social service agencies confront regulations in tension with their missional convictions, and Christian educational institutions face threats to their accreditation and tax-exempt status. We should not be naïve to these challenges, and we should work diligently to find appropriate legal and policy responses. But we must make our case in publicly accessible terms that appeal to people of good will from a variety of religious traditions and those of no religious tradition. In doing so, we cannot ignore the importance of religious liberty for all. There is no principled legal or theological argument that looks only to the good of Christians over the interests of others.

Focusing on others means attending to the challenges and limits that they confront in the practice of their faith. Today’s cultural climate makes it especially essential for Christians to defend the religious liberty of American Muslims. Whatever challenges Christians may feel to their practices pale in comparison to the cultural and often legal challenges that confront American Muslims. As one Muslim leader shared, “Muslims today are afraid to think in this country.” These challenges are exacerbated when some Muslims engage in acts of terror in this country. Even though Christians and atheists also perpetrate acts of terror and violence (in places like movie theatres, elementary schools, and shopping malls), many of our neighbors react with particular fear and judgment when the perpetrator is identified with Islam.

We can be encouraged by the work of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which spends time and money defending people of all faiths, including Muslims. Other prominent Christian leaders, like Russell Moore, have rightly challenged the anti-Muslim rhetoric that has emerged from some segments of religious and political discourse. We can do this on the local level, too. Christians can engage with our Muslim neighbors through acts of friendship, sharing meals, and opening our homes and churches to refugees. And we can resist careless rhetoric that imputes the actions of some onto the beliefs of all. Just as we rightly resist charges that all Christians are bigots or that Christian teachings are responsible for violence against abortion clinics, we should be quick to do the same when the perpetrators of violence are tied to other faiths or identity groups.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner With R. Scott Hanson

City of GodsR. Scott Hanson is Lecturer in History and Director of the Social Justice Research Academy at the University of Pennsylvania.  This interview is based on his new book City of Gods: Religious Freedom, Immigration, and Pluralism in Flushing, Queens (Fordham University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write City of Gods?

RSH: I was completing my M.A. in Religion at Columbia in the Fall of 1993 when I became interested in the intersection of religion and immigration in American history. I was fortunate to find out about the Pluralism Project at Harvard, which sought to map the new religious landscape of America since the Immigration Act of 1965. I began work as a researcher in New York City the next summer, and this research ultimately led me to Queens and the microcosm of world religions Flushing. When I learned that Flushing was founded in 1645 and was considered by locals to be “the birthplace of religious freedom in America” I knew I had stumbled on a topic that I wanted to explore more deeply, and this turned into a dissertation at the University of Chicago which I then spent a long time revising into a book manuscript.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of City of Gods?

RSH: I argue that the absence of widespread religious violence in a neighborhood with densely concentrated extreme religious diversity suggests that there is no limit to how much pluralism a pluralist society can stand. On the other hand, I also argue that there are in fact some real limits of pluralism when it comes to cooperation and community—spatial limits, social limits, structural limits, and theological limits—and these limits illustrate the challenge of trying to find unity in a pluralist society.

JF: Why do we need to read City of Gods?

RSH: Flushing is an extreme case with a unique history, but there is reason to believe that other communities can learn from it—certainly other dense urban areas with similar recent economic histories and growing new immigrant populations, but similar changes in the religious landscape are likely to develop in many other types of communities across the country, too (in fact, they already are). Indeed, we may be able to glimpse the future of religion and intergroup relations in America by studying Flushing not only because the striking exaggeration of its diversity makes the issues more sharply defined but because the story of the neighborhood and its pioneering colonial history mirrors that of the nation in microcosm.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RSH: I was an English major (American literature) in college, so I’ve always been drawn to stories. But it was when I began a Master’s degree in Religion that I got into American religious history, and eventually immigration/ethnic history, urban history, and American history in general when I started my Ph.D.

JF: What is your next project?

RSH: Since moving to the Philadelphia area in 2002, I have been teaching and writing about the broader history of the Mid-Atlantic region (which includes New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland)—an area that was characterized more by religious pluralism than the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony and the largely Anglican southern colonies. There are plans to edit a new volume on religious pluralism and region, and I have been exploring the possibility of a documentary film based on City of Gods. In my free time, I have also been working on a screenplay adaptation of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.

JF: Thanks, Scott!

The Author’s Corner With David Mislin

MislinDavid Mislin is Assistant Professor in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University. This interview is based on his new book, Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of a Secular Age (Cornell University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Saving Faith?

DM: I’ve always been interested in exploring how people in the United States think about religious diversity in a democratic society. During grad school, I realized that many American Protestants in the late 1800s were far more welcoming of other faiths than historians have previously recognized. My desire to acknowledge these Protestants’ outlook – and to identify what prompted them to adopt it – led to Saving Faith.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Saving Faith?

DM: In the late 19th century, mainline Protestant clergy became more worried than ever before about unbelief and secularism. These anxieties led them to reevaluate their views of other faiths, ultimately inspiring them to adopt a favorable and inclusive view of religious diversity.

JF: Why do we need to read Saving Faith?

DM: How we deal with religious diversity continues to be central to American public life – just look at the rhetoric in the current presidential campaign. Saving Faith offers historical perspective on the origins of our current attitudes. More importantly, the book explores just how difficult religious pluralism can be. The figures in my book struggled to reconcile two commitments. On the one hand, they truly valued inclusivity; on the other, they believed in the validity of their particular form of Protestantism. This tension is still a reality for people of faith living in a pluralistic society. Although Saving Faith examines the past, readers will see clear parallels to contemporary discussions.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DM: During high school, I developed a strong interest in U.S. history. In college I became fascinated by the place of religion in American public life, especially the way that we discussed diversity in the aftermath of 9/11. It wasn’t until after college that I put these two interests together and decided to continue my studies with a focus on American religious history.

JF: What is your next project?

DMI’m working on a new book project that traces how Americans have understood the concept of evil. I’m looking at the period from just before the Civil War through the present day. “Evil” is a word that’s employed constantly in political discourse and popular culture. In this book, I will offer a concrete analysis of what the term has meant in particular historical moments and consider how conceptions of evil have shaped American culture and politics.

JF: Thanks, David!

Peter Berger, Secularization, and Pluralism

BergerCheck out Thomas Albert Howard’s post at The Anxious Bench on sociologist Peter Berger and his so-called secularization thesis.  Howard writes:

The eminent sociologist Peter Berger, a pioneering theorist of “the secularization thesis,” as it is sometimes called, made news two decades ago when he announced that the thesis was “essentially mistaken.” In the 1990s, Berger came to the conclusion that the empirical evidence simply did not support the thesis; societies in the late modern world—with the exception of those in western Europe, perhaps—evinced considerable religious vitality, and scholars deluded themselves in sticking with the old paradigm—even if some have.

I think people should consider Berger’s change of mind when they say that believers in this or that religious-informed idea are “on the wrong side of history.”  When people say this, they are making more of a political statement than a historical one.  They are often expressing their own hopes for the future than giving an informed assessment of history’s erratic trajectory. In the early 19th century, for example, Thomas Jefferson thought that we would all be Unitarians.  That did not happen.  Instead, supernatural evangelical religion came to define American culture for the rest of the century.  Or consider the rise of the Christian Right in the 1980s.  Modern life does not always result in secularization.

Howard calls our attention to Berger’s new theory.  Berger no longer argues that modernity leads to secularization.  Rather, modernity lead to pluralism.  Here is Howard:

Fortunately, in 2014, Berger published The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age, which provides a much more nuanced understanding of religious pluralism in our globalized world. If I may simplify, he argues in this book that modernity leads not to secularization but to greater religious pluralism; processes of globalization in particular have led to the unprecedented intermingling of religious perspectives, especially in cosmopolitan areas. A time traveler from London in 1416 to London in 2016, I suspect, would experience first-hand the validity of Berger’s point…

At this point, one might sum up his argument as follows: if encountered in the right frame of mind, pluralism is on balance a good thing for people of faith, whether Christian or otherwise. Pluralism can provoke new insights into one’s faith and new insights about the purpose of religious community—for Christians, the church. It can also help believers distinguish the core of the faith from its more peripheral aspects. And not least, by encountering many religious “others,” one comes to learn first-hand about beliefs and practices quite different from one’s own, and this familiarity can, in turn, yield to understanding and tolerance.

Brit Hume and Tiger Woods: A Few Final Words

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I think cooler heads (on both sides of the debate) may be starting to prevail on this Brit Hume-Tiger Woods “convert to Christianity-Buddhism is bad” controversy. The commentary I have been reading recently is much more civil than what I heard from the television talking heads on the day the story broke.

In all of the hullabaloo over whether or not Hume was proselytizing or degrading the Buddhist religion, I think most pundits failed to reflect deeply on whether or not Hume was correct when he said that the Christian faith offers redemption and forgiveness in a way that Buddhism does not. Now granted, a Sunday morning talk show is not the place to debate this and Hume is certainly not the person to participate in such a debate, but the theological differences between Christianity and Buddhism are certainly raised regularly in Introduction to World Religions courses at most colleges and universities around the country. While Tiger Woods should be kept out of it, this whole event creates a wonderful opportunity to learn something about Buddhism and maybe even an opportunity for some reasoned theological debate.

In yesterday’s USA Today, Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, writes:

Buddhism and Christianity are doubtless very different religions. Buddhists seek to overcome suffering, while Christians seek to overcome sin. Forgiveness of sin is more of a Christian emphasis than a Buddhist one. Still, which of these two traditions offers more resources for adulterers on the mend is to me an open question. So is the question of which is better at keeping spouses on the straight and narrow.

Prothero points out that Buddhism prohibits adultery and sexual misconduct and teaches that all who engage in such “evil actions” must be punished. No forgiveness, no redemption. But, as Prothero adds, “many Buddhists take solace in what they call transfer of merit, which means that there are god-like beings who, if we turn to them in devotion, will use their vast storehouses of good karma to wipe our slates clean.”

But Prothero believes that what might really help Tiger is the story of Buddha himself–a rich and powerful young man who realized that true happiness could not be found in material things. He thus set out to find a way to alleviate suffering in the world, which he did through the power of meditation.

Meanwhile, over at the New York Times, Ross Douthat does not believe that Hume’s remarks were offensive and laments the fact that liberal democracy has come to a point where “peaceful theological debate” is impossible.

I tend to agree with Douthat here. Why are we so afraid of people bringing their faith to bear on conversation in the public square?–And I am talking here about Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and everyone else. I think I might be able to answer this question. Part of the reason that this is not happening is because religion–the name we often give to the truths in which we live by–has not done very well in a public square defined by sound bites and ideological warfare. Part of the blame, if not most of the blame, belongs to those Christians who in recent years have used the public square as their own bully pulpit to promote this or that agenda.

But people do speak out of their religious convictions and such convictions should, when debated civilly, become part of our public discourse. I am going to sound like a member of the Christian Right here, but there is nothing in the Constitution that says public debate and argument cannot be informed by religious beliefs. The separation of church and state does not mean that religion must be kept private.

I agree with Barack Obama here:

secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.

But was a Sunday morning talk show the place to bring one’s religious convictions into the public sphere? Was what Hume did a responsible religious use of the public square? Probably not. As a Christian I would be lying if I said that I do not believe that Christianity could provide a means of redemption for Tiger Woods. In this sense, I think Hume is right. If I did not think he was right I would become a Buddhist or something else or give up religion altogether, if that is possible. A religious public sphere is useless unless people enter into it with deeply held convictions about the meaning of life.

But I am not convinced that dropping a bomb like this on a political talk show is the best way of bringing religion into the public sphere. The religious public square is best cultivated by religious dialogue and persuasion, not these kinds of sound bites. Sometimes I learn these lessons the hard way.

I think it would be very interesting if Fox or another cable network would sponsor a one or two hour program where Christian and Buddhist intellectuals or theologians come together and debate their beliefs, keeping Tiger Woods out of it. What the heck, they might even try to persuade one another respectfully that their view is correct and should thus be embraced by the other participants in the conversation. This is democratic religious pluralism, but I am guessing the ratings for such a show would be pretty low.