Category Archives: secularism/religion

Headscarves and soccer

An interesting controversy. And a ridiculous decision on the part of FIFA, the international governing body of professional soccer – well, football as they call it. Basically, just before the Iranian women’s team was set to play an Olympic qualifying match against Jordan last week, they were disqualified for wearing uniforms that might cause the players injuries – that is, for wearing an athletic version of headscarves. The international uproar isn’t helping the already scandal-plagued organization.

I think the case is worth noting because headscarf bans in general get promoted as potentially liberating for the women that they affect, but the liberation of those women is never what actually prompts the bans or serves as their goal, and in fact the bans generally serve to perpetuate or further restrictions on the freedom of those women. I think that’s quite clear in the FIFA case.

Rather than ban the headscarves, it’s more productive, I would think, for those that believe the scarves to be an expression of the oppression of women to advocate instead for the use of headscarves so that women who feel compelled to cover their hair in public can participate as much as possible in public life, and thereby see and experience how other women and other cultures negotiate the demands of modesty and public display. Otherwise, as we see from the FIFA example, they quite literally cannot participate, and therefore forfeit any advancement they may have potentially made on behalf of their gender.

In any case, Fast Company’s Co.Design blog reports on an elegant solution – and what I believe should be the desirable outcome in the situation: a sleekier, even more athletic hijab being offered by ResportOn, a company established by designer Elham Seyed Javad to respond to this very need.

The sports hijab was apparently initially inspired by a taekwondo ban on female Muslims wearing a headscarf beneath a regulation helmet. These are the advancements which serve global civil liberties in the 21st century. If FIFA is able to find this acceptable – and that’s by no means given since the reasons for banning the hijab initially aren’t fully clear and likely more about cultural bigotry or the desire to make women’s soccer more like beach volleyball – but if they do, soccer and sport in general advances, religious liberties advance, personal freedom advances, so does women’s liberation, and finally so does secularism. Hurray! If not, well, we’re in this for the long haul.

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I gotta say, I agree with this call.

Now I can’t really claim any expertise in the appropriate application of the Constitution’s establishment clause, but as a supporter  and critic of secularism, I do have my sympathies for certain directions in its application. And so I find the court right in its determination here.

The case concerns efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs to control the content of a prayer given at a Memorial Day event at Houston National Cemetery. Reverend Scott Rainey has twice given a prayer at the event sponsored by the National Cemetery Council for Greater Houston, but this year the VA requested to see the prayer Rainey was giving in advance of the ceremony. The director of the cemetery objected to the prayer, which included the Lord’s Prayer and ended by giving thanks to Jesus Christ, on the grounds that it was “specific to one belief.” Upon being asked to keep his prayer “general” and “nondenominational,” Rainey filed suit. A judge has granted Rainey a temporary restraining order that prevents the VA from interfering with Rainey’s prayer on Monday, effectively deciding the case in Rainey’s favor.

The grounds for the VA’s objections are fairly clear – a) while the ceremony is being sponsored by a private trade organization, the Houston National Cemetery is a public space, and a federal one no less, and therefore resolutely secular, and b) while the prayer and the ceremony are clearly intended to honor all the dead, not all soldiers are Christian, and the families and intimates of those non-Christian dead would rightfully feel those they hold in remembrance somewhat excluded from the full honor the ceremony confers. Rainey’s objection is likewise clear: for him the notion that his prayer would not end in an evocation of thanks to Jesus is somewhat inconceivable. It’s the mention of Jesus, one might say, in Rainey’s case that makes it a prayer.

Secularism or freedoms need not be a zero-sum game. Freedoms for and from religion when expressed need not mean that someone else has less of it him or herself. But in this case there does seem to be a conflict between the rights of those who honor and remember the non-Christian soldiers buried at Houston and Rainey’s right to express himself according to the dictates of his conscience. I think Rainey’s rights trump here because of a limited success, we might say, of secularism. Honoring the dead has few secular analogues; cross-culturally the behavior is fundamentally religious. Religion and its expressions are inherently sectarian. To a certain extent it’s pleasing to believe that there are certain basic spiritual beliefs and practices that we all share and that could form a basis for a “general” and “nondenominational” service, but common grounds only exist where previous accommodations to the religions of other cultures with which one comes into account have been made – and of course to religions that bear strong family resemblances. Protestant Christianity finds that it can tolerate accommodations to Catholic and to Jewish faiths at increasing degrees of attenuation. Muslim, sure. Hindu faith? Buddhist? Animist? Atheist? Here our notions of religious practice begin to break down as we attempt to conceive how those accommodations might take place. Philosophically it is possible to connect Hindu and Christian godheads in terms of a variety of shared characteristics, but approaches to prayer, honoring the dead, etc., don’t have close analogs.* And with Buddhism we continue further out.

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I find this sort of thing enormously encouraging.

The resilience in forcing the subject of an incremental progressive change and the adept use of social media in ensuring that the message is clearly and consistently in view throughout the media coverage are both laudable.

Manal al-Sherif has been arrested, released, and then re-arrested for attempting to drive as a woman in Saudi Arabia. Her driving and the resulting arrest come in the context of a very successful Facebook page and accompanying video on YouTube (image above) making the case for allowing women the right to drive and asking women to make the attempt jointly on June 17th. The Facebook page has not only encouraged supporters but also a large, vociferous backlash against the effort, making al-Sherif’s efforts double courageous.

Interesting enough from an American perspective, there are no actual laws against women driving in Saudi Arabia. Instead the act is forbidden by religious fatwa that is nonetheless enforced by the civil authorities. Al-Sherif has apparently been sentenced to five days in jail on multiple charges.

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Islam, secularism, and liberalism (part 2)

Here’s part one. And sadly I think there will need to be a part 3. Plus an additional post specifically on the whole Sharia law paranoia that’s gripped the imagination of the not-particularly-intelligent-or-imaginative. The whole thing is so long, and the arguments against Islam addressed so baseless, that you may very well want to wait until part three is ready, but I had to write this to get it down before moving on to more compelling arguments. It might be useful background at points for someone interested in but not fully engaged in arguments about secularism, secularization, and religions in the public sphere.

So here goes.

Secularism is a product of social developments in Protestant Europe and the political thinking that prodded and was prodded by them. At first a way for competing Christian persuasions to get along, it became an integral component to modernization, liberalization, and the development of the individual self as the primary arena of moral conflict and suasion, and it never quite lost its mooring in the Protestant ethics of individual choice and progress toward perfection. It is this vaporous religious substance trailing secularism that allows Robert Bellah to diagnose the presence in American civic life  the persistence of an attenuated Protestantism that he calls America’s “civil religion” and that remains in the public sphere, for good or for ill, in subtle tension with our Constitutional tradition of resisting any appearance of the establishment of an official state religion.

In the non-Western world, a key question for some time after the ebb of colonialism has been whether secularism is irredeemably a Western phenomenon – requiring too much of a Protestant worldview and ethic to be adaptable to other contexts – or whether its principles have become sufficiently general and universal that they might prove beneficial to all societies. My personal feeling is more the latter than the former, but I’m not going to get into that now. Instead I want to examine the recent liveliness of the other side of the question. One of the unexpected if now unremarkable consequences of the ebb of colonialism is the thorough cosmopolitanism of the West. And this is no longer a purely urban phenomenon, though it is certainly most concentrated and relatively problem-free in more urban areas. The question being asked now, in a variety of registers and with a various sophistication, is whether secularism can accommodate the non-Protestant.

Well, yes, of course it can. The two major problems for American secularism have been Catholicism and Judaism, and we seem to have reached a point where despite occasional difficulties, Jews and Catholics are largely considered citizens without much suspicion that the Catholic is under the authority of the foreign power of the Vatican or that the Jew places ethnicity higher than civic authority. But these religions were well in place in the Western world before our colonial adventures. What’s prompting the question now is the realization that Islam is a presence in American communities and the perception of Islam elsewhere as a geopolitical problem for the project of secularization. So is Islam here in America a threat to our secularism?

I think the instant response for most is that any answer yes to the question must be driven by Islamaphobic bigotry, and by and large that would be right. The always odious Bryan Fisher, for example, has stated that Islam does not qualify for First Amendment rights of the free exercise of religion because when the Bill of Rights was written solely to protect Christianity and its various observances. And that’s such obvious ignorance and distortion. It’s quite clear that the authors of the Bill of Rights and its antecedents had a conception of religion in general very much in line with our contemporary conception of religion as a cultural phenomenon variously expressed throughout all human societies, and that quite literally First Amendment protections encompassed, as Thomas Jefferson once put it, “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”

Another of these recently emerged and easily dismissed attempts to place Islam outside of the pale is the notion that Islam is not a religion, but instead is a political cult with a theology, “a violent political philosophy more than peace-loving religion,” according to Tennessee’s dimwitted Lieutenant Governor and failed candidate for the Tennessee GOP nod for the governor’s race. The Tea Party favorite was speaking in response to the shameful efforts of some Tennesseans to prevent the construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it’s entirely possible to view Christianity in exactly the same manner. In fact, one of Carl Schmitt’s primary contributions to political philosophy is his notion that the entire modern state is a Christian political cult, in that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” And violence is of course in modernity exclusively the legitimate domain of that state.

Regardless of one’s take on Schmitt’s notions of sovereignty, it’s not far off the mark to note that secularism itself as a secularization of Protestant theological concepts would mean that its refusal to accommodate, well, any form of religious expression might have to do more with the political continuation of Christianity than anything else, regardless of what happens outside the historical bounds of Christendom.

But I digress. Religion like so many human endeavors doesn’t afford tidy definitions, nor do all religions boil down to a specific set of categorical behaviors – the insistence, for instance, on confessional beliefs as the defining core of religious expression (“If you are X religion, then what do you believe?”) is itself a primarily Protestant concern fairly unintelligible in other religious contexts. So we assign the term religion instead according to family-likenesses of behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes, and in that arrangement Islam is clearly a religion, and quite resembles its older cousins Christianity and Judaism.

Religion plays an important role in societies, in their culture, and certainly in their politics, but religion is not integral to either society nor culture, even if it may seem at times not completely distinguishable. And Islam, like its cousins Christianity and Judaism, is what we term a “world” religion – a religion that is sufficiently free from cultural and ethical markers to be exportable to other groups, situations, and societies. And it has done so. There is no single Islamic politics, though there may be and are many approaches to politics that come with some Islamic rhetoric attached. Which makes it no different than Christianity or Judaism.

If it is in truth a religion and not a political cult, maybe it’s a religion with a significant enough difference from Christian sects or Judaism that would make it untenable in a secular society. That’s the approach seems to be the lowest common denominator in the recent flare-ups of Islamophobia, the most recent and prominent expression of it coming from Herman Cain, one of the many less-than-serious candidates for the G.O.P. presidential nomination for 2012. He stated, when asked why he’s uncomfortable around Muslims, that based on his “limited knowledge” of the religion he believes “they have an objective to convert all infidels or kill them” – that they have the First Amendment right to practice their religion, but that they are a unique threat because of a drive to enforce their way of life on everyone else.

I’m sure Muslims welcome conversion. Everyone would like to see others brought over to their point of view, particularly if they believe that point of view to offer considerable spiritual benefits. And every group is engaged in a political struggle at some level to place demands upon the public to further a specific spiritual agenda, hence the continual back-and-forth in the public sphere between Christian fundamentalism and secularists. There are points, then, when I wonder to what extent and at what points is secularism merely a political strategy of realism and achievable goals. Let’s take American groups that are aggressive proselytizers (which Muslims are not): Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, both groups which have significantly higher numbers than American Muslims. Is it the secular modus vivendi that prevents them from threatening violent action against reluctant converts? If anything, I think that the relative lack of proselytizing efforts on behalf of American Muslims may be due to the perception that they would then be likely on the receiving end of the ensuing violence.

So, to sum up: the arguments that Muslims cannot participate in a modern secular liberal state because a) secularism never intended for the presence of Islam, b) Islam is not a religion, or c) that Islam is constitutionally incapable of participating in secular society are all quite unfounded, at least to the extent that any of these arguments would distinguish Islam as particularly unsuitable. And certainly to address these issues seems a bit pointless, as anyone who knows – even casually – American Muslims on a personal level recognizes that these objections are groundless and largely based in ignorance and hysterical fear.

But that brings me to what I’ll address in part 3. Although the arguments above don’t hold water, I do find the argument worth considering if ultimately not compelling that secularism itself as currently configured is deficient in accommodating the presence of Muslim communities.


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Islam, secularism, and liberalism (part 1)

One of the core values of liberalism is the notion of free speech, a notion which has a deep historical association with the freedom of conscience and worship. Indeed, secularism – and by secularism here, I mean the notion that each person should be free to follow the dictates of conscience – can and I believe should be seen as core to the development in the West of individual liberties. There are, of course, other secularisms, and even other strands in Western secularism that complicate application and adjudication of free speech and free worship.

A key facet in our notion of free speech, is that the free exchange of ideas is a form of a market. Rather than ban speech that is dangerous or offensive, we permit it, believing that it will have little currency in the larger market and, failing to gain purchase, will fade. Banning it, we believe, may allow it to fester – feeding it as the oppressed with the legitimacy it would drain from those who ban it.

So much of Enlightenment liberalism, of course, depends on a vision of us as rational actors capable of embracing a common good, and passion and sectarianism – what secularism meant to banish from the public sphere – frequently reveal our limitations and the blind spots in our confidence. Demagoguery has become a real danger in contemporary political discourse, and over the past few years, anti-Muslim demagoguery has become among the most visible expressions of it.

When Terry Jones threatened to burn the Koran on September 11 of last year as a public rebuke of Islam, it became an international media event, despite the fact that Jones is on the fringe of the fringe of hard-right Christianism and the leader of an almost laughably small church. The announcement inflamed many in Muslim communities and provoked widespread condemnation in the Western world. Jones eventually back down in the face of all this pressure.

At the time, many people, myself included, felt that Jones was well within his First Amendment rights to burn the Koran as a form of expression, vile that it may be. I still feel that way. But at the time, I felt that the media was giving him undue attention – that by hyperventilating over his threat, the impression given to the non-Western world is that Koran burning is a large concern and issue in Western public discourse. I don’t believe it is ever wise to determine a course of action largely on the basis of how extremist elements will interpret it, and that needn’t have been the thinking here. Instead, we seemed to be blowing the actions of one minor weirdo all out of proportion because of our concerns that it would allow Muslim extremists to do the same, libeling Western secular culture as irredeemably anti-Muslim.

I appears those of us who wanted the media to ignore Jones and his threats as insignificant and not having any real currency in the free market of ideas were wrong, or at least naïve. When Jones threatened to do it again this March, there was unbeknownst to the general public, a deliberate and active media blackout that refused to cover the event. So it came as a complete surprise to that public when Afghans rioted for several days in early April, resulting in dozens of death, most of them U.N. aid workers. Although only a few Americans were even aware of what had happened, it was not through a lack of effort on Jones’s part, and the story metastasized across the internet, appearing on the websites of Islamic extremists and the like until it became hyped by the perpetually embattled Afghan President Hamid Karzai, sparking the riots.

We can’t ban actions like Jones’s. We can’t, it would appear, simply ignore them and pretend that they won’t have an effect, because in our media and information saturated globe, they persist until they find their intended audience. Not unlike the Danish cartoon controversy: the satirical cartoon depictions of Mohammed in Jyllands-Posten inspired some local European reaction after their publication, but it took some time for them to come to the attention of the Muslim world, at which point they became a useful vehicle for inflammatory rhetoric. For Jones and his supporters, the riots prove the point they were setting out to make: their story reached its audience in the end, which were not so much the Muslims in the grip of extremist and violent rhetoric that set them upon the U.N. compounds, but us back in the U.S. Jones and Karzai alike point at the other and say to those whose support and attention they crave, “See. This is what we’re up against.”

I think that the only appropriate response, after the of course condemning Jones’s actions and the even more horrific actions of the Afghan mob, and the hope that there may be some justice for the violence, is a degree of resignation. Our lives will continue to affected by what Hasnain Kazim is calling the “clash of extremes,” militant demagogues on the Christian and the Islamic worlds attempting to gain power and influence by attacking the other side under the banner of an absolute truth. But neither are we completely powerless. These extremes threaten not only our safety but also the liberties of conscience secularism would guarantee, and in both cases it is that secularism that both extremes are at pains to eradicate, and secularism’s fragility, and the fragility of democracy, the expression of secularism in the political realm, in much of the non-Western world is a legitimate source of concern. If we can’t ignore the extremes, then we’ll have to face them, and talk about them. Confidence in the secular project may be the only best response.

Oddly enough, in reading the claims that Jones makes about the Koran in the rather silly mock trial his congregation put on to condemn it, what stands out are the great pains that the church goes through to damn the Koran and Islam on the basis of insufficient secularism. They write, “Islamic Law is totalitarian in nature. There is no separation of church and state. It is irrational. It is supposedly immutable and cannot be changed. It must be accepted without criticism. It has many similarities to Nazism, Communism and Fascism. It is not compatible with Western Civilization.” And then, “Islam is not compatible with democracy and human rights. The notion of a moral individual capable of making decisions and taking responsibility for them does not exist in Islam.” Is Islam incompatible with Western secularism? I’ll look at a few arguments of the arguments, from silly to serious, in part 2.


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Holy Thursday

This is William Blake’s “Holy Thursday” from Songs of Innocence:

’Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey headed beadles walk’d before with wands as white as snow
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow

O what a multitude they seem’d these flowers of London town
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among
Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door

The poem refers to the annual London ritual of bringing the children of the charity schools to St. Paul on Holy Thursday. The charity schools housed and trained – educated not being exactly the right word here – orphans and children whose parents were too poor or entrapped in debt, which at the time involved lengthy prison stays, to care for them. The ritual was to display on the behalf of the London citizenry their civic virtue of Christian charity, and as well I’d imagine the ritual would serve as a living metaphor for each citizen’s fragile metaphysical state and dependence upon the grace and charity of the Church and Savior.

Blake’s ironic take is to show the powerless children from the lowest economic and social status in full possession of a strong spiritual import and power, though he tempers those “harmonious thunderings” at the end when he turns from bends the “mighty wind” of the children’s song into a tepid sentimentality about children as angels and beggars at one’s door.

The consideration of those efforts to turn innocent spiritual power into cheap profit produces the companion poem, same title, in Songs of Experience:

Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?Is that trembling cry a song?

Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine,
And their fields are bleak and bare,
And their ways are filled with thorns:
It is eternal winter there.

For where’er the sun does shine,
And where’er the rain does fall,
Babes should never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

The children, the poem insists, are victims of a usurious scheme to cheaply cloth and house them while they’re trained to feed industrial London’s insatiable appetite for child labor. Blake wants us to see the ill treatment of the children as an affront to the holiness of the ritual’s occasion. Charity schools were parish concerns, though maintained largely not for spiritual reasons so much as for the benefit of a public sentiment that would prefer to see the children used to generate some profit, and not, as Blake would have it, simply bask and grow while sheltered in the relative security of England’s wealth. Or at the least not be traumatized by poverty and enslavement, because children occupy a special place of holiness in Christianity: they are powerless and becoming. In Blake that lack of power and the blessing on it becomes a particular kind of power — a harmony and a wind or a river — when viewed as a representative ideal.

Just that. I was moved to look back at Blake’s poems because of the day and because of the horrifying response of defenders of the Catholic Church, and now the Vatican itself, to the growing scandal surrounding Pope Benedict. I’m not going to get into it, except to say that I find efforts to blame the systemic and widespread sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests on gays or hippies to be the most craven, low, and amoral kind of response. But if want to read about the depth to which the Church has sunk and its defenders are willing to, you can go here and keep reading. I think if we keep the day at all, we should think about the moral obligation of those whose dependency places them in our trust and the particular power they have to sanctify or condemn. And now look, it’s Good Friday.

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The Texas education standards controversy

I had meant to write at length on this myself, but this article from the New York Times Magazine covers much of what I wanted to say quite brilliantly. It should be mandatory reading for anyone concerned with the state of education in the U.S.

For those of you unacquainted with the controversy, you’re probably aware of the strong influence Texas has on what gets taught in public schools nationally – well, public and quite a few private as well. Texas was an innovator and early leader in setting statewide educational standards, and as the second largest textbook market in the nation, what Texas decides is important and necessary to be taught is likely to shape the textbooks educational publishers will offer to the rest of the nation.

Over the past few years, the Texas State Board of Education has increasingly come under the control of conservative activists who are bent on politicizing education. As the article points out, one of the core focuses, and what seems to be the major force driving the agenda of this group, is to rewrite American history to highlight what Christian fundamentalists insist on is the Christian origin of the nation. Although the group has made only a little headway in rewriting American religious history precisely, preferring at this point to focus on promoting explicitly conservative interpretations of isolated historical incidents and shifting the history’s personnel around (removing Ted Kennedy from the history curriculum, and adding Phyllis Shafly, e.g..), the re-imagining of America as a Christian nation remain a rhetorical incitement to their project as well as the intended effect of their changes.

As the article points out, the group has some valid points. The strong interpretation of the separation of church and state over the twentieth century has introduced what the current Supreme Court might very well term a “chilling effect” on the instruction of the role of religion in American history. What should be viewed as a central, organic, and integral component of the lives of the European settlers in North America and the consequences of that settlement emerges instead as piecemeal and often incoherent. Are any schoolchildren taught about the First and Second Great Awakening? The first is important to an understanding of the American Revolution; the second to the broad experience of American Protestantism but democracy, capitalism, and secularism as well (one of the beautiful, untold ironies of American history is how the Second Great Awakening generously produced not only evangelical Christianity but also the contemporary forms of liberal secularism, and not as a reaction either).

But alongside the efforts of the conservative contingent of the board to reintroduce the history of American Christianity into the history of America, there are also examples of selective focus, like putting new emphasis on the Mayflower Compact as setting out a specific Christian agenda for the Puritan settlers, neglecting that the initial colonies arose out of a variety of competing and often exclusive agendas, notably the mercantile proto-capitalism of the Virginia Company. And then, of course, there is the absolute ahistorical hogwash, that seems to come from that unique blindness that first obliterates inconvenient facts and then manufactures new ones to fill the resulting vacuum.

This the familiar historical bullshit that proclaims the Founding Fathers to be Christians who designed the new American nation to be from start to second coming a Christian nation. Do I need even need to rehearse this? The Founding Fathers were Christian in the sense that they were white descendants of Northern Europeans who were not Jews – that is how they understood and used the word. Their own religious beliefs and practices were various to a man, and few bear much resemblance to the beliefs and practices we currently use the term Christian to mean. Few of them believed in the divinity of Christ; few of them believed in the exclusive claim of Christian revelation to the truth. Most of them were deeply suspect of revelation and its claims entirely.

(That these men were educated elites whose own experiences and attitudes could be quite different from the masses whose passions helped fuel the Revolution and the ensuing emergence of the first modern republic should be evident. But let’s not forget the importance of Enlightenment secular thought to American intellectual culture throughout class strata. Washington read his soldiers in Valley Forge from The American Crisis by Thomas Paine, the Christopher Hitchens of the eighteenth century, to inspire them for the Christmas Day engagement with the British soldiers in Trenton that was to change the course of the war to the Americans’ favor.)

The Constitution is a wholly secular document, written to help shape the development of a strong federal government that in part would protect and assure that persons could follow the dictates of individual conscience, no matter what that might be (and the framers were aware and quite explicitly state in their correspondence – especially Jefferson – that the Constitution was to favor no religion over any other, including Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam). Those aspects of the First Amendment that specifically treat religion, the disestablishment clause and the freedom clause, developed out of joint efforts by secularists like Madison and Jefferson and religious dissenters like Quakers and Baptists to protect believers, dissenters, non-believers, and religion itself from what they viewed as potential tyranny of allowing the state to claim any authority from or involvement in religious practice.

And any anyone who believes that American jurisprudence has any relationship to the Ten Commandments is a fool who has either no knowledge of the law or of the commandments, or, mostly likely, both.

The debate is important: 1) the historical record is quite clear that America was founded as the world’s first secular nation, and we need to adhere to the truth where we have it, painful and inconvenient as it may be; and 2) our democracy and our freedoms cannot be ever fully extricated from our secularity: the three are mutually interdependent concepts, and are the consequence and the dream of a fully realized modernity.

I have much more to say on efforts to politicize education and on the hard-line conservative war on truth and reality, and I’m sure I’ll have the opportunity. This issue is important in and of itself, and as the article suggests, the controversy has brought about sufficient national scrutiny to mean that the political futures of the thugs attempting to divert education toward their partisan political agendas is less certain than before. Please, don’t lose sight of this.

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Sarkozy endorses headscarf ban.

Bad. Bad. Bad. Fuller discussion to come, but all-in-all, this is bad news and poor policy on several fronts. It’s no surprise, given the increasing paranoia in Europe over the presence of Muslims and France’s rightward drift, but it’s still a disappointment that the country that produced the “Rights of Man” is now just another one bent on chipping away at them.


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Well this is good news.

The Obama administration has just reversed a Bush administration Patriot Act decision preventing Tariq Ramadan from entering the country. Ramadan being perhaps the most prominent intellectual in interfaith dialogues between the West and Islamic traditions, this is excellent news. Ramadan was first denied entry in 2004 when he arrived to take a job at Notre Dame. He was again denied a visa in 2006, an again in 2007 he was denied a visa that would allow him to participate in a academic seminar at which I was attending in California. The seminar attempted to comlink him into a video conferencing center, but it was a dismal technological failure.

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Ross Douthat is wrong on the right issues

Brit Hume probably didn’t expect to start a small firestorm with his comments on Tiger Woods’s religion. In case you missed it, on Fox News last Sunday Hume had the audacity to suggest that Woods’s Buddhism was insufficient to address the severity of his personal situation: “I don’t think that faith offers the kind of redemption and forgiveness offered by the Christian faith. My message to Tiger is, ‘Tiger turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.'” Understandably, the immediate public reaction was to censure Hume for his perceived intolerance of another’s religion, though I’m quite sure he felt he was expressing cultural common sense and his own deep personal conviction.

Conservatives were quick to come to Hume’s defense – perhaps as unsurprising as the initial reaction against Hume. That initial reaction helped play into one of the right’s least respectable cultural memes and one of the touchstones of its populist victimology, the notion that Christianity is under assault from liberal secularism. It’s a ridiculous and ahistorical notion: after more than two centuries of liberal secularism, Christianity is actually more culturally robust in America than when the Bill of Rights was approved, and self-proclaimed and unabashed Christians control not only the three branches of government but pretty much the entire private sector as well. Sure, atheism is on the rise, but atheism isn’t secularism, and atheism, what seems to be the actual target of the Christianist rhetoric, has, in fact, very little cultural power.

The conservative movement is not exactly monolithic on this issue, of course, as libertarians – whose importance to contemporary conservatism seems to be increasing – trend atheistic, and what little remains of conservative intelligentsia has a strong neocon Jewish contingent. One wonders what that Jewish contingent in particular feels about the  mileage their fellow travelers get from rehearsing the myth of true-blue American Christianity as being the bedrock of conservative values. I suppose they remain silent out of respect for the meme’s strategic value, but it’s a dangerous game. One doesn’t have to scratch too deep into the ridiculous rhetoric of the “liberal war on Christmas” coming from Bill O’Reilly and his ilk to find the virulent antisemitism at its heart.

In any case, the conservative punditocracy is quick to bemoan Christian speech’s lack of presence in public discourse, from Jonah Goldberg’s truly dumb critique of Avatar to Ross Douthat’s interesting if wrong-headed defense of Hume. I think that position is worth a longer look. (I also think that the cultural criticisms of Avatar from all points of the political spectrum are a fascinating phenomenon that deserves a longer look, but that may be for someone else to take on.) I don’t want to defend Hume or his comments. I loathe the empty-suit-with-good-hair journalism of which  Hume has become the primary representative, and “bigoted” is the most charitable spin I can give his remarks on Woods’s religion: bigotry not born out of hatred and prejudice, perhaps, so much as ignorance, but the same ignorance that tolerance is meant to check and educate. But I do think there needs to be a stronger presence of religious speech in public discourse.

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