Socio-politico or religio-politico
February 25, 2015
Just a couple of observations:
(1) Bruni’s approach here implies that religion is not a factor, except in terms of “reaction,” in our politicians, which in turn implies that our officials/politicians do not make decisions or advocate policies for religious reasons. For example, for purposes of politics, George Bush II was a “realist,” not a “born again Christian” and his “born-again-ness” had nothing to do with his making war in Iraq. It is as if the separation of church and state, or of politics and religion works at the governmental level but not at the popular level. Is this persuasive? Is it even plausible, given the immense power of religion both in the US and globally? And if Bruni’s approach is wrong, if religion does play and is playing a role in our imperialistic and militaristic nation, then “the war on terror” has religious roots. It is, at least in part, a “holy war.” [Of course, it wouldn’t be the first one fought by “modern nations” either. Think of the bombing, e.g., of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as acts of retribution, as human sacrifices in response to that “day of infamy.” And now “ground zero” has shifted to NYC and Dec. 7th has been replaced by 9/11. And the “cleansing,” the “crusade” goes on.]
(2) NB and especially in light of the above that there is one religious group whose opinions are not considered by Bruni, viz., the Muslims. Apparently, for Bruni, they are not part of our socio-political order. And this might seem to confirm that, reflecting what Bruni does here, perhaps unconsciously, but certainly in line with “conventional wisdom,” ours is as much a religio-political order as it is a “socio-political order.” If this is so, or to the extent it is so, Muslims might expect to never be accepted as “Americans,” at least not as legitimate Americans. Just think, “Malcolm X,” who was much more dangerous as a Muslim, both “black” and otherwise, than he was as a pimp, robber, and drug dealer.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Saturday, February 21, 2015
More “Franckness” on Religion
In another piece on Matthew J. Franck’s understanding of religious freedom, I wrote that his understanding of the “first things” was simplistic, perhaps even sloppy in that, by his understanding, important and genuine issues regarding modernity’s approach to the church and state issues or religion and politics issues simply disappeared or were made to seem unimportant. In this piece, I want to focus on some of the details of Franck’s argument, in particular his use of instances that he deems to illustrate how religious freedom is now what might be called “an endangered species” in the United States.
First, let me say that I am skeptical of this rather commonly made argument about religion and religious freedom. From where I sit, I detect not only a wide spread embrace of religion, even something like another “great awakening,” but also wide areas where religion is all-too-evident in what has been dubbed “the public square.” So, my perspective on Franck’s arguments starts from a skepticism that his general point, viz., that religion and religious freedom are endangered by widespread attacks these days, is unpersuasive. Whether this starting point undermines my consideration of some of his arguments you will have to judge for yourselves.
Now, here is the kind of thing Franck alleges endangers religious freedom, viz., that at the Hastings College of Law “the student chapter of the Christian Legal Society was denied any status on campus because it would not abandon its requirement that members of the group commit themselves to traditional Christian norms regarding sexual morality.” And, moreover, “the U.S. Supreme Court…held that the student group’s rights were not violated a ‘take all comers’ policy.” [p.57]
This is an interesting set of facts that raise some interesting questions. But to what extent these questions involve the freedom of religion is less than clear. I take Franck’s characterization of being “denied any status” to mean that this group was denied any official status by the college of law, that it was not an officially recognized student group. But how does this denial affect this group’s freedom of religion? They are still able to be “a group,” still able to deny membership to those who don’t or won’t share their adherence to “traditional Christian norms,” as Franck puts it. That is, what does the official recognition or the denial of official recognition by the college of law have to do with the freedom of this group to adhere to its religious beliefs? They have as much freedom as would a group of, say, white supremacists, denied, as I am sure they would be, “any status” by the college of law.
On another hand, the freedom of religion would be violated, clearly and indisputably, were the college to ban the students who belonged to the group from the law school, as that would be forcing students to choose between attending the law school and their beliefs. But it is less than clear that denying the group official recognition as a student group is an abridgement of the freedom of religion. Moreover, it seems pretty clear that such institutions need to be able to discriminate between those groups they officially recognize and those they do not recognize, a power that those who are allegedly conservatives often defend and especially defend against the demands of the federal government and its bureaucracies. Here, apparently, Franck thinks the Supreme Court should have protected what he labels “religious freedom” at the expense of such local or dispersed power. There should be, it would seem, a national standard that institutions like the Hastings College of Law should be held accountable to in the name of religious freedom.
By the by, one can wonder if such an arrangement is really the one Franck should be endorsing. National standards can cut both ways regarding the freedom of religion, as evidenced by the Supreme Court’s consistent holdings that such standards can and do trump claims based on religious beliefs in “cases of necessity,” that is, where the demands of our “modern secular state” are legitimate. [p. 69] That “the state should respect, honor, and even foster the role of religious communities and institutions as essential contributors to civil society” is not to say that the state, in any given set of circumstances, must bow before the claims made by religious communities and institutions. And, most importantly, it is the state that gets to decide, as the Supreme Court is part of our “state,” when it will “respect, honor, and…foster” such demands and when it will not. This is the meaning, bottom line, of “the separation of church and state.”
But this is precisely what Franck’s argument obfuscates, as becomes particularly clear in his treatment of what is labeled the “Hobby Lobby” case. This case involved the Hobby Lobby stores and its owners, committed Christians “who objected to providing four of the mandated [birth control] drugs and devices to their employees, against the dictates of their conscience as informed by their faith, because of their known effect as abortifacients.” [p. 62] Of course, the Supreme Court in this case sided with the owners of the Hobby Lobby stores, which kind of puts a dent in Franck’s argument that religious freedom is an endangered species in the United States. But Franck ignores this because the Court did not go far enough, as it did not, as did some Catholic bishops, embrace “a complete revocation of the mandate itself.” As a result of the Court’s decision, “the government is requiring all covered employers to be complicit in gravely wrong acts.” [p. 62] For Franck, “the one thing truly needful is to repeal the law, not to try to litigate a larger escape hatch from its terms.” [p. 63]
Franck is correct that from the perspective of the Catholic Church the law needs to be repealed and that exemptions do not deal with the issue appropriately. But this simply reflects Franck’s failure to understand the relationship between church and state, or religion and politics, in the modern dispensation. As noted above, the modern state should respect the rights of individuals to practice their religion, to believe what they want to believe, to practice their rituals as they see fit. But this is merely the beginning, not the end of the matter because it is up to the state to decide where such respect should be trumped by the demands of a modern secular society, as these demands are determined by the state. From this perspective, litigating for “larger escape hatch[es]” from laws that intrude on religious beliefs is appropriate, to say the least. Religion as such can make no demands on the state that it, the state, is duty bound to follow, embrace, or even leave unburdened its “traditional norms;” rather, religion as such can only claim that certain of its beliefs or practices should be exempt from any policies that intrude upon them insofar as the state sees this as fitting. In other words, in relation to Franck’s take on the Hobby Lobby case, the state might repeal “the mandate itself,” but there is no basis for arguing that this is required by the Constitution and its protection of religious freedom.
In sum, it is the state, not religion, which holds the trump cards in the modern dispensation. This is the meaning of “the separation of church and state.” The state may choose to extend to religion considerable protections. On the other hand, it may choose not to extend some protections to religious beliefs and practices. In the Hobby Lobby case, the Court sided with the religious; in the Hastings College of Law case, the Court sided with “the state,” as it were. There is nothing particularly troubling about this state of affairs and it is hardly cause for those who see the place of religion in “the public square” as endangered. We might even point out, ala’ Franck’s reference to Clint Eastwood’s “lecture” to an empty chair at the last Republican National Convention, that while there are empty chairs but there are also empty arguments. And even more troubling than empty chairs is when those who fill chairs, say the director’s chair of a learned institute, make empty arguments.
Friday, February 20, 2015
Matt Franck on “How to Think About Religious Freedom”
In publication entitle “Citizens and Statesmen: An Annual Review of Political Theory and Public Life,” published by the Center for Political Economic Thought, housed at Saint Vincent College, there appears an article entitled, “Individual, Community, and State: How to Think About Religious Freedom” by Matthew J. Franck, Director of William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution. This article was written because, as apparently almost everybody knows, “religious freedom in our country has been under sustained pressures in recent years.”  And, according to Franck, this is due to the failure of our “modern secular state” to repair to “first things” regarding religion and its relationship to civil society.
One of the interesting, if puzzling aspects of this piece is that it nowhere references the Constitution and the first amendment while it does refer to and draw extensively on something entitled “Dignitatis Humanae, the ‘Declaration on Religious Freedom’ of the Second Vatican Council in 1965.”  This is puzzling, to say the least, insofar as the foundation of the first amendment and its protections of “the freedom of religion” and its prohibition of any “establishment of religion” lies in a political philosophy, early modern political philosophy, that, as most recognize, informed the Enlightenment, which was, at the very least, skeptical of bona fides of revealed religion. And this has led to the argument that what is labeled “the separation of church and state,” which seems called for by early modern political philosophy, was adopted in order to subordinate religion to the state, rather than seeing the state as the handmaiden of religion. In other words, by drawing on the Catholic Church’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” while also using James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” Franck’s article obscures rather than clarifies the controversial character – from the point of view of revealed religion – of the first amendment to the Constitution, as well as of “the separation of church and state.”
So, as a result of this obfuscation, Frank’s argument that the falling away from “first things” by our “modern secular society” regarding religion and its place in civil society seems quite logical. But in fact, it is only simplistic, and perhaps even sloppy. Aspects of the debate over religion and its relation to civil society are glided over as it they were not important, or perhaps not even issues. For example, Franck asserts more than once, quoting Madison, that “religion is exempt from the authority the Society at large,” [66, 67] and yet also says, but just in passing, that “This is not to say that the state may never inquire into whether a claim of religious conviction is sincerely held” nor “must the state entirely yield to every sincerely presented claim.” [68-69]
One would never know it from Franck’s piece but these are among the most important issues regarding the separation of church and state. Consider what it means to say, as Franck does here, that the state has the right to inquire into, that is, to determine whether a belief is a sincerely held religious belief. Such determinations would involve, and have involved in actual cases, inquiries into and determinations of what constitute or what could constitute religious beliefs, that is, what religious beliefs are legitimate and what are not. Hence, the Supreme Court has held that drug laws may trump the beliefs of some Native American tribes who use proscribed drugs as part of their rituals. Would the Court find that the law could also proscribe the practice of the Catholic Church of allowing under age persons to drink alcohol? It seems doubtful and some of this doubt rests on the perception that Christian rituals are really religious while those of Native Americans are not. But however these questions are decided, just the legitimacy of the state deciding what are and what are not “sincerely held” religious beliefs illustrates the controversial character of the modern endorsement of the separation of church and state.
Moreover, Franck knows enough constitutional law and modern political philosophy to know the state need not “yield to every sincerely presented” religious belief. But again, to recognize this in passing, as he does, obscures the controversies that lie at the heart of the modern conceptions of the proper relationship between church and state or between religion and politics. Surely, Franck knows that the status of being a conscientious objector in the United States rests on statutory law, not constitutional law. There is no recognized constitutional right, not even one based on a sincerely held religious belief, that allows one to refuse, legally refuse, to serve in the military. And surely he knows as well that there is no constitutionally protected right of parents to deny medical treatment to their own children if such treatment is necessary to save the child’s life. The Supreme Court has even held that child labor laws can be used to trump religious beliefs, even sincerely held religious beliefs. And the Court has also held that sincerely held religious beliefs that conflict with important public policy objectives do not protect private educational institutions from losing their tax exempt status, ala’ Bob Jones University which was forced to abandon its policy against interracial dating if it wanted to keep its tax exemption.
All of these controversies, which are not easily decided, which are genuine controversies, disappear from view in Franck’s article and in his understanding of “first things.” For Franck, apparently, the world is or could be a genuinely harmonious place, with religion and civil societies coexisting peacefully and amiably, if only James Madison and the Second Vatican council were wedded together. Ah, but there’s the rub. It is difficult for me to conceive of the legitimacy of such a union, as difficult perhaps as it for some to conceive of the legitimacy of what are called today “same-sex marriages.”
Sunday, February 1, 2015
What Passes for “Political Analysis”
February 1, 2015
Now here is an interesting piece from the NY Times today, February 1, 2015, entitled “The Surprising Power of Blue-State Republicans.” The argument is pretty simple, as the title suggests. Namely, the issue is, Why do Republicans keep nominating “moderates” like Mitt Romney and John McCain for the presidency when the party itself is, allegedly, “seemingly dominated by the South, energized by the Tea Party and elected by conservative voters.” And, of course, the answer provided is, those “blue-state Republicans” who “make it far harder for a very conservative candidate to win the party’s nomination than the party’s reputation suggests.”
No doubt, this argument has some truth to it because what it points to is the fact that the Republican Party, like any political party, is hardly a monolithic group. That is, there are what may be labeled “the establishment Republicans,” like John Boehner, and there are those who may be labeled “the insurgents,” those
Tea Party types mentioned above. And, of course, these two groups are opposed in that the insurgents would like to displace the establishment types while the latter would like to hold on to their power. When seen in this light, it is anything but “surprising” that those labeled “blue-state Republicans” have significant clout in the Republican Party. One might even wonder, given the repeated success of “moderates” winning that party’s nomination for president just how powerful or powerless those insurgents are.
But it is also possible to wonder about the description or the meaning of the label “blue-state Republicans.” That is, this label is based on the rather contentious argument that our political drama and our society are divided between “red states” and “blue states,” or between those “reds” and those “blues” who have little in common. It has been noticed, for example, that it is less than persuasive to label a state that, say, Obama barely carried a “blue state.” In fact, it is possible to contest such a label even in a state that Obama carried by a rather large margin, say, in 2008, a state like North Carolina. Why is this? Because when one looks at the American electorate and how they respond to opinion polls, it is obvious that the idea that that electorate is radically divided between “reds” and “blues” is just unpersuasive.
Hence, it could be that those labeled in this article “blue-state Republicans” are actually not residing in “blue states” at all, but rather reside in “purple” states, that is, states where voters are neither “red” nor “blue” and can “swing either way” in any given election. The political parties know this and they also know that they have to appeal to these voters if they are to win presidential elections, as opposed to other elections such as those for Congress or the state legislature.
So, what we have in this particular piece of political analysis is something all too common these days: The article begins with a premise that is anything but persuasive and proceeds to “analyze” our situation on that basis. The result is something that seems reasonable but, upon investigation, is little more than a reinforcement of a paradigm of conventional wisdom that cannot support its own weight. There is nothing especially troubling about this or there would not be were it not for the fact that it reinforces a view of our situation that ratifies and fortifies the status quo in that such analyses convey a message that makes people accept the thought that the only alternative available, in fact, the best alternative available is some kind of consensus between the “reds” and the “blues.”
If only the “reds” and the “blues” could work together, if only we could rid of these pesky “insurgents,” on both the “right” and the “left,” then all would be well. This is all that is needed to make our situation better, as if electing Romney or McCain – or for that matter Obama – would have improved our situation immeasurably. And one need not be a Tea Partier to wonder whether this is anything but an argument for a continuation of current policies, policies that have served the few much better than they have served the many.