Root & Branch - The Religion & Soceity Debate

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Crunch Time: American Idealism, the Economy, and Afghanistan

20 — September 02, 2009

My hunch is that all the contention over healthcare reform this summer is the symptom of a deeper distress—growing doubts about American idealism combined with declining trust in government.

Consider the distress at the Pentagon over deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan (Washington Post, 8/24/09). The United States did not go into Afghanistan to build a nation-state. The aim was to defend us from terrorists. Which was also President Bush’s stated reason for invading Iraq. Yet the long slog in both countries has continued for so long that other aims have been added along the way to justify the military losses and expenditures. Chief among the added aims is to promote freedom and democracy in the world, and that now involves us in trying to build a state in Afghanistan.

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Prison Madness

19 — July 13, 2009

The Quakers of Pennsylvania invented the penitentiary as a place to lock up lawbreakers so they would reflect on their offense and become penitent. Today, many of our prisons have become storehouses of degradation where criminality festers and grows, breeding more anger than penitence.

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Calvin, Calvinism, and Politics

18 — April 09, 2009

Not discussed very much in the ongoing examination of Calvin and Calvinism is the historical conjunction of the rise of the modern state, on the one hand, and the Calvinist identification of some of those states with ancient Israel, on the other. The most powerful example of this identification is the American founding, which was deeply influenced by Puritan thought. It’s not that all early Americans were Puritans or that identifying a modern state as “new Israel” was inherent in Calvin’s thought. But the connection was made in 1776 nonetheless, even if in a secularized way, and the American nation itself, not a church body, was conceived as a new Israel, a new covenant people of God, called to be a light to all other nations, a model city on the hill. Something similar also happened among Calvinists in Scotland, England, The Netherlands, and among the Afrikaners in South Africa.

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Can Trust Be Restored?

17 — February 23, 2009

When the financial crisis exploded last fall and the Bush administration began to scramble with emergency moves to try to head off a downward spiral to a depression, a frequent comment from treasury officials and many economists alike went something like this: we must first try to stop the flow of blood and then we’ll try to correct the problems that caused the crisis. That meant shoring up banks and investment companies with huge infusions of public funds and guarantees, cutting interest rates rapidly, nearly nationalizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and more. 

Yet, as the economy continues to deteriorate the question keeps coming up: what will it take to restore confidence so people will be willing to spend again as well as save and gain confidence that their investments are safe and that employment will recover?

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Colson on Prayer, Church, and America

16 — January 19, 2009

In his Breakpoint radio commentary of December 30, 2008, Chuck Colson began by saying that in recent months he had been starting his prayer time “by concentrating on the Church. I pray—actually, I plead, the Lord would wake us up, cause us to repent, turn from our own false idols. I pray God’s Spirit would fill us with a burning desire to love Him and advance His kingdom.” He continued, “We can’t pray for our nation to be revived, to be saved, to receive God’s mercy; we can’t pray for our leaders to make wise decisions unless we first pray for the Church.”

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The Left Wing of America’s Civil Religion

15 — December 3, 2008

In a few of my past columns I focused attention on the right wing of America’s civil religion. Now it is time for the left wing. In a recent op-ed column in The Washington Post (11/22/08), Sally Quinn—one of the moderators of “On Faith,” an online conversation on religion supported by Newsweek and The Washington Post—gives perfect-pitch expression to what I have in mind. 

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Campaign Attention to "Religion"

14 — September 2, 2008

There is certainly plenty of attention being given to "religion" in this year's presidential campaign. But why? And what is assumed about the meaning of "religion"? At least two major "faith forums" have been broadcast nationally, trying to get confessions from the presidential candidates. Many Americans and some commentators think this is a good thing. Religion is important, they say, and we need to know where the candidates stand. Are they religious and do they respect religion, or are they secularists who look askance at religion or want to cordon it off in private?

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America and Israel

13—June 2, 2008

Religions are ways of life and not merely the consciously intended practices of worship and pastoral service. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim ways of life are supposed to guide the adherents of those faiths in what they do all week long and not only in the ways they worship. Religions as ways of life generally function like the glasses through which we see things; we are not always conscious of the glasses (or our eyes) when we see things, even though they are what make it possible to focus on anything in particular.

In this light it is possible to understand why the American way of life is often overlooked when people talk about religion, even though it often challenges or conflicts with the ways of life called for by the scriptures and authorities of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communions. The American way of life might not structure our Saturday or Sunday worship services, but it certainly functions as the glasses through which many Americans see and make sense of their daily lives. Let me illustrate.

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Political Speech and Action

12 — May 1, 2008

At its last national conference in Washington, D.C., the Federalist Society included a panel, in which I participated, on religious speech in the political/legal arena. One of the standard arguments the panelists debated is that citizens, presidential candidates, and public officials alike should contend with one another on the basis of a common public reason and not on the basis of their distinctive religious convictions.

There are at least two difficulties with that standard argument. The first difficulty arises from the way the distinction is made between what is religious and what is common or public. The second difficulty lies in the argument’s narrow focus on individual freedom versus government’s universal mandates, a focus that typically overlooks institutional diversity and pluralistic policy options.

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Civil and Religious Laws in England

11 — February 29, 2008

Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, stirred up an international hornet’s nest this month with a lecture exploring how Muslim sharia (law) might be accommodated within the British legal system.

Leaving to one side a discussion of the distinctive character of the British system of laws and institutions, I want to comment here on two elements of his lecture:  the references to “religious communities” and the argument about the relation of “universal secular law” to “social pluralism.”

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Faith and the Presidency

10 — January 16, 2008

Thus far in the presidential campaign we have heard more about religion and politics than ever before. An entire CNN program, Mitt Romney’s Texas speech, individual interviews, campaign-trail confessions, and more . . . and more. But has anything new come from it? Are we more enlightened now about religion and the qualifications of the candidates to serve as president?

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“Christian Democracy”—an Oxymoron?

9 — November 19, 2007

Can the word “Christian” ever convey a positive connotation when used in conjunction with politics and government, or does it necessarily carry the negative baggage of past imperialisms? Is a phrase such as “Christian democracy,” for example, an oxymoron, which Webster defines as “a combination of contradictory or incongruous words,” or can it stand on its own with integrity?

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Education in Ontario

8 — October 5, 2007 

Where do schools belong in the social structure and functions of a nation? Who should bear responsibility for educating children and on what terms? How should government shape its education policy to do justice to all citizens?

These questions lie at the root of a contentious election campaign for premier of the province of Ontario. Election Day is October 10. The incumbent premier and Liberal Party leader, Dalton McGuinty, wants to maintain the status quo, which means continuing to fund two school systems in the province, one called public, which in its origin served the Protestant majority, and the other that serves the minority Roman Catholic population. This arrangement represents the early historical accommodation between Ontario and Quebec to share a single, pluralistic Canada.

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Lilla Misses God

7 — September 3, 2007

In its August 19, 2007 issue, The New York Times Magazine published an article by Columbia University professor Mark Lilla titled “The Politics of God.” The article is adapted from his book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West.

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The New Atheists and Political God Talk

6 — July 4, 2007

Much has been made in recent months of the slew of books coming out that question or attack religion. Ronald Aronson refers to the authors as the “new atheists” (The Nation, 6/25/07). Anthony Gottlieb calls them “atheists with attitude” (The New Yorker, 5/21/07). Among the most talked-about books of this kind is God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. And these English-language volumes are bolstered by others from continental European atheists, such as Michel Onfray, who is bluntly challenging the revival of both Islam and Christianity in his backyard. Karen Armstrong describes the new movement as “missionary secularism” because its adherents want “to convert nonbelievers to their worldview” (Andrew Higgins, Wall Street Journal, 4/12/07).

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Watch Turkey!

5 — May 21, 2007

According to Omer Faruk Genckaya, a professor at Bikent University in Turkey, "Secularism is the most defining element of the establishment of the republic. It is a kind of religion in Turkey that is as important as Islam." (Quoted by Vincent Boland, "In Ataturk's Shadow",  Financial Times, 5/3/07.) Boland then goes on to say, '"The idea of secularism as religion is a paradox, but it helps to explain the singular notion of what Turkish secularism actually means."

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Seeking Harmony in China

4 — April 25, 2007

Most religious practices are tightly controlled in China. Like many cultural and educational organizations, churches must meet strict registration guidelines. Many groups that cannot accept the strictures operate secretly, underground, for as long as they can.

Yet what about China as a whole—as a modern nation and state? Shall we identify it simply as a secular communist system? No, that would not be quite accurate. Look with me for a moment at the moves now being made by China's leaders to revive admiration for, if not veneration of, Confucius (see Richard McGregor's "The Pursuit of Harmony," Financial Times, 4/12/07).

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The Newest Supreme Court Case

3 — March 9, 2007

On February 28, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case brought by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which wants to stop government’s efforts to aid self-professed religious organizations that provide social services. The foundation’s argument is that the First Amendment of the Constitution prohibits any and all government aid to anything religious. This is a traditional separationist argument. In their view, religion is one thing, government and everything pertaining to it is a non-religious thing, and never the twain should meet.

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American Polytheism

2 — February 19, 2007

Much of today's media coverage of religion identifies its subject matter by referring to the number of Americans who attend church, or to the Jewish observance of holy days, or to the Muslim practice of praying five times a day. Church, synagogue, or mosque—that's the religion tag. Then, since many Christians who attend church regularly also happen to be politically conservative, the media identifies them with the "Christian right." Positions that "right-wing" Christians take on political issues such as abortion, or interpreting the Constitution, or marriage, are then viewed as expressions of Bible-believing fundamentalists. This, in part, is what Jeff Sharlet does in a recent and provocative essay in Harper's Magazine(December 2006) on "how the Christian right is reimagining U.S. history."

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Introducing "Root & Branch"

1 — January 22, 2007

At the start of this our 30th anniversary year, we are introducing a new commentary that will appear at least quarterly and usually more often. Its focus will be on the vitality of religions in today's world and on arguments about their influence in society.

In most cases today when the media turn their attention to religion, they treat it as one among many factors or variables of human life, distinguishing religion from sports or politics or science, for example. Yet, if we look carefully at religious communities and even whole societies around the world, we can see that religions typically function not as one variable among others but as the root from which life's branches grow and on which they continue to depend.

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