Nov 29, 2012

'Christianity is not a religion'

I don't know whether it's really possible to have a meaningful, reasonable debate about the place of religion in public, and about the question of what it means for the government to not "respect an establishment of religion," but a lot of examples like this "discussion" above seem to indicate it's not.

This debate, like so many on this subject, gets very weird very fast, as Bill O'Reilly claims Christianity is actually not a religion (unlike Methodism and Catholicism), and thus not subject to that clause of the First Amendment. "It is a fact," O'Reilly says, "that Christianity is not a religion. It is a philosophy. If the government was saying that the Methodist religion deserves a special place in the public square, I would be on your side." Even attempting to make any sense out of that claim just makes me tired.

And that's before the argument reaches its apex, where these public figures argue about who would have a hypothetical problem with what, and the host launches into accusations of insanity and fascism.


Nov 27, 2012

Teaching: History of American Atheism

I'm in the process of preparing a class on the history of American Atheism, which, as far as I can tell, is more or less uncharted territory. Existing studies and curricula seem to either be philosophical examinations of atheism (e.g.), or much too narrow for my interests (e.g.), or really more hagiographical canonization efforts than I am comfortable with (e.g.). Not to mention the very common whig histories of atheism.

Given the new(ish?) direction of the class I'm designing, it seems some readers might be interested in the shape of the class as it develops. Also, as there's no standard text outlining major figures or movements in American Atheism, I would appreciate readers' help in identifying critical people and/or texts to teach.

Below, I've listed those I have in mind who are important in this history and who I think can be taught fairly well to first and second year students with an interest in religious history and American cultural studies. I've construed "atheist" fairly broadly, to include some agnostics and skeptics (especially if they expand the possibility of disbelief); as well as some who's opposition to specific faith traditions is clear while their own position is more ambiguous; those of the political right as well as the more well-represented left; some who are hostile towards religion and some who attempt to make use of religious rhetoric. I've also tried to work in a fair representation of non-whites, women, and, as far as possible, some from backgrounds other than Protestant.

Are there any significant figures or movements I'm missing?

Anyone who would likely teach particularly well that I haven't thought of?

Nov 26, 2012

The courts' disagreement over corporations having religion

Can corporations practice religion? The courts disagree.

In two different federal courts, in two different cases where for-profit companies with evangelical owners are suing the government over the Obama administration's mandate that health insurance include contraception coverage, two very different conclusions were reached. 

In Washington D.C., a federal court granted the Christian publisher Tyndale House an injunction last week, exempting the company from the daily fines it would accrue starting in January for not following the new health care law. The granted injunction is a ruling that the company has a good case, and should be treated -- at least until the final outcome -- as if it has won. Three days later, however, in Oklahoma, a federal court did not grant the arts and crafts store Hobby Lobby an injunction. The two cases are almost identical, yet the courts ruled in opposite ways. 

Pretty much, too, they ruled opposite ways because of what seems to me to be the core question, which is whether or not corporations can have or exercise religion in the sense indicated by the First Amendment. 

In the first case, Judge Reggie Walton, an appointee of the second President Bush, ruled that "the beliefs of Tyndale and its owners are indistinguishable."

In the second case, Judge Joe Heaton, also a George W. Bush appointee, ruled that corporate exercise of religion is "largely uncharted waters," and said Hobby Lobby's lawyers hadn't cited any legal precedent for the idea "that secular, for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby [...] have a constitutional right to the free exercise of religion," despite the fact there's no legal question about the owner's religious beliefs.

Nov 20, 2012

The ignored question of corporations' religious freedom

A federal court ruling handed down in Oklahoma yesterday said that for-profit corporations don't have rights -- constitutional, inalienable, or otherwise -- to freely exercise their religion.

The court case involves a chain of arts and crafts stores called Hobby Lobby, owned by a family-established trust, in a suit with the Obama administration over the Health and Human Services mandate requiring health insurance plans include birth control coverage. This ruling will be appealed. Its not anything like the final word on this. However, the court has made clear that the issue in this case is who or what can have a religion.

Who or what can practice a religion.

The clarification of the issue is appreciated, since the assumptions out there in these claims of "freedom of religion" are actually quite confounding, and since, as far as I can tell, no one from the many many groups or among the many many critics opposing this HHS mandate seem interested in explaining the issues. Apparently it's enough to be appalled that the Obama administration is assaulting our first freedom and obliterating freedom of religion, without ever being clear about the messy matters of corporate personhood and religious practice.

Which this 28-page ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Joe Heaton points out:
"Plaintiffs have not cited, and the court has not found, any case concluding that secular, for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby and Mardel have a constitutional right to the free exercise of religion .... The question of whether the Greens can establish a free exercise constitutional violation by reason of restrictions or requirements imposed on general business corporations they own or control involves largely uncharted waters." 
In short, this ruling asks the very basic question that those up in arms over religious freedom have consistently refused to answer: what sense does "religious freedom" have for a corporate entity?

Nov 14, 2012

Nazi racing trophy

Presentation in Chicago

A bit of shameless self-promotion:

Exploratory Sessions (A18-232)
Per Smith, Boston University, Presiding

Theme: Irreligion, Secularism and Social Change
Sunday, Nov. 19 – 1 – 2:30 PM, McCormick Place West, room 178A, Chicago

"Scholars of religion from a variety of disciplines are increasingly focusing their attention on the relationship between the religious and the secular. So what would a sustained discussion of 'the secular' look like within the American Academy of Religion; and moreover, how would such a discussion be relevant to religious studies? This exploratory session seeks to provide modest answers to those questions by example. On the heels of the year of the protestor, the session explores how 'the secular' is implicated in and affected by social transformations. How did social change make the secular possible? How have the demands of 20th century social movements shaped emergent forms of secularism? How do contemporary social movements provide fertile soil for secular theologies of resistance? And how are contemporary irreligious identities evolving within a social context that considers them deviant?

Daniel Silliman, University of Heidelberg
The Possibility of Secularity and the Material History of Fiction 
Petra Klug, University of Leipzig
The Dynamics of Standardisation and Deviance using the Way U.S. Society deals with Atheists as an Example 
Jordan Miller, Salve Regina University
Occupying Absence: Political Resistance and Secular Theology 

Responding: Jonathan VanAntwerpen, Social Science Research Council

Nov 9, 2012

Science wins small symbolic victory in Georgia vote

A bit of a political protest is becoming apparent as the ballots are tallied in one North Georgia congressional district: a protest on behalf of science.

According to the Athens Banner-Herald, Charles Darwin received nearly 4,000 write-in votes in one of the 24 counties that make up the state's 10th Congressional District, where the unopposed Republican incumbent had declared the theory of evolution to be the work of Satan. How many write-in votes went to Darwin in the 23 other counties of the district is not clear, as not all of the counties report write-ins, yet the symbolic protest was sizable enough to attract the attention of national news outlets and, Darwin supporters hope, attract a real challenger to the race in 2014. 

Broun's broad dismissal of science -- from evolution to the Big Band to embryology -- at a political rally in a Baptist church was especially inflammatory because he sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. In the viedo released by the church, Broun stood in front of a wall of mounted deer heads, and said that science was opposed to the Bible, which is the "manufacturer's handbook."

Echoing the ideas of Christian Theonomists such as R.J. Rushdooney, who taught that the world is divided into four spheres and that God is king of all four, Broun explained that science is a blasphemous attempt to displace God. He told the audience he doesn't accept the authority of science, but of the Bible, which "teaches us how to run our lives, individually, how to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society. And that's the reason as your congressman, I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions for how I vote in Washington D.C."

The brouhaha that followed the congressman's version of theocratic government was turned into a symbolic protest at the polls, last week, in part due to the work of a UGA professor. 

Nov 7, 2012

Catholics to bishops: never mind our souls

American Catholic bishops attempted to exert their influence on the electorate, but to little effect.

Looking at the Catholic vote the day after the election doesn't reveal any significant shifts or surprises, but the results do indicate the political impotency of a Catholic hierarchy that has become very strongly identified with politics.

The American bishops didn't appear to hesitate in picking political sides in this last election. That has not always been the case, but this time the church's hierarchy leaned heavily on Catholic parishioners, making strong pronouncements about the morality of voting one way or another, clearly indication how good Catholics should cast their ballots if they cared about their souls. Picking up issues such as abortion and mandated coverage of contraception, the church's leaders issued strongly worded statements that, ostensibly, left little room for differences of opinion among the faithful.

And yet they were ignored by significant portions of the church.

One poll in the final days of the campaign put Catholic support of Barack Obama's reelection at 52 percent. An exit poll widely cited had half of self-identified Catholics saying they'd voted for Obama, and only 48 percent saying they'd supported Mitt Romney.

The bishops were spurned by sizable portions of Catholic voters, nationally and locally.

In Illinois, for example, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki wrote that voting for candidates who supported the Democratic Party platform -- which, in contrast to the Republican platform, has planks that "explicitly endorse intrinsic evils" -- puts one's soul in danger. But many, many Illinois Catholics voters just didn't seem to care.

Paprocki's message:
"I am not telling you which party or which candidates to vote for or against, but I am saying that you need to think and pray very carefully about your vote, because a vote for a candidate who promotes actions or behaviors that are intrinsically evil and gravely sinful makes you morally complicit and places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy."
Nearly half of the Catholic voters in Illinois disagreed with or disregarded the bishop's warning. The CNN exit poll shows that 48 percent of the state's Catholic voters cast their ballot for Obama on Tuesday.

This is true other places as well: The bishops simply do not have significant influence over their supposed flocks.

Happy birthday Billy Graham

Billy Graham turns 94 today.

One of the odder moments of Graham's very public career -- though there are many, and many more than one would expect given Graham's image -- from a 1969 interview with William F. Buckley:
"I think that many people have been thrown off by the terrible sufferings and the overwhelming problems that have been created in our generation. But this is precisely a fulfillment of what the Bible itself teaches. Because the Bible teaches that our problems originate from the fact that man, since the Garden of Eden, has been in rebellion against God. Now I personally hold the view that there are beings on other planets and that, I believe, this is the only planet in rebellion against God."

Nov 6, 2012

Nixon butt prints in November beach sand

Nixon went down to the beach and sat in the sand and waited. The waves came in, the waves went out, and he sat there in his suit and waited.

There comes a point, in every election, where there seems like there’s nothing anyone can do. Whatever is going to happen will happen. It has happened already. Sometime during the day, sometime while the votes are cast or after they’re cast but haven’t yet been counted, the candidates can’t do anything anymore except wait. Politicking ends. Maneuvering stops. Everyone waits. They’re as helpless as hitchhikers, at that moment, in that in-between time. As helpless as sinners in that old Calvinist doctrine of waiting for grace.

An old essay on waiting for the foreordained, secularized Calvinism, Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, and the interregnum of election day @ TheThe Poetry. Read the rest: here.

Nov 5, 2012

The diversity of religion in American politics

Two congressional candidates in two very different districts demonstrate something of the religious diversity in American politics today.

In Hawaii, in a district that previously elected one of congress' few Buddhists, Tulsi Gabbard is currently leading in the polls by 52 points. If elected, Gabbard would be the country's first Hindu representative.

As the Religious News Service reports:
"Gabbard, 31, was born in American Samoa to a Catholic father and a Hindu mother, and moved to Hawaii when she was 2. In 2002, at age 21, she was elected to the Hawaii state legislature.

"[...] Gabbard, whose first name refers to a tree sacred to Hindus, fully embraced Hinduism as a teenager, and follows the Vaishnava branch that believes in the Supreme Lord Vishnu, and his 10 primary incarnations. Her primary scripture is the centuries-old Bhagavad Gita, whose themes include selfless action, spirituality, war, and serving God and humanity.

Nov 2, 2012

Dr. Reist

Dr. John Reist once drew me a map to his house when I was a student in one of his classes at Hillsdale College. It started with a circle, which he said was God and he said "There is a God and she's black." "Hey whoa," he said. About 10 minutes of map drawing and jokes later, I realized it was actually a straight line from the college to his house. No turns or anything. But still that map, like all the lessons Reist taught, turned out, kinda mysteriously, to be profoundly useful.

Rest in peace, Dr. Reist. Quack to you too, and rest in peace.

Nov 1, 2012