Religion & Politics Fit For Polite Company Tue, 22 Apr 2014 16:05:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What the Show Cosmos Gets Wrong about Religion—and Science Wed, 16 Apr 2014 16:00:06 +0000 (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Invision for FOX/AP Images)

(Photo by Frank Micelotta/Invision for FOX/AP Images)

In its third episode, titled “When Knowledge Conquered Fear,” the new Cosmos reboot, hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, tells the story of the discovery and publication of Isaac Newton’s laws of motion. Almost three centuries after Newton’s death, these laws, which offer a unified framework for calculating and predicting the movement of a projectile on earth as well as the planets in the heavens, remain a fundamental contribution to our understanding of the physical world. In them, Newton laid the foundations for centuries of scientific exploration, including humanity’s voyages into space in the twentieth century.

This is an amazing achievement. It’s right to celebrate it. But Cosmos does more than simply celebrate Newton’s achievement. For Cosmos, Newton’s discovery “decoupled the motions of the heavens from their ancient connections to our fears.” Throughout the show, religion is affiliated with fear, superstition, and a reliance on authority. Science, on the other hand, is presented as a curiosity-driven enterprise that expands our knowledge of the universe. Scientists proceed by questioning received truths and testing all ideas experimentally. According to the show, scientists are those who “question authority.”

Comets prove handy for demonstrating these points. The show suggests that prior to Newton’s discoveries, people around the world feared comets, seeing them as apocalyptic harbingers of plague and war. Newton’s laws could be used to calculate the orbits of comets and predict when they would become visible in the night sky—Edmond Halley used Newton’s laws to identify and predict the return of the comet now known as Halley’s Comet. Comets thus became objects of awe and wonder, rather than fear. Post-Newton, they offer us the opportunity not only to marvel at the order and beauty of the universe, but also at ourselves: aren’t we amazing? We humans figured this thing out! Driving this narrative home, Cosmos begins and ends with an image of a baby staring up at space. With Newton’s laws in place and comets now understood, Tyson tells us, the baby has begun to learn to walk. 

Now, in one sense, all this is true. It is amazing that we, using telescopes and our brains, can figure out fundamental laws that govern motion across the entire observable universe. For many, comets have long ceased to be an object of fear; they have been stripped of their supernatural import. The Cosmos story also reflects a common modern experience: that of being brought up in a religious context, only to later abandon religious belief as superfluous when exposed to scientific modes of knowing.

But, in another sense, this story gets science all wrong. Science is a body of knowledge, but it’s also a human activity. Like religion, science does not exist in a vacuum and is not immune from cultural influences. Cosmos does pretty well with science as a body of knowledge. Yet it misunderstands how science works as a human activity, creating a narrative that ultimately fails everyone who marvels at the wonders of the cosmos. 

To understand why, we need to go back to the history of science. In the seventeenth century, as Newton was working out his laws of motion, science was tangled up with religious belief and could be used as an argument for religious belief. Cosmos suggests that Newton’s discoveries reduced, even eliminated, the need for religious belief; it is not the first to do so. But the show would not find much agreement with this proposition among the scientists of Newton’s time or the broader society of which they were a part.

In Newton’s time, Europe was a place of both deep religious belief and intense religious conflict. Almost from the moment Martin Luther published his 95 Theses in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517, waves of religious violence washed over Europe. Protestants and Catholics, as well as various sects of Protestants, were frequently unable to resolve their theological and political differences peacefully. On the Continent, this violence culminated in the Thirty Year’s War (though religious differences were not the sole cause of the Thirty Year’s War, they were a major factor). From 1618-1648, armies marched back and forth across Europe. Cities were burned to the ground; the countryside laid waste; plague and famine were daily companions. Britain experienced its own related conflict, with a period of Civil War and unrest that engulfed England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland between 1640 and 1660.

Contemporaries came to see not religion as a whole, but religious “enthusiasm” as one cause of their distress. Religious enthusiasts were those who claimed a direct link to God through personal revelation. Acting on what they believed was God’s will, they sought to overturn existing power structures, either through active rebellion or by refusing to participate in civil society. In mid-seventeenth-century England, the Quakers were one such group. Believers in radical equality, they were widely persecuted for (among other things) refusing to doff their hats to social superiors. Similar groups existed across Europe, often persecuted by both Protestants and Catholics because rulers were not interested in keeping around those who posed a threat to the existing social order.

As the seventeenth century wore on, and the Thirty Years’ War wound down, individuals—and their governments—grew exhausted of religious war and religious enthusiasm. In England, this led to much contested efforts to find a new basis for civil society, one that would be broadly Protestant but would depend neither on personal revelation nor on the reconciliation of differences between divergent Christian sects (an impossible task). Instead, it would depend on the authority of the secular government, which included, in some sense, the Anglican Church, given that the monarch stood at its head, too. In this context, using astrology (and the appearances of comets) to predict the downfall of kings and the rise of plagues fell out of favor, at least among the educated elite. Astrology was too much like religious enthusiasm: its predictions were grounded in claims of personal access to things unseen and they tended to fuel civil unrest.

This is where science comes in: as Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer established in their book The Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, the founders of England’s Royal Society, the scientific fellowship of which Newton was a member, thought that scientific knowledge could form the basis of the new shared social order. These natural philosophers (the term “scientist” didn’t exist yet) aligned themselves with England’s king, seeking (and obtaining) royal support and patronage. They sought to work within the reward structures of their day, not to challenge them. This was reflected in their scientific methodology as well as their interpretations of some of their results.

The fellows of the Royal Society agreed to deal only in matters of fact, things that could be proved by experiment. When they met to discuss scientific subjects and published their findings in Philosophical Transactions, their journal, they left what they defined as religious speculation at the door. Why? In the face of religious enthusiasm, the Royal Society classified spiritual knowledge as the opposite of matters of fact. Because it depended on interior perceptions of the divine, it was unsusceptible to proof in the way that matters of fact were. And only a body of knowledge that rested on facts had the hope of being a sound foundation for social order.

But by no means did the fellows of the Royal Society give up their Christianity. In some ways, in searching after matters of fact, natural philosophers were looking for a God who would transcend the religious differences that fueled civil war and unrest. They believed that natural philosophy, in revealing the underlying mathematical order of nature, provided evidence of God’s designing hand at work in the cosmos. Though Cosmos (the show) suggests otherwise, Newton’s laws by no means eliminated the eighteenth century’s need for a designer: rather, they were largely taken as evidence of one.  Perceptions of design in nature also tended to reinforce social order: for many of Newton’s contemporaries, it was a short leap from divine rational order in nature to divine rational order in the social world, with God ordaining kings and parliaments to rule the people wisely and justly.

Indeed, if the invention of modern science cured humanity of “mysticism,” someone forgot to tell Newton: even as he was developing his landmark scientific insights, he secretly spent a great deal of his intellectual energies on correlating the history of the world with Biblical prophecies. The show mentions Newton’s “mystic” preoccupations, but doesn’t acknowledge the trouble they pose for its thesis. Ironically, as Sara Schechner discusses in Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology, Newton also affiliated comets with the supernatural, believing that when their orbits swung them by the sun, they fulfilled a divinely ordained purpose of recharging a solar system which otherwise, according to his calculations, would lose energy and wind down. 

So, in early modern Europe, the development of science as a body of knowledge and as a human activity was one strand in the long history of moving through and resolving (albeit partially) the political and religious conflicts engendered by the Reformation. This process was driven more by religion, and religious violence than by science. Scientists themselves interpreted the truths they discovered in terms that accorded with their religious and political beliefs.  

But why does any of this matter?

It matters because the Cosmos narrative makes it more difficult to develop public understanding of science as a human activity, a foundation for true scientific literacy. The narrative that Cosmos creates doesn’t really acknowledge the ways in which science is shaped by society (or, if it does so, it dismisses them). It assumes that scientific ideas persuade by their truth, and that, because scientists pursue the truth rigorously, the truth of a scientific idea, once arrived at, is obvious. Yet there are plenty of people down into the present day who deny one scientific truth or another, for all kinds of reasons, religious or otherwise. Moreover, science itself is fraught with conflict: in many cases, it’s not immediately clear where the truth lies. In Newton’s day, the truth and, beyond that, the meaning of his discoveries were disputed across Europe.

To close on one prominent contemporary example, human-induced climate change has been the subject of much controversy in the United States. Although the vast majority of scientific studies now agree that it is a real phenomenon with serious consequences, over the years, scientific research and reasoning have been marshaled to support various positions: that it’s happening, and humans are causing it; that maybe it’s happening, but it’s not clear if humans are behind it; that it’s not happening at all; and that it’s happening, but it’s not clear what actions, if any, should be taken against it. If you believe that truth persuades simply by being true, and that the truth should be obvious, it might be difficult to navigate these waters. On the other hand, if you understand science as a human activity, one that interacts with the broader society in which it takes place, it becomes possible to begin to disentangle the lines of money and power that can affect scientific research and its public dissemination and reception, particularly when the research concerns a subject like climate change, where scientific truth has big economic and political consequences. So, insofar as Cosmos promotes scientific literacy: yes. Insofar as it obscures science as a human activity (truths persuade solely by virtue of being true): no.

Elizabeth Yale is an historian of science and adjunct assistant professor at The University of Iowa Center for the Book.  

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Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an Wed, 09 Apr 2014 16:39:37 +0000 The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Juliane Hammer reviews Denise A. Spellberg’s new book, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders.

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders 
By Denise A. Spellberg 
Alfred A. Knopf, 2013 

On January 3, 2007, Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, took his symbolic oath of office with his hand on a two-volume English translation (by George Sale) of the Qur’an. It was no ordinary copy of the Qur’an but rather the one owned by Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers and third president of the United States. Ellison had planned to take the oath with a Qur’an and was alerted to the existence of this particular one in a letter from a constituent. When he announced his decision, controversy erupted. In response, Ellison told the Associated Press that the fact that Jefferson owned a Qur’an “demonstrates that from the very beginning of our country, we had people who were visionary, who were religiously tolerant, who believed that knowledge and wisdom could be gleaned from any number of sources, including the Quran.” He added, “A visionary like Thomas Jefferson was not afraid of a different belief system. This just shows that religious tolerance is the bedrock of our country, and religious differences are nothing to be afraid of.”

It is this same sentiment that permeates Denise A. Spellberg’s new book, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. In it, Spellberg offers a meticulously researched and incredibly detailed account not only of how Jefferson came to acquire a copy of the Qur’an in English but also of the broader historical circumstances of his political career and the role of religion in the period of the founding fathers. Spellberg develops a nuanced and insightful analysis of the seemingly contradicting attitudes towards Islam and Muslims displayed by Jefferson and his contemporaries as represented in historical records. The conundrums she sets out to explore are the following: Why did the founding fathers include the theoretical possibility of Muslims not only as citizens of the United States but as federal office holders (including the presidency) in their deliberations on the one hand, while demonstrating decidedly negative views of Islam (and Muslim political adversaries overseas) on the other? Is the inclusion of Muslims as the farthest edge of political possibility more than a rhetorical tool for defining that same edge? Was Islam recognized as a legitimate religion, together with and beyond Judaism and Catholicism, in a young country that seemed to assume Protestantism as its foundation? What could Jefferson’s musings about Islam and his ownership of a Qur’an tell us about the negotiation of religion(s) in the realm of American politics?

Spellberg provides a broad historical frame for her inquiry. She starts in the early sixteenth century and spends her first two chapters on the development of European attitudes towards Islam, both negative and positive, to then reflect on how such European attitudes were carried as well as renegotiated on their passage to America. She establishes the existence of an, albeit fringe, movement for the political toleration of followers of Islam and early discussions of freedom of religious practice in New England. A curious play by Voltaire about the Prophet Muhammad, written as a critique of French politics, appears on stage in the late eighteenth century in North America, performed on both sides of the Revolutionary War. The 1797 novel The Algerine Captive, by Royall Tyler, takes up the captivity experiences of Americans in North Africa, but, according to Spellberg, provides a representation of Muslims and a reading of Islam so sympathetic that the author feels pressured to apologize. European and American Protestant thinkers argue for the separation of religion from government affairs and John Locke appears as a predecessor to Jefferson in both his interest in Islam and his ideas about toleration of religious minorities. Spellberg demonstrates the longer history of debates about secularism and religion on the one hand, and the toleration of Muslims in Europe, transported and rethought in America on the other.

The central chapters of the book follow a more or less chronological structure and trace Jefferson’s political career from 1765 to 1823. Spellberg lays out how Jefferson came to acquire a copy of the Sale translation of the Qur’an, which significantly contained an introduction, written by Sale, to Muslim history and law. She juxtaposes Jefferson’s negative views of Islam with his early arguments for Muslim civil rights and presents the tension between this latter argument and the presence of West African Muslim slaves which, by virtue of their racial classification and their status as unfree members of society, would not have been included in Jefferson’s consideration of Muslims as potential citizens. Jefferson and John Adams appear as political rivals in negotiations over North African piracy—talks which Jefferson carried out in part with the Tunisian ambassador in London. Spellberg emphasizes that Jefferson wanted to define the piracy problem and the ensuing conflict with North African states in explicitly political and economic terms and avoided reference to religion at all cost.

Around 1788, in the discussions leading up to the final form of the U.S. Constitution, Muslims, or at least imagined Muslim citizens, became a point of debate in regards to the religious oaths required of political office holders. Those opposed to Protestantism as the de-facto state religion argued for the inclusion of Catholics, Jews, and Muslims as political leaders; some even pushed for full religious inclusion and political equality for religious minorities. Those in favor of Protestant privilege warned of the dangers of non-Protestant infiltration and the resulting changes in the character of the United States. Spellberg’s chapter “Could a Muslim be President?” ends with the somewhat curious inclusion of the stories of two prominent African Muslim slaves, Abdul Rahman Ibrahima (or Ibrahima Abd al-Rahman, d. 1829) and Omar ibn Said (d. 1863). Spellberg presents them as a reminder of the presence of “real” Muslims in America, invisible and without rights, at the very same time that Jefferson and the founding fathers were discussing the hypothetical presence of American Muslims and their potential claims to political office. The last of four chapters on Jefferson discuss his continued, mostly negative references to Islam, and their connection to the ongoing conflict with Tripoli, as well as the ways in which Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and Muslim despotism become points of reference in American political discourse, namely insults hurled at political opponents. Spellberg asserts that “Jefferson’s position on Muslim rights and potential for citizenship remained consistent from his days as a law student in the 1760s until the end of his life.”

The book contains an afterword that points to the continued significance of the questions at hand. Spellberg takes up the contemporary relevance of Muslim citizenship and political office and offers a cursory contemporary history, which includes: recent attacks on Muslim civil rights after 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims, insistent claims that Barack Obama is a Muslim, as well as the debate over Rep. Ellison’s swearing-in ceremony, and the controversy over the Park51 mosque and community center project in New York City. The list Spellberg offers closely resembles one posted on the ACLU website, which defends the protection of religious freedom for Muslims in the United States. The ACLU goes on to state: “We must always—especially in times of controversy—vigilantly uphold our core values. When we violate one group’s freedom, everyone’s liberty is at stake. And the ACLU will continue to defend the civil rights of everyone in our country.” Spellberg ends her book with a similar plea: “Any attack upon the rights of Muslim citizens should be recognized for what it remains: an assault upon the universal ideal of civil rights promised all believers at the country’s founding.” 

Spellberg’s book demonstrates the depth as well as breadth of the research task she performed since 2005 when she first developed an interest in Jefferson’s Qur’an. The book contains meticulous footnotes and a wide array of primary and secondary sources and Spellberg does not shy away from alternative readings and conclusions of archival sources where she disagrees with existing scholarship. As a fellow Islamic studies scholar, though one who has focused on contemporary Muslim communities in the United States for some time, I admire Spellberg’s foray into unfamiliar territory (she self-identifies in the introduction as a “specialist in Islamic history”) and appreciate her willingness to connect her field of interest, Islam, with American constitutional history. Her training as an Islamicist makes it all the more surprising that one of my major concerns with her book is her repeated and insistent essentialization of Islam. Time and again, she juxtaposes correct understandings of Islam—which lack nuance and tend toward the idea that there is a recognizable and distinct entity called Islam—with incorrect or false understandings displayed by Jefferson and others. It becomes the most glaring (and disturbing) when Spellberg discusses Jefferson’s encounter with Abd al-Rahman, the Tripolitan ambassador to London. Abd al-Rahman is quoted referencing the Qur’an to support Tripoli’s expectation that the U.S. would pay in return for protection from pirate attacks, arguing that Islamic law required such treatment of others from Muslims. In the following pages, Spellberg, rather than reflecting on why the ambassador deemed it appropriate to use references to the Qur’an and Islamic law as political arguments, lays out a framework for jihad and peace in Islam that appears universal and even suggests which other Qur’anic passages the ambassador could and should have referred to instead. The same essentialism is also at work in the indiscriminate use of the word “Islamic” in many places where “Muslim” would be more appropriate and indicative of a nuanced discussion of normative claims and analytical statements.

My second “e” of concern (after essentialism) is exceptionalism: Spellberg focuses on Islam as the very edge of religious inclusion which raises both concern about what that might mean for Hindus, Buddhists, and others as citizens and holders of political office. It also omits the many ways in which the debates about Muslims and Islam were interconnected with and indeed interdependent on debates about Jews as well as Catholics. To be sure, there are glimpses of those debates and the book is focused on Islam, but this focus makes it necessary to reach elsewhere for the parallel (and different stories) of Jews, Catholics, and others as part of the American polity.

My last “e” is concern about Spellberg’s rather uncritical enthusiasm for the founding fathers and founding principles of the United States. The underlying argument for the book is the assumption, reflected in Ellison’s statement above as well, that all the United States needs is a good and solid look at its own history in order to be the best it can be. The political and totally naturalized liberalism at work here certainly makes the book appealing to a broader political spectrum, and indeed, at times it reads like a plea to those who want to exclude Muslims from civil rights and citizenship, but it severely limits the possibility for political critique. If all we can ask and struggle for is to go back to the founding ideals, then we are limiting the possibility of change and stifle the range of critical expansions in many directions. Bearing this in mind, this reviewer, perhaps too optimistically, hopes that the book can do its part to move those who need it most.

Juliane Hammer is associate professor and Kenan Rifai Scholar of Islamic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Maine: A Spiritual Frontier Opens for Business Thu, 03 Apr 2014 16:00:21 +0000 A Spiritual Frontier Opens for Business.

(Frederic Edwin Church's Mount Katahdin/Hulton Fine Art/Getty)

(Frederic Edwin Church’s Mount Katahdin/Hulton Fine Art/Getty)

When most people think of the state of Maine, they think “Vacationland,” a place of dramatic natural beauty, lobster, and leisurely summer afternoons. That’s true in part, and we did have “Vacationland” on our license plates for years. But the term is a little, well, soft to describe the whole state. The official state motto, which Maine schoolchildren (and only Maine schoolchildren) know, is “Dirigo,” Latin for “I lead.”  That certainly fits geographically, but not with much else. The more enthusiastic Maine social studies teachers also proudly proclaim, “As Maine Goes, So Goes The Nation,” which originally referred to Maine’s nineteenth-century record for electing a governor from the same party as the coming president. But since we’ve started electing Independents, it doesn’t really seem to apply anymore. And besides, who wants their state to be just like the nation?

Most Mainers I know prefer a third description of our state’s ethos. Driving up I-95, just after you cross the Maine-New Hampshire border on the bridge over the Piscataqua River, you will pass a large, blue and white, government-issued sign that reads, “Welcome to Maine: The Way Life Should Be.” Proud, direct, independent, and also managing to hint that life “should be” more beautiful, more filled with pine trees and craggy coastlines. For me, it might as well say, “If you lived here, you’d be home now.” 

It has taken me many years to claim Maine as my home state. As a kid, I was always aware that I was “from away,” and therefore not a real Mainer. My parents had moved to Maine from Vermont in 1979, when I was 2 years old. My brother was born in Maine, but that still didn’t count. As the inscrutable Downeast Maine saying goes, “Just because a cat had kittens in the oven doesn’t make ‘em biscuits.” Conventional wisdom had it that you had to go back at least three generations in Maine in order to claim authentic Mainer status.

When I asked my parents why they had decided to drop everything and move to a place where they knew no one, they would always say it was “because we wanted to live by the ocean.” But they also had alternative ideas about the way life should be: more wholesome, closer to nature, more egalitarian, farther away from war, pollution, and commercialism. My family’s spiritual seeking and far-left politics sometimes made us seem like aliens in the ordinary small town we had chosen to call home. Especially when it came to religion. One spring afternoon in 1984, I came home in tears after an accidental after-school visit to a child-evangelizing group called the Good News Club. I was seven years old and angry: Why had nobody told me that the world was about to end and I would go straight to hell if I didn’t get saved by someone called Jesus? I started asking my parents all sorts of existential questions. 

My parents, wanting me to have as many possible answers to these questions as possible, created an ad-hoc tour of comparative religions of Downeast Maine. They asked a visiting friend to take me to the local Catholic church. They had another friend explain the Hindu concept of reincarnation. Finally, they took the whole family to a Unitarian church. My brother and I were sent downstairs for Sunday school, where our task was to learn about Islam, and draw prayer rugs on large rolls of butcher paper with crayons. I always thought of this experience as absurd. What could be more out of place than a half-Jew, half-WASP copying out Islamic designs onto butcher paper surrounded by pine trees in the middle of a Maine winter? But actually, this kind of spiritual eclecticism has an extremely long history in Maine. 

Yes, Maine is the second-whitest state in the union, (after Vermont) according to the 2010 census. Our population is only 1.3 million people, and our population density is half the national average. Still, a Harvard University Pluralism Project researcher called the state “particularly unique” when it comes to religious diversity. And historically, Maine is especially full of those religions that come with a progressive political pedigree. If Boston was the hub of nineteenth-century Transcendentalism, then Maine was the spiritual frontier. Its remoteness and awe-inspiring beauty drew seekers like Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in The Maine Woods of his 1864 attempt to climb Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest peak. The landscape “reminded me of the creations of the old epic and dramatic poets … it was vast, Titanic, and such as man never inhabits.” Of course, men did inhabit Maine at that time; Thoreau just couldn’t see them from his perch. He was more of a “Vacationland” kind of visitor. But there were others who came, and stayed. 

Most Mainers, myself until recently included, do not know that what is now the Green Acre Bahai School in Eliot, Maine, was one of the first places in the U.S. where Buddhist meditation, Hindu yoga, and other non-Western religious practices were introduced to curious American seekers. In the history of the “religious left” that the religious historian Leigh Eric Schmidt traces in his Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, Green Acre plays a key role. The haven for comparative religion was run by Sarah Jane Farmer, a Boston progressive whose family home had been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Though Farmer’s 1901 conversion to the Bahai faith was considered a tragic betrayal of her comparative religion roots at the time, today the fact that Maine hosts a major outpost of this international faith adds to, rather than detracts from, the state’s religious diversity.

Another surprising spiritual tradition made even further inroads into the state. At Temple Heights Spiritualist Camp in Northport, you can still see the railroad tracks that used to carry hundreds of seekers up by train from Boston for séances and table-rapping. In the nineteenth century, as Schmidt writes in Restless Souls, spiritualism was embraced by progressives as “an intuitive spiritual quest for originality, transcendence, and emancipation,” particularly for women. Today, Temple Heights doesn’t go in so much for politics. But there is still a certain sense of liberalism about the place. Karen Wentworth Batignani, intrepid author of Exploring the Spirit of Maine: A Seeker’s Guide, found it to be surprisingly easygoing for a spiritual establishment. “People feel comfortable smoking on the porch, drinking coffee at 10:00pm, staying up late, and eating rich comfort foods. You will not be judged for those pesky indulgences.” Spiritualism, Maine-style. Today, Maine is one of only four states in the U.S. to have a branch of the National Association of Spiritualist Churches.

Maine is a birthplace and survival ground of new religious movements, no matter their political cast. Variety is the name of the game. In the 1860s, Portland-based spiritual healer Phineas Quimby attracted many students, including Mary Baker Eddy, later the founder of Christian Science. In 1875, after Quimby’s death, Eddy published Science and Health, which many claimed was a compilation of his ideas.* (According to her New York Times obituary, Eddy repeatedly denied this.) Ellen G. White, founding prophet of the Seventh-Day Adventists, was born and bred in the small town of Gorham, where she was baptized in the Casco Bay in 1842. The last remaining settlement of Shakers at Sabbathday Lake closed to the public in 1888, but reopened in 1963. And that same determined pluralism is also present in Maine politics. 

Not long ago, a second motto appeared on that “Welcome to Maine” highway sign. On March 18, 2011, newly elected governor Paul Lepage presided over the ceremonial installation of a sign reading “Open For Business,” affixed below “The Way Life Should Be” on the same metal poles. That June, someone removed the sign. In August, a group of businessmen pitched in to buy and install a bigger replacement. Lepage, who comes from Lewiston-Auburn, one of Maine’s largest and most economically depressed towns, is proud that he pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become, among other things, general manager of the hugely successful Maine discount chain Marden’s. (Marden’s is a place that, I can attest from personal experience, many of us Mainers feel quite religious about.) He purported to represent the sizable chunk of Maine’s population that is still in poverty, hard hit by the recession, for whom Maine could not be considered “the way life should be.” Unfortunately, as governor he has become best known for telling the NAACP to “kiss my butt” on Martin Luther King Day, calling the IRS “the new Gestapo,” tearing down a historical mural commemorating the labor movement, opposing life-saving drugs, and trying to weaken Maine’s environmental protections. As the LePage administration became more and more controversial, the sign became a meme. People photoshopped in new slogans: “Open for Business … We Have Lots of Jobs But Not the Right Skillz”; “Open for Business…Everything Must Go!!! Worker’s Rights, Children’s Health, Public Safety & More! All for Rock-Bottom Wages!”; and “Open for Business Exploitation.”

If Maine is such an open-minded state, how did such a polarizing figure even get elected? Portland Press Herald reporter Colin Woodard wrote earlier this year in Politico that Lepage’s victory is due to an “unusual facet of Maine politics: our tradition of strong third-party candidates, who can split the vote and increase the risk of the election of a candidate whose polices or personality lack wide support.” Indeed, the tradition continues: although recent surveys show that Maine voters would not elect Lepage again, there are shaping up to be three candidates for governor in the next round of elections too. The diversity of options is important to Mainers, even if it risks electing one of the more strident of those choices. The problem with Lepage’s new slogan was that it seemed offensively redundant. Was the governor implying that Maine had not always been “Open for Business”? Besides, the welcoming open-mindedness embodied in “The Way Life Should Be” and the hardworking “Open for Business” have never really been in conflict. 

The flinty brand of entrepreneurism that Mainers like Lepage are rightly proud of can also be seen in Maine religion. The only reason the Shaker settlement at Sabbathday Lake has stayed alive is because it was willing to package itself for the outside world as a museum. Even Thoreau, that ultimate tourist, saw some business opportunities on his way down the slopes of Katahdin: “When the country is settled and roads are made, these cranberries will perhaps become an article of commerce.” (Well, mostly blueberries, and not in Baxter State Park, but he was close.) Maine is the land of small businesses, and many of its small religions participate in the economy. There’s nothing saying open-mindedness and business acumen can’t coexist. In Maine, they always have. And that’s the way life should be.

Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden and editor-in-chief of the online literary magazine Killing the Buddha. Though Bass Harbor, Maine, will always be home, Brook currently lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.  

*The sentence originally misidentified the year Quimby published one of his works.

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The Establishment Clause: An Interview with Judge Guido Calabresi Thu, 27 Mar 2014 04:00:31 +0000 (Washington University in St. Louis)

(Washington University in St. Louis)

On February 27, Judge Guido Calabresi visited Washington University in St. Louis to deliver the lecture, “What about the Establishment Clause?” The program was a joint event between the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics and the Washington University School of Law.

Calabresi was appointed United States Circuit Judge in 1994. Prior to his appointment, he was Dean of Yale Law School, where he began teaching in 1959 and where he is currently the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Law and Professorial Lecturer in Law. He has been awarded some forty honorary degrees from universities in the United States and abroad, and is the author of four books and more than one hundred articles on law and related subjects.

Calabresi sat down with R&P Editor and Center Director Marie Griffith for an interview. Judge Calabresi’s interview was given in conjunction with a scholarly lecture that he gave at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics of Washington University in St. Louis. The lecture and interview were part of the academic program of the John C. Danforth Center, and were both made for purposes of legal education. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

R&P: I hope things are going well with your visit so far.

GC: Wonderful. Could not be better.

R&P: We’re honored to have you here. I thought we’d start with the present and then we can go back to the past. I have to ask you, of course, about the case Town of Greece v. Galloway, which is in all of the news, and I know it’s the first Establishment Clause case to go to the Supreme Court in many years.

GC: In many years. It’s a very interesting case. And it’s an interesting panel because Jerry Lynch is on it, and he is a very smart, moderate judge, top of the class at Columbia, and Dick Wesley, the presider, describes himself as the most conservative man in upstate New York. He was a Pataki appointment to the New York Court of Appeals and then came to our court and is a wonderful judge. He says that he pays a great deal of attention to what people say in the post office in Livonia, New York; very much at one with people in small towns. What we faced first was the question of whether beginning town meetings with prayer was allowed. Much of the press on this case acted as if our answer was no; our case says the opposite. It says absolutely! What we are asking is: how can you do that without defining a town as being Christian, Judeo-Christian, Abrahamic? And that is a very difficult issue.

Judge Wilkinson, Harvie Wilkinson of the Fourth Circuit, said—and, interestingly, caused no fuss at all—you can only do it if a prayer is non-sectarian. We took the position that a non-sectarian prayer is either a contradiction in terms or is an establishment. It is an establishment of the “okay” religions. Of “what we are all agreed on.” What we wanted to do was to find a way of allowing people to pray without having a town define itself as Christian—which was the claim about this case. But, keep in mind that, in our circuit, we also have Kiryas Joel, a town that wants to define itself as Satmar, a particular sect of the Jewish faith. In other words, we have many forms of the desire for self-definition, of the desire to say, in religious terms, “We are something.” What we came up with was the notion that a town can do anything it wants so long as it is open to every religion and non-religion. There can be prayer, and it can be sectarian, so long as it isn’t insulting to others. But it can specifically have prayers that say: “this is the essence of what my religion is.” A town can do this so long as it lets, and has, everyone—every faith and non-faith—do it. But that means also going out and making sure that it’s not just the people in the town. And this is one of the difficult things because the town’s position was, “Well, we asked everybody in town.” But of course, “everybody in town” may well represent what that town is in religious terms. If you had asked everybody in town in New Haven at a certain time, everybody was Congregational. That is the essence of an establishment. What we tried to do was to allow prayer and yet not permit a town to define itself as being of “a particular religion.”

Now, I would not be surprised if the Supreme Court reversed us, for any number of reasons. And that would be too bad. I think the justice on the Supreme Court who is closest to our point of view is Justice Breyer. The position he has taken in Ten Commandments and Cross cases is to ask whether the challenged symbol self-defines in a way that excludes. And the two things are always related: does it self-define and does it exclude somebody else by doing that? Does it say: “We are this, you can come, but you’re second-class”?

The closest question in our case is whether we were correct to find as a matter of law, that this town was self-defining. That’s a factual question, and one could say that we should have sent it back to the district court. I think the facts as to self-defining were mighty strong, strong enough so that we could find as we did. But it would be understandable if one were to say that the structure which we used—that one can pray, but one can’t self-define, and one can’t exclude, and that means one has to bring people in so that what a town is doing is open to all—is okay as a statement of the law, but that the findings of facts have to be more local and more locally determined than we permitted. I don’t care very strongly one way or the other about this point. We felt that way about the facts of the case before us, and so we decided as we did, but one could read the facts differently.

In all this, it may be that one of the things that shaped my views was growing up in New Haven, which was then, in some ways, a totally Congregational town. There wasn’t a Presbyterian church in New Haven until after the Second World War because the two great Calvinist sects had divided the market. From New York north and east was Congregational, from New York south and west was Presbyterian. And all of [my wife] Anne’s relatives, her mother’s side from Minnesota, would come to Yale and become Congregational, and then go back to Minnesota, and become Presbyterian again. So growing up in New Haven, I had a strong sense of what it means for people to self-define.

I also grew up seeing a remarkable example of the opposite: the Grove Street cemetery, the ancient New Haven cemetery, which is right next to the law school. James Hillhouse bought a farm in the eighteenth century or early nineteenth century—Hillhouse was one of the first strong abolitionists; he was a senator, treasurer of the university, and an amazing person—to make a cemetery and take the graves off the New Haven green. And it is said, I can’t tell if it’s true, but the legend is, that he wanted this cemetery to be open to everybody—that is, he wanted people to feel that it was open to everybody—yet, at the same time he wanted to allow people to define themselves religiously. So he did two things: first he wanted to have a symbol of immortality, but he didn’t want any symbol that would say, “This is our place.” And, if you look at the Grove Street cemetery, you see an odd “sun” symbol and you realize that the architecture of the entrance gate is unusual. The “sun” is an Egyptian symbol of immortality and the gate is neo-Egyptian. Because there were no Egyptians in New Haven at the time, this said anybody can come. Second, he made the cemetery have individual family plots owned in fee. This meant that the cemetery did not tell you what you could do or could not do on your plot. So you have, from the beginning, the Pintos, Portuguese Jews, buried there with Stars of David. You have very large crosses and “high” church symbols, which some families, like the Trowbridges, wanted. And you even have one character who put in two sphinxes. In other words, in your own place you could define yourself religiously, but as a unit the cemetery was open to everybody. And that was in the back of my mind when I was writing Town of Greece. 

R&P: That’s fascinating. You mentioned people of no faith being included in this, the atheists who are very active now. I wonder, going back to the point you raised a minute ago, is there such a thing as non-sectarian prayer? How do you include the folks who are upset?

GC: You cannot have a non-sectarian prayer. It is a prayer of what I call “banquet religions,” those religions that are sufficiently okay, so that at a banquet open to all, no one religion feels upset by what that particular minister or priest or rabbi says. That is what is non-sectarian, and it has become a kind of establishment. And then the question becomes, how do you deal with secularists? Genuine secularists? The history of secularists, and secularism in this county is both odd and interesting. Let’s go back to the beginning.

In the eighteenth century, the First Amendment, at a national level, was amazing in its egalitarianism. It said there are no “we” religions, there are no “they” religions, all are the same. There is no affirmative action and Congress must keep out. Why? Because there are no “theys” who have to be brought in. Contrast with this the language of the Fourteenth Amendment: People who were not people, now, are not only people but are equal. And Congress can make laws to see to it that they are treated equally! This is a very different approach towards equality from that which the First Amendment took toward religion.

But, actually, very early, a form of affirmative action did occur. Towards whom? Towards secularists. Why? Because, in fact, at that time they were the only “theys.” People might be theists, they might be something else, but very, very few were genuine secularists or non-believers. Because “belief” was the “we,” there was affirmative action towards the “they,” “non-belief.” What has happened, over the centuries, is that these “theys” have become as much “we” as anyone else. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that, “do not treat secularism better than religion,” has become (and especially recently in court opinions) a strong and dominant argument. The old affirmative action is still there, to some extent. The square in front of our courthouse is called Tom Paine Square. If it were called Aquinas or Maimonides or Calvin Square, there’d be a fuss. So it is still there to some extent. But we are understanding, correctly, that now affirmative action for secularism is no longer needed and that non-belief should now be treaded in the same was as all the different beliefs.

The problem is that people who are arguing these cases, instead of saying, “All should be treated similarly, because we are no longer a religious nation,” are making the opposite argument. They are saying, “We have a right to this because we are a Christian or Judeo-Christian or Abrahamic nation.” And that’s a loser. Because that’s when the Establishment Clause says, “No.” Somebody like me looks at these cases and this current situation, and says, I am very sympathetic to the notion that separation of church and state, whatever you want to call it, no longer means that secularism gets a leg up. It doesn’t get a leg up because it doesn’t need it anymore, in the way it may have needed it in the beginning. And this is so, not because we are what we no longer, if ever, were: a Christian, etc. nation.

R&P: Going back to Greece v. Galloway, what do you think the court will do?

GC: Well, it’s clear from the oral argument, that this is a hard case for them. What are they going to say? Unless they are prepared to hold that self-definition doesn’t matter so long as the state action doesn’t coerce—which is a position one could take: it doesn’t matter if a town defines itself as of this, that, or the other religion, so long as it doesn’t coerce—it’s a very hard to draw a line.

I am not, myself, prepared to take that position. And again, this is almost for autobiographical reasons. I came to New Haven as a seven-year-old Italian of a family that was very self-important; we were not people who were going to be coerced by anybody; we rather thought that we were better than everybody. After all, “these people were painting themselves blue, when we were already highly civilized.” We came to this town and I went to public school in an area mainly of Yale kids. Almost all the teachers were nice Irish Catholic ladies, yet we began every day with the Lord’s Prayer—Congregational style! This was New Haven, the teachers knew what the establishment was and they knew what they were supposed to do. Now one of the grounds, on the basis of which the Supreme Court banned school prayer, is coercion. That could be right, but again because I was sufficiently self-important, I didn’t feel that anyone was coercing me to do anything. Still I did find the prayer very odd because it told me in no uncertain terms what this city was religiously, what was New Haven’s establishment—what its self-definition—was. The Supreme Court in Galloway may go on a coercion/non coercion ground. But I think it would be an unfortunate ground.

Let’s turn to the hardest question of all, which is what I’ll be talking about this afternoon: how far down the line does one go with Establishment Clause reasoning? At the national level, at the state level, at a municipal level, at a neighborhood level, at an individual, corporation, company level. To what degree do you allow people to self-define, and can one do this in a way that doesn’t exclude others? The Arizona law is an example of that issue.

R&P: I wanted to ask you about that too, so since you’ve mentioned it, all of the religious liberty arguments that are out there now, some of them being made by very powerful institutions. What are your thoughts on these cases?

GC: I have to be careful because I don’t want to put myself in a position that would cause me to recuse myself in such cases. On the other hand, what I think I can say is that you have a trade-off between the right of individuals and churches to define themselves and the discriminatory effect that self-definition has on others. After all, while the nation may not define itself as Judeo-Christian, and a state may not any longer define itself as Congregational, an individual or a church certainly has the right to define itself in the way that it is. But, to what extent can an organization: an individual, a church itself, a church­related corporation or a corporation which is owned by individuals—these are different—define itself in ways that exclude others, that—in effect—discriminate against them?

The first thing I think that you have to ask is how much to the core of that organization does that self-definition go. So when you’re talking about a church itself, you’re talking about something different from when you’re talking about a corporation. And when you’re talking about a corporation, that’s something different from an individual. The next questions are: whom are you excluding and how dramatically are you excluding them? Are you excluding a group that has been classically discriminated against? We wouldn’t conceive of an Arizona-type law that said people have the right—if their religion says that blacks are inferior—not to deal with blacks. So, the question is how much is the “excluded” group a group that our Constitution says cannot be maltreated. And then one must ask: how much of an exclusion, a maltreatment, does the self-definitions cause? Go back to Kiryas Joel. It is one thing to create a school district, it is another thing to draw lines, so that within the outlines of those lines people who are of this faith are within an area where they can do certain things on the Sabbath. The latter doesn’t exclude others in the same way the former does. It excludes too—every self-definition excludes—but some self-definitions do so much more than others. The balance is among these three factors: how crucial is the self-definition to the self-definer, whom does it exclude, and how grievously or trivially does it exclude, may well make one case different from another. So I’ve said something which both states my position and I don’t think requires me to recuse myself in any case.

R&P: I just have one last real question. Sarah Barringer Gordon is a friend and colleague of mine.

GC: Absolutely lovely, wonderful person.

R&P: And admires you tremendously. But she’s made an interesting point before that one of our big problems in these cases is that we don’t have a clear legal definition of religion. And until and unless the courts ever have a really clear, bounded thing we can call religion, we’re going to have endless numbers of cases like this. Do you agree with that critique?

GC: Actually, yes and no, there is a problem here. She is of course right: we don’t have a definition. And we see that in the conscientious objection and similar cases where we say, “Well, this is like religion,” or, “This matters to people in the same way that religion does.” But the moment one defines religion, and the stronger the First Amendment protections to religion are, the more those things that are outside the definition are thrown outside of Constitutional protection. And this is a constant danger of the First Amendment. You see it in speech, and especially so for people, like Justice Black, who have a very strong view of the First Amendment: “Speech is absolute, don’t touch it at all.” But then you have things that are not speech, and as to these, the majority can do almost anything.

If you have a clear definition of religion, then what is outside that definition are “cults” and get no protection at all. This says to some people, “What you believe in is outside the Constitution,” and to say that is a very dangerous thing. For, when you say that something people believe in is outside the Constitution, you force people to do one of three things. One: to go in the streets and try to change the Constitution. (Which we’ve seen as to some things, and which I’ll come back to.) Or two: to drop the belief that made them a cult, which is what happened with the Mormons and polygamy. (This, however, is very dangerous because those who have been forced to abandon their belief, are then quite understandably likely to say, “When we’re in the majority, we can impose our view on others. You told us we couldn’t do certain things, then, when we think that there are some things that others do that are immoral, we can do the same.”) Or, finally, you get some “believers” who become outlaws. (And every five or six years The New York Times will write an article about these “horrible” people who are living somewhere or another and doing this and that which is wrong and “cultish.”)

It’s too late to put that genie back in the bottle now, way, way too late. We can’t do anything about it. And I understand what Sarah is saying. But when you say you are a cult, not a religion, you’re saying, “You don’t have any protection,” and that is very dangerous. Think of Lincoln saying, “A country cannot live half slave and half free.” That wasn’t true! It lived a hundred years that way. What made it impossible to continue being that way was when the South through Dred Scott was able to say, “We are an all-slave country.” At that point, the North, which previously had treated the abolitionists as right, but repulsive, said, “Oh, no, if it’s going to be all one way, it’s going to be our way.” Now I’m glad of this, because there are some things that are not acceptable, like slavery, like segregation. But one has to be careful when one rules out something. It is easier to be broader if you don’t give as much protection, and this is the trade-off. If you really want to give protection to religion, you’re going to have to define it. Sarah’s right. But don’t forget the dangers of it.

R&P: Thank you so much, Judge Calabresi. 

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Contraception v. Religious Freedom: Hobby Lobby Heads to the Supreme Court Wed, 19 Mar 2014 04:00:50 +0000 (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

(AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

On March 25, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in two religious exemption cases, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialty Store v. Sebelius, which challenge a provision of the Women’s Health Amendment to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This will be the second time the Court has ruled on challenges to Obamacare: In 2012, Chief Justice John Roberts surprised many on the left and the right by delivering the majority opinion in the decision that determined the ACA’s individual mandate was not unconstitutional. That ruling turned not on the judicial resolution of any hot-button issue in the case but instead on a fairly staid reading of the Commerce Clause, to the effect that the cost of refusing insurance coverage took the form of a tax, not a punitive fine. Hobby Lobby, as the new, consolidated cases will be known, is being closely watched for raising all of the hot-button issues of the previous ACA ruling, Citizens United, and Roe v. Wade combined: What role should the government play in the conduct of our private lives? When does life begin? Are for-profit corporations persons with First Amendment rights? And most crucially for the exemption being sought in Hobby Lobby: When may the law impose a “substantial burden” on a person’s religious exercise—to compel what a person’s religion forbids, or forbid what a person’s religion compels—as the “least restrictive means” of furthering a “compelling government interest”?

The Women’s Health Amendment, spearheaded by U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski and narrowly passed by Congress in late 2009, addresses the gender gap in health care coverage: according to the amendment, women pay an average of 68 percent more than men in out-of-pocket medical costs, largely for conditions relating to childbearing capacity. The amendment expands the range of ACA’s requisite preventive services for women to include, without co-pay, well-woman care, screening for gestational diabetes, breastfeeding support, and—at issue in Hobby Lobby—FDA-approved forms of prescription birth control. Hobby Lobby’s brief alleges that providing insurance coverage to employees for four forms of FDA approved-contraception—ella, Plan B, and two kinds of IUD—“makes [the plaintiffs] complicit in the practice of abortion,” and that therefore “they cannot cover these four methods without violating their faith.”

Hobby Lobby’s thousands of female employees are not formal parties to the suit, but the outcome of the case directly affects them, and extends to the tens of millions of American women whose employment includes health insurance. If the Court rules in favor of exempting Hobby Lobby from offering insurance that covers certain forms of contraception, then exemptions will likely be due employers who object to any and all forms of contraception on religious grounds—which are the objections at issue in the pending lower-court cases that Hobby Lobby was likely taken up by the Court to offer guidance in resolving. The colorful cast of friends-of-the-court who have filed briefs in the case, 84 in all, includes the Santeria Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Pastor Rick Warren, and the Cato Institute on the side of Hobby Lobby; the ACLU, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests lining up with the government.

Were contraception not at issue—were Hobby Lobby or another for-profit corporation to object on religious grounds to offering insurance coverage for blood transfusions, for example—would the case have gotten to the Supreme Court at all?

For the purposes of the relevant statute in the case, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), it shouldn’t matter whether the plaintiffs oppose contraception as anti-abortion Christians or blood transfusions as Jehovah’s Witnesses or even X-rays and certain treatments for cancer as religious objectors to radiation. This is because RFRA grants religious objectors extraordinary latitude in what constitutes a “substantial burden” on their religious exercise, and the courts very little latitude in deciding whether that particular exercise merits a presumptive exemption. Rather, RFRA charges the courts with deciding whether denying the exemption is the “least restrictive means” of serving a “compelling governmental interest.” As legal scholar Eugene Volokh explains, a plaintiff’s religious beliefs, in deference to which RFRA exempts the plaintiff from generally applicable laws that fail to meet this test, “need not be longstanding, … internally consistent, consistent with any written scripture, or reasonable from the judge’s perspective. They need only be sincere.” And RFRA applies, moreover, to “any exercise of religion, whether … compelled by … a system of religious belief” or not.

A decision in favor of the government in Hobby Lobby might rule that the provision for contraception coverage in the ACA does not, in fact, substantially burden the religious exercise of the plaintiffs—something of a wild card given the low threshold for substantial burden established by RFRA. Or it might find, in agreement with the dozens of religious authorities who filed amicus briefs for Hobby Lobby, that it does—plenty of laws do compel people to act otherwise than what their religion enjoins—but that it nevertheless remains the “least restrictive means of serving compelling government interests.”

That’s a plausible outcome if Hobby Lobby goes the way of other Supreme Court cases involving the religious rights of corporations. In Braunfeld v. Brown (1961), for example, Orthodox Jewish merchants claimed that Sunday closing laws burdened their Saturday Sabbath observance by forcing them to close a day longer than their Christian competitors. In United States v. Lee (1982), an Amish business owner sought exemption from having to pay Social Security taxes on his employees, because his religion discouraged government assistance, and Lee wished on those grounds to provide for his employees’ needs himself. And in a case that reads like a collaboration between Flannery O’Connor and Ishmael Reed, Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc. (1968), the white owner of a South Carolina barbecue chain claimed that anti-discrimination laws violated his religious exercise of refusing service to African-American customers on scriptural grounds. Each time the Court roundly or unanimously rejected the plaintiffs’ claims. The question for the Court in each case wasn’t whether corporations have religious rights, but how and by whom the costs of accommodating those rights would be borne.

As the Court determined in Lee (1982), “[w]hen followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.” In its brief in Hobby Lobby the government argues that in light of this history, which RFRA was passed into law in 1993 to clarify, RFRA could not have intended to extend religious exemptions to for-profit employers generally, and notes that the current plaintiffs fail to cite a single case that signals otherwise, apart from the contraception coverage litigation leading up to Hobby Lobby.

Yes, that’s right—the only case law that Hobby Lobby cites in support of religious exemptions for for-profit employees are the mounting number of lower court decisions that found in favor of corporations who object to some or all forms of contraception on religious grounds.

So let’s talk about contraception. As it happens, none of the forms of birth control to which Hobby Lobby objects, in its religious opposition to “abortion-causing drugs and devices,” is understood legally, scientifically, or medically as abortifacient, that is, to work by causing abortion. How do we know this? Because the Affordable Care Act itself specifically allows plans to exclude abortion services while requiring coverage of all 18 FDA-approved forms of contraception. Federal regulation defines a pregnancy to encompass the period of time from implantation until delivery. Hobby Lobby nevertheless starts the clock earlier, in accordance with its owners’ sincerely held belief that pregnancy begins before implantation, and so objects to four of the covered forms of contraception because they might prevent implantation. But neither the two IUDs nor the two forms of emergency contraception to which Hobby Lobby objects work primarily by preventing implantation, and scientific opinion is divided on whether any even do so as a secondary effect. It’s hard to know, because prior to implantation embryos are virtually undetectable in a woman’s body, and most fail to develop into pregnancies of which she is ever aware. How many embryos fail? If in vitro fertilization is any clue, two-thirds of all fertilized eggs never make it through the cell-division stage, and a sizeable percentage of those that do never successfully implant.

Still, the possibility that the forms of birth control to which Hobby Lobby objects might prevent implantation is real. But since all of them do work primarily by preventing fertilization in the first place, and since most users will intend this as their primary effect—i.e., to prevent fertilization so that implantation never becomes an issue—the Court could decide that, for the purposes of RFRA, the drugs and devices in question raise no more distinctive concerns than do the entire spectrum of drugs, including aspirin and caffeine, that might block implantation of a fertilized embryo, whatever their primary effect. And because the four methods to which the plaintiffs object are among the most effective, and currently the most cost-prohibitive—an IUD can cost a month’s salary for a woman earning the minimum wage—denying their availability without cost sharing will likely increase the number of unwanted pregnancies and the number of abortions—something the government has a compelling interest in preventing. As the Guttmacher Institute argues in its amicus brief for the government, the religious exemption sought by Hobby Lobby would also “substantially burden women’s ability to make childbearing decisions in accord with their own religious and moral beliefs.” Among these beliefs are sincerely held religious and moral objections to abortion that commit many women to choosing the most effective means of contraception available.

Hobby Lobby’s owners nevertheless believe that providing insurance coverage for contraception “that risk[s] killing an embryo makes them complicit in the practice of abortion,” and that therefore “they cannot cover these four methods without violating their faith.” And plenty of employers, including some for-profit employers, object to all forms of contraception on religious grounds, whether they work by preventing implantation or not. For the purposes of RFRA, it’s probably a moot point: a judge needn’t agree with the plaintiffs that their beliefs in the matter are credible, that the law they object to is sinful, or that the complicity with evil they fear being drawn into is real. The job of the court is to decide whether the law “substantially burdens” their religious exercise and, if so, whether a “less restrictive means” of realizing a “compelling governmental interest” can be found.

So will the secular Court leave the door open to stripping contraception coverage from the ACA in deference to religious beliefs that need pass no other test than whether they are sincerely held? It might. I’m more convinced that it might after working with my colleague Linell Cady on an international project on secularism and sexual governance, which culminated in our edited volume Religion, the Secular, and the Politics of Sexual Difference. What emerged in the work of contributors to the project, in case studies from the U.S., France, Turkey, Egypt, India, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and elsewhere, was a story of strengthened religious control of women and sexuality under secular law.

In that narrative’s broadest terms, the dividing line between religious obligation and secular law that emerges as a defining feature of modern states works largely in the service of gender and sexual regulation. This is so, as one of the book’s contributors Joan Wallach Scott points out, because the emergence of a secular public sphere in the West “proceeds by defining religion as a matter of private conscience, just as it privatizes matters familial and sexual.” What some historians extol as the “great separation” that marks the transition to modernity, the moment when politics was avowedly set off from religion, promises both to free a space of reason and deliberation, not dogma, for the exercise of democracy, and at the same time to protect religious belief from coercive intervention from the state. Sealed at a safe distance from allegedly universal reason, however, the private sphere is secured not only as the space of personal and potentially idiosyncratic belief, to which all in a secular democracy are entitled. It is also the space of sexuality, and, until their relatively recent, uneven, and incomplete political enfranchisement, the space of women.

The privatization of religion under the reign of secularism, then, leaves religion to find its strongest articulations in this private domain, the domain not only of legally protected belief but also of the control of gender and sexuality in the service of sincere religious conviction, or behind the screen of legally protected religious exercise. (It’s telling that RFRA’s most vocal opponents now include those who seek to remove barriers to justice for victims of child sexual abuse in religious organizations.) As contributor Saba Mahmood argues in the book, when “religious authority becomes marginal to the conduct of civic and political affairs, it simultaneously comes to acquire a privileged place in the regulation of the private sphere (to which the family, religion, and sexuality are relegated).”

The standing legal accommodation of the objections of churches and their auxiliaries (like the Little Sisters of the Poor) to the contraception provision means that their female employees, regardless of their own religious commitments, will simply be denied, under law, the contraception coverage to which the ACA now entitles every other American woman. Hobby Lobby wants the same accommodation given to churches to extend to those who do their business in the marketplace—ruling otherwise, say twenty U.S. states, red and blue, in a joint amicus brief for Hobby Lobby, yields “a truncated view of religion [that] threatens to create a barren public square, empty of the religious beliefs of ordinary Americans.” But if supporters of Hobby Lobby want to see more religion in public, they’ll need to get used to seeing more sex in public—that is, to cease their appeal to private religious conviction as the privileged arbiter of others’ conduct in regard to marriage, sexuality, and family life. Had Arizona Governor Jan Brewer not wisely vetoed S.B. 1062, which would have given businesses the right to refuse service to gay and lesbian patrons on religious grounds, the bill would, one hopes, have gone the way of Piggie Park on any legal challenge. So should Hobby Lobby, as a cover for sex discrimination dressed up as religious freedom.

But the Court is unlikely to say as much. So I’m pinning my hopes on another Justice Roberts-style save of Obamacare on a wonky point of tax law. That kind of ruling might go like this. The Hobby Lobby brief asserts that the ACA “imposes an ‘employer mandate,’ which requires certain employers to provide ‘minimum essential’ health coverage to employees.” This “mandate,” the brief alleges, “coerces” the plaintiffs “to violate their deeply-held religious beliefs under threat of heavy fines, penalties, and lawsuits.” But Hobby Lobby misreads the law on this point. There is no legal requirement that Hobby Lobby provide employee health insurance that coerces its owners into violating their sincerely held beliefs because there is no legal requirement that employers offer their employees a health plan at all.

In other words, as legal scholar, tireless blogger, and generous correspondent Marty Lederman has substantiated in compelling detail, there is no employer mandate that constrains Hobby Lobby’s religious exercise, and so their claim of substantial burden may in fact be too weak to stand. In RFRA terms, I need only be sincere in my belief that a law burdens my exercise of religion to make a credible case for accommodation. But what if the law to which I object doesn’t exist, or I’ve wrongly interpreted it to require something of me it in fact does not? Military conscription, for example, may well violate my sincerely held religious beliefs. But I would not have a RFRA claim of substantial burden in the absence of a draft.

As the law now stands, large employers who choose not to offer insurance coverage to their employees must pay a “shared responsibility fee”—not the crippling fine they would pay if instead they provided insurance that failed to meet minimum federal standards­. The shared responsibility fee, as spelled out in U.S. Code 4980H, is legally a tax, like Social Security, and not a fine. In last year’s Liberty University case, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit explained that the shared responsibility fee imposed on large employers who choose not to offer health insurance “is proportionate” to the need to ensure universal coverage, “rather than punitive.” It “does not punish unlawful conduct”—instead, it “leaves large employers with a choice for complying with the law”—provide the insurance, or pay a tax.

If Hobby Lobby were to discontinue its health insurance coverage, its employees would join the millions of Americans who buy their insurance on an exchange, with generous government subsidies to those who qualify. This insurance would meet all federal standards for coverage, including contraception coverage for women.

Here’s the Roberts save. The Fourth Circuit Court ruling, which the Supreme Court has allowed to stand, closely follows Justice Roberts’s majority opinion in the Court’s 2012 ACA ruling which held that there was no “individual mandate” to obtain health insurance—only the option of obtaining insurance or of paying a tax, either of which “citizens may lawfully choose.”  Should Hobby Lobby object to paying the shared responsibility tax on the grounds that it makes them complicit with the evil of providing contraception—well, too bad. Plenty of Americans are perfectly sincere in the conviction that some of the uses to which our tax dollars are put are unconscionable, and we’re out of luck. We don’t get RFRA exemptions for these objections because, as the Court ruled in Lee (1982), “the broad public interest in maintaining a sound tax system is of such a high order, religious belief in conflict with the payment of taxes affords no basis for resisting the law.”

The ruling I’m hoping for from the Court, then, would correct Hobby Lobby’s misreading of the ACA’s “employer mandate” and clarify its options of offering insurance coverage to its employees or paying a proportionate, non-punitive tax. That doesn’t sound like a ringing vindication of women’s right to make decisions about our reproductive lives without deferring to the inmost religious convictions of our employers. But for now, at least, it would be.

Tracy Fessenden is Associate Director of the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. 

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Darwin, Hitler, and the Hijacking of Evolutionary Theory Tue, 11 Mar 2014 17:24:33 +0000 (Getty/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Time Life Pictures)

(Getty/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Time Life Pictures)

Was Hitler a Darwinian? Disputed Questions in the History of Evolutionary Theory 
By Robert J. Richards
The University of Chicago Press, 2013 

Biology is not ideology. But with evolution, it’s easy to get confused. With his theory of evolution by natural selection, Charles Darwin took some simple observations and turned them into a story of world history, broadly wrought. In doing so, he placed his theory in the company of other grand narratives—among them the origin stories of the Hebrew Bible, the dialectics of Marxism, and the grand, delusional myths of totalitarian states.

Over the years, Darwin’s supporters and detractors have often entangled his theory with these sweeping narratives. Even in the early days of On the Origin of Species, evolution came under attack from the biblically-minded. Anti-Marxists and Marxists alike—including Karl himself—have tried to link the English scientist with communism. And, especially in recent years, a number of creationist writers have tried to draw a direct line from Darwin to Dachau.

A story of intraspecies competition and brutal, let-the-winner-take-all history: Nazism does sound a bit Darwinian, doesn’t it? Writers like Richard Weikart, a professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and a fellow at the Discovery Institute, an intelligent design think-tank, have tried to turn that resemblance into a causal connection. In books such as From Darwin to Hitler and Hitler’s Ethic, Weikart argues that evolutionary theory motivated Hitler’s actions, providing him the justification he needed to develop a twisted kind of ethics.

From the gun control debate to the backlash against Paul Ryan’s speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention to Hillary Clinton’s response to Putin’s actions in Ukraine, invoking Hitler can dramatize almost any issue. And for the Discovery Institute, which has as its broader goal “to defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies,” the connection between Darwin and Hitler is part of a much larger claim: that Darwinism supports materialism, and that materialism erodes the Christian tradition and supports all sorts of social evils, with Hitler as the quintessential case.

Meanwhile, for those seeking to construct an ethics without a god, or to uphold a materialist worldview—no transcendent powers necessary—Darwin is an obvious ally. It’s unsurprising that today’s most prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins, should also be an evolutionary biologist. After all, few besides Darwin have reasoned so well, and so broadly, about life solely on the basis of material evidence.

Amidst these ideological adoptions and co-optations, it can be easy to forget that Darwinian evolution is a particular idea, developed in a particular time by a particular person. In Was Hitler a Darwinian?, Robert J. Richards, a historian of science at the University of Chicago, removes Darwin from the culture wars and sets him firmly back in the nineteenth century. His essays will be disappointing to those who wish to use Darwin as an ideological symbol. For everyone else, though, Richards has provided an illuminating look at what makes Darwinian theory so slippery, and so magnetic, even to those of us outside the sciences.

Over the course of eight meticulous essays, Richards looks at how Darwin integrated moral concerns, theological ideas, and Romantic themes into his thinking; considers his influence on two prominent German thinkers, Ernst Haeckel and August Schleicher; and, in the book’s longest section, deconstructs Darwin’s ostensible influence on National Socialism. Two essential concerns seem to undergird all these essays: what is Darwinian theory in its original form? And what ideological commitments do, or do not, emerge from that original Darwinism?

Here’s the story, as Richards tells it: a recent university graduate, schooled in theology, goes on a long journey to South America. The young Darwin brings along some volumes from one of his favorite authors, Alexander von Humboldt, a German Romantic, a friend of Goethe, and a famous traveler who inspired Darwin to head to the New World. Humboldt, Richards writes, “represented nature in the Americas not as a stuttering, passionless machine that ground out products … but as a cosmos of interacting organisms … expressing aesthetic and moral values.” Exploring the Americas and taking extensive notes, the young Darwin echoes Humboldt’s sense of the creative force in nature.

During the two decades after his return to Britain, Darwin gradually develops a rigorous way of conceptualizing that creative force. In keeping with the Romantic flavor of his youth, he often describes natural selection as a thinking being made manifest in nature. Much of this language, perhaps, is just metaphorical, and Richards’ insistence that the “evocative surface” of these metaphors “encased a deep conceptual grammar that structured [Darwin’s] thinking about nature” is frustratingly vague. Still, there’s no doubt that the language of Darwin’s work does seem to gravitate toward a view of nature as benevolent and progressive. “As natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection,” Darwin writes in the Origin.

Darwin does not exclude the divine from this schema. Shortly after the publication of the Origin, Darwin writes to his friend Asa Gray that, “‘I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws …’” In the manuscript of the Origin, Richards writes, “Darwin simply defined nature as ‘the laws ordained by God to govern the Universe.’” In his later years, Darwin would doubt the divine’s role in his theory (he died a professed agnostic). But Richards makes a persuasive case that “when [Darwin] worked out his theory from 1837 to 1859, he was a theist who believed that the laws of nature, including natural selection, were designed by the creator.”

Should we care? Evolutionary biology has moved far beyond Darwin’s work, and his beliefs about nature don’t change how nature actually works. Still, as Richards points out, “Darwin’s theory has an existence comparable to that of a species.” And “theories also evolve, though neither the words on a page nor even the individual ideas in the mind of the theorist evolve.” We should pay attention to the theory as it is today, in its presently evolved form. But as any paleontologist could tell you—as Darwin himself knew well—to understand the essence of a thing, you sometimes must look into the past.

Richards’ work might not dictate how “the flexible of mind” should see nature. But his close reading of Darwin’s moral, theological, and Romantic influences should give us pause before we declare that faith or ethics are wholly incommensurate with evolutionary theory. After all, they were right there at its origin. 

This view of Darwin-the-benevolent-Romantic might also make one wonder how Darwinian a Nazi, or a social Darwinist, could actually be. This, more or less, is Richards’ first point about the Hitler-Darwin connection: that even if Hitler were a science-worshipping-atheist-materialist who selected a different volume of Darwin’s work each morning to read over his breakfast, he’d probably be displeased with certain allusions to positive, creative, seemingly animate forces.

But that point may be moot, because, as Richards convincingly argues, Hitler was not a raving materialist who enjoyed reading Darwin. The connection is mostly bunk.

Richards lays out his case methodically: Hitler only referred explicitly to Darwinian evolution twice. In one of those instances the reference was mostly incidental. In the other, Richards writes, “[T]he German leader was recorded as positively rejecting any notion of the descent of human beings from lower animals.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler mentions neither Darwin nor Ernst Haeckel, who popularized the theory of evolution in Germany. Historians trying to link Darwin and Hitler have sometimes translated the word Entwicklung, which appears often in Mein Kampf, as “evolution.” That’s a misleading translation, Richard argues. The word generally means “development,” and it was seldom applied to Darwin’s theory after the late nineteenth century.

Yes, Darwin had some notion of a race hierarchy, and some notion of competition between species and change of species over time. But racial hierarchies were commonplace among nineteenth-century thinkers, and the idea of animals and humans changing over time predates Darwin (it’s evolution by natural selection that Darwin pioneered; not the idea that species can change). Nor is it clear why eugenics—which Darwin did not develop, and which essentially constitutes the practice of animal breeding applied to human beings—should automatically be taken as Darwinian. The chief scientific (or pseudoscientific) influence on Hitler’s racial politics was Houston Stewart Chamberlain. As Richards documents, Chamberlain was an avowed anti-Darwinian. Finally, it’s not clear how Hitler’s delusions—his “gauzy mystical attitude about Deutschtum and the German race,” in Richards’ fine phrasing—could be construed as strictly materialistic.

A more interesting question, perhaps, is why wasn’t Hitler a Darwinian? It’s certainly easy to see how evolution by natural selection could be picked up by someone with the goal of world domination. Richards doesn’t broach this question, but he suggests some initial answers. In particular, he points out that Nazism depended on a narrative of restoration. Something ancient had been suppressed in the race, and it needed to be brought back to glory. Hitler’s was a story of purity regained—not a story of transformation into something new. The Nazis were more interested in finding the lost Aryan sanctuaries on the Tibetan Plateau (and in fact sent an expedition to do so) than in tracing their descent from apes.

The core ideas of Darwinism, in other words, don’t jibe with the central pillars of Nazism. And if there is any distinctive core to Darwinian evolution that goes beyond the biological details—that could, perhaps, be absorbed into ideologies and picked up by ethicists—it is not simply that struggle is central to existence. That idea is neither uniquely Darwinian nor, in light of the prevalence of altruism in the natural world, of which Darwin was well aware, especially comprehensive. Nor is the core of Darwinian theory the idea that randomness is paramount. After all, part of Darwin’s genius was to illuminate a way by which order can emerge from chance.

What persists to the present day, with implications beyond biology, is Darwin’s radical insistence that something so incremental, so simple, and so observable as natural selection can explain so much—that it can be extrapolated to such extremes without losing its explanatory punch. That’s not a religious message—though the religious may grapple with it, or even take joy in it. Nor is it a strictly materialist message—although it may certainly lend support to a materialist view of the world. Nor is it a political idea—though it may be co-opted by political movements. Instead, unlike those histories in which the largest powers explain the smallest details, it’s a theory of how the smallest forces can give rise to the grand panoply of life. And that’s an idea that, while not religious, or necessarily materialist, or political, is certainly beautiful.  

Michael Schulson is a freelance writer in Durham, North Carolina. 

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Shaun Casey Talks About Leading the State Department’s Faith-Based Office Tue, 04 Mar 2014 17:00:40 +0000 (Getty/Chip Somodevilla)

(Getty/Chip Somodevilla)

Last August, to the delight of religion scholars everywhere, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared that if he had college to do again, he would major in comparative religion. Kerry made the statement as he installed Shaun Casey as special advisor to lead the State Department’s Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives. Casey, a theologian and seminary professor, beamed at the diplomat’s side, becoming the stand-in for Kerry’s unrealized formation in religious studies.

Shortly thereafter, I visited Casey at his new office at the State Department, which on that Wednesday felt unsettled. The air bristled with anticipation over the Obama administration’s response to chemical attacks on Syrian civilians. Casey’s office was hosting some of that tension. I walked in following his meeting with representatives of a peace church who insisted that he urge Secretary Kerry against military strikes. “Boy, did I get an earful,” Casey said. “They told me the usual: that violence begets violence, that we were showing a ‘failure of imagination.’ I told them they had to do better than that. That I can’t go down the hall to the Secretary’s office and tell him he has ‘a failure of imagination.’”

This tone of Niebuhrian realism is half-ironic. Casey was raised in the Church of Christ, a brand of Christian evangelicalism that was once pacifistic. By his era, however, that tradition had lost its radical Protestant commitment to Christian peace, and today it comfortably embraces the nationalist message of “Support Our Troops.” Casey describes a formative experience of walking to register for the draft in the last months of the Vietnam War, trying to make out whether he could qualify as a conscientious objector. As he walked, Casey says, he realized that “in my own tradition, I didn’t know how to parse that question.” Since then, his professional training and service have been shaped by seeking improved tools for discerning complex civil and theological issues. He describes the questions that have driven his career: “What are the political and public consequences of religious life? What are the political implications of being a member of a religious community?”

Since his walk to the draft board in the early 1970s, Casey has moved back and forth between academic and policy worlds in ways few in either politics or religion have travelled. The rarity of that dual credentialing, says Charles Mathewes, an academic colleague at the University of Virginia, is what makes Casey the best man for his current position. “Shaun operates simultaneously in two parallel universes and on two professional calendars,” he says. Mathews recalls the time that he called his friend to congratulate him on the publication of his book in the fall of 2008. “Shaun said, ‘Thanks!’ and then immediately, ‘Can we talk in a couple of months? I’ve got the head of the Southern Baptist Convention on the other line.’” As senior advisor for religious affairs and as national evangelical coordinator of Obama’s faith outreach staff, Casey had no time to rest on academic laurels.

 A large part of Casey’s work in the early 2000s, evidenced by his time with the Obama campaign, was to help key Democratic policy makers connect with religious practitioners and institutions through the language and logic of faith and values. Casey’s day job, meanwhile, has been the education of future practitioners. He has not only served as an associate professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Seminary (a role from which he is currently on leave), but has also been active in his the association of his professional guild, chairing the Public Understanding of Religion Committee of the American Academy of Religion.

It was in college that Casey recognized the deep appeal of blended scholarship and practice at the intersection of religion, ethics, and politics. Two of his professors at Abilene Christian University in Texas had studied at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) and brought that ethos to their teaching. “I fell in with these people; I really admired them,” Casey says. “They were scholar/practitioners. They’d created a theoretical, practical union in lives that united advocacy and scholarship.” Casey went on to receive his Master of Divinity (M.Div.) from HDS, a school that he otherwise would never have considered attending. (Full disclosure: I have been serving as a lecturer at HDS since 2012, and I received my M.Div. degree from the school in 2004.)

After receiving his M.Div., Casey had a brief stint as a pastor in Jackson, Mississippi,* but the life of ministry didn’t stick. “I came back with big questions, and I wanted to chase the intellectual work,” he says of his return to Harvard. Enrolling this time at the Kennedy School of Government, Casey again found that scholar/practitioners had the most to teach him. There he worked closely with Richard Neustadt, a fourth-generation advisor to Democratic presidents.

Another scholar/practitioner who would profoundly shape Casey’s sense of vocation returned to Harvard from Washington, D.C., around the same time. Father J. Bryan Hehir was and remains a reigning public intellectual on the tradition of Catholic Social Justice, teaching across the university at both Harvard Divinity School and the Kennedy School of Government. Hehir is well-respected by many professionals, moving with singular credibility among policy, academic, and ecclesial worlds as both ethicist and strategic advisor. Casey had already admired Hehir from afar. As a pastor, he had been part of reviewing a draft copy of “The Challenge of Peace,” the pastoral statement on nuclear disarmament that Hehir had penned for the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. “I remember thinking of the Catholic bishops at the time, ‘How brilliant this is, that they can speak from particular tradition but address the global questions. That they speak openly, wanting to engage other people of good will,’” Casey says. “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do: to talk out of my own location, with other people of good will, about the pressing challenges of our day. I want to push the frontiers of a particular moral tradition—get it to engage in new issues.’ Even though Roman Catholicism was far distant from my tradition, it gave me an analogous world view.” 

Hehir not only espoused a particular Catholic moral tradition, but he also persuasively addressed the questions and concerns of policy makers, since he knew the policy literature on the nuclear question inside and out. “That’s seldom true of religious actors,” Casey says. “Often religious actors in public space want to jump over the politics, avoid going through policy, and go instead to righteousness. Politics is messy, it’s pluralistic. It’s hard to preserve one’s moral integrity. But you have to engage the secular world.”

After receiving his doctorate under Hehir’s advising at HDS, Casey landed at Wesley Theological Seminary in 2007. There he taught ethics and ran the “National Capital Semester for Seminarians” (NCSS), an on-the-ground D.C. program for students who want to learn the policy landscape. It also opened countless doors for Casey. “It was astounding to have that job open at the right time,” he says. “It’s been remarkable. Had I not gotten that job, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Casey’s success at Wesley followed from his ability to build strong relationships with critical players in religion and politics inside the Beltway. As director of the NCSS, he took students on hundreds of site visits, all the while building for himself a remarkable network. In time, Casey obtained fellowships at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and then the Center for American Progress. He also became friendly with Mike McCurry, a member of the Wesley Board of Governors and former spokesman for the Clinton administration and Secretary of State Warren Christopher. (McCurry just graduated from Wesley and has been hired to teach there as well.) McCurry’s coaching has been invaluable, Casey says.  When describing his “resources and role models,” he insists, “I refer first and always to my political rabbi, Mike McCurry.”

It was McCurry who introduced Casey to then-Senator Kerry, soon after the 2004 presidential election. Kerry had lost the race in part because faith voters flocked to Bush. Casey began working informally with Kerry’s staff on how the Senator might better articulate the relationship between faith and values – or, as Casey puts it, how “his political philosophy translates into public policy.” Kerry’s 2006 speech on religion and public life, delivered at Pepperdine University, was substantial fruit from that collaboration. Senator Kerry then blurbed Casey’s 2009 book, The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960, marking his appreciation for all he had learned from Casey about the politics of religion, Catholicism, and the American presidency. When Kerry was confirmed as secretary of state in January 2013, Casey got a call from the secretary’s chief of staff. They talked about Casey taking the lead in launching this faith-based office.

The issue of whether the State Department would host an office of religious outreach had been hotly debated under Hillary Clinton’s term, and Kerry’s quick movement to establish the program took many by surprise. In January 2001, the George W. Bush administration established the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives through executive order, opening the possibility for federal agencies to do the same. Yet Kerry was the first secretary of state to avail of this opportunity. “Its mission is as clear as it is compelling,” said Kerry, upon its opening. “It is to engage more closely with faith communities around the world, with the belief that we need to partner with them to solve global challenges, and there is an enormous partnership there, I believe, there for the asking.”

Casey’s work, then, is to oversee department policy on engagement with faith-based communities, collaborating with bureaus and posts in connecting with these communities in efforts to realize diplomacy and development objectives. It is also to work closely with faith communities to ensure that their voices are heard in the foreign policy process, as was the case with potential Syrian strikes. The office remains distinct from the State Department’s religion and foreign policy working group and other government officials and offices that focus on religious issues (e.g. the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom). Yet the groups collaborate toward shared ends of promoting sustainable development and a more effective humanitarian response, advancing pluralism and human rights, and enhancing global and local security.

Many resumes stacked the pile of individuals vying for the Casey’s position, and he is well aware that he was not among the candidates who had worked for years to position themselves. In 2012, a Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group, part of then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society, formally recommended the establishment of an Office of Religious Engagement at the State Department. Casey was never part of this effort. The proposal languished until John Kerry took office and institutionalized the Faith-Based Community Initiative at the Department of State.

Much of the scholarly and liberal criticism of the new office arises from concerns that the establishment of this office will tacitly advance a Christian evangelical agenda. This concern is informed in large part by the proximity of Chris Seiple to then-Secretary Clinton around faith-based work. Seiple has established a high profile for himself in the small sub-industry of religion and foreign affairs, and for his organization, the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE). Both Seiple and IGE are transparent in their Christian commitments, seeking to improve religious freedom, improve tolerance, and make “Christ visible and Christians relevant as a result.” As president of IGE, Seiple draws on his military and diplomatic experience to advocate for strengthened U.S. government engagement with religious communities. Yet Casey is pointed in correcting the presumption that the establishment of the Office of Religious Engagement was driven by and realized as part of a Christian agenda. “The perception that it was evangelical leadership that got this office in place is incorrect,” he says. It was a coalition of actors, including secular members of the Foreign Service, he explains, who saw the need for this skill and focus to be institutionalized.

Casey differentiates himself not only from IGE, but also from the Office of Religious Freedom at State. “This office is not in that space,” he says. Casey pointedly notes that “religion and human rights,” one of the key mandate areas of his office, and the Kerry State Department more largely, “is much broader than just religious freedom. If I’m working in the religious freedom space, it’s if I’m invited in,” he says. Casey insists that neither training in ethics, nor personal religious commitment, nor scholarship, are requisites for his position. “There are brilliant people of no faith who will do this work as well as I can,” he says. For those who come after him, he says, “It’s not necessarily a problem not to be a religion scholar.” 

The space where Casey does sit is working well for him. He enjoys a large office with a windowed view down to the Washington Mall. More importantly, a mere walk down a windowless corridor, past the Office of the Director of Policy and Planning, lands him at the Office of the Secretary of State. It’s a long way to have come from the cotton farming country on the edge of the Ozarks where Casey was raised, in the boot heel of Southeast Missouri.

Casey stresses his plan to follow the mandate outlined by Kerry. “I have Very. Good. Access,” he says, emphasizing every word, “to both the Secretary and the Chief of Staff. I couldn’t ask for anything better. He gave me as robust a mandate as anyone could have received. I was struck 7 years ago by Secretary Kerry’s appreciation that religion is a powerful force in international politics.”

What Casey can offer is a carefully mapped network of who’s who in religion and politics, and a personally strong network among the faith leaders, journalists, and intellectuals who shape opinions around religion and politics. His credibility in this network is already in demand to support Secretary Kerry’s peace building efforts in the Middle East. Casey has been tasked particularly with building support among Christian leaders not only for the peace process underway, but for accepting the political costs and compromises that will inevitably follow.

In this public role, Casey’s own scholarly expertise—what he calls “the public implications of private life”—remains in the background of his work. Yet what excites him most about the job seems to be filling out the language and logic of the ethics of Secretary Kerry’s agenda. “There’s a tremendous hunger here,” he says. “People who join the Foreign Service want to fight poverty, human rights, mitigate conflict.” People who work in these sectors are morally driven, he suggests. As for whether he can function and thrive in this shark tank of an institution, he smiles and shrugs. “I’ve heard all those stories too,” he says. “I don’t think I’m naïve.”

Casey’s attention returns again to Kerry’s speech on Syria, and the ways in which its agenda is to make a moral argument. The speech lingered not only on what America must do for Syrians under attack by their sovereign, but also on what Americans should do for the sake of our own moral life. Given the weight of such decisions, Kerry might do well to keep an ethicist on staff.

“I dog whistled Niebuhr in my talk,” Casey says of his installation ceremony. Casey is finishing a book on Niebuhr and thinking particularly of The Irony of American History. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the U.S. government struggled with how the world had changed. Casey points out Niebuhr’s warning to Americans, in the wake of the country’s emergence as a superpower, that “there’s the danger that we might have an overinflated sense of our own virtue.” Yet he said, there’s “also a risk of Americans being overly fearful of entanglements, of disengagement from world affairs.” Casey concludes that Niebuhr would approve of this office if only because it’s not armed with any view of perfect moral mission that America has been granted by God. “But as Secretary Kerry says, we ignore religion at our peril,” Casey defers. “If we’re going to make progress on human rights, poverty, conflict, then we have to engage the religious communities who cut across those sectors. To the extent that I can marginally contribute—that’s what I’m going to do here. It’s a very Niehburian vision. It’s not time to fall back on false pieties, nor to become isolationist, but to directly engage a very complicated world.” 

Mara Willard is a lecturer at Harvard Divinity School.

*The article originally misstated the city where Casey served as a pastor as Jacksonville, Florida. The post has been updated to reflect that he worked in Jackson, Mississippi. 

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Technology, Memory, and Jewish History: An Interview with Novelist Dara Horn Tue, 25 Feb 2014 17:00:20 +0000 (Michael B. Priest)

(Michael B. Priest)

What are the proper limits of technology in our personal lives? Dara Horn’s new novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, takes up this question as it presents a modern-day version of the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, in which a new app (not entirely unlike Facebook) allows individuals to track and archive every moment of a life (and feel confident that technology can capture what is most important in a life). Horn interweaves this modern narrative with stories of the recovery, in the late nineteenth century, of the Cairo Genizah. (“Genizah” is Hebrew for hiding place. Judaism requires that documents with God’s name be stored in a community’s genizah before they are buried, since they cannot be treated as trash.) The genizah in the Cairo synagogue includes the community’s documents for almost a millennia, starting in the late tenth century. Unlike other genizot (plural), this community’s custom was to place in their genizah anything written in Hebrew letters, not only those documents with God’s name. The result was that when the Cambridge University scholar Solomon Schechter visited the Cairo Genizah in 1896, he found real historical gems, including the letters of the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses ben Maimon, but also plenty of the mundane: grocery lists, sales receipts, love-letters, and business contracts, to name a few.

Does all of this stuff constitute history? Does it deserve a place in the precious real estate of our communal or individual memory? It is not difficult to make the leap from the clutter that Schechter confronted, to our own. But today we moderns carry even more of our past on our backs (or in the cloud), and Horn’s contemporary story, juxtaposed with Schechter’s archiving of the genizah, enables the reader to consider the question of what to save and what to let go, and how these decisions impact our relationships with the past and others.

History, Jewish religion, and memory are not new themes for Horn, whose previous award-winning novels, In the Image (2002), The World to Come (2006), and All Other Nights (2009), as well as her 2012 e-book, The Rescuer, have taken their titles and themes from Jewish religious and political history. Horn holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard, where she specialized in Hebrew and Yiddish literature. I chatted with Dara—as we’ve been doing since we were 17—over the phone and through email. –R.G.

R&P: I have always thought that you write novels the way a historian would like to write fiction: historical events are made relevant to contemporary issues via a thrilling narrative. Why is history such a rich source for you, as a novelist? 

DH: I do seem to spiral into these historical moments. This is my fourth novel, and when I began it, my intent was to write a completely contemporary book. When I was on tour for my last novel, about Jewish spies during the Civil War, I had people coming to my readings in costumes, with muskets. It was a little too much historical saturation for my taste, so I hoped to write something as contemporary as possible: the main character is a software developer! But when I saw that the program she created was precisely about recording everything—about the distinction between memory and history—I saw that I needed to test that distinction against something more significant than a fictional character’s childhood. So I went back to the original genizah at that point, and then back into Maimonides’ life. But your question is really about why I’m drawn to writing about the past at all.

The snarky answer, of course, is that historical fiction is always about the time when it’s being written, not the time when it supposedly takes place, because there has to be a reason why the writer is drawn to that particular time and the questions it raises. (The same is true of historians!) But the sincere answer is that I feel that the sense of shallowness that pervades much of American life is due to the fundamental American cultural premise that having a past is optional, that each of us is a self-made person with no antecedents that matter, that one can build a Wal-Mart on an Indian burial ground and call it progress. There is a genuine importance in that national priority of forgetting and the room it leaves for opportunity and invention. But it runs so counter to [what is at] the heart of the American Jewish experience—that dissonance between American culture, which tells us that the past doesn’t matter, and Jewish culture, which tells us that it’s the only thing that matters. I also find that I sense the way the past lives within the present, even in my private life. I feel it in everyday experiences, always, like a life that lives just below the surface of our daily world. I think that tension, between a past that can’t disappear and a present that tries its best to hide it, motivates almost everything I do as a writer.

R&P: I read this book in a day, and I was surprised that a historical novel with strands about Solomon Schechter and Maimonides could be such a fast-paced thriller! How do you accomplish that pace in your writing?

DH: I’m easily bored, and I don’t have patience for contemporary literary novels that fail to provide a plot. Plot is very important to me because I see it as a way of expressing belief in fiction. You can’t have a plot without a belief or set of beliefs (not necessarily formal concepts like “God exists,” but more subtle ones like “people can’t really change” or “jealousy is a stronger emotion than love” or “this character deserves to succeed because she is kind/creative/loyal/insightful”) that are presented at the start of the story, and the plot is essentially the testing of those principles. As for the pace: I’m an impatient person, and I don’t plan my novels in advance at all. So I’m writing the story the same way you’re reading it—to find out what happens next!

R&P: Your protagonist, software mogul Josie Ashkenazi, invents a computer application called Genizah, which archives everything users create, and maintains a comprehensive, permanent record of users’ lives: the photos, the emails, the music, and the videos that form the records of our lives. As your contemporary characters illustrate, we feel great attachment for this “sacred trash” (an attachment that is not dissimilar to what scholars and historians feel about archives). But your story suggests that our most sanctifying acts as human beings may arise from letting go and forgetting, from our willingness and ability to start anew with the current needs of a relationship. But you, too, are a record keeper! Your writing has relied on journals and notes that you’ve kept for years. Does the story address your own desire to find a balance between preserving the past and living in the present? 

DH: It’s not about balance (which incidentally doesn’t exist), but about recent technological change. When I was a child I had a fantasy of recording everything, of writing everything down so that nothing could ever be lost. I still keep journals and notebooks. But in recent years, social media has made my childhood dream come true—and turned it into a nightmare. Watching everyone archiving their lunch online for the past five years has made me think more clearly about the distinction between memory and history. I feel sorry for people younger than me (I’m 36), because they will never have a chance to meet a stranger. Everything they do will already be there for the world to see, and they won’t have that chance to reinvent themselves by telling a new story about their past that suits their present needs. Of course, this is only an exponential updating of an ancient problem. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates complains about how the new technology—writing—is destroying memory, because now that people can just write things down, who will memorize the epics of Homer? He was right. Nobody memorizes Homer anymore, or their best friend’s phone number either.

Technology always changes the way we consider the past. But the past isn’t a story. It’s a sequence of events that, once it’s gone, can’t be objectively accessed and can only be retold, in countless ways—and the way we choose to tell that story becomes our identity. People who lived through the same experience can understand it in wildly different ways, and that difference is what distinguishes one person’s soul from another’s. There’s a double helix of free will and fate that defines our lives—the circumstances we find ourselves in, and how we decide to remember those experiences.

R&P: The novel focuses on siblings—a relationship that often gets overlooked in the American Jewish community, where concerns about “continuity” lead to a preoccupation with the relationship between parents and children, and that between grandparents and grandchildren. “From generation to generation” has been an American Jewish motto since the mid-twentieth century. Your novel makes us think about siblings—the relationship about which there is least pressure to take responsibility. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” we all seem to ask ourselves. The answer we usually come up with is no. Yet siblings may be the best family metaphor for an individual’s relationship with her peers and her community. Our siblings are fellow-travelers in life, keepers of the same memories. We grow up with our siblings, but we often expect to make different choices and take divergent paths. As adults, the “rules” about how to live with and love our brothers and sisters seem unclear. Jealousies and resentments from the past have the potential to weigh down these relationships, as your book beautifully explores. What sparked your interest in siblings and memory?

DH: That double helix of fate and free will I talked about earlier exists in microcosmic form for siblings who grew up together, in the form of the nature-versus-nurture debate. These are people who were raised in the same circumstances, but often you’d never know it, and their memories of their supposedly shared past are often very different. I grew up with two sisters and a brother, and the four of us are still very close as adults, but I appreciate how unusual that is. I also have four small children of my own, and I already see how they have their own world within my home that in large part doesn’t include me. 

The contemporary story in my novel is a rewriting of the Joseph story from Genesis, retold in contemporary times, and with women instead of men. The Joseph story is a perfect encapsulation of this question of destiny and free will. Joseph can see the future through dreams, but his story is not otherwise supernatural—it appears to take place entirely through human choices (his brothers sell him into slavery, his master’s wife frames him for assault, etc.). Yet at the end, when his brothers reunite with him in Egypt and he reveals himself to them, he tells them, “Don’t be angry at yourselves that you sold me to this place, because it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you”—turning his brother’s crimes into a benevolent act of God! To me, this is an astonishing revision of history. But it’s also illustrative of the kind of selective memory that’s absolutely necessary in families and in all relationships. Forgiveness is always an act of fiction, and there is no more gracious act than creating that story.

R&P: If there is still a notion of Jews as a “chosen people” in contemporary America, it is embodied by Josie and Itamar: their beauty, brains, wit, and financial success is what it looks like today, to be “chosen.” Connecting the dots (or data) from this year’s Pew Survey suggests, too, that the pride that American Jews feel in identifying with being Jewish is quite likely connected with their tendency to associate Jewishness with intelligence, humor, and talent. Josie’s sister Judith is not part of this elite, but she is, perhaps, the more cherished wife and mother figure. While she isn’t successful in terms of lighting on the “next big idea,” Judith is sensitive to the needs of those around her. She comforts mourners and tends to the sick. And yet, she’s not the “favorite child,” and at times, she comes off as ugly in all the ways that will be familiar to an honest reader. What were your feelings and concerns about this character?

DH: I was definitely attempting to create a “chosen” sense with Josie and Itamar, who are part of this technological elite. (It’s the modern equivalent of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams.) And you are correct that Josie’s sister Judith does not have those intellectual or other gifts. I wanted to call those gifts into question, because in Western culture we consider those gifts to be products of hard work, evidence of a “meritocracy,” which they clearly aren’t. No matter what opportunities Judith has, she will never invent a software platform. Yet in my research I saw how old this premium on intellectual achievement is. In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides even claims that divine providence is contingent on the divine gift of intellect—that the way God protects people is by giving them brains that allow them to solve their own problems. (Too bad, I suppose, for those not smart enough to do so.) I found this to be astoundingly arrogant, and also astoundingly familiar from the American culture in which I live.

Judith is my reinvention of the biblical character of Judah—a person who is instrumental in throwing his brother into the pit, but who is also later instrumental in demonstrating his humanity in Egypt when Joseph places him in the same situation again. And Josie is my reinvention of the biblical Joseph—a person who really is talented, but who also really is arrogant, and within whom talent and arrogance are not merely intertwined but dependent on each other.

R&P: Recent news coverage of laws banning polygamy in Utah makes me think of the protagonists’ marriage in your novel. There’s something of a “sister wives” moment in A Guide For the Perplexed. It’s a credit to your storytelling craft that you manage to portray this as a beautiful thing. What about spousal and sibling relationships were you exploring here? 

DH: The other biblical story that I was reinterpreting here, within the Joseph story, was the story of Judah and Tamar—an illicit sexual relationship that happens for the supposedly noble purpose of preserving a family. (In the biblical version, Judah’s sons marry Tamar in succession and each die without heirs, prompting Tamar to disguise herself as a prostitute, seduce her father-in-law, and give birth to his child in order to maintain his family line. Lovely, isn’t it?) Without giving too much away, my Judith character does end up becoming involved with her sister’s husband in her sister’s absence. While I’ve reversed the genders, this is actually a concept in Jewish law called a yibum marriage. When a married man dies and he has an unmarried brother, his widow is supposed to marry the brother (though she is allowed to refuse). I believe this is actually the only legal obligation between siblings in Jewish law.

In my story, this romance, such as it is, is tightly tied to the jealousies between the two sisters. But I was also interested in the obligations we have toward spouses and siblings. In American culture we’re told that marriage should be the culmination of soul-enlarging love or somesuch, but the reality is that you’re choosing someone to whom you are going to be obligated for life (even if you get divorced, in many cases)—and often, to whom your other relatives will be obligated as well. Judaism doesn’t do romance so well, but it does do obligation really well, and American culture is just the opposite. So I wanted to explore what this kind of obligation would look like in a modern context.

R&P: You’ve had a few months of an exciting book tour. Are there still plenty of opportunities for readers to catch you around the country? And how have readers responded to the book? What kinds of comments/conversations have you had about technology and knowledge, or about memory?

DH: Yes, I spoke in 15 cities, and in the coming months I’ll be speaking in New York, California, Florida, Michigan, and Australia, among other places. (There’s a list on my website.) With this book, I’ve had a lot of interesting interactions about the larger questions of memory and technology—of whether we want to be able to record all of our past. I’ve found that there is a generational divide about this, with older people being more interested in curating the past and younger people being more content with dumping their photos and other memories, uncurated, onto the Internet platforms of their choice.

I would have assumed that this divide was simply because the younger people are more comfortable with the technology. But that’s only a small part of it. It’s really because the older people have more often had the experience of having to clean out the detritus of someone else’s life—cleaning out a grown-up child’s room, for instance, or more powerfully, of selling a dead parent’s house. The younger people often haven’t had to confront the consequences of too many memories, but the older people are more likely to know the challenge of having to go through their parents’ attic and throw out the stacks of magazines their father loved or the recipe clippings that remind them of their mother—and more importantly, the mental experience of taking those people’s lives and finding a way to fit them, entirely, into their own.

R&P: I loved the novel’s ending. It was one of those rare not-totally-happy endings that left me immensely satisfied and happy for its realness. What were you aiming for, in this ending?

DH: An ending that is also a beginning. The double helix of fate and free will seems to have been resolved at a point just before the ending, and then it twists again—the steps one character takes to ameliorate the future end up wildly backfiring. My intent was for the reader to call into question everything she was assuming about the consequences of our actions, about how much we can control our lives. To me, a religious attitude toward life, which this book considers and challenges, is less about whether or not one believes in God than about whether or not one believes that it’s possible for humans to control the future.

R&P: Recently, the visionary philanthropist Edgar Bronfman died. Bronfman was a leader of many Jewish causes, including a past president of the World Jewish Congress. But one of his favorite philanthropic ventures was said to be the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, an Israel summer program in which we both participated when we were teenagers. Famously, Bronfman was not interested in God, but he was highly invested in Jewish life, and in the conversing, learning, reading, and writing that are so integral to it. As a former fellow and writer, what are your thoughts on Bronfman’s legacy in relation to your work?

DH: Josh Lambert, a literary critic, recently spoke at a conference about the blossoming of Jewish American fiction in the past decade, and made the bold claim that much of this new “wave” is due to something few critics have acknowledged: institutional support (whether in formal educational settings, or even in the pages of The New Yorker) for creative approaches to Jewish culture. He interviewed me about this, noting that the fellowship you and I participated in, which is less than thirty years old, has already produced several successful authors. When he asked if the fellowship offered any explicit support to writers (grants, introductions to publishers, etc.), I had to say no. But I think he was right that this program, among only a handful of others, was instrumental in shaping a generation of creative Jewish thinkers. As teenagers on the program, we were encouraged, regardless of our previous education, to take ownership of Jewish texts, to argue with them and to learn from them and to find ways to make them ours. That creative engagement with the tradition at a very high level, for thoughtful teenagers at a formative point in their lives, was enormously important to me in my development as a writer.

R&P: When we chatted in December, you were getting ready for the 2013 White House Hanukkah party. You wrote movingly about that experience in The Wall Street JournalReligion & Politics readers might be interested to know: who was there, what did they serve, and did the president sing any Hanukkah songs?

DH: A third of the Supreme Court was there, along with many Jewish members of Congress, Jews in the administration, journalists, several hundred rabbis and other communal leaders, and the odd lost creative soul, including me and Larry David (who apparently stayed in character by hating it). The White House kitchen was kashered, and they served lamb chops, latkes, roasted vegetables and sufganiot. And while the president didn’t sing, the Marine Band did play Maoz Tsur!

Rachel Gordan is the Ray D. Wolfe Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto.

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Uganda’s President Will Sign Anti-Gay Bill. How Did the Nation Get to this Point? Tue, 18 Feb 2014 16:58:23 +0000 (AP)

(Gail Orenstein/NurPhoto/Corbis/AP)

On February 14, news reports began to surface that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni planned to sign into law the nation’s draconian Anti-Homosexuality Bill, often referred to as the “Kill the Gays” bill. The provision for which the bill was nicknamed—the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”—was taken out of the bill’s latest version in exchange for life imprisonment, along with punishments for those who support the gay community. President Barack Obama called the move “a step backward for all Ugandans” and one that would “complicate” the U.S.-Ugandan relationship. But in vowing to sign the bill, Museveni told his cheering supporters: “We shall have a war with the homosexual lobby in the world.”

Museveni’s assent to the legislation is quite a change from when the bill was passed by Uganda’s Parliament in December (and seemingly without a quorum). The president stalled in signing it, saying the issue needed to be studied, and he berated his opponents in the legislature: “How can you ‘pass’ law without the quorum of Parliament after it has been pointed out? What sort of Parliament is this?” His shift to supporting the bill came after he heard from a team of Ugandan scientists advising him on homosexuality. It also, more tellingly, came after his party’s caucus endorsed Museveni, yet again, for presidential re-election in 2016.

The bill’s passage and Museveni’s assent are but the latest in what has been a long, convoluted, and controversial international history. The most prevalent narrative in the United States of the “Kill the Gays” bill’s genealogy goes something like this: American evangelicals and Pentecostals, losing the culture wars in the United States, decided to export the battle front to places like Uganda, where they enlisted new recruits in their homophobic campaign. Trans-oceanic, religio-political networks were fashioned by U.S.-based organizations like the International House of Prayer (IHOP) and The Family, along with Ugandans like the Rev. Martin Ssempa or MP David Bahati—the bill’s most notorious supporters. These collaborations provide the evidence needed to claim that the egregious “Kill the Gays” bill was but the inevitable, perhaps the intended, product of Western anti-LGBT activism. In this narrative, as seen in news reports like Jeff Sharlet’s “Straight Man’s Burden” and the recent documentary “God Loves Uganda,” the story of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill is the extension of an American story: American agendas, agency, money, and power are at its heart. Uganda is treated, in many ways, as incidental, becoming a convenient battleground.

But for many in Uganda, the bill has come to represent their country’s principled stand against a purportedly neocolonial, international campaign to import homosexuality and gay rights into the country. Many Ugandans think that these clandestine forces, embodied in non-governmental organizations, the European Union, and the United Nations, have been seeking to destroy the “traditional family” of Ugandans through nefarious methods. As a Parliament spokesperson said on December 20, 2013: “The [Anti-Homosexuality] Bill aims at strengthening the nation’s capacity to deal with emerging internal and external threats to the traditional heterosexual family.”

I do not intend to discount the insightful scholarship and journalism that have established clear connections between certain conservative American Christians and Ugandan pastors and legislators. The lawsuit filed by the advocacy group Sexual Minorities Uganda against American Christian activist Scott Lively illuminates the most blatant of these connections. But I want to ask different questions: What does the complex history of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill tell us about Uganda? Why has Uganda proved to have such fertile soil for certain convictions about homosexuality to take root? Have some conniving American evangelicals duped naïve Africans? Are Ugandans merely pawns in a larger game? As the anthropologist Lydia Boyd has argued: “[To] analyze [the Anti-Homosexuality Bill] as simply the result of the transposition of an American homophobia misrepresents Ugandan concerns as mere reflections of an American agenda and obscures the motivations of local activists.” The discourse about homosexuality in Uganda has been embedded within existing concerns, values, and anxieties—factors that conditioned how Ugandans received the more recent waves of American involvement.


UGANDA’S PUBLIC DISCOURSE about homosexuality did not begin in the mid-2000s with efforts from conservative U.S. evangelicals and Pentecostals. Rather, it was propelled into public awareness during the 1990s through the incipient row within the Anglican Communion over the ordination of gay priests and bishops.

Ugandan Anglicans’ relationship with Anglicans from the West—namely, the U.S. Episcopal Church—became increasingly defined by their sharp, conservative convictions on matters of human sexuality. Ugandan bishops (along with others from the “global South”) took an uncompromising stand in relation to a resolution on human sexuality passed at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, a decennial gathering of Anglican bishops. Their resistance to the condoning stance taken by the Episcopal Church was frequently couched in terms that echoed the British imperial era (Uganda was a British protectorate from 1894 to 1962). They would not accept this new form of “imperial” imposition of “Western” values within the Anglican Communion.

One result of these developments was that Ugandan Anglicans became conscripted into a narrative, often repeated by conservative Anglicans in the West, that portrayed them (and other Anglican provinces like Nigeria and Rwanda) as the vibrant preservers of Christian orthodoxy amidst a decadent Western church that was in moral decay and numerical decline.

While the Anglican Church of Uganda charted its conservative course amidst the battles within the Anglican Communion, it also had to contend with inter-denominational competition at home, where Pentecostal Christianity has profoundly transformed the religious landscape of Uganda. Kampala is now brimming with miracle centers, healing tabernacles, and winner’s chapels. And these newer charismatic and Pentecostal churches are rising to challenge the older mission churches of the colonial era. In this contest, historic Ugandan Anglicanism is usually regarded as losing out to the Pentecostals.

These newer churches have proved very attractive to youth, a fact that concerns Anglicans, who have often viewed Pentecostals with suspicion, derision, and resentment. When I discussed these issues with Ugandan Anglicans in 2012, they—particularly revivalist Anglicans—liked to point out that some of the initial impetus for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill arose from cases of sexual abuse involving minors at Ugandan Pentecostal churches—churches with whom they have theological disagreements. It seemed that some of the support for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill from certain Ugandan Anglicans, therefore, came from a hope that the legislation would curtail the influence of these new Pentecostal churches, which they believed were endangering their children’s bodies and souls.

These allegations of abuse continued even after the bill was written in 2009. For example, Anti-Homosexuality Bill supporter Martin Ssempa, along with other pastors, accused Robert Kayanja, a Pentecostal megachurch pastor, of sexually abusing male minors in his congregation, seemingly in an attempt to discredit him and his very well-financed ministry. Their allegations turned out to be false, and counter-suits have been filed.

Ugandan Anglican Christians, therefore, have, at times, used the Anti-Homosexuality Bill to articulate their concerns over the changing nature of Christianity in Uganda. Even those Pentecostal pastors who have ties to Western evangelicals (like Ssempa and Kayanja) have utilized the bill and hostility toward LGBT individuals to exercise their own agency and attempt to eliminate competition in Kampala’s crowded religious marketplace. These dynamics evince a concern for the vulnerability of the youth and a deep conviction that foreign powers are undermining Uganda, whose religious, economic, and familial landscape are changing, threatening Uganda’s traditional values with the “moral decadence” found in the West.


WHEN PARLIAMENT VOTED on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in December, it was hardly a coincidence that it was passed alongside the Anti-Pornography Bill. The sense of peril posed by various forms and forces of modern life have provided the moral impetus for the content of both bills. Both seek to curb a perceived threat against the “traditional family” and the youth of Uganda posed by disruptive influences like the Internet and the economic crisis.

The Ugandan media, which can tend toward sensationalism, has reinforced these messages and, in some cases, disseminated misinformation. A team of researchers from the University of Leeds has argued that the state-affiliated New Vision newspaper has consistently presented Uganda as being a nation under moral siege, where “[h]omosexuality is frequently taken to represent one aspect of Uganda’s ‘moral decline.’” In New Vision, debates around homosexuality are tied up within a larger set of concerns that includes rising HIV/AIDS infection rates, cannibalism, child sacrifice, pornography, and divorce.

Added to these articles is the dubious, but repeated, testimony of one man, George Oundo, a former schoolteacher who claims that he was taken by an NGO to Nairobi and trained to lure children in his classes into becoming gay. Similarly, news reports depict literature produced by UNICEF and other NGOs as “popularising homosexuality” in Uganda’s schools. Outlets seemingly confirm the alleged effects of these NGO campaigns through periodic stories, such as one reporting the “discovery” of incidents of homosexuality at prominent Ugandan secondary schools. And such concerns result in stricter penalties for teachers who conceal acts of homosexuality among their students.

Supporters of the bill have, therefore, crafted a narrative that has proved devastatingly effective and convincing to many Ugandans: wealthy, nefarious foreign forces are coming into Uganda to destroy Ugandan families by recruiting your children into homosexuality—a storyline that has historically also played a role in American discourses about homosexuality.

While this narrative obviously reproduces the trope that homosexuality is itself a Western export (and conflates homosexuality with pedophilia), it also demonstrates that talk about homosexuality in Uganda has been inextricably linked to existing discourses on the perceived crises posed to the traditional family and to vulnerable youth by disreputable, international forces. Those who supported the bill could couch their anti-LGBT convictions in broader terms. As a politician argued in New Vision: Ugandans opposed to the bill are themselves simply “slaves living under neo-colonialism.”


IT IS CLEAR THAT popular support for the bill has often been articulated using Christian moral language, and the bill’s proponents have been dependent upon the religious fervor of their heavily Christian constituents. This has meant that President Museveni, who has ruled the country for 28 years, has walked a political tight rope between populist Uganda politicians and Western heads of state. One observes his ungainly balancing act in his remarks in the wake of the bill’s passing: “The question at the core of the debate of homosexuality is; what do we do with an abnormal person?” He then went on to promise to find a “scientifically correct position” on the matter, according to Uganda’s Monitor. (One can read the scientists’ findings here.)  

Given Museveni’s reticent reaction to the bill’s passage, his current support illuminates Uganda’s deeply contested politics. While Museveni might say that it was the “scientific” opinions that swayed his mind, it seems clear that his support was intended to shore up his increasingly fragmented regime and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party. As a result, his impending assent of the bill seems designed to unify the increasingly divided NRM party behind him in order to preclude possible presidential bids from two prominent NRM politicians: Parliamentary Speaker Rebecca Kadaga (who strongly supported the bill) and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi (who opposed the bill). And so Uganda’s LGBT community was sacrificed in order to give Museveni the opportunity of a fourth decade of rule.

While others have focused upon the American origins of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, it is essential that Uganda’s unique social, religious, and political contexts not be neglected in understanding how the bill developed and how Museveni has reacted to its passage. Support for the bill within Uganda is not absolute, nor is it only motivated by the rationale given by American evangelicals and Pentecostals with ties to Ugandan leaders and pastors. There are various sources of support for this legislation stemming from anxieties over corrupting foreign influences, religious competition, and national political posturing.

Moving forward certainly entails recognizing the diversity of Ugandan societies. While Western human rights activists have been inclined to see the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and anti-LGBT sentiment in Uganda as the parroting of American homophobia, they would do well to consider how and why Ugandans began to regard these narratives as credible descriptions of what is happening in their country.  

Jason Bruner is the Assistant Professor of Global Christianity at Arizona State University.

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In Upcoming Indian Election, the Legacy of Religious Violence Looms Tue, 11 Feb 2014 20:54:27 +0000 (Getty/Dibyangshu Sarkar)

(Getty/Dibyangshu Sarkar)

On an overcast afternoon last November, Narendra Modi, the provocative and polarizing prime minister candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, descended by helicopter to exhort his throng of supporters at the Palace Grounds in Bangalore, the southern Indian city known for its international call centers and technology companies.

The BJP, champion of “Hindu nationalism,” had begun charging people a nominal ticket price to hear Modi speak, an unusual decision in retail politics anywhere, but especially in India where people expect political parties to offer incentives to vote their way, not charge them money to cheer on their candidate. But Modi is a bankable superstar and the BJP argues that the price of admission is a symbol of its supporters’ fierce commitment to its candidate.

Modi is in his thirteenth year as the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, where he likes to tout that he has overseen impressive, investor-friendly economic growth. He is credited with successfully orchestrating an export-fueled economy that has, in some significant ways, sidelined the crushing regulatory regime and corrupt practices burdening so much of the rest of India. In a year of terrible economic news—a dire currency devaluation crisis, rising fuel costs, panicked gold buying— Modi’s platform of bureaucratic reform and economic growth has electoral legs.

Critics are quick to counter: numerous Indian states achieved sustained high economic growth during the country’s transformative 2000s, and Gujarat was enjoying a healthy economy for years when Modi took office. Modi’s laggard record on social development and his history of usurping policy decisions from other government bodies have opponents declaring him an authoritarian-leaning chief executive unable or unwilling to cope with coalition-building and forging compromise with political adversaries—or even with allies. They warn that Modi’s tenure in Gujarat has been marked by a deepening marginalization of lower castes, cultural policing, and a default scapegoating of religious minorities.  While a Modi slogan, “less government, more governance,” resonates with an electorate exhausted by the impositions of a smothering government bureaucracy, his opposition charges that it masks a cold right-wing ideology justifying a blithe disregard for India’s poor.

But by far the most divisive issue haunting Modi is sectarian. A few months after Modi took office, Gujarat descended into days of unrestrained mass murder, brutal rapes, and widespread looting. Violence first erupted when a Muslim mob attacked a train carrying Hindu pilgrims returning to Gujarat from Ayodhya, a disputed holy site where a mosque and Hindu temple have stood; the train caught fire and fifty-nine train travelers were burned to death. The next morning, incensed mobs, many wearing the signature uniform of Hindu nationalist organizations, launched a three-day killing spree in cities across Gujarat. More than a thousand people, the majority of them Muslims, were slaughtered on the streets; many were burned alive, and sporadic violence in Gujarat continued for months.

Gujarat has a history of violence rooted in religious difference and India has struggled with sectarian clashes between numerous faiths—in the 1970s and 80s the country was roiled by Sikh separatism. But the 2002 Gujarat violence haunts Modi because of credible allegations that his administration actually orchestrated the attacks. While an Indian Supreme Court-appointed special investigative team in 2012 concluded Modi was not responsible for the riots, numerous independent organizations have identified senior government officials and the state police force as active participants in the violence. A Human Rights Watch investigation determined that “the Gujarat state administration has been engaged in a massive cover-up of the state’s role in the massacres.”

Modi’s current views on his state’s Muslim minority, and to what degree he has personal culpability for the 2002 Gujarat riots, have become central narratives in the campaign. In January, the sitting prime minister, who had avoided directly addressing Modi’s responsibility, declared Modi unfit to succeed him in office after “presid(ing) over mass massacre of innocents on the streets.” But in a campaign couched in gesture and coded rhetoric, how Modi’s past actions inform his future intentions are difficult to predict, according to Arafaat Valiani, assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon and the author of Militant Publics in India, which examines Hindu nationalism in Gujarat. “At first the BJP would include a Muslim leader as a member of the party, particularly at press conferences, particularly in 2002, when there was a spotlight shining on the administration from the violence that year,” Valiani said. “Now it’s more complex. It appears that Modi may have cultivated some supporters within the community and members of the community may themselves be drawn toward him. Their reasons are hard to pin down but they are probably multiple. Some may include Muslim brokers wanting to move on from the polarizing critique of Modi, which stigmatizes Muslims, but also there are those seeking to ‘pick a winner,’ by which I mean be supportive of a political figure who seems set to gain more political authority, access to resources.”

In the initial months after he declared his candidacy, Modi stoked fears among his critics by refusing to speak on the 2002 riots occurring on his watch, only to give an interview to Reuters in July where he likened the Muslims massacred in the riots to puppies killed under the wheels of a car. In speeches, he frequently declares his resolve to end “appeasement” toward religious minorities. It’s widely believed a Modi government will try to ban cow slaughtering—not only a blow to Muslim livelihoods but also an imposition of Hindu dietary restrictions on many non-Hindus, intended as an act of aggression against their civil rights.

Religious freedom is an important part of American foreign policy, and a Modi win would present uniquely thorny challenges on the issue, with the potential to disrupt the bilateral relationship in ways unwelcome by both sides. American disapproval of Modi will be difficult to deny: the State Department has declined to issue Modi a U.S. visa since 2005. Last October, The New York Times ran a strongly worded editorial labeling Modi an inappropriate candidate to head the world’s largest democracy, one who “inspires fear and antipathy among many of [India’s] own people.”

Modi’s unlikely political ascent—he started out as a teenage teahouse waiter—began in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Known as the RSS, the all-male volunteer paramilitary organization is deeply connected to the BJP party and its members are Modi’s electoral foot soldiers. The RSS earns goodwill assisting in the open during natural disasters but is significantly less transparent as a political actor, pushing to impose Hindu culture on everyone, including the country’s 176 million Muslims and its many other religious minorities. The RSS has been documented participating in and at times instigating India’s periodic eruptions of sectarian violence and of being a generally coercive presence in Indian communities (a former RSS member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948). The organization doesn’t so much have a governing platform as a culture-dominating agenda, although this might be a muddled distinction.

In the ocean of supporters at Modi’s rally in Bangalore, it was tempting to draw conclusions from the optics: a sea of mostly men, mostly wearing traditional village clothing, mostly sporting tilaks or other visual signs of Hindu observance. Smack in the middle of a city of corporate strivers, not a person looked like an engineer or any other member of Bangalore’s middle class.

But Modi does draw huge and growing numbers precisely from India’s professionals: the engineers and computer programmers, managers and merchants packing its 300-million-strong middle classes. “I think Modi’s involvement in what happened in Gujarat isn’t clear and the alternative is more of Congress”—referring to the ruling Indian National Congress party—“which is going to result in disaster and stagnation,” was how a policy analyst with an American Ph.D. dining in a Texas-themed steakhouse in Bangalore put it, echoing a common view among Bangalore’s educated, younger adults on April’s election choice. He also pointed to the Congress party’s own cloudy history of sectarian violence. It is India’s aspirational urban middle classes who are perhaps most angered by what they perceive as the Congress party’s responsibility for endemic corruption, financial mismanagement, and nurturing a bureaucratic state.

Modi has been successful at trumpeting an agenda of economic development—which his supporters can tout without embarrassment—while telegraphing his solidarity with the concerns of Hindu nationalism, which many of his supporters may also support but are more reticent to defend publicly, said Valiani. “Many of his potential supporters are in basic agreement with several, if not all, of these main precepts of Hindu nationalism. Keep in mind though this doesn’t mean that this important constituency supports violence against Indian minorities. That’s more complex even if members of this group embrace a form of nationalism that is rather shot through with xenophobia.”

The current Indian National Congress prime minister, the dulcet-voiced Manmohan Singh, was the financial architect of the country’s 1991 liberalization policies that spurred two decades of rapid economic development. But the party itself is dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, in power for most of India’s history since independence from Great Britain in 1947. It is now headed by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian prime minister who was assassinated in 1991. Rajiv Gandhi had succeeded his mother, Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1984 by her own Sikh bodyguards. Indira Gandhi’s father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India’s iconic first prime minister. His great-grandson, Rahul Gandhi, is currently vice president of the Congress Party, as well as Modi’s chief rhetorical challenger. He was thought to be a possible rival for Modi in the election; however, last month, it was announced that Gandhi would not be a nominee for prime minister, though he will lead his party’s election campaign.

Until then, the potential horse race between a Gandhi family scion and the charismatic Modi had largely dominated the country’s election coverage. But Indian politics are rarely two-person contests. Regional parties can play the role of spoiler or kingmaker, and a lot of the political analysis in Indian media is devoted to whether it’s even electorally possible for Modi’s BJP party to win enough votes to form a coalition government.

It is in garnering alliances with regional parties where religion—and perceptions of Modi’s animus toward Muslims— becomes most salient. Religion is part of a mosaic of identities in India, where caste, geography, age, and local politics are all important factors in how a person votes. “To say religion does not help define your election choices would be wrong,” said Sandeep Shastri, the pro vice chancellor at Jain University. “It’s a factor, but not the factor. I think it’s beyond doubt that for a voter, who you are is as important as what you believe. Socially culturally, and politically, who you are is what contextualizes you.”

Shastri oversees the Lokniti Network, which since 1996 has conducted extensive political polling and is generally acknowledged as the country’s most credible academic organization for studying elections. Shastri’s polls indicate that where stratified religious voting blocks may play a decisive electoral role is in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), a highly populous northern state that has a history of tipping the balance in tight national elections. UP is about 18 percent Muslim and a state where thousands of Muslims have been displaced or killed in sectarian violence. Modi, said Shastri, will need to find alliances with regional political parties capable of attracting large percentages of the Muslim vote.

Although alliances have never been Modi’s strong point, Muslim leaders say that if Modi is elected, they will have to put their faith in the pillowing effects of coalition politics. In a café-side interview in downtown Bangalore, Mohamed Samiulla, general secretary of the Karnataka Federation of Muslims Association, said, “Our only fear is if BJP comes to power without a coalition. If they are less than two-thirds of a majority we don’t have any fears. But if they do get in by themselves, they may change the constitution.” 

While refusing to distance himself—or apologize for—the 2002 Gujarat riots, Modi has been steadfast in trying to change the subject to his preferred image as a fiercely secular candidate—albeit one firmly rooted in the cultural tenets of Hindu nationalism. He presents his platform as singularly devoted to an agenda of economic growth and development. “Toilets not temples” is another of his slogans.

“They don’t say vote for him because he’s Hindu,” Shastri said. “The posters—I see them everywhere—don’t talk about religion. They talk about needing a strong leader, a focused leader. We don’t want grift anymore. In face-to-face dialogue, that issue of religion comes. But in the public posturing, it’s about strength from the top.”

Muslims in India are more than 14 percent of the population, but many feel taken for granted by the Congress party as much as under attack from the BJP, although in parts of the country the BJP is able to attract 8 or 9 percent of their vote. In Karnataka, where the BJP was in charge of the government for several years, religious minorities are deeply alienated from Modi’s attempts to say he will bring prosperity for everyone. “After sixty years of independence we are supposed to be a developed community but we are very, very poor,” Samiulla, of the Karnataka Muslim Association, said. “We were better placed when the British were ruling. Neither Congress nor the BJP are friends of Muslims—Congress uses Muslims as vote banks. There is no upliftment. BJP uses the word appeasement.” Samiulla would rather the ruling government focus on education funding, especially for Muslim girls.  

When I met with the Very Rev. Monsignor C. Francis, the vicar general of the Archdiocese of Bangalore, he sharply rebuked Modi and the BJP party. “When the BJP came to power in Karnataka there were immediate attacks on the Church,” he said from behind his desk in his office. “Minorities were in fear, most especially Christians. We went to sing hymns during Christmas time, the police told us not to do it. Any Christian symbol on the calendar was not allowed. We’re not allowed our own books for our schools, only textbooks from the government.”

According to Francis, the BJP-controlled state government allowed police to foment a physical attack on Catholic nuns in the coastal city of Mangalore, then refused to investigate. He continued: “If the BJP comes to power, the so-called fundamentalists will come up along side them. They’ll institute their programs. They’ll make our life tough. Not allow us to open schools, give us an anti-slaughter bill, an anti-conversion bill; these are what they propose. If we want to build churches, they won’t allow it.”

For the United States, India is an important actor in the future of Afghanistan and the stability of Pakistan. And the U.S. and India are becoming only more tethered because of surging business and educational links (more than a million Indians are enrolled in American educational institutions); a growing Indian immigrant population in the U.S. (the Indian diaspora in the U.S. is more than 3 million; in New Jersey, the majority of the state’s large Indian population comes from Modi’s home state of Gujarat); and the heavy involvement of Indian-American organizations in promoting their political agendas in India.

Among many noted Indian intellectuals, Modi becoming prime minister is unthinkable. The celebrated 80-year-old Indian writer U.R. Ananthamurthy announced he would leave the country if Modi is elected prime minister. The Kolkata-born author Amitav Ghosh declared that Modi’s “politics of Hindu nationalism is destroying Hindu religion.” But a feeling also seems current among some of India’s intelligentsia that Indian politics is congenitally restrained: responsive to multiple constituencies, sensitive to coalition pressures, guarded by muscular checks and balances like the judiciary and powerful state governments, protected by a history of democratic participation, and hemmed in by change-averse bureaucrats who really run the show. 

When our talk turned to politics one recent morning, the culture and film critic N.S. Sridhar Murthy told me, “My sense is that the compulsions of power will take over. You can’t run the country as a Hindu country. The police and state are in disarray. The military is completely demoralized. The BJP miscreants are dangerous blokes and [Modi’s] philosophy may be fascist, but there is no mechanism for that kind of authoritarianism. You can’t enforce traffic lights here. You think fascism is so easy?”

Yet as the rally in Bangalore ended and BJP supporters streamed into the streets, an Indian journalist pointed to a group of men with children jubilantly waving flags. “These people are in such good spirits,” he said. “It’s like they know they’ve picked a winner.”

Ilan Greenberg is a journalist and a professor at the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program. Last fall he was a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India.

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