Religion & Politics Fit For Polite Company Wed, 23 Jul 2014 20:44:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Why Anti-Vaccination Movements Can Never Be Tamed Tue, 22 Jul 2014 17:00:13 +0000 Edward Jenner (1749-1823), the English physician and pioneer of vaccination, vaccinates a small boy. (Getty/Popperfoto)

Edward Jenner (1749-1823), the English physician and pioneer of vaccination, vaccinates a small boy. (Getty/Popperfoto)

In Victorian England, nearly a century after the physician Edward Jenner had shown that exposure to the cowpox virus, or vaccinia, conferred immunity to smallpox, vaccination against smallpox was both a life-saving public health measure and a source of immense controversy. Vaccination was compulsory; parents were required to have their children immunized by three months of age or face fines that escalated as long as they refused to do so. Parents organized against the requirement, forming anti-vaccinationist societies, the largest of which was the National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League, to promote their cause. They founded their own newspapers, circulating tales of sickened and disfigured children injured by vaccination, complete with shocking photographs, through the national media. Protestors organized mass demonstrations and challenged the law in the courts, banding together to pay the fines and court costs of parents who could not afford them. Without such helps, a family’s goods could be auctioned off and parents jailed until debts were paid—the consequences of opposition were not minor.

In many ways, the history of compulsory smallpox vaccination echoes present-day vaccination controversies. Then, as now, the vaccination debate raised vital questions: what are the limits to the claims a state, acting in the name of the public good, can make on an individual and his or her body? When are individuals justified in resisting these claims, and what intellectual, spiritual, and moral resources can a person draw on in support of his or her resistance? What, ultimately, should be the role of science and medicine in a free society?

In Victorian England, opposition to vaccination had a lot to do with how the vaccine was administered. As described by Nadja Durbach in her book Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907, vaccination piggybacked on the Poor Law which, in the Victorian era, tried to discourage poverty by forcing the indigent into workhouses in which families were broken up, personal belongs taken away, and children and parents forced to work long hours of brutal physical labor. The same officials who administered the laws that ushered the poor into the workhouses oversaw the provision of free, public vaccination. For middle and working class parents, vaccination thus seemed to carry with it with it the social stigma of accepting welfare. They also feared that it was a short step from vaccination to the workhouse.

The vaccine helped to reduce the incidence of smallpox, a deadly, endemic disease. But it was also often unsafe and unsanitary, and those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum bore the heaviest risk of harm here, as well. Those without means to pay a private doctor to vaccinate their children were forced to go to the public vaccinators, where the vaccine was administered “arm-to-arm.” A vaccinator scratched cuts into an infant’s arm and scraped “lymph,” i.e. pus, into the cuts. The lymph was taken directly from the blisters that had formed on the arm of another child who had been vaccinated the previous week. Initially, there was no way to reliably store vaccine, and the authorities deemed this method the most efficient way to ensure that there was a consistent supply of vaccine available. Parents who refused to bring their babies to serve as a source of vaccine for another child were subject to fines, just like those who refused to be vaccinated in the first place. The middle class and upper classes, because they obtained their vaccinations privately, were able to avoid having their children serve as vaccine factories. The poor were not so lucky.

Objectors rightly believed that vaccination made them sick. In the best-case scenario, the vaccine conferred immunity to the disease and caused some swelling of the arm and fever. But the vaccine could also provoke full-blown cases of smallpox. Additionally, with little attention paid to hygiene as vaccine was passed from arm to arm, other diseases could be spread with it. Syphilis was particularly feared. Depending on the skill of the vaccinator and the quality of the lymph used, the vaccine could also be ineffective in preventing smallpox.

Health and safety objections to vaccination were grounded in broader religious, spiritual, and medical frameworks. Anti-vaccination was particularly associated with religious nonconformists (generally, Protestant Christians who did not support the state-sponsored Anglican Church). Some believed that it was folly to think that humans could circumvent God’s will through vaccination. Others believed that all that God had made was good, and even smallpox must serve a purpose. Others abhorred the mixing of human and animal that occurred when lymph ultimately derived from cows was introduced into the human body: for these individuals, as Durbach observes, vaccination was the “mark of the beast.” (Ironically, from a modern perspective, some evolutionists abhorred vaccination for somewhat similar reasons, worrying that the mixing of animal and human caused the human species to degenerate, or regress, to a lower form of life.) Resistors, connecting the spiritual and the medical, argued that vaccination caused disease because it violated their spiritual precepts.

Opposition to vaccination tapped into the holistic, naturopathic preoccupations of the day, as well. The modern industrial era, with its packed, filthy cities and its sped-up tempo, was making people sick. The vaccine was part of that unnatural modern world; of course it caused disease. Much better to eat a healthy diet, get lots of fresh air, avoid introducing unnatural or foreign substances into the body, and clean up your house and your city. Much better to avoid physicians and their vaccine altogether.

Though medical and public health authorities looked down upon vaccination opponents and their claims, opposition had the effect of making vaccination better. As the historian Peter Baldwin writes in Contagion and the State in Europe, 1830-1930, over time the British government responded to anti-vaccinators’ concerns by taking measures to make vaccination safer and more effective. They came to require more stringent training and licensing procedures for those who administered vaccines. They also moved away from the “arm-to-arm” method, switching instead to lymph taken directly from cows and stored in glycerin, which acted as a mild bactericide, helping to prevent other diseases from being transmitted along with the vaccine. Ultimately, in 1907 the English government made vaccination non-compulsory, allowing parents to obtain certificates testifying that upon careful consideration they conscientiously objected to the vaccination of their children. (This is the origin of the modern category of the “conscientious objector.”) Once vaccination was no longer compulsory, vaccination rates plunged, as did membership in the National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League. But smallpox remained under control—the disease was on the decline in England, and careful quarantine procedures ensured that cases that arrived from foreign shores did not lead to epidemics.

A lot has changed in the century-plus since the conscientious objector exemption was written into British law. Vaccines are used to prevent the spread of many more diseases. Though not risk-free, they are vastly safer; other diseases are much less likely to be unwittingly transmitted with them, and the side effects of vaccination are relatively mild (usually restricted to a fever or a little soreness at the vaccination site). In the U.S., although children are generally required to be up-to-date on their vaccines before they can begin school, parents can exempt them if they so choose. In some states, parents are required to justify their exemption on religious grounds; in others, a conscientious objection to vaccination is all that’s necessary. Vaccines are more humanely administered, often, though not always, in the privacy of a doctor’s office. Though physical compulsion was used abroad as recently as the 1970s, during the global campaign to eradicate smallpox, poor children were not made to serve as reservoirs of vaccine material for others. There’s also a national reporting system for adverse events that may have been caused by vaccination, so that vaccine injuries can be tracked and vaccines recalled, if necessary. The federal government, in the form of the CDC and the FDA, recognizes that vaccines can cause significant harm, however rarely, and has taken steps to minimize that harm.

Yet vaccination is still fraught with controversy. Latter-day anti-vaccination activists echo many of the concerns, as well as the tactics, of their nineteenth-century antecedents. Certain spiritual and religious communities object to it as part of an overall rejection of medical treatment in favor of the healing powers of prayer and faith. Such groups include everyone from faith healers in Philadelphia (among whom a 1990-1991 measles outbreak lead to the death of 9 children) to the followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Fairfield, Iowa, where a 2006 outbreak required the quarantine of roughly 1,000 people, as described by Arthur Allen in his book Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver.

Modern anti-vaccinators raise health and safety claims, too. As in the nineteenth century, such objections to vaccination are frequently rooted in spiritual beliefs about health, healing, and human development. Sometimes modern anti-vaccinators’ beliefs can be directly traced to those of the earlier generation of vaccine resistors. In the United States, for example, opposition to vaccination sometimes overlaps with Waldorf educational philosophies. The Waldorf educational approach, developed in the early twentieth century by the Austrian mystic Rudolph Steiner, is part of an overall spiritual and philosophical framework according to which illness is believed to strengthen both body and spirit. According to Allen, twenty-first century resistors building on Steiner’s philosophy cast this claim in modern scientific language, saying that suffering through diseases is the only way to really develop one’s immune system. Many anti-vaccinators are not simply anti-science; rather, they selectively incorporate mainstream scientific knowledge into their belief systems.

Most famously in recent decades, British physician Andrew Wakefield linked autism to the combined vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella. This connection has been definitively disproved (and Wakefield’s research shown to be fraudulent), yet it persists. Celebrities have taken up opposition to vaccination as a cause and used their fame to amplify the spread of misinformation and fear. Jenny McCarthy, the most famous of modern antivaccinators, continued to perpetuate the connection between autism and vaccines after it was disproven, questioning the scientific research that showed it to be false. Concerned parents can find each other on the Internet, where they discuss their fears, dissect the science, and promote their movement, much as nineteenth-century anti-vaccinators started newspapers and wrote books.

This activism has had sobering effects. In the U.K., measles vaccination rates dropped from 90 percent to 80 percent after the research linking vaccines to autism was published in 1998. In the U.S., measles cases are now at a 20-year high, with almost all cases being the product of unvaccinated individuals—most of whom have rejected vaccination for religious, philosophical, or personal reasons, rather than medical necessity—bringing the disease home after travel to parts of the world where it is endemic. The prevalence of whooping cough, or pertussis, which can be fatal for infants, has also tracked with anti-vaccination scares. (Though, in this case, the scientific issues are somewhat more complicated; individuals who reject the pertussis vaccine for themselves and their children do not bear all the blame for recent outbreaks. The immunity conferred by the acellular form of the pertussis vaccine, which uses only fragments of the pertussis bacterium, fades over time, requiring booster shots. But researchers only discovered this fact after the acellular vaccine replaced the whole cell variety in the 1990s.)

Opposition to vaccination, especially when it’s based on fears and misinformation, is frustrating. But it’s also understandable. Tellingly, such opposition is the province of no one group (religious or otherwise). Vaccination occupies a sensitive spot in the science-society interface, inside a square formed by a parent, a doctor, a baby, and the state, which still insists (though less firmly) on vaccination as a precondition for participation in civil society. Opposition to vaccination is driven by the fear and uncertainty that attends all things, the raising of children especially. In the service of protecting those we love most, we seek to understand; we seek to control. When things go wrong, we long for someone—or something—to blame. And scientists and doctors can’t always answer all the questions that we have about the effect that any vaccine, or any medicine, will have on a given individual. Given these pressures, it seems unlikely that anti-vaccination movements will ever be permanently tamed.

Even if it were possible to put an end to opposition to vaccines, it’s not clear that this would be a good thing. In nineteenth-century England, the anti-vaccination movement helped to drive a political and scientific process through which smallpox vaccination was made safer and more effective. Furthermore, no public policy—not even one grounded in thorough scientific research undertaken by those with the best of intentions—is exempt from political opposition. This is true even when that opposition defends itself with bad science or no science at all. It’s especially true when public policy impinges on an individual’s charge over her own body and the bodies in her care.

We can, and should, do our best to counter fear and misinformation with the evidence that vaccination is safe and effective. Yet we should also remember that the history of vaccination as the triumph of humanity over disease is not just a history of heroic doctors, intrepid scientists, and public health officials; it’s also a history of concerned parents, anti-science spiritualists, and conscientious objectors.

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

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Hobby Lobby, Wheaton College, and a New Religious Order Mon, 14 Jul 2014 17:12:51 +0000 (Getty/Bloomberg)


Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court handed down its much-awaited decision in Hobby Lobby, holding that closely held business corporations are “persons” endowed with religious rights. Then it followed up with an even more stunning order granting a temporary injunction to Wheaton College, which objects to signing forms that certify its eligibility for exemption from the “contraceptive mandate.” In addition to their troubling reasoning about the scope of religious rights, these decisions send strong messages about race and gender: religiously motivated conduct that is racially discriminatory is still unlawful—religious conduct that undermines gender equality, not so much.

We write to acknowledge that some of the arguments made by Hobby Lobby’s opponents were weak. They made it easy for the Court to shoot their (that is, our) position down. The results pose a serious threat to the ability of employees and their dependents to gain access to contraceptive services. We believe there are better arguments to be made, drawn from history as well as legal doctrine.

These cases were not constitutional decisions—instead, they involved the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). RFRA was designed by Congress to mimic the constitutional law of religion before Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in a 1990 case sharply restricted the free exercise clause. Much like the conscientious objector cases from the 1960s and 70s, the recent interpretations of RFRA are decisions based on a statute with profound constitutional implications. Hobby Lobby and Wheaton College are vitally important decisions. Together, they add up to a major expansion of what lower courts thought was the scope of RFRA—and a significant contraction of the countervailing government interests and equality rights.

In Hobby Lobby, opponents argued that a line should be drawn between non-profit and for-profit religious corporations. This was the position taken by the Obama administration and adopted by the four liberal Justices who dissented. This theory leads to the view that religious people must check their religion (and religious rights) at the marketplace door. The pro-exemption side argues that religious freedom for businesses means freedom from government regulations that restrict owners’ ability to conduct their business according to their beliefs. Despite their differences, both sides assume that there is a trade-off between recognizing that corporations can be religious “persons” and laws that protect employees and consumers.

Justice Alito’s majority opinion emphasized that it was only deciding the rights of closely held corporations, like Hobby Lobby and the other two companies involved in the case. There is no principled basis for distinguishing between a closely held and publicly traded corporations, however, just as there is none in the line between for-profit and non-profit. Hobby Lobby is a closely held business run by the Green family, but has over 16,000 employees nationwide. Co-plaintiff Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation also is a closely held family-owned corporation, with 950 employees and five factories located in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Only one of the three plaintiff companies, Mardel, which sells religious office and educational supplies, is actually a small closely held religious corporation. The scale and the nature of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood make it hard to see any meaningful distinction between the closely held and publicly traded corporate forms.

Other positions taken by the parties on both sides of the controversy are equally faulty, as demonstrated by both legal doctrine and history. First, the argument from history. The pro-exemption camp commonly claims that intrusive regulations arose recently, with the appearance of the modern regulatory state. The idea is that the expansion of the federal government in the modern era has subjected businesses to sweeping regulations that reflect progressive politics and interfere with business owners’ conservative religious beliefs. The implication is that before the “nanny” state, business actors operated without government interference.

Far from the imagined golden age without regulation, however, early American law regulated economic activity—and religious corporations. Our history reflects support for religious entities, coupled with willingness—indeed, determination—to subject religious corporations to regulation. That determination was partly the legacy of anti-clerical sentiments inherited from Europe. But the adoption of such regulations in the early national period primarily reflected the development of a distinctly American approach, in which opposing the aggrandizement of power and property by religious corporations bespoke a commitment to the value of religious freedom. Regulations applied to religious corporations gave expression to this understanding. Indeed, the first general incorporation statutes, starting in the 1780s, were written expressly for religious institutions, which were allowed to incorporate upon completion of a few simple procedural requirements—a much easier process than incorporation at the time for business ventures or municipal bodies, for example, which required legislative approval for each incorporation.

Under these laws, religious institutions in America have long taken the corporate form. And their activities have crossed the supposed boundary between commercial and noncommercial activities. The experience of religious organizations with corporate structure dates back to well before any division between for-profit and non-profit appeared in federal legislation. The Methodist Book Concern, for example, whose operations were based in New York City and Cincinnati, was the largest publishing house in the world by 1850. Such religiously affiliated institutions were commonplace, as were other types of “faith-based” services that defy the distinctions between religious and economic—or religious and secular activities drawn today.

Contrary to the laissez-faire assumptions of many judges and lawyers, American history is full of controls imposed on religious corporations. In Pennsylvania, where Conestoga Wood is based, religious corporations were restricted to a maximum of five acres of land and an income of no more than £500 in the 1790s. Many other states restricted property and income in similar ways across the nineteenth century. When Oklahoma, the home of Hobby Lobby, was first organized as federal territory in 1890, it was subject to federal territorial statutes, which limited all religious organizations to a maximum of $50,000 in property.

What do we learn from this history? First, the binary divisions offered in Hobby Lobby (for-profit/charitable; closely held/public; religious/secular and so on) do not reflect the complexity and variety of American religious and commercial life, both in history and in the present. Second, the assertion that the regulation of such religious corporations is hostile to religion and inimical to religious freedom is false. Across the country and for much of American history, these regulations co-existed with great religious growth and innovation. In other words, regulation need not entail repression, and traditionally has not operated to the detriment of religion in American life.

This history should remind us that the regulation at issue in Hobby Lobby and Wheaton College, whether imposed by state or federal government, should not be automatically or viscerally confused with attacks on religion. The long American tradition of regulating religious corporations without undermining religious freedom makes the recent Affordable Care Act decisions just two in a long line of regulatory measures. To be true to the patterns set across American history, no corporation would have been eligible for exemption, either non-profit or for-profit—all would have been held to the standards imposed by law.

Hobby Lobby was right about a central question, however. People can, and should be allowed to, express their religious beliefs by forming business enterprises under business incorporation laws and by conducting their businesses in conformity with their faith. The case that the majority cited to establish this proposition was Braunfeld v. Brown (1961), a case involving Jewish merchants who closed on Saturdays in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. They claimed an exemption from Pennsylvania’s Sunday closing law, saying they already lost one day’s business each week. The majority upheld this case as evidence that religion and commerce often overlap. What the Court failed to mention is that the Braunfeld plaintiffs lost. Even though the challenged regulation made the plaintiff’s business less profitable, that was deemed too “indirect” a burden on religious practice to trigger constitutional protection.

Braunfeld is a peculiar case for the majority to use as support for its decision. After all, the challenged regulation in Hobby Lobby also makes operating a business in conformity with religious faith more expensive, but does not compel business owners to violate their beliefs. The ACA subjects employers who refuse to provide comprehensive healthcare plans to potential economic costs in the form of fines or government assessments (whether the costs of such fines and assessments would exceed the costs of providing compliant plans remains open to dispute). Under Braunfeld’s logic, facing costs like this is not a substantial burden. A careful reading of the Sunday Closing Law cases—sorely missing from the Court’s decision—provides a cautionary note for both sides of the controversy.

Braunfeld assumed that businesses can be religious “persons” (and that religious persons can express their religion by the way they conduct their business enterprises). But businesses are no more entitled to exemptions from laws that burden their religious practice than are natural persons. This is true of laws that proscribe murder, theft or abuse, and other behaviors such as racial discrimination (which the Court asserts in Hobby Lobby is immune from claims to religious exemptions). It should be equally true of laws—such as the regulations in both Hobby Lobby and the Sunday Closing cases—that don’t prevent people from acting as they choose but merely make them pay a price for it. It is especially clear that laws that regulate the provision of a benefit—such as social security, tax exemptions, and so on—are regulations that have traditionally received substantial deference from the Court, as in Bowen v. Roy (1986), where the Supreme Court held that a religious objection to awarding social security numbers did not trigger a right to bar the government from such record-keeping measures.

Once we see it for what it truly is, the proper way to analyze claims for exemption made by religious businesses as well as non-profits becomes clear. Employer-based health insurance under the ACA delivers a large government subsidy (in the form of a tax exemption) to employees, funneled through their employers. This in turn permits employers to lower the cost of their compensation packages. In 1982, in Bob Jones University, the Court considered the right of a Christian university to escape the application of federal laws against race discrimination. Then, the justices firmly held that the government has the authority to regulate the conduct of private organizations that receive government subsidies in the form of tax-exemptions. The only difference between Hobby Lobby and that case is that in the case of employer-based health care plans, the tax exemption/subsidy is funneled through employers instead of being delivered directly to employees. The Wheaton College case is even closer to Bob Jones. There are no grounds for objecting to regulatory requirements that are attached to the receipt of tax exemptions (or to other forms of government largesse).

Yet in 2014, we seem to have forgotten the rights of women, many of whom have their own religious interests and rights, and none of whom are forced to accept any form of contraception under the so-called contraceptive mandate (the regulation in question does not actually force either employers or employees to do anything). The majority in Hobby Lobby expressly announced that it would still protect race—women, however, are in the crosshairs; and other issues of gender, including laws requiring same sex couples’ equal access to commercial services, are now in substantial doubt. Only by recognizing the long tradition in law of religious freedom and regulation in America, can we overcome the differential treatment that the Court has imposed on women workers.

Sarah Barringer Gordon is Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law & Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is co-editor of Studies in Legal History, the book series of the American Society for Legal History, published by Cambridge University Press.

Nomi Stolzenberg is the Nathan and Lilly Shapell Chair in Law at the University of Southern California Law School. She is the director of USC’s Program on Religious Accommodation and co-directs USC’s Center for Law, History and Culture.

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Remembering the Rebbe Tue, 08 Jul 2014 04:00:09 +0000 (Getty/Eric Thayer)

(Getty/Eric Thayer)

On a summer night in Crown Heights, thousands of Hasidic Jews sit on plastic, fold-out chairs to watch a projected recording of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the former religious leader of Chabad-Lubavitch, speak about Torah. Fifteen-foot screens line the side of Eastern Parkway, and Schneerson’s voice plays out of speakers. Streets are blocked and city policemen sit by in vans.

To his followers Schneerson is known as simply “the Rebbe”; and while he passed away 20 years ago, his face still lines the streets of this Brooklyn neighborhood, fluttering from flags on telephone poles, gazing down from each corner.

The solstice has just passed, and the night air is balmy. Painted portraits of the Rebbe are for sale ($350), and pins and bumper stickers bearing his face and the title Moshiach, orMessiah, can be bought for less than $5. One middle-aged woman selling Rebbe merchandise is also collecting money to support Israeli settlers living in the West Bank. “There are so many of our boys over there,” she says. “May the Rebbe watch over them.”

Twenty-two year-old Shmuel was born and raised in Crown Heights. He wears black slacks and a striped shirt unbuttoned at top. He’s clean-shaven with a yarmulke perched on top of his head. We walk down the sloping Kingston Avenue, the main artery of this neighborhood in central Brooklyn. He doesn’t regale me with tales of the Rebbe’s spiritual powers or tell me that a blessing from the rabbi when he was alive could change your life; he’ll leave that to his friends. Instead, Shmuel greets everyone on the street and points out a bakery (“they make the best donuts there”) and a coffee shop that has just opened (“almost as good as Starbucks”).

In the basement of 770 Eastern Parkway, a historic, spiritual center of the movement, there is a constant hum of prayer. During his life, this is where the Rebbe worked and preached. Dozens of young Hasids are dancing, their arms clasped together. “They believe the Rebbe never died,” Shmuel tells me. A banner is strung from the rafters: Long live our master our teacher our Rebbe King Moshiach forever and ever! “Our Messiah!” one man shouts.


TO UNDERSTAND THESE dancing Hasids–and the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of followers of the Rebbe–we have to look back to the eighteenth-century Ukrainian countryside. All Hasidim trace their spiritual lineage to Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, who was born on the eastern border of the Kingdom of Poland, in a village called Okop, to a poor, elderly couple.

Tradition holds that the Baal Shem Tov—the “Master of the Good Name”—could speak with animals; he could fly, heal the sick, and commune with angels. He gained a following, first in small, poor villages and later in towns and cities, because he taught that even an illiterate, uneducated Jew could be pious, even without years of study. The most important thing was to worship God with earnestness and joy.

Other rabbinic leaders of the day watched the movement spread through Europe with skepticism. They were alarmed as formal study and well-established rabbinical courts were being challenged by a surge in folk religion, which some believed emphasized emotion over intellect, faith over scholarship. And his followers, who became known as Hasidim, “pious ones,” were also accused of idolatrous worship, of putting their leaders on pedestals.

The Baal Shem Tov had dozens of disciples, and various strains of Hasidism developed over the years, among them Satmar, Bobov, Karlin, and Chabad-Lubavitch, and dozens of others.

Hasidic Jews of all different branches have been living in America since at least the 1900s, mostly in the New York area. In 1940, the sixth Rebbe in the Lubavitcher dynasty, Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, moved to Brooklyn, where he led a community of only a dozen or so families. The following year, his daughter, Chaya Mushka Schneerson, and her husband, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, joined him. Nine years later, after his father-in-law passed away, Schneerson assumed the role of spiritual leader for the growing Lubavitcher community.

Unlike his predecessors, he wore contemporary suits and a fedora; he has often been described as a modern, forward-thinking man. He had studied in Leningrad, Berlin and Paris, spoke seven languages, and could read ten. He had a college degree, at the time uncommon for a Hasidic leader. His father-in-law had already made it a mission to preserve Hasidic practices in the face assimilation, and Schneerson expanded this work, ramping up efforts to spread Hasidism. Jewish tradition, he taught, provided a deep well of spiritual wisdom, from which all Jews could draw.

To his followers, Schneerson was a tsadik, a holy man and miracle-worker. While all of the Lubavitch rabbis were revered in their day, the Rebbe may be ascribed even more power. “He was a Hasid among Hasids, a holy man among holy men,” I’m told. It is said that his eyes were radiant; his presence filled a room of any size. At 770 Eastern Parkway, where he held fabregens, Hasidic gatherings, thousands would pack inside to listen, hanging on his every word. Many of these speeches, delivered over the course of four decades, are available on DVD. Even now, listening to him as he delivers his winding, mystic discourses can feel hypnotic.

In 1992 one Israeli critic, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, said he couldn’t decide whether Schneerson was “a psychopath or a charlatan.” He went on, “This kind of degeneracy, of phony prophets and false messiahs, is as ancient as Israel itself.”


SHMUEL’S FATHER LEADS us in blessings, first over the wine, then as we wash our hands, and then finally as we tear apart a fresh loaf of challah. As the meal goes on, gefilte fish, hummus, and brisket are brought out to the table. Shmuel’s mother was not born in a religious family but became religiously observant later in life. She is what is called in Orthodox circles a ba’alat teshuvah, one who has “returned.”

The Rebbe’s hope was that all Jews would adopt ritual practice, specifically by wearing tefillin, keeping kosher, and lighting the Sabbath candles. These small gestures, he taught, had deep spiritual significance. He preached a streamlined, accessible form of Hasidic Judaism, tailored for the modern age. (Among other outreach efforts, Chabad was quick to make use of the Internet to spread spiritual teachings.) If all Jews performed the religious rituals, the Rebbe taught, collective, spiritual redemption could be achieved. There are thousands of Chabad Houses all over the world now, promoting the Rebbe’s brand of Judaism and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Jews who consider themselves Lubavitchers. The Rebbe’s influence on the wider Jewish world is undeniable. Many other denominations—Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Reform—have also been influenced by his teaching.

We sing a blessing after the meal and lounge at the table, where Shmuel’s sisters, brother-in-law, and grandfather sit too. The Rebbe’s portrait hangs on the wall and next to it is an aged photo of Shmuel’s grandfather, who was imprisoned in a succession of Nazi concentration camps. He was worked so hard, Shmuel says, that he lost one of his legs. Four of his siblings were also killed by the Nazis.

The Holocaust loomed large in the Rebbe’s life too. As a young man, he fled the rise of fascism in Berlin and later Paris before moving to America. Schneerson saw the hand of God in the story of the newly-formed state of Israel, mixing hard-line Zionism with esoteric Jewish mysticism. During the Six-Day War, Schneerson urged Jews everywhere to wrap tefillin around their hand and forehead and pray for Israel’s victory. “When one puts tefillin on his head,” the Rebbe said, “he projects fear over our enemies wherever they are.”

While Shmuel’s older brother volunteered in the Israeli army, learned to load and aim assault rifles, and patrolled West Bank settlements, Shmuel hasn’t. It’s not a priority, he explains.

He tells me that when he was a teenager, he realized something about the conflict in Israel and Palestine. “Everyone is just trying to take care of their family,” he says, pausing as if still thinking this over. “And that even means Palestinians, too. It’s never about politics, it’s about bread and butter.”

When Schneerson died in 1994 after having a stroke, he left behind no children and no spiritual successor. He had taught and influenced thousands—sending out young emissaries to found Chabad outreach centers in more than 80 countries—but without his charismatic presence, the community was in danger of splintering apart.

Even though a funeral was held and his casket was buried in southern Queens, some of his followers refused to acknowledge that the Rebbe had passed away. While the Messianic strain in the community surged, Lubavitcher representatives downplay its influence, calling these ideas fringe. Chaim Pil was only a child then, but to this day says that the Rebbe is alive. Chaim has a wispy beard, wears tefillin, and rocks back and forth as he prays.

“Every generation has believed their leaders were the Messiah, all the way back to the Baal Shem Tov,” Chaim says. “So, of course we do too. The difference with us? We proclaim it, we say it aloud on the street.”

Shmuel sees it differently.

“Do I think the Rebbe is alive? No. Do I think he was the Messiah? No,” he says, but then softens his words. Whether he was a man or something more, whether he is alive or dead, these are not the most important questions for Shmuel. “How do these things affect me day-to-day? They don’t. Whether he is or isn’t, I still have to ask myself, how will I live my life?”


JEWISH TRADITION TEACHES that prayers said at the tombs of holy men will fly straight to heaven. This is why, every year, tens of thousands of Jews make the pilgrimage to the grave of the seventh rabbi of the Chabad-Lubavitcher dynasty, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. At the graves of tzadikim, prophets like Abraham, David, and Joseph, followers believe God is listening.

The 3rd of Tammuz in the Jewish calendar—July 1st this year—marks 20 years since Schneerson’s death. On a summer afternoon in Queens, cemetery groundskeepers are preparing for the influx of visitors. The grass is newly trimmed and the hedges are manicured. Workers sit in an idling truck with yard tools piled in the back. “We keep this place nice and clean,” one appraises.

Four men stand over Schneerson’s grave. The Rebbe is buried here next to his father-in-law in an enclosed, open-roof structure with cement walls. Candles are lit outside and prayer books in Spanish, Russian, French, and English are stacked against the wall.

A stocky man takes a photo with his iPhone and the other three pray quietly, rocking back and forth. One finishes and backs out of the room, never turning his face to the grave. The quiet is interrupted only by planes from the nearby JFK airport, flying overhead. “A tsadik’s soul is always near his resting place. We don’t visit the grave just to pay respects to the Rebbe,” a middle-aged Hasid explains to me. “We come here so the Rebbe won’t forget us.”

Thousands of handwritten and typed prayers have been torn to bits and scattered at the Rebbe’s grave. They are in Hebrew, Russian, and English. They ask for what we all need to survive—health, family, a livelihood. The papers pile up and rustle in the wind like dried leaves. Pilgrims who come here may not see a miracle performed before their eyes. But faith is believing in what we may not see, the presence of something concealed, accepting that this may be as close as we come.

At the end of every week, the sheaves of paper are raked together and burnt. No prayer is recited. This task is performed not by priests or holy men, but by the maintenance workers who clean the gravesite.

Sam Kestenbaum has worked for Harper’s Magazine and in newsrooms in Sana’a, Ramallah, and Beijing. His writing has appeared in Tikkun Magazine, Killing the Buddha, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere.

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The Good News According to Hobby Lobby Wed, 02 Jul 2014 13:00:54 +0000 (Getty/Bloomberg)


On June 30, the world did not end. For all the drama and hype that the Hobby Lobby case has generated, the Supreme Court decision was modest and quite narrow, as widely predicted by Court watchers. The central question was whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protected for-profit corporations from complying with the so-called contraceptive mandate under the Affordable Care Act on grounds that it was a violation of their religious beliefs. The Court’s 5-4 majority opinion, led by Justice Samuel Alito, said yes. As a result, the religious exemption claims of Hobby Lobby’s owners are evaluated by a test including a least restrictive means prong which the mandate failed to satisfy. That means the owners are exempted from having to pay for health insurance coverage for the four contraceptives they challenged. In solomonic fashion, the burden instead is passed on to either the government, or in the interest of efficiency, to the private insurer which would have to provide separate payments for the contraceptive services that are required to be covered, all without imposing any additional costs on the affected employees.

Let me clarify at the outset what the Court did and did not say. The Court did acknowledge that women’s health is a compelling and legitimate government interest, one that Justice Kennedy took care to also point out in his brief concurring opinion. It did interpret RFRA’s definition of persons to include for-profit corporations, but limited it to closely-held corporations. It also noted that the protection is not for the organization per se but for the actual humans associated with the corporation. Lastly, in order to address slippery slope concerns, the Court explicitly stated that the exemption only covers contraception, and does not include exemptions from immunizations or illegal hiring discrimination.

The Court did not say anything definitive on a possible scenario involving a for-profit and publicly traded corporation. Justice Alito wrote that “it seems unlikely that the sort of corporate giants … will often assert RFRA claims.” It also did not say anything about other possible government interests such as vaccinations, explicitly bracketing them out. In fact, it did not say anything beyond the contraception coverage scenario. The decision was contingent on several facts unique to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As a result, for those situations involving religious business owners refusing to photograph same-sex weddings or to bake wedding cakes for LGBT couples, which are now the rage in lower courts, there is not much in this decision to draw on.

And yet, the dissent, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, and Breyer, dramatically describes the opinion of the Court as a “minefield.” Why is that? There are three main reasons. First, the corporate personhood issue—the issue that has attracted the most vitriol in mainstream media, thanks to the negative fallout from Citizens United—is a major point of contention.It is easy to caricature corporate claims to free exercise of religion, and the Court did not help its cause by analogizing free exercise to the right against government seizure of property without just compensation. Because it has a separate legal personality, a corporation as corporation could own property. By contrast, it is more difficult to argue how the same corporation could “exercise” religion. In this case, however, because of the corporate form involved and the particular circumstances surrounding Hobby Lobby Inc. and its owners, it was easier to factually substantiate the claim that the corporation was a mere extension of its owners, a fact that even Justice Sotomayor has acknowledged when she joked that the government has picked “great plaintiffs” during oral arguments. It should be noted that Justices Kagan and Breyer did not join the dissent in this part, presumably preserving a possibility that some for-profit corporations might be entitled to claim religious freedom protection.

The majority declared that the fact that a business has decided to incorporate itself and that it seeks profit should not preclude it from claiming RFRA protection. Moreover, it states for-profit corporations could easily further religious aims as a religious nonprofit. The dissent, however, drew a line between nonprofit religious organizations (as churches and nonprofits are arguably corporations in their own right) and commercial corporations, stating that furthering the religious aims are a core feature of religious organizations, but not so for profit-seeking entities. Another main difference is that religious organizations consist mostly of people belonging to the same religious faith while for-profit corporations mostly employ people of diverse beliefs.

The argument, however, that the Court has never recognized for-profit corporate claims is not an argument against barring an exemption. True, this decision opens the door for all sorts of companies, including publicly traded ones, to make claims, but the question as to what kinds of claims would actually be allowed would rest on a particular set of facts and arguments that the ruling is ill-equipped to predict. The ACA, and health care for that matter, is quite unique in this respect, as it should not matter where the coverage comes from as long as women employees get the contraceptives they need. Such a least restrictive means could not be as easily available in other cases, despite doomsday predictions to the contrary.

Second, the slippery slope concern of never-ending exemptions was a specter all over the ruling. The majority took pains to make an explicit statement that the ruling only covered contraceptives, but the dissent nonetheless enumerated religious objections to blood transfusions, antidepressants, and medications obtained from animals, as well as religious beliefs to commit discriminatory hiring, as cases where RFRA exemptions could possibly apply. The fact that there is no legal bulwark against such possibilities is an argument against RFRA itself, not the decision. Again, the Court’s analysis in the case seems tethered to the contraception scenario; other situations would involve a different set of arguments and analysis. If the concern is that it results in an unfair burden, exemptions always impose costs, both tangible and intangible. For example, outside the health care context, taxpayers shoulder extra burdens all the time in accommodating the religious claims of federal prisoners.

Finally, the dissent is concerned that an expansive but quite uncertain view of RFRA gives all sorts of opportunities for courts to start adjudicating which claims are entitled to religious exemptions, which runs the risk that it will favor certain religions over others. To avoid this situation, Justice Ginsburg would have RFRA cover only organizations formed for explicitly religious purposes and which engage only in religious activities. Such a solution is attractive for its simplicity, but in the end it would deny all religious freedom claims. Religious exemptions always toe the fine line between accommodation and impermissible government endorsement.

Having written all of this, what could possibly be the good news? Apart from the fact that it could have been worse, as the dissent already noted, the ruling does not offer any guidance for courts bound by today’s decision. That indeterminacy might just be a feature, not a flaw.

Here’s a bit of a necessary backstory. Until 1990, when the Supreme Court decided a case called Employment Division v. Smith, religious believers had a right to exemptions from general laws that had the incidental effect of burdening their conscience, unless the government could show a compelling interest. All they had to do was show that the government regulation substantially burdened their exercise of religion, and the Court would balance this against the compelling interest of the government. Smith, which upheld the firing of two Native American users of the hallucinogen peyote in sacred ceremonies for violation of federal drug laws, turned things around. Smith held that the government is not required to grant any religious exemptions from a neutral, generally applicable law. The bipartisan outrage and popular backlash that followed the Smith decision prompted Congress to enact RFRA, which aimed to restore the pre-Smith state of things, the very same RFRA that many are now deploring. RFRA would undergo several legal challenges in the subsequent years, but remains applicable against the federal government.

The decade-long saga which saw the court and the political branches, particularly Congress, struggle over what free exercise means in the aftermath of Smith saw a broad constitutional conversation in which courts were not the only major players. Private groups and individual citizens, Congress, and the courts all meaningfully took part in the social construction of what religious freedom means. A limited role for the courts should be welcomed. As the religious makeup of American society substantively changes, so too will the kinds of conversations we have. And such conversations should largely occur as spirited exchanges in the political arena, not imposed top-down as bright-line rules by the Supreme Court. Perhaps this should prompt a reflection on whether we still want to keep RFRA on the books.At the very least what Hobby Lobby does, less final in its form when compared to Smith, is to keep the conversation going.

In the short twenty or so years since Smith, we have come to Hobby Lobby. It is hard to tell what Hobby Lobby portends for the future, but at the moment, it gave something to everyone. Women employees would get access to contraceptives, whether through the government or a private plan, and religious owners would get their exemptions. But this apparent symbolic victory for religious entities could also easily turn into something else. Shortly after the decision, the White House has already urged Congress to take action to assist the women who will be affected by the decision. And although the current political climate might make legislative solutions a farfetched goal, other factors could weigh in. As religious liberty litigation exponentially increases from here forward, lower courts may be inclined to level the playing field and become more reluctant to grant exemptions to both for-profit and nonprofit organizations.

A ruling that seemingly equates Wal-Mart with the Roman Catholic Church understandably generates widespread apprehension. People can avoid churches; they cannot avoid commercial entities as easily. And that feeling is perhaps the root of most of the opposition to this case. There is something inherently appealing and egalitarian about an impersonal corporation that does not arise from or recognize any creed. But at the same time, a commitment to religious liberty should allow, as much as possible if it is to mean anything, for citizens to channel their deeply-held beliefs into whatever venue they find meaningful, including in their economic pursuits.

The core questions at the heart of Hobby Lobby are difficult ones. In an imperfect manner, the Court has sought a middle way that would accommodate competing claims of religious liberty and access to essential health care without the far-ranging pronouncements that many feared. To be fair, the decision could easily spur an avalanche of challenges that would make it harder for women to obtain contraceptives, but until litigation happens, it is hard to accurately predict the precise fallout.

At least for now, the decision should signal that our liberal democratic society has space for various visions of economic life, and ultimately, for a religious freedom that does not end at the church doors.

Anna Su is incoming assistant professor of law at the University of Toronto. Her forthcoming book, to be published from Harvard University Press, is Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power.

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Banishing Dissent: The Excommunication of Mormon Activist Kate Kelly Wed, 25 Jun 2014 17:00:47 +0000 Kate Kelly, founder of Ordain Women, checks messages after learning she had been excommunicated from the LDS Church. (AP Photo/The Salt Lake Tribune, Francisco Kjolseth)

Kate Kelly, founder of Ordain Women, checks messages after learning she has been excommunicated from the LDS Church. (AP Photo/The Salt Lake Tribune, Francisco Kjolseth)



housands of Mormons are grieving the excommunication of Kate Kelly this week. Kelly is a human rights attorney who founded a group called “Ordain Women” to advocate for women’s ordination to the priesthood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In May, her local ecclesiastical leader, known as a stake president in LDS parlance, told her that she should take down the group’s website or she would be summoned to a disciplinary council, a court-like proceeding where she would be tried for apostasy. That council was convened on June 22, and the decision to excommunicate Kelly was announced on June 23.

Excommunication is harsh punishment in Mormonism. Blogger Ronan Head noted that “excommunication in a Mormon setting is the nuclear bomb of Christian excommunications in that it cancels the saving power of the sacraments.” Kelly’s baptism and temple marriage are no longer considered valid by the Mormon church; she may attend church meetings but may not participate; when she dies, she cannot receive the exaltation reserved (according to Mormon theology) for Mormons who have been baptized and married by proper authority. She has argued that her Mormon identity cannot be so easily ripped away. Her father, himself a former bishop who has participated in disciplinary councils, said, “The people who took this action … have control over a building. They do not have control over her relationship with the Savior. There are no doors that they can control for that.” Kelly plans to appeal the decision, but it is unclear whether the appeal will be considered by her stake president (who was involved in initiating proceedings against her) or be referred to the first presidency of the church. It is unusual for disciplinary actions to be reversed by appeal.

Kelly’s punishment is also a setback for Mormon feminists who have been hoping for expanded opportunities to serve in their congregations. In the LDS Church, there is no professional clergy; all laymen are ordained to priesthood. At the age of 12, boys are admitted to priesthood and begin learning to perform ordinances like the administration of communion, while grown women cannot officiate in sacred rituals, and are limited to leadership of women’s and children’s auxiliaries. Ordain Women’s public actions, like asking for admittance to the Priesthood Session of the semi-annual General Conference of the church this past April, as well as their published materials for 6 “discussions” (similar in number and format to the lessons LDS missionaries used for many years) were meant to call attention to these disparities and encourage hierarchs to ask for revelation that might change the situation. While Kelly’s appeal of the decision in her case is pending, Ordain Women vowed to continue its work. Executive Board member Chelsea Shields Strayer said, “You can get rid of Kate, but something else is going to crop up.”

Joanna Brooks has described excommunication as “a 19th-century answer to Mormonism’s 21st-century challenges.” This is apt shorthand, but the current conflict is also the result of the LDS church’s twentieth-century history, when it developed its contemporary practice of excommunication and its definition of apostasy. For Mormons, disciplining individual members has a long history and has been a fairly predictable response to uncomfortable moments in the church’s cautious reconciliation with modernity. LDS excommunication has changed over the last century as the church has changed its administrative methods, deriving its own hierarchy models from business corporations—a shift that has made the LDS Church wildly efficient in some ways, but poorly equipped to handle the local theological disputes throughout the LDS Church’s now vast geographical reach.

Academia, not surprisingly, has often been the site of conflict between the church and heterodox ideas. At the same time Latter-day Saints were starting to leave Utah to be educated in places like Chicago and Boston, the theory of evolution was gaining traction and disagreements in the church erupted over Darwin’s theories. In 1911, a group of Mormon professors, who were interested in reconciling their faith with Darwin’s principles, created new modes of scriptural exegesis that came into conflict with LDS hierarchy. The academics were eventually fired from the church-owned Brigham Young University (though their punishments stopped sort of excommunication).

Conflicts over evolution and over new methods of Biblical exegesis and criticism continued through the next several decades. While public disagreement between church authorities became rarer, private disputes were carried on behind closed doors at BYU and also in correspondence between church members and leaders. These disagreements, while often heated and occasionally bitter, seem not to have prompted moves toward excommunication or charges of apostasy. “Apostasy,” then as now, had more to do with intangible qualities like loyalty and humility. In the close-knit and still relatively small community of Saints in Utah, familial and neighborly relationships between members and their leaders seem to have permitted even strong differences of opinion without raising questions about the legitimacy of dissenters’ Mormon identity.

A notable exception to this general state of affairs was the case of Fawn McKay Brodie, a niece of president of the church David McKay, who was excommunicated in 1946 for publishing a biography of church founder Joseph Smith that concluded he was a fraud. In that case, her family connections seem to have made the sense of betrayal more acute among church leaders.

David O. McKay played a different role in another conflict over public disagreement with church doctrine and policy. In 1954, a liberal University of Utah philosophy professor named Sterling McMurrin was investigated by the leaders of his congregation, who planned to begin excommunication proceedings against him. However, Church President David O. McKay heard rumors of the investigation and, in McMurrin’s account, offered to be the first witness at his trial. The investigation came to a halt, and McMurrin continued to regularly and publicly criticize the church, but never faced disciplinary action again.

In the 1960s, the Mormon practice of racial discrimination in priesthood ordination and temple rites became a matter of controversy, both within and outside the church. In 1966, a group of graduate students at Stanford University founded Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, the journal I now edit, which explored the priesthood and temple restrictions among other topics chosen to “bring … faith into dialogue with the larger stream of world religious thought.” The journal was controversial from the beginning but early editors of Dialogue were able to engage in direct and productive conversations with at least some of the highest authorities, and no official sanctions were imposed on the authors or editors. In these conflicts, as in the earlier disputes over evolution, church hierarchs engaged directly with questioning members in correspondence over doctrinal issues and arrived at resolutions that allowed even vocal critics to retain their membership. (The only excommunications over the priesthood ban were for men who performed unauthorized ordinations of black men to priesthood offices.)

In 1978, Sonia Johnson gained national attention by founding a group called “Mormons for ERA,” which undertook several public protests against the LDS church’s involvement in campaigns to prevent the Equal Rights Amendment from being ratified. Some surmise that it was her speech to the American Psychological Association in September 1979 that was the final catalyst for her excommunication. In that address, titled “Patriarchal Panic: Sexual Politics in the Mormon Church,” she asserted that:

The Mormons, a tiny minority, are dedicated to imposing the Prophet’s moral directives upon all Americans and they may succeed if Americans do not become aware of their methods and goals. Because the organization of the Church is marvelously tight and the obedience of the members marvelously thorough-going, potentially thousands of people can be mobilized in a very short time to do conscientiously whatever they are told, without more explanation than “the Prophet has spoken.”

She was excommunicated in December of that year.

Finally, in 1993, six Mormon intellectuals, including several feminists, were disciplined for various offenses, including “apostasy” and “conduct unbecoming of a member.” The accused had published articles and books that were deemed intolerably heretical in their approaches to Mormon history and theology, their advocacy of feminist ideas, and unorthodox interpretation of scripture. Two more feminists were excommunicated in 1995 and 2000 for refusing to stop publishing articles and giving talks about the Mormon doctrine of a Heavenly Mother and other feminist theology. Notably, in contrast to the experience of earlier dissenters, none of these writers and thinkers were able to engage directly with general authorities on the subjects of their doctrinal concerns—disciplinary councils were carried out by local leaders and were largely about obedience to church leadership rather than the substantive issues of heterodoxy. It was subsequently revealed that a committee in the central church administration had instigated the actions.

All of these episodes mark points of tension between an authoritative religion and a liberal democratic society. The questions of who has the right to interpret Scripture, what role women ought to play in the faith, and how to confront scientific evidence that complicates or contradicts dogma have vexed many religions for many decades. What is interesting about the Mormon example is the imposition of governance models derived from American business practices, and the similarity of the church’s growing pains to those of a multinational corporation.

Between the time that Sterling McMurrin was not excommunicated and the time that Sonia Johnson was, the LDS Church implemented a set of ideas that came to be known as “Correlation.” Correlation borrowed organizational principles from both progressive social movements and mid-century American corporate practices to streamline and systematize Church teachings and publications. This work enabled the church’s expanded missionary efforts and the establishment of congregations far from its geographical center in Utah. It also aided in the translation of curriculum materials into many languages. Many credit Correlation with facilitating the remarkable growth of the LDS Church from under 2 million members, concentrated almost entirely (90 percent) in Utah and the Western U.S. in 1950, to around 8 million members in 1990, with fewer than half of those members in Utah and the Western U.S. During this period of rapid expansion, leadership and governance remained tightly centralized, with all leadership above the level of stakes (roughly similar to archdioceses) headquartered in Salt Lake City. As this model was implemented and refined, communication flowed almost entirely top down and from center to periphery.

In many ways, this has been a highly successful model. Besides church growth, Correlation has created an efficient and effective template for creating congregations that provide spiritual, emotional, and physical help to their members. The system has also enabled an impressive consistency in teaching core doctrines of the church: a Mormon can walk into a Sunday meeting of a congregation anywhere in the world and recognize the form of worship and anticipate the content of sermons and Sunday School lessons.

This model is not, however, especially good for working out theological subtleties or coping with doctrinal questions that arise as Mormons make their way through the political and cultural world that surrounds them. Because Mormons also have no paid clergy and no seminaries or institutions for training ministers and administrators, doctrinal questions tend to be either subsumed by practical problems or answered in an ad hoc way by authorities who happen to be interested. Early in the church’s history, authorities regularly and publicly disagreed. If this was not a particularly satisfying way to resolve doctrinal conflicts, it did at least have the virtue of making questions and disagreement licit.

Moreover, the geographical concentration of members in the Great Basin and the thick kinship networks between the first several generations of Mormons meant that serious doctrinal disputes were resolved face-to-face, among people who had ties to one another that did not depend on assent to identical beliefs. The case of Sterling McMurrin is a dramatic illustration: McMurrin’s philosophy was heretical, sometimes blatantly so, and he was an outspoken critic of church policies. Nonetheless, he retained membership by virtue of personal loyalties and affiliations.

As the church expanded geographically and converts attenuated the family networks that had bound the Saints to Utah, belief became a more important marker of Mormon identity. At the same time, Correlation inculcated the notion that disagreement was undesirable (at best), and that doctrinal pronouncements emanating from church leaders in Salt Lake represented an official and unitary position that believers ought to accept as a matter of course. The tangled strands of doctrine, family, and place that formed the complicated mesh of Utah Mormonism were replaced by strong but brittle spokes extending outward from Salt Lake City.

The center is still held mostly by white, middle-class, politically conservative American men. This is slowly changing, but not without resistance, as Kate Kelly and others have painfully discovered. There is still no mechanism for communicating from the periphery to the center, as Mormon feminists have noted with frustration for decades. Kate Kelly’s founding of Ordain Women was the nearly inevitable response to the unidirectional discourse that characterizes post-Correlation Mormonism. With no system for allowing support or reinforcement from outside the center, the spokes extending from the hub become weaker the farther one moves from the lived experience and perceptions of the men working to administer an ever-growing church from its less and less geographically and demographically relevant center. When confrontations occur at the edges where Mormonism reaches into unfamiliar ideological and cultural territory, thin doctrinal agreement can be pulled beyond the breaking point. The resulting fractures send shards and debris flying, and the resulting mess is called “apostasy.” Fixing the blame for apostasy on individual members may temporarily reassure those who are working to maintain stability, but it does nothing to reinforce the structure or tend to the wounds of those who are pierced when its pieces splinter.

Kristine Haglund is editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. She lives with her three children near Boston and is a member of the Belmont 1st Ward. 

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The Great Calvinist Reawakening Tue, 17 Jun 2014 16:00:38 +0000 (Courtesy of Princeton University)

(Courtesy of Princeton University)

According to The New York Times, a Calvinist revival is sweeping through modern American evangelicalism. Among the evidence: church libraries are filling up with books by Reformed preachers like Mark Driscoll and John Piper; many evangelical preachers are talking more about Scripture and sin; the Southern Baptist Convention has formed a “Calvinism Advisory Committee” to deal with allegations of pro- and anti-Calvinist prejudice; and a grad student at Notre Dame is writing a dissertation on the “new Calvinism.”

This proof of Reformed revitalization is persuasive, and it echoes other proclamations about the importance of this retro-chic religious movement, including a TIME piece in 2009 proclaiming “the New Calvinism” to be one of the “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” Clearly a heightened emphasis on doctrine and God’s predestining power is appealing to many. But the new Calvinist revival—which amounts to a partial shift in theological emphasis and style—is a far cry from the Calvinist revival that burned through the Northeast a few centuries ago during the Great Awakening. In churches just a couple miles from where I’m writing this essay in New Haven, and in other towns for hundreds of miles around, men and women were once caught up in controversial and unmanageable ecstasies. They wept, they trembled, they flushed, they fell senseless to the ground. They sang at the top of their lungs and threw their worldliest possessions on bonfires. They writhed with the shame of sin, and shook with the power of salvation, and fainted with the sweetness of the grace and glory of God.

These days, mass bodily ecstasies are more likely to be associated with Pentecostals or people at music festivals than with connoisseurs of Calvinist doctrine. And although there is quite a tonal range in contemporary American Calvinist culture—from the macho brimstone-punk preaching of provocateur Mark Driscoll to the lyrical meditations of Marilynne Robinson’s novels Gilead and Home—there is also a common thread. American Calvinism has largely become a religion of books and beliefs. It is a movement of the mind.

I’m fairly familiar with the modern forms of Calvinism that fall on the more austere and cerebral end of the spectrum. When I was growing up in an evangelical Calvinist church, emotions and bodily experience were suspect while correct doctrine was everything. I remember my childhood pastor once preaching an elaborate takedown of the 1970s country song “How Can It Be So Wrong (When it Feels So Right),” arguing that feelings had no correlation—or perhaps even a negative correlation—with correct doctrine and ethics.

Not all contemporary Calvinists are so severe in their rejection of feeling, but many define themselves against what they see as the easy emotionalism of mainstream, “feel-good” evangelicalism. They are often refugees from a more upbeat and accommodating kind of evangelical culture, one that has been caricatured by Collin Hansen, author of Young, Restless, Reformed, as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” and by Wheaton pastor Josh Moody as “cheesy Christianity.” Unsatisfied by the unapologetically practical and personal faith of mainstream Protestantism, modern Calvinists are seeking something rigorous, systematic, and intellectually respectable; something brainy and bracingly counter-cultural and slightly esoteric. There is space in modern American Calvinism for a certain measure of awe or desire, but for many of the “young, restless, Reformed,” Calvinism’s main appeal is what Reformed theologian J.I. Packer calls “passionate thinking”: the challenge of wrestling and mastering abstractions; the thrill of fitting theological puzzle pieces perfectly together.

But how did American Calvinists go from writhing in public in the eighteenth century to more buttoned-up forms of religious expression in the twenty-first? Why aren’t today’s young Reformed doctrine nerds still shouting glory through their tears and throwing their prized possessions into the flames? And what was American Calvinism, before it became a brainier, sterner alternative to “cheesy” popular evangelicalism?

In her quietly beautiful novel Spider in a Tree, Susan Stinson hints at the answers to some of these questions. Through an empathetic recreation of the life of the eighteenth-century Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards and the people and animals around him, she allows us to feel the urgency and cruelty and enduring gifts of this historic American religious movement.

Edwards has been experiencing a bit of a revival himself these days as a subject of renewed scholarly and popular interest. Though he is still most famous (or infamous) for his hellfire sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” he is increasingly appreciated as a sophisticated theologian and philosopher, not to mention a formidable theorist and defender of religious experience. There are many recent Edwards books, including an acclaimed biography by historian George Marsden, a spate of popular devotionals published by Christian presses, and a new Library of America edition of Edwards’s work. Edwards’s reputation has risen along with that of the New Calvinism, and most recent accounts of his life and thought fit the modern movement well.

But in her fictionalized version of Edwards’s life, Stinson breaks through the boundaries of academic research, popular hagiography, and Edwards’s own writing in order to help us recover the strange sensory immediacy of a religious life that has been lost to time. She (almost literally) fleshes out the facts, restoring our sense of the bodily experiences and complicated feelings of Puritan faith. In the process, she also makes audible and tangible the experiences of those around Edwards who were not heard or who left little legible trace, including enslaved black people, white women and children, and spiders.

The spider of the title and the insects that speak and scuttle throughout her novel are anything but random. They are an allusion to the curious complexity and range of Edwards’s religious vision. Edwards was an attentive observer of nature, and he spent hours watching the thrilling, gravity-defying, perfectly choreographed web-making technique of spiders, a creative process he was sure they enjoyed. He wrote that he saw in their precipitous silky flights “the exuberant goodness of the Creator who hath not only provided for all the necessities, but also for the pleasure and recreation of all sorts of creatures, and even the insects and those that are most despicable.” But for Edwards spiders are not just material signs of God’s exuberance and grace—they are also metaphors for human helplessness in the face of God’s damning wrath. As he famously preached:

Your Wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards Hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf … all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider’s web would have to stop a falling rock … The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.

Edwards’s peculiar combination of exuberance and terror, his simultaneous sense of the dazzling capacities of God’s creatures for pleasure and their utter loathsomeness and vulnerability, is emotionally incomprehensible to most modern readers, even Calvinist ones. Stinson’s great achievement is to help us inhabit this manic-depressive (or sado-masochistic) theology from the inside and to understand how it reverberated through real bodies and communities.

She begins by giving the spider (and, by extension, other supposedly helpless creatures) a defiant voice. In the novel’s prologue, before we even hear Edwards’s own preaching, we overhear the silent sermon of a spider in a tree: “Whatever your God would say of me, I am not damned. … Didn’t you know that I would sail out of his hand as if taking great pleasure in the motion of my escape, spinning out trails behind me lighter than air might be? … I fell, but I didn’t burn.” The spider offers a vision of spiritual escape mostly unavailable to the people of colonial Northampton, where Edwards was the minister in the years narrated by the novel.

But, as Stinson shows, many men and women touched by the Great Awakening had no desire to escape the hand of God. They found a kind of ecstatic surrender in Calvinism’s totalizing vision of the universe, in which everything, good and ill, spiritual and material, from spiderwebs to sermons, works together for God’s glory. This perspective offered believers an extraordinary surfeit of meaning that could transform everyday experiences into something sublime. As Edwards reflects while biting into a biscuit, “The natural world was filled with grace so that eating a biscuit was not a carnal indulgence, but as good as a prayer.” This theological alchemy works both ways—if biscuits are prayers, then spiritual things can feel like food. The characters in the novel have an almost synesthetic relationship with doctrine and Scripture: they crave sermons “like food on a fast day”; one woman “felt a Bible verse pulse through her as if she had taken into her body a ball of light the size of a fist.”

Stinson also shows how religious experience can offer a kind of power to the relatively powerless. Sarah Edwards, Jonathan’s wife, achieves a measure of respect and authority through her spiritual susceptibility, even though she cannot preach or vote. And for the enslaved woman Leah (who is based on a real woman of African descent whom Edwards bought), religious experience is a means of privacy and something to possess when no other possessions are possible. Leah guards her spiritual feelings in her heart: “She did not feel required to give them up as testimony. As much as a creature living or dead could belong to anyone but God, they were hers.” Of course, for some enslaved people a theology based in resignation to arbitrary power is not acceptable. Leah’s husband Saul has a much harder time with Calvinism: he needs to believe something that will allow him to question and resist the powers that be.

Religious feelings have a variety of functions for Edwards himself. For Edwards the theologian, they are part of the process that God uses to save the souls of those predestined to be saved, and a sign that this salvation is real. For Edwards the struggling pastor, they are proof that his ministry is being used by God, and thus that his professional life is worthwhile. Though he sometimes wrestles with illness, loss, and the ebbs and flows of communal life in an often fractious congregation, in Stinson’s book Edwards never experiences serious emotional or cognitive dissonance. Understandably, his own theology feels natural and consoling to him.

To some in his flock, however, the supposed consolations of Calvinism impose heavy spiritual burdens. Joyously submitting to a fate that crushes humans like spiders is exhilarating for those who can manage it, but for those who can’t, the demand to do so can be devastating. As Stinson makes plain, Edwardsean Calvinism entails a series of destabilizing mood swings: first, a dizzying free-fall into self-loathing as one becomes conscious of one’s absolute depravity; next, a warm fizzing overwhelming divine rush to certify an authentic influx of grace; and finally, for the rest of one’s life, a resolutely grateful resignation to whatever may befall, from house fires to smallpox. Unsurprisingly, some people get stuck in the despair. Early in the novel, Edwards’s Uncle Hawley is mired in self-disgust—“I am nothing but a dung hill. … I am a hard-hearted, senseless, sottish creature sleeping on the brink of hell”— and Edwards interprets his depression and doubt as “hopeful signs,” a necessary phase in the process of conversion. But instead of experiencing grace, Hawley commits suicide. The repercussions of his violent death continue to play out over the course of the novel, bringing an abrupt end to the awakening that that had been raging, and tormenting some of those left behind.

Joseph, Hawley’s son, is ultimately resistant to Edwards’s relentless attempts to justify what happened to his father, and the fraught relationship between him and Edwards is at the heart of the novel’s narrative tension. The most Edwards can provide Joseph as his pastor is a view of his father as a cautionary tale. Though Joseph strives for years to make peace with his father’s damnation, he ultimately concludes that a theology that makes such unnatural emotional demands simply doesn’t make sense. He ends up going to Harvard to study a more sensible (proto-Unitarian) theology. One of the novel’s strengths is the way Stinson traces the forces of theological evolution and liberalization to these individual histories of thwarted feeling.

In the end, the book depicts this form of Calvinism’s emotional demands as too taxing; they presume a level of emotional engagement that isn’t attainable or sustainable for most people over time. Religious feelings, it seems, are cyclical, or just die out. The novel begins with Edwards at the helm of a historic revival, but it ends with him getting kicked out of Northampton by the very same people who had once experienced the Awakening. Edwards wants to begin requiring people to testify to their conversion experiences in order to receive communion, but they rebel. They don’t want a deeply felt and publicly expressed experience of salvation to be mandatory. Ultimately Edwards’s emotional expectations for his congregants are simply too high.

As much as modern Calvinists want to claim Edwards, they would likely have a hard time having him as their minister. Historic revivalist American Calvinism doesn’t fit too well with the New Calvinist emphasis on rigor and dignity. As Stinson’s novel suggests, it is risky, irrational, and potentially highly undignified to actually let yourself feel the emotional implications of Calvinist theology: to experience the squirming self-loathing of the wholly despised, the paralyzing and shattering abasement of the utterly helpless, and the wild and trembling abandonment of a sinner glutted on grace. Most people would rather not see themselves as a scorched or soaring spider. This is why so many contemporary Christians who adopt this theology intellectually often don’t take it on board emotionally. But perhaps that’s just as well. The loss of ecstasy and the diminishment of bodily experience in American Calvinism is a real loss. But Stinson’s novel shows us just how soul-crushing that experience could be.

Briallen Hopper is a Lecturer in the Yale English department and the Faculty Fellow at the University Church in Yale. She has written about religion for The Huffington Post, Killing the Buddha, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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A Sunday Spent with Jimmy Carter Tue, 10 Jun 2014 16:00:40 +0000 Getty/Hulton Archive/Michael Brennan

Getty/Hulton Archive/Michael Brennan

Southwest Georgia is Baptist country. The back roads heading south out of Columbus are bracketed by red soil, scruffy pines, and clapboard buildings sporting names like Shiloh Marion Baptist Church, Zion Hill Baptist Church, Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church, and Greater Good Hope Baptist Church. “Love Jesus No Matter What,” one roadside sign reads, and another: “Only Jesus Saves.” Outside of Preston, Georgia, still another sign implores, “Take Jesus for Your Saviour,” and the Preston Baptist Church has posted each of the Ten Commandments on a chain-link fence for the edification of travelers passing through town.

Just before crossing from Webster into Sumter County, signs on Georgia Highway 27 point toward Archery, the boyhood home of Jimmy Carter, and then the road eases into Plains, where it becomes Church Street. The business district, not much more than a block long, lies just beyond the railroad tracks, across the street from the former Seaboard Coast Line Railroad Depot that served as campaign headquarters for Carter’s improbable run for the presidency in 1976 and now as a museum commemorating that campaign.

Plains, Georgia, is no longer the hub of excitement that it was in the summer of 1976, when legions of journalists and thousands of tourists descended to learn more about the Democratic nominee for president. Then, Lillian Carter held court at the train station, and Billy Carter threw back a few beers and entertained visitors with quips like, “I’ve got a mother who joined the Peace Corps and went to India when she was 68. I’ve got a sister who races motorcycles and another sister who’s a Holy Roller preacher. I’ve got a brother who says he wants to be President of the United States.” Then, pausing for dramatic effect, “I’m the only sane one in the family.”

Plains, with a population of only 766 souls, nevertheless has two Baptist churches, the large white clapboard Plains Baptist Church and the newer, brick building, Maranatha Baptist Church, on the north edge of town, just past the thirteen-foot sculpture of a smiling peanut, which TIME magazine described as “the strangest monument ever to an American President.” The Carter clan voted years ago to integrate Plains Baptist, but they were joined by only one other member. While Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter lived in Washington, a dissident group formed Maranatha Baptist Church shortly after Carter’s inauguration. The Carters attended both churches during their visits to Plains, but when they moved home following the 1980 election, they cast their lot with racial inclusivity and joined Maranatha on January 25, 1981, the first Sunday after Carter left the White House.

At Maranatha Baptist Church, a couple of squad cars sat at the foot of the driveway, and farther along a bomb-sniffing dog circled every vehicle before it was allowed to continue to the parking lot. By eight-thirty, ninety minutes before Sunday school, visitors began to queue up outside the front door. Inside, past the Secret Service agents waving security wands, Jan Williams, church member and retired schoolteacher—Amy Carter was one of her students—instructed visitors about protocol. On the weeks when Jimmy Carter teaches, she warned, photographs of the Sunday-school teacher are allowed only before the lesson begins. The thirty-ninth president of the United States wants no applause. “The applause you give him,” she said, “is how you take the lesson and apply it to your life.”

When I first began seriously to consider writing a biography of Carter, his aides informed me that he generally talks with authors only when their projects are nearing completion—an understandable policy that shielded the former president from scholarly fishing expeditions. During my lunch with Carter in 2009, while I was a visiting professor at Emory, he welcomed my interest and instructed his aides to facilitate any request I had. Still, I sought to honor his general preference to weigh in at the end of the project—both to avoid troubling him and because I wanted no suspicion that this was in any way an authorized biography. By the time I headed to Plains, therefore, my research was finished and I had completed a draft of the entire manuscript. I was there to tie up a few loose ends. The aides had given me the option of meeting Carter in Atlanta, but I wanted to see him in Plains, specifically on one of the weekends he taught Sunday school—which is generally any Sunday when he is home and not traveling.

Jimmy Carter, notorious for punctuality, materialized precisely at ten o’clock, wearing a dark sport coat, a light- blue shirt, and a bolo tie. This was lesson number 613 he has given at Maranatha Baptist Church, Carter told us; he has the lessons numbered on his computer. (He’s also notorious for quantification.) Having taught Sunday school since he was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, Carter clearly enjoys the classroom; even while president, he taught fourteen times at First Baptist Church in Washington.

Carter took the morning lesson from the New Testament book of Hebrews, the gist of which, he said, was “the Son of God explaining the character of God.” Carter’s take on the epistle was decidedly Protestant. “One of the things I have always been taught since I was a child was the priesthood of the believer,” he said, a reference to Martin Luther’s quarrel with the Roman Catholic Church, which had inserted a priestly caste between God and ordinary believers. Carter used this occasion once again to criticize the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the effects of which was an “exaltation” of the clergy, which he believed was contrary to the teachings of scripture. “As we approach the rest of our life,” Carter said, “we can be reassured and have hope because we have a direct relationship with God Almighty.”

Carter, who tends to teach in syllogisms, was less interested in theological exposition than application. Our duty as believers, he said, is “to emulate, or copy, the life of our savior.” Leaders who call themselves Christians, even political leaders, have an obligation to emulate Jesus, who was, Carter reminded us, the Prince of Peace.

The former president, who had looked every bit his eighty-eight years at the beginning of the lesson, seemed to gather energy as he warmed to his topic. He lamented that the United States has a reputation around the world as the most warlike nation on earth, and he noted that for most of the past seventy years we have been at war. “We have an obligation to promote peace,” he insisted, “and justice.” The United States has more people in prison than any nation on earth, he said, seven times the number when he left the White House in 1981. “I personally believe that Jesus Christ would be against the death penalty,” Carter said, referring his auditors to the woman caught in adultery, the incident where Jesus invited any of the woman’s accusers who were without sin to cast the first stone.

Carter rarely signs autographs, but he and Rosalynn pose with visitors for photographs following the morning worship service, which begins at eleven. The “catch” for tourists is that if they want, as Jan Williams says, to “make a picture,” they must stay for church. It’s a clever ploy, and it’s difficult to escape the impression that Carter’s celebrity is keeping Maranatha afloat. Williams said that the church has 130 members, but only about thirty are active; most of those, she added, are older than she. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to us,” she confessed. The financial report in the morning bulletin put the matter starkly. The weekly needs of the congregation were $1,375, and the receipts from the previous Sunday, not one of Carter’s teaching Sundays, totaled only $697.

Williams had directed me to sit in the third row on what Episcopalians call the epistle, or right, side of the church. What I didn’t know, until a couple of minutes before eleven, is that this was the Carters’ pew. The president greeted me cordially, albeit in hushed tones, and Rosalynn and I exchanged pleasantries. Soon, with the help of a twelve-voice choir, we were all belting out such Baptist standards as “To God Be the Glory,” “My Faith Has Found a Resting Place,” and “Faith Is the Victory.”

Jeffrey Summers, the pastor, a genial man barely a third the age of his most famous congregant, preached a sermon entitled “Finding Faith.” Members of the choir by now had taken their places in the congregation. A Secret Service agent sat nearby, his restless eyes darting all around the sanctuary. “Faith is all around us,” the preacher said, “we just have to embrace it.” At five minutes before noon, the former president discreetly checked his watch, and as if on cue, Summers segued into the altar call. We sang “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” the pastor stepped in front of the altar and beckoned, but no one was saved.

In the course of our interview in the pastor’s study, after church and photographs on the side lawn, Carter declared himself “honored” to be numbered among such progressive evangelicals as Charles Grandison Finney and William Jennings Bryan. Mark Hatfield, he said, “was a kind of hero of mine.” Carter characterized Hatfield as “a genuinely devout believer in Christ who sought to put Christ’s teachings into practice.” Carter also acknowledged that his own defeat in 1980 followed by Hatfield’s retirement from the Senate in 1997 had left a void, at least among elected officials. Carter lamented the “new definition” of evangelicalism that had taken hold, one associated with “rightwing Christianity.” He recalled hearing about Jerry Falwell “giving me a hard time” in 1976, but his was just a lonely voice at the time; Falwell and his associates, however, “had remarkable success in four years in making that a driving force in American political history.” When did the president have a sense of the gathering storm as he prepared for reelection? Carter remembered that his sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, “told me that there was a stirring of animosity toward me because of some of the moderate positions I had taken on human rights and so forth and that they thought I had betrayed their own definition of Christianity. But I didn’t really see it as a serious thing until the altercation arose in the Southern Baptist Convention.” After the conservative takeover in 1979, he said, he began to recognize the ramifications of the evangelical shift away from progressive evangelicalism.

“I think the application of Christian faith to human beings is a crucial part of faith,” Carter said, and he expressed confidence that he had taken the New Testament seriously throughout the course of his various careers, including his time as president. During Sunday school, Carter had told the class that, by his own reckoning, the seventy-one years of his adult life could be broken down to eleven years in the Navy, seventeen as a farmer, twelve in politics, and thirty-one as a professor and head of the Carter Center. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate told me that he harbored no regrets, and that he wanted to be remembered for peace and human rights. “Some people let the past consume them,” Carter had said during one of his Sunday-school lessons nearly a decade earlier. But the former president has consistently looked forward rather than backward.

“The totality of my life has been enhanced,” Carter said, by losing the presidency in 1980. He scratched his chin thoughtfully and then flashed the famous Jimmy Carter grin. He described the years since he left the White House as the best of his life, but he acknowledged that “a lot of that is attributable to the fact that I was president— my knowledge of things and my access to leaders.” His main regret about not serving a second term was not being able to “consummate” the Camp David accords, “by giving the Palestinians their rights and by forming two nations,” and he continued to regard both of those steps as essential for peace. “I think I could have done that and some other things if I’d been president.” Still, he added, that he probably would not have started the Carter Center had he remained in the White House for a second term.

Jimmy Carter professed not to be worried about the judgment of history. I remarked that he sounded gracious about his defeat in 1980, that his tone betrayed no bitterness. “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it,” Carter replied with a smile. “You have to roll with the punches and make the best of what I’ve got.” Rosalynn, he said, was much more heartbroken and angry than he was. “I had to think of all the reasons that were positive to try to convince her not to be so despondent,” he added. “And so I think that’s why I was able to look at the bright side of things.”

Carter takes justifiable pride in another career that he didn’t list in Sunday school, that of author. He has written more than two dozen books, all but one (his campaign autobiography) since leaving Washington. Toward the end of our conversation, he insisted that I have a copy of his devotional book (adapted from his Sunday-school lessons), Through the Year with Jimmy Carter: 366 Daily Meditations from the 39th President.

“Why don’t you come with me now?” he said at the conclusion of the interview. As instructed, I jumped into my rental car and followed the two-vehicle Secret Service convoy as it roared out of the church driveway and into town. The president had one brief stop to make, a meet-and-greet with supporters of Habitat for Humanity who were visiting Plains that weekend, and then on to the Carter home. Agents in the trailing Secret Service vehicle didn’t want to admit me past the metal gates and into the compound—“Can I help you?” one asked pointedly—but Carter had already emerged from the other vehicle and waved me in.

Rosalynn and I resumed our conversation while Jimmy Carter disappeared into the house. She pointed with pride to the expanse of pink roses embroidered into a fence in front of their home, all from a single bush that her husband had given her for Mother’s Day many years earlier. By now, in early June, the heat of a south Georgia summer had settled in, and the roses had begun to wilt. But they were still lovely.

“I couldn’t find a new copy,” Carter said as he handed me the book, so he had cadged Rosalynn’s copy from the nightstand. “I figured I could get you another book,” he said with a tentative smile as he glanced in her direction. “You’re on page seventy.” Rosalynn Carter’s bookmark was still in my copy of Through the Year with Jimmy Carter—on page seventy, the meditation entitled “Patience in Love.”

Both of the Carters apologized that previous commitments that afternoon precluded spending more time with me. They were off to another engagement. “Spend a little time here in Plains before you leave,” Carter urged me as he waved goodbye.

Randall Balmer is the chair of the religion department at Dartmouth College. 

Adapted from Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter by Randall Balmer. Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.

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“Orange Is the New Black” and the Difficulty of Portraying Prison Religion Tue, 03 Jun 2014 16:00:17 +0000


This Friday, Netflix is going to drop 13 new episodes of “Orange Is the New Black” in our queues, and we’ll find out if Piper killed Pennsatucky after beating her to a bloody pulp outside a Christmas pageant in the first season’s final episode. If you’ve been reading casting news, of course, you already know.

As with all of the Netflix original shows, many viewers raced through the last season, some binge-watching the entire thing in a couple of days, a factor that worked in the writers’ favor as they stirred the prisoners’ racial, religious, and personal tensions to the point of open war. Litchfield Prison is a place where arbitrary-seeming rules are determined by an absent and invisible Warden, a collection of petty tyrants trade official and unofficial power, and the residents—some of whom are violent or mentally unstable—navigate as best they can with people they’d ordinarily be able to avoid.

According to the show’s creators, that fractious intermixing is meant to simulate something of real life. Jenji Kohan, the executive producer and creator of the show, said in an interview with NPR, “We talk about this country as this big melting pot, but it’s a mosaic. There’s all these pieces, they’re next to each other, they’re not necessarily mixing. And I’m looking for those spaces where people actually do mix— and prison just happens to be a terrific one.”

In response, the writers have given us an entire gallery of portraits of deep feeling and frailty: the trans woman, Sophia, who loses access to her hormones while in prison and whose son won’t speak to her; Tricia, a homeless girl with a drug problem who loses her friends in their misguided attempt to get her clean, and who later dies of an overdose; Miss Claudette, a woman who was sold into slavery in the U.S. to pay off a family debt; Taystee, who gets out on parole only to find out she has no family or friends outside of jail and reoffends in order to come back to the only place that feels like home; and Yoga Jones, tortured by the neighbor child she killed, thinking she was shooting a deer. One gets the feeling, watching the show, that each of these characters has been created to show a particular truth about the difficulty of escaping painful and unchangeable circumstances. Culture, race, gender, poverty, family: each pulls with its own type of gravity.

Yet one of the primary vectors of this pluralistic world—indeed, the nominal reason for the cliffhanger of that final episode—has been painted with the crudest brush strokes. It’s a curious thing: in a show meant to portray the richness and diversity of the American experience, why is the show’s only serious religious character a whackadoo murderess?

Pennsatucky, or Tiffany Doggett, is a fundamentalist crusader with five abortions and at least one homicide under her belt. As we see in a flashback, she was addicted to meth during her most recent pregnancy, which is why she aborted over her boyfriend’s protests; she was afraid that she would get arrested for endangerment. After the procedure, when a clinic worker makes a smart comment about her frequent visits (“Number 5, huh? We should give you a punch card. Get the 6th one free.”), she pulls a shotgun out of the cab of her friend’s truck, goes back into the clinic, takes a shot. She later stands trial for murder.

By the time we see her in jail, the person we see is a radically different one from the pre-arrest flashback. Incarcerated Pennsatucky spouts Scripture, tries faith-healing on her fellow inmates, and collapses the chapel ceiling by hanging an enormous, against-the-rules handmade cross from a flimsy beam. She’s emotionally unstable, she threatens and punishes other inmates, and she’s ignorant, racist, and homophobic.

We eventually find out that her flip towards fundamentalism is the work of her pro-life defense lawyer, who made her a crusader for the religious anti-abortion crowd—somehow hiding her own abortions—by picking up her case and painting her as a warrior for justice for the unborn.

The moment when she switches allegiances, from a woman who shoots a clinic worker to a patron saint for a religion she barely understands, is one of the most important moments of the series. Pennsatucky—poor, cynical, meth-addled and proud in the way of someone who has nothing to lose—walks into a courtroom to find dozens of people are shouting her name in support and feels a system galvanize behind her, perhaps for the first time in her life. Actress Taryn Manningdoes a beautiful thing with her face in this moment: it’s as if she’s never felt full before, and now that she is, her only thought is to find a way to feel this way forever.

Small wonder, perhaps, that she latches onto this possibility of salvation, eternal or otherwise, with as much fervor as she can summon from her wiry, undernourished body. Her lawyer, who occasionally visits her in prison, is as much her pastor as her counsel, and feeds this newfound passion.

But her passion makes her dangerous: once she’s tasted adoration, she can’t let it go. It’s what makes her such a good target for pranks, and why, after she gets Piper sent to solitary, the other inmates’ gaslighting retaliation is so effective. In convincing her to believe she’s become a healing instrument of God, they give her more of the power and justification she was craving when she first picked up that shotgun. What started as an opportunistic act that benefited her in court, and propped her up in jail as she received letters from supporters on the outside, became a part of her identity, perhaps for first the time in reality. It’s clear that nobody knows how violent or unstable she can be.

It’s also clear that we’re meant to sympathize with those around Pennsatucky. She reads as deluded, callous, perhaps even evil.

This is exactly where the show’s blindspot around religion makes itself the most apparent: Is Pennsatucky meant to be truly religious, in actuality trying to reform—as her ungraceful attempt to reconcile with Piper might show—and hiccupping along the way? Or is she an egomaniacal con artist wielding belief the way she does a shotgun?

Tanya Erzen, a 2013 Soros Justice Fellow and the executive director of the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, has worked extensively with women in prisons. “There’s the way the religious space in the show becomes strategic space,” she says. “It’s where you meet your girlfriend, where you find privacy, where you jostle for various things. Belief itself is really caricatured, when it’s not totally absent.”

Part of this, Erzen says, is the sitcom quality to the show, the madcap plotlines and zany predicaments of Litchfield. “I have students come up to me and say, ‘I totally relate to this show, I know just what it’s like to have a roommate you don’t like!’ The whole ethos of the show is that what’s happening is scary, but not actually.”

But the sense that religion on the inside isn’t legitimate—that it’s faked, or that the believer hasn’t quite figured out the difference—is the real thing.

It’s an attitude that exists outside television, too. Josh Dubler, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester, says the image of Pennsatucky fits with common secularist imaginings of religion, in which piety, particularly in prison, is either a con or the last defense of the pitiable. Dubler, who wrote a book called Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison, describes in an interview with C-SPAN2 these two types as the “bad man”—the murderer and rapist who is faking his fidelity to a god—and the “poor man,” whose belief is seen as a lamentable condition, explained away by a lack of freedom and options. “That secularist idea lines up with a kind of well-intentioned, progressive notion of what a prisoner is, which is essentially a victim of the system, which is someone born into the wrong body, usually black, brown, and male, into the wrong circumstances, often urban poverty,” Dubler says. With the bad man of religion, it’s “they can’t possibly mean it. But the poor man, it’s ‘they mean it, but they probably shouldn’t.’”

Pennsatucky, both white trash and a schemer, gets to be both.

That’s where we come back to Piper. Piper, through whose eyes we’ve seen the prison all season, has the same casual disdain for religion that Dubler describes. While she is remorseful enough about getting Pennsatucky stuck in psych to admit to the prank, she doesn’t find a graceful way to resist Pennsatucky’s attempts to baptize her. Instead, she gives a lecture about the stupidity of belief, alienating Pennsatucky further just when her persecution complex has hit its apex. It’s this disrespect that leads up to the brutal fight in the yard that ends the season:

I don’t believe a billion Indians are going to hell, I don’t think we get cancer to learn life lessons, and I don’t believe that people die young because God needs another angel. I think it’s just bullshit, and on some level, I think we all know that. I mean, don’t you? Look, I understand that religion makes it easier to deal with all the random shitty things that happen to us and I wish I could get on that ride. I’m sure I would be happier. But I can’t. Feelings aren’t enough. I need it to be real.

The question of what’s real and what isn’t gets at the heart of what makes religious life in prison such a difficult thing to portray. Dubler said in an interview, “It’s easy to get tripped up on the implicit Protestant theory of religion, which is of faith, and what one holds in one’s heart. Because when we’re thinking about prisoners and their religion, it all becomes mere performance. We tend to stereotype prisoners on the basis of their crime.” At the same time, the ostensibly rehabilitative purposes of prison demand a transformation—a transformation that can perhaps never be truly proven. Even Piper, in the speech above, can’t decide if religion is a thing that can be real, if it could be possible for her to feel it and be happier, or if Christianity truly is bereft of substance, a lie that Pennsatucky manages to tell herself and simultaneously believe.

Of course, the whole season’s trajectory might be significantly more tenuous if Pennsatucky were perceived to be truly converted. And insofar as individual characters are chess pieces in service to the narrative of the larger show, so far, so plotted. But in a landscape that is otherwise populated by people that seem like representative of themselves, not stereotypes, it’s a strange about-face, and an unfortunate hinge on which to place the major conclusion of the first season.

We don’t get much from any of the other believers, either. Take Sister Ingalls, a Catholic nun whose backstory hasn’t been explained. She floats around the prison, saying grandmotherly things and occasionally reading Scriptures with the other inmates. We know she chained herself to a flagpole at a nuclear test site, but rather than demonstrating the kind of political commitment and fire one might expect of such a character, the most controversial thing she’s said all season is, “I like to think of myself as more of the Pope’s homie.” Instead of Megan Rice, we get a cool, unthreatening icon with none of the violent convictions of Pennsatucky, but no fuller, more dimensional Christianity, either.

We also have Yoga Jones, a Buddhist who leads yoga classes in the rec room, and references to Sophia’s church, which is likely Baptist, and whose pastor begins dating her wife. Both faiths are rarely cited, and exist mostly to situate the characters’ emotional states, not their religious ones. A group of pagan worshippers are mentioned by the prison’s chaplain, but never seen, and Piper’s fiancé’s Judaism seems to be largely cultural. Pennsatucky is the only character whose religious affiliation—no matter how newly assumed, how suspect, or how opportunistic—seems to be a real driving force in her life.

It’s unclear whether the show, by placing Piper as its surrogate, is trying to escape responsibility for religious stereotyping, or if the writers haven’t realized they’re doing it. From the moment of arrival, Piper is clueless about nearly everyone and everything in the prison, so why not Pennsatucky? Her disdain is something that we, the viewers, are meant to see through, by virtue of the fact that we know more about all these characters than they know about each other. But if it were all Piper, why is Pennsatucky unable to escape the trap of the sociological lens, in which her religion is only ever a tool, an escape, a delusion, or a performance? It’s a cynical view that seems out of place on a show that otherwise deals with its characters’ identities in ways that are sensitive and unexpected.

The question of how to deal with inter-religious conflict could be a perfect one to pose in Litchfield. The self-contained microworld, the non-denominational, soulless worship spaces, the missing Warden, the overlap between the progressive aims of criminal rehabilitation and Christian self-improvement, the fact that no one gets to leave.

I asked Erzen what it would take to approach religion with seriousness on a show like this one. “What it would take is highlighting the other religious characters in a way that shows something about their theology or their inner life. You could talk about the death penalty in a nuanced way, or about how prisoners connect with the outside world and find support as they transition back out into it, and how religion or religious groups function in those spaces.” She added, “But maybe that wouldn’t be very funny.”

Probably not. Then again, neither is most of Miss Claudette’s story, or Taystee’s, or Red’s. Rumor has it that we’re getting the backstory for at least one nun in the second season. Maybe this one will ask some better questions.

Xarissa Holdaway is a writer in New York. Follow her @xarissaaaa.

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Russia and the Crimean Tatars: The Burdens and Challenges of History Wed, 28 May 2014 14:00:46 +0000 (Max Betrov/AFP/Getty Images)

(Max Betrov/AFP/Getty Images)

The Russian annexation of Crimea has raised a host of important questions about the fate of the diverse populations on the peninsula. Will Ukrainian-speakers be granted Russian federation passports? Will the new authorities respect the rights of long-term residents who are denied Russian citizenship or who choose to retain their Ukrainian passports? Will Ukrainian language and institutions be tolerated? These are important questions not only for Crimea itself, but also for Russia’s strategy in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. The harsh fate meted out by local authorities toward Georgians in South Ossetia (with Russian troops looking on) provides an ominous sign of the possibilities.

Another important group faces a very uncertain future: the Crimean Tatars. There are approximately a quarter million Crimean Tatars currently living on the Crimean peninsula (about 10 percent of the population and about half the total Crimean Tatar population of the world). Most members of this Sunni Muslim group are currently bilingual Crimean Tatar and Russian-speakers, but they have leaned more toward Ukraine than Russia in the current crisis and in the contentious politics of the region over the last 20 years. Although we do not know participation rates, several of the Tatar leaders called for boycotts of the March 16 referendum in Crimea on joining the Russian Federation.

Part of the reason for Tatar mistrust of Russia comes from the searing memory of Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s 1944 brutal deportation of every Tatar man, woman, and child from their native Crimea to harsh exile in Central Asia (238,000 people). Stalin punished the entire nation for alleged collaboration with the Nazis during their brief occupation of the peninsula. Although some Tatars did indeed welcome one dictatorial regime in hopes of a reprieve from the horrific policies of another, punishing an entire civilian population for the actions of a few is, of course, inexcusable. Religion has rarely been considered to be a factor in this violent act, but Stalin did relax his war on Orthodoxy during the war to help mobilize society for a patriotic war effort, and no such relaxation was apparent for the Muslim minorities of the Soviet Union. The motives of the horrific deportation remain under debate, but they were probably more about ethnic stereotypes than religious hostility. Entire generations of Crimean Tatars grew up in exile, banned from returning to their homelands. A decree in November 1989 finally opened the way for Tatars to return to Crimea, a process that continued into the 1990s. Many Crimean Tatars remain in Turkey, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere.

This genocidal act should not be attributed solely to Russians. It was a Georgian individual (Stalin) who ordered his multi-ethnic Soviet secret police to conduct the action. However, Tatars and Russians alike see current Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation as the successor to the Soviet historical tradition. While Putin has condemned the deportations, he has not made clear that he will rein in the zeal of local authorities to repress the Tatars. It does not help that Russian nationalism in the past 20 years has focused on anti-Muslim themes, from its two wars against Sunni Muslim Chechnya, to the expulsions from Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other major Russian cities of Muslim traders and laborers from the Caucasus and Central Asia.

If Russia and the Tatars are to get along, they will have to overcome not only the bitter legacy of the 1944 deportations, but also centuries of conflict. Russian Tsar Catherine the Great’s conquest of the Crimean Khanate in 1774 led to a mass emigration of Tatars to the Ottoman Empire that was encouraged by the new Russian authorities. Catherine then proceeded to distribute vast lands that had been used by Tatars for grazing to Russian, Ukrainian, German, and foreign nobles and farming communities. The Crimean war of 1853-56 spurred another mass emigration of Crimean Tatars. Memories of historical injustices run the other way too. During the three centuries when the Crimean Tatar Khanate was part of the Ottoman Empire (1478-1774), one of its primary activities was seizing captives from Russia, Ukraine, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and selling them as slaves in the Ottoman Empire and Middle East.

Overcoming historical legacies like these will be a major challenge, but the historical background is not all bleak. The Crimean peninsula also has a deep history as a cosmopolitan meeting place where empires and peoples not only clashed but also interacted productively. The Crimean peninsula played such a role in the Greek, Scythian, Sarmatian, and Hunnic empires. It really emerged on the world stage during the era of the great Mongol Empire from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. The khans of Crimea were a key part of the global long distance trade network that made the Mongol Empire so prosperous and powerful. Although some textbooks portray the era as a titanic conflict between Orthodox Christian Muscovy and the Muslim khanates of the Mongol Empire, religion was not actually the key to everything. In fact, as Muscovy rose to prominence, the Sunni Muslim Crimean khanate was the principality’s best trading partner and its frequent ally in wars against the Catholic Christian Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. After Catherine’s conquest, Crimea became part of an ambitious project to create a multi-ethnic, Enlightenment-era “New Russia” based on principles of religious tolerance and greater freedoms than existed elsewhere in the empire. Religious tolerance was a key element of her policy of consolidating imperial expansion by co-opting local conquered elites. She used it to co-opt Muslims in Crimea and Catholics in Poland, and to entice Mennonite and Protestant immigrants to settle in the open lands of Crimea with the offer of religious freedom. So Crimea was not a straightforward site of eternal conflict between Muslims and Christians, but rather, a site of alliance, cooperation, and close working relationships between Christians and Muslims for several centuries.

The Crimean Tatars now join more than 16 million Muslims in the Russian Federation (11 percent of the population), more than 6 million of whom are the closely related Volga Tatars. Since 1991, Russia has fought two brutal wars against Muslim Chechens in the Caucasus and has imposed discriminatory policies in its major cities, but it has also found productive working relationships with the Volga Tatars and other Muslim groups. Like all Muslim communities in the successor states to the atheist Soviet Union, Crimean Tatars have restored mosques and religious practices since 1991. But this is not the primary source of conflict with Russia. In fact, the Russian leadership has revived a deep historical tradition of recognizing the Muslim faith as one of the official faiths of the country, and working closely with its leaders. This tradition goes back to the fourteenth century origins of Muscovy, whose grand princes were close collaborators with the Muslim khanates of the Mongol Empire. When Muscovy conquered the Khanate of Khazan in 1552, its elite joined the Russian nobility; and Moscow recognized the Islamic faith and its hierarchy as completely legitimate, working with them rather than against them to establish Russian hegemony in the region. The future of the Crimean Tatars need not be determined by the horrific episodes of violence and mass expulsion of the past, but history does pose a particularly difficult set of challenges to all sides in the new Crimea.

Some Crimean Tatars have fled to Ukraine and Turkey in the wake of the Russian annexation, and there is a debate about whether to accept Russian passports. On March 29, the elected representative body for the Crimean Tatars, the Kurultai, met and voted to pursue ethnic and territorial autonomy. How the Russian and local Crimean authorities respond remains to be seen. But early indications do not look promising.

One of the biggest unresolved questions regards property. The Crimean Tatars who have returned from exile in the past 25 years have for the most part not acquired legal title to the properties and land that they have been using. Part of this was a result of the murky status of property after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian authorities failed to resolve the question, and now it stands as a threatening problem for the Tatars. Crimean deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliev recently announced that the government would ask Tatars to vacate “illegally occupied land.” This would threaten the status of many of the Tatars, most of whom settled in makeshift homes on unauthorized property when they returned from exile. The local authorities also recently imposed a five-year ban on entry into Crimea of perhaps the most prominent Crimean Tatar leader in recent decades, Mustafa Dzhemilev, a leader of the Crimean Tatar National Movement.

One of the interesting things to watch as policies and events unfold in Crimea will be whether such statements and actions are backed up by the central authorities in Moscow, or whether these are isolated instances of overzealous local officials. Thus far, it remains unclear. What is clear is that Russia’s treatment of the Crimean Tatars will be closely watched by others on Russia’s borderlands and by Tatars and Muslims throughout the Russian Federation.

Eric Lohr is the Susan Carmel Lehrman Chair of Russian History and Culture at American University.

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Moral Mondays Return to Raleigh Tue, 20 May 2014 21:54:53 +0000 People gather during the first Moral Monday protest of the new year at Bicentennial Mall near the Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, May 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

People gather during the first Moral Monday protest of the new year at Bicentennial Mall near the Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, May 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The Reverend William J. Barber, II, is only 50, but he walks with a limp and a cane, and he perpetually leans forward, as if dragging a loaded sledge. On Monday, wearing a red stole and a cross made from twigs, Barber set out from the First Baptist Church, in downtown Raleigh, trailed by some forty members of the clergy. Two blocks away, across the State Capitol grounds, more than 1,500 North Carolinians were shuffling and shouting.

On his way to that crowd, Barber walked past war memorials and up the steps of the State Capitol building. Built with slave labor in the 1830s, the squat Greek revival structure now houses the governor’s offices. Breaking off from the group, Barber took an unexplained detour through the Capitol, emerged a few minutes later, and crossed Edenton Street (where, this past Saturday, I walked by an SUV with a Confederate flag sticker and a vanity plate that read “4THE CSA”). Back in his swirl of clergy, he stepped onto the podium before an interfaith, multiracial, trans-North Carolinian, multigenerational group of Southerners that has become, on certain evenings, Barber’s loyal congregation. The new round of Moral Mondays had begun.

The first Moral Monday took place in April 2013, when police arrested a group of 17 North Carolinians, including Barber, as they protested the state’s new voter ID bill, which Barber on Monday called “the worst voter suppression bill we’ve seen since Jim Crow.” Most of those arrested were clergy. The next Monday, more protesters showed up. By the end of the summer, more than 900 North Carolinians had been handcuffed for trespassing in the legislative building.

Since the beginning of 2013, North Carolina has had a Republican supermajority in both its House and Senate. Progressive, NAACP-backed protesters found much to motivate them as the summer grew hotter: cuts to education spending and unemployment benefits, and the legislature’s refusal of a Medicaid expansion that would have covered 500,000 uninsured North Carolinians. When, this past February, the NAACP sponsored a Moral March in Raleigh—on a Saturday—tens of thousands of people showed up (estimates varied from 15,000 to more than 80,000). It was the biggest civil rights march in the South since Selma.

The name “Moral Monday” evokes Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority, and the entire brand of tribal, right-wing politics that has all but defined Christian activism in the South for a generation. Moral Mondays draw on an older flavor of religious politics, one more concerned with poverty and justice than with thou-shalt-nots. “We’re going to change North Carolina for the long haul. We’re going to change the South for the long haul,” Barber told a small assembly in the First Baptist Church shortly before the protest. In the past year, smaller Moral Monday protests have taken place in South Carolina and in Georgia, where police arrested 39 protesters.

Barber lives in Goldsboro, N.C. The president of the state chapter of the NAACP and the architect of Moral Mondays, he’s also the pastor of a small church, and he lards his speech with references to Micah and the Psalms. When he raises his voice to a raspy crescendo, he has that rare ability to freeze a crowd, and then vitalize it, all at once—a verbal strobe light. Other speakers on Monday tried to drum up some call-and-response in their sermonizing, with mixed results. But when Barber cried that “There is an army rising” and laid down a mandate for his assembled multitudes, they were right with him:

“We will never,”
“never,” (he growled it)
“never—” (the growl deepened)
“—stay silent in the face of the injustice,” he roared, face fixed.
The crowd clapped.
“Somebody scream,” said Barber, retreating for a moment into his swirl of clergy.
Everyone screamed.

On Monday, Barber’s was an ecumenical congregation. Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, in Raleigh, rallied its congregants under a plain white sign. Close to a dozen Episcopal vicars and deacons, along with their bishop, relaxed on the steps of the North Carolina Museum of History. Unitarian Universalists seemed to be everywhere. Geoff Frank, of Chapel Hill, stood in the middle of the crowd and waved the banner of the United Church of Christ until an NAACP volunteer asked him to move; he was blocking too many people’s views. The Carolina Jews for Justice had an even larger banner, but nobody bothered them.

Sandra Webb came to the protest from Apex, N.C., a Raleigh suburb. A Methodist, she was carrying a sign that cited the first few verses of the tenth chapter of Isaiah: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, / to those who issue oppressive decrees/…What will you do on the day of reckoning, / when disaster comes from afar?” Webb, freckled and soft-spoken, talked about how her work with homeless people, part of an interfaith initiative, had inspired her activism. I ask her why she chose to quote Isaiah. “They’re making unjust laws,” she said of the General Assembly, “and they’ll have to answer for them.”

Nearby was Jennifer Manis, a campus minister at the Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Raleigh. “Jesus came to set free the prisoner and set loose the chains of the bonded and tell the rich, ‘Hey, it’s time to share.’ So if I follow Jesus, that’s what I’m called to do,” she said. “I can’t imagine being a Christian and not being here.”


THE THURSDAY BEFORE the protest, Barber and a group of clergy had gathered to invite Republican leaders to the first Moral Monday, which they described as a “love feast” at which, they imagined, Democrats and Republicans could break bread together. “Pharaoh had a supermajority, but God led a moral movement through the Red Sea destroying the armies of the proud,” read Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a pastor in Durham. “We invite you to join us for a love feast on May 19th, because we do not want to see you swept away when justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” he continued, quoting the Book of Amos.

For a young Southerner, it can be thrilling to hear language like this, with its evocation of verses and stories so beloved of the great Civil Rights generation. Thrilling, at first, and then saddening, because the very causes that motivate the Moral Monday protesters are causes that those earlier activists hoped to eliminate: growing segregation in schools, the restriction of voter access, and the persistence of poverty in the South. Nationally, the income gap between black and white households has grown since 1967.

One starts to feel, hearing Wilson-Hartgrove or Barber speak of the Exodus from Egypt, not just the timelessness of the story, but the timelessness of the pain to which it speaks so well. And this, perhaps, is the paradoxical challenge of faith-inflected politics: to inspire in us a belief that change is possible, even as it reminds us that some things don’t change.

Suffice it to say that the governor did not attend the love feast. The protesters, though, did bring bread. They passed the bread around, and they prayed. “This is not a Christian liturgy, or a Muslim liturgy,” said Barber. “It’s a liturgy about a love feast, a sign that God has made us one people.” Pastors and a rabbi, read out lines about sharing food, drawing on various traditions, with each reading connected by a ponderous liturgical refrain: “Let us break bread together, marching on.”

And then into the legislative building they marched, two-by-two, mouths duct-taped in protest of the General Assembly’s recent attempt to tighten restrictions on protestors. Barber led his congregation up the building’s red-carpeted staircase, to the third-floor atrium that overlooks both chambers of the legislature. He walked slowly, tilting over his cane, dragging that invisible sledge, lit up by news cameras and followed by a line so long that it took more than an hour to file through the building.

In the empty House chamber a janitor, wearing a faded olive worksuit, was slowly polishing the wood and brass of the Speaker’s dais. Across the atrium, the Senate chambers filled up for a brief session. As the senators bowed their heads for an opening prayer, introduced a new crop of pages, and began the evening’s business, the protestors filed by, hundreds upon hundreds, totally quiet, pressing their signs up to the glass—signs about fracking, and women’s rights, and health care reform. “Jesus wept … and so do we.” “In-state tuition for dreamers.” “God wants justice and compassion for the poor.” The senators didn’t look up. One young page, slackjawed and ruddy-cheeked, did—often—with something akin to dread.

Outside, on the legislative plaza, egged on by Barber, the protesters started dancing.

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

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