Imagine there’s no sovereignty

To us moderns, the secular is fundamental. Even when religion is considered a universal sociological category, we almost always first translate it into something secular, such as its function: it synthesizes diverse perspectives and experiences, it knits people together, it makes the world coherent, it assuages the fear of death, it provides legitimacy for power, it constructs social roles, and so on. In this way, we are perhaps willing to accept that every society has a religion, but only if we first reduce religion to yet another aspect of the fundamental secular, to yet another ideology or worldview.

I contend that the Middle Ages were neither religious nor secular because the religious and the secular are two features of a single construction: the modern, Western social architecture of “Church” and “State,” “private” and “public,” “individual” and “market,” and so on. The societies of the Middle Ages had a different architecture based on different assumptions and different concepts, ultimately on a different vision of the cosmos.

One of the central arguments of this book is that we should abandon the use of “religion” and “secular” “Church” and “State” understood in their modern senses in our attempts to understand the Middle Ages, in this case the thirteenth century. This is not because the terms have no meaning—in our world they have a great deal of meaning. Rather, it is because one cannot get too far along in building a thick description of the thirteenth century before concluding that everything was religious or, if one is inclined to come at it from the other direction, before concluding that everything was secular.

Peter Berger has written, “By secularization we mean the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.” The problem, however, is that institutions and symbols are recognizable as religious only from the vantage point of the secular. This means secularization might be just as legitimately understood as being the process by which sectors of society and culture were construed as religious institutions and symbols. In other words, secularization is the process through which the “religious” as we conceive of it was created. Along these lines, Brent Nongbri has accurately remarked that we call religious “anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity,” and when Charles Taylor states that the British were more religious in 1900 than ever before, we might consider him to be, in a sense, defining the term “religious.”

[T]hirteenth-century France was built as a “most Christian kingdom,” a term that the papacy frequently used in reference to it. I do not mean that the kingdom of France was a State with a Christian ideology. I mean that it was Christian, fundamentally. There was no State lurking beneath the kingdom’s religious trappings. There was no State at all, but a Christian kingdom. In this kingdom, neither the “secular” nor the “religious” existed. Neither did “sovereignty.” I do not mean that the religious was everywhere and that the secular had not yet emerged from under it. I mean they did not exist at all … The people of thirteenth-century France, however, were not trying to figure out how to build a “Sovereign State” and they were not trying to disentangle the “secular” from the “religious.” They had never heard of these things. Their world made sense, and it was a world that did not contain these concepts. This is the world that I am after.

Continue reading “Imagine there’s no sovereignty”

Damned-if-you do, damned-if-you-don’t

A local megachurch (or what passes for megachurch in my fair city) built a large community center a decade or so ago. Then it built another on the other side of town. Both times, it worked with government and may have gotten (I don’t distinctly recall) some sort of government perks akin to what any other entity could have gotten for a like project (the second reclaimed a blighted site, for instance).

Both times, the bloody flag of separation of church and state got waved liberally. Both times, the church responded that this was a community center that would not be exclusive.

May 1, they didn’t exclude a hastily-convened Ted Cruz rally.

Now the bloody flag is being liberally (and knowingly) waved that the church supported Cruz by honoring its inclusive policy.

For the record:

  1. I know these people. I have no doubt that they’d have hosted hastily-convened Trump, Sanders or Clinton rallies. Those might have required them to hold their noses more tightly than hosting a Cruz rally (or maybe not), but they’d have done it.
  2. Each community center includes a fitness center. I regret that the tax-exemption of the community centers give them a slight competitive edge relative to commercial health clubs.

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“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Miscellany – Pope in the Dock, Justice Stevens retirement, Serin gas and the enduring Flannery O’Connor

Michael Cook notes and ruminates on what I hope is an eccentric call to try Pope Benedict XVI for crimes against humanity in connection with the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal, and then segués into other who then should be there:

  • the Secretary-General of the United Nations
  • the executive director of USA Swimming
  • Texas Governor Rick Perry

Tu quoque, the argument that because you did it too, I’m not guilty, must be the worst of all arguments. But anyone with the facts acknowledges that the Catholic Church’s problems are no worse than those of other organisations, and they are probably a good deal better. A reporter for yesterday’s issue of Newsweek had the bright idea of asking insurance companies whether the Catholic Church paid higher premiums because its employees were a greater risk. The answer was No  – and it never had. “We don’t see vast difference in the incidence rate between one denomination and another,” said an insurer. “It’s pretty even across the denominations.”

Cook then notes in moderate detail the secular intellectual defense, in the name of liberating children’s sexuality, of lowering age of consent laws – proposals that make me think “I don’t want this intellectual around any child; there’s more going on here than disinterested philanthropy.”

Putting the Pope in the dock would spark a world-wide debate about paedophilia. Why is it so difficult to police? What is there about our views on sex which encourages it? Should we wind back our hypersexualised culture?

All the indicators are that the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is winding down now as the Pope and bishops get tougher and priests have clearer views on authentic Christian sexuality. But no one is preparing for the coming paedophilia crisis when the oversexed teens of 2010 are 34 and believe they should still have fun with 14-year-olds.

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From the Department of Bombast at the Wall Street Journal, an inflated warning that the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens “gives President Obama a chance to lay the groundwork for a future liberal Supreme Court majority.”

Not even with this Senate will Obama slide through in an election year anyone to the left of Justice Stevens. He is, after all, “The Supreme Court … liberal standard-bearer,” as the Journal’s own subheadline has it. Others writing about Stevens’ retirement more aptly note the irony that any nominee could easily be to Stevens’ right.

Justice Stevens was particularly infuriating not only on religion cases, larding his opinions with secularist code, but on the disregard for religion in other cases. Robert Nagel summarized some of the case against Stevens in Justice Stevens’ Religion Problem. In a school voucher case:

[I]n four different places in an opinion barely five paragraphs long, Justice Stevens used the word “indoctrination” as a synonym for religious education. Stevens asserted that the voucher program was being used to pay for “the indoctrination of thousands of grammar school children.” He surmised that an educational emergency might provide a motivation for parents to “accept religious indoctrination [of their children] that they otherwise would have avoided.” He decried the fact that “the vast majority” of voucher recipients chose to receive “religious indoctrination at state expense.” And he depicted the voucher program as a governmental choice “to pay for religious indoctrination.”

As striking as it is, this use of the word “indoctrination” does not necessarily indicate hostility to religion. Like the words “sectarian” and “fundamentalist,” which have appeared with disturbing regularity in Supreme Court opinions, “indoctrinate” has a literal meaning that is not pejorative. It can, of course, mean simply to instruct or to teach. But, needless to say, like those other words, it has more sinister connotations. Given the common association of the word “indoctrinate” with totalitarian methods, there might be at least a “slight suspicion” that Justice Stevens did not use the term in its neutral sense, especially since he nowhere refers to public school indoctrination. In any event, the duty to determine whether Justice Stevens’ official positions reflect animosity to religion arose well before the voucher case.

It can be traced back as early as 1990, when the religion clause expert Douglas Laycock noted that under Stevens’ constitutional decisions religion is “subject to all the burdens of government, but entitled to few of the benefits.” Laycock charged that the apparent explanation for this combination of legal positions was hostility to religion. Laycock’s hypothesis ripened into full-blown suspicion by June 2000 when Justice Stevens took the position that the free speech rights of the Boy Scouts were not violated by a state law requiring them to employ an avowed homosexual as an assistant scoutmaster. In the course of his dissent, Stevens offered his opinion about the source of what he termed “prejudices” against homosexuality. He wrote, “Like equally atavistic opinions about certain racial groups, these roots have been nourished by sectarian doctrine.” Whatever he might have meant later by using the word “indoctrination,” there is no question what “prejudices” and “atavistic” mean. The passage is, as Michael Stokes Paulsen of the Minnesota Law School put it, a “slander, disparaging the good faith . . . of any religious worldview—such as those of [some] Christians, Jews, and Muslims—that adheres to traditional views of sexual morality.”

Even decisions that as a formal matter have little to do with religion take on a different coloration when Stevens’ apparent scorn for some religions is factored in. On February 26 of this year, for instance, eight members of the Court ruled that the federal racketeering statute (popularly known as RICO) did not apply to the efforts of the Pro-Life Action Network to shut down various abortion clinics. The rather straightforward reasoning was that, unlike the members of organized crime who are typical objects of RICO prosecutions, the antiabortion protestors did not obtain anyone else’s property for their own use. Since the crime of extortion requires that the offender obtain someone else’s property, the pro-life protests could not be prosecuted under RICO. Even pro-abortion rights advocates like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed. Only Justice Stevens dissented. He claimed that “even when an extortionist has not taken possession of the property that the victim has relinquished, she has nonetheless ‘obtained’ that property if she has used violence to force her victim to abandon it.” On the basis of this thin reed Stevens was willing to impose on protestors acting out of profound religious convictions the same draconian punishments that are ordinarily imposed on gangsters.

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Over at and elsewhere in the world of “Movement Conservatism,” Chicken Littles are practicing precision, coordinated vapors over the inference that the U.S. will not commit nuclear genocide in response to chemical, electromagnetic or other non-nuclear attacks. For instance, the mercenary Dick Morris. As Daniel Larison puts it, “quite insane.”

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Thomas Merton wrote that “when I read Flannery O’Connor, I do not think of Hemingway, or Katherine Anne Porter, or Sartre, but rather of someone like Sophocles.” Though O’Connor herself would surely have scoffed at such praise, she is among a bare handful of American writers, modern or otherwise, of whom such a thing might plausibly be said.

But her reputation rests in part on a persistent misunderstanding. Unlike most of the other major American novelists of the 20th century, O’Connor wrote not as a more or less secular humanist but as a believer, a rigorously orthodox Roman Catholic. Her fiction was permeated with religious language and symbolism, and its underlying intent was in many cases specifically spiritual. Yet most of O’Connor’s early critics failed to grasp her intentions, and even now many younger readers are ignorant of the true meaning of her work.

So Terry Teachout concludes his introduction to a lengthy book review of Brad Gootch’s biography of O’Connor.

O’Connor, to her credit, took the homespun beliefs of her fellow Southerners with the utmost seriousness. Even more surprisingly, she regarded them with exceptional imaginative sympathy, seeking to portray in her fiction the sometimes bizarre ways in which spiritual enthusiasm manifested itself in the lives of people who, lacking an orthodoxy to guide them, were forced to re-create the forms of religion from scratch. As she explained in a 1959 letter:

“The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic. It’s full of unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments. They have nothing to correct their practical heresies and so they work them out dramatically.”

Her sympathy, she added, arose from the fact that “I accept the same fundamental doctrines of sin and redemption and judgment that they do.”

(Emphasis added)

Her sympathy for do-it-yourself Christianity may be what makes her work more enduring than things like the Steve Martin movie Leap of Faith, which leavens cynicism with a touch of ambiguous sentimentality. Teachout asks whether O’Connor will endure only by being misunderstood as a satirist rather than a sympathizer writing grotesqueries. I don’t know, but her deep, pervasive Christian faith is well out of the closet for decades now, and her reputation continues to grow.