John Rawls: From His Religion to His Theory of Justice

Paul Harvey

From the ridiculous (see the subject of the last post) to the sublime: Joshua Cohen and Thomas Nagel, "John Rawls, On My Religion," explores the ideas found in the recently unearthed Princeton undergraduate thesis (from 1942) of the supremely important political philosopher John Rawls. The article traces Rawls's early religious beliefs, his academic exploration of them, his (later) rejection of them, but the continued vital importance of them leading to his epochal work A Theory of Justice. Rawls provides as good a starting point as any to explore the philosophical connections between religious thought and contemporary philosophical liberalism. The piece concludes,

“On My Religion” may describe the first stage of Rawls’s change of view: his study of the history of the Inquisition in the early years after the war. His rejection of orthodox Christianity went hand in hand with his rejection of its long history of using “political power to establish its hegemony and to oppress other religions”. But he remained intent throughout his writing on showing that toleration did not depend on religious scepticism: that it was compatible with faith in the fullest sense.

In developing a specifically political form of liberalism, Rawls responds to the complaint that a liberal political outlook is simply the political department of a comprehensively liberal philosophy of life – perhaps a secular and sceptical rationalism – and therefore hostile to citizens of faith. Rawls disagrees; he believes that there are different routes, none preferred, that citizens may take to endorsing common political principles. “In endorsing a constitutional democratic regime, a religious doctrine may say that such are the limits God sets to our liberty; a nonreligious doctrine will express itself otherwise.” What we learn from “the history of religion and philosophy” is that “there are many reasonable ways in which the wider realm of values can be understood so as to be either congruent with, or supportive of, or else not in conflict with, the values appropriate to the special domain of the political as specified by a political conception of justice”. In his last writings, Rawls attempted to formulate his views on political justification using a concept of public reason. He meant by this a common space of political argument that could be inhabited with comparable ease by reasonable adherents of different religious confessions and moral positions. Like all of his work, this proposal has attracted strong opposition. But its motivation, like the motivation of his liberalism in general, does not come from devaluing religion, but from an understanding of its ultimate importance.

Harvard University Press will be publishing this early and heretofore unknown work of Rawls, together with a lengthy introduction; the article quoted above is an excerpt of that introduction.

American Idiot and Glenn Beck

Paul Harvey

In true evangelical fashion, I beg your forgiveness after the last couple of weeks of absentee blogmeistering. Suffice to say, sometimes life happens.

Hope to be back up and running soon and get our blog back on at least a near-daily schedule. In the meantime, In the meantime, here's a pairing too ironically juxtaposed to resist.

First, the musical group Green Day's recording a few years ago, "American Idiot," is being adapted for the stage. I saw Green Day back in the day -- I mean, back in the day, in the early 90s at Gilman Street in Berkeley, on a blind date with somebody from Japan who was in the U.S. to write articles for a Japanese biker-enthusiast magazine. (She couldn't really speak English, which saved me the trouble of all that "usual gettin' to know you chit chat," as Uma Thurman put it in Pulp Fiction). Weird night, unforgettably entertaining band, which I've followed off-and-on ever since.

The album American Idiot follows (in punk rock opera style, sort of an updated Tommy), the character Jimmy, aka Jesus of Suburbia, from his pointless life living off soda pop and Ritalin and hanging out at convenience stores, through his move to the city, excitement at its possibilities, and eventual disillusionment on the "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." Just a bit from this piece:

For now the creative team is tight lipped about how, exactly, it will translate the libretto of “American Idiot” into a narrative. As Mr. Armstrong admitted, “It’s not the most linear story in the world.”

But Mr. Mayer said, “If you read it a certain way, you can pull out a multiplicity of voices.” He hinted that a triumvirate of characters referred to elliptically in the album’s lyrics, with names like Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy and Whatshername, would likely emerge as the central characters.

The show will premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, where I saw my favorite ever production of Waiting for Godot. This may call for a special trip back to the Bay Area just to see.

Speaking of (far less interesting) American idiots, Glenn Beck is shooting up the pop charts at Fox News, with a dystopian fervor that would make Father Coughlin blush. I had a student recently recommend him, in response to an offhand comment that Sean Hannity was too interminably dull and machine-gun-like in his delivery to tolerate for more than a minute or two. The same cannot be said for Beck, and perhaps he's the latest contender for the Father Couglin Media Chair for Unctuous Paranoia:

While Mr. O’Reilly, the 8 p.m. host, paints himself as the outsider and Mr. Hannity, at 9, is more consistently ideological, Mr. Beck presents himself as a revivalist in a troubled land. He preaches against politicians, hosts regular segments titled “Constitution Under Attack” and “Economic Apocalypse,” and occasionally breaks into tears. . . . Tapping into fear about the future, Mr. Beck also lingers over doomsday situations; in a series called “The War Room” last month he talked to experts about the possibility of global financial panic and widespread outbreaks of violence. He challenged viewers to “think the unthinkable” so that they would be prepared in case of emergency.

He says that America is “on the road to socialism” and that “God and religion are under attack in the U.S.” He recently wondered aloud whether
FEMA was setting up concentration camps, calling it a rumor that he was unable to debunk.

To the suggestion that he sounds like a preacher, Beck responded:

When it was suggested in an interview that he sometimes sounds like a preacher, he responded, “No. You’ve never met a more flawed guy than me.” He added later: “I say on the air all time, ‘if you take what I say as gospel, you’re an idiot.’ ”

I'm just saying. Paranoia strikes deep in the heartland.

Addendum: Christopher from Juvenile Instructor adds the following helpful context in the comments section:

An adult convert to Mormonism, Beck seems to be heavily influenced by the libertarian strand of Mormon political thought popularized by now-deceased Mormon apostle and church president (and former secretary of agriculture) Ezra Taft Benson and the now-deceased conservative commentator Cleon Skousen back in the mid twentieth century. Topics like "the constitution under attack" were favorites of both men, and their anti-communist rhetoric sometimes made its way into official church publications and over the pulpit in worldwide broadcasts to the church membership.Beck's own popularity (at least within conservative Mormon circles, where's he quite popular) seems to be in part a result of his playing upon Mormon millenarian thought/fears--tying world events to apocalyptic scenarios and signs of the times--and in part the related approach of constructing U.S. history as a story of a Christian nation slowly disintegrating under the constant threats of secularism and socialism.That he's immensely popular in Mormon circles in the U.S., where most Mormons are quite conservative, is not too surprising. That he's found such a cult following among the larger conservative crowd is much more so. For all of the attention Romney's religion received in the Republican primaries, Beck has managed to largely avoid conflict with the sometimes antagonistic evangelical crowd, and many of them seem to quite like him. There was a recent episode that caused a bit of a stir in which Focus on the Family pulled an article authored by Beck from its website, but that seems to be about it). And its not that Beck isn't open about his faith. His conversion story is a best seller at Mormon bookstores, and he's spoken about his church on various occasions on his show.

From Saint Dog to Saint Death

Art Remillard

It was an early 13th century spiritual contest that the Dominican Stephen of Bourbon just couldn't win. While ministering to people of the French countryside, Stephen heard stories about Saint Guinefort. His investigation revealed that the infamous holy person was actually a dog--a greyhound to be precise. According to the legend, Guinefort, who belonged to nobility, saved an infant from a dangerous approaching serpent. The lord and lady, who were absent during the conflict, arrived at the bloody scene and assumed that the dog had killed the child. In response, the lord killed Guinefort, but then discovered that the child was alive. So the negligent parents who left their infant with a dog were also impulsive. That kid's future had therapy written all over it. But the dog was destined for sainthood, in the popular imagination at least.

The shrine to Saint Guinefort was just north of Lyons. In Stephen's time, it was an oft-visited pilgrimage site for women with sick children. Here, mothers petitioned the "holy greyhound" to remove demonic forces from their offspring. For Stephen of Bourbon, however, the only devilish forces were found in the dog. The women were improperly worshiping an idol, he resolved, and any perceived good happening there was an "illusion of the Devil." So the shrine became a location for spiritual competition. And at first blush, Stephen had won. He had the site destroyed and criminalized all future devotions to the greyhound. Still, under the cover of darkness, women continued visiting the site for centuries after. The dog-saint had a tenacious hold on the popular imagination, which no official act or admonition could disrupt.

Of course, these sorts of competitions between clergy and laity still exist. Consider the 2007 documentary Saint Death. The description reads:
In Mexico there is a cult that is rapidly growing--the cult of Saint Death. This female grim reaper, considered a saint by followers but Satanic by the Catholic Church, is worshipped by people whose lives are filled with danger and/or violence-criminals, gang members, transvestites, sick people, drug addicts, and families living in rough neighborhoods. "La Santa Muerte" examines the origins of the cult and takes us on a tour of the altars, jails, and neighborhoods in Mexico where the saint's most devoted followers can be found.

Connections with drugs and violence has prompted Mexican officials to order the destruction of 35 Saint Death statues. Perhaps this was an attempt to cut out the divine lifeline of organized crime. Or perhaps it was a state-sponsored act of idol destruction, motivated by the Catholic Church's opposition to the cult. Either way, I suspect that Saint Death isn't going anywhere. Much like Saint Guinefort, Saint Death represents a creative human response to misfortune and difficulty that will likely retain its significance for quite some time.

Critique of Dignitas Personae: Problems in the Vatican's Genetic Code?

A Critique of “Dignitas Personae,” or, Two Misspellings in the Vatican’s Genetic Code
by Everett Hamner

In September 2008, the Vatican published a 36-page instruction entitled “Dignitas Personae: On Certain Bioethical Questions” (summary here). Updating its briefer 2004 “Document of the Holy See on Human Cloning,” the text is commendable for its extended engagement with complex scientific and ethical questions. The First Part reviews the Catholic Church’s foundational principles in this area, the Second Part considers new methods of fertility, and the Third Part evaluates emerging possibilities for gene therapy, human cloning, therapeutic use of stem cells, human-animal hybridization, and use of biological material of various origins.

With sincere appreciation but also deep concerns about the Vatican’s effort, I want to offer a critique of “Dignitas” in what seem to me two under-discussed areas. While not pretending any sort of exhaustive treatment, this posting considers (1) the document’s conflation of preference with prejudice and its inconsistent definitions of “normality” in analyzing pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD); and (2) its status quo bias and failure to distinguish between co-creation and sacrilege in considering gene therapy.

First caveat: While not Catholic myself, I am as respectful of this tradition as I am troubled by its historical failings. As a human being, and as a scholar of religion and literature, I am more complete for my encounters with such future saints as J.R.R. Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. I also recognize that this occasion for challenging the Catholic Church exists only because it is one of very few religious organizations to reflect publically and thoughtfully about stem cell research, genetic intervention, and other bioethical realities and possibilities.

Second caveat: While increasingly liberal in my attitudes toward these issues, I am not a freewheeling, technology-will-solve-everything enthusiast. As philosopher Michael Sandel argued in a widely circulated 2004 Atlantic article, “The Case Against Perfection,” there are good reasons to be cautious about genetic engineering. While I find some of Sandel’s concerns badly misapplied, my reservations should not be attributed to a Dawkins-esque, anti-religious scientism. To the contrary, they stem from a desire to hear faith and reason harmonize more complexly.

Before offering my critique, it may help to quickly lay out the Vatican’s own summary of its two foundational principles for evaluating these questions:

(a) “The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life” (n. 4).
(b) “The origin of human life has its authentic context in marriage and in the family, where it is generated through an act which expresses the reciprocal love between a man and a woman. Procreation which is truly responsible vis-à-vis the child to be born must be the fruit of marriage” (n. 6).

In this context, I will leave aside widely-critiqued problems with both principles. Regarding (a), many bioethicists (probably a strong majority) would argue that “conception” is a process irreducible to the moment a sperm cell penetrates an egg cell’s outer wall (see a helpfully diagrammed explanation in the blog Human Enhancement and Biopolitics here). Regarding (b), I will simply express my objection to the implicit censure of all LGBT individuals, as well as those whose procreative desires and/or disabilities motivate legitimate laboratory-based efforts.

Now to my main arguments, the first of which focuses on the Vatican’s treatment of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. PGD involves ex utero selection of disease-free embryos before these are reinserted into a woman’s womb, and the Catholic Church has objected historically because of the association with in vitro fertilization (IVF) and because of the likelihood that unselected embryos will be destroyed. As “Dignitas” explains, “Preimplantation diagnosis – connected as it is with artificial fertilization, which is itself always intrinsically illicit – is directed toward the qualitative selection and consequent destruction of embryos, which constitutes an act of abortion” (emphasis original). Of course this objection turns on the long-debated question of the point at which one ascribes “personhood” and therefore grants protective rights (the “conception” question noted earlier). However, a new emphasis emerges in this document via its selective appropriation of an older source, a 1995 encyclical from Pope John Paul II, “Evangelium Vitae,” which is primarily about abortion but meditates briefly on “prenatal diagnostic techniques.” Eventually quoting John Paul II, “Dignitas” continues,

Preimplantation diagnosis is therefore the expression of a eugenic mentality that “accepts selective abortion in order to prevent the birth of children affected by various types of anomalies. Such an attitude is shameful and utterly reprehensible, since it presumes to measure the value of a human life only within the parameters of ‘normality’ and physical well-being, thus opening the way to legitimizing infanticide and euthanasia as well” (emphasis original).

Setting aside the selective quotation here (John Paul II said more positive, nuanced things about PGD earlier in the paragraph), my objections are that the new document equates preference with prejudice and that it critiques the term “normality” only when convenient. First, the document assumes that if we would prefer our offspring to be spared the experiences associated with a condition like deafness or a disease like Tay-Sachs (which in its most common infantile form, usually causes death by age four or five), we are therefore prejudiced against any human beings who exhibit such conditions or diseases. This is hardly necessary, however. As Ronald M. Green demonstrates (via Frances Kamm) in his accessible, well-argued book, Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice (Yale, 2007), “there is a world of difference between caring to have a child with some trait and caring about that child once the child is born” (132). To make an analogy to the (far less serious) realm of internet dating, the premise enabling the Vatican’s newly-extended prohibition against all PGD is like the inference that a request-in-the-abstract for a dark-haired partner denotes hatred of actual blondes.

Furthermore, it seems disingenuous for “Dignitas” to challenge impositions of “normality” when normalization is precisely the Vatican’s intention. The teaching’s final sentence, after all, dares to assert that not just Catholics but “all persons of good will […] will understand and agree with these principles and judgments.” Such compliant individuals can participate in an acceptable “norm”; those of LGBT orientation and those who would attempt IVF cannot. Also, just a few pages after rejecting PGD because of its “eugenic” reliance on “normality,” the instruction blithely reintroduces this very category. Defining appropriate uses of gene therapy, “Dignitas” allows those that “seek to restore the normal genetic configuration of the patient” (n. 26, emphasis added). Apparently, if the Vatican wants to reject a procedure designed to avoid disease before an embryo is implanted, any kind of normative language is anathema; if, however, it wants to affirm treating diabetics by raising their insulin to “normal” levels, or even to embrace certain uses of gene therapy, such language is just fine.

Admittedly, this first critique of the Vatican’s engagement with PGD is partly semantic. By contrast, my second critique of the document’s response to genetic manipulation is founded on my understandings of both biology and Christian theology. In short, the authors adopt a status quo bias appropriate if Christians were called to padlock themselves inside Eden, but not if they are to help build the “Kingdom of God” or “the New Jerusalem” to which Jesus and the Greek scriptures regularly refer. Put another way, we might ask what is really behind the Vatican’s insistence on “accepting human life in its concrete historical finite nature” (n. 27). Scientifically, such conservatism ignores the fact that human life expectancy in developed countries has risen by approximately two decades over the last century, a development to which the Catholic Church presumably does not object. Theologically, the Vatican’s emphasis on passive acceptance of our fates implies that the story of Christianity ought be one merely of returning to our Edenic origins, a very problematic assumption in the minds of many biblical scholars (including Catholics like Luke Timothy Johnson). The mistake is that this requires the Garden to constitute a state of perfect human completion and fulfillment, suggesting our only purpose since the Fall has been to eradicate sin so that our tickets may be validated for reentry. This seems to woefully miss the broader arch of the Genesis-to-Revelation narrative, eclipsing the significance of the Imago Dei and limiting humanity’s vocation to the most banal self-purification.

So what, though—why am I so uptight? Such an Eden obsession, I think, allows us to uncritically adopt the historically known, even when highly unattractive, over the future unknown, even when it holds great potential for good. In the immediate case, “Dignitas” explains in its discussion of IVF that “the replacement of the conjugal act by a technical procedure […] leads to a weakening of the respect owed to every human being” (n. 16). There are a whole host of problems with this assertion: by extension, a person needing to be fed by a robot would be less worthy of respect than people who could lift their own spoons; more mundanely, the manufacture of a syringe would make one party to heroin abuse. The flaw here is not so much the attempt to confront sin as the compulsion to prevent its possibility. Because some people might allow the circumstances of a person’s birth to reduce their respect for an individual, all of humanity must forego the potential blessings of IVF or genetic therapy? Particularly thorny is the argument’s reliance on phrases like “opens the way” and “leads to”: by implication, any morally licit behavior that might conceivably enable a morally illicit behavior becomes itself illicit. The impracticality here should be evident, but just in case, here is another analogy: because posting this critique may “lead to” others’ questions about “Dignitas” and even about the authority of the Holy See, I am responsible for their eventual excommunication.

Perhaps the greatest reason not to accept such fear-driven decision-making arises from the tension between the Vatican’s simultaneous enthusiasm for scientific discovery and its concern that human beings not usurp God. I share both impulses, but even if I didn’t, I would be worried by the Vatican’s willingness to charge sacrilege one moment and encourage that we “transform creation” the next, without laying out criteria by which to separate those actions. At the conclusion of the section on gene therapy, for instance, “Dignitas” is adamant: “in the attempt to create a new type of human being one can recognize an ideological element in which man tries to take the place of his Creator” (n. 27, emphasis original). Leaving aside the echoes of Mary Shelley, this begs the question of how genetic manipulation is any more impious an act of “transform[ing] creation” than elevating life expectancy by treating heart disease. Who gets to say what constitutes “a new type” of person, and why are genetic changes more likely to hinder than to assist in laying aside the “old self” and putting on the “new”? Or, as in the last sentence of “Dignitas,” why cannot genetic engineering itself become a way of “participat[ing] in the creative power of God” and “transform[ing] creation by ordering its many resources toward the dignity and wellbeing of all human beings”?

I may not be quite as gung-ho about all genetic engineering as this might sound, but I hope such critiques will assist those who take religion seriously in avoiding the extremes of both genetic determinism and genetic dismissivism. The opportunities and reasons for stem cell research, genetic testing, genetic manipulation, and non-reproductive cloning are likely to keep multiplying, and we will need many more thoughtful analyses if religious individuals and groups in the U.S. and the world are to play constructive roles in the changes ahead. Incidentally, I would welcome constructive critiques of my own thinking at, as this is far from my last wrestling match with these issues.

Under the Banner of Traditionalism

Randall Stephens

Not long ago shouting head Bill O'Reilly's Culture Warrior shot up the bestseller list with nuggets of wisdom: "So I believe we must strive to improve America, but we must also keep faith with the basic tenets of Judeo-Christian philosophy and competitive capitalism that the country was founded on. That's why I march under the banner of traditionalism." This "Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity" describes himself as the product of a strict Catholic upbringing, ready to ferret out hypocrites, moral degenerates, and all manner of truth spinners. O'Reilly's appeal among conservative evangelicals and millions of other Americans seems to rest on his skill as a no-nonsense culture warrior. He asks straight questions and demands straight answers. For years now he has targeted hip hop and rap music for lyrics that strike him as vulgar, harmful to children, and deplorable.

In a strange twist, audio clips of O'Reilly reading from his pulppy 1998 book, Those Who Trespass, have surfaced on the Village Voice's website. The banality of this material is matched only by its softcore weirdness.

With recent national discussions about the role/impact of Rush Limbuagh, I've been wondering about O'Reilly's place on the national scene. Does Limbaugh or O'Reilly deserve serious attention in our national debates concerning the direction of conservatism?

New Group Blog

Randall Stephens

I've just launched the Historical Society group blog. It will feature short entries and reviews by and interviews with a variety of leading historians. Content will range from ancient to modern history, cultural to political history, and all points in between. We will highlight material in THS's two publications: Historically Speaking and the Journal of the Historical Society. Regional and national conferences will be announced along with news of Historical Society-sponsored lectures. Posts are forthcoming on THS's 2010 Washington, D.C. conference, organized by Eric Arnesen.

American religious history will be a prominent theme. (Though, Religion in American History will still be your one-stop shop for all things American-religious-history related.)

Our first post comes from Heather Cox Richardson, UMass, Amherst. This is her first entry from her guide for history majors.

Voices from the Black Sites

Paul Harvey

Mark Danner, "U.S. Torture: Voices from the Black Sites," from the New York Review of Books, is a grim saga of the era of faith-based foreign policy through which we just lived. The piece shows how "torture destroys justice," and makes one wonder how far Reinhold Niebuhr would have stretched his concept of "morally hazardous acts." Not this far, surely. Among the conclusions from this carefully wrought and documented piece:

1. Beginning in the spring of 2002 the United States government began to torture prisoners. This torture, approved by the President of the United States and monitored in its daily unfolding by senior officials, including the nation's highest law enforcement officer, clearly violated major treaty obligations of the United States, including the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture, as well as US law.

2. The most senior officers of the US government, President George W. Bush first among them, repeatedly and explicitly lied about this, both in reports to international institutions and directly to the public. The President lied about it in news conferences, interviews, and, most explicitly, in speeches expressly intended to set out the administration's policy on interrogation before the people who had elected him.

Aimee Strikes Again. And again. And again.

By Matt Sutton

For those of you who missed the American Experience production Sister Aimee (based on my book) when it aired on PBS almost two years ago, Monday is your lucky day. It will be re-airing nation-wide on March 23 (at 9pm in most regions, but check local listings). In the interest of full disclosure, and according to at least one prominent religious historian who I recently met at a conference, I am “much better looking in real life than on T.V.” (Going on TV right after your wife has a baby is tough, and PBS doesn’t have the same make-up budget as American Idol.)

More importantly, have I got a deal for you. As you begin to think about placing fall book orders for your classes, you might want something smart and sophisticated like Blum’s W.E.B. DuBois. Or you might want something based on impeccable research, like Stephens’ The Fire Spreads. Or you might want something profound like Harvey’s Freedom’s Coming. Then again you might want a great read like Turner’s Bill Bright. But for those of you who are sensitive to these trying economic times, and who really care about your students’ mounting debt, you can order what is cheap. Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America is coming to paperback in a few weeks. You can pre-order it on Amazon for a measly $12.89. Your students will love you for it and so will God.

Seeing Unlike a State

Paul Harvey

Just a bit more on the ARIS survey, and various responses to it, which we've blogged about it here twice already in the last few days. Deep in the lower depths of this semester it's been hard to investigate this much on my own, so thanks for those that we've linked to here for giving us useful commentary to interpret and contextualize the numbers. Here's one more, that discusses the free market of religious surveying (since the federal government does not collect statistics -- hence the result that these religion surveys involve seeing unlike a state), and how the surveyors often find what one might expect they would find: Nathan Schneider, "Seeing What They Wanna See," from Religion Dispatches, along with his more informal entry on his blog, here. Nathan has a suggestion that speaks to my own heart: that religion scholars create an NCAA-bracketology-like betting pool to bet on what numbers will go up or down as these various surveys get reported:

If you’re used to following religion news, there’s this occasional ritual that happens when one of the major polls gets released. The newspapers find the most sensational story they can in the numbers, then they pretend to freak out on the front page for a day, and then everybody happily forgets about the whole thing (except a poor handful of social scientists who actually have to rely on the numbers in their research). Come to think of it, we religion folks should start a pool and gamble on what comes out each time.

Catholicism in the Movies

Paul Harvey

I'm gearing up, with great anticipation, for our next Young Scholars in American Religion meeting, April 2-5. Very regrettably, that meeting happens to coincide with a conference that sounds like too much fun: Catholics in the Movies, to be held at the Cushwa Center, Notre Dame, April 2-4. Here's a description, in case anyone living in/around South Bend doesn't know about it but might want to attend.

April 2-4, 2009. Catholics in the Movies. Cusha Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.

Cinema is arguably the most understudied and potentially enlightening lens through which to examine the historical trajectories of Catholics in the United States over the previous century. This conference will explore how American Catholics produced, acted, viewed, boycotted, and were depicted in film. The starting point for the conference is the outstanding volume
Catholicim in the Movies (Oxford, 2008), to which the conference speakers contributed essays.

Register for the conference at, or call (574) 631-6691. The program is below -- wish I could be there!

Catholics in the Movies
Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism

University of Notre Dame
April 2-4, 2009

“At the movies, Catholicism – rather than Protestantism – is the American religion.” Colleen McDannell

Cinema is arguably the most understudied and potentially enlightening lens through which to examine the historical trajectories of Catholics in the United States over the previous century. This conference will explore how American Catholics produced, acted, viewed, boycotted, and were depicted in film. The starting point for the conference is the outstanding volume Catholics in the Movies (Oxford, 2008), to which the conference speakers contributed essays.

Thursday, April 2
Film Screening (7:30 p.m.)
On the Waterfront
Discussion to follow with James T. Fisher, Fordham University

Friday, April 3
Session One (9:00 a.m.)
Race and Ethnicity

Moderator: Paula Kane, University of Pittsburgh

The Celluloid Melting Pot: Catholic Ethnicity on the Silent Screen
Judith Weisenfeld, Princeton University

The Catholic Singer: Ethnic Performance, American Dreams and Going My Way
Anthony Burke Smith, University of Dayton

Starting All Over Again: Mid-Century Catholics Confront Race
Jeffrey Marlett, College of St. Rose

Session Two (2:00 p.m.)

Moderator: Colleen McDannell, University of Utah

J. C. Superstar and the Streets of Dock City, 1938
Thomas J. Ferraro, Duke University

A Couple of Harps: True Confessions and the Brotherhood of Irish American Ethnicity Timothy Meagher, Catholic University of America

The Strong, Vulgar Type: Images of Masculinity in Dogma
Amy Frykholm, correspondent for The Christian Century

Film Screening (7:30 p.m.)
Discussion to follow with María Amparo Escandón, novelist and screenwriter

Saturday, April 4
Session Three (9:00 a.m.)
Ritual and Devotion

Moderator: Jeffrey Marlett, College of St. Rose

The Production Code and the Production of Devotion in Wartime Hollywood
Paula Kane, University of Pittsburgh

Passage through the Borderlands: Transformation in the Devotional World of Santitos
Darryl Caterine, LeMoyne College

The Devotional Life of St. Mel: The Passion of the Christ
Colleen McDannell, University of Utah

Session Four (2:00 p.m.)
Film and American Catholicism
Moderator: Thomas J. Ferraro, Duke University

Playing Catholics: Who’s Zooming Who?
Tracy Fessenden, Arizona State University

The Spiritual Front in Postwar American Film
James T. Fisher, Fordham University

Catholic Crime Stories
Carlo Rotella, Boston College
Cover image: Courtesy Oxford University Press

Obama's Five Pastors and ARIS's Surveys

Paul Harvey

Laurie Goodstein, "Without a Pastor of His Own, Obama Turns to Five," discusses what happened when Obama, unlike our own Jon Pahl, was no longer jammin' with Jeremiah Wright. My favorite passage:

None of these pastors are affiliated with the religious right, though several are quite conservative theologically. One of them, the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, the pastor of a conservative megachurch in Florida, was branded a turncoat by some leaders of the Christian right when he began to speak out on the need to stop global warming.

Heavens, wouldn't want to be talking about that there global warming thing.

On another note: Gary Laderman takes aim at the ARIS study (reported on here a couple of days ago), in "Sacred and PRofane: ARIS Survey Gets Religion, Misses Boat." Then, Mark Silk responds to him here. The exchange shows both the limitations as well as the utility of religious adherence surveys.

The Church After the Bubble

Paul Harvey

J. Nelson Seawright, "The Church and the Debt Bubble," considers the impact of the real estate bubble and crash on Mormon church financing. A short excerpt:

Now that U.S. Mormons are no longer realizing, and paying tithing on, fantastic and unsustainable capital gains from stock and housing sales, but are instead paying more strictly on family income which has not really changed much at the median since the 1980s, is the church overcommitted? It costs money to run temples, wards, stakes, etc., and the fact that construction has been far outpacing the rates of missionary growth or growth of relatively high-tithing U.S. members hints at something like a baseball-baptisms-era if-you-build-it-they-will-come strategy. If so, we might be facing something of a debt-bubble hangover of our own…

I know nothing about LDS church financing, but found this a fascinating post, and one that is a case study of how the economic crash/correction will impact church life in the U.S. I would be interested to see other examples of serious considerations of how American religious life will respond to the Crash of 08-09. Surely church-related colleges and universities are in for some hard decisions? I don't know, really, I'm just saying . . .

Jon Pahl Jams With Jeremiah Wright

Jammin' with Jeremiah Wright
By Jon Pahl

I sat in on the alto sax with the excellent choir at the Mt. Airy Church of God in Christ last night as Jeremiah Wright, Jr. preached. The infamous pastor has not noticeably tempered his rhetoric. But in between my own improvisations, it occurred to me that understanding Wright as an artist can explain in part the flap that led to his painful distancing from former parishioner, Barack Obama, about which I've written previously on these pages (

Wright is an improvisational artist. And sometimes, when you improvise, you hit wrong notes. But, more often, when you're as good at jammin' as Jeremiah Wright is, you create something new, good, beautiful, and true.

Wright speaks truth to power like no preacher in America today. Countless sharp insights peppered his 40 minute sermon on Matthew's story of the Three Wise Men, whom Wright called--in a sermon delivered as part of our Seminary's "Preaching with Power" series--"scholars." The story traces Herod's attempt to capture and kill the baby Jesus by enlisting the "scholars" as unwitting accomplices to Herod's paranoid megalomania.

Wright repeated the basic point he drew out of this story several times: "Governmental policies that put politics before people are harmful." It was not difficult to hear in this sermonic theme some of Wright's own pain at his treatment by Barack Obama.

Wright's sharpest words were directed at the United States. Herod's genocide was just the logical extension of his "Homeland Security" policy, Wright offered. In a line that drew laughs from anyone who has had to deal with ridiculous TSA policies in airports, Wright suggested that the real name of the policy should be "Homeland Stupidity."

Wright compared the Roman Empire, in which Herod was a "puppet," to the British Empire, as examples of how being an imperial power "makes you think you're in charge of other people's lives." He then went on to riff that we also need to look carefully at the policies of "The United Empire of America."

He backed up that rhetoric by tracking a bit of 20th century history, notably the annexation of Hawaii and Alaska and the burgeoning number of U.S. military bases around the globe, and then documenting the methods of this empire--a "preemptive" war that "should never have been waged," costing the lives of over 4300 "young Americans," and "torture." These imperial practices coincided with governmental policies that leave millions "with no healthcare," and that leave millions of black and brown children behind with no decent education.

Finally, Wright turned to Herod's attempt to use religion for political purposes, by bringing the "scholars" to Jerusalem. "Beware when politicians call a bunch of preachers together," Wright suggested, "you got some faith-based foolishness about to begin."

But in the last third of his sermon, Wright turned to gospel. "I love the Word of God," he riffed. "It tells us about lying politicians, it tells us about Empire, and it always tells us about a loving God who gets the last word."

That word was "worship." "The government is out there," Wright preached, "and the government isn't going to change, but in here we worship, and worship changes us!"

The story of the three scholars ends with them going home "by another way" to avoid Herod's spies. Wright suggested that when we worship--when we come into the presence of the living God like the scholars did at Bethlehem, "we're changed. We go home by a different way."

God changes things, Wright concluded. The bitter becomes sweet. The curse becomes a blessing. Obstacles become opportunities. Crucifixion becomes resurrection.

That Lenten theme fit perfectly Wright's own biography. For all the abuse he has received at the hands of the press, in popular opinion, and even from his President, Jeremiah Wright is still jammin'.

Niebuhr: Man for All Seasons

Randall Stephens

Arthur Schlesinger called him “America’s wisest and most influential religious thinker.” Not long after 9/11 David Brooks praised him as a “humble hawk,” and a faithful guide in trying times. Niebuhr is a bit like Churchill. (Not Ward, but Winston.) Liberals and conservatives both want to claim his legacy. (See Paul and John Fea’s thoughts on Niebuhr and Obama).

In the most issue of the NYRB, Brian Urquhart reviews the reissue of Niebuhr’s Irony of American History and two other Niebuhr-related books (“What You Can Learn from Reinhold Niebuhr,” NYRB, 26 March 2009). “A fog of know-nothing ideology, anti-intellectualism, cronyism, incompetence, and cynicism has, for eight years, enveloped the executive branch of the United States government” Urquhart begins. “America's role in the world and the policies that should shape and maintain it have been distorted by misguided decisions and by willful misinterpretations both of history and of current events. That fog is now being dispersed, and the vast intellectual and managerial resources of the United States are once again being mobilized.” But Urquhart breathes a sigh of relief: “That Barack Obama has made clear his admiration for one of the books under review—Reinhold Niebuhr's The Irony of American History—is in itself reassuring.”

I am particularly interested in Urquhart’s assessment of Andrew Bacevich’s book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

Andrew Bacevich is a devoted disciple of Niebuhr, and his latest book is very much in the Niebuhrian spirit, which he applies with great skill and originality to the problems, mostly of our own making, that now beset the United States. Bacevich retired from the US Army as a colonel and became a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. An earlier book, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy (2002), assailed the myth of the US as a reluctant superpower and urged it to act openly as a benevolent leader in the world. His son Andrew, to whom his present book is dedicated, was killed in Iraq in May 2007. A traditional conservative, Bacevich's style is compounded of military clarity, great eloquence, and invigorating overtones of Oliver Cromwell, Savonarola, and other inspired reformers. His book is both highly readable and enormously worth reading.

For more of Bacevich on this timely American prophet, see Bacevich’s essay that appeared roughly a year ago in Historically Speaking: “The Illusions of Managing History: The Enduring Relevance of Reinhold Niebuhr.”

American Religious Identification Survey

Paul Harvey

The ongoing ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey) project has just released its latest numbers -- a brief summary story and graphics are here. There are some obvious limitations about surveys such as these, but generally they provide some interesting data for discussion. The biggest news on this one: the rise of the "nones," i.e. no religion -- up to 15%, from a starting point of 8% in the original 1990 survey, and now almost equal with Baptists and just a little under Catholics as the top group in the survey -- more on them here. Generally, almost all denominations have lost ground, according to the survey; the relative decline of non-Catholic Christian groups is graphed here, while the growth of respondents answering "no religion" is graphed here. Other researchers are attempting to tabulate the growth of Islam, which they feel is undercounted in these surveys. Overall, the friendly atheists are happy! Perhaps Obama's deliberate inclusion in his addresses of "those with no faith" and like phrases will appear more frequently in political discourse.

Calling This Blog Back to Its Pure and Godly Roots: A Modern-Day Jeremiad

A Jeremiad Over Religion in American History
by Ed Blum

I just finished reading Andrew Murphy’s terrific Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11 (also, see here for more and a "page 99" test). For those of us who’ve read our fair share on the Puritan Jeremiad or its use throughout American history, this is a refreshing book. Murphy focuses on three main historical moments: the seventeenth century when the American Jeremiad was created; the Civil War when the Jeremiad was tested; and modern America when the Jeremiad was “taken back” by the moral majority and their hopes to save the United States from its decline. This is an affordable, readable book that would be great for courses in American religious history that go from the Puritans to the present.

Murphy is a political scientist and what he does best is systematize and define. For the Jeremiad, he defines it with the following characteristics. First, Jeremiads identify problems that show a decline vis-à-vis the past; second, Jeremiads identify turning points (where society shifted from godly to sinful); and third, Jeremiads call for reform, repentance, and renewal (since, I’m guessing, we can only teach in groups of threes and in groups of three r’s). Most Jeremiads seem to share that structure.

So it got me thinking, what would a Jeremiad over this blog look like? How might I call this blog back to its beautiful and godly roots? Here’s what I came up with. First, I would laud the origins of the blog. It began simply with the vision of one pure man. Paul Harvey felt called in July 2007 “to foster discussion, sharing of links, and (I hope) eventually a group blog in American religious history.” The goal was for discussion and to share links. Perhaps a few others might join. Most pristine, Harvey began with a plug of my religious biography of W. E. B. Du Bois. It was a time of simplicity and harmony. And for a time, all went well. Paul and his co-editor Kelly Baker posted nice little links to various stories, to syllabi, and to new books and questions. All could read the blog in unity and be at peace with God.

But disaster struck in May 2008. It was then that a new contributing editor who seemed like an angel of light but was really a part of the antichrist’s plan to destroy the blog joined the crew. Dissension hit the blog almost instantly. When Dr. Harvey posted a picture of the new editor on the blog, he became angry. He demanded that the cover of his book be posted instead. It was the first time the genius of Harvey’s benevolent rule had been challenged. But it was only the beginning of the discord that this version of the antichrist would bring to the community. Attacking journal after journal, review after review, the enemy single-handedly transformed the blog from an arena of communal affirmation to one of strife and verbal tirades. Then he amassed a following of new editors and even connived me into his unholy attack on the community.

After May 2008, the blog went, figuratively, to hell. Stories emerged on new and bizarre topics. We could now read on the theology of George Carlin; even Paul Harvey posted about atheism in Phil Zuckerman’s book; evolution has been discussed on a blog about religion. What was happening? Liberal politicians like Barack Obama have been defended, and Phil Sinitiere and Jon Fea alerted us to too many books. All of it upsets the mind and has devastated the communal unity of our group. Peace has left us and now only discord and confusion.

What shall we do to be saved? Isn’t it clear, my fellow blog readers. We must return to the early time, the time when Paul posted short little snippets mostly about my books and material. The antichrist should be banished and hopefully slaughtered in the wilderness by Native Americans. Perhaps then and only then, we can reestablish this group as the last best blog on planet earth.

Cold as Ice to Me

Paul Harvey

Not specifically on religious history, but on the state of graduate school in History or the Humanities more generally, especially for you advanced undergrads. or early grad students who may read this blog:

Anthony Grafton, "Graduate School in a New Ice Age," ponders the meaning of life for graduate students as even the best-endowed of institutions move rapidly from prosperity to austerity, and why it is that graduate school, in comparison to an earlier era, has become "formidably professionalized." You can read it alongside Tim Burke's characteristically excellent post Oh the Humanities, and Patricia Cohen's "Doctoral Candidates Anticipate Hard Times," from Saturday's New York Times.

Long story short: I'm SO glad I finished up graduate school well before California went bankrupt, and in an era when a bit of wandering, and wondering, could still happen before settling on "the professional career."

Warner to Lecture on the "Evangelical Public Sphere"


I just received word of this lecture series. It might interest some of our readers in the Philadelphia area:

Rosenbach Lectures for 2009: Michael Warner, Yale University

"The Evangelical Public Sphere"
Lecture Dates: March 23, 25, and 26, 2009
Time and location: 5:30PM, Rosenwald Gallery, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library
More information: (215) 898-7088;

Monday, March 23, 2009:"Printing and Preaching: What is a Sermon?"RSVP HERE

Wednesday, March 25, 2009: "Between Freethought and Evangelicalism: Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin"RSVP HERE

Thursday, March 26, 2009:"Evangelical Publics and Christian Nationalism in the Late Eighteenth Century"RSVP HERE

Michael Warner is Seymour H. Knox Professor of English and Professor of American Studies at Yale University. His recent publications include The Portable Walt Whitman (2003), Publics and Counterpublics (2002), The Trouble with Normal (1999), and American Sermons (1999).

I have not read some of Warner' latest work, but I heartily recommend his The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).

While looking at Warner's Yale website, I also came across an essay on his pentecostal childhood that might also be of interest to the readers of this blog.

Crossposted at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Paul Harvey and John Updike: Religion in American Culture

Paul Harvey

Paul Harvey, the voice of a conservative, midwestern Protestant, genial radio populism, has died, while Rush Limbaugh, bombast intact, has risen to be unofficial head of the GOP. Makes me wonder if libertarianism is supplanting moralism in the struggle for the soul of the right. For the record, I shared an Oklahoma birthright with Paul Harvey, but nothing else, so you so-called friends of mine can stop sending me your smart-ass emails as of now, k?

Paul Harvey wove homespun stories amidst brief dollops of conservative commentary so deftly that most associated him with the rest of the story, not with any political messages.

Limbaugh's populism largely accords with Harvey's views, but is comparatively areligious, and his humor is as deliberately obnoxious as possible (to put it charitably) in contrast to Harvey's Reader's Digest style of gentle ribbing.

It makes me wonder if a national figure dispensing religious-themed homilies could ever again rule the airwaves a la Father Coughlin, Charles E. Fuller, or the many others who were such a part of American broadcasting. For more on Fuller in particular, see Phil Goff, "We Have Heard the Joyful Sound," available on J-STOR (institutional subscription required). Heck, even 'Reinhold Niebuhr did some very successful radio broadcasts, something impossible to conceive of today.

I've never connected John Updike and Paul Harvey before, but will do so now. Both came approximately from the same era, and Updike's perfectly pitched prose reached a New Yorker audience as deftly as Paul Harvey's genial stories attracted those who had never heard of the New Yorker, and wouldn't have read it if they had.

I felt some distance from both, perhaps more suprisingly from Updike. John Updike was never a writer I could love; it seemed as though his work, especially his reviews, often lingered over not-so-interesting subjects, or expressed not-so-interesting views on interesting subjects (such as in his review of Matt's Sutton's biography of Sister Aimee), in a highbrow Paul Harvey sort of way; and his most memorable character, in the Rabbit novels, just seemed a little too Sinclair-Lewis-like for my tastes. Philip Roth was more my man -- American Pastoral and other novels perfectly exploring the rise and unraveling of a certain segment of American life, as well as being tremendous family chronicles of Jewish Americans, the Faulkner of New Jersey both in terms of being rich in local history and in prose full of passionate intensity.

But then, in fairness, I read Updike now and again, in bits and spurts, and often found myself annoyed at his beautifully written but seemingly somewhat vacuous reviews in the New Yorker. Ian MacEwan has me rethinking Updike, by placing him also as a novelist for whom religious questions were central. Seemingly more comic than angst-ridden, his characters somehow, in ways they could never figure out themselves, found themselves perplexed by the most religious of questions, even amidst the most mundane of circumstances. A brief excerpt:

This most Lutheran of writers, driven by intellectual curiosity all his life, was troubled by science as others are troubled by God. When it suited him, he could easily absorb and be impressed by physics, biology, astronomy, but he was constitutionally unable to "make the leap of unfaith." The "weight" of personal death did not allow it, and much seriousness and dark humor derive from this tension between intellectual reach and metaphysical dread

This is the finest eulogy for Updike I think I have seen, and makes me want to go back and pick up some of his work that I deliberately avoided before.

As for Paul Harvey -- well, he does have a son, Paul Harvey Jr, who broadcasts, albeit now in competition with Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee, who are also vying for the spot of Head Folkster Persona:

And so, as Journey sang on the final scene of that great classic of American religious drama, The Sopranos,

well the movie never ends, it goes on and on and on . . .

On-line Resources

Randall Stephens

Art Remillard and I were talking on the phone today about working at teaching colleges/universities. Part of the responsibility/burden at such institutions, and people either love or hate this, is to teach courses that lie outside one’s bailiwick. So you focused on 19th century evangelical responses to cholera in London? Here’s a course on modern American diplomacy that you’ll need to cover. You wrote your first book on Jewish immigrants to Boston in the early-20th century? Could you offer this course on Medieval history? OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration. Regardless, I enjoy teaching the occasional course that pulls me outside of my field. Art seems to dig it as well.

I’ve had to be pretty resourceful . . . hunting down sources, trying to get some perspective on secondary literature, confessing to the students now and then that I know only a little more than they do about the topic.

I’m particularly interested in finding on-line materials for new courses I teach. And I enjoy pointing students to the wealth of images, digital archives, and primary sources that float out there on the “internets.”

Wendy Moore, a British trade author, just alerted me to the fabulous on-line collection of the British Museum. A quick search for "Methodists," "John Wesley," “Ranters,” “Quakers,” and "George Whitefield" returned dozens of items: satirical prints, scatological cartoons, bawdy broadsheets, etc. The images can be used for free for "private or non-commercial uses for education, academic study, scholarship or research by individuals or charities, societies, institutions or trusts existing exclusively for public benefit."

There are two other copyright free digital archives, which contain loads of religious prints, I use regularly for Historically Speaking: The Library of Congress, Prints and Photos Division and Yale's Beinecke Rare Book & MS Library.

As for primary source material . . . the list keeps growing longer and longer. Google books is just one of many recent resources I would have loved to have had back in my grad days. Searchable collections of historic newspapers, early American imprints, you name it. And to think that I nearly went blind going through 10,000 miles of microfilm.
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