Category: Religion


The Real Bellweather Elections?


Bob Dylan was right. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. The best way to learn that is by following major church elections. Before I moved to Birmingham, I would never have noticed the incredibly important votes being held at the annual conventions of Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Southern Baptists. If you want to get a sense of the American mainstream, look no further than these meetings.

The Episcopalians, desperately trying to maintain a balance between their American progressive membership and the broader Anglican church, rejected a ban on gay bishops, but then adopted a non-binding resolution urging Episcopal leaders “to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any (bishop) candidate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.” And here in Birmingham, Alabama, of all places, Presyterians (by which I mean Presbyterian Church USA, the largest group of American Presbyterians) gave local church groups leeway to decide whether to ordain gay clergy, or allow gay members to become deacons and elders. While hardly an endorsement of gay clergy, the vote – by a relatively narrow 57% margin – was a significant step for the recognition of gay people as full members of the church.

Meanwhile, all three groups elected new leaders. The Episcopalians elected their first woman leader, a Nevada bishop named Katharine Jefferts Schori. (Schori voted in support of naming the first openly gay Episcopal bishop back in 2003.) Many Anglicans continue to believe that women should not be priests so, notwithstanding the generally progressive approach of American Episcopalians, this remains a “fashion forward” move. The Presbyterians elected their own new female leader; Rev. Joan Gray was elected moderator for the next two years. And most interestingly of all, the Southern Baptist Convention elected Frank Page their new president. Page is no liberal – for most northeasterners he’d be viewed as extremely conservative – but he is what I’d call a “lifestyle Baptist.” He seems willing to soften SBC on some of the edges in order to compete with the mega-churches (known for cutting parishoners a break when church demands conflict with lifestyle) and the likes of Rick Warren (author of “A Purpose Driven Life.”) As Page put it, “I believe in the word of God. I’m just not mad about it.” Page may be plenty conservative, but for a convention that has often cottoned to the radical right (former SBC prez Jerry Vines once said that Mohammed was a “demon-possessed pedophile” – a comment which inspired my article, Terrorism, Panic and Pedophilia), the election of Page suggests that some vaguely moderate winds might be blowing over at the SBC.


The epicurean ecumenical

One effect of living in a religiously plural society is an ability to reap epicurean rewards. I’m reminded of this every time I take the opportunity to stock up on Passover Coke. Passover Coke is made with sugar, rather than corn syrup. As such, it is acceptable for Passover use by observant Jews. It is also considered by most Coke drinkers to be a tastier beverage, and so non-Jewish buyers like myself take advantage of this opportunity to buy tastier Coke.

(When I buy Passover Coke, I only do so from full shelves. My inner ethical meter won’t let me buy the last, or even close-to-last bottle of Passover Coke from any store. I find myself imagining that such action on my part would affect some poor observant Jew shopping at the same store few minutes later — that I would deprive her of her chance to buy Coke, and she would have to sit through a Passover without Coke because of my selfish actions. So, no last bottles for me — but if the shelf is full, I make sure to stock up.)

It’s not just Passover Coke, either. It’s fun to hit a diner and order some Matzo ball soup. (That stuff is tasty, particularly on a chilly New York day) Also, during Hannukah, my old law-firm cafeteria sold cute little Hannukah chocolates that I regularly took home for the kids. And so on.

I hope that this epicurean ecumenicalism isn’t a one-way street. I hope that some of my Jewish friends enjoy the (probably more limited) epicurean benefits of Christian holidays — chocolate Easter bunnies and Cadbury eggs, candy canes and gingerbread.

And while I don’t want to overstate the point, I can’t help but think that enjoying the tasty celebrations of other religious groups has to have a salutary effect on inter-group tolerance and understanding. Perceptions of a group’s gastronomic profile can certainly affect society’s thinking. If lies about Jewish dietary habits (among other things) spread by the Czar’s secret police can lead to pogroms and hatred, then can’t a shared bowl of Matzo ball soup, washed down with some Passover Coke, lead to greater understanding and appreciation of diverse religious culture and tradition? I like to think so.

In the meantime, there’s a strictly-vegetarian Indian place up the 15 a ways, next to a Hindu temple, that I’m hoping to get to some time soon.


Tax Scholar: Bush Is An Atheist

george_bush_narrowweb__200x245.jpgMy colleague, Susan Hamill, is never one to shy from a fight. Four years ago she burst onto the scene with her article, An Argument For Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics. This piece, which I’ve noted previously was a driving force behind an ultimately unsuccessful Alabama tax reform proposal, argued that (what she termed) “Judeo-Christian” ethics demanded that true believers support a more progressive tax scheme in the state. Her arguments were the centerpiece of the statewide debate on the referendum and she was targeted by Alabama’s Christian Coalition. (Curiously, she garnered the support of the national group.) I’ll never forget The Economist’s headline about this referendum: What Would Jesus Tax?

Well, my friends, Susan is back.

In her new paper, An Evaluation of Federal Tax Policy Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics, she argues that:

“the moral values driving the Bush Administration’s tax policy decisions reflect objectivist ethics, a form of atheism that exalts individual property rights over all other moral considerations. Given their overwhelming adherence to Christianity and Judaism, I conclude that President Bush, many members of Congress and many Americans are not meeting the moral obligations of their faiths.”

Powerful stuff! Susan joined the Alabama faculty as a tax scholar in the mid-1990’s. About five years ago, on sabbatical, she pursued graduate work at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School – not exactly a hotbed of liberalism. These recent pieces reflect a marriage of scholarship with personal passion. Not surprisingly, people from many perspectives can find ways to disagree with Susan. On the other hand, she exemplifies a professor who believes her scholarship must have practical consequences. I have tremendous admiration for both her work and the way she has chosen to structure her professional life.

Is Bush an atheist? Who’d have thought you’d read the Virginia Tax Review to find out.


In Defense of the Megachurch

I’ve noticed lately that there are some who use “megachurch” as a derogatory term. I noticed this when I blogged that Ken Lay will be calling as character witnesses two pastors of Houston megachurches. I also noticed that Bernard-Henri Levy, who fancies himself the next Tocqueville, used the term quite condescendingly when talking about how he researched his book on American culture. Coretta Scott King’s memorial service was held at a megachurch in suburban Atlanta, much to the annoyance of some onlookers. Why do some people distrust megachurches? I don’t. I believe that megachurches serve a very important purpose in modern life, and what follows is a defense of the trend from someone quite outside mainstream Protestantism.

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“Religious Arguments in the Law” or “Reasoning in God’s Presence”


Vic Fleischer had a really interesting post on religion and tax policy over at a Conglomerate that shouldn’t be lost in all of the Disney noise. He writes:

There is no question that one needs a theory of distributive justice to form a complete picture of tax policy. Some people may derive that theory from religious faith, others from philosophy. I have no problem with those who derive their preferences from religious faith. As a matter of scholarly discourse, I find it more useful to concentrate on the philosophy side. And even within philosophy, convincing others that one approach is better than another feels to me like trying to convert someone to another faith. As a tax policy scholar, I have no comparative advantage here.

Implicitly I’m arguing that traditional tools of tax policy, including public finance economics, can sometimes lead us to demonstrably right and wrong answers about the design of a tax system. I am a skeptic about the ability of law professors to convince anyone that the top marginal rate should be 35% by appealing to Rawls OR the Bible. But I do I have a lot of faith, so to speak, in tax law scholarship and economics to speak to the proper design of the system.

There is a lot of stuff going on in these sentences. First, Vic’s argument seems a bit confused about the nature of normative reasoning. In good economic fashion, he seems to be suggesting that theories of distributive justice are a kind of preference. (E.g. “I have no problem with those who derive their preferences from religious faith.”) This, it seems to me, is fundamentally mistaken. Kaplow and Shavell aggressively pursued this line of thinking in Fairness versus Welfare, and I think that when they stray from positive economic analysis into the realm of normative argument their results are a rather dismal failure. (In my opinion, Jules Coleman offers the most trenchant criticisms in his review The Grounds of Welfare, 112 Yale. L. J. 1511 (2003)). Their failure, however, does not come because normative argument is useless, but rather because they made bad normative arguments. In a nutshell, the problem with their approach is that distributive justice is not simply an input into a personal utility function. It is also a claim about the nature of moral reality, and as such it has a truth value independent of whether or not any particular person prefers it or not.

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Guilty as charged . . . see you at church (Part II)

From the Associated Press:

Racist Man Sentenced To Attend Black Church

A judge has sentenced a suburban Cincinnati man to attend services for six weeks at a black church for threatening to punch a black cab driver and using racial slurs.

Last year, I blogged on Prawfsblawg about a case where a judge sentenced substance abusers to church time. Much of what I wrote then applies now as well:

In general, I think that sentences to church time raise some serious red flags, and present quite a bit of potential for abuse. But I’m wondering about scenarios in which there is a good reason to offer alternative church sentences. Say that you’re a judge in a small town in Kentucky or Alabama or West Virginia, and you’ve got a batch of DUI’s and drug-possession cases. Your town doesn’t have a strong network of social service agencies, but it does have a strong local church which runs a highly regarded, historically effective 12-step program for addicts and alcoholics.

Is it wrong to offer some of these convicts the option of going to the local church 12-step program instead of jail time? On the broader level, what should the judge do in cases where it looks like there is a genuine rehabilitation benefit to be gained from channeling some convicted people to a religious organization that has an effective social network that will help them overcome their problems? Is the judge’s only option “sorry, I’ve got to send you all to the slammer”? On the one hand, there are fairness issues for prisoners who do not wish to attend church services. On the other hand, there could be a real loss in rehabilitation for prisoners who would be willing to work with the social programs operated by a church.

In this case, the judge may honestly believe that special benefits can be achieved by sending the offender to a Black church. The question that I would ask is whether similar benefits could be achieved through less potentially problematic avenues. Why not send the fellow to the local NAACP office?


Finding God in the Appellate Brief: A Quick Follow-Up

My post on finding God in the appellate brief has garnered a bit of attention, some appreciative and some not (see the second comment). I did want to clarify what I meant by the reference to God, which seems to have upset some people. First, I am not claiming that good briefs are written by God or under some sort of divine inspiration. Nor am I suggesting that believers write better briefs than unbelievers. Both of these claims strike me as patently absurd. Rather, I wanted to point out that a well-written brief exhibits a kind of beauty, the beauty of reason. A well-played game of chess shows the same sort beauty. My point is that this beauty can be taken by the believer as a trace of the presence of God. Not, mind you, as evidence of God’s exclusive handiwork, nor as evidence of superior moral or even intellectual merit. Rather, it is simply another trace of divine beauty in the world. Put in other terms, the point of the post was not to claim special merit for religious lawyering (whatever that might look like), but rather to see in good lawyering — religious or not — some spiritual beauty.

The other purpose of the post, of course, was to drop a wholly gratuitous reference to Matthew Arnold.

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Finding God in Chess and the Appellate Brief

chess_piece_photo.jpgWhen my professional life is going well it consists of reading and writing appellate briefs. Fortunately, this is not nearly as pathetic as it sounds.

At its most basic, an appellate briefs is a written argument presented to a court explaining the claims of your client and how those claims are supported by the law. As such, it represents one of the great triumphs of human civilization. I am serious. Law rests on a basic commitment to resolving the disputes of human life by resort to reason rather than violence. In the days before appellate briefs (or something like them) we resolved disputes through blood feuds, trial by combat, or by throwing women into ponds to see if they floated. Deliciously dry and intricate arguments about precedent, controlling authority, pleading, and statutory construction represent one of the few unequivocal leaps forward in human history. Post-modernism, historical relativism, and skepticism of Whig history all have their place, but at the end of the day, the rule of law is simply a lot better than trial by combat. Generally speaking, the progress of reason is told in Enlightenment terms as a story about the ebb of faith down the shingles of Dover Beach. However, it is possible to see the triumph of reason in the brief in terms of an older vision of reason: The trace of the divine.

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Mormons Pick Nominees, Part II

I’m starting to see a strange pattern here. First it was Ginsburg. LDS Senator Orrin Hatch has publicly taken credit for Clinton’s decision to nominate both Ginsburg and Breyer, writing of a discussion with the former president:

Our conversation moved to other potential candidates. I asked whether he had considered Judge Stephen Breyer of the First Circuit Court of Appeals or Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. President Clinton indicated he had heard Breyer’s name but had not thought about Judge Ginsberg.

I indicated I thought they would be confirmed easily. I knew them both and believed that, while liberal, they were highly honest and capable jurists and their confirmation would not embarrass the President. From my perspective, they were far better than the other likely candidates from a liberal Democrat administration.

And with Orrin Hatch’s advice and consent, first Ginsburg and then Breyer were confirmed. (There are conflicting views as to what this means).

Now, LDS Senator Harry Reid claims to be the inspiration behind the Miers nomination:

At the meeting we had with the president last week, we were in the office he has there; I was there, Frist was there, Leahy was there, and Specter was there, plus Andy Card and the vice president. I said, “The vice president got here in a very unusual way. He was chosen by you to find a candidate to be your vice president. You liked the person in charge of finding a candidate better than the people he chose.” I said, “I think that rather than rather than looking at the people your lawyer’s recommending, pick her.”

As a church member myself, I’m pleasantly surprised by the trend. Three of the last four nominees were initially suggested by co-religionists? Not bad, not bad at all. Perhaps we’re not electable as presidents, but it looks like we’re doing alright being the power behind the throne.

I would post on this issue further, but I’ve got to run and go refine my short list. Just in case the President calls to ask me about nominees.

(Cross posted at Times and Seasons).