Canadian Comparative Religion Case

May 19, 2015

I’d like to tell you about a recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada regarding religious education.[1] Quebec has a “mandatory core curriculum” which includes a Program on Ethics and Religious Culture, to teach “about the beliefs and ethics of different world religions from a neutral and objective perspective” as the Court described it. It “requires teachers to be objective and impartial” and “to foster awareness of diverse values, beliefs and cultures.” The court decided that freedom of religion required Quebec to allow a Catholic school, to teach about Catholicism from a Catholic perspective, but the Court held that the school nevertheless needed to present other faiths in a neutral way, a position that the school largely accepted.

I understand the problems with the case. I understand that there will be difficulties interpreting and enforcing the decision and the law on which it is based, and in balancing the rights of the schools and the students. But it’s also very interesting.

It has always been legal to teach comparative religion or the history of religion in public schools in the United States. The so-called “wall of separation” has always been about fairness toward all the students, denying government the power to promote any religious viewpoint over others. It has not been about total exclusion from the classroom. Here’s what our Supreme Court wrote:

While study of religions and of the Bible from a literary and historic viewpoint, presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, need not collide with the First Amendment’s prohibition, the State may not adopt programs or practices in its public schools or colleges which “aid or oppose” any religion. [2]

We perceive “exclusion” from public places and programs because litigants typically want to promote a specific religion or doctrine rather than treat us to a display of inter-faith brotherly love. Multi-faith displays aren’t generally a problem – except for the promoters. Most Americans support that kind of basic fairness. And there is much to admire in what Quebec has tried to do.

Some congregations themselves teach their young people about the differences in the ways people pray, taking them as a group on tours of other houses of worship. Sometimes the little congregation where I pray plays host to such groups, a practice I admire very much.

I’ve felt lucky over the years to spend time at Chautauqua where religious lectures and services are programmed into the Amphitheatre, so even if you don’t plan on attending you may be mesmerized just passing by, as I was a few years ago hearing thousands of people in the Amphitheatre in this historically Protestant religious community reciting a prayer in Arabic as part of what they called their Abrahamic initiative, exploring the different faiths that have roots in the religious world of the patriarch Abraham and the ancient Hebrews. They explored it by including clerics from each of those traditions.

My college experience was similar – we had to go to services, regardless of whose, and programming in the main university chapel was ecumenical – so I heard some of the world’s finest theologians of the era, regardless of faith.

I came to appreciate the fact that the finest minds of most faiths understand the similarity of their religious worlds, and the identity of unanswerable questions with which we all struggle. Most of all I appreciate what unites us and the import of that unity for us all.

Given the rise of religious war and cruelty in many parts of the world, I can’t bring myself to take brotherhood for granted. It is the hard won prize of our America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 19, 2015.

[1] Loyola High School v. Quebec, 2015 SCC 12 (2015), available at http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/14703/index.do

[2] Epperson v. Ark., 393 U.S. 97, 106 (U.S. 1968) quoting McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 225 (1948).


Reactions to the Charlie Hebdo bombings – Was it just about France?

January 13, 2015

In what other country do world leaders march with arms linked against terrorism? Terrorism goes on in every continent but we mourn and gather in Europe. Terrorism happens in Haifa, Jerusalem and the West Bank – in both directions – but we mourn and gather in Europe. Do we stand for a principle or is France the principle – that France cannot be touched? Or that France is in danger? But other places are in danger. For all my criticisms of Israeli reactions, they are in considerable danger as the Palestinians have been able to use Israeli reactions to the devastation caused by their own terrorism to unite much of the world against Israel. Or is there good and bad terrorism? Were the Communists right, that’s it’s all about whose terrorists are freedom fighters?

So does this lead anywhere? Is the world standing together in Paris a prelude to a principle? But where do principles lead? To more pious declarations? Pious declarations can help lead to forms of action. If the free countries of the world really wanted to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they clearly could put the screws on both sides and make a two-state solution actually happen. It’s too late to just back off and say it’s their fight and take no sides. But death there is just politics, who we stand with, not what we stand against. Letting it go on when that fight could be stopped is all about being able to use the conflict for politics, even though it is clearly spiraling out of control and enveloping us all. The conflict does no one any good except that pious declarations allowed the French to appear as friends of oppressed people without doing anything about it.

Of course we have been misplaying the Middle East for decades. We were hostile to a group of Middle Eastern leaders with real popular support because we didn’t like their domestic policies. So their peoples, or many of them, have been drawing the obvious conclusion – that their fight is international. The West doesn’t help. It just supports extractive industries and kleptocratic leaders while letting the problems of the people of the Middle East fester. Why do we expect to be free of terrorism in the West when we have a policy of supporting strong men who protect American and western business while raping their peoples and otherwise blessing all the nonsense they commit at home?

I find myself continually drawn to Pogo’s remark, “We have met the enemy and they is us.” All over the globe we have fought against peoples and leaders who try to take care of their own people. Leaders who try to provide for their own. We have had a part in displacing liberal leaders in Latin America, Africa and Asia because they really tried to make things better for their countrymen.

We who grandly tell the world about the virtues of self-government, and tell the world that our internal policies are none of their business, because we govern ourselves, do the reverse because we have the muscle.

I was struck by a statement by Chris Giannou on Alternative Radio who remarked that the world, including the Muslim world, “love you for your values. They hate you for your hypocrisy.”

Values are powerful until we compromise them with war, torture and indiscriminate killing as if the peoples of the Middle East are just there for us to play with.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 13, 2015.


Misunderstanding Iran

August 12, 2014

For the last few days my wife and I attended the semi-annual meeting of the International Society for Iranian Studies. It was held in Montreal this time. Several panels were devoted to Iranian foreign policy. At one of them, scholars outlined Iran’s strategic isolation and the limited choices available to it.

The fourth panelist then launched into a comparison of what she called contextual cultures and textual cultures. I found myself thinking about the textualism of Justice Scalia and the contextualism of his more liberal colleagues. But this speaker’s point was that Iran was a contextual country in which it was the listener’s job to figure out the speaker’s meaning from surrounding circumstances. By contrast, she said, America was a textualist country, where, quoting an old saying, we “say what we mean and mean what we say.” Given that contrast, it was no wonder that we find the Iranians inscrutable and untrustworthy. Read the rest of this entry »


A Blessing on Both Their Houses

July 29, 2014

Listeners and readers of my commentary know that I have spoken out against what I believe is Israeli misbehavior. So I get flooded with one-sided petitions condemning Israeli behavior. To make myself completely clear, I see merit and fault on both sides. I will not sign one-sided petitions.

I am reminded of my conversation with a Palestinian student who argued with me that Palestinians have the right to kill Israelis, any Israelis, military or civilian, and they have no right to shoot back, only to accept their fate. I questioned him to make sure I was hearing him accurately. What he was making clear was the attitude, or brain-washing, that dehumanized the other side. That is the attitude we have to fight against. Read the rest of this entry »


Settler War in Palestine

July 22, 2014

Returning from a meeting of historians, I’ve been thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in historical terms. Israeli settlers in the West Bank are reminiscent of the movement of settlers to our own Indian frontier until the frontier was closed in the twentieth century. Settler conflict with Native Americans over land and atrocities on both sides was continual. This isn’t the whole story but it is important.

Allies are crucial. For a century, Britain prohibited settlement west of the Appalachians and protected Indian rights in the territory they had occupied for millenia, largely preventing Indian War, except, of course, against the French. Regardless of our dispute with King George, aspects of British Indian policy were both wise and decent. Read the rest of this entry »


Tears for Ukrainian Democracy

May 13, 2014

Let’s return to Ukraine once more.

Americans cheered at former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster. Here’s why that was a mistake.

When Yanukovych decided not to sign the pact with the EU, Ukrainians had several options. Two constitutional processes were available. They could have tried to impeach him. Or they could have defeated him at the polls. Yanukovych was elected for a five year term in 2010. Elections were scheduled for March 2015. They could have waited the extra year. Those were democratic ways to deal with disappointment with him.

Instead, Ukrainians who wanted to join the EU took to the streets. They had every right to demonstrate. Demonstrations are the democratic form of protest. But the crowds wanted more – not just to make their views known and felt, they wanted to settle the matter before and outside of elections. In an election they would have had to allow people they disagreed with to vote. That of course would have given legitimacy to the result. It might also have meant some compromise. Sharing the ballot and compromise are essential in democracy, though there are plenty who don’t get that point even here. Read the rest of this entry »


Ukraine – the Cold War again?

March 26, 2014

There has been a lot of loose talk about how to deal with Russia over Ukraine. Some people think Obama should be, or sound, tougher – or more careful. Toughness is mostly about impressing the home audience, and getting people fired up. But it has nothing to do with what actually has to happen, what the choices or consequences are – it’s all about posturing. Foreign affairs is not a simplistic referendum on “toughness,” and the avatars of toughness should be laughed out of the public space.

Read the rest of this entry »


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