International Conference on Religion and Political Values in Lebanon

Adyan Foundation sponsors International Conference on Religion and Political Values in Byblos (November 26-28) as part of their effort to promote interfaith scholarship and peace in the region:http://adyanvillage.net/recentDetail/209/IntConferenceonReligionandPoliticalValues/?lang=en

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Call For Papers: Mapping Catholic Politics in Contemporary Italy

Catholic politics in Italy is slowly emerging from the shadow of Democrazia Cristiana, but its new configurations remain surprisingly understudied and undertheorized. Even as scholars debate whether the end of Christian Democracy means the end of religious politics in Italy, the Italian Catholic world has evolved in complex ways, producing new religious and political dynamics: the changing role of the Vatican and the changing configurations of Catholic elites and associations articulate extra-parliamentary Catholic politics in new ways; new Catholic communities and lay elites have recomposed the agents and the aims of the Catholic public sphere; and an enduring but increasingly plural Catholic electorate continues to be attracted by political agendas inspired by Catholic social doctrine and ethics. The impact and political potential of these evolving dynamics are unclear and appear to have left both scholars and practitioners without an articulated empirical, theoretical or normative grasp of contemporary Catholic politics in Italy.

Studies responding to this lack are invited for a published collection.

Abstracts of 500-1000 words should be submitted to Professors Michael Driessen (mdriessen@johncabot.edu) or Tom Bailey (tbailey@johncabot.edu) by December 10, 2014. Notice of acceptance will be provided by January 1, 2015. Final papers will be due by May 1, 2015.

Read the full call here

Suspending the Blog

My dear readers,

Due to new intellectual endeavors, I am suspending my occasional contemplations here on all things religious and political.  I have appreciated your comments over the last few years and hope some of the pieces have been interesting. I will continue to post material on this page as I write for other venues and invite you to continue the conversation. Send me an email. Give me a call. Or, if you’re in Rome, stop by my office for coffee…

Cooperating modernities in Tunisia?

[This month’s post is being hosted by the Contending Modernities blog, a new project at the University of Notre Dame exploring modernity from Catholic, Muslim and Secular perspectives]

In April, Columbia political scientist Alfred Stepan came out with an article in the Journal of Democracy on “Tunisia’s Transition and the Twin Tolerations.” If the article is right, Tunisia’s secularists and Islamists are participating in an encouraging pattern of political cooperation that bodes well for the country’s democratic development. There is good reason to be hopeful about the relevance of an emerging “Tunisian model” of secular-Islamist negotiation, not only for Tunisia’s future but for all those countries affected by the Arab Spring. Yet there is also reason for caution… read full entry here

Elections in Algeria: Everybody Loses Again

Algerians voted for a new parliament last Thursday in the country’s first national elections since the beginning of the Arab Spring. The results of the vote are underwhelming and leave little hope that the aching democratic aspirations of Algeria will be met anytime soon. This did not have to be the case. Some months ago, in fact, the specter of these elections filled observers of Algerian politics with a gulp of fresh air, when it looked like something, finally, new, might happen and herald real political reform. Thanks to the vibes of change emanating from their Maghrebi neighbors, Algerian political parties appeared to muster new energies and poise themselves to respond to this desire for change. No party, perhaps, felt these tremors more than the MSP-HMS one of Algeria’s largest Islamist-oriented parties. In January of this year, the MSP broke from a 13-year-old coalition with Algeria’s ruling nationalist parties, formed a “Green Alliance” with two smaller Islamist parties and predicted the inevitable victory of Islamism in parliament. Such a scenario was not implausible. The MSP had made their declaration against a backdrop of steady social unease, evidenced not in the least by scores of public immolations, and their presence gave urgency to the Algerian ruling parties’ plea to the people to vote massively. It looked, therefore, like we might have a real election on our hands.

Whatever new energy had percolated, however, it was not enough to shake the deep sense of apathy that so many Algerians have assumed towards a political system they know is not theirs. Thus the nationalist ruling parties may have technically won the elections (together they claim 62% of the vote), but in doing so, they have failed to shore up any popular credibility for the regime.  In what was billed as a referendum on the regime’s legitimacy, therefore, the majority of Algerians who did not vote (officially 57% abstention, but quite possibly much higher) implicates a loss for the regime’s ruling parties. The Green Alliance, for their part, came nowhere near to taking over the parliament, gaining only 10% of the vote. They are calling fraud and organizing a protest, but even if we more than double their results to what the MSP claims to have won, that is, to 22%, they still failed to convincingly get out the Islamist vote.  This leaves Algerians stuck again with an unpopular, lackluster, illiberal political regime and political opposition at a moment when the frustrated desire for competent politics remains high.

There are several timely lessons to be learned in all of this for both Algeria and the rest of North Africa. First it clearly illustrates some of the limits for new political Islamism in the region. Algeria’s MSP, like Tunisia’s Ennahda, Turkey’s AKP and Morocco’s PJD, has dedicated itself to a milder blend of identity politics and pragmatic policy positions than its forebears. After having participated in Algerian elections for more than twenty years, what the experience of the MSP proves, however, is that combining compromises and religious identity politics is not enough to buy lasting political relevance. The MSP has not been capable of consistently coming up with competent political strategies or overcoming intra-Islamist competition (two of Algeria’s most famous Islamist personalities, Abdallah Djaballah and Abdelmadjid Menasra ran on separate tickets). Last week’s elections are an indicator of just how little the MSP has to show for its years of participation.

A second lesson is that while illiberal democracies still have some shelf-life in the region, their expiration dates seem to be nearing.  Thus, even though President Bouteflika’s regime ran an actual political campaign, invited in hundreds of foreign electoral observers and put on all the show of a real democracy in motion, it wasn’t enough to convince Algerians that the regime had not toyed with the process all along. By tinkering at the edges and hassling all the small guys in the opposition, the state made the veneer of democracy that much thinner in Algeria and the promise of reform that much more hollow-sounding.

And that brings us to a final lesson, which is that for all of the hopes raised, the Arab Spring is also partly to blame for these diminishing democratic prospects in Algeria. The persistent political uncertainty of the region, with Libya to the east and Mali to the south, puts the shadowy, crooked, disparate forces who make the decisions in the country on the defensive and stacks the cards against any more political liberalization in Algeria. Which is why even if Algerian voters had called the regime on their game and voted in mass protest for parties of the opposition last Thursday, it was that much more likely that Algeria’s next leader would come out wearing a uniform, as Rachid Tlemcani put it recently. The menace hanging around Algeria’s presidential palace had implied so much already, making it difficult for Algerians to vote for the opposition (because they knew what would happen then) or vote for the regime (which was going to go on ruling anyway). So nobody voted. No legitimacy was distributed. No new hope for change was kicked down the road. And everybody loses in Algeria again.

Loving Enemies in Uganda

My colleague and mentor from the University of Notre Dame, Dan Philpott, has just come out with a beautiful, short, fresh film entitled Uganda: The Challenge of Forgiveness and produced by the Fetzer Institute in Michigan. The film features a series of gracious interviews with community and religious leaders in Northern Uganda and the acts of forgiveness, political and personal, they committed towards Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA):

Now, Kony and the LRA have terrorized northern Uganda with wretched violence for more than twenty years, and they have a particularly cruel history of abducting children and women. But, in the film, we find out that Philpott’s interviewees have responded to this cruelty with an unusual calculation: because Kony and his men were children torn from their own communities, they decided to seek him out.

Among others, then, the film includes lengthy conversations with the Catholic Bishop of Gulu, John Baptiste Odama who, along with Anglican Bishop MacLeord Baker Ochola II, had pursued options to make it easier for Kony rebels to lay down their guns. In 2008, Odama had advanced on peace talks with Kony, himself, and then went on a tour of the United States to criticize military operations backed by the US and the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a solution to his country’s crisis. The indictment of Kony by the ICC, in fact, was partly to blame for the failure of the Bishops’ negotiations and produced a classic moral dilemma which peace scholars have often referred to as the tradeoff between peace and justice in certain conflict situations.

Philpott, who is just out with a new book on the politics of reconciliation argues that Kony certainly should be brought to justice, given the breadth and cruelty and intensity of his crimes. And it is a good thing that his continued impunity has recently come under the intense light of the world media audience, thanks in large part to the video Kony 2012 produced by the young, daring activists at Invisible Children which, as they say, went viral over the waves last month.  The headline stories have continued this week with US troops tracking down Kony in the Central African Republic- Fox News has dubbed it the Man Hunt.

But lost in much of this quest for righteous vengeance has been this incredible story captured in Philpott’s interviews which pushes us to expand our short horizons of justice. As Odama challenges, finishing off Kony will not heal their communities, at least not in any enduring way. For to get to that, there is only the struggling movement towards political reconciliation and personal forgiveness.

Ode to Rick

For some time now, I had been waiting for a major Catholic politician to publically denounce John F. Kennedy’s 1960 address on religion and politics in America. That it was Santorum who did so, from the gut, invoking bile, was a bit unfortunate and made it that much easier for liberals and conservatives alike to frame the national conversation we’re having on religion in the public sphere right now as another battle in the culture wars. And that’s too bad, because Santorum had a good point to make about Kennedy’s speech, about his “absolute wall of separation” and the burdens he seemed to place on religious individuals to bury their social and moral activism in private, individual, personal piety (we’ll leave out, for now, the history our soon-to-be first Catholic president was up against at the moment).

This reevaluation of the role of religion in the democratic public sphere, which Santorum essentially advocated, does not have to be the wedge knocking out a republican-democrat, secular-religious divide in America today. The recent attention to the work of public intellectuals like Cornel West, Robert Bellah, Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas, Robert Putnam and David Campbell speaks to a much wider concern among contemporary thinkers of many philosophical stripes to recover public religious reflection in the right light, and appreciate the need for it in America’s national discourse.

This concern seemed to be shared by President Obama as well, whose discourse on religion in 2006 could also be read as an effective attack on the privatization-of-religion-thesis which Kennedy appeared to embrace (again, against an important, anti-papist backdrop). As Obama said then,

But what I am suggesting is this – secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Now, Obama is much less intestinal than Santorum here, but the both of them (and Habermas, Taylor, Putnam and West) recognize that the idea of secularism in America as a scissors to any cords tying religion and politics together gets something wrong and that there’s got to be a better way of letting religions’ higher intuitions and moral verve shape policies and political visions. The culture wars framework and the accusations of “Santorum’s fatwa” or “Mullah Rick,” (other than indicating the problems the left still has when it comes to Islam and politics), miss the point that these guys aren’t trying to throw us back to the 1950s, whatever that means. It is not a reversion to a religious-based society that Santorum and Obama are talking about, but a recalibration of public religion’s role in a religiously-plural, politically-secular democracy.

And in an open democratic public sphere, we get to put Santorum’s political theology (and Obama’s and the bishops’, too) to a critical conversation.

So, to that end, I want to make a public appeal to Santorum’s greater visions here, in which, I believe, he looks out unto churches around America today, and he sees young men and women hearing a gospel calling them to reform themselves, to take the straight and narrow path and to be good to neighbors and the weak and the old and not just to yourself, and he sees cauldrons of civic activism in that call (and probably a lot of boy scouts, too), and he wants to pour it all out so badly.

True that Rick.

But can we work on our language a little more? And if you feel like vomiting on Kennedy’s absolute wall of separation, can you at least not puke on the eloquence and power with which he contests religious divisiveness? And which made him so loved for so long by so many Catholics and put his grin over all our little heads in every Catholic classroom in America for at least four decades? Kennedy, in the same speech:

Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice, where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind, and where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral levels, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

That is the kind of America in which I believe.

Kennedy, at least, knew how awful religious polarization and discrimination in America looked like. If you don’t want something like that again, Rick, and if it’s the fundamentals of brotherhood and sisterhood you’re trying to shore up, then you’re going to have to learn to find words that allow you to lock arms and grab shovels with your brethren across the way, who also love their neighbors and the old and the weak (and the girl scouts, probably, too) because the waters are still rising in America today.

And one last thing. This isn’t the first time Obama’s been accused of phony theology. Some of the best parts about religion from his 2006 address, and echoed again in his 2009 Notre Dame commencement speech, were written as elegant reflections on implorations against the religious bigotry of some of his previous political language, when it came to the issue of abortion. And now, Barack, you’ve been accused of the same, including by fairminded voices much closer to home. Please, don’t sit out this conversation, Mr. President, nor the obligations of your former words.