Friday, April 15, 2016

Bible as Tennessee's Official book: Religious symbolism and the US Constitution

The United States is the only country in the world which neither restricts/regulates the practicing of minority or majority religions nor passes any religious legislation, proving that the church-state relationship in the US is unique in the world. However, as argued in this blog previously, this was not always the case. Religion and state were intertwined for decades at the sub-national level. For example, several US states had religious tests for public office (See American Secularism: A historical view of separation of the Church and the State in the US). Though attempts to link majority religion (Protestantism or Christianity) to the state never stopped in the US, one can detect a new enthusiasm to subvert religious neutrality enshrined in the US Constitution recently.  

On April 14th, 2016, Tennessee Governor vetoed the bill to make Bible the official book of the state. Governor Bill Haslam wrote in a letter to the Beth Harwell, speaker of the statehouse, in which he rejected the arguments of the bill sponsors:

As you know, last year the Attorney General opined that designating The Holy Bible as the official state book of Tennessee would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution and Article 1, § 3, of the Tennessee Constitution which provides that "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship."
In addition to the constitutional issues with the bill, my personal feeling is that this bill trivializes the Bible, which I believe is a sacred text. If we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, then we shouldn’t be recognizing it only as a book of historical and economic significance. If we are recognizing the Bible as a sacred text, then we are violating the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Tennessee by designating it as the official state book. Our founders recognized that when the church and state were combined, it was the church that suffered in the long run. 
I strongly disagree with those who are trying to drive religion out of the public square. All of us should and must bring our deepest beliefs to the places we are called, including governmental service. Men and women motivated by faith have every right and obligation to bring their belief and commitment to the public debate. However, that is very different from the governmental establishment of religion that our founders warned against and our Constitution prohibits.

Is this bill had passed, Tennessee would have been the first state to have the Bible as the official state book. Even the veto was an achievement for bill's sponsors as, in 2015, a similar bill was passed by the House by failed to get the approval of the majority of Tennessee senators. The sponsors of the bill intend to press on and try to override the governor's veto, which only require a simple majority in both houses. 

While arguments of those opposing the bill are well known and ably and succinctly presented by the Governor, it is interesting to take a look at the arguments of the bill supporters.

Roger Gannam, senior litigation counsel for Liberty Counsel, argued:

The government’s adoption of the Bible as the state book would not be an endorsement of Christianity or Judaism or the contents of the book as religion,” Gannam said. “But certainly could have adopted the Bible as a proper recognition of the influence it had on the foundations of Tennessee law and political thought.

Gannam said that Haslam’s reasoning was based on an “erroneous interpretation of the Constitution.” and called the governor’s veto disappointing. Liberty Counsel offered its legal services free of charge if the bill/law was challenged in courts.

David Fowler, a former Tennessee state senator and president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT), gave four reasons why recognizing the Holy Bible as official state book is important:
  • Having a state book is not unconstitutional and no book is more worthy of being Tennessee's state book than the Holy Bible: Regarding the constitutional debate, we need to begin with the acknowledgment there is nothing unconstitutional about having a state book. And as Rep. Matthew Hill said, if we’re going to have a state book, what other book could we name that has had the kind of historical, practical, and economic impact as that of the Bible? There is none.
  • We should be neutral to religion, not hostile to religion: But if the constitutional point is that no religious text can even be entered into the debate, then I submit that we are not being neutral on the issue of religion. Rather, we are advancing secularism at the expense of religion. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart remarked in a different Establishment Clause context: "[A] refusal to permit religious exercises [in schools] thus is … not … the realization of state neutrality, but rather … the establishment of a religion of secularism, or at least, … governmental support of the beliefs of those who think that religious exercises should be conducted only in private."
  • The objective of Establishment Clause was not to divorce religion from the public affairs: Further, from a constitutional perspective, neither the “separation of church and state” referenced in a letter by Thomas Jefferson (and not found in the Constitution) nor the Establishment Clause were ever intended to divorce religion or its influence from the public square. As Supreme Court Justice, Harvard law professor, and author of the first comprehensive treatise on the Constitution, Joseph Story, wrote in 1833: "The real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance Mohammedanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity, but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government."
  • Bible is an important part of our heritage and forgetting one's heritage makes one gullible: Karl Marx once said, “A people without a heritage are easily persuaded.” Mr. Marx was merely reflecting what God knew was true about us. It is why He constantly urged His people to set up memorials; they needed to remember who they were. Whether one was “right” or “wrong” before God in supporting or opposing the “Bible bill” I’ll leave for others to debate, but I am fully persuaded of this: there are many who would have us remove from our public life and the public square any recognition of our religious heritage. And perhaps they do so for the very reason given by Mr. Marx – it makes it easier for them to persuade us to do things that, in a different generation, knowing who we were, we would not do.

Some constitutional experts have contended that such bills are largely symbolic (having no effect on the lives of the people or on how the government was run) and, therefore, it would be difficult to challenge them and to declare them unconstitutional. For example, Douglas Laycock, Professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and a leading scholar in the areas of religious liberty, has argued:

Judges are likely to think that this is de minimis - to minor to care about. They don't tell the president that he can't issue Thanksgiving proclamations or host a national prayer breakfast, and judges are likely to view this the same way.

Keith Werhan, a constitutional law expert at Tulane University Law School, agreed, 

You can promote religion so long as it doesn't rise to the level of establishing a church...  Throughout history, the Supreme Court has not gotten worked about these types of things.

As discussed above, the fight for making bible as the state's official book of Tennessee is by no means over. The sponsors of the bill will try to override the veto next week. Similar bills have also been presented in other Southern states. The LA Times reported in January 2016 that two Democratic members of the Mississippi House of Representatives, Tom Miles and Michael Evans, were proposing a bill to make the Bible the official state book of Mississippi. In Louisiana, a similar bill was presented in 2014 but was later withdrawn by the sponsor, Rep. Thomas Carmody. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Bharat mata ki jai (Victory for/to Mother India)

Is it necessary to chant 'Bharat Mata ki Jai'? Is it a national slogan or a Hindu slogan? Are the people who refuse to say this slogan anti-India or anti-national or traitors? A new controversy is raging across India.

It all started when on March 3rd, (2016) Mohan Bhagwat, the chief (Sarsanghchalak) of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), spoke at an award ceremony at the RSS headquarters in Reshimbagh. During the speech, he said that the Indian youth should be taught to say `Bharat Mata Ki Jai' as some forces are telling the youth not to say nationalist slogans. This part of his speech was possibly linked to the JNU controversy, however, he did not make any direct reference to it.

Bhagwat's speech did not garner much attention until Asaduddin Owaisi referred to it in his speech in Maharastra on March 14th. Owaisi is the President of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and a three-term member of the lower house of the Indian Parliament (Lok Sabha) from Hyderabad. At a rally, he said that he would not chant the slogan even if Bhagwat put a knife to his throat as nowhere in the Constitution it is written that one should say Bharat Mata ki Jai. He said that he would say 'Jai Hind' (Victory to Hind) but not Bharat Mata ki Jai.

Two days later, on March 16, a budget debate skirmish in the Maharastra Assembly led Waris Pathan, a member of Owaisi's party and an MLA from Mumbai, to say that he would say 'Jai Hind' but not say 'Bharat Mata ki Jai' even at the cost of his life. The Maharashtra Assembly, where Hindu nationalists (BJP and Shiv Sena) are in the majority,  then unanimously suspended him for disrespecting the country. Shortly after his suspension, Pathan said to the reporters that he did not disrespect India:

I am proud of having been born in this country and god willing will be buried in the very earth here. I have not disrespected my country. And I cannot think of doing so. Jai Hind. Jai Bharat. Jai Maharashtra.
On March 17, the Shiv Sena's mouthpiece Saamana wrote a strongly-worded editorial in which it recommended not only revoking the citizenship of those who refuse to chant the slogan but also beheading of their heads:

Owaisi has insulted Bharat Mata. Now, Muslims should come out in opposition to Owaisi and hail Bharat Mata...Bharat Mata ki jai is a matter of inspiration and devotion to the country. Considerations of caste and religion should not matter on such issues...Owaisi has said that even if someone puts a knife to his throat, he would not say 'Bharat Mata ki Jai.'...Such people's heads should be cut off.

Since then, many other people have commented on this issue. Some have supported Owaisi's stance; others have criticised him but said that there should be no compulsion. If chanting a slogan cannot make a person a patriot, not chanting will not make her a traitor. A timeline of the controversy till April 5th can be seen here.

Why such opposition to 'Bharat Mata ki Jai' while there is universal acceptance for 'Jai Hind'? Are they not convey the same emotion? Some have argued that Bharat Mata slogan is linked with Hindu nationalism from the early twentieth century. A. G. Noorani explains in an article how India as mata/goddess Kali or Durga is fundamental to Hindutva. 

This is the record on “Bharat Mata”. When the upstarts of the BJP tell us that it is “anti-national” not to proclaim it, it is because they do not bear loyalty to Indian nationalism, but to Hindu nationalism or Hindutva.

Gen. Shankar Roychowdhury,  a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament, however, castigated the politicians of all sides for using this Indian battle cry (Bharat Mata ki Jai) for political expediency and electoral gains:

However, in the entirely different world of the Indian Army, Bharat Mata ki Jai is a traditional, multi-faith battlecry, where soldiers of all denominations place their country before their religion. Roared through many voices, Bharat Mata ki Jai has sustained the Indian soldier on many battlefields as he closed with the enemy for the final reckoning ... But now, with elections to many state Assemblies underway, the battlecry of the warrior has been misappropriated by the political demagogues and turned into street slogans by the politician. These are the enemies within the gates whom the soldier may have to deal with if and when called upon to do so.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Western Wall Prayer Controversy in Israel

Whenever states have tried to implement religious laws/rules in modern times, they have faced challenges. Two of these challenges are particularly intractable. First, while translating a religious regulation into law, the state has to prioritize one interpretation over others, which increases sectarianism. Second, as most of the dominant religious interpretations are patriarchal, the state has to either go against these interpretations or trample over women rights. Israel is facing both these complications while trying to administer the praying at the Western Wall of Temple Mount in Jerusalem. 

The Western Wall is the last remnant of the retaining wall of the Second Jewish Holy Temple on Temple Mount that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. The Second Holy Temple existed between 530 BCE and 70 CE. This six centuries period is called the Second Temple Period. The First Holy Temple was built by King/Prophet Solomon (reign 970-931 BCE) and was destroyed by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BCE, standing for more than four centuries. According to the Jewish religious tradition, the Third Holy Temple will be built soon at the same place (Temple Mount) where the first two temples existed and is linked to the End of Times/Messianic age. 

Due to Western Wall's connection with the Second Holy Temple, it is considered the holiest spots where Jews can pray. It has been the most revered Jewish pilgrimage place for centuries. According to the Israeli government, more than 10 million people visit the Western Wall (called Kotel) annually. Since coming under Israel’s control after 1967 War, the Temple Mount Area has been carefully managed so as to lessen contact between Jews and Muslims, who also consider Temple Mount a sacred spot. The Kotel area/prayer arrangements are administered by an authority, which is under the control of ultra-Orthodox Jewry, as Israeli state does not recognize other Jewish traditions. So, while Jews from other traditions (Conservative, Reform, etc.) can pray at the Wall, they have to follow the rules based on ultra-Orthodox tradition. Some of the particularly controversial provisions of this tradition are the refusal to allow a mixed-gender space, women praying as a group, women wearing a prayer shawl (tallit) or women reading from a Torah scroll at the Kotel. Currently, these actions may lead to physical and verbal abuse by the ultra-Orthodox as well as arrest, fine or jail sentence by the state. Women groups and Jews from other traditions have been protesting against the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on Kotel for decades. 

Women of the Wall (WOW), formed in 1998, is an organization working to increase women rights of prayer at the Kotel. It has been appealing to state and courts to end discrimination at the Kotel. It filed its first case in Supreme Court of Israel in 1991. After several delays, wins and losses, the issue is still not settled. The WOW continued to pray together and aloud while ultra-Orthodox continued to harass and abuse them. However, WOW were not reading directly from the Torah. In 2104, WOW smuggled a tiny Torah and read from it. In April 2015, one of the men handed them one of the 300 full-sized Torahs, which are only available to men, and women started reading from it. Violence broke out as ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) men entered the women section and tried to physically take Torah away.  Police stopped them but in May locked the gates to prevent women from having Torahs again (See Women of the Wall). To resolve the deteriorating situation Israeli government formed an advisory team. On the recommendations of this team, in January 2016, the Israeli government created a permanent and separate area - an egalitarian prayer space - where ultra-Orthodox rules would not be applicable.
The approved area will be a 900-square-meter section that will be built to replace the temporary platform that was set up in the Southern area of the Western Wall next to Robinson’s Arch some two years ago. The permanent structure will be much larger and will be built with a multi level structure.  In addition, the entrance to the new area will be accessed by a common entrance that will include entrance to the traditional gender-segregated prayer areas already existing.  The new prayer section will also enjoy equal visibility. The "upper plaza" situated outside the official prayer areas will no longer be under the same control as the Western Wall as a result of this new agreement and, as a result, official national ceremonies will take place in which  men and women will now be able to sit together and women can sing. (See Prayer arrangements at the Western Wall (Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
The WOW, international Jewry, Reform and Conservative movements were happy with this compromise but ultra-Orthodox public and political parties were not. They are accusing WOW of being more interested in political posturing and deliberate provocation than in religion (See Western Wall rabbi: Women desecrating site by bringing in Torah  and The Western Wall Is No Place for Political Posturing). Meir Porush, a member of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party said that the Women of the Wall to be “sent to the dogs.” He was reprimanded by the Knesset Ethics Committee for his statement (See Knesset Ethics Committee reprimands haredi MK for biblical insult to Women of the Wall). 

Source: The Times of Israel (AFP/GALI TIBBON)

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate Council, which is also controlled by the ultra-Orthodox, also leaped into the fray and has forbidden the government from implementing the compromise recommendations:
The council demands that the government of Israel suspend the decision until such a time that it fulfills the obligation to hold a consultation with the Chief Rabbinate, in accordance with the law. It grants a foothold in the holy place to a group that has for years uprooted Zion and Jerusalem from their prayer book, and which publicly declares that they do not view the Torah of Israel as unique and do not believe in the fundamentals of the Jewish faith, one of whose foundations is ‘This is the Torah, it will not be replaced.’ This is a serious matter. The Land of Israel is outraged by the introduction of alien things into the holy place. (See Chief Rabbinate: Israel Must Suspend New Western Wall Prayer Arrangements
As ultra-Orthodox parties are part of the current ruling coalition, they enjoy enormous power. They were not happy with the compromise and eventually forced Prime Minister Netanyahu to rethink. In March 2016, he announced that bureau chief to revisit the compromise deal given his ultra-Orthodox partners’ objections. This change of stance, of course, did not go well with the WOW and Reform and Conservative Jews and they have decided to file an appeal in the Supreme Court (See Pluralist groups warn government over foot dragging on Western Wall deal. So stay tuned for more controversy. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Irish Nationalism, Easter Rising (1916) and Catholic Church

Easter Rising is a seminal event in the Irish history. Following a brief summary of the uprising against British during the First World War from
On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, a group of Irish nationalists proclaimed the establishment of the Irish Republic and, along with some 1,600 followers, staged a rebellion against the British government in Ireland. The rebels seized prominent buildings in Dublin and clashed with British troops. Within a week, the insurrection had been suppressed and more than 2,000 people were dead or injured. The leaders of the rebellion soon were executed. Initially, there was little support from the Irish people for the Easter Rising; however, public opinion later shifted and the executed leaders were hailed as martyrs. In 1921, a treaty was signed that in 1922 established the Irish Free State, which eventually became the modern-day Republic of Ireland.
On the eve of the hundredth anniversary of Easter Rising, a prominent Irish theologian, intellectual, and academician argued that religion/Catholicism was used by the leaders of the uprising against British colonial rule. Father Seamus Murphy, who is the associate professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, accused the leaders of the rising, including Patrick Pearse, of instrumentally using Catholicism, its symbols and its teachings:
Pearse, familiar with but not overpious about, his Catholicism, uses the Old Testament and scapegoat themes, but NOT with Christian meaning...However, since all this superficially resembles some Catholic mass themes, he is able to channel the Catholic energy that is out there among ordinary Irish Catholics in the direction of a violent bloody undemocratic and intolerant nationalism. It’s very clever.
Catholic leaders at the time of the uprising in 1916 were also not supportive of this uprising because of its recklessness, futility, violence, and being carried by members of a secret society, Irish Republican Brotherhood. Though sympathetic to the sentiments of the men and women that took part in the uprising, the Catholic hierarchy, including the Pope, repudiated the act and helped the British re-establish law and order. However, later on, Catholic hierarchy softened its stance towards the rebels as they were afraid of losing the confidence of laity.


Well, this should not surprise anybody who has an understanding of religious nationalism, which always uses religion as a tool for nationalism. Very few religious nationalist leaders are religiously observant. The established church always have a complicated relationship with religious-nationalist leadership as they are not pious and are usually ready to bend religious edicts/principles, if it helps their cause. However, it is important to remember that church leadership is itself not immune from using religion to preserve or enhance its power.

Eamonn McCann, writing in The Irish Times, presents the view that the Catholic religious leadership was also trying to increase their power and used the Irish nationalist sentiment to their advantage in early 20th century. McCann, who is a political activist, atheist and socialist, has written extensively on religion in Ireland, including Dear God The price of religion in Ireland. He contests the view that Catholic hierarchy condemned the uprising:
It is said that “the bishops condemned the Rising”. This is at best an exaggeration, repeated today in efforts to project the Rising as a secular event. In fact, there were 31 Catholic bishops in Ireland in 1916, of whom only seven explicitly condemned the rebels. Most of the rest kept cannily quiet, before placing themselves soon at the head of the national movement which was to arise from the Dublin rubble.
He argues that the Catholic hierarchy soon owned the Easter Rising as well as the broader nationalist movement and managed to defeat the radical/Marxist/secular element in the nationalist movement that has led the uprising in 1916. Not surprisingly, Ireland emerged as a 'ultra-conservative confessional State' six years later:
The enthusiastic support of the (Catholic) hierarchy was vital for the success of the crucial 1918 anti-conscription campaign. “The Irish people have a right to resist [conscription] by every means consonant with the law of God” declared the bishops in a “manifesto” read at all Masses. This can be seen as the definitive moment when the endorsement of the church passed from the Home Rule Party to Sinn Féin. The bishops were nothing if not adept in detecting what way the wind was blowing...The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 partitioning the island handed the bishops a State in which their ideological mastery was already established. Hence some of the horrors inflicted on the most vulnerable of the population in the half century which followed. There were no protest marches against church rule. They wouldn’t have been allowed.
So, Murphy is right to be indignant of what Pearce did, the usage of to use Catholic themes for his mundane nationalist objectives. However, as McCann explains, Pearce and other nationalists could not have used Catholic themes, if the Catholic Church hierarchy was not supporting them.