Tuesday, February 28, 2006
While we're in the mode of fisking upcoming legal conferences, this notice I received about the "Fundamentalism and the Rule of Law" conference at Cardozo Law School on March 14 doesn't inspire huge confidence in its balance. There are some very fine scholars speaking, including several friends of mine, and of course one can't tell precisely how the discussion will go; but a few concerns of note. . . .
First, the premise is that "[r]eligious fundamentalism is on the rise around the world. Its truth claims often directly challenge not only competing social mores but also legal rules. That clash . . . is just beginning to gain the attention of scholars." This sounds like the subject will be the foundational challenge to modern democracy from radical groups, especially in Islam; and indeed there are a couple of addresses or papers on subjects such as "Islam and the Rule of Law." Combined with those, however, are a couple of papers on the "faith-based initiative" and the funding of social services, and another on "the religious right and the politics of abortion." Is it really fair to suggest that either (i) the effort to extend equal funding to religious social services that aid the poor and needy or (ii) the effort to enact restrictions on abortion (in many cases, comparable to restrictions that exist in Western European nations) constitute the same kind of fundamental challenge to Western democracy and the rule of law as we are seeing from truly fundamentalist groups?
Second, the conference conception seems to gloss over the important distinction in American religion between fundamentalism and evangelicalism -- the latter being a less separatist and more acculturated version of conservative Protestantism than the former. The panel with a paper on the faith-based intiative (as well as others on intelligent design and abstinence-only programs), for example, is called "Fundamentalist Initiatives in the U.S." But fundamentalists, with their highly separatist attitude toward society and the state, are generally unlikely to seek government funding for social service activities, and certainly are not as accepting as evangelicals of seeking such funds on simply the same basis as secular social services. Of course there are not hard and fast lines between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, but it is hard not to see the thrust of this conference as lumping the two together (and with negative connotations, as for example in the question about the consistency of these viewpoinrs with "the rule of law").
Finally, the conference appears heavily weighted against the idea of conservative religion playing a role in politics and law. The two papers on the faith-based initiative are by opponents, including Winnifred Fallers Sullivan (U. Chicago Divinity School) and Steve Green, the former general counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Commenting on Steve's panel, along with a Cardozo professor, is . . . well, Barry Lynn of American United for Separation of Church and State. Don't expect a strong clash of views there. The perspectives of the panelists vary in some ways -- and some are objective social-science analysts -- but the normative views about conservative Christians, so far as I can see, run from very negative over to moderate/mixed. I see no one on the roster who is an overall defender of evangelicals' activism in politics and law, no one really to counter the several panelists who are sharp critics of that activism.