Tag: religion

You Can Leave Your Hat On

With an avalanche of news about the government shutdown, DACA, CHIP and Stormy Daniels, the American news media did not have too much time to cover Putin’s nipples (this time around), even though it was a great opportunity to update the famous horse riding photograph. On the Russian Orthodox Epiphany night Putin was photographed bathing in ice cold water in the Seliger Lake, displaying both his Orthodox Christian devoutness and manly sass.  Why does he do that? While for some in the West these displays of machismo can seem gay, in Russia they are gobbled up as the ultimate display of virility and strong leadership. Moreover, they have a deeper political meaning for the population that sees Putin as a spiritual leader, a pastor that would guide Russia to a brighter tomorrow.

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Research Primer for Religion and IR

Michael Desch and Daniel Philpott at Notre Dame have concluded their two-year Mellon funded working group on religion and IR and published their final report titled Religion and International Relations: A Primer for Research.  Desch, in his introduction (titled: “The Coming Reformation of Religion in International Affairs? The Demise of the Secularization Thesis and the Rise of New Thinking About Religion”), starts with a puzzle expressed by working group participant Timothy Shah: “religion has become one of the most influential factors in world affairs in the last generation but remains one of the least examined factors in the professional study and practice of world affairs.”

Why is this? In addressing this question, the working group focused on three broad set of questions: What is religion and how should we study it in international relations? How can religion broaden our understanding of international relations? and, what should be the core of the future research agenda for religion and international relations?
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What Political Science Says About Papal Elections

Given the news that Pope Benedict XVI will resign at the end of this month, the first bishop of Rome to do so since the middle of the last millennium, the college of cardinals will soon convene to elect his successor.

Political scientists Forrest Maltzman, Melissa Schwartzberg, and Lee Sigelman researched how Pope John Paul II changed the papal constitution to force an outcome. As they wrote after Benedict’s selection in 2005,

Officially, Ratzinger’s selection was attributed to the will of God … The more immediate source of this outcome, however, was a factor about which political scientists can justifiably claim considerable expertise: the rules under which the election was held. Indeed, Pope John Paul II was certainly aware that these rules would shape the outcome of the election: otherwise there would have been no need for him to modify them.

As Maltzman, Schwartzberg, and Sigelman discuss, the papal constitution was reshaped in part because of the influence of consultant (and Nobel Prize winner) Kenneth J. Arrow, who helped shaped the Pontifical Academy’s voting rules to guarantee that the conclave could not be deadlocked.

Update: It turns out that since Benedict’s elevation, he has returned the papal elections to the traditional two-thirds margin. This could well result in a longer papal conclave than the last one (which was fast). For the Church, this could be a little bit of a problem, as a lengthy conclave during the Lenten season could leave the hierarchy without a Pope during Easter. Presumably, of course, Benedict’s move away from the Ken Arrow voting rules was also strategic; perhaps he feels confident that “his” man will be elected under a two-thirds rule. That could mean that the next pope is simply a younger, healthier, equally conservative Benedict supporter. (Thanks to Kevin Collins.)

Second Update: Josep Colomer and Iain McLean, “Electing Popes: Approval Balloting and Qualified-Majority Rule”, Journal of Interdisciplinary History (1998). A useful history of papal elections:

This article demonstrates that successive reforms in the rules for electing popes during the Middle Ages can be explained as a series of rational responses to political problems faced by the Church and by successive electors. Although the particular forms that these developments took could not have been predicted in advance, because they depended on certain contingencies (such as the unusual utility function of Celestine V), the process as a whole is illuminated from the perspective of social choice theory.

(Thanks to Kevin Collins.)

Update 3 Not peer reviewed but this undergrad research paper by Adam Brickley got the year of Benedict’s removal as pope right and has a neat-looking scorecard of potential papal successors. (Astonishingly, Brickley might have gotten Sarah Palin named VP candidate.

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Religion in Westeros

Given that George R. R. Martin has clearly thought enough about religion in his series to both deal explicitly with these themes in the books and to create an extra feature about it for the TV show, I am supremely puzzled as to why some of the most interesting religious aspects of the book series are being left out on screen.

Consider the “baptism” scene in last week’s episode, in which the Priest of the Drowned God splashes seawater over a man to inculcate him into the tribe of the Iron-born to the words “what is dead may never die.” If you haven’t read the books, you would entirely miss the meaning of those words: Iron-born baptisms actually involve drowning people, then resuscitating them. I can’t imagine why Benioff and Martin didn’t think this would translate well onto screen: it would have been riveting to watch, especially if (as in the books) the audience doesn’t know until later that what they’re watching is a baptism not an execution. Now it’s true that in the books this particular individual doesn’t go through the drowning but experienced the more ‘tame’ form of baptism but a) that isn’t actually very consistent with the context of the story [spoiler below fold] and b) why not fudge that detail in favor of giving us some insight into the Ironborn, considering all the other details that were fudged quite rightly in the same episode, all in the service of on-screen story-telling?

Melisandre’s religion of light is getting more play in these early episodes, with some dialogues between Davos and his son used to essentially set up the relations between the characters and the ideas driving them. However the HBO series is downplaying important details so far (like ritual sacrifice) and rubbing things in our face (like sex magic between Stannis and Melisandre) that were only hinted at in the books and that frankly aren’t very consistent with the fundamentalism of R’Hllor.

It may be that this dampening / obfuscating is part of Martin’s effort to keep religion de-linked from politics and gamesmanship in the series on screen, as he did in the books. As Rachel Mauro writes:

When the story opens there doesn’t seem to be much conflict between the two faiths [the old gods and the Seven]. The main protagonists of the story, the Stark family, are even interfaith! Lady Catelyn Tully Stark, the matriarch of the northern Stark family, was born in the middle of Westeros. Sometimes uncomfortable near the sacred Weirwood tree where her husband, Lord Eddard Stark, takes time to reflect on life, she still worships her own gods. Her children go back and forth between the two sets of worship depending on their personal tastes. Religion, in essence, is secondary in this world. It’s not what defines ethics, morality, or even pride in one’s heritage. On the opposite side of the coin, it is also not used as a reason to go to war. And ASOIAF is defined by warfare. Religion (or family feuds or most anything else) can be used as the vehicle. But what drives it home are inherent, human fallacies.

Still, the religious aspects of Westeros and surrounding lands (for what they’re worth) are some of the most interesting pieces of the story. It would be nice if the series were used as a vehicle for clarifying / making sensible these disparate threads rather than robbing them of what coherence and originality they contain already.

[Additional commentary on the Ironborn below. Season 2 Episode 3 spoiler alert.]


*If you’ve already read the books or watched the last few episodes, you know that the Ironborn arc is about Theon being placed in an awful zero-sum relationship between his family of origin and adopted family and being forced to choose. Surrendered by his father Balon Greyjoy to the Starks as part of the peace deal after an earlier rebellion, Theon has grown up as a ward of the north and loves the Starks. However he has always been an outsider, and as a hostage he grew up knowing that he could be killed at any time should his father renege on the agreement. Robb stupidly sends him as an envoy to the Pike seeking ships with which to take King’s Landing, not seeming to realize that this might put Theon in a compromised position emotionally. And it does: though he expects to be welcomed home, instead his father and sister express loathing and mistrust of him, reject Robb’s terms and hatch a plan to take the north in vengeance while Robb is otherwise occupied. Desperate to win their approval, Theon decides not to warn Robb. He accepts a humiliating, auxiliary role in his father’s armada in order to demonstrate fealty to his family of origin. And he is rebaptized into the Ironborn.

Although there is a weaker form of baptism in the books, I have never understood why Theon undergoes that instead of the full drowning given the context. He is under pressure to demonstrate a) that he has changed from the boy he was and is now a man and b) that he is willing to undergo whatever it takes to be accepted among his father’s kind. Moreover, I can’t think of any reason why Balon Greyjoy would want to spare him this, particularly if he doubted his loyalty (which he does). The worse the hazing, the more solidarity with an in-group is cemented. This made no sense in the book and it makes sense on screen only because many viewers are missing out entirely on the cult of the Drowned God.

The Last Mughal

Emperor Bahadur Shah II
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The din of the Great Rebellion of 1857 will continue to echo into our era, marred as it is by ongoing wars and insurgencies in Muslim lands. I believe that a careful study of those events are pertinent for American and European students of global politics today as they attempt to contextualize the challenges to American military might and Western cultural hegemony continuously pulsating onto the global stage from the remote corners of South Asia. A chronicle of 1857 is also useful to understand the fragility of a multicultural society in the face of contending religious fundamentalisms and unrelenting militarism.

In this light, William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal (2006) provides an accessible and compelling history of the events which led to the final collapse of a tolerant and refined Indo-Islamic civilization. The book has been controversial among professional historians — particularly South Asian historians, but given the enormity of the subject matter it is digestible for an undergraduate audience and a decent entry point into an unending discussion.

The Great Rebellion, when it is not diminished and dismissed as a “mutiny,” has often been simplified as a confrontation between British imperialists and proto-nationalist Indians, but this is a drastic over simplification — if not an outright caricature of history. Dalrymple’s book helps to lay out the complex array of forces, communities, and individuals that confronted one another during the uprising — from Britons who had converted to Islam and married into notable Muslim families to Hindu soldiers who rallied to fight and die for an ageing and indecisive Muslim emperor alongside 25,000 Wahhabi-inspired jihadis/ mujahedin; and including Hindus and Muslims who had converted to Christianity and adopted British manners and sartorial accoutrement. The book intelligently and consistently resists attempts to read history through a simplifying lens or the meta-narrative of a clash of civilizations.

Nevertheless, goaded on by Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, the war did create horrific atrocities by the Britons and their Sepoy adversaries that polarized communities. In particular, Dalrymple provides an unflinching and detailed account of the crimes perpetrated by British officers and their allies after they sacked the imperial capital — belying any claims by Anglophiles that the Britons were a civilizing force and interrogating the notion of a “just retribution” for the (at times exaggerated) crimes of the rebels.

A lesson to take away from this rich and nuanced history is the role of religious fundamentalists at home and abroad in paving the pathway for slaughter — even though Dalrymple may overplay the religious element of the conflict at the expense of other important causal factors. The devaluation of foreign customs, vilification of rival religious practices, and outright attempts to insult the faith of others set in motion the rumors that would spark the rebellion and cut the last restraints on civilized behavior during and after the uprising on all sides. One often hears international relations scholars diminish the importance of words and labels in favor of material and aggregate behavioral factors. However, it is clear in Dalrymple’s account that discursive violence shaped and facilitated the return of medieval barbarity to the point that the Britons aspired to slaughter all of the inhabitants of Delhi (many of whom had remained steadfastly loyal to them even when the city was occupied by Sepoys) and to “delete” the entire city. If nothing else, the book alerts the reader to understand the very real consequences that accompany a rhetoric which denigrates the culture, faith, and traditional forms of political legitimacy in other communities.  This is a simple lesson, but one that is often lost on policy makers, scholars and students committed to a modernist discourse.

James Ron: IR Profs Should Teach Religious Fluency

Here is a fabulous interview on Canadian TV with Professor James Ron of Carleton University. Ron’s key argument is that we are not giving our students a sufficient education if they leave our classes fluent in human rights discourse but not in the nuts and bolts of the world’s leading religions.

A real “aha” moment for me as a teacher – sure, I’ve always tried to make sure they know the difference between Sunni and Shi’a or the difference between an Islamic and a Muslim majority state, or the role of the Holy See at the UN, but Ron’s argument goes further: he’s not simply saying students should know facts about religion and politics, but that religious narrative itself is a language students need in order to communicate effectively as future diplomats. At the same time, he humbly and humorously reminds us what a socio-cultural mine-field such teaching can be, whether it’s our students or our own kids.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

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