30 March 2021

Dampening the culture wars, 6: Lebanon

The Middle East, at one time called the Near East, has been politically unstable for just over a century, when the victors in the Great War divided the territory of the former Ottoman Empire between them. France and Great Britain were the principal parties to this division, with the former receiving Syria and the latter receiving Palestine and Mesopotamia. The borders were artificial and did not correspond to the boundaries between the various communities in the region. Britain set up Iraq (southern Mesopotamia) and the Trans-Jordan as monarchies under the Hashemite dynasty. 

For its part France divided the former Ottoman province of Syria into two, with the southern coastal area, with its Christian majority, designated as Lebanon, or the Lebanon, as it was often referred to in English. France deliberately separated Lebanon from the remainder of Syria to accommodate this Christian population, who would otherwise have been a minority in a greater Syria. Christian communities survived in Lebanon because of their relative isolation in its higher-elevation topography. Nevertheless, Lebanon had a substantial Muslim minority who were more oriented towards their co-religionists in neighbouring Syria than to the west. For them the division of Syria seemed arbitrary and artificial.

26 March 2021

Dampening the culture wars, 5: the Netherlands

In the first four instalments of this series, we explored some of the principal characteristics of power-sharing in a divided polity, which collectively are often called consociational. I noted that there is no single form of consociational arrangement but that all are intended to facilitate co-operation among leaders of sharply divided communities for proximate political purposes. Each country that has happened upon such an arrangement has its own story. Today I will focus on the Netherlands.

25 March 2021

Our Need for a Creed

Kuyperian Commentary has published my article, Our Need for a Creed. The occasion for my writing this was our congregation singing a hymn not usually sung in churches standing in the Reformed tradition: "My faith has found a resting place, Not in device nor creed," which suggests that there is something wrong with creedal statements. An excerpt:

The most ecumenical of our creeds, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, was compiled in the heat of controversy over the person of Christ and the divinity of the Holy Spirit in the 4th century, when on two occasions the bishops of the church were assembled, following the precedent established in Acts 15, to settle the issues at stake. The result was a creed that is binding on both eastern and western churches. Originally expressed in the first-person-plural—”We believe in one God”—it was later modified to speak in the first-person-singular: “I believe in one God . . . .” But whether in the plural or the singular, it expresses beautifully the faith of a community. Adhering to this faith is not only a sign of inclusion, as some might express it today. It is a matter of life and death, as the pseudo-Athanasian creed tells us: “This is the catholic faith: one cannot be saved without believing it firmly and faithfully.” To stray beyond the boundaries of the faith is to place oneself in peril. Thus the need for a creed.

Read the entire article here.

The Virtual Illusion: Social Media’s Uneasy Relationship with Real Community

Cateclesia Forum has just published my essay, The Virtual Illusion: Social Media’s Uneasy Relationship with Real Community. An excerpt:

We live in an age when there is an unprecedented amount of information bombarding us from all directions. With computer technology’s great leap forward in the 1980s and ’90s, our social networks have expanded exponentially, keeping us in constant contact with friends, family, and co-workers around the world. This interconnectedness has refashioned our notion of community, bursting through the old geographical limits that once circumscribed our social circles.

But what has this done to our lives as members of specific communities? If our loyalties are more diffuse than ever before, and if each of us can in effect create his or her own community, how has this affected, for example, the political bonds of solidarity that hold citizens together in a public legal community ordered to doing justice? What, further, is this doing to the church institution?

Read the entire article here.

22 March 2021

City planning: Paris in Chicago

When I was a child, I fancied myself becoming an architect or a city planner and nurtured this ambition right up until my first year in high school. Growing up near Chicago, I was fascinated by this city's many cultural attractions, of which the Art Institute in particular stands out. Around 1850, when my 4th great-grandparents, Jeremiah and Nancy (Bridgeman) Davis moved from North Carolina to Cave-in-Rock, Illinois, along the Ohio River across from Kentucky, Americans thought that the centre of population growth in Illinois would be along the Rivers in the southern part of the state. At the time Chicago was a village of some 30,000 people along Lake Michigan in the far north.

19 March 2021

Dampening the culture wars, 4: what is to be done? continued

In last Friday's post I outlined four initial characteristics of a consociational political arrangement. These are 1. Executive power-sharing or grand coalitions; 2. Balanced executive-legislative relations, semi-separation of powers; 3. Balanced bicameralism & minority representation; and 4. Multi-party system. Now we move on to numbers 5 and 8 which will fill out the principal characteristics of a political arrangement based on power-sharing among potentially antagonistic communities.

12 March 2021

Dampening the culture wars, 3: what is to be done?

In my previous posts I discussed the role that various consociational mechanisms have played in allowing potentially hostile subcultures to live together under the same political system. In my last post I mentioned four broad characteristics conducive to this co-existence: (1) élite accommodation, (2) mutual veto or concurrent majority, (3) proportionality in representation,  and (4) segmental autonomy. Now it's time to unpack these further into eight categories, which are useful as we compare them to the majoritarian principles employed in most English-speaking democracies, including Canada and the United States. These eight characteristics, four of which we shall look at today are based on empirical observation, but they might also be said to constitute an agenda for allowing potentially antagonistic subcultures to live together in peace. It might not fit well on a placard, and it doesn't lend itself to easy sloganeering, but it may be time to move beyond that.

10 March 2021

Canada's Crown: more than a symbol

Following the explosive interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle earlier in the week, Canadians and citizens of other Commonwealth realms may be rethinking their ties to the Crown. After a royal scandal, we can almost always count on someone, usually at The Toronto Star, to write an op-ed piece advocating that we scrap the monarchy and adopt an elected head of state. Thus it is refreshing to read this analysis at CBC News by Aaron Wherry: Time for Canada to retire the Queen? It's not that simple. An excerpt:

Any move to cut ties with the monarchy would, for instance, likely bring with it renewed calls for an elected head of state. That might seem like the sort of thing any respectable nation should have in 2021. But the possible future implications for the rest of Canada's political system should not be ignored.

09 March 2021

Dampening the culture wars, 2: the features of power-sharing

The late British political scientist Sir Bernard Crick (1929-2008) famously wrote that politics is all about the peaceful conciliation of diversity in a particular unit of rule. "Politics arises from accepting the fact of the simultaneous existence of different groups, hence different interests and different traditions, within a territorial unit under a common rule." It represents "at least some tolerance of differing truths, some recognition that government is possible, indeed best conducted, amid the open canvassing of rival interests." Totalitarian regimes pretend that a single interest characterizes entire societies and treats those failing to conform to it as enemies of the state. But ordinary politics presupposes diversity and formulates ways to address it rather than to suppress it.

08 March 2021

A Creed for troubled times

Christian Courier carries my monthly column in its new issue: A creed for troubled times: Proclaiming the resurrection amidst lockdowns and political tension. An excerpt:

Throughout the world many Christians recite or chant on a weekly basis the ancient Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, with these familiar closing lines: “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” When repeated so frequently, it is easy to neglect their inner meaning. Yet the words enter our hearts in a subconscious way, available to us when we need them.

And now, of all times, we definitely need them. The past year has been difficult for so many people. We long ago tired of the imposed (necessary) lockdowns. Tensions have boiled over into violence in the United States, Russia, and even the otherwise peaceful Netherlands. Existing societal divisions have been exacerbated by the need for physical distancing. More than two million people have died from COVID-19, and some of these deaths have touched family and friends. . . .

During these troubled times, the message of Easter takes on deeper meaning. In 12 years, we will celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus’ death and resurrection, by far the most significant events in human history. For just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so he has promised that we too shall be raised at the last day. This is something that I am taking great comfort in after seeing so much adversity in so many people’s lives.

Read the entire column here.

Robert J. Bernhardt (1940-2021)

Our good friend Robert J. Bernhardt, an ordained minister of word and sacrament in the Presbyterian Church in Canada, has died in the hope of the resurrection. His obituary can be found here: Rev. Dr. Robert James Bernhardt "Dr. Bob". I had known Bob for more than thirty years, and I had one of his daughters in my Canadian politics class the first time I taught it. Our family were for a short time parishioners of his at Chalmers Presbyterian Church here in Hamilton. Our condolences go to his family, especially his wife Jan, their three daughters and their families. We look forward to meeting again at the resurrection of the righteous.

05 March 2021

Dampening the culture wars, 1: how to get along while agreeing to disagree

In the aftermath of the French Revolution, France became a divided polity with one half of the country favouring its legacy of republicanism and secularism, and the other half retaining its loyalty to its older traditions of monarchy and Roman Catholic Christianity. Over the next nearly two centuries, France lurched back and forth between republican rule and two varieties of monarchical rule exemplified by the Bourbon-Orleanist kings and the Bonapart emperors. Altogether there were five republics, two monarchies, two empires, the Paris Commune, and the collaborationist Vichy régime of Marshal Philippe Pétain. During this unstable era, France suffered a series of military defeats in 1815, 1871, 1940, 1954, and 1962, and endured a succession of paper constitutions which, according to one observer, amounted to little more than "periodical literature." Other European countries were affected by a similar cleavage, as seen, for example, in Bismarck's Kulturkampf in imperial Germany and the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

However, a few countries, while similarly divided, were spared the worst effects of this cleavage. Here the leaders of the different communities learned to co-operate for political and other common purposes, even as their respective constituents remained separated within their own communities. No longer was each side attempting to defeat the others and to gain power at their expense. Rather, they formulated ways of sharing power at the higher levels while tolerating a wide scope of diversity on the ground. Catholics, Protestants, liberals, and socialists maintained their own distinctive institutions, ranging from fraternal societies, schools, business enterprises, labour unions, artists co-operatives, and charitable foundations to print and electronic media and political parties. In short, the communities' leaders had come up with a way, in effect, to live and let live, permitting a high degree of communal autonomy so that one community would not feel oppressed by the others. Political mechanisms—some constitutional, others statutory, and still others merely conventional—were established to maintain a precarious balance among the several communities, often based on grand coalitions among several political parties, coupled with qualified majority requirements for the most significant of policy issues.

02 March 2021

Academic freedom in crisis? Towards genuine educational pluriformity

This is an important study: Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship, undertaken by the very new Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology (CSPI). According to its website, "The Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology (CSPI) was formed in 2020 to help support research into underexplored ideas in political psychology and the social sciences. With the rise of populism, increasing polarization, and identity-based movements across the world, there has rarely been a better time to study these topics." So what are the findings of this new study? This is from the executive summary:

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