Witte's European Lecture Tour Sparks 'Earnest Discussion'

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By April L. Bogle

CSLR Director John Witte, Jr. has just completed a three-week lecture tour in Europe where he initiated conversations on the contentious issues of law and religion explored in his most recent books, and drew packed audiences and substantial international media coverage.

“The study of law and religion is exploding in Europe, prompted in part by new concerns over the place of Islam in traditional European societies and the contests between aggressive secularization and equally aggressive reconfessionalization in some other countries,” says Witte, Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law and Alonzo L. McDonald Family Foundation Distinguished Professor. “There’s also a deep yearning among political, cultural, and religious leaders everywhere to find new ways to think about religion and family, religion and education, religion and social welfare--especially now that the modern social welfare state model is showing ample signs of strain.” 

The tour included nine cities (London; the Italian cities of Milan, Padua, and Venice; Nijmegen, Leiden, and Amsterdam in the Netherlands; and Heidelberg and Munich, Germany) and featured four of Witte's recent Cambridge University Press volumes: The Sins of the Fathers: The Law and Theology of Illegitimacy Reconsidered (2009), The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (2007) and two volumes with CSRL co-director and Sam Nunn Professor of Law Frank S. Alexander, Christianity and Law: An Introduction (2008) and Christianity and Human RIghts: An Introduction (forthcoming, 2010).  Also featured were his titles, Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment, 3rd ed. (with Joel A. Nichols) (Westview Press, 2010) and Religion and Human Rights: An Introduction (with M. Christian Green) (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2011)

“Apostasy, blasphemy, conversion, defamation, evangelization, fundamentalism, genocide, homicide, injustice, and jihad -- this is the new alphabet of offenses in a number of politically volatile nations around the world,” he told a full house in Milan during his lecture, "Religion and Human Rights: A Response to Pope Benedict XVI's Westminster Hall Address."

More than a third of the world’s 198 countries and self-administering territories have “high” or “very high” levels of religious oppression, sometimes exacerbated by civil war, natural disasters, and foreign invasion that have sometimes caused massive humanitarian crises, Witte told the audience, naming the countries on “this dishonor roll” as Iran, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Saudia Arabia, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Egypt, Israel, Burma, Rwanda, Burundi, the Congo, Chechnya, Uzbekistan.

“Even in the more stable constitutional democracies of Western Europe and North America, religion and human rights are facing new changes and conflicts, although usually less violent,” he said. His remarks were covered widely in the national Catholic press.

At the University of Nijmegen, Witte tackled the firestorm set by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in 2007 when Williams suggested that some accommodation of Muslim family law was “unavoidable” in England.

“The Archbishop was not calling for the establishment of independent Muslim courts in England, let alone the enforcement of Shari’a by English courts.  He was, instead, raising a whole series of hard but “unavoidable” questions about marital, cultural, and religious identity and practice in Western democratic societies committed to human rights for all,” Witte told another packed audience during his lecture, “What Place for Muslim Family Law in Western Democracies.”

These hard questions, he warned the audience, aren’t going away for many modern Western democracies with growing and diverse Muslim communities. “If current growth rates of Muslim communities in the West continue, a generation from now the Danish cartoon ‘crisis’ is going to seem like child’s play,” Witte said, sparking what he calls a “long and earnest discussion” with the audience and a series of major articles and responses in the Dutch and Belgian national papers. 

"It's been a profound privilege to be in conversation with so many different scholars and students in Europe,” said Witte, who wanted to further extend the reach of the CSLR’s writings, lectures, and conferences. “Our work on all these topics is very well known here, and our books, website, and public lectures on iTunes U are, happily, standard sources.”

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