What Ever Happened to Religious Ethics? (Part 3): Absentia Reflections on the SCE Annual Conference

Note: Greetings to all readers, following a holiday hiatus and a teaching engagement in Pristina, Kosovo, with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation on the timely topic of “Religion and Conflict: Practical Policy Responses.” More reflections to come from that incredible and invaluable experience.  But the Kosovo trip did take me away from the annual joint meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics (SCE), Society of Jewish Ethics (SSJE), and the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics (SSME) and opportunities for reflection on the status of the study of religious ethics.  Herewith some reflections based on a reading of this year’s conference program and its intimations and implications for the field. They are in no particular order of priority or preference, but all of them seem to represent questions, trends, and issues that have been percolating for some time.

(1) Christian Ethics or Religious Ethics?–The decision taken circa 1998-2000 as part of the 21st Century Initiatives process to retain the name “Society of Christian Ethics,” instead of switching to the more global and comparative “Society of Religious Ethics,” continues to reverberate, but in a very muted fashion and one defined more by missed opportunities than any overt call for change.  The joint meeting of the SCE with the SJE and SSME continues to add texture and diversity to the program, particularly as the SJE and SSME continue to develop.  There are many textual, narrative, legal, and other elements that make this grouping of the Abrahamic religions (the “Religions of the Book”) work well.  But what might the addition of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions add to the mix?  Our TBFF program on religion and conflict in Kosovo was enhanced immeasurably by case studies on Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar and Hindu nationalism in India–and this was a discussion focused on the single issue of violent conflict.

What might the addition of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions add to discussions of medical ethics, economic justice, sexuality and reproduction, feminist ethics, and other important topics?  With the SCE/SJE/SSME format, instead of the more inclusive Society of Religious Ethics, we lack the opportunity to make these comparison in a forum devoted to the study of the normative and ethical dimensions of religion at a time when the normative and ethical study of religion is under siege and declining in the face of more “critical” and “theoretical” approaches, even as these methods derive much of their force from the normative and ethical understandings of power and critique upon which they rely.

A senior scholar in the field recently lamented to me that the field of religious ethics (particularly Christian ethics) has been on the wane for many years and is “not coming back.” Some leading academic publishers–most notably Oxford University Press–no long have an ethics “list.” One way to “take back religious ethics” would be to expand the discussion beyond Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  It is time to reconsider the possibility of a name change to the Society of Religious Ethics.

(2) American or Global?–At times, the SCE/SJE/SSME has been described as parochial.  This is in evidence in the 2015 program, as it has been for many years, even as the organization has tried to launch several global initiatives.  There is a pronounced concern with important issues of racism, migration, and economic justice–just to name a few important transnational topics–but largely from an American perspective.  Race and ethnicity discussions related to inequalities and injustices in the U.S. could benefit from comparison with Europe, Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world where race is construed in a less biosocial way that it has been in the U.S. and instead as overlapping national, ethnic, religious and other identities in ways that can add to our understanding of social constructions of race and the injustices and inequities to which those constructions have given rise.

There are many topics pursued at the annual meeting–economics, health, war, peace, gender, sexuality, etc.–that have important global and transnational dimensions.  Individual interest groups, panels, and papers have taken these up from time to time, but it would be worth exploring ways to globalize the study of religious ethics–particularly as we now have means of videoconferencing, Skyping, etc. that could be used to bring some of those global religious ethics voices directly into the halls of the annual meeting.

(3) Racial Identity and Diversity–Review of the working groups, caucuses, and interest groups of scholarly organizations can often tell interesting stories about how various fields and subfields perceive themselves.  For roughly the last decade and a half, the SCE has been marked by the presence of vigorous and active working groups on Asian/Asian-American, African/African-American, and Latino/a approaches to Christian ethics.  These working groups, originally recommended to have four-year mandates, have brought important new perspectives to the study of Christian ethics, spawning many new courses, methods, and anthologies.

But what does it mean that the three most visible groups within the SCE are based on racial and/or ethnic identity? Clearly, there were important rationales for this in the emphasis on diversity that came with the millennial revisioning of the organization.  But does the visibility of these groups over other interest and affiliation groups in ways that exceed the original mandate?  Obviously, with the recent events in Ferguson and the high level of antagonism toward the first African American president of the United States in some quarters raising very serious questions about the status of race and racism in the U.S., we are far from being a post-racial or post-ethnic society.  In fact, the “War on Terror” after September 11, 2001, introduced new forms of discrimination against Arab Americans, Sikh Americans, and other religious and ethnic groups.

It may be worth considering whether the working groups (perhaps with the caucuses and “other groups”) should now be listed with the other interest and affiliation groups instead of as a separate category. Retention of the African/African-American, Asian-Asian American, and Latino/a groups on a more-or-less permanent basis according to the same rules as the other interest and affiliation groups would signal both their well-earned status in the society beyond the originally limited mandate and the ongoing contribution of these groups to the the field of religious ethics, without placing them in a separate category. Alternatively, these groups might be listed with the denominational affiliation groups (and maybe even the Interrupting White Privilege group!) to highlight the society’s diversity along a number of axes of identity or affiliation.

Scholars in every field, one hopes, now increasingly include diverse perspectives based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, and other core aspects of identity–but what unites us as ethicists are the normative questions raised by practices, virtues, principles, and concerns that shape the lives of people of every race, religion, and nation. What we study and do is as important as who we are.  In fact, the former may be even more important than the latter in defending the the normative and ethical study of religion.

(4) Protestant Balkanization and Catholic Ascendancy–I will draw on my own identity as a liberal Protestant to note, but also in a sense to lament, what may be a hyper-diversity of the Protestant Christian tradition in the halls of the SCE. After all, liberal Protestants (in fact, Protestants of any stripe) are currently so marginalized in the wider culture as to not even have a “voice” on the United States Supreme Court.  The days of W.A.S.P. hegemony are clearly over. But have we done it to ourselves?

There are now, in addition to Anglicans, Methodists, and Lutherans (the last with a notable pre-conference event), Baptist, Evangelical, and even Presbyterian ethicists.  Again, as with race and ethnicity, so with religion.  No problem letting “many flowers bloom” and having the widest range of perspectives possible.  But at what point does denominational distinctiveness begin to detract from ecumenical and interfaith unity?

Having just returned from the Balkans, I wonder if Protestants have become Balkanized at the SCE. A recent report on the status of the field produced by the 2020 Future of Christian Ethics Committee noted the Catholic ascendancy in ethics and moral theology (see the missing institutions discussion below), even as the Orthodox Christian tradition continues to be woefully underrepresented at the SCE.  Could it be worth thinking about ways to institutionalize a more ecumenical flavor in the SCE?

(5) Missing-in-Action Institutions–The ascendancy of the Catholic tradition and Catholic institutions at the SCE has come at the same time as the diminution of ethics programs at some once leading institutions, particularly those of a Protestant or nondenominational flavor.  Annual conference program searches of participants from Harvard, Yale, and my own doctoral alma mater at University of Chicago show remarkably low representation–even when the conference take place in the institution’s home city, as it did in Chicago this year.  At Duke and Union Theological Seminary, the study of ethics seems to have been subsumed within theological studies. Several of these once-leading ethics programs have had multi-year searches to replace retiring ethics faculty without the positions being filled and/or being narrowly tailored to topics like environment or bioethics that may carry the promise of some scientific funding. Some schools like Emory,  Vanderbilt, and the University of Virginia in the Southern Sunbelt continue to hold their own. Other institutions, such as Princeton and Brown, have shifted their programs away from traditional religious ethics to more political and critical studies. Presumably many faculty participants from these schools were likely trained at Harvard, Yale, Chicago, and other what now might be called “legacy” programs.  Faculty trained at these leading institutionals of doctoral study in religious ethics are, no doubt, to be found on the faculties of the plethora of small liberal arts colleges whose names populate the institutional affiliations of conference presenters.

It may be that the SLACs are one place where ethics instruction continues to have ongoing relevance. But the real doctoral-training powerhouses at the SCE these days are the very strong programs in place at Notre Dame and Boston College.  (Loyola University of Chicago also had a strong showing this year on its home turf and seems to be a rising star in the field.) The recent SCE report noted this Catholic ascendancy and raised questions about what it might mean.  This may be a conversation worth having, but it would also be worth inquiring into what it means that ethics is disappearing from some of the once leading institutions in the field.  Catholics institutions are the standouts when it comes to preserving the fields of ethics and moral theology, but ethics and moral theology are too good to be left to the Catholics alone.  In the academic landscape of religious studies, the absence of ethics anywhere should be a concern for ethicists everywhere. With diminishing programs, some of our leading institutions of doctoral study are increasingly missing in action.

(6) Media and Social Media Visibility–One of my favorite things to do in reading annual conference programs is to reach out to people I discover are doing interesting work in the field. In ethics, more it seems than other areas of religious studies, that can be difficult to do.  LinkedIn can be a crucial tool for connecting academics to people working in law, government, NGOs, and other sectors, but it is still underutilized by academics. The Social Science Research Network has become de rigeur in law circles, but the humanities networks seem not to have caught on.  Twitter feeds are also good for outreach to media, NGO, and international audiences, but brave ethics Tweeps noted the sparse use of the #SCE2015 hashtag this year.  Even in the academic confines of Academia.edu, folks in ethics seem underrepresented compared to other religious studies fields. Why is this so?

If the field of religious ethics really is in decline, media and social media offer venues where we can tell our story, do outreach, or at the more purely academic level at least publish information on our research, so that we can portray ourselves as a vigorous and vibrant field.  It would be great if the SCE/SJE/SSME could reach out to the Religious Newswriters Association and similar media groups (maybe even creating a media bank of experts on particular religion and ethics topics) to find out how to raise our profile, do public scholarship, and get our research into places where it can be put to use.  It would be great to see more online presence of fellow ethicists–for the wider public and for our own professional development. We should use these tools to counter the narrative of decline.

(7) Why Ethics? Defending the Normative Study of Religion–Finally, building on the points about narrative above, we should find ways institutionally at the SCE/SJE/SSME (or better yet, the SRE) to rise above personal, professional, and confessional identities, beyond even the specific ethics topics and questions that we pursue, to ask and answer: What is important about the study of the normative and ethical dimensions of religion? Could we have religious studies without textual studies?  Without historical studies? Without sociological and anthropological studies?  Without aesthetic, liturgical, and ritual studies? studies? Without legal and political studies?

If not, then why should we stand for the study of religion without ethics?  The philosophical ethicists and political theorists cannot do ethics alone.  They are simply too often too secular–they often leave religion outside the picture, off the table, and out of the public square. If the field of religious ethics is in decline and we feel that it is beneficial for an educated global citizenship and humanity, not to mention crucially informative in crafting solutions to the many problems facing our world, then it is up to us to save it.  The points above are just a beginning place for discussion. The field of religious studies and the wider society need religious ethicists to answer the crucial questions of the day.