Michael Peppard

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.

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Religion in the CIA torture report

The Senate Intelligence Committee's "Torture Report," the 500-page report which summarizes a 6,700 page classified report, was released today.

Even for those of us who follow the torture beat closely, this report contains significant new information and corroboration of previous suppositions. Among the most alarming findings is that a minimum of 20% of tortured detainees were wrongly detained, some in blatant cases of mistaken identity.

My own research on torture in U.S. detention facilities has emphasized the religious aspects of abuse ("The Secret Weapon" and "Disgrace"). And though today's report does not contain as much along these lines as did the Senate Armed Services Committee’s report in 2009, it does analyze assertions made by CIA Director Hayden in 2007 about the role of religion in "enhanced interrogation."

Hayden argued that the CIA’s experience with detainees and “their particular psychological profile” necessitated interrogation so burdensome that the detainees would consider themselves released from their religious obligations:

Perceiving themselves true believers in a religious war, detainees believe they are morally bound to resist until Allah has sent them a burden too great for them to withstand. At that point — and that point varies by detainee — their cooperation in their own heart and soul becomes blameless and they enter into this cooperative relationship with our debriefers.

… it varies how long it takes, but I gave you a week or two as the normal window in which we actually helped this religious zealot to get over his own personality and put himself in a spirit of cooperation. (485-86)

Joseph Smith's many marriages

Over the past decade or so, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—usually known as the “Mormon” or “LDS” church—has moved toward greater transparency about its earliest era.

Through the publication of “The Joseph Smith Papers” and new historical essays on the official church website, lds.org, interested readers have been able to learn about the fuzzy period of early Mormonism, the roughly fifteen years from its founding to the settlement in Utah.

Now a new essay, “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” makes frank admissions about the early days of polygamous relations (called “plural marriage” in LDS terminology) at Mormon settlements in Ohio and Illinois.

Couched in a laudably straightforward tone, the essay treats specifics of some very sensitive matters. It estimates the extent of Smith’s plural marriages as somewhere between 30 and 40 women, with a wide range of ages (from 14 to 56 years old). More surprisingly, some of these were already married to other men.

Biggest literary influence on The Boss? Flannery O'Connor.

When we talk about the American "Catholic Imagination" in literature and the arts, the work of Flannery O'Connor is a sine qua non. Teaching on this subject, I often surprise people by juxtaposing her fiction writing not with Graham Greene or another great Catholic novelist, but rather with the songwriting of Bruce Springsteen.

Death penalty in the Colorado gubernatorial race

Over the past few election cycles, Colorado has become an important "battleground state" and a bellwether for larger electoral trends. Featuring contested races for both a Senate seat and the Governor's mansion, it is arguably the most important site of the upcoming midterm elections. The gubernatorial contest has Bob Beauprez, an established figure in the Colorado Republican party, attempting to unseat (the previously very popular) Gov. Hickenlooper.

Social issues have entered the two campaigns in some expected ways -- abortion, health care coverage, gun safety laws, and marijuana legalization. But during these gubernatorial debates, the issue of the death penalty has also briefly held the spotlight.

Back in May, Beauprez made a campaign promise that surprised many, since he presents himself as a faithful Roman Catholic. "When I'm governor," he said during a GOP debate, "Nathan Dunlap will be executed." Or, in a headline offered by Mother Jones, "Elect Me, and I'll Kill that Guy."

Tracking Syria's Cultural Heritage

It goes without saying that the worst tragedy of Syria's war is the loss of life and liberty. Those with the power to ameliorate suffering must do so. But academics and other scholars of the region don't have that power, and instead they have been developing their own means of trying to help Syria. The past two years have seen a dramatic expansion in efforts to track Syria's cultural heritage.

Cultural property -- monuments, buildings, artifacts, museums -- is not superficial ornamentation of a nation's identity. Rather, nations use cultural heritage to understand their pasts, bolster their spirits during times of conflict, and imagine their futures. For these reasons, archaeologists and historians of Syria, whether professional or amateur, have built up an impressive infrastructure for the acquisition and dissemination of information.

The racist dirge of America

When I commute by bus, I am often the only white person on it. I've been to diversity training many times and absorbed its lessons. I've had my classroom secretly subjected to a race audit -- a student who was tracking how many non-white voices were in the syllabus or cited as authorities in class. I know what redlining is.

In short, as a student and a teacher, I've been confronted about my white privilege quite consistently.

But I still needed Ferguson.

Using 'Hobby Lobby' to refuse a subpoena about child labor

During oral arguments in Hobby Lobby v. Sibelius and subsequent written opinions, the Supreme Court debated the case's unintended consequences.

Would laws requiring vaccinations or prohibiting child labor, for example, now be affected by the new interpretation of RFRA? Or would the "parade of horribles" never come to pass?

A new case from Utah provides a surprising early glimpse: a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) has successfully refused a federal subpoena based on his religious belief in secrecy.

Is there a Christian Left?

Writing today at Salon, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig rounds up recent polling on religious attitudes in order to propose that the Religious Right is in its twilight years and the "Christian left" is on the ascendant:

With millennial religious and political attitudes in flux compared to our predecessors, the upcoming years could be the Christian left’s big moment.

There are certainly data that prima facie support this analysis, but does it hold up to sociological scrutiny?

How should Democrats in Congress respond to Hobby Lobby?

In response to the Hobby Lobby decision, democrats in Congress are planning to prioritize a bill that overrides the Supreme Court's expansion of rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  According to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), "The Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act reinstates the ACA’s contraceptive coverage and protects the right of all Americans, men and women alike, to make decisions about their medical care in consultation with their doctor, not their boss."

If Hobby Lobby is a religious 'person,' is a GTMO detainee one too?

Five years ago I wrote two articles for Commonweal about religion at Guantanamo. The shorter follow-up dealt with Rasul v. Rumsfeld (and Rasul v. Myers), in which the plaintiffs appealed in part to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

At that time, courts ruled that Guantanamo detainees are not "persons" under RFRA:

Congress legislated against the background of precedent establishing that nonresident aliens were not among the 'person[s]' protected by the Fifth Amendment ... and were not among 'the people' protected by the Fourth Amendment.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Janice Rodgers Brown admitted she was troubled by the finding.

Accepting plaintiffs' argument that RFRA imports the entire Free Exercise Clause edifice into the military detention context would revolutionize the treatment of captured combatants in a way Congress did not contemplate. Yet, the majority's approach is not much better. It leaves us with the unfortunate and quite dubious distinction of being the only court to declare those held at Guantanamo are not "person[s]." This is a most regrettable holding in a case where plaintiffs have alleged high-level U.S. government officials treated them as less than human. (italics added)

She further argued that Congress did not foresee a situation like Guantanamo: "prolonged military detentions of alleged enemy combatants were not part of our consciousness." She wrote that "Congress should revisit RFRA with these circumstances in mind."

It is also true that Congress did not foresee large for-profit corporations as persons protected by RFRA. With the new, expanded definition of 'person' post-Hobby Lobby, lawyers representing Guantanamo detainees have thus filed a Temporary Restraining Order in the D.C. District Court.