Inquiring Minds: An Interview with John Witte

(The following is a guest post by Jason Steinhauer, a program specialist in the Library’s John W. Kluge Center, as part of the blog series, “Inquiring Minds.”)

Legal scholar John Witte served as the recent Cary and Ann Maguire Chair in Ethics and American History. Author of 220 articles, 15 journal symposia, and 26 books, Witte has turned his attention to faith-based family law systems in the West, and in particular Islamic law, Sharia. His lecture on the topic is still scheduled at the Library of Congress for tomorrow, Nov. 1. You can read more about it here.

Q: Tell us about your lecture on November 1st, and the importance of this topic.

A: I’m exploring issues on the frontier of family law. Of particular interest are faith-based family systems, based on Sharia, Halacha and Canon Law, that are operating quietly in many Western countries, including the United States. The question of the legitimacy and authority of these faith-based family law systems is lurking just over the horizon. It’s a question that is going to explode, especially when an issue regarding Sharia captures public imagination.

Q: What do you mean by ‘explode?’ What is the trend up to now?

A: One of these days, the federal courts will get a hot case of a Muslim polygamist challenging the constitutionality of a state anti-bigamy statute, or an American Imam defending his declaration of fatwa on someone who defies the family norms of Sharia. Eventually one of those cases is going to hit the national and international airwaves. This has happened recently in other common law countries. In the United States, the issue of faith-based family laws, especially the use of Sharia, might soon become as hot a constitutional topic as same-sex marriage, abortion or contraception in decades past.

Q: What can scholarship bring to this discussion?

A: Scholars can and should widen the conversation by encouraging antagonists to look beyond the particularly inflamed issue that’s before the public media.  Scholars can give comparative and historical reflection on what other legal systems past and present have done. What I’m trying to do in scholarship is lay some of those historical and analogical resources on the table and help people think about the issues with those broader matrices in mind.

Q: What role has the Library played in helping you with your scholarship?

A: The Library is a scholar’s paradise. There are resources bundled here in such concentration that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world. I’ve been able to pull out 10 different versions of the Talmud or of a Church Father’s writings, wonderful 12th- to 15th- century canon law texts and learned theological treatises on marriage and the family.  I’ve been able to do really deep primary research on sources that are not accessible through reliable digital means.  I discovered a remarkable diary of a late 12th century monk who had traveled with the crusaders and provided a detailed account of Muslim polygamy and offered his own critical reactions to the practice.  All this has been a wonderful treat.

Q: Who do you hope comes to the Library to hear this lecture on November 1?

A: All people of good will interested in the future of marriage and family, interested in the contest between religious freedom and sexual freedom, and interested in the relationship between Islam and the West will, I hope, find this topic interesting. I hope we can have the kind of serious conversation that the topic deserves, and that is one of the hallmarks of Kluge Center events.

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