Religious Difference in a Secular Age:

Secularism at home and abroad

posted by Anna Su

Saba Mahmood | Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority ReportIn his provocative 2007 book The Stillborn God, Mark Lilla defended the emergence of the so-called Great Separation between religion and politics in the West, and called for vigilance in keeping divine revelation (largely) out of this hard-won experiment. Secularism, the political and legal doctrine that encapsulates that separation, has withstood many challenges posed by religious revivalism in the public sphere and remains the dominant lingua franca in and of constitutional orders around the world.

The stark divide between the sacred and the profane engendered by the Great Separation is put to the test in Saba Mahmood’s rich and fascinating study of secularism and its paradoxes. Challenging conventional understandings of secularism as the solution to the religion-fueled wars that have characterized much of human history through the Enlightenment, Mahmood boldly argues instead that secularism is one of the enabling conditions of conflict. Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report offers an incisive and counterintuitive depiction of the strange career of secularism as anchored in the state’s sovereign power to define and regulate religious life—a sphere that by secularism’s own terms should have been private and depoliticized. This claim acquires particular significance when applied to the supposedly non-secular states in the Middle East. It turns out that when it comes to government intervention in religions, there is not much separating the liberal secular states of the West from the religious, authoritarian states of the Middle East. Could the Great Separation actually be one great con?

Not quite. Religious Difference is the latest offering in a wave of recent work in anthropology and social theory that suggests that secularism entails not just separation between religion and politics but rather the constant refashioning of religion as an object of state regulation. The book provides a valuable service by tempering the impulse to celebrate secularism as a constitutional, legal and political ideal, especially in the West. Not only are American and European case law replete with examples of this view of secularism, but two of its signature ideas as Mahmood describes them—minority rights and religious freedom—are exported to places deemed lacking of them. In the current historical moment, when religion is increasingly viewed as a source of danger instead of a positive good, it is thus crucial to examine and interrogate how secularism contributes to the problem of religious conflict and inequality with the way it polices the boundary between politics and religion.

Mahmood does not discuss the United States in any detail, except for a critical take on its International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), a constant bête noire of books and articles written under the auspices of the collaborative Politics of Religious Freedom project (of which Religious Difference is a part). Yet American secularism is a perfect case study to illuminate some of the paradoxes that the book illustrates. The Great Separation took a particular form in the U.S. Constitution by prohibiting the government from establishing a religion. Separation of church and state is a ubiquitous mantra for all Americans, though its divergent historical understandings largely depended on which side was using it. Just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld the practice of sectarian legislative prayers at the beginning of a town council’s meetings. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy held that there was no impermissible coercion in exposing constituents to prayer they would rather not hear. Another example, which I discuss at length elsewhere, concerns efforts by courts to avoid getting entangled with religion through their invocation of the religious question doctrine. In a nutshell, U.S. courts acknowledge their inability and incompetence to adjudicate on what counts as a religion for the purpose of granting constitutional protection by relying on claimants’ own assertion of their sincerity. I argue, however, that it is almost impossible to avoid substantive evaluation in such cases. If a claim is based on a familiar religion, say Christianity, it makes such claim more cognizable and plausible to a judge. In other words, courts participate in the construction and interpretation of legal religion by permitting some practices owing to history and tradition, while barring others based on grounds of public order.

Contrast also the fluid nature of religious freedom within the United States, and the rather static version which has been exported to foreign shores throughout American history. At the same time that Catholics and Protestants were struggling over the precise meaning and implication of the principle of the separation of church and state in 1947, U.S. military officials prescribed it for the postwar Japanese constitution as requiring the complete withdrawal of state support for any religious activity or endeavor, including shrines with civic significance. The same dynamic characterized the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Christian evangelical groups (alongside secular human rights organizations) lobbied for a secular interim Iraq constitution that would contain a hallmark provision separating mosque and state, so to speak, even as they argued at home that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. It could be argued that Mahmood’s account explains this apparent variance by showing how it is part and parcel of secularism’s logic to make religion into an object of politics despite insistent pronouncements to the contrary.

Indeed, Religious Difference is critical of the ways by which global forces, particularly the U.S. Department of State and the various mechanisms created by the IRFA, have transformed the terrain on which struggles in countries such as Egypt take place. Besides singling out religion and therefore obscuring other historical and cultural forces that have shaped the complex Muslim-Copt relations, an international religious freedom regime tethered to the state also reduces the emancipatory potential for groups such as the Copts by limiting them to an impoverished sphere centered on rights and recognition. This creates and necessitates a space for even more, if rather unhelpful, state intervention. Mahmood has also noted how the Coptic diaspora’s appeals for international protection also draw attention to the uniqueness of the group, further exacerbating their difference within Egyptian society.

While offering a convincing argument against an uncritical embrace of the hopes and promises of secularism, the book raises and leaves open some important questions. First, I wonder if Religious Difference could be used as a jumping off point to think about alternative varieties of or alternatives to secularism. How would Mahmood take into account such opposing secularisms as when the United States engaged in a Cold War offensive against the Soviet Union that highlighted the good of American religiosity over a Soviet atheism that persecutes religious believers? As Samuel Moyn has written elsewhere, Western history is full of examples of religious hostility, particularly by the Roman Catholic Church (in many papal encyclicals, for example), against what they deem to be a modern-day evil—namely, secularism. And if that is true as a historical and even contemporary matter, then it bears thinking about just what kind of secularism they see themselves up against. Or were they similarly bound by secularism’s logic as portrayed in Mahmood’s account without knowing it?

Religious Difference succeeds in painting a sophisticated picture of the overwhelming and seemingly inescapable power and reach of the state, and of the intertwined histories and shifting meanings of key ideas such as religious liberty and minority rights. In this respect, this bleak scenario evokes a similar reaction as when reading Hannah Arendt’s The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man, which views human rights in an analogously paradoxical light—that is, as requiring the agency of the nation-state despite its assertions of inalienability and universality. And like Arendt’s refusal to denounce rights, I am not certain we should or could conclude that global aspirations and efforts to realize religious liberty or minority rights should be discarded altogether. But given the conditionality and constraints of these rights, as Mahmood acknowledges towards the end of the book, how might one go about pursuing a human rights or political agenda that seeks to provide everyone the freedom to practice their faith? What would a prescriptive politics based on this account look like?

There is an ongoing, vigorous debate in U.S. constitutional scholarship with respect to the idea of “freedom of the church.” According to its supporters, church autonomy is properly understood as the church possessing autonomy or authority over spaces that governments should presumptively treat as belonging to the church, not to the government. Critics contend that churches are subordinate subjects of the sovereign state. In a 2012 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the latter view. In Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the Court constitutionally recognized the so-called ministerial exception that bars ministers from suing religious employers, but empathically asserted that it is an affirmative defense rather than a jurisdictional bar. What that means is that the state has the authority and power over churches, but has chosen not to exercise that authority because of the First Amendment. That debate has now gone beyond the context of ministers and into the more muddled and volatile area of health care and contraception. But the important thing for our present purposes is to note the dynamic described in Religious Difference that conditions rights on its recognition and regulation by the state. It is telling that group rights do not have any ontological status in American or European case law. Contemporary scholars attribute that absence to the threat presented to the state by intermediate institutions. Perhaps one way to figure out a prescriptive politics that would veer away from its statist orientation of modern-day secularism is something akin to what legal scholar Mark deWolfe Howe wrote in 1953: “Government must recognize that it is not the sole possessor of sovereignty.” Until then, it should lead one to be more vigilant about one’s own rights.

In the end, the greatest contribution I think that Religious Difference makes is also its greatest challenge. Given the entrenched and pervasive understanding of secularism as entailing a religiously neutral state as well as a depoliticized private sphere, it would be a herculean task to convince people otherwise.

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