The one-day workshop which produced these essays focused on “Theologies of American Exceptionalism,” asking participants to expound on an exemplary text (a link to those texts is found in each essay). What followed was an intense discussion of the deeply ambiguous heritage of US exceptionality, both in terms of the stories Americans tell themselves and the stories others tell of them, of what they do at home and what they do abroad—of those excluded and those in charge,—of whether and how the US is or ever was new and innocent—of revolution and the exception,—and of the credibility of the rule of law. Perhaps reflecting the current political climate, much of the discussion, while not centered on the US presidential election, elaborated on the indeterminacy, elusiveness, and provisionality of the US project. Lingering questions concerned the nature and status of sacrifice, sovereignty, and supersessionism in the American context.Read the rest of Theologies of American exceptionalism: Introduction.
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is professor of global politics and religion at Northwestern University. She writes and teaches on dilemmas of national and international governance involving social and religious difference, equality, power, law, and pluralism. Hurd is the author of The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (2008), Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion (2015), and co-editor of Politics of Religious Freedom and Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age. She is co-PI, with Winnifred Sullivan, on a Luce-supported collaborative research project “Politics of Religion at Home and Abroad” (2016-2019) and co-organized the “Politics of Religious Freedom” project (2011-2014). She directs the Buffett Faculty Research Group on Global Politics & Religion at Northwestern.
Posts by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd:
I would like to thank each of the contributors to this series for their generous engagement with my book, Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion. In this response I address a question that arose in several of the posts: what is the role of the scholar or expert in responding to what comes “after” or lies “beyond” religious freedom? In working on this project I have encountered considerable anxiety concerning what Jeremy Walton refers to as the threat of a “conceptual and political vacuum” arising in the wake of the argument of this book. I am interested in engaging with the concerns that motivate that anxiety. I also want to push back against the insistence that a strong prescriptive stance is required to do the work that I do. There are other paths forward and I’ll discuss a few of them here.Read the rest of Religion and politics beyond religious freedom.
Several decades ago in an essay entitled “Making Up People,” the Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking wrote that, “if new modes of description come into being, new possibilities for action come into being in consequence.” Benjamin Berger’s new book Law’s Religion: Religious Difference and the Claims of Constitutionalism is generative in exactly this sense: it re-describes and it gestures toward new possibilities for action. Berger begins with a deceptively simple question: were we to take neither legal concepts nor normative political or legal theory but rather the experience of the law as an analytical point of departure, what would this entail for the study of law and religion?Read the rest of Making up people.
Last summer I read All Can Be Saved by the eminent historian of colonial Latin America, Stuart Schwartz. It’s a compelling story of inter-religious tolerance and boundary-blurring coexistence in the Hispanic world in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Near the end of the book, Schwartz sums up his approach: “One must go beneath the histories of state policies and religious dogmas that have dominated the writing of history, and one must look not primarily in learned discourse (usually controlled) and at the policy of government and kings, but in the actions and words of people who sought to think for themselves.”
Beyond Religious Freedom addresses a parallel set of concerns in a different setting. It asks scholars of law, religion, and global politics to consider not only the histories of learned discourse (expert religion) and the policies of governments and kings (official or governed religion) but also the actions and words of ordinary people (lived or everyday religion). The interactions between these overlapping fields, the power dynamics through which they shape each other, and their deep immersion and fluid entanglements with their socio-cultural, legal, economic, and political surroundings are, on one level, the subject of the book.Read the rest of Beyond Religious Freedom—An introduction.
In a recent essay on equality and citizenship in a multi-religious Sudan, Noah Salomon describes a commitment among development experts to equality before the law as a “non-ideological” solution to the problems of post-conflict societies. Salomon disagrees with the consensus, suggesting rather that “law, the institutions which promote it, and our relationship to them enfold deep ideological and political commitments which require a whole host of presumptions about justice and how best to achieve it.” While the rule of law is assumed to govern from a neutral public space that has transcended ideological and political particularities, the hegemony of rule of law discourse should not be taken as a mark of neutrality. It would be a mistake to remove the rule of law from conversations about power, history, difference, and governance.
The same may be said of secularism.Read the rest of The specific order of difficulty of religion.
Like a good movie, the story of international religious freedom offers something for everyone. It pits cowardly oppressors against heroic saviors. It is a story of the triumph of international law over those who fail to adhere to global norms and standards. It is a story of secular tolerance versus violent religion. And today especially, it is a story of the need for the U.S. government and its friends to “convince” others—particularly Muslims—that they should endorse a particular model of religious liberty as a template for organizing and democratizing their politics and societies.Read the rest of Believing in religious freedom.
Most academic discussions in political science and international relations presuppose a fixed definition of the secular and the religious and proceed from there. Most realist, liberal, English school, feminist, and historical-materialist approaches treat religion as either private by prior assumption or a cultural relic to be handled by anthropologists. Even constructivists, known for their attention to historical contingency and social identity, have paid scant attention to the politics of secularism and religion, focusing instead on the interaction of preexisting state units to explain how international norms influence state interests and identity or looking at the social construction of states and the state system with religion left out of the picture.Read the rest of A suspension of (dis)belief.
The term ‘secular’ and its conceptual affiliates are doing a lot of work in misrepresenting the uprising in Egypt. ‘Secular’ politics has been taken to mean ‘good’ politics (limited democratization, stability, and support for the peace treaty with Israel), and ‘Islamic’ politics is being translated as ‘bad’ politics (the myriad dangers allegedly posed by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies). Accounts of the current situation in Egypt are handicapped by an inability to read politics in Egypt and Muslim-majority societies outside of this overly simplistic and politically distorting lens.Read the rest of Myths of Mubarak.
My first thought upon reading the Chicago Council’s report “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy” is that the title is misleading. This report is not about engaging religious communities abroad—one hears little if at all from such communities—nor does it say anything particularly new. There is, however, an imperative. This report is an attempt to create a particular kind of world, one defined by the projection of American power—a certain kind of religious power. The report, as Winni Sullivan observes in her companion piece, endorses an establishmentarian position in American foreign policy, meaning that American policy could discriminate among religions and fund and promote religious activities that meet with U.S. government approval. This is a different kind of religious power than what Sullivan describes as the “periodic and not altogether successful efforts” at disestablishment that we have undertaken at home. Assuming that we agree with Sullivan, as I do, that “established religion is by definition not accepting of ‘pluralism, freedom, and democracy,’” it becomes clear that this report is not about engaging religious communities to promote either religious freedom or democracy. It is about the projection of American power through the securitization of religion.Read the rest of The global securitization of religion.
A survey of leading contemporary international relations (IR) journals published between 1980 and 1996 revealed that 6 out of 1,600 articles featured religion as an important influence. But things have changed this past decade. It is now impossible to maintain the notion that religion is irrelevant to international politics, for at least three reasons. […]Read the rest of The politics of secularism in international relations.
For Lilla, Westerners are the exception because we live on what he calls “the other shore.” Civilizations on the “opposite bank” puzzle us because we have only a distant memory of what it was like to think as they do. They are, moreover, unlikely to follow our path because to successfully navigate the hazardous shoals of political theology as we have done would require a difficult excavation of theological resources….contra Lilla, could it be that we are all on the same shore, struggling with questions of transcendence and immanence in different languages and traditions?Read the rest of The other shore.
One of the most important books of our time, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age explains how many Europeans and their cultural heirs have come to experience moral fullness and identify their highest moral capacities and inspirations purely within the range of human power and without reference to God. It presents an alternative to “subtraction stories” of modernity in which superstition and belief are understood to have withered away, leaving room for modern science and humanism to flourish uninhibited by metaphysical constraints. […]Read the rest of The slipstream of disenchantment & the place of fullness.