The book blog
Luke Bretherton’s Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life addresses two crucial holes in contemporary understanding of religion and politics: one narrow but important for those interested in faith-based political engagement, the other broad and crucial for all of us interested in the role of religion and secularity in the public sphere. Both are important in 2016, as presidential politics in the United States, terrorism and nativism in Europe, and new forms of authoritarianism elsewhere raise questions that democracy in its current forms struggles to answer.
The narrower theme—albeit plenty broad enough to be worth careful reading—concerns the specific movement that provides the empirical focus for Bretherton’s book: the family of community organizing efforts that emerged from Saul Alinsky’s work from the 1930s to the 1970s and that recently have drawn substantial attention from scholars and thoughtful practitioners. Bretherton’s research shows how the recent emergence of broad-based community organizing (a.k.a. faith-based or institution-based community organizing) into both political prominence and scholarly awareness suggests new ways to address our democratic dilemmas.Read “Faithful secularity” as the best hope for democracy.
Community organizing is faith-based, at least in its best-known form. Since the 1940s, organizers in the mold of Saul Alinsky have worked with local congregations and civic groups to identify issues of shared interest and to marshal energies into action for social and economic change. Scholarship on community organizing, however, is surprisingly sparse. Work that treats religion non-reductively—as more than an interchangeable component in organizing—is sparser still. There are fine sociological studies, and earlier this century, reports of Barack Obama’s three years in Chicago brought bursts of scholarly and journalistic attention. But with Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life, Luke Bretherton joins Romand Coles and Jeffrey Stout as one of the few scholars who treat community organizing as essential to discussions of political theory and the place of religion in the public square.Read Faithfully secular?.
Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life is a weighty call to “resurrect democracy” and to do so by adopting the practices of broad-based community organizing (BBCO) as developed by Saul Alinsky in 1930s Chicago and subsequently by a range of organizations in the United States and more recently, beyond. The book draws on Luke Bretherton’s experiences as an active participant in the work of London Citizens during the years before and after the financial crisis of 2008. As a theologian and active Christian, Bretherton brings a valuable religious perspective to his analysis of the work of the alliance and its campaigns to support the living wage and responsible lending in the city of London in the wake of the crash.Read The challenges of “resurrecting democracy”: Lessons from London.
In his thoughtful The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama argues that there are three pillars of order that are necessary for the stability of states such as Denmark, Sweden, or the United Kingdom, which he sees as the three best examples of how we might live together: centralized power (including a monopoly on armed force), the rule of law (which applies not just to the people but to the rulers themselves), and accountability (guaranteed not merely through “parchment barriers” but by real checks and balances). The story he tells explains what is necessary for a government of the people and for the people, but it is less compelling as an account of what is necessary for government by the people. Indeed, in focusing on these general structures of governance he overlooks the great in-between, the intermediating associations of civil society such as schools, churches, and unions in which we live much of our lives. Thinkers since Tocqueville have argued that such associations are the bedrock of political life, a point reemphasized in our own time by Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Jean Bethke Elshtain Elshtain, Robert Putnam, and William Galston, all of whom worry about the danger posed by the erosion of such institutions in the age of globalization.
Luke Bretherton’s Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life not only focuses on these intermediating institutions and their decline, it also presents a model for strengthening them and thereby “resurrecting democracy.”Read Revitalizing the power of the great in-between.
It has been almost twenty years since the US Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which was signed into law in 1998 by then President Bill Clinton. The IRFA inscribed into law and US foreign policy a set of definitions and monitoring protocols, and it mandated the creation of a bureaucracy within the US State Department—the Office of Religious Freedom, which is charged with promoting religious freedom as a core objective of US foreign policy. Under the language and mandate of the IRFA, this office produces yearly reports on religious freedom around the globe, and its work becomes the basis by which the Secretary of State categorizes some countries as “countries of particular concern” for their “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” Such a designation can trigger various disciplinary and punitive responses by the US government, including economic sanctions. As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd shows through incisive analysis in her recently published Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion, the impact of IRFA and other efforts to mobilize a religious freedom framework in international relations is far-reaching, not only in practical terms, but also at the level of defining “religion” itself.Read Paradoxes of international religious freedom.
In the summer of 2013, the international Islamic magazine al-Bayan published its Ramadan issue with a striking cover. Flanked by titles on the Qur’anic and Biblical figure Haman, jihad and the great battles won by Muslims in the month of Ramadan, and an interview with the Iraqi Islamist intellectual ‘Imad al-Din Khalil, the image that the editors chose for the cover article was clearly meant to cause controversy. Casually strewn across a map of the Middle East and North Africa was a simple sibha, a chain of beads used to count repetitive prayers known collectively as adhkar. In recent years, the sibha has come to be associated as a marker of Sufi Mulims, given that non-Sufi reformist Muslims of various stripes have stipulated that it constitutes an innovation in worship and thus a straying from the perfect path laid down by the Prophet himself for praising God. Attached to the end of this sibha, where a bead or other decoration might normally be located, was a small American flag, resembling those lapel pins that US government officials began to wear following 9/11. If the implications of the image itself were not clear, the headline on which it sat most certainly was: “American Infiltration through the Sufi zawiyas.”Read The new global politics of religion: A view from the other side.
In the late 1920s, the theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg wrote a series of scientific papers proposing that the universe could not be known with perfect certainty. His theory, which came to be known as the “uncertainty principle,” blamed the limitations of scientific measurement. Perfect knowledge was impossible, Heisenberg theorized, because scientists changed the quantum universe through the very act of measuring it. Observers could not watch the universe voyeuristically, as though from the sidelines. To sight quantum reality was to alter it.
Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion introduces something like an uncertainty principle into the targeting of religion in international relations. In a manner not dissimilar to Heisenberg, Hurd argues that, in the process of singling out religion for support or censure, governments, lawmakers, advocacy groups and others alter the complex field of social relations that they purport to manage. They change religion through the process of sighting it.Read The uncertainty principles of Heisenberg and Hurd.
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion is notable for its subtlety and intellectual generosity, as well as its breadth and depth of engagement with contemporary scholarship and public affairs. This is also a book with a big, hard-hitting idea of its own. Its primary thesis is crystal clear, timely, and provocative: “religion” cannot serve as the basis for scholarly analyses or the formation of policy. I agree with that: individuals, communities, and events are more complex than the idea of religion can capture; indeed, the very idea of religion often gets in the way of understanding how those things work.Read A more anxious freedom.
Saba Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report is a luminous, fiercely argued book. It requires deep and ongoing engagement precisely because Mahmood stages a conceptual-ethical impasse from which there is no easy exit. Her timely intervention reminds us that the predicament of minority religion is neither anachronistic nor resolved. Rather it is ongoing, and immediate.
In what follows, I think with Mahmood and ask how her argument about the intertwined lives of religion and politics, and the crises of recognition they produce, may play out on the Indian subcontinent with its history of Muslim minority, and affirmative constitutionalism.Read Competing inequalities.
What logics, strategies, and effects characterize the category of religion as an instrument for governing social life? What possibilities and foreclosures result from summoning religion to serve novel political ends? Questions such as these subtend much contemporary scholarship on religion; their ascendancy testifies to the puissance of recent deconstructions of the concept of religion, especially those marshalled by critiques of secularism. Rather than conceiving religion as the disavowed other of secular modernity, the burgeoning field of secularism studies has demanded attention to the continual consolidation of “religion” within the problem space of secularism, especially in relation to the dispensation of the modern nation-state. Despite the recent interest in the relationship between secularism and religion, however, the distinctive forms and functions of “religious freedom”—as both a principle for and an object of global governance—have received less attention. Thankfully, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion, has arrived to decisively fill this lacuna.Read A salutary tremor.
In the preface to his 1947 essay, Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem, French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote forcefully of the need to push past official accounts and declared principles when assessing the character and justness of a society. Focusing on the lived effects of ideas instead of on “tired sayings” formulated as “venerable truths” was precisely the genius of Marx’s critique of liberalism, Merleau-Ponty explained: “In refusing to judge liberalism in terms of the ideas it espouses and inscribes in constitutions and in demanding that these ideals be compared with the prevailing relations between men in a liberal state, Marx is not simply speaking in the name of a debatable materialist philosophy—he is providing a formula for the concrete study of society which cannot be refuted by idealist arguments.”Read The pathologies of religious freedom.
For those of us who have been following the Politics of Religious Freedom project on this website and elsewhere, Beyond Religious Freedom bears a distinct yet familiar flavor. Other scholars writing on religion and secularity have already shown that significant differences exist between “top-down,” “bottom-up,” and “from outside” definitions of religion favored by policymakers, clerics, and academics. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s own categories of “governed religion,” “lived religion,” and “expert religion” reproduce this tripartite division, but add a degree of nuance by showing, for example, that the definitions of religion favored by elites such as policymakers and ecclesial authorities may not match the “lived religion” experienced by ordinary people. Similarly, expertise on religion comes in a variety of forms, from the policy-relevant academic knowledge sought out by federal agencies pursuing counterterrorism objectives to the quasi-missiological scholarship generated by “religious engagement” advocacy groups.Read Religious freedom, past and future.
As it promises on the dust jacket, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Beyond Religious Freedom delivers a critique of the politics of promoting religious freedom that is both timely and forceful. The critique expands and empirically illustrates an argument that Hurd has presented earlier—that religion in international politics is governed by a Manichean view of “religion” as either “good,” and therefore eligible for support, or “bad,” and therefore in need of control, monitoring, and suppression. The critique is timely because it addresses the incontrovertible empirical fact that new methods and terms used by NGOs, think tanks, and state agencies have decisively changed the landscape of the domestic and international promotion of religious engagement and religious freedom.Read Engaging the R word.
In the United States, the Middle East is almost always presented as a problem to be solved—most significantly, the problem of religious extremism and conflict. Popular explanations of such conflict turn on supposedly deep-seated cultural attributes within Arab societies and often tied to the nature of Islam. But even for those that avoid this essentializing turn, virtually all commentators take for granted the proposed solution: generate ever-more secular political practices. In other words, what the region needs are governing institutions that treat individuals of all religious backgrounds as civic equals and thus reduce confessional difference to a matter purely of private (and legally protected) choice.Read Democracy and the secular predicament.
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 Beyond Religious Freedom—An introduction.
Most of Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report is an original and thorough exploration of the historical rise and unfolding of this finitude of our imagination—the difficulty of relating to the lives of religious communities, in their difference, without the arbitrating mediation of the state. Mahmood traces the gradual replacement of earlier Ottoman modalities of rule governing religious communities and the relationships between them by the state-centered secular mode of governance. The former was a tradition that did not promise equality but maintained religious pluralism, without intervening in what constituted religion and without attempting to reorganize religious life. Paradoxically, the hierarchy characteristic of that system of rule left religious communities more immune to the infiltration of state powers. On the other end, despite its promise of religious equality, secular governance, as Mahmood shows, contributed “to the exacerbation of religious tensions in postcolonial Egypt, hardening interfaith boundaries and polarizing religious difference.” At the center of the book is a story about the sovereign state, modern law—domestic and international—and the unequal power distributions between the West and the non-West during the colonial and post-colonial periods, all of which make up the forces of political secularism and the stage for its unfolding.Read Equality time.
Trenchantly framed as “a minority report,” Saba Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report offers more than just one dissenting opinion. The book makes at least three distinct interventions—archival, critical, and methodological—that together call state secularism into question as a political project and normative ideal. This “minority report” has major significance. It raises crucial historical and ethical questions about the power—and limits—of the state and law to achieve “religious equality.”Read Minority matters.
Mahmood outlines a set of concepts that are historically central to the workings of secularism and elucidates how they facilitate outcomes that often differ starkly from our expectations. She shows how, because our commitments to religious liberty and equality have worked through these concepts, distinctions between majorities and minorities will be continually made and increasingly entrenched within social life, a process that thereby fosters conflict along the very lines that secularism promises to at least diminish if not dissolve. The answer to sectarian conflicts cannot therefore be more or better secularism, since it is secularism itself that shapes and provokes their current forms. That, as I understand it, is her overall thesis, and I found her arguments on its behalf to be powerfully persuasive. Embedded within her thesis is a potentially profound challenge to a set of claims that are strongly promoted by some theorists of secularism and many political liberals: that a harmonious religious pluralism can be achieved by finding shared foundational societal values, and that this can be done through an overlapping consensus.Read Thinking with Saba Mahmood.