The book blog

December 19th, 2016

The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction

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The Shipwrecked MindThinkers like Joseph de Maistre and the attitudes they embody are the subject of Mark Lilla’s new book, The Shipwrecked Mind, an important and timely study of political reaction. The fantasy of returning to a bygone era is, Lilla argues, the crux of reactionary thought: “Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has,” he writes, “the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes.” Whether the goal be monarchical restoration, a new caliphate, or to “make America great again,” the reactionary mind is, more than anything, haunted by nostalgia—the longing for those “fresh Eden[s]” that arise during periods of disorienting social upheaval. Yet to indulge such fantasies, Lilla believes, is to succumb to “magical thinking.” In every reactionary, he thinks, there lies a bit of Don Quixote, pining for the Golden Age—and making a fool of himself in the process.

Most of the volume’s essays first appeared in The New York Review of Books and were composed without political reaction as their explicit theme. They are written with enviable clarity. Lilla has an uncanny knack for distilling complex ideas to their intuitive essence in lucid, jargon-free prose. Yet while these essays are illuminating to a fault, one wonders if it is always on the reactionary mind that they shed their light.

Read The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction.
December 19th, 2016

Beheading the Saint: An introduction

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Beheading the SaintBeheading the Saint is about the shifting relationship between nationalism, religion, and secularism in a society which was, until the late 1960s, exemplary of what Charles Taylor calls the “neo-Durkheimian” link between national identity and religion, wherein “the sense of belonging to the group and confession are fused and the moral issues of the group’s history tend to be coded in religious categories” (2007, 458). I examine how the relationship between French Canadianness and Catholicism was configured in the nineteenth century, how it was reconfigured as Québécois and secular in the 1960s, and why and how that transition informs recent debates over secularism in Québec. The secularization of national identity during the Quiet Revolution remains the key to understanding the role and place of religion in the public sphere in today’s Québec.

Read Beheading the Saint: An introduction.
December 12th, 2016

Radical Secularization?

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Radical Secularization?In a discussion in the German press about the displacement of continental philosophy in Europe by the increasingly triumphant advance of analytical philosophy, Charles Taylor warned against ideals of purity in philosophy. He argued that questions concerning the philosophy of religion, political philosophy, and philosophical anthropology cannot adequately be addressed within the sterile categories of a self-sufficient philosophy. Rather, they require hermeneutic engagement with the social sciences and the humanities.

The book Radical Secularization? An Inquiry into the Religious Roots of Secular Culture, edited by Stijn Latré, Walter Van Herck and Guido Vanheeswijck, shows such courage towards “impurity,” making it a particularly stimulating new contribution to the current debates about secularization and the role of religion in contemporary secular societies. Its focus is on the genealogy of secularization, and the title “Radical Secularization” refers to both the roots, or radices, of secularization and the end of secularization—where “end” could either mean that the process of secularization has been completed or, conversely, that it has been stopped by the “return of religion.”

Read Radical Secularization?.
December 5th, 2016

The Virtues of Abandon

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The Virtues of AbandonIn 1698 the Parlement of Dijon found a Catholic priest guilty of engaging in sex with members of his flock. Philibert Robert, the cleric in question, characterized the sexual abandon he and the women experienced as a devotional act that brought them closer to God. If that’s not an arresting opening hook for a scholarly book, I don’t know what is! Robert and his followers were Quietists, adherents of a theology that explored the individual’s ownership of herself and feared an obsession with consumer goods might ultimately alienate people from their true identities as selfless fragments of a divine whole. As a spiritual practice that links self-surrender to a rejection of too much stuff, one can’t help but wonder if Quietism could be the missing link between Marie Kondo and E. L. James. Suffice it to say, Charly Coleman’s lucid, insightful book, The Virtues of Abandon: An Anti-Individualist History of the French Enlightenment, arrived at an ideal moment.

Read The Virtues of Abandon.
November 29th, 2016

Muslim Cool: An introduction

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Muslim Cool

The book focuses on interminority relationships to articulate a narrative of race and racism in the United States that transcends the Black-White binary and also the fallacy of postracialism, which holds that racism, particularly anti-Black racism, is over and that any talk of race is actually counterproductive to the work of antiracism. I identify the ways in which race, and specifically Blackness, is marshaled in the work of antiracism.

For Muslim Cool, Blackness is a point of opposition to white supremacy that creates solidarities among differently racial­ized and marginalized groups in order to dismantle overarching racial hierarchies. Yet as the stories in this book illustrate, these solidarities are necessarily entangled in the contradictions inherent in Blackness as something that is both desired and devalued. The engagement with Blackness by young US Muslims, Black and non-Black, is informed by long-standing discourses of anti-Blackness as well as the more current co-optation of Blackness in the narratives of United States multiculturalism and American exceptionalism.

Read Muslim Cool: An introduction.
November 21st, 2016

Islamic and Jewish Legal Reasoning: An introduction

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Islamic and Jewish Legal ReasoningIslamic and Jewish Legal Reasoning: Encountering Our Legal Other is a curious book, in part because it came out of a working group that seemed the least likely vehicle for producing a collection of articles in book form. For five years, sponsored by the University of Toronto and Canada’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council, approximately six Rabbinic law scholars and six Islamic law scholars sat around a table with various legal texts from their respective traditions and talked, discussed, and queried.

As a protocol of discussion, we would have the scholar of one tradition introduce the text of the other tradition. In other words, a Rabbinic scholar would introduce the Islamic legal text, and the Islamic law scholar would introduce the Rabbinic text. This process precluded anyone from claiming expertise over what the text “says,” and instead created a space of openness, engagement, and even play. The endeavor was not designed to make us into scholars of our tradition’s Other, but rather to experience (in the most robust sense of that word) the encounter with our legal tradition’s Other.

Read Islamic and Jewish Legal Reasoning: An introduction.
November 14th, 2016

The Weimar Century

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The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold WarThe international turn in intellectual history, which David Armitage announced in 2014, has evolved into a surge of publications on the global, international, and transnational aspects of the history of ideas. The migration of concepts around the world and moments of conceptual conjunction in history have attained growing attention from historians. Although methodological nationalism had never been the only option for writing the history of a specific country or society, it seems that now an international perspective is indispensable for explaining the political, cultural, or economic history of any given country. Historians seek to put their finger on the complex, dynamic moments which generate and reverberate influential ideas around the world. The patterns of relationship between different social, cultural, and political spheres, and the exchanges that lead to the evolution of ideas and concepts across national boundaries, have become increasingly appealing to historians of all creeds.

Udi Greenberg’s The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War can be read as a contribution to this growing literature on international intellectual history.

Read The Weimar Century.
November 3rd, 2016

God in the Enlightenment

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God in the EnlightenmentIn a speech before the Brexit vote, Boris Johnson offered a controversial historical pedigree for his campaign to leave the European Union. He insisted that the Leave campaign members were not all backward Little Englanders but rather deserved the reputation as the real upholders of the “liberal cosmopolitan European enlightenment.” He and his colleagues inherited the tradition, he claimed, because they too were “fighting for freedom.” An interview Johnson gave a year earlier, when he claimed that London and Paris shared a commitment to “enlightenment and freedom,” offers some indication about what that “freedom” entailed. He described how these values assured the right to open expression, even when that expression might critique religions and provoke “would be . . . jihadis.”

Johnson’s evocation of the Enlightenment testifies to the continual contest over its political meaning and to its deep associations with anti-religious critique. The contributors to God in the Enlightenment, edited by William Bulman and Robert Ingram, offer nuanced narratives to articulate a “usable” Enlightenment whose meaning can help us arrive at a more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between religion and secularity in public debate.

Read God in the Enlightenment.
October 17th, 2016

Race and Secularism in America

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Race and Secularism in AmericaOn September 13, 2016, Clemson University’s head football coach Dabo Swinney was asked what he would do if one of his players refused to stand for the national anthem. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had recently done so, explaining that he would not “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Swinney took issue not with Kaepernick’s message, but with his method. Dismissing Kaepernick’s refusal to stand as “distracting,” Swinney deployed the image of Martin Luther King Jr. as a model of “the right way” to protest.

Swinney’s words immediately sparked controversy. Clemson professor Chenjerai Kumanyika responded with an open letter to Swinney, sharply titled “Take MLK’s name out your mouth.” He chastised Swinney for participating in a long, misguided heritage of sanitizing King’s radicalism, and of corrupting King’s legacy for the purposes of white moderate liberalism. “In the face of the injustices in his own time,” Kumanyika writes, “Dr. King called for direct action, not press conferences.”

The editors of Race and Secularism in America, Vincent Lloyd and Jonathon Kahn, would not be surprised by this marshalling of Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy, nor by the fact that this legacy is constantly contested and renegotiated along lines of protest, race, and religion. Indeed, in the collection’s introduction, the King monument in Washington, DC serves as a towering symbol of the complex relationship of its two subjects—race and secularism—and their analytical inextricability. King is central to the collection’s claim: Because “whiteness is secular, and the secular is white,” “the careful management of race and religion are the prerequisite for accepting the public significance of a fundamentally raced religious figure.” Indeed, the collection takes as its central stance that secularism itself is primarily a (white, liberal) game of managing and excluding difference.

Read Race and Secularism in America.
September 27th, 2016

Religion and populism

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Saving the People: How Populists Hijack ReligionThis adapted excerpt is republished with permission of the publishers—Hurst in Europe; OUP in North America—from Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion, edited by Nadia Marzouki, Duncan McDonnell, and Olivier Roy.

Right-wing populist parties have become a major player in today’s public and political debates in Europe and the United States. The success of Front National in the 2015 local elections in France, the unexpected nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for US presidential elections, and the unexpected vote in favor of Brexit, show the growing influence of populist parties. In addition to their usual rant against elites and the establishment, these parties have made religion a central element of their repertoire. In the wake of the repeated terror attacks perpetrated by ISIS, they have insistently deplored the so-called threat of Islamization, and emphasized the need to reclaim the West’s Christian identity. This book examines the manner in which right-wing populist parties in a series of Western democracies have used religion in recent decades to define a good “people” whose identity and traditions are alleged to be under siege from liberal elites and dangerous “others.”

Read Religion and populism.
September 13th, 2016

Relativism and Religion: An introduction

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Relativism and Religion: An introduction

Politicized religion seems to have a new enemy: Moral relativism is denounced by believers of all stripes as a threat for contemporary societies, and, in particular, for contemporary democracies. A recent poll conducted among evangelical pastors in the United States found that after “abortion,” “moral relativism” was indicated by most respondents as “the most pressing issue faced by America today.” For anybody familiar with the language used in contemporary evangelical churches in the United States, this is unlikely to come as a surprise. In the sermons preached in many of these churches, relativism is routinely treated—along with liberalism and secularism—as part of a sort of “unholy trinity” that is supposed to be corroding the moral foundations of contemporary societies.

Consider, for instance, the remarks of John Piper, former pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the National Ligonier conference in 2007, citing a previous speech by Michael Novak delivered in 1994 upon receiving the Templeton Prize:

Relativism is an invisible gas, odorless, deadly, that is now polluting every free society on earth. It is a gas that attacks the central nervous system of moral striving. The most perilous threat to the free society today is, therefore, neither political nor economic. It is the poisonous, corrupting culture of relativism.

This discourse cuts across denominational distinctions. In the first speech he gave before the diplomatic corps represented at the Vatican, Pope Francis I referred to what his predecessor had called a “dictatorship of relativism” in explaining his choice of name: “This brings me,” he stated, “to a second reason for my name. Francis of Assisi tells us we should build peace. But there is no peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others.”

Read Relativism and Religion: An introduction.
August 29th, 2016

The Politics of Islamic Law: An introduction

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My new book, The Politics of Islam LawThe Politics of Islamic Law, presents an approach to the study of religion, comparative politics and law that begins with the contradiction and ambiguity produced by the interplay among sacred texts, institutions of state and society, and actors working with the tools they have at hand. By seeking to understand the development of the category of Islamic law as a “problem-space” for the modern state, the book invites further exploration of how Muslim futures are being framed and discussed, historicizing what David Scott has framed as “the particular questions that seem worth asking and the kinds of answers that seem worth having.” (2004:4) In this exploration the question – ‘whose law?’ – turns out to be as important, if not more important, than the question – ‘which law?’ This generates a new set of questions in the study of the politics of Islamic law: in what domains of Muslim life is Islamic law being raised once again, and by whom? In what domains of Muslim life has Islamic law been made silent? What political compacts and struggles underwrite these claims for presence or absence, and upon what institutional and social foundations do they rely? Over what kind of human subject do they lay claim, and how might this subject speak to the law? To what version of the past do they refer, and to which vision of the future?

Read The Politics of Islamic Law: An introduction.
August 10th, 2016

Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power

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TheExporting Freedom United States is unique among nations in claiming a heritage of religious freedom and a mission to spread it overseas.  This is difficult to dispute.  What has become hotly disputed is how this is to be regarded.

An “orthodox” view holds that the United States has played a special role—a providential part, as some would have it—in carrying a universal message of religious freedom to the world.  First, American colonies were havens for religious refugees; then the American founding was a milestone for constitutional norms of religious freedom; then, over the subsequent two centuries, the United States became a haven for religious people unwelcome elsewhere: Baptists, Mormons, Mennonites, Muslims, Amish, Catholics, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others.

Read Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power.
August 3rd, 2016

Religion and politics beyond religious freedom

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Elizabeth Shakman Hurd | Beyond Religious FreedomI 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 Religion and politics beyond religious freedom.
July 22nd, 2016

Rethinking religion in a political scientific wilderness

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Elizabeth Shakman Hurd | Beyond Religious FreedomBeyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion makes an extremely important and timely contribution to a conversation that the discipline of political science should be but still isn’t really having. The continued lack of serious, analytically sophisticated attention to religion and religious phenomena by scholars of international relations and comparative politics is all the more baffling given the place of religion in political life around the world today. Religious affiliation has become the central category for a geo-political remapping of the world since 9/11. The results have been depressingly vapid analyses that underscore, once again, the ideological force of Samuel Huntington’s self-fulfilling prophecy, and the bankruptcy of dominant approaches in our discipline that continue to treat religion in the most reductionist, identarian, instrumentalist, and frankly, unthinking fashion. In this regard, Shakman Hurd’s book constitutes a truly novel and vital contribution and I cannot recommend this book highly enough to my co-disciplinarians, whether interested in religion or not. I underscore this point, since many scholars who frequent The Immanent Frame are not mainstream political scientists and are thus unaware of the bleak nature of the wilderness into which rare and prophetic voices like Shakman Hurd’s are crying.

Read Rethinking religion in a political scientific wilderness.
July 20th, 2016

Keeping up with “culture”

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Law's ReligionBenjamin Berger’s Law’s Religion: Religious Difference and the Claims of Constitutionalism is a welcome addition to the vibrantly interdisciplinary scholarship on legal secularism. Like other scholarship in this field, it shows how liberal constitutionalism works to demarcate and transform religious life according to its own internal principles. The basic story here is, by now, a familiar one: to declare religion free of state interference is, paradoxically, to require the state to define “religion” so that it can determine which institutions and actors are to be afforded freedoms on the basis of that word. Where “legal religion” differs from “lived religion,” (to recall Winnifred Sullivan’s terms) legal religion not only tends to win the day; it can also shape how actors on the ground conceptualize their own religious lives.

Read Keeping up with “culture”.
July 19th, 2016

Another Law’s Religion

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Law's ReligionI cannot help but see a pun in the title of Benjamin Berger’s book, Law’s Religion: Religious Difference and the Claims of Constitutionalism. I see the pun not in the terms “law” and “religion,” but in the multiple meanings emerging from the possessive marker. I see the pun in Laws. It is a pun of grammar-play, not word-play.

Taken in one way, the possessive ending connotes a proprietary claim. The term law’s religion suggests the idea that law controls religion, holds sway over it. It is this sense of the phrase that appears most prominently in the book. Berger argues that Canadian constitutional law “digests” religion through its own “interpretive horizons,” which contain notably narrow assumptions about the nature of religious time, space, belief, and toleration. Constitutional law does not deal with Canadian religion on its own terms, Berger tells us. Rather, it maintains and deploys its own prototype of religion.

Read Another Law’s Religion.
July 14th, 2016

Making up people

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Law's ReligionSeveral 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 Making up people.