Religion & American politics

January 25th, 2013

What has been will be again

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Marcia Pally’s incisive essay on “the new evangelicals” highlights a relatively small but growing population of white evangelicals who appear to be embracing broader, less conservative visions of the common good, and public policy views (at least partially) more in line with Democratic politics than their recent forebears.  While her descriptions presumably are not limited to those who necessarily call themselves “new evangelicals,” she does invoke the work and ideas of public evangelicals who clearly self-identify as such. This points to an interesting observation worth considering here: to assume the mantle of newness is to make an ideological statement as well as a historical claim.

January 25th, 2013

Does fragmentation equal change?

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Marcia Pally’s post tracks the important fact that contemporary American evangelical social and political engagement is fragmenting. She rightly observes that such fragmenting is not historically novel, and is a self-consciously critical response to the power of the Religious Right.

To read of “robust polyphony” among evangelicals was especially welcome to me, as I addressed this phenomenon in a recent ethnography, Emerging Evangelicals (NYU Press, 2011). As a cultural anthropologist, I explored the identities fashioned, practices performed, histories claimed, institutions created, and critiques waged among evangelicals influenced by the Emerging Church movement. Pally’s astute analysis returned me to a question I stopped short of fully developing: does fragmentation equal change?

January 24th, 2013

Remembering a different evangelicalism

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Celebrating the ideological diversity of contemporary evangelicalism, Marcia Pally heralds the advent of a religious non-right. Shattering stereotypes of a monolithic conservatism, she performs a valuable service.

As Pally notes in her essay, this isn’t the first time evangelicals have hoisted the banner of social reform. Recalling the activism of nineteenth-century American Protestants, she sees the “new evangelicals” as their contemporary successors.

You don’t have to go back to the nineteenth century to find evangelical progressives. Like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, many got their start in the 1970s, building institutions that are still around today (Sojourners, Evangelicals for Social Action, Bread for the World).

January 23rd, 2013

Global reflex

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As both Marcia Pally and David Gushee note, there is no historical reason why evangelicalism should identify with a single political orientation. There is also no global reason. Research on evangelicals in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is uncovering startling political diversity. Paul Freston, one of the most informed scholars on the subject, dismisses “facile equations of evangelicalism with conservative stances.” Historical and contemporary conditions, he writes, demonstrate “the distance of these actors—indeed, total independence of these actors—from the American evangelical right.”

January 22nd, 2013

A complex story

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The American religious landscape is being altered by what Mark Noll calls “a more pluralistic evangelicalism than has ever existed before.”

In the movement Marcia Pally describes, evangelicalism is no longer synonymous with white evangelicals. Conservative black churches have long held a pro-life, pro-marriage ethic in balance with energetic social activism. Immigrant churches, the fastest-growing segment of Christianity, tend to be conservative theologically while progressive on issues like poverty and immigration. The increasingly influential Hispanic community naturally aligns with this movement. As Samuel Rodriguez puts it: “Where Billy Graham meets Dr. King, that’s where you will see the Hispanic Christian community emerge.”

January 18th, 2013

Are “new evangelicals” a new phenomenon or a reversion to type?

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In her piece, Marcia Pally continues her most commendable attempt to describe the diversity of evangelical political opinion in the United States, and to provide a more nuanced account even of the evangelical right. As she suggests, the core of all evangelical political outlooks tends to be a belief in the importance of individual virtuous action and collaboration. This by no means betokens an entirely uncritical embrace of neoliberalism; the alliance with the latter has probably been forged by a horror at the (historically novel) libertarian cultural mores of the contemporary left. In actual practice much evangelical social action is more concerned with the common good than is the general run of more recent GOP attitudes, and it is, I think, partially a reflection on the political implications of this that has, as Pally notes, led many younger evangelicals to move leftwards.

January 17th, 2013

Southern Baptists’ hands-on approach to changing the world

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On the evening of Good Friday 2013, several thousand young evangelicals will file into The Church at Brook Hill in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the largest Southern Baptist congregations in that Red State. They will open up their Bibles and then for the next six hours listen as a slender, boyish-looking pastor walks them through long passages of Scripture verse by verse and tells them to forsake material goods and self-indulgence and devote their lives to serving Jesus. All around the country other gatherings of young people will tune in by simulcast. David Platt, author of Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, is not a typical celebrity pastor. He does no book tours, doesn’t drive a Bentley, seems to have no opinions about politics, and hardly ever has time for even a brief interview with reporters. And he’s not the stereotypical Southern Baptist power broker.

January 17th, 2013

The riddle of the middle

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Baptist minister and sociologist Tony Campolo was arguably the first to send shock waves through the ranks of the religious right two decades ago when he responded to a question about his political leaning—Democrat or Republican? His reply: “It depends on the issue.”

Fundamentalists scorned him, calling him an apostate, but his assertion gave a new generation of evangelicals permission to scrutinize political platforms and move to the middle. The middle seemed to make more sense to younger followers of Jesus who were hearing and heeding calls to humanitarian causes at home and abroad.

January 16th, 2013

A return to the original agenda of Christ

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I am one of those evangelicals who, in Professor Marcia Pally’s words, have “left the right.” As a former President-elect of the Christian Coalition of America, I resigned that position and all other positions that would box me into ideologies that were becoming insidiously narrow and negative. As a 64-year-old pastor, I may not yet be representative of my generation or profession in my political openness, but I am one of a growing number of white evangelicals who are making biblically-based decisions on an issue-by-issue basis, in a wider circle of conversations than ever. We are put off by the “hardening of the categories” that is stifling not only intellectually, but also spiritually.

January 16th, 2013

Rethinking that word “evangelical”

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Professor Marcia Pally aptly describes the evangelical polyphony of our time. Despite the dreadful habit of newspapers of using the term “evangelical” to mean “white social conservative bloc of the GOP,” contemporary evangelical political views are much more diverse than that.

As Pally notes here and in her book, The New Evangelicals, it is not accurate to say that the diversity of evangelical politics and public engagement is some kind of new trend. What is actually the historical aberration is the way a distinguished global movement within Protestant Christianity that has always had diverse politics got swept into the Republican Southern Strategy of the Nixon years and beyond. It is a terrible historical accident that the movement that gave us the abolitionist William Wilberforce and the firebrands of the early Social Gospel movement became identified, after 1972, with reactionary white right-wing politics in the American South.

January 15th, 2013

Evangelicals who have left the right

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Post-election reporting that 79 percent of white evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney got little attention in the news because most journalists thought it wasn’t news. Evangelical support for the GOP has been consistent; even Romney’s Mormonism didn’t put them off. So election analysis approached white evangelicals as it usually has: as religio-political lemmings, all voting Republican for all the same reasons.

Yet where there was once the appearance of a monovocal evangelicalism there is now robust polyphony—what theologian Scot McKnight calls “the biggest change in the evangelical movement at the end of the twentieth century, a new kind of Christian social conscience.” This deserves our attention because most politics does not happen at elections but in between, when policy is negotiated and implemented. Current shifts in evangelical activism have re-routed the flow of evangelical money, time, and energy, and are changing the demands on the US political system. This essay investigating the shift is based on seven years of field research in evangelical books, articles, newsletters, sermons, and blogs, and on interviews with evangelicals, ages 19 to 74, across geographic and demographic groups—from students in Illinois to retired firemen from Mississippi, from former bikers to professors and political consultants.

October 10th, 2012

What does spirituality mean in America today?

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But why, first of all, is this subject a significant one? And why does it appear especially pertinent at precisely the present moment? To begin with, growing numbers of “religious nones,” that is, people who have limited or no religious affiliation yet still claim to believe in some kind of divinity, signal an unprecedented shift in the American religious landscape, and many scholars who have sought to understand this phenomenon have indicated that something like “spirituality” might capture an important aspect of their outlook, if not their “identity.” We, for our part, certainly agree that this is a socially significant shift. Yet we also note that much of the interpretation and ensuing discussion about the “religious nones” draws upon and continues to assert uninvestigated understandings of religion and spirituality, where we would argue that the shifts underway should elicit some reconsideration of the terms that are deployed to analyze and interpret this allegedly “new” phenomenon.

September 9th, 2011

9/11 chronomania

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Under its congressional mandate to “examine and report upon the facts and causes relating to the terrorist attacks…[and] make a full and complete accounting of the[ir] circumstances,” the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission Report, begins with a narrative timeline. In the simple past, in a voice devoid of interiority but rich in temporal data, the Report tracks movement in time and space.

September 6th, 2011

Banning Shari‘a

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Ten years after 9/11, Americans cope with insecurity in their day-to-day welfare at home, while contending with continued warnings of an ominous threat of violence from abroad. With all this insecurity, it is perhaps quite predictable that features of the national discourse posit a crisis of existential proportion, hitting the very fabric of our being as a nation and a people. Simply to posit that there is a crisis is not enough; a crisis begs to be resolved, to be stymied, to be put right once again. To do that, though, requires identifying and locating the source of that crisis. With al-Qaeda both everywhere and nowhere, and the challenges in Afghanistan and Iraq too complex for most of us to understand, our attention turns to the nearest, most apparent and obvious site that represents that threat.

May 9th, 2011

Explaining Islam to the public

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Perhaps no group of scholars has had as much at stake in the public understanding of religion of late as Islamic studies specialists. The attacks of 9/11 indirectly created opportunities for career advancement for Islam specialists. . . . The pressures to become the academic voice of Islam both on campus and in the media frequently led scholars to abandon caution. We reached for our copies of the Encyclopedia of Islam and sent out queries, sometimes quite urgently, to the AAR Study of Islam listserv. “What does Islam say about x?” was the way questions were often framed. We were not allowed to answer, “It depends.” What was generally desired, it seems, was a fatwa, an authoritative ruling on what the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the ulama say about “x,” not a lecture on how the historical practices of real people refuse easy generalization.

May 4th, 2011

Race, orthodoxy, and “real” Islam

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More than anything, the Good (Orthodox) Muslim-Bad (Black) Muslim paradigm reveals the media’s seemingly willful ignorance of the longstanding diversity of Islamic practices within black America and of the consistently worldly, heterodox, and syncretic legacies of African American Islam. The contemporary landscapes of Muslim America have been inexorably formed through processes of cultural interaction and exchange, both between black and “immigrant” Muslims and amongst various African American Islamic organizations themselves, since “Islam,” in its many forms, began its spread through African American communities in the urban landscapes of the post-Reconstruction North.

April 20th, 2011

Farrakhan’s fading limelight

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David Lepeska’s New York Times article “Farrakhan Using Libyan Crisis to Bolster His Nation of Islam” brought the once prominent Nation of Islam (NOI) leader back, however briefly, into the limelight. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Louis Farrakhan was a master at attracting a disproportionate amount of attention, particularly media coverage. A bright, talented, and charismatic, but provocative and controversial speaker, Farrakhan denounced the many causes of racism and poverty, and gave voice to the grievances of African Americans and other minorities, enhancing his stature even among those who chose not to join his organization.

April 15th, 2011

Farrakhan, Qaddafi, and the definition of American Islam

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In another example of how mass media shape and constrain what constitutes legitimate Islam and religion more generally, the New York Times published a news analysis on April 10, 2011, that explains Minister Louis Farrakhan’s recent support for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi as an attempt  to gain support, or at least attention, for his declining movement. I was a source for the story, but an exchange of twenty-three emails seems largely to have failed to convince the reporter of my analysis of the phenomenon as an example of pan-African politics.

February 24th, 2011

Arab and American revolutions in history

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Thomas Farr, in his recent post, links the mass protests in the Arab world, combined with the persecution of Christian minorities in the region, and what he called “the Obama administration’s striking indifference to America’s statutory policy of advancing international religious freedom.” In my view, if the Obama administration is to do anything with respect to the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), it should seek to repeal it and to dismantle the whole policy and institutional structure that it entails, because this statutory policy is an insult to and betrayal of victims of human rights violations throughout the world, including Christian minorities in the Arab world.

February 14th, 2011

Where lies wisdom, where folly?

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Two recent developments provide good reason to revisit a debate that took place in these pages last year concerning the U.S. policy of advancing international religious freedom (IRF). The first is the emergence of mass protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, combined with an outbreak of severe persecution against Christian minorities in the region. The second is the Obama administration’s striking indifference to America’s statutory policy of advancing international religious freedom.

September 21st, 2010

The spiritual politics of healing

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Debates regarding health care have struck at the core of social and political imaginaries of what it means for both bodies and societies to thrive. As Obama’s health care reforms pointedly demonstrated, debate in North America about the respective roles of government and private interests in the administration of health care has been a catalyst of enthusiastic civic engagement, with different results on either side of the Canadian-American border. While much of this civic engagement rests upon a shared assumption that biomedical health care, based on Western scientific method, is the best kind of care for suffering bodies, the politics of health care is also shaped by a spiritual politics, divided along several axes.

September 11th, 2010

Against Judaist-Christianism

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I do not have much to add to the debate surrounding the Islamic Cultural Center that will surely be built near Ground Zero. But I do have a strangely delayed reaction to the word “Islamism”, whose short and pernicious history deserves more attention than it has been given. The suffix “ism” in this case is clearly not intended as a compliment. If you consult any word list on Google, it becomes clear that Islamism is a label for any variety of Islamic thought or action that can be judged to be inappropriately politicized, with the exemplary case being political violence.

August 10th, 2010

I hope you like circles

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Perceptions of the environment, however intensively managed that environment may in fact be, turn into experiences of nature, self, and god. The political dimension of such experience is largely unspoken. But in its particular embodied characteristics, such experience is structurally dependent on a certain exercise of state power. In this way the politics of spirituality may have little to do with thoughts about elections or particular government officials. But it has much to do with creating a space for significant governmental presence in both personal and collective life.

August 6th, 2010

Parodic politics

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Perhaps the upswing in religious individualism in this postmodern, postsecular period doesn’t herald the breakdown of community after all—nor does the rise of a postmodern culture mean the death of parodic political activism. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, though a small organization, may be indicative of larger patterns that we as sociologists have yet to thoroughly study: the roles of postsecular religiosities in community and activism, and the force of parody in postmodern politics.

August 4th, 2010

Who are the “spiritual but not religious”?

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Who are the Americans who identify as “spiritual but not religious”? What unifying characteristics, qualities, and beliefs might they share? And to what extent might their distinctive approach to religion, or to systems of meaning, have relevance to political discourse, electoral campaigns, and public policy? As many other contributors to this blog have noted, these questions elude easy answers, because defining spirituality is, as Courtney Bender aptly puts it in her brilliant book The New Metaphysicals, “like shoveling fog.” Nevertheless, perhaps we can obtain just a slight bit of traction by investigating some of the characteristics shared by SBNR Americans.

August 2nd, 2010

Religion, spirituality, and the sexual scandal

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Religion and the sex scandal are still closely linked, though the targets of public outrage have morphed: it is often religious authorities and bearers of traditional morality whose sexual desires and actions are publicized and condemned. With so many religious institutions and their authorities rocked by sex scandals in a litany of abuse and victimhood, it behooves us to ask what, precisely, is being exposed and denounced, and, conversely, what is being protected and perhaps even obscured. What aspects of “religion” are under fire in these scandals? What role does “spirituality” play in this discursive reconfiguration of sexuality and religion?

July 30th, 2010

Civil earth religion versus religious nationalism

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My contribution to these discussions seeks to expand the analytical horizon of the foregoing discussion of civil religion both chronologically and geographically, with special attention to the growing importance of what I call “dark green religion,” and the possibility that it might precipitate the emergence of a global, civil earth religion. Dark green religion, as I have constructed the term, involves the perception that nature is sacred and has intrinsic value, the belief that everything is interconnected and mutually dependent, and a deep feeling of belonging to nature. Often rooted in an evolutionary understanding that all life shares a common ancestor, dark green religion generally leads to a form of kinship ethics that entails ethical responsibilities to all living things.

June 2nd, 2010

Engagement for whose good?

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It is coincidental but telling that Emile Nakhleh’s post supporting U.S. “engagement” with Muslim communities appeared the same week as the disclosure of a new directive authorizing clandestine military operations in both friendly and unfriendly countries in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa. The Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order, signed September 30, 2009, by General David Petraeus, aims primarily to disrupt terrorist groups and to “prepare the environment” for armed assaults. Of particular relevance to the Chicago Council Report, the Execute Order reportedly calls for using, not only special forces, but also “foreign businesspeople, academics, or others,” to “identify militants and provide ‘persistent situational awareness,’ while forging ties to local indigenous groups.”

Alongside this and numerous other recent U.S. policies, the Chicago Council Report looks increasingly futile and, in key places, wrong-headed—even if, doubtless, well-intentioned.

May 25th, 2010

Engagement for the common good

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I have been following the contributions and “debates” on The Immanent Frame in response to the Chicago Council report.  My initial reaction to the ongoing exchanges is that a) the intense interest in the report seems to indicate it has something to say; b) some of the respondents seem to read their own ideological orientation into the report, rather than read what the report really says; and c) other respondents criticize the report for, in their view, advocating a specific ideological position on religious freedom, secularism, and religion in general.  The report, in my judgment, offers a pragmatic policy approach to the growing influence of religious groups in the policy realm; it is not, nor does it purport to be, a theological treatise on religion, secularism (however defined), or religious freedom.

April 28th, 2010

Proselytism and religious freedom

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The distinguishing feature of proselytizing is an aim that typically supervenes upon “ordinary” religious expression. It is an accompanying mental state, or maybe just the unintended effect of bearing witness to the truth of one’s faith. Proselytizing is not an observable form of distinct behavior, and so anti-proselytizing laws are quixotic and notional, or they are certain to sweep up more elemental religious expressions—teaching, preaching, worship—which are eminently deserving of protection. This is enough to establish that these laws are unjust, and no additional evaluative premises would be needed to establish that they would be deemed unconstitutional in any American court.

No doubt, some missionaries are so aggressive that they need to be restrained by just laws against forcing conversion. But, more often, the problem (where there is one) is that they are annoyingly persistent and self-righteous. These folks should be corrected and ignored; they should not be arrested. Almost all missionaries are guilty of a peculiar Original Sin, namely, they present their own cultural instantiation of the faith—Irish Catholicism, say, or Midwestern evangelicalism—as part and parcel of the gospel. This Original Sin naturally leads to unjustified criticism of local customs and folk traditions which are not incompatible with the faith.

April 26th, 2010

For and against proselytism

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I view my task not as that of winning points in a debate on the grounds of logical or rhetorical argumentation. I concede defeat already. No layperson could ever win a debate with an American law professor, much less with Gerry Bradley.

My task is to complicate the framework and the context of our arguments. In fact, I would like to argue for and against proselytism simultaneously, not because of indecisive avoidance, wanting to both have my cake and eat it too, but because of a recognition of the tension between two goods.

I would like to divide the rationales for and against proselytism into three groups—theological, legal-juridical, and socio-cultural—and to argue both for and against proselytism on each of these grounds.

April 21st, 2010

Good Muslim, bad Muslim

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In my opening post, I suggested that a second assumption underpinning the Chicago Report is that American foreign policy should more effectively engage with and support the “good Muslims.” In this post, I seek once again to consider the coherence and plausibility of this prescription. Is it really true that you can read people’s political behavior from their religion or culture? Again, as Mamdani asks, “Could it be that a person who takes his or her religion literally is a potential terrorist? And only someone who thinks of the text as not literal, but as metaphorical or figurative, is better suited to civic life and the tolerance it calls for? How, one may ask, does the literal reading of religious texts translate into hijacking, murder, and terrorism?”

This raises the complex question of what, in the words of Saba Mahmood, “constitutes religion and a proper religious subjectivity in the modern world,” and how such a conception relates to the language and normative structure of religious freedom in international law and politics. It is not possible here to address the details of such a complex set of issues, but let me offer just a couple of observations and lines of inquiry for future thought and discussion.

April 16th, 2010

Islam and terrorism

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In my previous post, I suggested that one of the latent assumptions underpinning the Chicago Report is that terrorism is “religion-based,” i.e., that there is a necessary (although unexplained) causal link between Islam and Islamic extremism.  In this post, I seek to consider the coherence and plausibility of this assumption.

Consider again story of the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. In using this example to illustrate American ignorance of the role of religion in acts of terrorism, the Chicago Report is curiously silent about one salient fact: that the U.S. is militarily occupying a Muslim country, which, following its earlier intervention and continuing presence in Afghanistan, it has unilaterally invaded in violation of both the UN Charter and international law. The report is similarly silent on the fact that the U.S. project of “occupation as liberation” violates the occupatio bellica (the international law of occupation), which restrains the occupant’s authority to unilaterally transform Iraq’s political order.

April 12th, 2010

“Sorry comforters” and the new Natural Law

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I read the Chicago Council Task Force Report, “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy,” as a student of the history and politics of international law. From this perspective, the report evokes Immanuel Kant’s famous denunciation of Grotius, Pufendorf, and Vattel in his 1795 essay Toward Perpetual Peace as the “sorry comforters” of the law of nations. For Kant, the principles and doctrines of the early modern natural lawyers not only lacked all “legal force” in restraining the belligerence of nation states, but, by appropriating the voice of international legality to the interests of power rather than right, they were ultimately apologists for such belligerence. Kant accordingly denounced these juristic advisers to historical states as “political moralists,” who, by basing their conceptions of justice on the political governance of conflicting interests in an attempt to humanize relations between warring nation-states, subordinated principles to ends and became thereby accomplices to war, imperialism, and colonialism.

April 2nd, 2010

A valuation of religious freedom

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Winnifred Sullivan and Elizabeth Hurd, in particular, seem to interpret the Chicago Council Report as an attempt to construct a narrow version of religious freedom as a jingoistic, American Protestant-secular hegemony grab, with undertones of neo-imperialism (or, “a particularly American style of imperialism,” as Sullivan puts it). In Hurd’s words, “Could it be the case that American exceptionalism and a particular notion of American religious freedom and American power are sacralized in this report…?” Thus, the Report’s counsel that the American national security community take religion seriously as an interpretive category and engage with religious leaders and communities as important actors is labelled the “securitization of religion.”

But attaching the “-ization” label to something, while possibly effective as a rhetorical device, is less persuasive as a substantive critique.

March 29th, 2010

The rise of the seculars

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Kosmin and Keysar and others are already analyzing who has given up worship, belief, and other modes of religiosity. I am more interested in what is happening as a result to the societal and social functions of religion. Thus, I would hypothesize that an increasing number of people are finding religion irrelevant in and to their everyday lives, and to the social, cultural, and other roles they play in society. They are not only “religious nones,” but they are no longer thinking about religious matters. Consequently, I think of them as seculars.

March 26th, 2010

Was early America a Christian America?

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The furious debate in some quarters over whether America was born a “Christian nation” is ironic. The historical record shows that America was not born Christian, but grew to be very Christian centuries later. Some Religious Right activists believe that were it to be accepted as a fact that pre-1800 Americans were deeply Christian, a new light would be cast on current debates about where (if anywhere) to draw a line between Church and State today. In the sense of the Supreme Court’s search for “originalist” interpretations of the Constitution, Christian dogma would be an originalist justification for, say, reintroducing prayer into schools. But the story of Early American religion is, in fact, a quite different one.

March 23rd, 2010

The global securitization of religion

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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.

March 22nd, 2010

The extra-territorial establishment of religion

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There is an embarrassing giddiness in the religious studies world today. With our new mantra in hand—the new “salience” of religion—we, both scholars of religion and other self-appointed spokespersons for religion, feel licensed to instruct the world on the importance of religion. We are suddenly relevant again. Or so we think.

If there is an opportunity for religious studies today, and my own view is increasingly that this is an opportunity more for listening than for speaking, the Chicago Report suggests the likelihood that this opportunity will be misunderstood and misused. Religion today is an immensely complex phenomenon. And there are many who speak in its name. It is far from clear that there is any sense in which generalizing about religion is useful as a political matter—or, for that matter, that the United States government should be spearheading a new reformation.

March 19th, 2010

Confronting the mythical beast

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The notion of “American civil religion” reminds me of the legendary vampire. It has a seemingly irresistible tendency to take innocent blood. “The American language of civil religion is inseparable from expansionism, racialized domination, and state violence,” as George Shulman points out; “though some have indeed invoked elements of civil religion to oppose those practices, such critics were and remain marginal(ized).” And, like the vampire, it is virtually impossible to kill. No matter how hard anyone tries, the damn thing just keeps coming back to life.

March 12th, 2010

Government, civil society, and religious freedom

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Should the U.S. government employ American civil society to engage religious communities overseas in promotion of a “religious freedom agenda”? Scott Appleby, the Chicago Council’s Task Force Report (TFR), and the Obama administration think so. But there are serious problems with NGOs playing this role, either as an express supplement to, or possibly a covert screen for, U.S. foreign policy. First, it is worth emphasizing a point that might be lost in proposing such a “new” approach: civil society has autonomously done this for centuries. Beyond missionary groups’ traditional activities, both religious and secular NGOs have long engaged with overseas communities on political issues related to religion. Witness generations-old activism over foot-binding in China, female genital cutting in Kenya, and freedom of belief around the world.

March 8th, 2010

Words for a faithful world

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What fascinates me most about these religious freedom conversations—within the U.S. and between America and the world—are the words we use. Some words, even with the very best of intentions, mean very different things to different audiences. Assuming we have been careful about our diction, what “we” say nevertheless is often not what “they” hear, and vice-versa. For example, I don’t like the term “secularism.” It rings of laïcité, which perhaps works for the French, but is certainly not germane to the American experience. Meanwhile, for my Muslim friends, “secularism” suggests a godless society—something inconceivable to them, and, for that matter, to me. … Here’s another term that is more complicated than it seems: “Cairo Speech.” I was in Pakistan recently, and a thoughtful person told me that he was tired of Cairo speeches. Between Condoleezza Rice’s speech there in 2005, which I had forgotten about, and Barack Obama’s speech in 2009, nothing had fundamentally changed.

March 5th, 2010

Religion and the civic imagination

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Since the publication of Robert Bellah’s 1967 article “Civil Religion in America,” discussions of the topic have tended to devolve into debates between those who find the very idea morally objectionable and those who regard some form of civil religion as sociologically necessary. … Yet, if there is a benign form of American civil religion in the making, it has been a long time coming. The problem is not simply the proclivity to idolize the nation or the state, but the apparent impossibility of articulating our social bonds without relegating significant segments of the population to second-class citizenship. Because the “imagined community” of a nation rarely maps neatly onto the actual citizenry of a state, the quest for unity, however minimal its basis, ironically issues in exclusions. This may make perfectly good sense from a sociological perspective, but it presents a profound challenge to liberal democratic claims about equality.

March 4th, 2010

The wages of engagement

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Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy” is an ambitious, thoughtful, and thought-provoking report that makes for necessary reading. Public discussions of religion are always difficult, and any attempt to forge a path for the United States to engage religion in world affairs is destined to leave controversy in its wake. Accordingly, the authors deserve considerable credit for confronting a cluster of hot-button issues—and, moreover, for doing so through a comprehensive and wide-ranging dialogue that included a broad spectrum of opinions.  This report should be debated and discussed, not necessarily because it answers the difficult questions to everyone’s satisfaction, but rather because it confronts the difficult questions and tries, with honesty and integrity, to propose possible solutions. I was a member of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Task Force on Religion and the Making of U.S. Foreign Policy that informed the report, and, while I proudly associate myself with it, there are two issues that worry me.

March 3rd, 2010

Beware the unstated assumptions

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I applaud the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ call for the U.S. government to recognize the pivotal role of religion in societies around the world and to engage religious communities in pursuit of American foreign policy objectives. The Council’s Task Force on Religion and the Making of U.S. Foreign Policy wisely recommends mandating diplomatic training in religious literacy to address the striking ignorance that often leads to foreign policy blunders and missed opportunities. The tensions within the Task Force, which Scott Appleby recounts, actually illustrate the misconceptions that bedevil what, by law and interest, should be a central thrust of engagement: the promotion of religious freedom as a universal human right. As one who closely observed the process that produced the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, I can counter a number of such misconceptions.

March 1st, 2010

“Good Intentions” alone are not good enough!

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As I see it, the issue with “religious freedom” is not whether it should be upheld everywhere, but how and by whom.  While I am in agreement with some of what Scott Appleby says of the Task Force Report of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, I would challenge some of the conclusions and recommendations of the report as presented by Appleby, without going into discussion of the Report itself.  The premise of my comments is that the government of the United States does have a pivotal role in upholding all human rights—not only freedom of religion—through all facets of its own foreign policy.  But it should do so as a participant in a global joint-venture, instead of assuming the “White Man’s burden” of civilizing the rest of humanity. Religious freedom can neither be advanced in isolation of other fundamental human rights nor sustained by imperial imposition.

February 26th, 2010

Taking exception to American exceptionalism

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The United States is an empire in decline, as well as a nation under enormous economic duress, and civil religion remains the language by which people here struggle to engage and make sense of those circumstances. The very decline of American power will intensify attachment to the language and symbols typically associated with civil religion, and politicians will feel incredible pressure to invoke it, because they strategically seek electoral legitimacy, and because they themselves are deeply invested in, gripped by, an “American” political identification. The only alternative is that Americans mourn their investment in empire—i.e., in being god’s chosen nation and the “world’s greatest superpower”—to confront and accept the loss of a beloved identity and worldly power.

February 23rd, 2010

“Religious freedom” and its critics

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During his landmark address to the world, delivered in Cairo last June, President Obama proposed to open a new era of engagement with “Muslim communities”—engagement, that is, not just with Muslim states or regimes, but also with other economically and politically influential social sectors, including religious groups, educational institutions, civic organizations, health care institutions, and youth affiliations. In the hopes of accelerating the process of rethinking America’s attitude toward the Muslim word, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has issued a Task Force Report (TFR), entitled “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy.” Our hope is to build on the president’s ideas and explain why they apply not only to Islamic communities, but to religious communities more generally.

February 19th, 2010

Fantasies of sovereignty

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Montreal [site of the 2009 AAR meetings] was a particularly appropriate site for a return to civil religion. A civic polity not part of the United States, shaped by both the political traditions of Rousseau and the Roman Catholic Church, its very foreignness forced the US-based panelists to catch themselves when using what David Kyuman Kim called the “register of the collective ‘we’.” At the same time, Quebec’s own conflicted history of “civil religion,” rooted in profound contests over sovereignty, was a reminder of how civic identity is premised, at least in part, on the violence of imperial conquest—in this case, the French subjugation of the Mohawk, Cree, and other First Nations, and in turn that of the French by the English. These legacies of conquest still haunt any possibility of civic covenant in North America, and probably always will.

February 17th, 2010

Beyond believing but not belonging

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Religious identification is on the wane in the United States, as in most other nations in the developed world. Yet, many scholars and pundits are somewhat dismissive of trends in disaffiliation as evidence of growing secularism because, they claim, Americans increasingly believe but don’t belong. However, Americans’ beliefs are changing as well. And, many who do not believe are nonetheless forced to belong because of social influences on religious commitments. Indeed, as I will show, there are far more people who belong to religious groups but do not believe than there are people who believe but don’t belong. And, furthermore, a growing proportion of Americans neither believe in the authority of religious creeds nor belong to organizations devoted to religion.