here & there

June 22nd, 2016

On inclusion

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The following is excerpted from Nancy Levene’s forthcoming book, Powers of Distinction: Religion and Modernity x Two.—Eds.

In a recent piece in The New York Times’ column The Stone, philosophers Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden lament the blindness of contemporary philosophy departments towards cultures outside the West. Since such departments promulgate a specifically Euro-American philosophy, they should either identify themselves accordingly or expand to include non-Western materials in their curricula. The argument raises a long-standing but still urgent question in the humanities and social sciences. What is it to expand canons of study when the principles of those canons are themselves specific? This is not, to be sure, how Garfield and Norden see it. The canon of philosophy is rather precisely non-specific and can—indeed must—be expanded without further consideration. That academic philosophy does not do so is not principled but simply prejudicial.

I want to migrate this concern to the study and conception of religion. It might be said that Garfield’s and Norden’s expansion has already happened, with the stipulation that non-Western philosophy exhibit its wares in departments of religion. There one will find Islamic philosophy, Chinese philosophy, and so on. This state of affairs is no doubt unsatisfactory. But let it nevertheless reframe the question. The study of religion has had no trouble expanding the canon of religion. The question is, on what basis has it done so? To give a preliminary response, I call on a few exemplary characters and motifs.

In the opening paragraph of his Meditations on First Philosophy, René Descartes famously confesses that many of the opinions he has held since his youth have turned out to be false. “I realized,” he writes, “that once in my life I had to raze everything to the ground and begin again from the original foundations.” He notes, however, that years have passed since he first made this realization. He “procrastinated,” he admits. His Meditations represents his eventual resolve to enact what he calls his “demolition” [eversio]. Why did it take so long? Quite simply, he notes, “the task seemed enormous.”

I take inspiration from Descartes’ sense of enormity both insofar as religion provokes a question concerning foundations and insofar as it has languished. One might protest: What more vibrant topic exists in contemporary social and cultural theory? Has not the field of religious studies labored for more than a century to interrogate the nature and parameters of religion in a global context? Undoubtedly. What is required now is a revision of what Émile Durkheim called religion’s “elementary forms.” I borrow Durkheim’s iconic language, while amending his assumption that there are elementary forms of a generic religion at the root of all cultures. Durkheim identifies an elemental religion that, in encompassing all peoples, corrects the monstrosity of Western self-regard. What the scholarship of his day called the primitive is placed not only at the root of more developed societies, to be surveyed from the heights, but in the very midst of Western civilization. Religion is the idea and practice of community, says Durkheim. The civilized have nothing fundamental to add that simpler communities do not express from the beginning.

It is a brilliant effort. Religion will repent of its services to imperialist ventures by removing all particulars from its elemental vocabulary. What remains, however, are distinctions of the social overlooked by Durkheim in his effort to make a unified theory. If religion is an articulation—a theory—of community, then it can be enchanting to document all the different kinds. But although the field of religious studies has stalled there, whether in confirmation or refutation, that is not a reason for readers and citizens to continue to do so. Yes, religion might serve to divide civilized from primitive, West from its others. Division is the very mark, the very totem, Durkheim saw, of community, including the community of scholars. What Durkheim only implicitly saw, however, is that religion might also power the critique of communities whose borders are inclusive of only some arbitrary “we,” or, what is the same, a we comprised of kin, tribe, and kind. If he is right that the social elementary is one of borders, he did not complete the interrogation of kinds of borders. It might be tempting to respond by flinging open all borders and claiming supremacy over the collectives that cling to them. This is exactly the mentality Durkheim resisted, and rightly. The point is to understand borders and their different distinctions.

The power to do so belongs not to a generic religion, but to a particular historical and social topos, a religion, but no less a secularism, which can serve as another name for modernity. Religion is modern insofar as it expresses that what theorists like Durkheim help us to see is ordinarily the case—that human beings are communal and political beings—may also be subject to the extraordinary pressure on the border of community that it be extended. Religion is modern to the extent that it holds that what is righteous for one’s own kind might be made righteous for other kinds, and indeed, perhaps, for all. Religion is conceived generically on the grounds of extending its borders to all in their differences. But in addressing only the political struggles that necessarily attend difference, that is, by formulating religion as generic so that it can preemptively include all social formations, the study of religion has evaded the question of principle, the question of which principles make such inclusion possible. That Descartes is now a thinker to be “demolished,” to turn his own metaphor on him, may mean we have kept faith with his impulse to rethink foundations. Or it may mean we have failed adequately to do so, the compulsion to rebroadcast the failed foundationalism of Descartes a sign rather of our failure more than his.

How might one arrive at the principle of inclusion, the principle of self-critique as elementary form of (a study of) religion? The question calls to mind Edward Said’s short book, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, in which Said calls for an investment in the humanities as “the critical investigation of values, history, and freedom.” Such an investment would be as vigilant about the abuses conducted in the name of these things as it is hopeful that the catalogue of abuse does not overwhelm the desire to practice them.

Said’s call for the humanities to embrace this role is not disconcerting to most fields. In the study of religion, however, the question of values remains vexed, undoubtedly in proportion to religion’s quest for social primacy. An inquirer is understandably cautious in considering what his or her stance towards the object shall be. The study of religion has dealt with this challenge by a separation of sub-fields (theology the realm of values, history and theory the realm of analysis) or by sequestering scholarly study from the question of value altogether.

At the same time, fields outside the study of religion have absorbed a story that has religion die as a conceptual problem sometime at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Philology, history, and anthropology come to fill the space evacuated by the divine sciences. These new disciplines support the West in turning its attention to the rest of the globe and to traditions less buffeted by reformation and enlightenment. To the extent religion in the West continues apace, it is a topic for sociology, cognitive science, and perhaps psychology most of all as elite Westerners settle down into the therapeutic remainders of the god-complex. The study of religion becomes the study of why people, these or those people, are religious; what solves the problem of why there still is (and what is) religion given its (so-called) demise, the surest sign of which demise is the very scholarship on religion that asks the question. Let the field of religious studies take on and represent treasures from the past and traditions the West ignorantly overlooked, including aspects of its own.

But what live problems religion presents to contemporary thought and culture beyond the oddity or offense of its continued existence—in face of this question there is puzzlement.

One of the signal weaknesses of Said’s own authorship is his undigested premise that “the humanities concern secular history.” Said follows Giambattista Vico in conceiving the secular as what concerns “the products of human labor, the human capacity for articulate expression.” The “core of humanism” is Vico’s claim that, in Said’s words, “we can really know only what we make or, to put it differently, we can know things according to the way they were made.” In the aphorism from which Said is drawing, Vico proclaims his surprise that “the philosophers should have bent all their energies to the study of the world of nature, which, since God made it He alone knows,” and that “the world of civil society,” which “has certainly been made by men” and whose “principles are therefore to be found within the modification of our own human minds” should have been comparatively neglected. We can know history because “we” human beings, and not God, have made it. It is a work of the human from beginning to end.

Yet this distinction between the works of human beings and the works of God does not end the matter for Vico. Said is astute in choosing him as an intellectual comrade for their shared commitment to history as a site of knowing what it is to be human through what human beings have made.  But Vico goes further into the matter of God and the human than Said acknowledges. For who is God? In the contemporary humanities, God is simply a name for what stands outside rational and historical knowledge and thus outside the humanities. This judgment has an institutional thrust. For the pursuit of matters divine there are the separate conclaves of divinity. For Vico, however, the realm of human history is also providential, also divine in a sense different both from nature and from some supernatural realm. Said neatly borrows Vico’s richest notion—that, again in Said’s words, “historical knowledge [is] based on the human being’s capacity to make knowledge, as opposed to absorbing it passively, reactively, and dully.” Hence the centrality of value to knowing insofar as making involves investment and choice. However, he thereby excises a dimension of Vico’s project: to understand the divine in the terms of history, the ambition of which is captured in Vico’s multi-nominal description of his project as a “rational civil theology of divine providence.” Said is right that Vico means by this “the secular.” But he is insufficiently curious about what the Vichian secular fully entails. One has cause to observe in this light that while the study of religion lives uneasily with theology, the humanities lives uneasily with religion and its study, neither domain knowing quite how to speak about religion within the confines of scholarly work; neither knowing quite what to do with Said’s call for critical thought and human emancipation as parts of the same investigative posture and project. Here would be the principle of plurality, and not only, as in Garfield and Norden, the pluralism of principles.

In the early pages of Orientalism, Said gives us the operative question: “Can one divide human reality, as indeed human reality seems to be genuinely divided, into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences humanly?” This question is bedrock. Human reality seems to be divided. One is called to divide it—to distinguish, to apprehend, to conceive. Together in their mutual criticism these claims constitute the genius and the responsibility of the humanities. Reality will put pressure on our investments. Yet we are bound to a shared real that “seems to be genuinely divided” as we struggle to make our divisions truthful—supportive of self and other. As Said puts it, humanly survivable; as Garfield and Norden imply, true because inclusive. The work to do so—to see reality as it is, as we have taken it, shall take it—is ongoing.

This is to say that the principle of inclusion is distinct from principles that exclude. It is the recognition that, in the world of divisions, some are supportive of life and some are invidious and violent. The principle is therefore the paradox that inclusion is only possible in refusal—in the distinction of distinction as expansion from the distinction of imperialism.

In the study of religion, Said’s gambit for the “the critical investigation of values, history, and freedom” has seemed too dangerous, consistent with Said’s own ambivalence about religion. The worry is Christianity, and specifically Protestantism, whose theological norms are seen to cling to every effort toward secularity, and which therefore require special measures of exposure and critique. This worry constitutes a part of the work of post-colonial studies, which indicts Christianity and the West as historical complexes that have dominated those of other regions and religions, in part by claiming to serve as neutral hosts for an ostensibly expansive plurality. Better, it might seem, to denude religion of any history whatsoever. Religion would now be undisguised, but also cleansed of certain identifying features. As a generic concept, religion is both essentially plural—anything can count within it—and essentially empty, neither rooted in history nor possessing any necessary content. From this vantage, to count religion as a generic category is the same as to postulate that religion does not exist. It exists, that is to say, as a function of scholarly investigation and is limited thereto, having little beyond an ideological meaning in the world scholarship aims to understand, and thus constituting a primary site of scholarly demystification.

Religion, however, is a historical concept. It is not merely a term with a history to which it would be limited or a term by which to pick out historical variation. Religion is a concept used in systemic distinctions in and of history. Generic accounts imagine religion as a sign of primal difference, constituted by such pairs as the sacred and the profane, man and the gods, chaos and order. Yet in a history of distinctions in (within) religion, religion is not only a conceptual container for a difference of this from that. Religion is productive of distinction, serving either as the ideological-political conservation of community (the distinction between us and them) or the ideological-political engagement with the principle that the border can be mobile and thus inclusive/expansive (the distinction of inclusion). This distinction (of distinctions) is not without cost. The conception of religion and history as key terms whose work is co-involved cannot support religion as something in general or predicable of the human as such. It therefore has no way of avoiding the offense of characterizing particular standpoints, including that of scholarship; of involving, then, the demolition of the generic and the commitment to foundations of inclusion in principle.

Inclusion is a value in both study and worlds. Scholars have long-since internalized the unsettling work tracing the relationship between religion and forms of empire and colonialism, formations built on invidious distinction. Such work shows no sign of slowing. The thoroughgoing prejudices at the heart of Western religious thought and politics, the pervasiveness in scholarship of invidious distinctions between us and them, good and bad religion, the West v. the rest, the assumption of Protestant frameworks and metaphysics in contrast with which all else is implicitly deviant, not to mention the perfidy of a liberalism that attempts to solve these ills too quickly or unconsciously—all have been scrupulously documented and exposed. Distinctions of value in or of religion cannot, agreed, recapitulate these sins. Now what? It is time to advance to the next move.

June 16th, 2016

The Origins of Neoliberalism: Modeling the Economy from Jesus to Foucault: An introduction

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Traditionally, Western thought framed human life as evolving in a three-dimensional space: the economic, the political, and the philosophical. Nowadays, as in times past, this tradition sets its origins in classical Athens, a time when the happy and self-sufficient public life of politics and the solitary one of philosophy were nourishing on the surplus generated by the economy. The economy was confined to the private sphere of the household and excluded from the public sphere that was occupied by politics. The Origins of Neoliberalism: Modeling the Economy from Jesus to Foucault retells the history of the West following the less traversed economic side of the story by conducting a philological history that traces the meanings that were attached to the notion of oikonomia in Greek speaking antiquity. Doing so, the book offers a twist on the historical narrative of the present: it argues that the rise of the “economy of the mystery which from eternity has been hid in God who created all things” (Ephesians 3:9) in Greek-speaking Christianity of late antiquity plays a decisive role in this history. By reinserting this too-often ignored chapter, the book goes beyond closing a great gap in the histories of economic thought, philosophical inquiries, and political theory. As the research conducted in the book is of a genealogical nature, The Origins of Neoliberalism holds (and demonstrates) that recovering the mysteries of the economy in early Christianity is of great relevance for any critical engagement with neoliberalism, let alone overcoming it.

The book does so by tracing the rise of the economy from the private sphere of the earthly household in the classical era into the public sphere of the Christian ecclesia. The transfer of the economy from the private sphere to the public one was accompanied by yet another change: from the management of life necessities to the dispensation of divine mysteries. Following a detailed history of the economy’s rise to divine glory in the years that preceded the baptism of Constantine, the book then describes how Christ’s economy was modeled as the execution and revelation of the divine plan of salvation in the era between the councils of Nicea (in 325) and Chalcedon (in 451). Drawing on exegetical and apologetic tracts, homilies and eulogies, manuals and correspondence, as well as Church canons and creeds, The Origins of Neoliberalism describes how these new economic models radically altered economy’s relations with politics and with philosophy. Reconstructing the formation of economy’s relations with politics and with philosophy in the fourth century reveals how this singular formation led to several key phenomena that are commonly associated with the rise of the modern age. Among them are: progressive history; political subjectivity; the emergence of a distinction between economy and theology; the subjugation of politics to the economy; the migration of freedom from the realm of politics to that of the economy; the economization of philosophical life; the definition of the economic state of exception in relation to law; and the emergence of a (Christian) society whose main concern is the growth of the economy.

The phenomenon of economic growth demonstrates how recovering the origins of neoliberalism in patristic thought can enrich the critique of the neoliberal predicament. This is because of the essential role attributed to the generation of economic growth as the sole criterion for economic and social policy over the last century. At first, it was the halt of growth in the Great Depression that brought about the change from classical liberal economic policy to a Keynesian policy. The policy prescribed by the Keynesians was replaced by a neoliberal one in 1980s, which led to the Great Recession and whose ability to generate growth was oversold, as recently acknowledged by the IMF. It seems as if the prospect of a long-term decline in economic growth, most commonly referred to nowadays as Secular Stagnation, has opened the door for yet another policy shift, either progressive or radical. Furthermore, as we become horrifically aware of the devastating consequences to the natural environment due to our addiction to economic growth, the discovery of the roots of this growth in late antique Christian thought reveals the peculiar nature of our addiction to economic growth. This discovery may help us to remodel the economy by introducing models such as a non-growing economy of the ancients before the rise of Christianity, or an economy of growth of a totally different substance, as was the case with Christ’s economy.

As shown in the book, the concept of economic growth can be traced back to Gregory of Nyssa, a Church father from the fourth century. Parting with the tradition of Greek philosophy, Gregory conceptualized human beings as a becoming creature whose desires know no limits in the bounds of the economic sphere. In light of this new human condition, itself an effect of the newly erected distinction between theology and economy, Gregory distinguished between three kinds of human desires. Like many of his Greek predecessors, the first type he discerned included the basic bodily needs that humans share with other creatures. These needs he regarded as necessary for ensuring the existence of the species. Satisfying such needs he considered as neither morally “good” nor “evil” in themselves. Gregory described the second type as a vicious perversion of natural bodily desires. This type he devised as originating in the unchecked self-enslavement to such desires.

Gregory’s innovation lies in the claim that satisfying bodily desires to the exact degree that will secure existence relieves an energy that can be turned to a third type of desire—the desire for God. Practicing this desire, he explained, generates unlimited growth of divinization. According to Gregory, the reason that humans’ desire for God generates growth and does not, like the earthly types, incarcerate humans in a circular economy of desire-saturation-desire had to do with the unique nature of the Godhead as an object of desire: He knows no limits and, as such, generates in people an insatiable desire. Hannah Arendt’s famously ascribed the origin of modern economic growth to the unleashing of the life process from the boundaries of the private sphere of the earthly household into the public one of society. Following Gregory, one can paraphrase Arendt saying that the growth element unique to humans had completely overcame and overgrown the processes of decay by which organic life is checked and balanced in nature’s household. Eventually, Gregory concluded that the insatiable desire for the divine object becomes itself the object of desire, and growth for its own sake thus became the ultimate test and goal of the divinized economy generated by the members of the society of believers in Christ’s economy. Moreover, Gregory’s personal economic growth, that is, the divinization of each member of the ecclesiastical body, is accumulated and together accounts for growth on an ecumenical scale.

The Origins of Neoliberalism follows Michel Foucault’s and Giorgio Agamben’s genealogical inquiries into the origins of economy and government in the Christianity of late antiquity. It does so by tracing the development of the definitions of the scope and method of economics from John Stuart Mill to Gary Becker. The book recounts how humans are governed in the neoliberal marketized economy as creatures who act in a unified space in which each and every object has the quality of generating non saturated desire. The pursuit of satisfying these non-saturated desires, the book argues, are responsible for generating economic growth. Inquiring into the patristic origins of neoliberalism suggests that the secularization of the economy that took place when the economy migrated from the Christian ecclesia to the liberal market involved the radicalization of the Christian theory of economic growth so that each and every object (and no longer only the Divine One) possesses the ability to generate in humans an unlimited, unsaturated desire. Put differently, the secularization brought about by the marketization of Christ economy revolved around the indiscriminate ascription of His divine ability to generate insatiable growth and not the exclusion of the desire for God from the economy (if only because this desire is analyzed by economists). Instead of the exclusion of God from the economy what took place was the divinization of each desiring subject and every object of desire. If this is so, it would seem plausible to describe this double-edged displacement of Christ economy’s excessive quality to the interplay between, on the one hand, a desiring subject and, on the other hand, desired objects.

Backdating the discovery of economic growth to the fourth century and revealing its theological dimensions demonstrates how situating the origins of neoliberalism in the Christianity of late antiquity may offer critical resources for the purpose of dealing with neoliberalism today. It may, as described in the book, be understood against the background of the migration of the economy from the Christian ecclesia to the liberal market and of the subsequent absorption of all spheres of life into the marketized economy in the neoliberal era. It is my hope that the genealogical inquiry into the Christian origins of the neoliberal marketized economy will be of service for a new political philosophy that will remodel the economy and its relations with politics and philosophy in a way that will facilitate overcoming the neoliberal economy.

An excerpt from the book that includes a discussion on Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben genealogical inquiries into the origins of economy and government in the Christianity of late antiquity can be found here.

June 13th, 2016

Secularization histories as cultural-political programs

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In a The Immanent Frame post on buffered selves, Charles Taylor commented that “The process of disenchantment, involving a change in us, can be seen as a loss of a certain sensibility that is really an impoverishment (as against simply the shedding of irrational feelings).” For Taylor, selves that have been sealed against currents of transcendence flowing through cosmos and community are symptoms of an epochal process of secularization that has rationalized or disenchanted both individuals and whole societies. While not being the only one on offer—Jürgen Habermas and Daniel Dennett provide rival Kantian and naturalist accounts—Taylor’s account of a “disembedding” of the transcendent brought about by a self-alienating religion is probably the dominant philosophical history of a “secular age.” Given that Taylor aligns secularization with “Reform Christianity” and dates it to the 1500s, however, what should we make of the fact that the term was not used to refer to an epochal process of rationalization until the early nineteenth century?

Prior to this point secularization had a specialized use in canon law to refer to the transfer of cloistered clergy to the secular or worldly duties of the parish. But since the mid-seventeenth century its dominant use was in European public law to name the conversion of ecclesiastical property and jurisdiction to civil ownership and jurisdiction, although this too was a specialized usage and made no reference to any epochal rationalization of culture and society. It seems that the first uses of secularization to refer to such an epochal process date from the 1830s, and that they emerged in a specific context: namely, in debates over the reshaping of Germany’s religious and political order that were taking place in the period of political turbulence (the Vormärz) leading up to the 1848 revolution and National Assembly.

It further seems that this new usage took place within the new discourse or discipline of philosophical history that had emerged when Kantian and Hegelian metaphysics were projected onto political, legal, and ecclesiastical historiographies. It was in this political, religious, and discursive context that philosophical historians, especially “right” and “left” Hegelians, began to use a battery of terms—Verweltlichung and (less frequently) Säkularisation and Säkularisierung—in a new way, to refer to an epochal process that was transforming a formerly religiously based society into one grounded in human reason.

Of course, even if the use of secularization to refer to an epochal process of rationalization or disenchantment did not emerge until the early nineteenth century, it is still possible that such a process had been underway since the 1500s or even earlier. Possible, certainly, but likely?

Two historiographical research programs suggest that the evidence points in the opposite direction. The German “confessionalization” research program has produced many studies and much evidence indicating that rather than undergoing decline and rationalization, beginning in the mid-sixteenth century Christian observance was significantly expanded and intensified. As a result of three overlapping waves of confessionalization—Lutheran, Catholic, and Calvinist—Christian clergy were imprinted with mutually opposed theological and liturgical doctrines, while Christian communities were subject to new forms of religious education and pastoral guidance designed to extend religious discipline into everyday life.

But a second and more recent body of research (by such scholars as Margaret Lavinia Anderson and Christopher Clark) indicates that even in the face of nineteenth-century secularizing campaigns the confessional churches proved remarkably resilient, adapting their liturgical and pastoral forms to uncertain times, and forging the formidable organizational bulwarks of political Catholicism and political Protestantism from which Christian Democracy would emerge.

For present purposes these research programs provide grounds enough for suggesting that if the notion of secularization as an epochal rationalization of society was not invented until the early nineteenth century, this is because no such process had taken place, and, moreover, that no such process would take place during the century following that invention. By entertaining this suggestion it is possible to shift the focus of historical inquiry away from a claimed process of epochal secularization and onto the making of the claim itself.

If it is not prima facie evident that any such process was taking place, then what was it about 1830s Germany that led to the formulation of the new usage, and how did this take place? This question makes it possible to shift attention away from the putative epochal process of rationalizing secularization and onto the groups who first formulated the notion of such a process, the discursive means that they used, and the religious and political purposes that this notion served.

There would appear to be five major discursive sources for philosophical-historical constructions of an epochal process of secularization, although these discourses often overlapped and flowed into each other, especially in the factionalized turbulence of the Vormärz period.

First, in disseminating a view of man as a rational being distracted by his sensuous inclinations, Kantianism formed an academic subculture in which individual moral self-cultivation could replace ecclesiastical salvation. This metaphysical anthropology allowed history to be imagined as the progressive temporal unfolding of man’s capacity for rational self-governance, and this in turn gave rise to a rational religion and ecclesiology according to which infantile confessional biblical religions would be progressively displaced (“secularized”) with the maturation of a “pure religion of reason.”

Second, the free-thought and Free Religion movements also taught that reason itself would render Christianity redundant, but in a much more straightforward manner than Kant’s doctrine, simply through the progress of education and “science” that would relegate confessional religion in favor of a secular society based on free rational individuals.

Third, drawing on Hegel’s conception of history as successive self-objectifications and de-alienations of reason or spirit, theological or right Hegelians such as Bruno Bauer and Richard Rothe argued that the church was being progressively alienated or secularized through its incorporation into the state, while, at the same time, the state was being de-secularized by assuming the moral functions previously invested in the churches. In 1837, in one of the earliest of the new uses of the term, Rothe could declare that “The church is thus secularized [säcularisirt] in the same measure as the state is desecularized [entsäcularisirt]….”1

Fourth, the so-called left Hegelians—Ludwig Arnold Feuerbach, Ruge, Karl Marx—put Hegel’s dialectic to work in a different way, arguing that religion itself was an estranged projection of human psychology and anthropology. Man projected religion as an alienated superstructure owing to his psychological immaturity and/or and economic enslavement. This meant that educational and economic emancipation would lead to the de-alienation or secularization (usually Verweltlichung) of religion, entailing its complete displacement by ethics and radical popular democracy.

Although it belongs to the same discursive constellation as the four nineteenth-century forms, the fifth construction of secularization as epochal rationalization of society did not appear until the middle of the twentieth century. Emerging first from the reception of Hegelian philosophy within Catholic theological and social thought (an Anglican variant would follow), this construction combines two elements: first, a Hegelian conception of society as the alienated superstructure of religion; and second, a neo-Thomist understanding of the Protestant Reformation as a process that “disembedded” the transcendent from cosmos and society, allowing them to become alienated and instrumentalized. Charles Taylor could thus construct a philosophical history of a “secular age” in which the Protestant disembedding of the transcendentals led to an epochal disenchantment of the cosmos and disciplining of society, giving rise to a modern age supposedly consisting of “buffered” selves, a disciplined society, and an objectified and alienated cosmos.

Having identified four ways in which the notion of secularization as an epochal rationalization of society was first formulated in the early nineteenth century, plus a fifth 20th century offshoot, it becomes possible to redescribe these constructions by situating them within the factional cultural-political programs in which they were forged as combat concepts. I offer four brief pointers as to what such a redescription might look like.

First, and perhaps most demandingly, it will be necessary to cease viewing the philosophical histories as scholarly accounts of the confessional religions and to treat them instead as something like academic rivals. This radical reorientation becomes a little less demanding once we recall that in the early nineteenth century leading representatives of the confessional religions viewed Kantian and Hegelian philosophies as heterodox theologies, with Kantianism being routinely attacked as a hyper-rationalist Pelagianism and Hegelianism as a species of pantheism and Gnosticism. In this regard, it also helps to recall that these philosophies employed metaphysical anthropologies and cosmologies—Kant’s Christological view of man as a pure intelligence attached to a distracting sensibility, Hegel’s quasi-gnostic view of human reason as evolving through the mind’s or spirit’s successive historical self-objectifications and sublations—that were very similar to Christian models, from which they were arguably derived. Seen in this light, Kantianism and Hegelianism look very much like rival spiritual pedagogies to those offered by the Christian confessions.

Second, neither did Kantian and Hegelian philosophies provide a scholarly understanding of the German religious settlement and the religious constitution. As a result of major juridical and political reconstructions that followed from the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Germany had developed a remarkable and distinctive religious constitution. Martin Heckel has taught us that this was a double-sided structure consisting of a juridical framework that was “secular” (weltlich) in the sense of recognizing a plurality of official confessions, but inside which each of the confessions was expected to teach its doctrines as absolute truths.

This ambivalent constitutional architecture meant that a limited secular outlook developed not on the basis of a foundational rationalist philosophy or through the self-alienation of an anti-sacramental religion, but as the result of a set of political-juridical arrangements in which religious and metaphysical truth had been suspended in order to achieve the political coexistence of rival confessional blocs. But it also meant that inside this treaty-based framework, rather than being secularized, the constitutionally recognized religions would be maintained as an array of absolutely true faiths in perpetuity.

Third, if they did not issue in scholarly histories or theories capable of being true, how did the philosophical histories of secularization gain such traction during the 1830s and 1840s? The first thing to observe in this regard is that these philosophical histories channeled the spiritual prestige and social authority of an esteemed German personage: the university metaphysician, imbued with charismatic insight into the transcendent forms underlying the empirical world, and the unfolding of these forms in historical time towards an eschatological finality. Through their metaphysical anthropologies and cosmologies Kant and Hegel transposed this insight into an extra-ecclesial academic subculture, and Kantian philosophers and their Hegelian rivals, both right and left, unhesitatingly laid claim to it by prophesying the transcendental unfolding of spirit in history, specifically in their philosophical histories of the inevitable secularization of society.

Fourth, by itself, however, the spiritual authority and insight of the university metaphysician was not enough to give cultural and political traction to the philosophical histories of secularization. What permitted these rationalist religious philosophies and philosophical histories of secularization to become effectual was not their truth or a history that would make them true, but something quite different: Napoleon’s destruction of the German Empire in 1806, accompanied by the suspension of the religious constitution that had kept the rationalist philosophies in check as tolerated academic confessions. This permitted various Kantian and Hegelian (and freethought) philosophers to assume leadership roles in the plethora of political sects and factions that sought to shape the course of constitutional and political history in the period leading up to 1848, embodying competing programs of secularization (and sacralization) in party platforms.

In short, the philosophical histories of secularization became effectual not because they described an epochal process, but because the programmed rival factional attempts to reconfigure the religious constitution. Backed by a unified political organization and sufficient coercive power, one of these programs might well have achieved a certain kind of secularization, as would happen in the German Democratic Republic after 1945. In the event of 1848, however, stalemate between the competing factions, followed by political and military crisis, led not to secularization but to the reinstatement of the pluralist religious constitution—as would happen again in 1919 and 1949—not because of its truth of course, but on account of its capacity to hold the ring between competing truths.

One might say that since 1848, philosophical histories of secularization as an epochal rationalization of society have hovered at the edges of the university, as we see in the rival accounts of secularization provided by such thinkers as Habermas, Taylor, Brad Gregory, John Milbank, and others. These thinkers seem to wait for a political or religious situation that could convert a process that never happened into a program that might just work. Removed from the kind of political power that permitted the GDR’s successful left-Hegelian secularizing program, the philosophical historians of secularization lose their prophetic capacity and turn back into academic faction leaders.

Habermas’s Kantian claim that the development of discursive reason has the capacity to secularize confessional religion while preserving religious norms in a rational form thus only makes sense within a factional cultural-political program. But this also applies to Taylor’s Hegelian claim that Protestantism’s self-estrangement into an atomized disciplinary society might be followed by a sacralizing de-alienation capable of reintegrating the “disembedded” transcendentals in moral community. If there was no “unfinished” project of secularization, then it cannot be completed in the present. Equally, if religion never went away then it cannot come back.

  1. Richard Rothe, Die Anfänge der Christlichen Kirche und ihrer Verfassung (Wittenberg, 1837), p. 85.

June 8th, 2016

Hobbesian Catholicism on the rise in Poland?

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The right-wing Law and Justice Party victory in the 2015 parliamentary and presidential elections has opened a new chapter in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the state in Poland. For the first time after the fall of communism, the governing party is openly instrumentalizing the Church for its own political ends. A central figure in this endeavor is Father Tadeusz Rydzyk—a businessman, priest and founder of the politically charged Radio Maryja station. Rydzyk is supported by a large part of episcopate, although there is a significant number of leaders who fear such entanglements could lead Polish Catholicism into a major spiritual crisis and a loss of respect for the Church.

Respect for the Polish Catholic Church is linked to the role it played during communism, when the Church provided a necessary alternative to the totalitarian state and gave many Poles a sense of freedom and dignity. The Church lent vital moral support for opposition movements such as the massive Solidarity movement in the 1980s, explored in detail by Jose Casanova in Public Religions in the Modern World.

The story told by Casanova would have not been possible without the close cooperation and dialogue between the Church and the emerging democratic opposition on the left. Referred to as the “laique left,” this mostly nonreligious group was strongly influenced by ex-communist Leszek Kolakowski (who later almost became a Catholic). In 1976, agnostic ex-Marxist and rising democratic opposition leader Adam Michnik wrote the most important exploration of the dialogue between the Church and Polish left: a book that was a manifesto against political atheism entitled The Church and the Left. Both the Church and nonreligious intellectuals were genuinely interested in dialogue, and Michnik’s book helped form an alliance and reconciliation between the Church and the left that greatly contributed to the overthrow of communism.

Despite the book’s significance today, distrust from both sides has strained and suspended a healthy dialog between the Church and non-Catholics. Liberals and the left fear a Church that will conserve a nationalist and exclusively Catholic society; the Church fears elites who will accelerate Western-style secularization. Ironically, the religiosity of Polish society follows neither of the above-mentioned trajectories. In the 1990s, sociologists expected that Poland would become a secularized society similar to those in Western Europe. The increased power of the Church during the Cold War was viewed as temporary and in relation to its opposition to communism. But the reality is much more complicated.

Social secularization actually began spreading throughout the Communist period, but the movement was halted and partially reversed when John Paul II became a pope and, to a large extent, inspired the Solidarity movement. Thus Poland never experienced a significant wave of secularization. Although the numbers have decreased over time, today a majority of Poles consider themselves Catholic and many of them attend Sunday mass.  Despite the secularization of the young urban middle class, Polish youths are generally much more conservative than their Western counterparts.

Jarosław Kaczyński, Law and Justice Party leader and de facto leader of the government (both the president and prime minister are his subordinates), has recognized the Catholic Church’s political leverage.  This was not always the case. Referring to the nation’s influential conservative party in the 1990s, Kaczyński famously remarked that a Christian-National Union would be the quickest way to dechristianize Poland.1 He was also critical of Father Rydzyk and Radio Maryja.

But at some point Kaczyński understood that the Church might serve as a useful tool for his political ambitions. After 1989, many who had once cooperated with the Church abandoned it. Non-believers no longer found reasons to side with a conservative Church and eventually turned towards the post-Solidarity left or political center (especially during the abortion debates of the 1990s). Kaczyński recognized these trends and began to promote a vision of Polishness rooted in Catholicism. The ideology of national democracy shaped a large part of Polish society for decades, beginning with the writings of Roman Dmowski who mixed ideals of “Polishness” and political Catholicism in “Thoughts of a modern Pole.”

This tradition, however, has always been weaker than the romantic ideal, which mixes strong religious feelings (often at odds with the institutional Church) and messianism – the idea that Poland is a protagonist of world history. This interpretation of Polish history has had a powerful influence in shaping generations of Polish statesmen and Church figures (including John Paul II) and has little to do with the ethnic ideal of “Polishness” as envisioned by national democrats.

The strongest bonds between the Law and Justice Party and the national-conservative wing of the Church emerged after a plane crash in Smolensk killed then-president Lech Kaczyński (Jaroslaw’s brother) on April 10, 2010. A curious sort of religion was created to turn those who had died into martyrs and called for religious celebrations on the tenth day of each month in remembrance of the victims—the celebrations served also as political rallies for Jaroslaw Kaczyński.

But these relationships are in peril today, particularly after the election of Pope Francis.  The Pope condemns the idea of a confessional state and praises the separation of Church and state in order to ensure religious freedom. Pope Francis has not addressed the situation in Poland, but his remarks about the Church’s mission are at odds with the vision of Catholicism as a quasi-state religion a la Kaczyński. Some Poles hope the Pope will take a stand during his visit to Krakow in July during World Youth Days, although it seems more likely that the Pope will avoid any confrontation with the Polish government.

It is not clear whether the clergy in Poland will buy into Kaczyński’s strategy. There are many Church leaders who believe the current government is not in line with the Church’s mission, particularly when it comes to refugees. The Church pushed back against the government, and a majority of the public, when it supported the Pope’s appeals and welcomed refugees. The Church has offered support by organizing masses, providing practical help and housing, and sending the episcopate’s president Stanisław Gądecki to visit Syria. While they talk a lot about the fate of Christians there, they also support people of other religions. With some important exceptions, the Catholic Church in Poland follows papal recommendations for dealing with refugee crises.

The Church also came out against a citizens’ project calling for a more restrictive abortion law, which currently allows abortion in three cases only: when the life or health of a mother is in danger, when the pregnancy is a result of a rape or when the fetus is seriously malformed. The Church did not change its view on abortion, but says the criminalization of abortion in such cases would be harmful to women. And it condemns the few, yet rising, instances of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia.

A Hobbesian vision of a church as subordinate to the Leviathan has clearly emerged in the last months after the elections. The state church might have been a rational choice in England torn by religious wars of sixteenth century, but in twenty-first century Europe it is a dangerous vision for the Church, which risks losing its spiritual authority. Although a schism seems to be very unlikely, a further confessionalization of Polish state is quite probable. The question now is whether Catholic hierarchs in Poland will reject such a dangerous vision, and the lure of symbolic and financial gain, in favor of what is right for society and the Church. It is also necessary and important that believers speak out about the dangers of the politicization of Catholicism and the significant breaches to articles of faith in post-Vatican II Catholicism.

  1. Cited for example here: Dominik Zdort (2012), Kompendium patriotyczne, Wydawnictwo M: p. 60.

June 1st, 2016

Post-Doctoral Opportunity at Columbia University IRCPL

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UntitledThe Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life invites applications for postdoctoral scholar positions, for the 2016-2017 academic year. Renewal for the 2017-2018 academic year is possible, contingent on satisfactory performance and funding.

The Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life at Columbia University supports academic research, teaching, and scholarship on the study of religion, culture, and social difference at Columbia University. In addition, it convenes academic conferences, public forums, and collaborative programming to support and extend academic and scholarly understanding of these topics, and to disseminate and distribute such new understandings to broader publics and communities.

Candidates must have received the PhD between August 31, 2013 and August 31, 2016 in a discipline engaged with the interdisciplinary study of religion. The Institute is particularly interested in candidates whose research engages critical, interpretive, historical, and genealogical approaches that challenge traditional disciplinary boundaries and who are studying important global issues in the following thematic areas: 1. Islam in the 21st Century; 2. Religion and Politics in the Middle East; 3. Religion in American Public Life; 4. Democracy, Secularism and Pluralism; 5. Religion and Sexuality; and 6. Religion and Journalism.

This is a full time salaried position with benefits. Review of applications begins on June 9th, 2016 and will continue until the positions are filled. All applications must be submitted through Columbia University’s online Recruitment of Academic Personnel System (RAPS).

Click here for more information.

May 26th, 2016

Invisible Hands

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Invisible HandsJonathan Sheehan and Dror Wahrman’s Invisible Hands: Self-Organization and the Eighteenth Century presents a fascinating exploration of the proliferating logics of self-organization across various Enlightenment discourses, ranging from metaphysics and political economy to botany, mathematics, and epistemology. The book reinterprets a wide array of well-known figures and recovers a set of forgotten minor characters who, in different ways, attempt “to rediscover a meaningful world beyond the random motions of an Epicurus or Lucretius, beyond the older pieties of Christianity, and beyond the cold world of Descartes.” The complex language of self-organization that permeated the emerging sciences offered a malleable vehicle that was able to grapple with problems of accident and causality, the mysteries of aggregation, the nature of organic life, and the complexity of modern existence.

The authors articulate the spread of these languages of self-organization as a discontinuity, which indexes something peculiarly modern, inaugurating “a revolution in notions of chance and order, accidents and causality, agency and aggregation.” In tracing the radical inventiveness of Enlightenment’s thought of immanent self-organization, they show that it was less a question of novel solutions (although those arose too), than of a crystallization of a new problematic. This force of newness is powerfully felt in their description of, for example, aggregate thinking in mathematics and economics at the end of the seventeenth century, about which, they write, “probabilistic reasoning was … designed to teach us to live under the shadow of enduring risk, to live in a world of such aggregated complexity that the common sense offered by experience trembles and fails.” On the other hand, the entire language of self-organization that the book meticulously reconstructs carries within it an intransigent relation to providence, a fact that the authors never shy away from highlighting. Providence initially gave “a shape and language for thinking about and describing nature’s dynamic processes. Providence was also, in turn, a shelter under which the ideas of self-organization could grow.” If, in theology, however, providence produced humility and faith, it yielded different effects within Enlightenment narratives of self-organization, which used it as a site for endless theoretical and scientific inventiveness.

Reading Invisible Hands, one oscillates: Is this then a certain kind of reoccupation, in which the questions of theology are displaced, and their site is rearticulated anew, no longer tied to the transcendence of God, but to the immanent self-organizations of systems? Or should these discourses of self-organization be thought of as partaking in a certain secularization, in which the theological problematic ultimately can be said to persist, whatever new forms and discourses take up its labors? After all, as Sheehan and Wahrman show, the question of providence persists in such a way that it would be difficult to say that the incredible proliferation of narratives of self-organization ever actually broke with it. It seems more plausible to say that immanent self-organization was anxiously attempting to solve the problem that was earlier solved by theologies of salvation, whose power has declined due to a set of material (e.g. the economic crisis of 1720) and theoretical (e.g. mechanistic philosophy) transformations within the modern world. Indeed, it seems the precise work that these discourses were meant to accomplish is to credibly suture the gap that opened up when the theological answers no longer held the same sway, a suturing accomplished through the ceaseless production of narratives and knowledges that attempted to reconstruct, on novel theoretical grounds, the plausibility of order and meaning.

What do we make of this desire to narrate all fields of reality in a way that would assure a form of secular providence and the persistence of order? Is this not theology’s most powerful, if at times disavowed, legacy to the thought of immanent self-organization? That new fields of knowledge, methodological innovation, and theoretical creativity proliferated is abundantly documented by the book’s exhaustive research, but the fields’ fundamental investment in self-organization reveals a certain faith in the providence of history and of the world. Indeed, this inventiveness generates endless discourses of providence, building our confidence in a secular theodicy in the aftermath of the breakdown of the theological and salvific assurance and the security offered by God. They entail an attempt to reconstruct order and meaning, through a faith that needs the endless inventiveness of knowledge in order to justify an order without appeal to theological transcendence. The earlier example of statistical reason offers precisely such a desire of reconstructing the possibility order in the midst of chaos: “Statistical reason conjures hidden order out of messy experience and gives what cannot be sensed in the ordinary course of things a determinate form.” What we have is an insistence that, despite all complexity and chaos, a coherence can (and must) be attained. This faith produces new artifices of knowledge to legitimate the modern world, to assure that the world will and does work, regardless of those elements that might make it untenable. So even if one agrees that, unlike earlier forms of Christian providence that generated faith, these new systems of self-organization were centered on the production of knowledge, one can still insist that the feverish proliferation of that knowledge contains a desperate attempt at justifying a new faith in the world. Tellingly, the authors often refer to self-organizational discourses as narratives (“self-organizing narratives”): They are narratives that stave off breakdown in order to allow the world to make sense, rendering the crisis (economic, metaphysical, moral etc.) a narrativizable point, a turning point in the narrative, in a broader narrative of self-organization, rather than an indication of the breakdown of the narrative as such. But these narratives persist as narratives of faith, a faith in the narrative itself, legitimated by endless production of knowledge.

One such crisis moment arises in the book in the discussion, at the end of chapter 5, of Erasmus Darwin’s elaboration of the dangers of vertigo as “a constant threat from the world” that marks the breakdown of self-organization. One could say that if the coherence of the world itself depends, in some sense, on self-organizational narratives, then vertigo does not come from the world, but marks a crisis that self-organization attempts to re-narrate in its own terms. This vertigo, the excess, and non-sense that it reveals, and, significantly, its indistinction from reverie, sheds additional critical light on the work done by narratives of self-organization. They are revealed as attempts to make the world, in which salvation is no longer offered theologically, function by suppressing (or narrativizing) non-sense and radical breaks into an immanently meaningful totality. Enlightenment’s narratives of self-organization tell us: don’t look at the vertigos and reveries, but narrate and, then, the self and world will work.

There is another question that must be asked. What is the role of colonialism and slavery, both historically and theoretically, for these emergent discourses of self-organization? Slavery and colonialism are, surprisingly, almost entirely absent from Invisible Hands, and so the book leaves unanswered how the material underside of Enlightenment transforms (or necessarily deforms) the rhetoric and narratives of self-organization that the Enlightenment produces about itself and its world. If, for example, as Sheehan and Wahrman convincingly show, the proliferation of consumer good and choices was one of the areas in which self-organizing discourses came into their own—then how would confronting the dependence of those very novel material realities on colonialism and slavery fundamentally transform the form and viability of the narratives and logics of self-organization? There many more invisible hands across the Enlightenment than the book suggests: for the invisible hands of self-organizing narratives to function they had to render invisible the countless, very real, toiling, and coerced hands across the globe. One could ask whether the problem is that self-organizing narratives have a disavowed underside that allows them to work as self-organizing. A near silence on such exclusions might not be accidental, but precisely the cost of making self-organization a palatable discourse, one that can be read as modernity’s partially epic, partially tragic, attempt to grapple with reality in the aftermath of a theological world that has come undone.

In the book, the expanse of self-organization grows, from the microanalysis of life sciences towards the level of the nation and ultimately to international political economics—but even at this level of scope, the question of the colony and the slave remain outside of the frame of self-organization. As the book’s discussion of Adam Ferguson shows, when self-organizational discourse touches social questions, it remains centered on the society of free men, and the dilemmas of private vices and public goods—problems of liberal political economy and social theory—but cannot address the constitutive foreclosures of civil society—who is counted as human and who is not (282-3, and, more generally, ch. 7). Self-organization functions in the realm of analogy, between the micro and the macro, between individual agency and social collectivity, but it does not query the limits of analogy—those forms of life and death fundamentally occluded by such a perspective. The theoretical question that follows would be how does a field on which self-organization is taken as operative get constituted? Who counts and what elements are seen as deserving of narrativization (which is also a kind of salvation) and open to the flexibility of self-organization? We might say that the logic of immanent self-organization is never quite as all-inclusive or universal as it pretends, but is constituted (historically and theoretically) on the violent exclusion (if not outright annihilation) of a set of elements from the plane of immanence on which the magic and heroism of self-organization is allowed to take place. Even at the moment when the book engages with the American context, namely by showing how the political writings of James Madison rely on self-organization, the question of slavery remains excluded. Again, such an exclusion might not be an accident, but resulting from the fact that if the future-oriented discourse of providential self-organization is forced to confront the reality of slavery in its midst (by, say, trying to incorporate it within itself), it might reveal itself to be a grotesque farce.

The concluding overture to Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a critic of self-organization brings up the question whether the nineteenth century introduces a new arena, in which, as the coda suggests, there is a heightened awareness of the social consequences of self-organizing systems: “Coleridge’s argument turns out to be a radical one. The invisible hand is dangerous. People must be protected from the pernicious consequences of spontaneous order.” I wonder, though, whether such a critique is as radical as is suggested, since such protection seems ultimately to introduce merely another level of management in order to ensure that self-organizing narratives succeed. If there are not only rules, but maybe also a certain post-factum redress (to control the “consequences”), or some amelioration, then the narrative might, if all goes according to plan, finally work. But is this not the latest, most sophisticated, version of the faith in providence—that it all will, in the end, with a bit more care and reform, work? Such ameliorative critiques still retain faith in the narrative of hope, while failing to grapple with the structural occlusions on which such narratives are constructed. If self-organization systems perpetuate, in a new quasi-secular form, the providential desire, the desire for meaning, that produces a certain kind of hope, we might ask who is allowed to have such hope, and who is counted among those to be saved, however secularly. And how do those systems of immanent self-organization appear not from their own (whether triumphalist or reformed) perspective, but from the perspective of those who never had (and never will have) the capacity to partake in their fantasmatic dreams of secular providential salvation?

May 19th, 2016

For God and Globe

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For God and Globe CoverIn 1937, some of the most prominent and influential Protestant leaders in the United States travelled to Oxford for a global gathering with their coreligionists to address the troubles plaguing the world. In profound moments of collective prayer at this multi-national gathering, Protestants asked themselves out loud: “Have I allowed my Volk heritage, through my own ignorance, pride and self-centeredness, to become ‘a middle wall of partition’ between me and those of other races and cultures?” Those gathered at Oxford’s St. Mary’s Cathedral paused and then asked together, “Have I been truly a brother to my fellow-men irrespective of caste, color, creed and nationality?”

The 1937 Oxford Conference, and the broader movement of Protestant internationalism in the interwar decades it represented, is the subject of Michael G. Thompson’s impressively researched and deeply informative new book, For God and Globe: Christian Internationalism in the United States Between the Great War and the Cold War. Like the conference itself, Thomson’s historical actors—increasingly called “ecumenical Protestants” by scholars to distinguish them from evangelicals—exhibited contradictions. Protestant internationalists at Oxford claimed to stand in solidarity with all peoples and all nations but they exhibited “a decidedly North Atlantic focus.” Protestant internationalists claimed to be opposed to the nation-state but they brought uniquely American ideas and practices to international gatherings. They called Oxford a “Christian” gathering but the Protestant organizers were not on speaking terms with Catholics. They attacked racism and segregation at Oxford while continuing to practice it at home in their churches, denominational bodies, and interdenominational organizations. They were one of many “international social movements” of the interwar era, yet their ideas should be understood as a form of “Atlantic crossings.” These are but some of the paradoxes about Protestant internationalism that For God and Globe illuminates with great detail and rigor.

Thompson’s narrative is refreshing because it stands out from the body of literature about Christian internationalism, much of it written by participants in the ecumenical movement. Take, for example, the masterful narration of the realist-pacifist battles in For God and Globe. The story of the battles in these religious communities about America’s relationship to the wars in Europe and Asia in the 1930s has largely been narrated by the victors: Reinhold Niebuhr and a band of self-proclaimed realists, who argued that pacifists were too naïve to understand an increasingly complicated and dangerous world. And it is remarkable how historians of Protestant communities have long taken realism as a telos, affirming the story the realists told about themselves.1

Thompson sees things differently. The Christian realism of Reinhold Niebur was “a qualification within Christian internationalism,” he argues. Thompson shows that the common ground Protestant internationalists shared was far more significant than the theological divisions between pacifists and realists.

The most important common ground that Protestant internationalists shared was the journal The World Tomorrow, whose short career from 1926 until the mid-1930s is the focus of the first portion of the book. The journal became the bastion of a “foreign policy counterpublic” or an “oppositional community of discourse,” whose narrow membership included elites knowledgeable enough to influence foreign policy but whose view of the world contrasted with the prevailing ideology of the foreign policy establishment. Published at a time when few professional foreign policy journals existed in the United States, The World Tomorrow brought together theologians with historians and international relations scholars, providing them space for the articulation of a distinctly anti-nationalist outlook.

In the pages of The World Tomorrow there developed what Thompson calls a Christian internationalism, which was stated in largely negative terms. The editors and authors of The World Tomorrow were committed to antiracism, anti-imperialism, and antinationalism. But the most significant (and interesting) argument Thompson advances is that Christian internationalists opposed nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s. “Christian internationalists in the interwar decades rejected outright the notion that God’s universal cause could be seen as immanent within the nation’s cause,” Thompson tells us. “Christian universalism was to be a check against the tendencies of nationalism to make falsely religious claims.”

Thompson’s book is the most detailed and nuanced exploration of Christian anti-nationalism in the 1920s, giving yet more evidence to what historians David Hollinger and Andrew Preston have argued about the long-term significance of ecumenical Protestantism in the United States in the twentieth century. Thompson shows clearly that ecumenical Protestants—as early as the 1920s—had strong commitments to antiracism and anti-imperialism.

The second portion of the book is dedicated to the attempt to institutionalize Protestant internationalism, as they gathered at a series of international conferences. The 1925 Stockholm Conference was one such attempt, as important for convincing the Greek Orthodox Church to send representatives as it was for the inability to forge Protestant unity. The conference was focused on practical cooperation under the banner “Doctrine Divides but Service Unites” and left theological disputes for other occasions. But this slogan was too optimistic. The American delegates shared with their British and French counterparts a faith in the mandate of the League of Nations, and a desire to sacralize the Wilsonian organization. Speakers proposed that international Protestantism provide a “soul” for the League and one member went so far as to call on Christians to “invoke the benedictions of the Heavenly Father upon the holy enterprise” in a yearly ceremony. Unsurprisingly, the German delegates dissented, referencing the “war guilt” clause of the Treaty of Paris as evidence of the unchristian character of the League.

Delegates from the continent were likewise critical of the Americans’ enthusiasm for breaking down borders between nations. A German delegate warned against “making a uniformly drab and inert mass of millions of standardized men out of peoples and churches distinguished from one another by speech, by civilization and by historical experience.” The German delegates found the Americans naïve, like children acting as if “the Kingdom was just around the corner if Prohibition and the Outlawry of War could be made to stick.”

By the 1937 Oxford conference, conditions had changed. The German delegation skipped the affair and American realist theology aligned with continental neo-orthodoxy to give delegates a new language to express their discontent with nationalism. The post-liberal Protestant position on nationalism came to be “articulated in a constant and complex negotiation of ‘Yes-and-No.’” As Thompson puts it, “There could be no seamless identification of the Kingdom of God with the nation-state or with the League of Nations: either with nationalism nor internationalism.”

The ideology developed at Oxford made its “Atlantic crossing” to the United States in through the Dulles commission, named after its chairman and future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Relying on the language of Oxford, Dulles used his political connections and the clout of the Protestant establishment to famously shape the United Nations and the later Universal Declaration on Human Rights. But in the process, Thompson shows how Dulles transformed the meaning of anti-nationalism at the Oxford conference. While Dulles’ lobbying at the United Nations Conference in San Francisco should be seen as “fulfilling the more long-range proposals arising from Oxford in 1937,” it also marked the Americanization of earlier developments, wedding Protestant internationalism to the world-historical mission of the United States. “The mutual courting of church and state and the ideological linking of God and nation were exactly what commission leader Dulles was working for,” Thompson argues.

Thompson ends his book by calling the interwar era of Christian internationalism a “lost civilization.” This civilization stood in contrast to a peculiarly American internationalism ushered in by Dulles. The transition is somewhat overstated, since there was plenty of affirmation American imperialism in the 1920s and 1930s. Anna Su’s excellent book Exporting Freedom shows that ecumenical Protestants closely cooperated with government efforts to project American power abroad well before the Cold War. Additionally, an ecumenical Protestant obsession with the United Nations and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights during the Cold War demonstrated that many were yearning for a reference point beyond the nation state—one that provided a broader moral and political foundation than a single religious tradition.2

What is presented in For God and Globe as a declension narrative about a “lost civilization” could be reasonably recast as a complicated search by ecumenical Protestants for universal values beyond mere Christianity. Exploring the relationship between Protestant internationalism and the broader religious context of the interwar years would have strengthened Thompson’s arguments about anti-imperialism. For God and Globe mentions the parochialism of American Protestant internationalists, but does not fully explore their attitudes towards Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and the non-religious. Some recent scholarship has accused Protestant internationalists of harboring deeply anti-secular feelings, which accelerated in the late 1930s and came to fruition in the religious nationalism in the 1950s. Samuel Moyn, Mark Edwards (who Thompson cites generously), and Justin Reynolds3 have all pointed to the anti-secular inclinations of mid-century ecumenical Protestants. Edwards goes so far as charging ecumenical Protestants with developing a “counter-totalitarianism” far more restrictive than anything evangelicals had ever come up with.

Moreover, Protestant views of Buddhists and Hindus were intimately connected to the fate of imperialism. Creating theological room for other world religions was part of the Protestant response to growing nationalism in India, China, and elsewhere in the early 20th century. The European neo-orthodox theologians rejected the growing liberal Protestant acceptance of Buddhism and Hinduism as a potential path to salvation, a controversy that threatened to tear apart the International Missionary Council meeting near Madras, India in 1938. Not without reason, some American Protestants read the neoorthodox move as tacit support for imperialism. A few years later, during World War II, liberal Protestants in the United States distanced themselves from their British colleagues because the latter hesitated to criticize colonialism and did not embrace the United Nations.

In light of these developments, it seems clear that the Americanization of Protestant internationalism during and after World War II was a much more complex affair than Thompson’s conclusion suggests. The break between ecumenical Protestants and their European colleagues also marked the greater acceptance of Jews and Catholics, Buddhists and Hindus, decolonization, and more vociferous criticism of Jim Crow.

This is yet another paradox. The growing inwardness of American ecumenical Protestants in the 1940s intersected with a major leap forward in what David Hollinger calls “the historical function of self-interrogating ecumenical Protestantism as an environment in which many Americans found themselves able to engage sympathetically a panorama of ethnoracial, sexual, religious, and cultural varieties of humankind.” Ecumenical Protestants reembraced the nation-state in the 1940s, but they did so with the assumption that it would be more just and inclusive, and the country’s actions would be chastened by the United Nations and Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Scholars will continue to debate the long-term significance of ecumenical Protestantism. Thanks to For God and Globe they will do so with a much greater understanding of this uniquely antiracist and anti-imperialist milieu.

  1. Donald B. Meyer, The Protestant Search for Political Realism, 1919-1941, 2nd ed. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988); Heather A. Warren, Theologians for a New World Order: Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian Realists (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

  2. Gene Zubovich, “The Global Gospel: Protestant Internationalism and American Liberalism, 1940-1960,” Ph.D. Diss, University of California, Berkeley, 2015.

  3. Justin Reynolds, “Expressing World Community: Origins and Ends of the International Ecumenical Movement, 1928-1951,” Ph.D. Diss., Columbia University, 2016.

May 12th, 2016

On France’s theologico-political crisis

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Dual CoversNations have different ways of talking about themselves. Americans tend to discuss their country in an idiom of national greatness, however radically they may disagree about the nature of this providential blessing. The French, on the contrary, make berating their country a national sport. Anyone who has recently spent time in France has heard the exasperation with which its citizens are prone to speak of their homeland, often describing it as “little country” whose glory days are behind it. Such talk is hardly new. In the 1930s, the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline—a master in the genre—mused about his nation’s fate: “We’ll disappear body and soul from this place like the Gauls … They left us hardly twenty words of their own language. We’ll be lucky if anything more than ‘merde’ survives us.”1

Despite these antecedents, French preoccupation with national decline has now entered an acute phase. Anxieties surrounding persistent unemployment, France’s waning cultural influence, the viability of its social model, and the integrity of French national identity have generated a steady flow of pessimistic verbiage. Last year’s terrorist attacks only confirmed the darkest of these fears. Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, is emblematic of the national mood: in a deliberate swipe at both his country and Islam, Houellebecq presents a France grown so dysfunctional and morally bankrupt that only a Muslim president can save it.

Recent books by two prominent French political philosophers, Marcel Gauchet and Pierre Manent, are both symptoms of France’s crisis and attempts to comprehend it. Both thinkers see their nation’s trouble as tied to a far deeper problem: the fact that, in late modernity, we no longer grasp the meaning of politics. This problem, they claim, is tied to and exacerbated by another, equally troubling development: the loss, in Western societies, of any sense of what religion is (or was). The dual eclipse of political and religious understanding is, for both authors, the theologico-political wellspring of France’s predicament.

Gauchet and Manent have made versions of these arguments before, though in a distinctly different context. In the 1970s, they were key figures in a movement that challenged the leftist shibboleths then prevalent in French intellectual life. Marxism, they maintained, had blinded French thought to the era’s critical issues—human rights, individual emancipation, the politics of recognition—which could be properly grasped only as emanations of contemporary society’s liberal democratic core. Since then, Gauchet and Manent have promoted the study of political philosophy, and particularly liberalism, as colleagues at the Raymond Aron Institute, housed at Paris’ École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

In Comprendre le malheur français (roughly, “Understanding the French Malaise”), Gauchet argues that France’s quandary is the result of the disappearance of overarching collective bonds and, consequently, of a sense of a shared national destiny. The book’s mood is undeniably elegiac. Gauchet, a member of the once radical ’68 generation, now pines for the days when France was a great nation and culture’s native home. This results in some surprising statements. He describes France’s colonial empire as “an eminent expression of the country’s grandeur.” Particularly striking is his fascination with May ’68’s nemesis, Charles de Gaulle. Oedipal ire has given way to paternal identification: due to the student revolt’s essentially passive character, “the 68 protester,” Gauchet concludes, “was a Gaullist without realizing it.”

Yet for all his nostalgia, Gauchet is no vulgar nationalist. What he longs for is not French grandeur as such, but the historical conditions that made it possible: namely, the belief that human destiny is shaped by political action. “France,” he observes, “is the country of the belief in politics.” Historically, this faith has taken the form of what Gauchet calls the “French model,” a political system characterized by universalism, an emphasis on the common good (embodied in the idea of the Republic), a conflictual style of politics, and, intriguingly, the preservation of elements of the pre-revolutionary monarchy.

The final point is particularly revealing, as it evokes the philosophy of history that Gauchet sketched in an earlier work, The Disenchantment of the World. Human societies, he maintains, fall into two basic categories: those founded on the belief that human fate is controlled by a supernatural order, and those based on the principle that human beings are the masters of their own destiny. The former, which Gauchet calls “heteronomous,” are theocratic; the latter, which he dubs “autonomous,” begin with the rise of the state. For Gauchet, history is the long, drawn-out process of “leaving religion,” as human beings travel the never entirely complete path from heteronomy to autonomy.

Yet while Gauchet sees the shift towards autonomy as a one-way street, he also believes that autonomy works best with a little heteronomy mixed into it. The democratic structures that emerged in France by the late nineteenth century were a felicitous compromise between these two principles. Representative institutions and personal liberties made governments responsive to their citizens’ needs, even as public life remained steeped in transcendent principles—the public good, citizenship, the idea of the nation itself—thus ensuring that democracy served a higher purpose. France’s crisis, Gauchet believes, springs from the unravelling of this model, which he traces to the 1970s. The onset of globalization and the rapid economic integration of Europe undermined the nation state and the democratic principles upon which it rested. The relentless pursuit of these policies by political elites, despite periodic expressions of public hostility, has created a climate marked by cynicism and mutual distrust between the rulers and the ruled.

Yet just as importantly, for Gauchet, these political developments have been reinforced by the emergence, also since the 1970s, of cultural attitudes characterized by an unprecedented level of individualism. These constitute, he claims, “modernity’s final theologico-political turn,” the “completion of the process of leaving religion.” These trends are particularly evident in family life—heteronomy’s last redoubt—which has been utterly transformed by increasing sexual equality and diminishing parental authority. Gauchet observes: “when one now re-reads … what someone like [Jacques] Lacan taught about the paternal function a decade or two earlier, one wonders what world he is talking about.”

These trends are the background against which the recent terrorist attacks occurred, and are, Gauchet suggests, the deeper reason why Islam has become a “problem” for Europe. Just as neoliberalism has made genuine politics inconceivable, it has also rendered unintelligible the idea of hitching one’s existence to a transcendent truth. At best, we see religion as local color, as folklore. At worst, we see it as nothing more than yet another individual preference, which, for Gauchet, has the disastrous effect of making all religions identical.

However compelling one might find Gauchet’s critique of the neoliberal mindset, the alternative he proposes is problematic. In the name of taking religious difference seriously, he offers a rigid and essentialized picture of Islam. He describes it as a faith that is theologically “closed,” as lacking a mediator between God and humanity, and as rooted in a revealed and hence infallible holy book. Islam, he maintains, never developed a tradition of biblical criticism comparable to Christianity’s. There is, in short, a “considerable civilizational and cultural lag” between European religions and Islam.

Such an analysis of Islam is surprising from a thinker who, in his previous books, never described religions in such static terms. Indeed, an important implication of Gauchet’s “leaving religion” thesis is that phenomena like fundamentalism are in fact quintessentially modern, since they represent attempts to grapple with the meaning of religious faith in social contexts defined by autonomy. Rather than consider contemporary Islam in this light, Gauchet presents it as a faith entrenched in a retrograde theology.

Gauchet seems to believe, moreover, that those who reject Islam’s “otherness” and think that Muslims terrorists do not necessarily implicate their entire religion are complicit with neoliberalism and its celebration of unrestrained individualism. Multiculturalism, which holds that all people (and thus all religions) are fundamentally the same, can only address Muslims with patronizing indifference. Secularism, in its authentic, politicized form, at least has the merit of taking Islam seriously, rather than reducing it to a lifestyle choice. Yet what Gauchet calls “understanding religion” risks becoming, at least as far as Islam is concerned, a license to caricature it, in a way that has more in common with the condescending accounts of religion by nineteenth-century freethinkers than a genuine engagement with difference. Gauchet’s longing for a revival of French political life is poignant, but the frank conversation about Islam he seeks seems more likely to stigmatize already marginalized communities than to repair the frayed bonds of French civic life.

For Manent, knee-jerk objections to “essentializing” Islam are symptomatic of Europe’s inability to deal with it politically. Like Gauchet, he believes this is a consequence of the prevailing ideology: our “political regime and mores encourage us to reduce spiritual entities to the individuals that constitute them.” In Situation de la France, Manent’s analysis of France’s crisis overlaps significantly with Gauchet’s. The French no longer understand religion; individualism has scuttled the possibility of any serious political project; and a feeble state and the dissolution of the nation into a generic Europe have deprived the French of the tools needed to confront their problems. The key difference between the thinkers lies in the respective solutions they propose. If Gauchet believes the answer must be found in politics, Manent maintains that religion is key—specifically, that a new politics can rise only on the crest of a new religiosity.

Manent’s essay is unusual in that his description of French Islam draws on the discourse of the far right, even as he proposes policies that xenophobic nationalists would abhor. Islam, he thinks, is slowly taking over Europe. Immigrant communities have largely shut themselves off from national life. And last year’s terrorist attacks were indeed acts of war, waged by Muslim immigrants against their host countries. The startling conclusion that Manent draws from this analysis, however, is that France must surrender to this fait accompli. “Our regime,” he writes, “must yield, and frankly accept their ways because Muslims are our fellow citizens.” His proposal rests on two mutually supporting pillars. First, French Muslims should be accepted “as they are”: having come to France on the tacit assumption that they could preserve their way of life, they cannot now be asked to integrate or even to embrace secularism. The sole exemptions from this policy of acceptance would be polygamy and the full-body veil, which are already prohibited. Second, in return for these concessions, France would be in its right to “sanctify” its core political principles: freedom of expression and, most importantly, the idea of the nation itself.

The nation plays a crucial role in Manent’s political fantasy. In his eyes, Islam and France need one another. Neither, in its current state, has a political form adequate to its ambitions. Islam has, historically, been afflicted with the “curse of expansion,” which compels it to throw its political energy into unifying the ummah. In Europe, this has resulted in an unwillingness to participate in democratic politics as a force in its own right. France, meanwhile, has surrendered its national destiny to the imperatives of globalization and European integration. A France in which Muslims could be hyphenated citizens—“Franco-Muslims,” as it were—rather than citizens whose religious identity is airbrushed out by secularism might, Manent implies, be the occasion for a synergetic renewal of the nation and Islam alike.

Yet this fantasy hides another: the incorporation of Muslims “as they are” is, for Manent, an opportunity to overcome the error on which, he believes, modern European politics is founded. Nation states, he contends, emerged after the renunciation of the medieval dream of a unified Christendom. Yet for all their assertion of temporal authority, nations were conceived as vehicles for seeking “the best means of governing oneself while obeying divine government.” Contemporary views about the separation of church and state have repressed, he believes, this fundamentally Christian rationale. Now that Islam’s arrival in France has rendered the secularist project obsolete, the theologico-political settlement that has prevailed in Europe for two centuries can be renegotiated: the question of the right way to live, rather than the nature and limits of state power, will return to the public forum. Religion—albeit in a pluralistic mode—can once again assume a prominent in role in the affairs of the city. Intriguingly, it is not from Islam that Manent expects the greatest theological élan, but from his own faith, Catholicism: having acquired, in recent decades, a certain equanimity, it is ideally suited, as “the least intolerant and most open of [contemporary] spiritual forces,” to mentor its sister faiths in this new theologico-political dispensation.

Ultimately, both thinkers maintain that the solution to France’s crisis involves a revival of national traditions: the primacy of politics, for Gauchet; the Christian nation-state, for Manent. It is striking, moreover, that two thinkers regarded as champions of liberal thought both maintain that liberalism—understood as a potentially limitless project of extending individual rights—lies at the heart of France’s plight. At a time of rising international outrage at the putatively predestined nature of neoliberal globalization, Gauchet’s and Manent’s plea for the reinvention of politics as a collective project is compelling—up to a point. Neither says much, for instance, about inequality and social disqualification in French society, at least as it relates to immigrant populations. Their impatience with calls for new rights (or for making old rights meaningful) would seem to close off important options for grappling with these issues, as does their thinly veiled scorn for multiculturalism, at a time when many in France—immigrants or otherwise—feel like second-class citizens. Nor is it clear that the recognition Manent proposes of these groups as Muslims does full justice to the complexity of their identities. Gauchet and Manent remind us that the pursuit of rights can become a dead end if untethered from a collective political program. Yet for those in France who are still waiting to be treated as full-fledged citizens, dismissing rights talk as a symptom of neoliberal egotism seems overhasty indeed.

  1. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, L’École des cadavres (Paris : Denoël, 1938).

April 27th, 2016

Black Natural Law: An introduction

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Black Natural Law CoverWe are accustomed to hearing stories and seeing images of racial injustice: the white police officer assaulting the black schoolgirl, the unarmed black man shot multiple times while imagined as a demon, the countless acts of microaggression. We are also accustomed to calls for racial justice. We live in an exciting time, when there is a burgeoning movement against racism attracting broad attention. Yet we are less accustomed to filling out, in any detail, what racial justice means. Does it simply mean an end to what we consider acts of racial injustice? Does it mean a transformation of a system that produces such acts? If so, a transformation to what? What will our world look like when there is racial justice?

Too often, intellectuals take their work to be saying hooray for the movement, for Black Lives Matter; hooray with footnotes and polysyllabic jargon and all the right posturing. But what of these most pressing questions, questions that those involved in political organizing rarely have the time or space to ponder—what of racial justice? The claim I develop in Black Natural Law is this question is often framed wrongly. The question is often framed in secularist terms. It seems as though we have a choice between imagining racial justice as an absence of racially unjust acts or imagining racial justice as some picture we paint of racial harmony. Human hubris motivates both choices. We believe we are capable of rightly identifying all injustice or of rightly imagining our world as just.

When we look at how outstanding black political leaders have historically discussed justice, we find that they appealed to something beyond the world. They appealed to a higher law, sometimes called God’s law, sometimes called natural law, irreducible to worldly (secular) terms. From Frederick Douglass to Anna Julia Cooper to W. E. B. Du Bois to Martin Luther King, Jr., justice was never reduced to the elimination of injustice nor was it reduced to the product of collective human imagining. Slavery and segregation were unjust because they ran against this other-worldly sense of justice—so, too, did unchecked capitalism.

For this tradition of black politics, we humans will never fully grasp the meaning of justice, but we can come closer by using our characteristically human capacities for reason, emotion, and imagination. We can use these capacities to identify worldly laws that run counter to the higher law, worldly laws that do not respect the image of God in us, that is, the part of the human that is irreducible to worldly terms. We must challenge worldly laws, norms, and institutions that treat us as less than human. We can better discern this other-worldly justice through reflection on ourselves, through the insights of religious traditions, through encounters with exemplary figures, and, most of all, through the process of social movement organizing. The more we organize for justice, the better we discern justice; the better we discern justice, the more we are motivated to organize for justice.

Secularist readings of black political leaders turn them into pragmatic political actors or assimilate their visions of justice to a vision with which we are already comfortable. In contrast, taking seriously the religious ideas and images of black leaders such as Douglass, Cooper, Du Bois, and King allows us to see them as radicals. They had two primary concerns, each inextricable from the other. They challenged the wisdom of the world, ideology, showing how it is a mystification conjured by the wealthy, powerful, and white. And they were committed to developing the institutions, media, and relationships that would build power at the grassroots capable of challenging the wisdom of the world. These concerns were fueled by an awareness of the severer side of justice. Justice names what ought to be done; otherwise, there is sin. To struggle for justice, both by challenging the wisdom of the world and by organizing, is the only way to avoid damnation.

It may seem as though the specificity of race, of racial justice, has slipped away. Too often today the language of race names one issue among several, intersecting with others, afflicting certain communities. The greatest, though often forgotten, insight of black theology is to assert that God is black. This means that all theological questions, indeed all human questions too, are questions that should be approached from the perspective of blackness. The black political tradition, when a secularist lens is abandoned, is a black political theological tradition, and it makes precisely the same claim. Justice is black. Blacks, because of systemic oppression, have epistemic privilege. For blacks, it is obvious that the wisdom of the world distorts, that organizing is imperative—though there are certainly impediments to making these insights actionable. All questions of justice should be approached from the perspective of blackness, whether it is environmental justice or economic justice or reproductive justice or racial justice. It is not that blacks are God, but that God is black: Blacks are uniquely aware of the shortcomings of the secularist presumption that we humans can get the world right.

Black Natural Law argues that, to move toward justice, we must discard both our secularism and our multiculturalism, and instead unapologetically take up a black theological approach to politics. The book explicates a tradition committed to this approach, and it tracks the tradition’s decay over the past half century. Secularism and multiculturalism ascended by replacing law with love in the social imaginary. Now, it seems as though achieving justice requires loving ourselves, our bodies, our people, everyone, everything. Or, justice is confined to the rationalistic calculations of economists, lawyers, analytic philosophers, and, worst of all, pragmatists. We have forgotten that reason, emotion, and imagination must work together to discern justice, and that they work best in the struggle itself, where critique and practice refine each other. We have forgotten that the meaning of justice is not ours, not a human possession, and that its pursuit is a fundamentally theological endeavor.

April 25th, 2016

Satire and policing the boundary of free expression

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Now that Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel has permitted the prosecution of German satirist Jan Boehmermann the time has come to fully wade into the free speech debate and take it beyond the question of policing the boundaries of a democratic society. Commenting on this decision, The Guardian criticized Merkel for tarnishing “her country’s reputation for freedom.” While the familiar issues of Europe’s core values—learning by the minority to develop a culture of laughing at oneself; of intolerance, bigotry, and micro-aggression against Islamic communities; of a new idea of plural Europe, with new rules of living together differently, that is in the making—will be played out as the controversy develops, the case of the German satirist opens the door to new issues for deliberation.

The chain of reactions began with the demand by the Turkish government to ban the broadcast of the video “Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan,” on the program extra 3, which mocked the Turkish president’s authoritarian disposition. The German ambassador in Ankara was summoned and officially conveyed Turkey’s displeasure. Reacting to this demand by Turkey to the Germany government, Boehmermann upped the ante and staged a satirical episode on his regular show aired by the public TV broadcaster ZDF. Sitting at a desk, with the Turkish flag and a small portrait of Erdogan behind him, mimicking a news bulletin, Boehmermann read a poem about Erdogan having sex with goats and sheep, beating up Kurdish and Christian minorities, and watching child pornography. Undoubtedly the provocative video stirred controversy. Boehmermann was aware that he was breaking the law and said as much at the start of the episode. He has gained a reputation for stinging satire. The broadcast was a deliberate attempt to test the limits of state censorship. Will it censor, he wondered, a puerile vulgar poem for realpolitik reasons? Will it succumb to the pressure of the Turkish government, especially since it needs Turkey’s support to address the refugee crises in Europe? As the protest erupted ZDF deleted the poem from its online portal. Merkel publicly conceded that it was offensive.

Boehmermann’s prosecution for an offense within the secular domain, as different from the cartoon cases of Denmark and France which offended religious sentiment, raises some interesting issues about the limits faced by offensive expression, especially satire, in democratic societies. Three in particular need our attention. The first is on the status of satire as a particular form of free expression whose rationale it is to produce laughter by deliberate provocation. Are there limits to such provocation and on what grounds, normative or political, do we argue for them? This brings us to the doorstep of the second issue, that of the necessary congruity between the structures of satire and the kind of society which must exist for the satire to be able to elicit the intended laughter. Does the congruity have to be thick, for it to work, or will a thin congruity also do? This aspect of congruity must be explored sociologically in the context of contemporary Europe which is still learning to accept and normalize its new plurality. Europe’s internal struggle brings us to the third issue, the viability of such national projects of norm making in a borderless world. When the politics of the “outside,” which belongs to different normative worlds, knocks at the door and comes in uninvited, what should a government do?

There are many interesting sides that emerge in each of the three aspects. Let me begin with the first. Henri Bergson in his classic book, Laughter: An essay on the meaning of the comic, sees such comic sketches as a necessary corrective for society which, in the absence of such humor, may become too inelastic. The idea that a society must retain a degree of elasticity to live with the quirks and foibles of individuals and groups, and perhaps even accommodate them, as social norms evolve, is indeed a valuable idea. Laughter, as a gesture, therefore, in the face of the emerging inelasticity of power, becomes a valuable corrective. It prevents the exercise of power from becoming too rigid and too arrogant. From this Bergsonian perspective Turkey needs a lot of laughter to pull Erdogan, who has spread fear among dissenters, down a peg or two. Satire, in addition to being a corrective to an emerging inelasticity in Turkey, also compels German society to debate the social and legal limits of what is permissible. It seeks to shift the boundary outward expanding the zone of what is acceptable. Achieving such an outcome was Boehmermann’s objective.

PEN America acknowledged this distinct role of satire when it decided to award, in May 2015, the PEN Free Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo.

Charlie Hebdo’s staff members knew that producing satire aimed at venerated targets was dangerous. Their valor lies in their dauntless fortitude patrolling the outer precincts of free speech. While many question the defense of that far-flung territory because of the bigotry that can lurk there, Charlie Hebdo has guarded it vigilantly, keeping it open for all should a time come when we, too, may need to challenge taboos and risk sacrilege. Without those who stake out the border provinces, we would all be forced to dwell in an ever-shrinking expressive terrain.

This statement has all the key words—“venerated targets,” “outer precincts,” “taboos,” “ever shrinking expressive terrain”—that we need to think about when analyzing the Boehmermann affair. Such analysis invites us to engage with the normative concerns of a society seeking to expand its domain of freedom. Episodes such as the Charlie Hebdo cartoons the satirical poem of Jan Boehmermann, the cartoons by Ali Ferzat, or the late Jaspal Bhatti’s satirical TV shows, redefine the relationship between state and religion, or state and culture. This is an evolving relationship where boundaries are being continually tested by the democratizing process. State and religion, or state and culture, are in the process of changing as a result of local pressures and political contingencies. Targeting taboos, with the help of satire, is therefore an important part in this process of evolution. It produces a societal response, which is laughter at excessive self-aggrandizement as in the case of Erdogan. It exposes the hypocrisies of those in power. It gives the state, and the powers that be, a sense of how much capacity society has to live with (if not accept) the purported offense.

At this point is useful to set to rest this Western arrogance that “we” can comfortably live with satire but “they”—non-West, particularly Islamic, societies—cannot. A Google search of satire in Islamic society soon debunks this myth. It takes you to wonderful examples of satire in Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, and many other countries. Neda Ulaby did a survey that showed this robust tradition of satire in the Islamic world. My argument here will, therefore, disregard this Eurocentric position and accept that if some societies have more of a capacity to deal with satire and some have less, this should be regarded as a by-product of the political struggles that are being waged in each society. The truce at any time, between the satirist and the state, will determine the transition point when the state will change from being benign, and ignoring the provocation, to being hostile and prosecuting the transgressor. A point in case is Germany. The decision to prosecute will enable us to see the extent to which Germany has internalized the norms, of a free society, that it so loudly proclaims whenever the issue of the limits of free expression come up in international affairs.

This first set of issues, of the three mentioned earlier, looks at satire in terms of the political, legal, and moral issues raised and is usually cast in terms of a binary between free speech and censorship, artistic freedom and offense, and democracy and tyranny. Indian jurisprudence has tried to negotiate this tension in terms of the idea of the “reasonable restriction,” which may be legitimately placed on free speech and expression by the due process of law. In the US these restrictions have produced hate speech jurisprudence and voluminous case law. This is a very productive line of discussion, since it identifies the principles of a free society and the challenges to it, and also the conflicts that may arise between two or more core principles.

While this is indeed a productive road along which to travel, it does not examine the social context in which satire acquires its ability to be playful and effective. It is a truism to say that no satire has a ready global appeal, and that every satire gains its particular sting in, and from, a national cultural context. R. K. Laxman’s daily cartoon in The Times of India depicting the common man made sense to one who has had to endure the arrogance and daily stupidity of Indian politics. Trevor Noah’s performances provoke laughter because the audience connects with the nuances of his punch lines since these are embedded in local histories and cultures with which the audience is familiar. When Noah, parodying an Indian accent, says to the British missionary who is trying to convert him, that there is no vacancy for a new god since “all the positions are occupied,” referring to the millions of gods in the Hindu pantheon and using the language of the Indian bureaucracy to say so, he is incredibly funny to an Indian. Similarly when John Oliver tries to uncouple the aura of wealth from the grandeur of Trump’s name, he discovers from his research that Trump’s name was originally “Drumpf,” it is hilarious. The argument is simple; social and cognitive context is important for humor to be effective.

Which brings me to the second major issue for consideration, the question of congruity. In On Humour, Simon Critchley makes the insightful argument that there must be a congruence between the structure of a joke and the structure of a society for the incongruence of the joke to generate a laugh. This congruence takes place at many levels, language, signs, meaning systems and gesture and is a product of years, if not decades, of working to align the performance—whether a cartoon, stage act, or TV episode—with the different micro cultures in society. This alignment of many micro cultures produces a macro culture, a public culture to which the satire speaks. When a joke resonates with a wider public such an alignment can then be regarded to be on track. The alignment may get destabilized, by new micro cultures that enter the public space and challenge its coordinates and meaning systems, but as long as the joke continues to resonate it helps produce the wider public culture. This wider public culture, over time and with regular inputs, becomes a national public culture and takes shape through language, literature, film, song, sport, politics, and of course through humor. The British, for example, would never be able to make a masala Bollywood film, nor the French a Jackie Chan movie. These require a sense of what works in a national culture.

Congruity between the structure of the joke and that of society is an important property of satire. Although just 35 years old, Jan Boehmermann has been able to create such a culture of congruity with his widely popular satire show. The particular episode where he mocks the Turkish president must therefore be seen within this context. He has established congruity between his humor and his audience as a result of which he enjoys national appeal and has a popular show with regular watchers some of whom are even perhaps even loyal to it. A political culture of being comfortable with satire, of living with it, has emerged in Germany. Only its boundaries are now being tested by persons such as Boehmermann.

Jürgen Habermas, commenting on Rawls’ idea of the “overlapping consensus,”introduced the idea of the “sedimentation” of a culture. He argued that “if experiences associated with an incipiently successful institutionalization of principles have already become sedimented in the existing political culture … such a reconstructive appropriation can accomplish more than the hermeneutic clarification of a contingent tradition.” Sedimentation of satire has taken place in the public culture of Germany. Erdogan’s demand seeks to unsettle such sedimentation.

The issue is really is whether such a sedimentation is thick or thin, of whether many of the micro cultures, in their relationship with each other, have produced a large overlapping consensus within which Boehmermann’s satire resides. Such sedimentation has not taken place across many countries of Europe where offense is deeply felt, by some micro cultures, on some satirical expressions. This was demonstrated most forcefully, and also tragically, in the case of the Charlie Hebdo and the Danish Cartoons of the Prophet. In these cases the terms of the sedimentation are themselves being questioned. They are considered to be disadvantageous to the minority communities, especially the Islamic communities, who are told that the dominant culture of secularism, of laïcité, allows mocking of even venerated objects.

Deep religious pain is not a sufficient basis for censorship. Holocaust denial is. The congruity between the sacred symbols of minority cultures and satire in this area is thin, particularly in France which takes an uncompromising attitude to integration of the minorities within the majority culture. The challenge is to make it thick and acceptable, to have the different communities agree on the terms of living together particularly on the issue of the boundaries of free speech. The road ahead is unclear. Majoritarian arrogance is certainly not the way to go. But this, although a related issue, is a digression from the subject of congruence in the case I seek to discuss here, between Boehmermann’s satire and German society. This is fortunately a secular issue that does not have to deal with the complex relationship between satire and the sacred as in the cartoon controversy. It remains purely within the secular space of a satirist and his object of ridicule, a political personality that happens to be the Turkish president.

From building an overlapping consensus, through a process of sedimentation within a national society, the Boehmermann affair draws attention to the borderless world that we inhabit today, of digital connectivity where information and images flow across borders in real time. The consequence of such digital borderlessness is that what is perfectly acceptable in one society, produces outrage and street violence in another. The acceptable social codes of one society are considered strongly offensive in another. The Erdogan protest may not exactly belong to this class of events, since caricaturing Erdogan may enjoy some support in Turkey but remains unexpressed because of his use of the coercive instruments of the state to punish such satirists. Nonetheless it draws our attention to the problem of a borderless world for images and words.

While sedimenting a national culture may be possible, although difficult in a plural national society, sedimenting an international society is near impossible since it has to overcome fault-lines that are not just political but also deeply cultural. Further when a cultural perspective enjoys the patronage of a state it becomes less amenable to accepting the concessions available at the border where it meets another cultural perspective. Accommodating the normative concerns of the other culture becomes more difficult. Hard positions are taken especially since they are now mixed up with nationalism. And nationalism, as we have seen, produces people unwilling to listen to reason.

There is also the additional issue of the EU-Turkey deal on refugees. Should satire be allowed to disrupt the important business of statecraft, especially on an issue as sensitive as the refugee crises? It is unclear whether this question should be read as a contingent issue leaving the core principle of defending free expression, even satire, unaffected, or whether it is of such significance that it demands a reworking of core principles. It is to the credit of Boehmermann that his satire, subsequently censored, has brought these three issues and their nuances into the discussion on the boundaries of free expression. And it has exposed both the arrogance of Erdogan and the underbelly of Europe. It is time to rethink the boundaries of free expression.

April 14th, 2016

Post-Doctoral Research Associate: Public Life and Religious Diversity

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Department of Politics and International Relations LogoThe Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University has announced a new position: Post-Doctoral Research Associate in Political Theory: Public Life and Religious Diversity in association with Harris Manchester College.

The Department of Politics and International Relations (DPIR) is looking for a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in Political Theory, to pursue independent research in the field, and to work with the Project Directors, Professor Elizabeth Frazer and Professor Simon Caney on the initial phases of a project entitled “Public Life and Religious Diversity”.

The duties of the Research Associate will include assisting the project directors in the academic and practical organisation of a conference on religion and public life to be held in Oxford in September 2017; to assist with publications in the aftermath of the conference and with the development of plans for the future extension and consolidation of the project in Oxford.

The successful candidate will hold a doctoral degree in the field of political theory, will have a track record and independent programme of research of in internationally excellent standard in the field of political theory with a focus on ‘public life and religious diversity’, and will be expected to participate fully in the research life of the Department.

This post will be full time, and is fixed term for the period of three years, starting in September 2016 or as soon as possible thereafter.

Closing date for applications is Wednesday noon (UK time) 11th May 2016

Further duties and skills required are described in more detail in the further particulars that can be found here.

April 6th, 2016

CFP: Putting Truth in the Second Place: On Compromise, Religion and Politics

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unnamedAs part of the COMPROMISE research project at the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen will host an international conference on December 6-7, 2016.

It appears that compromise in a democratic context fosters political processes in which the negotiator will have to put her own truth in the second place. Accordingly, the art of reaching compromises is often concerned with reflections on who should be included in the decisions and which principles or rights are subject to negotiation.

Whereas there has been increased attention towards political compromise in research literature in recent years (e.g. Margalit 2010; special issue on compromise in Government and Opposition 2012; Gutman and Thompson 2012; May 2012; Lepora and Goodin 2013; Robertson 2013; Weinstock 2013), this conference wishes to bring special attention to compromises reached in the struggle between religion and politics.

We hope that treating religion and politics not as a problem to be solved once and for all, but rather as ongoing negotiations between different actors and ideas will inspire fresh and productive ways to speak about very old and very topical political problems.

Keynote Speakers: Cécile Laborde (University College London), Lorenzo Zucca (King’s College London) and Julie E. Cooper (Tel Aviv University). Invited Speakers: Todd Weir (Queen’s University Belfast), Yolande Jansen (University of Amsterdam) and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti (The City College of New York).

The deadline for the call for papers is June 1st. More details on the conference can be found here.

April 4th, 2016

Why citizenship (still) matters in France

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In the wake of the November 13 terrorist attack, French president François Hollande decided to reinforce France’s security legislation. In addition to a raft of police and intelligence measures, he proposed two major constitutional revisions: the first was to “constitutionalize” the state of emergency, previously an ad hoc piece of legislation; the second was to formalize the conditions under which French citizens can be stripped of their nationality.

Both of these propositions were intensely controversial. The first quite rightly evoked France’s colonial past and its long history of police violence. France has known many periods of internal strife and state abuse of power in the past two centuries—from colonial wars to foreign occupation—and those on the left of the political spectrum feared the consequences of a state of emergency raised to the status of a constitutional principle. Nevertheless, the proposal seemed to have enough cross-party support for it to be guaranteed safe passage through parliament in the coming months.

The same could not be said for the proposal to strip the nationality of French citizens who commit “crimes against the nation.” After a tight vote in the French National Assembly in early February—162 in favor, 148 against and 22 abstentions—the proposal was finally buried in mid-March when the Senate rejected the text that had been voted in the Assembly. This inability to agree on a unified text meant that Hollande would not be able to gather the 3/5ths of the votes in both houses of parliament that are required for any amendment to the French constitution.

By this stage, Hollande was visibly bruised by his long parliamentary fight and, with no end to the controversy in sight, he decided to abandon the entirety of his constitutional reform package on 30 March. Not one of his symbolic anti-terrorist reforms has survived to see the light of day.

The differences that led to this unusual French form of filibustering are important. Hollande’s initial proposal in November was that any constitutional provision for the stripping of nationality—known in French as déchéance de nationalité—should apply only to dual nationals on the grounds that no signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees can render a person stateless.

But defenders of France’s so-called republican model—which today is the vast majority of the French political class—argued in the National Assembly that to enshrine in law the differential treatment of single nationals and dual nationals would threaten national unity and lead to unfair discrimination against dual nationals. The result was paradoxical: the attempt by parliamentarians to argue against the law on republican grounds resulted in a new version of the law that could be applied to all French citizens, thereby vastly extending its scope. It was this amended version that was voted in early February.

Not surprisingly, members of the indirectly-elected Senate raised serious questions about the new version of the text that had been voted by the National Assembly and, ultimately, chose to rewrite the text to take it back to its original version, applicable only to dual nationals. In so doing, they knew that they were all but condemning the entire project to a slow and painful death since absolute parliamentary agreement is a prerequisite for any constitutional amendment.

It is surely one of the great ironies of present-day French politics that a Senate with a right-wing majority was responsible for killing off a proposal that the center-right and far-right have defended for years. It is even more ironic that the initial proposal for the constitutionalization of the déchéance de nationalité came from a left-wing president and was passed through a National Assembly with a left-wing majority bitterly opposed to the idea.

But the interminable wrangling over a highly-symbolic constitutional amendment revealed more than simply the implosion of the left-right divide in French political life. It also said something important about the deeper structures of contemporary French politics. After all, almost everyone agreed that the proposal to strip French citizens of their nationality in the case of convicted terrorist or other assorted anti-national activities would only apply to a tiny number of people and would have a negligible effect on anti-terrorist policies. So why such a fuss—and why such public controversy over the issue?

The answer is simple: because citizenship remains one of the most contested political issues in France. Yes, the immediate impetus for Hollande’s constitutional reform proposals was the terrorist attack of November 13, but the subsequent debate had much more to do with the question of who could be a citizen and on what terms.

Historians of France have long known that citizenship is one of the defining problems of modern French political culture. During the French Revolution, the National Assembly struggled with the question of whether Jews and Protestants could be citizens; the Dreyfus Affair was, first and foremost, a struggle between an ostensibly republican and secular citizenship as opposed to a nationalist and exclusivist one; and the decision of the Vichy regime in 1940 to begin stripping citizenship from French Jews remains one of the country’s darkest moments. Indeed, the fact that the Second World War was the last time the French state had implemented a form of déchéance de nationalité was repeatedly raised in the parliamentary debates on Hollande’s proposals.

Yet despite the ubiquity of these debates in France, they are often neglected in the scholarly literature. In recent years, this has become especially apparent in academic work about secularism (laïcité) and multi-culturalism. In the context of a broad social scientific attack on secularism from scholars such as Talal Asad, Joan Scott or Saba Mahmood, the discussion of these issues has tended to focus on questions of liberal pluralism, postcolonial racism, and the allegedly hegemonic, Christian-inspired foundations of Western secularism.

Clearly, such critical engagement is crucial. The inequalities of the past inevitably weigh heavily on the ideologies of the present. Only the most blinkered analyst would deny that French secularism and multiculturalism are part of a long anti-clerical struggle with the Catholic Church and carry the traces of (post)colonial discrimination. But, equally, it is vital to remember that the vast majority of French people see these issues as subservient to a much bigger debate about citizenship.

Take, for example, the debate over laïcité that exploded on to the political scene in 1989 with the “headscarf affair,” continued through the famous legislation that banned “ostentatious religious symbols” in public schools in 2004, and preoccupies politicians and activists even today. Rather than see this solely as an example of the onward march of illiberal Islamophobia, it is more productive to see it as part of a multi-faceted reinterpretation of the foundations of citizenship in France.

When the “headscarf affair” burst on to the public scene in 1989, it was both a time of profound uncertainty on the French left as European Communism was beginning to come apart, and a period in which the French were re-evaluating their revolutionary heritage during the bicentenary celebrations of the French Revolution. Through the 1990s and 2000s, these concerns were overlaid with a deep unease about social and political fragmentation—a so-called social fracture (fracture sociale)—that seemed to threaten the very integrity of the nation-state. By the mid-2000s, there was yet another layer of debate surrounding France’s colonial past and the “responsibility” of the French state towards different postcolonial communities.

To single out the legislation of 2004—or even the headscarf debate as a whole—is therefore a mistake. The reinvention of laïcité in late twentieth-century in France was part of a much wider response to a perceived breakdown in the social and political contract of the Fifth Republic (founded in 1958). By the late 1980s, voters were no longer conforming to long-standing patterns of political allegiance; class-based politics was giving way to identity politics; and a previously booming postwar economy had become stagnant. In short, France was facing a crisis of citizenship, to which solutions were urgently required. With its historical veneer and its universal pretensions, laïcité seemed like a perfect fit.

The story is much the same when it comes to France’s vexed relationship with multiculturalism. In much of the literature about the integration of ethnic minorities in France, it is taken for granted that the country’s “colorblind” republican model has led to an outright rejection of British, Dutch or American-style multiculturalism. As if to confirm this impression, the French state forbids the collection of ethnic statistics, refuses to recognize the specific claims of ethnic minorities, and repeatedly praises the value of a French model of “integration” as a historically powerful project of national unity.

But, again, the picture is more complex than these truths allow. French republicanism does have deep roots in history, but the origins of its present configuration do not lie in the distant past; they lie in the reformulation of French political thought in the 1980s. With the atrophy of Marxism on the left and Gaullism on the right, a reinvigorated form of republicanism came to take the place of these two master ideologies of postwar France. At the same time, “integration” and “secularism,” previously neglected parts of the republican canon, were elevated to the status of foundational pillars of republicanism.

This is hardly surprising given that both integration and secularism had, by the 1990s, become instrumental discourses in the French elite’s battle to contain the emerging crisis of citizenship. The question of whether such discourses have been helpful in tackling real social problems like youth unemployment and institutional racism remains moot. But there is no denying their power: French republicanism today has become a necessary and unavoidable part of the political landscape. Far-left Trostkyist organizations fight over the contradictions between their anti-colonial heritage and their desire to conform to the rational, progressive underpinnings of French republicanism; centrist politics is dominated by republican language—to such an extent that the main center-right party has rebaptized itself Les Républicains; and the far-right now claims the mantle of “true” republican secularism in its fight against Islamic “fundamentalism.”

Given the widespread use of republican ideas and concepts in contemporary French politics, it is plainly unsatisfactory to dismiss French republicanism merely as a vehicle for racism and intolerance. It is much more than that. Republicanism is not simply an ideology, but a site of discussion, debate, denial and (sometimes violent) disagreement. Most importantly, it is the primary means by which the French talk about citizenship.

It is only right, then, that the debate over the déchéance de nationalité should have begun within a very specific context—the aftermath of the November 13 attacks—but ended in a broad discussion about the extent to which it could be made compatible with French republicanism. Just like the “problem” of Islam in France or the anger of young rioters in France’s banlieues (suburbs), the question of terrorism was ultimately drawn into (and made subservient to) the question of citizenship.

The fact that so many politicians accepted the principle of déchéance de nationalité was a sign that the rules of citizenship in France are changing. As the far-right takes ownership of republicanism, we can expect a further hardening of republican principles and an increasingly obsessive focus on Islam. But the collapse of Hollande’s constitutional reform project was a reminder that even the French president cannot ignore the problem of citizenship—and that even his political opponents would rather maintain the status quo than violate the cherished principles of French republicanism.

March 30th, 2016

The sacred and the social

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Carlyle Lectures PosterIn these Carlyle Lectures, given at the University of Oxford in January and February 2016, I suggested that between 1650 and 1800 sacred history offered a fertile resource to political philosophers interested in exploring the concepts of “society” and “sociability.” The lectures thus brought together two stories which early modern intellectual historians have tended to keep separate. One is the study of sacred history, in particular of its foundation text, the Bible, which entered a new phase in the Renaissance, and reached a peak of intensity and originality in the seventeenth century. Over this period a succession of scholars from Erasmus to Richard Simon transformed understanding of both the text and the context of the Bible by study of its composition and authorship, and of its chronologies and historical and geographical content. The excitement of that early modern scholarship has recently been captured by Anthony Grafton and a growing number of younger historians, including Scott Mandelbrote and Dmitri Levitin.1 In turn, their work has enabled me to appreciate what the political philosophers who are my subjects saw in sacred history.

Historians of political thought, meanwhile, have recently been much occupied with the problem of “sociability”: whether sociability should be regarded as natural to man (to men and women), and whether “society,” societas, should be conceptualized as independent of, or at least prior to, the civitas, the commonwealth or state. For this discussion my principal reference points were recent works by two Cambridge colleagues, Annabel Brett and the late Istvan Hont. Approaching from different ends, Brett forwards from the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Hont backwards from the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, both converge upon the critical contribution of Hobbes, who questioned whether natural sociability could be relied upon, and maintained that society cannot exist without sovereign power.2 Still more of an inspiration, however, was John Pocock, who pointed out forty-six years ago in his wonderful essay, “Time, history, and eschatology in the thought of Thomas Hobbes,” that Hobbes’s political thought also engaged with sacred history.3 With Hobbes as a starting point, therefore, my lectures pursued the theme of the sacred and the social through a succession of thinkers up to the end of the eighteenth century.

There were two phases to the enquiry. The participants in the first phase were Hobbes, in the final chapters of De cive (1642, 1647) and Parts III and IV of Leviathan (1651), Baruch Spinoza, in the Tractatus theologico-politicus (1670), and the Neapolitan historian, Pietro Giannone, whose unpublished “Triregno,” a study of the “three kingdoms” of the Christian religion, the “earthly,” the “heavenly” and the “papal,” was composed in exile (in Vienna) between 1731 and 1733.

In this first phase, Hobbes stands as a negative pole to both sides of my argument. Not only did he repudiate Aristotle’s supposition that man is by nature fit for society; in his interpretation of the sacred history of the Old and the New Testaments he insisted that the civil sovereign alone had possessed the authority to determine the religion of both the ancient Hebrews and the followers of Christ. Neither in the historical perspective of the Christian Commonwealth nor in the Commonwealth derived from the natural condition of man, therefore, was there room for the analysis of society apart from the state.

By contrast, Spinoza and Giannone gave themselves space to separate the two. Even if it is fear which motivates men to contract to obey a sovereign, Spinoza argued, a society will not cohere and survive on the basis of fear alone. Interpreting the Bible as the “narrative” by which the Hebrews had constituted themselves as a nation, Spinoza portrayed their cultivation of “piety and religion” through Mosaic law and custom, rather than their changing forms of government, as the key to understanding their solidarity and survival. Taking the scholarship of Richard Simon to have reinforced the status of the Old Testament as the oldest record of human history, Giannone cast the “earthly kingdom” of the ancient Hebrews as an account of the beginnings of “civil society,” in which the institutions of family, language and religion were as important as the form of the Hebrew republic.

The second phase of the engagement was inaugurated by Giambattista Vico, Neapolitan contemporary of Giannone, in his Scienza nuova, or New Science of the nature of Nations (1725, 1730, 1744). It was then carried forward by the French naturalist and mythographer Nicolas-Antoine Boulanger, in his L’Antiquité dévoilée par ses usages (1766), and by Francesco Mario Pagano, a leading philosopher of the late Neapolitan Enlightenment, in his Saggi politici (1783-5, 1791-2).

By comparison with the use made of sacred history by Spinoza and Giannone to address the question of the social, Vico’s New Science clearly marked a turning point. While Vico explicitly confronted the Hobbesian problem of sociability by way of his engagement with the Protestant jurists Grotius and Pufendorf, he did so by focusing not on the Hebrews, but on the gentiles, separated from the Hebrews after the Flood. Yet Vico was insistent that that he drew his principles from “within sacred history.” He continued to acknowledge the divine status of the Bible, adopting the chronological-historical framework of the Vulgate, and depicting the aftermath of the Flood as the equivalent of the Hobbesian state of nature. Within this framework, he interpreted the myths of Homer and other ancient pagan poets as historical sources compatible with sacred history, and as the key to the gradual socialization of man through the institutions of religion, the family and burial. At the same time, Vico insisted that human history was subject to divine providence, guaranteeing that the civil history of all nations had a sacred dimension.

The extraordinary intellectual effort which Vico put into upholding sacred history as the dimension of human socialization could not be sustained. Natural historians were by now producing accounts of the formation of the world incompatible with that in Genesis, while the credibility of the Biblical chronologies was at last dissolving. Nevertheless, the Flood was to retain its fascination as the starting point for human history. It stood at the convergence between natural historians’ interest in the disasters which had shaped the early history of the earth and the realization that flood myths were a common feature of all the major religions. For Boulanger, who had not read Vico but was accused of plagiarizing him, the aftermath of the Flood and the religious myths it generated were the key to understanding the formation of societies. Pagano, who had read both Vico and Boulanger, discounted the Biblical Flood in favor of a purely natural history of disasters, but likewise found in man’s religious response to these a key to the earliest forms of social organization. For thinkers such as Boulanger and Pagano, the sacred was still indispensable to the social, even if the sacred history of the Bible could no longer be treated as the primary, privileged source for study of their interconnection.

A revised, shorter version of these lectures will be given as the Benedict Lectures in the History of Political Philosophy at Boston University at 5pm on 19, 21, and 25 April 2016.

  1. Anthony Grafton, Joseph Scaliger 2 vols, (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1983-93); Scott Mandelbrote, “Isaac Vossius and the Septuagint,” in Eric Jorink and Dirk van Miert, Isaac Vossius (1618-1698) between science and scholarship (Leiden, 2012, pp. 85-117; Dmitri Levitin, Ancient Wisdom in the Age of the New Science. Histories of Philosophy in England c.1640-1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2015), and “From sacred history to the history of religion: paganism, Judaism, and Christianity in European historiography from Reformation to ‘Enlightenment,'” The Historical Journal, 55 (2012), 1117-60.

  2. Annabel Brett, Changes of State. Nature and the Limits of the City in early modern Natural Law (Princeton and Woodstock: Princeton U.P., 2011); Istvan Hont, Politics in Commercial Society. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard U.P., 2015). Both books started as Carlyle Lectures.

  3. J. G. A. Pocock, “Time, history and eschatology in the thought of Thomas Hobbes,” first published in 1970, reprinted in the author’s Politics, Language and Time. Essays on Political Thought and History (London: Methuen, 1971), pp. 148-201.

March 14th, 2016

New editorial board

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TIFvatarThe Immanent Frame is pleased to announce its first editorial board. Members of the editorial board are:

Carlo Invernizzi Accetti (City College of New York)
Courtney Bender (Columbia University)
Ruth Braunstein (University of Connecticut)
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd (Northwestern University)
Nancy Levene (Yale University)
Vincent Lloyd (Syracuse University)
Saba Mahmood (University of California, Berkeley)
Daniel Vaca (Brown University)

In concert with the editorial board, Managing Editor Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins and Editorial Associate Wei Zhu will work together in order to provide fresh content on academic and contemporary matters related to religion, secularism, and the public sphere. Please follow the site to catch up on the latest posts.

March 10th, 2016

Robert P. Benedict Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy

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Robertson Lecture PosterUniversity of Cambridge historian John Robertson will be delivering this year’s Robert P. Benedict Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy at Boston University entitled, The Sacred and the Social: 1650-1790. Professor Robertson will offer three lectures entitled:

The interpretation of the Word of God: Hobbes and Spinoza: Tuesday, April 19th 5-7 PM

The Flood and the making of Gentile society: G.B. Vico: Thursday, April 21st 5-7 PM

Conjectural histories, religion and society: from J-J Rousseau to F.M. Pagano: Monday, April 25th 5-7 PM

The event is free an open to the public. More information can be found here.

February 16th, 2016

Conference: A Postsecular Age? New Narratives of Religion, Science, and Society

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On July 27-30, the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion in conjunction with St. Anne’s College at Oxford will be hosting a conference entitled, Postsecular Age? New Narratives of Religion, Science, and Society.

The past 20 years have seen the development of the interdisciplinary subfield of ‘secularism studies’ or ‘critical secularism studies.’ Previous theories of secularisation typically presupposed the steady march of human civilisations toward non-religion—in part under the influence of scientific advance. By contrast, these new approaches view secularism and narratives of secularisation as ideological artefacts corresponding to specific times and places and in need of critical framing. Are we then living in what some have called a ‘postsecular’ age? Why have atheism and secularism become so fascinating for scholars—and in popular culture—for the past two decades? Has the secularisation narrative gone away (or changed shape?), putting religion back on the agenda of scholarship, global politics, law-making, and commerce? Are developments in science contributing to these trends? What effect have the New Atheism and new deployments of scientific authority had on secularisation theory? Why do secularisms look different in different times and places? What is the role of globalisation in the emergence and transformation of secularisms?

Speakers include Courtney Bender (Columbia University), Matthew Engelke (London School of Economics), Alister McGrath (Oxford University), Ann Pellegrini (New York University)
Mary-Jane Rubenstein (Wesleyan University) and Graham Ward (Oxford University).

The closing date for abstract submissions is 15 April 2016. More details can be found here:

February 4th, 2016

New blog on religion in the public sphere

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In late January, a new blog on the role of religion in the public sphere was launched: Religion: Going Public. The blog discusses various aspects of contemporary religion in the public sphere. aims to disseminate on-going research findings to wider audiences, and engages with and informs public debates on religion. Religion: Going Public develops out of a collaboration between researchers in three research projects funded by Norwegian Research Council’s SAMKUL program​.

Explore the blog here.

January 20th, 2016

Religion, Secularism, and Constitutional Democracy

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religion secularismSecularism has many critics in the academy these days, but not all have given up on it. This is made abundantly clear in the recently published volume, Religion, Secularism, and Constitutional Democracy edited by Jean L. Cohen and Cécile Laborde. While recognizing the limitations of a militant variant of secularism, the contributors to this volume call for the notion to be reformed rather than jettisoned for some type of post-secular alternative. From the publisher:

Polarization between political religionists and militant secularists on both sides of the Atlantic is on the rise. Critically engaging with traditional secularism and religious accommodationism, this collection introduces a constitutional secularism that robustly meets contemporary challenges. It identifies which connections between religion and the state are compatible with the liberal, republican, and democratic principles of constitutional democracy and assesses the success of their implementation in the birthplace of political secularism: the United States and Western Europe.

Approaching this issue from philosophical, legal, historical, political, and sociological perspectives, the contributors wage a thorough defense of their project’s theoretical and institutional legitimacy. Their work brings fresh insight to debates over the balance of human rights and religious freedom, the proper definition of a nonestablishment norm, and the relationship between sovereignty and legal pluralism. They discuss the genealogy of and tensions involving international legal rights to religious freedom, religious symbols in public spaces, religious arguments in public debates, the jurisdiction of religious authorities in personal law, and the dilemmas of religious accommodation in national constitutions and public policy when it violates international human rights agreements or liberal-democratic principles. If we profoundly rethink the concepts of religion and secularism, these thinkers argue, a principled adjudication of competing claims becomes possible.

Read more on the book here.

January 6th, 2016

Postdoctoral fellowship in religion, politics, and global affairs

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The Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the Buffett Institute at Northwestern University invite applications for a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in the study of religion, politics, and global affairs. The fellowship runs from September 1, 2016 to August 31, 2018 and will be part of the Politics of Religion at Home and Abroad Project in Evanston, Illinois.

Applications are welcome from scholars working at the intersections of religion, law, and politics in national and/or global contexts. Scholars whose research engages critical, interpretive, historical, and genealogical approaches that challenge traditional disciplinary boundaries are encouraged to apply. The Fellow will be affiliated with the Buffett Institute and will be affiliated with an appropriate department in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

The application deadline is February 1, 2016. More details can be found here.

December 15th, 2015

Religion, Media, and the Digital Turn

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This new report by Christopher D. Cantwell and Hussein Rashid begins to document some of the impact that digital modes of research and publication have had on the study of religion. The report, supported by funding from the Henry Luce Foundation, is a snapshot of an ever-evolving digital landscape that points towards potential challenges and opportunities for digital scholarship in the future, while highlighting the wealth of resources currently available.

The last decade has witnessed nothing short of a transformation in the study of religion. Where the printed word was once the field’s stock in trade, scholars and journalists now produce and circulate knowledge through a variety of digital media as well. These new genres have, in large part, been made possible by the rise of “digital humanities” within the academy—a methodological turn that, despite its name, has altered disciplines across both the humanities and social sciences—as well as the widespread use of social participatory media.

We intend for this report to serve as what might be called a form of documentary advocacy. While our primary goal is to chronicle emerging forms of intellectual production shaping the study of religion, we hope that a greater awareness of this new work will generate more recognition of the high quality and innovative work that already exists.

Read the full report on the Social Science Research Council’s website.

November 23rd, 2015

Postdoc in Public Theology at Berkeley

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The Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion has announced a postdoctoral fellowship in Public Theology. The position will be supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, the Berkeley Public Theology Program brings together a group of scholars from fields across the humanities and social sciences, with specializations in a wide array of religious traditions. Our three-year initiative is dedicated to exploring the place of theology in public life, past and present. Theology is here meant broadly as the constellation of conceptual commitments and modes of inquiry that together enable communities to investigate and understand the world in religious terms. We propose to open this subject up to varied disciplinary approaches. Subjects might include, but are not limited to: theology and the institutions of secular life; theological aspects of politics; theology and law; art, literature, and
theological inquiry; theology and social formations, and so on. We will consider applicants from all relevant disciplines whose work promises to advance the research aims of the Berkeley Public Theology Program.

Review of applications will begin February 1, 2016. For more information, including eligibility guidelines and application instructions, see the full call here.

November 17th, 2015

Spirits of Capitalism: Exploring Religion and Economy

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Sunday, Nov. 22, 5pm to ­6.30pm
Marriot-International 6 (International level)
American Academy of Religion annual meeting (Nov. 21­-24, Atlanta, GA)

A session entitled “Spirits of Capitalism: Exploring Religion and Economy” will serve as an exploratory session for a potential new AAR program unit entitled “Religion and Economy.” Both the panel and the proposed unit seek to promote interdisciplinary conversations among scholars whose work conjoins concepts of religion, economy, and economics. The panel will feature brief presentations by scholars familiar to readers of The Immanent Frame (including Pamela Klassen and Kathryn Lofton). Panelists will reflect on how they conceptualize intersections of religion and economy in their historical, anthropological, and critical theoretical scholarship. Through the presentations and subsequent discussion with the audience, the panel will explore how capitalism’s terms and constraints not only orient religious life but also take shape through fields of thought, activity, resistance that the “religious” helps bring into view.

If you have any questions about the panel or proposed program unit, please feel free to contact the co-­organizers, Daniel Vaca ( and Elayne Oliphant (

November 17th, 2015

René Girard dies at 91

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Image of René Girard from the Wikimedia CommonsEarlier this month, Stanford University announced that prominent faculty member René Girard had died after a long illness. Among many contributions, Girard is best known to many for his theory of mimetic desire and his work on religion and violence.

In particular, Girard was interested in the causes of conflict and violence and the role of imitation in human behavior. Our desires, he wrote, are not our own; we want what others want. These duplicated desires lead to rivalry and violence. He argued that human conflict was not caused by our differences, but rather by our sameness. Individuals and societies offload blame and culpability onto an outsider, a scapegoat, whose elimination reconciles antagonists and restores unity.

Read full obituaries of Professor Girard from Stanford UniversityLe Monde, and the New York Times. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Religion & Ethics blog has published an appreciation of his work of his work.

October 15th, 2015

Queer faiths: Can conversions uncover and unsettle racialized religion?

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Word CloudJournalists, politicians and even scholars in Europe commonly use the word “Muslim” to refer not to religion, but to a person’s national origin, ethnicity, migration background, and incomplete membership in the national imaginary. This slippage happens as religion is used as an overarching category to speak about Maghrebi and Turkish migrants, and as immigration, Islam, and delinquency are consistently mentioned in the same breath, even in governmental studies. The conflation of religious and racial categories is important to understand because it pertains to a wider tendency of veiling anti-immigrant and racist sentiments in a language of cultural critique. It also makes one wonder whether the secular ideal of separating religion, culture, and politics is unfulfilled, if not hypocritical.

But how exactly does religion become akin to a racial category? And how can we unravel their association? Esra Özyürek, anthropologist at the London School of Economics, has written a book that studies conversions to uncover the entanglements of race and religion. Drawing on the experience of “indigenous Germans” who convert to Islam, Özyürek explores how religion, race and national belonging are associated in Germany. Not only is this an insightful study on German national identity and Islam’s role therein; the book also spurs thinking about the wider application of the concept of conversion. What can converts tell us about the entanglements of race and religion? Are the German examples that Özyürek examines equally helpful for understanding these entanglements in other countries, like the U.S., and when they involve other religions, like Judaism? And does conversion always have the potential to unsettle established boundaries of belonging?

Before moving to these broader questions, I think it is useful to spend some time with Özyürek’s observations on German converts. Being Muslim and being German are often thought of as incompatible. Converts challenge this assumption by interpreting and combining religious and national identities in unexpected ways. Özyürek describes how the converts she meets in Berlin unsettle several worlds through their conversions. German families feel uneasy about their child or sibling’s new faith, especially if they are women who choose to wear a headscarf. Acquaintances insist that if these converts are Muslims, they cannot possibly be “real” Germans—Germans by blood. Mosque communities meet their fellow believers with suspicion and exclude them as they continue to communicate exclusively in Turkish, Arabic, or Bosnian.

Borrowing from anthropologist Fatima El-Tayeb, Özyürek uses the term “queering ethnicity” to describe the political effect that the often deeply personal choice of conversion entails. “Queering” has a history of uses and connotations helpful to keep in mind: originally a derogatory term, “queer” was re-appropriated by the LGBT community to describe and celebrate practices that question gender, sex, and desire as something clear-cut and fixed in nature. Both Özyürek and El-Tayeb use the term in a broader sense to talk about acts that question, complicate, and unsettle. They dissociate the term from its common reference to sex and gender and apply it instead to talk about racial and national identities. In this way, conversion can be seen as a “queering” practice because it challenges the idea of an exclusionary, Christian, and white Europe.

One could say that the converts’ mere presence exposes the various boundaries that white Germans, former immigrants, and Muslim communities uphold. At the same time, converts actively address and construe new forms of what it means to be German and Muslim. One example is the group of highly educated converts who seek to show through academic works and public lectures that European history and culture have always been fully compatible with Islam. Lecturing on Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s approach to Islam or Islamic reflections on Immanuel Kant, they remind German society, to use Özyürek’s words, “that the most prized intellectuals of German history were tolerant of and open-minded about Islam” and that, in fact, “being a German Muslim involves embodying the very best qualities of both German society and the Islamic community.” Young, faithful musicians, in turn, put forward another definition of being German Muslim. Singing about Islam and their everyday life in Germany, including their frustration with racism and nationalism, artists like Ammar114, who Özyürek mentions in her book, produce an “anti-racist, conversion-oriented Islamic hip-hop” that speaks to the young generations of Muslims.

The converts Özyürek talks to represent a wide range of religious ideas, social backgrounds, and views on what it means to be German. They run the gamut from advocates of naturalist religiosity to pious Salafis; from Eastern Germans who grew up in an insular, atheist society to immigrants from Africa, Latin America and Russia; from proud nationalists to critics of nationalism. And yet, despite this diversity, their conversions all seem to challenge exclusive forms of belonging. Özyürek concludes: “they [converts] defy the newly established boundaries between political alliances, cultures, and civilizations…[and] break ground for genuinely new ways of being and becoming Muslim, German, German Muslim, and Muslim German.”

But do conversions always “queer”? Özyürek points out that interest in the subversive potential of conversion is not entirely new—Jean and John Comaroff, for example, studied how conversions to Christianity in southern Africa helped colonizers subdue native peoples but at the same time, allowed the latter to undermine colonial hierarchies. Yet, Özyürek does not discuss how conversion plays out in different cases. For readers interested in conversion’s interrogative and subversive potential but less focused on Europe, the question is what converts experience in other contexts. Does their decision necessarily challenge boundaries? And when and how do conversions touch upon racial hierarchies?

While wondering about these questions, I came across an example that concerns very different groups and fault lines, but seems, similarly, to lend itself to the language of queering. Various US media have reported on blacks who join the Orthodox Jewish community in New York, especially since the 20th anniversary of the Crown Heights riots in 2011. According to Molly Langmuir at New York, this small group—most, if not all, of them converts—consists of 50 to 60 people among a community of half a million Orthodox Jews in Greater New York. As with the case of Muslim converts in Germany, it is not their number but their unique position that makes them noteworthy to journalists. They are portrayed as courageous frontier-crossers and a curious minority; Trymaine Lee, writing for The New York Times, describes them as a “rare cross-cultural hybrid.”

One cannot help but note that the stories of German Muslim converts and black Orthodox Jews, are extremely dissimilar—starting with the different position of Muslims and (Orthodox) Jews in Germany and in the U.S., and the traditions within each religion. And yet, I think the example of black Orthodox Jews is worth exploring to get an idea of what conversion means and does in varying contexts. What follows is not a comprehensive study but a foray into the complex terrains of Judaism and race relations in the U.S. that should spur thinking about conversion as queering practice.

In the U.S., being Jewish and being black are often seen as mutually exclusive options. A 1960s ad showed a black child eating a sandwich and proclaimed that “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish Rye.” James Baldwin, writing in the same time period, characterized Jews and black as distinct, unequal, and hostile communities: “he [the Jew] is white and values his color.” As Eric L. Goldstein notes, this is only a small part of the story of Jewish-American race relations, because even though Jews entered the white mainstream after World War II, their position within a society that has sought to uphold a black-white divide has remained complex. The “racial dichotomy,” Goldstein writes, “has functioned in American history less as an accurate description of social reality than as an ideology, which has been mobilized at critical points to control a … varied social landscape.” Still today, being black and claiming to be an American Jew do not seem to sit well together for some people. The 2014 documentary Little White Lie offers an example of this when a girl, whose father is African American and whose mother is white American, is told at her bat mitzvah by a fellow synagogue member that it’s “so nice to have an Ethiopian Jew in our presence”—assuming that if Jewish and black, one must be from outside of the US. Assumptions like these neglect much of the diversity of Jewish ethnicity, culture, and customs in the U.S. and worldwide.

This perceived incompatibility between Judaism and being black American bears some similarity to the divide between Islam and being white German. But American Jews define “being Jewish” in multiple and complicated ways. By focusing on its definition as religion with racial undertones, I highlight only one idea within a much broader debate on Jewish identity and the boundaries of Jewish communities.1 Black New Yorkers who convert to Orthodox Judaism are thus only the most visible members of what is, in fact, a diverse Jewish community. The New York article chronicled the experience of some of the Orthodox living in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, a neighborhood well known for its separate, and sometimes conflicting, communities of blacks and Orthodox Jews. As interviewee Nechemyah Davis suggests, being a convert in this environment means continuously confronting and challenging racial boundaries.

“Twenty years ago, the hotbed of Brooklyn racism was Crown Heights. I tell my friends to try to educate their children so they know G-d created all kinds of people. My hope is that by talking about it, eventually a person who looks across the subway platform and sees a black guy in a hat with peyas will think, Maybe he’s not Amish.”

An op-ed by Chava Shervington, leader of the Multiracial Jewish Network, relates that black Jews, and Jews of color more generally, constantly need to assert their Jewish faith and belonging. In Judaica shops, they are asked whether they know how to use religious articles; in kosher restaurants, other guests stare. At synagogue, they may not be counted for minyan, the prayer quorum traditionally required for a full Jewish prayer service. Such experiences show that even if Orthodox Jews attach the most significance to the religious aspects of being Jewish, race also plays a role in defining the boundaries of their community. Similar to German converts, black Jews are confronted with—and confront others with—assumed amalgamations of race and religion.

Unlike in Germany, where the queering power of conversion works primarily to unsettle ideas about Islam held by the non-Muslim majority, blacks who convert to Judaism seem to mostly challenge the racial boundaries upheld by the religious community they wish to join. Manishtana Rison (also part of the New York story) suggests that they challenge the belief in an exclusively white Orthodox Judaism.

“I went to synagogue for fifteen years with the same kids, but on the street they’d walk past me. For Jews, there’s this sense that we’re the chosen people, so we think we’re better than you. But when a person’s faced with someone they assume is of a lower rung and then they realize that person is also Jewish, it means they’re also chosen. I think that can be really unsettling.”

Viewing Özyürek’s work and these convert’s accounts next to each other, it becomes clear how the queering power of conversion takes different directions depending on the social context and the types of boundaries held dear. The adherents of Islam in Germany have very diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds and thus come nowhere near to the religiously, racially and socially tight community Orthodox Jews form. In addition, Islam and Judaism occupy very different places in German and U.S. society. Özyürek suggests that conversion to Islam is especially subversive in the European context because it is a choice of what is considered a “lower-status religion.” Not only is Islam negatively viewed as putting European values at risk and in need of reform; it is also associated with the lower socioeconomic position of immigrants from Turkey and the Maghreb. Insofar as the image of a modern, democratic Europe is construed in opposition to such a lower-status Islam, conversions directly touch upon, and endanger, the self-understanding of the continent’s societies.

Contrary to these conversions “against the dominant value system’s gravity,” the story of Brooklynite Jews is much more complex. On the one hand, one could say that conversion to Judaism—with its connotations of educated, white affluence—confirms rather than challenges dominant hierarchies. Statistically speaking, Jewish converts join a population whose socioeconomic position is above the U.S. average. On the other hand, to say that those converting to Judaism, especially to its Orthodox variants, are simply affirming “white mainstream” is inaccurate in a number of ways. It ignores the fact, already mentioned, that Jews have also unsettled U.S. racial categories. Eric L. Goldstein observes that Jews have also maintained strong commitment to their traditions, communities, and a type of “apartness” that complicates uniform whiteness—this is probably most true for Ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews.2

Much more could be said about the differences and similarities of these two cases.

For now, I want to appraise what they tell us about the benefits and limits of studying conversion. The stories of German Islam and Orthodox Judaism in Brooklyn reveal very different boundaries on the ground. And yet, in both cases, conversions provide a valuable lens for learning about the larger entanglements of religion, race, and nation. The experience of converts as well as the responses they elicit from their families and friends, wider society, and the religious community they wish to join, can tell us much about the associations, often tacit, of religious and racial boundaries.

However, Özyürek approaches conversions as something of political, as well as analytical, import. Recall her discussion of queering acts: Not only do conversions highlight existing religious, racial, and national boundaries, they can also affect these boundaries. Conversions can question, shake and transform what it means to be Muslim, German, Muslim German. In that sense, the very personal choices and journeys that conversions primarily are may also, through the reactions they evoke, assume political relevance. But do conversions always succeed in unsettling the faults lines of race and religion?

In this regard, the dynamics of Orthodox conversion are significantly different from our first example. Orthodox Judaism may put hurdles to conversion not found in Islam: Formally speaking, Islam makes conversion a relatively easy and personal choice of pronouncing shahada, the testimony of faith, whereas conversion to Orthodox Judaism is a lengthy, supervised process. Here, conversion itself—discussed so far as the entry point into unsettling boundaries of religion, race, and nation—becomes a well-guarded point of control.

Conversions to Judaism received some attention in the US media last year, as prospective and successful converts spoke out against what they perceived as a too-arduous procedure. Criticism was especially directed at the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), an institution that, since 2007, formally accredits Orthodox conversion in the U.S., for placing too-high demands on prospective converts (including moving to an Orthodox neighborhood, acquiring Hebrew reading skills, not dating until after conversion) while leaving them in the dark about the length of their conversion. In a 2014 opinion piece in The New York Times, rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz advocated for reducing hierarchies in the conversion process and making Judaism more inclusive:

“The Jewish tradition has shunned the proselytizing propensities of our Abrahamic cousins, Christianity and Islam, but in doing so, it has seemed, to some, to embrace an ethos of exclusion. The fact that anyone with the drive and perspicacity to convert is allowed to do so is one of the most important checks on the Jewish conception of chosenness; being Jewish is not a genetic condition, but a complex hierarchy of identity and choice.”

There are more organizations that advocate diversity within Judaism, but tight regulation is politically, as well as religiously motivated, as conversion to Judaism also makes someone eligible for Israeli citizenship. Since 1950, the Law of Return grants Jews the right to immigrate to Israel. The boundaries of the Israeli state thereby lie with the question of “who is a Jew?” Currently, being considered a Jew under the Law of Return hinges upon the approval of conversion certificates by the Israeli chief rabbinate. Not only does the chief rabbinate reject conversion it considers un-Orthodox; it is also said to be more likely to challenge conversions that do not run through institutionalized channels such as the RCA. Given its institutionalized and political nature, one wonders how much openness Orthodox Judaism allows and how “queering” a conversion to Orthodox Judaism can be.

Özyürek notes that in the attempt to challenge established religious and racial categories and carve out a space of their own, converts also re-draw firm boundaries. Boundaries reappear as converts and young native Muslims counterpose their German, modern Islam to outdated, too-traditional versions that are faulted for confounding cultural traditions with authentic religion. Orthodox Judaism reminds us that conversion itself can be a well-guarded practice: while converts may unsettle associations of religion and race, they also need to adhere to the strict religious (and, as some suggest, economic) boundaries imposed by Orthodox authorities. Thus, as much as conversion can have a queering effect, it also includes moments where its interrogative potential is muted—either by the converts themselves or by the community they seek to join.

  1. By focusing on this aspect I bracket, among other things, that many US-Americans who self-identify as Jewish often understand it as a racial, ethnic or cultural and not necessarily religious category. Notable also is the definition advanced by Black Israelites (also sometimes called Black Jews), who trace their lineage to the ancient Israeli tribes depicted in the Torah, and who have challenged religious definitions of Jewishness in the US and elsewhere.

  2. The previously mentioned study by Pew Research Center also draws attention to the differences among American Jews, inter alia regarding their socioeconomic positions and the values they hold. It shows, for instance, that the percentage of Orthodox Jews graduating from college is lower than among other “Jews by religion” and “Jews of no religion” but still above the national average.

October 7th, 2015

Christianity and human rights at Religion Dispatches

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As part of a joint project, Religion Dispatches contributing editor Austin Dacey has written a series of posts on The Immanent Frame‘s recent discussion on Christianity and human rights. The last in the series asks what is the true extent of Catholicism’s contribution to the contemporary discourse of human rights:

[Cardinal Pietro] Parolin is correct that for some time, popes have spoken of the dignity of the human person, a phrase that may sound familiar from the U.N. Charter and Declaration of Human Rights. But as his statements lay bare, this Catholic usage is strikingly different from the usage in the contemporary discourse of human rights. What to make of the human rights legacy of Christianity, and conservative Catholic thought in particular, is the subject of a vigorous debate among historians at The Immanent Frame.

Dacey had previously laid out Moyn’s position, which challenges the popular history of human rights that underscores continuities between today’s human rights discourse and past incarnations:

In Moyn’s narrative, human rights are no older than Generation X.

The eighteenth century discourse of droits de l’homme or “rights of man,” he argues, was not a human rights discourse because it was designed to legitimize the national sovereignty of the new revolutionary states rather than limit the national sovereignty of all states. Although the 1940s brought an annunciation of human rights in the United Nations Charter—with its faith in “fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women”—and in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this message “fell on deaf ears” among broader publics. It was a generation later that human rights was reborn as a “utopian” mass movement that “emerged in the 1970s seemingly from nowhere” in reaction to a widespread sense in the West that the credibility of prior utopian projects—Marxist, anti-colonialist, and anti-communist—had exhausted themselves.

Dacey also tackled Moyn’s argument that Christianity has been the driving force behind modern understandings of human dignity and equality:

Moyn might respond that the older rights traditions are sufficiently different from the Catholic personalist concept that we are justified in calling it a new concept. The success of this response turns on whether the Catholic personalist concept was in fact the concept that came to prevail among mid-century elites.

For there were a number of concepts of rights and personal dignity circulating during this period and, contra Moyn, plenty of non-Christians enthusing about them along with Christians enthusing for non-Christian reasons. My next post will sketch some of their stories.

Finally, Dacey has emphasized that other actors, such as the NAACP, played a role in human rights history:

The sociologist and NAACP co-founder W.E.B. DuBois lobbied the State Department to extend an official invitation to the NAACP. As Carol Anderson details in Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955, DuBois was joined by the educator and black feminist activist Mary McLeod Bethune and the NAACP’s executive director and chief investigator of lynchings, Walter White, in pressing for an enforceable international bill of human rights and independence for all colonized peoples. Their ultimate goal was to bring the United States’ systematic violation of black citizens’ human rights before the United Nations.

Read the entire series at Religion Dispatches.

This collaboration with Religion Dispatches is made possible by funding from the Henry Luce Foundation.

September 25th, 2015

John Boehner resigning

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Amidst growing tension between conservative factions in Washington, Speaker of the House John Boehner has announced his intention to resign from Congress in October, leading some to speculate on whether yesterday’s remarks from Pope Francis played a role in Boehner’s decision. According to the New York Times, Representative Charlie Dent (Republican, Pennsylvania) “blamed the House’s hard-right members, who he said were unwilling to govern.”

“It’s clear to me that the rejectionist members of our conference clearly had an influence on his decision,” Mr. Dent said. “That’s why I’m not happy about what happened today. We still have important issues to deal with, and this will not be easier for the next guy.”

“The dynamics are this,” he continued. “There are anywhere from two to four dozen members who don’t have an affirmative sense of governance. They can’t get to yes. They just can’t get to yes, and so they undermine the ability of the speaker to lead. And not only do they undermine the ability of the speaker to lead, but they undermine the entire Republican conference and also help to weaken the institution of Congress itself. That’s the reality.”

The Times’s editorial board puts a sharper point on the issue, calling Boehner’s exit “a sorry measure of how far right-wing extremism has advanced in immobilizing the Republican Party and undermining the process of healthy government.”

August 21st, 2015

The religious roots of ISIS

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At Arc of the Universe, Daniel Philpott draws from Rukmini Callimachi’s recent The New York Times article, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape,” and Graeme Wood’s earlier The Atlantic article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” to emphasize the importance of political theology in understanding ISIS’s actions.

Is it theology that explains the behavior of the attackers or is it economic dislocation, resentment over colonialism and present-day imperialism, weak states, the desire for adventure, and other alternative causes? Of course, most who think that religious beliefs play a strong and independent role, as I do, also believe that these myriad factors are commingled and contributory. It is also the case that members of ISIS will hold their beliefs with greater and lesser intensity. Some are very bad Muslims. But the behavior and tactics of the group cannot be explained apart from the theology that governs it and is promulgated within it. This is what is denied by a striking number of analysts writing today. See only the reaction to Wood’s piece.  The critics are dismissive of religion altogether and hold that theology is almost entirely a rationalization, not a driver or a motive.

Read his full piece here.

In pointing out the religious motivations for ISIS’s abuse of Yazidi women, Philpott adds to an ongoing debate on the nature and universal applicability of religious freedom claims and protections. Writing at The World Post, Kecia Ali calls attention to the way that focusing on ISIS’s brutality, and the religious claims they make to justify it, occludes both problematic stereotyping and hypocrisy on the part of Americans.

By focusing on religious doctrine as an explanation for rape, Americans ignore the presence of sexual abuse and torture in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and in Assad’s Syria by the regime and other factions in its vicious ongoing war. None of this is to deny the horror of the systematic rapes Callimachi reports or the revolting nature of the theology she describes. It is to point out that there are reasons why the story of enslaved Yazidis is one that captures the front page of the New York Times: it fits into familiar narratives of Muslim barbarity.

In focusing on current abuses in the Middle East, perpetrated by those claiming the mantle of Islam, Americans — whose Constitution continues to permit enslavement as punishment for crime — deflect attention from partial U.S. responsibility for the current crisis in Iraq. Sanctions followed by military invasion and its brutal aftermath laid the groundwork for the situation Callimachi describes. Moral high ground is in short supply. The core idea animating enslavement is that some lives matter more than others. As any American who has been paying attention knows, this idea has not perished from the earth.

Read her full piece here.

August 21st, 2015

Faith caught between racism and resistance

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Lighted Candles | image via flickr user Elvert BarnesOn June 16, a young white man motivated by white supremacist ideologies entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic black Church in Charleston South Carolina, and murdered 9 of its congregants. This massacre in Charleston joins the lengthy list of incidents, drawing increased attention over the last year, in which black Americans were targets of racism and violence. It also continues the long history of burnt black churches in the country, in which Emanuel has not been the last.

In the wake of the attack on Emanuel, comments revolved around the contradictory aims that religion has served when it comes to race relations in the US. Religion has provided a way to sustain racial discrimination and justify violence against African-American communities; it has also been a source of healing and resistance for those same communities. How should religious individuals and groups confront this paradox? Questions of spiritual renewal are also posed by political activists who connect faith and activism while not necessarily identifying with any institutionalized religion.

The murders in Charleston raised complex issues around race and religion. Many attempts to address these have focused especially on three aspects:

Religion & White Supremacy

A number of articles have set out to discuss the collusion between religion and racism, or what one observer calls “Christianity’s lingering complicity.”

For R. Drew Smith at Religion Dispatches, “white supremacy is a much more central part of American socio-religious culture than generally acknowledged and … its investigation cannot be limited to ‘lone wolf’ racists such as the 21 year-old in Charleston.” Addressing the history of racist-religious ideas and movements is one necessary step in exposing “cloaked versions” of white supremacy. This means taking a look at the (ab)use of the Calvinistic idea of predetermination by slave owners as well as at contemporary supremacist groups such as Christian Identity.

Mark Lewis Taylor, Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, puts forward another link between religion and racism as he draws attention to the quasi-religious power of racism itself. Taylor revisits the long-standing history of discrimination, in which all groups of color “have been hoisted up—often by Western Christians—onto the altar of sacrifice to the god of white supremacy.” But discrimination works not only as a social system “from without.” Racist ideas and the fear of admitting them also exert an inner, psychological force. Quoting James Baldwin, Taylor argues that the fight against racism is existential: ”one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to re-create oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating.”

Religious Leadership in Racist America

A symposium at Syndicate Theology connects religion and racism with thoughts on religious teaching and leadership. Reggie Williams speaks about the role of the black church today, a topic especially pressing in the face of enduring racism, which can make it difficult to believe in the existence of a just god. Is the role of the church “to help black people realize the American dream of equal opportunity” or “one of brokering resistance and revolution?” M. Shawn Copeland criticizes Christian organizations for not addressing pervasive racism and calls for a “critical re-education.”

Christian teaching has done too little to confront and to challenge racist and discriminatory behavior at worship, at work, at school, at home, in restaurants, in stores, in playgrounds, on radio, on television, online. …[moreover, many] churches have not yet taught that the practice of racism and discrimination obstruct the realization of authentic Christian discipleship.

Kaya Oakes at Killing the Buddha also voices her disappointment with a church that neither sees nor responds to the realities of people of color, and what it means to feel abandoned by religion: “I can’t find a church where there is talk about a Jesus who looks like those friends I grew up with, like my godfather, like my sister’s husband. . . . I am white, but I am done with White Jesus.”

Religion, Spirituality, and Activism

Critique of churches’ failure to address issues of racial justice is, however, accompanied by the assertion that religion also continues to be a source of faith and strength. Some articles note that the link between faith and resistance extends well beyond religious communities.

Jesse James DeConto at Religion News Service reports on the biblical inspiration activist Bree Newsome drew on when illegally removing the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse. Hebah H. Farrag at Religion Dispatches discusses how contemporary activists’ involvement with faith differs from earlier, well-known alliances between religion and the civil rights movement. In conversation with Patrisse Marie Cullors-Brignac, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Farrag explores the spirit “essential to a new generation of civil rights activists” and a move from religion to spirituality. Cullors-Brignac is a member of a network of activists that denounces the “martyr mentality” often adopted in political struggle. They are “expressing a type of spiritual practice that makes use of the language of health and wellness to impart meaning, heal grief and trauma, combat burn-out and encourage organizational efficiency.”

Tressie McMillan Cottom at The Atlantic turns to literature to find evidence for a new generation of “black politics without churchiness.” For her, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book Between the World and Me stretches the boundaries of black literature in ways akin to what she sees as a current reinterpretation of black politics. Cottom is struck by the book’s departure from a theological rhetoric of hope, “solutionism,” and thus eventually from the legacy of the civil-rights movement. At the same time, she sees Black Lives Matter activists “who seem to also be articulating a post-black church political language. Even as they welcome elders like the theologian and academic Cornel West as foreparents of the movement, some organizers are speaking without explicitly religious themes.”

August 19th, 2015

Coalitions and slippery slopes: The same-sex marriage debate continues

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Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court of the United States confirmed the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry. Unsurprisingly, debates on the meaning and future of marriage have not subsided, but have taken on new directions. Among the hottest topics of debate are how American Muslims should respond to the ruling and whether polygamy will be the next battleground.

American Muslims’ views on same-sex marriage have recently become an issue of wider public debate, and particularly in response to an open letter by Reza Aslan and The Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj. Aslan and Minhaj’s letter is a political appeal for embracing the rights of LGBT communities. “No one is asking you to change your beliefs. If you feel your faith tells you that homosexuality is haram, fine,” they write to American Muslims.  Their contention is that American Muslims should empathize with and support other minority groups, because as a minority they know only too well about discrimination and the importance of enjoying legally protected rights.

We shouldn’t be perpetuating our marginalization by marginalizing others. Rejecting the right to same-sex marriage, but then expecting empathy for our community’s struggle, is hypocritical.

At HuffPost Live, Aslan and Minhaj spoke further about a critical moment of heightened tolerance in the U.S. and about the challenges that Muslims face when voicing their opinion.

Wondering whether Muslims outside the U.S. would support a “coalition of minorities,” BBC’s World Have Your Say asked young Muslims from different countries about their responses to the open letter. Participants were as hesitant as Aslan and Minhaj to enter a theological debate, but highlighted yet another motive for supporting gay rights: they suggested that American Muslims simply cannot afford to be critical of same-sex marriage given widespread anti-Muslim sentiment and the pressure to distance themselves from Islamic extremists, including the atrocities these have committed against homosexuals. Unlike their Christian and Jewish counterparts, Muslims who oppose gay marriage might not only be looked upon as too conservative but also (once more) as a threat to democratic values. One participant said:

If we want to show that Islam is truly a religion of peace, and being part of peace is accepting others and being at peace with others, then we must be able to demonstrate, we can peacefully coexist in a society where there are people whose beliefs, act or have sexual identities we don’t agree with.

BBC moderator Chloe Tilley raised the question of whether Muslims should be asked to support homosexual marriage in order to avoid “giving Americans another reasons to dislike them” and, further, whether it is not “a leap too far” to expect people to accept something that their faith and understanding of the Quran clearly forbids. Can—and should—shared political values trump individual religious beliefs?

Few writers have made a historical and religious case for Muslim support of homosexuality. Ali A. Olomi at ISLAMiCommentaryargues that Islamic history also offers examples of toleration of same-sex relationships and romances. Revisiting the use of homoerotic imagery in Islamic poetry and historical evidence of same-sex romance, among other things, Olomi counters allegations that Muslims that accept non-heterosexual relationships are Westernized (for a similar position see this reference offered by Aslan and Minhaj and this publication). Muqtedar Khan for Al Jazeera America also suggests that transformations of the social and political landscape may eventually lead to a change in religious convictions.

True, Islamic law forbids homosexual relations. And same-sex marriage is considered a sin. Still, that does not mean this particular understanding of Islam is not contestable.

While American Muslims have become more assertive in commenting on the same-sex marriage ruling, it is not hard to see that those in support of LGBT rights have been the most vocal. Muslim dissenters, unlike those of other religious groups, have not spoken up to defend their disapproval of same-sex marriage in the public media. This silence may also be understood as prioritizing political choices over religious beliefs, albeit in a different way than envisioned by Aslan and Minah’s “coalition of minorities.”

Meanwhile, slippery slope arguments of a familiar sort have gained steam now that same-sex marriage is legal. A common hypothetical used against the legalization of same-sex marriage was that if same-sex marriage were allowed, polygamy, incest, and bestiality would be next. While the latter two remain strictly taboo, the possibility of polygamy becoming legal has been taken up by people across the socio-political spectrum. With Supreme Court justices themselves having raised the question of legal limits on the concept of marriage and the fundamental right to marry (see Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s 2013 comments in the oral arguments over California’s Proposition 8 or Associate Justice Samuel Alito’s recent interview), it is no surprise to see political commentators and legal pundits weighing in as well.

At Religion Dispatches, William E. Smith engages with the wealth of arguments for and against the idea that “same-sex marriage is a slippery-slope-to-polygamy” to make a case for “a limited version” of the argument that “ends well before the plunge to bestiality or other ‘pro-family’ bogeymen.” As polygamy has gained acceptance, it has also gained more attention, yet both anti- and pro-same-sex marriage advocates have argued against it. Intriguingly, Smith notes, each side lays the blame for the increasing acceptance of polygamy at the feet of the other. Smith faults everyone for not recognizing current developments as part of a “larger reformation period of marriage” that includes the abolition of laws preventing interracial marriage, the advent of feminist movements, and changing practices within religious communities, and is unlikely to stop after the ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.

We have been busy overhauling our marital system at least as thoroughly as happened in the Protestant Reformation so we must ready ourselves for a debate on polygamy, as they had to. And the Reformation debates on, and experiments with, polygamy could be valuable resources—indeed, richer in this vein than they were for same-sex marriage. All of which is to say nothing of the easy biblical case that can be made for polygamy.

Much of the current talk seems to revolve around whether polygamy is in fact the next hot topic, rather than actually debating for/against polygamy, though there are some exceptions. William Baude writes for The New York Times that even if polygamy is next to be debated, the same-sex marriage debate should tell us that it’s difficult to predict how things will unfold.

The deeper point is that we should remember that today’s showstopping objections sometimes come to seem trivial decades later. Very few people supported a constitutional right to same-sex marriage when writers like Andrew Sullivan and Mr. Rauch were advocating it only two decades ago. (Judge [Richard A.] Posner, for example, did not.) As we witness more experiments with non-nuclear families, our views about plural marriage might change as well. As Justice Kennedy put it, “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times.”

So the real force of the polygamy question is a lesson in humility. We should not assume that our judges have all the answers. And we should not assume we have them either. Instead we should recognize that once we abandon the rigid constraints of history, we cannot be sure that we know where the future will take us.

August 18th, 2015

A View from the Margins of the Banlieue

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What light does the experience of Salafi Muslim women shed on satire mocking Islam and Muslims?

New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantee Z. Fareen Parvez takes up this question in her recent article on the place of female Muslim piety in contemporary France. Parvez, who worked with Salafi Muslim women in Lyon, contends that religious worship and community are particularly meaningful for women whose “status as French citizens remains precarious.” Nineteenth-century Catholicism, which was the topic of political satire back then, was the religion of a privileged class. Islam in France is not. These observations on discrimination against Muslim minorities problematizes the use of satire and the solidarity expressed after the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo:

[T]he implications of the slogan “je suis Charlie” are not as straightforward as they are made to appear. To say “je suis Charlie” is not only to denounce the killings and express one’s sympathy with the victims and their societies. It is not only to show one’s support for protected speech and the use of satire. Rather, it simultaneously has the effect of dismissing and invalidating the persistent reality of aggression, harassment, and political and economic exclusions that have been plaguing French Muslims, especially women among the unemployed working-class. Furthermore, it ignores the history of satire and perverts its logic by prodding and provoking those without social power—those who are excluded from public space and denied various dignities of citizenship.

Parvez’s article is part of the series Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo published by Reviews & Critical Commentary.

August 10th, 2015

Politics of Religious Freedom

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In a just-published edited volume, Politics of Religious Freedom, editors Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Saba Mahmood, and Peter Danchin ask contributors: what is religious freedom, why is it being promoted, and how are we talking about it? From the publisher:

Taking a global perspective, the more than two dozen contributors delineate the different conceptions of religious freedom predominant in the world today, as well as their histories and social and political contexts. Together, the contributions make clear that the reasons for persecution are more varied and complex than is widely acknowledged, and that the indiscriminate promotion of a single legal and cultural tool meant to address conflict across a wide variety of cultures can have the perverse effect of exacerbating the problems that plague the communities cited as falling short.

Many of the essays collected are the result of this earlier collaboration with The Immanent Frame.

For more on the book, click here.

August 5th, 2015

The public voice of Muslim women

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In an essay here back in 2011, I sounded the alarm about the ubiquity and mainstreaming of hate speech directed against Muslims in Norway. That item was published a mere month before a white, Norwegian, right-wing extremist—who claimed Christian conservative leanings, and who had, since 2006, drenched himself in the netherworld of far-right online conspiracy theories about Islam and Muslims in Europe—committed the worst terrorist attacks in modern Norwegian history, killing seventy-seven people in Oslo and at Utøya on July 22, 2011.

In that essay I was concerned with a state of affairs in Norway in which anti-Muslim ideas and sentiments had become so ubiquitous in the media and in public discourse—and legitimate and necessary critique of “religion” so conflated with hate speech—that few seemed to have the stomach to engage in any form of counter-speech, and hate speech against Muslims was hardly ever prosecuted.1

Some years prior to this, realizing that there was a new generation of often well-educated, socially mobile young Muslim Norwegians who were born and raised in Norway and trying to make themselves heard in Norwegian mainstream media, I had set out to interview a number of them about their experiences with readers and with the media editors who provided them with access to the mediated public spheres in Norway.

In the course of working with these informants between 2009 and 2013, it became clear that most, if not all, had experienced harassment as a result of expressing their views in public. Given the general societal climate, in which the populist, right-wing Progress Party had, since 1987, mobilized on the back of popular concerns over immigration and the increased public presence of Islam in a Norway that had historically conceived of itself as being relatively homogeneous, this was hardly a surprising finding. More disturbing, though, was that there appeared to be a gendered pattern to the harassment, with my Muslim female informants more likely than their male counterparts to have experienced various forms of harassment—including death threats and even violent assaults—as a result of their public participation.

And it was not as if this harassment only came from non-Muslim Norwegians: many of my female informants found themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place as they were targeted by non-Muslims and Muslims alike. A number of my female Muslim informants received hate messages and threats from conservative Muslim males who considered them to have taken up roles in public and to dress and behave in ways they deemed “inappropriate” for Muslim women. Others received hate messages and threats from both Norwegians with salafi-jihadist sympathies and those with discernibly right-wing symphathies for having publicly spoken out about violence and terror perpetrated in the name of Islam.

Scholarly discourse on hate speech has long been dominated by scholars whose approaches often seem to seek recourse to abstract and formalistic thought, rather than to the actual experiences of individuals targeted by hate. In academic texts, we rarely get a sense of what hate speech actually looks and feels like, of how individuals targeted by hate speech experience it, or of the repercussions it may have in their lives and on their willingness and ability to speak back. Scholarly debates on free speech and its dark twin, hate speech, stand to gain from integrating empirical experiences with various aspects of hate speech, particularly on the part of minority individuals often targeted by it.

Here are just a few of the threats my female Muslim informants received:

You fucking Muslim whore, get out of the country which has accepted you with open arms. You are not welcome in this country. Get off the TV screen and know where your place is.

I will find you when you least expect it. You will taste your own blood, and I shall wipe the blood off my hands with pleasure, for I will know that I have done my job

You fucking whore! I will have the blood pour from your filthy body and quash the air from your lungs next time I hear from you. You either shut up, or I will have you shut up forever. The choice is yours.

Judith Butler writes that “the public sphere is constituted time and again through certain kinds of exclusions: images that cannot be seen, words that cannot be heard.” Historically, there is of course nothing new in attempting to prevent women from expressing their views in public, whether in the Western or the Muslim world. Mary Beard has referred to “the fact that women, even when they are not silenced, still have to pay a very high price for being heard.” With reference to the abuse on various social media that women speaking in public regularly face, Beard pointedly argues that “many more men than women are the perpetrators of this stuff, and they attack women far more than they attack men.” Beard also contends that “it’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s the fact that you are saying it.”

Mysogynist hate speech is by no means a peculiarly Norwegian, Scandinavian or European phenomenon. Danielle K. Citron has cataloged the myriad ways in which relatively new and largely self- or unedited online media platforms may act as enabling circumstances for harassment and abuse that can add serious burdens to individual lives.

Speech that silences speech

Katharine Gelber contends that the very purpose of hate speech is “to exclude its targets from participating in broader deliberative processes.” For Jeremy Waldron, hate speech undermines not only formally equal rights to citizenship in liberal, secular, and democratic societies, but also equal rights to human dignity as a “public good” in a Rawlsian sense. Hate speech is, according to Waldron, a “world-defining activity” designed to make the visible world it creates “a much harder world for the targets to live in.”

Gelber describes the “hate speech acts of hate speakers [as] acts which are capable of inhibiting the ability of their targets to speak back.” Several of my informants who have withdrawn temporarily or permanently from mediated public spheres on account of their exposure to hate speech provide empirical examples of this.

But not only that: the demonstration effects of exposure to repeated and continuous hate speech may inhibit the willingness and ability of the wider group of which such individuals to engage in counter-speech. Individual experiences with the most vicious forms of hate speech often gets very well and very rapidly known among minority communities, demonstrating to communities what happens to individuals who speak back, and thereby enforcing silence.

The Norwegian context

What might seem paradoxical, then, is not so much the fact of particularly gendered hate speech in Norway, but the fact that it is happening in a country that has long prided itself on its achievements in the realm of gender equality. Norway has, in recent years, been regularly rated as one of the most gender equal societies on the globe. In Norwegian self-understandings, relative gender equality plays an important role.

But women’s rights and relative gender equality did not emerge out of thin air in Norway. It was, in fact, the result of sustained and long-term mobilization. The feminist struggle in Norway was, in part, cross-political, but arguably dominated by secular feminists on the political left. Norwegian feminism has been characterized as a form of “state feminism.”

As in many parts of the modern Western world, the main proponents and beneficiaries of state feminism in Norway have been highly educated, white, middle class women. Norwegian state feminism—which has, more often than not, been secular and a-, if not anti-religious—has historically displayed some notably illiberal tendencies in regard to the life choices and aspirations of women of working-class and minority background.

Bearing this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that public discourses casting Islam and Muslims as embodied threats against both women’s rights and gender equality should have become pronounced in Norway by the 1990s, or that many Norwegian secular state feminists took the lead in promoting and legitimizing such discourses.

It was not as if this trope is particularly new in the framing of Muslims in Western countries. But after 9/11, the trope of Muslims as embodied threats against women’s rights and gender equality went viral with the so-called “war on terror.”

In the new political and social climate, calls for “white men (and women) to save brown women from brown men,” to paraphrase Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s apt formulation, would steadily increase in secular pitch and ferocity. The Muslim male would henceforth be identified in many Norwegian social imaginaries as a potential or actual oppressor denying Muslim women in his immediate surroundings their freedom in the name of Islam, the Muslim woman as a potential or actually liberated figure embodying a purported universalistic passion and yearning for “freedom.” In this set-up, young Muslim women would emerge as the most problematic figures of all for secular feminist hegemonic conceptions.

Young Norwegian Muslim women have, in this context, often found themselves to be between a rock and a hard place. Though often appreciative of the life choices and opportunities for education, employment, and the pursuit of a career that Norwegian society has to offer, many of them have also been exasperated by a public and mediated discourse that have, more often than not in recent years, cast them in the role of victims of a male patriarchal tradition by virtue of their background in and adherence to Islam, rather than as active agents in the shaping of their own destinies and aspirations.

Charles Tripp has noted that “to be a Muslim in the modern world is both to be shaped by that world and to take part in its shaping.” In my research, I found Muslim female informants deeply engaged in feminist literature, issues, and concerns profoundly shaped by the Norwegian context in which they lived and had been raised. And much like other researchers in this field, I found that they—by virtue of choice and preference—generally expressed themselves in an accessible language describable as “secular,” with limited references to Islamic foundational texts.

Many of my female Muslim interlocutors were highly ambivalent about their role in and engagement with the mediated public sphere in Norway, which they saw as requiring a mode of expression that was often polarizing and sometimes even contrary to what they believed in. They were well aware of the fact that, as Muslims, they made for good copy for most mainstream Norwegian media. They were aware that they were privileged—both on account of their background (in comparison with women from other minorities in Norway) and on account of their gender (in comparison with their male co-religionists). But among the mainstream liberal media editors (generally White, middle-class and non-religious) who regulated their access to mediated public spheres, I found numerous instances of the subtle imposition of a clear hierarchy that privileged voices of Muslim background willing to engage in auto-criticism of Muslims and Islam and to express views aligned with the editors’ own comprehensive rather than political liberal views. One female media editor even went to the lengths of getting one of my conservative Muslim female interlocutors to describe herself as an “extremist” in the title of a commissioned op-ed— a none-too-subtle means of rendering her public voice irrelevant or marginal by means of tendentious labeling.

The long-standing idea of freedom of expression as constituting a free “marketplace of ideas” may be a comfortable illusion to many. But freedom of expression is, of course, not equally free and accessible to all in a given society. The “words that cannot be heard” belong, all too often, to women, even in liberal-secular societies that count as advanced in terms of women’s rights and gender-equality, such as late modern, neoliberal Norway.

  1. “Counter-speech,” in recent scholarly usage, refers to minority individuals’ “speaking back” to racist and/or discriminatory speech and stereotyping.

July 28th, 2015

Materializing the Bible

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Materializing the BibleThe Immanent Frame contributor James S. Bielo and co-curator Amanda White have recently launched a new website called Materializing the Bible. The site, a “curated, online catalogue of Bible-based attractions around the world,” the site is designed to aid visitors in exploring and understanding these places, and to serve as a research and curriculum resource for students and educators.

Materializing the Bible is intended for multiple audiences. First and foremost, we hope educators and students at various levels will find the site productive and provocative. We also hope the site will be fruitful for public audiences, in particular to advance comparative, ethnographic ways of understanding Bible-based attractions. And, of course, for travelers of all kinds: use this site to locate an attraction near you or your next destination. While the websites are fascinating, sometimes you have to… go.

Bielo has written previously at The Immanent Frame on one such attraction: Ark Encounter, a biblical theme park currently under construction in Williamstown, Kentucky.

Read more about Bielo and White’s digital project here.

July 2nd, 2015

How will the same-sex marriage ruling affect religious liberty?

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On Friday, June 28, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 5 to 4 decision that same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry. The Court’s ruling overturns restrictions on same-sex marriages in 13 states. While many have celebrated the landmark ruling—which was announced just before last weekend’s gay pride events in cities nationwide—the decision has also sparked concerns about the effect it will have on religious liberty in the United States.

Emma Green at the Atlantic talks about the kind of legal conflicts that are likely to follow from the Court’s decision for gay marriage. These potential conflicts are also addressed in the dissents of justices Samuel Anthony Alito, Jr., John G. Roberts, Jr., Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas.

The question, now, is what will happen to the many, many religious organizations that don’t support homosexuality, let alone gay marriage. This involves everything from stated policies—“for example, [when] a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples,” Roberts writes—to issues of employment and benefits for employees in gay unions.

Religious organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation are not the only ones likely to face new legal challenges. The dissenting justices also voiced concern about adoption agencies that have religious objections to gay parentage and judges whose faith may now conflict with their institutional role of performing marriages. According to Green, the Court’s decision does not put an end to the debate on same-sex relationships and marriage but only changes its parameters.

The future of gay marriage has long been a question in the United States, and on Friday, the country got an answer. The questions and conversations surrounding gay marriage now will be of a different kind: what it means to oppose, rather than support, same-sex marriage.

A recent article by The New York Times revolved specifically around the question of whether schools and colleges that “forbid sexual intimacy outside heterosexual marriage” and that refuse to extend housing and other services to same-sex partners could soon be denied tax-exempt status. A frequent reference in the current debate is Bob Jones University, which was denied tax exemptions due to its opposition to interracial marriage. During arguments for Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Alito referred to the 1983 Bob Jones University v. United States decision, asking if opposition to same-sex marriage would follow the same precedent.

University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock suggests that Alito and others are overestimating the likelihood of seeing attempts to deny religious schools and institutions tax-exempt status on the basis of their views on homosexuality in the immediate future, saying that only once “gay rights looks like race does today, where you have a handful of crackpots still resisting,” will this become more likely.

David Masci, writing for Pew Research Center, shows that it is neither certain nor inevitable that the ruling will curtail religious liberty and set off further legal cases. As he notes, 13 of the 22 states with laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation include some level of protection for religious groups.

“There’s a big difference between something that could be an issue and something that’s likely to be an issue,” says Robert Tuttle, who teaches religion and law at George Washington University. Tuttle says he believes there may be some lawsuits, but he predicts that in more cases than not, accommodation and compromise are likely to win out. “After all, we still allow institutions, like universities, to discriminate based on gender,” he says.

But University of Illinois law professor Robin Fretwell Wilson says it’s possible that institutions will be pressured to give ground on gay marriage by federal authorities (such as the Internal Revenue Service, which could take away an institution’s tax-exempt status), state civil rights commissions or private lawsuits.

While some predict “accommodation and compromise,” others echo Tamara Audi’s observation at The Wall Street Journal that “religious organizations are sounding alarm bells regarding the ruling and what it could mean. National Public Radio reports on churches and their congregants who oppose the Court’s ruling viewing it as an infraction of their religious convictions. Some conservative pastors in New Orleans have proclaimed that the “law of the land” cannot change what is “biblically correct.” And dozens of evangelical pastors around the country“—like Jack Hibbs, who “will no longer perform any marriages in his church rather than be pressured to marry same-sex couples”—have enlisted in the American Renewal Project, which aims to “train pastors to become politically active in the public arena to defend what they call biblical values.”

NPR’s Tom Gjelten points out, the Court’s ruling has no direct affect on religious ceremonies. 

In fact, the Supreme Court said ministers who do not approve of same-sex marriages can’t be forced to perform them. The court decision applies only to government functions, not religious ceremonies. But many of those who are now criticizing the court decision don’t recognize that distinction.

May 22nd, 2015

5 questions (and answers) about religious exemptions for vaccines

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The measles outbreak originating in Disneyland in California—which was finally declared over last month after 169 cases in the United States—thrust the issue of non-medical vaccination exemptions into the political spotlight again, and fueled the growing public controversy over their place in mandatory immunization policies. Personal exemptions for moral or philosophical reasons exist in some states, but religious exemptions, which are allowed in forty-eight states, are far more prevalent. Determined to cut down on the number of unvaccinated people, lawmakers across the U.S. have proposed restrictions and bans on religious exemptions, triggering heated (and ongoing) debates in California, Maine, and Vermont. The current backlash raises a series of important legal, political, and religious questions about these exemptions, beginning with the most basic one.

Why do these religious exemptions exist?

Christian Scientists played an important role in establishing religious exemptions as they relate to the medical care of children. In 1967, Christian Scientist Dorothy Sheridan was convicted of manslaughter under the child neglect law for not seeking medical attention for her daughter, who died of pneumonia (Sheridan had to tried to treat her daughter solely with prayer). In response, Christian Scientists began to mobilize against the various laws regarding child abuse and neglect by lobbying for religious exemptions. Their campaign met with great success; Sheridan’s home state of Massachusetts, for example, added a religious exemption to its child neglect law in 1971. In 1974, religious exemption clauses were added to the Code of Federal Regulations (since repealed), as well as to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.1

The legislative and political climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s, coupled with scientific advancements2, contributed to the creation of a series of diagnostic, medical care, and preventative measures for children, including immunization—the product and legacy of the Great Society era. Along with these measures, however, came religious exemptions, in many cases the product of the same lobbying efforts from Christian Scientists. New York was one of the first states to institute a religious exemption to its vaccine mandate (for polio) in 1967, but when Iowa, one of the last states to mandate immunization for schoolchildren, passed its legislation in 1977, it too included a religious exemption. However, according to the Iowa’s director of the immunization program at the time, “he knew of only two religions — the Christian Science Church and the Netherlands Reformed Church — that might qualify.”

What is the religious basis for not vaccinating?

Like Iowa’s director of immunization, John Grabenstein of Merck (a major pharmaceutical manufacturer) reached the same conclusions when he studied different religions’ doctrines on vaccinations. Christian Scientists often rejected vaccines because of their belief in faith healing: “Disease, in this construct, is not fundamentally real, but rather something that can be dispelled, to reveal the perfection of God’s creation.” As for the Netherlands (or Dutch) Reformed, Grabenstein cites Frits Woonink of the Dutch Centre for Infectious Disease Control, who states that some Traditional Reformed believe that “protection through vaccination would make a person less dependent on the Living God. If God sends an illness, he has a reason for doing so.”3

But Traditional Reformed adherents do not necessarily follow a strict anti-vaccination policy. Woonink writes that acceptance of vaccines among the Traditional Dutch Reformed is increasing in the Netherlands, especially as community leaders argue in its favor. Meanwhile, Christian Scientist communities were responsible for a few notable disease outbreaks in the 1980s and 1990s, but Grabenstein notes that many have since been willing to accept immunization.

How many people claim (and support) these religious exemptions?

Not very many. Some commentators have noted an increase in religious exemptions in the last few years in certain regions, with others pointing out that these exemptions are likely being abused. Still, a 2009 study from the New England Journal of Medicine shows that exemption rates in states with only religious exemptions did not budge between 1991 and 2004; states with personal exemptions, however, did see their rates increase from 0.99% to 2.54%. The latest data from the CDC indicates that vaccination rates are still generally high. Clusters of unvaccinated people still do exist—one Amish community had a significant measles outbreak last year—but they are in the clear minority.

However, support (though not actual claimants) for exemptions is higher, particularly among those with children. In a recent NPR poll, 38 percent of households with children supported both personal and religious exemptions, compared to 28 percent of households without.

Will bans on these religious exemptions be passed?

A ban on religious and personal exemptions looks likely to happen in California, after the bill passed in the Senate just last week. But it’s difficult to imagine bans taking effect in more than a few states, especially as media coverage of the issue subsides. Yes, Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), Zucht v. King (1922), and Prince v. Massachusetts (1944) established precedents that personal and religious liberties cannot supersede the health of the children or the community. But disease, medicine, and society have changed drastically since then, and religious exemptions have been increasingly the norm in the last 50 years, both among legislators and the public.

The recent history of exemptions begins with Sherbert v. Verner (1963), which established a high standard that laws need to pass before they can burden the free exercise of a person’s religion. But then Employment Division v. Smith (1990) declared that laws are not required to accommodate these objectors. In response, Congress (with substantial public support) passed the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which reinstated the Sherbert standard for (federal) laws, which was then followed by multiple states passing their own RFRAs. In this climate, legislators will likely face challenges if they attempt to institute a ban; even in the midst of the latest outbreak, legislators in Colorado and New York have proposed expanding vaccine exemptions.4

What about raising the standard for those requesting religious exemptions?

This is certainly more likely to happen than a blanket ban, though several attempts—like this proposal in Arizona—have failed to even get a hearing. Even if they pass, however, these laws come with their own issues, if other states are any indication. Several states with religious exemptions do already have restrictions in place, most of which require some combination of a demonstrated genuine or sincere belief, membership in a recognized church, and a notarized note from a religious official. But that places them in potentially murky judicial/legal waters; namely that they do not pass the test set by Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) for legislation on religion.5

Take New York, which has religious exemptions with such strict requirements. Parents have tested these requirements across multiple school districts over the last few decades, with some success. In McCartney v. Austin (1968), the court ruled that since Roman Catholicism doesn’t forbid vaccines, mandatory immunization law “does not interfere with the plaintiffs’ freedom of worship.” In the similar Berg v. Glen Cove City School (1994), however, the court accepted the parents’ own (anti-vaccine) interpretation of Judaism as religious and sincere, and granted an exemption despite lacking Jewish doctrinal support.

Meanwhile, Sherr v. Northport-East Northport Union Free School District (1987) held that the restriction on anti-vaccination parents being “bona fide members of a recognized religious organization” violates the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses. In Turner v. Liverpool Central School (2002), the court upheld the religious exemption of someone belonging to the Congregation of Universal Wisdom, essentially a mail-order religion that requires nothing beyond a “customary donation.”

But New York still has the power to verify the legitimacy of religious exemptions; in other states, that’s no longer the case after that part of the law was challenged in court. In 1999, the Wyoming Department of Health denied a religious exemption request after they determined it was not actually based on religious beliefs. But the Wyoming Supreme Court later overturned that decision in In re: LePage (2001), saying that the Department (and government in general) lacked the authority to investigate how “sincerely held” those beliefs were. As a result, anyone who fills out this form will be granted a religious exemption.

So while additional legislation placing more restrictions on religious exemptions may pass, it remains to be seen if they can withstand judicial scrutiny.

  1. It is worth noting here that John Ehrichman, H. R. Haldeman, and Egil Krogh, close advisors to then-President Richard Nixon, were all lifelong Christian Scientists.

  2. The measles vaccine was licensed in 1963, the mumps vaccine in 1967, and the rubella vaccine in 1969, before they were combined in the now-used MMR vaccine in 1971.

  3. Many Traditional Reformed live along the Bijbelgordel (“Bible Belt”) in the Netherlands, which had its own measles outbreak in 2013.

  4. This in in line with the recent general trend; of the 36 state bills on exemptions to immunization mandates between 2009 and 2012, 31 of them were to expand exemptions (though none of them passed).

  5. The test is as follows: (1) The statute must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religious affairs. (2) The statute must not advance nor inhibit religious practice. (3) The statute must have a secular legislative purpose.

May 14th, 2015

Madonna’s “Isaac”/Madonna’s Akeda—A lesson for scholars, old and young

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In 2009, and again in 2010, I taught a class on the Akeda (“Binding of Isaac”) in the arts and the humanities (syllabus). The story of the Akeda, from Genesis chapter 22, is one of the central narratives of western culture. For Jews, the Akeda became a central motif of the penitential season, during which the merit of Abraham’s faith and Isaac’s willingness to be sacrificed is invoked to call upon God to forgive the people their sins and to save them in times of persecution and danger. For Christians, who often call this chapter the “Sacrifice of Isaac,” the Akeda became a foreshadowing of the crucifixion in which God sacrificed his only son for the salvation of humankind. For Muslims, the identity of the bound one became, in the post-Qur’anic period, Ishmael, the biblical founder of the Muslim people and religion. For secularists of all types, the Akeda became the embodiment of the conflict between the parental willingness to sacrifice children to various political and other causes, as well as the focus of the Oedipal conflict between father and son.

There are thousands of renderings of the Akeda in painting, sculpture, literature, drama, and poetry. Rembrandt tried his hand at this theme three times, in 16351645, and 1655. Marc Chagall painted it twice, in 1956 and 1966. Caravaggio’s two paintings of the Akeda, in 1598 and 1601, are so different that it is hard to believe that the same person did them. Modern Israeli culture in particular used the Akeda in literature and in art in a very wide range of interpretations. There are also musical renditions that include: Abramo ed Isacco (Josef Myslivecek, 1776); Five Canticles, Canticle II (Benjamin Britten, 1952); War Requiem (Benjamin Britten, 1961), which includes a poem on this theme by Wilfred Owen; Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan, 1965); Abraham and Isaac (Igor Stravinsky, 1962-63); Story of Isaac (Leonard Cohen, 1969); The Sacrifice of Isaac (Judith Eisenstein, 1972); Isaac and Abraham (Joan Baez, 1992); Genny 22 (Apologetix, 2000); Abraham (Sufjan Stevens, 2002); and Mr. Shiny Cadillacness Clutch, (2007), among many others. I am not an expert in any of these sources and would not have discovered them had it not been for my enterprising students who, being fluent in navigating the web, found them and brought them into class. (PowerPoint presentations by students, for private use only, are available upon request.)

To these examples above must be added Madonna’s “Isaac,” featured on Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005) and in her celebrated world tour supporting the album. Two things made Madonna’s “Isaac” different from the other pieces examined in the context of the Akeda.

The first was the use of a popular Yemenite Jewish song as a chorus. The Yemenite song, “Im nin’alu daltei nadivim,” is based on a beautiful medieval mystical poem, written by the famed Yemenite kabbalist Rabbi Shalom Shabazi in alternating Hebrew and Arabic verses. The first stanza (“If the gates of the leaders …”) became a popular song (“Im Nin’alu”); it was most famously recorded by famed Israeli singer Ofra Haza, first with the Shechunat Hatikva Workshop Theatre. That lovely performance, from 1978, has been viewed over 2.5 million times.

Those accustomed to hearing Hebrew will notice that Haza sings here in “Yemenite,” the Hebrew dialect used by Yemenite Jews. Haza recorded the song again in 1988—much later in her career, after she had become a famous singer—with a strong jazz beat. “Im Nin’alu” has been remixed and reissued many times since, even after Haza’s death in 2000, but I confess that I much prefer the earliest recording, which captures the popular Yemenite culture from which the poem and the song came.

Second, by the time Madonna performed “Isaac,” she had acquired the reputation of someone interested in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) and so this piece might be seen as a commentary on the Akeda. Madonna’s “Isaac” begins with a Yemenite singer, Yitzhak Sinwani, blowing the shofar, then singing part of the first verse of the popular Yemenite song. The lyrics and dramatic sequence to Madonna’s “Isaac” are as follows:

Sound of shofar blowing

Im nin’alu daltei nadivim, daltei nadivim
Daltei Marom lo nin’alu, lo nin’alu.
[“If the gates of the leaders are locked,
the gates of Heaven are not locked.”]

Sound of shofar

Im ninalu, im nin’alu, im nin’alu daltei nadivim
Daltei Marom lo nin’alu.

El hai marom, El hai marömam, El hai marömam al kol karuvim
Kulam beruho ya’alu.
[“If the gates …
Living God, exalted above the cherubim –
They all rise with His spirit.”]

Figure in blue cape dancing in a cage; sand dunes; Madonna appears

Staring up into the heavens
In this hell that binds your hands.
Will you sacrifice your comfort?
Make your way in a foreign land?

Wrestle with your darkness.
Angels call your name.
Can you hear what they are saying?
Will you ever be the same?

Chorus with images of dancer and eagle, the singers, sand dunes

Mmmm mmm mmm
Im nin’alu, im nin’alu
Mmmm mmm mmm
Im nin’alu, im nin’alu
Mmmm mmm mmm.

Madonna sings

Remember, remember.
Never forget.
All of your life has all been a test.
You will find the gate that’s open
Even though your spirit’s broken.

Open up my heart.
Cause my lips to speak.
Bring the heavens and the stars
Down to earth for me.

Chorus; the woman in cage reaches out; the cage lifts up

El hai, El hai, Marom, marömam al kol karuvim
Kulam beruho ya’alu.

Madonna liberates the caged woman

Wrestle with your darkness.
Angels call your name.
Can you hear what they are saying?
Will you ever be the same?

Chorus; woman dances in freedom; Madonna dances with male dancers

Madonna’s interpretation thus interweaves the themes of liberation and of life as a test together with Shabazi’s mystical poem in its incarnation as a modern, popular Israeli song. The themes of bound hands, liberation, and life as a test with an open gate, are references to the Akeda, though it is a loose, very modern interpretation of the Akeda, not unlike other secular interpretations: redemptive but without direct allusion to the story of Genesis 22. It is an amazing palimpsest of texts.

How Easy it is to Be Completely Wrong

Alas, none of the above turns out to be true. Shalom Shabazi’s poem, beautiful as it is in its bilingualism and its poetic and mystical subtlety, is a wedding poem, not an Akeda poem. The song it gave rise to also has nothing to do with the Akeda. One can, however, easily trace the musical development from Ofra Haza’s initial recording to her later recordings and to the version used in Madonna’s “Isaac.” Madonna’s lyrics and dramatic imagery, redemptive though they are, have nothing to do with the binding of Isaac—even the title, “Isaac,” has nothing to do with the Akeda, as Madonna herself noted:

It’s named after Yitzhak Sinwani, who’s singing in Yemenite on the track. I couldn’t think of a title for the song. So I called it “Isaac” [the English translation of “Yitzhak”]. It’s interesting how their minds work, those naughty rabbis…. [Yitzhak] is an old friend of mine. He’s never made a record. He comes from generations of beautiful singers. Stuart and I asked him to come into the studio one day. We said, “We’re just going to record you. We don’t know what we’re going to do with it.” He’s flawless. One take, no bad notes. He doesn’t even need a microphone. We took one of the songs he did and I said to Stuart, “Let’s sample these bits. We’ll create a chorus and then I’ll write lyrics around it.” That’s how we constructed it.1

The piece was named after the singer Yitzhak Sinwani, who had gone to study, and then teach, at the Kabbalah Institute in Los Angeles and London. Madonna met him there, heard him sing some traditional Yemenite songs, and invited him to record for her. According to one report, itself a partial translation of a long interview with Sinwani in Yediot Aharonot: “… she said that when Sinwani sang her the song for the first time, she was overwhelmed with emotions and started to cry, even though she couldn’t understand a word. ‘After he translated the lyrics for me,’ she said, ‘I cried even more.’”

So, Madonna’s “Isaac” would be one of many of Madonna’s performances that carry a prosocial message. Indeed, the Confessions on a Dance Floor tour opened with a performance of Madonna’s “Live to Tell,” which she sang while “hanging” from a cross, in front of projected images and text intended to draw attention to the millions of children being orphaned by AIDS in Malawi and other African countries. (This produced, as one can imagine, great criticism from serious theological circles; personally, as a theologian of long standing, albeit not in a Christian tradition, I feel that the number captured well the message of the figure of Jesus.)

How did we get from Madonna’s “Isaac” to the Madonna’s Akeda in the first place? Credit must be given to Zach Thompson and Mary Ruf, the students who uncovered the link, because in their original presentation, they did specifically draw attention to the possible naming of the piece after the singer. But enthusiasm for the juxtaposition of a mystical Yemenite song and a modern interpretation of the Akeda swept the other young scholars in the class off their feet. To tell the truth, I too, a scholar and professor of quite some experience, was also swept off my feet and began to talk about “Madonna’s Akeda.”

“Scholars, beware of your words lest you be found guilty” (Mishna, “Avot” 1:11).

  1. Madonna’s reference to “naughty rabbis” is drawn from criticism expressed in the Israeli press that the song was blasphemous because it associated the name of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the great 16h century kabbalist, with Madonna’s work. The press reports are very distorted: Yitzhak Luria is not the author of the poem, his name is not spelled “Lurier,” “blasphemy” would have been the wrong word, etc. Still, Madonna vigorously denied that any “blasphemy” was intended.

April 20th, 2015

The Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy (and what you need to read to understand it)

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Graeme Wood’s “What ISIS Really Wants,” published in The Atlantic in February 2015, sparked a massive debate. The controversy concerns whether the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is Islamic or not, and especially whether ISIS accurately understands Islam’s “medieval tradition”whatever that may mean. Wood correctly argues that ISIS cannot be understood without reference to its understanding of Islam, but he also impliesdisturbingly, to manythat ISIS’s understanding of Islam is just as representative of the religion as any other view would be.

Scholars and commentators contended that Wood and his interlocutors missed the dynamism of Islam’s intellectual traditions. Wood, the critics continued, overlooked ISIS’s own penchant to read Islam’s history and foundational texts selectively, and thereby suggested that the group’s particular brand of scriptural literalism was somehow more legitimate than other interpretations.

One problem with the debate, however, is that it has not detailed ISIS’s intellectual foundations in a way that is accessible to the broader public. Responding to Wood, scholars of Islam argued at a level of abstraction, leaving readers without a background in Islamic studies on their own as they decided whom to trust.

Wood writes, “We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.” One analyst, Cole Bunzel, recently shed significant light on ISIS’s worldview in his forty-page article “From Paper State to Caliphate.” But this is the point: academic experts know a considerable amount about ISIS and the thinkers that influenced it, but few commentators are using such in-depth studies to inform popular debates about where ISIS comes from.

Here, then, are ten thinkers that influenced ISIS—directly or indirectly—with links to one English-language source and one Arabic-language primary document for each. I group these thinkers into three strands: rejectionist Salafism, global jihadism, and the medieval tradition.

When tracing intellectual lineages, it is important to avoid teleology—the argument that past thinkers’ ideas inevitably led to ISIS. Taking a teleological view can lead to unfair accusations against these thinkers, some of whom have rejected ISIS and others of whom would almost certainly have done so were they still living. It is also important to use precise definitions, especially of “Salafism” and “jihadism,” which are often conflated.

For this post’s purposes, “jihadism” is an ideology that advocates armed struggle not just to defend Muslim lands under occupation but to overthrow allegedly apostate Muslim rulers and (in some versions) to fight the United States as a “far enemy” of Islam, the puppet master who pulls the strings of the “near enemy,” namely occupiers of Muslim lands or corrupt local regimes.

“Salafism,” meanwhile, is an ultra-Sunni identity that rejects allegorical readings of scripture, views scripture primarily as proof-texts that determine correct belief and action, rejects the four major Sunni legal schools, and describes today’s world in theological terms derived from the early centuries of Islam—for example, by calling the Shia rawafid, or rejecters of the first three Sunni Caliphs. To call ISIS “salafi-jihadi” is accurate, but some of its influences are only one or the other, not both.

Strand A: Global Jihadism

Even though ISIS has broken with al-Qaeda, it is a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in both ideological and organizational terms. More broadly, it originated in the global jihadist movement that emerged after the Cold War. ISIS shares in al-Qaeda’s complex genealogy, which includes not just Salafi influences but also contemporary ideologues. Here are a few key thinkers in ISIS’s global jihadist genealogy:

1. Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi (1966-2006): This Jordanian militant spent time in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, where he met al-Qaeda’s founder Osama bin Laden. Returning to Jordan, al-Zarqawi was imprisoned from 1992-1999 on charges of involvement in jihadist plots. Upon his release, he traveled back to Afghanistan for several years. His group of militants became active there during the U.S. invasion of Iraq; they became al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), ISIS’s predecessor organization, in 2004.  AQI brutally targeted Shia Muslims, considering them infidels. ISIS continues to memorialize and invoke al-Zarqawi (who was killed in a U.S. air strike in 2006) in its messagingISIS’s magazine, Dabiq, is named for a town in Syria where they expect an apocalyptic battle to occur and the issues begin with a quotation in which al-Zarqawi referenced the battle.

English Source: Jean-Charles Brisard, Zarqawi: The New Face of al-Qaeda. Arabic Source: Writings of al-Zarqawi.

2. Abu Bakr Naji (real identity unknown): This anonymous jihadist ideologue wrote an influential text called The Management of Savagery: The Most Dangerous Stage through which the Muslim Community Will Pass, in which he lays out a strategy for establishing an Islamic state. Naji’s book appears to have influenced ISIS, particularly regarding its insurgent and strategic ambitions.

English Source: The Management of Savagery (translated by William McCants). Arabic source: Naji’s page at Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s website.

3. Osama bin Laden (1957-2011): The son of a Yemeni-Saudi construction magnate, Bin Laden became involved in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s as a financier and fighter. He founded al-Qaeda in 1988 and declared war on the United States in 1996. Al-Qaeda absorbed not only “Arab Afghans”Arabs who had fought in Afghanistanbut also Egyptian jihadists who opposed successive military heads of state in that country. Al-Qaeda was responsible for numerous attacks in the years after 1996, including 9/11.

Bin Laden supported Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi in the context of the Iraq War after 2003. Even at that time, though, differences in strategy appeared: al-Qaeda’s leaders were concerned about al-Zarqawi’s emphasis on sowing sectarian tension between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Although ISIS and al-Qaeda (now led by Bin Laden’s former deputy, Egyptian radical Ayman al-Zawahiri) have broken with each other, ISIS remains keen to claim Bin Laden’s legacy and invokes him positively in its magazine (see: Dabiq, issue 7, p. 25), even as it excoriates al-Zawahiri.

English Source: Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Arabic Source: “O People of Iraq.”

4. Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966): An autodidact and a literary critic, Qutb joined the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood late in life and became one of its most famous thinkers. During his imprisonment in the 1950s and 1960s, Qutb wrote Milestones, which influenced al-Qaeda’s founders and other jihadis around the world. Qutb argued for the absolute sovereignty of God on earth and pronounced all Arab rulers of his time apostates for having undermined God’s sovereignty.

Qutb is an indirect influence on ISIS. Part of the Salafi movement has been reluctant to embrace Qutb, given his deviations from the Salafi creed; some Salafi-jihadis are more eager to cite Qutb’s contemporary, the judge Ahmad Shakir, who also wrote against secularism but had much more formidable scholarly credentials. But leaders like al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri, have continued to praise Qutb, and Salafi-jihadi thinkers like Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (see below) have been able to restate Qutb’s core ideas in a Salafi idiom. It would be difficult to imagine ISIS’s religious and political rejection of contemporary Arab regimes without the indirect influence of Qutb.

English Source: Albert Bergeson, The Sayyid Qutb Reader. Arabic Source: Ma‘alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones).

Strand B: Salafi “Rejectionism”

ISIS’s intellectual influences also include a “rejectionist” Salafi stranda line of thinkers who used Salafi language and theology to reject contemporary Arab regimes. Two important thinkers in this strain are Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Juhayman al-‘Utaybi, both of whom were influenced by a mainstream Salafi scholar, Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani. Both al-Maqdisi and al-‘Utaybi were also influenced by highly exclusivist nineteenth-century voices from the Wahhabi movement.

5. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (b. 1959): Born in Palestine, and now living in Jordan, al-Maqdisi is the former teacher of al-Zarqawi and of Turki al-Bin‘ali (b. 1984), one of ISIS’s affiliated scholars. Two of al-Maqdisi’s contributions relevant to understanding ISIS are his efforts to promulgate a strict argument that Muslims should be loyal only to other Muslims and to provide a Salafi theological framework for ideas popularized by Qutb, especially the idea that contemporary Arab rulers are infidels.

Al-Maqdisi broke with al-Zarqawi over their disagreement about whether preaching or violence should take precedence. He has rejected ISIS, yet ISIS continues to use some of al-Maqdisi’s key metaphors, such as the idea of Millat Ibrahim (literally “the community of Abraham”), understood as an uncompromisingly monotheistic group centered on the Prophet Abraham and as a symbol of the Sunni Muslim exclusivism that ISIS champions (see: Dabiq, issue 3, p. 10).

English source: Joas Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Arabic source: al-Maqdisi, Millat Ibrahim wa-Da‘wat al-Anbiya’ wa-al-Mursalin (The Community of Abraham and the Call of the Prophets and Messengers).

6. Juhayman al-‘Utaybi (ca. 1935-1980): Famous for leading the two-week siege of the Grand Mosque of Mecca in 1979, al-‘Utaybi was a leader of al-Jama‘a al-Salafiyya al-Muhtasiba (The Salafi Society for Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong), a Salafi group that began in Medina in the mid-1960s. Initially supported by senior Saudi scholars, the group’s increasingly uncompromising stances and iconoclastic worship practices eventually generated conflict with the scholarly establishment.

In the late 1970s, al-‘Utaybi’s faction of the Society rejected the Saudi state and came to believe that one of its own members was the Mahdi, an Islamic figure expected to appear for the Final Battle. This belief inspired its uprising in Mecca. Al-‘Utaybi’s ideas influenced al-Maqdisi, making al-‘Utaybi an indirect influence on ISIS.

English Source: Thomas Hegghammer and Stéphane Lacroix, “Rejectionist Islam in Saudi Arabia: The Story of Juhayman al-Utaybi Revisited.” Arabic Source: Al-‘Utaybi’s page at al-Maqdisi’s website.

7. Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (1914-1999): This Albania-born Muslim scholar dedicated his career to re-evaluating the authenticity of hadith, or reports of things the Prophet Muhammad said and did. Al-Albani, one of the towering figures of the Salafi movement, felt that many commonly accepted hadith were “weak,” meaning they lacked credibility and should not be used for deciding what Sunni Muslims should believe and how they should worship. Although he was politically quietist, his teachings influenced figures like al-‘Utaybi, and even jihadi thinkers like al-Maqdisi continue to respect much of his scholarship. ISIS does not claim al-Albani’s mantle, and were he still living al-Albani would no doubt reject ISIS as he did jihadism in 1990s Algeria. Nevertheless, given al-Albani’s massive impact on the contemporary Salafi movement and its understanding of Islam’s foundational texts, he is an indirect influence on ISIS.

English Source: Stéphane Lacroix, “Between Revolution and Apoliticism: Nasir al-Din al-Albani and His Impact on the Shaping of Contemporary Salafism.” Arabic Source: Al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifa wa-al-Mawdu‘a wa-Atharuha al-Sayyi’ fi al-Umma (The Series of Weak and Forged Hadith Reports and Their Negative Effect on the Muslim Community).

8. Hamad ibn ‘Atiq (1812/3-1884): This scholar from present-day Saudi Arabia epitomized a school of thought within nineteenth-century Wahhabism that rejected any friendly interaction between those considered to be true Muslims and outsiders. This exclusive conception of Muslim identity informed the thought of al-‘Utaybi and al-Maqdisi and, through them, the thought and actions of ISIS.

English Source: David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia (see also Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi). Arabic Source: Al-Durar al-Saniyya fi al-Ajwiba al-Najdiyya (The Glittering Pearls of the Najdi Responses).

Strand C: Medieval Thinkers

ISIS is keen to claim that it is following the footsteps of medieval authorities respected by Salafis of all political stripes around of the world. These authorities include Ibn Taymiyya and his student Ibn al-Qayyim. Howeverand it is important to bear this in mind when debating whether or not ISIS represents the “medieval tradition” of IslamIbn Taymiyya was in some ways a minority figure in his own lifetime and the centuries that followed, and his legacy had to be deliberately revived and defended in the nineteenth century. Moreover, Ibn Taymiyya’s body of writing is so vast, and his thought so complex, that ISIS cannot lay exclusive claim to understanding or applying the medieval theologian’s legacy.

9. Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328): The Damascene theologian was an extremely prolific and controversial scholar in his own time and after. He has influenced the Salafi movement through his writings on creed and politics, and through Salafis’ glorification of Ibn Taymiyya as a fierce opponent of any perceived heresy. Some Salafis read the present conflicts in the Muslim world as a re-instantiation of conflicts that occurred during Ibn Taymiyya’s era, when Mongol armies captured and threatened Muslim territory in the Middle East. ISIS invokes Ibn Taymiyya frequently to claim his scholarly authority for its highly exclusivist Sunni identity and its embrace of jihad (see: Dabiq, issue 3, p. 32).

English Source: Yossef Rapoport and Shahab Ahmed, eds., Ibn Taymiyya and His Times. Arabic Source (for a sense of Ibn Taymiyya’s creed): Al-Aqida al-Wasitiyya (The Creed of Wasit [an Iraqi town]).

10. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (1292-1350): A major student of Ibn Taymiyya and an accomplished scholar in his own right, Ibn Qayyim is one of the medieval authorities invoked most by ISIS. The jihadist group cites Ibn Qayyim when discussing diverse topics but especially in two areas, scriptural interpretation and legal rulings. For example, ISIS quotes at length from Ibn al-Qayyim in discussing the issue of mubahalaa session in which two sides invoke God’s curse upon whomever is in the wrong (see: Dabiq, issue , pp. 21-22).

English Source: Birgit Krawietz, “Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyah: His Life and Works.” Arabic Source: Ibn al-Qayyim, Zad al-Ma‘ad (Provisions of the Hereafter).


Two final points should be made about ISIS’s intellectual genealogy. First, no senior scholars, even within jihadi circles, have associated themselves with ISIS. ISIS’s most prominent scholar (Turki al-Bin‘ali) is barely thirty years old, and even al-Maqdisi has rejected the movement, which should give outsiders great pause when asserting that ISIS has a sophisticated understanding of any tradition, even the contemporary Salafi tradition.

Second, and despite the rich potential for scholarship on and debate around ISIS’s religious roots, the movement’s political context should not be downplayed. ISIS’s causes are not reducible to the Iraq War or the Syrian revolution, but without the U.S. invasion of Iraq or the Syrian Civil War there would be no ISIS. The Iraq War made a decisive contribution to the political chaos, sectarian tensions, and widespread brutalization that have fueled ISIS’s rise, as did Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s suppression of more moderate elements among the opposition to his regime. Whatever Islamic ideals exist within ISIS, they have found a mass Sunni constituency because of politics. Rather than arguing over whether ISIS represents some inherent pathology in Islam, analysts would do better to examine how ISIS’ peculiar religious genealogies have intersected with the tragic and complex politics of Iraq and Syria.

April 17th, 2015

Remembering Martin Riesebrodt

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On December 6, 2014, influential sociologist of religion Martin Riesebrodt died at the age of 66. Professor Riesebrodt was the author of two groundbreaking comparative studies: Pious Passion: The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran (1993), and The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion (2010).

Pious Passion explores the phenomenon of contemporary religious fundamentalism, focusing particularly on the relationship between religious fundamentalisms and the structures and ideology of patriarchy. Riesebrodt argues that fundamentalism in post-revolution Iran and among early twentieth-century Protestants in the United States represented a form of patriarchal traditionalism that, as a result of urbanization and state-driven secularization, had become reflexive and politically mobilized. Driving this reflexive turn was a perceived moral crisis within the wider culture that threatened traditionalists’ very capacity to transmit their value orientations to the next generation. This sense of crisis coincided with structural changes that had depersonalized political and economic institutions and transformed gender relations within the family. In response, fundamentalist intellectuals and activists advocated for a return to a legal-rational, “book-centered” religious order that would renew patriarchal controls on women and revive paternalistic authority in politics and the economy.

In summary, fundamentalism in Iran and in the United States was “directed primarily against the dissolution of personalistic, patriarchal notions of order and social relations and their replacement by depersonalized principles” (9). It was a radicalized patriarchalism that critiqued the “antagonistic interests and class conflict” of contemporary society from a perspective that emphasized “the ideal of religiously and morally integrated society” (207-208). Ultimately, Riesebrodt argued, the comparative sociology of fundamentalism revealed the limits and unforeseen consequences of the processes that had produced the secular-bureaucratic nation-state. The state was not a neutral force. Its modernizing interventions could marginalize traditionalist milieus; and this marginalization could generate a radical fundamentalist response. Historian of religions Bruce Lincoln described Pious Passion as “the best study of fundamentalism that’s ever been produced.” Riesebrodt would later expand his explorations of “the return of religion” in the form of fundamentalism and culture wars in a second book, Die Rückkehr der Religionen und der “Kampf der Kulturen.”

In a third book, The Promise of Salvation, Riesebrodt sought to construct—through a wide-ranging and thorough comparison of different religious traditions—a definitive, practice-based theory of religion, in order to explain religion’s persistence throughout history and the modern world. In insisting on comparison, Riesebrodt countered prevailing postmodern and post-colonialist approaches that had sought to “provincialize” Western categories of analysis and thereby argue for the impossibility of universal definitions. Such notions were nonsensical, Riesebrodt asserted, because understanding of particularities was impossible without comparison. Moreover, as the historical study of religious polemics revealed, individuals and groups had always sensed continuities in practices across cultures. Even if religious practitioners may not have shared a common word or notion for “religion” they nevertheless perceived shared assumptions concerning superhuman powers across their social and cultural boundaries. There was, therefore, what Riesebrodt termed a “relational justification” for theorizing religion transhistorically and transculturally.

The core of Riesebrodt’s theory is a definition of religion that makes “interventionist practices” the center of analysis. Interventionist practices comprise any type of practice that “aim[s] at establishing contact with superhuman powers” with the objective of averting or mitigating misfortune and securing salvation in areas of existence—individual, social, and in the natural environment—that exceed “direct human control” (75). Other religious practices—second-order discursive or behavior-regulating ones, for example—”logically, systematically, and pragmatically…presuppose the existence of interventionist practices.” Interventionist practices “ground and strengthen the experience of religious reality emotionally and cognitively” by dramatizing “the existence of superhuman powers and their accessibility.” The legitimacy and effectiveness of discursive or ethical practices flow from the prior existence of these interventionist techniques and the “aura of factuality” they instill within practitioners. Methodologically, too, interventionist practices “offer the clearest and strongest basis” for transhistorical and cross-cultural comparison because they “are much more strictly regulated and fixed in their liturgical meaning” (86-87). With this definition of religion and practice-centered method in place, Riesebrodt proceeds to demonstrate the validity and utility of his theory by examining a range of empirical examples spanning diverse religious traditions.

The Promise of Salvation concludes by arguing that precisely because technological means will likely fail to resolve the uncertainties of human life—and indeed produce new uncertainties, as climate change demonstrates—religions will persist as cultural resources for rendering crisis and suffering comprehensible and thus emotionally manageable. Indeed, groups that believe seriously in their religious premises and advocate for them convincingly may very well thrive in moments of heightened unpredictability and precariousness. Such insight raises a range of questions for our understanding of secularism and secularization. In his most recent remarks on this subject, an April 2014 talk on religion and empirical research, Riesebrodt probed these implications, arguing for the need to conceive of secularization and religious revitalization as interlinked processes.

Further Reading:

Konieczny, Mary Ellen, Loren D. Lybarger, and Kelly H. Chong. “Theory as a Tool in the Social Scientific Study of Religion and Martin Riesebrodt’s The Promise of Salvation.” The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51 (September,2012): 397-411.

Riesebrodt, Martin. “Fundamentalism and the Resurgence of Religion.” Numen 47 (2000): 266-287.

__________. Pious Passion: The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran. Translated by Don Reneau. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993. [Published originally as Fundamentalismus als patriarchalische Protestbewegung: amerikanische Protestanten (1910-28) und iranische Schiiten (1961-79) im Vergleich. Tübingen : J.C.B. Mohr, 1990.]

__________. The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion. Translated by Steven Rendall. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010. [Published originally as Cultus und Heilsversprechen: eine Theorie der Religionen. München: Beck, 2007.]

__________. Die Rückkehr der Religionen : Fundamentalismus und der “Kampf der Kulturen.” München : Beck, 2000.

April 16th, 2015

Projecting religious futures

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Projected Cumulative Change Due to Religious Switching, 2010-2050Earlier this month, Pew Research Center published its projections on what religious affiliations might look like in 2050, in what it describes as the “first formal demographic projections using data on age, fertility, mortality, migration and religious switching for multiple religious groups around the world.” Demographers from Pew and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria gathered data from more than 2,500 sources, and covers eight groups: Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, adherents of folk religions, adherents of other religions and the unaffiliated.

Among its most notable conclusions are that the number of Muslims will eventually match and then exceed the number of Christians in the world, and that Muslim and Christian adherents will double in sub-Saharan Africa by that time. China looms large in the report, as any religious shifts there would have massive implications given the sheer size of its population. But the country remains, to a large degree, terra incognita: up-to-date data on the religiously affiliated (or not) is simply unavailable. The forecasts provide a vague outline of trends that will surely have major sociopolitical ramifications globally.

Read the full report here.

April 6th, 2015

Blasphemous cartoons: The old threat of secularism and the new threat of Islam

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Moses Getting a Back ViewAround Christmas time, in the heart of Europe, furor broke out over blasphemous cartoons. The newspapers and public opinion were split. Was the blasphemer a public martyr for “liberty of the Press, or the right of free speech and free thought”? 1 Or did the cartoons represent a “gross and gratuitous insult to the religious convictions of others”? 2

The date was 1882. The cartoons were the “Comic Bible Sketches” published in the Christmas edition of the Freethinker by George Foote. They were based, as it happens, on precedents from a French publication, La Bible amusante. The cartoons look laughably innocent compared to some of the blasphemies that the gods have suffered since. For example, in “Moses Getting a Back View” (right) a bewildered Moses gets to peek at God’s appropriately massive posterior. The cartoon is a pastiche on Exodus 33:23, where Moses asks to see God’s glory and God only allows him see his back. It was not by accident that Foote seized on one of the many moments where God hides himself from representation and institutes a wariness about imaging the divine. For this and other similar images, Foote was indicted and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment with hard labor. In this case, the British courts meted out the physical punishment for pen-crimes.

God’s back, cheekily switched to his backside, is very modest compared to recent images of holy figures with their buttocks exposed (though note the tear in the trousers, and what might be a hint at a little piece of toilet paper). Similarly, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, released in 1979, seems so nice and genteel when compared to the horrendous The Innocence of Muslims, uploaded onto YouTube in 2012. But Life of Brian was not genteel enough for the Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood and the satirist Malcolm Muggeridge, who in 1979 turned up on the debate show Friday Night, Saturday Morning to lambast John Cleese and Michael Palin. The bishop (flamboyantly Christian in his giant cross and purple robe) addressed Palin and Cleese as fellow Oxbridge boys: he reprimanded them for having betrayed their privilege by failing to abide by rules of courtesy and tone.

The bishop was looking back to the old rules of blasphemy, old rules stretching back to the late seventeenth century—the time of John Locke, the Deists, and the rise of the coffee shop and the expansion of the public press. As Steven Shapin argues, truth was (and is) a matter of credibility, status, etiquette and “epistemological decorum.” The biblical god could be subjected to erudite in-jokes safely confined to the inner circle of learned gentlemen. But gods and state apparatuses were far more sensitive to jokes made in the vernacular, which lowered the social status of holy figures. Thomas Woolston (1668-1733) remained in prison until his death for making some excellent one liners—my favorite being the quip that Jesus’s failure to recognize his mother at the wedding in Cana (‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ [John 2:4]) was clear proof that the messiah was drunk. If Woolston had been able to pay the exorbitant fine of 25 pounds per publication he could have got out of jail. (By way of rough comparison, 1 pound equaled 20 shillings; 8 shillings would buy a bottle of champagne in Vauxhall; and 2 shillings 6 pence would get you a whole pig.)

For centuries, we have negotiated a very awkward and much-compromised path between the prohibition and the celebration of freedom of speech and critique. Criticism and freedom of speech are not just to be tolerated: they must be publicly exhibited as proof of the liberal polities to which we aspire. But evolving freedoms of speech and religion have to be managed: freedoms have always been carefully regulated and have never been allowed to run wild.

Censorship and prohibition rapidly became an affair of class and style. Law has struggled, ludicrously, to set out a space for legitimate criticism or “argument[s] used in good faith and conveyed in decent language,” while trying to build a firewall between such critique and its opposite, blasphemy. As a nebulous and highly volatile category, blasphemy can only be pegged out by strange and special adjectives such as “contumelious,” “scurrilous,” “ribald,” “derogatory,” “defamatory,” and “puerile.” As these words clearly show, blasphemy is a social-political drama of respect and respectability. It is a spatial and directional term. “Scurrilous” claims are claims which damage a reputation. The prefix “de-“—meaning “down from”—implies a spatial demotion from high to low.

And “ribald” means bawdy. As Foote’s image of God’s giant bum shows, old style blasphemy was not averse to being a little bit bawdy, indelicate, off color, risqué. But for Foote’s contemporaries, God’s braces and patched checked trousers may have been equally or even more offensive. Here, God is not dressed as a gentleman or a Member of Parliament; in other cartoons he is dressed like a traveler or vagabond. Blasphemy is, similarly, a matter of access, circulation. Foote sold his Freethinker for what he termed the people’s price of one penny in a deliberate inversion of the astronomical fine of 25 pounds—he was doing the very best he could in the media of the 1880s to spread blasphemy-sedition to the working class.

Blasphemy is a ritualized act, with iconic flash points that change over time: today the flashpoint is sex. Foote’s giant divine posterior is completely outflanked, so to speak, by the sexual humiliation of sacred figures that has now become de rigeur. Blasphemers now activate the idea of “blasphemy” by showing holy figures stripped naked, or involved in demeaning sex acts. The homoerotic poem “The Love that Dares to Speak its Name,” written in the 1970s (around the same time as the far more jocular Life of Brian) turns Jesus into a homoerotic lover of men—to the point of necrophilia. These days, the gods long for the days when their worst problems were cheeky presentations of (clothed) butt cheeks, or cheeky accusations about a tipsy messiah.

Rites of blasphemy show what first comes to our minds when we think about freedom. Since the (still very recent) decriminalization of homosexuality and the alleged sexual liberation of the 1960s and 1970s, sexual liberation is what first comes to mind. In the 1880s, for Foote and his contemporaries, the idea of freedom was firmly attached to political freedom—related, for some, to the campaign to be free to be an atheist or, in the recently coined jargon, “secular.” The authorities were threatened by a terrifying array of political freedoms: nascent socialism, communism, and new anarchist movements—as well as mass popular movements for the working class (male) vote. These campaigns had only been partly pacified by the Reform Act (1868), which had enfranchised “respectable” working men (read: an income of 26 shillings a week) while excluding the “residuum.” In other exclusions from the democratic process, public atheists or secularists were not allowed to be members of parliament. As a site of morality and public value and respect, secularism did not exist.

Foote was campaigning for (among other things) the right to be secular. He represented a minority. Minority is not just a matter of numbers, but value; status in relation to social and moral values. Foote wanted to give the newly defined (and for many unbelievable, non-existent) space of the secular value, plausibility, and respect. He wanted to force credence and respectability for the category of non-belief. And there was something audacious and daring about seeking validity andcredibility for the realm defined as the lack of belief. Blasphemy was essential to the substantiation of the secular. Like all public movements that are retrospectively claimed as natural flowerings of democracy—just like, for example, universal suffrage, or the removal of civil disabilities for Jews and Catholics and nonconformists—the secular did not follow naturally from (Christian) democracy, but forced itself, becoming increasingly assured and confident through acts of blasphemy and comedy.In the 1880s, the secular was as implausible and threatening as the prospect of the vote for male laborers or women. Through the insult of blasphemy, the secular was naturalized, so much so that it was assumed to become the default ground beneath our feet.

In Foote’s day the British authorities were deeply fearful of the threat of Home Rule in Ireland and were reeling from the threat of revolution so vividly demonstrated in the Paris Commune of 1871. By importing blasphemous cartoons in the style of La Bible amusante, Foote deliberately provoked fears of revolution flooding across the channel. The same year that Foote was convicted, the Explosives Act was rushed through Parliament. Today the political options seem far more contracted and consensual. We look back at the world that never was and the dreamers and schemers for whom politics was an incendiary affair. Perhaps our freedoms become more vivid for us if we provoke religious fanaticism to re-commit ourselves to our shared value of being free, but the duel between freedom of speech and prohibition or respect for religion is not an old record that can be pulled out and replayed in the same old way, with the same old effects.

Blasphemy does not take place in some timeless context-less space where none of us (not even the gods) get to live. Timing and direction are everything in comedy—and in blasphemy. Foote was a late Victorian addressing and taunting a conservative Christian political establishment. His satire punched upwards, towards the heavens and the courts. Blasphemy once applied to gods, or more accurately gods and governments. It is now widely understood as an offense against religious subjects, rather than an offense against the gods in which not all of us believe. But traditionally, blasphemy has been satire that punches upwards—towards the gods—and then towards those special figures that seem to stand closest to the powers that be.

It can be profoundly unhelpful to use a catchall term like blasphemy that seems so oblivious to space and time—or to repeat vague dichotomies about freedom of religion versus freedom of speech. Surely blasphemy changes when it changes direction: when one is “derogatory” or “defamatory” to a group on the periphery, in the banlieue.3 Islam in Europe has but a fragile, nominal equality. Note the bizarre regularity with which European Muslims have been called on to publicly declare themselves against the bloody massacre of journalists and shoppers at a kosher supermarket. In the U.K., the conservative Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, took the opportunity to write a public letter to Muslim authorities asking them to “explain and demonstrate how faith in Islam can be part of British identity.” No one called on Norwegian Christians to reassure the public that they did not support the mass killings by Anders Behring Breivik in the name of a rogue Christianity—or his rage against women and Islam. While few know much about the details of (any) religion, in Europe, Christianity—the “home” religion—is widely believed to have some kind of foundational value or to be generally in tune with democratic values. Islam has the same kind of standing as Foote’s nascent secularism: irrespective of numbers, it is a “minority” because it lacks credence, credibility, value. Unlike Christianity or today’s secularity, Islam it has no automatic social standing in relation to shared European values, but is widely perceived as standing in a combative relation to those values in the name of Islam.

Why do we keep summoning and provoking religion (but not in the generic sense, never in the generic sense) in our ongoing battle for freedom? Don’t we know what else to ask to the duel? I don’t want to simply echo the point that Joe Sacco makes so deftly in his recent cartoon for The Guardian. My own poor pen can add nothing to this brilliant cartoon. But my own question are: Are these acts of blasphemy strangely comforting, because they suggest that religion—fanatical religion—is the only remaining, or the most important obstacle remaining, between us and the holy grail of being really “free”? Are gods and the god-fearers really where the power is these days? Or are other transcendent, invisible forces afoot, ones in which we all believe? Does focusing on the freedom to damn the religions allow us to forget all the pressures of security and surveillance, copyright and accountability and regulation? Does a fanatical obsession with the fanatical god-fearers help us forget the whistleblowers imprisoned for leaking military secrets; those prosecuted for insulting widely shared values (such as cherished nationalisms); or the force of law that in so many ways regulates our being, our bodies, and our speech? Law really gets around, far more effectively than the old gods ever did. As Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos puts it: “The city is so thick with law that the law is not perceived.” Law and the economy are not as easy to summon to court or accountability as the gods and religious believers—even though they are more ubiquitous and potent than the gods could ever be. Perhaps we keep summoning and provoking the old religions because we don’t know what to do with these new forms of divinity. Concentration on the fury of the old gods and their supporters at least gives us a target we can see.

  1. Daily News, March 2, 1883

  2. Birmingham Daily Post, March 5, 1883

  3. I don’t mean to flatten the complexity of the suburbs or deny the high social standing of many Muslims in Europe, but the cartoonish, broad brushstrokes convey an important truth, even if they run the danger of caricature.

March 27th, 2015

Is ISIS Islamic? Why it matters for the study of Islam

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Recent months have witnessed considerable angst in the academy over what is and isn’t Islam(ic). Spurred by events from the attacks in Paris to Graeme Wood’s Atlantic article on ISIS, scholars of Islam have agonized over whether and how to apply the label “Islamic” or “Muslim” to characterize recent events. Reviewing various commentaries, there is a limited range of arguments that, by proffering competing positivist accounts of the Islamic, thereby play into a climate of moral panic about the threat Islam poses to domestic and international orders. By playing into the moral panic, such arguments, in the aggregate, preclude both critical interrogation of the scholarly production on Islam and Muslims and reflection on the possible contribution Islamic studies can make to advanced research more broadly.

I suggest that the study of Islam holds out the promise of a two-pronged capacity for critique. On the one hand, and as scholarship has already shown, the study of Islam allows critique of Muslim elites of varying political persuasions who claim an Islamic mantle. On the other hand, and most salient for North American producers and consumers of Islamic scholarship, the study of Islam offers a powerful vehicle for both interrogating the questions and parochializing the assumptions that inform North American scholarly production on Islam and much more.

Recent arguments on whether ISIS is Islamic reveal two approaches to defining and studying Islam and “the Muslim”: (a) an originalism that runs the risk of pushing Islam out of history, and (b) a representative liberal-cum-protestantism that, by reading the Muslim subject both atomistically and representatively, either upholds or subverts an aggrandizing state.

Rather than asking whether ISIS is Islamic or not, the better question is why it matters so much and to whom. To ask this question, though, requires that “we” (i.e. producers of knowledge on Islam) interrogate our understandings of religion, politics, law, reason, and the state, and the consequences that follow when we encounter others whose different understandings appear to be the inverse of our own. At its most provocative, the study of Islam, as Dipesh Chakrabarty might say, allows us to provincialize categories that we take for granted, and even to recognize the “us” in the “them.”

Is ISIS Islamic? A typology of arguments

The typology of arguments offered in response to Wood’s article might best be understood as Weberian “ideal types,” such that any actual argument will traverse the neat categories delineated below. But as Anthony Kronman reminds us, even in their unreality, ideal types illuminate what is at stake.

“ISIS is Islamic” I

One version of the claim that ISIS is Islamic focuses on their invocation of pre-modern Islamic scriptural and legal texts and concepts; this is what many claim is Wood’s principal argument. ISIS’s own leadership would probably make this argument. In its decree on the Christians of Raqqa, for instance, ISIS invoked pre-modern rules on the dhimmi (non-Muslim permanent residents) when it imposed the jizya (historical poll tax).

One cannot deny that ISIS’s language, concepts, and intertextual references have a pedigree in the Islamic tradition; to suggest, however, that the authentic meaning of Islam is captured by (literal) references to texts unduly reduces the dynamism of Islam across time and space and reflects an Orientalist predisposition to view and construct Islam solely by reference to texts and their demands upon the believer. As Naomi Davidson has brilliantly shown in her book Only Muslim, to reduce Islam—and thereby Muslims—to the ritual requirements that the Islamic textual tradition places on them saturates the Muslim with an exclusive “Muslimness” that can be seen as an analog to how some perceive race (e.g. natural, self-evident, unyielding), thus subjecting Muslims to the all-too-familiar dynamics of state regulation amid racialized politics.

“ISIS is Islamic” II

The second argument for considering ISIS Islamic relies on the fact that some Muslims support ISIS and consider it Islamic. Media accounts are rife with stories about young Muslims leaving North America and Europe to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq; the Atlantic story, in fact, features an interview with such a person. In the study of Islam, this focus on the experience of individual Muslims resonates with a turn in North American religious studies in general, and Islamic studies in particular, toward the anthropological and, more specifically, the ethnographic. Ethnographers, trained in participant-observer methods, increasingly dominate the study of Islam in North America. While ethnography offers important insights, it also has its own politics, such as an implicit (if not explicit) reaction against both the Orientalist priority of philology and an older style of anthropology that treated its subjects as primitive and unmodern. If the first argument is premised on the centrality of an Islamic textual tradition, this second argument is premised on the centrality of the voices of ethnographic Muslim subjects, as documented in field notes, and from which generalizations are made to construct “Muslim” as a group identifier.

Importantly, though, the ethnographization of the Islamic or the Muslim reveals a representative liberal-cum-protestant mode of analysis. Representative, in that the views of individual subjects are generalized as applicable to a group. Liberal, in that the ethnographic subject, before being ethnographized, maps neatly onto the atomized rights-holder subjected to state law. Protestant, in that what counts as Islamic is what any given believer says or does, without reference to an institutional or clerical authority. According to this approach, religion is analyzed atomistically, but is made to represent something more collective; given this, when Muslims in North America and Europe—however few they may be—claim that ISIS is Islamic, their claim is taken as authoritative, representative of a more general or widespread consensus. And when individual Muslims espouse ISIS-like ideology, or commit lone-wolf acts of aggression (as in Ottowa and Paris), they are viewed as anything but individuals. These Muslims represent, in their embodied performances and utterances, the threat of more violence to come, thereby providing support for those political elites who demand policies that would expand and enhance the already securitized state.

“ISIS is not Islamic” I

The first type of skeptical argument is simply the mirror image of the first “ISIS is Islamic” position: it defines Islam by reference to historical pedigree and replicates many of the same assumptions about where and what the Islamic is, but focuses on the various ways in which ISIS departs from the norms contained in an Islamic textual tradition that is presumed to capture the full normative content of Islam. According to this argument, whether something is or isn’t Islamic depends largely on its fidelity to (as opposed to simple invocation of) the textual tradition; ISIS is not Islamic, because it departs from an accepted literary canon of authoritative texts, misconstrues that canon, or cherry-picks from that canon without regard to the whole.

“ISIS is not Islamic” II

These skeptics vehemently distance Muslims and/or Islam from ISIS; their argument relies on the fact that Muslims around the world have condemned ISIS. Given the sheer number of Muslims who disavow ISIS’s brutal practices, so the argument goes, it is outrageous to suggest that ISIS is Islamic. But this reference to what Muslims do or say is, again, the mirror image of the second “ISIS is Islamic” argument—a representative liberal-cum-protestant approach, except that, in democratic fashion, the majority rules. A slightly different version of this argument asserts that Muslim scholars around the world have condemned ISIS. These authorities on Islam presumably embody a professional training (and thereby an intellectual elitism), which makes their voices count far more than ordinary Muslims and ISIS leaders, let alone untrained media pundits. Their voices, so the argument goes, carry considerable weight in defining what is and is not Islamic. This is more akin to a representative liberal-cum-high church approach that invokes the voice of certain Muslims who presume representative authority by virtue of their scholarly credentials, though without occupying a formal institutional office, such as the Vatican or Lambeth Palace.

These four arguments offer important insights into how scholars frame their understanding of “Islam” and the “Muslim.” But they also betray a missed opportunity to reflect on the value of studying Islam as a mode of critique in the North American academy. The first version of both conclusions associates the “Islamic” with the historical and textual. What counts as Islamic today (and thereby, as Muslim) are those acts and people who manifest some continuity with or loyalty to that earlier tradition. Discontinuity (or disaffection), on this mode of analysis, implies that one falls outside the ambit of the Islamic. As a historian I am not convinced that separating continuity from discontinuity is possible because attention to both necessarily situates Islam in history rather than out of history. If the study of Islam is to be more than antiquarianism, then one cannot discount the discontinuities with the past as having a claim on the label “Islamic” without running the risk of treating Islam as an artifact.

The second versions of both conclusions draw upon a view of religious experience in which the voices of individuals (whether many or few) stand on their own and are made to stand for the group, thereby collapsing the individual and the group. But analytically reading the Muslim subject as the collective “Muslim” precludes the possibility of answering definitively whether or not ISIS is Islamic, given the epistemic implications of sample size. The ethnographized account of the Muslim is made at a time when Muslims are under increased surveillance and scrutiny. For the political right, that surveillance and scrutiny reflects a view of Muslims as potential threats, based on what a limited sample of Muslims have said or done. For the political left, that surveillance and scrutiny are palpably unfair, again, based on what a limited sample of Muslims have said or done. To characterize these two arguments as representative liberal-cum-protestant is thereby to reveal their underlying politics about the state. Ethnographizing particular Muslims’ experiences to generalize about Muslims as a group or Islam as a religion can either uphold or subvert the securitization narrative that has informed so many states since the events of 9/11.

From Moral Panic to Islamic Studies as Critique

After the tragic events of 9/11, some universities and colleges immediately expanded their institutional capacity to teach and research about Islam and Muslims. Given this, it is not surprising that the stakes in the scholarly debate on ISIS and Islam concern the haunting specter of security and/in the state. Indeed, the arguments noted above either create moral panic (“ISIS is Islamic”) or refuse moral panic (“ISIS is not Islamic”) at a time when North American and European states are deciding courses of action in Iraq. But the moral panic principally provides cover to real-time decision-making processes that would otherwise have to account for a much more complex—and less flattering for all sides—political, economic, and social history of dispossession of those who now live in ISIS’ shadow. This dispossession has taken various forms, such as colonial administration in the service of an industrializing Europe hungry for natural resources; or the authoritarian nightmares that took the place of wishful anti-colonial dreams.

For the study of Islam to be a vehicle for expanding the scope of advanced scholarship, scholars of Islam might find greater intellectual payoff by focusing on the contest over definition, why it matters as much as it does, and to whom. Arguably, this contest over definition has everything to do with managing the borders between “us” and “them,” and determining what those borders imply about international aid, security and torture, and of course, war.

For instance, suppose instead of asking whether ISIS is Islamic, we were to say that ISIS is as much Islamic as it is a product of broken promises at the end of the British and French mandates; ISIS is as much Islamic as it is a product of the American interventions in Iraq; ISIS’s brutality is as Islamic as the Ku Klux Klan’s lynching of Black Americans was Christian, both Islam and Christianity having been used to justify violent brutality. To baldly pose these claims is to reveal the parochialisms that frame debates on Islam and Muslims, that inform certain politics of belonging and difference (read, Fox News), and that bolster the state policies that flow therefrom (e.g. Shari’a legislative bans).

To reveal these parochialisms illuminates how the arguments for and against moral panic artificially reduce the debate on ISIS to an unhelpful zero-sum game of Islamic/unIslamic. The label of “Islam(ic)” in the case of ISIS might be better appreciated as what James Scott in Domination and the Arts of Resistance would call a “hidden transcript” that is now made public. Scott writes about how the oppressed hew to “public transcripts” that might appear as their contented resignation to the status quo. But when they are able to avoid detection, the dominated employ “hidden transcripts” (like dragging one’s feet) to quietly subvert that same status quo.

But what happens when the dominated no longer want their hidden transcript to remain hidden? Unlike Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Manwhere the main character retreats from the public to find solace in a space all his own—perhaps ISIS’s followers either could not yield the public sphere to the status quo, or could not (in the wake of US invasions, the humiliations of Abu Ghraib, or the trauma of torture) find solace in a private space of their own. Suffering from domination, humiliation, and/or trauma—or co-opting others’ suffering to dramatize their own middling discontent—their invocation of Islam offers the language by which they can now transform their hidden, grumbling dissatisfaction about the status quo (whether in the Arab world or in the West) into an explosively subversive public transcript.

But by transforming their hidden transcript into a ferociously successful public one, ISIS has become the oppressor. Drawing again upon Scott’s “transcripts,” dominant powers both employ and often define the terms of the public transcript to which the oppressed must yield if they are to survive. ISIS’s public transcript of an Islam that sanctions violent spectacle has certainly created sufficient compliance for purposes of (per)forming its state.

ISIS’s violent spectacles in the name of Islam remind us that religiously justified violence is part of our shared history. As another Atlantic article recalled, Confederate leaders in the US Civil War invoked Christian justifications for slavery to legitimate the South’s utterly violent pursuit of secession. As much as we tell ourselves (hi)stories about nationalism and the self-determination of peoples, we cannot ignore how they—just like the question about ISIS and Islam—distract us from the unrepentant, spectacularly violent birth of a state. In the case of ISIS, though, the violence retorts the violence that preceded it. The history of ISIS is a history of political violence. And some of it was ours, which is presumably what ISIS, through its public transcript, wants us to repent.

If Islam is the language of ISIS’s public transcript, though, Scott notes that even oppressors have hidden transcripts. ISIS’s intentional and deliberate use of social media ought to alert us precisely to the likelihood that there is much we are not permitted to see. To dispute whether ISIS is or is not Islamic assumes the exclusiveness of ISIS’s public transcript as the only transcript. ISIS’s hidden transcript, though, will remain hidden for as long as we remain focused on whether ISIS is Islamic or not.

March 23rd, 2015

Religious freedom at Religion Dispatches

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As part of a joint project between The Immanent Frame and Religion Dispatches, RD contributing editor Austin Dacey has written a series of posts on religious freedom in the United States. His latest piece tackles Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s “The impossibility of religious freedom” and potential alternate regimes for legislating religious freedom in the United States:

For those opposed to the regime of religious freedom, the question is what could replace it. Is there a system that would be morally preferable yet also administratively implementable? Although her recent article doesn’t address it, Sullivan’s 2005 book of the same name closes by gesturing towards an alternative.

Under this legal regime, religious individuals and communities would “have to make arguments for the special legal accommodation of difference to legislative bodies.” Those making a case for “differential treatment would be required to make a very strong showing, as in race cases, of past discrimination or present need, to justify special legal treatment.” While these remarks are promising and suggestive, they do not constitute a workable theory. Attempts to construct such a theory—and attempts to show that there could be no such theory—presently preoccupy much legal scholarship. Insofar as there is no feasible alternative to a regime of “religious freedom,” Koppelman’s larger challenge remains in force: Religious freedom may be impossible, but compared to what?

Dacey has also written about the impact of the Holt v. Hobbs and Hobby Lobby decisions, the concept of corporate personhood, and the differences between religious non-profit and for-profit companies.

This collaboration with Religion Dispatches is made possible by funding from the Henry Luce Foundation.

March 10th, 2015

CFP: Freedom of (and from) Religion

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The Department of Religious Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, with support from the Cordano Endowment in Catholic Studies, will host a conference on “Freedom of (and from) Religion: Debates Over the Accommodation of Religion in the Public Sphere” from April 30 to May 2, 2015. The keynote speaker will be Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Professor and Chair, Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington, and Affiliated Professor of Law, Maurer School of Law. Full details in the call below:

Accommodation of religion in the public sphere has often been a source of contention in the American context. Historically the Supreme Court of the United States has made clear that the separation of church and state must be preserved at almost all cost. However, this position has been increasingly challenged over the last thirty years. Since the Equal Access Act was legislated in 1984 –which guaranteed public school student groups, whether religious or secular, equal access to meeting spaces and school publications — the practice of public accommodation has burgeoned. And the very legislation that Christian groups lobbied for in order to insure that high school students could hold after-school Bible study groups on public school property was subsequently also used to insure the right to form gay student alliances and to form campus groups that focused on any religion or on secularism. In a similar vein, laws guaranteeing religious freedom have been used to demand accommodations of religious objections to, and exemptions from, valid public policy (e.g., the Affordable Care Act). These and many other examples suggest that accommodation has become a new front in the culture wars and implicate important questions about freedom from religion as well as the freedom to act on the basis of religious beliefs.We invite papers that engage with the theme of public accommodation of religion, particularly as it comes into conflict with the values of equality and/or nondiscrimination. The conference will explore this topic from various disciplinary standpoints, such as history, law, political science, religious studies, sociology, ethics, public policy, or others. Possible topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • the projected effects of the Hobby Lobby decision for RFRA laws at federal and state levels
  • how religious freedom is represented through various types of media, including social media
  • how a variety of religions and denominations have been understood in legal cases
  • critical perspectives on concepts of religious freedom, freedom of conscience and accommodation
  • ramifications for health care, public safety, the workplace and other issues we’re facing today
  • the various ways in which law intersects with religion and health care.

We welcome proposals from established scholars, graduate students, and independent researchers.

The deadline is rapidly approaching so please send an abstract of 300 words to Kathleen Moore at by March 13, 2015. The PDF of the full call for papers can be found here.

February 23rd, 2015

Religion in Britain: Demography, identity, and the public sphere

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At Public Spirit, to coincide with the publication of the second edition of Grace Davie’s Religion in Britain, Tariq Modood comments on three significant changes in demography, identity, and the public sphere that are going to characterize the next few decades and perhaps beyond:

…when historians look back at the post-war Commonwealth immigration they will note of course the ethnic transformation…but also note the religious transformation of this country that no one at the time foresaw. These two transformations are working their effects across so many features of social, economic and political life but one which I think we have been slow to recognise is what it means in terms of the place of religion and belief in British public life. Unfortunately, for too many politicians and others this question is too dominated by issues of extremism, violence and terrorism. Such phenomena are exceptional and it is a great mistake to judge religion, not to mention Muslims and Islam, in such fearful terms. We need to think of not just the harm that some militants can do but about the good that religion has to offer, not just to individuals but to communities and society as a whole; not just about religious minorities as fringe movements but about their place in the mainstream.

Read the full article here.

February 22nd, 2015


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Some readers may have recently returned to Frequencies only to find that its spiritual focus had radically shifted. Due to hijinks (perhaps predictable) relating to transitory labor, scholarly ignorance, and the virtualization of just about everything, the original site has experienced foreclosure. Its contents will soon be reconstituted in new http territory.

Which is to say that the original Frequencies domain is now in the hands of a self-described “growth hacker” who has replaced our “collaborative genealogy of spirituality” with the “mejores webs de porno en español,” so we’re setting up an archival edition at a new URL. As soon as the site is settled in at its new location, we will let you know. Stay tuned for the resurrection.

We apologize for any inconvenience.

The Frequencies Collective

February 20th, 2015

The ISIS shock doctrine

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The rapid and shockingly violent establishment of a self-declared Islamic Caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq by The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), rebranded in 2014 as The Islamic State (IS), has led to what Issam Eido describes as an explosion of narratives about ISIS, many of which seek a doctrinal basis for its beliefs and behavior from within the Islamic tradition.

Given the emphasis that ISIS places on promoting its austere brand of Islam, symbolized by the stark black and white of its ubiquitous flag, it is not surprising that many accounts subsume ISIS under the doctrines of Salafism, a backward-looking reformist current within Sunni Islam hostile to perceived deviations from the Islam allegedly practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and his successors. ISIS’s emphasis on a purified Islam and its hostility to Shia Islam and other allegedly “apostate” traditions have led others to link its Salafism with Wahhabism, the conservative eighteenth century Islamic revival movement that is the foundation of the modern Saudi State. The New York Times asserts that ISIS has “clear roots” in Wahhabism and British diplomat Alastair Crooke contends that ISIS shouldbe seen as a corrective movement within Wahhabism due to its revolutionary rejection of the offiial Wahhabism of the Saudi State.

But as Alireza Doostdar points out, any account of the ambitions and behavior of ISIS cannot end with the doctrines of Salafism or Wahhabism because actors labeled Salafi or Wahhabi frequently promote opposing political agendas and have diverse orientations towards action and violence. His reasoning is that Salafism is at root more a theological orientation than a blueprint for action, particularly when it comes to organized violence. Thus, Doostdar concludes: “Focusing on doctrinal statements would have us homogenizing the entirety of ISIS’S military force as fighters motivated by an austere and virulent form of Salafi Islam. This is how ISIS wants us to see things, and it is often the view propagated by mainstream media.”

By contrast, when one considers what ISIS is actually doing in practice—waging a protracted and violent insurgency in various locations and phases that aims to undermine existing authorities and establish zones of control—it becomes clear that the ambitions and behavior of ISIS have less to do with doctrines derived from the Qur’an or the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad than with the strategic doctrines of Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and the tradition of revolutionary insurgent warfare in the twentieth century, dressed up for the information age. While ISIS may have a Salafist orientation, they are also a revolutionary insurgent organization. As the political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas notes, “There is nothing particularly Islamic or jihadi about the organization’s violence. The practices described above have been used by a variety of insurgent (and also incumbent) actors in civil wars across time and space.” In other words, the twenty-first century Sunni Salafist insurgents of ISIS may have added a new chapter to the modern theory and practice of insurgent warfare; a hybrid blend of the sacred and profane.

Insurgent Genealogies

As a growing number of analysts have pointed out, the doctrinal basis for the insurgent ambitions and behavior of ISIS, including its use of spectacular and shocking violence, can be traced to the jihadist military strategy text entitled The Management Of Savagery (Idarah al-Tawahhush) first posted on-line in 2004 under the pseudonym of “Abu Bakr Naji.” Since then, this text has become a doctrinal touchstone of many Sunni jihadists involved in insurgencies, including the al-Shabaab in Somalia and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Close observers of radical Islamist movements such as Lawrence Wright, Michael Ryan, and Alastair Crooke have all noted a strong correlation between ISIS actions and behaviors in Iraq and Syria and the strategic doctrine prescribed in The Management of Savagery.

The Management of Savagery is a distillation of writings and postings that compose what could be referred to as the emergent field of “jihadi security studies,” which arose in response to Al-Qaeda’s chief strategist and current leader Ayman Zawahiri’s call for new strategic and military thinking after the fall of Al-Qaeda’s safe haven in Afghanistan in 2002. As Michael Ryan explains in his useful book Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy, the writings of a distinctive genealogy of jihadist military thinkers such as Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi, the military tactician Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin; and broader strategists like Abu Bakr Naji and Abu Musab al-Suri, among others, increasingly inform the practice of militant Islamist groups and fighters.

While these authors situate themselves and their work within a broadly Salafist vision of Islam, their core assertions primarily draw upon the strategic doctrines of communist and leftist insurgents such as Mao, Che and Western theorists of insurgent warfare, the most consistently cited of which is Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea. This work counsels revolutionary actors to develop unconventional forms of protracted political-military conflict that include guerrilla warfare, psychological warfare, and political mobilization designed to weaken government control and legitimacy while increasing insurgent control and legitimacy. In addition, they reference heterodox American military thinkers such as William S. Lind and Thomas X. Hammes and their concept of Fourth Generation War (4GW), which prescribes using information-age media networks to convince opponents that their strategic goals are unachievable or too costly.

In order to legitimate their reliance upon communist and atheist traditions of revolutionary and insurgent warfare, many of these writers make a distinction between “time tested” principles or “universal laws” (sunan kawniyyah) of military or political behavior and “divine laws” based on sacred texts or traditions. Abu Bakr Naji, for example, urges successful jihadists to embrace the latest writings on military science, administrative science, and economics drawn from Western and non-Western sources. Naji implies that, provided they do not contradict the sharia and are used to establish a purified Islamic state, every rule of warfare and politics does not need a specific justification in the sharia.

Naji’s Savage Shock Doctrine

In its particular contribution to “jihadi security studies,” The Management of Savagery provides what Will McCants and Jarret Brachman call the “playbook” for what is referred in these writings as “regional jihad”: the attempt to seize territory within the Muslim world and establish a self-governing Islamic state in a sea of hostile opponents backed by the West.

In order to do this, Naji’s strategic doctrine echoes Mao’s familiar three-phase theory of revolutionary warfare in which the insurgent organization can be in one or all phases simultaneously. In the first phase, the Islamist insurgent actor seeks to create or exploit “regions of savagery” through violent or shocking actions that collapse central authority or state control via “damage and exhaustion.” The second phase establishes primitive forms of government to “manage” such “regions of savagery,” which he claims would be accepted by shell-shocked people desperate for security. These forces would gradually expand government services while engaging in even more shocking violence in order to extend the “regions of savagery” and defend them. The final phase is the transition from the “administration of savagery” in various regions to a fully governed Islamic state under a Salafist version of Islamic law.

What is distinctive in Naji’s doctrine is his emphasis on shocking and spectacular violence as an asymmetric warfare strategya jihadist shock doctrine. One of most important lessons of Robert Tabler’s The War of the Flea is that insurgent actions must always mobilize a population to side with their cause. In a chapter dedicated to “Using Violence,” Naji emphasizes that shocking violence is not only effective for recruitment and instilling fear, but that it is the primary means to create a society-wide crisis that will polarize the population and drag everyone into the battle. Naji contends that, “We must make this battle very violent, such that death is a heartbeat away, so that the two groups will realize that entering this battle will frequently lead to death. That will be a powerful motive for the individual to choose to fight in the ranks of the people of truth in order to die well, which is better than dying for falsehood and losing both this world and the next.”

From the perspective of Naji’s strategic framework, then, in parts of Syria and Iraq today ISIS is in the process of moving from the first phase of creating or exploiting “regions of savagery” to the second phase of crudely administering these “regions of savagery” and has even taken the initial step of declaring the caliphate in Mosul. In this second phase, ISIS is engaging in the process of internal pacification, providing basic services and establishing Islamic justice as well as “plundering the financial resources” for the purposes of becoming financially self-sufficient. This second phase of “managing savagery” is also characterized by even more shocking violence in order to deepen chaotic conditions, especially in response to its opponents. Naji argues that countries who bomb or attack the Islamist insurgents should be made to “pay the price” — meaning some form of retribution — which we are seeing today in such gruesome acts as beheading hostages or attacking opponents abroad.

Syncretic Insurgents

This novel blending of doctrinal orientations and prescriptions from both the Salafist tradition of Islam and twentieth century communist and leftist traditions of revolutionary warfare, updated for the information agea hybrid combination of divine law given by God and the allegedly universal laws of revolutionary politics and warfare—has led some observers to see ISIS as an incongruous comingling, more contradiction than consequence.

Some like Brian Fishman, for example, cast doubt on the compatibility of blending these two traditions“Che Guevara warmed over for jihadis”while Hussein Ibish highlights the ideological contradiction between communist and Salafist ideals, in a useful article accusing ISIS of plundering Mao’s playbook. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that despite their claims to religious purity, ISIS actually embodies a very modern form of nihilism in which their zealous embrace of brutality even up to their own violent self-destruction reveals a lack of true conviction or faith, making them, in his words, a “disgrace to true fundamentalism.”

But rather than constituting a lack or contradiction, it may be the case that the hybrid doctrine at the root of ISIS simply reflects what Navid Karmani in an earlier discussion of al-Qaeda calls the “explosive synchronicity of non-synchronous elements” in a world where no space remains untouched by hypermediated and globalized information-age capitalism. Like other many other syncretic actors in contemporary global society, both violent and not, ISIS has taken “isolated features from one’s own tradition” and “combined them with foreign as well as with modern elements, images and structures of thought” to construct a tradition “combined with borrowings from a past which isn’t even their own, plus elements which are completely and utterly contemporary.” Paraphrasing Karmani, the hybrid doctrines of ISIS may actually represent a form of belief and action that can spring up anywhere today, given a set of violent conditions and grievances to work with.

In this sense, then, the search for the doctrinal roots of ISIS must also locate its origins in what Alireza Doostdar refers to as the “ecology of cruelty” in Iraq over the past decade resulting from the neoconservative Bush administration’s implementation of what Naomi Klein has described as its own “Shock Doctrine”: exploiting the public’s disorientation following massive collective shockswars, terrorist attacks, or natural disastersto impose unpopular policies. Klein contends that the Bush administration adopted a year zero strategy when invading Iraq that deliberately collapsed the Iraqi state and society and created what Naji would term “zones of savagery” that it sought to “manage” through the likes of Paul Bremer, Ahmad Chalibi and the U.S. military. But as Klein observes, this strategy “has transformed Iraq into the mirror opposite of what the neocons envisioned: not a corporate utopia but a ghoulish dystopia, where going to a simple business meeting can get you lynched, burned alive, or beheaded.” More than any text or doctrinal tradition, this is the fertile ground that is at the root of the shocking doctrines of ISIS.

February 18th, 2015

CFP: Secularism and Secularity

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Now entering its third year, the Secularism and Secularity Program Unit of the American Academy of Religion is going strong and looking forward to another great set of proposals. The call for papers for the 2015 meeting in Atlanta is now available, and the deadline for submissions is March 2nd.

In its first two years, the Secularism and Secularity Group has explored the secular and its precarious, shifting boundary with religion. We now aim to take stock of its lacunae. Our group is especially interested in papers that investigate the secular’s complicated relationship with race and sex/gender. What new spaces has the secular opened up for women and people of color, and what new barriers has it created? What forms of activism does the secular enable that are not available in spaces governed by religious norms, and what forms does it foreclose? How does the divide between secular and religious map onto different kinds of feminism and struggles for rights and recognition? In turn, how do critical analyses of race and sex/gender disrupt that divide? And why are self-avowed nonbelievers disproportionately white and male? We invite paper and session proposals that engage these and related questions through original historical or social scientific research.

We also welcome papers that explore any of the following areas:

Humanisms, religious and secular, historical and contemporary.

The role of the secular in effecting a distinction between economic and religious spheres. For instance, how do “private” and “public” become constructed as religious and secular in the discourse and practice of economic development? And how does law work to disrupt or reinforce these distinctions?

The spiritualization of the secular and the secularization of the spiritual in the context of health, healing, and medicine. For instance, how are certain “spiritual” practices being integrated into “secular” medical settings, and how has secular medical research influenced spiritual and religious practice?

For more information, or to be added to the group’s email list, contact the group’s co-chairs, Joseph Blankholm and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, at

February 10th, 2015

Keeping sex sexy: American evangelicalism and the problem of sexuality

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Do Christians have the best sex? What kind of sex is best? And what does sex have to do with salvation?

If you have ever wondered how evangelicals seek to answer these questions, then Amy DeRogatis’s recently published book Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism is for you. In Saving Sex, DeRogatis meticulously documents how American evangelicals talk about sex and sexuality. Her primary argument is that evangelicals have long attempted to use sexual practice as a marker of distinction from “secular” American culture. In particular, proper sexual practice becomes a symbol of Christian salvation and is imbued with eternal and spiritual significance, which is intended to testify, or serve as a witness, to a broader public. Despite this, evangelicals are not disconnected from popular American culture. Evangelical authors are eager to prove their cultural relevance, even as they claim the authority of scripture to differentiate themselves from one another and American culture at large.

DeRogatis convincingly shows the seriousness with which evangelicals since the 1970s have set out to prove that Christian sex—that is, sex ordered by “biblical principles”—is the best kind of sex. To do this, evangelical authors and leaders are extremely engaged with wider conversations and social trends, debating and discussing issues such as sexual surrogacy, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual health, reproductive rights and contraception, and the gendered dynamics of sexual desire and pleasure. While reading her text, I was struck by the degree to which evangelicals have long sought to convince themselves and others that their lives, in all dimensions—including sex or lack thereof—differ qualitatively (for the better) from the lives of “secular” others. The irony, of course, is that the sheer volume of evangelical popular literature on sexuality suggests that, when it comes to the mechanics and meaning of sex, believers need extra guidance and support in order to materialize the promise of better sex in their own lives.

Sex and Salvation treats evangelical belief and practice with nuance and seriousness. The book is intended to be accessible to a general audience, and DeRogatis delivers. Her tone is even-handed and sympathetic to the internal contradictions, dilemmas, and desires of evangelicals, as she helps to make sense for outsiders of what might be considered strange or retrograde evangelical beliefs. DeRogatis does an exceptional job of breaking down and analyzing several different streams of evangelical literature, teaching the reader much about the desires, practices, and ideals that shape a significant number of American lives. Chapters deal with purity literature, which promotes an ideal of chastity; Christian sex manuals that extol the benefits of marital sexual pleasure; charismatic “deliverance” literature that warns of the invisible negative effects of illicit sex; and Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull literature, which focuses on sex for reproduction and teaches total submission (including sexual) of wives to their husbands. The final chapter deals with how these ideas are reframed by African American evangelicals who emphasize themes of sexual redemption and healing.

The inclusion of a final chapter on African American evangelical views, after four chapters of predominantly white evangelical discourse, is important: it underscores the diversity of the evangelical movement, which is often treated as homogeneous, but it also serves to highlight the role of race in American evangelical thought. Careful reading of Saving Sex reveals how American evangelicalism is insidiously wrapped up with the production of whiteness—the cultural processes that work to hold up white practices, beliefs, and ideals as superior, natural, and normal. As many critical race scholars have argued, ideas about sexual propriety cannot be divorced from race. Sexual practices have long been used to differentiate and maintain the lines between white Americans and their racial “others.” Sex and Salvation illustrates how white and black evangelical discourses indirectly reinforce a binary whereby white evangelicals are able to define and police the proper boundaries of respectable sexuality, and African Americans continue to be represented (and to understand themselves) as hypersexual and in need of reform. For example, DeRogatis notes white evangelical obsession with metaphors of purity—the spoken desire for unmarried daughters to remain “lily-white” by practicing self-restraint and marrying a suitable spouse—as well the dominance of military metaphors of attack and defense. By contrast, black evangelical leaders affirm many of these ideals, but tend to assume that their unmarried audience has been, or will be, sexually active. Unlike white evangelicals, they acknowledge complicated sexual histories and work with their audience to remove stigmas associated with sexual impropriety. In short, they preach redemption rather than perfection.

However, the book fails to consider the degree to which white evangelicals might obscure their own investment in racial purity by making “secular” culture their primary point of distinction. Much could also be said, for example, about how an extreme focus on fertility and reproduction by white evangelicals might be tied to broader cultural anxieties regarding the collapse of Western civilization and a white “Christian” America.

White evangelical teachings on sex, sexuality, and gender not only reproduce ideas of racial purity, they also reproduce ideas of the heterosexual nuclear family as normative, and they communicate much about American ambivalence towards things like feminism and science. DeRogatis discusses, for example, how the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull movement is almost exclusively white and promoted by self-publishing women who are outside the evangelical mainstream and remain skeptical of male “experts” and science. These women extol the benefits of large families, natural birth, and strict, traditionally defined roles for men and women. This made me wonder how the Quiverfull movement might be understood in relation to other social movements, such as the more secular “New Domesticity” movement, which DeRogatis does not explore. Like Quiverfull writers, the New Domesticity movement also extols the “natural” role of women as caregivers and homemakers. Both movements position themselves as critiques of second wave feminism and appropriate feminist language of empowerment and control to describe their beliefs and values, though an explicit emphasis on patriarchy is unique to Quiverfull thought.

When it comes to the role of gender in evangelical sex talk, DeRogatis’ text raises difficult questions regarding consent and abuse. Just as Sex and Salvation was published, the news was filled with stories of the collapse of Mars Hill church in Seattle and the downfall of its high-profile pastor Mark Driscoll, whom DeRogatis writes much. Driscoll is notorious for his views on sex, marriage, gender, and family. Though Driscoll is best known for his “Christian hedonistic” approach to sex, Sex and Salvation reveals how he is also indebted to many of the ideas and beliefs found in purity and deliverance literature, including the idea of literal “sexual demons.” Many former members of Mars Hill have started to speak out about the destructive impact of the church’s teachings and Driscoll’s leadership.

It is worth noting here that there is a growing “post-purity” discourse among evangelicals that focuses on experiences of trauma and shame tied to evangelical teaching on sex, sexuality, and gender, and psychologists who work in the evangelical world are starting to raise significant questions about the long-term effects of Christian purity movements on adult sexuality. At the same time, many of these reform attempts follow the familiar evangelical model of focusing on (heterosexual) marital sex as the ultimate and most fulfilling form of sexual practice. To extend DeRogatis’ argument, post-purity discourse might be seen as a new way for those identified with evangelicalism to once again define a “Christian” ethic that resonates with broader conversations about sexual health, wellness, and pleasure.

I approached this text curious to learn not just what evangelicals teach and believe about sex, but how their beliefs and teachings are shaped by American culture. DeRogatis shows how Christian sex manuals build on earlier historical material and are influenced by outside events, such as the rise of the sexual liberation and equality movements. The fact that Mark Driscoll and his wife Grace were, in 2011, writing about anal sex, masturbation, and cybersex speaks to the anxiety that evangelicals feel about proving that their vision of biblical sexuality can accommodate a multiplicity of desires, albeit always within a heterosexual marital frame. At the same time, the evangelical focus on the pleasure-giving, unitive, and mystic dimensions of sex is not particular to evangelicals, and DeRogatis makes some fascinating links to the broader therapeutic and wellness culture that began in the 1960s. A next step would be to theorize how secular and evangelical American discourses on sex are related to a shared cultural, political, and historical horizon. I suspect that the desires, ideals, and themes promoted by secular American culture might not always be as far removed from evangelical ideas as evangelicals themselves imagine them to be.

To be fair, DeRogatis is clear in her introduction about what the book is and what it is not: it is primarily a study of evangelical discourse as it is articulated by key figures and not a study of believers’ lived realities. Thus, it would be impossible to expect her to explore all of the issues raised here. But Saving Sex could easily be the starting point for a broader scholarly investigation of contemporary American evangelicalism and sexuality, which could include historical, literary, and ethnographic studies. What is clear from Saving Sex is that popular evangelical literature (formal and informal) is meant to instruct Christians on proper sexual practice, to place shifting notions of sexuality in a theological frame, and to warn believers about the dangers of illicit sexual activity. Evangelical writers take very different approaches to what is considered godly and illicit sex, and herein lies the value of DeRogatis’s work. In showing the diversity of thought within American evangelicalism, she allows evangelicals to emerge as a complex social category whose views on sex have local and global implications.

February 5th, 2015

Norse pagan temple to be built in Iceland

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Roughly a millennium after Christianity overtook Norse paganism, there will soon be a new temple devoted to Odin, Thor, and Frigg overlooking Reykjavík. Ásatrúarfélagið, a religious organization devoted to a contemporary form of Norse paganism, will be building the temple. From The Guardian:

Worship of the gods in Scandinavia gave way to Christianity around 1,000 years ago but a modern version of Norse paganism has been gaining popularity in Iceland.

“I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet,” said Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, high priest of Ásatrúarfélagið, an association that promotes faith in the Norse gods.

“We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”

Membership in Ásatrúarfélagið has tripled in Iceland in the last decade to 2,400 members last year, out of a total population of 330,000, data from Statistics Iceland showed.

Read more about the actual design and building of the temple here.