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February 22nd, 2017

Theologies of American exceptionalism: Moreton and Paarlberg

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“For its proponents, Americans and perhaps others, Christian free enterprise is not a religion but a natural way of being, religiously, economically, and socially, when all obstacles to freedom have been transcended. Its unstable and ambivalent naturalization and nationalization of Protestantism—the free market religion and religion of the free market—helps to secure the American exception, necessitating, for some, a tireless and violent drive to remake the world in our image.”

The above is an excerpt from Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s essay, “The America-Game,” which uses Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart to examine the relationships between American Protestantism and its global economics. Lisa Sideris, in her companion essay “Exceptionalism, environmentalism, and excess,” looks at a similar relationship with American excess and the effects on climate. She looks at whether “narratives of exceptionalism actually abet the destruction of nature?”

February 17th, 2017

Theologies of American exceptionalism: Marshall and Morgan

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In this second installment in the series, Winni Sullivan and M. Cooper Harriss find theology of American exceptionalism in documents that are less conventionally theological.

First, Sullivan examines the US Supreme Court decision Johnson v M’Intosh from 1823, claiming that in Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion to the court, you can find “the fancy legal footwork at the heart of the American project, one that claims fidelity to the rule of law and to the law of nations while acting as an outlaw—an outlaw whose justification in subjugating savages is in her claim to being Christian and civilized in a new and very special way.”

Then, Harriss reflects on the theology within the concept of the “Great American Novel” through examining recent writings from C. E. Morgan, who “unabashedly” defends the canon of literature, despite its shortcomings.

February 16th, 2017

How to do things in with words

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Mere CivilityBejan revisits early modern times of extreme verbal violence, sectarianism, and bloodshed with an eye on our own. Her brilliant re-reading of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes and her rescue of the lesser-known Roger Williams from the distorting clutches of Martha Nussbaum, et al. result in her careful endorsement of an “evangelical mode and motivation of conversational engagement” as a way to address our contemporary “crisis of civility,” one that “seems uniquely well-suited to explain—and to sustain—a commitment to ongoing, active, and often heated disagreement in the public sphere.” She deserves congratulations for the feat of cultivating such succulent fruit in the overworked field of scholarship on early modern political thought and “toleration” studies.

If by their fruits ye shall know them, then Bejan’s book shows her to be a brilliant scholar of Locke, Hobbes, and Williams, a great evangelist for the importance of historicizing in a new way, and a daring and original thinker of the first order. She also writes beautifully; her dry wit and perfectly turned phrases make reading this book a true pleasure.

February 14th, 2017

From Christ to Confucius

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From Christ to ConfuciusIn his exciting and beautifully written book, From Christ to Confucius: German Missionaries, Chinese Christians, and the Globalization of Christianity, 1860-1950, Wu charts a fundamental shift in European missionaries’ conceptions of non-Europeans, from child-like barbarians in need of discipline to representatives of venerated civilizations worthy of respect. He meticulously reconstructs a century of missionary conferences, activities, and publications—both Catholic and Protestant—to demonstrate that German missionaries stood at the forefront of this transformation.

Like almost all Europeans, Germans of the late nineteenth century were steeped in the call for a “civilizing mission,” and took for granted that their duty was to instill both the gospel and European social norms (especially monogamy) in “heathens” across the globe. However, the shock of World War I and Germany’s humiliating defeat induced German missionaries to develop a new understanding of their place in the world.

February 13th, 2017

Theologies of American exceptionalism: Winthrop and Cavell

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“Among the many possible ways of figuring, interpreting, and receiving the problem of American exceptionalism, Cavell pursues a line of thought discernible in Winthrop, Alexander Hamilton, Emerson, and Lincoln. Putting it plainly, the claim here is not that Americans are an exceptionally blessed, virtuous, or accomplished people. Much to the contrary, the point of these interventions is to spur the American people to transcend their all-too-compromised circumstances. In its basic outlines, the idea is that the people at large must be converted to a new set of values, a new way of life, a new world. The idea is not to praise Americans as an exceptional people, but rather to press Americans to take exception to their present shortcomings in order to begin amending them.” -Scherer

This is the first installment in this series of paired posts. Constance Furey and Matthew Scherer have a conversation about American exceptionalism as depicted in John Winthrop’s speech, “A Model of Christian Charity,” and Stanley Cavell’s essay, “Finding and Founding.”

February 13th, 2017

Theologies of American exceptionalism: Introduction

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The one-day workshop which produced these essays focused on “Theologies of American Exceptionalism,” asking participants to expound on an exemplary text (a link to those texts is found in each essay). What followed was an intense discussion of the deeply ambiguous heritage of US exceptionality, both in terms of the stories Americans tell themselves and the stories others tell of them, of what they do at home and what they do abroad—of those excluded and those in charge,—of whether and how the US is or ever was new and innocent—of revolution and the exception,—and of the credibility of the rule of law. Perhaps reflecting the current political climate, much of the discussion, while not centered on the US presidential election, elaborated on the indeterminacy, elusiveness, and provisionality of the US project. Lingering questions concerned the nature and status of sacrifice, sovereignty, and supersessionism in the American context.

February 9th, 2017

Politicizing Islam: An introduction

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Politicizing IslamPoliticizing Islam is a comparative ethnography that analyzes the religious and political dynamics of the Islamic revival in France and India, home to the largest Muslim minorities in Western Europe and Asia. These two secular democracies make for a productive comparison on the topic of Islam and politics, despite their obvious differences. In both places, Muslims have long been racialized and suffer disproportionate rates of poverty and unemployment. Islamic revival and the reactions to it in the last two decades have struck at the core of both nations’ secular doctrines.

The arguments presented in the book draw on two years of participant observation research in Lyon and the Indian city of Hyderabad, two cities with significant numbers of Muslims and forms of Islamic revival that the state has targeted in various ways. Specifically, I show how the politics of Islamic movements differ across class, a crucial factor that existing literature has largely overlooked.

January 30th, 2017

Civility, identity, and agency

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Mere CivilityAs an American teaching university in Canada, where the illiberal regulation of disfavored speech is increasingly common, I am tempted to simply applaud Bejan’s book. (Or perhaps place a bulk order for distribution at a future faculty meeting.) The politics of personal outrage has reached an exhaustion point. University campuses are bedeviled by a paradoxically aggressive discourse of vulnerability, victimhood, and “triggers”. Vaguely Orwellian “human rights tribunals” police speech with increasingly minute attention. Bejan astutely suggests that the war on “hatred” (and for civility) is often disingenuously waged to silence dissent or enforce moral consensus.

Trump may well represent a Molotov cocktail thrown by those resentful of these constraints. (Though his own appalling weaponization of insult and ridicule indicates the limitations of a politics of pure verbal transparency.)

January 27th, 2017

Civility, toleration, and “human rights as empathy”

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Mere CivilityAs part of her argument in favor of mere civility, Bejan decisively rejects contemporary “civilitarian” claims that mutual respect and affection for one’s opponents are the minimum necessary for civil discourse. Her critique rests on her reading of John Locke. Although political scientists usually describe Lockean toleration as ethically minimal, Bejan contends that Locke actually imposed significant ethical demands on members of a tolerant society.

Locke’s demanding theory of civil charity may not provide the most practical solution to our current crisis of civility. However, Bejan’s reading of Lockean toleration as civil charity does have important implications for the histories of human rights and humanitarianism. Historians have recently begun to examine historical moments in which humanitarian concern for the victims of bodily depredation fused with rights talk, creating a type of liberal human rights politics that Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann calls “human rights as empathy.” The early eighteenth century was one such moment. Between 1690 and 1750, Britain began to engage in humanitarian diplomacy to prevent Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in other European states from being punished for their religious beliefs. In what follows, I will suggest that Bejan’s reading of Locke helps to explain why and how this politics—which fused natural law arguments with appeals to humanitarian sentiment—developed in early eighteenth-century Britain.

January 23rd, 2017

Power and civility

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Mere CivilityMere Civility’s final rendering of the link between civility and the future is suggestive; it excavates a democratic ethos from mere civility. Bejan points to an egalitarian openness about the future of others, asking citizens to engage with opponents while understanding that the person they are now may not be the person they will become.

But if citizens are thus future strangers to each other, they are also strangers to their future selves. We might then add what Williams refused to say or recognize about himself—and which, importantly, did not happen: that he, too, could have come to agree with or belong to the groups he targeted with his “evangelical toleration” and held in disdain. It should be troubling that Williams’s rendering of civility anticipates the conversion of all others, but not his own; that his politics revolve around a theology in which those marked as different need to be rescued and saved; and that his approach to difference predicates the value and inclusion of others upon their transformability.