Posts Tagged ‘United States’

May 23rd, 2017

The Myth of Disenchantment: An Introduction

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Myth of DisenchantmentA great many theorists have argued that precisely what makes the modern world “modern” is that people no longer believe in spirits, myths, or magic. Even theorists who have challenged grand narratives of secularization often assume that modernity produces a disenchanted world. The age of myth is allegedly over, the spirits have vanished, and vibrant nature has been subjugated.

In The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences, I argue that as broad cultural history goes, this narrative is wrong. Our era is far from mythless, belief in spirits continues to be widespread, vitalized nature has been a persistent philosophical counter-current, and even attempts to suppress magic have failed more often than they have succeeded. Hence, I contend that the whole notion of “modernity” as rupture that undergirds a host of disciplines is itself a myth.

May 2nd, 2017

Muslim fears and Muslim rights

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Thomas Jefferson's Qur'anMuslims played a crucial role in determining the full extent of religious liberty in the early history of the United States of America. Even though the founders did not know any actual Muslims, the figure of a Muslim represented two ideas about authority and belonging. The first idea drew upon European fears of Islamic authority. For Americans who were familiar with Enlightenment texts, Muslims, and particularly Turks, supported despotism and enslavement, and it was believed that if the United States did not stamp out monarchical tendencies, then it was in danger of replicating tyrannical systems represented by the Ottoman Empire. The second idea celebrated the promise of civic rights by including hypothetical Muslims as potential citizens and office-bearers of the United States.

Denise Spellberg’s book Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders demonstrates that fear of Muslims may have played a role in American cultural perceptions of the world, but it was the second idea about rights of Muslims that guided the founders as they built a government based on religious liberty.

April 26th, 2017

Understanding the president’s reality: Our unconscious, not his

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Edvard Munch, "The Scream," 1895The matter of the love-hate relationship between psychoanalysis and public life has an unexpected link to the complexities of secularism in the United States. Officially, psychoanalysis has been dismissed as a mode of inquiry into the issues of public life and especially into the states of mind of its actors. This is the result of the famous Goldwater Rule, introduced into the ethics code of the American Psychiatric Association following the 1964 presidential election, when analysts had the temerity to “diagnose” Barry Goldwater without the benefit of having him on their couches.

The Goldwater Rule came at a time when psychoanalysis was influential among psychiatrists, who had transformed the complex experience of the talking cure and the endless variations of human behavior into rigid diagnostic categories of mental illnesses. It is now common practice among psychiatrists to say that unless a patient expresses a complaint, psychiatrists are not ethically permitted to speak of the condition that supposedly is causing the mental distress. My attempt to explain President Donald Trump’s behavior in psychoanalytic terms is perceived by some not only as unethical, but as arrogant and insulting to a citizen who is not a patient and most probably will never become one.

There was a time, however, when psychoanalysis was squarely part of American culture, public discourse, and of the world of ideas.

April 26th, 2017

The American tradition of tolerance and free speech

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Thomas Jefferson's Qur'anMuch has happened since Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jeffersons Qur’an came out in 2013. When I first read it, I treasured it for challenging grand narratives of Islam vs. “the West.” But now, sadly, I take away a different lesson: Rather than focusing on the tolerance espoused by some of our Founding Fathers, I am instead struck by Spellberg’s insights into the intolerance in our history and how easily attacks against a perceived Other can lead to vitriol aimed at religious and ethnic minorities more widely. Today we often refer to “Judeo-Christian civilization” but, as Spellberg points out, this term excludes Muslims from that shared history. Spellberg’s book reminds us of the strong tradition of tolerance in the United States, but also of how it is easy to fall short of that goal. . . .

Thus, Thomas Jeffersons Qur’an has proven incredibly valuable for teaching. It provides students with concrete evidence against a simplistic narrative of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. As Spellberg points out, while Jefferson may have personally held some bigoted views about Muslims, he retained his curiosity about Islam and opposed any kind of religious test for American citizenship or political office; Jefferson supported the possibility of a future Muslim president.

April 3rd, 2017

Weak theology and the anti-gospel of American exceptionalism

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"God Bless America" - Boulder City, NV USA, Antique Store | via Flickr user g TardedHas the United States been a source of good in the world? Weak theology assumes a position of service to the vulnerable as the point of redemptive activity. A strong theology would argue that it is our task to defeat the enemy in order to save them and then to convert them to our “way of life.” The most recent incarnation of this “destroy to save” motif is the Iraq War—a war that put the lie to our exceptionalism, and made many rethink our noble experiment in the new world order. So in this moment of deep division and national ambivalence, a know-nothing, carnival barker stood on the stage and said, “I will make America great again!”

So we might ask, what is American greatness now? What makes us exceptional? There is no clear path toward fulfilling this myth, other than following this rag tag apprentice and philander, promising that the dream of greatness is not dead at all—it is a dream that is more like a festival of fantasies in which dreams can become true not because they are great, but because we are great—whatever we want, we deserve.

October 17th, 2016

Race and Secularism in America

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

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

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

May 19th, 2016

For God and Globe

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In 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?”

April 26th, 2016

The new global politics of religion: A view from the other side

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Elizabeth Shakman Hurd | Beyond Religious FreedomIn the summer of 2013, the international Islamic magazine al-Bayan published its Ramadan issue with a striking cover. Flanked by titles on the Qur’anic and Biblical figure Haman, jihad and the great battles won by Muslims in the month of Ramadan, and an interview with the Iraqi Islamist intellectual ‘Imad al-Din Khalil, the image that the editors chose for the cover article was clearly meant to cause controversy. Casually strewn across a map of the Middle East and North Africa was a simple sibha, a chain of beads used to count repetitive prayers known collectively as adhkar. In recent years, the sibha has come to be associated as a marker of Sufi Mulims, given that non-Sufi reformist Muslims of various stripes have stipulated that it constitutes an innovation in worship and thus a straying from the perfect path laid down by the Prophet himself for praising God. Attached to the end of this sibha, where a bead or other decoration might normally be located, was a small American flag, resembling those lapel pins that US government officials began to wear following 9/11. If the implications of the image itself were not clear, the headline on which it sat most certainly was: “American Infiltration through the Sufi zawiyas.”

March 31st, 2016

Religious freedom, past and future

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Elizabeth Shakman Hurd | Beyond Religious FreedomFor those of us who have been following the Politics of Religious Freedom project on this website and elsewhere, Beyond Religious Freedom bears a distinct yet familiar flavor. Other scholars writing on religion and secularity have already shown that significant differences exist between “top-down,” “bottom-up,” and “from outside” definitions of religion favored by policymakers, clerics, and academics. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s own categories of “governed religion,” “lived religion,” and “expert religion” reproduce this tripartite division, but add a degree of nuance by showing, for example, that the definitions of religion favored by elites such as policymakers and ecclesial authorities may not match the “lived religion” experienced by ordinary people. Similarly, expertise on religion comes in a variety of forms, from the policy-relevant academic knowledge sought out by federal agencies pursuing counterterrorism objectives to the quasi-missiological scholarship generated by “religious engagement” advocacy groups.

February 23rd, 2016

Secularism at home and abroad

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Saba Mahmood | Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority ReportThe stark divide between the sacred and the profane engendered by the Great Separation between religion and politics in the West is put to the test in Saba Mahmood’s rich and fascinating study of secularism and its paradoxes. Challenging conventional understandings of secularism as the solution to the religion-fueled wars that have characterized much of human history through the Enlightenment, Mahmood boldly argues instead that secularism is one of the enabling conditions of conflict. Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report offers an incisive and counterintuitive depiction of the strange career of secularism as anchored in the state’s sovereign power to define and regulate religious life—a sphere that by secularism’s own terms should have been private and depoliticized. This claim acquires particular significance when applied to the supposedly non-secular states in the Middle East. It turns out that when it comes to government intervention in religions, there is not much separating the liberal secular states of the West from the religious, authoritarian states of the Middle East. Could the Great Separation actually be one great con?

October 15th, 2015

Queer faiths: Can conversions uncover and unsettle racialized religion?

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Journalists, 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?

August 22nd, 2014

Making a biblical theme park

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Ark Encounter will be a $150 million biblical theme park, scheduled to open in summer 2016. Set on 800 acres of Kentucky rolling hills, 40 miles south of Cincinnati, the centerpiece of the park will be an all-wooden re-creation of Noah’s ark, built to “Young Earth Creationist” specs from the text of Genesis 6:9. The completed ark will be built from three and a half million board feet of timber; stand 50 feet tall, 75 feet wide, 510 feet long (about 300 feet shorter than the RMS Titanic); and contain more than 100,000 square feet of exhibit space.

The park is a joint venture between the creationist ministry Answers in Genesis (AiG) and the for-profit Ark Encounter, LLC. Founded in 1994, AiG is the same ministry that opened the $30 million Creation Museum in 2007. From October 2011 through June 2014, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork with the creative team leading the conceptualization and design of Ark Encounter.

March 7th, 2014

“After the Shipwreck”: Interpreting religion in international relations

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Having been invited to reflect upon the themes of this forum, first raised during the European University Institute (EUI) workshop “Beyond Critique,” I hope the reader will not mind if I begin my essay with a story about shipwrecks.

In a now-famous talk, the Columbia University historian Carol Gluck suggestively argued that history finds itself, temporally and conceptually, “after the shipwreck.” The “shipwreck,” for Gluck, stands as a metaphor for the destruction of the major metanarratives (scientific objectivism, progress, modernity, chronological linearity, historical materialism, the nation) and paradigms (Marxism, Liberalism, Nationalism) that have underpinned much of modern historiography. The deconstruction of such metanarratives is inseparable from the scholarly turn to critical theory, post-structuralism, and post-colonial approaches to the study of history starting in the late 1980s.

August 12th, 2013

CFP: Histories of Sexuality and Religion in the 20th Century United States

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Editors Gillian Frank (Stony Brook University), Heather White (New College of Florida), and Bethany Moreton (University of Georgia) have issued a Call for Proposals for a new anthology on Histories of Sexuality and Religion in the 20th Century United States.

August 10th, 2013

Department of State launches Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives

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Following on talk of earlier plans to create a new “office of religious engagement,” the Department of State has formally launched the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives.

July 30th, 2013

Engaging religion at the Department of State

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This past week, the US Department of State announced the creation of a new office that “will focus on engagement with faith-based organizations and religious institutions around the world to strengthen US development and diplomacy and advance America’s interests and values.” Citing widespread religious persecution and violence overseas, proponents of the new office of “religious engagement” hope to further institutionalize an official US commitment to globalize religious freedom, marginalize extremism, and promote interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance. Yet this initiative also raises concerns regarding the intersection of religious freedom, religious establishment, and foreign policy.

What are the prospects for the new office, and what are the potential implications of its efforts for the politics of religious diversity, both locally and transnationally? What assumptions about “religion” underlie these efforts, and what are the implications for civil society, including organizations and associations that do not self-identify as religious?

October 3rd, 2012

Race and secularism in America

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On October 26 and 27, 2012, Vincent Lloyd and Jonathon Kahn will convene a workshop at Syracuse University on “Race and Secularism in America.” From the conference website …

August 7th, 2012

Loss of faith in religious institutions

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NPR recently reported on a Gallup poll, which showed Americans’ faith in organized religion and religious institutions has declined.

September 23rd, 2011

America plus nothing

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But Sweet Heaven When I Die is, first and foremost, a book about loss, about death, transience, neglect, and quitting. These are the recurring themes in almost every one of the book’s thirteen chapters. The loss of the American west to real estate developers, the loss of a beloved uncle to a meaningless war, the killing of veteran activist Brad Will in Oaxaca in 2006, the neglect of the Yiddish language and its masterful authors, or the devastation of a writer failing to find an audience. In one chapter, Sharlet notes that all things we become invested in and pin our identities on have a half-life. With his consciousness of the inevitable decay befalling all things, Sharlet proves he has taken Cornel West’s lesson of the “death shudder” to heart. “To learn how to die in this way,” Sharlet quotes West in a chapter on the philosopher, “is to learn how to live.” And although the final chapter of When I Die is called “Born, Again,” Sharlet resists the temptation to end on an upbeat note, leaving us instead with a blues note.

March 3rd, 2011

Race and Christian identity

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Religion News Service reports that a new book about Christian identity is inadvertently tapping into the U.S.’s racial history.

January 18th, 2011

Three myths of American religious freedom

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Writing on the occasion of the National Day of Religious Freedom—observed in the United States on January 16—historian David Sehat, author of The Myth of American Religious Freedom, argues that the story of religious freedom is a “myth” that “distorts the current debate about religion in public life.” The notions of church–state separation, religious decline and exceptional liberty—all three of which are central to the narrative of religious freedom in the U.S.—are mythical and foreclose productive discussion about religion in American society, Sehat argues.

July 21st, 2010

“Can you do counterterrorism without theology?”

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“Can you do counterterrorism without theology?” Increasingly, critics are calling into question the Western strategy of supporting moderate and more “acceptable” forms of Islam throughout the world.  In response to the question above, posted at The Guardian, Mehdi Hasan, a senior editor at the New Statesman, argues that “it is not the business of the state to back one or other interpretation of Islam – or any other faith.”

May 24th, 2010

Shrinking no more

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Two recent studies conducted by the Christian organization LifeWay Research and supervised by missiological thought leader Ed Stetzer provide an enhanced quantitative picture of the phenomenon of “church planting”—the founding of new churches—in the contemporary United States.

April 21st, 2010

Education and American civil religion

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Education Review, an open-access online journal, reviews the recently published Public Education, America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (Teachers College Press, 2009) by Carl Bankston III and Stephen Caldas. While critical of some aspects of the argument laid out in the book, the reviewer is intrigued by the authors’ account of the development of schooling in the United States through the concept of “civil religion” and their skeptical perspective on Americans’ devotion to education.