Sovereignty and the Sacred: Secularism and the Political Economy of Religion | A Review by Michelle C. Sanchez

June 21, 2021

Yelle, Robert. Sovereignty and the Sacred: Secularism and the Political Economy of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

“The goal of this book has been to reread the historical archive so as to reveal that what we call religion is an anamorphosis, a distorted image that can be seen properly only from a particular perspective, from which it reveals its true form, as sovereignty. This shift of perspective at the same time discloses an opening in the system: an exit sign. Once this shift has been achieved, it is impossible to unsee the opening. What lies on the other side is anyone’s guess.” (187)

This is the clever and bold conclusion to Robert Yelle’s excellent book. It’s clever because of its methodological signaling (I’ll return to this). It’s bold because Yelle is identifying religion with sovereignty. This is not to say that religion is identified with politics, but that it is involved—along with politics and economics—in a deeply human dynamic that pursues the ordering and disordering of collective life to an end that lies beyond ethics, beyond reason, and beyond the aims of mere civilization—a beyond to which religion and politics both remain oriented. Anyone working adjacent to religious studies, secular studies, or political theology is sure to benefit from Yelle’s synthetic brilliance.

The book also strikes a timely chord as we’ve reached a kind of impasse on the place of reason in public life—whether and how reason, realistically, has a place. Yelle refuses the neat distinction between reason and irrationality for carefully articulated reasons that amount to a claim about human nature: when things become predictable, we look for disruption; when disruption makes us vertiginous, we crave structure. This is the rhythm of our reality, an interplay between order and willfulness that structures human life across contexts. But, to my eyes, this is not a despairing volume: Yelle invites readers to reconceive our ethical questions in the face of an ambivalent reality.

The book argues, in brief, that sovereignty and the sacred both refer to an “outside” that cannot be harnessed. Moving through a sequence of topical chapters focusing on religio-political slippages and ambivalences over sacredness, law, charisma, expulsion, exception, sacrifice, production, jubilee, contractualism, and exchange, Yelle makes what he calls an empirical argument that religion and politics cannot be disentangled because both are animated by the give-and-take of the human drive to sovereignty. Indeed, he suggests that many theorists have missed these ambivalences because they are insufficiently empirical, gravitating either toward the defense of the predictable or the defense of the disruptive.

This last claim is striking because in chapter after chapter, Yelle reveals the insufficiency of the empirical disciplines insofar as they presume the fundamental rationality of human actors, and he does so by drawing on putatively non-empirical sources—theologians, religious texts, religious theorists—from across times and disciplines. At the risk of exhausting my word quota, let me name only some of the sources who reappear across Yelle’s argument. There are classics of modern religious theory like Rudolph Otto, Victor Turner, Mircea Eliade, and Mary Douglas; classics of anthropology and sociology like Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, and René Girard; continental theorists of sovereignty like Carl Schmitt, Georges Bataille, and Giorgio Agamben; economic theorists like Gustavo Benavides and David Graeber; antiquarian biblical philologists like Julius Wellhausen and William Robertson Smith; classics of Christian theology like Anselm, Duns Scotus, and Martin Luther; and in-depth engagement with Native American traditions, Hindu traditions, Buddhism, early Christianity, and the Protestant Reformation.

By drawing on such a diverse set of sources, Yelle does employ a kind of “data-driven empirical study,” but he redirects it to examine the nature of the archive and what the archive reveals about ourselves and the “reality” we persistently recognize and recreate. The unwitting resonances between so many disparate texts discloses one of our most consistent, if paradoxical, desires: we crave both structure and a way out of its confines. We want miracle and predictability, charisma and bureaucracy, forgiveness and accountability, which means we also gravitate both toward security and the violence—or grace!—that unsettles it.

Given the range of Yelle’s material, his most important contribution will shift with the eye of the beholder. For me, a scholar of Protestant theology interested in its socio-political and imaginative impact, Yelle offers a decisive blow against the kinds of commonplaces that haunt scholarly assessments of Protestantism, such as the idea that Protestantism is inherently rationalistic, interior, or disciplinary in nature, and thus a natural engine of disenchantment. In chapter two, Yelle persuasively demonstrates that the Weberian account of charisma and bureaucracy has a much older history in early and medieval Christian theological debates over God’s will, and he frames Protestantism as a return to charisma (rather than a harbinger of bureaucratization). This argument accomplishes at least three valuable aims: it underscores theological-historical literacy as a needed critical-political lens; it undermines familiar supersessionist periodizations that frame the emergence of the secular as the rejection of religion; and it establishes conditions for better comparative assessments of European secularity with non-European (and anti-European) polities. For me, this chapter alone is worth the price of the volume.

Yet Sovereignty and the Sacred may ultimately be most provocative for its methodological aspirations, and herein lies what is clever about Yelle’s conclusion. I’ve noted the array of sources and Yelle’s facility at placing them in a conversation where they are treated fairly, affirmingly, and critically. In his conclusion, Yelle calls religion an “anamorphosis”: an image that is distorted until one acquires the necessary lens or vantage. Yelle’s mode of analysis seems to represent such a lens. It is something that is both made (by Yelle) yet also revelatory of something real (in the archive). The reference to anamorphosis obliquely signals Hobbes, the foundational theorist of western political sovereignty who also knew a thing or two about navigating the interstitial space between empirical reality and artistic construction. The famous frontispiece of Leviathan is itself a nod to anamorphic imagery. The multitude comprises the person of the sovereign who ultimately supersedes them, and the image invites the viewer’s eye to perform this journey of creation and submission.

If Hobbes’ anamorphosis makes many into one, Yelle’s does more. The many religious sources do become identified with sovereignty itself. But for Yelle, all of these sources point precisely to the sovereign as a sign: an “exit sign” that perpetually turns back against what has been created. Institutional systems focalize sovereignty only to elicit sovereignty’s diffusion back into the disruptive figures of charisma, negativity, and miracle—a sign, perhaps, of some genuine difference from what has been. Yelle’s sovereignty is a sign that recalls what Hobbes always admitted: that what is made can be unmade, that the God of Leviathan is mortal. Yet in Yelle’s hands, the visible “opening” at the heart of sovereignty is also a promise that the future of our life together will not be confined to the systems that we have already built—and this may be a glimpse of something like hope.

Michelle C. Sanchez is an Associate Professor of Theology at Harvard Divinity School.

In Open Letter, (Some) Evangelical Leaders Condemn Christian Nationalism | Evan Sandsmark

February 24, 2021

More than 100 evangelical leaders, including a number of influential pastors and seminary leaders, published an open letter today condemning Christian Nationalism’s role in the January 6 insurrection.

It is a good and necessary statement, and one that begins as it should: by clearly identifying the problem. “As leaders in the broad evangelical community, we recognize and condemn the role Christian Nationalism played in the violent, racist, anti-American insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6.” And while the January 6 insurrection was a particularly horrifying manifestation of Christian Nationalism, the letter notes that the problem is bigger than one event and its damage more widespread. It poisoned many individuals, communities, and churches long before January 6, and its malignant effects will continue to linger.

The letter also serves as a call for action. “We urge all pastors, ministers, and priests to boldly make it clear that a commitment to Jesus Christ is incompatible with calls to violence, support of white Christian nationalism, conspiracy theories, and all religious and racial prejudice.” After naming some of the specific groups the coalition of leaders rejects, such as the Proud Boys and Oathkeepers, along with the more amorphous collection of QAnon adherents, the letter gives concrete advice. “We urge faith leaders to engage pastorally with those who support or sympathize with these groups, and make it clear that our churches are not neutral about these matters: we are on the side of democracy, equality for all people, anti-racism, and the common good of all people.”

The document is a good illustration of how Christians who belong to different churches, each with their own histories and political priorities, can unite around a basic set of nonnegotiable principles. One way of sharpening those principles is by explicitly stating what they are not, just as the Church has done throughout its history.

“Over the centuries, there are moments when the Church, the trans-national Body of Christ-followers, has seen distortions of the faith that warranted a response.  In ages past, the Church has responded by holding emergency councils in order to unilaterally denounce mutations of the Christian faith, and to affirm the core values at the heart of Christianity.  It is in that spirit that we unite our voices to declare that there is a version of American nationalism that is trying to camouflage itself as Christianity — and it is a heretical version of our faith.”

The charge of heresy grates against many modern ears – the era of burnings at the stake is happily long behind us – but is an important theological tool for identifying what counts as authentic Christianity, and for excising what does not. It is a way to “combat bad theology with better theology,” as the letter puts it, and in this case combating a heresy,  white supremacism, that was tragically not recognized as such for much of Christian history. Whatever else may be the case about the storming of the Capitol, which left police officers dead and lawmakers traumatized, it is clearly not a Christian act according to any possible interpretation of that term.

And this brings me to my biggest disappointment with the letter, one that is completely outside the control of those who organized it. It is endorsed by virtually none of the “conservative” evangelical leaders who bear direct responsibility for the attack, including all those who endorsed or otherwise countenanced Trump’s lies about election fraud. Even if they could somehow justify their actions before January 6 – “hey, I’m just asking questions; the results don’t feel right to me” – how could they possibly remain silent when they saw the damage Trump’s lies caused? How could they possibly permit a violent attempt to subvert a free and fair election to masquerade as faithful Christian witness?

It is always dangerous to question the sincerity or legitimacy of others’ religious beliefs, but after January 6, one cannot help but wonder if it is more dangerous not to.

Evan Sandsmark is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. 

Photo by Blink O’fanaye via Flickr

Representing God: Christian Legal Activism in Contemporary England | A Review by Kyle B. T. Lambelet

January 14, 2021

Méadhbh McIvor. Representing God: Christian Legal Activism in Contemporary England. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2020.

How is it, with centuries of political establishment, that Christians in contemporary England have come to feel that they are an embattled minority? Or, better, what does this perception of hostility sound, feel, look, and taste like? As brilliantly explored by Méadhbh McIvor, it turns out that it tastes like Carol’s homemade chocolate biscuits stuffed with buttercream.

In her new book Representing God: Christian Legal Activism in Contemporary England, McIvor develops a dual site ethnography of socially conservative evangelical Protestants to examine the political theological strategies that these Christians deploy in responding to secular hostility (real and perceived). Deploying an anthropological sensibility, McIvor offers a sympathetic portrait that surfaces divergent tactics as English evangelicals attempt to defend their legal and cultural power. Central to McIvor’s argument is an insight that the means of expanding the reach of legal power is actually at odds with the aim of cultural influence. In her words, “This book argues that a willingness to take on legal challenges to protect Christian values risks those same values’ marginalisation, as moralities previously woven into the fabric of national life are filtered out from their quotidian context and rebranded as ‘religion’ or ‘religiously motivated’” (4).

Legal activism, drawn from a US playbook but deployed in British and European courts, is the primary locus of McIvor’s study. Her two London sites—Christian Concern, a legal advocacy organization, and Christ Church, an evangelical Anglican parish— share a common sense of embattlement as well as a drive to evangelize their secular neighbors. Nevertheless, McIvor finds distinctive approaches of engagement in responses to the sense of threat from a “hostile world.”

The conflicting approaches are rooted, in McIvor’s account, in the long-standing tension in Christian theology between grace and law. Evangelicals, operating firmly within the Reformation rejection of salvation by merit of works, emphasize that grace facilitates an interior change. Thus, external symbols of religiosity—the stuff of the religious freedom cases that Christian Concern often takes up—occupy an ambivalent place in their praxis as well as English law. Because external symbols are not required by this religion of grace, they are thereby not protected by laws protecting the manifestation of religious belief, such as Article 9 of the Human Rights Act. This becomes a problem when evangelicals do manifest their internal belief in ways that offend secular sensibilities: wearing a purity ring or a baptismal cross, displaying graphic depictions of abortions, spanking their children, and so on.

The right to manifest religious belief, encoded in British law and the European Convention on Human Rights, operates ambivalently in the minds of McIvor’s subjects as simultaneously a gift of the Christian heritage and a problematic outgrowth of humanistic principles. Christian Concern utilizes the legal apparatus of rights to pursue its cases, even while it critiques that apparatus as rooted in a godless rejection of biblical values. These evangelicals take particular exception to the individualism of rights claims, especially as they are taken up in cases of abortion and sexual identity.

Whereas Christian Concern deploys rights instrumentally to spread the Gospel, Christ Church rejects rights discourse in favor of forms of relational evangelism. Christ Church members, it would seem, conclude that they cannot have it both ways and they opt for a gospel of grace. They eschew rights claims due to the deleterious impact they seem to have on the possible conversion of nonbelievers. As McIvor puts it, “the members of Christ Church are encouraged to go against the grain, prioritising their gospel-spreading relationships over and above their own desires and freedoms” (114).

McIvor’s descriptively rich portrait of London evangelicals offers sophisticated theoretical interventions. While deeply conversant with current anthropological theory, McIvor keeps most of these references in the footnotes, allowing her vivid descriptions of her case to do the primary theoretical work. Foremost among such interventions, however, is the fact that McIvor’s account frustrates any simple secularization story. The background shift that she explores is one of relativization of belief, what Charles Taylor described as “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace” (A Secular Age, 3). McIvor’s work centers on this final clause: it is not easy for the evangelicals whom she lived among to practice their faith with sincerity in a society that retains only vestiges of Christian legal hegemony without its cultural power.

McIvor’s book is exemplary in many respects. It offers an insightful look inside the world of English evangelicals. It charts a course that others might follow in exploring not only legal activism, but how such activism is understood within parallel communities. And, especially notable to me, McIvor demonstrates theological awareness while remaining squarely anthropological in her approach. McIvor’s study is especially insightful on the relationship between grace and law, and how the Reformation sensibilities of English evangelicals introduces a basic contradiction into their political theology. One step beyond this primary argument, I was also interested in the overbearing doctrine of election that framed her interlocutor’s understanding of grace and law. It is their unshakeable assurance that God has chosen England as the bearer of salvation that animates both their resentment in the face of the decline of cultural influence and their commitment to the legal enshrinement of Christian supremacy. As theologian Willie James Jennings has shown, this supersessionist heresy that would replace Israel’s election with England’s lies at the heart of the colonial project. It is beyond the scope of McIvor’s work, but it strikes me that this assurance plays a key role in the feeling of hostility that she so ably explores.

While McIvor preserves an anthropological distance from normative evaluation of her research subjects, she does press her argument that there is a fundamental misalignment between these Christian’s means and ends. In her own words, “Cases and campaigns emphasising the ‘religious’ nature of certain beliefs and practices risk constructing these phenomena as the niche interests of a legally-defined minority group; and the interests of a minority are, by definition, set apart from the concerns of most Britons” (142). By comparing the political theological tactics of her two sites, she concludes that evangelicals wishing to spread their Gospel would do better to relinquish the vestiges of state legal power and instead focus on relational strategies of conversion (which includes, apparently, lots of delicious baked goods).

Kyle Lambelet is assistant professor in the practice of theology and ethics at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

Why Nationalism Keeps Surprising Us by Slavica Jakelić

December 28, 2020

Lepore, Jill. This America: The Case for the Nation, New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2019        

The twentieth century had its share of historians who, aghast at nationalism, abandoned writing national histories because they didn’t want those histories to become part of nationalist projects. Similarly incensed by nationalism, a considerable number of twentieth-century social theorists studied nationalism in order to expose it for its constructed nature and modern origins. What these two groups of scholars often had in common was a belief that nationalism would soon die away, to be displaced by a cosmopolitanism that expressed (as many contended) the better angels of our nature. And when nationalisms rose again in all their ugliness and tragedy in the 1990s, Western observers saw “those” nationalisms as a problem of the less developed, non-Western world, where it was “blood and belonging,” in Michael Ignatieff’s influential rendering, and not the civic ideals, that bound people together.

Such modernist assessments and prophecies about nationalism were not only misguided; they are among the chief reasons why nationalism surprised us at the start of this century—stunned us in all its potency, especially as it surfaced in Western democratic societies that had purportedly left the passions of nationalist politics in the rubble of their darker past. It’s possible to think of Jill Lepore’s book This America: The Case for the Nation as one scholar’s attempt to prevent the ugly forms of nationalism from surprising us again. Hers is a critique of the false predictions that sullied historical scholarship, but even more it is an illuminating essay about why American historians can’t abdicate their professional responsibility and stop writing national histories.

Lepore starts her book with the words of Stanford historian Carl N. Degler—his 1986 warning that, unless historians provide “a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job for us.” Degler’s admonition was prescient, Lepore writes, because three decades later we are living in a world led by those “less scrupulous people,” the world of Orbans, Putins, and Trumps, who stepped into social and political crises to offer exclusionary, fear-driven tales about their nation’s history, present, and future.     

Lepore’s book (a continuation of her earlier, much longer volume These Truths: A History of the United States) offers a convincing argument for why the articulation of a common narrative of the American national history is not an impossibility, but a necessity. For nations to be possible, she rightly contends, they need stories that bind people together. Only such shared stories can enable citizens of any nation to act in solidarity with one another regardless of their class, gender, racial, ethnic, religious, or ideological differences. But as Lepore correctly recognizes, when a nation tells its story in the twenty-first century, it must include not only what it wants to remember, but also what it wants to forget—all the violence and injustice done in the nation’s name.

As a result, Lepore’s history of “this America” demonstrates that articulating one narrative of a nation does not have to be a hegemonic endeavor or a denial of pluralism. This is a significant achievement. I have written earlier on this blog that to grasp the potential of nationalism against populist nativism, it’s critical to pluralize our understanding of nationalism, to think of it and study it as irreducible to the nation-state. Lepore does precisely that. She considers the usual suspects and events in the creation of the US as a nation and a nation-state, but she especially looks at nationalism as the stuff of narratives and of public disputes about those narratives, disputes that have been there from the beginning of the modern American nation. Consequently, Lepore gets so much right: her “new Americanism” (a historical as well as a political project) is deeply aware of the ways in which the American past binds as well burdens Americans—it stands as a constant reminder that the promise of inclusion was always accompanied by the most radical form of exclusion and violence. When she talks about American civic ideals, Lepore sustains the value of pluralism or, to use Jason Springs’s smart phrase, the centrality of “healthy conflict” for what America is and wants to be. The commitments of Americans to one another, Lepore asserts, are due not only to the strength of their universal ideals but to “the force of their disagreements.” This is America at its best.        

Yet, while there is much to agree with and admire in Lepore’s book, in terms of its premises and its achievements, reading This America left me puzzled. This is partly because of the startling, never-probed assumption that “Nationalism is a by-product of the nation-state.” It is also because Lepore deploys Orwell’s distinction between nationalism as motivated by “hatred” and patriotism as “animated by love,” as if patriotism is a benign force of history that enables the separation of the “democratizing” and “civilizing” missions from the Western imperial and colonial projects! Most of all, I finished reading This America perplexed by its unequivocal affirmation of civic or liberal nationalism as a rational, value-driven form of nationalism compatible with patriotic sentiments, posited as that which can redeem nations from being hijacked by unscrupulous populist politicians, today and in the future.

Scholars have long disputed the old civic-ethnic adage upon which such assertions of liberal nationalism rest (promoted in particular since Hans Kohn’s work on the topic); they critiqued the civic-ethnic binary because it entails worrisome Western-centric parochialism and the “analytic bifurcation” shaping much Western sociological theorizing (to employ here Julian Go’s valuable terminology). But what was, and still is, most perplexing about “civic vs. ethnic nationalism” discussions is that they gloss over the visceral and embodied elements of national identity that are always entangled with one’s commitments to civic principles: the love of one’s language and land, the attachments to the national flag and anthem—and all those quiet and “noisy” rituals involved in their celebrations and their contestations.

If there is anything that this populist age teaches us, it is that in the face of social changes and uncertainties, it is the visceral parts of one’s national identity that are awakened from the sites of “banal nationalism”—to be felt more strongly, to be agonized over, to be declared as non-negotiable, to be mobilized against some perceived “other.” Nationalism will keep surprising us all unless we start paying attention to the affective, embodied attachments to a nation, those (as Edward Said astutely observed) “most collective of collective sentiments” and “the most private of private emotions.” If, however, we start working toward their reflexive formation, toward seeing them as reconcilable with, and even emboldening of civic principles, then, perhaps, we might envision national identities which, while embedded and particular, are also expansive and self-critical. Then, maybe, we might arrive at identities we urgently need for this century, if it is to be any different from the one we left behind.

Slavica Jakelić is the Richard Baepler Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Valparaiso University’s honors college, and a Senior Fellow of the Luce Project on Religion and its Publics.

Image Credit: Liveright (image appears on book’s cover)

Solidarity Beyond Naivete by Slavica Jakelić

December 11, 2020

If the 2020 pandemic is not to become “another tragedy of history from which we learned nothing,” Pope Francis warns in his newest encyclical Fratelli Tutti, then we need to turn away from the world as it is, fragmented and “bereft of a shared vision” for the human family, toward the world in which we participate in the “universal aspiration” for a “community of belonging and solidarity worthy of our time, our energy and our resources.”

What theologian William Cavanaugh rightly identifies as the radical message of this encyclical could easily be interpreted as an instance of the pope’s idealism, but he is actually moving us closer to a more realist, more embedded, and thus more ethical kind of humanism. The radicalism of the pope’s humanist stance then does not arise from the fact that the idea of solidarity is at the heart of Fratelli Tutti. In affirming solidarity, Francis is reflecting and joining, rather than challenging, a big part of the Zeitgeist. The operative battle cry of activists and academics (who are often the same people), “solidarity” is nowadays invoked by all who work for racial and gender justice, for the rights of Palestinians or the rights of migrants and refugees.

Neither are Francis’s appeals to dignity and solidarity new in the context of Catholic thought: they are staples in the rich history of Catholic social teaching, and the pope’s own reflections on them productively build on the post-Vatican II view of personhood. (Prior to this council, it ought not to be forgotten, the church’s understanding of personhood was anything but universal.) To be sure, the pope’s emphasis on the dignity of each human person and solidarity with all members of the human family is driven by the drama of our moment. Francis is outraged by the realities of the world that deny dignity to the most defenseless among us: he is incensed by the ugliness of resurrected nativist and populist nationalisms; he is offended by the indifference of Christians toward the suffering of non-Christian migrants; he is grieved by a culture in which the elderly and the poor die alone in the chaos of the global pandemic.

But just as much as Francis emphasizes the dignity of each person and solidarity with those most vulnerable among us, he also recognizes the lasting power of particular identities in how our dignity is embodied. Francis’s humanism is a twenty-first century humanism because it is not naive, and it is not naive because it complicates how we should think about the relationship between the ethics of identity and the ethics of solidarity.

Much of Western thought establishes a separation between our attachments to particular communities and our universal ethical commitments. We have long been told—by thinkers as radically different as Ferdinand Tönnies, Émile Durkheim, Jürgen Habermas, Richard Rorty, Alasdair McIntyre, Judith Butler, and David Hollinger—that our ethical obligations to those with whom we share language, nationality culture, religion, and history are different from and in conflict with our obligations to those with whom we don’t share much except our fundamental humanity (or, in Butler’s terms, the precarity of our embodied lives).

Francis thinks otherwise. If we are to reconstitute our fragmented world into a whole, he contends, we must recognize the dignity of, and be in full solidarity with, the migrants searching for a better life—not only by recognizing their right to migration, but also by shaping the conditions for their “right not to emigrate,” to remain in their homelands. Western societies are obligated to “welcome, protect, promote and integrate” migrants by virtue of their human dignity, but this “same intrinsic dignity” also requires us to create a world in which all can “be agents in their own redemption.” And this, Francis leaves no doubt, is possible only if every country can “grow in its own distinct way” and “develop its capacity for innovation while respecting the values of its proper culture.” There is no dialogue, and there is no solidarity, Francis asserts, if we don’t know who we are, if we do not love our “own land,” our “own people, our “own cultural roots.” To cite Vinson Cunningham’s wonderful reflection on Francis’ theological vision in Fratelli Tutti, “If Nazareth had had a soccer club, Christ might have been a regular in the stands rooting for it.”

Other reviewers have noted that the idea of solidarity framing this encyclical reflects some of the vision contained in the African idea of Ubuntu: they emphasized that it involves service and caring for the vulnerable; it points to “envisaging and engendering an open world;” it carries an awareness “about the common home, our planet;” and it affirms a “universal love that promotes persons,” not only our own group. But if these pieces of Francis’s thinking about solidarity are meant to move us beyond the mentality of borders, if they are meant to help us tackle the grave errors of populist nationalisms and nativisms, then we must also recognize (in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s words) “the dignity of difference”—the dignity of our roots. “We forget,” Francis writes, “that ‘there is no worse form of alienation than to feel uprooted, belonging to no one,’” quoting remarks he made a couple years earlier on his trip to the Baltic states. The Pope rejects abstract and authoritarian universalisms, and he sees them especially in the hegemonizing forces of late modern capitalism.

Over the last several months, scholars critiqued the (so easily avoidable!) gender-specific language of the encyclical; they called on Francis to acknowledge that the ideals of dialogue and solidarity he professes challenge power constellations in the very church he seeks to shepherd. These critiques are needed and they are meaningful. They also prove that, just like any other human institution asserting or longing for universality, the Catholic Church can deliver on that promise only if it recognizes and affirms the dignity of differences within. Yet, Francis’s encyclical is radical because it is a signpost for how we might tackle such challenges, and for how we might start one of the most difficult and most important conversations we ought to have at the beginning of the twenty first century—the conversation about the proximity and reciprocity between the ethics of identity and ethics of solidarity, between our particular attachments and our universal ethical commitments.

Francis challenges us to have this conversation by focusing our attention on all those living on the margins, on the borders, in and between societies, in and between social institutions. And in so doing, he not only goes against bifurcated Western thinking about the particular and universal grounds of ethical responsibility; he also goes against those thinkers for whom all types of universalism are suspect on decolonial grounds. Fratelli Tutti is radical because it exemplifies Francis’s conviction that, if the church is to remain true to herself, it must surprise, and it must surprise everyone.

Slavica Jakelić is the Richard Baepler Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Valparaiso University’s honors college, and a Senior Fellow of the Luce Project on Religion and its Publics.

Photo by Julie Ricard on Unsplash

The Dreams of Our Past and Present: A Review of Imagining Judeo-Christian America by Brittany Acors

November 27, 2020

Gaston, K. Healan. Imagining Judeo-Christian America: Religion, Secularism, and the Redefinition of Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Between what commentators have called the “culture wars” and Joe Biden’s “battle for the soul of the nation” campaign, Judeo-Christian rhetoric and imagery pervades the present-day United States. In Imagining Judeo-Christian America: Religion, Secularism, and the Redefinition of Democracy, K. Healan Gaston traces the history of the term “Judeo-Christian” to argue that it has always been contested and linked to questions of democracy, secularism, and pluralism in the United States.

Gaston, a lecturer in American Religious History and Ethics at Harvard Divinity School, begins by establishing a spectrum of viewpoints with “Judeo-Christian exceptionalism” at one end and “pluralism” at the other. Judeo-Christian exceptionalists, a category Gaston invents to demonstrate that “Judeo-Christian” has not always been a pluralist and accommodating idea, not only view Judeo-Christian values and history as the foundations of American democracy and national identity, but also as the only sources for sustaining democracy in the face of encroaching secularism. Pluralists, on the other hand, “grounded democracy in religious diversity and intellectual freedom, not Judeo-Christian religion itself” (12). Advocating for tolerance and civic nationalism, the pluralists welcomed religious minorities and nonbelievers into the fold as they organized a secularized democratic program. After establishing these ideal types, Gaston gives examples of thinkers who occupy a perspective in between, including Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr and Catholic theologian John Courtney Murray, to demonstrate that “Judeo-Christian” rhetoric has never been monolithic from its origins in the 1930s through the present.

Imagining Judeo-Christian America is written chronologically and divided into three parts. Part 1 locates the pre-origins of the term “Judeo-Christian” in the late-nineteenth-century debates about “Hellenic” and “Hebraic” elements of Western culture, which primarily advocated a supersessionist view of Christianity as drawing on the best of both ancient cultures. As new social dynamics created collective forms of identity along the lines of nation and religion, however, liberal Protestants and Jews teamed up in an interfaith alliance during World War I to counter the narrative that Judaism was a dead religion, instead positioning it as the root of the modern moral compass. In the 1920s, this interfaith alliance incorporated naturalists and Catholics as it began advocating for a secular public sphere to counteract nativist responses to changing population dynamics. By the 1930s, however, the secular public sphere became associated with anti-religious and anti-democratic “totalitarianism,” and “Judeo-Christian” emerged as the preferred social, moral, and political alternative.

Part 2 traces the term “Judeo-Christian” in the post-World War II and early Cold War period. Judeo-Christian exceptionalism flourished as Protestants, Catholics, and Jews identified common enemies in both Communism and Supreme Court cases that increasingly sought to secularize public education. For these religious groups, the two threats reinforced the need to locate the origins of morality and democracy in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which in turn bolstered the West in the global spiritual struggle against atheism. Gaston notes that by the mid-1950s, “the intellectual architecture was in place for an alliance of liberal Catholics and many Protestants against secular theories of democracy and strict separationist readings of the First Amendment” (151). Through the mid-1950s, Judeo-Christian exceptionalism and a commitment to religious revivalism dominated among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.

Part 3 identifies shifts in Judeo-Christian exceptionalism throughout the latter half of the twentieth century as this perspective loses its hold in an increasingly diverse United States and finds a new home among evangelical Christians and the Religious Right. As Cold War hype and McCarthyism cooled through the 1950s and ‘60s, more open immigration policies resulted in the US religious landscape becoming increasingly diverse. This period also reflected a weakening consensus about the origins of American values and democracy. As secularists and religious liberals backed off the vicious anti-secularism of Judeo-Christian discourse, “Judeo-Christian formulations no longer appeared as naturalized features of mainstream public discourse, but rather as markers of a conservative project to reverse recent changes in American culture and politics” (232). Over the last 50 years, rhetoric that had once been used by pluralists and Judeo-Christian exceptionalists alike has now chiefly become the language of the Religious Right.

One of the novel historical interventions Gaston makes emerges in her discussion of President Eisenhower. Although he was the first U.S. president to employ Judeo-Christian terminology, he used it in unusual ways, which Gaston contends reflected his complex religious background. While historians have traditionally highlighted Billy Graham’s influence on Eisenhower and the growth of evangelical Protestantism under his administration, Gaston argues that by using “our Judeo-Christian traditions” in the plural, Eisenhower recognized that “other faiths could also buttress democracy [which] departed from the prevailing norm” (176). Without a doubt, Eisenhower linked religious commitment to a flourishing democracy, but Gaston’s rereading of his rhetoric was one of the many fascinating vignettes in the book. Another is Gaston’s exploration of how both proponents and opponents of the civil rights, the antiwar, environmentalist, and feminist movements in the 1960s and 1970s used Judeo-Christian rhetoric. Then as today, both sides of a warring culture grow from the same roots, history, and language.

Gaston concludes the book with a reflection on how Barack Obama and Donald Trump used Judeo-Christian terminology throughout their presidencies. Gaston’s scathing critique of Trump’s opportunism and her meditation on how future Americans will both develop new language and reinterpret old terms feel especially relevant as I write this review in the wake of the 2020 election. With the election and its immediate drama (mostly) behind us, now is a good time to turn to the broader themes explored in Imagining Judeo-Christian America. It is a brilliant and well-written book, and a must-read for anyone interested in American religious history, conceptions of democracy, and cultural contests and change.

Brittany Acors is a Ph.D. student in American Religious History at the University of Virginia.