Religion, Secularity, and Public Life After Charlottesville
A Conference at the University of Virginia
Hosted by the Religion and Its Publics Project
Thursday, September 22 – Saturday, September 24
This conference seeks to grapple with the past history, present challenges, and future prospects for religion and public life in the United States. The questions raised by this conference come in light of the struggle over the nation’s increasing pluralism, including debates about secularity, identity, systemic inequalities, and narrations of history in relation to the present. Following closely on the fifth year anniversary of the event, the aim of the conference is shaped by the infamous “Unite the Right” rally that occurred in Charlottesville in August 2017 – an event with tragic and lingering consequences. In hindsight, Charlottesville now appears as the beginning of an era in which much of what we took for granted as clear and fixed has become more and more unstable. In a way that cuts to the heart of our project’s basic concerns, we wish to ask: How did we get to Charlottesville? And how were more recent incidents of terror and national turmoil shaped by or rooted in the same forces as Charlottesville? Each panel is geared toward a specific concentration of topics that offers an opportunity for critical and creative engagement with the challenges facing religious and public actors in an increasingly complex socio-political landscape.
Tim Kaine has represented the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States Senate since 2013. Before his time in the Senate, he served as both lieutenant governor of Virginia (2002–2006) and governor of Virginia (2006–2010). He was chair of the Democratic National Committee from 2009–2011 and the Democratic Party’s candidate for Vice President in the 2016 presidential election, sharing the ticket with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. He received his BA in economics from the University of Missouri and his JD from Harvard Law School. Among other awards, he has been honored with the Humanitarian Award from the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities and the Virginia Council of Churches’ Faith in Action Award.
His keynote address will be given on Friday, September 23 at 11am in Old Cabell Hall.
Jennifer Herdt is Gilbert Stark Professor of Christian Ethics at Yale University Divinity School. She has published widely on virtue ethics, ethical formation, and political theology in the context of early modern and modern moral thought. Her most recent book, Assuming Responsibility: Ecstatic Eudaimonism and the Call to Live Well, was published this year by Oxford University Press. Her 2019 book Forming Humanity: Redeeming the German Bildung Tradition, was supported by a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Institute. One of her earlier books, Putting on Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices, was recognized as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2008. In 2021, she served as the President of the Society of Christian Ethics. Under the auspices of a grant funded by the Templeton Foundation, she is now pursuing a project on “The Animality of Moral Agency: Theological Anthropology and the Pre-Reflective Elements of Ethical Life.”
Her keynote address, “Wandering Arameans: Peripatetic Reflections on Religion, Secularity, and Public Life,” will be given on Thursday, September 22 at 5pm in Nau Hall (101).
The conference panels are designed to spark conversation, engaging both panelists and audience in a dialogue with the goal of opening up new avenues of thinking about religion’s role in contemporary issues and public debate. Each of the panelists will present a ten-minute “briefing” about pertinent issues or questions emerging from their topics, which will serve as primers for the conversation. Panels will take place on Friday in Small Library and on Saturday morning in the Rotunda.
The Blood, Race, and Ethnicity panel will explore religion in relation to ethnic and racial identities, whiteness, and immigration in the United States.
Time: Friday, 9:00am–10:30am
Location: Small Library Auditorium
Slavica Jakelić is the Richard P. Baepler Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Valparaiso University. Her scholarly interests and publications center on religion and nationalism, religious and secular humanisms, theories of religion and secularism, theories of modernity, and interreligious conflict and dialogue. Jakelić has worked at or was a fellow of a number of interdisciplinary institutes. She is a Senior Fellow of the national project “Religion and Its Publics at the University of Virginia, where she was a faculty member and co-director at the UVA’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Jakelić has co-edited three volumes and is the author of Collectivistic Religions. She is currently working on two books, Pluralizing Humanism and Ethical Nationalisms.
Damon T. Berry is Associate Professor in the Religious Studies Department at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY. He specializes in the study of race, religion, and politics in the U.S. and has published in the Journal of Hate Studies, Religion & Politics, Security Journal, and Nova Religio. He has also published two books, Blood & Faith: Christianity in American White Nationalism and Christianity & The Alt-Right: Exploring the Relationship. His third book, which focuses on evangelical Christian support for Trump, is to be published by Bloomsbury in 2023.
Gastón E. Espinosa
Gastón E. Espinosa is the Arthur V. Stoughton Professor of Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College. He has graduate degrees from Princeton Seminary, Harvard University, and UC Santa Barbara and is the author/editor of nine books, including Latino Religions and Civic Activism in the United States; Mexican American Religions: Spirituality, Activism & Culture; and Religion, Race, and the American Presidency. He directed four national surveys on Latino religions and politics and is finishing Latino Religions and Politics in American Public Life. He served as two-term President of La Comunidad of Hispanic Scholars of Religion at the American Academy of Religion and is Co-Editor of The Columbia University Press Series in Religion and Politics.
Marla Frederick is the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Religion and Culture at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. She is the author and/or co-author of four books and several articles including Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith and Colored Television: American Religion Gone Global, ethnographic studies that examine issues at the intersections of race, religion, activism and media. She is currently working on a project that explores the work of religious institutions in the founding of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Frederick has served in numerous capacities, including as President of the Association of Black Anthropologists and most recently as president of the American Academy of Religion.
Eugene Rogers is Professor of Religious Studies at UNC Greensboro. Educated at Princeton, Tübingen, Rome, and Yale, Rogers taught from 1993 to 2005 at the University of Virginia. In 2002, Rogers was the Eli Lilly Visiting Associate Professor of Christian Thought and Practice in the Religion Department at Princeton University. In 2010, Christian Century named his book Sexuality and the Christian Body “essential reading” among books published in the past 25 years. In 2013, he sat on the Board of Electors for the Regius Professorship of Divinity at Cambridge. He is bringing out two books in 2021: Blood Theology: Seeing Red in Body- and God-Talk and Elements of Christian Thought.
The Sex, Sexuality, and Gender panel will explore religion in relation to gender, sexuality, and the family in the United States.
Time: Friday, 2pm–3:30pm
Location: Small Library Auditorium
Nichole Flores is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Health, Ethics, and Society minor at the University of Virginia. She is author of The Aesthetics of Solidarity: Our Lady of Guadalupe and American Democracy. She is a contributing author on the masthead at America: The Jesuit Review of Faith & Culture. In 2015, Flores was honored with the Catherine Mowry LaCugna Award for best essay in academic theology by a junior scholar from the Catholic Theological Society of America. Flores earned an AB in government from Smith College, an MDiv from Yale University, and a PhD in theological ethics from Boston College.
Fannie Bialek is Assistant Professor of Religion and Politics at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Her work focuses on contemporary religious and philosophical approaches to interpersonal relationships marked by love, justice, and care, or their absence. She is currently finishing her first book, Love in Time, which argues for a consideration of love as a relationship of uncertainty instructive for vulnerabilities in interpersonal relationships and political life. Her second book will be on Abraham Joshua Heschel and radical democratic politics. Bialek earned a PhD in Religion and Critical Thought from Brown University, where she then taught as a Visiting Assistant Professor before moving to Washington University in the fall of 2016.
Karen V. Guth is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her areas of specialization include Christian social ethics, public and political theology, and feminist ethics and theologies. She is the author of The Ethics of Tainted Legacies: Human Flourishing after Traumatic Pasts and Christian Ethics at the Boundary: Feminism and Theologies of Public Life. She holds a PhD in Religious Ethics from the University of Virginia, an MTS in Religion and Society from Harvard, an MTh in Literature, Theology, and the Arts from the University of Glasgow, and a BA in Religion from Furman University.
Ludger Viefhues-Bailey is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Gender, and Culture at Le Moyne College. His work integrates philosophical modes of analysis with those pertaining to gender and cultural studies. He is the author of Between a Man and a Woman? Why Conservatives Oppose Same-Sex Marriage and Beyond the Philosopher’s Fear. A Cavellian Reading of Gender, Origin, and Religion in Modern Skepticism. Currently he is working on a book entitled No Separation. How Religion Makes the Secular Nation State. He is a member of the editorial board of the journal Political Theology and of the Steering Committee of the CNY Religion Consortium. He holds an MDiv from the Philosophisch Theologische Hochschule St. Georgen (Frankfurt/Main) and an MA and PhD from Harvard University.
Lauren Winner is Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Duke Divinity School. She writes and lectures widely on Christian practice, the history of Christianity in America, and Jewish-Christian relations. Her books include Girl Meets God, Mudhouse Sabbath, A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, Wearing God, and most recently, The Dangers of Christian Practice. She has appeared on PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and has served as a commentator on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” She has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, Publishers Weekly, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today, and her essays have been included in several volumes of The Best Christian Writing. Winner, an Episcopal priest, is vicar of St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C.
The Religion in the Anthropocene panel will explore religion in the Anthropocene, including issues of climate, global capitalism, and natural resource sharing and consumption.
Time: Friday, 4pm–5:30pm
Location: Courtyard Marriott, Albemarle Room
Paul Dafydd Jones
David L. Clough is Chair in Theology and Applied Sciences at the University of Aberdeen. His work has ranged from Karl Barth’s ethics to Christian pacifism and for the last 15 years has focused on the place of animals in Christian theology and ethics, culminating in the two-volume monograph On Animals (2012, 2019). He is a former President of the British Society for the Study of Christian Ethics and is currently President of the Society for the Study of Theology. He is committed to engaging a public audience beyond the academy. In 2015, he co-founded the US non-profit CreatureKind, which works to engage Christians with farmed animal welfare. In 2018, he became Principal Investigator for a research project on the Christian Ethics of Farmed Animal Welfare in partnership with major UK churches and a range of non-profit organisations.
Darren Dochuk is Andrew V. Tackes College Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He has written extensively on religion and politics in US history, with particular interest in evangelicalism, the Sunbelt region, and the rise of the Republican Right. Building on his most recent book, Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, his current research focuses on the intersections of energy, environment, and religion in modern America and global contexts.
Justene Hill Edwards
Justene Hill Edwards is Associate Professor in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia. A historian of the African American experience, her scholarship investigates slavery’s role in the long history of economic inequality in America, focusing on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She is the author of Unfree Markets: The Slaves’ Economy and the Rise of Capitalism in South Carolina, which explores the economic lives of enslaved people, not as property, but as active participants in their local economies. A Class of 2022 Carnegie Fellow, Hill Edwards is writing a book on the history of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company.
Robin Veldman is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Texas A&M University. Her research examines how religious beliefs and cultural identity shape attitudes toward the natural world, with a focus on climate change in the United States. Her books include the co-edited volume How the World’s Religions are Responding to Climate Change and The Gospel of Climate Skepticism: Why Evangelical Christians Oppose Action on Climate Change. She is currently working on a new project exploring the environmental politics of Christian nationalism.
The Nones: Individual Belief and Religious Institutions in a Post-Secular Age panel will explore religion and the secular, particularly in relation to the growth of the “spiritual but not religious” or religiously unaffiliated population of the United States.
Time: Saturday, 9:15am–10:45am
Location: Rotunda Dome Room
Ted Smith is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Divinity and Associate Dean of Faculty at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. At Emory he has an additional affiliation with the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. He also serves as director of the Theological Education between the Times project, which gathers diverse groups of people for critical, theological reflection on the meanings and purposes of theological education.
Ruth Braunstein is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut and Director of the Meanings of Democracy Lab. A multiple award-winning cultural sociologist interested in the role of religion and morality in American political life, she is the author of Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy Across the Political Divide, co-editor of Religion and Progressive Activism, and is working on a new book tentatively titled, My Tax Dollars: The Sacred Taxpayer and the Almighty Dollar. She is an Associate Editor of Sociology of Religion, served for several years on the inaugural editorial board of The Immanent Frame, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute).
Matthew Engelke is Professor in the Department of Religion at Columbia University, where he also directs the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life. He is the author of three books, including most recently How to Think Like an Anthropologist. He mostly writes about Christianity and secular humanism, especially in relation to ritual, public culture, media, and materiality.
Vincent Lloyd is Professor and Director of the Center for Political Theology at Villanova. He is the author of, most recently, Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination and co-author of Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons. He is co-editor of the journal Political Theology. Lloyd has been a visiting fellow at Notre Dame, Emory, Durham, and University of Virginia.
The Guns, Politics, Nation, and Citizenship panel will explore religion in relation to politics, citizenship, and the nation.
Time: Saturday, 11:15am–12:45pm
Location: Rotunda Dome Room
Aristotle Papanikolaou is Professor of Theology, the Archbishop Demetrios Chair of Orthodox Theology and Culture, and the Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University. He is the author of Being with God: Trinity, Apophaticism, and Divine-Human Communion, and The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy. He is co-editor of Political Theologies in Orthodox Christianity, Fundamentalism or Tradition: Christianity after Secularism, Christianity, Democracy and the Shadow of Constantine, Orthodox Constructions of the West, Orthodox Readings of Augustine, and Thinking Through Faith: New Perspectives from Orthodox Christian Scholars.
The Rev. Dr. Rubén Rosario Rodríguez, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary, holds the Clarence Louis and Helen Steber Professorship in Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. Recent publications include Dogmatics After Babel: Beyond the Theologies of Word and Culture and the T&T Clark Handbook of Political Theology. Rosario engages issues of global migration and social justice as Director of the Mev Puleo Program in Latin American Politics, Theology, and Culture at Saint Louis University, and through advocacy work with Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he currently serves as moderator for the Commission on Preparation for Ministry in the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy.
Corey D. B. Walker
Corey D. B. Walker is the Wake Forest Professor of the Humanities in the Department of English and the Interdisciplinary Humanities Program and inaugural Director of the Program in African American Studies at Wake Forest University. His research and teaching interests span the areas of Africana philosophy, critical theory, ethics, and religion and American public life. Walker is author and editor of several books and has published over sixty articles, essays, and book chapters in a wide variety of scholarly journals and publications. He is currently completing his next book, Disciple of Nonviolence: Wyatt Tee Walker and the Struggle for the Soul of Democracy.
Roundtable: On the 2017 White Supremacist Attacks on Charlottesville and Their Aftermath
Featuring Current and Former Charlottesville Leaders and Activists
This roundtable will focus on the run-up to and aftermath of the events of August 11 and
12, 2017. It will pay particular attention to religious and political dimensions of debates over
statues that foreground the Confederacy, the threat of white supremacy, and far-right
extremism; the fraught relationship between the University of Virginia and communities of color in Charlottesville; and the promise and risks associated with religious activism in the public sphere. What did A11 and A12 mean for religious and public life in Charlottesville and the nation in 2017? And what do they mean today?
Date: Friday, September 23
Location: Minor Hall
Delegate Sally Hudson serves Charlottesville and Albemarle in the Virginia House. Elected in 2019, she is the first woman to serve in this seat. As a freshman Delegate, Sally helped lead the team of legislators that secured the right of all Virginia local governments to remove Confederate monuments from their public spaces. When she’s not serving in Richmond, Sally teaches economics and statistics in the School of Public Policy at UVA.
Jalane Schmidt is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at UVA. Her research and teaching is focused upon African diaspora religions of the Caribbean and Latin America, particularly festivity and ritual. She teaches courses which consider the effects of colonization and the slave trade upon religious practice in the Americas. In her book project on 20th c. Cubans’ devotion to their patron saint, she examines religious, racial, and cultural hybridity in the Americas by interpreting the national expansion of this popular cult. In her emerging research, she investigates how the history of slavery is performed in spirit possession rituals and expressed in material culture.
Brandy Daniels is Assistant Professor of Theology and Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Portland. She has published numerous articles on topics ranging from Bonhoeffer and Foucault on racial identity, to poststructuralism and liberation theology, to Eastern Orthodox apophatic theology and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. She is working on her first monograph, entitled How (Not) to Be Christian. Daniels co-chairs the Queer Studies in Religion unit of the AAR, the LGBTQIA+ Working Group of the SCE, and is on the executive committee for the Political Theology Network. She is an ordained Disciples of Christ minister and a part of Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance.
Larycia Hawkins, PhD, is a scholar, a political science professor, and an activist. Professor Hawkins teaches and researches at the University of Virginia, where she is jointly appointed in the departments of Politics and Religious Studies. She also serves as a Faculty Collaborator at UVA’s Religion, Race, and Democracy Lab, as a Faculty Fellow at the University’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, is a Research Fellow at the Project on Lived Theology; and has been involved with Religion and Its Publics for several years.
Kristin Layng Szakos is a writer, editor, and activist who served on Charlottesville City Council from 2010 through 2017. She has a degree in religious studies from Grinnell College and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A child of Civil Rights activists, she has been involved in racial and social justice work her whole life and was active in the work to remove Confederate monuments from Charlottesville and other Virginia communities. She is the co-author of two books about community organizing.
The Religion and Its Publics Project
The Project on Religion and Its Publics has been at work on the above and other issues for a number of years. Funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and housed in the Virginia Center for the Study of Religion and the Department of Religious Studies, the project undertakes both descriptive and normative modes of inquiry and convenes a wide array of scholars, practitioners, and graduate students. It aspires to model interdisciplinary scholarship in the context of a university and a city that have often found themselves at the intersection of concerns about publicity, pluralism, religion, and secularism. Concretely, the project has supported research initiatives on ecological justice, race and religion in Charlottesville, Christian theology and critical theory, and Islamic public theology; funded cutting-edge postdoctoral projects on Christian theology and the task of religious un/formation and on Islamic identity in London and Berlin; organized numerous meetings for emerging and established scholars; and hosted countless public talks, round tables, and workshops. This conference will serve as the culmination of the Project.
The Project’s Co-Directors
Charles Mathewes is the Carolyn M. Barbour Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Evil and the Augustinian Tradition, A Theology of Public Life, Understanding Religious Ethics, and The Republic of Grace. Among other edited volumes, he was the Senior Editor for a four-volume collection on Comparative Religious Ethics: The Major Works for Routledge Publishers. From 2006 to 2010, he was Editor of The Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and was Chair of the Committee on the Future of Christian Ethics for the Society of Christian Ethics, the inaugural Director of the Virginia Center for the Study of Religion, and from 2010 to 2020 he served on the House of Bishops Theology Committee of the Episcopal Church. He is currently finishing his next book, A Future for Political Theology, and writing another work, Another City: Reading Augustine After Secularism.
Paul Dafydd Jones
Paul Dafydd Jones is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and Co-Director of the research project, “Religion and its Publics.” His scholarship and teaching focus on Christian thought, with particular interests in Protestant theology, western philosophy of religion, liberation theology, constructive theology, and religion in public life. In addition to numerous articles and chapters, he is the author of The Humanity of Christ: Christology in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Karl Barth and the forthcoming Karl Barth and Liberation Theology, and the author of the soon-to-be-published Patience–A Theological Exploration: Part One, From Creation to Christ.
PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS SCHEDULE IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE.
April 21, 2022
Ryrie, Alec ’s Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2019.
Alec Ryrie’s Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt is a fascinating, original, and compelling historical study. A scholar of the Reformation, Ryrie’s interest is in the stirrings of atheism in the centuries leading up to and following 1517—the stories of peasants and publicans, philosophers and priests who began to question God’s existence, God’s wisdom, or God’s mercy. Ryrie argues (among other things) that “atheism” referred in this historic span to a range of different theological positions, not just the blunt yes/no to God’s existence.
On one level, this book is a compendium, a historian’s banquet of vignettes, quotations, and studies of figures like Montaigne, Browne, and Earle. This cascade of examples, though, is trained on an idea Ryrie articulates most pointedly in the book’s introduction and final chapter, an idea about the relationship between thinking and feeling. Specifically, Ryrie is skeptical that arguments and ideas can ever make up minds in questions of belief and disbelief. This is set up by the book’s epigraph, from Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending: “Most of us, I suspect . . . make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reasoning to justify it. And call the result common sense.” Ryrie develops this with a sophisticated meditation, offered in the introduction, on the relationship between emotion and cognition, and builds even more philosophical scaffolding around it in his discussion of Pascal in Chapter 6.
Like Pascal, Ryrie is pessimistic about the possibility of persuasion using rational argument. “Apart from a heroic or cold-hearted few,” he writes early on "most of us make our lives’ great choices – beliefs, values, identities, purposes – intuitively, with our whole selves, embedded as we are in our social and historical contexts, usually unable to articulate why we have done it, often not even aware we have done it. If we have the inclination, we might then assemble rationalisations for our choices: rationalisations which may be true, but in a meagre, post hoc way" (Ryrie: 2019, 4).
So the focus is on how a sedimentation of frustrations, hopes, desires, fears, and all our other affective tissues accumulates and forms a structure that makes an intellectual posture feel compelling in the first place. The resonance between the idea and the edifice of feelings, he writes, “is not an argument; it is a gag reflex” (Ryrie: 2019, 54f).
This is why Ryrie focuses instead on the felt components of atheism, and in particular anger and anxiety. This tracing of the emotional genealogy of atheism is not, he assures us, to disdain it. Ryrie early on identifies himself as a Christian, but the book takes a winningly diplomatic attitude toward nonbelievers, repeatedly highlighting how the faithless position arrives with real and compelling moral force. Flipping the script on the bulk of recent atheist and Christian apologetic tracts, Ryrie goes out of his way to admire and honor those he disagrees with. Atheist anger—the fury of a Huxley or a Bakunin raining scorn on crooked churches—is all too powerful; and atheist anxiety—the sickness unto death of Dostoevsky’s existential self-flagellators horrified by the moral inadequacy of the world—is an extension of the most compelling currents of Christianity itself.
By design, this book is light on citations, aiming for the wider readership of interested skeptics and believers looking for new ways to map their own faith and lack thereof. That’s all fine, but it means the links between Ryrie’s work and the bigger conversations happening in the field of critical secularism studies aren’t developed here. Ryrie would be very interested in, for instance, the question asked by Ann Pellegrini: “What does secularism feel like?” And he’d be equally intrigued by her answer: “it feels a lot more like religion than we commonly suppose.” (Pellegrini: 2009, 205) Similarly, Saba Mahmood’s argument in her article “Religious Reason and Secular Affect” is that secularism comes along with its own “schesis”—its own proper set of affective attachments. (Other works in this conversation include Scheer, Fadil, and Johansen: 2019; von Scheve, Berg, Haken, and Ural: 2020; Levine: 2011; and solo-authored volumes like Bennett: 2001, Smolkin: 2018, and Sullivan: 2020.)
Even though Ryrie plugs into affective theories of atheism, he still tends to see atheism as primarily driven by a philosophical agenda. Yes, there is anger at God for failing to deliver justice, and anxiety about the tenuousness of salvation. But the extent to which these drive atheism—rather than, say, horror at priestly abuse, disgust with corruption, or contempt for false-faced self-righteousness—may be overstated here. As much as some of our twentieth century ontologies might imagine otherwise, human beings are not, by and large, moody existentialists ruminating on the cosmos. Religious disaffiliation is less often about the consummately Protestant notion of a clash of creeds than theologians and philosophers might anticipate. (And that’s not to mention the powerful intuition—both intellectual and affective—that theology and religious narrative are just plain wrong.)
Ryrie’s chorus is mostly white, male, and European. This may be a factor in one of the book’s main limitations, namely, that Ryrie doesn’t do enough to study how the emotions of atheism are linked to power. The lack of attention to how disdain for ultra-conservative religion drives people away from churches, mosques, and temples is an oversight, but so, too, is the way some contemporary formations of atheism are deeply informed by Islamophobic rage. Stephen Bullivant, for instance, points out that the unexpected runaway success of the New Atheism in the 2000s may well have been connected with a decades-long rising tide of anti-Muslim racism. I would add to Ryrie’s formula, then, not just the feelings that push people away from religion, but feelings that actively entice them in the direction of unbelief understood not just as privation, but, as Charles Taylor saw, as a new template for living in the world (Taylor: 2007, 4; Schaefer: 2017, 2022).
Monique Scheer, Nadia Fadil, and Birgitte Schepelern Johansen have written that “[e]ven to claim there is such an entity as ‘secular emotions’ is therefore already a destabilization and critique of… secular logic.” (Scheer et al.: 2019, 10) Ryrie has put together a compelling study of exactly this triangular cat’s cradle between belief, disbelief, and feeling. Most significantly, Ryrie opens doors to asking how this framework is more than just a question about religion and nonreligion. It translates into wider epistemological inquiries about how minds are made up, changed, or converted. And it transacts with political questions about how we define borders and identities. Ryrie’s challenge of the modernist autobiography that sees the secular as fundamentally about the triumph of reason over feeling is a compelling and timely intervention.
Donovan O. Schaefer is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Bennett, Jane. The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Bullivant, Stephen. “The New Atheism and Sociology: Why Here? Why Now? What Next?” In: Amarasingam, Amarnath, ed. Religion and the New Atheism: A Critical Appraisal. Leiden, NL: Brill, 2010: 109-124.
Levine, George, ed.. The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.
Mahmood, Saba. “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?” Critical Inquiry 35 (Summer 2009): 836-862.
Pellegrini, Ann. “Feeling Secular.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 19.2 (July 2009): 205-218.
Schaefer, Donovan O. “Beautiful Facts: Science, Secularism, and Affect.” In: Feeling Religion. Corrigan, John, ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017: 69-92.
Schaefer, Donovan O. Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022.
Scheer, Monique, Birgitte Schepelern Johansen, Nadia Fadil. “Secular Embodiments: Mapping an Emergent Field.” In: Scheer, Monique, Nadia Fadil, and Birgitte Schepelern Johansen, ed. Secular Bodies, Affects and Emotions: European Configurations. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019: 1-14.
Scheer, Monique, Nadia Fadil, and Birgitte Schepelern Johansen, ed. Secular Bodies, Affects and Emotions: European Configurations. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.
Smolkin, Victoria. A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.
Sullivan, Marek. Secular Assemblages: Affect, Orientalism, and Power. London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2020.
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
von Scheve, Christian, Anna Lea Berg, Meike Haken, and Nur Yasemin Ural, eds. Affect and Emotion in Multi-Religious Secular Societies. London, UK: Routledge, 2020.
February 11, 2022
Editor’s Note: Over the past week, we have published a series of five responses – by Darren Dochuk, Kai Parker, Slavica Jakelić, Molly Farneth, and Paul Dafydd Jones – to Philip Gorski’s American Babylon: Christianity and Democracy Before and After Trump. In this post, Gorski offers a response to the responses.
It is a pleasure and an honor to engage with such a distinguished and insightful group of colleagues who understood so well what I was trying to say in American Babylon. So well, in fact, that they all spotted issues that I failed to address adequately.
As Darren Dochuk rightly notes, one of the major shortcomings of my analysis – and of much academic work on the Christian right – is that it often pays too little attention to evangelicalism’s “alternative media system,” the sprawling network of print and broadcast media that promotes its “Biblical worldview.” I would only add that this network is itself being disrupted and transformed right now by the advent of social media. Clearly scientific authority is currently under assault, but so is cultural authority more broadly, including theological authority within the evangelical subculture and the Christian Right in general.
It is not the first such disruption. Again and again throughout history, the advent of new communications technologies has upended existing systems of cultural authority and knowledge production and created openings for radical movements and revolutionary ideas. The breakthrough of the Protestant Reformation cannot be understood apart from the invention of moveable type. No Gutenberg, no Luther. No Luther, no Müntzer. Nor can the mass movements of the early 20th century – populist, socialist and fascist – be explained apart from the advent of microphones, stadiums, radio, and film. No Marconi, no Mussolini. The same is true today. Social media has broken down the boundaries between the fringe and the mainstream. No Dorsey, no Twitter. No Twitter, no Trump. The disruption of theological authority within the Christian right has opened the doors to charlatans and grifters. Who has a greater influence on the religious right today, Tucker Carlson or Al Mohler? Where does white nationalism end and Christian nationalism begin? Everything that was solid melts into…sludge.
This points to another shortcoming of American Babylon highlighted by Kai Parker: my account pays too little attention to anti-Black racism. I speak of “white Christian nationalism” (WCN) without explaining what’s “white” about it. In a forthcoming book, The Flag and the Cross, Samuel Perry and I address this issue head on. We show that racial, religious, and national identity have always been intertwined with one another in American political culture, and that they still are today. There, we define WCN as a “deep story” and a “political vision.” The deep story goes something like this: America was founded as a (white) Christian nation by (white Protestant) Christian men; it is an exceptional nation with a providential mission; it has been blessed by God with power and prosperity; however, the presence and influence of non-whites and non-Christians on American soil threatens the country’s mission and blessings; the nation must be purified and order must be restored. This story is so deeply engrained in the consciousnesses of some white Christians that they instinctively feel that America is “their” country, and that it has been “taken away” from them.
The political vision is defined by a holy trinity of freedom, order, and violence, all interpreted in a particular way: “Freedom is understood in a libertarian way, as freedom from restrictions, especially by the government. Order is understood in a hierarchical way, with white Christian men at the top. And violence is seen as a righteous means of defending freedom and restoring order, means that are reserved to white Christian men” (7). Today, it is conservative white evangelicals who most firmly embrace this vision. But as Parker rightly points out, it has not always been so. Until the mid-20th century, it was liberal white Protestants who were the principal social carriers of WCN, in the North as well as the South. They are also the forebears of today’s secular progressives. This is too often forgotten.
In American Babylon, I critique WCN as a betrayal of Christian universalism. In her contribution, Slavica Jakelić worries that my critique misses as much as it captures. She agrees that moral universalisms can be used to problematize racial hierarchies. But she reminds us that they can also be used to justify conquest and empire by hoisting the flags of “evangelism” and “civilization.” Jakelić likewise agrees that exclusionary forms of religious nationalism are a political bad. But she rightly notes that any form of religious community will be exclusionary to some degree. The broader point, if I understand correctly, is that religious universalisms inevitably take particularistic forms, and that these forms are historically and culturally variable. The universal can only be realized via the particular, which is to say, imperfectly.
So, where does that leave us? In the present day, the relevant context is the nation-state, the default form of political community in the contemporary world. In this context, a civic vision of the nation combined with a democratic form of government best accords with the universalistic and egalitarian principles of the Christian Gospels. Within the American context, I would argue, it is “civil religion” that long provided the political theology that motivated and legitimated this aspiration. But how is civil religion different from religious nationalism, if at all?
In American Covenant, an earlier book written at a more optimistic moment, I drew a sharp distinction between “Christian nationalism” and “civil religion,” by defining each in terms of its intellectual sources. I argued that the American version of Christian nationalism combined the apocalypticism of Revelation with the “conquest narrative” of the Pentateuch, and that its fraternal twin, civil religion, conjoined prophetic calls for social justice with the political philosophy of civic republicanism. At the time, I believed, or at least hoped, that the tradition of civil religion might serve as a via media between Christian nationalism and radical secularism that could point a way forward beyond the “culture wars” that began in the 1980s.
In her essay, and in an earlier exchange, Molly Farneth expressed skepticism about this distinction. She worried that the boundary between religious nationalism and civil religion was more porous than I had allowed, that the progressive version of civil religion was losing its grip over the American imagination, and that a conservative version of civil religion which was barely distinguishable from religious nationalism was rapidly gaining ground. I worry that she is right. To be sure, Joe Biden’s religiously laden Inaugural Address and Amanda Gorman’s secular re-reading of John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon show that the civil religious tradition is not quite dead yet and might still be revived again. Right now, though, it is clearly no match for WCN, which has grown stronger as it has become more white, less Christian and, of late, increasingly authoritarian. So long as white Christians were in the political majority, WCN could accommodate liberal democracy, assuming that demands for racial equality did not pose too great a threat to white “freedom.” No more.
Of course, as Darren Dochuk notes, and as I argue in American Babylon, we should not be entirely surprised by the authoritarian turn on the Christian right. Christian Scripture is rife with monarchical imagery, and sacred kingship has been the default form of political rule for most of Christian history. That some self-proclaimed “prophets” would compare Donald Trump to King Cyrus was only to be expected. And yet, as I explain in a forthcoming essay in The Hedgehog Review, there is also something different about the strange cult that has grown up around the former President. It is more akin to the pre-Christian tradition of divine monarchy than the Christian tradition of sacred monarchy.
Christianity and the other “world religions” that emerged during the Axial Age challenged the tradition of divine kingship. They were premised on a dualistic distinction between an immanent (“worldly”) and transcendent (“otherworldly”) realm. Earlier religions were not dualist in this way; they were radically immanentist. There was no sharp distinction between gods and men, but rather a continuum. There was one world, and it was filled with persons and “metapersons,” visible and invisible, material and immaterial. In such a world, Kings were not just “like” gods; they were gods. Far from being “disenchanted,” the post-Christian world that we are now entering is re-enchanted, as indeed is contemporary Christianity itself. The boundaries between religion and magic and Christianity and occultism, so heavily policed during the modern era, are as porous as those between fringe and mainstream culture. So it is perhaps no surprise that the default form of political rule in the immanentist cultures of the pre-Christian era should have renewed appeal in the neo-immanentist culture of the post-Christian era.
As Paul Dafydd Jones notes in his essay, for those of us still committed to some form of democracy—liberal, social or something else—the authoritarian turn is deeply worrying. What, if anything, can be done to defend democracy against its present-day detractors? For American Christians who are small-d democrats, one of the challenges is to develop and defend a democratic political theology. They might look first of all to Augustinian tradition, which contains ample resources for this task. Augustine’s own critiques of the Constantinian Christianity of late Imperial Rome apply with equal force to the Trumpian Christianism of late imperial America. In the secular age that follows Christ’s ministry, the worldly and heavenly cities are to remain separate, and Christian rulers should not attempt to merge them. Faithful Christians must resist the Constantinian temptation.
Secular progressives, for their part, might do well to revisit the work of Cold War liberals such as Isaiah Berlin and Raymond Aron. Chastened by the battle with totalitarianism, they abandoned their aspirations for political utopia and settled for social peace instead. But it will not be enough to develop new doctrines of democracy or to revive old ones. Democracy is not just a doctrine, after all; it is also a practice or, in John Dewey’s phrase, “a mode of associated living.” But as Molly Farneth rightly notes, the dominant modes of association today are more Weberian than Tocquevillian. The old “schools of democracy” that taught active citizenship and civic engagement have mostly been shuttered and replaced by new schools of meritocracy that teach free riding and self-promotion. That is the real American carnage.
Philip Gorski is a Professor of Sociology at Yale University.
February 10, 2022
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth and final response to Philip Gorski’s American Babylon: Christianity and Democracy Before and After Trump.
How did we get here? How did the “elective affinity” between Christianity and democracy in the United States devolve into antagonism and antipathy – so much so that the political identity of swathes of the population is now defined by racist grievance, persecution complexes, and a drive to “save” America from the results of a free and fair election?
The temptation to answer these questions with the invocation of a single name, accompanied by denunciations of craven complicity, is well known to many. But it is a temptation that ought to be resisted, and Philip Gorski’s American Babylon shows us why that is so. On one level – and, I think, sotto voce, but all the more effectively for that – this book offers an indirect rebuke to those who favor performative indignation to careful historical and sociological reflection. On another level, and more substantively, American Babylon explains why the precariousness of American democracy is less a bug in the system, and more a deeply embedded feature.
One part of Gorski’s argument is that a positive relationship between Christianity and democracy should never be taken for granted. Experiments in collective self-government have always been hit-and-miss affairs, dependent on local conditions, and whenever democratic values and processes have taken root, they have typically been hamstrung by a host of exclusionary qualifications. That was the case in ancient Greece and medieval Europe; that has been and is the case in the United States too, no matter the self-aggrandizing boosterism that sometimes surrounds talk of democracy. And Christian support for modern liberal democratic values and processes has been far more inconstant than we care to admit. The balance of recent historical evidence is just as likely to yield a negative as a positive answer to the question, “Is Christianity democratic?”
Another part of Gorski’s argument is that Tocqueville’s optimistic vision of American Christians’ promotion of moral unity, progress, equality, and church/state disaffiliation is not a part that speaks for the whole. A bundle of reinforcing dynamics, internal to twentieth- and twenty-first century Protestant Christianity, have made sure of that. The collapse of the mainline Protestant establishment, along with the secularization of postmillennial religious energies, deprived liberal democracy of a powerful support system. The decline of small, democratically governed churches (what Philipp Jakob Spener called collegia pietatis being, Gorski supposes, collegia democratiae) and the rise of megachurches has had a similarly deleterious effect. Add to that the vigorous accreditation of white nationalism as a live option for Christian identity and a number of dispiriting local factors – well-funded media outlets that generate and amplify far-right talking points, a wealth gap that has widened to scandalous proportions, the growing fact of climate anxiety, intensified legislative assaults on voting access, etc. – and it seems entirely possible that the elective affinity between US Christianity and democracy will soon be a remnant of the past.
An obvious question, then, arises as soon as Gorski’s book comes to an end. Is there a way back? Is there a way to restore the elective affinity between Christianity and representative democracy, with the former lending support and credibility to the latter? Or, depressingly, should the gloominess that characterized the conclusion to Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism now be transposed in a new key? Ought we to suppose that the “iron cage” that Weber discerned has given way to a wider captivity, one that stymies the “rebirth of old ideas and ideals” while giving late modern capitalism free rein to exploit workers and wreak destruction on the planet?
Given the coherence and persuasiveness of Gorski’s analysis, it is difficult to feel optimistic about the future, and it is easy to imagine pessimistic questions returning pessimistic answers. At the least, there does not seem to be much standing in the way of an entrenchment of antidemocratic instincts among many white Protestants, especially those who gather under the banner of evangelicalism. There seems little reason, for instance, to bank on a resurgence of liberal Protestantism as an advocate for democracy. The institutions and the good will might be there, along with some desire to overturn a multitude of sins with respect to race and sex/gender. But the numbers and the moral authority are not. The return of the churches as collegia democratiae also seems unlikely. The corporatization of Christianity, and along with it the resurgent political clout of weirdly coiffed megachurch ministers, continues apace; what was once a “vast network of ecumenical Christianity” amounts now to a “scattered archipelago of autonomous congregations” (71), some of which have turned far-right extremism into a selling point. Meanwhile, the fateful alliance of white evangelicals with Catholic conservatives, nourished by apocalyptic premillennialism and an outsized preoccupation with limiting women’s reproductive rights, shows every sign of going from strength to strength.
Weberian and Gorskian gloom notwithstanding, though, some chinks of light complicate the nighttime of American Babylon. One strikes me as especially important:
“It is very possible that the future of American Christianity will be written by the rag-tag bands of the religious center and left, who may share the religious right’s opposition to abortion” – I am not sure about this, but let it slide – “but marry it with commitments to social justice, racial inclusion, ‘creature care,’ and acceptance of gay marriage. Whether they do so will also depend on whether secular progressives embrace them as allies or continue to attack them as enemies of secularism” (99).
It is exactly here that I want to know more. If Gorski is correct about the captivity of much of American Christianity, and if the signal contribution of American Babylon is to compel us to inhabit and worry over that captivity, then at some point we need to dust ourselves off and chart a path forward. We need to envisage modes of Christian witness that support liberal democracy in novel ways. We need to imagine and realize a counterpoint to our current, antidemocratic moment – no matter what happens this year, next year, in the presidential race of 2024, and beyond.
So: What would resistance look like? What would an effective, pro-democratic, religious center/left entail? Would it draw inspiration from the civil rights movement, a refurbished US liberalism, Scandinavian social democracy (with an added ecological dimension), an American brand of “blue Labour” localism – or would it combine elements of each? Would it directly confront the current iteration of the “paranoid style” in US politics, or would it focus on the development of its own, non-reactive narratives? Most importantly, how might this bloc dispose itself as a credible (and thus not supine) ally to “secular progressives,” a growing group who run the gamut from old-school democratic socialists to unionized sex workers, disaffected political moderates, and never-Trumpers? What kinds of rhetoric, what kinds of ecclesial, ecumenical, and political organization, what kinds of relationships, what kinds of institutions could support the marriage towards which Gorski gestures? And what kind of theology is needed to keep the knot tied?
I am aware that these are oversized questions, the likes of which exceed the ken of any author. I pose them with foreboding, for I cannot quite imagine how they would be answered in ways that give me much hope that we will be drawn out of the mess that we find ourselves in. But that does not diminish their urgency. If “democracies tend to die slowly and peacefully at the hands of their own leaders” (115), a near-fatal cut may already have been made. The question now is whether we can staunch the flow, lest American democracy bleed out in the next few years, and those of us who believe in Christianity and democracy are left with little more than “the ghost of dead religious beliefs.”
Paul Dafydd Jones is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and the co-director of the Religion and Its Publics project.
February 9, 2022
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of five responses to Philip Gorski’s American Babylon: Christianity and Democracy Before and After Trump.
Robert Bellah’s classic essay “Civil Religion in America” argues that there is, in the United States, a kind of political religion that “exists alongside [but is] rather clearly differentiated from” Christianity. This civil religion involves beliefs and symbols that are often familiar to Christians – ideas about sin and grace, a Promised Land, prophets and martyrs – and it employs them in the construction of a national narrative and a set of practices intended to generate social cohesion among a diverse people.
In previous work, Philip Gorski has considered the intellectual lineage of this American civil religion, identifying among its influences covenant theology and civic republicanism. Covenant theology holds that there is a relationship and set of promises between God and God’s chosen people; in American civil religion, covenant theology informs both beliefs about America’s special status among nations and practices of prophetic critique that hold Americans to their end of the deal – that encourage them to uphold, that is, their professed ideals.
Civic republicanism, meanwhile, is a political philosophical tradition that holds that freedom is best understood as security from domination and that the health of the polis depends on the cultivation of political virtues among citizens. Gorski argues that this intellectual lineage is distinct from that of religious nationalism – distinct, that is, from a commitment to align Christianity and the nation-state in a religio-political conception of peoplehood. Unlike religious nationalism, on his account, civil religion is supposed to be capacious enough to include people of multiple religions and none, and to allow room for disagreement and dissent. In fact, among its habits and virtues are supposed to be such things as tolerance and forbearance in the face of objectionable difference.
Gorski’s distinction between civil religion and religious nationalism is conceptually useful, but as a practical and historical matter, they have never been easy to disentangle. This entanglement is the backdrop to the story that Gorski tells in American Babylon. Civil religion has been a battleground on which democrats and anti-democrats have struggled over the values and ideals that Americans should take and treat as sacred. These struggles have been concerned with exactly what American’s religion is or ought to be, which habits and virtues are proper to such a religion, and who is included within and excluded from its fold.
Understood in light of these debates, white conservative outrage at Colin Kaepernick’s protests during the National Anthem or at the removal of confederate statues from public spaces aren’t only political matters, but also religious ones. They are about what’s sacred in an American civil religion and who gets to decide. Such outrage is part of an effort to tie America’s civil religion ever more closely to a white Christian nationalist politics that cares little about non-domination or democratic virtue. Insofar as the religious nationalists have gained the upper hand among white evangelicals, the result has been a conflation of civil religion and Christian nationalism, jettisoning civic republicanism and shrugging at the idea of democratic virtue.
This shrug – the apparent irrelevance of democratic habits and virtues to the religious nationalists – is particularly striking to me. What’s happened to democratic virtue? As Gorski describes the changing landscape of American Christianity, he notes a shift in Protestant church membership from small, relatively democratic churches to professionally managed mega-churches. He suggests that the former were places where laypeople were involved in the governance of their communities; they learned to be citizens, in part, in church. In the latter, by contrast, laypeople are consumers of a slick religious product. Gorski writes that “to say that mega-churches are (internally) un-democratic is not to say that they are (externally) anti-democratic. They can be of course. A churchgoer who grows accustomed to a spectatorial form of worship led by a rich, combative, and charismatic pastor perched upon a distant stage may well come to prefer a spectatorial form of politics led by a rich, combative, and charismatic politician on their television screen” (73). Mega-churches, Gorski suggests, train people in the habits of consumers, rather than the virtues of citizens.
But of course, such a shift is not unique to the white evangelicals Gorski focuses on in American Babylon. Most of us spend more and more of our time in bureaucratic, professionally-managed spaces: attending mega-churches, shopping in big box stores, teaching and learning “to the test,” and entertaining ourselves with content delivered to us by algorithms. The schools of democratic habits and virtues are few and far between. And while I’m certainly worried about the vocal anti-democrats among American Christians, I worry, too, about the rest of us, whether we have or can come to cultivate the habits and dispositions that we might need for sustaining attention, tolerating conflict, building coalitions, and practicing fortitude in the long and slow and sometimes boring work of democracy and the struggle against domination.
Molly Farneth is an Associate Professor in the Religion Department at Haverford College.
February 8, 2022
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of five responses to Philip Gorski’s American Babylon: Christianity and Democracy Before and After Trump.
Philip Gorski’s American Babylon considers Christianity and democracy as “complex social structures” (8) that have influenced and transformed one another through historical encounters and collisions to give rise to multiple theological, cultural, and political configurations. Gorski begins by considering how democracy in its various forms (republican, representative, liberal, and social) relates to different expressions of religion—to show, for example, why some forms of Protestantism are conducive to liberal but not social democracy, or why American evangelical Christianity is not inherently opposed to democracy. He surveys the complicated politics and political theology of the Bible demonstrating, among other things, how it is possible for contemporary Christian nationalism to be reconciled with the imperial theology of Eusebius, and for liberal democracy to have certain resonances with Augustine’s theological thought; his survey also shows how some Catholic thinkers charted a middle way in their theological approaches to democracy while others moved in “a decidedly more authoritarian direction” (41). From this airplane view of elective affinities between Christianity and democracy in Western history, Gorski zooms in on the complex trajectories of both Christianity and democracy in the history of the US. What connects the two parts of the book is the argument that “there are no constants in political chemistry” because the elective affinities between Christianity and democracy change over time (97).
As a short, 132-page book that is theoretically precise and historically subtle, American Babylon is a true feat of historical sociology. It offers a nuanced yet accessible account of how we got where we are today—the populist phase of the culture wars in which American Christians who affirm strong collective attachments often do so in the name of a “white Christian nation,” and Americans who confess progressive Christian or secular visions of public life are often implicated in modernist, secularist, or class biases toward those who do not share their cosmopolitan or meritocratic values. It is here, at the end of the book, where I want to begin my engagement with the author: at the point at which Gorski wonders not only how we got where we are, but also where we might be going. I want to propose that this is also an important scholarly crossroad, a point at which we should carefully probe the long-accepted approaches to the relationship among Christianity, democracy, and nationalism, and consider some new, less charted, and possibly more productive modes of thinking about it.
In the last chapter of his book, in his discussion of the alliance between white evangelical Christians and Trump, Gorski stresses that this phenomenon is driven not by race, class, or religion alone, but by the combination of all three. At the same time, what emerges at the heart of the story about the evangelicalism-Trumpism coalition is “white Christian nationalism” (WCN)—the term that some authors have recently used in unhelpful ways, but which in Gorski’s treatment acquires both conceptual clarity and historical perspective. And, precisely because I concur with much of the argument Gorski advances in this part of his book, one statement in that account gave me pause: the idea that white Christian nationalism in the United States is “a genuine puzzle” because Christianity is “a universalistic religion” that “makes no racial distinctions,” has “followers of all colors,” and “tells us that all human beings are God’s children, made in His image, and Jesus died for all sinners” (108). In what follows, I want to propose several reasons why we should want to move beyond the idea of the 21st century American instantiation of white Christian nationalism as a puzzle because Christianity is a universalistic humanist religion.
As a student of religion normatively committed to deep pluralism, I appreciate the theological arguments for the idea that Christianity’s universalistic character, even essence, can be a powerful tool against racist and nativist configurations of Christian nationalism. As a historical sociologist, however, I cannot but point to the problems entailed in an account of Christianity as a this-worldly humanist project of inclusion. This is an account suggested in Gorski’s statement quoted above; it is also an account of Christian humanism that does not acknowledge the dark sides of that project—the deployment of Christian humanism to dehumanize the indigenous peoples during the Western European colonial and imperial conquests, or the twentieth century Catholic theology of personhood and the accompanying political endeavors that ascribed dignity to Catholics only, to mention only two trajectories. As Edward Said powerfully demonstrated in his last book Humanism and Democratic Criticism, if the history of universalistic humanisms tells us anything, it is that humanist ideas grounded both acts of exclusion and of inclusion, of enslavement and of liberation. Recognizing such complexities as also constitutive of Christianity’s universalistic humanist impetus would not diminish its forcefulness in rejecting the ideology of white Christian nationalism; it would simply underscore that no expression of Christianity is ever innocent of history or above it.
On the other hand, if the history of Christianity and nationalism reveals anything—a history that involves, among others, the role of the Deutsche Christen in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the place of Christian theology in configuring the Afrikaner racist nationalist ideology in South Africa, and the complicity of Christian leaders in shaping the nationalist ideologies in former Yugoslavia—it is the multiplicity of forms this relationship can take as well as their frequency. On my reading, the question at the heart of our inquiry should not be “How is it possible for Christianity to be linked to nationalism?”, but “Why are we still surprised when those connections appear?” Or, to add an even more provocative note: in light of the sheer number of historical instances in which Christianity was associated with various expressions of nationalism, why should we think that these cases are more about nationalism and less about Christianity? Aren’t such instances also part of the complex, complicated, and changeable politics and political theology of Christianity, which Gorski himself so eloquently examines?
As a scholar of religion and collective identity, I concur with Gorski’s commitment to case-by-case analysis of religious actors as they reveal their agency in shaping the narratives and politics of particular group attachments. It is in this sense—in relation to the singularities of various local stories and histories—that I see any religio-national phenomenology as a puzzle. But it is precisely because of this empirical perspective that I want to end my response with an invitation—that we do not a priori relegate Christianities linked to national attachments to the domain of intolerance and exclusion, but instead consider collectivistic Christianities in all of their manifestations. Ours is a moment, it seems to me, that compels us to sharpen our conceptual and analytic tools so that they can distinguish between those configurations of Christian and national identities that seek to exclude or abolish everyone perceived as other, and those that are conducive to democratic pluralism—those collectivistic Christianities that can powerfully reject the challenges of the populist anti-pluralist politics by grounding the most noble of our universalistic humanist impulses in our attachments to concrete political communities.
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.