“I just felt like the spirit of God wanted me to go in the Senate room.”
—A Capitol rioter, quoted in The New Yorker.
I’m guessing that many nonspecialists foresaw it too. They intuited that a president who gave us a “Muslim ban” in Act 1 would exit like Samson in Act 3. These folks sensed that Donald Trump’s crew of “
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“I just felt like the spirit of God wanted me to go in the Senate room.”
—A Capitol rioter, quoted in The New Yorker.
I’m guessing that many nonspecialists foresaw it too. They intuited that a president who gave us a “Muslim ban” in Act 1 would exit like Samson in Act 3. These folks sensed that Donald Trump’s crew of “court evangelicals,” as the historian John Fea has called them, were not likely to tack our ship of state toward tranquil harbors. They grasped that followers of Christ blowing their shofars (wait, what?), conducting Jericho Marches, and waving “Jesus 2020” banners might not be beyond trashing the marble HQ of liberal democracy. Most people could see January 6’s violence coming down Constitution Avenue, so to speak.
My concern is that many who study the intersection of religion and politics could not. Their lack of prescience isn’t based on ideological sympathy for the insurrectionaries. Rather, their blind spot is due to their embrace of what I call the Olden Rule: “Always posit religion at its best, secularism at its worst.”
I recall a published exchange with the talented Yale scholar Kathryn Lofton in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney. She reasoned that Christian influence on public affairs was dwindling, “not because I believe we have arrived at the end of the power of Christianity as a social experience, but because I think we have arrived at the end of its usability as a conservative political platform.” Lofton buttressed her observation by reference to numerous recent “exemplary studies” of evangelicalism. These monographs disproved the “constant iteration and reiteration of the lurking potency of the Christian right” by secular critics like me.
Well, the presence of more than 20,000 heavily armed National Guard troops at the Biden/Harris inauguration suggests the potency of the Christian right has advanced well beyond the “lurk” stage. Every scholar is capable of a bad take. I am no exception. But this type of oversight is quite common in discussions of what is called “public theology.”
Take, for example, the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. You can identify the Olden Rule in the thought of the anti-secular conservative Ross Douthat — perhaps the most gifted opinion columnist of his generation, albeit one who has been colossally wrong in his most-consequential predictions (“There Will Be No Trump Coup”). But this reverence for people of loud faith, and impatience with those of us who are less reverent, is not confined to the right.
Consider the Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, who, in a 2013 Times piece entitled “Belief Is the Least Part of Faith,” tried to help “university-educated liberals” understand evangelical Christians. For them, explained Luhrmann, the world “is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church.” “But secular Americans,” Luhrmann wrote, “often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice.”
Far too many analysts — especially ones with elite institutional platforms — refrain from confronting the dark side of white conservative Christianity.
I’m not sure what Luhrmann means by “secular Americans” (secular Americans are often religious — “secularism” connotes a political position on how government should relate to religion), but I think she has them upside down. For centuries, secular theorists have tried to vacate “belief” as a category of material interest to the state. This is referred to as the Act-Belief distinction. It can be traced to proponents of “freedom of conscience,” like Roger Williams and John Locke. You can, each insisted, believe absolutely anything you want. You can’t, however, do whatever you want.
So to Luhrmann I would reply that secular Americans aren’t that hung up on evangelical beliefs, many of which are surely lovely and worthy of our admiration. What concerns secular Americans are not beliefs but deeds. When the deeds are enabled by state legislatures, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the executive branch, secular Americans get antsy.
Let me put it this way: It was bad enough when the White House filmed seasonal videos showing Melania Trump strolling through a White House besieged by a forest of towering Christmas trees. (Yes, other presidents have Christmas trees, but the scale was unprecedented, as were the propagandistic annual videos.) It was much worse when her husband brutalized a park full of Black Lives Matter protesters in order to snarl with his (was it really his?) Bible held aloft. But both incidents entangled the federal government with deeds preferred by one type of religion.
Which brings us to Locke. In A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke mused about the hazards of “burning Zeal” in matters religious. He knew he couldn’t do anything about that. His remit was to warn us about linking that “Zeal” with the awesome might of the state. The Anglo American secular tradition maintains that the alignment of a government with a church (or churches) is a blueprint for structural instability, a threat to order.
Without order, fretted Locke as he cast a glance back at a smoldering Europe, no one prays in peace, no one gets to God.
Secular analysis is relentlessly critical, self-critical, rude, and suspicious of all orthodoxies. And secularism (distinct from atheism) refers to a centuries-long tradition of political philosophy. It has endeavored, with varying degrees of success, to establish how government should engage with the religious groups and individuals under its authority. The Capitol riots pose countless agenda items for secular critique. Let’s focus on race.
The crowd that stormed the Capitol wasn’t all white. The Times of India reported on one Indian American who came to protest (he blamed the violence on the “far left”). And Ali Alexander, the founder of “Stop the Steal,” is Black.
The crowd wasn’t all male. Two of the protestors who died were women. So was “Bullhorn Karen.” She was the one caught on video relaying instructions for a tactical assault on the United States government in that Reasonable-Parent Voice — the one used when distributing organic snacks to fidgety kids after a soccer match. Guys, focus!
The crowd wasn’t all Christian. An ultra-Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn cosplayed as a pre-covenantal “caveman.” Too, maybe there were some nonbelievers floating about in that sea of crazy. As Chris Stedman explained in 2018, in an article entitled “Too Many Atheists Are Veering Dangerously Toward the Alt-Right,” the so-called New Atheists were infested by white, male, internet-driven rage. Still, most atheists I know are as mellow as a ukulele.
But let’s be truthful: the overwhelming majority of that crowd appears to have been white, male, and Christian. It would be interesting to know the evangelical-to-Catholic ratio. After all, their half-century alliance — a development beyond Locke’s wildest dreams — is the story of the Christian right. If evangelicals are the brawn of American conservatism, traditionalist Catholics are the brains. Famous Catholic conservative scholars have anathematized liberalism, secularism, “secularity,” and what Richard John Neuhaus called the “naked public square.” Former Attorney General Bill Barr in 2019 summed up their Syllabus of Errors: “I will not dwell on all the bitter results of the new secular age. Suffice it to say that the campaign to destroy the traditional moral order has brought with it immense suffering, wreckage, and misery.”
As for evangelicals and white supremacy, the subject is getting the attention it deserves. Listen, for instance, to the recent discussion between the journalist Sarah Posner (author of Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump) and the University of Pennsylvania historian Anthea Butler (author of the forthcoming White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America). Both argue that the politics, and even the theology, of this massive voting bloc is powered by racial grievance.
Secular analysis, of course, must be subjected to its own racial reckoning. Vincent Lloyd, in Race and Secularism in America, avers that “whiteness is secular, and the secular is white.” Does Lloyd mean it is white because self-described “secularists” in America have been overwhelmingly white? Or is secularism itself predicated upon a systemic exclusion of people of color, one that tinctures the whole project with racism (I am drawing a parallel to philosopher Charles Mills’s view of Kantian philosophy as pervaded by “dark ontologies”)? Those who publicly espoused secular ideals (starting roughly in the 1870s) rarely set racial justice atop their list of priorities. Lloyd’s accusation is plausible.
There are countervailing facts, though. The few American secular movements that have existed — always small, and given to rapid implosion — shared an adversary with their African American compatriots: white Christians for whom “free exercise” of religion entitles them to do anything, from lynching to ransacking the United States Senate.
Advice to scholars in the humanities and interpretive social sciences: If you’re tenured, don’t chop wood for rich folk. The dangers of doing this are well known, and Templeton offers a billion and half dollars worth of teachable moments. Let’s leave aside the dangers of cronyism that ensue when a handful of people with resources can make or break the careers of those without.
Instead, let’s think about how one organization can transform entire fields of scholarly inquiry or create them out of thin air. For example, the foundation’s emphasis on seeding the hard sciences with resources to study religion, as Nathan Schneider reported in The Nation, resulted in nearly three-quarters of medical schools in the United States offering courses on spiritual subjects.
Luce, which in 2019 alone approved nearly $40 million in grants, is — as far as the study of secularism is concerned — vastly more concerning. They have bankrolled programs at Berkeley, NYU, Georgetown, Princeton, Harvard, Emory, Notre Dame, Columbia, the London School of Economics and Political Science, the Council on Foreign Relations (but why does CFR need money?), the Social Science Research Council, and on and on it goes. There is little doubt that Luce funds the work of serious scholars. Yet, like the vastly more scrutinized Templeton Foundation, one does notice an ideological predilection.
As regards anything having to do with secularism, Luce’s largess appears largely focused on promoting two thinkers and their many disciples. The first is the McGill philosopher Charles Taylor, whose work on “secularity” has almost nothing to say about the relations between religion and government. It says much, however, about how empty our spiritual lives have become in this “secular age.” The second is the CUNY anthropologist Talal Asad, whose dense, esoteric, and theoretically sophisticated work seems to point to one clear policy implication: Secularism should be immediately eradicated.
Given these massive investments in the research of Taylor and Asad, it’s only fair to ask how their work, and that of their students, informs our understanding of the Capitol insurrection. Had a few more things gone wrong on January 6, the outcome would have been even more tragic. If the domestic terrorists, many of whom were Christian nationalists, had rampaged down this corridor instead of that one, they would have been in a position to hold hostage and perhaps murder the vice president of the United States and other high-ranking elected officials. The proceedings, naturally, would have been filmed. In what ways does Taylor’s dirge about how belief in God has become optional speak to any of this? In what ways is the secularism that Asad and his school excoriate part of this problem, as opposed to its solution?
Then again, those who are being incentivized, knowingly or unknowingly, to dismantle secularism likely won’t succeed. That’s because the question it poses won’t go away. Namely, how to balance freedom of, and from, religion while maintaining social order.
For conservatives, secularism answers that question by mandating godlessness and MerryChristmaslessness. The critique from the left is more astute. Secularism, it is alleged, pretends to be “neutral” while imposing Christianity (and its sexist, racist, and homophobic freight) on all and sundry. We’d be better off, though, not parsing secularism as left, right, liberal, or conservative. We’d be better off not straining every discussion of secularism through the theories of Michel Foucault or John Rawls. We’d be better off focusing on laws.
Secular governance boils down to complicated legal arguments, minutiae, compromises, and negotiations. Read, for example, Abhinav Chandrachud’s Republic of Religion: The Rise and Fall of Colonial Secularism in India, or the University of Miami law professor Caroline Mala Corbin’s legal analyses of the religion clauses. They demonstrate that, far from being the diabolical monster of the right’s imagination, or the hegemon of the left’s, secularism is, well, kind of dull and technical. A barrister’s paradise.
Watching footage of the insurrection, I was staggered by the sequence in which the rioters prayed on the Senate floor: “Thank you, heavenly father, for gracing us with this opportunity.” Scholars of religion have an opportunity, too. Whether we are believers or not, the Capitol insurrection enjoins us to rediscover a secular ethos which has been shunted aside for decades.
The author wishes to thank his research assistants, Alexander Lin and Ria Pradhan.