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All scholars of secularism are critics of secularism. The concept is so old, so geographically far-flung, and so enmeshed with human folly that it would be absurd to ignore its many shortcomings. But while all scholars of secularism are critics of secularism, it does not hold that all critics of secularism are scholars of secularism.
Smith’s learned observations on Thoreau in a recent Critical Inquiry article, “Disciplines of Attention in a Secular Age,” represent the type of deep scholarly erudition that I appreciate in the work of colleagues. But he does not bring the same erudition to his interventions in the topic of secularism as such. For him and many similar critics, secularisms are caricatured. Studies that present what Max Weber called “inconvenient facts” are ignored, as are entire competing schools of thought. Terms are never defined. Confusion is the dividend.
The Critical Inquiry piece demonstrates that Smith is working through Charles Taylor’s conception of “secularity” and occasionally conversing with the secularization hypothesis. Yet as I, and others, have argued for years, secularity and secularization are not the same as secularism. Naturally, there is overlap between the three — bibliographical, conceptual, and otherwise.
All scholars of secularism are critics of secularism.
But one need only read Taylor’s A Secular Age to grasp that there are immense differences and tensions as well, especially between “secularity” and political secularism. The former connotes an existential state, a monumental (and, for Taylor, infelicitous) shift in which “faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.” The latter is a complex political doctrine about how the sovereign state engages with religious citizens and groups under its authority. The doctrine can and must be criticized and refined. But it can’t be blithely dismissed or eradicated, if only because every society has to resolve this question.
Perhaps this explains the hallucinatory quality of our dialogue. We are working through entirely different sets of scholarly resources. When Smith avers that I do “not quite explain exactly how secularists think government should relate to religion,” I can only respond that I have written an entire book about the various ways secularists approach that issue. Smith and I are speaking right past one another.
I confess to being bewildered — and even slightly amused — at Smith’s outrage and that of a few dozen of his colleagues on Twitter. What precisely was my sacrilege? The field of religious studies has a well-known pro-religion bent. That’s understandable, given the large presence of seminarians in its ranks. Many American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature members, I surmise, would nod approvingly at what I called the Olden Rule, or at least this variant: Always posit (my) religion at its best, secularism at its worst.
This brings us to my second alleged sin: overlooking religious-studies scholarship that did forewarn us about January 6. I remain unrepentant. The text that Smith most prominently mentions, Gil Anidjar’s Blood: A Critique of Christianity, doesn’t seem quite the killshot to my fluttering rationale that he makes it out to be. That work occasionally touches upon secularization. But I don’t see it as anticipating January 6 any more than do countless other studies of Christian-inspired violence or far-right Christian nationalists.
What was I looking for? I wanted a scholar of religion to say publicly that the crescendoing anti-secularism shared by the Trump administration and the Christian right were going to lead to trouble. Big trouble. Maybe one or two did.
Other fields, beholden to different assumptions, did see the trouble ahead. The historian Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins pointed out that researchers of fascism had been forecasting this for years. Security studies was all over this as well. (My colleagues Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware warned us in November 2020.) I stand by my charge that religious-studies scholars at elite universities — funded to the hilt to be “public-facing,” to engage with religious communities, and so on — underperformed.
As I acquainted myself with those on Twitter who were incensed — incensed! — about my critique of religious studies, something curious came to the fore. Something they neglected to mention. Many of them were pocketing funds from the Henry Luce Foundation — the same foundation I criticized in the piece!
If any good comes out of my “polemic,” it will be greater awareness of the corrosive influence of outside money flooding into higher education. The inundation occurs as the professoriate lays dying. Tenure lines are disappearing; contingent faculty members live in poverty. What are we to make of academic philanthropy in 2021? What ends does it achieve? To whom is it accountable, given how solicitous university presidents and provosts are of its generosity? And, most important, whose interests does it serve?
[I]n my research I have not yet come across anyone making one particular claim that Berlinerblau finds himself arguing against — namely that lynching is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — when he writes of “white Christians for whom ‘free exercise’ entitles them to do anything, from lynching to ransacking the United States Senate.” I think his essay lacks a theory of legitimation.
Although my words get a bit twisted, I’ll take up this challenge, if only so that we can discuss secularism.
The religion clauses of the First Amendment read as follows: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The historical wobbliness of American secularism, I have argued, can be attributed, in part, to these terse, cryptic words — words that James Madison was reluctant to write (he eventually composed alternative religion clauses that were marginally better).
Here’s the dilemma: The free-exercise clause is missing the key proviso that accompanied many such clauses in the Anglo-American world. Namely, that there is a limit on free exercise. Free exercise ends when it “in any wise disturbs the peace” (Charter of Carolina, 1663), or is “repugnant to the peace and safety of the State” (Constitution of Georgia, 1777), or foments “treasonable or seditious discourses” (Constitution of North Carolina, 1776).
You can find the same stipulation in Article 10 of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, in the Constitution of India, in dozens of African constitutions. Nearly every nation knows — or at least claims to know — that religious free exercise is not absolute.
But not ours. For some reason, Madison did not include that qualifier.
Smith and I are in accord that religion, racism, and violence are inextricably bound in this country. An analysis by Amy Kate Bailey and Karen A. Snedker probes the interplay of these variables. Jamelle Bouie has written about the intimate links between Christianity and violence against African Americans. Lynchings were, in Bouie’s words, “rituals of Southern evangelicalism and its then-dogma of purity, literalism, and white supremacy.”
Which brings us back to our skinny free-exercise clause. I wonder if religious hate groups drift and dive-bomb on cultural currents that embolden the faithful to enact their convictions. Obviously, there are other variables at play, but I think it is legitimate to ponder how this country licenses those (white people) with strong religious beliefs to take extreme religious actions. That licensing was certainly on display in the Senate chamber on January 6, just as it was when worshipers insisted on congregating for prayer during the pandemic. Maybe this is why secular people — believers and nonbelievers both — are defensive and fragile.
Last: the National Guard. If Smith is accusing me of being more supportive of the National Guard than of Christian nationalists, then I plead guilty! If he is invoking a pacifist strain in Protestant thought, one that abhors all militarism, then I still plead guilty — but profess admiration for his moral stance. Such quietist groups, however, have always been small and highly unpopular in this country. Typically, they and other religious minorities were defended by, and made common cause with, American secularists.