Arnal & McCutcheon, “The Sacred is the Profane”

This October, Oxford University Press will publish The Sacred is the Profane: The Political Nature of “Religion” by William Arnal (University of Regina) and Russell T. McCutcheon (University of Alabama). The publisher’s description follows.

The Sacred Is the Profane collects nine essays written over several years by William Arnal and Russell McCutcheon, specialists in two very different areas of the field (one, a scholar of Christian origins and the other working on the history of the modern study of religion). They share a convergent perspective: not simply that both the category and concept “religion” is a construct, something that we cannot assume to be “natural” or universal, but also that the ability to think and act “religiously” is, quite specifically, a modern, political category in its origins and effects, the mere by-product of modern secularism.

These collected essays, substantially rewritten for this volume, advance current scholarly debates on secularism-debates which, the authors argue, insufficiently theorize the sacred/secular, church/state, and private/public binaries by presupposing religion (often under the guise of such terms as “religiosity,” “faith,” or “spirituality”) to historically precede the nation-state. The essays return, again and again, to the question of what “religion”–word and concept–accomplishes, now, for those who employ it, whether at the popular, political, or scholarly level. The focus here for two writers from seemingly different fields is on the efficacy, costs, and the tactical work carried out by dividing the world between religious and political, church and state, sacred and profane.

As the essays make clear, this is no simple matter. Part of the reason for the incoherence and at the same time the stubborn persistence of both the word and idea of “religion” is precisely its multi-faceted nature, its plurality, its amenability to multiple and often self-contradictory uses. Offering an argument that builds as they are read, these papers explore these uses, including the work done by positing a human orientation to “religion,” the political investment in both the idea of religion and the academic study of religion, and the ways in which the field of religious studies works to shape, and stumbles against, its animating conception.

Schmidt & Promey (eds.), “American Religious Liberalism”

Last month, Indiana University Press published American Religious Liberalism edited by Leigh E. Schmidt (Washington University in St. Louis) and Sally M. Promey (Yale University). The publisher’s description follows.

Religious liberalism in America has often been equated with an ecumenical Protestant establishment. By contrast, American Religious Liberalism draws attention to the broad diversity of liberal cultures that shapes America’s religious movements. The essays gathered here push beyond familiar tropes and boundaries to interrogate religious liberalism’s dense cultural leanings by looking at spirituality in the arts, the politics and piety of religious cosmopolitanism, and the interaction between liberal religion and liberal secularism. Readers will find a kaleidoscopic view of many of the progressive strands of America’s religious past and present in this richly provocative volume.

ACLU to South Carolina Public Schools: We’re Watching

The Wall Street Journal‘s Law Blog reports today that, as the new school year begins, the ACLU of South Carolina has sent a letter to public schools in the state reminding them of their constitutional duty to avoid promoting religion:

“It’s important that all students know that they’re going back to school to a place where they will be welcome no matter what they believe,” said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, in a statement Monday. The group claims to have received numerous reports of religious freedom violations, including complaints that many South Carolina schools impose religion on students.

In response, South Carolina’s education superintendent accused the ACLU of trying to intimidate students from engaging in legitimate religious expression in public places. Sounds like litigation ahead.


John O’Sullivan’s Defense of Pussy Riot

We try to give both sides of the story at CLR Forum, so here’s a link to thoughtful defense of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot by National Review‘s John O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan writes that he initially had no sympathy for the members of the band, but that he has changed his mind on reading their in-court statements. In his view, the Pussy Riot protest has been misunderstood by critics as an anti-Christian act. (It’s a misunderstanding the band’s supporters apparently share: activists cut down a memorial cross in Kiev, and Madonna stomped on a cross at a recent concert, to express their solidarity). If you read the statements, O’Sullivan argues, Pussy Riot comes across as a group of sincere and thoughtful Christians who are protesting the corruption of the Orthodox Church and its subservience to Putin.

O’Sullivan’s defense is interesting, but I don’t really buy it. The members of Pussy Riot, who have been known to stage public orgies in museums, haven’t shown a lot of interest in Christianity before. The translations of the statements I’ve seen on Rod Dreher’s site throw in a lot of stuff besides Christianity and seem, well, adolescent in their insistence on the speakers’ authenticity and intellectual importance. (Anytime speakers compare themselves to Socrates drinking the hemlock, you’ve got to be a little skeptical).  Being juvenile is no reason to be in prison, of course; the authorities should have fined the members of Pussy Riot and let them go. It’s a stretch to see them as Christian martyrs, though.