Hughes, “Abrahamic Religions”

For most of American history, politicians and judges unselfconsciously referred to America as a  “Christian nation.” Speakers were not suggesting an official Christianity, of course, but a set of background norms that informed American culture and public life. In the 1950s, the phrase changed to “Judeo-Christian.” As Noah Feldman writes in his 2005 work, Divided by God, the new phrase was a bit of a stretch–“a creative misreading of the American past with the aim of retrospectively including Jews in the American national project”–justified on grounds of greater inclusiveness.

In the past decade or so, in an effort to add Muslims to the mix, a new phrase has begun to enter to the discourse: “Abrahamic.” Perhaps future Americans will unselfconsciously refer to our country’s Abrahamic values. Who knows? Religion scholar Aaron Hughes (Rochester) apparently has doubts about the usefulness of the phrase, however, which he discusses in his recent book, Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (Oxford 2012). The publisher’s description follows:

Recently, the term “Abrahamic religions” has been used with exceeding frequency in the academy. We now regularly encounter academic books, conferences, and even positions (including endowed chairs) devoted to the so-called “Abrahamic religions.” But what exactly are “Abrahamic religions”? Although many perceive him as the common denominator of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Abraham remains deceptively out of reach. An ahistorical figure, some contend he holds the seeds for historical reconciliation. Touted as symbol of ecumenicism, Abraham can just as easily function as one of division and exclusivity. Like our understanding of Abraham, the category “Abrahamic religions” is vague and nebulous. In Abrahamic Religions, Aaron Hughes examines the creation and dissemination of this term.

Usually lost in contemporary discussions is a set of crucial questions: Where does the term “Abrahamic religions” derive? Who created it and for what purposes? What sort of intellectual work is it perceived to perform? Part genealogical and part analytical, this book seeks to raise and answer questions about the appropriateness and usefulness of employing “Abrahamic religions” as a vehicle for understanding and classifying data. In so doing, Abrahamic Religions can be taken as a case study that examines the construction of categories within the academic study of religion, showing how the categories we employ can become more an impediment than an expedient to understanding.

Andrews, “Native Apostles”

Native ApostlesThis month, Harvard University Press published Native Apostles by Edward D. Andrews (Providence College). The publisher’s description follows.

As Protestantism expanded across the Atlantic world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most evangelists were not white Anglo-Americans, as scholars have long assumed, but members of the same groups that missionaries were trying to convert. Native Apostles offers one of the most significant untold stories in the history of early modern religious encounters, marshalling wide-ranging research to shed light on the crucial role of Native Americans, Africans, and black slaves in Protestant missionary work. The result is a pioneering view of religion’s spread through the colonial world.

From New England to the Caribbean, the Carolinas to Africa, Iroquoia to India, Protestant missions relied on long-forgotten native evangelists, who often outnumbered their white counterparts. Their ability to tap into existing networks of kinship and translate between white missionaries and potential converts made them invaluable assets and potent middlemen. Though often poor and ostracized by both whites and their own people, these diverse evangelists worked to redefine Christianity and address the challenges of slavery, dispossession, and European settlement. Far from being advocates for empire, their position as cultural intermediaries gave native apostles unique opportunities to challenge colonialism, situate indigenous peoples within a longer history of Christian brotherhood, and harness scripture to secure a place for themselves and their followers.

Native Apostles shows that John Eliot, Eleazar Wheelock, and other well-known Anglo-American missionaries must now share the historical stage with the black and Indian evangelists named Hiacoomes, Good Peter, Philip Quaque, John Quamine, and many more.

Walhof on Religion and the Public Sphere

Darren R. Walhof (Grand Valley State University) has posted Habermas, Same-Sex Marriage and the Problem of Religion in Public Life. The abstract follows.

This article addresses the debate over religion in the public sphere by analysing the conception of ‘religion’ in the recent work of Habermas, who claims to mediate the divide between those who defend public appeals to religion without restriction and those who place limits on such appeals. I argue that Habermas’ translation requirement and his restriction on religious reasons in the institutional public sphere rest on a conception of religion as essentially apolitical in its origin. This conception, I argue, remains embedded in a standard secularization framework, despite Habermas’ claim to offer a new account of secularization. This approach betrays the complex reality of the political constitution of religion and the religious constitution of politics, as demonstrated by the current debate about marriage rights in the USA. In mischaracterizing the inherently public and political dimensions of religion, Habermas undermines the effectiveness of his normative framework.