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.

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