The Constituents of Fanaticism

Fanaticism is a term almost always used pejoratively. The connotations are of excessive devotion, commitment, extremism, and uncritical enthusiasm. Often enough, fanaticism is paired with religion, as in, “he’s a religious fanatic,” and here one sees the presuppositions of liberal rationalism concerning the nature of religion in the phrase. But is there more of substance to fanaticism as a concept? Something more than simply a shallow term of conventional dismissal or disapproval? In this new book, Fanaticism: A Political Philosophical History, (U. Penn. Press) Professor Zachary Goldsmith argues that there is, focusing on elements that include the pursuit of abstraction and novelty; violence to achieve messianic political ends; and the special appeal fanaticism has held for the intellectual class. Professor Goldsmith seems to contrast liberal political commitments with fanatical ones, and it will be interesting to see just what he means by this.

As the post-WWII liberal democratic consensus comes under increasing assault around the globe, Zachary R. Goldsmith investigates a timely topic: the reemergence of fanaticism. His book demonstrates how the concept of fanaticism, so often flippantly invoked with little forethought, actually has a long history stretching back to ancient times. Tracing this history through the Reformation and the Enlightenment to our present moment of political extremism run amok, Goldsmith offers a novel account of fanaticism, detailing its transformation from a primarily religious to a political concept around the time of the French Revolution. He draws on the work of Immanuel Kant, Edmund Burke, and Fyodor Dostoevsky—all keen observers of fanaticism, and especially its political variant—in order to explore this crucial moment in the development of political fanaticism.

Examining conceptualizations of fanaticism from different geographical, political, temporal, and contextual backgrounds, Goldsmith reveals how the concept has changed over time and resists easy definition. Nevertheless, his analysis of the writings of key figures from the tradition of political thought regarding fanaticism yields a complex and nuanced understanding of the concept that allows us to productively identify and observe its most salient characteristics: irrationality, messianism, the embrace of abstraction, the desire for novelty, the pursuit of perfection, a lack of limits in politics, the embrace of violence, certainty, passion, and its perennial attraction to intellectuals. Goldsmith’s political-philosophical history of fanaticism offers us an argument and warning against fanaticism itself, demonstrating that fanaticism is antidemocratic, illiberal, antipolitical, and never necessary.

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

  • In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a school district violated the First Amendment’s Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses when the district disciplined a football coach for visibly praying at midfield following football games. Writing for the majority, Justice Gorsuch found that the coach sought to engage in private, sincerely motivated religious exercise and decided that the district could not bar this activity because of its own Establishment Clause concerns. In reaching this decision, the Court repudiated the Lemon test – which had been relied upon by the lower courts in deciding the case. 
  • In LaCroix v. Town of Fort Myers Beach, Florida, the Eleventh Circuit preliminarily enjoined a town’s ban on all portable signs. The ordinance was challenged by an individual who was cited for carrying a sign on a public sidewalk that conveyed his “religious, political and social message” that Christianity offers hope and salvation. 
  • In Apache Stronghold v. United States, the Ninth Circuit held that a proposed federal government land exchange in Arizona will not substantially burden Apache religious exercise in violation of RFRA. The court also held it will not violate the First Amendment because the Land Exchange Provision is a neutral and generally applicable law. 
  • In Halczenko v. Ascension Health, Inc., the Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of a preliminary injunction that had been sought by a pediatric critical care specialist. The specialist was fired from his hospital position after he refused, on religious grounds, to comply with the hospital’s COVID vaccine mandate. The court concluded that Plaintiff had shown neither irreparable injury nor inadequate remedies through a Title VII action. 
  • In Mishler v. Mishler, a Texas state appellate court held that there is neither a state nor a federal free exercise issue with a divorce decree, based on the parties’ prior agreement that the husband would deliver certain property to the wife only upon the wife’s acceptance of a “Gett” (a Jewish divorce document that the wife must accept for the divorce to be valid under Jewish religious law).