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Having participated in a number of Critical Religion events, including two workshops held at Stirling, I can report that Tim Fitzgerald, Naomi Goldenberg and I have submitted for review the manuscript of a volume with the title Modern Government, Sovereignty and the Category of Religion: Beyond the Post-Secular.

The core argument of the book is that religious-secular distinctions have been crucial to the way in which modern governments have marked out their sovereignty – as crucial as the territorial boundaries that they have drawn around nations. Our authors, selected from a host of contributors to seven workshops held between 2009 and 2012, bear out the argument through a range of disciplines including history, anthropology, moral philosophy, theology and religious studies, combining theory with the detailed empirical analysis of contexts as diverse as Japan, Mexico, the United States, Israel-Palestine, France and the United Kingdom. Taken together, the chapters provide a multi-dimensional picture of how the category of religion has served to define the sovereignty of modern government.

Edith Doron spoke at an Aberdeen workshop in 2009 of the Abrahamic hut that she constructed while working at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. Just tell me one thing, asked the anxious director, is this a cultural or religious exhibit? Similarly, employers and teachers alike find themselves deciding whether someone’s dress falls within the boundaries of acceptable “cultural” diversity or constitutes an inappropriate and perhaps illegal display of “religious” symbolism. There can be ambiguity and that can lead to controversy, such as when the UK Supreme Court in 2009 was asked to rule on whether Jewish Free Schools were deciding admissions on the basis of legitimate “cultural” criteria or were discriminating on the basis of “religion”. The distinction between “religious” and “cultural” is only one example of the range of ways in which we distinguish between religious and non-religious or secular. In the same year, The Times columnist Libby Purves complained of an Islington clerk who was allowed to refuse to perform same-sex civil partnership ceremonies on religious grounds. She should, wrote Purves, have “sighed, muttered a prayer, and found another job. The tribunal should never have rolled over as it did, agreeing to exempt a public servant from civic duty. Religion is religion, law is law”. Such controversies indicate that the distinction is anything but cut-and-dried. Only rarely, however, does the ambiguity lead us to question the categories themselves—to ask what we mean in the first place by religion and by culture or law or politics, and why we find ourselves moved to distinguish between them.

The volume is the fruit of several years of sustained debate in our workshops and conferences (including a major British Academy conference in 2010) about what happens when “religious” gets distinguished from “non-religious” or “secular”. Our debates have focused on the consequences of religious-secular distinctions. How and why do people – politicians, academics, peasants, managers, teachers, journalists, clergy, workers, lawyers – distinguish between “religious” and “non-religious” or “secular”? And what happens when they make such a distinction? Some of those consequences are very specific while others are general and far-reaching. The Brooklyn Children’s Museum director was clearly anxious about losing funding or visitors. Employees may have to think about what jewellery or clothing to wear to work. School pupils and their parents need to reflect on the uniform code, while Catholic or Jewish school boards may find themselves defending their admission policies. The Islington Civil Registry had to find another clerk to perform the ceremony, while taking back the clerk who was suspended. Those are specific consequences of particular ways in which “religion” gets distinguished from the “secular”. Our authors focus on the more general consequences of more structural or systematic religious-secular distinctions. The Islington Civil Registry was only applying a piece of legislation which defined the limits of “religious freedom” in administrative law, and was itself was likely modelled on legislation elsewhere. School uniform codes and admissions policies have a long and complex history; the case of Jewish Free Schools was only one episode of it. Beyond the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the broader history of museums has much to do with marking out a sphere outside “religion” in which objects can be displayed in ways that might otherwise prove sacrilegious.

In the volume, we concentrate mainly on the category of religion as it has crystallised in modern times, by which I mean the past three centuries, roughly, of Europe’s struggle to establish the world order under which we live. There are lively debates about the possible pre-modern roots of what we mean today by “religion”. My co-editor Naomi Goldenberg, for example, draws on Daniel Boyarin (2004), S.N. Balagangadhara and De Roover (2007) and other scholars who trace our modern concept of religion further back into the history of Christianity. Goldenberg even suggests that its roots lie in ancient Greek ways of classifying cults. I accept that our modern category of religion was already in gestation before the modern period. Indeed, I argued in a previous publication (2012) that the Jesuit missionary José de Acosta, writing in 1590 of the pre-Hispanic civilizations of the Americas, took an important step toward our contemporary sense of “religion” by distinguishing Aztec “religion” from other, implicitly “non-religious” things that Aztecs did. It was only a step, however, and I believe that the category continued to develop in the centuries that followed. Of course “modern” is a gross generalization for the period, especially if one takes a global perspective as we have done. Our authors make it abundantly clear that modernity has had no single history. But the historical processes of this period – state-building, colonialism, capitalism – have connected up places in a way that warrants generalization.

Our authors show that the category of religion has played a key role in this modern period. Religious-secular distinctions are written into the entire fabric of modern life, such that to figure out the category of religion is to figure out much of what passes for modernity. Or at least, to take religion for granted – to assume that religion is an object in the world, independent of the category – is to miss much of what modernity has meant. To take religion for granted is, to begin with, to mistake for history one of modernity’s foremost origin myths, the Wars of Religion story. Religion was the cause of the 17th-century European wars, we are told, and the wars ended when European powers decided to tolerate religion instead of fighting over it. William Cavanaugh (2009) and co-editor Tim Fitzgerald (2007) have argued that the modern idea of religion was itself a product of the wars; in my terms, that it was an important stage in the gestation of what we mean today by “religion”. They have shown, moreover, that the category of religion developed in tandem with many other categories, such as tolerance. It was not just that people decided to add “religion” to the list of things that they tolerated. The idea of “tolerance” was transformed in the process – religion was the first object of the modern idea of tolerance.

We converge on one key aspect of the modern history of “religion”: the role of modern government in shaping the category. “Modern government” is another gross generalization, but there are important similarities in how governments have gone about the business of governing in these past three centuries. Governments everywhere have been caught up in colonialism and capitalism, which have pushed them to develop the extraordinary power that they now have at their disposal. Governments have not only appropriated functions that were exercised by other institutions, such as schools and law courts, but they have created an array of functions that did not exist previously, such as healthcare. Scholars have observed that governments exercising such functions have classified populations by gender, race, class and region and treated them accordingly. Less attention has been paid to the way in which governments classify institutions, practices and persons as “religious” and “non-religious”. Just as with gender, race, class and region, it is not that governments have simply applied religious-secular distinctions; governments have, our authors contend, played a key role in developing religious-secular distinctions in the first place. A 2007 volume edited by Fitzgerald highlighted the role of colonial encounters in shaping the modern idea of “religion”, and Fitzgerald went on to argue in his 2009 monograph that global capitalism is another arena in which “religion” has been forged. Our authors pay attention to the colonial and capitalist dimensions of modern government’s concern with the category of religion, while including other dimensions such as gender politics (Goldenberg and Finn), immigration policy (Nillson), church-state conflict (Stack), and peace-making (Israel).

Our authors treat many different aspects of government but emphasise how modern government has used the category of religion to stake its claim to sovereignty. Although Foucault (1980: 121) famously suggested that sovereignty was a thing of the past (“cutting off the King’s head”) and that modern government relies instead on disciplinary measures, it seems more reasonable to conclude that discipline and sovereignty have developed in tandem. The term “sovereignty” has been used in many ways historically and in recent years, but I mean it in the sense of the power to authorise. To have sovereignty is to decide what is and is not legitimate, as well as who can legitimately deviate from the general rule and when. Sovereignty in this sense is not new. Medieval European free cities, for example, were somewhat autonomous in their government, and burghers were allowed to trade in goods that were normally reserved for the Crown, yet the Crown claimed to authorise the activities of towns and cities by issuing them with royal charters. In the past three centuries, however, governments have extended the reach of their authority, as scholars such as Agamben (2005) have argued. They have appeared, on the one hand, to concede sovereignty by allowing for democratic representation. On the other hand, governments have created labyrinthine rules and regulations for any and every area of life, including health, education and the economy, while retaining the authority to decide what exceptions can be made.

We show in the volume that “religion” comes during this period to designate an extraordinary range of practices and institutions that government is unable to control directly, including some on which government is heavily dependent. Government is dependent on such institutions both for the business of governing (Owen and Taira list the roles performed by The Druid Network in prisons and hospitals) and for displaying its own sovereignty (Goldenberg and Finn point to the role of churches in state ceremonies). As such, these institutions pose a potential threat to governments’ sovereignty, but governments try to contain the threat by claiming to authorise them as “religion” and by policing the boundaries of that category. Thus government continues to rely on these institutions that it cannot control directly, while performing its sovereign ability to “authorise” these institutions in the first place. What government recognizes and thus admits as “religion” is subject, of course, to innumerable institutional struggles.

Trevor Stack