Decentering Discussions on Religion and State

Emerging Narratives, Challenging Perspectives

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Editor(s): 
Sargon George Donabed, Autumn Quezada-Grant
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , April
     2015.
     312 pages.
     $100.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780739193259.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The occasion for publication of this useful and ambitious collection was the fourth annual conference on Religion and the State held at Roger Williams University in April 2013. The introduction explains that participating scholars were asked to address “ideas and principles of religious freedom with the tenets of theologian Roger Williams as the backdrop.” Contributors include an “array of interdisciplinary authors bridging religious and biblical studies specialists, literary scholars, anthropologists, historians, political scientists, and theologians, among others.” The editors have divided sixteen essays of this diverse group of academics into two sections titled “Philosophy, Sectarianism, and Development and Questioning the Status Quo in the United States,” and “Twentieth-Century Reflections: Theory, Global Narratives, and New Agency.”

The broad range of expertise, specialties, and authors’ interests compose a volume that is difficult to summarize in a short review. Perusing the table of contents would be the best way to select essays relevant to one’s own research or for use in graduate and undergraduate classes in religion and politics, American history, or method and theory. A sampling of topics includes: the Second Great Awakening, the Fugitive Slave Law, Vashti McCollum’s challenges to the presence of religion in public schools, a critical analysis of U.S. Supreme Court decisions about religion, the theology of Occupy Wall Street, the Serbian Orthodox Church in the U.S., Salafis in Egypt, and preventing religious genocide. 

The variety of themes and perspectives represented characterizes the swirl of intense discourses that typify discussion of “religion” and “state” in the field of religious studies at present. I approached the volume with the expectation of finding some engagement with contemporary issues about the definition, history, and contextual usage of central terms. With the exception of Michael Graziano’s excellent essay titled “Stories the State Tells Itself: The Supreme Court and ‘Religion’ Since 1947,” and Kristen Shedd’s fine work about Vashti McCollum in “Tempest in a Teacup: Warping the Church-State Divide,” the editors and authors present “religion” and its semantic cognates (i.e., “religious identity” and “religious mind-sets,” both mentioned in the introduction) as referring to consistent, agreed-upon phenomena. There is now a substantial body of literature in religious studies that confronts the variability, ambiguity, and ever-shifting contingency of the concepts on which the discipline itself is based. With the exception of footnotes in Graziano’s essay, this scholarship appears to have been largely ignored. While the title of the collection—Decentering Discussions on Religion and State—gestures toward the necessity for theory that deconstructs and contextualizes foundational categories, there is no focused emphasis on or clarity about this trajectory of research and analysis. Nevertheless, the editors have productively stirred the pot of discourse about religion, American history, and global politics with this publication. I look forward to seeing how they build upon their achievement in future conferences and collections.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Naomi R. Goldenberg is Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at University of Ottawa.

Date of Review: 
May 18, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sargon George Donabed is assistant professor of history at Roger Williams University. 

Autumn Quezada-Grant is assistant professor of history at Roger Williams University.

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