Three Inquires in Church and State

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Paul Christopher Johnson, Pamela E. Klassen, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , March
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church and State brings three accomplished scholars into a trialogue about church and state in the Americas. This is a great idea. The cross-pollination of arguments results in a volume awash in original insights into the spiritual/material dimensions of the production of institutional power. The focus on institutions does not so much signal a return to traditional church history as much as it offers a fundamental excavation of ekklesia, a word used to describe Athenian democratic polities and early Christian communities. In both cases, ekklesia determined who could and could not speak.

The book consists of three extended essays on Brazil, Canada, and the United States. Rather than provide comprehensive overviews of religion and politics in the three countries, the authors pick messy stories designed to investigate what they call “churchstateness.” Churchstateness might sound fuzzy, but that is the point. While discussions of church and state draw lines all the time, these lines are frequently contested, transgressed, and moved. Rather than depict church and state as independent institutions that either come into conflict or work together in harmony, churchstateness invokes co-constituting polities. In the Americas there has been no state without the church, and vice versa.

Paul Christopher Johnson tells the spectacularly cruel story of a peasant community led by Antônio Conselheiro, a charismatic figure who threatened the secular state of 1890s Brazil by claiming a religious counter-sovereignty. In the valley of Canudos, the lines were all over the place. The improvised community was populist and monarchist. It was piously Catholic and a threat to ecclesiastical authority. In the end, Canudos had literally no place within the ascendant regime of Brazilian churchstateness. This resulted in a massacre in the name of secular authority, but which later retellings fashioned as savage violence that did not belong in a rational, positivist country. Johnson’s story is not one in which a traditional church had to adapt to a modern, secular state. Rather, both institutions arose in order to transform an unruly crowd into a governable people. Once the insurgent crowd was massacred and their prophetic leader was beheaded, the liberal state could then disavow the violence that made it possible.

One recurring theme in the three essays is how the exceptional violence that establishes sovereign states is followed by the disavowal of this illiberal violence in favor of institutional governance. Pamela E. Klassen’s essay considers this pattern in relation to “spiritual jurisdiction,” which she uses to consider the spectral legal significance of documents like treaties and royal proclamations. These documents engage two forms of sovereignty that stand outside the liberal imaginary: the monarchical and the indigenous. A treaty marks an official end to violence, but produces a civic peace that does not entirely include the signatories within a secular democratic state. This creates temporal and spatial confusion as liberal governance both officially recognizes and practically ignores claims based on alternative forms of jurisdiction and peoplehood. It is at these points of legal confusion that the crown is invoked to restore Canada’s theologico-political foundations. For this reason, Canada’s continued loyalty to the monarchy is more than a quaint affectation. Klassen’s account, which includes close readings of rituals involving wampum shells, treaty medals, brooches, and staffs, pays particular attention to the material dimensions of the production of sovereignty. As she explains, “These are ritual displays that are more than merely performative of power” (159).

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan discusses violence, popular sovereignty, and law through an analysis of debates about the proper place of bibles within courtrooms in the United States. Opponents of biblical citation in death penalty cases assert that the presence of Bibles undermines the autonomous judgment of jurors who are charged with the sovereign power to make a final decision about life and death. However, even these opponents recognize that jurors are persons shaped by religious influences. As with Johnson’s and Klassen’s essays, then, Sullivan’s chapter hones in on confusion about religious institutions that are both inside and outside of the law. One of the most productive aspects of Sullivan’s essay comes from her decision to bracket the assumption that biblical citation is obviously religious as opposed to political. Conventional views hold that Bibles in courtrooms represent the presence of Protestant Christianity within an otherwise secular space, and that this is either good or bad depending on whether you think people’s faith commitments are appropriate within a courtroom. Sullivan finds this account too simple, or at least too question begging about how religious institutions work. Rather than take it for granted that bibles represent the power of Protestantism, Sullivan considers the appeal to the right kind of biblical reading as a do-it-yourself ekklesia in which sovereign authority is grounded in individual citizens liberated from institutional constraints. While appeals to the external authority of the Bible threaten to undermine independent judgment, jurors who have internalized religious ideas can make autonomous sovereign decisions on behalf of the people. The theologico-political logic of popular sovereignty in the United States creates suspicion toward the polities of both church and state, and this in turn enshrines the private decisions of individual citizens. 

These three accounts of churchstateness invite reflection upon the binary quality of church and state, as well as religion and secular. At times, the book seems to resist binaries by showing that clear lines between church and state do not exist. Yet churchstateness can be conceptualized only in binary terms even while it is transgressed, suggesting a yin-yangness in which two and one are the same but differ in name. In some ways, churchstateness creates its own sets of binaries between what fits within the institutional and epistemic rules and what does not, and this in turn creates divisions between who represents the people and who does not. In the end, what is clear is that Ekklesia will come to occupy an important place within scholarship on religion in the Americas.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Finbarr Curtis is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Georgia Southern University.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Christopher Johnson is Professor of History and Afro-American and African studies and Director of the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is the author of Secrets, Gossip, and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomblé  and Diaspora Conversions: Black Carib Religion and the Recovery of Africa.

Pamela E. Klassen is Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, cross-appointed to anthropology. She is the author of several books, including Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing, and Liberal Christianity, and Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church and State, with coauthors Paul Christopher Johnson and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan is Professor in and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. She is also an affiliated professor of law at Indiana University Bloomington Maurer School of Law.


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