Landscapes of the Secular

Law, Religion, and American Sacred Space

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Nicolas Howe
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , September
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Landscapes of the Secular, Nicolas Howe explains the secularization not just of subjectivities and selves, but of landscapes themselves and ways of seeing and experiencing them. This secularization leads to complex legal, political, and cultural contests, all “part of an unfolding drama of secular vision” (3). Howe conveys this drama in six chapters on different but interwoven topics at multiple sites of investigation. As the drama unfolds, the subject of each chapter becomes at once clearer and more complicated.

Much of the drama is a contest over what, if anything, is neutral ground. Liberals believe in and promote a secular, “neutral” public sphere. And, more specifically, throughout the latter half of the 20th century and now into the 21st, judicial and popular interpretations of the Establishment Clause have embraced, with varying degrees of closeness, a “neutrality principle.” As Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark wrote in Abington v. Schempp (1963), “In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality.” In some cases, though, neutral ground is not an option. What if the ground itself is not—cannot be—neutral? If someone sees a landscape, “natural” or “built” or somewhere in between, as sacred, how can the state neutrally evaluate such a claim? And what does “neutrality” really mean in this context? This is the question with which Howe opens the first chapter: “What does it mean to see sacred space in a secular way” (1)? First, it means to see space in a Protestant way. Here Howe joins numerous scholars who have traced Protestant genealogies of the secular. “The most important consequence of Protestant landscape purification,” Howe argues, “was the turn from sacramental to symbolic space” (13). And so, pithily, “In a secular age, ‘sacred space’ comes in quotation marks” (19). There’s a twist, though. Actually, a few twists. One irony or paradox is that the “secularist” side of these debates often imbues landscape and objects with power; they “must insist on the visceral materiality of the sacred, on its untranscended immanence” (19). A landscape can impress itself (or something more than itself, perhaps) upon unwilling subjects.

Howe surveys the last seven or eight decades of debates about holiday displays, excavating some fascinating midcentury arguments, to show how these displays “were not just isolated speech-acts. They created emotional atmospheres” (27). What does it feel like to be a Jewish child whose public school displays a nativity scene? What is it like to be an atheist who must look at a giant cross in a national park? How does it feel to be a Christian who must see that same cross removed and now view an “empty” landscape? Howe thus describes “the ‘affective regime’ of legal secularity … Secularity’s ‘game of signs,’ as [Talal] Asad calls it, is also a game of scripted emotions” (47). But who writes those scripts, and who performs them?

In the third chapter, on Decalogue monuments, Howe offers some specific answers to these questions about scripts and a brief legal history of the “reasonable observer.” This observer is not offended by Ten Commandments displays and knows the difference between endorsement and recognition, when to feel offense and when to feel reverence. Thus, when viewed properly and secularly, a Decalogue on the Texas Capitol grounds simply recognizes Judeo-Christian heritage but does not endorse it, and the “reasonable public” ought to know this. But what about this heritage? These monuments have a history, too. Many of them were erected by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in the mid-20th century, perhaps not evidence of “heritage” at all. But, again, another twist: “Coupled with a well-documented nostalgia for a purer, ‘more Christian’ past, this kind of legal memorialization strongly militates against iconoclastic dissent. The history embodied in the monuments is sacrosanct” (68). Nostalgia is crucial to the emotional politics of secularism.

With these two chapters, Howe also zeroes in on what we might call the political emotion of our time: offense. In these secular politics of offense, both sides rely on depictions of “the Other as intolerant and unreasonable, as governed by special interests and uncivil, particularistic desires” (76). The book here extends a central point of secularism studies, which is that the secular is unmarked, the neutral way of being, reinforcing as it constructs an essentialized and naturalized binary between the religious and the secular. In disputes over public displays of crosses, crèches, and Commandments, both sides claim the perspective of secular vision. 

Some claimants, though, see and experience landscape in a religious (or spiritual) way. How can these perspectives fit into the “unfolding drama of secular vision”? Howe’s fourth chapter offers a detailed account of the San Francisco Peaks, which Native Americans have tried to protect from alteration—desecration, defilement, development—because of their sacredness. It is a “story about translation and mistranslation,” of “interpretive frameworks” and their failures (85). When claimants bring their case before secular courts, they translate their culture into language of religion or spirituality, of belief and representation. And here again we see the protestant secular at work. Belief in—or knowledge of—nonhuman beings that are agents, not symbols, is invisible or at least blurred to secular vision. Whereas the church-state disputes discussed in chapters 2 and 3 hinged on multiple claims to secularity, the politics of the Peaks show how inaccessible this mantle can be for some, and how particular the supposedly neutral secular really is. This is the politics of the quotation marks around “sacred space.”

Some environmentalists have tried to delete the quotation marks. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, in his famous Sierra Club v. Morton (1972) opinion, made one such attempt. He drew from a “mainstream, liberal protestant Nature Religion” (136)—the same “familiar idiom of Romantic, post-protestant environmentalism and its solitary (white, male) wilderness-worshipper” (116) embedded in the language of “religious experience” awkwardly used by Native American claimants—but Douglas “asserted nature’s intrinsic value” and introduced that idea into law (139). In this way, some legal scholars have attempted “to preserve the values of Enlightenment secularity without continuing to treat nature as so much dead, disenchanted matter” (143). However, search for middle ground has come up empty in self-consciously secular environmental law. But how can nature have standing, any rights or value, in a totally desacralized world?

The final chapter analyzes “Laudato si,” issued by Pope Francis in 2015. In the document’s “embrace of re-enchanted materiality” (155), Howe finds a familiar problem. The pope does not establish secular grounds for the claim that the earth, “our home,” is worth protecting. Thus continues the story of translation and mistranslation. A lack of shared language and frameworks suppresses the spiritual gaze. This suppression reinforces a protestant secularity that maintains its own standards of reasonable religion: a rational democratic unmediated religion “without pilgrimages, shrines, sacred groves, or holy mountains. It is, in this sense, a religion without geography. The trouble is,” Howe concludes, “no such religion exists” (159). The spiritual gazes of a pluralist public cannot easily be incorporated in the secular vision of the state. Secularism names practices that enforce distinctions between religious and secular (and by enforcing them construct them), and these lines of demarcation betray the genealogical particularities of supposedly general categories. Namely, the protestant secular desacralization of materiality, itself an ever-ongoing project, both constructs a normative religiosity and forestalls possibilities for an (re-)enchanted spiritual politics. “There is no ready legal language for the material agency of landscape, its capacity to ‘interpellate the subject,’ to call him into being” (160). There is no space in American secular law for the question of whether a mountain is really sacred; but the failure to consider the question is already its answer. Howe innovatively and persuasively illustrates the centrality of geography to this critical intervention of secularism studies. 

In relatively few pages, Landscapes of the Secular treats disparate topics with impressive depth and unrelenting perspicacity. Every single paragraph brims with insight. Howe’s analysis is consistently interesting, often counterintuitive, and always smart. This book should reshape and redirect conversations around secularism, religion, law, religious freedom, environmentalism, and the public sphere. In addition, it ought to encourage difficult questions and conversations about scholars’ own secularity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles McCrary is a postdoctoral fellow at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nicolas Howe is Assistant Professor of environmental studies at Williams College. He is coauthor of Climate Change as Social Drama: Global Warming in the Public Sphere.


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