Race and Secularism in America

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Jonathon S. Kahn, Vincent W. Lloyd
Religion, Culture, and Public Life
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , March
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The National Mall’s new monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. surrounds his statue with curated quotations from his sermons and speeches. The only one that mentions race construes King as an advocate of colorblindness—“Our loyalties must transcend our race”—and nowhere is it made clear that most of the words displayed on this monument were spoken in Christian sermons (1-2). The memorial replaces the specific struggle of black Americans against racial terror with a postracial, secular vision of unified America.

Such are the urgent problems that animate and introduce Race and Secularism in America. How should we account for a moment in which postracial and secular ideologies make alliances? How should we conceive the relationship between secularism and race?

For co-editors Jonathon Kahn and Vincent Lloyd, these are overdue queries for fields that have seen a surging interest in the secular but largely have failed to consider it alongside linked modes of subject production. This volume responds to such neglect by assembling a wide-ranging set of essays that analyze how race and secularism converge at specific sites—from the writings of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, to popular media’s depictions of black history, to instances of black religious quietude, to the vernacular concepts of sacred/secular that contradict scholarly maps of the terrain.

As a composite, then, this volume builds upon scholarship that frames secularism not as a zone of religious neutrality, but rather as the political ideology that determines what does and does not count as religion in the first place. Its contributions tend to concur with scholars like Janet Jakobsen, Ann Pellegrini, and Tracy Fessenden, who have argued that the dominative formation of secularism in the United States is dependent upon and tangled up in the Protestant Christianity that shapes the country’s legal and political traditions. They emphasize how our normative legal (and, often, scholarly) definitions of religion conform to a “Protestant” conception of religion as private, voluntary, individual belief—thus to even be legible as a “religious” subject is already to have been disciplined by Protestantism. It follows that in the United States there is no such thing as “religion-free” secularism; there is only a “Christian secularism” in which a very particular religious tradition passes for universal.

The task of Race and Secularism in America is to advance an account of secularism not simply as a process of religious formation, but also and simultaneously a racializing one. Specific contributions must reach the high bar set by Lloyd’s Introduction, which theorizes the relationship between race and secularism while laying out an ambitious and interdisciplinary agenda for its future study. Describing this relationship in terms of “analogy” and “entwinement,” Lloyd argues that race and secularism make common cause in their mission to manage minority difference. Just as “secularism evokes a religious domain that is managed by power and that is circumscribed by nonreligious forces . . . racial-minority communities are managed by power and circumscribed by nonminority, that is, white, forces,” Lloyd summarizes. Whiteness and secularism mark nonwhite and nonsecular others, until “whiteness is secular, and the secular is white” (4-5). When scholars bracket race from our interpretations of the secular, we resemble designers of the King Monument: colorblind and in denial.

Most chapters analyze what Lloyd terms the “secularist-racializing knot” at concrete sites. The standout contributions intervene directly into existing literatures and provide a basis for improved theory within secularism studies. A banner essay by Willie James Jennings frames the secular as an ideology of private property and an orientation toward space. Examining the Spanish invasion of Peru, Jennings shows how colonizers introduced an innovative theological concept of “the demonic” that marked material objects and lands as wrongly infused with spiritual meaning. They urged colonial subjects to relate to the earth not as if spirits and ancestors inhabited it, but rather as if it lay in vacant wait for “possession by God”—or, as it were, humans granted divine dominion. A secular “spatial modern” evolved from this shift, which emptied lands to be possessed and prepared humans to be possessors (207). A model of methodological rigor, this elegant piece breaks new ground for theorizing religion, the secular, and the history of racial capitalism.

Equally productive is Josef Sorret’s critique of what he terms a “trope of black sacred/secular fluidity” in popular and academic discourse (43). Noting that scholars frequently present black life as exceptionally transgressive of sacred-profane boundaries, Sorret explains that this tendency was implicated in racist ideologies that saw blackness as more spiritual (thus potentially framed as less rational and less human) than whiteness and recommended Christianity as the instrument of racial-religious reform. Sorret notes how scholars of African American religion have sought to counteract this idea by emphasizing the pervasive influence of Christian churches in black life. Ironically, this attempt at dismantling one destructive trope runs a risk of recasting it in another form—an idiom of respectability that elevates white Protestantism as a telos for black religion. An implication of Sorret’s intervention is that efforts to problematize taken-for-granted distinctions between religious and secular spheres—a standard move for critics of the secular—risks reproducing the hegemony of Christianity and whiteness.

The above essays skillfully demonstrate how an unmarked secular begins to operate as a means of everyday governance—seeping into our concepts of space and property, our orientations toward history, and our favorite scholarly keywords. The critiques avoid a constructive turn in a way that differs from those chapters that emphasize another question: where political possibility lies once secularism is determined ineligible for the role.

Several contributors identify black theology and black religious collectivity as this site of constructive possibility, provided it remains illegible to and uncoopted by secular power. An essay by George Shulman reworks the political theory of Carl Schmitt to frame white supremacy and black political insurgency as competing political theologies. White supremacy is a political theology in that it claims vicious exception over black life; black everyday life, which “cultivates dispositions essential to freedom” in the face of unrelenting threats (35), is a political theology in that it claims exception to white supremacist rule. Other contributors, in this vein, cite the liberatory potential of black religious (and often Christian) collectivities as models for a life “otherwise,” precariously present beyond a secularizing lens.

This constructive turn constitutes Race and Secularism’s main point of unfinished business. At times the normative voice seems in tension not just with Sorret’s critique of exceptionalist orientations toward black religion, but also—insofar as they recommend Christian spaces as sites of radical alternatives and posit the “otherwise” in a Christian theological register—with literatures that worry over the privileged relation between secularism and Christianity. What is the work of theology within a historiography that has been preoccupied with the privileged relation between secularism and Christianity? How does such a constructive turn relate to conversations about the postsecular? When does the turn to otherwise-possibility offer a political intervention and when does it operate to defuse critique? These unresolved methodological questions are nevertheless productive ones, which can create space not just for developing more effective theories of race and the secular, but also for reflecting upon the race politics that underlie our conceptions of the academic study of religion itself. Such deliberation will be for future scholarship, which will be much improved for the timely interventions and astute analyses advanced within Race and Secularism in America.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lucia Hulsether is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Yale University.

Date of Review: 
August 24, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathon S. Kahn is associate professor of religion at Vassar College. He is the author of Divine Discontent: The Religious Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois.

Vincent W. Lloyd is assistant professor of religion at Syracuse University. His books include The Problem with Grace: Reconfiguring Political Theology and the edited volume Race and Political Theology.


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