Religion as a Category of Governance and Sovereignty

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Trevor Stack, Naomi Goldenberg, Timothy Fitzgerald
Supplements to Method & Theory in the Study of Religion
  • Boston, MA: 
    Brill Academic Publishing
    , May
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Religion as a Category of Governance and Sovereignty offers a valuable contribution to work that attempts to clarify and interrogate scholarly binaries such as religion/the secular and religion/politics, often referred to as “critical religion” (280). This edited volume contains twelve chapters written by scholars from different disciplines. In each chapter, scholars explore the ways in which the category “religion” has been authorized, imposed, adopted, claimed, deployed, criticized, or contested in a variety of geographical and historical contexts. Yet, as Trevor Stack argues in the volume’s introduction, the goal is not only to explore the political, societal, and rhetorical strategies that construct the category “religion” along with its constitutive others—the secular, politics, the State, science—but also to trace the legal, political, and social consequences that these distinctions entail.

Overall, this volume considers how “religion” constitutes a key category used by governments to authorize and defend their existence, powers, and boundaries through political, legal, and discursive practices that assume religion to be a “stand-alone, stable, unchanging and universal given of human life” (309). The volume also considers what Stack calls “academic ways of knowing the world” (17). The contributors to Religion as a Category of Governance and Sovereignty critically engage with the category “religion” with an aim to complicate, broaden, or modify academic portrayals of “religion” in order to foster, as Naomi Goldenberg writes in her afterword, “more productive and precise discussions about governance and public policy” (309). This volume is therefore an excellent resource both for scholars who are interested in applying the insights of critical religion to their own particular research areas as well as those who are interested, more broadly, in the various ways in which governments and public policy depend upon received and thoroughly-naturalized modern distinctions between religion and politics.

The contributors to this volume consider a variety of specific topics including the construction of Muslims as “intolerable others” in contemporary debates surrounding secularism in France; conflicting views concerning the place and role of religion, especially Catholicism, in contemporary Mexican conceptions of citizenship; how the category “religion” has been strategically used by the US government to undermine the sovereignty of Pueblo Indians, and by Pueblo Indians themselves to diffuse internal tensions and protect ceremonial life; the consequences of applying for official religious status for contemporary Druids in England and Wales; how the construction of Sikhism as a modern religion privatized aspects of the Sikh life world; and how claiming religious authority in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ignores conflicting constructions of Jewishness as a transnational ethic polity. Each chapter presents an in-depth account of the ways “religion” is used politically and rhetorically in specific geographical, historical, and religious contexts. Taken together, these studies give this volume considerable breadth.

Although the construction of the category “religion” has often been linked with developments in “the West,” this volume considers both Western developments and also the ways in which the category “religion” has been imposed, adopted, and contested in other contexts, including India and Japan. Additionally, while the volume includes chapters focused on the construction of religion in Western political and philosophical discourse—Jürgen Habermas, John Locke, Immanuel Kant—it also contains chapters that provide feminist and postcolonial critiques of such constructions. This volume’s strength thus arises not only from its inclusion of various geographical and historical contexts, but also its inclusion of a variety of critical approaches.

Religion as a Category of Governance and Sovereignty demonstrates how scholars from a variety of fields, and with various foci, can productively engage with the theoretical lens that critical religion provides. This book should appeal both to scholars who are unfamiliar with critical religion and desire a thorough and helpful introduction to the theoretical positions critical religion implies as well as to those scholars who are already familiar with critical religion and whose work is informed by the theoretical insights that critical religion provides. To those already working within the critical religion paradigm, this volume may very well be an indispensable resource. But specialists working on the various topics, geographical regions, and periods explored in each chapter will also benefit from the theoretical issues each writer outlines and seeks to resolve.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson is Baker Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen's University.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Trevor Stack, PhD (2002), University of Pennsylvania, directs the Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law at the University of Aberdeen, where he is also Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies. He has published Knowing History in Mexico: An Ethnography of Citizenship (University of New Mexico, 2012) and is completing a second monograph titled Citizens: An Ethnographic Profile.

Naomi Goldenberg PhD (1976), Yale University, is Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa in Canada. Her publications include:  Resurrecting the Body: Feminism, Religion and Psychoanalysis (Crossroad, 1993) and Changing of the Gods: Feminism and the End of Traditional Religions (Beacon, 1979).

Timothy Fitzgerald PhD (1983), University of London, is Reader in Religion at the University of Stirling. He is the author of The Ideology of Religious Studies (Oxford, 2000), Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories (Oxford, 2007), and Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (Continuum, 2011).



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