Religion, Law, USA

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Joshua Dubler, Isaac Weiner
North American Religions
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , July
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In 1976, Oxford University Press published cultural theorist Raymond Williams' Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Williams' goal was to record an "inquiry into a vocabulary: a shared body of words and meanings in our most general discussions." In particular, Williams sought what he called "binding" and/or "indicative" words. The work would have nothing if not an edge to it. "This is not a neutral review of meanings," Williams reminded his readers. In many respects, the book under review, Religion, Law, USA, edited by Joshua Dubler and Isaac Weiner, continues this rich tradition of considering a capacious and pressing vocabulary. It, too, has an edge to it: one increasingly sharpened by the polarizing headlines of our present.

This collection explores three clusters of ideas in an attempt to understand their simultaneous appearance in American public life today. Such simultaneity calls for multiple angles of interdisciplinary analysis that augment one another in the pursuit of a scholarly appraisal (some of the authors use contemporary events for their respective case studies, including the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and the US travel ban). The fourteen chapters are broken down into the following subsections: Definition, Contestation, Management, and Limits. The chapter titles reflect their provocative contents: “Separation,” “Hope,” “Friend,” “Sovereignty,” and “Belief.” Disciplinary training varies among the contributors, ranging from history and religious studies to American studies and sociology. "To think through these concepts requires that we consider not solely what they mean but also the trajectories and circumstances that call these meanings to life," the editors contend (3). For Weiner and Dubler, such methodological richness helps elucidate the ways in which "religion came to be constructed as a special object of legal concern and the bases on which it continues to warrant distinctive treatment" (14).

In the tradition of Critical Terms for Religious Studies (1998, University of Chicago Press), Religion, Law, USA takes up its own series of critical terms as sites of understanding for varying moods and modes of religion and law in American public life. Sylvester Johnson examines the conditions upon which both corporations and artificial intelligence could be considered persons in the eyes of the law. Kathryn Lofton asks if scholars matter relative to the legal genre of the amicus brief. For most judges, they do not whatsoever. Lofton's advice for this state of affairs is simple: "Rather than show how the history of religions in America is biased toward Christians . . . the scholar might show how the subjects of the state have been religiously determined and historically mutable" (244). For Lofton and others in this collection, religion is interesting categorically insofar as its sources of production are illuminated alongside the actions of those who speak and act in its name.

Each chapter's overarching analytical task is arguably the same: to illuminate how various state and legal apparatuses bring religion into existence (and vice versa) through its regulation in the public square in the name of religious freedom. As Finbarr Curtis notes, however, such a seeming contradiction in terms makes perfect sense in an American context. Curtis contends that the idea of free exercise is best understood less as freedom from norms altogether, and more as the "ability of institutions to more effectively and authoritatively regulate human bodies in the absence of state forms of bodily regulation" (69). For genealogists like Curtis, religion has as much to do with power as it does with individual choice. As such, religion is less something to be stumbled up in the world, and more subject to and product of varied socioeconomic, cultural, and ideological settings.

The scholastic significance of this collection originates as much from its individual contributions as it does from the methodological choices that brought such clusters together in the first place. A theoretical interest in what could be called the conditions of religious possibility, rather than the pursuit of individual agency, unites the collection in its interest in religion, law, and genealogical critique. As such, this collection exemplifies what Curtis, Jason Bivins, Chip Callahan, and others have called American Religious Studies (ARS) as a critical subfield. For these scholars of religion, an intuitive form of common sense continues to shape much of what passes as scholarly analysis in the field of American religious history. The text under review takes these assumptions as its primary subject matter in evaluating the "new politics of religious freedom" (14). Only one chapter possesses a definite article in its title, speaking to both its content and disciplinary approach in naming the otherwise occluded from view: “the Secular.”

Less the marking of religion’s absence or disappearance, this chapter instead speaks to a geospatial arrangement most easily discernible within democratic forms of governance, Western or otherwise. Instead of assuming a zero-sum game when it comes to the relationship between religion and the secular, historians and scholars of religion have now begun to explore how the secular itself has made varying conceptions of religion and secularity possible in the modern world. "Secular law depends explicitly on a particular cartography of space," argues Bivins. "The various ‘spheres’ presumed by liberal constitutional governance not only posit specific institutions . . . as paradigmatically public but also reify assumptions that such institutions are, as public spaces, value neutral” (214). Bivins’ piece echoes his fellow contributors’ methodological investments in the rigorous examination of the material consequences of largely ideological clusters in the study of religion and law in the United States.

In terms of usage in the classroom, this text is built for advanced undergraduate classes as well as graduate seminars in departments of religion, history, law, and American studies. Chapters by Tisa Wenger, Rosemary R. Corbett, and Ashon Crawley are particularly well suited for this type of application. Here, we finally have a thoroughly interdisciplinary text that relies on case studies to: 1) illustrate significant theoretical insights, and 2) model future work in American religious studies. In a perfect world, this book has the potential to chart a new descriptive path for US religions generally considered for the foreseeable future. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

L. Benjamin Rolsky is Adjunct Instructor of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University, and a Part-Time Lecturer in Religion and Political Science at Rutgers University.

Date of Review: 
April 17, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Isaac Weiner is Associate Professor of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University.

Joshua Dubler is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Rochester.


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