The Secular State Under Siege

Religion and Politics in Europe and America

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Christian Joppke
  • Malden, MA: 
    , April
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Christian Joppke, Professor of Sociology at the University of Bern, acknowledges at the outset of The Secular State Under Siege: Religion and Politics in Europe and America that comparing challenges to secularism in Europe and America constitutes a massive undertaking. To narrow such a broad subject area, Joppke focuses on Islam in the former and the Christian Right in the latter, approaching both from “a historical and institutional perspective” (1). Joppke succeeds in presenting a densely packed, yet highly readable, scholarly introduction to two of the most important topics concerning religion and politics in the West today. This is no small accomplishment and he exhibits a remarkable facility with scholarly material in multiple fields as well as larger contexts on either side of the Atlantic.

The first chapter lays out theoretical approaches to studying religion from a sociological perspective through Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, while the second chapter deals with all things related to secularization. In addition to explaining the secularization thesis and its refutation, Joppke rightly locates the origins of the secular, within Christian thought and history itself, concluding that if one were to “take away Christianity…we would not live in a secular age” (84). But such is not the case with Islam, since it neither contains the seeds of the secular, nor the capacity to create or embrace it. Joppke’s claim rests on the presupposition that there exists a “core of the creed that limits variation” (84). While that statement may trigger red flags for some scholars of religion, it remains a necessary methodological starting point for his comparison of the categories of “Christianity” and “Islam” in the chapters that follow.

The narrative in chapters 3 and 4 is one of majorities and minorities and their influence upon one another. Christians constitute a clear majority in America and Joppke argues that those on the Christian Right have attempted to chip away at the “legal secularism” (92) established by the Supreme Court from the 1940s through the 1980s. The jurisprudence of legal secularism included major establishment clause cases eliminating prayer and Bible readings in public schools (Engel v. Vitale, School District of Abington Township v. Schempp) as well as state aid to parochial schools (Lemon v. Kurtzman). Joppke argues the Court has moved from a “separationist” to an “accommodationist” approach, citing a 2005 Texas case allowing a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state capitol building (Van Orden v. Perry). Joppke deals mainly with First Amendment case law, because he thinks that the Christian Right has been more effective at electing presidents who appointed conservative Justices (Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush) than making law and policy.

While Joppke does discuss victories for those on the Christian Right with regard to free exercise and free speech, he does not mention the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) or the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. This is a curious omission considering conservative Christians have heavily relied upon both in recent years. Indeed, in one of the Court’s biggest decisions in the past decade, Hobby Lobby v. Burwell (2014), it ruled that under RFRA, for-profit corporations can exercise religious freedom and gain exemption from neutrally applicable laws.

The threat to secularism on the “other side of the pond” comes from a minority whose religion, according to Joppke, cannot be squared with the secular state. Given that Islam did not originate in Europe, and “operates on different principles than Christianity,” it cannot avoid “causing irritation and friction” (129). Much of the rhetoric and argument here is reminiscent of a “clash of civilizations.” Drawing mainly on the work of Tariq Ramadan and Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Joppke understands Islam to require “a unity of religion and politics” (129). He considers “liberal Islam” to be a “chimera” due to the fact that “Islamic elite doctrine is deeply conservative” (168). Yet all of this remains, for the most part, under the purview of the “Islamic elite,” and does not find as welcome a home among “ordinary Muslims” who “hold views that are often not distinguishable from those of average Europeans” or other religious conservatives (138). Joppke could have done more to explain why the two groups diverge and perhaps pointed towards American Muslims, who seem able to reconcile their faith with a secular state.

As ominous as the title may sound, Joppke does not think the secular state is at risk of being replaced by something else. He perceives that the main challenges to secularism come not from minorities but from majorities seeking to de-religionize Christianity, and fashion it instead as “culture” and “tradition.” His prime example is Lautsi v. Italy (2011), a European Court of Human Rights case that affirmed the hanging of the crucifix in public school classrooms on the grounds that it was a “passive symbol” (179). Joppke contrasts this with the French ban on the Islamic veil, arguing that there is a double standard that allows the majority to see their own religion as benign cultural tradition, while considering expressions of the minority religion as inherently religious (and sometimes political). He argues, similarly, for the American context with supporting case law. But establishment clause jurisprudence is widely agreed to be anything but clear and uniform, and to support his overall argument Joppke sometimes relies on dissenting opinions.

There is much to learn from this book, and one who is looking to get acquainted with these topics will find a wealth of information and knowledge in The Secular State Under Siege. Joppke has opted for a wide-angle lens that allows him to deal with big categories such as “Europe,” “America,” “Islam,” and “Christianity” with singular ease, yet casting this wide of a net comes at a cost. Readers wanting a more detailed view of smaller regions, communities, and denominations would be advised to look elsewhere. Nevertheless, one cannot help but appreciate the author’s skill in making a comparison of this scope and breadth so eminently comprehensible, and that alone is a significant achievement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeff Gottlieb is a doctoral candidate in the Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy program at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christian Joppke is Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of Bern.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.