The tendency toward universalizing concepts has its legacy within the foundation of Religious Studies as a discipline, which, though little known outside the field, has recently interrogated its underwritten Protestant biases. This work continues, despite the fact that many religiously sentimental scholars merely take discussions of “postsecularism” to be an invitation to bring surface-level scriptural study to the latest news headlines.
That deeper theological impulses also appear to genealogically underwrite neoliberalism itself is something Carl Raschke argues articulately in his forthcoming book, Killing Us Softly: The Deep Political Theology of Neoliberalism. At least part of this emergent discourse is often framed around an aesthetic sense that one cannot escape what one is by merely making identity or faith claims that mark repetitive reaction-formations without ever addressing an underlying sameness.
Indeed, the schismatic impulse to merely turn away and create a new community that can sanctimoniously disavow cultural roots through what Olivier Roy calls “Holy Ignorance” appears to operate through a globalized mimesis of Protestant fracturing we associate with modernity. Amid the ever-surfacing of sexual predation by people – almost always men, but occasionally figures such as Avital Ronell – in power we see the mechanism of neoliberalsm is the obliteration of the unconscious itself.
I mean this in more than just the Freudian notion of the unconscious but also in the matrix of poetics from which he drew his descriptions of the mechanisms that buffer force. In the neoliberal obliteration of the unconscious, latent abuses that have long been the common experiences of those preyed upon shine clearly in the manifest light of social contradictions in which we live. Women, victims of scandalous conspiracies within churches, ongoing struggles with the politics of recognition by Indigenous Peoples exacerbate the need to take notions such as Alexander Weheliye’s habeas viscus seriously against the Western, rights-based tradition’s emphasis on the corpse and Giorgio Agamben’s emphasis on bare life.
I have come, more and more, to see within liberalism’s utopic amnesia and triumphant claims to a “secular society” the antecedent to neoliberalism’s more aggressive impulses to dominate with the virtual spaces of finance capital and debt-based society. Stephen Greenblatt traced some of these contradictions aesthetically with attention to “marvelousness” exceptions in Christian encounters with the “new world.”
[I]mperialism is by no means the opposite of Christianity but neither is it simply identical with it. For like the legal formalism at which we have glanced [with respect to Columbus’s ritualized possession of occupied Native lands], Christian faith could empower radically opposed positions: if in the name of Christianity, Queen Isabella could decree the use of force against the Indians ‘whenever conversion to the holy Catholic Faith and allegiance to the Crown were not immediately forthcoming, so too in the name of Christianity, Bartolomé de Las Casas could bitterly condemn the entire Spanish enterprise. (70)
The “marvelous” of the new world that Greenblatt describes also became a cypher for the importation of “the wild man,” as Michael Taussig has written. Earlier phenomenological studies of “religious experience” studied the cypher of “mystical experience” such as Rudolph Otto’s concept of “the numinous.” Later, Western liberal fascinations with “shamanism,” deeply indebted to the work of Mircea Eliade’s 1964 study, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, became an important work for the discipline of Religious Studies in the U.S. because it grounded a history of Religion within Max Müller’s idea of comparative religions and comparative mythology.
Eliade’s work on mythology and religion was important for the emergence of Religious Studies as a discipline separate from Theology. Because Religious Studies in the United States has been particularly tied to the 1963 Abington Township vs. Schempp and the later creation of The National Endowment for the Humanities, I suggest in this post that we have yet to see the history of the discourse of the study of religion within a political-theological colonizing effort encultured within the euro-christian thought that produced the U.S. Constitution, the authorizing vehicle for these decisions.
My perspective of the U.S. Constitution and U.S. law more generally as a political-theological document will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows, so let me clarify a bit here. I write with Indigenous Studies scholarship in mind. As Robert J. Miller has argued with detail, article I of the U.S. Constitution “expressly excludes states and individuals from Indian commercial affairs by stating that only Congress has the power ‘to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with Indian Tribes” (43-44).
Miller writes, “The Constitution, then, incorporated and enshrined the [Christian] Discovery [of Inter caetera] power into our federal system and placed that power solely into the hands of the national government, as James Madison and the Founding Fathers desired” (44).
Accepting my argument concerning Christian underwriting of the U.S. Constitution does not mean one needs to accept that Carl Schmitt was entirely correct in Political Theology (1922) when he claimed that all significant conceptsof the modern theory of the state concepts are secularized theological concepts.
That Schmitt himself was nostalgic for certain forms of religious authority is well-known, yet in his melancholic stance “secular” ought not be separated from “religion,” as it is in common parlance. Rather, for him, both secular and theological operate within a euro-christian paradigm that Schmitt himself never escapes nor seeks to critique. It is with an eye toward critiques from Indigenous Studies that I am coming at the notion of ‘political theology’ and the imbrication of U.S. legal thought within broader euro-christian poetics. And I would further argue that it is from that angle that we might more fruitfully explore notions to which Schmitt alluded.
Although there are ongoing debates about how much rhetoric from the Iroquois Confederacy informs early formations of the U.S., we would do well to also remember that much attention to Indians in early colonizer’s rhetoric was what Philip Deloria describes as Playing Indian. From the Boston Tea Party to masonic societies, the importation of carnival rituals is as important as the importation of ‘the wild man.’
We should also be aware that conversations around religious freedom have never been fixed in the U.S., even though my descriptions of a euro-christian frame might help to gloss and simplify the history to see force – in the sense of Machiavelli’s virtù and Carl Raschke’s Force of God – at work in classic liberalism’s attempts to rein in Fortuna.
In Religious Liberty in a Lockean Society, Elissa Alzate appropriately warns us that in addition to historical fluidity in terms of both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, in the U.S. Supreme Court:
The justices all have (and have at every point in the Court’s history) differing views of what religious freedom means (both according to their own personal opinions and their individual interpretations of the constitutional provisions), the government’s role in safeguarding it, as well as how to balance it with our other rights and liberties. It is just as dangerous to attribute one political perspective to the Supreme Court as it is to the American founding. (64)
The famous “wall of separation” between church and state is taken from a letter of Thomas Jefferson’s to Baptists in the U.S., echoing their 17thcentury founder, Roger Williams. As Alzate notes, the concept of separation as derived from Locke’s liberalism, “arose out of the desire neither to empower religion nor to weaken and control it. It serves to preserve and enhance individual liberty to the extent possible. Religious liberty is less about religion than it is about individual freedom” (39).
Locke saw religion as an internal “natural right” that, while ungovernable, was tied to the external civic rights to Life, Liberty, and Estate (Property). The internalized conscience to which he alludes is protected in its freedom by private ownership of property. Perhaps evading a promise they knew they could not keep, Jefferson and his colleagues famously replaced “Estate / Property” with the much more vague “pursuit of happiness” — a notion which, in my reading, likely has roots in Greco-Roman notions of civitas and eudaemonia.
Yet the slippage between ‘property’ and ‘pursuit of happiness’ is also, however, an enormously important instance of political-theological rhetoric because of the Lockean / Protestant internalizing of conscience, in the same sense that Hamlet says he “could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Myths, according to Freud, are the dreams of a race or culture. The substitution could be elided: ‘the pursuit of Property which will make me happy and thrive,’ and in this is an extension of the imagination of the Greco-Roman classical world.
I am less inclined to view this internalized, Christian conscience – well-explored in a wider historical sense in Michel Foucault’s On the Government of the Living lectures – as effectively enacting the “wall of separation” it intends, just as I am suspicious of attempts to completely separate Religious Studies from Theology. Even so, with or without the “separation” the context is thoroughly Christian.
Despite the American scholarly project of Religious Studies having a traditional identification with “secular” ends and a distancing from the faith-based approaches of Theology, an Indigenous Studies lens, combined with critiques of Protestant biases within the field, allows us to see such legal efforts as deeply political-theological efforts produced within a normative and largely Protestant Christian frame.
Protestant theology often tries to assert itself as having nothing to do with politics, so much so that devout believers will see little connection between church life and voting, a condition that preserves pre-Christian Right rhetoric while objecting to 1960s claims that “the personal is political,” a phrase associated with second wave feminism and Carol Hanisch. By aligning grassroots organizing of Christian “fundamentalists” (a term which shifts in meaning throughout the 20th century) with fears of atheistic communism, a rightwing political movement became an influential force by the late 1970s, enough to demand Ronald Reagan’s constant attention.
People on the so-called left (which is not very far left) in the U.S. thus came to associate religiosity with the “Christian right” against their so-called “secular” and “progressive” tendencies without ever realizing how steeped in Protestant logics of progress and Enlightenment reason their own perspectives were.
While economic liberals in recent years have contested the notion that liberal society is necessarily underwritten by theological legal concepts, thus holding onto the ‘wall of separation’ narrative, Indigenous critiques of colonization often point out the euro-christian frames that persist in attempts to erase and subdue Indigenous groups. Thus, the discipline of Indigenous Studies gives us a different way of understanding political theology than Schmitt described, helping us to see the irrelevance of the dialectic of U.S. partisan politics, which are no more effective than Lewis Caroll’s descriptions of a caucus race in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Yet because euro-christian scholars often claim that Indigenous scholars are historically “biased” (as if colonial ideology were not), let me also note that, even among euro-christians outside of the recent debates across disciplines regarding to what extent liberal democracies are founded upon the “enchanted,” legal concepts of “the king’s two bodies” or the “miracle” in Schmitt’s sense persist even in classical liberalism. For example, we might remember Spinoza’s important discussion of miracles as being a thing of the past in his Political-Theological Treatise in tension with Protestant domestications of mysticism and miracles. Spinoza might give a sobering perspective to the rhetorics of the miraculous and marvelous to which Greenblatt has directed his readers, something later Jewish writers would call “endarkenment.”
With respect to the poetic nature of modern autonomy, Hans Blumenberg’s interrogation and critiques of the various uses of “secularization” in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age point to metaphorical constructions that, as we will see, deeply inform both cognitive linguists and Indigenous scholars with respect to legal concepts. Blumenberg notes that the “earliest explicit contact between philosophy and secularization” occurs in a pamphlet from 1799 titled Reason Requires Secularization [Die Vernunft fordert die Säkularisierungen]. An 1803 Act allowed for the transfer of church property in France: “What was possible with external, legally transferable property would no doubt also be possible with less massive and still less protected spiritual residues” (20).
It is important to note the historical comparative distinction between Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation” and these European discussions of Reason. Blumenberg notes that Marx takes this concept up with relation to the transfer of property in his critique of Hegel: “The concept of secularization defines a transferable, analogizable process with regard to ‘property’ of whatever type, in whatever mode of seizure” (21). Although this is but a tiny glimpse of a much larger critique, Blumenberg complicates the theological nostalgia liberals read in Carl Schmitt while also pointing to the fact that Schmitt’s description need not be “correct” to still have lasting import with regard to how people have interpreted secularization.
For my purposes here, it is only important to note the conception of secularization of property along with the elision of property and happiness presented in The Declaration of Independence and later founding documents with respect to the inclusion of the Doctrine of Discovery. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that Jefferson’s “wall of separation” began being used in U.S. legal thought regarding religion in the public sphere, ironically at the same time the nation embraced an “In God We Trust” motto against a perceived political threat of “godless” Communism.
Part of American civic religion embraces the idea that private property is intimately related both to a theologically-rooted freedom of conscience and an external evidencing of a theologically-laden fulfillment of that conscience. The externalized evidencing of this through the acquiring of property establishes the political-theological achievement of the “American Dream.” As argued by euro-christian concepts of property described by Andro Linklater, the early modern fascination for measuring – be it in poetry or mapmaking – superimposed European concepts of land ownership onto Native Americans.
Similarly echoing Indigenous critiques of colonization, scholarsof late antiquity such as Jeremy Schott have noted the concept of ‘religion’ emerges as early Christians distinguished themselves from Jews as Roman citizens under the sign of the “cross empire,” from which the idea of Christendom, literally Christian domatio, or domination, would emerge. Schott argues “for a consideration of pagan polemics and Christian apologetics not simply as sites of ‘religious conflict’ or the production of ‘self-definition’ but also as both constituted by and constitutive of Roman imperialism” (166). With respect to South America, Schott argues, citing Bartolomé de las Casas:
The identification of the indigenous peoples of the Americas as “new gentiles” authorized the militant, often violent, extirpation, of traditional religions as “idolatry.” Certain colonialists, such as Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda went so far as to deny that natives possessed the capacity for natural religion at all; as such, they were subhuman and could be exploited as slaves. At the same time, however, others located the native cultures along a spectrum of “civilization.”
That spectrum would come to be the emergent reason for the conception of “natural religion” that would inform later theories of “religious experience” as internal, yet “universalizing,” in Locke’s sense of “natural rights,” for Locke himself was also influenced by Roger Williams, the founder of Baptist “religious freedom” in Rhode Island in the shadow text of Jefferson’s “wall of separation.”
As Osage historian, George “Tink” Tinker (among others) has repeatedly argued, Native Americans have traditionally had no concept of ‘religion.’ Whether as orthodox Judaic or Christian theology or as “natural religion,” European conceptions of religion tend to be metaphorically hierarchical. As Tinker writes:
Here, I am not simply objecting to the language of god and creator as language embedded in a european worldview or christian ideology. It is much more crucial to notice that imposing these religious metaphors of a hierarchical divine as an overlay on Indian cultures irredeemably distorts Native culture and destroys the intricacies and the beauty, that is, the coherence of the Native worldview. An up-down linguistic cognitive image schema functions to structure the social whole around vertical hierarchies of power and authority. (169)
Tinker’s thinking is echoed by many scholars such as Steven Newcomb and Robin Wall Kimmerer. Kimmerer describes, through comparisons between Potawatomi creation stories of Sky Woman Falling and Eve, the intentional imposition of private property in the 1887 Dawes Act onto Native American nations as a genocidal initiative to break-up collective identity, replacing it with a new form of sovereignty as American citizens.
This “civilizing” process of assimilation can hardly be regarded as a separation of church and state for Native Americans, especially since Native “religious” practices were essentially outlawed in the U.S. from the Wounded Knee massacre until the 1930s under the advocacy efforts of John Collier.
And, in a strange inversion, some legal theorists tend to distinguish between Indian law and U.S. civic law through the idea that Indian law is not secular. It is not “secular” because of longstanding attempts to rhetorically erase Indigenous Peoples by referring to them in the past tense, a project bound up in the ideological formation of American literature as far back as Washington Irving and James Fennimore Cooper.
With respect to law and democratic crises, Elizabeth Povinelli discusses how the politics of recognition continue to bracket and defer Indigenous Peoples through discursive backdrop that relegates them to “economies of abandonment,” where minority groups are “bracketed” and deferred, through a politics of recognition, to states of exception, the “antechamber of time – a knot of past perfect and future perfective” (111).
In an excellent critique of discussions that situate a binary of “bare life” (zoe) and “qualified life,” as in Giorgio Agamben’s work on Homo sacer,Alexander Wehelye’s Habeas Viscus notes that U.S. Indian Removal establishes the legal precedent of the security state that produces internment and concentration camps. Even Agamben writes in State of Exception: “it is important not to forget that the modern state of exception is a creation of the democratic-revolutionary tradition and not the absolutist one.”
Similarly, according to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, when anthropologists compare two cultures:
They then exist only internally to anthropological discourse and are seen as having a common objectivity as sociocultural entities that would be comparable by virtue of a problem posed by another sociocultural entity that, in deciding the rules of the comparative sociocultural game, reveals itself to stand outside its bounds. And if this recalls Agamben’s idea of the state of exception, it’s because that’s the same idea (the very same one)….(86)
It is in this same impulse that we ought to “stand outside of its own bounds” that we ought to see judicial attempts to navigate facially neutral liberal spaces with respect to arguments concerning religion itself. If religion is indeed a Christian-derived concept, then court cases regarding the recognition of religion already frame discourse that appeals to the Free Exercise clause and the Fourteenth Amendment surreptitiously enact an establishment of religion, which of course would disrupt the Establishment clause by the U.S. Constitution’s own logic.
Elissa Alzate agrees with the U.S. Supreme Court that the Religious Freedom Resoration Act is unlawful, from a Lockean perspective. The Supreme Court, with differing views among judges as to why it is unconstitutional, disagreed with an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote by members of Congress to demand the court use a test of “compelling interest” with regard to retricting religious practice. Both of these perspectives point to the overwhelming rhetorical forcethat neoliberal attitudes and politics of recognition employ with respect to protecting religious freedom within a “secular” society.
The lawmakers in Congress attempt to rein-in this force with Machiavellian fortitude in a way that parallels the economic impulses of both classical and neoliberalism. Again, the situation with respect to Indigenous Peoples highlights the ongoing Christian-civilizing mission of liberalism despite claims to the wall of separation. As Anthony Pagden writes in The Fall of Natural Man, Adam Smith’s theories of economy as they drew on natural law theory:
[O]ut of this new moral science there came, too, a new historical account of the origin of human societies. This was most fully developed by Adam Smith’s celebrated ‘four-stages theory’ [hunters, shepards, agriculture, commerce], which although it was intended to explain the origins of the market society could be mapped by others, such as William Robertson, onto the progressive evolution of man’s moral – as well as inteelectual – being. By the middle of the eighteenth century, then, the claim of differences cultural behavior could be accounted for as differences of historical growth, had become commonplace. (4)
Thus from multiple angles we ought to read the universalizing ideologies of what Carl Raschke points out with respect to Margaret Thatcher’s “no alternative” to neoliberalism as the continuation of a larger Christian imperial impulse. This same impulse is being worked on, for example, every second of every day, through evangelizing missions that can be heard in the sonic booms resonating through largely Indigenous towns – such as the Mayan Chichicastenango in Guatemala – marking the spiritual warfare of Pentecostal and charismatic churches that abound in the poetics of globalized, holy ignorance that transnationally embraces a civilizing mission.
Roger K. Green is a lecturer in English at The Metropolitan State University of Denver. He is the author of Enchanted Citizens: A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics (currently out for peer review) and numerous short articles in Political Theology Today. He is general editor of the online scholarly magazine, The New Polis, where he writes monthly articles related to concerns that have come out of political theology. He is currently ABD in Joint Doctoral Program in Theology and Religious Studies at The University of Denver, where he is completing his second PhD, writing on ayahuasca and religious politics.