Thursday, July 30, 2015


Fiddling with the syllabus for my post-China "Theorizing Religion" I'm deciding to juxtapose China and the US in a religion/law discussion. We'll read Yang Fenggang's essay on "Red, Black and Gray Markets" for religion in China, and a piece Winnifred Fallers Sullivan wrote for "The Immanent Frame" after the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby/Wheaton College decision last year - the one which granted "closely held" corporations liberty of religious conscience. That decision will doubtless be in the news as gay marriage finds its way across the land, one wedding caterer at a time, and it will be stimulating to have a discussion which transcends the American case.

The two pieces will also fit into what's become the organizing theme of this iteration of the course, "religion-making" - a term I borrow from a recent book by Marcus Dressler and Arvind-Pal S. Mandair but will use more broadly than they do. Defining religion and religions (and secularisms, too) is something done by all sorts of entities - scholars, crusaders for and against particular faiths, and the state too. The academic space won't be presented as the privileged site for such definition, but as the one which best allows critical scrutiny of this broader phenomenon. In these two pieces we'll see not encouter the travails of state definition of religion, but the difficult question whether the state can avoid defining religion. As the name of the post (also the name of one of her books) "The Impossibility of Religious Freedom" suggests, Sullivan thinks it cannot.

And then, rereading Sullivan's piece, there's this challenge to liberal views of religion as something essentially private and ecclesiastic:

American religion today does not happen in churches. Many American Christians have, for a long time, engaged in a kind of DIY religion free from the regulations of church authorities. Their religion is radically disestablished free religion, defined not by bishops and church councils, but by themselves—ordinary Americans reading their Bibles, picking and choosing from among a wide array of religious practices. Indeed, Americans have always been incredibly varied, creative, and entrepreneurial in living out what they take to be their religious obligations—religious obligations that range far beyond the prescriptions of the mainline churches, which seem staid, contained, and tamed to the many who consider their own religious practices, unapproved by traditional religious authorities, to be alive with the spirit. They find their religious community and their religious fields of action in places other than churches—including the marketplace.
Justice Sotomayor claims in her dissent in Wheaton College to have “deep respect for religious faith, for the important and selfless work performed by religious organizations.” Why is the exercise of religion by Hobby Lobby any less deserving of Justice Sotomayor’s, or of the US government’s, respect than the work of the Catholic Hospital Association or the Little Sisters of the Poor? Why should churches and religious orders be obviously and unproblematically exempt, particularly in the aftermath of a series of sexual and financial scandals, while Hobby Lobby is not? Why disdain the representations of the Greens and the Hahns that they consider their businesses to be a religious ministry? Where is it written in the Constitution that only the religious practices of churches or church-related non-profits are entitled to accommodation?

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