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History and theorizing the secular

The Editors For more information about the Editors of The Immanent Frame, visit our About September 6, 2017

This forum has its origins in a workshop

organized in Edinburgh in May 2017 on
religious conflict and political pluralism.
Our discussions ranged far and wide, but
one important conclusion that emerged
from the exchange of ideas was the role
of history in understanding both religious
and secular political formations. After the
workshop, we invited the participants to
write up some of their reflections on the
subject, either from a theoretical
standpoint or by drawing on empirical
material. We hope that these stimulating and eclectic thoughts will contribute to an ongoing
conversation about the value of history to any analysis of secularism, religion, and the
interactions between the two.

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Institut Français d’Écosse, the Centre for the
Study of Modern and Contemporary History and the Citizens, Nations and Migration
Network at the University of Edinburgh, the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion, and
the Society for the Study of French History.

– Emile Chabal and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, Guest editors

The respondents are:

Sarah Shortall, University of Notre Dame

Teresa Bejan, University of Oxford

Joshua Ralston, University of Edinburgh

Timothy Peace, University of Glasgow

Alistair Hunter, University of Edinburgh

Robert D. Priest, Royal Holloway, University of London


Beyond a Christian genealogy of the secular by Sarah Shortall

One of the primary ways in which history has informed theorizations of the secular has been
an attention to the historical entanglement between Christianity and secularism. The result
is a growing body of scholarship dedicated to showing how a variety of secular concepts
and institutions emerged from, and remain indebted to, Christianity. The value of such
genealogies has been to show that secular formations are often far from confessionally
neutral and to explain why they can operate in ways that systematically exclude non-

But there are also important limitations to this sort of genealogical approach. In the first
place, it tends to frame the relationship between Christianity and the secular as one-
directional. This makes it difficult to see how Christianity too has been reshaped by its
encounter with the secular and how it might continue to play a robust role in the
contemporary world beyond the role it has played in shaping various secular formations. A
second problem with such genealogical accounts is that they risk falling into a genetic
fallacy, by assuming that the Christian origins of secular concepts necessarily determine
their current application. Such concepts may well have Christian roots, but it does not
follow that they remain in any meaningful sense bound to Christianity or that their current
uses are a function of these roots. Finally, such accounts of the relationship between
Christianity and the secular frequently elide crucial differences between the Protestant,
Catholic, and Orthodox traditions, as well as the diverse range of institutional and cultural
contexts that have governed relations between the churches and various secular powers.

For those seeking to theorize the historical relationship between Christianity and the
secular, these observations raise several critical questions. How might we theorize the
secular as a coherent ideological formation in ways that are nevertheless attentive to the
historical and confessional contexts in which it they took shape? How should we understand
the relationship between Christianity and the secular in ways not exhausted by a
genealogical approach—ways more attuned to the reciprocal relationship between the two?
Above all, how can we articulate an approach that would account for the way Christianity
has functioned, not only as the source of secular ideology, but also as its originary target?


The past in the present by Teresa Bejan

The critique of secularism pioneered by Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, among others,
reminds us that even the grandest orienting abstractions of liberal modernity have histories.
What is more, ignorance of those histories leaves one at the mercy of false binaries
(religious/political, secular/theological) and obfuscating equivalencies
(“secular”=“liberal”=“tolerant”=“reasonable”). These confuse and constrain us just when
clear thinking about the challenges of coexistence matters most.

Such critique presents itself as emancipatory, politically as well as intellectually. But once
accepted, then what? Having a history cannot itself be disqualifying; nor is secular
liberalism unique in having an unlovely (or theological) past. Recognizing implicit demands
that the Other remake herself in the image of secular (e.g., Western Protestant) modernity
or perish is surely necessary for resistance. But what next? If we want, in Mahmood’s
words, to “rethink” the problems of coexistence outside of familiar liberal frameworks, on
what grounds should this be?

Close attention to historical arguments and alternatives can help us out of this normative
dead end. Still, the force of an historically-informed theory relies on one’s confidence that
the theorist cares to get the history right. The devil is, as ever, in the details. We must resist
the urge to replace the false equivalences of liberal triumphalism with our own. We should
not run “Protestantism” or “Christianity” together, for example, or assume that any “modern”
state must be a “secular” and a “liberal” one. Such elisions are inadequate historically, as
well as theoretically. Taking history seriously means recognizing that John Locke is a poor
synechdoche for liberalism, “Protestantism” is not a homogenous monolith, and Christianity
is not synonymous with the West, let alone Europe. As we begin the arduous task of re-
thinking, it behoves us to be clear on what, exactly, was thought before.


Secularism and the history of Christian-Muslim relations by Joshua Ralston

Accounts of the secular rarely, if ever, attend to the history and discourse of Christian-
Muslim relations. Much of the field of political theology has been devoted to interrogating
the Christian substructures of Western political theory and practice, while analyzing the
deployment of Christian theological imaginers in ostensibly secular societies. Moreover,
these secular and (post)Christian assumptions and configurations have been shown, in
works by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Joseph Massad, and Mayanthi Fernando, to just name
a few, to be central discursive and political tools for (mis)representing Muslims both within
and beyond the bounds of liberal society, the state, and the West. Drawing these two
trajectories of study more explicitly together and locating them within the longer history of
Christian-Muslim encounter—both political and theological—has promise for enriching the
study of the secular and its discontents.

A brief example will have to suffice. The history of Christian polemics against Muslims as
well as the memories of historical fraught encounters have been regular features in
nationalist anti-Muslim and anti-migrant rhetoric in Europe and North America. One of the
most obvious is Victor Orbán’s appeal to the Christian and secular heritage of Europe and
his call for Hungary to once again be a bulwark against the threat of Muslim migrants
whose practices, laws, and theologies make them incapable of abiding within Europe. The
history of Hungary’s central, albeit often overlooked, role in stopping the Ottoman advance
on Vienna is recast and reimagined as justification for the construction of a border wall and
the temporary ending of Schengen. Just as Hungary had once saved Europe, Hungary is
once again called to save Europe. The seemingly obvious distinction between attacking
Ottoman armies and refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq,
and Afghanistan are blurred by appeals to both Christian-secular exceptionalism and the
rhetorical power of an imagined history in which Christian-Muslim encounters are
exclusively antagonistic.

The intertwining of the history of Christian-Muslim encounters with conceptualizations of a

Christian-secular West is not limited to Orbán but has resonated widely across Europe and
the United States. Longstanding rhetoric and polemics, rooted in Christian and secular
political discourse, that envision Muslims as fundamentally political distinct from the West
coalesce with historical memories and myths about Christian-Muslim rivalry. In this context,
for instance, Martin Luther’s 1529 tract on War with the Turks becomes not only a
theological text on just war, religious rivalry, and the Reformation, but is recast as a clarion
call to defend Christendom (often at odds with the text’s condemnation of explicitly
Christian calls for war). Attending more closely to such tropes might offer new approaches
to conceptualizing the secular and draw inter-religious studies into interdisciplinary
conversations on secular and religious pluralism.


Secularism and French politics by Timothy Peace

Any discussion of secularism and the secular will usually at some point turn to France—a
country that is so attached to its particular notion of secularism that it is often remarked
how laïcité cannot be adequately translated into other languages. A broader problem with
attempting to theorize the secular in the French context is that laïcité, despite its ubiquitous
appearance in public and political debates, is an essentially contested concept. As the
journalist Alain Gresh once pointed out to me in an interview, “everyone in France claims to
be secular, but nobody knows what it means.”

I have argued in my book that there are essentially two competing interpretations of laïcité
in France. These interpretations, which I identify as “republican” and “open”
(categorizations that themselves could be contested), can be traced back to the watershed
year of 1989. This is the point in recent French history when debates on secularism shifted
to focus on Islam rather than the Catholic Church. Indeed, many current debates that
concern secularism in France merely employ this as a by-word for discussing Muslims (or
at least those perceived to be such).

The two most prominent experts on laïcité in France—Henri Pena-Ruiz and Jean
Baubérot—perfectly illustrate this tension between the two conceptions of the term. For the
former, the stress is very much on freedom of the individual from religious or ideological
dogma. The public sphere should remain “neutral” and dedicated to the “general interest”
rather than religious particularism. By contrast, Baubérot argues that the original spirit of
the 1905 law separating church and state has been misinterpreted by an over-zealous
conception of republicanism. This has conflated genuine universalism with a refusal of
diversity, which has led to discrimination.

Currently it is the “republican” interpretation that is dominant in French society. But newly-
elected President Emanuel Macron did recognize in his manifesto that too many people in
France confuse secularism and the desire to restrict religious expression. Could his
election, and the arrival of a host of new and more diverse members in the French
parliament, signal a shift in attitudes? Only time will tell.


Cemeteries, secularism, and religious difference in France by Alistair Hunter

There is an alarming lack of Muslim cemetery space in many parts of Europe today.
However, the question of confessional cemetery space is not new. In nineteenth-century
France, the cemetery was one key venue in a wider conflict over the role of religion in
public life. That larger battle was eventually won by secular republicans. Yet, in the
cemetery, secularist legislators did not set out to attack religion. Instead, the outcome the
legislators sought was to reinstate social peace and civil harmony to the public space of the

cemetery, idealized as the one institution where the French republican ideals of liberty,
equality, and fraternity would reign. Jewish and Protestant populations, in particular, were
granted new rights to confessional burial space. This quest for civil peace in the cemetery
went hand in hand with a broader mission of social inclusion. Each citizen could have his or
her allotted place in the cemetery, regardless of rank or religion, and no longer would
Catholic clergy have the right to refuse burial in consecrated ground for those deemed to
have died outside the Church or in sinful circumstances.

Fast-forward to today, and the refusal to create Muslim cemetery space constitutes a
modern-day refus de sépulture on a quite different scale: Not banishment from the
consecrated part of the cemetery, but wholesale ejection from the national territory itself. In
effect, Muslim families are forced to repatriate their loved ones if there is no Muslim burial
ground in their locality. This not only constitutes an institutional violence which separates
the living and the dead geographically. It also blocks a process of integration for migrant-
origin communities which manifests in the act of incorporation in the soil itself.


Do we need new histories of secularism? by Robert D. Priest

We are by now intensely familiar with the various critiques that scholars have levelled at
notions of the secular in recent decades. These include secularism’s mythologization as an
intrinsic feature of modernity, its functions as a cypher for racism and xenophobia, its
disavowed legacy to a Christian (or especially Protestant) conception of religion, and so on.

Within such critiques, or in their wake, history most often tends to function as critical
genealogy. Retracing the various formations of the secular highlights their embeddedness
within contexts (and thereby critiques their assumed universalism) and reveals their
culturally specific blind-spots. The point is usually to draw revealing comparisons with
contemporary debates. For a historian of nineteenth-century Europe the most prominent
example is obviously the French Third Republic, whose earth is perpetually tilled by
policymakers in search of justifications, and scholars in search of nuances that reveal the
problems inherent in precisely such acts of appropriation.

While I reject neither the desirability nor the unavoidability of history having a political
function in the present, I wonder whether this use of the past—and particularly certain
pasts, such as that of nineteenth-century France—as the conduit for a critique of
contemporary European politics might be yielding diminishing returns. The best work today
serves a similar function in relation to the bold claims of contemporary social-scientific
theory as it does to the grand narratives of contemporary politics: as a critical friend with its
own insights to offer, rather than just a source of case studies. I hope historians will
continue to think creatively about the role they can play in contributing to debates over
religion and the secular beyond simply providing legions of long-dead reinforcements.