Secularism in Black – by Joseph Winters

Joseph Winters on Jonathon Kahn and Vincent Lloyd’s Race and Secularism in America

Jonathon S. Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd, eds., Race and Secularism in America, Columbia University Press, 2016, 288pp., $90 cloth, $30 paper, $29.99 ebook
Jonathon S. Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd, eds., Race and Secularism in America, Columbia University Press, 2016, 288pp., $90 cloth, $30 paper, $29.99 ebook
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Secularism appears to be a fairly self-evident concept. Whether one celebrates or rejects our secular age, the shared assumption is that the secular indicates a decline in religious values and commitments. When Karl Marx prematurely claimed that “the criticism of religion is almost complete,” he assumed that his Enlightenment predecessors had successfully initiated a process that would eventually replace divine power with human agency. More recently, philosopher Charles Taylor has argued that the secular age, which renders belief in God optional, produces selves who are less open to supernatural goods. Critical scholarship on secularism, however, has challenged the notion that the secular is tantamount to an abandonment (or privatization) of religious desire and practice. Many have suggested that this kind of narrative privileges the history of Euro-American Protestantism. Others claim that secularism is not the absence of religion but a different way of shaping and forming religious identity in a world increasingly under the sway of liberalism and global capital.

Race and Secularism in America, a volume edited by Jonathon Kahn and Vincent Lloyd, makes a strong contribution to reimagining the secular. Bringing together a group of established scholars in religion, theology, political science, and literature, this book poses provocative and timely questions: What happens to our understanding of secularism when we take race and colonization seriously? To put it differently, how does our understanding of the secular age change when we examine religion, secularism, and race together, as an inseparable constellation? How might we expose and contest the “whiteness” of standard stories about secularism? In the introduction to the volume, Vincent Lloyd broaches these concerns by examining contemporary interpretations of Martin Luther King and his legacy. Drawing the reader’s attention to Obama’s MLK memorial speech, Lloyd highlights a tendency to downplay King’s racial and religious identity for the sake of making him a safe national and civic icon. Public figures tend to quote and re-interpret King in ways that make us forget that “[he] did not speak in secular, race-neutral language. He preached, and he preached from his position as a black American.” For Lloyd, this public domestication of King’s legacy is an example of well-established “processes by which race and religion are excluded or managed.” Secularism determines what counts as a legitimate, acceptable religion in the same way the racial order determines who counts as an acceptable body or recognizable human. The editors of the volume ask us to consider how these two mechanisms of power overlap and shape each other.

The essays in Race and Secularism in America do not simply critique secular discourses and practices for excluding race and religion. They also highlight how we might reimagine the secular once excluded voices are allowed to speak back. Or as Lloyd puts it, “The study of race and secularism does not end with the documentation of managed difference. It begins there and from there strives to unveil worlds apart, worlds of possibility, worlds of justice.” The book’s “positive” project is directed toward troubling the secular/sacred distinction (or showing the fluidity between the sacred and the secular), showing how the religious remains a constitutive part of the secular world, and demonstrating what opens up when black and indigenous experiences enter the stories about secularism.

The first part of the book introduces a productive tension around the relationship between black intellectual thought and secular modernity. George Shulman’s contribution invites the reader to think about how black political thought expands our understanding of political theology. Revisiting the work of the German jurist Carl Schmitt, Shulman explains how political theology traditionally defines itself over and against liberalism. Whereas the former is defined by antagonism, exception, and decision (the sovereign ruler, in a decisive moment, declares and enacts an exception to the law), the latter is defined by consensus, rational deliberation, and the disavowal of conflict. Yet, as Shulman points out, the notion of exception also applies to the racial order insofar as American liberalism historically excludes certain bodies from the sphere of recognition and law. In response to this predicament, these “racialized exceptions” have produced ideas and practices that do not fit into simple dualisms, such as liberal democracy vs. political theology, secular vs. religious, or ordinary vs. transcendent. While the tacit assumption in Shulman’s essay is that black thought escapes the secular/sacred binary, Josef Sorett’s essay urges us to question this all-too-familiar assumption. For Sorett, the prosaic notion that black people do not acknowledge a boundary between the sacred and the secular – and the related idea that black people are more spiritual than other groups – needs to be questioned and investigated. As he puts it, “Even when these ideas find empirical support, such appeals still reveal as much about the commitments and concerns of scholars (and lay observers) as they do about any social/cultural or historical fact of black life.” While there might be some credence in affirming blackness as a kind of exception to the rules and protocols of secularism, Sorett reminds us that this imagined exceptionalism functions to buttress our own investments and desires.

The second part of the book builds on the concerns and tensions introduced in the first. Similar to Shulman’s approach, Edward Blum’s essay uses the slave narrative of Henry Box Brown to contest recent accounts of secularism, accounts that ignore the importance of racial formations. For instance, in opposition to Charles Taylor’s claim that secularism produces closed, buffered selves, Blum reminds us that the bodies of black slaves were possessed (by gods and Masters) and made porous by whips, chains, and sexual coercion. According to Blum, “Modernity’s buffering of the self—whether spiritual or physical—simply did not apply to the bodies of slaves.” Erica Edwards’ essay develops Lloyd’s claim that the secular regime creates public icons by diminishing aspects of these iconic figures that appear threatening to collective narratives and self-images. Edwards is particularly concerned about how black charismatic leaders like King are remembered, reinterpreted, and used to make sense of the present. Whereas many interpretations and popular depictions of King end up advancing conservative projects and yearnings for unified identities (e.g., George W. Bush used King’s image to justify war and American empire), Edwards suggests that we work within the fragments of the past and present to cultivate more radical possibilities for remembrance, politics, and moving forward. In their essay, Joel Blecher and Joshua Dubler examine the Salafi Muslim community in Philadelphia. Known for rejecting racial politics and discourse, the Salafis can be read as following secular, liberal discourses that downplay racial matters. On the other hand, Belcher and Dubler argue that we might read this racial quietism as a “willful silencing,” as an intentional denial of secular formations and “idols” like race and nationalism. The authors write, “By this view, figures like Malcolm X—not to mention Martin Luther King—belong squarely to the secular apparatus in so far as they willfully allow their religious commitments to intermingle with and, often, to be eclipsed by their secular drive for racial solidarity, economic uplift, and other false gods.” Whether we see the Salafis as “radical or conservative” on the matter of racial injustice, Belcher and Dubler argue that this community challenges prevailing assumptions about black religion and politics.

The third part of Race and Secularism deals explicitly with the relationship between secularism, empire, and colonization. M. Cooper Harriss invites the reader to return to Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man (1952) and consider how the quasi-theological trope of invisibility operates in contemporary political formations. For Harriss, this trope enables us to keep track of the subterranean, opaque forces that undergird what seem like transparent, secular discourses. Here Harriss is thinking, for instance, of how the visibility of racial progress, incarnated by the Obamas, renders invisible the everyday struggles experienced by working class blacks. He is also thinking of how the “War on Terror” and the use of drones is secretly justified and made possible by a longstanding aversion to Islam. (Or how the lives and deaths of Afghanis and Iraqis have been erased from discussions about the casualties of America’s recent wars.) While, for Harriss, invisibility connects the religious and secular, William Hart argues that certain colonial tropes like “frenzy,” “fetish,” and “voodoo” also connect religious and secular practices. Think for instance of how fetishism, a derogatory term initially used to describe African religion, operates in Marxist thought to describe our relationship to commodities. Or think how the term “voodoo,” associated with Haitian religion, signifies chaos and disorder when used as a modifier (voodoo economics). By tracing the often unconscious use of these terms, terms that devalue and stigmatize black people, Hart underscores the “afterlife” of religious and racial categories—including the contested label “redskin.” From a certain perspective, religion and secularism are conjoined twins. Or as Hart puts it, “Where racial tropes are concerned, religious and secular practices are two sides of the same colonial reality.” Willie Jennings’ contribution to the volume builds on this theology/secularism relationship in the context of colonization. Jennings draws our attention to early-seventeenth-century colonial projects in the New World and the discursive practices that justified these projects. For Jennings, we must remember the theological underpinnings of colonization—how the conquest of the Americas was made possible by a theological imaginary that marked indigenous land and people as devoid of spirit, full of the demonic, and in need of redemption. By associating the indigenous with a lack of spirit and the Christian settler with fullness, life, and redemption, the possession/consecration of land was deemed legitimate. Jennings’ essay prompts the reader to reflect on the ways theology and secularism have contributed to modern configurations of race and space.

In the concluding essay, Jonathon Kahn brings together the concerns and themes of the volume in a discussion about James Baldwin. Even though Baldwin might have left the black church (after serving as a junior minister), Kahn contends that we miss something if we label Baldwin a secular thinker. In other words, like Henry Box Brown, Baldwin confounds neat categories, boundaries, and distinctions. For Kahn, Baldwin’s vision of justice is theological because it is predicated on a deep recognition of human impurity. A better world, on this view, depends on our capacity to embrace, rather than disavow, the broken, impure quality of human existence. As finite, embodied beings, we will always be entangled in the mess that we call life, especially those unsettling aspects that we try to distance, and protect, ourselves from. In the afterword, Tracey Fessenden reconsiders the relationship between secularism and gender. Since standard accounts of secularism relegate religion to the private realm, a domain that women have traditionally been associated with, the next step, Fessenden argues, is to examine the “secularist-racializing-gendering knot.” This examination is urgent in a historical moment when imperial projects are justified as attempts to rescue non-Western women from religious/Muslim tyranny.

This review cannot do justice to the brilliance, beauty, and timeliness of these essays. While I have attempted to sketch the main themes and interventions, the joy of reading these essays lies in the nuances and subtleties of the arguments. No longer can we talk unreflexively about secularism in general and then add on discussions about race, coloniality, and gender. Secularism is always already a racialized and gendered assemblage of projects, practices, and narratives. Highlighting the counter-practices and possibilities of black religious and political thought works to identify, and push beyond, modernity’s erasures and foreclosures. One of the key tasks now, it seems to me, is to tarry with a tension, introduced in the early essays in the book, that runs through the text. Namely, how do we affirm the endeavor of Shulman and Blum to show how black thinkers interrupt accounts of secularism while taking Sorett’s concerns seriously, concerns about black religion being constructed as unique, exceptional, fluid, disruptive of traditional categories, etc.? How might we affirm the radical possibilities of racializing secularism without marginalizing groups like the Salafis, groups that appear conservative on issues of racial justice? In other words, how do we reimagine secularism without uncritically repeating some of its entrenched assumptions about black religion and politics?

Joseph Winters is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Duke University. His research interests lie at the intersection of African American religious thought, religion and critical theory, and black literature. His first book, Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress, appeared from Duke University Press in June 2016.