Michael Warner on religion and politics

Last night, Michael Warner spoke at the Graduate Center as the plenary talk for the interdisciplinary “Religion and Sexuality” conference being held today. His talk was a riveting call to restructure the terms of the ongoing debate about the role of religion in secular politics.

His key point was the way in which the language of eighteenth-century evangelical religion, in which one is “a Christian” because of one’s declared faith (rather than, say, adherence to religious law or cultural associations), has been extrapolated in American politics to create a division between all religious peoples (“faith-based initiatives,” etc.) and secularism, which is defined as a lack of faith. He noted the ways in which even non-Christian religions are defined by political bodies as “faiths,” even though faith itself is a specifically Christian-evangelical requirement for religious affiliation. Warner noted that in Stanley Fish’s op-ed columns, Fish has repeatedly opined that he (as a secularist) feels jealousy of radical Muslims and Christians alike because they have “something” to believe in and fight for, while secular individuals have “nothing” to believe in.

Warner argued for a revision of this rhetorical separation between faith and absence-of-faith as a specifically evangelical mindset that neither does justice to non-faith-based religions or to the very long history of secular ethics. One way of doing this, he argued, is not to relentlessly separate the terms of church and state, but to recognize that if churches wish to be considered political entities, they must be analyzed in political terms, in part because the “beliefs” that religions bring into political realms are constantly changing, unrooted in either biblical or ecclesiastical history, and constantly plead self-referentiality. The war against homosexuality, for example, has never been a primary issue of Christianity until recently, when suddenly it has become the very shibboleth by which certain Christian groups assert their faith.

In the end, it seems, extrapolating “faith” to mean “whatever political interests the religion currently serves,” makes it a similarly empty and ahistorical category as secularism. It must not be called to answer for its lack of relevance to 2000 years of Christian ethics, and it also cannot be called to task under the provisions of the Constitution. If “freedom of religion” has come to mean that anyone in the U.S. can do anything and limit anyone else’s rights, as long as they call that impulse “faith,” then secular political discourse becomes totally powerless. After all, the problem with religious control of politics is not that it makes for bad “faith,” but that it makes for unacceptable political positions. Meanwhile, the very terms of “faith” require that all religious-political impulses frame themselves as faith-based, even when non-evangelical religions base community participation on other terms.

It was a brilliant argument and a deeply historical view of religion and politics in the U.S. over the past 230 years. Unfortunately, it seemed to spawn exactly the sort of conversation whose terms Warner was attempting to reset. I was extremely frustrated by the intransigence of the respondents toward a dialogue about the history of the discourse. There is a deep commitment in the secular academy to an us-vs.-them mentality with respect to religion, and a fear of engaging with anything called “faith” as a discourse, or as rhetoric. The conversation seemed to spin out into statements of the deeply-held “beliefs” of secularists, and then into religious audience members’ fear of an atheist-totalitarian state. A few questioners responded to Warner’s talk as it was presented, but his method of analysis seemed, sadly, completely unfamiliar to most of the respondents, who insisted on reasserting a post-1950’s view of what is true and must always have been true about U.S. politics.


8 responses to “Michael Warner on religion and politics

  1. David Mazella

    Thanks, Carrie, for bringing this to our attention. I particularly liked this observation:

    In the end, it seems, extrapolating “faith” to mean “whatever political interests the religion currently serves,” makes it a similarly empty and ahistorical category as secularism.

    This seems correct, because the “secularization/faith” distinction, as you and Michael suggest, seems so unhelpful (and ahistorical) for anyone trying to sort out the claims of multiple faiths upon the nation-state and its laws.

    I’m curious whether Michael or his audience talked at all about the “secularization” debates taking place in Europe right now, which are specifically about the impact of muslim populations (and mosques!) on largely post-Christian public sensibilities. Or the secularization issues of Indian politics, too.

    But I’m not surprised about the difficulties audiences had responding to this argument. Americans’ national identity is very much caught up in a (specifically Protestant, Christian) civil religion that is pretty clear about what it will and will not countenance.



  2. You can find some additional details about the remainder of the conference at the website I indicated.

    Thanks for a good summary!

  3. Jennifer Snead

    I am coming to this entry a month late, but
    many thanks to Carrie and David for posting on Warner’s talk. “The language of eighteenth-century evangelical religion” has had a long and lingering influence on American ideologies surrounding religion and politics — and has long been underexamined on the part of eighteenth-century literary scholarship. I’m wondering if that might also be attributed to what Carrie calls “a deep commitment in the secular academy to an us-vs.-them mentality with respect to religion”?

    Mark Lilla’s recent _The Stillborn God_ takes up contemporary debates over secularization and modernity in Europe and in confrontation with radical Islam, btw.

    Thanks again for this –

    – Jennifer Snead
    Texas Tech University

  4. Hi Jennifer, good to find you here on the blog. Welcome to Texas.

    If you’re interested in secularity and the university, check out Simon During’s contribution to the Charles Taylor discussion at the Immanent Frame, which we’ve also discussed:


    And Lilla and John Gray have also come up here in earlier discussions as well. Any thoughts?

    Best wishes,


  5. Jennifer Snead

    I’ve been spending a bit of time at the Immanent Frame lately. Taylor’s book is on my winter-break reading shelf, but I’m not familiar with John Gray’s work.

    Mainly I’ve been struck, as a recent East Coast transplant to West Texas and the “buckle” of the Bible Belt (have you been to Lubbock, ever?), with how present and immediate religion – especially evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity – is in the lives and minds of my undergraduates. I wonder if the assumption of the close relationship between secularity and the university that During begins his blog with might be limited to the level of faculty, and highly dependent on geographic location.

    If I had transcribed my last class discussion on Cowper’s “Hatred and Vengeance: My Eternal Portion,” I’d paste it in below…

    – Jennifer

  6. I had a very similar experience my first year in Houston, coming out of NYC (though I was raised in VA, and partly in rural VA), and finding that after years of arguing the centrality of religion and morality to 18c sensibility in my diss, that all these questions were live and sitting in front of me in my classes on Robinson Crusoe. We had long talks on predestination and fatalism. I was not prepared for this.

    Milton became by far the most exciting and controversial text in my Brit lit survey, because I had self-identified Catholics and Protestants duking it out in my discussions.

    Kinda changes your feelings about these texts, when the religious assumptions informing them are not being reconstructed from itty bitty fragments, but are strong enough to dominate the meaning of their lives.

    So how do they deal with Swift? That would appear to me to be the most alien religious “sensibility” they could encounter. Can they handle it?


  7. Jennifer Snead

    So far (I’m just completing my third semester here at Texas Tech) I’ve only had them reading the most commonly-anthologized poems — and I’m afraid the bodily materiality and detail of “The Lady’s Dressing-Room” drives out any thoughts of religion from their heads. I will keep you posted.

    But I’m wondering if perhaps working through my undergraduates’ understanding of the way religion and piety work in these texts might not be a way for me to modify my own, relatively secular understanding of them? Or even a way to get at the contemporary appeal of other, less-taught, less-canonical works of the period, that were very popular in their day but aren’t so much now? Think of Young’s later work, especially the Night Thoughts, for instance. Or Hannah More’s multi-genred output at the end of the century.

    In my acclimation to where I am, I’d like to figure
    out ways to use, or at least work with rather than against, my students’ personal hermeneutics. Without jeopardizing scholarly responsibility, of course –


  8. David Mazella

    Well, it’s a complicated thing to do, isn’t it?

    See, for example, this case, which I’m pleased our local paper finally reported:


    But it’s worth reflecting on what practices we can and should adapt what we do to suit local tastes and interests, and what practices we cannot alter.

    In an academic setting, I do think that it’s necessary to frame this as a matter of claims and arguments rather than opinions or beliefs, wherever we teach.

    It would be interesting to see what they made of Young, though . . . . How about Blake’s illustrations, or better yet, Blake?