Is Religion Holding Us Back?

Ecumenical and Interfaith Justice Work in a Post-Secular Age

Author Greg Williams
Author Greg Williams

In 1990, the World Council of Churches released its Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies. While this is not the most recent (or perhaps the most widely used) document of its kind on ecumenical or interfaith work, it is notable (and laudable) for the attempt that it makes to draw the circle of dialogue wider than the standard list of world religions. Rather, the document asserts that dialogue with ideologies

is part of [the dialogue programme’s] mandate, recognizing that religions and ideologies interact and influence each other in the life of the community. The manner in which ideological factors affect religious structures and attitudes has been considered in some of the consultations. Ideological questions touch on many parts of the Council’s work.

Pejorative valences in some traditions of political discourse aside, the category ideology is helpful here because it allows for the existence of comprehensive worldviews (e.g. Marxism, Black Power, Arab Nationalism), which, while they may or may not make direct reference to God, carry much of the same historical and cultural particularity and moral and metaphysical significance that those ideologies that we deem religions do. However, the separation between religion and ideology is palpable (hence the language of how ideologies affect religious structures as opposed to religion being itself ideological and/or ideology being religious in character), and the Council stressed that, “the statement and the guidelines touch on religions more than ideologies.”

Greg AssadSubsequent work has not even come this far. The Guidelines, therefore, demonstrate, more than anything else, the outer limits of the extent to which the ecumenical movement and (in ecumenical Christian contexts at least) the movement for interfaith dialogue have been willing to question religion as a conceptuality. Ecumenical work has been defined as the effort at unity of belief and/or practice of those members of the Christian religion, and the WCC has defined interfaith work as primarily being about dialogue between Christianity and “other religions.” What is left intact is the strict separation between religious and non-religious (ideological, political, economic, national, or otherwise secular) spheres of life.

Yet this conceptual distinction between the religious and the secular has come under fire recently, both from European political philosophers like Jurgen Habermas, and, more to the point for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, from scholars of Islam like Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, who argue that the religious-secular divide is a specifically Christian, specifically Protestant, and specifically Euro-American imperialist construct. In one of his most important works, Formations of the Secular, Asad writes:

Nationalism, with its vision of a universe of national societies (the state being thought of as necessary to their full articulation) in which individual humans live their worldly existence requires the concept of the secular to make sense. The loyalty that the individual nationalist owes is discretely and exclusively to the nation. Even when the nation is said to be ‘under God,’ it has its being only in ‘this world’ – a specific kind of world. The men and women of each national society make and own their history. ‘Nature’ and ‘culture’ (that famous duality accompanying the rise of nationalism) together form the conditions in which the nation uses and enjoys the world. Mankind dominates nature and each person fashions his or her individuality in freedom regulated by the nation-state. (193)

Asad’s work clarifies the specific relationship between the religious-secular divide and state power. Part of the colonial-capitalist nation-state’s claim to sovereignty involves positioning itself as the beneficently disinterested and exclusive arbiter of rights and purveyor of liberties to an atomized and undifferentiated citizenry. Concomitantly, just as the liberal state is evacuated of historical and cultural particularity as well as of metaphysical and moral significance in order to rule, so too is the individual citizen eviscerated of any substantial means of public differentiation so as to belong “discretely and exclusively” to the nation-state (and, we might add, so as to be the kind of infinitely flexible workers and consumers among and between whom the free market is necessarily constituted by owners of capital).

CHURCH 2 PDIn this light, it is immediately clear why American Christians (more specifically mainline American Protestants) would constitute themselves as “religious” communities, articulated on the basis of an exclusive concern for the private, the metaphysical, and the subjective. Asad writes that, “the insistence on a sharp separation between the religious and the secular goes with the paradoxical claim that the latter continually produces the former” (192). The secular state, ironically, needs safely particularistic religion to contain the historical, cultural, metaphysical, and moral content of which it has emptied itself. It is in acting as a receptacle for this content that American Protestant denominations take on the status of bourgeois religion.

This is the most important paradox to understand: it is precisely in their disestablishment (separation from state power) that American religions are established (pressganged into the service of state power) by creating an areligious, purportedly neutral space for the liberal democratic state to inhabit, and from which to mediate bourgeois interests, abstracted and clothed in the language of universal rights and liberties. Insofar as it helps to constitute this space, commonly called the secular, religion is a hegemonic cultural formation.


Ecumenical and interfaith justice work needs to distance itself from the category of religion and more actively question the secularity of the liberal state.

In contrast to earlier secularization theorists like Jose Casanova, Asad’s work questions the assumption that there is such a thing as religion that exists as a stable feature of human existence which was relatively public prior to the European Enlightenment and now is becoming more and more private. The Enlightenment, and subsequent processes of modernization in the West, did not limit religion to the private sphere. Rather, these phenomena constructed religion as a private, cognitive, voluntary phenomenon in order to uphold a disenchanted, ideologically self-effacing form of political economy by divesting both the modern state and the political subject of their historical and cultural character. In order to do this, religion must be completely separated from politics, and it is the work of modern liberal (and conservative!) Protestant theologies from Schleiermacher onwards to do just that, identifying religion (which, as above, is assumed private, cognitive, voluntary) as a common human experience of and response to the sacred, and identifying Christianity as a religion among other religions, implicitly (and at times explicitly) acknowledging the colonial-capitalist nation-state’s claim, in contrast, to be secular.

Shutterstock - Justice on MapFrameworks for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, like that of the WCC cited above, continue this politically conservative work when they treat religion as a stable field for the mediation of difference. They do this in at least three ways.

First, as already mentioned, ecumenical and interfaith frameworks re-inscribe at every turn the state and other imperial institutions’ claims to be neutral in inter-group conflict and to play the universally beneficent role of dispensing (or at least protecting in a natural law framework) individual rights – a claim that is facially laughable in light of the obvious role that these institutions play in upholding dominatory power structures of colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and highly unequal divisions of wealth, income, and labor. The colonial-capitalist nation-state is anything but neutral, and it is a basically politically conservative move to treat it as if it is, but this is exactly what interfaith and ecumenical justice work does in using the category of religion as a field for the articulation of difference and mediation of reciprocal relationships.


The colonial-capitalist nation-state is anything but neutral, and it is a basically politically conservative move to treat it as if it is.

This means that there are certain claims that religious bodies simply are not supposed to make vis-a-vis the state. Religious leaders can call for compassion towards immigrants and refugees, but they are not supposed to contest the sovereignty with which nation-states erect borders in the first place – that would be to step into the political arena. Similarly, they can call for corporations to pay a living wage but they are not supposed to question the division of wealth and labor that puts the corporation in a position to dictate the payment of wages in the first place, lest they step into the economic arena.

Sign outside the United Methodist Building in Washington, DC, headquarters for many mainline Protestant denominations' political advocacy on Capitol Hill Photo Credit: PC(USA) Office of Public Witness
Sign outside the United Methodist Building in Washington, DC, headquarters for many mainline Protestant denominations’ political advocacy on Capitol Hill
Photo Credit: PC(USA) Office of Public Witness

To be sure, these are prevailing norms and generalizable tendencies and do not describe the behavior of every Christian or Jewish or Muslim leader or community. The histories of all of traditions are filled with courageous individuals and communities who, contesting the norms of Enlightenment and modernity, brought confessional ethics to bear on political and economic problems rather than using what John Rawls has famously called “public reason.” Any activist who has tried to read the Bible at a city council hearing on zoning changes in a low income neighborhood, or cite Catholic social teaching while on trial for an act of civil disobedience against killer drones or nuclear weapons, however, knows just how strong the pressure to use public reason is.

Moreover, examples from the historical record, ranging from land claims cases decided against indigenous nations to the media-driven derision and government-sanctioned repression of non-Christian African American traditions to the contemporary obsession with “political Islam,” show quite conclusively that the pressure to use public reason is the strongest and the most violent when it is directed towards people and groups written out of an American public that is normatively Protestant and paradigmatically white.


The histories of all of traditions are filled with courageous individuals and communities who have brought confessional ethics to bear on political and economic problems.

In short, in a modern, post-enlightenment world, a world divided between a historical, enculturated, particular religious sphere and a neutral secular sphere, actors operating under a religious mandate can make all the moral claims that they would like vis-a-vis the prevailing political and economic world (after all, morality is one of the things that has been privatized with the aforementioned construction of religion). What they are not permitted to do by the powers that rule the colonial capitalist world is compare and come to judgments among fundamentally different possible political and economic worlds. But this kind of revolutionary-imaginative capacity is precisely what is involved in any kind of serious effort at social-structural change, whether reformist or revolutionary (Christians usually call this kind of imagination apocalyptic).

Greg Impossibility religious freedomAll of this ignores, of course, the fact that national boundaries and divisions of wealth make concrete claims about the nature and good of the human person, and therefore about a whole host of theological topics. As J. Kameron Carter and Willie Jennings have thoroughly demonstrated in their work, for example, racial formation over the past 500 years, both in the U.S. and globally, has been an irreducibly theological phenomenon. Their observations, no less than Asad’s work, are a basic challenge to the presumed division between a secular politics and economics and a religious sphere that is private, cognitive, and voluntary. In order to fully explore the political implications of this claim, however (much less to pursue these implications in concrete political action), ecumenical and interfaith justice work would need to distance itself from the category of religion and more actively question the secularity of the liberal state.

The second not-immediately-apparent way in which ecumenical and interfaith work is politically conservative has to do with the origins and continued functioning of religion as a particularly Protestant category, into which efforts at ecumenical and interfaith dialogue respectively demand non-Protestant and non-Christian actors and communities to fit. That religion should be defined as something private, cognitive, and voluntary carries deeply Protestant assumptions about the nature (individual and rational) and good (interior transformation) of the human person, as well as the shape of the sorts of communities that the “religious” category includes. Winfred Sullivan has helpfully coined the term “small-p protestant” in his important volume The Impossibility of Religious Freedom to discuss what Americans are referring to in law and custom when they name religion. Somewhat crassly (but not without truth), we could describe the situation created by the use of religion as a category for the mediation of difference by paraphrasing Henry Ford’s famous dictum about the model-T automobile: “You can be any religion you like in America, as long as it is protestant.”


That religion should be defined as something private, cognitive, and voluntary carries deeply Protestant assumptions.

The Protestant biases implicit in the category of religion have very real political implications. For one thing, as Lamin Sanneh has persuasively argued, this has a great deal to do with the suspicion with which white Protestant Americans treat Islam: “In truth, the West’s own religious heritage has weakened from fragmentation, and the [residual] piety that is suitable for a weekend routine can be reduced to private discussions. It has rendered the West tone deaf to Islam….” Sanneh was writing immediately after 9/11, attempting to diagnose the virtual hysteria that gripped white Americans in their attitudes towards Islam and, particularly, their inability to understand “Islamic fundamentalism.” The dynamics he describes, however, continue to be deeply operative and are visible in the wanton racial profiling and Islamophobia that goes on at any major airport terminal in the United States today.

Greg Wegner We Have a ReligionIf Sanneh is right, Islamophobia is basically rooted in the Euro-American Protestant conceit (a conceit rooted in and inscriptive of colonial histories) that Islam is not a religion (defined in Protestant terms) and that it stands in danger of interfering with the secular (read colonial-capitalist) political economy of the western world.

This is not a new dynamic. It has confronted Catholics, Mormons, and – with especially strong vehemence documented by Tisa Wenger’s We Have a Religion – indigenous peoples working to preserve their land base, traditional forms of governance, and ceremonial practices. Yet these dynamics are incredibly difficult to name so long as ecumenical and interfaith work continues to operate under the moniker of religion, since it is the water within which this sort of work swims.

The third way in which ecumenical and interfaith use of the category of religion is politically conservative is closely related to this. Mormonism and Catholicism were eventually accepted as part of the American religious landscape. This involved enormous amounts of political violence in both cases, of a similar sort to what we are now seeing vis-a-vis Islam. Even though some manner of acceptance was eventually gained in the case of these two communities, this acceptance was not natural or inevitable: plenty of traditions and communities have been rejected, not least of all indigenous traditions in North America. Wenger’s work documents how the preservation of indigenous nations’ land bases and modes of governance have consistently been rejected in American jurisprudence as entailments of “religious freedom.”


In articulating Christianity as a religion, I believe that I am undermining my ability to bear witness to the radical and transformative gospel of Jesus Christ that challenges every sphere of life, including politics and economics.

Indigenous nations, however, have continued to resist, and Glen Coulthard’s volume, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition documents this trajectory of resistance, which has arguably built up to the #IdleNoMore movement. Coulthard notes that #IdleNoMore has refused easy separations of spirituality or culture from politics, arguing, for example, that in this context round dances have had as much political significance as blockades, which have in turn had as much religious significance as round dances. Any framework, including the vocabulary of religion and secularity, that continues to separate cultural questions of recognition from political questions of distributive justice – even a framework like Nancy Fraser’s bivalent conception of justice that recognizes the existence and interaction of both – will inevitably miss this.

Image: Public Domain
Image: Public Domain

Given that #IdleNoMore and similar movements are engaging in precisely the sort of imagination and adjudication of different possible political and economic worlds that the language of religion limits, activists committed to ecumenical and interfaith justice work should consider relativizing or even (if possible) doing away with the language of religion entirely. This would better facilitate real engagement and dialogue with movement and community spaces that are not reducible to religious categories. As a white settler who belongs to a Christian tradition (i.e. radical reformed Protestantism) that is deeply committed to peace and justice, I have come to this conclusion for myself on at least two grounds. First of all, in articulating Christianity as a religion, I believe that I am undermining my ability to bear witness to the radical and transformative gospel of Jesus Christ that challenges every sphere of life, including politics and economics.

Second, and equally if not more importantly, I am limiting my ability to listen to and therefore to love my neighbors – both those whose categories of being are deformed by my calling them religious (especially my Muslim neighbors) and those who, voluntarily or involuntarily, are located outside of the field of the religious entirely (especially my indigenous neighbors engaged in the radical politics of decolonization exemplified by #IdleNoMore). Given that love of neighbor is ostensively the main reason for engaging in ecumenical and interfaith activism in the first place, this would seem to make coming up with an alternative to the language of religion an extremely important priority for those of us doing this activism in a post-secular age.


AUTHOR BIO: Greg Williams is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and a current ThD student at Duke Divinity School who writes out of his experience doing grassroots community organizing and nonviolent direct action from an anti-colonial/anti-capitalist perspective on the nonstatist democratic left. He has been particularly active in anti-globalization, anti-poverty, labour, migrant justice, prison abolitionist, and indigenous and Palestinian solidarity work. Currently, he works with the Inside-Outside Alliance building power against the Durham county jail with detainees and their loved ones, and serves as delegate at large for North Carolina in the Industrial Workers of the World. He is an Ashkenazi Jew, a radical reformation protestant, and an Anarch@Communist.

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