Bad Religion, or Bad Faith?

tags: religion

Caleb Smith, a professor of English and American studies at Yale University, is the author of The Prison and the American Imagination (Yale University Press) and The Oracle and the Curse (Harvard University Press).

In his recent polemic for The Chronicle Review, Jacques Berlinerblau testifies to a revelation: “The presence of more than 20,000 heavily armed National Guard troops at the Biden/Harris inauguration suggests the potency of the Christian right has advanced well beyond the ‘lurk’ stage.”

If you encounter Berlinerblau’s words out of context, you might think he means that the Christian right somehow displayed its “potency” by mustering thousands of National Guard soldiers in Washington on Inauguration Day. As Berlinerblau watches this “heavily armed” presence, you might suppose, he sees the Christian right’s hitherto lurking power manifested, under the open sky, in broad daylight. With this image of a weaponized force, you might imagine, the Christian right, in all of its spectacular and undeniable reality, has come out of hiding, to be reckoned with at last.

If you read the rest of the essay, though, you know that this is not what Berlinerblau means. Berlinerblau identifies the threat of violence not with the National Guard but with the people who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6. He calls the would-be insurrectionists “religious believers gone wild,” and he interprets their mission as one of “trashing the marble HQ of liberal democracy.” The attempted coup, Berlinerblau is saying, was the Christian right in its aggressive essence, finally revealing the true nature of its faith. His essay is a call to arms against two particular enemies: armed Christian insurgents and the scholars of American religion who, according to Berlinerblau, have failed to take them seriously.

Berlinerblau does not imagine the troops, “heavily armed” though they may be, as figures of potential violence at all. Instead, he treats the military presence as an essential security measure, the necessary response required to defend the U.S. government against a violent threat — the threat to secularism posed by the Christian right. In the various episodes that Berlinerblau calls up for us, secularism and its institutions are always under assault, always encroached upon, always on the defensive. In his scenarios, when liberal democracy defends itself, it is not doing violence; it is keeping the peace.

Some critics of U.S. military power in this century have also been critics of secularism. They have shown how government officials use the language of secularism to make certain distinctions — between, for instance, irrational violence and reasonable security. These critics have shown how such distinctions are sometimes used to justify far-reaching wars, torture, and the world’s largest prison system. The critics have also asked whether such programs should themselves be understood as rather more aggressive than defensive, more violence than security.



Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education

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