The keyword “religion” names one side of a pair of terms—“religion” and “secularism”—each of which is defined by its opposition to the other. In this relational definition, religion is that which is not secular, is associated with the sacred rather than the profane, and is aligned with dogma rather than reason. As delineated through this series of oppositions, the concept of religion draws together a wide range of practices across cultures that may not have much in common with one another. The conflation of these practices under the sign of religion has its origins in the thought of Enlightenment writers such as David Hume ( 1993), for whom religion named the universal experience that marked the unity of human beings, even as it served to distinguish among humans on the basis of their different religions (R. Baird 2000). In the process, even practices that had no reference to a god, such as Buddhism, were assimilated to a category of religion organized around the Protestant concept of “faith.” The use of this Protestant heuristic can be seen today in US public discourse, in which the most common way of speaking of multiple religious groups is to refer to “faiths” (as in the Jewish “faith,” despite the fact that most forms of Judaism prioritize practice over faith).
Working from Protestantism as the model of religion implied that other practices must either conform to its norms or suffer by the comparison. As David Chidester (1996) has shown, for example, the peoples of southern Africa were treated at different stages in the colonial history of the region as if they had no religion, a religion like the ancient roots of Christianity, or a fundamentally different species of the genus religion. At each stage, the European understanding of southern African religion enabled particular forms of colonial interaction. In the final stage, when colonial rule was consolidated, southern Africans were seen as essentially like European Christians in that they “had” a religion but also as essentially different in their particular religion. This difference provided crucial conceptual support for the institutionalization of unequal treatment.
The Enlightenment idea of religion has remained powerful from the colonial past through the postcolonial present, as the keyword “religion” continues to mobilize a broad range of politics along the lines of race, nation, gender, and sexuality. US racial categories grew out of what was originally a distinction between Christians and “strangers,” a categorization that differentiated between Christian indentured servants and African slaves (Sweet 2003). But as Africans converted to Christianity, this distinction shifted toward a racial category that was understood to be unchangeable and, thus, not subject to conversion. At the same time, a truly unreasonable refusal to convert, as was the case with some Native Americans, was also increasingly taken as a marker of an inherent difference (Murphree 2004). In this view, only those who were unreasonable would refuse to see the light of Christianity, and racial difference was invoked to buttress the idea of such a profound difference. This intertwining of religious and racial identities continues to be evident in US public life, as exemplified by the frequent presumption that Arabs must be Muslim and Muslims must be Arab.
The linkage of race and religion is also implicated in a politics of gender and nation. As Minoo Moallem (2005) has argued, gendered ideas about Islam contribute to the idea of “fundamentalism” as that which distinguishes “the West” from Islam. Particularly since the Iranian revolution in 1979, “a turning point in . . . the representation of Islamic fundamentalism outside of Iran” (6), Muslim “fundamentalists” have been repeatedly portrayed through a masculinity that is “irrational, morally inferior, and barbaric” and a femininity that is “passive, victimized, and submissive” (8). In contrast to Muslim “fundamentalism,” the West is presumed to be “free” (secular or religious in a nonfundamentalist sense), and Western gender relations serve as the marker of that freedom.
The idea of religious fanaticism or “fundamentalism” is crucial to this set of associations. Like the category of religion, “fundamentalism” is a term that originally developed in the context of Protestantism, specifically in a 1920s conflict within US Protestantism over the literal interpretation of the Bible. In dueling pamphlets (“The Fundamentals” and “Will the Fundamentalists Win?”), “fundamentalists” were positioned as those who threatened liberal Protestants (Marsden 1980). Though the term has been extended to refer to other forms of conservative religion (most frequently Islam) for which biblical literalism is not an issue in the same way that it is for Protestantism, the sense of threat imputed to “fundamentalism” in the original conflict is maintained (and even magnified) when the term is applied to other religions. Like Hume’s category of religion, “fundamentalism” does the work of positing some “religions” as reasonable and others as threatening.
The intertwining of religion and secularism is part and parcel of prevalent mythologies of “Americanness.” The apparently contradictory positioning of the United States as a simultaneously secular and Christian country is based in a familiar narrative of national origin, in which religion—here again a mostly Protestant Christianity—plays a leading role. This dominant narrative, taught in virtually every US public school, includes the settlement of the continent by the New England Pilgrims in search of religious freedom, the institution of religious freedom in the First Amendment to the Constitution, the separation of church and state that was the basis of a putatively free and secular public sphere, and the rise of religious pluralism with successive waves of immigration. It is also possible, though certainly less common, to relate this narrative in a way that acknowledges the implication of religion in the violent underside of the establishment of the nation-state. This counternarrative includes the destruction of indigenous cultures and societies, the use of the Bible to legitimate slavery, and the role of Christian missionary activity in US imperialism throughout the world.
There can be no doubt that religion has been used to legitimate violence, both in the history of establishing the United States and in various contemporary religious movements—whether those of religious extremism in the United States or worldwide. When the category of religion is deployed to legitimate violence either domestically or abroad, it is appealing to turn to secularism as an answer. Yet a turn to the secular will not provide a simple escape. This is because the Enlightenment opposition with which we still live renders religion and secularism as intertwined. The opposition between the two terms is as likely to fuel conflict and violence as is taking up one side or the other. To be able to accuse an enemy of either failing to be religious or being unreasonably religious provides fuel for conflict and legitimation for violent action.
To see how religion and secularism are historically and conceptually linked is to understand why those who are “secular” are not necessarily less violent or more progressive than those who are “religious.” Many major social justice and peace movements throughout the world—from Catholic base communities fighting poverty in Latin America to the peaceful resistance of Tibetan Buddhism to the civil rights movements of the United States—have religious roots. The question for anyone who would use “religion” as a term of analysis in American studies and cultural studies is neither to distinguish the religious from the secular nor to ask “What is religion?” but to consider how the use of the term affects social relations and practices. This shift in perspective leads to a focus on the effects of claiming that something—a work of art or other cultural object, a person, a social movement—is or is not religious. Wars—both international and cultural—can be fueled by such claims; asking questions about how such claims are made can provide alternatives to violence, whether among religions or between religious and secular actors.