Thursday, May 28th, 2015
I have spent the past year thinking primarily about the relationship between religion, race, and political order through both the particular history of the US nation-state and a global comparative framework. Somewhat to my surprise, I have found Elizabeth A. Pritchard’s Religion in Public: Locke’s Political Theology to be one of the more productive books for re-thinking the normative force that liberal political theory has had in conceptualizing “religion” in a certain way. Pritchard provides us an impressive and intriguing re-reading of Locke that scholars interested in secularism, conceptions of public(s), or religion and the state will find useful.
Whether in critiques or celebratory accounts, political theorists have highlighted Locke’s ideas about the social contract, the right to property, and the “separation of church and state.” Re-imagining the relation between these pillars of liberalism, Pritchard aims to provide an alternate reading of Locke by exploring his “political theology.” Locke, she argues, did not simply separate religion from politics by relegating religion to private life. Rather, Locke conceptualized religion as discourse that could circulate by way of textual and linguistic persuasion, thus abstracting religion from embodied and emplaced contexts. This process, she notes, constitutes a type of “secularization of religion.”
Pritchard sets herself up with a difficult task. Locke’s treatises are full of lines about “inward true religion” and the dangers of jumbling heaven and earth together. These oft-cited quotes might work against her argument. But Religion in Public is a project of recovery. The book uses Locke to address contemporary political controversies over the relationship the acceptable role of religion in publics. In a clever maneuver that pulls the rug out from under political liberal canon, Pritchard provides an alternate reading of Locke to critique the persistent salience of a “mainstream” Lockean legacy—one in which the secular and the religious are, if properly understood and practiced, worlds apart.
She builds her alternate reading by attending to a recurrent problem for Locke and his interlocutors—the slippage between persuasion and coercion. If Locke re-fashioned religion from a vertically-defined embodied disposition (e.g., for Locke, Catholicism) to a horizontally-defined circulating discourse, did he conceive of religion as separate from power? If religion is an opinion or a “fashion” that a subject subscribes to or can possess, does religion have no force? Does the state have no mandate to regulate religion? And wasn’t this conceptualization of religion as freely circulating and choosable particular, not universal?
Locke, Pritchard argued, sought to resolve the tension between religion as persuasive and religion as coercive by acknowledging that certain preconditions must be in place before religion could circulate freely in a public. Indeed, certain cultural preconditions are necessary before consent, which is a necessary capacity for legitimate persuasion, is possible. A properly functioning public must rely upon a shared belief in god and property, both of which are necessary to guarantee the trustworthiness of citizen-subjects who had to persuade others in honest ways and give consent to be persuaded. The “secular,” within which religion becomes portable, relies upon the sacralization of property, both in the sense that people are the property of god (and thus responsible to god) and that human-owned property is sacred (along with the oaths and obligations that follow). A legitimate political body depends on a legitimate political theology, which is why, for Locke, tolerance need not apply to Catholics, Mormons, atheists, or “heathens.”
Pritchard insists that in Locke we can see a subtle “force at a distance” become allowable. This force at a distance is the coercion that is legitimated through a sacralization of the preconditions for public participation—they are non-negotiable. The secular, even when set as the medium within which religion becomes portable, has been premised on conditions that are not universal, and that Pritchard defines as “religious” themselves. “Consequently,” she argues, “what we must learn to see and feel in the secular is force at a distance become ambient, penetrative, enchanted, injurious” (153). In her final chapter Pritchard draws parallels between the mainstream Lockean secular and the “overlapping consensus” of John Rawls, noting that the sacralization of human rights and “public reason” might function in a similarly exclusionary or coercive manner as Locke’s godly property. Building on insights from Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Saba Mahmood, and others, Religion in Public forcefully reminds us that we can no longer conceptualize the “secular” as a mere medium for discourse that is open to all. The secular has content. The secular has particular preconditions.
Religion in Public prompted, for me, a host of productive questions about my own research interests and the historical contexts of classic political theorists, especially Locke. Why did it become intelligible (eventually) to re-fashion religion into a circulatory discourse in the Lockean mode? Why tie it to property? As she notes, Locke understood the protection of private property to be a precondition for both a legitimate state and full participation in publics. Locke theorized this legitimacy by reference to the illegitimacy of Native Americans and Africans, as Pritchard briefly notes (102–106). Locke, like many early modern political theorists, was intellectually and financially invested in European overseas commerce and colonies. The importance of the European colonial context for Locke is clear in his Second Treatise on Government. I hope that Religion in Public signals a future with more research on this context, which would, I suggest, open up spaces to connect the theological (or “religious” or “cultural”) preconditions of publicity to historical processes of racialization, gendering, and nationalization. These are the very conditions that I would argue might explain the endurance and resonance of the “mainstream” Lockean legacy.
Jeffrey Wheatley is a graduate student at Northwestern University. His research explores formations of religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @wheatleyjt.