Putting Us in Our Place

Picture 11There’s an interesting story now making the rounds of the internet, in which Congressman Jeff Duncan (Republican, South Carolina, pictured above) is quoted as saying the following about the Roman Catholic Church’s recent recognition of Palestine as a state:

Picture 10Of course the deep irony is the speed with which a variety of politicians in the US cite their own religious beliefs as evidence for their political positions or how frequently they decry the so-called separation of church and state — when it suits them.

That’s what makes this quote news.

But what concerns me is how we — scholars of religion included — hear Duncan’s claims; for many (just like the news sites on the political left that are covering this story) will conclude that he’s a hypocrite or a self-interested flip-flopper. Rather, wouldn’t it be more interesting to see such claims as part of the regular give and take of how we use the category religion in popular discourse — as a rhetorical tool, empty of its own inherent or natural meaning, that is employed whenever we wish to authorize or dismiss something (all depending on how its defined, what our interests are, the nature of the situation we’re in, etc.)? For if that was how we read such quotes then they wouldn’t stand out all that much, since they’d be but one more example of a tactical rhetorician at work.

I recall a paper at this past year’s meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Religion, in San Diego, where law students practicing arguments in moot court were cited as an example of the innumerable and thus imprecise ways in which the notion of religion is defined and thereby used in US law. The audience laughed, in that sort of self-satisfied way you sometimes hear at conferences, at the list of conflicting definitions employed in their arguments, but I couldn’t help but assume the humor, much like the newsworthiness of that story about Duncan, was driven by their misguided confidence that there really is a right way to define the term since religion is, or so they seemed to think, a really real thing that US law just gets wrong. But for me, as a scholar of religion, this is a far bigger problem than whatever Duncan is trying to do.

For instead of assuming that our word names something tangible in people’s lives (or is it in their hearts?) we could be studying the variety of strategic ways in which social actors create a habitable space for themselves by putting others in their place — among those strategies are fences, of course, and police forces and the notion of private property and…, and…, but also their deployment of this word “religion,” defined in who knows how many different ways but always used to achieve certain advantages in any number of differing but always specific situations. If so, then policing consistency among those actors and their uses of terminology misses the point entirely — for (tipping my hat to that famous line from Foucault) who among us is consistent? Our interests change with the situation and so attaining those ends and selecting the tools that suit the job are ongoing works in progress.

We are all bricoleurs — US Congressmen no more or less than Popes.

If this is how we approached it then we’d not chuckle at those law students defining religion in umpteen different ways; instead, we’d perhaps marvel at their ingenuity and see them as a fascinating example of the novelty of the interested but situated social actor.

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