Focus: Sex and Secularism

18 June 2018


When French and American scholars and journalists attempt to discuss the role of religion in their respective democracies, it is often apparent that in more senses than one, they are not speaking the same language. The legal regimes of separation of religion and state are profoundly similar between the two countries. Yet there is no subject that can reveal the divergent understandings of democracy between them quite like that of laïcité, of which “secularism” is only an imprecise translation. During the periodic flare-ups of controversy in French political debate relating to religion, typically Islam, Americans are often astounded that seemingly harmless symbols such as headscarves are even a subject of discussion for anyone outside of the far right. Defenders of the French secularist tradition frequently retort that America’s supposedly more tolerant model has handed unthinkable amounts of power to the Christian right, which has hardly needed laïcité to develop its own forms of anti-Muslim intolerance.


These sorts of divergences were already apparent in Tocqueville’s time. Writing long before presidential “prayer breakfasts” and the Moral Majority, Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America a remarkable consensus on the idea of separation between religion and politics. Democracy requires this separation, he argued, since a regime built on regular changes of leadership—where power is what Claude Lefort famously called an “empty place”—cannot afford to tie its symbols of authority to a particular spiritual tradition. American religion is allowed to exert an enormous and durable influence in the moral sphere, but this religion becomes something different. Tocqueville was astonished by the “peaceful” nature of a religion adapted to democratic society, which did not seek power in the political sphere, and more often than not was little more than a vehicle for “universal” sentiments. Europeans, in contrast, retained a “political” concept of religion, taking for granted for example that Christianity aims at a certain vision of state power. The French tradition of laïcité has in many ways retained this conception, and Tocqueville’s description of his contemporary “unbelievers” might still describe today’s committed secularists: “Les incrédules d’Europe poursuivent les chrétiens comme des ennemis politiques, plutôt que comme des adversaires religieux.” From this point of view, the “American” approach to religion and state is hopelessly naïve, overlooking the potential for domination and coercion inherent in all religions.


Joan Wallach Scott has been one of the most consistent and challenging critics of this understanding of secularism, and her latest book, Sex and Secularism, sets its sight on what for many secularists is the primary site where protection from religious domination is most necessary: gender equality. Scott’s book, however, is not solely or even primarily a critique of French laïcité. She attempts to challenge what she sees as a dominant myth of secularists from across the contemporary world, the idea that with secularism necessarily comes advances in equality between women and men. In the critical tradition inspired by thinkers like Michel Foucault, Scott makes the historical case that if the separation of religion and state did break down old gender inequalities, it simultaneously constructed new ones of its own.


This forum devoted to Sex and Secularism assembles four thinkers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds to engage with Scott’s book and its contribution to an understanding of contemporary democracy. First, Tim Crane asks whether an ideal of secularism can be retained in light of Scott’s evidence of the role the discourse of secularism has played in reconstructing the subjugation of women. Nadia Abu El-Haj then attempts to push Scott’s analysis of the role of women’s freedom in secular discourse into a discussion of what sex, intimacy, and the family have to do with democratic freedoms more generally. Peter Coviello goes on to examine Scott’s work as a pedagogical project in today’s journalistic context. On a similar note, Valentine Zuber brings Sex and Secularism into some of the latest polemics in the French media. Finally, in her response to these comments, Scott not only defends her methodological focus on secularism as a discourse, but also—in the spirit of a recent article she co-wrote with Ethan Kleinberg and Gary Wilder—makes the case for a larger theoretical project of viewing sexuality as a foil for the uncertainties of democratic society.


This discussion hardly settles the various quarrels between conflicting visions of secularism or gender equality. But whichever side of these debates one comes down on, Scott and her reviewers make clear the centrality of these questions for a transatlantic and transnational understanding of democracy in our time.


Photo Credit: Sex and Secularism Book Cover, via Princeton Press, Fair Use.


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