Last year’s series on Political Theology syllabi was such a success that we decided to do it again. Here is our first offering, by Devin Singh of Yale University.
This course was conceived as a way to introduce undergraduates to the conversation about religion and politics in Western tradition. I wanted to give them a broad historical overview, with in-depth selections or snapshots to get at ways the relation between religious and political spheres has been conceived in different historical moments. While I would love to move toward a comparative approach at some point, I chose to focus on the Christian tradition since this is my area of primary expertise. One of the main themes I wanted to stress was the ongoing blurring between “the religious” and “the political” in such thought, and to get students to question or to “make strange” the assumption that religion and politics are clearly defined and mutually exclusive spheres. The course thus takes up questions of secularization and ideas of a supposedly clear and sustainable separation between these spheres, a separation that ultimately creates the categories it demarcates.
Just as the idea of anything like a “Western tradition” can and should be problematized, so can any narrative arc to a course such as this. I simply chose one, a common one, problematic as it may be, and dove in, starting with ancient Greece and the Greco-Roman world. The first few weeks aimed to challenge the common glorification of these classical civilizations as secular forbears by showing the continual intermeshing of religion and politics, from the centrality of the gods of the city-state to the imperial cult, from religion as proper political ritual to worries about superstition or excessive devotion as undermining the state. We then turned to the emerging Christian community and the ideas about authority (divine and political) that it generated first as a marginal, persecuted movement and then as part of the voice of power as state religion. Medieval topics included the tug of war between papacy and emperor, the Investiture Controversy, and notions of the king’s two bodies. We considered some of the shifts in ideas of submission to authority, grounds of political participation, and models of church-state relations that emerge in the Reformation and early modernity, before turning to the question of a developing secular sphere. While most of the readings were primary texts from various historical moments, I included some contemporary theorists at this point to help frame debates about secularization (Casanova, Taylor, etc). In a previous iteration of this course, I also included Mark Lilla and Bill Cavanaugh as good conflicting perspectives on the viability and justifiability of secular political philosophy and defenses of a supposedly neutral public sphere, “freed” from religious interference or justification.
The particular version of the syllabus that I’ve attached here took out some of those theorists to make room for a discussion of race, religion, and politics in the US, as a way to discuss the events in Ferguson, MO which were unfolding at the time. I wanted to bring our discussion home and so included texts that helped frame the broader conversation historically and theologically. I also brought in some contemporary reflections from participants in and observers of the protests in Ferguson, reflections that employed religion as part of the rubric of analyses of problems of racism, police brutality, structural inequity, etc. I wanted to show that our conversation, which might appear to remain tied up with voices from a distant past, was completely relevant to and bound up with unfolding events in our time.
The course was a seminar focused around close readings and discussions of the texts. Class time was driven by many of the questions and concerns raised in student response papers, presentations, and general discussion. The students appreciated short lectures providing historical context to the texts and amplifying some of the ideas discussed. They also appreciated the narrative progression and unfolding story, which gave a scaffolding to the ideas, while understanding it as constructed and needing evaluation. In the future, I intend to retain the historical framework but break it up into two courses: one on ancient and medieval, and second on early modern to contemporary, to allow more in-depth examination.
Devin Singh is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Integrated Humanities and Lecturer in Religious Studies at Yale University.