I taught religion and politics this past semester, a class I had not had occasion to teach for six years. When I last taught religion and politics, I did so very much in the spirit of the books in this forum. Joan Wallach Scott had recently joined us on campus at Arizona State, together with Saba Mahmood, Janet Jakobsen, Molly McGarry, and a dozen or so other bright lights in the discussion of secularism, sex, and gender. The occasion was a gathering my colleague Linell Cady and I convened that became the basis for the volume Religion, the Secular, and the Politics of Sexual Difference. Scott’s contribution to the volume rehearses the argument she develops in Sex and Secularism: “gender inequality was fundamental to the articulation of the separation of church and state that inaugurated Western modernity”; assertions that secularism brings about equality between men and women are therefore false; and these false assertions have been used both to buttress claims of white, Western, and Christian superiority and to distract from persistent inequalities of sex and gender across societies.
Sara R. Farris’s In the Name of Women’s Rights provides the richest of case studies in illustration of this thesis. How does the commonsense assertion that secularism brings about gender equality come to bear on the lives of immigrant Muslim women in contemporary western Europe? Under what Farris calls a regime of “femonationalism,” the need driving these women into France, Italy, and the Netherlands is figured as the need for deliverance from the sexual oppressions of Islam. “Liberated” into these nations’ entrenched underclass of domestic laborers, immigrant women work as caregivers and maids in the private sphere, freeing white European women to enter the public sphere on a footing with white European men. In this way, Farris shows, the public-facing commitment to gender equality that secures secular Europe’s vaunted superiority to Islam depends on the continuing subordination of Muslim women as its structuring condition.
Together, Sex and Secularism and In the Name of Women’s Rights considerably deepen and extend the conversation into which I sought to bring my students in 2012. But the class I taught this spring looks very little like the class I taught then.
When the semester began in January 2018, a year into the Trump administration, I showed up on the first day of class empty-handed. I had made a few attempts at a syllabus and thrown them away. I confessed to the students that I wrote and read and thought a great deal about religion and politics over the last twenty years, but that I was not sure what I could teach them now. Tell me what most baffles and disturbs you, I said; we will create a reading list together and I will offer what I can in the way of context, history, and theory to help us muddle through. My students wanted to talk about Charlottesville, the NRA, the Muslim Ban, the border wall, the fate of the undocumented Dreamers (including upward of a thousand enrolled at ASU), Obamacare, Masterpiece Cakeshop, and #MeToo. Above all they wanted to know why 81 percent of the white evangelical Christian electorate cast their votes for Donald Trump.
The invitation to contribute to this forum came in the early days of our effort to create a class from these befuddlements. I would like to make it the occasion to think about how the conversation about sex and secularism can help us navigate religion and politics in the immediate present.
“Secularism,” wrote the forum’s editors in their invitation, “now championed by Left and Right alike, has come to stand for sexual freedom and sexual democracy above all else.” Farris and Scott each make the case that Western democracies’ identification with secularism and sexual freedom is what licenses their anti-immigration and anti-Muslim platforms. That the United States and western Europe stand between women’s sexual freedoms and The Handmaid’s Tale-like impositions of religious law is a tenet of the “sexual clash of civilizations” thesis advanced by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, which Scott and Farris read as symptomatic of the dynamics they address. But is the discourse of secularism, as the banner of sexual freedom and sexual democracy, really championed on both the Left and the Right in America today?
It does appear that the party of Donald Trump is willing variously to overlook or embrace a racist, nationalist message served up as sexual license. Trump entered presidential politics as the most loudmouthed of the Birthers, whose rumormongering sought to deny Barack Obama’s legitimacy on national and religio-racial grounds. He emerged more or less unscathed from the Access Hollywood episode, in which he bragged of sexual assault on tape. His approval ratings fell off steadily in his first year in office but ticked back up following a news cycle dominated by his affair with a porn star. When demonstrators at UC-Berkeley protested the appearance last September of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, a stop on what he called his Dangerous Faggot Tour, Trump invited Yiannopoulos to the White House and threatened to cut off the University’s funding. The telegenic, briefly ascendant Yiannopoulos appears to have been positioned as CPAC’s answer to the Netherlands’ Pim Fortuyn, the charismatic right-wing populist who opposed immigration, he said, because he wanted to have sex with young Moroccan boys without prudish imams getting in the way. I recently attended a meet-and-greet at a coffee shop in Phoenix for a Muslim woman candidate for public office. The event drew half a dozen protestors in MAGA hats who chanted No Islam, No Sharia law, and who carried rainbow flags among their signs.
Then there is Mike Pence, to whom Trump reportedly gestured during a White House meeting on gay rights and said, “Don’t ask that guy—he wants to hang them all!” As a member of Congress, Pence advocated that funding for HIV prevention in Africa be tied to disastrous abstinence-only policies. As governor of Indiana, Pence signed into law a bill passed by the GOP-controlled state legislature that would have allowed businesses to deny services to gay customers on religious grounds. Within a week, the backlash against the religious freedom bill moved Pence to revise the bill in an effort to salvage his dimming prospects for reelection in Indiana. Within two years, the backlash against the backlash would put him in the White House. After the Access Hollywood tape dropped, Pence reportedly planned to go rogue, wresting the ticket and the evangelical voter base away from Trump. When Trump managed to maneuver his evangelical support back into place and win the presidency, Pence took charge of the Trump transition, promoting Neil Gorsuch and stacking the cabinet with evangelical Christian appointees.
Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini suggest that the Christian right develops its political and cultural power “both by drawing on its connection to the Christian aspect . . . of hegemonic Christian secularism and by claiming to be oppressed by that same secularism.” Those who champion secularism in the cause of sexual freedom, meanwhile, might be seen to tout the secular aspects of this hegemonic Christian secularism while claiming to be oppressed by its Christian aspect. Citing Michel Foucault, Scott describes sexuality as “a dense transfer point for relations of power.” As a transfer point for relations of power between Christian and secular discourses, sex is sometimes the splice that joins them in shared projects, sometimes the site of redoubled and mutually charged opposition. One need not “go around the world to find a sexual clash of civilizations,” the conservative Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president R. Albert Mohler observed in 2005, a decade before Donald Trump would be taken seriously as a contender for the presidency. Here in America, he went on, “Christian believers committed to biblical orthodoxy”—Mohler’s own evangelical flock—“still hold tenaciously to biblical morality and patterns of sex and marriage.” The sexual clash Mohler described had long pitted the secular Left and the religious Right against one another on questions of sexual equality and access to birth control and abortion. At the same time, shared alarm over the vaunted sexual oppressions of Sharia law united many secularists and Christian conservatives in support of US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, even as voices on the secular Left and the Christian Right continued to use differently weighted versions of sexual-clash discourse against one another.
A legacy of the Trump-Pence administration may be an erosion of the sexual-clash discourse, a mutual wearing away of its antinomies and their explanatory power at the point of (where else?) sexuality. Maybe eight in ten white evangelical Christian voters could support an unrepentant sexual predator for the presidency because on that score he looked no worse than their own. Christians for whom the language of “family values” has long underwritten a culture of white patriarchal license appear to have found Trump’s transgressions familiar and forgivable: Trump preys on women in the way of powerful, entitled men everywhere. Ho hum. When he addresses cheering crowds of evangelical supporters, Mike Pence reportedly conveys the president’s greetings to them with a knowing chuckle that elicits these devotees’ wry laughter in return. Pence’s winking assurances to the white evangelical base—we know who Trump is; we are thinking long game—seem to bank on the continuing potency of the sexual-clash discourse, including its power to boost West-against-the-rest interventions at the border and abroad. But it is getting harder for the Left and the Right to use the sexual-clash discourse against one another when the white Christian electorate sided with a libertine who boasts of his sexual prowess in the pages of Playboy, on whose March 1990 cover he appears. The framed Trump Playboy cover is visible behind Jerry Falwell, Jr. in a photo Falwell tweeted from Trump Tower in late June 2016, the occasion of his presentation of the future president to fellow religious leaders in a New York City summit.
Scott and Farris both show how religious and secular discourses collaborate in the structuring of persistent inequalities, a difficult sell for those who would pin their hopes on the secular Left to solve them. Can approaching sexuality as a “transfer point for relations of power” help us imagine different collaborations?
What most white Christians appear to have accepted or embraced in Trump—a sexual culture of white male entitlement—has prompted a reckoning among others. Karen Pence reportedly finds Trump vile. We have that much in common. Albert Mohler refused to endorse or vote for either Trump or Roy Moore; two months before Charlottesville, he led the Southern Baptist Convention in a resolution condemning “every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
My religion and politics class included students who identified as evangelical Christian, atheist, progressive, Jewish, Mormon, conservative, Dreamer, Muslim, and queer. They were uniformly alarmed by Trump and horrified by the alt-right, but otherwise held a range of views on the issues they identified as pressing, including those that turned on sex. I told them that their most important assignment over the course of the semester would be to articulate their differences with humility and respect and to negotiate them with civility, and they delivered, beautifully. If sex is the “dense transfer point for relations of power” between religious and secular discourses, I wonder, might lingering here also yield new ways of imagining the nexus of religion and politics?