The State as Church and the Politics of Sacred Community

The Alfred Landecker Programme Seminars
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Online event
Invited audience only
This event is free
23
November 2021
Seminar

Please note: This seminar is held as a meeting via Zoom. For more information and to make a request to participate, please email marietta.vandertol@bsg.ox.ac.uk.

The Alfred Landecker Programme's seminar series on religion, politics & belonging is pleased to welcome Dr Markha Valenta (Utrecht University) to present her research on politics, anthropology and history. During the Spring of 2021, Markha worked on her project “The Citizenship of the Non-Citizen” at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study. 

Discussions of church-state relations too often neglect the extent to which the power and legitimacy of modern states depend on their ability to behave religiously: to sacralise; to ritualise; to sacrifice; to bind community to territory; to activate morality, truth, violence, justice and reconciliation; to ensure existential survival and give ontological meaning. These dynamics are central rather than incidental and suggest it is worth exploring the vital “churchly” and “churching” elements of the modern state that make religious effects inevitable and essential. 

States are currently the preeminent global form for organising political and moral community across time and space, even as each state differs from every other in how it does this. This conjunction of power, morality and ontology – as material as it is ideological, as communal as it is individual – enables and requires “religion” (as a set of processes and effects, rather than as a specific tradition or identity). The structures and logics of the state that produce such religion constitute the inextricable “church” within the state, in which “church “(akin to religion) is a process and effect rather than a specific tradition or institution. Correspondingly, talk of the institutional “separation of church and state” in modern states obscures the extent to which states very much “do religion” – enact religious processes to religious effect – in a fashion essential to their success as modern states. In this sense, church is to state as religion is to nationalism. The relation is porous, variegated, and interdependent.

This is as true of states with long traditions of hegemonic Christianity (and churches) as of ones with non-Christian religious traditions, communities and institutions. The “church” within the state is a set of practices and effects inherent to states as such. At the same time, the ways in which this takes shape today are deeply informed by the ways in which the globalisation of the modern nation-state form emerged in the context of Western imperialism and Asian, African and Latin American decolonisation. 

This talk will consider how these dynamics take shape, such that we can speak of an “ecclesiology of the modern state.” Undergirding the discussion are larger, fundamental questions: to begin with, how to unearth the history of the state as church, from the Spanish Inquisition to European imperial state formations to US “congregational” democracy? A second question concerns how such state churching takes shape in societies whose primary religious institutions are not churches (touching on China, Iran, Israel, Turkey, India). Last but not least, how does the ecclesiology of the state and its production of sacred community instigate the concomitant production of despised minorities, chauvinism and inhumanity by states?