Craig Martin is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College. He recently published his first book, Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion, and the Private Sphere (US Amazon, Canadian Amazon) with Equinox Press. He is editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and contributes at its blog. He took off some time for me to ask him a few questions related to Masking Hegemony, which was released at the close of 2010.

Chris Zeichmann: Can you summarize the argument of Masking Hegemony?

Craig Martin: I have a quasi-Marxist sociological theory of how society works; for instance, I’m a fan of people like Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu. According to such theorists, if you want to understand how things work in society, you probably need to start with a consideration of ideology and the institutions that socialize citizens (like families, churches, schools, etc.). They offer a bottom-up account of how power circulates. By contrast, liberal discourses—both popular and philosophical—tend to regard (religious) ideology and the work of families and churches as private matters that have (or should have) nothing to do with politics. The public/private distinction is supposed to secure a wall of separation preventing a bottom-up circulation of power.

That is a pretty serious difference: what critical sociologists think is most important is deemed irrelevant by liberal philosophers like John Locke. Supposedly, we can live together despite our religious differences because those differences don’t (or shouldn’t) really publicly matter. Since I side with the critical sociologists, when I read liberal theorists talking about religion like this, my “nonsense meter” goes into the red. I think we need to be much more careful about how the “religion is a private matter” rhetoric works, what it is supposed to do, what it actually does, and what it masks.

In the book I show how the “religion is private” rhetoric was designed in the first place to buttress arguments for religious tolerance following the Protestant Reformation. We can tolerate different religions because religion is a private matter that is inconsequential to the king, for instance. Later the rhetoric was turned toward new uses; at present it is usually enlisted by liberals who want to prevent, e.g., conservative Christians from imposing their values on state legislation regarding marriage.

In both cases the rhetoric secures the right for those institutions we identify as religious to socialize children and distribute ideology. For instance, if religion is a private matter, no one can interfere with how Christian parents raise their children or what church they attend weekly. However, there is probably nothing with more “public” consequences than the processes of socialization and the successful distribution of ideology. In the end, there’s nothing particularly “private” about those institutions we call “religious,” and repeating “religion is a private matter” over and over like a mantra is about as likely to be as effective as Frank Costanza’s repetition of “serenity now!” So I suggest that this liberal rhetoric can mask and thereby indirectly facilitate the processes by which religious institutions can build a hegemony—hence the title, Masking Hegemony.

CZ: One thing that I found particularly striking is how John Locke’s liberal configuration of religion and the state endures as the dominant conception with few substantial changes – you identify it as part of the American doxa. What is the appeal of the rhetoric of “privatized religion” in the 21st century?

CM: I don’t think discourses like this would persist unless they were useful, or perceived to be useful. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of vestigial “survivals” in our discourse, but I don’t think we have many “survivals.” Rhetoric “survives” because people continue to enlist it in support of their interests. I think that conservatives use the rhetoric because, as I noted above, it can be used to secure the right to religious freedom. On the other hand, I think liberals use it to attempt to secure the independence of the “public sphere” from religious institutions. “Religion is a private matter” can have the rhetorical force of “don’t tread on me.” For conservative religious practitioners, it means, e.g., “you can’t tell me how to raise my kids.” For liberals, it means, e.g., “what it says in your Bible about sex is irrelevant on the senate floor.”

CZ: You are highly critical of language of “the private sphere” and problematize it at length, while devoting comparatively little space to the secularization thesis. When reading Masking Hegemony, I could not help but think of how it runs in direct contrast to works such as José Casanova’s Public Religions in the Modern World that advocate a “social differentiation” version of the secularization thesis. Casanova defines this theory as “the conceptualization of the process of societal modernization as a process of functional differentiation and emancipation of the secular spheres – primarily the state, the economy, and science – from the religious sphere and the concomitant differentiation and specialization of religion within its own newly found religious sphere.” Do you think “secularization” retains any use as an analytic, or is it too embedded in the problems of “liberal religion”?

CM: This is a really important question, and I apologize if my answer is unreasonably long. This is something I’ve actually spent a lot of time thinking about recently!

One of my colleagues read a draft of the “Luther to Locke” chapter, and his initial response was something like this: “Sure, religion isn’t necessarily ‘private,’ but are you suggesting that the public/private rhetoric had no effect?” I spent a lot of time showing what the public/private rhetoric doesn’t do, but don’t really go into what it does do. I say at one point,
This does not mean that the discourse of religion as apolitical does no work other than to mask the political nature of religion. … I merely want to argue that there is not, in fact, a separation [of religion and politics], and I want to explain precisely how channels of power reach from so-called “private” institutions into “public” ones. (55)
All of that is to say that when half of the parents in the nation send their kids to Sunday school every week, there are inevitably “public” effects. Insofar as Casanova uses the language of “differentiation” and “spheres,” I cannot agree with him. We do not have differentiated spheres today. But this criticism tells us nothing about how those institutions we call religious are different today compared to, say, during the Middle Ages. For instance, Karen Armstrong’s religion is pretty far from fourteenth century “papism.” How do we account for this difference, and what vocabulary will help us put our finger on that difference?

If “secularization” implies a public sphere somehow free from, separated from, or differentiated from civil institutions—including religious institutions—then I don’t think the language of secularization will work. In an essay I was recently working on, I tried to use Bruce Lincoln’s minimalism/maximalism distinction to bring into relief the differences between medieval and modern social orders:
Bruce Lincoln’s maximalist/minimalist distinction is … useful for understanding some of the changes that came about in the Western world during the modern period. In Europe prior to this period, Christianity was the “central domain of culture.” The social order was ordered, legitimated, sustained, and contested through the use of Christian vocabulary, Christian stories, Christian institutions, and so on. Lincoln uses the term “maximalist” to identify this state of affairs—during this period religion had a “maximal” relation to social order.

By contrast, Lincoln suggests that after the rise of capitalism the economy becomes the “central domain of culture.” The world at large becomes ordered, legitimated, sustained, and contested by economic rationalities, discourses, and practices. When this happens, economics in a sense becomes “maximalist,” while religion is moved to a “minimalist” position.

For Lincoln, when religion is in the “maximalist” position, “cultural preferences [are] constituted largely as morality and stabilized by religion”; in addition, religious minimalism is “experienced as powerful and intrusive; a serious temptation for would-be elites and a dangerous threat to all.” When religious minimalism is hegemonic, however, “cultural preferences [are] constituted largely as fashion and open to market fluctuations”; in addition, religious maximalism is “experienced in two ways: a quaint, seductive diversion for some, and as a resentful atavism, capable of reactionary counterattacks.” By this I take Lincoln to mean, for instance, that for people who adopt religious minimalism, those who do not—like the American Amish or al Qaeda—are taken to be either “quaint” (interesting for sightseers) or dangerous.

I am somewhat uncomfortable with Lincoln’s distinction between religion and economics; while I would not say they are identical, I’m not sure it makes sense to register an ontological distinction between them (and perhaps Lincoln would not). Why not just say that Christianity went from being a maximalist discourse and set of practices to a minimalist position, but capitalism then replaced Christianity as the maximalist discourse and set of practices? Doing so would not result in positing some sort of fundamental distinction between “religion” and other forms of culture.

What do we gain by replacing the public/private dichotomy with the maximalist/minimalist one? We can recognize that those institutions we colloquially call religions have clearly taken a subordinate role to modern Western capitalism: for most of us in the modern western world, our lives are ordered more by our jobs, our taxes, our 401k retirement accounts, our mortgages, our car payments, and our credit card debts—all in pursuit of social distinction that bears a capitalist flavor, if Bourdieu is to be believed—than we are by the moral norms of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. However, this need not imply that there is something “private” about Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. For instance, evangelical Christians are highly active politically—to call their form of Christianity a “private matter” is to say something relatively nonsensical and vacuous of critical import (although not devoid of significance—arguments about the essentially private nature of religion advance social agendas even when they are not strictly true).
As capitalism becomes the dominant discourse and set of practices that order modern western life, minimalist forms of previously maximalist traditions emerge. We see the development of forms of liberal Christianity, for instance, that make fewer and fewer demands on the lives of its practitioners. Despite contemporary Evangelicals’ insistence that one should not be a Christian only on Sunday morning, most Christians are, in a manner of speaking. Groups like the Amish, whose members’ lives are dominantly ordered, legitimated, and maintained through their form of Christianity, are a rarity today. Subjects whose lives are ordered by capitalism think such groups quaint or extremist, as Lincoln rightly suggests. Any group that would demand that adherents actually adhere to habitus at odds with western consumerism is almost by definition “fanatical” (if one’s religious tradition requires one to move into shared living space, it’s probably a “cult”). By contrast, religious groups that make few if any demands on members’ lives—or at least demands that might conflict or chafe against late capitalism and its consumer culture—have grown in popularity. According to Terry Eagleton—in a discussion of the rise of the popularity of atheism—more and more people are paying attention to religion, “even in England, where religion is in general a rather moderate, discrete, slightly shamefaced affair—and … where people are likely to believe that when religion starts interfering with your everyday life that it’s time to give it up. In that sense it resembles alcohol, I suppose.” As long as one can hold a job and remain a consumer—thereby responsibly contributing to the economy—religion and alcohol are acceptable; once they begin interrupting one’s responsible contributions to the economy, that is when people start to raise eyebrows.[“The God Debate,” part of the Gifford Lecture series at the University of Edinburgh] As capitalism has replaced Christianity’s hegemonic position, most contemporary American Christians spend more time in shopping malls than in church, more time watching commercials than reading the Bible.
However, in the end I even abandoned this set of concepts. Ironically, the same colleague who suggested that I’d underestimated the effect of the public/private rhetorical also got me to see that I’d overestimated the minimalist/maximalist rhetoric. So I ended the essay on religious minimalism like this:
The minimalist/maximalist distinction ultimately breaks down for two interrelated reasons. First, it can implicitly carry a judgment of orthodoxy: it tends to imply that maximalist Christianity, for instance, is true Christianity, and that minimalist Christianity is an inauthentic deviation. The claim that minimalist Christians do not allow Christianity to make demands on their life only makes sense if we assume in advance that Christianity is a tradition that places demands on individuals that fundamentally conflict with capitalism or consumerism. However, if what I have called minimalist Christianity is not an illegitimate or inauthentic form of Christianity, then minimalist Christians may very well accept the demands made on them by minimalist Christianity.

Second, and more importantly, up to now I have suggested that Christian maximalism (i.e., in the European middle ages) has been replaced by capitalist maximalism today: capitalism orders the lives of minimalist Christians more than Christianity does. But insofar as minimalist Christianity has been domesticated by capitalism, this version of Christianity is maximalist: minimalist Christianity is ultimately maximalist because it does order the lives of minimalist Christians. To put it otherwise, minimalist Christianity is implicitly capitalist Christianity, and those I’ve been calling minimalist Christians may very well have their entire lives organized in ways that are complicit with capitalist Christianity. ... The idea of “minimalist religion” is subtly seductive—like the discourse of individualism, it organizes the social sphere as a whole while pretending to organize only a part of it. It prevents us from thinking about how “minimalist religion” has social effects far beyond the so-called “religious sphere.”

For these reasons I think the minimalist/maximalist distinction has a temporary heuristic value, but should be abandoned for more sophisticated terminology, although I am as yet uncertain what might provide us with more analytical precision.
CZ: It’s also interesting that, despite the effect moving from inter-Christian ecumenism to multi-faith plurality, the liberal language of “private religion” has failed to seriously interrogate the matters that it claims to be contesting. Unitarians, atheists, Christians of various sorts, and others employ it under certain (mis)conceptions about what this rhetoric accomplishes. Which groups – religious or otherwise – do you think gain and lose the most from arguments that religion is an entirely private enterprise?

CM: That’s really tough to answer. In the book I emphasize that the use of the public/private rhetoric by those on the left is often counterproductive; it seems to me to the interest of those on the right more than those on the left. But who knows? Feminists got an awful lot of mileage out of the public/private rhetoric in the last century (as in, “keep your hands off my body” and related slogans that imply the state should stay out of private affairs). Perhaps the public/private rhetoric has scored more gains than I give it credit for?

On a related point, I suspect that the gains for LGBT rights in the US are more the result of exposure of openly gay men and women than the result of separation of church and state rhetoric. I’m exaggerating here, but polls show that just about everyone under 30 thinks the debate over gay marriage is silly—why wouldn’t we allow gays to marry? Is that because people younger than 30 believe more strongly in separation of church and state or because they’re more likely than our grandparents to grow up with openly gay friends? My guess is the latter.

And, in addition, this could account for why attitudes on abortion are not moving like attitudes on gay rights (that is, people tend to be 50/50 on abortion rights, whether they’re 25 or 75 years old): I have lots of openly gay friends, students, family members, etc., but if anyone I know has had an abortion, I wouldn’t know. Similarly, gays and lesbians have experienced a great deal of high-profile exposure on TV and in movies, whereas people who have had an abortion have not. Can I name lesbian actresses? Sure. Can I name an actress who has had an abortion? No.

To me, this is evidence that the shift in public attitudes is the result of the so-called “gay agenda”—gays and lesbians are out there hard at work distributing a pro-LGBT ideology, whereas the same is not true for feminists who support abortion rights. If we’ll see more liberal laws on gay rights or abortion in the future, I think it will be due to a new hegemonic ideology rather than to greater strictures against “religion” influencing “politics.”

In addition, as I argue in the last chapter of the book, I really think that the “to each his own” attitude makes it difficult to challenge those ideologies labeled “religious,” and as such makes it difficult to advance a contrary agenda. How can I stand against Catholic doctrines on abortion if I insist that Catholics are right to hold an anti-abortion stance?

Looking back, this answer is somewhat rambling and perhaps only tertiarily related to your question. Sorry!

CZ: Though you identify your dissertation as the genesis of Masking Hegemony, in many ways it lacks the obscurantism typical of published dissertations in religion. I am thinking especially of Ch. 5: “To Each His Own,” which assesses the logic of popular left-leaning arguments in favor of same-sex marriage and legalized abortion, but comes out very critical of them. Was that a self-conscious choice or a natural outgrowth of the project’s topic?

CM: That’s a really interesting question. One thing that might help account for this is the fact that my dissertation committee was complaining at one point that I sounded like a conservative ideologue when I was criticizing liberal theorists. My attempt to expose “to each his own” rhetoric as designed to advance partisan norms by making them look “neutral” probably looked awful similar to some things Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck have said. I think this really frustrated my advisor at one point during the writing process, and I responded by attempting to foreground my own normative stance in order to distance myself from such conservative rhetoric. So I suppose I really allowed my passion for the subject matter to poke through in that last chapter. In fact, I think I dropped quite a few non-academic “should” statements there.

CZ: You mentioned Bourdieu and Giddens as individuals that ask questions similar to your own, but express some ambivalence about social constructionism in your book. Who are your theoretical discussions most indebted to?

CM: I should make clear that I do identify as a social constructionist. My ambivalence was not toward social constructionism itself so much as a few errors I sometimes see social constructionists make. (For the record, I have a great deal of respect for the ones I criticized in the book, such as Tim Fitzgerald and Richard King—I think their work on “religion” has been groundbreaking.)

But as for whom I’m indebted to with regard to social constructionism (and how language works in general), there’s a long list! I’ll try to put them roughly in chronological order and to say something brief about each. In addition to Giddens and Bourdieu, I’d suggest the following:

• John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty—This book is extremely dated, but I think the basic argument for nominalism is both brilliant and clearly argued.
• Martin Heidegger, Being and Time—Heidegger convinced me that how we use words is intrinsically related to what we want to accomplish in the world.
• Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations—This one is a no-brainer; everyone thinking about how language works need to read this one.
• Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality—Berger and Luckmann’s book is probably the clearest entry into thinking about how language is constitutive of social order.
• Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology—I hardly ever explicitly refer to Derrida in my work, but the argument against essentialism in this book informs everything I do.
• Anything by Michel Foucault in the 1970s (i.e., from Discipline and Punish through the biopolitics lectures)—Some have argued that Foucault’s insights are not all that groundbreaking, that is, that his work advances claims that the field of sociology has been touting for decades. There’s something to this critique, I think, but that just makes reading his work all the more worthwhile. I studied Foucault when I was in coursework in graduate school, but it wasn’t until I was working on my dissertation that I read “Society Must Be Defended.” It was when I read that one that Foucault sort of “sunk in,” and the insights from that book—particularly about legal and liberal discourses—informed the rest of my dissertation writing.
• Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What?—This is hands-down the best book on social constructionism I’ve read. I think everybody should read it.
• Hilary Putnam, “A Defense of Conceptual Relativity,” in Ethics without Ontology—This short little chapter clearly explains better than anything else I’ve read what is wrong with the idea that objects simply exist in the world.
• Edward Schiappa, Defining Reality—Hardly anyone I know has read this, but it’s a great little book that shows how the way in which we define words is intrinsically linked to individual or group interests.
• When it comes to the social construction of religion, I’ll name the usual suspects: Russell McCutcheon, Tim Murphy, Richard King, Tomoko Masuzawa, and Tim Fitzgerald.

I could add a lot more, but I’ll resist the temptation.

CZ: On a similar note, you published this in the McCutcheon-edited series Religion in Culture: Studies in Social Contest and Construction. How did you first become interested in theories that identify religion as an eminently social phenomenon with its attendant interests located in that realm of human activity? It seems that many people studying religion start off with one set of academic questions and by the end of their degree are interested in entirely different ones.

CM: When I was working on my dissertation Russell McCutcheon came to Syracuse University to give a guest lecture and do a meet-and-greet with graduate students. I had never heard of him before that, but I was intrigued by what he had to say and we hit it off. I picked up and read a couple of his books and started a correspondence with him. It was then that I started thinking critically about the social construction of “religion.”

At some point in our correspondence he suggested Bruce Lincoln’s Discourse and the Construction of Society (or maybe I saw it listed as a course textbook on his faculty page). I ordered a copy and consumed it with great interest. I think that single book marked the turning point—when I read Discourse I shed the remaining specters of a theological approach and started thinking about those cultural institutions we call religions like a sociologist or anthropologist. From that point I went back and revisited some of the classics I had previously been exposed to (such as Durkheim) and read them with renewed interest, and then started filling in the gaps. Discourse started me on a journey that led me to Mary Douglas, Peter Berger, Rodney Needham, Erving Goffman, David Kertzer, Anthony Cohen, Anthony Giddens, Pierre Bourdieu, Marshall Sahlins, James Scott, Raymond Williams, and others. I’ve basically become a functionalist about what we call religion, although without the essentialism.

CZ: Finally, you currently edit the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, but what other projects do you have coming up?

CM: I’m co-editing a book with Russell McCutcheon on the concept of “religious experience.” It will appear in Equinox’s Critical Categories in the Study of Religion series. I’m contributing to the volume an essay on William James’ experience/institution distinction—that’s the essay I shared a few paragraphs from above (on minimalism and maximalism). I’m also trying to finish up an introduction to religion, titled A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion. Past that, I’m not sure what will be next. When I’m dreaming about what is down the line, I usually dream about the relationship between contemporary religious discourses and capitalism, but we’ll see …
[See author link for Equinox at the top of the page for more information about these forthcoming publications]