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Religion Unbound: Ideals and Powers from Cicero to King

University of Edinburgh

“Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”—Martin Luther King Jr.

The religious defenders of tyranny and oppression bind religion to injustice. The remedy, Adam Lord Gifford thought, is not to secularize politics but to emancipate religion from arbitrary power. Religion is not going away. It will always have political effects. The effects are good if the religion is good and bad if the religion is bad. An ideal of ethical religion animated the abolitionists whom Gifford admired and many activists since. ‘Religion Unbound’ will trace the ideal’s history and explain how its defenders have defined and criticized religion.

Public intellectuals often posit a Great Separation of religion from politics in modernity. They differ over how the Separation was achieved, whether its effects were good, bad, or mixed, and whether it was permanent or temporary. References to a recent ‘return of religion’ assume that a Great Separation in fact took place, that we know what it was, and that it set the terms in which politics was conducted where and while it lasted. Yet religiously motivated reformers and revolutionaries have been with us all along. How would our outlook need to change if we included Milton, Wilberforce, Mott, Emerson, Gandhi, and King in the story?

Lecture 1: Religion Since Cicero

The term 'religion' has roots in ancient Rome. It can be used neutrally to designate acts, attitudes, dispositions, practices, obligations, roles, and institutions related in some way to divine worship, devotion, or piety. Cicero spoke of religion in that way, but also distinguished between true religion (a moral virtue) and its counterfeits. Lucretius gave 'religion' a negative connotation, by defining it as something inherently dangerous, irrational, or oppressive. Hume split the difference by saying that true religion is a virtue but too rare and lacking in practical implications to be of political value. When we discuss religion’s relation to politics, we have many prior usages at our disposal and much room for maneuver. The ideal of ethical religion heralded in modern freedom movements has received insufficient attention.

Lecture 2: Early Modern Critics of Tyranny and Oppression

Religion had no exact semantic analogue outside Latin Christendom when the modern era began. Missionaries, explorers, admirals, traders, soldiers, slavers, and settlers carried a value-laden discourse of religion with them overseas, and used it to classify the peoples they conquered and converted there. Las Casas and other Dominicans turned the same terminology against imperial tyranny and oppression in the Indies. In Florence, Savonarola called for political arrangements consistent with freedom and true religion. As demands for reform spread, lives, liberties, and regimes on several continents hung in the balance.

Lecture 3: Why Religion, Faith, and Freedom Proved Hard to Reconcile

Aquinas took religion to be a moral virtue, acquired by repeated acts of pious reverence and directed toward proper this-worldly and supernatural ends. He defined faith as a theological virtue, a divine gift that serves to orient one’s intellect rightly to God’s revelation. Early moderns who distinguished religion from faith in this way fell into conflict. Concluding that the received ideals of religion, faith, and freedom could not be reconciled, Locke proposed a separation of church from magistrate, Deists separated true religion from faith, and Hobbes redefined freedom.

Lecture 4: Abolitionism, Political Religion, and Secularism

If the Enlightenment had actually separated religion from politics, subsequent struggles over slavery would have had less to do with religion than they did. It was not until the early 1850s that a movement called ‘secularism’ emerged. Under the influence of Comte, some of its first defenders proposed a ‘religion of humanity’ to perform the public functions long performed by Christianity. Other secularists agreed that Christianity should be removed from politics, but did not expect a substitute for it to be agreed upon, and proposed either privatizing or eliminating religion.

Lecture 5: Slavishness, Democracy, and the Death of God

Emerson was concerned with how great transformations occur, what it is to stand for an ideal, and what democratic ideals demand of us. Modern Christians, he said, behave as if God were dead. Emerson used rhetorical and ethical categories to explain this. Nietzsche accepted much of that explanation, but regarded modern democracy as a secularized residue of Christian slavishness. If he was right, self-reliance is irreligious, and the urgent political question is not how to overcome domination, but who gets to dominate whom.

Lecture 6: Religion and the Politics of Explanation

Like Livy, King used a distinction between ethical and unethical religion to explain social ills. Malcolm X and James Baldwin retained the distinction but rejected King’s pacifist Christianity. Reductive ideology critique and value-free social science abandon the distinction, but for conflicting reasons. Some scholars advise against using the term 'religion' at all. What shall we make of these approaches? Cornel West borrows from each pragmatically. The experience of catastrophe disrupts both the politics of lowered stakes and the academic pretense of neutrality. If some events are horrendous and some are glorious, something in our midst must be worthy of reverent protection, celebration, and sacrifice. If we find that the word 'religion' blocks the discussion, we can restate our concerns in other words. The task of cultivating resistance to tyranny, solidarity with the oppressed, and self-reliant piety will remain. And the history of religion-talk will be good to know.


1 – Religion since Cicero

Prof. Jeffrey Stout - Religion since Cicero

2 – Early Modern Critics of Tyranny and Oppression

Prof. Jeffrey Stout - Early Modern Critics of Tyranny and Oppression

3 – Why Religion, Faith, and Freedom Proved Hard to Reconcile

Prof. Jeffrey Stout - Why Religion, Faith, and Freedom Proved Hard to Reconcile

4 – Abolitionism, Political Religion, and Secularism

Prof. Jeffrey Stout - Abolitionism, Political Religion, and Secularism

5 – Slavishness, Democracy, and the Death of God

Prof. Jeffrey Stout - Slavishness, Democracy, and the Death of God

6 – Religion and the Politics of Explanation

Prof. Jeffrey Stout - Religion and the Politics of Explanation

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