Landscapes of the Secular: Law, Religion, and American Sacred Space

Landscapes of the Secular: Law, Religion, and American Sacred Space

by Nicolas Howe

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“What does it mean to see the American landscape in a secular way?” asks Nicolas Howe at the outset of this innovative, ambitious, and wide-ranging book. It’s a surprising question because of what it implies: we usually aren’t seeing American landscapes through a non-religious lens, but rather as inflected by complicated, little-examined concepts of the sacred.
            Fusing geography, legal scholarship, and religion in a potent analysis, Howe shows how seemingly routine questions about how to look at a sunrise or a plateau or how to assess what a mountain is both physically and ideologically, lead to complex arguments about the nature of religious experience and its implications for our lives as citizens. In American society—nominally secular but committed to permitting a diversity of religious beliefs and expressions—such questions become all the more fraught and can lead to difficult, often unsatisfying compromises regarding how to interpret and inhabit our public lands and spaces. A serious commitment to secularism, Howe shows, forces us to confront the profound challenges of true religious diversity in ways that often will have their ultimate expression in our built environment. This provocative exploration of some of the fundamental aspects of American life will help us see the land, law, and society anew.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226376776
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/05/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Nicolas Howe is assistant professor of environmental studies at Williams College. He is coauthor of Climate Change as Social Drama: Global Warming in the Public Sphere.

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Landscapes of the Secular

Law, Religion, and American Sacred Space

By Nicolas Howe

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-37680-6


Landscapes of Secular Law

Presecular man lives in an enchanted forest. Its rocks and streams are alive with friendly or fiendish demons. Reality is charged with a magical power that erupts here and there to threaten or benefit man.


There are various tough problems yet to solve, and we must make shift to live, betwixt spirit and matter, such a human life as we can.


What does it mean to see sacred space in a secular way? To many, the answer might seem obvious. It is to see with a disenchanted eye, with the cold, disembodied gaze of self-sufficient reason. Mountains, trees, hilltop crosses: to a secular viewer these may symbolize the sacred, but they cannot be "charged with a magical power that erupts here and there to threaten or benefit man," as the theologian Harvey Cox wrote five decades ago in The Secular City. These things can represent, but they cannot act. They certainly cannot control our collective fate. True, they may still kindle sparks of "presecular" feeling in moments of awe, dread, and wonder. But these feelings are confined to the deeply personal realm of so-called spiritual experience. Sacred landscapes may still speak to the secular heart, but only in private, and only in whispers. To be truly secular is to see the enchanted forest for its merely symbolic trees.

Who actually sees the world this way? As it turns out, surprisingly few American secularists. In fact, this way of seeing has long been favored by the country's de facto Christian establishment, which has enshrined it in the neutral, putatively "secular" language of constitutional law. From the standpoint of many secular activists, especially those who speak on behalf of minority faiths, it reeks of religious ideology. To begin to see why, let us linger at Sunrise Rock. What was truly at stake in this lonely corner of the Mojave?

If we listen to hard-nosed analysts of America's church-state struggles, Salazar v. Buono was nothing more than a turf war. One side wanted religion in the so-called public square; the other side wanted it out. Sunrise Rock was just the latest setting in a series of symbolic clashes between these abstract political desires. Talk of injury and offense, heritage and desecration, feelings and freedom: it was just that, talk. What was truly at stake was social and political power — the power to define national identity in religious or nonreligious terms, to define the military (and thus the nation-state) as Christian or secular, to define citizenship as a sectarian privilege or a pluralistic ideal. For Buono and his allies, the cross simply did not belong. To see in a secular way was thus to see territorially. It was to protect the public sphere from religious influence.

This story assumes more than it explains. For one thing, it fails to explain why the supposedly secular side claimed to be fighting for religious freedom, or why the supposedly religious side claimed the cross was "merely" a secular symbol. Nor can it explain why both sides fought so hard over philosophical questions of meaning, feeling, and seeing. It cannot explain their seemingly endless interpretive wrangling over the "message" of the cross and its effects on the hearts and minds of observers. One can easily imagine a counterfactual world where these kinds of questions simply never came up, where religious symbols either were or were not permitted in public places — indeed, where the question, "What does a hilltop cross mean?" had only one, blindingly obvious answer. Power and identity alone cannot explain why vision and emotion mattered so much; nor can it explain why this humble object inspired such intense political passion.

A more subtle reading might focus on the kinds of religion at stake in the case. From this perspective, secularists were fighting to confine "dangerous" and "unreasonable" religion to the private sphere, represented by pro-cross activists on the Christian Right. It was thus to discipline and domesticate, to make public space a symbolic proxy for the reasonably religious citizen-subject. There is perhaps more truth to this story, but it, too, fails to explain some important details. It cannot account for the iconoclastic and passionately anti-authoritarian nature of Buono's crusade. It cannot explain his allies' overriding concern with alienation, exclusion, and stigmatization. It cannot explain "Sherpa San Harold Horpa" and his half-sardonic stupa. Few of Buono's supporters spoke for the rational, godless republic. If anything, they spoke for religious outsiders and spiritual dissidents, those threatened by the state's performance of religious reasonableness. After all, it was the secular activists, not their largely Christian opponents, who held that the cross was more than a symbol, that it was in fact enchanted, that it did possess something like a "magical power ... to threaten or benefit man." It was they who insisted on the visceral materiality of the sacred.

So what was at stake on Sunrise Rock? To answer this question, and to answer the deeper questions it raises about the geography of religion in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century America, we must listen carefully to what both sides said about seeing. We must see it as part of an unfolding drama of secular vision. That drama is the subject of this book.


To see this drama clearly we must look hard at secularism, not just as an abstract political ideology or cultural outlook on religion, but as a way of making and imagining places. At the same time we must look hard at landscape, not just as a distinctively modern "way of seeing," but as a way of seeing with a specific religious history and a specific religious politics. The search for the secular eye is, counterintuitively, a search for the sacred — how it is experienced, represented, and regulated in an age of religious resurgence and diversity. It is also a search for the profane. What does "desecration" mean in a world where nothing and everything are sacred?

Since the late 1970s, when activists on both sides of the culture wars began to mobilize nationally for and against the "public display of religion," the visual regulation of the sacred has become a seemingly intractable problem. Yet the roots of this problem run deeper than one might imagine. They arise not just from tensions over the so-called separation of church and state, but from tensions over the idea of landscape itself. From time to time, these anxieties surface in constitutional conflicts such as Salazar v. Buono. These cases raise hard questions about the political geography of public religion, but they raise even harder questions about cultural logic of secular law. When how to see the sacred becomes a constitutional question, the very concept of landscape — and thus the ideal observer that this concept implies — is put on public trial. How should a reasonable, sane, civil person see a place like Sunrise Rock, and how should he feel about what he sees? Whose ways of seeing and feeling should civil society value and the state protect? These are questions not just about tolerance and cultural inclusion, but about the relationship between religious subjectivity and the geographical self. They are about finding a spiritual home in a world of material places.

To some, "spirit" and "matter" might seem like oddly theological terms to describe a legal squabble, but I use them quite deliberately. They echo the second epigraph to this chapter, a line from the famously anti-Christian "Sunday" chapter of Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Railing against the parochial piety of his churchgoing neighbors and blasting Jesus himself for directing all his thoughts "toward another world," Thoreau rallied for "matter," for a worldly embrace of nature and its immanent, "heathenish" sacrality. He spoke for "here" and "now." But as any religiously sensitive reader will recognize, Thoreau's maxim can also be read as a Calvinist lament: we must "make shift to live," muddle through and make the best of it, stuck "betwixt spirit and matter." While radically secular in significant ways, Thoreau still wrestled with this most protestant of problems, as many Americans do to this day. Ever alert to the dangers of idolatry, Protestants and their cultural legatees have projected their centuries-old fight to purify faith onto the places they inhabit. The tension between a "true" religion of the spirit — individual, private, voluntary, and textual — and its "false" other — communal, public, coerced, and iconic — has both a history and a geography.

The idea of landscape brings this tension into focus. Thirty years ago, the cultural geographer Denis Cosgrove redefined landscape as a "way of seeing — a way in which some Europeans have represented to themselves and to others the world about them and their relationships with it, and through which they have commented on social relations." Embodied in the pictorial conventions of linear perspective, this way of seeing or "visual ideology" naturalized capitalist social relations by constructing a privileged external position from which the harmonious workings of nature and society could be surveyed and controlled. As it diffused from its elite origins in Renaissance Italy, this idea of landscape became a kind of modern common sense. By shifting attention from the view to the viewer, Cosgrove showed that landscape was not simply a portion of visible space subject to aesthetic judgment — not just "scenery" — but a powerful tool for projecting moral, political, and economic values onto the material environment, and for using the environment to sustain those values in turn. As he later put it, the "anti-hero" of this work was "the figure of the individual European male, conceived as a universal subject, exercising rational self-consciousness within a largely disembodied mind, and endowed with a will to power: thus the sovereign subject of history."

Since then this antihero has reappeared in many guises and cultural contexts: colonist, patriarch, nationalist, scientist, developer, environmentalist. As critical landscape theory has evolved beyond its Marxist origins, it has addressed modernity's full panoply of "-isms" (including the very "ocular-centrism" that led scholars to examine vision in the first place). We now possess a rich body of scholarship on landscape not as the static backdrop to human history but as a power-laden visual practice. As W. J. T. Mitchell famously put it, we have learned to see landscape not as a noun but as a verb, "not as an object to be seen or a text to be read, but as a process by which social and subjective identities are formed."

Where is secularism in this history? Nowhere and everywhere at once. It is nowhere because it is almost never discussed explicitly; everywhere because it underlies some of our most basic assumptions about landscape as a "quasi-religious" concept. Its absence reflects its ubiquity. After all, is there any word in our geographic or environmental vocabulary so consistently shrouded in the rhetoric of spirituality, mysticism, and holiness? And is there any rhetoric that has provoked stronger critical suspicion? What kind of work do this rhetoric and this suspicion do? Where do they come from? What kind of cultural sense do they make? After all, none of these religious concepts — spirituality, holiness, mysticism — can be treated as culturally universal or politically neutral. They are the products of very particular and often quite recent cultural histories. Yet in landscape studies, religion, when it is considered at all, is generally considered to speak for itself. We know "the sacred" when we see it, and rarely do we trust what we see.

This is a problem, and not simply because people actually see the sacred in many different ways, but also because our consciousness of its kaleidoscopic nature — and of the anxiety and doubt it engenders — entails a way of seeing in its own right. It is a way of seeing in which "sacred space" does not disappear but comes in nagging quotation marks.

Most people think of the secular as the antithesis of the sacred. But as scholars at least since Durkheim have recognized, things are more complicated. Increasingly, secularism is understood not as the mere absence of religion or even as a coherent political doctrine, but as a many-faceted way of being and believing, a myth-bound way of life with "its own practices, its own sensorium, its own hierarchy of faculties, its own habits of being." While the nature of this cultural formation has been hotly debated, it is widely acknowledged to arise from a reciprocal relationship with established religious traditions. To illustrate this relationship, the anthropologist Hussein Agrama invokes the famous M. C. Escher lithograph of two hands simultaneously drawing each other into existence. According to Agrama, this paradoxical co-creation is a defining characteristic of secular thought and practice. Secularism, he argues, functions as a form of "questioning power, a modality of power that operates through the activity of questioning that it animates." It is, in this sense, less a coherent form of life than an impulse toward religious reflexivity — an impulse, widely shared by religious and irreligious alike, to continually ask what religion is and where it belongs.

To make matters even more complicated, the terms of this questioning power, which vary greatly from society to society, are typically derived from the very religious traditions it questions. Thus in America we see strong evidence of what the literary scholar Tracy Fessenden calls the "Protestant-Secular continuum," a discursive field in which protestant ideology shades into secular common sense. For an example of this infinite cultural regression, we need look no farther than Sunrise Rock, where Agrama's "two hands" were entwined beyond hope of untangling. Here we saw an openly religious secularist fighting against the covert religious secularization of a religious symbol of secular sacrifice. Buono, a professed Catholic, found himself in the traditional role of the Protestant iconoclast, protecting individual conscience against a dangerous and corrupting idol. This condition of paradoxical entanglement — this anxious questioning of our spiritual attachments and aversions to sacred things and places — can be seen at every scale, from contests over sites of national memory to small-town spats over loca sacra of a much humbler sort: parks, cemeteries, streams, and forests.

Such conflicts are not simply "religious" in a general sense. They are deeply conditioned by a troubled and sometimes violent history of Protestant encounter with religious Others — Native Americans, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, not to mention Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and new religious movements of many different stripes. Yet they are also peculiar to a new era of seemingly exponential religious diversification, memorably characterized by the philosopher Charles Taylor as a "spiritual supernova." As the historian William R. Hutchison wrote in 2003, "Americans and their public policy are only now coming to terms, however grudgingly or opportunistically, with a radical diversification that came crashing in upon the young nation almost at the moment of its birth." With this late twentieth-century religious reckoning, the meanings of many cultural categories have changed, including "sacred space," a category often treated as timeless.

Of course, the United States is not the only secular democracy wrestling with the spatial implications of religious diversity. What makes its situation different is, in part, its distinctive legal culture. As the social critic Will Herberg, author of the influential Protestant–Catholic–Jew, observed sixty years ago, "Such is the peculiar structure of American religious institutionalism under the constitutional doctrine of 'separation' that every tension between religious communities, however deep and complex it may actually be, tends to express itself as a conflict over church-state relations." Although Herberg was wrong about many things, he was right about this. In perhaps no other Western country do courts play such an active and central role in defining the limits of religious freedom, and thus in the definition of religion itself. And nowhere is this clearer than in conflict over the religious character of public space, the symbolic home of the First Amendment and the stage upon which America's constitutional covenant is ritualistically dramatized. Law, in this sense, is much more than an instrument of power. It is a system of meaning-making through which the secular-religious divide is continually renegotiated and reproduced. It does not simply regulate religion but is "deeply implicated in the structuring of U.S. religious practice," as law and religion scholar Winnifred Fallers Sullivan argues. This process does not unfold in some imaginary, disembodied "public square," as so many pundits suggest. It makes, destroys, and remakes actual places. To find the secular landscape, therefore, we must ask how law literally "lies in the land."


Excerpted from Landscapes of the Secular by Nicolas Howe. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface vii

1 Landscapes of Secular Law 1

2 Church, State, and the Tyranny of Feelings 23

3 Performing the Constitutional Landscape 53

4 The Spiritual Gaze 79

5 Sanctity, If You Will 117

6 Looking Askance at the Sacred 153

Acknowledgments 167

Notes 169

Bibliography 199

Index 223

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