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  • Aaron Stauffer

Islam, Sex, and Secularism

Aaron Stauffer on Scott’s Sex and Secularism

In 1903 the black socialist preacher, Rev. George Washington Woodbey wrote his first socialist pamphlet, “What to Do and How to Do it, or Socialism vs. Capitalism.” Woodbey, who was born in Tennessee, ordained a Baptist minister in Kansas and committed his life to socialism after he heard Eugene Debs speak in Nebraska, was the leading black organizer of the Socialist Party in first decade of the twentieth century. In 1902 he moved to San Diego, California, where his mother was living. He quickly became the pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, as he stumped for the Socialist Party throughout California and the rest of the country. “What to Do” was his first long publication, and in it Woodbey narrates a dialogue with his mother as they discuss the benefits of socialism. “Like all other women,” Woodbey’s mother asks, “I want to know where we are to come in.” Her attention to the “woman question” comes only after she first asks, “Have you given up on the Bible and ministry and gone into politics?” and: “But George, some of the men in your Socialist Party don’t believe in either God or the Bible, or that the world, or man, was created.”

Sex and secularism frame Woodbey’s dialogue: Had her son left his religion for secular politics? What about women’s future in socialism? Joan Wallach Scott’s important new book, Sex and Secularism, doesn’t mention George Washington Woodbey, and this is no surprise. Along with many of the radical black social gospel tradition, Woodbey has largely been left out of U.S. religious and political history. But Scott’s work helps us understand Woodbey’s dialogue in a new light, framing secularism as a discourse and social formation that is predicated on sexual inequality, racial hierarchy, and white Protestantism. Contrary to popular assumption, secularism is not an inevitable march beyond partial and polarizing religious bias, into a future of universal reason, equality, and democracy. Sex and Secularism is a genealogy of the discourse of secularism that takes aim at the current-day revival of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilization” thesis, which presents Islam and Muslims as existential threats to a peaceful and democratic secular society. Secularism is thought to be the key to equality between the sexes, but Scott shows how gender inequality and a racial and religious ideology are inherent to the discourse of secularism.

Huntington’s clash of civilization thesis appeared first as an article in the early 1990s, and it immediately set off furious conversation. With the turn of the millennium and the attacks of September 11, 2001, secularism has taken center stage for many political, religious, and social scientific scholars. One reason for all this attention might be that some scholars are experiencing the jarring shock of theoretical whiplash. A recent article on the secular starts with two simple sentences that several decades ago were thought inconceivable: “The secularization thesis is dead. There is no doubt whatever about that.” Scott is less interested in the secular as a category and instead takes up the discourse of secularism as her target of analysis: she looks at its deployment, for whose interests and which reasons, its occlusions and misapprehensions. The historical narrative of secularization, Scott claims in her first chapter, “Women and Religion,” coincided with a sexual division of labor that was the “crux of the religious/secular divide. The counterpart of the reasoning male citizen was a woman whose piety was at once a brake on and a manifestation of her inclination to excessive sexuality.” This idealized narrative of secularization and its sexual division of labor established norms and practices that make a difference: “idealized norms still matter,” Scott says, “not only in expectations set for individual subjects, but because they set the terms for law, politics, and social policy.” The discourse of secularism has “organized our vision of the world,” so as to make the identification of “women with/as religion” appears as “a timeless religious teaching.” The imminent return of religion as political Islam is not the boogeyman that the clash of civilization makes it out to be; there is something far more sinister and closer to home, which we have yet to recognize.

Joan Wallach Scott, Sex and Secularism, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2017, 256 pp., $27.95

Scott admits that her account is polemical, and the sheer size of literature that she “synthesizes” to make her argument is impressive within itself. The book is an excellent resource for further reading. Providing examples from the U.S., France, Germany, the Cold War, and colonial contexts, Scott opens up possibility for further conversation. Scott’s synthesizing hand and genealogical eye help us to see critically that secularism is not a “set of eternal principles, but a polemical term put to work differently in different contexts.” The return of religion, currently cast in its ugly and Islamophobic tenor by the clash of civilization thesis, didn’t come from nowhere. Its roots are deep in the Western secular Protestant imaginary.

The emergence of the Western nation and its logic of secular reason created as many problems as it presumed to solve. The technocratic and bureaucratic control over life depended on an organization of a disenchanted world of separate spheres: religion/secular, public/private, men/women, reason/passion. There is an indeterminacy that undergirds this entire societal organization, however, which produced a nervous control over women’s lives and reproductive capacity. In her second chapter, “Reproductive Futurism,” Scott turns to Freud and Lacan to explain how secularism quells its nerves and imposes a tyranny of control over life. “Sex becomes the alternative to death in the age of disenchantment,” Scott says, “only when it is endowed with rational (reproductive) purpose.” Far from a regime of equality between the sexes, sexual inequality is at the heart of secularism.

The indeterminacy of the materiality of sex pervades this entire secular narrative. When secular logic turns to political emancipation, the binary of religion/secular, public/private is cemented by political narratives of the religious “other” being inherently violent and misogynist. A white Christian society is a democratic secular society, so the narrative goes. Scott turns to psychoanalytic theory again for further help, saying: “Psychoanalytic theory has taught us that the conundrum of gendered identity revolves around the difference of sex. … Gender—the attribution of meaning to sexed bodies—is the implementation of the always imperfect attempt at discipline; it is the way culture seeks to bridge the relationships between the psychic and the social.” This indeterminacy of the materiality of sex is shared by the indeterminacy in the democratic notion of “the people.” As Claude Lefort (cited by Scott) tells us, democracy’s “locus of power becomes an empty place … it is such that no individual and no group can become consubstantial with it—and it cannot be represented.” Lacking material representation, power becomes self-referential—men’s power as political and public is founded on their sexed nature; their sexed nature refers back to their role as political and public leaders. The extension of the vote to women only came along with the emergence of the “social” sphere, which served to insulate the “political” sphere from the likes of femininity, religion, and passion. The political emancipation of women welcomed them into a political sphere where to be political was to be masculine. Religion was relegated to the work of the “social,” which was first represented in the early twentieth century by social workers, factory inspectors, reformers, and philanthropists.

Religion in Western nation states was a matter of private belief unfit for the political arena, and secularists exported this social and political formation throughout their colonial empires. Scott is clear that although there may be similar patterns throughout the various political reforms worldwide, attention needs to be given to historical context and specificity to the particular management of gender and religion. She follows in the lines of scholars like Talal Asad, Tracy Fessenden, Janet Jakobson and Ann Pellegrini who look for secularisms, rather than a universal secularism in the singular. Still, in spite of the plurality, Scott argues that the “double indeterminacy” of politics and gender is at the heart of the secularist narrative.

Power that is self-referential needs an “other” to exclude from its realm of control. In the secularist narrative this is religion, and currently it is political Islam in particular. Scott’s final two chapters trace out the narrative from the Cold War to our present. Two crucial moves take place here. The first is a cementing in the U.S’s public’s imagination of white Protestantism with democracy, freedom, reason, and Western Civilization. Secularism is democratic only insofar as it is white and Protestant and capitalist. Scott points out that in 1953 “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and in ’54 “in God we Trust” appeared on our currency. Capitalism and Western civilization take on a sacred aura; they become “religious concepts.” Secularism and white Protestantism are mutually constitutive, so that the individual contract is as sacred as the human made in God’s image. During the Cold War, secularism’s opposite was not Islam but the atheism of Soviet Communism. It is crucial to see that the secularist narrative deploys religious concepts to its favor: religion is appropriate only insofar as it is in line with U.S. imperial interests and the gender politics that undergird the self-referential matrix of masculine power. As Scott says, “The Christian and the democratic secular became synonymous in Cold War rhetoric in opposition to what was decried as Soviet atheism.”

Anything that challenges this world organization is out of bounds: whether it be too feminine, too religious, too atheistic, or too black. After the September eleventh attacks, “Islam became an ‘extremist religious challenge’ to a ‘modern international system’ that was now understood to be democratic and Christian.” In this context Scott makes her second important move by questioning the frame of rights for Women’s movements. She expertly highlights how Muslim women are portrayed in Western media. Following the work of Joseph Massad and that of the renowned late scholar Saba Mahmood, Scott illustrates the impossibility of the liberal imagination to figure political subjectivity aside from the secular frame. This frame elevates to an undo degree individual choice, especially in terms of sexual freedom. Such a frame obscures a “more complicated history of women’s status and agency” under communism during the Cold War and within Islam today. By aligning itself with individual sexual freedom, secularism’s new enemy is Islam. “Western women,” Scott says, “are deemed autonomous, free to pursue their desire, in contrast to Muslim women, whose sexuality is literally under wraps, confined as it is by garments that hide their beauty and symbolically signal their status as subordinate to men.” Such a transmutation of secularism’s logic does not do away with the racial, religious, or gender hierarchies fundamental to the discourse. The clash of civilizations narrative, by contrast, depends upon a “return of religion” that is “the other” of secularism’s racial, religious, and gender matrix.

Sex and sexual desire are reified in secularist logic, a logic synonymous with white Christianity. Reification implies abstraction and naturalization of the political systems in place. Emancipation and agency are capacities within liberal individuals without bodies or race or religious difference. Secular logic turns our gaze away from the construction of such systems, and political equality thus depends on making everyone the same. Political emancipation looks a lot like assimilation: “The extension of emancipation to previously excluded groups does not alter structures of domination and inequality in the social realm. Instead, it naturalizes those structures by relegating them to civil society, removing them as objects of political attention.” Scott brilliantly outlines how sexual desire is also a victim of reification, saying, “sexual self-determination is as much a fantasy as rational self-determination.” Her fundamental question is: what counts as “desire” and how is it caught up within capitalist relations of production? In secularist logic, “sex and the desire that expresses it then have no connection to the social or cultural values that define it; in this way a specifically Western notion achieves universality.”

Sex and sexual desire are mutable categories and sexual freedom is a vision of emancipation born out of a Western, white Christian capitalist cultural formation. “It is only in the contrast with Muslim women’s fate,” Scott says, “(they are depicted as sexually oppressed, victims of male violence, deprived entirely of agency in matters personal and religious) that the idea [of sexual liberation] achieves its sense.” This insightful and powerful genealogy of the discourse of secularism is a welcome contribution to those interested in the religious and political conditions of our times.

Those “others” throughout history who have attempted to push back against the secular organization of the world have seen success most often by constructing their own counter-public and discourse. When Woodbey responds to his mother’s question about the apparent binary between religion and socialism, he rejects the idea that Christianity and politics have only one appropriate and acceptable relation. Such a secularist vision assumes religion is primarily a private matter of belief and that politics has little to do with these internal, personal matters. His articulation of Christianity is distinctly black. The God of Christianity does not sacralize the contract; Woodbey’s God of the Bible set the Israelites free in Egypt because “their masters had taken their labor for nothing.” After he officially became a Socialist in 1900, Woodbey “believed more firmly in every word [of the Bible] if possible than I did before.” Two years after he published “What to Do,” Woodbey published another pamphlet, this time a dialogue with his mother’s pastor: “The Bible and Socialism” (1905). In it he articulates his black vision of Christianity more forcefully: “the Lord stands on the side of justice, for the oppressed.” True, for Woodbey, the fundamental problem facing all oppressed peoples—women, black Americans, poor whites—is a question of labor’s power versus capital’s. Woodbey is utopian in that he believes Socialism will solve the “woman question” and the “race problem.” But Woodbey never leaves the pastorate until his parishioners force him out of Mt. Zion in 1912. Christianity was always about the black social gospel for Woodbey, and socialism was the enactment of the ethics of Jesus and the Bible. His is a fundamentally religious political vision. As a black socialist preacher he was triply outside the dominant secularist frame.

There were long debates on religion and race (on the issue of immigration) at the Socialist Party national conventions in 1908 and 1912. Woodbey, one of the few black delegates, spoke at both conventions. In 1908 he set the terms of the immigration debate by being the first delegate to speak to the issue, arguing that a “spirit of Brotherhood” motivates socialism more than any policy or economism. Later scholars like Cornel West and Gary Dorrien have recognized that Woodbey’s black social gospelism saw religion as a vital force in achieving a cooperative society founded on ideals that matter to both Christianity and socialist politics. In “The Bible and Socialism,” Woodbey counters the secularist logic that splits religion and politics in service of the status quo. “We Socialists stand with the prophet, in this case, and say that on earth is the place to begin doing right and that the courts have been turning the judgment of the poor into the bitterness of wormwood long enough.” “What you need to do, Pastor,” Woodbey says to his interlocutor, “is to get your mouth open in behalf of the needy.”

Scott’s genealogy does not come down as always against secularism, nor is she decidedly for religion. Her interest is in the imbrication of the discourses of sex and secularism, and how gender inequality is at the heart of the secular organization of the world. Recent work in this area tends to focus on the secular as a category that either naturalizes its historicity or reifies the political capacity of emancipation and freedom within human nature. Both of these approaches can’t make sense of Woodbey’s black social gospel—which is radically egalitarian and radically religious. Scott’s genealogy provides a frame to make sense of Woodbey in his own terms, while also recognizing a similar abstracting tendency in Woodbey to collapse difference into his concept of the laborer. Scott’s is a welcome scholarly intervention at a time when our theopolitical imaginations need spurring. The fruit of her work is found in refiguring pivotal leaders in our political history that have been wrongly long forgotten in the dominant secular view.


Aaron Stauffer is a Ph.D. candidate at Union Theological Seminary. His work lies at the intersection of the academy, the Christian church, and community organizing. His dissertation is focused on the political role of sacred value in broad-based community organizing. Drawing from a tradition of radical democracy, constructive feminist and anti-racist critiques of liberal political theory, and the rising field of “lived religion,” Aaron’s dissertation argues for the value of religious language in the practice of community organizing.


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