Some Thoughts on Theory and Politics in the Classroom

By Matt Sheedy

A recent thread on Facebook got me thinking about how scholars/instructors negotiate the boundaries between theory and politics and how these lines are always a little blurry, even at the best of times. Tim Murphy offers one way to think about this problem in his essay “Speaking Different Languages,” (2000) when he points out how debates in the public realm are different from debates in scholarship since they exist in different “temporal horizons.”

Whereas politics is driven by practical questions that concern the  ‘here and now’ and is typically framed in a narrow and partisan fashion, the scholar thrives on careful and subtle distinctions and thus has the luxury to “wait and see” without (ideally) an immediate
pressure to choose sides. (188) If it is true that most students come  to the classroom with an understanding of religion that has been filtered and homogenized through a particular cultural, historical and political lens (e.g., Anglo-American) then it stands to reason that drawing on examples from the public sphere (e.g., the news media) is a good way to illustrate the boundaries between theory and politics and to demonstrate how we might try to navigate this rocky terrain.

A recent USA Today article entitled, “Secularists counter prayer day with National Day of Reason” provides a useful example. The article frames the National Day of Reason as “part protest, part celebration and totally godless,” and ends by quoting Paul Fidalgo,
communications director at the Center for Inquiry, who states: “We feel that having our chief elected officials proclaim a religious day to be a clear violation of the separation of church and state. Besides that, it is exclusionary not just for nonbelievers but to
everyone who does not buy into monotheism.”

On the level of politics, we may note how the language/rhetoric and framing of this issue encourages people to choose sides in relation to their preferences as they are presented with what appear to be logical propositions that require a yes or no response. Here I might
confess that I, as a non-theist and as a person with political interests, am sympathetic to secularist groups being able to voice their concerns in the public realm and am weary of politicians promoting such an exclusionary event as the National Day of Prayer. I
might also note, however, that I am uneasy with the way that many secularist groups tend to construct “religion” as the opposite of “reason,” which is one of several factors that makes me reluctant to choose sides. And the reason I think this is, in no small measure, because of my training in theory and how it has changed the way that I think about discourse in the public sphere.

Looking at this article with a more theoretical lens, we may note two structural dichotomies in the above quotation, that between religion and reason and that between church and state, both of which can be placed within the history of the Euro-West and its corresponding emphasis on “belief” as something that is internal to the individual and is therefore a “private” affair that should not get caught-up in the “public” matters of the State. Pushing further we might locate religion in a contemporary American context, noting the particular history of church/state relations and ask why this is such a heated matter, especially in light of such events as 9/11 or the historical marginalization of atheists from politics? We could also frame this event via comparison, looking at the Canadian National Prayer Breakfast, which is held around the same time, and ask why it did not, to my knowledge, garner the same level of opposition (or media coverage) from secularist groups, despite its overwhelmingly male, conservative and Christian orientation?

After raising such careful and subtle distinctions it should be easier for students to see that issues in the public sphere are not so cut and dry, and that terms like “secular” and “religion,” or church/state boundaries have a history and must be situated in relation to other factors if they are to make any sense at all. While the “temporal horizons” of theory and politics are not likely to change any time soon, by stressing that knowledge is always caught-up with human interests and that we need not always choose sides (at least not right away!) we create a space for critical thought to take shape as something more than mere fantasy, without falling into the trap of confession or advocacy. In this sense, Marx was right: philosophers and theorists don’t just interpret the world, but, through
critique and by presenting issues in a certain light, ultimately serve to change it–though perhaps on a slightly smaller-scale than Marx had in mind, and with much less certainty as to what it all means for the future.

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