Theorizing Religion in the Age of Trump: Matthew Baldwin, Part II

The election of Donald Trump has given rise to new kind of politics that has already increased tensions between competing groups, including religious groups over issues such as public education, science funding, and a travel ban impacting several Muslim majority countries. In this new series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars how they might go about theorizing these issues from the perspective of the study of religion.

“Stopping Conversation: Andrew Sullivan on the “Religion” of Academia”

by Matthew Baldwin

This is the second installment in a three part essay in response to Andrew Sullivan’s March 10th post in New York Magazine, “Is Intersectionality a Religion?” The first part presented the discursive context of Sullivan’s argument. Here, the second part examines the implicit theory at work in Sullivan’s the act of classification. Next week, the essay concludes by examining the ideological agenda at work in this interesting example of the discourse on “religion” in the “age of Trump.”

Part II: Classification and Criticism

Before proceeding, I want to say a word in defense of taking Sullivan’s essay seriously. For the professional religious studies scholar might indeed be tempted to ignore Sullivan’s question and argument, dismissing both as contrived and unconvincing. A professional could easily stipulate a nominal definition of “religion”—e.g. a neo-Tylorean or Spiroean definition stressing traditional interaction with superhuman forces (cf. Spiro 1966)—which would exclude “intersectionality” (on any construction of the term) as an example of “religion.” This anthropological approach would answer Sullivan’s question with “no,” arguing that he is merely mistaken. His claims are of no interest to real scholars who do real work on real religions.

Silly Sullivan, classifying religious phenomena is for scholars.

Such an approach would be unsatisfying for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that scholars of religion may justly consider any deployment of the category “religion” as a matter of theoretical interest (von Stuckrad 2013). Sullivan’s question may seem specious to some, but I would argue that it is better seen as data useful for theorizing the public “discourse on religion.” By deploying the category of “religion” in this unexpected way, Sullivan invites the religious studies professional not to answer his question with a “no,” or a “yes,” but to investigate the fact that he is is asking it in the first place. Such an investigation allows us to pursue our disciplinary interest in making better sense of how “religion” functions as a taxon, doing work for interested subjects in a cultural context.

The remainder of this essay will thus take up four interrelated questions about Sullivan’s article. This week, in Part II, we ask, first: how does Sullivan conceptualize “religion”? and second: what observations led Sullivan to deploy the category in this case? Next week, in Part III, we ask, third: why does Sullivan denominate the “religion” he sees as “intersectionality”? And fourth: what assumptions are embodied and what concerns are operationalized in this particular act of classification?

The Rhetorical Structure of Sullivan’s Text

Initially, it may be helpful to begin by describing briefly the rhetorical structure of Sullivan’s essay. Sullivan’s roughly two-thousand word text is presented in eighteen paragraphs, and divided into two main sections. In the first section, comprising thirteen paragraphs, Sullivan first reports on the Middlebury incident and Charles Murray (paragraphs 1–3) and then introduces his notion of “intersectionality” (4–5). He presents an extensive analysis of “intersectionality” and the incident “as religion” (6–11); he then transitions to a larger argument about “liberal democracy” (12–13). In the second part, divided from the first by a short, light grey horizontal bar, Sullivan concludes with an epistemological jeremiad about the challenge posed by Donald Trump’s America to notions of “truth,” “facts” and “empirical reality” (14–18).

The strategic aims of Sullivan’s rhetoric is revealed in this structure. After comparing the “deeply disturbing” spectacle of “intersectionality” at Middlebury to “religion,” Sullivan then presents this “religion” a symptom of a wider contemporary problem: a perceived crisis of public conversation in the age of Trump.

  1. How does Sullivan Conceptualize Religion?

Apart from the title, the term “religion” appears only three times in Sullivan’s article (in paragraphs 6, 7 and 8), and the term “religious” appears once (par 9). Nowhere is “religion” explicitly defined. Yet Sullivan also deploys a matrix of apparently related terms which he uses to substantiate his argument that “intersectionality… manifests itself… almost as a religion” (par. 6). (Note the hedging “almost” here, which seemingly anticipates the professional objection to his thesis that I mentioned above.) If we examine this terminological matrix, we can assess Sullivan’s conceptualization of “religion.”

Mostly appearing in paragraphs 6–11, the following battery of subtaxa are deployed in Sullivan’s comparison (to simplify analysis I have grouped them into clusters): “chanting,” “chant,” “liturgy,” “ritual,” “ritually,” and “exorcism;” “orthodoxy” and “doctrine;” “heresy,” and “heretic;” “sin,” “original sin,” “sinner/s” and “saints;” “manners” and “virtue;” “immoral” and “evil;” “confess” and “conversion;” “Dante,” “souls,” “damnation,” and “salvation;” “fundamentalists,” “Puritanism,” “The Crucible,” and finally, “zeal.”

With one exception, Sullivan relates all of the above terms to his description of the actions of the Middlebury students, and to his account of “Intersectionality.” Of course, the one exception “proves the rule.” The absence of “salvation” is used as a sort of negative confirmation of his thesis:

the only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation (par 7).

We can describe the conceptualization of “religion” found at work in Sullivan’s essay as a tacit example of “prototype theory” (Saler 1993). In a comparative project rooted in a prototype theory, the observer classifies an object of inquiry as “a religion” or “religious” when a sufficient number of its elements bear a “family resemblance” to a prototype of “religion.” Such a procedure is what we find in this argument. By deploying the terms from the above list, Sullivan reveals that for him, the category “religion” is based on a Christian prototype. We can surmise that Sullivan’s “prototype” ideal of religion stems from his well-documented familiarity with Catholicism. (Sullivan is often described as “gay, Catholic, and conservative”—a purportedly surprising trio of descriptors that he coincidentally shares with alt-right controversialist Milo Yiannopoulos). Because of its alleged resemblance to this family of elements drawn from an American and Catholic Christian matrix, Sullivan argues that “Intersectionality… appears almost as a religion.”

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Sullivan is using or applying Saler’s theory in this act of classification. Sullivan doesn’t mention what theorists of “religion” he may ever have read. Nor are these observations meant as an endorsement of Saler’s view that the category “religion” should be conceptualized “as a graded category the instantiations of which are linked by family resemblances” based on Western prototypes (Saler 1993: ix–xvi). I am, however, willing to argue that Saler’s attempt to give scholarly definition to a “folk category” winds up describing exactly how some persons—and in this case, Sullivan—actually employ the term. But instead of validating Saler’s definition, Sullivan’s strategic use of this type of argument to classify “Intersectionality” as “religion” ought to demonstrate how well prototype theory can serve the strategic interests of those who apply it to phenomena that interests them.

  1. Why See “Religion” in the Middlebury Incident?

In the fourth and ninth paragraphs of his essay, Sullivan reveals that this analysis was triggered by watching a YouTube video of the Middlebury incident. The video in question was recorded by Middlebury Campus newspaper editor and film studies major Wil DiGravio, and posted to YouTube on Mar 2nd. According to Sullivan, the video “brings the incident to life in a way words cannot” (Par. 2). Nevertheless, a verbal description of the tape is warranted.

The first nineteen minutes of the video document a restive, buoyant and vocally oppositional crowd in McCullough Student Center on the Middlebury campus. Shouting jeers and barbs, and holding protest signs aloft, they stand through short presentations by Communications VP Bill Burger (0:00–1:05), American Enterprise Institute club board member Ivan Valladares (1:06–6:47)—this is a campus chapter of the conservative DC think tank responsible for inviting AEI scholar Murray to campus—college President Laurie Patton (7:09–13:20), and finally AEI club president Alexander Kahn, who introduces Murray (13:42–18:50). These opening presenters attempt to quiet the crowd’s disorderly protests and assuage its anger. Their efforts fail.

The data in the video which Sullivan flags as relevant to him begins “around the 19-minute mark” (par 4) when Murray takes the stage. The crowd grows surprisingly quiet. As Murray starts his talk, they begin a more orderly form of protest. A large number of the students stand up, turn their backs to Murray, and begin to read aloud in unison from a prepared statement. DiGravio pans his phone camera, showing them reading together in small groups—now smoothly, now haltingly—while holding printed sheets. Sullivan describes this scene as follows:

what I saw on the video struck me most as a form of religious ritual — a secular exorcism, if you will — that reaches a frenzied, disturbing catharsis. When Murray starts to speak, the students stand and ritually turn their backs on him in silence. The heretic must not be looked at, let alone engaged. Then they recite a common liturgy in unison from sheets of paper. (Par. 9)

It seems clear from this tendentious description that Sullivan’s decision to compare the incident to “religion” must have begin with watching this video. To paraphrase J. Z. Smith, the protestor’s action was Sullivan’s “occasion of surprise,” prompting his essay in “explanation and interpretation,” accomplished “by bringing the unknown into relations to the known” (Smith 2004: 370–371). For rhetorical purposes Sullivan portrays the protestors’ unsettling tactic as something initially uncanny, the surprise of which can be reduced, and the meaning explained, by relating it to what is for him a more familiar context for a group reading text aloud in unison ( a “liturgy”).

The underlying interests that drive a critic’s observation of scenes in the world determine the path and direction of comparison. Sullivan might just as well have taken his comparison in the opposite direction, using the similarity he observes as an occasion for thinking about “liturgy;” had he done so, perhaps he might have redescribed the Catholic mass as a form of political protest against oppressive ideologies. But because Sullivan is not puzzled or troubled by Christian liturgies, and is not trying to understand his own (or indeed any other) “religion,” but is instead trying to understand what is to him a problematic social phenomenon, he does not take that route. What interests Sullivan, and “deeply disturb[s]” him, is the unified and sometimes violent opposition of left-leaning student populations to on-campus speech advocating conservative (n.b. the protestors at Middlebury would say “white supremacist”) ideas. His act of classification serves the purpose of criticizing that unified opposition.

Next week: Part III: Public Truth and the Pragmatic Critique of “Religion”


Saler, Benson. Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories. New York: Berghan Books, 1993.

Smith, Jonathan Z. “A Twice-Told Tale: The History of the History of Religions’ History.” Pages 362–374 in Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Spiro, Melford E. “Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation.” Pages 85–126 in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. Edited by Michael Banton. ASA Monographs 3. New York: Tavistock Publications, 1966.

von Stuckrad, Kocku. “Discursive Study of Religion: Approaches, Definitions, Implications.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25 (2013) 5-25.

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