Theorizing Religion in the Age of Trump: Matthew Baldwin

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 proposed 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

Part III: Public Truth and the Pragmatic Critique of Religion

by Matthew Baldwin

Andrew Sullivan’s recent New York Magazine piece “Is Intersectionality a Religion?” responds to a March 2nd, 2017 incident at Middlebury College, in which vocal protestors stopped a lecture by Charles Murray, violently drove him from campus, and injured Middlebury Political Scientist Alison Stanger.

The first installment of this essay discussed the discursive context of Sullivan’s unusual argument, and the second installment demonstrated that Sullivan’s classification of these student protestors as “religious” relies on an implicit prototype theory of “religion”.

This final installment examines the way that Sullivan, by framing his criticism of “intersectionality” in terms of “religion,” draws on a classic approach to “religion” which sees it as incompatible with secular public reason. But the ironies of Sullivan’s argument reveal contradictions which may be inherent in policing the acceptable boundaries of public conversation.

  1. Sullivan’s Account of “Intersectionality”

As I suggested in Part I, recent debates about progressive politics frequently contain references to “intersectionality.” As a concept, “intersectionality” emerged from feminist and critical race theory, but over the past two decades, the term has taken on a life of its own. Feminist Philosopher Anna Carastathis has maintained that in many cases popular uses of the term are “flippant or vague” (Carastathis 2016: 3). Sullivan’s use of the term in reference to the Middlebury incident seems to be a case in point. For it appears that he not only uses the term idiosyncratically, but also that he lacks a reasonable warrant for using the term in the first place.

If one researches the Middlebury incident looking for references to “intersectionality,” a striking feature emerges from the data: the term seems virtually absent. Before Sullivan used it, almost no one else had mentioned “intersectionality” in connection with the event. In the first place, the term will not be heard in the (admittedly difficult to hear) text of the statement which students read aloud in unison during the event, a protest action which Sullivan characterizes as “ritual,” “liturgy,” “exorcism,” and “ceremony” (see from minute 19 of Wil DiGravio’s video). No mention of it is made in DiGravio’s report on the event for The Middlebury Campus (3/2/2017). The term appears in none of twelve related documents DiGravio links, including letters signed by over 600 students, 450 alumni, and over fifty Middlebury faculty.

It is absent in reporting on the event by Inside Higher Ed (3/3), the Boston Globe (3/4), and Vice (3/8). It was not used by Eugene Volokh in The Washington Post (3/4), Peter Beinart in The Atlantic (3/6), William Deresciewicz in The American Scholar (3/6) – on Deresciewicz’ essay, see the Postscript, below). Nor, days after Sullivan’s essay was published, was it used in the New York Times by Frank Bruni (3/11), or even in Alison Stanger’s plaintive response to the attack she suffered (3/13).

In fact, I could find only one instance of the term used in connection with the incident prior to the publication of Sullivan’s essay. It appears in a collection of short interviews published March 7th by the New York Times, when Middlebury Senior Edward O’Brien is quoted as stating that “we need to complicate our truths—whether we use the language of intersectionality or the language of traditional American values.” Of course Sullivan gives no indication that he had read this report; in any case O’Brien’s words barely resemble Sullivan’s claims that Middlebury students at large are beholden to doctrines of “intersectionality.” Sullivan appears to have brought the term into play himself.

“Intersectionality,” a noun form of the adjective “intersectional,” refers classically not to an institutional “-ity” (like the prototype “Christianity”?) but to a descriptive theory of complexity in cultural identity. An intersectional analysis of sexism might, for example, stress the difference in experience between two women, both of whom may face discrimination, but who might have qualitatively different experiences due to their race or class positions (Crenshaw 1991). Sullivan, however, glosses the concept as a conviction that “social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity… but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power.” This sloppy definition lets him use “intersectionality” as a symbol for all that is wrong with left-wing academic culture. The left allegedly connects all forms of oppression indiscriminately. But this isn’t Crenshaw or Carastathis’ “intersectionality,” it’s Sullivan’s straw theory.

Sullivan describes the concept as a “neo-Marxist” and an “academic craze.” Borrowing an ominous phrase from Orwell, he suggests that “in practice” this “social theory… operates… as ‘a smelly little orthodoxy.’” The comparison to “religion” begins with this line. Like the prototype, “intersectionality” has “orthodoxy,” but this comparison carries negative freight. While Sullivan might perhaps agree that the prototype’s orthodoxy could be described more generously, say, as “fragrant” and “capacious,” this “orthodoxy” confines and suffocates.

Drawing on further descriptors with negative valence, Sullivan compares “intersectionality” to “Puritanism” because it allegedly “controls language and the very terms of discourse, [and] enforces manners… and virtue.” Intolerant of those outside the “orthodoxy,” “especially if you are white or male or straight,” it condemns those who do not renounce privilege as “sinners” and “heretics” subject to a “damnation” right out of “Dante.” Closed to reason and debate, it regards all “arguments and ideas” as tied to “white supremacy.”

In support of this tendentious characterization, Sullivan offers dubious readings of the joint statement which the Middlebury protestors read aloud at the event. Sullivan hears the undergraduates state that “in this world today there is little that is true ‘fact.’” He focuses on a line in their speech which intones that “science has always been used to legitimize” the oppression of subaltern populations, and on their dramatic finale in which they repeatedly shout aloud: “who is the enemy? white supremacy!” Rather than seeing the students’ statement as a perhaps clumsily worded complaint about their chosen academic home giving a space to racist pseudo-science, Sullivan extrapolates. He argues that “intersectionality” must reject any “idea of free debate, science, or truth independent of white male power.”

The students drive Murray from the stage, shouting “Sexist! Racist! Anti-Gay! Charles Murray Go Away!” In this they wrongly, Sullivan explains, attribute sexism and homophobia to his acquaintance. (Sullivan does not attempt to defend Murray from charges of racism.) Rather than blaming the intellectual laziness of students or the inflexible metric demands of a protest chant, Sullivan suggests that the students falsify Murray’s views because intersectionality can only attribute all sins to every sinner. Yet in focusing on these errors, Sullivan hopes to distract from their more legitimate points. Murray’s past work on race, ethnicity and intelligence is widely regarded as abetting the social ill of racism. For instance, similar concerns to those of the Middlebury students were voiced by the faculty of Columbia University prior to Murray’s speech on that campus, which took place almost three weeks later, on March 23rd, without incident. (Maybe they haven’t heard of intersectionality at Columbia.)

  1. Religion in American Public Life

“Shut it down!” the students shout, over and over, at the end of the event. Sullivan characterizes this conclusion of the video as “a frenzied, disturbing catharsis” … “like something out of the Crucible.” Here again he invokes Puritanism, this time making reference to Arthur Miller’s well known play of 1953. This is revealing. Miller used the Puritan witch hunts of the 17th century as a symbol for critiquing a 20th century national shame: McCarthyism (Popkin 1964). The Crucible works because it relies on a very American tradition of arguing that “religion” threatens the public sphere of a liberal democratic society because of its tendency to enforce ideological conformity through violence. Under this account, “religion” is closed to reason and argument, unfriendly to science, hostile to difference, and, if allowed access to power, incompatible with liberty.

This critique has roots in the 17th century (think European “Wars of Religion” and Rhode Island’s Roger Williams). It is found in the disestablishmentarianism of the late 18th century, when it became politically expedient for modern nations to draw bright political lines separating “church” from “state.” In this process, “religion” was increasingly spoken of as essentially a matter of individual feeling or belief. Thomas Jefferson’s “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” (1786) defines religion essentially as private opinion, protecting it from public coercion. In Post-Enlightenment liberal societies, collective forms of religion (“churches”) were reconceived as private and voluntary associations outside of the realm of political power.

The critique embodied in these ambiguous ideas about “religion” reached full flower in American Pragmatism. For example, Charles Sanders Peirce, in his classic epistemological essay “The Fixation of Belief” (1877), discusses the oppressive “method of authority” used in “religions” (and other institutions) bent on enforcing conformity of doctrine. This he contrasts to the only sure alternative path to fixing community opinion on the truth, which is the free use of “scientific investigation”—in a public, social and fallibilistic mode.

Yet the Pragmatic critique of “religion” is perhaps most well known in the form it assumes after the anti-metaphysical turn in American philosophy. The neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty famously described “religion as a conversation stopper” (Rorty 1994 [1999]). Writing in response to Stephen L. Carter’s Culture of Disbelief—a call for Americans to embrace “religious arguments” in “the public square”—Rorty laments Carter’s apparent rejection of the “happy Jeffersonian compromise that the Enlightenment reached with the religious” (1999: 169). Rorty defines “religion” as absolute commitment to non-verifiable metaphysical presuppositions; he regards it as essentially incompatible with the pragmatic public reasoning which is necessary to good policy making and all conversation. For the “pluralist and democratic state” which holds a “monopoly on violence,” its “moral decisions” must be justified in a “public discussion in which voices claiming to be God’s, or reason’s, or science’s, are put on a par with everybody else” (1999: 172). Instead, appeals to “religious arguments”—appeals to privileged or transcendent sources of “moral knowledge”—shut down discussion and end debate; they stop conversation. They are inherently illiberal.

In the final paragraphs of his essay, Sullivan reveals that his concerns go beyond denouncing the illiberal tendencies of left academia. His concern echoes Rorty’s defense of secular public reason. Sullivan argues that:

reason and empirical debate are essential to the functioning of a liberal democracy. We need a common discourse to deliberate. We need facts independent of anyone’s ideology or political side… [but if] reason must be subordinate to ideology even [in universities], [then] our experiment with self-government is over.

Sullivan laments the epistemological challenge posed by the “age of Trump,” in which “lies,” “dishonesty,” and “contempt… for fact” seem “designed to erode the very notion of empirical reality.” The Middlebury students, with their religious “intersectionality,” ironically collude with the illiberal tendencies of Trumpism, conspiring to kill the Republic, or perhaps even truth itself.

A potent sign of the times. This week’s cover of Time Magazine revives the design of its classic cover of April 8th, 1966.

Classification is an inherently political act. And in Sullivan’s characterization of “intersectionality… almost as a religion” we have a salient example of a larger pattern in those ongoing cultural wranglings over who gets to talk about truth, and how they get to express themselves. Of course, we must decry those who resort to violence instead of using their words. A few students at Middlebury took protest and objection way too far. But we should not lose sight of the ironies in this case, because they are illuminating. Sullivan, the devout Catholic, applies a “pragmatic critique” of “religion” as incompatible with public reason. And yet the genealogy of this discourse can be found in a largely Protestant effort to carve out a “secular” world over and against authoritative traditions that were inherited from pre-modern Europe, and can be seen in various permutations down into liberal atheist objections to conservative Christian discourse in the public square. Sullivan thus repeats a well-worn socio-rhetorical strategy which has served any number of agents in the past, coming from all sides of the socio-political polygon. This critique is a powerful tool of delegitimization. It is this very fact that ought to raise for us all the larger question of how the category “religion” functions in our cultural discourse.


Unfortunately, I had nearly completed this essay before I became aware of Deresciewicz’ essay through the commentary of John Warner at Inside Higher Ed (3/13). Warner rightly links Deresciewicz’s essay to Sullivan’s and responds to these acts of classification by (a) equating Deresciewicz’ “political correctness” and Sullivan’s “intersectionality” — I think this equation is more or less correct — and (b) by using a rhetorical reductio ad absurdum to minimize these acts of classification. Warner does this by comparing past student riots and unrest over football, beer and sex on college campuses to religion. While I myself find this commentary entertaining, on target, and politically expedient, my own analysis obviously proceeds in a different direction and with different theoretical aims. I do think Deresciewicz’ act of classification is a salient second example of exactly what Sullivan’s argument is doing. The coincidence of these two responses to the Middlebury event, especially when compared to Rachel Fulton Brown’s response to the Berkeley Riots as an example of a “crisis in religious thinking,” suggest that rhetorical criticisms of academic leftism as a “religion” is becoming a trope of right-wing analysis. This is not an especially encouraging trend.

Bibliography for Part III

Carastathis, Anna. Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons. Expanding Frontiers: Interdisciplinary Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Archived at

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43:6 (1991) 1241-1299.

Peirce, Charles S. “The Fixation of Belief” Popular Science Monthly 12 (1877), 1-15. Available at:

Popkin, Henry. “Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’.” College English 26:2 (1964): 139-46. Archived on JSTOR:

Rorty, Richard. “Religion as a Conversation-Stopper.” Common Knowledge 3 (1994) 1–6. Reprinted on pages 168–174 in Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin, 1999).

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