Going Beyond “No Duh”: Michael Schulson Responds to Kate Blanchard

I feel lucky to have even one reader as sharp as Kathryn Blanchard (“Why Religion or Politics is the Wrong Question”). And I feel lucky to count myself as one of her readers. Her main point here, I think, is exactly right: you can’t draw a sharp line between the religious and the political. To do so is intellectually sloppy. It presumes that it’s possible to pin down a simple definition of religion and a simple definition of politics. It privileges certain kinds of practice and ignores others. And it does little to capture the diverse ways that individuals balance their myriad moral and communal commitments.

I wrote this piece for the Post because of a disconnect I had noticed in national conversations about Islam. Many liberals seemed to think that they were in a debate about religious liberty. But some of the conservatives I was talking to seemed to conceive of Islam as a primarily racial or political group. They seemed to be grappling for a framework that would let them say “Look, this isn’t a conversation about religious liberty at all.”

I thought it was important to acknowledge that disconnect, instead of pretending that everyone was entering the conversation with the same premises in place.

Sometimes, it’s worth jumping into a conversation on its own terms. My first goal with the article was not to challenge the working definitions of religion in the public sphere; it was to point out how, even using those imperfect day-to-day definitions, it is incoherent to argue that Islam is somehow not a religion, or somehow uniquely political.

Along the way, I also hoped to challenge readers to think more critically about the boundary between the religious and the political. Blanchard seems to think that I didn’t go far enough in evaluating those basic underlying assumptions. That’s a fair criticism, and I’m grateful for it.

Having said this, I think that Blanchard and I may differ on one important point. In the Post piece, I wrote that “Certainly, some Muslims may believe that faith touches all parts of their lives, including their political involvement. But the same could be said for devout members of almost any other religious tradition.”

To this, Blanchard replies: “I’m fighting the urge to say, ‘No, duh.'”

What is obvious to a religion scholar may not be obvious to a citizen who has never taken a religious studies class, met a Muslim, or thought about either Islam or religious liberty outside the frames offered by cable news. For all of us who study or write about religion, our responsibility is to check our impulse to respond “No, duh.” Instead, we need to ask questions, to reach out across political divides, and to try to understand why something that sounds obvious to us may be baffling to so many of our fellow citizens.