The First Amendment and Religion in the Total Institution: An Interview with Winni Sullivan

Paul Harvey

Many years ago I was in the Young Scholars program with Winni Sullivan, currently director of the Religion and Law program at SUNY-Buffalo. She has since gone on to publish The Impossibility of Religious Freedom and Prison Religion, two outstanding studies based on individual cases where religion intersects with the law. Over at Immanent Frame, Nathan Schneider has a great interview with Winni, who reflects on scholarship about religious freedom and the First Amendment, on the "impossibility of religious freedom," on how courts are inadequate places to figure out controversies on what "religion" means, and on her most recent work Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution (referenced by Kip Kosek in his post about "religion in the total institution" a few days ago). A brief excerpt:

The problems with defining religion play a central role in the argument that you’ve been developing over your last two books. Why can’t we—as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography—simply know it when we see it?

The word “religion” comes out of a particular history. There are various ways of telling that history, but one could say, from the perspective of someone like me who is interested in church/state issues, that the notion that religion is a discrete, bounded aspect of human culture and society is something that emerged in the early modern period, parallel with the emergence of the modern state. With the secularization of the state and the differentiation of socio-cultural formations within society, religion gets reinvented as something separate. But the context in which that happens shapes what religion means. Politically, it comes to serve the modern state by providing a location in which modern citizens are trained to be moral, functioning members of society. This is a very particular understanding of religion, rooted in a particular kind of Protestant Christianity. Naturally, once modern societies try to expand that role beyond Protestant Christianity, they begin bumping up against different understandings of where religion ought to fit.


Gerardo Marti at: August 15, 2009 at 11:09 AM said...

Thanks for this post. I heard Winni Sullivan for the first time at the Religion and American Culture Conference earlier this year - a truly brilliant scholar.

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