Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

The Perplexities of Secularism


Does a cross in a courtroom infringe on the religious freedom of non-Christians involved in legal proceedings? Does it violate the principles of a secular state? These questions have recently arisen in Germany thanks to the trial of Beate Zschäpe. Zschäpe is the one surviving member of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a band of neo-Nazis that allegedly murdered eight people of Turkish descent, one person of Greek descent, and one non-immigrant German police officer in a string of premeditated attacks from 2000 to 2007.

Zschäpe is currently standing trial at the upper court of appeals in Munich, and like other legal chambers in the state of Bavaria, its décor includes a modest wooden cross.


This cross did not evoke comment from the judge and lawyers in the run-up to the trial, and it was not an initial source of concern for the victims’ immediate relatives, who are acting as joint plaintiffs in the case. But it did draw the ire of Mahmut Tanal, a member of the Turkish parliament who attended the first day of the proceedings. Tanal, who is affiliated with the secularist Republican People’s Party, argued that a religious symbol like a cross has no place in the courtroom and should be removed immediately. In his estimation, the cross not only violated the principle of state neutrality in religious affairs, but also constituted a “threat” for the Muslim relatives of the Turkish victims.

Several conservative politicians in Germany responded to his complaints with sharply worded defenses of the cross. Norbert Geis, a parliamentarian for Germany’s Christian Social Union (CSU), announced that “the cross belongs to our culture” and urged Tanal to display more respect for the Christian influence on German life. Günter Krings, a member of parliament for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), contended that the cross “symbolizes brotherly love and tolerance and is an expression of our Christian-Western roots.” And Günther Beckstein (CSU), Bavaria’s former Minister President, insisted that it was important to make clear, even in a courtroom, that “God stands above the person.”

The matter might have ended there if one of the joint plaintiffs, Talar T., had not agreed with Mahmut Tanal and filed a motion for the cross to be removed. Talar T. insisted that he had a pressing claim “not to be exposed to the influence of a religion—even in the form of a symbol—by the German state.”

Significantly, there is no established legal precedent on this and related matters. The State Court in Saarbrücken ruled in 2001 that a cross must be removed from a courtroom when a concerned party believes that its presence injures her or his right to religious freedom. But it is not clear whether this judgment would apply to courts in Bavaria, especially when Germany’s federalist system grants individual states considerable legal and policymaking autonomy. Indeed, it is precisely this system that has allowed Bavaria to hang crosses in its courtrooms when most other German states avoid and even disavow the practice.

We should not place undue emphasis on this aspect of the trial, which is highly charged for reasons that have nothing to do with the presence or absence of a cross. After all, German prosecutors accuse Zschäpe and her NSU compatriots of a string of xenophobic if not racist murders, and they charge that incompetence at the highest levels of German law enforcement allowed many if not all of these murders to occur. Nevertheless, I would argue that the contention and uncertainty surrounding the cross remain significant in their own right, for they speak to important arguments about the nature of secularism as a modern historical phenomenon.

In a series of recent articles and a concluding book, the University of Chicago anthropologist Hussein Agrama has proposed that secularism, contrary to the normative claims advanced in its favor, is not an institutional framework in which religion and politics are clearly separated. Instead, secularism consistently fashions religion as an object of governmental management and intervention, and it therefore expresses the state’s sovereign power to decide “what count should count as essentially religious and what scope it can have in social life.” Yet in the act of exercising this power, the secular state repeatedly blurs the very line between religion and politics that it aims to draw. For example: if a state insists that religiosity may only be expressed in the private sphere, what is the nature and extent of that sphere? Does it only include the home? Or does it also encompass communal places of worship, or believers’ choice of clothing and other forms of adornment? Is not the demarcation of a private realm of legitimate religious expression itself a political act?

In the end, Agrama argues that secularism is not a solution that neatly defines religion’s place in contemporary life. Instead, it constitutes a problem-space “wherein the question of where to draw a line between religion and politics continually arises.” Moreover, this question cannot be easily ignored, for it is inextricably bound up with the distribution of liberal rights and freedoms.

In Germany’s case, the state and federal governments, including the one in Bavaria, have adopted the principle that the state is independent of religious institutions and should not invoke or favor one religious tradition over another. The state and federal governments have also affirmed the right of all citizens to express their religious beliefs without undue interference from the state. These commitments are basic elements of German liberal governance, and the presence of the cross in Bavarian courtrooms would appear to complicate if not directly contradict them. To use Agrama’s language, the cross blurs the line between religion and politics, and it raises questions about the substance of the religious freedom that citizens may claim.

As my preceding discussion indicates, proponents of the status quo in Bavaria have tended to finesse these difficulties by insisting that the cross is merely a “symbol.” The cross, they imply, evokes a tradition that has exerted a formative influence on culture and politics in Germany and humanist thinking more broadly, but its presence is ultimately incidental to the legal proceedings and judgments that the state initiates. Moreover, the cross does not “threaten” non-Christians because it does not enshrine Christianity as the state’s religion, and it does not infringe on citizens’ freedom of religious belief or their equality before the law. To an important extent, this logic would seem to deny that the cross, at least in this context, is a “religious” artifact at all.

Of course, we might well wonder whether a symbol that is incidental to legal proceedings really needs to be present in a courtroom in the first place. More importantly, though, we might wish to question the innocence of the cross given the larger context of the case against Beate Zschäpe.


The NSU murders have led many migrants and post-migrants, including those from Muslim-majority countries like Turkey, to doubt their full inclusion in the German nation and polity. Moreover, the climate of lingering distrust surrounding Islam has only sharpened many Muslims’ perception that their faith is not a welcome and integral aspect of German life. Thus, even if the inclusion of a cross is not meant to be a “threatening” gesture, it is hardly a neutral, merely “symbolic” one either.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, many Euro-American commentators have wondered whether the new governments in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries will be “secular” or “religious.” At least some of them have also maintained that “secular” governments will further the region’s democratization and long-term stability. To my mind, this line of thinking presumes that states in Europe and North America are exemplary polities which have more or less resolved the perplexities of secularism. But if the recent debates over the cross in Germany are any indication, such a judgment is premature if not complacent and self-serving. Even in those polities where secularism seems firmly established, uncertainty and dissension over religion persist. Indeed, such a condition may be the norm that defines secularist structures of power, not their fleeting and aberrant exception.

NOTE: as I was finishing this post, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will rule on the constitutional status of prayer in town board meetings, based on a case from Greece, New York. Many of my remarks on the Zschäpe trial are pertinent in this instance as well.

-Jeffrey Jurgens


Violence, and Thinking With Others

“All thought arises out of experience, but no thought yields any meaning or even coherence without undergoing the operations of imagining and thinking.”

- Hannah Arendt, Thinking

In the wake of an extraordinarily brutal punctuation to an extraordinarily brutal year of gun violence in the United States and across the continent, the eye of American politics has finally turned back toward something it perhaps ought never have left, the problem in this country of the private ownership of the means to commit extraordinary brutality.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, public discourse around the problem has descended nearly instantaneously from fractiousness into what could now only generously be termed playground name-calling (to spend millions of dollars to publicly call one’s opponent an “elitist hypocrite” should feel extraordinary, even if it doesn’t).  There are many tempting culprits to blame for this fall.  The actors, of course, include some powerful players whose opposing ideologies so deeply inflect their understanding of the situation that it is entirely uncertain whether they are in fact seeing the same world, let alone the same problem within it.  There is the stage on which the actors play, a largely national media structure whose voracious demands can be fed most easily, if not most effectively, by those who seek the currency of political power in hyperbole and absoluteness of conviction.  Finally, there is the problem of constructing the problem itself: is it clear that private ownership of the means of extraordinary violence is so distinct a problem from that of its public ownership and (borderless) use?  Can the line of acceptability between means of extraordinary brutality really be settled by types of implements, let alone the number of bullets in a magazine?  What are the connections and disconnections between the events – Oak Creek, Chicago, Newtown,… – that have summoned the problem back onto our collective stage, and why had the problem disappeared in the first place when the violence so demonstrably had not?  There is something in all of these instincts, but before we rush to decry our national theater (more Mamet than melodrama), it’s worth remembering that the problem is an extraordinary one, and that many of the pathologies of our various reactions to it spring from the same seed as our best resources: the nature of thinking itself.

The rhetoric used in describing the problem of gun violence – formulated so readily and so intractably – coupled with the unavoidable connection of the problem with intense emotion make it tempting to suspect one’s political opponents in this arena of ceasing to think altogether.  I will admit to sometimes being convinced that there was no thought at all behind some of the words being splayed across television screens and RSS feeds (not, it should be said, entirely without reason).  Arendt, in Thinking, describes thinking and feeling as inherently mutually antagonistic, and whether or not that is true it certainly seems that the tenor and pitch of the vitriol make thinking, let alone conversing, difficult.  But that may point to a reality still more sobering than the perennially (and maybe banally) true observation that a great deal of what passes for public discourse did not require serious thought in its formulation: that when we deal with certain kinds of events, and try to engage in the process of translating them and reconstructing them into the form of a problem, we are running up against dimensions of the human experience so extraordinary that they shove us flatly against the limits of what we are able to do in thought.  Perhaps the struggle now is less against a chronic inability to think, and more with recognizing the ways in which the limits of how we can feel and see and know – and then think – have created limits not just to how we can understand the problem, but to how we can understand each others’ responses to it.

One permanent refrain in this debate is the culpability of violent media in generating cultures in which, it is said, such extraordinary brutality becomes possible (ignoring, it might be objected, that humankind has shown a rather vibrant aptitude for brutality for quite some time).  The newest variation on this theme, which in structure has changed little since its revival by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker in the 1980s, is that violent video games, by wedding the sensation of the rapid pleasures of accomplishment unique to video games with a sense of agency in apparent violence have created a generation desensitized not just to images of extraordinary violence, but to the prospect of committing it oneself.  A friend of mine who has good reason to be sensitive was so infuriated at the NRA’s release of a mobile app promoting “responsible gun use” one month to the day after the Newtown shootings that he couldn’t eat for several days.

If it is possible to set aside questions of titanically poor taste and worse (and its not clear that we should), there is something about this way of thinking about the problem of violent imaginaries that reflects what I am suggesting is an issue of pathologies arising from mental necessities.

There is little use denying that being intensively immersed in gaming environments (any gaming environments, and not just violent electronic ones) for extended periods of time can seriously, if usually temporarily, alter a person’s phenomenal experience of their own agency and the realness of the world around them (I confess this as a recovering Sid Meier enthusiast myself).  But the concept of de-sensitization is a difficult one in particular because, as Arendt points out, de-sensitization is precisely what thought does, and must do to carry out its work.  Nowhere is this more clear than in those cases in which we are confronted with events that seriously strain the possibility of thinking about them at all.

Thinking about tragedies involves a twin process that need not, and should not, lessen the experience of their terribleness…but it always can.  That twin process, as Arendt describes it, is one of de-sensation and re-sensation.  When we try to think about what has occur, we have to call it up, we reproduce it “by repeating in [our] imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses.”  In remembering, we convert the data of our senses, including our common sense, into objects of thought.  We do that in order to make them fit for the preoccupation of thought, our “quest for meaning;” in other words, re-sensation, the process of translation into narrative and metaphor by which facts become truths.

It’s not difficult to see how extraordinary brutality challenges this double operation to the point of impossibility.  On the one hand, this model of de-sensation by the reproductive imagination presumes a kind of voluntarism to the recollection, when often, and most especially in the cases like those of immediate victims where the stakes are highest, recollection comes unbidden, and far from de-sensing involves the cruel and incessant reiteration of sense that is renewed in all of its thought-destroying power.  On the other hand, extraordinary brutality by its very nature resists re-sensation in proportion to its extraordinariness: to read the trial of Anders Breivik, for example, is to watch a play of the utter failure of not only the killer’s own efforts at narrative, but those of every single speaking person involved.  It is not a surprise that these trials test the law’s own limited strictures of re-sensation to the breaking point, which often comes as nothing more than quiet acquittal (as with Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, in whose case international law was forced to confess the inadequacy of its categories).

What’s more difficult to see is how that terrible challenge presented by extraordinary brutality to our very capacity to think is simultaneously a challenge to our politics, one perhaps graver still for our hope, as Arendt puts it in her Denktagebuch, to share a world with those with whom we must live.  Extraordinary brutality makes a shamble of our narrating powers, and the failures of others to make sense of it which incite our scorn – as when, I will admit, even as someone who grew up in a gun culture, I literally cannot make sense of the suggestion that high-capacity magazines would be better combated by their increased prevalence in the school environment itself – are no less replicated by our own attempts, whether or not we can see and admit it.  Imagination’s other function, its most political function for Arendt, is to put ourselves in the place of others in order to more fully see the political world that confronts us.  If this is true, then it is not our capacity to put ourselves in the place of a killer that most threatens our political capacity to respond, whatever the prevalence of this problem in popular discourse.  This may often be an impossibility, but the stakes are much lower than that of the impossibility of putting ourselves in the places of others who are also trying – and like us mostly failing – to respond.  In trying and failing to renarrate tragedy in order to construct political problems and solutions, we come up against the limits of our imaginations, limits are themselves defined by the bounds of our prior experiences and our thought itself.  When it comes to the world of the gun (and here, I can only urge a look at the truly remarkable The Language of the Gun), we are running up against the reality that contemporary American polity covers experiences of the world divergent to such an extreme – how much, in terms of sensory experience in their personal history do David Keene and Alan Padilla share, really? – that answers truly are being constructed from worlds which, in the senses that matter to policymaking, don’t overlap.  And in an environment where that is true, the first, most critical order must be the one that is neglected most: not to analyze why our competing solutions are right or wrong, but to understand why the solutions we are proposing arise from the experiences of the world we have had, including our experiences of the tragedies we cannot re-sense.

Responses cannot be crafted out of worlds that are not shared, and tending to the former requires a kind of tending to the latter that we see vanishingly rarely, thought the torch still carried by a few radio producers and documentary filmmakers.  Absent that kind of dedicated world-making – and perhaps that process requires a time and restraint that too is threatened by extraordinary brutality – we will simply be left with what we have, an issue politics without common sense because the only sense that is common, the event, is insensible.  When they respond in ways we cannot abide, understanding our political others is an almost impossibly difficult task.  It is also one that a polity cannot possibly do without.

-Ian Storey


Asking—and Answering—the Question: Does the President Matter?

The Arendt Center recently completed its fifth annual conference, which revolved this year around the past and present state of the U.S. presidency. I attended most of the proceedings, and the presentations and discussions I witnessed were worthy of close attention. Perhaps above all, the conference sharpened my awareness for the prerogatives, possibilities, and limits that currently define the office of the President.

On the one hand, I now have a better appreciation for the ways that recent Presidents are even more powerful than they were in the past. For instance, they have taken on budgetary and policymaking responsibilities that Congress has effectively abdicated over the past several decades. And, particularly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Presidential administrations have accumulated powers of surveillance, arrest, detention, extrajudicial execution, and war-making that circumvent public accountability—not to mention institutional checks and balances—in troubling ways.

On the other hand, recent Presidents face social and political circumstances that constrain their room for maneuver. In the narrow realm of governmental procedure, the frequent recourse to the filibuster and other forms of obstruction in Congress has curtailed President Obama’s power to promote legislation and fill judicial, diplomatic and other appointments. (As a result, he has increasingly turned to executive orders that, at least in certain realms of governance, bypass the House and Senate altogether.)

In the realm of public discourse, recent Presidents contend with a media and consulting culture that inhibits their ability—and perhaps even their desire—to engage the citizenry in informed debate. And in the realm of epistemology, recent Presidents face a confluence of events which do not merely stretch their personal and institutional capacities, but challenge the very terms by which we understand the world. The current state of the Presidency, in other words, is but one part of a larger problem of knowing and thinking in the present.

The conference’s panels and presenters did an admirable job examining these themes, and I do not mean that as faint or empty praise. Yet I was still struck by how resolutely “American” much of the conference was, and not simply because most of the panels dealt in one way or another with the Presidency and the wider U.S. political landscape. To some degree, this focus was only to be expected given the conference’s stated concern with “the American age of political disrepair” and its overlap with the presidential campaign. To my mind, however, the accumulated observations and arguments ultimately betrayed a form of what social scientists would call “methodological nationalism.” That is to say, much of the conference took it for granted that the U.S. nation-state was the appropriate frame of reference for collective reflection on the Presidency, even when the contexts and effects of recent Presidents’ actions reach well beyond this country’s borders.

The guiding question of the conference takes on a somewhat different light when we attempt to think beyond the bounds of the U.S. Indeed, when viewed from a planetary perspective, “does the President matter?” is not so much a provocative query as a curious, even peculiar one. Whenever global deliberations turn to issues like the Arab Spring, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, China’s growing economic might or the consequences of global material disparities, billions of people still regard the U.S. President as the most prominent representative of the world’s most prominent geopolitical power (all invocations of a “decentered” or “multipolar” world notwithstanding). Thus, despite the innumerable perplexities of their office, recent Presidents continue to claim, and continue to be granted, a disproportionate influence in the arena of political speech and action. For many if not most of the world’s residents, the reality of their significance seems so obvious that the weekend’s leitmotiv would not, I suspect, make much sense. Does the President matter? Of course! What is there to argue about here?

I do not, however, want to suggest that this guiding question is utterly baseless. It is in fact closely tied to Americans’ particular—and particularly pointed—anxieties about the accountability, trustworthiness, and effectiveness of their political leadership. Yet the existence of such anxieties should not, I think, imply in and of itself that the powers of the Presidency have been rendered irrelevant. After all, most if not all of the conference presenters ultimately affirmed that the President mattered, even as many of them deplored the current condition of public discourse and civic engagement in the U.S. Moreover, patterns of voter participation in Canada, Latin America, Europe, Japan, India and other parts of the world suggest (however crudely) that many of the world’s other democratic citizens have not reached the depths of apathy and cynicism that characterize the U.S. electorate. This is the case even if they too express distrust of the political figures who profess to govern and lead.

In the end, then, this year’s conference challenged me to consider the state of American and planetary politics with a more acute sense of the potentials, pitfalls, and stakes. Such an outcome is hardly the “miracle” that Arendt instructed us to expect in “What is Freedom?” But it at least offers a foundation for examining—and bearing consciously—some of those burdens which our new century has placed upon us.

-Jeff Jurgens