Political Theology Today A forum for interdisciplinary and interreligious dialogue

The Political Theology Syllabi Project: Dana Hollander


Editor’s Note: This is the final post in our series of “political theology” syllabi, by McMaster University’s Dana Hollander

In the academic setting of Religious Studies, developing curricular spaces in which to thematize the relationship of religion and politics is a highly effective way both to engage undergraduate students, and to tap into and develop the research interests of graduate students.  Over the past several years,  I have developed courses at both levels in this area.[1]  These were somewhat informed by my own wish to come to an understanding of what we might, or could be talking about under the heading of “political theology.”  The undergraduate course I developed, now titled “Religion and Politics” (most recent version here; previous versions, titled “Sovereignty and Secularization,” listed here), also takes advantage of the Religious Studies setting by studying philosophical or theoretical texts in combination with debates about concrete contemporary political or cultural dilemmas.  There is, after all, no shortage of up-to-the-minute relevant material for such reflection.  Thus, in the most recent iteration of the course (which I now offer as a crosslisted course with Political Science), we needed only to glance at the current headlines about the proposed Quebec “Charter of Values” to be conveniently reminded of why it is useful to be able to chart a course of how understandings of what it means to delineate “religious” and “secular” spheres have changed from the frameworks of Locke and Jefferson and the idea of “separation” to those of today’s varied juridical and cultural settings.

Indeed, I can think of no more convenient arena than that of “religion and politics” in which to make evident to newcomers to Religious Studies that the notion of religion is a modern one, itself a product of the secularization processes that we tend to take for granted as having shaped Western history and culture, and therefore also radically in question as we reexamine what can be meant by “secularity.”

It will be evident from the current syllabus of “Religion and Politics” that my original impetus to develop such a course as a way of thinking about what could be meant by “political theology” is now represented by a two-week unit in which we study a part of Carl Schmitt’s eponymous book.  This is positioned as an anomaly in between a sequence during the early weeks on classic and contemporary conceptual treatments of church-state separation, toleration, and civil religion, and a unit in the final weeks on how secular legal systems do and ought to take account of religious law—reading Rowan Williams’s 2008 landmark lecture, followed by treatments of the 2004–5 so-called “sharia law” controversy in Ontario, and ending with discussions of how state law can work to ameliorate the situations of agunot (Jewish women who are unsuccessful in seeking a religious divorce from their husbands), without thereby compromising religious rights.  When we come to Schmitt, having traversed the classic texts of Locke and others, as well as the arguments of contemporary theorists and jurists about how to realize the principles of religious “accommodation” and equality in our time, we confront the instructive anomaly of a thinker who could not be less interested in such questions, and for whom the very enterprise of seeking to determine the boundary between religious and secular spheres is unintelligible, and perhaps even dangerous.  Schmitt’s inquiry may thus seem to be the least relevant text in this course.  But at the same time, it provides a compelling way to point out that the question of what religion and politics have to do with each other, or ought to have to do with each other, is—like the notions of religion and secularity themselves—not a “naturally” given one, but is itself the product of the phenomenon it is asking about.


Dana Hollander is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at McMaster University. She is the author of Exemplarity and Chosenness: Rosenzweig and Derrida on the Nation of Philosophy (Stanford, 2008).



[1]This piece focuses on my undergraduate course.  For examples of graduate seminars I have taught that concern the theme of the “(theo-)political” see herehere, and here.

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