Religious/Cultural Identity Politics in “Secular” US and Europe

Featured Scientist: Nick Mullins, M.S. (Anticipated Spring 2020), Department of Politics and Government, Illinois State University

A picture of Nick Mullins, looking directly at the camera and smiling.

Birthplace: Bloomington, IL 

My Research: As a student of political science, I study politics. My focus has been on issues involving globalization, identity politics, nationalism, religion, democracy, global issues, and the international system of nation-states

Research Goals: I would like to continue to study how the nation-state interacts with globalization. Some issues involve identity politics, which seem to be growing in importance. I am also curious about the role of religion and national identity in the future of the nation-state. Other research goals of mine cover global issues such as climate change and migration. 

Career Goals: When I “grow up” I want to enjoy what I do and make a positive impact, but I’m still figuring out exactly how I’ll do that. Some careers I have thought about include: a journalist in independent media covering politics and society, a researcher at a non-profit thinktank, or earning my PhD to become a professor and researcher. 

Hobbies: I tend to get lost in discussions about politics or otherwise. I also love to travel, camp, hike, train my German shepherd dogs (x2), run, bike, and read nonfiction in my spare time. 

Favorite Thing About Science: Science and social scientific studies help us learn about ourselves and the world we live in. I love it. 

Organism of Study: Society, all the people within it, and institutions. 

Field of Study: Political science, global politics and culture 

What is Political Science? The field of political science falls under the category of social sciences. Social science involves lots of reading, observations, and analyses. It often begins with brainstorming an important question, crafting a plan to address the question, collecting data, and then interpreting the results. This research becomes part of a broader conversation in the scientific community and builds on our understanding of the world around us. The aim of political science is to understand or explain problems in politics and government. These problems can span from political ideas to institutions, from the behavior of individuals to groups, and much more. Political scientists will usually focus on a subfield, or a specific area of interest relating to politics and government. 

My graduate program focuses on global politics and culture. In general, my work begins with globalization. Globalization refers to the expansion of global relationships. I am fascinated (and sometimes bothered) by modern politics of liberal democracies. My graduate work has led me to the question of social cohesion, or the extent of trust and cooperation in a society. I am also interested in how national identities can be “broken”, or otherwise no longer collective, and other crises that face democracy. 

Check Out My Original Paper: “Contesting the Secular West: Religio-cultural Identity Politics in Western Liberal Democracies”

A QR code that links to the original publication.
QR Code to the original publication

Citation: N.A. Mullins, Contesting the Secular West: Religio-cultural Identity Politics in Western Liberal Democracies. Zeitschrift für Religion, Gesellschaft und Politik 3.1: 61-74 (2019). 

Research at a Glance: Political discussions often neglect the interaction of secularism, religious, and cultural identities in Western liberal democracies. But these important features must be considered in modern politics. For example, the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union (Brexit) and the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States each took the world by surprise. In either event, liberal democracies are known for equal rights and non-discrimination. Secularism is the doctrine or policy that separates religion from public life and is common in liberal democracies. Yet religious influence is apparent in both national and world politics. It is often felt as identity politics, with a tendency for people or groups to form political alliances based on a shared identity. Increasing diversity in places like the United States and Europe has renewed debates over culture and national identity. Inclusion is now a matter of question. Societies are shaped by unique histories with secularism, religion and culture. These experiences may help to explain such modern trends. My paper explores this theoretical debate. Liberal democratic values are contested and I draw attention to the relationship between religion, politics, and national identity in the present era. 

Highlights: I wrote the first version of this paper for a seminar in comparative politics on the topic of religion. I drew connections between the cultures of modern society and their historical experiences with religion and secularism and was inspired to write on this topic. For a long time, probably since I was a young teenager, I’ve been a huge nerd for nonfiction books on secularism. I took a graduate seminar with Dr. Ali Riaz here at Illinois State University and it really helped to clarify my research interests. The course was essential to my research in the politics of religion and identity, and in the discovery of my research interests. 

What My Science Looks Like: A stack of books, 25-30 tabs open on my laptop, mind maps, and hand-scribbled notes. 

A picture of a stack of books, in this order: Public Religions on the Modern World by Jose Casanova, Post-Secular Society by Peter Nynas, Mika Lassander, and Terhi Utriainen, Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age by Palgrave Macmillan, Formations of the Secular by Talal Asad, Religion and Politics in South Asia by Ali Riaz, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence by Mark Juergen-Meyer, Rethinking Secularism by Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Secularism and Its Critics by Rajeev Bhargava.
Here are some of the books I referenced when writing my paper. What this picture doesn’t capture is all the articles, reading, notes, and many hours of time put into it! 

The Big Picture: Identity and culture shape the norms, values, and worldviews of individuals and societies. These may be understood as “collective” values or identities around broad ideas, but identities and cultures in societies are often more fragmented. Religions can be supportive of tolerance and other democratic values. They can also take the opposite stance. Secular world views are similar to religion in that way by contradicting tolerance. In either case, religious, ethnic, or cultural minorities may face discrimination from the majority. For example, secularism in France can be restrictive against religious expression and cultural minorities. The reality is that we live in a diverse world. Identity and cultural issues that shape our societies deeply impact our politics. These norms and values are all subject to debate, and it seems to be increasingly so. Additionally, according to the Fragile State Index, social cohesion is worsening in the U.S. I have a hunch this fracturing has something to do with identity politics. The unique histories of societies shape these modern debates and therefore, present politics, which is a key point to remember. 

Decoding the Language: 

Brexit: This term describes the United Kingdom’s vote to withdrawal from the European Union.

Climate change: A change in global or regional climate patterns, often seen as major changes in temperature or precipitation. 

Globalization: This concept has many dimensions. It is generally understood as the expansion of human relations across geographical space. This involves the global economy, politics, culture, environment, and ideology.

Identity Politics: Identity politics places emphasis on individuals and groups. For example, a politician may run for office as a Christian woman and use her identity as a Christian and/or as a woman to appeal to like-minded voters. On the political left, identity politics tends to focus on perceived (or actually) marginalized groups. On the right, it is often about protecting traditional views surrounding national identity, such as, beliefs about race, ethnicity, and/or religion. 

Nation-State: The nation is the political community that legitimizes the state over its territory. Nation-states make up the international system. They are formed by people in a common territory, who may have shared history, traditions, or language. It is territory with a shared cultural and political boundary. 

Secularism: This concept can be simply defined as the doctrine or policy of separation of church and state. It is a basic system of beliefs for how relations between the state and religion are conducted. For example, the political and religious authorities are generally kept separate in a secular state. It can also be understood as a belief system or way of life corresponding to the decline or absence of religious influence on everyday life. 

Social Cohesion: One simple definition of social cohesion is the level of trust in a society, or the extent to which individuals in a society trust one another. It can also be understood as the degree of social stability, how connected we are, and the general wellbeing and representation of individuals and groups within society.

Thinktank: This is an organization with a mission to conduct research to share ideas and/or policy recommendations. 

Learn More: Below are some useful resources relevant to this research and helpful to my current thesis project.

Fragile States Index

Washington Post opinion piece on identity politics

New York Times opinion piece on identity politics

Pacific Standard article on identity politics

Religious extremism

Washington Post opinion piece on political consensus

The Great Regression

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on migration and inclusive societies

Here are some published papers and books on similar topics: 

Identity politics: F. Fukuyama., Identity: The demand for dignity and the politics of resentment. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York. 2018. Globalization: M.B. Steger, Globalization: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. 2009 

Social cohesion: X. Fonseca,S. Stephan, F. Brazier, Social Cohesion Revisited: A New Definition and how to Characterize It. Innovat Eur J Soc Sci Res. 32.2: 231-53 (2019). 

Synopsis edited by: Rosario Marroquin-Flores, PhD (Anticipated May 2022), Illinois State University

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