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Dueling Sovereignties: The Problem of Political Religion, and the Solution of the Religion-Politics Binary

Center for Religious Studies
Thursday, March 24, 2022, 5:30 pm – 7:00 pm

In an essay from 1980 titled “Dual Sovereignty,” the British social anthropologist Rodney Needham coined a term for what is arguably a perennial tension--defined by complementarity, but also by convergence and even by conflict--between religious authority and political power. Needham developed this concept in order to reformulate the phenomenon of sacred kingship described earlier by James George Frazer and revisited recently by Marshall Sahlins and David Graeber. Whether in the contest between Pope and Emperor in medieval Europe, the choice between Buddha and Chakravartin (Wheel-Turning Emperor) in ancient India, or the combination of Miri-Piri (the temporal and spiritual powers) in Sikhism, dual sovereignty cuts across time and space and offers the prospect of understanding religion in structural terms as a special mode of political power. In this lecture I will offer a sketch of how such an approach might contribute to an anthropology of biblical and Christian traditions and to a tentative definition of religion as the Doppelgänger of secular politics.