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Landscapes of the Secular

Law, Religion, and American Sacred Space

“What does it mean to see the American landscape in a secular way?” asks Nicolas Howe at the outset of this innovative, ambitious, and wide-ranging book. It’s a surprising question because of what it implies: we usually aren’t seeing American landscapes through a non-religious lens, but rather as inflected by complicated, little-examined concepts of the sacred.
            Fusing geography, legal scholarship, and religion in a potent analysis, Howe shows how seemingly routine questions about how to look at a sunrise or a plateau or how to assess what a mountain is both physically and ideologically, lead to complex arguments about the nature of religious experience and its implications for our lives as citizens. In American society—nominally secular but committed to permitting a diversity of religious beliefs and expressions—such questions become all the more fraught and can lead to difficult, often unsatisfying compromises regarding how to interpret and inhabit our public lands and spaces. A serious commitment to secularism, Howe shows, forces us to confront the profound challenges of true religious diversity in ways that often will have their ultimate expression in our built environment. This provocative exploration of some of the fundamental aspects of American life will help us see the land, law, and society anew.

248 pages | 8 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Geography: Cultural and Historical Geography

History: Environmental History

Law and Legal Studies: Legal History

Religion: Religion and Society


“The analysis here is provocative and original. . .This book is a vital and original intervention that opens
up new ways of thinking about the complex intersections between land and religion in American life.”

Religious Studies Review

“Howe challenges his readers to grapple with the unexpected relationships between place, faith, and the law. His depiction of the conflict between secularism and pluralism is innovative and original, all the more because of the interdisciplinary nature of his study. Interweaving analyses rooted in religious studies, environmental studies,  geography, spatial studies, and legal studies, Howe both complicates his narrative and makes his work relevant to a wide array of readers.”

Journal of Church and State

“In relatively few pages, Landscapes of the Secular treats disparate topics with impressive depth and unrelenting perspicacity. Every single paragraph brims with insight. Howe’s analysis is consistently interesting, often counterintuitive, and always smart. This book should reshape and redirect conversations around secularism, religion, law, religious freedom, environmentalism, and the public sphere. In addition, it ought to encourage difficult questions and conversations about scholars’ own secularity.”

Reading Religion

“A brilliant book—thoughtful, and evocative, with compelling insights into the formations of secular landscapes that might at first glance be surprising but almost immediately become recognizable as capturing how things, places, and people are actually working in producing sacred space in America. Many of us aspire to being interdisciplinary, but Howe fully inhabits the disciplines of cultural geography, environmental studies, religious studies, and critical legal studies in advancing his analysis. Dwelling in detailed case studies of Christian displays, Native American traditions, and wilderness preservation, Howe illuminates how the US legal system shapes American landscapes by staging crises of interpretation of profound emotional, religious, and political significance. Landscapes of the Secular is an expansive and rigorously focused entry into the changing terrain of the sacred in America.”

David Chidester, coeditor of American Sacred Space

“Through its sure-footed and insightful interweave of an array of fields never before brought together under one roof—cultural geography, religious studies, constitutional law, and American environmental(ist) history—Landscapes of the Secular delivers by far the most astute and searching assessment to date of the shifting but persistent symbiotic antagonism between  ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ concerns throughout the tangled history of American environmental thought and environmental law.”

Lawrence Buell, Harvard University, author, The Environmental Imagination

“In this passionate book, Howe describes the agonistic traveling circus of litigation that is the effort of Americans to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to pluralism and religious freedom. Teaching us to look with greater care at the landscapes that are made and remade through law about religion, Howe makes an important contribution to our often lazy theorizing about why places matter, legally and religiously. With subtle erudition, Landscapes of the Secular argues for the multiple registers in which landscapes exert agency, inextricably linking religious subjectivities with geographic selves.”

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan | author of A Ministry of Presence: Chaplaincy, Spiritual Care, and the Law

"Possessing an impressive command of the literature on place studies, religion, and legal scholarship, Howe’s book contains important lessons that cut across the wide field of religion and ecology."


Table of Contents


1 Landscapes of Secular Law
2 Church, State, and the Tyranny of Feelings
3 Performing the Constitutional Landscape
4 The Spiritual Gaze
5 Sanctity, If You Will
6 Looking Askance at the Sacred


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