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Sovereignty and the Sacred

Secularism and the Political Economy of Religion

Sovereignty and the Sacred challenges contemporary models of polity and economy through a two-step engagement with the history of religions. Beginning with the recognition of the convergence in the history of European political theology between the sacred and the sovereign as creating “states of exception”—that is, moments of rupture in the normative order that, by transcending this order, are capable of re-founding or remaking it—Robert A. Yelle identifies our secular, capitalist system as an attempt to exclude such moments by subordinating them to the calculability of laws and markets. The second step marshals evidence from history and anthropology that helps us to recognize the contribution of such states of exception to ethical life, as a means of release from the legal or economic order. Yelle draws on evidence from the Hebrew Bible to English deism, and from the Aztecs to ancient India, to develop a theory of polity that finds a place and a purpose for those aspects of religion that are often marginalized and dismissed as irrational by Enlightenment liberalism and utilitarianism.

Developing this close analogy between two elemental domains of society, Sovereignty and the Sacred offers a new theory of religion while suggesting alternative ways of organizing our political and economic life. By rethinking the transcendent foundations and liberating potential of both religion and politics, Yelle points to more hopeful and ethical modes of collective life based on egalitarianism and popular sovereignty. Deliberately countering the narrowness of currently dominant economic, political, and legal theories, he demonstrates the potential of a revived history of religions to contribute to a rethinking of the foundations of our political and social order.


“In The Language of Disenchantment, Yelle explores various Protestant perfidies, including the suspicion of Indic ritual, myth, languages, and religious laws that structured British efforts to explain religion in India and to reform Hinduism accordingly. Sovereignty and the Sacred continues this work with a more sweeping version of the aim: to revive—or perhaps create—a history of religions uncorrupted by the distortions of disenchantment and its modern, Christian-esque presuppositions. . . . Dazzlingly layered and provocatively debatable.”

Nancy Levene | History of Religions

"Yelle’s work demands the attention of religious scholars, political theorists, sociologists, anthropologists, and even economists. . . . He makes a compelling case for both the relevance of the history of religions in the academy and attending to the religious and theological dimensions of political life."

Adam D. Tietje | Journal of Church and State

"Yelle’s book is exemplary is this regard; it leverages comparison toward surprising, sharp revisions of the familiar story of religions as having laid the groundwork for the modern individual."

Paul Christopher Johnson | Sociology of Religion

"Yelle has ventured into a great subject: the relationship between religion and politics. He maintains that the two spheres exhibit essential similarities, both in regard to structure and content. . . . If we are to discuss the great changes in history, we need such books with the courage to propose a broad thesis."

Helmut Zander | H-Soz-Kult

"Astonishingly rich. . . . The book may be recommended to all readers who want to obtain a fuller picture of secularization and modernity, including neglected pieces from the history of religion."

Anne Koch | Journal of Religion in Europe

“Imagine Jubilee! Imagine the Sacred as the necessary companion to Sovereignty. Today. This is a deeply learned book. In the very best sense. Moving with grace across disciplinary divides and cultural boundaries, Yelle speaks to us with great urgency of the need for us to listen more carefully to the lessons of the past and the ethical resources it offers in these troubled times.”

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

“Tremendous. With an incredible depth and range of scholarship, Sovereignty and the Sacred makes a strong case for the continuing importance of the field of the history of religions and the comparative study of religion, and it makes a crucial intervention in theorizing religion. Yelle’s argument is rich, important, and deeply erudite. And it is just really interesting. This book will be essential reading for theorists of religion, political theologians, theorists of modernity and the secular, and those interested in religion and economics and religion and violence.”

Tyler Roberts, Grinnell College, author of "Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism After Secularism"

Table of Contents



1 The Antinomian Sacred as a Political Category
2 The Disenchantment of Charisma: The Theological Origins of Secular Polity
3 The Ambivalence of the Sovereign Ban: The Homo Sacer and the Biblical Ḥerem
4 Sacrifice, or the Religious Mode of Production
5 States of Nature: The Jubilee and the Social Contract
6 No Deposit, No Return: Religious Rejections of Exchange

Conclusion: Exit Signs



American Academy of Religion: AAR Award for Excellence - Constructive-Reflective Studies

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