Keywords:rhetoric, interiority, conscientious objection, governance, dissent, unfalsifiable claims
American politics and law, like other liberal democracies, couches itself in the protection of the free individual, one who possesses both “beliefs” and the unalienable right to those “beliefs.” The “freedom of religion” guaranteed to U.S. citizens in the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment prioritizes this supposedly private and transcendent realm of “sincerity,” “faith,” and “experience,” kept separate from the contextual and temporal world of society and politics. Historians of American religion, and scholars of religion more broadly, have long taken this “interiority” rhetoric to be self-evident, ignoring the prescriptive implications of positing such an interiority at all. Rather than understanding these rhetorics of “interiority” as referencing a non-empirical and apolitical reality of autonomous “selfhood,” this paper will argue that the constitutional protection of the autonomous individual is constitutive of a particular type of political subjectivity, one that allows for those in power to manage dissent by authorizing some differences and marginalizing others. Using different examples from historical and contemporary American politics and law, I will interrogate the function of institutionalizing such an “interiority” in the first place, in order to understand how and why American society works the way that it does.
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