Conference Overview


At a time when protecting human rights and preserving human dignity increasingly involves international legal and military intervention, this conference seeks to address what is at stake for citizens and polities when the borders of sovereign states lose the inviolable status they have often held in international relations. In particular, the forum will explore how religion serves to inform, complicate, or reconcile this tension between "the sacred" and "the sovereign."


     Recent developments in international affairs such as humanitarian interventions, tribunals to prosecute “crimes against humanity,” and truth and reconciliation commissions represent resurgent and explicit efforts to bring ethical principles into the foreground of political deliberation.  Frequently in such cases, some notion of “the sacred” (as manifested, for example, in the sanctity and dignity of human life or the inviolability of fundamental human rights) is in tension with the traditional regard accorded to sovereign states.  Criticisms of recent interventions, moreover, have accused the West, particularly the US, of imposing a moral imperium upon the sphere of inter-state relations—a strong critique considering that, according to the classical theory and practice, recognition of a state’s sovereignty guards against external intervention in its civil affairs.  But the realities of intervention and of recent humanitarian catastrophes compel us to ask:  Do the “moral use of force” and the case for universal human rights presage a retooled conception of sovereignty as we enter the 21st century?

     This forum seeks to address what is at stake for citizens and polities when national boundaries lose, for good or for ill, the “semi-sacred” status long enjoyed in the realm of international affairs.  When—and on whose accounting—can rival conceptions of the sacred legitimately encroach upon the limits of non-interference inherent in the concept of political sovereignty?  Do these competing visions of the sacred offer up sure-footed and compelling claims that “moral sovereignty” may trump political sovereignty?  What problems are posed when states interfere in the affairs of other nations in the name of justice, defense of “the innocent,” or other principled causes?  A central concern of this dialogue is to explore how the sacred is construed in religiously pluralistic settings.  How—if at all—are universal claims grounded in or tied to particular religious and cultural traditions?  We issue a challenge to the perspective that religion can only be a wedge of division or an incendiary to political violence.  Rather, the global resurgence in religious membership invites us to consider how claims unique to religion and to faith-based institutions can counter egregious misdeeds, cultivate order and security, and promote justice.  But, can the sacred find voice in contemporary sovereignty schemes, and can such convictions muster the will of interdependent yet wary civic bodies, of burdened state and inter-state organizations?  Finally, we ask, are any conceptions of the sacred sufficiently resilient to withstand the conflicting pressures of a pluralistic and precarious global political order?


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