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The Altars of the Idols: Religion, Sacrifice, and the Early Modern Polity

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 67, Number 4, October 2006
pp. 649-674 | 10.1353/jhi.2006.0040


This essay is an attempt to think through some of the problems of idolatry and sacrifice for the early modern period and more generally, for the constitution of religious and political community. In particular, it argues that the altars of the idols condensed two problems: first, the problem of communion, and specifically the Protestant ability to communicate with God; and second, the problem of distinction. At a time when the nature of the religious polity was in question, the analysis of idolatry and sacrifice produced a conceptual structure for understanding, in anthropological fashion, the very constitution of religious and political community. In fact, this essay will suggest, this structure lives on, alive and well, among modern theorists seeking to diagnose the ailments of modernity.

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