Under the influence of Calvinist and radical abolitionist John Brown, Ralph Waldo Emerson reconsidered the value of political activism rooted in absolutist and sectarian religious beliefs. Retreating from the earlier declarations of secular and democratic individualism for which he is best known, Emerson came to embrace even the most extreme forms of militancy—up to and including terroristic violence—as legitimate means to engage in the modern secular political process. Representing Brown's abolitionism as an approved form of zealotry, Emerson began to praise historical religious warriors, most notably the Muslim martyrs ready to die for their faith. Viewing such militancy as not just appropriate but necessary within a constitutional arrangement whose founding violence is suppressed, he anticipated a key strain of contemporary postsecular scholarship (led by Talal Asad) that sees American fascination with the figure of the Muslim terrorist as a symptom of the modern West's own contradictory and incomplete process of secularization. At the same time, also under the influence of John Brown and his volunteer army, Emerson articulated a model for practical action that depended neither on the lone individual nor on the sanctioning power of the state but rather on the temporary and partial congruence of multiple individuals. What emerges from this conjunction of political theology and rescaling is an Emersonian political model of violent action carried out by a small, loosely confederated, religiously motivated group of individuals—an Emerson of the terror cell.

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