Elizabeth Shakman Hurd | Beyond Religious FreedomBeyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion makes an extremely important and timely contribution to a conversation that the discipline of political science should be but still isn’t really having. The continued lack of serious, analytically sophisticated attention to religion and religious phenomena by scholars of international relations and comparative politics is all the more baffling given the place of religion in political life around the world today. Religious affiliation has become the central category for a geo-political remapping of the world since 9/11. The results have been depressingly vapid analyses that underscore, once again, the ideological force of Samuel Huntington’s self-fulfilling prophecy, and the bankruptcy of dominant approaches in our discipline that continue to treat religion in the most reductionist, identarian, instrumentalist, and frankly, unthinking fashion. In this regard, Shakman Hurd’s book constitutes a truly novel and vital contribution and I cannot recommend this book highly enough to my co-disciplinarians, whether interested in religion or not. I underscore this point, since many scholars who frequent The Immanent Frame are not mainstream political scientists and are thus unaware of the bleak nature of the wilderness into which rare and prophetic voices like Shakman Hurd’s are crying.

In her approach to the intellectual and political stakes of the current global doxa on religious freedom, her central focus and angle of attack is a deconstruction of the problematic ways in which the category “religion” is deployed in academic, governmental and policy discourses and practices, and the ways these should prompt us to think more critically about the contradictions of liberalism, in particular, the ambivalence of liberalism’s understanding of religion and the connection between its discourses of tolerance, pluralism, rights, freedom and new forms of global governance. This choice of focus is crucial, since political scientists, (unlike scholars of religion or anthropologists) appear completely unaware of the problematic ways in which the category of “religion” is used in the literature. The unreflective use of a highly Christian, indeed Protestant, understanding of religion as belief, inner conviction, and a matter of personal choice which can be entered into and exited freely, has come to dominate the academic and policy field, enabling “scholars, practitioners and pundits to leap straight into the business of quantifying religion’s effects, adapting religion’s insights to international problem-solving efforts, and incorporating religion’s official representatives into international political decision making, public policy, and institutions.”

Across a very broad range of carefully analyzed cases, she reveals how the production of “religion” as an object and category for the purposes of law and governance appears to bear only a limited relation to the complex varieties of contemporary religious practice described by many scholars of religion. She compellingly argues that the “religion” promoted and produced by what she calls “expert” and “official religion” and its officially sanctioned advocacy for freedom, tolerance, and rights takes place at the expense of “improvised, situational practices”—what she calls lived religion—and renders them “invisible, illegible or unrecognizable as religion.” The promotion and endorsement of “official religion” has the highly political effect of effacing the indeterminacy of evolving and contested sets of traditions. She offers a devastating critique of the assumption that academic experts, government officials, and diplomats (and especially “religious” ones) know what “religion” is, where it is located, who speaks in its name, and how “it” should be incorporated into foreign policy and international public policy decision matrices. She thus challenges the presumption, still so prevalent in mainstream political science literature, of the neutrality but also the inevitability and/or necessity of secular governance, and follows Hussein Ali Agrama in making a plea for trying to rethink religion in such a way as to avoid the over-determining force of the historical “problem space” of secularism and what it claims to require: namely, modern liberal democracy as it has taken shape in the West.

The case she makes is a powerful and vital corrective to the dominant thinking and it is masterfully executed. However, I would have liked her to make the even stronger case, which her extremely rich material and sophisticated theoretical approach more than makes possible. This case would argue that the dominant conceptions as they are operative in scholarly work and policy today are not simply misconceptions, whose correction might open up a new and better way of thinking and doing scholarship and policy, but rather are themselves a central aspect of a dominant form of Western governmentality. These conceptions operate as a form of prescriptive regime, emerging from a mode of governance with a very long history, one that has its roots in the early modern period, and is intimately connected to the project of modern democratic politics, political and economic liberalism and its transformation into neo-liberalization, and planetary expansion through Empire and globalization. Under this more genealogical critical view, there would then be nothing simply misguided or wrongheaded in the dominant conceptions she criticizes; on the contrary, these conceptions are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing, various actor’s good intentions and noble aims notwithstanding. The categorizing and disciplining of religion, the circumscription and definition of practices as true religion, or authentic religion, and the fixing of them into a specific social space, have been vital tools of national and global governance since the seventeenth century at least. Likewise, the distinction between good and bad religion are also as old as modernity—beginning with Immanuel Kant’s excoriation of schwamerei, as distinguished from simple “enthusiasm,” and his plea for a religion within the limits of reason alone. In short, the place of religion as the “infamy” to be crushed, to cite Voltaire, in an Enlightenment thinking whose lowest common denominators provide the logic that animates civilizational discourse from the nineteenth century to the present.

Returning to Shakman Hurd’s distinction between lived and official religion, and her argument that lived religion is too complex, I would simply note something she might agree with, but doesn’t actually claim: the distinction between official religion and lived religion is, to gloss rather too quickly, the difference between Christianity (or religion understood in terms of Christianity) and religious practices that can’t be read as Christian (or that are defined as not (yet) Christian in the Protestant sense I evoked above). “Lived religion” is messy, unclear, impossible to define, or to recognize insofar as it appears as untranslatable, as illegible in terms of the dominant (Christian) conception of what counts as religion, religious practice, and its legitimate practitioners and representatives. Official religion thus doesn’t describe a reality that would compete on the ground, as it were, with lived religion; rather it is a nomination that functions as part of a prescriptive and disciplinary regime for controlling, circumscribing, governing unruly, messy, lived faiths. The key thrust of this admittedly overly polemical claim of Religion AS Christianity is that Christianity is not SIMPLY “a religion” among others, but provides, in many ways, the master lexicon, the cultural, political, as well as theological and political model with which to think religion and its place in politics, one that perpetuates and extends a colonial and imperial Western civilizational logic, and underwrites globally dominant political, economic, and legal structures.

As I have argued elsewhere, Christianity is anything but simply a religion; the very name “religion” is itself Christian. Shakman Hurd’s book intimates, with saying as much explicitly, that scholars of international relations and comparative politics need to recognize the ways in which the very space and movement of globalization, or as Jacques Derrida calls it, globalatinization, still means “Christianization”: “Christian discourse confusedly but surely informs this doxa and all that it carries with it.” Approaching Christianity as an ensemble of religious institutions, rituals and discourses without problematizing the untranslatability of religion is a profoundly depoliticizing move, as both Gil Anidjar and Derrida have argued so eloquently. “What is a religion?” Derrida asks. “To present oneself on the international stage, to claim the right to practice one’s “religion,” to construct mosques where there were churches and synagogues is to inscribe oneself in a political and ideological space dominated by Christianity, and therefore to engage in the obscure and equivocal struggle in which the putatively “universal” value of the concept of religion, even of religious tolerance, has in advance been appropriated into the space of a Christian semantics.” And not only semantics, but also the very institutionalization in organizations like the UN and a plethora of governmental bodies and their doxa, of the hegemonic Christian sense of the term “universal” today, “as it dominates the philosophy of international law and of human rights,” including, and perhaps especially, understandings of the “first freedom,” freedom of conscience.

The ongoing power of Christianity thus also means attending to the ways in which the secular emerges from within it, and how the supercessionist logic of a “self-deconstructing” Christianity enables the opposition between the religious and secular so central to political liberalism. Whether secularism is understood as a break with Christianity, or as its extension, Christianity’s ongoing historical privilege as definitive of the modern continues to determine the terms in which other religious forms or traditions position themselves with respect to modernity and democracy. Wendy Brown shows how the “governmentality of tolerance,” which find expression also in current debates about religious freedom, has as one of its central aims “the containment of the (organicist, non-Western, nonliberal) Other.” At the same time, the rhetorical association of such forms of religion with a primordial violence, dramatically heightened since the events of 9/11, has served to breathe new life into imperial conceptions of backwardness and barbarism and justify extremely violent politico-military interventions in the name of “civilization” and “democratic values.” Current global debates about religious freedom reveal conceptualizations and practices that participate in Western liberal governmentality’s global impact and reach, and hence the urgency of a new way of thinking beyond religious freedom. For many scholars thinking about these questions outside the discipline of empirical political science, Shakman Hurd’s arguments will appear familiar, and some may consider, with me, that she might have made a stronger, more implacable critical case against the priests of the official faith. However, the more polemical argument is no doubt less effective in reaching those of our colleagues susceptible to thinking differently, to thinking anew about one of the most important political issues of our time, and this is why her book is so important.