This dialogue emerged from a Twitter conversation that took place in October 2020 after Jolyon Thomas gave a talk at York University’s Osgoode Colloquium in Law, Religion, and Social Thought. In a short DM exchange, the authors bonded over their shared interests in examining secularisms across varying types of governance in East Asia and the United States. This dialogue reflects their ongoing conversation about transnational approaches to critical secularism studies and their shared sense that analyzing political economy is a crucial part of that project.


Jolyon Baraka Thomas: Heather, when I used the phrase the political economy of secularism in a talk last fall, you told me that it had resonated with you. What did it bring to mind?

Heather Mellquist Lehto: I had long been interested in these questions through the work of my friend and colleague George Gonzales, but the political economy of secularism became more salient when I was doing fieldwork on multisite churches in South Korea in 2015. One evening I was listening to David Graeber’s BBC radio series on debt, which made the observation that the architecture of many Western banks and public buildings reflects the neoclassical architecture of religious temples. Architects believed that such a resemblance would transform activities within these temple-like buildings (paying debts, voting, and holding public office) into sacred covenants of obligation. It was then that I realized that the architects of newer megachurches in Seoul were doing the converse—these megachurches were self-consciously designed to resemble corporate offices and flashy department stores. For their congregations, these Christian spaces were made sacred precisely through taking on a more corporate aesthetic.

The political economy of secularism operates not only through the aesthetics of megachurches, but also through discourse about them, both in public life and in scholarship. Many Koreans would dismiss corporate-styled megachurches, arguing that they are “just businesses.” Scholars of megachurches (both in Korea and elsewhere) also reassert ontic distinctions between religion and economics through metaphor. The “religious marketplace” discourse you and your coauthors point to so effectively in your JAAR article is one example. I am not necessarily interested in the accuracy of these statements, but rather in what they do in a performative sense. It is worth observing how scholarship may unknowingly participate in secular governance by adopting its terms—its “common sense” definition of what is properly religion, politics, and business. While one may want to critique megachurches for practices that may be seen as more befitting a for-profit firm than a religious institution, these comments function to police modern secular boundaries, which is quite different from the analytic task scholars usually set out to achieve.

Like the work of the architects themselves, this discourse helps to define religion and to discipline how subjects inhabit certain social spaces. Talal Asad’s theorization made this clear: that secularism is enacted not only through legal-juridical governance, but also by subjectivation at the level of the everyday and through discourse. For my thinking about Christianity’s relation to technology industries and architecture, the work of my mentors Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood is especially formative in how I think about the political economy of secularism as it operates through aesthetic associations, the enculturation of the senses, and how bodies exist in space.

I also recognize that this topic is for me at once academic, professional, and personal. My husband has worked in development for the last several years, first for the Catholic Church and now for UC Berkeley. Our daily conversations about how higher education is (or is not!) funded make concrete the ways in which scholarly practice always reflects the political economy of its production, a concern that should feel especially pressing for religious studies right now. The increasing corporatization of universities is transforming what kinds of work get to count and what kinds of people are authorized to do it. As a field, religious studies is producing a lot of great writing that attends to how our work (re)produces the very category of religion, but I think we are much less practiced at recognizing how that work itself reflects the academy’s reliance on private philanthropy and corporate partnerships.

I find the framing of “the corporate form” to be really compelling because it offers a way to think across not only nonprofit religion and for-profit corporations, as your article indicates, but also the academy—a corporate form in its own right that has a role in religion-making and secular governance. Is this something that speaks to your current research? How was it that researching education and subjectivation brought you to the idea of a political economy of secularism? And has this research had an impact on how you think about your own work as an educator?

JBT: I loved your article on megachurches and/as corporate spaces. It is a concrete example of the isomorphism that my coauthors and I describe in our contribution to this forum, where the for-profit corporation and the nonprofit religion adopt each other’s aesthetics and values. That isomorphism extends to the academy, which curiously blends the aesthetics of a Christian church (Gothic buildings) with the appurtenances of a business. For example, my home department is in one of the oldest buildings on Penn’s campus. From the outside, the building looks like it should be outfitted with wood paneling, gas lamps, and portraits of some dour old white dudes. But university admissions has recently taken over the ground floor as a launching space for campus tours, so it has the slick feel and bright lighting of a for-profit corporate lobby, complete with one of those big round reception desks that looks like it belongs on the command deck of a spaceship. The classrooms closest to my office feel like boardrooms.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the subjectivation that happens in the university because I’m waiting on a tenure decision as we write this exchange. While I recognize that the number of us who are fortunate enough to get tenure-track jobs is vanishingly small and that I am therefore speaking from a very privileged position, it strikes me that the institution of tenure is quite strange. There’s this thing that we’re all supposed to want, so we work hard toward it and often sacrifice a great deal of our time and personal satisfaction for the sake of it. I think that many of us mistakenly think that tenure is for us, overlooking the fact that tenure is also (even primarily) for the institution. Recently I’ve been obsessed with this disciplining function of the tenure and promotion process. There’s a contradiction built into it, because the very system that is designed to guarantee academic freedom works by making people docile. Creepy.

HML: Absolutely. I noted in the margins of the corporate form manifesto that the section on sacrificing individuals to the transcendent corporation hit a bit close to home. The discussion was ostensibly about “religions and companies alike,” but the statement “the costs borne by clergy/managers are frequently severe, as they must be willing to follow the directives of their administrative superiors to move to distant places, undertake unwanted tasks, and even put themselves and their families in harm’s way for the sake of a mission” could have been written about my experience on my third postdoc in three years. I will add that my postdocs have been terrific opportunities, so I too am speaking from a relatively privileged position. But your article makes clear that it is through such discipline and individual submission that the corporate form becomes more transcendent, enduring, even immortal.

JBT: When did it become okay for a human to pick up and move to a new city every ten to twelve months, knowing that they’ll just have to pick up and move again? We treat this as if it were normal, but the corporate university naturalizes these stunning acts of sacrifice and submission. Although people like to pretend that the proverbial “ivory tower” is not part of the “real world,” the academy is very much like other real-world institutions. It extracts labor from human bodies to create value, and it convinces stakeholders that its mission is something more than a mere job.

Even before I became an academic, the process of subjectivation fascinated me. I completed an Elementary Education Certificate at the same time that I did my Religious Studies BA, and during my teacher training we regularly spoke in normative terms about what kind of student we aimed to produce through our work. What habits of mind did the ideal student have? How could we socialize them? I was reading all of this literature about how to increase student motivation and inculcate discipline even as I wrote a senior religious studies project on Michel Foucault and religion. Needless to say, the experience was both invigorating and bewildering. When I got to my post-baccalaureate student teaching term, I couldn’t disaggregate the Foucauldian questions from the dynamics I saw playing out in my host school, which happened to be a tribal school with a 100 percent Native population. It struck me that a scholar of religion might have something really interesting to say about the project of making citizens. That was twenty years ago now, but the question stuck with me.

The book I’m currently writing is an attempt to think through subject formation, schools, and religion. I describe the book as being about the political economy of secularism because schools produce not just enfranchised and informed citizens, but also workers and reproducing consumers. Superficially, social studies or home economics or sex education may not seem like they are about religion at all, but they are riven with determinations about what counts as religion and what does not. Those secularist distinctions are premised on ideas about what habits make a good laborer and who makes a good consumer.

Anyway, I juxtapose the United States and Japan in the book because I think it elucidates the background presuppositions that might go unnoticed in a strictly nationalist approach. It also highlights how two sovereign nations are inextricably connected. In this way, my approach in the book is not too different from the stance we took in the article: I’m not studying Japan and the United States, but rather studying the Japan-US alliance and the associated subjectivities it has engendered. Over the period of the Cold War and continuing into the current neoliberal era, the United States and Japan have been two of the largest national economies in the world, and they have been locked in a codependent security and trade relationship. It only stands to reason that they would regularly take lessons from each other, especially given their shared experience of a mutually transformative war and military occupation. The book is not quite comparative in the old-school “comparative religion” sense, but it does juxtapose two countries as a way of seeing things we might otherwise miss.

I understand that your book makes a similar move, looking at South Korea and the United States. What are you up to in that project?

HML: I like this approach because it seems to allow for a kind of heuristic differentiation that doesn’t necessarily seek to reify a reductive opposition. One challenge has always been to research and write against the grain of the old-school comparative frame that you mention. Depending on with whom I am speaking, I sometimes adopt the shorthand that I study “religion and technology” in “South Korea and the United States.” Coupling in this way can be useful communicatively, especially beyond academic circles. However, I try to find alternative descriptions that don’t reify these categorical distinctions because such framings can pattern our thoughts, naturalizing ontic distinctions and ignoring how these distinctions reflect particular sociopolitical arrangements (here, categorical distinctions owed to secularism and the modern state, respectively).

Although I do “multisite ethnography” of “multisite churches,” I don’t love using these terms either. In my experience both as an ethnographer and as a participant observer of transnational churches, human activities are not necessarily experienced as “multisited” just because they transpire across space. Humans are mobile. I’m not arguing that there are not important historical, material, and geopolitical conditions unique to particular places, or that these particularities are not consequential. But the more I conducted research in these churches, the more I felt “multisited” didn’t capture the imbrications of the diasporic networks at play, and I want to think about these networks as productive of their own, seamless topology. In my “multisited” fieldwork I regularly met Christians who lived and moved through the transnational spaces in which I researched. Moreover, from the perspective of church leadership, the “multisite” church is a single unit, despite the ways it is infrastructurally distributed across space. I would imagine that executives of multinational corporations often feel the same way. The challenge in my ethnographic writing has been to make the distinct, national settings matter only to the extent that the distinction is material for the churches I am studying (without completely disorienting the reader).

This is one reason why the title of my first book manuscript is “Holy Infrastructure,” a concept that is not defined by national or social domains. I owe the term “holy infrastructure” [kŏrukhan inp’ŭra] to one of the megachurch communities that I worked in, who used it to describe the architectural design of their church. It captures how they sought to coordinate their bodies, actions, spaces, and the objects of their practice to enable the circulation of spiritual substance. As I revised my dissertation, I realized it was a useful analytic that allowed me to think through an almost nonsubstantive metaphysic that plays with modern secular understandings of material/spiritual, secular/religious, local/global, and human/nonhuman.

Viewing the world as “holy infrastructure” is resonant with so many contemporary social scientific theories in what is called the “infrastructural turn” in the social sciences. I won’t go into that too deeply here, but it’s worth noting that framing everything—including human life—as “infrastructural” does habituate the subject to think about itself instrumentally. This benefits collective projects, but it does not accommodate claims about a person’s worth beyond one’s utility to produce larger social “goods.”

This brings me back to your comments about education because I think education offers an especially fruitful site to think through subjectivation and the corporate form. It points to the way that educational institutions function in a “subsidiary” capacity to another collective (like the state, a religious institution, an economy) in that they produce subjects in service to another corporate form. For the most part, students don’t perpetuate the institution producing them (although the academy is unique in this regard). Primary school students, for example, are not made to be “human resources” for the school, but rather prospective future citizens, workers, et cetera.

Or perhaps “subsidiary” isn’t really an apt framing here. How are you coming to see education, with its multiple entanglements with various incorporated entities like the state, companies, families, and religious institutions?

JBT: The more I study public schools in relationship to religion, the clearer it has become that analyzing hierarchies of the sort you mention is necessary but insufficient for grasping what is happening as various corporate forms intersect. Frankly, when I began the project I thought of schools as organs of the state, and churches and businesses as interested parties that might try to enter schools to influence pedagogy and curriculum. It turns out that this is not wholly incorrect, but it does not fully capture the picture.

We all know by now that political secularism bifurcates the world, allocating certain capacities and responsibilities to public and private institutions. But just as Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm has shown that this binary logic depends on the existence of a “third term” to make the religion/not-religion dichotomy make sense, I started thinking that perhaps I needed to incorporate analysis of third parties to really understand relationships between schools and students, religions and the state.

But as soon as I started down this path, I realized that I needed a more robust theoretical model for grasping how multiple organizations could lay claim to the same student bodies. I found it in the educational literature, where specialists have been thinking through a relationship called the heterarchy. I understand this as a mutualism in which two or more hierarchically organized institutions pass money, personnel, and executive command through each other. Different organizations can lay claim to the same people, pursue shared missions, and even launder money for one another.

To offer a concrete example, in one chapter I look at how business leaders started pushing the language of educational “accountability” and “standards” in the 1990s, suggesting that teachers should use audit tools more commonly found in the for-profit corporate world. At the same time, there was an increasing push for expanding “school choice” by creating voucher programs that would redirect taxpayer dollars away from public schools and toward private educational institutions, including parochial schools. Emulating earlier developments in Japan, there was also an efflorescence of private academies that promised upward mobility to paying customers by providing “supplemental educational services.” These various agendas overlapped by placing public school districts in both collaboration and competition with for-profit corporations and nonprofit religions.

To focus on the legal side of this story, through controversial decisions like Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) and Espinoza v. Montana State Board of Revenue (2020), the Supreme Court validated situations in which public funds nominally pass into private hands to cover tuition, with the effect that the state indirectly supports private institutions that now perform the public task of offering compulsory education. A stalwart secularist would say that such arrangements violate the separation of religion and the state, but I think these arrangements actually reveal the poverty of the “wall of separation” metaphor. (This point actually ties in nicely with your comments above about infrastructure.) Public schools and private organizations like for-profit corporations and nonprofit religions all have vested interests in cultivating children as laborers, consumers, adherents, and citizens. Depending on how they appear in the tax code, these corporate organizations are constrained by different rules. Clearly, they are also responsible to different constituencies, including both literal shareholders and a variety of stakeholders. I’ll save the details for my book, but suffice it to say here that school districts are just as subject to hostile takeovers as businesses, religions can serve as fronts for laundering money, and for-profit corporations can sublimate their acquisitiveness by appealing to notions of the public good even as they maximize private profit (enhancing shareholders’ portfolios and kids’ future earning potential). It’s not so much that one corporate form is “subsidiary” to another, but rather that various collectives construct themselves from the same human raw materials.

Perhaps this is a good place to ask about the people who animate your work. You’re an anthropologist by training and you’ve described your ethnographic work above as attending to the ways that mobile people construct an international institution. Any thoughts that arise from your work on categories like human resources (jinzai)? I’m also curious about the limitations you see in our corporate form model. We think it explains a lot and helps liberate analysis from various pitfalls, but of course one model cannot do everything. What did we miss?

HML: I think you put it exactly right. The model is a needed corrective to our thinking about religion and economics, and I hope many scholars will take it up. Still, there are always tradeoffs. I’m struck by certain similarities between “infrastructure” and “the corporate form,” actually. I think each of them helps us to understand key aspects of our contemporary situation, but it is important to be mindful of how using such analytics can sediment particular visions of human life. In this case, both infrastructure and the corporate form may condition us to characterize everything—including humans—as resources, whose value is defined by their being put into service of something else. But that conceptual move is itself supportive of the political economy of secularism. It is such a move, for example, that makes American Indian claims to the sacrality of specific rock formations seem unreasonable because, to the secular state, rocks are only raw materials. All rocks are seen as commensurable (and thus, fungible) through defining their value solely by their material function. So there remains a challenge to make our writing capture a given phenomenon without our efforts holding us captive such that we cannot imagine the world outside of those logics.

Going forward I want to think more about how the corporate form would help us alongside other concepts available for analyzing social groups. Publics and counterpublics come to mind. A public is a different social formation in that it is (to quote Michael Warner) an “indefinite audience” formed through a shared relation to media, rather than a more definite corporation whose totality might be counted, named, and legally incorporated. The different ways that power operates through these two forms of collectives is significant, both in terms of how individuals are enticed/coerced to belong, as well as the ways that they can exercise power in public. BTS’s “Army” of fans is one public, organized in relation to the K-pop band. And yet this indefinite, voluntary “Army” managed to derail the Dallas Police Department’s efforts to surveil the city’s Black Lives Matter protests last summer. In a time when it seems like contemporary life is increasingly defined by the exercise of power through corporate forms, it might be important to remember alternative forms of social coordination that are not constituted through secular law.

I hope that the “religion and publics” conversation has not yet entirely lost its steam in our disciplines because I think it might sit productively alongside conversations about the corporate form. To give an example, Christian churches come to mind. For most Christians, the word “church” has multiple definitions. One definition of a church is simply the building in which Christian ceremonies are held. In another sense, there is the church as an institution; this is the church as it is incorporated through law or other contracts. But the church is also defined as the people who participate in the Christian tradition, with or without buildings, legal status, or ecclesial structure. I am inclined to think of this third definition as being more like a public, in that it is a collective formed through coordinated engagement with shared media (like the Bible or Christ himself).

Many pastors understand this distinction intuitively, and this appeared in interviews through metaphors of feeding/filling vs. being fed/being filled. Pastors regularly complained that they felt burnt out in their work because they were inhabiting the church primarily as an employee, working to “empty themselves” for the church and its congregation. They repeatedly sought opportunities to “be filled,” but this wasn’t exactly the opposite of their work serving the church. They didn’t seek a vacation from the church or higher compensation; instead, they described “being fed/filled” as engaging in a spiritual retreat or extended prayer. In other words, we might see this as a desire to participate in the church-as-public rather than the church-as-corporate form, or at least to strike a balance they would find more sustainable.

JBT: I think you are spot on. One of the pitfalls of writing a manifesto is that the rhetorical format gives the impression of inflexibility or brooking no rival interpretations, but if anything, our collaboration has been really humbling for all of us. We’re convinced that the corporate form nicely describes some aspects of the world, but we also know it can’t do everything. And even though we included “publics” in our list of keywords for the article, in retrospect I don’t think we elaborated on this as much as we might have. For me personally, what you’ve said here about infrastructure and publics is really helpful as I put the finishing touches on this book manuscript about public schooling. I’m going to be thinking with your ideas as I finish this up.