Last summer I read All Can Be Saved by the eminent historian of colonial Latin America, Stuart Schwartz. It’s a compelling story of inter-religious tolerance and boundary-blurring coexistence in the Hispanic world in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Near the end of the book, Schwartz sums up his approach: “One must go beneath the histories of state policies and religious dogmas that have dominated the writing of history, and one must look not primarily in learned discourse (usually controlled) and at the policy of government and kings, but in the actions and words of people who sought to think for themselves.”
Beyond Religious Freedom addresses a parallel set of concerns in a different setting. It asks scholars of law, religion, and global politics to consider not only the histories of learned discourse (expert religion) and the policies of governments and kings (official or governed religion) but also the actions and words of ordinary people (lived or everyday religion). The interactions between these overlapping fields, the power dynamics through which they shape each other, and their deep immersion and fluid entanglements with their socio-cultural, legal, economic, and political surroundings are, on one level, the subject of the book. Religion cannot be isolated from the broader social and political fields in which it is embedded. Nor can it be imagined as a variable, segregated from other dimensions of human sociality and history. There are no untouched religions; it is best to approach religion as one does other deeply intersected categories such as gender, race, ethnicity, and class.
The book intervenes in a series of contemporary political debates about global politics, religion and rights, examining a set of international religious reform projects and discourses that have become especially influential over the past two decades. Legal guarantees for religious freedom, the empowerment of tolerant religious leaders and representatives, and protections for the rights of religious minorities through domestic and transnational legal regimes are seen as protecting, through law, pre-existing rights, communities, or individuals defined as “religious.” My earlier work in The Politics of Secularism in International Relations showed that this is an untenable position because the processes through which various human goings-on are classified as either “secular” or “religious” are themselves highly politicized, inflected with power relations, and historically variable. This book takes that point forward to explore specifically what kinds of religion and religious subjects are produced and protected, and which are excluded, through these legal arrangements.
In all circumstances, the construction and stabilization of any religion-secular binary is shaped by forces, social practices, and institutions that cannot be reduced to either of those two sides. And yet, so many contemporary governmental efforts depend on a particular instantiation of that binary to “solve” policy challenges—both those associated with so-called religious sources of violence and those that require the alleged irenic qualities of religion as a source of community and morality. I show that, in fact, these arrangements help create the very “religious” cleavages that they purport to remedy or transcend. Seen this way, the book overturns the assumption that the top-down legalization of freedom of religion, state-sponsored engagement with faith communities, and legal protections for religious minorities are the keys to emancipating society from persecution and discrimination. Instead, these efforts generate social tensions by making religious difference a matter of law, enacting a divide between the religion of those in power and the religion of those without it.
Beyond Religious Freedom took shape as I worked through my inability to reconcile what I’d learned about lived religion in the discipline of religious studies with the ways in which my home discipline of international relations and adjacent policy discussions addressed religion and global affairs. The field of religious studies appeared to be giving up on world religions discourse, or at least politicizing and historicizing it, building on the work of Tomoko Masuzawa and others. At the same time, social scientists and policymakers were rushing to embrace the paradigm, designing sophisticated measures and models to account for various world religion’s alleged public and political salience and to incorporate religion into politics and public life at all levels.
This disconnect struck me as odd and led to a series of questions. Whose religion is taken up and protected in efforts to promote and protect international religious freedom, and to what political ends? How might we conceive of the relationship between the forms of religion that are privileged and protected, and the broader and messier fields of practice and experience in which these projects intervene? Who is authorized to speak on behalf of the “religions” and the “religious” that now populate the international faith-based policy landscape? And whom exactly are these representatives presumed to represent? What happens to “small r” religion—that broad, uncertain, shifting, and messy field that appears to be a nearly ubiquitous part of human experience—when “big R” Religion, the Religion that is protected in constitutions, international legal instruments, and so on, is enshrined as a privileged category of global legal and governmental knowledge, action, and advocacy?
Beyond Religious Freedom brings this set of concerns to bear on a specific moment in international history—our own—in which religion is understood to have “returned” to public international life. It diagnoses and describes this new dispensation, the “two faces of faith,” according to which good religion is being restored to international relations and bad religion is being reformed or eradicated through new partnerships for the public good. Such discourse has now largely displaced the secularization thesis, understood as the privatization, marginalization, or disappearance of religion in modernity. This partial displacement is the result of a shift in much public and academic discourse away from an understanding of religion as private and largely irrelevant to global governance and toward a view, and accompanying political agenda, in which religion is seen as a public good, an agent of transformation, and a potential source of violence in need of domestication.
The book does not give a complete history of this development—there is no linear story that accounts precisely for when the tipping point was reached and a new way of talking about religion and global politics became normalized. Instead it explores the effects of this shift on both politics and religion by exploring key episodes that illustrate this change in the collective episteme. Both the older and newer approaches could be described as secularist. As Cassie Adcock writes, “defining and contesting what counts as religious are practices internal to secular politics.” My aim in this book was to examine not only how whatever is identified as religion becomes subject to particular forms of secular governance, but rather how, once established, these forms of law and governance relate to the broader political, social, and religious worlds with which they interact. The idea is to open the field onto a more encompassing social and interpretive space than that afforded by an exclusive focus on religion as construed by secular power.
Three core chapters analyze international religious reform projects enabled by the new global politics of religion. Each directs attention to the gaps and tensions between the forms of religion that are produced and protected through these projects and the broader fields of religious practice and experience in which they intervene. Three heuristics mentioned above inform the discussion.
1) Expert religion is religion as construed by those who generate “policy-relevant” knowledge about religion, including scholars, policy experts, and government officials. In Europe and North America, this field of knowledge production is dominated by an “agenda of reassurance,” which celebrates religion as a source of morality and cohesion, and an “agenda of surveillance,” which fears religion as a potential danger to be reformed and policed.
2) Lived or everyday religion is religion as practiced by ordinary individuals and groups as they interact with a variety of religious authorities, rituals, texts, and institutions and seek to navigate and make sense of their lives, connections with others, and place in the world. It refers to a diverse field of human activity, relations, investments, beliefs, and practices that may or may not be captured in the set of human goings-on that are identified as religion for the purposes of generating expert knowledge or for purposes of law and governance
3) Governed or official religion is religion as construed for the purposes of law and governance by those in positions of political and religious authority. This includes states, often through the law, but also other authorities such as supranational courts, governing entities such as the European Union, international and nongovernmental organizations, and churches and other religious organizations and hierarchies at all levels.
Readers of the book are invited to evaluate the new global politics of religion from the perspective of those who dissent from the “faiths” defined and represented by faith and interfaith leaders, those whose practices fail to qualify as a “religion” worth protecting, and those who fall into the grey areas between the secular-religious binaries that are enfolded into, and enforced by, these discursive regimes and accompanying political projects.
In the case of international religious freedom, as discussed in this series and in our new volume, it is striking the extent to which there appears to be agreement among authorities and experts on what it entails to promote religious freedom, how it should be realized, and that it is an unalloyed social good. Disaggregating religion allows us to turn the prism in a new way. There are social effects of emphasizing and privileging religion as a politically and legally meaningful category. Rather than a stable norm awaiting legal globalization, religious freedom appears as a complex, polyvalent, and historically shifting mode of construing and governing social diversity, often spearheaded by those in positions of political and social control, with all of the power dynamics this entails. To deploy religious rights as a mode of governance raises the profile of whatever the authorities define as “religion” as a matter of social difference. It requires those authorities, including the courts, to determine what counts as religion and to distinguish between orthodox and unorthodox, legal and illegal, and tolerable and intolerable forms of religion. It pressures states and courts to eliminate the gray areas surrounding these identities, and to classify and govern citizens as “religious” subjects. Not only does this exclude the “non-religious,” however defined; it also risks contributing to the very tensions that these projects are designed to eliminate by hardening what were once more fluid lines of difference between groups, fomenting intra-communal conflict, and, at times, inserting an international dimension into what were once local matters. We see these dynamics in postcolonial Sri Lanka, post-Soviet Central Asia, contemporary Malaysia, and the new state of South Sudan.
Government-sponsored religious engagement also appears differently through this prism. Groups are brought into being as political actors and discrete “faith communities” with clearly defined orthodoxies and peaceable spokesmen. And most are men. Religious engagement officers in Brussels and Washington breathe a sigh of relief: here are the partners we’ve been looking for. But, again, disaggregating religion reveals a more complex story. That which falls under the heading of religion is a contested mash-up of shifting and diverse families of beliefs, institutional forms, and fields of practice and experience. There is no single religion or set of religions waiting to be identified and engaged. State-sponsored religious outreach, akin to the legalization of religious freedom, forcibly distills a complex field into something governable. It squeezes a diverse and shifting set of human goings-on into the mold of whatever the authorities define as religions that merit engagement. That religion is sanctified, and given a seat at the table. A divide is created between official religion and the rest of world’s religion—including practices that many would consider sacred but that don’t qualify as a religion, or those associated with political opponents and dissidents. Unofficial, unsanctioned, unorthodox practices, traditions, and encounters with the gods are crowded out.
In other words, all religions may be equal, but some are always more equal than others.
The new global politics of religion elicits and rewards claims for equality, inclusion, and justice made in the language of religious rights and freedoms. Some may feel they have no alternative but to seek protection on these grounds. This is understandable. I do not judge those who make such claims. But in a “religionized” global landscape, those who cannot or choose not to speak in a recognizably religious register become inaudible or unintelligible. This includes the ordinary people subject to these projects, and it also includes many experts and academics—an aspect of the new global politics of religion that deserves more attention. Scholars and practitioners alike have been swept up in a flourishing international infrastructure of the global “religion-industrial complex.” Looking ahead, one challenge is to find spaces for those who would resist its gravitational pull.