Elizabeth Shakman Hurd | Beyond Religious FreedomIn all human affairs we see, if we analyze things carefully, that you cannot get rid of one cause of trouble without introducing another. . . So in all discussions about policy, we should decide which course of action has the fewest disadvantages and we should regard that policy as the best, for we will never find a policy that gives you no grounds for anxiety, that involves no cost.

Niccolò Machiavelli

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Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion is notable for its subtlety and intellectual generosity, as well as its breadth and depth of engagement with contemporary scholarship and public affairs. This is also a book with a big, hard-hitting idea of its own. Its primary thesis is crystal clear, timely, and provocative: “religion” cannot serve as the basis for scholarly analyses or the formation of policy. I agree with that: individuals, communities, and events are more complex than the idea of religion can capture; indeed, the very idea of religion often gets in the way of understanding how those things work.

Yet a strange feature of the contemporary condition is that we neither seem able to do with nor to do without our peculiar, modern concepts of religion. On the one hand, drawing on both a relatively longstanding and widely-held consensus in the field of religious studies and a series of focused case studies in the field of international politics, Hurd argues that the concept of religion distorts the fields it is deployed to map. More specifically, she shows how the politics of religious freedom is insufficient to its ostensible task of protecting religious lives and traditions; for the panoply of policies enacted to support religious freedom remake the individuals, communities, traditions, and problematic, multi-dimensional fields of relation that they engage. Yet on the other hand, a wide variety of legal, political, and sociological tendencies, as well as a welter of relatively narrow interests, are currently aligned to press religion to the forefront of scholars’ and policy makers’ concerns. Readers of the Immanent Frame will not need to be reminded that scholarly and political interest in religion sustains what Hurd calls “a flourishing international political economy of good religion,” in which “[b]ureaucracies and foundations have been established, careers made, and professional reputations secured,” and “[o]nline resources, workshops, training programs, and interfaith dialogues proliferate” as do articles, books, and critical responses to them. Despite all the froth being generated, Hurd persuasively argues, improving upon the most recent conventional wisdom of secularist or separationist stances is not as simple as inviting religion back into analyses, policies, and public arenas.

I have argued elsewhere that contemporary crises of religion/secularism index a collective intellectual incapacity to cope with the apparent changes to our world wrought by large-scale processes—including what goes under the names of modernization, secularization, globalization, capitalism, neoliberalism, and increasingly, as Hurd argues, the politics of religious freedom. These dynamic processes of transformation press concepts of secularism as separation into crisis and Beyond Religious Freedom reveals a new landscape marked by policies and research that actively engage, shape, and mold religion.1 I think Hurd is right to argue that policies addressed to religion are generally promoted and accepted as merely reconciling, harmonizing, or insulating religious and political practices, while these policies in fact profoundly reshape the contours of both. There are complex dynamics of change at work here that are obscured, and sometimes redirected, by the simplifying narratives typically applied to them.

One of the signal achievements of Beyond Religious Freedom is its lucid delineation of a new narrative that has come to authorize the regulation of religion: rather than extricating themselves from religion, modern states are now seen as appropriately engaged in efforts to tame bad religion and cultivate good religion. Hurd shows an emerging consensus among policymakers that religion must be engaged, and more precisely that “bad” (sectarian, divisive, extreme) religion must be combated while “good” (tolerant, integrative, moderate) religion must be fostered. A simple narrative in which governments must identify religious groups as partners or as targets now organizes the messy circumstances, configurations, and events populating the state’s field of action. This official narrative is extremely pragmatic: religions are sorted so as to provide policymakers with new handles and levers with which to act on the world. The very act of partitioning religions shapes the groups, actors, and traditions addressed, and this effect is multiplied when state (and powerful non-state) actors purposefully undertake to renovate these traditions. Hurd argues that policymakers may only proceed with confidence by overlooking those complexities.

This is easy for me to outline abstractly, of course, because Hurd’s book does the hard work of detailing it concretely. Beyond Religious Freedom directs us to grapple with problems that follow from the concept of religion’s excessive yet also insufficient purchase on the world. “To move beyond both the reproduction and the critique of the new global politics of religion requires thinking differently about religion, politics, law, history, and culture,” Hurd insists, for as she cautions her readers, “religious discourses are part of complex and evolving fields of practice that cannot be singled out from other aspects of human activity and yet also cannot simply be identified with these either.” This challenge is a thorny one, indeed.

The epigraph I have borrowed from Machiavelli hints at one possible way of thinking about how to move beyond the current global politics of religion. It comes from Machiavelli’s Discourses, and more precisely from his celebration of the ancient Roman republic’s openness to internal conflict, to new citizens, to constitutional innovations, and to the turbulent life of a free people. Far from the cold realism typically associated with his name, much of Machiavelli’s Discourses reads as an exuberant celebration of the political spirit cultivated and the policies enacted by the Romans to renew and sustain their republic. But for all this celebration, Machiavelli also displays a profoundly tragic view of politics in the Discourses: neither republican virtue nor the best of policies can put an end to the perils of politics. In the case of Rome, Machiavelli even argues that the very conditions for Rome’s greatness are the same that ensured the (relative) brevity of its existence as a republic. My point is neither to recommend Machiavelli’s theory of politics, nor to bring the republican revival into discussions of religion and politics, but rather to consider Machiavelli’s suggestion about the importance of chance, courage, and practical experimentation to the enactment of freedom.2 I want to emphasize here the profoundly ethical and political dimensions opened by Hurd’s challenge to think and act beyond the concept of religion. Moving beyond that concept would require an enormous conversion of interest and commitment accompanied by new narratives and sensibilities on the part of scholars, policymakers, activists and ordinary folks. Even tinkering with the concept of religion might be expected to produce shocks, and there is no guarantee about the outcome. Machiavelli’s courage in the face of tragedy is pertinent here. There are, of course, many ways to respond to this predicament—one is not bound to the masculinized, militarized, classical virtues admired in Machiavelli’s Discourses—but it is important to acknowledge that profound ethical and political predicaments emerge here at the precise limits of knowledge.

Each in their own way, officials, experts, and ordinary people grasp for concepts of religion in order to get practical handles on the complexities of life itself. Life itself exceeds this grasp, to be sure, but it is partially captured by it, partially anchored to it, and partially shaped by its pull. While many social scientists resist this general problematic by insisting on the transparency of their conceptual apparatuses and/or discounting the effects of observation on the phenomena they study, it would seem to be a defining feature of modern philosophical inquiry (at least since Immanuel Kant) to acknowledge the pragmatic impact of the concepts brought to bear on the world. There seems to be a broad range of stances including pragmatic awareness, relative innocence, and willful disavowal among policymakers about this dimension of the human condition and about the relation between social scientific knowledge and the worlds it constructs. For every confident pronouncement about the human capacity for knowledge and mastery in the history of philosophy, social science, and political thought, one might also find traces of minor traditions that acknowledge the limits of such mastery. Insofar as it can be linked through such a transnational constellation of canonical thinkers such as Horkheimer and Adorno, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, William James, Henri Bergson, Friedrich Nietzsche, a tragic conception is linked in a rather substantial tradition. If human freedom—here, religious freedom—is sought, one might do well to ask if freedom is likely to be found in the authoritative mastery of circumstances through the decisive determination between good and bad religions. Or if it might instead emerge from the fleeting margins and recesses that elude authoritative grasp. Or, if those margins prove too inhospitable, if it is to be sought adverbially instead —as a distinctive practice of  modifying authoritative actions and policies to inflect them with the hesitations, reservations, and anxieties of the margins, and to open them continuously to revision. This latter possibility would be one way of enacting a more anxious freedom, acknowledging both the need to act and the impossibility of mastering the consequences of one’s actions.

Without defining religion—without restricting it to, say, Paul Tillich’s influential conception of an “ultimate concern“—I want to note that, in a modernity inflected by the dynamics of secularism, religions are generally constructed as the repositories of ultimate concern. (Note that this not an argument about the essence of religion, but rather a claim about the dynamics of secular governance in both scholarly and policy registers.) My suggestion is not that religion is privatized in modernity but rather that modern religions are typically produced so as to encase the last vestiges of life that would escape governance by the diffuse state and/or move to rhythms distinct from those of market economies. Beyond Religious Freedom details some of the ways in which the operations that encase religion also “corner,” regulate, and transform the lives contained within (as well as those excluded by), at great cost to both the freedom of religion and human freedom more generally. Hurd suggests that we might do better by setting the concept and the politics of religion aside. I want to conclude by suggesting that her book accomplishes something other than this as well. Beyond Religious Freedom exemplifies something like Machiavelli’s courage in confronting official policies on this deeply contested and necessarily uncertain terrain. It seems to suggest that the way forward, beyond religious freedom, is to acknowledge that there are no reliable policies to adopt toward religion. If policies must nonetheless be formulated, we might insist that that be done with careful reflection and unavoidable anxiety, and also only in light of those larger ethical and political values (be they human freedom, equality, democracy, or others) that our policies are ultimately intended to promote and sustain, if only imperfectly, precariously, and temporarily. We will never find a policy that gives no ground for anxiety, nor, perhaps, will we extract ourselves from the confines of religion. We may get beyond some parts of this predicament, however, through careful attention to the tragic dimensions of human agency—a renewed attention at the very least to the costs that follow from taking hold of life through the concept of religion.


  1. From my own perspective, secularism has always been a process that reshapes religious and political fields despite the surface rhetorics of separation, and the new politics of religious freedom and religious engagement appear as mutations/iterations of that underlying process. But that is a terminological difference, for the most part.

  2. My point is not that the Roman republic is beyond political criticism or that it should serve as a paradigm for us, but rather to think about the experimental spirit that Machiavelli identifies there, and about his own experimental critical spirit as a guide.