It has been almost twenty years since the US Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which was signed into law in 1998 by then President Bill Clinton. The IRFA inscribed into law and US foreign policy a set of definitions and monitoring protocols, and it mandated the creation of a bureaucracy within the US State Department—the Office of Religious Freedom, which is charged with promoting religious freedom as a core objective of US foreign policy. Under the language and mandate of the IRFA, this office produces yearly reports on religious freedom around the globe, and its work becomes the basis by which the Secretary of State categorizes some countries as “countries of particular concern” for their “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” Such a designation can trigger various disciplinary and punitive responses by the US government, including economic sanctions. As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd shows through incisive analysis in her recently published Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion, the impact of IRFA and other efforts to mobilize a religious freedom framework in international relations is far-reaching, not only in practical terms, but also at the level of defining “religion” itself.
During the same two decades since the passage of the IRFA, the academic study of religion has produced a small library of works that document the complex history of “religion” as a category, a history that intertwines with a range of other histories—most importantly, those of European colonialism and the political compromises that produced the modern notion of the “secular.” All of these histories emphasize that “religion” is never a self-evident term, and that its use to demarcate certain elements of human experience and social life does not merely describe an objective reality but instead creates the lenses by which certain people, groups, practices, and institutions become legible for particular purposes. The academic study of religion pursues these histories in order to understand the epistemological and theoretical underpinnings of its own enterprise, but the insights that emerge out of this work also resonate in real-world contexts where what counts as religion determines policy, even as political frameworks and decisions, as Hurd shows, paradoxically determine what counts as religion.
Problems of language and definition haunted the debate surrounding the IRFA as it traveled through the legislative process of the US Congress. I have written more extensively about the testimony that led up to the passage of the IRFA elsewhere, but here I want to highlight the linguistic and rhetorical contortionism that characterized the contributions of several of the participants in the discussion and that is, I argue, symptomatic of a broader definitional and theoretical problematic. On May 1, 1997, in opening remarks for hearings of the US Senate’s Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Relations, then Senator Sam Brownback made two interweaving claims: first, that concern for religious freedom is a peculiarly American concern, one rooted in national history, collective identity, and shared convictions; and second, that the underlying conflict the legislation sought to resolve was not between competing religious commitments but between religion and “individuals and governments who do not value freedom of worship at all.” Throughout the rest of the record of this hearing, speakers routinely used different terms to talk about religion—sometimes “worship,” sometimes “theology,” but most often “faith” and “belief.” Jews and Muslims, for example, appear throughout the testimony as “members of the Jewish faith” and “members of the Islamic faith,” a locution that situates faith and belief at the core of the implicit definition of religion and turns Jews and Muslims into analogues for Protestant Christians and therefore recognizable religious subjects worthy of religious freedom.
The role of language is a critical pressure point in the politics of international religious freedom, and one sees it not only in this congressional hearing but in other critical contexts where the language of human rights—and particularly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)—enters into the debate. Article 18 of the UDHR holds that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.” The UDHR is an aspirational document with normative grounding in secular values. It imagines a world constituted around human equality and solidarity. It also configures religion primarily in terms of thought, conscience, and belief. According to Article 18, thought, conscience, and belief constitute the essential core of religion, a core that may (or may not) be expressed or made “manifest” through “teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”
Many critics of the Protestantization of religion focus on the limits imposed by collapsing religion into the category of “belief,” a category that privileges the theological anthropology of reformed Christian theology, which elevates personal conviction and confession, interiority, and the believing individual as the privileged markers of religious identity. What then, these critics ask, of other forms of religious engagement, identity, and belonging—those governed by religious law, characterized by heightened notions of communalism, and more attentive to practice than to personal conviction? In other words, if the assumed norm is Protestant Christianity, then any efforts at comparison or analogy must situate other religions in the terms that are native to a particular, historically constituted form of Christianity.
Moreover, if religion in these official contexts is primarily a matter of thought, conscience, and belief, there resides a shadowy underside to such definitions—a place where the boundaries and contours of correct thought, conscience, and belief are actively policed, usually by institutional elites. Internal debates within religious communities over vexed categories of orthodoxy and heresy, sectarianism, and so on often push against the aspirational embrace of religious freedom and put governmental and international bodies in the paradoxical position of adjudicating the limits of any particular religion. In the process, efforts to protect religious freedom may in fact contribute to limitations on religious freedom—especially among people who live complexly and ambivalently within the frame of particular religious traditions or who contend within these traditions around issues of both theology and practice.
The aspirational language of religious freedom singles out and separates religion from other dimensions of human experience and social formation. It also implicitly protects the category of religion from critique. That is, the category of religion itself becomes a “religious” category—separated off, sacrosanct, immune from profane incursions—the purview only of religious specialists who set and control the terms of discussion. In the practical terms of international politics, when the US State Department or the United Nations or other international bodies engage with religious freedom as a value and a mandate, they often end up uncritically reinscribing the authority of the institutional elites of various religious traditions. Since none of these international bodies are in a position to adjudicate debates internal to religious communities, they implicitly legitimize the claims of religious leaders. From another angle, at least in the case of the US State Department, in the effort to shore up forms of religion that are congenial—or at least benign—with respect to US foreign policy, the department routinely promotes initiatives that support and foster “moderate religious” commitments. Such efforts make clear that, aspirational language aside, the project of promoting religious freedom is also a project that involves the construction and support of certain forms of religion.
The IRFA legislation was not only responsible for the development of the Office of Religious Freedom but also for the creation of the bi-partisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The Commission’s description of its mandate makes explicit connections between religious freedom, US foreign policy, and national security concerns. This orientation echoes the US State Department’s positions, even when the Commission is officially independent. Meanwhile, the USCIRF made an unexpected appearance in the current presidential political contest, inadvertently highlighting the paradoxical nature of advocacy for religious freedom. On March 17, 2016, USCIRF Chair Robert P. George endorsed Senator Ted Cruz for the Republican nomination for the presidency, declaring Cruz a staunch defender of religious freedom. In his endorsement, George spoke loftily of Cruz’s commitment to the US Constitution but, not surprisingly, did not mention Cruz’s association with Christian dominionism, a theocratic movement documented and discussed by both activist-journalists and scholars. This endorsement comports with George’s consistent positions as an advocate for religious freedom; in 2009, for example, he served as one of three drafters of the Manhattan Declaration, a call to civil disobedience by Christians in the US on issues of abortion same-sex marriage under the umbrella of religious freedom. George’s endorsement of Cruz, which he grounds explicitly in the context of religious freedom and in his own authority as the chair of the USCIRF, may be an atypical moment in the international religious freedom project, but it is symptomatic of the paradoxes in which this project is embedded, paradoxes Elizabeth Shakman Hurd enumerates with clarity and precision in her book.
The power of Beyond Religious Freedom resides in its analysis of the deep and unresolvable paradoxes at the heart of the language of religious freedom itself. By helping us see what “religious freedom” enables and occludes, Hurd does not presume to resolve the unresolvable, but exposes the scaffolding of the political project that bears its name.