"Expert Religion" and Hurd's Beyond Religious Freedom

This is the first of three posts in a series reviewing Elizabeth Shakman Hurd's new book, Beyond Religious Freedom. In the following weeks, look for posts by Cara Burnidge and Lauren Turek.

Michael Graziano

I was reading Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s new book Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion (Princeton, 2015) during Pope Francis’s visit to the United States, and in the ensuing media circus that began once the world learned he met with Kim Davis. I thought it made for an interesting parallel given Hurd’s focus on religious freedom. In the book, Hurd tracks how international efforts to secure “religious freedom” have regulated some forms of religion and transformed others. The Francis-Davis meeting is a good entry into Hurd’s book, because it exists at what she calls the “exclusionary edges” of religious freedom (110). Francis’s reported encouragement to Davis ("stay strong") was understood variously as support for or opposition to religious freedom. Yet the Francis-Davis meeting, like Hurd’s new book, suggests that the international focus on religious freedom is more complicated than a simple binary of religious freedom/religious oppression would suggest.

Hurd’s project is ambitious. It is intended in part, she writes, as a “thought experiment that provides a glimpse of what the world would look like after religion is dethroned as a stable, coherent legal and political category” (7). She argues that classifying people as (a)/religious in international law has on-the-ground consequences because religion, and religious markers of difference, do not exist prior to law and politics. These differences are not codified by law, but created, and Hurd tracks how an international focus on religious freedom creates the very subjects it seeks to govern. Furthermore, Hurd shows how terming a conflict “religious” or “sectarian” is to take sides in that conflict. Hurd illustrates this through several examples, including the Syrian conflict where reductive explanations about religious violence aid an Assad regime keen to play Syrian minority groups against each other. As a result, causal explanations that point to a “lack of religious freedom” or “sectarian tension” often bolster the importance of “that which the authorities identify as religious-religious and religious-secular difference” (emphasis original, 122). 

The book speaks to a wide audience including political scientists, religion scholars, legal theorists, policy specialists, and political leaders. Hurd takes each group to task for acting as if “religion” is anything other than an unstable basis on which to build sound policies and laws. Rather than contribute towards democratic ideals, such efforts often reproduce the very problems that they set out to solve—in other words, the problems that democratic governments seek to manage in the first place. Hurd is suspicious of these efforts, fueled as they often are by the idea that “the right kind of religion, recognized and engaged by states and other public international authorities, has emancipatory potential” (3). 

Beyond Religious Freedom argues that we can do better. To that end, Hurd proposes “disaggregating” the category of religion into three parts: governed religion (“religion as construed by those in positions of political and religious power”), expert religion (religion according to those who “generate policy-relevant knowledge”), and lived religion (“religion as practiced by everyday people and groups”) (7-8).

These three interpretive lenses are Hurd’s primary toolkit as she examines a series of case studies. In each, she carefully picks apart easy understandings of religious freedom to show the consequences of categorical naïveté. She does this to challenge the so-called “return of religion” to international relations, and the narratives that have developed alongside it. With “lived religion,” for example, Hurd is careful to avoid what she sees as the mistake of many in the governed/expert religion groups: the reduction of the lived religious practice of subject populations “to little more than bounded objects of secular law and governance” (125). Expert and governed religion—more rigid and slower to respond to change—often understand and engage religion in clunky and ham-fisted ways. As a result, religion’s “return” to international relations, Hurd suggests, shouldn’t be mistaken for a better engagement with religious individuals or institutions in international relations. These “lived” religious worlds are too messy for easy categorization or utilization by governments and international aid programs. 

Throughout the case studies Hurd reviews, she is careful to consider a variety of factors that affect who and what counts as “religious” in any given context. Hurd shows how international claims to religious freedom are, as a result, far from orderly. They are connected to any number of seemingly irrelevant factors: race relations, local history, business relationships, media coverage: “believing and belonging is a complex and messy business,” Hurd writes (120). Of course, many books have addressed issues of religious-legal classifications. This work aims to do more. Hurd examines how a variety of international governments, non-governmental organizations, and scholarly institutions constructed and maintained a particular kind of “religious freedom,” and how they then went about exerting political and economic capital to shape the world around this idea. Studies like this are sorely needed. They critically examine taken-for-granted notions in the field, and do so while poking at the often murky relationship between scholarship and government interest in religion.

This is why I found one of the most useful parts of the book to be the idea of “expert religion.” Hurd frames the recent rise of expert religion as a response to the U.S. government's demand for actionable religious expertise after 9/11. These answers are often less than ideal, according to Hurd. Beyond Religious Freedom shows how such ill-informed US government programs often unintentionally divide the very populations that they are seeking to unite. For example, Hurd shows how one well-meaning USAID program in Albania accidentally exacerbated the markers of religious difference it was designed to mute (75). This is in part because American experts and government officials often expect religious freedom to look the same everywhere: that is, they measure success by the extent to which target areas look like the U.S., with its plurality of religious groups and peculiar history of free exercise (73). 

American engagement with religion abroad since the Cold War, Hurd points out, weakens the “return of religion” narrative still further: religion didn't "go" anywhere. Studies of American religious culture during the Cold War, in particular, stand to benefit from Hurd's intervention. Hurd's framework is useful for contextualizing what I think of as the “religion whisperers”—American policy specialists thought to have a special understanding of religion and religious peoples—growing in prominence as American power confronted an increasing number of challenges deemed religious after World War II. While these experts were often limited in their ability to marshal political responses—they were not the elected officials of the “governed religion” portion of the triad—they made their presence felt through consultation and advisement. I’m certainly convinced we need this sort of examination of the relationship between scholarship, government action, and policy expertise, and I expect Hurd’s triad of governed-expert-lived religion to help shape future work in this area.

Indeed, I hope this book will shape future work in a variety of of fields, since the book’s interdisciplinary contribution is one of its chief strengths. Hurd brings a theoretically sophisticated understanding of “religion” to an area of study traditionally conducted by those in political science or international affairs. To her credit, she does not retreat to the ambiguity of jargon but instead illustrates these theoretical principles through the assembled case studies. The chapters are each focused, clearly-written analyses of a narrow problem or theme. This makes them ideal for use in the classroom. The concise examples would help to illuminate seemingly more difficult concepts like “religious freedom” or the international consequences of religious classification under law. The clarity of Hurd’s argument is another vote for its use in the classroom. It occurred to me several times that a chapter of Hurd’s work would pair nicely with classic RS texts like J.Z. Smith’s Imagining Religion (1982) or Bruce Lincoln’s "Theses on Method" (1996). For those teaching classes on American religious history/cultures, one especially useful part of Hurd’s book is that it extends many familiar American religion and law discussions onto the international stage. It shows the consequences of a schizophrenic “religion” cast as both international public good and source of irrational violence. Finally, the book deserves a wide readership not simply because the issues under study are so important to our everyday lives—they are—but because Hurd demonstrates the important contributions to be made by both religious studies and religious history to any serious understanding of these public policy challenges.


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