Police and American Religions

Charles McCrary

How can scholars of American religion incorporate police and policing into our narratives? I have been kicking around this question for a while, and I have a few very preliminary ideas and suggestions. In recent years the field of American religious studies has continued to expand the purview of what counts as data. So, I doubt many readers would say that police and policing do not fit within our narratives. But the question remains—as it does with so many other topics—how to bridge these questions and data sets with our existing frameworks and narratives. What follows are some disorganized thoughts about what a sustained conversation about police and religion might look like.

Scholars often study the police within the context of surveillance studies. Foucault’s ideas about policing have of course been influential here. I recommend Andrew Johnson’s piece on Foucault, the police, and neoliberalism. Johnson shows how Foucault moved from understanding the police as a state institution “isomorphic with the prison, both employing disciplinary techniques to control a free population and part of a carceral continuum” (5) in Discipline and Punish to, in the Security, Territory, Population lectures, “a ‘secret history of the police’ where greater attention is paid to public health, social welfare and regulating the marketplace than investigating and arresting criminals” (6). We can see how this tracks with the shift toward governmentality. This is one of a number of ways we can uncover the pervasive power of policing, though I wonder if an overly expansive definition of “police,” while probably advancing fruitful lines of analysis, might also distract from efforts to incorporate new characters into our narratives.

Many scholars of American religion have turned their attention recently to surveillance and related topics like intelligence and security. Sylvester Johnson and Steven Weitzman’s new edited collection The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security before and after 9/11 offers various perspectives and case studies related to the FBI, and a number of scholars (some of whom are included in the volume) are at work on forthcoming projects related to the FBI and other agencies of domestic surveillance and intelligence. For a long time, scholars of new religious movements have studied the FBI, ATF, and other agencies, particularly in light of their violent encounters with NRMs. Also, scholars have studied American Muslims after 9/11 and, more recently, in light of targeted bans and rising Islamophobia (including anti-sharia legislation, for example). I’m particularly interested in how more attention to “religio-racial identity” might help us study the role of religion in the surveillance of racialized bodies (I have in mind here Simone Browne’s Dark Matters, especially the chapter on the TSA). Surveillance and intelligence gathering are of course not only domestic security practices, but that the United States and other imperial states have often used religion as a category of (colonial) governance, as a way to understand, control, and influence populations. With these questions in mind, scholars like Mike Graziano have turned our attention to the OSS and CIA and their uses for “religion” (and academically produced discourse on “world religions”). All of this is great work, and it certainly contributes to whatever nascent discussion we might organize around “religion and police.” The line between police and military is becoming ever hazier, but, still, what about local police and sheriff departments?

A few years ago, over at the U.S. Intellectual History blog, Tim Lacy opened a discussion on intellectual history and policing. He posted some great questions and garnered lots of helpful response and reading suggestions. I wonder how scholars of American religion can locate religion in these conversations, as we have done in, say, the history of prisons (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here). Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand’s dissertation focuses on “criminalization” and offers what she calls a “defendant-centered” account of religious freedom. Building on that, I wonder what stories of American religious life and freedom we might tell that focus on the perspectives and voices of arrestees, targets of state surveillance, and criminals. How do religious ideas and practices factor into people’s interactions with the police? What roles have religions played in police reform, or in philosophies of policing, or in movements against police brutality? Of course, both police and religion are central to many narratives of the civil rights movement. What about, say, Bull Connor’s religion? More generally, what about the religion of police? I can imagine a study, for example, about the religious composition of a certain precinct, its citizens and officers. What happens when there are religious differences between an officer and citizen? Are there instances of, say, a predominantly Protestant police department in a mostly Catholic neighborhood? How might be study that? Were there police officers in 1880s Mormon Utah? Were there any trends or correlations regarding the types of roles officers played in the church? What might religion scholars say about subcultures of police spouses? Who makes and buys these pieces of material culture?

One final thought. Is the study of American religion and policing—if we are to develop a conversation organized under this label—falling prey to the “religion and x” formula, which, linking two things by a limp conjunction, often fails to unsettle or interrogate either category? What is important, foundational, about religion here? What I have in mind is thinking through secularism studies about “religion” as a category of secular governance. Scholars of American religious freedom have focused on courts quite a lot, and they’ve posed and answered interesting and important questions. Can we apply some of these ideas to police? What can we say about religious freedom in the context of a police raid on a religious community? Sometimes these issues are litigated later on, in a First-Amendment case, where we often encounter them. In many encounters between the secular state and religion, though, there is no planning or later arguments or careful consideration of religious freedom. Take this example from last summer. While protesting Donald Trump, who was speaking nearby, Josie Valadez Fraire was arrested for burning sage (see the video here). As the officers attempt to take away the sage and the crowd chants “Let her go,” Fraire says, “This is indigenous spirituality. You are not allowed.” They took it away and arrested her anyway. This was not the end of the incident, of course (see more here), but it was the initial encounter. What is the context for this encounter? Focusing on police, are these police officers trained to understand the politics of religious freedom, indigenous rights, and the thorny definitional issues at work? Or the legacies and contemporary realities of colonialism and anti-colonialism that produced those laws? Probably not, but nevertheless, the police officers could either let Fraire smudge or not. This is the secular state operating at a micro-level, not with planned arguments in court, but in a street with a few historically located people acting quickly. Secularism happens there, too.

There is a lot more we could say about this, but I’ll leave off with a few questions. First, should there be a more sustained conversation, and venues for that conversation, within the field of American religions? Second, if so, what would that look like? What are the central questions a focus on police could help us articulate about American religion? And, the flipside of that, what questions are we already asking that attention to police might help us answer better? Third, what role should police and policing play in secularism studies, particularly with regard to religious freedom? And, fourth, which works in American religion already discuss police, and how might we place them in conversation with each other?


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