Paperwork Secularism and the Governance of American Religions

Charles McCrary

Today I want to offer a few brief thoughts toward a theory of “paperwork secularism,” inspired by some AAR panels and recent blog posts. But first, an anecdote.

In May 2010, the North Dakota Department of Transportation denied Brian Magee’s request for a personalized license plate reading “ISNOGOD.” Like many states, North Dakota had no specific legal restrictions for what type of messages may be included in a personalized license plate, thus opting to handle each request on a case-by-case basis. Explaining the decision to reject Magee’s plate, Department of Transportation representative Linda Butts said, “We are trying our best to serve the citizens of North Dakota and try to protect [against] what would be offensive.” But offensive according to whom? And, more to the point, who makes that call? According to state law, the Department of Transportation “may, in its discretion, provide special license plates marked with not more than seven numerals, letters, or ampersands, or combinations of numerals, letters, and ampersands, at the request of the registrant, upon application therefor and payment of an additional fee of twenty-five dollars per registration period” (ND State Law 39-04-10.3 “Personalized plates”). But whose discretion, exactly? Who were the agents of the secular state determining what was offensive?

Some years ago, I was writing a seminar paper about this case, and so I called the North Dakota Motor Vehicle Division to find out. The employee with whom I spoke told me that they had guidelines for what would be offensive, but they were not publicly posted. In fact, they did not have a digital copy, so far as she knew. She made a physical copy and mailed it to me. The document states: “The Motor Vehicle Division retains the right to refuse to issue any license plates with any combination of letters or numbers, presented in any language and when read forward or backward, that may carry connotations that are offensive to good taste and decency, or would be misleading, including but not limited to…” an eleven-point list. The list includes specific prohibitions, such as “a word or term that refers to illegal drugs,” as well as some less clear, such as “a word or term that is patently offensive or contemptuous, prejudicial, or incites lust, depravity, or hostility.” And, curiously, “a word or term that could be reasonably expected to provoke a violent response from viewers.” This anecdote leads me to two related analytical points: 1) The secular state is not a unified entity, so scholars should focus more on agents of the secular state; and 2) Secular governance often occurs at highly localized levels, and so these secular state agents should be found in perhaps unexpected places, like the DMV. We might call this “paperwork secularism.”

I thought about paperwork secularism a number of times at the recent AAR meeting. In an excellent panel on “America’s Bureaucracy of Transcendence: Government Legitimation of American Religion,” Kathleen Holscher, Mike Graziano, Brad Stoddard, and Sarah Dees offered papers on the bureaucratic procedures by which a variety of state and state-affiliate actors define, regulate, and govern religions. Mike McVicar’s thoughtful and thought-provoking response keyed on these dynamics in the creation and contestation of classificatory systems that are always intersectional, never isolable even when they purport to be (as religion often does). The response followed the themes of governance, ignorance, and bureaucracy. On the final point, McVicar noted that knowledge—or ignorance—has bureaucratic uses. When producing or consuming knowledge about religion(s), state agents have a reason, an application, a use. During the question and answer segment, someone (I’m sorry I didn’t write down who) proposed that we differentiate between administrative and judicial epistemologies. Judges have clerks, and they have time to think and write. They read other opinions and consider decades of case law. Other agents—Catholic hospital workers explaining the nature of “charity,” CIA agents trying to understand Buddhism, prison chaplains deciding whether there’s enough space to accommodate a Wiccan meeting, Bureau of American Ethnology anthropologists devising terminology to name Native American practices, North Dakota DMV employees determining what’s “offensive”—often must make these decisions on the fly, with the information available. And their purpose is often different. Courts have to interpret legislation, uphold the constitution, defend the principles of religious freedom. Other agents sometimes are just trying to finish their paperwork.

Recently, The Religion Factor, the blog of the Centre for Religion, Conflict, and Globalization at the University of Groningen, has been running a series on the legal mechanisms that shape religious practice. In the first post, Helge Ǻrsheim argued that this “machinery” of the bureaucratic state, often ignored by scholars, is where and how religious freedom is produced. “Far removed from the spotlight of the news cycle, critical scholarship or political discourse, civil servants from a broad and growing array of modern nation states determine the proper nature and scope of religion, oftentimes as a small, even happenstance part of their jobs.” In his contribution to the series, Richard Amesbury nicely summed up Ǻrsheim’s approach to bureaucratization: “God is in the machine, and the devil in the details.” The details can be boring. So Ǻrsheim calls for us to push through the boredom, for it’s “exactly because bureaucracy is massive, unwieldy and boring [that] it usually escapes the critical gaze of scholarship developed for more high-profile and immediately comprehensible cases involving controversy and conflict.” We should look at “paperwork secularism,” investigate the workings of what we might call the “deep secular state,” but not just to find some exciting, unexpected archival gem (though we’ll find those too), but because bureaucracy is important and massive, and a close, detailed, boring look at it will give us a sense of its import and mass.


Unknown said…
Fascinatingly mundane, Charlie. The banality of ... paperwork.

Popular Posts