The Paradox of Free Religion

By: Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

January 12, 2021

Responding to: Rethinking U.S. Policy on International Religious Freedom

The Paradox of Free Religion

A few years ago, my daughter Sophie wrote a school report about the Puritans’ escape from religious oppression and pursuit of religious freedom in America. At the time, I was surprised that this narrative had persisted, but probably I shouldn’t have been. Though historians now tell a much more complex story about religion in early America, the notion that the United States invented and perfected religious freedom remains firmly ensconced in U.S. public discourse. Since the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, U.S. promotion of international religious freedom advocacy is also written into the law. Legal guarantees of religious freedom appear as riders in trade agreements, aid packages, and humanitarian projects. The foreign policy establishment is abuzz with talk of freedom, toleration, and rights. Proponents defend efforts to export religious freedom globally, with the United States proudly at the helm.

Many see religious freedom as a fundamental human right that should be promoted globally. Why shouldn’t citizens of other countries enjoy the privilege of exercising their religious rights? Recalcitrant governments and oppressive clerics should be persuaded to adhere to universal norms. Scholars, advocates, the media, and religious leaders have fallen in line with this narrative, a chorus of voices united under the salvific banner of religious freedom. 

But the time has come for Congress and the Biden administration to dismantle the religion bureaucracy. To cease framing religion as an object of governmental knowledge and intervention is not to write it out of existence. To the contrary, religion is woven into American laws, customs, and institutions in shifting configurations, and it will remain so. To refuse to cede the complex terrain of the religious to a single set of all-too-human institutions is a gesture of respect in a world weary of human, and especially American, attempts to define and control it. Global advocacy for religious freedom is the civilizing discourse of our time. As colonial, racial, and religious hierarchies are being challenged the world over, now is the moment to rethink religious freedom.

As colonial, racial, and religious hierarchies are being challenged the world over, now is the moment to rethink religious freedom.

As a child, I was perplexed by the idea of religious freedom. I grew up in the Midwest, perched on the edges of Catholicism and Judaism, a parent from each tradition. I occupied the awkward spaces between religions, and between religion and non-religion, depending on the day. At Mass with my Catholic grandmother. At the kitchen table wondering if I should wish my agnostic Jewish father a Happy Easter. At school where I was asked: “What religion are you?” When I explained I had two, my classmate shot back: “But you do believe in Jesus, right?!” 

The notion of religious freedom felt oxymoronic. As a scholar, I became skeptical of forms of politics that drew attention to religious-religious and religious-secular difference. Being both diversely religious and, according to others, completely secular led me to question the easy answers provided by both secularism and religious freedom. 

As a skeptic of religious freedom promotion, I am often in the minority. The religious freedom lobby cannot be reduced to evangelical lobbying or naked imperial ambition. Religious freedom unites human rights advocates, American religious exceptionalists, missionaries in search of religious liberalization, and partisans in the War on Terror who see it as the key to unlocking Islamic reformation, among others. The lobby also enjoys close ties with the political doctrine of freedom and the ideology of free enterprise. According to this narrative, religiously liberated subjects are not brought into a particular American, Christian, or capitalist system; they are brought into freedom itself. The U.S. State Department affirms the dogma: “When we strive to advance religious freedom, we are simply urging other nations to join with us in upholding a high but universal standard…respect for religious freedom and tolerance of the practices and beliefs of people of all faiths lie at the heart of the American identity.” 

According to this narrative, religiously liberated subjects are not brought into a particular American, Christian, or capitalist system; they are brought into freedom itself.

Religious freedom is an American prophetic tradition. As Talal Asad suggests, democracy, freedom, and human rights are seen as “integral to the universalizing moral project of America—the project of redeeming the world—and an important part of the way America sees itself.” Religious freedom, American-style, globalizes our mission and our redemption. During the Cold War, the United States sought to secure what was known as “global spiritual health” to combat communism. Today we promote religious freedom. 

As argued in my book Beyond Religious Freedom, the politics of religious freedom is less straightforward than such triumphalism implies. There is a constitutive paradox at the heart of the notion of free religion. Privileging religious freedom means that government bureaucracies adopt religion as a category to draw together individuals and communities as corporate bodies in need of legal protection to achieve their freedom. 

Whose religion is taken as the norm? How do we conceive of the relationship between the religion that is protected and the broader fields of practice and belief in which the identification of “real” religion occurs? What happens to “small r” religion (the religion of ordinary people) when “big R” Religion (the religion of constitutions, human rights, and liberal political theory) is enshrined as a privileged category of legal and political action? Winnifred Fallers Sullivan offers a compelling response:

"Human history supports the idea that religion, small ‘r’ religion, is a nearly ubiquitous and perhaps necessary part of human culture. Big ‘R’ Religion, on the other hand, the Religion that is protected in constitutions and human rights law under liberal political theory, is not. Big ‘R’ Religion is a modern invention, an invention designed to separate good religion from bad religion, orthodoxy from heresy—an invention whose legal and political use has arguably reached the end of its useful life."

In foreign policy, a world of “big R” Religion if there ever was one, whatever the authorities designate as “religion” becomes orthodoxy. In the world of “big R” Religion, one that privileges religious freedom, governments invest the distinction between religions, and between religious and secular, with legal significance. These distinctions, in turn, shape social and legal landscapes. A world divided into “religious” and “secular” takes shape.

In foreign policy, a world of 'big R' Religion if there ever was one, whatever the authorities designate as 'religion' becomes orthodoxy.

This matters for foreign policy. For example, much of the international community claims the Rohingya in Myanmar are persecuted because they’re Muslim. Religious intolerance is motivating the violence; and the solution is religious freedom. In fact, the Rohingya are caught in an intricate web of ethnic, racial, economic, religious, postcolonial, and state oppression. To single out their Muslim identity as the central problem blinds us to a broader field of oppression. It fixes the idea of the Rohingya as persecuted Muslims rather than as Burmese citizens or as humans with multiple affiliations.

And yet, given that there is a religious element to the violence, why not support religious freedom for the Rohingya, among other freedoms? Because such advocacy reinforces the hard and fast lines dividing Muslims from Buddhists—the very same lines that violent Burmese extremists (including elements of the state) depend on to propagate the violence. To privilege religion in this context serves to reinforce a violent Buddhist nationalism that seeks to rid Burma of Muslims altogether. Rather than sapping these forces, politicizing religious identity strengthens them. Instead, U.S. policymakers need to ask: Are the Rohingya being killed because of their religion, because they’re seen as immigrants or outsiders, because they’re perceived as threatening the political and economic interests of the former Burmese junta, or all of the above? It is not only Buddhist monks who are to blame for the violence.

Meanwhile, in majority-Muslim contexts U.S. advocacy for religious freedom consolidates culturalist views of the so-called Muslim world, in which politics is said to be driven by religion and Islam targeted for reform. It revives an old culturalist canard that denies individuals in these countries the capacity to construct an autonomous field of politics. As with the Rohingya, the United States should recognize people in other countries as citizens rather than as religiously motivated actors in need of redemption.

Decades ago, President Eisenhower warned of the dire consequences of an emerging military-industrial complex. Today we have a religion-industrial complex. The Trump administration emboldened its most divisive and hateful voices, but the industry extends beyond Trump. A flourishing religion bureaucracy predates his administration, and his departure will not necessarily alter its trajectory. Defenders of religious freedom on both sides of the aisle insist on the neutrality of their actions and, as a number of scholars have argued, their actions may indeed be constitutional. Yet to conflate law and justice in these circumstances is to miss the paradox of free religion: Legalizing religious freedom incentivizes individuals and groups to make claims for equality, inclusion, and justice in the language of religious rights. Many see no alternative but to seek protection on these grounds. 

Legalizing religious freedom incentivizes individuals and groups to make claims for equality, inclusion, and justice in the language of religious rights.

Religious freedom silences those who cannot or refuse to speak in a politically legible religious register. Religious freedom sanctifies arbitrary divisions between religion, non-religion, and the rest of world’s practices—including those considered sacred in the self-understandings of the communities involved but that don’t qualify as “religious.” Religious freedom marginalizes and, at times, even criminalizes Indigenous practices and other religions that have fallen out of political favor, including Islam and, in the not-so-distant past, Catholicism. Paradoxically, legalizing religious freedom inevitably privileges some religions over others.

The politics of white supremacy is also deeply woven into religious freedom as a civilizing discourse both at home and abroad. We are only beginning to unearth these connections. As Corey D. B. Walker explained recently on the Berkley Forum, “the legal architecture of recent cases involving religious freedom issues and LGBTQ rights are…framed on a racial and religious logic that supported slavery and justified racial discrimination.” The religious freedom lobby drowns out voices such as Walker’s. It silences those uncomfortable with dividing the world into religious and secular, civilized and uncivilized, developed and undeveloped. The new administration has committed to listening to diverse and critical voices at home. They should do the same in foreign affairs.

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