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Ask an Expert: How do religion and politics inform international relations?

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, political science

Law, religion, and US foreign policy may seem to belong to different worlds, yet they combine to shape the lives of vast numbers of people and the course of nations.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, political science, explores this complex intersection in her teaching and research, including in books such as Beyond Religious Freedom and The Politics of Secularism in International Relations. An affiliate of the Buffett Institute for Global Studies where she directs the faculty research group on global politics and religion, Hurd also is co-organizing the 2016-19 project Politics of Religion at Home and Abroad, funded by the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs with the support of Buffett and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Northwestern Research Magazine spoke with her about her current research.

What is the “The Politics of Religion at Home and Abroad” project?

ESH: It explores the history of US policy with respect to the domestic and foreign management of religion and religious difference. My co-organizer, Winnifred Sullivan of Indiana University, and I are working to bridge the sharp domestic-international divide that has characterized most US scholarly and policy-related debates on the politics of religion.

What motivated you to pursue this work?

ESH: Religion has always been central to American self-understanding. But there is a disjuncture between the domestic version of religion and religious freedom and the versions offered for export. Religion — American style — has a curious inside/outside dynamic based in assumptions about ourselves and the Other which contributes to the myth’s stability. This is enabled by a productive ambiguity about what counts as “religion” at home and abroad, helping to maintain the gulf Americans experience between themselves and  others. Religion at home is assumed to be tamed and free in a way not yet achieved by religion elsewhere.

What’s the difference between US religion policy at home and abroad?

ESH: The US operates by its own set of rules when it comes to religion. The religious voluntarism of the domestic American space — sometimes termed the free market in religion — is not the religion we are exporting or ever exported. The religion we export seeks to create a moderate “enlightenment-sized” religion that serves the state’s interests. The US has often pursued a policy of explicit “conversion” abroad, and in its internal colonization of indigenous populations, while emphasizing non-interference at home. The US has not promoted religious conversion abroad in the sense of making people into Christians (although it has done that from time to time). It has intervened to convert others to a way of being religious. Likewise, the domestic rhetoric of non-intervention has not been an actual practice of non-intervention. There has been an effort to shape religious subjectivity. We are interested in the details of the formal and informal management of religion in these contexts.

Will this research have a comparative dimension?

ESH: Yes. The project explores the implications and applications of the inside/outside framework for the comparative study of the religio-political dynamics of the nation-state more broadly, appealing to scholars of comparative empire and those interested in religion and politics beyond the United States. This effort will form the subject of our third workshop, bringing together scholars from around the world to consider these issues from diverse geographic locations and disciplinary traditions.

How does American exceptionalism fit into your story?

ESH: Religion in America is often thought to stand above and apart from the history and experience of other nations. Enabling this US religious exceptionalism is the claim that Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity and its cultural effects, are not religion, a claim that both distinguishes and naturalizes Protestant Christianity. Protestantism can choose to appear not as a religion but as the natural antinomian evangelical essence of America. These legal, political, and sociological processes contribute to powerful distinctions between inside and outside, domestic and foreign, self and other, even civilization and madness. Last fall we held a workshop on “Theologies of American Exceptionalism” and the reflections that emerged from it appeared recently on The Immanent Frame (an interdisciplinary digital forum). We had an intense discussion of the deeply ambiguous heritage of US exceptionality.

Is there a pedagogical or policy dimension to this research?

ESH: Yes. We are developing a series of open-access case studies on religion, law, and politics, which can be downloaded free by instructors anywhere. The cases offer templates for thinking creatively and comparatively about law, religion, culture and politics — and their complex intersections. We also expect our findings to inform public conversations and policy debates about religion and politics in the US and in US foreign affairs. These discussions tend to be rife with assumptions about religion in relation to the American project, assumptions that this study interrogates. This work will generate new perspectives for thinking about religion in relation to the American national project.

By Matt Golosinski