Three Myths about Religion and Politics (Part 2)

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

This is Part 2 of a three-part series in which Elizabeth Shakman Hurd evaluates three common myths about U.S. foreign religion politics and policy. Read Part 1 here.


Myth #2: Religion used to be ignored in international affairs but it has returned. Things are looking up. Flourishing government religion bureaucracies reflect this coming to terms with religion.

Today it goes unsaid among many scholars and practitioners that the return of religion has remedied a secularist bias by bringing religious voices and views into public life. Countless books and articles reflect this consensus, judging it to be good, bad or indifferent. It is true that things have changed. We talk about religion differently now. But it is not the case that religion suddenly matters whereas before it was absent. It has always mattered and it was never absent. Religion has never stood apart from politics, society and history. The state, alongside other forms of collective governance, interferes with religious fields as it does all aspects of collective life.

Conventional theories of secularization posit that when societies modernize, religion is privatized, marginalized, or disappears altogether. Few find this convincing now. The notion that religion should be private and irrelevant to governance feels quaint. In place of a full-throated embrace of secularization theory, today we see a perceptible shift away from viewing religion as private and irrelevant to public life and toward the idea that religion is both a problem to be solved and the solution to problems of collective governance. Religion is seen as a public good, an agent of transformation, and a source of morality, community and freedom. It is at the same time a dangerous source of intolerance and conflict to be handled with kid gloves and curated by experts, both religious and secular, preferably working cooperatively. In my book I refer to this good religion/bad religion frame as the “two faces of faith,” borrowing a phrase from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The model has a simple ambition: to restore ‘good’ religion to international affairs, and reform or eradicate ‘bad’ religion.

This mentality continues to undergird US foreign religion policy notwithstanding the change in administration. It creates a policy mandate to transform everyone, everywhere into peaceful religionists who enthusiastically participate in a free religious marketplace comprised of believers and unbelievers whose ‘religions’ are legible and amenable to those in positions of power. It has a firm grip not only in Washington and London but also in Brussels, Canberra, Ottawa, and Geneva. This is how religion has returned. To paraphrase Andrew Davison on the role of Islam and the foundation of modern Turkey, religion has not been disestablished; it has been differently established. That establishment merits our sustained attention. 

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, today’s policy imperative to restore religion feeds an image (and creates a reality) of religions as entities with agency. The result is world religions discourse gone wild. Public authorities become the governors, guardians and partners of various religions. Religious groups are constituted simultaneously as political actors and as faith communities with clearly defined orthodoxies and peaceable spokesmen—and most of them are men. Crucially, the institutionalization of religion as an object of governance hails neither a departure from secularism nor the dawn of post-secularism but rather the assumption of new forms of secularism, as particular religion-religion and religious-secular divisions are taken for granted. Rather than merely accommodating religion, the new secularism remakes and retrenches these binaries. This serves to inflame rather than calm social tensions. Groups singled out for engagement and showered with attention may benefit politically in the short term, but also suffer in the long term as a result of being coopted by the authorities. Dissenting and oppositional voices fall beyond the peripheral vision of the proud overseers and exuberant cheerleaders on this new global faith-scape.

There is no stable and transcultural entity called religion that stands apart from history and politics, waiting to be quarantined, restored, recuperated, condemned, or celebrated. We need to ask new questions.

A steady stream of triumphalist accounts of the recuperation of religion into international public life thus belies a more complex series of political, legal and religious realities. Such accounts fundamentally fail to account for the basic fact that in the U.S. after disestablishment, as Winnifred Sullivan has eloquently argued, law has no way of constitutionally locating religion. That which falls under the heading of religion is a contested, shifting, and loosely defined mash-up of families of beliefs, institutional forms, and fields of practice and experience. The so-called return of religion forcibly distills this messy and moving field into something governable. It squeezes a diverse set of goings-on into the mold of whatever is defined as religions that deserve engagement. That religion is given a seat at the table. Others are not. A divide emerges between official religion and the rest of world’s religion—including practices that many would consider sacred but that do not qualify as religion. Unofficial, unsanctioned, unorthodox practices, traditions, and encounters with the gods are crowded out. Beyond Religious Freedom draws attention to the gap between the powerful constructs of religious governance —religious freedom, outreach, and interfaith dialogue —authorized by those in positions of power, and the experiences of the individuals and communities that they aspire to reform and redeem. It charts the disjuncture between the large-scale legal and religious engineering projects that have come to dominate the global religion agenda and the lived realities of those subjected to these dystopian efforts to enforce freedom.

If religion cannot be construed as prior to other human affiliations and forms of sociality but rather is deeply immersed in and shaped by history and politics then the so-called return of religion begins to give way beneath our feet. There is no stable and transcultural entity called religion that stands apart from history and politics, waiting to be quarantined, restored, recuperated, condemned, or celebrated. We need to ask new questions.



Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is Professor of Politics and Religious Studies at Northwestern University. She is the author of The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (2008) and Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion (2015) both published by Princeton University Press.