Three Myths about Religion and Politics (Part 3)

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

This is Part 3 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 and Part 2 here.


Myth #3: Exceptionalism, American-style: Freedom at home, establishment abroad.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution reads in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” U.S. foreign religion policy is generally framed in First Amendment terms as an even-handed attempt to lobby for free exercise in the face of various forms of establishment abroad. But what if the assumption that the U.S. is (religiously) free and others are not is itself misguided?

The question is not whether religion can be separate from government. The notion of separation is unhelpful, as others have noted. The question rather is how do entanglements between governments and individuals and institutions take shape? Who is chosen to speak, and for what reason? Which versions of which religions are being supported, and by whom? Who decides what counts as religious versus political, mainline versus extremist, orthodoxy versus heresy? What is the role of law in making and enforcing these lines?

Doostdar, Alireza. 2018. The Iranian Metaphysicals: Explorations in Science, Islam and the Uncanny. Princeton University Press.

In the U.S., Iran’s theocratic religious establishment is often triumphantly contrasted with American religious disestablishment and freedom. There is much to say about this juxtaposition, but here I want to focus on what is actually occurring in Iran and what it can teach us about the politics and phenomenology of U.S. disestablishment. In his new book, The Iranian Metaphysicals: Explorations in Science, Islam and the Uncanny, Alireza Doostdar shatters the assumption that there is a single thing that can be identified as ‘religion’ in Iran and that could formally established or disestablished. Here there are already interesting parallels with the United States. The Iranian landscape, Doostdar shows, is composed of a vast and fluid field of spiritual practices, some of which have been partially co-opted by the state, and others unfolding relatively autonomously. Both “governed” and “ungoverned” forms of religion and spirituality in Iran are also subjected to a range of forces of modernity emanating from beyond the state, including the push for scientific rationality, technological solutions to spiritual dilemmas, and global New Age trends. All are taken up and reinterpreted in various Iranian contexts. All are contested. This includes official religion: what counts as ‘mainline’ Shi’i practice versus deviant, mystical forms of spirituality is up for grabs. Profound disagreements divide Iranians on the role that venerated Shi’a religious figures should play in politics. Some contend that God’s friends (which are something like saints) did not and never could authorize any particular form of politics. They are meant to be apolitical. Others disagree. There is no agreement on where the boundaries of Shi’ism lie or its implications for politics, law, and governance. The same holds for Christianity in the United States. There is no consensus on its proper boundaries or its implications for law, politics and public life.

Who decides what counts as religious versus political, mainline versus extremist, orthodoxy versus heresy? What is the role of law in making and enforcing these lines?

Is it possible to reconcile Doostdar’s dizzying portrait of Iranian spirituality with U.S. official and popular depictions of a rigid field of Iranian theocratic oppression where all signs of ‘freedom’ are stamped out in the name of state orthodoxy? In the ‘religious freedom’ framing, what Iranians need is more free religion. Just like the Japanese did after 1945. After reading Doostdar on Iran and Thomas on the U.S. occupation of Japan, however, the interminable quest for free religion reveals itself to be a powerful ingredient in the myth of religious exceptionalism. It is a story that Americans tell ourselves about our place in the world. To see this is to step outside of the myth, and to catch a glimpse of other political and religious worlds.



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.