Against Freedom: A Response to Finbarr Curtis

Finbarr Curtis’s recent book, The Production of American Religious Freedom (2016), defies easy categorization. Melding social theory, interpretive biography, revisionist intellectual history, literary analysis, film analysis, and the study of discourse and rhetoric, the book issues a much needed social constructionist inquiry into the largely taken-for-granted concept of “freedom” that circulates in conversations about Americanness and religiosity.

In his interview with Brad Stoddard for the Religious Studies Project (RSP), Curtis describes his volume of case studies that span some 200 years of American history. The case studies correlate with the book’s eight chapters, including essays on either individuals (Charles Grandison Finney, Louisa May Alcott, William Jennings Bryan, D. W. Griffith, Al Smith, and Malcom X), theories of science (Intelligent Design), or legal rulings (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby). Early reviews of The Production have described the book as lacking a guiding thesis. But in Curtis’s own framing, and as stipulated in the introduction, “This book argues that there is no such thing as religious freedom, or at least no one thing.” Religious freedom “is a malleable rhetoric employed for a variety of purposes” (2016: 2).

Curtis advances an argument, but one framed as a definite negative. Corralling the eight stand-alone essays into conversation with one another, the thesis of the book is that no coherent or identifiable “religious freedom” exists in a singular sense. Freedom is a highly contested category of American discourse. Curtis astutely makes his case, weaving together studies of revivalist technique, character development in fictional narratives, populist rhetoric laced with racist undertones, filmic explorations mournful of white victimization, shrewd Catholic politicians in a Protestant arena, black activist rejection of American liberalism. He also examines alternative philosophies of science that exploit secular distinctions between scientific and religious truths, between public and private, and tactical sacralizations of both corporations and property in effort to normalize moral preferences.

As important as the book is, some readers may find The Production’s data selection somewhat arbitrary. The book showcases eight compelling microstudies. Indeed, the historical protagonists of The Production’s disparate narratives were formidably influential cultural figures. But Curtis cautions readers from imagining that the studies “tell the whole story of American religious freedom.” He continues (5): “The selected case studies do not offer a balanced, exhaustive, or inclusive coverage of American history.”

Curtis’s choices of study intend simply “to highlight different conceptual problems in the study of religion.” Fair enough. But why these particular orators, novelists, preachers, activists, and politicians? Why not others? Why a Finney, Alcott, or Malcom X and not a Joseph Smith, Aimee Semple McPherson, Annie Dillard, or Ta Nehisi Coates? The brilliance of these RSP podcasts is that the scholar-author interview platform serves as a behind-the-scenes snapshot of academic production. RSP interviews helpfully extend, clarify, or nuance research projects as well as plot books and publications within their own genealogies of development. In his discussion with Stoddard, Curtis confirms the arbitrariness of his foci, providing a fascinating window into the history of the production of The Production itself. Taken together, the case studies “do not add up,” Curtis expresses. “The center does not hold.”

No guiding logic determined the data selection as he wrote the chapters individually and over an extended period of time. Nonetheless, some readers will want to hold the author’s feet to the fire and to press him to more thoroughly defend why the cases are important and what they say about America when brought together. The chapters are, after all, published in one volume and under a unifying title. Borrowing Jonathan Z. Smith’s phrasing, we might ask Curtis, “why ‘this’ rather than ‘that’ was chosen as an exemplum” or to articulate in a more sustained manner how these specific examples “serve as exempli gratia” (Smith 1982: xi) of the issue of religious freedom in America. As academic works go, the book is not a lengthy one. Might it have been one, two, or four chapters longer? Might it have been shorter? What other conceptions of freedom are in circulation?

On the chameleonic construct of religious freedom, Curtis rejects “any one explanation for how religious freedom works” and instead documents “how freedom has been contested, challenged, and transformed” (5). He challenges the “underlying epistemic unity” guiding the analyses of Americanist historians such as Tracy Fessenden (2007) and John Lardas Modern (2011). Instead, Curtis counters, religious freedom is “something fragmented, in tension, and under duress” (6). Yet, the emphasis on the contested and fragmentary status of so-called free selves in The Production also evidences a significant tension.

In its analysis of “not fully formed persons” (6) who are shaped, socialized, and cultivated by leaders, publics, ideas, social forces, religions, institutions, and collectives, the book is a decidedly Foucaultian project. Curtis’s depiction of religious freedom as emerging from conflicting, disparate sources makes sense in light of Michel Foucault’s model of power as dispersed, diffused, non-binary, and multidirectional (see esp. 1990: 92-96). The author’s emphasis on contestation and disintegration will be unsatisfying for readers who prefer black-and-white conclusions. The Production does not feign to identify discrete bastions of power or clear-cut social hierarchies in terms of dominance and hegemony.

On this issue, the point about other circulating discourses about religious freedom—i.e., those voices not included in Curtis’s collection of essays—is not tangential. Might the addition of other discourses change the contour of the book as a whole? Would the inclusion of additional perspectives on freedom have evidenced any sort of overlap, similarity, or center, thus challenging the book’s thesis of fragmentation? If one were to expand Curtis’s data set and to think in terms of cohesion of agendas and goals, would a dominant perspective on religious freedom emerge? Cannot even fractured ideological positions suspend differences of opinion in colluding to affect political change? I concede that conflict exists “all the way down,” as Curtis adroitly puts the matter in the interview, but am also interested in how competing narratives might play down difference in order to accomplish certain types of social, political, religious, and economic goals. We do get hints of this, such as in the collusion between evangelicals and Catholics in the Hobby Lobby chapter, but not overt theorization. My question to Curtis would be whether or not loosely bounded “centers” or even “publics” can emerge over time or via discursive circulation, regardless of their internally dialogic productions and contested constitutions.

In short, The Production is a stimulating, provocative contribution and required reading not only the book’s most immediate audience, Americanists in Religious Studies, but anyone interested in the subjects of social theory, human agency and constraint, religion, freedom, the reconfiguration of public and private domains, individuals and collectives, the formation of ethical selves, race and racism, literary and filmic production, economies of contestation, secularism, and American culture. I, for one, plan on assigning it in the next American Religions course I teach.


Curtis, Finbarr. 2016. The Production of American Religious Freedom. New York: New York University Press.

Fessenden, Tracy. 2007. Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.

Modern, John Lardas. 2011. Secularism in Antebellum America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Transcendental Meditations on David Lynch

Listening to S. Brent Plate’s insights on the comparison between religion and film, and in particular on the role of planning in film, calls to mind the work of the filmmaker David Lynch.

Lynch is an adherent of Transcendental Meditation (TM) -a spiritual discipline and movement founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, best-known in the West for his association with the Beatles. Lynch has been an enthusiastic proselytiser for TM, insisting on its profound benefits not only for its practitioners, but for the world generally. The more people practising TM, Lynch suggests, the calmer and happier everyone will be.

Based on his interest in this Deepak Chopra-approved road to serenity, one might reasonably make assumptions about the kind of films David Lynch makes. Gauzy, cheerily psychedelic, filled with vague New Age truisms about living life to the full and treating the environment with respect –the kind of film that Chris Cotter, in the interview, balefully refers to as ‘uplifting’.

This assumption would be incorrect, however. With a single exception (The Straight Story), David Lynch makes films that are nightmarish in the truest sense of the word, in that they evoke the suffocating, claustrophobic sense of unease that real nightmares do. Rather than New Age wisdom, characters express themselves either in awkward, stumbling commonplaces, sometimes punctuated by sudden and unpredictable explosions of rage, or sinister parables and mantras, and even the occasional, often ambiguous, visions of goodness and beauty that do feature in his films could not be more square or Establishment: white picket fences, robins, angels, an indestructibly chipper FBI agent.

In fact, David Lynch’s beliefs have had a clear effect on his filmmaking, although not in the direct way one might imagine. Lynch uses meditation to draw straight from the well of his own subconscious. He never appears to try and censor the ideas and images he receives, or fret about what they may reveal about him or the positions they may appear to endorse (witness his indifference to the critical furore over Blue Velvet, a film in which an abused woman has become aroused by her own degradation). He simply transmits the messages he receives through his mystic techniques.

Likewise, the act of directing itself takes the form of a ritual for Lynch. Actors seem to respond enthusiastically to his eccentric charisma, to his offbeat but perceptive comments on the nature of the characters they’re playing. More than this, Lynch’s faith in the cosmos gives him a strange confidence, a willingness to allow accidents to happen. In his RSP interview, Plate talks about the intentionality of films, comparing a director’s obsessive care and attention to detail and symbolism to that of the architect of a temple or a cathedral. Kubrick is the most notorious filmmaker in this respect, but every film director can be assumed to have a certain amount of control freak in them.

Lynch is certainly as meticulous as any of his peers but he is also at times uniquely comfortable with simply allowing things to happen. One of the most visually distinctive scenes in the Twin Peaks pilot takes place in a mortuary lit by a flickering fluorescent light. It wasn’t scripted –the light on set just happened to be on the fritz and Lynch left it in. In the same scene, there is an awkward and confusing exchange between Agent Dale Cooper and the extra playing the morgue attendant, in which the latter breaks character and gives his (real) name. The actor had simply misheard Kyle MacLachlan’s line, but Lynch chose to leave his mistake in (I often wonder if the extra got his SAG card this way).

Of course, the most significant of the pilot’s happy accidents was the accidental appearance of set dresser Frank Silva’s image in a mirror during the filming of a scene set at the Palmer house. Lynch once again interpreted this as not an accident at all (after all, the Palmer household has very much become a haunted place), and kept it in, even giving Silva an important recurring role as the demonic spirit Killer BOB.

Obviously, Lynch’s craftsmanship, instincts, and judgement allow him to make these things into something powerful and haunting, as opposed to simply the jumbled mess that they might be (and some critics argue, particularly of his later films, that he has not always done so successfully). But it is Lynch’s TM-inspired confidence, his faith in the cosmos, that allows him to see the potential in them in the first place.

Despite Lynch’s evangelising efforts, I do not think the majority of his fans give a great deal of credence to his peculiar beliefs. All but the most worshipful tend to view Lynch’s excessive claims for the benefits of TM with scepticism. A particularly telling and much-discussed point is the contrast between Lynch’s contention that TM has brought him unassailable happiness and calm, and the tremendously personal and immediate understanding of anxiety and depression that is evident in his work. But in a different way, Lynch’s films make up a surprisingly compelling apologia for TM in themselves. The TM mind-set may not foster an entirely coherent worldview, to put it mildly, but it has certainly helped a strange and brilliant artist shape order out of chaos.