Religious Freedom in America: Theoretical Considerations [transcript]

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with Finbarr Curtis on Religious Freedom in America: Theoretical Considerations

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock

Interviewed by Brad Stoddard 

Brad Stoddard (BS) Hello, this is Brad Stoddard with the Religious Studies Project. Today I have the pleasure of talking with Professor Finbarr Curtis. Finbarr is an Assistant Professor at Georgia Southern University who recently published his first book, The Production of American Religious Freedom, published with NYU Press. Finbarr, welcome.

Finbarr Curtis (FC): Thanks for having me here. It’s my very first podcast.

BS: Oh, excellent!

FC: I’m happy to do this.

BS: Will you introduce the readers to your project?

FC: Well the project is, as you mentioned, The Production of American Religious Freedom and it’s eight case studies about religious freedom. And it’s basically arguing that religious freedom is a malleable, fluid shifting concept that can be used for a variety of political and legal purposes. And so, therefore, one way to frame that in the introduction was by saying, “There is no such thing as religious freedom.” Which is one of those things that you say when you want to be provocative, I guess. A lot of what I mean by that is that if you say something like, “I support religious liberty”, that’s a classic question-begging claim. It’s like, “What, specifically, do you mean by that?” And my argument is that there’s always a more specific political agenda; there’s always somebody who is trying to distribute social power every time they make a claim about religious liberty. And so, therefore, we need to think more critically about the basic way we often talk about religious liberty which is: “I have a religion and I want it to be free from the state”, or something like that. And I want to think more critically about, well, how do religious persons get produced? And how do those claims get produced? And where do they come from? And why do people make them? And how do they interact with other people’s claims of religious freedom? And how do those contests play out? And that’s a lot of what I’m trying to look at in these eight case studies.

BS: As you mentioned, this book  focuses on those eight case studies spanning almost 200 years. So, can you elaborate on that a little bit more? How did these case studies come together to form a cohesive narrative? Or do they?

FC: They do not! That’s one of the odd things about the thesis, which is: I’m sort of making this weird claim that: this does not add up; the centre doesn’t hold; that what you have is fragmentation and contestation all the way down. And, in a way, that was part of the process of this book and my dissertation – which was on American populism and it was on William Jennings Bryan and Al Smith. And those are two chapters of this book. And other chapters I put in because I happened to have written something on them either in a conference paper or in graduate school. So there really was no guiding logic to the selection of these cases other than that I wrote a paper on Louisa May Alcott in a seminar one time and I wrote a paper on Malcolm X in a seminar one time. And so, I was just trying – for very practical reasons – because I was a contingent faculty member and I didn’t have a lot of time for new research: “How can I take stuff that I have written on religious freedom, smush it together and make it a book, and I’ll figure out how it fits together later.” Right?  And so I wrote this book by putting these eight chapters together and I was really, kind of, working on the individual chapters. So they each have their own argument, in some ways, or multiple arguments. And I was really under a lot of time pressure. I was doing a lot of service work and teaching work in the job that I had. And so the final year of writing this book was tough and this book was written on nights and weekends, and I was trying to make a deadline. And so I sort-of met the deadline – not quite met the deadline but missed it by few weeks – handed it in and I realised, “Crap! I forgot to write an epilogue!” And I’d promised  to write an epilogue. And so I was sitting in a coffee shop, in Seattle, where my dear friend was getting an angiogram, so I was kind of stressed-out. And I was trying to write this epilogue and I’m like, “How do these things fit together? How do these pieces go together?” And, at the time, the Navy decided to attack Seattle, which it does every summer. It didn’t attack it, but it was buzzing it! And a big plane flies over and kids are crying, and everybody’s freaking out, like: “What’s going on?” And they realise it’s an air show that Seattle does every year. I look up and its just, like: US Navy and…America does not add up. And like: “You know what? That’s my book! That’s my thesis!” It was one of those weird eureka moments. (5:00) I’m probably remembering that wrong. I know enough about memory to know that that’s probably not how it happened, but I’m telling myself that that’s how it happened. And so I thought, “That’s really the story. Religion is a kind of post-hoc category where we take a lot of disparate social phenomena and we label it ‘religion’ and then try to figure out how it is coherent, you know, and how it ties together. But, really, the tying together is a later order thing.” You know, we take the stuff-that-we-called-religion, for a lot of different reasons, and figure out why it’s religion. And I said, “That’s really the thesis of this book: this doesn’t come together, it doesn’t add up and so, therefore, we have to think more critically about fragments.” And so that’s how those eight chapters came together. They came together largely for arbitrary reasons. I tried to, kind of, tie them into a book about religious freedom and then I decided, really, they don’t come together. And I’m cool with that.

BS: When I read your book I get the impression that you’re in conversation and that you’re motivated by some scholars and, more specifically, some theorists who don’t make it into the footnotes. Is that accurate?

FC: Yeah

BS: And, if it is accurate, who is informing your theory?

FC: I mean, the main people probably are in the footnotes. I mean, I think that Tracy Fessenden and John Modern would be two obvious interlocutors on the American religion side. So I think I’m extending what they’re doing, although maybe I’m a little more fragmented, certainly, than John’s book. I mean, John is looking at epistemic unities a little more. Maybe that “unity” is unfair. But, in my first chapter, it’s very similar arguments to those that Modern is making. But then other chapters might really conflict with that, in some ways. The Al Smith argument is very different. It’s not necessary talking about a Protestant secular. And so because for me, you know, the Protestant secular might be one-fragment-among-other-fragments, I might be saying somewhat different things. So that’s kind of related to them. The other big, social theories that do get footnoted would be Ernesto Laclau, Giorgio Agamben, when I’m thinking about questions of sovereignty or populism. And also, for me, a big one about freedom is Patricia Williams. I read Alchemy of Race and Rights in high school, for some reason! And that’s just always been a book that has, you know, focussed my thinking about the problem of freedom. And so she’s a major figure. I think the ones that aren’t in the footnotes would be the old critical theorists that I read and really shaped me. So someone like Walter Benjamin, you know, Friedrich Nietzsche. There’s not a single quote from Friedrich Nietzsche but, in college, I named my hard drive Friedrich because he was so important to me when I read the Genealogy of Morals. That changed my life. And so it’s, like, those figures are so fundamental to the way I think about and read text I didn’t actually explicitly engage them much. I mean, maybe there’s a quote from those guys in there, but….Another big figure is Susan Sontag who’s somebody who is really important to me. And thinking about aesthetis, which shows up especially in the DW Griffith chapter. But maybe it’s somebody I didn’t explicitly cite. A lot of the people I didn’t explicitly cite would be the, kind of, classic cannon: Adorno, Benjamin, Nietzsche – who are very important in shaping me, but aren’t necessarily people I explicitly engage when I’m trying to write for a broader audience. I think the other thing on theory for this book  is – and it goes back to the editorial questions that we were talking about – I was trying to write a book for Americanists. And, in a way, when I was selling the earlier book on populism I was, like, “No, I want to talk to political theorists, and I want to talk to social theorists and so I’m going to write dense political theory for other political theorists. And if people who study the US don’t understand it, I don’t care!” But I thought, “No, this book is in the Religion in North America series.” I want to be able to talk about some things from Michelle Foucault. But I’m kind of presuming that the reader of this book, maybe, knows what the Second Great Awakening is, knows something about American history, but maybe hasn’t read Foucault. And I want to be, like, “Okay, I want to talk about this guy because I think he gives us some ways of thinking about subjectivity and surveillance and governmentality and these are really useful concepts, but I’m not assuming you know this so I’m going to explain it. So I’ll cite Foucault, but I’ll tell you about it; I’ll cite Georgio Agamben, but I’ll explain what I’m doing here. I don’t know if I succeeded in that or not, but that was sort of my goal, going into this. Because I do think, in reference to, say, something like Modern’s book:

BS: That’s what I was thinking.

FC: I’ve noticed that it tends to breakdown in two ways. A lot of the critiques of it tend to be just: “I don’t really understand what you’re talking about!” (10:00) And a lot of the people who like it are people who’ve already read Foucault, you know, who’ve already read the other interlocutors. So I think that book might be incredibly important, if it does that work of pushing those theorists in there. But I was thinking, “Well, I want to talk to some of those people who couldn’t make heads or tails of that book.” And so my book, I think, is more accessible. I don’t know. I mean, it’s hard for me to know because I’m writing it so I understand what I’m saying. But that was, sort of, part of the agenda. Like, I want to be able to reach that audience and so therefore it’s not as heavily theoretical, citational (however we say that) as it might otherwise be. Yeah, and I think the people who’ve really engaged Modern’s book the best are, actually, literary critics. You know, they’re people over in English or Anthropology. In a way, that’s been his most receptive audience. The audience that’s actually been able to engage the arguments a little more. So it requires a prior training and education and critical theory to get it – and that was the book that I thought I wanted to write originally. And it was making those editorial concessions where I said, “Okay, I’ll write this book and hopefully somebody in American Religions might be able to engage it.” But we’ll see!

BS: The Book is titled The Reproduction of American Religious Freedom and it’s about contradictions in the rhetoric of American religious freedom.Yet there is a tremendous amount of language that we typically associate with economics. So you talk about the economy, capitalism, consumers, markets, entrepreneurs, free market, market choices, market logic, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, so how does this economic language relate to the project?

FC: Well, you know, it was originally called the Economy of American Religious Freedom. That was the kind of running title for the book, right up until it got published. And one of the reasons for the change was, the way I was using the term economy was
the more classical sense like a dispensation: the idea of governance of a household, distribution of resources. And one of the things about economy now, of course, is it means the GDP. We think in terms of that discrete, economic sphere that’s distinct from politics or religion and that has to do with money. So some of the book deals with economy in that conventional sense. The Louisa May Alcott chapter, the William Jennings Bryan chapter and the final chapter on The Most Sacred of All Property all deal with money, or economic critiques in the way we use the term “economy” now. But, because not all of the book was about that, we changed it to “production”. Because we realised that people were going to see this isn’t a book just about economics and they were going to be really disappointed by [for example] the Malcolm X chapter – which doesn’t necessarily talk about that, but it might talk about the distribution of resources in some broader sense. So that’s one sense that it does deal with economic questions. But also, I think, in terms of the economic metaphors that we often use to talk about, say, the “free market” of religion in America: what do we mean by that? Often-times we use a very old-fashioned supply-side model. In other words, we presume that: we produce resources, you know, religious resources; people consume them; and markets are infinitely expanding. So we have free consumers who make choices from a marketplace of religious options and: “That’s awesome and we love that, because we’re Americans and we love capitalism.”  And I thought, “Well, wait a second, that’s not how capitalism works.” That goes back to those critical theories of reading someone like Adorno. Capitalism produces consumers. It produces people to make religious choices. So I want to think about economy in that sense: not as infinite resources but as finite resources; how we work, contest and compete in the social world over scarce resources; and how religious freedom might be one scarce and contested resource. And I wanted to think about economy in that sense.

BS: How, or to what extent, are you engaging Nathan Hatch’s argument in his highly influential The Democratization of American Christianity?

FC: I think that follows off about that point. I actually think that The Democratization of American Christianity is very descriptively accurate of something, right? There’s a process of democratisation going on where we’re seeing market forces – or at least an understanding of how market forces might work – taking over American religions. And I’m actually very sympathetic to Amanda Porterfield’s critique of that and I think her book, critiquing Hatch, is a great book. But I also wanted to think about, then, what Hatch might not necessarily be thinking about, which is: well, how are consumers produced in the first place? You know, how do we actually produce the people who go about making these free choices? So on one hand there’s a question of, I mean, Porterfield’s critique of Hatch is that: well, maybe people didn’t….They want a whole lot more authority than you’re giving them credit for. (15:00) Not everybody is necessarily so invested in some kind of individual freedom. But I want to say, “No! What it is, is it’s the individual freedom that you’re choosing, that allows you to govern yourself. Right? So it’s a more complex play of power and subject formation, right? And that’s also probably the most Foucauldian chapter, that first chapter, which really takes on Nathan Hatch’s book.

BS: Ok. Very good. What are the legal and political implications of this work?

FC: I’m not sure. I’m still figuring that out. But I think probably the last chapter – which is in some sense the most ambitious and most crazy chapter – is trying to think about these arbitrary lines that we drop between public and private which, of course, are invented as institutional forces. But they have consequences and one of the consequences is this increasing privatisation of a lot of political life. The increasing ways in which a lot of our public – whatever our public is, let’s say, state – institutions, that tried to protect the social welfare, are shrinking, right? And one way they’re shrinking is often through arguments about religious freedom. And so that’s an interesting problem, you know. So, to what extent are we creating more spaces for opting out of social engagement with other people. And what are the consequences, when we have all these phases where we “opt out” of social engagement, for other people. And so, I think the political consequences are to think of that, right? And to think about the problem of freedom and liberty and American society, which is often taken as a license to say, “Screw you! I don’t care about anybody else’s problems.” And I think we have to think critically about ideologies that say, “Screw everybody! I don’t care about anybody else’s problems.” Because maybe that’s a part of me that’s an old-fashioned liberal who worries about that kind of worldview.

BS: What are the initial reactions to your book? And, I wonder, are legal scholars responding to your book differently than American religious historians,
historians of American religion?

FC: Well, it’s still pretty new. So it came out this summer and, I guess, officially came out in August. So the only responses we’ve gotten so far have been pretty generous and they’re probably from people who are inclined to be generous: they’re the people who would share my view of what American religions is doing, that is, it should be more integrated, in terms of social theory and history. We’ll see, if legal scholars even read this, if it if it falls into their world, how they might react. Certainly I’m not a lawyer, you know? And even in the final chapter, which probably is the one that deals most with the law, I wasn’t really trying to analyse the law. I’m not really proposing this is how constitutional cases, or RFRA cases, or statutory cases should be decided. That’s not really my job. But I am interested in the sort of political and cultural implications of those legal decisions. And so that’s really what I focus on. So, I don’t know if legal scholars will see this as relevant because I’m not really giving any guidelines about how we should actually understand religion and law, or how those things should be adjudicated. So, in terms of what the response is, I don’t know yet. My guess is that some people will be interested in the interdisciplinary approaches. And we’ve seen that on the three blog posts that came out on “US Religion” blog and the one review by Benji Rolsky in Reading Religion. And yes, as I said, they tended to be sympathetic with the project. But I’m sure there are some historians out there who will read this and say, “This is not history.” And they will be correct, in some sense, because it’s clearly not a history of religious freedom in America. It is essays that are trying to work through conceptual problems in American religions and that are using theories – sometimes more obviously, sometimes less obviously – to accomplish those ends. So I do still expect some of the pushback from people who think that, for example, it’s my job to describe Al Smith in a way that Al Smith would understand himself. Because clearly I don’t do that. Clearly, the language that I’m using to interpret Al Smith is not Al Smith’s own language. So that marks me as a certain kind of political theorist and I look forward to having those conversations. But, as I mentioned earlier, I’m hoping that a historian – who might not necessarily be reading that cannon of critical theory – might still be able to understand some of these arguments, in a way that they might not understand Talal Assad or somebody like that. (20:00) That maybe these will be accessible to Americanists, and maybe those productive conversations will happen. But I do expect some people just going to hate it, right? That’s just inevitable. And so I look forward to seeing how those reactions play out as well. Yeah. So that’s my sense of its possible reception in the future, but we’ll see.

BS: Well, it is an interesting book. It covers a lot of ground and it’s quite provocative, so I wish you the best of luck with reviews. And thank you very much for spending time with me. I appreciate it.

FC: Thanks a lot. It’s been great.

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Citation Info: Curtis, Finbarr and Brad Stoddard. 2017. “Religious Freedom in America: Theoretical Considerations” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 20 February 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 March 2017. Available at: