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Why the U.S. State Department Should Take My Introduction to Religious Studies Course

Or at least read the syllabus.

Mike Altman
Aug 8, 2013 · 5 min read

Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry introduced the new Special Advisor of the new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, Shaun Casey. I invite both the Secretary of State and Mr. Casey to read along with my Introductions to Religious Studies course this semester because, from the statements they gave yesterday, both men are dire need of a more nuanced approached to religion. As Kerry himself remarked:

In fact, if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.

Well, I invite you to my class Secretary Kerry.

If they took my course Secretary Kerry and Mr. Casey would learn three things.

Your definition of “religion” has consequences.

“Religion” is not something empirical out there in the world. I don’t mean that it is somehow transcendent and spiritual. Rather, I mean that it is a term people choose to apply to some things and not others. Religion is a special category in the United States. A religious organization gets tax benefits and other special treatment. This is why court cases are deciding what is and isn’t religion again and again. So, when the United States looks overseas and hopes to foster religious freedom my first question is: “What religions?” Elizabeth Hurd put it well:

Defining religion is no simple task. When the United States uses its authority to promote religious freedom abroad, the government weighs in on what counts as religion and what forms of religion should be protected. When the United States officially engages actors abroad as “religious,” it sets standards that effectively bolster the sects, denominations, and religious authorities that it has defined as benevolent, while marginalizing less desirable counterparts.

This approach doesn’t address the complex challenges posed by everyday life in religiously diverse societies. Rather, the “operationalization” of religion by the government allows it to over-simplify complex questions of causation.

Go read all of that article.

Religion is not good or bad. It just is.

Throughout yesterday’s remarks the idea that there were good religions and bad religions, or good versions and bad versions of religion came up again and again.

Secretary Kerry:

All of these faiths are virtuous

Here we have a definition of religion of sorts: religions are virtuous. This definition has consequences (see above). For a religion to be a religion, for it to count, it must prove its virtue. Terrorists cannot be religious. This definition separates us (because of course we are both religious and virtuous) from them (the irreligious or faux-religious lacking in virtue). It makes us feel great about ourselves.

Kerry again:

I have talked at length with people like King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, or even King Abdullah, Prince Ghazi of Jordan, and others who are engaged in interfaith efforts, all of whom recognize that their religion, Islam, has to a large measure been hijacked by people who have no real depth with respect to what the faith in fact preaches, but who interpret it in ways that lead people to conflict and even to violence.

Once again Kerry presents good religion and bad religion. “Real” or “good” Islam has been hijacked by “bad” or “false” Islam. And yet, those who Kerry calls “hijackers” would say the same thing—that true Islam was hijacked by infidels. My point is not to defend terrorists or argue about what counts as “true Islam.” That is for Muslims to decide. My point is that all these traditions we imagine as “religions,” (Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, etc.) are deeply fragmented and words like Christianity or Islam do the work of seeming to paste them together into some solid whole that doesn’t really exist. There is no Christianity, there are Christianities.

“World’s religions” and “common ground” are Protestant ideas.

Secretary Kerry quoted Gandhi in his remarks:

Gandhi called the world’s religions beautiful flowers from the same garden.”

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The World’s Parliament of Religions, 1893

But let’s look at the history of this idea of “world’s religions,” because it’s a relatively modern term. It was most famously codified in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. At that fair the organizers put together a World’s Parliament of Religions meant to draw in representative from all the world’s religions. As the members of the Parliament walked down the aisle of the Hall of Columbus in Chicago the Columbian Liberty Bell tolled ten times, one for each of the religions represented: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Shintoism, and Confucianism. These were the ten world’s religions. At the beginning of the century the list had been much shorter, as evidenced by Hannah Adams 1817 book,A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan and Christian, Ancient and Modern. Only four religions there: Jews, Muslims, Christians, and heathens. And here’s the kicker, the Parliament was organized by Henry Barrows, a Presbyterian minister and Hannah Adams was a New England Protestant herself. Get it? Protestant Christians in America decided what counted as a “world religion” and what counted changed over time. So, Secretary Kerry, who will count now? And who won’t?

Finally, Secretary Kerry emphasized that the world’s religions held common ground that united them:

“And there is common ground between the Abrahamic faiths, and, in fact, between the Abrahamic faiths and all religions and philosophies, whether you’re talking about Hindu or Confucianism or any other of the many of the world’s different approaches to our existence here on the planet and to our relationship with a supreme being.

All these faiths are virtuous and they are in fact, most of them, tied together by the golden rule, as well as fundamental concerns about the human condition, about poverty, about relationships between people, our responsibilities each to each other.”

But what is this common ground? It’s the golden rule and beliefs about relationships between people. The common ground is shared beliefs that sound an awful lot like liberal Protestantism. What about practices? What about rituals? What about liturgy? What about prayer? Just as American Protestants have controlled the list of world’s religions, here we see a very Protestant definition of what these religions hold in common—ironically enough, from a Catholic. We can only hope the State Department examines the American Protestant assumptions it takes with it into the world through this new office.

I hope my students walk out of my class having learned these three key ideas. And I know Secretary Kerry is busy, but if he’d like to take a look at my syllabus I’m happy to send it to him.

Sacred and Profane

Crossing boundaries of sacred, religious, spiritual, and…

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