The breadth of the scholarly field of law and religion comes into focus upon reading Spencer Dew’s The Aliites, Méadhbh McIvor’s Representing God, and my own book, What Has No Place, Remains. We expect such diversity in our scholarly field given the historical and cultural uniquities of any given jurisdiction and the plethora of communities within those legal locales. Certainly, there are underlying theoretical themes that emerge in all three books—an inevitable outcome of the scholarly canon that lay at the bedrock of our discourse. The most glaring connection between the three books may be in the challenges that arise in contemporary, diverse democratic jurisdictions addressing problematic histories in the context of an emerging international rights movement. Such a thematic undercurrent in three very different books is worthy of our attention (and it will not be absent from the commentary that follows), but I found myself contemplating the connections between these books vis-à-vis the broader scholarly field of law and religion. In doing so, something fascinating emerged that stretched beyond the temporal and North Atlantic contexts of these books.
All three books inquire into the complexities of the network of relationships situated at the heart of the discourse of law and religion. The relationships in this network include, but are not limited to:
- The relationship between the religious community, the state (as ultimate decisionmaker in the interpretation of the law), and the domestic legal order itself, a culturally constituted, historically locatable non-responsive, yet dominant, partner;
- The relationship between the religious community and other members of society (i.e., the many diverse peoples who exist within the same jurisdictional bounds as the religious community);
- The relationship between the state and the many diverse peoples that exist within its jurisdiction;
- The relationship between the religious community and external sources of authority (including transcendent/supernatural authority and, in these books, international legal orders);
- The relationship between the state and external authority; and,
- The relationship of the religious community to other similarly situated religious communities.
I may add the relationship between state agents and their own religious communities to this list among others, and the web of relationships would continue to grow, but my intention here is not to develop a comprehensive schema of this network. However, I would argue that the six relationships listed above are both present and important in the three books under consideration in this forum. What is of particular importance is the contours of those relationships and the ways in which one relationship impacts another. I must admit, I am unsure whether I would have been attuned to the network of relationships that seem to lie at the foundation of law and religion if not having read these two fantastic monographs alongside my own.
McIvor’s Representing God explores the role of public Christianity in the shifting relationship between church and state in England with attention to a conservative evangelical Anglican church and an interdenominational Protestant lobbying group. Relationships are at the heart of McIvor’s work. Notably, chapter 4 explores nuances in Christian contemplations into the relationships among themselves, their deity, non-Christian society, and the law. The book is contextualized by a changing legal landscape where freedom of religion moved from a negative right of non-discrimination to a positive right of religious freedom, casting Christianity out of majoritarian culture—at least, in the view of McIvor’s interlocutors. It is not insignificant that this change in domestic law is marked by an incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This leads to an interesting shift—or at least it exposes an interesting facet of thought—among McIvor’s research participants. While the state’s incorporation of the ECHR demonstrates a commitment to their relationship with the whole of society (restricted as it may be), some Christians start to view themselves as representatives of a counter public, casting doubt on the viability and morality of the human rights framework while engaging with the state as a vehicle for evangelization. Victory was not a primary goal of the many failed forays into the court for conservative Christians—a stark contrast to my own work where the very existence of Indigenous spiritualities is before the courts. Even international bodies have proven to be evangelizing vehicles for some conservative Christians. Importantly, it was clear through McIvor’s ethnographic accounts that perspectives varied on relationships between god, state, and society. For example, two of MicIvor’s interlocutors from the Anglican church expressed concern about Chaplin v Royal Devon & Exeter NHS Foundation Trust and Playfoot v Millais School Governing Body, brought to international and domestic courts by the lobbying group. In those cases, some interviewees did not see the conflicts as legal matters impacting Christian religious freedom. They felt that the cases did more harm than good, further alienating Christianity in a world in need of Christian values. McIvor concludes that contemporary manifestations of Christian activism among her interlocutors reframes Christianity in such a way that it may help to affirm the same secular order they seek to challenge.
Spencer Dew’s The Aliites is a fascinating investigation into three networks of communities that find their roots in the teachings of Nobel Drew Ali, founder of the Moorish Science Temple of America. Dew’s task is to correct misunderstandings of the epistemologies of Aliite thought—a worldview that encompasses a deep-seeded and complex understanding of American law. According to Dew, Aliite understandings of law exists in two related forms: the true law of Allah and the historical, shifting, and fallible human law enforced by states. True law provides a model for society. For Aliites, the United States and its laws are founded upon principles aligned with true law, but the interpreters of the law fail to see that truth, which, in turn, negatively impacts society. The state is a powerful sovereign, but Aliites understand the citizen as sovereign too, suggesting that American law is clear that true power lies in the citizenry, not the state. That said, sovereignty is understood as relational, which means that Aliites see the state, as flawed as it may be, as a vehicle for the first step to effecting change: recognition. Much like in the case of the conservative Christians in McIvor’s book, victory before the law is not a primary concern for Aliites. Instead, the very act of standing before the court is recognition of the sovereign citizen, which, in turn, provides a public forum to expose injustice and to speak the true law. International law, sometimes understood as a model of true law, is an important vehicle for recognition, particularly among the Washitaw, who identify as Indigenous peoples. Whether Aliites ought to identify as Indigenous is a matter of contestation within their communities. Dew explains that what the term means and whether it should be adopted becomes a “subjective individual affair.” Given the Aliite emphasis on diversity, democracy, and critical thinking which is uncovered over the course of the book, it was unsurprising to see disagreement and conflict within communities. The continued perception that Aliites are unthinking, mindless followers of a hierarchical religious cult only contributes to tensions between the state and the Aliites and does nothing to contribute to their shared goals of love, truth, peace, freedom and justice.
My own book explores the Canadian state and its responses to Indigenous religions and religious freedom claims. The book is firmly located within the contemporary colonial relationship where Indigenous peoples are both citizens of a diverse society of equals and a constitutionally protected national minority. It seems that at every turn, the state has been able to ‘demonstrably justify’ the infringement of both Aboriginal rights and the Charter right to religious freedom for Indigenous Peoples under the banner of a greater public interest. The courts regularly appear confused when Indigenous peoples do not conform to the unwritten conditions of compromise and negotiation required of public religion. Indigenous relationships to land, water, animals, and ancestors discussed across the many cases explored in my book have proven difficult to understand and read in Canada’s colonial legal order. Complicating matters further is the tendency of the state to use disagreement and conflict within and among Indigenous communities to cast doubt on Indigenous claims that tend to counter the ongoing colonial project. Disagreements on leadership, religion, and economic development, among other issues, are products of the colonial context, but they also speak to the reality that the constitutional category of ‘Aboriginal’ helps to construct a homogenized and historicized understanding of the many diverse, contemporary Indigenous communities. The state has, at times, used disagreement in and among Indigenous communities to exacerbate existing tensions and complicate tensions with society, through smear campaigns or by casting doubt on the sincerity and truthfulness of religious claims, as evidenced at Gustafsen Lake. It is of little surprise that many communities are turning to the United Nations and Organization of American States for support on matters of religious freedom. For its part, the state has made ambitious commitments and some great strides towards implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples despite their initial vote against the declaration just thirteen years ago. The full extent to which the state may be impacted by international declarations is yet to be determined.
What Has No Place, Remains, concludes with contemplations on the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on Indian Residential Schools. One subject, in particular, offers insights into the importance of our attention to the network of relationships in law and religion for our scholarship and for those who stand in the spotlight of our research. In the final report of the TRC, Blackfoot Elder Reg Crowshoe suggests that reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples requires a reconciliation with the land as well. Crowshoe understood, as many Indigenous teachers do, that the health of any one relationship is dependent upon the health of all connected relationships.
It seems clear that the way in which the state and a religious community engage with each other is impacted by their engagement with the law, society, and external sources of authority, however those may be defined. It is also clear that actual relationships and perceptions of relationships among similarly situated communities has a role to play in the more specific relationship between a state and a religious community on matters of law and religion. Thus, investigations into the nature, expectations, and communicative barriers in any given relationship is of value to our broader scholarly field but so too is asking how the contours of one relationship may impact that of another. On a more practical and important level, if states want to alleviate tensions with Indigenous peoples in Canada, Aliites in the United States, and conservative Christians in England, then state representatives and interpreters of the law will have to understand the complex interplay of this network of relationships. Of course, the state is not omitted from such an investigation. As a member of the relationship, it too can be investigated by religious communities for strategies for improving communicative pathways in their pursuit of justice—that is, of course, if the religious community privileges their relationship with the state and holds expectations in that relationship that are unfulfilled.