Religion, Race, and Culture Seminar Series: Global Intersections of Religion, Race, and Culture

Religion, Race, and Culture Seminar Series: Global Intersections of Religion, Race, and Culture

On Tuesday, January 26, 2016, the Desmond Tutu Center for Peace, Reconciliation, and Global Justice partnered with Butler University’s Center for Faith and Vocation to bring the third installment in the Seminar on Religion and World Civilization Series. The seminar was held at 7:00 PM at Shelton Auditorium in the Christian Theological Seminary. The keynote speaker, Professor Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, is an Associate Professor of Politics at Northwestern University. The respondents included Dr. Edward Curtis, Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts and Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and Reverend Frank A. Thomas, Professor of Homiletics and Director of the Academy of Preaching and Celebration at Christian Theological Seminary. Dr. Brent Hege, Religion Professor at Butler University and Director of the series, served as the event moderator for the evening.

Dr. Allan Boesak, Executive Director for the DTC, introduced the Seminar and emphasized the importance of collaboration in creating community events such as this seminar series. The topic for this seminar was Global Intersections of Religion, Race, and Culture. The discussion was geared towards exploring religion’s role in international relations and politics, and how religion intersects with racial and cultural identities. A common theme throughout the seminar was the impact of religion on identity, governance, violence, and local and international politics.


Professor Shakman Hurd began her discussion by bringing to light religious violence and religious persecution overseas, particularly in the Middle East. She recounted stories of citizens combatting the government in order to achieve religious freedom.  An important point in Shakman Hurd’s discussion focused on the cause of violence. Specifically, she stressed that to see religion to be the cause of violence is to blind ourselves to the bigger picture; we become incapable of seeing the racialized, institutionalized, and politicized driving factors behind religious violence. She posed three questions: (1) How to describe the intersection of religion and foreign policy? (2) How to make sense of the ‘return’ of religion to global politics? and (3) How does this perspective change our view of key areas of religion and world politics?

Shakman Hurd addressed her first question by reflecting on the September 11 attacks and the rise of counterterrorism, which she believes to have led to a “broad field of state sponsored religious interventionism programs, policies, and projects.” To address her second question, Shakman Hurd introduced three concepts: (1) expert religion, (2) lived religion, and (3) official religion. These categories give a framework for “seeing things differently,” in particular, when officials hand out rulings. Finally, Shakman Hurd addressed her third question by stating that official efforts to promote religious rights and freedoms reshape both religion and politics. Shakman Hurd brought up real world examples, including Sudanese refugees escaping to Egypt who are being told that being a Christian is “good for asylum.” Because this type of ‘religious freedom’ is incentivized, there has been an uptick in Christian conversion in order to get shelter in Europe.

Shakman Hurd ends her powerful discussion by stressing that when we focus on religious differences, or “the culprit” as she dubs them, we feed the fire of those who profit politically from those very distinctions. On an ending note, Shakman Hurd mentions that “[when we focus on religious differences] we may strengthen the lines of religious division we are trying to overcome.”

Following Professor Shakman Hurd’s presentation, respondents Dr. Edward Curtis and Rev. Frank Thomas ask us to cast our eyes to the tender national scene. Dr. Curtis mentioned that the analysis of religion as a technique of governance
applies to our lives nationally, and that it is central to the origins of the United States. While Dr. Curtis agreed to the broad outlines of Shakman Hurd’s assessment, that we should never think exclusively or primarily religious, he claimed a partial disagreement. Curtis went on to say that government interactions between religious actors and institutions are inevitable–especially in foreign affairs, and we have no right to determine the political forms in which other communities choose to negotiate with us. Dr. Curtis proposed that engagement can help narrow our interests, because “religion is no more slippery than politics.”

DAP_0758Rev. Frank Thomas first and foremost addressed his emotional response to Shakman Hurd’s recent publications and to his severe concerns about nation states manipulating religion for their own interests. Rev. Thomas also brought to light the double consciousness with which black people must live. For example, Rev. Thomas pointed out that while Martin Luther King Jr. fought for freedom from oppression, he was also very potent about the critical issues in America, and was vilified for his critique
of the American system.  Rev. Thomas ended the discussion with a powerful message to the audience, “religion is not what you believe and what you articulate as your belief, but how you function with your belief.”

DAP_0831Following the three speakers, Dr. Hege continued the conversation by inviting questions from the audience. One audience member asked if there is a better way of dealing with religious establishment of freedom, to which Shakman Hurd answered that there are always going to be certain forms of religion that are marginalized. She posed a provocative challenge to not only the audience, but the entirety of the United States: to get rid of the word ‘religion’ from the First Amendment to the Constitution.
She explained that it is not to be rid of in a universal sense, but using this term in legal and political documents cannot be anything but discriminatory, and to put it simply, it is not doing the work we want it to do. In answer to the question “Is atheism real in today’s world?” Dr. Curtis ends the night on a lighter, yet thought-provoking note: “Atheism is itself an -ism and may require a religious studies degree to really even describe.”

In conclusion, the speakers highlighted the complexity of the concept of religion, how it is dramatically intertwined with politics, and how there are numerous other factors that contribute to how religion is understood and enacted by the people and governing bodies. The speakers urge the audience and furthermore, the global community, to think carefully about the complexity of religion-how we categorize and define religious and nonreligious- and to avoid perpetuating the very divisive categories of religion by thinking critically about how religious activities are used, constituted, and put to work in law and politics, both at home and internationally.

Watch the full seminar here.

Written by Anna Krukover

Sponsored by Butler University’s Center for Faith and Vocation and The Desmond Tutu Center.

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