My research interests center on the relationship between religion and law in America. I’m curious about the way in which the category of “religion” has been understood in U.S. culture. In particular, I’m interested in how the U.S. government decides what counts as “religious,” and the legal frameworks it builds to engage religious people, ideas, and institutions. I’ve written on how this intersects with major facets of American life, including an essay on “Race, the Law, and Religion in America” in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. I’ve also looked at how religion and the law powerfully influences American education, both historically and today.
Currently, my research explores how conflicts over America’s religious diversity were formative influences on the development of the modern intelligence state.
My current book project, Errand into the Wilderness of Mirrors: Religion, American Intelligence, and National Security, is a history of how the relationship forged between two U.S. intelligence agencies and the study of world religions affected American religion and national security. The demands of a global Cold War led the OSS and its successor organization, the CIA, to engage and study religious traditions around the world in the service of U.S. policy. Religious groups offered valuable networks of information about the European and Pacific theaters in World War II, and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East during the Cold War. Strategically employing religious tolerance, American intelligence officers drew on existing, often stereotypical, information about “foreign” religions in America even as they revised these ideas to be more useful to national security goals. Between World War II and the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the OSS and CIA honed this new strategy in the context of two thriving discourses in American culture: a renewed attention to religious pluralism as well as a newfound national interest in “world religions.” In so doing, American intelligence officers reshaped American perceptions of religion as a central component of American identity and national security.
Portions of this work have been published in the U.S. Catholic Historian, as well as essays featured in Spy Chiefs: Intelligence Leaders in the United States and United Kingdom (Georgetown University Press, 2018) and North American Churches in the Cold War (Eerdmans, 2018).