On the Spot with Andie Alexander

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

An image of Andie Alexander1. When people ask you what you study, what do you tell them?

When asked, I usually say I study the ways in which people talk about something called “religion.”  (No, I don’t whip out the scare-quotes…) I frame it this way to shift the conversation away from “Oh, so you want to work in the church?” and (hopefully) to get them to consider what I’m doing when I make that move. Usually, my response prompts them to ask for an explanation. I tell them that my work examines the varying ways in which the category religion is defined and classified and how those definitions are linked to notions of national identity within the U.S. I’m interested in how different understandings of religion are employed, specifically with immigrant groups, in a way to standardize conceptions of religion, or put differently, as a way to Americanize marginalized immigrant groups in the U.S. So rather than studying religion, as one might commonly think, I study how the category of religion is implemented and adapted by scholars of religion and more systemic effects and consequences for both hegemonic understandings of religion and forced assimilation of immigrant groups.

While this is certainly a longer conversation than simplifying our work to “I study history,” I think it’s worthwhile to do. On the one hand, history is no less complicated of a discipline than religious studies, and on the other, our own attempt to set our field apart from more commonly accepted or understood areas of study not only reinforces the idea of religion being set apart and special — i.e., not intertwined with the social, political, etc. — , but also perpetuates the idea that religion is too complex to easily discuss. Thinking about religion through systems of classification and discourse instead of a stable thing that exists in the world, we can approach the study of religion rather differently. Of course, one cannot always get into such an in-depth discussion, but when time allows, it certainly makes for an interesting conversation and helps to get folks thinking about the category of religion in different ways.

2. How do questions of identity manifest in your research?

My work considers the ways in which scholars understand and implement definitions of religion in their work and on the groups they study. I’m interested in the implicit consequences of different methodologies within the field as they are applied to immigrant groups in the U.S. Although I’m only in the beginning stages of my work, I hope to explore the ways in which scholars attempt to determine — I say determine because it is produced by social actors and not self-evident — religious experience in an implicitly post-Reformation, Protestant understanding which prioritizes the private, individual, ontological experience or belief as inherently religious or sacred, and through this approach, perpetuates certain understandings of religion as more legitimate than others.

3. Can you give us an example of this from your previous work?

For my master’s thesis, I studied what I labelled as “regimes of belief,” drawing on Bruce Lincoln’s “regimes of truth,” to examine the way in which religion is defined in the U.S. and implemented on a global scale. I drew upon definitions of religion from the U.S. Supreme Court, Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, and documents from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to demonstrate the ways in which religion, defined as personal, private belief, has persisted from such post-Reformation thinkers as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to present religious studies scholarship and legal definitions. The USCIRF is a non-governmental organization which reports to the President and Congress regarding religious freedom violations and recommended the withholding of aid and security from nations who would not comply or adhere to a certain understanding of religion and religious freedom. And while that is, on the surface, a seemingly good thing to do, the implementation of a largely American understanding of religion (one which prioritizes the individual, the personal, etc.) in a place where religion is understood rather differently (perhaps more communally or ritually) becomes a bit more tenuous when funding, aid, and security are at stake. Understanding how religion is defined as well as the socio- and geo-political consequences of that definition are necessarily rooted in discourses on classification and identity construction inasmuch as they can, in this case, tie into national and political identities.

4. Where are you hoping to go next with your scholarship?

I’m hoping to pass my comprehensive exams this upcoming Fall 2019! But seriously, I’m currently finishing up course work for my PhD and have begun preparing for my comprehensive exams, which will help build toward my dissertation. My exams will address many of these issues regarding the history of the field as well as understandings of “experience” and the methodologies which implement those understandings on immigrant groups in the United States. I’m interested in the  ways in which certain approaches in religious studies scholarship privilege experience in an attempt to be more pluralistic and inclusive. Throughout U.S. history, immigrants are continually coerced, if not forced, to Americanize and assimilate so that they can work their way into society due to a standardization of what gets to count as religion or not.  As this is a persistent and ongoing issue within U.S. history, I hope to examine the ways in which scholars of religion engage with and define these marginalized groups — but I gotta get through comps first!

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