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. My current research explains how conflicts over America’s religious diversity were formative influences on the development of the modern intelligence state. Portions of this work have been published in the U.S. Catholic Historian.
My book project, Religion and the Birth of the Intelligence State, illustrates how the demands of a global Cold War led the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and its successor organization, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to forge unprecedented relationships with Catholics, Buddhists, and Muslims around the world in the fight against Communism. These religious groups offered valuable networks of information about geopolitical hotspots including Vietnam, Italy, and North Africa. In its strategic encouragement of religious tolerance, the intelligence community drew on existing tropes of “foreign” religions in American culture even as it revised these tropes to be more useful for national security goals. Between 1947 and 1975, I argue, the CIA honed this 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.” The CIA’s use of these discourses reshaped American perceptions of religion as a central component of American identity and national security at home and abroad.