Water in the Desert: ‘Liberal’ Religious Freedom and Humanitarian Activism on the Mexico-US Border

How do progressive religious communities in increasingly polarised political spaces understand the relationship between faith and civic engagement? My research will investigate the (religiously-motivated) pursuit of justice among liberal religious actors in Southern Arizona, USA, with a particular focus on the provision of humanitarian aid to migrants and refugees; LGBTQ+ inclusion; and racial justice. As potent sites of religion-making, borderlands provide a productive “frontier” on which to locate this research. This is especially true of the Mexico-United States border, which has been a key site of religiously-motivated humanitarian activism for over four decades.

This research project applies methodological and theoretical insights from anthropology, law, and political theology to explore both the liberatory and oppressive potential of religious activism and appeals to religious freedom. Key research questions include: how do religious citizens “on the ground” respond to political and legal controversies related to social justice issues? Is the language of “religion” useful for leftist actors (given the popular assumption that “religious politics” in the US is primarily a right-wing phenomenon)? How might humanitarian activism challenge Euro-American law’s approach to the category of “religion”? What might a multifaith—Catholic, Humanist, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, “spiritual but not religious,” etc—liberation theology look like? How might these actors contribute to a new understanding of religious freedom in the US today?

As a “red” state on the verge of turning “blue,” Arizona is a particularly interesting site from which to investigate these questions. Critical scholars of religion have shown that laws designed to “protect” religion tend to favour a very particular kind of religion, one in which individual, interior belief is prioritised over embodied, communal praxis. This “small ‘p’ protestant” understanding of religion, as Winnifred Fallers Sullivan terms it, has led to the association of religious liberty and “religious activism” with socially conservative religious movements, such that “religious freedom” itself is sometimes presented as a barrier to progressive politics. This research seeks to problematise these assumptions by investigating liberal religious communities’ potential to radically alter the law’s understanding of “religion.”