“Surveillance as we know it in contemporary American society is both unimaginable and unintelligible without a critical appreciation of the role played by churches, ecumenical federations, and parachurch organizations. ”
This book project explores the complex relationship between churches and surveillance in U.S. culture from 1865 to the late 1970s. Motivated by preserving a specifically Protestant understanding of moral citizenship, many voluntary associations—especially in the vast private sector of churches, ecumenical federations, parachurch organizations, and nonsectarian moral reform organizations—helped build the machinery of private and public surveillance that simultaneously sustains and challenges American democracy as we understand it today.
This project argues that surveillance as we know it in contemporary American society is both unimaginable and unintelligible without a critical appreciation of the role religion played in shaping the relationship between religious organizations, business interests, and the federal state. Unlike recent works in American religious history that focus on the problems of secularism and the legal boundaries of church and state, this project concentrates on techniques of surveillance to argue that historians have paid far too much attention to problems of belief and legal precedent, while paying far too little attention to the mechanisms of social regulation and policing that have characterized American religious organizations. The result is a complex story of overlapping alliances between religious activists and law enforcement agents, violent conflict between business interests and the forces of organized labor, and the mixing and melding of the agents of church, state, and voluntary associations into a dense tangle of political intrigue and social upheaval.
Although focused on the past, this project is immediately relevant to contemporary debates over the limits of private and public surveillance in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The narrative demonstrates how domestic surveillance has deep roots in unlikely soil: American religious institutions.