Governing Gifts

Faith, Charity, and the Security State

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Erica Caple James
School for Advanced Research Advanced Seminar Series
  • Albuquerque, NM: 
    University of New Mexico Press and School for Advanced Research Press
    , April
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Scholarly engagement with the theme of public religion has often focused on the ways that religious actors work outside and apart from the organized state as a form of redress. These conversations—insofar as they are centered around notions of “desecularization” (e.g., Manlio Graziano, Holy Wars & Holy Alliance, Columbia University Press, 2017), “deprivatization” (e.g., José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World, University of Chicago Press, 1994), or “embodiment” (e.g., Saba Mahmood, The Politics of Piety, Princeton University Press, 2005)—rightly challenge the extent to which religiosity and religious activity are evaluated according to secular-liberal logics, and complicate narratives that operate according to strict binaries between “religion” and “the secular.”

At the same time, however, the increasing role of religious non-governmental organizations (RNGOs) in the administration of secular statecraft brings to light a host of new considerations related to the way that faith-based charities have simultaneously been drawn into and carved out room for themselves within the bureaucratic processes of governance. It has also emphasized the need to better understand the consequences of those close (and sometimes fraught) relationships.

Governing Gifts: Faith, Charity, and the Security State, edited by Erica Caple James, begins with this framing, and works to elaborate on the ways that “the borders between faith-based and secular domains of governance cannot be clearly demarcated, if they ever existed at all” (2). The culmination of a seminar at the School for Advanced Research in 2013, this collection introduces ten discrete occasions for examining its central problem, with each contributor interrogating the roles and conditions of religious philanthropy in a different historical or international setting. As James explains in her comprehensive introduction, the impressive breadth of this project is meant to expand the conversation beyond naive Americentrism—and it certainly works. The attention paid in this collection to so many “nations that have not historically presumed a separation of church and state or their existence as distinct institutions” marks the work of James and her contributors as worthwhile for any scholar looking for an expansive treatment of these themes beyond the United States (13).

Although each author's contribution stands proudly on its own, several overarching connections are worth considering. Many of the individual case studies presented make use of extensive ethnographic work, and demonstrate a shared commitment to grappling with the relationship between religious charity and the state at both a theoretical and granular level. Highlights include Catherine Besteman's detailing of the American reception to Somali refugees (chapter 9), and C. Julia Huang's analysis of how Tzu Chi (a Buddhist charitable relief foundation) was labeled as a “charity bully” by Aboriginal communities due to the way that its assistance was embedded in local histories of political marginalization (chapter 3). Likewise, apart from their methodological similarity, each contribution manages to extend the central conversation in ways that highlight the inability of any single example to capture the robust complexities of religious philanthropy vis-a-vis the security state. James' own contribution (chapter 8), for instance, emphasizes how religious giving (in this case, donations to Islamic charities) has become transformed by the US government's risk-aversion practices so as to normalize an exhausting program of self-auditing among targeted communities. Maurizio Albahari's work on Syrian refugees in the Mediterranean (chapter 6) similarly delves into the important ways that Catholic theology and competing understandings of charity are manifested in “everyday, contentious, and ultimately partisan engagements” rather than merely ideological debates (118).

While each chapter successfully transitions James' central framing to a different context, the impressive breadth of this collection also serves to heighten the relative brevity of its case studies. Insofar as they revisit potentially familiar histories around the themes of faith-based intervention and state security, the individual contributions often do as much to inspire new questions for the reader as they do to answer their own prompts. In particular, readers familiar with scholarship on the subjects of civil religion, religious activism, and faith-based intervention may find themselves wondering whether these chapters reinforce or complicate existing lines of discourse—and, more importantly, whether their authors meant to do either. To be sure, this open-endedness could situate this collection well in a syllabus on global expressions of public religion; however, it may also limit the book's usefulness for scholars who are particularly familiar with any one area that it covers.

All told, Governing Gifts is a valuable collection—one that will prove insightful for both those who envision a robust role for faith-based charity in the public sphere, and those who labor to understand its effects (political, economic, and strategic) more broadly. If, as James asserts in her epilogue, “faith-based interventions render state processes visible” (219), then such visibility ought to engender more comprehensive analyses of the ways that religious giving simultaneously reinforces, challenges, administers, and is complicated by the myriad designs of the security state. For those (like myself) just entering this conversation, Governing Gifts is a great place to start.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Troy Mikanovich is a doctoral candidate in Religion and Political Science and Adjunct Instructor at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
April 24, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Erica Caple James is Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology and Urban Studies at MIT.


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