Government Surveillance of Religious Expression

Mormons, Quakers, and Muslims in the United States

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Kathryn Montalbano
Routledge Studies in Religion
  • New York, NY: 
    , November
     168 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In her book Government Surveillance of Religious Expression, Kathryn Montalbano contributes to the literature on surveillance and religion by linking three case studies across a century-and-a-half of American history to demonstrate that surveillance of religious communities predates contemporary concerns regarding life in a surveillance society. Although Montalbano’s book is framed by a historical argument tracing the changes in government surveillance since the mid-19th century, the book’s primary driving force is the author’s analysis of the ways in which government agencies distinguished between religious belief and practice, and how their approaches to surveillance were shaped by whether or not they saw the religious group being monitored as a form of white Protestantism. In addition, Montalbano’s work contributes to the literature on religion and secularity in the United States by theorizing surveillance as an act which marks religious groups as deviant from a white Protestant secular norm, while also disciplining them toward that norm.

Montalbano integrates her scholarship into the growing literature on religion and surveillance (e.g., Sylvester A. Johnson and Steven Weiztman) while at the same time writing as a corrective to a heavy reliance upon panopticism, which she argues can “oversimplify” surveillance studies (151). Rather than concerning herself with the notion of the surveillance society, Montalbano argues that what is crucial are the particular techniques used by state agents to surveil citizens. As such, Government Surveillance of Religious Expression focuses on the tactics through which government agencies at the territorial, federal, and municipal levels sought to collect information on particular religious groups, and then discipline those groups into a more respectable, white, Protestant model of religiosity. 

Montalbano connects her somewhat disparate case studies—United States Supreme Court cases surrounding Mormon polygamy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) surveillance of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) surveillance of Muslims in post-9/11 New York—by highlighting the ways in which governmental agencies viewed each surveilled group as a threat to the hegemony of white Protestantism. Rather than providing a comprehensive historical analysis of each case study, Montalbano focuses on the ways religion (both belief and action, as well as the distinction between the two) shaped government surveillance of each community. While at times Montalbano struggles to maintain a balance between her extensive use of primary documents and her own theorization of the actions detailed in those documents, she frequently reminds her reader of how particular examples she is drawing on connect to the main themes of her book.

Chapter 2, which focuses on various United States Supreme Court cases involving Utah Territory Mormons charged with polygamy, is Montalbano’s most intriguing case study. She examines the ways in which the federal government sought to prove certain Latter-day Saint (LDS) men were in polygamous relationships despite the fact that LDS marriages did not produce public documentation. Montalbano’s discussion of these surveillance tactics is useful in expanding historical examinations of surveillance into the era before the birth of the FBI and the rise of the surveillance society. The key historical moment in this chapter is the 1878 Supreme Court Decision Reynolds v. United States, which established the legal distinction between religious belief and religious action. Montalbano’s subsequent case studies examine how government agencies understood and navigated this distinction.

Chapter 3 will be more familiar to readers of surveillance studies literature as it focuses on the FBI surveillance of the AFSC. In this chapter Montalbano draws both on FBI files maintained on the AFSC, as well as contemporary op-eds and magazine articles to show that the FBI surveilled the AFSC while simultaneously working to secure religion as a force for good as part of its Cold War campaign against godless Communism. As such, Montalbano examines the ways in which the FBI sought to determine whether AFSC members were principally inspired by Quaker or Communist beliefs.

In the final case study Montalbano examines the 2013 court case Raza v. City of New York in which several Muslim individuals and organizations argued the extensive NYPD surveillance of Muslims and Muslim communities restricted their free exercise of religion. In this chapter Montalbano focuses on the mechanics of surveillance of religious communities and concludes by suggesting that in post-9/11 America, surveillance is about prediction and religion—in this case Islam—becomes a way to anticipate behaviors which threaten the state.

Although the limited number of case studies may disappoint readers interested in further discussion of the racial politics of government surveillance—FBI surveillance of the Nation of Islam and Martin Luther King Jr. are notably missing from the text—Montalbano’s case studies of Mormons, Quakers, and Muslims fit well into her primary argument concerning the historical developments of government surveillance of religious groups. This volume expands the conversation on surveillance of religious communities into the 19th century, while warning against reading the surveillance society as a monolithic panopticon. The book’s strength lies not in Montalbano’s analysis of her case studies, but in the insightful ways in which she demonstrates how government surveillance of religious groups contributed to the historical privileging of white Protestant norms. While Montalbano makes her professional home in communication studies, she deftly engages with religious studies scholarship, and scholars such as David Sehat, Saba Mahmood, and Talal Asad richly inform her work. Her book is principally concerned with questions that will resonate with religion scholars investigating issues of secularity, surveillance, and the American state—and scholars of these topics would do well to consider the insights Montalbano offers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael McLaughlin is a doctoral student in American Religious History in the Department of Religion at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
February 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kathryn Montalbano is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Young Harris College.


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