First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA highlights concerns about surveillance and religious practice in an information age

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Beards Chapel AME Zion Church in Tuscaloosa, AL. Photo credit: R. McCutcheon

The First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles filed suit against the NSA this July in an important co-operative action between religious groups and technology advocates (among the 19 plaintiffs are the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, the Council on American Islamic Relations, Tech Freedom, and the Free Software Foundation). The suit, First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA, highlights the ways in which the free and open use of media technologies is understood to be central to the free exercise of religion. Although the suit is focused upon defending First Amendment protections of free association, the collaboration between the plaintiffs also draws attention to an already existing dynamic relationship between information technologies and religious practice.

Though the details about the extent of government surveillance remain hazy, what is clear is that private corporations and the federal government have worked together to track metadata of social technologies in the United States. In the late 2000s MIT professor Hal Abelson revealed that metadata alone is enough to expose a person’s sexual orientation. For religious communities that are marginalized in American society this tracking endangers not only the social welfare of religious participants but in some cases their physical wellbeing. In the suit the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles makes this point by drawing attention to the long-standing practice of harboring Latin American war refugees within their congregation; the church is concerned that surveillance practices will deter new members from seeking help. Similarly many members of religious movements that have not yet gained widespread acceptance in the United States wish to keep their religious beliefs and practices private, or at the very least to have the choice to do so. As an identity marker religion can often carry with it a loaded and sensitive social currency in the public sphere, especially when that marker is marginalized as “Other” – recall when the Delaware Republican Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell was the subject of national controversy in 2010 after speaking about her encounter with witchcraft as an adolescent. There is little doubt that O’Donnell’s comments had negative repercussions for pagan communities around the nation and did little to progress the national discussion about religious pluralism or tolerance. The stakes of the NSA controversy and its implications for how we think about the identity politics of association and the (always blurred) divisions between private and public life are amped up again when we consider the unsettling but longstanding calls from the field of neuroscience to reclassify certain forms of religious belief as mental illness.

Compounding the problems of surveillance is the growing social attention to the ways in which information released through digital media technologies never truly seem to disappear. The realities of information profiles and their effect on interrelationships and identity negotiation has begun to slowly steep into American religious imaginations. Accompanying more serious calls towards theologies of surveillance by bloggers and theological publishers are simple messages to self-edit your digital image.  The construction, maintenance, and performance of religious authenticity and sincerity has implicit rules in the digital sphere, as the choir in the video above sings: “Sundays you act like a saint, but your Facebook posts say you ain’t.”

The kopimi symbol is used by the Church of Kopimism to recognize other members across the web.

The kopimi symbol is used by the Church of Kopimism to recognize other members across the web.

Finally, the NSA scandals will certainly have important consequences for how religious movements imagine and negotiate their own relationships to information itself. Legal scholars in the past few years have pointed to trends in copyright legislation cases involving religious actors attempting to assert control over textual interpretation through copyright and trademark practices rather than inter-faith debate. In these cases religious authority has increasingly become tied to literal ownership of textual sources. Taking this trend a step further is the Missionary Church of Kopimism. Officially registered as a religion in Sweden in early 2012, Kopimism maintains that “All people should have access to all information produced. A gigantic Boosting Knowledge for humanity…  Copy. download, upload! All knowledge to all!” Because the implicit assertion of surveillance is the third-party ownership of all of one’s most personal information these practices will most certainly have an impact upon contemporary negotiations of religious authority and practice in the months and years to come. If anything is clear at this stage it is that how surveillance and information storage will begin to re-negotiate current trends in the social construction and performance of religious authenticity will certainly be an important area of concern to religious movements as we move further into the information age.

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