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Religious Freedom and Ecofeminism from an Interdisciplinary Approach

From studying in Santiago, Chile to working in Chennai, India, Ely Orrego-Torres has combined her interests in political theory, international relations, and critical theory. Now at Northwestern University, the second-year PhD student is drawing on ideas outside political science in gender and religious studies courses. “When you are in connection with other departments, people, and methodologies, you can enrich your work and your writing tremendously,” Orrego-Torres says. In this interview, Orrego-Torres discusses ecofeminist political theology and how the pandemic has impacted her research interests. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: Your research takes an interdisciplinary approach, combining political theory and international relations. What motivated you to enter those subfields?

A:  When I was studying political science in Santiago, Chile, political theories from Europe — particularly from countries such as France and Italy — were arriving in Latin America; I then got interested in Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben. Through their lens, I became interested in the connections between politics and religion, and how political theory can be a good way to think about big questions, such as political theology, and how we can find theological concepts in the political.  After I finished my bachelor's degree, I decided to pursue a master's degree in philosophy to continue working on political theology, therefore, I wrote a thesis on Machiavelli and the figure of King David.

While working as a lecturer in political science and political theory in two Chilean universities, I tried to connect these difficult concepts such as social justice, gender, and religion with politics. However, teaching those themes in the Chilean context was a challenge. On the one hand, there is a lot of apathy toward politics and disenchantment with the politicians. On the other hand, politics is depicted as “the evil” and the relation with religion is seen as impossible and complicated. Political theory, in that sense, provides a framework to ask important questions and inspire people to think about them. Questions like "what is justice? What is politics? How can we create a more equal world?" were a good starting point for my students to understand the relevance of politics in their daily life. For example, I always taught Niccolò Machiavelli and Hannah Arendt to explain the timeliness of their theories regarding the notion of power and a different definition of politics based on the human being. 

In the middle of my academic career, I decided to spend one year working in Chennai, India for an NGO dedicated to training people in different skills. That experience gave me the openness to continue teaching and get aware of different approaches, particularly, decolonial and non-Western theories. Then, I decided to pursue a PhD because I love teaching and I knew that I wanted to do something interdisciplinary.

Here in the department, I've had the opportunity to work on theoretical work intertwined with international relations. In that sense, international relations in the department had a theoretical approach that I aim to explore and include in my work on global politics and religion. In addition, I believe we have to incorporate an interdisciplinary approach because even political science is built from a variety of disciplines — such as economics, philosophy, history. At Northwestern, I've been taking classes in gender studies and religious studies because my future work is strongly connected with those disciplines.  Interdisciplinary approaches are the future — we cannot be isolated in the discipline. As scholars, we have to speak to different audiences and at different levels, not only educational, but methodological and theoretical too.

Q: In 2019 you published, “Towards the Possibility of An Ecofeminist Political Theology.” Could you expand upon the idea of an ecofeminist political theology? And how do you want it to contribute to political theory and international relations?

A: “Political Theology” (1922) is a famous and oft-quoted essay written by Carl Schmitt and this essay has been widely studied in political science and philosophy. Schmitt is a polemic figure because he was a theorist of Nazism and in this essay, he says that all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts. In other words, he was theorizing that we cannot think about the notion of a state and sovereignty without relying on theological concepts. That essay prompted a research agenda trying to question to what extent we can rely on this theological argument to understand politics today.  Nevertheless, his theory has many flaws. My first problem with his theory is his approach to theology from a very particular view that is the Judeo-Christian tradition. Secondly, his theory of sovereignty is deeply androcentric, in other words,  male-constructed in the sense that politics is understood as power and rationality. Third, there is a focus on the human being, which is anthropocentric and leaves aside a holistic understanding of the planet. I think that those concepts in political science are very sterile. Few scholars are questioning these mainstream approaches in the discipline whether from a feminist perspective or from non-Western voices. That was my main reason for writing this paper. 

On the other hand, —as I told you— during my undergraduate studies I tried to understand political theology from a critical theory lens, particularly, continental philosophy. Some of them criticize the Western bias, but the perspective of feminism and their relation with religion was absent and elided. And then, through feminist and theologians friends, I arrived at ecofeminism. Ecofeminist theology is really interesting in my work because it  poses the question of politics from a different place, epistemologically and geographically. For example, I am trying to understand how the experiences of the people and their discourses can empower politics in a different manner. It also challenges the Western idea, in the sense that the ecofeminism I am interested in has foundations in  Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Unfortunately, those voices are sometimes marginalized in the discipline, in spite of their epistemological and theoretical richness.  They dispute the idea of androcentric and anthropocentric biases in the Western thought that centers human beings in the debate. Ecofeminism is proposing a new way of studying politics from a holistic perspective, thinking about the human being and the environment, by bringing the earth back into the discussion. When I was invited to write the paper, I tried to bring voices not studied in political science, such as feminist theologians. My paper focuses on the ecofeminist ideas of Ivone Gebara, who is an eminent Brazilian ecofeminist theologian writing from a Latin American perspective and she is very critical of how capitalism creates marginality, especially among women and indigenous peoples. 

Q: I read that you’re researching the rise of religious fundamentalism. Could you talk about your current work and that area of interest?

A: That was before COVID times — you can imagine how everything has changed. My original plan was to study religious fundamentalism in the Global South, like the case of Brazil with Bolsonaro and Modi in India, considering my experience living in India. But after COVID, I decided to change the topic. I was planning to do some fieldwork and now it is going to be difficult. But at the same time, I am interested in other topics. These days, many scholars are writing about fundamentalism — for example, the involvement of Evangelicals in politics, whether in Latin America and here in the United States. In that sense, it is changing how we talk about politics and religion. But I don't want to write something like that. Instead of focusing on the concept of religious fundamentalism, I've been thinking about how to give more visibility to another concept, religious freedom. After reading Prof. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd's book, "Beyond Religious Freedom," I was very much concerned about how religious freedom is framed in Latin America, and how we can rethink religious freedom by changing the lens of who is defining it. For example, this concept has historically been defined as a human right by  governments, international organizations (such as the United Nations or the Organization of American States) and domestic and international laws. Those are the mainstream accounts of religious freedom,  but I haven’t found scholarship on how people define  religious freedom today, especially in Latin America. In other words, what does it mean religious freedom when we change the lens of who is defining it. In that regard, I expect that my main contribution will be creating a contemporary archive that combines untranslated texts and speeches from Latin American voices on religious freedom in Spanish and Portuguese and puts them in conversation with English literature. This conversation has been notably missing from the academic discussion here in the United States and Europe. Thus, I am trying to create a bridge between these two worlds separated by language, political and cultural barriers. 

On the other hand, I've never seen more interest in religious freedom than here in the United States. And I don't know if it is similar in Latin America. With my research, I suggest that the narrative on religious freedom could illustrate an inflection point in contrast with dominant discourses promoted by international organizations, especially Western states. My current plan is to select some transnational networks from Latin America, but also here in the United States to examine hemispheric studies approaches. Those networks are faith-based organizations and spiritual movements that are advocating for women and LGBTQIA rights.  And here I expect to create another bridge between the religious discourses advocating for marginalized peoples, and the political arena. Generally, these networks are on the edge of the religious and political sphere, because they are discriminated against by their own communities (i.e., churches) and also by the more progressive social movements. For example, Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir (“Catholics for the right to decide”) is a transnational network advocating for abortion rights worldwide, and its members are Catholics.

Q: You received a Mellon Cluster Fellowship in Critical Theory in 2019. What does that fellowship entail and how has it impacted your work?

A: In my work, I've engaged with political theory and international relations, but also critical theory. The fellowship awarded me some funds when I arrived at Northwestern and the opportunity to connect with the critical theory cluster. Influenced by its interdisciplinary approach, I decided to take different classes on critical theory, gender studies, and religious studies. It's really inspiring to have conversations with people in different departments — not only students, but also scholars who were holding in-person conferences and talks before the pandemic.  In that sense, the cluster has allowed me to connect with people outside of political science who think and study similar topics as me.  Besides, I am pursuing a certificate in critical theory, in connection with another certificate in global politics and religion. When you are in contact with other departments, people, and methodologies, you can enrich your work and your writing tremendously. 


Interview by James Pollard (WCAS '22)