God is Watching, and So Am I: The Theology of Surveillance
Randy Lewis/University of Texas

Savior Protection

Mission statement from a sacred security firm’s website

I am writing these days about something I call sacred security, which is the business of selling video surveillance and other security measures to religious institutions. But it’s not just any old business. Sacred security is the work of a few dozen religiously-identified companies who market themselves to their spiritual brethren in a language that combines Old Testament metaphors with the anxious tropes of Homeland Security. What is being sold is the creeping militarization of the American church, in which ministers are literally being asked to “secure the perimeter” around their sanctuaries. From CCTV cameras above the altar to Sunday morning greeters trained to conduct a quick “threat assessment” on newcomers, surveillance culture has hit the American church.

The twenty-five companies that I’m following express little interest in the security needs of American Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, or liberal Protestants. Instead, most of the vendors, like most of the customers, seem to be white evangelical conservatives living in small towns and suburbs in the American south and lower Midwest. Envisioning themselves as “God-centered” capitalists on a sacred mission, these companies pitch their services to small rural congregations and suburban mega-churches alike—anyone looking for an electronic sentry to watch over the faithful like a “shepherd” or a “guardian” around the “Lord’s tent,” as the brochures and websites promise. Although these people are probably more “Moral Majority” than persecuted minority, I suspect that they feel exposed and vulnerable to attack when they are tempted to place surveillance cameras in their sacred spaces. And I am, above all else, interested in how they feel about the presence of these cameras. In almost two decades of writing about media culture, I have thought a great deal about what it feels like to look through a lens onto the world. I’m now beginning to think about how it feels to be the subject of that lens.

I’m interested in my own feelings about CCTV as well, even surprised by them. Until recently I didn’t know I cared about cameras in sacred spaces at all. Yet I keep returning to religious angles that I’ve never pursued in the past. I wonder who would want surveillance cameras above the pews glaring down at the worshippers? What could be so alarming to a room full of gun-owning, God-fearing middle-aged white people in a small town run by other white people? In other words, who really needs sacred security, and what is so damn frightening that you’d replace the free-flowing calm and compassionate welcome of the idealized church with an ominous sense of lock-down? Apparently, it is not enough that some deacons are literally carrying guns to Sunday services or that some pastors are literally clasping specially-designed bulletproof Bible holders at the altars. Something else is needed to assuage the fear.

Although I am only beginning to explore these questions, I can hazard this much: terrorism is not their demon of choice. Rather, it is the rank stranger outside the gate. It is the black cloud of evil that can settle anywhere, anytime, in their fretful vision of modern America. It is the vile nature of strangers, of difference, of heathens, but also the evil within: what the pastor might do to the organist, what the children might allege in the nursery—and if they don’t fear these things, the marketing of sacred security explicitly tells them that they should. Thank God—or Gideon Protect Services, or Watchman Security, or Savior Protection, Inc.—that video surveillance cameras, properly installed, will protect the innocent and ward off the wicked. Such is the sales pitch from the companies that I have been researching in this complex economy of fear.

What draws me to this topic is the sheer contrast between the ideal of hopeful refuge and shoulder-to-shoulder togetherness in a sacred space, and the insinuated, carefully marketed anxiety of the security business, forever amping up the threat of looming violence and the necessity of eternal vigilance. Must everything drip with fear?

I’m not sure that I qualify as a religious person with an obvious stake in these matters. I have so many qualms, detachments, even revulsions, but I have felt something else as well. Like Emerson, “I like the silent church before the service begins…” I get a charge in the sanctuary that I quite like, because I don’t get it at the mall. In moments of crisis and sometimes in moments of calm, I am shot through with peasant superstition and Irish sentimentality that says preserve this beautiful space, this ancient ideal of communitas, this relative openness to strangers in a world of enclosure, monitoring, and locked gates. Throw away the rest of the institution if Richard Dawkins appeals to you, but somehow keep the safe contemplation of the sublime and what Martin Luther King called the sanctity of the beloved community. Don’t spoil it with the paranoid lens of CCTV on every flat surface.

Church Surveillance

The view from above… Surveillance camera in church in Austin, Texas

So what rattles me about so-called “worship surveillance” is the vague feeling of violation. That plastic camera near the roofline seems out of place, almost seeming to function like a rival to the crucifix—and one just as alive with potentiality. My father’s old broken Catholicism, my mother’s stern Church of Christ, my own peevish teenage Lutheran apostasy, my surreal exile in Catholic boys school, all tells me that I’m looking the wrong way, that I’m responding to the wrong icon when I look past the crucifix to stare at the CCTV camera. But that camera is where I feel watched and judged. I want it to stop looking, to simply trust me not to harm, whether I’m in a church or The Gap. But it never sleeps, never closes its glassy unblinking eye.

Queasy as I am about the blurring of cameras and crosses, of old theology and new technology, I wonder if they have a certain affinity. Both emblems of judgment from afar, of an inscrutable downward gaze. Along with other forms of tracking human behavior, increasingly ubiquitous surveillance cameras represent yet another encroachment on our privacy and liberty—yet few Americans seem concerned about CCTV in churches or anywhere else. Perhaps we would find this encroachment more disturbing if the new eye of providence didn’t feel so much like the old one—that is to say, if ancient patterns of belief hadn’t prepped the ground for this new outgrowth of the security state? (( It is important to note that Christian scripture also been used to endorse an open door policy of trust and compassion in other congregations, and that some evangelical Christians express considerable hostility toward surveillance culture. Determining why fear takes root in some congregations and not others is an important question for me.))

I understand the desire to control, even to take on the responsibility of protecting a flock, but I worry that sacred security will make the American church feel like a post-9/11 airport (“please remove your shoes before communion…”)—or even worse, the MGM Grand. With the expansion of our “control society” into every realm of American life, I fear that we’re building a gaudy Las Vegas of the mind, a slick zone of mechanized distrust in which we’re always under someone’s watchful eye. In Scorsese’s Casino, Ace Rothstein, the savvy operator played by Robert de Niro, explains this culture of relentless scrutiny:

In Vegas, everybody’s gotta watch everybody else. Since the players are looking to beat the casino, the dealers are watching the players. The box men are watching the dealers. The floor men are watching the box men. The pit bosses are watching the floor men. The shift bosses are watching the pit bosses. The casino manager is watching the shift bosses. I’m watching the casino manager. And the eye-in-the-sky is watching us all.

Of course, the “all-seeing eye” used to refer to the divine. Now it is a small lens linked to a video monitor in the back room of a church, casino, shopping center, or office building. And therein lies the dismal bathos of the contemporary moment in which the cross is not adequate protection even for believers: God’s not dead, he’s just been demoted.

Let me provide a specific example from the world of sacred security. Not long ago, ABC news broadcast a story about a woman in Houston who stole money from purses during church services, even after exchanging the “sign of peace” with her victim. She is a woman of color, part of a worrisome pattern in these widely circulated news stories and the sacred security marketing built around them. The news provides us with the POV of the church surveillance camera: we gawk in judgment from above as the petty thief helps herself to someone’s wallet. The ABC video footage, filled with standard-issue piety about Holiness debased (perhaps not too different from my own), is then used by sacred security companies to press their case. “Church leaders have been very reluctant to install church video surveillance systems because they believe it conveys distrust and sends a message of fear to the congregants,” a website called SmartSurveillanceTips.com tells us. “The truth is, properly installed church video security monitoring systems will never affect the feeling of openness and trust that most congregations wish to experience.” Phew, what a relief: there are no side effects to injecting another all-seeing eye into a small congregation. The marketers explain away all doubts, even as they gin up the fear with long lists of atrocities committed on church grounds. Separating media hyperbole from actual danger is impossible in the welter of emotions that sacred security generates: fear, outrage, guilt, anger, vigilance, hope.

So much of this business works on an affective level where religion flourishes as well. Because we have no compelling evidence that CCTV serves as a deterrent, churches are buying it “on faith” for the feeling of security that it provides (and perhaps for the satisfaction of being able to say after the next crime, “We did all we could.”). Thus the proposition “CCTV will make me safer” is no different in kind than “the Lord will provide” or even “everything happens for a reason.” In this sense, religious institutions may offer fertile soil for the new gospel of insecurity that the security industry is preaching.

The first commandment of sacred security is Thou Shall Fear Thy Neighbor, which is why the sales pitch seems designed to scare the bejesus out of complacent congregations. “Sense of Sanctuary Lost as Church Attacks Spike” is one headline in the litany of crimes against sacred spaces that is offered in almost every piece of sacred security marketing. “This will be the 32nd violent attack this year” [2010], another company reminds its customers, before listing many of these atrocities, often with links to news stories that emphasize the urgency of the crisis. Similarly, the Church Security Alliance features dramatic headlines on its website: “Pastor Shot In The Head While Hosting Youth Group Event… Man Drives Car Into Church And Sets Building On Fire… Murder-Suicide At Texas Church Altar…. Minister Beaten After Clashing With Muslims On His TV Show.” Or again in the Lone Star state, this time from a company called Safe at Church: “Gunman Kills Seven, and Himself, In Texas Church.” To keep these warnings from seeming anecdotal, a few vendors add a veneer of social science, such as the security consultant who publishes a “comprehensive list of Ministry related deadly force incidents.” His litany purports to describe hundreds of violent crimes committed on church grounds in the US since 1999. Although some churches have faced grave threats to their security, I’m not certain that CCTV is necessary or helpful in most cases, especially in light of its ambiguous effects.

It’s too early for me to say if CCTV eases or intensifies the fear of crime in a particular congregation. Perhaps security cameras will be perceived (paradoxically) as symbols of insecurity, as reflections of a history of violence and vandalism in a particular location. I’m interested in these perceptions as well as the other psychological baggage that accompanies the proliferation of CCTV. For instance, I’m curious if the addition of video surveillance enables a kind of comprehensive, unseen seeing that humans are not used to possessing, one that far exceeds the imaging technologies of the 20th century? Will the proliferation of small, powerful, and networked surveillance cameras represent an unprecedented expansion of vision, one that approaches certain aspects of the divine omnivalence described in Proverbs 15:3: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good”? The theology of video surveillance is my ultimate destination in this current project. ((Not much has been written on the intersection of theology and surveillance culture, but I would recommend David Lyon’s short essay (excellent but hard to find), “God’s Eye: Surveillance and Watchfulness in the Twenty-first Century,” Transmission, Summer 2010, as well as Eric Stoddart’s Theological Perspectives on a Surveillance Society: Watching and Being Watched (Surray UK: Ashgate, 2011).))


Billboard in New Mexico

How we internalize video surveillance and the other imperatives of a control society is, for me, the heart of the matter. Well before Jeremy Bentham made this internalization of the guard’s gaze a key aspect of his diabolically clever Panopticon, the 15th century German monk, Nicholas of Cusa, disciplined an entire abbey with a single portrait of Jesus, whose eyes had been painted to appear to follow the monks wherever they went. ((Although it seems likely given the context, I’ve been unable to confirm that the portrait was of Jesus or someone else whose gaze would affect the monks so deeply. See Christopher M. Bellitto, Thomas M. Izbicki, Gerald Christianson, Introducing Nicholas of Cusa: A Guide to a Renaissance Man (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004) 389.)) As much as it inspired a greater degree of piety in the abbey, the constant gaze was also an irritant, an oppressive force for those who had to live with what I imagine as a bug-eyed Jesus. A perverse parable emerged for Nicholas of Cusa’s brethren, in which the hunger for security begat a new kind of insecurity, and I suspect that we will discover much the same thing in our mania for technologies of control. What should have offered comfort and calm (Jesus, CCTV) may end up provoking discomfort and unease, if not painful self-consciousness. Maybe we will feel clumsy and naked on this perpetual stage, or maybe we will revel in it as we embrace lives of carefree exhibitionism. Privacy be damned, some will say, relishing the sense of being watched as a way to give meaning to their lives. Perhaps our deeds, both petty and grave, will take on a greater depth of meaning that comes from our sense of being monitored.

Yet I’m also interested in the flip side: being the divine watcher must have its own perils. In his short story, “Human Moments in World War III,” first published in Esquire in July 1983, Don DeLillo imagined the God-like sensation that accompanies the rapid expansion of vision that an astronaut might experience:

Earth orbit puts men into philosophical temper. How can we help it? We see the planet complete. We have a privileged vista. In our attempts to be equal to the experience, we tend to meditate importantly on subjects like the human condition. It makes a man feel universal, floating over the continents, seeing the rim of the world, a line as clear as a compass arc, knowing it is just a turning of the bend to Atlantic twilight, to sediment plumes and kelp beds, an island chain glowing in the dusky sea.

As we increasingly scrutinize other people on CCTV in our churches, homes, and offices, or from small flying drones equipped with surveillance cameras, will we not feel this God-like perspective of gazing down from above, sitting in judgment, convinced that we are all-seeing “I”? ((“In such a world, deadly gadgetry is just a grant request away, so why shouldn’t the 14,000 at-risk souls in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, have a closed-circuit-digital-camera-and-monitor system (cost: $180,000, courtesy of the Homeland Security Department) identical to the one up and running in New York’s Times Square?”(http://www.salon.com/2012/03/05/the_cost_of_americas_police_state/))) (I say convinced because the all-seeing eye, whether technological or theological, is always fantasy: knowledge and visibility are never coterminous). Will we become God-like voyeurs in our desire to watch our friends and neighbors, co-workers and students, studying each of them with a Stasi-like efficiency on an ever-expanding surveillance system. A popular app already enables the fantasy of anonymous global voyeurism, allowing us to tap into live surveillance feeds from around the world. Look it’s snowing in Japan… a man is jaywalking in Sweden… a car has just parked in Florida. We can even move these faraway cameras, changing angles, rotating the view. Perhaps the next generation of the app will let us speak to the jaywalker in Sweden: Hey! You’re breaking the law. I see you! Shape up! And he will look up, suddenly flush with fear and trembling, scurrying away from this anonymous scolding. Eventually, if I may wax Ballardian for a moment, the peep-junkies may be able to direct small bursts of foul odor or electric shocks in order to hassle the wicked souls appearing on their CCTV monitors, thereby adding an element of “gamification” to the disciplinary regime. The possibilities are endless at the leading edge of the techno-theological.

Of course, more than petty scoldings are at stake when surveillance technology allows us to watch and judge in secret—we are also being tempted to assume an authoritarian mindset that seeks to categorize and control human behavior from above, rather than remaining in the democratic fray. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf’s incomparable novel about a genteel English family on holiday, includes a passage in which she described a young girl standing over a tide pool, playing God with its tiny marine inhabitants. As she becomes bored with the little universe at her feet, she begins to fantasize about her power over all that she surveyed:

Brooding, she changed the pool into the sea, and made the minnows into sharks and whales, and cast vast clouds over this tiny world by holding her hand against the sun, and so brought darkness and desolation, like God himself, to millions of ignorant and innocent creatures, and then took her hand away suddenly and let the sun stream down.

Herein lies the future of CCTV, a world in which every petty soul can play God over some private puddle. As we sit in private judgment, seeing without being seen, we have taken the “first step in the construction of God” as one of Bentham’s explicators has suggested. ((See Slovenian philosopher Miran Bozovic’s introduction to Jeremy Bentham, The Panopticon Writings (London: Verso, 1995) 11.)) In my bleaker moments, I imagine us increasingly hunched over a bank of surveillance monitors in the back of a high school, private home, or church, surveying some little world through a lens as we munch on salty snacks and scratch ourselves. We’ll spend the afternoon peering dyspeptically into every crevice of human behavior that can be displayed on screen, scouring the surface of things for the merest hint of danger. Dully obsessed with our seemingly limitless gaze, neither satisfied with our digital voyeurism nor able to give it up, we’ll simply be brooding over our own little kingdoms of insecurity, struggling in vain to remember what privacy, security, and community felt like before the advent of the plastic all-seeing eye. ((Or perhaps we will feel safe at last behind our banks of video monitors, luxuriating in our own version of Total Information Awareness, like primates content to scour the horizon for predators? My hope is that future ethnographic data will shed some light on this difficult question.))

Image Credits:

1. Savior Protection Ministries’ mission statement
2. Image from a church surveillance camera provided by author
3. New Mexico billboard