This paper will address the challenges and opportunities that secret police archival sources present for the study of lived religion during Communism. Through the presentation of a series of brief examples draw from research on Romanian state security files as part of the Hidden Galleries European Research Council Project (no. 677355), I illustrate how alternative readings emerge when data on religion is taken seriously and not discounted simply as a reflection of the ideological vision of the regime. The hybrid nature data we find presented in the files (Vățulescu 2021), invites us to question its evidential status, both at the time, as evidence of criminal or anti-state activity, and for the scholar of religion as evidence of religious practice, meaning and agency. I argue, that when viewed through a material lens and situated within a broader appreciation of the religious lifeworld and cultural context, the texts and images in the archives reveal aspects of the transmission of religion in the underground that remain relatively under-explored and little analysed.
Although not qualitatively the same as ethnographic sources, I view the reports and images composed and compiled by agents and informers, as “surrogates” of the performances that led to their creation (Taylor 2003) allowing the researcher today to access material, spatial and somatic aspects of religion that are often overlooked in readings of secret police files. The dominance of constructivist approaches has resulted in only very limited attempts to recover lost or marginalised voices for the archives, despite the wealth of examples from scholarship on colonial archives that has come to recognise that archives always disclose more than their compilers intended. Due to the performative nature of religion as lived tradition, and the secret police’s own obsession with the material dimensions of religious life, archival sources contain unexpected or unruly traces of the past lives they sought to dominate or expunge. Scholars of religions I argue here have some useful tools in their disciplinary tool-kit that when applied to secret police materials allow them to speak in surprising ways.