Theorizing Religion in the Age of Trump: James Crossley

The election of Donald Trump has given rise to new kind of politics that has already increased tensions between competing groups, including religious groups over issues such as public education, science funding, and a proposed travel ban impacting several Muslim majority countries. In this new series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars how they might go about theorizing these issues from the perspective of the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here

The View from the Right: Religion, May, and English Political Discourse in an Age of Trump

by James Crossley

Comparisons between Brexit and an emboldened (far) Right in America and parts of Europe are regularly made but, inevitably, overlook the complexities. That Brexit has involved disillusionment with mainstream politics is clear but it is disillusionment that has come from Left to Right. Nevertheless, Brexit has been claimed as a victory of the contemporary Right and appropriated accordingly. Indeed, just after the Brexit result, Trump said that Britain ‘took back their country’ and ‘that’s a great thing’. In English political discourse, and in the run up to the 2017 General Election, Brexit has become increasingly attached to Trump ally, Theresa May, and the ruling Conservative Party. According to YouGov polling published in March 2017, the overwhelming majority still would have voted in the same way in the EU Referendum. However, it was also revealed that there are a significant majority of people (69%) who think that the government should accept that Brexit now ought to go ahead (21% against), with 49% confident in May’s negotiation skills (39% against) and 52% thinking her proposals were positive for Britain. We might contrast this with only 15% thinking Parliament should vote on whether to accept a deal. These pro-Brexit tendencies appeared to be reflected in the May 2017 local elections as the Conservatives performed strongly, seemingly absorbing anti-EU UKIP voters on the Right, as the slim 52-48 Referendum split was becoming a distant memory.

How this will ultimately play out in the General Election, we will soon see. For now, it looks like the Brexit momentum has become forcefully associated with, and appropriated by, the Right. Accordingly, we should not be surprised to find that a sort of soft Trumpism has begun to mark the ways in which May has understood concepts and categories associated with ‘religion’ given that such constructions inevitably become attached to dominant political discourses of the day. What’s more, we can chart this by looking at how she understands Christmas and other calendrical events associated with Christianity. Christmas and Easter are particularly useful ways of assessing how ideas associated with religion, Christianity and the Bible are understood in English political discourse. First, Christmas and Easter are among the relatively rare times a politician can get away with talking about something related to religion without too much fear of a negative press. Indeed, not saying something about Christmas would be the more dangerous option for a politician. Second, we can compare speeches of a similar type delivered by predecessors to look for shifts in nuance over time.

In some ways, May’s 2016 Christmas message was typical. It had the usual vague clichés of Christmas past (e.g. praising volunteers and care workers, the birth of Christ being about ‘forgiveness, love and hope’ etc.). This could have come from almost any political leader in recent years and contains the sorts of sentiments found in David Cameron’s Christmas message in that the true meaning of Christmas is that it is sufficiently liberal, agreeable, and vague. Christmas is not a time for Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, angelic appearances, the meaning of Jeremiah’s words about Ramah, the details of Mary’s sexual practices and marital status, John the Baptist’s drinking habits, why Elizabeth was a disgrace, leaping in the womb, Jesus’ circumcision, the offering of a sacrifice of turtle doves and pigeons, and possibly not even bringing down the rich and the powerful, or any other things too weird in the Christian archive and potentially incompatible with liberalism.

However, there were some distinctive shifts in May’s Christmas almost certainly marked by (a certain understanding of) Brexit. May’s last Christmas started as early as the high street’s. In September 2016, May stated in Parliament that ‘we want minority communities to be able to recognize and stand up for their traditions, but we also want to be able to stand up for our traditions generally, and that includes Christmas’. Why is this distinctive? A year earlier, Cameron certainly made nostalgic claims of Britain as a ‘Christian country’ and singled out values Jesus’ birth represents (‘peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope’). But it is because of these ‘important religious roots and Christian values’ that ‘Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.’ The idea of Christianity and the Bible representing British/English values also (conveniently) representing ‘all faiths and none’ was probably Cameron’s favourite expression when summarizing Christian values (and liberal British/English nationalism). Elsewhere, these British values of all faiths and none, and thought to be found in the Bible and Christian history, could variously include human rights, equality, monarchy, parliamentary democracy, protest, freedom, abolition of slavery, emancipation of women, responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good, honouring social obligations to one another, and the first forms of welfare provision. We might even say that the paternalistic rhetoric and Cameron’s myth of British and Christian superiority belongs to the pre-Trump, pre-Brexit liberal embrace of others, without inclusion or at least mention of, as Žižek might put it, any problematic, illiberal Otherness for neoliberal, multicultural discourse.

Yet in a world of Brexit and Trump, May’s rhetoric is blunt in identifying the Other more in terms of its difference. Note May’s strong distinction between minorities (‘their traditions’) and the assumption of a normative British identity which, if not exactly ‘white’, then ‘our traditions’ (particularly Christmas) are emphatically not those of minorities. We might also observe that May’s Easter words similarly reflect a shift in nuance when, using an apparent Cameronism, she referred to ‘people of other faiths or none’, rather than all faiths. The context of May’s Christmas words provided some identification of such minorities as the questioner mentioned Diwali, Vaisakhi and Eid as the specific ‘minority traditions’. The rhetoric is still, of course, ostensibly benign but this is a notable Othering of those deemed Asian minorities after the Referendum vote and as Trump’s rhetoric was growing and growing in prominence. And perhaps May’s toying with ethno-nationalist constructions of Christmas was of little surprise in her then half-year premiership where we heard about a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’, a desire to deal with the threat of UKIP from the Right, an influential cohort of pro-Brexit Conservative MPs, and, most tellingly, the Conservative government floating the idea of companies identifying non-British workers. This is what ‘our’ normative culture also entails.

There is plenty more that could be said about May’s understanding of ‘minorities’ (particularly her understanding of Muslims and Islam and use of the ‘perversions of Islam’ trope so common in English political discourse) and the way she plays to the far right while simultaneously distancing herself from them. But for now, this snippet should give some indication of an overall post-Brexit electoral strategy designed to colonize the Right, gain even more enthusiastic support from the right-wing press, and satisfy Conservative Brexiteers and traditional voters, while not being blunt enough to isolate the more liberal Conservatives and sympathizers—presumably happy enough to hold their nose and vote accordingly. But it is a strategy designed to pick up (an often older) working-class vote in a post-industrial era of precarious employment and poverty, disillusioned with their neoliberal lot and abandoned by mainstream politics, where anti-immigration, anti-EU, and anti-Muslim rhetoric has some support and where the far right (esp. the English Defence League and UKIP) have had some popularity (on which see e.g., among others, here, here, and here). In this respect, it is striking that the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto attacked what the Conservatives and their great icon, Margaret Thatcher, are typically deemed to represent, i.e. ‘untrammeled free markets’, with a (somewhat vague) offer of protection to ‘people working in the “gig” economy’ and couched in language typically assumed to be a deviation from purer ‘religion’ in English political discourse: the rejection of the ‘cult of selfish individualism’. In other words, the language of ‘religion’ is being used to support both a soft ethno-nationalism and a promise of economic protectionism, while isolating certain ‘minorities’. Sound familiar?

Postscript

Vote Corbyn.

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Bulletin Book Reviews

Last month, the Bulletin for the Study of Religion announced its new book review project. Still in its developing stages, Bulletin Book Reviews will soon have its own tab on the blog site (next to Home and About above) where the information below will have a more permanent home. For now, though, we at the Bulletin wanted to extend a reminder and an invitation to our readership to help us get the ball rolling by reviewing titles.

Given that the project is just getting off the ground, we operate on an unsolicited basis at this point—which means: if you, dear reader, think there is a book that merits review and you want to review it, all you need to do is shoot our book review editor an email and arrangements will be made to have the book delivered to you from whichever press. (If you already have it, great!) Of course, not every book is fair game—we only review academic books of general interest to scholars of religion, and we prefer that the books be three years old or younger.

Doctoral students up to senior scholars are cordially invited, though MA students will be considered as well. We strongly prefer that reviewers have an expertise (developing or well established) that overlaps with the subject treated in the book itself. Which is to say—in the event that the book concerns a specific tradition or set of traditions, the reviewer ideally will specialize in either the tradition(s) or the time period and geographical area in question; similarly, in the event that the book’s content is more methodological or theoretical, the reviewer ideally will have a firm grounding in the methods and theories being discussed (either through application or wide reading and sustained reflection).

In terms of length, we are looking for between 1000 and 1500 words. The review should begin with a charitably objective summary of the contents and argument of the title, followed by a critical assessment with an eye turned toward issues of method and theory.

Have a title in mind that you’d like to review? Email our book review editor, Adam Miller, at bulletinreviews@equinoxpub.com. Please indicate in your email your position, institution, and area(s) of expertise, as well as why you think the book merits review in this forum. We look forward to hearing from you!

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Them Snake Handlers Are Crazy, Right?

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by Matt Sheedy

It is rare that a blog post materializes late at night, the night before posting, as this one did, though a fit of creative energy with a dash of serendipity made it so. Just yesterday I came across a blog post in my Facebook feed with the headline, “Snake Handling Christian Bitten By Rattler, Refuses Treatment, Promptly Dies,” which was accompanied by the tags, “Kentucky, weird news, and WTF?” I had not heard of the website before, liberalamerica.org, and cannot attest to its popularity, though it is described under the “About” tab as follows:

Liberal America is the only place on the web that is devoted solely to all things liberal. We’re not just news and politics. If it interests liberals, we write about it.

Do you live in Liberal America? If not, welcome home! We’ve been saving the U.S.A. since 1776.

Upon closer inspection, I was dismayed to see that the article was from July 29, 2015, making it one of those (not uncommon) occurrences where an old item is reposted on social media as though it’s a new story. I quickly reminded myself, however, that the Bulletin blog is not about reporting current events per se, but rather theorizing about religion in the contemporary world. Adding to this temporal disjuncture is the image that accompanied the post (pictured above), which is not of the man who was bitten, John David Brock, but of the late preacher Mark Wolford, who died of a rattlesnake bite in West Virginia in 2012. The fact that most other sites reporting on this story included an actual image of Brock suggests to me that this was not a mere oversight, but a deliberate attempt to create an affective-political response toward those who engage in snake handling.

The article details how John David Brock, aged 60, was bitten by a rattlesnake during a service at Mossy Simpson Pentecostal Church in Jenson, Kentucky, and goes on to remark that death is “often the result when you are bitten by a dangerous snake and rely on faith to heal you.”

It is also pointed out that Mr. Brock was a coal miner for 36 years and an adherent of the Holiness faith, which includes some congregations that engage in snake handling based on a passage from the Gospel of Mark:

(Believers) will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well (Mark 16:18).

The piece concludes by stating that Holiness congregations believe that God will prevent the snakes from biting them, and will intervene to make them well if they are bitten. The article’s author, Andrew Bradford, goes on to state, “no one bothered to tell Mr. Brock that medical science beats a Bible verse any day of the week when it comes to highly venomous snakes,” while noting that snake handling is against the law in Kentucky and that “legal officials tend to look the other way for those who are dumb enough and wish to dance with serpents or sing directly into their hissing faces.” This latter remark may help to explain the appeal of going with Wolford’s image over Brock’s.

Having recently reread Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (1995), I was particularly attuned to problems with Bradford’s narrative, especially coming from a self described Methodist on the Christian Left, who has worked in academia and journalism and should thus be aware of Covington’s book, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and has been widely discussed in academic and journalistic circles. But perhaps this is a moot point?

Salvation on Sand Mountain, described as a journalistic assignment turned ethnography and “spiritual quest,” is the story of Covington’s immersion in a variety of snake handling Holiness churches in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and West Virginia, where his investigation included close personal relationships with members of the congregations, participation in services, and even handling a rattlesnake on one occasion, which he describes in ecstatic terms, likening it to the kind of adrenaline rush he experienced while being under fire as a journalist in El Salvador (102).

I turned to face the congregation and lifted the rattlesnake up toward the light. It was moving like it wanted to get up even higher, to climb out of that church and into the air. And it was exactly as the handlers had told me. I felt no fear. The snake seemed to be an extension of myself. And suddenly there seemed to be nothing in the room but me and the snake. Everything else had disappeared. … I knew then why handlers took up serpents. There is power in the act of disappearing; there is victory in the loss of self (169-70).

What struck me most upon reading Bradford’s article yesterday was how devoid it was of any type of analysis and how its partisan leanings not only reveal a particular instance of a contest over “legitimate” Christianity, but also a good example of the difference between analytical scholarship and political commentary.

Bradford’s assertion that death is what happens when you “rely on faith to heal you” and that such practitioners believe that God will protect them from being bitten misses the most basic points that one can glean from Covington’s firsthand descriptions from handlers themselves, where the rhetoric of “faith” and scriptural injunctions to take up serpents is tempered with a careful attention to process, such as deliberately repeated rituals and musical accompaniment, familiarity with seasoned handlers who pass you the snake, not taking a snake from the wrong person, etc. These are all discussed as enactments that bare a certain empirical method in order to minimize the likelihood of getting bitten. Beyond the purported spiritual requirements and the sheer rush of staring death in the face, Covington described how practitioners would discuss their bites and brushes with death as “war stories,” which gave them prestige within the community and an identity beyond the congregation that helped to distinguish their (typically) white, rural, and poor outsider status in American culture.

While I don’t want to lean too heavily on Covington’s descriptions, which are less analytic than they are personal reflections, his narrative is a good reminder of the difference between critical scholarship and journalistic commentary. The critical scholar does not merely cast judgments based on an affective and political aversion to the group or practice in question, but attempts to make what seems strange familiar and poses questions rather than providing concrete answers or value judgements. What is more–and here I may be stepping out on a ledge–the critical scholar must also recognize the importance of going out into the field (virtual or in person) to test how theory butts-up against embodied practice, and how attention to such details will always change our knee-jerk, affective-political responses to “weird news,” pushing us beyond “WTF” toward an open-ended question in need of method and theory.

Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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Theorizing Religion in the Age of Trump: Megan Goodwin

The election of Donald Trump has given rise to new kind of politics that has already increased tensions between competing groups, including religious groups over issues such as public education, science funding, and a proposed travel ban impacting several Muslim majority countries. In this new series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars how they might go about theorizing these issues from the perspective of the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here

Planned Parenthood? Forsaking American Women for the Mother of All Bombs

by Megan Goodwin

By way of introduction: I realize that this is a theories and methods blog, and thus perhaps not an intuitive fit for a post like this. But I have taught and thought and written American political religions [i] exhaustively for the past several years, and my teaching and thinking and writing have been fundamentally changed (some might say warped) by our most recent election. I have always emphasized to my students that we cannot understand American politics without theorizing religion; but I have also striven to demonstrate that there is smart thinking all along the political spectrum. This election cycle decimated my liberal “both sides now” approach. I cannot—we should not—shy away from the frank acknowledgment that religion and its agents are doing concrete political work on our nation and our bodies, often to the detriment of both.

—–

I was tempted to begin and end this essay by plagiarizing the response of my favorite political writer, Spider Jerusalem, to the election of a candidate he called the Beast. But the editors of the Bulletin are probably not interested in publishing a piece that just drops the F-bomb eight thousand times, so let’s talk about other bombs instead.

The United States celebrated Mother’s Day this past Sunday. I cannot divorce the observation of this holiday from the knowledge that our current president dropped the GBU-43, the largest non-nuclear bomb ever deployed by the US military in combat, just over a month ago in Afghanistan. The bomb is a Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), colloquially known as the Mother of All Bombs. [ii]

This past week, Pope Francis decried this appellation: “I was ashamed when I heard the name. A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother. What is going on?” the pontiff asked students visiting the Vatican. [iii]

What is going on in this statement is that the pope is condemning a confessed sexual predator for deploying a death-giving device called “Mother” while failing to censure American bishops and other Roman Catholics lobbying for policies that impoverish and kill women. Because let us be clear: limiting access to contraception and abortion impoverishes and kills women. And since 60% of those seeking abortions already have one or more children, limiting access to abortion kills mothers.

What is going on in this country is business as usual. The United States is blowing up a Muslim majority country on specious grounds, making it harder for the women of that country to survive. The leader of a politically influential religious institution is criticizing an elected official without taking responsibility for the role that religious institution plays in our elections and the governance of our nation. Roman Catholic sexual morality universalized as “American values” has directly influenced national policy for decades. [iv] Roman Catholic lobbyists and plaintiffs have largely focused their efforts on restricting women’s reproductive autonomy[v]

Hyde Amendment-opposing Hillary Clinton won the Catholic vote by a narrow margin [vi] despite well-publicized if undertheorized observations to the contrary, but religiously-informed reproductive politics played a “yuge role in electing our current leaders. If there can be no theorizing the 45th president, there must nonetheless be theorization in the age of his dominion. There is no making sense of this political moment, but we cannot hope to effectively resist institutionalized oppressions without historicizing and theoretically contextualizing this moment.

What is going on is that in the wake of the 2016 election, our elected officials seem emboldened to forsake the lives of women to establish dominion over their bodies. As Margaret Atwood notes in her recent reflection on The Handmaid’s Tale, “the control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet.” In 2013, I sat in the North Carolina General Assembly while those elected officials insisted their attempts to close dozens of clinics providing access to legal abortion services were motivated by a desire to keep women “safe.” Indeed, these are attempts to safen women: to render them docile, to rob them of their agency and autonomy, to secure the body politic by policing the bodies of its female citizens. This is what I mean when I speak of contraceptive nationalism.

The evidence that our elected officials are forsaking women’s lives, women’s safety, women’s health, and women’s personhood to rule over women’s bodies is as abundant as it is damning. And so—for Mother’s Day?—an incomplete litany of accomplishments in these first long one hundred days:

*An inauguration that inspired a series of global protests organized and led by women, including what was arguably the largest protest in American history.

*A presidential memorandum reinstating and expanding the global gag rule, banning all foreign NGOs that receive global health funding from the United States from counseling clients about abortion or advocating for abortion law liberalization.

*A presidential declaration of April 2017 as National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month signed by an avowed sexual predator accused of sexual assault by no fewer than thirteen women.

*Two executive orders limiting immigration from Muslim majority countries, immigrants from whom have perpetrated no terrorist attacks against US citizens, justified in part by a stated concern for preventing violence against women and gender-based oppression.

*The signing into law of House Joint Resolution 43, allowing states to withhold Title X Family Planning funding to facilities that provide abortions, for no other reason than that those facilities provide abortions. This legislation repeals protections President Obama instituted following attempts by more than a dozen Republican-controlled states to defund Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers. [vii] This resolution also increases the precarity of women “too undocumented for healthcare,” who rely on Planned Parenthood to treat them regardless of their immigration status without the risk of medical repatriation.

*The passage of the American Health Care Act through the US House of Representatives by a small group of white men, among them a Vice President who once signed a law requiring burial or cremation for aborted fetuses. The AHCA in its current incarnation allows insurers to decide what counts as a pre-existing medical condition; before the passage of the Affordable Care Act, providers denied coverage to customers who survived sexual assault and domestic violence. While insurers may not deny coverage based on these conditions, they can make coverage unaffordable for customers with such conditions. Pre-existing conditions which have universally been used to deny customer coverage include diseases that disproportionately affect women (like multiple sclerosis), procedures more likely to be performed on women (like C-sections), and conditions more likely to be experienced by women (like pregnancy). This version of the AHCA also makes pregnancy 425% more expensive[viii]

*The passage of major abortion restrictions in five states (Arkansas, Arizona, Kentucky, Utah, and Wyoming) and the introduction of bills banning some or all kinds of abortions in twenty-eight state legislatures during the 2017 state legislative session. In a “60 Minutes” interview given shortly after his election, the current president of the United States suggested women “will have to go to another state” if their home state eliminates access to this legal medical procedure.

*The appointment of Stephen Miller, a senior adviser who has argued against paid family leave and dismissed the gendered wage gap, to work on “women’s issues” with the president’s daughter, a fashion designer.

*The appointment of Tom Price as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Price is an advocate of faith-based treatment programs and a vocal opponent of the ACA’s contraceptive mandate. Price claims both that providing contraceptive coverage is “trampling on religious freedom and religious liberty in this country” and that no woman cannot afford birth control despite evidence to the contrary. Price has expressed staunchly anti-choice views, including cosponsoring two “Right to Life” bills in 2005 and 2007 and voting for Rand Paul’s 2007 “Sanctity of Life” Act, which would have extended the protections of the 14th amendment to zygotes.

*The appointment of Teresa Manning to oversee Title X family planning funding for the Department of Health and Human Services. Manning has stated that contraception doesn’t work and that “family planning is what occurs between a husband and a wife and God.” [ix]

*And finally, a presidential executive order “promoting free speech and religious liberty.” While scholars and activist organizations have dismissed the order as “a whole lot of nothing” and “an elaborate photo op,” Section 3 bears scrutiny in its explicit provision for protections of religious conscience against the ACA’s contraceptive mandate. This provision must further be read in light of the vehemently anti-choice vice president’s recent address to the anti-choice March for Life, in which he pledged to “restore a culture of life in America.” [x]

This list does not touch on women as victims of increased detention and deportation or mothers facing increasingly unstable federal protections for the housing and education of their children. And it bears noting that America was not doing well by its women before the 2016 election. Trans women of color are being murdered at an alarming rate. Hispanic women make 54% of what white men make for comparable employment. The United States already ranked 97th in women’s participation in government and “dead last” among developed countries in providing paid maternity leave before the ninth of November.

But this administration threatens to take America from merely remedial to heretofore-presumably-fictional levels of gender-based oppression. It should not surprise us, then, that we’re seeing women dressed up as Atwood’s handmaids to protest anti-choice legislation. (Or as, Sady Doyle put it, that many of us are “counting down the days until life as we knew it be[comes] a full-time, non-consensual LARP of The Handmaid’s Tale.”) If these first 100+ days are any indicator, we should anticipate increasing attempts to restrict women’s reproductive rights in the name of religious liberty.

We must also recall, then, that restricting women’s reproductive rights is also forsaking American women. Limiting access to abortion does not prevent abortion. It kills poor women, young women, rural women, undocumented women, women of color. It kills mothers.

Facing the closure of clinics, the slashing of funds for effective family planning, the intimidation of care seekers and providers, we can only assume this administration would advise us to turn to prayer. Let us then pray together in the words Margaret Atwood taught us:

“Keep the others safe, if they are safe. Don’t let them suffer too much. If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves.”

Megan Goodwin is a Visiting Scholar with the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University. Her current project is Women and Children Last: Sex, Abuse, and American Minority Religions.

—–

[i] In his 2008 Religion of Fear, Jason Bivins asserts that he “use[s] the term ‘political religion,’ hoping that avoids the essentialism of “religion and politics”—as if each of these were a fixed, discrete entity—since whatever we mean by the political or the religious, it is most analytically fruitful to see them modifying each other rather than necessarily and a priori existing separately.” Political religion forms the bedrock of my own theorization of religion(s).

[ii] Scant though it may be, my training in biblical studies will not allow me to leave the coincidence between the acronym and the Torah go unremarked upon. Moab is the product of an incestuous coupling between Lot and his eldest daughter, according to Genesis 19:37-38, and the site at which G-d renewed the divine covenant with the Israelites before they entered Canaan, according to Deuteronomy 29:1. This may be entirely accidental; however, the scripturalization of US military weapons is not without precedent.

[iii] While critical of the American president’s actions, Pope Francis has not cancelled their meeting, scheduled for later this month.

[iv] As Fessenden notes, “What remains of the Catholic Church’s aspirations to universality in a secular age, then, inheres almost entirely in the register of sex and gender.”

[v] discussions about religious authority and women’s reproductive autonomy frequently and justifiably focus on religious institutions’ attempts to limit the latter to maintain the former. Gil Frank’s recent piece, “The Surprising Role of Clergy in the Abortion Fight Before Roe v. Wade,” provides an important counternarrative.

[vi] Unless we’re talking about young Catholics, Hispanic Catholics, or Catholics in the American West; all three demographics preferred Secretary Clinton by a wide margin.

[vii] Reminder: abortion is legal. Second reminder: abortion providers were already prohibited from using federal funds to subsidize taxpayer abortions, except in cases of incest, rape, or danger to the health of the mother. Third reminder: cutting funding for Planned Parenthood does not and will not end abortion in the United States. It will make access to contraception, cervical cancer-detecting pap smears, breast cancer screenings, STI testing, and sex education inaccessible and/or unaffordable for many of the five million people who use their services each year.

[viii] The Senate version of the AHCA bill is being drafted exclusively by white men, who suggested the inclusion of a single woman in its design would signal “identity politics,” as though “white man” were not a protected political identity.

[ix] HHS has also hired anti-choice advocate Charmaine Yoest as Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs.

[x] To say nothing of the baroque horror that is the rumor of the Vice President calling his own wife “Mother.”

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What’s in Your Religion Syllabus?: Shannon Trosper Schorey

In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars of religion to share with our readers what’s in their religion syllabus, from a new class or a class they’ve taught for years, reflecting on what has worked, what has been modified, and how it has proven useful for covering a particular topic in the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here.

by Shannon Trosper Schorey

As a researcher I am positioned at the intersection of religion, science, and media studies – a balancing act constructed through my interest in how information technologies and religion are wrapped up in fascinating and unexpected ways. My courses generally extend upon this work by asking the students to think together about how both words (language, categories) and things (technologies, materials) construct, maintain, and restructure social worlds.

My freshman-level course RELI 135: Technology, the Self, and Ethical Problems is designed to get students to think about this research question primarily by way of the field of religion and media. I have found that scholarship about religion and media is rife with particularly great examples demonstrating how differently scholars have perceived of the separation between subjects and objects, language and phenomena, agency and determinism, structures and escape. Because of the long-standing cultural tradition of responding to technological advance via utopian or dystopian rhetoric, religion and media also allows me to work with students in real time to identify how tropes in Western religious history and thought have stretched out over what might be otherwise read as secular realms. This allows us to follow Asad’s challenge to think more critically about how and when cultures divide the “religious” from the “secular,” and what is at stake in each division, for the rest of the semester.

This is the course description:

This course serves as an introduction to the academic study of religion as well as the methodological and theoretical approaches of Cultural Studies and Science and Technology Studies (STS).

The first half of the course will ask: What is religion? What is technology? We will focus on different ways to conceptualize religion, agency, technological determinism, politics, materiality, and the secular. What is at stake in each of these analytics? Who gets to decide?

The last half of the course will survey case studies that work to 1) orient students to the contemporary state of the field of media and religion, and 2) provide an opportunity to “test out” the major theories covered in the first half of the semester. Each week we will come to the question of ethics via the negotiation of enlightenment values and their critiques.

The narrative of the course was designed to lead students through major issues in the study of religion, media, and science by way of thinking about radical entanglement and social constructionism. This allows me to bypass the superficial treatment of religion and science as “non-overlapping magisteria” and gives the students a crash course in both cultural studies/critical theory and science and technology studies, with the goal of rooting the discourses, practices, and (contested) categories of religion and science into their cultural and historical locations.

While I have written elsewhere about some of my choices for assigned reading, what really makes the course take root is pairing the theoretical and philosophical texts with case studies drawn from movies, songs, popular culture, the news, and campus life. Although I incorporate case studies in a variety of different ways, a favorite method is the very excellent “In the News” assignment I’ve adapted from Randall Styers’ RELI 138: Religious Freedom course. Briefly, this assignment asks students to identify a theme, question, or problematic posed by the course in a contemporary news piece and then asks the student to use the resources of the course to respond accordingly. Because my course is about 160+ students smaller (I average 30 students for RELI 135, whereas RELI 138 is a large lecture hall course), I’ve modified the assignment from a research paper into a series of 5-minute case study presentations. For the case studies I ask that students look at any case study of their choosing (from the news or not) and evaluate it according to the perspective of two different authors we have already covered in the class. I ask the students to identify three distinct things those authors might privilege, critique, or respond to if they were presented with the case study today. Then the student is asked to craft a research question reflective of those authors – whether that is to push against, extend, or use them in some other way. The class as a whole spends a few minutes playing with possible responses to the presenter, which often gives us a chance to organically clarify and remind ourselves of difficult passages and concepts from previous lectures in the light of new material.

I have students sign up for presentations after week 5, once we have a foundation of authors beneath our feet, and from there on out the class will start with one or two students talking about how the class is directly relevant to issues in the world today. This makes the students excited to proliferate connections between the class and their own lives, re-affirms to them that what they think and what they learn matters, and functions as an ongoing review session that does far more to solidify the major concepts in their minds than hours upon hours of lecturing could ever do.

Although my class is directed at freshman level undergraduates, I firmly believe that incorporating such case study and workshop materials empowers students to play with theory and philosophy in a wonderfully rewarding way that encourages critical curiosity, rather than rote mastery.

Shannon Trosper Schorey is a doctoral candidate in the Religious Studies Department at UNC Chapel Hill. Her dissertation, “The Internet is Holy,” investigates discourses of religion and secularism in Silicon Valley.

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“Gender” in/and the Study of Religion: Cameron Montgomery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this series, the Bulletin asks scholars if and how they critically engage “gender” in the study of religion. Contributors consider how gender intersects with method & theory, pedagogy, professional practices, or matters of race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc., and how such intersections are handled within the study of religion. For previous posts in this series, see here.

Critically Engaging Gender: An Ethnographer’s Perspective

by Cameron Montgomery

In the third year of my undergrad, I took a course called méthodes et théories en sciences des religions. We each had to write a research paper on an eminent scholar in Religion and Anthropology, Philosophy or Sociology. We went around the table saying who we would be studying. I picked James Frazer. A student in the class said ‘Mary Douglas’.

“Who is that? That’s not a real scholar,” said the professor. I was surprised because even as an undergrad, I knew who Mary Douglas was.

“Okay then, Mary Daly,” said the student.
“No. Also not a real scholar,” he said.
“Can I choose a woman?” she asked.
“You won’t find one appropriate to study,” he said.

He chose her scholar: Mircea Eliade.

Later I looked up more information on Mary Douglas. Princeton University, Oxford University, studied under E.E. Evans-Pritchard. She looked like a real scholar to me; what was his problem?  Later on in the semester I mentioned Helen Keller in class.

“Who is that?” said the professor, and the whole class snickered with surprise. Embarrassed, he snapped at me.

“If she’s some feminist hero of course I don’t know her.”

His words dripped with vitriol. I had no idea what he was on about.  At that point I had never in my life heard the word “feminism”. (Naomi Goldenberg remedied that gap in the fourth year of my undergrad.)  I thought of Mary Douglas as a pretty stereotypical-of-her-time anthropologist of religion, and Helen Keller as an inspiration to anybody fighting against restrictive limitations, regardless of her gender.

It was not until I watched Owen ‘Alik Shahadah and M. K. Asante Jr.’s documentary 500 Years Later that I was able to put my méthodes et théories experience into context.  The film explores the residual effects of slavery on contemporary American society.  There is a scene where a white teacher stands in front of a classroom teaching about white history; the white kids are engaged and have their hands raised, and the black kids sit silent.  The scene cuts to one where a black teacher adds content about non-white philosophers, inventors and great thinkers, and the whole class is engaged.  The voiceover explains that whitewashed education makes all these kids learn that there are no black great thinkers.  When I watched this part of the film, I realized that my professor denying that women writers and thinkers even exist was actually worse than presenting and debating their ideas.

Little did I know during my méthodes et théories course that Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father is one of the most important and brilliant texts in the field of Religious Studies.  It is a classic that I quote on a regular basis and a necessary part of my academic repertoire.  I had lots of ideas about how ethnographic methodology could be enriched to be consciously-woman-inclusive, but to be quite honest, we are still at a point in Religious Studies where women scholars are fighting to be ‘recognized’ in a Birnbaumian sense.  (Maria Birnbaum, now at the University of Oslo. She articulates recognition more potently than Habermas, but it still crossed my mind to reference him there instead. Hmm.)

Before I talk about critically engaging gender in method and theory in the study of religion, I think it is important to start with the basics, and state what by now to me is obvious, but is not obvious in the uncritical reaches of the field:

Do you believe that women scholars are as intelligent, interesting, and important as the male ones?  Then show it in your references and your syllabi.  That is where the critical engagement should start.  

My last major project was an ethnographic study of religion and women’s activism in Ukraine and Turkey.  Just because I was studying women, does not mean that my methodology was feminist.  If I had accepted the conventionally reinscribed significance of the terms my participants were using, terms that this field uses without a gendered analysis, my approach would not have been specifically feminist.

For example, the term ‘worship’ gets used quite often in the field of Religious Studies.  If your experience of worship is your brother reciting the kaddish at your father’s funeral, while you, a woman, listen from behind a screen, then the foundation of your perspective on worship is different than that of your brother.  In this example, worship can be defined as being heard, or alternately, as being hidden. The meaning of ‘worship’ is contingent on gender, but is a term that in traditionalist frameworks, like Ninian Smart’s, for example, is defined as static, neutral, and ‘obvious’.

‘Faith’ is another example of an essentialized term which is often used without a gendered analysis.  I would argue that in most Christianities ‘faith’ for women means ‘faith in patriarchal authority’, while for men it means ‘faith in self’.  Simply studying women talking about faith, then, with ‘faith’ in your study defined as it pertains to men (or left undefined at default-maleness: see Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex), is failing to critically engage gender.

One of the basic binaries prevalent in the field is the religious/secular binary.  (At my doctoral comprehensive examination, one of the examiners argued that this binary exists not only in the field but everywhere in the world, fundamentally.  At my thesis defense, one of the examiners argued that it is not used in the field at all anymore.  Which is worse?  I’m not sure.)  This religion-as-depoliticized-space vs. secular-as-politicized-space binary operates from the perspective of a privileged individual with access to mechanisms of self-determination, who is able to define ‘religion’ as a personal belief separate from a public sphere.  For women, there can be no religion/secular binary because women’s lives are always politicized.

Whatever women do with their bodies is considered a political statement.  You shave your armpits? Political statement.  You don’t shave your armpits? Political statement.  You wear something on your head? Political statement.  You wear nothing on your head? Political statement.  What you eat, where you stand, whether or not you are smiling, all of your health choices, everything to do with your sexuality—these things are political statements whether you intend them to be or not.  What a man does with his body may be a personal choice, but women do not have that luxury.  Adding ‘religion’ to the analysis does not change this basic fact of living as a woman.  Women making choices about their bodies within the discursive space of ‘religion’ are not suddenly exempt from politicization.

In my ethnographic work with marginalized women, I saw time and time again that women making choices about ‘religion’ are considered activists and political agents.  Women making any statements at all about religion are engaging in politics, even if those statements are identical to men’s statements which are classified as ‘personal’ or ‘faith-based’.  Much work in a ‘religion’ space done by women is classified into the ‘political’ category and risks becoming ‘non-data’ in the field of Religious Studies.

Any study meant to include women which does not account for this in their methodological tools is missing an important dimension of analysis.  Avoiding or neglecting to critically engage gender will only make research results lack relevance for potentially half of the subjects of study.  As Pamela Dickey Young argues, “method determines outcome” (1990: 17).  Mary Daly theorized in 1973 that the “tyranny of methodolatry” keeps the perspectives of women unheard as “nondata” and translated through a male lens over and over until the methodology itself is critically interrogated (Beyond God the Father).

At a 2014 ‘Expert Meeting on Religion, Gender, Sexuality and Activism’ in Ghent, organized by the Religion and Gender Network, Sara Borrillo gave a talk on the methodological and ethical dimensions of doing feminist work in Religious Studies.  She said that her work is not feminist if it is irrelevant to the women she studies.

Discourses on religion are very often depoliticized. I believe depoliticizing ‘religion’ would make my work irrelevant to the women I study.

Photo Credit: “@dreamshare supporting the feminist society of Turkey <3.” Alyshea Cummins, 2014.

Cameron Montgomery is a part-time professor in the Faculty of Health, Public Safety and Community Studies at Algonquin College in Ottawa, Ontario. She successfully defended her dissertation in January 2017 in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Check her website for updates on the publication of her ethnographic work, Goddess Activism.

Posted in "Gender" in/and the Study of Religion, Academy, Guest Contributor, Pedagogy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Ruminations, Sexuality and Gender, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Challenges, Perspectives, and Directions in the Study of Religion: Reassessing Theoretical and Professional Assumptions

The following is the introduction to the March 2017 issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion (the full table of contents having already been posted). Although our publisher has kindly made this introduction freely available, we offer this editorial here on the blog in order to give readers an overview of the most recent issue of the Bulletin.

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by Philip L. Tite

In one capacity or another, I have been part of the academic study of religion for just under thirty years. Although I considered switching to other fields or disciplines of study, especially while a student, I always found religious studies my “home.” There has always been an energy to our field, an ongoing clash of ideas and theoretical perspectives, and also professional challenges. It is this very energy that has made the study of religion such a fun place to be, yet also a frustrating field to work in. This issue of the Bulletin brings together two sets of articles that challenge readers to look forward, to broaden their horizons, and to reassess their assumptions about the field both theoretically and professionally.

Our first set of articles comes from the European context. Russell McCutcheon, who is finishing off his term as our current NAASR president, was visiting with a group of early career scholars (at the doctoral or post-doctoral level) who are working on a range of projects engaging theory in the study of religion. We felt it would be helpful for Bulletin readers to get a glimpse into some of the exciting work being done in the Swiss context. We are pleased, therefore, to include a set of short presentations of such research. For myself, it is my hope that such a glimpse will encourage even greater international collaboration on theorizing religion. Setting the stage for these articles, McCutcheon offers a fascinating glimpse into the role of theory in our field, especially in how the reception of theory has shifted over the past few decades. Closing off this set of articles, Anja Kirsch (who is overseeing much of the research presented in this issue) offers a challenging afterword, raising for consideration our relation to theory, the role of theory in the identity and history of a discipline, while engaging the insights of the particular European context(s) addressed in this wonderful set of articles.

Our second set of articles shifts focus to a series of responses to Kate Daley-Bailey’s Open Letter to the AAR on contingent faculty (2015). This letter was published in the Bulletin just over a year ago, and it ignited a much-needed conversation on the challenges facing contingent and adjunct faculty and how our professional associations can do a better job at responding to the increasing shifts in our profession (where approximately 70 percent to 80 percent of undergraduate teaching in the humanities and social sciences—including, of course, religious studies—is now done by underemployed or contractually employed faculty in North America). Daley-Bailey elucidated ways in which the AAR annual meeting systemically marginalizes such scholars, despite attempts by the AAR to respond to their member needs. I feel that she is calling for a paradigm shift in the profession, in this our largest academic association, to meet shifting trends in demographics of those increasingly comprising the “new career norm” in religious studies. We are pleased to begin with a response from Jack Fitzmier, executive director of the American Academy of Religion, followed by responses from Charles McCrary, Kerry Danner, Jason Sager, and Helen Ramirez. Daley-Bailey offers a rejoinder to this set of articles. It is our hope that this set of reactions to the Open Letter will spark a productive, ongoing conversation on a transforming academic profession.

The articles published in this issue of the Bulletin are meant to create conversation, perhaps even heated debates. These articles challenge readers to see the study of religion—be that as a profession or as theory-building—from fresh perspectives, both geographically and socio-economically. We want readers to read against the grain and to be pushed out of their comfort zones. The horizons facing our field of study are global, disruptive, yet forward-moving. We welcome readers to join these discussions either through our very active blog or in the pages of the Bulletin itself; to reflect, respond, and engage the ideas presented by our authors.

References

Daley-Bailey, Kate. 2015. “For the Good or the ‘Guild’: An Open Letter to the American Academy of Religion.Bulletin for the Study of Religion 44(4): 4–11. https:// doi.org/10.1558/bsor.v44i4.29036.

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