A Response to “Evidentiary Boundaries and Improper Interventions: Evidence, Implications, and Illegitimacy in American Religious Studies”

* This post is one of several responses to Kelly J. Baker’s essay “Evidentiary Boundaries and Improper Interventions: Evidence, Implications and Illegitimacy in American Religious Studies,” which can be found herehereherehere and here.

by Rebecca Barrett-Fox

We don’t ask oncologists if they agree with cancer or climatologists if they think global warming is a good idea or entomologists if they are trying to advance the cause of mosquitoes, yet scholars of “illegitimate” American religious studies continue to be asked, as Kelly Baker notes, “Why reckon with the vilified?” The question comes from one of two sources: members of the general public (interested strangers on airplanes, inebriated bar patrons, angry taxpayers demanding to know why professors are spending their sabbaticals researching such topics) and our own colleagues. To both audiences, I suggest we simply stop apologizing for our work, justifying our research choices, and distancing ourselves from those we study by retreating to the safe spaces of objectivity or even disapproval. You probably have a good sense of why this research is valuable—otherwise, you wouldn’t be doing it; say it without apologizing for yourself or your discipline.

Baker’s focus on the ways that what we accept and reject as evidence shapes our interpretations and narratives is a fine point—for “neither facts nor data ever speak for themselves”—but that data does not speak for itself is, itself, nothing to be afraid of; rather, it allows the discipline to regenerate and continue. We are not here to trace each interlocutor of data, test evidence for authenticity, and sort information into “credible” and “non-credible” piles.  Instead, our search is to learn how evidence has been interpreted. Who got to speak it and how and why? Why is some evidence preserved and other evidence discarded or neglected or destroyed? Why is some available to scholars and some withheld or suppressed or ignored? What do those choices tell us? And when they are not choices but results of structural forces—of the extinction of a language, of sexism or racism that silences some but not others, of poverty that destroys the material culture of some people but not others—why do those forces act in those ways?

As a small example, a house of worship is on fire.  What are the things the cleric rushes in to save? The things he bypasses? The things he steals? The things the parishioners save or bypass or steal? The things passersby rush to save or bypass or steal? And what are the things the cleric deliberately set on fire just yesterday? And does it matter if the house of worship is the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1964 or the Mount Carmel Center near Waco, Texas, in 1993 or a mosque? (See the ACLU’s interactive Nationwide Anti-Mosque Activity map for ample examples) Does it matter if the house of worship isn’t a house at all but Kitt Peak in Arizona, which the Tohono O’odham people hold to be sacred, or Black Rock City, a metropolis constructed each year in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, for Burning Man?  The evidence—the stuff we save or ignore or destroy (or steal)—is interesting (of course!), but so are the reasons why and the processes of how we make those choices, and these may, at times, have wider and longer-lasting implications for how scholarship is done and what scholarship does.

Those questions may even be more provocative when applied not to the abject or disgusting or frightening but when applied to “the people we like” (Baker 2011, 28-29), people we are less likely to suspect, question, and critique. We not only fail to distance ourselves from them but may even identify with them, love them, join them, celebrate them, or champion them—though they may be no less honest with us. (Who is more likely to give you an honest answer to a painful question—someone you love and who loves you or someone who, you both know, stands in opposition to you?) And who are you most likely to hear that honest answer from?

To sharpen the skills necessary to hear this “more”—evidence that is discarded or destroyed or neglected, hidden or suppressed or answers that alarm or disgust us—requires patience and time, a scarcity as more PhD programs seek to control costs by shortening time to degree and as PhDs, especially those working as adjuncts, carry heavy teaching loads.  A five year PhD program, in other words, may just not be long enough to do this kind of work—nor can it be done while teaching four or five classes per semester. (Tenure expectations may similarly limit our ability to do risky, deep, lengthy research) So then the question is of a different kind of  “more”: if we limit this kind of deep research in American religious studies to only those scholars who can afford to spend seven to ten years in graduate school or who can decrease years spent in graduate school by avoiding exploitative graduate teaching and adjunct work—who will those scholars be?

Can we responsibly and ethically expand the “more” of what we study without expanding the pool of scholars?  (I don’t think so) What horrifying, frightening, uncomfortable, disgusting evidence will be ignored if we narrow the field to include only the affluent white men who, historically, have been most successful as academics? Will they recognize evidence for religiously-justified race hate crimes? the religious practices of new immigrants? the spiritual dimensions of infertility and pregnancy loss?  the material religious culture of people of the working class? the harm that much religion has done to women, the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, and queer people? What insights will be lost if we, as a discipline, do not better invest in training and supporting our own scholars to ask questions about how things are made evident? This isn’t a question about merely the abject, though it comes into most relief when applied to zombies and hate groups, but about all topics where evidence matters—in short, in all kinds of scholarship.

Rebecca Barrett-Fox is a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Arkansas State University. Her scholarship focuses on the intersection of conservative Christianity, sexuality, and politics, with emphasis on ethnographic methods.  Her work has appeared in The Journal of Hate Studies, The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Proteus: A Journal of Ideas, and Radical Teacher. Her current research project is an ethnographic study of users of Dave Ramsey’s financial advice products. She welcomes conversations about any of these topics at rbarrettfox@gmail.com.

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