by Emily Clark
“Truth is we follow GOD!
We’ve always been behind Him!
The Carnival is GOD
And may all Juggalos find Him!” – Insane Clown Posse, “Thy Unveiling,” 2002
“March, fight the political and religious despotism; it is the duty of the defender of humanity.” – Séance message to New Orleans Afro-creoles, 11 December 1871
Kelly Baker’s recent article “Evidentiary Boundaries and Improper Interventions: Evidence, Implications and Illegitimacy in American Religious Studies” in the Bulletin’s special issue on evidence is a smart, reflective, thought-provoking piece. Go read it. Baker put a host of scholars from a variety of disciplines in conversation with one another and asks frequently overlooked and avoided but necessary questions: How does our subfield identify proper evidence and how does that process shape our subfield and the stories we tell?
The purpose of her article is to examine “the selection and justification of the evidence in ARS, not necessarily to provide answers, but to evoke further discussions about, and interpretations of, our evidentiary habits, their norms, their boundaries and their possibilities.” This is a discussion worth having, and one that most in American Religious Studies (ARS) don’t engage. While religious studies has had multiple conversations regarding the definition of religion (or whether we need one at all), inquiries concerning the boundaries of acceptable evidence for ARS are infrequent.
I realize that starting with a lyric from Insane Clown Posse (ICP) probably made most readers wary and perhaps confused. That was on purpose. Baker opens her article with the response she often receives about her research: “Zombies? This is a joke, right? You’re writing a book on zombies?” The second quote was perhaps more “expected” for ARS, part of a spirit message during a nineteenth-century séance. One seems more legitimate or proper evidence for the study of religion in America. The other gets written off as a stunt.
Baker’s article brings two questions to the forefront of my mind: How do we decide what is acceptable as evidence or data for ARS, and how seriously should we take our subjects? Much more than ICP, I think about these questions in regards to my dissertation evidence and research. The main archive of evidence for my dissertation is the séance records of a small group of Afro-creole Spiritualists in mid- to late-nineteenth-century New Orleans. This group of men (and occasionally women) believed they communicated with the spirits of Abraham Lincoln, Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais, Pierre Robespierre, John Brown, St. Vincent de Paul and others. I’ve been asked if I believe they were communicating with the dead. And I wonder in response, how would one academically appraise their sincerity? I do recognize that my dissertation evidence seems more “legitimate” for the study of American religions than ICP. Baker’s article prompts me to ask why? The séance circle was small and their records were not publicized. ICP videos on YouTube like “Miracles” and the recent “Where’s God?” have thousands to millions of views, and their official YouTube channel has over 110,000 subscribers and over 56 million views. Sincere or not, their music and aesthetics are popular.
If we agree with Gary Laderman’s recent Huffington Post article, “The Rise of Religious ‘Nones” Indicates the End of Religion As We Know It,” then why wouldn’t ICP be evidence for late twentieth and twenty-first century American religions? Near the end of his article, Laderman writes, “the religious worlds in the contemporary and future United States are robust and capacious, providing an abundance of spiritual possibilities found in unexpected places like drum circles and meditation exercises, sports events and other expressions from popular culture.”
Thus, I agree with Baker that we should think seriously about how the field decides what is proper or acceptable evidence for ARS and who gets to decide those boundaries. As she argues, “By marking some evidence out of bounds, we obscure rather than illuminate.” For example, what would a story about twenty-first century evangelization in America look like if we included, dare I suggest, ICP? It would engage mass-marketing, popular culture, and the media. It would definitely examine innovative ways of engaging potential converts. It would also take seriously the shape-shifting nature of the term religion—its ever-expanding disciplinary boundaries and its disciplinary constructedness. It would take seriously the “nones.” It would also take seriously the fact that “religion” exists and happens in churches and temples but also outside them.
Emily Suzanne Clark is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion at Florida State University. Her research interests include religion and race in the American South, African American religions, and religion and materiality. Her dissertation examines politics and the practice of Spiritualism among Afro-creoles in nineteenth-century New Orleans. Her most recent publication explores the healing practices of the Moorish Science Temple. She has a forthcoming article on the apocalyptic artwork of New Orleans folk artist Sister Gertrude Morgan and will participate in a roundtable on black Catholicism in the Journal of Africana Religions.