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 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?
Stopping Conversation: Andrew Sullivan on the “Religion” of Academia
by Matthew Baldwin
Part I: The Context
Last week Andrew Sullivan, whom NYT columnist Ross Douthat has labeled “the most influential political writer of his generation”, contributed yet another entry to the growing list of center-right critiques of the allegedly illiberal tendencies of American academia. From an academic’s perspective, there is nothing particularly noteworthy in this genre of discourse. It is indeed an old trope of American political speech, familiar from the era of the “culture wars” and before (Smith et al. 2008). But Sullivan’s March 10th blog post for New York Magazine was published with a title which might well grab the attention of Bulletin readers; in it, he asks the deliberately provocative question: “Is Intersectionality a Religion?”
Sullivan frames his argument around a single anecdote which he labels “the latest assault on liberal democracy”: an ugly and unruly incident that occurred at Middlebury College on March 2nd, 2017. In this incident students shut down a public speech by the controversial social scientist Charles Murray, whose 1994 book The Bell Curve has been frequently described as racist and whose 2012 book Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960–2010 may be fairly described as out of step with its times. After preventing his speech from proceeding either live or in a video studio, a small mob of masked student protestors violently drove Murray and his entourage from both the campus and the town. In the process, Middlebury political science professor Allison Stanger (a self-professed liberal) was assaulted and briefly hospitalized.
In this piece, Sullivan joins many other critics before him (for example, Nicholas Kristof) in decrying an apparent pattern of intolerant and sometimes violent repression of conservative speech on American university campuses. What seems novel in Sullivan’s editorial is the frame he supplies to this familiar critique. He appears to have discovered a new “religion” among the student- and faculty-agitators who populate American universities.
Sullivan’s argument is very much a product of its time, reflecting currents of discourse (about academia, politics, and religion) which have become typical of this “age of Trump.” To understand this piece, we need to interpret it in the light of these several contextual factors.
First, it must be pointed out that the Middlebury incident comes on the heels of similar incidents involving Milo Yiannopoulos, the flamboyant alt-right apologist and “internet supervillain”, whose year-long “Dangerous Faggot” tour of college campuses has provoked numerous protests, especially (on January 13th) at UC Davis, and even (on February 1st) a violent riot at UC Berkeley. (On both campuses the former Breitbart-contributing editor’s scheduled appearances were cancelled.) In the wake of these incidents, broad criticisms of campus culture exploded all over the web, appearing everywhere from the Los Angeles Times to The Atlantic. University of Chicago Medievalist Rachel Fulton Brown caused a ruckus among Religious Studies professionals by publishing a response to the incident in the Divinity School e-zine Sightings. [Teaser: this author’s essay on RFB and Yiannopoulos (may be/is) forthcoming in the Bulletin’s Journal] President Trump even tweeted about the Berkeley riot (which probably means that FOX News had editorialized the story). These conservative criticisms of college campus culture form the first and most immediate background to Sullivan’s essay; it should not be read apart from them.
Second, an equally important context can be found in the ongoing public debate among progressives about how best to organize in response to the complex social problems that are caused by oppression along axes of class, race, gender, and sexuality. The term “intersectionality,” which stems from feminist and critical race theory (Crenshaw 1991; Carastathis 2016), and which has exploded in usage over the past twenty-six years, has frequently been invoked within these internal debates among progressives and liberals. The term appears everywhere, in debates over the role of “identity politics” in the electoral defeat of the establishment Democratic Party, or over the leadership of progressive groups like the #BlackLivesMatter movement, or in the Bernie Sanders “revolution”, or the Women’s March movement. Feminist philosopher Anna Carastathis warns that “in academic and, increasingly, in human-rights discourses and policy frameworks, flippant or vague references to ‘intersectionality’ abound” (2016: 3).
Carastathis’s words are precisely what we might say about the use of the term in Sullivan’s essay, though it possibly also applies to its usage in whatever currents of discourse Sullivan has been picking up on that have led him to ask this interesting, yet specious question, “Is Intersectionality a Religion?”
Next week — Part II: Classification and Criticism
Carastathis, Anna. Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons. Expanding Frontiers: Interdisciplinary Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43:6 (1991) 1241-1299.
Smith, Bruce L. R., Jeremy D. Meyer and A. Lee Fritscher. Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008.