by Tenzan Eaghll
On the evening of November 9, 2016, as Trump’s victory over Clinton seemed inevitable, CNN commentator Van Jones made a statement that would prove true not only about the results at the polls, but the many things to come in the realm of politics, philosophy, and even theory in the academic study of religion. Almost holding back tears, Van Jones said, “this was a white-lash, this was a white-lash against a changing country, it was a white-lash against a black president….”
Since election night almost two years ago, the data has most certainly shown Van Jones to be correct about the vote—Trump won the white vote 57% to Clinton’s 37%—but he was also proven right by the policies and appointments that Trump has put forth, which have obviously not only supported white conservative interests but fueled white nationalism and the alt-right.
Now, this is not a post about Trump, so I don’t want to dwell on any of these facts, but I just mention them in passing because I want to talk about the deeper conservative trend that has accompanied this political white-lash and how it relates to religious studies. What really concerns me in this post is therefore not how or why the white-lash occurred, but how it relates to theory in our field and what we can do moving forward.
In terms of popular philosophy—and I hesitate to even use the latter word to describe this man—Jordan Peterson has rocketed to stardom since the election of Trump, and interest in his work has also been fueled by the insurgence of white nationalism and the alt-right. At the time of the election in 2016 Peterson was certainly well known in Youtube and other online circles, but it is really over the last year and a half that he has gone stratospheric, with the New York Times recently calling him “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.”
As most readers of this blog will know, Peterson got his initial notoriety for refusing to use gender neutral pronouns, as required by bill C-16, which is an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code that protects gender expression and gender identity. However, since the controversy from that affair, he has published a New York Times bestselling book which has attempted to rebrand him as a more mainline conservative self-help guru.
The common factor in both Trump’s and Peterson’s rhetoric is an appeal to the natural greatness of “Western civilization.” For Trump, this greatness is specifically located in and through American domination—hence the slogan of his campaign, ‘MAGA’—and his constant attacks on all immigrant groups which threaten white Christian domination, both nationally and globally. For Peterson, the greatness of “Western (Christian) civilization” is located through its myths and hierarchies, as he thinks these myths preserve the world from chaos—hence the subtitle of his book, 12 Rules For life: An Antidote to Chaos. For both Trump and Peterson, therefore, there is an appeal to a sort of natural trait inherent to Western civilization that makes it great, but each have different visions of ensuring the continued dominance of this greatness and different enemies that they attack for challenging it. Whereas Trump attacks immigrants and other alien forces that threaten his view of American sovereignty, Peterson attacks cultural relativism, Marxism, and postmodern theory for threatening the sanctity of Western myths and values. In the rhetoric of both, however, there is an appeal to a time in the past when (white) Western (male) dominance wasn’t challenged, politically or culturally, by the rights of minorities, females, gender diversity, or other forms of social difference. Again, the common theme here is an appeal to certain traits from our past, either ethnically (as is most often the case with Trump) or even biologically (as is sometimes the case with Peterson), which can be linked to the outdated ideas of trait theory.
In terms of religious studies theory, I think both Trump and Peterson provide a wonderful example of what Russell McCutcheon called ‘the politics of nostalgia’ in Manufacturing Religion. In that book, McCutcheon was primarily concerned with critiquing sui generis claims about the essential uniqueness of religion, but his overall point about how these claims are connected to the politics of nostalgia overlaps nicely with a critique of the current white-lash we are experiencing, politically and philosophically. After all, the politics of nostalgia doesn’t just refer to sui generis claims about religion, but any ideological appeal to an essentialist vision of the past. As McCutcheon writes, “The politics of nostalgia, therefore, denotes an ideological position in which, for example, things purportedly archaic are unilaterally prevalued as essential and beneficial, becoming the norm against which other social arrangements and forms of human behavior are judged and found wanting” (33-34). At a general level, the politics of nostalgia stresses archaic myths as normative for the present, and this is what we see with both Trump and Peterson (and also what McCutcheon found in the work of Mircea Eliade). The rejection of the present by these thinkers, whether it be in an effort to make America great again or to fight ‘postmodern chaos,’ is an attempt to secure the sui generis traits of the West—as they respectively define them—above all else.
This conservative trend in politics and popular philosophy is therefore nothing new to religious studies scholars, as we have known that the politics of nostalgia is a major cultural and scholarly concern for some time now, but it is quite shocking how resurgent it is after all the theoretical developments over the past several decades. Trump and Peterson, after all, are merely the two most glaring examples from the numerous far-right politicians and conservative cultural theorists who our dominating public discourse right now, reviving old debates about equal rights, cultural diversity, and the need for basic economic oppertunity that I thought had been settled years ago. In fact, it seems like we are having to re-debate whether the politics of nostalgia is even a problem, which seems kind of insane to someone like myself whose whole education was centered around critiquing it. Yet here we are, and some major ‘scientific’ academics are even jumping on the bandwagon, once again attempting to define the religious nature of man like the old 19thCentury anthropologists from which our discipline emerged.
Pedagogically, what all this implies is that we need to get back to basics and teach students how to critique sui generis claims, whether they be classified as political, philosophical, or religious. I think that over the last decade we have let our defenses down a little bit and have been willing to explore ways to creatively re-imagine the study of religion, but in light of all the attacks on cultural difference, postmodern literary theory, and the return to essentialist or positivist theories of religion, it is painfully evident how much work remains to be done to deconstruct privileged narratives in popular culture. For a while it seemed that after the wave of deconstruction in the 90’s we were entering into a new creative period in the field, and that our duty was to recreate the study of religion from the ground up—and as some have recently suggested, to rebuild the humanities in creative non-critical ways—but I think this is wrongheaded. What is needed is not a reconstruction of the field, or the humanities at large, but continued critical work to deconstruct suigenerisclaims which privilege unified and autonomous phenomenon, no matter whether it be defined in political, philosophical, or religious terms. As Malory Nye recently argued in an article for Implicit Religion, there is no real end to the deconstruction of religion—and religion doesn’t need to be ‘reconstructed’ after its deconstruction. Rather, what is needed is further critical and ideological analysis of issues such as race, class, gender, etc., as these are the political strategies that lay concealed in all hegemonic sui generis claims.
In very practical terms, a good example of what this implies can actually be found in Nye’s recent article for Method and Theory in the Study of Religion,“Race and Religion: Postcolonial Formations of Power and Whiteness.” In this piece, and in his blogs on the subject, Nye calls attention to how suigenerisclaims about religion are not only linked to issues of race and power, but how the category “religion” itself is “a form of racialization.” This insight can be particularly powerful for addressing a number of political, philosophical, and theoretical issues because it illustrates how anything from Trump’s appeal to ‘Make America Great Again,’ Peterson’s triumphant endorsement of the myths of Western culture, and scholarly attempts to locate the suigeneristraits of religion, whether in theological or positivist terms, can all be subjected to a very clear ideological critique. Moreover, it opens a host of theoretical and methodological questions that can be applied to other areas of study in the social sciences and humanities, from Political Science to Film Studies.
In all these ways, I think the white-lash brought on by Trump’s election has important implications for the study of religion that all scholars should pay heed to, both in the classroom and in our scholarship. Though it pains me to say it, we may have to fight against the growing resurgence of the politics of nostalgia for years to come, and this is not a fight any of us can afford to sit back idly and ignore. For as critical scholars who use a host of cultural studies methods to expose social-political interests concealed in hegemonic claims and to argue for diversity and equality, we too are caught in its cross-hairs.