Religion Mad Libs


by Kate Daley-Bailey

Did you ever play Mad Libs as a kid? Mad Libs is a word game in which one player asks the other for a list of words to fill in blanks within an already written short story or paragraph. If someone asks you for a random noun, you might say ‘radio’ or ‘pineapple.’ For a verb, you might reply ‘flying’ or ‘singing.’ In isolation, this may not seem entertaining but taken together you and friends can come up with some silly short stories about flying radios and singing pineapples. It seems that the greater the disconnect between the words slapped together, the odder the story becomes. It is the unexpected and unusual pairing of words that often causes our delighted or outraged responses, is it not? I think I enjoyed this game so much as a child because it allowed me to challenge certain expectations and disrupt particular patterns… all in the name of road trip shenanigans.

There has been a great deal on talk in the media–more so as of late–regarding the American federal government’s and state’s involvement in the matter of freedom of religion as expressed by citizens. This particular article from Inside Higher Ed focuses on Thomas Payne, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Southern Mississippi. The state funded university is said to have reprimanded Payne for speaking in the collegiate setting about his personal religious beliefs. Payne is accused of having stated that non-Christians would go to hell. The federal judge in the case has upheld the right of the university to caution professors against making claims favoring one religion over another. Although I am no fan of Payne’s dogma, this case, as presented here, gives me pause because, yet again, religious belief is singled out as something exceptional… as different from other kinds of belief. I wondered if the same case would be made should a professor advocate for a particular political view or economic system over others? Would these state funded schools be allowed to caution professors about expressing their own political or economic beliefs in the classroom? What about beliefs regarding race, gender, and class? And if so, how would that play out? The case of Thomas Payne made me think about Mad Libs again.

I wondered why certain words or categories of words engender such emotional reactions within us? I wondered what would happen if we played Mad Libs with passages from the article? But wait, you too can play your own version of Mad Libs with articles about religion! Here is what I advise.

Take the article in question and switch out the ‘religious’ descriptors. In lieu of ‘religion’ and its various derivatives insert one of the following…‘race,’ ‘political view,’ or ‘economic system.’ Once you have replaced these words, re-read the text and ask how this ‘code switch’ has altered your view of the story. If the example provided in the article is a belief that causes you to sympathize with… insert something which you oppose and vice versa. Reflect on how that changes or shifts your perceptions. You might end up dealing with concepts no less fantastic than singing pineapples!

Example using political views:

While the First Amendment provides faculty members at public colleges and universities with considerable latitude about what they may say, a federal judge has ruled it does not restrict a state university from cautioning professors against making statements that favor one political view or another, and that may seem to insult the political views of some students.

Judge Keith Starrett ruled that Thomas Payne did not have a First Amendment claim against the University of Southern Mississippi over statements he made about his liberal political views. Payne said that the university retaliated against him — in failing to promote him and in negative performance reviews — based on his speaking out about his liberal political views.

A graduate student complained to the university in 2009 that Payne, an associate professor of criminal justice, was making inappropriately political statements in class or during course activities. For example, the graduate student said that Payne had encouraged her to join the Communist party, and had said that “anyone who is not a Communist is leading the country into political disaster.”

Katherine Daley-Bailey received her A.B. (2001) and M.A. (2004) degrees in Religion from the University of Georgia. She is currently teaching part-time at the University of Georgia. Daley-Bailey’s primary research interests are Religion, Literature, and the Arts, Theory and Methods, and Religion in Popular Culture. A regular contributor to the online magazine, Religion Nerd, she is currently working on her own column for the magazine, ‘The Sacred and the Strange,” which highlights the sometimes paradoxical nature of religious matters. In 2007, Kate co-authored a chapter titled ”Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying: Freedom in Confined Spaces” with Dr. Carolyn Jones Medine, a professor at the University of Georgia.

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