What’s in Your Syllabus? Michael Graziano

In this new series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars of religion to share with our readers what’s in their religion syllabus, from a new class or a class they’ve taught for years, reflecting on what has worked, what has been modified, and how it has proven useful for covering a particular topic in the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here.

by Michael Graziano

In Fall 2017, I’ll be teaching “Religion and Law in America.” This is one of my favorite courses to teach, and the speed of legal changes in this area means that no two classes are quite the same. It’s a lot of fun.

Here is the course description:

Americans have long argued about the proper role of religion in public life: can the Bible be taught in schools? What about contemporary flashpoints like abortion and same-sex marriage? Why do religious groups receive special privileges and exemptions under American law?

As a class, we will consider how religious groups work alongside and against U.S. law and how, in turn, American law engages, encourages, and restricts religious practice in America. From the long-lost “14th colony” of Quebec to modern Americans who wish to consume illegal drugs as part of their religious worship, challenges and debates in American religion and law have reflected the changing nature of the people who make up the United States. We will explore these questions through examining how religion and law affects American politics, education, and the marketplace.

One of my goals in this class is to help students see the relationship between law and the stories we tell about law. I suggest one way to view law is as a “myth” in the way Bruce Lincoln uses the word: as “ideology in narrative form.” Lincoln explains that “when a taxonomy is encoded in mythic form, the narrative packages a specific, contingent system of discrimination in a particularly attractive and memorable form” (1). Approaching law from the perspective of religious studies helps highlight how law is a record of decisions about classification, each with winners and losers. Understanding why human slavery was protected and extended in the United States is a story about law, for example, but those laws drew upon stories about racial groups’ genealogical and theological origins. Myth, for Lincoln, is the struggle for control of discourse. Thinking about law as the struggle for control of stories is one way to approach law and the stories we tell about it.

To that end, here are some readings I’ve used (or am considering using):

One useful introductory essay is Steven D. Smith’s “Religious Freedom in America: Three Stories.” Smith deftly (and briefly!) presents three versions of the history of American religious freedom. Each story favors a distinct historiographical angle, resulting in different conclusions about the relationship between religion and law. Students find this unsettling, since it suggests that familiar narratives might be nothing more than a powerful group’s preferred story. Along the same lines, I like to introduce “originalism” early since this lets students think critically about history, myth, power, and claims to a true or authentic past (and it gives us a reason to read this New York interview with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, which is rich with material).

Once we’ve thought about law as narrative, we dive into theories of tolerance and pluralism. Excerpts from Wendy Brown’s Regulating Aversion (2008) have been helpful here, and I plan to use them again. It’s long, but Stanley Fish’s Mission Impossible: Settling the Just Bounds Between Church and State (1997) helps students see the contradictory nature of religious freedom rhetoric that, in Fish’s view, hasn’t changed substantially since the days of John Locke.

After this, I plan to move through several historical examples which students can use to think through these ideas. Hugh Urban’s The Church of Scientology (2013) is a text I plan to use again. Urban’s work is interesting and accessible, as well as a model for introducing non-majors to religious studies theory. Urban’s work helps the class think about difficult issues, like the purpose of tax-exemption and attempts to assess religious sincerity. Winnifred Sullivan’s Ministry of Presence (2014) is another book I plan to re-use. Sullivan portrays the modern chaplain’s position as a kind of pressure-relief valve for when an institution isn’t quite sure how to proceed with the religious-secular categorical tension in American law. My students are often familiar with chaplains from their workplaces, student groups, and religious organizations, and this seems to help the argument land.

The University of Northern Iowa, where I teach, is known for its College of Education and teacher training programs. As a result, I work with a lot of education majors who are interested in religion and law in the public classroom. Sarah Imhoff’s 2016 JAAR essay, “The Creation Story, or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Schempp is fantastic for fostering conversations about the field of religious studies, the role of the US government, and the consequences for “teaching religion” in public schools.

There are other cases studies I plan to include, drawing from Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Beyond Religious Freedom (2015) which examines U.S. attempts to project First Amendment-style understandings of religion around the world. Finbarr Curtis’ The Production of American Religious Freedom (2016) is chock-full of great case studies, including one on intelligent design and another on corporate personhood. Another new book I plan to use is Sylvester Johnson and Steven Weitzman’s recent edited volume The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11 (2017). I think this will provide students with a lot of material to think about how government surveillance and law enforcement have affected religious groups.

I hope these readings will help students see law as something more than a set of static, self-evident rules governing modern life, and instead as the product of human choices with important considerations for our present.

Bruce Lincoln, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship (University of Chicago Press, 2000), 211.

Michael Graziano teaches at the University of Northern Iowa. He’s currently writing on the relationship between the CIA and religious institutions during the Cold War.

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