The American Academy of Religion’s annual shindig is over and with Thanksgiving in the rear view mirror and a fridge full of leftovers it’s back to work. I won’t do a full recap, but I will say that my favorite two panels were both “author meets critics” style. One on Tracy Fessenden’s Culture and Redemption and another on John Lardas Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America. I got nonspecific Protestantism on the brain; or as someone on the Fessenden panel described it, “nefarious Protestant hegemony.”
And if you haven’t seen Mark Oppenheimer’s NY Times article on the AAR’s decision to shun the Hyatt over it’s labor dispute with hotel staff be sure to check it out. It’s been blowing up my Facebooks over the weekend. Apparently it blew up Craig Martin’s too, as he posted a response to the story that argued the newspaper article misrepresented and exoticized the AAR.
I tweeted Oppenheimer a link to the Martin post and he responded:
That seems fair enough.
Speaking of Twitter, I think it’s time for the AAR to step up its game when it comes to organizing the use of social media at the annual meeting. The tweets were all over the place, under different hashtags, and with no idea which panel they were reacting too. The #sblaar hasghtag was a mess. And this was with only a relatively small number of attendees tweeting. Without going back and sifting through the tweets (and was anyone even archiving them?), all I remember seeing were tweets from religious studies folks I already knew about panels I was already in (mostly related to secularism, American religion, or pop culture) or biblical studies types. (BTW, those NT and OT folks are much harsher on each other via tweet than us Americanists. We’re downright cuddly.)
The AAR needs to include a “Social Media” info box in all of the pre-conference and conference books they send out that lays out the hashtag (that includes the date, e.g. #aar13) and recommends how to identify the panel (e.g. #A14507). And someone needs to archive these. Ever the social scientist who knows how to code his data, Jonathan VanAntwerpen offered great examples of how AAR tweets should look next year:
Reflecting on the conference as a whole, though, I think the use of Twitter, split mostly between Americanists and SBL-ers, and Martin’s critique of the Oppenheimer piece are examples of a larger theme I noticed throughout the weekend. The AAR is a fractured society. We have folks arguing for a liberal political theology while other folks analyze Protestant hegemony in American culture. Even on the same panels I continually see a divide between papers that are rigorously critical and those that are, to borrow a phrase from a colleague, “woo woo.”
Often in introduction to religious studies courses the instructor will trot out the well worn story of the blind men touching the elephant. We all describe different parts of this big religion elephant. The story can be an apology for a big tent approach to theory and method or a lesson in perennialism. But that story doesn’t really capture the state of the field and the AAR right now. We are not all blind men feeling the religion elephant. There are some of those blind men out there, grasping after this thing called religion as if it was the elephant in the room and finding different aspects of this giant unknowable beast. But there are also others standing in a corner yelling “There is no damn elephant!” And then there still others who can see the elephant and are standing over it with knives in hand ready to butcher the pachyderm, hoping to dissect and parse its organs in order to discover how it ever came be in the first place.
The challenge for the AAR in the next 10 years is to find places for all three of these folks and maintain some sort of institutional identity that can hold them. Can it provide a space for the blind men to debate the nature of the elephant? Can it offer a podium and megaphone for those who want to deny the elephant of religion and claim the animals of ideology or culture as their species of study? Can it sharpen the tools and provide the laboratory for the dissection–after all an elephant requires a lot of space? We shall see. But in the next year, let’s just get a better hashtag.
It is time to head to Chicago for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. This year I am excited to be part of an excellent roundtable discussion of transnationalism and religion in America. Here are the details:
Religion and the Social Sciences Section
Theme: Exceeding Boundaries: Approaches to Transnationalism in North American Religions
Pamela Klassen, University of Toronto, Presiding
Monday – 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
McCormick Place North 1st Level: Room N127
North American Religions is, in some ways, a category of wishful thinking. Much of the work that goes on within the category is still largely divided by national borders, whether only those delineating the big three of the U.S.A., Mexico, and Canada, or including the islands of the Caribbean. Transnational approaches to religion push scholars to see anew the ways that nation-states have circumscribed our own imaginative limits within the geographical space of “North America”. When immigrants, pipelines and revivals continue to cross North American borders amidst passionate, and even theologically-fuelled debates, scholars of religion require theoretical and methodological tools that highlight how these circulations are economic, political, symbolic, and embodied processes. While the idea of transnational North American religions is not new, this panel will further discussion about the theoretical underpinnings of that field of study and emphasize how important interdisciplinary approaches and methodologies are to advancing previous projects.
Justin Stein, University of Toronto
Michael J. Altman, Emory University
Elaine Peña, George Washington University
Heather D. Curtis, Tufts University
Beyond this panel, also check out the great line up of panels from the North American Hinduism Group. I’ve been elected co-chair of that group for next year but I’m starting my promotional duties now. Check out the mobile app or the program book for the details of those fascinating panels.
I will also be tweeting from the conference so keep an eye on my twitter feed and the #sblaar hashtag.
See yall in Chicago!
The Religion News Service has posted an excellent profile of Tulsi Gabbard, the Democrat running for Congress in Hawaii’s 2nd district. Gabbard is leading in the polls by a whopping 52 points and should win in a landslide. Of course, her opponent, Kawika Crowley, lives and campaigns out of bumper-stickered white van. If Gabbard wins, she will be the first Hindu in the United States Congress.
In the RNS article, reporter Omar Sacirbey notes some of the push back non-Christian religions have experienced in Congress:
Not everyone would welcome a Hindu into Congress. When self-proclaimed “Hindu statesman” Rajan Zed was asked to open the Senate with a prayer in 2007, the American Family Association called the prayer “gross idolatry” and urged members to protest; three protesters from the fundamentalist group Operation Save America interrupted the prayer with shouts from the gallery.
Then-Rep. Bill Sali, R-Idaho, said the prayer and Congress’ first Muslim member “are not what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers.” Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum told supporters this summer that equality was a uniquely Judeo-Christian concept that “doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions.” Crowley, in an interview with CNN.com, said Gabbard’s faith was incompatible with the Constitution.
The AFA, Rick Santorum, and Kawika Crowley all sum up notions about Hinduism that have been ingrained in American culture since the early nineteenth century. When the AFA called a Hindu prayer “gross idolatry” they were invoking a view of Hindu religions that began with early European encounters in India and spread throughout America during the rise of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and the missionary movement as a whole. British missionary apologist Claudius Buchanan’s image of the bloody “Juggernaut” (an Anglicization of the god Jagannath) was a popular image of Hindu idolatry in America and Britian. When the ABCFM sent missionaries to Bombay in the first third of the nineteenth century they sent back accounts of “Hindoo idolatry” to be published in missionary magazines. These images dominated the American evangelical imagination of India and the Hindu other throughout the nineteenth century and even to today.
Similarly, Santorum and Crowley’s claim that Hinduism has no claim on the Constitution or American ideas of equality also has roots in the nineteenth century. As a Protestant moral establishment took control of American culture in the nineteenth century they sought to imagine America as a land of white/Protestant/democracy. In this scheme India became a land of dark/Hindu (or heathen)/caste. American writers, in genres ranging form magazine articles to school textbooks, consistently represented India as the opposite of America. Where Hinduism encouraged a hierarchical caste system in India, Christianity encouraged equality in America. Needless to say, both of these representations of Hinduism–as either idolatry or inequality–tell us less about Hinduism and more about the people propounding them.
The RNS article does a great job of outlining Gabbard’s own Hindu belief and practice. She served in the National Guard and was deployed in Baghdad and Kuwait. In that light, I find it interesting that she singles out the Bhagavad Gita as central to her understanding of Hinduism, as that book is itself a meditation on war and the warrior’s duty. Gabbard’s reference to the Gita also reflects another longstanding image of Hinduism in America. Beginning with the first English translation of the Gita by British Orientalist Charles Wilkins in the late eighteenth century, the Gita has been central to more positive representations of Hinduism in America. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman all praised the wisdom of the book. Furthermore, in a culture dominated by logo-centric Protestantism, the Gita was often cited as the “Bible” of Hinduism and compared with the New Testament, with Krishna and Christ put alongside one another.
So, as Tulsi Gabbard runs for, and probably wins, a seat in the the U.S. Congress the earliest American ideas about Hinduism, both for good and ill, endure. Now, if only someone was writing a dissertation about this…
My review of Jeff Wilson’s wonderful recent book Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South is now online at the journal Sociology of Religion. Here’s a taste:
Deciding where to look is often the most important decision a researcher makes. Jeff Wilson’s choice to look for Buddhism in Richmond, Virginia, instead of Los Angeles or San Francisco or Boston, is the jumping off point for a series of important discoveries about pluralism, hybridity, and region in American religious communities. In Dixie Dharma, Wilson draws on nearly a decade of ethnographic research at the Ekoji Buddhist Sangha of Richmond to challenge our current scholarly assumptions about Buddhism in America and religion in the South. Through nuanced description and precise theoretical tools, Wilson examines a community of Buddhists working to form a community in the middle of an evangelically Protestant red state.
I should have posted this earlier, but I’ll be speaking as part of the great Eat Talk Teach Run series at Emory. ETTR combines four short (4 minute limit) talks on teaching with free lunch and frozen yogurt. It’s awesome. Come check it out. Details:
Eat. Talk. Teach. Run!
An event to energize grad student teaching at Emory.
Wednesday, October 31. 12 PM – 1 PM.
Eat. Yogurt Tap frozen yogurt and bánh mì sandwiches from Buford Highway!
Talk. Meet grad students from across campus.
Teach. Hear short 4-minute flashtalks from other grad students.
Run. Get back to the lab or library on time!
Few Hall G27, convenient for scientists, humanities, and everything in between!
Find Few Hall G27 here:
Grad Student Speakers:
Michael Altman (Religion)
Kate Doubler (English)
Laura Mariani (Neuroscience)
Cassy Quave (Ethnobotany, Post-doc)
RSVPs Appreciated at:
“Like” Us at:
The Education Investment, Citizenship, and the Perfection of Society and Government; Or, What Noah Webster Would Say to Romney and ObamaPosted: October 25, 2012
Lately I’ve been working a side project, a lengthy encyclopedia article on religion and education in America. I’m taking a historical approach in the article and laying out a basic narrative: building a Protestant educational establishment, challenges to that establishment, and, finally, Protestant educational disestablishment. With that article in the back of my head, it has been interesting to listen to the ways Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have approached questions of education during this election. For the most part the candidates and political reporters have focused on the differences between the two. For example, this comes from the Washington Post:
President Obama and Mitt Romney agree that improving schools and providing more training is one of the keys to restoring America’s economic prowess. But their views diverge over what’s holding the country back. Obama says it’s inadequate investment. Romney says it’s the teachers unions and cumbersome bureaucracy.
In their basic stump speeches, both Romney and Obama include education among their five-point plans to turn around the economy. Obama spends more time talking about Pell grants and student assistance because he’s eager to fire up enthusiasm among young voters, who were a key to his victory four years ago. Romney emphasizes conservative themes of school choice to fire up his base.
You can check out the Obama and Romney campaign pages on education for more details on the differences between the candidates. But what is striking to me, as someone who has been thinking about the history of education in America lately, is what both men share in common. They both put education in economic terms. The goal is to make good on an investment. Obama’s site explains how the president wants to invest in community colleges to ensure folks can find good jobs. Romney wants to ensure students find jobs when they graduate so they can get a return on their investment.
Compare this with Noah Webster’s view of the purpose of education (1790):
Every small district should be furnished with a school, at least four months in a year; when boys are not otherwise employed. This school should be kept by the most reputable and well informed man in the district. Here children should be taught the usual branches of learning; submission to superiors and to laws; the moral or social duties; the history and transactions of their own country; the principles of liberty and government. Here the rough manners of the wilderness should be softened, and the principles of virtue and good behaviour inculcated. The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.
Such a general system of education is neither impracticable nor difficult; and excepting the formation of a federal government that shall be efficient and permanent, it demands the first attention of American patriots. Until such a system shall be adopted and pursued; until the Statesman and Divine shall unite their efforts in forming the human mind, rather than in loping its excressences, after it has been neglected; until Legislators discover that the only way to make good citizens and subjects, is to nourish them from infancy; and until parents shall be convinced that the worst of men are not the proper teachers to make the best; mankind cannot know to what a degree of perfection society and government may be carried. America affords the fairest opportunities for making the experiment, and opens the most encouraging prospect of success.
What a difference. “The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities”–so much for those community colleges and returns on investment. It’s all about your virtue and how your virtue shapes society, not the market. As Webster saw it, the goal of education was to produce fully-fledged citizens. In his time that meant Protestant citizens, hence the need for the Statesman and Divine to work together. But what about for our time? What would “good citizens” nourished form infancy look like now? This is the important educational question of our time, as I see it. Because, as Webster says, a system of schools can produce an unknown “degree of perfection” in society and government.
For a long period in American history the goal of education was the production of proper citizens. What made a citizen proper varied over time and was a source of dispute. Protestant educational reformers sought to inculcate a non-specific Protestantism, to borrow a phrase from Tracy Fessenden, in students. Catholics pushed back. Many non-whites found the Protestant educational establishment thrust upon them. But even with the insidious and systematic power of cultural assimilation and Protestantization, American education aimed at social, civic, and cultural goals.
This election is about the economy, stupid, and so I understand why education has become a line in our national investment portfolio. But that portfolio is worthless in the hands of an atrophied civil society.
A friend of mine, photojournalist, and fellow product of the College of Charleston religious studies department, Priscilla Thomas, has produced a really interesting multimedia look at one Mormon family, the Crawfords, in the town of Athens, Ohio. “Raising Faith” is one story in the larger Swing State project produced by the Soul of Athens at Ohio University. Swing State attempts to give Ohio voters a voice on four major sets of issues: land, liberties, health, and the economy.
“Raising Faith” falls under the liberties category of the project and consists of an article about the Crawfords and the larger place of Mormonism in American culture and two brief videos that try to take an intimate look at the small community of Mormons in Athens. For those looking for a quick way to address the “Mormon Moment” and/or the election, this story and the site as whole can be a great resource. Below is a taste of the article and the accompanying video.
I encourage you to check out the entire project. It’s a fascinating look at the diversity of a swing state and a model for creative multimedia journalism. Ohio is more than a blank outline on electoral college maps.
Recent transplants to Athens, Ohio, Cory and Rebecca Crawford previously
lived in larger urban communities in Massachusetts and Utah. Their
transition to small town life has come with some surprises. After moving
into their home, the Crawfords began extensive renovations to the
property. Understanding of their situation, church members offered to
open their homes to the family until major repairs were completed.
“We would come home covered in dust and dirt from working and this neat,
wonderful lady would say ‘Eat dinner with my family,’” Rebecca recalls.
“She’d treat us like we were one of the family. And feed us dinner. And
they loved our kids and they spoiled them like they were grandparents.”