Miss America and Construction of the Other in American Culture

I have a new post up at Medium. Here’s a taste:

Last night Miss New York became Miss America. But even more importantly, Nina Davuluri became the first Indian-American Miss America. The New York native brought Bollywood dance to the stage during the talent competition and spoke from her platform of “celebrating diversity through cultural competency.”

Yet, last night was also a time of thorough cultural incompetence. Both Buzzfeed and Jezebel have accounted for the range of racist tweets that went out after Davuluri was crowned. What’s interesting is the multiple levels of wrongness exhibited in the tweets. Some label Davuluri an Arab (she’s Indian-America), some label her a Muslim (her parents are Hindu and it appears she may be too), and some just flat deny that Miss America should look like anything other than this.

Continue reading at Medium

Reza Aslan and the Impossibilty of an Expert in Religion in America

I think there has been one thing missing from all the blogging and twittering and Facebook posting over the Reza Aslan interview with Fox News:

For many Americans, the idea of an expert in religion is impossible. Sure, you may have a Ph.D., you may know texts in their original languages, you may even have written some books about the history of religions. But you aren’t an expert, in their eyes. Because you don’t REALLY KNOW. You haven’t FELT IT. DEEP DOWN. For most of America, to be an expert in religion one must be a TRUE BELIEVER.

For these Americans, to be an expert in religion makes as much a sense as being an expert in someone else’s mother’s lasagna recipe.

So, when the host, Lauren Green, asks Aslan why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus she is channeling a popular understanding of religion in America. She is denying that Aslan could be an expert in anything other than his own Islam. Thus, Aslan’s response that he has a Ph.D. and that this is his job and that he has lots of footnotes will never satiate Green and her audience because they all fall short of expertise. Unless he is a true believer in Jesus, these folks believe, it is impossible for Aslan to be an expert.

It’s like being a true vegan.

What does a real commitment to a certain way of thinking, speaking and behaving look like? Internally it means the idea gets such a hold on your brain that it would be impossible to abandon it without tearing apart the fabric of your being. You must tie yourself to the mast and make it neurologically impossible to change your mind on this one issue. You must be equivalent to your veganism such that to end your veganism would be to end yourself.

So how does one externally manifest this and, short of dying, authenticate a lifelong commitment to veganism? Some suggestions:

  • Refer to meat eaters as “carnists” and “corpse munchers.”
  • Address nonhuman animals in an inclusive manner that doesn’t obscure our own animality. Nonhuman animals are “other animals” or “animal others,” not “beasts” or “it.”
  • Get a visible and potentially career-undermining vegan tattoo.
  • Include a reference to anti-speciesism or sentience in your email address.
  • Bring most IRL conversations back around to the oppression of nonhuman animals.
  • Get a vasectomy, if a man, and an IUD if a woman.
  • Write a living will in which you ask to be euthanized if your memory degrades to the point that you don’t remember what veganism is.
  • Denounce so-called former vegans and call ex-veganism impossible.
  • And most important: Don’t stop believing.

Don’t stop believing, indeed.

The Invention of American Evangelicalism; or, Why Ed Blum is Mad

The following is a cross-post from Religion in American History. Check out the great comments on the original post.

(If you’re unsure what made Ed mad read this post.)
[Update: Ed says he's not mad anymore, just passionate. Also, read this post from Ed where he expands his thoughts on race and evangelicalism. His thoughts echo much of what's in this post.]

Evangelical history is a lot like this plaque from the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts. The plaque was affixed to the spacecrafts in order to communicate some basic information to any extraterrestrial life they might encounter as they zoomed toward Jupiter and beyond. The plaque is rife with information but the most obvious elements are the map of the solar system and the drawing of a man and woman. The plaque was meant to represent us (humans) to them (aliens). But more than that, the plaque also represents us to us. It shows what we thought was really important (hydrogen) and who we thought we were (that shapely white heterosexual couple with the man standing tall and waving while the woman extends her leg Angelina Jolie Oscars style). It represented us to ourselves.

This is the same dual work that much “evangelical history” does. On the one hand, the history of evangelicalism represents what evangelicalism is or has been to those not within the fold. It’s a project that says, “See, we have been at the heart of democracy and republicanism in America. Ours is the religion of freedom, liberty, choice, and reason.”  It’s also a project that represents itself to itself–that is, to evangelicals. Often these representations are meant to call today’s evangelical Christians to be a better sort of Christians by reminding them of what they once were. “Once we had the social passion of the great abolitionists and the depth of thought of Edwards. We can have that again.” I think it is this dual work of representation that creates the blindspots around race and gender that engendered Ed’s battle cry and Kelly Baker’s questions.

That said, I don’t think the problem is really about representation. It’s not that there aren’t enough African American, Latino/a American, or Asian American evangelicals in our indexes and lists. The problem is not representation but construction. Or, to put it as a question, why do we think there even is such a thing as evangelicalism? Or evangelicals? To be blunt, why do we care who is or isn’t an evangelical?

The term “evangelical” has a long history that I won’t get into and that I’m sure many readers of this blog know more about than I do. However, it seems that the term has been self-applied or imposed upon a variety of Protestants since the Reformation. It is a “native term” batted about by Protestants throughout their various squabbles with themselves and others. For some American Protestants at certain places and times “evangelical” signified “true.” Evangelical Christianity stood in contrast to infidel Christianity (be it liberal or deistic or what have you). Or conversely, to put myself in the shoes of the Unitarians I’ve been reading all week, “evangelical” Christianity is stiff mindless orthodoxy that lacks the refined reason and liberty of liberal Christianity. The question of who is or isn’t “evangelical” or what is or isn’t “evangelicalism” is a Protestant debate between Protestants and has become a historiographical question within American religious history insofar as American religious history is still under-girded by Protestant sensibilities and categories.

The real question for historians of American religion and especially historians of American evangelicalism is “what are the politics of the category evangelical?” Why do we want more African Americans in a list of evangelicals? Why do we want more women? Because it is a privileged category. It is also a constructed category. It is, to use my favorite Jon Butler phrase, an interpretive fiction. It is an invention, first within the minds of Protestants since the Reformation and then within the minds of historians from Robert Baird to the guys at Patheos. Rather than worry about who is or isn’t an evangelical or adding more diversity to the list, historians should be investigating the process of this invention. We should be tracing the politics of the term and what is at stake in various places and times when people take, leave, fight for, argue about, or compromise over what it means to be “evangelical.” We don’t need more or different histories of evangelicalism or evangelicals, we need a genealogy of the term. We need to trace the invention of American evangelicalism. We need to stop assuming that evangelicalism is something out there for us to track down in the archive or research field and label correctly. Instead, let’s pay attention to how various subjects imagine evangelicalism and the political, cultural, and social forces at work in those imaginings. Let’s find out what’s at stake when people get included or excluded from “evangelicalism.” I’d do it but I have this other thing I’m working on.

Let me be clear, I don’t think evangelical historians should stop doing what they are doing. The work of representing evangelical history to outsiders and other evangelicals is important and I’m glad there are wise and talented folks doing it. However, the ways these historian construct “evangelicals” is ripe for analysis by those investigating how “evangelicals” are invented. In this way “evangelical history” can be the source material for a genealogy of evangelicalism. For folks like Ed who are unsatisfied with our current constructions of “evangelical,” adding a bunch of new names to the list or changing the category will not solve the problem. For a while “Puritan” stood as the privileged category of religious history. Perhaps we’re now realizing that it’s been replaced by “evangelical.” (A process that itself is worth investigation). We have to deconstruct these categories and dig up the processes that have bestowed their privilege upon them, whether by historical subjects or historians. We can’t just change the plaque on the spacecraft. 

Things that are still true about American Christianity…

Jerry Falwell going down a waterslide in a black suite

“The new formation [born-again Christianity] was part fundamentalist, part pentecostal, part charismatic, part evangelical, and then something else in a way that none of its parts had been: morally outraged, socially engaged, and routinely politically active.”

– Susan Friend Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell (2000)

I was preparing my lesson for Monday’s class about the Scopes trial and Christian fundamentalism when I came across this quote from Harding. I assigned her chapter on Scopes to students in my (team taught) History of Religions in America course because it does a good job of situating the trial in the larger 20th century history of American Christianity and also emphasizes the fragmented nature of conservative Protestantism. This quote comes from the end of the chapter as she moves from the exile of the fundamentalists to the resurgence of born-agains in the 80s. What struck me, now a decade removed from Harding’s publication, is just how right she was. Since her book, we’ve heard the “end of the religious right” narrative trotted out again and again, but here we sit on the other side of Harding’s text, 9/11, two wars, and the Tea Party and it seems that  moral outrage, social engagement, and political activism still define the Christian right. This three part recipe has roots in the evangelical reform movements of the nineteenth century and the revivalism of the early republic, but in the past thirty years it has mingled with late-modern capitalism, imperialism, free-marketism, and militarism. This Voltron of religious conservatism, call it Pentevangelamentalism (or born again Christianity, as Harding does), will always look like it’s about to fall apart at any moment. It is criss-cross with internal ruptures and lines of fissure. However, the shared outrage practiced in the social and political spheres will always hold it together in the end.

Narrativity in American Religions, Transmedia, and me on Hinduism: Panels I Plan to Check Out at the AAR

via Wikimedia commons

The American Academy of Religion is nearly here! Over at Religion in American History, Kelly Baker has put together a great list of panels on religion in America. Also, Kelly and I will be tweeting our observations, thoughts, and snark throughout the weekend.

Due to the limited travel budget of a Ph.D. candidate (who already spent a weekend at the ASA), I’ll only be in lovely San Francisco for Saturday and Sunday. Here are the panels I plan to check out:

First, a star studded panel on “Narrativity in the Study of North American Religions”

Saturday – 1:00 pm-3:30 pm
Room: CC-2006

Each participant in this roundtable has written a monograph and/or edited a wide-ranging synthetic collection touching on religious diversity and conflict in North America. In a format emphasizing dialogue with the audience, they will reflect on the priorities, methods, and trade-offs involved in shaping such narratives. What are the optimum structuring themes? Are certain decisions about periodization and/or organization by tradition especially helpful? Do certain emerging themes need special attention? What overall logics, themes, values, or theoretical orientations offer optimum coherence (and/or productive incoherence) and structure (and/or productive lack of structure)? Such questions lead naturally toward wider discussions about the implicit structuring priorities and methods running through our field(s) at large. Overall, the panel seeks to spark a productive discussion of the pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, of different underlying narratives and emphases. In this way it hopes to respond to the challenge of clarifying priorities in our field.

Theme: Narrativity in the Study of North American Religions

Panelists:

Thomas Tweed, University of Texas, Austin
Janet R. Jakobsen, Barnard College
R. Marie Griffith, Harvard University
Mark Hulsether, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

 

Second, an interactive session from the Religion and Popular Culture Group:

Saturday – 4:00 pm-6:30 pm
Room: CC-2005

Rachel Wagner, Ithaca College, Presiding

Transmedia is the intentional distribution of related storylines or experiences all relating back to a core hub of experience, of branding, or of narrative. Transmedia includes the video games, films, books, apparel, publicity events, fan-fiction, promotions, costumes, and toys associated with a given franchise such as Halo or the Harry Potter universe, or brand names like Nike and Coca Cola. Consumers are not passive consumers of transmedia; they explore, discover, create, and transform, in some cases marketing themselves as transmediated entities. In this panel, we offer entrée into the world of transmedia via a series of short presentations describing key issues in the intersection of religion with transmedia, followed by an hour of open debate in which we will be joined via Skype by Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment and a well-known industry producer of transmedia storytelling. This discussion will show how an analysis of transmedia exposes the intimate connections between religious practice and media production, branding, and marketing.

Theme: Finding Meaning in the Space Between: Religion and Transmedia, an Interactive Panel

Panelists:

Mara Einstein, Queens College
J. Sage Elwell, Texas Christian University
Rubina Ramji, Cape Breton University
Ted Friedman, Georgia State University

Third, a panel on religion, sexuality, and bodies:

Sunday – 9:00 am-11:30 am
Room: CC-3020

Sa’diyya Shaikh, University of Cape Town, Presiding

Theme: Contesting Bodies, Configuring Sexuality

Jill Peterfeso, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
“I Am a Daughter of My Heavenly Father”: Transsexual Mormons and Performed Gender Essentialism
Nadeem Mahomed, University of Johannesburg
Sexual Diversity, Islamic Jurisprudence, and Sociality
Samira Mehta, Emory University
Negotiating the Interfaith Marriage Bed: Religious Difference and Sexual Intimacies
Jason James Kelly, University of Ottawa
Ecstatic Desire: The Evolution of the “Erotic” in the Work of Jeffrey J. Kripal

And finally, my own panel on Hinduism in North America (which I know you’ve added to your schedule):

Sunday – 5:00 pm-6:30 pm
Room: MM-Yerba Buena 11

Shreena Gandhi, Kalamazoo College, Presiding

The construction of the category of Hinduism, in any case a complex and contested issue, is further complicated in the context of North America by the predominance of a Protestant “lens” that shapes all categories relating to religion (including, of course, the category of religion itself) and by the emergence of self-identified practitioners of Hinduism who do not identify themselves as Indian. The papers in this session will explore these issues from a variety of perspectives and with a focus on distinct phenomena related to the category of Hinduism in North America. The first paper will problematize the frequently encountered conflation of the categories of “Hindu” and “Indian” through an examination of the Hindu culture of Indo-Caribbeans in Queens, New York. The second paper will focus on the Hindu American Foundation’s “Take Back Yoga” campaign and the various Protestant assumptions from which this ostensibly Hindu project operates. The third paper will investigate events in American cultural history that allowed Protestants to distinguish Hinduism from other traditions, enabling them to “see” it for the first time.

Theme: Constructions of Hindu Selves and Hindu Others in North America

Michele Verma, Rice University
Indo-Caribbeans in the United States: Cracking the Conflation of “Hindu” and “Indian”
Anya Pokazanyeva, University of California, Santa Barbara
Faith on the Mat: Hindus, Protestants, and the Construction of Yoga
Michael Altman, Emory University
Sightings and Blind Spots: The “Protestant Lens” and the Construction of Hinduism

Responding:

Steven W. Ramey, University of Alabama

See you in San Francisco!

My panel at #2011ASA: Global Perspectives on American Religious Cultures

If you’re at the American Studies Association this weekend and you’re interested in questions of religion, globalization, and transformation than you might want to check out the panel I’m doing with some other great folks:

12:00 PM – 1:45 PM

Religion and American Culture Caucus: Travel and Transformation: Global Perspectives on American Religious Cultures

Hilton Baltimore Key Ballroom 07

CHAIR:
Theresa Sanders, Georgetown University (DC)
PAPERS:
David Scott, Boston University (MA)
Opium, Alcohol, and Methodists in Singapore
Michael J. Altman, Emory University (GA)
American Hinduism: A Global Religion in the Nineteenth Century
Jordan Leary Wade, University of Kansas (KS)
From “Shanti’s” to Spandex: The Western Twist on Yoga
Aprilfaye Manalang, Bowling Green State University (OH)
What Role Does Religion Play among Filipino Immigrants? Imagining a Different Self-Understanding of Modernity
COMMENT:
Katharina Vester, American University (DC)
Hope to see yall there!

Thinking About Ralph Waldo Emerson on His Birthday

Caricature of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Famous "transparent Eyeball" Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1892)

Today is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 208th birthday. The Concord sage is one of the great figures of American history and one of my favorite New England religious thinkers. I always think of Emerson as the man who was willing to push that little bit further. Where Arminians and Unitarians stopped, Emerson jumped off the cliff into a sea of human potential. Where Channing had argued for human virture, Emerson posited the Oversoul–the divine within and without. Up to his day American religion had been a religion of dissent and in many ways, Emerson doubled down leaving the Unitarian clergy behind and pushing the 1838 graduating class of Harvard Divinity School toward a “being without bound.”

I’ve yet to start writing  my dissertation chapter that deals with Emerson and his contact with Hindu religious sources but as of now I’m convinced that the relationship between Emerson and Hinduism was one of convenience. That is, Emerson was a collector of religious ideas and for various reasons Hindu ideas happened to be at hand. Because he was in Boston, because New England merchants had been trading with India since the 1790s, because Rammohun Roy’s work had reached Unitarians in the 1820s, and because the British empire made knowledge about India readily available in English, India was an obvious place to look for spiritual sources. For example, Emerson famously described the Bhagavad Gita as the great text of Buddhism. To him it didn’t matter which Eastern tradition the book belonged too so long as it fit with his overall spiritual vision.

Emerson is often given credit for first popularizing Asian religious ideas in America. That’s not completely true. At least in eastern New England, Hindu ideas found their way through the periodical press into the homes and libraries of many Americans. The aforementioned Rammohun Roy’s Precepts of Jesus, his Vedantan Hindu reading of Jesus’s moral message,  and his various defenses of it were widely available in the late 1820s and 1830s.  What Emerson did do was Americanize Hindu ideas. He paired a Vedic formulation of Hinduism with a liberal post-Unitarian spirituality that became the seed bed for liberal spirituality we still have with us today. He brought together Krishna. Mesmer, and Swedenborg and now we have Deepak Chopra.

To help you celebrate Emerson’s birthday today you might swing by Amazon and pick up a free Kindle version of a new edition of Self-Reliance complete with self-reflections on the book from historical and contemporary thinkers.  Or if you’d rather watch then read, there’s the 2007 documentary Emerson: The Ideal in America, also available for free viewing online. Or you can just go for a walk in the woods.

HT: Maria Popova