What I Am Saying to My Class After the Election

After reading what my friend Matt Hedstrom said to his American Studies class yesterday, I realized I needed to say something to my Religion, Politics, and Law class today. Here’s what I’ve written down. Thanks for the inspiration and the motivation, Matt.

I’d like to say a couple things about the election that just ended. I’m choosing my words very carefully but I think something needs to be said in a class on religion, politics, and law. I like to think I would have said this regardless of how things turned out.

Last week all of you said this was your first election as a voter. You need to know something. This election was not normal—I need you to know that. We have avoided electoral history in this class and now I’m wondering if that was a mistake. Because you need to understand that while we can make comparisons to 1964 or 1968 or 1860, this was more different than it was similar. Joy and disappointment are normal emotions after an election but I’ve never felt the way I do after this election. I’m afraid. I’m afraid for you all.

I am worried that this campaign has normalized racism and xenophobia. I am worried that racism has been emboldened and mainstreamed. I am worried because I have friends, students, and colleagues who are gay, Muslim, black, or brown and they are afraid. I am worried that this campaign has brought out the worst in who we are as Americans and that there may be some very dark, conflicted, and turbulent days ahead for us all.

I’m worried that the last two years of campaigning has done lasting damage to the institutions that ensure American democracy functions. Citizens do not trust institutions any more. For a long time in American history black, brown, and queer Americans have had no reason to trust in institutions that treated them as less than full citizens—the police, schools, universities, banks, and courts. But now no one trusts these institutions. Everyone says the system is rigged. To reverse Benedict Anderson, who we read, we are unimagining our community.

In this class we have talked a lot about what makes a nation—we spent a whole section of the course on it. A common memory. A common history. A common language. But most of all, remember what Renan said:

“A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle.”

It’s easy to take that as some sort of metaphysical claim, but that’s not what he means. That soul is a shared memory and set of values that does not come about naturally. It is constructed as people consent to be part of the national community. As he went on to say,

“A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future.”

The nation exists because its members choose to sacrifice. And that’s not just true for nations, it’s true for every kind of community—including this university.

And so we have a divided country. A country divided along lines of education (look at the split between college and non-college educated votes), race, class, region, urban or rural. A country where half the citizens did not vote, a quarter voted for the president-elect, and a little more than a quarter voted for the loser. I don’t feel like a smart professor with answers. I don’t know how we reimagine the community. I don’t know how we find our national soul.

But I do know two things that I’ll take with me from this. First, I am committed to you—the students at the University of Alabama—more than ever. I am committed to this place, to our community, to the city of Tuscaloosa, to the state of Alabama. I am committed to making it a place that is inclusive, descent, kind, loving. I am committed to making this a place where everyone is respected. I am committed to making this a place where those of you who might feel scared this week can feel safe. I am committed to having the tough discussions about the specific challenges this university community faces. We are sitting in a classroom in a building built with bricks made by slaves and named after a slave owning Baptist minister and president of the university. What the hell do we make of that? In the vein of Renan, I am committed to remembering, making, and imagining the sacrifices necessary to sustain our community.

Second, I am more committed than ever to the study of religion, American culture, history, and social theory. Explanations of how people organize themselves and build social formations is as important now as it ever was. Understanding how race, class, and gender affect social formations and understanding how we think abou the Other, both within and beyond our nation, is of paramount importance. I think the things we have done in the classroom are vital to the future of our democracy and our university. And so it’s time for all of us to get to work.

Tulsi Gabbard, the First Hindu in the U.S. Congress?

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…