Monthly Archives: July 2012

Cathedral of the Madeleine

I spent last week in my old stomping grounds, Salt Lake City. While I was there, I took a colleague to Temple Square, the see of Mormonism; then we walked a couple blocks east so I could show her the Cathedral of the Madeleine, see of the Catholic diocese of Utah. It’s a gorgeous building, built at the beginning of the 20th century and adorned with colorful murals in a style I recognize but don’t know what to call: I think of it as “fin de siècle.”

Captured from utcotm.org. Click the image for a panoramic view of the cathedral interior.

I always have to chuckle at two biblical passages that adorn the front of the nave and are clearly intended to “talk back” to Mormonism. (In the image above, the biblical passages are the green squares with yellow lettering you can see toward the left and right sides of the picture.) On the west side, next to a statue of St. Peter, is a passage from the Gospel of Matthew:

Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church . . . and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

[Read: "You're wrong, Mormons--the Catholic Church has never apostatized. Jesus said so."]

On the east side, next to a statue of St. Paul, is this passage from the Epistle to the Galatians:

Though we or an angel from heaven preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema.

[Read: "So you might want to rethink that business about an angel bringing you a new book of scripture."]

The apologetic messaging didn’t prevent the LDS Church from donating funds to support the restoration of the murals, as a historic treasure, in the 1990s.

[Read: "Thank you, Catholics, for this opportunity to occupy the moral high ground."]

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Religion and space exploration

Maybe a month ago, while I was working out at the gym (that’s an expression I’ve been able to drop only as of this summer), the thought occurred to me that if someone hasn’t already written it, a book on religion and space exploration would make a fascinating addition to the study of religion and American culture.

I wasn’t thinking about the intersection of religion and people’s ideas about space exploration–that work’s already out there. I taught a course last fall in that vein, on religion and science fiction. No, I found myself curious, as a historian, about the ways that religious practice has intersected with actual American space exploration. Chaplains praying with crews before they go into flight. Astronauts performing religious practices in space. Perhaps the role of religious symbols and rhetoric in hyping space flight for the American public. American religious bodies’ responses to the reality of space flight: I know, for example, that Episcopalians added a line to the Book of Common Prayer interceding for the safety of those who travel by space. What did American denominations or theologians have to say in response to the moon landing? Have American religious bodies intervened in the politics of space exploration? For instance, have theologians ever questioned the ethics of directing so much money to space exploration that could be used to feed hungry people? And what about the cultural politics of American religion–i.e., which religions first got access to the final frontier?

Speak of the devil. Just before sitting down to write this post, I popped online to see if someone’s already this book–and discovered that an article on this general subject appeared in the Atlantic a few days ago. The article is a child of the secularization thesis: What do ancient religions have to do with a modern phenomenon like space flight? I’m professionally obligated, and entitled, to strike a snootily blasé pose in response to the author’s wide-eyed professions of incongruity. Muslim astronauts praying in space, or Russian Orthodox priests blessing space shuttles–well, yes, of course, who finds that surprising?

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Synagogues turned churches

Several months ago, my husband and I were driving through Cincinnati, and we passed a building identified by its sign as the Zion Temple First Pentecostal Church. However, from the Romanesque style and the stone menorah carved on the facade, I was guessing that it had originally been a synagogue or temple.

Zion Temple First Pentecostal Church – formerly the Isaac M. Wise Center

I poked around a little online, and if the information I have is correct, this building served at the beginning of the 20th century as the Isaac M. Wise Center. It was the regular worship space for the Reform Jewish congregation that had been meeting in the famous Plum Street Temple in downtown Cincinnati, the birthplace of Reform Judaism. Once the Wise Center was built, the Plum Street Temple was used only for special occasions (the high holidays and ordination services for Hebrew Union College). In the early 1970s, the congregation moved their regular services back to Plum Street Temple and sold the Wise Center to the Pentecostals, who have been there ever since. Judging from a remark on their website, the Pentecostals are proud of the “authentic smoked stained glass windows depicting the Feast of the Passover and special celebrations of the Hebrew Nation.”

According to Queen City Survey, a blog on Cincinnati architecture, there are two other buildings on the same street that also began life as Jewish houses of worship but then passed into Christian hands. The Reading Road Temple (Sh’erith Ahabeth Achim) became New Friendship Baptist Church, and Adath Israel became Southern Baptist.

New Friendship Baptist Church – formerly the Reading Road Temple

Southern Baptist Church – formerly Adath Israel

I don’t know what it is exactly, but there’s something about this “re-purposing” of sacred spaces across religious traditions that I find intriguing. As an example of the process moving in the opposite direction–and then kind of back again–in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I did my doctorate, there was a building south of campus that began as a Bible church but became a Reconstructionist kehillah when the Bible church built a larger building elsewhere; the Reconstructionists then rented the building on Sundays to a fledgling Episcopal mission.

Chapel Hill Kehillah – formerly the Chapel Hill Bible Church

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Cynical about the contraception mandate debate

I swear I don’t intend for this to become a “religion and politics” blog (it’s meant to cover a wider range of interests); it just happens that my “random thoughts about religion in America” have been moving lately in a political vein.

Last week, the student newspaper at the campus where I teach ran a story about the contraception mandate in which I was quoted pretty prominently. (Translation: Most other faculty had taken off for the summer, and I feel a strong need to be heard every chance I get, so I was both available to talk to the student reporter and happy to do so. It’s not that I’m a media whore–I’m not being paid enough to call it that. I’m a media slut. Important distinction.)

So here are some of my gems of wisdom. Basically, I tried to be equal-opportunity cynical about the rhetoric each side’s been using. Note: The student let me fact-check the quotes before they appeared; but she wouldn’t make any stylistic changes, and she transcribed very literally from her tape recorder. The results are a little painful. The last quotation (which is what the reporter ended the story with) is my best, I think.

“Conservatives are going to cast this as ‘the Obama administration is making an assault on religious freedom,’” Duffy said. “Liberals will cast it as ‘conservatives are waging a war on women.’ It’s framing the issue in those inflamed terms for the issue of rallying their respective bases.”

“I think for the Catholic bishops this has become an occasion to send a message to American Catholics,” Duffy said. “American Catholics are notorious for ignoring the Church’s ban on birth control … it’s an effort on behalf of the Catholic bishops to reinforce the Church’s teachings to a laity that is not convinced that those teachings are all that important.”

According to Duffy, the contraceptive mandate is not a new concept.

“What some journalists have been pointing out is the fact that mandates like the one that the Obama administration had originally wanted or like the compromise that is now being proposed are already in place in many states and have been supported by Republicans in the past,” Duffy said. “Republicans are now lining up against the Obama contraceptive mandate because of course, it’s Obama, so it becomes a useful political tool in the election.”

“This is political theater,” Duffy said. “This issue that could have been discussed and has been discussed in the past in calmer ways is being inflamed at a particular moment for the purposes of the 2012 election, and I think it would behoove everyone to be a little bit cynical about this debate for that reason.”

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What does Mitt Romney’s Mormonism symbolize?

[UPDATE: I've revised the post that originally appeared here so that I can use this analysis more effectively in the classroom. The original post included a brief discussion of evangelical attitudes toward Romney, a subject I've analyzed at greater length for Religion & Politics. I've cut that discussion out of the revised post and expanded the points that remain.]

A few days ago, I responded to a Religion Dispatches post by Joanna Brooks about media coverage of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. For the past seven months, I’ve been trying to pitch my own analysis of that topic to various major newspapers and online magazines. Since that’s proved a dead-end, I’m giving up and posting a version of my analysis here instead.

What does Romney’s Mormonism Symbolize for Voters?

For a long time, the question that loomed largest in discussions of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism was, “Will conservative evangelicals vote for a Mormon?” Now that Romney has become the presumptive Republican nominee, the evangelical question is receding, and the focus of Romney’s “Mormon problem” has shifted. The question now is whether, and how, Obama supporters might use Romney’s Mormonism to advantage—either to woo independents and other undecideds away from Romney or to fire up the Democratic faithful to donate money and time to defeat him.

It is unlikely that religion will be a major issue in the campaign—on the surface, at least. Because making an issue of Romney’s religion would expose the Obama campaign or pro-Obama PACs to charges of bigotry, economic issues will likely remain the centerpiece of Democrats’ anti-Romney campaigns.

But there are media venues other than stump speeches and campaign ads in which Obama supporters can try to turn Romney’s religion to their advantage. Large segments of the American public have negative associations with Mormonism. Right or wrong, those associations turn Mormonism into a symbol. By reminding voters that Romney is Mormon, and by reminding them of the negatives that Mormonism has come to stand for, Obama sympathizers can paint a negative impression of Romney in a safely subtextual way. They can do this in editorials, in late-night comedy bits—even in news reporting.

We have already seen enough media treatment of Romney’s religion to predict how Mormonism will function as a symbol in the 2012 general election. Three major themes have emerged.

1. Mormon = social conservative

Mormons themselves have promoted this association by advertising their traditional family values and moral rigor. A peculiar measure of Mormons’ success at building a conservative public image is the The Book of Mormon musical’s parody of that image.

With Mormonism’s conservative public image in place, Romney’s Mormonism can function as a badge signaling opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage, much as Rick Santorum’s Catholicism did, or Michele Bachmann’s evangelicalism. Romney himself invoked his religious identity as he wooed Republican values voters during the primaries, spinning his Mormonism into the more generic brand image of a “person of faith” who champions “Judeo-Christian” values in public life. Among those values, he wants social conservatives to know, he counts the right to life and an exclusively heterosexual definition of marriage. Some pro-life conservatives have voiced doubts about Romney’s opposition to abortion. On the other side of the issues, Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign accept Romney’s current claims about where he stands; they are, for that reason, rallying against him.

Ironically, while Romney’s political career in Massachusetts gave values voters reason to doubt his social conservatism despite his religious identity, the inverse is true for liberal critics: Romney’s religious identity gives them grounds to paint him as a committed social conservative despite his more moderate record in Massachusetts. Such is the rhetorical effect when Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, authors of The Real Romney, explain that Romney’s membership in “the Mormon Church meant accepting a code of conduct that placed supreme value on . . . strong heterosexual families, in which men and women often filled defined and traditional roles.” Subtext: The man doesn’t believe in gay rights or gender equality. The same book popularized anecdotes in which Romney, as a church leader, pressed one pregnant unmarried woman to give her baby up for adoption and another woman not to terminate a life-threatening pregnancy. These stories insinuate that, flip-flopping regardless, the “real Romney” does not respect a woman’s right to choose—and they produce that effect by linking him to his Mormonism.

Mormonism does not produce this symbolic effect for all Mormon politicians. Although Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is a Mormon with a relatively conservative record on abortion and gay marriage (at least until recently), he is not as strongly linked with Mormonism in national media as Romney is. In part this is because neither Republicans nor Democrats stand to gain anything by painting Reid as a social conservative; neither side therefore stands to gain anything by reminding the public of his Mormonism. Romney, because he is a Republican, presents a very different case.

2. Mormon = insufficiently pluralist

In recent months, much commentary has been generated around news stories that paint Mormons as intolerant or insensitive toward minority groups. These include stories about racially discriminatory teachings in Mormonism, vicarious baptisms performed in the name of Jews killed in the Holocaust, and Romney’s hazing of a gay student at his prep school. Not incidentally, perhaps, these stories involve minority groups that Democrats would like to keep securely in their camp: the black vote, the Jewish vote, and the gay vote.

The stories about Mormon racism and vicarious baptisms centered on the church, not on Romney; but they came, inevitably, to be connected to him. Lawrence O’Donnell has been particularly insistent about holding Romney accountable for his church’s past teachings and policies toward people of black African ancestry. Although Romney himself has not said or done anything to attract charges of racial bias (yet), painting his religion as racist allows critics such as O’Donnell to cast doubts on the candidate by extension. Something similar happened when Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel called on Romney to press his church to halt vicarious baptisms. For Jews, this Mormon practice evokes the memory of forced conversions under Christian rule in centuries past; in effect, then, Wiesel was challenging Romney to show that he is not anti-Semitic. More broadly, the baptisms controversy reminds voters that Mormons are religious exclusivists, who believe their church alone provides the path to salvation. Many Americans find such exclusivism uncomfortable because it strikes them as intolerant—an impression that can then spill over to Romney.

The hazing incident involves Romney directly and therefore has the greatest potential for damage. This controversy is especially toxic coming in the aftermath of the “It Gets Better” campaign, which heightened public awareness about bullying and gay teen suicide. The hazing story might have been somewhat less potent had it broken during Romney’s 2008 campaign, prior to both “It Gets Better” and the outrage over Mormon support for California’s Proposition 8. Now, though, the incident works as an ugly symbol of Mormon opposition to homosexuality, a salient issue for “millennial” voters.

Romney has not been alone in fielding religion-related charges of racism, homophobia, or intolerance. Michele Bachmann’s connection to an ex-gay ministry attracted criticism and satire during her 2012 primary run. In 2008, John McCain faced embarrassing questions about the anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic preaching of evangelical endorser John Hagee, while Barak Obama distanced himself from remarks by pastor Jeremiah Wright that smacked of black separatism. Like Romney, but in different ways, these candidates had to manage religious associations that risked giving the impression they did not support pluralist values.

3. Mormon = fringe

Commentators speaking from various points along the political spectrum have pointed to unconventional Mormon beliefs to insinuate that Romney is a fringe figure and perhaps not entirely rational. A New York Times editorial by Yale litterateur Harold Bloom questioned whether Mitt Romney can govern as the American people’s representative if he believes that he is destined to become a god. Evangelical journalist Warren Smith challenged the decision-making capabilities of a president who believed in “an American history that is in many particulars completely unsubstantiated and in others demonstrably false,” a reference to the Book of Mormon’s narrative of ancient Israelites colonizing the New World. Would-be Romney competitor Fred Karger, a gay Republican running a quixotic campaign for the presidency, maintains a website, “Top 10 Craziest Mormon Beliefs.”

Romney routinely insists that questions about peculiar Mormon doctrines are irrelevant to his qualifications for public office. But the rhetorical force of such questions—and the reason Romney doesn’t want to field them—is that they cast him as standing outside the norm in American religion, or even outside the realm of common sense. For voters of a rationalist bent, these questions very much bear on Romney’s capacity to govern. Also, voters may be less inclined to choose as the figurehead of the American nation an individual whom they perceive as representing a fringe group. (Conversely, a Romney win in November would symbolize that Mormons have moved in from the fringe.)

Romney is not alone, again, in having unconventional beliefs used against him. Recall the controversy generated in 2008 by video of a Pentecostal minister praying over Sarah Palin to protect her against witchcraft. In that same year’s Democratic primaries, Dennis Kucinich was quizzed during a televised debate about having claimed to see a UFO. In each case, voters were being asked: Do you want someone who believes that to lead the country? Undoubtedly, critics will continue to pose the same question about Romney. The strategy is risky, though. The same aversion to intolerance that makes voters uneasy about Mormons’ religious exclusivism could also make voters uneasy about attacks on Mormon doctrines—except where they see those doctrines as threatening to legislate morality or restrict the rights of minorities.

For six years, Romney has resisted being defined as “the Mormon candidate”—much as Obama never wanted to be reduced to “the black candidate.” Inevitably, though, Romney’s Mormonism has symbolic force. The fact that he is slated to become the first Mormon presidential nominee of a major political party symbolizes growing acceptance for Mormons in American society. At the same time, Romney’s Mormonism can alienate voters depending on what meanings they attach to his religion. The knowledge that “Romney is Mormon” will hurt him among some voters if they understand that statement as equivalent to: “He’s anti-choice.” “He opposes gay rights.” “He may be racist.” “He’s intolerant of other faiths.” “He isn’t rational.” “He’s fringe.” Some of those are perceptions that both Romney and his critics would like to cultivate: for example, the perception that he opposes Roe v. Wade, which gives pro-life voters reason to rally to him and pro-choice voters reason to reject him. Others are perceptions that Romney would like to dispel—and that his critics will therefore labor to reinforce in voters’ minds between now and November.

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Joanna Brooks on Mitt Romney, business, and religion

Last week, Joanna Brooks posted to Religion Dispatches a somewhat puzzling piece—puzzling because I sense that, under the guise of posing questions, she was in fact trying to make a point that for some (puzzling) reason she didn’t want to make directly.

In response to a recent Washington Post column about Mitt Romney’s past conduct in the world of business, Brooks wondered why news stories about Romney-the-Mormon seem divorced from discussions of Romney-the-business-executive. “I’m waiting for the story,” she said, that

gets [to] the deeper and more persistent question of religion and moral bearings:

How does the most religiously devout candidate in recent memory reconcile a life of religious commitment with a values-neutral approach to work, livelihood, and the marketplace?

What puzzles me about that statement is that Romney’s “approach to work, livelihood, and the marketplace” is patently not “values-neutral,” as Brooks is surely astute enough to know. Evidently, however, the values that drive Romney’s business practices are not the values that count for Brooks, or for the persona she’s adopting.

Let me attempt to translate Brooks’s question into the point I think she intended to make:

I wish some reporter would write a story that shows how Romney’s business practices clash with LDS values about economic justice and caring for others.

Let me speculate, further, that Brooks would like to see such a story because it would present a more progressive face for Mormonism than news readers have been getting in stories that spotlight Mormon racism or homophobia or that paint Mormons as a conservative army. Mormonism would look like a good thing for once—“good” defined by politically progressive criteria.

Brooks then asks a second question:

Why does religion play an outsized role in the politics of gay marriage and contraception but apparently has no say when it comes to big-ticket items like national spending and economic policy?

The implicit point of this question, of course, is that religion ought to “have a say” on economic issues. By “having a say,” I surmise Brooks means that she wants to see more public discourse that relates those issues to religious values.

More specifically, I suspect that behind this question is a complaint I’ve encountered elsewhere on the religious left: if we’re going to talk about bringing “religious values” back into government, the way the religious right’s always going on about, then let’s talk about social and economic justice. (I’m probably on record somewhere online making my own version of that complaint.)

Even though Brooks’s question is rhetorical, let me treat me it as if it were straightforward and offer a Weberian answer to the “why.” The reason gay marriage and contraception are linked to religion in political discourse, but economic policy issues aren’t (more to Brooks’s point: the reason that reporters talk about Mormonism in connection to Romney’s stand on gay marriage but not in relation to his business practices), is that the process of secularization is farther advanced in the sphere of business and economics than in the sphere of sexual politics.

In other words, we live in a society where it has come to be taken for granted that the rationales driving business or economic decision-making will customarily be secular, not religious. Individuals in the world of business may be guided by religious values; and religious organizations, on both the right and the left, make statements about business and economic issues. But those values and statements are generally located in the “private” realm. One doesn’t normally expect to hear them discussed in boardrooms or legislatures. There aren’t enough people out there who feel that it’s necessary to invoke religious warrants in business and economics. (For someone who laments this state of affairs, read Robert Wuthnow’s God and Mammon in America.)

The situation is different in public discourse around sexual politics: in that sphere, religious warrants do still play a more prominent role. Why? Primarily, I propose, because while religious conservatives certainly invoke secular—e.g., scientific—warrants for their positions, they’re on the defensive in that regard. Secular warrants seem to have been more effectively harnessed by liberals when it comes to sexual controversies. Conservatives therefore need to rely on the authority of religion to rally their supporters and press their case.

At the same time, liberals have found it useful to link religion to conservative stances on sexual issues for at least two reasons: (1) Liberals of a rationalist bent can paint the opposition as religious zealots who are guided by old dogmas rather than by reason. (2) Religious liberals can challenge conservatives’ attempts to invoke religious authority by arguing that the conservatives aren’t really living up to their religion—i.e., its call to practice love, or justice, or inclusion, etc.

The second strategy is what Brooks is hinting she’d like to see some journalist adopt in treating Romney’s business practices. I remain puzzled why she doesn’t take a stab at it herself.

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St. John Maximovitch

Today is the feast day of St. John Maximovitch.

Last November, while attending the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in San Francisco, I boarded a bus one rainy evening and took a long ride across the city to visit the Holy Virgin Cathedral, where the saint’s incorrupt relics are on display. I first encountered John Maximovitch in the early-to-mid 1990s, at Brigham Young University of all places. While I was an undergraduate there, I saw a flyer that the BYU religion department had received announcing an essay contest: write away for a free copy of Not of This World: The Life and Teaching of Fr. Seraphim Rose, write an essay about it, win $1000 for first prize. I was entering a lot of writing contests in those days. I sent away for the book, which turned out to be exactly 1000 pages long, an adulatory biography of an American convert to Russian Orthodoxy who is now considered a saint by his devotees. My essay won honorable mention, which meant they sent me four more of the man’s books.

Seraphim Rose was a protege of John Maximovitch, who therefore figured prominently in Rose’s biography. During the 1960s, until his death, Maximovitch was archbishop of San Francisco for ROCOR, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which I think of as the “fundamentalist” wing of Russian Orthodoxy in America. He had been born in Russia; his family fled the Bolshevik Revolution; he became archbishop of Shanghai, where he pastored Russian exiles and ran an orphanage; after he and his community fled China’s Communist Revolution, he ended up in France for a while before his final move to the United States. In Shanghai, he developed a reputation as a “fool for Christ” and a wonderworker–he would pray around the clock without sleeping; in response to his prayers, the orphanage’s needs would be miraculously met on a hand-to-mouth basis; that sort of thing.

Maximovitch was solemnly glorified (canonized) in 1994. In celebration, The Orthodox Word, a journal co-founded by Seraphim Rose with Maximovitch’s blessing published a Maximovitch-themed issue, free copies of which were sent to everyone on their mailing list. I’d ended up on that list because of my contest submission. Last fall, I used selections from that issue of the journal for a unit I was teaching on Russian Orthodoxy in America–at which point it occurred to me I was going to be in San Francisco that same month for the AAR. I figured I had to visit.

The Holy Virgin Cathedral is small but lavish, with icons covering every square inch of wall and ceiling. (Topic for a future blog post: why liberal Protestants love Orthodox icons.) I arrived thinking I was going to find the saint’s shrine in a basement crypt, but I discovered that after his glorification, his remains were moved from the basement into the sanctuary itself. I was assured it was fine for me to go take a look, even though a service was going to start soon, so I walked across the sanctuary floor feeling very self-conscious. I had no idea what the normal protocol would be–genuflections, etc.–so as I approached the shrine, I clasped my hands in front of me and tried to look reverential, though in fact I felt like a gawking tourist.

I’m sure there are lengthy theological disquisitions on what counts as “incorrupt” relics. Maximovitch’s body was not what I would have called “incorrupt,” but it was all there, under glass, in what looked like a state of mummification. Actually, the only part of the body you could see were the hands; the rest of the body was covered up with ritual vestments, plus a cloth covering the face. The hands were blackened and shriveled. It was quite a jolt to my Protestant-slash-Mormon sensibilities.

Before leaving, I stood in the doorway to the sanctuary and observed a service venerating the saint: a couple priests and perhaps 6-8 people stood near the reliquary and chanted–I don’t know what, it was Russian. St. John’s akathist, perhaps? I bought a copy of his akathist before I left (a long hymn in his praise), along with an icon of the saint. The akathist had been composed by Seraphim Rose.

The building John is holding in the icon is the Holy Virgin Cathedral, whose completion he oversaw (amid great controversy in the congregation).

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