Tag Archives: politics

Protestant Foreign Missions and Secularization in Modern America

That’s the title of a three-day event which begins today at the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, for which I received a quite elegant promo in the mail a couple weeks ago. Ugh, I wish I could be there. David Hollinger’s giving two lectures: “How the Foreign Missionary Experience Liberalized the Home Culture,” and “Liberalization, Secularization, and the Dynamics of Post-Protestant America.”

I’m sitting here drooling over those titles. Podcast, people! The Danforth Center certainly gives the impression of rolling in money. So let’s see some savvier investment in media outreach here.

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God in America: Of God and Caesar

v07739acrasLast spring, I began posting reviews of the 6-episode Frontline/American Experience documentary God in America. I realized recently that I never reviewed episode 6, “Of God and Caesar.” So let’s do it:

Summary: Unlike most other episodes, this one doesn’t divide neatly into “acts.” But the general storyline is this: In the wake of the 1960s, conservative evangelicals become politically mobilized: Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, George W. Bush. At the same time, though, the religious landscape is becoming more diverse: Hindus, Muslims, Latinos–both Catholic and evangelical. More Americans are religiously unaffiliated or “spiritual, not religious.” A new generation of evangelicals is paying more attention to the environment, AIDS, and poverty. There’s disillusion in the evangelical right–did we sell our souls for political gain? Meanwhile, Democrats are discovering God and reaching out to values voters, which brings us up to Obama.

Over a hopeful soundtrack, the documentary wraps everything up with Stephen Prothero saying that Americans continue to value the notion that they’re a special people with a special connection to God, but what that means and who’s included are still subjects of ongoing debate.

Likes: This episode covers topics that I include in the final, post-1960s, unit of my introductory American religious history survey: Hindus and Buddhists, Muslims, Latinos, and the culture wars. Since my life is contemporary with the emergence and development of the religious right, I suspect that I assume students know more about that movement and its history than they do; this episode gives a reasonably nuanced overview. The documentary-makers had plenty of footage to work with, of course, including clips of Francis Schaeffer’s films, which I’ve read about but never seen–that was interesting. Players in the religious right appear as talking heads: Pat Robertson, Ed Dobson, Frank Schaeffer, Richard Cizik.

Dislikes: Apart from a nod to Catholics as the originators of American anti-abortion activism and the final presentation of Obama as reaching out to some nebulous group called “values voters,” religion in politics is portrayed in this episode as basically synonymous with evangelical activism, as represented by Francis Schaeffer, Moral Majority, and the Christian Coalition more specifically. Granted that the evangelical right stands at the center of “culture war” conservatism. Nevertheless, I favor in my teaching Robert Wuthnow’s model of a conservative-liberal divide that cuts across the entire religious landscape, resulting in the formation of new interreligious coalitions on both sides of the line–and pressing some religious groups to awkwardly straddle the faultline. Examples: Catholics pursuing a politics based on the “seamless web of life,” which doesn’t transpose well into the categories of “liberal” and “conservative” as conventionally used in American politics today; or socially conservative Muslims who agree with conservative evangelicals on many issues but are alienated by “Christian America” rhetoric and evangelical Islamophobia.

Basically, I want students to understand that “conservative-liberal” has become a very important axis for understanding American religion today, but I don’t want them thinking just “evangelical” when they think “conservative,” a tendency that this documentary would reinforce.

In the final moments of the documentary, Prothero says: This moment in American religious life is about pluralism. We’re making the space bigger, extending the sacred canopy over more people. But we don’t have a narrative for this yet. Will we come up with one? What’s the story going to be? To Prothero and the makers of this documentary, I would say: Certainly God in America doesn’t give us that new, pluralistic story; it’s good that you appear to recognize that. May I (bitchily) suggest that part of the reason we don’t have a new narrative yet is that documentaries like this one continue to place Protestants at the center of the story, with other religious groups, when they appear, orbiting around the Protestants? If you want a narrative about religious pluralism in America, then a more radical decentering is needed than anyone involved in this project was evidently willing to hazard or creative enough to imagine.

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God in America: Soul of a Nation

v07739acrasA continuing review of the Frontline/American Experience documentary God in America. This post looks at part 5, “Soul of a Nation.”

Summary: This episode is about religion and politics in the 1950s and 1960s. Act I: Billy Graham promotes Christian revival as America’s defense against Communism. Patriotism and religion are married, e.g., in the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Act II: Resistance to the marriage. Humanist and Jewish parents insist that religious education and religious exercises in public schools is unconstitutional; the Supreme Court agrees (McCullom and Engel). Act III: A good marriage of religion and politics in the black civil rights movements. Martin Luther King, Jr., is at the center of this segment, but Graham is woven in here as well, along with John F. Kennedy’s presidential election.

Likes: Everything covered in this episode works for my introductory survey of American religious history. I cover all these topics: Christian revival and “Judeo-Christian” civil religion in the Cold War; Engel as a landmark in a new approach to church-state relations by the courts; Kennedy’s election in the context of the long history of Protestant anti-Catholicism in America; religion and the black civil rights movement.

There’s some great historical footage here: Graham revivals; Nixon pontificating at a Graham revival (delish…); a period TV interview with the father leading the suit against the school board in Engel; footage of schoolchildren reciting the prayer at issue in Engel; Kennedy delivering the Houston address; various speeches of King, including amazingly sharp footage (restored?) of “I Have a Dream.”

Talking heads include my former teacher Grant Wacker. Sarah Barringer Gordon is on hand to explain the constitutional issues in McCollum and Engel. We’re recent enough in time that we can have some of the historical actors as talking heads, including Terry McCollum, the schoolboy who was at the center of the 1948 case against religious instruction.

Dislikes: I got annoyed that the narrator and the talking heads kept talking about “religion” in politics when historical actors (e.g., Graham) were talking more specifically about Christianity–or at the most expansive, “Judeo-Christianity.” My annoyance on this count is related to the realization that this series isn’t going to attempt to widen the story of religion in America beyond Christians, Jews, and, oh yeah, Native Americans at the beginning of the first episode. The series title ought to have prepared me for that; and yes, I know, you can only do so much in 6 episodes. But still… it’s a limitation of the series that looms large for me given my own priorities in teaching (which include highlighting the experiences of religious minorities as necessary for understanding how power operates in American society).

There’s a fairly clear, if not quite explicit, framing in this episode of: Graham’s fusing of religion and politics is bad because he becomes an insider to the political establishment and tends to equate  national interests with God’s interests, whereas King’s fusing of religion and politics is good because he remains an outsider to the establishment and condemns messianic notions of America’s chosen status among nations. Also–this is quite explicit at the end, at least in how picture is matched to text–Graham represents a religion focused on personal salvation, while King represents a social gospel.

Ehh… Whatever. It’s an overly simplistic framing, of course, which wouldn’t necessarily be a mark against it if I thought it were useful. But what’s the use of it, except for promoting a particular kind of normative vision for how religion and politics ought to interact in America? I don’t do that in my classroom, thank you; and yes, I’m snooty about it because if you’re serious about wanting to teach your students to think critically, then you really shouldn’t be trying to propagandize them, even if you’re acting on the side of the angels.

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Religion and gun control

Tomorrow (Feb. 4) is Interfaith Call-in Day to Prevent Gun Violence. It’s not entirely clear to me who is spearheading this initiative–it has a very simple website, at faithscalling.org–but my guess would be Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence. That group has publicly called on Congress to support universal criminal background checks for all gun purchases, a ban on high-capacity weapons for civilians, and criminalization of unlicensed gun trafficking. Their letter to Congress is accompanied by several pages of signatories, representing Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh organizations. (I didn’t see any Buddhists, a striking omission.)

As soon as I heard about this initiative, I was intrigued to know what kind of religious mobilization may be occurring on the other side of the issue. The NRA website wasn’t acknowledging the Interfaith Call-in Day, at least not that I could see when I visited today; nor did I find any kind of “Voices of Faith” showcase in favor of gun rights. This press release from the National Association of Evangelicals reports that nearly 3/4 of respondents to a December survey of evangelical leaders favored increased government gun regulations. (The press release didn’t specify what regulations were favored.) Richard Land, speaking for the Southern Baptist Convention, issued a public letter to Barack Obama on the same day as Faiths United’s letter to Congress, supporting two of the recommendations made by Faiths United (universal criminal background checks and criminalization of unlicensed gun trafficking; he didn’t support the high-capacity weapons ban, and he advocated regional variation in gun control measures).

This is to say that in places where I might have expected to see religious mobilization occurring on behalf of gun rights [my use of that term is meant to be neutral]–I’m not seeing it. I’m sure I could find religious pro-gun voices (conservative Christian voices, specifically) by casting a broader net online; but in terms of high media profile, religious anti-gun voices seem to be dominant.

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Glenn Beck: Obama as Antichrist?

So, for those who missed it: Glenn Beck has won some time back in the mainstream media spotlight for auctioning a parody art piece, “Obama in Pee Pee.” The parody is an immediate reaction to The Truth, by Michael D’Antuono, which is supposed to be a rebuke to conservative media critics of Obama (like Beck); Beck’s parody also references Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. The logic of Beck’s parody, as he himself articulated it, is: “Everybody on the left, they are so open and tolerant, and they just don’t like it when people complain about taking the image of the savior and putting him in pee pee. But the savior Obama in pee pee? Oh no, that’s just too much.”


Glenn Beck’s “Obama in Pee Pee”

Michael D'Antuono's The Truth

Michael D’Antuono’s The Truth

Andres Serrano's Piss Christ

Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ

Clearly Beck is resentful of Serrano’s treatment of an image of Christ, and resentful of liberals who defend Serrano’s art. I’m less clear what to conclude about what Beck is saying by plugging Obama in for Christ. Obviously he takes a dim view of liberals who, as he sees it, revere Obama as a “savior.” But… why is that, exactly?

See, “Obama in Pee Pee” reminds me of another piece of art by a Tea Party Mormon: Jon McNaughton’s painting One Nation under Socialism, which a few weeks ago I argued casts Obama as a kind of anti-Christ figure:

Jon McNaughton's One Nation under God and One Nation under Socialism

Jon McNaughton’s One Nation under God (left) and One Nation under Socialism (right)

In light of McNaughton’s painting, and other examples of far-right voices literally equating Obama with the Antichrist, I’m left wondering: When Glenn Beck plugs Obama into a parody of Piss Christ and says, in effect, “All right, liberals, let’s see how you like it when someone disrespects your savior”–what is he implying, exactly? Is he saying that it’s absurd for liberals to elevate the president–any president–to the level of some kind of messiah? Or is he saying it’s absurd to elevate Obama specifically to that level because Obama is, in fact, metaphorically if not quite literally, an anti-Christ? As a corollary to that second possibility: Would Beck invest a (sufficiently) conservative president with the messianic aura that he perceives liberals to be assigning to Obama?

I don’t pose this as a rhetorical question: I’m genuinely uncertain. Both options seem plausible. I don’t know which one is actually running through Beck’s mind.

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The Red Mass: A response to Marie Griffith

I’m coming into this conversation late, but I haven’t had the time until now to sit down and write about this as carefully as I need to.

Early last month, Marie Griffith posted an editorial at Religion & Politics in which she “register[ed] deep discomfort with the cozy government-church embrace represented by the Red Mass in Washington D.C.” She was referring to a special mass celebrated annually in the capital, attended by many Catholics working in the federal government. This year’s attendees, Griffith reported, included “six out of the nine current Supreme Court justices, along with members of President Obama’s cabinet, members of Congress, and members of the law profession.” Griffith worried that “the attendance of 2/3 of the U.S. Supreme Court at a holy service that explicitly promotes the Catholic faith sends a bewildering message to citizens who hold other religious beliefs, and those with no religion at all.” She found it particularly troubling that Supreme Court justices who “clearly disagree with current Catholic pronouncements on political matters” or “who disagree with any perceived religious interference whatsoever” nevertheless seemed to “feel the need to attend the Red Mass.” The suggestion was that Griffith thought these justices felt some kind of ecclesiastical pressure to attend. She concluded her editorial on the ominous note that if any religious body “imposes upon political leaders some supposed necessity to attend its own worship service in order to be considered legitimate, beware.”

Predictably, some Catholic commentators–here, for example–have accused Griffith of anti-Catholicism. I admit that possibility crossed my mind as well. Griffith herself tried to preempt that reading by insisting in her editorial that “it is not anti-Catholic to ask these kinds of questions,” and then going on to say that no religious body–”Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or you-name-it”–should be exercising the kind of political pressure that she worries the Red Mass may represent. Fair enough, which is why I mentally backed away from my initial reaction of “Whoa–I didn’t realize Marie Griffith was that way…”

I don’t think Griffith’s editorial is anti-Catholic; but there is something about it that calls for some probing. Even though I identify with the political camp he’s pissing on, I think Matthew Franck at The National Review is on the right track when he writes that “since [Griffith] sees fit only to mention the culture-war obsessions of the Charlotte Democrats, it is hard not to suspect her attitude is ideological in its origins.” Having acknowledged that Franck arrived where I wanted to go before I did, I’m now going to back away from him by tendering a gentler, less partisan version of that critique. In the spirit of Griffith’s own invitation, “Challenge me, do,” let me offer the following scenario by way of trying to elucidate political motivations that I suspect underlie Griffith’s editorial in addition to her concerns about church-state separation. The words “in addition to” are important here: I want to be very clear that I am not suggesting that Griffith’s concerns about church-state separation are an insincere cover for what is “simply” a  partisan reaction. But I do suspect that partisan commitments are at work under the surface of her argument; and if I’m right about what those commitments are, then there’s a longer conversation to be had about the possibility that Griffith is selectively applying her church-state objections in what amounts to a double standard.

With all those ass-covering disclaimers and qualifiers in place, here’s my hypothetical scenario:

A Reform temple in Washington D.C. holds an annual service attended by Jewish members of the Supreme Court, members of Congress, administration staffers, lobbyists, lawyers, etc. At this year’s service, the rabbi delivers a sermon in which he points to the long tradition of American public figures comparing their nation to the biblical Israel. The rabbi argues that if Americans take that comparison seriously–if they really want to be a covenant people of God–then they need to stand for the ethical principles of Torah: safety nets for the poor, justice for immigrants and others on the social margins, policies that promote liberation for the oppressed and dignity for the downtrodden.

My pointed question for Griffith, and others who share her sense of dismay at the Red Mass, is: Does this scenario trouble you as much as the Red Mass? Why or why not?

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First Hindu Congressional representative

Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii Democrat, Poised To Be Elected First Hindu In Congress (Religion News Service)
America’s First Ever Hindu Congresswoman Will Take the Oath of Office Over the Bhagavad Gita (Jezebel.com)

It kills me that I don’t have as much time to comment on this as it deserves. There’s so much to think about: What it means that she’s a Democrat; that she’s a woman; that she’s in Hawaii; that her parents, we’re told, were “conservative . . . politicians”; the way she invokes her military service as a warrant for her American-ness; the way Hindu scripture is now set to be incorporated into American civil religion, and what all that means; the predictable objections to a Hindu in public office from certain conservative quarters, and what exactly is accomplished, rhetorically and politically, by media attention to those objections; the intriguing possibilities for American religious conservatives reaching out to socially conservative Hindus, but the intellectual or cultural work that such connections would require of Christian conservatives… Yeah. It kills me that I barely have time to get this written and posted before I rush off to teach and then do other things for the rest of the day.

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Election 2012: Satan vs. the Antichrist

A few days ago, I gave a public lecture on “Religious Controversies in the 2012 Presidential Race,” surveying various religion-related claims that have been used to create negative impressions of Romney, Obama, Ryan, and Biden. One highlight I thought I would share here is that both Romney and Obama have been linked to a Christian symbol of ultimate evil: Romney as Satan, Obama as the Antichrist. These are fringe claims (in my presentation, I surveyed claims from mainline news and commentary as well), but they reveal the ferocity with which each candidate is regarded by some extremely conservative Christians.

Romney is, in effect, Satan, if you believe Florida evangelist Bill Keller. Keller achieved national prominence during the 2008 election cycle thanks to a Salon article on evangelical opposition to Romney, which took its headline from Keller’s provocative slogan that “A vote for Romney is a vote for Satan.” Keller now runs a website with that title. Keller’s opposition to Romney is basically apolitical. It’s not that he’s gunning for another candidate; Keller may well be a political quietist. He just wants to win souls to Jesus, and he’s worried that Romney–or worse for Keller, Romney’s evangelical endorsers–will give the impression that Mormonism is authentically Christian, not the diabolical fraud that Keller insists it is.


Meanwhile, the Westboro Baptist Church, creators of the famous godhatesfags.com, have created a website declaring Obama to be the Antichrist and the Beast of the Apocalypse: beastobama.com. They had less biblical prooftexting to support their assertion than I had expected. Basically, their rationale for identifying Obama as the Antichrist/Beast, at least as they explain it on the website, is that his stepfather raised him a Muslim, and he supports same-sex marriage (making him, in the WBC’s parlance, a “fag-enabler”).


In a twist that I suspect some observers will find ironic (I’m not so interested in applying the label myself), Mormon artist Jon McNaughton has created a painting that portrays Obama as a kind of anti-Christ. McNaughton has gained some national notoriety for his propagandistic paintings reflecting Tea Party sensibilities; his most well-known work, One Nation under God, depicts Jesus holding aloft the U.S. Constitution as if it were a sacred text. More recently, McNaughton has produced a painting, One Nation under Socialism, that shows Obama holding the Constitution aloft in the same pose that Jesus used in One Nation under God–but Obama is burning the Constitution. The identical pose, I’m arguing, casts Obama as an anti-Christ figure. (The mutually referential titles of the paintings reinforce that interpretation.)


BTW, I can’t say for sure since I can’t vouch for how accurately the online scan I found reproduces the colors of the original painting, but it looks like McNaughton may have painted Obama’s skin as darker that it actually is.

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Religious controversies in the 2012 presidential race

Shameless self-promotion. The flyer is the creation of the student group who’s organizing the lecture.


The book of Moron

A friend emailed this “bumper sticker sighting” to me. If I’m reading this correctly, it seems to be a Republican response (possibly a Mormon Republican response?) to insinuations that Romney’s Mormonism is weird or stupid–the response being in the vein of “Same to you, but more of it.” Political discourse from the schoolyard.

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