Booze and the Mainstreaming of American “Ethnic” Holidays

Walking into today’s session of my course on “Religions of the American Peoples,” I bellowed, “Mardi Gras! Woo-hoo!” in honor of the holiday. After students’ nervous we’d-better-humor-the-professor chuckles had subsided, I remarked, “So–is Mardi Gras an ‘American’ holiday?” That was an allusion to a thought exercise students wrote their first short paper on: Is Hanukkah an “American” holiday?

Suddenly, I had one of those brain flashes that can follow when I throw my inhibitions to the wind. Why do certain “ethnic” holidays–like Mardi Gras–become mainstreamed into more broadly “Americanized” holidays?

My brain-flash hypothesis: Booze.

Think about it. Mardi Gras. St Patrick’s. Cinco de Mayo. There’s a pattern there.

Bars as a driving force in the Americanization of minority cultures. Bars as a site of lived religion. There’s a course offering that would fill–especially if we did field work.

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Atheist Shoots Young Muslims in North Carolina

Although how pertinent the perpetrator’s and victims’ religious identities are to the motive remains to be litigated.

I was reading an update on this story a few minutes ago, and I watched embedded video footage of Craig Hicks’s first hearing (the arraignment, I believe it’s called?), and as the video ended, I started crying a little. That’s not my usual horrified-yet-cerebral response to this kind of thing.

I didn’t know Deah Barakat, or Yusor or Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. But Deah was attending college at my last alma mater. I immediately recognized the Old Well in one of the photos of Yusor and Deah that accompanied early news stories. I’ve been in the apartment complex where this shooting occurred. I guess that all makes this more tangibly real to me–more shocking–than if it had happened in some locale I’ve never been and don’t identify with.

This story mentions that Richard Dawkins, who Hicks admired, has done a horrified/outraged tweet about the shooting.

My brain’s on hold. In shock.

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Israel Zangwill’s “The Melting Pot”

I’m teaching a course this semester called “Religions of the American Peoples” (an inherited title), which I’m using to explore how religious minorities “become American.” In other words, I want students to think about “American” identity as socially constructed and contested. We’re starting the course with a historical survey of shifting ideas about “American” identity, starting with WASP ideologies of the late 19th century and running up through contemporary debates about multiculturalism.

This past week, I gave students three short selections to read from Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot, the 1908 play that made that metaphor famous. There’s a certain quotation from the play that gets widely circulated, but until prepping for this course, I’d never actually read the whole play. It’s a Romeo-and-Juliet story, basically: David, a Russian Jewish emigrant, falls in love with Vera, the exiled revolutionary daughter of a Russian baron–who, in Dickensian fashion, turns out to have led the pogrom that massacred most of David’s family, plus there’s something of a love triangle as a snooty anti-immigrant WASP conspires to win Vera’s affections. David’s uncle Mendel pleads with him not to marry a Gentile, but David rejects that parochial prejudice as unworthy of the melting pot. The play ends with David and Vera united, looking out over the New York harbor toward the Statue of Liberty, while a choir sings “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” Really.

The whole play can be read online, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. The three short excerpts I prepared for my class (David’s first exposition of the melting pot metaphor, his fight with Mendel about intermarriage, and David’s grand closing speech) are here as a PDF, for colleagues who might want to use this for teaching. As you’ll see, Zangwill’s melting pot has a strong religious dimension along Social Gospel lines. America becomes the Kingdom of God–America becomes the Savior, in fact, beckoning the world’s weary and heavy-laden to come find rest. Also, there’s an interesting struggle between loyalty to “the God of our fathers” versus “the God of our children.” Guess which God wins.

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Ganesha at the art museum

This is an entirely random post. I discovered in my files a couple weeks ago this photo I’d taken during a visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art sometime last year. This piece was in their Gallery One, an exhibition designed to serve as a basic intro to art.

My photo of the museum's Ganesha.

My photo of the museum’s Ganesha. (Well, okay, actually my husband’s photo, since I haven’t yet broken down and purchased a smart phone with a decent camera.)

What struck me about this piece was the way that a religious artifact was being “repackaged” for purposes of purely aesthetic admiration–even as traces of its devotional use remained. Note the incense bowl at the foot of the statue. Also, if I recall correctly–this would have been why I was so keen to photograph the statue–the plaque identifying the object noted that the local Hindu temple had dressed the statue for the museum.

The museum's online photo of the same statue.

The museum’s online photo of the same statue.

Upstairs, where the museum’s collection of medieval and Renaissance Christian icons was, the museum had not preserved analogous traces of those religious artifacts’ devotional function–no unlit candles before the icons, no plaques explaining that the icons had been blessed by a local Catholic bishop. I don’t intend that observation to serve as an expression of “reverse discrimination”-style Christian aggrievement. But the question is worth posing in a neutral tone: Why the difference?

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Duke Divinity School on the adhan controversy

In response to the controversy over Duke University granting, then rescinding, permission for their Muslim student group to make the traditional call for prayer from the Duke Chapel bell tower, the head of Duke’s divinity school has issued a letter defending the university’s decision to rescind permission. Time magazine has reported on this. The letter itself can be read here.

In the interest of bringing clarity to the on-going discussion of this issue—that is to say, in the interest of shoveling aside the bullsh*t—I’m providing below a paraphrase of the dean’s letter. It’s admittedly a very loose paraphrase, but I’m confident I’ve accurately captured the heart of what the dean is saying. Again, you can read the original letter here.

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Dear members and friends of the Duke Divinity School community—especially our valued donors:

First, let me make clear that this controversy has nothing to do with us. We at the Divinity School have no control over what happens at the Duke Chapel, a state of affairs that might strike you as ill-advised in retrospect, and perhaps the administration ought to rethink it. At any rate, if we had been in charge, I can assure you none of this would have happened. We have our own chapel here in the Divinity School, which is used strictly for Christian worship. “Faithful Trinitarian Christian worship,” I mean—no Unitarians, or Mormons, or Oneness Pentecostals, or anyone else heretical.

The fact that this controversy has nothing to do with the Divinity School isn’t going to prevent me from sounding off about it. But because I’m not responsible, please direct your outrage to the foolish administrator who is: Christie Lorr Sapp, the University’s Associate Dean for Religious Life, at christie.lorr@duke.edu. Fill her inbox with your hate mail. I’ve made damn sure not to put my email address anywhere on this letter.

Now, before we get to the points I’m most invested in making, let’s get the obligatory disclaimers out of the way: Obviously Duke University values diverse religious traditions—and we at the Divinity School go along with that, too, as long as those other religions keep to their own turf. Obviously, I’m appalled by the hateful and even threatening things people have been saying. No need to mention names, certainly no one nationally prominent headquartered here in North Carolina. But come on, people, you’re making Christians look bad! And obviously, Muslims at Duke should not be held responsible for the behavior of Muslims elsewhere in the world—their terrible, terrible behavior. Millions of Christians are being persecuted in Islamic societies today. They’re prohibited from practicing their faith. Did you know that? Millions. When is there going to be a rally on the quad protesting that?

But look, here’s the fundamentally important thing: The Duke Chapel is Christian turf. That’s what this issue boils down to. Plain and simple. The chapel is a “Christian place of worship.” Not a “neutral space” to be used for purposes of “interfaith hospitality.” Which could raise the question of why the Muslim students are being allowed to pray there at all . . . but I won’t raise that question here. Let’s just stay focused on the call to prayer. As long as the Muslim students worship in the basement, where no one can see them—or hear them—we at the Divinity School raise no objections. For now.

But letting the chapel’s bell tower be used as a minaret—that’s another matter. Because how will that be perceived in parts of the world where Muslims are persecuting Christians? You might as well hang a banner on the chapel that says, “Go, Islamic State!” I realize, of course, that Muslims here perceive the situation as communicating hostility toward them, and I lament that. Really, I’m tearing up about it as I write this. But it’s a question of priorities: How the situation is perceived by Muslims here is not as important as how it might be perceived by Christians on the other side of the globe. Nor as important as how it might be perceived by certain generous Divinity School donors (generous when it comes to money, at least).

Again, let me be clear. We’re not Islamophobes here at the Divinity School. We’ve hosted Muslim representatives for interfaith dialogue—Jews, too, for that matter. We even have a Muslim who teaches at the Divinity School. (Team-teaches, I mean; it’s not like we leave him alone with our students.) We’re proud to have on our faculty Davis Marschall, a leading specialist in Christian-Muslim relations, someone who would certainly know better—ahem—than to countenance anything that might give the appearance of blurring interfaith boundaries in a way that could trigger conservative Christian outrage. Regretfully, Professor Marschall was not consulted about the propriety of letting Muslims use the Duke Chapel for the call to prayer. He didn’t even know it was under consideration. Someone might expect that a specialist in Christian-Muslim relations would be in close enough touch with the university’s Muslim student group to stay apprized of such a development; but Professor Marschall has bigger fish to fry. Still, I can’t understand why no one thought to reach out to him about this.

I hope I’ve cleared up any misconceptions about the Divinity School’s responsibility for this sorry debacle. I hope, too, I’ve made clear that while we at the Divinity School bear no ill will toward Muslims (those millions of persecuted Christians notwithstanding), we firmly oppose allowing them to borrow Christian houses of worship. To our valued donors: Please keep those checks coming!

Grace and peace be with you all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Richard P. Hayes
Dean

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Adhan at Duke . . . oops, nope

A couple days ago, former fellow UNC alums posted to Facebook the news that Duke (where many of us took classes) had granted permission for Muslim students to perform the adhan–the call of prayer–from atop the campus’s iconic chapel bell tower. (A weekly Friday prayer service is held in the chapel basement.) “How nice,” I thought. “Good for the Dukies.”

Now the word is out that the administration has rescinded permission. A key player in that abrupt reversal is Franklin Graham, who lambasted the adhan plan on Facebook, then elaborated to the news media as follows:

“As Christianity is being excluded from the public square and followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law, Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism,” Graham wrote on Facebook.

In an interview Thursday before the reversal, Graham told The Charlotte Observer that Duke should not allow the chapel to be used for the call to prayer. “It’s wrong because it’s a different god,” he said. “Using the bell tower, that signifies worship of Jesus Christ. Using (it) as a minaret is wrong.”

Graham did say Muslim students should be allowed to worship on campus. “Let Duke donate the land and let Saudi Arabia build a mosque for them.”

And referencing the recent terrorist attacks in France, Graham added, “Islam is not a religion of peace.”

(Charlotte Observer, Jan. 15, 2015)

The inevitable irony: Omid Safi reports that threats of violence were made against people at Duke by opponents of the adhan plan.

And who says Duke is losing its historic Christian identity?

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Still an ethnic church, but…

Last month, my husband and I attended a posada organized by Guatemalan immigrants living in the Price Hill area of Cincinnati. Afterward, we took the dog (who was waiting bundled up in the car) for a little walk down the street. On the corner was an old church. A sign in German carved over the door identified it as the First German Evangelical Protestant Church, founded in 1886. However, the German immigrants long since became upwardly mobile and moved out. The building is now in the hands of a different ethnic minority: new signage, in Spanish, identified the building as home to the Hispanic Nazareth Evangelical Church. Still an “evangelical” group–but in a different sense of the word.

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Santa at the manger

A house down the street from mine put up this nativity scene on their front lawn. I’ve fantasized before about something like this–a nativity scene with Santa, and reindeer, and Frosty, and scarf-wearing penguins.

IMAG0595dt

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Miscellaneous Christmas news stories

With Christmas approaching, here’s a miscellany of Christmas-related news stories that crossed my screen recently:

Satanic Temple Wins Battle To Bring Lucifer Display Inside Florida State Capitol” (Huffington Post): These people are obnoxious gadflies, but in a worthy cause. Beelzebub bless them, every one.

73 Percent Of Americans Believe Jesus Was Born To A Virgin” (Huffington Post): I confess to being surprised the figure came out that high. Following a link to Pew’s short report on the larger survey this figure came from, I learned that nearly half of Americans believe that nativity scenes either should not be allowed on government property, or should be allowed only if accompanied by symbols of other faiths (read: menorahs).

They’re Christian, but Christmas is off limits for several faiths (Deseret News): I want to say I’m not a fan of the DesNews (a Mormon-owned paper which is currently trying to buy out its competitor, the Salt Lake Tribune–a Mormon vs. non-Mormon battle dating back to the 19th century). But this was an interesting article about Christian groups that hang back from Christmas–Churches of Christ, Friends, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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From the US Army: Communism as religion

I need to be grading right now, but I’m brooding about the CIA torture report. It’s put me in mind of a text I encountered a couple years ago–an excerpt from a 1989 manual that the US army used at the School of the Americas to train Latin Americans in counterinsurgency, i.e., in how to suppress left-wing movements.

In this particular passage, the author describes Communism as a kind of religion, the explicit implication being that Communists are irrationally committed to their dogmas. (Is the unspoken implication that they’re irredeemable and must therefore be eliminated?)  Note that Catholicism provides the author’s archetype of “religion”–more specifically, of religion as irrational dogma. I find it hard not to read that in light of the long history of American Protestants equating Catholicism with superstition and tyranny. Note, too, that the manual functions as a kind of counterapologetic, aiming to show readers the “fallacies” of Communism as contrasted to “democratic doctrine”–the true religion. (Why did the manual’s author perceive that counterapologetic as necessary?)

My source is the Latin American Working Group.

Communism is “a kind of pseudo-religion, given that it has a founder, a mythology, a sacred book, a clergy, a place of pilgrimage and an inquisition. The founder is Marx; the mythology is communist theory; the sacred book is Das Kapital; the clergy are members of the Communist Party; the place of pilgrimage is Moscow; and the inquisition[,] the state (KGB) and others. Truly, as Marx said, communism is ‘the spectre surrounding Europe.’ Today this spectre is surrounding the whole world. You can’t hope to convince a devoted communist of the errors in his doctrine, but you ought to be able to point out to an impartial person the fallacies of the communist ideology; and you ought to feel more justified in the validity of the democratic doctrine in light of the fallacies you have learned to discover in communist doctrine.”

(“Revolutionary War, Guerillas and Communist Ideology,” 128)

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