Monthly Archives: February 2012

So why were all the pro-slavery Christians in the South?

I just experienced one of those great, spontaneous teaching moments in class where a student asks a fantastic question that allows you to naturally move to a deeper level of critical analysis. For the past few days, in my intro to American religion, we’ve been talking about the religious dimension to the slavery debate and the Civil War. My driving objective has been to help students see the logic that structured positions on each side. Today a student asked: So if this was a matter of different religious beliefs, why did people in the South embrace pro-slavery interpretations of Christianity and people in the North embrace anti-slavery ones? Why weren’t the pro- and anti-slavery folks distributed more evenly across the country?

My response, of course, was to talk about the socioeconomic situation–the base, as Marxists would say: the fact that the Southern plantation system was built on slave labor whereas in the North the Industrial Revolution was underway, and there were plenty of immigrants to provide a non-slave workforce to sustain that economy. I loved how the cultural theory rose spontaneously out of the discussion as a solution to a student-identified problem. Had I instead given the class some Marx to read and formally lectured on base and superstructure, I’m sure I would have had a harder time helping them grasp the concept and its relevance.

Looking back, I’m already sensing an irony in the situation, though: I have a hunch that the discussion served to ease student anxiety about the logical coherence of the pro-slavery argument. Students can now dismiss the biblically based arguments for slavery as Southern slaveowners just rationalizing a system to which they were “really” committed for crass economic reasons. If that’s what’s going on in some of the students’ minds, then they’re latching onto a Marxist notion of the epiphenomenal nature of the superstructure in order to preserve the authority of the Bible. That’s . . . an interesting move. I’m not inclined to intervene–this is their issue to grapple with–but it’s intriguing to observe.

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Slaves, obey your masters

This semester, I’m teaching an introduction to American religious history; this week, we read Protestant arguments for and against slavery during the antebellum period. I was particularly interested in making students feel the force of the pro-slavery arguments. Living as we do on the far side of abolition, at a time when the wrongness of slavery has achieved taken-for-granted status, I worry that students dismiss the pro-slavery arguments as simply absurd and therefore don’t appreciate the uphill battle that anti-slavery activists had to wage, rhetorically and intellectually speaking.

So I allowed the spirit of an antebellum Southern Protestant slaveholder to sit on my head, as they say in some of the traditional West African religions. I laid out for the students in a serious, compelling way–not a parody–the biblical argument for slavery:

  1. Nowhere in the Bible is slavery forbidden; on the contrary, God sanctions and regulates it. This is true both in the OT (the Mosaic law) and in the NT (especially Ephesians).
  2. The relationship between master and slave is one of a set of mutual yet hierarchical relationships prescribed by God to create a loving patriarchal social order. (Ephesians 5-6 is the key source for this.) Wives are commanded to obey their husbands; husbands are commanded to love their wives. Children are commanded to obey their parents; parents–fathers more specifically–are commanded to love their children. Likewise, slaves are commanded to obey their masters; masters are commanded to love their slaves.
  3. Southern slaveholders contrasted the loving hierarchy of the master-slave relationship to the callousness of emerging industrial capitalism in the North. Capitalists could fire their workers at will and turn them out to starve; slaveholders were responsible for their slaves. Slavery was therefore a more Christian–that is, loving–system than capitalism.
  4. Especially after the European revolutions of 1848-49, which gave birth to the Communist Manifesto, Southerners came to see their defense of slavery as nothing less than a defense of Christian civilization. Abolitionism was a repudiation of God’s word and would therefore end, like the European revolutions, in atheism.

Students whose religious backgrounds are such that they regard the Bible as authoritative naturally wanted to jump in with counter-exegesis. I stayed in character and pushed back to prevent the arguments they find comfortable from having the last word. We then segued into analysis: what about the pro-slavery argument makes the students get defensive, ergo what gives the argument rhetorical force?

This argument isn’t just a relic of the past. One of the lines that gay/lesbian Christians have developed to talk back to biblically grounded arguments against homosexuality invokes “Slaves, obey your masters” in order to subvert conservative biblical exegesis. So–the line goes–if you theological conservatives insist that everything Paul says is gospel, do you believe that slaves should obey their masters? The point, of course, is to suggest that Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality should be seen as an artifact of his historical and cultural location, just like his views on slavery. In response, though, I’ve seen some evangelicals–Mark Noll for one–absorb the blow and hold their ground. You’re right, their counterargument goes, the Bible does say slaves should obey their masters; and since the Bible is inerrant, that commandment is, in fact, gospel. The slaveholders were right, and the abolitionists were wrong, at least as far as biblical exegesis goes.

In fairness to Noll, I should acknowledge that in his version of this argument, he goes on to suggest that a biblical case could be made for abolishing slavery anyway (e.g., the Bible allows slavery, but abolishing it is also consistent with biblical principle). So his argument isn’t quite as reactionary as it looks at first blush. Still, there’s a very strong “ick” factor here. Not being a biblical inerrantist myself, I’m spared the need to engage in that particular form of awkward intellectual gymnastics as the price of philosophical consistency.

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A Muslim on Bourbon Street

In honor of Mardi Gras, a YouTube video made by Akbar Ahmed in connection with his book Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam. Ahmed and his research assistants express dismay at the sexualized nature of the celebration, the drinking, the gambling, etc. Later, near the end of the video, during an interview with a musician, Ahmed proposes that jazz is related to Sufi music.

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Apotheosis of Washington

In observance of Presidents Day, some post-Civil War civil religion: the Apotheosis of Washington fresco, which appears on the ceiling of the Capitol rotunda. The photo is from the Architect of the Capitol website, which has a description of the fresco’s history and symbolism. Click the image for a much larger view.

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Aimee Semple McPherson on “worldliness”

I found my way to this video after watching yet another video of Pentecostal preacher Aimee Semple McPherson embedded in a blog post by my friend Brandi Denison over at Religion in the American West. My attention was caught by McPherson’s statement that she has come to New York, “the mecca of sin, the citadel of worldliness”–she says, as she stands in a very finely furnished room wearing . . . okay, I don’t know what to call what she’s wearing. I’m not the right kind of gay man to know that sort of thing, and I don’t have a straight man’s incentive to find out.  The point is: she ain’t wearin’ homespun calico.

I could take a cheap shot here: she condemns worldliness while enjoying it herself. But I’m intrigued by the irony for the sake of a more dispassionate kind of cultural analysis. Whatever Aimee Semple McPherson has in mind when she condemns worldliness, it apparently doesn’t include the kind of furniture, or clothes, or jewelry, or hairdo she’s sporting. In other words, what we’re seeing in this video is McPherson working out–acting out–a conception of “unworldliness” that will allow her to reconcile her pietistic religious identity with certain socioeconomic aspirations. She’s showing viewers that you can be a good Christian and still enjoy these particular kinds of pleasures–or at least enjoy imagining yourself enjoy them.

In this video, the trick to having it both ways is to adopt a certain kind of discourse. You can wear what you want, and you can have the furniture you want. What marks you as a good, unworldly Christian are the words you use: the fact that you talk about New York City as a mecca of sin and a citadel of worldliness, and that you sing old-time gospel songs asking God to give you a heart for the lost.

I really don’t intend that observation to be snide or disapproving. I’m simply intrigued to see how this particular variety of American Christian identity is being worked out.

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Quetzalcoatl and the First Amendment

A few years ago, I wrote an article on the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl for the encyclopedia Hispanic American Religious Cultures. As I researched that article, I was intrigued to discover that a statue of Quetzalcoatl commissioned by the city of San Jose, CA had been the subject of a “religious establishment” case in the 1990s. In other words, someone sued the city on the grounds that the statue was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

"Quetzalcoatl statue" (photo by Tego1, Flickr)

The case boiled down to whether or not the statue was “religious.” Opponents of the statue linked it to religion in multiple ways:

  • Some Christians in the community (fundamentalist Protestants, I would surmise, given the particular logic of their complaint) objected to the statue because they equated it with the serpent from Genesis 3 (ergo, they saw it as a covertly satanic symbol).
  • Some Mexicans objected to the statue on the grounds that Quetzalcoatl had been worshipped with human sacrifice–prompting defenders of the statue to counter that actually, according to the myths, Quetzalcoaltl had abolished human sacrifice.
  • Plaintiffs claimed that at the city-sponsored ceremony dedicating the statue, individuals had bowed to the statue; left offerings of food, flowers, and incense; or left written prayers to Quetzalcoatl.
  • Plaintiffs submitted to the courts New Age and Mormon literature showing that those groups regarded Quetzalcoatl as a living religious symbol or divine figure (i.e., Mormons equate Quetzalcoatl with Jesus).

(The statue has also been criticized for looking, literally, like a pile of dog crap, ostensibly a malicious move by the artist in retaliation for the city rejecting his original design. But the courts didn’t have to rule on the statue’s artistic merits.)

The district and appeals courts both rejected the plaintiffs’ claims. Basically, the courts ruled that even if Quetzalcoalt has continuing religious significance for some people, such people don’t constitute a familiar, organized religion, and therefore the statue doesn’t constitute a meaningful endorsement of religion by the city. Read the appeals court decision.

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Freedom Riders

Tonight I watched part of a PBS documentary about the Freedom Riders. They were fanatics, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

But here’s a thought question that occurred to me as I was watching:

We praise the Freedom Riders for their fanaticism; we call it courage and dedication and sacrifice, and we honor them for it. As we should.

But now imagine a minority religion–a “sect,” a “cult”–demonstrating the same level of fanatic commitment in their pursuit of some other action deemed illegal by the authorities. Plural marriage, maybe. Or the ritual use of certain controlled substances. Or disturbing the peace by playing recordings of anti-Catholic sermons on street corners in Catholic neighborhoods. Or animal sacrifice.

Imagine this group insisting they had a constitutional right to these practices in the face of police enforcement, even mob action. Imagine them declaring that their conscience would not allow them to submit to these unjust laws. Imagine them singing cheerfully and defiantly as they were carted off to jail by the dozens or the hundreds.

Would you admire their fanaticism? Why or why not?

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CNN’s profile of Joanna Brooks

This profile of Brooks interested me because I know her–we went to college together. (We were in the same Western civ. colloquium. She already stood out as a hellraiser. That’s a compliment.)

But for the purposes of ProjectilePluralism, what intrigues me are some of the comments posted in response to the profile by readers at CNN’s website. I’m copy-and-pasting just a few. Note the variety of attitudes expressed, not just toward Mormonism but toward religion more broadly. On second thought, I guess the attitudes expressed in these particular posts are mostly hostile–but they’re hostile for a variety of reasons.

lucy2
An interesting read. Her story seems to be one of personal faith/spirituality vs. the confines of organized religion. I can’t imagine it’s easy for her, but I think everyone has the right to follow their own path, whether that involves faith or not.

Don
Joanna- America is a land of freedom. As Americans we all have a right to follow God to the dictates of our own conscieous. Choose wisely your decisions, because the results we can not choose. You should know the Lord has always used the principle of authority via priesthood such as with the Levites in the OT. Jesus ignored the woman from Canaan (Matthew 15) because she was not Hebrew, though he eventually heeded her requests. We do not know the details many times why the Lord operates as he does; his ways are NOT our ways. Have faith and not question every position. God bless you sister.

Dr Zoidberg
the fact she believes in a fairy tale shows her to be dumb as a wall

Willie
Wow, imagine this. CNN’s way of masking a slap at my church by trying to disguise it as a nuteral look at one womans view of the church. Where are the articals on disgruntled Baptists, Methodists, etc, etc. There is no “freedom of Religion” in the U.S. Not really. Sorry I ever opened up CNN. Should have known better…………..

JasonJackson
This article does not reflect the views of the vast majority of active LDS people. Yes, some leave. yes. there are real issues, which good people of all faiths disagree on. But those who leave or question do not represent the LDS faith.

bff [Responding to JasonJackson]
Did you just say that those who question do not represent the LDS faith?
I actually expect that kind of thinking from religious people. It’s a good method of keeping the flocks in line. Many religions use it. Powerful stuff.

UPDATE: I won’t clutter this posting with more quoted comments, but I have to add that just a half hour later, the posts had multiplied to include whole other angles: a sympathetic self-identified agnostic, a Jewish respondent on interfaith marriages, an alienated Catholic, a Christian apologist (probably evangelical) on Mormonism’s departures from orthodox Christian doctrine, someone else railing simultaneously against feminism and atheism, and on and on. I could generate a whole hour of class discussion about contemporary Americans’ attitudes toward religion based on this material.

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Higher Ground

Tonight I watched the film Higher Ground, which is based on the exit memoir of a . . . let’s call her an ex-“fundamentalist” for convenience’s sake, though that’s not a very informative term. Her religious community, as depicted in the film, evokes the Jesus movement: a vaguely hippie ethos, with lots of legumes and carob brownies, beards on all the men, and explicit tape recorded lectures on how to have Christ-like sex, in tandem with women submitting to male headship and folks commanding Satan to get out of their cars (but no speaking in tongues).

I was disappointed in the film. I’ve liked Vera Farmiga and Joshua Leonard in other films (Up in the Air, Humpday), and I don’t have complaints about their acting in this one. But overall, the film had what I’m thinking of as a “Lifetime/Oprah” feel  to it. Secondary characters tended to be two-dimensional, even caricatured: the straight-laced, judgmental fundamentalist matron; the fucked-up coke junkie dressed like a streetwalker; the self-righteous, hell-preaching Christian counselor. Partly I blame the acting; partly I blame the writing; and partly I have to blame the director. (I’m sorry, Vera.)

The problem, I suspect, is that the author of the exit memoir, who also co-wrote the screenplay, thinks of her story as particularly significant and the personal insights she’s arrived at as profound–when they’re not. They’re standard issue for an exit memoir or a fundamentalist-turned-liberal conversion narrative. And then to exacerbate the problem, the other people involved in making this film (producers, director, actors) likewise think of this as a particularly significant story, and probably perceive themselves as doing something noble and extraordinary, i.e., because they’re taking faith seriously and are being fair to the fundamentalists they portray. As a result, they think they’re doing something grander than they are. They’re coasting on cliches without knowing that’s what they’re doing.

This might have been a better movie if the filmmakers had accepted that the story they’re telling isn’t special. (Making this shift would probably require getting the memoirist away from the project.) With that realization in place, they would then have had to work harder to make the film special: to flesh characters out richly and three-dimensionally, to fight against the pull of the conventional in writing and performance, to insist on nuance, to really challenge the audience–not the fake challenge of asking liberals to watch a film about fundamentalists without laughing derisively. That’s not a challenge; people should be prepared to do that already.

The film has moments where it rises toward what I imagine it could have been: a scene with dogs outside a church which is plainly meant to have special meaning but whose symbolism isn’t obvious; a tangential moment when the protagonist’s mother, who has also become some kind of conservative Christian (a not necessarily predictable development that happens off screen), exchanges heavy looks with her ex-husband. The latter was part of my favorite scene, actually–my favorite because it comes closest to raising a real challenge to film-goers for whom fundamentalists are an Other. It’s a birthday party, and the extended family are gathered. Some are conservative Christian (of different varieties, it appears), some not. But somehow they’ve worked out an accommodation that lets them coexist without the occasion lapsing into a cliched confrontation like the one we were fed earlier in the film, when the children ask how Aunt Wendy can be so nice when she’s unsaved. How that accommodation was reached isn’t something we’re shown, though that would be a worthwhile story to tell in itself.

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