Monthly Archives: May 2012

St. Gertrude, protector of cats

This is another post inspired by my trip to North Carolina earlier this month to be hooded. For three or four years while my husband and I lived there, we fed feral cats who lived in the gully next door to our apartment complex. After I got my job in Ohio and we knew we were going to have to move, a friend of mine, a cat lover, connected me with a local organization that manages feral cat colonies. The organization came out over a period of several weeks to trap the cats. There were a couple of litters of kittens that they kept to put up for adoption. The adults they spayed and returned, so that at least the colony wouldn’t reproduce further. The plan was that after we moved, the organization would maintain a feeding station for the cats. (The term “feeding station” called to my mind some kind of plastic device, but it turned out that it just meant a volunteer would drive by every night to lay food on the ground.)

During our return visit, my husband and I drove through the apartment complex for old time’s sake. (I’m more nostalgic about the place than he is, but that’s because I’m more prone to romanticize poverty.) It was so early in the afternoon that I didn’t expect we’d see the cats, but we did see the feeding station. A single cat was there eating; as our car approached, it leaped straight up the chain link fence, climbed over the top, and disappeared into the gully. It happened so fast, I couldn’t get a good look at the cat, so I can’t say if it was one of “ours.”

What does any of this have to do with religion in America? The cat-lover friend who connected me with the organization that now manages “our” colony is Catholic; she wrote a dissertation on Roman Catholic Womenpriests. She told me at one point that she was praying to St. Gertrude for the cats. She was actually the second cat-loving academic colleague of mine who I knew had made St. Gertrude part of her life. My second colleague had an icon of St. Gertrude in her home, which I tried to find a copy of online to accompany this post, without success. This is the image our friends at Wikipedia make available.

Gertrude became patron of cats because she’s customarily prayed to against infestation by mice or rats. How that custom developed, I haven’t yet been able to find out.

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Missionary Baptists vs. Primitive Baptists

Today’s random thought about religion in America is inspired by the road trip I took last weekend from Ohio to North Carolina. We passed I don’t know how many Baptist churches on the way. There was nothing really noteworthy about that, of course. But on two or three occasions, we passed a Primitive Baptist church and a Missionary Baptist church within a few hundred feet of each other. That piqued my attention. I wondered what juicy stories of local schism might explain that proximity. At the very least, you figure there must have been Sunday after Sunday of furrowed brows as people drove past the opposing church–deliberately staring straight ahead, perhaps, or alternatively glancing at the parking lot for a quick jealous car count (or buggy count, depending on how far back we’re talking).

Baptists bring out the schadenfreude in me. I’m not proud of it, but I do indulge in the guilty pleasure.

For those not familiar with this particular religious conflict, Missionary Baptists and Primitive Baptists split in the nineteenth century over whether or not to adopt newfangled modern institutions like Sunday School and missionary societies. The Primitive Baptists rejected these because they hadn’t been around in New Testament times. They were restorationists of a sort, trying to recover the purity of the early, hence “primitive,” Christian church. (The twelve apostles didn’t go around founding missionary boards…) The Missionary Baptists were trendy innovators–at least what passed as trendy innovation in the early 1800s. Think of them as an early nineteenth-century equivalent to the evangelical churches of today that call themselves “worship centers” or “faith centers” because they want to be current. We passed some of those on the drive to North Carolina, too.

Lest I make this particular conflict sound too trivial, I should acknowledge that a larger stake was the question of how bureaucratized or professionalized these churches were going to be. Here’s another anachronistic, presentist analogy: Think of Primitive Baptists as being anti-“big government” and anti-elitist in the realm of religion. (I’m guessing they tend to be those things, literally, on the contemporary political landscape, too.)

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Marriage amendment in North Carolina

This past weekend, my husband and I drove from Ohio to North Carolina so that I could participate belatedly in a hooding ceremony for my doctorate, which was actually awarded to me last year. While we were there, we attended Sunday services at an Episcopal congregation we had been involved with while I was in grad school. North Carolina voters had just passed a traditional-marriage amendment to the state constitution. The congregation had done some activism opposing the amendment, and the diocese had adopted a resolution in opposition as well.  The vicar’s sermon was dedicated to coping with the disappointed aftermath.

As we chatted with the vicar afterward, she told us again how badly she felt about the passage of the amendment. She was so visibly down about it that I couldn’t help but laugh a little. “I’m grateful you feel badly about it,” I told her. “But for us, this is the same old same old.”

Earlier in the week, I had talked by phone with a former professor of mine who had told me that he felt optimistic the amendment would not pass. I was surprised by his optimism–particularly considering that he’s Jewish and has argued on previous occasions that the U.S. should indeed be understood as a “Christian nation” given how influential Christians have been in shaping American politics and culture. With that take on things, I would have expected him to be more clairvoyantly pessimistic about the strength of conservative Christian support for the amendment. I certainly wasn’t surprised by the outcome.

Let me revise that last statement. I was surprised to see how strongly some straight religious liberals I know–the Episcopal vicar, my Jewish professor–have come to identify with the cause for gay marriage. We’re past the stage where this issue is gays and lesbians trying to get straight progressives to sympathize with “our” cause. It’s become “their” cause, too. They’ve become more invested.

I don’t know how this issue will play out in the end. Will the defense-of-marriage movement eventually go the way of the pro-segregation or anti-miscegenation movements–movements that can no longer be “respectably” championed? Or will this issue be more like abortion–large numbers of voters falling out on both sides for decades to come, the country divided up into states that allow gay marriage and states that don’t, and religious conservatives constantly pressing back against what gains the marriage-equality folks manage to make? I have a hunch it will be the latter, but I favor gloomy predictions as a matter of policy. (It’s a policy that assures I will only ever be pleasantly disappointed.)

Whatever happens, we’ve arrived at a point where America’s Christian majority is divided on the issue in numbers big enough that we can no longer talk about a cultural consensus. The fact that Christians, specifically, are divided strikes me as key to that state of affairs. If gays and lesbians hadn’t won over Christians, I don’t think we’d be seeing public attitudes on this issue shift as dramatically as they have. That’s my armchair hypothesis, anyway.

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Cafferty on apocalypticism

A few days ago, CNN’s Jack Cafferty posed the question, “What does it mean when one in seven people think the end of the world is coming?” He was responding to a Reuters poll which reported that, worldwide, “nearly 15% of people believe the world will end during their lifetime,” while “10% think the end could come as soon as this year,” based on the Mayan calendar hype.

Cafferty remarked that “for some reason this Mayan Doomsday prediction has attracted millions, maybe even billions, of believers.” Um… Billions, huh? I’d be curious to see some journalistic sourcing for that claim. Even with the qualifying “maybe” tacked onto it, it doesn’t quite mesh with the Reuters data. (Ten percent of the world’s 7  billion people do not “billions” make.)

I suspect that lurking behind Cafferty’s interest in this study is a sense that apocalypticism is irrational. If I’m reading this correctly, then the implied answer to his question, “What does it mean when one in seven people think the end of the world is coming?” is: One in seven people can’t be trusted to make rational decisions. “Only 6% of the French and 8% of the British fear Armageddon in their lifetime,” Cafferty reports, “compared to 22% in Turkey and right here in the United States.” No surprises there, really. I wonder, though, if Cafferty intends us to be startled by the pairing of Turkey and the U.S. I mean, a Muslim country, sure, you expect those folks to be backward. But how can the U.S. be at the same level? How can the American public be as benighted as Turkey?

Three of the first four responses that Cafferty used on air reflect what I’m suspecting is his own anxiety. The folks worried about the Mayan calendar “aren’t thinking logically,” says Nancy from Tennessee. (A rational voice from Tennessee! There’s hope!) “B.” warns that the 1-in-7 stat “may seem unimportant, but maybe the other six should be prepared for what that one might do out of fear, religion, or even hate.” That’s followed by Nate in North Carolina quipping that “the other six remember Y2K”–i.e., they’re being sensible.

Cafferty didn’t put on air any responses quoting the Bible as an authority in defense of apocalyptic predictions (though, predictably, some appear in the comments at the bottom of the blog). He did air, though, this possibly New-Agey, certainly environmentalist-minded comment from a Texan: “The human race cannot sustain itself on its current course of development. The 1 in 7 have ‘done the math’. It’s really quite simple, statistically speaking, without a fundamental change in consciousness the human race is doomed.” Amen, brother.

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Lotus Temple, Spanish Fork, UT

A quick break from grading final papers and exams: Today’s post features ISKCON’s Lotus Temple in Spanish Fork, Utah, a town I lived in for a year when I was 10-11 years old. The temple was built after my family moved away from Spanish Fork. I attended a couple events at the temple in the early 2000s, while I was living in Salt Lake City.

This is a fabulous photo of the temple with the Wasatch mountains in the background, taken from the temple’s online photo gallery.

I assume from the cloud of pink dust over the amphitheater and the light snow on the mountains that this photo was taken during Holi. Here’s a video the temple has produced about that festival. I am, frankly, astounded by the video’s production values, as well as by the size of the crowd. A good number of these people have probably come down from Salt Lake City, an hour away. On Sundays, I suspect, some of them could be found at the big drum circle in Liberty Park. And a good number of these folks are probably Mormons, including students from nearby Brigham Young University.

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