Monthly Archives: August 2012

Shirdi Sai Baba and a sub

Walking home from work today, I passed a corner store that bills itself as Johnny’s Deli, although it appears to stock far more alcohol than anything else. (Johnny knows what students want.) For some weeks, they’ve been advertising a special on subs, which has been tempting me, and today I succumbed.

As I waited for my sub, the South Asian proprietor and I made small talk. We never exchanged names, but for convenience I’ll call him Johnny. He asked me if I worked for the university. I told him I teach courses about American religions.

He looked puzzled. “But there is only one American religion,” he said.

Oomph… Stabbed in the heart.

“Not at all,” I said. “America has always been a place where people of different religions lived. And it’s become more diverse as more and more people from other parts of the world have come here.”

At this point, Johnny volunteered that he was Hindu. I told him that I’m always on the lookout for religious symbols, and that when I walked into the store, I’d been keeping half an eye out to see if there might be an image of Ganesha, for instance.

Johnny reached under the counter and pulled out a cash box. Pasted onto the top of it, he showed me, was a sticker depicting Shirdi Sai Baba.

Sai Baba is a guru who lived in the latter half of the 19th century. He’s become a popular focus of devotion in India and the Indian Diaspora; he’s also revered as a saint by some South Asian Muslims. I’ve just learned tonight that we have a temple dedicated to Sai Baba here in Cincinnati.

I was interested in knowing more about why Johnny had chosen this particular figure for devotion. But my attempt to ask about it elicited only an explanation that in Hinduism, unlike Christianity, there are many gods, and that Sai Baba is a man who did things that only a god could do.

As my sub came, Johnny put the cash box away. I tapped my finger in the air as if I were tapping the sticker on top of the box. “And that,” I said, “is now an American religion.”

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Politicians’ underwear

Last night, NBC’s Rock Center ran an hour-long special called “Mormon in America.” Twice in the course of the program, the question of Mormons’ underwear came up. The accompanying images included a photo of Mitt Romney in a white dress shirt thin enough for the scoop neck of his temple garment to be discernible. Not content to merely tantalize, the program also aired a photo–culled from the Internet, I’m pretty sure–of a man and woman standing side by side, facing the viewer, their heads cut out of the photo, wearing nothing but temple garments. (Unattractively lumpy ones. Temple garments can look more aesthetically pleasing than that, depending on the fabric. For those who want to know. NBC thinks there are a lot of you out there.)

During the program, Brian Williams asked one of his interviewees (Abby Huntsman, there to speak from her experience as former LDS) whether she thought that he could get senior church leaders to show him temple garments. He was visibly worked up when he asked her–as if to say, “I can’t believe they won’t show me the garments. What’s the big deal?” Now, I can’t speak for LDS leadership, but I can say that I’m not in the habit of laying my underwear out to show people, even when it’s freshly laundered. In point of fact, though, if Williams were to leave his hypothetical interview at LDS headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City, cross the street to the new City Creek Mall, walk into Deseret Book (an LDS Church-owned business), and head for the temple clothing distribution center in the back, he could take temple garments off the shelf and examine them through their plastic wrapping. I was a little surprised to see that when I was in Salt Lake last month.

Anyway, Williams’ treatment of the subject in “Mormon in America” suggested to me that he’s interested in the temple garment as a symbol of a Mormon penchant for secrecy–they want to look normal, but they’re keeping certain things out of your sight they don’t want to talk about. I suspect, further, that Williams intended his discussion of temple garments to insinuate to the American electorate that Mitt Romney is someone who keeps things out of your sight he doesn’t want to talk about–from his real views on abortion to his tax returns. That subtext would be consistent with a prediction I made a couple months ago about how Romney’s Mormonism would be used against him.

From the project “Articles of Faith.” Click the photo to learn more.

But why stop at Romney, if we’re going to make national news out of what politicians wear under their clothes? How about some journalistic attention to which Catholic politicians wear scapulars? I’m not being entirely facetious here: it might actually tell us something meaningful about the nature of these politicians’ Catholic identities:

Paul Ryan? Not entirely implausible, though certainly not predictable either.

Joe Biden? Ehhh… I’d be surprised.

Anthony Scalia? I’m genuinely curious about that one, though I can imagine how his hand might respond to any journalist who asked him about it.

Or how about this guy? Jason Bedrick, a New Hampshire state legislator from 2006-2008. He was the first Orthodox Jew to be elected to public office in that state. He’s a baal teshuva, meaning a Jew who “converted” to Orthodoxy (in Bedrick’s case, by way of Chabad) after having been raised non-Orthodox.

I assume he wears an undershirt with tzitzit. Is that a newsworthy subject for him to field questions about in a media interview?

Or how would it be perceived if  someone were to start a website collecting photographs of Bedrick at political functions in which his tzitzit can be seen sticking out from under his suitcoat (as people have done with photos capturing glimpses of Romney’s temple garment)?

I pose those as open questions.

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Eid ul-Fitr 2012

In recognition of Eid, links to a couple of related news stories:

Cute: Young Muslims hope windshields spread awareness (Houston Chronicle)

Depressing: Muslims take special precautions for Eid ul-Fitr (Religion News Service)

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Pray for Mitt’s Change of Heart?

A few days ago, I commented on an editorial by Melinda Henneberger, at the Washington Post, that questioned Paul Ryan’s Catholic credentials by suggesting that his willingness to cut government programs for poor people was inconsistent with Catholic social teaching. That line of argument has remained vigorous. There’s now a website, Pray for Paul’s Change of Heart, which quotes the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ criticism of the Ryan budget and asks Ryan “to reconnect with the compassion for the poor and vulnerable that is rooted in our consciences and articulated by the Catholic Church.

The creators of the website–a pair of Franciscans living near Ryan’s Congressional district–don’t identify themselves as pro-Obama; in fact, there’s also a section of the website that prays for Joe Biden to have a change of heart on abortion. However, Ryan is the site’s primary focus, which makes the Biden section look, at least, like an afterthought intended to deflect accusations of partisanship. Whatever the intent, the site’s critique of Ryan certainly has the political effect of working against the Romney-Ryan campaign and will therefore, I imagine, please Catholic Democrats and Catholic progressives.

In the face of this immediate surge of rhetoric along the lines of “Ryan’s not a good Catholic because he doesn’t care enough about the poor,” I’m left wondering: Why hasn’t there been an analogous public critique of Mitt Romney? Where’s the website challenging Romney’s business practices as inconsistent with Mormon teachings about caring for the poor? Certainly the rhetorical “raw materials” are available for such a critique. I myself posted a pithy critique along those lines several months back, at the blog The Mormon Worker. Joanna Brooks, it seems to me, has used her public platform to hint at such a critique, though she’s only hinted at it. Troy Williams, a gay activist who was raised Mormon, has made the most prominent version of this critique that I’ve seen, in an article for Salon titled “When Mormons Were Socialists.”

So why isn’t there a more vigorous public discourse of “Romney’s a bad Mormon because he doesn’t care for the poor”? I admit I ask that question partly as someone who would like to see a more vigorous discourse along those lines for my own partisan interests. But I also pose the question from the uninvested-but-curious standpoint of someone wondering what the relatively underdeveloped status of this discourse reveals about contemporary American religion. Is it a sign of how much smaller and disorganized the Mormon left is compared to the Catholic left? Is there, possibly, an element of tribalism at work here: Mormon progressives may be willing to criticize Romney among themselves but are reluctant to do it publicly? Are broader publics–i.e., non-Catholic and non-Mormon commentators–more willing, for some reason, to pursue a critique of Ryan’s Catholic cred than of Romney’s Mormon cred? Perhaps because leftish Catholic social teaching is better known in the broader public than leftish Mormon social teaching?

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Islam and the Founding Fathers

Zulfiqar Ali Shah. Photo by Zaufishan, Flickr.

Yesterday, while websurfing for information about Eid ul-Fitr, I happened across this intriguing article: Influence of Islamic Thought on Some Founding Fathers of America by Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah. (You know something “intriguing” is going to follow when the author affixes “Dr.” or “Ph.D.” to their byline.) Basically, Shah is arguing that Islamic thinkers contributed to the matrix of ideas from which the American experiment was born. His argument hinges on the fact that some of the Founders, as well as John Locke, were Deists or Unitarians–ergo they rejected the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, just as Islam does.

In the process of making that case, Shah quotes from Enlightenment-era primary texts in which authors point to Islam as an analogue for Deism or Unitarianism. I found those texts genuinely interesting. I’d be curious to see someone less partisan than Shah comment on the way Enlightenment authors used Islam–or their conceptions of Islam–as a foil or analogue for their own thought. Some of the texts Shah uses appear to be critiques that draw parallels to Islam for the purpose of delegitimating Deism or Unitarianism (i.e., “Unitarians are just Mahommedans”). In Shah’s hands, these texts become proof that, look, Unitarians are getting their ideas from Muslims. Uh huh. But I am intrigued by the notion that critics of certain trends in Enlightenment thought were invoking Islam as a specter; and I would be intrigued to know to what extent some emerging liberal or deistic Christians may have been aware of Islamic teaching as a model for what Christianity could look like when stripped of the things they didn’t like–the Trinity or a divine Jesus. It would create a more “dialogic” model for the emergence of these strands of Western thought, i.e., Western thought emerging in conversation with at least an imagined Islam.

As for Shah–well, his argument is an intriguing artifact inasmuch as he attempts to stake a claim for Muslims in American democracy by inserting an Islamic strand into America’s origins story. That’s the pluralistic way of putting it. Alternatively, one could read what he’s doing as more aggressive: an effort to “Islamize” the American experiment, analogous to efforts by the evangelical right to “Christianize” the Founders. Different groups want credit for America. We all know the version of America’s founding myth that puts the Puritans at center stage. Today evangelicals hype the influence of Presbyterian minister John Wotherspoon on James Madison. I’ve seen a Catholic argument that links the Constitution to medieval Catholic thought. I have a dim recollection of reading once a claim that the architects of American federalism looked to the Iroquois as a model. Everyone wants to say that America was their guys’ idea; everyone wants to place their guys “in the beginning.” One can hardly begrudge Shah for wanting the same thing.

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Is Paul Ryan a faithful Catholic?

Melinda Henneberger, over at the Washington Post‘s Politics blogs, implies the answer is no. For one thing, Henneberger tells us, Ryan’s a devotee of Ayn Rand–or was, at least, until it began to look like he might have a shot at becoming VP. For another thing, his famous budget proposal was denounced as immoral by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) for its cuts into safety-net programs for the poor.

Henneberger is pretty overt about accusing Catholic conservatives, like Ryan, of hypocrisy:

In case you’re wondering, the same conservative Catholics who so often admonish the doctrinal picking-and-choosing of liberal “cafeteria Catholics’’ answered their leaders just as progressive Catholics have responded to chiding they didn’t appreciate: “The bishops were wrong on the Ryan budget,” the National Catholic Register declared again on Saturday.

Curiously, even though Henneberger’s framing of this issue would seem to cast the Catholic bishops as the good guys in this story–i.e., they advocate for poor people–her piece was accompanied by this unflattering photo of Timothy Dolan, identified for us as the head of the USCCB.

Inspired by that photo choice, I’m going to go out on an interpretative limb here (as I’m wont to do), and suggest that Henneberger’s piece contains a yet more subtle subtext. Implicitly, I propose, she’s issuing the following challenge to American Catholic bishops:

Hey, guys–back in 2004, some of you made a big deal about denying communion to John Kerry because of his support for abortion rights. You did the same thing to Joe Biden in 2008. So: will you be calling Ryan to repentance?

If I’m over-reading Henneberger’s article–too bad, then, that she didn’t see her way to posing this question. Because it does hang in the air. Stay tuned.

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Temple shooting memorial

Some random thoughts I’ve had as I’ve been reading news coverage of the memorial service following the shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. I hope it doesn’t seem crass of me to be in “analytical mode” so close to events–the impulse to analyze these kinds of things is why I do religious studies for a living. Surely it isn’t any more crass of me to analyze these media performances than it is for people to be staging them in the first place.

It is encouraging that members of the larger (non-Sikh) community felt impelled to participate in the memorial service, inasmuch as their participation sends the message, “We recognize you as part of this community.” At the same time–you knew another shoe was about to drop; here it is–it would be worth knowing to what extent, and in what concrete ways, the Sikhs were, in fact, recognized by the larger community prior to this tragedy, and to what extent, and in what concrete ways, their membership in the larger community will be recognized in the future. To put it brutally: Is showing up to the memorial a cheap facsimile of solidarity that lets people feel like they’re good pluralists?

Given the multivalent nature of these kinds of public performances, it would also be worth knowing what other messages people are sending when they show up, besides “We recognize you as part of this community” or “We’re appalled by white supremacy.” Other possibilities include, for example, “I’m a frustrated Wisconsin liberal who sees this tragedy as a damning symbol of what Tea-Party conservatism leads to.” Or, “I’m a white Republican governor who wants to show that my party are not the racists, and xenophobes, and Christian bigots they’re made out to be.”

Speaking at the service (sans head gear, N.B.), Eric Holder called the shooting “an act of terrorism, an act of hatred, a hate crime” and said that, as such, it was “anathema to the founding principles of our nation and to who we are as an American people.” Those platitudes bear interrogation. Political work of one kind or another is always being carried out whenever the power-words “terrorism” and “hate crime” show up; when the Attorney General uses them, that’s definitely worth probing.

At the moment, though, my hermeneutic of suspicion is attuned to this question: Why does a representative of the presidential administration feel a rhetorical imperative to denounce–and to denounce as un-American, specifically–an act whose immorality goes entirely without saying? In other words, for whose benefit is Holder delivering this statement of the obvious? Who needs to be persuaded that shooting people is un-American? Rephrase that: “that walking into a house of worship and randomly shooting people is un-American.” Shooting people per se is clearly not un-American: supporting our troops while they do precisely that is a patriotic duty. And maybe that fact is part of why Holder feels the rhetorical imperative to say what he did? “Hey, world–including especially all you Muslims out there: This isn’t what Americans are about, contrary to the impression you may have gotten in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

I get it: Holder wants to stigmatize white supremacy; he wants to stigmatize xenophobia; his comments may be intended to stigmatize Islamophobia more specifically. I’m most inclined to agree about the need to do that last. But I’m still left wondering: What exactly does Holder think the rhetorical situation is, that he feels he needs to explicitly denounce this shooting–and by extension, what does he then imagine that he achieves by denouncing the shooting? (Did people feel the need to denounce the random shooting of moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado?) I don’t take it as a given that Holder’s denunciation needed to be made, or that the denunciation actually does that much good, despite how much significance the news media are assigning to it in their reporting.  If you disagree with my reading, I’d be interesting in hearing from you. I’m hoping, though, you have something more rigorous to say than impassioned platitudes about how religious intolerance is bad. I know that already, thank you. What I’m asking is: Why do you think repeating those platitudes actually does good?

UPDATE: One more thing I wanted to mention: One AP story paraphrases Holder as commending the Sikh community for having “responded without violence.” I haven’t been able to find Holder’s exact words yet, but my initial reaction is to find that a . . . curious statement. What is Holder imagining that the Sikh response might have been? Young bearded men rioting in the streets of Oak Creek, Wisconsin? Setting cars on fire? Chanting “Death to America”?

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Shooting at Sikh Temple of Wisconsin

I just heard on NPR about the shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. (Here’s the temple’s website.)

Horrific. At this point, reports are saying that the shooter is dead, but he hasn’t been identified. Officials are declining to speculate to the media about motive; but my money says this turns out to be misdirected Islamophobia. Not that there’s such a thing as properly directed Islamophobia.

A perhaps relevant sign of the times: This ABC news story quotes a family member of people who were inside the temple during the shooting, who twice refers to the temple as a “church”: “They went to church…” “Every single member of my family was inside that church…” Is that an idiosyncratic usage on the part of this individual? Or is it a more widespread usage, reflecting an effort by people within this Sikh community to make themselves seem a bit less foreign? (I’m thinking of how the Buddhist Mission of North America changed its name to the Buddhist Churches of America during World War II.)

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God, Chick-fil-A, and “Feeding Equality”

This Chick-fil-A kerfuffle has mushroomed in a way that I attribute largely to the upcoming November election: folks on both sides are looking for occasions to get their electoral bases fired up. I’ve been struck by the way business, politics, and religion converge in this symbolic conflict. That’s a pretty powerful trinity.

I’m not used to seeing CEOs speak publicly on God’s behalf. It’s hardly unprecedented, of course: oil magnate Lyman Stewart pops immediately to mind, who underwrote The Fundamentals (the publication from which we get the word “fundamentalist”). Or the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship. Or adman Bruce Barton, author of The Man Nobody Knows. (Even if you’ve never heard of the book, you won’t need more than 3 guesses to figure out who it’s about. It’s somebody really famous. Like, bigger than the Beatles.) Still, I would have expected this kind of political energy to be generated by a comment from, I dunno, Pat Robertson or Rick Santorum.  But maybe this kind of rhetoric from those kinds of figures is so familiar it’s lost its newsworthiness. It needs to come from the head of a fast food chain to make waves.

And now pro-same-sex-marriage folks are organizing “Feeding Equality” as a counterprotest. On August 25, we’re supposed to donate to food banks.  There’s an explicit bid here to claim moral superiority, as illustrated by this publicity image:

I’m sure that what I’m about to say puts me in the company of conservative pundits I normally would want to keep well away from–but this is icky. By all means, donate to your local food bank. But doing it as a political demonstration? Ehhh…. You’re using hungry people as pawns. Spin away at that one, folks. But–if you’ll allow me to get all unprofessional and preachy for a moment–I’m reminded of a proverb from a certain man nobody knows, about how you shouldn’t blow a trumpet in the streets when you give alms.

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