Monthly Archives: November 2012


Earlier this week, in my “intro to American religious history” course, we discussed post-civil rights controversies around Native American religions. Dreamcatchers came up at one point in the conversation, as we were discussing Native American religion and the New Age movement. Only one student knew what a dreamcatcher was (or was willing to fess up to knowing at the risk of being asked to explain it to the rest of the class), which surprised me. But then, I don’t see them hanging from people’s rear view mirrors as much as I did in the late 1990s, so perhaps the trend has waned.

Photo from Seeking Shama

Anyway, I felt inspired to feature dreamcatchers in today’s random thought about religion in America, and as I was poking around online just now for info and photos, I came across the above photo at the blog Seeking Shama. The accompanying description was so ProjectilePluralism-ish that I had to reblog it. The author, Kee Kee Buckley, is describing a visit to a mom-and-pop “Indian trading post” during a road trip through Missouri with her dog Yoda.

I bought Yoda some buffalo jerky and myself a dream catcher to hang from my rear view mirror.  Dream catchers are meant to be hung above a sleeping person, and they catch and hold the bad dreams and let the good dreams or important messages through to the dreamer. . . . Now my new dream catcher hangs along with seeded necklaces given to me by women from the Shopibo Indian Tribe when I was in the Peruvian Amazon, and prayer beads blessed by Amma.  The left side of my dashboard has a purple dashboard Ganesh brought back to me from India by a very special yoga teacher, and a good luck crystal I bought on a road trip a couple years ago in Ukiah, California.  Of course, don’t forget about my most important dashboard adornment of all:  my decade-old Post-it note that says “I Welcome Change.”

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St. Kateri Tekakwitha

Today’s vaguely Thanksgiving-themed post is about Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk convert to Catholicism from the late 1600s. Last month, she became the first North American native to be canonized by the Catholic Church. She’s being treated as a patron saint for ecology, which was predictable in a politically uncomfortable way (i.e., it reinforces the “noble savage”-ish image of Native Americans as people who are specially in tune with nature. The fact that some Native Americans have latched onto this image as a way of asserting their cultural superiority over the modern West in the post-1960s era complicates the politics of that image but doesn’t make it less problematic).

Kateri Tekakwitha: First Catholic Native American saint (BBC News)

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, Model Ecologist (Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Conservation Center)

National Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine (the excavated village of Caughnawaga, in present-day New York, where Tekakwitha was baptized. She subsequently moved to a Catholic mission in present-day Quebec)

Photos of Tekakwitha’s canonization at the Vatican (from which the–again, uncomfortable–photo below is taken)

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Religion on the street: Chicago

Yesterday (Friday), I took a bus from Cincinnati to Chicago to attend the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. In the evening, I left my hotel, on South Michigan Avenue, and walked a few blocks south down Wabash Avenue, to experience holy communion with a Five Guys cheeseburger. (I’ve had that particular spiritual experience only once before in my life, in Charlotte, North Carolina.) Then, partly to atone for the cheeseburger’s calorie count, I walked several more blocks south down Wabash before looping back up Michigan to return to the hotel.

As I walked, I was keeping an eye out for houses of worship or religious centers. There wasn’t a whole lot—this was a business sector, though it must have been residential, too, judging from the handful of dog-walkers I passed. But here’s what I found:

Incidentally, speaking of religion in public space, there was no Gideon’s Bible in my hotel room.

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No angels in America

Today I participated in a panel discussion about Angels in America, which my university’s theater department is staging. A great work of drama–and a vivid example of a postmodern take on religion (which, by coincidence, we’ve been discussing the past couple of days in my course on theory and methods for the study of religion).

The passage of the play from which the title comes (or at least where the title is used) has always intrigued me for being one of the most obscure passages of the play. The point being made, basically, is that if you discount Native Americans, America is a land with no history. For Louis, the gay Jewish leftist delivering this coffee shop rant, America’s history-less-ness opens up the possibility for change, for constructing a just society. Europe, by contrast, he describes as a place where “hope is dissolved in the sheer age of [the] place, where race is what counts and there’s no real hope for change.” And then this:

Ultimately race here is a political question, right? Racists just use race here as a tool in a political struggle. It’s not really about race. Like the spiritualists try to use that stuff, are you enlightened, are you centered, channeled, whatever, this reaching out for a spiritual past in a country where no indigenous spirits exist–only the Indians, I mean Native American spirits and we killed them off so now, there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics, the shifting downwards and outwards of political power to the people . . .

Except, it turns out in the play, there are angels in America: Jewish angels, Mormon angels, Christian angels, angels in statuary commemorating the nation’s fallen dead. And they become, in a decidedly postmodern, eclectic, ironic-yet-serious, non-totalistic way, a paradox-laden symbol of hope. Kushner reaches out for a spiritual past in a country that, according to the character I suspect is most like the playwright, doesn’t have one–and it turns out there’s something he can work with.

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A Muslim at Diwali

In honor of Diwali, here’s excerpts of a story told by a Muslim student at my university about her participation in our annual Diwali celebration. Her story was collected last year as part of the university’s “Year of the Arts” initiative. Students, staff, alumni, etc., submitted accounts of how exposure to the arts changed them while they were here. You can read the student’s full account here.

It all started my Freshman year, when I joined the Indian Students Association.

I didn’t know a whole lot about Indian tradition and culture except from Bollywood films and a few festivals, but after the “Diwali” show, things CHANGED. . . . Though I am Muslim, and am a first generation Kashmiri-American . . . , I thought it would be worth a try. I went into this without any dancing experience whatsoever. At the time, I questioned my decisions. Would I embarrass myself, or would I be able to master this “Diwali thing”? . . .

In order to be a part of ISA’s Diwali show, Freshmen do a separate dance comprised of just the first years of the organization. It helps bring out leadership and team work within the group . . . There was no easy way to do it, so we did the best we could. . . .

It wasn’t until October I began to realize how fun the show would actually be. . . . Before this, I had seriously considered transferring because I wasn’t making any friends. During the last few weeks before the show, I had a family bond so tight, that my dilemma was no more. Art had kept me at Miami. Friendship kept me at Miami.

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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 (

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, have created a website declaring Obama to be the Antichrist and the Beast of the Apocalypse: 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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The Marigold Project

In recognition of Day of the Dead, a video about the Marigold Project, a non-profit that organizes an annual “Festival of Altars” in San Francisco’s Garfield Park. The video also includes some footage of the annual Day of the Dead procession in the city’s Mission District.

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