Monthly Archives: February 2013

Daily Show: War on Purim

A belated acknowledgment of the holiday. Does this bit work? Jon Stewart seems to have doubts partway through. Does the bit require too much Jewish knowledge on the part of the audience? Or, on the contrary, is it funny precisely because the non-Jewish anchor knows way more about Purim than the audience would expect her to?

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Gold Star Chili: “Pray for Newtown”

goldstarchiliDriving through Cincinnati today, I passed a Gold Star Chili, a regional chain, that had on its letter board marquee the message, “Pray for the people of Newtown.”

Let me analyze and deconstruct my own reaction to this sign:

My reaction was to find the sign in bad taste. There are multiple reasons for that reaction, I think.

1. I was inclined to take a cynical view of the management’s invocation of the Newtown tragedy. That is, I was reading the sign as a calculated ploy to cultivate a positive public image: “Look how sensitive we are as a business . . . Now why don’t you stop in and buy some chili-based comfort food?”

2. I was inclined to take a cynical view of the management’s use of piety–the exhortation to prayer–as an advertising strategy. That is, I was reading the sign’s subtext as: “Look what good Christian/godly people are running this business . . . Don’t you want to patronize us?” I disdained that, I suppose, because I regarded it as a transparently self-serving ploy that a person would have to be stupid to be swayed by . . . which is to say that I was feeling disdain for the kind of people I was imagining would respond positively to the sign as an advertising ploy. “Oh look, Harold–we should be sure to shop there.  Such godly/Christian people as that deserve our support.”

3. I was inclined to disapprove of the sign for religious reasons of my own–i.e., I disapproved of the sign as a case of trumpeting your piety in the streets instead of praying in your closet. (Of course, had the same message been on a church marquee, I would have classified that as letting your light so shine, ergo as something at least potentially approvable.)

But now let’s do what I’m always trying to train my students to do: let’s develop a more empathetic interpretation of this marquee: The management is using the “public platform” their marquee provides to speak to an issue of public import–an exercise in civil society. It’s not that they’re exploiting the tragedy for advertising purposes; they’re suspending the regular advertising function of the sign for a nobler purpose. Or if that reading seems to draw too neat and sharp a distinction: they are practicing (inevitable) self-interest and (sincere) social responsibility simultaneously. (Hence I don’t respond so negatively when I hear “thanks to our sponsors” blurbs on NPR describing the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example.)

As for the religious component here: I recall Laurence Moore arguing in God and Mammon that despite the disdainful reactions it tends to arouse, the commercialization of religion has the effect of invigorating religion: the fact that people are buying and selling religious goods means that religion retains social significance. Colleen McDannell (Material Christianity) and Leigh Schmidt (Consumer Rites) make arguments in a similar vein. The exhortation to prayer on that Gold Star Chili sign is a form of religious expression in the public square–which may be problematic, depending on exactly what cultural politics lie behind that action and what the observer’s cultural politics are. But there’s no reason to assume that the expression isn’t sincere, the way my initial negative reaction assumed.

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How do you solve a problem like Maria Monk?

In my “intro to American religions” course, we recently did a day on antebellum Protestant anti-Catholic nativism. It brought to my memory a parody I wrote five or six years ago after reading Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures for a graduate course. For those not in the know: The book, written in the 1830s, was an exposé of horrors supposedly experienced and witnessed by a nun in a Montreal convent, who then escaped to the U.S. and told her story to American Protestants prepared to believe the worst of Catholics. The book became a bestseller, sparking public outcry and leading to an investigation of the convent . . . which resulted in the author’s being exposed as a fraud.

I didn’t use the parody in class, I hasten to say. But I post it here for the entertainment of those familiar with the book. Apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein.

How do you solve a problem like Maria?
Strap on a gag and hang her upside-down.
Keep her locked up for six years in the cellar,
and let her used by every priest in town.

Teach her that doubts and questions are forbidden.
Make sure she never sees the light of day.
And if she should get knocked up,
strangle the little pup,
but baptize it first to send it on its way.

Oh, how do you solve a problem like Maria?
See that she never writes an exposé . . .

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Presidents Day, 2013

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The painting is called Praying for Peace, by Ron DiCianni. You can order copies from the artist’s website, beginning at $175 and running up to $7500. “This painting is in the private collection of President George W. Bush,” the website informs me.

I first encountered this painting–or one very much like it–about 10 years, when I was TA’ing for a “religions in America” course at the University of Utah. We took students to various religious sites around the greater Salt Lake City area; one of those sites was a private evangelical school. Hanging in one of the hallways was a flyer with this image on it.

If I were to revisit that school today, would I find a similar image of Barack Obama? The question’s only partly snarky: I might be pleasantly surprised.

What if Mitt Romney had won the presidency? No snarkiness there–I’d be keenly interested in the answer to that question, and I do consider it an open one.

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Swami Vivekananda: Belated birthday wishes

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Shoot! I had meant to blog about this back in January, but then I forgot. January 12 was the 150th anniversary of the birth of Swami Vivekananda, who represented Hinduism at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago and founded the Vedanta Society, the first Hindu organization (to my knowledge) in the United States. Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, Indian-based organizations founded by Vivekananda, are organizing a year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary which includes service projects, consistent with the social-service focus of Vivekananda’s brand of Hinduism. You can learn more at the website they’ve created to promote the 150th anniversary. (The banner that heads this post was downloaded from there.)

As my own nod to Vivekananda, here’s the opening lines of the speech he gave at the World’s Parliament. As he himself tells it, the crowd burst into thunderous applause at his opening, “Sisters and brothers of America!” Snarky as I am, I’m inclined to view that reaction as 19th-century American liberals bursting with the self-congratulatory thrill of feeling cosmopolitan while simultaneously being singled out for recognition. Of course, it’s self-congratulatory for Vivekananda to be telling us about their applause, too.

As you read the quotation, note the rhetorical complexity of how Vivekananda touts the primacy, ergo superiority, of Hinduism and the East–Hinduism is the mother of religions; the East is the origin of the idea of toleration–even as he celebrates the equalizing message of universal toleration and acceptance. I read that move as an act of resistance to the way that the Parliament’s American Christian organizers were using the equalizing format of the Parliament–everyone gets to speak; everyone shares the stage–as a vehicle to tout the superiority of Christianity, America, and the West. Complexity and tension all around.

Sisters and Brothers of America,

It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions; and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects. My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honour of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. . . .

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Ash Wednesday, 2013

f845d44d824b48aea8f0d80b4e718b1bFrom Cincinnati, a couple of variations on Ash Wednesday observance:

1. Drive-thru ashes. This story got some national playtime. A Methodist church set up a drive-thru service for imposition of ashes. Read the story here. (The link takes you to CNS News, but it’s an AP story. I’m curious to know why CNS News was drawn to the story. Did they like it because it focuses on Christian devotion? Or are readers meant to shake their heads at  the absurdities of liberal Christianity?)

Associated trivia: The story reports that McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwiches were created in Cincinnati to attract Catholic customers during Lent.

2. Calling corporations to repentance. An Episcopal priest organized this service/protest in downtown Cincinnati. Passersby were invited to receive imposition of ashes with the slogan, “Get your ash over here.” In addition, according to the advance publicity, “ashes of repentance will also be placed on large representations of corporations we urge to respect their workers.” Read more.

I wish I had an accompanying photo–maybe one will become available in tomorrow’s news.

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“The Pope wears Prada”

The announcement of Benedict XVI’s forthcoming retirement called to mind the “Pope wears Prada” buzz that emerged a few months after Benedict’s papacy began. I first encountered this… shall we call it a “meme”?… in November 2005. I was in Philadelphia, at my first AAR conference, between sessions. I happened to be sitting under a television in the conference center, when CNN ran this report:

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Never has papal footwear had this kind of scrutiny.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They look fairly pricey and upscale.

MOOS: If, according to a recent best-seller, “The Devil Wears Prada”, why not the pope? (On camera): The pope wears Prada.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let me see that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The pope wears Prada. I don’t wear Prada.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my!

This goes on for a while longer; if you’re curious to read the whole transcript, click here, then scroll about 2/3 of the way down the page.

The meme circulated for three years before the Vatican decided to issue a denial. Meanwhile, coverage included this Wall Street Journal article about companies who gift products to the Pope in hope of increasing the profile of their brand.

What drives (drove?) the popularity of the “Pope wears Prada” meme? It’s clearly meant to trivialize and thus to “take a dig”–but a dig at what? For some, I suspect, Benedict personally; people who dislike his conservatism enjoy making him look like a vain peacock. For others, I imagine, the meme reflects resentment toward the Catholic Church, which could be born of any number of complaints; the point, anyway, is to paint the Church as opulent, materialistic, shallow, hypocritical, warped in its priorities. For still others, poking at Benedict may be a way to poke at “religion” more broadly conceived: imagine Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins snickering about the Pope wearing Prada (or tsking, as the case may be).

I assume we should trace the genealogy of the meme back to Protestant polemics against “popery”–which in turn can be traced back to Catholic criticisms of corruption in the Church, e.g., Dante or Bocaccio.

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Christians for a Test Oath

A couple days ago, I was prepping for a lesson on religion in the U.S. Constitution. (Prepping for the same lesson last semester led to my writing this post about drafts of the First Amendment’s religion clauses.) At one point, I was searching online for the exact text of some states’ former religious test oaths to show students. That search led me to the website Christians for a Test Oath. The creator of the website (it is an individual endeavor, not an organization, contrary to the impression the name may give) is helpfully direct about his (I’m guessing it’s “his”) position:

When someone is inaugurated to public office, he or she takes the “oath of office.” This website argues that no one should be permitted to hold public office who does not take a Christian “test oath.” In the meantime, this website argues that Christians should voluntarily take a Christian “test oath” when required to take an oath of office.

The author is both a constitutionalist and a theocrat in a vein that I associate with Reconstructionism (though I don’t see the author using that term here). He cites the usual kinds of historical texts to argue that the Founders intended to establish Christianity. Less familiar to me was his use of biblical texts (from the Torah and some of the more contested Pauline epistles) to argue that God intends only Christians to govern.

In an interesting twist, I think the creator of Christians for a Test Oath also maintains the website A Theonomic Defense of Pacifism. If they’re the same, then the author, Kevin Craig, does in fact identify as a Reconstructionist: he claims the label on the pacifist website. That he’s also a pacifist was unexpected for me, although that says more about my stereotypical perceptions of Reconstructionists than anything else.

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Religion and gun control

Tomorrow (Feb. 4) is Interfaith Call-in Day to Prevent Gun Violence. It’s not entirely clear to me who is spearheading this initiative–it has a very simple website, at faithscalling.org–but my guess would be Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence. That group has publicly called on Congress to support universal criminal background checks for all gun purchases, a ban on high-capacity weapons for civilians, and criminalization of unlicensed gun trafficking. Their letter to Congress is accompanied by several pages of signatories, representing Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh organizations. (I didn’t see any Buddhists, a striking omission.)

As soon as I heard about this initiative, I was intrigued to know what kind of religious mobilization may be occurring on the other side of the issue. The NRA website wasn’t acknowledging the Interfaith Call-in Day, at least not that I could see when I visited today; nor did I find any kind of “Voices of Faith” showcase in favor of gun rights. This press release from the National Association of Evangelicals reports that nearly 3/4 of respondents to a December survey of evangelical leaders favored increased government gun regulations. (The press release didn’t specify what regulations were favored.) Richard Land, speaking for the Southern Baptist Convention, issued a public letter to Barack Obama on the same day as Faiths United’s letter to Congress, supporting two of the recommendations made by Faiths United (universal criminal background checks and criminalization of unlicensed gun trafficking; he didn’t support the high-capacity weapons ban, and he advocated regional variation in gun control measures).

This is to say that in places where I might have expected to see religious mobilization occurring on behalf of gun rights [my use of that term is meant to be neutral]–I’m not seeing it. I’m sure I could find religious pro-gun voices (conservative Christian voices, specifically) by casting a broader net online; but in terms of high media profile, religious anti-gun voices seem to be dominant.

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