Monthly Archives: March 2013

American Pesach

Today is Easter, but we’re also in the middle of Pesach; so to mix things up, ProjectilePluralism style, let’s focus on the latter. Today’s post in honor of Pesach is a selection from The New American Haggadah, a Reconstructionist publication. Confusingly, there are at least two other publications with the same title, one put together by Jonathan Safran Foer, another by Ken Royal and Lori Royal-Gordon. There appears to be competition to market one’s particular take on the haggadah as the haggadah for American Jews. But I crossed paths with the Reconstructionists’ version first, so let’s put the spotlight on them.

As you read the following, you need to know that in the published book, this paragraph is accompanied by a photo of the Statue of Liberty. I’ve approximated the effect for you with an image “borrowed” from the Internet.

libertyTonight’s festival is dedicated to the dream and the hope of freedom, the dream and the hope that have filled the hearts of humankind from the time our ancestors went forth out of Egypt. Peoples have suffered and nations have struggled to make this dream come true. Now we rededicate ourselves to the struggle for freedom. Though the sacrifice be great and the hardships many, we will not rest until the chains that enslave all peoples are broken.

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Marriage and the Supreme Court, 1879

There’s been a lot of buzz in the past couple of days about the oral arguments delivered before the Supreme Court on Proposition 8 and DOMA–a lot of hype about how “historic” these cases are (although that will depend a lot on the outcome).

Speaking of historic Supreme Court cases involving unconventional marriages, let’s look back at the very first case in history when the Supreme Court had to rule on the meaning of the First Amendment’s guarantee of “free exercise” of religion. The case was Reynolds v. United States; the decision was issued in 1879. Reynolds was a Mormon polygamist who offered himself as a test case; the Mormons wanted the Supreme Court to rule that the federal anti-bigamy law being using to prosecute Mormon polygamists in the Utah territory was unconstitutional. The Mormons had what they thought was a clear argument in their favor: The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. Congress had made an anti-bigamy law that prohibited Mormons from contracting plural marriages, as Mormons believed God had enjoined them to do; ergo, Congress had made a law prohibiting Mormons from freely exercising their religion, something clearly forbidden by the Constitution.

Much to the Mormons’ disappointment (and outrage), the Supreme Court did not rule in their favor. The Court’s decision basically involves two logical steps (though they didn’t lay out the steps as explicitly as I’m about to).

1. As a matter of general principle, Court had to decide what the “free exercise” clause actually entails. What does it promise? The Court argued that the clause can’t be understood as guaranteeing religious groups exemptions from laws, because that would mean (the Court is surprisingly, to my eyes, frank about this) undermining the state’s authority over religions: “Can a man excuse his practices [contrary to the law] because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land…” The Court also raises the specter of anarchy: If we guarantee free religious exercise absolutely, then anyone could claim to have religious beliefs that entitle them to exemption from a law they don’t like–“thus, in effect, to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

So what does it mean, then, when the Constitution says Congress can’t make laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion? In Reynolds, the Court had to decide that for the first time, and what they decided was this: “Free exercise” means you are free to believe whatever you want, but you may not be free to actually put that belief into practice. To me, that seems like saying you’re not free to exercise the belief, but obviously the Court didn’t phrase it that way. What they said was: “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere [sic!] religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.” As examples of practices that would clearly not be tolerable, even under cover of free exercise, the Court cited human sacrifice and sati (the Hindu practice of widows being burned on their husbands’ funeral pyres).

2. Having laid out the general principle that the state can proscribe certain religious practices, the Court made a case for why the state was justified in proscribing polygamy specifically. They basically had two arguments:

  • Polygamy has always been “odious” to northern and western Europeans and is almost exclusively practiced by “Asiatic” and “African people.” In other words, it’s not what civilized white people do.
  • The Court quotes from… I guess we’d call him a social scientist of the time, who argued that polygamous societies are characterized by “stationary despotism, while that principle cannot long exist in connection with monogamy.” In other words, polygamy is correlated with despotism; monogamy is correlated with freedom and democracy. Implication: If America is to remain a free, democratic country, it needs to remain a monogamous one.

I discussed this landmark decision a couple weeks ago with my intro class on American religious history. As in past iterations of the course, I found that students were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the general principle that beliefs are guaranteed protection but practices aren’t. (I’m always hoping that some semester, a student will say, “Wait a minute, if that’s all freedom of religion means, it doesn’t mean much,” and push for a legal standard approaching strict scrutiny. Someday.) I also found, though, as in past semesters, that most students break with the Court in that they’re willing to extend “free exercise” protection to polygamy; and even those students who aren’t, don’t follow the Court’s reasoning (i.e., “polygamy is uncivilized,” and “polygamy destroys democracy”). The students who oppose polygamy generally do so because they’re worried about the status of women (a concern that may owe less to second-wave feminism than you might think; it was a leading concern of19th-century anti-polygamy reformers, too). One semester I had a student who said he wouldn’t want polygamy to be constitutionally protected because the Bible prohibits it; that answer didn’t go over well with a lot of other students.

Which, I guess, brings us back full circle to the same-sex marriage debate.

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I licked the floor today, Bob Orsi

Today in my American religious history class, we were discussing Protestant-Catholic tensions during the “new immigration” of 1880-1924. One of our readings was a snippet of Bob Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street, in which he describes the festa to Our Lady of Mount Carmel celebrated by the Italian immigrant community in East Harlem. The discussion question for the students was: “What aspects of the religious festival described by Robert Orsi would likely strike many Americans as foreign, strange, or superstitious?” Orsi’s text includes the following description:

Occasionally the following scene would be enacted. A woman . . . would begin crawling on her hands and knees from the back of the church toward the main altar, dragging her tongue along the pavement as she went. If she got tired or was unable to bend over far enough to lick the floor, members of her family would come and carry her along. The clergy discouraged this practice, and it seems to have disappeared for the most part by the 1920s.

I hadn’t planned to do this, but as we started to discuss this passage in class, I thought, “Let’s illustrate to drive the point home.” So, yes, I got down on my hands and knees and crawled a few feet, holding my tongue to the floor as I went. It was harder than I’d imagined–harder than a regular crawl, because you have to keep your head down; so you feel–or I felt–more like a frog than a cat, if that makes sense.

The floor tasted salty.

Students were satisfyingly scandalized.


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Obama as Satan . . . again?

I’ve posted elsewhere on this blog–here and here–about religious conservatives who identify Obama with the Antichrist. The same basic trope–Obama as the Christian archetype of evil–circulated again this week around a History Channel series, The Bible. Glenn Beck, who has done the “Obama as Antichrist” thing on other occasions, posted a still from the series showing the character of Satan, wanting to know if anyone else thought he looked like Obama. The media synapses sparked from there.

‘The Bible’: Satan Actor Looks Like Obama In History Channel Miniseries (Huffington Post)


Not unexpectedly, the History Channel has denied this reading (“History channel has the highest respect for President Obama . . . It’s unfortunate that anyone made this false connection”). The actor, it turns out, is Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, who I’m informed is Moroccan. If we’re going to turn the hermeneutic of suspicion on that casting choice, the question that comes to my mind is: Why would the series cast someone from the Arab world in the role of Satan?

I haven’t seen anyone pose that particular question (not that I’ve spent a lot of time on this). However, the Huffington Post article I link to above quotes a black scholar, Wil Gafney, complaining that most of the actors in the series are white. As the Huffington Post‘s reporter sums up the situation: “In particular, it seems as though characters with positive roles are being cast as white, while roles of characters engaging in evil are more likely to be filled by actors with darker skin.”

Incidentally, on the subject of race and the Bible, Gafney refers to Israelites as “Afro-Asiatic.” I had not seen that term before; come to find out, it is used to describe the language family, at least, to which Hebrew belongs. Knowing, however, that Gafney is black, I have a hunch that her preference for that  term represents a racial appropriation of biblical history analogous to the racial appropriation that occurs when biblical characters are depicted as white (though with a different political outcome, to be sure).

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St. Patrick/Dambala

As a ProjectilePluralism-ish observance of St. Patrick’s Day, let’s talk about Dambala, the Vodou lwa (spirit) who was synthesized with St. Patrick. Why St. Patrick? Because Dambala is a serpent, and a serpent is one of the iconographic symbols of St. Patrick (because the saint is said to have driven snakes out of Ireland).

When I Googled “St. Patrick’s day Dambala,” curious to see what I would find, I was quickly pointed to the following blog entries posted four St. Paddy’s Days ago by a houngan (Vodou priest) in New Jersey. In the first, he announces that he will be holding a celebration in his home on St. Patrick’s Day to honor Dambala; in the second, he provides a quick report of that celebration. Note that for devotees of Dambala, the symbolic color to wear for the day is white, not green.

March 16, 2009

Tomorow is the feast for Danbala, St. Patrick’s day. [. . .] Danbala Wedo, the Great Serpent, is the Spirit of Peace and Wisdom. Wherever he slithers, peace, enlightenment and wisdom follows. He is the father of the Mysteries and behind him are many more Mysteries.

I encourage all Vodouisants to dress in all white if possible for Papa Danbala tomorrow March 17th. So that Papa Danbala may rain blessings, luck, health and prosperity upon you.

At my house, my family will be doing a small service for Danbala. We will give him his offerings and do a small candle illumination.

March 17, 2009

Happy Fet Papa Danbala. [. . .] Our service for Papa went lovely. The altar looks stunning and clean. It is radiating power. Papa was quite happy with it as well. One of my initiates who was over for the service was possessed by Papa!

Papa Danbala claimed one of my children, then he slithered into the altar and blessed it.

You can read the full blog entries here. The author, Houngan Hector, also has a website here.

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The papal election and the media

So as I’ve been watching news coverage of the conclave and papal election, I’ve been wondering what reasons one could give for why the news media are so interested in this particular event. Random thoughts:

1. I’d be curious to compare coverage of the elections of Benedict XVI and, now, Francis I, to the election of John Paul II in 1978. Obviously we didn’t have 24-hour cable news networks in 1978, so the papal election couldn’t dominate the airwaves the way it can now. But how much airtime did it get? Did it lead the nightly news? Did it get brief mention? Did the TV news cover the beginning of the conclave, or just the final result? Did any stations interrupt regular programming to treat the election as “breaking news”?

I guess what I’m asking is: The elections of Benedict XVI and Francis I were “breaking news” for me, in the sense that someone interrupted my work day to announce the results as soon as the news media broke them. To what extent is that level of public fascination a product of the existence of 24-hour news networks and the Internet? In other words, were Americans as excited by John Paul II’s election, and if not, can we account for that difference by saying that the American public’s interest is, in large part, media-created?

2. Catholics account for a quarter of the American population, and that fact presumably goes a long way to explaining why news networks regard the papal election as big news–although having said that, it would be interesting to see to what extent news coverage aimed principally at American audiences did or did not emphasize American Catholics’ investments in or reactions to the election.

What I’m saying is: I’m wondering to what extent the media regard the papal election as a “Catholic” story vs. a story of broader interest. If the latter, where is the interest coming from? Why are non-Catholic Americans interested in this election? Do they have a sense of the Catholic Church as an important force in the world? Is this a kind of exoticism–people intrigued by the pomp and circumstance and the two different colors of smoke? To what extent, and for what reasons, do non-Catholics feel a stake in the future of the Catholic Church, e.g., its stances on condoms or gay marriage?

3. Riffing off that last question as a historian: How does the interest of non-Catholic Americans in the leadership of the Catholic Church today compare to, let’s say, the nineteenth century? I read somewhere today that Francis I is the first Jesuit to become Pope, and I immediately thought, “Ooh. I can imagine how American or British Protestants in the 19th century would have reacted to a Jesuit Pope.” Cue the conspiracy theories!

Did American newspapers in the 19th century cover papal elections with anything analogous to the attention that Francis I’s election received–e.g., prominent (if not quite front-page) coverage, prior speculation about who the candidates might be, editorializing about the likely policies of the new Pope? I could certainly imagine 19th-century American republicans doing the latter; certainly they were alarmed by papal statements about the evils of democracy and revolution. But did papal elections serve as the occasion for such commentary, in the way that they do for pundits now? I’d be curious to know, partly for what it would reveal about the development of news reporting and commentary as genres.

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Jesse Jackson’s prayer at Chavez funeral

An interesting instance of American religion abroad: According to the BBC, Jesse Jackson was one of “three religious leaders” who led “ecumenical prayers” during the state funeral for Hugo Chavez. I don’t know who the other two individuals were. But as a text in the study of American civil religion–in an international setting, and with African American inflections–here’s my transcript of Jesse Jackson’s prayer at the Chavez funeral, as broadcast by Al Jazeera English. The line breaks in my transcript correspond to where Jackson paused to allow spontaneous interpretation into Spanish.


We pray to God today
that the soul of Hugo Chavez will find peace
and accept service in the kingdom.
Grant him mercy and grace.

The Chavez family mourns today–
comfort them.
Venezuela cries today–
reassure them
Venezuela is not left alone.

[Nicolas] Maduro–
grant him wisdom
and support
as he keeps hopes and dreams alive,
as he picks up the baton
and makes a great nation greater.

We pray God today
that you will heal the breach
between the U.S. and Venezuela.
Yea, though we walk
through the valleys and shadows of death,
we fear no evil,
for thou art with us.
Help us forgive,
and move on to higher ground.

We are neighbors.
We share the same hemisphere.
We play ball together.
We trade resources together.
We fight drugs together.
We share dreams together.
We’re bound by culture and environment.

Even the death
of this leader–
not even death–
will separate us from your love, dear God.
Neither heights nor depths
shall separate us.

Now, Jesus,
remove our doubts and fears.
Dry our eyes.

Today a great nation mourns.
How do we measure a great leader?
By how he treats the least of these.
Hugo fed the hungry.
He lifted the poor.
He raised their hopes.
He helped them realize their dreams.

And so today we do mourn
because we’ve lost a lot.
But we have a lot left:
a stable government,
an orderly transition.

We pray the presidents of our great nation
will meet soon
and find common ground.
While it may be politically difficult,
it’s the morally right thing to do.

Nothing is too hard for God.
And so, let us rise.
We fall down sometimes
by our own errors.
We fall down sometimes
because of our fears.
But we get up again
because the ground
is no place for a champion,
The ground is no place for a champion.
The ground is no place for champions.

Let there be peace between nations.

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Catholics and evolution?

I just finished reading through a batch of short response papers for the course I’m teaching on religion and science fiction. We’re using science fiction as a lens onto different ways that people in modern societies understand the relationship between religion and science. In that vein, one of the students referred in their paper to attending a Catholic school where, at least as the student understood it, they were taught that the theory of evolution was incompatible with scripture.

I’ve had at least one other student who I can recall recently making the same claim–i.e., that as a Catholic they were taught to disbelieve evolution. While this  doesn’t seem implausible to me, it is unexpected. Stephen Jay Gould has a widely read essay, which I’ve used before in classes, in which he touts conversations with Jesuit scientists who are evolutionist and commends recent popes for issuing statements accepting evolution as the means by which life came into being. I’m also reminded of the Catholic Biblia Latinoamericana I encountered some years ago, which had a short prologue, titled something like “Before the Bible,” offering a one-page history of the cosmos from the Big Bang to the evolution of intelligent hominids on earth capable of responding to their Creator.

So, I’m left wondering: We normally associate opposition to evolution with Protestant fundamentalists and evangelicals. But how extensive is anti-evolutionary sentiment among American Catholics? I presume it’s a minority phenomenon, probably numerically, certainly in the sense of being marginalized in official church discourse. But how vigorous a minority phenomenon is it?

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San Francisco jazz funeral

A student recently shared this photo with me. It shows a New Orleans-style funeral procession (a.k.a. “jazz funeral”) moving through the North Shore area of San Francisco. It’s the funeral for the student’s godfather, who died in January.


I was intrigued when the student told me about this because of the geographical displacement involved–i.e., I wouldn’t have expected a jazz funeral in San Francisco, although of course in a country long characterized by migration, I should have expected it. Outmigration from the South to the western parts of the Sunbelt was particularly notable in the 20th century, which makes the New Orleans-San Francisco trajectory that much more “Oh, yeah, makes sense.”

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