Monthly Archives: October 2013

Is Halloween halachic? Halal?

As a nod to Halloween, I decided to see what would turn up on Google when I went looking for quick answers to the questions: Does Jewish law permit the celebration of Halloween? What about Islamic law?

The most Google-prominent answer to the question about Jewish law is this essay by Emory professor Michael Broyde. Broyde’s argument, focused on trick-or-treating specifically, is that the custom is pagan and therefore idolatrous in origin, ergo forbidden. Or rather, it’s forbidden for Jews to go trick-or-treating. Broyde believes it’s acceptable for Jews to give candy to trick-or-treaters in order to cultivate good-neighborly relations with Gentiles and avoid “unneeded hatred towards the Jewish people.”

Regarding Islamic law, one of the first hits Google turns up is this article from IslamiCity by Sarah K. Her argument parallels Broyde’s: the holiday is pagan in origin and therefore should not be celebrated.

My Google search for “Halloween halal” also turned up an essay by Yusuf Estes. As I was reading it, I was struck by how much Estes’s rhetoric reminded me of fundamentalist Protestant discourse I’ve seen about Halloween, including use of the word “occult” and concerns about organized Satanism. I began to wonder, in fact, if Islam Newsroom might be a fundamentalist Christian ministry to Muslims posing as an informational website on Islam. Come to find out, Estes is a Christian convert to Islam, reared in Texas, so, um, yeah. That explains it.

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When should the colonial era end?

Last night, I attended a presentation by Timothy Matovina, who my department had brought in from Notre Dame to speak as part of an endowed lecture series. Matovina’s topic was “Latinos and the Transformation of American Catholicism.” The first part of his presentation was historiographical, offering thoughts on how American religious history would look different if you pull Latinos into a story presently dominated by events on the East Coast and trans-Atlantic immigration. In the process, he tipped his hat to my dissertation advisor, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, for her 1997 essay “Eastward Ho!” which undertook a similar re-imagining of American religious history from the vantage point of trans-Pacific immigration and movement east across the continent (rather than west).

Matovina’s historiographical revisionism was relatively tame, in the sense that he was content to work within an existing periodization: the colonial era, followed by a century of immigration (1820-1920), followed by a period of Americanization. He didn’t propose a new periodization, which would be a bolder kind of revisionism. Maybe something that bold isn’t needed to accomplish the work he’s interested in, but this is a question I have simmering in a pot on my back stove: If we want to create a grand narrative of American religious history that will decenter the East Coast and give greater prominence to religious diversity in the U.S., what alternative periodization(s) might we come up with?

Listening to Matovina last night, I thought that one possibility–although still a relatively tame one, perhaps–would be to rethink when the colonial era ends. When I teach narrative surveys of American religious history, I end the colonial era with the American Revolution, i.e., the 1770s-1780s. After that, I start talking about a period called the New Republic, which begins with the Constitution of 1789 and then bleeds into a period called the antebellum era. But what if I didn’t close the colonial era with the end of British colonial rule in what is now U.S. territory? What if I closed that period with the end of Spanish imperial rule in what is now U.S. territory? That would be the 1810s-1820s. (Actually, come to think of it, I’d need a later date if I consider Puerto Rico, but let’s not go too crazy…yet.)

If you were to write a textbook chapter covering the colonial period that ended in the 1820s, that would certainly require a different narrative than one that ends in the 1780s. You would need to include different events, i.e., things happening between the 1780s and the 1820s. And you would need to invent some basis for including those events other than the fact that they happened to occur during that time frame, i.e., you would need to weave them into a coherent narrative around some trope like cause-and-effect or comparison-contrast.

You would have to think more, in other words, about how things that were happening on the eastern half of the continent during the 1770s-1820s related to things that were happening on the western half of the continent. In the process, you might end up highlighting religious developments that aren’t usually regarded as so important in the traditional historiography of American religion–and, by the same token, you might end up sidelining developments that currently do loom large.

I have no idea what that hypothetical chapter would look like. But it’s something I’d like to play with.

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The ranting stenographer

I was trying to think of a less belittling adjective than “ranting,” but I figure you know now who I’m talking about. If you don’t, read about it here:

House Stenographer Seizes Microphone in Bizarre Rant (NPR)

The stenographer’s complaint that we’re not a nation under God because our Constitution was written by Freemasons would appear to reflect a conspiratorially inflected fundamentalist Christian worldview. But this is not the kind of fundamentalist Christian worldview that says, “America was founded as a Christian nation.” Rather, the stenographer’s cry of protest is that the Founders were the opposite of Bible-believing Christians: they were Freemasons who “go against God.” The American nation went awry from the start. Americans thought they had a Christian nation, not recognizing the great “deception” (the stenographer’s word) that had been perpetrated.

Even if the media narrative turns out to be that this particular individual just needs medication, she’s articulating a worldview to which a whole segment of the American population subscribes. How big that segment is, I don’t know. These are people who wish David Barton were right but don’t believe that he is.

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You don’t want to be James Madison’s editor

A couple days ago I started teaching a continuing education course for retirees on American church-state jurisprudence. We started off looking at drafts of the First Amendment’s religious clauses, something I do regularly in my intro courses on American religious history (and have blogged about here). As we talked our way through the drafts in class, I noticed something that hadn’t really struck me before: James Madison gets kind of pissy about the way his original wording got edited in committee. “Pissy” is how I’m reading him, anyway, because it makes things more interesting.

Here’s what Madison had originally proposed for a Constitutional amendment on religion:

The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.

A couple of months later, a House committee had edited that down to:

No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.

The following debate (excerpted) then ensued in the House over the committee’s draft. Note how in the course of explaining what he understands the wording about religious establishment to mean, Madison basically explicates everything that the committee had cut from his draft. I can hear him projecting telepathically to the committee members: You see, you whoresons, this is why I was as specific as I was in the original wording; you should have kept it the way it was.

Mr. SYLVESTER had some doubts of the propriety of the mode of expression used in this paragraph. . . . He feared it might be thought to abolish religion altogether. . . .

Mr. MADISON said he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience. . . .

Mr. HUNTINGTON said . . . [h]e hoped . . .  the amendment would be made in such a way as to secure the rights of conscience, and the free exercise of religion, but not to patronize those who professed no religion at all.

Mr. MADISON thought, if the word ‘National’ was inserted before religion, it would satisfy the minds of honorable gentlemen. He believed that the people feared one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combined together, and establish a religion, to which they would compel others to conform. . . .

Mr. LIVERMORE was not satisfied with the amendment; but he did not wish them to dwell long on the subject. He thought it would be better if it were altered, and made to read in this manner, that Congress shall make no laws touching religion, or infringing the rights of conscience.

A couple final observations: The wording about establishment proved tricky as the First Amendment made its way through the House and then the Senate. Some drafts are quite specific about what the federal government isn’t supposed to do–e.g., can’t prescribe a mode of worship, can’t draw up a creed–but the language that finally prevailed (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) is vaguer. Not quite as vague as what Livermore proposes above, but leaning in that direction.

My last observation is that the language protecting “rights of conscience” dropped out of the final version, presumably because people like Huntington worried that it would grant civil rights to atheists. God forbid.

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The 707

So, back during the first week of school, I’m walking to my office, and someone passing out little business card-sized promotional flyers hands me this:

Friday, September 20, 2013

Upon first glance, I see “PSY 125” and think this must be an unusually elaborate attempt by a professor to get last-minute enrollments into their class. Then I see “follow Jesus” and think: Oh… This is one of those emerging-churchy, “look, we’re evangelical but cool” kind of student groups.

I finally got a chance today to visit the group’s Facebook page, out of curiosity. A few random observations:


1. This is their Facebook cover photo. Let’s think about the iconography of gender and race. Notice that the group, as represented here, is mostly female–standard for American religion. Notice that their non-white member is literally foregrounded. And notice that while the women are cheerfully but modestly smiling, the two men (I think the one farthest to the left is a man) are doing that wide-mouthed, aggressive “Hooah!” to show that, yes, they’re Christian but they’re still bad-ass dudes. Muscular Christianity with a Jackass twist.

2. The group is associated with The Bridge Church, led by “Pastor Chad.” (I realize it’s just Episcopal-snooty of me to consider “Mother Lisa” a perfectly normal form of address while finding “Pastor Chad” affected.) The Bridge Church informs visitors to its website that “The Bridge is a Baptist Church but do not hold that against us.” An intriguing rhetorical move. Discuss.

3. After reading the above, I was intrigued to take a gander at their statement of faith–which I had to download, evidently because members are supposed to sign it, witnessed by the pastor. Huh. So that’s what the Baptist tradition of “soul liberty” looks like in practice. Two lines into the document, I realized this thing had been written during the 18th or 19th century, which surprised me: I had expected to see a contemporary-language statement of faith given the hip-contemporary tenor of the website.

I don’t know enough about Baptist history to recognize the statement, so I Googled the opening lines and found copies on a lot of Baptist churches’ websites. It took me a few minutes to hunt down the statement’s historical origin, though, because the statement usually appears on these websites without any identification. Eventually I found people referring to it as the  “New Hampshire Confession” and dating it to the early 1830s. Question: It’s possible that most websites present the confession without identifying its historical origins because the webmasters just aren’t as historically minded as I am. But am I reading too much into things if I propose that a lot of the folks who embrace this confession may not even think of it as having a historical origin, or may regard its historical origin as entirely irrelevant, because they think of the statement as expressing timeless truths?

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