Category Archives: John-Charles Duffy

Religion in the American West: AAR 2018

This is the 2018 call for papers from the Religion in the American West Group at the AAR, whose steering committee I sit on.


Call for papers: 

The theme for the 2018 annual meeting is “The Civic Responsibilities, Opportunities, and Risks Facing Scholars of Religion.” As a response to that theme, we invite paper proposals that in some way address public memory or memorialization in relation to religion in the American West. We use the terms “public memory” and “memorialization” broadly, to encompass various means by which invested communities represent, reassess, or reclaim the past, including monuments, festivals, pageants, re-enactments, anniversaries, apologies, literature and art, television and film, music, history education in schools, museums, archives, cemeteries, historic preservation, repatriation of artifacts, or revivals of historic styles.

Recent confrontations, sometimes violent, around Confederate memorials offer vivid reminders that works of public memory deploy specific politics in the present and embody rival visions of the future. Viewing religion in the American West through the lens of that concern raises questions such as these:

  • How is religion present in—or absent from—the memorializing of the American West?
  • How significant are religious institutions or practices today in shaping public memory?
  • What lessons might case studies of contested memorialization offer to other invested parties who seek to reshape communal memory?
  • How do stories about religion in the American West complicate or challenge widely reproduced narratives about the nation?
  • What would a public history of religion in the American West look like—or what does it look like at present?
  • How might religious studies scholars collaborate with other professionals, in venues such as museums, to shape public understandings of the history of the American West?
  • How do we as scholars navigate a religious group’s “politics of memory” when we research or write about their past?

We are especially—but by no means exclusively—interested in papers that examine religion and public memory or memorialization in the annual meeting’s host city, Denver, or elsewhere in the state of Colorado. We will consider proposals that do not address public memory or memorialization; however, our preference is to select a slate of papers on that theme.

Co-sponsored session: 

In addition to the call for papers above, we are seeking individual or session proposals for a co-sponsored session with the Music and Religion Unit and the Religion in the American West Unit around the theme of “Music and Religiosity in the Mountain West.” Potential topics include but are not limited to Native American musico-religious and sonic traditions, Latter-day Saints musical traditions, the music of evangelical megachurches and institutions (e.g., New Life, Focus on the Family), uses and critiques of music, Latino/a religious music in the West, musical hagiography of the West in the American imagination (e.g., religious themes in cowboy songs), sonic environments erased from the American imagination, music and the Rocky Mountains, and local music institutions (e.g., University of Colorado, University of Denver, local music archives, Gospel Music initiative).

Deadline for completed papers:

As is the long custom of this unit, our session will be formatted as a group discussion of pre-circulated papers. Each presenter will deliver a 5-minute oral précis of their work at the beginning of the session but will not read their entire paper aloud. This format allows presenters to circulate article-length or chapter-length manuscripts to the group (rather than condensed, 20-minute versions) and greatly increases the amount of time available during the session for offering feedback to presenters. However, the pre-circulated format also requires presenters to submit their completed papers for circulation to the seminar by October 15, 2018.



Empire and American religion today

One of the courses I’m teaching this semester is a 100-level intro titled “Empire and American Religion.” The course is organized as a chronological “grand narrative.” When I designed the syllabus, I deliberately left the next-to-last class session blank so I could plug in whatever might be happening in current events that’s relevant to the theme of the course. Here’s the assignment I finally decided to give students for that day.

For your last For-Credit Reading Analysis of the semester, I’m assigning you two very recent texts that represent two very different viewpoints on American power. One is a story that Donald Trump told at a campaign rally about something that an American general supposedly did during the war against the Filipino rebels after 1898. The other is an essay by Phil Torres, an American atheist.



Answer both of these questions: (1) For what reasons does Torres believe that the United States is “the greatest threa[t] to human civilization”? Pay special attention, of course, to what he says about religion. (2) Critics of Trump have been appalled by the story you heard him tell. Analyze this story, though, as an empathetic outsider: What about this story do Trump’s listeners seem to find appealing?

New Pew survey of American religious landscape

I’ve been skimming through the Pew Research Center’s latest survey data on Americans’ religious affiliations. There’s more to be said, but here are a handful of striking highlights:

* There are now more “nones” in the U.S. than there are Catholics.

* The percentage of American who are mainline Protestant is now smaller than the percentage of Americans who were “nones” seven years ago.

* All three of the biggest Christian categories are declining: evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and Catholics. The evangelical decline is least sharp: 1 percentage point as contrasted to about 3 points for Catholics and mainline Protestants. Nevertheless, the Why Conservative Churches Are Growing era is over–a finding which I confess to find an occasion for schadenfreude.

If you want the actual numbers, here’s a partial picture of the current American-religions pie. In other words, here’s a list of the percentage values (rounded off) for the biggest religious categories in the survey:

25% Evangelical Protestants
23% “Nones” (Report no religious affiliation)
21% Catholic
15% Mainline Protestant
  6% Non-Christian religions

Read more about the survey results here.

Stephen Prothero on Indiana’s RFRA

There’s been some discussion on my Facebook wall about this USA Today editorial by American religious historian Stephen Prothero in support of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I haven’t been able to pin it down yet, but something strikes me as “off” about this particular analogy Prothero makes:

We would not force a Jewish baker to make sacramental bread for a Catholic Mass. Why would we force a fundamentalist baker to make a cake for a gay wedding?

And then there’s definitely a longer conversation to be had about why Prothero is willing to let a fundamentalist baker refuse to bake a cake for a lesbian couple, but would not let a fundamentalist restaurant owner refuse to serve those same lesbians a meal:

There is no excuse for refusing to serve a lesbian couple at a restaurant and to my knowledge no state RFRA has ever been used to justify such discrimination. But if we favor liberty for all Americans (and not just for those who agree with us), we should be wary of using the coercive powers of government to compel our fellow citizens to participate in rites that violate their religious beliefs. We would not force a Jewish baker to make sacramental bread for a Catholic Mass. Why would we force a fundamentalist baker to make a cake for a gay wedding?

I understand the logic of the distinction Prothero wants to draw: The fundamentalist who has to bake the lesbians a wedding cake is being compelled to “participate” in a “rite,” whereas the fundamentalist who’s compelled to serve them dinner is not. But three questions about this distinction:

First, is baking a wedding cake participating in a rite? (I guess this is part, at least, of what feels “off” to me about the analogy to sacramental bread.)

Second, are we sure that serving the lesbians dinner is not participating in a rite? (What if they’re celebrating their wedding anniversary?)

Third, would this distinction hold up in court–ergo, is it even relevant?

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“American Jesus” – The Movie

I watched last night a documentary by Aram Garriga, who I believe is Catalan. The title (ripped off from a book by Stephen Prothero) was American Jesus. Here’s how Garriga describes the film:

The film focuses on a nation-widespread variety of Christian organizations, controversial and relevant figures of the Evangelical community, Christian Pop Culture & Music specialists, secular analysts, Apocalyptic Preachers and the End Times, Prosperity Pastors, Christian Bikers & Cage-fighters, Mega-churches, Snake Handlers, the Creation Museum, Atheists, Christian Surfers and Cowboys, to name just a few. Their personal testimonies and perspectives will draw a map with all of the ideological and social positions covered and properly represented.

The main goal of the film will be triggering the debate and the questioning, from a non-judgmental perspective, on what’s the current state of American Faith and what are its real social and political implications.

“Non-judgmental”–ha ha. That’s a good one.

american-jesus-posterThis film was both intriguing and disappointing. Intriguing because of its whirlwind tour of proliferating American evangelical identities, especially in relation to forms of popular culture: Christian rodeo, Christian bikers, Christian cage-fighters, Christian stand-up, Christian alternative music, Christian outsider art. Although the film didn’t overtly call attention to this, I was particularly intrigued by how many of these forms of evangelical practice were trying to make evangelicalism compatible with some conventional image of masculinity. That is, these are often contemporary iterations of “muscular Christianity.” Judging from this film, American evangelicals are struggling to get men into the pews but take for granted the commitment of women–although why evangelicalism appeals to them, this film has little to offer by way of explanation.

Which is one of the things that’s disappointing about the film. Additional disappointments–thinking especially about this film as a potential resource for teaching–are as follows:

1. The film lands so briefly on the different groups it showcases that there’s not much material to work with for the ethnographic purpose of understanding these adherents’ worldviews from the inside out. That’s because…

2. The film is basically an American evangelical freakshow. The film isn’t really trying to help viewers understand why these evangelicals organize their lives the way they do. The film shows you just enough to give you grounds to think, “Oh my God, these people are crazy!” before hustling you along to the next freak in the line-up. Leading to…

3. The film is ultimately a rant against the New Christian Right. Frank Schaeffer is featured at length–here’s a interview subject on whom the film finally settles down to linger–explaining how evangelicals have become the “fifth column of insanity” in American politics. All those crazy people we saw earlier in the film vote! They’re driving the policies of the Republican Party! They’re gleefully promoting apocalypse in the Middle East! I’m a European filmmaker who had no idea! I must warn the world!

But “from a non-judgmental perspective,” of course.

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“Missionary” horror film

A couple weeks back, students in my “Religion and American Popular Culture” read an essay I’ve published on representations of Mormon missionaries in film. Basically, I identified four trends in the films:

  1. Mormon missionaries provide a model for generic Christian evangelists (an association which should please Mormons, though I imagine evangelicals aren’t happy about it).
  2. Mormon missionaries represent a sectarian style of religion that is treated as annoying or humorous.
  3. Mormon missionaries figure in stories about sexual repression and liberation.
  4. Mormon missionaries serve, in sometimes complicated ways, as moral grounding or agents of transformation (though not in the sense of converting people to Mormonism).

Now someone has forwarded me the trailer to Missionary, a horror film that came out a couple of years ago but which had not yet registered on my radar. It looks like theme #3 is in play. Maybe #4 if the female protagonist discovers reserves of inner strength or learns not to endanger her family by having illicit sex, especially with a repressed young sectarian.

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Booze and the Mainstreaming of American “Ethnic” Holidays

Walking into today’s session of my course on “Religions of the American Peoples,” I bellowed, “Mardi Gras! Woo-hoo!” in honor of the holiday. After students’ nervous we’d-better-humor-the-professor chuckles had subsided, I remarked, “So–is Mardi Gras an ‘American’ holiday?” That was an allusion to a thought exercise students wrote their first short paper on: Is Hanukkah an “American” holiday?

Suddenly, I had one of those brain flashes that can follow when I throw my inhibitions to the wind. Why do certain “ethnic” holidays–like Mardi Gras–become mainstreamed into more broadly “Americanized” holidays?

My brain-flash hypothesis: Booze.

Think about it. Mardi Gras. St Patrick’s. Cinco de Mayo. There’s a pattern there.

Bars as a driving force in the Americanization of minority cultures. Bars as a site of lived religion. There’s a course offering that would fill–especially if we did field work.

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Atheist Shoots Young Muslims in North Carolina

Although how pertinent the perpetrator’s and victims’ religious identities are to the motive remains to be litigated.

I was reading an update on this story a few minutes ago, and I watched embedded video footage of Craig Hicks’s first hearing (the arraignment, I believe it’s called?), and as the video ended, I started crying a little. That’s not my usual horrified-yet-cerebral response to this kind of thing.

I didn’t know Deah Barakat, or Yusor or Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. But Deah was attending college at my last alma mater. I immediately recognized the Old Well in one of the photos of Yusor and Deah that accompanied early news stories. I’ve been in the apartment complex where this shooting occurred. I guess that all makes this more tangibly real to me–more shocking–than if it had happened in some locale I’ve never been and don’t identify with.

This story mentions that Richard Dawkins, who Hicks admired, has done a horrified/outraged tweet about the shooting.

My brain’s on hold. In shock.

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Israel Zangwill’s “The Melting Pot”

I’m teaching a course this semester called “Religions of the American Peoples” (an inherited title), which I’m using to explore how religious minorities “become American.” In other words, I want students to think about “American” identity as socially constructed and contested. We’re starting the course with a historical survey of shifting ideas about “American” identity, starting with WASP ideologies of the late 19th century and running up through contemporary debates about multiculturalism.

This past week, I gave students three short selections to read from Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot, the 1908 play that made that metaphor famous. There’s a certain quotation from the play that gets widely circulated, but until prepping for this course, I’d never actually read the whole play. It’s a Romeo-and-Juliet story, basically: David, a Russian Jewish emigrant, falls in love with Vera, the exiled revolutionary daughter of a Russian baron–who, in Dickensian fashion, turns out to have led the pogrom that massacred most of David’s family, plus there’s something of a love triangle as a snooty anti-immigrant WASP conspires to win Vera’s affections. David’s uncle Mendel pleads with him not to marry a Gentile, but David rejects that parochial prejudice as unworthy of the melting pot. The play ends with David and Vera united, looking out over the New York harbor toward the Statue of Liberty, while a choir sings “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” Really.

The whole play can be read online, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. The three short excerpts I prepared for my class (David’s first exposition of the melting pot metaphor, his fight with Mendel about intermarriage, and David’s grand closing speech) are here as a PDF, for colleagues who might want to use this for teaching. As you’ll see, Zangwill’s melting pot has a strong religious dimension along Social Gospel lines. America becomes the Kingdom of God–America becomes the Savior, in fact, beckoning the world’s weary and heavy-laden to come find rest. Also, there’s an interesting struggle between loyalty to “the God of our fathers” versus “the God of our children.” Guess which God wins.

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Ganesha at the art museum

This is an entirely random post. I discovered in my files a couple weeks ago this photo I’d taken during a visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art sometime last year. This piece was in their Gallery One, an exhibition designed to serve as a basic intro to art.

My photo of the museum's Ganesha.

My photo of the museum’s Ganesha. (Well, okay, actually my husband’s photo, since I haven’t yet broken down and purchased a smart phone with a decent camera.)

What struck me about this piece was the way that a religious artifact was being “repackaged” for purposes of purely aesthetic admiration–even as traces of its devotional use remained. Note the incense bowl at the foot of the statue. Also, if I recall correctly–this would have been why I was so keen to photograph the statue–the plaque identifying the object noted that the local Hindu temple had dressed the statue for the museum.

The museum's online photo of the same statue.

The museum’s online photo of the same statue.

Upstairs, where the museum’s collection of medieval and Renaissance Christian icons was, the museum had not preserved analogous traces of those religious artifacts’ devotional function–no unlit candles before the icons, no plaques explaining that the icons had been blessed by a local Catholic bishop. I don’t intend that observation to serve as an expression of “reverse discrimination”-style Christian aggrievement. But the question is worth posing in a neutral tone: Why the difference?

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