Tag Archives: pluralism

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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Interfaith dialogue…. courtesy of the campus secularists

This past week, I moderated an “interfaith panel” organized by our campus’s Secular Students group. The scare quotes are because it turned out not to be a conventional panel, where there are a few designated panelists fielding questions from the audience. Instead everyone sat around in a circle and passed me questions on index cards, which I was supposed to then select and toss out for anyone in the room to respond to. I ran with that, but I also ran a tight ship–moved on to a new question as soon as the discussion has shrunk down to an interchange between two or three people; chose only open-ended questions to pose to the group, not the kinds of questions that serve as pointed challenges. At one point I told an evangelical and a Jew that their increasingly impassioned interchange was predictably scripted, and if they wanted to finish performing that particular timeworn debate, they should take it outside.

The participants were overwhelmingly secularists–since their group had sponsored the event–with conservative evangelicals being the second largest group (though none of them identified as the e-word; they were mostly “Reformed Christians,” plus a campus minister who was simply a “follower of Jesus”). There was also a stray Catholic, a Reform Jew who heads up our campus’s Chabad group (yep, I had the same reaction), and a “Hindu agnostic.” Naturally, the conversation was mostly secularists and evangelicals justifying themselves to one another, which may not be far off as an accurate microcosm as that generation’s religious demographics.

As the evening ended, I told the group that interfaith dialogue interests me, as an object of study, because of what goes on under the surface of the conventional explanations for why people come together to engage in this activity–to promote better understanding, to reduce interreligious friction, etc. Inevitably, there’s more than that going on whenever people get together for interfaith dialogue. For instance, I said, some Christian participants had used this opportunity to do some witnessing; and I was holding a stack of index cards which included some questions that looked like secularists trying to poke holes in theism.  I wasn’t judging that, I added, but it did mean that there was something more complicated going on this evening than simply people coming to understand one another better. So, I asked: What do you all think happened here tonight? Why were you willing to dedicate the past hour and a half to this activity?

Their answers were disappointing to me–a series of conventional little pluralist testimonials about how much they appreciated being able to sit down and gain a better understanding of people who were different from them. I don’t recall that anyone commented on how much they appreciated being able to articulate their own beliefs to people who they feel frequently misunderstand them. Nor did anyone say they valued this event as a chance to raise the profile of their group on a campus where they feel invisible and marginalized.

A student then turned the tables: What did I think of what had happened here? “It was . . . interesting,” I said, and then paused to figure out how to explain why I felt so tepid about it. I’m fundamentally skeptical about the value of these kinds of events, I said. You came together, you had some kind of “experience,” you get to feel noble about what you did here–and now you’ll walk out and go on living your lives just as you did before. The student who appeared to be in charge of the Secular Students club nodded and said, “Yeah”–like that had been precisely what they set out to do.

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Bumper Stickers: Window to the Soul

A few days ago, my husband found the following note on our windshield when he came out of the gym. The handwriting appears to be that of a young woman, presumably a student from campus.

I love your bumper sticks, you seem like you would have a great soul. Let’s be friends

Her phone number followed.

(By the way: “Bumper sticks”? I’d never encountered that usage.)

I’ve mentioned elsewhere my own interest in bumper stickers as a form of religious expression in public space. These are the bumper stickers on which the note-writer was basing her conclusions about the greatness of my soul. Most of these are my husband’s responsibility more than mine, though I don’t object to any of them.

IMAG0541We haven’t responded to the invitation to call the note-writer–it just doesn’t seem appropriate, although I worry that not responding could be potentially wounding.

Some weeks ago, someone left a tract on our windshield written by a Seventh-day Adventist criticizing the ecumenical movement. We appeared to be the only targets–i.e., tracts hadn’t been left on the cars around us–so I’m guessing this was a response to the “Coexist” bumper sticker.


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Exploring the Burned Over District


I’m in the thick of preparing for final exams, so here’s a quick post: My sister-in-law directed me recently to the blog Exploring the Burned Over District. Fun for an American religious historian like myself! Their slogan: “Chris and Luke visit all the sacred sites in upstate New York that will let them in.” I’ve been wanting to do a tour along those lines myself, on a smaller scale. So far, they have a nice mix of different religious traditions whose sites they’ve visited, as you’ll see if you scroll down to their list of Categories. I like their map feature, too.

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Pass-over the Holi Easter!

An artifact of pluralist discourse from my campus: I’m reblogging something a student posted last week to the university’s student life blog. The post is a brief report on/announcement of three religious holidays being celebrated by campus groups at the end of March 2013: Holi, Passover, and Easter. I’m quoting below the first and last paragraphs. Note that what these holidays are said to celebrate are not “religions” but “cultures.”

By: Melissa Goldberg

Now I know the spring isn’t the most typical time to think of the holidays, but there are actually several holidays in the month of March. From Holi to Passover to Easter, the month of March is quite a festive time of the year here at Miami [. . .]

December better watch out with all the holidays in March because students are actually in session to celebrate! These are all great ways to get students who typically celebrate their respective holidays to get their friends involved as well. With all these holidays this month, it is a great time to celebrate different cultures and remind us Miami University’s students are diverse.

[Read more]



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Swami Vivekananda: Belated birthday wishes


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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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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God in the Box

The documentary film God in the Box came to my campus this week. Here’s a trailer:

Two days before the documentary was screened, a version of “the Box” was set up outside the student center, so that students could step inside and record their own “What does God look like to me?” videos. Selections from that footage were then compiled into a short to accompany our campus screening of God in the Box. Two students from courses I’m currently teaching were included in the short, which felt a little weird, I have to say (it was like eavesdropping on them in the confessional), although I felt teacherly pride in how articulate they were (not that I can really claim credit for that).

This documentary is a great artifact for my current research project, which is unpacking the politics of religious pluralism in the U.S. today. By that I mean, I’m interested in analyzing the discourse used by advocates of religious pluralism, so I can identify, denaturalize, and contextualize their underlying assumptions and agendas. This film works well for that because there’s a certain coyness about the way filmmaker discusses his project, both in the film and on its website, which allows me to come in and say: All right, so what exactly is going on here? What are you trying to accomplish with this film?

  • What social problem do you imagine that your project is addressing? (In this case, as with many advocates of pluralism, the filmmaker sees the project as a corrective to conflict around religion–including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, judging from something he said during the Q&A following the screening).
  • How exactly, do you imagine that your project is going to meliorate the problem? (How do you imagine that religious conflict will be averted by audiences watching a movie in which random strangers tell the camera  about their views of God… and in which the author of The Christ Conspiracy pontificates about the unity supposedly underlying all the world’s religions? Sorry, a little editorializing there. Really, though, that was professionally painful to watch.)
  • When you use rhetorical yes/no questions like,  “Is there an emerging, ‘un-organized’ religion or faith developing today?” or, “We think our views of God are accurate, as compared to primitive descriptions of God just a few thousand years ago. But will our descendants, a couple thousand years from now, be looking back on our current interpretations as, just as primitive?”–why do you pose rhetorical questions rather than just making your argument directly? What does that discursive strategy suggest about how you’re trying to position yourself in relation to other parties on the social landscape who speak normatively to audiences about religion? And why do you find those questions relevant to the problem you’re trying to address?
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Balpreet Kaur and european_douchebag

So, quick recap for those who may have missed it: A Reddit user with the handle european_douchebag posted a photo of a bearded Sikh woman with the comment, “i’m not sure what to conclude from this.” The woman, Balpreet Kaur, subsequently responded. (It turns out she’s a student at Ohio State, a couple hours up the road from me.) She explained that as a Sikh, she doesn’t shave in order to honor the sacrality of her divinely bestowed body; she touted this commitment as a way she avoids getting caught up in external appearances, so she can focus instead on making positive change in the world.

European_douchebag then issued an apology–largely preoccupied, it seems to me, with averting negative publicity from Reddit, but including the statements, “Balpreet, I’m sorry for being a closed minded individual. You are a much better person than I am”; “Sikhs, I’m sorry for insulting your culture and way of life”; and “Balpreet’s faith in what she believes is astounding.”

Reddit Users Attempt to Shame Sikh Woman, Get Righteously Schooled (Jezebel.com)
I posted the picture of a Sikh woman on here and I’d like to apologize (european_douchebag’s apology)

At the risk of raining on the pluralist parade (well, okay, I admit, that’s what I do), I’m a little surprised by how vigorously european_douchebag backpedalled. His initial comment about not being sure what to conclude from this is certainly douchey, as one would expect from his handle. But I don’t find the comment all that offensive. “I’m not sure what to conclude from this” would be a reasonable paraphrase of my own reaction to the unexplicated photo. (Indeed, there’s a fascinating conversation waiting to be had about this photo from a religion-and-transgenderism angle. How potentially unexpected that the Sikh prohibition on shaving could lead to the sacralization of a body that transgresses conventional expectations for female bodies.)

So why such emphatic backpedalling on european_douchebag’s part? My hunch: The moment Kaur identified as Sikh, what had been intended as douchey humor fell under the pall of the recent temple shooting. Douchey humor suddenly became liable to being read as grossly insensitive or bigoted–not just the mild bigotry of a self-proclaimed douchebag snickering at a woman with facial hair, but white-supremacy level bigotry. European_douchebag needed to make sure we understood he wasn’t that.

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Shirdi Sai Baba and a sub

Walking home from work today, I passed a corner store that bills itself as Johnny’s Deli, although it appears to stock far more alcohol than anything else. (Johnny knows what students want.) For some weeks, they’ve been advertising a special on subs, which has been tempting me, and today I succumbed.

As I waited for my sub, the South Asian proprietor and I made small talk. We never exchanged names, but for convenience I’ll call him Johnny. He asked me if I worked for the university. I told him I teach courses about American religions.

He looked puzzled. “But there is only one American religion,” he said.

Oomph… Stabbed in the heart.

“Not at all,” I said. “America has always been a place where people of different religions lived. And it’s become more diverse as more and more people from other parts of the world have come here.”

At this point, Johnny volunteered that he was Hindu. I told him that I’m always on the lookout for religious symbols, and that when I walked into the store, I’d been keeping half an eye out to see if there might be an image of Ganesha, for instance.

Johnny reached under the counter and pulled out a cash box. Pasted onto the top of it, he showed me, was a sticker depicting Shirdi Sai Baba.

Sai Baba is a guru who lived in the latter half of the 19th century. He’s become a popular focus of devotion in India and the Indian Diaspora; he’s also revered as a saint by some South Asian Muslims. I’ve just learned tonight that we have a temple dedicated to Sai Baba here in Cincinnati.

I was interested in knowing more about why Johnny had chosen this particular figure for devotion. But my attempt to ask about it elicited only an explanation that in Hinduism, unlike Christianity, there are many gods, and that Sai Baba is a man who did things that only a god could do.

As my sub came, Johnny put the cash box away. I tapped my finger in the air as if I were tapping the sticker on top of the box. “And that,” I said, “is now an American religion.”

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