Vestal Nike and the Corporate Profit/Prophet

Above, an ad from Nike’s 2018 “Just Do It” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. 

By Mark Meehan
Responding to Religion as a Tactic of Governance, Interview with Naomi Goldenberg by David Robertson

He stares at you across a monochromatic abyss, calm, quiet, and serene. His eyes are dark and gentle, black wells holding no judgement but kindly offering peace.

His smile is just below the surface, an ethnic Mona Lisa. Seeing you seems to be pushing a grin to break the surface of his bearded face. He is deeply content and he wants you to join him. Just below his eyes, across a slightly crooked nose, lays a simple, softly pleading message of meaning to a nation void of belief: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Above, Nike’s fall 2018 ad campaign features Colin Kaepernick.

The new American Jesus comes to us from an omni-present deity named for a born-again Roman Goddess. Nike, whose most notable victories are now limited to the Olympics and an occasional US Open, has given voice to a prophet by the name of Kaepernick.

Like most prophets, he caused quite a stir. Some quickly denied his authority, willing to sacrifice offerings on an altar of fire to repudiate his message. Others shouted “Amen,” lining up at temples in generic suburban malls and gentrified city streets to offer their own sacrifice, wearing the sacred swoosh sign of their new prophet as public testimony to their belief.

A new, uniquely American prophet, filling the vestal void.

I kept seeing the face of Kaepernick as I listened to the fascinating podcast of David Robertson interviewing Naomi Goldenberg in Belfast, Scotland. Goldberg reminded us that “there is no religion in the Bible,” pointing toward the historically seamless integration of “faith” within a culture and its various forms of governance. She went on to note the danger posed by those who isolate and use “religion” today as a validating tool for their actions. Policy and practice by authorities can be draped in an authenticating cloak of mythic clout, creating momentum for a range of agendas.

Back in 1697, William Congreve wrote that “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” but I suspect the righteous wrath of a religious Republican is far more dangerous to me today.

As an American, I live in a society rife with what Goldenberg calls “religion as strategy.” Specific powers leverage “vestal elements” to hide, obscure, and somehow legitimize their actions. Conservative Christians have started to deploy every Evangelical’s favorite Biblical book, Isaiah, to help them reconcile Donald Trump’s propensity to brag about grabbing women by the genitals. “Evangelical thinker Lance Wallnau figured it out: Trump is a ‘modern-day Cyrus,’ an ancient Persian king chosen by God to ‘navigate in chaos,’” writes Tara Isabella Burton in Vox. Sure, Trump might grab an occasional woman, he might be a rancid racist, he might even spew blatant smears toward all who oppose him, but that never stopped God before!

Wallnau is the same man who proclaimed on Periscope that ““I’m just fed up with the fact that believers have to operate like the Jewish people did.” He said, “They all knew Jesus was the Messiah but nobody actually identified with him for fear of being put out of the synagogue. I mean, Donald Trump is that for me; you’ve got 50 million people that voted for him and you wouldn’t know where they are.” Naomi Goldberg couldn’t have put it more clearly as she talked about the use of “vestal states to mystify and legitimatize.” Wallnau, who claims an earned doctorate from a defunct diploma mill, understood the deeply rooted need for faith and authority and becomes the “Legitimizer in Chief” for American Evangelicals.

At the same time, another bastion of faith, the American wing of the Roman Catholic Church, is making daily headlines for its own abuses of religious power. Back in 2014, CBS News reported that “The Vatican revealed that over the past decade, it has defrocked 848 priests who raped or molested children and sanctioned another 2,572 with lesser penalties, providing the first ever breakdown of how it handled the more than 3,400 cases of abuse reported to the Holy See since 2004.” The Washington Post noted in August that “More than 300 Catholic priests across Pennsylvania sexually abused children over seven decades, protected by a hierarchy of church leaders who covered it up, according to a sweeping grand jury report released Tuesday. The investigation, one of the broadest inquiries into church sex abuse in U.S. history, identified 1,000 children who were victims, but reported that there probably are thousands more.”

So, with one arm of American Christianity lying in bed with Trump and another in the headlines for a rampant sexual abuse scandal that was systematically suppressed by Church leaders, where do Americans turn? Apparently, to Nike. The vacuum created by the blatant abuses of power by suddenly illegitimate authorities has exposed the spiritual needs of starving Americans, from sea to shining sea.

But of course, there is a catch. As Nike filled the spiritual void, another prophetic power, whose authority creates both staggering wealth and profound poverty, spoke. After the release of the ad, Nike’s stock soared. As Nike stepped into the vacuum of values with the message to “sacrifice everything,” the company netted a cool $6 billion in company value as the stock surged 36% on the year. Sacrifice, indeed.

Of course, our President resisted. As Goldberg noted in her talk, “Governments are always a little edgy, sensitive to takeover.” Trump wasn’t going to let Nike move in too easily, tweeting his dissent as Nike jumped on his religious bandwagon. On September 5th, the American President declared, “Just like the NFL, whose ratings have gone WAY DOWN, Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way? As far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!” Sensitive? You bet.

Goldberg ended her talk with a call to action, a plea to make Religious Studies meaningful again by applying what is being done in classrooms and academic journals to real world issues. She challenged scholars to call out those who manipulate the power of religion for their own purposes. Americans are desperate for meaning, and their need marks them as easy targets for bullying on a playground of politics and capitalism. There is something redemptive in Nike’s ad, but we have to do what Goldberg challenged us to do: call out the abuse, even if it opens the door for another bully.

Engaging with Religion and Populism

A response to “The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion”

by Thomas White

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The Shifting Normal        

I am sitting to write a response to Chris Cotter’s interview with Matthew Francis, in the aftermath of the presidential election in the United States of America. The interview occurred before the shock result of this election became known. I listened to the interview both before, and following, the results, and will happily point out that these outside events, away from the ‘ivory tower’ of academia, have had an impact on my thinking. This is probably no bad thing.

Francis’s work on radicalisation, which he describes as understanding the processes by which “people come to hold radical views”, is increasingly relevant today. Throughout the interview he makes clear his opposition to the popular discourse around radicalisation, which draws a direct link between the idea of a ‘radical’, and violent terrorist actions. Radicalisation and terrorism are often used synonymously, and this is something which Francis rallies against. In the popular discourse, and indeed in much academic discussion, this understanding of radicalisation is further connected directly to a specific religious tradition- namely Islam. While we can understand the reasons for this, and empathise with those colleagues whose funding depends on working within these discursive parameters, it is clearly unhelpful. While Francis and Cotter do repeatedly mention Islam in the context of their discussion, I think it is clear that they do so not because they are buying into this dominant discourse, but rather as a reaction to its position as such a dominant discourse. It is a discourse which needs to be addressed.

Francis mentions early on in the interview the fact that although the IRA can clearly be labelled as a terrorist group, one which threatens the United Kingdom directly, we rarely if ever hear about the radicalisation of young Catholics in this context. His discussion of those who may hold to ‘radical’ ideologies, and those who may join a terroristic organisation without actively engaging with the overarching ideology of the organisation, for pragmatic reasons or simply to feel a sense of belonging, is fascinating. It is a discussion which I would like to hear more vocally expressed by academics through the media and into the wider public discourse. The issue of religious literacy, both on the part of those who espouse religiously inspired radical ideologies, and policy makers attempting to deal with these issues, also comes up in the interview. Recently, Belgian lawyer Sven Mary, representing the sole surviving suspect in the November 2015 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, has argued that Abdeslam is being further radicalised in prison. “He’s got a beard, he’s become a true fundamentalist whereas before he was a kid wearing Nike trainers”, Mary has stated.[i] This conflation of outward demonstrations of identity, with radicalisation, and further with terrorism, misses so much of the nuance which these complex issues require if they are to be even vaguely understood.

Given the interesting times in which we now live, the aspect this interview which most caught my attention concerned Francis’s comments regarding what we consider to be radical in the first place. Early in the interview, he briefly mentions the suffragettes as a group who held to a radical worldview, and fought to bring that worldview to reality. What we consider radical necessarily exists in opposition to what are considered as social norms. These norms clearly shift over time. Responding to a direct question from Cotter, Francis outlines how radicalisation can be seen as synonymous with socialisation;

“…. it’s about how (people) are sometimes brought up in, how their peer networks influence them, the kind of ideas that they come into contact with through society, through social media, through the internet, through a variety of other sources, and how this helps them interact with the world around them, helps them interact with other people.” (interview 4:41)

In his 1996 book, Radical Democracy, C. Douglas Lummis takes a similar view on the concept of the radical. For Lummis, the word radical in his conception of ‘radical democracy’ denotes intensification, rather than modification. When we speak about Christian democracy, liberal democracy, social democracy, and so on, we are referring to specific types of this ideal called ‘democracy’. However, when we speak about Radical Democracy, according to Lummis, we are discussing the idea (democracy) intensified.[ii] Similarly, what we may understand from Francis’s comparison of radicalisation and socialisation is that radicalisation is an intensified process of socialisation, with the context and prevailing norms playing a key role in what we categorise as radical.

As of writing,[iii] Donald Trump is the President elect of the United States. Come January, Trump will be POTUS. What does this do to norms? How does this change our understanding of the radical, and by association our understanding of radicalisation? As the first African American President of the United States is replaced by a man who has been endorsed by, and embraces, a variety of white nationalist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, how do we incorporate the new reality into our discussions of radicalisation? I would argue that Francis’s nuanced focus on ideology is of key importance here.

In his discussion of what make a radical, Francis mentions that while he is interested in religion, it is not his sole interest. Ideologies, ideas held sacred and non-negotiable, are what draw him into this work. Saul Alinsky confronts such ideas, and their limitations, in his 1971 book Rules for Radicals. In a section which is echoed in the later writing of a young Barack Obama, Alinsky addresses the question of his own ideology, the ideology of a community organiser;

“… the free-society organiser is loose, resilient, fluid, and on the move in a society which is itself in constant change. To the extent that he is free from the shackles of dogma, he can respond to the realities of the widely different situations or society presents”.[iv]

Ideologies, held sacred and non-negotiable, are a hindrance to the work of a community organiser as they prevent the organiser from seeing the reality in front of them. They prevent flexibility, and hinder a reflexive view. Obama would later write in the journal Illinois Issues, “(many) community organizations and organizers are hampered by their own dogmas about the style and substance of organizing (… ) Few are thinking of harnessing the internal productive capacities, both in terms of money and people, that already exist in communities.”[v]

Does the President elect of the United States suffer from such debilitating ideology which Obama, and Alinsky, argued against, or is he, in line with Francis’s argument, someone who has not become radicalised but rather has joined with radicals pragmatically? As much of the ‘main-stream media’ comes to terms with the election of Trump, it appears to be the second option which they are trumping for. Trump is a chameleon, the argument goes, willing to say anything to gain power. He doesn’t truly believe the horrific things he has said about homosexuals, people of colour, Mexicans, Muslims, Women, the disabled. He is to be taken seriously, but not literally.[vi]  This misses an important point. Norms shift, and Trump’s pragmatic use of radical, white nationalist, ideology allows space for this ideology to become the norm. Exemplifying this, a story told by Teju Cole, retold as part of his argument against the normalisation of Trump, is worth quoting in full.

“On Aug. 19, 2015, shortly after midnight, the brothers Stephen and Scott Leader assaulted Guillermo Rodriguez. Rodriguez had been sleeping near a train station in Boston. The Leader brothers beat him with a metal pipe, breaking his nose and bruising his ribs, and called him a “wetback.” They urinated on him. “All these illegals need to be deported,” they are said to have declared during the attack. The brothers were fans of the candidate who would go on to win the Republican party’s presidential nomination. Told of the incident at the time, that candidate said: “People who are following me are very passionate. They love this country, and they want this country to be great again.”[vii]

Just as was seen across the UK post-Brexit, overtly racist graffiti and slogans are appearing across the US following Trump’s election.[viii] The norms of society have shifted, and with them our ideas of what is radical must also shift. The dominant discourse, that radicalisation leads to terrorism and is directly linked to Islam, needs to be questioned now more than ever. Matthew Francis’s work in this area, and on translating this nuance for public discourse, is increasingly vital.



[ii] Lummis (1996) pp. 24-25

[iii] It is 2016, anything could happen…

[iv] Alinsky (1971) p.11