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Secular Jewish Millennials in Israel/Palestine

In the popular imaginary, Israel/Palestine is – and has always been – a contested territory, associated with sacred sites, the ‘Abrahamic’ religions, religion-related conflicts, and a volatile political climate. However, this unnuanced stereotype takes little account of the lived realities on the ground, particularly among the constituency at focus in today’s podcast, a large group of around 860,000 ‘secular’ millennials, who have come of age during a phase of national conflict when some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, and not just fringe figures, have utilized religio-ethnic symbols to motivate and divide.

In this podcast, Chris Cotter is joined by Dr Stacey Gutkowski to discuss what it means to be a ‘secular Jewish Israeli millennial’. What insights might the study of religion and secularity gain from taking a closer look at this constituency? Does it even make sense to refer to them as a constituency? How do they relate to Judaism, to Israel, and to Palestine? And much more…

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Secular Jewish Millennials in Israel/Palestine

Podcast with Stacey Gutowski (9 December 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/secular-jewish-millennials-in-israel-palestine/

Christopher Cotter (CC): In the popular imaginary Israel/ Palestine is, and has always been, a contested territory associated with secret sites, the Abrahamic religions, religion-related conflicts and a volatile political climate. However, this un-nuanced stereotype takes little account of the lived realities on the ground – particularly among the constituency at focus in today’s podcast: a large group of around 860,000 secular millennials who have come of age during a phase of national conflict where some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, and not just fringe figures, have utilised religio-ethnic symbols and have mobilised religio-ethnic symbols to motivate and divide. Today I am joined, in Edinburgh, by Dr Stacey Gutowski to discuss what it means to be a secular Jewish Israeli millennial. What insights might the study of religion and secularity gain from taking a closer look at this constituency? Does it even make sense to refer to them as a constituency? And how do they relate to Judaism, to Israel, to Palestine and hopefully much more. Dr Gutowski is a senior lecturer in Conflict Studies and a Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Divided Societies at King’s College London. She’s the author of Secular War: Myths of Politics and Violence, published in 2012 and has been co-director of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, where I know her from, since 2008. And today’s interview touches on themes developed in her forthcoming book Being Reasonable? Secular Selfhood and Israel’s’ Post Oslo Generation which will be published with the Manchester University Press in 2020. So first-off, Stacey, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Stacey Gutowski (SG): Thanks, Chris! Really happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

CC: Not at all. It’s just wonderful that you’re passing through Edinburgh. I couldn’t not speak to you! So, first-off . . . I know a bit about your research journey. But if you could just tell us about your academic background: your interests, and how you have ended up conducting this study on Secular Jewish Israeli millennials.

SG: Absolutely. Thank you very much. Well, nowadays I describe myself more as a political sociologist. My academic background is in Philosophy, Peace Studies and International Relations. And my main area for research has been broadly in the area of religion, and conflict, and peace building. Specifically, I’ve been interested in the relationship between violence and the secular. My first book, which you introduced, took a Western case study looking at British foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in the book I introduced some theoretical questions that I thought I would then go on to explore over a series of decades. And this was the next step on that journey. And my particular interest in this book is to understand what it’s like to be a person who’s deeply embedded in religious tradition, but someone who distances themselves – or claims to distance themselves from the religious tradition. What is it like to live through violence? And Jewish Israeli- young secular Jewish Israeli millennials were an interesting case, because they have lived through a sort-of intensive series of wars since they’ve become young adults. But also it’s a hard case, because they’re not secular in a Western sense. So it was really to provide myself with a hard case to push the theory further.

CC: Excellent. Yeah. And as Listeners . . . regular listeners to the RSP probably know, in the study of secularity more broadly, everything tends to be quite Western European or North American. So work in the Israel/Palestine context is really excellent. So hopefully this interview will add to that. So you’ve already hinted a little bit about who are these secular Jewish millennials, and why they’re interesting. But maybe if you just tell us . . . . You hinted at some of their life experiences and why they might be interesting, but if you just tell us a bit about their demographics and what makes them a group. I mean “millennials” even might seem an obvious term to some, but if you can just get right down to the basics of what we’re . . . .

SG: Yes. Of course. So I take the Pew definition of millennials: born between 1980 and 1995. And then, in terms of this population – not just millennials but in the Israeli population overall (5:00) – they are about forty percent of the population. And there are fuzzy boundaries in the kinds of Jewish practices they engage in in Israel, between these hiloni secular Jews and masortim, the traditional Jews in Israel. Because Jewish popular culture is pervasive. So unlike someone who identifies as maybe an agnostic, or an atheist, or secular in the UK, these are people who are more deeply embedded in tradition. And, as Yaacov Yadgar has argued, can’t avoid it. As a group they’re largely urban and middle class. Sixty-six percent are descended from European migrants and thirty-two percent approximately are from Jews who are descendants of migrants from the Arab world, and from the Middle East. That is this group. And interestingly, there are continuities between older generations but there are some important distinctions as well.

CC: Which we’ll be hearing about now. This seems to be an appropriate point to throw a perhaps quite a difficult question at you. We opened up the interview to our Listeners and Louis Frankenthaler came in with . . . it’s basically about the whole notion of, I guess, “secular Jew”. I mean, it’s quite a common turn of phrase, yet we don’t really seem to say “secular Christian” so much, or “secular Muslim”, “Secular Buddhist” and so on. So I’ll just sort-of run through a little bit. He says that all too often people ask if you can be Jewish and not believe in a god or God. That is, be an atheist Jew or a secular Jew. And he says that he thinks this is a misdirected question. And wonders what your take on a more substantial query that asks (not) “Can you be Jewish and not believe in deity?”, but “Can you be Jewish and not do Judaism?” That is, God is not the only issue. And many would claim that God does not care if a Jew believes in God, but only that you do what it is that this God supposedly claims that Jews do. So basically, not whether a secular Jew is someone who doesn’t believe in God, but do you still have to practice something to be considered a Jew? Or is there something more inherent in that?

SG: Yes. No it’s a great question, and thank you very much to Louis for asking it. I mean, this is an essential question that’s really pre-occupying Jews in Israel and in the diaspora. I guess as a good social scientist, the first thing I would say is: people can be whatever they want to be, and we take it seriously as analysts. So certainly you see, in Israel and elsewhere, people who reject a strict or even partial observance of Jewish law, the Halakha, who do it, but actually engage in certain practices or something in between. And then you have scenarios, for example in Israel, with people who are migrants from the former Soviet Union, who have become orthodox Jews but who are not considered as Jewish by the orthodox rabbinate in Israel. Because they don’t have a Jewish mother and they haven’t had an orthodox conversion. So it’s a complicated picture. In terms of analytically, in Israel it’s a different place form the diaspora, because it is a context in which Judaism is woven into the fabric of public law and state life. And, as Liebman says, in popular culture. And also in Israel it’s a politicised identity. And Yadgar talks about how the early founders of the state couldn’t find another way to sort-of mark citizenship, Israeli citizenship, other than through Jewish religious identity. And this particular way in which the orthodox rabbinate decides who is Jewish, and who is not. But then it creates, you know . . . . When we think about it practically, in people’s everyday lives, we can say, “Yes, people who are determined to be Jewish by the orthodox rabbinate in Israel are embedded in Jewish popular culture.”  (10:00) But so is everybody else who comes into Israel, and ends up observing or having the Shabbat as a weekend because that’s the weekend in Israel! But I think, maybe, what Louis is asking about more is that it overlooks – not the question itself – but I think it’s easy to overlook that while Judaism is the centre of gravity for people, in public life and private, in Israel, it’s not the only source of existential culture, of ideas about philosophical ideas about life and its meaning. And that there are other things that people borrow from. Some of these are more perhaps well-known, such as Buddhism or New Age practices. But other things, like western philosophy, are I think somewhat overlooked in the literature, as these are all ways in which people make meaning in their lives. And some of those forms of meaning come from Judaism, and some of them come from other things. Now it’s a different case for the diaspora, where Jewish identity in contradistinction to other forms of identity – particularly Arab identity – is not enforced by the context, by the state context. And then again I would say, going back to the social science observations, that it matters what people do and how they identify.

CC: And how they are identified, again, as well.

SG: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And the terminology of secular Jewish in English perhaps raises these analytical questions. But when we look at what people actually do, it’s perhaps more clear.

CC: Absolutely. I know I teed that up with things like “we don’t really say ‘secular Christian’” and that sort of thing. But thinking about Abby Day and her work on not Christian nominalism, and the sort-of ethnic and familial aspects to that. Thinking of my own Northern Irish context, where everything is . . . You know, so I’m from a Protestant background. Even if I converted to Catholicism I would still be considered a Protestant, and that sort of thing. There’s all this. And, yes, being a secular Catholic or a secular Protestant probably does make a lot of sense in a Northern Irish context, in a way in which it mightn’t make discursive sense in other places. OK. So thanks for attempting that potential curve ball there! So just jumping straight into the book . . . and again, you’ve already hinted at some of your research questions. What were you hoping to probe by engaging with this large constituency?

SG: Well, there were two main research questions that animated the book that ended up working together and highlighting new things about each other, and the way the question was set out as I went along. So I would say I had two working research questions which were a starting point. And the first was, I guess, more empirical: as a young “secular” Jew – secular in, I suppose, scare quotes – what has it felt like coming of age during a phase of national conflict, when some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, not just sort-of fringe figures, have used religio-ethnic symbols divisively? So looking at that phenomenologically. What is it like to be a person coming of age when religion has taken on new forms of mattering, politically? Even though it has been . . . it has mattered politically since before the founding of the state of Israel, and particularly after the 1967 war. So that was one question. And then the second set of questions, or the second question, as I said earlier, was to use Israel as a hard case to think theoretically. And that question was: what do violent political conflicts look and, most importantly, feel like to people who claim to distance themselves from the majority religious tradition in their given context – and yet are fundamentally embedded within it?

CC: And although we don’t want to spend too much time on the methods, we will want to know how you went about it as well (15:00). Unless the methods are really so exciting that you want to spend the rest of the interview talking about them, of course!

SG: No we can go through it quickly. So the project took a phenomenological approach. It’s an interpretivist approach. I did fifty interviews with self-identified hiloni millennials. For people who know the case, the point about self-identified-. . . I also took into account that some people appear to . . . but then began to speak about their religious practices and identities and turned out to be masorti some days and hiloni some days. So some days they’re traditional, some days they’re secular. So I took that into account in the analysis, and tried to take seriously what they say. Then I did . . . I also did twenty interviews with the transitional generation who are just older than them. These are people who were in their early twenties in the 1990s. And then I interviewed millennials who are traditionally Jewish or orthodox and then members of civil society. Some of them are also millennial. There was a survey of over ninety millennials surveyed – an in-depth survey. And then, for triangulation, it was participant observation and field notes, public opinion polls, various public reports, testimonies, media reviews . . . .

CC: So, not much then! (Laughs)

SG: No it was a very, very quick project – as you can tell! (Laughs)

CC: Excellent. So based on that large body of data and what we assume was your thorough analysis . . . . Well, let’s just dive in to some of your . . . . What did you find?

SG: OK.

CC: What’s going on?

SG: Just a few things. (Laughs) I guess, maybe I’ll talk a little bit first about what I found for this generation in terms of hiloni-masorti as a religio-class. Because I think of them not as just a religious sector, but as an elite middle class group – which also has this dimension of religious identity and practice. One of the things that’s interesting about this group is that they came of age during what scholars have called the religionisation of Jewish Israeli society. Now scholars have defined this in different ways. And some talk about this as the religionisation of politics: that orthodox and traditional views of, for example, the land and what the state of Israel should look like as the Jewish state, that these things have become more prominent over a secular socialist version of Zionism. And while that is the case, also thinking in terms of hadata – the sort-of intensification of Jewish practice – that people would begin to maybe just practice little bit more, so a little bit more, marginally, than they relatively would, in terms for example of holiday celebrations with family. So this is something that they have come of age in the middle of. They’ve also come of age in the middle of a sort-of revival of people thinking about what it is to be secular Jew, or secular Jews becoming orthodox, and of different forms of Judaism – conservative Judaism, Reform, revisionist Judaism – becoming marginally more popular with North American migration to Israel. So they come of age in the middle of this. But in terms of identity, there are no sort-of marked differences, as far as I could tell, with the transitional generation. In terms of practice, what’s interesting is that millennials don’t see this as an intensification. Because they’ve come of age in the middle of it. So you don’t see it, because you’re in it. So they think it’s unremarkable. And people who are a bit older, you know, talk about this massive shift in Jewish Israeli public life since the 1980s (20:00). In terms of the class aspect of this, what was quite noteworthy is that the presence of mizrahi middle class millennials who would identify with the term hiloni –and not simply because of this Zionist binary creation between secular and religious Jews. But actually because the term means something to them – either in terms of politics, or economics, or class aspirations. So this class looks somewhat different than it did. Because you have this group, you have new entrants, the migrants from the former Soviet Union, and these have changed what the class looks like.

CC: Obviously – I mean I’m just following your lead here – but this group is a major element in Israel/Palestine. There’s obviously Palestine and Palestinians, and so what about Israeli millennials and their relation to and their constructions of Palestine, and Palestinians, and the whole conflict issue . . . ?

SG: Absolutely. So they’re not politically unique, in that they stand out from the rest of the population. Their political opinions on the Palestinians, and on occupation, have sort-of followed the general trends along with the Jewish Israeli population. But there are two things that, politically, are distinctive in terms of their experience with Palestinians. One is, separation policy – following the end of the second Intifada, with the building of the separation barrier in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It’s not as though previous generations of this group had necessarily lived in close contact with Palestinians. But scholars have found that this has had an impact, socially and psychologically, on being able to imagine the other. The other thing that’s distinctive about this generation, in terms of the Palestinians, is the sheer number of wars and repeated wars. So for this group – the exceptions being the oldest and the youngest – but we can think of the core of this group as having served in the disengagement, withdrawing Israeli settlements from Gaza, then serving in 2006, 2008, 2011-12 and 2014. Not to mention the 2006 war in Lebanon. So the sort-of level of violent contact is quite distinct. And then a couple of other things that are distinct have been electoral success of centre-right political parties, including religious parties. And then, also, debates between 2011 and 2018 about the basic law, the constitutional arrangements of the State of Israel, and the ethnic framing of the state. So these are things that have . . . . Well, the religious experiences are somewhat different. The political experience is quite different from people who were in their twenties during the Oslo Peace Process. Because this is the constituency that was the backbone of the peace movement, supportive of the Oslo process. So there’s been a gradual shift, politically, to the centre, relatively to the right, among this group. In a recent election we see sort-of potentially, potentially another shift, at least in terms political government leadership. So this is . . . they’re quite different from the transitional generation.

CC: And we’re already at 25 minutes here which is time . . . I mean, we can run on a little bit of course, but we can . . . . One of the main arguments in your book is this concept that you call “neo-romanticism”: this sort-of characterising feature for the hilonis (25:00). What’s going on there? What do you mean by neo-romanticism?

SG: Absolutely. I mean this came out of a grounded approach of needing to look at what was happening across quite a diverse group of people. I interviewed politically diverse – from right, centre, to left – geographically diverse in terms of gender and other characteristics. And when I was looking at the material and trying to draw out: “Ok. What united this group?” There were a couple of things that really united them. And one of them was this emphasis on personal experience. Now certainly in the media, and in public life, there’s a lot of discussion that Jewish Israeli millennials are maybe a bit individualistic, selfish and that this is a product of the shift to a capitalist economy in Israel in the 1980s. And yes, I saw that. But there seemed to be something going on as well about the idea of emotion and personal experience being very important. And that was something that people referred to repeatedly, about using their personal experience to navigate the world. And another feature that came out that was important was there was – yes there was individualism, but then there was also a great deal of sort-of attachment, not to the state per se, as a political entity, but to Jewish people and not . . . . You know, they referenced this sort-of Zionist discourse about the Jewish people, but for them it was specifically the Jewish people they know: their friends, their family. So there’s a kind-of dialectic between individual and collective. And I needed to account for this political diversity. Why was it that the emotional ecology, and the way people talked about themselves, talked about the conflict, the occupation, the Palestinians, politics, life in general – why was there something . . . ? There was a thread that underpinned all of that. Why? And so I started to think a bit more about Talal Asad’s use of Stefan Collini’s idea of romanticism. And what Assad has to say about romanticism as a secular, but also a spiritual, movement. Now of course romanticism was a feature of the European Jewish experience during the Haskalah – (audio unclear) book on this is very interesting – and also nineteenth century romanticism informed political Zionism. I’m not saying that . . . I’m not trying to draw these direct historical connections. I’m more kind-of inspired by Assad’s use of this. And so I talk about . . . that as the hiloni habitus developed from the nineteenth century onwards, that it always had these different strands to it. One romantic and one rationalist. And that this romantic strand is really important. And it’s not obvious, because when you speak to people they will tell you that they’re heavily rationalist. And then you probe further, and they’re heavily emotional. And so I like this idea of romanticism. And I called it neo-romanticism to set it apart, to say that I’m not drawing a clear line with the nineteenth century. To talk about this emphasis on personal experience, Collini says that for the nineteenth century romantics, individual and collective didn’t contradict one another. And he also says that nineteenth century romanticism was neither explicitly politically conservative nor progressive. It made possible different kinds of politics. And this, I thought, was a good way of talking about what’s happening among this group. That lived experience is important, that there is something happening in terms of the role of emotion and also religious and spiritual and philosophical effervescence. These things are in motion in Israel, not just with New Ageism and secular renewal and the impact of Mizrahi renaissance on popular culture. But there is something there. So these narratives about being reasonable and being rational need to be unpicked. And I thought it accounted for this sort-of tension between the individual and the collective. And what I say is neo-romanticism is a kind of neo-republican citizenship. So what’s talked about in the literature, and in the Jewish Israeli media, is that with liberalism and Zionist republicanism, care for the state is somehow juxtaposed (30:00). And like, no – these things are working together. Yes there may be . . . absolutely, there are people who are very, very liberal and individualistic and leave the state, but it would be a mistake to miss the ways in which they are sort-of bound to the state as well.

CC: So I’m going to ask you two more questions. One is going to be the “Why does this matter?” So, this scene you’ve just painted there, this sort-of neo-romantic thread that’s uniting this seemingly potentially disparate group. I think, in the book, you draw some of the implications of this politically. And then I’m also interested in why should we care about it in Religious Studies, really. What difference does it make to me? (Laughs).

SG: OK. Two very, very big questions. Let me start with the first one. Why does this matter politically? There are a lot of reasons why the state of the political situation between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis is what it is at the moment, having to do with violence, with the election of particular leaders on both sides, by strategic decisions made not to continue with negotiation after 2014. And what I’m saying is that, in the context of what critical geographers call the “national atmosphere”, that it’s also important to look at what’s happening in terms of lived habitus, and how people think about themselves. And what I found was that people, regardless of where they were on the political spectrum, were united in thinking of themselves as what I’d call “fulcrum citizens”, balancing out extremes – both extremes on the right and extremes on the left – Jewish Israeli extremes, Palestinian extremes. What they see as extremist, internationally, in Europe. That they see themselves as balancing people. And that they see this related to their hiloni needs, their religious class habitus, but that they’re also shaped by their – for this generation – a Jewish-centric experience, after the failure of Oslo. So I say that this is part of the mix in understanding the ongoing conflict and continuing occupation. It’s one of many different factors, but I don’t think it’s yet been particularly brought to the fore. So that’s what I want to say about that.

CC: Excellent. And how about, for someone not in the study of Israel /Palestine, perhaps not even in the study of the secular and that sort of thing. What do you think is the sort-of import . . . ?

SG: The big takeaway for Religious Studies? When I got to the end of the book, and I revisited these questions, the one thing that stood out for me was the importance of studying the individual level and of studying gradations of emotional attachment to religious identities, symbols, spaces. In Brubaker’s work, in 2015, he points to this about the importance of studying the individual level. But I don’t think that we yet, in the field, are particularly good at doing that. And yet we claim to study ethno-religious conflict, or religio-ethnic conflict, and the intersection of the two. And it’s not simply, you know, insert identity and everyone’s going to feel the same way. And we know that. That’s kind-of something we know, practically. But I thought that this was an area that could be further advanced. And I talk about it a bit at the end of the book, about where I think we could go. In particular, thinking about studying political conflict within ethno-religious dimension beyond identity (35:00). So that was one thing I wanted to do in the book was . . . . There’s chapter on space, and there’s a chapter on epistemology, to try to move into new directions.

CC: Begging the forgiveness of Helen, who’ll be transcribing this (Granted) I did say, if we had time, I’d mention another theme like sacred space, and how that came up in the book. So what would you have wanted to say – in, like, thirty seconds – that you haven’t got to say?

SG: That’s ok. It’s attached to the other thing. I mean, again, this is related to the point about how the literature, I think, needs to not presume emotional attachment to sacred space, but needs to drill down into people’s individual feelings about sacred space. Because just because people have an ethno-religious identity, they may not particularly care about place. But at the same time, just because they claim they don’t care, does not mean that they actually do not.

CC: Exactly.

SG: And so it makes ideas around compromising and sharing sacred space complicated. And I looked at the Haram al Sharif, Temple Mountain, and attitudes to that in the book.

CC: So, Listeners, if you want to find out more about that – when in 2020 are we expecting this? Or do we not want to say a month yet?

SG: Hopefully, soon.

CC: Hopefully, soon! So that book is going to be Being Reasonable? Secular Selfhood and Israel’s Post-Oslo generation. Stacey Gutowski, we hope our Listeners will read that book and shout widely about it. But if they don’t, they’ve heard an excellent interview today! Thank you so much.

SG: Thank you so much.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Discourse #8 (June 2019)

This month on Discourse, Breann Fallon, Carole Cusack and Ray Radford approach the Australian news from a Religious Studies perspective. We cover the appeal of Cardinal George Pell, the drama around Israel Folau, and the impact of Christianity on the recent Australian federal election results.

Discourse, Australia Edition

This week’s episode is a bit special. We’re sharing the newest episode of Discourse, a spin-off show our Patreon supporters have been enjoying this year. Discourse has a globally rotating cast of RSP editors, friends and guests, who take a critical look at the discourse on ‘religion’ in the news and media! If you enjoy the episode, you can enjoy monthly episodes by subscribing just a dollar a month at patreon.com/projectrs.

This month on Discourse, Breann Fallon, Carole Cusack and Ray Radford approach the Australian news from a Religious Studies perspective. We cover the appeal of Cardinal George Pell, the drama around Israel Folau, and the impact of Christianity on the recent Australian federal election results.

America’s Changing Religious Landscape

The religious landscape of the United States is changing dramatically. Americans must consider what it means to govern a nation of religious minorities. We interview Dr. Robert P. Jones, the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. Jones discusses findings from PRRI’s national surveys on religion and public life, many of which are represented in the American Values Atlas. The data collected by PRRI reveal a number of surprising trends related to religion and its intersection with politics, voting patterns, age, race, immigration, and secularism in the United States. A few key findings highlighted in PRRI’s 2016 report on America’s changing religious identity and covered in this podcast: (1) white Christians now account for fewer than half of the public, (2) white evangelical Protestants are in decline, (3) non-Christian religious groups are growing, and (4) atheists and agnostics account for a minority of all religiously unaffiliated. We discuss the implications of these findings and more, and we briefly review the research methodologies utilized by PRRI.

 

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, apple pie, jazz albums, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


America’s Changing Religious Landscape

Podcast with Robert P. Jones (18 February 2019).

Interviewed by Benjamin P. Marcus

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Jones_-_America_s_Changing__Religious_Landscape_1.1

Benjamin P. Marcus (BM): My guest today is Robert P. Jones the founding CEO of PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) and a leading scholar and commentator on religion, culture and politics. He’s the author of The End of White Christian America, two other books, and numerous peer reviewed book chapters and articles. Dr Jones serves as the co-chair of the national steering committee for the Religion and Politics section at the American Academy of Religion. He’s a past-member of the editorial boards for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and Politics and Religion, the journal of the American Political Science Association. He holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Edinburgh University, an M.Div. from South-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, and B.S. in Computing Science and Mathematics from Mississippi College. Today we’ll be discussing PRRI’s 2018 reports about what’s happening with the religious landscape in the United States. We’ll look at the demographic changes in the country that might help explain the political climate that we find ourselves in today. Hello, Dr Jones – and welcome to the Religious Studies Project! I’d like to begin by asking a really broad question: what’s happening with religion in the US today?

Robert P. Jones (RJ): Well, it’s a great question. A lot is happening. And I think that is the story – that we’ve been experiencing a great deal of religious change, really since the 1990’s, but it’s been accelerated in the last decade. So just to give you a couple of, I think, relevant stats: one is the percentage of white Christians in the country has been declining, fairly precipitously, in the last ten years. And in particular we’ve gone – in the US – from being a majority white Christian nation, to one that is no longer a majority white Christian nation. And it’s happened fairly rapidly. If you go back to just 2008, the country was fifty-four percent white and Christian. And when I wrote my book, The End of White Christian America, I was working on 2014 data. And that number had dropped from fifty-four percent to forty-five, and that was a significant drop. But we’ve been continuing to track data since 2014 and that number’s down to forty-one percent, now. So we’ve looked at a thirteen percentage-point drop just since 2008 – so over the last decade, in the percentage of white Christians in the country. That’s come with an uptick in the religiously unaffiliated category. So if you just go back to the 1990s those numbers are in single digits: five, six percent in the 1990s. Our last data, 2017 data, is showing twenty-five percent of the public. And among young people it’s forty percent of the public. So this is a real sea-change in the country. Going from mostly a white Protestant country in 1993. That was actually the last year the country was white and Protestant. But even if you take all white Christians together – Protestant, Catholics, Orthodox, Non-denominational and denominational together – that number today is only forty-one percent. And that’s a real shift for the country.

BM: Wow. I have a number of questions from that. One is this category of “Nones” – n-o-n-e-s – people who are unaffiliated. Many people think that that’s a pretty homogeneous category of atheists and agnostics. But from what I understand that’s not the case. Is that right?

RJ: That’s right. Atheists and agnostics actually only make up only a minority of that category of a quarter of the US population. And the rest of them are kind of a mixed bag. When we’ve looked underneath the hood, there’s kind of two other groups in there. There’s one group that looks . . . that we’ve just broadly labelled “secular” in some of our reporting, that looks broadly like a cross-section of the country. But there’s another group in there that we’ve actually dubbed “unattached believers”. And that group looks, on many measures of religiosity – like, “How often do you pray?”, “How often do you attend religious services?”, “Do you believe in God?”, those kind of questions – they look like religious Americans, even though they refuse the category and won’t identify with any particular religious group. That group tends to be less white, more African American or Latino. And they tend to be younger. And so it’s a very interesting group. I think, as a whole, this group has moved so fast now that it is a very diverse group. I mean, after all, it’s a quarter of Americans, so that is a big, big group that we’re talking about, now.

BM: Wow. And does that seem to be concentrated in the sort-of Godless coasts? Or is that happening across the United States? Are we seeing a decrease in white Christian presence – not only in the middle of the country, but also in the coasts? Or is it happening in certain places?

RJ: Yeah. This is a great question. This is definitely not a bi-coastal urban phenomenon. One project that the PRRI started back in 2013 is called the American Values Atlas. And we actually have this online – for any of your Listeners who want to go check it out – it’s ava.prri.org. And what we did is, we started realising that we had enough data every year that, if we were careful about combining it, we could actually map the religious demography of every state in the country, and also the top thirty metro areas in the country (5:00). So you can go online right now and you can compare Iowa to California, for example. And you can go back in time as well. And one of the things that you see there is, if you go back ten years to today, virtually everywhere is experiencing these changes. So it’s not just New York and California, or Texas, but it’s Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota – each of these states has experienced, for example, approximately a ten percentage-point drop in the number of white Christians in their population over this last decade.

BM: Wow. Are there any states or cities that jump out at you as sort-of a surprising religious demography? Or maybe the majority religious community is not what you’d expect? Or the second biggest community is not what you’d expect?

RP: Well we still see some history at play. We still see Rhode Island as one of the most Catholic states in the country, for example. And we still see the South heavily evangelical. So you can see the . . . . You can see the religious history still there. But we are . . . it is starting to mix up. Even though you can see these historic, I guess, centres. But you can also see the shifts happening there, as well. So even in Rhode Island you’re getting an uptick in the religiously unaffiliated, and more Protestants than you had in the past. And in the evangelical South you’re getting more Latino Protestants and Latino Catholics as a result of immigration, and changing migration patterns in the South.

BM: A few times, already, you’ve mentioned the history of the United States; you’ve mentioned, not only religious communities, but also mentioning markers of race and ethnicity, patterns of immigration. Can you tell me more about the relationship between religion, race or ethnicity and the United States, and how that shows up in the data?

RJ: Well it’s . . . when I was working on the last book, race . . . it became just so clear. I mean, it’s something that I’ve known, but it became clear to me in a more poignant way, that . . . . For example: if you asked me in a sentence to summarise religious voting patterns, you can’t really talk about that without talking about race. So the short answer to that question is, in presidential elections, white Christians tend to favour Republican presidential candidates and non-white religious people – Christians or other religions and the religiously unaffiliated – tend to support Democratic candidates. So the kind-of lines of race – even class, to some extent – but the most dominant fault line in the religious landscape is really around white, non-Hispanic Christians and pretty much everyone else. You can see this cleavage on a whole range of issues.

MP: That’s so interesting. I had a professor in graduate school who used to say that you could accurately predict America’s voting patterns if you knew “four Rs”: race, region, religion and rank. And that’s something that I’ve thought about a lot. This relationship between these four Rs and how people vote. And the embeddedness of religion in American culture. Are there religious communities that are more diverse in rank or race, than others?

RJ: There are, but they tend to be the smaller ones. So, like, one of the more diverse groups in the country is Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example. They tend to be very racially and ethnically diverse – much more so than most other groups I can think of. But they, of course, are a very, very small group in the country. But it is a story of American religion that race has sorted and bifurcated religious communities to such an extent that you really can see these major cleavages, both in the denominational structure on the ground – in the way that they’re lived out and organised – but also in the macro-data. One of the reasons why, for example, social scientists – when we’re kind-of parsing data – tend to look at African American Protestants in one bucket and white evangelical Protestants in another bucket, is because, despite the fact that they share so many religious beliefs and practices – even hymns – when you look at how they behave, and their attitudes, and the political space, their race kind-of acts like a prism that just pushes them in completely different directions. So it’s hard to overstate, I think, the way that race has structured American religiosity.

BM: That’s so fascinating, and brings me to another question, which is: as you know, Religious Studies as a field has had a lot of trouble with the – quote-unquote –”world religions paradigm”. And the fact that we often sort people into religious communities based on these large groups: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus . . . And often when people teach about religion in schools, or in the media, we expect people to act in certain ways, or believe in certain ways, based on the group that they fall in (10:00). Is the research that you’re conducting showing that it’s more complicated than that? Or are there other ways that we should start thinking about religious identities, so that we’re not talking about these large world religions, but subsets, based on race, or ethnicity, or gender, or any other categories?

RJ: Yeah. Well, here I think we’ve got the push and the pull of the quantitative versus the qualitative study of religion. You know in the social sciences you need these categories. You need categories to sort people into, and they need to be big enough categories that you can actually conduct reliable statistical analysis on them, right? And so, if you’re doing a survey of a thousand people, you need these categories to be big enough to at least have, say at least 100 or so people in them. Otherwise your results start getting fairly unreliable, if you drop below that. On the other hand, you know, we all should just acknowledge that these are all sort-of human categories that have been constructed by social scientists to help us see things in different ways. They’re never perfect and they always do some kind of violence, actually, to the kind-of messy reality on the ground. We should always acknowledge that. On the other hand, you know, if we allowed for the uniqueness of every single congregation on the ground – which as everyone who’s ever served in a congregation knows that, like, if you move from one Southern Baptist congregation to another, it’s a really different world, even though they’re in the same denomination – if we stuck with that kind of granularity, which is really valuable, it would be really hard to come up and say anything broad about the group. So I think it is a real challenge. To me what matters is: can you test the category against lived reality? Right? And, is the category . . . I think it’s never the right question to say, for example, “Is the category of ‘white evangelical Protestant’, right?” – which has race, ethnicity, and kind-of religious identity all baked into one thing. It’s never the right question, I think, to say, “Is that a truthful category?” Or “Is it a right category?” I think the question, honestly is, “Is it a useful category for helping us understand the lived reality on the ground?” That means it should never be sacrosanct, it should be questionable. And we should be willing to look at, for example: what do all evangelicals look like, if we don’t just look at it by race? And then, how does that category help us see something interesting on the ground?

BM: Right. I want to pause a moment on this topic: white evangelical Protestants. We began by talking about the religious demography of the United States. I mentioned that we might be able to see something about our political landscape because of the religious landscape. What do we know about the political landscape and the influence of white evangelical Protestants? Are we putting too much emphasis on white evangelical Protestants to understand our current political moment, or are there other groups we should be looking at? What are your thoughts on that?

RJ: Well, it’s interesting. White evangelical Protestants, like other white Christians, have been declining in their percentage of the population. So, for example, if we go back again to the beginning of Barrack Obama’s tenure as president, his election, what we see is that white evangelicals – depending on the survey you look at – were around twenty-three, twenty-two percent of the population. And our last data has them down now to fifteen percent of the population. So they, like other white Christians, have been declining as a proportion of the population. But what makes them important, even as they decline, is that they have been so active on just one side of the partisan divide in the US. So unlike mainline Protestants or Catholics – who tend to be more divided in their partisan allegiances – even as this group has shrunk, they have still maintained their activity mostly on the Republican side of US politics. Which means that they have a very out-sized voice on that side of the partisan divide, and not so much among Democratic politics. But in Republican politics, they’re still a very powerful group to contend with if you’re a Republican politician. So I think they’re still very important. The other reason why the evangelicals are important is because of their strong support for President Trump. They voted about eight in ten for him in the 2016 election. As we’ve been tracking their favourability of President Trump, around his inauguration it was about two-thirds favourable. And it has gone up since then and has remained fairly steady around seven in ten support for the President throughout his presidency. So that remarkable stability is also really important for understanding them as a stalwart base. And, in fact, when we asked white evangelicals who said that they had a favourable view of President Trump’s job performance whether there was anything he could do to lose their support, nearly four in ten reported that: “No. There is virtually nothing that President Trump could do to lose our support.” (15:00)

BM: Wow.

RJ: So they are a very, very entrenched group in the Republican coalition – really a bedrock support of President Trump.

BM: Wow. That’s interesting, because on social media I see this idea floated by a number of people, based on mostly anecdotal evidence of young evangelicals that they’ve spoken to, that there’s a generational gap: that older evangelicals are stalwarts of President Trump, but that younger evangelicals might be moving away from that political affiliation – as well as certain key cornerstones of what many people think of as primary evangelical issues. Is that true? Is there a change in generation?

RJ: Well, I think there is that divide. But I think it’s a little bit different than that description. So if we go back ten years ago, I think that was more true than it is today. But it is true that young evangelicals have moved. But what they have moved from is from being evangelical to be unaffiliated. So they’ve actually exited the category over time. And we can see that a couple of ways in the data. For example, among young people today, only eight percent identify as white evangelical Protestant, right? And again that’s compared to about fifteen percent in the population. So young people are only half as likely to identify as evangelical as Americans overall. And when we look underneath the hood, and we look at the median age, for example, of white evangelicals over time, we see it creeping up. And the main reason for that is that, as they’ve lost members, they’re disproportionately losing members from their younger ranks. So what’s happening is, yes indeed, the young evangelicals of ten years ago have moved. But they’ve not moved over to be Democrats – or they might have – but they’ve mostly moved out of the whole category. They’ve stopped identifying as evangelical. And I think that’s the real shift. So if you’re looking for those people who were young evangelicals a decade ago, you should look for them in the unaffiliated category and not in the evangelical category. And what we’re seeing is that, among the young people who have stayed, the generational differences are now kind-of muted. Because the people who have stayed are actually people who hold views that are fairly consistent with older evangelicals. But the ones who had views, for example, that were in great tension – like on gay rights – have largely left the fold.

BM: Wow. It’s helpful to look at some of these assumptions or theories and test them against the data. So here’s another thing to test against the data. I’ve heard a lot about the resurgence or higher visibility of progressive Christians in the United States today. I know a lot of people are watching Reverend Barber’s movement for example. Does the data show increased religious affiliation, or a higher salience of religious identity among people who identify as progressive Christians today?

RJ: Well, what I would say is, it’s a little complicated. The last sort-of major study we did of this, where we looked at it very carefully, what we did see is among younger Americans under the age of thirty, there were more progressive Christians than there were conservative Christians. That’s true. It’s largely true, though, because of this phenomena we just talked about. That the ranks of evangelicals and other conservative, particularly white, Christians have thinned. And so as that has happened among the under-thirties, the relative ratio between progressive and conservative Christians has come more into balance. In fact, among those under thirty, there are more progressive Christians than there are conservative Christians. However, there’s one category that is more than either of those, and that is the religiously unaffiliated. Because many, many young people – forty percent of young people – are in that camp. So it’s notable, right, that that’s creeping up to be almost half of young people, claiming no religious affiliation whatsoever. That’s a really different thing, by the way, than we’ve ever seen in American public life. So if you take Baby Boomers back into their twenties . . . . And this is a question I get all the time: “Well, everyone’s more unaffiliated in their twenties, right? You’re single, maybe you’re moving around a lot, you’re changing jobs, you don’t have kids yet, maybe? So those are all things that lead you to be more transient, less rooted in a community or a community organisation like a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque. But what we find is, if we look at the historical data and take baby boomers back into their twenties, they’re still less than fifteen percent unaffiliated in their twenties. So that means that this generation is at least two-and-a-half times more unaffiliated than any generation that we have ever seen. So even if some of them – quote-unquote – “come back” as they have kids, and they settle down – they’re looking for stability in communities and integrating into community life and religious institutions are a way that people historically have done that (20:00) – even if a proportion of them do that, this will still be the most unaffiliated generation the country’s ever seen.

BM: What’s quite interesting to me is, when many people challenge the “secularisation thesis”, broadly, they often point to the United States as an outlier and say, “This is clearly a modern country that is highly religious and continues to be highly religious. So the secularisation thesis is debunked” – besides looking at other countries around the world that are highly religious. Does this data maybe put at least an asterisk by that and say, “Well, maybe we spoke a little too soon, and the US is becoming increasingly irreligious or unaffiliated?” What does that do for our understanding of the secularisation thesis?

RJ: Yes. It’s funny because we’ve got a UK audience here, so . . .

BM: And United States.

RJ: Yes, and US. But what’s funny about this is, when I give a talk in the US and I say, “Twenty-five percent of the country is now religiously unaffiliated and forty percent of young people are religiously unaffiliated”, there are gasps in the room. Because people are shocked that there’s that many people who claim no religious affiliation. If I give that same lecture in London, people would be shocked that there were that many people affiliated with religion. (Laughs).

BM: Right.

RJ: So I still think the US is a little bit different than Western Europe, for example, which is where it mostly gets compared. There’s still more religious vibrancy here. More religious experimentation, more effervescence, I think, in the religious space than there is in Western Europe, for sure. And there’s certainly not, I think, overall . . . . I think politicians here face pressure to say things like “God Bless America!” at the end of their speech, in the way British politicians certainly do not. If anything there’s the opposite pressure not to say anything overtly religious like that. So I still think there’s some difference here. But I do think what we’re seeing is, there is a shift here that is certainly more something in line with what we saw in the secularisation thesis. It’s not an absolute outlier. It’s certainly a lagger from some of the trends that we’ve seen in Western Europe. And I think we’ll have to wait and see. So far we don’t see any evidence of this upward trend in the religiously unaffiliated flat-lining. It keeps ticking up year, after year, after year.

BM: I appreciate your cautiousness not to prognosticate – is that the right word?

RJ: Yes! (Laughs).

BM: But I’m going to ask you to make some predictions. Can you look out, with your crystal ball, five, ten, fifteen years? Are there any trends that you think will continue? Or things that you think we should look out for, in the next decade or so?

RJ: Yes: Well, yeah. Just like the financial retirement planning things, you see at the bottom, “Last years past performance is no guarantee of future returns”?

BM: Right.

RJ: I think that’s kind of where we’re at on this! But with that caveat, I will say that a couple of pieces of evidence – just to continue the unaffiliated line here – we’re sing a couple of things that I think will mean that this should continue, at least for the near future. One is that we’re seeing unaffiliated people now marrying other unaffiliated people – seeking them out as marriage partners. That’s significant because one of the main things pulling people back into religious community, if they’ve become unaffiliated, is if they marry someone religious. They have that conversation, like: “OK. Well, I’m going to get married unless you pledge to raise the kids in the church” or “in the synagogue.” And I think there’s less and less of that happening. So I think that’s one less thing to kind-of pull people, at least some people, back into the fold. And you know, again, so far, we haven’t seen a single year in the last decade where that line has been flat. It keeps up-ticking every year. One thing I’ll say, that is pretty clear from the evidence, is that one of the reasons why this change on the ground is not quite translated into the political space yet, is because of different ways that different religious groups turn out and vote. So in the US context, the ballot box tends to act a bit like a time machine. And it takes us back about ten years to where the country was about ten years ago. So the electorate in this last election . . . if you map the electorate onto the general population, the election in 2016 looks about like the general population looked in 2006.

BM: OK. That’s interesting.

RJ: It takes us back about ten years. And that’s because white evangelicals, and older white Christians, turn out and vote at much higher rates. So they’re over-represented at the ballot box compared to where they are in the general population. (25:00) If we project that forward, what it means is, even though we’ve passed this threshold, for example, where the country’s no longer majority white and Christian, that will not be true at the ballot box until 2024. So we’re still two election cycles out from really seeing the demographic realities really hit at the ballot box.

BM: Well that’s a great place to pause on the content of all the things you’ve been finding. And I want to make sure we leave some time to talk about how you collect your data, to look behind the hood and look at the processes and how you set up your battery of questions. So could you tell us little bit more about that? What’s it like to run a major polling firm, and how do you do what you do?

RJ: Sure. Well it’s a lot of fun, first of all! It’s great to be able to sit around a table and say, “I wonder…X?” And, you know, think, “Well, that’s an empirical question. We can actually put that to the test.” And one of the things that PRRI have pledged to do . . . . So we’re a non-partisan, non-profit, independent research organisation. So, part of our charitable purpose is that we’re actually putting a lot of social science data back into the public domain. So one of the things we have made sure that we do is, we are very transparent. So every time we release something, we release the whole questionnaire. We hold onto the data sets for a year for internal purposes, for analysis, but after that we release the entire data set out into the public domain. So anyone can pull it up – at the Roper Center, they can pull it off of our website, and download, and do their own analysis of the data. So that’s part of our mission. In terms of how we collect it, we are dedicated, really, to doing full probability sampling of data. So all of our data is a random probability sample of the USs population. It’s all Americans. So even though we have an emphasis on mostly doing political party, and religion, and race, and other kinds of demographic breaks, we have full-bound samples of the entire population in all of our surveys here. And you know, we really do sit down, and we do our lit review, you know: the process where we look at other polls and what they have asked, and other trends we might want to check. But I think one of the things we are always trying to get at is the “Why” question. And so, not just the “What”, but the “whys”. We definitely want to know what people believe, but we also want to know what connects belief A with belief B, and belief C. What’s the underlying thing that drive them to connect those issues together? So that, I think, is part of the art of this, and I think what makes it, really, the most fun and the most worthwhile.

BM: It sounds so fun, in fact, that our Listeners might be wondering how they can get involved. So do you have any ideas for scholars out there who sit there and wonder if X,Y or Z about the American population . . .?Are there ways for them to try to do polling, or to reach out to your kind of organisations, to feed you ideas? Or what’s the process, if you’re a scholar in a university, for trying to find out some of this information at a national scale?

RJ: Well, there’s a couple of options. I mean, I get emails all the time – and I love getting emails all the time – saying, “Hey, have you thought about this?” And every now and then, there’s like “Oh man! That’s a great idea!” And if we have space, we can do it. So I would say, feel free to shoot us an email. And we certainly are interested in hearing what’s going on, and ideas that are out there. The other way is, we have formally partnered with a number of universities. So we were just . . . this past three years we did a three-wave study with Florida State University, looking at spirituality and its impact on voluntarism and other kinds of pro-social behaviours, trying to answer the question, “Does it make a difference if you’re religious or not, for how you actually behave in the world?” And trying to get at those kind of questions (30:00). We’ve partnered with the Brookings Institution and other kinds of think-tanks in this space. So I think it’s a little of both. We’ve done some individual kinds of things, but we’ve also worked on kind-of careful, multi-year, full-on collaborations with academic institutions.

BM: And your work is entirely focussed in the United States, is that right?

RJ: It is, yes. So we just do domestic religion, politics and culture.

BM: And do you consult with folks outside the United States who might be interested in this kind of work in other countries? Or do you have any partnerships? Or share ideas for best practices with organisations outside the US?

RJ: We’ve certainly been talking about this. We haven’t, so far, branched out beyond that. But it’s something we’d certainly be open to doing.

BM: Great. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I think this time really flew by for me. I enjoyed our conversation. I want to remind our Listeners that you can download all of the reports from the Public Religion Research Institute – PRRI – at prri.org. And if you’re looking for contact information for folks at the organisation you can find that on their website. And we encourage you to check out the American Values Atlas Project, which has a lot of the data that we’ve been speaking about today. So thank you again, Robby, for an excellent conversation. And I hope our Listeners enjoyed it as well.

RJ: Great, Thank you. Yes, it was a lot of fun.

BM: Thanks.


Citation Info: Jones, Robert P. and Benjamin P. Marcus. 2019. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 18 February 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 February 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

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Religion as a Tactic of Governance

In this interview recorded at the BASR/ISASR, Naomi Goldenberg considers how ‘religion’ has developed as a separate sphere from ‘governance’. She argues that ‘religion’ has been projected onto the past for strategic purposes, as a management technique, or even alternative to violence. How does viewing religions as “restive once-and-future governments” help us understand the functioning of this category in contemporary discourse?

She takes us through several examples, including Judaism, new religions, Islam and contemporary debates on abortion and circumcision. As well as a clear example of the functioning of the category ‘religion’ in the contemporary world, this gives some real-world applications of critical theory that shows its relevance beyond the academy.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, candy, bandannas, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Religion as a Tactic of Governance

Podcast with Naomi Goldenberg (21 January 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Goldenberg_-_Religion_as_a_Tactic_of_Governance_1.1

DR: We’re still here in Belfast at the BASR conference, in 2018. And I am privileged to be joined today by our keynote speaker from last night, Naomi Goldenberg, of the University of Ottawa. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project – a return visit, Naomi!

NG: Thank you.

DR: So we’re going to pick up where the keynote . . . well, we’re going to pick up where the keynote started, last night, for everybody who couldn’t be here for what was an excellent session. Thinking of where to start a conversation today, then . . . . So the idea was, as I understood it, that religion – and just to clarify, we’re talking religion as a category here – has been projected . . . . The idea of religion as a separate sphere, a separate category, has been projected onto the past for strategic purposes. Tell us what you mean by that and especially this idea of strategic purposes – as a tactic. What are we talking about?

NG: Religion is a modern category, the way I see it. Not just the way I see it – the way many scholars see it. And not just the way we see it. It can be demonstrated that the term as meaning some kind of special separate sphere of human activity is a very, very recent idea. So in the past – “the past” is so big! I’ll maybe try to explain this in terms of probably the most effective sentence that I’ve ever come across to explain it, is that there is no religion in the Bible. And last night I began with a passage from Deuteronomy to illustrate that you might have – you do have – God in the Bible. You have all kinds of people that we identify with the category of religion now. But all of these figures were involved in government, not in anything separate that we could hive off and call religion. God was some kind of . . . conceived as some kind of monarch, some kind of director, someone who human beings could claim to speak for. But we get God as a principal of Government. Now, of course, government is a modern term as well. So I speak about governance with lots of different words. You could say ruling with authority, you could say commanding a polity, and it’s a very loose concept of governance that I’m using. But this governance was, we might say now, theocratic, whatever. So you don’t get something separate. Clergy – that’s another modern term projected onto the past – were involved with ceremonies of government. And anything that gets called religion, translated as religion in various ancient texts, tends to mean ceremonies that are related to governing. OK so if that’s accepted, then when the modern category of religion emerges – and it emerges in fits and starts in different places and slightly different times, in different ways – it emerges as a way for governments to manage displaced populations, according to the theory that I’m putting forward. And it’s a struggle of institutions, usually – always, actually – between males who were running various institutions. And the loser institution evolves as a religion – or can evolve as a religion – instead of being eliminated completely; instead of the polity being banished or murdered. So you have a category that allows for a quasi-government within a larger government. And then that quasi-government derives some sort of authority from seeing itself as, or perhaps truly being, a government of something in the past. And the strength of that vestigial government – (5:00) those displaced people, that displaced sovereignty – gets to fit into the category of religion. And with that, the state grants certain status to a group. I would say to the – it’s not just me who is saying this – the vestigial group is denied certain forms of violence, marshal violence, police violence, violence in waiting. That’s the violence needed to enforce court decisions. The mystification of that vestigial government occurs because of the connection with something in the past, or something with the narrated idea of a government that existed in the past. The sense of religion as a strategy is that it’s a strategy of dominant governments to manage this displaced or marginalised population. However, it can also be a strategy for the displaced population to claim the category, claim the mystification that surrounds the category, and put pressure on the dominant government for more rights. So it’s a double kind of strategy going on there.

DR: Right, yes. There was a great line you used in the keynote: “Religions as resting once and future governments.”

NG: Restive

DR: Restive, right

NG: Restive once and future governments, yes. I like that phrase “once and future” – sort of the “once and future prince.” It’s a sense of the government looking . . . considering itself to have been something more dominant in the past, and something that will be dominant in the future. So you get that double sense of time going on. And always ambitious – even though sometimes there can be long periods when you don’t see the ambition to aggrandise, to get more and more power, to have more and more spheres to be controlled.

DR: When we had . . . well, it wasn’t our conversation, but the previous Religious Studies Project conversation when we talked about religion as vestigial states . . . this seems to build a little bit on that. Or my sense of religion as vestigial states was more of this group of people who consider themselves as sort-of restive once and future government.

NG: I don’t think they . . . Often they don’t consciously think of themselves that way.

DR: Not consciously, but that’s the way it’s working.

NG: Yes. Right

DR: But this seems to broaden it out and, actually, looking at it the other way round as well – in the way that this can be something that’s very useful for the majority state.

NG: Oh yes. Very useful. Because the majority state can claim, sometimes – depending on relationships with the vestigial one – that it is supported by the vestigial older government, more mystified government. And we see that in the United States with slogans such as “In God we Trust;” with having clergy open up governmental ceremonies, the closeness of Government and the church in some places.

DR: And literally, in the UK, you know?

NG: Oh, very literally in the UK. Right!

DR: Literally. Yes and so, you know, mystification: obviously we have . . . if you want to listen to our interview with Tim Fitzgerald on mystification, if you’re unclear on that. Basically, this is a technique by which power relations are obscured and concealed.

NG: And also the nature of something, such as religion as a form of government, a form of rules, a form of law, regulation, ritual ceremony that is very like government, like what we’re considering government, is obscured by the mystification. So that’s not seen. It’s supposed to be something mysterious.

DR: There was something that immediately struck me during this conversation. And it’s always been of interest to me. We were talking about the fact that people who study religions in the classical world for instance, don’t really talk to RS people. There isn’t really a great deal of you know, interdisciplinary work on those kind of areas. And it’s always seems to me that what we talk about as being religion in say the Roman empire, or Egypt, or Greece or something, is much more like the kind of statecraft that we do. It’s much more akin to you and the Americans civil religion stuff that you do, (10:00) that Robert Bellah and people like that used to talk about.

NG: I think that goes . . . that approaches what I’m saying.

DR: But, theoretically, it’s the other way round. And that’s what I find very interesting about that.

NG: Yes. Good.

DR: So, rather than saying this modern statecraft is a bit like some kinds of religion, actually we can flip that and we can say, “Well, we don’t think of this as religion.” So why are we imposing that idea on states from 2000 years ago? Why do we use the category religion to talk about the polis, and the Olympic Games, and these kind of things, in Rome? Is this part of this tactic of managing . . . ?

NG: I’m not sure it’s part of the tactic of management – although it might be, because it gives the vestigial government a lot of power, and a lot of mystery, and a lot of emotional valence. And then when the dominant government relies on the vestigial government, hearkens to it, hearkens back to it, it also gains that kind of power. But let’s see. I’m so tired from last night! (Laughs).

DR: Yes!

NG: But the mystification, how that . . . .Where were we? Let’s pick up the thread again.

DR: So we talked briefly about mystification, then I switched to this other thing: this fundamentally, I think, changes that conversation. So we had, you know, in the sort of Sociology of Religion, in the classic 1960s Sociology of Religion, we had this idea of quasi-religion or state religions or civil religion. But this actually changes that conversation. Because now we could actually say, “Well, if that’s religion then, you know, why do we have to call that religion?” We could just not call it religion. We could call it statecraft.

NG: You could call it statecraft, exactly. Yes. There’s a point I wanted to make. I’m sure as we start to talk it will come back. I have to explain to your Listeners that we spoke in a group. And continued speaking. . . . (Laughs).

DR: We’ve been speaking for hours about this!

NG: Hours! (Laughs) in the pub last night!

DR: It’s not uncommon, you know. We sit down to record these and we have to come back to the beginning because, yes . . . The Listeners don’t want to hear our in-jokes, probably!

NG: (Laughs)

DR: Ok. Let’s . . . I think it might be useful for the Listener to have a couple of examples. And there were a few interesting examples.

NG: Oh, I’d like to say one thing about that. I think the mystification of something in the past, that we can say is religion and is eternal, comes from, in some ways, “world religions” discourse.

DR: Right, yes.

NG: And I think it works the way world regions does as a category – although there’s a lot of argument about when that starts, exactly. Some trace it back to mid-1600’s, or whatever, when Christians discovered that there were other peoples in the world who actually didn’t know anything about Christianity. And then, various scholars have shown that when these new-to-the-Europeans areas were discovered, the first . . . one of the first things that explorers say is that, “Oh – there’s no religion here. These people are primitive. There’s nothing.” And then, after the explorers are there for a while, they begin to notice something that might be . . . “Oh, that could be a primitive form of religion.” And, guess what! It is! It’s a beginning. And Christianity is the evolution, the apotheosis, the pinnacle of this development. So the fact that there is this thing we can identify maybe as a thing called religion – it could be anything, could be ancestor reverence, it could be rituals at tables, it could be anything, ghosts, spirits, whatever – gets named religion and then gets projected onto the past as a justification for the presence of Christian religion now.

DR: Yes. Yes.

NG: So I think that some of that is there – but as an inferior form. Or as another form.

DR: Yes. Yes. I think it might be useful for the Listeners to have an example that I think is quite a clear one. I know this isn’t particularly your original work, but I think it’s a very good case study, to look at Judaism, and the way that we see that moving through a number of different ways of being interpreted, until we end up with Judaism as . . .

NG: Or, as some people say, many Judaisms. There are scholars who trace this rather specifically (15:00): that you didn’t have anything that could be called a religion. You just had people, who lived in a given area. And as these people were conquered by a range of . . . a succession of empires, if those who weren’t killed cohered, or were allowed by some governments. You could look at the way Cyrus dealt with what we could call the Jewish people. He allowed them to have certain rituals, certain places, rebuild the temple – but temple in the sense of like a city hall. Because temples in the past weren’t separated with what we would call worship, now. They were places of commercial exchange, they were law courts. There were lots of things going on. So by creating this separate space, or this area, governments at that point were creating what gets to be now called religion. In the case of Judaism . . .

DR: They were also a lot to do with food practices. Now again, this is another example of reading religion into the past. So we go, “Oh they were involved in sacrifices, or ritual preparations of meat.” But the idea that these are religious practices is again, something that we read into the past.

NG: Something that develops later.

DR: But we could think: well, it’s just the reason that, you know. . . . Like, Scottish people like to eat white bread, and would go to a shop that sells the only white bread from Scotland when they go to live in Canada, or something like that.

NG: That’s right. And if you made at certain points, you could make the Scots into a religion. It could be that kind of category. So, whatever the Jewish people did became cohered as Judaism. And as I was speaking last night about how there’s . . . . It’s true, in the case of the Jewish people, that you have a confusion – Is this a religion? Is this an ethnicity? Is this a nation? This is all together . . . . Is it a culture? And I think that underlies, actually, all polities that take on that category. That there’s a lot of ambiguity there. That belief is maybe one factor and not a very important factor at all.

DR: And there are quite strong arguments that Judaism, the idea of a religion, is quite a late development and they were seen, historically, much more often as a race than they were as a religion.

NG: Which is another problematic kind of . . .

DR: Which is a whole other can of worms! But the point is that these different categories . . .

NG: All coming from the idea that to be a Christian you have to believe something. So, gradually, I see a change in Jewish people. Many Jews now think that you have to believe something to be really Jewish. Jews never have to believe anything. You were born of a Jewish mother, or you were part of the community that made you Jewish.

DR: Well . . . and that’s “belief” in a very Christian sense of a credo,

NG: Exactly.

DR: You know, a stated belief: this is what I believe, I know it doesn’t make sense to everyone but I’m committed to it in some way.

NG: Yes. So then you have to worry, if you stop believing that, do you fall out of your Christian-ness in some way? And Jews never had to worry about that.

DR: You also made a really good point, it was quite quick in the presentation, about the way that this – in terms of like “Islamist”, and terms like this – where people seem to be reluctant to use the term religion.

NG: Well, the key factor there is that when a group in contemporary times does something violent –marshal violence or police violence, particularly – that isn’t authorised by the state, then the title of religion becomes problematic. Because the key thing for creating the vestigial government is that it will not have any kind of forms of violence that could challenge the state. So Max Weber said that a long time ago – not about the category of religion, but that legalised violence is the one thing that the state always holds onto for itself. So it’s the one thing that isn’t generally franchised out to religious groups. Of course, when we get to the sphere of sex and gender, those are the kinds of jurisdictions that are sometimes ceded by the dominant state to the vestigial one (20:00). And you would have family courts that are authorised by the state in some countries, family courts run by quote unquote “religious authorities”, who would be able to decide.

DR: And why is that different? Why . . . say, circumcision practices? Why does . . . why is that form of violence allowable, and not others?

NG: For some reason. I think it’s a vestige of male authority over women that both the dominant state and the vestigial one claim. But somehow the state is more willing to give that jurisdiction, which I suppose was not seen as all that important, over to vestigial authorities.

DR: Perhaps it’s a situation where it benefits the state, but it slightly clashes with stated aims. So, by sort of allowing – “We’ll just turn a blind eye to these religions, vestigial states doing it – suits us in the long run.” Because it restates male . . . patriarchy.

NG: Male dominance and . . . supports male dominance that’s another point I was making, that the male dominance of the vestigial state is generally always the case, always male – partly because it’s hearkening back to something in that past which was . . . in recorded history it seems to be male governance all the time. I think you’re right. It reinforces male-dominance. But it’s quite frightening, because women and children become subjects of two governments. The dominant one and the vestigial one.

DR: And male children to some degree, as well.

NG: Male children to the same degree, because we let . . .

DR: Circumcision.

NG: So many countries . . . circumcision and then some oral suction in some Jewish communities. Female circumcision, in some other kinds of communities, is a very contested practice, but there’s a lot of argument that it should be allowed in some degree, and some way. We allow that as a form of violence because it’s supposedly religious violence, or it’s not seen as violent.

DR: And, of course, we do have many cases where the religious nature of a practice, or belief, or some sort of prejudice comes down to whether it is or is not religious – you know, the use of cannabis by Rastafarians. There was a recent case, in Scotland, where a guy who claimed he’d been fired from his job for being a Nationalist. He was campaigning as an SNP. And it was seen to clash with his government job. And in the preliminary ruling the judge said, “Well this is a sincere and worked out belief system about the world. So it’s equivalent to a religion, and therefore it should be protected.”

NG: (Laughs). And that’s an example of how that category can be anything. Anything can get into it. Sometimes I talk about religion as a category in which nothing has ever been excluded. I can’t get anyone to name one thing that hasn’t been included in the category of religion. Impossible to exclude anything from it. And yet it’s supposed to be something unique.

DR: Yes. It’s sui generis and unique to itself, but it’s also everything!

NG: It’s also everything! (Laughs).

DR: It’s just humans, in some way . . .

NG: It show the problematic nature of that category.

DR: Yes. Another interesting example, I think, which shows the edges of this, is how often new religions, new religious movements dream of governments.

NG: Exactly!

DR: They dream of alternative governments, but they’re also the target of government ire. And often violence.

NG: Well, governments are always a little bit edgy about the things they authorise as religions, because they’re worried about takeover. Because there’s a sense of competition, somewhere. And New Religious Movements tend to imagine the better government to come could be something local that they’ll enact in a certain place and a certain way. But it could also be something in the future. It could be after death. Sometimes major dominant religions, or what we call world religions also imagine things like that. Or the government will be on another planet, or it will be after an apocalypse. But it will be better, whatever it is. And it will be something like what already happened a while ago – in that sense of being once and future.

DR: Yes. I’m particularly thinking of the kind of . . . the stuff that Crawford Gribbon was talking about yesterday, of the American Redoubt (25:00) where these Conservative right wing traditionalists, essentially, are attempting to create little states within states where patriarchal theocracy can continue within. . . .

NG: There we go. Because they’re worried, now, about women getting some kind of power, and some kind of dominance.

DR: And atheists, and non-white people, and homosexuals, and everything else . . .

NG: Trans. people.

DR: Everything, yes. And that is clearly harking back to a previous kind of . . .

NG: Or an imagined previous. . . . Often an imagined previous state.

DR: Yes, so. . .

NG: “Make America great again” is that kind of slogan!

DR: (Laughs).

NG: Yes. When?

DR: Well, yes . . . again. Which one are you talking about? The McCarthy era, World War II? What is it? The Civil War?

NG: Exactly! (Laughs).

DR: Yes. But the violence aspect of it is particularly interesting. We were riffing last night about the idea of . . . . My colleague Chris Cotter was talking about how, you know, a child can be raised in a state, and told that he’s working for Queen and country, and then signs up, and goes off to another country and kills people. And because this is for the state, this violence is . . . .And you’ve made this point about violence being the thing that states . . .

NG: Dominant states keep it to themselves.

DR: The one thing they keep to themselves. Now, you have. . . there was another line in the keynote, which I want you to unpick a bit for me. And it’s religion, the category religion, as an alternative to genocide.

NG: I was suggesting, taken from Deuteronomy 20 verses16 through 18, in which the Lord God commands a complete eradication of every living thing: people, livestock, everything in an area that has been given as an inheritance to a population. And I was thinking that if the category of religion had been invented – this is hypothetical, very much almost like a game to imagine that this could have been an alternative for that warrior God, that dominant tyrant. So that he wouldn’t have to kill everybody there. He could create a religion in which all forms of violence would be forbidden to that group. And perhaps the group could endure. So I was thinking of it as . . . I think of its function that way, as an alternative to genocide. Cyrus, for example, didn’t eliminate the Jews who were in his area of jurisdiction. He allowed them a space – a bounded space. That’s a two-edged sword in a way. Because, by creating a special group with some kinds of status, sometimes that group can also then be targeted for genocide.

DR: Mmm.

NG: Later on. The way Jews have been, the way many minorities have. So it’s a double-edged thing. It’s the creation of a polity with a certain kind of regulatory apparatus internal to that polity that can also make it a target.

DR: I’d like to wrap up then with. . . . We – any of us who are working in the critical religion paradigm, broadly stated – will eventually be angrily demanded of us what the practical application of what we’re doing is. And how does it matter to real to real people? And there are some quite clear practical examples here. You mentioned the journalistic covering of the abortion debate, for instance.

NG: Right. In Ireland. I thought that was an example – at least the newspapers I read – I was collecting articles from The New York Times and The Washington Post, and The Guardian, about the abortion referendum in Ireland – the recent one. And what was done in most of those articles is that the Catholic Church was spoken about, not religion as a general category. Sometimes it was mentioned, but it was clear that this was a specific institution with specific ideologies. Someone mentioned last night that Evangelical Christians were also involved. But then there’s a specificity about who exactly is advocating what, and for what purpose? And who exactly wins and loses in these various debates. And I think that’s an important demystification of issues (30:00). So I would urge scholars in Religious Studies to be as specific as possible, to name the groups as specifically as you can. Are you talking about Jews, are you talking about Muslims, Are you talking about Christians, maybe? Which kind of Christians? Buddhists? Not this blanket category. That’s already a step forward. I also think that a practical application – and this is where my heart is – is in the pushing the project forward. It’s to demystify the category of religion, so that governments can’t use it to fudge so much; that it doesn’t get to be such a vague category that anything can be claimed as a right within it; and that restrictions can’t be put on it; and that special male privilege can’t be so easily granted. These vestigial governments have just as much contingency, just as much conflict within polities as any other kinds of government. So often they’ve tended to be seen as monolithic, as homogeneous, and the men – who claim to represent them – are given a lot of power. So because religion as a category is put into constitutions, it’s put into Law, and because no-one knows what it is – courts don’t know how to interpret it in a kind of consistent manner – I think it’s particularly ripe for deconstruction, and I think that some very interesting clarity can be put to these debates. That would be an example of one of the practical applications.

DR: You’ve brought a lot of clarity to the conversation here, I think. I think people are going to be very intrigued to read more of your work. But, unfortunately, I have the real privilege, today, of ending the interview!

NG: (Laughs).

DR: But I just want to say, thanks so much for joining us!

NG: And thank you, David.

DR: Thank you.


Citation Info: Goldenberg, Naomi and David G. Robertson. 2019. “’Religion as a Tactic of Governance”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 21 January 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 11 January 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-as-a-tactic-of-governance/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Religion, Education, and Politics in Australia and NZ

Following on from the delivery of her conference paper at the EASR 2018 in Bern, in this podcast, Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University speaks to Thomas White regarding the historical, national and regional differences in the presence of religion in Australian and New Zealand schools. The podcast begins with a brief biography of Professor Maddox’s rise to academic tenure, and the various post-doctoral positions that paved her transition away from theology, and towards the subject of religion and politics.

Covering projects including the training of Catholic school teachers and deputy-principals in secular religious education, her research into the Hindmarsh Island affair – which investigated Aboriginal women’s claims to ‘secret women’s business’ – and her work under the Australian Parliamentary Research Fellowship, the discussion turns to national differences between public religion in New Zealand and Australia. Contrasting Australian multi-culturalism with New Zealand bi-culturalism, Professor Maddox explains how, despite New Zealand being further along a path of secularisation (by religious affiliation), religion often obtains a greater presence in the public sphere as it is carried on a policy of cultural recognition for Maori tradition, as mandated in the country’s Treaty of Waitangi. This was particularly evident with the daily expression of Maori karakia (prayers) in her daughter’s school, which later transpired to be the Lord’s Prayer!

Focusing on the Australian experience of public policy on religion and education, Maddox explains how 19th Century Australian concerns regarding both sectarianism and protecting religion from political manipulation led to a surprising consensus across colony parliaments that religion should be kept out of the public school system. In the late 20th Century, however, ‘currents of change are pulling in different directions’.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Men at Work’s “Business as Usual” album, Vegemite, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Religion, Education and Politics in Australia and NZ

Podcast with Marion Maddox (26 November 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White.

Transcribed by Thomas White and Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Maddox_-_Religion,_Education_and_Politics_in_Australia_and_NZ_1.1

Thomas White (TW): Well it is a beautiful morning here on the penultimate day of the EASR in Bern, and I’m delighted to be joined by Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University in Sydney. Marion is a Professor of Politics at Macquarie and she has PhDs in Theology from Flinders, and another PhD in Philosophy from the University of New South Wales. It is probably no exaggeration to say that Professor Maddox is the leading authority on questions of religion and politics in Australia, and it is an absolute pleasure to have you with us in the recording studio this morning. Professor Maddox, welcome!

Marion Maddox (MM): Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.

TW: So, your paper was delivered on Monday. Today’s Wednesday, so we’re a couple of days down the line. But I thought perhaps before going into the paper, as a first question to ease us into the interview, could you please tell us a little about how you became a Professor of Religion and Politics in Australia?

MM: Yes, well, sort-of by mistake! I did a PhD in Theology, and by the time I’d finished I was very sure that I didn’t want to work for the Church – which is pretty much the only thing you can do with a PhD in theology in the normal kind-of career progression in Australia. So I applied for jobs all around the place. And the one I happened to get . . . which was not what I imagined myself doing, but you know how it is when you finish your PhD and you apply all around the place, and you get what you happen to get. The one that I happened to get was in a fabulous department that no longer exists in the University of South Australia. And what we did was provide teacher training to teachers of Religious Studies. Because, in those days, South Australia had thought that it was going to have a non-confessional RE programme for teachers in public schools, and they had set up this whole department to train the teachers for it. But what had actually happened was that that programme was never implemented, and instead we provided teacher training for Catholic schools mainly. Our main clientele was Catholic schools’ deputy principals, who had to get a degree in Religious Education in order to get the next step on their promotion. And so we were kind-of a service provider for the Catholic Education Office. And then ACU (the Australian Catholic University) got set up and so we lost that client base, and the department isn’t there anymore. But it was a fantastic department, and I learnt there what non-confessional RE – Religious Education, education about religions – is, because we were providing it to all these Catholic school teachers. We would see them come in and think that Religious Education was catechesis, and then they would go through this programme and they would discover that there is this whole other way to think about religion. I worked there for 5 years as I was on contract, and then my contract ran out. Then I cast around and applied for jobs, and the one that I happened to get, again, was in Australian Politics, at the University of Adelaide. And while I was doing that I thought, “Hang on a minute! There’s all this work on religion and politics in America, but no one is doing anything on religion and politics in Australia. But there is a huge story here!” And while I was doing that two-year contract in Politics at the University of Adelaide, a big story was in the paper every single day, on, and on, and on. In fact, it started while I was still in Religious Studies at the University of South Australia. And that was the Hindmarsh Island Royal Commission, which anybody who lives in South Australia will still know what that is about straight-away – it was on the front page of the Adelaide Advertiser for a couple of years. It was an inquiry into whether a group of Aboriginal women from South Australia had fabricated so-called “secret women’s business” – which is now a phrase in Australian vernacular but it wasn’t until then – which was a set of traditional beliefs that, because they were secret, they hadn’t talked about before. So wider Australia went, “We’ve never heard of this, you must have made this up!” But the point of it was that these beliefs were about a tract of water between Hindmarsh Island and the mainland. And its sacredness, these women said, should prevent a marina being built, that was wanted to be built by some developers. And so this whole question of “Should sacred sites stand in the way of development?” blew up into a question about “Do Aboriginal peoples make up traditions in order to stop development?” and “Are they being manipulated by ‘Greenies’?” And so there was a series of inquiries. So this question of how non-Aboriginal Australia deals with questions of sacredness seemed to me to be a very religions-and-politics question that mainstream Australia did not have a vocabulary to deal with. So I wrote quite a lot about that. And then, when my University of Adelaide ran out (laughs) . . . . It seems my academic trajectory has been really shaped by the conditions of the labour market! I then applied for, and got, the Australian Parliamentary Fellowship which was a fantastic programme run by the parliamentary library which still exists but, I think, in not as a good a form. But in those days it was a one year programme where you worked in parliament as a research fellow for a year, where you spent half your time doing an individual independent research project, and the other half of the time supplying information for members and senators on anything they ask about. And my independent research project was about religion and Australian parliamentary processes. And I wrote my first book which was called For God and Country: Religious Dynamics in Australian Federal Politics, which was the only Parliamentary Fellowship monograph ever to sell out, and go to a second printing! And it is now available on-line for a free pdf download. And then, after that, I got my first permanent job – Yes! – at the Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand. And there we had a course on Religion and Politics. So there’s a long answer!

TW: Oh well, OK! This segues nicely with a question that I was going to ask towards the end but: the situation of politics and religion in Australia, and the situation of politics and religion in New Zealand – was it quite a shift going to Victoria, after developing all your expertise on your situation in Australia?

MM: It really was. I was quite, well . . . I had been to New Zealand once. I did the interview over the phone, so I had only been there once, years earlier, for a conference. So I did not really know anything about New Zealand, except that I heard this rumour that they have really good coffee – which proved to be true!

TW: Excellent coffee, yes!

MM: Yes, yes! And that was such a wrench, coming back! But when I got to Wellington, I remember going to my first faculty meeting and thinking, “I’m going to have to get a dictionary!” Because there was so much Maori language which is used as just a matter of course, in everyday discourse, from university management and in university processes. And I didn’t know what all these words meant. So if you are a student, and a student has a problem, you are allowed to bring whanau support, you know, so I didn’t know. I learnt. But it was a very sharp learning curve, and that required a whole sort of cultural shift. And when I moved back to Australia it was a culture shock again, to have that indigenous perspective suddenly not present in university processes. So that was one thing that I noticed. And the political system, when we moved to New Zealand. New Zealand had only quite recently made the shift to MMP, multi-member proportional voting, whereas Australia uses single transferable vote in the lower house and a version of proportional representation in the upper house. And so I learnt that the voting system has quite a strong effect, which I hadn’t really . . . I’d kind-of intellectually known, but I hadn’t really seen it in action. And so I hadn’t really, viscerally, appreciated the effect it can have on, like, the way that religious interests can have an effect in electoral politics. And while we were in New Zealand there was that dramatic election when a religiously influenced party, United Future New Zealand, got an unexpectedly big vote and, effectively, the balance of power in the New Zealand parliament. So, I learnt a lot things and I did have to go on a sharp learning curve, and I couldn’t kind-of, be an expert on New Zealand politics straight away. I had to make a quick catch-up.

TW: Well, that’s interesting. So trying to rephrase that in very broad brush, and perhaps overly clumsy positioning: is there the implication that New Zealand is a bit more open to ethnic difference – in terms of the Maori having much stronger representation within the political system – this is carried over to more access for religion within the public space, or more representation for religion in the public space in New Zealand, than in Australia?

  1. MM. Well, I would say it is a different kind of presence. Australia has a history of a strongly articulated policy of multiculturalism, which has been under increasing attack over the recent decade or two. But multiculturalism became official policy in 1974, and for a long time there was quite a strong infrastructure of policy and practice to support that. Whereas, New Zealand’s policy is biculturalism, so that has kind of made different spaces for religious communities to be present in the public space. New Zealand is further down the secularisation path than Australia is, if we think of secularisation meaning the religious practice of the majority of the population. So in the last Australian census, 54% of Australians claimed to be of some sort of religious adherence. I’m not sure what the figure is for New Zealand, but New Zealand got to that 50%, just over that 50%, a couple censuses ago. So I imagine it’s lower now. But the striking difference about religion in the public space that I noticed when I lived in New Zealand is that, in New Zealand Maori make up not only a bigger proportion of the population, but also a much more cohesive proportion of the population than Aboriginal people – Aboriginal People and Torres Strait Islanders – do in Australia. So indigenous Australians are about 2-3% of the population whereas Maori, at the time I was living there, were about 15%. And the other big difference is that Maori have a common language, whereas Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders have many different language groups: there were about 500 different language groups at the time of European contact. So, for example, when I enrolled my daughter in primary school in Wellington, on her first day, when she was 5, we went along to Newtown primary and there was a ceremony to welcome to the new students. And it was forty-five minutes long and every last word of it was in Maori! And all the little pakeha kids, like my daughter, just had to sit there and . . . sit there politely and listen. And the principal made a quite long speech – I guess about 15 minutes long – and every now and then a smattering of people in the audience laughed and the rest of knew that he’d made a joke! And there was a haka, and my daughter had never seen a haka before – having just come from Australia – so she was just kind of gobsmacked! And then, once she started at school, everyday started with a karakia – which is a Maori prayer which is offered at the beginning of something important – which is in Maori. And the children who didn’t speak Maori didn’t know what the content of the karakia They just knew this was something that they had to pay respectful attention to. And then, one day we were sitting in a church service and the vicar said, “We will now chant the Lord’s prayer in Maori”, and my daughter said in a triumphant state, “I know this!” And only at the point did she realise that what she had been saying every day in school was actually with Christian content, but delivered in Maori language. So there is a lot more kind-of theological presence in New Zealand public life through the Maori traditions than there is in Australia – partly because of the Treaty obligation to respect Maori tradition, much of which has Christian content. So that was a bit of an eye-opener to me, in the way that religious meaning can be present in public life.

TW: Yes, it gets carried in the representation of Maori voices, yes. Excellent, that’s an interesting contrast taking place there. So throughout your career very much looking at public policy, you mentioned in your paper that you take great value from Bacchi’s approach to public policy in terms of “framing the problem”. Could you, perhaps, please explain to our listeners what that’s about?

MM: Well, yes. So Carol Bacchi was, in fact, one of my colleagues at the University of Adelaide. And see developed this approach called ‘What’s the problem represented to be?” which is a problem-framing analysis technique that she has very successful disseminated – particularly to Australian public policy practitioners, and the people working on the boundaries of academia and public service. And so it’s taking off from the observation, that anyone working in policy-framing is aware of, which is that how you frame the question has a big influence on how you find the solution. So if the problem is traffic congestion, if you think the problem is not enough roads, then you build more roads. But then you’ll still end up . . . because all that happens is that everyone takes their cars out, and you end up with still more blocked roads. So is the solution to traffic congestion more roads? Or is it having to think about traffic in a different way? So she developed this six-point technique, based on a Foucauldian set of assumptions, where you ask, in any particular policy framework: what is problem represented to be? Why is the problem represented to be this way? What assumptions underlie this problem representation? How could it be represented differently? And whose interests are being served by representing it in this way rather than some other way? And, what if we represent it in a different way? Or what different problem representations can we come up with? And who would benefit or lose when we represent it in different ways? And what consequences would flow from different problem representations? So I was applying that approach to looking at the way questions about secular education have been framed and applied in the 19th and 21st Century in Australia and France.

TW: Yes. So, I really enjoyed the paper.

MM: Thank you.

TW: It think it got a really good response from the audience: the comparative analysis of the trajectories of religion in schools in France and Australia. I think probably, most of our Listeners, they would be more familiar with the France situation because of the veil, and that’s received a lot of popular attention. So, starting with Australia, what’s the story regarding religion in schools in Australia? How has that developed?

MM: Well, the story about education in Australia goes back to before it was a country, and was a set of colonies. The Australian colonies federated in 1901 – and, at the time, everyone thought New Zealand was going to join in as well, but it didn’t – and each of the colonies started out with the schools being mainly provided by churches, because that was who had the resources to do it. And then, as they were scrambling to set up local infrastructure, gradually, they were governed directly from the UK. And then they established local parliaments and then the parliaments set up school systems. And so there is a very good record in the local Hansards, the records of parliamentary debates, about the parliamentarians debating what kind of school system they should set up. And they all, each of the parliaments in turn, debated whether religion should be put into the public schools, and should the parliaments or governments be subsidising religious schools alongside the public system? And each of them decided, for very similar reasons – and the same debates were had in parliament after parliament – “No. They should not be subsidising religious schools, and they should not have religion taught in the public schools.” And both of those things for the same reason: namely, that children should be encouraged to go to public schools because they wanted to overcome the problem that they’d perceived which was sectarianism that was dividing . . . . The biggest potential division in their communities was sectarianism. And so divisions between Catholic and Protestant students was the main division. But other divisions like between . . . . Particularly in South Australia, they talked a lot about . . . they imagined a future colony where there might be Jewish and Muslim students as well, and maybe Buddhists they mentioned. In the 19th Century parliaments they thought that the best way was for all of those students to be educated side-by-side and to grow into one cohesive community. And they thought that any attempt . . . . They wondered, “Could there be some non-denominational Christianity?” or could there be some sort of . . . ? “Er, no. That won’t work. Because that will still exclude the little Jews and Buddhists.” “Could we teach some general religion that doesn’t offend anybody?” But they sort-of flirted with that idea for about five minutes and then realised that isn’t going work.

TW: Yes, you’re always going to offend somebody.

MM: Yes. So, in the end, they concluded that the only way was just not to have religion in the public schools. And all the people in the debates were very religious people by and large, or fairly religious people; they were not anti-religion. In fact, some of them were very devout. And some of them said that religion is simply too important to let it be politicised by letting it be kicked around in the education debates: “We need to protect religion by keeping it out of the public schools.” And churches also, some of them, wanted to have the Bible in schools. But some of them, like the Congregationalists in Australia, they passed a series of motions through their Synod, saying that the Bible needed to be kept out of public schools to protect it from being turned into a fetish or being turned into a political football. So there was quite a unified – surprisingly, to me – unified view across the religious and non-religious spectrum – but the non-religious spectrum in 19th Century Australia was minute – but that religion didn’t belong in public education.

TW: And we’re still talking here religious instruction – a values-based religion-type education – as opposed to the RE that you might get in more contemporary schooling systems, which is just exploring descriptive aspects of religion?

MM: Yeah. But the exception was New South Wales. And because New South Wales is so big, a lot of the debate that we have now takes the New South Wales experience as normative. But, actually, New South Wales was really the exception. And what New South Wales did was that it was the last state to pass . . . or colony, to pass its secular Education Act in 1880, and it was also the most equivocal. Because the sectarian issue was the fiercest in New South Wales. But it kept something called ‘General Religious Education’ in its Education Act and that was where teachers could give general religious information, which the 19th Century legislators thought was going to be a kind of non-denominational Christian RE, not education-about-religions education as we think about it now. There was going to be some Bible instruction but without dogmatic commentary. And New South Wales also kept in a capacity for ministers of religion to come in for up to an hour a day – but nobody actually did that – to instruct members of their own denomination: an in-house catechetical instruction.

So the more education-about-religions, as an educational subject, by and large, is still not taught in Australian schools. There is a little element in the Civics curriculum, in the National Curriculum. But I think it would be true to say that most Australian students wouldn’t notice that they’d received it. A bit about, you know, the religions of your neighbours. And in New South Wales, there is also a Studies of Religion which you can take in the last two years at High School as an optional subject. Nearly everyone who takes it takes it from private schools, religious schools. But it is a very good programme in that it is seriously non-confessional RE, and you can’t just do it in one tradition. Like if you are a Catholic school . . . . Most Catholic schools make Catholicism one of their traditions, but you have to do another one.

TW: Is that an initiative that is coming out of the Catholic Church itself, or is this something that is coming out of the national education body?

MM: No, it’s overseen by the Board of Studies, which is the New South Wales education. And although the majority of students that take it are in private schools, some public schools offer it as well, and some students take it as an independent study unit.

TW: OK. But as your paper was suggesting there is a wind of change blowing through the Australian education system – or ever since John Howard, anyway – where things, perhaps, are moving in a different direction. Is that correct?

MM: Well, there are currents of change pulling in different directions. So actually, even going back before John Howard there has been a move of increasing segregation in Australia’s education. So Gough Whitlam actually – the hero of progressive politics – he, in 1973, introduced a huge change which was to bring back public funding of private schools. He also greatly increased school funding across the board, so there was just so much largesse going around the schools, that it didn’t create a great deal of protest. And also he directed it towards the most needy, poor Catholic schools. But every reiteration of the funding arrangements since then has been to the benefit of wealthier schools and to the detriment of the public school system. So we now have a very segmented school system where large numbers of wealthy schools are funded over their official allocation, because they’ve managed to do special deals where they get funding for their running costs, and on top of that for their building programmes, and for additional special projects. And the funding allocation of public schools has gone down, proportionally.

TW: And it’s the private schools that are more often the religious-run schools?

MM: Over 90% of private schools in Australia are attached to Christian denominations, one way or another. And whereas public schools are officially secular, the other change – that is a Howard change – is that public schools also have increasing amounts of religious presence in them. For example, through the National Schools Chaplaincy Programme, which is a government-funded programme which puts almost exclusively Christian chaplains in public schools. And another Howard change is that the make-up of the private school market has changed with the easing of the regulations for small private schools – most of which tend to be from the more conservative-evangelical end of the spectrum.

TW: Are these changes actually done with a religious motive, or a motive of actually helping religions gain a larger foothold in education? Or is this actually due to kind-of changing educational policy in relation to the freedom of institutions to develop their own curricula, or to have more autonomy from national or state education bodies?

MM: I think, from looking at Howard’s statements for why he was making those changes, I’d say it was a combination of things. The Liberal Party, which was his government, the Liberal Government, their general preference is for private providers rather than public provision. Not on the basis of any educational evidence, but that’s just . . . . They oversaw out-sourcing of public services in a whole range of areas and education was one. I do, however, think he had a deliberate strategy of courting the conservative Christian end, the conservative Christian demographic. Because, before he came to power in 1996, he had identified progressive churches as one of a series of groups, including feminists, academics, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the environmentalists, he had this list of people . . .

TW: The usual troublemakers . . .

  1. MM. Yes, that’s right! . . . who had blocked reforms that his predecessors in the Liberal Party had tried to implement, and liberal Christians were one his targeted groups. And so, when he got in in 1996, he embarked on a programme of telling progressive churches to get back in their box, and stick to talking about spiritual matters. And at the same he went out his way to go to Hillsong Church conventions; to do this thing of easing the regulations for small Christian schools; to make a series of statements on conservative so-called “family values” issues; to complain about political correctness, and generally sort-of court that so-called Christian-values/conservative-values end of the religious spectrum – which is actually only a very tiny proportion of the population of Australia. Australia doesn’t have a big S Christian right market, but he was talking that sort of language. And this was the same time that George Bush was aligning himself with the U.S. Christian right. And Howard was echoing, in a more muted way, that same sort of language and appealing, in Australia, to . . . not so much of an existent evangelical-voter-base, but more to a part of the population that doesn’t go to church, but thinks that values are a good idea: “Christians seems to have them, maybe. Society is falling apart, and maybe we ought to stick with the person who appears to know what values are and where they are to be found.”

TW: So, to summarise: where the Australian education system started out with a strong commitment to keeping religion out of its education system, in the name of openness and inclusivity, under the Howard government, religion, and specifically Christian values, are making a quiet return as an educational resource, largely to push against a liberal politics in Australia. And, indeed, confirming some of the earlier reservations in the 19th Century about religion in education becoming a political resource. Fascinating. Professor Maddox, thank you very much for your time and expertise. And thank you to our Listeners for tuning in.


Citation Info: Maddox, Marion and Thomas White. 2018. “Religion, Education and Politics in Australia and NZ”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 November 2018. Transcribed by Thomas White and Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 October 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-education-and-politics-in-australia-and-nz/ 

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered… and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining Chris today to discuss these questions and more, is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University.

This interview was recorded at the June 2018 EASR Conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, where Susannah has delivered a paper entitled “What Gender is ‘Nature’? An approach to new age ecospirituality in theory and practice.” This interview was graciously facilitated by Moritz Klenk, and his podcast studio!

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

Podcast with Susannah Crockford (1 October 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Crockford_-_Ecospirituality,_Gender_and_Nature_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (C.C.): In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered . . . and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining me today to discuss these questions and more is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University. So for a start, Susannah, to the Religious Studies Project, welcome!

Susannah Crockford (SC): Thank you! Welcome.

CC: We are recording in Bern, at the European Association for the Study of Religion Conference, where Susannah has been delivering a paper earlier on called “What Gender is nature? An Approach to New Age Ecospirituality in Theory and Practice.” So I had the pleasure of being in the room. But before we get to today’s conversation I’ll just tell you that Dr Crockford’s a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Literary Studies at Ghent University, which works on the NARMESH, or Narrating the Mesh project, investigating the contemporary narrative of the interrelations between humans and large gamut of non-human realities and its potential for staging, challenging and expanding the human imagination of the non-human. The research interests centre on the use of ethnography to explore narratives of spirituality, millenarianism and climate change. Her doctoral thesis was entitled “After the American Dream: Political Economy and Spirituality in Northern Arizona”. And that was awarded in July 2017 by LSE, following which she spent 9 months as a research officer for INFORM or the Information Network on New Religious Movements. And she has a number of forthcoming articles and chapters on topics relevant to today’s interview coming out in Religion, State and Society, Correspondences, Novo Religio and the Dictionary of Contemporary Esotericism. So, watch this space! I suppose some of them might have changed from forthcoming to published by the time this goes out, who knows?

SC: Probably. Hopefully. You never know.

CC: Yes. Academic publishing is a wonderful, wonderful world!

SC: We love it. We love it. (Laughs).

CC: So, we’re going to get to your case study in Arizona soon, but first of all: gender, nature, ecospirituality – how do you get here?

SC: How did I get here was very much through my fieldwork. Because these were the kind-of topics that came up when I was in Sedona and other places in Arizona. People talked about nature in a very gendered way. It was very striking to me just how much these discourses came up. So it was very much an empirical interest. I didn’t really set out to study ecological issues, or ecospirituality. I mean, I thought nature would be relevant when I got to the field. But I wasn’t so concerned with gender. But it’s kind-of one of these topics that it was going to be in my thesis, and then I didn’t have space. So I kind-of pushed it to one side. And then, for this conference, it kind-of came back. And I was like, “Oh yes! Now I can write my thing about gender and ecospirituality” and how New Age spirituality really kind-of inverts this gender binary, I think in a quite interesting, but also problematic, way. So that’s how it came about.

CC: Well how did you, more broadly, end up in Arizona?

SC: That’s a really good question.  And, I mean, there are several ways that I can date it back to. But let’s just say for the sake of simplicity I ended up in Arizona because I wanted to do a project on contemporary esotericism and I discovered Sedona, which is in Arizona, through a quite tragic case, actually of James Arthur Ray. He set himself up as this spiritual guru. And he ran a sweat lodge as part of a longer Rainbow Warrior workshop, where people paid $9000 to go and “unleash your spiritual warrior within”. And it was held in Sedona. And then three people died in this sweat lodge. It was in 2009. And I was reading about that in the news, because I was doing a lot of work on Shamanism at the time. And I was like, “Oh, That’s terrible.” But then I was like, “Oh there’s this place called Sedona that’s full of these New Age people and full of these things that they call vortexes. That would be a great place for an ethnographic study on contemporary esotericism!” So that, very briefly, is how I ended up in Arizona doing my fieldwork.

CC: I could ask you now to introduce us to Sedona, but maybe I should say first of all – because ecospirituality’s going to be coming up probably throughout the introduction . . . . So I know this is a very broad question but, in terms of the next twenty minutes, what are we meaning by ecospirituality? And then we’ll hear more about it.

SC: Yes, so I’m going to define it in a really simple way – which obviously some people might find simplistic – but: finding nature is, in some form, divinised, or finding divinity in nature. And doing that outside of the framework of some organised religion. So I think the difference between ecospirituality and say, like the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change, for example. Like you can be concerned for the environment as a mainstream Christian, but I don’t think that’s ecospirituality. Because God, specifically, is not in nature for them. For people who are in some way engaged in ecospirituality the divine is in nature. It’s pantheistic. And it comes up in lots of different forms. Paganism is obviously a really prominent one, Wicca, and it’s obviously very prominent in New Age spiritualties that see nature as part of the energy of the universe, but in a very kind-of high vibrational form. So the energy of nature is one that has a very kind-of high spiritual level. So there’s a very clear association between nature and spirituality and, as we’ll get onto, women and femininity.

CC: And so it’s not environmentalism, and things like that?

SC: No. And that’s actually one of the main points I was making, today: that just because you find spirituality in nature, you think that nature has something to do with your understanding of God, doesn’t mean that you will actually engage in actions that might be considered environmentally friendly, or ecologically engaged, or in fact have anything to do with mitigating largescale ecological problems like pollution and climate change. These are separate things.

CC: Yes. And to the audio editors, we’re going to start banging the table!

SC: Sorry, I need to gesticulate!

CC: It’s alright. Hit me, instead of the table.

Both: (Laugh).

CC: Right. So let’s set the scene then. So, Sedona – a small town in Arizona. What makes it so interesting? You mentioned the vortexes earlier and things . . .

SC: Yes. So Sedona is a fascinating town. It is in Northern Arizona, which is higher up than Southern Arizona. So it’s not low desert with the big Saguaro cactuses which come to most people’s minds when they think about Arizona. It’s up in the mountains, it gets cold in the winter. They even have snow sometimes, but it’s also still, quite hot. Sedona has a river – which is quite rare in Arizona. So it has a fresh water source. So it has the incredible kind-of red rock canyons and the river running through it. There’s trees growing everywhere. So it’s very different from the rest of Arizona. And it’s this sense of landscape that is both striking and substantially different from that around it which I think makes it stand up in human perception as something that this is different enough that “I will perceive it, in some way, maybe, sublime – or even something to do with the divine.” Because a lot of people who live there think that Sedona is a sacred space, whether or not they’re engaged in New Age spirituality. People I spoke to there who were Christians said, you know, “This is a place where God has kind-of bestowed something special on the human race.” Because it is a very beautiful place. So it’s a town of about 17000 people. It is within the Red Rock Canyon. It has one main highway and then another bit splits off to a slightly southern community that’s called the Village of Oak Creek. But they’re all basically Sedona, they’re all pretty much one place. Even though municipally they’re two different places. And Sedona is a tourist resort. It has a lot of kind-of hotels and it has a lot of spas and timeshares, and people go there to enjoy nature, to go on holiday. A lot of people who own property there, own it as a second home. There’s even some kind-of super-rich people there, like John McCain who’s a Republican Senator, Sharon Stone apparently owned a house up the hill from where I first rented a room, in uptown. So there’s these three main locations in Sedona. Uptown has a lot of the stores and a lot of the very wealthy houses. You’ve got West Sedona where there’s a lot of the services, like the Post Office and the school. And it’s where a lot of my informants lived, because it’s a lot cheaper. And then you’ve got the village of Oak Creek which where a lot of retirees live. Because it’s a good place. There’s this phenomena in America of Snowbirds – of people who, once they retire, go and live somewhere sunny for the winter. And then, for the hot months – which are very, very hot – they go back up north to Michigan or Canada or wherever they’re from. So there’s a lot of Snowbirds in Sedona. So, as a town, it’s quite . . . I don’t know, it’s quite typical of small town America in lots of ways. You know, there’s the older people who own all the property and the young people work all the jobs, but don’t really have any resources. And then you’ve also got these things called vortexes. So there’s two ways of talking about the vortexes. Either you can say that there’s four, around town, which are all these kind-of very prominent red rock formations. There are lots of other red rock formations and they have all kinds of names. There’s one called Snoopy, because it looks a bit like Snoopy lying on his back. I never quite saw it myself, but you know people told me it looked like Snoopy anyway. And there’s Cathedral Rock which apparently used to be called Court Rock. And there’s another rock called Courthouse rock. And they got mixed up, and then suddenly Cathedral Rock became Cathedral Rock instead. So this is kind-of like historicity to the naming of the rocks. But they’re also given this kind-of eternal, almost like Eliadian essence of the divine, where people say, “No. They have this special energy. The Native Americans knew about this special energy, that’s why it was sacred to the local tribe s that lived here.” And the reason that people now say there are vortexes there is because this energy emanates from the earth – you know, it’s a real part of the landscape and that’s why we’re drawn there. So people do move there to go and have spiritual experiences. You know, people go on vacations and you know, there’s a lot of services there that cater for this market as well. You can get your aura photograph taken, you can go on a vortex tour. You can have a Shaman take you round to power spots and do rituals with you. So there is a market to it. But there’s also people who genuinely engage with these practices and move there because they feel like it’s a part of their spiritual path. They move there. They would tell me that they were called to Sedona that “the energy drew them in”. And then if they had to leave it was “the energy that spat them out”. And some people would say it was quite a common discourse in Sedona, that the energy could get so intense it could literally drive you crazy. There was a story of a woman who said that she had to leave because “the Red Rocks were screaming at her”. So, you know. There’s this idea that this is a very special place, it’s a very sacred place. But it’s also incredibly intense, and it can be very difficult to live there, both materially and spiritually – if that’s how you kind-of experience your world.

CC: So that’s an excellent scene-setting for the milieu, and the spiritual milieu in Sedona. But let’s focus in on the role of nature in this context, and these practices – and then also on gender. I imagine that you can probably talk about those at the same time.

SC: Yes. So nature is really prominent. I mean it would be prominent even with people who didn’t in any way engage with New Age spirituality. And something I should probably say here is that no-one actually called themselves a “New Ager” in Sedona. There was a shop called Centre for the New Age which has psychic where you can go and pay for readings. But if you ask people, “Are you a New Ager?” they would say, “No.” They call it spirituality and they’re quite comfortable with that. They don’t really care about all out disciplinary arguments about what’s spirituality, and what’s religion, and what’s what. They just say, “Yes, I’m spiritual.” Or “Yes, I’m interested in spirituality.” But they would never really call themselves New Agers – unless they were trying to sell a certain product and it helped them as a label. So the people who were engaged in some way in spirituality very often identified nature as a very prominent source of what they would consider kind-of spiritual practice. But also kind-of just the energy of the place. So for some people being spiritual literally just entailed going for hikes amongst the rocks, maybe meditating a bit, but just being close to the earth. And simply moving to Sedona was seen as way of getting closer to nature. Because it was this place of like astounding natural beauty. It was kind-of seen as embodying nature in a very visceral way. And you’ve also got other locations close by like the Grand Canyon, the San Francisco Peaks, which is a larger series of mountains that were also considered sacred and kind-of also embodied this idea of big nature in a similar way. So, when it comes to gender, the experience of nature as sacred was very often feminised in the way they spoke about it. So, you know, obviously mother Earth is quite a common one. But in Sedona they would also talk about the Father Sky. So there’s this idea of gender emerging there already. So you’ve got Mother Earth on the one hand that complements father sky. They would talk about the divine feminine and the complement is the divine masculine. Now these are energies. And the shift that was once called the New Age – but now they talk about it much in terms like the ascension, they call it the shift, they call it the new paradigm – this is when the old male energies kind-of wither away and die and are supplanted with the dominance of the divine feminine. So the change that is called New Age spirituality, that change is a shift from something that’s coded as male to something that’s coded as female. And there are all kinds of associations with this gender binary. So male is aggressive, competitive, you know: men start wars, men destroy the planet, they have an extractive relationship to nature. Whereas the female principle is cooperative: it’s very in tune with emotions and it’s very connected to nature and celebrating the earth and being part of the earth. And so, something that came up in the panel today was . . . . This is a very old association between women and nature, but the way that association is framed is not always the same in all times and all places. So I thought one thing interesting that came up this morning was the feminine being associated with death, which made total sense to me. But that’s not there in the context in Sedona. Women are about life, they are about producing life. The feminine is the mother, is the nurturer, is the care giver. You know, this is the divine feminine principle. So it’s this very kind-of starkly-coded gender binary. And it doesn’t really change anything from what are the kind-of general gender associations in America more generally. It just inverts it and says that the feminine is better than the masculine. And you know, basically, it’s not even that women should be in charge – it’s just that everyone should embrace the feminine within them, and that that complementarity is part of the way that we will progress spiritually and socially. But it doesn’t really lend itself to any sense of action. And this is where we come back to this idea that ecospirituality is not the same as environmentalism. My informants weren’t in any way engaged in environmental politics. They didn’t really do anything that could be seen as particularly environmentally friendly. And in fact in the whole kind-of cosmology of the shift, or the ascension, it’s happening anyway. And the way it happens is like everyone working on their spiritual practice. It doesn’t happen by you going on protests or you switching to an electric car, or whatever. It happens by you sitting at home and meditating. Now from another perspective, you could see how that doesn’t help the environment at all. In fact, it breeds a certain passivity to social action. And means that people are going along with the same kind-of actions that are harming the planet. For example: driving cars, which release a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, carbon monoxide and all the other greenhouse gases. So there’s no sense of social action or social change. It’s all very inward. And everyone going on their spiritual path together cumulatively creates the change. It’s like the 100th monkey idea. Do you know what that is?

CC: Go for it.

SC: Well it’s like this credited idea from Bio-Anth – biological anthropology –

CC: Yes.

SC:   – that if, like, a certain number of monkeys – say 100 – learn a specific skill it will spread out through the rest of the monkeys by, like, collective consciousness. So that’s very dominant, at least amongst my informants in Sedona, that in fact it was detrimental to go out and do political action. I had this one informant who used to be very involved in NGOs, and going to other countries and trying to do development work. And then she said that all her protest work and all of her social action work had actually been making things worse, because she was so focussed on the negativity of these situations and instead she should stay in America and work on her spiritual path. And, you know, she did various kind-of workshops, and she was very much engaged in “embracing this divine feminine” herself. But that seems to basically involve going on these exclusive retreats to places like the Caribbean Islands, like the Bahamas, or like places in Aspen, Colorado, and getting women who had very high-paying jobs to go on them, so that they could go and “explore their divine feminine”, “work on their consciousness”, and “evolution”, and “inner-conscious entrepreneur”. And by doing that, she would help create way more positive action than she ever did working in NGOs. And, you know, so you can kind-of shift the perspective and go, “How is it helping by you kind-of creating all these places where everyone flies into these luxury resorts, has a lovely holiday, goes home, continues doing capitalism every day?” So . . .

CC: So you’ve done a good job of painting the relationship or lack of relationship, potentially, between environmentalism and ecospirituality, and sort of carving out what we’re meaning there. And we’ve spoken about the entanglements of gender and constructions of nature. But how are the two, I guess, entangled? These two: the ecospirituality on the one hand and this gendering of nature. Are there example you can maybe give of that entanglement of the two?

SC: So, how is ecospirituality entangled in gender? Well, I think it’s very much in this idea associating nature with the feminine – and that both of those things are given a positive valence regardless of what those actions actually are. So I could get very frustrated, in fact, in the field, with people talking about things that are nature and natural as thought that means it’s good for human health. So to take as an example: my informants generally liked to get water from the spring in Sedona because it came directly from the earth – and therefore it was good for them, right? But then it actually transpired that that stream had a very high level of naturally occurring anthrax, which is not good for human health. Now that’s entirely natural, in the sense that humans didn’t put it there. It was a part of the composition of the soil and the water in the area.

(Edited audio)

CC: Susannah has a correction to make to what she just said!

SC: Yes, so what I meant to say, instead of anthrax, was in fact arsenic. Arsenic is naturally occurring in water, not anthrax.

CC: Back to the interview!

(End of edit)

SC: Also, with the way this divine feminine principle got expressed in practice. So in my paper today, I talked about the work of an artist who . . . she did this whole series of paintings of the goddess. And it was all different kind-of instantiations of what she called the goddess energy. And it was all like faces of women growing out of trees, for example. And there’s this wonderful one called Blue Corn Woman, which she attached to a re-evaluation of Hopi myth that had something to do them surviving Atlantis because they listened to earth and knew when to go underground. And therefore they survived the cataclysm that destroyed Atlantis. So she had a whole series of paintings in this way. And, in person, she would always talk about the Goddess and how that was how she kind-of tried to live her life – it was in celebration of this divine feminine principle. And then this led to this very kind-of difficult lifestyle that she had, where she didn’t really want to go out and work because “emotionally, that didn’t suit her”. She wanted to do art, because that’s how she “expressed her soul”. But that meant she basically relied on men, who were variously infatuated with her, to support her financially. And she also had a fairly considerable drinking problem. And she drove her car while drunk. She had a blood alcohol level of like 0.3, now the legal limit is like 0.8 or 008, or something, so she was well over the legal limit. And she drove it into a fire station and wrecked the front of a fire station. And afterwards she was arrested, you know . . .  the process . . . . Let out . . . she blamed the fact that she had experienced childhood trauma. And it wasn’t that she was drunk, it was that she was having a “dissociative state” at the time, caused by her childhood trauma. So she, then, refused to come to court many times. She kept firing her lawyer. And this was . . . all she had to serve was a 90 day prison sentence and go on her way. And it took her three years to come to terms and just do that. So, why is this related to the divine feminine and nature? So it was this association between her emotions and her emotional state – the idea of herself as a woman and the idea of what is natural and what is natural for her – led to this lifestyle that is on one hand quite passive, and on the other hand not accepting any sense of social responsibility for her own action. Because she wasn’t responsible because she’d experienced this trauma. Therefore her emotions were such that she just had to express them. And I felt that that was actually quite problematic. Because, on the one hand you’ve got ecospirituality that’s seen as. . . in a way it’s seen as inevitable – you don’t have to do anything – so that breeds passivity on the social level. And then on a personal level it leads to a lack of accountability in your personal actions – or it can. Because you over-value your own emotions to the extent that the consequences of your emotional states are not dealt with. At least, I felt that in that case. Obviously I knew other people who, in different ways, were interested in kind-of the divine feminine aspects of spirituality. And they did quite productive things. So I don’t want to try and claim that everyone was like this. I’m saying that this is like . . . . The worst excesses of this kind-of association could lead to this kind-of situation. I knew someone else, for example, who felt that the divine feminine principle was how she should express her spirituality and she held Goddess wisdom workshops, and they were very fun, and that was fine. (Laughs) But again, I felt like there was this very simplistic association between femininity, nature and the sense of goodness. Like . . . that it was somehow inherent, and that you would just somehow know, as a woman, by being natural, the right thing to do. And I don’t think that that was always the case.

CC: Excellent. So we’re getting on in time, and I know I’ve got two more questions that I want to ask you before we get to the “what’s next on the agenda, for your research”. One is – you’ve just been speaking there a bit to this: what are the practical, social, political, real world – for want of a better term – effects of this gendering of nature, in your research experience? Why does it matter?

SC: OK. Why does it matter? I think it matters because we are in a time, in our society, when actually we really need to pay a great deal of attention to the environment and to ecology, not for the sake of the planet or of the environment in some disconnected way – because they will actually keep on going. What’s happening in terms of climate change is the erosion of the habitability of the planet for humans. You know, we’re destroying our own ecosystem, and we will be the ones that suffer for that eventually. And I think any of these discourses that kind-of separate off nature and the environment as something separate from humans are causing harm. And I think this particular kind-of ecospirituality in terms of the New Age, or whatever you want to a call it, is quite detrimental in terms of ecology, because it doesn’t put any kind-of real world action to the forefront. I think meditating is great, but I also think you need to accompany it with some form of action that will make your goals happen instead of just sitting back and thinking that it will happen inevitably. It’s like: prayer is great, but you should also get out there and do something about the social goals you want to achieve that go along with your religious ethics. So what I see a bit too much in this particular form is the “nature will just take care of these things.” That somehow Mother Nature is this caring powerful being and that that means it’s all going to be ok for humans. And that’s not the case. If we continue destroying our ecosystems humans will not continue living. You know, society will not continue. The planet will find a way to go on, because it’s the planet. So that’s why, in real world terms, I think it matters. I think I’m being a bit more evaluative and normative than I would ever be if I wrote any of this down, right now!

CC: That’s ok, you know.

SC: Is that ok? Because I really feel like that this is the defining important issue of our time. And if you’re not paying attention to it, if you’re not doing something useful about it, whatever that may be – even if it is just your individual actions – then actually, you’re not helping. You’re making things worse.

CC: And just to riff on that normativity a little bit, I can imagine that actually, yes, part of this discourse enables people . . . like, people might feel that they are doing something.

SC: Yes. No, they absolutely think they’re doing . . . . They think they are the only ones that are doing something. Because they’re meditating and expecting the shift any moment through enhancing themselves spiritually. Which . . . from a Religious Studies perspective it’s fascinating! I could sit and describe the cosmology all day. But if we’re going to talk about real world effects and real problems, that’s not helping.

CC: Exactly. We should also just acknowledge that we’ve been speaking in terms of gender binaries here, but that is predominantly what’s going on in the discourse. It is . . . we’re talking in binaries.

SC: Yes, so I very much . . . . Perhaps we should flag that up? I’m not saying, “I believe that these gender binaries are natural.” I’m saying that in this context my informants naturalised these gender binaries: “There is male and there is female”. They don’t really think about any other formation of gender. And that’s the way they see it. I’m not saying that normatively that’s correct.

CC: Exactly. So this is the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been floating around the topic of religion and spirituality here. But could we . . . . We probably could have described a lot of the stuff that was going on without needing to invoke those terms. So I’m just wondering what the role, what role these terms are playing, or if there’s maybe other dynamics that could explain away this gendering of nature.

SC: Yes, so I think I’m probably going to say something that will annoy lots of people who do Religious Studies. But I think that if we’re going to talk about spirituality, for me it’s a very specific thing which is this form of spirituality that was once called New Age. And it has a specific cosmology. And if you go out there amongst people who actually engage in these practices you can see it coming through. And I always say the basic tenet of it is that everything is energy and all energy vibrates at a specific frequency. So I think that spirituality, so defined, is kind-of one of the big religious shifts that we’re currently going through. Spirituality isn’t just something that happens in Sedona. It’s not something that just happens in America. It’s a global phenomenon. One of the things that happens to me a lot as I talk about my work – especially to other anthropologists, which is my background – they’ll say, “Oh yes! People I know in Palestine are really into that, because it gets them over sectarian conflict.” “People in Indonesia that I work with are really interested in that right now, as a form of healing.” And it is spread around the globe. And it is offering people a way of doing religion that is not part of their typical traditional organised religion. And for some people that’s just like a breath of fresh air. For some people that’s, quite literally, a life-saver – that they don’t have to engage in these old sectarian conflicts anymore; that they can create a new way forward without becoming secular. Because a lot of people don’t actually want that. They want to still engage with some kind-of meta-empirical reality – whatever you want to use as a term for it. So I think that spirituality is a form of religion, and it’s one of the growing forms of religion. And if you want to pay attention to the trends in religion now, as it’s actually lived and experienced on a daily basis, then you should really pay attention to spirituality – especially because it doesn’t really show up on stats and censuses, because there’s not really a box to tick for it. And also, people who are into spirituality really don’t like definitions. They wouldn’t really call themselves spiritual in that sense, but if you talk to them about what they do, and if you ask them if they’re interested in spirituality they will “Yes”, and suddenly they will come up with all of these fascinating things that they do. So I think it’s something that has to be studied empirically through qualitative research. And I think it’s something that is probably a lot more prevalent than we realise. Because it doesn’t really show up on these top-down measurements that a lot of scholarship can rely on – not all of it, obviously.

CC: (Laughs). So we have a whirlwind here. And, of course, we’ll point listeners to these forthcoming works. And you’re working on this NARMESH project, just now?

SC: NARMESH, yes.

CC: And so, you’re probably going to say it’s what’s next for you. But do want to say a little bit about your work there, and also, perhaps, anything you would like to see happening in this field of gender, spirituality, nature?

SC: Ok. So NARMESH is one of these ERC projects which . . . I’m kind-of discovering that they all have these kind-of acronyms for what they’re called. It’s from “narrating the mesh” which is from eco-theorist Timothy Morton’s work. So, the mesh is his idea for how everything is interconnected. And our project is looking at narratives of the interconnection of humans and non-humans and climate. So the rest of the people on the project are looking at narratives in literary fiction – which is why I’m in the Literary Studies department – and I’m looking at personal narratives. So what I’ve been doing is taking interviews and doing some short bits of fieldwork amongst groups of people who are differently positioned in the wider climate change discourse. So that’s climate scientists, radical environmentalists or kind-of eco-philosophers and, also, people who do not accept that climate change is happening – or if it is, they do not accept the human role in climate change. So, what we might call deniers or climate change sceptics. So that’s my current work. I’m kind-of in the middle of doing the fieldwork for that over in Sweden, two weeks ago, amongst people who basically see the world as ending and that we’re living through this kind-of destruction of the world. And “how do we kind-of create a new culture?” So that’s what I’ve been doing most recently. In terms of gender, nature and eco spirituality, I think it’s a really fascinating field and it’s one that I think you can kind-of bring together a lot of diverse studies from antiquity, right through to contemporary work, to look at this kind-of question. You know: how is nature gendered? What do we mean by goddess spirituality? And I think it is something that’s quite neglected. I think it’s something that, for a long time, got relegated to that kind-of “women’s studies” area of Religious Studies, and a lot of people don’t see it as particularly interesting or relevant. So I think it’s one of those things, if people start looking at it and studying it, it will come up more and more as a really relevant and important part of everyday religious practice for a very widely placed diversity of people, in different traditions, and different  historical periods and times.

CC: And I’m sure that there’s a lot more that we could get into just there now – but we have run out of time, Listeners. That was an excellent interview Susannah Crockford, and we’re looking forward to all the interest that you will have piqued, and to hearing more from this developing project that you’ve got. NARMESH?

SC: NARMESH, great. Thank you so much.

CC: It does sound like a little farewell, doesn’t it? Narmesh!

SC: Narmesh!

Both: (Laugh).


Citation Info: Crockford, Susannah and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 1 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 6 July 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/ecospirituality-gender-and-nature/

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Myth, Solidarity, and Post-Liberalism

With the rise of reactionary politics across the globe, it is arguably increasingly important for the academic community to give consideration to the prospects of developing and strengthening solidarity across apparent religious, political and economic differences. In this podcast, Chris speaks to Dr Timothy Stacey (University of Ottawa) about his forthcoming book, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division (Routledge, 2018), in which he asks how we can begin to imagine solidarity in the modern world, and challenges academics to be challenge the co-option of their work by being “better than those who seek to co-opt us.”

What is solidarity? What is liberalism? And post-liberalism? How does this relate to the problematic notion of post-secularity? To myth? To the ‘sacred’? And are we missing a trick by not paying attention to the mythic elements of secularity? These questions and more provide the narrative hooks throughout this interview, in which we hear some fascinating insights into Tim’s personal biography and his extensive field research in London, and challenge the aversion which some social scientists feel regarding normativity.

If you like what you hear, why not check out our previous podcasts on “The Sacred”, “The Post-Secular” and “Habermas, Religion and the Post-Secular”, as well as Tim’s ongoing Lived Religions Project with Fernande Pool, featuring many fascinating “interviews with ordinary people telling their unique story” livedreligionproject.com

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, banners, flags, teapots and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism

Podcast with Timothy Stacey (9 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Stacey_-_Myth,_Solidarity_and_Post-Liberalism_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome to another episode of the Religious Studies Project. It’s the start of 2018 as I’m recording – although who knows when this is actually going to go out, because we’ve got such a backlog! I am here in Reading, on my way to Oxford. And I’m joined by Dr Tim Stacey. Hi Tim!

Timothy Stacey (TS): Hi.

CC: Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. Tim is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Ottawa, but has been in the UK for the festive period and our diaries and travel schedules managed to collide nicely! We’ll be hearing bout Tim’s research during the course of the interview, but the primary trigger for the interview is the forthcoming publication of his first monograph, with Routledge, later this year. That’s called, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division. And today we’re going to be talking a little bit about these notions of myth and solidarity, but also this key concept of post-liberalism. So, first of all, I’ve given a very brief introduction to you, Tim. But tell us, who are you? How have you got here?

TS: How have I . . . ?

CC: How have you got here? Why are you speaking to me?!

TS: Well, I guess I started off . . . I did my Masters at Nottingham, in Theology. And it was there – as I was listening to some really interesting arguments about virtue ethics, primarily from people like Alasdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor – that I felt very inspired by the stuff they were saying. But also, as an atheist myself, I kept asking, “How do I actually make this relevant to me, somebody who’s not actually a Christian?” And that was what triggered me moving from Theology into social scientific research. And so that triggered the PhD, which was about exploring possibilities for virtue ethics and notions of transcendence in a religiously plural society. And more recently the interest has turned to secular subjects, so that’s what I’m now in Vancouver exploring: what are the potentials for transcendence and solidarity amongst secular subjects?

CC: Fantastic! And we’ll be hearing more about that as this conversation ensues. So, set the scene for us then. The first couple of chapters of this book are exploring this notion of post-liberalism. But I don’t know that many of our listeners necessarily know what-on-earth that means! So perhaps you could, just for the sake . . . ? We know that we are in turbulent political times. There is a sort of reactionary politics happening all over the place. We’ve got these notions that there’s the political elites versus the ordinary masses, and everything. So, maybe, just take us through a chronological . . . . How have we got to this state? What is liberalism? And then, what is post-liberalism?

TS: Yes. Well, basically, the basic premise of the book is to follow this post-liberal argument. And the primary argument there is that, in a liberal secular society, we’ve lost a sense of the role of transcendence in forming social identity. So instead, we treat people as basically . . . both ideally, and also primarily motivated by rationality. And I suggest that we also tend to castigate those who appear to be irrational, whether that’s because of religion, ideology, parochialism, or simply a lack of education. And I think that comes up during the Brexit debate a lot as well. And the result, according to post-liberals, is two-fold. First: politics becomes technocratic and economics becomes instrumental. So, politics is less about building belonging and empowering people than it is about a university educated elite, delivering to social-scientifically construed need. And then, economics is less about reciprocity than it is about GDP. And then second: because of this, we increasingly see people retrenching in communities that they feel provide them with a sense of belonging and empowerment – communities of faith, race, nation, economic status. But then, kind of the . . . . (5:00) What inspired this book for me was that although post-liberalism gives, for me, a really exciting analysis of our current political problems, post-liberalism is itself as much a symptom of that as it is an analysis. By which I mean that it represents a retrenching in Christian notions of transcendence. And that simply doesn’t work for a society that is simultaneously – as I put it in the book – post-Christian, post-secular and religiously plural.

CC: Hmm.

TS: So that very long premise is actually the basis of this exploration, namely: to explore the relevance and role of transcendence in developing solidarity in the messy religious and non-religious landscape that we see before us, primarily in the western world. And I explored this by undertaking two years of ethnographic research with groups seeking to develop solidarity in London – which I kind-of identify as one of the most socially and economically liberal cities in the world, as well as being one of the most religiously and non-religiously diverse cities in the world. So, despite all that complexity, the actual answers the book provides I feel are quite simple. First, it says that despite the assumptions of liberal secularism and the dominance of this system within London for almost 300 years, the majority of people – both religious and non-religious – still do draw on transcendence in forming their social identity. In particular – and this is where I get to the notion of myth – they do this through myths. And that’s what I call stories of great events and characters that exemplify people’s ideals. And while for Christians that might be like the story of Christ or of the great Flood, for atheists that might be about, sometimes, Ghandi or Martin Luther King – figures who actually have some sort of religious background themselves – but also, just stories of their mum, or their dad, or their best friend, or a great heroic colleague that for them exemplified a virtuous way of living. And then the second point is that again – despite the assumptions of secular liberalism – actually, the role of the state doesn’t need to be this kind of principled distance from religion, or principled distance from ideology. Instead, we can actually imagine the role of the state less as an enforcer of a particular ideology – or else perhaps, in a liberal society, an enforcer of a lack of ideology – and instead we can think about it as a curator of the sharing of different ideologies. So that people can explore the virtues inherent in very different ways of living and see that, for instance, I might be somebody who is quite critical of Islam, but then I spend time trying to develop solidarity in a local setting with a Muslim. And it’s something as simple as seeing that they are good people that makes you realise, “Well, maybe Islam’s not so bad, either.” And then I began to see some really interesting processes of bricolage, like out-and-out atheists talking about how they were inspired by the story of Mohammed. And they would even talk about him as the “first community organiser”, for instance. So I found that really interesting. And then I get onto this idea of solidarity centres. So it’s actually the notion that the state will create these liberal spaces in which people of very different backgrounds come together to intentionally explore their ideas of how the world should be. And then, acting on that together: “Right. Ok, this is how the world should be. What are some policies, or things going on in our community that are stopping that from happening?” And that might be something like low wages, high house prices, or whatever, and then working together to solve those problems.

CC: Excellent. Well thanks for that fantastic introduction to the topic and, indeed, overview of the book. It really resonates with me, I can remember sitting with . . . you know there is this really common idea, particularly in the UK, that politics and religion don’t go together, you know. What was it? Alastair Campbell: “We don’t do God“. (10:00) And I can remember last semester, at Edinburgh, in a course on Religion in Modern Britain, sitting with my students in a tutorial and they were talking about whether a Muslim politician should be expected to act as a Muslim or to represent their constituents. And they all seemed to think that they shouldn’t be bringing religion into it, at all. And I tried to push and push: “But what other normative ways do we allow politicians to act” And they were: “gender”, “race”, “political party”, right? We have this conceit that they represent their whole constituency but they also have the sacred ideals of their political party that they hold higher than everything else. (Laughs).

TS: Absolutely.

CC: So, that’s just a little riff! So going right back to the beginning, then – in the book it was, maybe, 2011 when your research process was starting. How did you get into this massive area of research? And what pushed you?

TS: Well, yes. It was actually an incredibly strange and exciting journey for me. So, going back to Nottingham – I don’t know how well you know that university, but we’d have a lot of theological seminars in the staff club lounge, around leather armchairs. And that was my introduction to academia – talking about Alisdair Macintyre, and virtue ethics, and John Milbank, and theses radical critiques of modernity. And I was very excited by them. But as I said, I was troubled. And I wanted to work out, “Ok, is this relevant?” And I thought social science was the best way of working that out. But I was a theologian. So I arrived in London and my supervisor starts talking to me about this thing called “data”.

CC: (Laughs)

TS: “You need to go out and get data.” “Hmm, what is data, exactly?” And I spent a lot of time reading different kind of research methods books, and trying to understand exactly how I was going to explore this question of the link between transcendence and solidarity in a religiously plural society. But then, while that was happening – and this is a bit weird now! It kind-of matches with the personal: I’ve grown up all around the world, and I’ve never had any particular home. So when I was living in London for the first time, being in a place for more than a few years, I was thinking very hard to myself about what does it mean to be a part of my local community? And as I was simultaneously thinking about those two things – on the one hand data, and on the other my own desire to be involved in the community – the London riots happened. And I thought, “You know what? This is amazing. This is a great opportunity for me to be involved in the process of rebuilding Tottenham”, which is sort of where I was living – in response to this. So I came across this group called London Citizens, who wanted to do a citizens enquiry into the Tottenham riots. They basically do these things called “listening campaigns”, where they go out and basically ask members of the public: what is the main problem that you and your family face? That’s the first question. And the second question is always, what can you . . . and us – what can we together do about this? So it’s not like, “Ok what are your problems and shall we write to the local politician and tell them about it?” It’s “Let’s do something together. Let’s take direct action.” And it just suddenly clicked in my head. I was thinking about this word solidarity so theoretically. And then here were some people actually living it out, developing solidarity in a very real way, in my local area. And my first thought, really, when that happened was to say to myself, “Why am I even bothering to study this? I should just be doing it!”

CC: Yes.

TS: “I might as well just quit the PhD!” Then it occurred to me that actually taking action in this way could be my data. And I’d been reading stuff about post-secularity. And I realised London Citizens really is a kind of post-secular group. They’re a group that recognised the important role of religion in the public sphere. They, themselves, are somewhat inspired by a faith narrative, but the majority of the key organisers were non-religious. And so the way that they were able to so openly navigate faith and non-faith, and bring people together, was really exciting to me. (15:00) And then I thought, “You know what? The best way to explore the possibility for solidarity in this society that’s simultaneously Christian and secular and post-secular, is to work with a group that indicatively represents each one of those paradigms.” So then I started thinking, “OK, what are the key post-War paradigms for developing a sense of solidarity?” And you have, initially, the very strong connection between Christianity and the setting up of the welfare state. So I took one group that I felt represented that, which was at the time called the Christian Socialist Movement, but now is called Christians on the Left. Then I thought the next phase was secular ways of doing this, and in particular, a lot of money was being pumped into councils for voluntary service. So I started working with them, representing my secular organisation. Then in the ‘90s and early 2000s you had the multi-faith policy paradigm. So I thought, “OK, I need a group that represents that.” And then, going back to the start, London Citizens became my post-secular organisation. And that’s the story of how I got there.

CC: Excellent. And on the notion of post-secular, listeners, do check out our previous interview with Kevin Gray about that. I mean I think that you would agree with me as well, Tim, that it’s a problematic notion – the concept of post-secular.

TS: Absolutely, and indeed my current supervisor Lori Beaman insists that I stop using it! So . . .

CC: Well, it’s here to stay, perhaps! OK. And you organise the book then along these . . . you’ve got these three sections really, I guess, looking at pluralistic contexts, and then the state, these organisations, and then also capitalism. And any of those would be interesting to expand upon, but perhaps let’s think about this place of the notion of myth and transcendence. And then, maybe sort-of weave in these three strands.

TS: Mmm.

CC: So basically, one of your arguments is that these organisations all have varying relationships with the idea of transcendence and the construction of myth. So maybe you could just introduce the organisations there, to tell us about them and their relationship to this?

TS: Yes, OK. I mean the word myth, I primarily introduce – and I don’t know how helpful it really is . . . . What I was ultimately critiquing there was the sort of Habernasian notion that we are primarily motivated rationally. And, by introducing the term myth, I was trying to demonstrate the parity between religious and non-religious ways of relating to the world. So in doing that I then felt that I was able – by cutting through this kind of religious/secular binary – I was then able to start thinking about the role of the state as something very different: as not something that has to separate religion from politics, but instead can relate more reflexively towards the notion of myth.

CC: Yes. Throughout you use this phrase, “religious/secular, mythic/rational binary”. That’s your thing. So, yes, what’s going on there?

TS: Yes. So what I’m trying to say, basically, is that we end up having this notion that the religious is primarily mythic and the secular is primarily rational. And what I was trying to say is that both the religious and secular have very strong mythic elements to them. Primarily, I was not doing that as a means of . . . . There’s lot of research trying to demonstrate that religious belief can in fact be far more rational than we realise. I was, actually, trying to go the other way round and say that secularity can be a lot more mythic than we realise. And I wasn’t doing that in any way to put down secular people or secularity, but rather to say, “Well if we are primarily motivated through myth then we’re really missing a trick in how we motivate secular people.” (20:00) If we simply assume that they’re motivated by rationality alone, then we miss out on one of the most powerful ways of making people act in the world. And then you get back to the whole argument about Brexit and Trump and so on, which is that if we forget the role of mythic narrative in motivating people, then they become very vulnerable to just anyone who’s able to spin a good myth.

CC: And all you end up with is talking about economics and security, as you argue. Could give an example, maybe, of the kind of . . . . So we can all think of, I guess, a religion-related myth, perhaps. But what sort of – for want of a better word – secular myths are people motivated by?

TS: Well, one of these myths is actually the notion of the self-independent rational actor itself, right? Because that is a story that people are living by, primarily. It’s not actually this . . . In some sense, there’s this kind-of subtraction narrative to the understanding of secular identity that says: it’s an identity that is short of religious elements. But instead, what I’m trying to suggest is that secular people do live by myths, and rationality itself is one of those. And another one, for instance, is that of capitalism: the idea that says people are primarily motivated by financial incentive. So, basically, what the research seems to suggest is that there are clear secular myths, but these are primarily ones I feel that aren’t intentionally constructed by secular people. So they might be myths of rationality or myths of capitalism. And what I’m trying to explore now is: OK – but what are those deep, more intentionally constructed myths that can challenge a purely instrumental notion of politics or economics? In Vancouver it’s really interesting, because that’s coming from a lot of different places. So there’s myths of earth-based spiritualty – the sense that I, as a person, am intimately related to the world in the same way . . . there. This stuff wouldn’t necessarily work in London at all, but it’s very much derived from indigenous mythology as well. So the people don’t see themselves as any more important than the orca in the Pacific Ocean, for instance, or the salmon. So those myths – the telling of the stories of the orca and the salmon – actually become really important ways of challenging an instrumental approach to the land and the environment. So you have otherwise entirely secular people arguing against the construction of a pipeline, for instance, because of salmon. And at first, I have to say, I actually giggled a bit when I started getting these findings. Because it was just so out of context for what I’d grown up around in London and for what had come out of my previous research. But as I’ve been doing this ethnographic research there – and it’s always, as in this this book, very auto-ethnographic as well – I try and really immerse myself in the stories of people I’m studying. And, yes. Now I’ve come to be inspired by these stories of whales and salmon, and how they might be transformative in challenging a particular idea of, say, growth.

CC: Yes. And I imagine one could also, you know, even just thinking of what you get in the Marvel films – there’s a lot of myth in popular culture, as well, that you probably might easily and interestingly excavate.

TS: Absolutely. And people really do integrate that into their stories. It’s absolutely not out of place that people will talk to me about a Batman film, or something, when they’re trying to explain their belief in . . . I mean, one that comes up quite a lot in Spiderman is that: “With great power comes great responsibility”. And it seems almost laughable, in a way. But I think, the way that people sort-of suspend their disbelief in the cinema can be very similar to the way they might do in a church. (25:00) And those myths really do have power for people.

CC: And we’re already almost at the end of our time, which is excellent. I mean, not excellent – I just mean we’ve already covered a lot of ground! So, just to push on this – one of the key arguments I would see from your book is that rather than perhaps trying to find – you know, sitting people down and going “OK, you’re a Christian, you’re a Muslim, you’re an atheist, you’re a Buddhist. You’re never going to agree on these things, so it’s all pointless.” So, is the idea that everyone is constructing myths about, I don’t know, the better society, the greater good, the way they want things to progress and that by focussing on those, rather than the specifics, it might be a constructive way forward? Or . . . ?

TS: Yes, that’s true. But also there’s a very real sense in which I think, those settings need to be intentionally constructed in secular society. That’s a part of where my critique comes from. So you look at my analysis of Hackney CVS, for instance, I was suggesting that the secular people there had strong myths based on their parents who might be their heroes, or their colleagues. So their myths, in fact, were just telling the stories of their friends and family. And they were really inspiring and transformative for them. But what I noticed, what there was . . . there were a lack of intentional rituals within that organisation, for bringing those to the surface. And so they failed to really integrate them into their practice, and therefore failed to inspire much enthusiasm. And so, my feeling is that we need to actually deliberately create spaces where people can discuss these things. And so my example, when you talk about bringing Muslims and Jews and atheists together in a room, the best example I came across was the London Citizens. They would ask this very simple question: “We live in the world as it is – but there is a world as it should be. Please tell me some words that you associate with the world as it should be.”

CC: Mmm.

TS: So, that’s the first step – that you get people from these very different backgrounds together in a room, recognising: “Oh wow! That guy looks very different to me but, in fact, he seems to want the same idea of the perfect world that I want.” So that’s the first step. But then – once you’ve done that – you actually encourage people to draw on their own very different, idiosyncratic stories. So once they all recognise that this is the world as it should be, then they can, again, start talking about their particular myths – whether of Islam, or Christianity or of the more secular ones such as of a Socialist utopia, or . . . .

CC: Yes. And I’ve always found it . . . . I remember Craig Martin made this point in his Masking Hegemony, in 2010, I’ve always found it very strange that, yes – why would you expect people to be able to bracket off these aspects of their identity? Why not . . . we have this myth of the secular space that people enter and they bracket off . . . but, why not just everyone talk about it, talk about your myths, and talk about where you’re coming from? And then we can, maybe, move forward.

TR: Yes – the thing is though, it’s actually a much more honest way of being. Because if I understand where you’re coming from, I can actually hold you to account on the basis of that story that you’re telling.

CC: Yes. Just to indulge my curiosity here, listeners, this might go on slightly longer than usual. I’ve got three more questions I want to ask Tim.

TS: I’ll try and be brief in my answers.

CC: No, it’s good. First, the notion of the sacred here. So I know Gordon Lynch – in fact we spoke to Gordon Lynch a number of years ago about this concept – and Kim Knott and others have developed this notion of like the secular sacred, and things. So where does the role of the sacred – maybe it’s a non-ontological, non-religion inflected sacred – fit into the myths and into solidarity?

TS: Well, for one thing, I totally would have been happy to us the term sacred. (30:00) But I had two issues with that. One was that there was a lot of talk about it being non-negotiable. And I thought, “That’s exactly what I want to avoid with transcendence.” Because the very point is that we need people to negotiate. And the other issue is, I felt that a lot of that research was around what’s already sacred. It would be around pointing out some certain category had become a sacred one. Whereas, I was trying – rather than move backwards in that way – move forwards. So I got into discussions with people doing research around that, including Gordon Lynch and saying, “Well, actually, what I’m thinking about is: how do we develop a new sacred?” And I didn’t feel like people were all that interested in that, in those circles. And in that sense, alone, that word became tainted for me. And I wanted to try and think about it slightly differently. But otherwise, yes, it is very, very similar.

CC: Yes. They’re related. You can see clear overlaps. But clearly again, you’re stepping out into uncharted territory. On that note, then: “here at the Religious Studies Project”, our sort-of approach would probably map more onto the Critical Study of Religion, and when normativity comes up we tend to bristle a little bit. So, as we’ve been hearing there, you’re an engaged scholar. So, how do you personally navigate that sort of: “I’m doing this work which is – I guess – objective, but also trying to . . . .” You know.

TS: Well, yes. I think, the thing is that I have no qualms about saying that I am personally, and academically, fighting for a world in which there is more solidarity, in which people are willing to do things for one another without necessarily expecting something in return. I’m also quite happy to say that I was saddened by the rise of neoliberalism. And I saw that Christianity was very instrumental to the setting up of the welfare state, initially. And I was asking myself that question: what is that new metanarrative going to be, around which we can create more solidarity, and renew interest in social welfare? But the research itself is objective, in that sense that I’m totally open to what the answer to that may be. And that’s constantly evolving. And I think, in my current research, I would slightly challenge some of the assumptions that I had in the previous. But it’s all this objective, social scientific, critical research that interested me in religion in the first place. Because I’m only interested in religion incidentally. Because a lot of research seems to be demonstrating that something like religion, or the sacred, or whatever you want to call it, has a powerful effect on a sense of solidarity. So, for me, that’s my only very incidental interest in religion. It’s: “OK, if that’s true, then what does that look like in a society where none of us believe the same things anymore?”

CC: And my final question was going to be, what was the broader relevance of this to the academic study of religion? But I think you’ve just actually summarised that quite neatly in your final statement there. Unless you want to have a final push?

TS: Well the only thing I would say, without wanting to be preachy, is that I think there is a real danger that we can get stuck behind this social scientific lens that says, “I’m not allowed to be normative” when, in reality, we have to recognise the very things we choose to research are guided by our own normative principals. So I think, in the dangerous world that we currently live in, it’s time for academics to step up and say, “This is what I believe in, and I’m willing to work towards bringing it about.”

CC: Exactly. And in your own work as well, what you’re doing is not proposing a definitive: “This is the objective reality.” It’s: “We’re building . . . .” And you’ve expanded upon your own research. And you’ve changed your ideas. And we’re all part of a process, moving towards whatever . . . perfection – let’s say it!

TS: (Laughs)

CC: Well it’s been a pleasure speaking to you, Tim. Thanks, so much.

TS: (35:00) Thanks, so much, for having me on.

Citation Info: Stacey, Timothy and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 2 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/myth-solidarity-and-post-liberalism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

 

 

The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion

In this interview with Professor Bryan Turner at the Leeds SocRel 2017 conference, we discuss how the sociology of religion can work to stay central to sociology as a broader discipline, by focusing on how religion functions in contemporary political contexts.

Starting with a consideration of the role religion takes in American political discourse, particularly Trump’s appeals to evangelical communities, Turner discusses how the evangelical ideal of the ‘tender warrior’ can appeal to the blue collar, white, male, working class. This religiously-inflected form of populism is able to bear significant weight on political debates, for example around abortion. This can be compared to the apparent increase of populism in European politics, where the recent success of Emmanuel Macron in France appears to signal that this tide has been halted, for now. Looking even further afield, to Russia and the Philippines, ‘strongman’ politics have become increasingly prominent and relate to religion in different ways: Rodrigo Duterte of the Phillipines has a complicated relationship with the Catholic Church and the Pope, whilst Vladimir Putin allegedly keeps an Eastern Orthodox priest as a counsellor, in an attempt to link Russian identity to Orthodoxy. In many of these cases, religion features heavily in the national insider/outsider debate, further highlighting its salience in contemporary political discourse.

Following the lead of scholars such as Jose Casanova, Professor Turner brings the public and political role of religion into focus. By doing so, he argues, we can push the sociology of religion toward the realms of political theory, international relations, and race relations, thus creating an agenda in which the sociology of religion becomes increasingly mainstream and relevant to the world we live in, rather than fading into a marginal sub-field of sociology.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion

Podcast with Bryan Turner (15 January 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Turner_-_The_Political_Relevance_of_The_Sociology_of_Religion1.1

Sammy Bishop (SB): I’m Sammy Bishop, I’m here at the SocRel Conference, 2017. And I have with me a man who needs very little introduction, thanks to the huge influence that he’s had on the field. I’m with Professor Bryan Turner. So, welcome. And thank you for being involved with the Religious Studies Project.

Bryan Turner (BT): It’s a pleasure.

SB: OK, so today we’re going to talk a little bit about teaching and Religious Studies, and some of the differences between the British, European and American context as well. So could we start off, perhaps, with just a little about how you became interested in this topic?

BT: Well, I was converted to Methodism when I was about 17 and I was on holiday in Greece with a group of Methodists. In the following year I went to East Germany, Moscow and through Russia by train, and became very interested in Sociology. So, if you put the two together, I was a kind of Methodist with an interest in Communism and Marxism, although the main influence on my work has been Max Weber. I came here, to the University of Leeds, to do a PhD. I was in the Methodist Society. I was the President of the Student Christian Movement, so I had those kind of involvements. And I was taught by a famous comparative religion expert, Trevor Ling, who was a Buddhist Scholar. And through him became very interested in comparative religion. I was appointed to the University of Aberdeen to teach the Sociology of Religion in 1970, I think it was, but very few students were interested in doing religion, so I had very few students! So I retrained as a medical sociologist, which partly explains my interest in the sociology of the body and how medicine and religion connect with each other. To be honest, the Sociology of Religion dropped out of my career a bit, for those sorts of reasons. I became very much interested in Max Weber so, at that level, religion was part of my agenda. But it was also mixed up with all the other things that I was interested in and doing work on. And, to sort-of finish this little biographical sketch, after 9/11 just about anybody with an interest in Islam was suddenly employable. And I had all these kind-of requests to revisit stuff that I’d done. Because my first book was 1974: Weber and Islam. I went to live in America in 2006, I think it was. And I spent a year at Wiley College and then ended up at the Graduate Centre at the City University of New York, where I’ve been teaching the Sociology of Comparative Religion. So perhaps I’d better say something about the teaching method, if you’d like?

SB: Yes, please do.

BT: Well, I try to make religions kind-of relevant to the world they’re living in. So, for example, during the Mitt Romney/Barack Obama presidential race there was a lot of material to work with. Mitt Romney was a Mormon. There was this huge debate in the Media about whether Mormonism was a religion. So that was an easy way in to talking about what we mean by religion, or Mormonism, or Christianity. And the other, of course, was the allegation that Obama was really a secret Muslim of some sort – we had all of those debates. And then, in 2016 when the Clinton/Trump confrontation started, there seemed to be almost nothing to get into. Because I kind-of listened to every debate and read all of the stuff I could possibly get hold of. But I think Clinton mentioned religion only like once, when she read a passage from the New Testament. Bernie Sanders once talked about his Jewish legacy in an interview, but it wasn’t really part of his campaign. And then we had Trump. How does Trump relate to religion? Because we all know – American exceptionalism – religion is prominent in the public sphere. Just about every textbook starts with de Tocqueville’s commentary on civil religion and so on, and so forth. And it seemed very difficult to actually believe that Trump could win the election, given the fact of these disclosures of his attitudes towards women, his groping of women. And Trump, of course, changed his position on just about everything. So, at one stage, Trump was pro-life – very much committed to that kind of agenda. (5:00) And then, of course, during the campaign it comes out that he’s actually totally opposed to Roe Vs Wade which was the legislation that made abortion possible for women. He came out very strongly in favour of removing that legislation to make abortion either impossible or increasingly difficult. But what sort-of emerged after the election is that he has quite strong support from the Evangelical Churches. And one reason is that within the Evangelical Churches there is a kind of crisis around masculinity. A lot of the Evangelical literature has been developing the idea of the “tender warrior”. This is the kind of dominant male who is in charge of the family. He is in charge of the family. The idea is that women’s role is domestic. And that women really kind-of prefer to be subordinated to men, rather than to be liberated. And that part of the crisis in America is connected with: the acceptance of gays in the military; the legislation that made possible same-sex marriage in some states; the general kind of reception of alternative forms of sexuality, particularly on the East Coast. So, some of this election was about the East Coast, versus the Southern States, and so forth. So Jerry Falwell has come about very much in favour of Trump. Trump visited Liberty University which is run by Falwell, one of the founders of the Moral Majority. And so, my puzzlement about how Trump can possibly get support from religious groups has been partly answered by this idea that there is a kind-of deep anxiety, in conservative America, about the status of men, connected to: the rise of women into pink collar occupations; the better performance of women in education; the growth, or the presence of influential women in leadership positions. You know – Merkel in Germany, the head of the IMF, the Fed and so forth – you see women in very powerful political positions. And, insofar as populism and Trump are connected to the erosion of the blue collar male white working class, you can kind-of understand, partly, why Trump is getting support from Evangelicals. But I would point out a couple of things. I mean, Trump and Clinton were the least-attractive, least-supported presidential candidates in the whole of American history. Clinton did win the popular vote, despite Trump’s claims that it was all fake. Trump has huge support from his base, but he’s still a very problematic figure in American culture, I think. And he has divided society right down the middle. And so one never knows what is going to happen next, really, in America.

SB: Could you say more about the idea of Populism itself, and how that concept has become more relevant, perhaps, at the moment?

BT: Yes. Well, people have been studying populism for a long time. And there are arguments that populism has been present in American politics for long time, such as the People’s Party and so forth. “Agrarian populism” has been a notion around for some time. But I agree with you that in the last twelve months populism has been everywhere: conferences, journal articles, books and so on, and so forth. And I mean, it looked at one stage as if the populist parties would swing through Europe with the Northern League and Golden Dawn, and the Freedom Party in Austria and so forth. And then we’ve had this pause, if you like, in which Macron in France has won the election and to some extent the popular vote for extreme positions on foreigners has been slowed down a bit. And then, I think, with Brexit which again . . . . I mean UKIP, having had some electoral success, has virtually disappeared as a party. And it looks as though the complexity of Brexit may grind it into the ground eventually, who knows? But a lot of the populist literature has been saying that Britain is slightly different from other societies, in that the populist vote is weaker than you’ll find in, say, Italy, and so forth. (10:00) I mean, one issue is to what extent Thatcherism was an earlier form of populism. She did want to change everything. She had these structural views about an inside and an outside. I mean, one of the defining characteristics of populism is that it divides the world into “us” and “them”. And then you’ve got the people on the one side and their enemies on the other. I mean, as we’ve heard in this conference, the enemies seem to be connecting to Muslim refugees in Europe and so forth. But again, looking at this from the outside – that is, from America – what struck me was the antagonism towards East Europeans. So, Polish people were being criticised by Conservative people who wanted to argue that the welfare state was being exploited by free-riders from other countries. So I don’t think it’s just Islam, there’s all sorts of other things going on about the insider and the outsider.

SB: Where do you see it going in the future?

BT: Well I was reminiscing . . . . In the 1960s and 1970s and really into the ’80s, I suppose, we had the three day week, we had the miners’ strike and we had the poll tax strikes. And whilst Thatcher was hugely popular – again amongst her base – and while she was, in many ways, the most successful Prime Minister we’ve had – she won three elections, etc. – living through that period, I mean, Britain did seem amazingly unstable. I mean, just visually, we had piles of rubbish piled up in the streets; electricity was very limited; I remember having to teach with no heating in the university, so we all wore hats and gloves to work, sitting in classrooms. And the current period feels like that as well. Because, I think, if Brexit fails the people that voted to leave will be deeply frustrated. I mean Nigel Farage has threatened to comeback into politics if that happened! The legislative mess – it’s horrendous. And then, looking at the broader picture, we’ve got what you might call “strong man politics” in the Philippines, in China, in Russia and so forth. And, to some extent, some of these figures at least are mobilising religion to bolster their position. I think very interesting is Putin, who allegedly has an Orthodox Priest – an Eastern Orthodox Priest – as a counsellor. He’s obviously appealing to Orthodoxy as a way of defining what it is to be Russian. It’s a fairly complicated picture, I think. Again, I suppose I should have said about Trump that Trump’s foreign policy is deeply worrying, because he seems to want to undermine many of the institutions that have bolstered European peace for 70 years or so. And there is this figure, Steve Bannon, who’s a conservative Catholic with an Irish background, who I think is mobilising Trump’s foreign policy. And I think that’s very problematic. So, from an academic point of view, I think religion is going to be very central to all of these debates, whether it’s conflicts between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, or Buddhists and Muslims in Asia, or Catholic and Pentecostals and Protestants elsewhere.

SB: How do you think scholars of religion or sociologists of religion are best approaching it?

BT: Well, in the talk I’m going to give this evening, I think sociology of religion kind-of bifurcates into those that have gone into spirituality and post-institutional churches, and those who follow people like José Casanova who are interested in public religion. My question is how we make the Sociology of Religion central to the sociological enterprise, as a whole. And I think the public religions debate pushes the sociology of religion into political theory, into international relations, into race relations and creates a kind of agenda where Sociology of Religion is once more part of the mainstream rather than a minority interest on the margins. This conference- I’m going to get the title of the conference wrong, but “On the Edge”: are we part of the periphery or part of the mainstream? I think it’s an important question. And I, personally, don’t want to be on the periphery. Sociology of Religion is central to the modern world. (15:00)If you look at everywhere, basically: Israel, Brazil, America, Germany, France – it’s difficult to find a country that doesn’t have some kind of religious issue going on. And I think it’s’ something we need to address, really.

SB: When you speak about the political aspects of, for example, race relations as well, do you think that there’s a certain amount of activism that could be involved in the Sociology of Religion?

BT: Well, I certainly think Sociology needs to contribute to a solution. And whether that’s social policy or becoming engaged in activism, I think is something we can’t sort-of predict in advance, so to speak. But I think sociologists can’t describe the mess we’re in without taking some responsibility for suggesting ways we might get out of this mess. Otherwise we might all bathe in misery and melancholy, and what would be the point of having a conference like this? We might as stay at home and be miserable! And this is too big a topic for this interview, but I tend to think sociologists are always looking at failure: failed institutions, failed constitutions, failed social movements, failed this, that and the other. And I think we need to turn this around a bit and say: well, ok, can we find any successful institutions, or successful social movements, or successful philosophies or whatever, that have improved the human condition – even if it’s for a short time? My argument is that no institution lasts for ever. They all have fluctuating histories – I mean of success and failure. But the idea that all institutions are failing is an impossible position to take. I tend to say that there’s no such thing as consistent pessimism, because we wouldn’t be having this interview if you and I were consistently pessimistic, I don’t think. You know, we’d be getting drunk or something!

SB: (Laughs).

BT: So I think, I mean I haven’t been an activist in that traditional sort of sense. But I’ve edited the journal Citizenship Studies for about 20 years, which I see as making a contribution to understanding the kind-of erosion of social rights over the last 30 years or so. And that citizenship, revitalised would be some kind of answer to questions about social solidarity and so forth. I’m beginning to lose my voice. I don’t know if we can keep this interview to a limited period, because I have to speak in a while?

SB: Yes. Just one more question?

BT: Yes, sure.

SB: Do you see, when you speak about citizenship, do you see any role for religion in that idea?

BT: Well, I mean there are arguments that a lot of our notions of rights come out of . . . . Some people would argue that a lot of our notions of rights come out of the Protestant Methodist tradition. But, more recently, the Catholic Church was to some extent responsible for developing the concept of human dignity, which was the underpinning to the Declaration of Human Rights. And then, I think, the Christian Democratic tradition was part of this sort-of development. But I think the Sociology of Religion could contribute a more sophisticated understanding of what Judaism is or Islam, or other religions, what Sikhism is about and so on. So as a basic educational role, to undermine false assumptions about – you know – what happens to Muslim women, what Judaism has been about.

SB: Professor Bryan Turner, thank you very much for your time.

BT: Thank you.

Citation Info: Turner, Bryan and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 15 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-political-relevance-of-the-sociology-of-religion/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Politics of this world: Protestant, evangelical, and Pentecostal movements in the Peru

riverEvangelicalism in Peru has become a driving force in politics and decision making across major subjects, such as gender-related policies and institutional power. But it’s relevance today in the current political landscape is only the result of a much larger process, one that started around the end of the nineteenth century, with the entrance of the first protestant denominations and the establishment of their grassroots across the country. In this podcast, professor Juan Fonseca aims to elaborate a brief history of Protestantism, in order to comprehend its current mainstream manifestation.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Podcast with Juan Fonseca

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock  and revised by  Sidney Castillo.

Sidney Castillo (SC): Professor Juan Fonseca is Licentiate in History for Pontificia Universidad Catholica del Peru. He’s also Master in History at this university. His work focuses on the historical development of non-Catholic Christian movements in Peru, mainly Protestant evangelical, and intertwined with an interest in politics and social movements. Welcome Professor Fonseca to the Religious Studies Project.

Juan Fonseca (JF): It’s a pleasure to speak with you.

SC: The pleasure is also ours. Now, we’re here to learn some things about the non-Catholic Christian movements in Peru. In order to do that we would like to know a bit more about the classification of these movements. Since the Protestant and Pentecostal landscape of Peru is, counterintuitively enough, a diverse one in terms of origins, theology and political tendencies, based on your previous research, would you please elaborate a brief specification of these movements?

JF: Of course. In my last writings I have raised a typology of Protestantism. This typology is based in the following aspects. First its historical roots – national level and worldwide level – and some interreligious characteristics, that is to say, the beliefs and the religious practices that make them singular within the set-up of Christianity.

SC: Mmm

JF: This includes. . . There’s two things. There is theology and there are ecumenical practices: a type of religiousness practised by these members.

SC: OK.

JF: And third is the religious emphasis, which includes the ways that this person is articulated in the public sphere. For example, their political attitudes, some of attitudes towards social practices and some ideological points. Moreover, I believe that Protestant and Pentecostal are like two specific faces within Peruvian Christianity. These two faces co-exist in Peru, within the non-Catholic population. These two groups share some theological characteristics, but also they reference the Bible to define the dogma. However, there is a fundamental difference between the symbolic epistemology that constitutes the basis on which the religious practices – or the religious devotes – are constructed. On the one hand Protestantism, which is basically rational religion sustained in the Bible. On the other hand Pentecostalism is a sensorial religion, sustained in the constant intense experience with the numinous. Protestantism is like a religion of modernity, Pentecostalism is a religion of post-modernity and, in this sense, Catholicism is like a religion from pre-modernity. (5:00) About this theoretical base I suggest the following typology. So, two big groups: Protestantism itself and Pentecostalism. In Protestantism itself we can distinguish two groups: mainline Protestantism and evangelical Protestantism. Mainline Protestantism, for example, includes churches like Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian. These churches have a very ecumenical attitude and missiology. Their theology is liberal and their political attitudes are very progressive. And the evangelical group includes some churches, for example, the Christian Missionary Alliance, The Nazareth Church, The Baptist Church, the Anabaptist Church. And their theology is more moderate, not necessarily liberal. Its political attitudes are moderate: centre-right or centre-left. And in the Pentecostal sphere we can distinguish two groups: classic Pentecostalism, for example, some churches like Assemblies of God, Church of God. Pentecostal churches in general, in this field, their theology is more conservative, sometimes fundamentalist. Its religiosity is very pietistic and its political attitudes are more conservative. And the last group, inside Pentecostalism, is the charismatic churches. The charismatic churches, for example include very large Christian communities: Agua Viva is a very large community here in Lima; and Camino de Vida; Emmanuel Church – the Church of Humberto Lay, who is a very outstanding evangelical congressman. These churches are very enthusiastic. Their religion is very conservative theology but these churches have very good work in politics, too, very effective work. But with politics, they’re very conservative, too. So they’re sometimes linked to the political right and their morals are very conservative. I think this is the spectrum, like you said.

SC: That’s a very interesting present-day analysis. But as a historian you, of course, have researched about the very beginnings of non-Catholic denominations in Peru. In that sense especially, what was the relationship between the first wave of Protestant missions and the social movements or institutions that were present in first years of the twentieth century? We could name some like indigenism, syndicate movement, student movement or feminists.

JF: On the one hand, the brothers and missionaries of the early decades of the twentieth century developed a strategy combining the following aspects. (10:00) First, a political objective: the decline of the power of the Catholic Church, which will coincide with the most progressive sectors in different periods. Second, a cultural offer: the Protestants as carriers of civilisation in which they will also receive the support of the liberals. And third, a religious agenda: Protestantism as a confessional eternity programme. Well this strategy was based, on the other hand, in the countries from which it came. In the United States, their so-called social gospel had a strong influence on the missionary group – particularly the Methodists, which is the third denomination in Peru. Although, the more conservative groups such as evangelicals from Great Britain, or other places, had the most pietistic disposition. But they were also clear that socialisation was part of their mission. On that basis, they developed a series of missionary initiatives in the social sphere. For instance: the development of the employment option for women; promoting female employment and education in their schools; or fostering the development of the nursing profession, which at that time was only confined to Catholic nuns. In addition, it is well known the link of the Protestant missionaries with the first leaders of the Peruvian feminism, such as Maria Alvarado. In fact, one of the very old Methodist schools – Lima High School – is Maria Alvarado School. Furthermore, they developed links with indigenous people, several of whose leaders – Manuel Vincente Villarán, Dora Mayer de Zulen – expressed their appreciation for the help with this work. Similarly Protestant missionaries developed some missionary projects within areas such as: the Amazonas,with the Awajún people; or in the Perené, with the Asháninka people; or Puno, with the Aymara people; with the Azangaro people of Puno; and in the area of trade unions and the university movement. The closeness between the Methodist pastor Roberto Alcorta and workers and the labour movements are well-known. In fact, Roberto Alcorta was part of the temperance movement in the beginning of the twentieth century. John A. Mackay, the very renowned Scottish educator, had the very closest links within circles of intellectualism in Lima, in the 1920s. In addition, Presbyterians of the Peruvian school had very close link with some intellectuals and politicians like Victor Raul Haya de la Torre,  Jose Carlos Mariátegui and Victor Andrés Belaúnde.

SC: Now, you talked about the intellectual movements linked with the Christian denominations and all theses initiatives were properly from the first decades of the twentieth century Peru. But nowadays you could trace a little bit from the mid twentieth century, there’s a change in the way that these denominations do pastoral work. In that sense, I would like to ask you . . . .Your research shows that these first waves of Protestant missionaries were agents of modernization, directing their work to many institutions and social groups. But it also refers that in the last fifty years a great portion of Protestant evangelical and Pentecostal denominations aligned themselves with more conservative ideas and political parties. When and why, would you say, is the turning point for this particular way of doing missionary work and overall being Protestant, evangelical or Pentecostal?

JF: (15:00) Well, I think that transformations of social approaches of missionaries started around the 1940s. On the one hand, the global context at this stage of the post-war period and the beginnings of the cold war influenced the conservatism of the Protestant churches. Thus, since the 1950s, new waves of missionaries with an anti-communist mentality and with a pietistic missiological approach focussed basically on proselytising and the spiritualisation of the Christian missions when they arrived. In China, there was a communist revolution during 1940-49 so, two years after, all the protestant missionaries were expelled. Like ten thousand, so most of them came to Latin America with very anti-communist ideas. This was going to be acute in the following case when they were from nations of ideological Christian progressivism: communism, versus the Christian evangelical conservatives who were there. These troubles between the conservative majority and the progressive minority – mainly grouped in the Methodist church and the Christian NGOs – began in the ’60s. Similar to what happened with Catholicism, the nature of the debate was focussed on the ideological dimensions of the Christian mission in communism. In the ’70s, it was clear that theological conservatism had been imposed, but in a moderate version, whose best expression was the Latin American Theological Fraternity, and the Association of Evangelical College Groups of Peru (AGEUP in Spanish). At the side of it, the great evangelical mass – people attached to large denominations – basically developed pietistic religious practices and a fundamentalist hermeneutic. And on the other hand, the complex process of nationalisation of the leadership of the Protestant denominations of course, in that context, just when conservative speech and fundamentalism was in progress. Obviously, that explains why many of the protestant national leadership took a conservative, anti-ecumenical and even fundamentalist speech. So the CONEP (in Spanish): the National Council of Evangelical Churches starts its activities in the 1940s. And the CONEP was, well, the leadership of CONEP was very national – national people. They became institutionally independent but they inherited the ideological imprint of the missionaries from whom they complained. Thus, as we enter into the 1980s the field was ready for the emergence of fundamentalism. Somehow a violence of terrorism delayed that process for a short while, because moderate evangelicalism made this speech, hegemonize at least in evangelical cooperation entities and especially in CONEP, the Evangelical National Council of Peru. Since then, most of their leaders have belonged to the moderate evangelicalism. However, this hegemony began to be questioned by a growing and very well organised fundamentalist force, which caused a big crisis in CONEP. (20:00) So this neo-fundamentalism, represented in the leaders of the charismatic movement, was different from moderate evangelicalism in its mission of the church, and its political ideology. Neo-fundamentalism is not necessarily anti-intellectual. You can even say that it is relatively illustrated and fits very well into the parameters of the democratic party sphere. This neo-fundamentalism is very active, politically speaking, always a part of the agenda of right-wing political groups. Between 1993 and 1995 an outpost of this group decided to take control of CONEP. The damage that this battle produced in the main evangelical institutions was prolonged, although later on the moderate groups would take control of the situation. But the neo-fundamentalists empowered themselves and began to construct the spaces of collective institutions on the basis of which, they would promote their agenda. Thus FIPAC – the International Fraternity of Christian Pastors and the Peruvian Fellowship of Evangelical Pastors – were developed. These institutions are very conservative, very fundamentalist. So throughout the 21st century the strength of neo-fundamentalism and conservative groups has continued to grow. CONEP has been the battlefield between the ultra-conservative groups and the moderate minority that still maintains its presence here. Sometimes CONEP seems a very strange institution, because their presidents – these last years – were always moderate, or even liberal pastors, but when they took the presidency, immediately they acted like prisoners of the conservatives. So the CONEP people say, “Well the president is liberal.” But it’s just a symbolic position, they have no power, no effective power inside the institution. So the UNICEP, the formation of the Union of Christian Evangelical Churches, its partner institutions, different from CONEP, begin a new attempt by the right-wing evangelical groups to hegemonise their reactionary speech. So, an additional factor in this brief history is the influence of the American neo-conservative agenda – the North American conservative agenda. Since the 1980s, the right-wing religious parties have been strengthened considerably in the United States and is globalized in the last decade. So, the objectives of the crusade to the demands of sexual minorities, feminism, and secularism in general, and for a decade their actions have become globalized. I think it is one of the protagonists of, for example, homophobic speech and the practice of Christian conservatism in Peru.

SC: As you may know, on March 12 2016, La Marcha por la Familia y la Vida, or March for Life and Family took place. It is an annual international march organised by the Archdiocese of Lima and gathers most of the conservative Christian and political wings of Peruvian civil society against abortion and same-sex unions. In that sense, what is the current impact of the Pentecostal and evangelical movement as part of a wider conservative coalition in these political struggles. (25:00) Also, why would you say are they so focused on these particular issues?

JF: At present, it is clear that neo-fundamentalists have managed to hegemonise at least on this point. On the Catholic side, the statement of the Episcopal Conference, the Bishop’s Conference, have been clearly reactionary. And at this point, all the wings of the Catholic church handle the same speech, at least publicly. Progressive groups are afraid of saying something for fear or for indifference. Well, but on the Protestant evangelical side, the internal battles which have occurred in the past few years about this subject also show that the neo-fundamentalist speech succeeded in cornering moderates and progressives, in a way that they had to abide to the falling tide, which at this time has been extended by the evangelical churches. The neo-fundamentalists have succeeded in associating their speech with the essentiality of the evangelical identity. I think that the Protestant evangelical members, their identity did not necessarily imply being, for example, homophobic. Thus part of the conservative strategy was to normalise and naturalise the relationship between evangelical religious discourse and fierce opposition to sexual diversity or abortion, and other issues like this. The conservative pressure has been so strong that it has managed to neutralise almost all voices inside the local Protestantism, that began to show some sympathy to the LGBT cause. They have gone with unethical methods many times, but have finally been effective. For example, the campaign for recall of Susana Villarán[1] ecognised the conflict of powers in which the neo-fundamentalists won and important repositioning. There are some similar areas affecting this outbreak of homophobic speech and religious practice of conservative Christianity. On the one hand, theology and Biblical hermeneutics produce the ideological conditions for the constitution of pastoral homophobic discourse to the interior of the churches. On the other hand, the political discourse of religious hierarchies in the public sphere is more and more careful with using religious categories except for less sophisticated groups. Finally, in practice, this trans-confessional alliance of neo-conservatism, or “ecumenical fundamentalism”, has a more active set of actors who are positioned in the various political groupings within the country, as well as in social spaces. Traditionally, they were reluctant to change, for example, the location of the militant institutions. However, the progressive minority, silenced for decades, also begins to build a theological discourse where the practice of the faith are compatible with promotion of sexual diversity rights or some other issues of progressive agenda.

SC: (30:00) Well, now that we have covered the conservative part, I’d like to go to the other side of the spectrum with this the next question. Now we’re facing the second round of presidential elections – on June 5, 2016. While there is a common misconception that being Christian equals being a political conservative – thus favouring religious and secular conservative candidates – a recent statement of an interdenominational Christian collective, favouring a left wing candidate, has been circulated in different social media. Why these kind of political stances hardly find any correspondences in the majority of Peruvian Christians?

JF: Well, I’m not sure that this manifest of progressive Christians, on which I include myself as well, has impacted too much on the electoral decisions of evangelical voters. I think the evangelical voter is more independent than many people believe and votes according to rationales that are not always religious. However I think that, actually, there is an ultra-conservative fundamentalist core that is militant in the anti-rights crusade that its hierarchies have initiated. Although it is a minority, it is very powerful in its media presence. They have managed, as I said, to naturalise the relationship between the Gospel and the conservative media and public opinion in general. Well, in that context, progressive evangelical voices are even less than the fundamentalists, but hold key positions in evangelical institutions, for example the CONEP, the Bible Society, Christian NGOs, some seminaries and even some denominations. In that sense, I think the dissemination of the pronouncements of Christians in favour of Veronika, the left-wing candidate, is a very positive step. Because it shows that some of them are already learning to position themselves in the public debate with the same aggressiveness as conservatives, and articulated with national political actors, in this case, with the left-wing Frente Amplio. In that way, I think that an interesting way has been marked so that, in the future, progressive positions expand their capacity of incidence within the churches and also in Peruvian society in general. And I think it’s very possible.

SC: Well, Professor Fonseca, it has been a pleasure to have you here on the Religious Studies Project. We have learnt a lot about non-Catholic Christian movements that are in our country for more than a century now.

JF: Well thanks for this opportunity.

SC: See you next time.

[1] The mayor of Lima during the period 2011-2014. She was indicted in a widely mediatic process for being, alledgedly, inefficient as a public official. During that process, the several conservative Christian denominations came out to denounce the former mayor for being pro-LGBT rights, since several of her public policies targeted sexual minorities, sex workers, and the like. [Note added by SC]


Citation Info: Fonseca, Juan 2017. “Politics of This World: Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal Movements in Peru”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 17 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.2, 1 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/politics-of-this-world-protestant-evangelical-and-pentecostal-movements-in-the-peru/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

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imgPolitics and social institutions are inseparable. Whether we take a look at small-scale or complex societies, we can find that politics is involved with economics, kinship with hierarchy, and of course, religion with the state. The relationship between the last two has been shaped by numerous processes throughout human history; but, if we place our attention in the history of the western world, we can identify a turning point, one that started with the first waves of enlightened thought (eighteenth century), continuing with the posterior massive drop-out of catholic religiosity, and culminating with the total separation of religion and the state. In this podcast, Sidney Castillo interviews professor Marco Huaco Palomino as he addresses the nuances of secularity in several Latin American countries.

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Protected: Secular Jewish Millennials in Israel/Palestine (Classroom edit)

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Secular Jewish Millennials in Israel/Palestine

In the popular imaginary, Israel/Palestine is – and has always been – a contested territory, associated with sacred sites, the ‘Abrahamic’ religions, religion-related conflicts, and a volatile political climate. However, this unnuanced stereotype takes little account of the lived realities on the ground, particularly among the constituency at focus in today’s podcast, a large group of around 860,000 ‘secular’ millennials, who have come of age during a phase of national conflict when some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, and not just fringe figures, have utilized religio-ethnic symbols to motivate and divide.

In this podcast, Chris Cotter is joined by Dr Stacey Gutkowski to discuss what it means to be a ‘secular Jewish Israeli millennial’. What insights might the study of religion and secularity gain from taking a closer look at this constituency? Does it even make sense to refer to them as a constituency? How do they relate to Judaism, to Israel, and to Palestine? And much more…

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Secular Jewish Millennials in Israel/Palestine

Podcast with Stacey Gutowski (9 December 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/secular-jewish-millennials-in-israel-palestine/

Christopher Cotter (CC): In the popular imaginary Israel/ Palestine is, and has always been, a contested territory associated with secret sites, the Abrahamic religions, religion-related conflicts and a volatile political climate. However, this un-nuanced stereotype takes little account of the lived realities on the ground – particularly among the constituency at focus in today’s podcast: a large group of around 860,000 secular millennials who have come of age during a phase of national conflict where some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, and not just fringe figures, have utilised religio-ethnic symbols and have mobilised religio-ethnic symbols to motivate and divide. Today I am joined, in Edinburgh, by Dr Stacey Gutowski to discuss what it means to be a secular Jewish Israeli millennial. What insights might the study of religion and secularity gain from taking a closer look at this constituency? Does it even make sense to refer to them as a constituency? And how do they relate to Judaism, to Israel, to Palestine and hopefully much more. Dr Gutowski is a senior lecturer in Conflict Studies and a Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Divided Societies at King’s College London. She’s the author of Secular War: Myths of Politics and Violence, published in 2012 and has been co-director of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, where I know her from, since 2008. And today’s interview touches on themes developed in her forthcoming book Being Reasonable? Secular Selfhood and Israel’s’ Post Oslo Generation which will be published with the Manchester University Press in 2020. So first-off, Stacey, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Stacey Gutowski (SG): Thanks, Chris! Really happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

CC: Not at all. It’s just wonderful that you’re passing through Edinburgh. I couldn’t not speak to you! So, first-off . . . I know a bit about your research journey. But if you could just tell us about your academic background: your interests, and how you have ended up conducting this study on Secular Jewish Israeli millennials.

SG: Absolutely. Thank you very much. Well, nowadays I describe myself more as a political sociologist. My academic background is in Philosophy, Peace Studies and International Relations. And my main area for research has been broadly in the area of religion, and conflict, and peace building. Specifically, I’ve been interested in the relationship between violence and the secular. My first book, which you introduced, took a Western case study looking at British foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in the book I introduced some theoretical questions that I thought I would then go on to explore over a series of decades. And this was the next step on that journey. And my particular interest in this book is to understand what it’s like to be a person who’s deeply embedded in religious tradition, but someone who distances themselves – or claims to distance themselves from the religious tradition. What is it like to live through violence? And Jewish Israeli- young secular Jewish Israeli millennials were an interesting case, because they have lived through a sort-of intensive series of wars since they’ve become young adults. But also it’s a hard case, because they’re not secular in a Western sense. So it was really to provide myself with a hard case to push the theory further.

CC: Excellent. Yeah. And as Listeners . . . regular listeners to the RSP probably know, in the study of secularity more broadly, everything tends to be quite Western European or North American. So work in the Israel/Palestine context is really excellent. So hopefully this interview will add to that. So you’ve already hinted a little bit about who are these secular Jewish millennials, and why they’re interesting. But maybe if you just tell us . . . . You hinted at some of their life experiences and why they might be interesting, but if you just tell us a bit about their demographics and what makes them a group. I mean “millennials” even might seem an obvious term to some, but if you can just get right down to the basics of what we’re . . . .

SG: Yes. Of course. So I take the Pew definition of millennials: born between 1980 and 1995. And then, in terms of this population – not just millennials but in the Israeli population overall (5:00) – they are about forty percent of the population. And there are fuzzy boundaries in the kinds of Jewish practices they engage in in Israel, between these hiloni secular Jews and masortim, the traditional Jews in Israel. Because Jewish popular culture is pervasive. So unlike someone who identifies as maybe an agnostic, or an atheist, or secular in the UK, these are people who are more deeply embedded in tradition. And, as Yaacov Yadgar has argued, can’t avoid it. As a group they’re largely urban and middle class. Sixty-six percent are descended from European migrants and thirty-two percent approximately are from Jews who are descendants of migrants from the Arab world, and from the Middle East. That is this group. And interestingly, there are continuities between older generations but there are some important distinctions as well.

CC: Which we’ll be hearing about now. This seems to be an appropriate point to throw a perhaps quite a difficult question at you. We opened up the interview to our Listeners and Louis Frankenthaler came in with . . . it’s basically about the whole notion of, I guess, “secular Jew”. I mean, it’s quite a common turn of phrase, yet we don’t really seem to say “secular Christian” so much, or “secular Muslim”, “Secular Buddhist” and so on. So I’ll just sort-of run through a little bit. He says that all too often people ask if you can be Jewish and not believe in a god or God. That is, be an atheist Jew or a secular Jew. And he says that he thinks this is a misdirected question. And wonders what your take on a more substantial query that asks (not) “Can you be Jewish and not believe in deity?”, but “Can you be Jewish and not do Judaism?” That is, God is not the only issue. And many would claim that God does not care if a Jew believes in God, but only that you do what it is that this God supposedly claims that Jews do. So basically, not whether a secular Jew is someone who doesn’t believe in God, but do you still have to practice something to be considered a Jew? Or is there something more inherent in that?

SG: Yes. No it’s a great question, and thank you very much to Louis for asking it. I mean, this is an essential question that’s really pre-occupying Jews in Israel and in the diaspora. I guess as a good social scientist, the first thing I would say is: people can be whatever they want to be, and we take it seriously as analysts. So certainly you see, in Israel and elsewhere, people who reject a strict or even partial observance of Jewish law, the Halakha, who do it, but actually engage in certain practices or something in between. And then you have scenarios, for example in Israel, with people who are migrants from the former Soviet Union, who have become orthodox Jews but who are not considered as Jewish by the orthodox rabbinate in Israel. Because they don’t have a Jewish mother and they haven’t had an orthodox conversion. So it’s a complicated picture. In terms of analytically, in Israel it’s a different place form the diaspora, because it is a context in which Judaism is woven into the fabric of public law and state life. And, as Liebman says, in popular culture. And also in Israel it’s a politicised identity. And Yadgar talks about how the early founders of the state couldn’t find another way to sort-of mark citizenship, Israeli citizenship, other than through Jewish religious identity. And this particular way in which the orthodox rabbinate decides who is Jewish, and who is not. But then it creates, you know . . . . When we think about it practically, in people’s everyday lives, we can say, “Yes, people who are determined to be Jewish by the orthodox rabbinate in Israel are embedded in Jewish popular culture.”  (10:00) But so is everybody else who comes into Israel, and ends up observing or having the Shabbat as a weekend because that’s the weekend in Israel! But I think, maybe, what Louis is asking about more is that it overlooks – not the question itself – but I think it’s easy to overlook that while Judaism is the centre of gravity for people, in public life and private, in Israel, it’s not the only source of existential culture, of ideas about philosophical ideas about life and its meaning. And that there are other things that people borrow from. Some of these are more perhaps well-known, such as Buddhism or New Age practices. But other things, like western philosophy, are I think somewhat overlooked in the literature, as these are all ways in which people make meaning in their lives. And some of those forms of meaning come from Judaism, and some of them come from other things. Now it’s a different case for the diaspora, where Jewish identity in contradistinction to other forms of identity – particularly Arab identity – is not enforced by the context, by the state context. And then again I would say, going back to the social science observations, that it matters what people do and how they identify.

CC: And how they are identified, again, as well.

SG: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And the terminology of secular Jewish in English perhaps raises these analytical questions. But when we look at what people actually do, it’s perhaps more clear.

CC: Absolutely. I know I teed that up with things like “we don’t really say ‘secular Christian’” and that sort of thing. But thinking about Abby Day and her work on not Christian nominalism, and the sort-of ethnic and familial aspects to that. Thinking of my own Northern Irish context, where everything is . . . You know, so I’m from a Protestant background. Even if I converted to Catholicism I would still be considered a Protestant, and that sort of thing. There’s all this. And, yes, being a secular Catholic or a secular Protestant probably does make a lot of sense in a Northern Irish context, in a way in which it mightn’t make discursive sense in other places. OK. So thanks for attempting that potential curve ball there! So just jumping straight into the book . . . and again, you’ve already hinted at some of your research questions. What were you hoping to probe by engaging with this large constituency?

SG: Well, there were two main research questions that animated the book that ended up working together and highlighting new things about each other, and the way the question was set out as I went along. So I would say I had two working research questions which were a starting point. And the first was, I guess, more empirical: as a young “secular” Jew – secular in, I suppose, scare quotes – what has it felt like coming of age during a phase of national conflict, when some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, not just sort-of fringe figures, have used religio-ethnic symbols divisively? So looking at that phenomenologically. What is it like to be a person coming of age when religion has taken on new forms of mattering, politically? Even though it has been . . . it has mattered politically since before the founding of the state of Israel, and particularly after the 1967 war. So that was one question. And then the second set of questions, or the second question, as I said earlier, was to use Israel as a hard case to think theoretically. And that question was: what do violent political conflicts look and, most importantly, feel like to people who claim to distance themselves from the majority religious tradition in their given context – and yet are fundamentally embedded within it?

CC: And although we don’t want to spend too much time on the methods, we will want to know how you went about it as well (15:00). Unless the methods are really so exciting that you want to spend the rest of the interview talking about them, of course!

SG: No we can go through it quickly. So the project took a phenomenological approach. It’s an interpretivist approach. I did fifty interviews with self-identified hiloni millennials. For people who know the case, the point about self-identified-. . . I also took into account that some people appear to . . . but then began to speak about their religious practices and identities and turned out to be masorti some days and hiloni some days. So some days they’re traditional, some days they’re secular. So I took that into account in the analysis, and tried to take seriously what they say. Then I did . . . I also did twenty interviews with the transitional generation who are just older than them. These are people who were in their early twenties in the 1990s. And then I interviewed millennials who are traditionally Jewish or orthodox and then members of civil society. Some of them are also millennial. There was a survey of over ninety millennials surveyed – an in-depth survey. And then, for triangulation, it was participant observation and field notes, public opinion polls, various public reports, testimonies, media reviews . . . .

CC: So, not much then! (Laughs)

SG: No it was a very, very quick project – as you can tell! (Laughs)

CC: Excellent. So based on that large body of data and what we assume was your thorough analysis . . . . Well, let’s just dive in to some of your . . . . What did you find?

SG: OK.

CC: What’s going on?

SG: Just a few things. (Laughs) I guess, maybe I’ll talk a little bit first about what I found for this generation in terms of hiloni-masorti as a religio-class. Because I think of them not as just a religious sector, but as an elite middle class group – which also has this dimension of religious identity and practice. One of the things that’s interesting about this group is that they came of age during what scholars have called the religionisation of Jewish Israeli society. Now scholars have defined this in different ways. And some talk about this as the religionisation of politics: that orthodox and traditional views of, for example, the land and what the state of Israel should look like as the Jewish state, that these things have become more prominent over a secular socialist version of Zionism. And while that is the case, also thinking in terms of hadata – the sort-of intensification of Jewish practice – that people would begin to maybe just practice little bit more, so a little bit more, marginally, than they relatively would, in terms for example of holiday celebrations with family. So this is something that they have come of age in the middle of. They’ve also come of age in the middle of a sort-of revival of people thinking about what it is to be secular Jew, or secular Jews becoming orthodox, and of different forms of Judaism – conservative Judaism, Reform, revisionist Judaism – becoming marginally more popular with North American migration to Israel. So they come of age in the middle of this. But in terms of identity, there are no sort-of marked differences, as far as I could tell, with the transitional generation. In terms of practice, what’s interesting is that millennials don’t see this as an intensification. Because they’ve come of age in the middle of it. So you don’t see it, because you’re in it. So they think it’s unremarkable. And people who are a bit older, you know, talk about this massive shift in Jewish Israeli public life since the 1980s (20:00). In terms of the class aspect of this, what was quite noteworthy is that the presence of mizrahi middle class millennials who would identify with the term hiloni –and not simply because of this Zionist binary creation between secular and religious Jews. But actually because the term means something to them – either in terms of politics, or economics, or class aspirations. So this class looks somewhat different than it did. Because you have this group, you have new entrants, the migrants from the former Soviet Union, and these have changed what the class looks like.

CC: Obviously – I mean I’m just following your lead here – but this group is a major element in Israel/Palestine. There’s obviously Palestine and Palestinians, and so what about Israeli millennials and their relation to and their constructions of Palestine, and Palestinians, and the whole conflict issue . . . ?

SG: Absolutely. So they’re not politically unique, in that they stand out from the rest of the population. Their political opinions on the Palestinians, and on occupation, have sort-of followed the general trends along with the Jewish Israeli population. But there are two things that, politically, are distinctive in terms of their experience with Palestinians. One is, separation policy – following the end of the second Intifada, with the building of the separation barrier in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It’s not as though previous generations of this group had necessarily lived in close contact with Palestinians. But scholars have found that this has had an impact, socially and psychologically, on being able to imagine the other. The other thing that’s distinctive about this generation, in terms of the Palestinians, is the sheer number of wars and repeated wars. So for this group – the exceptions being the oldest and the youngest – but we can think of the core of this group as having served in the disengagement, withdrawing Israeli settlements from Gaza, then serving in 2006, 2008, 2011-12 and 2014. Not to mention the 2006 war in Lebanon. So the sort-of level of violent contact is quite distinct. And then a couple of other things that are distinct have been electoral success of centre-right political parties, including religious parties. And then, also, debates between 2011 and 2018 about the basic law, the constitutional arrangements of the State of Israel, and the ethnic framing of the state. So these are things that have . . . . Well, the religious experiences are somewhat different. The political experience is quite different from people who were in their twenties during the Oslo Peace Process. Because this is the constituency that was the backbone of the peace movement, supportive of the Oslo process. So there’s been a gradual shift, politically, to the centre, relatively to the right, among this group. In a recent election we see sort-of potentially, potentially another shift, at least in terms political government leadership. So this is . . . they’re quite different from the transitional generation.

CC: And we’re already at 25 minutes here which is time . . . I mean, we can run on a little bit of course, but we can . . . . One of the main arguments in your book is this concept that you call “neo-romanticism”: this sort-of characterising feature for the hilonis (25:00). What’s going on there? What do you mean by neo-romanticism?

SG: Absolutely. I mean this came out of a grounded approach of needing to look at what was happening across quite a diverse group of people. I interviewed politically diverse – from right, centre, to left – geographically diverse in terms of gender and other characteristics. And when I was looking at the material and trying to draw out: “Ok. What united this group?” There were a couple of things that really united them. And one of them was this emphasis on personal experience. Now certainly in the media, and in public life, there’s a lot of discussion that Jewish Israeli millennials are maybe a bit individualistic, selfish and that this is a product of the shift to a capitalist economy in Israel in the 1980s. And yes, I saw that. But there seemed to be something going on as well about the idea of emotion and personal experience being very important. And that was something that people referred to repeatedly, about using their personal experience to navigate the world. And another feature that came out that was important was there was – yes there was individualism, but then there was also a great deal of sort-of attachment, not to the state per se, as a political entity, but to Jewish people and not . . . . You know, they referenced this sort-of Zionist discourse about the Jewish people, but for them it was specifically the Jewish people they know: their friends, their family. So there’s a kind-of dialectic between individual and collective. And I needed to account for this political diversity. Why was it that the emotional ecology, and the way people talked about themselves, talked about the conflict, the occupation, the Palestinians, politics, life in general – why was there something . . . ? There was a thread that underpinned all of that. Why? And so I started to think a bit more about Talal Asad’s use of Stefan Collini’s idea of romanticism. And what Assad has to say about romanticism as a secular, but also a spiritual, movement. Now of course romanticism was a feature of the European Jewish experience during the Haskalah – (audio unclear) book on this is very interesting – and also nineteenth century romanticism informed political Zionism. I’m not saying that . . . I’m not trying to draw these direct historical connections. I’m more kind-of inspired by Assad’s use of this. And so I talk about . . . that as the hiloni habitus developed from the nineteenth century onwards, that it always had these different strands to it. One romantic and one rationalist. And that this romantic strand is really important. And it’s not obvious, because when you speak to people they will tell you that they’re heavily rationalist. And then you probe further, and they’re heavily emotional. And so I like this idea of romanticism. And I called it neo-romanticism to set it apart, to say that I’m not drawing a clear line with the nineteenth century. To talk about this emphasis on personal experience, Collini says that for the nineteenth century romantics, individual and collective didn’t contradict one another. And he also says that nineteenth century romanticism was neither explicitly politically conservative nor progressive. It made possible different kinds of politics. And this, I thought, was a good way of talking about what’s happening among this group. That lived experience is important, that there is something happening in terms of the role of emotion and also religious and spiritual and philosophical effervescence. These things are in motion in Israel, not just with New Ageism and secular renewal and the impact of Mizrahi renaissance on popular culture. But there is something there. So these narratives about being reasonable and being rational need to be unpicked. And I thought it accounted for this sort-of tension between the individual and the collective. And what I say is neo-romanticism is a kind of neo-republican citizenship. So what’s talked about in the literature, and in the Jewish Israeli media, is that with liberalism and Zionist republicanism, care for the state is somehow juxtaposed (30:00). And like, no – these things are working together. Yes there may be . . . absolutely, there are people who are very, very liberal and individualistic and leave the state, but it would be a mistake to miss the ways in which they are sort-of bound to the state as well.

CC: So I’m going to ask you two more questions. One is going to be the “Why does this matter?” So, this scene you’ve just painted there, this sort-of neo-romantic thread that’s uniting this seemingly potentially disparate group. I think, in the book, you draw some of the implications of this politically. And then I’m also interested in why should we care about it in Religious Studies, really. What difference does it make to me? (Laughs).

SG: OK. Two very, very big questions. Let me start with the first one. Why does this matter politically? There are a lot of reasons why the state of the political situation between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis is what it is at the moment, having to do with violence, with the election of particular leaders on both sides, by strategic decisions made not to continue with negotiation after 2014. And what I’m saying is that, in the context of what critical geographers call the “national atmosphere”, that it’s also important to look at what’s happening in terms of lived habitus, and how people think about themselves. And what I found was that people, regardless of where they were on the political spectrum, were united in thinking of themselves as what I’d call “fulcrum citizens”, balancing out extremes – both extremes on the right and extremes on the left – Jewish Israeli extremes, Palestinian extremes. What they see as extremist, internationally, in Europe. That they see themselves as balancing people. And that they see this related to their hiloni needs, their religious class habitus, but that they’re also shaped by their – for this generation – a Jewish-centric experience, after the failure of Oslo. So I say that this is part of the mix in understanding the ongoing conflict and continuing occupation. It’s one of many different factors, but I don’t think it’s yet been particularly brought to the fore. So that’s what I want to say about that.

CC: Excellent. And how about, for someone not in the study of Israel /Palestine, perhaps not even in the study of the secular and that sort of thing. What do you think is the sort-of import . . . ?

SG: The big takeaway for Religious Studies? When I got to the end of the book, and I revisited these questions, the one thing that stood out for me was the importance of studying the individual level and of studying gradations of emotional attachment to religious identities, symbols, spaces. In Brubaker’s work, in 2015, he points to this about the importance of studying the individual level. But I don’t think that we yet, in the field, are particularly good at doing that. And yet we claim to study ethno-religious conflict, or religio-ethnic conflict, and the intersection of the two. And it’s not simply, you know, insert identity and everyone’s going to feel the same way. And we know that. That’s kind-of something we know, practically. But I thought that this was an area that could be further advanced. And I talk about it a bit at the end of the book, about where I think we could go. In particular, thinking about studying political conflict within ethno-religious dimension beyond identity (35:00). So that was one thing I wanted to do in the book was . . . . There’s chapter on space, and there’s a chapter on epistemology, to try to move into new directions.

CC: Begging the forgiveness of Helen, who’ll be transcribing this (Granted) I did say, if we had time, I’d mention another theme like sacred space, and how that came up in the book. So what would you have wanted to say – in, like, thirty seconds – that you haven’t got to say?

SG: That’s ok. It’s attached to the other thing. I mean, again, this is related to the point about how the literature, I think, needs to not presume emotional attachment to sacred space, but needs to drill down into people’s individual feelings about sacred space. Because just because people have an ethno-religious identity, they may not particularly care about place. But at the same time, just because they claim they don’t care, does not mean that they actually do not.

CC: Exactly.

SG: And so it makes ideas around compromising and sharing sacred space complicated. And I looked at the Haram al Sharif, Temple Mountain, and attitudes to that in the book.

CC: So, Listeners, if you want to find out more about that – when in 2020 are we expecting this? Or do we not want to say a month yet?

SG: Hopefully, soon.

CC: Hopefully, soon! So that book is going to be Being Reasonable? Secular Selfhood and Israel’s Post-Oslo generation. Stacey Gutowski, we hope our Listeners will read that book and shout widely about it. But if they don’t, they’ve heard an excellent interview today! Thank you so much.

SG: Thank you so much.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Discourse #8 (June 2019)

This month on Discourse, Breann Fallon, Carole Cusack and Ray Radford approach the Australian news from a Religious Studies perspective. We cover the appeal of Cardinal George Pell, the drama around Israel Folau, and the impact of Christianity on the recent Australian federal election results.

Discourse, Australia Edition

This week’s episode is a bit special. We’re sharing the newest episode of Discourse, a spin-off show our Patreon supporters have been enjoying this year. Discourse has a globally rotating cast of RSP editors, friends and guests, who take a critical look at the discourse on ‘religion’ in the news and media! If you enjoy the episode, you can enjoy monthly episodes by subscribing just a dollar a month at patreon.com/projectrs.

This month on Discourse, Breann Fallon, Carole Cusack and Ray Radford approach the Australian news from a Religious Studies perspective. We cover the appeal of Cardinal George Pell, the drama around Israel Folau, and the impact of Christianity on the recent Australian federal election results.

America’s Changing Religious Landscape

The religious landscape of the United States is changing dramatically. Americans must consider what it means to govern a nation of religious minorities. We interview Dr. Robert P. Jones, the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. Jones discusses findings from PRRI’s national surveys on religion and public life, many of which are represented in the American Values Atlas. The data collected by PRRI reveal a number of surprising trends related to religion and its intersection with politics, voting patterns, age, race, immigration, and secularism in the United States. A few key findings highlighted in PRRI’s 2016 report on America’s changing religious identity and covered in this podcast: (1) white Christians now account for fewer than half of the public, (2) white evangelical Protestants are in decline, (3) non-Christian religious groups are growing, and (4) atheists and agnostics account for a minority of all religiously unaffiliated. We discuss the implications of these findings and more, and we briefly review the research methodologies utilized by PRRI.

 

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, apple pie, jazz albums, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


America’s Changing Religious Landscape

Podcast with Robert P. Jones (18 February 2019).

Interviewed by Benjamin P. Marcus

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Jones_-_America_s_Changing__Religious_Landscape_1.1

Benjamin P. Marcus (BM): My guest today is Robert P. Jones the founding CEO of PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) and a leading scholar and commentator on religion, culture and politics. He’s the author of The End of White Christian America, two other books, and numerous peer reviewed book chapters and articles. Dr Jones serves as the co-chair of the national steering committee for the Religion and Politics section at the American Academy of Religion. He’s a past-member of the editorial boards for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and Politics and Religion, the journal of the American Political Science Association. He holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Edinburgh University, an M.Div. from South-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, and B.S. in Computing Science and Mathematics from Mississippi College. Today we’ll be discussing PRRI’s 2018 reports about what’s happening with the religious landscape in the United States. We’ll look at the demographic changes in the country that might help explain the political climate that we find ourselves in today. Hello, Dr Jones – and welcome to the Religious Studies Project! I’d like to begin by asking a really broad question: what’s happening with religion in the US today?

Robert P. Jones (RJ): Well, it’s a great question. A lot is happening. And I think that is the story – that we’ve been experiencing a great deal of religious change, really since the 1990’s, but it’s been accelerated in the last decade. So just to give you a couple of, I think, relevant stats: one is the percentage of white Christians in the country has been declining, fairly precipitously, in the last ten years. And in particular we’ve gone – in the US – from being a majority white Christian nation, to one that is no longer a majority white Christian nation. And it’s happened fairly rapidly. If you go back to just 2008, the country was fifty-four percent white and Christian. And when I wrote my book, The End of White Christian America, I was working on 2014 data. And that number had dropped from fifty-four percent to forty-five, and that was a significant drop. But we’ve been continuing to track data since 2014 and that number’s down to forty-one percent, now. So we’ve looked at a thirteen percentage-point drop just since 2008 – so over the last decade, in the percentage of white Christians in the country. That’s come with an uptick in the religiously unaffiliated category. So if you just go back to the 1990s those numbers are in single digits: five, six percent in the 1990s. Our last data, 2017 data, is showing twenty-five percent of the public. And among young people it’s forty percent of the public. So this is a real sea-change in the country. Going from mostly a white Protestant country in 1993. That was actually the last year the country was white and Protestant. But even if you take all white Christians together – Protestant, Catholics, Orthodox, Non-denominational and denominational together – that number today is only forty-one percent. And that’s a real shift for the country.

BM: Wow. I have a number of questions from that. One is this category of “Nones” – n-o-n-e-s – people who are unaffiliated. Many people think that that’s a pretty homogeneous category of atheists and agnostics. But from what I understand that’s not the case. Is that right?

RJ: That’s right. Atheists and agnostics actually only make up only a minority of that category of a quarter of the US population. And the rest of them are kind of a mixed bag. When we’ve looked underneath the hood, there’s kind of two other groups in there. There’s one group that looks . . . that we’ve just broadly labelled “secular” in some of our reporting, that looks broadly like a cross-section of the country. But there’s another group in there that we’ve actually dubbed “unattached believers”. And that group looks, on many measures of religiosity – like, “How often do you pray?”, “How often do you attend religious services?”, “Do you believe in God?”, those kind of questions – they look like religious Americans, even though they refuse the category and won’t identify with any particular religious group. That group tends to be less white, more African American or Latino. And they tend to be younger. And so it’s a very interesting group. I think, as a whole, this group has moved so fast now that it is a very diverse group. I mean, after all, it’s a quarter of Americans, so that is a big, big group that we’re talking about, now.

BM: Wow. And does that seem to be concentrated in the sort-of Godless coasts? Or is that happening across the United States? Are we seeing a decrease in white Christian presence – not only in the middle of the country, but also in the coasts? Or is it happening in certain places?

RJ: Yeah. This is a great question. This is definitely not a bi-coastal urban phenomenon. One project that the PRRI started back in 2013 is called the American Values Atlas. And we actually have this online – for any of your Listeners who want to go check it out – it’s ava.prri.org. And what we did is, we started realising that we had enough data every year that, if we were careful about combining it, we could actually map the religious demography of every state in the country, and also the top thirty metro areas in the country (5:00). So you can go online right now and you can compare Iowa to California, for example. And you can go back in time as well. And one of the things that you see there is, if you go back ten years to today, virtually everywhere is experiencing these changes. So it’s not just New York and California, or Texas, but it’s Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota – each of these states has experienced, for example, approximately a ten percentage-point drop in the number of white Christians in their population over this last decade.

BM: Wow. Are there any states or cities that jump out at you as sort-of a surprising religious demography? Or maybe the majority religious community is not what you’d expect? Or the second biggest community is not what you’d expect?

RP: Well we still see some history at play. We still see Rhode Island as one of the most Catholic states in the country, for example. And we still see the South heavily evangelical. So you can see the . . . . You can see the religious history still there. But we are . . . it is starting to mix up. Even though you can see these historic, I guess, centres. But you can also see the shifts happening there, as well. So even in Rhode Island you’re getting an uptick in the religiously unaffiliated, and more Protestants than you had in the past. And in the evangelical South you’re getting more Latino Protestants and Latino Catholics as a result of immigration, and changing migration patterns in the South.

BM: A few times, already, you’ve mentioned the history of the United States; you’ve mentioned, not only religious communities, but also mentioning markers of race and ethnicity, patterns of immigration. Can you tell me more about the relationship between religion, race or ethnicity and the United States, and how that shows up in the data?

RJ: Well it’s . . . when I was working on the last book, race . . . it became just so clear. I mean, it’s something that I’ve known, but it became clear to me in a more poignant way, that . . . . For example: if you asked me in a sentence to summarise religious voting patterns, you can’t really talk about that without talking about race. So the short answer to that question is, in presidential elections, white Christians tend to favour Republican presidential candidates and non-white religious people – Christians or other religions and the religiously unaffiliated – tend to support Democratic candidates. So the kind-of lines of race – even class, to some extent – but the most dominant fault line in the religious landscape is really around white, non-Hispanic Christians and pretty much everyone else. You can see this cleavage on a whole range of issues.

MP: That’s so interesting. I had a professor in graduate school who used to say that you could accurately predict America’s voting patterns if you knew “four Rs”: race, region, religion and rank. And that’s something that I’ve thought about a lot. This relationship between these four Rs and how people vote. And the embeddedness of religion in American culture. Are there religious communities that are more diverse in rank or race, than others?

RJ: There are, but they tend to be the smaller ones. So, like, one of the more diverse groups in the country is Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example. They tend to be very racially and ethnically diverse – much more so than most other groups I can think of. But they, of course, are a very, very small group in the country. But it is a story of American religion that race has sorted and bifurcated religious communities to such an extent that you really can see these major cleavages, both in the denominational structure on the ground – in the way that they’re lived out and organised – but also in the macro-data. One of the reasons why, for example, social scientists – when we’re kind-of parsing data – tend to look at African American Protestants in one bucket and white evangelical Protestants in another bucket, is because, despite the fact that they share so many religious beliefs and practices – even hymns – when you look at how they behave, and their attitudes, and the political space, their race kind-of acts like a prism that just pushes them in completely different directions. So it’s hard to overstate, I think, the way that race has structured American religiosity.

BM: That’s so fascinating, and brings me to another question, which is: as you know, Religious Studies as a field has had a lot of trouble with the – quote-unquote –”world religions paradigm”. And the fact that we often sort people into religious communities based on these large groups: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus . . . And often when people teach about religion in schools, or in the media, we expect people to act in certain ways, or believe in certain ways, based on the group that they fall in (10:00). Is the research that you’re conducting showing that it’s more complicated than that? Or are there other ways that we should start thinking about religious identities, so that we’re not talking about these large world religions, but subsets, based on race, or ethnicity, or gender, or any other categories?

RJ: Yeah. Well, here I think we’ve got the push and the pull of the quantitative versus the qualitative study of religion. You know in the social sciences you need these categories. You need categories to sort people into, and they need to be big enough categories that you can actually conduct reliable statistical analysis on them, right? And so, if you’re doing a survey of a thousand people, you need these categories to be big enough to at least have, say at least 100 or so people in them. Otherwise your results start getting fairly unreliable, if you drop below that. On the other hand, you know, we all should just acknowledge that these are all sort-of human categories that have been constructed by social scientists to help us see things in different ways. They’re never perfect and they always do some kind of violence, actually, to the kind-of messy reality on the ground. We should always acknowledge that. On the other hand, you know, if we allowed for the uniqueness of every single congregation on the ground – which as everyone who’s ever served in a congregation knows that, like, if you move from one Southern Baptist congregation to another, it’s a really different world, even though they’re in the same denomination – if we stuck with that kind of granularity, which is really valuable, it would be really hard to come up and say anything broad about the group. So I think it is a real challenge. To me what matters is: can you test the category against lived reality? Right? And, is the category . . . I think it’s never the right question to say, for example, “Is the category of ‘white evangelical Protestant’, right?” – which has race, ethnicity, and kind-of religious identity all baked into one thing. It’s never the right question, I think, to say, “Is that a truthful category?” Or “Is it a right category?” I think the question, honestly is, “Is it a useful category for helping us understand the lived reality on the ground?” That means it should never be sacrosanct, it should be questionable. And we should be willing to look at, for example: what do all evangelicals look like, if we don’t just look at it by race? And then, how does that category help us see something interesting on the ground?

BM: Right. I want to pause a moment on this topic: white evangelical Protestants. We began by talking about the religious demography of the United States. I mentioned that we might be able to see something about our political landscape because of the religious landscape. What do we know about the political landscape and the influence of white evangelical Protestants? Are we putting too much emphasis on white evangelical Protestants to understand our current political moment, or are there other groups we should be looking at? What are your thoughts on that?

RJ: Well, it’s interesting. White evangelical Protestants, like other white Christians, have been declining in their percentage of the population. So, for example, if we go back again to the beginning of Barrack Obama’s tenure as president, his election, what we see is that white evangelicals – depending on the survey you look at – were around twenty-three, twenty-two percent of the population. And our last data has them down now to fifteen percent of the population. So they, like other white Christians, have been declining as a proportion of the population. But what makes them important, even as they decline, is that they have been so active on just one side of the partisan divide in the US. So unlike mainline Protestants or Catholics – who tend to be more divided in their partisan allegiances – even as this group has shrunk, they have still maintained their activity mostly on the Republican side of US politics. Which means that they have a very out-sized voice on that side of the partisan divide, and not so much among Democratic politics. But in Republican politics, they’re still a very powerful group to contend with if you’re a Republican politician. So I think they’re still very important. The other reason why the evangelicals are important is because of their strong support for President Trump. They voted about eight in ten for him in the 2016 election. As we’ve been tracking their favourability of President Trump, around his inauguration it was about two-thirds favourable. And it has gone up since then and has remained fairly steady around seven in ten support for the President throughout his presidency. So that remarkable stability is also really important for understanding them as a stalwart base. And, in fact, when we asked white evangelicals who said that they had a favourable view of President Trump’s job performance whether there was anything he could do to lose their support, nearly four in ten reported that: “No. There is virtually nothing that President Trump could do to lose our support.” (15:00)

BM: Wow.

RJ: So they are a very, very entrenched group in the Republican coalition – really a bedrock support of President Trump.

BM: Wow. That’s interesting, because on social media I see this idea floated by a number of people, based on mostly anecdotal evidence of young evangelicals that they’ve spoken to, that there’s a generational gap: that older evangelicals are stalwarts of President Trump, but that younger evangelicals might be moving away from that political affiliation – as well as certain key cornerstones of what many people think of as primary evangelical issues. Is that true? Is there a change in generation?

RJ: Well, I think there is that divide. But I think it’s a little bit different than that description. So if we go back ten years ago, I think that was more true than it is today. But it is true that young evangelicals have moved. But what they have moved from is from being evangelical to be unaffiliated. So they’ve actually exited the category over time. And we can see that a couple of ways in the data. For example, among young people today, only eight percent identify as white evangelical Protestant, right? And again that’s compared to about fifteen percent in the population. So young people are only half as likely to identify as evangelical as Americans overall. And when we look underneath the hood, and we look at the median age, for example, of white evangelicals over time, we see it creeping up. And the main reason for that is that, as they’ve lost members, they’re disproportionately losing members from their younger ranks. So what’s happening is, yes indeed, the young evangelicals of ten years ago have moved. But they’ve not moved over to be Democrats – or they might have – but they’ve mostly moved out of the whole category. They’ve stopped identifying as evangelical. And I think that’s the real shift. So if you’re looking for those people who were young evangelicals a decade ago, you should look for them in the unaffiliated category and not in the evangelical category. And what we’re seeing is that, among the young people who have stayed, the generational differences are now kind-of muted. Because the people who have stayed are actually people who hold views that are fairly consistent with older evangelicals. But the ones who had views, for example, that were in great tension – like on gay rights – have largely left the fold.

BM: Wow. It’s helpful to look at some of these assumptions or theories and test them against the data. So here’s another thing to test against the data. I’ve heard a lot about the resurgence or higher visibility of progressive Christians in the United States today. I know a lot of people are watching Reverend Barber’s movement for example. Does the data show increased religious affiliation, or a higher salience of religious identity among people who identify as progressive Christians today?

RJ: Well, what I would say is, it’s a little complicated. The last sort-of major study we did of this, where we looked at it very carefully, what we did see is among younger Americans under the age of thirty, there were more progressive Christians than there were conservative Christians. That’s true. It’s largely true, though, because of this phenomena we just talked about. That the ranks of evangelicals and other conservative, particularly white, Christians have thinned. And so as that has happened among the under-thirties, the relative ratio between progressive and conservative Christians has come more into balance. In fact, among those under thirty, there are more progressive Christians than there are conservative Christians. However, there’s one category that is more than either of those, and that is the religiously unaffiliated. Because many, many young people – forty percent of young people – are in that camp. So it’s notable, right, that that’s creeping up to be almost half of young people, claiming no religious affiliation whatsoever. That’s a really different thing, by the way, than we’ve ever seen in American public life. So if you take Baby Boomers back into their twenties . . . . And this is a question I get all the time: “Well, everyone’s more unaffiliated in their twenties, right? You’re single, maybe you’re moving around a lot, you’re changing jobs, you don’t have kids yet, maybe? So those are all things that lead you to be more transient, less rooted in a community or a community organisation like a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque. But what we find is, if we look at the historical data and take baby boomers back into their twenties, they’re still less than fifteen percent unaffiliated in their twenties. So that means that this generation is at least two-and-a-half times more unaffiliated than any generation that we have ever seen. So even if some of them – quote-unquote – “come back” as they have kids, and they settle down – they’re looking for stability in communities and integrating into community life and religious institutions are a way that people historically have done that (20:00) – even if a proportion of them do that, this will still be the most unaffiliated generation the country’s ever seen.

BM: What’s quite interesting to me is, when many people challenge the “secularisation thesis”, broadly, they often point to the United States as an outlier and say, “This is clearly a modern country that is highly religious and continues to be highly religious. So the secularisation thesis is debunked” – besides looking at other countries around the world that are highly religious. Does this data maybe put at least an asterisk by that and say, “Well, maybe we spoke a little too soon, and the US is becoming increasingly irreligious or unaffiliated?” What does that do for our understanding of the secularisation thesis?

RJ: Yes. It’s funny because we’ve got a UK audience here, so . . .

BM: And United States.

RJ: Yes, and US. But what’s funny about this is, when I give a talk in the US and I say, “Twenty-five percent of the country is now religiously unaffiliated and forty percent of young people are religiously unaffiliated”, there are gasps in the room. Because people are shocked that there’s that many people who claim no religious affiliation. If I give that same lecture in London, people would be shocked that there were that many people affiliated with religion. (Laughs).

BM: Right.

RJ: So I still think the US is a little bit different than Western Europe, for example, which is where it mostly gets compared. There’s still more religious vibrancy here. More religious experimentation, more effervescence, I think, in the religious space than there is in Western Europe, for sure. And there’s certainly not, I think, overall . . . . I think politicians here face pressure to say things like “God Bless America!” at the end of their speech, in the way British politicians certainly do not. If anything there’s the opposite pressure not to say anything overtly religious like that. So I still think there’s some difference here. But I do think what we’re seeing is, there is a shift here that is certainly more something in line with what we saw in the secularisation thesis. It’s not an absolute outlier. It’s certainly a lagger from some of the trends that we’ve seen in Western Europe. And I think we’ll have to wait and see. So far we don’t see any evidence of this upward trend in the religiously unaffiliated flat-lining. It keeps ticking up year, after year, after year.

BM: I appreciate your cautiousness not to prognosticate – is that the right word?

RJ: Yes! (Laughs).

BM: But I’m going to ask you to make some predictions. Can you look out, with your crystal ball, five, ten, fifteen years? Are there any trends that you think will continue? Or things that you think we should look out for, in the next decade or so?

RJ: Yes: Well, yeah. Just like the financial retirement planning things, you see at the bottom, “Last years past performance is no guarantee of future returns”?

BM: Right.

RJ: I think that’s kind of where we’re at on this! But with that caveat, I will say that a couple of pieces of evidence – just to continue the unaffiliated line here – we’re sing a couple of things that I think will mean that this should continue, at least for the near future. One is that we’re seeing unaffiliated people now marrying other unaffiliated people – seeking them out as marriage partners. That’s significant because one of the main things pulling people back into religious community, if they’ve become unaffiliated, is if they marry someone religious. They have that conversation, like: “OK. Well, I’m going to get married unless you pledge to raise the kids in the church” or “in the synagogue.” And I think there’s less and less of that happening. So I think that’s one less thing to kind-of pull people, at least some people, back into the fold. And you know, again, so far, we haven’t seen a single year in the last decade where that line has been flat. It keeps up-ticking every year. One thing I’ll say, that is pretty clear from the evidence, is that one of the reasons why this change on the ground is not quite translated into the political space yet, is because of different ways that different religious groups turn out and vote. So in the US context, the ballot box tends to act a bit like a time machine. And it takes us back about ten years to where the country was about ten years ago. So the electorate in this last election . . . if you map the electorate onto the general population, the election in 2016 looks about like the general population looked in 2006.

BM: OK. That’s interesting.

RJ: It takes us back about ten years. And that’s because white evangelicals, and older white Christians, turn out and vote at much higher rates. So they’re over-represented at the ballot box compared to where they are in the general population. (25:00) If we project that forward, what it means is, even though we’ve passed this threshold, for example, where the country’s no longer majority white and Christian, that will not be true at the ballot box until 2024. So we’re still two election cycles out from really seeing the demographic realities really hit at the ballot box.

BM: Well that’s a great place to pause on the content of all the things you’ve been finding. And I want to make sure we leave some time to talk about how you collect your data, to look behind the hood and look at the processes and how you set up your battery of questions. So could you tell us little bit more about that? What’s it like to run a major polling firm, and how do you do what you do?

RJ: Sure. Well it’s a lot of fun, first of all! It’s great to be able to sit around a table and say, “I wonder…X?” And, you know, think, “Well, that’s an empirical question. We can actually put that to the test.” And one of the things that PRRI have pledged to do . . . . So we’re a non-partisan, non-profit, independent research organisation. So, part of our charitable purpose is that we’re actually putting a lot of social science data back into the public domain. So one of the things we have made sure that we do is, we are very transparent. So every time we release something, we release the whole questionnaire. We hold onto the data sets for a year for internal purposes, for analysis, but after that we release the entire data set out into the public domain. So anyone can pull it up – at the Roper Center, they can pull it off of our website, and download, and do their own analysis of the data. So that’s part of our mission. In terms of how we collect it, we are dedicated, really, to doing full probability sampling of data. So all of our data is a random probability sample of the USs population. It’s all Americans. So even though we have an emphasis on mostly doing political party, and religion, and race, and other kinds of demographic breaks, we have full-bound samples of the entire population in all of our surveys here. And you know, we really do sit down, and we do our lit review, you know: the process where we look at other polls and what they have asked, and other trends we might want to check. But I think one of the things we are always trying to get at is the “Why” question. And so, not just the “What”, but the “whys”. We definitely want to know what people believe, but we also want to know what connects belief A with belief B, and belief C. What’s the underlying thing that drive them to connect those issues together? So that, I think, is part of the art of this, and I think what makes it, really, the most fun and the most worthwhile.

BM: It sounds so fun, in fact, that our Listeners might be wondering how they can get involved. So do you have any ideas for scholars out there who sit there and wonder if X,Y or Z about the American population . . .?Are there ways for them to try to do polling, or to reach out to your kind of organisations, to feed you ideas? Or what’s the process, if you’re a scholar in a university, for trying to find out some of this information at a national scale?

RJ: Well, there’s a couple of options. I mean, I get emails all the time – and I love getting emails all the time – saying, “Hey, have you thought about this?” And every now and then, there’s like “Oh man! That’s a great idea!” And if we have space, we can do it. So I would say, feel free to shoot us an email. And we certainly are interested in hearing what’s going on, and ideas that are out there. The other way is, we have formally partnered with a number of universities. So we were just . . . this past three years we did a three-wave study with Florida State University, looking at spirituality and its impact on voluntarism and other kinds of pro-social behaviours, trying to answer the question, “Does it make a difference if you’re religious or not, for how you actually behave in the world?” And trying to get at those kind of questions (30:00). We’ve partnered with the Brookings Institution and other kinds of think-tanks in this space. So I think it’s a little of both. We’ve done some individual kinds of things, but we’ve also worked on kind-of careful, multi-year, full-on collaborations with academic institutions.

BM: And your work is entirely focussed in the United States, is that right?

RJ: It is, yes. So we just do domestic religion, politics and culture.

BM: And do you consult with folks outside the United States who might be interested in this kind of work in other countries? Or do you have any partnerships? Or share ideas for best practices with organisations outside the US?

RJ: We’ve certainly been talking about this. We haven’t, so far, branched out beyond that. But it’s something we’d certainly be open to doing.

BM: Great. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I think this time really flew by for me. I enjoyed our conversation. I want to remind our Listeners that you can download all of the reports from the Public Religion Research Institute – PRRI – at prri.org. And if you’re looking for contact information for folks at the organisation you can find that on their website. And we encourage you to check out the American Values Atlas Project, which has a lot of the data that we’ve been speaking about today. So thank you again, Robby, for an excellent conversation. And I hope our Listeners enjoyed it as well.

RJ: Great, Thank you. Yes, it was a lot of fun.

BM: Thanks.


Citation Info: Jones, Robert P. and Benjamin P. Marcus. 2019. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 18 February 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 February 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

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Religion as a Tactic of Governance

In this interview recorded at the BASR/ISASR, Naomi Goldenberg considers how ‘religion’ has developed as a separate sphere from ‘governance’. She argues that ‘religion’ has been projected onto the past for strategic purposes, as a management technique, or even alternative to violence. How does viewing religions as “restive once-and-future governments” help us understand the functioning of this category in contemporary discourse?

She takes us through several examples, including Judaism, new religions, Islam and contemporary debates on abortion and circumcision. As well as a clear example of the functioning of the category ‘religion’ in the contemporary world, this gives some real-world applications of critical theory that shows its relevance beyond the academy.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, candy, bandannas, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Religion as a Tactic of Governance

Podcast with Naomi Goldenberg (21 January 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Goldenberg_-_Religion_as_a_Tactic_of_Governance_1.1

DR: We’re still here in Belfast at the BASR conference, in 2018. And I am privileged to be joined today by our keynote speaker from last night, Naomi Goldenberg, of the University of Ottawa. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project – a return visit, Naomi!

NG: Thank you.

DR: So we’re going to pick up where the keynote . . . well, we’re going to pick up where the keynote started, last night, for everybody who couldn’t be here for what was an excellent session. Thinking of where to start a conversation today, then . . . . So the idea was, as I understood it, that religion – and just to clarify, we’re talking religion as a category here – has been projected . . . . The idea of religion as a separate sphere, a separate category, has been projected onto the past for strategic purposes. Tell us what you mean by that and especially this idea of strategic purposes – as a tactic. What are we talking about?

NG: Religion is a modern category, the way I see it. Not just the way I see it – the way many scholars see it. And not just the way we see it. It can be demonstrated that the term as meaning some kind of special separate sphere of human activity is a very, very recent idea. So in the past – “the past” is so big! I’ll maybe try to explain this in terms of probably the most effective sentence that I’ve ever come across to explain it, is that there is no religion in the Bible. And last night I began with a passage from Deuteronomy to illustrate that you might have – you do have – God in the Bible. You have all kinds of people that we identify with the category of religion now. But all of these figures were involved in government, not in anything separate that we could hive off and call religion. God was some kind of . . . conceived as some kind of monarch, some kind of director, someone who human beings could claim to speak for. But we get God as a principal of Government. Now, of course, government is a modern term as well. So I speak about governance with lots of different words. You could say ruling with authority, you could say commanding a polity, and it’s a very loose concept of governance that I’m using. But this governance was, we might say now, theocratic, whatever. So you don’t get something separate. Clergy – that’s another modern term projected onto the past – were involved with ceremonies of government. And anything that gets called religion, translated as religion in various ancient texts, tends to mean ceremonies that are related to governing. OK so if that’s accepted, then when the modern category of religion emerges – and it emerges in fits and starts in different places and slightly different times, in different ways – it emerges as a way for governments to manage displaced populations, according to the theory that I’m putting forward. And it’s a struggle of institutions, usually – always, actually – between males who were running various institutions. And the loser institution evolves as a religion – or can evolve as a religion – instead of being eliminated completely; instead of the polity being banished or murdered. So you have a category that allows for a quasi-government within a larger government. And then that quasi-government derives some sort of authority from seeing itself as, or perhaps truly being, a government of something in the past. And the strength of that vestigial government – (5:00) those displaced people, that displaced sovereignty – gets to fit into the category of religion. And with that, the state grants certain status to a group. I would say to the – it’s not just me who is saying this – the vestigial group is denied certain forms of violence, marshal violence, police violence, violence in waiting. That’s the violence needed to enforce court decisions. The mystification of that vestigial government occurs because of the connection with something in the past, or something with the narrated idea of a government that existed in the past. The sense of religion as a strategy is that it’s a strategy of dominant governments to manage this displaced or marginalised population. However, it can also be a strategy for the displaced population to claim the category, claim the mystification that surrounds the category, and put pressure on the dominant government for more rights. So it’s a double kind of strategy going on there.

DR: Right, yes. There was a great line you used in the keynote: “Religions as resting once and future governments.”

NG: Restive

DR: Restive, right

NG: Restive once and future governments, yes. I like that phrase “once and future” – sort of the “once and future prince.” It’s a sense of the government looking . . . considering itself to have been something more dominant in the past, and something that will be dominant in the future. So you get that double sense of time going on. And always ambitious – even though sometimes there can be long periods when you don’t see the ambition to aggrandise, to get more and more power, to have more and more spheres to be controlled.

DR: When we had . . . well, it wasn’t our conversation, but the previous Religious Studies Project conversation when we talked about religion as vestigial states . . . this seems to build a little bit on that. Or my sense of religion as vestigial states was more of this group of people who consider themselves as sort-of restive once and future government.

NG: I don’t think they . . . Often they don’t consciously think of themselves that way.

DR: Not consciously, but that’s the way it’s working.

NG: Yes. Right

DR: But this seems to broaden it out and, actually, looking at it the other way round as well – in the way that this can be something that’s very useful for the majority state.

NG: Oh yes. Very useful. Because the majority state can claim, sometimes – depending on relationships with the vestigial one – that it is supported by the vestigial older government, more mystified government. And we see that in the United States with slogans such as “In God we Trust;” with having clergy open up governmental ceremonies, the closeness of Government and the church in some places.

DR: And literally, in the UK, you know?

NG: Oh, very literally in the UK. Right!

DR: Literally. Yes and so, you know, mystification: obviously we have . . . if you want to listen to our interview with Tim Fitzgerald on mystification, if you’re unclear on that. Basically, this is a technique by which power relations are obscured and concealed.

NG: And also the nature of something, such as religion as a form of government, a form of rules, a form of law, regulation, ritual ceremony that is very like government, like what we’re considering government, is obscured by the mystification. So that’s not seen. It’s supposed to be something mysterious.

DR: There was something that immediately struck me during this conversation. And it’s always been of interest to me. We were talking about the fact that people who study religions in the classical world for instance, don’t really talk to RS people. There isn’t really a great deal of you know, interdisciplinary work on those kind of areas. And it’s always seems to me that what we talk about as being religion in say the Roman empire, or Egypt, or Greece or something, is much more like the kind of statecraft that we do. It’s much more akin to you and the Americans civil religion stuff that you do, (10:00) that Robert Bellah and people like that used to talk about.

NG: I think that goes . . . that approaches what I’m saying.

DR: But, theoretically, it’s the other way round. And that’s what I find very interesting about that.

NG: Yes. Good.

DR: So, rather than saying this modern statecraft is a bit like some kinds of religion, actually we can flip that and we can say, “Well, we don’t think of this as religion.” So why are we imposing that idea on states from 2000 years ago? Why do we use the category religion to talk about the polis, and the Olympic Games, and these kind of things, in Rome? Is this part of this tactic of managing . . . ?

NG: I’m not sure it’s part of the tactic of management – although it might be, because it gives the vestigial government a lot of power, and a lot of mystery, and a lot of emotional valence. And then when the dominant government relies on the vestigial government, hearkens to it, hearkens back to it, it also gains that kind of power. But let’s see. I’m so tired from last night! (Laughs).

DR: Yes!

NG: But the mystification, how that . . . .Where were we? Let’s pick up the thread again.

DR: So we talked briefly about mystification, then I switched to this other thing: this fundamentally, I think, changes that conversation. So we had, you know, in the sort of Sociology of Religion, in the classic 1960s Sociology of Religion, we had this idea of quasi-religion or state religions or civil religion. But this actually changes that conversation. Because now we could actually say, “Well, if that’s religion then, you know, why do we have to call that religion?” We could just not call it religion. We could call it statecraft.

NG: You could call it statecraft, exactly. Yes. There’s a point I wanted to make. I’m sure as we start to talk it will come back. I have to explain to your Listeners that we spoke in a group. And continued speaking. . . . (Laughs).

DR: We’ve been speaking for hours about this!

NG: Hours! (Laughs) in the pub last night!

DR: It’s not uncommon, you know. We sit down to record these and we have to come back to the beginning because, yes . . . The Listeners don’t want to hear our in-jokes, probably!

NG: (Laughs)

DR: Ok. Let’s . . . I think it might be useful for the Listener to have a couple of examples. And there were a few interesting examples.

NG: Oh, I’d like to say one thing about that. I think the mystification of something in the past, that we can say is religion and is eternal, comes from, in some ways, “world religions” discourse.

DR: Right, yes.

NG: And I think it works the way world regions does as a category – although there’s a lot of argument about when that starts, exactly. Some trace it back to mid-1600’s, or whatever, when Christians discovered that there were other peoples in the world who actually didn’t know anything about Christianity. And then, various scholars have shown that when these new-to-the-Europeans areas were discovered, the first . . . one of the first things that explorers say is that, “Oh – there’s no religion here. These people are primitive. There’s nothing.” And then, after the explorers are there for a while, they begin to notice something that might be . . . “Oh, that could be a primitive form of religion.” And, guess what! It is! It’s a beginning. And Christianity is the evolution, the apotheosis, the pinnacle of this development. So the fact that there is this thing we can identify maybe as a thing called religion – it could be anything, could be ancestor reverence, it could be rituals at tables, it could be anything, ghosts, spirits, whatever – gets named religion and then gets projected onto the past as a justification for the presence of Christian religion now.

DR: Yes. Yes.

NG: So I think that some of that is there – but as an inferior form. Or as another form.

DR: Yes. Yes. I think it might be useful for the Listeners to have an example that I think is quite a clear one. I know this isn’t particularly your original work, but I think it’s a very good case study, to look at Judaism, and the way that we see that moving through a number of different ways of being interpreted, until we end up with Judaism as . . .

NG: Or, as some people say, many Judaisms. There are scholars who trace this rather specifically (15:00): that you didn’t have anything that could be called a religion. You just had people, who lived in a given area. And as these people were conquered by a range of . . . a succession of empires, if those who weren’t killed cohered, or were allowed by some governments. You could look at the way Cyrus dealt with what we could call the Jewish people. He allowed them to have certain rituals, certain places, rebuild the temple – but temple in the sense of like a city hall. Because temples in the past weren’t separated with what we would call worship, now. They were places of commercial exchange, they were law courts. There were lots of things going on. So by creating this separate space, or this area, governments at that point were creating what gets to be now called religion. In the case of Judaism . . .

DR: They were also a lot to do with food practices. Now again, this is another example of reading religion into the past. So we go, “Oh they were involved in sacrifices, or ritual preparations of meat.” But the idea that these are religious practices is again, something that we read into the past.

NG: Something that develops later.

DR: But we could think: well, it’s just the reason that, you know. . . . Like, Scottish people like to eat white bread, and would go to a shop that sells the only white bread from Scotland when they go to live in Canada, or something like that.

NG: That’s right. And if you made at certain points, you could make the Scots into a religion. It could be that kind of category. So, whatever the Jewish people did became cohered as Judaism. And as I was speaking last night about how there’s . . . . It’s true, in the case of the Jewish people, that you have a confusion – Is this a religion? Is this an ethnicity? Is this a nation? This is all together . . . . Is it a culture? And I think that underlies, actually, all polities that take on that category. That there’s a lot of ambiguity there. That belief is maybe one factor and not a very important factor at all.

DR: And there are quite strong arguments that Judaism, the idea of a religion, is quite a late development and they were seen, historically, much more often as a race than they were as a religion.

NG: Which is another problematic kind of . . .

DR: Which is a whole other can of worms! But the point is that these different categories . . .

NG: All coming from the idea that to be a Christian you have to believe something. So, gradually, I see a change in Jewish people. Many Jews now think that you have to believe something to be really Jewish. Jews never have to believe anything. You were born of a Jewish mother, or you were part of the community that made you Jewish.

DR: Well . . . and that’s “belief” in a very Christian sense of a credo,

NG: Exactly.

DR: You know, a stated belief: this is what I believe, I know it doesn’t make sense to everyone but I’m committed to it in some way.

NG: Yes. So then you have to worry, if you stop believing that, do you fall out of your Christian-ness in some way? And Jews never had to worry about that.

DR: You also made a really good point, it was quite quick in the presentation, about the way that this – in terms of like “Islamist”, and terms like this – where people seem to be reluctant to use the term religion.

NG: Well, the key factor there is that when a group in contemporary times does something violent –marshal violence or police violence, particularly – that isn’t authorised by the state, then the title of religion becomes problematic. Because the key thing for creating the vestigial government is that it will not have any kind of forms of violence that could challenge the state. So Max Weber said that a long time ago – not about the category of religion, but that legalised violence is the one thing that the state always holds onto for itself. So it’s the one thing that isn’t generally franchised out to religious groups. Of course, when we get to the sphere of sex and gender, those are the kinds of jurisdictions that are sometimes ceded by the dominant state to the vestigial one (20:00). And you would have family courts that are authorised by the state in some countries, family courts run by quote unquote “religious authorities”, who would be able to decide.

DR: And why is that different? Why . . . say, circumcision practices? Why does . . . why is that form of violence allowable, and not others?

NG: For some reason. I think it’s a vestige of male authority over women that both the dominant state and the vestigial one claim. But somehow the state is more willing to give that jurisdiction, which I suppose was not seen as all that important, over to vestigial authorities.

DR: Perhaps it’s a situation where it benefits the state, but it slightly clashes with stated aims. So, by sort of allowing – “We’ll just turn a blind eye to these religions, vestigial states doing it – suits us in the long run.” Because it restates male . . . patriarchy.

NG: Male dominance and . . . supports male dominance that’s another point I was making, that the male dominance of the vestigial state is generally always the case, always male – partly because it’s hearkening back to something in that past which was . . . in recorded history it seems to be male governance all the time. I think you’re right. It reinforces male-dominance. But it’s quite frightening, because women and children become subjects of two governments. The dominant one and the vestigial one.

DR: And male children to some degree, as well.

NG: Male children to the same degree, because we let . . .

DR: Circumcision.

NG: So many countries . . . circumcision and then some oral suction in some Jewish communities. Female circumcision, in some other kinds of communities, is a very contested practice, but there’s a lot of argument that it should be allowed in some degree, and some way. We allow that as a form of violence because it’s supposedly religious violence, or it’s not seen as violent.

DR: And, of course, we do have many cases where the religious nature of a practice, or belief, or some sort of prejudice comes down to whether it is or is not religious – you know, the use of cannabis by Rastafarians. There was a recent case, in Scotland, where a guy who claimed he’d been fired from his job for being a Nationalist. He was campaigning as an SNP. And it was seen to clash with his government job. And in the preliminary ruling the judge said, “Well this is a sincere and worked out belief system about the world. So it’s equivalent to a religion, and therefore it should be protected.”

NG: (Laughs). And that’s an example of how that category can be anything. Anything can get into it. Sometimes I talk about religion as a category in which nothing has ever been excluded. I can’t get anyone to name one thing that hasn’t been included in the category of religion. Impossible to exclude anything from it. And yet it’s supposed to be something unique.

DR: Yes. It’s sui generis and unique to itself, but it’s also everything!

NG: It’s also everything! (Laughs).

DR: It’s just humans, in some way . . .

NG: It show the problematic nature of that category.

DR: Yes. Another interesting example, I think, which shows the edges of this, is how often new religions, new religious movements dream of governments.

NG: Exactly!

DR: They dream of alternative governments, but they’re also the target of government ire. And often violence.

NG: Well, governments are always a little bit edgy about the things they authorise as religions, because they’re worried about takeover. Because there’s a sense of competition, somewhere. And New Religious Movements tend to imagine the better government to come could be something local that they’ll enact in a certain place and a certain way. But it could also be something in the future. It could be after death. Sometimes major dominant religions, or what we call world religions also imagine things like that. Or the government will be on another planet, or it will be after an apocalypse. But it will be better, whatever it is. And it will be something like what already happened a while ago – in that sense of being once and future.

DR: Yes. I’m particularly thinking of the kind of . . . the stuff that Crawford Gribbon was talking about yesterday, of the American Redoubt (25:00) where these Conservative right wing traditionalists, essentially, are attempting to create little states within states where patriarchal theocracy can continue within. . . .

NG: There we go. Because they’re worried, now, about women getting some kind of power, and some kind of dominance.

DR: And atheists, and non-white people, and homosexuals, and everything else . . .

NG: Trans. people.

DR: Everything, yes. And that is clearly harking back to a previous kind of . . .

NG: Or an imagined previous. . . . Often an imagined previous state.

DR: Yes, so. . .

NG: “Make America great again” is that kind of slogan!

DR: (Laughs).

NG: Yes. When?

DR: Well, yes . . . again. Which one are you talking about? The McCarthy era, World War II? What is it? The Civil War?

NG: Exactly! (Laughs).

DR: Yes. But the violence aspect of it is particularly interesting. We were riffing last night about the idea of . . . . My colleague Chris Cotter was talking about how, you know, a child can be raised in a state, and told that he’s working for Queen and country, and then signs up, and goes off to another country and kills people. And because this is for the state, this violence is . . . .And you’ve made this point about violence being the thing that states . . .

NG: Dominant states keep it to themselves.

DR: The one thing they keep to themselves. Now, you have. . . there was another line in the keynote, which I want you to unpick a bit for me. And it’s religion, the category religion, as an alternative to genocide.

NG: I was suggesting, taken from Deuteronomy 20 verses16 through 18, in which the Lord God commands a complete eradication of every living thing: people, livestock, everything in an area that has been given as an inheritance to a population. And I was thinking that if the category of religion had been invented – this is hypothetical, very much almost like a game to imagine that this could have been an alternative for that warrior God, that dominant tyrant. So that he wouldn’t have to kill everybody there. He could create a religion in which all forms of violence would be forbidden to that group. And perhaps the group could endure. So I was thinking of it as . . . I think of its function that way, as an alternative to genocide. Cyrus, for example, didn’t eliminate the Jews who were in his area of jurisdiction. He allowed them a space – a bounded space. That’s a two-edged sword in a way. Because, by creating a special group with some kinds of status, sometimes that group can also then be targeted for genocide.

DR: Mmm.

NG: Later on. The way Jews have been, the way many minorities have. So it’s a double-edged thing. It’s the creation of a polity with a certain kind of regulatory apparatus internal to that polity that can also make it a target.

DR: I’d like to wrap up then with. . . . We – any of us who are working in the critical religion paradigm, broadly stated – will eventually be angrily demanded of us what the practical application of what we’re doing is. And how does it matter to real to real people? And there are some quite clear practical examples here. You mentioned the journalistic covering of the abortion debate, for instance.

NG: Right. In Ireland. I thought that was an example – at least the newspapers I read – I was collecting articles from The New York Times and The Washington Post, and The Guardian, about the abortion referendum in Ireland – the recent one. And what was done in most of those articles is that the Catholic Church was spoken about, not religion as a general category. Sometimes it was mentioned, but it was clear that this was a specific institution with specific ideologies. Someone mentioned last night that Evangelical Christians were also involved. But then there’s a specificity about who exactly is advocating what, and for what purpose? And who exactly wins and loses in these various debates. And I think that’s an important demystification of issues (30:00). So I would urge scholars in Religious Studies to be as specific as possible, to name the groups as specifically as you can. Are you talking about Jews, are you talking about Muslims, Are you talking about Christians, maybe? Which kind of Christians? Buddhists? Not this blanket category. That’s already a step forward. I also think that a practical application – and this is where my heart is – is in the pushing the project forward. It’s to demystify the category of religion, so that governments can’t use it to fudge so much; that it doesn’t get to be such a vague category that anything can be claimed as a right within it; and that restrictions can’t be put on it; and that special male privilege can’t be so easily granted. These vestigial governments have just as much contingency, just as much conflict within polities as any other kinds of government. So often they’ve tended to be seen as monolithic, as homogeneous, and the men – who claim to represent them – are given a lot of power. So because religion as a category is put into constitutions, it’s put into Law, and because no-one knows what it is – courts don’t know how to interpret it in a kind of consistent manner – I think it’s particularly ripe for deconstruction, and I think that some very interesting clarity can be put to these debates. That would be an example of one of the practical applications.

DR: You’ve brought a lot of clarity to the conversation here, I think. I think people are going to be very intrigued to read more of your work. But, unfortunately, I have the real privilege, today, of ending the interview!

NG: (Laughs).

DR: But I just want to say, thanks so much for joining us!

NG: And thank you, David.

DR: Thank you.


Citation Info: Goldenberg, Naomi and David G. Robertson. 2019. “’Religion as a Tactic of Governance”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 21 January 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 11 January 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-as-a-tactic-of-governance/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Religion, Education, and Politics in Australia and NZ

Following on from the delivery of her conference paper at the EASR 2018 in Bern, in this podcast, Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University speaks to Thomas White regarding the historical, national and regional differences in the presence of religion in Australian and New Zealand schools. The podcast begins with a brief biography of Professor Maddox’s rise to academic tenure, and the various post-doctoral positions that paved her transition away from theology, and towards the subject of religion and politics.

Covering projects including the training of Catholic school teachers and deputy-principals in secular religious education, her research into the Hindmarsh Island affair – which investigated Aboriginal women’s claims to ‘secret women’s business’ – and her work under the Australian Parliamentary Research Fellowship, the discussion turns to national differences between public religion in New Zealand and Australia. Contrasting Australian multi-culturalism with New Zealand bi-culturalism, Professor Maddox explains how, despite New Zealand being further along a path of secularisation (by religious affiliation), religion often obtains a greater presence in the public sphere as it is carried on a policy of cultural recognition for Maori tradition, as mandated in the country’s Treaty of Waitangi. This was particularly evident with the daily expression of Maori karakia (prayers) in her daughter’s school, which later transpired to be the Lord’s Prayer!

Focusing on the Australian experience of public policy on religion and education, Maddox explains how 19th Century Australian concerns regarding both sectarianism and protecting religion from political manipulation led to a surprising consensus across colony parliaments that religion should be kept out of the public school system. In the late 20th Century, however, ‘currents of change are pulling in different directions’.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Men at Work’s “Business as Usual” album, Vegemite, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Religion, Education and Politics in Australia and NZ

Podcast with Marion Maddox (26 November 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White.

Transcribed by Thomas White and Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Maddox_-_Religion,_Education_and_Politics_in_Australia_and_NZ_1.1

Thomas White (TW): Well it is a beautiful morning here on the penultimate day of the EASR in Bern, and I’m delighted to be joined by Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University in Sydney. Marion is a Professor of Politics at Macquarie and she has PhDs in Theology from Flinders, and another PhD in Philosophy from the University of New South Wales. It is probably no exaggeration to say that Professor Maddox is the leading authority on questions of religion and politics in Australia, and it is an absolute pleasure to have you with us in the recording studio this morning. Professor Maddox, welcome!

Marion Maddox (MM): Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.

TW: So, your paper was delivered on Monday. Today’s Wednesday, so we’re a couple of days down the line. But I thought perhaps before going into the paper, as a first question to ease us into the interview, could you please tell us a little about how you became a Professor of Religion and Politics in Australia?

MM: Yes, well, sort-of by mistake! I did a PhD in Theology, and by the time I’d finished I was very sure that I didn’t want to work for the Church – which is pretty much the only thing you can do with a PhD in theology in the normal kind-of career progression in Australia. So I applied for jobs all around the place. And the one I happened to get . . . which was not what I imagined myself doing, but you know how it is when you finish your PhD and you apply all around the place, and you get what you happen to get. The one that I happened to get was in a fabulous department that no longer exists in the University of South Australia. And what we did was provide teacher training to teachers of Religious Studies. Because, in those days, South Australia had thought that it was going to have a non-confessional RE programme for teachers in public schools, and they had set up this whole department to train the teachers for it. But what had actually happened was that that programme was never implemented, and instead we provided teacher training for Catholic schools mainly. Our main clientele was Catholic schools’ deputy principals, who had to get a degree in Religious Education in order to get the next step on their promotion. And so we were kind-of a service provider for the Catholic Education Office. And then ACU (the Australian Catholic University) got set up and so we lost that client base, and the department isn’t there anymore. But it was a fantastic department, and I learnt there what non-confessional RE – Religious Education, education about religions – is, because we were providing it to all these Catholic school teachers. We would see them come in and think that Religious Education was catechesis, and then they would go through this programme and they would discover that there is this whole other way to think about religion. I worked there for 5 years as I was on contract, and then my contract ran out. Then I cast around and applied for jobs, and the one that I happened to get, again, was in Australian Politics, at the University of Adelaide. And while I was doing that I thought, “Hang on a minute! There’s all this work on religion and politics in America, but no one is doing anything on religion and politics in Australia. But there is a huge story here!” And while I was doing that two-year contract in Politics at the University of Adelaide, a big story was in the paper every single day, on, and on, and on. In fact, it started while I was still in Religious Studies at the University of South Australia. And that was the Hindmarsh Island Royal Commission, which anybody who lives in South Australia will still know what that is about straight-away – it was on the front page of the Adelaide Advertiser for a couple of years. It was an inquiry into whether a group of Aboriginal women from South Australia had fabricated so-called “secret women’s business” – which is now a phrase in Australian vernacular but it wasn’t until then – which was a set of traditional beliefs that, because they were secret, they hadn’t talked about before. So wider Australia went, “We’ve never heard of this, you must have made this up!” But the point of it was that these beliefs were about a tract of water between Hindmarsh Island and the mainland. And its sacredness, these women said, should prevent a marina being built, that was wanted to be built by some developers. And so this whole question of “Should sacred sites stand in the way of development?” blew up into a question about “Do Aboriginal peoples make up traditions in order to stop development?” and “Are they being manipulated by ‘Greenies’?” And so there was a series of inquiries. So this question of how non-Aboriginal Australia deals with questions of sacredness seemed to me to be a very religions-and-politics question that mainstream Australia did not have a vocabulary to deal with. So I wrote quite a lot about that. And then, when my University of Adelaide ran out (laughs) . . . . It seems my academic trajectory has been really shaped by the conditions of the labour market! I then applied for, and got, the Australian Parliamentary Fellowship which was a fantastic programme run by the parliamentary library which still exists but, I think, in not as a good a form. But in those days it was a one year programme where you worked in parliament as a research fellow for a year, where you spent half your time doing an individual independent research project, and the other half of the time supplying information for members and senators on anything they ask about. And my independent research project was about religion and Australian parliamentary processes. And I wrote my first book which was called For God and Country: Religious Dynamics in Australian Federal Politics, which was the only Parliamentary Fellowship monograph ever to sell out, and go to a second printing! And it is now available on-line for a free pdf download. And then, after that, I got my first permanent job – Yes! – at the Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand. And there we had a course on Religion and Politics. So there’s a long answer!

TW: Oh well, OK! This segues nicely with a question that I was going to ask towards the end but: the situation of politics and religion in Australia, and the situation of politics and religion in New Zealand – was it quite a shift going to Victoria, after developing all your expertise on your situation in Australia?

MM: It really was. I was quite, well . . . I had been to New Zealand once. I did the interview over the phone, so I had only been there once, years earlier, for a conference. So I did not really know anything about New Zealand, except that I heard this rumour that they have really good coffee – which proved to be true!

TW: Excellent coffee, yes!

MM: Yes, yes! And that was such a wrench, coming back! But when I got to Wellington, I remember going to my first faculty meeting and thinking, “I’m going to have to get a dictionary!” Because there was so much Maori language which is used as just a matter of course, in everyday discourse, from university management and in university processes. And I didn’t know what all these words meant. So if you are a student, and a student has a problem, you are allowed to bring whanau support, you know, so I didn’t know. I learnt. But it was a very sharp learning curve, and that required a whole sort of cultural shift. And when I moved back to Australia it was a culture shock again, to have that indigenous perspective suddenly not present in university processes. So that was one thing that I noticed. And the political system, when we moved to New Zealand. New Zealand had only quite recently made the shift to MMP, multi-member proportional voting, whereas Australia uses single transferable vote in the lower house and a version of proportional representation in the upper house. And so I learnt that the voting system has quite a strong effect, which I hadn’t really . . . I’d kind-of intellectually known, but I hadn’t really seen it in action. And so I hadn’t really, viscerally, appreciated the effect it can have on, like, the way that religious interests can have an effect in electoral politics. And while we were in New Zealand there was that dramatic election when a religiously influenced party, United Future New Zealand, got an unexpectedly big vote and, effectively, the balance of power in the New Zealand parliament. So, I learnt a lot things and I did have to go on a sharp learning curve, and I couldn’t kind-of, be an expert on New Zealand politics straight away. I had to make a quick catch-up.

TW: Well, that’s interesting. So trying to rephrase that in very broad brush, and perhaps overly clumsy positioning: is there the implication that New Zealand is a bit more open to ethnic difference – in terms of the Maori having much stronger representation within the political system – this is carried over to more access for religion within the public space, or more representation for religion in the public space in New Zealand, than in Australia?

  1. MM. Well, I would say it is a different kind of presence. Australia has a history of a strongly articulated policy of multiculturalism, which has been under increasing attack over the recent decade or two. But multiculturalism became official policy in 1974, and for a long time there was quite a strong infrastructure of policy and practice to support that. Whereas, New Zealand’s policy is biculturalism, so that has kind of made different spaces for religious communities to be present in the public space. New Zealand is further down the secularisation path than Australia is, if we think of secularisation meaning the religious practice of the majority of the population. So in the last Australian census, 54% of Australians claimed to be of some sort of religious adherence. I’m not sure what the figure is for New Zealand, but New Zealand got to that 50%, just over that 50%, a couple censuses ago. So I imagine it’s lower now. But the striking difference about religion in the public space that I noticed when I lived in New Zealand is that, in New Zealand Maori make up not only a bigger proportion of the population, but also a much more cohesive proportion of the population than Aboriginal people – Aboriginal People and Torres Strait Islanders – do in Australia. So indigenous Australians are about 2-3% of the population whereas Maori, at the time I was living there, were about 15%. And the other big difference is that Maori have a common language, whereas Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders have many different language groups: there were about 500 different language groups at the time of European contact. So, for example, when I enrolled my daughter in primary school in Wellington, on her first day, when she was 5, we went along to Newtown primary and there was a ceremony to welcome to the new students. And it was forty-five minutes long and every last word of it was in Maori! And all the little pakeha kids, like my daughter, just had to sit there and . . . sit there politely and listen. And the principal made a quite long speech – I guess about 15 minutes long – and every now and then a smattering of people in the audience laughed and the rest of knew that he’d made a joke! And there was a haka, and my daughter had never seen a haka before – having just come from Australia – so she was just kind of gobsmacked! And then, once she started at school, everyday started with a karakia – which is a Maori prayer which is offered at the beginning of something important – which is in Maori. And the children who didn’t speak Maori didn’t know what the content of the karakia They just knew this was something that they had to pay respectful attention to. And then, one day we were sitting in a church service and the vicar said, “We will now chant the Lord’s prayer in Maori”, and my daughter said in a triumphant state, “I know this!” And only at the point did she realise that what she had been saying every day in school was actually with Christian content, but delivered in Maori language. So there is a lot more kind-of theological presence in New Zealand public life through the Maori traditions than there is in Australia – partly because of the Treaty obligation to respect Maori tradition, much of which has Christian content. So that was a bit of an eye-opener to me, in the way that religious meaning can be present in public life.

TW: Yes, it gets carried in the representation of Maori voices, yes. Excellent, that’s an interesting contrast taking place there. So throughout your career very much looking at public policy, you mentioned in your paper that you take great value from Bacchi’s approach to public policy in terms of “framing the problem”. Could you, perhaps, please explain to our listeners what that’s about?

MM: Well, yes. So Carol Bacchi was, in fact, one of my colleagues at the University of Adelaide. And see developed this approach called ‘What’s the problem represented to be?” which is a problem-framing analysis technique that she has very successful disseminated – particularly to Australian public policy practitioners, and the people working on the boundaries of academia and public service. And so it’s taking off from the observation, that anyone working in policy-framing is aware of, which is that how you frame the question has a big influence on how you find the solution. So if the problem is traffic congestion, if you think the problem is not enough roads, then you build more roads. But then you’ll still end up . . . because all that happens is that everyone takes their cars out, and you end up with still more blocked roads. So is the solution to traffic congestion more roads? Or is it having to think about traffic in a different way? So she developed this six-point technique, based on a Foucauldian set of assumptions, where you ask, in any particular policy framework: what is problem represented to be? Why is the problem represented to be this way? What assumptions underlie this problem representation? How could it be represented differently? And whose interests are being served by representing it in this way rather than some other way? And, what if we represent it in a different way? Or what different problem representations can we come up with? And who would benefit or lose when we represent it in different ways? And what consequences would flow from different problem representations? So I was applying that approach to looking at the way questions about secular education have been framed and applied in the 19th and 21st Century in Australia and France.

TW: Yes. So, I really enjoyed the paper.

MM: Thank you.

TW: It think it got a really good response from the audience: the comparative analysis of the trajectories of religion in schools in France and Australia. I think probably, most of our Listeners, they would be more familiar with the France situation because of the veil, and that’s received a lot of popular attention. So, starting with Australia, what’s the story regarding religion in schools in Australia? How has that developed?

MM: Well, the story about education in Australia goes back to before it was a country, and was a set of colonies. The Australian colonies federated in 1901 – and, at the time, everyone thought New Zealand was going to join in as well, but it didn’t – and each of the colonies started out with the schools being mainly provided by churches, because that was who had the resources to do it. And then, as they were scrambling to set up local infrastructure, gradually, they were governed directly from the UK. And then they established local parliaments and then the parliaments set up school systems. And so there is a very good record in the local Hansards, the records of parliamentary debates, about the parliamentarians debating what kind of school system they should set up. And they all, each of the parliaments in turn, debated whether religion should be put into the public schools, and should the parliaments or governments be subsidising religious schools alongside the public system? And each of them decided, for very similar reasons – and the same debates were had in parliament after parliament – “No. They should not be subsidising religious schools, and they should not have religion taught in the public schools.” And both of those things for the same reason: namely, that children should be encouraged to go to public schools because they wanted to overcome the problem that they’d perceived which was sectarianism that was dividing . . . . The biggest potential division in their communities was sectarianism. And so divisions between Catholic and Protestant students was the main division. But other divisions like between . . . . Particularly in South Australia, they talked a lot about . . . they imagined a future colony where there might be Jewish and Muslim students as well, and maybe Buddhists they mentioned. In the 19th Century parliaments they thought that the best way was for all of those students to be educated side-by-side and to grow into one cohesive community. And they thought that any attempt . . . . They wondered, “Could there be some non-denominational Christianity?” or could there be some sort of . . . ? “Er, no. That won’t work. Because that will still exclude the little Jews and Buddhists.” “Could we teach some general religion that doesn’t offend anybody?” But they sort-of flirted with that idea for about five minutes and then realised that isn’t going work.

TW: Yes, you’re always going to offend somebody.

MM: Yes. So, in the end, they concluded that the only way was just not to have religion in the public schools. And all the people in the debates were very religious people by and large, or fairly religious people; they were not anti-religion. In fact, some of them were very devout. And some of them said that religion is simply too important to let it be politicised by letting it be kicked around in the education debates: “We need to protect religion by keeping it out of the public schools.” And churches also, some of them, wanted to have the Bible in schools. But some of them, like the Congregationalists in Australia, they passed a series of motions through their Synod, saying that the Bible needed to be kept out of public schools to protect it from being turned into a fetish or being turned into a political football. So there was quite a unified – surprisingly, to me – unified view across the religious and non-religious spectrum – but the non-religious spectrum in 19th Century Australia was minute – but that religion didn’t belong in public education.

TW: And we’re still talking here religious instruction – a values-based religion-type education – as opposed to the RE that you might get in more contemporary schooling systems, which is just exploring descriptive aspects of religion?

MM: Yeah. But the exception was New South Wales. And because New South Wales is so big, a lot of the debate that we have now takes the New South Wales experience as normative. But, actually, New South Wales was really the exception. And what New South Wales did was that it was the last state to pass . . . or colony, to pass its secular Education Act in 1880, and it was also the most equivocal. Because the sectarian issue was the fiercest in New South Wales. But it kept something called ‘General Religious Education’ in its Education Act and that was where teachers could give general religious information, which the 19th Century legislators thought was going to be a kind of non-denominational Christian RE, not education-about-religions education as we think about it now. There was going to be some Bible instruction but without dogmatic commentary. And New South Wales also kept in a capacity for ministers of religion to come in for up to an hour a day – but nobody actually did that – to instruct members of their own denomination: an in-house catechetical instruction.

So the more education-about-religions, as an educational subject, by and large, is still not taught in Australian schools. There is a little element in the Civics curriculum, in the National Curriculum. But I think it would be true to say that most Australian students wouldn’t notice that they’d received it. A bit about, you know, the religions of your neighbours. And in New South Wales, there is also a Studies of Religion which you can take in the last two years at High School as an optional subject. Nearly everyone who takes it takes it from private schools, religious schools. But it is a very good programme in that it is seriously non-confessional RE, and you can’t just do it in one tradition. Like if you are a Catholic school . . . . Most Catholic schools make Catholicism one of their traditions, but you have to do another one.

TW: Is that an initiative that is coming out of the Catholic Church itself, or is this something that is coming out of the national education body?

MM: No, it’s overseen by the Board of Studies, which is the New South Wales education. And although the majority of students that take it are in private schools, some public schools offer it as well, and some students take it as an independent study unit.

TW: OK. But as your paper was suggesting there is a wind of change blowing through the Australian education system – or ever since John Howard, anyway – where things, perhaps, are moving in a different direction. Is that correct?

MM: Well, there are currents of change pulling in different directions. So actually, even going back before John Howard there has been a move of increasing segregation in Australia’s education. So Gough Whitlam actually – the hero of progressive politics – he, in 1973, introduced a huge change which was to bring back public funding of private schools. He also greatly increased school funding across the board, so there was just so much largesse going around the schools, that it didn’t create a great deal of protest. And also he directed it towards the most needy, poor Catholic schools. But every reiteration of the funding arrangements since then has been to the benefit of wealthier schools and to the detriment of the public school system. So we now have a very segmented school system where large numbers of wealthy schools are funded over their official allocation, because they’ve managed to do special deals where they get funding for their running costs, and on top of that for their building programmes, and for additional special projects. And the funding allocation of public schools has gone down, proportionally.

TW: And it’s the private schools that are more often the religious-run schools?

MM: Over 90% of private schools in Australia are attached to Christian denominations, one way or another. And whereas public schools are officially secular, the other change – that is a Howard change – is that public schools also have increasing amounts of religious presence in them. For example, through the National Schools Chaplaincy Programme, which is a government-funded programme which puts almost exclusively Christian chaplains in public schools. And another Howard change is that the make-up of the private school market has changed with the easing of the regulations for small private schools – most of which tend to be from the more conservative-evangelical end of the spectrum.

TW: Are these changes actually done with a religious motive, or a motive of actually helping religions gain a larger foothold in education? Or is this actually due to kind-of changing educational policy in relation to the freedom of institutions to develop their own curricula, or to have more autonomy from national or state education bodies?

MM: I think, from looking at Howard’s statements for why he was making those changes, I’d say it was a combination of things. The Liberal Party, which was his government, the Liberal Government, their general preference is for private providers rather than public provision. Not on the basis of any educational evidence, but that’s just . . . . They oversaw out-sourcing of public services in a whole range of areas and education was one. I do, however, think he had a deliberate strategy of courting the conservative Christian end, the conservative Christian demographic. Because, before he came to power in 1996, he had identified progressive churches as one of a series of groups, including feminists, academics, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the environmentalists, he had this list of people . . .

TW: The usual troublemakers . . .

  1. MM. Yes, that’s right! . . . who had blocked reforms that his predecessors in the Liberal Party had tried to implement, and liberal Christians were one his targeted groups. And so, when he got in in 1996, he embarked on a programme of telling progressive churches to get back in their box, and stick to talking about spiritual matters. And at the same he went out his way to go to Hillsong Church conventions; to do this thing of easing the regulations for small Christian schools; to make a series of statements on conservative so-called “family values” issues; to complain about political correctness, and generally sort-of court that so-called Christian-values/conservative-values end of the religious spectrum – which is actually only a very tiny proportion of the population of Australia. Australia doesn’t have a big S Christian right market, but he was talking that sort of language. And this was the same time that George Bush was aligning himself with the U.S. Christian right. And Howard was echoing, in a more muted way, that same sort of language and appealing, in Australia, to . . . not so much of an existent evangelical-voter-base, but more to a part of the population that doesn’t go to church, but thinks that values are a good idea: “Christians seems to have them, maybe. Society is falling apart, and maybe we ought to stick with the person who appears to know what values are and where they are to be found.”

TW: So, to summarise: where the Australian education system started out with a strong commitment to keeping religion out of its education system, in the name of openness and inclusivity, under the Howard government, religion, and specifically Christian values, are making a quiet return as an educational resource, largely to push against a liberal politics in Australia. And, indeed, confirming some of the earlier reservations in the 19th Century about religion in education becoming a political resource. Fascinating. Professor Maddox, thank you very much for your time and expertise. And thank you to our Listeners for tuning in.


Citation Info: Maddox, Marion and Thomas White. 2018. “Religion, Education and Politics in Australia and NZ”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 November 2018. Transcribed by Thomas White and Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 October 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-education-and-politics-in-australia-and-nz/ 

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered… and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining Chris today to discuss these questions and more, is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University.

This interview was recorded at the June 2018 EASR Conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, where Susannah has delivered a paper entitled “What Gender is ‘Nature’? An approach to new age ecospirituality in theory and practice.” This interview was graciously facilitated by Moritz Klenk, and his podcast studio!

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

Podcast with Susannah Crockford (1 October 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Crockford_-_Ecospirituality,_Gender_and_Nature_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (C.C.): In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered . . . and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining me today to discuss these questions and more is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University. So for a start, Susannah, to the Religious Studies Project, welcome!

Susannah Crockford (SC): Thank you! Welcome.

CC: We are recording in Bern, at the European Association for the Study of Religion Conference, where Susannah has been delivering a paper earlier on called “What Gender is nature? An Approach to New Age Ecospirituality in Theory and Practice.” So I had the pleasure of being in the room. But before we get to today’s conversation I’ll just tell you that Dr Crockford’s a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Literary Studies at Ghent University, which works on the NARMESH, or Narrating the Mesh project, investigating the contemporary narrative of the interrelations between humans and large gamut of non-human realities and its potential for staging, challenging and expanding the human imagination of the non-human. The research interests centre on the use of ethnography to explore narratives of spirituality, millenarianism and climate change. Her doctoral thesis was entitled “After the American Dream: Political Economy and Spirituality in Northern Arizona”. And that was awarded in July 2017 by LSE, following which she spent 9 months as a research officer for INFORM or the Information Network on New Religious Movements. And she has a number of forthcoming articles and chapters on topics relevant to today’s interview coming out in Religion, State and Society, Correspondences, Novo Religio and the Dictionary of Contemporary Esotericism. So, watch this space! I suppose some of them might have changed from forthcoming to published by the time this goes out, who knows?

SC: Probably. Hopefully. You never know.

CC: Yes. Academic publishing is a wonderful, wonderful world!

SC: We love it. We love it. (Laughs).

CC: So, we’re going to get to your case study in Arizona soon, but first of all: gender, nature, ecospirituality – how do you get here?

SC: How did I get here was very much through my fieldwork. Because these were the kind-of topics that came up when I was in Sedona and other places in Arizona. People talked about nature in a very gendered way. It was very striking to me just how much these discourses came up. So it was very much an empirical interest. I didn’t really set out to study ecological issues, or ecospirituality. I mean, I thought nature would be relevant when I got to the field. But I wasn’t so concerned with gender. But it’s kind-of one of these topics that it was going to be in my thesis, and then I didn’t have space. So I kind-of pushed it to one side. And then, for this conference, it kind-of came back. And I was like, “Oh yes! Now I can write my thing about gender and ecospirituality” and how New Age spirituality really kind-of inverts this gender binary, I think in a quite interesting, but also problematic, way. So that’s how it came about.

CC: Well how did you, more broadly, end up in Arizona?

SC: That’s a really good question.  And, I mean, there are several ways that I can date it back to. But let’s just say for the sake of simplicity I ended up in Arizona because I wanted to do a project on contemporary esotericism and I discovered Sedona, which is in Arizona, through a quite tragic case, actually of James Arthur Ray. He set himself up as this spiritual guru. And he ran a sweat lodge as part of a longer Rainbow Warrior workshop, where people paid $9000 to go and “unleash your spiritual warrior within”. And it was held in Sedona. And then three people died in this sweat lodge. It was in 2009. And I was reading about that in the news, because I was doing a lot of work on Shamanism at the time. And I was like, “Oh, That’s terrible.” But then I was like, “Oh there’s this place called Sedona that’s full of these New Age people and full of these things that they call vortexes. That would be a great place for an ethnographic study on contemporary esotericism!” So that, very briefly, is how I ended up in Arizona doing my fieldwork.

CC: I could ask you now to introduce us to Sedona, but maybe I should say first of all – because ecospirituality’s going to be coming up probably throughout the introduction . . . . So I know this is a very broad question but, in terms of the next twenty minutes, what are we meaning by ecospirituality? And then we’ll hear more about it.

SC: Yes, so I’m going to define it in a really simple way – which obviously some people might find simplistic – but: finding nature is, in some form, divinised, or finding divinity in nature. And doing that outside of the framework of some organised religion. So I think the difference between ecospirituality and say, like the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change, for example. Like you can be concerned for the environment as a mainstream Christian, but I don’t think that’s ecospirituality. Because God, specifically, is not in nature for them. For people who are in some way engaged in ecospirituality the divine is in nature. It’s pantheistic. And it comes up in lots of different forms. Paganism is obviously a really prominent one, Wicca, and it’s obviously very prominent in New Age spiritualties that see nature as part of the energy of the universe, but in a very kind-of high vibrational form. So the energy of nature is one that has a very kind-of high spiritual level. So there’s a very clear association between nature and spirituality and, as we’ll get onto, women and femininity.

CC: And so it’s not environmentalism, and things like that?

SC: No. And that’s actually one of the main points I was making, today: that just because you find spirituality in nature, you think that nature has something to do with your understanding of God, doesn’t mean that you will actually engage in actions that might be considered environmentally friendly, or ecologically engaged, or in fact have anything to do with mitigating largescale ecological problems like pollution and climate change. These are separate things.

CC: Yes. And to the audio editors, we’re going to start banging the table!

SC: Sorry, I need to gesticulate!

CC: It’s alright. Hit me, instead of the table.

Both: (Laugh).

CC: Right. So let’s set the scene then. So, Sedona – a small town in Arizona. What makes it so interesting? You mentioned the vortexes earlier and things . . .

SC: Yes. So Sedona is a fascinating town. It is in Northern Arizona, which is higher up than Southern Arizona. So it’s not low desert with the big Saguaro cactuses which come to most people’s minds when they think about Arizona. It’s up in the mountains, it gets cold in the winter. They even have snow sometimes, but it’s also still, quite hot. Sedona has a river – which is quite rare in Arizona. So it has a fresh water source. So it has the incredible kind-of red rock canyons and the river running through it. There’s trees growing everywhere. So it’s very different from the rest of Arizona. And it’s this sense of landscape that is both striking and substantially different from that around it which I think makes it stand up in human perception as something that this is different enough that “I will perceive it, in some way, maybe, sublime – or even something to do with the divine.” Because a lot of people who live there think that Sedona is a sacred space, whether or not they’re engaged in New Age spirituality. People I spoke to there who were Christians said, you know, “This is a place where God has kind-of bestowed something special on the human race.” Because it is a very beautiful place. So it’s a town of about 17000 people. It is within the Red Rock Canyon. It has one main highway and then another bit splits off to a slightly southern community that’s called the Village of Oak Creek. But they’re all basically Sedona, they’re all pretty much one place. Even though municipally they’re two different places. And Sedona is a tourist resort. It has a lot of kind-of hotels and it has a lot of spas and timeshares, and people go there to enjoy nature, to go on holiday. A lot of people who own property there, own it as a second home. There’s even some kind-of super-rich people there, like John McCain who’s a Republican Senator, Sharon Stone apparently owned a house up the hill from where I first rented a room, in uptown. So there’s these three main locations in Sedona. Uptown has a lot of the stores and a lot of the very wealthy houses. You’ve got West Sedona where there’s a lot of the services, like the Post Office and the school. And it’s where a lot of my informants lived, because it’s a lot cheaper. And then you’ve got the village of Oak Creek which where a lot of retirees live. Because it’s a good place. There’s this phenomena in America of Snowbirds – of people who, once they retire, go and live somewhere sunny for the winter. And then, for the hot months – which are very, very hot – they go back up north to Michigan or Canada or wherever they’re from. So there’s a lot of Snowbirds in Sedona. So, as a town, it’s quite . . . I don’t know, it’s quite typical of small town America in lots of ways. You know, there’s the older people who own all the property and the young people work all the jobs, but don’t really have any resources. And then you’ve also got these things called vortexes. So there’s two ways of talking about the vortexes. Either you can say that there’s four, around town, which are all these kind-of very prominent red rock formations. There are lots of other red rock formations and they have all kinds of names. There’s one called Snoopy, because it looks a bit like Snoopy lying on his back. I never quite saw it myself, but you know people told me it looked like Snoopy anyway. And there’s Cathedral Rock which apparently used to be called Court Rock. And there’s another rock called Courthouse rock. And they got mixed up, and then suddenly Cathedral Rock became Cathedral Rock instead. So this is kind-of like historicity to the naming of the rocks. But they’re also given this kind-of eternal, almost like Eliadian essence of the divine, where people say, “No. They have this special energy. The Native Americans knew about this special energy, that’s why it was sacred to the local tribe s that lived here.” And the reason that people now say there are vortexes there is because this energy emanates from the earth – you know, it’s a real part of the landscape and that’s why we’re drawn there. So people do move there to go and have spiritual experiences. You know, people go on vacations and you know, there’s a lot of services there that cater for this market as well. You can get your aura photograph taken, you can go on a vortex tour. You can have a Shaman take you round to power spots and do rituals with you. So there is a market to it. But there’s also people who genuinely engage with these practices and move there because they feel like it’s a part of their spiritual path. They move there. They would tell me that they were called to Sedona that “the energy drew them in”. And then if they had to leave it was “the energy that spat them out”. And some people would say it was quite a common discourse in Sedona, that the energy could get so intense it could literally drive you crazy. There was a story of a woman who said that she had to leave because “the Red Rocks were screaming at her”. So, you know. There’s this idea that this is a very special place, it’s a very sacred place. But it’s also incredibly intense, and it can be very difficult to live there, both materially and spiritually – if that’s how you kind-of experience your world.

CC: So that’s an excellent scene-setting for the milieu, and the spiritual milieu in Sedona. But let’s focus in on the role of nature in this context, and these practices – and then also on gender. I imagine that you can probably talk about those at the same time.

SC: Yes. So nature is really prominent. I mean it would be prominent even with people who didn’t in any way engage with New Age spirituality. And something I should probably say here is that no-one actually called themselves a “New Ager” in Sedona. There was a shop called Centre for the New Age which has psychic where you can go and pay for readings. But if you ask people, “Are you a New Ager?” they would say, “No.” They call it spirituality and they’re quite comfortable with that. They don’t really care about all out disciplinary arguments about what’s spirituality, and what’s religion, and what’s what. They just say, “Yes, I’m spiritual.” Or “Yes, I’m interested in spirituality.” But they would never really call themselves New Agers – unless they were trying to sell a certain product and it helped them as a label. So the people who were engaged in some way in spirituality very often identified nature as a very prominent source of what they would consider kind-of spiritual practice. But also kind-of just the energy of the place. So for some people being spiritual literally just entailed going for hikes amongst the rocks, maybe meditating a bit, but just being close to the earth. And simply moving to Sedona was seen as way of getting closer to nature. Because it was this place of like astounding natural beauty. It was kind-of seen as embodying nature in a very visceral way. And you’ve also got other locations close by like the Grand Canyon, the San Francisco Peaks, which is a larger series of mountains that were also considered sacred and kind-of also embodied this idea of big nature in a similar way. So, when it comes to gender, the experience of nature as sacred was very often feminised in the way they spoke about it. So, you know, obviously mother Earth is quite a common one. But in Sedona they would also talk about the Father Sky. So there’s this idea of gender emerging there already. So you’ve got Mother Earth on the one hand that complements father sky. They would talk about the divine feminine and the complement is the divine masculine. Now these are energies. And the shift that was once called the New Age – but now they talk about it much in terms like the ascension, they call it the shift, they call it the new paradigm – this is when the old male energies kind-of wither away and die and are supplanted with the dominance of the divine feminine. So the change that is called New Age spirituality, that change is a shift from something that’s coded as male to something that’s coded as female. And there are all kinds of associations with this gender binary. So male is aggressive, competitive, you know: men start wars, men destroy the planet, they have an extractive relationship to nature. Whereas the female principle is cooperative: it’s very in tune with emotions and it’s very connected to nature and celebrating the earth and being part of the earth. And so, something that came up in the panel today was . . . . This is a very old association between women and nature, but the way that association is framed is not always the same in all times and all places. So I thought one thing interesting that came up this morning was the feminine being associated with death, which made total sense to me. But that’s not there in the context in Sedona. Women are about life, they are about producing life. The feminine is the mother, is the nurturer, is the care giver. You know, this is the divine feminine principle. So it’s this very kind-of starkly-coded gender binary. And it doesn’t really change anything from what are the kind-of general gender associations in America more generally. It just inverts it and says that the feminine is better than the masculine. And you know, basically, it’s not even that women should be in charge – it’s just that everyone should embrace the feminine within them, and that that complementarity is part of the way that we will progress spiritually and socially. But it doesn’t really lend itself to any sense of action. And this is where we come back to this idea that ecospirituality is not the same as environmentalism. My informants weren’t in any way engaged in environmental politics. They didn’t really do anything that could be seen as particularly environmentally friendly. And in fact in the whole kind-of cosmology of the shift, or the ascension, it’s happening anyway. And the way it happens is like everyone working on their spiritual practice. It doesn’t happen by you going on protests or you switching to an electric car, or whatever. It happens by you sitting at home and meditating. Now from another perspective, you could see how that doesn’t help the environment at all. In fact, it breeds a certain passivity to social action. And means that people are going along with the same kind-of actions that are harming the planet. For example: driving cars, which release a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, carbon monoxide and all the other greenhouse gases. So there’s no sense of social action or social change. It’s all very inward. And everyone going on their spiritual path together cumulatively creates the change. It’s like the 100th monkey idea. Do you know what that is?

CC: Go for it.

SC: Well it’s like this credited idea from Bio-Anth – biological anthropology –

CC: Yes.

SC:   – that if, like, a certain number of monkeys – say 100 – learn a specific skill it will spread out through the rest of the monkeys by, like, collective consciousness. So that’s very dominant, at least amongst my informants in Sedona, that in fact it was detrimental to go out and do political action. I had this one informant who used to be very involved in NGOs, and going to other countries and trying to do development work. And then she said that all her protest work and all of her social action work had actually been making things worse, because she was so focussed on the negativity of these situations and instead she should stay in America and work on her spiritual path. And, you know, she did various kind-of workshops, and she was very much engaged in “embracing this divine feminine” herself. But that seems to basically involve going on these exclusive retreats to places like the Caribbean Islands, like the Bahamas, or like places in Aspen, Colorado, and getting women who had very high-paying jobs to go on them, so that they could go and “explore their divine feminine”, “work on their consciousness”, and “evolution”, and “inner-conscious entrepreneur”. And by doing that, she would help create way more positive action than she ever did working in NGOs. And, you know, so you can kind-of shift the perspective and go, “How is it helping by you kind-of creating all these places where everyone flies into these luxury resorts, has a lovely holiday, goes home, continues doing capitalism every day?” So . . .

CC: So you’ve done a good job of painting the relationship or lack of relationship, potentially, between environmentalism and ecospirituality, and sort of carving out what we’re meaning there. And we’ve spoken about the entanglements of gender and constructions of nature. But how are the two, I guess, entangled? These two: the ecospirituality on the one hand and this gendering of nature. Are there example you can maybe give of that entanglement of the two?

SC: So, how is ecospirituality entangled in gender? Well, I think it’s very much in this idea associating nature with the feminine – and that both of those things are given a positive valence regardless of what those actions actually are. So I could get very frustrated, in fact, in the field, with people talking about things that are nature and natural as thought that means it’s good for human health. So to take as an example: my informants generally liked to get water from the spring in Sedona because it came directly from the earth – and therefore it was good for them, right? But then it actually transpired that that stream had a very high level of naturally occurring anthrax, which is not good for human health. Now that’s entirely natural, in the sense that humans didn’t put it there. It was a part of the composition of the soil and the water in the area.

(Edited audio)

CC: Susannah has a correction to make to what she just said!

SC: Yes, so what I meant to say, instead of anthrax, was in fact arsenic. Arsenic is naturally occurring in water, not anthrax.

CC: Back to the interview!

(End of edit)

SC: Also, with the way this divine feminine principle got expressed in practice. So in my paper today, I talked about the work of an artist who . . . she did this whole series of paintings of the goddess. And it was all different kind-of instantiations of what she called the goddess energy. And it was all like faces of women growing out of trees, for example. And there’s this wonderful one called Blue Corn Woman, which she attached to a re-evaluation of Hopi myth that had something to do them surviving Atlantis because they listened to earth and knew when to go underground. And therefore they survived the cataclysm that destroyed Atlantis. So she had a whole series of paintings in this way. And, in person, she would always talk about the Goddess and how that was how she kind-of tried to live her life – it was in celebration of this divine feminine principle. And then this led to this very kind-of difficult lifestyle that she had, where she didn’t really want to go out and work because “emotionally, that didn’t suit her”. She wanted to do art, because that’s how she “expressed her soul”. But that meant she basically relied on men, who were variously infatuated with her, to support her financially. And she also had a fairly considerable drinking problem. And she drove her car while drunk. She had a blood alcohol level of like 0.3, now the legal limit is like 0.8 or 008, or something, so she was well over the legal limit. And she drove it into a fire station and wrecked the front of a fire station. And afterwards she was arrested, you know . . .  the process . . . . Let out . . . she blamed the fact that she had experienced childhood trauma. And it wasn’t that she was drunk, it was that she was having a “dissociative state” at the time, caused by her childhood trauma. So she, then, refused to come to court many times. She kept firing her lawyer. And this was . . . all she had to serve was a 90 day prison sentence and go on her way. And it took her three years to come to terms and just do that. So, why is this related to the divine feminine and nature? So it was this association between her emotions and her emotional state – the idea of herself as a woman and the idea of what is natural and what is natural for her – led to this lifestyle that is on one hand quite passive, and on the other hand not accepting any sense of social responsibility for her own action. Because she wasn’t responsible because she’d experienced this trauma. Therefore her emotions were such that she just had to express them. And I felt that that was actually quite problematic. Because, on the one hand you’ve got ecospirituality that’s seen as. . . in a way it’s seen as inevitable – you don’t have to do anything – so that breeds passivity on the social level. And then on a personal level it leads to a lack of accountability in your personal actions – or it can. Because you over-value your own emotions to the extent that the consequences of your emotional states are not dealt with. At least, I felt that in that case. Obviously I knew other people who, in different ways, were interested in kind-of the divine feminine aspects of spirituality. And they did quite productive things. So I don’t want to try and claim that everyone was like this. I’m saying that this is like . . . . The worst excesses of this kind-of association could lead to this kind-of situation. I knew someone else, for example, who felt that the divine feminine principle was how she should express her spirituality and she held Goddess wisdom workshops, and they were very fun, and that was fine. (Laughs) But again, I felt like there was this very simplistic association between femininity, nature and the sense of goodness. Like . . . that it was somehow inherent, and that you would just somehow know, as a woman, by being natural, the right thing to do. And I don’t think that that was always the case.

CC: Excellent. So we’re getting on in time, and I know I’ve got two more questions that I want to ask you before we get to the “what’s next on the agenda, for your research”. One is – you’ve just been speaking there a bit to this: what are the practical, social, political, real world – for want of a better term – effects of this gendering of nature, in your research experience? Why does it matter?

SC: OK. Why does it matter? I think it matters because we are in a time, in our society, when actually we really need to pay a great deal of attention to the environment and to ecology, not for the sake of the planet or of the environment in some disconnected way – because they will actually keep on going. What’s happening in terms of climate change is the erosion of the habitability of the planet for humans. You know, we’re destroying our own ecosystem, and we will be the ones that suffer for that eventually. And I think any of these discourses that kind-of separate off nature and the environment as something separate from humans are causing harm. And I think this particular kind-of ecospirituality in terms of the New Age, or whatever you want to a call it, is quite detrimental in terms of ecology, because it doesn’t put any kind-of real world action to the forefront. I think meditating is great, but I also think you need to accompany it with some form of action that will make your goals happen instead of just sitting back and thinking that it will happen inevitably. It’s like: prayer is great, but you should also get out there and do something about the social goals you want to achieve that go along with your religious ethics. So what I see a bit too much in this particular form is the “nature will just take care of these things.” That somehow Mother Nature is this caring powerful being and that that means it’s all going to be ok for humans. And that’s not the case. If we continue destroying our ecosystems humans will not continue living. You know, society will not continue. The planet will find a way to go on, because it’s the planet. So that’s why, in real world terms, I think it matters. I think I’m being a bit more evaluative and normative than I would ever be if I wrote any of this down, right now!

CC: That’s ok, you know.

SC: Is that ok? Because I really feel like that this is the defining important issue of our time. And if you’re not paying attention to it, if you’re not doing something useful about it, whatever that may be – even if it is just your individual actions – then actually, you’re not helping. You’re making things worse.

CC: And just to riff on that normativity a little bit, I can imagine that actually, yes, part of this discourse enables people . . . like, people might feel that they are doing something.

SC: Yes. No, they absolutely think they’re doing . . . . They think they are the only ones that are doing something. Because they’re meditating and expecting the shift any moment through enhancing themselves spiritually. Which . . . from a Religious Studies perspective it’s fascinating! I could sit and describe the cosmology all day. But if we’re going to talk about real world effects and real problems, that’s not helping.

CC: Exactly. We should also just acknowledge that we’ve been speaking in terms of gender binaries here, but that is predominantly what’s going on in the discourse. It is . . . we’re talking in binaries.

SC: Yes, so I very much . . . . Perhaps we should flag that up? I’m not saying, “I believe that these gender binaries are natural.” I’m saying that in this context my informants naturalised these gender binaries: “There is male and there is female”. They don’t really think about any other formation of gender. And that’s the way they see it. I’m not saying that normatively that’s correct.

CC: Exactly. So this is the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been floating around the topic of religion and spirituality here. But could we . . . . We probably could have described a lot of the stuff that was going on without needing to invoke those terms. So I’m just wondering what the role, what role these terms are playing, or if there’s maybe other dynamics that could explain away this gendering of nature.

SC: Yes, so I think I’m probably going to say something that will annoy lots of people who do Religious Studies. But I think that if we’re going to talk about spirituality, for me it’s a very specific thing which is this form of spirituality that was once called New Age. And it has a specific cosmology. And if you go out there amongst people who actually engage in these practices you can see it coming through. And I always say the basic tenet of it is that everything is energy and all energy vibrates at a specific frequency. So I think that spirituality, so defined, is kind-of one of the big religious shifts that we’re currently going through. Spirituality isn’t just something that happens in Sedona. It’s not something that just happens in America. It’s a global phenomenon. One of the things that happens to me a lot as I talk about my work – especially to other anthropologists, which is my background – they’ll say, “Oh yes! People I know in Palestine are really into that, because it gets them over sectarian conflict.” “People in Indonesia that I work with are really interested in that right now, as a form of healing.” And it is spread around the globe. And it is offering people a way of doing religion that is not part of their typical traditional organised religion. And for some people that’s just like a breath of fresh air. For some people that’s, quite literally, a life-saver – that they don’t have to engage in these old sectarian conflicts anymore; that they can create a new way forward without becoming secular. Because a lot of people don’t actually want that. They want to still engage with some kind-of meta-empirical reality – whatever you want to use as a term for it. So I think that spirituality is a form of religion, and it’s one of the growing forms of religion. And if you want to pay attention to the trends in religion now, as it’s actually lived and experienced on a daily basis, then you should really pay attention to spirituality – especially because it doesn’t really show up on stats and censuses, because there’s not really a box to tick for it. And also, people who are into spirituality really don’t like definitions. They wouldn’t really call themselves spiritual in that sense, but if you talk to them about what they do, and if you ask them if they’re interested in spirituality they will “Yes”, and suddenly they will come up with all of these fascinating things that they do. So I think it’s something that has to be studied empirically through qualitative research. And I think it’s something that is probably a lot more prevalent than we realise. Because it doesn’t really show up on these top-down measurements that a lot of scholarship can rely on – not all of it, obviously.

CC: (Laughs). So we have a whirlwind here. And, of course, we’ll point listeners to these forthcoming works. And you’re working on this NARMESH project, just now?

SC: NARMESH, yes.

CC: And so, you’re probably going to say it’s what’s next for you. But do want to say a little bit about your work there, and also, perhaps, anything you would like to see happening in this field of gender, spirituality, nature?

SC: Ok. So NARMESH is one of these ERC projects which . . . I’m kind-of discovering that they all have these kind-of acronyms for what they’re called. It’s from “narrating the mesh” which is from eco-theorist Timothy Morton’s work. So, the mesh is his idea for how everything is interconnected. And our project is looking at narratives of the interconnection of humans and non-humans and climate. So the rest of the people on the project are looking at narratives in literary fiction – which is why I’m in the Literary Studies department – and I’m looking at personal narratives. So what I’ve been doing is taking interviews and doing some short bits of fieldwork amongst groups of people who are differently positioned in the wider climate change discourse. So that’s climate scientists, radical environmentalists or kind-of eco-philosophers and, also, people who do not accept that climate change is happening – or if it is, they do not accept the human role in climate change. So, what we might call deniers or climate change sceptics. So that’s my current work. I’m kind-of in the middle of doing the fieldwork for that over in Sweden, two weeks ago, amongst people who basically see the world as ending and that we’re living through this kind-of destruction of the world. And “how do we kind-of create a new culture?” So that’s what I’ve been doing most recently. In terms of gender, nature and eco spirituality, I think it’s a really fascinating field and it’s one that I think you can kind-of bring together a lot of diverse studies from antiquity, right through to contemporary work, to look at this kind-of question. You know: how is nature gendered? What do we mean by goddess spirituality? And I think it is something that’s quite neglected. I think it’s something that, for a long time, got relegated to that kind-of “women’s studies” area of Religious Studies, and a lot of people don’t see it as particularly interesting or relevant. So I think it’s one of those things, if people start looking at it and studying it, it will come up more and more as a really relevant and important part of everyday religious practice for a very widely placed diversity of people, in different traditions, and different  historical periods and times.

CC: And I’m sure that there’s a lot more that we could get into just there now – but we have run out of time, Listeners. That was an excellent interview Susannah Crockford, and we’re looking forward to all the interest that you will have piqued, and to hearing more from this developing project that you’ve got. NARMESH?

SC: NARMESH, great. Thank you so much.

CC: It does sound like a little farewell, doesn’t it? Narmesh!

SC: Narmesh!

Both: (Laugh).


Citation Info: Crockford, Susannah and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 1 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 6 July 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/ecospirituality-gender-and-nature/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Myth, Solidarity, and Post-Liberalism

With the rise of reactionary politics across the globe, it is arguably increasingly important for the academic community to give consideration to the prospects of developing and strengthening solidarity across apparent religious, political and economic differences. In this podcast, Chris speaks to Dr Timothy Stacey (University of Ottawa) about his forthcoming book, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division (Routledge, 2018), in which he asks how we can begin to imagine solidarity in the modern world, and challenges academics to be challenge the co-option of their work by being “better than those who seek to co-opt us.”

What is solidarity? What is liberalism? And post-liberalism? How does this relate to the problematic notion of post-secularity? To myth? To the ‘sacred’? And are we missing a trick by not paying attention to the mythic elements of secularity? These questions and more provide the narrative hooks throughout this interview, in which we hear some fascinating insights into Tim’s personal biography and his extensive field research in London, and challenge the aversion which some social scientists feel regarding normativity.

If you like what you hear, why not check out our previous podcasts on “The Sacred”, “The Post-Secular” and “Habermas, Religion and the Post-Secular”, as well as Tim’s ongoing Lived Religions Project with Fernande Pool, featuring many fascinating “interviews with ordinary people telling their unique story” livedreligionproject.com

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, banners, flags, teapots and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism

Podcast with Timothy Stacey (9 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Stacey_-_Myth,_Solidarity_and_Post-Liberalism_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome to another episode of the Religious Studies Project. It’s the start of 2018 as I’m recording – although who knows when this is actually going to go out, because we’ve got such a backlog! I am here in Reading, on my way to Oxford. And I’m joined by Dr Tim Stacey. Hi Tim!

Timothy Stacey (TS): Hi.

CC: Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. Tim is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Ottawa, but has been in the UK for the festive period and our diaries and travel schedules managed to collide nicely! We’ll be hearing bout Tim’s research during the course of the interview, but the primary trigger for the interview is the forthcoming publication of his first monograph, with Routledge, later this year. That’s called, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division. And today we’re going to be talking a little bit about these notions of myth and solidarity, but also this key concept of post-liberalism. So, first of all, I’ve given a very brief introduction to you, Tim. But tell us, who are you? How have you got here?

TS: How have I . . . ?

CC: How have you got here? Why are you speaking to me?!

TS: Well, I guess I started off . . . I did my Masters at Nottingham, in Theology. And it was there – as I was listening to some really interesting arguments about virtue ethics, primarily from people like Alasdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor – that I felt very inspired by the stuff they were saying. But also, as an atheist myself, I kept asking, “How do I actually make this relevant to me, somebody who’s not actually a Christian?” And that was what triggered me moving from Theology into social scientific research. And so that triggered the PhD, which was about exploring possibilities for virtue ethics and notions of transcendence in a religiously plural society. And more recently the interest has turned to secular subjects, so that’s what I’m now in Vancouver exploring: what are the potentials for transcendence and solidarity amongst secular subjects?

CC: Fantastic! And we’ll be hearing more about that as this conversation ensues. So, set the scene for us then. The first couple of chapters of this book are exploring this notion of post-liberalism. But I don’t know that many of our listeners necessarily know what-on-earth that means! So perhaps you could, just for the sake . . . ? We know that we are in turbulent political times. There is a sort of reactionary politics happening all over the place. We’ve got these notions that there’s the political elites versus the ordinary masses, and everything. So, maybe, just take us through a chronological . . . . How have we got to this state? What is liberalism? And then, what is post-liberalism?

TS: Yes. Well, basically, the basic premise of the book is to follow this post-liberal argument. And the primary argument there is that, in a liberal secular society, we’ve lost a sense of the role of transcendence in forming social identity. So instead, we treat people as basically . . . both ideally, and also primarily motivated by rationality. And I suggest that we also tend to castigate those who appear to be irrational, whether that’s because of religion, ideology, parochialism, or simply a lack of education. And I think that comes up during the Brexit debate a lot as well. And the result, according to post-liberals, is two-fold. First: politics becomes technocratic and economics becomes instrumental. So, politics is less about building belonging and empowering people than it is about a university educated elite, delivering to social-scientifically construed need. And then, economics is less about reciprocity than it is about GDP. And then second: because of this, we increasingly see people retrenching in communities that they feel provide them with a sense of belonging and empowerment – communities of faith, race, nation, economic status. But then, kind of the . . . . (5:00) What inspired this book for me was that although post-liberalism gives, for me, a really exciting analysis of our current political problems, post-liberalism is itself as much a symptom of that as it is an analysis. By which I mean that it represents a retrenching in Christian notions of transcendence. And that simply doesn’t work for a society that is simultaneously – as I put it in the book – post-Christian, post-secular and religiously plural.

CC: Hmm.

TS: So that very long premise is actually the basis of this exploration, namely: to explore the relevance and role of transcendence in developing solidarity in the messy religious and non-religious landscape that we see before us, primarily in the western world. And I explored this by undertaking two years of ethnographic research with groups seeking to develop solidarity in London – which I kind-of identify as one of the most socially and economically liberal cities in the world, as well as being one of the most religiously and non-religiously diverse cities in the world. So, despite all that complexity, the actual answers the book provides I feel are quite simple. First, it says that despite the assumptions of liberal secularism and the dominance of this system within London for almost 300 years, the majority of people – both religious and non-religious – still do draw on transcendence in forming their social identity. In particular – and this is where I get to the notion of myth – they do this through myths. And that’s what I call stories of great events and characters that exemplify people’s ideals. And while for Christians that might be like the story of Christ or of the great Flood, for atheists that might be about, sometimes, Ghandi or Martin Luther King – figures who actually have some sort of religious background themselves – but also, just stories of their mum, or their dad, or their best friend, or a great heroic colleague that for them exemplified a virtuous way of living. And then the second point is that again – despite the assumptions of secular liberalism – actually, the role of the state doesn’t need to be this kind of principled distance from religion, or principled distance from ideology. Instead, we can actually imagine the role of the state less as an enforcer of a particular ideology – or else perhaps, in a liberal society, an enforcer of a lack of ideology – and instead we can think about it as a curator of the sharing of different ideologies. So that people can explore the virtues inherent in very different ways of living and see that, for instance, I might be somebody who is quite critical of Islam, but then I spend time trying to develop solidarity in a local setting with a Muslim. And it’s something as simple as seeing that they are good people that makes you realise, “Well, maybe Islam’s not so bad, either.” And then I began to see some really interesting processes of bricolage, like out-and-out atheists talking about how they were inspired by the story of Mohammed. And they would even talk about him as the “first community organiser”, for instance. So I found that really interesting. And then I get onto this idea of solidarity centres. So it’s actually the notion that the state will create these liberal spaces in which people of very different backgrounds come together to intentionally explore their ideas of how the world should be. And then, acting on that together: “Right. Ok, this is how the world should be. What are some policies, or things going on in our community that are stopping that from happening?” And that might be something like low wages, high house prices, or whatever, and then working together to solve those problems.

CC: Excellent. Well thanks for that fantastic introduction to the topic and, indeed, overview of the book. It really resonates with me, I can remember sitting with . . . you know there is this really common idea, particularly in the UK, that politics and religion don’t go together, you know. What was it? Alastair Campbell: “We don’t do God“. (10:00) And I can remember last semester, at Edinburgh, in a course on Religion in Modern Britain, sitting with my students in a tutorial and they were talking about whether a Muslim politician should be expected to act as a Muslim or to represent their constituents. And they all seemed to think that they shouldn’t be bringing religion into it, at all. And I tried to push and push: “But what other normative ways do we allow politicians to act” And they were: “gender”, “race”, “political party”, right? We have this conceit that they represent their whole constituency but they also have the sacred ideals of their political party that they hold higher than everything else. (Laughs).

TS: Absolutely.

CC: So, that’s just a little riff! So going right back to the beginning, then – in the book it was, maybe, 2011 when your research process was starting. How did you get into this massive area of research? And what pushed you?

TS: Well, yes. It was actually an incredibly strange and exciting journey for me. So, going back to Nottingham – I don’t know how well you know that university, but we’d have a lot of theological seminars in the staff club lounge, around leather armchairs. And that was my introduction to academia – talking about Alisdair Macintyre, and virtue ethics, and John Milbank, and theses radical critiques of modernity. And I was very excited by them. But as I said, I was troubled. And I wanted to work out, “Ok, is this relevant?” And I thought social science was the best way of working that out. But I was a theologian. So I arrived in London and my supervisor starts talking to me about this thing called “data”.

CC: (Laughs)

TS: “You need to go out and get data.” “Hmm, what is data, exactly?” And I spent a lot of time reading different kind of research methods books, and trying to understand exactly how I was going to explore this question of the link between transcendence and solidarity in a religiously plural society. But then, while that was happening – and this is a bit weird now! It kind-of matches with the personal: I’ve grown up all around the world, and I’ve never had any particular home. So when I was living in London for the first time, being in a place for more than a few years, I was thinking very hard to myself about what does it mean to be a part of my local community? And as I was simultaneously thinking about those two things – on the one hand data, and on the other my own desire to be involved in the community – the London riots happened. And I thought, “You know what? This is amazing. This is a great opportunity for me to be involved in the process of rebuilding Tottenham”, which is sort of where I was living – in response to this. So I came across this group called London Citizens, who wanted to do a citizens enquiry into the Tottenham riots. They basically do these things called “listening campaigns”, where they go out and basically ask members of the public: what is the main problem that you and your family face? That’s the first question. And the second question is always, what can you . . . and us – what can we together do about this? So it’s not like, “Ok what are your problems and shall we write to the local politician and tell them about it?” It’s “Let’s do something together. Let’s take direct action.” And it just suddenly clicked in my head. I was thinking about this word solidarity so theoretically. And then here were some people actually living it out, developing solidarity in a very real way, in my local area. And my first thought, really, when that happened was to say to myself, “Why am I even bothering to study this? I should just be doing it!”

CC: Yes.

TS: “I might as well just quit the PhD!” Then it occurred to me that actually taking action in this way could be my data. And I’d been reading stuff about post-secularity. And I realised London Citizens really is a kind of post-secular group. They’re a group that recognised the important role of religion in the public sphere. They, themselves, are somewhat inspired by a faith narrative, but the majority of the key organisers were non-religious. And so the way that they were able to so openly navigate faith and non-faith, and bring people together, was really exciting to me. (15:00) And then I thought, “You know what? The best way to explore the possibility for solidarity in this society that’s simultaneously Christian and secular and post-secular, is to work with a group that indicatively represents each one of those paradigms.” So then I started thinking, “OK, what are the key post-War paradigms for developing a sense of solidarity?” And you have, initially, the very strong connection between Christianity and the setting up of the welfare state. So I took one group that I felt represented that, which was at the time called the Christian Socialist Movement, but now is called Christians on the Left. Then I thought the next phase was secular ways of doing this, and in particular, a lot of money was being pumped into councils for voluntary service. So I started working with them, representing my secular organisation. Then in the ‘90s and early 2000s you had the multi-faith policy paradigm. So I thought, “OK, I need a group that represents that.” And then, going back to the start, London Citizens became my post-secular organisation. And that’s the story of how I got there.

CC: Excellent. And on the notion of post-secular, listeners, do check out our previous interview with Kevin Gray about that. I mean I think that you would agree with me as well, Tim, that it’s a problematic notion – the concept of post-secular.

TS: Absolutely, and indeed my current supervisor Lori Beaman insists that I stop using it! So . . .

CC: Well, it’s here to stay, perhaps! OK. And you organise the book then along these . . . you’ve got these three sections really, I guess, looking at pluralistic contexts, and then the state, these organisations, and then also capitalism. And any of those would be interesting to expand upon, but perhaps let’s think about this place of the notion of myth and transcendence. And then, maybe sort-of weave in these three strands.

TS: Mmm.

CC: So basically, one of your arguments is that these organisations all have varying relationships with the idea of transcendence and the construction of myth. So maybe you could just introduce the organisations there, to tell us about them and their relationship to this?

TS: Yes, OK. I mean the word myth, I primarily introduce – and I don’t know how helpful it really is . . . . What I was ultimately critiquing there was the sort of Habernasian notion that we are primarily motivated rationally. And, by introducing the term myth, I was trying to demonstrate the parity between religious and non-religious ways of relating to the world. So in doing that I then felt that I was able – by cutting through this kind of religious/secular binary – I was then able to start thinking about the role of the state as something very different: as not something that has to separate religion from politics, but instead can relate more reflexively towards the notion of myth.

CC: Yes. Throughout you use this phrase, “religious/secular, mythic/rational binary”. That’s your thing. So, yes, what’s going on there?

TS: Yes. So what I’m trying to say, basically, is that we end up having this notion that the religious is primarily mythic and the secular is primarily rational. And what I was trying to say is that both the religious and secular have very strong mythic elements to them. Primarily, I was not doing that as a means of . . . . There’s lot of research trying to demonstrate that religious belief can in fact be far more rational than we realise. I was, actually, trying to go the other way round and say that secularity can be a lot more mythic than we realise. And I wasn’t doing that in any way to put down secular people or secularity, but rather to say, “Well if we are primarily motivated through myth then we’re really missing a trick in how we motivate secular people.” (20:00) If we simply assume that they’re motivated by rationality alone, then we miss out on one of the most powerful ways of making people act in the world. And then you get back to the whole argument about Brexit and Trump and so on, which is that if we forget the role of mythic narrative in motivating people, then they become very vulnerable to just anyone who’s able to spin a good myth.

CC: And all you end up with is talking about economics and security, as you argue. Could give an example, maybe, of the kind of . . . . So we can all think of, I guess, a religion-related myth, perhaps. But what sort of – for want of a better word – secular myths are people motivated by?

TS: Well, one of these myths is actually the notion of the self-independent rational actor itself, right? Because that is a story that people are living by, primarily. It’s not actually this . . . In some sense, there’s this kind-of subtraction narrative to the understanding of secular identity that says: it’s an identity that is short of religious elements. But instead, what I’m trying to suggest is that secular people do live by myths, and rationality itself is one of those. And another one, for instance, is that of capitalism: the idea that says people are primarily motivated by financial incentive. So, basically, what the research seems to suggest is that there are clear secular myths, but these are primarily ones I feel that aren’t intentionally constructed by secular people. So they might be myths of rationality or myths of capitalism. And what I’m trying to explore now is: OK – but what are those deep, more intentionally constructed myths that can challenge a purely instrumental notion of politics or economics? In Vancouver it’s really interesting, because that’s coming from a lot of different places. So there’s myths of earth-based spiritualty – the sense that I, as a person, am intimately related to the world in the same way . . . there. This stuff wouldn’t necessarily work in London at all, but it’s very much derived from indigenous mythology as well. So the people don’t see themselves as any more important than the orca in the Pacific Ocean, for instance, or the salmon. So those myths – the telling of the stories of the orca and the salmon – actually become really important ways of challenging an instrumental approach to the land and the environment. So you have otherwise entirely secular people arguing against the construction of a pipeline, for instance, because of salmon. And at first, I have to say, I actually giggled a bit when I started getting these findings. Because it was just so out of context for what I’d grown up around in London and for what had come out of my previous research. But as I’ve been doing this ethnographic research there – and it’s always, as in this this book, very auto-ethnographic as well – I try and really immerse myself in the stories of people I’m studying. And, yes. Now I’ve come to be inspired by these stories of whales and salmon, and how they might be transformative in challenging a particular idea of, say, growth.

CC: Yes. And I imagine one could also, you know, even just thinking of what you get in the Marvel films – there’s a lot of myth in popular culture, as well, that you probably might easily and interestingly excavate.

TS: Absolutely. And people really do integrate that into their stories. It’s absolutely not out of place that people will talk to me about a Batman film, or something, when they’re trying to explain their belief in . . . I mean, one that comes up quite a lot in Spiderman is that: “With great power comes great responsibility”. And it seems almost laughable, in a way. But I think, the way that people sort-of suspend their disbelief in the cinema can be very similar to the way they might do in a church. (25:00) And those myths really do have power for people.

CC: And we’re already almost at the end of our time, which is excellent. I mean, not excellent – I just mean we’ve already covered a lot of ground! So, just to push on this – one of the key arguments I would see from your book is that rather than perhaps trying to find – you know, sitting people down and going “OK, you’re a Christian, you’re a Muslim, you’re an atheist, you’re a Buddhist. You’re never going to agree on these things, so it’s all pointless.” So, is the idea that everyone is constructing myths about, I don’t know, the better society, the greater good, the way they want things to progress and that by focussing on those, rather than the specifics, it might be a constructive way forward? Or . . . ?

TS: Yes, that’s true. But also there’s a very real sense in which I think, those settings need to be intentionally constructed in secular society. That’s a part of where my critique comes from. So you look at my analysis of Hackney CVS, for instance, I was suggesting that the secular people there had strong myths based on their parents who might be their heroes, or their colleagues. So their myths, in fact, were just telling the stories of their friends and family. And they were really inspiring and transformative for them. But what I noticed, what there was . . . there were a lack of intentional rituals within that organisation, for bringing those to the surface. And so they failed to really integrate them into their practice, and therefore failed to inspire much enthusiasm. And so, my feeling is that we need to actually deliberately create spaces where people can discuss these things. And so my example, when you talk about bringing Muslims and Jews and atheists together in a room, the best example I came across was the London Citizens. They would ask this very simple question: “We live in the world as it is – but there is a world as it should be. Please tell me some words that you associate with the world as it should be.”

CC: Mmm.

TS: So, that’s the first step – that you get people from these very different backgrounds together in a room, recognising: “Oh wow! That guy looks very different to me but, in fact, he seems to want the same idea of the perfect world that I want.” So that’s the first step. But then – once you’ve done that – you actually encourage people to draw on their own very different, idiosyncratic stories. So once they all recognise that this is the world as it should be, then they can, again, start talking about their particular myths – whether of Islam, or Christianity or of the more secular ones such as of a Socialist utopia, or . . . .

CC: Yes. And I’ve always found it . . . . I remember Craig Martin made this point in his Masking Hegemony, in 2010, I’ve always found it very strange that, yes – why would you expect people to be able to bracket off these aspects of their identity? Why not . . . we have this myth of the secular space that people enter and they bracket off . . . but, why not just everyone talk about it, talk about your myths, and talk about where you’re coming from? And then we can, maybe, move forward.

TR: Yes – the thing is though, it’s actually a much more honest way of being. Because if I understand where you’re coming from, I can actually hold you to account on the basis of that story that you’re telling.

CC: Yes. Just to indulge my curiosity here, listeners, this might go on slightly longer than usual. I’ve got three more questions I want to ask Tim.

TS: I’ll try and be brief in my answers.

CC: No, it’s good. First, the notion of the sacred here. So I know Gordon Lynch – in fact we spoke to Gordon Lynch a number of years ago about this concept – and Kim Knott and others have developed this notion of like the secular sacred, and things. So where does the role of the sacred – maybe it’s a non-ontological, non-religion inflected sacred – fit into the myths and into solidarity?

TS: Well, for one thing, I totally would have been happy to us the term sacred. (30:00) But I had two issues with that. One was that there was a lot of talk about it being non-negotiable. And I thought, “That’s exactly what I want to avoid with transcendence.” Because the very point is that we need people to negotiate. And the other issue is, I felt that a lot of that research was around what’s already sacred. It would be around pointing out some certain category had become a sacred one. Whereas, I was trying – rather than move backwards in that way – move forwards. So I got into discussions with people doing research around that, including Gordon Lynch and saying, “Well, actually, what I’m thinking about is: how do we develop a new sacred?” And I didn’t feel like people were all that interested in that, in those circles. And in that sense, alone, that word became tainted for me. And I wanted to try and think about it slightly differently. But otherwise, yes, it is very, very similar.

CC: Yes. They’re related. You can see clear overlaps. But clearly again, you’re stepping out into uncharted territory. On that note, then: “here at the Religious Studies Project”, our sort-of approach would probably map more onto the Critical Study of Religion, and when normativity comes up we tend to bristle a little bit. So, as we’ve been hearing there, you’re an engaged scholar. So, how do you personally navigate that sort of: “I’m doing this work which is – I guess – objective, but also trying to . . . .” You know.

TS: Well, yes. I think, the thing is that I have no qualms about saying that I am personally, and academically, fighting for a world in which there is more solidarity, in which people are willing to do things for one another without necessarily expecting something in return. I’m also quite happy to say that I was saddened by the rise of neoliberalism. And I saw that Christianity was very instrumental to the setting up of the welfare state, initially. And I was asking myself that question: what is that new metanarrative going to be, around which we can create more solidarity, and renew interest in social welfare? But the research itself is objective, in that sense that I’m totally open to what the answer to that may be. And that’s constantly evolving. And I think, in my current research, I would slightly challenge some of the assumptions that I had in the previous. But it’s all this objective, social scientific, critical research that interested me in religion in the first place. Because I’m only interested in religion incidentally. Because a lot of research seems to be demonstrating that something like religion, or the sacred, or whatever you want to call it, has a powerful effect on a sense of solidarity. So, for me, that’s my only very incidental interest in religion. It’s: “OK, if that’s true, then what does that look like in a society where none of us believe the same things anymore?”

CC: And my final question was going to be, what was the broader relevance of this to the academic study of religion? But I think you’ve just actually summarised that quite neatly in your final statement there. Unless you want to have a final push?

TS: Well the only thing I would say, without wanting to be preachy, is that I think there is a real danger that we can get stuck behind this social scientific lens that says, “I’m not allowed to be normative” when, in reality, we have to recognise the very things we choose to research are guided by our own normative principals. So I think, in the dangerous world that we currently live in, it’s time for academics to step up and say, “This is what I believe in, and I’m willing to work towards bringing it about.”

CC: Exactly. And in your own work as well, what you’re doing is not proposing a definitive: “This is the objective reality.” It’s: “We’re building . . . .” And you’ve expanded upon your own research. And you’ve changed your ideas. And we’re all part of a process, moving towards whatever . . . perfection – let’s say it!

TS: (Laughs)

CC: Well it’s been a pleasure speaking to you, Tim. Thanks, so much.

TS: (35:00) Thanks, so much, for having me on.

Citation Info: Stacey, Timothy and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 2 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/myth-solidarity-and-post-liberalism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

 

 

The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion

In this interview with Professor Bryan Turner at the Leeds SocRel 2017 conference, we discuss how the sociology of religion can work to stay central to sociology as a broader discipline, by focusing on how religion functions in contemporary political contexts.

Starting with a consideration of the role religion takes in American political discourse, particularly Trump’s appeals to evangelical communities, Turner discusses how the evangelical ideal of the ‘tender warrior’ can appeal to the blue collar, white, male, working class. This religiously-inflected form of populism is able to bear significant weight on political debates, for example around abortion. This can be compared to the apparent increase of populism in European politics, where the recent success of Emmanuel Macron in France appears to signal that this tide has been halted, for now. Looking even further afield, to Russia and the Philippines, ‘strongman’ politics have become increasingly prominent and relate to religion in different ways: Rodrigo Duterte of the Phillipines has a complicated relationship with the Catholic Church and the Pope, whilst Vladimir Putin allegedly keeps an Eastern Orthodox priest as a counsellor, in an attempt to link Russian identity to Orthodoxy. In many of these cases, religion features heavily in the national insider/outsider debate, further highlighting its salience in contemporary political discourse.

Following the lead of scholars such as Jose Casanova, Professor Turner brings the public and political role of religion into focus. By doing so, he argues, we can push the sociology of religion toward the realms of political theory, international relations, and race relations, thus creating an agenda in which the sociology of religion becomes increasingly mainstream and relevant to the world we live in, rather than fading into a marginal sub-field of sociology.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Snickers bars, pogs, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion

Podcast with Bryan Turner (15 January 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Turner_-_The_Political_Relevance_of_The_Sociology_of_Religion1.1

Sammy Bishop (SB): I’m Sammy Bishop, I’m here at the SocRel Conference, 2017. And I have with me a man who needs very little introduction, thanks to the huge influence that he’s had on the field. I’m with Professor Bryan Turner. So, welcome. And thank you for being involved with the Religious Studies Project.

Bryan Turner (BT): It’s a pleasure.

SB: OK, so today we’re going to talk a little bit about teaching and Religious Studies, and some of the differences between the British, European and American context as well. So could we start off, perhaps, with just a little about how you became interested in this topic?

BT: Well, I was converted to Methodism when I was about 17 and I was on holiday in Greece with a group of Methodists. In the following year I went to East Germany, Moscow and through Russia by train, and became very interested in Sociology. So, if you put the two together, I was a kind of Methodist with an interest in Communism and Marxism, although the main influence on my work has been Max Weber. I came here, to the University of Leeds, to do a PhD. I was in the Methodist Society. I was the President of the Student Christian Movement, so I had those kind of involvements. And I was taught by a famous comparative religion expert, Trevor Ling, who was a Buddhist Scholar. And through him became very interested in comparative religion. I was appointed to the University of Aberdeen to teach the Sociology of Religion in 1970, I think it was, but very few students were interested in doing religion, so I had very few students! So I retrained as a medical sociologist, which partly explains my interest in the sociology of the body and how medicine and religion connect with each other. To be honest, the Sociology of Religion dropped out of my career a bit, for those sorts of reasons. I became very much interested in Max Weber so, at that level, religion was part of my agenda. But it was also mixed up with all the other things that I was interested in and doing work on. And, to sort-of finish this little biographical sketch, after 9/11 just about anybody with an interest in Islam was suddenly employable. And I had all these kind-of requests to revisit stuff that I’d done. Because my first book was 1974: Weber and Islam. I went to live in America in 2006, I think it was. And I spent a year at Wiley College and then ended up at the Graduate Centre at the City University of New York, where I’ve been teaching the Sociology of Comparative Religion. So perhaps I’d better say something about the teaching method, if you’d like?

SB: Yes, please do.

BT: Well, I try to make religions kind-of relevant to the world they’re living in. So, for example, during the Mitt Romney/Barack Obama presidential race there was a lot of material to work with. Mitt Romney was a Mormon. There was this huge debate in the Media about whether Mormonism was a religion. So that was an easy way in to talking about what we mean by religion, or Mormonism, or Christianity. And the other, of course, was the allegation that Obama was really a secret Muslim of some sort – we had all of those debates. And then, in 2016 when the Clinton/Trump confrontation started, there seemed to be almost nothing to get into. Because I kind-of listened to every debate and read all of the stuff I could possibly get hold of. But I think Clinton mentioned religion only like once, when she read a passage from the New Testament. Bernie Sanders once talked about his Jewish legacy in an interview, but it wasn’t really part of his campaign. And then we had Trump. How does Trump relate to religion? Because we all know – American exceptionalism – religion is prominent in the public sphere. Just about every textbook starts with de Tocqueville’s commentary on civil religion and so on, and so forth. And it seemed very difficult to actually believe that Trump could win the election, given the fact of these disclosures of his attitudes towards women, his groping of women. And Trump, of course, changed his position on just about everything. So, at one stage, Trump was pro-life – very much committed to that kind of agenda. (5:00) And then, of course, during the campaign it comes out that he’s actually totally opposed to Roe Vs Wade which was the legislation that made abortion possible for women. He came out very strongly in favour of removing that legislation to make abortion either impossible or increasingly difficult. But what sort-of emerged after the election is that he has quite strong support from the Evangelical Churches. And one reason is that within the Evangelical Churches there is a kind of crisis around masculinity. A lot of the Evangelical literature has been developing the idea of the “tender warrior”. This is the kind of dominant male who is in charge of the family. He is in charge of the family. The idea is that women’s role is domestic. And that women really kind-of prefer to be subordinated to men, rather than to be liberated. And that part of the crisis in America is connected with: the acceptance of gays in the military; the legislation that made possible same-sex marriage in some states; the general kind of reception of alternative forms of sexuality, particularly on the East Coast. So, some of this election was about the East Coast, versus the Southern States, and so forth. So Jerry Falwell has come about very much in favour of Trump. Trump visited Liberty University which is run by Falwell, one of the founders of the Moral Majority. And so, my puzzlement about how Trump can possibly get support from religious groups has been partly answered by this idea that there is a kind-of deep anxiety, in conservative America, about the status of men, connected to: the rise of women into pink collar occupations; the better performance of women in education; the growth, or the presence of influential women in leadership positions. You know – Merkel in Germany, the head of the IMF, the Fed and so forth – you see women in very powerful political positions. And, insofar as populism and Trump are connected to the erosion of the blue collar male white working class, you can kind-of understand, partly, why Trump is getting support from Evangelicals. But I would point out a couple of things. I mean, Trump and Clinton were the least-attractive, least-supported presidential candidates in the whole of American history. Clinton did win the popular vote, despite Trump’s claims that it was all fake. Trump has huge support from his base, but he’s still a very problematic figure in American culture, I think. And he has divided society right down the middle. And so one never knows what is going to happen next, really, in America.

SB: Could you say more about the idea of Populism itself, and how that concept has become more relevant, perhaps, at the moment?

BT: Yes. Well, people have been studying populism for a long time. And there are arguments that populism has been present in American politics for long time, such as the People’s Party and so forth. “Agrarian populism” has been a notion around for some time. But I agree with you that in the last twelve months populism has been everywhere: conferences, journal articles, books and so on, and so forth. And I mean, it looked at one stage as if the populist parties would swing through Europe with the Northern League and Golden Dawn, and the Freedom Party in Austria and so forth. And then we’ve had this pause, if you like, in which Macron in France has won the election and to some extent the popular vote for extreme positions on foreigners has been slowed down a bit. And then, I think, with Brexit which again . . . . I mean UKIP, having had some electoral success, has virtually disappeared as a party. And it looks as though the complexity of Brexit may grind it into the ground eventually, who knows? But a lot of the populist literature has been saying that Britain is slightly different from other societies, in that the populist vote is weaker than you’ll find in, say, Italy, and so forth. (10:00) I mean, one issue is to what extent Thatcherism was an earlier form of populism. She did want to change everything. She had these structural views about an inside and an outside. I mean, one of the defining characteristics of populism is that it divides the world into “us” and “them”. And then you’ve got the people on the one side and their enemies on the other. I mean, as we’ve heard in this conference, the enemies seem to be connecting to Muslim refugees in Europe and so forth. But again, looking at this from the outside – that is, from America – what struck me was the antagonism towards East Europeans. So, Polish people were being criticised by Conservative people who wanted to argue that the welfare state was being exploited by free-riders from other countries. So I don’t think it’s just Islam, there’s all sorts of other things going on about the insider and the outsider.

SB: Where do you see it going in the future?

BT: Well I was reminiscing . . . . In the 1960s and 1970s and really into the ’80s, I suppose, we had the three day week, we had the miners’ strike and we had the poll tax strikes. And whilst Thatcher was hugely popular – again amongst her base – and while she was, in many ways, the most successful Prime Minister we’ve had – she won three elections, etc. – living through that period, I mean, Britain did seem amazingly unstable. I mean, just visually, we had piles of rubbish piled up in the streets; electricity was very limited; I remember having to teach with no heating in the university, so we all wore hats and gloves to work, sitting in classrooms. And the current period feels like that as well. Because, I think, if Brexit fails the people that voted to leave will be deeply frustrated. I mean Nigel Farage has threatened to comeback into politics if that happened! The legislative mess – it’s horrendous. And then, looking at the broader picture, we’ve got what you might call “strong man politics” in the Philippines, in China, in Russia and so forth. And, to some extent, some of these figures at least are mobilising religion to bolster their position. I think very interesting is Putin, who allegedly has an Orthodox Priest – an Eastern Orthodox Priest – as a counsellor. He’s obviously appealing to Orthodoxy as a way of defining what it is to be Russian. It’s a fairly complicated picture, I think. Again, I suppose I should have said about Trump that Trump’s foreign policy is deeply worrying, because he seems to want to undermine many of the institutions that have bolstered European peace for 70 years or so. And there is this figure, Steve Bannon, who’s a conservative Catholic with an Irish background, who I think is mobilising Trump’s foreign policy. And I think that’s very problematic. So, from an academic point of view, I think religion is going to be very central to all of these debates, whether it’s conflicts between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, or Buddhists and Muslims in Asia, or Catholic and Pentecostals and Protestants elsewhere.

SB: How do you think scholars of religion or sociologists of religion are best approaching it?

BT: Well, in the talk I’m going to give this evening, I think sociology of religion kind-of bifurcates into those that have gone into spirituality and post-institutional churches, and those who follow people like José Casanova who are interested in public religion. My question is how we make the Sociology of Religion central to the sociological enterprise, as a whole. And I think the public religions debate pushes the sociology of religion into political theory, into international relations, into race relations and creates a kind of agenda where Sociology of Religion is once more part of the mainstream rather than a minority interest on the margins. This conference- I’m going to get the title of the conference wrong, but “On the Edge”: are we part of the periphery or part of the mainstream? I think it’s an important question. And I, personally, don’t want to be on the periphery. Sociology of Religion is central to the modern world. (15:00)If you look at everywhere, basically: Israel, Brazil, America, Germany, France – it’s difficult to find a country that doesn’t have some kind of religious issue going on. And I think it’s’ something we need to address, really.

SB: When you speak about the political aspects of, for example, race relations as well, do you think that there’s a certain amount of activism that could be involved in the Sociology of Religion?

BT: Well, I certainly think Sociology needs to contribute to a solution. And whether that’s social policy or becoming engaged in activism, I think is something we can’t sort-of predict in advance, so to speak. But I think sociologists can’t describe the mess we’re in without taking some responsibility for suggesting ways we might get out of this mess. Otherwise we might all bathe in misery and melancholy, and what would be the point of having a conference like this? We might as stay at home and be miserable! And this is too big a topic for this interview, but I tend to think sociologists are always looking at failure: failed institutions, failed constitutions, failed social movements, failed this, that and the other. And I think we need to turn this around a bit and say: well, ok, can we find any successful institutions, or successful social movements, or successful philosophies or whatever, that have improved the human condition – even if it’s for a short time? My argument is that no institution lasts for ever. They all have fluctuating histories – I mean of success and failure. But the idea that all institutions are failing is an impossible position to take. I tend to say that there’s no such thing as consistent pessimism, because we wouldn’t be having this interview if you and I were consistently pessimistic, I don’t think. You know, we’d be getting drunk or something!

SB: (Laughs).

BT: So I think, I mean I haven’t been an activist in that traditional sort of sense. But I’ve edited the journal Citizenship Studies for about 20 years, which I see as making a contribution to understanding the kind-of erosion of social rights over the last 30 years or so. And that citizenship, revitalised would be some kind of answer to questions about social solidarity and so forth. I’m beginning to lose my voice. I don’t know if we can keep this interview to a limited period, because I have to speak in a while?

SB: Yes. Just one more question?

BT: Yes, sure.

SB: Do you see, when you speak about citizenship, do you see any role for religion in that idea?

BT: Well, I mean there are arguments that a lot of our notions of rights come out of . . . . Some people would argue that a lot of our notions of rights come out of the Protestant Methodist tradition. But, more recently, the Catholic Church was to some extent responsible for developing the concept of human dignity, which was the underpinning to the Declaration of Human Rights. And then, I think, the Christian Democratic tradition was part of this sort-of development. But I think the Sociology of Religion could contribute a more sophisticated understanding of what Judaism is or Islam, or other religions, what Sikhism is about and so on. So as a basic educational role, to undermine false assumptions about – you know – what happens to Muslim women, what Judaism has been about.

SB: Professor Bryan Turner, thank you very much for your time.

BT: Thank you.

Citation Info: Turner, Bryan and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 15 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-political-relevance-of-the-sociology-of-religion/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Politics of this world: Protestant, evangelical, and Pentecostal movements in the Peru

riverEvangelicalism in Peru has become a driving force in politics and decision making across major subjects, such as gender-related policies and institutional power. But it’s relevance today in the current political landscape is only the result of a much larger process, one that started around the end of the nineteenth century, with the entrance of the first protestant denominations and the establishment of their grassroots across the country. In this podcast, professor Juan Fonseca aims to elaborate a brief history of Protestantism, in order to comprehend its current mainstream manifestation.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Q-tips, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Podcast with Juan Fonseca

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock  and revised by  Sidney Castillo.

Sidney Castillo (SC): Professor Juan Fonseca is Licentiate in History for Pontificia Universidad Catholica del Peru. He’s also Master in History at this university. His work focuses on the historical development of non-Catholic Christian movements in Peru, mainly Protestant evangelical, and intertwined with an interest in politics and social movements. Welcome Professor Fonseca to the Religious Studies Project.

Juan Fonseca (JF): It’s a pleasure to speak with you.

SC: The pleasure is also ours. Now, we’re here to learn some things about the non-Catholic Christian movements in Peru. In order to do that we would like to know a bit more about the classification of these movements. Since the Protestant and Pentecostal landscape of Peru is, counterintuitively enough, a diverse one in terms of origins, theology and political tendencies, based on your previous research, would you please elaborate a brief specification of these movements?

JF: Of course. In my last writings I have raised a typology of Protestantism. This typology is based in the following aspects. First its historical roots – national level and worldwide level – and some interreligious characteristics, that is to say, the beliefs and the religious practices that make them singular within the set-up of Christianity.

SC: Mmm

JF: This includes. . . There’s two things. There is theology and there are ecumenical practices: a type of religiousness practised by these members.

SC: OK.

JF: And third is the religious emphasis, which includes the ways that this person is articulated in the public sphere. For example, their political attitudes, some of attitudes towards social practices and some ideological points. Moreover, I believe that Protestant and Pentecostal are like two specific faces within Peruvian Christianity. These two faces co-exist in Peru, within the non-Catholic population. These two groups share some theological characteristics, but also they reference the Bible to define the dogma. However, there is a fundamental difference between the symbolic epistemology that constitutes the basis on which the religious practices – or the religious devotes – are constructed. On the one hand Protestantism, which is basically rational religion sustained in the Bible. On the other hand Pentecostalism is a sensorial religion, sustained in the constant intense experience with the numinous. Protestantism is like a religion of modernity, Pentecostalism is a religion of post-modernity and, in this sense, Catholicism is like a religion from pre-modernity. (5:00) About this theoretical base I suggest the following typology. So, two big groups: Protestantism itself and Pentecostalism. In Protestantism itself we can distinguish two groups: mainline Protestantism and evangelical Protestantism. Mainline Protestantism, for example, includes churches like Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian. These churches have a very ecumenical attitude and missiology. Their theology is liberal and their political attitudes are very progressive. And the evangelical group includes some churches, for example, the Christian Missionary Alliance, The Nazareth Church, The Baptist Church, the Anabaptist Church. And their theology is more moderate, not necessarily liberal. Its political attitudes are moderate: centre-right or centre-left. And in the Pentecostal sphere we can distinguish two groups: classic Pentecostalism, for example, some churches like Assemblies of God, Church of God. Pentecostal churches in general, in this field, their theology is more conservative, sometimes fundamentalist. Its religiosity is very pietistic and its political attitudes are more conservative. And the last group, inside Pentecostalism, is the charismatic churches. The charismatic churches, for example include very large Christian communities: Agua Viva is a very large community here in Lima; and Camino de Vida; Emmanuel Church – the Church of Humberto Lay, who is a very outstanding evangelical congressman. These churches are very enthusiastic. Their religion is very conservative theology but these churches have very good work in politics, too, very effective work. But with politics, they’re very conservative, too. So they’re sometimes linked to the political right and their morals are very conservative. I think this is the spectrum, like you said.

SC: That’s a very interesting present-day analysis. But as a historian you, of course, have researched about the very beginnings of non-Catholic denominations in Peru. In that sense especially, what was the relationship between the first wave of Protestant missions and the social movements or institutions that were present in first years of the twentieth century? We could name some like indigenism, syndicate movement, student movement or feminists.

JF: On the one hand, the brothers and missionaries of the early decades of the twentieth century developed a strategy combining the following aspects. (10:00) First, a political objective: the decline of the power of the Catholic Church, which will coincide with the most progressive sectors in different periods. Second, a cultural offer: the Protestants as carriers of civilisation in which they will also receive the support of the liberals. And third, a religious agenda: Protestantism as a confessional eternity programme. Well this strategy was based, on the other hand, in the countries from which it came. In the United States, their so-called social gospel had a strong influence on the missionary group – particularly the Methodists, which is the third denomination in Peru. Although, the more conservative groups such as evangelicals from Great Britain, or other places, had the most pietistic disposition. But they were also clear that socialisation was part of their mission. On that basis, they developed a series of missionary initiatives in the social sphere. For instance: the development of the employment option for women; promoting female employment and education in their schools; or fostering the development of the nursing profession, which at that time was only confined to Catholic nuns. In addition, it is well known the link of the Protestant missionaries with the first leaders of the Peruvian feminism, such as Maria Alvarado. In fact, one of the very old Methodist schools – Lima High School – is Maria Alvarado School. Furthermore, they developed links with indigenous people, several of whose leaders – Manuel Vincente Villarán, Dora Mayer de Zulen – expressed their appreciation for the help with this work. Similarly Protestant missionaries developed some missionary projects within areas such as: the Amazonas,with the Awajún people; or in the Perené, with the Asháninka people; or Puno, with the Aymara people; with the Azangaro people of Puno; and in the area of trade unions and the university movement. The closeness between the Methodist pastor Roberto Alcorta and workers and the labour movements are well-known. In fact, Roberto Alcorta was part of the temperance movement in the beginning of the twentieth century. John A. Mackay, the very renowned Scottish educator, had the very closest links within circles of intellectualism in Lima, in the 1920s. In addition, Presbyterians of the Peruvian school had very close link with some intellectuals and politicians like Victor Raul Haya de la Torre,  Jose Carlos Mariátegui and Victor Andrés Belaúnde.

SC: Now, you talked about the intellectual movements linked with the Christian denominations and all theses initiatives were properly from the first decades of the twentieth century Peru. But nowadays you could trace a little bit from the mid twentieth century, there’s a change in the way that these denominations do pastoral work. In that sense, I would like to ask you . . . .Your research shows that these first waves of Protestant missionaries were agents of modernization, directing their work to many institutions and social groups. But it also refers that in the last fifty years a great portion of Protestant evangelical and Pentecostal denominations aligned themselves with more conservative ideas and political parties. When and why, would you say, is the turning point for this particular way of doing missionary work and overall being Protestant, evangelical or Pentecostal?

JF: (15:00) Well, I think that transformations of social approaches of missionaries started around the 1940s. On the one hand, the global context at this stage of the post-war period and the beginnings of the cold war influenced the conservatism of the Protestant churches. Thus, since the 1950s, new waves of missionaries with an anti-communist mentality and with a pietistic missiological approach focussed basically on proselytising and the spiritualisation of the Christian missions when they arrived. In China, there was a communist revolution during 1940-49 so, two years after, all the protestant missionaries were expelled. Like ten thousand, so most of them came to Latin America with very anti-communist ideas. This was going to be acute in the following case when they were from nations of ideological Christian progressivism: communism, versus the Christian evangelical conservatives who were there. These troubles between the conservative majority and the progressive minority – mainly grouped in the Methodist church and the Christian NGOs – began in the ’60s. Similar to what happened with Catholicism, the nature of the debate was focussed on the ideological dimensions of the Christian mission in communism. In the ’70s, it was clear that theological conservatism had been imposed, but in a moderate version, whose best expression was the Latin American Theological Fraternity, and the Association of Evangelical College Groups of Peru (AGEUP in Spanish). At the side of it, the great evangelical mass – people attached to large denominations – basically developed pietistic religious practices and a fundamentalist hermeneutic. And on the other hand, the complex process of nationalisation of the leadership of the Protestant denominations of course, in that context, just when conservative speech and fundamentalism was in progress. Obviously, that explains why many of the protestant national leadership took a conservative, anti-ecumenical and even fundamentalist speech. So the CONEP (in Spanish): the National Council of Evangelical Churches starts its activities in the 1940s. And the CONEP was, well, the leadership of CONEP was very national – national people. They became institutionally independent but they inherited the ideological imprint of the missionaries from whom they complained. Thus, as we enter into the 1980s the field was ready for the emergence of fundamentalism. Somehow a violence of terrorism delayed that process for a short while, because moderate evangelicalism made this speech, hegemonize at least in evangelical cooperation entities and especially in CONEP, the Evangelical National Council of Peru. Since then, most of their leaders have belonged to the moderate evangelicalism. However, this hegemony began to be questioned by a growing and very well organised fundamentalist force, which caused a big crisis in CONEP. (20:00) So this neo-fundamentalism, represented in the leaders of the charismatic movement, was different from moderate evangelicalism in its mission of the church, and its political ideology. Neo-fundamentalism is not necessarily anti-intellectual. You can even say that it is relatively illustrated and fits very well into the parameters of the democratic party sphere. This neo-fundamentalism is very active, politically speaking, always a part of the agenda of right-wing political groups. Between 1993 and 1995 an outpost of this group decided to take control of CONEP. The damage that this battle produced in the main evangelical institutions was prolonged, although later on the moderate groups would take control of the situation. But the neo-fundamentalists empowered themselves and began to construct the spaces of collective institutions on the basis of which, they would promote their agenda. Thus FIPAC – the International Fraternity of Christian Pastors and the Peruvian Fellowship of Evangelical Pastors – were developed. These institutions are very conservative, very fundamentalist. So throughout the 21st century the strength of neo-fundamentalism and conservative groups has continued to grow. CONEP has been the battlefield between the ultra-conservative groups and the moderate minority that still maintains its presence here. Sometimes CONEP seems a very strange institution, because their presidents – these last years – were always moderate, or even liberal pastors, but when they took the presidency, immediately they acted like prisoners of the conservatives. So the CONEP people say, “Well the president is liberal.” But it’s just a symbolic position, they have no power, no effective power inside the institution. So the UNICEP, the formation of the Union of Christian Evangelical Churches, its partner institutions, different from CONEP, begin a new attempt by the right-wing evangelical groups to hegemonise their reactionary speech. So, an additional factor in this brief history is the influence of the American neo-conservative agenda – the North American conservative agenda. Since the 1980s, the right-wing religious parties have been strengthened considerably in the United States and is globalized in the last decade. So, the objectives of the crusade to the demands of sexual minorities, feminism, and secularism in general, and for a decade their actions have become globalized. I think it is one of the protagonists of, for example, homophobic speech and the practice of Christian conservatism in Peru.

SC: As you may know, on March 12 2016, La Marcha por la Familia y la Vida, or March for Life and Family took place. It is an annual international march organised by the Archdiocese of Lima and gathers most of the conservative Christian and political wings of Peruvian civil society against abortion and same-sex unions. In that sense, what is the current impact of the Pentecostal and evangelical movement as part of a wider conservative coalition in these political struggles. (25:00) Also, why would you say are they so focused on these particular issues?

JF: At present, it is clear that neo-fundamentalists have managed to hegemonise at least on this point. On the Catholic side, the statement of the Episcopal Conference, the Bishop’s Conference, have been clearly reactionary. And at this point, all the wings of the Catholic church handle the same speech, at least publicly. Progressive groups are afraid of saying something for fear or for indifference. Well, but on the Protestant evangelical side, the internal battles which have occurred in the past few years about this subject also show that the neo-fundamentalist speech succeeded in cornering moderates and progressives, in a way that they had to abide to the falling tide, which at this time has been extended by the evangelical churches. The neo-fundamentalists have succeeded in associating their speech with the essentiality of the evangelical identity. I think that the Protestant evangelical members, their identity did not necessarily imply being, for example, homophobic. Thus part of the conservative strategy was to normalise and naturalise the relationship between evangelical religious discourse and fierce opposition to sexual diversity or abortion, and other issues like this. The conservative pressure has been so strong that it has managed to neutralise almost all voices inside the local Protestantism, that began to show some sympathy to the LGBT cause. They have gone with unethical methods many times, but have finally been effective. For example, the campaign for recall of Susana Villarán[1] ecognised the conflict of powers in which the neo-fundamentalists won and important repositioning. There are some similar areas affecting this outbreak of homophobic speech and religious practice of conservative Christianity. On the one hand, theology and Biblical hermeneutics produce the ideological conditions for the constitution of pastoral homophobic discourse to the interior of the churches. On the other hand, the political discourse of religious hierarchies in the public sphere is more and more careful with using religious categories except for less sophisticated groups. Finally, in practice, this trans-confessional alliance of neo-conservatism, or “ecumenical fundamentalism”, has a more active set of actors who are positioned in the various political groupings within the country, as well as in social spaces. Traditionally, they were reluctant to change, for example, the location of the militant institutions. However, the progressive minority, silenced for decades, also begins to build a theological discourse where the practice of the faith are compatible with promotion of sexual diversity rights or some other issues of progressive agenda.

SC: (30:00) Well, now that we have covered the conservative part, I’d like to go to the other side of the spectrum with this the next question. Now we’re facing the second round of presidential elections – on June 5, 2016. While there is a common misconception that being Christian equals being a political conservative – thus favouring religious and secular conservative candidates – a recent statement of an interdenominational Christian collective, favouring a left wing candidate, has been circulated in different social media. Why these kind of political stances hardly find any correspondences in the majority of Peruvian Christians?

JF: Well, I’m not sure that this manifest of progressive Christians, on which I include myself as well, has impacted too much on the electoral decisions of evangelical voters. I think the evangelical voter is more independent than many people believe and votes according to rationales that are not always religious. However I think that, actually, there is an ultra-conservative fundamentalist core that is militant in the anti-rights crusade that its hierarchies have initiated. Although it is a minority, it is very powerful in its media presence. They have managed, as I said, to naturalise the relationship between the Gospel and the conservative media and public opinion in general. Well, in that context, progressive evangelical voices are even less than the fundamentalists, but hold key positions in evangelical institutions, for example the CONEP, the Bible Society, Christian NGOs, some seminaries and even some denominations. In that sense, I think the dissemination of the pronouncements of Christians in favour of Veronika, the left-wing candidate, is a very positive step. Because it shows that some of them are already learning to position themselves in the public debate with the same aggressiveness as conservatives, and articulated with national political actors, in this case, with the left-wing Frente Amplio. In that way, I think that an interesting way has been marked so that, in the future, progressive positions expand their capacity of incidence within the churches and also in Peruvian society in general. And I think it’s very possible.

SC: Well, Professor Fonseca, it has been a pleasure to have you here on the Religious Studies Project. We have learnt a lot about non-Catholic Christian movements that are in our country for more than a century now.

JF: Well thanks for this opportunity.

SC: See you next time.

[1] The mayor of Lima during the period 2011-2014. She was indicted in a widely mediatic process for being, alledgedly, inefficient as a public official. During that process, the several conservative Christian denominations came out to denounce the former mayor for being pro-LGBT rights, since several of her public policies targeted sexual minorities, sex workers, and the like. [Note added by SC]


Citation Info: Fonseca, Juan 2017. “Politics of This World: Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal Movements in Peru”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 17 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.2, 1 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/politics-of-this-world-protestant-evangelical-and-pentecostal-movements-in-the-peru/

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South American church-state relations

imgPolitics and social institutions are inseparable. Whether we take a look at small-scale or complex societies, we can find that politics is involved with economics, kinship with hierarchy, and of course, religion with the state. The relationship between the last two has been shaped by numerous processes throughout human history; but, if we place our attention in the history of the western world, we can identify a turning point, one that started with the first waves of enlightened thought (eighteenth century), continuing with the posterior massive drop-out of catholic religiosity, and culminating with the total separation of religion and the state. In this podcast, Sidney Castillo interviews professor Marco Huaco Palomino as he addresses the nuances of secularity in several Latin American countries.

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