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The Politics of Religious Freedom and the Criminalization of Blackness

Written by Alexander Rocklin in response to a podcast by Tisa Wenger interviewed by David Robertson

     There are ghosts haunting religious freedom. I was at a panel at the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago, celebrating 50 years since the repeal of anti-“shouting” legislation in that country. The repeal ended the effective outlawing of the practice of the “shouters,” today called the Spiritual Baptist faith. At the event, Spiritual Baptist Bishop Ray Brathwaite, who described the movement as an Afro-centric Christian faith, drew parallels between the Spiritual Baptists and Afro-Atlantic religions in Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti, arguing that they shared the same “template.”

     In the southern Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago and St. Vincent, beginning in the early 20th century, anti-shaking and shouting laws criminalized the gatherings of various independent Afro-Christian groups (many of them emerging from slaves’ and their free descendants’ reimaginings and recombinations of Methodist and Baptist, African-derived and inspired, and translocal esoteric traditions). Most typically, these groups put emphasis on faith in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, baptism, a vision-seeking practice of seclusion called mourning, and the embodiment of spirits from a network of spirit nations that includes Africa, India, China, and the Middle East. Brathwaite’s talk on the Spiritual Baptists’ history in part focused on what he described as the millions of ghosts of dead slaves who haunt the Americas and the slave coast of Africa.

     Bishop Brathwaite put the Spiritual Baptists’ struggles for religious freedom and government recognition in the larger context of the history of the dehumanization and violence of slavery and the racism of colonial and post-colonial rule. Brathwaite described how, a few years before on Spiritual Baptist/Shouter Liberation Day, the national holiday marking the ending of the “shouting” ban, his group had been inspired by God to go to the Queen’s Park Savannah, the central park in the capital city of Port of Spain, to hold a service of celebration. This was an opportunity for a once actively persecuted group to mark their hard-won religious freedom in the heart of the twin island nation.

     Before the commemoration could begin, though, as is typical for Spiritual Baptist gatherings, they had to purify the area, in order to move off the spirits who dwelled there, so that they would not manifest or “possess” the participants, interfering with the ceremony. The bishop estimated that normally it should have taken about a half an hour to do such a purification. Instead it ended up taking them three hours. Brathwaite explained that this was so because of the large number of spirits of African slaves who dwelled at the Savannah, the site of a former slave plantation and public thoroughfare used for the display of executed slaves.

     Bishop Brathwaite’s story points out to us the degree to which the ghostly histories of enslaved and colonized peoples continue to haunt the present from the graves of colonial infrastructures and through repurposed modes of colonial regulation. We can include in this the category of religion and its promised freedom as sites for such hauntings as well (both from the perspective of metaphorical and critical hauntology). In her interview, Tisa Wenger discusses the politics of the category religion as a colonial imposition and points us to the ways in which arguments over religious freedom play an important role in processes of religion-making, in the shaping of what gets to count as religion and what has been marginalized or outlawed as not-religion.

            The interviewer David Robertson mentioned the world-religionization of Hinduism and, connected to this, Wenger pointed out the fact that Indigenous traditions have typically not been constructed as “world religions” in the same way. In the British Caribbean, Indian indentured laborers, brought from South Asia to work in sugarcane fields, were promised the freedom to practice their religions (though all aspects of their lives, including what was understood to be their religions, were highly regulated by a violent and racist colonial regime). In Trinidad, both the colonizers and the colonized Indian laborers together, in a complex unequal exchange, constructed and argued over Hinduism and Islam as so-called world religions in order to help meet or deny religious freedom’s promised ideal. But although the British empire held out the ideal of freedom of religion for its colonial subjects, Afro-Caribbean traditions were almost never been given such considerations.

     The denial of the status of religion became a dehumanizing justification for the enslavement, colonization, and repression of peoples of African descent around the globe, a denial that still haunts the category of religion. The weight of slavery’s violence and racism has affected how Afro-Caribbean communities and their traditions were (and still are) categorized after slavery’s end. Although the interview did not have time to fully delve into questions of race, Wenger pointed listeners to the ways in which race and religion are co-constituted. Race-making and religion-making are wholly intertwined processes, with Africanity and blackness often disqualifying features for a social formation’s inclusion under the umbrella of religion. Instead colonial officials most often situated them among one of religion’s despised others such as superstition, barbarism, or obeah (a category used in laws forbidding “African witchcraft” or “the assumption of supernatural powers”). In other words, freedom has its limits, and those limits are racialized and racializing.

     In order for communities and their practices to count as religion, they had to meet colonial regimes’ norms for appropriate social life and full humanity, including norms for religion and race. An editorialist, quoted in Trinidad and Tobago’s Port of Spain Gazette in September 1939, railing against a proposal to repeal the anti-Shaker law on the island of St. Vincent, wrote:

 Here is obviously another case of a misguided idea of the meaning and limits of liberty and freedom: not without reason did a certain writer exclaim, ‘Oh Liberty! how many crimes have been committed in thy name.’ […] The Government is to be asked to grant to a section of the population [the “Shakers”] the right to indulge in practices which tend to exercise a pernicious and demoralising effect upon the inhabitants.

     Called a survival of African barbarism, a sect, or obeah, such groups of poor, black Christians, outside of the control of white church institutions, engaging in practices of late-night meetings with singing and bell ringing, speaking in tongues, and catching power (or embodying spirits or the Spirit, something considered licentious or “demoralizing” by colonizers), went against elite Protestant and Catholic norms for race, religion, class, and sexuality. However, when quizzed by curious anthropologists or grilled on the stand in court, such so-called shouters and shakers tended to emphasize “normal” practices that met colonial ideals for religion and asserted their rights to freedom in the Empire as practitioners of true Christianity. To quote the title of Wenger’s first book, they declared “We have a religion!” The institution of religious freedom involved the imposition of a set of norms that had to be incorporated and that became the ground for any claims to freedom. The Spiritual Baptists engaged in religion-making, adopting and strategically redeploying the colonial discourse on religion. And their hard struggles for freedom eventually led to the repeal of the bans.

     However, their struggle for recognition has continues  after the end of colonial rule. Just this past spring, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley discussed delivering on long-promised government land grants for a Spiritual Baptist Cathedral, bringing about a measure of equality to a group not historically given the same access to government largess as other recognized religious institutions on the two islands. The slow pace of recognition must in part be traced to the fact that the Spiritual Baptists are a stigmatized community even today, still considered beyond the pale of religion. This is so at least in part because their practices go against elite Christian norms, but also because of their Africanity (something both celebrated and decried).

     When living in Trinidad, I was occasionally awakened in the middle of the night by singing and bell ringing from the Spiritual Baptist temple next door to my apartment. When I asked other neighbors about what had been going on, non-Baptists warned me to be careful of temple members because they might work obeah or “black magic” on me. But, during a group discussion about the hostility coming from outside their community, a Spiritual Baptist friend, who summons and embodies entities from the spiritual land of Africa, had his supporters read out Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands,” and sing God’s praises even louder.

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.

 

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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/

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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Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration

In this podcast, Judith Weisenfeld talks to Brad Stoddard about her new book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Depression. In this book, Weisenfeld explores several social groups in the early 1900s who combined religious and racial rhetoric to fashion new identities. These groups include the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, and Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, and various Ethiopian Hebrews. These groups are not new to scholars of American religious history; however, Weisenfeld’s original analysis combined with her use of previously overlooked sources combine to tell a new and compelling story about these familiar groups.

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

Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration

Podcast with Judith Weisenfeld (26 June 2017).

Interviewed by Brad Stoddard

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Weisenfeld – Black Religious Movements 1.1

Brad Stoddard (BS): Hello, this is Brad Stoddard for the Religious Studies Project. Today I have the pleasure of talking with Judith Weisenfeld, who is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton. And she joins me today to talk about her new book, New World a-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Judith Weisenfeld (JW): Thanks, Brad.

BS: You write in this book that,“This book is the study of the theologies, practices, community, formations and politics of early 20th century black religious movements, that fostered novel understandings of the history and racial identity of people conventionally categorised as negro in American society.” Which specific groups do you address, and which story do they collectively tell?

JW: The book is a comparative study of the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement and a number of congregations of Black Hebrews. And I pursue this comparative study in order to think about the ways in which they each engage with questions of racial identity through a religious frame. They all emerged at the same time in the early 20th century, founded by migrants from the south to northern cities, or immigrants from the Caribbean to these same northern cities. And I was interested in, again, the ways in which they were all thinking about black racial identity history and doing so in ways that insisted that religion was to be part of these discussions. And so, taken together, we get a sense of a really vibrant conversation going on in black American life, in these groups and beyond these groups, about race and peoplehood – who we are. And I think one of the ways in which people have conventionally approached race and racial identity is to understand race as reality – race exists: people are of this race, that race, another race. With the rise of Critical Race Studies and thinking about race as a social construction, scholars have begun to talk more about race – not as a biological fact, but as socially produced. And in that kind of discussion, which informs much of my work, people who are not white are often presented as the objects of racial construction. So race is a social construction that produces hierarchy. It provides tools for controlling, otherising and so on. And so, people who are so racialised rarely appear as agents in discussion about race. And in looking at these groups together it became clear to me that, again, in these groups and in broader black public culture, people were asking these questions about who we are, racially. And these groups presented a really profound challenge to the conventional category of negro and the ways in which Christianity had become the kind-of assumed “appropriate” religion. And so, taking them together, we see black religious subjects talking about race, producing race, rejecting, changing and so on.

BS: Most of these groups, not all of them, emerged or were founded or created within a relatively short time period. What is significant about this time period in American history and why was it so ripe for the production of so many diverse religio-racial identities?

JW: These groups all come out of the period of the Great Migration, which begins around World War I: the movement of rural southern African-Americans, to urban contexts – the Urban South. And also the largest element of that was a northward migration. And so northern cities see huge increases in the black population over those decades, through . . . and there a various waves of it. I focus from the early ‘20s to the late ‘40s. (5:00) And so, people are moving to cities and on the East Coast in particular, in New York and Newark and Philadelphia, they are also interacting with immigrants from the Caribbean – mostly from the British West Indies but also from Danish, French and so on. And these urban contexts become a laboratory for the production of all sorts of new cultural movements. So we get the Harlem Renaissance and the cultural productions of Chicago, where black films, for example, get produced and exhibited; music and literary productions. And religious transformation is also one of the components of the social changes and the cultural changes of the Great Migration. And while these groups remain in the minority, it’s in these urban laboratories . . . . And there are political changes as well: we see the rising of Socialists and Communists. And Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association is based in Harlem, and it is also a kind of engine for thinking about black peoplehood in new ways. And so, these are people who are moving. They’re born – the members who join, and also the founders – they’re born at the end of Reconstruction, some of them at the beginning. They’re born as Jim Crow segregation really locks down life in the South. And then they’re part of this Great Migration. And I think one of the things that they’re struggling with is, “We’re no longer slaves,” and there was the potential of reconstruction, “but things are not . . . things are different, but things are not different in important ways”. And so [there’s] a kind of questioning of this hopeful trajectory of the Exodus, for example – questioning the degree to which black churches can be agents of liberation. And what’s really so powerful in these groups – for me I found really interesting – is just questioning the very terms of identity, who we are: is this who we are? “If this is who we are”, a lot of them say, “I don’t necessarily want that”. There’s a story of a man, who’s named only as Horace X, and he encounters the Nation of Islam, in Chicago, in the ‘40s. And he had tried out, he had grown up in the Church, he had tried out different . . . all sorts of different groups: political groups that had promised migration to Africa, and other kinds of religious groups that he’s joined – the Freemasons. And in the story he tells to a Sociologist, he heard someone preaching on the street: “This is not who you are. They told you you were a negro; they told you you were a Christian. That’s not true: I have the truth.” And he said, “I was ashamed to have been born a negro before this, and when I heard that, everything changed for me.” And it’s that kind-of rethinking of identity that I found so compelling and wanted to know more about. And I think it’s precisely the convergence of all of these things in the urban context that makes that possible.

BS: When you were describing Horace X it reminded me of what scholars refer to as the “seeker mentality”, but it’s alive and well, in different communities, much earlier – as you’re describing it.

JW: Yes, I found a number of cases like that in all of the groups, where people said, “I tried this, I tried that.” Sometimes they’re doing multiple things at the same time. And, when I started the research, I was revisiting some of the secondary literature and things I had read many times before, but hadn’t thought about it in relation to writing about these groups. And I looked back at a document by Miles Mark Fisher, who was an African-American minister and also a University of Chicago PhD after he wrote this. He wrote a piece called “Organised Religions and the Cults”, and he was advocating for the inclusion of some of these newer movements in the US census of religious bodies that was coming up in 1935, I think it would have been. And he was making the case that these are not numerically powerful groups, but that they spoke about something that was going on in African-American life. And in order to understand religion in American life, the Census Bureau should survey them. (10:00) And he also told a story. He said, “It’s very hard to tell . . . to draw a line between churches and the cults”, as he called them. And he told the story of his Sunday School teacher, who had also been a member of what he characterised as a cult. And he did that and was also a Sunday School teacher, and was buried out of the church. And so, returning to that piece sparked for me this sense that, as he made clear, the line is not that sharp between them; that people are moving sequentially through these or trying them out at the same time. And the other thing that became really important for me was to think about members of these groups, and the kinds of conversations they are engaged in, as part of a broader set of conversations in the black life at the time. So, not to marginalise them as strange people who put on fezzes and rejected all sorts of things to move off on their own – they were boundaried in lots of ways. But the kinds of questions they were asking were not strange, for that period. They were, actually, very much a part of what I call the kind-of public culture of race in black America.

BS: Scholars have discussed all of these groups before. In your book you bring, of course, your unique analytical lens to it, but you also bring new sources and new groups of people. So can you speak – and when I think of new people, you focus a lot on Caribbean people and their impact on these movements – also can you speak to your sources, and the groups of people who are included in your narrative?

JW: Sure. One of the . . . . As you said, scholars have written about these groups, the Moorish Science Temple and its’ founder Noble Drew Ali, the Nation of Islam and W D Fard and Elijah Mohammad, Father Divine and also scholarship on black or Ethiopian Hebrews. And all that . . . . Those are texts that consider these groups individually, and focus primarily on the leaders and the theologies that they promoted. And I was interested in what it would mean to put them together in one study and think about, as I’ve said, the way they talk about race – reimagine race in a religious frame. And I ended up calling that ‘religio-racial identity” because, for them, as all the founders preached, religion and race are inextricably linked.And once you understand your religious identity – be it as an Asiatic Muslim, as the Nation of Islam and Moorish Science Temple would talk about it; or an Ethiopian Hebrew; or for Father Divine’s movement, raceless – once you know that, you know what your religion is supposed to be as well. So Islam, for the Nation of Islam, was created for the Asiatic; you can’t separate those things. And I felt, in reading some of the secondary literature, that people were . . . scholars were really interested in how to talk about the religious transformations that these groups represented, but didn’t really take seriously these claims of Asiatic or Ethiopian identity. And I wanted to know (I see them – in reading the primary sources – for these people, inextricably linked ) and I wanted to know how – if you are Horace X and you hear a minister of the Nation of Islam preaching, “You are not a negro Christian, you are an Asiatic Muslim” – how did Horace X go about being that thing that he came to believe he really was? And so finding what the average members did was really a challenge. (15:00) And this is, I think, why most of the texts really focus on the theologies of the leaders. And so, I ended up benefitting from some recent archival sources. Emory, for example, has a Father Divine collection that has a huge number of letters to and from Father Divine that give the texture of life in the movement – though those are not unconventional. But I ended up using vital records: the census and government documents like draft cards that are, many of them, available at ancestry.com. And reading those kinds of documents – I just kind of stumbled on them as a way into this – showed me how profoundly important it was to members of these groups that they be represented in public, in official documents, with the religio-racial identity they had claimed and, in some cases, the names they had chosen to reflect their true identities. And so we see, in the draft cards of these men going in, there’s a pre-printed category or column of racial categories listed. And it’s white, negro, Asian Filipino, Indian – it says Oriental on the 1942 form. And these men say, “None of those categories fit me.” And so you have to write Moorish American. And they were successful in doing that. And those kinds of documents were, again, a completely unexpected way of finding names of average members, but also an unexpected source for finding out ways to kind-of calibrate the stakes and their investment in it. So, if you’re potentially being drafted into the military, and you’re struggling over how you’re represented racially on this form, it means a lot to you. And I see it on the census and things like that. I learned all kinds of things from the census about residential patterns of these groups. So I spent a lot of time on ancestry.com!

BS: (Laughs) Excellent.

JW: On the topic of both new sources and new social actors, I was interested in the role of immigration from the West Indies from the Caribbean in this story. Because they are there. It is Marcus Garvey’s . . . . He was a Jamaican immigrant who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and proposed a sense of global black identity. He did embrace the label negro, but he really generated a sense of black pride, a connection to Africa, investment in collective political engagement in a ways that was new for the period, and in a lot . . . . He was from Jamaica and a lot of the people in the movement, when it was headquartered in Harlem, were from the Caribbean. And this gets erased a lot – very often, I think, in African-American history – that these were people who come from a very different social and political context, in many ways, to the US – and religious context as well. There are commonalities, but they have cultural differences and they’re negotiating them. And these movements emerge, in part, out of those cultural negotiations across communities. But it also turns out that most of the Ethiopian Hebrews are Caribbean immigrants, the vast majority of people in the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam are African-Americans, and Father Divine’s movement has a mix. And so this project was interesting, to me, to think about, again, black racial identity across not just African-American, but thinking about how these groups were in conversation with one another. I didn’t do as much as I had hoped to attend to the cultural specifity of West Indian immigrants in the story, so I hope somebody else will pick that up.

BS: As I read your book, you’re suggesting that membership in one of these groups required the person to undergo a rather thorough process of reimagining. And I have a couple of questions about that reimagining. How did membership of one of these groups – and I know it varied from group to group – but what were some of the major ways that it involved them reimaging their sense of self and even their bodies? (20:00)

JW: That was one of the ways I tried to answer the question of: if yesterday you thought you were a negro Christian and today you have been persuaded that you are a raceless child of Father Divine, or Ethiopian Hebrew – how do you do that? And so I looked at these practices of self-fashioning that are different, as you said, in each of the groups. But I did find some patterns in that, for many of them, changing their names was important and, in the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, rejecting the name, the . . . . Well, in the Nation of Islam, rejecting the slave name and reclaiming (what they talked about as) a kind of “tribal” name or “true” name – for both the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam – was an important step of kind-of separating from old self and moving into the new self. And in Father Divine’s Peace Mission they rejected their (what they talked of as) “mortal names” and took spiritual names that reflected their new status. So these processes of separation from the former identity and taking on a new one that reflects your true history, as they talked about it, was important. Some of the groups took on forms of dress that also spoke about that history, that lineage. The Moorish Science Temple were the most notable one with adopting Moorish dress: the fez for men and turbans for women. And, again, the draft cards were really interesting sources for me for thinking about the meaning of that, and the ways in which men who were registering for the draft thought of that fez as, actually, part of their bodies. And it was Nobel Drew Ali who enjoined them to wear the fez at all times. But when you see on the draft cards that they list that as a physical characteristic, by which they can be identified . . . . You know it’s: they have a scar, or a missing digit, or something like that. It revealed, again, how much they saw as kind-of reimagining their body, in a profound way, into this being that could be recognised as its true self, now. Names, dress, some of the group reimagined skin colour, adopted different kind of terminology for talking about the surface of the body. Moorish Science Temple, again, used the term “olive”. They talked about themselves as olive-skinned Moors. And it didn’t matter that there might not be a correspondence between what the beholder might think they looked like, but it was a theological way of talking about skin colour as connected to Allah and scripture, and the catechism explained that. And then practices of diet, again, they kind of separate you from your old self and you take on a true diet that remakes you and keeps you healthy. All of these groups actually had a deep investment in longevity, and thought that – in different ways – the poison diet – the wrong diet of enslavement and negro-ness and Christianity, to a certain extent, had debilitated black people as individuals and black people as a whole. So they developed certain dietary practices: either feasting or fasting, in different cases; certain foods; and also they all had investments in healing, sometimes through medicine, sometimes through diet. And they all, actually, believed that black people could live for a very, very long time, if not – in Father Divine’s group – for ever, and that enslavement in the Americas had made that impossible, but they were being restored to that possibility.

BS: Part of that reimagining also involved them reimagining their sense, not only geographically, but also historically. It seems that the dominant narrative at this time, in African-American communities, was to understand their position in history relative to slavery. And these new religious movements in this period provided a whole new understanding of history. Can you speak to that? (25:00)

JW: That was one of , I think, the great appeals of these movements. And collectively they do the same kind of work. And in some ways saying, “You are not a negro” is saying the same thing: “Your history did not begin with slavery.” The negro is, all of them would argue, a racial category that was produced only in America – or through slavery in the Americas – and that it was a containing trap to imagine yourself that way, and that God didn’t make you that way. So then one has to say, “Well, who are we?” Right? “What is our history?” And so they all insist that, in one way or another, black history began before slavery – which of course we know – and fill that in. And so in some cases they’re arguing that . . . . So, the Moorish Science Temple says: we are actually the descendents of . . . we are Moroccan, born in America. And then [it] also uses the Bible to trace back even further, so that there is a Biblical connection. But the Moorish Science Temple wants to orient people to the geographic space of Morocco, and use that as a way of talking about the beginning of history. Ethiopian Hebrew congregations again use the Bible to talk about Biblical history as African history and African history as Biblical history. They are interested in Ethiopia but there are also other geographic locations in Africa they they’re interested in. And for Father Divine’s Peace Mission and the Nation of Islam, it’s less a geographic connection – although the Nation of Islam is very interested in Mecca. And for the Peace Mission, Father Divine’s kingdom on earth is where . . . he is there and he’s created this Utopia. But their approach to rejecting the history of negros and enslavement involved not geography, but time – is how I came to think about it. So the Nation of Islam, there’s a lot of . . . . In African-American Christians, and also in the Ethiopian Hebrew groups and the Moorish Science Temple, there’s a lot of engagement with the Bible, and looking for where we are, and how to fit our history there. And the Nation of Islam says: “ Lets just throw that away. Because even from the beginning of time, from the moment of creation, that’s where we are. We have to get rid of . . . .The Bible tells us the whole story wrong.” And Father Divine – time approaches to say: “Race is a product of the devil, I’ve returned to usher in a new heaven and new earth. Heaven is not some far-off thing; it’s here now. And so we start from now. You can enter my kingdom if you do all of these things. And you’re not a negro, that’s from the past. And being a negro is why you die. And if you reject all of that you can live with me for ever.” So the Nation of Islam projected back to the moment of creation and Father Divine projected forward into an eternal future. There’s a great . . . . He would send out this Christmas and New year’s card, in the late ‘40s, that had his image and Mother Divine, his wife, and it said : “One eternal Merry Christmas, one eternal Happy New Year!”

BS: Very good! Thank you. Well, I’d like to say that this is a phenomenal book. And I can imagine it finding a home in quite a few Religious Studies courses, actually. So, best of luck with the book, and thank you so much for your time and your insights. I appreciate it.

JW: Thank you.

Citation Info: Weisenfeld, Judith 2017. “Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/black-religious-movements-and-religio-racial-identities-during-the-great-migration/

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.

On Reading Ralph Ellison Theologically

Ralph Ellison, famous for his 1952 novel Invisible Man, eschewed religiosity personally. His works mainly concerned race, artistry, and democracy in America. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology (2017), Cooper Harriss seeks to uncover what he sees as the theological dimensions of Ellison’s secular conception of race. Because religion is a neglected topic in Ellison scholarship, Harriss’ reading presents an opportunity for fresh insights.[1]

Most scholars examining invisibility in Ellison’s novel consider it a social metaphor: the novel’s protagonist is made invisible by people’s refusal to really see him. Yet Harriss claims invisibility is also a theological trope, with roots in biblical materials, Protestantism, and Kongo traditions, antecedents that establish it as an unmarked religious category. More than the social marginalization of black bodies, Harriss contends invisibility is metaphysical, too.

To read Ellison as a theological thinker, which is also to read him theologically, Harriss calls upon Schleiermacher and Tillich, primarily, to expand the notion of religion. He explains that, to him, the terms “religion” and “religious” refer not to particular things but to “processes through which antagonistic cooperation between universals and particulars generates human quests for meaning” (16). Furthermore, “Ellison’s concept of race is foundationally religious because it is rooted in the relational, systematic interplay between, and the consequent aggregation of, the particular and the universal” (17).

Great authors like Ellison create characters and stories that are both particularized yet universal. The particularity gives a literary work its fully-fleshed characters and immersive world, while its universality connects it to readers’ own lives. In Invisible Man, after we hear the unnamed protagonist’s particular life story as a black man in America, he asks his famous universalizing final line, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” This interplay between particular and universal, is religious, in Harriss’ terms. Ellison is thus a theologian because he makes meaning out of this particular-universal relation.

The heart of Harriss’ argument is his claim that Ellison’s secular conception of race is an “invisible theology.” For Harriss, theology refers not to “God-talk” but to “meanings and significances generated by religious negotiations of universals and particulars,” or “faith seeking understanding” (16). Ellison’s work is religious because it is “meaning-making” and it is theological because it offers practical import for human living (16). These elements are inseparably linked: “the religious and the theological” are “critically cofunctional—never segregated (as they have become in contemporary academic discourse) but absolutely dependent upon one another” (17). Here Harriss is not just making a descriptive claim about the history of these distinct discourses, but asserting his desire to “annihilate” the wall between theology and religious studies, as he says in this interview. He wishes to “dislocate theology as ‘mere’ belief, prescription, or data and refashion it as a critical apparatus” that can help us solve contemporary challenges (192). Accordingly, Harriss argues that “the religious aspects of Ellisonian conceptions of race as a secular property—its invisible theology—may help us” to assess today’s political contexts (179). There is a social prescriptivism in this theological claim-making; Harriss hopes the invisible theology he’s unveiling—and creating—might save us.[2]

There is good evidence, Harriss claims, for reading Ellison theologically. Ellison derided what he saw as racial essentialism in the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the 1960s-1970s, which relied on materialist conceptions of race. Harriss asserts Ellison’s critical project worked against such materialisms, opening space for metaphysical speculation. He also relies on the coincidental publication of major works by three Protestant intellectuals to place Ellison in their midcentury American theological context. Over two chapters, Harriss connects Ellison’s ruminations on racism as America’s “original sin” to American civil religion as a form of residual Calvinism in a post-Protestant society. In a critical chapter, he argues that Ellison’s long friendship with Nathan A. Scott, Jr., literature professor and canon theologian, was really a “theological apprenticeship” for Ellison (96).[3] Cooper uses previously unpublished material to shed light on Ellison at several points, and provides provocative interpretations throughout.

Harriss’s book stands in the tradition of Scott’s scholarship—called Theology and Literature, Christianity and Literature, or Religion and Literature—albeit augmented by recent critical studies of race, religion, and secularism. Relying on a Tillichian theology of culture, Scott explored how a “religious unconscious” permeates cultural productions, even avowedly secular ones, and provides insight into how we ought to live. Harriss admits his own “Tillichian orientation” and states that Scott’s earlier work on Ellison “anticipates the premise, if not the thesis, of this book” (88, 98). Like Scott, Harriss seeks to uncover hidden religious dimensions in Ellison’s secular work to help us navigate the modern world. Both scholars utilize liberal Christian definitions of religion to find exactly these kinds of religious articulations in Ellison.

Harriss employs scholarship showing the theological and Protestant production of concepts like race and the secular to justify framing Ellison as a Protestant theologian (3, 41). Ellison would not recognize himself as such. Despite Ellison’s critiques of social science and Marxist materialism, he did not turn toward supernaturalism. Harriss rejects Ellison’s naturalism by insisting that we need to take “certain religious and theological dimensions seriously in their contention with what believers understand to emanate from invisible, supernatural realms” (14). This approach distinguishes secular from religious, recognizes Ellison as secular, and then rewrites him as religious anyway. Such theological caretaking confuses categorical entanglements with their identity. By yoking religious studies with theology and the secular with the religious, Harriss erases any difference. Arguing that secular writers are really theologians in disguise enacts a theological agenda. At stake is what we do as religious studies scholars.

Outside theological contexts, I am not convinced that the category “invisible theology” provides us greater analytical purchase on Ellison’s work. As someone who loves Ellison and studies religion, I was excited to encounter Harriss’ ideas. As a religious studies scholar, however, I found Harriss’ insistence upon a theological reading of Ellison’s work forced and unnecessary. In a spirit of antagonistic cooperation, a favorite phrase of Ellison’s, I find myself both affirming and resisting Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology.

Notes

[1] Most recently, Josef Sorett locates Ellison’s Afro-Protestant racial aesthetics in the black church (2016, 141-149). Sorett and Harriss both claim religion underlies black secular artistic expressions, but their methods and conclusions differ.

[2] In Race and Secularism in America, Vincent W. Lloyd exhorts “the recovery of the religious, beyond secularism,” for its transformative potential (2016, 15). He adds that “remembering the religious—or the theological, as the unmanaged religious is sometimes called—points to traditions of imagining otherwise.” In Harriss’ work, I hear a similar normative voice, one that promotes Protestant theology as a useful mode for reading secular literature and for envisioning an “otherwise” that seems beyond our material reach.

[3] I found the evidence for such “instruction” to be thin (98). Harriss reads a lot into a letter Ellison wrote to Scott wherein Ellison laments the loss of the “sacred” in modern literature; Ellison saw that loss as muting moral assertion and forcing “depth and resonance” underground (97). Harriss repurposes Ellison’s “depth and resonance” as “shorthand” for religion (98-99, 116, 147).

References

Harriss, M. Cooper. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology. New York University Press, 2017.

Lloyd, Vincent W. “Introduction: Managing Race, Managing Religion.” In Race and Secularism

in America, edited by Jonathan Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd, 1-19. Columbia University Press, 2016.

Scott, Jr., Nathan A. “Black Literature.” In Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing,

edited by Daniel Hoffman, 287-341. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.

—. “Ellison’s Vision of Communitas.” The Carleton Miscellany 18.3 (1980): 41-50.

—. “Ellison’s Vision of Communitas.” Callaloo 18.2 (1995): 310-318.

Sorett, Josef. Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics. Oxford University

Press, 2016.

 

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology

harriss comps.inddIn this interview, M. Cooper Harriss, author the book Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology, discusses his thoughts on the unseen theological dimensions of Ralph Ellison’s writings. Harriss begins with the figure of Ellison, whose novel, Invisible Man, offers a now-classic metaphor (“invisibility”) depicting the socio-cultural and political issues and obstacles that African Americans experienced in the mid-twentieth century. By claiming the invisible not simply as a materialist term but a metaphysical one as well, Harriss contends that despite—or even because of—his status as a thoroughly “ secular” novelist and critic, Ellison’s writing reflects important theological trends and issues that mark his age and the cultural inheritances of his literary production. Harriss also identifies the scholars and thinkers who inform the methodological moves that he makes in the book, and he reflects on the abiding relevance of Ellison’s life and insights. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology troubles regnant assumptions surrounding the religious and theological dimensions of racial identity and, indeed, the very fraught relationships between the terms “religion” and “theology” in contemporary academic discourse.

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

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology

Podcast with M. Cooper Harriss (12 June 2017).

Interviewed by Brad Stoddard

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Harriss-_Ralph_Ellison_s_Invisible_Theology_1.1

Brad Stoddard (BS) : Hello. This is Brad Stoddard of the Religious Studies Project. Today I have the pleasure of talking with Cooper Harriss. Cooper is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University and he just completed his first book, entitled Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology, soon to be published with NYU Press. Cooper – welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Cooper Harriss (CH): Thank you so much for having me, Brad. It’s a delight to be here.

BS: Thanks. Will you introduce your book to the listeners?

CH: Yes. I’m delighted to – thank you all for listening! Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology is a book that examines what I would call overlooked, or under appreciated, religious and theological dimensions of the concept of race. The concept of race, as we now know it, emerges somewhere around the mid-twentieth century where, you know, these two turns [took place], one to a kind of materialism and, on the other hand, a turn to critical theory: you have the rise of black studies in the 1960s; you have the emergence of political sensibilities that defines race according to these terms. It has remained a popular way, you know: of the ways that we talk about American culture; the ways that we think about our political process; the ways that we imagine marginalisation of people. We often do this in political, materialist and economic terms. What I’m interested in is the way that Ellison’s term “invisibility” – The Invisible Man, 1952, was his novel – the term invisibility has come to signify this kind of marginalisation. If you go to your institution’s library and punch in “invisible” in a title search you’re going to get hundreds or thousands of titles back: invisible women, invisible children in our Houston Schools. . . title after title, after title, that deals in terms of a political, materialist marginalisation. That’s great. My question becomes: why is it that we’re using. . . why is it that invisible carries that valence when it also is a metaphysical property – you might even say a ghost – or these kinds of things. So I work from that. And I think about how Ellison is actually working from an alternative understanding of racial dynamics in American culture, or even broader cultural systems of the West. He was very much at odds with the emergence of this definition of race. He is trying to think humanistically at a time when everybody else is turning to the social sciences. He’s aghast at the Moynihan Report which defines poverty in sociological systems. He is dissatisfied with the kind of activist, political mentality that goes into the production and the criticism of African American culture. And so, what I see him doing is actually trying to work through this in an alternative way. And one way, really, to strike hard back at that materialist move is to think theologically. So, what is it about this concept of race – and for Ellison this means blackness – what is it about it that has an alternative prime dimension? And so I began by looking at . . . these four or five ways of looking at Invisible Man. We look at biblical invisibility; we look at invisibility of puritan sources – Cotton Mather and Hutchinson; we look at Luther and Shakespeare; we move onto Kongo religion and think about invisibility and Death and the Invisible Powers and its relationship to Racecraft – this fantastic book by Barbara and Karen Fields, that compares the way that the new scholars think about race with a kind of magic. So, racecraft and witchcraft. These kinds of things. On the other hand, I look at more contemporary things: Clint Eastwood’s empty chair, drones. What are the. . . spectacular imaginaries, the profound scary secrets of this world that we live in? How does something like the gaze of the drone that’s chasing down – the legacy of the colonised other, right, that is invisibly hovering here – (5:00) what is the relationship between that and what Ellison’s understanding to be in play at the very end of the Jim Crow era? And, in between that, I offer a kind of chronological assessment of Ellison’s career, using various lenses or methods that I draw from religious studies. I think about poetic justice, I think about the notion of poetic justice as it relates to racial identity in the renaissance; I look at Invisible Man, published in 1952, in the context of three other important books that are out that year: one by Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be; one by Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, and then Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness which is – he published it before, but delivered it at Brown University in ‘52. I also uncover Ellison’s close relationship with Nathan A. Scott Junior, who was a Professor of Theology and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity school. He and Ellison became great friends when Ellison was on a visiting assignment there. And what I’ve found in their correspondence – in Ellison’s papers in the Library of Congress – is that Scott recognises a kind of sensibility in Ellison; a kind of religious sensibility. He tries to get him involved in what we would call “religion and literature”, he called it “theology and literature”. But he sees Ellison as a writer who is invested in these kinds of issues and questions. Ellison was also a huge fan of 19th century American literature. In fact, when he was asked to come teach places – he taught at Rutgers; he had a Schweitzer Chair at NYU; he taught at Chicago; he had other, sort of, shorter appointments – it was often assumed that a famous African American novelist would come and teach, maybe, African American literature. And he would say, “No! I want to teach a course on Civil War literature, or a course on 19th Century American literature”, which at the time was very white-core. He’s drawing on larger influences, but he’s also flummoxing a lot of the expectations. So he’s teaching Melville and Hawthorne, instead of these expectations. I’m also interested in Ellison’s second novel, which he never finished. He started writing almost immediately after Invisible Man was published in 1952, and he never finished it. He saved it, for the last time, on his computer December 31st 1993. He died in March of ‘94. He’s writing, and writing, and re-writing. And he says that he’s trying to capture something about race in America. The problem is, he’s doing it from roughly 1954 to 1994. He’s doing it from, basically, Brown v. Board to the Million Man March. What does race in America mean during that time? Well, it’s constantly changing: you can never get a hand on it. And so, I use the kind-of changing dynamics of American civil religion as a way to pin down what it is that he’s unable to capture. Because he was, he was invested in a highly centripetal understanding of what we would call American civil religion. I use the trope invisible theology in a couple of ways: on the one hand, it is the fact that this theological sensibility has largely escaped the attention of scholars. If you look at most writing that talks about Ellison at all, in what we would call religious terms, it talks about his preachers , who are cultural figures – who may as well be Jazz players! Not that that’s not important, but it’s a different. . . but nobody really understands him to draw on these kinds of, this strong theological, historical and cultural legacy. And so invisible theology is the theological dimension that has not been seen. But also, it is a theology of invisibility. (10:00) Which is to say that the condition of being black in America – the concept of race itself, as a condition of invisibility – taps into a longer religious and theological genealogy of the concept of invisibility. And, actually, you can see ways that it passes through Ellison, and it’s really helpful for understanding both the present and the future tense.

BS: Are there any relevant biographical details about Ellison that we should know about?

CH: Well, I’m so glad you asked about the biographical details! One thing about him is that he falls outside many of the major narratives that we use to talk about African American culture. Often we fall into the rural south / urban north binary. Ellison was from Oklahoma. He’s been into this migration through Alabama and Tuskegee into Harlem, where he lives the rest of his life. But he understands himself to be outside of the major migration narrative of the 20th century. He’s outside of many of the major arguments, as well. He’s not a social scientist: he dislikes that approach to culture; he feels like it’s demeaning – that it takes away human elements. He believes that human beings are capable of extraordinary actions, even if they don’t always and can’t always fulfil them. And so, he becomes a bit of an outlier. He’s a bit of a pariah. He’s sometimes called Uncle Tom. But he fights back and lashes back against that with, I think, a very clear cultural sensibility which is something like this: whatever it is that our experience and our life is, whatever the cruelty or the dispossession, or the exclusion, or the violence may be, that there’s a sensibility of a kind of exception to these conditions – that we are human being, and we are meaning-making creatures, and there are ways in which we take these situations and imbue them with a kind of meaning that goes beyond material realities in the present. You might say that – 65 years earlier – he was taking lemons and making lemonade, if you catch my drift.

BS: I have a question about your methodology.

CH: Yes.

BS: Early on, in your introduction, you identify Ellison as a secular writer. So, methodologically, how do you get from secular writings to theology? How do you make that interpretive move? And what scholars of religion provide you with the methodological tools to make that move?

CH: Yes. So Ellison is what we call a secular writer. He had no specific religious commitments. He’s not writing out of a specific tradition, he’s not identified as such. And yes, what I see is a kind of analogy here. I actually go with Schleiermacher – though I think it goes. . . we could think about it through Schleiermacher, through Geerz and Durkheim and on. . . And what I’m interested in is this relationship between particularity and universality. And of course Schleiermacher’s definition of religion in the second discourse in On religion: [Speeches] to its Cultured Despisers, defines religion as this kind of aggregation between universal and particular. And what I do is, I take Ellison’s concept of race which. . . race itself is, of course, a secular concept. It’s one which comes out of the social sciences, in terns of its definition. And I say that, actually, what Ellison is doing with racial identity, within cultural expression, is analogous to Schleiermacher’s understanding of his definition of religion: that to be . . . that African American cultural expression is highly particularised for Ellison. It is what he grew up with, it’s what he knows. It’s what any person can gather from the kind of the mother wit of their early existence, and their ongoing interaction with other people in the world. It’s highly particularised. And yet, it also interacts, corresponds to, comes into contact with, must negotiate a larger sense of being human. And so, for him, the notion of the human is something of a universal. Now, what he wouldn’t say is that. . . often this turns into: “The human is the white and the universal.” He would say, “No!” He would say that, actually, this set of correspondences applies to everybody. He has a lovely way of putting it. It’s one of my favourites. (15:00) He says that, the negro writer – this is his term – the negro writer writes out of a sense of a specific wound. The wound for us is the experience of being black in America. We think about slavery, we can talk about these other aspects . But he said, “All novelists deal with this kind of sensibility. All novels are about outsiders. All novels deal with a kind of wounded. . . all novels deals with. . . ” – I’m blanking the specific term he uses here, but all novels are about. . . . So, what he says is, “I write out of my experience and I am creating something meaningful out of disaster, calamity, love, awesomeness – but it is directed specifically at my context.” Ellison was often asked, “Why don’t you write protest novels?” By that, what the questioner would mean is: “Why don’t you put in your novels that racism is bad, and give very clear instances of that to display, to show it?”And what Ellison said to that was, “Actually, every novel is a protest novel. Every art protests against something.” He says, “For me, I can write novels within my particular mode. And so, that is a particular rendering of a more universal genre or form. But it is not unique to African American writers.” Dostoevsky is protesting against the limits of 19th century nationalism; Don Quixote protests against the things that Cervantes is invested in. He goes back to Sophocles and says, “Sophocles is protesting against something. We may not know what it is, but what unites Sophocles, Shakespeare and Cervantes to me is that we are addressing something about a human condition”, which Ellison understood to be a universal that we have to enter through the highly specific, through a sense of particularity. And so, what I say is that Ellison’s understanding of literature, or even cultural production, has this religious sensibility here. And so, this is the how the secular writer writes religiously. And then, the question also becomes: “So how does it become theology?” Right? And I sit smiling,here, that this is the Religious Studies [Project] podcast! One of the things I’m really interested in is, well, annihilating this hard-fast wall that’s erected between theology and religious studies as these kinds of signifiers. So, one of the things that I say is that “religion becomes the process, theology becomes the meaning”. So, in other words, if the process is about the aggregation of the particular and universal, the theology is: what is the meaning that arises out of that? And what I hope your peers will see is that there is a kind of co-functionality between religion and theology: that they require one-another to make sense of one-another. And I don’t mean this in a highly confessional sense, but I also think that there can be more. . . an understanding, and more inter-play to be in play between them, within the process. And I think Ellison gives us a fantastic vehicle for understanding that.

BS: Which contemporary scholars influence your methodological moves?

CH: So, I have a couple of books, there are two outstanding recent books: one is J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account, which does the kind of deep excavation that I don’t pretend to do, but that inspires me. It’s a gesture to the hard digging that he’s done and, in a way, also of understanding the particularities of race to draw from these longer kinds of traditions. So again, it’s not a universality per se, but it’s certainly more universal than we had previously imagined longer legacies of race. Another one is Willie J. Jennings’ Christian Imagination. And I see these as . . . they may not be in actuality . . . but for me, I read them close together and again, this kind of excavative project that looks at the depth, and resonance, and meaning of this concept that is taken on, with almost scientific valences. (20:00) I think two other scholars who strongly inspire me are Tracy Fessenden in her book Culture and Redemption (and just in case I got that wrong I’ll say Tracy Fessenden in her book Redemption and Culture). Because I see, in my own project, a sense of having established the terms of social history, having established the terms of the kind-of focussing in on not the grand narratives but the smaller details. Not focussing on the grand narratives, but in certain moments, and being sensitive to the exclusions that are caused by the grand narratives. So focussing more on the micro-histories. What she does, or what I understand her to be doing – and I love this move – is: OK, so we have established that grand narratives are over with, because they exclude. So what happens if we create grand narratives that, actually, are built of this stuff that has been excluded? And that’s what I see. . . . It’s part of what Jennings is doing, in a way, and it’s definitely what I want to do.

BS: In the book, you recall a common question that is asked about Ralph Ellison and that question is, something along the lines of: “Is he a negro writer or is this a book about negroes?” – some version of that question, right?

CH: Yes.

BS: What’s at stake in that answer? Let me ask it that way.

CH: Sure, and you did a nice synopsis of the two versions of that question. One is, are you a negro writer, or a writer who happens to be a negro? Or is this Invisible Man a negro novel or a novel that happens to be about a negro? And then I think the question becomes, or the way that I answer that question, is “Yes.” Right? Because that is the particular and that is . . . Schleiermacher’s two poles. What is at stake in the question is, I think, a sense of how you understand, or how you want to understand. . . within these historical questions – historical people asking it. Would I have understood a negro novel to protest, to offer a very clear. . . to say very clearly, “racism is bad, oppression is bad, I’m going to give you endless horrific details that’s going to illustrate this in so many ways and then I’m going to give you a nice little lesson”, right? And that is overstating things – but something like Native Son, which is a much more complicated novel than that, but Ellison didn’t necessarily see it that way; that would be the negro novel. The novel that happens to be about a negro – I think the problem with that question is that it underestimates the power of the particular. In other words, in saying that the Invisible Man just happens to be a negro, it presumes that that element – the racial element – that particularity is not important. And so somewhere between those determinations is where I think we should be looking. And that’s where Schleiermacher’s particulars and universals become important. Because it’s not about being particular. Nobody’s all particular and nobody’s all universal, right? We’re all caught in the midst of this messy cloud of identity. And for Ellison that was precisely the point. And I think that is also what is so effective about his notion of invisibility, is that we’re always constantly aggregating and changing and there’s a kind-of sense of play that takes place within the process. Like, within the formation and within the production of culture through novels, but certainly other things as well.

BS: A final question for you. We are conducting this interview, we are having this conversation in the early phase of the changes associated with President Elect Trump. Do you see any relevance to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology?

CH: Yes, absolutely. I think, for a couple of reasons. (25:00) One, I think that it shows, first of all, I mean the. . . . I think that the fact that people are even remotely shocked at the outcome of this election shows how potent this concept of invisibility is: I mean, people were blindsided by it. And you listen to the responses and: “It’s economics”, and “It’s this”, and “It’s that”, and “It’s the Press”. But at the end of the day, we exist within this kind of structure of reality that is very old and imbued with a kind of realness that permeates the culture. And so, the fact that the kind of racial logic that has produced the results we see, I think, are in a different shade, perhaps, in a different hue: whiteness? Nell Painter had this great piece in the New York Times this weekend, saying that whiteness is now a race. It’s not just an unconscious thing, it’s a race. And so we see this with the invisible theology. That whiteness has become, in a way, this kind of racial dispensation and the election shows that for certain.

BS: Well thanks so much ,Cooper! This has been a fantastic conversation. And let me complement you, it is a superbly researched and meticulously well-read book. And it’s an enjoyable read. So, congratulations on your first book!. And thanks for your time.

CH: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. And I hope that your listeners enjoy!

Citation Info: Harriss, M. Cooper 2017. “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 12 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/ralph-ellisons-invisible-theology/

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Can Religion Explain the KKK?

Describing the story of the Ku Klux Klan as “lovely”, as Kelly Baker does in her interview with David Lewis, is initially perplexing.  Fortunately, Baker goes on to clarify what she intends, noting that the Klan’s history of racism and violence in no way qualifies as “nice.”  Her description of the Klan’s “story” as “lovely,” according to Baker, does not refer to the Klan’s violent history, but to a vast print culture that enables methodological access to the ways Klan members constructed their “ideologies” and “worldviews” in the years spanning from 1915 to 1930. Citing her own motivation for studying the group, she tells Lewis that “lots of people say things about white supremacists, but understanding their motivations and why they’re drawn to these ideologies was not so much the context [or goal].”

In her book, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (2011),  Baker uses the “second Klan’s” newspapers and magazines as “an invaluable entrée into the Klan’s worldview…”[1]  Importantly, her endeavor to understand the Klan’s “worldview” and “ideology” aims to problematize scholarly and media representations of the group as primarily uneducated, rural, male, and southern.  Despite the persistence of these representations, Baker shows that Klan membership consisted of southerners and northerners, men and women, the uneducated as well as “bankers, lawyers, dentists, doctors, ministers businessmen, and teachers.”  Rather than a “fringe” movement, then, Baker points to the widespread appeal of the racist and gendered agenda of the Klan leading up to the 1930s.

While much of the interview involves a discussion of the representations of the Klan in popular media, Baker’s book emphasizes scholarly representations of the group.  In her work, she makes an intriguing and important argument regarding specifically the omission of the Klan’s “religion” from scholarly analyses.  Scholars have, according to Baker, focused on economic, social, and political factors in explanations of the Klan, diagnosing it primarily as a movement motivated by “populist” anxieties and fears in a changing national environment.  Against the trend of dismissing the Klan’s “religion” as “false”, “inauthentic”, and thus analytically irrelevant, Baker finds it a necessary component in understanding how the group organized and mobilized a particular self-identity and national vision in the early twentieth century.

Baker emphasizes that a failure to take seriously the religious motivations and worldview of the Klan not only limits our understanding of the group.  More than that, the designation of their “religion” as false serves to conceal the uglier aspects of Protestant hostility and power in U.S. history.  Put simply, “true” Protestantism is preserved through the delineation of “false” appropriations of it by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.   Arguing that the Klan’s anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic national vision possessed wide, non-fringe, appeal from 1915-1930, she asks, “How might narratives of American religious history be told if the Klan was integrated rather than segregated? If a white supremacist movement proves pivotal rather than fringe, then what might happen to our narratives of nation?”[2]  She suggests that a religious studies approach helps to make sense of Klan “religiosity”, as well as scholarly de-legitimizations of it.

Baker’s focus on the mechanisms through which scholarly representations participate in desired definitions and tellings of “religion” in “American” “history” is important work.   Indeed, the project that Baker mentions of separating “true religion” from “false religion” has a heavy presence in U.S. history and historiography.[3]  Yet, while Baker’s interventions regarding the need to take seriously the “religion” of the Klan is noted, I question whether she does not herself reinforce problematic epistemological and methodological assumptions about “religion.”  More precisely, does her search for the “worldview” and “ideology” of the Klan through its newspapers — absent a rigorous situating of these texts and their readers in particular economic, political, and geographic contexts — reproduce reductive and essentializing definitions of “religious” causation?

The project of distinguishing “true” from “false” religion, referenced by Baker, has most often referred to the normative and racist assumptions of such projects.[4]  Scholars have traced how religious theorization, definition, and comparison of “true” and “false” religion emerged in the context of colonial encounter and economic domination.   More precisely, these scholars have argued that theories of religion have been and continue to be connected to racist anthropological assumptions that deem racialized “others” incapable of rational “belief”[5] — whether in the writings of E.B. Tylor or in, arguably, the persistence of definitions of Protestant religiosity as more “liberal” and “democratic” than, say, Islam.

Baker’s invocation of the project of religious definition is quite different.  She does not point to how constructions of “true religion” are linked to racist anthropologies.  Rather, the argumentative implication of her work is that the scholarly denial of the Protestant “religion” of the Ku Klux Klan — a white supremacist group with its own racist anthropological theories — actually helps contemporary Protestants to conceal and forget the prevalence of Protestant racism in U.S. history.   It appears that her book, then, is in some way aimed at — even though she does not state this — helping readers recognize the prevalence of racist “worldviews” and “ideologies” through the un-fringing of the Klan’s Protestant religiosity.

The connections between religious theorization and imperial racism, however, might lead us to bigger questions regarding the extent of the relationship between Protestant religion, its definitional assumptions, and racism.  I say all of this not to dismiss Baker’s argument that we need to take seriously how the racist ideologies and worldviews of the Ku Klux Klan extend beyond those wearing white hoods and carrying torches.  We should take seriously, indeed, her argument that the dismissal of the Klan’s “religion” as false and inauthentic plays into the desire to occlude the ugly moments of Protestant and American racism.  Yet, she attaches this ugly history to a particular and identifiable ideological formulation, a particular worldview — whether found in the Klan of the early twentieth century or in the contemporary Islamophobia of the Tea Party.

Considering the long relationship between religious definition and racist anthropologies, we see that Protestant racism not only exists in the form of conservative “ideologies” and “worldviews.”  More importantly, and perhaps dangerously, it pervades the most well-intentioned and “enlightened” disciplinary practices.  Instead of locating white supremacy only in the persistence of the Klan’s “brand” today[6], it might be more productive for scholars of race and religion to consider the challenge posed by Black Lives Matter and other groups.  For, as they are showing in their confrontation of police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and the capitalist exploitation of black and brown bodies, U.S. racism runs deeper than a “worldview” that we can easily recognize and help others to see.  These challenges demand a self-reflexivity that goes beyond identifying racism in a worldview we do not possess.  More significantly, they call us to examine how our own institutional, disciplinary, and economic practices help to perpetuate a racist system.

[1] Kelly Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKKs Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (U Kansas Press, 2011), p. 22.

[2] Ibid, 19.

[3] Baker, The Gospel of the Klan, p. 17.

[4] For a helpful overview of this issue in regards to the disciplinary subfield of American Religious History, see Finnbarr Curtis’s essay “The Study of American religions: critical reflections on a specialization” in Religon, no. 42, issue 3, 355-372 (June 21, 2012).  Found here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0048721X.2012.681875#.VuNZYJMrL-YFor another helpful work on the assumptions of religious comparison and the construction of the category “world religion”, see Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Inventions of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (U Chicago Press, 2005).

[5] To hear more about the distinction between race and ethnicity, as well as the co-construction of religion and race as social categories, it will be helpful to listen to Rudy Busto’s podcast interview on The Religious Studies Project titled “Race and Religion: Intertwined Social Constructions,” found here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/race-and-religion-intertwined-social-constructions/.  Also, see his book King Tiger:  The Religious Vision of Reies López Tijerina (U New Mexico Press, 2006)

[6] Baker, The Gospel of the Klan, 249.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 13 October 2015

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest, booming with calls for papers, events and job opportunities!

We would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has forwarded notifications. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

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Calls for papers

Conference: Religious Materiality and Emotion

February 17–18, 2016

Adelaide City, Australia

Deadline: October 31, 2015

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Conference: Hermeneutics, symbol and myth and the Modernity of Antiquity in Italian Literature and the Arts

December 1–2, 2015

Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milano, Italy

Deadline: November 10, 2015

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Conference: Shia Minorities in the Contemporary World

May 20–21, 2016

University of Chester, UK

Deadline: December 15, 2015

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Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

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Conference: Esotericism, Literature and Culture in Central and Eastern Europe

May 27–28, 2016

Belgrade, Serbia

Deadline: December 1, 2015

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Conference: Religion and Revolution

June 16–17, 2016

University College Cork, Ireland

Deadline: January 21, 2016

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Conference: Dialogue among religions as strategy and means for peace

July 12–15, 2016

Havana, Cuba

Deadline: November 20, 2015

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Conference: Anticipating the End Times: Millennialism, Apocalypticism, and Utopianism in Intentional Communities

October 6–8, 2016

Salt Lake City, UT, USA

Deadline: May 15, 2016

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Conference: Knowing Demons, Knowing Spirits

July 5–7, 2016

University of Oxford, UK

Deadline: November 10, 2015

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Colloquium: Translating Christianities

December 7, 2015

University of Stirling, UK

Deadline: October 30, 2015

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Symposium: The End of the World: A Universal Imagination

June 8–10, 2016

Nantes, France

Deadline: December 15, 2015

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Symposium: 41st Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

April 15–17, 2015

Cardiff University, UK

Deadline: December 7, 2014

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Symposium: Oxford Symposium on Religious Studies

December 7–9, 2015

University of Oxford, UK

Deadline: November 6, 2015

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EASR panel: Nonreligion and Atheism in Central and Eastern Europe

June 28–July 1, 2015

Helsinki, Finland

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Journal: Preternature

Special issue: Delineating the Preternatural: Modern Occultism in a Scientific Context

Deadline: December 15, 2015

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Journal: Open Theology

Special issue: Religion and Racism: Intercultural Perspectives

Deadline: January 31, 2016

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Events

Conference: Religion, Addiction and Recovery

November 2, 2015

University of Chester, UK

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Seminar: Islamic Studies in Scotland: Retrospect and Prospect

October 23–24, 2015

University of Edinburgh, UK

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Jobs

4 PhD positions: “Communication and Exploitation of Knowledge in the Middle Ages”

University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Deadline: October 15, 2015

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Assistant Professor of Religion: Buddhist Studies

Bard College, NY, USA

Deadline: November 1, 2015

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Senior Research Associate: CREST

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

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Doctoral positions: Muslim Cultures and Societies

Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Deadline: November 15, 2015

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Hyphenating Identities

In yet another excellent Religious Studies Project interview, we hear from University of California Santa Barbara Associate Professor Rudy Busto talking about race and religion in the United States. The objectives of this conversation focus predominantly upon topics like race and religion in America, the conflation of race as ethnicity and vice versa, and the use of race as an identity marker within the study of religion.

Throughout this delightful and meandering dialogue the listener is invited, indeed encouraged, to consider the systemic and institutionalized location of race alongside religion in the contemporary, modern socio-cultural milieu and scholastic Academy. With a particularly American slant (which is to say, a reliance on double-barrelled ethno-religious identifiers like Asian-American, or Japanese-American Buddhist), much of the discussion in this interview centers around the now almost implicitly assumed observation that the ways in which humans create and express their identities is a socially constructed phenomenon, one that lacks ontological existence and agency, and how race can be a prominent component of this construction. By further deconstructing and problematizing the use of constructed, blanketing concepts like race or culture, Busto shows how delicate the process of understanding the formation of an individual’s subjective understanding of themselves and the group to which they identify actually can be.

What is regrettably missing from this conversation is a deeper discussion that might provide us with an understanding of how, precisely, the constructed-ness of human identities as a theoretical model advances the field of RS. Building upon the excellent foundation laid by Busto in this interview, I would submit two pieces of scholarship as supplements, each delving into how the contemporary scholar of religion might deploy this constructed-ness of identity.

Skipping over the obvious progenitors of the ‘constructed human groups’ discussion (Hobsbawm, Ranger, Anderson, etc.), I often heavily rely upon two middle to late 20th century academics to focus the lens of constructed identity. The first is Steven Vertovec and his use of what he calls ‘vis-à-vis dynamics’ (2000:106). In this particular instance Vertovec is observing Hindus in ‘diasporic’ situations within the UK. That is to say, he records observations of individuals who identify as belonging to the group calling itself ‘Hindu’, though they are citizens of the United Kingdom. Regardless of whether the individual is a first, second, or third generation immigrant, Vertovec observes that their self-identity requires what RS scholars might call an ‘Other’. That is, an individual, object, or even an ethno-religious collective, such as Hindus and non-Hindus, in relation to which one forms at least one layer of their self-identity.

Therefore, a researcher might record a conversation with someone who, for example, identifies as Hindu because they perform arati on Sundays instead of attending synagogue or, of course, doing nothing at all. Conversely, perhaps a younger, third-generation student might identify as Scottish or English rather than Indian like their first-generation grandparents. These markers or borders that define to which group one belongs, Vertovec might argue, cannot be created in a vacuum and necessarily require a concept RS scholars call an Other. In our work then, we can subsequently examine questions such as how generational differences manifest in various groups, what impact public education has on how immigrants choose to identify, or indeed how we can more clearly define the very concept of ‘religion’ through an examination of the subjective identification of the individual to a particular religious tradition within a particular context.

The second scholar who I would submit as a supplement to this identity question is Clifford Geertz. Geertz was a specialist in Mediterranean groups and specifically, for the present case, of Muslim Moroccans. Geertz’s suggested deployment of what he thinks of as ‘mosaic identities’ illustrates a similar me/you dynamic as does Vertovec, yet in a slightly more colourful way. Geertz provides a handful of specific stories during which he observes that the individual has multiple, ‘nested’ identities that are centered on one’s location in social-political/religious spacetime (1974:26-45). He provides the narration of a particular male informant, whose identity as belonging to a particular group, ranging from his specific tribe, village, region, etc. are deployed in relation to the dominant group with whom he comes into contact. This is done within what I like to think of as a Russian-doll, or concentric field of layered concepts of belonging and identity. So, what we find in Geertz is that rather than a linear and subject-centric illustration of identity formation, he sees what might be a more fluid, group-oriented process of formation and understanding of self-identity.

Many of these same formations and scenarios can be noticed when one looks upon other constructed forms of human collective (and individual) identity, like race or ethnicity. We can use ideas like those of Busto, Vertovec, and Geertz–among myriad others of course–to consider questions about how we as scholars of religion might better define and deploy concepts such as race and religion. Indeed, as touched upon in this interview, we find ourselves in a time when countries like the UK and the US are, even now, officially providing their citizens the option of identifying via the use of hyphenated ethnicities.

So, in the interest of brevity, I would be quick to again praise any discussion that aims to shed further light on the process by which humans form and manifest their identity as an individual in isolation, as well as when done as a member of a group, as such discussions can only aid in progressing the field of Religious Studies.

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1974. “From the Native’s Point of View”. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 28.1: 26-45.

Nye, Malory. 1995. A Place for Our Gods: The Construction of an Edinburgh Hindu Temple Community. Surrey: Curzon Press

Vertovec, Steven. 2000. The Hindu Diaspora. London and New York: Routledge.

Race and Religion: Intertwined Social Constructions

Race is a neglected category in Religious Studies. When race is included at all, it is often conflated with ethnicity or else its study is limited to a few typical examples, such as black/white binaries, the “Black church” or various “ethnic churches,” or the racialization of Muslim minorities. In this interview, Rudy Busto discusses problems and possibilities in the study of race and religion: how it has been examined (and overlooked) in the field of religious studies, how it has been confused with ethnicity, how race and religion have been theorized as mutually constitutive, limitations and occlusions in the study of race and religion, and why race is a category scholars of religion cannot afford to ignore. The racial/religious co-constitution of collective identities is an ever-present double-marked boundary which produces real effects on actual bodies, an empirical fact structuring people’s experiences. As such, scholars render their scholarship incomplete and do a disservice to their students and readers when they ignore race. Ranging from work on the social construction of race and religion as scholarly categories, the challenges of analyzing syncretism and authenticity, and the necessity of highlighting unmarked categories (e.g., Protestant, white), Busto argues that it is impossible to get an accurate and comprehensive understanding of religion (and non-religion) without taking race into account.

You can also 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, ant farms, pot pourri, and more.

Podcasts

The Politics of Religious Freedom and the Criminalization of Blackness

Written by Alexander Rocklin in response to a podcast by Tisa Wenger interviewed by David Robertson

     There are ghosts haunting religious freedom. I was at a panel at the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago, celebrating 50 years since the repeal of anti-“shouting” legislation in that country. The repeal ended the effective outlawing of the practice of the “shouters,” today called the Spiritual Baptist faith. At the event, Spiritual Baptist Bishop Ray Brathwaite, who described the movement as an Afro-centric Christian faith, drew parallels between the Spiritual Baptists and Afro-Atlantic religions in Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti, arguing that they shared the same “template.”

     In the southern Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago and St. Vincent, beginning in the early 20th century, anti-shaking and shouting laws criminalized the gatherings of various independent Afro-Christian groups (many of them emerging from slaves’ and their free descendants’ reimaginings and recombinations of Methodist and Baptist, African-derived and inspired, and translocal esoteric traditions). Most typically, these groups put emphasis on faith in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, baptism, a vision-seeking practice of seclusion called mourning, and the embodiment of spirits from a network of spirit nations that includes Africa, India, China, and the Middle East. Brathwaite’s talk on the Spiritual Baptists’ history in part focused on what he described as the millions of ghosts of dead slaves who haunt the Americas and the slave coast of Africa.

     Bishop Brathwaite put the Spiritual Baptists’ struggles for religious freedom and government recognition in the larger context of the history of the dehumanization and violence of slavery and the racism of colonial and post-colonial rule. Brathwaite described how, a few years before on Spiritual Baptist/Shouter Liberation Day, the national holiday marking the ending of the “shouting” ban, his group had been inspired by God to go to the Queen’s Park Savannah, the central park in the capital city of Port of Spain, to hold a service of celebration. This was an opportunity for a once actively persecuted group to mark their hard-won religious freedom in the heart of the twin island nation.

     Before the commemoration could begin, though, as is typical for Spiritual Baptist gatherings, they had to purify the area, in order to move off the spirits who dwelled there, so that they would not manifest or “possess” the participants, interfering with the ceremony. The bishop estimated that normally it should have taken about a half an hour to do such a purification. Instead it ended up taking them three hours. Brathwaite explained that this was so because of the large number of spirits of African slaves who dwelled at the Savannah, the site of a former slave plantation and public thoroughfare used for the display of executed slaves.

     Bishop Brathwaite’s story points out to us the degree to which the ghostly histories of enslaved and colonized peoples continue to haunt the present from the graves of colonial infrastructures and through repurposed modes of colonial regulation. We can include in this the category of religion and its promised freedom as sites for such hauntings as well (both from the perspective of metaphorical and critical hauntology). In her interview, Tisa Wenger discusses the politics of the category religion as a colonial imposition and points us to the ways in which arguments over religious freedom play an important role in processes of religion-making, in the shaping of what gets to count as religion and what has been marginalized or outlawed as not-religion.

            The interviewer David Robertson mentioned the world-religionization of Hinduism and, connected to this, Wenger pointed out the fact that Indigenous traditions have typically not been constructed as “world religions” in the same way. In the British Caribbean, Indian indentured laborers, brought from South Asia to work in sugarcane fields, were promised the freedom to practice their religions (though all aspects of their lives, including what was understood to be their religions, were highly regulated by a violent and racist colonial regime). In Trinidad, both the colonizers and the colonized Indian laborers together, in a complex unequal exchange, constructed and argued over Hinduism and Islam as so-called world religions in order to help meet or deny religious freedom’s promised ideal. But although the British empire held out the ideal of freedom of religion for its colonial subjects, Afro-Caribbean traditions were almost never been given such considerations.

     The denial of the status of religion became a dehumanizing justification for the enslavement, colonization, and repression of peoples of African descent around the globe, a denial that still haunts the category of religion. The weight of slavery’s violence and racism has affected how Afro-Caribbean communities and their traditions were (and still are) categorized after slavery’s end. Although the interview did not have time to fully delve into questions of race, Wenger pointed listeners to the ways in which race and religion are co-constituted. Race-making and religion-making are wholly intertwined processes, with Africanity and blackness often disqualifying features for a social formation’s inclusion under the umbrella of religion. Instead colonial officials most often situated them among one of religion’s despised others such as superstition, barbarism, or obeah (a category used in laws forbidding “African witchcraft” or “the assumption of supernatural powers”). In other words, freedom has its limits, and those limits are racialized and racializing.

     In order for communities and their practices to count as religion, they had to meet colonial regimes’ norms for appropriate social life and full humanity, including norms for religion and race. An editorialist, quoted in Trinidad and Tobago’s Port of Spain Gazette in September 1939, railing against a proposal to repeal the anti-Shaker law on the island of St. Vincent, wrote:

 Here is obviously another case of a misguided idea of the meaning and limits of liberty and freedom: not without reason did a certain writer exclaim, ‘Oh Liberty! how many crimes have been committed in thy name.’ […] The Government is to be asked to grant to a section of the population [the “Shakers”] the right to indulge in practices which tend to exercise a pernicious and demoralising effect upon the inhabitants.

     Called a survival of African barbarism, a sect, or obeah, such groups of poor, black Christians, outside of the control of white church institutions, engaging in practices of late-night meetings with singing and bell ringing, speaking in tongues, and catching power (or embodying spirits or the Spirit, something considered licentious or “demoralizing” by colonizers), went against elite Protestant and Catholic norms for race, religion, class, and sexuality. However, when quizzed by curious anthropologists or grilled on the stand in court, such so-called shouters and shakers tended to emphasize “normal” practices that met colonial ideals for religion and asserted their rights to freedom in the Empire as practitioners of true Christianity. To quote the title of Wenger’s first book, they declared “We have a religion!” The institution of religious freedom involved the imposition of a set of norms that had to be incorporated and that became the ground for any claims to freedom. The Spiritual Baptists engaged in religion-making, adopting and strategically redeploying the colonial discourse on religion. And their hard struggles for freedom eventually led to the repeal of the bans.

     However, their struggle for recognition has continues  after the end of colonial rule. Just this past spring, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley discussed delivering on long-promised government land grants for a Spiritual Baptist Cathedral, bringing about a measure of equality to a group not historically given the same access to government largess as other recognized religious institutions on the two islands. The slow pace of recognition must in part be traced to the fact that the Spiritual Baptists are a stigmatized community even today, still considered beyond the pale of religion. This is so at least in part because their practices go against elite Christian norms, but also because of their Africanity (something both celebrated and decried).

     When living in Trinidad, I was occasionally awakened in the middle of the night by singing and bell ringing from the Spiritual Baptist temple next door to my apartment. When I asked other neighbors about what had been going on, non-Baptists warned me to be careful of temple members because they might work obeah or “black magic” on me. But, during a group discussion about the hostility coming from outside their community, a Spiritual Baptist friend, who summons and embodies entities from the spiritual land of Africa, had his supporters read out Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands,” and sing God’s praises even louder.

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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Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration

In this podcast, Judith Weisenfeld talks to Brad Stoddard about her new book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Depression. In this book, Weisenfeld explores several social groups in the early 1900s who combined religious and racial rhetoric to fashion new identities. These groups include the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, and Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, and various Ethiopian Hebrews. These groups are not new to scholars of American religious history; however, Weisenfeld’s original analysis combined with her use of previously overlooked sources combine to tell a new and compelling story about these familiar groups.

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

Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration

Podcast with Judith Weisenfeld (26 June 2017).

Interviewed by Brad Stoddard

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Weisenfeld – Black Religious Movements 1.1

Brad Stoddard (BS): Hello, this is Brad Stoddard for the Religious Studies Project. Today I have the pleasure of talking with Judith Weisenfeld, who is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton. And she joins me today to talk about her new book, New World a-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Judith Weisenfeld (JW): Thanks, Brad.

BS: You write in this book that,“This book is the study of the theologies, practices, community, formations and politics of early 20th century black religious movements, that fostered novel understandings of the history and racial identity of people conventionally categorised as negro in American society.” Which specific groups do you address, and which story do they collectively tell?

JW: The book is a comparative study of the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement and a number of congregations of Black Hebrews. And I pursue this comparative study in order to think about the ways in which they each engage with questions of racial identity through a religious frame. They all emerged at the same time in the early 20th century, founded by migrants from the south to northern cities, or immigrants from the Caribbean to these same northern cities. And I was interested in, again, the ways in which they were all thinking about black racial identity history and doing so in ways that insisted that religion was to be part of these discussions. And so, taken together, we get a sense of a really vibrant conversation going on in black American life, in these groups and beyond these groups, about race and peoplehood – who we are. And I think one of the ways in which people have conventionally approached race and racial identity is to understand race as reality – race exists: people are of this race, that race, another race. With the rise of Critical Race Studies and thinking about race as a social construction, scholars have begun to talk more about race – not as a biological fact, but as socially produced. And in that kind of discussion, which informs much of my work, people who are not white are often presented as the objects of racial construction. So race is a social construction that produces hierarchy. It provides tools for controlling, otherising and so on. And so, people who are so racialised rarely appear as agents in discussion about race. And in looking at these groups together it became clear to me that, again, in these groups and in broader black public culture, people were asking these questions about who we are, racially. And these groups presented a really profound challenge to the conventional category of negro and the ways in which Christianity had become the kind-of assumed “appropriate” religion. And so, taking them together, we see black religious subjects talking about race, producing race, rejecting, changing and so on.

BS: Most of these groups, not all of them, emerged or were founded or created within a relatively short time period. What is significant about this time period in American history and why was it so ripe for the production of so many diverse religio-racial identities?

JW: These groups all come out of the period of the Great Migration, which begins around World War I: the movement of rural southern African-Americans, to urban contexts – the Urban South. And also the largest element of that was a northward migration. And so northern cities see huge increases in the black population over those decades, through . . . and there a various waves of it. I focus from the early ‘20s to the late ‘40s. (5:00) And so, people are moving to cities and on the East Coast in particular, in New York and Newark and Philadelphia, they are also interacting with immigrants from the Caribbean – mostly from the British West Indies but also from Danish, French and so on. And these urban contexts become a laboratory for the production of all sorts of new cultural movements. So we get the Harlem Renaissance and the cultural productions of Chicago, where black films, for example, get produced and exhibited; music and literary productions. And religious transformation is also one of the components of the social changes and the cultural changes of the Great Migration. And while these groups remain in the minority, it’s in these urban laboratories . . . . And there are political changes as well: we see the rising of Socialists and Communists. And Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association is based in Harlem, and it is also a kind of engine for thinking about black peoplehood in new ways. And so, these are people who are moving. They’re born – the members who join, and also the founders – they’re born at the end of Reconstruction, some of them at the beginning. They’re born as Jim Crow segregation really locks down life in the South. And then they’re part of this Great Migration. And I think one of the things that they’re struggling with is, “We’re no longer slaves,” and there was the potential of reconstruction, “but things are not . . . things are different, but things are not different in important ways”. And so [there’s] a kind of questioning of this hopeful trajectory of the Exodus, for example – questioning the degree to which black churches can be agents of liberation. And what’s really so powerful in these groups – for me I found really interesting – is just questioning the very terms of identity, who we are: is this who we are? “If this is who we are”, a lot of them say, “I don’t necessarily want that”. There’s a story of a man, who’s named only as Horace X, and he encounters the Nation of Islam, in Chicago, in the ‘40s. And he had tried out, he had grown up in the Church, he had tried out different . . . all sorts of different groups: political groups that had promised migration to Africa, and other kinds of religious groups that he’s joined – the Freemasons. And in the story he tells to a Sociologist, he heard someone preaching on the street: “This is not who you are. They told you you were a negro; they told you you were a Christian. That’s not true: I have the truth.” And he said, “I was ashamed to have been born a negro before this, and when I heard that, everything changed for me.” And it’s that kind-of rethinking of identity that I found so compelling and wanted to know more about. And I think it’s precisely the convergence of all of these things in the urban context that makes that possible.

BS: When you were describing Horace X it reminded me of what scholars refer to as the “seeker mentality”, but it’s alive and well, in different communities, much earlier – as you’re describing it.

JW: Yes, I found a number of cases like that in all of the groups, where people said, “I tried this, I tried that.” Sometimes they’re doing multiple things at the same time. And, when I started the research, I was revisiting some of the secondary literature and things I had read many times before, but hadn’t thought about it in relation to writing about these groups. And I looked back at a document by Miles Mark Fisher, who was an African-American minister and also a University of Chicago PhD after he wrote this. He wrote a piece called “Organised Religions and the Cults”, and he was advocating for the inclusion of some of these newer movements in the US census of religious bodies that was coming up in 1935, I think it would have been. And he was making the case that these are not numerically powerful groups, but that they spoke about something that was going on in African-American life. And in order to understand religion in American life, the Census Bureau should survey them. (10:00) And he also told a story. He said, “It’s very hard to tell . . . to draw a line between churches and the cults”, as he called them. And he told the story of his Sunday School teacher, who had also been a member of what he characterised as a cult. And he did that and was also a Sunday School teacher, and was buried out of the church. And so, returning to that piece sparked for me this sense that, as he made clear, the line is not that sharp between them; that people are moving sequentially through these or trying them out at the same time. And the other thing that became really important for me was to think about members of these groups, and the kinds of conversations they are engaged in, as part of a broader set of conversations in the black life at the time. So, not to marginalise them as strange people who put on fezzes and rejected all sorts of things to move off on their own – they were boundaried in lots of ways. But the kinds of questions they were asking were not strange, for that period. They were, actually, very much a part of what I call the kind-of public culture of race in black America.

BS: Scholars have discussed all of these groups before. In your book you bring, of course, your unique analytical lens to it, but you also bring new sources and new groups of people. So can you speak – and when I think of new people, you focus a lot on Caribbean people and their impact on these movements – also can you speak to your sources, and the groups of people who are included in your narrative?

JW: Sure. One of the . . . . As you said, scholars have written about these groups, the Moorish Science Temple and its’ founder Noble Drew Ali, the Nation of Islam and W D Fard and Elijah Mohammad, Father Divine and also scholarship on black or Ethiopian Hebrews. And all that . . . . Those are texts that consider these groups individually, and focus primarily on the leaders and the theologies that they promoted. And I was interested in what it would mean to put them together in one study and think about, as I’ve said, the way they talk about race – reimagine race in a religious frame. And I ended up calling that ‘religio-racial identity” because, for them, as all the founders preached, religion and race are inextricably linked.And once you understand your religious identity – be it as an Asiatic Muslim, as the Nation of Islam and Moorish Science Temple would talk about it; or an Ethiopian Hebrew; or for Father Divine’s movement, raceless – once you know that, you know what your religion is supposed to be as well. So Islam, for the Nation of Islam, was created for the Asiatic; you can’t separate those things. And I felt, in reading some of the secondary literature, that people were . . . scholars were really interested in how to talk about the religious transformations that these groups represented, but didn’t really take seriously these claims of Asiatic or Ethiopian identity. And I wanted to know (I see them – in reading the primary sources – for these people, inextricably linked ) and I wanted to know how – if you are Horace X and you hear a minister of the Nation of Islam preaching, “You are not a negro Christian, you are an Asiatic Muslim” – how did Horace X go about being that thing that he came to believe he really was? And so finding what the average members did was really a challenge. (15:00) And this is, I think, why most of the texts really focus on the theologies of the leaders. And so, I ended up benefitting from some recent archival sources. Emory, for example, has a Father Divine collection that has a huge number of letters to and from Father Divine that give the texture of life in the movement – though those are not unconventional. But I ended up using vital records: the census and government documents like draft cards that are, many of them, available at ancestry.com. And reading those kinds of documents – I just kind of stumbled on them as a way into this – showed me how profoundly important it was to members of these groups that they be represented in public, in official documents, with the religio-racial identity they had claimed and, in some cases, the names they had chosen to reflect their true identities. And so we see, in the draft cards of these men going in, there’s a pre-printed category or column of racial categories listed. And it’s white, negro, Asian Filipino, Indian – it says Oriental on the 1942 form. And these men say, “None of those categories fit me.” And so you have to write Moorish American. And they were successful in doing that. And those kinds of documents were, again, a completely unexpected way of finding names of average members, but also an unexpected source for finding out ways to kind-of calibrate the stakes and their investment in it. So, if you’re potentially being drafted into the military, and you’re struggling over how you’re represented racially on this form, it means a lot to you. And I see it on the census and things like that. I learned all kinds of things from the census about residential patterns of these groups. So I spent a lot of time on ancestry.com!

BS: (Laughs) Excellent.

JW: On the topic of both new sources and new social actors, I was interested in the role of immigration from the West Indies from the Caribbean in this story. Because they are there. It is Marcus Garvey’s . . . . He was a Jamaican immigrant who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and proposed a sense of global black identity. He did embrace the label negro, but he really generated a sense of black pride, a connection to Africa, investment in collective political engagement in a ways that was new for the period, and in a lot . . . . He was from Jamaica and a lot of the people in the movement, when it was headquartered in Harlem, were from the Caribbean. And this gets erased a lot – very often, I think, in African-American history – that these were people who come from a very different social and political context, in many ways, to the US – and religious context as well. There are commonalities, but they have cultural differences and they’re negotiating them. And these movements emerge, in part, out of those cultural negotiations across communities. But it also turns out that most of the Ethiopian Hebrews are Caribbean immigrants, the vast majority of people in the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam are African-Americans, and Father Divine’s movement has a mix. And so this project was interesting, to me, to think about, again, black racial identity across not just African-American, but thinking about how these groups were in conversation with one another. I didn’t do as much as I had hoped to attend to the cultural specifity of West Indian immigrants in the story, so I hope somebody else will pick that up.

BS: As I read your book, you’re suggesting that membership in one of these groups required the person to undergo a rather thorough process of reimagining. And I have a couple of questions about that reimagining. How did membership of one of these groups – and I know it varied from group to group – but what were some of the major ways that it involved them reimaging their sense of self and even their bodies? (20:00)

JW: That was one of the ways I tried to answer the question of: if yesterday you thought you were a negro Christian and today you have been persuaded that you are a raceless child of Father Divine, or Ethiopian Hebrew – how do you do that? And so I looked at these practices of self-fashioning that are different, as you said, in each of the groups. But I did find some patterns in that, for many of them, changing their names was important and, in the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, rejecting the name, the . . . . Well, in the Nation of Islam, rejecting the slave name and reclaiming (what they talked about as) a kind of “tribal” name or “true” name – for both the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam – was an important step of kind-of separating from old self and moving into the new self. And in Father Divine’s Peace Mission they rejected their (what they talked of as) “mortal names” and took spiritual names that reflected their new status. So these processes of separation from the former identity and taking on a new one that reflects your true history, as they talked about it, was important. Some of the groups took on forms of dress that also spoke about that history, that lineage. The Moorish Science Temple were the most notable one with adopting Moorish dress: the fez for men and turbans for women. And, again, the draft cards were really interesting sources for me for thinking about the meaning of that, and the ways in which men who were registering for the draft thought of that fez as, actually, part of their bodies. And it was Nobel Drew Ali who enjoined them to wear the fez at all times. But when you see on the draft cards that they list that as a physical characteristic, by which they can be identified . . . . You know it’s: they have a scar, or a missing digit, or something like that. It revealed, again, how much they saw as kind-of reimagining their body, in a profound way, into this being that could be recognised as its true self, now. Names, dress, some of the group reimagined skin colour, adopted different kind of terminology for talking about the surface of the body. Moorish Science Temple, again, used the term “olive”. They talked about themselves as olive-skinned Moors. And it didn’t matter that there might not be a correspondence between what the beholder might think they looked like, but it was a theological way of talking about skin colour as connected to Allah and scripture, and the catechism explained that. And then practices of diet, again, they kind of separate you from your old self and you take on a true diet that remakes you and keeps you healthy. All of these groups actually had a deep investment in longevity, and thought that – in different ways – the poison diet – the wrong diet of enslavement and negro-ness and Christianity, to a certain extent, had debilitated black people as individuals and black people as a whole. So they developed certain dietary practices: either feasting or fasting, in different cases; certain foods; and also they all had investments in healing, sometimes through medicine, sometimes through diet. And they all, actually, believed that black people could live for a very, very long time, if not – in Father Divine’s group – for ever, and that enslavement in the Americas had made that impossible, but they were being restored to that possibility.

BS: Part of that reimagining also involved them reimagining their sense, not only geographically, but also historically. It seems that the dominant narrative at this time, in African-American communities, was to understand their position in history relative to slavery. And these new religious movements in this period provided a whole new understanding of history. Can you speak to that? (25:00)

JW: That was one of , I think, the great appeals of these movements. And collectively they do the same kind of work. And in some ways saying, “You are not a negro” is saying the same thing: “Your history did not begin with slavery.” The negro is, all of them would argue, a racial category that was produced only in America – or through slavery in the Americas – and that it was a containing trap to imagine yourself that way, and that God didn’t make you that way. So then one has to say, “Well, who are we?” Right? “What is our history?” And so they all insist that, in one way or another, black history began before slavery – which of course we know – and fill that in. And so in some cases they’re arguing that . . . . So, the Moorish Science Temple says: we are actually the descendents of . . . we are Moroccan, born in America. And then [it] also uses the Bible to trace back even further, so that there is a Biblical connection. But the Moorish Science Temple wants to orient people to the geographic space of Morocco, and use that as a way of talking about the beginning of history. Ethiopian Hebrew congregations again use the Bible to talk about Biblical history as African history and African history as Biblical history. They are interested in Ethiopia but there are also other geographic locations in Africa they they’re interested in. And for Father Divine’s Peace Mission and the Nation of Islam, it’s less a geographic connection – although the Nation of Islam is very interested in Mecca. And for the Peace Mission, Father Divine’s kingdom on earth is where . . . he is there and he’s created this Utopia. But their approach to rejecting the history of negros and enslavement involved not geography, but time – is how I came to think about it. So the Nation of Islam, there’s a lot of . . . . In African-American Christians, and also in the Ethiopian Hebrew groups and the Moorish Science Temple, there’s a lot of engagement with the Bible, and looking for where we are, and how to fit our history there. And the Nation of Islam says: “ Lets just throw that away. Because even from the beginning of time, from the moment of creation, that’s where we are. We have to get rid of . . . .The Bible tells us the whole story wrong.” And Father Divine – time approaches to say: “Race is a product of the devil, I’ve returned to usher in a new heaven and new earth. Heaven is not some far-off thing; it’s here now. And so we start from now. You can enter my kingdom if you do all of these things. And you’re not a negro, that’s from the past. And being a negro is why you die. And if you reject all of that you can live with me for ever.” So the Nation of Islam projected back to the moment of creation and Father Divine projected forward into an eternal future. There’s a great . . . . He would send out this Christmas and New year’s card, in the late ‘40s, that had his image and Mother Divine, his wife, and it said : “One eternal Merry Christmas, one eternal Happy New Year!”

BS: Very good! Thank you. Well, I’d like to say that this is a phenomenal book. And I can imagine it finding a home in quite a few Religious Studies courses, actually. So, best of luck with the book, and thank you so much for your time and your insights. I appreciate it.

JW: Thank you.

Citation Info: Weisenfeld, Judith 2017. “Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/black-religious-movements-and-religio-racial-identities-during-the-great-migration/

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On Reading Ralph Ellison Theologically

Ralph Ellison, famous for his 1952 novel Invisible Man, eschewed religiosity personally. His works mainly concerned race, artistry, and democracy in America. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology (2017), Cooper Harriss seeks to uncover what he sees as the theological dimensions of Ellison’s secular conception of race. Because religion is a neglected topic in Ellison scholarship, Harriss’ reading presents an opportunity for fresh insights.[1]

Most scholars examining invisibility in Ellison’s novel consider it a social metaphor: the novel’s protagonist is made invisible by people’s refusal to really see him. Yet Harriss claims invisibility is also a theological trope, with roots in biblical materials, Protestantism, and Kongo traditions, antecedents that establish it as an unmarked religious category. More than the social marginalization of black bodies, Harriss contends invisibility is metaphysical, too.

To read Ellison as a theological thinker, which is also to read him theologically, Harriss calls upon Schleiermacher and Tillich, primarily, to expand the notion of religion. He explains that, to him, the terms “religion” and “religious” refer not to particular things but to “processes through which antagonistic cooperation between universals and particulars generates human quests for meaning” (16). Furthermore, “Ellison’s concept of race is foundationally religious because it is rooted in the relational, systematic interplay between, and the consequent aggregation of, the particular and the universal” (17).

Great authors like Ellison create characters and stories that are both particularized yet universal. The particularity gives a literary work its fully-fleshed characters and immersive world, while its universality connects it to readers’ own lives. In Invisible Man, after we hear the unnamed protagonist’s particular life story as a black man in America, he asks his famous universalizing final line, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” This interplay between particular and universal, is religious, in Harriss’ terms. Ellison is thus a theologian because he makes meaning out of this particular-universal relation.

The heart of Harriss’ argument is his claim that Ellison’s secular conception of race is an “invisible theology.” For Harriss, theology refers not to “God-talk” but to “meanings and significances generated by religious negotiations of universals and particulars,” or “faith seeking understanding” (16). Ellison’s work is religious because it is “meaning-making” and it is theological because it offers practical import for human living (16). These elements are inseparably linked: “the religious and the theological” are “critically cofunctional—never segregated (as they have become in contemporary academic discourse) but absolutely dependent upon one another” (17). Here Harriss is not just making a descriptive claim about the history of these distinct discourses, but asserting his desire to “annihilate” the wall between theology and religious studies, as he says in this interview. He wishes to “dislocate theology as ‘mere’ belief, prescription, or data and refashion it as a critical apparatus” that can help us solve contemporary challenges (192). Accordingly, Harriss argues that “the religious aspects of Ellisonian conceptions of race as a secular property—its invisible theology—may help us” to assess today’s political contexts (179). There is a social prescriptivism in this theological claim-making; Harriss hopes the invisible theology he’s unveiling—and creating—might save us.[2]

There is good evidence, Harriss claims, for reading Ellison theologically. Ellison derided what he saw as racial essentialism in the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the 1960s-1970s, which relied on materialist conceptions of race. Harriss asserts Ellison’s critical project worked against such materialisms, opening space for metaphysical speculation. He also relies on the coincidental publication of major works by three Protestant intellectuals to place Ellison in their midcentury American theological context. Over two chapters, Harriss connects Ellison’s ruminations on racism as America’s “original sin” to American civil religion as a form of residual Calvinism in a post-Protestant society. In a critical chapter, he argues that Ellison’s long friendship with Nathan A. Scott, Jr., literature professor and canon theologian, was really a “theological apprenticeship” for Ellison (96).[3] Cooper uses previously unpublished material to shed light on Ellison at several points, and provides provocative interpretations throughout.

Harriss’s book stands in the tradition of Scott’s scholarship—called Theology and Literature, Christianity and Literature, or Religion and Literature—albeit augmented by recent critical studies of race, religion, and secularism. Relying on a Tillichian theology of culture, Scott explored how a “religious unconscious” permeates cultural productions, even avowedly secular ones, and provides insight into how we ought to live. Harriss admits his own “Tillichian orientation” and states that Scott’s earlier work on Ellison “anticipates the premise, if not the thesis, of this book” (88, 98). Like Scott, Harriss seeks to uncover hidden religious dimensions in Ellison’s secular work to help us navigate the modern world. Both scholars utilize liberal Christian definitions of religion to find exactly these kinds of religious articulations in Ellison.

Harriss employs scholarship showing the theological and Protestant production of concepts like race and the secular to justify framing Ellison as a Protestant theologian (3, 41). Ellison would not recognize himself as such. Despite Ellison’s critiques of social science and Marxist materialism, he did not turn toward supernaturalism. Harriss rejects Ellison’s naturalism by insisting that we need to take “certain religious and theological dimensions seriously in their contention with what believers understand to emanate from invisible, supernatural realms” (14). This approach distinguishes secular from religious, recognizes Ellison as secular, and then rewrites him as religious anyway. Such theological caretaking confuses categorical entanglements with their identity. By yoking religious studies with theology and the secular with the religious, Harriss erases any difference. Arguing that secular writers are really theologians in disguise enacts a theological agenda. At stake is what we do as religious studies scholars.

Outside theological contexts, I am not convinced that the category “invisible theology” provides us greater analytical purchase on Ellison’s work. As someone who loves Ellison and studies religion, I was excited to encounter Harriss’ ideas. As a religious studies scholar, however, I found Harriss’ insistence upon a theological reading of Ellison’s work forced and unnecessary. In a spirit of antagonistic cooperation, a favorite phrase of Ellison’s, I find myself both affirming and resisting Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology.

Notes

[1] Most recently, Josef Sorett locates Ellison’s Afro-Protestant racial aesthetics in the black church (2016, 141-149). Sorett and Harriss both claim religion underlies black secular artistic expressions, but their methods and conclusions differ.

[2] In Race and Secularism in America, Vincent W. Lloyd exhorts “the recovery of the religious, beyond secularism,” for its transformative potential (2016, 15). He adds that “remembering the religious—or the theological, as the unmanaged religious is sometimes called—points to traditions of imagining otherwise.” In Harriss’ work, I hear a similar normative voice, one that promotes Protestant theology as a useful mode for reading secular literature and for envisioning an “otherwise” that seems beyond our material reach.

[3] I found the evidence for such “instruction” to be thin (98). Harriss reads a lot into a letter Ellison wrote to Scott wherein Ellison laments the loss of the “sacred” in modern literature; Ellison saw that loss as muting moral assertion and forcing “depth and resonance” underground (97). Harriss repurposes Ellison’s “depth and resonance” as “shorthand” for religion (98-99, 116, 147).

References

Harriss, M. Cooper. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology. New York University Press, 2017.

Lloyd, Vincent W. “Introduction: Managing Race, Managing Religion.” In Race and Secularism

in America, edited by Jonathan Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd, 1-19. Columbia University Press, 2016.

Scott, Jr., Nathan A. “Black Literature.” In Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing,

edited by Daniel Hoffman, 287-341. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.

—. “Ellison’s Vision of Communitas.” The Carleton Miscellany 18.3 (1980): 41-50.

—. “Ellison’s Vision of Communitas.” Callaloo 18.2 (1995): 310-318.

Sorett, Josef. Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics. Oxford University

Press, 2016.

 

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology

harriss comps.inddIn this interview, M. Cooper Harriss, author the book Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology, discusses his thoughts on the unseen theological dimensions of Ralph Ellison’s writings. Harriss begins with the figure of Ellison, whose novel, Invisible Man, offers a now-classic metaphor (“invisibility”) depicting the socio-cultural and political issues and obstacles that African Americans experienced in the mid-twentieth century. By claiming the invisible not simply as a materialist term but a metaphysical one as well, Harriss contends that despite—or even because of—his status as a thoroughly “ secular” novelist and critic, Ellison’s writing reflects important theological trends and issues that mark his age and the cultural inheritances of his literary production. Harriss also identifies the scholars and thinkers who inform the methodological moves that he makes in the book, and he reflects on the abiding relevance of Ellison’s life and insights. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology troubles regnant assumptions surrounding the religious and theological dimensions of racial identity and, indeed, the very fraught relationships between the terms “religion” and “theology” in contemporary academic discourse.

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

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology

Podcast with M. Cooper Harriss (12 June 2017).

Interviewed by Brad Stoddard

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Harriss-_Ralph_Ellison_s_Invisible_Theology_1.1

Brad Stoddard (BS) : Hello. This is Brad Stoddard of the Religious Studies Project. Today I have the pleasure of talking with Cooper Harriss. Cooper is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University and he just completed his first book, entitled Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology, soon to be published with NYU Press. Cooper – welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Cooper Harriss (CH): Thank you so much for having me, Brad. It’s a delight to be here.

BS: Thanks. Will you introduce your book to the listeners?

CH: Yes. I’m delighted to – thank you all for listening! Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology is a book that examines what I would call overlooked, or under appreciated, religious and theological dimensions of the concept of race. The concept of race, as we now know it, emerges somewhere around the mid-twentieth century where, you know, these two turns [took place], one to a kind of materialism and, on the other hand, a turn to critical theory: you have the rise of black studies in the 1960s; you have the emergence of political sensibilities that defines race according to these terms. It has remained a popular way, you know: of the ways that we talk about American culture; the ways that we think about our political process; the ways that we imagine marginalisation of people. We often do this in political, materialist and economic terms. What I’m interested in is the way that Ellison’s term “invisibility” – The Invisible Man, 1952, was his novel – the term invisibility has come to signify this kind of marginalisation. If you go to your institution’s library and punch in “invisible” in a title search you’re going to get hundreds or thousands of titles back: invisible women, invisible children in our Houston Schools. . . title after title, after title, that deals in terms of a political, materialist marginalisation. That’s great. My question becomes: why is it that we’re using. . . why is it that invisible carries that valence when it also is a metaphysical property – you might even say a ghost – or these kinds of things. So I work from that. And I think about how Ellison is actually working from an alternative understanding of racial dynamics in American culture, or even broader cultural systems of the West. He was very much at odds with the emergence of this definition of race. He is trying to think humanistically at a time when everybody else is turning to the social sciences. He’s aghast at the Moynihan Report which defines poverty in sociological systems. He is dissatisfied with the kind of activist, political mentality that goes into the production and the criticism of African American culture. And so, what I see him doing is actually trying to work through this in an alternative way. And one way, really, to strike hard back at that materialist move is to think theologically. So, what is it about this concept of race – and for Ellison this means blackness – what is it about it that has an alternative prime dimension? And so I began by looking at . . . these four or five ways of looking at Invisible Man. We look at biblical invisibility; we look at invisibility of puritan sources – Cotton Mather and Hutchinson; we look at Luther and Shakespeare; we move onto Kongo religion and think about invisibility and Death and the Invisible Powers and its relationship to Racecraft – this fantastic book by Barbara and Karen Fields, that compares the way that the new scholars think about race with a kind of magic. So, racecraft and witchcraft. These kinds of things. On the other hand, I look at more contemporary things: Clint Eastwood’s empty chair, drones. What are the. . . spectacular imaginaries, the profound scary secrets of this world that we live in? How does something like the gaze of the drone that’s chasing down – the legacy of the colonised other, right, that is invisibly hovering here – (5:00) what is the relationship between that and what Ellison’s understanding to be in play at the very end of the Jim Crow era? And, in between that, I offer a kind of chronological assessment of Ellison’s career, using various lenses or methods that I draw from religious studies. I think about poetic justice, I think about the notion of poetic justice as it relates to racial identity in the renaissance; I look at Invisible Man, published in 1952, in the context of three other important books that are out that year: one by Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be; one by Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, and then Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness which is – he published it before, but delivered it at Brown University in ‘52. I also uncover Ellison’s close relationship with Nathan A. Scott Junior, who was a Professor of Theology and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity school. He and Ellison became great friends when Ellison was on a visiting assignment there. And what I’ve found in their correspondence – in Ellison’s papers in the Library of Congress – is that Scott recognises a kind of sensibility in Ellison; a kind of religious sensibility. He tries to get him involved in what we would call “religion and literature”, he called it “theology and literature”. But he sees Ellison as a writer who is invested in these kinds of issues and questions. Ellison was also a huge fan of 19th century American literature. In fact, when he was asked to come teach places – he taught at Rutgers; he had a Schweitzer Chair at NYU; he taught at Chicago; he had other, sort of, shorter appointments – it was often assumed that a famous African American novelist would come and teach, maybe, African American literature. And he would say, “No! I want to teach a course on Civil War literature, or a course on 19th Century American literature”, which at the time was very white-core. He’s drawing on larger influences, but he’s also flummoxing a lot of the expectations. So he’s teaching Melville and Hawthorne, instead of these expectations. I’m also interested in Ellison’s second novel, which he never finished. He started writing almost immediately after Invisible Man was published in 1952, and he never finished it. He saved it, for the last time, on his computer December 31st 1993. He died in March of ‘94. He’s writing, and writing, and re-writing. And he says that he’s trying to capture something about race in America. The problem is, he’s doing it from roughly 1954 to 1994. He’s doing it from, basically, Brown v. Board to the Million Man March. What does race in America mean during that time? Well, it’s constantly changing: you can never get a hand on it. And so, I use the kind-of changing dynamics of American civil religion as a way to pin down what it is that he’s unable to capture. Because he was, he was invested in a highly centripetal understanding of what we would call American civil religion. I use the trope invisible theology in a couple of ways: on the one hand, it is the fact that this theological sensibility has largely escaped the attention of scholars. If you look at most writing that talks about Ellison at all, in what we would call religious terms, it talks about his preachers , who are cultural figures – who may as well be Jazz players! Not that that’s not important, but it’s a different. . . but nobody really understands him to draw on these kinds of, this strong theological, historical and cultural legacy. And so invisible theology is the theological dimension that has not been seen. But also, it is a theology of invisibility. (10:00) Which is to say that the condition of being black in America – the concept of race itself, as a condition of invisibility – taps into a longer religious and theological genealogy of the concept of invisibility. And, actually, you can see ways that it passes through Ellison, and it’s really helpful for understanding both the present and the future tense.

BS: Are there any relevant biographical details about Ellison that we should know about?

CH: Well, I’m so glad you asked about the biographical details! One thing about him is that he falls outside many of the major narratives that we use to talk about African American culture. Often we fall into the rural south / urban north binary. Ellison was from Oklahoma. He’s been into this migration through Alabama and Tuskegee into Harlem, where he lives the rest of his life. But he understands himself to be outside of the major migration narrative of the 20th century. He’s outside of many of the major arguments, as well. He’s not a social scientist: he dislikes that approach to culture; he feels like it’s demeaning – that it takes away human elements. He believes that human beings are capable of extraordinary actions, even if they don’t always and can’t always fulfil them. And so, he becomes a bit of an outlier. He’s a bit of a pariah. He’s sometimes called Uncle Tom. But he fights back and lashes back against that with, I think, a very clear cultural sensibility which is something like this: whatever it is that our experience and our life is, whatever the cruelty or the dispossession, or the exclusion, or the violence may be, that there’s a sensibility of a kind of exception to these conditions – that we are human being, and we are meaning-making creatures, and there are ways in which we take these situations and imbue them with a kind of meaning that goes beyond material realities in the present. You might say that – 65 years earlier – he was taking lemons and making lemonade, if you catch my drift.

BS: I have a question about your methodology.

CH: Yes.

BS: Early on, in your introduction, you identify Ellison as a secular writer. So, methodologically, how do you get from secular writings to theology? How do you make that interpretive move? And what scholars of religion provide you with the methodological tools to make that move?

CH: Yes. So Ellison is what we call a secular writer. He had no specific religious commitments. He’s not writing out of a specific tradition, he’s not identified as such. And yes, what I see is a kind of analogy here. I actually go with Schleiermacher – though I think it goes. . . we could think about it through Schleiermacher, through Geerz and Durkheim and on. . . And what I’m interested in is this relationship between particularity and universality. And of course Schleiermacher’s definition of religion in the second discourse in On religion: [Speeches] to its Cultured Despisers, defines religion as this kind of aggregation between universal and particular. And what I do is, I take Ellison’s concept of race which. . . race itself is, of course, a secular concept. It’s one which comes out of the social sciences, in terns of its definition. And I say that, actually, what Ellison is doing with racial identity, within cultural expression, is analogous to Schleiermacher’s understanding of his definition of religion: that to be . . . that African American cultural expression is highly particularised for Ellison. It is what he grew up with, it’s what he knows. It’s what any person can gather from the kind of the mother wit of their early existence, and their ongoing interaction with other people in the world. It’s highly particularised. And yet, it also interacts, corresponds to, comes into contact with, must negotiate a larger sense of being human. And so, for him, the notion of the human is something of a universal. Now, what he wouldn’t say is that. . . often this turns into: “The human is the white and the universal.” He would say, “No!” He would say that, actually, this set of correspondences applies to everybody. He has a lovely way of putting it. It’s one of my favourites. (15:00) He says that, the negro writer – this is his term – the negro writer writes out of a sense of a specific wound. The wound for us is the experience of being black in America. We think about slavery, we can talk about these other aspects . But he said, “All novelists deal with this kind of sensibility. All novels are about outsiders. All novels deal with a kind of wounded. . . all novels deals with. . . ” – I’m blanking the specific term he uses here, but all novels are about. . . . So, what he says is, “I write out of my experience and I am creating something meaningful out of disaster, calamity, love, awesomeness – but it is directed specifically at my context.” Ellison was often asked, “Why don’t you write protest novels?” By that, what the questioner would mean is: “Why don’t you put in your novels that racism is bad, and give very clear instances of that to display, to show it?”And what Ellison said to that was, “Actually, every novel is a protest novel. Every art protests against something.” He says, “For me, I can write novels within my particular mode. And so, that is a particular rendering of a more universal genre or form. But it is not unique to African American writers.” Dostoevsky is protesting against the limits of 19th century nationalism; Don Quixote protests against the things that Cervantes is invested in. He goes back to Sophocles and says, “Sophocles is protesting against something. We may not know what it is, but what unites Sophocles, Shakespeare and Cervantes to me is that we are addressing something about a human condition”, which Ellison understood to be a universal that we have to enter through the highly specific, through a sense of particularity. And so, what I say is that Ellison’s understanding of literature, or even cultural production, has this religious sensibility here. And so, this is the how the secular writer writes religiously. And then, the question also becomes: “So how does it become theology?” Right? And I sit smiling,here, that this is the Religious Studies [Project] podcast! One of the things I’m really interested in is, well, annihilating this hard-fast wall that’s erected between theology and religious studies as these kinds of signifiers. So, one of the things that I say is that “religion becomes the process, theology becomes the meaning”. So, in other words, if the process is about the aggregation of the particular and universal, the theology is: what is the meaning that arises out of that? And what I hope your peers will see is that there is a kind of co-functionality between religion and theology: that they require one-another to make sense of one-another. And I don’t mean this in a highly confessional sense, but I also think that there can be more. . . an understanding, and more inter-play to be in play between them, within the process. And I think Ellison gives us a fantastic vehicle for understanding that.

BS: Which contemporary scholars influence your methodological moves?

CH: So, I have a couple of books, there are two outstanding recent books: one is J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account, which does the kind of deep excavation that I don’t pretend to do, but that inspires me. It’s a gesture to the hard digging that he’s done and, in a way, also of understanding the particularities of race to draw from these longer kinds of traditions. So again, it’s not a universality per se, but it’s certainly more universal than we had previously imagined longer legacies of race. Another one is Willie J. Jennings’ Christian Imagination. And I see these as . . . they may not be in actuality . . . but for me, I read them close together and again, this kind of excavative project that looks at the depth, and resonance, and meaning of this concept that is taken on, with almost scientific valences. (20:00) I think two other scholars who strongly inspire me are Tracy Fessenden in her book Culture and Redemption (and just in case I got that wrong I’ll say Tracy Fessenden in her book Redemption and Culture). Because I see, in my own project, a sense of having established the terms of social history, having established the terms of the kind-of focussing in on not the grand narratives but the smaller details. Not focussing on the grand narratives, but in certain moments, and being sensitive to the exclusions that are caused by the grand narratives. So focussing more on the micro-histories. What she does, or what I understand her to be doing – and I love this move – is: OK, so we have established that grand narratives are over with, because they exclude. So what happens if we create grand narratives that, actually, are built of this stuff that has been excluded? And that’s what I see. . . . It’s part of what Jennings is doing, in a way, and it’s definitely what I want to do.

BS: In the book, you recall a common question that is asked about Ralph Ellison and that question is, something along the lines of: “Is he a negro writer or is this a book about negroes?” – some version of that question, right?

CH: Yes.

BS: What’s at stake in that answer? Let me ask it that way.

CH: Sure, and you did a nice synopsis of the two versions of that question. One is, are you a negro writer, or a writer who happens to be a negro? Or is this Invisible Man a negro novel or a novel that happens to be about a negro? And then I think the question becomes, or the way that I answer that question, is “Yes.” Right? Because that is the particular and that is . . . Schleiermacher’s two poles. What is at stake in the question is, I think, a sense of how you understand, or how you want to understand. . . within these historical questions – historical people asking it. Would I have understood a negro novel to protest, to offer a very clear. . . to say very clearly, “racism is bad, oppression is bad, I’m going to give you endless horrific details that’s going to illustrate this in so many ways and then I’m going to give you a nice little lesson”, right? And that is overstating things – but something like Native Son, which is a much more complicated novel than that, but Ellison didn’t necessarily see it that way; that would be the negro novel. The novel that happens to be about a negro – I think the problem with that question is that it underestimates the power of the particular. In other words, in saying that the Invisible Man just happens to be a negro, it presumes that that element – the racial element – that particularity is not important. And so somewhere between those determinations is where I think we should be looking. And that’s where Schleiermacher’s particulars and universals become important. Because it’s not about being particular. Nobody’s all particular and nobody’s all universal, right? We’re all caught in the midst of this messy cloud of identity. And for Ellison that was precisely the point. And I think that is also what is so effective about his notion of invisibility, is that we’re always constantly aggregating and changing and there’s a kind-of sense of play that takes place within the process. Like, within the formation and within the production of culture through novels, but certainly other things as well.

BS: A final question for you. We are conducting this interview, we are having this conversation in the early phase of the changes associated with President Elect Trump. Do you see any relevance to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology?

CH: Yes, absolutely. I think, for a couple of reasons. (25:00) One, I think that it shows, first of all, I mean the. . . . I think that the fact that people are even remotely shocked at the outcome of this election shows how potent this concept of invisibility is: I mean, people were blindsided by it. And you listen to the responses and: “It’s economics”, and “It’s this”, and “It’s that”, and “It’s the Press”. But at the end of the day, we exist within this kind of structure of reality that is very old and imbued with a kind of realness that permeates the culture. And so, the fact that the kind of racial logic that has produced the results we see, I think, are in a different shade, perhaps, in a different hue: whiteness? Nell Painter had this great piece in the New York Times this weekend, saying that whiteness is now a race. It’s not just an unconscious thing, it’s a race. And so we see this with the invisible theology. That whiteness has become, in a way, this kind of racial dispensation and the election shows that for certain.

BS: Well thanks so much ,Cooper! This has been a fantastic conversation. And let me complement you, it is a superbly researched and meticulously well-read book. And it’s an enjoyable read. So, congratulations on your first book!. And thanks for your time.

CH: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. And I hope that your listeners enjoy!

Citation Info: Harriss, M. Cooper 2017. “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 12 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/ralph-ellisons-invisible-theology/

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.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 14 March 2017

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Can Religion Explain the KKK?

Describing the story of the Ku Klux Klan as “lovely”, as Kelly Baker does in her interview with David Lewis, is initially perplexing.  Fortunately, Baker goes on to clarify what she intends, noting that the Klan’s history of racism and violence in no way qualifies as “nice.”  Her description of the Klan’s “story” as “lovely,” according to Baker, does not refer to the Klan’s violent history, but to a vast print culture that enables methodological access to the ways Klan members constructed their “ideologies” and “worldviews” in the years spanning from 1915 to 1930. Citing her own motivation for studying the group, she tells Lewis that “lots of people say things about white supremacists, but understanding their motivations and why they’re drawn to these ideologies was not so much the context [or goal].”

In her book, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (2011),  Baker uses the “second Klan’s” newspapers and magazines as “an invaluable entrée into the Klan’s worldview…”[1]  Importantly, her endeavor to understand the Klan’s “worldview” and “ideology” aims to problematize scholarly and media representations of the group as primarily uneducated, rural, male, and southern.  Despite the persistence of these representations, Baker shows that Klan membership consisted of southerners and northerners, men and women, the uneducated as well as “bankers, lawyers, dentists, doctors, ministers businessmen, and teachers.”  Rather than a “fringe” movement, then, Baker points to the widespread appeal of the racist and gendered agenda of the Klan leading up to the 1930s.

While much of the interview involves a discussion of the representations of the Klan in popular media, Baker’s book emphasizes scholarly representations of the group.  In her work, she makes an intriguing and important argument regarding specifically the omission of the Klan’s “religion” from scholarly analyses.  Scholars have, according to Baker, focused on economic, social, and political factors in explanations of the Klan, diagnosing it primarily as a movement motivated by “populist” anxieties and fears in a changing national environment.  Against the trend of dismissing the Klan’s “religion” as “false”, “inauthentic”, and thus analytically irrelevant, Baker finds it a necessary component in understanding how the group organized and mobilized a particular self-identity and national vision in the early twentieth century.

Baker emphasizes that a failure to take seriously the religious motivations and worldview of the Klan not only limits our understanding of the group.  More than that, the designation of their “religion” as false serves to conceal the uglier aspects of Protestant hostility and power in U.S. history.  Put simply, “true” Protestantism is preserved through the delineation of “false” appropriations of it by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.   Arguing that the Klan’s anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic national vision possessed wide, non-fringe, appeal from 1915-1930, she asks, “How might narratives of American religious history be told if the Klan was integrated rather than segregated? If a white supremacist movement proves pivotal rather than fringe, then what might happen to our narratives of nation?”[2]  She suggests that a religious studies approach helps to make sense of Klan “religiosity”, as well as scholarly de-legitimizations of it.

Baker’s focus on the mechanisms through which scholarly representations participate in desired definitions and tellings of “religion” in “American” “history” is important work.   Indeed, the project that Baker mentions of separating “true religion” from “false religion” has a heavy presence in U.S. history and historiography.[3]  Yet, while Baker’s interventions regarding the need to take seriously the “religion” of the Klan is noted, I question whether she does not herself reinforce problematic epistemological and methodological assumptions about “religion.”  More precisely, does her search for the “worldview” and “ideology” of the Klan through its newspapers — absent a rigorous situating of these texts and their readers in particular economic, political, and geographic contexts — reproduce reductive and essentializing definitions of “religious” causation?

The project of distinguishing “true” from “false” religion, referenced by Baker, has most often referred to the normative and racist assumptions of such projects.[4]  Scholars have traced how religious theorization, definition, and comparison of “true” and “false” religion emerged in the context of colonial encounter and economic domination.   More precisely, these scholars have argued that theories of religion have been and continue to be connected to racist anthropological assumptions that deem racialized “others” incapable of rational “belief”[5] — whether in the writings of E.B. Tylor or in, arguably, the persistence of definitions of Protestant religiosity as more “liberal” and “democratic” than, say, Islam.

Baker’s invocation of the project of religious definition is quite different.  She does not point to how constructions of “true religion” are linked to racist anthropologies.  Rather, the argumentative implication of her work is that the scholarly denial of the Protestant “religion” of the Ku Klux Klan — a white supremacist group with its own racist anthropological theories — actually helps contemporary Protestants to conceal and forget the prevalence of Protestant racism in U.S. history.   It appears that her book, then, is in some way aimed at — even though she does not state this — helping readers recognize the prevalence of racist “worldviews” and “ideologies” through the un-fringing of the Klan’s Protestant religiosity.

The connections between religious theorization and imperial racism, however, might lead us to bigger questions regarding the extent of the relationship between Protestant religion, its definitional assumptions, and racism.  I say all of this not to dismiss Baker’s argument that we need to take seriously how the racist ideologies and worldviews of the Ku Klux Klan extend beyond those wearing white hoods and carrying torches.  We should take seriously, indeed, her argument that the dismissal of the Klan’s “religion” as false and inauthentic plays into the desire to occlude the ugly moments of Protestant and American racism.  Yet, she attaches this ugly history to a particular and identifiable ideological formulation, a particular worldview — whether found in the Klan of the early twentieth century or in the contemporary Islamophobia of the Tea Party.

Considering the long relationship between religious definition and racist anthropologies, we see that Protestant racism not only exists in the form of conservative “ideologies” and “worldviews.”  More importantly, and perhaps dangerously, it pervades the most well-intentioned and “enlightened” disciplinary practices.  Instead of locating white supremacy only in the persistence of the Klan’s “brand” today[6], it might be more productive for scholars of race and religion to consider the challenge posed by Black Lives Matter and other groups.  For, as they are showing in their confrontation of police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and the capitalist exploitation of black and brown bodies, U.S. racism runs deeper than a “worldview” that we can easily recognize and help others to see.  These challenges demand a self-reflexivity that goes beyond identifying racism in a worldview we do not possess.  More significantly, they call us to examine how our own institutional, disciplinary, and economic practices help to perpetuate a racist system.

[1] Kelly Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKKs Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (U Kansas Press, 2011), p. 22.

[2] Ibid, 19.

[3] Baker, The Gospel of the Klan, p. 17.

[4] For a helpful overview of this issue in regards to the disciplinary subfield of American Religious History, see Finnbarr Curtis’s essay “The Study of American religions: critical reflections on a specialization” in Religon, no. 42, issue 3, 355-372 (June 21, 2012).  Found here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0048721X.2012.681875#.VuNZYJMrL-YFor another helpful work on the assumptions of religious comparison and the construction of the category “world religion”, see Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Inventions of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (U Chicago Press, 2005).

[5] To hear more about the distinction between race and ethnicity, as well as the co-construction of religion and race as social categories, it will be helpful to listen to Rudy Busto’s podcast interview on The Religious Studies Project titled “Race and Religion: Intertwined Social Constructions,” found here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/race-and-religion-intertwined-social-constructions/.  Also, see his book King Tiger:  The Religious Vision of Reies López Tijerina (U New Mexico Press, 2006)

[6] Baker, The Gospel of the Klan, 249.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 13 October 2015

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Hyphenating Identities

In yet another excellent Religious Studies Project interview, we hear from University of California Santa Barbara Associate Professor Rudy Busto talking about race and religion in the United States. The objectives of this conversation focus predominantly upon topics like race and religion in America, the conflation of race as ethnicity and vice versa, and the use of race as an identity marker within the study of religion.

Throughout this delightful and meandering dialogue the listener is invited, indeed encouraged, to consider the systemic and institutionalized location of race alongside religion in the contemporary, modern socio-cultural milieu and scholastic Academy. With a particularly American slant (which is to say, a reliance on double-barrelled ethno-religious identifiers like Asian-American, or Japanese-American Buddhist), much of the discussion in this interview centers around the now almost implicitly assumed observation that the ways in which humans create and express their identities is a socially constructed phenomenon, one that lacks ontological existence and agency, and how race can be a prominent component of this construction. By further deconstructing and problematizing the use of constructed, blanketing concepts like race or culture, Busto shows how delicate the process of understanding the formation of an individual’s subjective understanding of themselves and the group to which they identify actually can be.

What is regrettably missing from this conversation is a deeper discussion that might provide us with an understanding of how, precisely, the constructed-ness of human identities as a theoretical model advances the field of RS. Building upon the excellent foundation laid by Busto in this interview, I would submit two pieces of scholarship as supplements, each delving into how the contemporary scholar of religion might deploy this constructed-ness of identity.

Skipping over the obvious progenitors of the ‘constructed human groups’ discussion (Hobsbawm, Ranger, Anderson, etc.), I often heavily rely upon two middle to late 20th century academics to focus the lens of constructed identity. The first is Steven Vertovec and his use of what he calls ‘vis-à-vis dynamics’ (2000:106). In this particular instance Vertovec is observing Hindus in ‘diasporic’ situations within the UK. That is to say, he records observations of individuals who identify as belonging to the group calling itself ‘Hindu’, though they are citizens of the United Kingdom. Regardless of whether the individual is a first, second, or third generation immigrant, Vertovec observes that their self-identity requires what RS scholars might call an ‘Other’. That is, an individual, object, or even an ethno-religious collective, such as Hindus and non-Hindus, in relation to which one forms at least one layer of their self-identity.

Therefore, a researcher might record a conversation with someone who, for example, identifies as Hindu because they perform arati on Sundays instead of attending synagogue or, of course, doing nothing at all. Conversely, perhaps a younger, third-generation student might identify as Scottish or English rather than Indian like their first-generation grandparents. These markers or borders that define to which group one belongs, Vertovec might argue, cannot be created in a vacuum and necessarily require a concept RS scholars call an Other. In our work then, we can subsequently examine questions such as how generational differences manifest in various groups, what impact public education has on how immigrants choose to identify, or indeed how we can more clearly define the very concept of ‘religion’ through an examination of the subjective identification of the individual to a particular religious tradition within a particular context.

The second scholar who I would submit as a supplement to this identity question is Clifford Geertz. Geertz was a specialist in Mediterranean groups and specifically, for the present case, of Muslim Moroccans. Geertz’s suggested deployment of what he thinks of as ‘mosaic identities’ illustrates a similar me/you dynamic as does Vertovec, yet in a slightly more colourful way. Geertz provides a handful of specific stories during which he observes that the individual has multiple, ‘nested’ identities that are centered on one’s location in social-political/religious spacetime (1974:26-45). He provides the narration of a particular male informant, whose identity as belonging to a particular group, ranging from his specific tribe, village, region, etc. are deployed in relation to the dominant group with whom he comes into contact. This is done within what I like to think of as a Russian-doll, or concentric field of layered concepts of belonging and identity. So, what we find in Geertz is that rather than a linear and subject-centric illustration of identity formation, he sees what might be a more fluid, group-oriented process of formation and understanding of self-identity.

Many of these same formations and scenarios can be noticed when one looks upon other constructed forms of human collective (and individual) identity, like race or ethnicity. We can use ideas like those of Busto, Vertovec, and Geertz–among myriad others of course–to consider questions about how we as scholars of religion might better define and deploy concepts such as race and religion. Indeed, as touched upon in this interview, we find ourselves in a time when countries like the UK and the US are, even now, officially providing their citizens the option of identifying via the use of hyphenated ethnicities.

So, in the interest of brevity, I would be quick to again praise any discussion that aims to shed further light on the process by which humans form and manifest their identity as an individual in isolation, as well as when done as a member of a group, as such discussions can only aid in progressing the field of Religious Studies.

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1974. “From the Native’s Point of View”. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 28.1: 26-45.

Nye, Malory. 1995. A Place for Our Gods: The Construction of an Edinburgh Hindu Temple Community. Surrey: Curzon Press

Vertovec, Steven. 2000. The Hindu Diaspora. London and New York: Routledge.

Race and Religion: Intertwined Social Constructions

Race is a neglected category in Religious Studies. When race is included at all, it is often conflated with ethnicity or else its study is limited to a few typical examples, such as black/white binaries, the “Black church” or various “ethnic churches,” or the racialization of Muslim minorities. In this interview, Rudy Busto discusses problems and possibilities in the study of race and religion: how it has been examined (and overlooked) in the field of religious studies, how it has been confused with ethnicity, how race and religion have been theorized as mutually constitutive, limitations and occlusions in the study of race and religion, and why race is a category scholars of religion cannot afford to ignore. The racial/religious co-constitution of collective identities is an ever-present double-marked boundary which produces real effects on actual bodies, an empirical fact structuring people’s experiences. As such, scholars render their scholarship incomplete and do a disservice to their students and readers when they ignore race. Ranging from work on the social construction of race and religion as scholarly categories, the challenges of analyzing syncretism and authenticity, and the necessity of highlighting unmarked categories (e.g., Protestant, white), Busto argues that it is impossible to get an accurate and comprehensive understanding of religion (and non-religion) without taking race into account.

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