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“Soka Gakkai, Kōmeitō and the religious voices of Japan’s political arena

Throughout Japanese history, religion has always coloured and influenced the matters of the state. Religious validation of imperialist aggression and Japan’s war efforts in the first half of the 20th century is just one example of this. Japanese religious institutions entered the post-war period with the ethically problematic baggage of war. Promulgation of Japan’s post-war constitution – which introduced a legal separation of religion and the state, demilitarisation of Japan and freedom of religion – opened a new chapter of a supposedly pacifist and secular political system. Religion was relegated to an individual citizen’s private prerogative. However, we are still talking about religion and politics in Japan today.

Many of the post-war controversies over perceived transgressions between religion, politics and the state have centred on Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines the souls of Japan’s war dead. Yasukuni Shrine has long been a symbol of Japanese nationalism, with many right-wing factions advocating for nationalising the shrine. A nationalisation movement began in the 1960s and resulted in lawsuits over the involvement of local and national level politicians and governments in rituals held there. Although debates over Yasukuni shrine as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism and fanatic nationalism fuelled by the ideology of state Shinto tend to dominate public and scholarly discourses on conflation of religion and politics, there are many other examples of the ways religion continues to influence Japan’s political life. These include acts of violence and domestic terrorism perpetrated by the new religious movement Aum Shinrikyō in 1995; anti-nuclear activism of religious studies scholars and religious practitioners in the aftermath of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011; and the formation of political representation of religious groups, such as the case of Soka Gakkai and Kōmeitō party in 1964 and their significance in the run-up to the Japanese 2017 general elections.

Why should we continue talking about religion and politics in a country that has a constitutional separation of religion and the state? What is the significance of Kōmeitō in Japanese politics today? I asked Levi McLaughlin, who is an Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University to talk religion and politics in Japan in the context of his research on Soka Gakkai, one of Japan’s largest lay Buddhist organisations. It is also referred to as one of Japan’s most influential and politically engaged (I dare say) new religions. Levi is a co-author and co-editor of “Kōmeitō: Politics and Religion inJapan” (IEAS Berkeley, 2014), and his new book “Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of Mimetic Nation” is forthcoming from the University of Hawai’i Press in late 2018.

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

Soka Gakkai, Kōmeitō and the Religious Voices of Japan’s Political Arena

Podcast with Levi McLaughlin (28 May 2018).

Interviewed by Paulina Kolata.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: McLaughlin – Soka Gakkai, Komeito and the Religious Voices of Japan’s Political Arena 1.1

Paulina Kolata (PK): Throughout Japanese history religion has always coloured and influenced matters of state. Religious validation of imperialist aggression and Japan’s war efforts in the first half of the twentieth century are just one example of this. Japanese religious institutions entered the post-war period with their ethically problematic baggage of war. But promulgation of Japan’s post-war constitution – which introduced the legal separation of religion and the state, the militarisation of Japan, and freedom of religion – opened a new chapter of a supposedly pacifist and secular political system. Religion became the private matter of an individual. And yet we are still talking about religion and politics in Japan. So we are joined today by Levi McLaughlin, who is an Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University. He is a co-author and co-editor of Kōmeitō: Politics and Religion in Japan, and has just completed a book entitled Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation. It only seems appropriate to invite him to talk to us about religion and politics in Japan. And his book is actually forthcoming from the University of Hawaii Press in late 2018. So, congratulations on that!

Levi McLaughlin (LM): Thank you.

PK: So, hello! And welcome to the Religious Studies Project. So we are here, at the University of Manchester, ahead of your talk later on this afternoon, where you will be talking about the Soka Gakkai, which is one of Japan’s largest organisations, and also is often referred to as one of the most politically engaged and influential, I’ll say, new religions in Japan today. So, why do you think we should continue talking about religion and politics in a country that has constitutional division of religion and state?

LM: Thank you. It’s nice to be here, Paulina. Thanks for having me. There are other questions we have to think about, as well. For example, why are we talking about religion in a country where, in surveys that are given to ask about religious commitment – the wording of the survey is usually something along the lines of: do you have religious faith? And the majority of respondents in Japan will say, “No.” Seventy percent plus will say, “I don’t have a religious faith.” And also, in the recent elections at national level, just over fifty percent of the population actually make the effort to go out and vote. Why talk about religion and politics in these conditions? Perhaps that would be another thing to add to that conundrum. The reason is that there are these organisations that are unmatched in their capacity to mobilise votes. Although they are minority players in the religion and politics fields on matters of policy, they may actually be the crucial elements in forthcoming upheavals in regards to Japan’s constitution and its place in the geopolitical order. So let me speak a little bit more specifically. I’m talking about an organisation called Soka Gakkai. It translates literally as the “Value Creation Study Association”.

PK: What a great name!

LM: Isn’t it? Does it sound like a religion?

PK: Not quite.

LM: Right. Well, that’s because it didn’t begin as a religion. It began as an educational reform organisation in the 1930s, whose founders then switched into following a specific form of Medieval Japanese Buddhism, following a reformer named Nichiren from the thirteenth century, who held that only exclusive faith in a teaching known as the Lotus Sutra, which is understood to be the Buddha’s final teaching, will allow for salvation. All other forms of teaching, including other Buddhist teaching, are to be done away with. And so the organisation they ended up creating was a staunch defender of this particular form of Buddhism, which ran afoul of wartime religious regulations. The founders, Makiguchi Tsunesaburō and his disciple Toda Jōsei, were imprisoned. Makiguchi died of malnutrition during the war – one of the very, very few people who was actually willing to confront and reject the authority of the wartime state.

PK: And opposed them.

LM: That’s right. And opposed it for religious reasons. And so at the end of the Second World War, Soka Gakkai reformulates and grows from a few thousand members to millions of members, between the beginning of the 1950s until the end of the 1960s.Today, they claim an absolutely staggering number of followers in Japan – 8.27 million households – which is hugely exaggerated. The reality, though, is something like 3% of Japan self-identifies as Soka Gakkai, and that doesn’t sound like a lot necessarily, right? But if you have 3% of the population, that’s three out of a hundred people that you know, or are related to you, they are people you work with, or maybe you are one of these three percent. So, one of the reasons that Soka Gakkai has both grown so big and so prominent – and also terribly notorious within Japanese society – is the fact that electioneering on behalf of Soka Gakkai’s affiliated political party, is a component of Soka Gakkai faith practices. So members chant the Lotus Sutra; they solicit membership; they are very well known for being proselytisers, for missionising; and every election, from the smallest town council up to Japan’s national diet – the parliament – people in Japan will know they are going to get a phone call. They’re going to get a knock on the door from their friends who are members of Soka Gakkai to ask them to vote for Kōmeitō – or to vote for Kōmeitō ‘s political ally, which is the Liberal Democratic Party, the LDP, Japan’s largest party. Japan, right now, is run by a coalition government, which is the LDP and Kōmeitō. So Kōmeitō has a seat at the table. And they may be a comparatively small organisation, but they wield a disproportionately large amount of power, both politically and religiously.

PK: So who are Kōmeitō? What are their policies?

LM: That’s a really good question, and it’s also a tough question. They are difficult to pigeon-hole politically, because they don’t fall neatly into a right or left kind of distribution. Historically, they would have to be called extremely left-wing, because they were supporters of pacifism and they have always been . . . their central platforms have always been focussed on social welfare. They appeal to their primary constituency. Their primary constituency is homemakers: women in Japan, who make up the bedrock of Soka Gakkai and are the most active in terms of electioneering. So it’s things like reducing taxation on household goods, promoting education, clean water, the environment – things of that nature – support for families with small children, low income households, you name it. But recently they’ve also been supportive of LDP moves to move toward greater freedom for Japan’s military. Japan does not actually officially have a regular armed forces. They maintain what are called Japan’s self-defence forces. They are hindered from militarising by a clause in the constitution – a notorious clause, called Article Nine, which prevents Japan from maintaining war materials or using war as a means of resolving international disputes. But in 2015 a series of new laws were passed through the diet, with Kōmeitō‘s support, that radically reinterpreted Article Nine to allow for what’s called collective self-defence. This will allow Japan to go to the aid of its military allies, say the United States, and to enter armed conflict. So we have now this strange policy kind-of platform, and this odd connection between what are considered to be fairly hawkish right-wing approaches on a defence front, and really progressive social welfare-oriented policies as well.

PK: That’s really interesting, because it would mix the Tories with the Corbynists, in the UK context!

LM: Potentially, yes. And actually, historically Kōmeitō’s greatest rivals were the Japanese Communist Party.

PK: Oh great! OK. Fantastic. So you talked about the 2015 changes in the law, but what about the most recent elections of 2017? What was the role of Kōmeitō in that?

LM: So there was a snap election called by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, in October 2017, which was treated by a lot of people as a rather cynical move on the part of the LDP and its coalition allies to secure power, and to basically ensure that Prime Minister Abe remains in power, and to take advantage of an opposition that has been pretty much in pretty big disarray, right now, at the national level in Japan. Overall the government gained seats, the LDP gained seats. The only component of that was that Kōmeitō lost seats. It went from 34 to 29 seats. Why is that? And so, some of the questions they’re difficult to say definitively. But recently, with the help of my colleague Axel Klein – who’s a Professor of Political Science at the University of Duisburg-Essen, in Germany, who is an amazing scholar, who can compile all kinds of great election data – we worked together to look at Gakkai member attitudes in combination with his quantitative aspect of it. And we determined that, basically, the lesson that we have to learn here is that Soka Gakkai is not one unified block. And that is translating into an increasingly disaggregated voting situation. And so it had the lowest number of votes at the national level, for an election like this, since joining the LDP in coalition in 1999: under seven million. Seven million is treated as something of a magic number, and there’s a psychological aspect to going below that. And losing all these seats, including some veteran . . . one veteran politician, in particular, who was kind of pushed out. What is going on? Well there are several constituencies we can now identify within Soka Gakkai. These are developing as a result of Kōmeitō’s policy shifts away from decades of supporting a pacifist attitude and defending Article Nine, towards being totally on board with collective self-defence. What you’re starting to see are generational shifts, gender divisions and a kind of move toward concerns about what’s going to happen to Soka Gakkai in the light of one very important thing. Because, right now, Soka Gakkai is headed by an honorary president named Ikeda Daisaku, who is revered as an absolute authority within the organisation. He has not appeared to address a Gakkai meeting since May of 2010. He just turned 90 years old. And so, necessarily, the organisation is looking to a future after Ikeda Daisaku’s lifetime. And there are members within the group – particularly second, third, fourth generation Soka Gakkai, and others who are younger – are starting to question why their practice must include unquestioning loyalty to a political party that has absolutely reversed what they consider to be Ikeda Daisaku’s teachings on peace.

PK: So that’s becoming quite challenging, in that sense. But the usual association is, how did Kōmeitō emerge originally? And how does it now refer to what Soka Gakkai is? Does it define itself as a Buddhist party, or . . . ?

LM: Well this is one of the conundra – one of the difficult things that people who are interested in politics have to deal with. And one of the reasons I love talking about this is because Kōmeitō forces political scientists to actually take religion seriously. Kōmeitō was founded for religious reasons. It was founded very specifically for Nichiren Buddhist reasons. And this makes a lot of politics people uncomfortable. They like to think that there should be, as you mentioned earlier, a division between religion and government – especially in Japan, where the 1947 constitution guarantees that there will be a clear split between religion and government. In 1964, Kōmeitō was founded and there had been, previously . . . Soka Gakkai started running candidates for office from 1954, and then in 1955 they started being elected. From the outset Soka Gakkai entered politics in order to bring about a specific vision of constructing a temple complex that would mark the conversion of the populace of Japan to complete reverence, sole exclusive reverence for the Lotus Sutra. And what this really meant, of course, was that they would convert to Soka Gakkai. And it was . . . it comes from the Nichiren teachings. After his lifetime it comes to be known as the Three Great Secret Dharmas. They consist of the title of the Lotus, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo; the second one is the calligraphic mandala that he inscribed, in 1279, for the salvation of Japan; and the third one was supposed to be what was called an ordination platform, kaidan in Japanese, that was understood for centuries to be this kind of far-flung distant vision, only to be achieved upon this majestic goal being realised. When Soka Gakkai started to grow from a few thousand to millions of followers, that distant goal started to become something of a concrete objective. And so one of the components of realising this kaidan, this ordination platform, this temple complex, was that it had to be promulgated by the government. And so during Nichiren’s time, of course, that meant something quite different. But, by the time you reach the 20th century, that means Japan’s parliament. And so how do you do that? You have to actually have a place in Japan’s parliament. And so this, actually, was the motivation for Soka Gakkai entering politics. In 1964, Kōmeitō is the name of the party. It included a lot of different platforms, actually, mostly focussed on very utopian ideals of world peace and social welfare. And this at the time there was this concept of Buddhist democracy, as well, that was not clearly defined but it was very idealistic. But it was a religious objective. In 1969 there were a series of scandals that erupted, as a result, basically, of Kōmeitō politicians attempting to intervene to forestall the publication of one book, in particular, that was extremely negative about Soka Gakkai. And that precipitated an official division between Kōmeitō and its founding religion Soka Gakkai. And, since 1970, the two have maintained an official split. Of course, members of Soka Gakkai still campaign on behalf of Kōmeitō – and it’s a little unclear, actually, about some of the other aspects that bind the two organisations together. Nonetheless what you have seen, though, is Kōmeitō become what you have to call an “ordinary” political party. As I say, it does not focus on this eschatological religious goal any more. It focuses on really concrete political objectives. And one of the things you can prove, about it no longer actually focusing on that is: it’s been in government since 1999, and there’s been no evidence whatsoever that they are trying to get any sort of favour on religious grounds for this religion, or any religion.

PK: So they should be treated seriously.

LM: They absolutely should be treated seriously. And also treated as another political party. Which, because they are . . . Because of their specific history, and because of their connection to a religion that has gained a reputation for being an aggressive proselytiser, they are often saddled with the stigma of not being a serious political party, but instead being a sort of arm of a religious organisation. Whereas, in every analysis, they should actually be . . . they look much more just like another party.

PK: Which kind-of throws an interesting element into the mix of Japanese politics at the moment.

LM: The other aspect to think about as well – especially in light of the fact that it’s been a supporter of the LDP – it’s not just Kōmeitō politicians but Liberal Democratic Party politicians that rely upon Soka Gakkai voters to be elected.

PK: That’s wonderful! Thank you very much for that, Levi. I’m afraid that this is all we have time for, but it has been a real pleasure talking to you. And thank you for sharing all your knowledge.

LM: Thanks so much, Paulina.

Citation Info: McLaughlin, Levi and Paulina Kolata. 2018. “Soka Gakkai, Komeito and the Religious Voices of Japan’s Political Arena”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/soka-gakkai-komeito-and-the-religious-voices-of-japans-political-arena/

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The Religious and Political Landscape in Peru: A Historic and Cautionary Tale

In his recent podcast with the Religious Studies Project, Professor Juan Fonseca details the introduction, subsequent rise, and political and theological influence of two distinct forms of Non-Catholic Christianity in Peru: Protestantism and the Pentecostal Movement.

The Latin American religious, political, cultural, and social landscape was irrevocably altered (arguably destroyed) in the early-16th century by the invading Spanish Conquistadors who forced their Roman Catholic faith onto the indigenous people. Peru, which claimed its independence as a nation in 1821, has long-identified as a Roman Catholic nation. A 2007 census confirmed that 81.3% of Peruvians follow their own amalgamated form of Roman Catholicism which continues to be a blending of traditional Roman Catholic (and conservative) values mixed with polytheistic indigenous beliefs. And while the modern religious and political landscape of Peru was wholly shaped by the invasion of Roman Catholicism, the introduction of Non-Catholic Christianity through an influx of Protestant Missionaries in the early 20th century, would further alter the political and religious landscape of Peru creating an ultra-far-Right, militant conservative agenda.

Fonseca speaks about the missionaries believing themselves to be the ‘carriers of civilisation’ and offering a ‘confessional alternative’ to Catholicism. He relates how Protestant and then also Pentecostal missionaries brought with them an American ‘social gospel’ that sought out disenfranchised parts of the community and spoke loudly about feminist issues, trade unions, labour movements, and worked with the indigenous communities. Fonseca identifies the Protestant missionary social approach to religion, which started in the 1940s, as the ‘turning point to conservatism’ in Peru. Fonseca tells how this social gospel missionary movement was quickly followed by a massive influx of missionaries who had been expelled from communist countries. Already aligned with a social mission, they swiftly added their large numbers to the conservative majority. These missionaries, per Fonseca, ‘affected politics which became more conservative and fundamental’ guided by strict traditional theological values.

At the centre of these fundamental theological values are contemporary political issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Fonseca points out that conservative political pressure is ‘so strong it manages to neutralise all voices of sympathy’ to LGBTQ and feminist causes. He goes on to say that the ‘ultra conservative, militant core’ is a minority in Peru but is very powerful through its dominant media presence.

Is any of this starting to sound vaguely familiar?

If so, perhaps you are wondering where is the #Resistance?

Interestingly, theological opposition to the far-Right Protestant religious and political movement came from a Catholic.  Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian philosopher, theologian, and Dominican Priest became a founder of Liberation Theology in Latin America through his 1971 book A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation.

Quickly gaining momentum on the ground, Fonseca tells how progressives who had been ‘silenced for decades’ were beginning to build networks across Peru aligning themselves with other disenfranchised groups, liberal scholars and theologians like Father Gutiérrez who was welcomed to the Vatican by Pope Francis in 2015. However, while Liberation Theology remains a viable and growing field in theology and religious studies, its impact on the ground in Peru has dwindled. The far-Right’s hold on the political and religious climate of Peru brings with it what Fonseca refers to as ‘a common misconception that being Christian means being politically conservative’.

Olivia Singer writes:

Despite its ultimate fall in popularity, liberation theology changed the role of the Church in Peru and all of Latin America forever. By giving a voice and sense of empowerment to the impoverished, liberation theology held the Church accountable for the welfare of the lower class, recognizing the essential role of social justice in Christian teachings. This movement rethought the power structures of Latin American society and showed that religion could promote highly politicized campaigns. 

I can’t help but see the parallels between the Peruvian religious and political history which Fonseca outlines in his interview and the events currently taking place in the United States where religion and politics are more intricately entwined than ever before by a minority Far-Right Conservative Christian movement and its dominant media presence. This intriguing parallel makes Fonseca’s interview timely and important as history repeats itself—and, in this case, religious-political movements are repeating themselves. So not only is Fonseca’s work a fascinating glimpse into this history of Peruvian religion and politics, it also serves as a cautionary tale for its northern neighbour with some timely and valuable reminders.

  1. Religions can and do promote highly politicised campaigns and shape policy and society. While common knowledge, it is vital that we bear this important fact in mind with the current political and religious fundamentalist climate emerging around the globe, for it is the religious groups which are the true power behind the political face in the media. However, not all groups are equal, and the majority Christian voice can positively impact the minority far-right by reminding them of the importance of social justice in Jesus’ preaching.
  2. Minority groups can appear to be the majority voice if they dominate the media. Once, this meant that only the rich had a voice, but with the power of social media, the power centre has shifted and must constantly be utilised as a viable and positive tool for social and political change.
  3. Religious movements that use a ‘social approach’ are immensely more powerful at shaping politics and policies than faith traditions that utilise a ‘rational approach.’ The same would hold true for political movements. Take note, #Resistance fighters.
  4. Liberation movements arise from the strangle-hold of conservative fundamentalism, but they must stay in the public eye and be continually active to help influence politics and policies. Their chances of long-term success and relevance depends largely on their ability to network with other organisations and movements with whom they share common goals.

Fonseca’s interview outlines a complex political and religious history for Peru, but it also serves as a cautionary tale and guide for its northern neighbours.

References

Singer, Olivia. Liberation Theology in Latin America. Electronic. Brown University Library.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 30 August 2016

Do you have a call for papers, an event announcement, a job vacancy, grant or award you would like others to distribute?

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New Religious Movements and Contemporary Discourses About Religion

As I listened to Susan Palmer’s RSP interview and read about her new co-authored book (with Stuart A. Wright) Storming Zion: Government Raids on Religious Communities (2015), I was reminded why NRMs make such useful case studies in the religious studies classroom. From a pedagogical perspective, the study of NRMs offers a valuable resource for creative teaching and theorizing about religion. In my introductory classes, for example, I use Scientology to illustrate how NRMs have negotiated with the state in their quest for legitimacy. There is plenty of great scholarship to assign, and students are often surprised to learn how seemingly unrelated government agencies–the Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation–helped legitimate Scientology’s “religion” status.

One of the most useful parts of Palmer’s interview, then, is her insistence on paying attention to the words people use to describe NRMs. Winnifred Sullivan, in her recent book, argues that the US government (and the US Supreme Court in particular) increasingly understands “religion” as “being neither particularly threatening nor particularly in need of protection” (17). The trend, as Sullivan and others have noted, is increasingly to see people as religious by default, even (and perhaps especially) those people who do not see themselves as religious. What, then, are we to make of religious groups whose relationship with the state do not fit this mold? How do we explain relationships so contentious that they result in raids and gun battles? At first glance, the events chronicled in Palmer’s Storming Zion seem to be outliers. Yet Palmer and Wright suggest elsewhere that these kinds of raids are more common than one might suspect. Why?

One possible answer is that increased attention to religion by international governments and NGOs has not necessarily resulted in less problematic models of religion being used by these governments and groups. As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has pointed out in her recent book, what scholars understand as “religion” often makes for unwieldy government use. Hurd demonstrates how government classifications of religion are by necessity rigid and slow to respond to change, leading governments to understand and engage religion in a clumsy–and in Palmer’s studies, dangerous–fashion.

Of course, most of the large-scale government efforts directed at cultivating appropriate forms of religion aren’t directed at the kinds of groups Palmer studies. It boils down to size, as Palmer and Robertson both note: smaller groups can be more easily dismissed or ignored by those in power. This is another example of the way in which governments separate religious groups into what might be called “serious” and “unserious” camps, an approach sometimes replicated by the scholars who study them. Both Palmer and Davidson call for more work to be done to change this status quo. They would like to see groups with little political or social capital treated similarly to “big name” religions–the groups that get chapters devoted to them in World Religions textbooks. They would like to see, to paraphrase JZ Smith, how the “exotic” NRMs are just another example of “what we see in Europe everyday.” Smith notes the difference by explaining it as a tension “between religion imagined as an exotic category of human experience and expression, and religion imagined as an ordinary category of human expression and activity.”[1] (1). Thus, as Palmer points out, even the seemingly “exotic” components of NRMs–things like brainwashing and deprogramming–should be both historicized and theorized.[2]

These considerations are timely ones. Though the interview focuses on what religion scholars might expect to hear on work related to NRMs–Raelians, Scientologists, millennial movements of various stripes–I was struck by how much of what was discussed would apply to Islam. Robertson and Palmer note how the media and popular culture tend to portray NRMs in particularly dismissive or fear-inducing ways. As events of recent weeks have again reminded us, what do we make of the fact that Islam is often discussed using similar language? The same kinds of militarized policing tactics directed at NRMs have, in recent weeks, been endorsed by a number of candidates for U.S. president as a means to control Muslims in the United States and around the world.

There’s a relevant history to this “NRM-ization” of Islam, particularly in the United States. Those interested in Palmer’s work, and in her work on government raids on NRMs, should also make time for Sylvester Johnson’s African-American Religions, 1500-2000, specifically his study of the history of the US government’s surveillance of and violence towards African-American Muslims. Johnson’s work highlights many of the tensions Palmer identifies: how classificatory criticism (“authentic” religion versus “cults”) bolstered state action against the political claims of new and emerging religious groups (in this specific case, the Nation of Islam). As a result, Johnson argues, “US officials increasingly resorted to the specific grammar of terrorism to represent political Islam.”[3] While scholars do not usually place global Islam within the category of new religious movements, Johnson shows how this early racialization of Islam within the United States shapes how global Islam is treated by the US government today.

For someone like myself, interested in questions of law and religion, the tension between emerging religious groups and state authorities is one of particular importance. Susan Palmer’s interview is a great example of why new religious movements make such good tools with which scholars can think about the study of religion.

[1] Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University Of Chicago Press, 1982), xii.

[2] For one excellent and recent example, see Matthew Dunne, A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[3] Sylvester Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 382.

Conference report: Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics

The postgraduate “Conference on Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics” was held 11-12 of September 2015 at the University of Aberdeen, in Aberdeen, Scotland. The conference was sponsored by the College of Arts and Social Sciences and Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law, University of Aberdeen. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

"Rethinking Boundaries" 2015 conference

“Rethinking Boundaries” 2015 conference

The conference included keynote talks from both Timothy Fitzgerald and Abby Day; it also included over 30 postgraduate presentations, workshop sessions offered by Aberdeen staff, and lots of tea breaks that allowed for participants to get to know each other, all within the walls of the historic King’s College. The conference was multidisciplinary and provided a place for participants to engage in dialogue on how to think about boundaries in the study of religion and politics (e.g. religious/secular, private/public, belief/practice and theism/atheism).

The conference began with a keynote address from Timothy Fitzgerald, Reader in Religion, University of Stirling, entitled “Religion and Politics as Modern Fictions.” Fitzgerald argued that liberal journalists and academics, while attempting to provide factual reportage, tend unconsciously to reproduce ancient “us and them” narratives. Fitzgerald described a basic discourse among journalists that legitimates rational liberal modernity against all perceived forms of backwardness and irrational barbarity (e.g. Fitzgerald offered the example of western views of Islamic countries). In western discourse, he said, the assumption is that faith, unlike nonreligious secularity, has a propensity to irrational violence. Thus western discourse pits rational western civility against the other’s medieval barbarity and western secular logical reasonableness against the other’s inability to settle their differences through negotiation, free market relations, and respect for private property. He drew attention to what he called “myths of the modern,” with one example being the distinction between the religious and the nonreligious secular, and explained how these myths are perpetuated by a range of agencies, including the media, politicians, and academics, but also including constitutions and the courts.  According to Fitzgerald, the problem with these “us and them” narratives is that “nations”, “geopolitics”, and “faith” are used in academic discourse and public rhetoric as if their meanings are self-evident and universal in their application, whereas Fitzgerald feels any claim to universal truth is problematic (for example, Fitzgerald holds that there is no true meaning of the term “God” outside someone’s or some community’s assertion that there is). Fitzgerald argued that the secular/religious binary also needs to be seen as an ideological position (rather than a self-evident truth), as the secular/religious binary is usually argued from a secular perspective (here he critiqued Edward Said, author of the famous Orientalism, on the basis that Said does not deconstruct secular reason and its dichotomous relation to religion and fails to see his secular/religious binary as an ideological position).

Timothy Fitzgerald

Timothy Fitzgerald

The postgraduate presentations were diverse. My presentation on “Intra-Evangelical Conflict on the Topic of Islam” fell within the session entitled “Conceptions of Islam” which also included a thoughtful presentation from the conference organizer Sarah Hynek on “Approaching the Categories of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.” But the conference was certainly not entirely focused on Islam, and it also included sessions on a variety of topics such as “Approaching Atheism and New Atheism” and “Shaping Congregations.”

One of the most controversial postgraduate papers presented at the conference came from Armen Oganessian, who is pursuing a PhD in Divinity at Aberdeen. Oganessian proposed that if we were to view politics, or the public sphere, as a “marketplace of ideas,” that would allow us to move beyond the religious/secular binary that dominates western thought. In this “marketplace of ideas” framework, we should view all ideologies, concepts, or moralities as having a societal value, and politics as a kind of flea market for any given worldview to sell their perspective on how to govern the society. This framework frees religious thought of its unfair stereotype of only being suited for one’s private life, putting it on an even footing with all other worldviews.  This would mean, for example, that the Buddhist would have the right, just like the socialist, to construct a foreign policy based on the beliefs and morals of his worldview and then have that policy be evaluated solely on its potential effects on the society (societal value) rather than on its religious underpinnings. Then any given individual, any given member of the said society, would be able to “purchase” either the Buddhist’s or the socialist’s–or parts of either’s—foreign policy. Then that foreign policy, or the parts of a foreign policy, most frequently purchased would be the ones adopted by the society, whether it be religious or not. Oganessian’s marketplace of ideas was highly criticized during the question and comment period. One critic argued that the “marketplace of ideas” would inherently favor capitalism. Some questioned the individual’s intellectual purchasing capabilities (e.g. people are too stupid to decide for themselves where to shop). Another critic argued that had Europe gone with the popular ideals of the Catholic Church, Europe would still be in the Dark Ages—a point with which Oganessian disagreed, noting that we cannot predict what would have happened with certainty and mentioning the possibility that perhaps we would be more advanced now.

Johan Rasanayagam hosted a workshop on “Approaching the Category of Islam.” Johan undergirded the workshop with readings from Talal Asad on The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam and Samuli Schielke on Second Thoughts About the Anthropology of Islam, or How to Makes Sense of Grand Schemes in Everyday Life. The workshop explored the issue of how to study Islamic communities without making Islam the object. Rasanayagam described his own personal research, which focuses on Muslims in Uzbekistan and what their moral understanding is of what it means to be a Muslim. He found that for some Uzbekistani Muslims, “being Muslim” might involve activities that one would typically think of as religious or Islamic –like going to the mosque, fasting, etc.  But for many it also involves being a good neighbor, marrying their kids off properly, contributing to the community—basically, according to Rasanayagam, just being a good person. So the conclusion Rasanayagam came to at the end was that Islam, if it ever becomes an object at all, only becomes so within the moral self of one particular Muslim and that one Muslim’s “Islam” is different from every other Muslim’s “Islam.” According to Rasanayagam, when one tries to make Islam an object it automatically loses value and distorts reality. Thus, Rasanayagam ended up moving away from “Islam” and looking at the formation of moral selves, who just happen to be Muslim. Rasanayagam argued that rather than looking at the Muslim community or Islam, one should focus on the process by which something comes into being and continues.

Two other workshops were included: ‘Identity and Belief/Non-Belief” led by Marta Trzebiatowska and “Religion and Politics as Categories of the Modern State” led by Trevor Stack.

Abby Day

Abby Day

The conferences ended with a keynote address from Abby Day, Reader in Race, Faith and Culture, Goldsmiths University of London, on “Believing in the Future: The Religious and Non-religious Stories Young Adults Tell.” Day shared her findings from researching “Generation A” (grandmothers of Generation X) and the story of decline of mainstream Protestant Christianity mainly in the UK. Day contrasted these older women and the younger generation that they raised and how Generation A vs. Generation X differ on what they want from religion and what can be learned about religious change. Much of the conference content sympathized with the postmodern distrust of language and sought to deconstruct words/phrases such as “belong to a faith community,” “God,” and “Islam.” The conference left me with questions about how constructive deconstructing is and how far it may distance our research from the everyday reality of those we are researching. Can a distrust of language be solved with more language?

As with all multidisciplinary exchanges, it was refreshing and challenging for scholars to learn from the research of others in different fields.

 

Rebecca Rushdoony Once Condemned a Cat as a Heretic

Rebecca Rushdoony once condemned a cat as a heretic.

The eldest child of R.J. Rushdoony, an American theologian dedicated to helping Christians learn to build God’s kingdom on earth, Rebecca was mad the stray cat wouldn’t stay put. So she pronounced the cat damned, much to her father’s amusement.

This is one of only a few family anecdotes in Michael J. McVicar’s book, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, the first in-depth history of Rushdoony and the religious movement he started. This might not seem remarkable. McVicar’s highly anticipated work is an intellectual history. It examines Rushdoony’s theology and the influence that theology has had on Christian conservatives. The focus is not on the small, intimate moments of family life.

It is worth remarking on, though, because Rushdoony was deeply invested in the idea of the importance of the family. His life’s work was aimed at changing the world. He thought that change would happen through Christian families.

As McVicar explains in his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Rushdoony’s plan for transforming the world started with biblically “reconstructed” fathers.

“They are going to take control of their families,” McVicar says, “by applying the strictures of biblical law onto first themselves, the male agent, then onto their wives, then onto their children. Rushdoony’s idea was that over time, this would create interlocking networks of godly families that would eventually swell to fill the earth and create the kingdom of God on earth.”

If Rushdoony tried to live out that vision in his own life, with his own family, it is not examined in McVicar’s book.

Christian Reconstruction is not the study of a culture-changing patriarch. It isn’t a book about a father reconstructing himself and his family according to theonomy, God’s law. Rushdoony’s familial relationships and roles are noted only briefly here, evidence of the complexity of his personal character, before receding completely from the narrative.

In this way, McVicar’s historical work on Rushdoony dissents from Rushdoony’s idea of historical change. Christian Reconstruction, the book, starts from and demonstrates a theory of history different than that of Christian Reconstructionism, the movement. McVicar focuses on social networks and institutions as the primary agents of historical change. He does this with great acuity. He is persuasive, not just explaining Rushdoony’s theological work but also in implicitly arguing he can explain this history without attending to Rushdoony’s life and times as a patriarch.

There are compelling reasons to attend to this disjunction. McVicar manages to engage the reader with the ideas that Rushdoony considered crucial even before explicating them. He gives readers an opportunity to examine the generally unreflected-upon assumptions at work in every historical narrative, whether it be recent American religious history or an answer the question, “How was your day?” He gives readers, further, ground to critically examine some of Rushdoony’s basic ideas about the historical change he was attempting to effect.

McVicar also calls attention to this disjunction—which is not to say contradiction—in Rushdoony’s own thought and practice. With unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s correspondence, journals, and unpublished papers, McVicar is able to document Rushdoony’s daily intellectual life, looking not just at what he thought but also how.

What these sources show, McVicar writes, is “a singularly focused, almost mechanical man driven by an all-consuming ambition to build ‘a world-wide ministry through writing.’” Even in his most personal diaries, Rushdoony isn’t particularly interested in applying biblical law to his family. Rather, “Rushdoony’s diaries disproportionately recount his confrontations with theological critics, intellectual ne’er-do-wells at academic conferences, battles with Presbyterian officials, or run-ins with ignorant lay-people,” McVicar writes. “The result is a written record that displays a man more likely to note anger over personal slights and the perceived intellectual vapidity of his enemies than he was to document the happier moments of his life” (11).

Rushdoony, as he emerges in McVicar’s narrative, does not seem inspired by his own vision of biblical families. He seems more compelled by some of the conspiracy-minded thinking that permeated right-wing thought in the mid 20th century.

He was very interested, for example, in a 19th century British group named the Fabian Society. One of the fascinating details McVicar turns up in his archival research is multiple versions of an unpublished essay on the Fabian Society, showing that Rushdoony believed their gradualist and reformist approach to advancing socialism had been profoundly influential. In a memo circulated among conservative think tanks, Rushdoony used the Fabians as a model for what conservatives should be doing. Even as he believed that the kingdom of God would come through reconstructed families, Rushdoony wrote that think tanks could dramatically change the course of history if only it could really coherently unify right-thought with right-practice.

“History,” McVicar quotes Rushdoony, “has never been commanded by majorities but only by dedicated minorities, and the need today is a strategy for the development of that minority into an instrument of thought and action power” (64).

Rushdoony spent large amounts of energy criticizing people who agreed with him on particular issues for their failure to sufficiently unify their thought and action. He thought most Christians and conservatives had under-theorized their activities. At the same time, he struggled to find effective ways to put his theory into practice.

Sometimes, his practice seemed entirely disconnected from his theory.

McVicar looks at Rushdoony’s failed attempts to work inside academia. He looks at Rushdoony’s failed efforts to work with modernist and fundamentalist Presbyterian denominations and then his ill-fated struggle to gain influence over the flagship journal of American evangelicalism, Christianity Today. McVicar follows Rushdoony’s varying success working with right-wing political organizations. He looks at how Rushdoony tried to found a Christian Reconstructionist college, but only managed to build a one-man research organization. He looks, further, at Rushdoony’s conflicted relationships with a younger generation of Christian intellectuals he mentored, notably Greg Bahnsen, John Whitehead, and Gary North.

Even as Rushdoony wrote that the kingdom of God would come through reconstructed families, he was actively engaged in a lot of different ways of trying to influence society.

And some of them were successful.

“Christian Reconstruction, in some important ways, but limited ways, contributed to what Americans would now think of the Christian Right or the New Christian right,” McVicar tells RSP. “I … got to see exactly how much of an influence he had on the rise of things like the religious right, the moral majority, the Rutherford Institute, a handful of really important think tanks, legal advocacy firms, and public defense legal firms that developed in the 1980s. I got to see his influence here, and it did reveal a network of relationships that simply had not been covered in this history before.”

One of the most significant ways Rushdoony had an influence, McVicar shows, was by having his ideas appropriated. Sometimes his thought was adopted quite faithfully, as in some the more conservative streams of the homeschool movement. Other times, the ideas were adapted freely, as was the case with televangelist Pat Robertson, for example, and Tim LaHaye’s somewhat secretive religious-right group, the Council for National Policy. “From Rushdoony’s perspective,” McVicar writes, “CNP participants simultaneously stole his ideas and denied their fundamental truth” (210).

In this way, the story about Rebecca Rushdoony and the cat turns out to be somewhat important. As the theologian was theorizing how Christian patriarchy would bring about the kingdom of God, his daughter was demonstrating the kind of influence he would actually have. She took Rushdoony’s words and repurposed them…

In that case, to condemn a cat as a heretic.

References

McVicar, Michael J. Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2015.

Podcasts

“Soka Gakkai, Kōmeitō and the religious voices of Japan’s political arena

Throughout Japanese history, religion has always coloured and influenced the matters of the state. Religious validation of imperialist aggression and Japan’s war efforts in the first half of the 20th century is just one example of this. Japanese religious institutions entered the post-war period with the ethically problematic baggage of war. Promulgation of Japan’s post-war constitution – which introduced a legal separation of religion and the state, demilitarisation of Japan and freedom of religion – opened a new chapter of a supposedly pacifist and secular political system. Religion was relegated to an individual citizen’s private prerogative. However, we are still talking about religion and politics in Japan today.

Many of the post-war controversies over perceived transgressions between religion, politics and the state have centred on Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines the souls of Japan’s war dead. Yasukuni Shrine has long been a symbol of Japanese nationalism, with many right-wing factions advocating for nationalising the shrine. A nationalisation movement began in the 1960s and resulted in lawsuits over the involvement of local and national level politicians and governments in rituals held there. Although debates over Yasukuni shrine as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism and fanatic nationalism fuelled by the ideology of state Shinto tend to dominate public and scholarly discourses on conflation of religion and politics, there are many other examples of the ways religion continues to influence Japan’s political life. These include acts of violence and domestic terrorism perpetrated by the new religious movement Aum Shinrikyō in 1995; anti-nuclear activism of religious studies scholars and religious practitioners in the aftermath of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011; and the formation of political representation of religious groups, such as the case of Soka Gakkai and Kōmeitō party in 1964 and their significance in the run-up to the Japanese 2017 general elections.

Why should we continue talking about religion and politics in a country that has a constitutional separation of religion and the state? What is the significance of Kōmeitō in Japanese politics today? I asked Levi McLaughlin, who is an Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University to talk religion and politics in Japan in the context of his research on Soka Gakkai, one of Japan’s largest lay Buddhist organisations. It is also referred to as one of Japan’s most influential and politically engaged (I dare say) new religions. Levi is a co-author and co-editor of “Kōmeitō: Politics and Religion inJapan” (IEAS Berkeley, 2014), and his new book “Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of Mimetic Nation” is forthcoming from the University of Hawai’i Press in late 2018.

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, Eccles cakes, Jolly Ranchers, and more.

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

Soka Gakkai, Kōmeitō and the Religious Voices of Japan’s Political Arena

Podcast with Levi McLaughlin (28 May 2018).

Interviewed by Paulina Kolata.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: McLaughlin – Soka Gakkai, Komeito and the Religious Voices of Japan’s Political Arena 1.1

Paulina Kolata (PK): Throughout Japanese history religion has always coloured and influenced matters of state. Religious validation of imperialist aggression and Japan’s war efforts in the first half of the twentieth century are just one example of this. Japanese religious institutions entered the post-war period with their ethically problematic baggage of war. But promulgation of Japan’s post-war constitution – which introduced the legal separation of religion and the state, the militarisation of Japan, and freedom of religion – opened a new chapter of a supposedly pacifist and secular political system. Religion became the private matter of an individual. And yet we are still talking about religion and politics in Japan. So we are joined today by Levi McLaughlin, who is an Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University. He is a co-author and co-editor of Kōmeitō: Politics and Religion in Japan, and has just completed a book entitled Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation. It only seems appropriate to invite him to talk to us about religion and politics in Japan. And his book is actually forthcoming from the University of Hawaii Press in late 2018. So, congratulations on that!

Levi McLaughlin (LM): Thank you.

PK: So, hello! And welcome to the Religious Studies Project. So we are here, at the University of Manchester, ahead of your talk later on this afternoon, where you will be talking about the Soka Gakkai, which is one of Japan’s largest organisations, and also is often referred to as one of the most politically engaged and influential, I’ll say, new religions in Japan today. So, why do you think we should continue talking about religion and politics in a country that has constitutional division of religion and state?

LM: Thank you. It’s nice to be here, Paulina. Thanks for having me. There are other questions we have to think about, as well. For example, why are we talking about religion in a country where, in surveys that are given to ask about religious commitment – the wording of the survey is usually something along the lines of: do you have religious faith? And the majority of respondents in Japan will say, “No.” Seventy percent plus will say, “I don’t have a religious faith.” And also, in the recent elections at national level, just over fifty percent of the population actually make the effort to go out and vote. Why talk about religion and politics in these conditions? Perhaps that would be another thing to add to that conundrum. The reason is that there are these organisations that are unmatched in their capacity to mobilise votes. Although they are minority players in the religion and politics fields on matters of policy, they may actually be the crucial elements in forthcoming upheavals in regards to Japan’s constitution and its place in the geopolitical order. So let me speak a little bit more specifically. I’m talking about an organisation called Soka Gakkai. It translates literally as the “Value Creation Study Association”.

PK: What a great name!

LM: Isn’t it? Does it sound like a religion?

PK: Not quite.

LM: Right. Well, that’s because it didn’t begin as a religion. It began as an educational reform organisation in the 1930s, whose founders then switched into following a specific form of Medieval Japanese Buddhism, following a reformer named Nichiren from the thirteenth century, who held that only exclusive faith in a teaching known as the Lotus Sutra, which is understood to be the Buddha’s final teaching, will allow for salvation. All other forms of teaching, including other Buddhist teaching, are to be done away with. And so the organisation they ended up creating was a staunch defender of this particular form of Buddhism, which ran afoul of wartime religious regulations. The founders, Makiguchi Tsunesaburō and his disciple Toda Jōsei, were imprisoned. Makiguchi died of malnutrition during the war – one of the very, very few people who was actually willing to confront and reject the authority of the wartime state.

PK: And opposed them.

LM: That’s right. And opposed it for religious reasons. And so at the end of the Second World War, Soka Gakkai reformulates and grows from a few thousand members to millions of members, between the beginning of the 1950s until the end of the 1960s.Today, they claim an absolutely staggering number of followers in Japan – 8.27 million households – which is hugely exaggerated. The reality, though, is something like 3% of Japan self-identifies as Soka Gakkai, and that doesn’t sound like a lot necessarily, right? But if you have 3% of the population, that’s three out of a hundred people that you know, or are related to you, they are people you work with, or maybe you are one of these three percent. So, one of the reasons that Soka Gakkai has both grown so big and so prominent – and also terribly notorious within Japanese society – is the fact that electioneering on behalf of Soka Gakkai’s affiliated political party, is a component of Soka Gakkai faith practices. So members chant the Lotus Sutra; they solicit membership; they are very well known for being proselytisers, for missionising; and every election, from the smallest town council up to Japan’s national diet – the parliament – people in Japan will know they are going to get a phone call. They’re going to get a knock on the door from their friends who are members of Soka Gakkai to ask them to vote for Kōmeitō – or to vote for Kōmeitō ‘s political ally, which is the Liberal Democratic Party, the LDP, Japan’s largest party. Japan, right now, is run by a coalition government, which is the LDP and Kōmeitō. So Kōmeitō has a seat at the table. And they may be a comparatively small organisation, but they wield a disproportionately large amount of power, both politically and religiously.

PK: So who are Kōmeitō? What are their policies?

LM: That’s a really good question, and it’s also a tough question. They are difficult to pigeon-hole politically, because they don’t fall neatly into a right or left kind of distribution. Historically, they would have to be called extremely left-wing, because they were supporters of pacifism and they have always been . . . their central platforms have always been focussed on social welfare. They appeal to their primary constituency. Their primary constituency is homemakers: women in Japan, who make up the bedrock of Soka Gakkai and are the most active in terms of electioneering. So it’s things like reducing taxation on household goods, promoting education, clean water, the environment – things of that nature – support for families with small children, low income households, you name it. But recently they’ve also been supportive of LDP moves to move toward greater freedom for Japan’s military. Japan does not actually officially have a regular armed forces. They maintain what are called Japan’s self-defence forces. They are hindered from militarising by a clause in the constitution – a notorious clause, called Article Nine, which prevents Japan from maintaining war materials or using war as a means of resolving international disputes. But in 2015 a series of new laws were passed through the diet, with Kōmeitō‘s support, that radically reinterpreted Article Nine to allow for what’s called collective self-defence. This will allow Japan to go to the aid of its military allies, say the United States, and to enter armed conflict. So we have now this strange policy kind-of platform, and this odd connection between what are considered to be fairly hawkish right-wing approaches on a defence front, and really progressive social welfare-oriented policies as well.

PK: That’s really interesting, because it would mix the Tories with the Corbynists, in the UK context!

LM: Potentially, yes. And actually, historically Kōmeitō’s greatest rivals were the Japanese Communist Party.

PK: Oh great! OK. Fantastic. So you talked about the 2015 changes in the law, but what about the most recent elections of 2017? What was the role of Kōmeitō in that?

LM: So there was a snap election called by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, in October 2017, which was treated by a lot of people as a rather cynical move on the part of the LDP and its coalition allies to secure power, and to basically ensure that Prime Minister Abe remains in power, and to take advantage of an opposition that has been pretty much in pretty big disarray, right now, at the national level in Japan. Overall the government gained seats, the LDP gained seats. The only component of that was that Kōmeitō lost seats. It went from 34 to 29 seats. Why is that? And so, some of the questions they’re difficult to say definitively. But recently, with the help of my colleague Axel Klein – who’s a Professor of Political Science at the University of Duisburg-Essen, in Germany, who is an amazing scholar, who can compile all kinds of great election data – we worked together to look at Gakkai member attitudes in combination with his quantitative aspect of it. And we determined that, basically, the lesson that we have to learn here is that Soka Gakkai is not one unified block. And that is translating into an increasingly disaggregated voting situation. And so it had the lowest number of votes at the national level, for an election like this, since joining the LDP in coalition in 1999: under seven million. Seven million is treated as something of a magic number, and there’s a psychological aspect to going below that. And losing all these seats, including some veteran . . . one veteran politician, in particular, who was kind of pushed out. What is going on? Well there are several constituencies we can now identify within Soka Gakkai. These are developing as a result of Kōmeitō’s policy shifts away from decades of supporting a pacifist attitude and defending Article Nine, towards being totally on board with collective self-defence. What you’re starting to see are generational shifts, gender divisions and a kind of move toward concerns about what’s going to happen to Soka Gakkai in the light of one very important thing. Because, right now, Soka Gakkai is headed by an honorary president named Ikeda Daisaku, who is revered as an absolute authority within the organisation. He has not appeared to address a Gakkai meeting since May of 2010. He just turned 90 years old. And so, necessarily, the organisation is looking to a future after Ikeda Daisaku’s lifetime. And there are members within the group – particularly second, third, fourth generation Soka Gakkai, and others who are younger – are starting to question why their practice must include unquestioning loyalty to a political party that has absolutely reversed what they consider to be Ikeda Daisaku’s teachings on peace.

PK: So that’s becoming quite challenging, in that sense. But the usual association is, how did Kōmeitō emerge originally? And how does it now refer to what Soka Gakkai is? Does it define itself as a Buddhist party, or . . . ?

LM: Well this is one of the conundra – one of the difficult things that people who are interested in politics have to deal with. And one of the reasons I love talking about this is because Kōmeitō forces political scientists to actually take religion seriously. Kōmeitō was founded for religious reasons. It was founded very specifically for Nichiren Buddhist reasons. And this makes a lot of politics people uncomfortable. They like to think that there should be, as you mentioned earlier, a division between religion and government – especially in Japan, where the 1947 constitution guarantees that there will be a clear split between religion and government. In 1964, Kōmeitō was founded and there had been, previously . . . Soka Gakkai started running candidates for office from 1954, and then in 1955 they started being elected. From the outset Soka Gakkai entered politics in order to bring about a specific vision of constructing a temple complex that would mark the conversion of the populace of Japan to complete reverence, sole exclusive reverence for the Lotus Sutra. And what this really meant, of course, was that they would convert to Soka Gakkai. And it was . . . it comes from the Nichiren teachings. After his lifetime it comes to be known as the Three Great Secret Dharmas. They consist of the title of the Lotus, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo; the second one is the calligraphic mandala that he inscribed, in 1279, for the salvation of Japan; and the third one was supposed to be what was called an ordination platform, kaidan in Japanese, that was understood for centuries to be this kind of far-flung distant vision, only to be achieved upon this majestic goal being realised. When Soka Gakkai started to grow from a few thousand to millions of followers, that distant goal started to become something of a concrete objective. And so one of the components of realising this kaidan, this ordination platform, this temple complex, was that it had to be promulgated by the government. And so during Nichiren’s time, of course, that meant something quite different. But, by the time you reach the 20th century, that means Japan’s parliament. And so how do you do that? You have to actually have a place in Japan’s parliament. And so this, actually, was the motivation for Soka Gakkai entering politics. In 1964, Kōmeitō is the name of the party. It included a lot of different platforms, actually, mostly focussed on very utopian ideals of world peace and social welfare. And this at the time there was this concept of Buddhist democracy, as well, that was not clearly defined but it was very idealistic. But it was a religious objective. In 1969 there were a series of scandals that erupted, as a result, basically, of Kōmeitō politicians attempting to intervene to forestall the publication of one book, in particular, that was extremely negative about Soka Gakkai. And that precipitated an official division between Kōmeitō and its founding religion Soka Gakkai. And, since 1970, the two have maintained an official split. Of course, members of Soka Gakkai still campaign on behalf of Kōmeitō – and it’s a little unclear, actually, about some of the other aspects that bind the two organisations together. Nonetheless what you have seen, though, is Kōmeitō become what you have to call an “ordinary” political party. As I say, it does not focus on this eschatological religious goal any more. It focuses on really concrete political objectives. And one of the things you can prove, about it no longer actually focusing on that is: it’s been in government since 1999, and there’s been no evidence whatsoever that they are trying to get any sort of favour on religious grounds for this religion, or any religion.

PK: So they should be treated seriously.

LM: They absolutely should be treated seriously. And also treated as another political party. Which, because they are . . . Because of their specific history, and because of their connection to a religion that has gained a reputation for being an aggressive proselytiser, they are often saddled with the stigma of not being a serious political party, but instead being a sort of arm of a religious organisation. Whereas, in every analysis, they should actually be . . . they look much more just like another party.

PK: Which kind-of throws an interesting element into the mix of Japanese politics at the moment.

LM: The other aspect to think about as well – especially in light of the fact that it’s been a supporter of the LDP – it’s not just Kōmeitō politicians but Liberal Democratic Party politicians that rely upon Soka Gakkai voters to be elected.

PK: That’s wonderful! Thank you very much for that, Levi. I’m afraid that this is all we have time for, but it has been a real pleasure talking to you. And thank you for sharing all your knowledge.

LM: Thanks so much, Paulina.

Citation Info: McLaughlin, Levi and Paulina Kolata. 2018. “Soka Gakkai, Komeito and the Religious Voices of Japan’s Political Arena”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/soka-gakkai-komeito-and-the-religious-voices-of-japans-political-arena/

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The Religious and Political Landscape in Peru: A Historic and Cautionary Tale

In his recent podcast with the Religious Studies Project, Professor Juan Fonseca details the introduction, subsequent rise, and political and theological influence of two distinct forms of Non-Catholic Christianity in Peru: Protestantism and the Pentecostal Movement.

The Latin American religious, political, cultural, and social landscape was irrevocably altered (arguably destroyed) in the early-16th century by the invading Spanish Conquistadors who forced their Roman Catholic faith onto the indigenous people. Peru, which claimed its independence as a nation in 1821, has long-identified as a Roman Catholic nation. A 2007 census confirmed that 81.3% of Peruvians follow their own amalgamated form of Roman Catholicism which continues to be a blending of traditional Roman Catholic (and conservative) values mixed with polytheistic indigenous beliefs. And while the modern religious and political landscape of Peru was wholly shaped by the invasion of Roman Catholicism, the introduction of Non-Catholic Christianity through an influx of Protestant Missionaries in the early 20th century, would further alter the political and religious landscape of Peru creating an ultra-far-Right, militant conservative agenda.

Fonseca speaks about the missionaries believing themselves to be the ‘carriers of civilisation’ and offering a ‘confessional alternative’ to Catholicism. He relates how Protestant and then also Pentecostal missionaries brought with them an American ‘social gospel’ that sought out disenfranchised parts of the community and spoke loudly about feminist issues, trade unions, labour movements, and worked with the indigenous communities. Fonseca identifies the Protestant missionary social approach to religion, which started in the 1940s, as the ‘turning point to conservatism’ in Peru. Fonseca tells how this social gospel missionary movement was quickly followed by a massive influx of missionaries who had been expelled from communist countries. Already aligned with a social mission, they swiftly added their large numbers to the conservative majority. These missionaries, per Fonseca, ‘affected politics which became more conservative and fundamental’ guided by strict traditional theological values.

At the centre of these fundamental theological values are contemporary political issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Fonseca points out that conservative political pressure is ‘so strong it manages to neutralise all voices of sympathy’ to LGBTQ and feminist causes. He goes on to say that the ‘ultra conservative, militant core’ is a minority in Peru but is very powerful through its dominant media presence.

Is any of this starting to sound vaguely familiar?

If so, perhaps you are wondering where is the #Resistance?

Interestingly, theological opposition to the far-Right Protestant religious and political movement came from a Catholic.  Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian philosopher, theologian, and Dominican Priest became a founder of Liberation Theology in Latin America through his 1971 book A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation.

Quickly gaining momentum on the ground, Fonseca tells how progressives who had been ‘silenced for decades’ were beginning to build networks across Peru aligning themselves with other disenfranchised groups, liberal scholars and theologians like Father Gutiérrez who was welcomed to the Vatican by Pope Francis in 2015. However, while Liberation Theology remains a viable and growing field in theology and religious studies, its impact on the ground in Peru has dwindled. The far-Right’s hold on the political and religious climate of Peru brings with it what Fonseca refers to as ‘a common misconception that being Christian means being politically conservative’.

Olivia Singer writes:

Despite its ultimate fall in popularity, liberation theology changed the role of the Church in Peru and all of Latin America forever. By giving a voice and sense of empowerment to the impoverished, liberation theology held the Church accountable for the welfare of the lower class, recognizing the essential role of social justice in Christian teachings. This movement rethought the power structures of Latin American society and showed that religion could promote highly politicized campaigns. 

I can’t help but see the parallels between the Peruvian religious and political history which Fonseca outlines in his interview and the events currently taking place in the United States where religion and politics are more intricately entwined than ever before by a minority Far-Right Conservative Christian movement and its dominant media presence. This intriguing parallel makes Fonseca’s interview timely and important as history repeats itself—and, in this case, religious-political movements are repeating themselves. So not only is Fonseca’s work a fascinating glimpse into this history of Peruvian religion and politics, it also serves as a cautionary tale for its northern neighbour with some timely and valuable reminders.

  1. Religions can and do promote highly politicised campaigns and shape policy and society. While common knowledge, it is vital that we bear this important fact in mind with the current political and religious fundamentalist climate emerging around the globe, for it is the religious groups which are the true power behind the political face in the media. However, not all groups are equal, and the majority Christian voice can positively impact the minority far-right by reminding them of the importance of social justice in Jesus’ preaching.
  2. Minority groups can appear to be the majority voice if they dominate the media. Once, this meant that only the rich had a voice, but with the power of social media, the power centre has shifted and must constantly be utilised as a viable and positive tool for social and political change.
  3. Religious movements that use a ‘social approach’ are immensely more powerful at shaping politics and policies than faith traditions that utilise a ‘rational approach.’ The same would hold true for political movements. Take note, #Resistance fighters.
  4. Liberation movements arise from the strangle-hold of conservative fundamentalism, but they must stay in the public eye and be continually active to help influence politics and policies. Their chances of long-term success and relevance depends largely on their ability to network with other organisations and movements with whom they share common goals.

Fonseca’s interview outlines a complex political and religious history for Peru, but it also serves as a cautionary tale and guide for its northern neighbours.

References

Singer, Olivia. Liberation Theology in Latin America. Electronic. Brown University Library.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 30 August 2016

Do you have a call for papers, an event announcement, a job vacancy, grant or award you would like others to distribute?

How about having your notification posted with the Religious Studies Project’s weekly Opportunities Digest? It’s easy, just forward them to oppsdigest@gmail.com! Please be aware that the old e-mail address oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com does not currently work.

You can find previous Opportunities Digests here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/categ…/opportunities/

Calls for papers

Special issue: Journal for the Study of Religion

Theme: The Role of Religion in Violence and Peacebuilding

Deadline: November 15, 2016

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Reviews and overviews: Material Religion

Theme: Museums, exhibitions

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Conference: Mountains and Sacred Landscapes

April 20-23, 2017

New York City, USA

Deadline: September 19, 2016

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Conference: Modern Hadith Studies Between Arabophone and Western Scholarship

January 9-10, 2017

Pembroke, Oxford, UK

Deadline: October 15, 2016

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Symposium & Ph.D. course, workshop: Death Online: Method and content

March 6-8; 9-10, 2017

Aarhus University, Denmark

Deadline: September 10, 2016

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Symposium: Simpósio sobre Religião e Política

October 17-21, 2016

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Deadline: September 20, 2016

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Events

“Om at tage animisme alvorligt – men ikke for alvorligt?”

September 1, 8 PM – 10 PM

Copenhagen, Denmark

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Jobs

University researchers, Postdoctoral researchers, Doctoral students

University of Helsinki, Finland

Deadline: September 18, 2016

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Interdisciplinary Fellowships: Sacred Music, Religion, and the Arts

Yale Institute of Sacred Music, USA

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Assistant Professor, Tenure Track: Religion and Environment

University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

Deadline: October 31, 2016

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Assistant Professor: Hinduism

University of California, Davis, USA

Deadline: October 31, 2016

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Associate / Full Professor: Latin American/Latino/LatinX Christianity

Emory University, USA

Deadline: August 26, 2016

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Assistant / Associate Professor: Buddhist Philosophy

University of New Mexico, USA

Deadline: October 19, 2016

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Assistant Professor: South Asian Religions

University of Toronto Mississauga, Canada

Deadline: October 17, 2016

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Fellowships: Research Group “Editing Metaphysics”

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Germany

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New Religious Movements and Contemporary Discourses About Religion

As I listened to Susan Palmer’s RSP interview and read about her new co-authored book (with Stuart A. Wright) Storming Zion: Government Raids on Religious Communities (2015), I was reminded why NRMs make such useful case studies in the religious studies classroom. From a pedagogical perspective, the study of NRMs offers a valuable resource for creative teaching and theorizing about religion. In my introductory classes, for example, I use Scientology to illustrate how NRMs have negotiated with the state in their quest for legitimacy. There is plenty of great scholarship to assign, and students are often surprised to learn how seemingly unrelated government agencies–the Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation–helped legitimate Scientology’s “religion” status.

One of the most useful parts of Palmer’s interview, then, is her insistence on paying attention to the words people use to describe NRMs. Winnifred Sullivan, in her recent book, argues that the US government (and the US Supreme Court in particular) increasingly understands “religion” as “being neither particularly threatening nor particularly in need of protection” (17). The trend, as Sullivan and others have noted, is increasingly to see people as religious by default, even (and perhaps especially) those people who do not see themselves as religious. What, then, are we to make of religious groups whose relationship with the state do not fit this mold? How do we explain relationships so contentious that they result in raids and gun battles? At first glance, the events chronicled in Palmer’s Storming Zion seem to be outliers. Yet Palmer and Wright suggest elsewhere that these kinds of raids are more common than one might suspect. Why?

One possible answer is that increased attention to religion by international governments and NGOs has not necessarily resulted in less problematic models of religion being used by these governments and groups. As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has pointed out in her recent book, what scholars understand as “religion” often makes for unwieldy government use. Hurd demonstrates how government classifications of religion are by necessity rigid and slow to respond to change, leading governments to understand and engage religion in a clumsy–and in Palmer’s studies, dangerous–fashion.

Of course, most of the large-scale government efforts directed at cultivating appropriate forms of religion aren’t directed at the kinds of groups Palmer studies. It boils down to size, as Palmer and Robertson both note: smaller groups can be more easily dismissed or ignored by those in power. This is another example of the way in which governments separate religious groups into what might be called “serious” and “unserious” camps, an approach sometimes replicated by the scholars who study them. Both Palmer and Davidson call for more work to be done to change this status quo. They would like to see groups with little political or social capital treated similarly to “big name” religions–the groups that get chapters devoted to them in World Religions textbooks. They would like to see, to paraphrase JZ Smith, how the “exotic” NRMs are just another example of “what we see in Europe everyday.” Smith notes the difference by explaining it as a tension “between religion imagined as an exotic category of human experience and expression, and religion imagined as an ordinary category of human expression and activity.”[1] (1). Thus, as Palmer points out, even the seemingly “exotic” components of NRMs–things like brainwashing and deprogramming–should be both historicized and theorized.[2]

These considerations are timely ones. Though the interview focuses on what religion scholars might expect to hear on work related to NRMs–Raelians, Scientologists, millennial movements of various stripes–I was struck by how much of what was discussed would apply to Islam. Robertson and Palmer note how the media and popular culture tend to portray NRMs in particularly dismissive or fear-inducing ways. As events of recent weeks have again reminded us, what do we make of the fact that Islam is often discussed using similar language? The same kinds of militarized policing tactics directed at NRMs have, in recent weeks, been endorsed by a number of candidates for U.S. president as a means to control Muslims in the United States and around the world.

There’s a relevant history to this “NRM-ization” of Islam, particularly in the United States. Those interested in Palmer’s work, and in her work on government raids on NRMs, should also make time for Sylvester Johnson’s African-American Religions, 1500-2000, specifically his study of the history of the US government’s surveillance of and violence towards African-American Muslims. Johnson’s work highlights many of the tensions Palmer identifies: how classificatory criticism (“authentic” religion versus “cults”) bolstered state action against the political claims of new and emerging religious groups (in this specific case, the Nation of Islam). As a result, Johnson argues, “US officials increasingly resorted to the specific grammar of terrorism to represent political Islam.”[3] While scholars do not usually place global Islam within the category of new religious movements, Johnson shows how this early racialization of Islam within the United States shapes how global Islam is treated by the US government today.

For someone like myself, interested in questions of law and religion, the tension between emerging religious groups and state authorities is one of particular importance. Susan Palmer’s interview is a great example of why new religious movements make such good tools with which scholars can think about the study of religion.

[1] Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University Of Chicago Press, 1982), xii.

[2] For one excellent and recent example, see Matthew Dunne, A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[3] Sylvester Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 382.

Conference report: Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics

The postgraduate “Conference on Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics” was held 11-12 of September 2015 at the University of Aberdeen, in Aberdeen, Scotland. The conference was sponsored by the College of Arts and Social Sciences and Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law, University of Aberdeen. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

"Rethinking Boundaries" 2015 conference

“Rethinking Boundaries” 2015 conference

The conference included keynote talks from both Timothy Fitzgerald and Abby Day; it also included over 30 postgraduate presentations, workshop sessions offered by Aberdeen staff, and lots of tea breaks that allowed for participants to get to know each other, all within the walls of the historic King’s College. The conference was multidisciplinary and provided a place for participants to engage in dialogue on how to think about boundaries in the study of religion and politics (e.g. religious/secular, private/public, belief/practice and theism/atheism).

The conference began with a keynote address from Timothy Fitzgerald, Reader in Religion, University of Stirling, entitled “Religion and Politics as Modern Fictions.” Fitzgerald argued that liberal journalists and academics, while attempting to provide factual reportage, tend unconsciously to reproduce ancient “us and them” narratives. Fitzgerald described a basic discourse among journalists that legitimates rational liberal modernity against all perceived forms of backwardness and irrational barbarity (e.g. Fitzgerald offered the example of western views of Islamic countries). In western discourse, he said, the assumption is that faith, unlike nonreligious secularity, has a propensity to irrational violence. Thus western discourse pits rational western civility against the other’s medieval barbarity and western secular logical reasonableness against the other’s inability to settle their differences through negotiation, free market relations, and respect for private property. He drew attention to what he called “myths of the modern,” with one example being the distinction between the religious and the nonreligious secular, and explained how these myths are perpetuated by a range of agencies, including the media, politicians, and academics, but also including constitutions and the courts.  According to Fitzgerald, the problem with these “us and them” narratives is that “nations”, “geopolitics”, and “faith” are used in academic discourse and public rhetoric as if their meanings are self-evident and universal in their application, whereas Fitzgerald feels any claim to universal truth is problematic (for example, Fitzgerald holds that there is no true meaning of the term “God” outside someone’s or some community’s assertion that there is). Fitzgerald argued that the secular/religious binary also needs to be seen as an ideological position (rather than a self-evident truth), as the secular/religious binary is usually argued from a secular perspective (here he critiqued Edward Said, author of the famous Orientalism, on the basis that Said does not deconstruct secular reason and its dichotomous relation to religion and fails to see his secular/religious binary as an ideological position).

Timothy Fitzgerald

Timothy Fitzgerald

The postgraduate presentations were diverse. My presentation on “Intra-Evangelical Conflict on the Topic of Islam” fell within the session entitled “Conceptions of Islam” which also included a thoughtful presentation from the conference organizer Sarah Hynek on “Approaching the Categories of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.” But the conference was certainly not entirely focused on Islam, and it also included sessions on a variety of topics such as “Approaching Atheism and New Atheism” and “Shaping Congregations.”

One of the most controversial postgraduate papers presented at the conference came from Armen Oganessian, who is pursuing a PhD in Divinity at Aberdeen. Oganessian proposed that if we were to view politics, or the public sphere, as a “marketplace of ideas,” that would allow us to move beyond the religious/secular binary that dominates western thought. In this “marketplace of ideas” framework, we should view all ideologies, concepts, or moralities as having a societal value, and politics as a kind of flea market for any given worldview to sell their perspective on how to govern the society. This framework frees religious thought of its unfair stereotype of only being suited for one’s private life, putting it on an even footing with all other worldviews.  This would mean, for example, that the Buddhist would have the right, just like the socialist, to construct a foreign policy based on the beliefs and morals of his worldview and then have that policy be evaluated solely on its potential effects on the society (societal value) rather than on its religious underpinnings. Then any given individual, any given member of the said society, would be able to “purchase” either the Buddhist’s or the socialist’s–or parts of either’s—foreign policy. Then that foreign policy, or the parts of a foreign policy, most frequently purchased would be the ones adopted by the society, whether it be religious or not. Oganessian’s marketplace of ideas was highly criticized during the question and comment period. One critic argued that the “marketplace of ideas” would inherently favor capitalism. Some questioned the individual’s intellectual purchasing capabilities (e.g. people are too stupid to decide for themselves where to shop). Another critic argued that had Europe gone with the popular ideals of the Catholic Church, Europe would still be in the Dark Ages—a point with which Oganessian disagreed, noting that we cannot predict what would have happened with certainty and mentioning the possibility that perhaps we would be more advanced now.

Johan Rasanayagam hosted a workshop on “Approaching the Category of Islam.” Johan undergirded the workshop with readings from Talal Asad on The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam and Samuli Schielke on Second Thoughts About the Anthropology of Islam, or How to Makes Sense of Grand Schemes in Everyday Life. The workshop explored the issue of how to study Islamic communities without making Islam the object. Rasanayagam described his own personal research, which focuses on Muslims in Uzbekistan and what their moral understanding is of what it means to be a Muslim. He found that for some Uzbekistani Muslims, “being Muslim” might involve activities that one would typically think of as religious or Islamic –like going to the mosque, fasting, etc.  But for many it also involves being a good neighbor, marrying their kids off properly, contributing to the community—basically, according to Rasanayagam, just being a good person. So the conclusion Rasanayagam came to at the end was that Islam, if it ever becomes an object at all, only becomes so within the moral self of one particular Muslim and that one Muslim’s “Islam” is different from every other Muslim’s “Islam.” According to Rasanayagam, when one tries to make Islam an object it automatically loses value and distorts reality. Thus, Rasanayagam ended up moving away from “Islam” and looking at the formation of moral selves, who just happen to be Muslim. Rasanayagam argued that rather than looking at the Muslim community or Islam, one should focus on the process by which something comes into being and continues.

Two other workshops were included: ‘Identity and Belief/Non-Belief” led by Marta Trzebiatowska and “Religion and Politics as Categories of the Modern State” led by Trevor Stack.

Abby Day

Abby Day

The conferences ended with a keynote address from Abby Day, Reader in Race, Faith and Culture, Goldsmiths University of London, on “Believing in the Future: The Religious and Non-religious Stories Young Adults Tell.” Day shared her findings from researching “Generation A” (grandmothers of Generation X) and the story of decline of mainstream Protestant Christianity mainly in the UK. Day contrasted these older women and the younger generation that they raised and how Generation A vs. Generation X differ on what they want from religion and what can be learned about religious change. Much of the conference content sympathized with the postmodern distrust of language and sought to deconstruct words/phrases such as “belong to a faith community,” “God,” and “Islam.” The conference left me with questions about how constructive deconstructing is and how far it may distance our research from the everyday reality of those we are researching. Can a distrust of language be solved with more language?

As with all multidisciplinary exchanges, it was refreshing and challenging for scholars to learn from the research of others in different fields.

 

Rebecca Rushdoony Once Condemned a Cat as a Heretic

Rebecca Rushdoony once condemned a cat as a heretic.

The eldest child of R.J. Rushdoony, an American theologian dedicated to helping Christians learn to build God’s kingdom on earth, Rebecca was mad the stray cat wouldn’t stay put. So she pronounced the cat damned, much to her father’s amusement.

This is one of only a few family anecdotes in Michael J. McVicar’s book, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, the first in-depth history of Rushdoony and the religious movement he started. This might not seem remarkable. McVicar’s highly anticipated work is an intellectual history. It examines Rushdoony’s theology and the influence that theology has had on Christian conservatives. The focus is not on the small, intimate moments of family life.

It is worth remarking on, though, because Rushdoony was deeply invested in the idea of the importance of the family. His life’s work was aimed at changing the world. He thought that change would happen through Christian families.

As McVicar explains in his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Rushdoony’s plan for transforming the world started with biblically “reconstructed” fathers.

“They are going to take control of their families,” McVicar says, “by applying the strictures of biblical law onto first themselves, the male agent, then onto their wives, then onto their children. Rushdoony’s idea was that over time, this would create interlocking networks of godly families that would eventually swell to fill the earth and create the kingdom of God on earth.”

If Rushdoony tried to live out that vision in his own life, with his own family, it is not examined in McVicar’s book.

Christian Reconstruction is not the study of a culture-changing patriarch. It isn’t a book about a father reconstructing himself and his family according to theonomy, God’s law. Rushdoony’s familial relationships and roles are noted only briefly here, evidence of the complexity of his personal character, before receding completely from the narrative.

In this way, McVicar’s historical work on Rushdoony dissents from Rushdoony’s idea of historical change. Christian Reconstruction, the book, starts from and demonstrates a theory of history different than that of Christian Reconstructionism, the movement. McVicar focuses on social networks and institutions as the primary agents of historical change. He does this with great acuity. He is persuasive, not just explaining Rushdoony’s theological work but also in implicitly arguing he can explain this history without attending to Rushdoony’s life and times as a patriarch.

There are compelling reasons to attend to this disjunction. McVicar manages to engage the reader with the ideas that Rushdoony considered crucial even before explicating them. He gives readers an opportunity to examine the generally unreflected-upon assumptions at work in every historical narrative, whether it be recent American religious history or an answer the question, “How was your day?” He gives readers, further, ground to critically examine some of Rushdoony’s basic ideas about the historical change he was attempting to effect.

McVicar also calls attention to this disjunction—which is not to say contradiction—in Rushdoony’s own thought and practice. With unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s correspondence, journals, and unpublished papers, McVicar is able to document Rushdoony’s daily intellectual life, looking not just at what he thought but also how.

What these sources show, McVicar writes, is “a singularly focused, almost mechanical man driven by an all-consuming ambition to build ‘a world-wide ministry through writing.’” Even in his most personal diaries, Rushdoony isn’t particularly interested in applying biblical law to his family. Rather, “Rushdoony’s diaries disproportionately recount his confrontations with theological critics, intellectual ne’er-do-wells at academic conferences, battles with Presbyterian officials, or run-ins with ignorant lay-people,” McVicar writes. “The result is a written record that displays a man more likely to note anger over personal slights and the perceived intellectual vapidity of his enemies than he was to document the happier moments of his life” (11).

Rushdoony, as he emerges in McVicar’s narrative, does not seem inspired by his own vision of biblical families. He seems more compelled by some of the conspiracy-minded thinking that permeated right-wing thought in the mid 20th century.

He was very interested, for example, in a 19th century British group named the Fabian Society. One of the fascinating details McVicar turns up in his archival research is multiple versions of an unpublished essay on the Fabian Society, showing that Rushdoony believed their gradualist and reformist approach to advancing socialism had been profoundly influential. In a memo circulated among conservative think tanks, Rushdoony used the Fabians as a model for what conservatives should be doing. Even as he believed that the kingdom of God would come through reconstructed families, Rushdoony wrote that think tanks could dramatically change the course of history if only it could really coherently unify right-thought with right-practice.

“History,” McVicar quotes Rushdoony, “has never been commanded by majorities but only by dedicated minorities, and the need today is a strategy for the development of that minority into an instrument of thought and action power” (64).

Rushdoony spent large amounts of energy criticizing people who agreed with him on particular issues for their failure to sufficiently unify their thought and action. He thought most Christians and conservatives had under-theorized their activities. At the same time, he struggled to find effective ways to put his theory into practice.

Sometimes, his practice seemed entirely disconnected from his theory.

McVicar looks at Rushdoony’s failed attempts to work inside academia. He looks at Rushdoony’s failed efforts to work with modernist and fundamentalist Presbyterian denominations and then his ill-fated struggle to gain influence over the flagship journal of American evangelicalism, Christianity Today. McVicar follows Rushdoony’s varying success working with right-wing political organizations. He looks at how Rushdoony tried to found a Christian Reconstructionist college, but only managed to build a one-man research organization. He looks, further, at Rushdoony’s conflicted relationships with a younger generation of Christian intellectuals he mentored, notably Greg Bahnsen, John Whitehead, and Gary North.

Even as Rushdoony wrote that the kingdom of God would come through reconstructed families, he was actively engaged in a lot of different ways of trying to influence society.

And some of them were successful.

“Christian Reconstruction, in some important ways, but limited ways, contributed to what Americans would now think of the Christian Right or the New Christian right,” McVicar tells RSP. “I … got to see exactly how much of an influence he had on the rise of things like the religious right, the moral majority, the Rutherford Institute, a handful of really important think tanks, legal advocacy firms, and public defense legal firms that developed in the 1980s. I got to see his influence here, and it did reveal a network of relationships that simply had not been covered in this history before.”

One of the most significant ways Rushdoony had an influence, McVicar shows, was by having his ideas appropriated. Sometimes his thought was adopted quite faithfully, as in some the more conservative streams of the homeschool movement. Other times, the ideas were adapted freely, as was the case with televangelist Pat Robertson, for example, and Tim LaHaye’s somewhat secretive religious-right group, the Council for National Policy. “From Rushdoony’s perspective,” McVicar writes, “CNP participants simultaneously stole his ideas and denied their fundamental truth” (210).

In this way, the story about Rebecca Rushdoony and the cat turns out to be somewhat important. As the theologian was theorizing how Christian patriarchy would bring about the kingdom of God, his daughter was demonstrating the kind of influence he would actually have. She took Rushdoony’s words and repurposed them…

In that case, to condemn a cat as a heretic.

References

McVicar, Michael J. Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2015.