off the cuff:

Religion and the midterm elections

posted by The Editors

Set against a backdrop of continued economic distress, the emerging Tea Party movement, and mercurial public opinion of President Obama, many observers correctly predicted that this month’s elections would effect a reconfiguration of partisan power in Congress and among the governorships.

What role did religious discourse—both civil and uncivil—play in the public conversations leading up to the elections, and what light does this shed on the ways that religion is currently shaping contemporary political culture in the U.S.?

Our respondents are:

Richard Amesbury, Associate Professor of Ethics, Claremont School of Theology

Jason Bivins, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Associate Head of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, North Carolina State University

J. Kameron Carter, Associate Professor in Theology and Black Church Studies, Duke Divinity School

Ernesto Cortes, Jr., Co-Director, Industrial Areas Foundation

John L. Jackson, Jr., Richard Perry University Professor of Communication and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania

David Kyuman Kim, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Connecticut College; Senior Advisor, SSRC; Editor-at-Large, The Immanent Frame

Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor, Tikkun Magazine; Chair, Network of Spiritual Progressives

Ebrahim Moosa, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, Duke University

John Schmalzbauer, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies, Missouri State University

Jeffrey Stout, Professor of Religion, Princeton University

Emilie M. Townes, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology, Yale Divinity School

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 Richard Amesbury, Associate Professor of Ethics, Claremont School of Theology

When the Swiss voted to ban construction of minarets in November 2009, many Americans congratulated ourselves on our comparative tolerance of all things “religious.” But just one year later, controversies surrounding the building of mosques and Islamic centers in the U.S.—not to mention a ballot measure in Oklahoma prohibiting Shari’ah—make it harder to maintain that smugness, and, in this respect at least, American patriots in tricorne hats are beginning to sound a little, well, European. Hold the freedom fries.

It might be objected that this shared antipathy arises, like a Rawlsian “overlapping consensus,” out of quite different sources: in Europe, as José Casanova and others have noted, Islam is often taken to offend secularism, whereas many Americans conceive of the U.S. as a Christian nation and oppose Islam on religious grounds. Yet, that distinction isn’t always so clear in practice. In announcing the alleged failure of multiculturalism in Germany last month, Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “We feel tied to Christian values. Those who don’t accept them don’t have a place here.” And in the U.S., objections to Islam are often framed in terms of “secular” norms—like autonomy and human rights—that Muslims are presumed not to endorse. That opponents of Islam’s presence in the liberal public sphere appeal alternately to the Christian and to the secular should remind us that behind these apparently opposed adjectives lie tangled genealogies.

Like other people whose company I enjoy, I am greatly troubled by the rising tide of hostility and violence within ostensibly democratic states, including my own. But calls for “civility” also worry me, and I am suspicious of what often passes for common ground. Might it be that the real alternative to the exclusionary rhetoric of both Christian nationalism and secularist liberalism is not tolerance or even religious pluralism, as conventionally understood, but something like what William Connolly calls “agonistic respect,” vigorously pursued across multiple intersecting social and political cleavages?

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Jason Bivins, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Associate Head of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, North Carolina State University

The day after I walked through a Tea Party in Atlanta, I woke to read multiple commentaries on the Stewart/Colbert rally. These pieces asserted variously that we need more and less and “better” “faith” in politics, taking from Saturday’s collective public satire a series of warnings about religiosity that coexist awkwardly with those warnings uttered by the armed gentlemen in Little Five Points.

Opinions on religio-political formations have poured out furiously since Tuesday’s elections. While some attend to rhetorical constructions of “religion,” many others—more invested in political transformation—obsess over the degree to which Democrats have failed to close the God gap, or over the possibility of a Lakoffian reformulation of key terms or tropes. What interests me, however, is how the enthusiasms and passions of “religion” take shape. It is simple to say that the ressentiment of wave voters or the Tea Party’s élan constitute some formation of “religion” and help thereby to explain certain modes of rationality that elude left-progressives, or to show how certain citizens supposedly vote against their material interests.

But consider Jim DeMint and Rand Paul. Each has avowed God’s role in every human affair. When one reads DeMint claiming, “The fight starts today,” or recalls Rand supporters stomping a liberal neck, one is tempted by associations of rage, religion, and Republican majorities. These are not wholly wrong. But Paul’s opponent Jack Conway unknowingly revealed another dimension of this discourse when he was censured for suggesting that Paul belonged to a college secret society that mocked Christ in favor of “Aqua Buddha.” Conway’s wrongdoing—according to Kentuckians, Mike Huckabee, and others—was in “injecting” religion into the campaign. How odd that in the midst of the fighting words and vitalities of such campaigns there should emerge a quasi-liberal protestation that “religion” is “special” and should be neither attacked nor abused.

This thing called “religion,” this discrete presence that moves here and there, is what improbably remains opaque to us the more we invoke it in public life. It makes possible the relation between—perhaps the interdependence of—the combustible religiosities that compel and the juridical or procedural dispositions that locate religion outside the political. Maybe it is this collusion or collision of formulations that is the real kindle to what Hume called “the common blaze.”

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J. Kameron Carter, Associate Professor in Theology and Black Church Studies, Duke Divinity School

This past Tuesday’s midterm was one of the most contentious election periods in recent memory, and religious discourse was central to its contentiousness. Indeed, I predict—would that I am wrong!—that religious discourse will continue to be a focal point of contention in 2012 and beyond.

Understanding this requires connecting Tuesday’s elections to the 2008 presidential election, for it was then that religious discourse started to do the work it now does in politics.

The 2008 election cycle was a drama of political theology wherein religious discourse, particularly a certain vision of what Christianity is and ought to be, was mobilized to define the Americanness (or the lack thereof) of the candidates.

We saw this with how Obama’s relationship with his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, was cast. Through Wright, Obama’s Christianity was questioned. Also, some interpreted his religious identity through his Muslim name (Barack Hussein Obama) in such a way as to say that he was not really a Christian at all. Either way, religion was used to judge Obama’s Americanness, his fitness for office, and the direction in which he would take the country if elected.

Alternatively, there was John McCain, who brought Sarah Palin—now the face of the Tea Party movement—onto his presidential ticket to shore up his own religious weakness with the Republican base. Against Obama, many saw her as authentically Christian, meaning also more authentically American.

In the background of all of this was a subtle transformation of racial anxiety over a black person being in the White House into religious anxiety that equated “authentic Christianity” with “authentic Americanness.” Religion thus became the new site of racism in a so-called “post-racial” world.

The contentiousness of the just-completed election is a continuation of this political drama of religion. But what this drama really points to is a profound crisis within the social and theological imagination of contemporary Christianity itself, and that’s what ultimately must be addressed.

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Ernesto Cortes, Jr., Co-Director, Industrial Areas Foundation

Religious discourse and religion may have been significant in the election, but in my opinion they were not clearly evident in responding to what the electorate has been going through. What was evident was fear and other pre-political responses like frustration and anxiety. People are frustrated with politicians of both parties and anxious about fundamental issues like whether they will be able to live and stay in their homes. There are not enough political institutions, organizing institutions, that can effectively deal with these changes and the losses that people have suffered.

The volatility and flaying amongst the electorate is an expression of fear and anxiety. The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the group that I work with, has been trying to address these questions and challenges through our organizing. We have been able to get people to go to polls and such, but it has been a difficult time and context in which to do so. We were successful in some areas, but not in all.

During times of trouble, it is critical to understand that people ask hard questions. They can get anxious. They become more thoughtful and reflective about their life conditions. And amongst the most worrisome effects of people suffering anxiety and fear is the regeneration and resurgence of nativism. That makes me very, very nervous. People who are discouraged and not powerful become frightened of those in power. We see this in Arizona and Texas and the rise of nativism against immigrants there. When times get tough, it’s not at all surprising that nativism enjoys a resurgence.

I am shocked and angered by how disconnected the political elites of both parties have been from the difficulties people have been experiencing for a long time now. These elites did not recognize how deep the crisis is for people. There is a shock amongst political elites that the suffering of people is so deep and has been going on for so long. It tells me how disconnected these elites are from how difficult it is for people to pay their bills, to get food on the table, to stay in their homes. What is painful to me is that these elites—again of both parties—are only now coming to understand that. The IAF has been working hard for a long time now to engage folks about civic life, to teach people about why and how structural and cultural changes are taking place.  Clearly we have all got to do a lot more organizing!

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John L. Jackson, Jr., Richard Perry University Professor of Communication and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania

Was this week’s Republican and Tea Party victory a referendum on Black America? I was in London this past weekend when someone, anticipating the political pummeling to come, asked me this very question.

I was participating in an ambitiously interdisciplinary conference at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, an event that brought scholars together from all around the world to discuss African Jews/Judaism.

The conference  also attracted many non-academics, and one such person, a black Brit, wanted to discuss America’s midterm elections over lunch. He’d been following this election season fairly closely, and he asked me if I interpreted the soon-to-be Republican landslide as an affront to black America.

Surely, I must feel that way, he thought, because even he did, and he was way over there, all the way across the Atlantic.

He took the racism of the Tea Party as self-evident, and he could recount several media-covered instances of Tea Party members expressing their anger in race-tinged language.

The 2010 election isn’t just about Obama, he said. It is about you, about whether you belong in America. It is also about the Constitution, whether the original intention of its framers (to disqualify non-whites from full citizenship) can be successfully reinstated. They want to take that country back from you, he proclaimed. And he wouldn’t countenance any alternative interpretation of things.

He eventually admitted that he also felt implicated in America’s midterm election. This was about redrawing the racial lines between “us” and “them” all over the world. And what’s happening in America, he assured me, has European counterparts. The Tea Party might be an American phenomenon, he said, but its motivations and seductions can be seen in political movements all over the planet.

I asked him if the anti-establishment rhetoric of the Tea Party might be better viewed as a response to the albatross of economic woes that the Obama administration hasn’t been able to remove from around its political neck: my version of, “it’s the economy, stupid.” Or maybe it was just that the Dems couldn’t package their successes convincingly enough for the electorate: my version of, “it’s Fox News, stupid.”

He dismissed my retorts with a wave of the hand. Americans aren’t that stupid, he said. They know exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

We’ve all heard arguments about the Tea Party’s ostensible racism. And we’ve certainly listened to Tea Partiers defend themselves against these accusations.

It is easy to dismiss such racial accusations as mere hyperbole and irrational paranoia. But that only makes them uncannily similar in kind (though not in content) to the histrionic rhetorical engines that have fueled the Tea Party’s effective campaigning this election season.

This election might not be a referendum on America’s commitment to racial inclusion, but talk of “taking back America” does raise a number of potentially troubling questions.

And is it really that difficult to see why invocations of “original intent” might make some Americans (and at least one Brit) more than a little antsy?

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David Kyuman Kim, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Connecticut College; Senior Advisor, SSRC; Editor-at-Large, The Immanent Frame

After the election, Obama appeared chastened and far from emboldened. He acknowledged defeat but also admitted that he had been tone deaf “to the people.” There is surely genuine human suffering behind the anger and the acrimony that stoked the fervor of the Tea Party and the like. And yet it’s deflating, at best, to realize that what has attuned Obama to listen to the pain and suffering of those who are trying to endure through economic and personal duress are voices that insist that he is “not American,” that he is “a Muslim,” that he is “a socialist.”

These lies have been kept alive by “messengers from the people,” like Rand Paul, with his triumphalist cry of “taking our country back,”  John Boehner, in his claims about his lifelong pursuit of “the American dream,” and Glenn Beck’s insistence that the enmity he continues to stoke is “all about love.” These folks trade in the language of American exceptionalism and have subsequently legitimated an array of xenophobic attitudes toward immigrants, toward the soon-to-be non-white majority, toward the queer community, and toward Muslims.

For all of its talk about community organizing and supporting faith-based initiatives, it seems clear that the Obama administration remains tin-eared not only to progressives but also to religious folks who speak truth to power with love. Recalibrating the tone of public discourse toward civility will require Obama to understand that he cannot persist in prioritizing corporate welfare at the expense of everyday people. Many Americans clearly wanted and needed to express their anger and frustration. Paul, Beck, and company were ready to exploit those desires and needs. We are in the midst of a battle over political power but, most assuredly, also over the meaning and language of the prophetic, social justice, freedom, and love. Let us hope that this will be a fair fight, and that the prophetic call from the left and from religious communities can find their way back into the fray.

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Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor, Tikkun Magazine; Chair, Network of Spiritual Progressives

God is the Force in the universe that makes for the possibility of transforming “that which is” to “that which ought to be.” Idolatry is being “realistic,” that is, accepting the current configuration of power and wealth and shaping policies and worldviews to accommodate that which is.

Religions sometimes abandon God and become servants of the powerful to the extent that they decide to become “realistic” rather than to proclaim what could and should be. And one way that they do this is to bow to the notion that economics is more important than spiritual consciousness, or that economics can exist apart from God.

The notion that “the economy” determined the outcome of the election is a truism once one understands what is involved in “the economy.” Actually, the economy refers to all that we do in our daily lives to sustain ourselves and each other as part of a web of interwoven parts that include the earth, the nations of the planet, the sun, corporations, farmers, industries, and the lives of individuals, both in our capacities as producers and consumers, the worldviews both secular and religious that sustain our activities, the families that provide us with the emotional sustenance to keep connected to the rest of the world,  and all the other factors that shape the impact of how we organize our individual and collective lives. In this sense, of course, it is always the economy that is determinative.

But how it is determinative is that, in this larger sense, it shapes our level of hopes and fears, and politics reflects that directly. Most of us are on a psychological/spiritual continuum between hope and fear, between believing that the world can be based on love and generosity and believing that the world is dominated by selfish and materialistic others who will seek to get control over us unless we dominate and control them first. When we organize our economy around the worldview of fear and domination, we get a massive dose of discouragement about the possibility of building a world based on peace, justice, kindness, or generosity. And those fears influence how we treat each other, how we build our families, and what religious perspectives seem to be most in tune with “Reality” as given in the contemporary world.

Obama was successful in 2008 because he strengthened the voice of hope inside a majority of Americans, and Democrats in 2010, because that voice of hope was silenced as Obama and the Congressional Democrats stopped articulating an alternative worldview, capitulated to the worldview of fear on the grounds that that was the only realistic way to “get things done inside the Beltway.” The upshot was that tens of millions of people who had momentarily allowed themselves to believe that God’s energy could come back into shaping our world felt betrayed, disillusioned, and humiliated that they had allowed themselves to hope despite the warnings of the cynical realists who told them that nothing much could be different in this world. Those forces within the religious communities that have themselves capitulated to the idolatry of believing that cruelty and evil are the inevitable destiny of humanity could rejoice in the outcome of the election, while those of us within other religious communities, united sometimes through the Network of Spiritual Progressives, are set back by the election because it is easy to spin it as a proof that Americans are fundamentally screwed up, irrational, self-destructive, or selfish.

But the truth is not that—it is that Americans, all of us, can at times succumb to fear, and that the Democrats and Obama failed to give them a reason to hold on to hope and to the possibility of possibility. In this sense, the God of the universe was abandoned by us, and our task now is to restore faith that God can once again become our partner in healing and transforming (the Hebrew word is Tikkun) the world. To do that, we must again realize that there will be no messianic politician to save us—that our task is to build the kind of love- and generosity-oriented social movement that can move beyond the old categories and bring about the fundamental change that the Democrats, so deeply entrenched in Wall Street and the banks, will never deliver.

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Ebrahim Moosa, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, Duke University

American civil religion took a massive shellacking all summer in a momentum that reached into the fall as politicians on both sides of the aisle demonized Islam and Muslims. Boosted by the midterm elections, the right wing has become even more audacious in its Islamophobia. The unrepentant Tea Party hosanna singer Sarah Palin was called out when she retweeted conservative pundit Ann Coulter’s message that described President Barack Obama as a Taliban Muslim illegally elected President USA. The fact that more Americans now believe that President Obama is a closet Muslim than when he was elected as president is an index of hyper-Islamophobia. So the silly season is not really over since the plague is far from over without a remedy in sight. This does not augur well for American civil society nor for political life.

Throughout the electoral campaign Muslim Americans and Islam were dehumanized in rhetoric ranging from Islam being the enemy, opposition to the building of a mosque in lower Manhattan and mosques elsewhere in the country, Qur’an-burning publicity stunts, to conspiracies that Sharia law will displace the US constitution. Here is the bad news: Decent politicians frequently swallowed the Islamophobia pill in different doses. Claims by Sharron Angle that Sharia law will govern US cities infected Senate leader Harry Reid’s campaign and he too voiced opposition to the building of the Manhattan mosque to cite only one example.

But something more pernicious has been unleashed in this electoral campaign that exceeds previous levels. Anything said about Islam and Muslims, the more bizarre and disgusting the better, has become believable.  When it comes to Islam, our civil discourses fish in the sewers.  The main culprits are not only Fox and Rush Limbaugh but also left leaning comedians like Bill Maher who are equally culpable. Maher added to the dehumanization of Muslims when he copied Juan Williams’ paranoia by claiming that he was spooked by babies named Muhammad in Britain. And, when the prosecutors in the trial of the Canadian-born Guantanamo inmate Omar Khadr can offer testimony of a Danish psychologist that Muslim inbreeding “may have done catastrophic damage to their gene pool” and this passes without a murmur then surely we are swimming in the sewers of dehumanization.

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John Schmalzbauer, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies, Missouri State University

 The 2010 triumph of the Tea Party Republicans presents some interesting paradoxes. On the one hand, many of the victors tilt to the right on abortion, gay marriage, and church/state issues. Despite the defeat of Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party freshmen class will include dozens of social conservatives.

On the other hand, the election night rhetoric focused almost exclusively on the evils of big government. Ohio Republican John Boehner’s victory speech never mentioned the social issues. When praising “the values that have made America,” he spoke of economic freedom, individual liberty, and personal responsibility. Boehner’s rhetoric matched the campaign literature that flooded our Ozarks mailbox. Though we live in an “Evangelical Epicenter,” all but one mailing emphasized economics.

Slowly but surely, the culture wars are being redefined. In The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future, Arthur Brooks notes that “this is not a fight over guns, abortion, religion, and gays.”  Heralding a “new culture war,” Brooks makes a case for the morality of capitalism and free enterprise. The book carries endorsements from William Bennett and Marvin Olasky, stalwarts of the religious right. Last week he visited the campus of Wheaton College.  Before an audience of young evangelicals, Brooks had a respectful debate with Jim Wallis. The topic: “Does Capitalism Have a Soul?”

Meanwhile, the works of atheist Ayn Rand are for sale in Christian bookstores. In The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, Robert Nelson describes free market economics and environmentalism as secular religions. Though the Kentucky campaign included a silly diversion over Rand Paul and “Aqua Buddha,” the real religious issue comes down to this: Will Christian conservatives bow to the “goddess of the market”?

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Jeffrey Stout, Professor of Religion, Princeton University

This election wasn’t about religion. It was about liberty.

Barack Obama used to say that democracy flourishes only when citizens exert pressure from the bottom up. He might have added that the new economic elite endangers the liberty of everyone else. One group dominates others if it is in a position to use its power arbitrarily over them. Liberty is security against domination.

But Obama selected an economic team closely connected to the economic elite.  He knew that Lincoln’s ideal of liberty—as security from domination—wouldn’t fit with his behavior. So, when the economic crisis came, he was unable to explain to the people what was going on.

The Tea Party, like Organizing for Obama, is a top-down organizational structure masquerading as grassroots democracy. Its message is that liberty is security from governmental interference. This is the kind of liberty that slaveholders fought for during the Civil War. For the corporate bosses, the fewer laws the better. “Don’t tread on me, even if I am treading on you. But I’ll take that bailout, thank you.”

A president who used to be a law professor could have explained that true liberty can be achieved only in a society with laws that protect the people from domination. But he didn’t. The argument over liberty was never joined.

The corporate bosses will continue to dominate until there are citizens’ organizations that can generate enough counter-power to change the playing field. The reason that Obama used to spend a lot of time in church basements is that ordinary citizens often gather in such places. If he still cares about bottom-up change, he will need an organized citizenry to whom he can say:  “Make me do it!”

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Emilie M. Townes, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology, Yale Divinity School

Much to my surprise, Yale Divinity School became bandied about in the Delaware senatorial contest between Chris Coons and Christine O’Donnell. O’Donnell, who trailed Coons throughout the contest was known for her outspoken views. And then there was the witchcraft thing. Coons, an alumnus of the Divinity School (Master of Arts, 1992), gave an interview for our “Notes from the Quad,” where he notes that he believes in “values-based leadership and helping form and sustain a positive community.”

I watched with a certain amount of horror and amusement as conservative commentator Jeffrey Lord used the interview to paint Coons and the YDS as a hotbed of loony ideas. Lord’s extremely idiosyncratic look at five courses from the spring 2010 term suggests that these were representative of all of our courses. Frankly, when one looks at the syllabi for these courses, there’s not much there that would justify Lord’s depiction of them as borderline seditious and certainly suspect. But then, words like “multicultural” and “diversity” do appear in the syllabi and books in these classes (and many others). In the end, I hardly recognized the school as conservative bloggers picked up the story and it went viral.

It seems that attempts to help folks understand the width and breadth of the Christian tradition is a dangerous idea, and photoshopped depictions of liberal Christianity become the polemical tools that would keep us from welcoming the big tent reality of the Christian faith. The smear on YDS and Coons did not work. He won the contest handily, but I am left sobered, once again, by the ways in which religious beliefs and views become expedient when it comes to politics and how the depth and thoughtfulness with which most people try to practice their faith gets lost in a torrent of stereotypes and caricatures.

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One Response to “Religion and the midterm elections”

  1. avatar Jill Schaeffer says:

    This semester I’m to teach a course in Religion in American Culture to a small, select group of inmates from New York State’s correctional facilities enrolled in the Pastoral Studies Program of New York Theological Seminary. This semester will be the third or fourth (can’t remember) time I’ve taught this course, but since the mid-term elections, I’ve got a new syllabus spruced up and set for donnybrook debates and some heavy duty critical thinking. The material above is going to be part of that syllabus. Can’t really comment on what you all have said, particularly because the skein is so thick and knotty, I’m not sure either the students or the teacher can unravel it. But I do think that the men, more than 90% of whom are black (not all Afro-American), and of those, not a few converts to Islam, will have insights that we folks outside prison walls don’t enjoy. One of their assignments will be to comment on your comments, and we’ll see where we come out. Blessings, hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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