Posts Tagged ‘American religion’

July 4th, 2017

America’s music

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Jazz pianoOn December 4, 1987 both chambers of the 100th United States Congress passed a “resolution expressing the sense of Congress respecting the designation of jazz as a rare and valuable national American treasure.” No opposing votes were cast. The Jazz Preservation Act (JPA), as the bill came to be known, defined jazz as “an indigenous American music and art form” rooted in “the African-American experience,” and as “a unifying force, bridging cultural, religious, ethnic, and age differences in our diverse society.”

How do claims of indigeneity made on behalf of jazz, as in the text of the JPA, help to negotiate these competing representations: jazz as black, born of dispossession, and jazz as every American’s birthright? As this forum’s editors suggest, claims of indigeneity are at least implicitly claims about religion and race. Appeals to indigeneity permit race to enter into discussions of national identity and religiosity to appear in secular space. As a figure for race, religion, or both, indigeneity exerts a particular push-pull in relation to the secular.

February 13th, 2017

Theologies of American exceptionalism: Introduction

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The one-day workshop which produced these essays focused on “Theologies of American Exceptionalism,” asking participants to expound on an exemplary text (a link to those texts is found in each essay). What followed was an intense discussion of the deeply ambiguous heritage of US exceptionality, both in terms of the stories Americans tell themselves and the stories others tell of them, of what they do at home and what they do abroad—of those excluded and those in charge,—of whether and how the US is or ever was new and innocent—of revolution and the exception,—and of the credibility of the rule of law. Perhaps reflecting the current political climate, much of the discussion, while not centered on the US presidential election, elaborated on the indeterminacy, elusiveness, and provisionality of the US project. Lingering questions concerned the nature and status of sacrifice, sovereignty, and supersessionism in the American context.

January 20th, 2017

Seinfeld, Roger Williams, and religious toleration

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Mere CivilityGeorge: This is what she said to me, “Can we change the subject?”

Jerry: See, now that I don’t care for.

George: Right. I mean, we’re on a subject. Why does it have to be changed?

Jerry: It should resolve of its own volition.

George: That’s exactly what I said, except I used the word “momentum.”

Jerry: Momentum – same thing.

(Seinfeld S7E02, “The Postponement”)

This comedic blip from Seinfeld might seem miles away from the early modern debates around religious toleration, but Teresa Bejan’s Mere Civility demonstrates that early modern thinkers expressed similar concerns about the power of free-flowing conversation. In this reading, Martin Luther, George, and Jerry stand on one side, defending the importance of ongoing debate. On the other side stand early-modern strategies of tolerance that use speech norms to keep peace in the face of religious argument. For both sides of this debate, republican notions of civility can provide important ways of situating a demand to either continue or avoid further discussion.

February 10th, 2015

Keeping sex sexy: American evangelicalism and the problem of sexuality

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Do Christians have the best sex? What kind of sex is best? And what does sex have to do with salvation?

If you have ever wondered how evangelicals seek to answer these questions, then Amy DeRogatis’s recently published book Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism is for you.

July 16th, 2013

Secularism and the invention of American evangelicalism

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Few books in the field of American religious history has received more attention over the few years than John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America.

July 15th, 2013

The God Problem: Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable

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In his new publication, The God Problem: Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable, Robert Wuthnow conducted more than two hundred interviews with people of various faiths in order to analyze how middle class Americans juggle the relationship between faith and reason.

October 10th, 2012

Elizabeth Drescher on religious “nones”

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NDSP Grantee Elizabeth Drescher responds to a new report, “‘Nones’ On the Rise,” released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in affiliation with PBS’ Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

October 3rd, 2012

Race and secularism in America

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On October 26 and 27, 2012, Vincent Lloyd and Jonathon Kahn will convene a workshop at Syracuse University on “Race and Secularism in America.” From the conference website …

October 2nd, 2012

Was antebellum America secular?

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The question “Was Antebellum America Secular?” obviously depends on what one means by secular. Because the term is dialectical by nature and immanent to the struggles of the age, we cannot expect it to be a neutral analytic framework; like secularism or religion, it requires constant qualification to be of any analytic use. As Gauri Viswanathan has noted, in many polemical contexts “words like ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ have lost their descriptive value and function instead as signposts to given attitudes.” It is almost impossible to see the question of my title without anticipating that a question of validity will be at stake.

August 24th, 2012

Encountering the archive

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Where on earth to begin with the rich but deeply disturbing material presented to us on (For an example, see the documents relating to the Province of St. Barbara.) How to confront the archive’s huge volume but also the extent of its moral charge?

I also have a number of questions about what we are, or should be, looking at—the proper boundaries of the object of our inquiry.

August 17th, 2012

Sister Martin Ignatius explains not very much at all for you

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Ever since I was first asked to offer reflections on the study of religion and the Catholic sex abuse crisis, it has not been apparent to me that one could treat these events in a scholarly manner without cheapening them. How could one give a paper on this issue and not commit another violent act, by depersonalizing an act of abuse and transforming it into an abstract concept? One of the participants in the conference at Yale from which these posts to The Immanent Frame arise began by claiming “a scholarly response does not preclude a human one.” The force of this sentence comes from the scholarly audience’s wry knowledge that all too frequently a humanist scholar can be inhuman, as a result of giving a frame to complexity and flattening it so that life fits neatly into a conceptual scheme. In one of my favorite texts in the Jewish philosophical tradition, Moses Mendelssohn’s 1783 Jerusalem, Mendelssohn complained about the university professor who simply declaims “dead letter” from a podium. I am nervous that I am—that I cannot but be—that professor.

August 10th, 2012

The church, the state, and the child

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The child, as the psychoanalytic theorist Adam Phillips points out, “remains our most convincing essentialism.” By this he means that at a time when racial, gender, and even sexual identities are increasingly understood to be constructed, permeable, and ever shifting, the category of childhood—with its razor-sharp counterpoint of adulthood—remains steadfast and enduring. Legal definitions, of course, reinforce this clear demarcation, with eighteen being the moment one crosses the presumed divide from childhood into adulthood. That some adults remain perpetual children—regressed, childlike, or developmentally arrested—long after they cross the temporal barrier between childhood and adulthood is as indisputable as is our widely accepted awareness that continuums of development make childhood and adulthood highly variable, evolving, and overlapping identity positions for us all. A fifteen-year-old looks, acts (we hope), and understands very differently than a six-year-old, despite the fact that both are understood to be children.

August 3rd, 2012

The curious case of Paul Richard Shanley

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In the discursive regime of sexual abuse, the operative silence is the victim’s. This silence stems from shame and intimidation. The speech that would overcome it is courageous, a precious gift that provides access to truth. This account of silence assumes a theory of power as repressive: abusers—who have power—silence their victims by exercising power over them; victims reclaim power through speech. As Michel Foucault reminds us, when critiquing such unidirectional conceptions of power and such optimistic assessments of speech, “There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.” I want to consider—briefly and provisionally—the silences operating in the public discourse concerning Paul Richard Shanley. I am particularly interested in how “sex abuse” discourses intertwine with and occlude “gay” discourses. Or, to state it more forcefully, I want to use Shanley’s case to suggest that any account of religion or gay politics in America that fails to provide a rich, nuanced description of both is an inadequate examination of either.

July 27th, 2012

Abusing rhetoric

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Many of these documents are appalling in the way that bureaucratic recitals of torture are appalling, in the way that ledgers of desecration are appalling. As I read them, I never want to ignore the mangled lives that they attempt so laboriously to contain—to conceal—within the boxes of church law or clinical psychology or (less frequently) moral theology.

I find mangled lives among those we now call the abused, but also among the abusers. I don’t say that lightly, abstractly. There are, in the identified abusers, some men who seem so far beyond our ordinary talk about ethics that they are “monsters” according to one old sense of the word. But there are other men—perfectly familiar, much sadder—who now get swept up into the same category of abuser.

July 25th, 2012

The study of American religions in Religion

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In the most recent issue of Religion (subscription required), a peer-reviewed journal which publishes original research in the comparative and interdisciplinary study of religion, a number of TIF contributors reflect on the subject of this special issue, The Study of American Religion: Critical Reflections on Specialization.

July 6th, 2012

Sex abuse and the study of religion

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Physicians, psychologists, and criminal codes (i.e., Texas state law) largely agree on what constitutes the sexual abuse of children by an adult. It includes, but is not limited to, the sexual touching of any part of the body, clothed or unclothed; penetrative sex, including penetration of the mouth; encouraging a child to engage in sexual activity, including masturbation; intentionally engaging in sexual activity in front of a child; showing children pornography, or using children to create pornography; and encouraging a child to engage in prostitution.

What I want to tackle, immediately, is the fraught relationship between effect and affect in this subject for those of us who seek to interpret it. It is difficult to write or think about sex abuse without being affected by its circulating effects, without feeling that the very practices of academic analysis do something suffocating to its experience. To think about sex abuse in an academic context could suggest that we might wish to think away its awfulness; to write about sex abuse could suggest that we seek to argue away its visceral trauma.

April 30th, 2012

What is the aesthetic of contemporary spirituality?

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At Religion in American History, Michael J. Altman takes a broad look at Frequencies, citing his appreciation of individual posts, comparing the site to indie music, and musing on alternative visual choices that would alter the impact and meaning of the content.

April 3rd, 2012

Experiences with evangelical congregations

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In The New Yorker, Joan Acocella gives a favorable review of Tanya M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.

February 3rd, 2012

Secularism and The Third Jihad

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At The Revealer, Jeremy F. Walton offers insight on the recent controversy surrounding the NYPD’s use of The Third Jihad in police training activities.

December 19th, 2011

Public sociology: rigor and relevance

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Any authors would be pleased by an array of laudatory and thoughtful comments on their work, especially by a group of critics as distinguished and diverse as this. We are grateful for the care and attention our commentators have taken with American Grace, especially given that they are outside of our own discipline of political science. In writing this book, our hope was to speak beyond disciplinary boundaries. It is thus particularly gratifying to read John Torpey describe American Grace as “public sociology.” This is precisely what we hoped to achieve. We believe that more social science should be directed toward informing our public discourse, and that rigor versus relevance is a false choice.

September 12th, 2011

American religion in the era of Fosdick’s revenge

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Is bland beautiful? Almost never, most of us would say. But when it comes to religion in a diverse society, the answer may be yes. This is the chief, if probably unintended implication of American Grace, which I take to be the most successfully argued, comprehensive sociological study of American religion in more than half a century. Robert Putnam and David Campbell harvest a generation of research and mature reflection about how religious affiliations of all kinds divide and unite Americans of different generations, regions, sexes, educational levels, and ethno-racial groups.

April 28th, 2011

Divine pervasion and the change that isn’t

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Pervasive presence—or just ordinary ubiquity—is one of the main strategies in Oprah’s attempt to serve as a guide through the jumble of consumer choices, spiritual makeovers, and “original individuality” that is “secular” living in contemporary North America. Reading The Gospel of an Icon gave me a heightened awareness of this ubiquity, a new recognition of the way in which Oprah really is everywhere. As Lofton puts it in one of her clarifying turns of phrase: “She is the divine pervasion.”

April 20th, 2011

Farrakhan’s fading limelight

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David Lepeska’s New York Times article “Farrakhan Using Libyan Crisis to Bolster His Nation of Islam” brought the once prominent Nation of Islam (NOI) leader back, however briefly, into the limelight. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Louis Farrakhan was a master at attracting a disproportionate amount of attention, particularly media coverage. A bright, talented, and charismatic, but provocative and controversial speaker, Farrakhan denounced the many causes of racism and poverty, and gave voice to the grievances of African Americans and other minorities, enhancing his stature even among those who chose not to join his organization.

March 10th, 2011

Will Oprah Winfrey save us all?

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Oprah Winfrey is the single most powerful woman in media. She presides over a multi-billion dollar empire as both mogul and star. As a model of American womanhood, she is distinctly contemporary: never before has the predominantly white, middle-class public accepted such an anomalous spokesperson. She is single, childless, and co-habiting with the distinctively named Stedman Graham, who guards the few slivers of privacy she has left; her soul mate is her best friend, Gayle King. These factors alone would seem to mark her populist origins as more of an iconoclast than an icon; a free-thinker, cultural feminist, and a liberal.

March 9th, 2011

Mosques in America

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In a CNN op-ed, Karam Dana and Matt A. Barreto, SSRC Academia in the Public Sphere grantees and co-principal investigators of the Muslim American Public Opinion Survey, consider Representative Peter King’s upcoming hearings on radicalization in the American Muslim community in light of their research on Muslim identity and civic engagement.

March 8th, 2011

Spirituality, mediation, consumption

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Oprah is a compelling object for the scholarly study of religion as a contemporary phenomenon. She is mass-mediated, commercial, and famous—and spiritual, if by that we mean something that is not encompassed by the institutional structure of an organized religion, but that belongs nonetheless to the domain of the academic study of “religion.” People consume, consult, and adore Oprah on a daily basis. In a word, she’s an icon. This is the term that Kathryn Lofton uses to describe Oprah, and it’s an appropriate choice, because it simultaneously alludes to religious imagery and popular branding, to sacred economies and the commercial market of media products. And the allusions are not mutually contradictory.

January 14th, 2011

History and the historyless

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Buried in the middle of William James’s chapter on “The Sick Soul” in The Varieties of Religious Experience is the melancholy voice of one asylum patient. “There is no longer any past for me,” the inmate relates, “I can no longer find myself; I walk, but why?”   It is a strange moment of existential despair—one brought on by the loss of the past—in a chapter filled with despondency, not least James’s own. “There is no longer any past for me . . . I walk, but why.”

January 3rd, 2011

Church attendance and identity

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In an essay on Slate, Shankar Vedantam speculates on why Americans tend to overreport attendance at religious services.

October 29th, 2010

Don’t drink everything that runs downstream

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Concerning recent (and seemingly conflicting) poll results from the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, Justin Reynolds is, I think, exactly right when he says: “Actually, a sounder reading of these results would suggest that most Americans see the separation of church and state itself as the mark of a ‘Christian’ nation.”  Absolutely correct.  What the average American (if there is such a thing) sees in the First Amendment is primarily a guarantee that he or she can practice whatever religion he or she wants to practice. But this “right” to practice the religion of one’s choice, however impinged upon by cultural prejudices about various “minority” beliefs (such as Catholic or Jewish in former days, or Islam today) has nothing to do with how Americans understand the deeper cultural roots of their nation.  What, alas, is often missing in Americans’ view of their culture is the sense that things do not have to remain exactly the same for all time.

October 22nd, 2010

Reviewing God in America

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Over a week since the conclusion of PBS’s three-night, six-hour television event God in America, new commentary on the documentary continues to appear online.

October 20th, 2010


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On October 5, the Catholic University Law School gathered a panel of experts to debate “Islam and America: The Challenge of Expanding the Judeo-Christian Paradigm.”