Posts Tagged ‘race’

July 10th, 2017

Josef Sorett and the idea of a racial aesthetic

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Spirit in the DarkJosef Sorett’s Spirit in the Dark is a marvelous book, not least of all due to its meticulous, incisive, and historically informed treatments of the literary sources it assembles. Sorett says that the primary aim of the book is “to narrate the history of the idea of a racial aesthetic” and that the book is written, first and foremost, “with scholars of African American religious history in mind.” Sorett’s story is a specifically religious history of the idea of a racial aesthetic, the point of which is to relate that idea, in its various incarnations, to the evolution of African American and other religious practices in North America from the 1920s through the 1960s.

In addition to weaving together “history and literature,” Sorret tells us he hopes also to attend to “theoretical concerns.” In this essay, I take up those concerns, and some of the issues they raise, for I come to Josef’s book not as a scholar of African American religious history, but as a philosopher with an interest in literary aesthetics generally and in the idea of a racial aesthetic, specifically.

March 1st, 2017

Theologies of American exceptionalism: Ali and Khomeini

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This is the fourth installment in this series of paired essays. In this post, Noah Salomon reflects on Noble Drew Ali’s “A Warning from the Prophet in 1928,” in his essay, “Exceptional Americanism.” Salomon’s essay is paired with Spencer Dew’s reflection on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s posthumous message, The Last Will and Testament (or, The Last Message).

Through these texts, they examine narratives of race and religion in the United States and beyond, as well as the question of what creates citizenship in a nation.

January 19th, 2017

Mere Civility and Jeremiah Wright

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Mere CivilityReporters who covered the Jeremiah Wright controversy during the 2008 United States presidential campaign would have benefited from reading Mere Civility. Barack Obama’s Chicago pastor was briefly famous when ABC News aired a video of him crying “God damn America” from the pulpit of his church. Mere Civility suggests that Wright’s insults not only mimic his Biblical namesake, but also channel Martin Luther, who frequently damned Catholics, and Roger Williams, who offered similar imprecations and felt that doing so should be considered civil.

In this impressive new work, Teresa Bejan does the contextual and interpretative analysis necessary to exhume Williams’s theory of civility, and she compares it favorably with those of Williams’s more famous contemporaries, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. She claims Williams’s view brings analytical clarity to contemporary discussions of civility and should be adopted today.

October 17th, 2016

Race and Secularism in America

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Race and Secularism in AmericaOn September 13, 2016, Clemson University’s head football coach Dabo Swinney was asked what he would do if one of his players refused to stand for the national anthem. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had recently done so, explaining that he would not “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Swinney took issue not with Kaepernick’s message, but with his method. Dismissing Kaepernick’s refusal to stand as “distracting,” Swinney deployed the image of Martin Luther King Jr. as a model of “the right way” to protest.

Swinney’s words immediately sparked controversy. Clemson professor Chenjerai Kumanyika responded with an open letter to Swinney, sharply titled “Take MLK’s name out your mouth.” He chastised Swinney for participating in a long, misguided heritage of sanitizing King’s radicalism, and of corrupting King’s legacy for the purposes of white moderate liberalism. “In the face of the injustices in his own time,” Kumanyika writes, “Dr. King called for direct action, not press conferences.”

The editors of Race and Secularism in America, Vincent Lloyd and Jonathon Kahn, would not be surprised by this marshalling of Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy, nor by the fact that this legacy is constantly contested and renegotiated along lines of protest, race, and religion. Indeed, in the collection’s introduction, the King monument in Washington, DC serves as a towering symbol of the complex relationship of its two subjects—race and secularism—and their analytical inextricability. King is central to the collection’s claim: Because “whiteness is secular, and the secular is white,” “the careful management of race and religion are the prerequisite for accepting the public significance of a fundamentally raced religious figure.” Indeed, the collection takes as its central stance that secularism itself is primarily a (white, liberal) game of managing and excluding difference.

April 27th, 2016

Black Natural Law: An introduction

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We are accustomed to hearing stories and seeing images of racial injustice: the white police officer assaulting the black schoolgirl, the unarmed black man shot multiple times while imagined as a demon, the countless acts of microaggression. We are also accustomed to calls for racial justice. We live in an exciting time, when there is a burgeoning movement against racism attracting broad attention. Yet we are less accustomed to filling out, in any detail, what racial justice means. Does it simply mean an end to what we consider acts of racial injustice? Does it mean a transformation of a system that produces such acts? If so, a transformation to what? What will our world look like when there is racial justice?

October 15th, 2015

Queer faiths: Can conversions uncover and unsettle racialized religion?

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Journalists, politicians and even scholars in Europe commonly use the word “Muslim” to refer not to religion, but to a person’s national origin, ethnicity, migration background, and incomplete membership in the national imaginary. This slippage happens as religion is used as an overarching category to speak about Maghrebi and Turkish migrants, and as immigration, Islam, and delinquency are consistently mentioned in the same breath, even in governmental studies. The conflation of religious and racial categories is important to understand because it pertains to a wider tendency of veiling anti-immigrant and racist sentiments in a language of cultural critique. It also makes one wonder whether the secular ideal of separating religion, culture, and politics is unfulfilled, if not hypocritical.

But how exactly does religion become akin to a racial category? And how can we unravel their association?

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.

February 19th, 2014

Mourning a political saint in Johannesburg

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On December 6, 2013, I, along with millions of South Africans, woke to the news that Nelson Mandela had died. For the next ten days, South Africans would be plunged into a liminal period of commemoration: one marked by scenes of celebration, protest, and jubilation rather than tears and lament. As a white North American, conducting field research for my dissertation, this proved an incredible time of reflection. In what follows, I offer some snapshots of how Mandela was memorialized in Johannesburg and what this reveals about the current religious, political, and racial landscape.

August 28th, 2013

The civil religion of “I have a dream”

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This Wednesday will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s landmark “I have a dream” speech and the 1963 March on Washington. In commemoration of the great moment in American civil rights history, scholars and commentators have dedicated much of this past month to recognizing Dr. King’s legacy. At Religion News Service, Yonat Shimron and Adelle M. Banks offer insights from academics of religion and discuss the speech’s continued relevance.

July 17th, 2013

Preaching after the Trayvon Martin verdict

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How can religion aid or complicate the ways in which people make sense of the trial of George Zimmerman and understand its social implications? Since the verdict, religious centers across the country have become spaces for healing, prayer, and process for religious members of different faith communities. Elizabeth Drescher and Dan Webster also discuss the verdict’s implications on how they comprehend God, the law, and their responsibility in society.


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 …

September 29th, 2011

Don’t tread on me

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Paul Kahn, in his rereading of Carl Schmitt by way of the American context, seeks to “depersonalize the sovereign.” As he states, “there is no reason to think that such a power must be exercised by a natural person, as opposed to a collective agent or institution.” Indeed, Kahn identifies “the sovereign” with the univocal expression of collective agency—that is to say, with “popular sovereignty.” It is possible that such a significant revision of Schmitt’s concept of sovereignty might make some of what Kahn says unrecognizable to a Schmittian analysis. But Kahn is less interested in, as it were, what Schmitt would think (a lack of interest that I share) than in drawing on political theology to grapple with some problems that confound liberal analyses of political interest.

August 24th, 2011

Is there a crisis of secularism in Western Europe?

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Even quite sober academics speak of “a contemporary crisis of secularism,” claiming that “today, political secularisms are in crisis in almost every corner of the globe.” Olivier Roy, in an analysis focused on France, writes of “The Crisis of the Secular State,” and Rajeev Bhargava of the “crisis of secular states in Europe.” Yet this is quite a misleading view of what is happening in Western Europe.

July 18th, 2011

The politics of the atonement

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To grasp the deep architecture of the political today, therefore, is to venture into the theological domains of Christology and especially atonement, that area of theology (particularly, Christian theology) that deals with the logic of (redemptive) death. But the journey cannot be simply phenomenological in the way Kahn carries it out. Or, put differently, it may need to be phenomenological, but in a way that Kahn himself has not considered. Atonement thinking, and the “death contract” that binds politics, must, from within a different phenomenology (and therefore from within a different approach to political theology), be redirected. There must be a new future of death and the political.

June 27th, 2011

Pluralizing political theology

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My claim and concern is not only that Kahn is captured by Schmitt’s particular view of political theology as a disclosure of the sacred in modernity, but also that he de-politicizes culture by imagining it as consensual, while he also disowns the positioning and perspective that drive his “description” (as if from nowhere) of a foundational “imaginary” defining (indeed sacralizing) national identity. What premises constitute his avowedly Schmittian, but also “American,” position? And how do the blind spots of this position—what it implicitly disavows, excludes, or fails to acknowledge—reemerge into the theoretical framework that Kahn elaborates?

June 14th, 2011

Fighting words that are not fought

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“Under what conditions does freedom of speech become freedom to hate?” Judith Butler recently asked. Here I will explore these issues in light of recent developments concerning the freedom of speech in Norway. I will argue that applying a cosmopolitan liberal approach to freedom of speech (i.e., along U. S. First Amendment lines) in a European context in which anti-Muslim and anti-immigration discourses are becoming ever more poisonous and pervasive risks underestimating the power dynamics inherent to the practice of free speech in contemporary Europe as well as overestimating the “mainstream” political and intellectual will to mobilize against the populist right-wing’s instrumentalized Islamophobia.

May 4th, 2011

Race, orthodoxy, and “real” Islam

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More than anything, the Good (Orthodox) Muslim-Bad (Black) Muslim paradigm reveals the media’s seemingly willful ignorance of the longstanding diversity of Islamic practices within black America and of the consistently worldly, heterodox, and syncretic legacies of African American Islam. The contemporary landscapes of Muslim America have been inexorably formed through processes of cultural interaction and exchange, both between black and “immigrant” Muslims and amongst various African American Islamic organizations themselves, since “Islam,” in its many forms, began its spread through African American communities in the urban landscapes of the post-Reconstruction North.

April 15th, 2011

Farrakhan, Qaddafi, and the definition of American Islam

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In another example of how mass media shape and constrain what constitutes legitimate Islam and religion more generally, the New York Times published a news analysis on April 10, 2011, that explains Minister Louis Farrakhan’s recent support for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi as an attempt  to gain support, or at least attention, for his declining movement. I was a source for the story, but an exchange of twenty-three emails seems largely to have failed to convince the reporter of my analysis of the phenomenon as an example of pan-African politics.

April 7th, 2011

OMG: Oprah Winfrey, pop religion, and the temple of our familiar

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I have been—and perhaps in some ways will always be—one of the denizens, the followers, the 100% skeptical and yet 100% “true believers” of and in the Oprah Nation. I have been both captivated by her programs about white supremacy in all-white Forsyth County, Georgia (which aired in 1986, my freshman year in college) and the Little Rock Nine’s steely and yet graceful fortitude (which aired in 1996, when I was in graduate school) and embarrassed by her ostentatious obsession with the material (see the “My Favorite Things” episodes from any year). Still I can’t deny that O’s consistent engagement with the cultural memory of the Civil Rights movement and her equally consistent obsession with spectacular consumerism are somehow entwined.

April 5th, 2011

Oprah, the Rorschach test

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Focusing on Oprah as an icon/inkblot, we can use our reactions to her as a Rorschach test:  What do we project onto Oprah and what analytical blind spots result from these projections and the discursive anxieties that underlie them? The uneasiness, evident in Lofton’s tone throughout the book, is an index of fundamental contradictions that many of us, as members of the intellectual elite, embody.

March 3rd, 2011

Race and Christian identity

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Religion News Service reports that a new book about Christian identity is inadvertently tapping into the U.S.’s racial history.

January 28th, 2011

Secularism and race

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The Centre for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging at the University of East London is hosting a one-day conference today on “Secularism, Racism, and the Politics of Belonging,” bringing together an international group of scholars on race, religion, and public policy as well as activists.

September 2nd, 2010

Black crescent, white cross

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By now, everyone has seen the Newsweek poll indicating that a majority of Republicans believes President Barack Obama sympathizes with radical Islamists who would like to impose Shari‘a on the United States.  Certainly, political debates in America generally get fairly nasty whenever the defense of “the American way of life” is at issue.  And in America, such threats have had a long history of steering the popular imagination back to the question of race.  But this time around, the mixture is especially volatile, I think, because race is once again being stirred into a mixture with religion.

July 22nd, 2010

Religion, race, and the Neanderthal genome

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Since the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” during the 1920’s—which involved the state of Tennessee’s effort to punish John Scopes for teaching evolution in a public high school—Americans have largely come to believe that science and religion (or specifically evolutionary biology and contemporary Christianity) offer strikingly different answers to the question of our beginnings. This is no doubt true if the conversation solely concerns whether humans were the direct and instantaneous creation of God or evolved precariously from a lowly anthropoid ancestor.  But when the question is framed in terms of what attributes make us “human” and how these traits both differentiate us from and link us to animals, the lines between religion and science on the issue of our origins become blurred.

July 14th, 2010

Secularism . . . a really interesting problematic: A conversation with Joan Wallach Scott

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At a March 2010 conference, “Gendering the Divide: Conflicts at the Border of Religion and the Secular” (sponsored by Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict), I had the great fortune to speak on a panel with groundbreaking cultural historian and gender theorist Joan Wallach Scott, the Harold F. Linder Professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. The conference was the fourth and final meeting of ASU’s Ford Foundation-funded project on “Public Religion, the Secular, and Democracy.” In 2010-2011, Scott will lead the year-long seminar “Secularism” at the Institute for Advanced Study’s School of Social Science. Scott is the author of numerous influential essays and books, including, most recently, the timely and highly praised The Politics of the Veil. At the conclusion of the ASU conference, Scott and I met for the following wide-ranging conversation . . .

July 7th, 2010

Why the Assemblies of God is like the Democratic Party

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New York Times columnist Charles Blow began his Saturday piece with a surprising question: “Which political party’s members are most likely to believe that Jesus will definitely return to earth before midcentury?” Answer: the Democrats.

July 6th, 2009

This song is old. But is it true?

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Obama calls upon Americans to “give our all to a difficult task” and “carry forth a precious gift” of increasingly inclusive liberty, equality, and happiness.  We are empowered to do so by meeting new challenges with reaffirmations of old truths that “have been the quiet force of progress”: “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.”  In perfect harmony, God and American democracy call us to continue a long and difficult tradition imagined as a journey “up the path” of progress. This song is old. But is it true?  What are the implications of framing the virtues for progress as a “quiet force”?  What is gained and lost by imagining progress singularly as upward movement?  […]

July 1st, 2009

Not an end, but a beginning

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Here we enter the necessary if unglamorous world of organizing, of reframing debates and dialogues at every level, of animating and rebirthing our immanent frames, of challenging the insistent dogma of commonsense, of beginning political education, of enacting self-change and making a movement from the bottom up. Through what may be the most participatory national campaign in the country’s history, a new generation has learned the tools of campaigning, community organizing, political discourse, and civic debate. Their experiences ought now to be turned toward mobilizing others to insist on the changes they had hoped for and imagined. There is something stirring.

June 12th, 2009

Politics and prophecy as vocations

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In my previous post, I outlined the civil religion that Robert Bellah and Sacvan Bercovitch both identify, though with opposed intentions. Surely, Barack Obama is working with and within this civil religion. He repeatedly narrates a jeremiad, the “prescribed ritual form” that “directs an imperiled people of god toward the fulfillment of their destiny.” He invokes every trope of individualism and individual mobility, and he identifies himself specifically as an immigrant who embodies that American dream of self-making. If he thereby avoids being consigned to blackness, and so to social fixity, deviance, and political marginality, he also affirms the sacralizing of liberalism as the very meaning of a freedom that is god’s gift. At the same time, he affirms the collective responsibility that Bellah considered the gift of biblical religion to Anglo-American liberalism.

June 11th, 2009

Civil religion, prophecy and Obama

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For some scholars, “religion” gives the social cohesion and moral purpose without which a merely self-interested and fragmenting liberalism could not survive. Others see how, at moments of crisis, figures like Lincoln—or now we might argue Obama—draw on biblical language to call a special nation to its higher and redemptive purpose, and thus name common purposes that mobilize nation-building or rebuilding. In 1968, Bellah linked civil religion not only to consensus but to dissent: he invoked the examples of William Lloyd Garrison and Eugene Debs to argue that critics of racism or empire must speak in widely resonant, biblical terms, or they risk cultural marginality and political impotence. Critics who do not invoke “any genuinely American pattern of values,” the “better instincts of American patriotism” or indeed “the deeper moral instincts of Americans,” he argues, will fail, and a corporate and imperial regime will continue to “undermine essential American values and constitutional order.”

August 7th, 2008

The evangelical complexion

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Just who are America’s evangelicals? Conventional wisdom says that evangelical Protestantism is a white-bread, white people’s religion. The movement’s leading voices in public affairs discourse—Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, Sojourners’ Jim Wallis, megachurch pastors Bill Hybels and Rick Warren and essayist Lauren Winner—all are quite white. Recent polls by the Pew Forum underscore this general impression. More than eighty percent of those polled who are members of evangelical Protestant denominations or independent churches are Caucasians. […]