On the Spot with Leslie Dorrough Smith

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

An image of Lesie Dorrough Smith with her fists together1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

I tell them that I study religious people. I say this instead of “religion” because I want to emphasize that there is no religion without people behind the enterprise. That may seem a truism, to some, but since our field still engages so readily with talking about all sorts of disembodied religious traditions — i.e., differentiating between “Christianity” and the “Christians” who practice it — I think this is a really important distinction that places the emphasis back on human behavior. This explanation also helps with the task of clarifying that I’m not involved in some sort of ministry or theological pursuit, which is a presumption that most of us get when asked this question.

2. How do questions of identity manifest in your research?

My research up to this point in time has dealt largely with how various American conservative Christian entities re-negotiate their identities within a religious framework in order to secure certain social outcomes. More specifically, I’ve been looking at how evangelicals use religious ideas for particular ends within the American political system. I think the most important takeaway from this research has been that the identities and other types of portrayals that evangelicals make for themselves and others shift substantially as the political winds dictate, all while claiming no such shifting at all (in the name of eternality or god’s will). Instead of calling this hypocrisy or some sort of failure to live out “authentic values,” as is often the rhetoric from those on the left, I just see this as the normal mechanics of a social group. Everyone does it, in other words, because social groups are always looking to secure their own legitimacy, and when the social conditions change dramatically, so will, at times, their own identities.

3. Can you give us an example of this from your previous work?

In my first book, Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America (Oxford 2014), I proposed the use of the concept “chaos rhetoric,” the term I use to describe a type of speech that capitalizes on fear and disorder rhetoric in order to amp up its persuasive value. As the subtitle indicates, I was looking at the rhetoric of one of the largest Christian Right women’s groups, Concerned Women for America (CWA), to see how their political power worked. I was not saying simply that they use fear tactics, but I was trying to show why fear tactics are a particularly good way of navigating political dynamics. As CWA’s own rhetoric proves, speaking from a position of fear/chaos is really smart because it allows the group using the rhetoric to shift the focus as needed to a new enemy or threat without ever having to define themselves in an overly specific or ideologically confining way.

For instance, one of the best examples of this is CWA’s description of the dangers of HPV (the human papillomavirus), the virus implicated in cervical cancer (among other health conditions) over the past 10-15 years. Before there was a vaccine for HPV, the group touted data demonstrating that cancer could be the outcome of sex with someone infected with HPV, using this as another piece of ammunition in its larger message against premarital sex. But when a vaccine against HPV was developed, called Gardasil, the group was outspoken against it, highlighting the bad reactions that a very small number of patients had had when they received it. At the time that I wrote the book, CWA had not spoken out against any other vaccines but that one, which is terribly ironic since the anti-vaccination community was much, much more agitated about several other vaccinations before Gardasil. My larger point is that if CWA had really been concerned about public safety as many other groups were (whether or not they had scientific data to back their concerns), Gardasil was, at the time, a very odd choice of focus.

In other words, I read this phenomenon through the lens of chaos rhetoric as the way that CWA dealt with a blow to their anti-premarital sex rhetoric. First, the rhetoric was “sex causes cancer.” But once a vaccine resolved that issue, the rhetoric could not become “go ahead and have sex” because the issue was never cancer prevention — it was premarital sex. If the first threat was cancer as the avoidant to sex, and then cancer is no longer on the table, then it makes sense that the group would highlight the new threat as the vaccine itself. In this way, so long as a group can warn of the next boogeyman coming down the line, and do so in the name of incredibly vague labels like “family values” and “Christian nation” or even “public safety,” they never have to deal head-on and in a public way with their own contradictions, problems, etc., and can thus more easily renegotiate their supposedly “eternal” positions.

4. Where are you hoping to go next with your scholarship?

My next big thing is my upcoming book, Compromising Positions: Sex Scandals, Politics, and American Christianity (Oxford). The book is in production now, and will hopefully be out later this year. The reason I find sex scandals intellectually intriguing is very closely connected to the identity shifts mentioned above. When the public catches wind of a sex scandal, we often assume that there will be some sort of consistent moral response by religious communities and/or the American public at large to the offending politician. But the book shows that the way that Americans respond to political sex scandals very closely mirrors American evangelical gender and racial norms, which tend to equate white, patriarchal, nativist power structures with godliness and morality. The more that a (white, male) politician displays aggressive, masculine bravado, the more likely he is to weather a sex scandal favorably when compared to his counterparts who do not have that persona working in their favor.  This effect is accentuated when he is known politically for more conservative forms of political involvement, specifically including anti-immigration policy, anti-gay rights platforms, etc..

In this sense, in Compromising Positions, I lay out the idea that “evangelical” doesn’t so much describe a discrete group of people as it does a series of family and power ideals that are extremely popular within American culture. This is a bit of a departure — or perhaps further development of — some of my thinking in Righteous Rhetoric. I end up arguing that we should think of evangelical rhetoric (and “religion” by extension) as a type of strategy that can be used by any number of groups to get a particular job done rather than as a well-defined label that defines any one specific group in the American context.

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