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.

leslieQ: Leslie, you have a book out soon that is on the way a certain rhetoric of chaos vs. order is used by some groups in the U.S. to organize themselves, by distinguishing their members from others, their preferences from others, and their values from others. Is that a fair (if general) description of your project? Could you tell us more?

A: Yes – this is a fairly unorthodox approach to a very mainstream subject.  The book, which is about the rhetoric of one Christian Right group, is entitled Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America (Oxford, 2014).

There are many books on the Christian Right, so I wasn’t interested in writing something that simply recuperated the history of the movement, that provided a re-hashed description of a new Christian Right group, or that decried its public advocacy — these things have already been done.  Rather, I was intrigued more by how a certain type of rhetoric used by one particularly influential Christian Right group, Concerned Women for America (CWA), persuades the public.  In other words, I wanted to consider what actually occurs in the process of communication that causes large numbers of people to adopt the identities and interests of CWA and other Christian Right groups as their own, even when such ideas are not particularly logical or are, at times, counter-cultural.

To accomplish this, I spent close to a decade examining a wide array of primary documents produced by CWA that were intended to incite public persuasion, and which dealt specifically with sex, gender, and reproduction issues.  For the most part, these documents advance the now-standard conservative Christian notion that a certain familial and sexual ideal is not only normal, but is also unquestionably mandated.  This ideal (namely, the heterosexual, monogamous, nuclear family) is used as the philosophical basis for many different political positions that have defined the contours of much conservative social and fiscal policy in the US.

What I conclude about the political clout of CWA is quite different from what scholars often say about conservative groups.  Scholars often argue that such groups are attractive to the public because they provide a high degree of order and stability in times of change.  I argue, however, that such groups use a series of rhetorical techniques that continuously shift as is politically expedient, leaving little that is actually stable about them.  What appears to be unchanging is unchanging in appearances  alone, in other words.   I call these techniques “chaos rhetoric,” which is my term for a type of speech that invokes widespread public appeal through its deployment of specific symbols designed to create a heightened sense of social chaos and threat (rather than the order and security that scholars often tout when describing the Christian Right).  By carefully manufacturing these negative emotions, the group is in a prime position to offer its own political platforms as the resolution to the threats that they construct.

Two examples may help here:  For example, if CWA can successfully portray homosexuality as a public health threat (which it has often done through studies that show an elevated risk for domestic violence among gay couples, or through other studies that pinpoint elevated suicide rates among gay teens), then it is not too difficult to shift public support away from gay rights.  As that particular message grows stale, loses public appeal, or is otherwise debunked, it is abandoned for a new one that accomplishes a similar effect.  But once the similar effect is no longer possible to maintain, the group will be pushed to rework its stance on homosexuality, even if incrementally, so as to preserve its public relevancy.  In this case, that might mean the shift from seeing homosexual identity as a sin to regarding the practice of homosexuality as a sin — that nuance, however slight, provides some wiggle room that gives the group material to work with in crafting new rhetoric.  No matter the strategy du jour, all of these techniques involve creating a particular image of the opponent as a threat to a self-evident order, and portraying CWA as the entity that not only embodies that order, but that knows how to culturally preserve it.

Another great example of this is the stance that the organization and its founder have taken on issues of women’s labor.  In the 1960s and 70s,  CWA’s founder, Beverly LaHaye, wrote extensively about the dangers of working motherhood, for she saw this as a feminist ploy to literally destroy families and create gender-free societies run by socialist governments.  But as working motherhood became much more common and accepted, the organization had to back off of LaHaye’s initial statements.  When I first started studying CWA, LaHaye’s biography was careful to note that she did not work outside of the home until after her kids were grown.  Several years ago, though, that sentence was removed.

Today, CWA has re-cast feminists not as the selfish career women about whom LaHaye initially wrote, but more as lesbians and abortion advocates, thereby focusing their identity around more controversial topics.  Rarely, if ever, is it acknowledged that heterosexual mothers might be feminists.  To further show the fluidity of identity here, CWA has even begun to talk about itself as the descendant of the “real” feminists of the early 20th century, as opposed to the “false” feminists of the 1960s and 70s, to whom they trace the liberal feminist movement that they currently oppose.

What this shows, then, is that the real persuasive force of chaos rhetoric lies in knowing how to repeatedly rework an opponent’s identity so that they remain perpetually threatening.  The persuasive value of this speech thus really lies in strategic identity management.

Q: What sets your book apart is that your interest is not exclusively on so-called religious Fundamentalists in the U.S. (after all, lots of people have been studying Fundamentalism for the past few decades) but – surprisingly to some, perhaps –that it is also on how scholars who study these groups use the same techniques, when describing so-called Fundamentalists, doing so for social, organizational, identification ends of their own. Could you give us an example?

A:  Although this is a relatively small part of the book, it’s still rather important to the overall argument.  In the conclusion, I grapple with whether chaos rhetoric is a unique practice.   I demonstrate that it’s not, as I show how many other, seemingly different, groups (including the very scholars who study the Christian Right) do the very same thing: they use chaos rhetoric to portray their own ideological opponents as a force that violates everything that is good, noble, productive, etc. so that they can represent their own perspectives as more logical or mainstream.

It may seem on the surface that scholars would be very unlikely to use chaos rhetoric, since they are supposed to maintain a degree of scholarly objectivity that others don’t employ.  What I try to show is that this is not the case at all, for scholars have their own agendas that they use to formulate the very categories that make their analyses possible.  Sometimes this happens in more overt ways, as when one finds a statement at the end of a book on the Christian Right wherein the scholar reassures the reader that, while his/her analysis has been objective, the Christian Right should nevertheless be feared and opposed, for it represents a force antithetical to true democracy, liberty, and diversity.  Whether or not one concludes that this is accurate is beside the point, for this is chaos rhetoric at work.

There are more subtle forms of chaos rhetoric, though, and these are probably more common, for they operate more by inference.   For instance, in the book I discuss how even though conservative Protestant theology and liberal Protestant theology advocate many of the same concepts, scholars rarely subject liberals to the same questions as conservatives.  More specifically, scholars rarely ask about the psychological events that might have pushed liberal Protestants to embrace, say, Presbyterianism (and doesn’t that even sound funny to ask?), nor do they warn of the political involvement of liberal Protestants in the name of preserving the separation of church and state (for, after all, many liberal Protestant writers openly advocate for their politics by using explicitly religious arguments).  Moreover, if scholars often employ “fundamentalism” and “militancy” as two related adjectives (which, in their common usage, involve seeing the world in a rather dichotomous way, and taking a very strong stance on that dichotomy), then one could claim that certain liberal organizations like the National Organization of Women (NOW) are, in some ways, just as fundamentalist and militant as is CWA.  However, we rarely – if ever – see scholars fretting about the militancy of NOW or describe it using those adjectives.

To be very clear, this is not my statement in support of CWA, the Christian Right, and/or conservative politics.  It is also not a statement on the ethics of chaos rhetoric.  My point is simply that chaos rhetoric is not only very effective, but it is also ubiquitous.  Almost everyone who wants to persuade will end up using it at some point or another, and this reality pushes an important question: if chaos rhetoric is a central tool in garnering political power, and if it is absolutely everywhere, then what really sets apart Christian Right groups from others?  While I believe that there are some elements of distinction held by the Christian Right, on the whole, I think that they’re rather ordinary.

Q: Several of your blog posts are concerned with the historical and social context in which social actors move and the manner in which those situations make it possible for them to experience themselves and others in particular sorts of ways – as being the same or different, as sharing common interests or not. Is this how you’ve always understood this notion of experience? Who have you read that helps you to think of experience in this alternative fashion – as a result of the social world rather than as coming before it?

A: I don’t think that I’ve always thought of experience as a constructed thing, but this is simply because I didn’t have any exposure to that idea up until a certain point in my early graduate academic training. Of course, I was aware that historical and cultural forces influenced people’s perspectives on a situation, but I still generally operated with the sense that those perspectives were secondary accretions surrounding some sort of deep-seated, singular concept or meaning that embodied a self-evident truth (one that would reveal itself if we simply studied hard enough to find it).  Ironically, at the same time, I remember that my growing interest in gender studies stemmed from the fact that I was continuously frustrated with certain groups of people who presumed that they could accurately categorize me because I identified as “female,” this despite the fact that I rarely found much affinity with their presumptions.  I think that my questions about gender and agency were probably my first moves towards critical theory, and its applications to religion came later.

It was not until my early graduate work that I read Roland BarthesMythologies, and this is the first time that I remember having a “light bulb” moment; he’s the same scholar that I mention above.   Within a few short years I had read Foucault, and an equally powerful moment for me – still on the topic of naturalization – was reading his claim that power works through a cultural in diffused, nodal fashion, rather than in a “top-down” model, and thus what we claim to “know” in a culture is often the product of our own normalization of certain perspectives.  Both Barthes and Foucault were important for me because they gave me a vocabulary through which to explain social norm formation, something that is at the heart of categorization, and thus identity.

Two other scholars whose work has most directly influenced my own scholarship as of late are Judith Butler and Susan Friend Harding.  Butler is the very well-known literary and critical theorist whose work on gender and identity has really revolutionized identity studies.  Her basic claim is that there is no single essence that defines any identity category; rather, she sees identity as a series of strategic moves by society to create a certain type of person, a strategy that we can impact and change only to various degrees.  She is famous for her description of gender as “performance,” not in the sense that we can “be” any gender we want without social consequence, but that our identities are culturally conditioned routines instead of natural inevitabilities.

Susan Friend Harding’s work has been overtly about religion, although my interest in her scholarship isn’t necessarily tied to that specific topic.  In her book, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics, Harding talks about how language can act as a political force, and she introduces the idea that the conversion process (that is, converting to a particular religion) is just as much a linguistic shift as it is a change of “heart” or “mind.”  She tells a rather gripping story of a pastor she interviews for the book, who is attempting to convert her even as she interviews him.   She recognizes that part of the process of changing her mind is that he is first pushing her to change her language, for it’s only through that shift (calling herself a “sinner,” or seeing events as things that are the result of the “hand of God,” etc.)  that she will begin to adopt the reality that he’s proposing.

Q: Besides your appointment in the Department of Religious Studies & Philosophy, you’re also the Director of your university’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program. Does the work carried out in Culture on the Edge, and its particular way of studying identification as a social, historical practice (rather than a felt sentiment that is only later expressed publicly) intersect with either of these areas, or perhaps both? If so, how? For example, in what sorts of ways does this approach appear in the undergraduate classes that you teach in these seemingly different fields?

A:  There are movements in both of my fields (Religious Studies/Women’s and Gender Studies) that advocate the idea that the object of our study is the ‘felt sense’ mentioned here, although to different degrees.  In the study of religion, it’s rather common for scholars to talk about “the sacred” as an inexplicable essence that stands at the center of religious phenomena.  Feminist scholars tend to more robustly interrogate identity claims and to challenge many of the essentialisms that often plague the study of religion, but there are also very central discussions among feminist scholars as to what identity is and what forces unite groups of people together, and there is really no major consensus.

In the classroom, I’m very careful to point out the constructed nature of essentialisms.  This is why, in my introductory religion course, I define religion as a strategy rather than an essence or thing.  I use Bruce Lincoln’s definition of religion in Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11th to accomplish that.  There Lincoln defines religion (and this is my paraphrase) as a discourse that claims that its authority is beyond critique precisely because this authority is granted by a transcendent entity, something often described as outside of culture.  We talk a lot about how anyone who claims that their authority is beyond critique is invoking a religious strategy.  This is extremely helpful in shifting the attention from thinking about religion as an ineffable reality tied to a set of physical practices or beliefs, to gaining a much better sense of its inherently political functions.

I use the same approach to identity in the Women’s and Gender Studies classes that I teach, most often talking about what it means when groups of people who have experienced oppression (women, racial minorities, etc.) come together under a common identity for a common political cause.  For instance, in these classes we spend time considering the weight of Gayatri Spivak’s concept of “strategic essentialism,” through which she describes the process by which groups will claim an essentialized identity when it suits their political purposes, but may later abandon that identity claim when it doesn’t.  While this is a very real strategy, I try to point out that the term “strategic essentialism” is redundant if you already adopt the notion that all essentialisms (and all other identity categories) are already strategic.  That is, insomuch as all identity claims involve placing certain parameters around who or what can be described, and in what context, and for what purpose, all identity is a strategy.

Read Leslie’s Culture on the Edge posts here.

3 Replies to “On the Spot with Leslie Dorrough Smith”

  1. Thanks for this! I’ll be nabbing (and citing) your introductory course strategy for my “Lived Religions” tutorial on Friday…

  2. Conflict stories serve the same purpose in the identity women claim and are given in Jamaica culture and society. In creating space for creating and claiming an alternative story… we must a least be cognizant of the stories others are propagating about us. It is quite powerful to name oneself, tell your own story. Exciting stuff!

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