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.

1. 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. Continue reading “On the Spot with Leslie Dorrough Smith”

Prayer as a Public Performance of Identity

Is prayer always a form of supplication, intercession, or thanksgiving? Or can it serve other functions?

Screenshot from YouTube

From the Pennsylvania Capital Star:

“A first-year member of the Pennsylvania House on Monday offered a prayer laden with political and Christian imagery shortly before the swearing in of the chamber’s first Muslim woman. Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-Clinton, said “Jesus” 13 times, “God” six times, and “Lord” four times, as Raging Chicken Press writer Sean Kitchen first noted on Twitter. She also expressed thanks to God that President Donald Trump “stands besides Israel” in a rambling, nearly two minute prayer. “Jesus, you are our only hope,” Borowicz said during the prayer. Borowicz delivered the prayer shortly before Movita Johnson-Harrell — the first Muslim woman elected to the General Assembly — was sworn in.”

See the full video here.

Is Your Group Oppressed?

TenCommandmentsAustinStateCapitol“A war against Christianity,” a friend on Facebook asserted, as he pointed to examples in the United States and around the world. The shooting at Umpqua Community College recently and the various occasions when ISIS has executed people identified as Christians provided prime examples. Others making similar claims point to shifts in US policy, including the removal of the Ten Commandments from schools and courthouses, restrictions on official prayer at public schools, and movements to remove “God” from the Pledge and US money. Continue reading “Is Your Group Oppressed?”

Is the Decline in Christianity Overstated by the Pew Survey?

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Steven Ramey’s post originally appeared on the Huffington Post Friday and is republished here.

Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population” is a big headline of the Pew “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” report published this week, but the data in the survey tells us more about changing ways that people respond to surveyors. Therefore, the consternation and celebration of commentators may be overstated. Both the Washington Post, which emphasized that decline of Christianity and the growth of “secular” attitudes, and the Times of India, which celebrated the increase in Hindus as Christians declined in the U.S., may be overstating the significance of the results. In contrast, the Atlantic argued against the narrative of rising secularism, asserting that the U.S. is still a predominately Christian nation and still religious, with over 70 percent of the population identifying as Christian and 44 percent of those who identified as unaffiliated asserting that religion is very or somewhat important to them. These differing assertions miss the strategic nature of identifications and the limits on what a survey can measure.

The Atlantic article emphasized the increasing number of individuals leaving the religions in which they were raised, suggesting that people are “choosing their own beliefs.” While the language of choice and freedom fits with the U.S. national identification as a land of freedom, people are not simply free to choose any religious identification that they want. The IRS and federal courts still determine what counts as a religion and thus receives tax benefits and legal protections/limitations. Efforts to claim that a strip club is a church to circumvent the rejection of their permit application and that smoking marijuana is a religious practice have been met often with skepticism. On a personal level, many perceive pressure from family and peers that can influence how they identify.

The limitations on choice are also apparent in the survey itself. The initial Pew question specifies general groups, “Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon,
Orthodox such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular?” Overall, less than two percent of those surveyed responded with “something else.” When few vary outside of those eight broad groups and three unaffiliated categories, the limited nature of choice is apparent. Within the confines of the survey, respondents also are limited to one religion, even though some in the United States and other parts of the world identify with two or more religions, such as an Episcopalian who also identifies as Zen Buddhist. Moreover, when responses were not specific enough, such as a specific denomination for Protestants, surveyors assigned those vague denominational responses to set Protestant categories “based on their race and/or their response to a question that asked whether they would describe themselves as a ‘born-again or evangelical Christian.'” Survey respondents had to fit into the specific methodology of the survey itself and the assumptions behind it.

From the IRS to those who produce surveys, these constraints on religious identifications are typical of any identification. You can identify however you want, but if others (family, peers, employer, government) do not recognize that identification, your assertion (like a vague survey response) is not very productive. All of this highlights how any identification, including religious affiliation, is strategic, as people respond according to how they want others to perceive them and what identification best produces that perception. The strategic nature of any identification provides a different, partial explanation for the Pew survey results. The changes over time in the numbers claiming a religious affiliation should be seen as, first and foremost, a change in perception of what affiliation is socially acceptable and useful. Such a change, then, may be less about shifts in practice and belief than social perception and pressure. (Self-reports about practice or belief are also strategic and may not capture significant change in thought or practice.) Despite the media articles that the Pew report generates, the data tells us very little beyond changes in how people are willing to present themselves to anonymous surveyors. That change is itself an interesting development, but its implications are much more difficult to define than a simple reference to growth or decline of differing groups.

 

Photo credit: Boarded up church in Warm Springs by McD22 via Flickr (CC-BY-2.0)

Can a State Be Fundamentalist?

Following the recent Supreme Court decision on Hobby Lobby, this image — created by a conservative young woman who wanted to signal defiance to American liberals — received a lot of attention:

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One response was to point out that this is little different from other forms of “religious fundamentalism.” The story — posted by a friend of mine on Facebook with the comment “Checkmate” — posted a photo comparison with commentary: Continue reading “Can a State Be Fundamentalist?”

Acceptance and Exclusion

KKK_-_St_Patricks_DauAn Imperial Wizard of a Virginia segment of the Ku Klux Klan asserted that his organization was Christian and not a hate organization. He further labeled some KKK members who have been guilty of using violence as “rogue” members and declared that the ideology to maintain white supremacy did not constitute hate. The media took notice (see here, here, and here). When Pope Francis or an Episcopalian asserts that they are Christian, such assertions are not generally newsworthy today (though in the1926 cartoon above, the Christian identification of Catholicism is questioned while the KKK is clearly Christian and American). One reason for this distinction is obvious; some of this leader’s assertions about the KKK diverge from typical characterizations of the group. Continue reading “Acceptance and Exclusion”

Dulling a Critical Edge

Picture 1I caught a story this morning on the radio, concerning so-called contemporary Christian music. It was on Josh Garrels (above), whose music “wrestles with and celebrates the mystery of faith with authenticity and heart” (at least according to his web site).

What caught my ear was the following quote: Continue reading “Dulling a Critical Edge”

It’s Not Fair!

lensA brief news story on Alabama Public Radio recently discussed the delay of an Alabama State School Board vote on social studies textbook adoption because of some complaints that several of the texts demonstrated bias. The groups petitioning for the exclusions, including the Eagle Forum of Alabama and Act for America asserted that several texts contained anti-Christian and pro-Muslim statements. Continue reading “It’s Not Fair!”