The other day I was watching an episode of HBO’s weekly satirical news round-up, “Last Week Tonight,” in which they focused on how payday loan businesses prey on poor people — specifically noting an interaction in the Texas state legislature in which Vicki Truitt (pictured above), then a Republican state legislator, called out one of her colleagues for having a conflict of interest when he opposed legislation aimed at controlling payday loans. (He owns a bunch of payday loan businesses; that she herself became a lobbyist, after leaving politics, for, yes, a payday loan business is, at best, ironic.)
And then it occurred to me — why is no one in the academic study of religion pursuing this line when critiquing colleagues who are scholars of religion while also being deeply invested in the very institutions and groups that they study? Why is this not considered a conflict of interest, thereby making the value of their work questionable. For, in bracketing certain sorts of approaches (such as explanatory, in favor of, say, interpretive) their scholarship could be argued to be aimed at supporting, nurturing, or reproducing the object of study (or a small segment of it) instead of trying to, for example, account for it or explain why anyone would be inclined to even participate in it to begin with.
So is there a difference between being a scholar and a lobbyist?
That’s a question that goes right to the heart of why and how we study religion and what we hope to accomplish by doing it. For there are those who, presumably, would question why I even draw a distinction between those two roles.
Case in point — consider this as but one example to put some meat on these bones:
What does one do with the fact that one of the most influential sociologists of religion in the UK — the person who, between 2007 and 2012, headed up the British government’s 12 million Pound (about $20 million US) “Religion and Society” research initiative — is now the president of a more than 100-year old organization that is charged with promoting liberal theology among Christian churches in the UK? Is this an academic appointment, to be recorded on a C.V. and for which scholarly expertise qualifies one, or, instead, just something a scholar happens to do in the off-hours — for we all, no doubt, have rich personal lives.
Simply put, what would we — we = scholars of religion — do if we learned of a leading scholar being elected president of a no less theologically inclined organization but one which was charged with promoting, say, evangelical theology among Christian churches throughout the country? (In this thought experiment I won’t even go down the road of various other theological options in various other world religions — for we surely know it’s improper for a scholar to promote the wrong theological position, right?) Would we see such a person as being on the cutting edge of their scholarly field? Or would we see them as possibly having an agenda that falls outside the professional limits of a scholarly enterprise, prompting us, possibly, to re-read their corpus to find evidence that their work was somehow doing something other than what we consider scholarship to be (as we have done with other scholars whose, for instance, unpopular youthful politics later come to light)? If this would bother us, then why doesn’t a talk such as the following prompt us to get a bit curious about what the study of religion has become — for is our field really all about defending how normal religious people are?
The trouble, here, is that instead of studying so-called religious people, scholars on the political and theological left see their role as being to defend religion from those whom they see to be attacking it (Isn’t this what Schleiermacher saw his role as being, a couple centuries ago, yet we don’t see him as a role model for the field today — do we?). Now, while I’ve got little interest to support the work of the so-called new atheists (see this recent critique of their work), as a scholar of religion I’m not here to defend religion from their attacks either — while that’s a tennis match I might find fascinating to study it is not one I care to play myself.
For, if that’s the game scholars of religion decide to play, then there’s no reason one has to join the side replying to the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris — one could instead jump in to support them (no doubt some contemporary scholars of religion think religion is, I don’t know, silly or a primitive survival) or one could jump into a fight to define religion as only being what you and yours do and no one else (looking over the program for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion makes abundantly clear that there’s quite a spectrum of people who call themselves scholars of religion, coming to the table with very different social agendas). That is, once this is the game we decide to play then all bets are off, for we necessarily leave professional modesty and expertise at the door and, in their place, we start fighting over self-identities that we’re each trying to promote (like how often we see notions of diversity, dialogue, and tolerance in those UK projects) — instead of studying this very social process itself (e.g., what counts as tolerance, what are its limits, who gets to step over them, etc.), with no interest in supporting any one side over the other.
So what do you make of people who participate in the very thing they’re studying, taking sides over what counts as normal and authentic while also being a scholar of religion? Is that our role? Is it acceptable to be lobbyists for positions with which enough other scholars happen to agree? Or is that a conflict of interest to be avoided?
Watch the clip from “Last Week Tonight” on payday loans here (beware, it’s HBO, so the clip’s labguage is for adults).