Historicizing Belief

rawstoryheadlineHave you seen the video making the rounds of a Donald Trump supporter — who, it turns out, is New Hampshire Republican State Representative Susan DeLemus?

If not, it’s worth watching if you’re a scholar of religion.


Because it seems that only in cases where we — whomever that “we” might be — disagree with the belief claims made by others are we careful to scrutinize those claims, drawing attention to the lack of exact fit between the claim and some verifiable external reality.

For how does she know they’re lying? What evidence does she have?

Those are the sorts of questions many of us likely pose upon seeing the video. For the last thing we’d want to do is give her a pass on such seemingly outlandish claims, right?

For instance, consider the headline (and the screen capture they decided to use) used at the outset of this post.

But come to think of it, pretty much everyone we study in our field makes claims of belief — some quite elaborate and ambitious, such as where the universe came from and where it is heading, what happens to people after they die and how social life ought (and not just should) be organized, etc. But for some reason — I’m soft-peddling what I think here, don’t you know — we, as scholars, often take those claims in stride, give the ones making them a pass, and just describe and repeat and catalog their beliefs. To put it another way, we rarely address them (as we surely do in the case of Delemus) as claims situated social actors are making, for this or that purpose and advantage, let alone examine the wider structural factors that might have led someone to make such a claim, on such an occasion, or, even more interesting perhaps, the factors that allow others to hear such a claim as reasonable, persuasive, or legitimate.

That we rush to undermine just some beliefs as  claims– such as the headline outing her as a State representative and thus hardly someone who’s political zeal was ignited by Trump, as she seems to claim (how ironic, some conclude, that she might herself be a liar) — tells you much; for while we conserve and thereby reproduce the world that leads some to claim this or that we often work very hard to undermine the world that makes yet other belief claims possible.

My point: what would an equal opportunity hisoticization of all belief claims look like in our field? What if we heard them all –regardless how sensible they seemed to us — as situated claims, made by situated actors, that are doing situated work?