Can We Analyze Trumpism as a Millenarian Movement?

Trump giving his speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention

Elizabeth Tagg is a graduating senior in the Department of Religious Studies,
writing a thesis on apocalyptic rhetoric in the age of Trump.

Donald Trump built his reputation as a political outsider who could “drain the swamp,” fix a broken system, and make America great again. Indeed, in his 2016 RNC speech, he declared that “[he] alone could fix it.” Many believed him, and many still do. For example, when the pandemic and instructions to quarantine were in full swing, Trump started to frame the coronavirus pandemic as a “great and powerful plague” which had come to destroy the world, but America would rise from this “death and destruction” to become “greater than ever before.” One particular response on Facebook read “God chose you, Mr. President… you are working unto God, not unto men.” The confluence of spiking death tolls and a plague of biblical proportion created a moment of disillusionment where zealotry, and even millenarian thinking, could thrive. Millenarian movements are based on critiques of power culminating in social protests against oppressive systems. In New Heaven New Earth, Professor Kenelm Burridge analyzes millenarian movements, highlighting the ways in which the millenarian critiques initiate a “redemptive process” in which the old moral order is cast off to make way for a new society. At the heart of the millenarian movement is the prophet, whose divine revelations almost always refer to a prosperity and prestige that define the new conditions of being, the new social order.

Could Trumpism be analyzed as a millenarian movement? Can this help us predict the future of Trump’s base, post-Trump? Burridge simplifies the millenarian pattern into three phases which help us to better understand millenarian movements and their application to Trump: feelings of disenfranchisement, battle with oppressors, and triumph of the new order.

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Our Pre- & Inter- Pandemic Teaching was Never “Normal” (p.s. nor our post-pandemic teaching, too!)

Two Perspectives

I wish to talk about specific methods I and my colleagues adopted for pre-, inter and post-pandemic teaching.* I come at this with two perspectives:

  1. Teaching – As a freshly-tenured professor of religious studies at a public, R1 university (University of Alabama). My current research coordinates and publishes research with the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion project.
  2. Administration – As the faculty technology liaison for UA’s college of arts and sciences. I consult 1:1 with faculty on teaching technologies, supervise quality assurance for online course development of all departments’ online courses, participate on campus tech/computing committees, and organize faculty development events. I also moderate the Teaching Hub, a site for faculty voices on teaching and learning.

Pre-pandemic in Alabama, I helped arrange for Todd Taylor and the Adobe team visit our campus on February 7, 2020. They introduced the potential of Creative Cloud for higher-ed to a group of over 200 faculty, staff, and administrators. On March 13, our university president announced suspended on-campus teaching, and on March 17 2020 announced “limited business operations,” requiring remote work for everyone except mission-critical employees. That’s when the inter-pandemic period began.

To be honest, the changes in course delivery and teaching did not substantively circumstances for everyone at UA. In particular, several of my departmental colleagues didn’t experience a radical shift in what we were already doing. I was teaching REL490 “Artificial Intelligence in Religious Studies” in Spring 2020. My last in-person class session established how we would complete the course while dispersed across the country.

Our department didn’t fully realize just how ‘prepared’ we were for inter-pandemic teaching, which we sorted out through the summer. Most everyone at UA made the shift online quite smoothly compared to news I heard from other campuses. UA had already learned some difficult lessons before “2020.”

Academic Continuity Before “2020”

Why were we prepared? Very tragically, Tuscaloosa experienced a devastating tornado  on April 27, 2011. That day in Alabama saw 62 tornados kill 253 people, injure thousands, and destroy many homes. Among them were UA staff, faculty and students. On-campus activities were suspended. All faculty were tasked with finding ways to close out the semester.

Natural disasters are more visible than pandemics. Just a few years prior, UA established shelters and classes for students from institutions affected by Hurricane Katrina. The trauma of 2011 lead to extensive “academic continuity” preparations. IT offices were tasked to continually find ways to harden physical systems, ensure data storage, and enable distributed work. Each college set up planning groups. Since my hiring in 2015, each semester involved college-wide exercises designed to test our capabilities for “suspended operations” (e.g. staff and/or faculty would be required to work off-campus).

Going Public Online Pre-Pandemic

My department was prepared in another way, too. In 2001 our program was declared “non-viable” by its governing body. Religious studies at UA was in trouble. Russell McCutcheon, my department chair, outlines what happened in his article. The department began a process of continually reinventing itself. McCutcheon calls it ‘staying nimble.’ I joined the department long after these ‘staying nimble’ days began. Looking back, my faculty perspective allows me to see how REL’s pre-pandemic strategies came into play inter-pandemic – which is where we are currently. These strategies will continue to be useful strategies for our post-pandemic futures.

As an academic unit, REL’s made a strategic shift to 1) go public online, and 2) use that online public persona to collect and sustain a local community. The rationale was survival. Building a local community by going public speaks to what our discipline has to offer a flagship university.

Going public online developed distributed expertise about online media across the faculty. We did not necessarily develop expertise in LMS/CMS content delivery. Administrators are mistaken to think ‘going online’ means ‘online teaching.’ The desire for another revenue stream obscures taking a broader, long-term perspective. None of our courses are “flipped” in the trendy sense of the word. We apply social theory concretely to our strategy for online presence.

As I understand it, the department’s strategy is to continually develop online presence with a suite of interconnected online platforms (e.g. WordPress sites, Soundcloud, Vimeo, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and most recently, Minecraft).

Presidents hall in minecraft and real life

The objectives are to:

  • attract new students to our courses
  • recruit majors (p.s. few to no students ever declare “religion” majors when applying for college…)
  • highlight student and faculty achievements
  • have fun and develop camaraderie
  • find new ways to “stay nimble”
  • listen for the voices of current students and alumni

The inter-pandemic outcome of going public online was a faculty already working to sustain community through a variety of online environments. Our recent Honors Day video highlights all of the above.

Inter-Pandemic Teaching

The above applied directly to my Fall 2021 course, REL502 “Public Humanities and Religious Studies.” 502 is a microcosm of REL, where students develop their media skills to convey our department’s motto: studying religion in culture.

“…work in the Department highlights the manner in which those behaviors and institutions named as religion are elements of ordinary cultural practices.”

REL courses teach there is no ‘normal.’ Nothing is ‘natural.’ Our students learn how group and social dynamics structure ‘normal’ and ‘natural.’ As McCutcheon says, We Really Can’t Afford to Go Back to Normal. REL502 teaches students this structurally reflexive approach for going public online.

The 502 syllabus is designed to teach attitudes and skills oriented towards public pedagogy. Since 2018, we team-taught 502 using a host of digital mainstays for the course:

  1. A WordPress site hosting the syllabus and course schedule.
  2. Slack channel for inter-session preparation, communications, and debriefing.
  3. Adobe Creative Cloud tools to experiment with a variety of media and platforms (both mobile and desktop apps).

a slack dialogue among students

N.B. Students gave permission for their names and work to be shared from our Slack channel, as well as for the video at the conclusion of this post.

Making the inter-pandemic shift was somewhat simple. Instead of huddling around laptops in a seminar room, I live-streamed, weekly class sessions to demonstrate and workshop through screen-sharing.

Among the mainstays for creating a learning community were the live-streamed sessions and Slack (many of my colleagues had success with Discord, too). I used Slack for:

  • student advice posted on slackPre-class prompts (which ultimately are pre-assignment prompts) to guide the class search for examples to review and thereby assemble our methods for critical evaluation of content, form, and practice.
  • Post-class summaries of what we learned and wish to carry forward.
  • Encouragement, relevant news, and resources for our media experiments.
  • Posting the experiments as links and/or embedded content.
  • Sharing reflections on process and lessons-learned for each experiment.

Our class community is not restricted to “2020.” All four years of class cohorts use the same channel. I encourage each cohort to search back through the channel. I cannot understand the effects of current students seeing previous conversations, experiments, struggles, work-arounds and outcome. And previous students sometimes chime in on the current class to offer encouragement and suggestions.

The Results of “Never Normal” Teaching

Did it work? Yes. From the get-go REL502 – and all my other courses since 2009 – are designed from the principles I once called “effective social learning.” Shifting a course already designed for distributed online collaboration to live-streamed sessions is not logistically difficult (Here’s how a colleague used Github and Discord). The primary liability was the processing power of students’ desktops.

student comment about processing problems

Perhaps the best way to conclude is with a series of snapshots from REL502:

* Parts of this post are adapted from my presentation at the Post-pandemic University conference at the University of Cambridge in October 2020.

Announcing the 2021 American Examples Participants

American Examples Logo
The Department of Religious Studies is so happy to announce the participants in the 2021 American Examples program. This will be the third year of the program’s history and the second year the program has been funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. This year’s program will be hosted virtually, due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the virtual format, a record number of applications, and a strong applicant pool, we have expanded the program from 9 to 12 participants. We are so excited to see American Examples continue to mentor early-career scholars in research, teaching, and public humanities. Learn more about each of our 2021 participants below:

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Have You Read the Latest Bulletin for the Study of Religion?

Bulletin for the Study of Religion

Prof. Richard Newton introduces us to the latest iteration of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, now a joint collaboration between Equinox Publishing and the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

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You’re a Historian; Get the Memo?

A stack old books with the one on the top opened up.

Lin Kristensen, “Timeless Books,” CC-BY-SA 2.0

Prof. Newton shares how a little bit about his approach to helping students consider historiography. His memo assignment reminds students that they have a substantial role in writing the history they are studying. It’s a simple assignment that is useful for the novice and professional historian alike.  

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Faculty News

Emily award

Emily Crews (pictured above, at our 2019 Honors Day), who has been REL’s full-time Instructor for the past two years, has decided to return north to complete her dissertation at the University of Chicago, and so she will not be rejoining us in the Fall semester.

Emily has specialized in teaching our intro Honors course, REL 105, along with our regular evening course on film, REL Goes to the Movies. She also participated in our American Examples grant, organized our annual undergraduate research symposium, joined in on some REL publishing projects, and supervised some of our M.A. students as teaching assistants — who learned much from her in the classroom.

For to say that she consistently receives wonderful reviews from her students each semester would be a terrible understatement. Apart from regularly stating that she is among the best and most caring faculty members that a student has had at UA, we recently received this statement from a student:

She is a wonderful human being and an absolutely invaluable instructor. If aliens came to this planet to see the best humans we had to offer, she should be the rep for education.

Humor, rigor, and learning things at unexpected moments and applying them in novel places is what student came to expect from her classes — all things that helped to secure REL’s reputation as a pretty good place to be. So yes, we’ll all miss her a great deal. But we wish her luck and look forward to hearing of her progress on finishing up that dissertation.

Interested in some of her work? Listen to a new podcast
(ep. 158) with Emily and follow her on Twitter.

The Science of Religion–A Work in Progress

Students working on a whiteboard, diagramming the parts of an essay.

Prof. Richard Newton reports on a discussion topic from his graduate seminar on the history of religious studies. His students have been talking about the backstory of debates on definition as it pertains to religious studies. This week, students read a little bit from the nineteenth century Dutch scholars, Cornelis P. Tiele.

In my History of the Study of Religion seminar, our Religion in Culture graduate students have been discussing the very enterprise in which we are engaged. The course is built around the following question:

What does it mean to discuss the academic study of religion as a history, a field, and a discipline?

There are many places to start with such an endeavor. And if interest warrants, I’ll share how we’ve done this in a future post. For now I’ll go in media res and just share an interesting passage that we came across in our study. Continue reading

True or False or a Mix of Both? The Dissonance of the Gospels presented in Galatia

Rebekah Pearson ’22 is a Religious Studies-Dance Performance double major. In Prof. Newton’s Introduction to the New Testament course, she examined Paul’s Letter to the Galatians as an artifact of competing social definitions. This essay was part of her group’s Bible in Culture zine. Learn more in the firstsecond, third, and fourth posts of the series. 

Imagine this: You have been running for over an hour and you finally make it to what you think is the finish line of your first 10K. But wait! There is no finish line and no crowd cheering you on. All of a sudden you realize that at some point along the way you have made a wrong turn. Now not only are you lost, but you also have to turn around and backtrack to the starting line, only to re-run the entire race. In the biblical Epistle to the Church at Galatia, commonly known as “Galatians,” the recipients of Paul’s letter must have felt similarly. As the people of Galatia are being told many versions of what being a part of the new Christian collective means, Paul, in his epistle to the church at Galatia, rebukes the false teachings that are being spread and reminds his churches of the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He establishes not only his authority, but also the authority of the message of faith he preaches so that the Galatians can be certain that they are not living their lives in vain.

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Studying The Bible in Culture: Is it Syncretism or Redaction?

A Picture of Will Watson holding James S. Bielo's book, The Social Life of Scriptures.

In our series on studying the Bible in Culture. Religion major Will Watson ’21 shares how he studied the Bible in Culture as part of an independent study with Prof. Newton. Be sure to also check out the first and second installments of this series. 

During the course of my independent study with Dr. Newton, we covered a wide range of topics that ultimately coalesced in an essay that outlined the process for understanding religion in culture that we had extrapolated throughout our semester of meetings. Initially interested in how different communities conceptualize the Bible and subsequently apply it doctrinally, we moved on to synthesize this idea of Biblicism with my fascination with the use of entheogens in a ritual setting.

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