On Paying Attention to Politicians Signing Bibles

Geoff Davidson graduated from the University of Alabama Religious Studies Department in 2009 before earning his M.Div. at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. He is now a minister, writer, and library information specialist at Baylor.

Late last week President Trump was seen autographing Bibles while surveying the effects of a devastating tornado in eastern Alabama, leading to skirmishing in both news media and religious communities. There were those who dismissed this incident immediately, and why shouldn’t they? Why should a signed Bible merit discussion in the face of any other pressing political or religious topic de jour?

For the scholar of religion, such easy dismissiveness is a good way to miss important data. Christians, not a monolithic lot by any stretch, have been hotly divided on the topic with some leveling serious religious charges against both the president and those who asked that their Bibles be signed. This disagreement warrants accurate reflection in its own right, but it also points to critical underlying issues: how Christians see their holy texts and how this affects their actions. Continue reading

A Purpose Driven Label

"There is a misconception that Buddhism is a religion and that you worship Buddha. Buddhism is a practice like yoga. You can be a Christian and practice Buddhism" quote attributed to Thich Nhat HanhGroups often want to claim that their practices and beliefs constitute a religion. The label religion provides certain benefits, such as a protected legal status, respect in certain contexts, and often prestige. In fact, various groups like Sikhs and Jains want to see their religions included in the discussion of World Religions for the legitimacy that it affords. The image above circulating on social media lately identifies Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk, as making the opposite assertion, that Buddhism is not a religion. Continue reading

This Week in the First Amendment

Have you been following the story of the La Lomita Chapel, in Mission, Texas? It was built in 1865 and today is at the center of a fight over land — more specifically, the Federal government trying to acquire this private land for the purposes of the border wall that some want built there.

The local Roman Catholic diocese doesn’t agree. Continue reading

Whose Evangelicalism is in Ruins?

Inside of Old Sheldon Church ruins

The American Academy of Religion, the national scholarly association for religious studies in America, just sent out its program of plenary addresses for its upcoming annual meeting this November. The abstract for David Gushee’s Presidential Address caught my eye.

There are a number of things to say about this. First of all, I told ya’ll this would happen during the nomination process three years ago. Looking closely at the abstract, the phrase “will perform ‘religion in public’ in a confessional vein” jumps out at me right away. The theme of the annual meeting, chosen by Gushee as president, is “religion in public” and this sentence shows the versatility of that phrase. The phrase “religion in public” usually connotes the area where scholars investigate how things called “religion” show up in the public sphere. Or sometimes, especially within the AAR and it’s mission to “enhance the public understanding of religion,” religion in public means that scholars share their knowledge about things called religion with the public. But this is neither of those. Gushee will be performing religion in public. He will be bringing the thing called religion into the public. But what public? A room full (or maybe not full) of scholars in a massive conference center who paid the exorbitant registration fees of the AAR? That’s not exactly Times Square or a CNN studio.

Continue reading

Structure and Agency in Starbucks

Sierra is a recent graduate of our B.A. program with a double major in Anthropology and Religious Studies and a minor in Spanish, and she plans to continue working with us to pursue an M.A. in the Fall. She has previously produced independent research on cemetery artwork and the category of myth at the University of Alabama and worked as a research assistant for a variety of groups and projects at UA during her undergraduate career.

Recently, I was denied closure at a Starbucks drive-thru when a specific group, working within the structures of society, interrupted my daily caffeine ritual. As my 1997 butter-colored vehicle creaked to the pick up window, the hand that usually supplied me with my beverage was instead holding a bright card with bold turquoise lettering that read “Something extra to show you God loves you.” Operating within the structures that favor standard American English, my barista briefly explained my purchase had been taken on by a third party as my drink mechanically moved from their hand to my cup holder and I pulled away. Continue reading

Constructing Judaism and Claiming Christianity: Modern Jewish Philosophy in an Age of Theory

Creator: Doré, Gustave, 1832-1883., French.; Date: 1856.; Material: wood engraving on wove paper; Measurements: sheet: 55 x 38.9 cm. ; image: 39 x 30.2 cm.; Repository: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Dept. of Prints, Drawings and Photographs.; Williamstown, Mass.; 1977.55B.; http://www.clarkart.edu

Creator: Doré, Gustave, 1832-1883., French.; Date: 1856.; Material: wood engraving on wove paper; Measurements: sheet: 55 x 38.9 cm. ; image: 39 x 30.2 cm.; Repository: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Dept. of Prints, Drawings and Photographs.; Williamstown, Mass.; 1977.55B.; http://www.clarkart.edu

Robert Erlewine is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Illinois Wesleyan University where he teaches courses related to philosophy of religion and Judaism. He is the author of two monographs, Monotheism and Tolerance: Recovering a Religion of Reason (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010) and Judaism and the West: From Hermann Cohen to Joseph Soloveitchik (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).

In recent years, in the academic study of religion there have been rather public disputes about the nature of religious studies. Russell McCutcheon and William Arnal note an important sea-change that seems to have taken place in the field over the last few decades, that there has been a “widespread turn from practicing [religious studies] as if it was a branch of the history of ideas toward studying what is now known as ‘religion on the ground’ or ‘material religion.’” This shift “estranges former close relationships with our cousins in philosophy and, instead, forges affinities with our new friends, the social anthropologists and culture studies.” What does this change in religious studies mean for more philosophically oriented sub-disciplines — other than shrinking job prospects for young scholars? Can recent developments in theories and methods enable a rethinking of subfields in religious studies that remain close to philosophy departments?

Rethinkings that can generate energy and foster vitality? Continue reading

Should Sunday Schools Be Registered with the Government?

schoolclassThe head of the British government’s Ofsted — the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills — Sir Michael Wilshaw, was on the radio the other day, discussing a variety of things that scholars of religion might find interesting. Continue reading

God Bless America

God Bless America

By Katie Brinser

Katie Brinser is from Lindenhurst, IL.  She is a senior majoring in International Studies and Finance with a minor in Arabic Language and Culture.  This post was originally written for Eleanor Finnegan‘s REL 370 class

In September, Pope Francis visited the United States and became the first pope to address the US Congress. In his address, Pope Francis emphasized the importance of social responsibility and political activity. He called on the American people to “serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity”, and used the Declaration of Independence to justify why the American people must act in this manner. Pope Francis did not speak only as a religious figure, but as a political activist addressing current issues such as the immigration crisis, death penalty, youth violence, and ongoing conflicts throughout the world. He spoke about the rich heritage of America and how this heritage is a call to action to help with the world’s problems.

Jose Casanova, as summarized in Talal Asad’s Formation of the Secular, argues that in order for a nation-state to be modern religion must be separate from politics and should not play a significant role in social issues. While, no one disagrees that the United States is a modern nation, it is also clear that religion plays a role in politics.

Religion not only exists in the political sphere, but is welcomed, as the invitation for Pope Francis to speak to congress demonstrates. Talal Asad proposes that secularism is not the deprivation of religion, but secularism privileges certain religions that are seen as compatible with modernity. It is becoming increasingly difficult, to separate politics and religion from the personal sphere. In fact, Asad even argues that the concept of secularism has produced its own imagined community. For the modernization of the secular life cannot occur without the changing of the religious sphere. Secularism’s history uses a religious context to free itself from the world and create a sphere where human responsibility is seen as the answer to all events. Secularism is set in its own domain where the public and private spheres have created demarcated spaces in which religion and politics can exist. These spheres in reality, however, are constantly intertwined as observed with the Pope addressing Congress.

Pope Francis’s invitation to speak demonstrates the privilege certain religions have in the secular nation-state of America. Pope Francis’s speech is filled with references towards God, Christianity, and the ways in which it can enact political change. While there are no questions about the modernity of America, the same is not usually said for Middle Eastern countries that also have a predominant religion. These countries, where the religious and political spheres are intertwined, are condemned for being non-secular and labeled as backwards because of their inability to progress towards modern times. In the same breath, many Americans greeted Pope Francis with praise and excitement while they condemned non-Western or by extension non-Christian nations for having their faith interfere with politics.

That is not to say that Pope Francis’s arrival should be condemned as well or that he has no right addressing congress due to secularism, but this event contextualizes the way Americans react to Christianity in politics as compared to other faiths. America’s own history demonstrates the influence religion has in the secularization or freeing of a nation sate. Muqtedar Khan’sAmerican Exceptionalism and American Muslims” explains that American exceptionalism is the idea that America is a unique nation, blessed by God. This exceptionalism leads to hypocrisy, because the U.S. welcomes the Head of the Catholic Church to speak to our legislators because he is decisively Christian, while also being fearful of Islam infiltrating our politics. It also highlights the issue in which Pope Francis specifically calls on Americans to help with concerns that are not necessarily their own. There is a savior and interventionist mentality prevalent throughout the Pope’s speech that speaks to America’s sense of exceptionalism and its expansive empire, whether real or imagined. There is this mentality in the West, specifically in American society that it is modern and secular and is therefore immune to overzealous faith in politics, while the East and Eastern religions cannot exercise the same restraint.

Indeed, Pope Francis’s remarks called for a deepened sense of compassion and understanding throughout the world. His speech touched upon many current crises around the world and how action is needed. Nevertheless, his speech while well intentioned serves to highlight the way in which Americans view religion and politics.

Excuse Me, You Have Something on Your Forehead

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Sarah Griswold is a junior double majoring in Mathematics and Religious Studies. She spends her “free time” analyzing her favorite shows on Netflix, which of course winds up ruining them.

To get you started for some Ash Wednesday talk, enjoy some GloZell:

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten Season – the days leading up to Easter, meant to symbolize Jesus’s 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. By now, you probably have seen people with ashes on their foreheads and at least one or two articles linked on Facebook or other social media about what Ash Wednesday is, what it means, and what the ashes are for. What I find interesting is how the ashes operate as an intentional mode of identification.

As individuals who regularly interact with others and insert ourselves into society, we are constantly and consistently subject to classification by others and our own ideas of who we are. This manifests itself most commonly in race and gender, but it also appears based on observation of interactions with others. For example, you may see a woman (you have already classified her gender) holding a baby and conclude that she is a mother. Many aspects of the way we choose to present ourselves and therefore categorize ourselves are subconscious.

There are, however, many choices we make that are intentional. On campus here at UA, many individuals will wear the letters of an organization to associate themselves with a particular group of people and set of ideals. I, for one, am a part of a music fraternity called Sigma Alpha Iota and on every Wednesday we wear something with our letters on it. This is intentional in the strictest sense of the word.

So what does this have to do with Ash Wednesday? Today, I have ashes on my forehead and the letters ΣAI on my sweatshirt. If you see me walking down the street today, you will first say that I am a white female. Next, you will see my letters and either associate me with ΣAI or, not knowing what that is, some sort of Greek organization. As you walk closer, you will see the ashes on my forehead and, depending on your familiarity with Ash Wednesday, say that I am observing Lent or say something like, “Excuse me. You have something on your forehead.” My identity, then, is defined by you, but controlled by me.

I have no immediate control over my race and gender, yet it’s the first thing about myself that you classify. I chose to wear letters, but had I not, you would know nothing about that aspect of my life. The ashes are special to today.

For those observing Lent this year, Ash Wednesday is the time to show the world. They get to wear their ashes, which results only in lingering gazes and a couple of questions from those unfamiliar with the day. It is a piece of their identity that they now have a nonverbal way of communicating to others. For those observing those with ashes, they either learn something new about Christianity or about those they see with the ashes.

Of course, to those with the ashes, it is not just about identifying oneself for the world to see. There are many more reasons for it and you can read it about those in the articles you see linked on Facebook. For now, I leave you with a couple of questions: What ways do you intentional manipulate your identity and how others perceive you? What do you see others do to identify themselves?

Photo credit: George Fox Evangelical Seminary on Flickr CC BY 2.0