Monday, November 17, 2008

Proposition 8 and the LDS backlash

The fallout from the 2008 U.S. Presidential election continues. Proposition 8, the ballot initiative to end same-sex marriage in CA, passed by a very narrow margin. A number of voter groups voted overwhelmingly for this measure. This includes both Latino and African-American populations who turned out by a large measure also to vote for Senator Obama's Democratic candidacy. But the passing of Prop. 8 has not ended the issue of same-sex marriage--rather it has inflamed the Lesbigay community in CA and nationwide. In particular the LDS (Mormon) Church has drawn their ire. Some supporters of Prop. 8 thought their battle was over, but like the Lesbigay community after the May 15th Supreme Court of CA decision, it may still be just beginning.

Some background is necessary here. The LDS Church is a 19th century new religious movement based on a Restorationist view of the Christian church. Founded by Joseph Smith, the LDS Church for a time permitted and encouraged plural marriage, specifically the practice of polygyny. The Church was hounded from various places in the East and Joseph Smith himself was killed by an angry lynch mob. Settling in Utah territory, the LDS originally wished to set up its own kingdom, Deseret, but this was not compatible with U.S. visions of Manifest Destiny. After fighting U.S. troops and challenging the government, the LDS Church finally backed down and Utah was admitted as a U.S. state in the late 19th century. This did not stop the public view of Mormons from being very skeptical, and especially the view from Protestant Christians. Different members of Congress were elected to serve from Utah, and sometimes refused a seat by fellow members of Congress, based on their status as a Mormon or a holdover polygynist.

During this election season, the LDS Church, which has comparartively very few members in CA, nonetheless remained the main monetary donor base for the drive to outlaw same-sex marriage. Moreover, many LDS members donated their time and effort to spread the word about the campaign. Allegedly deceptive TV ads were also financed and shown, with major funding attributed to religious advocacy organizations but traceable to the LDS Church, among other sources.

Thus, the LDS Church and its members have now become a main target for the backlash against Prop. 8's passage, both in terms of boycotting, picketing, and sometimes violence. This was prefigured in anti-LDS ads shown before the election.

Since the passage, a number of Prop 8. donors have been targeted for protest. Scott Eckern, director of California Musical Theatre, had to resign his position after being exposed as a donor. Several Mormons have expressed frustration at being targeted, given their history. Likewise, defenders of same-sex marriage see the Utah-based out of state Church as taking away their civil rights, and therefore a legitimate target. Not to mention that the Church, as a 501c3 tax-exempt organization, is supposed to keep its political involvement to a minimum. Vandalism appears to have been on the rise as well.

It is important to mention that the LDS's support of Prop.8 takes place about 30 years after its campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment. And that not all Christian denominations are against same-sex marriage, or the ERA. There are number of reasons the LDS Church may have gotten involved here. Perhaps, after their Presidential candidate got snubbed on Super Tuesday by Mike Huckabee, they wanted to prove their cultural war bonafides, so as to ingratiate themselves among reactionary evangelical Protestants. Perhaps it was a more general way to distance themselves from their polygynist past. Perhaps California's location in the west seemed a bit to close to Deseret, the new Zion, for comfort. For whatever reason, the Lesbigay community, with its quiet patient activists and its radicals alike, seems to be taking this moment to punish them, and is willing to draw upon the cultural baggage that Mormonism carries in order to do so.

We'll have to see what happens. Imagine the racial fury that would accompany an Amendment telling black or latino people they could not longer marry each other, and you have some idea of the outrage. Given the animosity between the gay community and the Religious Right that has existed for years, it seems that there may be a cultural weak point for the Mormons. Just as the "No on Prop 8" detractors underestimated the LDS Church organization and financial capacity, the LDS Church may have underestimated what they have unleashed.

Friday, November 14, 2008

No Sacrament For You!

In the wake of the U.S. election, there appears to remain a sector of the Roman Catholic community that is challenging the votes and political commitments of its parishioners. In some previous elections, especially in 2004, there was a notorious effort by certain localized authorities in the Church to use the power of withholding the Eucharist from politicians who supported political positions at variance with the Church, including Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic who was the Democratic nominee for President that year. This was despite the protests of many experts in Canon Law and theology who claimed refusing the Eucharist was beyond the bounds of acceptability.

Even much earlier in the 2008 race, the same questions arose again over Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City who was running for President on the Republican ticket, but unlike some other candidates, supported the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision to allow legalized abortion nationwide. I'm a bit surprised to find that this issue has continued to be pushed in the Church. Out of South Carolina today, we get word that a priest had admonished his parishioners that if they voted for Sen. Barack Obama for President, they should not receive communion because of their sin in supporting a "the most radical pro-abortion politician ever to serve in the United States Senate or to run for president."

That's a fair bit of hyperbole, to be sure. But it suggests that this issue is not going away. With the recent shift of the country more towards the political left, and the movement of evangelicals to considered larger social issues such as poverty and racism, this may be out of step with where the American electorate is going. One thing is for sure. American Catholics do not like to be ordered to vote a certain way. There is ample evidence that acting dictatorial towards Catholics gets them to do the exact opposite of what you want, at least as far as American Catholics are concerned. American Catholics (and Episcopalians for that matter) have never behaved as their other worldwide counterparts have anyway.

Perhaps most interestingly, actual Roman Catholic theologians (which Bishops are not) are by no means convinced of the absoluteness of the Vatican's position on what they term "pelvic issues," which seem to overshadow far more traditional moral and social gospel concerns for Catholicism. Some of them are speaking out very stridently, and I expect this to continue, should Bishops and priests on the other side continue to make political pronouncements from tax-free pulpits.

The Internal Revenue Service noted that 2004 saw a spike in illegal endorsements coming from tax-exempt entities. And there appears to have already been some investigation of at least one Catholic Church official's criticism of Barack Obama and Rudy Giuliani. One might think that an institution that has undergone such a recent public crisis of moral confidence might not want to interest the IRS to take a closer look as well.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Political Sermon Season

I've taken a break from writing this blog for the past few weeks. In that time I've moved to Iowa State University and begun my teaching schedule there. I very much enjoy my position and am looking forward to having a great teaching semester. In the meantime, there is no shortage of religious issues at hand in the news, certainly in the U.S political arena.

The recent buzz on the net in terms of religion and politics has been focused on the candidacy of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. After what seems to have been a very short vetting and interview process, she was asked to join the 2008 GOP Presidential candidacy of Senator John McCain. Social conservatives and reactionary evangelicals alike have been quite happy with her appointment, while it seems to have caught many others by surprise. Until 2002, Palin was a member of Wassila Assemblies of God church, well known for its Pentacostalism. During the time she has been governor, she addressed her old church, reminiscing about her time there, as well as asking for prayers for her agenda. While this seems to sit well with Christian fundamentalists, it is important to remember that Pentacostalism is rooted in the experience of the Holy Spirit, rather than a set of doctrines about the content of the Bible. And this can lead to serious disagreements and divisions.

This is all nothing necessarily new. While it may seem strange to some secularists and mainline Protestants, the notion of using prayer to assist in accomplishing political, economic goals is not that uncommon. Palin's interpretation of recent events and public history in Alaska as accomplishing more of God's work is also consistent with other themes seen in conservative and Pentecostal circles. What seems strange in retrospect is her contention that the Iraq War was divinely sanctioned, although when taken in the context of the "War on Terrorism" as a whole and the idea of a clash of civilizations, it too makes some sense, even if it makes me shake my head more than a little bit.

I find the premillenialist language of the pastor unnerving. Pentecostals commonly worship in such as manner as to, in the words of a legendary Jewish occultist (new window), "enflame themselves with prayer." The Book of Acts in the New Testament describes spiritual gifts that can be bestowed upon those who do so, and the gift of the Holy Spirit that arrives is often represented as a flame in classical art. Part of these gifts include the gift of prophecy. (new window) In premillenialist Christianity, the world is, by design, supposed to get much worse as a place to live before Christ can return in bodily form. Certain areas are talked about as places of refuge--and clearly the pastor sees Alaska as one of those spaces. Thus, Palin's audience is training to witness to both native Alaskans and those who will seek refuge in that state as conditions elsewhere deteriorate. Certainly, the older pastor (and church founder) prayed for candidate to achieve office, as well as giving thanks for those Pentecostal spiritual blessings.

The current senior pastor at Palin's Wasilla Assembly of God Church, Rev. Ed Kalnins, has been attracting his own attention. Palin left that church in 2002 for another Pentacostal church, but in 2004, Kalnins made some fiery statements--specifically challenging the salvation status of anyone who voted for John Kerry, the Democratic nominee. Reportedly, Re. Kalnins also equated criticism of President Bush after Hurricane Katrina with criticism of pastors and authority, which would also condemn one to hellfire. The liberal blog Huffington Post has been tracking this, and provided a link to the original media. Unfortunately, Wasilla's online media distribution is down, ostensibly because of the increased internet traffic. Some sermons and transcripts (not these) seem to be available at a different site. One sermon seems to include material that the Anti-Defamantion League is not happy about.

Contrast this, though, if you will, to the political prayers that were the focus of so much media attention earlier in the political campaign, the sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright at the Trinity Church of Christ.

Rev. Wright's sermon is known as a "Jeremiad." Its name comes from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, who laid blame for Israel's woes at the faithlessness and adultery of its people from its covenant with YHWH. The jeremiad sermon is an extensive American tradition, at least since Jonathan Edwards, brought most to fruition by African-American Protestants. It often includes an indictment of the iniquities of the current culture and suggests that those woes are connected to the lack of moral behavior of its principles (new window). The sacred condemnation of God upon the United States ("God Damn America!") that was played and replayed without context endlessly on 24-hour news networks is also part of this tradition, designed to wake people up to both their religious and social responsibilities.

If there has been a greater season for 'political sermons,' I don't know of one. What impact will they each ultimately have, if any, on candidates Obama and Palin? For those who think it might not matter, you could ask Mitt Romney about that. Certainly Gov. Romney's candidacy was derailed when religious conservatives opted to vote for Gov. Mike Huckabee, not least of which because Mitt Romney is a Mormon.

(Note: The picture for this post is the front cover of John Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity," a foundational document in American religious history that gave birth to the American jeremiad. It is commonly known as the "City On A Hill" sermon)

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

"Good men should combat the believer in divine creation, maddened by an evil doctrine."

The symbol you see beside this paragraph is the official U.S. military headstone designation for an atheist soldier. I've placed it here because CNN is reporting that Army Spc. Jeremy Hall, a two-tour Iraq war veteran and atheist, is suing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Department of Defense for illegal religious discrimination. Spc. Hall claims that he was subjected to intense evangelical Christian proselytizing while on duty, and also passed up for promotions based on the view that his lack of visible piety would make him unfit for leadership. His lawsuit is also joined by Michael Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

Weinstein and others have long alleged that there is a pervasive pattern of evangelical proselytization in the U.S. military, and CNN has periodically picked up on this story. Just last August, a scandal broke when several generals were found to have appeared in uniform inside the Pentagon for a promotional video by a group called "Christian Embassy." In Hall's recent lawsuit, the allegations of the videotape have again surfaced. All in all, from the Air Force Academy to General William Boykin, there does seem to be some pattern of evangelizing, although it is difficult for an outsider like myself to say how ingrained it is. When I served in the USAF Auxiliary-Civil Air Patrol many years ago, many of my fellow members and the chaplain were evangelicals. I once took our flight chaplain to task for misrepresenting the character of ancient Gnosticism during a pep talk, but that is a another story.

There are a number of intriguing angles to this issue. Clearly, one role of religion here is to help create "docile bodies," in this case a standing army of evangelical soldiers whose behavior and discipline are subject to the all-seeing Panopticon of Jehovah's omniscience and moral judgment. Also, the evangelical Christian nature of most military proselytizing potentially lends a propaganda victory to Al-Qaeda, which has long pushed the idea that the U.S. army is essentially modern "Crusader" force.

More importantly though, this lawsuit (and the accompanying media story) helps us think about what constitutes "atheism" in American culture. Legally and culturally speaking, "religion" is defined as a "set of beliefs." Notice how this is almost exactly equivalent to the notion of devotion expressed in Protestant Christianity. That is no accident. While other religions, like Roman Catholicism, Judaism and Islam emphasize correct practice and action (orthopraxis) over specific beliefs, Protestant Christianity, especially evangelical Protestantism, emphasizes correct belief (orthodoxy). Although radical, certainly some members of the Jewish community have embraced a form of atheism while maintaining the need for ritual action.

The culture of religion and religion of culture in the U.S. has thus been framed in such a way that even dissent against its dominant content (Protestant Christianity) still follows the form (lack of "belief in God" or belief in a "lack of God") established for public discourse. Of course, other characteristics, such as monotheism, are also at work here, since few atheists discuss their disbelief in polytheisms. Atheism in the U.S., generally speaking, is a form of negative or inverse Protestantism, since, like Protestantism, holds that belief is somehow the most fundamental and irreducible characteristic of "religion." This stands in contrast to Secular Humanism, which is generally focused on promoting a common ethical way of life, rather than denying the theistic claims of others.

This is certainly not the only way that atheism has been expressed in worldwide religious arenas. Nor is atheism a modern phenomenon. The ancient Charvakas (Wikipedia has the best link, unfortunately) developed a high degree of skepticism regarding Gods and such. Jainism, a living religion of 8 million people today, has produced some of the strongest anti-theistic critiques ever known, yet it would be inaccurate to call it atheistic in the modern EuroWestern sense, as it is not materialistic or atomistic, in contrast to the U.S military's symbol for atheists.

Although the lawsuit has no chance of challenging or causing Americans to rethink how they view "religion," it nonetheless tests the boundaries of religious and ethical inclusion. Politically speaking, atheists are some of the least trusted people in the United States. In fact, several state Constitutions appear to discriminate against atheists. In 1961, the Supreme Courts's landmark case "Torcaso V. Watkins" nullified these portions of the state Constitutions, but they remain interesting by way of demonstrating the legal and historical climate for religion in this country.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Hinduism Seen Through a Glass-Very Very Darkly

When attempting to keep track of current trends and events in religion, I am constantly reminded of the varying ways that different media sources frame those events. For example, in many newspapers of record across the world, there is no "Religion" section, as you often find in U.S. newspapers. Stories with overtly religious content are often instead covered under News or Culture. In some cases, newspapers that appear on first glance to cover religious stories instead offer a section of devotionals, as does Qatar's web-based edition of its English-language newspaper.

The upshot of this is that while religious events and stories in other countries often are not covered in the U.S. press, there is a category that consistently features such content. Unfortunately, that News Section is called "WEIRD." That's right. In an era where many complain that there is too much political correctness, one has to look long and hard to find coverage of worldwide religious events in mainstream news coverage, unless, like the Burmese protests or the Chinese conflict with Tibet, the event reaches a large critical magnitude.

The "Weird" section of news coverage is often where you will find material relating to Hinduism. Given the open admittance of ignorance that many Americans have concerning religious traditions such as Mormonism or Islam, one can begin to see that there is almost no framework in which to comprehend such a different set of cultural traditions and assumptions. Many Hindus are quite devoted, and see little use for a separation of religion from other everyday concerns. This is certainly not unique to Hinduism, as indigenous religion coverage also ends up in the "Weird" section as well.

There are movements afoot to change some of the cultural illiteracy behind this. Hindu leaders and institutions are asserting themselves in U.S. public discourse in ways unheard of since Swami Vivekananda lectured attendees at the Parliament of World Religions in the 1800's. Nevada Hindu leader and priest Rajan Zed, columnist for the Washington Post's "On Faith," gave a gentle Hindu invocation in the U.S. Senate last year, sparking an outburst from evangelical Christian protesters in attendance. Now Chaplain Zed has organized a series of protests against the film "The Love Guru," a new Mike Myers film suspiciously similar in tone to the 2002 film "The Guru." Other Hindu spiritual leaders have also condemned the film.

Chaplain Zed is not alone either in the interfaith world. The scatological and urinary humor replete in the movie has aroused the ire of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has condemned the movie, and in doing so won the praise of Zed. Prominent Hinduism scholar, Vasudha Narayanan, has also given some unfavorable comments about the movie's use and lampooning of Hinduism and its cultural symbology. At least in India, the movie may be banned.

When coverage of very real Hindu-Muslim tensions over sacred space are minimized in Western media, and even coverage of Hindu thoughts and opinions about the U.S. Presidential Election are covered under "Weird News" it is small wonder that the most coverage Hinduism gets involves spoof movies from popular comedic actors. Meanwhile, Hindu images have become part and parcel of American culture, from Jimi Hendrix's appropriation of Vishnu's universal form in Axis: Bold As Love to Kali lunchboxes and even Ganesha toilet seats, there is little sense of the way that Hinduism influences the daily lives of 900 million people. Except perhaps, through a taste of (or fear of) the exotic.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Never Underestimate The Power Of Religion To Adapt

I spent much of last week in Mexico. Specifically, in the city of Monterrey, which is the provincial capital of Nuevo Leon state. I was there on family business, and unfortunately my formal reasons for being there kept me quite occupied for the duration of the trip. 

Consequently, I was largely unable to get out and investigate the religious landscape. During my brief sojourns in cars and buses around the city, I noticed a large number of growing Pentecostal churches, a trend Christian demographers have been talking about in Latin America for some time. Of course there were a number of Roman Catholic churches too, but the Pentecostal churches were more ingrained into the urban landscape. 

In the United States, many have come to see business architecture as rather standard and bland. A business has some kind of dark building color, perhaps brick, with an external sign indicating the name of the business. In Monterrey, and in much of Latin America, entrepreneurs are much more economical about their advertising space. While small businesses are often painted in light, distinguishing colors such as yellow and white, the names of businesses, telephone numbers, and even internet addresses are painted on the building itself in rich contrasting colors from wine red to deep blue. The small Pentacostal churches were no different, plunging headlong into the web of advertising and struggle for the public eye, rather than towering above with Romanesque steeples. Perhaps most interestingly, many preferred a rich cobalt blue for their outside walls, while advertising their religious services in white.

Just as the Pentecostal churches were small but far more numerous than I have noticed before in Mexico, I found the local religious television to be equally fascinating and fully integrated into the available technology for use. In the United States, it is very common for cable television systems to carry Protestant Christian networks, such as Trinity Broadcasting Network or others. While a worldwide Roman Catholic network does exist  (EWTN), the Monterrey metropolitan area was instead served by Maria Vision, a charismatic network offering intense devotional programming designed for the Latin American market, complete with a logo featuring the Virgin of Guadelupe.

Instead of watching Protestant ministers deep in prayer or preaching a specific message, the program I ran across was simply a focused, unmoving camera. The object of the camera lens was an instance of the Blessed Sacrament, affixed in a monstrance and pyx as in the unofficial, quasi-liturgical ritual offered in so many Catholic churches at the demands of the laity. 

Telephone numbers for different Latin American countries were displayed on the screen for those to call in their prayers, while a chyron at the bottom flashed different numbers for the devotees in various Latin American countries to text message their prayers into the network. The chyron at the bottom occasionally flashed 'Maria Vision' while a woman and man alternately intoned the 'Hail Mary' prayer in Spanish.

Back in the 1960's, it was very common for secular intellectuals and cultural critics in the United States to predict that religion would soon fade away as science, technology and communication took over as paradigms for human living. If anything, the last 50 years have roundly disproven this "secularization" hypothesis. Rather, the careful study of technology and capitalism reveal that some of their largest and most successful applications have been religious ones. Not only in an area such as the United States of America, but also places with very different relationships with religion and culture, such as the Estados Unidos Mexicanos.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Claiming the Exclusive 'Right' to Appear Religious

In the United States, the state of South Carolina, like many states, offers specialty license places for drivers of automobiles. In some cases, as in Michigan, specialty license plates offer a way to raise funds for social causes the purchasers advocate. In other cases, they also offer ways for the state to raise extra revenue without raising taxes across the entire population. Of course, the catch is that the plates, as official state-issued material, carry the imprimatur of the State, and any entanglements thereof.

While many of the causes aren't too controversial, South Carolina is initiating a specialty plate for Christians. And not really just Christians, but with an eye towards Protestant Christians. In fact, the Lieutenant Governor, Andre Bauer, is willing to put up a fund reserve to finance plate printing, as long as he gets reimbursed from the State. This has become a legal issue, like the placement of the so-called "Ten Commandments" in public and legal spaces. And like these other issues, the State is now being sued by some peoples and organizations to stop this practice. One of the organizations, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, accuses Lt. Gov. Bauer of election-year pandering to fundamentalist voters. For Bauer's part, he suggests that its about freedom of speech, freedom to express one's beliefs, and a cultural push back against secularists.

"People who support Judeo-Christian values are ever under fire now," Bauer said. "It's like they expect folks who are believers just to roll over because they're scared of the ACLU." And, as usual in American political rhetoric, for someone who claims to promote "Judeo-Christian" values, its really all about the Christianity, and has almost nothing to do with Judaism. How can we tell? Simple. There is no corresponding Jewish license plate being offered.

The sample plate above is not South Carolina's but rather a design that was proposed in Florida and ultimately rejected by the legislature there. The South Carolina plate design has not been finalized, but it will include the sentence "I believe." If it follows the Florida design it will use a cross (not a crucifix) and will say nothing about the practice of the sacraments, which is fundamental to both Roman Catholic and Orthodox Catholic practitioners. So once again, as is so common in American religious history, Protestant Christian discourse will be made to stand in for other forms of Christianity, as well as the phantom Judaism of "Judeo-Christian" values.

As one might expect, some actual members of the Jewish community were not to happy to hear about this, including Mark Stern, legal council for the American Jewish Congress, which was planning to bring suit. A federal lawsuit has already been filed by Rev. Barry Lynn and his group Americans United. The suit was filed on behalf of two Christian ministers, a rabbi, the Hindu American Federation, and a humanist pastor in SC. In fact, the Hindu American Federation is framing this issue as an interfaith effort, given the diversity of the plaintiffs. You can read the complaint yourself as well. (PDF)

When trying to understand the "culture war" issues that undegird religion and law in the United States, its helpful to look for some code words. Those on the political right tend to focus on all expressions of (what they see as legitimate) belief as "free expression." Even when an issue is presented that clearly favors one religion over another in the public square, its preferential treatment is due to the community's "heritage." Conversely, when belief and expression arise from minority groups in the public square occurs and is not seen as legitimate, those actions are often deemed part of a 'war against Christianity' or a attack on religion by those who 'hate religion.' For example, even though the Americans United suit is being filed by Jews, Christians, humanists and Hindus (on the political center-left), those facts are invisible--any pushback is framed as from those who are not religious. For example...

Republican House Speaker Bobby Harrell said residents asked for a way to express their beliefs, and legislators responded... "That's what critics always say when they see something they don't like," Harrell said. "I think this has less to do with the First Amendment and more to do with their disdain for religion generally."

On the other hand, there are those, often on the political left, who wish to see all expressions of religiosity removed from the public square, mostly because they see religion as merely a vestige of what others would call superstition. It is still quite politically dangerous to claim one is an atheist--there are more Buddhists, Muslims, or certainly Mormons in the U.S. Congress than open atheists.

The most successful example I have seen of the Federal government allowing religous identification in a respectful and pluralistic way has been the Veterans Administration's handling of religious symbols for burial markers and headstones. Even though the current Administration had been fighting the inclusion of the Wiccan pentacle for some time, the presence of so many different traditions receiving recognition and available use by the Federal government suggests that there are constitutionally-protected ways to allow many different adherents of different religions (including Protestant Christians) to use license plates issued by State governments as a way of identifying themselves without claiming a rhetorically-exclusive 'right to be appear religious'.

Sadly, it appears that neither Americans United or the state of South Carolina has stumbled upon what seems to be an obvious solution.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Karmic Cycle Meets The Water Cycle In Myanmar

Unless you've been living underneath a rock recently, you've at least heard about the devastation wreaked on the Union of Myanmar (formerly Burma) by Cyclone Nargis starting in early May. And for a few weeks last Fall, Buddhist monks in Myanmar also made the top stories of world news for engaging in a massive uprising against the military junta there.  These two events, seemingly disconnected in secular consciousness, have come to be deeply connected in the minds of many living in and expatriated out of Myanmar. It is yet another instance in which we need some religious literacy regarding Buddhism and its cultural adaptations in order to understand world events and human responses to those events. 

First some background. There are a lot of complicated factors to this story and its coverage, and I won't pretend to cover them all. But I will say that although you would never know it from most European or American media, the world of politics and religion in Buddhism is as active with conflict and tension as any part of Islam or Christianity--we just don't hear about it much. I've been happy to see more attention being drawn to Buddhism in the media, although even some of the religion blogs have been very much behind the story on this one. I have my suspicions why, but I'll leave those for now.

What started ostensibly as a protest against extreme fuel price hikes (reverberating into every aspect of everyday Myanmar life) fast snowballed into a general democratic insurgency. What has made this insurgency different is that for the first time in many years, the Buddhist monkhood has gotten involved. Specifically, at an early protest, several hundred monks were arrested and beaten up, thus galvanzing the whole of the monkhood in defense of its historically protected institution

It is very important to understand that in the very devout Buddhism of Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, and other primarily Theravada influenced areas, monkhood is not what most Westernerns think of as 'Christian monkhood'. In these cultures, all adolescent and adult males are expected to spend at least some time in the monasteries--its a social location and a social vocation, not a lifelong career. While part of the monkhood, the monk has a favored socioreligious status that means that the monk separates from his family, and may even be venerated by the family elders and parents as a means of making spiritual merit. Monks in Myanmar also serve in the political bureaucracy--they are expected to offer services and rituals to both determine auspicious points (divination) for State functions, and also to legitimate the political rulers of the country through personal blessings. 

But as a result of the monks' protests, they have decided to no longer offer their services to the ruling junta. That is a very serious challenge, because the fundamental social ritual in Theravada Buddhism is called Dana--translated in English as sometimes as 'almsgiving,' 'giving,' 'cultivating generosity'--or my favorite - "merit-making."Laypersons give food and items to the monks in exchange for prayers, rituals, religious instructions and blessings. What the monks have been doing is to 'turn their offering bowls' over, so to speak, and refuse to either accept Dana from the rulers, or to offer their normal services--effectively excommunicating them from the cycle of reciprocity that undergirds sociopolitical lay Buddhism

This has driven the junta into a frenzy of paranoia, because being banned from Dana carries serious karmic consequences for future rebirths, and also foreshadows being rejected by Burmese history. The Myanmar junta likes to think of itself as the return of Burma's ancient warrior kings, so being rejected outright by the culture endangers its legacy. Some news outlets have portrayed this (and other devotionalisms) as 'superstition,' oblivious to the fact that auspiciousness, social correctness and stability are the key values in Burmese political and historical agency--not French Enlightenment rationality.

The Burmese junta are no doubt guilty of atrocities, but even the news outlets that otherwise have been covering this event well have made unsupportable distinctions between the "pure" Buddhism of everyday people and the mystic and "animist" and "superstitious" tainted Buddhism of the junta, ignoring the fact that just as other religions do everywhere, Buddhism in Burma adapted to incorporate pre-Buddhist traditions, and these are not separated among the quotidian and the elite.  For example, the public protests against the junta largely began from the most auspicious point in Myanmar--the Shwedagon Pagoda--a monumental stupa said to contain physical relics of four previous Buddhas, including the historical Buddha Sakyamuni. 

As in common in Asia, Myanmar Buddhism has integrated itself with local indigenous paganisms and polytheisms and magical practices, as in a set of shrines around the Pagoda devoted to non-Buddhist spirits. Moreover, even inside the shrine, the deterministic shadow of divination propels worshipers to seek particular planetary and animal-totem shrine depending on the types of merit requested and the time of the request. This, for example, is a planetary shrine for Jupiter.

Astrological Buddhist Shrine for Jupiter

The extent to which media outlets have discussed the religious aspect has varied widely. Given the superficial nature of most media treatments of Buddhism, we should expect to see some pics of saffron robes and marveling at the political involvement of people most Westerners automatically assume are "otherworldly." And that is largely what has happened. Sometimes, as in this article, actual experts and scholars are consulted and the information is translated into terms readily accessible to most. Of particular interest is the coverage of Nobel Peace Prize winner and Buddhist Aung San Suu Kyi. At one point Kyi, who has been under house arrest for sometime now, was able to emerge and briefly participate in both chanting and dana with passing monks, thus making socioreligious merit and blessing for political transformation.

In the wake of the cyclonic devastation, many have suggested that the cyclone was karmic retribution for the government's historic crackdown, arrest, and torture of monks. For many Westerners, this is often unpalatable as a explanation or connection, but in Theravada Buddhism, karma is not meted out as selective punishment by some personal force.  Rather it is a simple moral homeostasis that is often complex, inefficient, and can do massive amounts of collateral damage in its own right. Literally, like the water cycle that many students learn about as children, the karmic cycle of samsara joins human and cosmic activity in a web of meaning whereby everything has its place and status. The concept of 'weather'' itself is even tied to a cultural meaning of karma. As before, the military junta sees itself as not only having a crisis of political legitimacy (every regime must take some care for its citizens) but also needing to monopolize whatever karmic merit that might be gained for humanitarian efforts.

For those more accustomed to Mahayana-influenced Buddhism, the concept of "compassion," is found in the way that Buddhist monks and nuns have opened up their stores of food, water, and temple shelter to those in need, even as the junta tries to monopolize the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Other missionary traditions, like Christianity, have found ample ways to demonstrate their ethics and abilities in this crisis. In places such as Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and the country of Japan, communities of Burmese, sometimes including Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists have been gathering for interfaith prayer, charity, and political advocacy services, bringing together missionary traditions that might not do so under other circumstances.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Fear, Loathing and Religion in the American Electorate: Islam

To say that there has been a buzz around U.S. Senator Barack Obama and his current bid for the Presidency would be a massive understatement. For many reasons, historical and otherwise, his candidacy has evoked intense interest, both from his supporters and his detractors. While his Trinity UCC pastor and former U.S. Marine Rev. Jeremiah Wright's soundbites have caused a fair amount of controversy, it is another religious angle that I am more interested in right now. While I'd like to be able say that Sen. Obama's deep influence from the eminent 20th century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is the talk of the American electorate, this is not the case.

Instead, there is a certain portion of the electorate that is convinced that Sen. Obama is actually a Muslim. He is not. But fear of a Muslim, a one-time Muslim, or a crypto-Muslim in the White House is enough to generate a lot of fear among certain sectors of the American populace. Like the 1950's cultural phantom of "Communism," "Islam" in the American psyche possesses a curious self-contradictory power--it is simultaneously superpowerful, able to drive its devotees to irrational frenzy and into the Presidency itself. Yet it is esoteric and hidden, like a sleeper cell, while being completely defenseless against rational investigation. This should not be too surprising, as cultural images in the U.S. equate Islam with Middle Eastern culture, even though the largest Muslim country in the world is Indonesia. Neither is it surprising for a mass culture with only two common images of Muslims--'Arab oil sheiks' or 'gun-wielding terrorists.' Surprising or not, it yields some curious insights into claims of cultural power.

As others have stated elsewhere, Senator Obama is not a Muslim. His Kenyan father was born a Muslim, but was an atheist himself. His mother, a tireless scholarly investigator and Christian, seems to have been the biggest religious influence, although by Senator Obama's own account, religion did not play that much of a role until his active conversion into the Social Gospel of the UCC. But again, let's focus on the implication of his alleged Muslim identity.

On the one hand, it has been argued that his exposure to Islam might be a good thing for diplomacy, as other countries with significant influence from Islam might consider him more open or friendlier to their positions. It is difficult to see why this would be so, since within Dar-al-Islam there are very strong oppositions between some Muslim governments and officials. To take this seriously, one needs to see worldwide Islam as one single community in its ideas and agendas. It most certainly is not. On the other hand, as some have argued, Obama might be considered a liability by these same countries--even an "apostate" worthy of killing to earn religious merit among fellow Muslims. As this reasoning goes, Islam considers anyone born to a Muslim father to be a Muslim. Therefore, once born, one can only be devout or apostate. As a convert to Christianity, Obama would be an apostate, and as everyone knows, the penalty for renouncing Islam is death...right? No.

Of course that too is not a serious proposition for several reasons. One, Obama's father was not born under Islamic law, which had no force or authority in the former British colony of Kenya. Second, while there are a few countries in which prosecutions of apostasy have occurred, these charges have been historically political in nature, and added to a laundry list of charges to prosecute political opponents accused of similar crimes such as treason or "insulting authority." The vast majority of Islamic countries do not criminalize apostasy, much less kill those who convert. And as should be clear now, there is certainly no consensus in worldwide Islam over the meaning and issue of apostasy, so it would be impossible for all (or even most) Islamic countries to see 'President Obama' as some perverted apostate. 

Unfortunately, U.S. culture and mass media is not capable of handling complicated questions of Sharia, Fiqh and Islamic legal hermeneutics. Nor is the American public as whole, which admits a staggering ignorance concerning the two religious lightning rods of the 2008 U.S. Presidential Campaign, Islam and Mormonism.  There is little room for that other than projections of fear and hope. Mostly fear.

The most intriguing attempt to capitalize on these continuously circulating rumors is a recent attack ad, featuring ominous music and a female voice charging Sen. Obama with deceptiveness and dishonesty regarding the now long-discredited claim that he attended a 'radical madrassa' in his youth, based on the early version of a later redacted Associated Press story. Showcasing a photograph of Senator Obama in tribal clothing, the ad associates that clothing with crypto-Muslim identity. The ad is the brainchild of Floyd Brown, who designed the infamous "Willie Horton" ad of the 1988 U.S. Presidential campaign season. Its quite amazing to see a political ad attacking a candidate's actions as a child, when people usually have the least say over what they do and who they are. Then again, the cultural figure of the 'child' is perfect projection screen for the power of Islamophobia (and to be fair, Islamophilia, which at this point is a neglible factor). Children are often seen as easily swayed and easily ideologically conscripted, like the children of Nazi Germany, yet seemingly innocent, hidden in plain sight.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

World Religions: The joys and frustrations of teaching.

I have recently accepted a faculty position at Iowa State University. Starting this Fall, I will be teaching in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies. Most of my courses this fall term will be "Introduction To World Religions."

Teaching "World Religions" in the classroom is one of those tasks that religion scholars find endlessly frustrating on a variety of levels. At the most practical level, such one semester courses turn into less of an academic exercise, and more of a la carte sampler platter. It would be the intellectual equivalent of filling up on a series of appetizers that give you just flavor and substance to add up to a meal, without being a really satisfying meal in and of itself. Based on research conducted on behalf of the Wabash Center, students and professors seem to be frequently at odds from the moment class begins: professors want students to develop critical thinking and cultural literacy, while students are primarily focused on developing their "spirituality." But professors are not chaplains, even in a private sectarian school. Those are two different roles that require different sets of skills and demands.

On a deeper level, teaching 'World Religions' risks creating the impression that religions are fixed sets of entities, when that is simply not the case--religious elements of culture are inherently dynamic---constantly in flux, reinforcing and interfering with other impulses and other religions through contact points. It also risks indoctrinating students into the idea that only certain kinds of religion are important enough to study. For example, any 'World Religion' course worth its salt must teach Judaism. And rightly so. Jews have never constituted more than 5% of the world's population and even today it is only the 12th largest religion in the world, yet the contributions of Hebrew (earlier) and Jewish (later) culture to the world are almost incalculable---far out of proportion to its size. Yet, for reasons of space (and lack of training), "World Religion" courses almost never teach Chinese indigenous religion, even though it has almost 400 million adherents. Given the increased role that China may play in world economic and military affairs, as well as the gradual loosening of Maoist ideology on the country, this may have to change. As a legacy of European liberal education, 'world religions' courses give the impression that the forms of religion that have been of greatest concern to Europeans are indeed the most important ones. Which is, of course, a highly dubious assertion.

In the end, its often more like a poor compromise between a course that gets students to critically investigate religion (like an 'Introduction to Religious Studies' course) and a pastoral course that one might take at a church. Realizing all of the compromises necessary, nonetheless many professors hope to communicate something of the vibrancy of practice, as well as the necessity of appreciating (in the wide sense) the influence of religion on humans. 

Don't get the wrong impression. I enjoy teaching these courses, I really do. I get to indulge my inner dilettante, even as I bemoan it in students. It also serves as a means for faculty to investigate and perhaps indulge themselves in scholarly literature far from their home zone, and it keeps them on their toes, lest an enterprising student seek to "stump" the professor with a sly question about an unfamiliar area. As an intellectual packrat, I often find ways to acquire or obtain pictures, information, or other material just so I might be able to someday use it in a course or a project such as this. In fact, 2 years ago I had the opportunity to visit a Sikh gurdwara in Queensland Australia, and I took literally mountains of pictures and movies, as well as interviewing an old man who originally worked to found the gurdwara. Finally I'll have the chance to use those resources in class, for along with Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I'll be teaching Sikhism, as there is a gurdwara in the local area.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Natural Disasters Produce Religious Echoes

It has been one week since the earthquake centered in the Chinese province of Sichuan, in Southcentral China. In that time, some have wondered just how religion is playing a part in people's lives at this time. The death toll is currently around 50,000 and still rising, not to mention that there are over 4 million people displaced at the present time. This presents a real challenge to those who are unfamiliar with the Chinese religious landscape in times of relative peace, much more so in times of upheaval and disaster. Chinese religion is a set of multilayered accretions and tends to be defined in terms of social locations and small common rituals. What this means in practice is that four different megaflavors of ritual and ideological systems are existentially available for most people to draw on: Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and popular Polytheism. All of these have suffered under Chinese communism, but none of them have been eradicated by any means, and sub-varieties of each exist. Moreover, other missionary religions, such as Protestant Christianity and Islam, continue to make significant inroads into the Chinese population.

In the wake of the earthquake, one of the few reporters to take careful note of the religious activity in the area was NPR's Melissa Block. In particular she observed how parents of children, upon finding them dead, would build small altars, bring candles and incense, and burn paper money as they were wrapped up. In Chinese (and Japanese) indigenous religion, money is a regular element of sacrifice, not only because it represents the hard work and commitment of the earner, but also because capital is a form of power. The sacrifice of money is a transfer of power to the ancestral realm, as the children take their place in the spirit world. Just as in Confucian religion China is termed the 'Middle Kingdom,' responsible for carrying out the 'Mandate of Heaven,' so the otherworld in Chinese religion often resembles a mirror image of the sociopolitical world of China, complete with a 'Celestial Bureaucracy.'  Money and power grease the wheels of a Celestial Bureaucracy just as they do in the Middle Kingdom. A radical separation between this world and the Otherworld does not exist in Indigneous Chinese religion--differences between human persons and "Other-than-human" Persons (such as ancestors, nature spirits, and immortals) are ones of degree, rather than kind. Of course, the situation is different in non-indigenized missionary traditions of Christianity and Islam, although at least Protestant Christians, both pastors and laypersons, are facing theodicy questions of  their own.

This also helps to explain the massive anxiety being experienced by the Chinese government at this time,. In addition to the controversies over the Olympics and Tibet, for some the earthquake is a religious challenge to the legitimacy of the government. The "Mandate of Heaven," perhaps best thought of as a transcendental seal of political approval/legitimacy from the Celestial Bureaucracy, is a fickle gift at best, and tradition holds that natural disasters can be a sign that Heaven no longer favors the current regime. Thus, for this reason, as well as many others, it behooves the Chinese government to spare no expense in confronting the tragedy in both religious terms and purely humanistic ones. In this they may have succeeded, because the response of the Chinese people, if news reports are to be believed, has been an outpouring of nationalist fervor, not unlike that which the United States experienced after September 11th. Of course, some in the United States have also interpreted the occurrence of either human-made or natural catastrophes here in religious terms as well.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Welcome to the Religion, Culture, Power weblog!

Welcome! This is the inaugural post of my professional weblog. I'm glad you stopped by. I will be offering periodic analysis of issues involving religion, from education to practice to controversies and other items as well.  I hope you will visit often and offer your own insights through comments. I am committed to the idea that "religious literacy" is not optional in this day and age. Whatever one's own religious views and/or practice consists of (or avoids), there can be no reason to remain ignorant of how religious issues resonate along the tendrils of other cultural elements. The stakes are simply too high to be dismissive or isolationist.