“It started with a kiss” A playlist for my introductory methods course

The Fall 2020 semester has not, to put it mildly, been the high point of my academic career. Having elected to teach remotely (thanks to my employer’s decision to give faculty autonomy to do so) I struggled with two new course preps, one of which is our Religious Studies major methods course. The class also draws a fair number of non-majors, students who are curious about how to study religion, and some who mistook the course for a similar course (Intro to World Religions—yes, I know it’s a problematic holdover but I can only do so much).

I took a thematic approach to the course, grouping the theories of religion by academic discipline but with a central question tying the ideas together. Students pondered whether religion was about ritual, community, mystical experiences, or morals, among other topics. Because my real area of expertise is the history of religions in America, I included a healthy amount of Americans—Rosemary Radford Reuther, for example—and American topics.

During one of those weeks, students had read part of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. As we were discussing Paine’s savage attack on revealed texts, which he calls no better than “hearsay,” my brain suddenly shifted to the Killers’ song “Somebody Told Me.” I mentioned the lyrics to the class (“somebody told me/that you had a boyfriend/who looked like a girlfriend/I had in February of last year”). It’s a bit old for students who graduated from high school between 2017 and 2020, but they knew it and humored me.

Later, I began to wonder if you could tie other Killers’ songs to other theories of religion. I struck out there, but I did start compiling a playlist on Spotify, entitled “Theories of Religion.” A few of my Twitter friends expressed an interest in it, so I’m writing it up here to share it widely.

The Killers, “Somebody Told Me”
Thomas Paine (anti-revelation)

The Beatles “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
William James (mysticism)

Sister Sledge “We Are Family”
Emile Durkheim (community)

Taylor Swift “We Are Never Getting Back Together”
“Nones” (the move away from organized religion)

Public Enemy “Don’t Believe the Hype”
Christopher Hitchens and atheists

Twenty One Pilots “The Hype”
Christopher Hitchens and atheists

The Cars “Drive”

Sigmund Freud (wish fulfillment)

Tracy Chapman
“Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” Karl Marx (religion suppresses the masses’ impulses to revolt)

The Police “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”
Max Weber (routinization continues the prophet’s message)

Barry White “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything”
Paul Tillich (god as the ground of all being)

Prince “I Would Die 4 U”
Ninian Smart (empathetic imagination)

R.E.M. “Stand”
Rudolf Otto (religion is non-rational experience, this is a non-rational song)

Woody Guthrie “This Land is Your Land”
Robert Bellah (civil religion, original article)

Childish Gambino “This is America”
Robert Bellah (civil religion more recently)

Bob Dylan “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”
Mircea Eliade (the sacred and the profane)

DJ Casper, Hardino “Cha Cha Slide”
Victor Turner (ritual)

Lizzo “Truth Hurts”
(Rosemary Radford Reuther’s challenge to religious patriarchies)

John Lennon “Imagine”
(Are morals dependent on religion?)

Depeche Mode, “Personal Jesus”
(Wilfred Cantwell Smith (individual faith is central)

R.E.M., “Losing My Religion”

Clifford Geertz (religion provides meaning in an apparently meaningless world)

Singing their way to the ballot box

I woke up this morning to the sounds of “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” as NPR informed me what I had already expected, that Roy Moore had defeated barely-incumbent Senator Luther Strange in the Alabama Republican primary. That Moore won was not surprising, but his supporters’ rendition of an old Christian hymn did give me a sense of deja vu. While veteran monitors of Judge Moore and his past embrace of Christian nationalism were probably already familiar with the use of Christian hymnody at his rallies, I was struck by the similarity to southern white evangelical Christians who dabbled in politics over a century ago.

As I wrote in my first book, Rethinking Zion: How the Print Media Placed Fundamentalism in the South, white evangelicals in southern states were some of the first to jump on the temperance and prohibition bandwagon. When Alabama’s neighbor, Georgia, passed a statewide prohibition measure in 1907, the New York Times reported that the legislators and observers spontaneously broke into a rendition of “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” also known as the Long Meter Doxology.

Such displays of religious piety are possible only when the involved group is religiously homogeneous. It assumes that all members know the tune and the words. If you start singing a song that’s not call and response and your fellow singers don’t know it, the whole effect is quickly lost. But for Judge Moore’s supporters, the common bond is white interpretations of evangelical Protestant Christianity, and that bond supplies them with a both a common message and a common playlist.

The Georgia legislators who enacted statewide prohibition over a century ago were largely evangelical Protestants and white. Like Moore, they were reacting to perceived threats, many of which still resonate with Alabama Republicans. In the early 20th century south, white state governments feared African American enfranchisement and rights, an influx of religiously different immigrants coming to the country (waves of Catholics and Jews then), and the changing social standards brought on by new technologies. Moore has voiced his doubts that President Barack Obama was born in the United States (a dog whistle for white supremacists, among others), argued that Islam is a “false religion,” and repeatedly attacked LGBTQ rights.

So for political pundits who are trying to make sense of Judge Moore’s religious and political beliefs, look to the past, and you’ll see the parallels.


Image credit:  By AuburnPilot (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When every day is a teachable moment

The pundits have declared students as “special snowflakes” once again, after an unruly group protested a speaker at Middlebury. Commentators from conservative to liberal have decried the students’ actions and yet again laid the blame for such incidents squarely on the shoulders of professors, instructors who “coddle” the students and only make them hear that with which they agree.  But I’d like to take exception to these pronouncements and issue a standing invitation to commentators to come visit my classroom sometime. What would they see? A wide range of students, from diverse backgrounds, with differing opinions, engaging in civil conversations about the course material and the world at large. Sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it? No “moral dry rot” as Thomas Sowell would have it. No “swarm” or “illiberalism,” as Frank Bruni sees it.

Instead, students in my classes–and in countless other classes across the country–know that their opinions are respected, both by their classmates and by their instructor. And they feel the freedom to make connections between the class materials and present-day events. This is why the Middlebury incident stands out–for its rarity.

Continue reading “When every day is a teachable moment”

Jesus wants my vote?

Yesterday (Sunday, November 6th) was a beautiful day to be outside in my neighborhood, which probably explains why I missed Mike Huckabee‘s call. According to my voice mail, he (or his robo recording) called at 2:34 in the afternoon. In a very brief message, Huckabee asked me to vote on Tuesday (“or earlier, by mail or absentee ballot”) and noted that Jesus had told Christians to “render unto Caesar what was his and unto God what was God’s.” This quote from the Gospel of Matthew led Huckabee into a claim of religious kinship with me (“we as Christians are called to be the salt and the light of society”) and he urged me to vote for candidates who support “life, marriage, religious freedom, and Israel.” According to the Southern Baptist pastor and former governor of Arkansas, I should also remind my friends and family to vote as well. The message included a call back number and the statement that it had been paid for by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group started by Ralph Reed. I tried calling the phone number listed today, but I could only leave a message unless I knew the extension of the party I wished to reach.

The fours “issues” Governor Huckabee thinks I should be weighing when voting for candidates, according to this FFC-funded effort. “Life, marriage, religious freedom, and Israel” are words that many evangelical voters would immediately recognize as clarion calls to arms. “Life” for FFC means opposition to abortion, “marriage” means heterosexual unions, “religious freedom” means passing laws to stop transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice (and asking President Obama “to stop putting our children in danger”) and “Israel” means supporting Israel’s right to exist and defending it against enemies in the international arena. FFC’s website is pretty heavily saturated right now with clickable items in the “religious freedom” category, with only a smattering of stories or petitions about “life,” “marriage,” and “Israel.” Be that as it may, the site clearly reflects a group that is both conservative in its evangelicalism and fairly media-savvy (with Twitter and Instagram accounts, but no Snapchat or Tumblr). Its voter guide for my state casts Trump in a more favorable light than Clinton.

While Governor Huckabee never mentioned a candidate by name, the only national candidates I could vote for this year are the President of the United States (actually, here in Virginia we vote for the electors for the candidate, not the candidate per se) and my House of Representatives member. His organization assumes that the folks who hear this message speak the same language they do, and will be inspired to vote. Indeed, this may substitute for the usual Republican GOTV effort, as the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee don’t seem to be playing together very nicely recently.

I’m not really sure why my home phone number was on this call list. I live in a state that has been blue for the last several elections and boasts the vice presidential nominee for the Democrats as one of its U.S. Senators. There are decidedly red areas of this state, but not near my house. I’ve never donated to Huckabee or the FFC. All of this means I could have an interpretation of “life, marriage, religious freedom, and Israel” that means something very different.

“Life” by itself could be a call to respect human dignity in all people, whether they are young or old, racially different than me or similar to me, opposed to my politics or in solidarity with me. I think I’ll interpret this one as respect for all of the people I meet between now and tomorrow (election day) and beyond–regardless of their politics.

“Marriage” could mean same-sex marriage, no marriage, or marriage when two people feel like it’s appropriate. Because same-sex marriage is the law of the land now, I’m going to take a leap and say that voting for marriage is really not what I need my candidates to do now.

“Religious freedom” is a catchy term and one that’s clearly on the minds of evangelicals who oppose the Affordable Care Act’s contraception requirements and transgender bathroom laws. But in light of a recent anti-Semitic ad by one of the candidates I could have voted for, and in light of the escalating Islamophobia, I will consider religious freedom to mean the right for any American to practice her or his religion peacefully without fear of interference from the state or hate groups.

So what else could “Israel” mean? Well, for Jews, Israel means multiple things: the promised land, the people of God, or God’s promise for the future. In fact, in my Abrahamic Religions course, we spend quite a bit of time talking about how the notion of Israel (as part of G-d–Torah–Israel) is a key component of Judaism but that its meaning has changed over time and for different Jews in different ways. Israel as hope for the future of humanity is a particularly important concept to embrace in this troubled election cycle.

Mike Huckabee might read this (although I doubt it) and conclude that the sower’s seeds (Mark 4) fell on a rocky place when the call came to my voice mail. Or his organization could have done its homework better and realize that he caught me too late and that I had already voted “absentee  in person” on the final day Virginia permitted me to do so–the day before his call. FFC might not have known about Virginia’s election laws, but I did, and I’m betting that, if Jesus wanted my vote, He knew the deadline too.





SAE, Yik Yak, and the new issues of speech on campus

The civil rights struggle is nowhere near its goal. At least that’s my take on what’s going on at Oklahoma University as it bans SAE from campus (“as far as I’m concerned, they won’t be back,” President David Boren was quoted as saying). But banning a single fraternity won’t really address the problem, either at OU or anywhere else in the country.

The video of fraternity brothers and their guests, all in elegant attire aboard a chartered bus and destined to a celebration, reveals young people using the “n word” and casually referring to lynching as they declare and revel in the otherness of African Americans. Indeed, there are no faces of color in the short clip, which may indeed be why some on the bus felt comfortable enough to reveal their prejudices. But that comfort is surely gone now that the video has gone viral, two students have been expelled, and public outrage rises. In the same week that saw thousands of people gathered to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, these students remind us that the struggle is far from over.

Addressing these students’ behavior is certainly important. But taking proactive steps to prevent such incidents is even more important. As Michael Twitty, scholar of foodways and race, so eloquently puts it, “I want to heal the cancer not blast the lesion.” As long as teachers, professors, administrators, and generally everyone pretends that we have settled the matter of race  in our society, videos like the SAE clip and incidents like the racist parties the movie Dear White People lampoons will continue.

Some faculty and many students have discovered the harm that can come from social media, as students take to Yik Yak to post anonymous comments, in one case notably ignoring a lecture to post “yaks” about the professors leading the class. Comments on the app range from racist to sexist to threatening and show how cruel their fellow community members could be when they can hide behind anonymity.

So what is the answer? More dialogue, not less. More exposure to history and current events. A requirement that the students on that bus write a detailed paper about the images found in Without Sanctuaryan interactive website centered around a collection of lynching postcards and images James Allen spent years tracking down. Perhaps then they’d be able to see why decent and honorable people do not joke about hanging anyone from a tree. Better yet, start a dialogue in our classrooms and residence halls and dining halls now about how words hurt. Encourage students to imagine themselves as members of a different ethnic group, sexual orientation, gender, or even as professors teaching a class. Developing empathy is a long-term process, and we must start now.