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conservative religion on campus

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Fredrick deBoer has a piece up on the defunding of higher education he expects given leftist controversies on campus.  It’s worth reading:

Meanwhile, in my very large network of professional academics, almost no one recognizes any threat at all. Many, I can say with great confidence, would reply to the poll above with glee. They would tell you that they don’t want the support of Republicans. There’s little attempt to grapple with the simple, pragmatic realities of political power and how it threatens vulnerable institutions whose funding is in doubt. That’s because there is no professional or social incentive in the academy to think strategically or to understand that there is a world beyond campus. Instead, all of the incentives point towards constantly affirming one’s position in the moral aristocracy that the academy has imagined itself as. The less one spends on concerns about how the university and its subsidiary departments function in our broader society, the greater one’s performed fealty to the presumed righteousness of the communal values. I cannot imagine a professional culture less equipped to deal with a crisis than that of academics in the humanities and social sciences and the current threats of today. The Iron Law of Institutions defines the modern university, and what moves someone up the professional ranks within a given field is precisely the type of studied indifference to any concerns that originate outside of the campus walls.

There are empirical arguments to be made about this, of course.  Arguments that people like Amy Binder and other do a good job of making.  Yet it’s not crazy to argue that colleges tend to be left-leaning places.  This is often discussed in terms of race, gender, and sexuality but I’ve seen it most in reference to religion. While all of these obviously intersect, it’s worthwhile to pull them apart a bit too. (BTW, it’s kind of funny to me how for some on the right and on the liberal left, the word intersectionality has gained almost a mystical power, which, as I teach Black Feminist Thought in my contemporary theory course, I can assure you is not true at least as far as answers on the final indicate.)

Nobody should deny (even if some do) that conservative Christians still have it pretty good in lots of parts of the country, even more so under the current administration.  Nonetheless, it can be a hard slog to be a conservative Christian on many campuses: there are sexual choices that seem inappropriate to you, classmates and faculty with a blanket suspicion of anything religious, a sense that any restraint you might suggest must be couched or camouflaged in secular language (to fast for Jesus is weird; to fast for swimsuits is fine).  If you are offended by someone’s representation of your sacred icons, you are told to take a joke, or learn to mock yourself, or reminded of the Crusades.  If you feel marginalized, you are told that your doctrines marginalize others.  That might well be true in regards to certain issues related to sexuality (though Christians are a diverse group), but it isn’t necessarily true.  But I’ll get more to this later.

I study Muslims and Evangelicals, and I sometimes joke that I can tell if you’re from a red state or a blue state based on which you’re more afraid of.  Make no mistake: it is harder to be a Muslim in this country than it is to be a conservative Christian, and by virtually any measure.  Much of the conservative Christian angst lately is an increasing recognition that it’s less and less easy (even if still very possible) to take for granted that America is a Christian nation.  It is perhaps because of this, and because of a general leftist commitment to the underdog, that my leftist friends seem more sympathetic to not saying anything disrespectful to Islam, to not mocking Muslim figures or Muslim worship. To be clear, yet again: this is often the reverse in much of the media, and the nation. Islamophobia is alive and well.

Yet I get a lot of feedback from just about everybody when I teach my courses on American Evangelicals and the sociology of religion.  I’m by no means an apologist in either of these classes.  One of my ongoing critiques is that American conservative Christians are too ahistorical and are simply unable to recognize structural critiques. In Smith and Emerson’s words (76),

The racially important cultural tools in the white evangelical tool kit are “accountable freewill individualism,” “relationism” (attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships), and antistructuralism (inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences).

That argument strikes me as pretty close to a social fact, but I think all of us are reflective enough to know that the way we present facts in class reflects any number of ongoing normative concerns, many of which are related to the kinds of ideas we’d like our students to have and even the kinds of people (scholars? thinkers? citizens?) we’d like them to become.  My students sense within me a desire for them to engage honestly with religion, but they don’t sense a desire to dismiss religion, even conservative religion (at least that is what I’ve heard from some, and I hope it’s true for others).  They can tell pretty easily I’m not a conservative, but my conservative students can tell I take their arguments seriously.

Of course, some of the reason conservatives might not like college might be exactly what Smith and Emerson describe here: talking about structural causes is pretty common on college campuses, and it challenges not just conservatives’ politics, but also their positions in the world.  But I’m too much of a cultural sociologist to think that’s all the story.  Identity is a big piece of this story.  And part of that identity–maybe even most of it–is an old American story about patriarchy and white privilege.  But religion is a piece too. And believe it or not, it’s not just white men who hold to conservative religion, or conservative Christianity.

Look: we secularists still have a long way to go until an atheist (or a Muslim, or even a Jew) becomes president. Nonetheless, there are certain pockets of our country in which a certain kind of secularism has already done quite well, and most universities are within those pockets.  Now there are many kinds of secularism, and some simply separate religion from everything else.  But some are actively hostile to religion, suggesting an alternate metaphysics, an alternate teleology, an alternate explanation of who we are and why we’re here and by what means we can call a life good. That secularism exists on campus. Though the more common version simply never bring up religion at all, and an identity marker (in an age increasingly aware of identity) is simply not acknowledged, or if acknowledged, is brought up only to show the evils it has wrought.

Which isn’t to deny it’s wrought quite a few evils, and that conservative religion continues to cause suffering in particular lives, especially LGBT lives, but also the lives of women who want an abortion, or to use birth-control, or simply to have a one-night stand. So what to do about conservative religion on campus?

Here’s the thing. I think a certain kind of banker is a bad person. And I don’t mind saying that. And I don’t mind if the banker feels uncomfortable, even judged.  I actually want exactly that reaction.  That’s okay for most of my friends because I’m kicking up, as the saying goes. But it’s worth thinking about how moral critique can work on a college campus: are we only limited to criticizing powerful people who do egregiously evil things?  Making laws is one thing, of course, but what about expressing opinions?  These are hard questions.  I think Judith Butler is right that expressions of beliefs are never neutral: they’re performative.  They help to constitute the world. Saying that, say, gay marriage is wrong, even if it’s just an 18-year-old saying it in a late-night residence-hall bullshit session, has real effects on the world, even if they’re much smaller effects than anything a future President Pence might try to do.  So we shouldn’t be naive about speech being purely descriptive. Habermas probably is too naive.

But the data to which deBoer links indicates policing speech this way might ultimately harm more than it helps. There’s a recent move within political theory against a certain kind of communitarianism that wants everyone to feel like an included part of the group.  On one hand, that seems like an obvious thing we would all want: shouldn’t we all want to be included and to include?  Yet scholars like Jacob T. Levy and Teresa Bejan point out how an emphasis on inclusion and civility can stifle dissent and the vital disagreements that move democracy forward.  Now I’m not really a free speech purist, and, actually, nobody is (everyone agrees that certain speech really is destructive: it’s just for some that line is pretty far out there, near continuous strings of curses and racial slurs).

Yet just talking about who we let speak on campus, I think, misses the much broader point of the kind of culture we create on campus.  Do conservative students, especially conservative religious studies, feel like their point of view is respected?  If we disagree with them, do we do so with respect for their identity in a way we would for other kinds of identity categories? When people say something that merits correction (a homophobic comment; an inability to recognize structural causes of poverty), do we correct in a way that invites the student into dialogue?

There’s a lot more to say about this: about the nature of empirical data and the way academics can confuse our data for our identity; about the way in which the underlying moral imaginaries of a secular life are really no more falsifiable than those of a religious life.  But I suppose, in light of the data described above, I’d suggest one way to start thinking about how conservatives think about college is to start thinking about how colleges think about religion.

Written by jeffguhin

July 11, 2017 at 9:26 pm

orthopraxy vs. orthodoxy and the relevance of religion in the sociology of culture

I’m very grateful to Rod Dreher for such a thoughtful and kind response to my work.  I sent him an e-mail in reply, but I’m actually going to edit it a bit and post it here because it relates to some ongoing conversations in the sociology of culture.  In response to my post about how “moralistic therapeutic deism” is a bit too Protestant, Dreher responds:

Well, let me push back on this. I am part of the Orthodox Church, whose name means “right belief.” Theological orthodoxy is a very big deal to us. But that does not mean orthopraxy is diminished, not at all. The connection is this: if we do not know what to believe, then we will not know what to do. The relationship goes both ways. Practices can be catechetical. I wonder if a distinction Prof. Guhin is missing is that Christianity is supposed to bring about gradual inner change in a person’s life. All of mortal life is a time of pilgrimage, in which, if we are faithful, we are moving ever closer to the ideal of Jesus Christ, conforming our life to his. It’s not a question of earning salvation, not at all; it’s a question of inner transformation, of dying to self so that we may live in Christ. Orthodoxy (right belief) is the map, and orthopraxy (right practice) is what we do when we follow the map’s directions towards our ultimate destination.(This description may not ring true to certain Protestants, but it is at least what Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe, and, I imagine, what many Protestants do as well.)

I take his point about the intermingling of orthodoxy and orthopraxy (something I’m actually writing about regarding Evangelicals, who are much more orthoprax than than they themselves often recognize), but I suppose my response would be about the question of how much being able to talk about your beliefs actually matters.

This is where (I think) Protestantism really did change how Catholics think about what it means to be a Christian, or, at least, this is Diarmaid Macculloch’s argument about Protestants and the pre-Protestant changes in homiletcs, etc. Charles Taylor describes the Catholic church as a religion on two tracks: folks who had to know what they were talking about, and folks who did the things people who knew what they were talking about were talking about.  So what happened was people got the sacraments, vaguely understood what all of that meant, and then went on their way.  Meanwhile, the elites (monks, priests, nuns) actually had a robust and articulable sense of the meanings of things.

That focus on articulacy is an importance piece, and something that I think Evangelicals often take for granted: being articulate takes work, and the practice of sharing testimony helps you get good at it.  Orthodoxy, or, really, speaking about orthodoxy, is itself a practice, or at least that’s what I’m arguing in my book.

So: if you don’t practice talking about theological claims but you get the sacraments and go on your way, what keeps it together?  Gemeinschaft, basically: a sense of a shared cosmos.  And when you lose that, as Peter Berger and James Davison Hunter argue, it actually becomes more important to be able to be articulate because you start seeing differences.

However, and this is part of my difference with Berger and Hunter (and to be clear: Hunter was my post-doc advisor at the Institute for Advanced Studies of Culture: we’re very close): I’m just not sure people feel the need to think about things as much as Berger and Hunter seem to think people do.  My hunch is that most people’s lives happen in the habituated sense of what’s good and bad, right and wrong.  As such, it’s really not surprising most people (in any context or time period) are inarticulate.  However, the safe guard against that is they’re part of a community with clear ideals and with an elite that can be articulate for them.  In that sense, the democratization of Protestantism is as much at fault here as capital-L liberalism (especially the Second Great Awakening, which is really “when every man his own priest” was taken, a la Trump, both seriously and literally).

This conversation is interesting enough for sociologists of religion, but I think it also has something to say to sociologist of culture, especially regarding Omar Lizardo’s recent ASR on “declarative and nondeclarative modes”:

A roadblock to reaching this goal is that, under the most influential approaches, the implicit, or nondeclarative aspects of culture (phenomenologically opaque and not open to linguistic articulation) are usually conceptualized as being inherently intertwined with, or as being of secondary analytic importance in relation to, its explicit or declarative facets (phenomenologically transparent and elicited as linguistic reports). That is, knowledge “how” is not properly differentiated from knowledge “that” (Ryle 2002:25–26). In the modal case, linguistically articulated forms of culture are presumed to be of more inherent substantive interest than “how” knowledge, or at least of being capable of serving as a relatively unproblematic point of access to the latter (Jerolmack and Khan 2014).My argument in what follows is that a serious consideration of the distinction between declarative and nondeclarative culture (at the personal level), and both from the way culture is manifest in public (extra-personal) form (Strauss and Quinn 1997), is a requirement for effective cultural analysis on analytic and empirical grounds. I will show that having an adequate conceptualization of both the analytically relevant differences between cultural elements as well as the multifaceted relations that these elements enter into, helps resolve a host of empirical issues that would otherwise remain shrouded in ambiguity, confusion, and paradox.

Lizardo continues, not long after that quote, getting at the problem of how we sociologists can study culture that isn’t easy to articulate but nonetheless still exists.  That matters, I’d argue, for religion as well, and for whether or not we can use a respondent’s inability to articulate (orthodoxy) as evidence they are unable to practice (orthopraxy):

I attempt to integrate the practice-theoretical insight that a lot of what functions as culture remains in the tacit dimension, never rising to the level of discourse, with the empirical fact that a lot of what gets referred to as “culture” presents itself to the analyst in the form of explicit talk and discourse (e.g., Swidler 2001a). To that end, I draw on recent interdisciplinary work on the enculturation process to provide a principled account of how we may be able to pull off this feat, an account that should be usable by social scientists committed to the project of cultural explanation. This reformulation has several analytic advantages over previous synthetic attempts, whether of Bourdieusian provenance or not, including the fact that it does not require either the adoption of an idiosyncratic terminology (opting instead for terms with wide currency in social science) or all-out commitment to a delimited theoretical system or program.

Anyway, a lot to think about here, for more than just religion! I know a lot of folks are pushing this cart up the hill, but I really do think religion is just a great site to think about how social life works.

Written by jeffguhin

March 22, 2017 at 4:23 pm

was the sexual revolution so revolutionary?: on the benedict option and conservative christian models of culture

If you’re at all plugged into think pieces about religion, you’ve heard about Rod Dreher’s book on The Benedict Option.  Dreher’s an interesting guy: he’s an incredibly prolific writer, and most of his stuff winds up at his blog.  He’s got two really lovely books, one about the death of his sister and the other about how Dante (yes that Dante: the medieval Italian poet) saved his life. And he’s a culture warrior through and through, unapologetically hysterical about the world ending.

That’s not an exaggeration.  He really does think that at least “a world” if not, you know, all of human life, is ending. Hence “the Benedict Option”: he takes the idea from the ending of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, in which MacIntyre suggests that maybe we all ought to imitate the rule of St. Benedict when he saw the Visigoth writing on the Roman walls. We’ve got to create our own communities.  In MacIntyre’s (oft-quoted) words:

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict (263).

What’s important about MacIntyre (and I’m stealing this from what Michael Warner said in a seminar I took with him) is that he was first a Trotskyite and then a Catholic, but the whole time he’s always hated liberalism. Nowadays we’re a society a bit more aware of the difference between left and liberal, but there are still way too many people who just sort of figure freedom happens.  A certain kind of liberal thinks that people basically just grow up free: you don’t have to worry too much about it, and the really important thing is just not to let other folks tell you what to do (or to tell others what to do).  Marxists-and in a different way, Catholics–recognize this as bullshit. We’re free in particular kinds of ways because of how we are raised (and, you know, our economic conditions, but this is where the two groups might vary a bit).  And so when society changes, it can change us in ways that we can’t really be protected from, despite our earnest love of freedom, etc. Now that’s a pretty harsh take on liberalism, which, you know, exists in no small part because the era before liberalism had lots of Europeans with very strong beliefs killing each other. Liberalism–and with it, democracy–trades the promise of utopia for the promise of not having your head cut off by utopians who disagree with you.

But what are we so afraid of? What’s the problem from which we need protection?  Dreher pulls from a lot of work by the sociologist Christian Smith to describe how contemporary young Christians basically have no idea what they’re talking about: members of a religion don’t know some of their own basic theological tenets, setting up what Smith calls a “moralistic therapeutic deism”: be nice and be happy is, apparently, all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.

That’s right enough, I suppose, even if it’s a very Evangelical Protestant way of thinking about religion, emphasizing right belief (orthodoxy) over right action (orthopraxy).  One of the weird things about the history of the category of “religion” is that it was developed by Protestants who are, on both global and historical scales, the weirdest form of religion.  Most things we’ve come to call religions care a lot more about what you do (praxis) than what you believe (doxa): so it’s actually not super surprising a lot of religious people have no idea what the hell they’re talking about.  Of course, Smith et al would say this is a problem not just for non-Protestants, but for Protestants too: the intricacies of belief don’t seem to matter even for the ostensibly orthodox.

But did they ever? One of the smartest and most fair-minded of the many, many reviews of the Benedict Option was Damon Linker’s, in which he pointed out that despite Dreher’s deep concerns about religious knowledge, it really seems to be sex that’s the difference:

Dreher insists that this watery, undemanding form of faith is different in kind from Christianity at its most comprehensive, and I largely agree with him. But is it really different in kind and significantly debased in comparison to the quality of faith one would have found among a random sample of Americans during the 1850s? Or for that matter, in 17th century Prussia? Or 11th century France? I doubt that very much.

Except in one respect: sexual morality.

A Moralistic Therapeutic Deist will tend not to have strong opinions about sex, beyond affirming the importance of consent. Intercourse outside of marriage, masturbation, the use of contraception, homosexuality (including same-sex marriage), transgenderism — none of it will register as raising significant moral or theological issues and problems. That wasn’t true in the 19th-century U.S., in 17th-century Prussia, or in 11th-century France. In all of those times and places, news of what growing numbers of people (including people who define themselves as Christians) think of as sexually acceptable behavior would have been received as inexplicable, and an abomination.

That is what makes our time decisively different from past eras in the history of the Christian West: We live on the far side of the sexual revolution. Neuhaus thought that revolution could be at least partially reversed through concerted democratic action. Dreher has no such hopes and so advises withdrawal and self-protection.

Linker goes on to point out that there are, in fact, progressive Christians who care deeply about their faith and live countercultural lives and who, nonetheless, also support gay marriage or birth control or abortion, or many other changes from the sexual revolution.  Another thoughtful review, this one from Russel Arben Fox, puts it well:

At one point Rod refers to Hillary Clinton as someone “deeply hostile to core Christian values” (p. 89)–yet I strongly suspect that Clinton herself (a life-long church-attending Bible-quoting Methodist, one who has frequently spoken publicly about her prayer life) could quickly–and honestly–assent to believing that “the point of life is to pursue harmony with a transcendent eternal order.” Rod has long been bothered–and rightly so–by “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a sociological label developed to capture the vague spiritual sensibilities held by so many Americans, but allows that even that collection of beliefs includes the conviction that God “created and orders the world” (p. 10). So it can’t simply be a matter of affirming the existence of a “transcendent, eternal order”; the Benedict Option is, I think, to Rod’s mind, essential to the cultural survival of a Christianity with a very particular doctrinal version of the universal moral order.

So it’s about the sex. But here’s where things get even more interesting.  Because was the sexual revolution really so revolutionary? Of course it changed a lot in a local context: the 1970’s does look different from the 1950’s, as Kristin Luker brilliant captures in her book, When Sex Goes to School.  Yet you don’t have to be a full-on Foucauldian to recognize Foucault got something right about his repressive hypothesis* in History of Sexuality, Volume 1Indeed, I wonder how much Dreher’s worldview would be a bit more cheerful and world-affirming had his medieval sage been Chaucer instead of Dante.  You’ve got the Wife of Bath,  you’ve got the Pardoner who’s a “gelding or a mare,” and you’ve got the Miller’s Tale, which, well, just, don’t bring your children is all.  Now the Canterbury Tales is no more obviously representative of high medieval Christendom than is The Divine Comedy, but, well, if I were a betting man I’d wager there were a lot more folks like the Wife of Bath than like Dante’s Beatrice.

Sure: most conservatives upset about the sexual revolution aren’t thinking about deep history.  But they do sometimes make it seem as though sexual morality began in 1900 and that somehow Christendom was a lot less horny than it turns out to have been (the great conservative novel, The Elementary Particlesis especially guilty of this myopia). As Luker herself admits, the world felt different after the 60’s, even if she points to an earlier sexual revolution at the turn of the century that might well have been more important (although her argument would have been stronger if she had pointed out how much that earlier sexual revolution was also tied in with eugenics and scientific racism). But what was actually so different about the 60’s, I mean, besides in a relatively small span of a century or so?  Sex outside of marriage ebbs and flows in salience throughout history, and to the extent that Foucault is right about persecuting sex (and his argument parallels Moore’s argument about persecuting Jews and heretics), the real question is not whether we allow sex outside marriage (the repressive hypothesis) but how much sex matters as a thing to worry about anyway.

It’s the pill, alongside legalized abortion.  It seems obvious, but to many it’s not, precisely because local changes in sexual practice  can make it seem like there’s more moving parts than there actually are.  To quote Luker:

Between 1964 and 1975, sex became possible for millions of women in the way that it always had been possible for men, as something you did when you wanted to, because you wanted to, for its own sake. With legal, readily available, federally subsidized, and highly effective contraception, and with abortion available as a backup if pregnancy occurred anyway, sex for pure pleasure rather than sex necessarily tied to an ongoing and committed relationship became an option for women. And they didn’t have to be ashamed of it. (73)

Again, I’m suspicious the history here is still a bit too local, too victim to the Repressive Hypothesis (not to forget there are lots of ways people have been sexual without the risk of getting pregnant: once more, the Miller’s Tale).  But there is a story here about female autonomy that’s an important linking of technology and culture (see May’s important history of the pill, though there’s a ton of important work on this), and which does, in fact, make the world look very different.

But then there are hard questions about Christians’ specific roles to change the culture, something to which Dreher is (very) sensitive, though his critics are divided on whether he goes far enough. This raises some interesting questions about how religious conservatives think about culture and how people are able to change (and be changed) by it.  I can appreciate how certain religious conservatives like Dreher (see also Patrick Deneen) recognize that capitalism is not always so great, that it can, in fact, lead to a greedy, callous materialism (to wit: this fellow) rather than any sort of Christian leadership.  And I think people like Dreher are right that that sort of procedural liberalism is hard to escape, perhaps even requiring a tactical retreat.

And this gets to something Dreher is very worried about and for what it’s worth, I think he’s right! Christianity in a certain strong form might well be dying, at least in the United States and Western Europe.  Of course, Peter Berger famously changed his mind about secularization theory, so, you know, we might be wrong about this as well.  But it does look like a certain form of Christianity–the kind that insists only Jesus can get you into heaven and the institution of marriage must look a certain way–is dying out. Now there are a few ways to think about that.  One is to think that Christianity is in some senses dying but in other senses has done quite well: it’s not at all a crazy argument to suggest that the ways we think about human rights and social progress have roots in Christian agape and eschatology.  There are smart people who disagree, but there also many who don’t.  Believe it or not: it’s possible be an atheist, hate the Crusades and the Inquisitions, remember the countless pogroms, and nonetheless recognize historical Christianity has done some good.

It’s a fair point that once Christianity says you don’t need it to get into heaven, it doesn’t seem to do as well (though the strict church argument is still somewhat controversial and I’m not convinced by the rational choice underpinnings, it still seems pretty useful).  And Dreher’s right: robust pluralism is hard (even if other orthodox Christians think it’s worth it still to try).

Yet what’s hard for some is whether or not the dying of a certain kind of Christianity is such a tragedy once you don’t believe you need Christianity for heaven. The question then becomes what can people of good will agree are problems in our society that we need to oppose, and what is our mooring for our critiques?  Christians have a pretty decent grounding in, you know, the universe itself (though that might not work if their interlocutors don’t share their vision).  To be fair to Dreher: on his blog he seems quite willing to continue this work (even if the way he talks about the modern academy can be at times a bit hysterical and counterproductive, but, hey, the way that some in the academy talk about folks like Dreher can probably be that way too).

Yet the basis of critique is an ongoing and important questions within the academic left, and it’s something that we too often take for granted.  If not because humans are made in the image and likeness of God, then why is racism wrong? What about sexism?  Autonomy you say? Sure, fine.  But why is autonomy so great? What is the vision of flourishing to which we should direct that “agency” we’re all so worried about?  You can make fun of critical realism all you want, but I appreciate that those folks are thinking about these questions, even as I really appreciate how other folks-like Paige Sweet and Timothy Rutzou– within critical realism are posing really important queer unpackings of what it means to flourish.

That was really long. tl;dr: certain conservative Christians are really worried about changes in sexual practice. Sexual practice is always changing though. However, one important thing sociologists can take from all of these debates is to think a bit harder about our own implicit normativity and the ground upon which we base it.

 

*Two things. First, in earlier versions of this, I called Foucault’s idea “the repression hypothesis” which isn’t quite right. Sorry about that. Next: I realize some folks might not know what I’m talking about here. The Repressive Hypothesis is basically Foucault’s idea that certain contemporary folks feel quite smug about how they’re no longer repressed like the Victorians, but in reality both of them make a huge deal about the classification and intense moral salience of sex in a way that just wasn’t the case a few centuries earlier: we might control sex differently than the Victorians, but “sex positive” is just as obsessed as “sex negative.”  So the big difference isn’t negative to positive but from not a big deal to a very big deal.

Written by jeffguhin

March 19, 2017 at 7:16 pm

joe paterno and the sociological relevance of scandal

Joe Paterno is back in the news.  It looks bad.

The whole thing, of course, is disgusting and terrible and just incredible sad.

If there is a charitable way to understand Joe Paterno, I think it is via the Catholic understanding of “scandal,” which is not actually only about something bad and embarrassing happening, but the fear that such bad and embarrassing things might cause people to lose their faith.  For example, while many Catholic Bishops covered up sexual abuse of children for purely self-interested reasons, I imagine it’s at least possible that some wore worried about the faith of their followers being shattered by the revelations (which in some cases turned out to be well-founded fears).  To be absolutely clear: the fear of scandal is a stupid reason to hide things from the public, and it is morally stupefying that it could be used to justify not bringing child rapists to justice, or even more shocking, moving them to places where they could cause more harm.  But the fear of a scandal a real moral justification and perhaps even motivation that real people have, and, as such, it’s sociologically relevant in a way that I think is often ignored.

There’s a way in which college football can take on the trappings of a religion, and certainly for someone as centrally within that religion as Paterno, it makes sense that he might have known things but not revealed them to have protected not just his reputation but, in fact, the “faith” of so many. That’s what makes the concept of scandal so interesting: it is actually not just about people protecting their own skin, but also about protecting the beliefs of others. It’s a theme explored in comic books and literature all the time: the good guy who turned out to be bad, but we must not let the public know.

This, I think, is yet another example of how religion is not so different from plain old social life itself.  There’s a way of framing that idea I don’t like, which is a kind of Paul Tillich “ultimate concern” way of thinking that all of life is just religion.  Yet there’s another way of saying, look, religion is as much a part of social life as anything else, so it makes sense that stuff that shows up in religion could be useful to explain stuff that’s out of religion. If it worked for Durkheim (taboo, sacred/profane) and Weber (value spheres, charismatic authority), then it can still work today.  It’s one of my ongoing goals to think of religion as a site through which to develop broader social theory and through which to export concepts, rather than as a category that must be studied on its own and can only be compared to other religions.

Written by jeffguhin

July 14, 2016 at 7:45 pm

Between Francis and Trump, the religious right is going to keep losing

 

Neither (President?!) Trump nor Pope Francis is a liberal, despite what they or anyone else might say. Trump might have a quasi-liberal past, but he’s mostly a bigot misogynist racist with all sorts of pasts at this point, of which some, I assume, are good people. Francis is also no liberal, at least not on the social (read: sexual) issues that have generally mattered in the U.S. culture wars.

Yet what’s striking about both Francis and Trump is how they’ve shifted attention away from the social issues that have traditionally been a key element of conservative politics. That move has been happening for a while, especially for the cultural right. Well before the Supreme Court supported the right to gay marriage, an increasing amount of theologically conservative Christians distinguished themselves from the preceding generations’ politics.  These are folks of various religions who like Francis not because he’s a cultural liberal (he’s not!) but because he emphasizes economic and environmental justice rather than the sexual issues that have animated the American religious right. The change in focus makes Francis attractive to both religious and non-religious who think poverty and climate change are also “moral issues.”

It’s harder to explain Trump’s attraction. Cruz didn’t do great, but he did a lot better than people thought he would: clearly the culture wars aren’t over. There’s also pretty clear evidence that the more you go to church the less you like Trump, so those conservative Christians who support him tend to be “Christian-ish,” with their religion functioning as a badge of ethnic and cultural identity rather than as a marker of religious devotion. It’s an interesting connection to early modern Europeans’ separation of themselves from other races by their being “Christian,” and yet another indication that Trump’s win is a lot about the deep-seated racism still very much at play in American cultural life. There’s sexism there too, and all sorts of other forms of resentment motivating the kind of welfare hoarding Trump is pitching to disaffected whites. It’s noteworthy these folks are voting out of economic and racial resentment rather than the traditional concerns of social conservatism. (It’s of course the case that social conservatism, like everything else in United States politics, is racialized, though it’s striking how unsubtle, and even unnecessary, that link is for Trump.)

Both Francis and Trump ostensibly agree with social conservatives, but they’ve compelled many of them to change their emphases to issues that have nothing to do with their typical concerns. Of course, Francis fans are probably not the same people as Trump fans, and in some ways that’s the point: the culture wars just keep getting cut in different ways. Some warriors, like Rod Dreher, have suggested just giving up, retreating into like-minded communities until the Dark Ages are done. Others remain in for the long haul, but Trump’s win is even worse news for them than Obergefell. This isn’t a defeat at the hands of a too-powerful, out-of-touch bunch of judges. This is the voters who once composed “the moral majority.”  After the shifts towards economic and environmental justice from Francis  and his ilk, alongside the moves towards unapologetic ethnic nationalism from Trumpites, there’s not even a moral plurality left.

The culture war is still going strong.  The religious right, however, is not.

Written by jeffguhin

May 4, 2016 at 9:37 pm

religion and immigration rights in the US

Yesterday’s WSJ featured an interesting (gated) front page article on growing support among some evangelical congregations for extending immigration rights to undocumented immigrants. Drawing on the Bible to justify “welcoming the stranger,” leaders have urged outreach efforts and political mobilization for overhauling immigration reform, even though these activities may alienate some congregants and politicians. According to the WSJ, one opposing politician has countered supporters’ assertions with the claim that “The Bible contains numerous passages that do not necessarily support amnesty and instead support the rule of law. The Scriptures clearly indicate that God charges civil authorities with preserving order, protecting citizens and punishing wrongdoers.” Clearly, groups and individuals are tapping logics of religion and the state to offer various rationales for the status quo versus change.

Sociologist Grace Yukich has conducted research on a similar movement for immigration rights among Catholic groups. Her forthcoming book One Family Under God: Religion and Immigration Politics in the New Sanctuary Movement (Oxford) examines how supporters simultaneously engage with a larger social movement at the grassroots level and reshape the composition of their flock. Check out more about Yukich’s work via her blog posts on Mobilizing Ideas and The Immanent Frame.

Written by katherinechen

April 10, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Anti-circumcision campaign cut short

Male circumcision dates back to a deal that Abraham made with God, as far as I know; most Jewish and Muslim parents still circumcise their sons to show that they’re keeping their end of the bargain.  Of course, in many rich countries, lots of other people circumcise sons.  There’s some scientific evidence of some health benefits, particularly reduced transmission of AIDS, and some vigorous debate about adverse consequences.  Meanwhile, the percentage of newborns circumsized has declined over the past couple of decades.

But the cut itself is provocative, particularly when you think about it absent religious context.  In Santa Monica, Jena Troutman (above), a lactatation consultant, launched a campaign to ban circumcision in her town, making the cutting of foreskins a crime.  She started to collect signatures to get a proposition on the ballot for the November election, following a similar effort in San Francisco–where voters will address the question in November.

Initiatives and referenda are good tools for campaigns that can generate broad soft support, and good places for majorities to restrict what minorities can do.  (Witness the repeated referenda campaigns on same sex marriage.)  The populist legacy of voters making policy directly requires even more dramatic oversimplification of issues than regular politics.  Hyperbole and polemic are required elements of such campaigns, and the ballot initiative is a blunt instrument for making policy.

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Written by David S. Meyer

June 9, 2011 at 5:53 pm