Front Porch Strategy: Sacred Space and Demonic Grounds



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Today's guest post comes from Laura McTighe, a doctoral candidate in North American Religions at Columbia University and a Charlotte Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellow. She comes to her doctoral studies through nearly twenty years of grassroots work to end criminalization and advance community-led healing. You can find more of her writing online here.

Laura McTighe

"We believe in the revolutionary things that happen on a southern front porch."

It was mid-December, but that affirmation hung in the air like humidity in July. Three and a half-years prior, on May 29, 2012, Women With A Vision (WWAV) had been made home-less, after still-unknown arsonists firebombed and destroyed their New Orleans offices. On October 19, 2015, this quarter-century-old black feminist collective walked into their first home since the fire, complete with a sprawling front porch that emptied into Broad Street's foot traffic. We christened that front porch with a  conversation about the word "resilience," that dubious slogan of the city's official Hurricane Katrina 10th anniversary celebrations. What exactly did resilience mean when 99,650 black New Orleanians were still displaced, and thousands more were living in prison cells as a result of intensified policing? "Oh, right..."

As the rush hour traffic crawled by, we reflected on the vital work that WWAV was doing to hold the experiences black women--especially those born and raised in New Orleans--as relevant and important. We imagined how bring these stories to the forefront could help to expose the battle for space and history actively underway in the new New Orleans. When we took this picture, WWAV's Executive Director, Deon Haywood, had just claimed the front porch as a site where this organizing could take place and have a place--where revolutionary things happen. That affirmation prompted the recollection of another in WWAV's history. Twenty-five years ago, WWAV was just an idea, thought up by eight black women on a front porch in Central City.

Sitting on WWAV's new front porch in New Orleans, Louisiana. (L to R: Shaquita Borden, Mwende Katwiwa, Deon Haywood, Nakita Shavers, Laura McTighe, Nia Weeks; Photo by: Desiree Evans)

***

I have been a partner to the WWAV family for nearly a decade now. As a doctoral student at Columbia University, I've spent the last four years designing, researching and (now) writing a collaborative ethnography of activist persistence alongside my WWAV colleagues. Together, through an amalgamation of oral history, collective storytelling, and archival tracing, we've been working to document the ethics of survival, struggle, and renewal that guided WWAV's work from their founding in the early years of the AIDS epidemic through to their present in the post-Katrina new New Orleans. What's mattered most? Space. Specifically, front porch space.

As a scholar of religion in America, space has long been a critical analytical category for understanding how something we might call "religion" is produced through and productive of embodied and emplaced encounters, contests, and practices.

Ben Sasse, Donald Trump, and the Beginning and End of the Religious Right: (Mostly) A Repost



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Charles McCrary

Last week at the Republican National Convention Donald Trump officially became the Republicans’ nominee for president. There is much to say about what Trump—and, probably more importantly, Trumpism—means, what effects his candidacy has had, and so on. We have a number of theoretical tools and historical examples from which to draw some conclusions. In recent months there have been lots of bad pieces about Trump and some good ones. (I’ve especially appreciated the analyses from Kerry Mitchell, Elijah Siegler, and Finbarr Curtis.) Trump’s place in American religious history is unclear to me, other than as a reaffirmation that white nationalism must remain a key part of our narratives.

A number of commentators noticed the RNC’s lack of social conservatism and talk of the “family values” of the Religious Right, including reproductive issues. Maybe the culture wars—or, as Peter Thiel put it during his RNC speech, the distracting “fake culture wars”—are over. Maybe the Religious Right has lost so much power, by ceding it so totally to one party, that their influence is basically nil. I admit that this conclusion does seem plausible. But we’ve heard premature pronouncements of the Religious Right’s death before. Many times. Now, here I could say something about how “the evangelicals” don’t exist, or we could parse “social conservatism.” Instead I’ll just say that it’s probably true that most people don’t care what James Dobson has to say anymore, but it’s also very unlikely that social conservatism is dead, even as it probably cannot be the primary calling card of a successful national politician. Recently, “religious liberty” has become, in popular discourse and in legislation, social conservatives’ chosen method of opposing cultural and legal changes regarding sex and gender. It is noteworthy, I think, that the most effective opposition to civil rights advances for minority groups (LGBT people) is to reframe the matter as an impingement upon the rights of a different “minority” group (evangelicals or social conservatives.) At any rate, though, these issues probably aren’t going away any time soon, and to whatever extent the “Religious Right” survives, it likely will be as a self-consciously oppositional, reactionary force.

Which leads me to today’s repost. Jesus wasn’t the only important Republican missing from the RNC last week. Republican Senator Ben Sasse, a key leader in the #NeverTrump movement, opted to skip the convention and instead “take his kids to watch some dumpster fires.” I wrote about Sasse on this blog a couple years ago, before he had won his Senate seat and before anyone thought Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee. I’ve reposted that piece here. I think it worth revisiting because Sasse locates the origins of the Religious Right in a self-consciously oppositional politics, a movement that defined itself against its opponents. When I wrote the piece, I was thinking about the Tea Party and the obstructionist strategies of the Republicans in Congress, who seemed to lack a coherent ideology or program other than opposition to President Obama. But now, two years later, we might have other things in mind. Throughout the RNC, speaker after speaker told us very little about Donald Trump and very much about his opponent and her faults. In his speech Trump advanced almost no policy ideas or plans for the future, but he did say a lot about what he opposes, what we should fear, and the dangers from which only he can save us.

OK, without further undercooked ado, here is the piece. I’ve left it unedited, save for a few typo corrections.

Sportianity at Forty: Rereading Frank Deford's Series on Religion in Sport



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Paul Putz



In 1976 Frank Deford wrote a three-part series for Sports Illustrated on "Religion in Sport." Deford focused special attention on what he called "Sportianity." This world of sports-specific evangelical ministries included the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes In Action, Baseball Chapel, and Pro Athletes Outreach, and was represented in Deford's piece by coaches and athletes (Roger Staubach, Alvin Dark, Tom Landry), sports chaplains (Billy Zeoli, Tom Skinner), and organizational leaders (Arlis Priest, Dave Hannah).

Although Deford also discussed Catholics, Muslims, and Jews, his digressions into non-evangelical groups were usually meant to serve as a contrast to the deficiencies of the Sportianity style. In Deford's view, the leaders of Sportianity were so obsessed with the "competition for dotted-line converts" that they ended up captive to the world of big-time sports. They were, Deford concluded, "more devoted to exploiting sport than to serving it."

Mainstream media, including the New York Times, had taken note of the prominence of evangelicals in athletics before Deford, but no major journalist had so thoroughly dissected the phenomenon. The series caused a stir, especially among those associated with evangelical sports ministries. NFL linebacker-turned-evangelist Bill Glass, for example, opined that Deford's series was "the biggest pile of garbage that has ever been perpetrated on the American public." Others took a more sympathetic view. Gary Warner, editor of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' monthly periodical, thought that Deford may have been unfair in some of his characterizations, but that many of his critiques hit the mark.

I was talking about Deford's series recently with Art Remillard (hey, did you know Art is writing a "religious history of sports in America" and is also blogging about it?). Art pointed out that this year is the fortieth anniversary of Deford's essays. So, in the spirit of arbitrarily commemorating things in ten-year increments, I decided to go back and reread the Sports Illustrated series. Here are four things that caught my attention.

Of Turkish Politics and Texas Charter Schools



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Elesha Coffman

I am not going to pretend to understand what's going on in Turkey right now, but the attempted coup has turned a media spotlight on cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has lived for many years in exile in the Poconos. Gulen might or might not have anything to do with the coup; he denied any involvement and suggested that Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might have staged the whole thing to tighten his hold on power. Gulen is, however, more clearly linked to an extensive charter school network in the United States, including Harmony Public Schools, the largest charter network in Texas. The schools generally advance a STEM-focused curriculum and are not accused of religious indoctrination, though they have aroused concerns related to financial transparency and preferential treatment of Turkish teachers and contractors. (Some Fethullahist schools outside the U.S., by contrast, are overtly religious.) Additional concerns about the American schools surfaced earlier this summer, when the Turkish government lodged a complaint with the Texas Education Agency.

Given my research background, I look at this story and think, Americans United for Separation of Church and State should be all over this! This is exactly the kind of scenario the organization was founded to combat! AU is not, in fact, all over it, though religion in public schools, government subsidies of religion, and school vouchers are three of the group's top 10 issues. AU did mention Gulen once in a 2012 piece on charter schools. That AU isn't taking particular notice of this story is a useful reminder of how mobile the "wall of separation between church and state" has been over the years, even for the most prominent organization devoted to bolstering it.

Fear, Florida, and Faith-Based Prisons



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Today's guest post comes from Brad Stoddard. Brad is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at McDaniel College. He is currently revising his dissertation, an ethnohistory of Florida’s faith-based correctional facilities. 
 
Brad Stoddard

Roughly three years before his 2006 arrest and subsequent conviction for accepting illegal kickbacks as head of Florida’s Department of Corrections (DOC), James Crosby shocked the correctional world and beyond when he announced that Florida’s DOC was going to convert Lawtey Correctional Institution into the nation’s first faith-based prison. Several states, including Florida, already operated faith-based correctional dormitories, but Crosby wanted to create something bigger and bolder. An entire faith-based prison would be that something.

As a graduate student researching my dissertation on Florida’s faith-based correctional facilities, I wanted desperately to interview Crosby, who has been somewhat reclusive since he was released from prison. When he agreed to the interview, I asked him what motivated him to create a faith-based prison. His answer surprised me, but in hindsight perhaps it shouldn’t have, as it echoed a sentiment I’d heard several times before in the course of my research.



Religion and the War of 1812



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Jonathan Den Hartog

As part of our 4th of July celebrations, my family and I went to a local historic site (Historic Fort Snelling in St. Paul, for those interested in the Upper Midwest).  As part of the day's festivities, costumed reenactors staged a mock battle of a skirmish from the War of 1812. The connection to the site itself was loose, and I was left wondering if the audience was able to place the events being acted out in anything beyond "people in old-timey costumes fire at other people in old-timey costumes and the Americans won." Having some sense of the War of 1812 has become even more important to me, as that topic has dominated my research and writing this summer.

For this blog, I thought I might also share some reflections on religion in the War of 1812 and what more could still be said.

First, we need to point to the "standard" work on the subject--William Gribbin's The Churches Militant: The War of 1812 and American Religion. Gribbin published the book in 1973, and it seems like this would be a great topic to revisit, now 40 years later. With our greater knowledge of so many things from the Early Republic, it would seem a terrific time to revisit the subject.

We know more about the politics of the Early Republic and party ideals and functioning. We have had better works on the War of 1812, itself, thinking of books by Alan Taylor, Donald Hickey, Nicole Eustace, and Paul Gilje. We have a better sense of religion in the early republic and how it impacted both Democratic-Republicans and Federalists. And, we have so much greater access through digitization projects that a wealth of material would be more readily available and richer than Gribbin was able to pull together. With these resources, the space would seem to be wide open for greater consideration of religion in the War of 1812.

DECLENSION IN PURITAN SCHOLARSHIP?



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This is a guest post from Craig Gallagher. Craig is a PhD candidate at Boston College whose work focuses on religion in the seventeenth and eighteenth century Atlantic world.

Any scholar of Early American history who has earned their Ph.D. in the last half-decade has had to contend at some point with Perry’s Miller’s declension model for New England Puritans. Miller’s model held that Puritanism hit its intellectual height in the mid-seventeenth century in the Massachusetts Bay colony, before entering into inevitable decline as New England modernized in the eighteenth century, even as they left a lasting philosophical legacy that laid the foundations of the American nation. Despite the first of his seminal works that put forth this model – The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Harvard UP, 1939) – having been published in the first half of the twentieth century, most graduate students still find themselves debating its merits in historiography classes today, even when discussing religion in colonial American regions outside of New England.



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