Thursday Reading: Religious Knowledge, Religious Studies and the Tea Party's Religion

Kelly Baker

Here's some interesting reading for your Thursday over at Religion Dispatches and Religion Nerd. First, Brent Plate takes on the much-touted Pew survey about religious knowledge and asks important questions of why religion is always coded as belief rather than practice. How do we get pollsters to start thinking about how religion is embodied?

Second, my colleague, Mark Hulsether engages Newsweek's recent article on the popularity of Religious Studies as an undergraduate major. He writes about Newsweek's portrayal of the major and benefits and pitfalls of this story by Lisa Miller. Here's a snippet:

For starters, there's the characterization of Religious Studies as an “esoteric” field, against a background premise that it is not “useful” and that common sense would lead “anguished” parents not to recommend it to their children. True, the narrative presents the study of religion “reviving” from this baseline, moving beyond the baggage that seems to define its reputation. But what are the costs of granting this premise in the first place?

By its conclusion, the article is referring to Religious Studies as less “esoteric” than “do-gooder”—although the final sentence recommends the field for “students earnestly interested in the Meaning of Life,” so it circles back to a middle ground between esotericism and do-gooder-ism.

The overall logic seems to be that the academic study of religion is a “growth industry” mainly insofar as three things apply: First, that it is no longer “elitist,” as it presumptively has been in the past. Second, that it is virtuously out of step with most Ivy League schools. Third, and most crucially, that it is running away from what is clearly coded as a shame or embarrassment: its “legacy of Christian origins.” Apparently the problem is that some Religious Studies programs—notably Harvard’s, from which Robert Orsi luckily “fled”—still train some of their students for careers related to Protestant Christianity.

Finally, check out Dennis LoRusso's piece over at Religion Nerd on the analysis of the Tea Party's religion, which takes the portrayal of the movement(s) as religious and what's at stake in that claim.


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