ASA Religion Redux: Part 1

Today's post is a conversation between Mike Altman and me (Kelly) about the place of religion at the American Studies Association meeting last week in Baltimore, Maryland. We reflect on the types of panels at ASA on religion as well as the lingering questions from these panels including issues like embodiment, race, science, and the secular. I'll post part two tomorrow.

What does American Studies reveal to us about religion in America?

Kelly Baker (KB): As a long time ASA attendee, I am still struck by the sheer interdisciplinarity of panels: literature, material culture, religious studies, history, media studies, critical race and gender theory, sociology, legal studies, and psychology. This means that discussions of religion in America occurs across a variety of disciplines, so that a term like “fundamentalism” gets analyzed and deployed differently depending on whether a scholar studying literature, history or someone like me trained in religious studies uses it. This variety leads to discussions that I might not be having at AAR.

I attended panels ranging from the production of conservative religious documentaries to discussions of religion and American nationalism to religious visual and material cultures to religion and consumer products to re-evaluation historiographies of race and religion to negotiations and case studies of terms like global religion. What was most striking was the attention to science, embodiment, race, and the “secular,” which emerged again and again in each panel. Sandra Garner (Miami University, Ohio), Rita Trimble (Ohio State University), and John-Charles Duffy (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) showcased how participation in scientific and social scientific discourse allowed conservative Mormon documentarians to present data about population stagnation, previous “lost” peoples in the Americas, and uplifting of traditional families. Participating in secularizing language became a way to legitimate one’s religious position, a mode of verification. Science authenticated religion, which is not often how this relationship is described.

Mike Altman (MA): So, I’ll pick up on a couple of the themes you mentioned because they jumped out to me too. First, the body. All weekend we were drawn back to bodies and while the question "where's the body in your project?" can seem like a theoretical gotcha (or a form of academic snarkenfreuden), nonetheless, bodies were central to much of the research presented on American religions. Our own Emily Clark (Florida State) offered an excellent paper on Moorish Science Temple teas and tonics meant to purify the body, a purity that paralleled the need for racial and religious purity. Jordan Wade (University of Kansas), who appeared on a panel with me focused around “global religions” in America and took us into the world of Bikram Yoga with her ethnography of a yoga center in Lawrence, Kansas. In Wade's telling, yoga emerges as a form of bodily discipline, rather than spa relaxation technique, tied up in a transnational network that spans Europe, India, and America.

All of the focus on the body in some papers prompted me to wonder where the body was in other papers. When we discuss Moorish Science or yoga it seems that we notice the body but in Friday's panel "Getting the Nation Right with God: American Politics in the Conservative Christian Imagination" I realized that we don't tend to think about Christian Right bodies--at least not in the contemporary discourse scholars and journalists are producing. We especially don't tend to think of politician’s bodies--well, unless you pick cover photos at Newsweek. The presentations on this panel from Sarah Posner, Eoin Cannon, and Karen Seat were all very well done but, for me, they highlighted an overarching problem with the way the Christian Right is imagined both in the media and by scholars. It's always about ideas. The GOP candidates are constantly trying to disembody themselves and represent themselves as pure ideology. How can we force them back into bodies? How can we take Christian Right ideas about the body and think through Christian Right bodies? Marie Griffith has offered us some glimpses of Protestant bodies but we need more on contemporary political religions.

KB: Mike, yes! I couldn’t agree more. Ideas become the fundamental evidence of religiosity for some groups, and bodies become the evidence in others. This division of ideas and bodies proves superficial and unhelpful (at least I think so) to our scholarship. Critical analysis of both race and gender necessarily lends itself to discussions of embodiment, so discussions of race and religion like Ed’s panel at 8 am on Thursday interrogate and engage embodiness, the bodily, and practice as well as the ideological and theological ramifications. Much like Emily and Jordan engaged both in their presentations to make clearly how the bodily impacts the more ephemeral renderings of spirit and purity.What becomes telling is where embodiness appears as a legitimate method of describing, documenting, or analyzing religious peoples, movements, and ideas and where embodiment is somehow not considered.

What I liked about Jason Bivins’ (North Carolina Sate) response to the Getting Right with God panel was his attempt to bring up embodiment as a legitimate method to interrogate the Christian Right and other politicitizations of religion. Why don’t we problematize, or heck, even engage, the bodies attached to these ideologies? I think it deeply matters that white male bodies are ignored in favor of their ideas and their rhetoric. They become soley progenitors of words, somehow absent from the fleshy reality that plagues the rest of us (even though there is attention, not analysis, of physical appearances). Embodiment matters, and I want to know why there is still hesitance to press bodily analysis on certain, dominant religious groups. Griffith does lead the way on this, and I think Martha Finch’s work, gets us closer to this kind of analysis. Why aren’t we analyzing white Christian bodies? Is it an assumption of invisibility and dominance? Or is there something more subtle and possibly insidious going on here?

I asked a variation of this question at quite a few panels to get at the question of the invisibility of whiteness as a racial classification. Didn’t you even call it my “whiteness question?” Judith Weisenfeld (Princeton University) pointed out the need for more analysis of assumptions of whiteness in her response to the conservative documentaries panel. By the end of the weekend, I felt a bit like a broken record. We need to think more about race as more than marked by difference but also unmarked categories too.

Continued here.


Christopher said…
This is great. Thanks, Kelly and Mike. The discussion if the Christian right and bodies is especially interesting to me, and I actually think the problem you highlight here has some relevance to the continued debates over whether or not Mormonism is "Christian" or not. What often strikes evangelicals as heterodox at best and heresy at worst about Mormonism centers around bodies--from rituals (the baptism of bodies on behalf of deceased persons or secret temple rituals) to core Mormon teachings (an embodied God). Mike's comment that "the GOP candidates are constantly trying to disembody themselves and represent themselves as pure ideology," is especially poignant then in the case of Mitt Romney, whose doing so seems a calculated move--reduce Mormonism to ideology and it can be seen as a radical strain of Protestantism. Engage Mormonism in its lived--and embodied--fullness, and its something different.
Kelly J. Baker said…
Chris, what an excellent point about the embodiness of Mormons as way to understand the religious system beyond ideology. I liked Mike's point to of attempting to become just ideology ("talking heads" maybe) as a function of political rhetoric, but we know bodies matter there too. I think about all the Newsweek images of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann that emphasize their female bodies as a marker of their identities but not of the male candidates.

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