Embattled Majority: Part II of Jason Bivins On His Work Embattled Majority
Today is Part II of our two-part series featuring Jason Bivins' reflections about and on his ongoing work Embattled Majority. Read Part I here.
by Jason Bivins
by Jason Bivins
On one level, Embattled Majority is a genealogy of the tropes of persecution and victimization among religious conservatives since the 1960s, as well as among their vocal detractors. The book tells the story of this discursive formation – locating its origins in judicial decisions, school desegregation, and grassroots campaigning – but also focuses on how new media, religio-political celebrity, and the emotional registers of affront and offense give it shape and prolonged life. As meditations and exemplars, the book looks to a series of performed outrages that give life to the religion of embattlement: David Barton’s pseudo-history, Glenn Beck’s tears, legislation outlawing Sharia in Tennessee and Oklahoma, the political celebrity of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry’s prayer gatherings, and birtherism. The topic is not an unfamiliar one, and some authors have treated it admirably. Randall Balmer and Jeffrey Sharlet – whose works are diametrically opposed in many different ways – have each limned the institutional or movement contours of this sense of embattlement. Elizabeth Castelli has sharply located some of the discursive features of this notion in her important piece on the Justice Sunday conferences. Historian Grace Elizabeth Hale has written a provocative chapter on the 1970s conservative Christian appropriation of erstwhile leftist outsider tropes. And social and political theorists such as Wendy Brown, William Connolly, and even madcap Slavoj Zizek have written provocatively about discourses of victimization in contemporary culture. Yet I focus not just on the frank existence of such claims, on targets and practitioners, but on the technologies of their deployment; on the role of speed, intensity, and virality therein; on their emotional contours; and of course on what their ubiquity reveals about our religio-political moment, and what may come.
A central focus is on two discursive constructions of “religion,” which share revealing groups of similarities. One is spoken by a group we might call “Whistle-blowers,” whose media expressions – including NPR commentaries, websites like Salon, Christo-phobic texts by Christophers Hedges and Hitchens, and blogs like The Rude Pundit – have sought to “blow the whistle” on evangelicals said to be seeking theocratic rule and attacking the First Amendment. The tone of these allegations – enraged, panicked, dismissive – has had a large role in constructing one model of political “religion” in recent years. The other discourse issues from a group we might call “Martyrs,” shaped largely by institutionally powerful, heavily-funded speakers – from media personalities like Glenn Beck to pop authors like Tim LaHaye to Presidential hopefuls like Ricks Perry and Santorum – with significant connections to Christian Right organizations. They claim to be victims of “religious bigotry,” an unjust marginalization of Christians from public life at the behest of secular liberals who oppose America’s Christian legacy.
The discourse favored by the “Martyrs” has been the shaping influence during this period; the discourse of the “whistle-blowers” is in every way a reaction to the growing power of a conservative subculture shaped by the emergence of the New Christian Right (NCR) in the 1970s. The sense of cultural crisis found so widely in conservative evangelical communities is one that has been publicized for decades by NCR figureheads and organizations, yielding both a broad sensibility about political morality and specific points of advocacy that are reflected in the conceptual grammar of “religious bigotry.” But it struck me over time that the real story was in how both groups see themselves as an Embattled Majority, as representatives of the “real” America, unfairly victimized by zealots. Each advances their criticisms not only through rhetorics of alterity – and the two epistemological modes noted above – but with constructions of “religion.” To the Martyrs, “religion” is precisely the register of identity which renders them targets of victimization and embattlement. They believe that “religion” as they understand it – specifically a kind of Christocentric nationalism – is firmly rooted and evident in a providential history that spans the roughly four centuries between John Winthrop and the War on Terror. A central index of patriotism and good citizenship, “religion” here is not only a rightful political participant but a force of cohesion, a foundation that undergirds political virtue, a barometer by which the nation’s health is measured. On this account, recent American history chronicles both an unprecedented corruption of this “religion’s” flourishing – a claim supported by arguments about the activist judiciary, the secularization of public life, and so forth – and a reassertion of the proper power of religion in those efforts seeking to roll back the forces of “religious bigotry.” To the Whistleblowers, “religion” is not benevolent but dangerous, a divisive and disruptive presence in public life which deflects attention from material concerns or accepted forms of recognition onto scrims and screens that lure people from real world engagement with promises of messianic glory. Here, “religion” is not what has been corrupted (though there is a sense that “religion” is okay if thoroughly privatized and neutered) but rather what corrupts and corrodes the secular, rational character of American ideals and procedures. Even while Whistleblowers acknowledge that these have been only imperfectly realized, “religion” represents to them a dangerous return of the Enlightenment’s repressed other, a pre-echo of the real American history that began with philosopher kings in Philadelphia and which is in danger from reactionary mobs.
These uses of “religion” in public discourse then take shape via the changing deployment of shared images (the wall of separation), legal norms (“public reason”), and tropes (“the people”). Each vision reflects not only particular religio-political orientations, but historical ones: the history of the American Left shapes the disbelief and rage of the “Whistle-blowers”; the history of the 1970s New Right and its offspring shapes the institutional network and rhetoric of the “Martyrs”; the political apathy and disenchantment of post-1960s American life shapes the chastened outlook of both discourses; and understandings of American history itself (its origins and moral character) are at stake in each conversation. Perhaps most provocatively, the shared features of these discourses constitute a larger sign of political exhaustion in the United States, something to which political constructions of “religion” contribute even while promising remedies. As both commentary on and contribution to political life, these discourses employ a conceptual grammar that advances the categories “good” religion (like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, whose politics happen to mirror our own and are thereby seen as acceptable participants in public life) and “bad” religion (ones, like Rick Perry’s, whose politics we do not share and are therefore seen as dangers in public life).
What, then, are the implications in terms of political culture broadly speaking and the study of religion? First, I try in this book to think how context – political, affective, technological – shapes the emergence and the effects of these claims. It’s here that I’m using the term Techular Swirl. Why “Techular”? The word “Techular” aims to capture how the technologies of our imagination produce categories like “religion,” but also suggests how we produce and perform our Embattlements in ways that are literally technological: we depend on it, are facilitated by it, produced by it. In other words, the processes by which Embattlement claims circulate resemble, and sometimes partake of, the technological, of the modes by which new social media act. The word also connotes the secular because the very emphasis on investing blank time and space with meaning is a possibility and longing that characterizes the secular. We see their fusion in the Embattled Majority’s productions of “religion” itself. And the word “Swirl” conveys the disorientation, the ceaselessness of motion, and the sheer sense of being overwhelmed that characterizes our politics.
Second, I try to think about the significance of how persecutionist claims are articulated. Historically, one of the big stories – and one of the leitmotifs of this book – is how the ubiquity of political liberalism (as a logic shaping discourse and self-understanding) and the identitarian shape the agonisms that seek to undermine them. This has become clearer to me in thinking about Nietzsche’s famous notion that those who perceive themselves as “victims” use this status to become oppressors and “killers” themselves. The fervid imagination that cooks up liberal and/or theophobic hostilities also depends, unknowingly, on liberal identitarian formations of rights of immunity, demands for recognition, and an insistence on the singularity (what I’m calling the “thingness”) of the discrete category “religion” as a central feature of American life. The surest way to “kill” one’s other is to perform – using these features of liberal identitarianism – one’s “victimhood.”
What are we to make of this “religion” that is detectable in this flashes and sudden onrushes of dense verbiage? How do we locate it amidst the emotional intensities that seem at the heart of this culture of accusations, and where does “religion” originate in this complex lattice of technology, velocity, and relationality? Certainly one of my main claims is that “religion” is constituted through and by the evanescent outrages of the discourse. But it also is partly the point that “religion” eludes thingness, eludes conventional formulations of time and place and practice too. And the thingness of these notions is precisely what has preoccupied those seeking to profess outrage about these matters, these moments, these clouds that suddenly appear to us as the familiar strange. The emotional focus of this discourse, its necessary urgency, comes not just through the moment of exposé seen in “Gotcha!” Epistemology, whereby primary objects or categories like “religion” become known to us in moments of outrage, but also in what I call the Epistemology of Favorites, wherein knowledge is gathered and organized as one puts together a favorites list for internet browsing, iPod listening, and the like. This is relevant since those who use this discourse are shaping a mode of perception whereby the fundaments of knowledge and identity (the “favorites”) act as battlements, filters, and authorities that on the one hand engage in rigid boundary maintenance yet on the other hand generate a continual feedback loops between already settled convictions and onrushing data, all of which can only inevitably confirm what is already felt to be true, with feeling now understood as knowledge. Wiki expertise is crucial to both epistemological modes, where we all become experts in Sharia, the Federalist Papers, or education jurisprudence.
As I worked up these categories in the wake of the 2008 election, and began writing them up in earnest in 2010, I’ve tried to remain focused on how in these Embattlement discourses it is “religion” that is the engine of engines. Along the way, I revisit my earlier writings about political exhaustion, the religious supplement as a response to apathy and delegitimation, and the flourishing agon of American politics, and I garnish these themes with excursuses into disaster movies, reality TV, academic blogging, and – yes, my colleagues in fantasy football – Tim Tebow (rhymes with below). Through the “religion” the Swirl coughs up, we learn that the base experience of political life now is this frustration, this throwing up of hands, this furious internet scuttle to our sources, our people, our truths. Embattled Majority, then, is about the emergence and movement of “religion” in this discourse, in this particular kind of political environment. It is, more specifically, about the kind of “religion” that defines itself as embattled, as persecuted, as a victim and a martyr in a hostile secular America. And it is also about the outraged responses to such claims. This mutuality, this co-dependent and shared affront is what gives shape to “religion” in our America. These languages are now nearly universal. Nothing can be said without outraging someone. I have chosen to focus on the masters of this discourse and the eddies their presence creates, as a way of building a portrait of the present, already slipping away even as I type this.
It is the performance of “religion” – always outraged and outrageous – that gives vitality to this technologically overgrown secular, speaks languages run riot with competing claims to rational facticity and emotional authenticity, and moves with the speed and character of collective impulse. Attending to these things, not merely ideology and institution, tell us far more about our shared orientation to “religion,” I hope, and about the shared world we make and remake with our language. Beyond our fascination with elections (which crystallizes the dominance of celebrity culture in the U.S.), our collective obsession with metaphors of place (as in, is there a “proper” “place” for religion in politics?) commits us on some level to an image of overlap and separation, either desired or dangerous, that turns on our propensity to see “religion” (or “religious belief”) as a thing, a separate and “special” quality or domain of experience to be protected or separated or given special license to “shape voter decision-making” or fashion arguments or justify behaviors. And it is the very specialness and discreteness of the category – its fragility and combustibility – that makes it so central to the languages of embattlement and the cultures of outrage. This is what it means to be an American now.