Monday, April 30, 2012

F**k the Police, the Scribes, and Pharisees: Rodney King, Jesus, and Hip Hop's Prophetic Tradition

by Gee Joyner and Earle Fisher
Rhetoric Race and Religion Contributors

*The authors first presented a version of this paper on March 10, 2012 at the 36th Annual National Council of Black Studies in Atlanta, Georgia

After evidence of police brutality against African-Americans was recorded by a video camera in Los Angeles, California, the entire nation, and the world, was privied to what African Americans had been knowledgeable of for years—the inhumane and discriminatory treatment of Black males, and often times Black women, by U.S. police officers solely because of their race and the prescribed stereotypical perception thereof. The media’s broadcasting of the beating of motorist Rodney King became the impetus for widespread outrage amongst the United States’ Black population, and because of the acquittal of the officers responsible, the L.A. riots of 1993, which ironically took place in the predominately Black area of Watts.

This text intends to explore the burgeoning of ‘Gangsta Rap’ into mainstream media, radio, and households via the aftermath of the Rodney King trial and how rap artists began to utilize their lyrical and rhetorical skills to redefine the content of their music to protest not only police brutality but the inequality and socioeconomic and political inequity that Black Americans had endured throughout the post-Civil Rights Era and, holistically, throughout their residence in the United States by unleashing a verbal rebellion vis- a- vis abrasive and suggestive lyrics, appearance, and demeanor. This blatant display of social, and often times political, rebellion and the antagonistic positioning the genre takes towards the United States’ ideological metaphor of the ‘American Dream’ and the notion of racial equality should be deconstructed in a way that thoroughly defines the signifier of ‘gangsta’ when categorizing a subgenre of Rap music that addresses the conundrum of American civil rights for the Black American.

First, one must define the ‘gangsta’ in Gangsta Rap, as well as juxtaposing that definition with the original and correct spelling of the term in the American lexicon. The Oxford American Dictionary defines gangster as “a member of a gang of violent criminals.” To deconstruct the term, the audience must deconstruct the terms used in defining gangster—“violent” and “criminal”. Before the media coined the term ‘gangsta’ for the subgenre of rap music that addressed the social ills of the mostly Black communities in the United States—and chronicled the violence that persisted and the poverty that inundated these neighborhoods—the label Gangsta Rap had never been used by those within the industry and culture of Rap music. Maybe this term was used to clandestinely hide the racism that mainstream America felt towards this form of Black music that created, according to Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, “a safe, color-blind way to state racial views without appearing to be irrationally or rabidly racist.”

Think about it for a moment—have you ever heard of ‘gangsta’ Rock or ‘gangsta’ Heavy Metal? Probably never—even though Rock and Heavy Metal often have themes of violence and misogynistic allusions and imagery. In contrast, the colloquial term ‘gangsta’ in the African-American culture, and particularly the way it is used within Rap jargon, is not monolithically defined as one who participates in criminality, but it also refers to and is synonymous with being a rebel and rebellious. This assertion, however far-fetched and linguistically reaching it may seem, is, in my opinion, in direct correlation to the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, the Black Panther Party was revered in their founding city of Oakland and throughout America because of their ‘gangsta’ or rebellious attitude towards the disenfranchisement African-Americans endured at the hands of the U.S. government, and their attire and use of firearms gave off a ‘gangsta’ vibe if you will. “Gangsta Rap” artists, particularly those from the West Coast reincarnated that look and gangsta demeanor through artistic creation and the ability to influence an entire culture.

We assume that this blatant defiance of what America thought young, Black males should be—subordinate, docile, and obedient, prompted the white mainstream media to negatively pan the music and behaviors of those rap artists that protested the U.S. treatment and stereotypical characterization of not only Black males, but the Black community in its totality. Really, there was no need to demonize and label, if not socially posit the music, in a subordinate role within the musical and social hierarchy. 

For the most part, early Rap music, particularly the songs and groups or individuals who made it to the mainstream airwaves and a particular level of crossover success, only spoke of and delved into the prowess of the DJ and the superb linguistic skill, and ability to rhyme, of the rapper through the use of verbal verbosity and braggadocio. Ironically, once the Black Rap artist began to use his talent of rhetorical prowess to adhere to the Black Aesthetic critic’s mantra of utilizing Black art to uplift the race, the media began to demonize not only the artists who created the lyrics but it also disregarded their plight and condemned the ethno-specific culture in which those artists jointly shared.

The aforementioned content of protest within Rap music was not deemed ‘gangsta’, in our opinion, until after the Los Angeles riots, which were a direct result and physical manifestation of elements of hardcore Rap music that had addressed the ills of inner city United States’ neighborhoods. Moreover, this form of music highlighted the dehumanizing and oft times racially charged profiling by the local police and sheriff departments throughout America. Now, before we continue, we must note, for the Hip Hop historians that may read this text, that the label ‘gangsta’ had been applied to previous rappers or rap groups, most notoriously N.W.A. (Niggas With Attitudes) in the late 1980s. However, this form of Rap music did not become prevalent in mainstream media, via MTV and popular radio stations, until after the brutal beating of motorist Rodney King and the subsequent trial that acquitted the police officers involved, Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno.

The irony of the invention of Gangsta Rap is that if one were to look at it as protest music, the origins could be found in Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five’s 1982 hit “The Message” and not the profanity laced and misogynistic lyrics connoted with what audiences now perpetually referred to as Gangsta Rap. We want to suggest that the grim narrative depicting the poverty, drug use, and violence that inundated many inner-city communities was the harbinger of the Gangsta Rap genre. Moreover, due to the media’s repackaging and reconstruction of the worth of Rap music is the reason why most listening audiences do not, or will not, properly attribute the characteristic of protest to the prophetic content associated with not only Gangsta Rap music but the majority of Rap music as a whole.

Even more so ironic is the fact that the artists such as Ice Cube, Ice Tee, Tupac Shakur, and numerous others—who protested and verbalized their gripes about America and its police forces, are the same artists whom MTV and radio stations across the country, and the world, commoditized and celebrated in hopes of profiting off of the very verbiage and musical genre that was criticizing the white establishment. These Gangsta Rap artists became heroes in a sense, not only to young Black males and females who witnessed the same abuses and neglect that the music spoke of, but they also became cult heroes to the white listening audiences, specifically members of Generation X, who were either unaware of what was going on in the inner city, or the ‘hood’, or had only received a sanitized version of the plight of the Black American through old footage from the Civil Rights Era, familial discussions or white-owned print and visual media outlets.

Yet when we shift our lens from the literary etymology and social constructs and focus equally on the rhetorical and religious, our findings are striking. According to an article entitled “Anguish of the King Verdict” published by the Christian Century in May of 1992, “In Los Angeles on the day the verdict was announced, Cecil L. Murray, pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church, formed a circle of prayer with church officials and members and asked God to "help us localize the pain." Murray's church was the site of an appearance by Mayor Tom Bradley on the night of April 29. The meeting had been planned during the trial in hopes of cooling emotions that might be touched off if the officers were acquitted…”

The environment of the impoverished black Americans in Los Angeles (of which Rodney King is representative) in 1992 was extremely comparative to the environment of the 2nd Class citizen Jewish peoples of the Greco Roman world during the life and time of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, who has come to be known as a powerful prophet by those within and beyond the Christian religious circle, was a student of and professor against the oppression of a federal government system and structure that lorded over and abused his people. Jesus was a poor person of color and the Roman Empire was a group of elite Europeans. Nonetheless, the language and rhetoric that Jesus (and other prophetic figures) used was inflammatory to the ears of the roman empirical representatives.

What seems to have been lost in translation is the prophetic rhetoric Jesus spoke to the Jewish and Roman officials, which subsequently had him killed. Jesus’ language was what we would call in contemporary terms, “Gangsta” Rhetoric. Clearly, Jesus was able effectively to articulate the plight of his peoples due to (from his perspective) the unjust legislation that oppressed his people. A (re) reading of Matthew 23 is illustrative here.

"The riots in Los Angeles highlighted the previously contaminated relationship between the police and the African American community.  Several years prior, N.W.A. had already begun to address the trending trepidation with a song entitled, "F**k the Police." Many of us may be taken aback by such a prophetic precursor, but let us investigate this statement using comparative analysis."

In the gospel of Matthew Jesus responds to the civic and social leaders’ (i.e. the elected officials and police) oppressive governing on behalf of the people they represented with these words, “"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! The term “woe” here, ouai (pronounced ooh-eye) in Greek (, is an interjectory exclamation of grief, disgust and dismissal. The slang comparative interjection is “f**k” ( Therefore, the comparative phrase for that would be consistent with what the audience heard Jesus say would be “F**k you scribes and Pharisees…”

Continuing, Jesus says the authorities of his day, “…build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and …you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” Here, Jesus has called the authorities murderers that have killed innocent people who have spoken out against oppression in the name of liberation. This unorthodox (ghetto) Nazarene then has the nerve to name call them by saying “…You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell...?” These labels and terms are in essence an indictment that they are devilish beings whose parents and their offspring (of which they are included) are “feminine nouns of uncertain etymological origins” ( that need to go to hell!!! This insinuates that in contemporary vernacular Jesus just called them “b****es.”

Jesus then closes this periscope with the satirical indictment screaming out - "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate...” - or in comparative words - Los Angeles Los Angeles the city that kills black people and lets the police off Scott free!!! (Matt 23:28-38 NRSV) (edits by authors)

To be clear, we are NOT drawing these parallels for the sake of shock and awe. Moreover, our intent is to expand the scope and sensitivity to language used by different subjects that receive different interpretations which ignore the etymological ethos that gives them specific meaning.

The use of language and censorship in American culture has been a topic of rhetorical debate since the implementation of the first amendment. Most often, the dismissal of a term is associated with the rejection of its user. Therefore, we are arguing that Gangsta rap has been dismissed as an attempt to continue the disenfranchisement of a group of people based upon mythical representations of their character.

At some point, the harsh realities of the environment Jesus was reared in has become sanitized, pseudo-spiritualized and misappropriated and Jesus himself has been “white-washed.” The result is a mythical line of demarcation regarding Christianity and political implications in contemporary contexts. This reinforces a platonic dualism that provides an argument of convenience for those who want to focus on content more so than context.

When dealing with rhetoric, especially protest and prophetic rhetoric, both content and context is paramount. For language to be considered vulgar is for it to be vilified as foreign. In religious terms these themes are comparative to sacred and secular appropriations. However, for something to be sacred to a given community doesn’t necessarily affirm the divinity therein. What is sacred in one community can very well be ordinary or profane (the root word for profanity) in another.

The religious community played (and continues to play) a large role in the dismissal and negative portrayal of gangsta rap. However, riotous behavior and language is what placed Jesus of Nazareth on the Calvary crucifix. Contrary to popular belief, Jesus was not executed because of blasphemy or some other religious misstep. Jesus was convicted and subsequently lynched because of sedition – the use inflammatory language and rhetoric that the Roman Empire feared would start a riot.

If we can draw parallels between the riot spawned by the King beating and acquittal of the officers (that was only part of the larger element of oppression which exists in countless urban communities like South Central Los Angeles) aligned with the atmosphere which spurred the religious revolution we know as Christianity, we may be able to resolve and further understand a deeply prophetic response to oppression.

It is fair to suggest that in the face of unyielding oppression a prophetic voice (or voices) cannot help but speak. This is the function of the prophet. Couple this with the sad reality that in both South Central LA and ancient Rome the institutions (i.e. the church and/or the federal government) that ought to have been the platform for representation of the oppressed peoples was (and sadly continues to be) silent. Even worse, sometimes these communities are hypocritical and beneficiaries of the oppressive system itself. 

In response to the violence that had broken out, the same “Anguish of the King Verdict” article quotes Davida Foy Crabtree, conference minister of the United Church of Christ's Pasadena-based Southern California Conference interpretation of the cause and result of these events thusly, "…We are devastated by the night of violence, but we must all understand it as the mirror image of decades of official violence masquerading as police protection." Crabtree added, "Perhaps now the white community can understand just how deep racism runs in our society. After decades of lip service and Band-Aid service programs, perhaps now our whole nation will face the fundamental issue of economic justice."

Should Jesus have not spoken of the impending wrath that he perceived to be on the horizon for the Scribes and Pharisees (i.e. the civic officials and police of his day)? Anyone who studies prophetic rhetoric would argue that the prophet had little choice other than to speak that which the prophet presumed God had inspired the prophet to speak unless the prophet wanted “…fire [to be] shut up in [his/her] bones…”

Herein lies the problem with this comparative analysis for the cursory listener - The way we have compartmentalized spirituality in our culture has allowed for us disconnect the relationship between religion and empires. The same community that has seemingly embraced “Christianity” as a religion (and in many ways sought to make it the corporate religion of the state) has not been able to reconcile the presentation of gangsta rap with the prophetic and protest rhetoric and presentation of the biblical narrative ethos. As we do this we miss an opportunity to experience contemporary prophetic representations. Therefore, our responsibility now must be to bridge the gap between the King riot and the everyday riots in neighborhoods all over urban America.

At the Intersection of Gender, Religion, and Race

by Jameelah X. Medina

Since 9/11, many Muslim women in the USA are in a similar predicament as what African American and Chicana women found themselves in decades ago during the Black Power and Chicano Power Movements. African American and Chicana women stood along side African American and Chicano men to fight against oppression and injustices against them by the power structure and the people in positions of power. In both movements, women’s issues were relegated to the sidelines; they were only visible in the periphery of decision-making. Both African American women and Chicanas decided that they had to stand up for themselves and call it like they saw it—they were being oppressed and marginalized in mainstream society because of their race and ethnicity and also within their racial group because of gender.
Many African American women and Chicanas encountered great resistance and even violence from men. They were accused of being traitors to their race because of their fight to be valued and respected as women with rights. Sound familiar? Stuck between a rock and a hard place, African American women and Chicanas also found that they were marginalized within the Women’s Rights/Power Movement. White women in the Women’s Movement were not prepared to address the particular issues of concern to African American and Chicanas. And later, Womanism became the preferred term for women of color who considered themselves feminist/womanist. Muslim women, who are able to distinguish between the religion of Islam and what Muslims do, find that feminists try to coerce them into rejecting Islam as the culprit of women’s rights abuses rather than the abusive behavior of some men who profess to adhere to the religion of Islam.
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Africa: Water and Reconstruction - an Agenda for Transformation

The unification of the water resources of Africa is one of the primary bases for African unity, with a system of canals linking rivers and lakes in the kind of infrastructure planning that ensures that all will have water.

What is hidden from the Wise and Prudent will be revealed to babes and sucklings.

In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight. Luke 10:21 -

Islam ascribes the most sacred qualities to water as a life-giving, sustaining, and purifying resource. It is the origin of all life on earth, the substance from which God created man (Qur'an 25:54). The Qur'an emphasizes its centrality: "We made from water every living thing"(Qur'an 21:30). Water is the primary element that existed even before the heavens and the earth did: "And it is He who created the heavens and the earth in six days, and his Throne was upon water". (Qur'an 11:7).
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Use And Abuse Of Religion And Nationalism

The conflict of intertwined forces of nationalism and religion with similar opposing forces has been the cause of many horrendous wars during the last millennium. These unfortunate conflicts keep repeating themselves in varying degrees and last week we witnessed the flaring of one such incident at Dambulla which the government commendably doused out soon.
The conflicts of different nationalisms—quite often intertwined with religion— are of global occurrence and right now the Middle East is a powder keg with devastating potential.
Marxists – now a near extinct variety— will recall nonchalantly the dictum of their prophet, Karl Marx: Religion is the Opium of the People. Others will quote Samuel Johnson on Patriotism being the last refuge of the scoundrel. We know that these observations are not universal in their application. There are billions of religious adherents who are not made insensate by their religious convictions and quite a lot of people who love their country and would not fall into the category of scoundrels of Samuel Johnson.
But it has to be admitted that there are hundreds of exceptions who exploit religion and nationalism for promoting their demagoguery. The potential demagogues lie dormant in our society and the country saw them on TV last week attempting to destroy what they described as a Muslim place of worship that they claimed had come up illegally on land belonging to the historic Dambulu Viharaya.
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The Politics of Faith and American Exceptionalism

by Mugambi Jouet
Huffington Post

Two major objects of attention during this election season reflect a key dimension of American exceptionalism: religion. First, America may soon have a president of Mormon faith, Mitt Romney, who served as a Mormon missionary and bishop before becoming a politician. Second, Rick Santorum, the runner-up in the G.O.P. primaries, led a campaign focused on religious moralizing. Santorum notably declared that "Satan" is threatening America, and decried the evils of secularism, pre-marital sex, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. Against this backdrop, Barack Obama is often depicted as a secular candidate, although that is not accurate, especially by international standards. For instance, Obama mentioned "God" five times during his inauguration speech, regularly proclaims "God bless America," and has sporadically expressed specifically Christian beliefs, such as: "We are thankful for the sacrifice [Jesus] gave for the sins of humanity. And we glory in the promise of redemption in the resurrection."
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The Role Of Religion In African American Politics

What we today call African Americans are people who came from many parts of West Africa (folks who came from many African tribes). These people were rudely separated from their tribal moorings and left hanging in the air, rootless.

Generally, human beings seek roots in a place and in a people and its ways of life (norms, mores, rules, culture). African-Americans were abruptly yanked away from their African cultures. In the Americas to prevent them from forming a sense of community hence able to defend themselves from their white masters they were separated; those who spoke the same African language were sent to different areas. Thus, a whole bunch of strangers were gathered together and the slave master made sure that they remained strangers to each other.

Worse, the slave owner did not welcome his slaves into his world; he did not teach them his language (beyond the rudimentary vocabulary needed to hear him give them commands as to what to do). The slave master did not make a conscious attempt to socialize his slaves to his religion (what there was of it, for it can be questioned whether the white man actually is a Christian; if he were and lived by what the founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ, preached, love one another, he would not have enslaved any one; it is better that the white man is seen as a predatory animal).

Well, a bunch of Africans from disparate corners of West Africa were placed together and used as work mules and otherwise left to figure out how to deal with those imponderable aspects of being that all human beings have to deal with, answer questions such as, who am I, where did I come from and where do I go to when I die, and why am I here...and in this particular case, why did this fate of slavery befall me?
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Friday, April 27, 2012

The South, the War and ‘Christian Slavery’

In the minds of many Southerners, the capture of New Orleans on April 25, 1862, by Union forces was more than simply a troubling military loss. It also raised the disturbing possibility that divine punishment was being inflicted on a spiritually wayward and sinful Confederacy.

The loss of the South’s most important port and largest city had followed on the heels of the loss of Tennessee’s Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in February and the ignominious retreat from Shiloh in early April. These setbacks, after the virtually uninterrupted Southern successes of 1861, caused many across the Confederacy to wonder, in the words of the South Carolina diarist Pauline DeCaradeuc Heyward, if “these reversals and terrible humiliations … come from Him to humble our hearts and remind us of our total helplessness without His aid.”
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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Christians of the Holy Land

Walton named Memorial Church minister

Harvard President Drew Faust today announced the appointment of Jonathan L. Walton as Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, effective July 1. A recently tenured professor of religion and society at Harvard Divinity School, Walton focuses in his research on the intersections of religion, politics, and media culture.

Walton is an ordained Baptist minister with Ph.D. and master of divinity degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary, and has preached actively while building his academic career. Walton’s appointment concludes a yearlong search that commenced after the death of the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, who led the Memorial Church from 1970 until 2011.

“I am delighted that Jonathan Walton will bring his remarkable talents to Memorial Church,” said Faust. “He is among the country’s foremost scholars of African-American religion, a powerful preacher, a thoughtful pastoral presence, and a wonderful human being. His scholarly and ecclesiastical callings are mutually enriching in the best traditions of campus ministry. Professor Walton will bring new life to spirituality and religion at Harvard, as intellectual pursuit and lived experience.”
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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Whores: A Meditation on Gender and the Bible

by Richard Beck

In a recent post I wrote about my leading a study on the book of Revelation at a local prison. In that post I discussed how one of the themes of Revelation is the contrast between two cities--Babylon and the New Jerusalem--and how the pastoral aim of Revelation is to call the people of God to "come out" from Babylon.

In this post I'd like to think a bit about one of the problems regarding how this contrast is made in Revelation. Specifically, one of the metaphors used to contrast Babylon and New Jerusalem is a Whore/Bride contrast. In Revelation Babylon is cast as a whore:
Revelation 17.1-5
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”

Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

By contrast, New Jerusalem is compared to a virginal bride:
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Parallel Lines: Fundamental Christianity, Muslim Extremism and the Rise of Atheism in the United States

Atheists are enjoying three things that we have not had the privilege of enjoying since the advent of religious belief became the evolutionary norm in our species. Those are the three basic human desires I have been referring to. To be understood, to be heard and to belong. As we increase in these areas, it stands to reason that we are stealing some of the thunder from the fundamentalists. Not to be outdone, and in fear of being undone, they have had to kick it up a notch. Or two. Or three.

Muslim extremists, already having a lot of experience making loud noises, have had to use increasingly divisive rhetoric, make louder noises and take more drastic measures as regimes continue to fall in the Middle East. It is the only way they can keep control over whatever nations they may be able to hang onto.

The American Fundy…

American fundamentalists are no different. Because atheists and our respective sympathizers are more understood than ever, being heard louder than ever and being more accepted than ever, the fundamentalist must, by virtue of being human, respond. But they are not responding with logic, reason and inclusiveness. Not by a long shot. They are acting out like their extremist Muslim counterparts, only usually without the incendiary devices. Usually. The “American Fundy” is using even more divisive rhetoric, making even louder noises and taking even more drastic measures than ever before to set themselves apart from anyone who does not believe as they do. They are no friend to ecumenism, tolerance and inclusiveness.
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How Apocalyptic Thinking Prevents Us from Taking Political Action

Flip through the cable channels for long enough, and you'll inevitably find the apocalypse. On Discovery or National Geographic or History you'll find shows like MegaDisasters, Doomsday Preppers, or The Last Days on Earth chronicling, in an hour of programming, dozens of ways the world might end: a gamma ray burst from a nearby star peeling away the Earth's ozone layer like an onion; a mega-volcano erupting and plunging our planet into a new ice age; the magnetic poles reversing. Turn to a news channel, and the headlines appear equally apocalyptic, declaring that the "UN Warns of Rapid Decay in Environment" or that "Humanity's Very Survival" is at risk. On another station, you'll find people arguing that the true apocalyptic threat to our way of life is not the impending collapse of ecosystems and biodiversity but the collapse of the dollar as the world's global currency. Change the channel again, and you'll see still others insisting that malarial mosquitoes, drunk on West Nile virus, are the looming specter of apocalypse darkening our nation's horizon.

How to make sense of it all? After all, not every scenario can be an apocalyptic threat to our way of life -- can it? For many, the tendency is to dismiss all the potential crises we are facing as overblown: perhaps cap and trade is just a smoke screen designed to earn Al Gore billions from his clean-energy investments; perhaps terrorism is just an excuse to increase the power and reach of the government. For others, the panoply of potential disasters becomes overwhelming, leading to a distorted and paranoid vision of reality and the threats facing our world -- as seen on shows like Doomsday Preppers. Will an epidemic wipe out humanity, or could a meteor destroy all life on earth? By the time you're done watching Armageddon Week on the History Channel, even a rapid reversal of the world's magnetic poles might seem terrifyingly likely and imminent.
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13th Biennial Public Address Conference

On Civic Learning: Rhetoric, Public Address, Political Division

In times of global and domestic strife, the study of public address assumes more importance than ever. What makes for productive, civically useful knowledge of political controversy? How can we tap this knowledge in order to approach differences more wisely and argue with each other more eloquently?

In September 2012, over thirty national leaders in the study of rhetoric and public address will convene in Memphis to discuss how we might chart ways to improve the quality of our shared civic life.
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Monday, April 23, 2012

On Being ABD & Choosing an Advisor

by Robyn Henderson-Espinoza
Rhetoric Race and Religion Contributor
from: iRobyn|iWitness Culture|iWrite

I’ve resisted the impulse to blog about my recent achievement (becoming ABD). I’m sort of blogging about it now, but am rather wanting to talk about one of my experiences today that was a “first.” I was introduced to as Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, Ph.D. Candidate for the first time today. It was a great feeling, and I enjoyed being on the other side of “student.” While I am in the beginning stages of writing the dissertation, it feels good to be at this moment and time: ABD. Becoming ABD begins and ends w/ the choosing of an advisor, and perhaps that is where I want to begin reflecting.
When I began searching for places to do my Ph.D., I either wanted to study with a Queer person, or a person of color. For me, I wanted a Latin@ of some sort. I found Dr. Miguel De La Torre to be that person, and while he is straight and a bit macho, he has been more than an advisor to and for me. He has served as a sounding board, a mentor, and encourager. One of the things that he pushes his students on is being involved in the community of ethicists, and finding one’s own voice. And so, while Miguel serves as my dissertation chair and primary advisor, I have a group of scholars holding me close in heart and holding me accountable to do the good work I am capable of doing. Some of those folks I’ve mentioned on this blog before, and others remain cited, but only in my heart. Becoming ABD is a feat, for sure, but it is in the choosing of an advisor and one’s community that truly sustains one’s ability to do good work.
And, to do the good work that I want to do means that I continue to engage in scholarly discourse and explore the realm of teaching. While the teaching pieces still have me a bit anxiety ridden, the move to continue to engage in scholarly discourse does not. Like today, for example, when I was a guest in the Iliff Social Media Praxis Class. It was nice to be apart of the conversation, and also contribute to the imagination of bodies and how we understand bodies.
Life continues to be good to me. I sometimes wonder if there’s someone praying?! Thanks, Miguel, for taking me on as your student and for encouraging me to explore the field of Ethics. And, I continue to be grateful to Melanie Harris, Kate Ott, Nikki Young, Kelby Harrison, Mark George, Margaret Robinson, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and so many others (like that *one* girl) who help me get to where I need to go when it comes to my thinking.
Time to write the dissertation!

Shaima Alawadi: Beyond ‘Hoodies and Hijabs’

The perplexing circumstances surrounding the brutal murder of a young mother, Shaima Alawadi, has had the Muslim American community abuzz recently. As her daughter purportedly found Alawadi’s body with a note stating, “go back to your country, you terrorist,” many rushed to label the incident as a ‘hate crime,’ even attempting to demonstrate a link between her death and that of Trayvon Martin, the 17 year old shot by neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman.

Those attempting to link both cases claim both deaths were the result of racial or religious bigotry and point to the historical “culture of fear” surrounding African American men in this country that may have impacted Zimmerman’s attitudes and actions towards Martin. Since we also have a developing culture of fear surrounding Middle Eastern American and Muslim men it seems logical to these commentators to assume that Alawadi’s death was the result of someone else’s bigoted attitude towards Muslims.

Though the evidence for the culture of fear surrounding African American and Middle Eastern American men is well documented, attempting to exemplify this theory through linking these cases is potentially faulty on two counts – 1) it neglects to take into consideration Zimmerman’s history of violence as an indicator that he probably would have acted as he did regardless of Martin’s race, and 2) it neglects to take into consideration the questionable nature of Alawadi’s daughter’s claims and actions, as well as the increasingly likely possibility that Alawadi’s death was the result of a familial dispute.
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Should black churches use social media differently?

Martin Luther King, Jr., often said that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour of the week. More than fifty years have passed since King’s assassination, and yet many scholars believe that Americans still experience a racial divide during Christian worship. While this seems largely voluntary, with the majority of American churches composing similar race, culture, and class groups, an investigation of new media in churches must ask whether race, culture, and class should affect social media choices.

In a recent blog, “The Gender, Race and Class of Networked Religion,” New Media Project Research Fellow Lerone A. Martin notes how the use of new media is affected by race, class, and gender. He concludes that “religious leaders have to consider the size, socio-economic status, age, gender, and race of their respective communities and/or target audiences in order to best understand and utilize new media.”

As an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, and as one raised in black Baptist church traditions, I wonder in a direct way:

Should black churches use social media differently?
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America’s ‘angriest’ theologian faces lynching tree

By John Blake, CNN

*Note: We will discuss Cone's book "The Cross and the Lynching Tree" at our next book club gathering May 7 @ 6:00pm

When he was boy growing up in rural Arkansas, James Cone would often stand at his window at night, looking for a sign that his father was still alive.

Cone had reason to worry. He lived in a small, segregated town in the age of Jim Crow. And his father, Charlie Cone, was a marked man.

Charlie Cone wouldn’t answer to any white man who called him “boy.” He only worked for himself, he told his sons, because a black man couldn’t work for a white man and keep his manhood at the same time.

Once, when he was warned that a lynch mob was coming to run him out of his home, he grabbed a shotgun and waited, saying, “Let them come, because some of them will die with me.”

James Cone knew the risks his father took. So when his father didn’t come home at his usual time in the evenings, he’d stand sentry, looking for the lights from his father’s pickup truck.

“I had heard too much about white people killing black people,” Cone recalled. “When my father would finally make it home safely, I would run and jump into his arms, happy as I could be.”
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Black churchgoers break with leading Democrats on marriage amendment

Bishop Phillip Davis had not planned to talk about marriage and politics, but five minutes into his sermon at Nations Ford Community Church in Charlotte he changed his mind.
Not only should the 6,000 members of the overwhelmingly African-American congregation pray with one voice, he said, come May 8 they should vote with one, too.
“You know, we got this amendment on the ballot,” Davis said, walking to the back of the church stage, then throwing his arm around a member of the men’s choir as laughter grew.
“If I was your pastor, and I was married to him, how many of y’all would be here today? ”
Thirty-one states – in 31 tries – have approved amendments to block gay unions. Based on the polls, North Carolina is a good bet to extend the streak May 8, due in part to African-American congregations like Nations Ford.
A March 23 survey by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh showed that black voters statewide support the measure 61 percent to 30 percent. Whites: 58-38 percent in favor.
More than 80 percent of the state’s African-Americans voters are Democrats. Their support for the amendment represents a rare break with the party’s leaders and civil rights groups.
President Barack Obama, who in 2008 received more than 90 percent of the North Carolina black vote, took the unusual step this year of wading into the amendment debate, calling it discriminatory.
Gov. Bev Perdue, all three major Democratic candidates for governor and many other party leaders have also spoken out against it.
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A paradigm shift in American politics

A new wave of Christian fundamentalism is on the rise in American politics. The principle of America's founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison, condoning a secularist state is under intense attack. In the twentieth century, when America was a rising and expanding imperial power, it believed in secular and liberal values. This is clearly evidenced by the famous John F Kennedy speech at a convention of Baptist ministers in Houston: "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish - where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials."

With the advent of 21st century, we witness a paradigm shift in American politics. On September 18, 2000, Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman challenged the secular foundations of the Constitution, insisting that the First Amendment guaranteed freedom "of religion" not freedom "from religion".During the 2008 elections, President Barack Obama - a secular liberal - had to defend his Christian heritage and his religious belief to justify his presidential candidacy.

Today, American politics are increasingly entrenched in religiosity. The ongoing GOP presidential debate is centered on which sect of Christianity would serve the declining empire and what imperial attitude was needed to keep the failing empire intact. In a recent interview on ABC news, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum rejected Kennedy's belief in "separation of church and state".
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Freedom of Religion = Freedom of Worship?

It may not have even caught your attention. It may not appear to be that different. But when people, especially the current president of the United States, intentionally replace the words "freedom of religion" with "freedom of worship," is it just a distinction without a difference, or is it a major change about which we need to be concerned?

In order to explain what amounts to tremendous differences between the two phrases, let me offer a recent example. In Colorado, a religious freedom amendment to the state constitution has been proposed that prohibits the government from "burden[ing] a person's or religious organization's freedom of religion" unless it shows a compelling interest – which offers the highest level of protection. In comparison, the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion.

Compare that to the proposed language submitted by a far-left group which begins: "Religious freedom. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination, shall forever hereafter be guaranteed." Sounds okay, doesn't it? Or does it? Did you notice that freedom of religion quickly became religious worship? But there is more:
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Friday, April 20, 2012

America’s Christian hypocrisy

Here’s a newspaper headline that might induce a disbelieving double take: “Christians ‘More Likely to Be Leftwing’ and Have Liberal Views on Immigration and Equality.” Sounds too hard to believe, right? Well, it’s true — only not here in America, but in the United Kingdom.
That headline, from London’s Daily Mail, summed up the two-tiered conclusion of a new report from the British think tank Demos, which found that in England 1) “religious people are more active citizens (who) volunteer more, donate more to charity and are more likely to campaign on political issues,” and 2) “religious people are more likely to be politically progressive (people who) put a greater value on equality than the non-religious, are more likely to be welcoming of immigrants as neighbors (and) more likely to put themselves on the left of the political spectrum.”
These findings are important to America for two reasons.
First, they tell us that, contrary to evidence in the United States, the intersection of religion and politics doesn’t have to be fraught with hypocrisy. Britain is a Christian-dominated country, and the Christian Bible is filled with liberal economic sentiment. It makes perfect sense, then, that the more devoutly loyal to that Bible one is, the more progressive one would be on economics.

Race, Culture and Character: Seeing Jesus

Recently painter Thomas Kinkade, “painter of light” passed away at the early age of 54. While many viewers have decided views of what they think about this art, whether it suits them or not, one thing is certain: his work was decidedly informed by his faith. Kinkade had a particular theology about his art work and tried to convey his understanding of his faith through his art. Kinkade’s passing coincided with my preparation for a class session on understanding religion and race. One of the themes I begin with is to ask students what Jesus and Mary look like. To this day, many students might remember seeing a Thomas Kinkade painting at a doctor’s office or in the hall of some academic or religious building.

But many more students recall seeing Warner Sallman’s “Head of Jesus” painting. Believe it or not, this painting was done in 1941, as World War II ravaged Europe and Asia. America at that time was still largely white, with its largest racial minority population being African American, with no other competing minority. So at that time it would not be surprising that Sallman’s Jesus looked like a young-ish white male with a beard and long hair. As many have noted, he essentially appears as a middle class male when you trim his hair and beard. This is not surprising since Jesus embodies divinity made imminent – “God for us.” So it’s not surprising that God, as imaged in Jesus, tends to have the features of the artist’s understanding of how God is accessible to him or her. As such, Jesus looks white since race often matters even to white artists. Similarly Mary, as an advocate for believers tends to appear like the people who visualize her. Read the rest here

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Part 2: Tavis Smiley & Cornel West on Growing Up Poor, Occupy Wall Street and Trayvon Martin Case

Part One: Tavis Smiley & Cornel West on "The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto"

The Evangelical Left in History and Today

Public reports usually focus on the majority of evangelicals recently affiliated with the religious right. We generally hear little, however, about the third of evangelicals who lean in the other direction (except for a few well-known figures such as Tony Campolo or Jim Wallis). Likewise, many do not realize that evangelicals have never been a permanent constituency of the right: through most of their history, most evangelicals have been politically varied and unpredictable. President Obama and other Democrats who have tried to reach out to evangelicals, therefore, act strategically, even though it will undoubtedly take time for major shifts of political affiliation to occur.

The association of evangelicals with the political right is recent, not characteristic of the evangelical heritage. Indeed, even the emphasis on separation of church and state in the West arose especially among Anabaptists who faced persecution for dissenting from the state churches. From the late 18th century on, social justice was a defining characteristic of evangelical faith, and the abolition of the slave trade, and ultimately slavery itself, became the leading evangelical social agenda. William Wilberforce and his allies achieved this outcome fairly peacefully in the British Empire. Many evangelicals worked for abolitionism in the United States as well, though the issue ultimately divided this country and its churches, often along geographic lines, and culminated in a civil war. After the war, those evangelicals who had supported abolition remained in the forefront of working for justice among the poor.
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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Harlem Faith after the American Revolution

The war for liberty against the British created a battle-tested cohort of African American and White faith-based leaders who developed an ardor for extending freedom.

The African American slaves in Harlem gained important allies in the form of John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. After the war, Jay wrote The Federalist Papers with Hamilton and James Madison to promote the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Jay was also long sympathetic to slaves and famously said, “Real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others.” Hamilton, the aide-de-camp to General George Washington, was very sympathetic, because he himself was perhaps the son of a part-Black mother in the West Indies. Later, W.E.B. DuBois would claim him as “our own Hamilton.” In his biography of Hamilton Ron Chernow observed that Hamilton, except for a stretch of disillusionment after the Revolutionary war, was a quite religious Presbyterian, even writing several hymns, and that his beliefs underlay an ardent abolitionism.

Jay asked Hamilton and other allies to help create the African Manumission Society in 1785 for the purpose of educating Africans and gaining their freedom. The Society then founded the African Free School in 1787. As governor of New York in 1799, Jay presided over passage of legislation that abolished slavery by its gradual phasing out in the state.
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Hitler's faith: The debate over Nazism and religion

During last week's Q & A debate between Cardinal George Pell and Richard Dawkins, it was interesting that both men had perspectives on Nazism that were at once opposed and yet entirely congruent.

Pell argued that Nazism and Stalinism were the "two great atheist movements of the last century." Dawkins responded that while Stalin was an atheist, Hitler was not. However, they both agreed that Hitler represented the "personification of social Darwinism" (Pell) or that certain of what he tried to achieve arose "out of Darwinian natural selection" (Dawkins).

Part of this to and fro was certainly the kind of argument that often arises in contemporary debates, often through a process one could think of as Nazification: one disputant involved in a debate on any given topic attempts to associate their opponent's views with the Nazis. It is the kind of thing that one could summarise in a sloganistic t-shirt: "I'm okay, you're a fascist" (with an arrow pointing to the far-right).

But how could there be such opposing views when it comes to Nazism and atheism? People may not generally realise it, but the divergence of opinion between Pell and Dawkins reflects deep divisions among historians themselves as to what the Nazis believed about religion.

Nazism itself was consistently a racial ideology, and Ian Kershaw noted in his definitive biography of Hitler that one of the few things we can be certain about is that from the start of his political career to the bitter end, Hitler adhered to "anti-Semitism based on race theory."
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Teaching Science in Tennessee

Last week, Tennessee legislators approved a bill on science education (the Teacher Protection Academic Freedom Act) that has stoked controversy around the country. As a deeply committed Christian, an educator, and an active member of the scientific research community, I am grateful to BioLogos for the opportunity to contribute my views about this legislation. I have several serious concerns about the content of this bill that I will endeavor to share with clarity and respect, hoping that doing so will play a small part in reinvigorating a productive national discussion on the topic of science and faith.

Within hours of the bill’s becoming law, numerous news stories, blog entries, and web sites issued warnings of the “anti-evolution law” that will “allow creationism back into the classroom.” Yet it is important to note that the bill itself does not use this language; rather, I believe that such terminology regarding this bill is derived in no small part from sentiments about Tennessee’s past. Specifically, the Butler Act of 1925 prohibited the teaching of biological evolution in all public schools of Tennessee, and the Scopes Trial brought this act—and Tennessee’s educational policies—into the national spotlight. The bitter aftertaste still lingers for many. While it may be tempting to look at the current law in light of Tennessee’s colorful history on science education, I will intentionally avoid doing so in this essay. This will allow us to focus entirely on the content of the bill, rather than the perceived motivations or purported agendas of the bill’s authors.

The bill begins by stating the importance of students receiving a rigorous science education, developing critical thinking skills, and becoming generally informed and knowledgeable citizens. This declaration is to be welcomed by all who believe that science is not only a noble pursuit, but accessible and relevant even to those who are not scientists. The text goes on to state that many educators are unclear about how to teach certain subjects, including biological evolution. Indeed, we must agree that there is substantive confusion amidst the nation’s public on the topic of biological evolution.

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Biblical Literalism, Secularism And American Politics

by Christopher Lane
Huffington Post

In his recent "Newsweek" cover story, "Christianity in Crisis," Andrew Sullivan gave at least three reasons for the crisis he sees afflicting American Christianity:
Many suburban evangelicals embrace a gospel of prosperity, which teaches that living a Christian life will make you successful and rich. Others defend a rigid biblical literalism, adamantly wishing away a century and a half of scholarship that has clearly shown that the canonized Gospels were written decades after Jesus' ministry, and are copies of copies of stories told by those with fallible memory. Still others insist that the earth is merely 6,000 years old -- something we now know by the light of reason and science is simply untrue.

One needn't agree with Sullivan's devout conclusion, that we should "follow Jesus but forget the Church," to feel concern about how such troubling perspectives weigh on American society and politics. While biblical literalism is integral to evangelical faith, given its belief in the supposed purity of the biblical Word, evangelicals (as the recent wave of support for Rick Santorum attests) have put an indelible stamp on the choice and direction of countless positions in the Republican primary, from economic policy and taxation to healthcare and even access to birth control.
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Bridging the Gap Between Faith and Reproductive Justice

This interview is the first in a series highlighting the leaders of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute launched in March, which seeks to highlight and strengthen the important work of faith-based leaders working for reproductive justice.

Darcy Baxter is a Unitarian Universalist minister who has counseled hundreds of women about abortion, both as a hotline counselor at the National Abortion Federation and as a volunteer on Exhale's after-abortion talkline. Prior to pursuing the ministry, Darcy worked as a health and sexuality educator at Howard University. Darcy has served as a resident chaplain on the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center's Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit, as intern minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, and as adjunct faculty member teaching theology at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California.

Sally Steenland: Darcy, the two phrases “reproductive rights” and “religion” are rarely in the same sentence unless they’re in opposition. Yet you are a person of faith, and you support reproductive rights. You say you do so because of your faith, and you talk about the inherent morality in reproductive health issues. What do you mean by that?

Darcy Baxter: There are few things more sacred or precious than the decisions we make about our bodies and our families. So whenever women are making these decisions, they are thinking about what is good and bad, right and wrong. No matter what decision you make, you are invoking your values. I think the moral decision-making process is not talked about enough. It often seems as though women are not thinking about issues of love, justice, right, and wrong when they are making decisions.
Read the rest here

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

'When God Talks Back' To The Evangelical Community

While attending services and small group meetings at The Vineyard, an evangelical church with 600 branches across the country, anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann noticed that several members of the congregation said God had repeatedly spoken to them and that they had heard what God wanted them to do.

In When God Talks Back, which is based on an anthropological study she did at The Vineyard, Luhrmann examines the personal relationships people developed with God and explores how those relationships were cemented through the practice of prayer.

"The way I think about it as an anthropologist, I don't have the authority to pronounce on whether God is real or whether God is not real," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I don't feel like I have a horse in that race. I don't feel I have the authority to say whether God showed up to somebody or did not. I do think that if God speaks to someone, God speaks to the human mind. And I can say something about the social, cultural and psychological features of what that person is experiencing."
Read and listen the rest here

Nuance in Black Churches’ Approaches

by Josef Sorett

Black churches and black people, in general, continue to be portrayed as especially anti-gay, but we should remember that these organizations and individuals are not static.

First, in the realm of activism, there is the stubborn idea that race and sexuality are competing or mutually exclusive. And it is certainly true that lobbyists against gay marriage (mostly white and from the right) have tried to reinforce a vision of gay rights and (presumably black) civil rights as inherently at odds with one another. But many black Christians are now having more nuanced conversations about the significance of sexual identity and expression in determining the measure of full citizenship. Some black churches are seeing shared commitments with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists, even as these churches affirm that the African American struggles of the 1960s were unique.
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Blacks, Gospel Music, and the Pursuit of Diversity in the American Church

By Gerardo Martin

In conducting interviews for my book Worship across the Racial Divide, I enjoyed talking with a Caucasian worship leader at an outdoor café on Los Angeles’ Westside. We drank coffee as he described his enthusiasm for racial diversity and the type of music he worked into each Sunday service. Then, in the middle of our conversation, he suddenly blurted out, “I just wish I could be black!”

I was struck. Although it was not the first time I had heard a white person admire black music performers and styles, this blunt yet seemingly natural statement stuck out as one of the most significant. This leader’s abrupt remark crystallized observations that had been building on racialized perceptions of worship over the previous months. Over and over again, non-blacks expressed a profound belief in the ability of African Americans to attain a deep, emotional, and, for many, inspiring worship through sacred music. Even African Americans themselves agreed that they had a racially-specific connection to worship.
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So How Will Mitt Romney Play the Religion Card?

By Jacques Berlinerblau

That deafening, churning, leather-on-wood sound you just heard is the sound of the entire Romney campaign “pivoting to the general,” as the pundits like to say.

In the coming months, Mitt and his Faith and Values team will need to figure out how to draw lucrative religious voting blocs to the Republican side of the ledger. Faith-based politicking is always a complicated affair, and for these reasons I offer a few hopefully helpful suggestions on how the Romney team ought to proceed:

Bait the secularists (if you must): Secular-bashing is among the easiest, and most intellectually dishonest, forms of Faith and Values politicking out there. Easy, because there is widespread confusion as to what “secularism” means. The dreaded “ism” can conveniently stand in for anything a politician loathes: godlessness, gang violence, pornography–it’s all good. Or, bad as the case may be.

It is intellectually dishonest because it fails to identify the benefits of secular policies or try to understand why after two centuries American democracy settled–temporarily, it increasingly seems–on this particular form of governance.

Romney already signaled his willingness to strawman secularism in his 2007 “Faith in America” speech. Until secularism gets its acts together (a project to which my forthcoming book is devoted), secular-bashing will remain an effective, if unoriginal and unfortunate, campaign strategy.
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Monday, April 16, 2012

Call for Papers: Memphis Theological Seminary Journal

The Memphis Theological Seminary Journal is an online journal devoted to promoting public scholarship by combining the speed of journalism with the rigor of academic scholarship. Following this commitment, we invite substantive essays that examine all areas of religious studies. We especially welcome essays that contribute to theory, advance an understanding of an existing method or the development of new ones, extend or challenge a current paradigm, bridge a divide, clarify a term or concept, or examine practical and pragmatic applications of ministerial functions. The Journal welcome all types of essays—theoretical, historical, qualitative, quantitative, and rhetorical or a book review essay.

To facilitate double-blind peer review, manuscripts should be free of any material identifying the author(s) or their affiliation(s). Before submission, authors should be sure their manuscripts do not exceed 25 pages (including work cited page), are double-spaced throughout, and are saved in a standard word processor format (.doc, .docx, .wpd, or .rtf). Authors must ensure their accepted manuscripts conform to sixth edition of the Modern Language Association of Style and use inclusive language. Authors are responsible for acquiring any permission for the reproduction of texts, images, tables, illustrations, or other materials, as well as for providing camera-ready copies of tables, figures, and images.

All submissions are by email only and you may send them to: Andre E. Johnson, PhD at
Please also include in the subject line: MTS Submission. For further information about the journal, please go to

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Divided by God

by Ross Douthat

IN American religious history, Nov. 8, 1960, is generally regarded as the date when the presidency ceased to be the exclusive property of Protestants. But for decades afterward, the election of the Catholic John F. Kennedy looked more like a temporary aberration.

Post-J.F.K., many of America’s established churches went into an unexpected decline, struggling to make their message resonate in a more diverse, affluent and sexually permissive America. The country as a whole became more religiously fluid, with more church-switching, more start-up sects, more do-it-yourself forms of faith. Yet a nation that was increasingly nondenominational and postdenominational kept electing Protestants from established denominations to the White House.

The six presidents elected before Kennedy’s famous breakthrough included two Baptists, an Episcopalian, a Congregationalist, a Presbyterian and a Quaker. The six presidents elected prior to Barack Obama’s 2008 victory included two Baptists, two Episcopalians, a Methodist and a Presbyterian. Jimmy Carter’s and George W. Bush’s self-identification as “born again” added a touch of theological diversity to the mix, as did losing candidates like the Greek Orthodox Michael S. Dukakis. But over all, presidential religious affiliation has been a throwback to the Eisenhower era — or even the McKinley era.
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Where Faith and Policy Converge

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The Divine: When words fail

By Crystal St. Marie Lewis
Rhetoric Race and Religion Contributor
From: Diary of a Christian Universagnosticostal

“When you believe something is true, you don’t argue that it’s true… You live as though it’s true.”
–Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

I often find myself pulling back when talking about God because I believe words tend to both complicate and over-simplify the Mystery. I know complication and over-simplication are usually mutually exclusive concepts, but I’ve found that this mutual exclusivity doesn’t necessarily apply to our language about the Divine. After all, we complicate the Mystery with theology so intricate that thousands of volumes have been written to explain it– and we over-simplify the Mystery with black-and-white statements about what God can do, who God can love and what God can/can’t be.

My desire to avoid wordy explanations of God-ness started when I first began to acknowledge my “agnostic” tendencies… I realized that there were certain things about God and the miracle of aliveness that I would likely never know and never understand. I often found myself without words to explain what I felt in my heart. I only knew that God was most powerfully concentrated in my own private experiences, and that my understanding of God-ness made more sense when lived than when explained. This feeling of not-knowing-ness had a pretty profound impact on my theology of God, effectively reducing it to three statements:

1. God is real.
2. I am not God.
3. God lives in our experiences.

With that three-pronged credo in mind, I have tried to explain (often unsuccessfully) that when I say “God is love,” it is only because I feel overwhelmingly loved when experiencing the presence of the Divine… Or that when I said Jesus is “Divine,” I am only (rather inadequately) trying to communicate that I encounter an extraordinary measure of the miraculous in the symbolism of His story… I’ve tried to explain, (ironically with thousands of words on this blog), that in the cases of both love and the incarnation, it’s my experiences that matter most to me because words so often fail.

Paul Knitter articulated one aspect of this very well in his book “Without Buddha, I Could Not Be A Christian”:

We use a lot of words, but it’s the way we use them that feels inappropriate, even disrespectful of the Mystery that is Divine. We use them so facilely that it feels like we’re using them literally… Words are not always inadequate in expressing the Divine Mystery, but they can be actual impediments to experiencing the Divine Mystery. Therefore, it’s not just that we have to take them symbolically; sometimes we have to set them aside. Stop using them…

What I’ve come to realize–… and [I] would have to thank Buddha for this– is that the reality and the Mystery of the interconnecting Spirit, precisely because it is Mystery, has to communicate itself or be felt through other ways… Indeed, maybe the deepest experiences of this Mystery can take place only without words.

I’m talking about the need for silence. If the Divine is truly a Mystery that is beyond all human comprehension, beyond all human ideas and words, then any spiritual practice must make room–lots of room– “for the practice of silence”.

I am learning that words fail sometimes, and that in those moments, experience is what matters most. And so, I have been thinking about this concept of a less-wordy, but not necessarily Wordless, Christianity… A Christianity in which I avoid lofty explanations and focus on living the incarnation… A Christianity that places experience above theology… A faith more focused on a personal (and decidedly more quiet) engagement of the Divine. Just a thought.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Between Exclusivism and Relativism

While reading Peggy Levitt’s 2009 book on religion and immigration, God Needs No Passport, I was struck by her summary of the four prevailing attitudes towards religion. She describes the academic, well-meaning anti-religionist; the indifferent non-religious average Joe; the Christian exclusivist who fears local mosques and Hindu temples; and the religious relativist, with strong beliefs of his/her own who nonetheless values all traditions as equally valid. It is clear how she feels about each. The first two need a dose of reality—religion isn’t going away anytime soon—and the third needs to be hit over the head for their close-mindedness. The fourth, needless to say, is her ideal religious person, as it is for many thoughtful intellectuals. Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace celebrates this trend in American life towards relativist religiosity. The message is that we should all be as religious as we want to be, as long as we accept others’ religious preferences and inclinations as equally valid.

As nice as it sounds, it’s also an illogical and problematic attitude. It perpetuates the barrier between relativist intellectuals and the average religious person (speaking globally). Granted, I appreciate Levitt’s appreciation of how important religion is to the vast majority of the world. That should be the bare minimum for good social science, but it hasn’t always been, so I think we may be getting somewhere. On the other hand, the doctrine of religious relativism is illogical and self-contradictory. Ultimately, it is condescending to the deeply committed. There are three main reasons for this.
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Catholic bishops issue rallying cry for 'religious freedom'

The nation's Catholic bishops are calling on the faithful to pray and mobilize in a "great national campaign" to confront what they see as a series of threats to religious freedom, and they are setting aside the two weeks before July 4 for their "Fortnight for Freedom" initiative.
The exhortation is contained in a 12-page statement released Wednesday by the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, and its chief concern is the Obama administration's proposal to provide contraception coverage to all employees with health insurance, including those who work for religious groups.

The statement represents the hierarchy's latest effort to overturn that policy, and it includes an explicit threat of widespread civil disobedience by the nation's 67 million Catholics.
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Where Are the Pro-LGBT Religious Voices in Mainstream Media?

As someone who identifies as gay and Christian, I see parts of myself reflected in the world around me. When I turn on the television, I get caught up in the drama of gay and lesbian students on 'Glee.' I can laugh with a gay couple raising a child and trying to relate to the rest of their relatives on 'Modern Family.' I can cheer on a Chaz Bono, the first transgender man to 'dance with the stars.'

When I sat in Easter worship this last Sunday, I was surrounded by many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, as well as supportive and affirming straight people. I heard an Easter sermon that acknowledged my existence and affirmed my faith in the Easter message.

However, I still long for the day that those two realities, my representation in the media and the affirmation from my faith, would become one reality. My desire to hear an affirming message of faith being broadcast over television or printed in a newspaper grows stronger as I see both increasing representation in the media and growing affirmation in religious communities. And I am not alone. Thousands of us want to see the LGBT-affirming voices of faith lifted up in the mainstream media. But so far, the media has done little to reflect the new religious reality in America.
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Race, Ethnicity, and the Bible: Pedagogical Challenges and Curricular Opportunities

By Gay Byron
Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School

Theological educators are now fostering dialogues, projects, and practices that are designed to acknowledge the challenges and opportunities resulting from the shifting racial and ethnic demographic climate in the U.S. and Canada. As well-intentioned as these efforts are, most of the scholarship focuses on the contemporary experiences of underrepresented minorities, current institutional concerns, or practical classroom scenarios, leaving Scripture courses, which have long been the backbone of theological education, beyond the scope of critical engagement. In this article I argue that the existing scholarship on teaching and learning in general, and among biblical scholars in particular, does not adequately address the specific challenges that arise when questions about race and ethnicity are exposed in Scripture courses. Therefore, based on my own classroom experiences, I develop a pedagogy of (Emb)Racing the Bible that seeks to bridge the gap between theoretical readings and practical applications of ancient and contemporary discourses about race and ethnicity.
Read the essay here

Slouching Toward Washington: A Book Review

By Ebony Utley
Rhetoric Race and Religion Contributor

“Branding Obamessiah: The Rise of an American Idol”
A book by Mark Edward Taylor
First Published at Truthdig

Mark Edward Taylor, in “Branding Obamessiah: The Rise of an American Idol,” carefully reconstructs how six sacred branding strategies turned a mere mortal into an American savior. Taylor clearly believes that Barack Obama was too politically inexperienced to become president of the United States. Our current president was, however, very skilled at branding. Obama’s strategies were composing a creation story, chanting sacred words, venerating sacred images, observing sacred rituals, bringing in believers and coloring the messiah.

Although the sacred six are an unoriginal appropriation from the world of advertising, Taylor neatly grafts them onto the 2008 presidential campaign by beginning with Obama’s creation story of racial angst during his childhood in Hawaii. Taylor goes to great pains to argue that Obama’s memories within “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” were manipulated to create a racial consciousness that Obama most likely did not experience and furthermore did not even write. He critiques the text for having “so little real evidence of abject, institutional racism,” and suggests that “Obama understood the power of race to open doors, and so he created a story that would make his skin’s color more vivid.”

As evenhanded as Taylor is throughout the book, his dismissal of Obama is rarely as stark as when he claims being a black boy in Hawaii couldn’t have been that bad. Irrespective of who crafted Obama’s memoir and why, Taylor is wrong to dismiss Obama’s account of racial trauma. An outsider has no right to estimate the psychological impact of racism, especially if the outsider has never lived as a person of color.

In the same way that race is a key word in “Dreams from My Father,” hope and change were the sacred words of Obama’s campaign. Whether used individually or combined as hope for change, Obama’s words addressed Americans’ desperate need for anything other than the George W. Bush legacy. So desperate were his constituents that no one ever queried the actual meaning of the terms. Taylor points out that “ ‘change’ doesn’t indicate direction, ‘hope’ isn’t a strategy and ‘believe’ doesn’t refer to an object beyond itself.” Taylor historicizes the consistency of “change” as a presidential campaign motif, but explains how Obama embodied change as a young, handsome, part-black political novice who starkly contrasted his opponents’ stagnant “experience.” He continues:

A troubled and anxious people are susceptible to promises of an easy fix. Obama was careful to utter just enough for many Americans to hear what they wanted to hear in his sacred words—words that motivated but did not explain. Words that moved voters to act but not to reflect. Words that triggered emotion but not critical understanding. People translated Obama’s words into their own image and in turn projected that image onto him. And by creating images of a utopian future that went far beyond dull, policy-driven reality, they unwittingly became a band of prophets proclaiming the coming of a messiah who was promising everything—and promising nothing.

Similarly, the sacred images of the campaign asked audiences to project positive messages onto Obama’s visual representations. Not only was Obama depicted with halos of light above his head, but visual incorporations of Obama imagery with figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. “made him into an historical figure before he even had a chance to make history,” according to Ron English, an artist quoted by Taylor. Lest he get too wrapped up in history, Taylor explores Obama’s rock star appeal by analyzing his appearances in Rolling Stone, Vibe and other popular magazines. Because an unflattering picture of the presidential candidate never emerged, each handsome, virile image made Obama increasingly attractive to voters. Additionally, Taylor describes how “Team Obama” masterminded “logobama”—a logo that would appeal to everyone at once. The open O of the campaign logo allowed various communities to accommodate their individual priorities into Obama’s message.

Throughout the book, Taylor assures readers that nothing was left to chance during the Obama campaign. And although he never says that the 10 rallies where women attendees passed out and were sympathetically acknowledged by Obama were staged, one wonders about the regularity of the ritual and begins to view Team Obama with an aura of suspicion. Taylor describes Team Obama’s uncanny knack for maximizing social media, and how some sectors of the ailing economy profited from Obama paraphernalia and tours of his Hyde Park, Chicago haunts.

Not only did Obama believers swoon and faint at rallies, follow him on Facebook and buy merchandise, but his devotees voted for him because the campaign focused on his parasocial relationships with the public. People who didn’t know Obama became convinced that they could have a beer with him, play a game of pickup basketball or have dinner with his beautiful family. People simply loved him. His Hollywood appeal even persuaded celebrities to contribute to the “Barockstar” idolization.

Taylor concludes where he began, discussing the role of race in Obama’s appeal. He writes, “Obama’s skin was a magnet, pulling black voters together in one near-monolithic block, unmovable and resounding with his praises.” All the while absolving white voters of their guilt. Blacks and whites could vote for their first black president and be proud of how far their country had come. And so they did.

“Branding Obamamessiah” was published near the beginning of the 2012 primaries, and it curiously ends with Obama’s 2008 election. Certainly, the strength of the book is its compendium of sources, but should it have taken four years to publish them? Where is the projection to the future? The book feels unfinished. It also appears to lack the salient marketing feature of relevance. Or so I thought before I went to the website. includes everything the book lacks. From Twitter feeds and a Facebook friending opportunity to author biographical sketches, images, videos and recent blog posts about the 2012 campaign, Taylor reminds readers that branding was for products long before it was for presidents.

It is the 21st century, after all. Most Americans connected via social media acquiesce to some level of personal branding or identity management as an integral part of our lives. When we want to acquire friends, employment, fame or profits from selling our own products, our mediated representations of ourselves do not always reflect who we are in other areas of our lives. A man or woman running for the most venerated public office in the United States of America should most certainly not leave any aspect of his or her image to chance. But, as the final sentence of the epilogue asks, “Would Obamessiah be resurrected for the next election?” It is too soon to tell, but it doesn’t look good.

Taylor makes a rather convincing argument that Obama’s success was built on his being a neophyte. He had no national familiarity before his 2004 Democratic National Convention appearance. Quite strategically, he had no voting record to speak of as a senator because he voted “present” more than “yea” or “nay.” On the campaign trail, he had no previous political persona to overcome. And he made no clear promises. Today, Obama’s tabula rasa days are over. As president he has an indisputable record of decision making that has left many former believers feeling duped. It seems impossible that Obamessiah could be resurrected.

People frustrated with the decimation of state budgets, high unemployment, extremely high gas prices and the faint but constant beating of the drums of war—with Iran and against women’s bodies—may feel the messiah failed to deliver on his promises. It is essential, however, to remember two things. 1) Not everyone, including the black voters who Taylor alludes to as a monolithic block, believed Obama was a savior. And 2) Obama made no promises. Taylor observes, “Obama’s greatest political asset was his affable ambiguity. Devotees projected their own personal vision onto the candidate and required that he offer nothing back in detail to see if their notions matched his reality.” The machinations behind Team Obama and the 2008 campaign say more about the American people than they say about the president. Remember “Yes we can”? Frustrated citizenry must acknowledge responsibility as the “we” in making a man into a messiah.

2012 presents the nation with another opportunity to “change.” Let’s hope that this time voters will be less enamored by a personality and be savvier participants in the implications of policy. Instead of waiting for a messiah, what if U.S. citizens saved themselves? Protests that led to the reversal of the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to divest from Planned Parenthood and Occupy movements are excellent examples of the potential for people to work with public leaders instead of waiting on their leaders to work for them. This is the lesson of “Branding Obamessiah.” It is easy to be disappointed when we buy into a leader. Perhaps in the future, we will invest more in ourselves. Yes, we can.