This is the second post I’m doing about religion and media in the emergent politics of the U.S. in the late-Trump and post-Trump eras.  I began this project before the January 6 capitol siege.  Far from being a distraction or a detour from the overall understanding of these things, the capitol siege afforded an opportunity to see important dimensions in relief.  Most of the things I’ve wished to say about how religion and the mediation of religion in the dynamics of the times are illustrated by January 6 and its aftermath. 

The capitol siege in prayer

As suggested in my first post, one of the most challenging things—and something that has led to a great deal of confusion and misdirection by many observers—is that much of this material is as much about imagination and myth as it is about concrete interests and social reality.  Yes, concrete and structural matters are visible, but the “signs and wonders” that seem to define this political discourse exist at a level removed from concrete articulations of social action, structure, history, or authority.  They float free.  They are what Roland Barthes called “connotative” rather than “denotative” signs.  And, like Barthes’s claims about modern mythologies, they point to deeper claims and deeper meanings, to broader social mythologies articulated through these “affective” gestures and “affective infrastructures” and made possible and perfected at the level of imagination

Further, as they operate at the level of affect and imagination, they can continue to exist and to have power even though they seem almost playful and ludic.  They are expressions of desired realities and desired outcomes.  They are always and already on the edge of concrete expression in actions, including violence, but their meanings are in their own imagined perfection (perfect “nation,” perfect “belief,” perfect “manhood,” perfect “purpose,” etc.) and need not necessarily be worked out in concrete reality in order to be powerfully persuasive and to attract large followings.  They are liminal.  For their adherents, they are always—and I’ll revert to a theological reference here—they are always groaning in travail, waiting to be born as full fledged ideologies.  But they never quite are and don’t need to be.  In a postmodern age of hypermediation it is enough for signs and symbols to exist in this way. Their concreteness and their power exists not in their structural or practical efficacy, but in their plausibility as symbols of imagined and desired ends.

“God’s word calls dem out”

In this way, they reflect the realities of contemporary religion, and in fact are made possible and meaningful for their communities of shared reference through their homology to religion.  I’ve begun to explore these issues in relation to religion, media and the Trump era in more academic terms elsewhere.  But suffice it to say here that—for both contemporary religion and for contemporary politics—it is no longer sufficient to look for motivations and meanings in the usual places in history and ideology.  In the case of the capitol siege, this is persuasively illustrated by the Twitter hashtag #CapitolSiegeReligion, started by my colleague Peter Manseau and which has already generated scores of examples and an important and substantive dialog online. 

So let me turn to a description of the essential forces.

What is going on here? What are the moving parts? What are these signs and wonders?  They exist in four very large categories: media, religion, masculinity, and nationalist imaginaries.  I’m arguing that these are inextricably linked.  We can’t look at a “first cause” among them, though I will suggest that there are things that we can point to and learn to identify as causative.  There is of course much more here.  Religious signs and symbols abound, as do symbols and memes of gamer culture and digital cultures more generally.  This is what I mean when I point to “media” as a generative factor, not merely as the means by which information flows, but as a force that actually constitutes action when the imagined possibility confronts the reality of concrete action.  Farhad Manjoo, in an account of the siege in the New York Times describes in one parsimonious passage how media are generative, how digital circulations of signs are constitutive of powerful meaings and motivations, and how the relationship between these imaginaries and a concrete world of cause and effect remain at the same time indefinite and powerfully and frighteningly real and concrete. 

One way to think about the attack on the Capitol is as a clash between long-festering, partisan digital fantasy and stark physical reality. What scares me is that even with reality flash-banging all around them, the rioters still clung like stubborn barnacles to their online fantasy. Their mental model of America could not be undone even by the events playing out before their pepper-sprayed eyes — a depth of indoctrination that really does not bode well for our future.

It is not widely recognized that there is a long and deep history of relations between the American far right, religion, and media.  In his classic history of the right, The Party of Fear, David Bennet follows this “party” from the nativist movements of the Colonial period through their confrontation with immigration and diversity, their role in the Civil War and after and down through the isolationalist and nationalist dynamics of the 20th Century.  In each period, religion was an important contributing factor, connecting with rightwing nativist and nationalist ideologies around a continuing project to protect the “purity” of the American project.  Tellingly, in his most recent work on the subject, Bennett noted two developments as important in the modern turn of the far right:  the emergence of militancy/militia movements, and the emergence of the “televangelists” in the 1980s.  While he does not present a theory of the role of media, he describes them as acting as the “affective infrastructures” [my term] that provided legitimacy, networking, and idea- and symbol-generation to the nationalist right through the turn of the 21st Century. 

Historians such as Bennett provide us with a rich description of the discourses that have circulated among the movements of the right across history.  Themes such as nativism, isolationism, anxieties over immigration and racial and cultural mixing, anxieties over the disruptions of industrialization and urbanization and anxieties over resultant threats to the established, gendered order in the domestic sphere have percolated in these circles.  These claims and arguments are familiar in today’s discourses.

But, this is not a fully satisfying explanation for the persistence and power of right-wing politics.  For very good reasons, much contemporary commentary on the contemporary moment has identified race as a fundamental explanation.  With remarkable speed over the months since George Floyd’s death, the term “white nationalism” has become a commonplace in journalistic and lay discourse around current events.  But I want to argue that we should not end the conversation there.  Yes, race is a fundamental dimension of these struggles.  Racial justice and racial reckoning are at the very center of the conversation and are fundamental dynamics in U.S. history.  However, we must also come to terms with religion if we are to move ahead, because the white nationalism that is becoming increasingly obvious is also—and importantly—a white Christian nationalism, as has been widely recognized, including in some surprising places.  It is nearly impossible to disentangle, in both the rhetoric and in the reality of these forces on the right.  To separate the religious from the racial motivation and explanation. 

I want to suggest that we might begin thinking about ways of describing these forces through a framework of racialized religious nationalism.  Roger Friedland has provided a powerful and persuasive account of the rise of such nationalisms.  He has laid out an anthropology of these forces that identifies consistent trends across a range of religious and national contexts.  This is useful because—as has been widely noted (see for example some of my work linked above)—there are trends parallel to Trumpism (across many of the dimensions we see here in the U.S.) in contexts as disparate as Russia, Brazil, and India. 

Friedland’s work allows us to identify within the trends we are considering here three basic goals or motives among the “party of Trump.”  First, a nostalgia for a dimly remembered, halcyon past.  Second, an instantiation of traditionalist ideas about gender and the gendered domestic sphere, and Third, a desire to once again “mark” the culture with religion.  Each of these goals is animated by a shared sense of grievance.  Each is further subscribed to by a range of different groups and forces but constitutes a kind of consensus position among them.  Each is amenable to connotative symbolic claims where real, concrete causes and effects are less important than powerfully provocative imaginaries of the ways things “ought to be.”

So this is a kind of groundwork for a description of the evidence available to us in the political environment, including in the capitol siege.  Religion and right wing politics have long been intertwined. Religion provides both ideological support for nativist and nationalist impulses in the U.S. and at the same time acts as a kind of “index” of disparate values and political claims.  It provides logics and frameworks of action and purpose.  And it acts as a kind of shield in that American academic and elite discourses, including journalistic discourses, are still reluctant to pierce its assumed normative meaning and authority.  We continue to give it too much deference.  Witness the appalling rhetoric—in which our major journalistic organs participated—surrounding religion in the Barrett supreme court nomination.

We can also see an anthropology here, as suggested by Friedland, where important social dynamics drive a cross-cultural and cross-national set of impulses toward religiously-nationalistic motivations and meanings.

And, of course, we see much evidence of the interactions of religion and of mediation in the politics of the times.  I will turn to a presentation of some key evidence in my next post.  And, as I have said, much of this evidence exists in the very media-generated realm of signs, symbols, imaginaries and imagination.  They don’t have firm structural sources or boundaries, linked as they nonetheless are to real sources in race, class, gender, and power.  They do, however, have clear logics and clear cultural sources, and reveal a fascinating array of connections, circulations, and possibilities.  Were not some of these possibilities so dark, we could almost see this process of interpretation and analysis as fun.  But, as a media-cultural scholar, it is up to people like me to engage this task. 

We are confronting a movement that has been brought to life in the Trump era (though in many ways it is nothing new). It found shocking expression in the siege of the US capitol on January 6 and threatens not to go away anytime soon, having already turned the 2021 presidential inauguration into a high-security affair.  But this threat is but the tip of a larger iceberg, which beneath the surface is a complex concatenation of nationalism, religion, racial resentment, gun culture, cultural grievance and masculinity.  Much of this was of course obvious in the actions and the iconography of 1/6/21. 

But attempts at explanation have often turned out to be descriptions instead.  And there was so much to describe.  The faux-militia garb.  The appropriated gaming memes.  The social and political grievances on signs, shirts, banners and flags.  And through it all, some of the most confusing signs and wonders were religious ones.  So much so that a twitter archive has recorded hundreds of examples.  These joined—and were often intermingled with—masculinity, racism and nationalism. 

This space is focused on interactions between religion and media, and it is increasingly obvious that media—specifically digital circulations in gaming, politics, culture, grievance, etc., were at the heart of this event.  January 6 revealed a movement or movements that are deeply yet loosely connected and structurally diffuse.  As many commentators have observed, things seemed at one moment to be ominous and powerful and at others superficial, even (darkly and perniciously) playful.  Observers are at a loss.  Do we treat these as real political movements, or do we focus on their sources in fantasy and loose social-media “community?”  In a telling analysis comparing 1/6 with last August’s assault on the Reichstag in  Berlin, Anna Saurbrey noted “…how aimless and lost some of the rioters both in Berlin and Washington appeared to be once they had reached their target.”  It is almost as if these were groups driven by “affect” ungrounded in political or strategic purpose.  As one commentator put it, it was—chillingly—all about the “Lulz.” 

But the event at the Capitol was deeply dangerous and pernicious in no small part because of the words, signs, and meanings that were circulated.  Many of them bore the possibility of moving from the realm of the imagination to the realm of the real.  This puts this problem squarely in the laps of those of us who presume to be scholars of culture because this is a real, epochal challenge to interpretation of these signs.  But not just interpretation.  We must be able to move beyond their sources to their meanings and effectivities as deployed in these emergent spaces.

So, beneath these signs and symbols, what was and is all of this about?  It was and is about a number of things.  Certainly distrust of authority or of government.  Resistance to what they call “political correctness.”  Resistance to feminism and to racial justice.  Resistance to immigration and increasing cultural diversity.  Nostalgia for a lost and dimly remembered past.  Grievance over lost cultural and social power. 

Curiously in most public commentary and analysis the role of religion in all of this has been both prominent and underplayed.  In spite of its presence in the events of January 6, religion hasn’t been described or describable in any systematic way.  The conventional account is largely one of confusion.

I’m going to argue that we can gain some important insights into the situation—even move toward a more substantive explanation, if we ask how religion and media interact in it.  My purpose here is to begin by pulling a few of the most important cultural threads with an eye to deeper explanation.

I’ll make a more ambitious claim, though.  I think we should be dissatisfied with the explanations we’ve been offered because many of them mis-read the fundamental relationship between religion and politics.  It is not just a matter of certain religious demographics allying with certain political parties or candidates.  No, it is deeper than that, and the particular dynamic in American history is significant. 

Simply put, there is a relationship between certain religious sensibilities and right-wing politics in the U.S. that is not simply a matter of class or economics, which is the traditional explanation.  All the way back to Weber, social theory has seen religion and politics as expressions of class, in spite of the evidence that class is itself a set of cultural values, meanings, and sensibilities, many of which can be just as motivational of action (from political participation to political violence) as traditional material class interests are.  Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute has shown this in a number of recent works that chart both the structural and cultural dynamics at play.  As Jones shows, these can be seen today most vividly in relation to race.  His argument that we are seeing the struggles of a declining White, Christian America, is persuasive.  But there is much more to be said and learned because we need to understand more.  Certainly, anxiety over the loss of white Christian power is a matter of material interests.  But it is also a matter of cultural interests, of nostalgic imaginaries of domestic or public or national Camelots.  That is where media, mediation, and digital circulation come in.

My purpose in these posts is to probe that “more” because the events of January 6 and after present us with a confusing array of data points and we need to find ways to understand and account for them.  Because through the chaos and contradiction of Bibles, crosses, nooses, gaming memes, selfies, guns, military garb, prayers, Nordic mythology, bro culture and militia garb we can see some deeper logics emerge if we pay attention to these signs and symbols and what they are striving to “mean.”  Many of them are almost “free-floating signifiers” only loosely connected with the material realities “on the ground.”  The rioter wearing skins and horns has emerged as a particular symbol of this seeming disconnection.  But, like most of the other signs and gestures on 1/6, he has meaning, and more importantly, he has aspiration, he aspires to mean something. 

Much of what we saw was like that.  It was, in Anna Saurbrey’s words above, “..aimless and lost….”  This was not a disciplined military campaign complete with a well-worked-out and coherent ideology (beyond “stop the steal”).  Its “psy-ops” were a mess.  But each of these signs and gestures has the potential to become concrete and real (indeed, some of them did in the hands and fists and weapons of insurgents).  So getting a handle on them their sources, their meanings, their aspirations, and their implications, is a vital task.  If you agree, join me for the next post, where I’ll make start at that task.

I’ll admit that a tweet I sent a few days ago was intended to be provocative.  I was commenting on the rapidly-heating place of religion in this year’s elections.  As usual, my focus was on the way media are involved in shaping the understanding and the effects of religion. 

And, there’s been a lot to write about.  There’s religion in the QAnon movement, religion in the way the press are covering the Biden-Harris ticket, religion in Trump’s ongoing cultivation of his base.  I’ve got some upcoming entries on these things.  But for now, my intentional indiscretion.

It started with the tweet to the right.  In it, I noted the provenance of the public and mediated projects of today’s odd coalition of conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants.  Others can mentally footnote the deep history of animosity between these groups in the US.  That rift has been conveniently glossed over in the Trump era.  But it reveals the dynamic history I detail here.

Religions that fled persecution in Europe to the free atmosphere of the “New World,” get established, and then decide that state entanglement isn’t such a bad thing after all, as long as they get to do the entangling.  Yes, in the guise of today’s patently contradictory “religious liberty” discourse, they claim to be asking only to be ”left alone.”  But that’s not the effect of things like the Masterpiece Cakeshop and Little Sisters of the Poor SCOTUS decisions.  Each shifted the balance away from religious freedom and toward religious standards for public accommodation.  A very dangerous direction.  And it is a direction that runs risks for these movements themselves.

The outcome, in our present case, is as I described in my scandalous tweet (below).  In it, I tied together several public faces of these efforts to re-center religion as a definitive locus of power in the culture.  (I refer you to my earlier blog post “Culture is Everything” for the outlines of why I use the term “culture” the way I do.)  I specifically noted figures in the Trump administration, and–for good measure–the poor little Little Sisters of the Poor. 

In an excellent and probing legal analysis, Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times unpacked what could be read as either the wonderful coincidence or the disingenuous cynicism of their participation as a plaintiff in the anti-ACA cases at the court.  As she notes, one couldn’t ask for a more sympathetic nom de guerre than “Little Sisters of the Poor.”  In a single trope, their name is able to invoke a whole superstructure of sympathetic cultural memory of the (often under-appreciated by Church authorities) good works of women religious (a history I readily grant and celebrate, of course).  It elides that they are also a multi-national health-care system supported by wealthy donors with deep pockets and vast resources

As a “brand” they got what they wanted.  Justice Alito waxed poetic about their good works.  But, as Greenhouse suggests, their “brand” has enduring, powerful, cultural “legs.”  This was amply demonstrated by the first response I got to my tweet, which you can see below. 

There are several frames to the involvement of the Little Sisters in this affair.  Yes, they saw themselves as faithful stewards of Catholic social teaching in their obsessive moralism around the act of registering with their insurance company (we could talk for hours about the parallels to the equally-valid faith-based objections to draft registration or to taxpayer support of capital punishment, but that’s for another day).  Yes, their claims were judged by SCOTUS and that frame was straightforward and resulted in a judgement that I consider to be very ominous for Establishment Clause (remember that?) principles.  But the third frame is the one that caught me (as I knew it would).  The “brand” represented by the Little Sisters worked exceptionally well to condition the discourse around their case.  Exhibit A: the facile and blithe way in which my correspondent on Twitter was, with great confidence, able to pronounce me “…a nut.”

Well, I am not a nut. What I am is an observer of contemporary religion, media, and politics, and I can see in the trends represented by the “religious liberty” advocacy in contemporary politics the dark portent of religious oppression in reverse.  And it is fascistic in some regards, in that it represents a desire to impose on a free society a regime where a religious test trumps all else.  Public accommodation, which should be the fruit of a society truly committed to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is giving way.  We are seeing a relentless assault on those values by those who think religion is somehow disadvantaged when it is required to submit itself to a larger democratic good. They are for the moment ascendant.

Over the course of the long Trump presidency, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson has been one of the most prolific commentators on the role of religion. An evangelical, he has been a champion of the view that Trump’s “religious cabinet” has sold its soul to the President, and that the evangelicalism is suffering irreparable harm to its soul and its reputation. A very plausible argument.

A problem for him arose in yesterday’s column in the Washington Post. In it he ruminates on Vice President Biden’s “religion problem” and how the appointment of Kamala Harris makes it worse. What is his “religion problem?” He apparently doesn’t understand religion because he is a pro-choice Catholic and has appointed a pro-choice running mate.

The article runs the risk of undermining his whole project of seeking to represent a responsible voice of faith communities in relation to contemporary politics because it fails on two critical tests of plausibility. First it fails to even mention Harris’s faith (she identifies openly as a Black Baptist). Second, by so doing and by blithly sliding by the question of the authenticity of Biden’s faith as well, he seems to assert that Democrats are by definition unable to be people of faith.

This should be (and I am sure is) deeply offensive to any people of faith out there who don’t happen to be either evangelicals or pro-life Catholics. News for Michael: the world of religion, even of American Christianity, is much wider than his apparently limited and myopic experience.

When I blogged several weeks ago about Technologies of Masculine Purpose, I focused on guns and Boats.

Little could I have imagined that I’d now have to add:

Untitled

Enough said for now.  If you want more context on my argument, refer to that earlier blog.

More to come soon!

Trump BibleThe roiling controversies of the past few weeks constitute a moment of social and political ferment in the U.S.  Three things circulate; the ongoing covid pandemic; emergent cultural reckoning with racism; and a make-or-break general election.  These are also of global import and significance as we’ve seen.  The whole world is again watching.

Several times ago, I started a thread titled “culture is everything.”  I had some good discussions and feedback on it.  The most compelling question came from a colleague who asked what exactly I mean by “culture.”  I mean it in a limited way, for purposes of discussion.  In sociological terms I mean “not structure.”  But perhaps a better signal would be to point to Williams’s notion “structure of feeling.” 

By “culture” I mean the circulation of imaginaries of identity and value that operate in relation to structural conditions of life like class, gender, race, gender identity, etc. 

What I wish to explore in this and future reflections may make clearer (to me and to everyone else) what I mean.  My point, really, is to argue to a rather limited audience—my academic colleagues in the field of culturalist media studies—that we have too long ignored one specific and explicit feature of the cultural and media landscape: religion.  My further point is that our lack of a substantive conceptual purchase on religion has left us ill-prepared to fully grasp the emergent politics of the times.

I’m going to continue that argument by investigating evidence of how “religion” functions in contemporary politics.  It does so in ways that are explicit and manifest, but also in ways that are implicit and latent.  In all, though, religion should be grasped by culturalist scholarship for its functioning as culture.  We can leave structural studies of religion to the sociologists.

One of the problem with religion-as-culture is that it seems to act in three registers 1) explicitly; 2) implicitly; and 3) indexically.  As we go on, we’ll see examples of each.  Over the years, I’ve come to realize (something I’ve learned from culturalist religion scholars) that you don’t go for axiomatic or canonical or taxonomic definitions of the beast.  You have to see it where it is, take it on its own terms and try to understand it as it functions.  That is, as culture, in the sense that Stuart Hall meant.

I’ve already started, in a way, with two posts about the incident pictured above.  What I’ll add today is that as the St. John’s church picture incident has become something rather important. A cultural moment that has proven to articulate together a range of gestures rooted in religion and politics.  It means more than itself.

And, it supports my thesis that “culture is everything” because the President and his handlers worked so hard to construct it as a particular and specific artifact.   It became a ritual directed at constructing a perfect image, to make an argument, to appeal to referents outside itself.  The amount of political capital that was spent to make it possible (evidenced by the continuing controversies) is a testament to its significance.  It became about (and there is religion in this as well) the actions and gestures that led to its construction.  It is more than itself.  And reflexive publics, conditioned and cultivated by their experience of participation in media circulations, understand and read the image, its construction, and its intention in certain ways.  Much more later.

The spontaneous demonstrations of the past two-plus weeks have been stunning.  They’ve led to a reckoning in so many places and ways.  And a lot of introspection.  I’m an academic, and in my patch, this has only begun and who knows where it will all lead?  I hope to positive change—real, lasting change.

I’ve been reluctant to write.  Yes, I can’t stand outside this struggle but in important ways it’s not mine iDC Demonstrationn the same way it is for my colleagues-of-color.  I take fully on board the words I’ve seen online saying this is not the time for White voices to come to the center. Not a time for “White-splaining.”  But I have colleagues I care about who are saying that White voices need to say something.  They are right.  But the less the better.  There will be plenty of time for cerebral reflection, post-mortems, and observations from our disciplinary perspectives.

Now is a time to speak personally.  My significant other (let’s call her Kaz) and I share in common the sense that three events shaped our beliefs and moral consciousnesses more than any others:  the cold war (“duck and cover”); Vietnam; and the civil rights movement. We both think that the latter actually shaped us the most.  The events of the last few weeks have taught me why that is the case.  I now realize that my understanding of what it means to be a citizen here was shaped more by Martin Luther King Jr., than by my teachers, scoutmasters, or other influencers.  He explained, and showed—and the experiences that have led up to the last two weeks have brought into full relief—why and what the Constitution is and was about.  I don’t mean that in the trivial way it may sound.

The Constitution and the whole project of the Western Enlightenment—of which I am a child—means nothing unless it can encompass the meaning and significance of difference, particularly the searing difference of race.  If we can’t finally address this (and it hasn’t been quick or easy) then the project has failed and will continue to fail.

I regret now to admit that I and people like me kept thinking—after the gains of the civil rights movement—that things were being “fixed” and getting better.  Police reform, police commissions, community policing, more people of color as officers and chiefs and mayors, more scrutiny.  I know it is more than just about policing per se.  It’s the legacy of Reconstruction,  the uncontested emergence of the “Lost Cause” movement, that policing is also the Jim Crow that the North developed in response to the Great Migration, and the redlining of the 50s that left Black people out of post-war (publicly-financed) economic expansion, and that voting majorities bear much responsibility for the situation because of their complicity with conservative politics in making spending on policing sacrosanct when spending for areas of social good that would make policing less necessary is not.

We knew it wouldn’t be fast.  I’m enough of a social scientist to know that deep change is incremental (and the fact that younger people today are much more woke than we were is evidence of that).  But it wasn’t fixed.  Ferguson (and scores of other incidents) have proved that.  The intransigence of politics against the BLM movement got in the way, and may now have been swept away. I hope so.

But, I have lived through the five decades since the death of Dr. King (something that shocked and saddened us more than either of the Kennedys’) and am convinced we still have a long road ahead.  The forces against change are staying quiet and mostly keeping their powder dry, but they’ll come creeping back, probably before the Fall election.  And many of them will cloak themselves in the armor of religion and our public and media discourse will largely let them get away with that.  But that is too cerebral.  I said I’d be personal.

So, how to think about where we are.  Hope?  Fear? Portent? Resolve? I know that I and people like me need to do more.  We need not to leave it up to others to combat racism.  Its not enough to not be racist, we have to fight racism.

I have never been able to understand White people who say they don’t see race or that we’re beyond it as a nation.  My parents taught us to think about race and be conscious of it, that it is a continuing feature of American life. We were not to say certain words and were to confront stereotypes.  They made us think about it as something that has been a long struggle. Part of the family lore were stories of crossing and confronting the racial barrier, including by forbears who took direct action.

The events of these past weeks sent me to the story of Edwin Coppock, one of those ancestors.  He and his brother Barclay stood with John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.  Both were martyred to the cause, remembered in this history written by the American Socialist and organizer, Eugene Debs.  Edwin was executed by the state of Virginia on December 16, 1859, two weeks after Brown himself.  Debs’s account includes a letter Edwin wrote to his uncle just days before he was hanged.

the time may come when [God] may still further remember the cause in which I die. Thank God the principles of the cause in which we were engaged will not die with me and my brave comrades. They will spread wider and wider and gather strength with each hour that passes. The voice of truth will echo through our land, bringing conviction to the erring and adding members to the glorious army who will follow its banner. The cause of everlasting truth and justice will go on conquering and to conquer until our broad and beautiful land shall rest beneath the banner of freedom. I had fondly hoped to live to see the principles of the Declaration of Independence fully realized. I had hoped to see the dark stain of slavery blotted from our land, and the libel of our boasted freedom erased, when we can say in truth that our beloved country is the land of the free and the home of the brave; but that cannot be.

Are we, like him, only able to imagine things as yet unseen with hope to see them but doubt that we will?  Or can we have more hope because—unlike him—we have lived to see the “gathering strength” of the cause?

For two days in a row now we’ve seen the President engage religion in an effort to reposition himself to the center of the current crisis.  Lots can be said.  What I want to focus on is how these two gestures attempt to use mediated visuality to make an argument.  These images are, as I said yesterday, deeply incoherent on many levels.  Today, the incoherence is driven home by the Archbishop himself.  Trump’s approach to the demonstrations is deeply contradictory to Catholic Social teaching, and his use of the Basilica as a backdrop is therefore offensive.

Trump BibleBut in both cases, we can see an attempt to create a visual moment that seeks to cut through these contradictions by going straight for a position right at the center of some religious-social geography.  What is that geography?  Clearly the imagined religious-revanchism of social grievance advocated by a number of voices:  Robert Barr, Mike Pompeo, Steve Bannon, and Trump’s own “evangelical cabinet” headed by Paula White.

This revanchist project imagines itself as a pan-religious (at least encompassing both Catholic and Protestant interests) effort focused on recapturing lost geographies of imagined domestic and cultural perfection in which religion hovers over a social world defined by “virtue.”

But what symbols to use?  In the media age, this must be produced.  And these visuals were produced.  They were produced by on-the-ground horrors of imposition of civil violence, both direct and threatened.  So many eggs were broken to make these visual omelets that it is unclear what could be constituted by putting them back together reprehensibleagain.

And what did we get?  We got visuals that are so superficial as to be nearly meaningless. The gesture of the Bible, held up backwards and upside down.  FLOTUS inappropriately dressed at a shrine.  A concatination of the President and a Pontiff whose legacy he barely understands, etc.  The evidence is in the incoherent language used by interpreters who now seek to explain this all.  Sarah Sanders, for example, tweeted about the courage it took for Trump to break into an Episcopal churchyard using military force.

This all and only makes sense as a visual argument.  And it is up to us as scholars to try to keep this all straight.  Sometimes we can’t.

 

Trump BibleIn the middle of all the chaos of late May and early June, 2020, no more chaotic image (in my view) circulated than one of Donald Trump holding a Bible in front of historic St. John’s church in Washington.

I’ve given up hoping that main news journalism will finally get the religion story “right,” but this is a case where it is critical that they do so.  Here’s why. This picture holds within it so many contradictions that are critical to public understanding of this political moment and the role of religion in it.  But it is too complex for a journalism that still chooses to see religion–if at all-in uni- or bi-dimensional terms.

Let’s try to see a few of the contradictions here. For starters, the picture was made possible by the President and his entourage intentionally breaking into a moment of national anguish and activism, using police force to disperse peaceful demonstrators to clear the field for this publicity shot.  Second, Trump’s own relationship to the Bible is tenuous at best (remember “two Corinthians”?)   Third, the most incoherent and contradictory part of this is that it is a superficial and trivial attempt to curry favor with the “religious liberty” crowd among his “base.”  This is a contradiction because St. John’s is an Episcopal church with an active social ministry, not an Evangelical mega-church riven with feelings of grievance.

Fourth, the invocation of the Bible in such a place is a direct assault on the kind of religion that church represents, which is *not* one that celebrates the moral-culture “virtue” religious revanchism represented by Attorney General Barr, Secretary Mike Pompeo, and Trump-whisperer Steve Bannon.  Fifth, this image is an attempt to elide the real contradiction between the moral culture of a nation reeling from its racial reckoning and forces in the world of religion (Barr, etc., as well as Trump’s “religious cabinet” of Evangelical leaders) who want the nation to remain comfortable with its history of religion-sanctioned racial tension.

Will anyone at the Post, the Times, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc….rise to the occasion?

My Twitter followers will know I’ve recently done a few tweets tweaking mainstream media for their inattention to detail in their stories covering religion in the age of covid.  Of course lack of detail in journalism about religion is nothing new.  For now, though, I want to focus on one recent piece that appeared in a major venue, the Washington Post.

In it, Gary Abernathy asks “What is behind Republicans wanting a swift reopening?”  His answer is “Evangelicals.”  He begins by noting what he calls the “age old” reluctance to discuss religion “…beyond its basic political impact…” and suggest moving beyond that to a more focused view.  He first identifies the Trump coalition as a broad concatenation of conservatives, libertarians, and Evangelical Protestants.  He then focuses on the Evangelical tranche in more detail.  So far, so good.  I agree that our public treatment of the religion in the Trump phenomenon has been to narrow and simplistic and there has been a reluctance on the part of journalists and political observers to try to understand it on its own terms.

Abernathy’s approach is to focus specifically on what constitutes an “Evangelical” in the first place.  He turns to the four principles of Evangelicalism outlined by the National Association of Evangelicals.  The fourth of these is the belief in salvation and the afterlife.  Abernathy’s argument then becomes one of tracing how, among the Trump supporters, there exists a group who are so focused on the afterlife that something like a this-worldly fear of death would not stand in the way of their boldly embracing re-opening in the face of scientific and medical advice to the contrary.

He concludes, “…when ruminating over why there are millions of people who don’t seem to panic over a global pandemic or other life-threatening event, critics should remember that, right or wrong, it often involves a belief in something even bigger than people named Trump, Hannity or Limbaugh.”

Fair enough.  We should of course not assume that Evangelicals are more likely than anyone else to be the hapless dupes of influencers and instead should try to understand them in more depth and detail.  But Abernathy’s focus on confidence in salvation as the reason Evangelical voters might support risky behaviors seems to me misplaced in two ways.  First, if such belief is so definitive, would Evangelicals not eschew gun ownership for personal protection, preferring to leave things to God?

No, there is something more going on here, and I think I must attribute it to politics.  You don’t need to deny something basic and authentic about the Evangelical community to say that as a modern movement, born in the 20th Century, it bears the markers of secular modernity and modernity’s enforced sorting of “the religious.”

To search for essentialist explanations for the social practice of faith denies much of the reality of modern life. There are few faith communities for which you can argue that their lives are completely inscribed by their spirituality.  The Amish come to mind, and certain monastic groups. But not modern Evangelicals.

We need to remember that Evangelicalism as we know it today was borne out of a set of social and political gestures.  When Jerry Falwell led Fundamentalism out of the shadows of the Scopes legacy of quietude and marginality and into a full-throated presence in the public sphere—something that the mainstream culture saw as the emergence of “neo-Evangelicalism”—the shift carried with it an implicit understanding.  That understanding was that these new Evangelical Americans were giving up their quietude to enter social and cultural politics and that would involve a certain amount of risk, strategy and compromise. Further, it would involve a new “situational ethics” of Evangelical politics where not every move or every strategy could or would be directly inscribed with faith and spirituality.

No, Evangelicals would need to do things and say things and embrace things that might not bear explicit markings of their faith because they sought the “greater good” of making this world more to their liking.

So Evangelicals who go along with Trump’s calls for reopening in spite of the risks do so not because of their confidence in the afterlife.  An appeal to faith embraces their actions, of course, and something like a profession of faith in salvation serves as a valuable ex post facto rationalization.  But it’s not an explanation, or even the most important explanation.

I fear that Abernathy’s piece inadvertently makes his point about the tone-deaf-ness of the “mainstream media” to religion.  That the editors of the Post saw his contribution as perhaps definitive when it is actually rather narrow and misdirected, indirectly confirms his overall argument.

 

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