It’s not the evangelicals, it’s the Christian nationalists

In an interview on the Religious Studies Podcast, journalist Katherine Stewart points out that it’s wrong to identify all Christian evangelicals with the Trump White House. Stewart’s research shows that the Trump White House uses religion to mobilize voters to support them — specifically, mobilizing voters around abortion and opposition to same sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights. She calls this a political movement, which she names “Christian nationalism.”

When pressed by the interviewer, David McConeghy, Stewart elaborates on why Christian nationalism is fundamentally about politics, not about religion. Speaking of one of the leaders of the movement, Ralph Drollinger, Stewart says:

“The policies he’s promoting are: deregulation; sort of a compliant workforce; a lack of basic workers’ rights; I think he’s called the flat tax something like ‘God’s form of taxation.’ And you know, this is all music to the ears of the funders of the movement. Many of the funders are these members of plutocratic families … the DeVos and Prince families, the Green family. And these very hyper-wealthy families rely on minimal workers’ rights, and economic and environmental deregulation to maintain and increase their profits. So the movement is promoted to the rank-and-file as being about these culture war issues. But when movement leaders are talking amongst themselves, or to political leaders, the message is much more expansive.”

Stewart also believes, based on her research, that Christian nationalism as a political philosophy is basically opposed to representative democracy; yet the Christian nationalists are also very sophisticated at manipulating the electorate to get their supporters into positions of leadership and power.

For these and other reasons, Stewart asserts that this is a political movement, one that uses religion for its own ends. I think this is a helpful way of looking at electoral politics in this election year: rather than being distracted by the red herring of Christian evangelicals getting involved in politics, we would do better to pay attention to the manipulation of the electorate by the political force of Christian nationalism.

After secularization….

At the Religious Studies Project, Dick Houtman has written a blog post titled “After Secularization: Unbelief in Europe.” Houtman has done some small-scale studies of unbelief in Europe, and relates his findings to larger intellectual trends, including the rise of “spiritual but not religious.” Houtman concludes that while this new contemporary spirituality is not old-school Christianity (which is where we get the “not religious” piece of the label), it is nevertheless a religion:

“Despite the still popular notion that contemporary spirituality is too privatized and individualized to have much social significance, this has become increasingly difficult to maintain [that’s it’s not a religion]. Surely, spirituality’s very character stands in the way of loyalty to church-like organizations and religious doctrines, but it does boast loyalty to what Campbell (2002 [1972]) has called ‘the cultic milieu’, a milieu to which the western mainstream has increasingly opened up. In the process, it has become clear that the public role of spirituality differs significantly from the ideological and political role that Christian religion used to play, and in many countries still plays. Guided by the spiritual motto, ‘One does not need to be sick to become better’, the public role of spirituality is more therapeutic than ideological and is played out in realms that range from work (Aupers & Houtman 2006, Zaidman 2009) to health care (Raaphorst & Houtman 2016, Zaidman 2017) and education (Brown 2019).”

It’s a short post, and worth reading for anyone trying to understand so-called secularization; I particularly like Houtman’s use of the word “unbelief” to name what is erroneously called “non-religiousness.”

Classical gender equality

The Daffodil Project aims to “champion gender equality in classical music.” In a blog post, Elizabeth de Brito writes:

“Mozart and Beethoven together make up just over one third of all classical performances…. Add the next 4 most played composers — Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky — and they make up 78% of classical performances. Over 400 years and hundreds of amazing composers, but nearly 80% of all performances are of just 6 white male composers that all died over a century ago?!”

De Brito produces an online gender-balanced classical music program which in its first year had “409 composers including 204 female composers, 155 living composers, and 40 BAME composers/composers of colour.” The most played composer? — Florence Price.

And De Brito has hit on one of the main reasons why I don’t bother going to hear classical music concerts much any more — I’m so bored by hearing the same composers over and over again. I like “classical” music just fine, but I don’t want to hear Beethoven and Mozart again and again, I want to hear living composers, women composers, non-white composers….

Which brings me to Unitarian Universalist services that use mostly classical music: what would happen if half the music in our worship services was composed by women? or if we programmed more composers of African descent? and how about a Mexican composer? Life would be a lot more interesting.

“A great positive achievement”

While watching the mass of the Abyssinian Orthodox church in Debra Lanos in 1930, during the coronation of Ras Tafari as emperor of Abyssinia, Evelyn Waugh noted that the liturgy was “quite unintelligible.” As a Roman Catholic, he had thought that the “canon of the Mass would have been in part familiar, but this was said in the sanctuary behind closed doors.” This observation led him to reflect on the exoteric (as opposed to esoteric) nature of Western Christianity:

“I had sometimes thought it an odd thing that Western Christianity, alone of all the religions in the world, exposes its mysteries to every observer, but I was so accustomed to this openness that I had never before questioned whether it was an essential and natural feature of the Christian religion. Indeed, so saturated are we in this spirit that many people regard the growth of the [Christian] Church as a process of elaboration — even of obfuscation; they visualize the Church of the first century as a little cluster of pious people reading the Gospels together, praying and admonishing each other with a simplicity to which the high ceremonies and subtle theology of later years would have been bewildering and unrecognizable….”

Parenthetically, I would note that this last observation captures the beliefs of many Unitarian Universalists: that early Christianity, in the days before the Nicene Creed — or Paul, or whomever one believes to be the bogeyman who spoiled true Christianity — was pure and simple. But let us continue with Waugh’s meditation:

“At Debra Lanos I suddenly saw the classic basilica and open altar as a great positive achievement, a triumph of light over darkness consciously accomplished, and I saw theology as the science of simplification by which nebulous and elusive ideas are formalized and made intelligible and exact. I saw the Church of the first century as a dark and hidden thing: as dark and hidden as the seed germinating in the womb; legionaries off duty slipping furtively out of the barracks, greeting each other by signs and passwords in a locked upper room in the side street of some Mediterranean seaport; slaves at dawn creeping from the grey twilight into candle-lit, smoky chapels of the catacombs. The priests hid their office, practising trades; their identity was known only to initiates; they were criminals against the law of their country. … And I began to see how these obscure sanctuaries had grown, with the clarity of Western reason, into the great open altars of Catholic Europe, where Mass is said in a flood of light, high in the sight of all, while tourists can clatter round with their Baedeckers, incurious of the mystery.” (Evelyn Waugh, “A Coronation in 1930,” When the Going Was Good [Penguin Books, 1946/1976], pp. 118-119)

Waugh, in 1930, was a recent and fervent convert to Roman Catholicism, and a good part of what he wrote here may be classed as Catholic apologetics directed at his Church of England readers. And some of what he wrote came from the fanciful imagination of the novelist, which is not to say that it is untrue, but it isn’t careful and dry academic discourse. And there is a core of truth in what he wrote: the mainstream of Western religion tends towards the exoteric, rather than the esoteric. This is as true of Protestantism and newer forms of Christianity as it was of Waugh’s Roman Catholicism. When the Pentecostal receives the baptism of the Spirit and speaks in tongues, it happens in front of the gathered congregation, and videos may be taken of the event and posted on Youtube. When the Unitarian Universalist minister delivers a highly intellectual sermon, everyone is welcome to come and listen to it, though you may need an advanced degree to keep up with the literary allusions and verbal footnotes.

“The World Is Full of Smelly Feet”

Veronika sent a photo of hymn number 736 in Anglican Hymns Old and New, Revised and Enlarged (Great Britain: Kevin Mayhew, 2008). The hymn is titled “The Wolrd Is Full of Smelly Feet.” Of course I thought it was a faked photo, but a little bit of Web searching reveals that it is, in fact, a real hymn with text by by Michael Forster, and music by Christopher Tambling.

I suppose if one is in a Christian church with a liturgical heritage, and one is looking for a contemporary praise-song-type hymn to sing during footwashing, one might consider having the congregation sing this; although it’s hard to imagine.

But then my Web searching revealed that this hymn is included in a collection for junior choirs, and that boggled my mind. If the junior choir I was in sang this song — which we wouldn’t have, since it was a Unitarian Universalist church — but if we had been told to sing that song, my buddy Barry and I would have been laughing so hard we probably would have been unable to sing. Maybe some of the serious older girls would have sung it, but I can’t even imagine them getting through the lyrics with a straight face.

I am sometimes annoyed by some of the hymns in the Unitarian Universalist hymnals. It is good to know that we, at least, do no have a hymn to smelly feet.

For educational purposes, and in the spirit of Maundy Thursday, I’ll include the chorus and two of the verses here. I think you’ll especially enjoy the unexpected rhyme between “toes” and “nose.”

Chorus: The world is full of smelly feet,
Weary from the dusty street.
The world is full of smelly feet,
We’ll wash them for each other.

Jesus said to his disciples,
‘Wash those weary toes!
‘Do it in a cheerful fashion,
‘Never hold your nose!

We’re his [Jesus’] friends, we recognise him
In the folk we meet;
Smart or scruffy, we’ll still love him,
Wash his smelly feet!


Deities of non-binary gender

As I develop some new middle-elementary curriculum materials, I’ve been looking at myths and religious narratives for deities who do not have a binary, male-or-female, gender.

The most familiar example of a non-binary gender deity — but an example we mostly ignore — is in one of the two stories of the creation of humankind in the book of Genesis. The more familiar Genesis story of the creation of humankind comes from the second chapter of Genesis, where God creates a male human, then puts the male human to sleep, takes a rib, and makes a woman. However, as feminists began pointing out back in the 1970s, there’s another story about how humans were created in the first chapter of Genesis:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27, NRSV)

Commenting on this passage, Susan Niditch, professor of religion at Amherst College, says:

“For feminist readers of scriptures, no more interesting and telegraphic comment exists on the nature of God. The male aspect and the female aspect implicitly are part of the first human and a reflection of the creator.” (Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Westminster/John Know Press, 1992, p. 13)

While agreeing with Niditch, I would add that this passage implies to me that the God of Genesis 1 cannot be reduced to a single binary gender.

The Navajo deity Turquoise Boy is of non-binary gender in a different way. In the Dine Bahane, the Navajo creation myth, when the humans get to the Third World, the men decide to live apart from the women, and cross a river in order to separate themselves. But the men take Turquoise Boy with them, because he is able to do the women’s work of grinding corn, etc., which the men ordinarily wouldn’t be able to do. (See: Aileen O’Bryan, The Dîné: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians, Bulletin 163, the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, 1956.) White Shell Girl is also a non-binary gender deity; the narrative refers to her as being intersex, or in the O”Bryan translation, a hermaphrodite.

Turning to Chinese myths and religious narratives, Lan Caihe (Lan Ts’ai-ho), one of the Eight Immortals of Taoism, is ambiguously gendered. According to folklorist E. T. C. Werner:

“Lan Ts’ai-ho is variously stated to have been a woman and an hermaphrodite…. According to the Hsiu hsiang Pa Hsien tung yu chi, … though he was a man, he could not understand how to be a man (which is perhaps the reason why he has been supposed to be a woman).”(Myths and Legends of China, E. T. C. Werner, London: George Harrap & Co., 1922, p. 293)

There are many other deities with ambiguous or non-binary gender, including perhaps most famously the ancient Greek deity Hermaphroditus. What I find particularly interesting is that non-binary gender plays out in many different ways in these various myths and religious narratives. I want to say that there is a spectrum of gender choices, but I think saying that imposes my early twenty-first century Western cultural framework on other cultures. Better to say that gender has been interpreted in many ways in different religious traditions.

Mindfulness and the elite

From my files: Three years ago, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Virginia Heffernan on the craze for mindfulness (“Mind the Gap,” 19 April 2015, pp. 13-15). Citing a Time magazine cover story that called the craze a “revolution,” Heffernan comments:

“If it’s a revolution, it’s not a grass-roots one. Although mindfulness teachers regularly offer the practice in disenfranchised communities in the United States and abroad, the powerful have really made mindfulness their own, exacting from the delicate idea concrete promises of longer lives and greater productivity. In January [2015], during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, [mindfulness popularizer Jon] Kabat-Zinn led executives and 1 percenters in a mindfulness meditation meant to promote general well-being.” But, notes Heffernan, “what commercial mindfulness may have lost from the most rigorous Buddhist tenets it replaced: the implication that suffering cannot be escaped but must be faced.”

Three years on, mindfulness is even more firmly entrenched among the elites. I recognize that there are serious Buddhist practitioners out there who teach authentic Buddhist mindfulness practices, and I also recognize that there are those who use mindfulness-stripped-of-Buddhism for benign ends. But when I think about how the 1 percenters have adopted mindfulness, I am curious about how it became so widespread among the “cultured despisers of religion.” Is the ongoing craze for mindfulness an example of how consumer capitalism can strip all the authentic weirdness out of religion, turning authentic religious practices into “opiates for the masses”? Or is mindfulness similar to the Christian “Prosperity Gospel,” that is, authentic religious teachings co-opted to promote consumer capitalism? except where the Prosperity Gospel is used to control lower middle class suckers, Prosperity Mindfulness is to control professional class suckers.

I am also curious whether authentic Buddhist mindfulness will survive being co-opted by the 1 percenters and consumer capitalism. What Heffernan calls “commercial mindfulness” really is nothing but an opiate: a pill that numbs us to the stress and horror and absurdity of an increasingly unjust economic system, but doesn’t actually cure the underlying illness of injustice.

To paraphrase Morpheus in the movie The Matrix: “If you swallow the blue pill of mindfulness, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe; but if you take the red pill of skepticism, you can see the wool that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth….”

Guteel

In a Tlingit myth, Guteel was a being who lived on human blood. He was larger than humans, and semi-divine, so in English translations of the myth he is referred to as a “giant” or a “monster.” I found a few different versions of the myth — as you’d expect with an oral tradition — but the central plot remains much the same: Guteel is killing too many humans, so the humans figure out a way to kill him. As they destroy him, he prophesies that they will never kill him completely. The humans burn his body, but the ashes turn into mosquitoes which suck blood from humans, thus rendering Guteel’s prophecy true.

At Sitka National Historical Park, there is a Mosquito Legend Pole carved before 1900, which once belonged to Hattie Wallace of the Kaigani Haida village of Sukkwan. Even though it was in a Haida village, the pole shows the Tlingit Mosquito Legend. The traditional Watchman figure is missing from the top of this pole; so now Guteel sits at the top, a giant with a beak that looks like a mosquito proboscis.

We probably would not include monsters or giants like Guteel in the category of deities. Yet a being like Guteel is in some sense a lesser deity: he is immortal, he is powerful, he is part of the order of existence. Not all deities are benevolent.

More information:

Info about the replica Mosquito Legend Pole at Sitka National Historical Park

Versions of the Tlingit Mosquito Legend: a brief versionversion with photos of old totem poles

Tlingit myths and Texts

Local religious data

I love poring over data on U.S. religions, and a motherlode of such data can be found on the Web site of The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA).

Tonight, I’ve been looking over religion data for Santa Clara County, the county which includes the UU Church of Palo Alto, as found in the County Membership Report.

ARDA’s Web page shows that 43.6% of the county population are religious adherents, essentially unchanged from 43.3% of the county’s population in 2000. The count includes 1,005,614 people as unaffiliated; 447,369 as Roman Catholic; 148,599 as Evangelical Protestant; 125,165 as Other (this includes Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, UUs, etc.); and 44,623 as Mainline Protestant. 927 people are counted as members of Unitarian Universalist congregations.

These counts are based on self-reporting by 236 religious bodies, and any interpretation should take that into account. Obvious problems: religious bodies may have different reporting procedures; some of us (like me) are regular attendees but are not official members of a congregation, so are not counted; counts may include people who are not really adherents; etc.

The basic data sets come from the Assoc. of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, whose Web site is also of interest.

My main interest in the ARDA Web page is how it helps show the incredible religious diversity of Santa Clara County. Admittedly, they miss some smaller religious groups, particularly adherents of Orisa Devotion, and several New Religious Movements; but these are groups that may deliberately hide from, or give incorrect information to, researchers. Even with the obvious gaps (Cao Dai, Scientology, Santeria), their list of religious groups shows impressive diversity: a bewildering variety of Christians; Baha’is; Buddhists; Hindus; Jains; Jews; a few New Religious Movements; Sikhs; and Unitarian Universalists.

Definitely a fascinating Web site for exploring data on religion in a given geographical region.

The squirrel with the “slippery mouth”

A story from the religious tradition of Orisa devotion:

Once upon a time, there were two squirrels who decided to build a nest at the side of a road.

One of the squirrels, the male squirrel, decided to visit the babalawo for ifa divination. The divination warned the squirrel: “Beware of the slippery mouth, the mouth that cannot keep secrets. There is a trap that never fails to catch its victim, and that trap is the mouth that cannot keep secrets. The person who talks too much, it is his talking that kills him. And the person who talks to everyone he meets, it is his mouth that kills him. Beware of the slippery mouth!”

So it was that the Ifa divination warned the squirrel, “Do not tell everything you know to everyone you meet.” But the squirrel did not heed this good advice.

Soon thereafter, the female squirrel gave birth to two little babies. The male squirrel was very happy, so happy that he forgot what the Ifa divination told him, and he had to tell everyone about these two new babies.

He went out on the road beside which they had built their nest, and said, “The female squirrel had two lovely babies. Now our nest if full of children. All you travellers going past on the road, you must come and see our children!”

Some human beings were passing by, and heard the male squirrel say this. So they stepped into the bushes, where they found the squirrels’ nest. They looked into the nest, found the two young squirrels, and took them. When the human beings got home, they put the squirrels children on top of some pounded yam, and the two baby squirrels disappeared down their throats with the soup.

Source: Wande Abimbola, Ifa Divination Poetry