What the Religious Right in America can teach us about Pluralism

Religion in the public sphere has not always been problematic, as American history demonstrates. Clergy have taken both the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ positions when it comes to issues such as civil rights, anti-war protests etc. This is seen as in the 1960s, when the clergy lead demonstrations for civil rights while in the 1980s they vehemently protested abortion. This hard-nosed pragmatism is a feature of American public life and will likely continue, says Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University Professor of Sociology in his essay The Religious Right and Symbolic Politics (1991). In analyzing the effectiveness of the Religious Right in American public and political sphere, Wuthnow asks: What worked for the Religious Right and what did not? An answer to this may point to the direction in which the future leaders of the Religious Right may strategize, he suggests. Further, Wuthnow shows that the Religious Right has consistently tried to mold public policy, defined as the outcome of the political process with respect to specific substantive issues. While the stated position of the Religious Right has consistently been to ‘uphold morality’, the way to achieve this has varied, depending both on the power that the groups have enjoyed as well as the relations between local and national politics.

photo credit : http://defendingcontending.com/2008/10/14/has-the-religious-right-lost-its-voice-in-american-politics/
photo credit : http://defendingcontending.com/2008/10/14/has-the-religious-right-lost-its-voice-in-american-politics/

In an insightful remark Wuthnow captures the paradoxes of American life : “ The American public does not want our public policy makers to be devoid of value considerations, but neither does it want its seminaries and churches to become halls of public administration.” (p.89). By this he means that while there is a great desire to see values reflected in the public sphere, Americans deeply pragmatic in several ways, and are conscious of keeping the separation of Church and State. Americans do not want Clergy to run be Surgeons, nor carry out bureaucratic functions, he reminds us. At the same time, he reminds us that one of reasons the Religious Right was successful in the 70s and 80s was because of its ‘outsider’ image, of being the ‘Moral majority’, standing up for what was right, and being ‘anti-establishment.’ When this gave way to being ‘inside’ the corridors of power, the legitimacy that they enjoyed began to wane. The reason for this is that the anti-government sentiment among most Americans is still prevalent among most Americans, who are ambivalent about the ‘over-reaching’ aspects of the federal government.
Also, this moral majority succeeded post-Watergate and other business scandals of the 1960s and 70s’, when Americans were worried about growing immorality, drugs and teenage pregnancies and a drop in general morality. The ‘flower children’ of the 1960s had grown up and were becoming responsible adults. Further, he argues that it may be prudent to look to the Right for lessons by considering some of the ways in which it influenced public agenda. This theme is well developed and illustrated in his book Red State Nation (2012), where Wuthnow argues that the Republican Party and the centrist conservatism of the state’s two religious denominations – Methodism and Catholicism- in Kansas State actually deterred radical religious and political movements from gaining ground during most of the state’s history. Though Kansas is a paradigmatic case for how the Republican party has established a strong hold, there are many internal debates, inconsistencies and struggles between the Religious Right groups that are not fully appreciated, Wuthnow reminds us. For instance, the tension between Methodists, Catholics and Baptists is not taken into consideration, when we speak about the Religious Right. Nor is the ‘moderate’ side of the Republican Party itself, which in many cases goes against the extreme Republican perspective.
The ‘moral majority’ of today seems to be decidedly liberal, by many measures. As recent studies have shown, the fundamental structure of American family is changing. As this in-depth report by NY Times argues: “Yet for all the restless shape-shifting of the American family, researchers who comb through census, survey and historical data and conduct field studies of ordinary home life have identified a number of key emerging themes. Families, they say, are becoming more socially egalitarian over all, even as economic disparities widen. Families are more ethnically, racially, religiously and stylistically diverse than half a generation ago — than even half a year ago.” The report goes on to say that increasing intermarriage between races, religious denominations is causing a shift in how people conceptualize kinships. “ In increasing numbers, blacks marry whites, atheists marry Baptists, men marry men and women, Democrats marry Republicans and start talk shows. Good friends join forces as part of the “voluntary kin” movement, sharing medical directives, wills, even adopting one another legally. Single people live alone and proudly consider themselves families of one — more generous and civic-minded than so-called “greedy marrieds.” This level of mingling, complication of associational life has not occurred before, according to observers. While there is little doubt that this is impacting the shift towards a more liberal and plural outlook towards moral values, the exact shift is yet to be determined.

Hobby Lobby and the debate about religion

Several important legal cases in the past few months have made the issue of pluralism salient, in the American public consciousness. Issues related to marriage equality, Immigration and most recently, healthcare have brought forth some deep underlying tensions in American society, to the fore. While these cases are about particular issues, I would argue that they are ultimately about defining the scope of religious pluralism in America. This case, like the others is about what Wuthnow has called ‘symbolic politics,’ i.e., the strategy of gaining attention for symbolic issues and ensuring that the Right Wing’s agenda stays in the public policy realm. The decisions that courts reach in deciding these cases will have far-reaching implications on how the future generations come to understand the limits of religion. Also, these debates involve ‘factions’, in this case, special interest groups, that are often accused of undermining democratic participation.
I will briefly discuss the impact of religion in the public sphere and use the example of Hobby Lobby case that has challenged the neutrality of courts and the state in implementing laws. In this case, it is the federal healthcare law that is being challenged. While it is not possible to go into all the details of this case, a quick synopsis of this case is as follows: Two companies: Consestoga Wood Specialties and Hobby Lobby, want to be exempt from providing their employees contraceptive coverage as required under the Affordable Care Act. While these two firms are not religious organizations, their owners say that they are the ‘victims of an assault on religious liberty’, as the owners disapprove of some of the contraceptives, points out a New York Times editorial.
The question that is at the heart of this debate is whether the contraceptive coverage rule violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which says that government may not “substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion” unless it be to “further a compelling government interest.” The NY Times editorial argues that the Supreme court should not allow the corporations to get away with this, as it would mean permitting the companies to impose their views on thousands of their employees.
As the editors further argue: “If there is a Supreme Court decision in favor of these businesses, the ripple effect could be enormous. One immediate result would be to encourage other companies to seek exemptions from other health care needs, like blood transfusions, psychiatric care, vaccinations or anesthesia. It could also encourage toxic measures like the one vetoed last month by Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona that would have given businesses and individuals a broad right to deny services to same-sex couples in the name of religion. The Supreme Court cannot go there.” The arguments about religious freedom are being used to deny services to women in this case, as they were used to deny equality to African Americans before the Civil Rights movement. While this particular instance could be seen as ‘government aggression’ against religion, the principle of non-discrimination would be violated if the Supreme Court supports the corporate case.
Beyond the immediacy of the issues we are discussing and the legal wrangles involved, the big issues involved are those of the changing morality in America. This is related not only to the changing family structures, as mentioned earlier, but also increased shift in religious denominations, conversion to other religions as well as a moving away, from religion, generally. An article in The American Scholar points to the declining influence of the Evangelical Church, and the impact this is having on other denominations. Call it the ‘fall of Evangelical Church and the Rise of Catholic Church,’ if you will. As the article argues: “But the reality, largely unnoticed outside church circles, is that evangelicalism is not only in gradual decline but today stands poised at the edge of a demographic and cultural cliff. The most recent Pew Research Center survey of the nation’s religious attitudes, taken in 2012, found that just 19 percent of Americans identified themselves as white evangelical Protestants—five years earlier, 21 percent of Americans did so. Slightly more (19.6 percent) self-identified as unaffiliated with any religion at all, the first time that group has surpassed evangelicals.” Simultaneously, while the growth of ‘spiritual shoppers’- those who are religiously unaffiliated but spiritually active, grows, other religions such as Islam gain more converts and the Catholic Church also becomes an attractive proposition for the more liberal minded Millennials, we have the shift of an entire generation of Christians.
Further, pointing to the broader sociological changes, the American Scholar article claims: “ Secularization alone is not to blame for this change in American religiosity. Even half of those Americans who claim no religious affiliation profess belief in God or claim some sort of spiritual orientation. Other faiths, like Islam, perhaps the country’s fastest-growing religion, have had no problem attracting and maintaining worshippers. No, evangelicalism’s dilemma stems more from a change in American Christianity itself, a sense of creeping exhaustion with the popularizing, simplifying impulse evangelical luminaries such as Schuller once rode to success.” So, taking a cue from this, one can ask: Are the Hobby Lobby and related cases an attempt by the Religious Right to assert its ‘moral authority.’ Can it be seen as a desperate effort to claim its own moral territory, that it is afraid of losing?
A related concern that comes up, in this examination of the changing demographics, religious affiliations and moral values is: How is the notion of pluralism (pertaining to religion, ethical values, morality) shifting in this context? A careful analysis of the aforementioned factors suggests that there seems to be a gradual expansion of the idea of pluralism. Also, if the Republican Right’s strategies of using pluralism to advocate a more narrow vision of society is not working, might we see a broader vision of pluralism in America? At the level of discourse too, are we seeing a gradual relaxation of how we seek out ‘morality’ in the public sphere. As Connolly argues in his book Pluralism (2005): “ What is needed today is a cautious relaxation of discourse about the sacred, one that allows us to come to terms affirmatively with the irreducible plurality of sacred objects in late modern life. With respect to sovereignty it is important to underline the significance of acts by which deep conflicts are settled; but it is equally important not to elevate them to the level of the sacred.” (2005,p.39). By this, Connolly is referring not to the relaxation of moral norms, but the entrenchment of positions, that often goes when people are discussing deeply normative values.

 

Is Philanthropy losing its ‘meaning’?

There are various conceptions of philanthropy in American society. While some view philanthropy as a religious obligation, giving their time, treasure and talent to the Church or religious institution, others view it as a ‘social relation’, one that binds people to one another says Paul Schervish, in his paper  Philanthropy as a Social Relation. Increasingly, this aspect of philanthropy is giving way to giving to organizations, anonymous funds and institutions that ‘manage’ our money for the ‘best possible’ social outcome. Is this leading to a de-personalization of charity and are the ‘meaning’ and ‘values’ of giving being lost? Are we witnessing more ‘consumption philanthropy’ and other forms of philanthropy, which is antithetical to how most religious and cultural traditions conceptualize them? Is this problematic or is it a natural part of the evolution of the field itself?

photo credit:kluth.org
photo credit:kluth.org

This is particularly important for my study, as I am looking at the role that faith-based organizations play, as mediators of the discourses of giving, in a context, not of their own making. As Schervish further argues, the key relation in philanthropy that needs to be understood is one that of the donor and recipient. This can lead to a better match between resources and needs of donors, he says. But how does one negotiate this relationship when an organization mediates as a go-in-between the donor and recipient? This and related concerns are some of the newer challenges that have cropped up with the growth of organized ‘philanthropy’.

Still others conceptualize philanthropy as not necessarily positive, but rather as a remnant of colonial mindset, that seeks to ‘dominate’ the weak and oppressed, in the guise of helping them ( Wagner, 2001). In this conceptualization, philanthropy is oppressive and takes on a hegemonic role, something not very pleasant for the donor or recipient. These competing conceptions of philanthropy are interesting in and of themselves and lend themselves to analysis. But my interest in them derives from how they are being articulated in various forms in contemporary society.

Focus on values or metrics?

While much of scholarly work and research is focused on donors and how to attract them, show them that their money is bearing fruit. But what about the recipients? How do we ensure that their dignity is protected and they are also recognized for proper use of the money, given to them. The recipients could be individuals, organizations or foundations.

Peter Frumkin, Professor at University of Pennsylvania on the other hand argues that it is possible to merge the scientific with the aesthetic or related dimensions of giving. He draws a distinction between the ‘art’ of giving and the ‘science’ of it. In his book Strategic Giving, Frumkin concludes with how the art of philanthropy allows donors to express their private values and convictions while the science of philanthropy pushes the field toward greater levels of instrumental effectiveness. As he says in his book : “One of the main arguments of this book is that often philanthropy works best and strategy is most compelling when the donor brings its value set and assumptions to bear on the process of setting forth a philanthropic direction. Without this critical differentiating ingredient, giving can never reach its true potential. When individuals draw upon their life experience and their reservoir of commitment and caring, however philanthropy can take on problems that government and community stakeholders may not yet recognize or prioritize.” While this does mean that philanthropy can become very ‘personalized’ and extremely undemocratic, it also means that once there is a personal stake in an issue, the donor will invest more of his/her time into it. This could also lead to a related criticism of philanthropy that it makes giving very undemocratic and unequal.

Donor advised funds, Giving Circles, Philanthrocapitalism – these are some of the ‘newer’ versions of how philanthropy is being conceptualized and marketed. For the uninitiated, these are various ways that money is pooled and then used for ‘common good’. While financially, these may be smart and ‘efficient’ ways to conduct philanthropy, there is also a fear that the core of philanthropy is being lost here. I would argue that the ‘values’ part of philanthropy is being increasingly side-stepped and this is not a good trend. While making this normative claim, I realize that there is a greater need for accountability that has become the norm in this field of study and practice.

This tension between ‘values’ of philanthropy and the ‘science’ of doing it right is yet to be resolved. While there is the danger of ‘death by data’ in this field, as increasingly, people are asking for more ‘evaluations’ and ‘results’ of projects and not asking whether the mission objectives are being met, even if people don’t ‘deliver’ results in the short-term. Peter Frumkin argues that this is an important aspect and one that we should not lose sight of. In Strategic Giving, he advocates giving from a values perspective, aligning the donors’ values with the projects or organization that one wants to support, so there is greater coherence in giving. His advice is to look at the following five factors, before planning one’s giving strategy:

1. They must declare the value to be produced through their giving

2. Donors need to define the type and scope of program that will be supported

3. Donors have to select a vehicle or structure through which they will conduct their giving

4. Donors must find a giving style and profile level that is satisfying and productive

5. They need to settle on a time frame that will guide their giving

As Frumkin clarifies: “These five constitute the “philanthropic prism,” and are aimed at moving the field of philanthropy towards a more strategic approach. By thinking through how best to present donors with giving opportunities, that connect to the core of their strategic concerns, nonprofits can improve the quality and sophistication of their grant making appeals.” While insightful and well-articulated, the question is, how many High net worth donors or even small donors think of these factors? Will they stop their ego from getting in their way, as they plan their donations? What about external pressures to give that may contradict their values? All of these questions come up as one examines this advise.

Finally, as Schervish and Ostrander point out, the claims that philanthropy makes towards people are normative and not coercive, or transactional. A politician may stand for election and promise certain changes or reforms, in exchange for your vote and this makes it a purely transactional exercise, while a nonprofit leader cannot do the same, they add. This makes the sector unique in a sense of being both bound by certain norms and also free from the sort of ‘effective’ results that it is supposed to generate. The results that philanthropy generates are ‘affective’ instead of ‘effective’ they add. This may be hard claim to sustain, in a tough economy and constricted budgets. While the ‘values’ and ‘science’ could be a false dichotomy, and one that we can overcome, with some thoughtful planning and care, it is imperative that neither dimension is ignored. Being conscious of both aspects of philanthropy may well be critical for keeping the sector relevant and vibrant.

Beyond the Melting Pot?

The recent Coca Cola Ad during the Super Bowl stirred up quite a controversy. While most of the negative reaction to the ad was misplaced racism, the ad did bring up an important question that for the most part, went un-examined: that of the myth of America as the land of opportunities and a place where hard work is rewarded.

The U.S. is a land where diversity is welcome and embraced. That is true, to a large extent. But it is definitely not a ‘melting pot’, where all cultures blend into one. The American immigration model is one where immigrants still keep their ethnicity intact, and are proud to be Italian-American, Syrian-American or Chinese-American. This is a fact that is taken for granted and widely accepted. Though there may not be much “Italian” “Syrian” or “Chinese” left in the second or third-generation Americans, they are still proud of what Herbert Gans called their ‘Symbolic ethnicity’. Unlike in European countries, where the immigrants are really expected to give up their traditions and literally ‘melt in’ the expectation in the U.S. is different.Melting Pot

This melting pot hypothesis has been widely accepted and bandied about, as an exceptional American trait. But upon close examination, it seems to fall apart, as I have pointed out. The ‘American mythos’ as the Princeton Sociologist Robert Wuthnow has called it is just that – a myth, one that has helped us navigate the growing diversity, but it has deep flaws in it.

Wuthnow’s argument is simple. He says that the narratives that we use to define immigration and also America as a nation are not accurate and we tend to make mistakes when we make these assumptions. The fact that hard work is rewarded in all cases is one such assumption, Wuthnow says in his book American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short. The book is based on narratives of immigrants and their efforts at assimilating in the U.S. There is a long-standing tradition of the immigrants assimilating in the country and making use of opportunities here, to succeed. To what extent is this part of the American mythos and how does it inform our understanding of America, is key, he points out. As Wuthnow goes on to say: “The deep narratives that shape our sense of national purpose are so inscribed in our culture that we accept them without thinking too much about them. The deep ways meanings of these stories influence how we think about ourselves, and at the same time bias us. For example, they encourage us to think that we are more religious than we are. They result in ideas on how to escape materialism and consumerism and are more wishful than what we imagine.” These assumptions become empty talking points or assumptions that we don’t closely examine and scrutinize, Wuthnow argues.

These myths, Wuthnow adds, are also about morality and about our rights and privileges and responsibilities. Taking the example of how early American thinkers imagined America, Wuthnow argues that there was a certain narrative that was created – of America as the land of for those who were saved. Material wellbeing in the newfound land was equated with spiritual health. This took on an emancipatory and religious tone, with the puritans claiming that the prosperity that they experienced here was due to their “passage,” through hardships. Walt Whitman wrote eloquently about the vision of America as a country that would welcome all and be a land that is full of ‘noble people’.

When Whitman wrote of America as:

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,

All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,

Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,

Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,

A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,

Chair’d in the adamant of Time

 

He was also contributing to the American myth. Indeed, the trend of welcoming immigrants has been ongoing, despite a few hiccups along the way. Wuthnow also argues that the material progress that many immigrants made, instilled the belief in many of them that they were somehow superior to others. The immigrants also become ‘liminal figures’ who were quite literally between two places, the old home and the new ‘home’ in America.

The very notion of crossing over to come to a new ‘home’ in America is one that gives root to this idea. This is not always entirely positive, he seems to be saying. When he says “A society like this will always fall short of its aspirations, for our highest aspirations involve having a home, in which our values are nourished,” he could be interpreted as making a conservative argument. But one cannot deny that materialism and individualism in America has gone too far.

Wuthnow warns us that the success stories of the few cannot tell us the entire story of all those who came. Of course, there were those who didn’t make it, those who failed, destroyed their families to be in a new country. “ We must be careful how we approach these questions. Stories of the successful few are never accurate depictions of the many. They are not meant to be unvarnished truths even for their principal protagonists,” he says, pointing to the various gaps in this narrative that are often filled in by the ‘success stories.’

Robert Bellah et al in their book Habits of the Heart seem to be making similar arguments and Wuthnow borrows liberally from Bellah. Bellah argues in his book that there is a great emphasis on the individual in America and this needs to move away, and we need to re-focus our attention on groups, institutions. But there is a way for Americans to balance this individualism with commitment to the community, Bellah points out. While some exceptional people do it all the time, others struggle with this balance, he adds. Similarly, Robert Putnam, another political theorists has focused on the group and reaches the conclusion that we cannot bring about any change in the community unless the individual changes, for instance by deciding to watch less TV

Tensions in American society

Wuthnow’s argument is similar to the one made much earlier by Daniel Patrick Moynihan the New York Senator and academic, who wrote the famous book Beyond the Melting Pot with Nathan  Glazer. The core thesis of the book is that immigrant groups retain their ethnicity and that in fact this is not a bad thing. The duo studied ethnic groups in New York City and found that the rise of Irish, Catholics could be attributed to their group cohesion and the fact that they were able to retain group loyalties. This was a controversial statement to make in the 1960s’ – a time of heightened sensitivity about topics related to race, ethnicity. But it seems that their prediction has come true and we are all the better for it.

While immigrants have made this country a truly unique and blessed place, the myth of the ‘self-made’ man or woman that so pervades our capitalist economy is dangerous, Wuthnow seems to be pointing. He says that like Horatio Alger’s self-made men, we are all motivated and inspired by this image of the person who picks himself or herself and starts all over again. While alluring, this is not entirely true, as it decontextualizes the people – removing from the picture all those who helped the person, the family support, the friends who helped this person or the banks that lent the person money, not to mention the unique economic conditions, including market conditions that made this success possible.

Wuthnow’s observations about the materialism, growing individualism and lack of connection with others as being a danger to our democracy are incisive, sharp and clear. As he poignantly says :“The inner-directed Americans of today must become other directed. An individualistic ethic should be replaced by a social ethic. The solution to individualism therefore is not to become more fully identified with a group of one’s peers. When that happens, individuality is lost. The person becomes weak, not strong. What is needed is interaction with the group, not identification with it. Interaction implies give and take.”

This may as well be a prophetic prediction. While the America of 2014 is resilient enough to rise up to the occasion and denounce those bigots and racists who balk at a TV Advertisement that shows diversity, it still does not have the depth of understanding to step back and look at the myths that it believes in. And more importantly, the America of 2014 assumes many of the taken for granted narratives about immigrants, materialism and sense of privilege that are part of the mainstream discourse. This needs to change and people need to be more self-reflective and nuanced in their understanding of these issues.

 

Is “God Bless America” problematic ?

“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom-symbolizing an end as well as a beginning-signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.” – John F Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

“ Now, here, as Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion.  And, yes, this freedom safeguards religion, allowing us to flourish as one of the most religious countries on Earth, but it works the other way, too — because religion strengthens America.  Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, workers’ rights.” – Barack Obama, National Prayer Breakfast meeting, February 6, 2014

 

Photo courtesy: Reuters.com
Photo courtesy: Reuters.com

The two speeches quoted above were made with a gap of  more than fifty years. Despite this, one can see the reference to God, America being a religious nation and the rhetorical use of faith in both these speeches. This rhetoric of religion goes back to the founding of the nation itself, one could argue. Why does an American President have to invoke God to appeal to his own people and the rest of the world? Despite constitutional separation of religion and state, why does this occur so often? What role does this “Civil Religion” play in America. I will examine these questions in this short article and look at the intersection of religious and political rhetoric in the American public sphere and explore whether this is problematic and why.

Civil religion can be defined as “the appropriation of religion by politics for its own purposes[i].” Since Rousseau coined the term and used it in his The Social Contract, the concept has become useful in describing this phenomenon of politics coopting religion. Robert Bellah, in his essay Civic Religion argues that “every nation and every people come to some form or religious self-understanding whether the critics like it or not,” by this he means not the self-worship of nation, but conscious subordination of the nation to ethical principles. He uses the example of John F Kennedy’s inaugural speech (quote above taken from this speech) to demonstrate that civic religion seems to be alive and well, in the American political space. He says that the mention of God three times in the beginning para of his speech itself is not just symbolic or empty, but points to a value system that most Americans share and to that extent, it is an acceptable form of speech.

Bellah asks: “Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word “God” at all?” The answer, he points out, is that the separation of church and state does not deny the political realm a religious dimension, meaning that there is no prohibition in using religious rhetoric, as long as it is not used to suppress others religious rights or freedoms. Further, Bellah clarifies: “Although matters of personal religious belief, worship, and association are considered to be strictly private affairs, there are, at the same time, certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share.” He further argues that civil religion in America is tied to the history of the founding of the country itself, and manifested very strongly in instances when the very meaning of the nation has been questioned. Subsequently, through the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, in Bellah’s view represents the very best of the civil religious tradition- as his motives were drawn from the Declaration of Independence and the desire to hold the country together, and not from a particular religious dogma. This tradition seems to have continued till today, with a few aberrations in between.

Bellah is also quick to remind us that it is not all rosy with civil religion. “It has often been used and is being used today as a cloak for petty interests and ugly passions. It is in need-as any living faith-of continual reformation, of being measured by universal standards. But it is not evident that it is incapable of growth and new insight,” he adds.

As a country that has constitutionally separated religion and state, some critics point out,  civil religion blurs these boundaries. Former President George W Bush came under attack in the media and from scholars for the use of religious rhetoric and in particular, use of the word ‘Crusades,’ to describe the Iraq War. Commenting on the Bush years, this NY Times article further contends that “ Too often, though, American politicians and moralists have reduced faith in Providence to a religious sanction for raw power. In the 1840’s, with the emergence of the idea that the United States had a manifest destiny to expand to the Pacific, the hand of God was no longer mysterious (as in traditional Christian doctrine) but ”manifest” in American expansion. As for the natives who unproductively occupied the Great Plains, Horace Greeley, the journalist, said in 1859: ”’These people must die out — there is no help for them. God has given this earth to those who will subdue and cultivate it, and it is vain to struggle against his righteous decree.” Both these historical examples point to the ugly use of religion to justify actions that could not stand the test of high moral principles that they promised to uphold.

Moving to contemporary America, President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb 6 are indicative of the importance of civil religion in the U.S. Civil religion has arguably made a significant contribution towards the discourse of religious freedoms, as Obama’s speech demonstrates. Obama uses his rhetoric of civil religion to build on his argument for greater religious freedoms both in the U.S. and abroad. He mentions the recent uptick in violence in the Central African Republic, Persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Burma as egregious instances when the states are not doing enough to protect those who are vulnerable. As he says: “ I’ve felt the love that faith can instill in our lives during my visits to the Holy Land and Jerusalem — sacred to Jews and Christians and Muslims.  I’ve felt it in houses of worship — whether paying my respects at the tomb of Archbishop Romero in San Salvador, or visiting a synagogue on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul or a Buddhist temple in Bangkok.” This device works, one can argue, to not only bring people together in a shared value system, but also to politically send out a message that all religious groups and faiths will be tolerated. So, in effect, civil religion in this instance can be seen as upholding the First Amendment provision of freedom of speech, which by implication means freedom of religious choice or to not believe. In a post 911 world, where religious intolerance in the U.S. is quite high, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented, this rhetoric may be necessary.

Some of the benefits of civic religion are obvious: a) It gives us a value framework that is shared by all, irrespective of a particular faith tradition. b) It could also provide a safeguard for religious freedoms, and not letting the state trample on religious freedoms of people. President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast 2014 is a classic case. His entire speech can be seen as a call for religious freedoms both in the U.S. and around the world. While in a global context, this rhetoric may be seen as being hegemonic, it is not in contradiction with globally agreed norms such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion. The only glitch, it seems is that this ‘values system’ leaves out the non-believers and those who are strongly opposed to any mention of religion in the public sphere. This is truly a sticky wicket.

Finally, it helps to remind ourselves what Bellah has said about civic religion and its place in American society. He advises that rather than being cynical and denouncing civic religion, which is in any case inevitable, given the highly religious nature of American society, it is better to seek within the civic religious space, those principles that may prevent national self-idolization. Bellah’s point that civil religion is becoming more activist, rather than theological is another interesting and perceptive insight. Looking back at recent history, we can see this in the case of civil rights movement, labor reforms debates, immigration reforms debate and several other initiatives, where religious leaders from various faith traditions have come together to create a discourse based on rights, often acting politically and similarly, politicians using religious rhetoric of ‘god given rights’ to argue for equality and ‘dignity for all.’ In this regard, civil religion can actually be helpful both as a social and political tool. There is no need to fear this public expression of a benign religious value system. What we need to fear is extremism- from both sides : the religious and the atheists.

 

Notes


[i] From Beiner, Ronald, Civil Religion, A dialogue in the history of political philosophy, Cambridge Uni Press, 2011

 

Can you Save Tigers by Eating More Chocolate? : A critique of consumer philanthropy

The dominant discourse of philanthropy these days (both in the developed and developing world) is one of ‘marketized philanthropy’ or ‘consumption philanthropy,’ that tries to convince us that we can really save tigers by consuming a particular brand of chocolate. While proponents of this view point to the decreasing role of governments, and are calling for increased ‘agency’ on part of both corporates and consumers, this debate is far from over. While certain corporates such as Apple, Starbucks, Dell have certainly done a lot to raise awareness about issues, brought in money and attention to issues that would have languished, if not for their advocacy; there are some perspectives that are often left out in this discourse. The key one being this ‘marketized philanthropy’ becoming hegemonic and shutting out all other discourses, which may perhaps offer us  better alternatives to solving these problems. An example is the Red campaign, which argues that one can prevent AIDS in Africa by buying a particular brand of computers or other consumer products. As consumers “you have the power to make a difference,” claims their website. But is this true, and how did this discourse come to dominate our consciousness? What are the alternatives? This brief article discusses these ideas through using the works of a few critical theorists.

Mark Rosenman points out several problems wit

Photo credit : bloomingsoulswellness.com
Photo credit : bloomingsoulswellness.com

h campaigns such as RED including that they are a cover for corporate avarice. In his article Patina of Philanthropy, he says: “According to the pro-business Conference Board, although the dollar value of corporate contributions to charity increased in the post-Katrina year (the last for which we have data) – including funds generated by cause-related marketing – the percentage of pretax revenue donated to worthy groups and causes actually declined.  Based on their income, corporations are becoming stingier.” He further contends that there is no transparency about how much of this money actually goes to charities. You cannot consume your way to social good he argues, reminding us that sometimes we need to sacrifice for the larger common good, rather than consume more.

Eikenberry and Nickel (2005) argue that this discourse of marketized philanthropy has actually done much more harm than good and there needs to be a close examination of the claims that the proponents of this discourse are making. Using the example of Angelina Jolie, who is an advocate for Africa, they ask: “Is Africa really suffering due to a lack of Angelina Jolies or Bonos (named one of three 2005 “Persons of the Year,” or is the problem more structural, to do with the society, its leaders, governance structures and more? They point out that this media celebration of philanthropists is both affirmative and exclusionary in that this discourse legitimizes the philanthropists and the money that they possess, without putting them through an examination of how they earned it and the system that perpetuates this inequality, in the first place. They contend that consumption philanthropy is not new and is as old as early 20th century, when Great Britain raised money for war relief funds for the South African war through “Patriotic ballads, hymns and songs that were written; provincial bazaars organized; and a large number of military concerts and processions staged.”

What is new, Nickel and Eikenberry argue is the pervasiveness as well as lack of alternatives for civic talk and action. This, they say can be remedied, through a more robust political engagement. They see hope in the social movements such as the civil rights movement, the land reform movement of Cesar Chavez among others.

Nickel and Eikenberry also add that the problem with this media narrative of marketized philanthropy is that it leaves out or excludes those about whom the stories are being told. Jolie seems to be saying, according to the authors : “Do something! But what can you do? Give money? Consumer philanthropic products like me!” They deploy Agger’s (1991) call for “disclosing narrative wherever we find it narrates anew; thus its political practice- in particular a politics of discourse”. By using this, Nickel and Eikenberry argue that capitalism is presented as an unauthored ideology, and it is consumed as one. It goes without questioning, without people stopping or pausing to check the validity of its claims, they say. This follows from Marx, who argued that money transforms the basis of human relations (specific expressions) into alienated relations, or relations based on a quality that is not in itself inherent. (Nickel, 2005, p.7).

While it is commendable that RED has raised millions in fighting AIDS in Africa, the question is whether this could have also been carried out through the channels that exist for this work to occur: the governments, people of Africa themselves. Are we robbing them of their agency and also more importantly, not letting Africans take part in a discourse that we manufacture, create and propagate. The RED website says: “(RED) was created to help provide a sustainable flow of money from the private sector to fight AIDS. We’ve raised over $240 million to date through the sale of (RED) products from iconic companies – like Apple and Starbucks – and from (RED) events. And 100% of that money goes to work on the ground.” Some questions arise from this: How much of this $240 million has gone to the patients, and more importantly, how much have corporates gained in lieu of this ‘charity’ that they did?

Finally, as Nickel and Eikenberry warn “ Consumption philanthropy is not a discourse about change, but a discourse about continued, even increased, consumption.” As Rosenman also reminds us, this focus of businesses solving social problems may actually benefit businesses more: in terms of publicity, new business and audiences than the actual people or charities that were intended to be the beneficiaries. This paradox is a deep one and one that might elicit a lot of cynicism, as it often does.

How might critics of Philanthrocapitalism respond to Bishop and Green and their theory of Philanthrocapitalism? From this quote above and some of the arguments presented earlier, it would seem that they would critique the entire model of capitalism and the ways that it conceptualizes the relationship of man and money. They may perhaps even critique the very basis of campaigns such as RED or the founding philosophy of Corporate Social Responsibility, not for the reason that Libertarians would do – i.e., argue that it is not the purpose of businesses to worry about social issues – but because this theory is fundamentally premised on the assumption that social problems can be solved by throwing more money at them. This, perhaps is the underlying assumption of critical theorists when they criticize business approaches to philanthropy. While you may not agree with it, it is certainly an important perspective that deserves our attention.

Ibn Battuta, Malcolm X and the tradition of student travelers in Islam

Rihla, or traveling to seek knowledge is an Islamic tradition, whose roots extend as far as the Prophet Muhammad himself, who prioritized learning and knowledge. His famous Hadith “Learning is from the cradle to grave” has inspired billions of people to travel, seek knowledge, over the last 1400 years of Islamic history. This tradition of learning and traveling for knowledge is epitomized by two scholars and student travelers, whose lives I will discuss here, in brief: Ibn Battuta and Malcolm X. In this article, I seek to answer the question: Are we losing this tradition of student-travelers, in an age when travel is so easy and relatively cheap. What lessons can we learn from the personal histories of student-travelers such as Ibn Battuta and Malcolm X?

battutamap

I heard a lecture about Ibn Battuta’s travels (starting in 1325 C.E), a few weeks ago at the Upenn Museum and the blog post about that lecture is here. The gist that is relevant to us here is that travel in the era of Islamic Empire was easy. No passports, no visas or even travel documents. There were hostels for travels along the path where weary travelers could stop by to rest. This however came at an enormous cost: travel was harsh, dangerous and very slow. Ibn Battuta traveled for months on the road and his sea voyages lasted a longer time. From the time of the Islamic conquests from 7th century uptil about 15th or even 17th century; one could travel anywhere between Africa to China and beyond with relative ease, provided one had the means and the right connections, with the Islamic Empire providing one vast area of interconnected routes through which traders, travelers, pilgrims and scholars could pass through. And knowledge networks were formed this way, point out many scholars, who have studied this phenomenon of how travel influenced the flow of knowledge. His travels were dangerous, adventurous and at times fun. Ibn Battuta’s knowledge and scholarly standing helped him enormously, as it helped him earn a living as he traveled – he was a qazi or a judge, trained in Islamic jurisprudence, a valuable skill to have in those days.

As the Oxford Islamic Learning portal points out: “Religious travel in Islam reflects an extraordinary degree of intercontinental cooperation among constantly intersecting groups that perform overlapping functions. The general pattern resembles a web of interlacing and autonomous networks instead of a rigid hierarchy, spontaneous collaboration rather than central direction, and fluid process over fixed structure. This vast web encompasses Muslims in every part of the world, helping to create a universal Islamic identity that transcends nationality, race, gender, and class. The Hajj has always been the most powerful expression of Islamic unity and egalitarianism, and today its unprecedented size and diversity make it more important than ever.” In contemporary times, with the growth of technology, while the tradition of traveling on such a scale to learn may have been reduced, or rather the purposes of travel changed; pilgrimage to perform the Hajj does remain significant.

While travel for Ibn Battuta began as a spiritual quest, he in fact wanted to go to the annual pilgrimage i.e., the Hajj, but eventually ended up traveling for over 23 years of his life; for Malcom X, it came towards a much later stage of life, also inspired by the desire to go to Hajj. While for Ibn Battuta, it expanded his knowledge networks, increased his understanding of the world, for Malcolm X, travel transformed him. It made him question the narrow mindedness with which he had approached other human beings, up until then, having been taught a racist ideology by his mentor Elijah Muhammad. It was his Letter from Mecca that really shows his transformation. Malcom X’s letter reads:

“Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors.” Malcom X goes on to point that America needs to understand Islam because “This is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered ‘white’–but the ‘white’ attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.”

He was reacting to the profoundly warm welcome he received as a state guest in Saudi Arabia and many other countries that he visited during this trip. This sojourn was not only professionally rewarding, in that he met many heads of state and formed very strong networks that would serve him for the next few years of his life; but also personally transformative – in that he realized that his racism towards whites was misplaced. This trip, more than anything else, changed his mind from being a racist to one who realized that he was in the wrong and that white man indeed, can be benevolent and kind towards others. Not all white men were devils, as he had previously imagined.

This theme of traveling and spiritual transformation is also explored by Zareena Grewal. In her book Islam is a Foreign Country (2014), Grewal, professor at Yale University contextualizes the contemporary travels of American Muslim youth, who travel around the world, to seek ‘authentic’ Islamic knowledge. Malcolm X, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf are examples of this phenomenon. Both are considered iconic ‘student-travelers’ who went to the Arab world and Africa in search of spiritual and religious insights and learning, she points out.

Grewal further traces how the moral geography for Americans has moved over the decades – it was different for the Black African Muslims, than it was for those in the 1960s’ onwards, when the Arab and South Asian countries became part of the dominant diasporic imagination. They were seen as racial utopias and the core of Ummah’s moral and political core. This, she adds has significantly shifted since the 1990s’, with the examples of spiritual leaders such as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, who, like Malcolm X is an iconic Muslim student-traveler. This rihla, or traveling to seek knowledge is also a result of specific set of historical ruptures.            She argues rightfully that the shift in religious leadership that occurred in the U.S. from the 1960s onwards- from the indigenous African Americans towards a more educated, elite South Asian and Arab professional class of people is part of this shifting moral geography.

In contemporary American society, these travels are also inspired by those who are aware of the lack of religiously trained scholars, since most of the mosque leadership is taken up by those who have a ‘secular’ education and are professionally successfully, either as doctors or engineers. In her analysis, Grewal points out that of the hundreds of students who have left the U.S. to study in the Middle East and returned, most are disappointed with the results they produce after they return. The communities expect them to play roles as Imams at mosques at best and also to be ‘role models’ for youth here. While this is an expectation that is normal, she points out that the public discourse of crisis in the U.S. does not allow them to play a constructive role in society, often relegating them to passive positions. They become ‘carriers rather than mediators of the tradition.’ As she points out.

Malcolm in mecca

The biggest lesson one can draw from both these travelers’ lives is that travel is transformative by nature. Leaving one’s home, the comfort of the familiar and the known can expose us to dangers, unknown people and situations. Overcoming them can help one gain new knowledge, sharpen one’s instincts and also transform one’s thinking – if one approaches it with an open mind. As countries are clamping down their borders and restrictions on travel are beginning to become much more than they ever were, one could be forgiven for asking whether we are regressing as a people. While the means to travel, technology and access has definitely increased, we have erected other boundaries in the name of national security, borders and imagined threats that stop us from traveling and exploring the world that is yet to be discovered. Perhaps this tradition will help us realize the rich promises that travel for learning holds.

American Muslims – A Racial, Ethnic or Religious group?

Are American Muslims a racial,ethnic or religious group? While this may seem like a rhetorical question, the very definition of who a ‘Muslim’ is in the U.S. has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last four decades. In other words, the transformation of American Muslims as a category from a racial group – in the 1960s to an ethnic group since the 1980s’ – comprising of Arabs, Asians and African Americans has made them more ‘foreign’ than they really are. While terms such as ‘Black Muslims,’ were popular in the 1960s, to refer to the most salient group of the era – The Nation of Islam, the term denotes just one of the many groups that are present in the U.S. today. This is also a reflection of the change in demographics, economic and political power of American Muslims; but more than anything else, this is a transformation of an entire group identity, with very significant consequences for the followers of Islam. The transformation of the category ‘Muslim’ from a racial to a religious and then subsequently ‘national’ group is under examination here. American Muslims

Who are American Muslims? Are Muslims indigenous or ‘immigrants’ in America? With a population estimated to be between three to seven million people, representing literally the entire world, the American Muslim population is anything but homogenous. It may even be surprising for some Muslims in the Arab world or Asia to know that many groups such as The Nation of Islam, Moorish Science Temple are considered to be ‘Muslim.’ An orthodox Sunni or Shii Muslim would balk at the idea of such a group, with ‘heretical’ ideas being considered part of the ‘Ummah’, but this is precisely the case. The reasons for this are both historic and cultural. Leaders such as Elijah Muhammad, used Islamic symbolism and their own understanding of indigenous roots of spirituality to forge an ‘Islam’ that their followers could comprehend. The fact that their teachings were in contradiction with Orthodox Islam did not matter much.

While some scholars claim that Islam has been present in North America since the time of Columbus, it is more reasonable to place the history of Islam in the ‘encounters and exchanges’ between America and the rest of the Muslim world, as Kambiz Ghaneabassiri points out in his book A History of Islam in America. Ghaneabassiri’s argument is that the encounters between the West and Islam shaped the other and these two should not be seen as mutually exclusive categories. These encounters, he places in Antebellum America. There has been a long process of give and take between Islam and other religious and cultural traditions, similar to the transformation of Islam in Indonesia and India.  Ghaneabassiri points out that between 1890 and 1924, over 10-15 percent of the immigrants who came to the U.S. were Muslim and they contributed to various sectors of society, including entrepreneurship, labor force and trade. The conflation of race, religion and progress in this period formed a crucial part of the narrative of immigrants in America. These early migrants sought to integrate in the American social fabric through an ethnic, rather than a religious mode of self-identification, he adds.

Muslims became salient as a group in America in the 1960s’ with The Nation of Islam. Until then, arguably, Muslims were largely unknown, though they were recognized as a community, by the founding fathers. Muslims were associated with the ‘Ottoman empire’ or were popularly known as the ‘Turks’. Denise Spellberg, in her book Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an points out that despite holding some negative views of Islam, as was common in that era, Jefferson had the vision and foresight to defend the rights of Muslims to their faith. In ensuring that all religions would have freedom in the newly formed country, the founding fathers showed not only extraordinary vision, but also courage. This was because Islam was vilified as a religion in much of popular literature. Most Muslims in America until the nineteenth century were former slaves from West Africa, who had preserved their religion. There were a few immigrants from Arab countries and Asia too. But it was only after the immigration act of 1965 that Muslims started to arrive in the country in large numbers and gained salience, as a community.

 

Emergence of ethnic identity

Post 1965 was a phase when Muslims emerged as an ethnic group, rather than a racial one. Speaking of the importance of ethnic origins, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer point out in their book Beyond the Melting Pot: “ Ethnic groups owing to their distinctive historical experiences, their cultures and skills, the times of their arrival and the economic situation they met, developed distinctive economic, social and cultural patterns. As the old culture fell away- and it did rapidly enough- a new one, shaped by the distinctive experiences of life in America, was formed and a new identity was created. Italian-Americans may share precious little with Italians in Italy, but in America they were a distinctive group that maintained itself, was identifiable and gave something to those who identified with it, just as it also gave burdens to those who did not identify with that group.” They analyzed the Irish, Blacks and Puerto Ricans in their book and their insights are valid, to a large extent, for the examination of American Muslims, as well.

Most academic and scholarly works point towards the rough division of American Muslims as being about one third of each group: Arab, Asian and African American. While this is somewhat accurate, what this classification does not capture is the complexity in opinion and diversity of thought within the group that we collectively called ‘Muslims.’ The emergence of political consciousness of the newly arrived immigrants coincided with the civil rights movement and subsequent growth of social and political organizations. Many of the national organizations that we see today, including Islamic Society of North America, Muslim Students Association, CAIR etc. were formed in this phase. Interestingly, most of them are founded by recent immigrants and there are tensions between African American groups and Arab and South Asian groups, though they do not manifest themselves very often. The immigrants are generally more educated and considered ‘elite’ while the African Americans are not so well off. The narrative of immigrants is the narrative of America, as the historian Oscar Handlin remarks.The defining factor that brings all these diverse groups is religion and the rituals that make participation in the religion meaningful. Islam has been considered an ‘orthopraxy’, i.e., a religion rooted in practice rather than an ‘orthodoxy.’ This insight may be helpful in analyzing and understanding the diversity of Islam in America.

Post 9/11 and American Muslim exceptionalism

September 11, 2001 created a different discourse in the American Muslim community- that of an ‘Exceptional American’ Muslim identity. Patriotism towards the country became paramount and any association with the Arab or Asian diasporic moral imagination was played down, points out Zareena Grewal, in her book Islam is a Foreign Country. This discourse was made popular by the policy advisers, spiritual and religious leaders as well as national organizations in the country, such as Progressive Muslim Union among others, Grewal points out. This ‘exceptionalising’ narrative continues in some ways, even today and is often loaded with suspicion and self-hatred of groups that are seen as ‘Fresh off the Boat (FOBS) and culturally not ‘American’ yet. This group sought to place the collective guilt of the Muslim community on social conservatism and gender inequalities pervasive in Mosques around the U.S. With provocative and attention grabbing campaigns such as ‘gender-jihad,’ this group sought to address these issues. The in-fighting and lack of a clear vision and strategy to pursue their goals led to the organization’s demise.

While we may look at the U.S., as a ‘melting pot’ or alternately, as a conglomeration of people with different ethnic origins, the discourse of American Muslims and Islam in America is steeped in ethnicity. While this is a natural consequence of changing demographics, I believe this has also had a somewhat negative impact on the group identity, especially post September 11, 2001, when all Muslims were lumped together in a single category. The development of this eclectic group of people, who are the most racially diverse group in the country is sociologically relevant. We need to move simplistic notions of race or ethnicities if we are to better appreciate and understand the dynamics that shape this group of people that is part of the global Muslim community, rooted in its own local traditions.