Cults & Sects
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Cults & Sects


what does race have to do with religion?

literally everything

Whose religion gets to be religion? Whose religion is a cult? And why are we talking so much about race in a class on religion and cults?

Welcome to the core question of the semester, y’all.

What we’re reading/listening to

KI101, “Intersectionality”

Word of the day/week/century, folks. Crenshaw theorized intersectionality to address overlapping oppressions, and most specifically oppressions overlapping in the experiences and lives of Black women.

As. Prof. Morgenstein Fuerst said on the episode: “[Crenshaw] said that…she was looking to think about the ways in which sometimes Black women’s experiences of discrimination and oppression are similar to white women’s experiences of discrimination and oppression, and other times Black women’s experiences of discrimination and oppression are similar to Black men’s experiences of discrimination and oppression. But as a population that is both Black and women, Black women’s experiences of discrimination and oppression are not only about race, nor are they only about gender… The takeaway message — and I think what’s vital to us here — is that Crenshaw argued that divvying up Black women’s unique experiences into ‘woman and ‘Black; totally hides the ways that discrimination and oppression both work. So to rethink discriminations and oppressions we need to think intersectionally.

We used Audre Lorde’s response to Mary Daly to illustrate how oppressions can intersect, and how complex identities can and should help us rethink the Divine.

Within the community of women, racism is a reality force in my life as it is not in yours. The white women with hoods on in Ohio handing out KKK literature on the street may not like what you have to say, but they will shoot me on sight. If you and I were to walk into a classroom of women in Dismal Gulch, Alabama, where the only thing they knew about each of us is that we were both lesbian radical feminists, you would see exactly what I mean. The oppression of women knows no ethnic nor racial boundaries, true, but that does not mean is identical within those differences. Nor do the reservoirs of our ancient power know these boundaries to deal with one without even alluding to the other is to distort our commonalities as well as our difference for them beyond sisterhood is still racism.

- Audre Lorde, Open Letter to Mary Daly

We’re going to return to this piece later in the semester, because it’s amazing and so, so important. But for now: Lorde insists that just because she and Daly experience discrimination and oppression on the basis of gender, that doesn’t mean their total experiences of discrimination and oppression are the same. Nor will images and stories about white goddesses necessarily be liberatory to Black women or women of color.

Still love this meme Carolyn Kiely made last semester about Daly:

KI101, “Race and Religion in What’s Now the US”

I did a super-long thread about this episode for #ScholarStrike last semester, so if you prefer your info in thread form, here goes:

(Excerpted from our shownotes)

This episode has a simple — but not easy — thesis:

The US was built through religion and race, and specifically through an economy of white Christian supremacy. Americans’ understanding of race is directly tied to religion and vice versa — whether we know it or not.

We’re going to be exploring this idea all semester long. Here are the essentials to get us started.

race = social construct

  • we made it up! but it has real, material consequences
  • We have taught ourselves that skin tones, behaviors, languages and ways of speaking, foodways, attitudes, geographies, and demeanors can be distilled into a single, essential identity.
  • We learn how to “do” and understand race from culture.
  • Race is a way of maintaining boundaries of difference and social control
  • BUT ALSO race inspires radical resistance, creativity, and new ways of understanding and being in the world.

Race = european christianity + capitalism in the “New World”

Religion in the US is a key way that race was constructed in the US. Because, originally, religion was the primary justification for enslaving and murdering Black and Native folk: they are heathens, they are idolaters, they are unworthy of being considered humans. But, then folks (forcibly, often) converted. Which didn’t stop the enslavement or the murdering.

This moment, we suggested, was literally the moment in which we see the concept of “race” emerge in what’s now the United States. Specifically, we see scientific arguments that Black and Native peoples are essentially, “biologically” different — that is, inferior — to Christian Europeans. This is the series of moments where whiteness becomes an identity, where whiteness becomes not only “the norm,” but also privileged as essentially superior to all other races.

Which, in turn, gets used to justify more white Christian European imperialism and violence.

Christianity was always part of this mix

Always. Like, always. For real, always. We’ll stop now. But trust us: always.

  • The matrix of power and logics of supremacy relied on the ways in which “white” = Christian and of European descent.
  • Being Christian wasn’t enough; being European wasn’t enough, being light-skinned wasn’t enough. Whiteness, as an identity, in the US relies on the matrix of all these.

brief & incomplete timeline of race+religion in what’s now the US

  • Boston Tea Party. Those brave men were so brave as to dress up as Native folk in order to not get in trouble.
  • Enslaved Muslims. Did you know that many enslaved Africans were Muslim? Wonder why they don’t teach that in US public schools…
  • Abolitionists, like the Grimke sisters, used the Bible and Christianity; so, too, did pro-slavery white folk.
  • Nat Turner’s rebellion was religiously-inspired.
  • Zitkala-Sa argued that Native religions should be taken as seriously as Christianity and allowed to survive.
  • The so-called Great Awakenings also help us see religion and race as tied up together. Great Awakenings. Some that tried to live into racial equality (like the Shakers) and some that used science to argue for white supremacy (like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).
  • Early Mormonism’s racialization as not-Christian and not-white, namely in the portrayal of Joseph Smith as “eastern” “Islamic” or “Oriental.”
  • (Racist) immigration legislation passed in 1890 and 1924 that restrict Chinese and then Asian immigration more broadly into the US.
  • Which meant: few Shinto, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim immigrants.
  • But, while there was little Muslim immigration until 1965, Muslims were in the US and Islam was imagined as a “Black religion.” Because of religious movements like those of Noble Drew Ali and the Moorish Science Temple as well as the Nation of Islam, both of which were innovative spaces to claim Blackness apart from US racialized Christianity.
  • Today’s imagination of Islam as “brown” — a shift from other periods in US history — shows how racialization is a ongoing process.
  • After 1965, we see so-called “eastern religions” becoming part of the US consciousness, which led to (white-led) movements like ISKON in the US, and various appropriations and racializations.

in short

  1. Americans’ understanding of race has never been separate from their understanding of religion
  2. US religions are always racialized — but if we don’t hear “religion” being talked about in specifically racialized terms, it’s 10000% fair to assume people mean something like white mainstream Christianity.
  3. Racialization isn’t fixed, as we see in the example of Islam or Mormonism.

Chan-Malik, “Race”

Prof. Sylvia Chan-Malik is Associate Professor of American and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University and the author of Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color in American Islam.

The roles religion, spirituality, and the sacred play in people’s lives, what and how people believe, and how they interpret and carry out these beliefs in public and private life — these all matter eminently in understanding the machinations of social movements and collective change, and how we envision facilitating their paths of emergence… [R]eligion has always been lived both in and through race and racism in the United States; race produces religion’s forms and animates its presence and practice in people’s lives, which in turn shape the horizons of possibility for social change.

- Sylvia Chan-Malik

Chan-Malik argues that we cannot “do” religion without race, nor race without religion. What do you think she means by this? How is she theorizing race, religion, and the relationship between the two?

Again, not required, but I wrote a…call it a meditation on this summer’s uprisings that echoes a lot of Chan-Malik’s thinking. It’s here, if you’re interested:

Gerbner, “Race”

Prof. Katharine Gerbner is Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota and the author of Christian Slavery: Conversion & Race in the Protestant Atlantic World. We’re going to read more of her stuff later in the semester.

What does it mean that whiteness — and white supremacy — are intimately tied to a Christian heritage? Even before white people were considered a “race,” Christians used their religious identity to exclude Jews and Muslims from political rights.

- Katharine Gerbner

Gerbner argues that “race is not merely embodied: it is also a political strategy intertwined with religion.” How do religion and race constitute a “political strategy,” and what do you think the goal of that strategy is? How does your understanding of religion and race shift when you think about whiteness as both created and “elastic?”

(Did you catch how often Gerbner cites Weisenfeld? There’s a reason we’re spending so much of the semester on New World A-Coming.)

just you wait

Reflection questions

  • How do Chan-Malik and Gerbner help us think about the relationship between race and religion?
  • What do you think Chan-Malik means when she says we “cannot do religion without race” and “cannot do race without religion?”
  • How does Gerbner help us understand the creation and “elasticity” of American whiteness?

PS We’re reading James Baldwin for next time and I am SO EXCITED ABOUT IT. See you back here on Friday.



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Megan Goodwin

Megan Goodwin

author of _Abusing Religion_, co-host of “Keeping It 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion Podcast,” and wikipedia-certified expert on (ugh) cults