Thursday, October 8, 2009

Establishment Clause vs. Memorial Cause

I'm teaching an undergraduate course on the mass mediation of religious beliefs this semester, and the students are taking an interdisciplinary look at how new media technology's ubiquity has changed (in big and small ways) people's religious experiences and practices all over the world, re-configuring spiritual communities and re-framing debates about religious tolerance.

The course examines the power of celebrity televangelists and their massive "digital churches."

It tries to provide some historical context for current (decidedly post-Scopes) debates about the science of "intelligent design."

It also traces contemporary and historical deployments of faith and religious truth to justify concomitant claims about the nature/reality of racial differences and gender hierarchies. For instance, popular readings of Noah's curse on Ham or Jacob's usurpation of Esau's birthright serve as two irreconcilable origin stories for the divine sanctioning of racialism. And Paul's oft-cited admonition in Ephesians ("Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.") has been a relatively unambiguous (if increasingly contested) justification for "male headship" in the church and beyond.

I have tried to organize the course such that students approach religion from an anthropological point of view (respecting religion as a particularly important example of "culture") while also recognizing that such would-be social scientific treatments might still represent blasphemous or irreverent engagements/interpretations (from the perspective of some believers). Or that it could slide too-easily into a dismissive attack on religion altogether, reducing it to little more than "false consciousness" (in the Marxian formulation) or even "neurological disorder" (in the Bill Maherian sense, which you find in his recent documentary, Religulous).

Students are asked to take religion seriously (culturally, socially and politically) without falling into the trap of seeing it exclusively as a threat to humanity. Indeed, for much of the time that sociologists and anthropologists have studied religion, they thought about it more as social glue than anything else, as something that helps societies to reproduce themselves over time and not only a potential handmaiden to our own annihilation, which is one version of the current take on religious excess in the age of WMDs.

The course also spends some time getting students to think about the relationship between "secular humanism" and "fundamentalism," two fraught and loaded terms in an ongoing debate about the true nature of religion's place within a seemingly rational "public sphere," a public sphere that was supposed to be creating more and more distance between its logic and the seemingly unfalsifiable principles of religious dogma. Of course, all of this means that my students and I are particularly primed for following any public coverage of religious controversies, and the newly Sotomayor'd Supreme Court's pending decision on that five-foot tall memorial cross housed (for over 70 years now) on a stretch of the Mohave Desert owned by the United States government is one case in point.

Since I co-taught a course on "race, religion and the law" at Harvard Law School last semester (with an absolutely brilliant scholar who truly understands these issues inside and out, Noah Feldman), I am particularly interested to see how the Establishment Clause fares against the memorializing cause that the cross represents. For the ACLU, this case is cut-and-dry. They say that such "stand-alone religious symbols" shouldn't have any place on public land whatsoever. Many military vets are outraged about the ACLU's stance, and some religious leaders accuse the organization of trying to purge America's public landscape of any and all religious iconography. The cross was declared a violation of the Establishment Clause in 2002, and Congress has been trying to find some way to resolve the issue without tearing down the cross itself. The ACLU thinks that the Congressional move to fix the constitutionality dilemma (by giving that strip of land to a veterans organization and declaring it a national memorial) is just a sham and doesn't correct the church-state problem in the least.

Any day now, the Supreme Court is going to tell us if the ACLU is right. For the students in my course this semester, the entire controversy is another example of religion's central place in America's cultural and political landscape.

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