St. Patrick, St. Joseph and Irish-Italian harmony

—Paul Moses

[This post originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.]

Right after Valentine’s Day, the front window of my Brooklyn home sprouts a field of cardboard shamrocks each year. A statue of St. Patrick appears on the bookshelf and a sign is posted on the back door: “If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough.”

moses-comp-finalThis is the work of my Irish-American wife in preparation for St. Patrick’s Day. As the Italian-American husband, I have in past years suggested equal attention to St. Joseph, a favorite saint of Italians. Nothing doing.

The proximity of St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 and the Feast of St. Joseph two days later leads to a good deal of teasing and ribbing every year between Catholics of Irish and Italian ancestry.

There is nothing extraordinary about this little bit of fun, unless one considers the bitterness that once marked relations between these two peoples. As impoverished Italians poured into New York and other major cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the already established Irish became their mentors and tormentors—more so the latter, at first.

Much of the rivalry concerned jobs: Italian laborers were willing to work for less pay and longer hours than the Irish, and sometimes they were used to break strikes. Fights were so common between crews of Irish and Italian construction workers that the Brooklyn Eagle headlined a 1894 editorial: “Can’t They Be Separated?”

This bitterness spilled over into the Catholic parishes where the two peoples mingled with their very different forms of practicing the same religion.

The Italians “are so despised for their filth and beggary that in New York the Irish granted them free use of the basement of the Church of Transfiguration, so that they could gather for their religious practices, since the Irish did not want to have them in the upstairs church,” a Vatican agency noted in an 1887 report that singled out an Irish parish on Mott Street in what is now Manhattan’s Chinatown for maltreatment of Italian immigrants.

The pastor of Transfiguration Church responded through an article his brother wrote in a Catholic journal that said the Italian immigrants didn’t know even elementary Catholic doctrines. Nor were they so concerned about having to hold services in the church basement, it added, because “the Italians as a body are not humiliated by humiliation.”

These were, in turn, fighting words for a prominent Italian priest who wrote to his bishop in Italy: “I have proofs at hand—it would make your blood boil—to see how Italian priests have been treated by American pastors.”

Such exchanges continued for decades, with Irish churchmen trying to cope with the “Italian problem” and Italians complaining angrily to their bishops and the Vatican.

The Italian brand of Catholicism—with processions and raucous street celebrations in honor of patron saints—didn’t sit well with Irish-American prelates. They knew their Protestant opponents looked down on these customs as pagan-like superstitions. Michael Corrigan, a son of Irish immigrants who served as New York’s archbishop in the late 19th century, tried to bar the processions. The Italians ignored him, and took note of the fact that the Irish celebrated their own feast on St. Patrick’s Day.

This battle within the Catholic Church was fought in many big-city parishes well into the 20th century. No Italian-American headed a diocese in New York state until 1968, when Francis J. Mugavero was appointed bishop of Brooklyn.

And yet, as a diverse group of marchers steps up Fifth Avenue led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan in this year’s New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade, it is worth noting that the Catholic parish played an important role in reconciling the Irish and Italians. In the years after World War II, people got to mingle and know each other in their parishes, especially in the suburbs and residential sections of the city.

Scholarly studies have shown that Italian-Americans who attended Catholic schools became more like the Irish in their practice of the Catholic faith.

As a result, as one 1960s study of New York Catholics found, Italian-Americans who went to Catholic schools and attended Mass regularly almost always wed spouses of Irish origin if they did not marry another Italian. That’s especially so for third-generation Italian-Americans, as I am on my mother’s side, a fact to which my Irish-American wife Maureen can attest.

In the early years of the 20th century, those who predicted large-scale Irish-Italian friendship and intermarriage were dismissed as impossibly optimistic. But the story of the Irish and Italians in America demonstrates that it is possible over time for serious divisions to be transformed into a matter of gentle teasing and ribbing between friends—if not husbands and wives.

Paul Moses teaches journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY. His book An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians will be published by NYU Press in July.

Ayahuasca and the spiritual natives

—Brett Hendrickson 

What do Lindsay Lohan, Sting, and hundreds of Brooklyn hipsters have in common besides their glowing personalities? They all sing the praises of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic and psychedelic brew that has long been used by indigenous Amazonian groups. Ayahuasca sends its consumers into throes of reverie and feelings of spiritual connectedness. It also causes bouts of vomiting, which users lift up as part of the cathartic experience—the “ayahuasca cleanse.”

North American and European spiritual tourists being treated by a Peruvian shaman.

In its original Amazonian context, ayahuasca use is an integral part of the trances that shamans enter to carry out powerful transactions between waking life and other levels of their reality. The impetus for most of these trance journeys and transactions is healing of one sort or another, whether this be physical recovery from illness or the restoration of ruptured social norms. Shaman specialists take the ayahuasca in order to enter the visionary realm wherein they can do the important work of re-establishing balance, harmony, and health for their patients and communities.

By the mid-twentieth century, anthropologists who studied ayahuasca-using South American tribes were trying the drug for themselves and bringing back stories of its psychedelic properties. Soon, the growing counter-culture was experimenting with ayahuasca and other psychotropic plants common in Central and South America like peyote cactus and psilocybin mushrooms. Adding significantly to these plants’ inherent hallucinogenic properties was the ostensible authenticity and simplicity of indigenous people’s wisdom and spirituality.

The last few years have witnessed a rise in the popularity of ayahuasca use both on ethno-tourist jaunts to Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil, and in spiritual salons dedicated to the drug in the United States. It has become especially trendy among creative types like musicians and writers and also with young urbanites who might self-identify as spiritual seekers. Like-minded people have taken advantage of online social networking to gather with shaman/entrepreneurs who provide not only the ayahuasca but also a guided tour into a commodified form of indigenous spirituality.

A recent story in the New York Times describes such a meet-up in Brooklyn that featured a Colombian shaman, cups of ayahuasca, barf buckets, candlelight, chanting, drumming, and a $150 price tag. Others are not content with this kind of dabbling and have taken the plunge to remote South America to learn to have even more authentic experiences and perhaps become shamans themselves. A recent profile of one such individual describes a young Jewish man from Williamsburg who made various trips to the Amazon and the Caribbean where he received a new name from indigenous masters: Turey Tekina (allegedly “Sky Singer” in Quechua). After many spiritual adventures and self-discoveries, he “returned to Brooklyn, and turned his apartment into a temple for [ayahuasca] ceremonies. He has a steady flow of regular and new clients, all who learn of him through word of mouth.”

The history of Anglo-Americans who have dabbled in—or even appropriated—the religious and traditional medicines of indigenous people is long but remarkably constant. In almost every case, the white seekers are looking for healing and wholeness, but almost always in a such a way that critiques the complications and coldness of “Western” life and/or its “institutional religion;” utterly romanticizes indigenous people as simple and pure sources of unadulterated ancient wisdom; and can be easily commodified and thus sold in packages with other alternative medicines or therapies.

The latest craze for ayahuasca’s visions and vomiting is one more item in what sociologist of religion Wade Clark Roof has called America’s “spiritual marketplace.” When this particular trend passes, no doubt another will take its place in this unique form of American religiosity that privileges the sacred wisdom of the natives, as long as we can have it when—and how—we want it.

Brett Hendrickson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Lafayette College (PA). He is the author of Border Medicine: A Transcultural History of Mexican American Curanderismo (NYU Press, 2014).

Beyond intent: Why we need a new paradigm to think about racialized violence

—Evelyn Alsultany

Three Muslim Americans – Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 – were murdered last week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina by 46-year-old resident Craig Stephen Hicks. The tragedy has sparked a debate over whether or not these deaths were the result of a hate crime or a parking dispute.

Women take part in a vigil for three young Muslims killed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

Muslim Americans who claimed that this was surely a hate crime were presented with evidence to the contrary. Hicks’s Facebook and other online posts revealed that he is an atheist who is against all religion, regardless of whether it is Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, a gun enthusiast, and an advocate for gay rights. His online posts show that he is passionate about the protection of constitutional rights, especially freedom of speech and freedom of religion. His archived posts even include commentary on the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy, in which he writes in support of Muslim rights and notes the important distinction between Muslims and Muslim extremists. His wife has insisted that the murders were the result of a parking dispute, and not a hate crime. As a result, Hicks has been portrayed as not hating Muslims.

This profile of Hicks is indeed complex. He does not fit the conventional profile of a “racist” – i.e., someone who believes that all Muslims are a threat to America; who clings to essentialist and binary notions of identities; who espouses that certain groups of people do not deserve human rights; who practices intentional bigotry; who is firmly rooted in a logic that justifies inequality. I am reluctant to use the term “racist” since it conjures an image of someone who participates in blatant and intentional forms of hate. However, what this case shows us is that we need a new paradigm to understand racialized violence today. Yes, this case is complex, but that does not mean it is not a hate crime. It is complex because it does not fit the narrow way in which we have defined a hate crime.

Posing an either/or option – either this is or is not a hate crime – does not help us understand what transpired. Racism is not an either/or phenomenon. It is deeply embedded in our society and, when left unchecked, has the potential to inform our perceptions and actions in ways not captured by a caricatured understanding of its diverse forms. Racism is not always conscious or intentional. It exists across a vast spectrum of consciousness and intentionality.  As part of our subconscious, racism can manifest in the form of microaggressions that are often unintentional and sometimes even well-meaning. On the more dangerous side of the spectrum, it manifests in violence. We need to break the association of racism with intent because racism endures without it.

Our current cultural paradigm often makes a simplistic equation: Good people are well-intentioned and are therefore not racist; bad people are ill-intentioned and are therefore racist. Consequently, if the white police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Gardner are considered “good people” by their friends, families, and colleagues, their actions cannot be deemed racist. Such a conclusion focuses solely on intent and overlooks how members of the police – like all of us – have been shaped and influenced by notions of black men as threatening and how such cultural imagery has, in turn, structured racialized violence.

The point is not that Craig Hicks is any more or any less racist than the white police officers who murdered Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other black men. Indeed, the question of their individual, consciously expressed or felt racism does not help us to understand what happened or how to prevent it in the future; it just provokes denial and defensiveness. Conversely, claiming that we are “post-race” and/or denying that a particular incident has anything to do with race does not help us solve the problem of racialized violence.

The point is not whether Craig Hicks is any more or less racist than any of us; the point is that Craig Hicks lives and his victims died in a society that is structured by deeply institutionalized and culturally pervasive racism that exists regardless of whether any individual “wants” it to or not, and regardless of whether we as a society want to acknowledge it or not. We need a new paradigm, a new language and framework, to understand racialized violence today. Hicks’ profile provides an opportunity to challenge ourselves to rethink our understanding of racism and hate crimes in order to prevent murder.

Evelyn Alsultany is Associate Professor in the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 (NYU Press, 2012).

‘Nones’ on the rise

—Christel Manning

In “The ‘Nones’ Are Here…and Have Been for over 100 Years,” Emily Mace is right to draw our attention to the past, and to point out that eschewing organized religion is not a new phenomenon in America. But today’s Nones are different in at least two ways. The first is in their numbers.

Recent Pew surveys suggest that nearly 20 percent of Americans and a fully third of young people identify as Nones. This is a sharp increase from the number of Nones in the early 20th century. While many of these new Nones are “unchurched believers,” the number of those who are secular (agnostics and atheists) has also increased. This suggests that, at least in some regions, claiming no religion has more legitimacy than it did in the past.

Secondly, the swelling of None ranks is not just due to the usual “bleeding” of liberal churches. As Jefferson Bethke’s famous YouTube video, “Why I hate religion but love Jesus,” dramatically illustrated, Evangelical churches are also bleeding Nones, especially young ones.

Organized religion does offer the benefits of community, and this may cause some of today’s Nones to return and raise their families in a church or synagogue. But this is true of fewer Nones than it was in the past. What happens to organized religion or secularism in America will depend on the choices these young people make, and how they decide to raise their own children.

Christel Manning is Assistant Professor of Religion at Sacred Heart University. She is the author of Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents are Raising their Children (forthcoming from NYU Press).

Fighting for the “Mexican Dream”: Behind the scenes of border-crossing tourism

—Leah M. Sarat

About every six months or so, a news story emerges about an unlikely ecotourism event in Mexico: a border-crossing simulation that invites visitors to step into the shoes of undocumented migrants as they flee “Border Patrol” agents, hide in ditches, and dodge bullets while crossing through a reimagined U.S.-Mexico border.

Are you baffled yet? Perhaps offended by the thought of tourists making light of the migration journey?

That was my reaction when I first heard of the Caminata Nocturna, or “Night Hike,” in early 2007. I traveled to El Alberto, the indigenous town in the Central Mexican state of Hidalgo that stages the simulation, to learn more. The true story behind the event is one of creativity and resilience. It is the story of the “Mexican Dream”—that is, of a community’s pursuit of a sustainable future in the face of overwhelming pressure to travel north.

Residents of El Alberto dream not of reaching America, but rather of being able to earn a living right where they are. So committed are they to that vision that they have dedicated countless hours of unpaid work in order to make their town’s ecotourism park a success. At the close of the border simulation, tourists “arrive,” but not to an imaginary United States. Instead, they arrive at the base of a canyon whose sides are lit with hundreds of torches representing those who have perished during migration.

The message of the border simulation is this: the American Dream is not the only dream worth fighting for. Instead, members of the national community must join forces with members of the international community to fight for a world in which the fundamental right not to migrate will be available to all.

The bitter irony is that behind the scenes of the border reenactment, many of El Alberto’s residents find themselves with little option but to continue to undertake the perilous journey north. As they do so, many draw upon their evangelical Christian faith to confront the very real possibility of death at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Immigration solutions that militarize the U.S.-Mexico border without addressing the root causes of migration are not enough. Let us listen to El Alberto’s call for the “Mexican Dream”—and let us ask what sort of binational solutions can help make that dream a reality.

Leah Sarat is Assistant Professor of Religion at Arizona State University. She is the author of Fire in the Canyon: Religion, Migration, and the Mexican Dream (NYU Press, 2013).

How Katz’s Delicatessen became a New York icon

—Ted Merwin

When I was growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, school field trips meant being schlepped on a bus to the McGraw-Hill building on Sixth Avenue, to a multimedia film called the “New York Experience,” in which a kaleidoscopic montage of New Yorkers of different stripes celebrated both past and present life in Gotham. Nowadays, all one needs to do to get a sense of the real New York is to pay a visit to Katz’s Deli on Houston Street, where a prickly, pickle-y, briny Yiddish gestalt holds imperious sway in a churning sea of multi-racial, multi-ethnic customers and counter people.

And so “The Ur-Deli,” Jordan Weissman’s recent piece in Slate on how Katz’s stays afloat despite charging $20 for a pastrami sandwich, while it ably limns the economic factors that have raised the price of beef (even beef of the non-kosher variety, which Katz’s retails), only hints at what makes Katz’s emblematic of Jewish life in New York. Katz’s is what the peerless French Jewish scholar Pierre Nora would call a lieu de memoire, a place in which Jewish memory itself is staged and constructed—a place in which every neon sign seems to light up a kind of historic Jewish body electric for the benefit of all New Yorkers. Indeed, there is something Whitmanesque about Katz’s, peopled, often around the clock, by a jostling crowd of cab drivers, tourists, politicians and businesspeople. (Of course, if Whitman had ever been to Katz’s, he would have called his magnum opus “Slices of Pastrami” instead of “Leaves of Grass.”)

We may never know which Jewish delicatessen was the first to open in New York; the deli–from the Latin word delicatus, meaning anything that was alluring, enticing, or voluptuous–morphed in successive stages out of the gourmet take-out stores of Europe, only gradually sprouting tables at the turn of the twentieth century and becoming a particularly relaxed and raucous type of restaurant that brought together Jewish immigrants from different Eastern European nations and enabled them to begin to form a collective American Jewish identity while fressing on smoked and pickled meats, crunchy cucumbers, and spongy, slightly sour, seeded rye bread.

But Katz’s, which opened in 1888 as Iceland Brothers (the brothers were bought out by Willy Katz in 1910, at the peak of Jewish immigration), was certainly one of the pioneers. Its survival is remarkable, given how many similar establishments went in and out of business on the Lower East Side in those years, and how challenging the restaurant business remains to this day. It has profited hugely from the tens of thousands of visitors who descend on the Lower East Side each year seeking to experience, or at the very least to imagine, what life was like in New York more than a century ago.

True, what cemented Katz’s in the popular imagination is its role in the 1989 Rob Reiner comedy film, When Harry Met Sally, in which Meg Ryan’s vociferous “orgasm” articulated the whole “let it all hang out” ethos of Jewish culture (one summed up, perhaps, equally well by the pendulous salamis hanging behind the deli counter). It was—as another non-Jew, Henry James, called it in his (admittedly highly prejudiced) 1905 survey of the Lower East Side—a “Jewry that had burst all bounds.” This is what Katz’s sells: the celebration of excess, the drive to overturn limits, the claiming of one’s irrepressible due.

Katz’s may thus be not just the most “New York” restaurant there is, but the most American and most democratic one. A flash mob last year recreated the notorious scene from the Reiner film in Katz’s with dozens of (seemingly) non-Jewish women simultaneously reaching “climax” in unison, thrusting the deli even more to the pinnacle of American popular culture. As Katz’s has become ever more a destination restaurant, the little carnival ticket that one uses to purchase one’s food gains entry not just to an eatery but to a buoyant, beguiling and boisterous show. For such a bonanza, $20 seems like a true Lower East Side bargain.

Ted Merwin is Associate Professor of Religion & Judaic Studies and Director of the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa). He is the author of Pastrami on Rye: A History of the Jewish Deli (forthcoming in 2015 from NYU Press). For more information, visit his website: http://www.tedmerwin.com/.

Queer Christianities: A new conversation

—Michael F. Pettinger, Kathleen T. Talvacchia, and Mark Larrimore

“Queer Christian lives are wildly, deliciously varied.”

With those words, our co-editor Mark Larrimore captured the most compelling reason for editing a book like Queer Christianities. He also hit on the greatest challenge we faced as editors. We wanted to start a new conversation, one grounded in the lived experience of individuals who consider themselves queer and Christian. The problem was that the delicious variety of their lives resisted any easy organizing principle.

So how do you give structure to a queer Christian discussion without closing out some voices and locking those included too rigidly into place? We thought about dividing it along denominational lines – Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox. But would there be space for people to talk across those divisions? We considered arranging it according to different sexual identities. But the number of such identities was indefinable and fraught with potential conflict. Was there room at the table for heterosexuals? If we included gay and lesbian Christians who opt for heterosexual marriage or celibacy, would we alienate those who see these choices as a surrender to oppression? And what about the divergent methodologies that such a discussion would inevitably call upon – could theologians, theorists, philosophers, historians, sociologists have an intelligible conversation? If they are scholars who practice a tradition, how do they integrate their academic and religious commitments?

What we were looking for was a language accessible to both theologians and social scientists of religion. It would have to be a language useful to individuals from a broad range of sexual identities. And last of all, it would have to be a language that the contributors could use to answer the underlying question of the book – how do individuals reflect upon their erotic relationships while living in traditions that are often explicitly hostile to them? How do they put those reflections into practice? And how do those practices shape their lives and the lives of their communities?

The solution came almost as a joke, at the end of a long afternoon spent tossing out ideas and shooting them down. Why not borrow the language of the Christian states of life? We could have three parts – one on matrimony, another on celibacy, and a third on whatever else is left over.

At first, the idea seemed slightly ridiculous. After all, weren’t these “states of life” precisely the sort of tidy, stultifying taxonomy that queerness tries to resist? Weren’t the terms old-fashioned even among Christians? And what exactly is contained in the category, “whatever else is left over?” Does such a thing even have a name? Is it a name that anyone would want to claim?

In order to open these concepts to the many lives we wanted to explore, we had to queer them. As abstract singular nouns, “Celibacy” and “Matrimony” might name suffocating monoliths, but in the plural, “Celibacies” and “Matrimonies” point to the myriad ways in which specific individuals resist, reimagine, and reinvent these forms in their own lives. These plural nouns called for another plural to name the third part. After repeated discussion, we chose “Promiscuities,” a word that evokes the multiple forms of exclusion that have haunted the history of Christianity, while pointing to the many types of erotic relationship that queer Christians are reclaiming.

The states-of-life model proved capacious in ways that we could not have anticipated. Not only did it make it possible for theologians and social scientists of religion to speak with each other about queer Christian lives, it also opened the way for queer Christians to engage the academy on their own terms. Rather than creating three separate conversations around three static topics, the model allowed voices addressing one state of life to echo or respond to what was said in another. Indeed, the tracing of ideas between the three parts of the book mirrors the lives of queer Christians, as individuals transitioned from one state of life to another, and even inhabited multiple states simultaneously.

This surging dynamism is perhaps the single most important thing we have discovered in editing this conversation. As Mark pointed out, the lives of queer Christians “can be expected to keep pushing the limits of normalizing structures of all kinds.” The resulting harmonies and dissonances suggest further possibilities for queering and Christianity. This book is not a conclusion. It is only the beginning of a new and lively conversation.

Michael F. Pettinger is Assistant Professor in the Literary and Religious Studies programs at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. Kathleen T. Talvacchia is Associate Dean of Academic and Student Affairs at New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science. Mark Larrimore is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. They are co-editors of Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (NYU Press, 2014).

Q&A with Kyle Bulthuis, author of Four Steeples over the City Streets

In the interview below, historian Kyle Bulthuis discusses his forthcoming book, Four Steeples over the City Streets: Religion and Society in New York’s Early Republic Congregations (NYU Press, October 2014).

What led you to write the book?

Kyle Bulthuis: In graduate school I found myself drawn to two historical fields—religious and social history—that often do not mix. When they interact, each tends to flatten and simplify the other field. In this book I wanted to do justice to both methods. In New York City, individuals such as John Jay, James Harper, Sojourner Truth, and Peter Williams were not just prominent citizens but also churchgoers. I strove to tell their story as religious as well as social individuals, people located in a time and place that included religious and secular commitments.

In two sentences, what is the argument of your book?

These four New York City congregations—Trinity Episcopal Church, John Street Methodist Chapel, Mother Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, and St. Philip’s (African) Episcopal Church—were all historically significant in their respective denominations (and socially significant landmarks in New York City), and each were profoundly shaped by the social changes of the early Republic. The language of Christian unity that congregants voiced proved to be an ideal that was impossible to maintain in an environment where wealth and poverty, race and gender, and physical and material development tended to divide religious bodies more than unite them.

Why do we need to read Four Steeples over the City Streets?

In major American cities, churches are often prominent landmarks that tourists treat as museums of the past. American politics and culture tend to identify cities as places of primarily secular, not religious, commitments. These assumptions have carried weight in the scholarly community. American religious histories often focus on denominations, or large movements, rather than individual buildings or congregations. Further, scholars of American religion have traditionally focused on the western frontier, the place of big camp meeting revivals, rather than urban centers. My examination of city congregations therefore reveals a different scale in a different place than is typical. I found that these central New York City congregations experienced religious change earlier and more intensely than elsewhere: rather than being a place where religion was peripheral, New York City was a place where religious change was cutting-edge, for good as well as for ill. Democratization, revivalism, feminization, racial segregation, reform: these developments all contributed to the urban religious experience.

[Note: An expanded version of this post originally appeared on The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog.]

‘Left Behind,’ again? The re-emergence of a political phenomenon

—Glenn W. Shuck

Critics just don’t get Left Behind, a new movie adaptation of the best-selling book series. Sure, it’s predictably awful. The acting is bad, the production is terrible, and the plot is thinner than Soviet toilet paper. But the stakes are far higher than with a typical, first-order howler. Left Behind preaches to the choir, sure, but this is no ordinary choir! The film, like the novels, doesn’t cater to Hollywood styles; it’s all about motivating people to “spread the word,” and that word is just as political as it is otherworldly.

Ten years have passed since the original Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins concluded. In a world where news cycles grow ever shorter, ten years is several lifetimes. Sure, the Christian suspense novels helped unleash powerful political forces then, but what about now?  The series and the values it champions may have found a way to return with the debut of the new Left Behind film.

Why Left Behind?  Why now?  Financial motives, as always, play a powerful role. Just look at recent films and television serials. Apocalypse sells. God sells. Fear sells. But another motive is at hand: apocalyptic narratives are also multi-stranded; they carry, after all, a revelation. They proclaim a new way of being in the world. In short, apocalyptic narratives often motivate action.

Dr. LaHaye and Mr. Jenkins helped politically conservative evangelicals in the 1990’s move beyond “single issue” and “values voters” labels to empower their political imaginations beyond narrow and predictable categories.  As the series progressed and the politics behind them came together, they helped an upstart and then highly disliked presidential candidate, George W. Bush, to two unlikely victories, selling millions of political primers along the way.  The Left Behind phenomenon helped embolden a hyper-energized religious right.

But something went wrong with doomsayers’ forecasts of evangelical political dominance: they stopped voting at the high rates that boosted President Bush. It wasn’t just that the original Left Behind film and its sequels were big–screen busts. “New” Republican standard-bearers Senator John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney never held much appeal for evangelicals. Yes, it hurt that the Left Behind series and its spin-offs and spokespersons were no longer so influential. Moreover, Bush’s unpopularity became toxic. More “moderate” Republican candidates, however, without the full support of a key voting bloc, found a different kind of apocalypse.

Fast-forward to 2014. A president is not on the ballots but President Obama’s policies certainly are as Democrats fight to retain the Senate. Polls and pundits raise concerns for Democrats. But Democrats ought to also consider a voting bloc that has been under-engaged for a decade. Some experts have assumed evangelicals and the Tea Party are one and the same (or similar enough), hence one can already account for these potential voters. But it is simplistic to equate the Tea Party with the religious right. It takes more than faux filibusters to help push high percentages of mercurial evangelical conservatives to the polls, especially in a midterm election, albeit as critical as this year.

Re-enter the Left Behind phenomenon. Left Behind, another adaptation of the novels, is earning the Left Behind phenomenon and the values it champions, a closer look. The film does not have the highest budget, but this re-boot has fared much better than the 2001 original, grossing almost twice as much (roughly $ 7 million) in the first weekend as the ill-fated original all told.  Whether the film grosses $20 million or $50 million matters less, however, than the fact it has brought conservative evangelicals back into the news cycle.

Thus in the days leading up to the 2014 midterms, Republicans have a wild card in Left Behind that just may become an ace. It is absurd to suggest a low-budget film will change the balance of power in the U.S.A., but it has resurrected the dynamics of the novels, and conservative evangelicals finally have a powerful reminder to vote.  And as any pundit will admit, it won’t take much to tip the scales in Washington.

Finally, the timely release of Left Behind may owe to coincidence, one month before the crucial midterms.  Evangelicals do not believe in coincidence, however, nor should campaigners in evangelical-filled battleground states such as North Carolina, Kansas, and Iowa, to name a few. Left Behind is playing in the heartland, playing for the hearts and minds of conservative evangelical voters. Critics, who dismiss Left Behind as simply an awful film and fire dull hip-shots with dismissive derision and canned clichés, miss the point. Left Behind is not about film prizes or outstanding cinematography or even good taste. It’s all about “spreading the word.” Who will be left behind if the film re-energizes its core audience and steers them into action just weeks before the crucial elections next month?

Glenn W. Shuck is Assistant Professor of Religion at Williams College and author of Marks of the Beast: The Left Behind Novels and the Struggle for Evangelical Identity (NYU Press, 2004).

Keeping the lights on for Heaven’s Gate

—Benjamin E. Zeller

This past week I’ve been forwarded links to Ashley Feinberg’s essay on Heaven’s Gate, “The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind.” As the now go-to expert on Heaven’s Gate—an honor I share with colleagues Robert Balch and George Chryssides—friends, family, and colleagues have reached out, asking for my opinion on the piece. Having now digested Feinberg’s essay, here’s my summary: Feinberg mostly got it right, though she has fallen into several traps of overgeneralization. She has done a good job of showing how Heaven’s Gate’s activities on the internet unfolded at the end of the movement’s history, but there is more to this story.

In terms of the facts, Feinberg has it mostly right, or at least as close as possible. For example, on the pivotal 1972 meeting between co-founders Marshall Herff Applewhite (1932–1997) and Bonnie Lu Nettles (1927–1985), Feinberg indicates that a heart attack had led Applewhite to be admitted to the hospital where Nettles worked, a position Applewhite’s sister also took. Applewhite himself said he was visiting a friend, and this is Balch’s position as well. Regardless, this is one fact we’ll probably never know.

Certainly Feinberg didn’t fall into the trap that some sloppy journalists did after the 1997 suicide of simply assuming that Applewhite must have been crazy and therefore Nettles must have worked in a mental hospital and Applewhite must have been a mental patient. None of that is true, and honestly it says more about us as a public that we could believe such things.

Feinberg also misread how and when Heaven’s Gate’s became increasingly reclusive and monastic in orientation. Feinberg traces this to “the years after Ti’s [i.e., Nettles’s] death” in 1985. In fact, it was Nettles herself who called for the “closing of the harvest” on April 21, 1976, which led to her and Applewhite shifting the group towards more insular, strict living over the following months. Interviews with ex-members and an analysis of the sources show that both the insularity and the puritanical model of life did not change much after Nettles’s death, though as Feinberg rightly pointed out, other theological shifts did occur.

But this really amounts to quibbles. Overall, Feinberg has done a good job of unpacking the history of a complicated group. (If I may be permitted a moment of self-reflection, it took me years to trace and retrace the early history of Heaven’s Gate, an effort I distilled into the first chapter of my forthcoming book.)

Feinberg’s assessment of the sociology of the group was also spot-on. Here she did her homework, interviewing Balch, who spent the most amount of time studying the group during its existence. Her conclusions are correct that ex-members usually left on good terms because they were supported by Nettles and Applewhite in doing so, but that those who were deeply committed would find this difficult to actually do. One emendation: the movement in fact experienced massive defection rates over the years. Numbers are hard to pin down, but the group went from several hundred at its heyday to thirty-nine at its terminus.

Regarding their theology, Feinberg has unfortunately fallen into the trap of assuming that, in her words, “[t]he Heaven’s Gate doctrine in its entirety is convoluted and, unsurprisingly, not all that consistent” and that “for all the hundreds of pages of sermons and prophecies and transcripts held within the site and its advertised wares, the bizarre, often incoherent text really doesn’t tell you all that much.” Here Feinberg repeats the oft-seen trope of presupposing that a group labeled a cult must ipso facto have an incoherent or inconsistent doctrine. In fact, Heaven’s Gate’s religious worldview was quite coherent and consistent, though like any living religious community, different members possessed their own perspectives and positions, and the teachings of the two founders and leaders also shifted over time as they responded to changes both internal and external. It was also exceedingly well documented in hundreds of pages of text and dozens of hours of videos.

The religious message of Heaven’s Gate boiled down to this: Earth existed as a intermediate realm wherein individuals could experience growth and, with the proper effort and instruction, be given the chance to transcend this existence and be reborn into a new eternal life of perfection in the heavens. At its heart, this is not a radically different message from the typical Christian teachings on of the drama of human life, especially in the forms championed by American Evangelical Protestants. Like such Christians, members of Heaven’s Gate looked to Earth as a battleground between good and evil, but sought to transcend it through cleaving to the teachings and personhood of a heavenly savior. For Christians, that is Christ, the Bible, and the Church. For adherents of Heaven’s Gate, it was Nettles and Applewhite as Ti and Do, their teachings, and their movement.

As I and my colleagues have written, Heaven’s Gate brought together such typical Christian teachings with those of the New Age movement and its emphasis on self-transformation and extraterrestrial wisdom, as well as influences from secular ufology, science fiction, and—towards the end of the movement’s history—the conspiratorial subculture of the American fringe. Here I’ll have to tell you to read the articles or books that my colleagues and I have written to get the longer story, but what Nettles and Applewhite did was careful and considered. They created an internally consistent theology that allowed non-supernaturally oriented American spiritual seekers to find a religious home. It wasn’t formal theology, but it made sense if you accepted their presumptions. (That’s true with most religions, incidentally.)

Feinberg’s essay does an excellent job in the consideration of the group’s internet business, Higher Source. Some of the sample images that members of Heaven’s Gate produced for their business and to which Feinberg links provide visual clues as to how the worldview of Heaven’s Gate had unfolded by the mid-1990s. Kudos to her for bringing the group member’s business work—what adherents disparaged as simply a means to “earn sticks”—to our attention.

But in terms of Heaven’s Gate’s usage of the internet, we need to look earlier than the world wide web to the Usenet, the free-roaming bulletin board system that served as the internet’s front porch before the days of the graphic-based web. Over a yearlong period following September 1995, Applewhite authored several overlapping statements that he or members acting on his behalf posted to Usenet boards ranging from alt.current-events.usa to alt.startrek to comp.ai.philosophy to alt.drugs.psychedelics. As I’ve documented in my forthcoming book, the responses to Applewhite’s posts were uniformly negative. This more than anything else led him and his coreligionists to begin to give up on ever connecting with the people of this planet. If philosophers of Artificial Intelligence and Trekkies did not take Heaven’s Gate seriously, then who would? The movement created its first webpage at the end of this period, published its anthology, issued several videotapes, and basically began to wrap up things here on planet Earth. All it took was the right heavenly marker to show that the time had come to leave. Comet Hale-Bopp did that.

Returning to Feinberg, my biggest critique is this: there is nothing really remarkable about the work of Mrc and Srf (as they prefer to be called) as the continuing webmasters of HeavensGate.com. I say this as someone who has spoken with, interviewed, and spent informal time with Mrc and Srf: one ought to take them at their word when they say, as they did to Feinberg, that they serve as archivists and keepers of the group’s intellectual property. They do this out of deep commitment to the memories and beliefs of several dozen of their close friends with whom they spent over a decade living as a tight-knit family, individuals whose lives and deaths were disparaged and dismissed on national television, and for whom no one is left to speak. I hardly think that I, or anyone reading this, would do otherwise in similar circumstances. Science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card would surely not mind if I borrowed his term: Mrc and Srf are Speakers for the Dead.

A nasty internecine conflict exists over the claims of ownership of the Heaven’s Gate intellectual property. (There are more former members than Feinberg found, as well as other parties involved, but I will not use names here.) I am no lawyer and cannot speak to the claims of ex-members, academics, amateur collectors of cult paraphernalia, and in some cases, my own colleagues and friends, as to who legally or ethically ought to control the legacy of Heaven’s Gate. But here is why it matters, and why it matters that “someone’s there to keep the lights on” for the website, as Feinberg puts it.

When thirty-nine relatively ordinary, sane, unremarkable people decide to end their terrestrial lives for the purposes of seeking transcendence and truth, that is important. When they pen essays, videotape monologues, and issue press releases on their impending deaths, they mean to tell us something. What did they want us to know? I quote Srrody, a member who joined Heaven’s Gate on February 14, 1976 and ended his life with his co-religionists: “Somebody on the other side of the camera…you’ll say ‘you are deluded or you are brainwashed or whatever’…but from my perspective, this is a godsend, this is the answer to everything.”

Hauntingly, members of Heaven’s Gate knew they would not be taken seriously. They knew they would be accused of being brainwashed, of being cultists, of being crazy. The Heaven’s Gate materials exist as testimony to how these thirty-nine individuals wrestled with questions of identity, meaning, and purpose. They show how intelligent, ordinary people sometimes painfully tried to explain what they knew others would dismiss as stupid or strange. The HeavensGate.com website and related contents, in other words, speak to how thirty-nine people lived and died, navigating the same questions and issues that face us all. They were human beings, though they longed with all their hearts not to be. That’s why it matters.

Benjamin E. Zeller is Assistant Professor of Religion at Lake Forest College. He is the author of Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion (NYU Press, 2014).

How not to react when your child tells you that he is gay

—Bernadette Barton

I actively avoided watching “How Not to React When Your Child Tells You that He is Gay” for a little while. A former student Facebook messaged me the link. I saw it pop up on other people’s Facebook walls. Dan Savage commented on it. And then my spouse Anna added it to our Plex queue and made me watch it on our television, though there isn’t much to see, just a lot of skewed shots of carpet, and later, a bunch of limbs tumbling.

So I listened, nervous, full of creeping dread, secretly overhearing, along with, at this point, 100,000 YouTube others, a violent family reaction to their son’s coming out. When our protagonist speaks, he is careful with his logic, even while his voice is strained and angry. He explains that he did not choose to be gay, he was born this way, right out of the uterus. His family members, especially his mother, respond that it is a choice, that he is choosing to shame them, and she tells him that they will no longer support him in his sinful lifestyle if he continues to choose to be gay.

The conversation begins with an ultimatum: if he does not try to change, with the help of an ex-gay organization, he is to leave. The listener enters at this point, and can track the conflict as it escalates and his family members physically attack him, yelling obscenities and insults.

And then the clip cuts off and we don’t know what happens next, although we can imagine it—the boy escaping out the back or front door with just the clothes on his back, or the boy subjected to a long, protracted period of testifying, or the boy submitting to his family long enough that they calm down and allow him to stay until “Thursday at midnight” to collect his belongings and find a place to live.

This disturbing clip, this painful moment captured and frozen in a person’s life, identical in so many ways to the stories shared by Bible Belt gays in my book Pray the Gay Away, frankly makes me queasy. The verbal accounts I collected with IRB approval, tape-recorder in hand, generously shared some time after the worst of such family abuse had receded is easier to process than the raw anger, hurt, and rejection expressed, indeed secretly recorded, here.  The trauma of familial abuse—being deliberately hurt by those who claim, and who are expected to love one the most—makes me dizzy and unsettled. I wonder how it is affecting all those who have experienced some version of it in their past.  Do they click on this YouTube offering unaware what is in it, try to avoid it like I did, or suffer through it reliving the trauma, purging it, feeling angry, unsettled, surreal, I wonder?

I want to wrap up this boy’s story on a hopeful note. As reader, viewer, voyeur, and story-teller, I crave a heroic ending, and perhaps it is this: even as his own family members were physically and verbally attacking him, our protagonist continued to assert that there was nothing wrong with him, there was something wrong with them. Doing so, he illustrates that he is not participating in his own oppression. He may be permanently estranged from his home and family, but he sounds aligned with himself, and perhaps that is powerful enough, for now.

Bernadette Barton is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky. She is the author of Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (NYU Press, 2006) and Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays, (NYU Press, 2012).

Our legacy, too: Muslim women and the civil rights movement

—Jamillah Karim

“No one person owns this. This history is a history of thousands of people and we tell hundreds of those stories.”

When I heard former mayor of Atlanta Shirley Franklin speak these sentiments about the civil rights movement on the occasion of the opening of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in my hometown of Atlanta, GA, I could not help but think about the courageous women whose stories are told in my new book Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam, co-authored with Dawn Marie-Gibson.

Growing up in a Sunni mosque community in Atlanta, originally a temple in the Nation of Islam, I regularly heard the stories of men and women who converted to Islam to boldly protest racism and advance opportunities for African Americans. Through them, I felt that I had inherited firsthand the legacy of the civil rights movement. Later, however, I learned that the “Black Muslims,” as scholars called them, were not considered part of this movement. While the civil rights movement was marked by aspirations to integrate with whites, the Nation of Islam was labeled separatist because it promoted black pride and independence.

A few scholars, however, have resisted the tendency to write African American Muslims out of the movement. With efforts to see the movement beyond the black church and to include Muslim women among leaders of the civil rights era, womanist religious studies scholar Rosetta Ross devotes a chapter of her book Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights to Clara Muhammad, who contributed significantly to the NOI’s beginnings. Ross writes,

“Although she was not a part of what might be called the ‘mainstream’ Civil Rights Movement, Clara Muhammad’s role as one who helped construct the vehicle that transmitted notions of race pride to the Black masses made her a significant participant in the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement” (142).

It was during an interview with Karen, a former member of the Nation in Queens, New York that I realized that Nation women were not unlike the African American women of the civil rights movement. With a tone of “righteous discontent,” Karen described her dedication to the Nation of Islam but also her protest to some of the Nation practices that confined women. Her simultaneous alliance with and protest to male leaders in the organization immediately reminded me of the position of black Baptist women in the South as portrayed by Evelyn Higginbotham in her book Righteous Discontent.

Quite literally, Nation women were these women before converting. Before the Nation, they had membership or affiliation with the black church, and some were members of civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). No Nation woman that I met proved this connection to the civil rights movement as remarkably as Ana Karim.

Ana was no ordinary woman in the Nation—or person, for that matter. She was invited by Elijah Muhammad personally to join the organization. A SNCC activist carrying out voter registration work in poor, rural areas near Tuskegee Institute, where she attended college, Ana witnessed grave atrocities against African Americans. “I nearly lost my life,” Ana told me, her words bearing no exaggeration. Some of her peers were shot to death fighting for the rights of others. News of these courageous students made local newspapers that eventually fell into the hands of Elijah Muhammad. Upon his invitation, she sat with Muhammad who tried to convince her to join the Muslims. She initially declined, returned to Tuskegee, and witnessed one of the most horrific acts of inhumanity, perpetrated against a pregnant African American woman.

Elijah Muhammad’s call began to make sense to her: “It’s not that I feared death, but there was so much I wanted to do. I didn’t want to die not having accomplished anything—just die on a back road in some rural county and my body be buried in a cornfield or drowned somewhere in a stream. I didn’t want to die like that, so I left because I thought there was a higher mission, a better opportunity to help my people with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.”

Interviewing Ana was a highlight of my career for I had been chosen to tell the story of this remarkable African American Muslim woman. Ana went on to do extraordinary things in the Nation and in the Sunni community that emerged from the Nation under the leadership of Imam W. D. Mohammed. She rose as a leader of African American Muslims—men and women—because, she says, “I assumed the hardship of the civil rights movement. God prepares you for what’s coming in the future.” Ana proves that no one person or one religion owns this history.

Jamillah Karim is co-author (with Dawn-Marie Gibson) of Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam (NYU Press, 2014).