‘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).

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).

‘The Fault’ in our memories

—Jodi Eichler-Levine

One fine morning in Amsterdam, Hazel Grace Lancaster, the protagonist of The Fault in Our Stars, sports a tee shirt emblazoned with Magritte’s most famous painting. It reads, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe) under a painting of… a pipe. The point of the painting is that it is not a pipe, but rather, a representation of a pipe. A signifier. A treacherous fake.

Yet sometimes we insist that we see a pipe. In the same way, The Fault in Our Stars is not a group of teenagers with cancer; it is a representation of teenagers with cancer. We are enraptured by it because it signifies suffering but it is not the real thing, giving us a vicarious “fantasy of witnessing” tragedy. We insist that we are seeing heartbreak.

The film’s blockbuster success stems from many sources: the popularity of the novel; the rising power of teenage girls at the box office; our cultural fascination with death; and the fact that it is genuinely a strong film. However, except for a significant kerfuffle over a kiss in the Anne Frank house, the role of religion in the film has gone unremarked—particularly when it is religion on the fuzzy line between what we call “religious” and “secular.”

John Green, the author of the book on which the film is based, was a religion and English major at Kenyon College. Before becoming a writer, he served as a hospital chaplain and considered a career in ministry. Perhaps this is one reason why his luminescent book is filled with existential fear and a refusal to meet the terror of theodicy with empty platitudes. Here, teens with cancer meet in the “literal heart of Jesus” for a support group at a local church. Hazel is not comforted by this 12-step two-step, but she also recognizes the Sisyphean task of the group’s peppy leader, Patrick. Elsewhere, Hazel’s father asks who we are to deny an elegant universe its desire to be noticed.

This is what I find so profound about the book, its inspirations, and its afterlife. Religion no longer happens only in formal institutional spaces (and it probably never did). In the hallways of hospitals, in our visceral reaction as characters high on a movie screen ponder ultimate questions—in the act of sitting in that dark theater itself—religion is happening. So is memory.

Augustus Waters wants to be noticed before he dies. At first, by the universe: to live an exceptional life. He and Hazel know this cannot be. They know they are finite; they never declare “always,” as some other lovers do, but rather, “okay.”

We all want to be noticed by the universe. This is why we yelp into our virtual superaddressee: the echoing expanse of Facebook and Twitter. We are all writing our own eulogies and those of our friends, day by day, good words and bad words and sublime and despairing logics (and the Kardashians, alas) all spun together. And it is here that we address the dead in plaintive tones. In the book, a grieving Hazel reads the memorial posts on Augustus’ “wall page.” She is both horrified by and empathetic towards the endless tributes. Giving in to temptation, she replies to one post, but is never answered, “lost in the blizzard of new posts.”

Hazel finds the term “forever in our hearts” especially galling.  Skeptical of memory, she mimics the poster’s intentions: “‘You will live forever in my memory, because I will live forever! I AM YOUR GOD NOW, DEAD BOY! I OWN YOU!’ Thinking you won’t die is yet another side effect of dying.” Hazel sees through memory’s ruse: we think our power to remember and to recover memories is how we resurrect those who are lost—and that has theological implications. To possess one’s own fellow creature through memory is godlike… but we are mortals.

What happens to our memories of love and of suffering, here in the twenty-first century?

Green answers us with both dark infinitude and a leap of faith. He became a parent while writing the book, and says this changed it. When Hazel is eight, her mother fears that she will not be a mother anymore without her daughter. Years later, she moves past that into a brazen, stark resilience. She tells Hazel that she will always be her mother. Green has said, “I just could think of no other way to lay bare the absolute hideousness of living in a world where parents have to bury their children … Humans have always lived in that world, and always will.”

And yet, he also writes: “I couldn’t write the book until I understood that the love between a parent and child (like many other kinds of love) is literally stronger than death: As long as either person survives, the relationship survives.”

John Green wants to have his existential cake, and eat it, too. Maybe that’s not the worst idea ever.

Okay.

Jodi Eichler-Levine is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. She holds a joint appointment with the Women’s Studies Program. She is the author of Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children’s Literature (NYU Press, 2013).

Muslim women’s dress, a tool of liberation

—Jamillah Karim

It was in a black feminist/womanist course at Duke when I realized that black Muslim women fit squarely within black women’s tradition of navigating the complex of race, class, and gender struggles. Not, though, because there were any readings on black Muslim women. I understood that black Muslim women had fascinating narratives to be told because I grew up in a Sunni Muslim community in Atlanta with historical roots in the Nation of Islam.

Although readily imagined as a sign of oppression and male control, Muslim women’s dress is a prominent example of the ways in which black Muslim women have used their faith to address overlapping race and gender struggles. Black women scholars including Patricia Collins, bell hooks, and Melissa Harris-Perry have analyzed the ways in which pervasive stereotypes of black women have worked to deny them dignity and rights. The “jezebel” image, stereotyping black women as sexually loose, has its roots in slavery to justify the systematic raping of enslaved women. It is in fighting this image that I see long dresses, or the hijab, as tools of liberation.

Growing up, I constantly heard women in my Sunni community making a case for dressing modestly. “It is a protection,” they always told me. Former Nation women shared these sentiments again during research interviews. Islah Umar, who joined in 1970s Queens, noted that she loved the Nation’s modest dress codes for women: “It was a nice relief from being [seen as] a piece of meat in the street.” Jessica Muhammad, of Atlanta, similarly notes that it was great to be a part of a group whose men “respected women who covered and who called black women queens…[and other honorable names] we didn’t hear in the streets at that time.”

Dress may have even played a role in the very beginnings of the black Muslim movement. One report notes that Clara Poole, soon to be Clara Muhammad, decided to attend a meeting by Fard Muhammad, the founder of the Nation in 1930s Detroit, after a friend told her, “There’s a man who’s saying some things about our people, said we didn’t always dress like we dress. We once dressed in long flowing cloth and we were royal.” Clara brought her husband Elijah to the meeting with her, who would later become the leader of the Nation of Islam.

Contemporary Nation women continue to use dress as a liberating tool. Minister Ava Muhammad of Farrakhan’s Nation has encouraged women to resist the portrayal of the black woman as “an over-sexed woman on display.” Tamorah Muhammad founded Modest Models, Inc. as a platform to prove that “the [demeaning] images can be reversed when black women who have awakened to their true consciousness grow in numbers…[and] create their own images.”

The modest dress that has been embraced by and made meaningful to black Muslim women—from the time of Sister Clara Muhammad to the time of Minister Ava Muhammad—indicates the persistent damage of false racial images on black women and their ongoing faith resistance.

Jamillah Karim is co-author (with Dawn-Marie Gibson) of Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam (NYU Press, 2014). The two authors anticipate that their book will help to correct the absence of black Muslim women’s voices in women’s studies scholarship.

A “more Irish” St. Patrick’s Day parade tradition?

—Jennifer Nugent Duffy

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio added another layer of controversy to this year’s St. Patrick’s Day season when he announced his decision to boycott the city’s parade because of its policy that prohibits homosexuals from marching under a separate banner. Undoubtedly many Irish Americans will dismiss de Blasio’s stance and possibly attribute it to his Italian heritage, but it will be more difficult, however, to overlook Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who has threatened to boycott his city’s parade if gay groups are excluded. As the son of Irish immigrants, perhaps Walsh’s choice is shaped by St. Patrick’s Day parade traditions in Ireland, which are far more tolerant than the ones on this side of the Atlantic. Of course, the parades emerged in dramatically different contexts.

St. Patrick’s Day parades emerged in the mid-nineteenth century United States in a profoundly nativist and hostile climate.  The Irish—who began to arrive in the 1830s— witnessed church attacks and efforts by fraternal organizations like the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, or the Know Nothings, to bar the foreign-born from holding office. Anti-Irish sentiment only intensified as 1.5 million Irish people sought refuge in the United States from Ireland’s Great Famine. Here Irish immigrants faced resentment for their Catholicism, but also questions regarding their loyalty to the United States, as many remained committed to nationalist groups that sought to free Ireland of British rule.

As the United States became increasingly urbanized and industrialized, meager wages and industrial accidents made it difficult for Irish men to support their families.  As a result, the Irish had the second highest number of female-headed households in the United States. Yet Irish households were condemned as disorderly because they did not have the economic security to meet America’s middle-class domestic ideal of a wage-earning husband and a family-rearing wife. Furthermore, Irish immigrants transgressed America’s racial order by engaging in intimate relationships with Chinese immigrants and free Blacks in New York neighborhoods like the notorious Five Points in lower Manhattan. In political cartoons, Irish immigrants and African Americans were depicted as similarly repulsive to the American public.

The Irish response to this hostility was a mixed bag. They refused to yield in regards to their Catholicism, but demonstrated their loyalty to the United States by fighting in the Civil War. Unlike Chinese immigrants, the Irish could naturalize and vote, and they leveraged their political power to secure better-paying municipal jobs, which soon allowed Irish immigrants to form more traditional households. But they also learned to adhere to America’s racial order. Within a generation, Irish immigrants went from being attacked to participating in the 1863 Draft Riots, lynching free Blacks on the streets of New York City, and attacking interracial couples.  With these actions they made it clear that Irishness in the United States, meant white.

We see the legacy of this history in St. Patrick’s Day parade traditions in cities like New York. Parade leaders fiercely resist any displays that may challenge their religion or traditional definitions of marriage and family.  Adherence to conventional gender roles is also on display, as grand marshals are almost always male but also white. The Irish are so removed from liaisons with nineteenth-century free Blacks that African Americans with Irish surnames, like “Eddie Murphy,” are not considered Irish.  President Obama, who traces some of his ancestry to Moneygall, County Offaly, will probably never be asked to lead the parade in Manhattan (although I am sure that he would be welcomed at the St. Pat’s for All parade in Queens).

In marked contrast, displays of Irishness in the Republic of Ireland are not as firmly anchored in sexuality, gender, race or even ethnicity for that matter. Christine Quinn, New York’s first female and openly gay City Council Speaker, led the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, as did Samantha Mumba, an Afro-Irish singer and actress. Drag queens are a popular presence in the Dublin parade and in local celebrations; it is not unusual for new groups, like Polish immigrants to participate under their own banners. Though St. Patrick’s Day initially was a religious holiday in Ireland, current parade practices indicate how traditions can and do change, often dramatically. Political independence and economic growth has shaped a parade tradition that is confident and encompassing, rather than defensive or exclusionary.

Though St. Patrick’s Day parades in the United States initially were formed by an unreceptive environment in which the Irish defended themselves from hostile nativists, parade leaders are still defensive—even though that hostility and fears about an Irish social, economic and political presence have dissipated.

Do we still need a parade defined by that experience? Though leaders speak as if the parade is under attack, the real threat stems not from the participation of Irish homosexuals but from the leaders themselves. Graying parade leadership suggests that their narrow definition of Irishness, so inflexibly grounded in the nineteenth century, is unappealing not only to Mayor de Blasio and other progressives, but also to young Irish Americans, who are conspicuously absent from the parade committee. Parade leaders take notice: if the St. Patrick’s Day parade tradition does not change, it may be doomed to extinction.

Jennifer Nugent Duffy is Associate Professor of History, Western Connecticut State University. She is the author of Who’s Your Paddy? Racial Expectations and the Struggle for Irish American Identity (NYU Press 2013).