I’m going to do it: I’m going to get political. Mind – I did not say ‘partisan’. I intentionally watched both the Republican and Democratic conventions, and intend to critically inspect both. There are many sociological lines to address between the two conventions. Representations of race, gender, class, and others need to be further explored. Here, however, I intend to provide an analysis of the representation of religiosity in American public life.
Allow me to begin by noting that Peter Berger (1979) was wrong, when he asserted that modern, liberal, democratic societies would progress towards secularisation. 20 years later, he himself admitted this (1999), and now it is arguable that religion is more important in American civil society than before (cf. Eck, 2001; cf. Patel, 2012). Amidst glaring differences and similarities between the Republican and Democratic conventions, on the topic of religion one particular similarity stood out to me this past fortnight:
It is NOT demonstrated to be a good time to be non-theist in States…
… or Sikh (save the RNC), Hindu, Buddhist, Baha’i, Pagan, ‘None’, or other.
What is noticeable in both conventions was a strong tendency towards what I (and others) call theonormativity. I have spoken on theonormativity previously on this site, particularly as it is performed in American public spaces. Like other elements of social engagement (gender, race, class, etc), my central argument is that theonormativity is both process and product. It is both the narrow set of expectations a society holds about the supernatural/spiritual realm (product); it is also the process of making this narrow set of expectations ‘normal’ in said society (process).
As I understand it, theonormativity in the USA asserts that when one says God they are referring to the Abrahamic conception[s] therein. This, even, is not exempt from intersectionality theory; in the USA, ‘God’ is typically patriarchal (masculinized), and often is depicted as white. As seen in both conventions?
- Multiple appeals were made to Israel (one narrow set of Judaism).
- Multiple prayers were offered ‘In Jesus’ Name’ (an appeal to a fairly broad conception of Christianity).
- Though it was overwhelmingly more present at the DNC, appeals to the normalization of Islam and Muslims were made (at the RNC, this was made especially evident in a call for ‘non-radical’ Islam).
In no way do I hope to present a comprehensive analysis of every statement made at both conventions, here. Instead, I will generalize from both. It would take more time and resources than I currently have to do an n-gram of language used at both conventions. In short: I do not hope to present a complete analysis; I hope to present a compelling one.
Let us begin with some highlights from the RNC. Cleveland Police Chaplain Rabbi Ari Wolf made the invocation, following the withdrawal of prominent Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. This was followed in the second day by an invocation in Punjabi by Harmeet Dhillon. (It is worth noting, here, that whilst Sikhs were present at the DNC, none received stage time, in effect making the RNC more religiously diverse in terms of representation.) This prayer, however, was the one straying from Abrahamic theonormativity. Throughout the RNC, however, Islam was frequently only referred to through dog-whistle politics (cf. Haney-López, 2014) when discussing ISIS/ISIL, radicalization, and, to be expected, the ‘war on terror’. The RNC went as far as to – rightly – note that the DNC did not mention ISIS/ISIL in the first day of their convention (which the DNC, naturally, did each subsequent day). Islam as a religion was never overtly defended, however, and, instead, mention of Islam was repeatedly used as a weapon through dog-whistle politics, mentioned above, and overtly so by Antonio Sabato Jr’s ridiculous claims regarding President Obama (here, I use ‘ridiculous’ literally: Sabato Jr’s claims are worthy of ridicule). Christianity, even, was narrowly confined to paltry ‘God bless America’ statements, invocations to restrict reproductive rights, and bolstering of the party’s most anti-LGBTQ platform, ever. In his acceptance speech, Trump humble-bragged his acceptance of the support of ‘the Evangelical and religious community’ when he went off-script (see 1:05:00-1:05:17). Trump, also, called conventionally upon Americans to support Israel. Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the nomination of Mike Pence, and Indiana S.B. 101 & S.B. 568, and the alarmingly Christocentric theonormativity therein.
What of the DNC? As admitted, I have yet to n-gram the full convention, but, to the best of my anecdotal assessment, nearly every speech ended with one/a combination of the following: ‘God bless you/God bless you all/God bless our troops/God bless the USA/God bless America.’ As mentioned above, when Americans invoke a reference to a deity, they are – largely – referring to an Abrahamic concept therein. This pattern set the pace for an even more theonormative DNC than RNC. It would appear, even, that the DNC was seeking to [re]claim Christianity from the ‘Religious Right’ – a partisan entanglement of corporatist and evangelical ideals (cf. Kruse, 2015). Seemingly as though to prevent another 8 years of disparaging/questioning a president’s personal religious beliefs, Clinton has overtly, repeatedly declared her Methodist upbringing, and the importance it holds on her (cf. her acceptance speech, 20:30-20:50). Multiple appeals, like at the RNC, were made to support Israel, culminating in Clinton’s acceptance speech. Certainly, expectedly, more present at the DNC were appeals towards the normalization of all of Islam – whilst still stigmatizing ‘radicals‘ and ISIS/ISIL, most notable in Obama’s accolades for Clinton on her abilities regarding ISIL. I mention that, through including a Punjabi prayer, the RNC was more religiously diverse in representation. The DNC sought its own diversity in the non-theistic/scientific communities. But they did so somewhat backhandedly. They repeatedly made use of non-theists as a method of attacking/disparaging the RNC. Clinton, even, made the statement ‘I believe in science!’, auspiciously as a nod to the scientific community, but her delivery (tone, stance, side-eye) made it appear as a joke, implying that members of the RNC do not believe in science, and shifting the focus therein.
Where does this lead us? It leads me to believe that – in terms of representation – it is not a good time to be a non-theist, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, None, or other [ir]religious individual in the USA. Trump claims he is the law and order candidate, repeatedly; Clinton has made central the mantra ‘Stronger together’, going so far as to sell this on their website. Trump is talking about crime-rates overall (and is erroneous); Clinton is trying to establish gun-control regulations. Both invoke recent crimes based on racialization and sexual identity (it is worth noting that the DNC did have an emotional panel by members of the AME church from South Carolina, which claimed 9 lives); neither mentioned the Oak Creek, Wisconsin gurdwara shooting in 2012, which claimed 6 lives, and was one of the most abject examples of displaced islamophobia. (Note: speaking of ‘displaced Islamophobia’ is not helpful, either, as it normalizes Islamophobia which impacts Muslims.) Not one mention was made of the historic case to allow Capt. Simratpal Singh (and by extension, all Sikhs) the right to fulfill his religious decrees of dress, which happened this last year. Though mention was made of Iran, not one mention was made of so many of the Baha’i who leave to attend university, as they cannot attend in their home nation. (Increasingly, I have more and more Baha’i women in my classes, who want to return to Iran once they have obtained their medical degrees here, in the USA.) Hindus in America, and the impact they have on tech and medical fields? Nope. Buddhists, and how they occupy two seats in the House (and Hindus occupy one)? Zilch, save Rev. William Barber’s speech, nominally calling out non-Abrahamic people of faith, and ‘those who have no faith but they love this nation’ (emphasis mine).
As I mentioned over three years ago in my first post on State of Formation, I was raised in an interfaith household. As a Quaker, now, I have found a way to comfortably straddle my Christian and Humanist upbringings. But this was difficult, especially in a nation where non-theists are a statistical minority, and with the surrounding waves of theonormative language prevailing against non-belief. Allow me, therefore, to speak personally when I say that the humanist in me was crying this past fortnight. With so many – nearly all – of the speeches ending in a supplication to a deity I only sometimes find myself believing in, where was I (and the other 22.8% of the population self-identifying as unaffiliated) to be represented these past two weeks? In snide jabs at opposing politicians?
The end results of these conventions are many. The RNC solidified its most conservative platform ever; the DNC secured its most progressive. But at what costs? Many members of the GOP are haranguing their own party, claiming that the DNC is taking their stances (and, by extension, constituents). Paraphrasing the Christian scriptures, no less, Clinton is trying to be ‘all things to all peoples‘ (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Where this, ironically, leads us is to a radically centrist form of populism. Despite being so polemic in their platforms, both parties are seeking to centralize their performances to reach the broadest base possible. It is troubling that such populism appears inextricably linked to theonormativity.
I would like to conclude with how we can broaden out. The most alarming similarity between the RNC’s frighteningly dystopian depiction of America and the DNC’s idealistically Pollyanna is this: American Exceptionalism. Trump’s ‘America First‘ is mirrored by Clinton’s extol of how great America is (and has always been). Any interested in democracy, particularly one edged on social justice and upending centuries of oppression, ought to shudder and cringe at such cries. Exceptionalism as a doctrine erases experience, and historicity, of marginalization. Exceptionalism reifies theonormativity. Exceptionalism is antithetical to pluralism.
Berger, Peter L. (1979). The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation (1 ed.). Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press.
–––––. (1999). The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Grand Rapids, MI: Ethics and Policy Center..
Eck, Diana. (2001). A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation. San Francisco, CA: Harper
Haney-López, Ian. (2015). Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. New York, NY: Oxford University Press
Kruse, Kevin. (2015). One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. New York, NY: Basic Books
Patel, Eboo. (2012). Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America. Boston, MA: Beacon Press