Ted Cruz and the Last Acceptable Prejudice

CruzIDCMany people are talking about the confrontation Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) experienced at a speech at a conference hosted by a Washington D.C. organization, In Defense of Christians (IDC). The organization states that it is against the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians and is looking for support from a variety of constituencies. Cruz describes the incident as one where he left due to a vocal minority staging a “shameful display of bigotry and hatred.” In a press release, the IDC countered, “Senator Cruz chose to stand against the small and vocal minority of attendees who disagree with his views on Israel rather than standing with the vast majority of those who attended the gala and support both Israel and the Middle East’s Christians.”

All the news agencies carried coverage of the event. There were numerous takes, some outlets denouncing the IDC, others looking critically at the things Cruz said, and asking why he led with Israel when the event was about Christians? The American Conservative points out that it was in this shift from statements about Christian to ones about Israelis “that some in the audience objected to Cruz turning a celebration of Christian unity into a lecture on a divisive subject that many in the crowd experienced as part of their everyday lives. Cruz returned accusations of hatred.”

It might seem strange that at an event discussing Christianity Cruz would choose to speak about Israel. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry suggests that it is not strange at all. He speculates that the shift is due to Cruz’s conflicted feelings on Middle Eastern Christian. He writes:

This is speculation, but perhaps Cruz, who is a Southern Baptist and whose father is a fundamentalist Baptist preacher, was subtly pandering to a segment of fundamentalist Christians who do not believe that Middle East Christians are “real” Christians. To a serious undercurrent of American Fundamentalism, the Catholic Church is the Antichrist that has been oppressing the “true” Church for millennia, and anything that looks vaguely Catholic, with ordained priests and ornate liturgies, is equally evil.

LastAcceptableCoverI don’t know if Gombry is right about Cruz’s motivation, but I know he is right about the prominence of Anti-Catholic sentiment within fundamentalist Protestantism. At the beginning of each semester when I teach either a world religion or American religious history course, I have to cover a topic that often passes uncommented in the religious discourse of America. This is the inherent anti-Catholic rhetoric by which many Protestants create identity and boundaries. Indeed, Mark S. Massa, S.J. calls anti-Catholicism the “last acceptable prejudice” in America. I would add that it is not just against Catholics, it also extends to Orthodox and non-evangelical Protestant Christians, although the rhetoric against these forms of of Christainity are less common. My classes are usually a mix of Protestant, Catholics, and Jews (que Will Herberg), with an occasional Orthodox Christian, Muslim, atheist, agnostic, and others. I know this because the students quite frequently identify their faith backgrounds in our classroom conversations. I live in North Florida and it has a demographic closer to southern Georgia than the rest of Florida. Thus a large majority of the Protestants in the class come from a Southern Baptist or evangelical Protestant backgrounds, ones in which the kinds of discussion I lead are rarely had. Within the first few classes we address how religions change over time, how religious differences are negotiated, the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive, and how syncretism changes religious traditions over time. This is all standard religious studies discourse of the most basic order.

Invariably, in this conversation, a student will bring up such statements as “Christmas is pagan,” or “the Catholic mass is magic.” It is at this point that I explain to them how such statements are not fact, but anti-Catholic rhetoric used by Protestants to delegitimize Catholicism and legitimize Protestantism. I explain how the term Protestant comes from the word, protest, and that what is being protested is Catholicism. When I explain the origins of things such as Christmas and practices associated with it, they get first had examples of syncretism. I also use the example of the Eucharist ceremony. The last super is described by at least some of the Gospels as a Passover meal. I ask the students, does this mean that the Eucharist ceremony is Jewish? Of course not. Christians adopted the practice and changed it radically when incorporating it within the tradition. At the end of the conversation, students often begin to see the differences better, and understand that they have to be more sensitive to the implicit messages their statements convey. By highlighting the history of both Protestants and Catholics, they begin to understand how statements they took for granted could be rooted in prejudice and have a better appreciation of why knowing historical interactions is important.

In looking at the statements of Cruz, it is clear they demonstrate a lack of understanding for the complex history of Christianity in the Middle East. His unilateral support of Israel is well known. What was surprising was his decision to lead with it, ignoring the history and experiences of the Christians before him. As Gobry correctly points out, in the end Cruz decided to stand with Israel and not the Christians to which he came to speak. Whether he considers the attendees as Christians is up for debate. What is not, however, is that he used support of Israel and Jews as a benchmark for whether someone is a Christian or not. He said, “Those who hate Israel hate America. Those who hate Jews hate Christians.” Such simplistic statements get nowhere in my classroom where they are exposed as untrue, unhistorical, and narrow-minded. It is unfortunate that such statements come from a U.S. Senator. It dismisses the history and experiences of many Americans and sets a very poor example for the youth of this nation.

Theosophical Ecumenism & the Naarden Declaration

ITC logoIn 1958, F. Pierce Spinks published an appeal to theosophists throughout the world. In a volume entitled, Theosophists: Reunite!, Spinks called for the reunification of worldwide theosophy into a reunified Theosophical Society. He wrote, “In the beginning Theosophists were united. I could not free myself of the thought: it burned itself into my very being. Why could we not enjoy this same unity once more? Why should a Movement having such eminent sponsorship be so sadly divided into groups refusing to cooperate with each other despite similarity of aims?” The reasons the various theosophical organization could not reunite were numerous, tied to individual personalities, long histories of conflict, and significant differences of opinion with regard to what is theosophy, how it should unfold, and who should shepherd its development.

Resentment between groups runs deep. Over the years I have found that differences originating decades and generations ago have been inherited and strengthened in the current generations. As each theosophical organization has matured the possibility of it being subsumed into another organization and under some other leadership becomes less likely. Yet, one of the core principles, established early on in theosophy, was universal brotherhood—unity. Spinks’ call for unity was founded on theosophical teachings.  In addition to Spinks, there have been others who have made repeated calls to unify theosophy in one organization. All have failed.

More recently, a different approach has emerged, one that seems to be more successful. In 2008, building on a decade old tradition of local and regional theosophical conferences, a new organization developed: International Theosophy Conferences (ITC). Since 2008, the ITC has been able to slowly build support from a variety of theosophical organizations and members. As it has continued to demonstrate an ethos of ecumenism, more and more people have begun to support the effort, and more and more organizations have committed support. The most recent conference was hosted in August 2014, at the International Theosophical Centre in Naarden, Netherlands, a theosophical center dedicated to the principles of Universal Brotherhood and Peace. Present were numerous representatives from a variety of theosophical organizations including the Theosophical Society headquartered in Adyar, India, the Theosophical Society formally based in Point Loma, California, and the United Lodge of Theosophists, as well as others from smaller groups, and independent theosophists. The theme of the conference was “Theosophy, Unity and Helping the World ….where do we go from here?”

At the conference, there was an effort to articulate a vision of unity. Unlike Spinks who envisioned a united theosophy as constituting a single organization, the current thinking about unity is directed toward uniting in cooperation under the common foundation of Madam Blavatsky. Like Abraham is the point from which all Abrahamic religions claim origination, Blavatsky is the one theosophical leader all theosophists can accept and rally around. The whole declaration reads as follows:

The International Theosophy Conferences 2014, Naarden Declaration
Having respect for the diversity and freedom of the various Theosophical streams, we will endeavor to act as a Beacon of Light for bringing Theosophy in accordance with* the teachings of H. P. Blavatsky and her Masters to the world. In an undogmatic manner and through harmonious cooperation we will strengthen the Theosophical Movement for the benefit of humanity.

In the spirit of unity and brotherhood, we endeavour to make Theosophy a living power in the world.

We commit ourselves through learning, training and cross-pollination to popularize and keep the teachings alive for future generations.

Spinks ended his appeal for unity stating, “Non-cooperation and disunity mean disintegration and death. Unification and harmony mean growth and vital expansion beyond your fondest dreams.” Perhaps the Naarden Declaration is not what Spinks argued for in practice, but perhaps it begins to approach it in spirit. Moreover, the declaration seems to recognize that the theosophical movement is under pressure; not only by its own internal principles, but also by pressures arising out of its shrinking membership base, the aging of that base, the diminishing resources available to theosophists worldwide, and the reluctance of subsequent generations to join and support the various theosophical organizations. Joining forces and combining resources to maintain a theosophical presence may be the only option going forward for the various organizations.  Nevertheless, the declaration is an important milestone for theosophists. What remains to be seen is “where they go from here.”

Satanism and Scholars of American Religion

[This blog post was originally posted to the Religion in American History blog on July 30, 2014.]

This week the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision has brought Satanism into the national conversation, again. Satanism has been in the news repeatedly over the last year for a variety of reasons. Looking at the news coverage has allowed me to identify something I have been struggling to articulate. This something is a problem I have noticed in the field of religious studies, one that is specifically American. To explain this, I must make a brief digression. I earned my master’s degree in Europe and this has afforded me the opportunity to look at the differences between the ways certain religious subjects are engaged in continental religious studies versus American. After years of observation and discussion with a variety of colleagues I have come to the conclusion that, in general, American religious studies scholars struggle to engage with the religious tradition of Satanism. When I write Satanism, I mean a large variety of religious phenomena including religious Satanism, Satanism as articulated by Christians, and Satanism as constructed and represented by the media. Recognizing that there is a difference is one of the issues that rarely gets highlighted in any discussion about Satanism. The point, regardless of the type of Satanism, is that scholars of religion rarely examine the history, cultural role, or the way Satanism is practiced in the contemporary religious marketplace of America. Because of this they are ill equipped to address the tradition when issues arise in public debate, such as the recent Satanic Temple press release.

Just to be clear, I am not really interested in Satanism itself. I am interested in the way people, in particular religious studies scholars, conceive of the tradition, study it, talk about it, or more often, ignore it. For instance, after the Hobby Lobby decision, numerous media, blogs, and news reports consulted scholars of religion for a variety of perspectives. This week’s coverage of the Satanic Temple’s press release about religious freedom has resulted in many news reports too. And while there are plenty of legal professionals who are quoted in the reports, I have yet to see one include anything from a scholar of religion. When Christians are involved, scholars of religion have a lot to say. When Satanists are involved? Silence.

Satanism is treated differently by both academics and the public at large. This point was made apparent to me a few semesters ago when a couple of my colleagues asked me to give a one day lesson on religious Satanism as part of their world religions courses. I kept the history brief, focusing mostly on institutional Satanism, looking at the atheistic Church of Satan and the theistic Temple of Set. At the end, I also talked about the ways Satanism is constructed by Christian churches and the way this construction is projected upon Satanists. To illustrate the point, I showed a portion of an interview between Bob Larson, Zeena Schreck, daughter of the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, and her husband, Nicholas Schreck, founder of a satanic school of magic called The Werewolf Order. The interview can be seen here on YouTube. What becomes apparent in the interview is that Larson’s conception of Satanism is quite divergent from the kind of Satanism that the Schrecks articulate. Numerous times Larson says what Satanists can and cannot do based on what he imagines are the rules by which Satanists live and practice. He says in satanic weddings, brides cannot wear white to which the Schrecks reply, why not? Larson claims that all Satanist believe something because it is in The Satanic Bible to which the Schrecks reply, it does not matter what it says in the book, and Satanists can do and believe what they want. Larson uses his understanding of Christianity as the basis of his approach to Satanism and he is repeatedly shown to be in error. Larson is not unlike many who approach Satanism, whether they are in the media, law enforcement, or scholars of religion. The way Satanism has been portrayed by Christianity colors the narrative, regardless of what the facts demonstrate. There are significant differences between the various kinds of Satanism but there is a scarcity of American religious studies scholars who can or will engage in any public discussion about these differences, a task that they frequently perform for other religions.

Another problem with the studying of Satanism in American religious studies is illustrated by the response my colleagues and I received after I finished the lessons. I saved some time for a Q&A and one of the first questions I received from a student was, “why do you know so much about Satanism?” To this day I have taught world religions over a dozen times, presenting myriads traditions. Never once have I been asked why I knew so much about Buddhism, or Hinduism, or Islam, or Zoroastrianism. But a single class on the history of religious Satanism raised suspicion about me and the motives for knowing about Satanism and teaching the class. Later one instructor told me that the class accused her of trying to convert them to Satanism by inviting me to give the lesson to them. Why is it that Satanism evokes such suspicion? I’d like to say that these students are unique, but they are not and their sentiment is easily found in the field of religious studies. I have had a number of conversations with people who were either directly advised not to study Satanism academically, or chose not to because of indirect pressure from those in the field. The reality of this is illustrated by the location of the prominent scholars on Satanism in the field of religious studies. None of them are in America. They are all in Europe. If we look at Oxford’s recent volume, The Devil’s Party: Satanism in Modernity, of the twelve scholars, only one teaches in America, Eugene V. Gallagher, a prominent scholar of New Religious Movements. The rest are from or teach in Northern Europe, mostly Scandinavian countries. While a number of the scholars in the book examine Satanism in a European context, seven of the essays look at aspects of American Satanism, many focusing specifically on the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey. Why is it that European scholars of religion have more to say about religious Satanism, a religious tradition that emerged in America, than American scholars of religion?

In particular to the Hobby Lobby essays this week, I want to highlight The Atlantic’s essay because it demonstrates the differences in the way Satanism is approached by the media. After explaining the press release and its meaning, the essay begins to question whether the Satanic Temple is really Satanic. Emma Green, the author, notes that the founder of the Satanic Temple “isn’t actually much into Satan worship” and thus she questions his sincerity. The essay ends claiming that the juxtaposition of the beliefs of Satanists, correction, “alleged Satanists” against those of Evangelical Christians is “farcical.” While the essay cites multiple legal scholars, nowhere does Green cite a specialist on Satanism or any scholar of religion. Why would she? Clearly she knows what real Satanism is, and what real Satanists look like. The fact that the original Church of Satan was atheist, like the Satanic Temple, and that they did not believe in a real supernatural being called Satan, and that their rituals were both cultural satire and political criticism, like this week’s Satanic Temple press release, is ignored. Perhaps if Ms. Green consulted a scholar of religion, she might have found out that the Satanic Temple is acting a lot like the Church of Satan did fifty years ago. But she did not consult a scholar of religion. She, like Bob Larson, assumed she knew what Satanism was and thus was capable of making her determinations about who is a sincere Satanist and who is only an alleged one. Would she have done this if the subjects were Christian, Muslim, or Jewish?

The separate treatment of Satanism becomes most evident in the reaction by the media and scholars to the recently announced and then canceled black mass, which was to be hosted by the Harvard extension school. The black mass has a complex history that goes back allegedly for centuries. To follow-up on the success of The Satanic Bible, Anton LaVey released The Satanic Rituals in 1972. It contained a series of rites and ceremonies, the most central was a version of the black mass called “Le Messe Noir.” The LaVey mass is constructed, like most black masses, to insult and parody versions of the Christian, particularly Catholic, Eucharist ceremony. What is important about this event is that while Drew Faust, the President of Harvard, upheld the value of free speech and public debate regarding its performance, she dismissed the mass itself, calling it “abhorrent” and “denigrating the Catholic Church” and “highly offensive to many in the Church and beyond.” In contrast, however, we do not see Dr. Faust denouncing other religions, such as Protestant Christianity, who denigrate the Catholic Church, calling its transubstantiation claims magic and its celebration of Christmas as pagan, claims that have existed for centuries and which the Catholic Church finds offensive. Why are Satanic insults “abhorrent” but not Protestants insults? Harvard hosts the Pluralism Project, a project “to consider the real challenges and opportunities of a public commitment to pluralism in the light of the new religious contours of America.” Shouldn’t the black mass be accorded the same religious consideration as other religious ceremonies highlighted by the Pluralism Project? Diana Eck, in her book, A New Religious America, writes of a new vision of American pluralism, one in which myriad traditions co-exist and how the stories of different religious traditions are the story of America. Is Satanism, its history and its story, part of that vision? Why do Satanists lack a seat at the table of Harvard’s Pluralism Project?

The answer to all of this is that scholars of religion in America are deeply ambivalent about Satanism, and much of this ambivalence comes from the field’s theological history and the theological commitments of its members. American scholars of religion are frequently uninformed about religious Satanism, and more importantly, due to a variety of reasons, mostly theological, do not consider Satanism a “real” religion or a religion worth study. Satanism shares many of the same problems as the traditions in the field of New Religious Studies. However, it has the added burden that, unlike other traditions studied and engaged by the field of NRM, Satanism rarely has anyone clarifying and educating about its historical background or place in American religious practice. Our field repeatedly attempts to portray itself as secular and independent of theology, particularly Christian theology. But the ambivalence about Satanism brings into focus the ways in which theology still shapes the field of religious studies, especially in America. Ultimately we need to ask ourselves. Are we theologians or are we social scientists? Sadly, when the topic is Satanism, the field, as a whole in America, looks more like the former than the latter.