Religious Studies in the Time of Trumpism


When I heard Donald Trump’s speech on Monday I realized that Trump’s rhetoric presents the scholar of religion with a crossroads. Scholars of religion have to make a decision about how to engage Trumpism.

For example, take a look at three passages of Trump’s speech dealing with Muslims. First he talked about the dangers he perceived in Muslim immigration:

This could be a better, bigger, more horrible version than the legendary Trojan Horse ever was. Altogether, under the Clinton plan, you’d be admitting hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East with no system to vet them, or to prevent the radicalization of the children and their children. Not only their children, by the way, they’re trying to take over our children and convince them how wonderful ISIS is and how wonderful Islam is and we don’t know what’s happening.

A few minutes later he turned to Muslim communities now living in the U.S.:

But the Muslims have to work with us. They have to work with us. They know what’s going on. They know that he was bad. They knew the people in San Bernardino were bad. But you know what? They didn’t turn them in. And you know what? We had death, and destruction.

A minute later he went on:

We need to know what the killer discussed with his relatives, parents, friends and associates. We need to know if he was affiliated with any radical mosques or radical activists and what, if any, is their immigration status. We have to know, and we have to know fast. We need to know if he traveled anywhere and who he traveled with. We need to know, and we need to make sure, every single last person involved in this plan, including anyone who knew something but didn’t tell us, is brought to justice, so when people know what’s going on and they don’t tell us, and we have an attack, and people die, these people have to have consequences. Big consequences.

These characterizations of Muslims present the scholar of religion two options for how to respond. One would be to point out that the examples Trump outlines are not representative of “true Islam.” Such a response would draw on a long history of liberal humanism in the study of religion and essentialist understandings of what religion and various “religious traditions” or “world religions” are. “The vast majority of Muslims,” this response would say, “have nothing to do with ISIS and actually oppose their brand of Islam.” Such a response reminds one of George W. Bush’s famous “Islam is peace” speech after 9/11. Indeed, Trump goes out of his way to dismiss such a response in his speech:

I don’t know if you know this, but just a few weeks before San Bernardino, the slaughter, that’s all it was was a slaughter, Hillary Clinton explained her refusal to say the words “radical Islam.” Here is what she said, exact quote, “Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people, and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.” That is Hillary Clinton.

To follow this path of response, the scholar of religion stands as an expert on what religion or a certain religion, in this case Islam, really is. It’s an attractive response for a couple of reasons. First, it privileges the specialist knowledge the scholar has worked so long to attain. We know something! Second, it allows us to use that knowledge in a way that makes makes one feel quite good about oneself. We know stuff and we can use that stuff to help! The scholar of religion can use that amazingly satisfying phrase “well, actually…” “Well actually, you’re quite wrong about most Muslims. Let me tell you the truth…” The problem with this approach is that in telling everyone what Islam really is the scholar of religion has now jumped down into the fight over the true nature of Islam in a way that makes their knowledge claims just one more assertion among many in the contested field of social actors. The scholar of religion has become just another actor locked in the social battle for the real meaning of Islam–a social conflict that has been ongoing in different places and times since the very emergence of something called Islam amongst a community of people. Thus, the difference between the scholar of religion and Trump is one of knowledge not position.

But our position as scholars of religion–outside the argument, as analysts of the argument–is much more valuable than our specialized knowledge.

There is another option, however, that allows the scholar of religion to maintain this position and deploy her specialized knowledge. Rather than engaging in the argument over true Islam, the scholar of religion can pay attention to how identity, categorization, and power function in the discourse over Islam. Following this path, the scholar chooses to pay attention to how Trump sets up a dichotomy between “Muslims” and “us.” “They”–the Muslims–have to help “us” catch the bad Muslim-them. They are coming here. The scholar of religion would pay particular attention to the ways that religious identity–in this case Muslim identity–functions in Trump’s rhetoric to attempt to unite non-Muslim Americans over and against the so-called “radical” Muslim other. The scholar of religion would pay particular attention to the ways the category refugee and Muslim slip and slide into one another. Rather than trying to step in and provide the “more accurate” representation of Islam, the scholar of religion would step back and outline the rules of the game by which all representations of Islam are being deployed–by Trump, by his opponents, by self-identified Muslims. By not jumping into the fight as yet another voice offering the real Islam, the scholar of religion is able to survey the entire discursive field and provide insights into how the conflict is being fought out. The scholar’s position outside the din of conflicting claims about real Islam allows her to critique the din itself. The scholar’s specialized knowledge is not the things she knows about Islam but her ability to analyze group and individual identity formation, social conflict, and representation.

Some might argue that this second path shirks our political responsibility as scholars. They might say that we have a responsibility to make sure that people talk about religion accurately and that we must use our position as scholars to offer accurate representations of Islam. We bring people religious literacy. But I think that’s a short-sighted view of our political responsibility as scholars of religion. Our unique position as scholars of religion allows us a view of the discursive field swirling around religion–or Islam in this example–in a way that can be even more politically powerful. Politics is the process through which groups assert claims and identities. Politics is how the “us” and “them” is constructed. So, if we take the second path, if we turn our attention to identity, group formation, social conflict, and representation, we can make even more politically potent critiques.

Instead of arguing against the accuracy of Trump’s representation of Islam, the scholar of religion could point out the ways his speech separated people called Muslims from the rest of America. Likewise, the scholar of religion could highlight the ways his rhetoric about people called refugees uses images of contagion and purity to construct the impression of a dangerous and impure Other. The scholar of religion could then argue that the way Trump’s rhetoric connected immigration, “radical Islam,” and the Orlando shooting presented a message to his white nativist and nationalist supporters that their rejection of immigrants actually made them the protectors of LGBT people and bathed their anti-immigrant nationalism in a sense moral uprightness.

So, if a scholar of religion thinks that this sort of rhetoric is a threat to American politics bigger than mere partisan divides, then the best response might not be liberal humanist advocacy for the truth, but critical analysis of the discursive field within which such rhetoric operates.

In short, make religious studies critique again.


Vintage Beach ReadingSummer is finally starting to set in, and so we wanna know what you’re up to. Tweet at us and tell us what’s on your #SummerReading list.



#SummerReading from UA Religious Studies.

Out of My Reach?


I assume you’ve seen the discussion over the past month of so around the CV of failures — a movement among some academics to publicize, and thereby make apparent to others, a list of their failures, so as to dispel the myth of merit, i.e., that success just naturally comes to those who already have the goods. Continue reading

Lecture on Evolution & Religion

ALLELEOn March 31, Dr. William Lee McCorkle presented his research as part of the Alabama Lectures on Life’s Evolution (ALLELE) series, sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences. His lecture, titled “Religion, a Cultural Virus,” offered a crash-course on the academic study of religion and focused on the advantages of an evolutionary theory of religion, as well as highlighting his work at LEVYNA, the Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion, which he helped to establish.

Dr McCorkle was introduced by Professors Chris Lynn (Anthropology) and Eleanor Finnegan (Religious Studies).

If you missed the lecture, you can watch it below! Fair warning: the lights dim at about the ten minute mark so that the live audience could more easily read Dr. McCorkle’s slides.

Religion, a Cultural Virus with Dr. Lee McCorkle from UA Religious Studies.

If you want to learn more about interdisciplinary approaches to the study of evolution, then check out UA’s new Evolutionary Studies minor.


The Year That Was


Here are some highlights from the 2015-2016 academic year. Take a look!


2015-2016: The Year That Was from UA Religious Studies.

The 14th Annual Aronov Lecture

glaude blog postBack in March, Dr. Eddie Glaude, the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University (and incoming President of the American Academy of Religion [AAR]), presented his lecture, titled “Democracy in Black: The Value Gap,” as the Religious Studies Department’s 14th annual Aronov Lecture. (Learn more about this annual lecture series.)

Did you miss it?

Not to worry! You can follow the link below or watch it here.

Our thanks to Caity Walker and Jared Powell for filming and posting the lecture.

The 14th Annual Aronov Lecture: Dr. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. from UA Religious Studies.

Rethinking Public Religion


Lately I’ve been getting emails about a summer school on the topic of public religion — specifically, on “how different forms of religion and religiosity meander through social realities today.”

Like the problematic notion of material religion (critiqued here), the idea that religions can be either private and public is a troublesome one that we seem not to be able to get beyond. It’s a notion given significant steam about 20 years ago with the publication of the book pictured above; as described on the publisher’s site: Continue reading

Report from the Public Universities Chairs Workshop


Dr. Kevin Schilbrack (pictured above, right) is a professor of Religious Studies and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Appalachian State University. He was recently at the University of Alabama for the inaugural workshop for public university Religious Studies department chairs and offers the following report.

Like many other department chairs, I suspect, I became chair after years of teaching, writing, and generally being collegial – but I received little or no training on how to be a chair.   And the work as chair of a department of Religious Studies in a public university comes with its own particular set of issues.  What does the study of religions include when it is in a state-supported setting?  Where can we profitably collaborate with other disciplines?  And perhaps, above all, how can we recruit new students to the academic study of religions? To create a forum where department chairs could meet and work on questions like these, we came together for what we hope is the first annual workshop for chairs of departments of Religious Studies. Continue reading

The End is Here and Brings Big Things

relephanttextcitedThe semester is complete, and our seniors have walked across that stage. All semester I have had the privilege of working with the Capstone Senior Seminar, applying questions and ideas from our work to a broad range of topics and presenting them through various social media, from Twitter to Tumblr. Their final Digital Projects are now published, so you should take a look at the range of their creative approaches to expressing the significance of critical questions to many topics, from war to food to Yik Yak.

Think Again creatively presents different perspectives on an event, raising questions about history and memory.

Nothing: The Podcast discusses a variety of current events in the context of issues of identity and deconstruction, with a bit of humor thrown in.

A (re)Movable Feast considers the structures and social relations connected to food through a Tumblr blog.

#490Perspective is an Instagram project looking at how different people photograph an object and analyzing the issues that the different perspectives raise.

Classification in the Syrian Refugee Crisis is a video presentation that considers the significance and debate surrounding classification in the context of the crisis in Syria.

The Identity Project involves a series of blogposts on the question of social media (including Tinder, YikYak, and email) and their influence on how people construct and present their own identities.

Their blogposts and connections to the Twitter and Tumblr pages for the class over the course of the semester are all available through the course webpage. Thanks to the seminar students for all of their work and creative approaches to demonstrating a few of the ways their work is significant beyond what we commonly define as religion.

10 Things I Learned at the REL Film Studios


Russell McCutcheon wrote a post on this blog recently in which he talked about the history and development of our filmmaking ventures here at REL, and as a student worker heavily involved in producing the films, I felt the need to respond to his post. For about two years now I’ve been planning, directing, filming, and editing our department’s videos, with some help from Andie of course, and the process came with a bit of a learning curve. So now, as I pass my knowledge on to the next REL filmmaker, Caity Walker, I’ve assembled a “top 10” list of tips that I’ve learned over the years. Continue reading