Katrina Gulliver (@katrinagulliver), the founder of #twitterstorians, marked the second anniversary of the group today. And I wanted to pass along birthday wishes too. I am exceptionally late to the Twitter party, even later to twitterstorians, since I only joined Twitter a mere (couple of) months ago. My social media runs more Facebook, but I was intrigued at using twitter as a way to more publicly connect with other scholars as well as drum up attention for Gospel According to the Klan. Putting my bad habits of self-promotion aside, Twitter is a fascinating venue to connect with not only fellow American religious historians but also other cultural, American, and public historians too. Post a question, get a tweeted reply. I get quick analyses of news stories as well as fellow twitterstorians sending me links to my current research interests.
Just last week Stetson Kennedy, the famed Klan unmasker and Civil Rights activist, died. How did I hear about during my weekend? Not on the news, not even on Facebook (until a little later), but rather through a fellow twitterstorian. Chris Cantwell (@cdc29) tweeted it to me. While I was hesitant about the prospect of microblogging, I am slowly incorporating Twitter as scholarly praxis. I can’t wait to see how I feel on twitterstorians’ birthday next year
This summer, I decided to test out some of my new research interests in the paranormal, monsters, horror, and religion on my poor-unsuspecting-can’t-I-just-graduate-already? students. We read Joseph Laycock’s “The Folk Piety of William Peter Blatty: The Exorcist in the Context of Secularization” to discuss how an artifact of popular culture emerged as folk religion/piety. Laycock smartly uses the reaction to the film by movie-goers, the press, and religious movements and individuals to problematize narratives of secularization. He poses the question: Why there is a supernatural turn at the supposed height of secularization theory? What follows then is a profile of Blatty, the reception of the film, and discussions about the American practice of exorcism. Laycock documents the “very conscious fear of demons and the supernatural” (5) that emerges as well as the increasing interest/belief in the paranormal.
Much like other works on religion and horror, Laycock attempts to get to the root of cultural fear and the fervent belief in the paranormal. Why do Americans purport belief in ghosts, demons, and other supernatural agents? What does our research look like if we apply Robert Orsi’s “abundant empiricism” to this supernaturalism? Or apply Orsi’s critique of religion-as-belief to the studies of the paranormal? How are Americans enacting, embodying, and engaging the paranormal?
While the students were reading about The Exorcist, I was reading sociologist Michael Cuneo’s American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty (2001). Though this book is now a decade old, the interest in exorcism might not be as obvious, but lurks still in American culture. Cuneo’s fascinating book examines the origins of American exorcisms in the 1970s and the increase in popularity of the practice after the release of The Exorcist. He interviews Catholic exorcists, Protestant deliverance ministries, and lay exorcists, and he attends deliverance services in which demons of lust, procrastination, and pride are expelled. Moreover, Cuneo aptly assesses the romanticization of the priest/exorcist as hero in both the religious and popular imagination. In film and pulpy fiction, priests save the day by taxing their bodies and souls in attempts to rid people of demons. The masculine hero might even sacrifice himself to save a poor demon possessed girl. While I was reading I pondered the fascination with demons, the unsatisfying nature of Cuneo’s (among others) “the devil made me do it” defense. American Exorcism was at its best in the heady descriptions of deliverance services and in the interviews with practicing exorcists. The cacophony of possessed souls screaming curses and moaning, the physicality of possession with (high) arching bodies and contortion, and the often calm assurance of those who battled with demons make for a rich tale of what deliverance and exorcism *feel* like. The fluidity of possessed and deliverer becomes apparent too: sometimes one must deliver others from demons, and sometimes one must be delivered. The possessed gnash, moan, and writhe on the floor, and then, get up and calmly deliver others. The change-up signals the fluidity of roles as well as a clear understanding possession is not a static state of being.
For me, Cuneo as interlocutor proved to be an interesting commentary on ethnographic practice and the relationship one has with subjects. Clearly, some of Cuneo’s conversants wanted him to be delivered/exorcised too. Observation was not enough for them; they craved his participation as legitimacy of their action. To participate would signal the reality of possession, and his refusal unnerved some. In his descriptions of the services and his role as observer, it is clear the complexity of the scholar’s position. The question that Cuneo doesn’t answer purposefully is the question of authenticity: Are demons “real”? Do demonic forces exist? Cuneo admits that this question is the one he encounters the most, and it is a strategic move to not answer the question of whether possession or demons are *real* but rather to report the reality of demons for the possessed, the deliverance ministries, and the exorcists. Rather than debunk the presence of supernatural, this interlocutor attempts to document this extraordinary religious expression. These are clearly “abundant events”; social networks and relationships abound. Exorcism is surely real.
A larger question lingers: Why do demons become popular and present in a period of wealth and so-called secularization in the U.S.? Cuneo wonders about the presence of demons in suburbia and the practice of deliverance and exorcism among middle class white Protestants and Catholics. Much of the book is an attempt to showcase how mainstream this supernaturalism is by emphasizing who expels demons and who wants to be exorcised/delivered. Cuneo describes polo shirts, khakis, twin sets, understated jewelry, good purses and loafers that leader and members of these ministries wear. Their hair is coiffed and maintained. They are generally polite, when not demon possessed. They work at banks and in schools. They are white collar and firmly middle class.
At first, I nodded accordingly as any good reader should, but as I continued to read I wondered how class status becomes configured as a legitimator of religious experience. Are demons less real when the working class reports them? Is skepticism acceptable when the lower classes, the impoverished, report the supernatural? Why does class status authenticate demons (or not)? This seems to reflect earlier trends in religious studies scholarship, deprivation theories and familiar class stereotypes attached to religious adherence, that Sean McCloud aptly documents in Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religions & Religious Studies (2007), which I blogged on long, long ago. McCloud notes, “Those who wield less social, cultural, and economic power usually also have less control over how they are represented. Historically, working-class and minority groups and individuals have been imagined in ways that satisfied the desires and fantasies of dominant classes” (21). Religious movements of these groups, then, faced derision, skepticism, and critique both because of class status but also because of the class sentiments/stereotypes of the scholars discussing them. While reading American Exorcism, it became clear that there was something at stake in showcasing the mainstream nature of exorcism/deliverance and its deep atttachments to the American middle class. Documenting the middle class presence in exorcism functions to legitimate its presence and practice. Of course, the question of authenticity doesn’t matter because (white) middle class Americans are involved. Favored class status authenticates, and thus exorcism is real because of its class status.
Tonight (August 19th), I will be on the Dr. Howard Gluss radio show discussing the modern Ku Klux Klan, extremism, and the forthcoming Gospel According to the Klan. And the illustrious Paul Harvey, blogmeister of the Religion in American History blog, will follow suit in the second segment of the show discussing religion, politics, and Christian dominionism.
Live streaming is available at KFNX1100AM. My segment is at 8 pm PST and Paul is on at 8:30 pm PST.
At the end of June, the Huffington Post’s Tim Suttle queried “Why are evangelicals losing influence?” This claim of decline emerged from a Pew Research Center survey of evangelical leaders globally, in which 82% claimed that evangelicals were losing influence over culture. The blame, of course, landed firmly on the “rising tide of secularism.” Suttle disagrees with the causation, and instead he notes, “If evangelical influence is nose-diving we have no one to blame but ourselves.” The jeremiad of declension remains alive, well, and likely weary, and it seems fly in the face of presence of evangelicals in American culture. Is evangelicalism on the decline? Or it this a method to chastise evangelicals into action as well as reflection?
Declension and its sister narrative secularization ebb and flow in public discourse and historiography with assertions in both that this moment (“no, not that one!”) is certainly a moment of decline. The crucial time when religion might not be present in public life but rather avoidable, contained, and private. Declension narratives seem to hinge on the abject hope that certain religious voices will lose presence and popularity (the question of which voices becomes very, very important). Religion is in decline, isn’t it? What is meant exactly by religion generally seems to be an association with mainline Christianity. As one might imagine, I am not terribly interested in mapping out this statistically (though the statistics are alluring). Yet the fervor that emerges anytime new survey data suggests decline is a different story. Just this morning, a group of my summer students presented the recent findings of Barna Group study of religious change to discuss the religious character of the American nation. The study reports that 40% of all adults in the U.S. fit the moniker “born again”, which is not a self-identification by survey respondents, but rather Barna’s label. Does this data suggest decline?
While reading Suttle’s article on declining evangelicals, I couldn’t help but wonder how political figures like Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann trouble this self-reported decline.Perry, after all, hosted “The Response” this weekend, and Rolling Stone imaged Bachmann as a Christian crusader (Janine already covered this here). The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza profiled Bachmann’s religious roots. Religion Dispatches’ Sarah Posner puts Perry and Bachmann head to head in a discussion of who would win the conservative Christian vote.