Tag Archives: Sociology of Religion

Invocatin’ Satan

The 2014 Supreme Court case Town of Greece v. Galloway is being used to permit Satanists to give invocations at public events. As this article explains, the case stands broadly for the proposition that invocations at public events such as town council meetings must be open to all faiths within the community, and the municipality cannot discriminate among them.

This being America, one person founded a “First Pompano Beach Church of Satan” and petitioned a number of towns to be included in the invocation list. Some have done away with invocation entirely to avoid having the Satanists there. Some have put him on a (long) waiting list but at least one is permitting him to speak. A self-described “minion of Satan,” the article describes his project as:

“Part political commentary, part performance art, Stevens’ “Satan or Silence Project” has presented 11 South Florida municipalities with some stark choices: Either drop the invocation that opens city commission meetings, or allow him, a self-described ‘minion of Satan,’ to lead a prayer to the prince of darkness.”

As a threshold matter, this may not even pass muster under Galloway, which was concerned about religious communities that actually existed within a political boundary being excluded.  Here the lack of a congregation or physical presence in some of the towns targeted might be enough to justify an exclusion.  But as silly as it may seem, this controversy raises some interesting questions about the connections between religion and society. From the article, the “church” seems more of a stunt than an actual belief system, and seems designed to criticize the notion of public prayer at all (the “minion” notes his invocations might “include beer, nachos and a mariachi band.”) But the case law is somewhat consistent that the sincerity of beliefs cannot be questioned by a court, though the evidence here seems pretty clear. But let’s assume he is a sincere believer in the Tempter.

Should the invocation nevertheless be allowed? That depends on what we want to get out of such an invocation. Christian invocations of this type typically ask for strength and wisdom in public deliberation, and guidance for judgment to do what is in the common good. But not all invocations would be appropriate – for example, an explicit call for unbelievers to convert. As the deputy mayor of Boca Raton says in the article, such invocations set “the proper tone” for deliberations. A mariachi band and an invocation to a being typically associated with deception and cruelty, would seem to be inappropriate.

An invocation then, is not merely ceremonial or rhetorical window dressing. An invocation, therefore, does have a civic purpose and municipalities may have a basis for distinguishing among the kinds of invocations they seek.


Rugh, “Christians in Egypt”

In November, Palgrave-MacMillan will release “Christians in Egypt: Strategies and Survival,” by Andrea B. Rugh (Middle East Institute, Washington, D.C.).  The publisher’s description follows:

Christians in the Middle East have come under increasing pressure in recent years with the rise of radical Islam. Nowhere is this truer than in Egypt, where the large Coptic Christian community has traditionally played an important role in the country’s history and politics. This book examines Christian responses to sectarian pressures in two contexts: nationally as Church leaders deal with Egyptian presidents and locally as a community of poor Christians cope in a mostly-Muslim quarter of Cairo. This intensive study, based on the author’s five years of research in Bulaq, looks at existential questions surrounding the role of religion in poor communities. The book concludes with a review of strategies Egyptian Christians have used to improve their minority status, showing that although expressed differently, both Church leaders and members of the Bulaq community ultimately have worked toward similar goals. The study suggests that under the al-Sisi Government, Christians may be emerging into a more active period after a relative quiescence before the events of the 2011 Uprising.

Covington-Ward, “Gesture and Power”

In December, Duke University Press will release “Gesture and Power: Religion, Nationalism, and Everyday Performance in Congo,” by Yolanda Covington-Ward (University of Pittsburgh).  The publisher’s description follows:

In Gesture and Power Yolanda Covington-Ward examines the everyday embodied practices and performances of the BisiKongo people of the Lower Congo to show how their gestures, dances, and spirituality are critical in mobilizing social and political action. Conceiving of the body as the center of analysis, a catalyst for social action, and as conduit for the social construction of reality, Covington-Ward focuses on specific flash points in the last ninety years of Congo’s troubled history, when embodied performance was used to stake political claims, foster dissent, and enforce power. In the 1920s Simon Kimbangu started a Christian prophetic movement based on spirit-induced trembling, which swept through the Lower Congo, subverting Belgian colonial authority. Following independence, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko required citizens to dance and sing nationalist songs daily as a means of maintaining political control. More recently, embodied performance has again stoked reform, as nationalist groups such as Bundu dia Kongo advocate for a return to precolonial religious practices and non-Western gestures such as traditional greetings. In exploring these embodied expressions of Congolese agency, Covington-Ward provides a framework for understanding how embodied practices transmit social values, identities, and cultural history throughout Africa and the diaspora.

Roberts, “Voodoo and Power”

In November, the Louisiana State University Press will release “Voodoo and Power: The Politics of Religion in New Orleans, 1881-1940,” by Kodi A. Roberts (Louisiana State University).  The publisher’s description follows:

The racialized and exoticized cult of Voodoo occupies a central place in the popular image of the Crescent City. But as Kodi A. Roberts argues in Voodoo and Power, the religion was not a monolithic tradition handed down from African ancestors to their American-born descendants. Instead, a much more complicated patchwork of influences created New Orleans Voodoo, allowing it to move across boundaries of race, class, and gender. By employing late nineteenth and early twentieth-century first-hand accounts of Voodoo practitioners and their rituals, Roberts provides a nuanced understanding of who practiced Voodoo and why.

Voodoo in New Orleans, a mélange of religion, entrepreneurship, and business networks, stretched across the color line in intriguing ways. Roberts’s analysis demonstrates that what united professional practitioners, or “workers,” with those who sought their services was not a racially uniform folk culture, but rather the power and influence that Voodoo promised. Recognizing that social immobility proved a common barrier for their patrons, workers claimed that their rituals could overcome racial and gendered disadvantages and create new opportunities for their clients.

Voodoo rituals and institutions also drew inspiration from the surrounding milieu, including the privations of the Great Depression, the city’s complex racial history, and the free-market economy. Money, employment, and business became central concerns for the religion’s practitioners: to validate their work, some began operating from recently organized “Spiritual Churches,” entities that were tax exempt and thus legitimate in the eyes of the state of Louisiana. Practitioners even leveraged local figures like the mythohistoric Marie Laveau for spiritual purposes and entrepreneurial gain. All the while, they contributed to the cultural legacy that fueled New Orleans’s tourist industry and drew visitors and their money to the Crescent City.

“Is God Back? Reconsidering the New Visibility of Religion” (Hjelm, ed.)

In July, Bloomsbury released “Is God Back? Reconsidering the New Visibility of Religion” edited by Titus Hjelm (University College London). The publisher’s description follows:

Is God Back? Reconsidering the New Visibility of Religion examines the shifting boundary between religion and the public sphere in Europe and the Middle East. Asking what the ‘new visibility of religion’ means and challenging simplistic notions of living in a ‘post-secular’ age, the chapters explore how religion is contested and renegotiated in the public sphere – or rather, in different publics – and the effects of these struggles on society, state and religion itself.

Whereas religion arguably never went away in the USA, the re-emergence of public religion is a European phenomenon. Is God Back? provides timely case studies from Europe, as well as extending to the Middle East, where fledgling democracies are struggling to create models of governance that stem from the European secular model, but which need to be able to accommodate a much more public form of religiosity. Discussions include the new visibility of neo-Pagan and Native Faith groups in Europe, Evangelical Christians and Church teaching on sexuality in the UK, and Islamic social Movements in the Arab world.

Drawing from empirical and theoretical research on religion and national identity, religion and media, church-state relationships, and religion and welfare, Is God Back? is a rich source for students and scholars interested in the changing face of public religion in the modern world, including those studying the sociology of religion, social policy, and theology.

“Mormonism and American Politics” (eds. Balmer and Riess)

In December, the Columbia University Press will release  “Mormonism and American Politics,” edited by Randall Balmer (Dartmouth College) and Jana Riess (formerly at Barnard College and Miami University).  The publisher’s description follows: 

When Joseph Smith ran for president as a radical protest candidate in 1844, Mormons were a deeply distrusted group in American society, and their efforts to enter public life were met with derision. When Mitt Romney ran for president as a Republican in 2008 and 2012, the public had come to regard Mormons as consummate Americans: patriotic, family-oriented, and conservative. How did this shift occur? 

In this collection, prominent scholars of Mormonism, including Claudia L. Bushman, Richard Lyman Bushman, Jan Shipps, and Philip L. Barlow, follow the religion’s quest for legitmacy in the United States and its intersection with American politics. From Brigham Young’s skirmishes with the federal government over polygamy to the Mormon involvement in California’s Proposition 8, contributors combine sociology, political science, race and gender studies, and popular culture to track Mormonism’s rapid integration into American life. The book takes a broad view of the religion’s history, considering its treatment of women and African Americans and its portrayal in popular culture and the media. With essays from both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars, this anthology tells a big-picture story of a small sect that became a major player in American politics.

Brinton, “Preaching Islamic Renewal”

In October, the University of California Press will release “Preaching Islamic Renewal: Religious Authority and Media in Contemporary Egypt,” by Jacquelene Brinton (University of Kansas). The publisher’s description follows:

Preaching Islamic Renewal examines the life and work of Muhammad Mitwalli Sha‘rawi, one of Egypt’s most beloved and successful Islamic  preachers. His wildly popular TV program aired every Friday for years until his death in 1998. At the height of his career, it was estimated that up to 30 million people tuned in to his show each week. Yet despite his pervasive and continued influence in Egypt and the wider Muslim world, Sha‘rawi was for a long time neglected by academics. While much of the academic literature that focuses on Islam in modern Egypt repeats the claim that traditionally trained Muslim scholars suffered the loss of religious authority, Sha‘rawi is instead an example of a well-trained Sunni scholar who became a national media sensation. As an advisor to the rulers of Egypt as well as the first Arab television preacher, he was one of the most important and controversial religious figures in late-twentieth-century Egypt. Thanks to the repurposing of his videos on television and on the Internet, Sha‘rawi’s performances are still regularly viewed. Jacquelene Brinton uses Sha‘rawi and his work as a lens to explore how traditional Muslim authorities have used various media to put forth a unique vision of how Islam can be renewed and revived in the contemporary world. Through his weekly television appearances he popularized long held theological and ethical beliefs and became a scholar-celebrity who impacted social and political life in Egypt.

Rupp, “Beyond Individualism: The Challenge of Inclusive Communities”

In September, Columbia University Press will release “Beyond Individualism: The Challenge of Inclusive Communities” by George Rupp (former president of Rice University, Columbia University, and the International Rescue Committee). The publisher’s description follows:

In many places around the world, relations between ethnic and religious groups that for long periods coexisted more or less amicably are now fraught with aggression and violence. This trend has profound international implications, threatening efforts to narrow the gap between rich and poor. Underscoring the need for sustained action, George Rupp urges the secular West to reckon with the continuing power of religious conviction and embrace the full extent of the world’s diversity.

While individualism is a powerful force in Western cultures and a cornerstone of Western foreign policy, it elicits strong resistance in traditional communities. Drawing on decades of research and experience, Rupp pushes modern individualism beyond its foundational beliefs to recognize the place of communal practice in our world. Affirming the value of communities and the productive role religion plays in many lives, he advocates new solutions to such global challenges as conflicts in the developing world, income inequality, climate change, and mass migration.


Choi, “A Postcolonial Self: Korean Immigrant Theology and Church”

In September, SUNY Press will release “A Postcolonial Self: Korean Immigrant Theology and Church” by  Choi Hee An (Boston University School of Theology). The publisher’s description follows:

Theologian Choi Hee An explores how Korean immigrants create a new, postcolonial identity in response to life in the United States. A Postcolonial Self begins with a discussion of a Korean ethnic self (“Woori” or “we”) and how it differs from Western norms. Choi then looks at the independent self, the theological debates over this concept, and the impact of racism, sexism, classism, and postcolonialism on the formation of this self. She concludes with a look at how Korean immigrants, especially immigrant women, cope with the transition to US culture, including prejudice and discrimination, and the role the Korean immigrant church plays in this. Choi posits that an emergent postcolonial self can be characterized as “I and We with Others.” In Korean immigrant theology and church, an extension of this can be characterized as “radical hospitality,” a concept that challenges both immigrants and American society to consider a new mutuality.

Kahan, “Tocqueville, Democracy, and Religion: Checks and Balances for Democratic Souls”

In August, Oxford University Press will release “Tocqueville, Democracy, and Religion: Checks and Balances for Democratic Souls” by Alan S. Kahan (University of Versailles/St. Quentin-en-Yvelines). The publisher’s description follows:

The relationship between democracy and religion is as important today as it was in Alexis de Tocqueville’s time. Tocqueville, Democracy, and Religion is a ground-breaking study of the views of the greatest theorist of democracy writing about one of today’s most crucial problems. Alan S. Kahan, one of today’s foremost Tocqueville scholars, shows how Tocqueville’s analysis of religion is simultaneously deeply rooted in his thoughts on nineteenth-century France and America and pertinent to us today.

Tocqueville thought that the role of religion was to provide checks and balances for democracy in the spiritual realm, just as secular forces should provide them in the political realm. He believed that in the long run secular checks and balances were dependent on the success of spiritual ones. Kahan examines how Tocqueville thought religion had succeeded in checking and balancing democracy in America, and failed in France, as well as observing Tocqueville’s less well-known analyses of religion in Ireland and England, and his perspective on Islam and Hinduism. He shows how Tocqueville’s ‘post-secular’ account of religion can help us come to terms with religion today.

More than a study of Tocqueville on religion in democratic society, this volume offers us a re-interpretation of Tocqueville as a moralist and a student of human nature in democratic society; a thinker whose new political science was in the service of a new moral science aimed at encouraging democratic people to attain greatness as human beings. Tocqueville, Democracy, and Religion gives us a new Tocqueville for the twenty-first century.