Findings & Footnotes May 2017

  • The current issue of the journal Religion and American Culture (Winter, 2017) features a 53-page section on “Studying Religion in the Age of Trump,” bringing together a wide range of prominent scholars to weigh in on this contested topic. Judging by the contributions, the election of Donald Trump has upset the theories and paradigms held by many scholars for understanding religion and politics in general and the Religious Right in particular. Historian Anthea Butler captures the tone and sentiment of many, writing, “The election of Donald Trump to the presidency has destroyed my thinking about evangelicals and political action and has given credence to what I knew in my gut: that our definition of `evangelical’ whether based in beliefs, politics, or behavior was wrong. …we will need basically to scrap what we think we know about the `culture wars’ and deal with another trajectory altogether, one that takes seriously that the term `Religious Right’ not only includes white evangelicals, but whites who come out of these other iterations of Pentecostal-like movements, including prosperity gospel. We will have to take seriously the issue of race and racism at the core of how evangelicalism is constructed….”

    Several articles take note of the prosperity gospel—whether in Trump’s own biography or in the circle of charismatic preachers that supported him during his campaign—and how the movement may have political implications that have been understudied. Northwestern University’s Robert Orsi provides a provocative essay on white working-class Catholics and how reactions to Trump revealed long-simmering cleavages within parishes and families and between genders and generations. He adds that as a catalyzing figure, Trump brought to the surface the “hidden injuries” of the Catholic working class, including its “religious damages,” where, after Vatican II, “decisions about how they would pray…what they could and could not do in church, and whether there would be a statue of the Blessed Mother for them to address their petitions were all made by newly empowered middle-class and upper-class lay elites in alliance with priests who would rather associate with prosperous rather than working-class parishioners.” Other contributions focus on the “Alt-Right” and its religious diversity (including Neo-Pagans) and how immigration has become a new point of conflict among American religious groups. For more information on this issue, visit:

  • The complex relationship between Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam in Russia is the theme of the current issue of the journal Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (28:2). The articles in this issue don’t so much look at official relations between the two religions in the form of joint statements from leaders of organizations and interfaith efforts as much as the informal culture and networks of intellectuals, politicians, clerics, mosques, and churches that overlap and often conflict in contemporary Russia. The editors note that even with the important differences in size (Russian Orthodoxy embraces some 150 million believers; Islam reaches just about 20 million) and shape (a unitary Russian Orthodox church, versus Islam that is fragmented into 70 local, regional, and national organizations often in competition with each other), there is considerable interaction and even some conversions taking place between these traditions. Islam is designated a “traditional” religion by Russia, but several articles discuss how this status limits and delineates the religion, leading to an entrepreneurial approach among Muslims. Noteworthy articles include a look at how Islam is being “Russified” in culture and language and studies of different conversion movements of both Orthodox and Muslims, even though the state officially discourages proselytism between the religions.  Another article shows how a group of “Islam-critical journalists” has sought to rally the Russian Orthodox Church to target and denounce official and independent Muslim authorities as adherents of “Wahhabism,” which is a strict, Saudi-based form of the faith. For more on this issue, visit:

  • Don Lattin’s new book Changing Our Minds: Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy (Synergetic Press, $23.95) documents the new wave of users experimenting with mind-altering substances, such as LSD, Ecstasy, and ayahuasca, and the role these substances are playing in psychology and spirituality. Fifty years after the “summer of love” when psychedelics first became popularized, the scientists, mystics, and seekers are rehabilitating experimentation and research of these drugs, hoping to tame the excesses that surrounded them in the 1960s and 1970s. Lattin visits labs and talks with scientists on the cutting edge of research about the use of psychoactive substances to treat depression and other mental illnesses, as well as the increasing number of practitioners treating patients, sometimes in underground clinics (due to these drugs’ illegality). People are also using psychedelics as a “dress rehearsal for death,” in some cases actually taking them while in the dying process. Many users—especially cancer patients—report that their fear of death is alleviated, which often leads to spiritual experiences or interest regarding the possibilities of life after death. Lattin fleshes out the story with interesting accounts of people’s experiences with these substances and his attempt to find an alternative method of treatment for his own depression.

    Although sympathetic to the new psychedelic turn, Lattin reports fairly on this emergent and divided subculture split between hedonists, scientific rationalists, and spiritualists. Especially interesting is his in-depth look at the spiritual entrepreneurs who are trying to usher in this revolution, pending the drugs’ legalization and legitimization—if psychedelics follow the trajectory of marijuana’s growing acceptance.  It’s noteworthy that such psychedelic-spiritual seekers and promoters—and Lattin himself—rarely use the term “hallucinogenic” to describe these substances; they consider these experiences as spiritually real. Such proponents support a theory of the mind that views these substances as allowing one’s brain and consciousness to experience, or tune in (like with an antenna) to, spiritual forces. There is also considerable therapeutic influence in psychedelic spirituality, with guides and counselors typically helping to process and interpret the user’s spiritual experience. Aspects of Eastern religions are most often linked with psychedelic spirituality, although Latin American shamanism has grown in popularity thanks to the growing use and promotion of ayahuasca. Lattin reports that researchers still find it difficult to find Christian or Jewish clergy to volunteer for psychedelic drug trials (like they did in the first phase of drug trials 50 years ago); when pioneering psychedelic researcher and spiritual teacher Rick Strassman moved from incorporating Hindu and Buddhist teachings to using the Hebrew Bible, he met resistance and protests that it is “too religious.”

  • Drawn to the Gods (NYU Press, $28), by sociologist David Feltmate, focuses on animated pop culture to weigh in on big questions like the place of religion in public life and the nature and roles of religious satire and religious illiteracy in the U.S. Feltmate analyzes the popular and long-running animated shows South Park, Family Guy, and The Simpsons, where, respectively, 78 percent, 84 percent, and 95 percent of episodes contain explicit references to religion. But unlike other analysts and critics, Feltmate doesn’t view these shows as equal-opportunity offenders or satirists of religions but rather argues that they operate from their own “sacred centers” or quasi-religious worldviews that support some faiths and condemn others. Institutional religion and its supposed hypocrisy and non-progressive views of life is an obvious target of these shows, using what the author calls “ignorant familiarity” (appealing to the audiences’ basic illiteracy based on a common stock of knowledge) to find wide appeal. While spirituality receives less satirical treatment, religions tend to be judged harshly in each show according to different criteria; The Simpsons upholds a spiritual individualism guided by ethics and scientific rationality, while South Park venerates the free and creative individual, and in Family Guy an “anti-religious orthodoxy” is firmly in place.

    “American Christianity” broadly understood (or misunderstood) preoccupies the attention of these shows’ writers and producers, as they portray churches, clergy, and their members as irrelevant and backward in their views on morality and everyday life. Evangelical Christianity is particularly mocked—personified by the character of Ned Flanders in The Simpsons, though the other two shows use outright sacrilege and blasphemy to make their points. Feltmate concludes that the superficial and stereotypical portrayals of religion in these shows pose risk in pluralistic America. In the end, both the religions satirized and the shows’ creators are involved in “religious work” as they seek to promote their very different ideas of the sacred. He concludes that religious satire can perform a civic function if both parties acknowledge their own sacred visons and engage in intelligent criticism based on a common humanity.

  • Starting as a local healer in Brazil, John of God (João de Deus, b. João Teixeira de Faria in 1942) has become an international star. This medium healer attracts many people from the West to Abadîania, a town of 17,000 inhabitants in the southwestern Brazilian state of Goiás. John of God has also travelled abroad since the 2000s. Cristina Rocha (Western Sydney University) has been researching his followers for ten years and has now written what is the first ethnographic account of this international movement, John of God: The Globalization of Brazilian Faith Healing (Oxford University Press, $29.95). Raised in poverty with little school training and a tailor by profession, John of God is reported to have become aware of his healing power by the age of 16. He is said to incorporate “The Entity” (actually various entities, one spirit at a time). The healing is conducted either invisibly or by visible operations: “They may have their skin cut with a scalpel, have their eyes scraped with a kitchen knife, or have surgical scissors inserted into their nostrils,” all “without asepsis or anesthetics,” reportedly without pain or infections. The Entity is supposed to be able to see their energy fields and past lives.

    Neither John of God nor The Entity offers teachings, Rocha notes, but visitors tend to be familiar with New Age worldviews as diffused today in popular culture. Some of the visitors are also followers of Indian gurus or other teachings. Not unlike those of many other Brazilians, John of God’s beliefs are syncretic. He claims to have a universal approach and not to preach any religion, but the background reveals Catholic (healing sessions start with Catholic prayers), Kardecist Spiritist, and Umbandist (a mix of Spiritism and Afro-Brazilian religions) features. Kardecist Spiritism (i.e. French Spiritism as codified by Allan Kardec and appropriated by Brazilian audiences) has been present in Brazil since the 19th century, and direct affiliation to it has been growing in Brazil (from 1 percent of the population in 1991 to 2 percent in 2010, plus people who are nominally Catholic and do not regard Spiritism as a religion). There are clear signs that a community has been born around John of God, with weddings and baptisms increasingly practiced at the Casa, as the center of the movement is known.

    People get baptized in order to be closer to the entities and protected by them or to show their commitment to them. People also meet in their home countries, attempting to reproduce what they experienced in Brazil (including music, rituals, prayers in Portuguese, and food). People dress in white, as they would at the Casa. People also read books or watch DVDs about John of God, considering these practices as ways to open the body to healing. Based on her observations, Rocha suggests that this pattern demonstrates how New Age inspiration, despite porous and fluid beliefs, can create community. She emphasizes John of God and his movement as one more example of the South as a source of global flows. Regarding the future, although John of God and his much younger wife had a baby in 2015, there are concerns about his health and longevity. He has not delivered teachings that can be immortalized in books, Rocha observes. While the place could become a pilgrimage spot for people looking for healing energy once John of God passes from the scene, another possible scenario is that some of his followers will turn toward other Brazilian healers who could offer them hope—and maybe also give rise to communities.