Nov 29, 2010

Religions' relationship with culture

Religious people sometimes resist any analysis of their religion that moves beyond the creedal. Any attempt to contextualize their faith, to show its relationship to the surrounding culture, to treat it as a part of culture and analyze it as cultural seems to them to disregard the religion's truth claims, or, worse, to assume they're false. To treat a religion as cultural seems or appears to take it as contingent, which is taken as not taking it seriously or as meaning it's not true.

Sometimes this is the case, of course, but what cultural studies of religion try to do is actually bracket the truth claims, considering them beyond the scope of they inquiry. Rather than dealing with the rightness or wrongness of it, addressing the claim of truth, when cultural studies addresses a religion it looks at and considers how that religion came to be what it came to be, how it relates.

How it relates is a complicated question, though, at least in part because religion is not an epiphenomena of culture.


Religion exerts some shaping influence on the culture that shapes it. The relationship between the two is reciprocal.

Sometimes, in the process of bracketing, in the process of taking religion as cultural, religion is treated as if it is only ever an effect, and never ever a cause of culture. This is one of the things I don't like in Robert C. Fuller's Religious Revolutionaries.

Fuller, who is very interested in Americans who are "spiritual but not religious," gives a kind of very simple account of liberal religious thinkers' relationship to culture. The model is input, content (including whatever original thought the particular thinker had), output. Gernally he pictures it so that the input is the history leading up to the thinker, and the output is effect the thinker had on future generations. That's fine, as far as it goes, though it tends to make the reciprocal relationship more linear than I think it really is, and he tends to over estimate the effects of some thinkers, giving, for example, a really sloppy and exaggerated account of Paul Tillich's influence on American religion, but with conservatives, Fuller's story ends up being epiphenomenal.

Fuller gives very little space to contemporary conservative religious thinkers -- Billy Graham gets under two pages, Pat Robertson shares a sentence with Billy Sunday, Jack Van Impe and Jimmy Swaggart, and there's no one here who rose to prominence after 1988. Though the book was published in 2004, there's not a single conservative here who has any sort presence today. The little space he does give to conservatives basically depicts them as reacting to culture, and then being marginal. While those things are, to an extent, true, there's a lot more going on there, which he doesn't deal with at all. He gives us this account where, for example, Southern Baptists and Missouri Synod Lutherans eject those theologians they perceive to be liberal in the 1970s, and they then grow in number while mainline denominations shrink, and then the story stops. He doesn't deal at all with how fundamentalists, who he describes as "characterized by their adherence to biblical inerrancy, premillennialism, separatism, and evangelicalism," dramatically shaped American culture, American self-perceptions and conceptions of religion, how premillennialism has worked itself out in various ways, and how separatism has mutated into something totally different than it was in the 1950s or '60s.

Conservatives, in his account, recoil from the culture, and then that's it.

Religion is cultural, and there's a lot of value in approaching it and analyzing it that way. Something's gone wrong, though, when it's treated as dead-end cul-de-sac away from culture, when it's treated as simply reactionary, as only influenced and never influencing, and as having no reciprocal influence. Forgetting or obscuring those connections and how complicated they are -- either as a way of saving one's religion from the "danger" of contextualization, or in making someone else's religion appear irrelevant -- is a problem.