I hope you are all doing well. Forgive the fact that some of these discussion questions are a bit long-winded. I intended the readings this week to be a bit provocative. All the readings have to do with legitimacy—both social legitimacy and political legitimacy. On the one hand, Emma Green’s article in the Atlantic does a great job of highlighting the disconnect in the “Culture Wars” between people who see gender as a spectrum and those who see it as binary. Professor R. Marie Griffith (#WUSTL) is quoted at length.
The next set of readings and video attempt to address questions about which people and groups are denied political legitimacy in American politics. One fruitful avenue to explore these divisions is through an analysis of claims that Barack Obama was not American — that he was born in Kenya, is a Muslim, or “did not have an American upbringing.” I’d like to encourage you to think about how race, religion, and politics all come together in a powerful combination — one so powerful that it contributed to the political rise of Donald Trump. One of the quirky things about the American media landscape is that some of the best analyses of this are done on comedy shows rather than traditional news outlets.
Before jumping into this week’s reading, I wanted to highlight some things that several of you mentioned in your blog posts last week about Randall Balmer’s article in Politico. Some of you were unconvinced; you thought that Balmer drew too neat a line between defenses of racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s and the emergence of the pro-life movement as a political force in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I wanted to highlight that one of the major problem of Balmer’s work (*here, it’s worth noting that he’s written A LOT of books, most of which suffer take similar approaches – you can get a sense of what he’s written by beginning on page 21 of his CV) is that he conceptualizes the religious right almost exclusively as a movement led and shaped by political elites. The actors in his Politico article, for example, are characters like Jerry Falwell: university presidents, prominent ministers, and politicians. Even if he does a convincing job of showing how political elites reframed debates about segregation and “landed” on abortion, there’s no account in this work of why the focus on abortion drew so much popular interest. The “religious right” is a massive social movement with real grassroots support, and, it appears to me at least, that many of the people who oppose abortion do so sincerely. (For a take that makes the case for hypocrisy, see this video that Emma Rich shared.) To take a quote from Balmer’s article, the leaders of the religious right,
For nearly two decades, Weyrich, by his own account, had been trying out different issues, hoping one might pique evangelical interest: pornography, prayer in schools, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, even abortion. “I was trying to get these people interested in those issues and I utterly failed,” Weyrich recalled at a conference in 1990.
A more robust argument would account for why abortion was a successful wedge issue for the leaders of the Christian right, who, by their own accounts, were throwing all kinds of issues onto the wall and seeing what would stick. At the heart of this, then, is whether you can call the actions of a handful of political leaders of the religious right “the origins” while largely ignoring the reasons why their ideas caught on with huge parts of the American people. Now, in your chat groups, I would love it if you discussed how we (as scholars and analysts of religion and American politics) should think about social and political movements. Are the leaders most important? Or do the rank-and-file, grassroots drive movements? Or would it be best to think of movements as a give and take between leaders and the grassroots that has different dynamics within different movements and organizations?
What is at stake in the battles over political and social legitimacy? (Think about all the readings for today.)
On what grounds did people bring Barack Obama’s legitimacy into question? Did these arguments have a subtext?
It’s worth noting how politicians other than Donald Trump responded to claims that Obama was unAmerican. How did politicians respond? Especially in regards to Mitt Romney’s 2012 response (in the Seth Meyers clip) how can you see issues of racial privilege at play? Finally, why do you think that comedy shows – rather than traditional news outlets – are the best source for video complications of what politicians have said about these issues?
The last article you read, Adam Serwer’s recent piece, “We Can Finally See the Real Source of Washington Gridlock,” is meant to be provocative. Put frankly, I think it’s too early to see how the coronavirus (and the economic relief packages) will affect American politics. That being said, I suspect that Serwer’s article from just three weeks ago will age well. Already, the newest economic stimulus that the Senate passed last night has more funds for individuals, hospitals, and small and large businesses, but it does not direct funds to state and local governments, despite the fact that state and local governments are spearheading the response to COVID-19. Since Reagan, the Republican Party has embraced a strategy called “starving the beast” that is rooted in weakening government at all levels by depriving it of revenue. The fact that that Republicans in Congress are continuing to pursue this strategy in the face of the biggest national and global crisis since WWII is a major part of the reason why I think Serwer’s article will age well. Then again, I could be totally wrong; it’s still very early in all of this. What do you think of Serwer’s article? Do you think he is right? What have you learned about American politics that make you think one way or another?
What connections do you see between the political fault lines we see around issues of race and religion in the context of electoral politics and the social/cultural/religious fault lines around issues of gender and equal access to public life? How do these issues differ? Reiterating one of the questions above, how are the stakes of these debates similar and how are they different?