Robert Wuthnow, author of IN THE BLOOD, on Farmers’ Faith

In the Blood jacketRobert Wuthnow, Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, remarked in a recent interview with PUP that he’d spent most of his career writing about religion, and thus his new book, In the Blood: Understanding America’s Farm Families can seem a departure. But farming has more to tell us about religion than meets the eye. Read on as he contemplates the unique relationship between farming and faith. 

Farmers’ Faith, by Robert Wuthnow

In Worst Hard Time writer Timothy Egan describes Depression-era farmers believing God was punishing them for shooting rabbits on Sunday.  Others knelt knee-deep in dust praying fervently for rain.  Theirs was a simple faith:  pray hard, live right, and expect God’s blessings in return.

Farmers’ relationship to God has fascinated writers for centuries.  Biblical narratives tell of shepherds and sheep and gleaners and wheat.  The agrarian ideal that interested Enlightenment writers valued farmers’ particular understanding of nature’s God.  Writers today — Wendell Berry, for example — call attention to the spiritual serenity of farms and fields.

Can we learn something important from farmers?  Do their lives, spent so close to the soil and so dependent on nature, generate insights that may have escaped the rest of us?

I grew up on a farm in a community where everyone believed in God.  I’m sure some of them prayed for rain. I imagine many of them talked to God in the quiet of their fields. But times have changed.  The solitary farmer out hoeing the field is a relic.  Farmers now operate expensive GPS-guided tractors while on-board computers monitor the soil.  How has all that changed farmers’ thinking about God?

Writing In the Blood:  Understanding America’s Farm Families gave me an opportunity to explore farmers’ thoughts on a wide range of topics, including religion.  The book draws on lengthy interviews with two hundred farmers.  They varied in age, gender, region, kind of farming, and religious background.  Some farmed only a few acres; others farmed tens of thousands of acres.

Farmers’ faith is still arguably simple.  It varies from person to person, just as it does for other people.  But it converges on a basic point.  Whatever the language used to describe God, God represents an assurance that things will work out.  And working out does not imply that what happens will be what a person wants.  Praying for rain does not increase the chances that it will rain.  It is just a reminder that God, not you, is in charge.  As one farmer explained, “When you get to thinking you’re running the show, that’s when you’ve got a problem.  God’s got a way of saying, I’ll show you who’s running the show.”

Farmers with this view of God said it was born of hard times – and sustained them in those times.  A farm couple struggling to avoid losing everything a second time said they liked being independent but kept being reminded that they had to trust in God.  Another farmer said he had been so depressed from a farm accident that he prayed to die.  It was hard for him to believe that God was on his side, but it helped knowing that God was there no matter what happened.

The logic in these remarks is similar to the view of God that has been identified in other studies.  Even though a person prays to God or works hard in hopes of pleasing God, the idea is not that what a person does actually causes God to respond in a certain way. A farmer may hope that prayer will bring rain, but the exact nature of that hope has less to do with rain than with being aware of God’s existence and thankful for God’s presence.

Perhaps farmers had an advantage in being aware of God’s existence.  Many of them described something ineffable they could only refer to as “the big picture.”  The big picture was an understanding of life from seeing the crops grow and working with animals.  Farmers knew they played a part in nurturing life.  But they realized their role was only a small part of the big picture.

One more thing:  Sometimes you learn as much from what people don’t say as from what they do say.  Many of these farmers lived in conservative communities.  A few were Tea Party Republicans.  They hated the federal government telling them how to farm.  But they didn’t defend their politics with religious arguments.  And they were fed up with politicians who did.

Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He is the author of many books, including Rough Country, Small-Town America, Red State Religion, and Remaking the Heartland (all Princeton).

An interview with Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, author of BEYOND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

Beyond Religious FreedomWhat’s at stake when governments set the standards for religious practice? Policymakers in North America and Europe regularly advocate abroad for religious freedom, interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, and protections for religious minorities. But what is the real outcome of such intervention? In her new book, Beyond Religious Freedom, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd makes the case that such policies actually create more social tensions and divisions than they resolve. Recently she took some time to talk with us about her book, and why international relations got religion wrong.

What prompted you to write this book? Is it part of a wider conversation or series of conversations?

EH: Beyond Religious Freedom is an attempt to think differently about religion in relation to law and governance on a global scale. In the field of religion and international affairs there’s been a gold-rush mentality lately as scholars scurry to ‘get religion right’ – but I find many of these efforts to be confused and even troubling. The problem, as I noted in a recent piece for The Monkey Cage, is that international relations got religion but got it wrong. Beyond Religious Freedom develops an alternative that neither celebrates religion for its allegedly peaceful potential nor condemns it for its allegedly violent tendencies. It proposes a new framework for the study of religion, law, and governance.

The book brings together conversations from a range of sources, including on the politics of international human rights and the European Court’s jurisprudence; the study of contemporary religion; law and the legalization of religious difference; Turkish and Alevi studies; and debates over religion and religious freedom, and the politics of religious outreach and toleration programming in US and European foreign policy. These are topics that haven’t been brought together before in this way, and I think together they contribute in important ways to an effort to better understand the intersection of religion and global politics today.

How would you describe the challenges facing scholars of religion and global politics?

EH: Today there’s a disjuncture between how religion is lived in the world around us and the way many scholars are writing about it. A wave of scholars has been working overtime trying to identify precisely the contribution of religion to world affairs and to control religion for certain political ends. That is a world apart from the way religion is lived by people, the myriad and complex ways in which religion is interwoven and entangled with how they live their lives and get through the day, individually and collectively. There’s a deep disconnect between these two, and the scholars are missing the reality of lived religion as they construct their theories and models.

To sort this out, I distinguish in the book between expert religion, lived religion, and governed religion. This framework provides the backbone of my argument. Expert religion is religion as construed by those who generate what is understood to be policy-relevant knowledge about religion, including scholars and other experts. Lived religion is religion as practiced by ordinary individuals and groups as they interact with a variety of religious authorities, rituals, texts, and institutions and seek to navigate and make sense of their lives, connections with others, and place in the world. Official or governed religion is religion as construed by those in positions of political and religious power. This includes states, often through the law, but also supranational courts, governing entities such as the European Union, a range of international and nongovernmental organizations, and also churches and other religious organizations.

Can religion be treated as it if were a coherent and stable variable?

EH: It can’t. We cannot ignore religion by collapsing it into other domains of social life or reducing it to allegedly more fundamental social, economic, or political variables. Nor can we rely on a singular, trans-historical, and transcultural notion of religion as a freestanding descriptive and analytical category. That is, religion cannot be treated as if it were a differentiable quantity that can influence society and politics without being merged into it and shaped by it. We need other ways between and beyond these two extremes. The challenge, then, is to devise new ways to ‘normalize’ religion, neither absorbing it fully into the political nor allowing it to stand apart from history.

International relations theory and practice has a way to go on this front. I’ve been struck by the strangely persistent, almost ritualistic alternation in this field between the naïve celebration of religion as the source of morality, community, and freedom, and the simultaneous denigration of religion as the root of all global instability. Robert Orsi has described this as the ‘agenda of reassurance’ and the ‘agenda of surveillance.’ These agendas have real world consequences: in the first case, governmental support for and deference to religious “authorities,” self-identified and/or created by religious experts; in the second, the dangerous politics of national and international religious surveillance, discipline, and reform. My book criticizes these practices and trends.

What would you like readers to take away from your book?

EH: You never know what readers will find in a book. I’d like to see a shift in how scholars and pundits talk and write about global situations and problems that are described as essentially ‘religious’ in nature. This doesn’t make sense given that religion does not stand apart from history. Instead of asking, “why are Burmese Buddhists persecuting religious minorities such as the Rohingya?” we should ask, what factors—economic, political, social, religious, geographical, and so on—are enabling the comprehensive exclusion of the Rohingya from Burmese society? What’s the role of the state and other interests, including powerful monks’ organizations such as 969, in these processes? Who benefits from framing this as a matter of religious difference, and as a problem of religious freedom, and what do we lose sight of in that framing? The book urges readers to adopt a critical sensibility when they see terms like religious conflict, religious minority, religious violence, religious freedom, or even religious diversity and religious pluralism. The idea is to take a step back and think about what it means to describe a conflict or a situation as ‘religious,’ and whether it might be advisable to broaden the lens to see a bigger picture in which religion is entangled in a host of economic, social, ethnic, political, and legal formations. Religion is a deeply intersected category.

Were you influenced by the media and scholarly frenzy surrounding religion?

EH: I tried to distance myself from that, and the sense of urgency to locate a solution and prescribe the right policy. I’ve come to believe that what’s needed right now is something rather different. I hope this comes across to readers. What if we lower the volume of these conversations? Is there a register in which one can speak, teach, and write about religion and politics that neither prescribes nor proscribes? Is it possible to work toward understanding lived political-religious realities while resisting the urge to normative closure? Can we remain open to epistemologies and ontologies that may cast doubt on modern certainties such as the supremacy of secular law, the indispensability of international human rights and freedoms, and the primacy of the so-called free market? I’m drawn to new work that embodies this sensibility and hope in my future work to convey its significance for global politics and public life.

One of the main points of the book, starting with the prologue, is that narratives of Christian persecution need to be reconsidered. What about Christians in the Middle East today who are suffering as a result of their religious identity? Don’t you leave them in the lurch?

EH: Religious freedom and religious rights are often presented as the default solution to the challenges of living together in a diverse and globalizing world – as a device for stopping conflict and ending oppression. But the reality is far more complex.

In Birds Without Wings, a novel set in rural Anatolia during WWI, there is a dialogue between two childhood friends, Mehmetçik, who is Muslim, and Karatavuk, who is Christian. That distinction has only recently come to make a difference in their lives. On the eve of Mehmetçik’s departure to join Atatürk’s forces, the two boys discuss their predicament: “Ah, my friend, my friend,” [Karatavuk] said, drawing back and thumping his chest, “I have a heavy feeling in here. I feel as if I have a stone in my heart. I wonder what’ll become of us all.” “I think we’ll be divided,” said Mehmetçik sadly. “Suddenly it matters that I am a Christian, where it mattered only a little before.”

Beyond Religious Freedom is, among other things, an attempt to understand some of the modern legal and political processes that contribute to situations where it matters—often in a life and death sense—that one is a Christian, a Hindu, a Jew, or an atheist. These situations do not just fall out of the sky. They are created in history. They involve intertwined socio-legal, religious, and political processes in which particular identities, often construed by the state and others in positions of power, shape subjectivities and collectivities, forms of sociality, and public and political relations and institutions. It is important to study each of these varied histories in their own right.

The politics of religious freedom are often at play in such histories. Modes of governance that rely on stabilizing ‘religion’ as an object of law and governance draw and naturalize the boundaries between religions, and between religion and non-religion, exacerbating the very social tensions they are intended to mitigate. When governments take up religious freedom, it requires that they discriminate: which “religions” are protected and how, and which individuals and communities have which religious rights enshrined in law. This places states and the religious freedom advocates who seek to mobilize them in the position of determining what counts as a legitimate religious practice, right, or community, granting the latter special status above the others. It thus gives governments more tools for disempowering those whom it dislikes, disagrees with, or refuses to recognize, creating political and legal spaces and institutions in which state-sponsored religious distinctions are not only inevitable but also publicly and politically salient.

What are your thoughts on those who make legal claims relying on the language of international religious freedom?

EH: I don’t pass judgment. As I emphasize throughout the book, there are strong legal incentives today that make claims to religious freedom efficacious. Individuals and groups can and should use all means at their disposal to make the best of difficult circumstances. My point is different. It is that in the long run we need to think about the kind of world we create when we legalize religious difference—in part through the promotion and legalization of religious freedom—and naturalize those distinctions. I argue that these efforts generate social tensions by making religious difference a matter of law, enacting a divide between the religion of those in power and the religion of those without it. This leads to a politics defined by religious difference, favors forms of religion authorized by those in power, and excludes other ways of being and belonging.

Therefore, the issue is not of being pro- or anti-religious freedom. Instead, my book asks, what are the effects of constructing a legal regime around ‘religious freedom’ and a discursive world around that. Does this advance or impede efforts to live together across deep lines of difference? Advocates of religious freedom presume that the answer is self-evident and affirmative. Along with a number of others, I see it as much more complex, and the outcome as much less utopian.

What would you have been if not a political scientist?

EH: Definitely a caterer. When I was in college I worked for a caterer in Boston, and we had a booth at Chowderfest and catered several weddings. I loved it. I would specialize in pies, cakes, and tarts. The minute I finished this book and had a moment to catch my breath this summer, I started making tarts. I’ve thought about making an offer: if you buy both books that just came out, I’ll come over to your house and bake you a cake.

Read chapter 1 here.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. She is the author of The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (Princeton) and the coeditor of Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age and Politics of Religious Freedom.

An interview with Robert Wuthnow on his forthcoming book, IN THE BLOOD

Is your closest contact with the farming community your latest Instagram of a picturesque barn, or an occasional haul from the local CSA? If so, you’re not alone. Our day to day existence relies heavily on farming, but from Americans’ increasingly urban vantage point, the lives of farmers themselves can seem remote. In his forthcoming book, In the Blood, Princeton University sociologist of culture Robert Wuthnow offers a moving portrait of the changing lives of farm families. Recently Robert took the time to talk with us about what prompted him to write the book, the misconceptions he discovered, and how his new research spoke to his extensive body of work in the sociology of religion.

Robert Wuthnow, author of IN THE BLOOD

Robert Wuthnow, Princeton sociologist and author of IN THE BLOOD

You teach at Princeton University and live in a largely urban state. What prompted you to write a book about farming?

RW: I grew up on a farm in Kansas, spent most of my spare time until I graduated from college farming, and figured I would follow in the footsteps of many generations in my family who farmed. Things didn’t turn out that way. But I still have friends and family who farm and I’m intrigued, shall we say, by the path I didn’t take. I wrote about the changing history of agriculture in the Midwest in Remaking the Heartland and about rural communities in Small-Town America. After working on those projects I began reading the literature on farming. I discovered that most of it is written by agricultural economists and historians. As I sociologist, I wanted to hear from farmers themselves. I wanted to know what farming day-to-day is like, what it means to them, how it influences their values, and why they stay with it from generation to generation.

Why do you think people who don’t know much about farming might find this book interesting?

RW: Everybody – whether we live in a city, suburb, or small town – depends on farms for the food we eat. We know about problems with fast food, slaughterhouses, pollution, and the like. We also hear discussions every few years about farm policies. But for the most part, farming is out of sight and out of mind. In part, I wanted to give farmers a voice. I wanted people who know very little about farming to at least have something to read if they did happen to be interested.

In the Blood jacketApart from questions about food and farm policies, the reason to be interested in farmers is that our nation’s culture is still the product of our agrarian past. Correctly or incorrectly, we imagine that today’s farmers represent that heritage. In one view, they represent conservative family traditions, hard work, living simply, and preserving the land. In that view, it is easy to romanticize farming. A different view holds that farmers are country bumpkins who couldn’t do anything better than continue to farm. In both these views, farmers are actually serving as a mirror for us. I wanted to hold that mirror up to see what it showed – about the rest of us as much as about farmers.

You say farmers think the public doesn’t understand them. What misperceptions need to be corrected?

RW: One of the most serious misperceptions is that farmers are out there mindlessly ruining the land. That certainly was not how they saw it. Of the two hundred farmers that form the basis of the book, nearly all of them described the reasons why they do everything they can to preserve the land. I was especially impressed with the extent to which science is helping them do this. Farmers today have a much better understanding of soil chemistry, microbes, and ways to minimize water use and pollution than farmers did a generation ago.

Another misperception is that farmers are the problem when it comes to questions about tax dollars spent on farm subsidies. My research included farmers with large holdings as well as small farmers and it dealt with wheat belt, corn belt, and cotton belt farming as well as truck and dairy farming. Farmers spoke candidly and many of them were candidly critical of farm subsidies. They did benefit from crop insurance and appreciated the fact that it was subsidized. But they were doubtful that government bureaucrats understood farming and they were pretty sure farm policies were being driven by corporate agribusiness rather than farm families.

Much of your work has been about religion. What did you learn about religion from farmers?

RW: I wondered if farmers whose livelihoods are so dependent on forces of nature over which they have no control would somehow attribute those influences to God or be superstitious about them. Would they consider it helpful to pray for rain, for example? What I found is that hardly any of them thought that way. Some were devout; others were not religious at all. The most common understanding was that God somehow existed, was ultimately in control, but was also beyond human comprehension. Those who were the most devout prayed, figuring that whether it rained or not, God was real.

Churches are still the mainstay of farming communities, but vast changes are taking place in these churches, just as in cities and suburbs. Small churches in declining communities are dying. The ones that remain struggle to attract members and employ pastors. Increasingly, farm families drive twenty or thirty miles to attend churches in large towns and cities. That is also where they go to shop and where their children go to school.

You argue that farmers are deeply loyal to their families but are also ruggedly independent. How so?

RW: What I found about family loyalty and rugged independence is that both are changing. The basic values are unchanged but their meanings are being redefined. For instance, farmers say that farms are good places to raise children. But they rarely mean that children drive tractors and milk cows. They mean that children gain an appreciation of living in the country. Farm families continue to be examples of family-operated businesses. But gender roles are changing and informal relationships are being replaced by formal contracts. Being independent means making your own decisions, not having someone looking over your shoulder, and not having your daily schedule dictated to you. But all of that is constrained by government regulations and by having to depend on markets over which one has no control.

What did you identify as the main challenges facing farmers today?

RW: Farmers face a challenge that has always been part of their lives and is becoming less predictable. That challenge is the weather. Climate change is bringing extremes in temperature, storms, and rainfall unlike anything farmers have known. In addition, farmers with small to medium acreage are being forced to expand or quit. Whether large-scale farming adds efficiency is still debated, but farmers worry that if they do not expand they will be left behind. And competition to expand necessarily influences relations among farmers. As many of the farmers we spoke to explained, they enjoy seeing their neighbors but they also view their neighbors as sharks in the water.

Of all the topics you explored in your interviews with farmers, what surprised you the most?

RW: Technology. Spending my days, as I do, tethered to a computer and the Internet, I suppose I should not have been surprised to learn the extent to which farming has also changed as part of the digital revolution. But I was. My research assistants and I conducted interviews by cell phone with farmers on their tractors while a GPS guidance system drove the tractor through the field within a margin of three inches, an on-board computer monitored the soil and adjusted seed-to-fertilizer ratios accordingly, and the farmer in turn kept track of fluctuations in commodities markets. Technology of that sort is hugely expensive. Farmers acknowledge that it is not only labor saving but also enjoyable. But the digital revolution is influencing everything about farming – from who operates the machinery to how often farmers see their children and from what they depend on for information to what they have to do to qualify for financing.

The farmers we spoke to were deeply committed to family farming as a lifestyle. They hoped it would continue and that some of their children would be farmers. But many of them expressed doubts. They worried about the corporate takeover of farming. And they were preparing their children to pursue careers other than farming.

Read the introduction here.

Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He is the author of many books, including Rough Country, Small-Town America, Red State Religion, and Remaking the Heartland (all Princeton).

Medieval Relativisms by John Marenbon

In a commencement speech at Dickinson College yesterday that focused on the virtues of free speech and free inquiry, Ian McEwan referenced the golden age of the pagan philosophers. But from the turn of the fifth century to the beginning of the eighteenth, Christian intellectuals were as fascinated as they were perplexed by the “Problem of Paganism,” or how to reconcile the fact that the great thinkers of antiquity, whose ideas formed the cornerstones of Greek and Roman civilization, were also pagans and, according to Christian teachings, damned. John Marenbon, author of the new book Pagans and Philosophers, has written a post explaining that relativism (the idea that there can be no objective right or wrong), is hardly a post-modern idea, but one that emerged in medieval times as a response to this tension.

Medieval Relativisms
By John Marenbon

Pagans and Philosophers jacketRelativism is often thought to be a characteristically modern, or even post-modern, idea. Those who have looked more deeply add that there was an important strand of relativism in ancient philosophy and they point (perhaps wrongly) to Montaigne’s remark, made late in the sixteenth century, that ‘we have no criterion of truth or reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the country where we are’ as signalling a revival of relativist thinking. But the Middle Ages are regarded as a time of uniformity, when a monolithic Christianity dominated the lives and thoughts of everyone, from scholars to peasants – a culture without room for relativism. This stereotype is wrong. Medieval culture was not monolithic, because it was riven by a central tension. As medieval Christian thinkers knew, their civilization was based on the pagan culture of Greece and Rome. Pagan philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, were their intellectual guides, and figures from antiquity, such as the sternly upright Cato or Regulus, the general who kept the promise he had given to his enemies even at the cost of his life, were widely cited as moral exemplars. Yet, supposedly, Christian truth had replaced pagan ignorance, and without the guidance and grace provided for Christians alone, it was impossible to live a morally virtuous life. One approach to removing this tension was to argue that the pagans in question were not really pagans at all. Another approach, though, was to develop some variety of limited relativism.

One example of limited relativism is the view proposed by Boethius of Dacia, a Master in the University of Paris in the 1260s. Boethius was an Arts Master: his job was to teach a curriculum based on Aristotle. Boethius was impressed by Aristotelian science and wanted to remain true to it even on those points where it goes against Christian teaching. For example, Christians believe that the universe had a beginning, when God created it, but Aristotle thought that the universe was eternal – every change is preceded by another change, and so on, for ever. In Boethius’s view, the Christian view contradicts the very principles of Aristotelian natural science, and so an Arts Master like himself is required to declare ‘The world has no beginning’. But how can he do so, if he is also a Christian? Boethius solves the problem by relativizing what thinkers say within a particular discipline to the principles of that discipline. When the Arts Master, in the course of teaching natural science, says ‘The world has no beginning’, his sentence means: ‘The world has no beginning according to the principles of natural science’ – a statement which is consistent with declaring that, according to Christian belief the world did have a beginning. Relativizing strategies were also used by theologians such as Henry of Ghent, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham to explain how some pagans can have even heroic virtue and yet be without the sort of virtue which good Christians alone can have.

These and other medieval relativisms were limited, in the sense that one reference frame, that of Christianity, was always acknowledged to be the superior one. But Boethius’s relativism allowed pragmatically a space for people to develop a purely rational scientific world-view in its own terms, and that of the theologians allowed them to praise and respect figures like Cato and Regulus, leaving aside the question of whether or not they are in Hell. Contemporary relativists often advocate an unlimited version of relativism, in which no reference frame is considered superior to another. But there are grave difficulties in making such relativism coherent. The less ambitious medieval approach might be the most sensible one.

John Marenbon is a senior research fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, honorary professor of medieval philosophy at Cambridge, and a fellow of the British Academy. He is the author and editor of many books, including Abelard in Four Dimensions, The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy, The Cambridge Companion to Boethius, and Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction.

Happy Birthday, Søren Kierkegaard

Lowrie jacket5-8 Kierkegaard_TheSeducersDiaryIntroversion has been having a moment of late, and today happens to be the birthday of one of the world’s most famous—and brilliant—introverts. To quote the (excellent) copy for A Short Life of Kierkegaard by Walter Lowrie, Kierkegaard was “a small, insignificant-looking intellectual with absurdly long legs, a veritable Hans Christian Andersen caricature of a man.” In life, he often hid behind pseudonyms, and yet, he remains one of the most important thinkers of modern times. Read about Kierkegaard’s turbulent life in this classic biography (literary duel? Check. Tragic love affair? Check.) or sample The Seducer’s Diary, which John Updike called, “An intricate curiosity—a feverishly intellectual attempt to reconstruct an erotic failure as a pedagogic success, a wound masked as a boast.”

Happy Birthday, Søren Kierkegaard.

Read Chapter 1 of The Seducer’s Diary here.

Read the Introduction to A Short Life of Kierkegaard here.

Ronald Suny on the anniversary of the Armenian genocide

Suny jacketToday marks the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Armenian Genocide. Beginning on April 24, 1915, up to 1.5 million Armenians would die in massacres at the hands of the Ottoman government. The executions took place during and after WWI, targeting able-bodied males, and sending women, children, and the infirm on death marches into the Syrian desert. And yet, as Armenians around the world commemorate the anniversary, and numerous nations offer condolences to the descendents of the victims, the use of the term “genocide” to describe these atrocities has been politically fraught. Turkey, as the successor state of the Ottoman empire, has taken a stance of denial; Obama stopped short of using the term, with Israel seeming to follow his lead. Ronald Suny, author of the new book “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”, argues that the fact of the Armenian Genocide is indisputable. In his op ed in yesterday’s New York Times, Suny writes about the “cost of Turkey’s genocide denial”:

…governments that fail to accept and confront the harsh consequences of historical truth are giving comfort to ultranationalist and anti-democratic forces that threaten liberty and democracy in Turkey.

Read his full New York Times op ed here, and his piece in The Daily Beast, in which he discusses the term “genocide” and its application. Suny recently took time to answer questions about the genocide, his book, and the inherent difficulty in explaining events that remain for many—at least emotionally—inexplicable.

What was the status of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire before the Genocide began in 1915? Did the government openly discriminate against them?

RS: The roughly two million Armenians in the Empire were distinct — religiously distinct, as Christians in a majority Muslim society, as well as culturally and linguistically distinct in many cases. Most of them were peasants and townspeople in the six provinces of eastern Anatolia, often living in homogeneous villages and sections of towns, and occasionally dominated larger rural and urban areas. The most influential and prosperous Armenians lived in the imperial capital, Istanbul (Constantinople), where their visibility made them the target of both official and popular resentment. But they of course were Ottomans, so they were part of this society. Many Armenians even spoke Turkish and not Armenian and so forth, but at least you could identify who they were – they went to different churches and clubs, etc., and they lived in concentrated areas. At a certain point, resentment developed against Armenians who were better off, more closely tied to Europe, and better educated. Then as the propaganda about Armenians and Greeks, another Christian minority, developed suggesting they were linked to foreigners, that they were threat to the Empire, etc., more and more people begin to turn against them. So eventually fear, anger, and resentment became hatred.

The Assyrians are also part of your book – were they seen as a distinct group from the Armenians at that time?

RS: They saw themselves as distinct groups, but the Assyrians, who as another Monophysite Christian group, were often identified with Armenians. Some of them were part of ermeni millet, the official Armenian community, and they were also perceived to have links with foreigners. So the Assyrians were somewhat outcasts, both in Persia and in the Ottoman Empire, and they also suffered tremendously.

Why did the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire perceive the Armenians and Assyrians as a threat, and why they chose such an extreme approach to handle them?

RS: That is the central question of this book. There is a tendency on the part of some scholars – particularly Armenians – not to try to explain the genocide because – “why do you need to explain it? These are Turks, this is what they do, and this is the kind of regime it was.” Or, slightly more sophisticated – “oh, it’s Christians and Muslims – they are inevitably in conflict.” Or — “it’s clashes of nationalism.” Now for me, religion, nationalism, the nature of Turkish culture, Ottoman society, the state – all of these are the questions to be asked, not the answers. That is, they need to be investigated. The way I would explain this genocide, and I think it has relevance for other kinds of ethnic cleansings and mass killings, is that the regime developed what I call an “affective disposition” – that is, an emotional understanding of who the enemy was. They constructed the Armenians as an existential threat to the Ottoman Empire and to the Turkish nation, what they conceived as the Turkish nation at that time. I try to explain the origins of this affective disposition – this mental universe – in which emotion, fear, anger, and resentment combined to create an image of Armenians. Armenians originally had been thought of as a loyal part of the empire, but by 1878 they became an instrument of certain foreign powers to intervene in the Ottoman regime and internal policy — the Ottomans began to see them as a threat.

Remind us what happened in 1878.

RS: This was the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The Russians beat the Turks, and they were going to enforce reforms on the Ottoman Empire, and that was the beginning of the new “Armenian question” that continued right up to the war. Now, some people would say “well, you don’t need to go into emotions – it was a perfectly strategic, rational choice. The Armenians were actually a threat in World War I, and the Turks decided to get rid of them for national security reasons.” My view is that’s an insufficient explanation. Why did they see them as a threat? A threat is always a perception. It’s about emotion, it’s about understanding, feeling, sentiment, and construction – both cognitive and emotional construction. I’m taking a step backwards to see how they got into the position that they could imagine people this way and then carry out the worst possible kinds of things. I’m bringing emotion into it.

By some accounts, Armenians sided with Russia at the beginning of World War I —was that something the Ottomans could point to that the Armenians were a threat?

RS: This is the problem. You can’t say the Armenians sided with Russia. That is what the Ottomans would say, and they perceived that. So there are people who try to justify what the Ottomans did to the Armenians by saying they were with the enemy. What I try to show in the book is that the overwhelming majority of Ottoman Armenians wanted to stay in the Empire and attempted to prove to the Turks that they were loyal, but they also wanted reforms to protect them and allow them to prosper. They wanted Kurdish predations against Armenians to be contained, for example. The Ottoman government was opposed to these reforms, but ultimately had to agree to them in February 1914. When the war came, though, they used the first opportunity to get rid of them. I’ll give you an example. As the Ottomans are going to war, they mobilize the population. Hundreds and thousands of young Armenian men are drafted and join the Ottoman army. A few desert and go over to the Russian side. Some prominent leaders go over to the Russian side. The Russians form Armenian voluntary units on the Caucasian side against the Ottomans, but the Turks see this as treachery and demobilize hundreds of thousands of Armenian soldiers, take their weapons and uniforms away, turn them into labor battalions, and eventually murder them. So it’s a very different thing. It’s not that there wasn’t sympathy among some for Russia, but there was also no particular love for Russia. Russians didn’t like the Armenian nationalist revolutionaries any more than the Turks did so they were persecuting them as well. The Armenians were in an unfortunate position – in Persia, in Russia, and in Turkey. They were like the Kurds today.

How did they try to prove their loyalty?

RS: They mobilized their young men to fight in the army, they raised money for hospitals and aid to the government, they spoke in favor of the war effort, and many other things. They told them – we’re loyal, don’t push us into opposition. But there was an imbalance of agency. You see this today in the Armenian and Azerbaijani conflict over Karabakh, or the Israel-Palestine conflict. One side has more power and has more cards to play: the Israelis in the case of Palestine, the Armenians in the case of the Armenian- Azerbaijani conflict, and the Ottomans in 1915. The Armenians had what I’d call a dilemma of the damned. As they were being constructed as the enemy, there was very little they could do. And then they were disarmed, their leaders were arrested, they were systematically deported, and many hundreds of thousands were murdered.

The Ottoman Turks mobilized the population, in a completely chaotic and disorganized way, and there was dislocation, food shortages, soldiers marching hundreds of miles to get to the front. They were inadequately equipped, and huge numbers of desertions took place. There were half a million deserters, Muslims as well as Christians and others. Many of those deserters would either pillage villages for food, rape women, or clash with the army, and the Ottoman government claimed these were Armenian revolts. A lot of soldiers deserted, and it was general chaos.

To what extent did ordinary people participate or was it mostly carried out by special military forces?

RS: Genocides are ordered from the top: secret orders go out that say “take care of these people” (start the deportations), but we don’t have very good records on that. The orders bring about massacres, and in a systematic way. In the Armenian genocide, the deportations and massacres were often carried out by nomadic Kurds, Circassians (or, Cherkess, as they’re also called), Chechens — many of them refugees from the Caucasus or the Balkans, so called mujahedeen, other refugees who were to be settled in the Armenian villages, and ordinary people, even women. We have reports of women cutting down people so there is some popular participation.

One problem I have is – how much did the Ottomans understand what they were doing, and how much did they believe in it? There were some Ottoman governors who refused to carry out the killings and the deportations. And there were Turks and Kurds who took Armenian refugees into their homes, sometimes forcibly making women part of their harem or family, converting them to Islam. But others believed in the necessity of the massacre. You can now access intelligence reports, and certain commanders were sending reports of Armenian insurrections. Some scholars have read these reports — a kind of new, sophisticated denialism — and taken the Ottomans at their word that there really was a revolt. While there were individual moments of resistance, as at Van or Musa Dagh, because they were being attacked. there was no coordinated, general insurrection of Armenians during the war.

Were the Chechens and Circassians specially sought out for the killings or were they already living in the Empire?

RS: There had always been clashes between Kurds and Circassians and Armenians about land so there was a base of hostilities and tensions. The Ottoman government would often recruit them into special organizations, which hired them as well as criminals and others into gangs, and these people carried out a lot of massacres. The Kurds today, in the Republic of Turkey, are one major group who recognize the genocide, who have apologized for what they did, who believe they were used by the Turks, and they are trying to make up for that now. For example, in the city of Diyarbakır where my grandmother is from, the local Kurds have opened churches and talk about living in the land together with Armenians.

So the Kurds have tried reconciliation?

RS: Yes, because they also feel persecuted by the Turks. Kurdish discourse is something like “they had you for breakfast, and they’re going to have us for dinner.” I really think Turkey is the country to watch. Something’s happening there, and we don’t know where it will go. We don’t know where Russia or Armenia will go either.

Armenians began to view themselves as a nation during this period – how did the genocide contribute to that process? What caused the growing sense of a nation?

RS: I’m a constructivist — I believe that nations are creations of human beings. At a certain point people begin to think of themselves as a nation rather than a religious group or other identity, and this happened for the Armenians in the 19th century. Turks began to think this way a bit later, more in the 20th century, and Kurds even later than that. The genocide happened at a time when some people were thinking in this nationalist idiom, but simultaneously, many others were thinking of themselves as Ottomans, with special Armenian characteristics. Armenian nationalism in a sense won the day in World War I, and the post-war period, until, of course, the Soviets took over the Armenian republic, and nationalism became an alien ideology that couldn’t be expressed openly. It then became the ideology of the diaspora.

Yes, the Armenian genocide was just that, says Ronald Suny’s new book

Suny jacketApril 24th marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide, the first genocide of the 20th century, though lesser-known, and more contested than other crimes against humanity that followed. Ronald Suny’s “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide claims that the massacres did indeed constitute genocide, and chronicles the human catastrophe through eyewitness accounts and archival documents. The end result is a deeply researched narrative history of how and why the atrocities were committed. The Sunday Times writes, “Suny is admirably dispassionate in explaining the particular circumstances that led the Ottoman government to embark on a policy of mass extermination…”

Check out this video where Suny, Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, gives an overview of the genocide’s history, Turkey’s denial, and his own Armenian family’s experience:

Christopher Bail on anti-Muslim sentiment

In this clip from the documentary aftertheshooting.com, sociologist and author Christopher Bail discusses whether the sea change in American public opinion about Islam over the past few years may have contributed to the recent murder of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His recent book, Terrified, employs computer analytics techniques to show how anti-Muslim organizations have gained visibility in the public sphere. In this clip, Bail speaks with a close friend of one of the victims. You can watch the entire documentary here.

Last month, Bail spoke with Paul Rosenberg at Salon about his innovative new methodology for studying how fear is fostered in the broader cultural landscape. He was interviewed about the aftermath of the Chapel Hill shootings in the Guardian earlier this year.

Christopher Bail talks to Salon about “Terrified”

Christopher Bail, author of Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream, recently spoke with Paul Rosenberg for a feature in Salon on how anti-Muslim sentiment is fostered by the broader cultural landscape, and the innovative new methodology he has used to study that process. Paul Rosenberg at Salon writes:

It may be hard to fathom or remember, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the American public responded with an increased level of acceptance and support for Muslims. President Bush—who had successfully courted the Muslim vote in 2000—went out of his way to praise American Muslims on numerous occasions in 2001 and 2002. However, the seeds were already being planted that would change that drastically over time.  Within a few short years, a small handful of fringe anti-Muslim organizations—almost entirely devoid of any real knowledge or expertise, some drawing on age-old ethno-religious conflicts—managed to hijack the public discourse about Islam, first by stoking fears, grabbing attention with their emotional messaging, then by consolidating their newfound social capital, forging ties with established elite organizations, and ultimately building their own organizational and media infrastructure.

How this all happened is the subject of a fascinating new book, “Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream,” by sociologist Christopher Bail, of the University of North Carolina.  The book not only lays bare the behind-the-scenes story of a momentous shift in public opinion, it employs cutting-edge computer analysis techniques applied to large archives of data to develop a new theoretical outlook, capable of making sense of the whole field of competing organizations struggling to shape public opinion, not just studying one or two the most successful ones. The result is not only a detailed account of a specific, significant, and also very pernicious example of cultural evolution, but also a case study in how to more rigorously study cultural evolution more generally in the future. In the process, it sheds considerable light on the struggles involved, and the difficulties faced by those trying to fight back against this rising tide of misdirected fear, anger and hatred.


Read the full interview with Christopher Bail that follows here.

Terrified, by Christopher Bail

Robert Wuthnow – Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State Winner of the 2014 Coral Horton Tullis Memorial Prize, Texas State Historical Association

Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State is the winner of the 2014 Coral Horton Tullis Memorial Prize. The Tullis Memorial Prize is awarded annually to the best book in Texas published during the calendar year. The presentation of a $2000 prize and certificate will be made at the Association’s annual meeting in March, 2015. More general information on the award can be found, here.

Congratulations to Robert Wunthnow!

bookjacket

Rough Country:
How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State

Robert Wuthnow

Religon News Service interviews Robert Wuthnow, author of Rough Country

RoughCountryRobert Wuthnow’s book Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State explains how Texas’ religion has played, and will continue to play an important role in the shaping of our lives. Religion News Service recently sat down to chat with Wuthnow about the importance of the Lone Star state and its influence in politics, understanding the religious right, and balancing American fundamentalism.

Religion News Service: Give me one good reason that the Texas’ religion should matter to me or the rest of the country?

Wuthnow:The first reason is politics. Rick Perry, Texas’s longest-serving governor, is gearing up for another run at becoming President. Ted Cruz has made more news than any junior senator from his party in recent history. Former Congressman Dick Armey’s Freedom Works significantly contributed to the Tea Party’s national success. These leaders credit religion with guiding their policies and furthering their careers.

Second, understanding the Religious Right requires understanding Texas religion. The story that features Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson misses a lot. Texas reveals a longer and more complicated trajectory. The Texas story includes prominent conservative preachers favoring Barry Goldwater in 1964, mobilizing opposition to abortion before Roe v. Wade in 1973, supporting Gerald Ford in 1976, giving Ronald Reagan a platform in 1980, and organizing the “bubba vote” for George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Third, the history of American fundamentalism is lopsided without Texas. The standard narrative focuses on northern developments with a few offshoots in the Deep South and Southern California. The Texas story brings the Scofield Bible, dispensational theology, the political activism of fundamentalist J. Frank Norris, and conflicts within the powerful Southern Baptist Convention into clearer focus. Twice as many evangelicals and fundamentalists live in Texas than in any other state.

For the of rest Wuthnow’s interview, click here.

 

The first reason is politics. Rick Perry, Texas’s longest-serving governor, is gearing up for another run at becoming President. Ted Cruz has made more news than any junior senator from his party in recent history. Former Congressman Dick Armey’s Freedom Works significantly contributed to the Tea Party’s national success. These leaders credit religion with guiding their policies and furthering their careers. – See more at: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/10/07/3-ways-texas-religion-affects-us/#sthash.TensmCfU.dpuf
Give me three good reasons that the Texas’ religion should matter to me or the rest of the country. – See more at: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/10/07/3-ways-texas-religion-affects-us/#sthash.TensmCfU.dpuf
RNS: Give me three good reasons that the Texas’ religion should matter to me or the rest of the country. – See more at: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/10/07/3-ways-texas-religion-affects-us/#sthash.TensmCfU.dpuf
RNS: Give me three good reasons that the Texas’ religion should matter to me or the rest of the country. – See more at: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/10/07/3-ways-texas-religion-affects-us/#sthash.TensmCfU.dpuf
The first reason is politics. Rick Perry, Texas’s longest-serving governor, is gearing up for another run at becoming President. Ted Cruz has made more news than any junior senator from his party in recent history. Former Congressman Dick Armey’s Freedom Works significantly contributed to the Tea Party’s national success. These leaders credit religion with guiding their policies and furthering their careers. – See more at: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/10/07/3-ways-texas-religion-affects-us/#sthash.TensmCfU.dpuf

Anna Suns’ Confucianism as a World Religion wins award at 2014 American Academy of Religion Book Awards

Every year the American Academy of Religion (AAR) recognizes “new scholarly publications that make significant contributions to the study of religion,” and awards “books that affect decisively how religion is examined, understood, and interpreted.”

We are proud to announce that Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities by Anna Sun has won the 2014 AAR Best First Book in the History of Religions award.  Sun will receive this award at the AAR Annual Meeting on November 23rd.

Again, congratulations to Anna Sun on a remarkable achievement!


bookjacket

Confucianism as a World Religion:
Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities
Anna Sun
Winner of the 2014 Best Book Award, Sociology of Religion Section of the American Sociological Association
Winner of the 2014 Best First Book in the History of Religions Award, American Academy of Religion
One of Choice‘s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013