Simran Jeet Singh
Hi, everyone. Welcome for — welcome. Thank you for being here. It’s a pleasure to have you all. My name is Simran Jeet Singh. I’m your host of “Becoming Less Racist: Lighting the Path to Anti-Racism.” And I’m really excited to be joined by my friend and colleague, Dr. Megan Goodwin. She has a new book, I’ll show it to you. It’s called “Abusing Religion: Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals, and American Minority Religions.”
I went through it the last couple of days. And, and honestly I haven’t, I haven’t encountered something like this before. It’s a new topic for me. And so everything I took away from it was, it was a new learning. So I’m really excited to, to share, to share Dr. Goodwin’s brain with you today. Before we get started, I want to just introduce the program for you briefly. Our vision for this program is to offer two things that the world needs badly right now. The first is to offer insights into what’s going on with racism. And that’s why we try and look at different aspects of how racism manifests itself in every episode.
The second thing we really try to do is how to take this newfound knowledge and move it into action. We really believe that that just knowing isn’t it, that to be truly anti-racist, we must actually engage our ideas within the world. And that’s why we bring in expert guests who give us wisdom on how to excavate racist ideas embedded within ourselves and also how to deal with and address issues of racism in our society. So thank you all for being here. Thank you for being on this journey with me.
Let me introduce our guest for today. Dr. Megan Goodwin is a program director of Sacred Writes’ public scholarship on religion. That’s a Henry Luce funded project hosted by Northeastern University and Megan, Dr. Goodwin, is also a visiting lecturer there in the philosophy and religion department. Along with Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst, she co-hosts “Keeping it 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion Podcast,” and her first book “Abusing Religion: Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals and American Minority Religions” is now available through Rutgers, through Rutgers University Press. So thank you, Dr. Goodwin for being here with us today. How’s everything going on your end?
Everything is going and that — let’s let that be enough. Thank you for both having me and for showing the people the creepy, creepy cover to my books.
Well, it’s, it’s appropriate in a sense. And, and we’ll, we’ll talk about why in a moment, but the first one, it began as I do with most of my guests. And just ask you about your first encounter with racism, whether it was being a target, witnessing it or, or even noticing it within yourself. Do you have a memory like that, that you could share with us?
You know, I, I do. Let me preface this by saying that, I was as a child only allowed to watch public television for the first, like seven years of my life. And, more recently I have realized that I might be a little bit on the spectrum, which is a surprise only to me. So when people, and by people, I mean, large yellow birds, tell me that like we’re all equal and it doesn’t matter what we look like, I take that at face value. So, you know, I’ve been giving this question some thought, and I realized there were experiences in retrospect that were clearly racist. Like my dad not wanting to buy the Black Barbie that I picked out for my cousin, or stuff at school, but the first moment where I went, Oh, Oh, that’s racism, was — very white very Catholic Philly suburbs. So I will just own this. It was seventh grade, right? Where I had a friend who was obsessed with “Gone with the Wind,” like both the movie and the book. And I being a veracious reader, of course read the book. And then in seventh grade, “Mississippi Burning” came out, the movie, and people were — people, seventh graders — are talking about the Klan in this like, why would this even happen? Way.
Nerd life forever. And I was like, well, you know, where the Klan comes from actually is, you know, these bad Black men would attack white women and that’s why they needed the Klan. And I’m saying it out loud to my classmates and going like, Oh, I wonder if that’s not true. I wonder if they just like, said that to justify like killing Black men after slave — have I been lied to? Yeah. Yeah, so that that’s, that’s my origin story and learning that white supremacy is like a thing. I got to it late, but you know, it’s a lifelong journey.
Yeah, I appreciate that. It sounds, it sounds painful, especially at that adolescent age where you’re really kind of getting a sense of the world and how you, how you’re understanding what you’ve been taught in school doesn’t actually match up with necessarily.
Yeah. Also a lifelong process.
Yeah, totally. And so, okay. So your book opened up part of that process for me, because as I was mentioning earlier, there’s so much in here that I haven’t encountered before. And one of the, one of the central points of your book, you make this really interesting argument that the way we deal with the abusive in this country is mediated by racism and white supremacy. Can you explain for us what you mean by that?
Sure. Lots. I mean lots by that, but the, the most, I think, basic version of that is that we like to pretend that abuse is the fault of, not America, not us as a collective. It’s the fault of racialized minorities or religious minorities or religiously and racialized minorities.
So the really short version is we as a country, tell ourselves these stories about white American women being imperiled, right, by swarthy religious outsiders who use our commitment to religious freedom against us because they want to take our women. Right? So I’m looking specifically at books, like “Not Without My Daughter,” for example, where Betty Mahmoody, who is a real lady, a real white lady from Michigan, marries an Iranian man. And they have a beautiful, you know, storybook life until he wants to return to Iran to visit his family after the revolution. And he — she uses the language of reverts — he reverts back to this violent — and she uses really animalistic language. And all of the entire book, just says — he’s an animal, Muslims are animals. Iranians are animals. They hate women. This is what they do to women — and by this, I mean, abuse and beat and rape women. And that’s why I, the exceptional, the elect, white American lady found it within myself to escape. And like, on the one hand, it’s pretty easy to look at that book and go, wow, that’s, that’s really racist, unless you’re me in seventh grade, it took me a while, as I said.
But the challenging part is that like Betty Mahmoody is a real lady. She says that her husband abused her. As a feminist, and as a person on this planet, I want to take that story seriously. That’s important. Abuse happened in that relationship. At the same time, this story about one woman’s abusive relationship gets extrapolated into, well, this is why we’re right to be afraid of Muslims, in particularly Muslim men.
This is why it is okay, and in fact, important for us to surveil, regulate, bomb Muslim majority countries. The movie, “Not Without My Daughter” was actually released the same week that we went — we went into Iraq. So what we see, in my book and in these stories, is these small stories that like white ladies love.
They love them so much. No, like “Not Without My Daughter” still airs on Oprah’s Network on the regular. My mother fricking loves this book and I guarantee you it’s the only book she’s ever read, the only book that a lot of people’s moms, have ever read about Islam. And they look at this and go, well, okay. I know everything I need to know about Muslim men. We’re right to be scared of them or right to control them or surveil them or meet them with violence. And so you get the one story extrapolated into really international policy in violent ways that also make less space for religious difference in the world and in this country. Right? It dehumanizes others, minoritized Muslims in the United States, despite the fact that there have been Muslims in the United States since before there was a United States.
Yeah. So, so talk to us a little bit about this, about why that’s, why this is a problem, right? Like you’re, you’ve sort of walked us through that a little bit. And I wanted to, I want to ask you to do a little bit more of that. Why is it a problem? So, so let’s say we take this woman’s story as truth.
Which is contested let’s, let’s also say — that she has family members and her husband, pushed back against the story hard, so…
Right, right. Okay. So let’s say, let’s say any story in which a religious minority is being charged with abuse, and it’s, and that happens, right? Like that’s a real thing that happens. So why is it a problem for us to pay attention to that? Shouldn’t we be paying attention to all stories of abuse?
Yes. A hundred percent. We should absolutely be paying attention to all stories of abuse. Here’s the thing — religion does not cause abuse. Race does not cause abuse. We see abuse literally everywhere there are people. That’s not good news, obviously.
My concern is when we want to look at these stories and find the cause of abuse in a religious or a racial minority or a religio- racial minority, if we’re going to think through Judith Weisenfeld, and, and “New World A-Coming.” So, the problem is, we go, all right. This story proves to me that Muslim men are abusive and the problem is Islam.
The abuse comes from Islam. Islam is an inherently abusive religion. These stories tell us, or in the case of a Mormon fundamentalist in Texas. The state of Texas said, you practice polygamy because religion. Polygamy is inherently abusive. You do polygamy because religion. The problem is religion. We need to get these kids and these women out of this religious community.
And so rather than address the real systemic crisis, that is the abuse of women and children, and say, that’s on all of us. That’s an everybody problem. That’s an American problem. What we want to do is say, you’re doing religion wrong. You’re doing sex wrong and that’s what’s wrong. That’s why you’re getting abused.
And so it’s another way of honestly, victim-blaming, like, Oh, if you’re going to live in a polygamous –polygamous community, if you’re going to be a white lady, dumb enough to marry a Muslim man, then that’s what happens. Right? And so it both, again, makes less space for lived religious difference in a country that says that it’s dedicated to religious freedom.
Right? But it also doesn’t fix abuse. Showing up with tanks and the front lawn of a community that’s been expecting for truly generations, the government to show up and take their kids — government shows up with a tank, takes your kids. This does not make abuse stop happening. It means minority religious communities trust the state even less.
It means that there’s no place to go if you do need to get out, because if this is the only community you’ve ever known, and the only other option you think you have is a state that’s going to take your kids, where do you go? And so abuse keeps happening and it makes it harder to get out of an abusive relationship or a community that facilitates abuse.
That’s great. That’s really helpful. Let me, let me, let me reflect back to what I hear you’re saying. I think this is a new concept for a lot of us. Right? So, so I appreciate you all being asked to make this connection. I want to make sure we’re getting it right. So, so let me, let me reflect back what I’m hearing. Abuse happens everywhere. Abuse is systemic. And the problem with the way we deal with it is that we try to deflect it outside of whiteness. So outside of what’s what we consider normative and yeah, I guess it almost feels like we don’t want it to be — right, psychologically? — we don’t want abuse to be part of something that happens around us. And so we want to be distant from it. And what, the way we distance it in, in your argument is, we racialize it along the lines of religious difference and say, Oh, it’s not us. It’s those people.
Well, and it’s really interesting too. I know a lot of your other guests have talked about the way that whiteness is contingent, right? Like it’s not a fixed state. Race is not a fixed state. But looking at these case studies together, it’s interesting to see the ways that like Mormon fundamentalists, who are phenotypically about as white as they come, start being described in language that we use toward Muslims. A reporter on Anderson Cooper actually referred to the FLDS, a Mormon fundamentalist sect, as the American Taliban. They talked about the modest clothing that these women wear like burqas. And it is fascinating to watch the racialization of super pale people because they’re doing religion differently in a way that gets read as, not properly white, not properly religious, in a very Christian sort of understanding of what religion should look like — mainstream Christian, I should say because obviously FLDS is Christian — not white, not Christian, not American.
Yeah. That’s super interesting. I mean, it’s, it’s quite literally not something I’d ever thought of before, so, I really appreciate it. Yeah, exactly. No, it’s, it’s If you’re joining us now, that’s the book is “Abusing Religion: Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals, and American Minority Religions.” And one of the really interesting things you do in the book for me is, it’s about abuse, right? Like that’s, that’s what you’re looking at, but it’s also about gender, right?
A lot of this stuff is gendered. And in the example you gave, really makes me wonder, and I’m hoping you can help us through your expertise and understanding — like if we take a step back from abuse and we just try and understand misogyny and the, like the, the hypocrisy, like it’s so hard not to notice it when we’re saying — the examples you’re giving of like, Oh, we will come to your country and save the women who are being oppressed. And at the very same time we have misogyny rampant here. Is that, is that part of the same phenomenon you’re talking about here? Which is like, it’s you, it’s not us. It’s your problem, it’s not mine.
Yes. A hundred percent where we are very comfortable. We are overly comfortable in identifying misogyny as an external to the United States problem. We are… okay, we’re a mess. So the problem is, and this is, this is one of the things that I look at, is that we are so comfortable with these stories about Islam, for example, does this to their women. So that not only do we have like a U.S. military incursion into Muslim majority countries like Afghanistan, you also have like white feminist organizations in the United States saying, Oh, you’re right. We do need to go bomb them to save the women. You’ve got Laura Bush saying that, you know, foreign, or sorry, national security is an issue about the rights and the dignity of women.
So what we need to do to ensure the rights and the dignity of women is bombed the crap out of them and make sure that they are not getting any more foreign aid ’cause you can’t land that in a war zone. It just, it both doesn’t make us as Americans take responsibility for the internal misogyny of our country, like we saw just today, or not today, but this week with AOC, right? We don’t want to address the fact that being a woman in our federal government means that she faces that kind of horrible misogynist, violent language in her place of work. And then the New York Times wants to talk about her being disruptive, but I digress.
We let ourselves off the bat for that. But then we also do this horrible hypocritical thing of like, pretending we give a crap about women and the way that we give a crap about women is outside the country and by bombing them. So again, not addressing the systemic issues and honestly making them worse.
Yeah. Yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense. And it’s making me think of our failure as a society to really understand religious difference. It comes into play here, right? Like, so, so for example, the, the incursion into Afghanistan and this, this long-held trope of, we’re going there to save women who are being oppressed, and then showing up and engaging and then coming out and being like, but why are they still wearing hijabs? Right? Like why, like, why are they still veiling?
Like, why don’t you uncover your head people, right?
Yeah, exactly. And so it’s, it’s, there’s this really interesting intersection of gender and religion and how it’s racialized, in the context of foreign policy. And okay, I’m going to make you do a little bit more work for us because I know you can.
And not everyone can. So, so I’m appreciative. Just give us, give us a quick, a quick insight into how the, what I’m, I’m calling it a trope, right? It’s a long-held trope of we’re going to come into your world and save the women who are being oppressed. And that, that hypocrisy piece really bugs me. Can you talk a little bit about how that, how that’s played out historically? Like it’s not the first time — Afghanistan wasn’t the first time that happened.
It was not. Well, so, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Ooh. So much to say there, but, okay. So it is a hypocrisy. I also want to call it a willful ignorance because if we really cared about women, we would care that Black women are dying in childbirth and horrible rates every day. We would care about the fact that, if we’re going to look at a Mormon fundamentalist community, that they are isolated and don’t have access to education. But we are not fixing those problems. We are doing these sort of big, showy, very well-funded military incursions to save women in ways that don’t help protect, prevent abuse of, women or children. So, well, I will give you just one example because there, there are many, right? So the first time, to the best of my knowledge, that we see U.S. troops deployed against U.S. citizens is against the folks in the Utah, Territory at the end of the 19th century. Right? You got Mormons who have taken the U.S. at their word, said we are guaranteed religious freedom, and that the church — or the state — can’t pick sides, so we can do religion in the way that seems best to us. We’re going to go to Utah. We have a biblical precedent for the practice of polygamy, right? Abraham did this. Isaac did this. Like people have multiple wives. The Bible says this is okay, so we’re going to go out to the Utah Territory and do religion in a way that makes the most sense to us. And the level of national, truly hysteria about the practice of polygamy justifies sending state U.S. Troops against U.S. citizens. But if you look at, like the work of Sarah Beringia Gordon in “The Mormon Question,” she suggests that it’s possible we cared less about the women than we did about like, Oh, are we not going to have control of the Utah territory?
Is this a potential to like claim the assets of the nascent LDS church? So we use, as far as I can tell, women as cover to justify American imperialism. And that is absolutely a white supremacist undertaking, because what you see in the criticisms of early Mormon, polygamy are comparisons again to Islam, right?
You see pictures of Joseph Smith and other early church fathers, with darkened skin. You see these pictures, these orientalized pictures of Mormon, of a Mormon man, and his many, many wives that look like they’re taken out of like 19th century. It’s like straight up Edward Said, orientalist pictures. And again, we just, we see the ways that this idea of who can be American is really tied up in who’s doing religion right, which looks like a very specific kind of Christianity, and who’s doing whiteness right, which looks like a very sort of specific sort of religion and Americanness.
Yeah. That’s, that’s really helpful. And I think as you’re talking about it, I’m thinking about my own research in, in South Asia and looking at the ways in which the trope of rescuing women justified — was used to justify — colonialism.
And, and at a time when, you know, there’s, there’s all this discourse about how women are treated poorly and don’t have equal rights and, and, you know, everyone forgets in retrospect like women didn’t get the right to vote here until the early 20th century and later. Right?
And then, and then we don’t really see Black women having access to the vote until 1965. And then we don’t see Native women really have any access to the vote until 1978, the year that I was born, Simran. Oh, we really like to blame the brown folks who are not Christian for oppressing the women, and not in any way take responsibility for that ourselves.
Right, right. Totally. I appreciate that. Okay. So if you’re joining us, this is Dr. Megan Goodwin. We’re talking about religion, race, gender, abuse, all, all of those things, and this is what she writes about. This is her new book, “Abusing Religion.” And, and I want to ask you about this concept you talk about in the book that I think could be helpful for us.
It’s a little bit academic. So if you can, if you can help us understand what you mean by “contraceptive nationalism.” What does, what does it mean and how does it, how does it help us understand what you’re describing in the book?
Okay. So, contraceptive nationalism is both a very serious, theoretical intervention into how we think about the way that stories shape how we can be religious, how we can be racial, how we can be American. And it’s also a little bit of a joke, as I do. So contraceptive nationalism is the idea that we have these stories like “Under the Banner of Heaven” or “Not Without My Daughter,” that we use to protect ourselves literally and figuratively from invasion, and I very deliberately use the term insemination, by religious outsiders.
Right? Think of it like a book condom. So we read these stories– sorry, but, but that, I mean, like that, that’s where we’re coming at it from — so we read these stories. We learn, oh no, these people are dangerous. We keep space. We regulate. We surveil. We do violence against religious outsiders as a way to both protect white American women, but also America from becoming too other. I can keep going. But did that work for you?
Yeah, no, it makes sense. And, I think, I think one of the, one of the questions for me that comes out of it is, what, what’s, what’s the particular emphasis on white American women? Is there, is there not an equal attention that we pay to, to women of color, Black women, indigenous women? Is that, is that not something we see historically?
It is not something that we see historically at all. We almost don’t treat Black women or Native women or Asian women or any non-white woman like they’re people. Like they matter. Like their lives matter. And I mean, we’ll do a tiny little bit of history here as well.
Again, my expertise is in the United States and my understanding of white supremacy is, is very focused in the United States. But our understandings of race and religion in the United States happen at the very same time. When we are getting something called the United States, we are finding ways to say, alright, well, we forcibly converted Black women and Native women to Christianity, right, after having forcibly removed them from their homes in a number of different ways.
So they’re Christian now. We can’t justify it by enslaving them and killing them because they’re not Christian. So there must be something else about them that makes them not okay. That’s when we start getting this idea of whiteness and Blackness and Native identity. We get this idea of America being primarily for white Christian folks or who, as we kind of move through history, for folks who understand religion in a very Christian way, even if they themselves are not religious.
And it, it, we don’t see the valuation of Black women’s lives. We don’t see the valuation of Native lives. And we don’t see folks — actually, a really good example, I think was the recent mom’s demonstration in Portland, right? Where that was — I don’t want to denigrate that. I think white people getting out in front of state violence is a great thing to do.
I think mobilizing the fact that we are trained by all of this media, including stuff like “Not Without My Daughter” to think that white women are uniquely precious, they need to be preserved, they in some way represent America — using that to get out in front of state violence, rad. I’m hoping that they coordinated with local organizers of color and that, that was the thing that was asked for. Regardless though it is powerful. And at the same time, the images of mothers mourning, mothers being angry, mothers demanding justice, is nothing new. We saw this in Ferguson. We saw like, we saw this at Standing Rock. Like Standing Rock happens because a Native mother is trying to protect the land that her son is buried on, but we don’t see like a broad mainstream, CNN, ABC, cultural valuing of those mother’s grief and anger in the same way. Yeah. There really is something about white women that is uniquely mobilizing and I would say uniquely dangerous.
Yeah. It’s, it’s really interesting to use that as an example from even just this week where we can very specifically look at the news cycle and see, well, all this other stuff wasn’t really getting attention and all of a sudden these white moms are doing this thing and that’s, and that’s a story. Right? And why is that a story? That’s an interesting question.
Yeah, I appreciate that example. Let me, let me ask you to do some more work for us. I want to ask you about showing us a little more around how race and religion conspire, how they come together in how we see or how we think about abuse playing out in public. And as, as, as you prepare your response, I’m gonna, I’m gonna invite the audience to offer any questions or comments they have for Dr. Goodwin in the chat box and we’ll try and get to those as well. So wak us through an example. What does it look like to say that race and religion conspire to, I don’t know, impact, affect, change, distort the way we see abuse play out in public.
Yes, this is, this is the question for me, right? Is, I always go to this Patricia Lockwood place. She wrote a great book called “Priestdaddy” about growing up in a, in a rectory. I won’t go through it. But she, she talks about growing up Catholic and there being this sort of ambient sense that something was happening around abuse and the clergy, and that we all kind of knew what it was, but we sort of didn’t, and you wouldn’t want to say anything because eh, and the church does so much work.
So she has this refrain at the end of the book where she’s watching a friend be ordained and she just keeps thinking, got all these white men on the alter, who was protected? Who was protected? And the answer there is white folks, white children, white boys in particular. And this isn’t to say, or to in any way dismiss the fact that there were white boys who were abused Roman Catholic priests in the United States.
That absolutely happened. That is important. I don’t want to in any way dismiss that. But we also see as the stories start breaking about Roman Catholic clergy abuse, the face of the victim becomes a white, blonde haired, blue eyed boy from Boston, right? That’s who we think of when we think this is the person who’s been abused.
When in fact we know — those boys were abused. That matters. — at the same time, we know that the priests that were doing abuse in the Northeast for moved, not first internationally, but to the Southwest. And that meant that their victims then overwhelmingly were Latino boys, Native boys, Black boys, and we did not see community responses.
We did not see the kind of outrage. We did not see even the kind of monitoring within the church that had happened in the Northeast. Katie Holscher’s got some really great work on this as well. I’ll share that with you. So looking at the ways that we care about certain people’s suffering and certain people’s — we like to think of them as, they should be inviolable, right?
Like white womanhood should be inviolable. What children should be protected. This is who we care about. That’s really one of the mobilizing things when in the Satanic Panic, which is my other case study. That the idea that that white children are at risk is really mobilizing. And it, it not only ignores the fact that white children are not as at risk as Black children, Latino children, Native children, it keeps us focused away from the ways that race complicates these issues. It doesn’t make us take responsibility for the way that white supremacy allows, facilitates, and perpetuates abuse.
Yeah. Okay. So, so there, I guess there, there are two things you’re saying then, right? Like there’s, well, I’m trying to square your argument around, around race and religion and abuse. And so, on the one hand, we want to keep ourselves distant. And so we, we, we first pay attention to abuse when it happens in other communities and we racialize it and say, those are the perpetrators. Those are the bad guys. And then when we actually look within white communities and when we’re forced to, and we have to acknowledge that abuse is a problem, then we overly emphasize and overvalue the white experiences and neglect people of color’s experience when, when they’re victims of abuse.
Absolutely. Well, and so, yeah, the Catholic sex abuse example is where my book ends and it’s because it gets to be more complicated in like a media narrative. So if you’re looking at Mormon fundamentalists, if you’re looking at, at American Muslims, the move is, you do this religion. That religion is wrong. You’re doing it wrong. And I know because I know what religion is because it looks like mainstream white Christianity. And so the reason that abuse is happening is because you did religion wrong.
Catholicism, because it is the largest chunk of Christians in the United States, gets treated as a legitimate religion despite the fact that abuse is happening, right? You do have some folks from the outside saying, Hmm, Yes Catholicism, but also hashtag, not all Catholics, right? You do not have, members of a Catholic congregation being all charged as sex abusers because they allowed their kids to go to that church, which is actually what we see with the FLDS community in Texas that I’m looking at.
Every single adult member of that community was tagged as a sex abuser and had to come up with a plan to keep protecting the children, simply because they allowed the children to live in that community. Right? Tanks went in to take those kids away. We absolutely know that a staggering amount of abuse happened in, in so, too many Catholic communities, nobody sent tanks in about it.
Right? So the way that Christianity is, and Catholicism’s that we imagine as white, even though we know that Catholicism is not only white — shout out to Tia Pratt — we still allow them a complexity that we don’t allow minority of religions. They’re — Catholics get to be the heroes of this story is in, even as they are the victims and as they are the perpetrators.
Right, right. No, that sounds, that sounds super familiar in, in thinking about how, how race plays out, and the flattening of racialized communities. Right? And my, one of my constant frustrations as a racialized person is like when, when our stories are finally told, when we finally get to tell our stories, it’s only, it’s only a very one dimensional story that people care about. And so that makes total sense.
Then let me, let me ask you this. Can you talk a little bit about how — in, in so much of your book, you use media as the entry point into the content, right? Like it’s books, as you talked about before, you know, in terms of the Catholic abuse scandal, you’re, you’re, you know, talking about “Spotlight,” the film. So can you talk a little bit about the ways and which the, sort of, our engagement with media might shape our understandings of abuse?
And our understanding of religion is the thing. I think Americans are trained to assume that their religion like, lives in a specific building on a certain day of the week and happens in like a certain time, and that’s what religion is. So they’re not always aware when they’re watching Sally Field in “Not Without My Daughter” or Anderson Cooper or the news, right, that they’re getting a specific message about, here’s what religion should look like, and here’s what happens when you do it wrong. Right?
So if the — one, if the only images you ever see of like Mormon fundamentalist women is them weeping because we’ve taken their children away, you get this flattening of the community into polygamy, which is absolutely what we see reflected in the legislation that happens around the community as well. Right? Mormon fundamentalism equals polygamy equals abuse. Take the kids, get the women out, the end. There there’s no richness there in the way that we see richness for Catholicism in “Spotlight.”
Or humanity. Right? Totally.
Well, I want to pause just because the FLDS community in Eldorado did an amazing job of pushing back and using the media in a way that we hadn’t seen before. So you had those Mormon fundamentalist moms on TV saying, they have taken our children. You can’t just make this story about one thing, but still we’re not seeing that as much on Anderson Cooper. Right? We also assume that if we’re looking at like, media, as opposed to explicitly religious programming, that there’s not a religious agenda there, or there’s not a religious, a specific understanding of religion as one thing, right? We don’t think of Anderson Cooper or like Betty Mahmoody, who’s the author of “Not Without My Daughter,” as theorists of religion, but they are offering us a theory of what religion should look like to be respected, and a theory of what happens when you do religion wrong, i.e. abuse, right?
It’s sneaky. We think, Oh, this is a dumb movie that matter. Or like it’s the news, so there is no religious bias here. But very often Americans don’t even realize that their assumptions about religion are coming from a very white mainstream Christian place. So the media matters, one, because we don’t always recognize it as religious. Two, because it flattens these communities. It robs them of their humanity. It only gives us that one story. And three, very often it’s the only religious education most Americans get. We don’t talk about religion in public schools and for like complicated, historical, related to Catholicism, reasons, but we don’t get like a religion education like they do in the UK.
Not that the UK is perfect on religious difference either, obviously. People learn about religion through media. I’m not kidding when I say that, “Not Without My Daughter” is the only book my mom has ever read about Islam. I am also not kidding, when I say that I hate “Under the Banner of Heaven,” not only because Jon Krakauer is a really good writer and so it makes it very convincing, but because it’s not — it is both the only book that most people will ever look at about Mormon fundamentalism, but also the only book that people will ever look at about Mormons period, and by people, I mean, yeah, my mom, absolutely. But also lawyers. Lawyers cite ‘Under the Banner of Heaven” and Jon Krakauer as an authority on mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints all the time. And it is so biased and so violent and so well packaged that we don’t think necessarily to question those narratives unless we’ve been trained to.
Yup. Okay. So, so let me ask you the professor question now. You’ve given us a good — yeah, here we go. I’m going to, I’m going to professor… You’ve given us a good sense of, of what’s going on. And I want to ask you what’s at stake. So what do we miss out on? What do we lose? What’s the danger of not understanding this?
I mean, people die, abuse keeps happening, and we make it harder and harder for people to be different from each other safely. Again, we know that folks who are the most visibly religious are also folks who are racialized and are most at, in danger of facing physical violence, verbal harassment. It’s — we have made it unsafe to be not white, not Christian, or not doing or not doing religion in the public square in a specific way. So if we don’t understand that these stories are contributing to us being scared of people who are different from us, scared of people who are racialized, or who do religion in a way that we are trained to think is wrong, even if we’re not really sure why, people die and abuse keeps happening.
And I always come back to this — I come back to the FLDS case a lot because one of the responses, 10 years after the fact — so the raid happens in 2008. You’ve got Warren Jeffs, [inaudible], Willie Jessop’s doing interviews on Oprah in a 10years later sort of way, and he talks about the fact that because the community was raised to be scared of the outside world — with good reason, right? — there’s a long history of, violence and surveillance of Mormons and Mormon fundamentalists. They were raised to be scared of the outside world. So anytime that there was a report that abuse was happening, they said, Oh, that’s the mainstream media trying to discredit us. That’s not what we do.
That’s people from the outside telling us who we are and we know that’s not true. And, Willie Jessop says, this is one of the reasons he thinks abuse happened for so long in that community. The reason that Warren Jeffs could get away with it for so long is because anytime there was a criticism, it was — that’s from the gentiles. That’s from the outside. That’s not us. When in fact it had been happening all along. So if we want to make abuse less common, and it is staggeringly common, we need to create conditions of possibility where folks who are being abused can get out safely, that they have resources.
None of that involves sending tanks into communities. Tanks, spoilers, make no one safer. So trying to address the core causes of abuse, things like isolation, poverty, lack of education, patriarchy, the misogyny that we talked about, right, those things happen everywhere they happen absolutely in the Yearning for Zion community in Eldorado, but also they happen in downtown Lubbock, and pretending that there’s something unique about the abuse that happens in a small religious community, as opposed to the abuse that happens four doors down from us, or in our own homes, because that’s the hardest one to address, keeps us from doing anything to prevent abuse from happening.
Can I ask you one last question? And that’s a, it’s a pragmatic one at the end of your, of your comments. You just alluded to some things we could do to improve conditions. What, what would you suggest in terms of people who are listening to this program right now? Where do we start?
Cool. Cool. I’m just going to fix racism and abuse real quick. Give me a second. I mean, I think in a small — like I’m in a white fragility place of like, I don’t want to pretend that the answer to a systemic problem is individual responses. Right? And I don’t hear you suggesting that either. But I, I do think a very small, very achievable start is being conscientious about the media that we consume, the media that we give our dollars to. If folks are gonna make racist stories, if folks are gonna make religiously intolerant stories, let’s not hype those, not — let’s not give them our money. Let’s be very aware of who we’re voting for and what sort of things they say about minority religions about — yeah. If your rep is trying to pass an anti-Sharia law, maybe pay attention to that and don’t vote for them.
But also just thinking about, how can I make more space for religious and racial difference in my own community? Am I showing up at, you know, school board meetings and saying, Hey, you make space for Christmas, but what about Ramadan? In a very, like — my co-host on “Keeping it 101,” Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst, is very upset about calendars because they pretend to be secular and they are not secular.
So how can I, in my role make just a little bit more space for religious, racial outsiders? Can I say, alright, my students are fasting during exams, so we needed another option? Can I say if we’re going to represent the complexity of our campuses or the complexities of our communities that, that happens out in public?
Can I, can I very specifically, this one’s on me, take my role as a white lady and then go learn from the local communities about what they want and what they need? So like my action item for the day is, I just recently learned that the Somali Bantu community in Lewiston, which is about an hour north of where I live, I’m in Maine, is trying to buy land, because the biggest impediment for farmers of color and particularly Black farmers in Maine is access to land.
So like, they have specifically asked, can you donate to this so that we can get land? This is a place where like, I am a comfortable white lady. I can put money toward that because that’s what they said they needed. And then just try to learn from the other communities that are minoritized where I am and find out what they need and then do that.
That’s great. That’s really helpful. And I have, I have another, pragmatic question coming in from the audience. What can we do as a society, to not be those that are treating others differently just because they’re not like what society says they should be? What can we do as citizens regarding politics and religion come into play when it comes to minorities, being the lower class and not treated as equal to the white superiority?
Okay. So I think there are individual and systemic responses there as well. Right? So if you’re thinking about, Oh, do I want to support local initiatives around school funding or school lunches or again, I’m in a very teacher space here — when we’re thinking at a time when so many people are vulnerable, to assume that folks needing help isn’t their fault, right?
That folks who are already vulnerable in communities need help because we have set up a system that is unjust, particularly towards racial minorities, or the racially minoritized, I should say. So paying attention to those tiny things — tiny, hah. Just, just pay attention a little bit to systemic racism and like vote like that matters and it exists and then, and everything will be fine.
And then if you’re thinking about just what you personally can do in your own home, aside from like, Hey, these causes led by organizers of color said that they need this kind of support, so do that. Do that, but also maybe be conscientious about the media you’re consuming. Right? Are you only seeing one kind of story about — I’m going to keep coming back to American Muslims — because the thing is, there are a lot of kinds of stories about American Muslims. You have to go looking harder for some than others, right? So if there are American Muslims who are telling their stories and are trying to make things more complex, go looking for those stories. Talk to some folks who know about these things. As we like to say on Keeping it 101, do your homework.
That’s great. And, and I’m gonna, I’m going to plug, you know, part of my homework, that, you know, reading your book opened my eyes to, is — so there, there are ways in which communities are flattened and we need to complicate those understandings.
And, and that’s, that’s, that’s been sort of clear to me, I think probably because of my own personal experiences. But sometimes you don’t know the, the ways in which race and religion intersect to create other kinds of problems. Right? And so, so your book, if you haven’t gotten it yet “Abusing Religion,” like that’s, it’s a good kind of homework, right? Like it’s, it’ll, it’ll open your eyes to something else. So, we have a question from David that I want to offer, and this is to you as a professor now. Have our religious studies, undergrad programs failed?
Oh my goodness. Well, let’s, let’s start again with the systemic response. I think religious studies undergraduate programs are more failed against than failing. I think we’ve seen a systemic devaluation of the humanities, less important than like skills training and STEM.
And so when we found ourselves in a moment where the people who are in charge of our country want to be. Bundle everything up as like, yeah, there’s a virus, but let’s also use this as an excuse to like lock up some more immigrants and keep Muslims out of the country — humanities classes help us understand where those systems come from and how they perpetuate themselves. That universities do not value them is a problem beyond where individual religious studies professors might or might not be messing up.
At the same time, a thing I’m seeing the more that I am doing this work, is that particularly folks who have been in the academy for a long time have either been rewarded for not making a scene, not causing a ruckus, or have had to, in the case of minoritized professors have had to keep their heads down in a lot of ways just so that they can survive in these campuses that allow white supremacy to flourish as they all do. People are reluctant to engage new thoughts, particularly when they make us feel bad about ourselves, right? This is — my work, I think, always helps us to feel a little bit worse about ourselves.
But if, as a white professor, since I can really only speak for myself, if I only teach things that make me feel comfortable, if I only teach and read things that reaffirm that I am right to be as I am in the world, then I never become aware of how I’ve both personally and systemically contributed to white supremacy. And that’s not okay. So rather than saying like all these departments messed up, A) fund the humanities. It won’t fix everything, but, it’s a start.
But also, B) Like I can, as a white professor, and I would encourage many other white professors to do likewise, think about where are my assumptions about who counts and who doesn’t structuring my classes. So again, I will use my I-statements — a thing that I am doing this semester specifically, is I am teaching, I’m teaching for the fourth time my American minority religions class, which at Northeastern University is called Cults and Sex — I did not pick that name. It’s not my fault — but I have taught this, yeah, this will be the fourth time. And usually my emphasis is on gender and sexuality. And we always talk about race, because how do you talk about American religion without talking about race? You shouldn’t. It does happen, but you shouldn’t. This semester specifically, I am only making books required that were written by Black women.
So we are specifically looking at this term cults, as it gets used to control, to critique, to surveil, to do violence against, minoritized religions in the United States. So we’re looking at Judith Weisenfeld’s “New World A-Coming” that really anchors the text. And she suggests that Black religious innovation gives folks a space to imagine both a past outside slavery and a future outside oppression. That’s really exciting.
We are reading, “So You Want to Talk about Race” because I have realized in the past that when I teach these classes, I kind of do like, okay, well, we’re going to set up the theory on race. Good, good, great. Let’s keep moving. And I want that to be a slower, more thoughtful, more deliberate conversation. And I think particularly for undergrad, she’s a really good conversation partner for that.
And then we’re reading Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” and “Parable of the Talents,” because again, written by a Black woman, is specifically about a new religious movement founded by a Black woman and does just an amazing job of both sketching out the possibilities created by religious innovation, but also being like very prophetic about the ways that climate crisis and white supremacy work together to just mess us all up.
So that’s, that was, that’s what I’m doing right now and, other professors, I am happy to talk about this and I’m on Twitter all the time. So, you know, give a shout.
If you don’t follow her on Twitter, it’s what, MpgPhD? Is that right?
MPGPhD. There will be curse words on it.
Yeah. And that’s, that’s fine. That’s how it is. Right?
Well, that’s how I do.
Well, thank you. Thank you so much for all your time, Dr. Goodman. It’s so kind of you to, to share your wisdom with us, your learnings, your insights. Like I said, a lot of what you do in the book is, it’s, it’s stuff I haven’t really thought about. It was really eye opening. It’s “Abusing Religion: Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals, and American Minority Religions.”
It just came out this month from Rutgers University Press. And there’s, it’s really interesting in the way it connects the dots around minoritization, gender, race, religion in America. So, so thanks for your time and thanks for the book.
Thank you so much. This is wonderful.
Yeah. And thank you all for joining us today. I really appreciate being on this journey together to become less racist and it’s, it’s just wonderful to have you all this company. And I hope we move together towards anti-racism. We’ll be back next week. And like today as with every episode, we’ll try to learn as much as we can about what racism has looked like in this country and what we can do about it.
So take care and thank you all.