Arlene Sánchez-Walsh’s essay, “Writing Latinxs into the Canon,” is the fourth installment in this month’s issue of the Forum. For this issue, we have invited a small cadre of religion scholars to participate in a “scholars’ roundtable” reflecting on the implications of a Trump presidency for the academic study (and teaching) of religion. Throughout the month we will be publishing pieces by a diverse group of scholars in the fields of religion and religious studies. Each scholar has been invited to share how the “Trump phenomenon” will shape (or has already shaped) their particular research, teaching, and activism as scholars of religion. Sarah E. Fredericks, Assistant Professor of Environmental Ethics at the Divinity School, will close out the series by offering a response to the posts. We invite you to join the roundtable conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments section.
Previous contributions to the roundtable:
- Anthony M. Petro (Boston University), “How Not to be a (Religious Demographic) Size Queen in an Epidemic”
- Kent Brintnall (University of North Carolina at Charlotte), “It’s Complicated”
- Jawad Anwar Qureshi (University of Chicago), “‘I think Islam hates us’: Teaching Islam in an Islamophobic Era”
Writing Latinxs into the Canon
by Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh
Shortly after the 2016 election, a former student of mine emailed me his very funny, very prescient final exam essay in which he was asked to create a new religion. He called his new religion “Bae-ism.” Bae-ism includes worship of Donald Trump, one of a satellite of avatars of self-absorbed, egomaniacal entertainers that made up the godhead, along with Kanye West and wrestler Steve Austin (the latter of whom I admittedly know nothing about). The student, a young white evangelical (the only white evangelical demographic to disapprove of Trump according to polls), was writing me because he was horrified that his fictitious religion had somehow come true. He asked me to share his essay with my current students in hopes that it would help shine a light on the absurdity of the moment.
Teaching religion in the age of Trump has its benefits. For one, my youngish and predominantly white evangelical audience is not all that into politics. So they don’t discuss politics in class, they get bored with long, drawn-out discussions, and for the most part they’re not sure what to make of Trump. For some, he’s just an old man, ranting and raving; they equate him with their conservative grandfathers, someone you listen to with one earbud in and the other out. For the minority of African American students in my classes, Trump is a reminder of what their parents taught them America was like for previous generations. They can hardly believe that many of their white classmates (and co-religionists) are largely responsible for his election. The realization that African Americans live tenuously on the periphery of white evangelical culture became a reality to these students, and they have responded with varying degrees of urgency. For many who come from accommodating church cultures, getting along with the dominant culture means putting up with the Trumps of the world. For others, the urgency of the moment is enough to turn them into activists. For my Latinx students, many live in the “in between” of white evangelical culture. They are daughters and sons of converts, having been been grafted onto a white evangelical political culture that privileges the culture wars, but they don’t find a champion in Trump. Many are also products of immigrant families forced into the shadows by the creeping machine of mass deportations now governed by one of the most anti-Latinx administrations in history. Many of my Latinx students, like me, are Catholic. They chose to attend an evangelical school because it offered them the chance to stay close to home, financial aid, and the prestige of a private university degree. For those students, who are not part of the political or theological culture of white evangelicalism (also like me), they take some solace in knowing they had nothing to do with Trump’s election, but (like me) they don’t know what to do now.
So how can I best serve my Latinx students and my colleagues during these most uncertain of times? Persevere. I write about Latinxs who enter into varieties of white evangelical/Pentecostal culture and are, historically and today, often subject to various levels of assimilation calculated to preserve the white dominant culture. This work helps me better understand this moment in history as far from unique, and certainly not “unchartered waters.” Pundits, who sincerely or cynically rave about the uniqueness this historical moment, do not know much about Latinx history (or fail to consider it). There have been mass deportations before, sterilization programs before, militarized police in our communities before—so what, if anything, is new? Should we change our approach to studying the religious impulses of Latinx communities now?
If anything, I think we should re-double our efforts to stress that studying and teaching American religious history without Latinxs is historically inaccurate and contributes significantly to the problem. The Trump Administration exploited the centuries-old depiction of Latinx communities and individuals as law-breakers, security risks, and unassimilable. That so many scholars scholars of American religion believe they can understand the religious lives of Latinxs without understanding this historical context speaks to the myopic lenses of many in our field, the apologetic and confessional lenses of evangelical historians, and an academic publishing industry focused on status quo narratives in order to maintain a (ever so small) profit margin.
My new work, focusing simultaneously on Latinxs who are part of the prosperity gospel and the limits of American exceptionalism, attempts to put the present era in some context. My work argues that there are limits to the narrative of American exceptionalism for Latinx prosperity adherents. Latinx prosperity adherents believe that material success is a Providential sign of blessing and that a robust faith in the prosperity gospel will include instant acceptance into American culture at large. Latinx prosperity gospel adherents, like their evangelical older cousins, believe that their Protestant faith makes them worthy of entering into the Weberian ladder of capitalist success. While that may be true (in some cases), even many of those who achieve some material success continue to be viewed as “problems” because of their inability (or supposed inability) to assimilate. Thus, rather than writing about Latinx religious communities as entities separated from the contextual history of U.S. religious life, the task now becomes more urgent and more clear—we must write Latinxs into the canon, teaching about their experiences as part of the narrative. There is no other choice.
Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh is associate professor of religious studies at Azusa Pacific University. She is the author of the award-winning book, Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Self, and Society. She has authored over a dozen articles and book chapters on the subject of Latino/a religion and has served as a media expert for outlets such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and On Being with Krista Tippett. Sánchez-Walsh’s current projects include a monograph on Latino/as, American exceptionalism, and the prosperity gospel. Her book, Pentecostalism in America, will be published in late 2017 by Columbia University Press.
* Photo images: Feature image, Lucila Herrer and Ricardo Romero attending Mass in Brooklyn (Michael Nagle | The New York Times); The Rev. Wilfredo de Jesus delivers a sermon at the New Life Covenant Church in Chicago (Miriam Acosta)