Select Page

For this month’s issue of the Forum, 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 summative response to the posts. We invite you to join the roundtable conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments section.

The first contribution to the roundtable comes from Anthony M. Petro (Boston University) in an essay titled, “How Not to be a (Religious Demographic) Size Queen in an Epidemic.”   

How Not to be a (Religious Demographic) Size Queen in an Epidemic

by Anthony M. Petro

On August 2, 1986, infamous lawyer Roy Cohn died of liver cancer, a diagnosis we might today call an “alternative fact.” Cohn rose to prominence in the 1950s, when he served as chief council in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s effort to stamp out communists living in the U.S. “Communism” was a slippery term, one that often extended to those marked by sexual, racial, and political positions that fell short of McCarthy’s yardstick for measuring true American patriotism.

In the 1970s, Cohn worked as a lawyer for Donald Trump. In 1973, he defended the real estate magnate against Department of Justice charges that the Trump Organization violated the Fair Housing Act when it developed a secret system to discriminate against African Americans and others considered “undesirable.” Cohn was disbarred in 1986. The reasons, explains the New York Times, included “‘unethical,’ ‘unreasonable,’ and ‘particularly reprehensible’ conduct.” When Cohn died, Trump remarked: “That’s the end of an era.”

Last semester, a month after the 2016 election, I taught Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1993 play Angels in America in a class on religion and politics in the U.S. since the 1960s. The main antagonist of Angels, set in New York City in 1985, is the irascible Roy Cohn, a bullying lawyer haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and touched by “the wine-dark kiss of the angel of death” (a fictional alternative offered not by Cohn, who is dying of “liver cancer,” but by the play’s protagonist Prior Walter, whose AIDS diagnosis begins with a mark identified as Kaposi’s sarcoma). Angels is very much a play about time, even about an era, one in which God has left heaven. Angels seek out Prior Walter, their prophet, who they hope will call humans to stop moving, to stop time, so that God will return. Prior refuses. At the play’s end, he calls not for the end but for “more time.”

What my students and I find most challenging about this play is not the political history it rehearses. Granted, most of my students, born in the late 1990s, know little about the history of the AIDS crisis in the U.S., including its emergence through anti-gay and racist assumptions about the mostly marginalized people who lived with and died from AIDS. They also know little about the Reagan era generally. But they are eager to learn this history.

What we find more challenging in class discussions is Kushner’s genre. Not a narrative history but a play. Not a realist drama but a “fantasia.” Not a conventionally secular account but one shot through with angels and Mormons, Jews and ghosts. We have a difficult time making sense of how the world of the play, which mixes various ideas of history with commercial and religious fantasy, relates to the world we know, which seems bereft of history and myth and fantasy (to say nothing of Jewish ghosts, Mormon statues coming to life, and intersex angels that copulate). Kushner’s play disorders the neat categories into which we hope to understand the world, to understand history. Left or right, blue or red, black or white, citizen or immigrant, male or female, fact or fiction, secular or religious—we prefer our categories neat and binary.

I find myself consistently turning to the catastrophes of the 1980s to make some sense of the crises in which we find ourselves today. This is partly because my first book, After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion, focused on a period in the U.S. that I playfully call the “long 1980s.” The resonances between “then” and “now” are not accidental. Launched to the status of real estate and celebrity icon in the 1980s, Trump now finds himself perched atop this country’s highest political (and celebrity) office. If Roy Cohn’s death in 1986 ended an era—and we should be curious what that era was: the era of McCarthyism? The era when America was great?—then Trump’s political emergence seems to inaugurate a new one.

It’s far too soon, however, to know whether or not the movement behind Trump’s ascendance marks a break from the past. And it’s unclear how it will shape the ways we study religion, including the study of religion in the U.S., beyond a slew of books, no doubt many already forthcoming, that will attempt to say something informative about religion and Trump, but will mostly rehash what we already know. (I’m sure I will assign one or two).

We will need intellectual tools to understand the forms that religion will take and how they will impact American politics, from its formal operations through the very ways we imagine ourselves and others as citizens (or non-citizens). This moment, perhaps more than any time in the last couple decades, requires that we think with sophistication about the work of religious language, especially in its Protestant formulations, and the work that it does. It seems important, for instance, to recognize how Trump’s movement invokes the rhetoric of apocalypse to claim the coming of a new king and the start to making American great (again). Too many of those who oppose Trump share in this narrative as well, seeing a dystopic future ruled by hatred. We can live within this Protestant American narrative, taking advantage of the powerful and negative (but mobilizing) affects that it engenders. We could also refuse the Trump movement’s desire to control the rhetorical terms of its emergence. Trump is not the divine second coming. In most ways, he’s not even new.

What we do know is that our current moment represents an intensification and a new permutation of populist, racist, xenophobic, sexist, ableist, and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric that has long belonged to this nation. To begin to unpack this moment in our teaching and writing about religion in the U.S., we will need to reconsider the sites and the scale of our analyses. We need to break out of our bubbles. But which bubbles?

After the election, many students articulated their frustrations with the divide between liberal versus conservative media and called for us (liberal and well-educated coastal dwellers) to read across the aisle. They reproduced assumptions now ubiquitous in news and social media that decry the limits of the liberal bubble and assert the need to encounter “the other” America.

I agree that we need to encounter alternative ways of being in the world. But I’m not interested in breaking out of whatever academic, liberal bubble into which we’ve been cast by reading Hillbilly Elegy. I’d rather read James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain or Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. I’d rather screen John Waters’ Pink Flamingos or Catherine Gund’s Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance and ask what a contemporary performance of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian might tell us about religion today. I want to push the scope of religious studies—and the study of U.S. religions—into the deteriorating piers that David Wojnarowicz transformed into art in the late 1970s. Not because this work had a greater impact on the 2016 election than 80% of white evangelicals. But because it might tell us more about how to avoid demographic reduction, to see the tentacles of American religion elsewhere, to augment paranoia with reparation (to borrow from Eve Kosofky Sedgwick).

If our current crisis offers an incitement—to research, to teaching—I hope it galvanizes resources, not only to decode the current administration’s classificatory language of “betrayal” or national days of “patriotic devotion” or aesthetics of religious freedom that saturate social media, but also to find the pleasures of past resistances, of queer jeremiads, of antiracist drag queens, of country bastards.

Two confessions. First, I didn’t assign Angels because I thought it might help us understand something about Trump’s election or because I had the foresight to draw connections between the 1980s and now—between Cohn and Trump, between the racism and antigay (nationalist, theological) rhetoric of then and the xenophobic, anti-femme (nationalist, theological) rhetoric of today. I didn’t expect Trump to win, even as my students and I developed an archive of religious studies analysis that might have prepared us for this moment. Any prescience on my part was an accident. It’s also a pedagogical lesson: we can’t know in advance what texts, juxtaposed through what kinds of readings (paranoid, reparative, camp, surface), might be most helpful moving forward. Can we come to see fantasy, fiction, art, and performance, for instance, not as sites of escape but as sites of critical analysis, places that do the work of religion and politics, modes of immanent engagement?

My second confession: I find Chicano AIDS artist and activist Ray Navarro (video below) donning Jesus drag to save lives a more fecund site for learning about religion and politics than I do rehearsing the percentage of “x” people identifying as “y” religion who voted for “z” candidate. Of course, we don’t need to choose one or the other. Yet it seems we’ve been far better at paying attention to the latter than to various manifestations of the former.

Whatever we learn in the coming years, I hope we vary the scales of our analysis from 140-character tweets to the bigness of what Sedgwick might call crises of racial, religious, and sexual definition that structure (and fracture) contemporary Western thought. And I hope we can train the sights of our analysis far beyond the head of state. My teaching and research have already been galvanized perhaps more than anything else by the activist work of ACT UP in the 1980s and by the daunting and necessary call by the Movement for Black Lives to place histories of racism at the heart of American studies and to make our work not only attentive to these histories but also antiracist in its vision. I take this as a call to creation.

Anthony M. Petro is an assistant professor in the Department of Religion and in the Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Program at Boston University. His teaching and research interests include religion and culture in the United States; religion, medicine, and public health; and gender and sexuality studies. His first book, After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion (Oxford, 2015), investigates the history of U.S. American religious responses to the AIDS crisis and their role in the promotion of a national moral discourse on sex. He has published essays on a number of topics, including histories of Catholic sexual abuse, critical disability studies and religion, and approaches to studying race, gender, and sexuality in North American religion.

*images and media: Trump photo (Ralph Freso | Getty); Angelus Novus (Paul Klee); video clip from the documentary “How to Survive a Plague” (David France | IFC Films)