From the Desk of Laurel Zwissler: The Relationship between Religion and Politics

Zwissler_LaurelLaurel Zwissler is an assistant professor in the Philosophy and Religion Department at Central Michigan University. Her new book Religious, Feminist, Activist: Cosmologies of Interconnection (Nebraska, 2018) investigates the political and religious identities of women who understand their social-justice activism as religiously motivated. 

The stories we tell frame our worlds. As an anthropologist, it is my job to look with clear eyes at the ways that narratives construct self-images, notions of who is and is not included within community, what the right thing to do in a difficult situation is or is decidedly not. My book, Religious, Feminist, Activist: Cosmologies of Interconnection, recently published in the Anthropology of Contemporary North America series with University of Nebraska Press, highlights stories that are often left out of public conversations about human rights and social change. These are the stories of progressive activists who find motivation and support for their work within religious communities. Especially at a time when political exhaustion encourages even otherwise-careful scholars to accept a caricature of “Religion” or “Christianity” in their most socially conservative forms, a major contribution of the book is to highlight religious communities that promote very different ways of combining religion and politics.

Examining categories such as religion, secularization, and ritual, in relation to my ethnographic work allows me to offer new theoretical perspectives on debates that continue to structure both academic and popular discussions about the ideal relationship, or lack thereof, between religion and politics. I conducted interviews with feminist activists who identify as Catholic, contemporary Pagan, and mainline Protestant. Even more revealing, I got the opportunity to spend time within their three communities, including tagging along to public protests, volunteer work, and creative ritual actions.

Political ritualizing is a physical way that activists bring their religions into public space and advocate for ethics-based discourse in policy decisions. For feminists, LGBTQ+ communities, and others allied with those historically on the margins of both church and state, the category of “spirituality” can be an especially attractive and politically useful alternative to the forced choice of either “religion” or “secularism.” Yet this third category is also indebted to conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism inherited from the colonial period. Exploring the ongoing relationship between feminism and religion in North America, I began to rediscover connections between contemporary feminist movements and women’s reform efforts in the Progressive era, in addition to the roles of religion later in the 20th century within the Civil Rights movement (which is often recognized) and the women’s liberation movement (which is not). This enables me to place current activists within historical context as just the newest religiously motivated advocates for restructuring attitudes around gender, sexuality, and economic justice.

The Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Sanctuary Cities, March for Our Lives, the Dreamers, Standing Rock, Trans* rights: all of these movements for social change, like the global  justice work close to the hearts of my study participants, involve people from across the social spectrum, and that inherently includes religious diversity. To be even more explicit, religion is as much a part of progressive movements in North America as it is of politically conservative efforts. Failing to acknowledge this fact, either historically or in the contemporary moment, means handing over definitions of what counts as “true religion” to social conservatives focused on prescriptions of purity.

Religious, Feminist, Activist provides documentation that supports at least one counter-narrative to the assumption that religion and conservative politics are inextricably linked, another story that I believe is important not only ethically, but also empirically. If we want to understand “Religion in North America,” we need to pay attention to its diversity and its full power across the political spectrum. I am deeply grateful to my participants, certainly for sharing their stories with me and allowing me to share them with you, but even more for the radical love-in-action from which those stories emerge.


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