By Meera Subramanian

This article is cross-posted from The Revealer, a publication of The Center for Religion and Media at New York University


I am overly pragmatic. Each day seems so finite, and there is so much work to do. Big work, made out of endless little work. Schools to construct. Minds to make literate. Wells to dig and water to purify. Inoculations to give and hair to braid and food to feed growing bodies. So many streets to sweep and toilets to build.

Instead, it is time for aarti, the Hindu puja taking place this night, and every night, in hundreds of little temples like this one in Varanasi, India. Someone led me here to this place, tucked into the labyrinth of alleyways behind the Manakarnika Ghat, where bodies are burning. On the way, along the other ghats on the water’s edge, we passed a series of Ganga Aartis – floodlights! amplification! – that attract Indian and foreign tourists alike for the full pilgrimage experience. The masses were stacked on the steps that link city to water and packed into handmade wooden boats just offshore, cameras flashing.But the power went out moments after we passed and we found our way by flashlight to the temple building dimly lit with the inverter’s stored energy.

The Hindu priest is kind, allowing my camera and my curious eyes as I witness the rituals I have watched since I was young. Shiva is the focus here, the stone lingam – more breast than phallus – the centerpiece set in a square of silver embedded into the floor like a pious pit. The priest spends more time in careful preparation for the ritual than it will take to enact it, when three other priests join him and, together their hand bells thunder in unison in rhythm to their chants. As a child, the smell of flowers and fire and the hypnotic sound of the chants would transfix me. Now I can appreciate that this ritual incorporates the five elements into one seamless act. Always I have viscerally loved the moment when, at the end, I can place my cupped hands over the heat of the flame and bring them to my face, my eyes closed.

But I have grown old and I think too much. Now, each day is finite. Now, each and every thing of beauty has a cost. What did it take to bring this beauty here? I watch the meticulous preparations leading up to the aarti, and each object the priest touches whispers its past to me, a hidden history of labor diverted from other work that wouldn’t have been destined for fleeting flames. I think of the…

…seed that was sown that grew the plant that yielded the flower. The hands that plucked the flowers – orange marigold, pink rose, white jasmine, purple petunia, red carnation – and threaded each one onto a garland. The priest’s hands undoing the work as he places each blossom around the lingam. Someone mined the silver and mined the gold, and a boy with too-big jeans has been polishing the metals for an hour. It was likely a woman who gathered the fodder that fed the cow that made the milk that was churned into butter, who stoked the fire that transformed the butter into ghee. Perhaps a farmer in Punjab grew the cotton and a day laborer harvested the crop, which a man now twists into wicks for the oil lamps, fueled with the ghee. Did a child’s small fingers make the match that he strikes to make the flame? Who forged the bell that hangs overhead? Who harvested the sandalwood and ground it into the powder that made the paste daubed onto the lingam? Who grew the fruit set on the platter in offering? The priests took the time to learn the prayers, tongues wrapped around Sanskrit. The worshippers took the time to come to temple, winding through the footpath galis, between the cows and over the dung in the dark during a blackout so ordinary that a flashlight was already in hand. They reach up to ring the bell and bow their heads, calling to the gods. They bring sweets or a few rupee coins to leave on the priest’s rug, woven from wool that someone sheared from a sheep. When it is all done, the priest sweeps the air with tail hairs from a water buffalo, bundled together into a silver-handled broom.

I think too much. For the men who attend, and the few women who venture out in the night (most women come in for the daylight aartis), it was just a few minutes of their time, a few coins from their pocket as offering. A moment of respite and reverie, god-love and grace in a messy world. But multiply the moments. The bills and coins, stacked into a roll and folded deftly into the waistline folds of the priest’s dhoti. The temple visit, every day or even more than once, the minutes turned hours turned days of devotion. Imagine that energy harvested and turned to cleaning up and transforming a nation, for ridding the waterways of the waste that causes 1600 people to die each day in India from simply having the shits[1].

Others are thinking along the same lines. India’s former environment minister Jairam Ramesh caused a stir recently when he complained there were more temples than toilets in India. The Hindu right raised their hackles, blaming the government for their failed job of helping alleviate the fact that two-thirds of India’s citizens defecate in the open, and there are only so many temples, they said defensively, because Hindus have used their own resources to build them. Both sides have a point. The government’s Total Sanitation Campaign aims to have 125 million toilets across the country by 2017. Thirteen years into the effort, recent accounting shows that at least 35 million toilets seem to have already gone missing. I see an image of rolled coins, disappearing into cloth.

So the government can be blamed, but what of the private energy of this predominantly Hindu country? The founding fathers had a different vision. Gandhi had a simple but contained toiletwith a septic tank that led to the fields. He cleaned it himself, defying caste boundaries that relegated such work to the lowest in society.  ”Our Indian toilets bring our civilization into discredit,” he wrote in 1925, of the open defecation that was nearly as common then as it is today. “They violate the rules of hygiene.” Gandhi, I think, would have wanted more toilets than temples.

My days in Varanasi came at the end of a three-month breakdown in sanitation because of a contract dispute between the city and the private waste management company responsible for cleaning the streets. The settlement effect was immediate. One night, I stepped past the cow that stationed itself outside my guesthouse each night, and the piles of her once-chewed cud now turned into dung, over and through the layers of plastic bags, food peelings, and other debris of humanity. The next morning, the narrow Old City gali was swept clean, not just outside the guesthouse but everywhere I went. On the main roads and along the riverbanks, an army of workers gathered the detritus into piles. In the water, garbage seiners used wicker baskets to strain out the soggy garlands and aluminum bowls that carried glowing prayers through the holy and wholly polluted water the night before, looking so spectacular and romantic. The utter transformation made it evident what can be accomplished if given priority.

I was told there was a time when the entire community would come down to the riverbank for a two-day communal cleanup. Now, the duty falls to the government and when they contract out to companies who may or may not actually do the work, everything seems to break down in a corrupt quagmire.

Varanasi is a place of pilgrimage. India is a country of worship. And Varanasi, Banaras, is – in the words of scholar Diana Eck – a place where “the atmosphere of devotion is improbable in its strength.”

But what if, my inner pragmatist asks, just a fraction of the energy, money and time that went into building the temples, enacting the rituals, making the pilgrimages, and organizing the festivals, one after the other, was instead spent on improving the most basic elements of human necessity needed in this life? Can digging a latrine be an act of worship? Can placing the plastic bag in the garbage be as much of an offering as casting the flowers it held into the Ganga? Can setting the stones that cover the open sewers be as important as setting the stones for a temple? Isn’t it a blessing to give a child access to water that won’t make her sick?

Each day is finite and there is so much work to do in this life. There are so many streets to sweep. Instead we sweep air.


Meera Subramanian is an independent journalist who writes about culture, faith and the environment. Her work has appeared in national and international publications includingNatureVirginia Quarterly Review, the New York Times, Salon, Smithsonian, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, The Caravan and India Today. She is a senior editor at Killing the Buddha.

This article is cross-posted from The Revealer, a publication of The Center for Religion and Media at New York University

With support from the Henry R. Luce foundation.



Editor's Pick: This article is cross-posted from The Revealer, a publication of The Center for Religion and Media at New York University.


By Ayala Fader

On May 22, 2012, forty thousand ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and boys gathered at Citi Fields Stadium in Queens to listen to important rabbis rail against the dangers of the Internet.  (There were separate places where the event was video-streamed for women, prohibited from mingling, at other sites in Brooklyn). The stadium bleachers were packed with bearded men and boys in traditional black and white clothing, many on their cell phones. The scoreboard was silent, but the jumbotron was alive with close ups of the rabbis’ faces, some crying, and English subtitles for Yiddish speeches. The goal of the asifa (gathering) was not to condemn the Internet, which has become indispensable for “business.” Rather, it was to promote the use of “kosher” filters to limit exposure and use. One rabbi claimed the Internet was more dangerous to Judaism than the Holocaust. Another called it “the nisoyan ha-dor (the test of this generation). All agreed that the Internet presented new challenges to Jews in the “Torah community,” threatening their very existence. The event received a tremendous amount of coverage in mainstream and Jewish presses.

Less publicized, though, was a counter-rally across the street from Citi Fields.  Organized by Ari Mandel, an activist with a non-profit organization, Survivors for Justice, this counter-rally sought to bring attention, instead, to sexual abuse scandals in ultra-Orthodox communities and their cover-up, which had been broken in the New York Times just a few weeks earlier. The crowd of a few hundred included many former ultra-Orthodox Jews, those who have “gone OTD”  (off the (path)), holding up signs and chanting, “The Internet is not the problem.” Actually, for many victims of sexual abuse, the Internet has been a literal lifesaver. As Mandel explained it, the Internet made it possible for victims to speak out, first anonymously and then more openly as they found other victims, spurring public activism and greater media attention.


Moral Authority and a Crisis of Leadership

These competing rallies are part of a much larger story, one about the struggle in the digital age over the moral authority of ultra-Orthodox rabbinic leadership to control the gedarim (gates) that keep the secular world at bay. Many in these communities call this “a crisis of emune (faith or trust in God)” and blame the Internet for corrupting Jewish souls. Prior to the early 2000s, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who wanted to explore forbidden ideas or ask questions had to go physically outside the community in search of newspapers, the radio, movies, or even, God forbid, the public library. The smart phone changed this, allowing exploration, questioning and even community building away from ultra-Orthodox surveillance (family, teachers, rebbes, etc.).

This new access to uncontrolled knowledge and people made cracks in the communal wall of silence that rabbinic leadership worked to maintain as the sex abuse allegations came out. The sex abuse scandals and their representation in the media highlight the surprisingly porous boundaries that have existed between nonliberal ultra-Orthodoxy and liberal democracy in the United States, which is based on Enlightenment principles of governance, include pluralism and tolerance, protection of individual rights, and the relegation of religion to the private sphere. Smartphones, though, are adding new challenges for ultra-Orthodox leadership, for as rabbinic leaders have tried to contain the scandals, they have further embroiled themselves with the police, the District Attorney’s office, the ultra-Orthodox victims (now grown up) and investigative journalists.


An Anthropologist’s Confession

When stories about the sexual abuse of children in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities began to come out, though, I confess I avoided them. Journalists reported that prominent rabbis molested young male students for years, then were simply transferred to other schools or that proven pedophiles were given light sentences. They documented witness intimidation that included social isolation of victims and their families: the community boycotted businesses owned by accusing families; their children were not allowed to enroll in yeshivas. There were offers of hush money and even threats of violence. Most disturbing, there was evidence that the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office was complicit in the sacrifice of young boys for the protection of ultra-Orthodox leadership’s moral authority.

Frankly, the cases upset me. Yet (like the good Jewish girl that I am) I also felt guilty. How could I keep avoiding these stories given that I am an anthropologist who has spent the past fifteen years studying first Hasidic childrearing and now the impact of new media in Brooklyn? Despite many of my own ethical disagreements with the women and children I worked with, I have, in articles and in my book, Mitzvah Girls, a study of alternative religious modernity among Hasidic mothers and daughters, tried my best to offer evenhanded and complex portraits.  For example, though I admired so many mothers I met, I have also struggled to represent the unapologetic racism that adults expressed to children in their depictions of Gentiles in contrast to the “chosen people.”  Similarly, I have tried to understand the moral reasoning behind how and why Hasidic Jews use the rights of citizenship to reject the values of the liberal state.

But the children’s sexual abuse scandals and their cover up felt different. I did not know how to write about or understand them, or even if “understanding” was a form of moral cowardice.


The Long View, 1990s-present

When I began conducting my research during the mid-nineties, there was not much talk about sexual abuse within the community, nor media coverage of it. In the press the ultra-Orthodox, especially Hasidic Jews, were portrayed in common stereotypes: either as sepia-tinged, quaint, pre-modern throwbacks or (told with secular schadenfreud) as hypocrites who, despite claims to piety, defrauded federal programs.  From within the community, I heard a few rumors about the molestation of children, especially boys: the Satmar rebbe installed a shomer (guard) in the men’s mikveh (ritual bath) to prevent men from preying on boys; there were tales about the homoeroticism in boys’ yeshivas (think British public schools).  Back then though, the most prominent issues I followed in the community were raising awareness about domestic abuse and providing services to children with disabilities who had previously been hidden away as genetic “problems” (a deal-breaker in arranged marriages).

However, in the early 2000s, the molestation stories began: on anonymous blogs and websites within the communities (e.g.,,, in The Jewish Week, in New York MagazineThe Forward, and finally this spring, in The New York Times.  Everywhere I turned there was another outrageous case of community leaders protecting perpetrators–at the expense of victims. Why? Why only now has sexual abuse of ultra-Orthodox children become a focus of investigative reporting in the Jewish and mainstream presses?  And how has the media attention impacted the communities?

AP Photo/


Sex Abuse Scandals and the Press

Part of the answer is found in recent and prevalent national exposure of child abuse at morally fallible, powerful, sacred institutions. Media coverage of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandals was a transformative moment in journalism, historian Jonathan Sarna told me, which paved the way for reporting about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish cases.  Other cases include the Boy Scouts, the Horace Mann School in New York, and the Penn State football scandal among others. All involve struggles over a great deal of money (potential legal battles, football programs, prestigious institutions), public perception, and the political power of some institutions to reject the authority of the legal system. In all of these cases, children were abused while responsible adults—priests, teachers, rabbis, coaches— looked away because of the high stakes for the institution.


The Catholic Church and the ultra-Orthodox community’s responses to the investigative journalism were similar, trafficking in knee-jerk stereotypes. The Church claimed the Boston Globe, which broke the abuse story, and the media more generally were “anti-Catholic.” Ultra-Orthodox newspapers like Der Yid lashed out at The Jewish Week and Times reporters, calling them anti-Semitic “Nazis” and “traitors to the Jewish people.” A reporter for a Jewish press who wished to remain anonymous told me that, other than these vituperative attacks on the non-Orthodox media, the ultra-Orthodox presses have been silent on the issue of sexual abuse.

While the majority of child sex abuse crimes–Jewish, Catholic, and other–were committed by older men against young boys in their care, in the ultra-Orthodox communities, there have also been cases of sexual abuse of girls. Due to strict gender segregation in these communities, the abuse occurs more often in homes than in yeshivas, either by male family members or relatives. I have even heard from several anonymous sources that rebellious young girls (and boys)—pathologized as “at risk” youth (at risk for leaving their communities)—are often required by the school to visit a “Torah therapist” from within the community who charges a great deal; there is at least one counselor who has a long history of sexually abusing his female clients and who is currently being prosecuted.

Similarly a fictional account, Hush, of a girl who witnessed the incestuous sexual abuse of her friend who eventually hangs herself, came out in 2010. First published pseudonymously by “Eishes Chayil” (woman of valor), the author recently went public as Judy Brown, speaking out after eight-year-old ultra-Orthodox Leiby Kletsky was murdered in Borough Park, Brooklyn, by an Orthodox Jewish man, Aron Levi, in July 2011. Levi, who had a history of mental illness, approached the little boy, who got lost walking home from day camp for the first time, and was seeking directions. Levi kidnapped the boy then drugged, killed, and dismembered him. He received a forty-year prison sentence this past August. The event stunned the neighborhood because the criminal was one of their own.

The majority of the sexual abuse cases publicized thus far, though, have been of older men preying on younger boys in yeshivas.  This has opened the door to familiar liberal critiques of the consequences of  “repression” of sexuality in non-liberal religious communities.  Like the ultra-Orthodox presses’ response, these critiques also invoked stereotypes. For example, some claimed that “insular” or “closed” societies, particularly ones with gender segregation and codes of modesty, are ripe for sexual deviance. As one social services provider told me, “They (ultra-Orthodox children) don’t even have names for the body parts. Everything is tushy.”  I too have documented that among Hasidic Jews there is very little discussion of the body and sexuality for children or even for young people preparing for marriage. However, there is no evidence of more–or less–abuse in non-liberal religious communities. The Penn State football program and the Horace Mann School had rampant, unchecked cases of sexual predators, yet are secular liberal institutions.


Ultra-Orthodox Power and the State

However, the consequences of the media coverage for ultra-Orthodox Jews have clearly been quite different than for the Catholic Church or many other institutions. It is worth noting that at least some at the New York Times knew about the allegations of sexual abuse as early as 2006, when community insiders offering evidence and contacts approached them. An anonymous source told me that this contact at the Times declined to take on the story because the paper feared being seen as targeting the community; they would only write about the story if an elected official or politician was implicated in covering-up the cases. So it was not until May, 2012, that The Times published two articles  (May 9th and 10th) on Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes and his stymied efforts to prosecute sexual abuse among the ultra-Orthodox. The Times coverage made a big splash, impacting the visibility of the cases and putting pressure on Hynes’ office to step up its efforts to prosecute offenders.

More than anything else, The Times’ alleged decision to avoid targeting the community itself highlights the tremendous political influence of the ultra-Orthodox in New York. Politicians court them because community leaders are able to mobilize huge voting blocs: A rebbe or a prominent rabbi simply tells his followers whom to back and thousands in a community will turn out to vote as advised.  Ultra-Orthodox leadership has built powerful alliances with city and state politicians who watch out for their interests, be it zoning laws (e.g., building new yeshivas, school bus lanes), access to state and federal programs (e.g., Headstart, food stamps) or in the sexual abuse cases, using their own rabbinical courts rather than the New York State legal system until 2009.

The power of the ultra-Orthodox communal leadership has led to preferential treatment at the city and state levels that is often framed in a pluralist discourse as abiding the “special cultural needs” of ultra-Orthodox Jews. The ultra-Orthodox leadership has invoked the Jewish concept of mesira (turning over)– the historical injunction against reporting a fellow Jew to a non-Jewish authority for a crime– to authenticate what amounts to a cover up. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis have claimed that involving the police in sexual abuse charges is mesira; until more recently they preferred their communities use their own rabbinic courts, which have historically handled civil disputes (e.g., divorce, marriage, custody, property), not criminal cases. These courts are not designed to prosecute sexual abuse cases. As The Times reporters Sharon Otterman and Ray Rivera noted (May 10, 2012), rabbinic courts do not have formal power to punish, subpoena or collect evidence.  Some rabbis even refuse to hear testimony from women or children.

Many of the victims and a lot of the media have continued to challenge the validity of rabbinic courts decisions on management of sexual abuse, claiming that they merely bury charges, especially against prominent rabbis. In fact, one of the primary arguments made by victim activists has been that criminal cases must be brought before the New York State legal system and that using the rabbinic court is a violation of state law.



The Politics of Cultural Sensitivity

The DA office’s handling of sexual abuse allegations highlights political favoritism legitimated by “cultural sensitivity,” meaning a sensitivity to the unique beliefs and practices of ultra-Orthodox communities which require special treatment. In theory, this sounds good (especially to me, the anthropologist) but in actuality this has meant that the ultra-Orthodox leadership got to dictate much of the way the sexual abuse cases were handled. Perhaps this explains why, as Paul Berger at The Forward noted, DA Hynes admitted that for the first eighteen years he was in office he did very little to take on allegations of sexual abuse.

It was not until 2009 that the DA created a sexual abuse hotline, Kol Tsedek (Voice of Justice), advised by a “cultural liaison,” a Lubavitcher Hasidic woman who is a social worker. A source who works closely with the DA’s office told me this liaison has opened up lines of communication and made huge inroads in raising community consciousness about sexual abuse. Some others though have told me that too often the liaison has counseled victims to withdraw charges, especially if the accused is an important rabbi.

However, even in setting up the hotline, which has made an impact by increasing the number of yearly prosecutions from zero to between seventy to ninety (the exact number is disputed), the DA’s office has continued to bend to the wishes of Agudath Yisroel, the ultra-Orthodox leadership and policy organization that represents some sectors of the Hasidic world and most of the Yeshiva world.  The Agudath, which is directed by a Counsel of Torah Sages as well as lay advisers, makes political, social and religious rulings for participating communities.  In 2009 Hynes agreed to Agudath’s position that anyone who wishes to press charges must first receive permission from his or her rabbi  or Hasidic rebbe and only then may they contact the police. The DA also agreed not to publish perpetrators’ names publicly, another Agudath position.

Hynes claims that he must continue to work through Agudath because the ultra-Orthodox are “worse than the mafia,” a reference to the community’s common practice of intimidating victims and meting out its own forms of justice. The press, especially Jewish presses like The Jewish Week and The Forward have taken activist roles. Paul Berger in The Forward (May 29, 2012) reported that they, along with other media outlets, filed a request under New York’s Freedom of Information Act for the release of the names of all those accused via the Kol Tzedek program. So far, the DA’s office has denied those requests.

Hynes claims that he can only protect the victims if he works with “cultural sensitivity.” And yet, do other perpetrators who go through the DA’s office get the same kind of culturally sensitive treatment? Are other communities or institutions able to set the terms of prosecution or withhold names of the accused? Clearly not. Only the politically powerful are able to use “culture” and insider “cultural liaisons” in order to protect the authority of communal leadership.

James Estrin for The New York Times.


Why Is the Cover Up Tolerated?

How, I have to wonder, can the community stand for this cover up? I spent years in a Hasidic girls’ school and in Hasidic homes, where most children seemed cherished and protected. Indeed, there is much about Hasidic childrearing that is admirable. How and why would community leaders use their political power to put ultra-Orthodox children at risk?

I have a few theories that speak to the shifting relationship between the ultra-Orthodox leadership and the world in which they find themselves today.  First, there are different values at work, values that are in direct conflict with the liberal state’s emphasis on the protection of the individual, especially the child. The good of the community–that is ultra-Orthodox Judaism–may trump individual suffering, especially when the crimes involve the taboo topics of sexuality and sexual deviance. I suspect this is generational as well, with older ultra-Orthodox Jews (those who are most often the community leaders) unfamiliar with and unwilling to engage the language of sexual abuse. One of the stark portraits drawn of Gentiles, especially for children, is of a lack of modesty and explicit sexuality. Such talk about sexuality is thus deemed goyish(Gentile) and not becoming for Jews.

Young Leiby Kletsky’s murder last year is a piece in this puzzle. As writers Shulem Deen, Matthew Shaer of New York Magazine, Judy Brown at Jewish Week and others have noted, the community is so concerned with protecting its children from secular and goyishe popular culture that they often close their eyes to deviance and danger within. Not to mention that, more broadly, the moral universe children are taught includes black and white distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, moral and immoral. Immoral observant Jews rattle this universe.


Even the perception of sexual abuse victims, particularly those ultra-Orthodox who decide to leave their communities, is becoming less black and white. Many have gotten support at Footsteps, an organization founded by Malkie Schwartz in 2003. Footsteps helps those who break with their “insular” communities, offering “educational, vocational, and social” support for its members. This has helped to alter the perception among the ultra-Orthodox that those who leave their communities, especially those who were sexually abused, are what the community often calls “bums.” Seeing some who have left go on to college or become writers or even activists creates a more complex picture of those who choose another life over the “truth” of Orthodoxy.

Second, prosecution at the state level would open the door to potential law suits which would involve large sums of money, not to mention chillul hashem (desecration of God’s name, or besmirching the moral standing of the community before Gentiles). This fear of public exposure or shame can make for strange alliances. Catholic Bishops and ultra-Orthodox rabbis are the only two religious leaderships in Albany who continue to fight the extension of the statute of limitations for prosecution of sexual abuse crimes—from age twenty-four to age thirty. Both groups have a lot to lose.

Finally, a reporter for The Jewish Week who wished to remain anonymous offered me another, more cynical theory for the communal wall of silence, a silence which has failed ultra-Orthodox children. Rampant illegality facilitates much of ultra-Orthodox communal life, particularly the practiced use and misuse of government funding. I have written about ultra-Orthodox competing notions of citizenship in my book, Mitzvah Girls, that include using government resources to build up their own communities.  Legally, many qualify for food stamps and welfare. There are, though, some who misuse government funding or violate tax laws. This is nothing new. When I was doing fieldwork, these kinds of white collar crimes were not unusual. There is little social sanction for those who commit them if they contribute to ultra-Orthodox charities, which most do. As a Hasidic friend once remarked, “That’s golus (diaspora),” meaning that shared space does not mean shared goals for citizenship and community; at the end of the day, ultra-Orthodox Jews are waiting for the messiah, not liberal democracy. However, if sexual abuse victims went directly to the police instead of to their rabbis, there could potentially be a flood of lawsuits, which would require legal investigation and public exposure of practices the community may want to keep quiet.


New Conversations

The media and victims have played a critical role in forcing the recent conversation that so many were once reluctant to have. Some within the community have begun to respond. There are dissenting voices and recent attempts to train the next generation differently. For example, there are some who do not agree with the prohibition against notifying the police and they speak out, though they often suffer intimidation and censorship for it.

The Orthodox press, Artscroll, published the first book of its kind, Let’s Stay Safe, in 2011. This popular picture book is designed to provide parents with a “tsanua (modest) way to speak to children about a broad range of safety matters.” Safety here goes from wearing helmets when bicycling to warning that “only your parents or a doctor can touch you in a private space that is covered by a bathing suit.” One page is especially poignant, clearly a response to the murder of Leiby Kletsky. If you are lost, the book directs readers, go ask  “a cashier, a mommy or a policeman” for help.  Gone is the assumption that any Orthodox Jew is a safe haven. I have also heard from a social services provider that there is a group of women visiting a bungalow colony in the Catskills this summer to raise awareness among the mothers there.

Maybe these “culturally sensitive” attempts from within the community will help. Ari Mandel, the activist, is cautiously optimistic that attitudes are changing as more and more victims speak up.  And critically, more and more victims who step forward are believed by community members. Ultimately, the sexual abuse scandals and widespread use of the Internet are challenging the moral authority of ultra-Orthodox leadership, which has relied on hierarchy, silence and sometimes secrecy to fortify the gates around their communities. Those gates, never impermeable, have even more openings for the ongoing cultural and political exchanges between ultra-orthodox communities and everyone else. There are clearly changes on the horizon. And I’ve concluded that writing about these changes from a historical and cultural perspective is not, in the end, a form of moral cowardice. I believe it is my moral obligation.


Ayala Fader is a cultural and linguistic anthropologist who teaches at Fordham University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology.  She is the author of Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidi Jews in Brooklyn.


Editor's Pick: This article is cross-posted from The Revealer, a publication of The Center for Religion and Media at New York University.


Reposted from The Revealer, a daily review of religion and media. by Andy Kopsa Every four years the national political eye shifts to Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.  With the 2012 presidential election only 15 months away, the campaign frenzy in Iowa has already begun.  Local and national media are eagerly following Republican presidential hopefuls as they glad-hand farmers, eat local delicacies and stump, flanked by American flags, through soybean fields. In February next year, Iowans will head to their local caucus to give a traditionally coveted victory to one Republican who could go on to face President Obama in the general election. That Republican – be it Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich – will need to secure the blessing of the radical religious-political group The Family Leader. Bob Vander Plaats, the outspoken head of The Family Leader (TFL), is the man The Atlantichas called a Republican political “kingmaker” in Iowa – and the man who The Hill just rankedas having the ability to give one of the top 10 “endorsements the presidential candidates covet most.” The media has documented his – and the TFL’s – statements about homosexuality (worse than second hand smoke) and women’s role in society (producing lots of babies). Last week TFL made national news again with its Marriage Pledge – already signed by Bachmann and Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania – touting the benefits of slavery to African American families (after vocal push-back, TFL has since removed this from the pledge).  None of Vander Plaats’ work would be half as interesting a story if The Family Leader, a Focus on the Family affiliate, hadn’t been built with over $3 million in federal funds. Connie Ryan Terrell, executive director of Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, along with Vander Plaats, Tamara Scott of Concerned Women for America, and openly gay Iowa Senator, Matt McCoy, appeared last month on an Iowa Public Television panel discussion called Iowa’s Marriage Battleground. Vander Plaats and Scott argued that the Christian founding of America necessitates the abolition of gay marriage in Iowa. Vander Plaats repeated his claim that gay marriage will lead to fathers marrying sons and other polygamist and incestuous acts.  Ryan Terrell and McCoy refuted these unsupported claims but by the end were clearly frustrated. Vander Plaats and Scott had seemingly made their point with Constitutional “proof” — and some standard gross-out that surely scared those who didn’t know better. The Sunday after the show aired, Ryan Terrell, whose organization advocates respect for all religious and non-believers alike, and aims to challenge extremism and to protect the rights “of all Iowans,” wrote in an editorial for the Des Moines Register:
Bob Vander Plaats and others make declarations about “God’s law” when speaking about the Constitution.  He and others rewrite history to their own political benefit stating that our founders established the United States as a “Christian Nation.”  Enough is enough.  Iowans must demand higher standards for candidates and public officials.
Why do the financial and political objectives of organizations like The Family Leader go unexamined by media?  And what is it about candidates’ religious conviction that makes interviewers and voters so reticent to ask more questions?  Does the Constitutional promise of religious freedom not prohibit politicians from legislating according to their personal belief?  And what lessons should Iowa teach the rest of us? I have interviewed Ryan Terrell several times over the last couple years, specifically to talk about the political involvement of The Family leader in Iowa.  After her op-ed I to reached out again to find out how Iowans and Americans can “demand higher standards” of public officials–and maybe in the process force a shift in the public conversation and resulting media coverage. Below is an excerpt from our email interview. Andy Kopsa: I would really like to ask candidates how they would legislate their personal beliefs for their diverse constituents.  For instance, Christians whose specific beliefs are not held by all.  Reporters aren’t asking these questions.  Are they off limits? Connie Ryan Terrell: Asking any candidate for elected office what role their faith or values will play in creating public policy or making appointments is the purview of the public.  It is in the public’s best interest to understand that relationship.  On a related note, it is always appropriate to ask a candidate how they would deal with a situation when the tenets of their religion come into conflict with the Constitution or a public policy.  What would hold the highest priority? Would they be able to uphold the Constitution, setting aside their religious beliefs? Other questions could include:  How would your values help you formulate public policy that promotes the common good?  What are your views on maintaining a boundary between religion and government?  What steps will you take to protect the rights of your constituents regardless of their faith or beliefs?  Do you believe religion or religious language should ever be used for political gain? What are the standards you set for yourself to ensure that you guard against it? AK: Local and national news outlets have cautioned that Iowa is cruising toward irrelevance as the first caucus-holder in the nation because TFL and others’ extreme beliefs are controlling the political narrative.  Do you find this to be the case?  And if so, could this actually be an opportunity to shift how we address religion in politics, both in Iowa and nationally? CRT: I’m probably a little jaded on this but I think the media helped to create this situation and then the blame is placed solely at the feet of Iowans.  Look at the number of Google Alerts for Vander Plaats as opposed to the attention given to moderates or progressives, religious or not. Let’s remember, the religious right is still a minority, even in Iowa. However, media attention leans heavily toward the conservative message and events. Why?  Because that message creates fun, sensationalized and sometimes even crazy headlines.  The moderates and even the progressives are much less exciting and certainly not nearly so entertaining.  There is little effort on the part of the media to provide balance for the public, in Iowa or nationally. The moderate and traditional Republicans aren’t interested in the extreme, tea party candidates. This places them in a bind since all we are seeing in Iowa are the ultra-conservative folks.  The GOP needs to do a better job in attracting the moderate candidates to our state so there is a balance in the message and opportunity for moderates to explore the policy positions of the candidates that match their values and that they would consider viable. AK: Maggie Gallagher of The National Organization for Marriage appeared on PBS’ The News Hour to decry the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York.  During her conversation with the host, she declared that the marriage battle is just getting started.  She briefly referenced Iowa as part of that fight.  While Iowa has marriage equality, it is clear that TFL and others are pushing for an amendment.  What could Maggie Gallagher be hinting at? CRT: It is our understanding that Focus on the Family, NOM (National Organization for Marriage), AFA (American Family Association) and more are fully financing Vander Plaats and his efforts.  Certainly national money is being leveraged and spent for a flurry of Caucus-related activities that promote TFL and Bob, including the bus tour hosting most of the extremist candidates along the way. Without a doubt Bob will continue his attacks on the current and future civil marriages of families who are just trying to live their lives as anyone else would.  He will undoubtedly continue to receive the lion’s share of his financing from out of state extremist organizations who want to destroy those marriages for their own personal religious reasons, even though their attacks have no basis in the Constitution or the law. It is simply a misuse of religion and power.  Most Iowans are fair-minded and respect our Constitution, which in the end will keep civil marriage for all families firmly in place. Note:  Iowa Family Policy Center AKA The Family Leader has been generously funded by NOM, AFA and The Family Research Council in the past AK: What counter measures is Interfaith Iowa planning for the eventual dumping of big money into Iowa from out-of-state anti-gay organizations? CRT: Interfaith Alliance of Iowa is a founding member of Justice Not Politics and I serve as the Board Chair.  Justice Not Politics is the lead organization in Iowa to educate the public on the role of the court, the judicial retention process and the critical need for judicial independence.  Justice Not Politics, with all of its supporters and coalition partners, will take an active role throughout this year and next in providing that necessary education to successfully defend the courts. In addition, Interfaith Alliance of Iowa will continue to broaden our network across the state to engage and empower progressive people of faith and goodwill to help us protect religious freedom, sustain equality for all Iowans, and promote civility in our state. It is through these grassroots efforts that we will be successful on all fronts. AK: I am continually amazed that the media gives Bob Vander Plaats a pass on his arguably extreme religious views as well as his misrepresentation of fact. How can the media hold candidates and kingmakers to a higher standard?  How do you and Interfaith Iowa plan to do the same? CRT: The public and media need to more vigorously question public figures and candidates when they make broad, general statements or statements of fact.  If broad or general, ask the candidate to elaborate and to give examples.  If it is a statement of fact, ask them for a reference of proof. If they hold themselves up as an expert or scholar (e.g. historian; theologian), ask them if they are indeed an expert or scholar or if the statement is just their personal opinion. Making statements as if they are fact does not make it so. Regarding higher standards, I was challenging the public specifically to hold candidates to higher standards in regard to respecting the religious beliefs and religious freedom of every American.  We as a public must demand that respect from our candidates and our elected officials.  We must call them on it when they step over a line.  We must ask them questions that help us understand their commitment to religious freedom.  We must be actively involved in the fate of our own democracy. I was at my optometrist’s office the other day. I got into a conversation with two of the office staff who both said neither had ever voted. Ever!  They had lots of opinions about politics but they had never voted.  My assumption was if they never took seriously their right to vote then most likely they had also never taken seriously their responsibility to be an informed voter. I gently urged them to do both. Religious freedom is arguably the most important right necessary to maintain a healthy democracy. The electorate must take this right and the associated responsibilities seriously.  Our elected officials and candidates must honor the religious freedom of every American and work tirelessly to defend it at every corner. The health of our democracy, to state it simply, is at stake. Andy Kopsa is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for The Washington Independent and AlterNet.  As a native Iowan and former Iowa newspaper editor, Andy writes frequently for the Iowa Independent. For more on The Family Leader’s marriage pledge, read herehereherehere and here. Reposted from The Revealer, a daily review of religion and media.
Reposted from The Nation: Last week a regulation to provide Medicare coverage for advance care planning counseling—that is, offer reimbursement to doctors for time spent talking to patients about end-of-life care—was abandoned… for the second time.

Section 1233 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) died a first death in the summer of 2009 in the debate over healthcare reform, during which healthcare opponents characterized the provision as a call for government-run "death panels." Former Lieutenant Governor of New York State Betsy McCaughey, who consulted with Philip Morris while working on the hit piece against the Clinton healthcare plan "No Exit," coined the "death panel" moniker; Sarah Palin popularized it. Then John Boehner, at the time the House minority leader, claimed that the provision would lead the country down "a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia." Fox & Friends repeated the "death panel" meme dozens of times, and soon, the provision was stripped from the healthcare bill. But last November, the Obama administration quietly inserted it into Medicare's annual regulations—after the customary public review period. The New York Times's Robert Pear broke the news on Christmas Day that end-of-life counseling was to be covered by Medicare.  Immediately, right-wing think tanks, some with legal cases against the healthcare bill, leveraged the "death panel" rhetoric to bolster their arguments.  While "prolife" blogs spread the news alongside accusations that the regulation would further endanger the "sanctity of life," much of mainstream media pushed back at reemergence of what Politifact called "the biggest lie of 2009."  On Fox, guest host Tucker Carlson said that the regulation would convince Americans to "forego aggressive life-sustaining treatment," but was challenged by another correspondent. Nonetheless, the Obama administration, blaming procedural irregularities, dropped the regulation only three days after it went into effect, but it's clear political considerations played a role.

Opponents of the healthcare bill got the White House running scared by spreading the "death panel" meme from conservative legal groups to Fox to right-wing blogs and back again, both after the Affordable Care Act passed and after Christmas. But they weren't building a messaging chain from scratch. Instead, they worked the same network that has been mobilized since the 1970s to fight legal abortion. For the past decade, those same religious organizations have begun working to limit treatment choices for those facing the end of their lives, a development that increasingly impedes meaningful healthcare, and resigns countless elders—including millions of aging Baby Boomers—to "healthcare" that does little for, or even damage to, their quality of life.

A host of anti-abortion groups denounced the end of life counseling regulation, including Operation Rescue's Troy Newman and Janice Crouse of the Beverly LaHaye Institute at Concerned Women for America. Family Research Council's director of Congressional affairs, David Christensen, told The Christian Science Monitor, "We're concerned this [the regulation] could be misused, especially in a state like Oregon that sees mercy killing as a legitimate medical service." Three days after Pear's story, Mathew Staver, chairman of Liberty University's Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal organization (think "Choose Life" license plates case), said, "When you remove the sanctity of life from the equation and place health care under the control of government bureaucrats, you end up with increased costs, decreased care, and death panels." Judie Brown, the president of American Life League, gave a succinct summary of the "prolife" conflation of end of life care with abortion: "Nothing good can come of this. This will affect everybody's parents and grandparents and preborn babies, and it will not affect anybody for the good."

About 80 percent of Americans wish to die at home, yet 80 percent die in institutions, because the default mode of medical care in the United States is to "do everything," as Thaddeus Pope, law professor at Widener University, describes it. For the past fifty years, medicine has focused on curing illnesses and ailments but not on guiding patients through the dying process. So terminal patients are now frequently given rounds of treatment long after they've been found ineffective simply because doctors fear "giving up." Aggressive intervention enables doctors and patients to deny the inevitability of death and prevents them from planning for the process of dying.

Particularly for patients over 65, aggressive treatment and their side effects can be more debilitating than what they're intended to cure. From CPR (reliable statistics don't exist, but most studies suggest the procedure saves lives less than a quarter of the times it is performed—and often breaks bones) to artificial nutrition and hydration (which employs a stomach tube for feeding even though loss of hunger and the inability to ingest are natural symptoms of the dying process), treatments that don't actually improve patients' lives but provide a significant revenue to doctors, hospitals and medical manufacturers are common practice in our medical system. Yet patients often don't know that they can refuse treatments or decide where to die. Providing insurance coverage for discussions about end-of-life care would help restore choice to those facing a path of unwanted treatment and would reduce the cost of healthcare. It's a win-win prospect, but that's the rub: Republicans and their "prolife" allies have characterized any attempts to reform "aggressive care" as cost-cutting attacks on the most vulnerable.

The terms themselves are confusing. "End-of-life care" is often referred to as advance care planning, the process by which a patient talks to their doctor and family about how they wish to die and decides which medical interventions, like CPR, they do or do not want. The advance care planning the Obama administration attempted to include in Medicare is entirely distinct from Death with Dignity (DWD), though both come from a commitment to patient choice and autonomy. State "Death with Dignity" laws allow a patient who has been diagnosed with less than six months to live to ask for lethal medicine from a doctor who cannot be prosecuted. In the United States proponents prefer the terms DWD or aid in dying, while opponents refer to "euthanasia." Advocates for the availability of good end-of-life care and advance care planning—there is no umbrella term—argue that patients have a right to be fully informed of care options and to accept or deny treatments. End of life counseling simply involves informing patients of their care options (which, if the patient lives in Oregon, Washington or Montana includes Death with Dignity) and helping them to plan accordingly. Since the death of Terri Schiavo in 2005, antichoice groups, the Catholic Churchand their denominational and legal allies have raised alarm about "euthanasia" on their well-organized and -funded platform.

At the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation annual meeting in 2009, Bobby Schindler, brother of Terri Schiavo and head of the Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation (recently renamed the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network), spoke alongside other anti-abortion luminaries like former Kansas Attorney General  Phill Kline.  Schindler has styled himself as an advocate for the disabled, reflecting a trend among "prolife" groups who have expanded their definition of "innocent life" to include the disabled, elders, the dying, as well as the "unborn" (or "pre-born," as anti-abortion groups have begun to say).  "Saying Terri was in a Persistent Vegetative State [a medical diagnosis for minimal or no brain function] was dehumanizing," Schindler told the crowd, "like not using baby for the unborn. We've been primarily concerned with abortion but how many are being killed on a daily basis by euthanasia?"

The Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation is far from the only antichoice group now also fighting patients' choice at the end of life. The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) has taken up opposition to health care reform and advance care planning with abandon; their Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics, named for the disabled early vice president of NRLC, "serves as NRLC's arm in fighting to protect the vulnerable born from both direct killing and denial of lifesaving medical treatment, food and fluids." They've maintained a blog about end-of-life issues and healthcare reform since June of 2009. These groups have long held that the legalization of abortion has cheapened the value of life; in their eyes Death with Dignity does the same, and legitimizes their fear that the United States is on a "slippery slope" toward state-sanctioned killing of "innocent life" among us.

A collective American reticence to frankly discuss death enables organizations like the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network and NRLC to misinform the public about existing government programs like hospice, Medicare and other legal tools for the elderly, like advanced directives and medical proxies, which can provide more control over how they age and die. Combined with a paternalistic medical profession that's only recently begun training new doctors on how to talk to patients about how to plan their end-of-life care and a Republican party dependent on the support of antichoice groups, "pro-life" groups have been able to fundamentally shape state and federal legislation.

Of course, even in the absence of this regulation, doctors and patients will continue to initiate conversations about end-of-life care—but not frequently enough to save uninformed seniors and terminal patients from painful and pointless treatments they don't want. And not often enough to stem the crisis in healthcare financing aging Baby Boomers will bring.

When advocates of the Stupak-Pitts amendment to severely restrict abortion coverage took healthcare reform hostage, advocates for women's health were reminded of the outsized ability "prolife" groups have to determine healthcare policy. The defeat of increased funding for end of life care should serve as a warning to all those concerned about autonomy over their own healthcare choices.

Reposted from The Nation.

cross-posted from The Revealer, a daily review of religion and media by Peter Bebergal Despite their common, and mostly fringe area of concern, the psychedelic subculture -- whose kaleidoscopic reflection includes Johns Hopkins scientists, transpersonal psychologists, dozens of independent (non-affiliated) researchers, writers, visionary artists, and the users themselves -- is often at odds with itself. Above board researchers take pride in their work, adhering to the strict peer review process that all science is subject to. But to some, the work of psychedelics is the work of the spirit, of the non-rational, of connecting ourselves to something that may well not be testable or empirically verifiable. There are also clashes of personality, of ideologies, and of intention. Sometimes it’s simply a disagreement over words, what they mean, and how they should be used. At the heart of a contest of terms within a very small subculture is another more essential divergence, one that reflects a wider cultural conflict between science and spirituality. One of the most remarkable developments in the past ten years is the trending toward acceptance in the scientific community of research involving psychedelic drugs after an almost forty year period of disregard. But like other recent fields of research, such as work done with stem cells, DNA, and even evolutionary biology, researchers find themselves up against ideas of spirituality. The word psychedelic was coined in an attempt to more appropriately categorize those drugs capable of turning off what Aldous Huxley referred to as a filter in our brain, allowing a more undiluted experience of reality to flow in. In response to a frustration that Aldous Huxley and his friend Humphry Osmond had with words like “hallucinogen,” Osmond came up with psychedelic. In a 1957 article for the journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences Osmond wrote, “I have tried to find an appropriate name for the agents under discussion: a name that will include the concepts of enriching the mind and enlarging the vision.... My choice, because it is clear, euphonious, and uncontaminated by other associations, is psychedelic, mind manifesting”

Alex Grey's Painting

Once psychedelic drugs lost their academic foothold--after Timothy Leary and Richard Albert were fired from Harvard in 1963--and the drugs themselves became illegal, psychedelic research faded into the invisible margins. But the high-minded work continued. Psychologists and others realized that if these substances were ever to again have any legitimacy they had to first undo the damage wrought by that often pesky foe to truth, language. The word psychedelic, meant to refer to those drugs that had the potential to illuminate and transform human consciousness, was now becoming a word to toss around and attach to anything that was characterized by those once ineffable qualities, far out, groovy, trippy. By the late 1960s the term psychedelic had become so far removed from Osmond’s intended meaning that it made sense to come up with something new. And more importantly, it was becoming clear that these substances were special, not just because of their ability to mobilize a counterculture (which a wide-spread consumption of LSD did remarkably well) but because of their capacity to deliver a profound and peak spiritual experience. A new term, it was thought, must reflect this. In 1979, for the Journal of Psychedelic Studies, Carl Ruck and a group of researchers--including the ethnobotanist Jonathan Ott and the mycologist Gordon Wasson--formulated the term “entheogen.” Taken from an obscure greek word entheos--“the god within”–entheogen was typically used to describe an ecstasis or divine madness when the god Dionysus had come calling. The authors designated entheogen as a word that is "appropriate for describing states of shamanic and ecstatic possession induced by ingestion of mind-altering drugs." Entheogen’s usage was cemented when it became the preferred term by the Council on Spiritual Practices (CSP), the group that initiated and supported the psilocybin and mystical experience study at Johns Hopkins. CSP’s convenor, Robert Jesse, explained by phone that CSP uses the word entheogen because it connotes the more profound, insight-giving uses of the psychoactive substances to which it refers. But many find "entheogen" to be problematic. Ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna, brother to the late psychedelic and speculative philosopher Terrence McKenna and a respected researcher in his own right, believes these drugs are capable of much more than inducing a mystical hierophany. The word entheogen privileges that experience over all others, but even more importantly, a true spiritual experience with these substances is a rare thing indeed. Why use a term that contains a built-in promise that cannot always be realized? In an email McKenna explains, “Only under certain, highly controlled circumstances do they manifest 'god within,’ whatever that means.” For the whole range of substances and the even greater range of their effects, McKenna prefers psychedelic: “I like 'psychedelic' even with all its cultural baggage because it reliably describes what they do: they 'manifest' the mind.” Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), concurs. “I never use the term "entheogen."  I feel it is positively biased to imply drugs that catalyze positive experiences of the divine, and is similar to hallucinogen that is negatively biased to imply drugs that catalyze fundamentally false and delusionary experiences.” This disagreement over what word best expresses the possibilities of psychoactive substances such as psilocybin, mescaline, and DMT reveals how even a culture as small as those engaged in research of this kind can be split on what part of human potential should be developed. Psychedelic science is, the argument suggests, either a science of the mind or a science of the spirit.

Alex Grey's Dr. Albert Hoffman

To this muddle enter John Halpern, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard’s McLean hospital, and one of the leading above-ground researchers in psychedelic drugs. Halpern, whose studies include the long-term effects of peyote on Native Americans, has this year started a company that hopes to market a drug to those who suffer from cluster headaches, a debilitating illness. Many sufferers have found relief with LSD. Halpern is developing a drug that uses the non-psychoative derivative of LSD known as BOL-148. In what many consider a surprising move, he’s named his company Entheogen, Corp. So why use a term for science that is loaded with spiritual meaning? By phone Halpern explained to me why he believes the word fits the intent of his company so well. People who have cluster headaches often personify their affliction as a demon or devil, and when the headache ceases, will talk in terms of having “killed the beast.” For Halpern, he is in fact offering a spiritual experience to these people, and moreover, it is through chemistry related to LSD. Halpern sees his company as offering medicine in the shamanic sense, a usage thus akin to the deeper meaning of entheogen; like psychedelic, entheogen has been co-opted from the work of serious researchers into an underground with no clear purpose or message. It’s true that the psychedelic counterculture from the outside can often appear to be a hodgepodge of beliefs, identities and intentions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hold some things to be universally sacred, if not essential. The author Erik Davis, well known for his mostly temperate and objective writings on psychedelic culture, finds it creepy that a drug company would try to absorb a word that essentially reflects the highest potential of the human spirit. “Maybe that’s the game we are playing now, but it tastes bad to me,” he laments. “The term already has a meaning for a fairly circumscribed world that has a very ambivalent relationship with corporate America and the law, and so it seems profoundly inappropriate. It’s rude to appropriate its most symbolic tokens.” In the underground the emphasis is often more on the spiritual than the scientific; this is largely due to what might be the actual value of psychedelics in the first place: the experience. While science-based research might be looking for how these substances can be used to treat headaches, the energy behind it all—the users—don’t often care much about what is measurable or quantifiable. All you need to know about the value of psychedelics is your own experience, they believe. And because so much traditional use of these substances is bound up in religion, the current counterculture is seeking to make sense of its own trips by attaching this kind of spiritual significance.

Alex Grey's Carbon Jesus

So while psychedelic research can contain work that seeks to unlock both spiritual and psychological doors, a drug company might not be the best advocate for bridging what Steven Jay Gould calls non-overlapping magesteria, science and religion. Jesse at CSP also believes that Ruck and his colleagues explicitly intended the term to designate particular psychoactive plants and chemicals. CSP has given much thought to the specialized terminology of its field, and Jesse says he is “baffled” by the use of "entheogen" in connection with non-psychoactive substances. Expressing concern about dilution of the word’s meaning, Jesse asks, “If the company is implying that its non-psychoactive cluster headache drug is an entheogen, why not also apply the label to aspirin or to penicillin?” While acknowledging that spirituality must play out in ordinary consciousness, Jesse thinks "entheogen" should be reserved for use in connection with non-ordinary, heighted states of consciousness of spiritual import.

Alex Grey's Oversoul

As for Halpern’s claim that Entheogen Corp. is, at its heart, shamanic, Jesse replies, “We can appreciate the framing of the healing arts as spiritual practice.” And yet, he is skeptical: “I'm very unconvinced that the non-psychoactive cluster headache drug in question belongs in the category 'entheogen.' Furthermore, one mark of authenticity of a spiritual undertaking is that it is not organized for profit.  Time will tell.” So maybe legitimacy is also an idea that can have multiple meanings. For some, the ability to do FDA approved-research is enough. For yet others, the only real legitimacy is the freedom to alter our own consciousness in whatever way we choose. For Halpern, true legitimacy will come when these substances have proven their commercial and medical viability. Which is why Rick Doblin sees no conflict at all: “[Halpern] appropriated the term 'entheogen' for his company to indicate his aspirations rather than the actual initial research direction of the company. The name is about marketing, not science, but since it's for-profit, I expect marketing and don't object.” Halpern hopes commercial use could help bring both exposure of entheogens and their use to greater cultural acceptance. He insists he sees his work as coming from a moral imperative, and recognizes the power of both the drugs and the terminology that surrounds them. “I want to live up to using the term entheogen,” he says. The word entheogen was not a result of slang or colloquial use. Its designation was a decidedly “scientific” endeavor; an attempt to describe those substances traditionally belonging to native peoples but whose power could help activate certain potentialities for even 21st century Westerners. More significantly the methods for evaluating their capacity should also be sound and rigorous while respecting the inherent “spiritual” nature of these drugs.  But is such a thing possible in the realm of scientific, and by extension, mainstream culture? By conflating the spiritual with the pharmaceutical in the marketplace, Halpern’s company is attempting something that even the fabulously media-savvy Timothy Leary could never have dreamt of, making the loaded connotation of psychedelics synonymous with normal, capitalist-driven, American culture. Peter Bebergal is co-author, with Scott Korb, of The Faith Between Us (Bloomsbury, 2007). His next book, a memoir/cultural history of drugs and mysticism is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press. He blogs at cross-posted from The Revealer, a daily review of religion and media
This article is cross posted from The Revealer, a publication of NYU's Center for Religion and Media, and is part of an ongoing series about Shari'ah. by Joshua M. Z. Stanton When John F. Kennedy was running for president in 1960, fear-mongers raised the specter of his dual loyalty. Would he really serve American interests or merely be a pawn for the Vatican? After all, he was a Catholic. Church doctrine, it was whispered, could co-opt the person designated to uphold America’s laws and Constitution. Similar fears have been raised about Muslim-Americans, and ironically, often in conjunction with our current Christian president. Generalizations based on religion are disturbing because they reduce rich, diverse, and complicated belief structures to monolithic and inaccurate convictions. Yet what is most galling is the fact that accusations of dual loyalty, no less to a religion other than the president’s own, have not dissipated during the course of Obama’s first term in office. If anything, they have grown more raucous and extreme. So what exactly is the unknown that fear-mongers harp on? Among other things, it is the fear that a growing American religious community may suddenly undermine the country’s Constitutional values. Sharia, so-called Islamic law, is the new specter that fills the void left by the dissipated fear of Vatican doctrine and fear of Communism that crumbled alongside the Soviet Union. Forget the millions of Muslims in the United States who drink coffee, go to work, raise children, celebrate the Fourth of July, and pay their taxes on time. Sharia equals terrorism. “Need proof,” the fear-mongers ask? Just look at the fact that the terrorists who attacked us on September 11 observed Sharia. “Do you want to support terrorism?” This argument not only appallingly conflates all Muslims with Muslims who observe Sharia, but Muslims who observe Sharia with terrorists. The notion that 1.4 billion people could ever be the same might seem laughable, were the decision to lump all Muslims together – and then equate them with the worst handful – not made so frequently. This false logic is at the root of much fear. Trying to provide a parallel to the pseudo-logic of Islamophobia is a challenge. Here is but a vain attempt from American history: fear of the Japanese during World War II. Many differences are immediately apparent. The United States was actually at war with Japan (it is not at war with Islam), Japan is a nation rather than a highly disparate group of religious practitioners, and the war was being fought in good part through conventional tactics. Even so, the widespread fear of a fifth column had horrendous consequences for freedom in America. The American government, under an Executive Order from the Roosevelt Administration, rounded up and interned more than 120,000 American citizens in guarded camps, even though few if any had even considered undermining American war efforts. Their lives were tossed into disarray, undermining the American dream they immigrated for and the Constitutional values for which their brothers in arms were fighting overseas. As a country that has long prided itself on representing a superior national enterprise, we must learn from our past. We have not yet taken unconscionable measures against our Muslim citizens and must avoid doing so at all costs. As our history indicates, our Constitutional values may well be at stake when we fear and single out an American community. Currently, we see Islamophobes and fear-mongers inching us toward unthinkable violations of religious freedom. In America, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are peace-loving and loyal citizens. Their mosques and community centers reflect this outlook. Yet when civic leaders in New York recently went public with their hope to transform the former Burlington Coat Factory building into a Muslim community center, they were tarred and feathered for “radicalism.” Their proposed Park51 center was mislabeled the “Ground Zero Mosque” and the center’s visionaries, Daisy Khan and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, were labeled terrorist sympathizers. Both condemn terrorism and have worked tirelessly for decades to prevent it through interfaith collaboration and dialogue. Rauf even partnered with the George W. Bush administration to work for Middle East peace. Moreover, the movie theaters, swimming pools, dining areas and conference centers they propose are hardly radical. Only through conflation, distortion, and fear could we become so afraid of a mere recreation center. Some say that the notion of a “mosque” near the hallowed site of Ground Zero is insensitive. That position might seem consistent but for three things: the proposed Muslim community center is out of sight from Ground Zero, other houses of worship have not been barred from the area, and little (negative) attention has been paid to the strip clubs in the neighborhood. When strip clubs are prioritized over a place for people to talk, socialize, and pray, it seems clear that fear is at play. Better a known vice, the fear-mongers imply, than a less understood religion. Cost of this fear is tremendous. Protests against Park51 have metastasized into a national movement against the establishment of mosques. Fighting the construction of mosques has lead to even more outrageous threats – and plans by one extremist church in Florida to burn copies of the Quran on the ninth anniversary of 9/11. Even some local and national politicians have joined in the chorus of fright. Long-term solutions to terrorism are far more complicated than short-term political gain; it is easier to unite constituents against a phantasm than for a purpose. Fear of the unknown has spiraled out of control, targeting Sharia, places of worship, and now even Scripture. The fear is feeding on itself, and starting to consume the essence of religion in America: freedom. The Founding Fathers knew that when one house of worship is endangered, none of them are safe; when a Torah is burned, a Bible may be next; when one kind of religious law is defamed, theologies of all kinds may become subjected to hate. It would seem that in the name of preserving American values – supposedly against terrorism – we have come to actually compromise those same values. Freedom cannot be preserved through its own debasement. Singling out Muslim Americans, much as with prejudice against Jewish Americans and Catholic Americans before them, will prove to be wrong. The question is how much damage will be done before the fear subsides. Impeding the construction of Park51 actually strengthens radicals. Daisy Khan and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf have more than proven their love of America and desire for peace. If anything, the Park51 community center they envision will revitalize the neighborhood still recovering from the 9/11 attacks. It will be a sign from moderate Muslims that they stand with all Americans in the process of rebuilding – and mourning – the devastation. In fact, the only true beneficiaries of Islamophobia are the terrorist organizations that want to show that America is not actually free, that Muslims will never be welcome here. Terrorism is both a cause and a product of fear; Islamophobes amplify the voices of extremists and create polarities that need never exist. Rather than unwittingly aiding extremists, Americans should return to their core values, namely the profound belief in religious freedom. It is what the Pilgrims came to the New World for and what the Founders fought for during the Revolutionary War. As the great patriot Thomas Paine proclaimed, “I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy.” That is a credo to which all Americans of faith can ascribe, so long as they do not succumb to fear. Joshua Stanton, is co-Director of Religious Freedom USA and a Founding Editor-in-Chief of theJournal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™.  A Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow at Hebrew Union College, he is the recipient of numerous leadership awards.  He is also a blogger for the Huffington Post and serves on the Board of Directors of World Faith, as well as the Education as Transformation project. This article is cross posted from The Revealer, a publication of NYU's Center for Religion and Media, and is part of an ongoing series about Shari'ah.
by Najam Haider This article is part of an ongoing series at The Revealer, a publication of NYU's Center for Religion and Media, that will examine what Shari’ah is, how the media often get it wrong, and how it’s being used to create fear of Islam and Muslims and to justify continued military defense of “American values.” The recent Time magazine cover featuring the disfigured face of a woman identified only as Aisha and accompanied by the caption “What happens if we leave Afghanistan?” has raised a maelstrom of controversy in the blogosphere.  A number of voices have criticized the article for its presentation of a false dichotomy (either we stay and women are relatively safe or we leave and they will all be horribly oppressed) while others have criticized the politicized use of the image itself.  In reality, this type of argument is part and parcel of a broader discourse on women’s rights in Afghanistan (and the entire Muslim world). Last spring, the Afghani parliament raised a similar international uproar with its passage of a personal status law governing the Shi‘i minority that contained provisions that appeared to legalize marital rape and severely restricted a married woman’s ability to leave her home.  Human rights organizations and concerned political groups in Kabul organized protests against the law and accused Hamid Karzai,the president of Afghanistan, of backing it in exchange for support in the August 2009 elections.  The press forwarded both instances as examples of the Taliban’s effort to enforce Shari‘a, a term vaguely but routinely translated as “Islamic law” with broad connotations of immutability and universality. The problem with such a discourse lies in its fundamental misreading of the Shari‘a which – in turn – distorts economics and social issues by framing them exclusively in terms of religion.

The mainstream press often translates Shari‘a as Islamic law and describes it as a comprehensive and all-inclusive set of rules either articulated in the Qur’an or modeled by Muhammad in the 7th century.The rules are depicted as draconian, reactionary, and deaf to appeals of gender inequity. The Shari’a is also invoked by political Islamist groups in the Middle East and North Africa to justify their ideological agendas. Both the press and these Islamist groups, however, fundamentally misread and distort the term which has a technical meaning tied to law. According to Muslim scholars (across the centuries), Shari‘a is the human attempt to understand God’s will in a given place and at a given time. This is done by systematically examining evidence in a manner that balances the requirements of religious texts (primarily the Qur’an) against the needs of society (context). It is this methodology or approach, defined as fiqh (or jurisprudence) which gives a legal system its Islamic character. The rules that emerge from this process are collectively referred to as the Shari‘a. In this enterprise, limits of interpretation are provided by a small number of rules explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an. While these laws are theoretically immutable, they are nonetheless open to contextualization and have (on many occasions) been restricted in their application by Muslim jurists. In other words, as society changes, so does the Shari‘a which embodies the broader Muslim community’s attempt to provide a legal code resonant with its unique circumstances. In fact, if the Shari‘a is to maintain its influence, it *must* change. Otherwise it risks marginalizing itself from the practical needs of society and thereby relegating itself to irrelevance. An example of this dynamic can be found by comparing the Shari‘a in 16th century Egypt to that of southern Spain. Muslim scholars in each region were forced to deal with very different political and social contexts. Egypt was ruled by a stable Muslim government with little threat of foreign invasion. Consequently, Egyptian jurists held that hiding one’s Islamic faith was unacceptable and deemed it illegal to live in a nation ruled by a non-Muslim dynasty. Southern Spain, on the other hand, had been reconquered by Spanish Catholics in 1492 and the Inquisition had forced the large Muslim population underground. In this situation, an entire corpus of law was developed to allow for the continuation of religious life in a state of secrecy. Both legal codes -- in Egypt and Spain -- were considered valid manifestations of the Shari‘a with contradictions ascribed to  radically different contexts. The element that bound both of these Shari‘as together was their common legal methodology. The fact that the same approach yielded contradictory results did not raise eyebrows as it was understood that the circumstances of each community were fundamentally different. Shari‘a is a product of an approach to evidence as opposed to an immutable set of laws. Possessing a significant degree of flexibility, it evolves to fit the changing needs and expectations of a given society. This fact is particularly important when considering the most controversial element of the Afghan personal status law, namely the marriage contract clause which (a) rejects the possibility of marital rape and (b) restricts a wife’s freedom of movement. While these provisions were almost universally articulated by Muslim jurists throughout the centuries, they are not mentioned in the text of the Qur’an and are therefore open to a degree of reinterpretation. In fact, the marriage regulations in question were formulated by a group of scholars born and raised in male-dominated societies and reflect a general understanding of marriage prevalent in most traditional societies. Changes in these expectations only emerged in Europe and the United States over the last half century commensurate with huge strides in female education. Afghanistan has seen few such changes and traditional notions of tribe and assumptions regarding gender remain ingrained in most parts of the country outside of Kabul.

Afghani schoolgirl

The personal status law in Afghanistan embodies a traditional understanding of marriage as opposed to a core Islamic religious value. This law appears draconian and oppressive to modern sensibilities but – and this is the central problem – in the countryside it embodies the general expectations of marriage. While repealing the problematic clauses is useful to the extent that it denies official sanction to the disempowerment of women, it does not address the underlying social dynamic. The belief that a woman must be sexually available to her husband and cannot leave the home without permission will persist as the informal law of the land in most of Afghanistan outside the few cosmopolitan urban centers. Substantive change requires significant investment in the education of women which – in turn – will facilitate a change in perceptions of both marriage and the right to a basic freedom of movement. The pressure of social change has historically pushed Muslim scholars to re-engage the source texts through the rules of jurisprudence to accommodate a new historical situation. Examples of this process abound in countries like Egypt and Iran where the rise in the education levels of women have precipitated significant reforms in family law provisions of the Shari‘a. To criticize the attack on Aisha or the Afghan personal status law as the culmination of some immutable and rigid Shari‘a misreads both the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and the nature of Islamic law. This perspective takes issues tied to social and economic development (mainly education) and portrays them as unchanging and essential religious values. In doing so, it overlooks the fact that the Shari‘a is both mutable and adaptable in light of changes in society at large. The best avenue to facilitate the introduction of more progressive interpretations of personal law and to protect women from horrible violence (as in the case of Aisha) is through a heavy investment in the education of women and broader economic development.  As societal attitudes towards gender evolve and change, the Shari‘a will also adapt in a process that has played out countless times in the Muslim world over the last millennium.  By framing gender issues in Afghanistan in religious terms (as opposed to highlighting their connection to a particular social and economic context), we mistake  a side effect for a central cause. Najam Haider is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at Barnard College.  His current research focuses on the identity politics of religious minorities in the early Muslim world.  He has previously taught at New York University, Georgetown University, and Franklin and Marshall College.
Daniel Schultz writes in the The Revealer:
A church down in Gainesville is planning to hold an "International Burn A Quran Day" on 9/11, part of its larger "Islam is of the Devil" campaign. The pastor talks about the point of the event in an interview with the Friendly Atheist: Do you think Muslims will turn to Christ as a result of this? This is our prayer and desire that they would seriously reexamine their religion. They will then come to the conclusion that Islam is of the devil and Christianity is the only true religion. … Have any of the media reports of this event portrayed you unfairly or inaccurately? Would you like to set the record straight on any particular issue? We have been accused of being racist. We are not attacking a race. In other words, we are not attacking the Moslem. We love the Moslems and hope that they would come to true salvation. What we are attacking is Islam, the religion, and Sharia law, the political system. This leads Cathy Lynn Grossman at USAToday's Faith and Reason blog to ask, "Is it evangelism?"* It is, of a sort. It's not the kind of polite hey-we-actually-have-more-seats-than-butts-to-fill-them campaigns most people are used to from mainline Protestants or Catholics. Nor is it the high-pressure sales jobs often depicted in the media. In fact, it may not even be directed at Muslims, despite what the good pastor says. It reminds me of nothing so much as the enormous signs and newspaper ads that have been popping up lately, plumping for a Tea Party rally in the county park. At first, this struck me as rather odd. We live in rural Washington County, Wisconsin, after all. It's F. James Sensenbrenner's district, one of the most Republican areas in the entire state. So why would you need to declare—using plenty of caps and bold face—the strength of conservatism in a burnt-over mission field? For the same reason some churches burn the Quran. If you sit with these events long enough, if you listen behind the violence of their expressed intentions, it begins to resemble a Fletcher Hanks comic book. You start to hear the cry of sad and angry little men, shaking their impotent fists at a world changing without their consent. "International Burn a Quran Day" isn't about the truth of Jesus Christ. It isn't about converting heathens. It's about gathering together an anxiety-ridden remnant to protest the power of Christendom melting away like an ice cube on a hot August sidewalk. If there is to be a conversion, then, it will be a movement of "weak" Christians to "strong" ones, believers who burn with the spirit of over-againstness. It isn't exactly a good news kind of evangelism, but there it is. *At least she did. An updated (and renamed) version of the same post shows how the political and religious worlds grow together, with the Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee questioning if Islam might not be a "cult" and therefore not deserving of First Amendment protections. I don't know what's worse: that a politician would try to ride that kind of bigotry into office, or that it might work. Daniel Schultz, a.k.a. pastordan, is a minister in the United Church of Christ. He serves a small and very patient church in rural Wisconsin. He is the author of Changing the Script: An Authentically Faithful and Authentically Progressive Political Theology for the 21st Century, forthcoming from Ig Press. Reposted from The Revealer, a daily review of religion & media.
This article is cross-posted from The Revealer, a daily review of religion and media. by Jeff Sharlet The reverence with which so many upper-middle class Americans read The Economist has always puzzled me. There's much to admire about the magazine, but it generally performs the same function as Newsweek, boiling down events into centrist conventional wisdom, facts be damned. A report in the July 3, 2010 issue, "The religious right in east Africa: Slain by the spirit," is a case in point. I've been reporting on the religious right anti-gay movement in Uganda from here in the U.S. and from Kampala for nine months now, so I'm in a good position to see The Economist's strange moves; I wonder what I'd make of the article that follows it, on Somaliand's elections, if I were as informed on that story. But one needn't have expertise to debunk The Economist's report; a Google search would do it, especially if you landed, as you likely would, on the well-documented blogs of gay activist Jim Burroway or evangelical scholar Warren Throckmorton. The biggest error is The Economist's declaration that the bill no longer calls for the death penalty. That's propaganda put out by the bill's defenders. In fact, as I learned by asking the bill's author, Ugandan Member of Parliament David Bahati, it does. (I'll be publishing those interviews in my forthcoming book, C Street.) Bahati acknowledges that the death penalty may drop out of the final version. But it hasn't yet, and it's dangerous for The Economist to say as much. Just as dangerous -- and puzzling -- is The Economist's contention that "support for the anti-homosexuality bill in the Ugandan parliament has fallen away after Mr. Ssempa and other preachers accused a rival Pentecostal, Robert Kayanja, of sodomy." Does a plummy accent excuse Economist writers from fact checking? Ssempa and "other preachers" -- most notably Rev. Michael Kyazze and Rev. Moses Solomon Male, both of whom I interviewed at length -- accused Kayanja of sodomy months before the bill was introduced. Indeed, it was those accusations, and banner headline articles such as "Kayanja Reveals His Homo Secrets" in the April 29, 2009 edition of the wildly popular Red Pepper tabloid that helped drive popular support for the bill. I haven't been in Kampala since May 2010, but when I was there I did not meet a single person who wasn't gay who didn't support some variation of the bill. What's holding it back is international pressure, not the assertion of The Economist's imaginary centrist norms. And that's a more complicated story, since the international pressure does take an awfully pushy form -- Germany's offer of $148 million, for instance, if Uganda promises to shelve the bill, Sweden's threat of an end to aid if Uganda doesn't. And then there are the folks I write about in C Street, the American "followers of Jesus" who empowered the bill's author, Bahati, in the first place. The passage of the bill would be a disaster for them, since they're so intimately linked to it (Bahati is the secretary of the Ugandan branch of the organization, and its other chief backer in government, ethics minister James Nsaba Buturo, is chairman). Some of them them, such as Senator Jim Inhofe and Senator Tom Coburn, both of Oklahoma, have been preaching the anti-gay gospel for so long and with such venom that it's hard to take their disavowals seriously. Others, such as activist Bob Hunter, seem genuinely horrified by the bill. They've been putting quiet pressure on the Ugandan government, "behind-the-scenes," as Hunter describes his work. If such pressure can prevent the genocide that's been proposed in Uganda -- the bill's backers describe it as a first step toward the eradication of homosexuality altogether -- I think it's justified. But democratic? Not exactly. Of course, it's in response to the anti-democratic style that has long defined American and European relations with postcolonial Africa, the purchase of policies amenable to the West with foreign aid, with few questions about who actually benefits from those funds. Usually, those policies have to do with the extraction of resources, the location of military bases, or "coalitions" (the terrible bombing that just killed 74 in Kampala was in response to Uganda's role as a proxy force for the U.S. in Somalia and its troops in Iraq). Sometimes, it has to do with what in the West are called "social issues," i.e., basic public health, such as the pressure put on Uganda by American politicians to de-emphasize condoms as a response to HIV. This time, the pressure is on over a bill that is murderous -- in the service of a homophobia that all sides in this debate admit didn't exist in Uganda before America's exportation of its culture wars. The Economist finds that hard to believe, sniffing disapprovingly at the tacky Pentecostals it can't quite believe have replaced the old British empire. "The influence of the American Christian Right is often overstated," it declares (true, but it's still enormous)."Then there is the question of class... The cabal of civil servants, soldiers and businessmen who dominate the golf and social clubs of Nairobi and Kampala... are mostly Anglican and Roman Catholic and are unlikely to be be swayed by the casting out of demons." There is indeed a class issue, but it's not as simple as that. The bill's main backers, Bahati and Buturo, are Anglican, and their extremely anti-gay pastor is Archbishop Luke Orombi, linked to Falls Church Episcopal, one of the upper crustiest churches in America. Bahati and Buturo (both elites in every sense) both told me they believe in demons and connect them to homosexuality. If that doesn't square with the Church of England familiar to Economist writers, perhaps they'd better do some more reporting before they declare that all is essentially well with the good men of golf clubs in charge. CORRECTION:  Jeff Sharlet writes: In "The Economist's Strange Moves," I made a clumsy move, myself, identifying Falls Church (Anglican) as an Episcopal congregation. It was, when I visited in 2002. But my friend the Rev. Michael Pipkin, Priest-in-Charge of the current Falls Church (Episcopal), writes: "three and a half years ago The Falls Church abandoned The Episcopal Church, attaching themselves to theAnglican Church of Nigeria over issues of Biblical Authority and Sexuality... in the process, they kicked out several of their members who wished to remain Episcopalian, and thus my congregation, The Falls Church (Episcopal) continued on in exile (worshipping across the street in a Presbyterian Church, waiting for a major property dispute to settle).  They are currently referring to themselves (somewhat inaccurately) as The Falls Church (Anglican), though the Archbishop of Canterbury and other "Anglican" groups have not recognized them." I recognize the irony of my mistake in a piece taking The Economist to task for its lack of fact checking. Sorry, Falls Churches. But the two main points stand unaltered: 1. The Economist's suggestion that Anglicans don't engage in spiritual war as culture war is absurd; 2. I was just writing a quickie blog post; The Economist is a major international magazine, and should have gotten it right the first time. Ok, now I've made my correction. How about yours, Economist? Jeff Sharlet is founder and former editor of The Revealer.  He is the author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, 2008), a national bestseller, and the forthcoming C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. In 2010, he joined the English Department of Dartmouth College. This article is cross-posted  from The Revealer, a daily review of religion and media, and Warren Throckmorton's website.
By Tanya Erzen Reposted from The Revealer, a daily review of religion and media. Last November, I sat in a theatre in South Jordan, Utah with 4,000 Twilight Moms who had gathered for the weekend to celebrate the release of New Moon after two days of raucous pre-film festivities.  As I sat watching Eclipse, the newest film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s blockbuster Twilight series (in the six days since it opened, Eclipse has grossed $176.4 million), it wasn’t the wolves, newborn vampire army, fight sequences, love triangle or brief appearance by the Volturi that I found mesmerizing.  It was the fans seated around me.   They had come to watch the film after holding their own red carpet events at home, sharing Eclipse-theme dinners, exchanging flowers with one another, reciting lines from the book, donning golden vampire contact lenses, holding sleepovers, and wearing t-shirts bearing slogans with variations on favorite quotes: “Edward Cullen, I Promise to Love You Every Moment of Forever.”   The women and girls in Ohio were just part of the millions in the fanpire worldwide who have built imaginative social worlds around the film premiere and the series in general. Writers like Jana Riess have astutely noted the Mormon religious themes embedded in the books.  However, an overlooked aspect of the series is the way fans worldwide have created a Twilight-inspired universe that encompasses all aspects of their lives: from using the texts as spiritual guides, to Edward addiction groups to twi-rock music to Cullenism, a religion based on the values of Edward’s family of vegetarian vampires.  Gary Laderman notes in his compelling book, Sacred Matters that popular culture functions as “a rich wellspring for inspiring the religious imagination and possibly even an alternate source of sacred authority in the lives of fans.”   In the extensive social worlds of fans, Twilight is a text with multiple interpretations, an array of meaningful practices associated with it, and an audience that considers it a rich source of inspiration and collective identity.  The “Twilight Oath” is only one example of the ways fans imaginatively reproduce the Twilight series as a guide in their everyday lives.

At a midnight screening, surrounded by hundreds of other Twilight devotees, a fan might temporarily transcend the world they know and enter into one more fully felt than their own.  After the premiere of New Moon, a 17-year old girl in Michigan emerged from the theatre and alerted police that a man had bitten her on the neck.  Her story later proved to be a hoax, but it bespeaks the desire to traverse the space between ordinary life and the story, even if there isn’t any neck-biting in New Moon or Eclipse.   One woman constructed what she calls her Twilight shrines: two eight-foot long glass display cabinets overflowing with a jumble of Twilight tschotkes where she communes regularly.  There are vampire wine bottles, feathers, masks, a white chess piece, a frayed bumper sticker that reads “Smitten”, shot glasses, beads, wolf figurines and even Tampons.

In my interviews and survey of 3,000 fans, the majority express sometimes contradictory beliefs in the supernatural while asserting adherence to traditional religious institutions.   Yet, while Twilight won’t replace organized religion, it reflects a longing for sacred and extraordinary experiences in everyday life that are perhaps missing in traditional religious venues.   In pilgrimages to Forks, Washington, the setting for the books (in July 2009 alone, 16,000 fans trekked to Forks like supplicants at a holy site, more than the total number of visitors in 2008), fans indulge the fantasy that a supernatural world exists alongside our own, searching for vampires in the woods and lingering outside the re-imagined home of Bella.  Rather than fueling interest in vampirism, a concern among some Christian critics of the books, the series provides what Laderman calls “myths that provide profound and practical fulfillment in a chaotic and unfulfilling world.”   It’s also impossible to separate these moments of spiritual enchantment from the Twilight franchise, which ceaselessly offers consumption to women and girls as a way to retain the feelings of belonging, romance and enchantment.   There are Edward and Bella Barbie dolls, lip venom, calendars, video games, graphic novels, and fangs cleverly promoted and eagerly purchased at conventions and online stores.  Yet, the shrines attest to the way fans also transform these objects into something personally vital within the messy entanglements of commerce and enchantment.

At a recent screening of Eclipse, a man proposed to his girlfriend on bended knee in front of the theatre audience, and then they rejoined the cheering crowd to watch the film.

Currently, a replica of Bella’s engagement ring, which Edward bestows upon her in Eclipse, is one of the most popular items for fans to purchase, providing another way for the romantic narrative of the film to cross into regular life.  The vision of romance offered by Eclipse and encapsulated by the ring is almost supernatural and otherworldly to most girls and women who encounter the failure of marriage as a romantic institution and the schizophrenia of messages about sexuality from “Girls Gone Wild” to “True Love Waits.”  Into this bewildering mix, Twilight offers a fictional mirage of romance and enchantment. First, there are the scenes in Eclipse where Edward insists on preserving Bella’s virtue before marriage.  Bella is assured of eternity with the person she loves because unlike humans, vampires’ emotions are not fickle and transient.  She will remain in the form of a lithe teenage girl without the creeping malaise of middle-age, disillusionment, and financial strain that accompanies marriage over time.  Edward explains how in his time, he would have asked permission to court Bella, stealing kisses with her while drinking lemonade on the front porch.  It’s a vision of romance and relationships far removed from the daily life of most fans, but in the immediacy of watching the film, it seems anything might be possible.   You might even receive a marriage proposal in the movie theatre.

Unlike most fans, I prefer the Twilight films to the books, and Eclipse presents the archaic version of romance offered by the novels in a more palatable form.   Like the other films, the excruciating detail with which Bella recounts the meals she cooks for her father are eliminated.  The Bella who mopes and pines for Edward when he’s away for mere hours in the novels is replaced in the film by a character with somewhat more pluck and humor.  In the first scene, she curtails her embrace with Edward and leaves him looking pinched and brooding in the meadow as she heads home for curfew.  When Edward explains that marriage may seem old-fashioned but it makes sense in his world, Bella quips that the only reason people in her world get married at age eighteen is because they’re knocked up (she consents to marry him later on, but it’s still an improvement).  Her constant self-torment over hurting Jacob and Edward in the book, which can be exhausting to read, is significantly edited.  The tension is certainly present in Eclipse, but at least we are treated to some banter and jokes.  Jacob says to Edward:  "Let's face it — I'm hotter than you."   At the end, Bella makes a speech that is utterly absent from the book.  Here she claims that she chose Edward not simply because of her obsessive love for him, but because she always felt she was stumbling through the world, and the realm of vampires and werewolves is the only place she’s ever felt comfortable.  “So, it’s not just about me?” he asks. What if the ways fans enact ritual, spirituality and belonging in relation to Twilight were built on a more robust vision of enchantment and romance?   While Eclipse hews faithfully to the narrative of the books, it offers another interpretation upon which fans might envision forms of spirituality and transcendence.  The enchantment of Twilight doesn’t reside in Edward’s proclamations of love but the other dazzling possibilities in the text:  the vampires don’t eat actual food so Bella is liberated from ever having to cook a meal once she becomes immortal.  She eventually lives as part of an extended clan of Cullen vampires who are always on call to babysit and provide free daycare.  Sex is always awesome.  And then there is immortality itself.   I imagine a new “Twilight Oath” where fans promise not to base their entire lives on a man, where marriage isn’t the pinnacle of relationships, where we don’t expect love to be a matter of fate, where sex doesn’t necessarily lead to pregnancy or near-death, where men can cook for themselves, and where everyone gets communal childcare and the benefits of extended, non-biological families.  That would certainly be a form of enchantment. Tanya Erzen is an associate professor of religious studies at Ohio State University and the author of Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement. She is currently working on two books: one examines faith-based forms of imprisonment in the United States and the other is about the social worlds of Twilight fans. Reposted from The Revealer, a daily review of religion and media.