Belief Matters as Much as Action

Do beliefs matter that much?

I have had some trouble in the past few years seeing beliefs affecting action. For example, does belief in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity affect daily life that much?

Building off of this, I entertained that beliefs don’t matter so much as one’s actions. This is a very America idea. Maybe even Marxist.

But then I read something interesting this week for class on the American Revolution and on ideas concerning women at the time.

According to Amanda Porterfield, it was common to see women as naturally the intellectual inferiors of men.

Aaron Burr (vice president to Thomas Jefferson) took a different approach. He gave his daughter Theodosia the opportunity to learn. Broadly. By age 10, she read French and Latin. At 12 she took up Greek. By 18, she had obtained Italian in addition to competence in the piano, dance, geography, and history.

Theodosia proved what Burr already assumed: women aren’t dumb.¹

Source: University of Chicago Press
Source: University of Chicago Press

This got me to thinking what beliefs can accomplish in the world. In this case, a belief had inhibited the vast potential of women. If people saw women as naturally the intellectual inferiors of men, why attempt to change that? It was natural, right?

The beliefs that matter most—in the sense that they have the most impact due to their presumption—are those we attribute to some natural, unchangeable, “real,” stable essence. What goes unquestioned? What is off limits to probe?

Beliefs matter. When left unquestioned and unprovoked, they foster a stupor that can be potentially dangerous.

Consider the relatively recent movement #blacklivesmatter. There has been a conservative backlash to it called #alllivesmatter. What gets lost on #alllivesmatter is that it superficially focuses on the phrase #blacklivesmatter without taking time to attend to the movement’s interests.

#blacklivesmatter already assumes that all lives matter: their point is black lives haven’t mattered historically (while technically it could be #blacklivesmattertoo, that gets too long to be catchy). In this case, black bodies have taken the brunt of the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, and increased surveillance.

What’s the point of connecting #blacklivesmatter to women’s education in the late 1700s? Both are responses to naturalized beliefs that inhibit groups.

Women’s education was a response to women’s inferiority. #blacklivesmatter is a response to latent (and sometimes extremely overt) white supremacy that just wants black people to shut up, throw away their identity, stop complaining, and be like white people.

#alllivesmatter promotes inaction to change the killing of black lives by ignoring the actions already happening against black lives.

Beliefs matter. Probe them.

¹Amanda Porterfield, Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 42-44.

Gender: Who Has It?

20150809_211514What do you think of when you think of gender?

If you’re me, it’s something you don’t have but others do. That probably reflects my privilege as a man.

Whatever social marker it is–gender, race, class, ethnicity, age, etc.–I usually think of it as something others (Others?) have.

Let me expand on that a bit. It’s not that I don’t think I have a gender. It’s that when I think of “gender issues” I’m not usually thinking about myself, because I don’t have a glass ceiling to break through. Worries about rape are not on my mind when I walk down a street at night. Anorexia and bulimia are not problems I deal with (if you’ve seen me in person, you can tell pretty quickly I don’t have these problems). Do these affect some men? Maybe. They just don’t affect me, and I presume they don’t affect a lot of men.

This somewhat reflects the field of gender studies. When I started reading Ursula King’s edited work, Religion and Gender, she indicated that many times gender studies=women’s studies.

Now this isn’t the case across the board. There is a subfield in gender studies called men’s studies or men and masculinities, so there’s an exception to this rule.

And maybe this is just me and something I will need to look at, but when you think of a category like gender, race, class, etc., do you think about it in reference to yourself or others?

Perhaps it is also true that I don’t get out much. Chalk it up to being a father of two young children, working, and being a student.

I have started asking some close family and friends what they think of when they hear the topic of gender. When I was waiting for church to start this morning, I wrote the following in my journal:

All I know of the past (before my conscious memory) is mediated. What would I think of gender were I alive in the 1950s? If I try to image this, all of my imagination of the 1950s is already constrained by what various patriarchs and feminists have informed me about it: it was utopia or a nightmare.

My “knowledge” of the 50s comes from books, movies, shows, clips. This is not to say that if I interviewed someone who lived during that time period would be any less colored by their perspective. However, I wonder what I would catch in the conversation unedited.

In print and in video, a lot of editing goes on. Granted, if you’ve had some practice answering a question, there has been editing done there, too.

What am I saying? I have a lot of work to do. Much of my research (maybe I’ll just call them “thoughts” instead of research since I haven’t really tested them against other peoples’ thoughts) on gender comes from inside my head.

However, if I want to pursue knowledge about gender, I will have to incorporate more than just my thoughts. It will require questioning others about their experiences. It will require probing their answers, being aware of my responses, making those responses known to them to gauge how they react, probing how others think about the data I gather, and continuing this cycle over long periods of time.

Here is what I think of when I think of gender: it is an amalgam of one’s sex organs, hormones, appearance, social interactions, experiences, sexual orientation, and how each of these interact with each other over time.

With this in mind, there will be many  masculinities, femininities, or just general gendered expressions. To put it another way, gender looks different for a black lesbian, a poor Chinese man, or a young trans woman. Each social marker will affect how gender appears.

Free Association on Difference

index“You must read literature, for there you find how people live.” That’s not a real quote, but Robert Turnbull said something similar in my “Theological French” class six years ago. I don’t know why they slapped “theological” on it since it was really a whirlwind course in French grammar, but alas…

Seminary was an interesting time for me. I had started considering that maybe I didn’t want to pursue theology. But still, when he said those words, I had an internal reaction. Theology was reality. All I needed to do to be right with God and people was to read theology. This would order my life and life would be grand.

This isn’t to say that I hadn’t enjoyed novels. I had read The Da Vinci Code while in seminary and absolutely enjoyed it. I don’t know how many would call that literature, but then again, what is literature? Is it merely a piece that literary critics have declared part of “the” canon? Is it a piece that has something of timeless, enduring value? Is literature a book people say you should read but never have themselves?

As I was performing a meticulous, mindless task at work, I began listening to Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

What have I been missing all this time? Sure, gritty shows like Mad Men, House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, or The Wire have a similar “realness” to them, but their writers, directors, or producers are somewhat invisible to me. Furthermore, I cannot see and hear the internal workings of the characters. These shows also seem to match a lot of my experience in the following way: white protagonists.

What would happen if I continued to read non-fiction about my research interests, but augmented it with literature, pop- and classic? What sort of things would I come across that I might otherwise miss? As the narrator in Invisible Man speaks of his youth, I wonder how much that voice reflected a generation.

How much did young African-Americans in the 1930s and 40s wish to be successful, but only in a way that didn’t upset white supremacy? How many constantly feared that they had upset whites? How many had tried to be “good blacks” as defined by their white lords? As I listen, I wonder how different a person I would be if I were raised in a different body, time, family, and social setting. The big value that shines through early in the novel is to speak to whites in a humble way or else incur their wrath. Is that assumption still present in the minds of African-American minds today?

Perhaps it’s my Millennial sense of entitlement, my narcissism, my white privilege, or healthy sense of self, but I don’t generally put on airs with people. But to approach an entire class of people as if they don’t use toilets, as if they were gods? It doesn’t compute.

How many voices are absent in my life? Not only do I not have a very diverse group of friends at work or church, but also at school. They’re primarily straight white Protestants. I don’t have anything against straight white Protestants. I am one. But I along with my group are not the only people in my city, state, and country. If I cannot find different voices in my experience, is it at least desirable to hear alternative voices in literature? This is elementary, but I probably have a lot of unconscious opinions that I never become aware of because I don’t have Difference showing me how much my assumptions don’t reflect everyone else’s reality.

If you have any good novels that deal with the following topics, send them my way: gender, sexuality, race, class, age, rites of passage.

“The” Ethics of Abortion: Why This Debate Will Never End

As I admitted in my last post, I haven’t given abortion much thought because I lack a uterus. The sting video on Planned Parenthood gave me pause. What do I think about abortion? Was this video damning or not? Why?


My friend Samantha posted what I think is a good post from a pro-choice stance, defending Planned Parenthood from a legal perspective. Ostensibly, they were being paid for the transfer costs of aborted fetal tissue, which is legal. Samantha summed up that pro-life and pro-choice advocates are both trying to save lives, but are focusing on different means. They are “ships passing in the night.”

I’ll plainly state that I have been pro-life my entire adult life, though I have more questions now than before such as:

  • what is the fate of the child and mother if the mother is an addict?
  • what if the child is headed for a life of poverty and all that poverty entails?
  • if a mother wants to put her child up for adoption, what is the ratio of babies born to parents wanting to adopt? is the cost of adoption prohibitive?
  • what are the supports for mothers once their children are born? If she was already poor, will communities and welfare be available to her?

Regardless of how nuanced I get, I am still uncomfortable with abortion. That discomfort proceeds from an affirmation of life. I don’t know where life begins, but I don’t see enough difference between a fetus and a newborn to say, “Yes, it’s ok to terminate the life on this side of the line, but not on that side.”

When’s a Fetus no Longer a Fetus?

What’s the difference between a fetus from a newborn? A minute? less? I’m not talking about labor; I’m talking about those last few moments of pregnancy where one moment object A is inside the uterus (fetus) and the next moment it isn’t (newborn). It is a very quick transition from being something we can legally terminate to being someone we can’t legally terminate. Why do we define that change of state so absolutely? In other words, why is life defined in very specific chunks rather than along a continuum?

Concerning that transition, consider sexual intercourse: I wonder if the beginning of life and the beginnings of one’s sexual life are similar.

What is the moment that a virgin is no longer a virgin? Think of two virgins about to cease being virgins. Do they cross that threshold at the first sexually charged look? The first caress? The first disrobing? The first fondling? The first suckle? The first genital stimulation? The first penetration? The first orgasm? Is sex one discrete thing or a continuum of behavior?

If penetration is the key definer of sex, and the key that evaporates virginity, does that include penetration of things besides a vagina? If a homosexual man only has sex with men his entire life and then dies, has he died a virgin according to that definition? Or did he cross that threshold the first time he had sex with a man?

I ask again, how different is a fetus from a newborn?

The Social Freight (Politics) of Binaries

What am I saying in these comparisons? I’m saying that we as a society take a slight difference between two things and then treat the distinguished things in radically different ways. I am wondering if this makes sense. The binary in this case is “not life/life.” Inside a uterus, a child is legally not life since it can be terminated without repercussion.

American society has deemed abortion legal institutionally by defining a clean break between those two states. The only reason a fetus isn’t just called a baby is because the distinction has to make sense for the law to make sense. The difference in state of the baby is purely by fiat.

Granted, I have not waded into this very complex issue. When I started researching for this post I googled “abortion debate” and came to a debate site. It listed roughly thirty facets to the issue. I come at it from one angle and realize it is an angle, not “the” ethic for this debate. Were there something we could all appeal to in equal measure, there wouldn’t be a debate.

The debate will never end because people ally themselves with the continuum model or the discrete model. Someone could highlight a grey area for me, and I would concede if convinced, but I see little space for calling something both a continuum (pro-life) and a discrete shift in essence (pro-choice). As Roger Olson highlighted, nuance is drowned out by the seemingly unavoidable extremes in this debate.

I also think the debate will never end, because it is now entrenched as an identity marker. I don’t know how many pro-life or pro-choice advocates sit down and say, “Wow, the other side makes some great points. I should really reconsider my position in light of what they have just said.” Instead, people usually hear a label, assume the worst of their adversary, have their checklists of orthodoxy and heresy, hurl talking points at their adversaries, utterly ignore the talking points of their adversaries, and go their separate ways thoroughly entrenched.

I wish this were a happier post or one more provocative for discussion, but I’m under no illusions that this will be a popular post. Abortion isn’t exactly a boring topic or one for polite company. It isn’t an issue that calls tolerance forth from its interlocutors. However, I will admit I am weird: I invite feedback positive and negative. If I have left anything out, maligned someone, misrepresented people—whatever your opinion—comment, or, if you don’t feel like having a comment war but only a discussion, my email is ilostmyprayerhanky At gmail dot com. As my friend Samantha got at in her post, I want discussion to occur that treats conversation partners as people, not battlefields to lob bombs at.

Link Wednesday 6: Mucho Feminism…and Some Sexuality, Too

This Link Wednesday, admittedly doesn’t have a lot of feminism, but it does comprise the majority of the links. Here we go.

1. “An Update on the Gay Debate: evolving ideas, untidy stories, and hopes for the church

Julie Rodgers
Julie Rodgers
Reza Aslan
Reza Aslan
Julie Rodgers was a “Ministry Associate for Spiritual Care” at Wheaton College until she resigned yesterday. She is a celibate gay Christian whose shift in view on same-sex marriage seems to have been the reason for her resignation. If you are not used to reading gay Christian perspectives, check out her blog. Another gay Christian voice to check out is Matt Vines at The Reformation Project.

In other religio-sexual news, Reza Aslan encouraged his fellow American Muslims to fight for marginalized groups like the LGBT community in a public letter after the SCOTUS decision. In case you weren’t aware, 42% of American Muslims support same-sex marriage (21+21). Maybe you weren’t surprised by the figure. I was. It helps to look at data.

2. “Media Literacy 101

Here are the four takeaway questions quoted (except for the “And”) from the transcript:

  1. What is the content of this product? As in, what am I looking at here?
  2. Is it really selling what it’s advertising? Like, if you have a woman in a bikini in your commercial, it better be for swim wear and not for, ya know, hamburgers.
  3. Who made this?…
  4. Why do they want me to consume it? That is, which demographics benefit from me internalizing this message and which demographics are hindered by it?

My wife and I discussed this while we walked by Victoria’s Secret in the mall. She wondered why the store would have an image of a woman with no top, covering only her nipple (probably through Photoshop or a nude suit) when what it was selling was a bracelet. I speculated that marketing experts project that it will have a significant impact on the tastes of women’s significant others to push to buy that product so that their women can exude the image shown: free-spirited, virile, trophy, etc. But then I thought about it today, and realized that women (or men if they want the bracelet) don’t need other agents encouraging them to exude free-spirited, virile, trophy images; they have agency of their own.

3. “Is secularism still Christian?

This article talks about the origins of Western secularism. I modify it because not all secularisms are the same. Turkish secularism, for example, looks different from American secularism because of the different histories of the peoples. Even in the West, secularism in the United States differs from that in the United Kingdom which differs from that in France. For more elaboration on the various secularisms, see the interview with Tariq Modood at The Religious Studies Project.

4. “How the Justice System Hurts Survivors Through the ‘Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline‘” and “How ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Misrepresents Women’s Federal Prison (And Why It Matters)

Orange Is the New Black
Orange Is the New Black
These two articles discuss how women entering prisons are primarily non-violent drug offenders. The feministing article highlights that the major contribution to drug use/penalization occurs among sex-abuse victims. The everydayfeminism article highlights that while men’s prisons still have far more prisoners population-wise, women’s prisons are growing at double the rate of men’s: growth in prisons in general are fueled by the failed War on Drugs.

5. “An Explanation for Why It’s Not Just Men Who Pressure Women Into Feminine Norms

Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham
Celia Edell applies Foucault’s reading of Bentham to explain that patriarchal norms for femininity come from many directions (men, other women), including from the self. Gender expression is a show for everyone and no one. This was an article that gave me a check regarding my thoughts on the Victoria’s Secret ad.

6. “The Coming Gay Rights Letdown” (The Daily Beast)

While happenings in one place aren’t guaranteed to replicate in another, a Canadian LGBT activist warned American LGBT activists that marriage equality brings apathy among the public. It reminds me of the unfortunately failed Equal Rights Amendment. Women in the United States gained suffrage in 1920, gained lots of momentum in the 1960s and 1970s through second-wave feminism, but the culture at large seems not to have given that Amendment as much weight as they.

7. I’m going to wait on #PlannedParenthood. The story is still developing. Color me cautious (I guess you can color me cowardly if you want; I just think big stories need more development).

Because of Caitlyn Jenner in the news last month, I thought it worthwhile to cover a less well known group. Intersex persons are the little known group in the longer LGBTQIA acronym. Political recognition of them at times overlap with transgender persons, hence the upcoming post, “The Politics of Intersex.”

Link Thursday (#4): Obergefell v. Hodges: The “True” Definition of Marriage

I apologize for not getting this out on Wednesday. I also realize that these “Link Wednesdays” are turning into substantial posts in themselves. Let me know if you prefer substantial posts for Wednesdays or ones with links and very minimal annotation at ilostmyprayerhanky At gmail.

Jim Obergefell
Jim Obergefell
What is the purpose of marriage? Is it to produce children? Is it to enable people to connect emotionally over a lifetime? Does it have more than one purpose?

At stake in the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges is whether or not states are required to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples and to recognize marriage licenses issued by other states. The summary of the oral arguments and amicus briefs for and against are here, here, here, and here.

This post will look in detail at the religious freight brought to bear in the amicus brief submitted by The Coalition of Black Pastors and Christian Leaders, aka The Coalition of African-American Pastors. Amicus Curiae are documents submitted by persons strongly interested in a case but not actually involved in it. I am interested in this case, because Black Protestants make up the next biggest opponent of same-sex marriage behind White evangelical Protestants. Since I am somewhat familiar with evangelical religious reasoning against same-sex marriage, I was curious to see if there was overlap with Black church leaders’ legal reasoning.

Here are their three major arguments that will be covered in turn (page numbers from the document will be cited parenthetically):

  1. The caseLoving v. Virginia does not create marital inclusivity as far as the plaintiffs wish
  2. Unelected courts should not decide on morality; that should be left to legislation and the People
  3. The Sixth Circuit Court did not have to employ strict definitions in considering the states’ marriage laws (iii)

Before going into the argument, the pastors and Christian leaders provide a glimpse into their identity and aims in this quote:

For Amici, the Bible expresses sound, ethically-grounded doctrine upon which individuals beneficially rely regarding family matters. Amici bear the responsibility to oppose unsound, morally-relative doctrines and to oppose practices that are harmful to the following of God’s time-proven teachings. Amici, therefore, hold a vested interest in a State’s right to correctly define marriage (1; bold mine).

On to the arguments.

The case of Loving v. Virginia (1967) had to do with anti-miscegenation laws. Anti-miscegenation laws were found unconstitutional for violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The plaintiffs in Obergefell v. Hodges argued that denying marriage licenses violated the Equal Protection Clause, using Loving v. Virginia as precedent. The Amici do not see this as valid for a few reasons.

Their big one involves the first alternative use of Loving in Baehr v. Lewin (1993). Baehr held that sexual orientation was a “suspect class” like race was in Loving. Suspect class is “a class of individuals that have been historically subject to discrimination” so that their involvement in a discrimination case is subject to “strict scrutiny.” To survive this level of judicial scrutiny, a State has to have had a compelling reason to limit fundamental rights and narrowly defined the law so as not to engage in discrimination. Examples of suspect classes subject to strict scrutiny include race and religion. One of the questions at stake is whether marriage is a fundamental right.

The Amici argue that the Supreme Court in Loving never contemplated or addressed same-sex marriage (7). This argument gets at origins. In this line of thinking, the closer reasons (practices, beliefs, etc.) are to some group’s original intentions, the more authority it carries. What’s interesting about this originalist interpretation is that the Founders never envisioned African-American voters, but here we are. Time brings out new questions, and, many times, new answers.

They go on to say that “Loving emphasized the importance of marriage to all Americans, in the true sense of the word” (8, bold mine). Words do not have true senses. They have definitions based on how people accept them. If I say someone is gay, you aren’t going to think I’m meaning it in the “true sense” of happy. Why is marriage cordoned off from this ability to change meaning over time? Is it because so many personal investments revolve around how its definition?

And yet, the fact that words do not have eternal, true senses does not mean that definitions are merely idiosyncratic either. While words can be defined however a group wants to define them that does not mean words change meaning overnight. It takes time and people agreeing with definitions. If I say tomorrow that “marriage” means that someone likes chocolate, good luck with that catching on, particularly considering my readership numbers.

These rhetorical strategies of “origins” and “classification” go back to what I have covered on practice and community. The use of origins is a great strategy, because it gives your case a sense of establishment, authority (based on heroes at the beginning of a discourse), and longevity. Sometimes, it is also used to ignore all the intervening steps (history) between the proposed origin and the present (See Monica Miller’s post on labels). However, it also serves the religious element in Lincoln’s system of religious discourse in attempting to make historically contingent facts beyond dispute: religion is at least “temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions of those discourses, practices, and institutions that characteristically represent themselves as eternal, transcendent, spiritual, and divine.” In other words, this move to origins is meant to stop argumentation, because origins are where authority rests. If God isn’t the authority in this case, it is the immutable and inerrant Founders, treated much the same way as inerrant Scripture.

The Amici also move beyond legal reasoning to employ the “true definition” of marriage, again, using classification. Classification in political (one can easily argue that religion involves this same discourse since it too manages relationships between parties) discourse is never neutral or apolitical. So when they employ Robert Reilly to give the true definition of marriage–the context where the “procreative and unitive purposes of sex” (14-15, no. 13) occur–debate is curtailed, because by definition, same-sex couples cannot be married since they cannot procreate with each other, and therefore, do not meet both of the required elements. I’m not going to try to insult your intelligence too much, but following that definition, here are some heterosexual acts and statuses that should bar a person from marriage:

  • women with hysterectomies
  • men with vasectomies
  • the elderly
  • couples who do not wish to have children
  • couples who engage in any sex act that does not finish inside a vagina
  • contraception
  • abortion
  • divorce, because this eliminates the possibility of future children
  • post-menopausal women

This list is not exhaustive, but it shows that the State is not merely interested in defining marriage by the bare fact of procreation. What does it reveal about the “true definition” of marriage? I suggest that it at least shows that interests beyond the State’s are at play, and I would argue that they are religious ones. The definition is not beyond dispute but reflects the interests of the pastors. You can be the judge of how much or little specific religious discourse should play a part in judicial discourse. The aim of this blog is to uncover the strategies at play among religious and sex discourses. I have around five pages of single-spaced notes on the brief if you care to discuss this further. There is much I left out that I could have covered and that someone might say I overlooked. If so, comment or email me. Otherwise, I await the Court’s decision which might come out today.

Link Wednesday #3: Attack of the Transgenders!

This Link Wednesday is going to be short and sweet. It will be links, very quick intros, and questions.

1. Albert Mohler and the Transgender Attack on Women’s Colleges

Albert Mohler
Albert Mohler
I’ve introduced Al Mohler here, so I will leave you to read about him there. He introduced a story that detailed how the last of the “Seven Sisters,” Barnard College, had admitted transgender students while still holding to its mission as a women’s only college. Notwithstanding that some of these colleges admit men, Mohler cast the decision as a moment of “conflicting absolutes” between feminism and the “transgender revolution.”


  1. If elements within a movement shift on things are they no longer part of that movement?
  2. Are movements stable enough in the first place to be identified as one thing?
  3. Who gets to speak for a group and who decides? Is it within or outside the group?

2. Elinor Burkett: The Transgenders Are Coming for Your Abortions and Your Sororities!

Laverne Cox Author: Dominick D via Flickr
Laverne Cox

I found out about this article from Mohler. Elinor Burkett is a journalist, author, former professor, and producer. Her recent op-ed entitled “What Makes a Woman” appeared in The New York Times. Apparently a woman consists of a vagina and the ability to have children. Do with that what you will.


  1. Burkett draws a parallel between former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers and then-Bruce Jenner: each said that men and women have different brains, while one was treated with scorn and one with bravery. Does who says something change what is said? If a white supremacist or an African-American rapper say the word “nigger” (and I record it), is it the same thing or not?
  2. Burkett claims that Jenner makes use of feminine stereotypes of appearance and emotionality; does the kind of woman Burkett lauds—liberated, with fuller agency—have room for the classically feminine woman she critiques?
  3. Burkett treats transgender women as a threat to women as a whole. How do you define woman? Is Caitlyn Jenner the same as Laverne Cox or Leslie Feinberg?
  4. Leslie Feinberg
    Leslie Feinberg

  5. Burkett says that Jenner does not get to define women, but then goes about defining women herself. Does Burkett represent women of all classes, politics, religions, races, and ethnicities?
  6. Burkett claims that transgender claims on womanhood trample her dignity as a woman. Did women’s suffrage trample the dignity of male votes? I don’t know how much Burkett would like that her position sounds similar to arguments like legalization of same-sex marriage would trample the dignity of traditional marriage.
  7. Burkett lists universal experiences that Jenner has never experienced, such as forgetting to take the pill. Can you name ONE universal female experience?
  8. Burkett remarks that Jenner has experienced privilege as a man, employing his sponsorship during the 1976 Olympics as an example of how he cannot understand the lack of privilege women experience. Is privilege static? Does the privilege of Bruce Jenner in 1976 match that of the 65 year old Caitlyn?
  9. Burkett is not without her points. Jenner does seem to buy into stereotypes of women as emotional and sex objects. Why did she transition to her current gender expression, and not the butch gender expression of someone like Leslie Feinberg?
  10. Burkett overtly links owning a vagina and working uterus with being a woman. Does having a non-functioning or absent uterus make one less a woman?

As June comes to a close, we will know the result of Obergefell v. Hodges. That case will determine whether or not same-sex marriage is legal. Next Link Wednesday will involve two strong cases each for and against same-sex marriage. As always, I hope for your interaction. If you do not feel comfortable commenting, please email me at ilostmyprayerhanky AT gmail. I truly enjoy conversation (I won’t berate you on differences of opinion) and seeing how people come to their conclusions. I thrive on what can occur when two people are open about where they are coming from and can open new possibilities beyond their current place.

My Weird Views on “Religion,” Part 2: Practice

Regarding last week’s post on discourse, I feel I was too dependent on Bruce Lincoln’s theory of religion. While I will continue to use his outline, I am going to expand it with my own stuff. This is part two of four.

Here is a review of the outline. Religion is at least, though not necessarily reducible to:

  1. discourse
  2. practice
  3. community
  4. institution

What is practice in religion? Lincoln defines practice as rituals and ethics which designate a proper world order/person as defined by religious discourse.

Bruce Lincoln Source: University of Chicago
Bruce Lincoln
Source: University of Chicago

I see practice as the primary identifier of religion, for it is what people outside the religion (discourse, community, institution) primarily encounter. You do not see beliefs or institutions unless you look at their texts, which are the result of the practice of writing and encoding ideologies with otherworldly authority. However, you can see clothing or grooming. You can also see texts or architecture if you are aware of it. You can hear certain music (or not hear it in its absence) or rhythmic recitations. You can taste different cuisines or items associated with a ritual. You can smell smells associated with a space, and you can feel the touch of objects or other persons.

You could argue with me about what should be primary in religion. Beliefs, or discourse in my presentation, is usually what is asserted as primary, if Protestantism is taken as normative for religion. However, even when it comes to discourse—in the construction, maintenance, replication, polemics, irenics, apologetics, destruction, or reformation of it—I see the activity of practice employed in it. Why? The act of discourse defines who is in a group and who is outside a group, a practice that is always more mobile than discursive text (though I do not limit discourse to text alone).

I am not using my religious upbringing as representative of all religion, but merely to demonstrate a point. It seemed sometimes that signing onto a belief was as important, if not more important, than enacting a practice connected with that belief. This ended up being a practice in itself. One of the practices closely identified with my group was the practice of glossolalia, or speaking in languages you hadn’t sat down to learn. While the group pushed the practice, it definitely mattered if you even considered it a possibility. Southern Baptists, who did not condone the practice, were seen as other to us because they did not even consider glossolalia a possibility. It didn’t matter that we had many in our group who did not themselves “speak in tongues” as glossolalia was referred to; it mattered that we took the practice of believing Acts 2 in a way that Southern Baptists didn’t.

Certain practices seem to have religious connotations associated with them: ingesting a limited amount of food and beverage in a communal setting (Eucharist/communion), stretching limbs in a communal setting (raising hands in worship or some settings of Hatha Yoga), dressing up (wearing a hijab, niqab, skull necklace, funerary ashes), or feeling an object in a stylized manner (prayer wheel in Tibetan Buddhism or rosary).

Lincoln goes on further to say that no practice is inherently religious in itself until defined by the discourse. I described some practices in a purely material way. If I said I was making you a cake, would you consider it religious? Consider the following. Cake-bakers mix flour, sugar, and oil together, bake this set of ingredients, and then design it. When religious discourse is added to it, some Christian bakers decided not to bake and design cakes for same-sex weddings, because they associate their practice of baking with their religious discourse.

This example brings up some important questions. Who defines practice: religious specialists or ordinary religionists? When is a practice religious and when is it idiosyncratic? Is religious practice and idiosyncrasy mutually exclusive? Is religion primarily personal or social? I’m not asking what should be, but but how practice functions in a particular time and place.

How are ethics colored by religion? Ethics here would describe interpersonal or public actions toward one’s own group and outside of one’s group (as defined by the discourse) based on discourse. This discourse can be reasonable or not, but what matters is that a group finds the discourse reasonable enough from which to authorize practice. So making cookies for your neighbor could be a way of consoling him when he’s sick (and you simply performing a practice for a friend) or a way of demonstrating care motivated by proselytizing (a religious motive). It could involve speaking with (or not speaking with) members considered outside your community and doing so in a specific way (conversationally, in a rebuking way, avoidance, etc.).
Recently in Springfield, MO, there was an issue on the ballot (“Question 1”) of whether or not to include the LGBT community in the City’s non-discrimination ordinance regarding housing, employment, and public accommodation. Depending on how you approached this, it could be merely a political and civil rights issue or a religious (or religious freedom) issue (and religious discourse occurred on the “Yes” AND “No” sides of the issue). Who got to define whether it was political/civil rights or religious?

Russell T. McCutcheon Source: Twitter
Russell T. McCutcheon
Source: Twitter
Regarding Question 1, I lamented to Russell McCutcheon that it didn’t seem that persuasive/reasoned discussion was possible when people held fundamentally different views. It seemed to me that groups lobbed talking points at each other without hearing others’ points. He gave me the following: “They’re trying to play fair — it’s just that their mutually beneficial definitions of ‘fair’ either compete or even contradict one another. They’re not all playing the same game but each is trying to portray theirs as the only game in town…”

Even when practices are similar within a community-e.g., providing public discourse on why you should vote a certain way–they are carved out from general use to serve to the interests of your own group. This seems true to me, regardless of how libertarian you want to be.

Next Saturday I will go over “community.” You might be able to tell this from reading so far, but all of the features Lincoln lists-discourse, practice, community, and institution-are integrally related. It helps to separate them to discuss them, but they generally don’t operate apart from one another, unless a religion is extinct.

Link Wednesday #2: Is Caitlyn Jenner Mentally Ill?

(~1350 words: analyzing Paul McHugh’s dealing with transgender issues)

Caitlyn Jenner’s last interview as Bruce Jenner occurred a little over a month ago. Then on June 1, 2015, she announced herself to the world with her new name and a cover shot. This prompted comments ranging from support to denigration.

So this link Wednesday has to do with one psychiatrist in particular who holds a lot of clout with conservatives who oppose to transgender persons (or what transgender people do, not their persons, according to the rhetoric).

1. “Surgical Sex” by Paul McHugh

Paul McHugh
Paul McHugh
Paul McHugh was the longtime chief psychiatrist, professor of psychiatry, and department head at Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital. He has gained much publicity for his position against SRS. In this article published on First Things (see their About page here), he discusses why he opposes it. He primarily found the desire for SRS solely in men who could not deal with their own homosexual attraction and sexual experience. He wished to test his unease with these men by testing 1) if an operation resolved other “psychosocial issues” (“relationships, work, and emotions”) in them and 2) if operations performed on boys with abnormal genitals combined with raising the them as girls allowed them to be gender-adjusted in adult life as women.

Concerning his first inquiry, McHugh followed Jon Meyer’s research. Meyer had spoken with SRS patients years after their surgeries, finding that they were largely satisfied with their choice. McHugh inferred, though, that the surgery did not resolve other psychological issues present in them.

Concerning his second inquiry, he followed the research of William G. Reiner. First, Reiner used comparative anatomy to conclude that even if boys were surgically altered postpartum, they had still been exposed to testosterone in utero. These young children, though raised as girls, preferred “boy” play: “enjoying rough-and-tumble games but not dolls and ‘playing house.’” Reiner’s case study on 16 “genetic males with cloacal exstrophy” found that once the youths had learned about their birth sex:

  • 8 boys declared themselves male
  • 5 continued to live as females
  • 1 lived in sexual ambiguity
  • (2 had parents who had elected not to have the surgery performed on their children)

McHugh then concluded that gender identity flows not from socialization, but from genetics and intrauterine encounters with testosterone. I have two issues with McHugh’s inferences from the data and studies. The first has to do with the propriety of his first inquiry: is it appropriate to ask if SRS solves other psychological problems in a person? I’ll propose something and let you think about it: does gall bladder surgery have benefits for asthma sufferers? McHugh admitted that men who underwent SRS were satisfied with the results in the majority of cases. His contention is that it did not solve attendant psychological issues. Should that be expected? If I suffer from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, will treatment for one diagnosis work for the other two? Some medications help multiple things. For example, Depakote can be used as a treatment for seizures, migraines, or the manic phase of bipolar disorder. But this isn’t always the case, and to expect one treatment to affect multiple issues doesn’t seem reasonable to me.

My second issue has to do with McHugh’s use of Reiner: “sexual identity is mostly built into our constitution by the genes we inherit and the embryogenesis we undergo. Male hormones sexualize the brain and the mind.” If effects in the uterus are primarily what account for sexual identity, why did nearly 43% of the boys operated on live as females—i.e., according to socialization—or ambiguously? Wouldn’t his claim call for a much higher ratio of “boyness” trying to overcome female socialization? Can a claim for naturalness/normalcy hold if it only accounts for roughly 57% of the sample?

2. “Transgender Surgery Isn’t the Solution”

(Google the title; if you click on this link, you have to subscribe in order to read the full article)

I came across this article when another article referenced it. That article had the catchy snippets in its title: “Johns Hopkins Psychiatrist: Transgender is ‘Mental Disorder;’ [sic] Sex Change ‘Biologically Impossible.’” (check out what the DSM-V says about it being a mental disorder; thanks to Brynn Tannehill; In the upcoming weeks, when I discuss the “institution” aspect of religion, I will discuss the politics of classification) While I read that article, I wanted to read the original. It is imperative in research to see what writers/speakers do with their sources in order to see if there are unstated motivations beneath their stated intentions.

I want to draw attention to one statistic provided by McHugh:

When children who reported transgender feelings were tracked without medical or surgical treatment at both Vanderbilt University and London’s Portman Clinic, 70%-80% of them spontaneously lost those feelings. Some 25% did have persisting feelings; what differentiates those individuals remains to be discerned.(Monte’s emphasis)

He also refers again to his reason for stopping sex surgery at Johns Hopkins: “surgically treated patients” were satisfied with the surgery, but didn’t experience relief from other “psychosocial” issues which he doesn’t detail here.

In this article, he produces a much more relevant study to his aims. The Karolinska Institute in Sweden conducted a 30+ year longitudinal study on over 300 people who had undergone SRS. He highlights two things. One, 10 years following the surgery brought about mental health issues, and two, the patients had a 20-fold suicide mortality rate when compared with the general population.

Concerning the Vanderbilt/Portman study, McHugh admits that no one knows for sure why gender dysphoria continues in 25% of individuals who experience it as children. With him, I don’t know what to do with this. It could have genetic or social contributors, or a combination of the two. We just don’t know. However, he’s the psychiatrist, and he doesn’t offer any alternatives to SRS (besides “devoted parenting” for children and adolescents) or help. If you’re a public intellectual offering your two cents, provide some solutions.

The second study concerns me. That suicide statistic is astounding. An article by Mari Brighe (about The Transadvocate here) critiquing McHugh’s op-ed detailed many of his misuses of data, including the following quote from the Karolinska study:

It is therefore important to note that the current study is only informative with respect to transsexuals persons health after sex reassignment; no inferences can be drawn as to the effectiveness of sex reassignment as a treatment for transsexualism. In other words, the results should not be interpreted such as sex reassignment per se increases morbidity and mortality. Things might have been even worse without sex reassignment. As an analogy, similar studies have found increased somatic morbidity, suicide rate, and overall mortality for patients treated for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. This is important information, but it does not follow that mood stabilizing treatment or antipsychotic treatment is the culprit. (Monte’s emphasis)

Further links in the article cite differences in androgen receptors between transgender and cisgender men and a difference in brain anatomy between transgender women who haven’t yet undergone hormonal treatment (the article calls them “male-to-female (MTF) transsexuals”) and cisgender men.

What I take from this is that transgender persons need more access to mental health resources, but that a ban on SRS in itself would not “fix” them. With high suicide rates, abuse from families of origin, mistreatment by police and hospitals, and homelessness, exclusionary tactics like negative labels are not helpful. Labels more often than not serve to categorize a group as “Not us,” that can then serve as a shield of indifference to real complaints, issues, and needs.

So is Caitlyn Jenner mentally ill on account of being transgender? The DSM says no. I think the question might be missing an issue, though. My question is, do Jenner and people like her have access to mental health, relational, financial, occupational, housing, and other resources that I enjoy because no one is obstructing my access according to my appearance? I guess a person could say, “Stop trying to be something you’re not. Make your appearance more normal and you won’t have these problems.” To me that’s like saying, “Stop practicing Christianity, because it’s against your nature. You won’t have relational problems associated with being resisted because of your religious observance.”

My Weird Thoughts on “Religion”

Here I would like to share my views on “religion.” It got pretty long, so I am breaking it into parts. This first part will cover classic definitions of religion, the instability in terms, and the concept of “discourse.”

1. Classic Definitions of Religion and Instability in Terms

Religion has classically been defined as:

  • The feeling of absolute dependence (Friedrich Schleiermacher)
  • Belief in spiritual things (E. B. Tylor)
  • A systematic belief and practice system that unites a community (Emile Durkheim)
  • A way of placating higher beings which control the universe (James G. Frazer)
  • A feeling of awe in the presence of the holy (Rudolf Otto)
  • An illusion or neurosis (Sigmund Freud)
  • An agent (“opiate”) that deadens peoples’ minds to accept their station rather than improve it (Karl Marx)
  • A state of being grasped by an Ultimate Concern (Paul Tillich)
Bruce Lincoln Source: University of Chicago
Bruce Lincoln
Source: University of Chicago

Let’s test some of those definitions. I consider myself religious, but don’t feel particularly dependent on God during data entry (contra Schleiermacher); I’m not really aware of material things, much less spiritual things, before my coffee has kicked in (contra Tylor); my mind doesn’t feel particularly numb when I’m thinking about religion (Marx could be brilliant at times and at other times preposterous); Buddhists who rely on self-power (some rely on beings to help them, such as Amitabha) aren’t placating higher powers.

Furthermore, I strongly insist that religion is colored by your time, place, and other identity markers. If you learn about the Five Pillars of Islam, or the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism, or the Shema Yisrael of Judaism, do you think you have really encountered those religions in all their varied splendor? Is Christianity reducible merely to the Sinner’s Prayer? Do the previous general beliefs account for the subdivisions within each tradition which sometimes go to war with each other (literally), even when outsiders see each party as part of the same tradition?

You probably haven’t encountered a tradition until you’ve experienced a living, breathing member of that tradition, and then, one person does not represent an entire tradition. In the end, I don’t find religion to be a stable category. Here are some social factors that interplay with religion, so that even within the same tradition religion is never the same: gender, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, politics, economics, culture, family, age, region, education, ability, dietary habits, athleticism, or customs. Just as with religion, I don’t see how these nodes of identity can be defined apart from these other factors.

2. Working, Constructed Definition of Religion

Russell T. McCutcheon Source: Twitter
Russell McCutcheon
Source: Twitter

But saying that religion is hard to define doesn’t really help much. So what do I mean by religion? I approach studying religion from a constructivist and social perspective. That’s not the only way to analyze religion (I analyze religion theologically, too, but that’s within another context), but that’s how I approach it academically. I will employ some help from history of religions scholar Bruce Lincoln. He has written extensively, particularly on how communities in general (not just religious ones) form and maintain their cohesion. What follows is his minimal definition on religion, riffing off of Durkheim (who I also like). While I won’t say religion is merely these four things, it is at least these four things (taken from Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11):

A. “Discourse”

By religious discourse, Lincoln means truth claims that do not appeal to experience, experimentation, or human thought but that appeal to sources outside the human political (and other) interests. Many times this goes by the name of “revelation,” “scriptures,” “holy writings,” “sacred sayings,” “prophecy,” “oracles,” etc. Elsewhere, Lincoln remarks that discourse consists at least of myth, ritual, and classification used to construct, maintain, replicate, deconstruct, and/or reconstruct society. I will discuss myth here, ritual in the section on “practice,” and classification in the next post under “community.”

In his helpful primer, Studying Religion: An Introduction, Russell McCutcheon also offers a helpful definition, building off of Michel Foucault: discourse involves “the series of material as well as intellectual conditions, practices, institutions, architecture and conventions that make specific types of thought and action possible.” In other words, discourse is all about the background noise that influences your thought and action.


While Lincoln sees discourse employing myth, ritual, and classification to achieve its ends more overtly, it can covertly (or just less overtly) achieve its ends by means of “spectacle, gesture, costume, edifice, icon, [or] musical performance.”

So what are some examples of these subtle methods of discourse? If you think of a church setting, a costume can consist anywhere from a dress suit to clerical robes. Gestures can include raising one’s hands in Christian worship or bowing down on a prayer rug facing Mecca (which would also involve the icon of the prayer rug).

A word on “myth”

Roland Barthes Source:
Roland Barthes

Myth is typically used in a disparaging way toward beliefs you consider legend, fable, or something that just isn’t historical. Lincoln first explains myth by referencing Roland Barthes’ concept of myth: it involves ideas divorced from their original contexts/settings/histories and projected into a timeless story, or given “mystificatory” (that which obscures its origins) content. However, Lincoln develops a unique model of myth, by comparing it to the concepts of fable, legend, and history before plotting them on the axes of truth claim, credibility, and authority:

Fable Makes no truth claims, holds no credibility, and commands no authority
Legend Makes truth claims, holds no credibility, and commands no authority
History Makes truth claims, has credibility, and commands no authority
Myth Makes truth claims, has credibility, and commands authority

Adapted from Lincoln, Discourse, 23.

When Lincoln speaks of credibility and authority, he doesn’t measure it on the story/narrative itself, but on how it is received by a community. This means that the history of one group can be the myth or legend of another group (compare how typical American and British histories treat the American Revolution). In his book, Authority: Construction and Corrosion, Lincoln defines authority in the following way:

When these crucial givens [“right” speaker, speech, and setting] of the discursive situation combine in such a way as to produce attitudes of trust, respect, docility, acceptance, even reverence, in the audience, or – viewing things from the opposite perspective – when the preexistent values, orientations, and expectations of an audience predispose it to respond to a given speech, speaker, and setting with these reverent and submissive attitudes, “authority” is the result

Lincoln’s work can apply to religion as traditionally conceived or to social phenomena in general.

That’s it for now on my thoughts on religion. As you can see, I owe a lot of gratitude to Lincoln. It is also painfully theoretical. I apologize, but felt I needed to establish this before I start getting concrete. If you have questions of where I fall on something concrete, email me at ilostmyprayerhanky at gmail.

I will post tomorrow or Monday on the second part. I may include how I think my initial thoughts on gender and sexuality relate to religion in that second part, or I might make a third part.