Conference: Freedom of (and from) Religion | University of California, Santa Barbara

From April 30 to May 2, 2015, I attended the ‘Freedom of (and from) Religion’ Conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Hosted by the UCSB Religious Studies Department alongside their Virgil Cordano Catholic Studies Program, this conference was part of their conference series on religion and law. There was a stellar lineup of speakers, including Winnifred Sullivan (Indiana University), among other junior scholars as well. Ann Taves, who was our GORABS Annual Lecturer in 2013, played a representative faculty role for UCSB Religious Studies and Catholic Studies.

My paper, which took a different spin (a more legal one) from the iteration I gave at the AAAS earlier in the month, was titled ‘The Passion of Hak-Shing William Tam: Perry v. Schwarzenegger and the Question of Religious Privacy.’ Here’s the abstract:

Some religious activists claim that their public actions against same-sex marriage should not only be publicly accommodated, but understood as fundamentally private. Instead of philosophizing on the actual legitimacy of this claim, I examine why its proponents argue that it is legitimate. My case study centers on Dr. Hak-Shing William Tam in the federal court case Perry v. Schwarzennegger, which ensued after the passage of California’s Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples. Called as a hostile witness, Tam – an official grassroots proponent of Proposition 8 – argued that his privacy had been violated when his private emails were introduced as evidence that he had imposed his private religious animus against gays and lesbians onto the public sphere. That the court discredited the Proposition 8 proponents based on this evidence suggested to Tam and his colleagues that the judiciary was in the sway of the private interests of sexual minorities. A closer examination of the Perry transcript shows that this privacy emphasis framed the interests of sexual minorities as competing with those of religious communities. I argue that Tam’s privacy claim was part of an attempt to fashion a legal consensus where public action on either side of Proposition 8 was fundamentally about defending private communities. In this way, the Proposition 8 proponents defended actions such as Tam’s by claiming that he had not so much sought public accommodation for his views, but the victory of his private interests over against competing ones. Claims to religious freedom may not thus only be requests for public accommodation; they may well be political tools to refashion American society as solely composed of competing interests vested in private communities.

I enjoyed the chance to be at UCSB and to interact with the conference participants and the UCSB faculty. As this signals an interest that I have developed in geographies of religion and law from since my PhD, I hope this is the first of many encounters to come.

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Boston, 8-10 November 2013

I am here at the Westin Waterfront Hotel in Boston, MA, at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR), which is being jointly held with the Religious Research Association (RRA), from 8-10 November 2013.

I organized a session for Saturday, 9 November.  It’s a paper session titled Faith, Class, and Space: Geographies of Religion, session G-10 on the SSSR program. It will be held from 2-3:30 PM in the Carlton Room, and it will feature geographers who work on religion, including Banu Gökariksel (Geography, University of North Carolina), Anna Secor (Geography, University of Kentucky), and Betsy Olson (Geography, University of North Carolina). Ann Taves (Religious Studies, UC Santa Barbara) is our discussant; this is more than appropriate because Taves was our Annual Lecturer for the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Specialty Group (GORABS) at the Association of American Geographers’ (AAG) Annual Meeting earlier this April 2013. If you are here in Boston, you are warmly invited to attend.

The genesis of our paper session came from a conversation that I had with Lily Kong at the AAG earlier this year. Following Kong’s 2010 paper in Progress in Human Geography (which was incidentally her inaugural Annual Lecture for GORABS in 2010), we discussed the various conferences that geographers needed to attend and in which they needed to intervene in order to spread the word that geographers are interested in religion as an analytic. Having heard from Ann Taves and James Wellman (Religion, Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington) that the SSSR was a conference that we must attend, I decided to organize a panel with some of the latest work in geographies of religion. Kong herself was unfortunately unable to attend. However, we really did get the cream of the crop in our discipline. Gökariksel and Secor have made fascinating interventions in the intersection of religion and consumption in their study of tesettür, Turkish veiling fashion that is seen as morally and aesthetically ambivalent and yet political in regard to secular states. Olson is presenting work that she conducted with a team of social geographers in the United Kingdom interested in the intersection of religion, childhood and youth studies, and postsecularism; her collaborators include Peter Hopkins (Geography, Newcastle University), Giselle Vincett (Geography, University of Edinburgh), and Rachel Pain (Geography, Durham University). Their collective project focuses on the young Christians in Scotland and factors in class to differentiate different kinds of youth in their sample. These two projects are some of the latest work being published in geographies of religion and represent an exciting turn in the discipline where religion is demonstrably a geographical analytic that, when it intersects with other social factors, presents a powerful entryway into theorizing how the contemporary world is constructed.

My paper is titled ‘We were very orderly and peaceful’: model minority evangelicals in public space. This paper is drawn from my PhD research, but because I want to focus on just one case study, it will explore how Cantonese evangelicals in the San Francisco Bay Area participated in activism around Proposition 8. At a theoretical level, this paper also seeks (like the other papers) to intervene in the social scientific study of religion by arguing that geographers become part of this conversation by focusing on how places are constituted, constructed, and contested. Here is the abstract:

Images of Chinese evangelical demonstrations against sexual liberalization in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Hong Kong have circulated throughout a global debate about sexual minorities and marriage equality.  While anti-marriage equality demonstrators have often been portrayed as motivated by private religious convictions and homophobic sentiments, little has been done to theorize their intersections of race, ethnicity, and class.  This paper focuses on one such group: Cantonese-speaking evangelicals in the Pacific Rim.  Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in 2011 and 2012 that involved 140 interviews and 13 focus groups, I argue that Cantonese evangelical protests against sexual liberalization often invoke a middle-class ‘model minority’ conception of participation in public space as an orderly activity over against lower-class forms of anarchy.  While notions of the ‘model minority’ have been anathema in Asian American studies, that Cantonese evangelicals actively invoke their peaceful, legal, non-violent, and non-anarchic approach to public space as a frame for their political activities suggests that fissures along class among migrant religious populations.  These analyses must in turn be grounded in space, demonstrating that class differences as to how public spaces are used are illustrative of larger conversations about religion, ethnicity, and class in the public sphere.

So far, it’s been a very good and interesting conference. There is a lot of interesting talk about the social sciences and interdisciplinarity. I also attended a very interesting ‘Author Meets the Critics’ session for Julie Park’s new book, When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher EducationIn addition to our disciplinary intervention with human geography here at the SSSR, I am enjoying meeting and reconnecting with people who are also interested in the social scientific study of Asian American religions. All that is to say, I am very glad that I am here, and I look forward to continuing to be productive while I am here.

Association of American Geographers, 9-13 April 2013: Los Angeles

I am right now at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. I’m mainly attending religion panels and meeting with lots of geographers, putting what I do in conversation with everyone else. You can find the rundown of geography of religion events here in the AAG’s religion newsletter.

I am presenting as part of a panel on Post-secular Spaces: Explorations Beyond Secular Theory and Research. It’s organized by two geographers at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Banu Gökariksel and Betsy Olson. Here’s the session description:

The aim of this paper session is to explore the parameters of post-secular research and theory in Geography. From Habermas to Asad to Butler, post-secular theories and approaches unsettle previously taken-for-granted relationships between religion, the state, and society.  The challenge posed by post-secular theory is not to study religion more, or to study religion in isolation, but rather to re-view moments, meanings and events without the assumptions of secularization theory – that is, without assuming that religious practices, values and institutions have been historically or contemporarily irrelevant or marginalized in the functioning of ‘modern’ societies. As a critique of secularization theory, post-secular approaches encourage us to uncover and analyze the lingering and overt presence of religion in our social interactions, our economies, and in the everyday and exceptional practice of politics. Less clear in these broader debates (and, arguably, within geographical scholarship on the topic) is the relevance of space and spatial theory in either the theoretical development or empirical analysis of post-secular approaches. This paper session hopes to begin consolidating and synthesizing the spatial concerns of post-secular theory by exploring emerging empirical research on new (and old) interrelationships between religion, society, politics, and economy.

My paper is on Friday, 12 April 2013, at 1 PM at the Pacific Ballroom Salon 3 in the LA Hotel, 3rd floor. It’s titled Cantonese Protestant Activism and Secular Geographies: religion, ethnicity, and the secularization thesis. Here’s the abstract:

Geographers of religion have long assumed that the resurgence of religious practice in contemporary spaces are signs of the vitality of religion, demonstrating the falsity of the secularization thesis.  Fieldwork that I conducted in 2011 and 2012 with 140 Cantonese-speaking Protestant key informants and 115 Cantonese-speaking Protestant focus group participants in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong would seem to indicate no different, for they have been active in advocating for traditional family values and offering social services to the poor through religious agencies.  While some might label these signs of post-secular geographies, I follow Wilford’s (2010) argument that geographies of religion need to be conceptualized in the context of secularization in the modern world.  I demonstrate that Cantonese Protestants active in the public sphere imagine their contributions as secular engagements, both espousing individualistic conceptions of the self and policing their activities as universally rational, not theological.  This paper advances the geography of religion by properly understanding such phenomena in the context of secular modernity while speaking to migration, ethnic, and political geographies by showing that new religious resurgences require modern contextual interpretations.

The reference to Justin Wilford in there is part of a broader discussion with his work that is most accessible in his book on Saddleback Church, Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism. Go read it, if you haven’t.

The Annual Lecturer for the Geography of Religion and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group this year is Professor Ann Taves (UC Santa Barbara, Religious Studies). It’s unfortunately at the same time as a panel for post-secular spaces organized by Gökariksel and Olson, but I will be at the Taves’s lecture and skip the panel. The lecture will be on Friday, 12 April 2013, from 4:40 – 6:20 PM at the Santa Barbara B, Westin, Lobby Level. It’s titled Mapping Significance: A Building Block Approach. Following the lecture, Adrian Ivakhiv (University of Vermont) will give a response via Skype. Ann Taves’s lecture abstract is here:

Ivakhiv (2006) has argued that religion and sacrality are unstable signifiers that should be studied as ways of distributing significance across geographic spaces and distinguishing between different kinds of significance.  To implement this agenda, we need to attend more carefully to the processes that work together to create a sense of significance.  A building block approach to significance would suggest the importance of at least three factors: setting apart, which marks things as non-ordinary; valuation, which ranks and orders them; and positioning, which situates them in relation to other things.  Examples will be used to illustrate the interplay of these factors, the contestations surrounding them, and thus the way that point of view constitutes such maps and makes them unstable.

Finally, everyone is welcome to the GORABS Business Meeting. This is from 7:30 – 8:30 PM in Santa Monica D at the Westin, Level 3. You can find an agenda on p. 46 in the GORABS newsletter.