2012 RCA Convention Banquet
"Faith, Civility, and
Participation in the Academy"
delivered by Dr. Christina Beck
prepared for delivery]
Thank you very much to Kathleen
for inviting me to speak with you this evening. I am honored and
privileged to participate in your dinner. I have had occasion to
reflect a great deal on my involvement with
NCA over the past
few months, and it occurred to me that I gave my very first
paper at SCA on a
panel sponsored by
with a colleague from Radford University. I am so excited to
return to the conversation tonight.
Over the past few months, I have
also had a good bit of reason to reflect on my own faith and the
ways in which I enact it throughout my life. In August, I moved
my 18 year old daughter, Chelsea Meagan, into Baylor University.
It's a wonderful school, and I was especially struck by the
freedom that faculty, staff, and students enjoy in terms of
sharing and celebrating their faith. We got to pray in the
opening forum, ask blessing on food, and talk about the role of
religion in making life choices. That situation stands in stark
contrast to what I can experience at Ohio University. I shared
with Kathleen that any opening prayers at OU are so generic as
to not mean anything at all, and, as a public employee, I dare
not "preach" at my students by talking about God or His possible
role in their lives. My office is adorned with scripture and
photos of my family, and I gladly talk about both if asked.
However, I feel silenced about my faith. They, of course, can't
shut me up about my girls.
This political season has also
been a test of faith. As some of you know, I am a Facebook
addict, and I made the choice early on to refrain from getting
into the mud about politics. I am so glad! However, as I will
share in a bit, many did not exhibit such restraint, and the
resulting discourse turned heavily nasty and personal, revealing
much about character and the ways in which religion (or lack
thereof) implicitly gets drawn into such controversial, intimate
In my brief time with you this
evening, I would like to play with the idea that collectives
collaboratively co-construct what it means to be "religious"
and, indeed, when we may appropriately be "religious." Second, I
will discuss interaction about the election in terms of how we
engage in religious debate in the current post-modern,
hyper-mediated world, and, finally, leave you with some thoughts
on challenges and opportunities for religious communication
Just before I left Chelsea Meagan
at Baylor to head back to Ohio, she mentioned that she wanted to
find a local church in Waco. I was thrilled! I thought, "Good,
okay, Chelsea's going to do great here, get involved with a
church family, volunteer in AWANA." My mind raced down that
whole rabbit trail! We got into her tiny dorm room, and Chelsea
mentioned to her roommate that she'd like to find a church, and
her roommate frowned and replied, "oh, are you the religious
type?" REALLY? I'm not sure what expression was on my face, but
I'm confident that it wasn't happy.
However, the incident reflects the
ways in which we actively, collaboratively, try to figure out
what constitutes "religious." If a person observed me for a week
or stalked me on Facebook, what would they think? Of course, I
shouldn't be like the Pharisees and do acts for public
performance, yet everything that we do is a public
performance--what we wear, what we choose to listen to or watch
or do. Our actions are available to others for interpretation as
they juxtapose them with their own a priori ideas about what a
"legitimate" member might do or, if they lack information about
us, they use their stereotypes about our choices to determine
their assumptions about us.
I loved reading the special issue
of Journal of Communication and Religion, and Quentin Schultze's
(2010, p. 193) observation fits well here: "... the world is a
rich panoply of more or less religious discourses which signify
what various groups and individuals believe, contend, and
practice." Notably, such discourse implicitly extends beyond
formal statements and policy positions to be the everyday
actions of people who happen to profess a particular faith.
In that issue, Ron Arnett (2010,
p. 240) noted that "[w]e have the use of Facebook, My Space, the
Internet, and the continuing proliferation of media competing
with the same traditional institutions of the church and
school." I agree in a number of ways and especially in terms of
how the public presentations of interpersonal interactions and
personal identity intersect or clash with what "the church"
might release in a statement. Through our Facebook posts, blog
entries, websites, etc., people display themselves as
individuals and, if aligned with a faith community, as what a
member of that group believes and values.
The recent election offers a
compelling case in point. As our first truly mediated campaign,
people participated on Twitter and through Facebook, sharing
ideas and advancing arguments. Although such access to dialogue
ought to be good for democracy, the decay of civil discourse
proved shocking for observers, especially those of us who align
with a faith community. Schultze (2010, p. 192) asserted that "[t]he
Internet has become a staging ground for religious expression,
discussion, and argument." In this case, religion blurred into
politics, and the resulting exchanges offered interesting
evidence for the conventional wisdom about not discussing
politics and religion in public!
In their book, Amazing Grace,
Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell (2012) noted that "... the
potential for political conflict seems greater than for conflict
over religion." Well, in this case, religious commitments and
standpoints fuelled political fires and raised the stakes in an
already emotionally charged political environment. Indeed, in
this scenario, I was also struck not necessarily by the clash
over religious convictions, per se, but by expectations
regarding what a "real" Christian" or a "truly religious" person
might do, say, or feel.
On the website,
, JenTheVideoGirl posted her entry, "Grieving and Hope After
the Election." I found this post to be riveting, and I would
like to share the following excerpts with you:
Many many people are grieving for
our country today. My Facebook feed, made up
mostly of conservative Christians,
is like the day after a bomb dropped. Early polls showed 80% of
evangelicals voted for Governor Romney, and many are shocked and
grieved by the outcome of the election.
I am grieving for the church.
Many people are posting on
Facebook that this win signals people want handouts and don't
want to work, signals the death of our country's ideals and an
electorate who doesn't care enough to be informed, and is a
national endorsement of abortion, gay marriage, and weed. Most
of these posts that I saw came from people who are Christians,
and to those posts I have to give the following response:
I humbly and sadly disagree. I
think this split is about the church... Jesus gives hope to each
of these issues. We have hope in Christ.
"The Handouts": On election day,
thousands of people tweeted jokes like 'Don't worry if Dems are
leading, Republicans will vote once they get off work...' The
rhetoric simply isn't true, and this attitude is what is
alienating us from not only the voting world but from the lost
"The Gays": What if, in the early
days of AIDS in the 1980s, the church had embraced homosexuals
as they struggled in terror to understand this new disease that
was wiping them out?... What if instead of fighting them on
every right and constantly reminding them of their 'terrible
sin,' we remembered how Jesus treated the tax collectors and
sinners and how he got to know them and ate with them, and they
followed him because they loved him and knew he loved them?...
"The Illegals": The Hispanic vote
overwhelming went Democrat, despite their dominate Catholic
pro-life worldview (much more conservatively pro life than even
most evangelicals). Why? I think it was more 'us versus them'
rhetoric. What is we were the ones fighting for immigrant
children, brought here because children have nothing to eat in
the place where they live, instead of the ones calling them 'illegals'
and demanding their deportation, many of them to a place where
they don't know the language and have never lived?...
We cannot let the 'us versus them'
mindset of the political landscape hijack our message of love
for all people and grace by faith in Christ alone... My former
pastor, Brandon Thomas, tweeted today 'Bringing people to Jesus
will build our great nation to its best days, no doubt! Life in
Christ=love God, love others.' I say Amen. Max Lucado tweeted
'Lord, please: Unite us. Strengthen us. Appoint and anoint our
president.' I say Amen. I am not saying compromise on any of
these things--nor are these pastors. I'm not saying change your
vote or party alignment. I am saying let's assume a position of
humility in dealing with these really difficult issues and seek
to understand each other so that we can reconcile with each
other. I'm saying when we are kind, we lead people to Jesus, and
we make our country stronger...
Response to this post abounded! I
printed over 60 pages of comments! I'll share just a few with
One person commented: It has been
a bit loud this election cycle, hasn't it. I just kept getting
sad, and, at first, I couldn't pinpoint why. But you are
right--much that has been said is not very Christian...
Another wrote: ... I can't 'like'
this article enough. This came at an excellent time. As a
Christina and very much liberal, I have been on the defense for
a few weeks, as I desperately wanted Obama reelected for the
advancement of our country. But within all of my passion, anger
crept in--and of course that is a dangerous place to be. ..
... It was easy to read the posts
and get mad, wasn't it? I'm pretty middle so I found myself
getting frustrated with both sides! It was ugly and I was being
ugly, frankly. But the Lord calmed me down and I realize that we
were all buying into a battle that probably isn't one we should
even be fighting in that way--especially those of us who believe
in the same God...
One reader noted: I get that. I am
the opposite. I find myself in very leftist circles where people
boast of their open-mindedness and tolerance for all (which
quite frankly doesn't really exist). They just feel they are
justified b/c they are on the 'correct' side of all the issues.
And, like you, I too err on the side of grace but am often
convicted b/c I don't want to be pulling a 'bait and switch' on
people. Jesus himself was loving but never refrained from
calling sin sin. He told them 'go and sin no more.' So I should
do the same and I fail in the hopes that people will see me as
'loving.' But am I? Or am I just a poser?
Janie Harden Fritz (2010, p. 176)
argued that "[a] question of faith and religious conviction in a
world of difference need the scholarly contributions of those
working in the domain of religious communication."
Unfortunately, Paul Soupop (2010, p. 183) found that "...
scholars publishing in JCR seem to prefer a reactive stance than
a proactive stance."
As scholars, we face the same
face, identity, and organizational implications as people beyond
the academy. We don't like inconsistencies... we like neat
little packages. I won't forget the glares from the sweet guys
in our church parking lot when I pulled into Albany Baptist
Church with a Hillary Clinton bumper sticker on the mini-van.
I'm Baptist, but I don't always vote Republican... or Democrat.
I vote for the person and the issues that matter the most to me.
I don't know that I can ever find a candidate that completely
matches with my complicated, multi-faceted set of personal
priorities and commitments. Yet, labeling myself as a Baptist or
an academic or a soccer mom opens up cans of worms of scrutiny
and judgment, even by those who herald "acceptance," those in
the church, and our colleagues in the academy.
Schultze (2010, p. 194)
acknowledged that "... it is acceptable to study religious
communication in the mainstream academy but somewhat problematic
to express publicly one's own religious convictions as either
matters of personal devotion or, more troubling to many
scholars, as beliefs that generate, form, and direct one's own
scholarly endeavors." Building on Schultze, when we conduct
research, teach and advise our students, serve at our home
institutions or the Religious Communication Association or NCA,
how can we mention our faith? In what circumstances should it
guide or even define us? In what ways can we legitimately and
appropriately display or refer to our religious convictions?
In these complicated times, we
need scholars to tackle such questions because people every day,
in all walks of life, struggle with them too. Opportunities
abound for research in terms of civil conversations, debate, and
mutual acceptance. How is it that we co-construct true
acceptance? Putnam and Campbell (2012), in American Grace, found
Americans to be generally accepting of diverse religions.
However, are we always accepting of diverse religious
perspectives as expressed by "friends" online, even when they
run counter to our own? If we just "like" their statuses without
truly agreeing, what do we communicate about ourselves? Such
questions hold critical ramifications in interpersonal, group,
organizational, political, health, cultural, and mediated
contexts. Very important issues, indeed.
As I leave you tonight, I
encourage you in your very important and compelling work, and I
look forward to reading future insights on such matters. Good
Citation: Beck, C. S.
(2012, November). Faith, civility, and participation in the
academy. Scholarly address at the annual banquet of the
Religious Communication Association, Orlando, FL.
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