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2012 RCA Convention Banquet Presentation

"Faith, Civility, and Participation in the Academy"

delivered by Dr. Christina Beck

 

[as 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 RCA 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 matters.

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 scholars.

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, http://lethoperise.com/2012/11/07/grieving-and-hope-after-the-election/ , 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 world...

"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 you:

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? Why?

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 night!

 

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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