Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The "Normal" Religion

Since I've been quiet on the blog lately, let me give you all a quick heads-up about what's happening: I currently live in Germany, and I'm doing domestic abuse victim/survivor advocacy, outreach, and education for the U.S. Army. Go figure.

Our theme for the month being religion, I thought it'd be worthwhile to raise religions other than Islam. Not that there aren't a lot of fascinating and troubling things going on with power dynamics, oppression, and sex and gender within Islam and within the non-Muslim American media and public eye- but I think we tend to forget that our quest to fix all Others (religious and otherwise) usually eclipses some of the glaring problems within the systems and structures that are considered Us.

Some of you may know that the US military permits service members to specify a wide variety of religious preferences on their dog tags and paperwork, so they can get the service they'd prefer in the event of an untimely death. Everyone from Wiccans to Atheists to Catholics to Buddhists can, in theory, receive this treatment. But what about during life?

At work, we were cleaning out our storage warehouse last week. My program is part of Army Community Services (ACS), which offers everything from volunteer opportunities to community programming. In the piles of broken and wasted stuff that people had bothered to store, we found a whole pile of Christmas supplies- fake trees, ornaments, Santa decorations, etc. My colleagues were excited, especially since the Christmas supplies were right next to the Mardi Gras beads and noisemakers, and a few boxes over we found some cheap Easter bunnies and a bag of Halloween masks. It was a full year's worth of holidays! All that was missing were the turkeys for Thanksgiving, which someone explained had been thrown away the year before, and the 4th of July decorations, which were still in our offices. We had even thrown away an old box of Valentine's Day hearts. Great! Right?

Where, I wanted to know, were the Hannukah supplies? The Kwaanza candles? Why, in this supply warehouse of junk, didn't we find a single item to represent a non-Christian winter holiday?

I understand that there's a backlash to what's been dubbed the "Holiday PC Police" and that many people, the vast majority of whom are either Christian or celebrate Christmas, are annoyed that Hannukah and Kwaanza are gaining visibility in the Christmas shuffle. The flip side is that there are plenty of people who celebrate these holidays who want them left a-bloody-lone by the corporate sharks looking to exploit holidays for a quick buck. I understand all this.

But what shocked me is how completely blind ACS was to the diversity in its own community. ACS is ostensibly proud to serve every member of the garrison, not just the ones who have wounded family members or who need emergency financial relief or who are about to relocate. These are events that are supposed to draw the community together. I'm not sure that I'm suggesting that ACS start offering events for all religious holidays; rather, I'm highlighting my concern that non-Christian holidays weren't even a blip on my colleagues' radars. It's not as though the Army refuses enlistment to anyone with a religious preference outside of Christianity. So where's the support for the Jewish military family during Rosh Hashanah, for example, or Yom Kippur? What kinds of community events are set up to support Muslim military families as they fast during Ramadan?

It's not just ACS, I've been noticing, but it's the military culture in general. Bases have chapels- non-denominational religious spaces that are intended to be used for a variety of religious services. What they usually offer, however, is three or four different Christian services per week. Sometimes, there will be a chapel that's structured to be appropriate for a temple service. But I have yet to hear about services being offered for Muslim service members or their families, for polytheistic belief systems, or for the Wiccan service members who had to argue even to have their beliefs recognized by the military. In short, Christianity- and Christian-based lifestyles- are the unspoken metric of what's "normal" in a military community, and everyone else is asking for exceptional treatment.

The military is a culture unto itself, and that's important to recognize. Living this close to, or in, the military is most assuredly not the same as living in any other community in the States. But in many ways it's a useful litmus test for how the government views the culture(s) of the governed, and how it ranks them. Overseas, the government is concerned with providing service members and their families with as many of the amenities of home as possible- but how successful is it if many of those service members have to go off-base to find one of the most basic amenities, a religious community?


  1. Even non-denominational Christian sects tend to exclude Latter-day Saints, since the LDS don't follow the Nicean Creed, or wear crosses, or even view the afterlife in the same way most mainstream Christians do.

    Personally, I think we view this issue far too frequently as a battle between Atheists and Christians, when in reality it's not fair to the religions whose forms of expression are ignored.

  2. A wonderful perspective. Thanks for a great post and thoughtful insights.

  3. Erica, do you have any evidence of demographic representation in various military units? Without that information, I would find it hard to see what the problem is except for a claim that there should exist in the military diversity for diversity's sake. And that raises the question of whether diversity should be an end in itself, or rather a means to other ends. What is the purpose of diversity?

    You say, "But in many ways it's a useful litmus test for how the government views the culture(s) of the governed, and how it ranks them." I'm wondering though, why should we see this as a qualitative gesture of "ranking" and not simply a utilitarian or pragmatic move? Of course, implicit in utilitarian or pragmatic views is often a sense of violence to alterity, but why should a military base cater to those who express no desire to be catered to. If the military were to step in and say "For all you Wiccans, tomorrow is summer solstice and we all want to acknowledge your holiday and provide you with a means to celebrate," such a gesture could be seen as fortuitous and balancing, but it could just as easily seen as an act of appropriating that group into the normative framework of the military culture, which is really a process of reification in which the group's unique characteristics are bled out and the remainder homogenized and made assimilable into the dominant culture. In this case, an appeal to diversity could be a means of subjugation.

    So I ask again, is there demographic evidence that there are marginalized groups in the military, and do these groups desire some sort of acknowledgment in the first place? Is diversity a means, or and end?

    (Thanks for the post, btw, which prompted me to pause for a moment and to maladroitly articulate the above question(s).)

  4. "Do you have any evidence of demographic representation in various military units? Without that information, I would find it hard to see what the problem is except for a claim that there should exist in the military diversity for diversity's sake."

    I think you actually hit the nail on the head with this question and comment. Do we need a demographic breakdown to justify more inclusive practices? What if I were to tell you that, demographically, the Army is 50% Jew, 40% Christian, and 10 Muslim? How would that impact your expectations of what ACS (and similar groups) should be offering? How would that impact your reaction to what ACS currently offers? Of course, I'm pulling those numbers out of my hat- I don't have statistical data, but I do have experiential data that indicates a significant population of people who don't identify as Christian.

    This also begs the question: if there's no demographic data given, does that mean that the Army is automatically assumed to be majority Christian-based religions? I would guess from your comments that, for you, the answer is yes. It's not entirely unreasonable, given the basic breakdown of civilian Americans, but it also presumes that the military is going to be proportionately the same as the civilian world- which it definitely isn't.

    On top of *that*, to address your concerns about the idea of diversity for diversity's sake: let's take another look at Muslim soldiers. In our current war, in spite of official efforts to the contrary, Muslims are depicted as barbaric individuals who subscribe to a ridiculous and violent faith system- never mind the history (ancient and recent) of Christianity. Being both Muslim and a soldier can be an incredibly isolating experience because of the constant questioning of one's allegiance to the U.S. (because, of course, everyone's assuming that all Muslims are either from the Middle East or wish they were). This leads to individual and family pressures and psychological challenges, disruptions in unit cohesion, and overall a less effective military. So beyond the question of diversity for diversity's sake, it makes strategic sense to be more inclusive. It's an opportunity to build ties with isolated soldiers and educate everyone else. If Islam were less foreign-feeling, for example, it might make everyone's military lives easier.