“Religion is Always in the Room:” A Reflection on Liz Kineke’s Presentation on the Prevalence of Religious Literacy

On Monday October 28, Liz Kineke delivered a talk that discussed her overall work in the news and journalism industry with an emphasis on how “Religion is Always in the Room.” During her presentation, she went over her origin story and how she got involved in reporting on religion and what she has learned. She mentioned that she learned that religion is not about what people believe, it is about what they do and how they act, which ties directly into my REL031: Introducing Hinduism class’ overarching theme of analyzing the behaviors of Hindus and understanding how Hindus use and react to their texts. 

After going over the start to her career, Kineke got into some of the more prevalent topics in her work, namely religion and politics. Kineke made sure to emphasize that in the case of politics, religion is always in the room, and that it’s impossible to have one without the other. She led with the point that although religion is deeply embedded in our culture, and is our first and most important freedom, our country lacks religious literacy. She said that four years ago religion was a white noise hum, but today it is a blaring siren, linking that fact to the idea that our country’s religious illiteracy results in violence and “micro-aggressions” towards religious minorities and an increase in white supremacy. Kineke’s allusion of the white supremacy linked with Trump’s administration relates directly to our class on Thursday where we discussed the Hindu nationalism that is associated with Ram and the Ramayana. Trump’s political views have led to an uprising in White Nationalism in the country, inspiring the narrative that white Christianity is the religion of this country, and that religious minorities are dangerous, specifically that Muslims are terrorists. In South Asia, many Hindus have used the Ramayana and Ram’s leadership as the “rightful” leader of India to jump to similar conclusions about Muslims, leading to violence and discrimination.

Kineke showed us a piece she did called Faith on the Frontlines about the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, through the eyes of the clergy. The clergy pointed out that the white nationalist groups gathering in Charlottesville preach ideas that add to the oppression of minority religions in addition to supporting radical right-wing Conservative principles. By narrating the story through the perspectives of religious leaders, Kineke drove home the point that it is impossible to separate religion from politics, and that many of these acts of terrorism are attacks on religious minorities and a violation of our First Amendment rights. The footage she showed of the Charlottesville rally was similar in effect to the pictures we saw in class of mobs tearing down the Babri Masjid with their bare hands and then posing in front of the burning ruins with their hands in fists and large smiles on their faces. The destruction of a mosque in the name of Ram supports Hindu nationalism and claims to draw evidence directly from sacred Hindu texts, specifically Ayodhya being the birthplace of Ram as described in the Ramayana. How can the violation of someone’s sacred space be validated in the name of the most Dharmic man in all of India? How can it be allowed for the president of the United States to inspire acts of white supremacy? To adequately analyze either of these acts of terrorism, an understanding on religious beliefs and prejudices must be understood. “Jai Shri Ram” is just as much a political chant as it is a religious chant, and saluting Hitler or dressing as Klansman is just as much a religious act as it is a political act. 

I liked that in her presentation Kineke emphasized the importance of education in the improvement of our country’s religious literacy and how although it may not solve all the problems in our country, it will help educate the public on how their actions can be discriminatory or ignorant. We discuss this a lot in REL031, specifically in the context of how we have to be aware of how white people colonized and invaded India and invalidated a lot of the culture that already existed there and how our point of view effects how we learn about Hinduism. Recently, in the Halloween season, we have been talking about how often Hindu practices and gods get disrespected because people don’t know how offensive it can be to dress up as someone else’s god or hang a poster of a Hindu god up on their wall. The more we learn about Hinduism, the more discrimination and offensive acts we can erase from our daily lives.

Kineke drew my attention to the way in which religion is around us all the time, and the more we know about it, the more prepared we can be to address religious acts of violence and political ignorance. 

Religious Literacy Month: Liz Kineke

On October 28, we hosted our fourth event in our Religious Literacy Month slate of events! Liz Kineke, a producer, journalist, and director on the “God Beat” joined us to talk about how, as a journalist, she sees religion as always in the room!

At her talk, Ms Kineke walked students through how being able to read religion in the room–a religious literacy issue–came later on in her career as a journalist. She said, “while 4 years ago I would have said religion is a white noise hum, today it is a blaring siren,” and warned students that religion and freedom of the press are tied up, literally, in the first amendment. In her view, freedom to think and write are the bedrocks of democracy; she quipped that if students wanted to become journalists, they need a first amendment scholar on speed dial, but if students wanted to write about religion they need two.

Ms. Kineke also–perhaps obviously–showed the audience clips of documentaries. She highlighted Faith on the Frontlines, a piece about the prominent role of clergy in the Charlottesville, VA anti-racism, anti-fascism demonstration that left one dead. She also spoke about Religion & Identity in Young America, a documentary that follows three young people from minoritized religions and attends to them not as victims but as protagonists dealing with increased religious-racial scrutiny.

The talk was attended by about 100 students, faculty, staff and community members and wrapped up with a panel discussion featuring Ms. Kineke, Dr. Vicki Brennan, and Dr. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst.

Religious Literacy Month: Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt

On October 22, we hosted our third event of Religious Literacy Month! Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt, a sociologist of religion and scholar of systemic racism and Catholicism, joined us for a talk titled “Catholic Young Adults & Pro-Life Teachings: a Bellwether for the US Catholic Church.”

In her talk, Dr. Pratt talked about how “pro-life” has come to only mean “abortion,” despite Church documents, leaders, and theological orientations having a far more expansive understanding of what “pro-life” includes. She talked about how for young Catholics, this collapsing of issues is a problem–for them and for the Church. As a sociologist, Dr. Pratt approaches these issues institutionally: how have institutions made choices? how do those choices impact the members of those institutions? what is lost or gained in such translations?

Dr. Pratt pointed out in her talk that moving into public-facing scholarship–that is, research and writing aimed at a mass audience, rather than a paywalled, University-library audience–is a new feature of her research, and perhaps even part of her ongoing thinking about religious literacy. Here are some examples of this work:

You can find Dr. Pratt’s reflections on writing about Black Catholicisms here.

And as Dr. Vicki Brennan pointed out in her introduction, a really moving piece reflecting on Toni Morrison after her death here.

Dr. Vicki Brennan (right) introduces Dr. Tia Pratt

Religious Literacy Month: Abenaki Spirituality and Religion

As but one session of a day-long event celebrating, honoring, and reflecting upon Indigenous Peoples’ Day, our second Religious Literacy Month event was “Abenaki Spirituality and Religion.” Dr. Vicki Brennan presided and moderated a panel led by Nulhagen Abenaki Tribe Chief Don Stevens and Dr. Frederick Wiseman, Director, Wôbanakik Heritage Center.

Dr. Vicki Brennan organized the event in conjunction with the larger, UVM-wide Indigenous Peoples’ Day Celebration.

Unlike our other Religious Literacy Month events, this panel featured practitioners–on purpose. Part of Religious Literacy, as well as the study of religion, is coming to understand how some voices have historically been marginalized, ignored, oppressed, and–importantly–seen as incapable of being experts on their own traditions. 

from left to right: Chief Don Stevens, Dr. Frederick Wiseman, & Dr. Vicki Brennan

In this event, we sought to center practitioners, as a way to prioritize Abenaki voices when, far too often, non-Native scholarly (or governmental) voices have dominated the discourse around Native/Indigenous histories, religions, practices, and, yes, spiritualities. Similarly, we sought to center practitioners as a way to round out our work on religion, religious literacy, and reading these lectures.

The event saw over 100 people–and had even more breaking fire code and sitting in the aisles. Event photos thanks to Dr. Tom Borchert.

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Packed house in John Dewey Lounge