None Confusion

As the nation prepares for President Obama’s second term in office and the 113th United States Congress assembles, much attention has been drawn to the new religious milieu of Capitol Hill. Earlier this month the Pew Forum released the data on Faith on the Hill. While Protestants still dominate Congress, the Pew Forum noted that they lost seats held in the previous session, as did Jews. In contrast, Catholics gained 7 seats and Mormons stayed about the same. Here’s the interesting point made by PF:

“Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Mormons each make up a greater percentage of the members of Congress than of all U.S. adults.”

Not only are there more Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Mormons in Congress compared to the U.S. public at large, but also there are significantly less of the religiously unaffiliated on Capitol Hill. Whereas 1 in 5 adult Americans identify as holding no religious affiliation, only 1 member of Congress–Representative Krysten Sinema, D-Arizona–identifies as unaffiliated. Since she is the only member of Congress to remain unaffiliated to a religious organization, many atheist organizations and individuals claim her as their own. Sinema, however, has distanced herself from these organizations, stating that she is and will remain religiously unaffiliated.

The continued statements by Sinema have garnered heat from many sides. Specifically, Chris Stedman took his shots at Sinema on the CNN Religion Blog in “My take: ‘Athiest isn’t a dirty word, congresswoman.” Stedman criticizes Sinema for her public statement clarifying her religious beliefs. When asked if she was a nontheist, Sinema’s campaign gave the following public statement: “(Rep. Sinema) believes the terms non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.” Disappointed in Sinema’s explanation and not her self-identification, Stedman admitted:

“But as a proud atheist and humanist, I’m disheartened that the only member of Congress who openly identifies as nonreligious has forcefully distanced herself from atheism in a way that puts down those of us who do not believe in God.”

Assuming Sinema’s statement to tacitly put down atheism as an acceptable affiliation, Stedman makes a conflation that I find interesting and, it seems, common. The category of “Nones,” the religious unaffiliated in America, is so large and diffuse that it is easy to confuse those 1 in 5 persons with atheism or “nonreligion.” But that is not the case with the survey question nor, it seems, with Sinema. The religiously unaffiliated as it is written in Pew Forum surveys can include theists and the “religious.” As Steven Ramey has pointed out at the Bulletin for Religious Studies, the category “None” includes people who pray and those who don’t as well as those who believe in a “higher power” and those who don’t. For Stedman to assume that Sinema is “nonreligious” misunderstands the variety of people who fall within the category of “unaffiliated.” It seems plausible in this case that Sinema considers herself to be a “none” who prefers to remain unaffiliated with a religious organization, but still considers herself “religious” in some sense. A category of self-identification that begs the question: What precisely is meant when someone claims they are “religious”?

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Brother Ali’s American Mourning

Recently NPR interviewed a rapper and activists challenging the stereotypes of an American Muslim. Brother Ali, a practicing Muslim, draws attention to the suffering felt by many Americans in his new album, Mourning in America, Dreaming in ColorOn the provocative album cover, Ali kneels in prayer on an American flag.

Information about this album can be found at: brotherali.com

He explained to NPR: “It was meant to be a literal depiction of the album title,” he says. “That the things that we believe about our country — freedom, justice, equality, life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, all people being equal — that these things are on the ground, these things are suffering, and so I am kneeling and praying for it. The meaning behind kneeling in this reverent way and praying is only a problem if [people] have believed this lie that somehow being a Muslim and being an American are mutually exclusive.”

Brother Ali’s bold visual representations of American identity reminded me of other Muslim Americans pushing mainstream assumptions about Muslim American identity specifically and American identity more generally: Taqwacores.

As I’ve written about at Religion Compass, Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel and the community that inspired and was inspired by it also use artistic expression to bring life to a “punk Islam.” As Knight begins his novel, he explains the ethos behind the creativity and adaptability of his “punk” Islam:  “punk is like a flag; an open symbol, it only means what people believe it means. …Islam is itself a flag, an open symbol representing not things, but ideas. You cannot hold Punk or Islam in your hands. So what could they mean besides what you want them to?” (Berkeley: Soft Skull Press, 7)

Together, the Taqwacores and Brother Ali illustrate the variety of Muslim American identities, especially those who do not feel represented in mainstream Muslim-American organizations, by “ordinary” Muslims like those on the now canceled TLC show All American Muslim, or by the glitzy stars of Bravo’s Shahs of Sunset.