Russell T. McCutcheon
Chair, Department of Religious Studies, University of Alabama
B.A. 1983, M.Div. 1986, Th.M 1987
Those following US politics may know about an exchange back in January, between Trump spokesperson, Kellyanne Conway, and CNN’s Chris Cuomo, concerning what some still interpret as Trump’s mocking of a handicapped reporter during last fall’s campaign. The episode came up again because of Meryl Streep’s recent speech at the Golden Globes, back in early January, in which she commented on how:
the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life.
All along Trump and his team have denied that he was mocking the man, of course, but what stood out for me in their recent efforts was the manner in which an inner, unseen world of intention has been invoked.
Give Conway’s reply to Cuomo a listen (from the 2:10 point if you want to get straight to the example I have in mind):
You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart…
Now, what I find interesting about this move is not that his spokesperson made it—after all, the distinction between inner and outer, unseen and seen, private and public, is a strategic “divide and conquer” move that social actors have long used. Think of the proverbial rebellious teenager retreating to her room and slamming the door (complete with a “Keep Out” sign on it?), and turning up her music, all in order to deal with disagreements with her parents or siblings—the faux privacy of the room providing an escape from public conflict. Or, again, think of the rise of the discourse on conscience in the 17th century, as a way to manage dissent—so long as one only disagrees inwardly, and behaves as required by the sovereign, then dissent is tolerated and you won’t be burned at the stake.
So it’s not the move that’s interesting but, instead, it’s the response to the move that should attract our attention. Consider this Washington Post article, for example:
For the ease with which her distinction between words and intentions, or between public action and private meaning, was derided differs sharply, I’d argue, from how most of us respond to this distinction when others use it; after all, the foundation of the academic study of religion has much to do with the longstanding, and still widely shared, presumption that scholars have no choice but to study secondary, symbolic manifestations or expressions of some prior, unseen thing.
Almost no one sees that as laughable.
It’s the basis of the comparative method, in fact; as our 19th century predecessors thought, and many still do, we need to find cross-cultural similarities in narratives, behaviours, and institutions in order to infer the unseen universal.
So when we hear participants—or, for that matter, colleagues—talking about such things as faith, or belief, or experience, or feeling as if they are all intangible and actual inner states that are, in some subsequent step, projected outward into the world, in some coded fashion, few of us listen with the sort of critically-minded ears that Conway’s response seems to have elicited. Instead, many of us listen reverentially, take many of the people talking that way at their word, and then go so far as to try to understand such things as how those inner states determine action—e.g., it’s not tough to find the pollsters trying to figure out how religious faith impacts voting trends.
Moral of the story? What’s supposedly in some people’s hearts is therefore not just seen by most of us as real but also as deeply valuable, primary and causal; whereas when some others talk that way…? Well, we immediately hear their claims as a sly rhetorical move.
I think back to a colleague who once told me about a shift he made in his work on the Reformation, while completing his dissertation—when he came to understand that, regardless what they themselves may have thought, social actors from that period who were writing about faith could be read as using the term as a rhetorical devise, to create the impression of a privileged zone free of social influence and governance—not unlike the effect of that teenager’s closed bedroom door.
Free of judgment, contest, and consequence too.
So it’s not that I’m defending Conway’s usage—far from it. Instead, I’m asking how scholars know when to hear such claims as substantive and when to hear them as rhetorical? For few of us read John Wesley’s classic claims about his “strange warming of the heart” as a rhetorical move that a social actor, in a specific circumstance, used for practical effect. No—we mostly see it as a metaphoric attempt to put something real, that defied (maybe even pre-dated?) language, into language. But what if we did? How would the field be reshaped if we listened to all of the people we study—and not just those with whom we may disagree—as situated, strategic social actors, all trying to do things with words, rather than hearing just some as neutrally, even naively, reporting on self-evident matters of the heart?
Russell T. McCutcheon, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama, works on issue of classification in the history of the study of religion. He also earned a B.A., M.Div., and Th.M. at Queen’s university in the 1980s, prior to going to the University of Toronto for an M.A. and Ph.D. in the academic study of religion.