F&A Series: “I don’t see how anybody can be spiritual without having it come in action.” – ‘Lavender’ from ‘Religious, Feminist, Activist’

Laurel Zwissler is Associate professor of Religion, Women and Gender Studies affiliate, at Central Michigan University. Her Religious, Feminist, Activist investigates intersections of gender and theoretical debates about religion in the public sphere. Current fieldwork within the fair-trade movement explores definitions of community simultaneously created by economic globalization and its critics.

As an anthropologist of religion, I engage with stories: stories that communities tell about themselves; stories that communities tell about others; stories that individuals tell about themselves in relationship to or in resistance against broader communities. Stories both reflect and construct understandings of the world, creating a sense of what is right, what is possible, what is thinkable. This is as true of academe as it is of other spheres separated out through constructed categories, such as social, political, religious. Conversations about North American religion and politics are often dominated by focus on more conservative Christian communities, to the neglect of feminist, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized voices. Such assumptions demonstrate the importance of projects such as “Faith and Activism,” for diversifying scholarly narratives.

My monograph, Religious, Feminist, Activist: Cosmologies of Interconnection (University of Nebraska, 2018), highlights issues of gender and religion in broader social conflicts around what counts as legitimate public discourse. Methodologically, I draw on interviews with Catholic, contemporary Pagan, and United Church Protestant feminist activists and on participant-observation within their three communities, including public protests, volunteer work, and creative ritual actions. I trace connections between contemporary feminist movements and women’s reform efforts in the Progressive era, placing current activists within historical context as a new iteration of religiously motivated advocates for social restructuring around gender, sexuality, and economic justice.

One of the greatest contributions qualitative work can offer to the academic study of religion is to provide a means through which to check theoretical models against the real worlds that participants create and sustain for themselves. I work to provide a bridge between debates about gender and religion, both among scholars as well as within popular culture, and activist lives on the ground. A powerful example for me has been the insights my fieldwork provided in in relation to secularization theories and related political contestations in the West. Briefly, secularization theory poses that over time societies evolve away from religious practice and that religion will be increasingly excluded from law and politics.

Secularization theory is also the reason why many people, even academics, are surprised to learn that there are feminists who are also religious, as my participants are. There are strong cultural assumptions that people who are interested in progressive social change will see religion only as an obstacle to their goals, and assumptions that religious people will be politically conservative and resist social change. When my practical experience with social-justice communities did not fulfill these stereotypes – that is, when I made friends across activists spaces who identified as deeply religious – I turned to ethnographic research. This helped me to understand why the stories we were telling as a community, implying that only those on the opposing, conservative side of our political struggles were religiously motivated, did not line up with my actual experiences. I wanted to talk about ways, contrary to popular assumptions circulating within our communities, that our allies and friends, even many of us ourselves, had more complicated relationships to formal religions than the accepted conservative/progressive and therefore religious/secular stereotypes would dictate.

Putting my participants’ perspectives in conversation with secularization theory helps throw into relief not only ways that what is meant to be a descriptive and empirical model is actually deeply prescriptive, as scholars such as Asad and Mahmood have demonstrated, but that it is also gendered. Briefly, if the contest between secularization and religion is understood as a contest between two traditionally patriarchal institutions, “church” and “state” in Western cultural contexts, then it makes sense that women and other marginalized communities may have little interest in the conflict. Regardless of which institution has the upper hand in a given moment, women remain disempowered within their hierarchies. However, the category of “spirituality,” which is incredibly important in my participants’ personal and community discourses, can offer an alternative position from which non-dominant groups, including women, can launch critiques of the institutions of secular state and religious authority.

Such a lens helps explain the importance of personal identification as “spiritual” among my activist participants, even for those who explicitly belong to official institutional religions. Active inclusion of LGBTQ+ people for some communities may serve as a signifier of less institutionally oriented and more socially progressive forms of religiosity. So too can embracing what they understand to be a transcendent concept of spirituality allow my participants both to distance themselves from more conservative members of their institutions and to signal their solidarity with politically like-minded individuals beyond their particular religious communities.

The same suspicion of institutional authority within spirituality discourse is continuous with broader social justice cosmologies articulated by my participants. Rejecting an atomized vision of individual agency, social justice ethics are based in critique of systemic oppressions. As such, they reject the claims of existing power structures, such as the nation state, to be able to produce equity. Instead, social justice activists meet each other below, between, and outside of the spaces of hegemonic institutions to build something better through horizontal relationships, outside the bounds of top-down institutions. Compelling examples of such alternative actions are the Temporary Autonomous Zones that activists create within art events, festivals, and political protests, such as that of the anti-Fair Trade Area of the Americas protest in Quebec City, 2001. In these spaces, participants perform new models of community based on alternative social orders. Meeting in the interstitial gaps between institutional authorities, my participants strive to create together the justice and equitable relationships which hegemonic powers have not delivered. Identifying against and across traditional religious boundaries through the use of the term spiritual is just one of many ways that religiously motivated activists for progressive social change tell their stories about counter-solidarity with each other, and with others marginalized by hegemonic systems of power. This story is in dialogue not only with broader social assumptions about religion, but also academic theories about the default relationship of religious communities to conservative values.

Written By: Dr Laurel Zwissler

Image Credit: Book Cover for ‘Religious, Feminist, Activist’ by Dr Laurel Zwissler