This talk explores the history and contemporary relationship between religion and white supremacy in the United States, showing the ways that religious theologies and practices are mobilized to both resist and reinforce racial inequality. It also shows how gendered norms undergird this relationship.
Professor Bjork-James opened her talk with reflections on how ideas about race, religion and gender come together in the painting ”Baptism of Pocahontas“ which hangs in the US Capitol. What details in the painting reinforce hierarchies based on race, religion and gender? How do you see these three hierarchies reinforcing each other in the painting? In American life today?
In defining different expressions of racism, Professor Bjork-James distinguished between white nationalism/organized racism and institutional racism/white supremacy. White nationalism/organized racism is a movement that actively pursues and protects white supremacy and includes groups like the KKK. Institutional racism is a system that perpetuates inequities in American life, so that on the whole white people enjoy more wealth and home-ownership, better schooling, better healthcare and life expectancy, and less incarceration than other groups. Many Jews are thus simultaneously targets of white nationalism and beneficiaries of institutional racism. How does this play out in your life or community? Are there ways your life has been impacted by white nationalism/organized racism? Are there ways you have personally benefitted from the inequities of institutional racism?
How do you think ideas about sexuality, gender and family life that come out of the white Protestant context that Professor Bjork-James described shape American Jewish life?
The lecture and Q and A highlighted the very different ways that the story of the Exodus is interpreted among white Evangelical Christians, among Black Christians and among Jews. How does the Exodus story figure in your life? Can you think of ways that the story of the Exodus is invoked in American life outside of places of worship? Do biblical stories and interpretation have a role to play in opposing racism?
Sophie Bjork-James has over ten years of experience researching both the US based Religious Right and the white nationalist movements. She is the author of The Divine Institution: White Evangelicalism’s Politics of the Family (2021) and the co-editor of Beyond Populism: Angry Politics and the Twilight of Neoliberalism (2020). Her work has appeared in American Anthropologist, Oxford Bibliographies, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and Transforming Anthropology. Her work has been featured on the NBC Nightly News, NPR’s All Things Considered, BBC Radio 4’s Today, and in the New York Times. She has published op-eds in the LA Times, Religion Dispatches, and the Conversation.