October 23 2018

by Megan Goodwin, Bates College

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

This article situates the teaching of new religious movements (NRMs) within the scope of scholarship on American minority religions. In the course that serves as my primary example, readings and class discussions considered 20th century NRMs in light of American enthusiasms for—and anxieties about—shifting attitudes toward race, gender, class, and sexuality, particularly since the 1940s. Assignments included unconventional approaches to working with primary sources and student creations of hypothetical new religions, contextualized within NRM members’ experiences of support and scorn by mainstream legal, media, and popular culture sources. Students noted key similarities in intolerant rhetoric toward American minority religions, examined challenges specific to radical religious innovation in an American framework, and challenged the primacy of “newness” in the study of marginal American religiosity.

by Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

Australia is a notably secular country. Only around ten percent of the population attends religious services of any kind, yet Christianity has a substantial role in public discourse (due in part to an unusually high number of practicing Christians elected to the three levels of government: local, state, and federal). RLST 2626, "Witchcraft, Paganism, and the New Age," is a second-year unit (taught over a 14-week semester) in the studies in religion major, and the course covers occult and esoteric religion (chiefly Western in origin) from the formation of the Theosophical Society in 1875 to the present day. It is necessary for students to understand that since White settlement in 1788, Christianity has dominated “religion” in Australia; Christian institutions are prominent in public life, and Christian doctrines and practices are the model for normative religion. Other religions are marginalised, whether Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, new religions, Indigenous religions, or esoteric traditions. Therefore, the unit’s content tends to be unfamiliar to students and has the potential to be controversial (as it includes Witchcraft, Paganism, New Age, UFO religions, Western New Religious Movements (NRMs) including Scientology, and esoteric practices such as Tarot and Astrology). One pedagogical strategy to manage the content is the use of legal materials such as government records, legislation, court judgments to demonstrate that “strange” religions and spiritualities can be framed to parallel the mainstream, established religions. Indeed, certain legal materials—the Constitution and case law, for example—refer equally to the Roman Catholic Church and to Jediism.

by W. Michael Ashcraft, Truman State University

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

In the fall of 1979, I was an MDiv student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and enrolled in a course taught by Dr. Bill Leonard entitled The Church and American Utopianism. One of the course requirements was a field trip on a Saturday morning to Pleasant Hill, a restored Shaker village near Lexington, Kentucky. I knew very little about the Shakers, and don’t remember being too enthused about the field trip, but once I was there I was overwhelmed by the reality of Shaker social life. The residential buildings had separate stairs for men and women. The dining room had tables for lots of people, and the kitchen was as institutional as antebellum culinary technology could get.

And then it hit me, hard: they lived this alternative lifestyle in the midst of an America that was heavily influenced by Protestant Evangelicalism, which did not approve of the Shaker way of life. How was it that these people could see such a countercultural arrangement as “normal?”

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