“A Friendly Welcome to a Hate-Filled Church” in this week’s _Chronicle_

The  Chronicle of Higher Education recently invited me to contribute a short essay on the challenge of ethnographic work with a hate group. I am thankful for editor Alex Kafka’s patience with me as we worked through several ideas. You can read it digitally here  or in the February 3 print edition of the newspaper.

photo_80210_landscape_650x433Above, a member of Westboro Baptist Church pickets outside the Supreme Court as Snyder v. Phelps is heard. 

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The Tween Writes a Letter 

I took my oldest, 12, with me to a post-card writing event this week. Our host, an artist, graciously supplied us with handmade postcards, some with blank fronts so we could design our own images and some with a beautiful beehive pattern (as we live in the Beehive State) and the symbol of the Women’s March on Washington, and the addresses of our Representatives and Senators in Washington. We could focus on any number of the injustices that the Trump administration has forced upon the nation in its first few days in office: defunding of science, assaults on the media, fascism in the White House, climate change denialism, the highly unqualified Betsy DeVos, the placement of white supremacist Steven Bannon to the Security Council, the vicious executive order curtailing legal immigration and the placement of some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees… Oh, this list was long, and we came home with more than a dozen postcards ready to be sent.

My son asked if he could draw anything he wanted and say anything he wanted in his note to Donald Trump, and I agreed, of course, because he’s a smart kid and because I don’t think Donald Trump is going to get his feelings hurt if my child calls him a dirty name, though I wish he would.

And this is what emerged:

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Above, the image my son drew on his postcard to the president. The original image didn’t include the toot emerging from the president’s head, which created some ambiguity as to whether this was a picture of an asshat or a penis hat. I suggested he add a fart, but that may not have helped. 

From the back:

“Dear Trump,

If you weren’t a dumbass, you would know that the Immigration Act of 1965 prohibits discrimination by country. 

Sincerely,

A 12 year old smarter than you.”

Both sides of the card gave me pause. It’s not because I think Trump isn’t an asshate/dickhead, though I do generally avoid insults that equate folks with genitals–mostly because I want to foster sex-positive attitudes, and that means “penis” and “butt” and “pussy” aren’t insults. My concern was that letting my tween use that kind of language was demeaning to him.

When we got the invitation, my son was quick to point out that I’d be the one to go while my spouse stayed home with the younger kids. “Mom’s motto is ‘Never miss a chance to be pissed off!'” he joked, which has been increasingly true. But I also don’t want anger to be my primary emotion. I certainly don’t want it for my kids, who are going to be burdened with the residual mess of their elders’ voting choices for years anyway. Anyway, anger isn’t sustainable, and the Trump administration’s plan is to unleash a firehose of repulsive policies in an effort to overwhelm opponents–including making us exhausted.

Because anger can be only so productive, I’m not committed to letting my tween swear, even at someone as swear-inducing as Donald Trump. We believe that language matters, and that how you speak about someone also says something about you. We’ve generally been a “when they go low, we go high” type of people, though lately I’ve been embracing going low, getting down in the dirt. Then I have these moments of conviction, wondering if I’m wandering from my greater commitment to preserve the other person’s dignity, to help them do right without doing damage to them. I’ve known a lot of truly awful people, and none of them have ever done better because someone called them a terrible name. Yet the actions of the Trump administration are shameful and deserved to be shamed–or, at least, we must make the effort to shame them, even if Donald Trump and his supporters are incapable of feeling it, because we need to keep recognizing shameful behavior for what it is, and those injured by it must see that we see it for what it is.

In Immortality, Milan Kundera writes,“Hate traps us by binding us too tightly to our adversary. This is the obscenity of war: the intimacy of mutually shed blood, the lascivious proximity of two soldiers who, eye to eye, bayonet each other.” We are thinking, in our family, about the wastefulness of war, not a word choice, as an obscenity. We are thinking of the human dignity assaulted by US foreign policy, of the profanity of the Trump administration’s failure to even show up to Syrian peace talks because it is too incompetent to be ready for world engagement at the outset of Trump’s tenure.  How to address these obscenities without binding ourselves to them in hate is our challenge, and we’re not yet good at it, but it appears we will have daily opportunities to improve.

 

Why We Love _How I Learned Geography_

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Above, we read How I Learned Geography.

How are you talking to your kids about refugees? My youngest and I have been reading Uri Shulevitz’s How I Learned Geography, which was awarded a Caldecott Honor in 2009. The book tells the story of Shulevitz‘s move from Poland to Kazakhstan as the Jewish purge began. He lives among strangers there before moving to France and, eventually, to Israel and then to New York. The tells the story of how his father spent the family’s little money on a map–because what they had would not have bought them enough bread to ease their hunger anyway–that transported him all over the world in his imagination.

You can hear Ed O’Neill read the book below.

You can find more of Shulevitz’s work on the themes of war and peace here.

Thanks to Uncle Matthew and Aunt Jenna for the gift of this book.

A Pro-Life Reminder: Donald Trump Wishes Tiffany had been Aborted

No, seriously. He said so in 2003, when Tiffany was just 13. On Howard Stern’s radio show. For everyone in America, including his teenage daughter, the one he wished were dead, to hear.

What are the words every kid needs to hear from their parents? That they are loved and wanted.

Above, a public service announcement reminding parents to “take time out; don’t take it out on your kid.” Turns out its abusive to tell your child that you wish they had never been born. Donald Trump must have been too busy being running businesses into the ground to have caught this one. 

And the words that Tiffany had to hear: that he wished she had never been born.

Happy March for Life!

The Nazi Punch

Okay, so SOME people (my spouse) have been a little worried that I’ve so much enjoyed watching Richard Spencer get punched in the face. Over and over again. Set to music. Especially to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Over and over again.

They’re worried because I’m not a  person who supports violence. And that position is because I’m… well, a naturally violent person. I say that as a confession. My fight-or-flight instinct is mostly just an instinct to fight. I have a way bigger sense of my own strength than is reasonable, which, as you might imagine, has caused some problems in my life. And because I know that this is a life-ruining trait, I’ve been committed now for over 20 years to pacifism and nonviolent resistance. This doesn’t mean I’m good at it, but I’m deliberate about cultivating the inner peace that makes peaceful nonresistance a reflex. I practice it daily so it’s ready when needed. As a family, we organize our choices around peaceful nonresistance so that we won’t find ourselves tempted into violence. We invest our identity in a religious denomination that holds up the ideals of peaceful intervention to prevent and end violence in all its forms. So all of that helps.

But, c’mon! This is RICHARD SPENCER, getting socked in the kisser. One might even say it wasn’t a punch but an “alt-high five.”  He said that he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he got hit because he’s the leader of the “intellectual” arm of the white supremacy movement. I have more mixed feelings about letting my kids watch Captain America, who is not real, punch comic book Nazis.

Cap punches Hitler color.jpg

Above, Captain American punches Hitler. 

But, Rebecca, you worry. Isn’t it always wrong to hit? Isn’t violence never the answer? Did Rosa Parks punch Nazis? Did Ghandi? Didn’t the heroes of your faith themselves refuse to punch Nazis during ACTUAL WORLD WAR II?

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Above, conscientious objectors to WWII served to help war victims by undergoing experiments in starvation. The participants were starved, then provided with controlled diets so that researchers could learn how the human body could best be repaired after concentration camp-like diets. 

Okay, I get your point. We’re all devalued when the dignity of one is devalued, even if that one is Richard Spencer. God made Richard Spencer, too. If today I’m cheering for Richard Spencer’s attacker, tomorrow I’ll be cheering for someone who punches a Klansman. (It’s true. You can find some videos of an attack on the KKK here.)

Thankfully, the appeal to nonviolent resistance isn’t an appeal to my better nature, because that nature isn’t always very good. It’s an appeal to what works. And nonviolent resistance often works. In terms of hate groups, it works pretty well. When Derek White, whose father, Don, is the leader of Stormfront, the largest white supremacy website out there, left white supremacy, it wasn’t because he’d been violently attacked or because some screamed at him or even called him a racist. It was because a patient group of people chose to be friends with him despite his racism and to open doors through which he could exit. His story is beautiful and remarkable, but it is not entirely atypical (though Derek’s prominence in the white supremacy movement was). What brings people into–and out of–hate groups is their relationships to others. This is why the work of groups like Life After Hate, which supports those exiting organized hate groups, is so important.

But that doesn’t mean that I am arguing against smacking Richard Spencer; I’ve got better things to do than hang-wring over whether it’s okay to punch a Nazi. Every day, the very people Spencer would like to “peacefully ethnically cleanse” from the US–nonwhites–are subject to interpersonal violence and to aggression ranging from the micro to the environmental, from police harassment to actual war, and they need our collective support. Richard Spencer can fetch his own ice pack.

 

 

 

 

Your Vote for “Good Jobs” was a Vote for White Supremacy

Despite warnings about Donald Trump’s unfitness for the presidency by prominent religious leaders like the actual Pope as well as Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, conservative white Christians rallied around the Republican candidate at a stunning rate. His win among white evangelicals was 8 points greater than Romney’s was over Obama, who, they were told in their media, was possibly a secret Muslim or maybe even the Anti-Christ. Sixty percent of white Catholic voters chose him over Clinton, even as 67% percent of Hispanic Catholics chose Clinton. His win among Mormons—who are not disaggregated by race in Pew Research’s data but who are 85% white—was slightly smaller, perhaps to a strong showing in Utah for independent candidate Evan McMullin, but he still won 61% of their votes. Though defenders of the white evangelical faith have been quick to point out that it was the least devout evangelicals—the ones who attended church less often—who offered the most support for the candidate, the fact is, Trump won even the devout white evangelicals. He was, from start to finish, the candidate of choice for conservative white Christians.

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Above, Jesus carries luggage on a dirt road. The text reads “On my way back to the White House.” The meme appeared on Humor from a Pentecostal Pew. 

Defensive white Christians lament that Trump was the lesser of two evil choices and that responsible voting meant not voting their conscience—which might have led them to the anti-abortion rights McMullin—but voting for the pro-life candidate most likely to win. Given that black and Hispanic Christians so heartily disagreed with white believers about who was the best candidate, this logic would lead us to think that abortion is not a concern for black and Hispanic believers, which isn’t exactly the case: Hispanic Catholics have higher rates of opposition to legalized abortion than white Catholics, while Black Protestants (a label that captures both conservative and progressive strains of the faith) oppose abortion at about the same rate as white Catholics (who, for the most part, think abortion should be legal in all or most cases—which means that white Catholics voted Trump at a higher rate than opposition to abortion can explain). In claiming that they voted on abortion, conservative white Christians are actually saying that they think that opposing abortion rights is more important to them than are the concerns of their fellow believers of color. Perhaps most disconcerting, though, is that they actually didn’t say this. In a LifeWay poll, just 4% of white evangelicals and 10% of their pastors said abortion was the most important issue. In short, they voted against black and brown believers for some reason other than abortion

The contemporary Religious Right—which includes conservative evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, and even a handful of Jews—has generally only really cared about (though “cared about” is probably too strong of a phrase) people of color for very short amounts of time, usually shortly before an election, when black and Hispanic churches may get a visit from a candidate. Trump’s appeal to more devout white evangelicals, who also tend to be wealthier and better educated than their less-devout peers, was largely linked to what they perceived as his support for a Religious Right policy agenda (though his commitments to anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion policies are not really philosophical so much as exploitative) while his less-devout white evangelical supporters cited his views on immigration and the economy as more salient.

More tellingly, less devout white evangelicals who voted for Trump were drawn to his anti-Muslim, anti-black, and anti-Hispanic rhetoric and policy proposals, just as, overall, Trump supporters expressed much higher levels of disdain for black people than did those who voted for another candidate. They didn’t vote for him in spite of his appeal to racism but because of it. Efforts to explain white support for Trump by focusing on his far-fetched promise to bring back good jobs for blue collar workers ignore the fact that his talk about “good jobs” is rooted in white fear that people of color will have the lives to which whites feel they alone are entitled.

American capitalism has always exploited black labor and whites’ fears of black advancement. White resentment of black advancement—which is just another way of being afraid that, without a racial “inferior,” white identity loses value—has also been a source for tremendous and nonsensical hostility and violence—from the Civil War to the Tulsa race riot of 1921. It’s not surprising that the white evangelicals who voted for Trump because of his economic plan are also the ones with higher rates of ill-feelings toward racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants. Racism and economic populism don’t have to go hand-in-hand, but, in this case, they do.

 bloody-laneAbove, the “bloody lane” of Antietam, where 10,320 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing in an effort to insure that wealthier white people could steal the labor of people of African descent. Wait! What?!?! That makes NO SENSE, unless you think maintaining a system white superiority is worth going to war for.

When white evangelicals picked Trump, they chose to align themselves not just with the overt white supremacists who have celebrated his rise to power. They also aligned themselves with the far more plentiful and dangerous whites who long for an “again”—a mythical past when their superiority could be enforced with structural racism and enough lynching to make black Americans sleep with one eye open.

White evangelicals may not recognize it, and they certainly don’t talk about their vote that way. They talk about the dangers of single motherhood, of an unsupportable welfare state that encourages laziness (a trait white Republicans often assign to African Americans) and absentee fathers, of black criminality as a destroyer of families, of failing (black) inner cities, of the undeserving poor. Trump’s inaugural address, written was at least in part by Steve Bannon, who has well-established ties to both white supremacy and economic nationalism, described a white evangelical nightmare—one that only voting for Trump could end.

A house may be large or small; as long as the neighboring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirement for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut. The little house now makes it clear that its inmate has no social position at all to maintain.–Marx, Wage Labour and Capital, 1847.

When a black person owns that palace, white people get even angrier.

The irony, of course, is that Trump isn’t an economic populist OR an economic nationalist. He’s an economic narcissist. His Social Darwinist attitudes about money are very similar to conservative voters’ Social Darwinist attitudes about race and poverty.  They may actually be worse, because Trump is transparent in his thinking that success is genetic–which is kind of true in his case (though not as he meant it), as there’s no way he’d be where he is in life unless he’d been born to wealthy parents–though he’s still a loser compared to heiress and reality star Paris Hilton

None of this is to say that good jobs–that is, safe jobs that pay a dignified wage and allow people to strengthen their skills and talents in ways that are meaningful to them, for every person who wants one, across racial lines–don’t matter. Under President Obama, economic growth has primarily benefited the already-wealthy, and his economic policies have failed to provide the kind of financial security that the middle class expects or any kind of uplift for the poor. Unlike Trump, he didn’t find a “bad guy” to blame for Main Street’s financial problems, though there were certainly lots of them.

This matters tremendously, even as it turns out that Trump supporters tend to be better educated and wealthier, on average (and, of course, whiter) than their neighbors, because both whites’ perception of their economic suffering and the reality of their suffering (which is far smaller than the economic struggle that people of color face) shape their story, and it’s stories not facts, that shape voting choices. Genuinely good jobs are better than the bad jobs–the part time, seasonal, low-wage jobs that have comprised much of the Low Wage Recovery--that are insuring that today’s kids won’t be as financially successful as their parents. #ThanksObama. That part of whites’ dissatisfaction with the current economy is resentment of black success doesn’t change the fact that some white people are also hungry. 

But to vote for their interests over the interests of black and brown people–who are hungrier, and now also increasingly targeted for hate crimes–shows that it’s racial affiliation, not a concern for lifting people out of poverty, that mattered to conservative white Christians. That Donald Trump’s tax plan–which was one of the few policies that were clear before he was voted in–benefits the ultrawealthy and business at the detriment of the poor and middle class is more evidence that conservative white Christians weren’t voting on economic policy but on a feeling of resentment. And this is a promise Trump has kept, immediately canceling a tax cut for those trying to enter the housing market. Conservative white Christians voted in a way that hurts themselves, but not as much as it hurts their their neighbors of color. They have done so before, when they closed public schools, libraries, parks, pools, and golf courses rather than integrate.

thankyoulord-690x460

Above, a white woman holds a small American flag and a sign that says “Thank you, Lord Jesus, for President Trump.” Unspoken prayer: also for making her white. 

America’s white “temporarily embarrassed capitalists” (to quote Steinbeck, who had a lot of romantic ideas of his own about poor whites) may never learn that Trump’s views are against their own larger economic interests, but as long as they can cash in on their whiteness—at least enough to justify their feelings of white supremacy—that may not matter much.

 *********************************************************************If If you didn’t learn the racist history of capitalism in 11th grade US history, check out River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson. You can get a preview of the work in this 3 minute video. Or check out Nan Woodruff’s American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta, which details how white planters used both economic and physical violence to insure African American participation in sharecropping.

***********************************************************************

Thanks to my friends C. and C. for their help in tracking down information about white resistance to black economic success in Arkansas. I’m fortunate to have friends who are not only smart but also generous.

Are “University Bubbles” a Problem?

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran an article focusing on Lawrence, Kansas, where the University of Kansas (where I earned my PhD in American Studies) is located. Calling the town a “blue bubble in a red state,” it presented the relative liberalism of the town as a barrier between the university and the people of the state. Two of the KU speakers–a conservative white undergraduate man and a progressive white undergrad man–presented this as somewhat of a problem, echoing concerns already voiced in The New York Times and elsewhere about a disconnect between universities and conservative taxpayers. The claim is relatively well-established by data, if the measure of “liberalism” is the percent of people who vote Democrat.

But, as professor of African and African American Studies (and American Studies affiliate faculty) Clarence Lang notes in the article, a higher percent of Democrat voters doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist in the town. In fact, being self-assured about one’s own lack of racism is a tool of white supremacy. “That doesn’t happen here” protects Lawrence’s white population, as does inordinate pride in the town’s abolitionist roots. And “less racist than Topeka”–which, after all, chose to segregate schools though it didn’t have to under state law–is a pretty low standard.

union-burns

Above, a newspaper article about the burning of the Kansas Union in 1970burning of the Kansas Union in 1970. The year was a time of unrest across the town, including anger about racial inequality. 

But the fact is, Lawrence is more progressive than other parts of the state, though it remains far from perfect. It is certainly progressive enough to make some Kansans think of it as a liberal a “a bubble or an oasis, depending on your view,” as the article says. And this is where I have a major gripe about critics who want (relatively) liberal universities to be more “welcoming” to conservative students. (The article asks, “Would the universities be better, would our nation be better, if the bubble were more porous?”)

campanile

Above, KU’s World War II Memorial, a campanile, above Potter Lake.

It is very tempting to think of conservative students (and faculty) as a minority, because, numerically, they often are, though there is significant variation in these numbers across institution type (with more elite universities having more liberal faculty) and discipline (with the nursing, education, and social work having more conservative professors than, say, sociology or psychology). But in terms of power, they certainly are not. Though KU may be a “liberal” university (led by an African American Chancellor who nixed an effort for a multicultural student government), it is controlled by a socially conservative, fiscally austerian state government. The university budget always attends to the concerns of social conservatives. Trump’s attempt to appoint Betsy DeVos, an enemy of public education (and a liar), to lead the Department of Education is further evidence of conservatives’ war on higher education.

The liberal/progressive inclination to make everyone feel safe and welcome is a good one. Celebrating a diversity of ideas, perspectives, and experiences is a good thing, too. That’s why so many of us got warm and fuzzy about a December 16 article in Inside Higher Ed in which Mike Spivey, a professor of math at the University of Puget Sound, tells of being the only conservative professor (and a Gary Johnson voter) at a campus panel on politics post-election. The article, “Dialing Back the Rhetoric,” tells of his growing up in rural Louisiana, “a world that is Southern, rural, conservative and Christian.” Then he recalls the pain of being treated with disdain by liberals:

Hillary Clinton called my people “deplorable.” She said we were “irredeemable.” … Why would I want to support someone like that? Someone who talks that way about my people is not going to do a good job representing me. I’m glad she lost. I’ve got some concerns about Trump, but I’m glad Hillary Clinton lost.

It’s tempting to want to put an arm around Spivey, to promise to try to understand his perspective better. But that is an abuse of one of our best qualities: our desire to understand, include, and engage compassionately. It is also largely unnecessary, as research by conservative scholars themselves indicates that conservative professors  generally do not face discrimination their campuses.

Clinton did not call Southerners, rural people, conservatives, or Christians deplorable or irredeemable.  She was very specific about who among Trump supporters was deplorable: racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, Islamaphobes.  Spivey likely doesn’t think of himself in those terms, and he probably, on a personal level, doesn’t hold overtly bigoted attitudes. He chooses to confuse “my people” with “bigots.” But he still chose feels happy about the ascension of Donald Trump, who is a bigot.

Spivey’s appeal to victimhood–poor rural whites, he argues, are “tired of being, in their minds, looked down on and condescended to by the people who run the country”–attempts to make political ideology equivalent to ascribed identities like race, gender, or sexuality or victims of structural inequality, like the poor. But they are not, and liberals must be on guard to negate that claim any time they see it. A political ideology that is bigoted is a choice. Race and gender maybe socially constructed, but they are not choices. Trump’s bigotry is the most coherent part of his politics, and even rural, gun-toting Christians can see it if they want.

Moreover, catering to social conservatives who “in their minds” are oppressed is not the work of a university. We have real students, staff, and faculty who are measurably oppressed to care for. Who should a university prioritize? A person who believes (without evidence) that “the white man is the low person on the totem pole“? Or the Pell Grant recipient? The single mother returning to school to complete her degree? The student whose life was in danger every day of high school because of his sexuality? The students degraded by their peers because of their immigration status or race? Any of these students could, of course, also be a conservative voter–or even a racist, sexist, homophobe who cheered for Trump, too. I won’t support them in their political ideology because that ideology is at odds with the best goals of higher education, but I can support them in their intellectual growth.

To those who worry that universities should do more to support conservatives on campus–going so far, as some have suggested, as to have a quota on hiring conservative professors to insure “political pluralism“–I ask the following questions:

If a state is predominately “red,” but a college town is predominately “blue,” how would making colleges MORE conservative serve the people of the state? Republicans already control most of Kansas. Trump won 103 of Kansas’ 105 counties. College students yearning to be part of a progressive community have just a few places in Kansas where that is possible. Let them have Lawrence.

kansas-countiesAbove, the 2016 Presidential vote at the county level in Kansas. 

“The Hottest Part of Hell: Growing Up, Leaving, and Staying in Westboro Baptist Church”

Weber State University’s Sociology & Anthropology Brown Bag Series presents 

Dr. Rebecca Barrett-Fox, Arkansas State University

“The Hottest Part of Hell: Growing Up, Leaving, and Staying in Westboro Baptist Church”

Please Join Us on Thursday, January 26, 1:30 PM, SS103

What is life like inside a congregation that thinks the rest of the world is so evil that God is destroying it? That sees itself as Noah’s ark, carrying the faithful to safety as everyone outside its doors drowns? That lets you know that if you step outside the boundaries of the church’s dictates, you’ll be sentenced to an eternity of torture?

This is the message that the children of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, hear Sunday after Sunday–and the message that they, along with the adults in the 70-person congregation–preach as they picket at funerals and disaster scenes, from the funerals of fallen soldiers and LGBT people to the sites of mass shootings, mine explosions, bridge collapses, and other places of national mourning.

This presentation examines how children and adolescents learn the rhetoric and theology of Westboro Baptist church, how they are socialized into the church’s anti-gay activism, and how they decide, upon adulthood, to stay in a place where, very often, they have felt loved and cared for, or exit into the world they have been condemning. It draws from the words and experiences of current and former members of the congregation as well as observations of church life, from church potlucks to funeral pickets.

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Above, boys affiliated with Westboro Baptist Church picket outside of the White House. 

Rebecca Barrett-Fox’s scholarship focuses on the intersections of religion, right-wing politics, hate and extremism, and sexuality, gender, and families. She is the author of God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, the Religious Right, and American Nationalism (University of Kansas Press 2016), an ethnography of America’s most famous anti-gay congregation, as well as articles that have appeared in The Journal of Hate Studies, The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Radical Teacher, Thought & Action, and Proteus: A Journal of Ideas. She is also a contributor to Religion Dispatches. Dr. Barrett-Fox is a professor of sociology at Arkansas State University, where she is affiliated with Women and Gender Studies. You can follow her blog at AnyGoodThing.com.

 

 

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