American studies scholars are to develop what Gene Wise in his 1979 American Quarterly article “Paradigm Dramas” called a “connecting mind,” one that can “probe the immediacy of the situation to search for everything which rays out beyond it” (336). That “raying out” is the hallmark of American studies scholarship and what I hope to foster in students in every course I teach, regardless of its discipline. Raying out requires not only a vast amount of content knowledge but innovation in the methods for generating that knowledge, vulnerability is disorienting ourselves, awareness of theories that can guide the process of synthesizing it, creativity in the process, clarity in articulation, humility in recognizing how limited our own visions are, and curiosity throughout. Raying out requires both precision and vision—“hitting the target no one else can see,” in the words of Schopenhauer.
My work ranges in topic—from religiously-inspired hate groups to Christian women’s popular culture to evangelical political economics to research ethics and methods to childloss—but my interests are tied together with a deep concern for social justice, kindness and compassion in personal relationships, and a social constructionist’s belief that we can choose to build a better world. Methodologically, I like to listen to living human subjects in participant-observation, interviews, and long-term ethnographic field work. I love texts of all kinds. (As a child, I once packed my own suitcase on a family vacation, filling the whole thing with books. I was able to pretend that it was light and easy to carry, but my mother found me out when, after arriving at our destination, I had no change of clothes or a toothbrush for the next five days.) Most of all, I want to learn how and why people make their worlds as they do. I keep an eye on religion, especially as it relates to gender, sex, race and ethnicity, family, violence, human bodies, and the law.
Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2016.
Articles and Chapters
“The 4th R: Encountering Conservative Christianity in the Classroom,” NEA’s Thought & Action. Summer 2016.
Drawing from student reflective writing and popular conservative Christian culture, this article examines the assumptions that conservative evangelical students bring with them into the college classroom and suggests ways that their stereotypes and assumptions shape their experiences and interactions.
“Christian Romance Novels: Inspiring Convention and Challenge,” in Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom? Edited by William Gleason and Eric Selinger. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Press, 2016.
Drawing from interviews with readers and writers as well as close textual readings, this chapter analyzes how women use Christian romance novels to shape their personal piety, exploring how the novels challenge conventional notions of gender in conservative Christianity. It finds evidence that, rather than merely articulating uncomplicated support for the Religious Right gender agenda, the novels provide models of marriage that resonate more with the contemporary companionate and egalitarian secular ideal of marriage than with traditional marriage espoused by socially conservative Christians. These novels challenge the patriarchy that conservative Christianity teaches in other media even as they affirm female readers’ worth before God—a relationship that remains a higher priority, even in romance novels, than the male-female relationship.
“The Rise of Anti-Gay Religious Right Activism in the U.S.: A Review of Major Sociological Theories,” in Globalized Religion and Sexual Identity: Policies, Voices and Contexts. Edited by Heather Shipley. Boston: Brill, 2014.
A review of four theories of religiously-inspired anti-gay activism: status group explanations, political resource mobilization explanations, issues-based explanations, and cultural populism explanations. This chapter concludes by examining shifts in anti-gay religious rhetoric from outright moral condemnation to language that invokes social science, choice, and compassion. Full text of the chapter is available here.
“Congress at the Kitchen Table: Religious Right Applications of Moral Home Economics to Federal Economic Policy,” in The Great Recession in Fiction, Film, and Television: Twenty-First Century Bust Culture. Edited by Kirk Boyle and Daniel Mrozowski, 211-232. New York: Lexington Books, 2013.
Christian financial guru Dave Ramsey teaches and preaches lessons in “financial freedom” in books, on radio, in live events, and through his church-based Financial Peace University to an audience that consists mostly of evangelical Christians. His arguments for free markets and relatively unrestrained capitalism, his condemnation of poor Americans as “stupid,” and his belief that social welfare spending ruins not only individuals but nations, though, resonate with a much larger audience of libertarians and fiscal conservatives. Combining ethnography and content analysis, this chapter examines how Ramsey’s arguments are taken up by conservative politicians in an effort to reduce social welfare spending.
“Anger and Compassion on the Picket Line: Ethnography and Emotion in the Study of Westboro Baptist Church,” The Journal of Hate Studies 9, no. 1 (2010/11).
Feminist ethnographic methods stress the role of empathy for research subjects and researchers’ willingness for their work to be useful to their subjects. When the research subjects are “unloved groups,” though—people whose actions or beliefs are hateful or harmful—some ethnographers argue that such empathy and empowerment is misplaces or leads to uncritical scholarship. In this reflection on the author’s ethnographic study of Westboro Baptist Church, a small Kansas-based congregation infamous for preaching its anti-gay theology at funerals, including the funerals of fallen servicemen and –women, she questions the usefulness of denying an emotional connection with “hatemongers.” Instead, she argues for compassion for both the victims and, more challengingly, the perpetrators of hate in order to protect researchers from the threat of desensitization.
“Tunnel of Reification: How the Tunnel of Oppression Reaffirms Righteousness for Members of Dominant Groups,” Radical Teacher 80 (Winter 2007): 24-29.
Drawing from participant-observation research, this essay analyzes the Tunnel of Oppression, an interactive exhibit in which student actors, films, and recordings are used to expose participants to a variety of kinds of –isms (sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, etc.). The essay argues that the Tunnel not only fails to rectify injustice or promote critical engagement with prejudice by students, but it actually serves to reify the righteousness of dominant groups in three ways: first, by ignoring the structural nature of oppression; second, by employing examples that erase radical differences between participants and victims of oppression; and, third, by making an emotional appeal to participants without demanding critical self-analysis or commitment to personal change.
“Hope, Faith, and Toughness: An Analysis of the Christian Hero” in Empowerment versus Oppression: 21st Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Edited by Sally Goade, 93-102. New Castle, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007.
Drawing from content analysis and close readings of contemporary Christian romance novels and non-fiction gender manuals, this chapter argues that the heroes presented in Christian fiction aimed at women look and act very differently than the male ideal presented in self-help books that seek to promote distinct roles for men and women in Christian marriages.
“Remodeling the ‘University of Destruction’: Conflicts between Academic Workers and Conservative Christians in American Universities,” Proteus: A Journal of Ideas 23, no. 2 (October 2006): 1-8.
This article suggests three reasons why the relationship between college teachers and politically and theologically conservative Christians is strained. First, there is significant disagreement between these groups about the purpose and content of a college education. Second, fundamental misunderstandings of the discourse of the academy on the part of many conservative Christians and the discourse of conservative Christianity on the party of academics undermines communication. Third, a tradition of hostility between these groups is increasingly difficult to overcome.
“Higher Love: What Women Gain from Christian Romance Novels,” The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 4 (Summer 2003).
Drawing from online ethnographic research of Christian romance novel fan discussion boards as well as interviews with readers and writers in the genre, this article describes the ways in which women’s reading habits are a spiritual practice.
“God Hates Nags: Why in God’s Name is Westboro Baptist Church Picketing Kim Davis?,” Religion Dispatches, October 19, 2015.
“KIM DAVIS CAUSED GAY MARRIAGE! Westboro Baptist Church and Religious Anti-Gay Politics” [Interview by Kelsy Burke], Girl w/Pen, a blog of The Society Pages, September 16, 2015.
“When Congregation-based Activism is… Complicated.” Studying Congregations, August 11, 2015.
“The Americanization of Religious Minorities.” Entry in the Theory and Religion Series of Religion Bulletin. March 25, 2015.
“When the Founder Dies: Westboro Baptist Church in the Aftermath of Pastor Fred Phelps’ Passing” [Interview by David G. Bromley], World Religions and Spiritual Project, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2014.
“Duck Dynasty Patriarch, Hero of the Christian Right,” Religion Dispatches, December 23, 2013.
“A Response to ‘Evidentiary Boundaries and Improper Interventions: Evidence, Implications, and Illegitimacy in American Religious Studies,’” in Bulletin for the Study of Religion, July 29, 2013.
“A Bill Passes, Westboro Baptists Shrug,” Religion Dispatches, August 8, 2012.
The New Hate A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right by Arthur Goldwag and One Hundred Percent American The Birth and Decline of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s by Thomas Peagram [review essay in The Journal of Hate Studies]
“Hate Groups” in The American Middle Class: An Encyclopedia of Progress and Poverty, edited by Robert S. Rycroft, ABC-CLIO, 2016.