JULY 25, 2001
Two Pictures of American Religion
-- Jonathan Ebel
The front page of the Chicago Tribune Metro section for July fifth shows two pictures of religion in America that capture well its ambivalence as a public force.
The first story concerns Hindu leader Mata Amritandandamayi. The accompanying color photo shows a kneeling couple, heads bowed in Amritandandamayi's signature embrace surrounded by a racially and generationally diverse crowd of Hindus. Amritandandamayi was in Lisle, Illinois, during the first week of July delivering her message of love to Chicago's Hindu community. According to reporter Tom McCann, wherever Amritandandamayi travels her followers wait in long lines for the privilege of receiving her embrace while she sings mantras into their ears. A woman of humble Indian birth, Amritandandamayi now touches the lives of a worldwide community, including a following in the United States large enough to support a ten-city tour. Of her ability to hug follower after follower, at times for eighteen straight hours, Amritandandamayi says, "When I see them happy, I cannot feel tired. Their happiness gives me strength. I need no recharging."
Directly below this story of religious diversity and the power of shared affection is a picture of Richard Loy, leader of the National Church of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. He is shown clad in a black t-shirt, leaning across a fence made of two-by-fours and chicken wire, reading the Bible. The caption tells that a conspicuous bulge on Loy's right hip is a gun which he carries, loaded, wherever he goes. Loy recently inherited a small farm in Osceola, Indiana, and has since declared it the Klan's national headquarters. David Heinzmann reports that Loy has welcomed a "steady stream of sympathizers to shoot guns, play war games and burn crosses." Neighbors have, in turn, armed themselves and rigged floodlights on their property for security. "They're hell-bent on a crusade to run the Klan out of town," Loy told Heinzmann. "I'm not going anywhere. This land was handed down to us and I'll hand it down to my son. He's in training now."
Published the day after Independence Day in what Diana Eck of Harvard University has described as "the world's most religiously diverse nation," these two pictures speak volumes about the double-edged sword of public religion in the United States. The United States, through its pre-contact and colonial past, inherits a long tradition of religious figures, like Amritandandamayi, under whose direction religion has changed both individuals and society for the better. The Ku Klux Klan and Loy represent an equally persistent American tradition, one that claims a long history and a longer list of victims. The same past that yields stories of lives mended by religion contains stories of lives destroyed in the name of religion. These are more than parallel narratives of the good and bad of religion in America: these stories are intertwined.
As the religions of the world come to the United States, take root, and flourish, the Richard Loys among us, not all of them residing on farms in rural Indiana, continue to feel the need to defend static notions of national, racial, and religious identity. Many, such as Loy's neighbors, are shocked that the Klan's views continue to persist in a society that also supports the work of Mata Amritandandamayi. A few hours spent with a good American religious history text show that from colonial encounters between European and Native American peoples and between Europeans of different creeds, to nineteenth-century encounters between American Protestants and Catholic, Jewish, and Buddhist immigrants as well as Native Americans, the American response to religious diversity has been a mixture of embrace and assault. The twentieth century brought new levels of immigration, new diversity, and the same old range of reactions.
The Tribune's juxtaposed stories and pictures offer a window into this ongoing narrative. We do well to remember that just as Loy makes his neighbors uneasy with cries of white power, so too are some "neighbors" made uneasy by a religious diversity that is literally changing the face of the nation. As much as we would like Loy and his ilk to be history, they simply are not. Even where there are hugs, less friendly gestures are not far away. We can only hope that Amritandandamayi is more successful in her work than Loy is in his.
Jonathan Ebel is the managing editor of Sightings and a doctoral candidate in the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.