July 20, 2006
New World Blood Libel
— Spencer Dew
Last month in Tampa, Florida, a grave was robbed. The body of a six-year-old boy killed by a car in 1975 was stolen. Police immediately speculated, publicly, that this crime was "more" than vandalism: "We are just leaning toward it being cult related or involving Santeria or some voodoo because we don't have any other reasonable explanation."
This is a loaded statement, one worth considering carefully. It offers an example of how religion in America can be defined starkly along lines of who is and who is not accepted as part of the cultural mainstream.
Throughout history, religion has frequently acted as a locus of fear of the other, and thus a motivation for crusades, pogroms, and the like. One recent manifestation of such fear is the designation "cult crime," which entered everyday parlance as part of the culture-wide focus on crime and drugs in the Reagan era. This term is questionable both in terms of pragmatic value for detective work, as well as its legal connotations in a country that supposedly guarantees freedom of religion.
Foremost, the term "cult" denotes a community — sometimes a shadowy conspiracy, but always a group. In today's common usage, "cult" refers to a group of others, of those who are not "us." Imputing "cults" with plots to steal our children's bones or poison our water supply is tempting because it assumes a clear-cut dichotomy of "us" versus "them." And with this dichotomy, "cult" often comes to stand for some further form of otherness, usually race or language or country of origin. In the present instance, the accusation that the recent crime in Florida is connected to "Santeria or some voodoo" picks out a certain demographic: non-whites. The department's statement reinforces a division wherein they represent an ostensibly mainstream culture, while immigrants, Latinos, and blacks are pushed to the margins.
No evidence of anything "cult related" was found at the scene of the robbery, nor does either religion (Santeria or Voodoo) ritually engage in such criminal action. Their being named, however, speaks to the power of popular conceptions, shaped in no small part by a history of horror movies in which race fear is an underlying dynamic. And with regard to "voodoo," the word, in lower-case, can idiomatically denote occult workings in general, especially those involving the dead.
This is problematic, as is the fact that Santeria's engagement in animal sacrifice has yet to shake off the aura of taboo in media coverage — despite a decisive Supreme Court ruling in favor of religious freedom for this group (Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. vs. the City of Hialeah, 1993). That animals used in purification rituals (and polluted by the act, thus making them ineligible for human consumption) are sometimes left near railroad tracks leads to occasional neighborhood uproars and titillating press — in short, bad public relations for a religion that is already marginalized. But the imagined leap from chickens to children has been underwritten by too many bad movies and television shows, and the Tampa Police Department has played directly into this fantasy.
In fact, the Department's spokesperson went so far as to say that the case would have been easier "had we found a business card that said Acme School of Santeria." This comment illustrates a criminological problem with the very idea of "cult crime." While the infinite multiplicity of practices within "mainstream" Christianity is taken for granted, discourse on "cults" assumes that practices can be easily decoded, that they emerge from a uniform body of beliefs that can be summed up under the generic title of an "Acme School."
Despite all the "resource books" with thick glossaries and their promises to decipher the occult world, the fact of lived religion is that it both does and does not adhere to standards and stereotypes, that humans are always balancing various commitments and traditions and identities, tailoring belief systems to themselves and their situations, making idiosyncratic compromises, even indulging in contradictions or unrecognized "heresies."
To be sure, variation and debate occur even in orthodox communities. And on the individual level, symbols are often subjectively appropriated for personal rituals. If the body in Tampa was stolen for some sort of religious purpose, the logic of its use may make sense only to the person or persons who robbed the grave, their beliefs perhaps echoing some "standard" belief, but certainly not aligning with any imaginary monolithic "Acme School."
Thus, the publicly voiced suspicion of "Santeria or some voodoo" expresses a great deal about fear of the (religious) other in American culture. Two reprehensible acts happened in Tampa: A body was stolen from its tomb, and the police further marginalized these religious groups.
For an Associated Press article on this incident, please visit: http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2006/jul/04/skeletal_remains_boy_taken_tampa_cemetery/.
The St. Petersburg Times also reported on the case here:
Spencer Dew is a PhD candidate in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School.