Irén Annus is Associate Professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. E-mail:
This special issue of AMERICANA investigates the role religion has played in American culture and society. Religion has maintained considerable power in shaping manners of thinking and courses of action in the US on the level of both the individual and the collective. We sought studies that offer a critical re/assessment of this power as expressed in the particular ways, mechanisms, structures and dynamisms of religious rituals, visual arts, narratives and practices through which religions have shaped the production of meaning and have thus filtered into the secular and impacted various time periods and aspects of American life. I am proud to present readers with the outcome of these efforts, a truly interdisciplinary collection of articles by authors engaged in a number of disciplines and theoretical positionings and representing a number of cultures.
The first article by László Blutman revisits the issue of the legal definition of religion in the US. He unveils how the American legal system has attempted to lend meaning to this term throughout its history, an endeavor of fundamental importance as the term is regularly used in the legal sense: the First Amendment grants American citizens the right to establish and exercise religion freely, while further laws expand the rights guaranteed to religious communities, including tax exemption. But how does the law define religion? Blutman guides the reader through Supreme Court cases and other key moments in American legal history, carefully mapping the contemporary cultural context and legal considerations that have shaped these various judicial efforts. This exciting journey through time is followed by a critical assessment of the various theoretical efforts that have evolved throughout the years. This paves the way for Blutman’s suggestions as to how the judicial and theoretical contradictions he has highlighted may be overcome, since, as it stands, Americans have yet to arrive at a proper, legally satisfactory and applicable definition for what they consider to be one of their most cherished national institutions.
The second piece considers an exciting issue that regularly recurs within the sociology of religion in debates about young religious communities: the role of a particular charismatic leader in shaping a particular religious group and the course of its future once this leader is no longer around. Dawn-Marie Gibson investigates these issues with a historical bias, through the example of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam (NOI). First, she examines the extent to which the NOI Executive Board’s management of the organization during Farrakhan’s illness can be regarded as successful. Based on this assessment, she proceeds to address the various issues that will likely be at stake for the NOI once, as Gibson words it, “Farrakhan bows out.” The author closes her article by arguing convincingly against some commonly held notions in the US that predict the possible disintegration of the NOI when Farrakhan is no longer present.
Often times, certain religious leaders become mythical figures of given cultures after their death as a result of cultural canonization. In the third paper, Massimo Rubboli investigates the particular steps, interests and dynamisms through which the cultural canonization of Martin Luther King, Jr., has been undertaken. He observes that this followed an often used three-step process, in which the Civil Rights Movement was also reappropriated and in which, consequently, both the movement and its perceived national leader were integrated into the official national memory. In his analysis, however, Rubboli revisits these lost values and messages while revealing the underlying causes because of which King and the Civil Rights Movement had to be deprived of them.
Religion’s overarching power to shape individual lives and trigger political, economic, social, and cultural battles is mapped in the fourth article. Its author, Nina Bosnicova, offers a close look at two life stories written by two African American activists, in whose life faith provided a firm ground for their actions: Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) and Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964). While acknowledging a number of differences between the two life stories, Bosnicova elaborately maps a series of similarities as well, ultimately arguing that these autobiographies reflect a recurring feature of these black leaders in that faith frames the political agenda they present to the reader in both works, and religion thus also operates as the most powerful means through which their vision is communicated to their audience.
In the fifth article, Anton Karl Kozlovic takes the reader to the realm of the visual arts, specifically to that of the American movies. He investigates the figure of Samson in the film Samson and Delilah (1949) directed by Cecil B. DeMille, “King of the epic Biblical spectacular,” as Finler called him. Through an elaborate contrastive reading of the biblical figure of Samson and the filmic representation of him, as well as a careful unfolding of the many layers of subtexts in the film, he demonstrates the power of the cinema in shaping long-lasting public perceptions and opinions even in matters of faith as well as revealing the ways in which in-depth aesthetic and spiritual dimensions may also be conveyed when a movie is directed by someone of DeMille’s caliber.
The final paper takes up a fascinating American phenomenon often discussed in the sociology of religion, Bellah’s civil religion, a topic which has opened up new dimensions in the study of the relationship between political rhetoric, social identification and religiosity. In their study, Máté-Tóth and Feleky investigate the presence and cohesive power that civil religion may have in the transitional societies of post-socialist Central and Eastern European countries. They argue that while certain dimensions of the concept are pervasively present, it differs in a number of ways from its forms of expression in the US. They conclude that investigations must therefore also consider local contexts and specific regional cultural characteristics.
This volume closes with three review essays, independent of the topic of the special issue. Anna Kérchy investigates a recent volume on the work of Sylvia Plath: The Unraveling Archive. Essays on Sylvia Plath, edited by Anita Helle. Andrea Kökény gives readers a glimpse of Éva Eszter Szabó’s U.S. Foreign and Immigration Policies in the Caribbean Basin. In the last review of this issue, András Csillag explores the book In Memoriam Országh László, edited by Lehel Vadon.
At the end of this introduction, I would like to take the opportunity to thank all the authors for their outstanding contributions as well as to thank the proofreader of this issue, Thomas A. Williams, for his devoted and meticulous work. It is their collaborative efforts that have made this issue of AMERICANA possible.