Native Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances

Native Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances

by Andrea Smith
     
 

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In Native Americans and the Christian Right, Andrea Smith advances social movement theory beyond simplistic understandings of social-justice activism as either right-wing or left-wing and urges a more open-minded approach to the role of religion in social movements. In examining the interplay of biblical scripture, gender, and nationalism in Christian Right and Native…  See more details below

Overview

In Native Americans and the Christian Right, Andrea Smith advances social movement theory beyond simplistic understandings of social-justice activism as either right-wing or left-wing and urges a more open-minded approach to the role of religion in social movements. In examining the interplay of biblical scripture, gender, and nationalism in Christian Right and Native American activism, Smith rethinks the nature of political strategy and alliance-building for progressive purposes, highlighting the potential of unlikely alliances, termed "cowboys and Indians coalitions" by one of her Native activist interviewees. She also complicates ideas about identity, resistance, accommodation, and acquiescence in relation to social-justice activism.

Smith draws on archival research, interviews, and her own participation in Native struggles and Christian Right conferences and events. She considers American Indian activism within the Promise Keepers and new Charismatic movements. She also explores specific opportunities for building unlikely alliances. For instance, while evangelicals' understanding of the relationship between the Bible and the state may lead to reactionary positions on issues including homosexuality, civil rights, and abortion, it also supports a relatively progressive position on prison reform. In terms of evangelical and Native American feminisms, she reveals antiviolence organizing to be a galvanizing force within both communities, discusses theories of coalition politics among both evangelical and indigenous women, and considers Native women's visions of sovereignty and nationhood. Smith concludes with a reflection on the implications of her research for the field of NativeAmerican studies.

About the Author:
Andrea Smith is Assistant Professor of American Culture and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Smith contributes a shrewdly innovative and theoretically ambitious analysis that transforms scholarship about progressive organizing and politics with her new insights on Native women organizing and theory, Christian Right arguments, and the intersections of ideas and interests that often are overlooked in western history.” - Myla Vicenti Carpio, Western Historical Quarterly

Native Americans and the Christian Right is an exciting and important project, one that can be improved by further research and the collection of more stories and accounts of effective change. It is written to encourage that very enterprise.” - Laurel C. Schneider, Contemporary Sociology

Native Americans and the Christian Right is an indispensible treatise on the radical relevance of indigenous criticism to interdisciplinary theory and all social movements. . . . Smith notably advances indigenous feminism not simply by reading ‘gender’ in indigenous politics but by engaging both indigenous and settler politics with indigenous feminist methodologies of alliance work for social change.” - Scott Lauria Morgensen, Signs

“Smith has produced a brilliant, complex, and deeply original work that will stand as an important contribution to fields as wide-ranging as Native American studies, social movement theory, political science, religious studies, and gender theory.” - Tisa Wenger, Journal of Church and State

“[A] fascinating and complex argument. . . . Native Americans and the Christian Right is a brave, provocative book. . . . Together with—as well as apart from—the political agenda of the book, Smith’s work presents a powerful analysis of social formation and identity articulation. She persuasively illustrates the ways contemporary Christian and Native groups alike are constituted by parties with
varying and variable interests that may align with those of unlikely allies in surprising and telling ways.” - Greg Johnson, Journal of the American Academy of Religion

“In refusing to accept the typical explanations for the motivations of both groups, Smith enriches and challenges the reader to probe deeper into these “unlikely alliances” and offers up ideas for political activism, as well as new ways to understand the deeper issues of race and gender within social and
political activism. Her work challenges scholars to re-think how they construct identity, Native peoples, gender, social activism, Native Christianity, and sovereignty. This book is clearly aimed at future scholar-activists who want to envision a new form of progressive organizing that goes beyond the current model, but it is also immensely useful to scholars of Native, religious, and gender studies who are thinking about different theoretical models for how to address complicated alliances and identities within their own work.”
- Angela Tarango, Religious Studies Review

“Not many scholars could even imagine bringing together Native women activists with the Christian Right, but Andrea Smith manages to do so with the sort of intellectual integrity that has become a hallmark of her work. Even when I disagree with her conclusions I can’t help but get swept up in the sheer joy and hope of the journey she imagines.”—Robert Warrior, author of The People and the Word: Reading Native Nonfiction

“This is an amazing book that debunks many widely held beliefs about identity, Native activism, evangelical Christianity, sovereignty, and organizing. Andrea Smith’s analysis flows from race, to gender, to class, to nation, to income, to sexuality, to religion, and back to race in such a way that crude approximations of ideology or other notions of identity or consciousness are laid to rest. She has written an energetic and complicated work that will become an instant classic in Native studies, ethnic studies, religion, and feminist and gender studies.”—Ruth Wilson Gilmore, author of Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California

Laurel C. Schneider
Native Americans and the Christian Right is an exciting and important project, one that can be improved by further research and the collection of more stories and accounts of effective change. It is written to encourage that very enterprise.”
Scott Lauria Morgensen
Native Americans and the Christian Right is an indispensible treatise on the radical relevance of indigenous criticism to interdisciplinary theory and all social movements. . . . Smith notably advances indigenous feminism not simply by reading ‘gender’ in indigenous politics but by engaging both indigenous and settler politics with indigenous feminist methodologies of alliance work for social change.”
Greg Johnson
“[A] fascinating and complex argument. . . . Native Americans and the Christian Right is a brave, provocative book. . . . Together with—as well as apart from—the political agenda of the book, Smith’s work presents a powerful analysis of social formation and identity articulation. She persuasively illustrates the ways contemporary Christian and Native groups alike are constituted by parties with varying and variable interests that may align with those of unlikely allies in surprising and telling ways.”
Angela Tarango
“In refusing to accept the typical explanations for the motivations of both groups, Smith enriches and challenges the reader to probe deeper into these “unlikely alliances” and offers up ideas for political activism, as well as new ways to understand the deeper issues of race and gender within social and political activism. Her work challenges scholars to re-think how they construct identity, Native peoples, gender, social activism, Native Christianity, and sovereignty. This book is clearly aimed at future scholar-activists who want to envision a new form of progressive organizing that goes beyond the current model, but it is also immensely useful to scholars of Native, religious, and gender studies who are thinking about different theoretical models for how to address complicated alliances and identities within their own work.”
Myla Vicenti Carpio
“Smith contributes a shrewdly innovative and theoretically ambitious analysis that transforms scholarship about progressive organizing and politics with her new insights on Native women organizing and theory, Christian Right arguments, and the intersections of ideas and interests that often are overlooked in western history.”
Tisa Wenger
“Smith has produced a brilliant, complex, and deeply original work that will stand as an important contribution to fields as wide-ranging as Native American studies, social movement theory, political science, religious studies, and gender theory.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780822341635
Publisher:
Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
04/01/2008
Pages:
400
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Native Americans and the Christian Right

The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances
By ANDREA SMITH

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4140-6


Chapter One

Set the Prisoners Free

The Christian Right and the Prison Industrial Complex

The history of the prison reveals that this institution which has emerged as the dominant mode of punishment has been unable to solve the problem of crime, but rather has become a site for violence, assaults on human rights, and the perpetuation of racism....

Ironically, forms of punishment designed to minimize crime-and especially their manifestations-themselves promote and perpetuate violence.

The whole system of punishment today is geared toward taking away people's dignity, putting them in an institution, and locking them up in a cage. Prisons are overcrowded, understaffed, dirty places. Eighty percent of American prisons are barbaric-not just brutal, but barbaric.... Prison as a punishment is a failure.

Mandatory sentences and longer sentences are counterproductive.... the tougher the laws, I'm convinced, the more lawless and violent we will become.

As for public safety, it can hardly be said that prisons contribute to public safety.... Prisons obviously are not deterring criminal conduct. The evidence is overwhelming that the more people we put in prison, the more crime we have. All prisons do is warehouse human beings and at exorbitant cost.

The first set of quotations comes from an essay by Angela Davis (n.d., 2, 34), a radical prison abolitionist. One might guess that the second quotation comes from a similar source. In fact, it comes from Charles Colson (1983), a prominent Christian Right activist and the founder of Prison Fellowship (Fager 1982, 23; Forbes 1982, 34). Colson, formerly an attorney with the Nixon administration, served time in prison for his role in the Watergate break-in. Colson recounts in his autobiography, Life Sentence, the vow he made to his fellow prisoners on his release: "I'll never forget this stinking place or you guys" (1979, 24). Colson is immediately challenged by one prisoner, Archie, who replies, "I've seen you big shots come and go. They all say the same thing. Then they get out and forget us fast" (24). But Colson's vow begins his involvement in prison reform and ministry, culminating in the formation of Prison Fellowship (Moreland 1982). Prison Fellowship started with a staff of six, but by 1998 it had programs in over eighty countries, a volunteer base of over eight hundred thousand, and a budget of over thirty-eight million dollars (Prison Fellowship 1998a). Its associated ministries include Justice Fellowship, which lobbies for prison reform; Neighbors Who Care, which provides assistance to victims of crime; and Angel Tree, which provides assistance to families of prisoners during the Christmas holidays. It also publishes a newspaper specifically for prisoners, Inside Journal. Prison Fellowship began Operation Starting Line, a coalition of thirteen ministries, including Promise Keepers, Campus Crusade for Christ, the American Bible Society, and the National Black Evangelical Association, whose goal it is to bring the Gospel to all U.S. prisoners over a three-year period (Christianity Today 1999a). In 2000, Prison Fellowship began to experience a budget crisis and was forced to close twenty offices and eliminate one hundred positions (Veenker 2000). By 2001, it had absorbed Justice Fellowship (Zoba 2001, 30). Still, over fifteen thousand inmates attend Prison Fellowship Bible studies, twenty-seven prisoners are connected to pen pals, and fifty thousand men and women enter prisons as Prison Fellowship volunteers.

The political positions often articulated within the site of evangelical prison organizing are positions not commonly associated with the Right. For instance, among the many platforms implicitly or explicitly supported by Prison and Justice Fellowship and other evangelical prison advocates are decarceration for drug offenders (Bruce 1997a; Colson 1977, 17; Colson 1980a, 52), minimum wage compensation for prison labor (Lawton 1988, 38), decarceration of all nonviolent offenders ("The first thing we have to do with prisons today is to get the nonviolent people out") (Forbes 1982, 33; Smarto 1993, 46), prison construction moratoriums (Colson 1985, 29; Justice Fellowship 2000; Mill 1999; Van Ness 1985), eradication of "zero tolerance" policies in public schools (Nolan 2004k), eradication of mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strikes legislation, decarceration of the mentally ill (Nolan 2004m), suffrage for convicted felons (Colson 1985, 34), expansion of community sentencing programs (Colson 1985, 29; Pulliam 1987; Van Ness 1985), and even prison abolition (Griffith 1993). In fact, Colson argues that 50 percent of people in prison today should be released immediately (Fager 1982, 23). While those involved in Justice Fellowship and Prison Fellowship are divided on their opinions on the death penalty, many are strongly opposed to it. As an organization, Justice Fellowship seemed to generally support the decision of Governor George Ryan of Illinois to commute the death penalty for all those on death row and establish a moratorium on the death penalty (Nolan 2003g). In addition, the DNA tests that led to the reversal of a number of death penalty convictions in the early 2000s seems to have tilted Justice Fellowship's position to a more explicit antideath penalty stance (Nolan 2003h). Pat Nolan (former Justice Fellowship president, current Justice Fellowship vice president) further critiqued the prosecutors of the D.C. Sniper case for aggressively pursuing the death penalty at the expense of victim concerns (Nolan 2003f).

Consequently, evangelical prison organizing is a helpful case study through which to investigate the possibilities of rearticulating the Christian Right to serve more radical political projects. While this chapter looks at evangelical prison organizing in general, it focuses on Charles Colson and Prison/Justice Fellowship since Colson is the most prominent figure in this field.

In an interview with Eternity, a now defunct neo-evangelical magazine, Colson discussed the seeming incompatibility between his more radical stance on prisons and the law and order sentiments of his conservative evangelical constituency, stating, "At first blush our position is one that would sound pretty radical to most conservative Christians. But then when you begin to examine it, it's not as radical as they think; at least, it's not another liberal reform movement that historically conservative Christians would turn away from. First of all, our whole appeal is based on the Bible. We say to conservative Christians, look, in the Bible prison is not used as punishment for crime" (Fager 1982, 23). Ironically, according to Colson, the same Bible that undergirds conservative positions on a variety of social and political issues-from abortion to multicultural education-also dictates a "pretty radical" position on the issue of prisons and incarceration (1988, 1993).

The theories produced by Native women provide a helpful starting point to begin our investigation. First, in assessing one's apparent political enemy, one must investigate the "logics" of the opposition. In doing so, one generally finds that this opposition comes not only from a retrenched position in support of patriarchy and white supremacy but also from material concerns, some of which Native peoples also might have. It is then possible to "reframe" the issue that speaks to the logics of the opposition. However, at all points of this process, it is critical to engage the dangers of coalitions, and assess to what extent we can be co-opted into logics we do not necessarily support. To investigate how communities grounded in a "biblical worldview" can rearticulate their political positions into more progressive politics, it is then necessary to engage the logics of these biblically based political articulations. Such an investigation will allow us to see how positions can be rearticulated but also the dangers involved in coalescing with these communities. To continue this investigation, I begin with the politics of the evangelical Bible itself.

THE BIBLE AND EVANGELICAL POLITICAL ACTIVISM

As the literary scholar Katherine Boone notes in The Bible Tells Them So (1989), evangelicalism claims to be a discourse unaffected by social realities. That is, evangelicals claim to speak only biblical truth, the inerrant word of God; biblical texts are thought to exist outside the boundaries of other social discourses. Consequently, political and social positions articulated from a biblical basis are considered ahistorical and unchanging. As David Barton, an evangelical revisionist historian, states, "The Bible has been transcendent across generations and cultures, and its guidance has remained timeless" (1994, 5). Boone analyzes how major fundamentalist commentators have been able to disguise their political interests from others (and even from themselves) by claiming that they are simply propounding biblical truth: "I am simply a servant of the text. You may think you are disputing me ... but you are really disputing God, whose Word I faithfully and humbly expound" (Boone 1989, 70). This understanding of evangelical political discourse, which is held not only by evangelicals but by nonevangelicals as well (Ponticelli 1993), is evident in a recent cartoon version of a U.S. map, circulated on the Web, in which all the states that voted for George W. Bush in 2004 are marked "Jesus Land." The assumption is that any constituency that follows Jesus will also vote Republican.

Although evangelical political discourse is taken to be transcendental, it has in fact been anything but static. Not only have evangelical political positions shifted historically on a variety of issues, from abortion to race and gender relations to the citizen's relationship to the state, but the same "transcendental" Bible has been used by evangelicals to justify competing political positions within the same historical period. Contestation over what the Bible has to say about crime, punishment, and incarceration is a case in point. I look at the various factors that play into the contested discourse on prisons.

An examination of evangelical discourse on crime and punishment has implications for how we analyze evangelical Christians as political actors. Many scholars of social movements have noted the political tenuousness of oppressed communities, which often lack the stability to act as collective agents for progressive social change. While progressive theorists and activists comment on the unstable nature of leftist political alliances, they often attribute a stable and unitary character to their opponents on the religious Right. For instance, Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Mohanty argue that fundamentalist movements are linked "to the failure of both capitalism and community to provide for people's material, spiritual, and emotional needs ... [and to] the failure of the nationalist and socialist movements to bring about liberation from oppression. Fundamentalist movements are deeply heteropatriarchal in suggesting the control and regulation of women's sexuality as the panacea for all these failures" (1997, xxv). Similarly, Manuel Castells, quoting Martin Marty, argues, "Fundamentalists are always reactive, reactionary.... It is impossible for fundamentalists to argue or settle anything with people who do not share their commitment to an authority" (Castells 1997, 13).

While these analyses are important and will be explored later, scholars do not often investigate possible areas of resistance within fundamentalist movements. Following Gramsci, Hall notes that there is no necessary relationship between ruling classes and ruling ideas; rather, this relationship is the result of an articulation of a particular political platform by a particular class or community (1996b, 44). He further argues that this relationhship is never stable, writing, "Hegemony cannot be taken for granted-either by the state or the dominant classes.... The current use of the term, to suggest the unending and unproblematic exercise of class power by every ruling class, and its opposite-the permanent and finished incorporation of the subordinate class-is quite false to Gramsci's usage" (1976, 40).

By extension, hegemonic power structures within fundamentalist contexts are never guaranteed either. Religious meanings and their significance for political and economic structures are constantly changing, despite the fact that fundamentalist discourse sees itself as anchored to the unchanging truth. The evolving fundamentalist position on race and slavery is just one case in point. Generally speaking, white evangelicals strongly supported race segregation in the 1950s and 1960s, or at least did not organize against it, but now they advocate the politics of "race reconciliation."

If we look at culture as "the signifying system through which necessarily (though among other means) a social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced, and explored" (Williams 1991,13), then the slippages in the reproduction of culture provide possible sites for transforming that social order. As Nancy Ammerman states, while fundamentalist cultures may represent themselves as closed systems based on obedience to models of hierarchical authority, "the opportunities for failure are legion" (1993, 185).

Sara Diamond, a scholar of the Christian Right, has critiqued the tendency of the Left to caricature the Christian Right as a unified right-wing conspiracy rather than to conceptualize it as an often fragmented mass movement. "The distortions inherent in the radical-extremist labeling effort," she writes, "blunted public awareness of how and why the Christian Right's millions of constituents became indispensable to the Republican Party. Instead some critics of the Christian Right promoted a view of conspiracies by small right-wing cliques to stage manage what was truly a mass movement" (1995, 6). Nevertheless, she suggests that conservative evangelicalism and the Christian Right can be distinguished by a "consistent set of principles" (6)-particularly, "to be right-wing means to support the state in its capacity as enforcer of order and to oppose the state as distributor of wealth and power downward and more equitably in society" (9). If her definition is accurate, how do we make sense of Colson's efforts to take power away from the state in the arena of law and order? While she notes that the Christian Right is a mass and nonunitary movement, she still assumes a unitary conservative thrust to Christian Right politics. She fails to theorize the resistances to right-wing political stances that exist within conservative Christian discourse.

This chapter demonstrates, using conservative Christian discourse on crime and punishment as an example, that not only are the Christian Right and conservative evangelicalism not monolithic but that their very own doctrines, while undergirding conservative political positions in some sectors, call these positions into question in other sectors. In particular, I focus on the work of Charles Colson and his associates involved in Prison Fellowship, as it is the most prominent evangelical organization working toward prison reform. I will show how Christian Right theological and political discourse contains the seeds of its own deconstruction. Contrary to the popular maxim, sometimes the master's tools can dismantle the master's house. Or, to quote the African theologian Emmanuel Martey, "Unlike Audre Lorde, who might be wondering whether the master's tools could indeed be used to dismantle the master's house, African theologians are fully convinced that the gun, in efficient hands, could well kill its owner" (1994, 46).

While this chapter analyzes evangelical discourse on prisons to demonstrate the political instability of conservative evangelicalism in general, I also discuss the implications of these political and theological contradictions within conservative evangelical discourse for mobilizing a "hegemonic bloc" against the prison industrial complex in particular.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Native Americans and the Christian Right by ANDREA SMITH Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Andrea Smith is Assistant Professor of American Culture and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the author of Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, the editor of The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, and a coeditor of Color of Violence: Violence Against Women of Color. She is a cofounder of the national activist organization INCITE! Women of Color against Violence.

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