February 27, 2012

Concerning Our Relevance

by Konden Smith

It’s been a couple months, but I’m still troubled over a topic that was passionately argued at the last AAR conference in San Francisco. In a Saturday morning forum entitled “Scholars and the Public Representations of Islam in the United States,” prominent Islamicist John L. Esposito of Georgetown University lamented that so few from the conference showed up to this forum, considering its larger national relevance. As current Vice President and President Elect (2013) of the AAR, he spoke of the irrelevance the AAR often has in influencing the public discussion regarding religion in American public life. He criticized the failure of academia to speak out on such important issues, leaving the debates to be fought by those with less understanding and discipline, however well meaning. In looking at political discourse, it was asked why the general population has been so seduced by fear and paranoia rather than thoughtful discussion, particularly regarding Islam. Clearly, this has everything to do with who is leading the discussions. In his ending statement, Esposito noted that scholars and great associations like the AAR are not doing enough to contribute, thus allowing their relevance to be questioned.

In “We’re Here, Get Used to It,” Brett Hendrickson provided a nice synopsis of the importance of “Religion in the American West” and its relevance as an academic study. But the larger question continues to trouble me: is the academic study of religion itself relevant? Has it contributed to the larger national discussion, or has it remained aloof? Why have the U.S. Government and the U.S. public not drawn on this important reservoir of knowledge when dealing with significant religious controversies, such as the proposed Park 51 Mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan?

In asking the question regarding the relevance of “Religion in the American West,” perhaps a discussion can begin regarding the role scholars can play in helping frame the public discussion on immigration in Arizona, women in the military, Mormonism in presidential politics, or gay marriage in California. These are all issues that shape the West, but they are also decisive national questions that will shape 2012 presidential politics and the future direction of the country.

Religion in the American West is a relevant realm of academic study, but I add Esposito’s critique that academia itself has failed to be relevant. My thoughts on these lines are mostly in response to Esposito’s challenge to the AAR and the study of religion more broadly, but I see no reason why we as scholars of religion in the American West can’t live up to that challenge in the demonstration of our larger relevance. I would be interested in hearing ideas of how this can be done, rather than listening to my own pessimism that worries that national conversations and critical thinking are two very different things.

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