Letter from the Chair

 

Hello Everyone,

It has been a rough year for all, although not equally so. As I step into the position of
departmental chair during the summer of 2021, I am acutely aware of many good reasons for
renewing one’s commitment to the study of religion. Each of us will have different views on
what these reasons are, and thankfully so. At present, I recall the jarring voice of a county
supervisor and retired police officer in Wausau, Wisconsin this spring. A vibrant manufacturing
town known for its historical connections to commerce along the Wisconsin River and for a
growing Hmong and Asian American community since the 1980s, Wausau hosted a town hall
meeting in April about a “Community for All” resolution designed to take a stand against
ongoing racial disparities, discrimination and hate. The supervisor, along with the voting
majority of members on the nearly all-white town board, is reported to have explained his
opposition to the resolution in this way: “If we choose to isolate and elevate one group of
people over another, it’s discrimination.” The resolution failed to pass. Marathon County has
since turned into yet another hot spot in national news coverage of the country’s much strained
cultural and racial fabric.


Setting aside the term “structural racism,” for a moment, if only to imagine dialogue with the
supervisor that would lead to the best likely outcome, I might ask the community leader about his
views of the future: “Do you see a bright horizon for the world approaching us, or a dark one?”
If dark, I would follow up: “Does greed or a problematic distribution of resources have anything
to do with it?” And if he thought so, I would ask: “What would you say to children who, in a
generation, might want to correct this problem by focusing on the past? Would you empathize
with them if they acknowledged that the past had saddled them unfairly with debt and,
accordingly, wanted to right wrongs and balance things out a bit?” Were the supervisor to
identify with these voices, I would pose my clincher: “If your grandchildren expressed these
views, how would you answer them when they asked you about your rationale for voting down
the ‘Community for All’ resolution, namely that one should ignore history and focus only on the
present?” In the fantastic scenario running through my mind, a whole world of follow-up
questions would then ensue, philosophical at heart though also key to realizing a more
collaborative political vision: “Does one ignore histories of debt, exploitation and systemic
inequality if they aren’t one’s own? How can doing so be ethical? Can this rationale be a
building block for any viable community?”


Religious studies has much to offer, it seems to me, when confronting the seeming
intractabilities of racialized mistrust and hate. Sages and prophets, much inclined to visions of
the future, have long dwelt on the virtues of selflessness. More to the point, they have also
bequested us lessons on the merits of seeking justice in the face of worldly accumulation. By
their account, human beings are often who they are not because everyone is or should be
equal, but rather because they are fundamentally not equal. On the one hand, monotheistic
religions, for example, teach that human beings will confront a radical erasure of difference
when poised before a single God on Judgement Day. All of us will be judged equally, the idea
goes, each according to our actions as weighed on a scale of infinite wisdom and good. Let us
consider, however, the ways in which imagining this scene and telling its story have also long
accompanied situations in which people confront radical inequality. Narratives of a “final
judgement,” present to a greater or lesser extent in many traditions, help religious practitioners
to acknowledge the power of systemic inequality while also being reassured: radical differences
in the here and now will be erased down the road by true justice and love. Stories of
foundational equality between believers can also have less salutary effects, however.
Wordsmiths inevitably face hard questions from those who want to call their bluff or dismiss
the value of their views as “just so stories.” In fact, such critics claim, telling such stories only
makes present-day injustice and inequality more “real,” legitimizing and justifying their
continuation. Any act of invoking or representing ultimate equality brackets or "indexes" inequality,
even if temporarily or hypothetically, and invokers can arrogate a dangerous prerogative: If a certain
amount of inequality in life or faith is deemed to be allowable, structured into the very fabric
of our social being, do religious leaders who offer visions of such affairs not risk overinflating or
abusing their own authority? Answers to these questions have the potential to sow seeds of
tremendous discord and even do harm. To study religions through history is to open a door to
myriad pathways that people have taken to acknowledging radical difference while at the same
time addressing systems of perpetuated power… for better and sometimes for worse. What
scenes of a Creator’s justice and believers’ equanimity might have been coursing through the
minds of those in Wausau’s town hall? According to a recent Pew Research poll, approximately
71% of Wisconsinites identify as Christian; among evangelicals those who vote conservative
more than double those who self-identify as liberal. Nation-wide, roughly 84% of white
evangelicals, in particular, voted for Donald J. Trump, an aspiring second-term presidential
candidate who put Wisconsin front and center during his 2020 election campaign. His 7% gain
among this demographic as compared with the 2016 election was no doubt heralded by
Trump’s rhetoric. As scholar of religion Ceri Hughes, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,
has shown, Trump used more religious references in his set-speeches than any other president
in the past century. One thing we can be sure of: religion looms large in the ways a majoritarian-white
nation continues to address deep contradictions in its quest for a better and more equitable tomorrow.


As I review events of the past year, marveling at an ever-changing planet and the troubling
persistence of systemic violence, I am in many ways grateful to be stepping into my role as chair
of the department as of July, 2021. From our brilliant, ever-curious, and kind students, I inherit
lessons in the study of religion that are personal while also pitched against the wearied
comforts of conventionalism. From our visionary staff, I inherit a cautious optimism that, on
the whole, regulations and well-conceived rules can be brought to individual cases with
sensitivity and compassion. From my generous faculty colleagues, I inherit a wellspring of
practical and intellectual resources for managing work, life and aspirations in ways that I plan to
avail myself of shamelessly.

What’s New?
Heading into the 2021-22 year, exciting opportunities await you as a religious studies affiliate or
ally. Ever attuned to the systemic inequities in health, well-being and capacities to flourish, the
department has taken leadership in what will soon be a new minor at UC Davis called Medical
Humanities. Bringing a strong emphasis on ethics to studies of health, science and technology,
the minor will be announced later this year and will include an exciting portfolio of classes
designed to help students navigate the interdisciplinary connections between the medical and
social sciences and the humanities. For students seeking insight into a major world religion that
while not often studied at North American colleges and universities offers profound insights
into the nature of existence and our bioethical lifeworlds, consider taking a class on Jainism
with newly hired professor Lynna Dhanani. A range of talks will be organized this year to help
get the word out about Jainism, so stay tuned! For those of you who have yet to choose
religious studies as a major or minor, a busy Fall quarter will be followed by even busier Winter
and Spring quarters since a greater number of our faculty members will be on campus this year
than has been the case for a long while! Want to revisiting foundational scriptures? Integrate
readings about religion with studies of human rights? Take a virtual “pilgrimage” trip to a
mysterious destination and make new friends along the way? We have classes on all these
topics, and many more. Get in touch with our Undergraduate Advisor Mairaj Syed
<msyed@ucdavis.edu>, our two peer advisors – Ellie (gsfeder@) or Fiona (ffheenan@) – or
our chief RST staff officer Amy Lowrey <allowrey@ucdavis.edu>. Let us know how we can
help.


If you are an old friend of religious studies, welcome! Drop me a line <fmiller@ucdavis.edu>
and let me know you’re around! Given our collective experiences with COVID-19, rebuilding
community and a connection with your educational goals can begin with a simple email.
If you are new to our discipline or have chanced upon a class that we teach, doubly welcome!
Let me or any of our faculty members know where you are and where we can help you be.
Don’t hesitate to get specific! What apps or methods do you prefer we use to reach you? We’ll
be continuing to refine our website and communications priorities in the months ahead.
If you liked this letter, or have a different point of view and would like to share your thoughts
with the hope of making a positive change, triply welcome! Our department is one among
many at UC Davis that wants your education to serve you well, however aligned your dreams
have been with “reality” so far!


Let’s be honest: It has been rough. Here’s to a better year ahead!

Looking forward to hearing from you.
Flagg Miller, July 2021
fmiller@ucdavis.edu