July 16, 2018 | ° F

Rutgers professor addresses religious freedom through online platform

Earlier this month, Brittney Cooper expressed her thoughts on Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act through an article published in Salon, where she writes a weekly column concerning race, gender and politics.

Cooper, a professor in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies and the Department of Africana Studies, hoped her article titled "The Right’s Made-up God: How Bigots Invented A White Supremacist Jesus," would shed light on the political and cultural repercussions of the new law.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by Indiana Governor Mike Pence toward the end of March this year, would "prohibit a governmental entity from substantially burdening a person’s religious beliefs."

According to NBC News, the law could give Indiana businesses the right to refuse service to gay people.

"(With Salon), I offer an additional intellectual perspective based on my work as a scholar in women, race and gender (studies), so when I saw Indiana's Religious Restoration Act, I was deeply concerned because we've had a long history in this country of legalized discrimination against minority groups," Cooper said.

Tia Kolbaba, assistant professor and acting chair of the Department of Religion, said the idea of businesses in Indiana refusing service to those who do not share the same religious views is "based on a really false premise."

Citizens of a certain kind in America have become convinced they are being persecuted when other people exercise their rights, Kolbaba said. The ideas of religion and politics have been closely linked due to a poly-religious atmosphere and the manner in which political ideology is created.

Thoughts regarding politics are largely formed by one's own sense of morality, whether that is rooted in theistic or religious terms or other ethical conceptions, Cooper said.

Although she considers herself a practicing Christian, Cooper said she finds there are different perceptions of Jesus depending on political orientation.

"My thesis is that our politics tell us something about our theological beliefs, and the conservative rights in this country have very much suggested that part of what it means to be a good Christian is to vote Republican," she said. "I think that narrative is deeply problematic."

The heart of Cooper’s article lies in the phrase "white supremacist Jesus," which she used to emphasize her belief that the conservative right has created a monopoly on the way in which Christianity is practiced.

By employing a religious figure for privileged white individuals, Cooper said it disadvantages those who do not belong to that category and erases the social justice dimension of Jesus' life.

“We should stop passing off discrimination for a difference in political ideology, and I think the conservative right in particular get away with that kind of rhetoric far too often,” she said.

For the past five years, Cooper has stood as co-founder and contributor to Crunk Feminists Collective (CFC), a popular online blog for women of color to come together and speak about issues of feminism, social justice and popular culture.

Cooper then moved to writing for Salon and other online publications after realizing the impact of social media to initiate dialogue about critical topics.

With her online sharing, Cooper said many have come forward either in support or in retaliation and sparked a deeper conversation about the issues she is passionate about.

“(After the article), I got a lot of emails from pastors, some who disagreed and some who try to have a social justice involvement within their congregation and were thankful for a multicultural perspective,” she said.

Because religion is often told in terms of those who are the middle class white majority, Cooper said having a diversified voice was important to many readers.

Cooper also said that in the current fight for social justice, particularly the movement for black lives, digital platforms have become invaluable. Social media tells beyond the seemingly neutral narrative given by mainstream media.

Kolbaba explained that although Cooper finds value in engaging beyond her classroom, some might not see this as her place.

“I think some people think professors shouldn’t be engaged in this way, but I think someone who is as educated as Brittney and knows about these issues should be out there not only communicating with other scholars, but communicating with a wider audience,” she said.

But Cooper explained that professors are subject matter experts in each of their respected fields. Although some choose not to purse this type of work, she finds it impactful when they claim a public voice.

“I do think that what we do in the public sphere is not just service, but a legitimate form of scholarship and knowledge production,” she said.

Cynthia Daniels, a professor in the Department of Political Science and associate dean of Douglass campus, also expressed her belief that professors can shed light on complex issues by working outside of their designated academic sphere.

"I think it is very important for professors to engage in the world around real-time issues,” she said. “Professors can bring depth and historical perspective to current issues in a way that advocates sometimes cannot, especially around issues of social justice.”

Shazia Mansuri

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