Religious Appropriation and Ethical Discourse: Peril and Promise
Enamored with Madonna at the age of eleven, Dr. Liz Bucar recalls wearing a crucifix in reverence to the pop-culture icon in the 1980s. Now, as a professor at Northeastern University and a leading expert in religious ethics, she examines the rights and wrongs of religious borrowing in her recently published book, Stealing My Religion: Not Just Any Cultural Appropriation.
The idea for the book struck Bucar after leading a trip on the Camino de Santiago. Jet-lagged, she met her editors from Harvard Press at a restaurant and remarked on being frustrated at her students citing cultural appropriation in discussions to stop complex ethical debates before they even started. Fed-up by the “lack [of] precision” in the colloquial use of cultural appropriation, Bucar argues that different types of religious borrowing raise various ethical concerns. One size does not fit all.
Stealing My Religion opens with one of the more notable moments of religious borrowing: the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2018 Costume Institute exhibit, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. Although the show was organized in collaboration with the Vatican, that didn’t stop some Catholics from taking offense as images circulated of celebrities such as Rihanna strolling up to the grand opening in bejeweled papal headgear. The appalled believers expressed their frustrations with the social media hashtag #MyReligionIsNotYourCostume.
Conservative commentator Allie Beth Stuckey, for example, took to Twitter on the night of the party to vent: “The wearing of crosses/pope garb at the [Met Gala] by people who aren’t Christian/Catholic is obviously sacrilegious. Guessing people wearing hijab & caricatures of Muslim clothing wouldn’t go over quite as well.”
Bucar builds the scaffold of her book around a trio of cases studies: the hijab as a feminist signal of Muslim allyship, the famous pilgrimage across Spain known as el Camino de Santiago that has become popular beyond Catholic circles, and the commodification in the West of the Hindu practice of yoga. As a self-described “repeat offender” of religious appropriation, Bucar preemptively addresses the accusation that she has indulged in the act itself in all of the case studies in her book. In other words, she approaches them as someone who has done the religious borrowing—she wore Muslim fashion during her fieldwork, she led a Catholic pilgrimage as a religiously unaffiliated person, and she practices yoga. So she knows the pitfalls.
These case studies, Bucar writes, “demonstrate what kind of moral risk religious appropriation can entail, including communicating contempt for the deeply held values of religious communities, becoming involved in religious debates, erasing religious history, and instrumentalizing religion for political, educational, or therapeutic goals.”
Echoing the subject of her previous book, Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress, Bucar writes about how many non-Muslim, feminist activists adopted the hijab as a paradoxical symbol of progressivism. However, she posits that this appropriation did not result in greater inclusivity. In fact, she argues that the hijab only furthers the “racialization and subjugation of Muslim women.”
Bucar believes that proponents of the “solidarity hijab” had good intentions and wanted to show that they stood with the Muslim community, a religious group marginalized in the United States. The problem comes from reducing a symbol of personal piety to one of modern inclusivity. She likens the solidarity hijab to Madonna’s adoption of the Christian cross: once the religious practice became a pawn of popular culture, the meaning was lost. This romantic orientalism, a phrase coined by Minh-Ha Pham, adopts aesthetically pleasing Eastern traditions but with an assumption of Western superiority.
Anecdotal frustrations from Bucar of a classroom plagued by cultural essentialism and dialogue hindered by claims of cultural appropriation resonate in a divided political climate. And commendably, she does not fall victim to the divisive framework of “us versus them” or assume a moral high ground. Considering a breadth of different religious and spiritual practices, such as Islam, Catholicism, and yoga, Bucar reveals that religious borrowing occurs not only when Hollywood elites cosplay Catholicism but also when progressive feminists tokenize Muslim women for progressive appeal.
On a topic that takes on tough questions of religious ownership, structural injustice, and religious division, Bucar navigates the delicate contours of religion with sensitivity and respect.
Bucar could be faulted at points for becoming too informal and breezy in her assertions, or too neatly packaging her self-awareness in acknowledging her own missteps in religious borrowing. None of that ought to detract from the point of Stealing My Religion. The book is an exercise that provokes the reader to reflect on the morality and ethics of their own religious borrowing. By making herself vulnerable, Bucar actually is performing a rhetorical technique that creates a space in which any reader may feel comfortable to pause and reflect.
Bucar’s career as a scholar of religious ethics is dedicated to taking concepts out of their ivory towers and into the discussions where arguably they matter the most. Her academic discipline hones in on religious differences as a tool for understanding their shared virtues and shortfalls. Bucar flexes her professor muscles throughout Stealing My Religion but leavens the scholarship with quips and humor, making an academic book accessible to whom she wrote Stealing my Religion for: her students. That is what makes it appealing to the wider public.