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A New Exhibit Rescues America’s Religious History from Curatorial Oblivion

Aug. 21 2017

Although the Smithsonian has for a century held one of the most impressive collections of religious artifacts anywhere, only now, for the first time, has it created an exhibition dedicated solely to religion. Jenna Weissman Joselit writes in her review:

[The curator, Peter] Manseau has populated Religion in Early America with objects that range in scale and variety as well as religious affiliation. From a miniature Noah’s Ark, a child’s toy of the 1820s, to a mighty church bell from Paul Revere’s foundry (yes, that Paul Revere), the exhibition also contains the restrained bonnet of a Quaker woman, an early edition of the Book of Mormon, a thirteen-page handwritten text in Arabic that outlines the basic teachings of Islam, and a hand-woven basket used to “pass the plate” in a Baptist church in Virginia.

There’s something for everyone. Even the early republic’s tiny Jewish community—all but invisible amid the thousands of churches then thick on the ground—is present and accounted for, especially within the catalog, whose pages are flanked by images of a Torah scroll and a beribboned Torah mantle. I suspect that those with a penchant for quantifying—how many objects in the show represent the Jews? how many in the catalog?—are apt to be disappointed. But they shouldn’t be. Presence, not metrics, is the point.

As for why the Smithsonian has until now refrained from exhibits on religion per se, choosing instead to keep these and other artifacts in storage, part of the reason, writes Joselit, is that the Smithsonian’s “categories of classification kept one religion at arm’s length, boxed off (quite literally), from another.” But that’s not all:

[T]he American religious experience . . . didn’t fit the mold. Too new, too untried, too porous, too numerous, the American religious scene defied categorization. A blend of tradition and improvisation, its motley ceremonial objects were deemed unworthy of either study or display. More damning still, American religion lacked the supreme pedigree: historicity, the patina of old age.

Funny how things change. It’s those very disqualifications of yesteryear that render Religion in Early America a visual delight, a stimulating intellectual encounter as well as a necessary, if belated, corrective.

Read more at Tablet

More about: American Jewish History, American Religion, Arts & Culture, Museums, Religion

How the U.S. Can Strike at Iran without Risking War

In his testimony before Congress on Tuesday, Michael Doran urged the U.S. to pursue a policy of rolling back Iranian influence in the Middle East, and explained how this can be accomplished. (Video of the testimony, along with the full text, are available at the link below.)

The United States . . . has indirect ways of striking at Iran—ways that do not risk drawing the United States into a quagmire. The easiest of these is to support allies who are already in the fight. . . . In contrast to the United States, Israel is already engaged in military operations whose stated goal is to drive Iran from Syria. We should therefore ask ourselves what actions we might take to strengthen Israel’s hand. Militarily, these might include, on the passive end of the spectrum, positioning our forces so as to deter Russian counterattacks against Israel. On the [more active] end, they might include arming and training Syrian forces to engage in operations against Iran and its proxies—much as we armed the mujahedin in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Diplomatically, the United States might associate itself much more directly with the red lines that Israel has announced regarding the Iranian presence in Syria. Israel has, for example, called for pushing Iran and its proxies away from its border on the Golan Heights. Who is prepared to say that Washington has done all in its power to demonstrate to Moscow that it fully supports this goal? In short, a policy of greater coordination with Jerusalem is both possible and desirable.

In Yemen, too, greater coordination with Saudi Arabia is worth pursuing. . . . In Lebanon and Iraq, conditions will not support a hard rollback policy. In these countries the goal should be to shift the policy away from a modus vivendi [with Iran] and in the direction of containment. In Iraq, the priority, of course, is the dismantling of the militia infrastructure that the Iranians have built. In Lebanon, [it should be] using sanctions to force the Lebanese banking sector to choose between doing business with Hizballah and Iran and doing business with the United States and its financial institutions. . . .

Iran will not take a coercive American policy sitting down. It will strike back—and it will do so cleverly. . . . It almost goes without saying that the United States should begin working with its allies now to develop contingency plans for countering the tactics [Tehran is likely to use]. I say “almost” because I know from experience in the White House that contingency planning is something we extol much more than we conduct. As obvious as these tactics [against us] are, they have often taken Western decision makers by surprise, and they have proved effective in wearing down Western resolve.

Read more at Hudson

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, U.S. Foreign policy, Yemen