Students listen intently during a course held in Old Main.

“How are the characters depicted? And what does any of this have to do with Mormons?”

A liberal arts education means learning how to study all kinds of material, as students in the Religious Studies course Mormons, Muslims, and American Identity were recently reminded when their professor started off class by playing the first few minutes of Disney’s Aladdin.

“Think about what you see,” said Professor William Hart. “How are the characters depicted? And what does any of this have to do with Mormons?”

After a few minutes’ introduction, the students and professor were soon engaged in a critical analysis of the characters’ different skin colors, why some people’s facial features were distorted, and what it means that an abundance of racial stereotypes—a man walking barefoot over hot coals, a snake charmer, and young women in what seems to be a bordello—appear in a movie made for children. Later in the class, Hart would go on to show them how much of this imagery has existed since at least the late 1800s, with Jean-Leon Gerome’s work “The Snake Charmer” painting at least one (literal) example. As it turns out, however, a lot of these same stereotypes were once applied to Mormons, too (“For example,” Hart says, “Salt Lake City was once imagined to be a Middle Eastern locale”).

That history is part of what Hart hopes students will take away from the course; as he puts it, Mormons in the 19th century and Muslims in the 20th have both been subject to popular depictions that could be described as “paranoid,” as inspired by that word’s usage in Richard Hofstadter’s landmark 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Using that essay’s analytical framework, Hart guides students through a critical analysis of Mormonism and Islam as they’ve appeared in American culture.

With such fascinating and timely subject matter, students come from all sorts of disciplines to take the class, including Zoe Schopick ’21 (Winchester, Va.). “I didn’t know that much about Mormons or Muslims,” she says, explaining why she registered for the course, “so it seemed cool to focus on them both.”

As one might expect with this subject matter, the readings and materials vary widely, and Schopick says they often spend their class time in small groups discussing questions about what they’ve read, before coming together to talk as a larger group and with Hart. “I had been wanting to take religion classes,” she says, and she expects that after her experience in this one, “I’ll probably take more.”

If so, she’ll have a good start toward analyzing other religions and traditions; beyond one subset of history, Hart hopes the students in his class come to understand the racial undercurrents of religion in general, both how “religious affiliation becomes a differential marker of race,” and how religions themselves use “discourses of race to establish hierarchies of value.” And, if he can get them thinking more broadly about the systemic and institutional components of race, so much the better—that’s the kind of critical thinking that will help them analyze the knottiest subjects for the rest of their educations, and soon enough, their adult lives.

November 14 2018

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