Social Power, Pluralism, and Religious Sound in America – By Richard Kent Evans

Richard Kent Evans on Isaac Weiner’s Religion Out Loud

Isaac Weiner, Religion Out Loud: Relgious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism, New York University Press, 2014, 262pp., $25.00
Isaac Weiner, Religion Out Loud: Relgious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism, New York University Press, 2014, 262pp., $25.00

Philadelphia in the late nineteenth century was a noisy place. The clip-clop of horse hooves began to compete with the metal-on-metal sound of rapid industrial transformation. The population of the city exploded, filling the city with shouts, screams, and chatter, increasingly in different languages. Rising above the cacophony, church bells called the faithful to worship.

The sound of church bells was a familiar sound in nineteenth century America. The right of Protestant churches to ring their bells — an expression of the social power of Protestant Christianity — went largely unchallenged until the 1870s. But this hegemony did not last forever. As new groups immigrated into the United States from Ireland and Southern and Eastern Europe, Catholics, Jews, and members of other non-Protestant groups began to establish themselves in American cities in politically and socially significant numbers for the first time in American history. They brought with them new ways of practicing religion that varied from the stoic, restrained religious practice of many American Protestants. By the 1870s, religion practiced out loud did not always sound like Protestant church bells. Isaac Weiner’s Religion Out Loud investigates the ways in which American law sought to regulate the increasingly pluralistic religious soundscape of American cities.

Weiner explains his approach to religious sound with an analogy borrowed from anthropologist Mary Douglas who defined dirt as “matter out of place.” Matter becomes unwanted dirt only when it is somewhere it doesn’t belong. Religious noise, then, is religious sound that is out of place. The inhabitants of Cairo expect to hear the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, but the same sound broadcast from a newly opened Bangladeshi Mosque in suburban Detroit drew complaints from local residents who apparently viewed it as unwelcome noise.

The social construction of noise forms an important and underappreciated aspect of religious practice. Robert Orsi has argued that the earliest scholars of American religion established a definition of religion that privileged what they considered to be civilized, modern religious practice. Religion done right was reserved, impassive, and sober. Good religion was quiet. As more religious groups established themselves the United States, American courts had to create ways within the legal framework of the First Amendment to legislate religious sound. Over the past century or more, Weiner argues, American courts have both legitimated a definition of religion that privileged restrained Protestant religious practice and reinforced an artificial separation between the content of religious belief and its material expression.

Black Hebrew Israelites in Washington, DC. Photo by OZinOH via Flickr.
Black Hebrew Israelites in Washington, DC. Photo by OZinOH via Flickr.
American law pretends that a religion can be separated from its material form.

Weiner builds on this logic to argue that debates over the presence of religious sound in the public sphere offers us a window into the flawed logic of religious pluralism. The notion of neutrality underpins much of the constitutional protections on the free exercise of religion. On a basic level, this means that religion can be regulated without violating the First Amendment as long as laws apply evenly to all religious groups and favor no religion over another. The same holds true for the legislation of religious sound: as long as courts regulate religious sound like any other sound (construction noise, public concerts, etc.), they do not violate the First Amendment. But Weiner challenges the logic of neutrality when applied to religious sound. Complaints over the religion practiced out loud, Weiner argues, are not actually complaints about sound — they are complaints about the presence of religion in the public sphere. American law pretends that a religion can be separated from its material form.

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Religion Out Loud covers three evolutions of the social power behind the regulation of religious sound in the United States. American Protestant churches had always rung church bells without having to justify their right to do so. Bells formed an accepted part of the aural landscape of colonial America. Other religions could worship as they pleased (with some exceptions) as long as their worship was not seen or heard. Only Protestant Christianity claimed the cultural power to make as much noise as it pleased while requiring silence from other religions. But Protestant cultural hegemony waned by the late nineteenth century as the sounds of Protestantism found new rivals. Roman Catholics, Jews, and other groups, bolstered by recent European immigrants to newly industrialized American cities, asserted their right to worship audibly.

But the greater competitor to Protestant worship was commerce. Sunday became not a day of rest but one replete with buying and selling, the incessant droning of factories, and the clanging of streetcars. Early in the nineteenth century, courts could censure any sound that interrupted Sunday worship services; by mid-century police relaxed their enforcement of these Sabbath laws, now targeting only disturbances aimed at disrupting Christian worship. A group of Philadelphia clergymen complained, anxious for the loss of Protestant cultural hegemony, but the times had already changed. Sundays were becoming a day of leisure as much as a day for worship. And leisure in the industrial city was often noisy.

The decades-long shift in the role of religious sound in the public sphere came to a head in 1876 when a group of affluent Philadelphians complained about the church bells ringing from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. These new bells rang everyday, deepening a rift within the congregation and exposing the deep class conflict within Philadelphia’s elite. When the dispute went to trial in 1877, the lawyer for the plaintiffs argued that a modern, industrialized city had no need for church bells. Church bells had served some useful functions in the past — maintaining social order, providing a focal point for the community, and organizing religious practice — but they had now become a nuisance. The judge agreed, comparing the church bells with the noise of the city’s factories: the latter was necessary, but the daily ringing of the church bells was not. Previously a “sacred noise” and symbolic of Protestant Christianity’s cultural hegemony, the ringing of church bells had become simply another participant in Philadelphia’s urban soundscape, no different from the profane sounds of factories and street traffic.

The St. Mark’s incident set the precedent that the courts would treat religious noise like any other urban noise. That precedent was put to the test in 1948 when a Jehovah’s Witness named Samuel Saia broadcast sermons over amplified speakers at a public park in Lockpart, New York. Saia was arrested and charged with violating the city’s anti-noise ordinance. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, who decided that the city’s ban on amplified public speech infringed upon Saia’s right to free exercise. The case is significant because, by broadcasting amplified sermons from his Studebaker, Saia introduced religion where it did not belong and challenged the conventions of religious practice. One would expect to find religion in the church or the home but not in the city park. According to the Supreme Court, Lockport officials had infringed upon Saia’s first amendment rights. Lockport had the right to regulate all sound — secular and religious — if the city did so in a way that was facially neutral. The way forward for Lockport and other cities was to regulate decibels. This way, authorities could protect the right of citizens to be left undisturbed while protecting themselves against claims of First Amendment violations.

The Saia case represents for Weiner the second evolution in the debates over religious sound. Whereas the St. Mark’s decision reduced the legal status of religious sound to that of any other sound, the Saia case evaluated the role of individual consumers within this new aural soundscape. The court found that Lockpart had refused to grant Saia a permit to broadcast not because of his mode of amplification but because of the content of his message. The St. Mark’s case denied religious noise a privileged status, while the Supreme Court ruling in Saia v. New York overturned the city’s conviction because of the religious content of the disputed sound. More importantly, the Saia case further reinforced the false notions of religion embedded in the St. Mark’s case: first, that noise was incidental to religion, and secondly, that religion, when properly practiced, is quiet, private, and restrained.

Third, Weiner illustrates the contemporary debate over religious sound in public space by exploring the Hamtramck, Michigan case in which some residents complained about the broadcasting of the adhan from the al-Islah Islamic Center. Longtime residents of this Detroit suburb, many of whom were Polish Catholics, divided over the issue. Fortunately for Weiner and for his readers, combatants on both sides of the debate quickly dispensed with any pretense that the central issue was one of volume. Many of the objecting residents were upfront about their apprehensions about the presence of Islam in their community. Others lamented the decline of Christian hegemony in the United States. Weiner persistently contends that religion cannot be separated from its material form. Complaints about the noise produced by religious people really concern the religion itself. In this case, the residents of Hamtramck chose a public debate over religious sound as a venue for expressing deep suspicions about religious pluralism in America. The residents of Hamtramck end up the heroes in Weiner’s story. Ultimately, the right of the mosque to broadcast the adhan was put up to popular vote and the community elected to allow Hamtramck’s Muslim community to worship as they please.

Religion Out Loud closes with a brilliant critique of the ways in which religious pluralists in practice can end up “diminishing the very differences they sought to celebrate.” Weiner contends that religious pluralism is rooted in an ideological project of finding common ground among religions. The pluralists engaged in the Hamtramck controversy shaped the Mosque’s proposal into something quieter, more restrained, and more sanitized. In an effort to allow a religious minority to practice audibly, the pluralists reinforced a Protestant paradigm of what true religion sounds like.

Philadelphia today is a noisy place. St. Mark’s, however, is usually silent. Its vibrant red doors stand in stark contrast to the weathered façade. The church and the surrounding gardens serve as an unchanging anchor in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Rittenhouse Square. The church refurbished the bells in 1997, but amidst the rattling of the subway, the honking of taxis, and the unceasing construction noise, the bells are one of the quietest features of Center City Philadelphia.

Although St. Mark’s is usually silent, the sound of religion has never been more audible. Just a few blocks away, a local congregation of Black Hebrew Israelites have taken up their usual post in front of Liberty Place, a collection of high-end retail shops in Center City. Almost every Friday, the Black Hebrew Israelites hold up signs and shout epithets, slurs, and curses at passersby. Their message is offensive to many, and more than a few shoppers have vowed not to shop at Liberty Place until the group is removed. Liberty Place took the Black Hebrew Israelites to court, seeking an injunction against the group. In July, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas ruled in favor of the Black Hebrew Israelites, citing their constitutional right to free speech.

Liberty Place has appealed the ruling. In the meantime, they’ve engineered a rather creative solution to the problem. The retail group recently hired a pair of local DJs to drown out the sound of the Black Hebrew Israelites. The DJs take requests. Shoppers frequently ask them to play Michael Jackson’s “Black or White,” and Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack.” There are many reasons why the religious sound of the Black Hebrew Israelites is unwelcome in Center City. Their style is aggressive. Their message is racist and, to many, offensive. They have been labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist Black Supremacist Group. But Weiner reminds us to consider that place matters. By preaching in front of high-end retail stores, the Black Hebrew Israelites are bringing religion into a space where it is unwelcome, unexpected. They are challenging prevailing assumptions about secularism.

It is not the volume of religion that upsets the shoppers of Liberty Place. After all, the DJs have only added to the decibel level. Rather, it is the unwelcome content of the religious practice that has drawn the ire of Center City shoppers. Religion practiced out loud often instigates grumbles hiding anxieties about religious pluralism. Isaac Weiner’s Religion Out Loud indispensably probes these frequent dust-ups over the sound of religion, revealing them as windows into the way social power operates in America.

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