Blood for the Soul of Reagan: Religious Studies as Leftover 80’s Postmodernism

For the second Republican debate,

Ronald Reagan set the agenda, framed the issues and animated the candidates. …And as always he owned the visuals. It was his venue—the Reagan Library—and his backdrop, Air Force One.

Did Reagan “animate” the candidates like some possessing spirit? Saying you have something of Reagan’s spirit in you lets the aspiring candidate try to inhabit his persona. It surely involves admiration, but it most decisively involves the chance to step into a public role. Almost four thousand years before Reagan became president, the most famous kings of Mesopotamia, Sargon and Naram-Sin were sacrificed to as dead ancestors by Amorite kings of Mari who bore no relation to them. And for similar reasons: Amorite kings Zimri-Lim wanted to be a new Sargon, or at least win his support.

A couple of centuries later a later Amorite ritual, the sacrificial liturgy known as the “Genealogy of the Hammurapi Dynasty” builds a coalition of political forces–some dead, some living–with the current king at the center:

(sacrifice to honor:)

the reign of the Amorites, the reign of the nomads..

the reign of (all those) not recorded on this tablet and the soldier who fell while on perilous campaigns for their lord,

princes, princesses, all persons from east to West who have neither caretaker nor anyone to invoke your memory:

Come! Eat this! Drink this! And bless Ammisaduqa, son of Ammiditana, king of Babylon!

Religious display is equally great among political candidates, yet the soul of Reagan is never summoned to eat or drink. In fact Reagan’s soul is rarely invoked. It is optional at best, more usually invisible. In politics you no longer have to sacrifice to someone, offer food for their soul to eat, to step into their role or take on their mantle as leader. Reagan’s memory may be sacred, but neither his appetites nor his rituals are. His cult, like that of Justin Bieber’s “beliebers” or the Rock Horror Picture Show, is a figure of speech. Religion and politics connect differently now because their relationship has been drastically reshaped.

The tools of philology let us read this ritual again after 3,600 years and after its publication, let us correlate it with other forms of Amorite ancestor worship where there were literal cults for dead kings. They show that claims to ancestry through offerings to the dead were key tools of rule. Political philosophy and the history of religions hold an enduring interest in the relationship between sovereignty and sacrifice, as writers from Kantorowicz to Agamben make clear.

While this seems like a vital question for archaeology, anthropology, and political thought, it no longer seems like a question for religious studies. This is because the theory of religious studies seems peculiarly uninteresting for this question, to the point where it’s not clear it makes sense to even ask for its perspectives. Why? Because its energy today is focused so intensely on staging the asking of questions about itself: it has come to specialize more and more in intellectual self-dramatization, “a poetic wrestling with the nature of its naming”

Iconic of the trend toward self-study in religious studies is the way that a book series named after a classification, claiming to “the most innovative works in the study of religion today” could be subject to attack for being inattentive to classification before publishing a single word.  The study of modern classification itself is a brand attacked for being unreflective classification. Constructionism is still too essentialist. To be sure, classifying something–say, as being something as politically correct as essentialism–is always political. But politics includes the most piddling and miniscule acts, and the critique of classifiers is an act of office politics.

JZ Smith talks about a great experiment of allowing religion into the academy, but maybe he performed a second one in his own time: after discovering there was no “there” there in Frazer’s Golden Bough, its central myth nothing but a jest and riddle, he wanted to see if he could nonetheless offer that fact as a methodology–a jest and riddle of his own?

to be continued in part II


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