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

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

Richard Kent Evans on Isaac Weiner’s Religion Out Loud

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…

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