Smearing other folks’ religion

One night many years ago I was dumb-founded to hear Martin Sheen discussing his movie, The Believers, not in dramatic terms but in religious terms, “scandalized” by the behavior of persons worshipping in the Santeria tradition. The movie was a fabrication about Santeria worshippers killing people and in his late-night talk-show interview he warned viewers of the horrors of such religions. I discovered that Sheen is a Catholic. Catholicism and Santeria have long coexisted in Cuba but most North American Catholics are unacquainted with it and the familiarity Cuban Catholics have in their relationship to Santeria is unknown to North Americans. As a syncretistic religion, Santeria has many Catholic elements but instead of making that a point of contact for Catholics it becomes a shock element: how can you bring African animist practices and pagan gods into contact with Christianity?
The movie itself was a farce. Sheen redeemed himself in my eyes by playing Jed Bartlett in The West Wing many years later. Yet this sort of smearing of Afro-Caribbean religions goes on all the time in White North America. The underlying motivation is the belief that the world must be Christian, but other major religions are tolerated in the name of Ecumenism due to their power. Santeria, OTOH, is a minority religion practiced primarily by Black people, the descendants of slaves, and poor at that, so they are easy targets. Their practices are shocking to people used to Protestant practices; note that even Catholic practices in places like Italy and Spain are shocking to North Americans, esp Whites; viz. one of those Mondo movies, Mondo Cane or some such, where they show the penitents cutting their legs with glass as part of the procession of worshippers.
One time I was talking to a young woman about religion and used the term Buddhist. She was horrified that I even knew anything about that. It turned out she was unfamiliar with the word and thought I had said Voodoo. Vodun, to use its proper appellation, is another syncretistic Afro-Caribbean religion that has had even more, much more, negative imaging than Santeria. Self-styled experts write sensationalistic books which are then made into sensationalistic movies portraying practitioners has marginal weirdos we should all ridicule. Despite all that, both religions are growing even in North America among both Whites and Blacks, and Hispanics already are possessed (in two sense of the word) of this religious phenomenon via their origin in the Caribbean and Latin-American countries. Nowadays, in fact, I think it would be difficult for someone to speak on air about one of these religions the way Sheen did.
The Wikipedia article contains some good information on The Believers:

“For example, in The Believers, a cleaning woman working for the Jamisons tries to protect Chris by using a benevolent version of Santeria. Cal fails to distinguish between good and evil magic and treats her as a threat.[1] The film depicts Manhattan as a place where alien cultures merge and the Christian white man has reasons to fear the pagans, who may come for his children. As such, it plays on a fear for the ethic, racial, and religious Other.[1]

Roger Ebert complained that most films about Caribbean religions tend to involve “guys with blank eyes” and animal sacrifice, bloodthirsty cults, sadistic killers, and a quest for innocent blood. Never depicting the comfort these religions provide to their believers. He found this to be a prejudiced treatment.[2] He also complained that the film makes use of multiple ritualistic details (such as circles of ashes, blood, and charms), without ever bothering to explain their meaning.[2] According to Mercedes Cros Sandoval, the film brought both public attention and negative publicity for Santería.[4]

This spectrum of religions is of never-ending fascination, but the point of this entry is to admonish people about abusing other religions in order to promote their own.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *