On Thursday, Nov. 17, Associate Professor of Religion David Booth gave the 2016 Fall Mellby Lecture. Booth teaches classes at St. Olaf on Christian theology, feminist theory, religion and culture in a variety of contexts.
During her introduction of Booth, Professor of Religion Mara Benjamin spoke about Booth’s role and contributions at St. Olaf, as well as in her own career and life.
“[Through David I found that] theology was an enterprise that not only included, but necessitated difference and diversity. It was not the property of any one interest group or set of institutions,” Benjamin said. “It was a process of reflection on how we make our way in the world and through which we forge a just society.”
As Booth began his lecture, he introduced his topic of the North Carolina bathroom wars in the context of theology. The controversy is rooted in the debate over whether individuals who do not conform to the customary male and female gender binary should be able to use public facilities that do not match their biological sex. He initially addressed the importance of this particular subject in the wake of the election.
“The nation has elected a president, and in particular a vice president, who defends a supposed religious freedom of citizens to ignore certain civil rights of some of their neighbors,” Booth said. “Against my wishes, my remarks tonight may be too relevant.”
He argued that whether an individual is religious, atheistic or agnostic, theology can help both individuals and communities better understand the present and work toward a future where all people have equal access to what Booth called the blessings of life. He then presented his claim that the gender binary must be regarded critically, and that the stigmatization of gender non-conformers in the name of religion must stop.
“I plan to plead for your sympathy for the simple notion that every person ought to be empowered to live out a gendered identity that speaks to the truth of their own self understanding, without regard for whether that identity is comfortable to a customary strict binary of women and men,” Booth said.
Booth explained that politicians and citizens believe that public facilities should be organized based on biological sex because they find it the most logical way to order society. This system is also based on the belief that keeping biological males out of female bathrooms is an attempt to protect women from sexual assault in the context of their inferior position in the gender binary.
“In any case, one can hardly find a case of trans women menacing others in women’s restrooms, while reports are common of harassing trans bathroom users simply because they make them uncomfortable,” Booth said.
He emphasized that such an aggressive attack against gender non-conformers is the effect of this very hierarchy being defied.
“Men can be president. Whether women can be president we don’t know yet,” Booth said. “There are stakes and stakeholders in defending a binary gender order. The existence of gender non-conformers threatens the stakeholders in a gender binary order.”
He then continued to tie the everlasting debate over the gender binary, and public efforts to alter its ubiquity, to St. Olaf. He described how through the general education requirements, and the theology requirement in particular, St. Olaf aims to prepare students to clearly articulate and understand their own beliefs. Booth was also sure to emphasize that what is more pressing in the present are students’ abilities to converse with those who have differing ideologies, and that the BTS-T requirement is St. Olaf’s defense against religious ignorance and animosity. Booth introduced his belief that while some parts of the General Education (GE) requirements are beneficial to St. Olaf students, others need to be reevaluated.
“I hope that a new infusion of energy in our GE will respond to the remarkable transformations of the world our students will navigate,” he said. “In particular, the rich diversity of peoples and cultures, the increasing demand to recognize the real dignity and rights of previously marginalized people, and the enormous challenge, never more pressing than it is right now of sorting … the legitimacy of ideologically tainted knowledge claims.”
One of Booth’s consistent goals as a professor is to communicate some of the ways in which theology is an effective way to analyze and navigate the world, employing the public usefulness of theology.
“Theology is reasoning about meaning and truth. It seeks to clarify what the claims of a religious community mean. How do these claims fit together and constitute a total way of living? It proposes ways of thinking about what is true, in respect to the truths of history… [and] scientific inquiry,” Booth said.
His lecture informed the audience about the importance of the coherence of truths, whether they are religious, scientific, literary or historical, in order that religious claims and communities don’t mindlessly refute important knowledge about the reality of the world.