Presidential Theme for the 2021 Annual Meeting

Religion, Poverty, and Inequality: Contemplating Our Collective Futures

Marla Frederick, AAR President 2021

Covid-19 has upended our world, laying bare the real human costs of poverty and the inequalities that undergird our social systems. The AAR’s commitment to the “public understanding of religion” invites us, or rather, compels us to take up this reality. Over the past year many have faced the grief, loneliness, frustration and limitations that make us human and connect us to one another. The more recent AAR presidential themes of Glaude, Gushee, and Patton, as well as Cabezón’s call for an internal review of our field, prepare us well for thinking about the actual human implications of religion in a world upended. This year, I ask our field, in all its variety, to direct our attention toward poverty and inequality, focusing particularly on the social, ideological and textual interpretations of various traditions that help us understand how religion aids, impedes and/or amends our common life.

The relationship between religion, poverty and social inequality is as ancient as the days—from religious appeals to care and to fight for the poor as well as exhortations not to be poor but rather to claim wealth and all of its accoutrements. Ideas about things such as blessings, curses, slavery, freedom, inheritance, prosperity, labor, promised lands, migration, patriarchy and chosenness are infused with religious meanings that justify social statuses and entrenched inequalities, which reverberate across time and space. As well, terms like charity, zakah, and dāna emerge from religious texts and communities and speak clearly about our collective responsibility. Such ideals also raise questions about the limitations of alms and the role of the state, especially in a neoliberal society.

How does the study of religion open new avenues for the analysis of poverty and growing inequalities? What do sacred texts say about the condition of the world’s poor as well as the status and responsibility of its wealthy? How do such scripts inform our understanding of social protests? Given that religious texts, practices and ethical debates can function both to encourage individuals and/or governments in redressing social inequality and to justify a stance of ignoring it, how might we as scholars of religion better communicate the role of religion in shaping the public sphere?

Covid-19 has attuned our eyes ever more closely to these longstanding realities of inequality. The pandemic has caused the deaths of over one million people worldwide, while stifling the economies of nations great and small. It has plunged the working poor into greater poverty while amplifying the abjection of the poorest, making clear the deadly costs of uneven access to healthcare, food, clean water and safe shelter. Such conditions, we know, unflinchingly illuminate the raced and gendered nature of inequality, as well as the conditions imposed by legal status. Furthermore, the pandemic has instigated the destabilization of storied institutions— colleges and universities, religious organizations and other non-profit entities as well as small businesses around the globe, making the smallest and least stable crumble under the weight of financial insecurity. At the same time many individuals and institutions at the top of the socio-economic order continue to accumulate, reinvent and thrive. In the world of academia contingent workers reflect in some ways the conditions of those now labeled “essential workers”—often underpaid, vulnerable and yet indispensable to the system. Yet, none of this is inherently new. It has been centuries in the making and religion has been both its guide and its nemesis.

The presidential plenary sessions in 2021 will address these concerns. Program Units are invited to consider the multiple ways in which religion speaks to the economic and social conditions of the past as well as the present. We invite an interrogation of the role of religion—across fields and within subfields—in supporting poverty and social inequality as well as in producing utopian and transformative thought and practices that may help to chart anew our collective futures.