Protean Identity: Religion and Contemporary American Autobiography

Melissa Knox,

Universität Duisburg-Essen


Melissa Knox examines United States ideologies shaping identity in the intersection of religion, politics, and racism. Legal definitions of religious freedom collide here with the rhetoric of Protestant fundamentalism and Christian cultural pressures embedded within U.S. politics and society. Thomas Jefferson, George W. Bush, Helen Fremont, G. Willow Wilson and Gina Welch inform Knox’s discourse on protean identity.

A German friend told me a story about two U.S. citizens she knew, a Protestant and a Jew, both of them widowed, both of them with children. They got married.
“In what religion will you raise the children?” asked my German friend. “Oh, we’re thinking of trying Buddhism,” said the Americans. My German friend expostulated, “You can’t change your religion the way you change your underpants!” That is, however, just what U.S. Americans can do–or rather, what they believe that they can do according to a 2010 study, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. In it, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell characterize religion in the United States as both “malleable” and “highly fluid” (4). Uncongenial as my German friend might find it, this study claims that most Americans find it “perfectly natural to refer to one’s religion as a ‘preference’ instead of as a fixed characteristic” (4-5). This flexible approach, which gained momentum in the 18th century, [2]was championed by Thomas Jefferson, and many Founding Fathers [3] abandoned their original religion for another, or abandoned religious faith altogether. [4] Jefferson constantly changed his religious preferences, as his letters amply demonstrate. From the Anglicanism into which he was born to the idea of questioning “with boldness even the existence of a god [sic]” (letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787) [5] as well as his claim to be of “a sect by myself as far as I know” [6] skepticism deeply informs the philosophy that forged his politics: “I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent” (letter to Francis Hopkinson, March 13, 1789). [7] To be free, to be moral, and finally, to be president, one must not be addicted to any creed.

Jefferson’s remarks on the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom reveal that he wanted to protect persons whose religious volatility approximated his own. He insisted that this statute must “comprehend, within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination [sic],” granting equal protection and equal choice to religious persons as well as to unbelievers. [8] Who was Thomas Jefferson, after all, if not the “Infidel of every denomination?” He seems to have tried them all. [9] His yearning to protect constant religious conversion as well as his belief in “a natural aristocracy among men [based on] virtue and talents” (letter of October 28 1813 to John Adams) rather than the European idea of birth and wealth, show that he envisioned American identity as malleable. Jeffersonian self-made citizens have their individualized religions, selecting from the menus of their choice. Religious malleability, indeed the personal stamp of both Jefferson and the Founding Fathers, has become a central characteristic of U.S. American culture, and holds considerable sway in the U.S. today. This essay will explore the foundational roots of this religious malleability as well as the ways in which it influences three recent U.S. American autobiographies.

Fluidity of religious identity in a country whose population overwhelmingly claims to be religious means, I would argue, fluidity of all forms of identity, or a stereotypically American optimism about the ability to change one’s identity, religious or otherwise. The religious core of American life and culture can hardly be overestimated. In 1835, de Toqueville remarked in Democracy in America that “[o]n my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention, and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things” (45). As well he might: When George W. Bush was the Governor of Texas, he proclaimed June 10, 2000 “Jesus Day” in Texas, adding as part of his presidential campaign speech, “God Wants me to run for President” (Morgan 92). De Toqueville indeed foresaw the ways in which this fusion of religion and politics would pervade U.S. culture right down to typical definitions of “the American Dream,” for instance, Robert Bellah’s, who called it: “the gospel of wealth and the ideal of success” (76). In other words, success goes hand in hand with following the gospel, especially considering the continuing power of American Puritanism, in which financial success still feels like salvation from eternal damnation.

Another fusion of religion and politics may be discerned in President Clinton’s reference to the American dream as “a simple but powerful one–if you work hard and play by the rules you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you.” [10] Apparently, American atheists need not apply, since whatever abilities they may have are not considered “God-given,” so no matter how hard they work and how much they play by the rules, they don’t fit the cultural requirement for achieving the American Dream, having broken the unstated, but assumed, rule about believing in God. Clinton’s remarks, moreover, typically conflate the right to equal opportunity with the idea that all Americans are equally talented, or at least equally capable of achieving this “gospel of wealth.” Thomas Jefferson’s revolutionary mandate that “all men”–and now, all U.S. citizens–have a political right to equal opportunity had the unanticipated effect of inspiring an almost religious belief that all citizens have equal abilities and an equal opportunity to shape them. [11] The American Dream, and, indeed, American optimism can hardly be separated from this creed, as President Clinton’s remarks reveal.

Within the “can-do” and “why not?” ideology of a country founded on the paradisiacal delusion that “all men are created equal,” is it much of a stretch to believe that all identities are equally malleable or that religion contributes to the malleability of that identity? After all, racial passing is almost as old as American history. No one ever said that it was easy–Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain (2000) details the tragic consequences–but many have assumed, in the land of possibility, that it is doable. In fact, a significant part of the kind of equality that the American Declaration of Independence promises, and that the allegedly post-racial United States appears to have achieved, was legally constructed on religious grounds. For example, when in 1947 two Californians, an African-American man and a Mexican-American woman, wanted to marry, state law forbade their union on the grounds that they were of different races, and the case went to the Supreme Court, where the couple won the right to marry on religious, not legal grounds. [12]

Religion shaped marriage law in this case, and the case brought about the end of unequal marriage laws in California, though not in other states, by 1948. American national identity, Christoph Reinfandt has suggested, “seems to be based on a paradoxical double-movement which, at its core, secularizes the religious and sacralizes the political” (459). Similar sentiments appear on the website of the Pew Charitable Trusts in its section on Religion and Public Life: “The United States has a long history of conflict between the tradition of separating church from state and an equally powerful inclination to mix religion and politics.” It is, indeed, almost impossible to separate the two in the land supposedly grounded on legal separation between church and state. Imaginative interracial couples in the pre-civil rights era might have realized that a conversion of convenience to a religion for which marriage is a sacrament might be a weapon against miscegenation laws. Certainly, it remained easier to shape religious than racial identity in the pre-civil rights United States. In either case, however, the basic strategy of shaping identity–the assumption that identity could be chosen and altered–became an automatic response. [13]

This peculiarly American sense of the flexibility of identity has not been adequately discussed in studies of U.S. autobiography. So much do U.S. Americans take for granted the idea of choosing identity that they typically think of themselves as having invented the description or the exploration of it. In other words, as James Olney has pointed out, they believe that they have invented the genre of autobiography: the “American view” of autobiography, Olney writes, is that it is “quite undeniably, and whether one speaks historically, politically, psychologically, or literally, an American phenomenon; and the autobiographer par excellence . . . would be, of course, Benjamin Franklin . . . unless he is Walt Whitman” (377). Certainly Americans choose in increasing numbers to write autobiographies. One might surmise that they elect autobiography and afford it a special status, because they perceive themselves as the “elect,” the members of that fabled city upon a hill and because, ever optimistic, they imagine that they can either elect or vote out an identity democratically. In a nation profoundly influenced by Calvinist notions of pre-destination, the fusing of optimism with Evangelical religious notions of redemption intoxicates: the unwritten rule of American autobiography states that any identity–any soul, in the religious sense–can be saved, but not necessarily by anything conventionally known as the Christian notion of God. More like Jefferson’s individualistic sense of a personal creed, the autobiography is the redemption of the chosen identity.

The American “can-do” attitude is, of course, aided by the American constitutional right to religious freedom as stated in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” [14] Since one means of ensuring the First Amendment’s viability has been to make all religious institutions in the United States tax exempt, the legal separation between the two has, from the very beginnings of United States history, functioned as a business opportunity as well as a means of ensuring religious freedom. [15] To avoid paying taxes, all that any American institution need do is devote itself to a religious cause, at least officially. Especially during periods of tremendous social change, businesses masquerading as religions spring up on the American scene: witness the wave of profiteering religious cults erupting in the wake of Vietnam War protests and during the civil rights and second-wave feminist movements. If religion shapes the tax code, one might argue that business shapes religion. In fact, businesses and religions in the U.S. both vibrate in tune to tax laws. [16] It goes without saying that successful, that is, lucrative, businesses typically strive for neither spirituality nor morals but rather for “can do” and why not? The flexibility of identity in business created by the First Amendment plays into the American idea that anyone can shape his or her identity.

In 1956, the German-American Protestant theologian Paul Tillich remarked that “religion is the substance of culture; culture is the form of religion.” [17] He went on to reject the idea of a dualism between culture and religion, and to insist that “every” religious act, whether part of “organized religion” or “the most intimate movement of the soul” is “culturally formed.” Tillich’s identification of religion with culture remains an intriguing one, implying that religion is a species of personality, the personality of a culture or that of its religious or political leaders. The personality of Thomas Jefferson, with all its considerable contradictions, underscores the conflicted relationship between religion and the state in the U.S.A. He appeared to change his opinion about his own religion with a refreshing, indeed startling frequency, airing his atheism in language embroidered with religious myths and metaphors, delving ever deeper into religious thinking, religious myth, and the Bible.

In fact, what he trumpeted as a political right, the right to choose one’s religion freely and as often as one wants, he recognized an impossibility when he was thinking psychologically as he often did. [18] The political right to religious freedom is, of course, not the same as the emotional ability to select one’s religion casually or try out different ones in smorgasbord-style. In a letter he remarked: “I love those most whom I loved first” (letter to Mary Jefferson Bolling, July 23, 1787). He knew that first experiences stick to one like napalm, and that much of what defines identity–what and whom a person loves–cannot be changed easily, if ever. Conscious choice has no power to change these things. He knew that early emotional experiences cannot be eradicated, that they hold sway for a lifetime, and that these experiences include the expectations of a dominant culture and the religion into which one is born. One thinks of the Isaac Bashevis Singer tale, Enemies: A Love Story, in which the Catholic wife converts to Judaism, thinking to please her Jewish husband, but makes the sign of the cross reflexively when he shocks her by flicking on the light during the Sabbath. In Singer’s tale, both the Catholic wife and her Jewish husband seem to have adopted the American notion that one can shape one’s religious identity at will. Singer, with more European sensibilities, shakes his head, and writes the scene in which the convert-manqué wife crosses herself.

Following Paul Tillich’s definition of religion as the “substance of culture,” those writers who express in autobiographies their stories of religious conversion and deconversion would, by this reasoning, express the stories of their culture as well. To take culture first: in the nineteen sixties and seventies, America saw many sudden changes for a variety of reasons, among them the anti-war, hippy, civil rights, women’s, black power, Chicano, and American Indian movements, all of which worked together to transform the culture. The same period saw the proliferation of a number of new religions, or religions appearing in a new form, some of them cults in the sense of employing a totalitarian attitude by removing new members from their families as well as the surrounding American culture in order to enclose them within that cult. Among the more influential of these cultish new religions were the Unification Church founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Hare Krishna movement, the Children of God, and the Divine Light mission (Barbour 169). Characteristic of American cults is the way in which they catch on like fire and spread. Two characteristics of American civilization make this easy: fluidity of religious identity and the practical matter of tax exemption for all religious institutions.

John Barbour, in his 1997 study, Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith, explores the ways in which conversion and deconversion mean loss of identity and loss of culture. Drawing on tales of young adults “brainwashed” by cults and then “de-programmed” out of them, he shows the range of religious groups that have been on the American scene since the sixties as well as the broad sense of choice that many young Americans take for granted, a cafeteria of religions ready to be tasted. This would suggest that American religious identities go hand in hand with other fluctuations of identity, ideas about race and gender especially, erupting during the social movements named above. The intermittent success of the rags-to-riches American Dream as well as its all too frequent counterpart, the American nightmare of foreclosures, “downsizings” and consequent loss of professional identity, contribute to this singularly American idea of the fluidity of identity.

It is little wonder, then, that autobiography, and especially autobiography devoted to religious identity, flourishes in this atmosphere. The less U.S. Americans know who they are, the more they write autobiographies in order to discover and establish these shifting identities. In the meantime, academic studies of autobiography continue to be influenced by the fluidity of identity implied in the genre: one of the most scholarly works about autobiography to have emerged recently, Max Saunders’ Self Impression, reveals a struggle–typical in contemporary scholarly works–to pin down a protean term. [19] An unfulfillable desire for exactitude hovers over this deeply learned book, as, for instance, when a tour through theories of autobiography propounded by canonized writers, among them Oscar Wilde, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gertrude Stein, as well as through the relatively recently established Philip Lejeune, Hermione Lee, Jacques Derrida, and Paul de Man leads to the conclusion: “So the term ‘autobiography’ has a radical ambiguity . . . To talk of an autobiographical autobiography would be to sound tautological and self-contradictory at once” (Saunders 4). All the more distressing that the term remains every bit as unfixed as American notions of identity, since, as Saunders points out, there has been “a veritable surge of critical interest in autobiography since the 1980s,” (3) and as Amazon shows, U.S. Americans write more autobiographies than the citizens of any other nation.

In his investigation of the meaning and significance of autobiography, Saunders begins with quotations from the brilliantly unsystematic Oscar Wilde. Saunders interprets Wilde’s observation that “the highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography” as a paradox created to “pre-empt, or at least to mock, a low form of criticism” (17). Wilde–indeed the prince of paradox–intended none here. He was dead serious, not mocking. He took for granted that all criticism–like all creative writing–is autobiography, and returned to the idea often. In his great work of criticism, “The Critic as Artist,” he characterized “the highest form of criticism” as “the record of one’s own soul” (1027). All critical perception comes through the lens of individual experience, through personality, which is that collection of internal forces upon which culture has its impact, but which culture by itself cannot create. This individual quality of perception as a function of personality led Wilde to the insight that truth is “one’s last mood” (1047).

For Wilde, this fundamental instability and contradictory quality of “truth” proved exhilarating, indeed liberating. Genuine truth, on the order of Mosaic tablets, lay squarely in these volatile moments of instability or ambivalence. Although he worried so much about self-revelation that he lived “in terror of not being misunderstood,” (1016) this idea that truth was “one’s last mood” (1047) took on the intensity of a religious revelation. The Wildean epiphany is alas the Post-Modernist’s aporia.

In my experience, most contemporary critics do not enjoy the protean elusiveness of truth, nor do they revel in the reality that truth is a will o’ the wisp. They prefer to regret that one can never know anything, rather than to side with Wilde in enjoying any possible contact with what we call “truth,” namely what appears at the moment, and especially in the spur of the moment, to be true.

Considering scholarly permutations regarding identity and autobiography during the last thirty-odd years as well as the revolving-door syndrome of U.S. American identity, it comes as no surprise that three American autobiographies published since 1999 are predicated on the assumption that religious identity is like a garment that can be slipped on or removed. It may not be a perfect fit: maybe you’ll have to snip a little off the ends, or sew up the hem. Neertheless, it can be done–although all these autobiographies end with some degree of struggle, if not with the kind of identity crisis–to the point of loss of the old self and birth of the new–that one finds in traditional conversion narratives. Helen Fremont’s After Long Silence (1999) details her discovery as a grown woman in her thirties that she is Jewish, an identity that her holocaust survivor parents had striven to conceal. G. Willow Wilson’s The Butterfly Mosque (2010) relates Wilson’s conversion from atheist to Muslim in the post 9/11 world. Gina Welch’s In the Land of Believers, her story of infiltrating Jerry Falwell’s evangelical empire as an undercover atheist, suggests the identity crisis in the title: to be in another religion, or to be involved in religion at all, is to travel to a new country, learn new customs, a new language, even eat new foods: “I had eaten little symbols of the body of Christ while mostly contemplating my own hunger,” (303) Welch confesses. In short, the religious experiences of these writers resemble the immigrant experience, American history is immigration, and America has been experienced by immigrants as the place where one’s past–one’s former identity too–can be forgotten; can be erased. At least, it seems so. Welch in fact, strikes me as the only one of these three writers to experience a genuine conversion, as we shall see–and not one to Christianity.

Helen Fremont grows up in the Midwest, aware that her parents have funny accents and are different from the other parents–so different, that at the age of eight she announces to them that she will write their story one day. She describes her first communion, remembering that “it was the first and last time I would ever swallow a wafer . . . since our family always tiptoed out of church every Sunday before Communion,” which her mother said was “not an important part of Mass” (6). She learns the Catholic “Our Father” and repeats it nightly in one of the six languages spoken by her mother: Polish, Russian German, Italian, French, and English (9). The nightly prayer ritual makes her feel close to her mother, but something always feels wrong about the Catholicism: “I was allowed to skip church once I’d made my First Communion. Consequently, I came to associate Catholicism with The NFL Today, which I watched on TV every Sunday while my mother and sister were at church” (10). While Fremont’s friends are getting ready for Catholic confirmation, she asks her mother about it, and her mother replies, “We didn’t have anything like that in Poland. It must be some American invention.” (14).

It is this sense of “some American invention,” of the American idea of inventing and re-inventing oneself, that seems to give Fremont’s mother the idea that she would be able to get away with a wholesale denial of identity, with manufacturing a Catholic identity while living in a world of Jewish immigrants–nearly all of the family friends are Jewish. Reminiscing about a Jewish wedding that her family attended, Fremont relates: “I was used to seeing tattooed numbers on wrists and hearing Polish-and-German peppered accents–many of my parents’ closest friends were survivors . . .It didn’t bother me that Lara [her sister] and I were the only non-Jews at that wedding. . . religion didn’t seem to enter into it” (17). Living in America had apparently obscured the importance of Jewish ethnic or religious identity. As Fremont writes, “My mother . . . was under the spell of America, and everything American, she believed, must be good for me. I ate Fritos, Scooter Pies, and Fluffernutter sandwiches on Wonderbread”– the last word in American junk food–and “watched The NFL Today”–American football (10). If you can be American by playing baseball or watching football or eating American food, why not just put on another religion the way you’d put on an NFL T-shirt?

In a family of less intelligent, less observant children, the ploy might have worked. Fremont and her sister unsurprisingly find their ways into professions grounded in the need to investigate the past, namely law and psychiatry. The investigation of the past remains a peculiarly American pastime: America is not just the land of immigrants, but, as mentioned, the land of autobiography. America is the land that welcomed the profession of psychoanalysis, which is both a treatment requiring a form of autobiography as therapy and a profession still overwhelmingly populated by Eastern European Jews and a flight into secularism. One of the consequences of being a citizen of a country in which identity is malleable is the need to establish one’s real identity by telling one’s story. Fremont’s mother apparently believed that she could simply assert Catholicism in such a way that no one would see through the thin disguise, and so her American daughters would forever be protected from the Nazis.

However, to conceal an identity is not to erase it, and what Fremont’s autobiography makes clear is that her mother’s and her family’s Judaism sticks out all over them, in their way of thinking and speaking, in their sense of history and culture, in the books on her father’s shelf, so many of them about surviving a totalitarian regime: “Solzhenitsyn lined his bookshelves. The First Circle, Cancer Ward, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. The Gathering Storm, volume and volume after volume, by Churchill” (8). When Fremont begins to suspect that she must be Jewish, she reminds her mother of a visit to a friend whose mother was a holocaust survivor. “Remember what I told you? That it was just like being at home. With her father listening to a violin concerto in the other room, and the living room filled with books, and all her mother’s plants in the windows . . . and for a moment I thought I was with you and Dad–it was just so much like home” (21). What remains also clear is that in order to discover her real religious identity and to know who she is by knowing her family’s history, Fremont either destroys her parents carefully constructed identity, or rather reveals to them the inner destruction that they prefer not to see. Her identity is their secret, but she claims what is rightfully hers. Predictably, walls against the perception of their identity rise of their own accord, leaving the Americanized daughter in many ways on the other side.

G. Willow Wilson also offers a tale of longing for religion because it has been denied to her, and the apparent acquisition of which occurs with her conversion to Islam and marriage to an Egyptian in the post 9/11 world. She grows up as an atheist in a liberal home: “God was taboo in my parents’ house; we were educated, and educated people don’t believe in nonsense. . . . To [my parents] God was a bigoted, vengeful white man. Refusing to believe in him was not just scientifically correct, it was morally imperative” (7). The depiction of God as a “white man” and an unpleasant one at that may influence her decision to seek religion among non-whites by going to Cairo to teach English. She converts on the plane ride there, and her husband-to-be, she writes of their first meeting, is “olive-skinned” (28). Because of his skin color and because of his Islamic faith, that is, a religion to which none of her ancestors has subscribed, he appears to be a first step in her search for identity, or rather her desire to be rescued from an identity that she rejects, namely the atheism of her parents.

The Butterfly Mosque is billed by the publisher as “the extraordinary story of an all-American girl’s conversion to Islam and her ensuing romance with a young Egyptian man.” The “conversion” begins by shopping around: “In a way, I was in the market for a philosophy,” she writes (8). Philosophy and religion–they’re commodities!–you can take them off the rack, you can try them on, and you can leave them hanging on the hook in the dressing room or put them back on the shelf if you don’t go for them. The same applies to her veil, too, when she takes it. She wears it in Egypt, but sometimes, with close friends and her husband, or when she’s in the States, she leaves it off. No, this is American commercialism at its most optimistic: “shop and ye shall find.”

The all-American part of this autobiography is Wilson’s conception of religion as fluid. Religion is not something that grabs you by the tail and won’t let go, or zaps you from the clouds, the way it is with St. Paul on the road to Damascus. It’s not something that creeps up on you, as it does on St. Augustine with his pear trees and his revelation that evil is the absence of good, although this experience is closer to Wilson’s–she interprets an image on a tarot card as a sign from God, and argues with Him out loud. For Wilson, religion is not some mysterious force that gives you a nervous breakdown leading to the re-birth of a newly religious self, as it is for many of the 19th century British autobiographers from Newman to Carlyle to Mill. Far from it: “I quickly discovered that religion is an act of will,” Wilson asserts. “I assumed prayer would flow naturally from belief, but it didn’t–it took practice” (26). As an American, I read this and take away the following message: “If I decide to become a Buddhist tomorrow, I can do it; it just takes practice.”

Why Wilson selects Islam remains unanswered, or rather, the genuine answer appears to me not the justification that she offers, either that “Islam is antiauthoritarian, sex-positive monotheism,” (58) or when asked on a form for an Egyptian government bureaucrat to give a reason for her conversion, that “the question seemed unanswerable” (92). In her metaphors and in the images used to describe her conversion, the real story emerges, namely that she is looking to shed her party-girl veneer of sophistication and trade it in for virginity. Wilson would most likely deny this, but her language and imagery point in this direction. When on September 11, 2001 she decides on going to her Arabic class that she’d signed up for months before that fateful day, she speaks of carrying “a textbook whose title began with a big scarlet A” (17). That comparison of the Arabic language with the fallen woman marked by the Scarlet letter is echoed when she decides to reveal herself as a Muslim by wearing an apple-red head scarf, “a color,” she adds with apparent glee, “that ensured my ultraconservative colleagues would be as shocked as my non-Muslim ones” (106-7). The Scarlet woman rides again! First the language itself–Arabic–is “a big Scarlet A,” and therefore identified with Wilson’s image of herself as a party-girl, or even as a slut. Describing Arabic as the Scarlet A is a way of asserting that Wilson herself is Arabic, identified with the language anyway, and wants to rub her Scarlet self up against its purity in order to purify herself.

The idea of herself as a contaminated being, a fallen woman in need of salvation, is omnipresent. The red head scarf merely one of the more colorful examples. The images are impossible to miss: she describes her younger self with “short pink hair” being “heroically intoxicated,” proud that she “held my liquor” (104). An American friend, Ben, told of her conversion, asks “no more drinking and lechery? Aren’t you going to miss it?” She then feels “a twinge” of what she terms “sympathy.” Sympathy for the devil, I guess, since she adds, “It was through Ben that I had gained a detailed appreciation for whiskey and Tom Waits, the combination of which had seen me through many mishaps.” Tom Waits, with a voice famously described as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car,” Tom Waits is the perfect accompaniment for an alcoholic young adventuress. [20] Repeatedly she describes herself as having “chemical and social crutches” (15), of sipping gin that was “cool and piney, like pool water and Christmas trees” (Christmas trees!), of enjoying “the regular college diet of jello shots and wine in a box” (19), of being “irreverent and chemically fortified” (83). However, the Islamic call to prayer is music for the girl who is reborn as a virgin, and that is precisely the girl who G. Willow Wilson wants to be, and how better than by converting to Islam and marrying a Sunni Muslim?

The conversion–or the idea of converting–starts with a bad reaction to Depo-Provera, an intra-muscular injection given solely for instant and absolute contraception. Wilson develops serious adrenal distress and osteopenia, low bone mineral density. She is far too intelligent and sophisticated a writer to announce: “I was a bad girl, had sex, and God is punishing me,” but the memoir amounts to the same thing. Frightened by this serious blow to her health–she is ill for at least a year and a half–she notes that the three people who watched over her “most diligently” in “the first days of my illness . . . were all Iranian. Semidelirious, I took this as a sign. Addressing a God I had never spoken to in my life, I promised that if I recovered in three days I would become a Muslim” (7). She lands in a world where she believes in herself as a reformed fallen woman, protected by her society. She is offered lavish cultural approval in the form of feminine modesty profoundly absent from the Western culture she inhabits.

Wilson chooses to enter this world, to put on this religion, literally sometimes even the full black robe, and in so doing she has convinced herself and an enthusiastic band of readers that she is a new person–a married woman in a veil, a walking symbol of chastity. She may not have had an intact hymen when she got married, but she’s making a fashion statement that amounts to a declaration of repaired identity with her bright-red headscarf. In a 2007 blog post supporting the Egyptian Grand Mufti’s decision that women are allowed to have reconstructive surgery on their hymens, she protests too much: “In a move that will stun the Muslim world, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt and one of the highest-ranking Sunni authorities, has said that hymen reconstruction surgery for women who have lost their virginity before marriage is halal (permissible) and that a man has no right to demand proof of a woman’s virginity if he cannot provide proof of his own. In addition, the fatwa states that a woman who has had sex before marriage but has sincerely repented is under no obligation to inform her husband of her sexual status.”

Her interpretation reveals her anxiety about her own non-virginal status: “The real meat of the fatwa is in its de-emphasis of the need for proof of virginity–and in a region of the world where a woman is not considered a virgin unless she bleeds on her wedding night, this is a serious blow to entrenched un-Islamic misogynistic cultural practices.” She can’t resist adding that by the way, “the hymen is mentioned nowhere in the Qur’an or the two commonly accepted books of hadith. Not once. The word for ‘virgin’ in Arabic–bikr–means simply ‘unmarried woman’.” [21] For her, the distinction remains important because it lends credence to her newly acquired identity.

This interpretation is supported by the central metaphor and title of the book, “The Butterfly Mosque,” which comes from the sight of a mosque enclosed in the courtyard of a maximum security prison in Cairo. Wilson navigates her way to her apartment in Cairo by the sight of this imprisoned mosque, and the question of imprisonment is one that deeply concerns her friends, who wonder why she, a woman used to liberal Western values, wishes to convert to a religion which they see as ultra-oppressive to women. By the end of the book, she appears to have reinvented Islam in her attempt to reinvent herself, her conversion part of a desperate longing for protection–from herself. Her description of the butterfly mosque suggests an internal struggle, a desire for liberation. She writes that she began to call this house of worship “the butterfly mosque” because “it reminded me of a butterfly caught in a jar. I would fantasize about freeing it and imprisoning in its place the modern, ugly, loud mosque” which she describes as the focal point of her neighborhood’s religious activity (122). Why this fantasy? The entrapped butterfly with its delicate wings embodies a protected virginity that can only fly free when Wilson symbolically imprisons her “modern, ugly, loud” hard-drinking and sexually experienced self behind the hijab.

It is worth it to her to live in a world where the restrictions feel like protection. “It was such a tantalizing contradiction, being a woman in the Middle East–far less free than a woman in the West, but far more appreciated” (250). When, after she runs for a bus, women tug at her clothing to hide an accidentally exposed strip of skin; Wilson sighs with relief. The West no longer unanimously supports the value of female virginity or chastity, so the East is the logical place to turn.

If the underlying assumption of Wilson is that you can put on a new religion and a new virginity the way you put on a new hijab, Gina Welch begins rather with the idea that she can retain her own identity while immersing herself in a new one that is antithetical to all she holds true, and indeed, initially her own identity seems sturdily unshakeable:

If you knew me, you would think I had no business being in Jerry Falwell’s conference room. Falwell and I weren’t even in the same ideological atmosphere. Beyond our citizenship, our native tongue, and the basic biological processes of being human, we shared almost nothing. I considered him a homophobe, a fearmonger, a manipulator, and a misogynist–an alien creature from the most extreme backwater of evangelical culture.

I could probably guess what Falwell would have thought of me. I am a secular Jew raised by a single mother in Berkeley, where we took a day off school in October for Indigenous Peoples, not for Christopher Columbus. I cuss, I drink, and I am not a virgin. I have never believed in God. (2)

Welch quickly discovers that going undercover causes some erosion of her identity. After a while she experiences a curious sensation that she begins to call “Feeling X”: she is sitting in church, which she has not found, up to this point to move her emotional or spiritual self. But, she advises, “belt anything out in a large group and you’ll start to feel something stir inside, especially if you know the lyrics” (70). With one particular hymn, “Have thine own way, Lord!” she feels “overcome by what I eventually came to think of as Feeling X,” an emotion she has never had before. She begins by explaining what it isn’t: “It wasn’t happiness or sorrow, adrenaline or peace; it wasn’t love or lust or misery or hate. It felt like the awakening of a new organ, an organ like the one described in a chapter on conversion by the thirteenth-century French mystic Bernard Clairveaux: “’the ear of the heart.’ That was about right” (70). She does “a kind of mental pat down” to see if she believes in God. But no. She realizes that this Feeling X “might have been the thing that seized people when they spoke in tongues or raised their hands in the air during church or decided to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior,” but for her there’s no connection to God.

Until the day she can’t take it anymore and decides to leave. “Feeling X” has been creeping up on her to the point where her family gets worried. She has friends of whom she is very fond in the church, and the service lifts her spirits. One day she finds herself in “an excellent mood,” adding “I was zapped with Feeling X and reduced to tears during a song called ‘Something Special’ and had found myself appreciating Dr. Falwell’s message on perseverance during tribulations.” She then jokes to her mother that she wants to start “the Secular Church for People Who Think Jesus Was a Good Dude” (105). Her skeptical mother lets “a little poison cloud of silence” float by before threatening, “I’m going to send someone out there to deprogram you” (187).

There’s no need, however. Welch deprograms herself by adopting some of the ways of those whose beliefs she rejects. She starts by deliberately mimicking the evangelical sense of revelation that she has thus far unwillingly aped—at one point she’s on an evangelizing trip to Alaska, proselytizing children. She experiences a life-transforming revelation, and what is revealed to her is that she will never again tell a lie to another person: “I’ve become a person where I think truth is the highest morality. That’s how I live. When I talk to my students my whole philosophy around writing is you have to tell the truth. That comes first.” [22] Terrible nightmares–her mother says ‘you realized these people are human’– lead her to fess up to her former pastor. She learned from the evangelicals how to proselytize, that is, to get straight to the point, and she does: “I’ve got a lot to tell you, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to get it right out of the way. I haven’t been honest with you about who I am. I’m not a Christian, and I never have been.” She expels her guilt–her guilty self, her guilty identity–and her assertion that she does not expect to be forgiven presumes the absolute forgiveness that she does receive: “Now I’ve got something to pray for,” says her breathtakingly understanding former pastor. Perhaps to soften the blow, perhaps as part of her unintended conversion, Welch declares that she likes Christian ethics–“it was too bad Jesus had been hijacked by religion and politics since the Sermon on the Mount seemed like a pretty good moral code” (188).

Actually, the evangelicals have saved her and she is re-born–not as a Christian, but as a Person Who Will Never Lie Again. This is possible, taking into account American ideas about the malleability of religious faith, since she has just left her bad self, the girl who lied, on the lap of the pastor to whom she confessed her misdeed. Having abandoned this rejected version of herself, she feels free to pick out a brand new one. Her recovery follows the template of the traditional conversion narrative. First there’s a spiritual crisis, consisting of the recurrent “unspeakable nightmares” filling her with so much “self-loathing” that she feels as though she had the flu, plus a “road rage so violent that I scared myself,” plus “pimples so painful they felt rooted to my brain” (302-3). But then after her confession of who she really is, she is–like her evangelical friends–born again! “Everybody who knows me says I’m different.” She’s still the same old atheist, but “there is something new . . . the friends I had and lost who forever enlarged my view of the world” (317).

What these three autobiographies have in common is the belief, at least initially, that religion is a choice. Now many things have been said to be a choice in America, including sexual orientation. These American fantasies of choice have contributed to a rich tradition of cheerful and occasionally successful optimism, resulting in a search for self that has become a national industry. All three writers take for granted the possibility of choosing their religions the way that they presume they could choose their identities, and of tailoring a culturally constructed identity to their own needs.

What seems inescapable proves to be the presumed fluidity of both the idea of identity in America–across all possible forms, from race to gender to class to religion to professional–and the genre of autobiography. The ideology creating American political and cultural ideals dovetails with the fluidity in which definitions of autobiography swirl. The two were made for each other. Distinctions between this genre, “memoir” and “life-writing” have always seemed artificial to me, since what drives all three remains in essence the same: the desire to reveal and conceal the self, fueled by what Oscar Wilde called living “in terror of not being misunderstood.”

Exactly this ambivalence drives both autobiographers and the literary and cultural critics who try to interpret their writings. Although an enormous amount of scholarship has been devoted to autobiography, life-writing, and memoir, and to arguments about how to define these genres and whether they are different from each other or from any other kind of writing, surprisingly little has been said specifically about autobiographies concerning American religious conversion–or not surprisingly. Critics, as a rule–Wilde being one outstanding exception–have in common the desire to establish themselves as authorities on a subject, and so to define it, or to show that really nothing at all can be known, which is another way of doing the same thing.

All other forms of writing, from creative non-fiction to poetry to novel writing and indeed to the writing of autobiography–have in common with any religion the feeling of being uncertain, of taking leaps of faith, and of therefore being entitled to “inspiration,” with its root meaning in the Latin words for “to breath” and to “blow into,” its longstanding religious association with an all-powerful God “blowing into” human beings life and instilling with it belief, and its figurative use of instilling ideas and images into someone’s heart and mind. Without this doubt, there exists no faith, which is of course the necessary defense against it (“Skepticism is the beginning of faith,” Wilde remarked) (135). Writers have their muses and religious people their gods.

What remains important in both religion and creative writing is precisely this sense of following one’s inspirations, by definition irrational feelings and moods, toward whatever feels like truth, whether it be the “truth” of the author’s life or the “truth” that makes a reader who cannot put down a novel she is reading believe that it is really good. This kind of truth may appear alien to the truths of scholarship. Still, it is this very “truth” that is described by fiction writers as the kind of “lie” that must be told in order to find a truth.

Their route to this kind of truth is an epiphany–a religious experience, and, as such, typical, at least that was how representative criticism of American autobiography interpreted the matter, well into the seventh decade of the twentieth century. In 1979, G. Thomas Couser, an American critic who remained, like many of us at that time, innocent of deconstruction and structuralism, characterized American autobiography as the “prophetic” mode, in the sense that the autobiographic self exists in imagined connections between personal and communal history, and the writers’ “tendency to assume the role of prophet in writing autobiography” (1). James Olney remarks that the same author, after a dose of continental theory, dropped the “prophetic” for “problematic,” a shift that demonstrates discomfort with any mode of thinking associated with religion (380).

Since the 1980s, with the academic indictment of humanistic concepts like “self,” “character,” and “personality” and the tendency to avoid all discussions of them by dumping them into the general category of “text,” and especially “text” as the “production” of a particular culture, the doubt and despair that formerly constituted soul-searching or religious conversion has often been funneled into academic scholarly investigation of autobiography, rather than autobiography itself. Evasion is, however, no escape from uncertainty; what remains important is attitudes toward such uncertainty, which, as I have tried to show above, is considered advantageous to creative writers and the reverse to critics. The essentially religious concept of prophesy remained quite comfortable to Americans theorizing about autobiography until Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, and much continental theory shadowed the picture, James Olney reminds us (380). Nowadays, the contemporary critic subscribes to a different fallacy, namely that just because observers cannot be removed from their perceptions, and just because objectivity is myth, “truth” can never be known. Because personality is also believed to be mythic, criticism, especially about autobiography, has taken on a particularly gloomy cast. [23]

Yet although a number of literary and cultural critics believe that no such thing as a personality exists, Americans continue to produce autobiographies, by definition the stories of individual personalities and identities, not the identities of cultures. American identity was, as recently as the year 2004, characterized by Samuel P. Huntington in his influential study, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity as fundamentally “the product of the distinct Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers of America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” and Huntington insists that the key elements of that culture “include the English language; Christianity; religious commitment; English concepts of the rule of law, the responsibility of rulers, and the rights of individuals; and dissenting Protestant values of individualism, the worth ethic, and the belief that humans have the ability and the duty to try to create a heaven on earth, a “city on a hill [sic]” (xv-xvi).

This last phrase originated in the King James translation of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:14, Jesus tells his listeners, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” This biblical phrase, “city upon a hill,” has been routinely appropriated by American politicians from Kennedy to Reagan to Palin; Sarah Palin appears to believe that Ronald Reagan came up with it on his own. [24] Initially imported into the American colonies by John Winthrop in his 1630 sermon delivered en route to the Massachusetts Bay in order to make the future colonists feel that they must be a shining example to the whole world, which would be constantly keeping its eye on them, the phrase has metamorphosed into a poor excuse for a superpower to colonize oil-rich regions under the guise of bringing them democracy. Knowing that continued invasion of Iraq would never become legitimate on the grounds that the United States wanted to eradicate weapons of mass destruction–George W. Bush might as well have tried to legitimize bringing Iraq Christianity–he promised instead to bring the Iraqi people “democracy.” [25] The American public was programmed by its history to fall in love with the idea of a shining American-style “democracy” somewhere on an Iraqi hill. Instead, we shattered Ozymandias and then tried to re-build him, adding pieces of American religion and American politics that were already scattered across the desert.

Yet the impact of Thomas Jefferson’s highly volatile visions of religion shows a more complex picture. The city upon the hill becomes an edifice that is continually dismantled and continually rebuilt with the ease, idealism, and capriciousness of a group of children playing with a pile of Lego blocks, or–if we include the politicians of the hour–with those shattered pieces of the statue of Ozymandias. In fact, more recently, scholarly views tend toward the idea that the religious and secular are so malleable in U.S. American culture as to be interchangeable. In “Ethics After Pluralism,” Janet Jacobsen asks, “can one really say that public secularism in the United States, especially the secularism of the state that is supposed to be so separate from the church, is general? Or is it a particular form of secularism, one that both expresses and enacts in law the values of Protestantism that have so long been dominant in U.S. history?” (34-5). Since that “Protestantism” has evolved into something much broader than what Americans studied in their high school American history classes, since in fact the term includes (but is not limited to) the various reactions of Jefferson and his compatriots, and generations of law and custom shifting with every social and cultural eruption, it is indeed to be expected that American religious identity will remain a highly malleable entity.


[1] I would like to thank my husband, Josef Raab, for his insightful commentary on several drafts of this paper.back to text

[2] By the final decade of the 18th century, Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, his radical indictment of institutionalized Christianity as well as the Bible, had become a bestseller, riveting appreciative audiences with pronouncements stressing the paramount importance of readers thinking for themselves about religious choice: “When Moses told the children of Israel that he received the two tables of the commandments from the hands of God, they were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so; and I have no other authority for it than some historian telling me so.” Paine made clear that he, personally, saw no “internal evidence of divinity” in them, allowing that they did “contain some good moral precepts” (4-5). back to text

[3] In his 1973 study, Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny, the American historian Richard B. Morris, identified the following seven figures as the “key” Founding Fathers: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. Others, for instance Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine, remained important, but of all nine, only John Jay held conventional Christian ideas to be true. back to text

[4] No single system of faith guided the Founding Fathers: As the poet and feminist critic Robin Morgan has noted, they were not “uniformly Christian,” and included “freethinkers, agnostics, atheists, Christians, Freemasons . . .” (1). back to text

[5] I have relied on the Thomas Jefferson Letters and Texts in the Electronic Text Center of the University of Virginia. Accessed Jan/Feb 2012. I have retained Jefferson’s spelling and punctuation. back to text

[6] He repeated the sentiment in another letter: “You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know. (letter to Ezra Stiles Ely, June 25, 1819). Jefferson Thomas Letters from the Electronic Text Center of the University of Virginia. back to text

[7] Rejecting the “addiction” of systemic thinking, Jefferson relied on a form of thinking often associated with religion, or if not religion then with creativity, namely inspiration. Judging by the earliest, almost florid versions of the Declaration, an almost oracular inspiration became the backbone of his fledgling republic. Even after the other Founding Fathers censored some of Jefferson’s highly emotional expressions, the Declaration retained the idea of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” back to text

[8] Here is the full text from Jefferson’s Autobiography, p. 40 in the UVA e-text:
The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason & right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that it’s protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.” The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination. back to text

[9] He produced his own version of the Bible, rearranging passages in what he considered to be the proper order, separating what he deemed the ethical passages from those he liked less, namely what he considered religious dogma and supernatural nonsense. He considered Calvin as an atheist whose religion was “Daemonism.” (letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823) He made it clear that he considered the central beliefs of Christianity mythic, imagining a day would come when the idea of the virgin birth would be “classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” (Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823) He declared that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVI) And in the very last letter that he penned, he wrote: “May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.” (letter to Roger C. Weightman, June 24, 1826) What with Benjamin Franklin admitting, “I doubt of Revelation itself,” James Madison observing that “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind,” and Thomas Paine declaring, “My own mind is my own church.” (3) Jefferson had indeed covered the bases: the Founding Fathers themselves comprised “Infidels of every denomination, ” from the Deist (Franklin) to the Quaker-turned Freethinker (Thomas Paine) to the Unitarian (John Adams) to the barely religious George Washington, who always left church before communion, when he bothered to attend at all. (Morgan, 2-3, 5-7) back to text

[10] Clinton, William Jefferson. (1993). Remarks to the Democratic Leadership Council – Bill Clinton speech – transcript. Retrieved 12 February 2012. back to text

[11] James M. Cox characterized Jefferson’s fateful phrase–that “all men are created equal” as “the most volatile text that we know or have. And though no one really believes it to be true, who could wish that it had not been written? And written into the very conception of the country?” (36) back to text

[12] The following summary digests the story as told by Fay Botham (14; 23-26). The wife to be, Andrea Perez was classified by a county clerk as “white,” as was at that time typical in California for anyone not of African descent. (Had her skin been a shade darker, passing as black might have been an easier option, since Sylvester Davis, her future husband, was black and legally classified as such.) Their lawyer, Daniel Marshall, successfully brought the case to the Supreme Court not by relying on the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees each citizen of any state “equal protection” under the law. Theoretically that ought to have allowed any citizen to marry any other citizen, regardless of ethnic heritage, at least after the abolition of slavery in 1865. Aware of the double standard surrounding the Fourteenth Amendment however, Marshall employed the first amendment, which establishes the right to “free exercise” of one’s chosen faith. Marshall knew that American notions of religion and religious freedom for the individual held greater prominence than ideas about individual rights or whatever was then deemed “equality” in United States culture, and that this hold would prove stronger than legal definitions of equality. He argued that the couple, who were Catholic, were being denied their right to exercise their religion. As Catholics, they believed that marriage is a sacrament, and that the United States government was denying them their legal right to practice a sacred ritual of the Catholic faith. back to text

[13] Fay Botham comments that “Christian beliefs about race and marriage exerted a powerful and enduring ideological influence on anti-miscegenation law and litigation and on American attitudes toward race, intermarriage, and segregation” (6). back to text

[14] By contrast, in Germany, where no legal restriction creating “a wall” between church and state exists, the state funds, for example, Catholic schools, resulting in a broad secularization of the school system. Few if any German Grundschulen have a population subscribing to a single religion; one typical pattern is to find schools evenly divided between Protestant, Catholic and Muslim children, the three religious groups with the largest numbers of members in Germany. The apparent separation of church and state has of course remained a longstanding paradox of American law, since wealthy “religious” institutions can steer law and economy in any direction desired. Germany, by contrast, separates church and state far more in practice, though not in law. back to text

[15] A Brian McFadden comic strip entitled “Religious Exemptions for Piety and Profit” from the February 12, 2012 Sunday Review section of the New York Times shows a man sitting at a desk boasting two manager-style brass plaques; one identifies him as “minister” and the other as “manager,” while the caption asks: “Are government rules and regulations getting in the way of your business?” A cartoon balloon advises: “Then turn it into a church!”) back to text

[16] See especially Elizabeth A. Livingston. For a somewhat different point of view, see Robin Morgan, Fighting Words: “The principle of separation of church and state was first articulated by Roger Williams, who was banished from Massachusetts for his beliefs and who then founded the settlement of Rhode Island in the 1600s. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution adopted this principle (and were also influenced by The Iroquois Confederacy’s laws on the rights of all peoples). It has been upheld by every Supreme Court since 1879–until 2002, when the court approved school vouchers . . . we now take it for granted that churches, temples, mosques and other religious institutions are tax exempt, but it was not always that way, nor was it the intent of the Founders (xxi-xxii). back to text

[17] Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 42. back to text

[18] See his famous “Head and Heart” letter to Maria Cosway, written in the Spring of 1786. back to text

[19] Marcus Mosely similarly observes that “The study of autobiography, a relatively recent field, has been bedeviled from the onset by the definitional problem While the last thirty years or so have seen a remarkable upsurge in the study of the genre, the question of what exactly constitutes autobiography has not only not been resolved but, if anything, become exacerbated.” (1) Mosely first points to autobiographers like Sartre, Nabokov, Barthes and Michel Leiris as representative figures who like to call attention to the “problematic generic status” of their own works and second, comments that autobiography “as a literary category, was further destabilized, interrogated and complicated by being sucked into the vortex of structuralist and later deconstructionist discourse. Third, he laments the “barely disguised hostility, even paranoia” with which “canonical autobiography” is viewed and categorized as “imperialist, privileged, phallocentric discourse, First World genre of the dominant culture . . . ” ( 2 ) back to text

[20] Tom Graff, Gary; Durchholz, Daniel. Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide. Schirmer Trade Books, 1999. back to text

[21] Eteraz.Org: States of Islam. “Grand Mufti: No Proof Needed For Virginity.” Accessed 12 Feb 2012. back to text

[22] Interview with Gina Welch 2 March 2010, Brightest Young Things. Accessed 8 Feb 2012. back to text

[23] This is the central thesis of Roland Barthes. Influenced by Michel Foucault, whose 1969 essay “What is an Author?” suggested that cultures, not individual personalities, produce novels, Barthes carried the idea further, as his title indicates. back to text

[24] The Well Wrought Urn. Accessed 24 Feb 2012. back to text

[25] See, for example, his speech, The Struggle for Democracy in Iraq: Speech to the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
December 12, 2005. Selections follow:

I’ve come to discuss an issue that’s really important, and that is victory in the war on terror. . . Today I’m going to speak in depth about another vital element of our strategy: our efforts to help the Iraqi people build a lasting democracy in the heart of the Middle East. I can think of no better place to discuss the rise of a free Iraq than in the heart of Philadelphia, the city where America’s democracy was born. . . . A few blocks from here stands Independence Hall, where our Declaration of Independence was signed and our Constitution was debated. From the perspective of more than two centuries, the success of America’s democratic experiment seems almost inevitable. At the time, however, that success didn’t seem so obvious or assured . . .

As the Iraqi people struggle to build their democracy, adversaries continue their war on a free Iraq . . .Today, I want to discuss the political element of our strategy: our efforts to help the Iraqis build inclusive democratic institutions that will protect the interests of all the Iraqi people. By helping Iraqis to build a democracy, we will win over those who doubted they had a place in a new Iraq, and undermine the terrorists and Saddamists. By helping Iraqis to build a democracy, we will gain an ally in the war on terror. By helping Iraqis build a democracy, we will inspire reformers across the Middle East. And by helping Iraqis build a democracy, we will bring hope to a troubled region, and this will make the American people more secure. back to text

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