Many IR graduates will remember reading the well-known piece Mothers, Monsters, Whores, co-written by Professor Caron Gentry, a gender, terrorism and feminist political theology researcher and lecturer at the University. It is her proudest contribution to academia, and yet also just one of many publications she has written over the years.
With students and staff travelling to St Andrews from all over the world, it is easy to bring to light the many issues facing other places, one of which being the current political and social climate in the United States of America. The recent publishing of her book, This American Moment: A Feminist Christian Realist Intervention, discusses this context at length.
The Saint sat down with Professor Gentry after her book launch in St Andrews on 3 October 2019, which was chaired by fellow professors Tony Lang and Dr Scott Thomas of the University of St Andrews and Bath University, respectively.
Professor Gentry’s new publication was printed in August 2018, but planning started many years ago. She said, “I had it in planning since about 2015 and then started writing it in May 2016 and finished it in March 2017. It was one of the fastest things I’ve ever written. It brought together a lot of thinking I had been doing over the years. I was able to bring in different strands of research that I had done. So that’s one reason it was quicker to write.”
She began our conversation by giving a brief description of the content of the book and the main questions which she raises. “The book is really looking at the anxiety present within American society and American politics. I argue that these anxieties are related to a loss of privilege, and so then, are about race and white people’s fears of losing privilege, esteem, and what they see as their birthright in American society.
“They are also related to misogyny and the fear of women’s advancements. Both of those anxieties came together in electing Trump. There’s a real fascist element to American politics right now, that is built off far-right populist fears over minorities, the economy, women and traditional values.”
Drawing on other thinkers to advance this argument, Professor Gentry discusses her use of Christian realism. “In the theology side I used christian realism. One of the major christian realists that I look at is Reinhold Niebuhr. He was a political theologian who advised presidents from about the 1930s until the 1960s.
“He argues that anxiety is present in the human condition, where we are very aware of our vulnerability. We are very aware of our own intellectual limitations, and that leads us to feel anxiety about our condition, knowing that we could be killed, that we may not always be the one in power.
“He argued that we have two ways of responding to anxiety. You can either be creative or you can be destructive. Destructive would be to accumulate power and using it to harm people, whereas creativity would be more open to other people and to what we might conceive of as threats and reconceiving them as non-threats.
“But I say that he doesn’t have enough feminism to back him up and that he is too masculinist in his thinking, He’s not open enough to what creativity is and how feminists might see creativity, which is more relational and more love-based than Niebuhr would necessarily allow.”
Professor Gentry also drives forward her concern regarding the denial of activist movements. “What I’m also trying to problematise in the book is that within certain parts of American Christianity and Evangelicalism they are so anxious themselves that they can’t see the need for something like Black Lives Matter or for understanding women’s vulnerabilities and then, are in denial of those issues.
“I’m asking for that community to realise that we should all be supporting these movements. We have to understand the reason that they exist, and we need to participate alongside them and address those vulnerabilities. So, it’s really trying to call out a particular community and say, ‘Do better.’
“I’m being provocative, and I am deliberately really trying to get people to think about what their Christianity means to them and if these things are acceptable within Christianity. That’s the harder conversation to have.”
Professor Gentry is North American, having lived in both Texas and Massachusetts. With this back-ground in mind, she linked her personal ties with the research she has done. She explained, “I’m a feminist so the personal is political. I don’t want to write about someone else’s problems and what I think their solution should be. I want to work within my own community and think about what we could be doing better.
“I do think that it’s funny that when I lived in the US I hadn’t really ever engaged in domestic politics. In moving over here I’ve been given this space to from a distance reflect on what is going on, and maybe even take a step back and realise that mass shootings are not the norm.
“It should not be the norm for me to start every semester going into my classroom and think about what I would do to blockade the door, which I did, for eight years that I taught in Texas. That to me, should be unacceptable. That kind of life is part of the normal calculation. Bringing it back to the relevance of the book, it’s not normal to have the level of violence against black people perpetrated by the state, or it shouldn’t be normal.
“This is not how democracy is meant to function. And so, it is a personal journey, and I’m very much trying to speak to the Christian community that I grew up in and have been apart of most of my life. I’ve been given the distance to be able to hopefully do that in a more critical space in a way that may not have been open to me if I was still living there.”
In her book, Professor Gentry considers creativity and love as pillars for change. Speaking of this, she said, “One of the things I do in the chapter on creativity is get us to reconsider what we think of as creativity. We often think of creativity as Bill Gates, or Van Gogh, or Picasso. We often link creativity with success. Most of these names are often men. It is an often a gendered and racialised concept. And we forget that we all have access to creative thinking. We can change just even a small dynamic and do something that allows us to express ourselves in a different way or to relate to someone in a different way that changes it for the better.”
She linked this to current events in American politics and the engagement with kindness that resulted from it. She explained, “After Trump was elected, there was this talk of kindness, of being kind to each other even in this really fraught moment. I think that is creativity, in that it’s about recognising how we can relate to one another that still respects each other’s humanity, frailty and imperfection.”
Professor Gentry noted the relevance of creativity and love in St Andrews and how it applies to the institution of the University. She said, “I’ve been here for eight years and we’re seeing a change in what we talk about — how we talk about gender and how we talk about race. We’re more interested inequality, diversity, and inclusion — that’s key to the new strategy for the University. That is creativity. Having to lead a 600-year-old university into the future takes creativity. Creativity must work in these kinds of institutions; it must work if there’s going to be a future.
“At the heart of the University, I think that there’s a love for learning, for knowledge, and for students — that’s really important to the life of the University. If that was not held at the centre of life at the University then it’s going to be a pretty soulless environment.”
When asked about the role of a professor and how much their opinion should be included in the classroom, Professor Gentry said, “I do think that we have a responsibility to push at times, and to critically reflect. I know that my professors when I was doing my undergraduate really pushed us on particular questions and to critically reflect.
“Maybe we are concerned about both sides having a say. I don’t want anyone to feel silenced in my classroom but I think that university has a role in shaping people’s lives and perspectives. So, the more we can do to help students think through knowledge formation and how that knowledge works in the real world.We want you to claim and wield that knowledge but with critical self-reflexivity.
“We probably all have some form of a moral compass that we are trying to follow. I want all of my students to think ‘What are my values? What is it that I need to stand up for? What is it that I want to stand up for? How do the politics right now resonate with those morals?’
“But I don’t know why that has to be limited to those who teach politics or international relations. I don’t see why we can’t all be talking about the implications of these things. This can have more bearing on your future than maybe my future.”
This American Moment ended with a feeling of hope, not just for American politics but for a wider just future. Professor Gentry noted how this framework will be the premises for her next book on the concept of hope. She said, “Hope doesn’t belong to those with power. Hope belongs to those disenfranchised from power. What do we do with that? What does a white, middle-class professor do with the fact that I want to write about hope, but I am not the one who needs hope? What does it mean that it took Trump being elected for this white, middle-class woman to feel hopeless? And that says a lot about how power works in society today.”
She continued, “I have some thoughts on what I’m going to do with it, but I haven’t fully figured out what that fully looks like yet.”
Professor Gentry’s research expands further than a book publication — she is set to deliver a chapel sermon during graduation on hope and privilege. She said, “You are now privileged as university graduates — what do you do with that privilege? I think it is about helping cultivate hope, without it being patronising or overbearing or recolonising, but about knowing that we have an obligation to this world and to make it better.”