James Davis is an associate professor of religion whose main interests include religion in the public square, church-state issues, the Puritan legacy in American culture, and contemporary bioethical debates. Beginning on February 1, he will add a new line to his title: Assistant Provost.
1. Decorum dictates that one should never talk about religion or politics, but you talk about both in your recently published book, In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues That Divide Us. How can the average person discuss political or religious matters without degrading the conversation?
With all due respect for the dictates of decorum, we can’t help but talk about religion and politics if we are going to be engaged public citizens. I don’t think the topics themselves degrade conversation; quite the contrary, talking about them in a forthright way enriches our public discourse. But the secret is in how we talk about religion and politics. To me civility requires that we engage in public conversation with patience, integrity, humility, and mutual respect. If we hold to these virtues, we’ll be able to discuss even these sensitive subjects fruitfully.
2. It’s no secret that “The West Wing” is your favorite television show. However, that show has been off the air for several years. What are you watching these days to take its place?
My favorite TV show right now (and perhaps of all time) is Sons of Anarchy. It’s an amazingly scripted drama about an outlaw motorcycle club in California that runs guns but also keeps its hometown, Charming, relatively peaceful and free from drug traffic. As an ethicist, I love a show like Sons that features morally gray characters as the protagonists, forcing you through the power of the narrative to root for people that society says are bad guys. As a motorcycle enthusiast, I love all the Harleys.
3. A Religion Department alumna looking up midrash in the library wants to know: if you could practice any religion for a day, what it would it be and why?
If I could pick a religion to practice for one day, it would be the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I know it holds the Truth, because I found it on the internet (http://www.venganza.org/), and as we all know, everything on the internet is true. Besides, I am naturally attracted to a religion that allows me to combine food and devotion. My own Christian tradition has a meal at the center of its liturgy, but overeating the body and blood of Christ is frowned upon. In the graceful eyes of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, everyone is entitled to seconds. So for one day I’d like to be a Pastafarian. May we all be touched by His Noodly Appendage. Ramen.
4. We’ve seen your hair styles range from near-buzz-cut to borderline-mullet. Why so much change? Do the different styles express changes within yourself, perhaps?
I have been prone to radically shifting hair styles, which I think reflects an allergy to the status quo. I get bored easily, and sometimes the best way to inject change into one’s life is to cut one’s hair. But I strongly reject the suggestion that I have ever had a mullet (at least since high school). The American Mullet Association has strict standards governing the length of hair required on the top and back of the head for a mullet. My barber has flirted with those standards but has never met them. Not that I would look bad with a mullet if I chose to don one; I am from Appalachia, after all.
5. What natural gift would you most like to possess?
I don’t know what counts as a “natural” gift, but I really wish I could play the guitar. I know there’s a blues singer in me, but I can’t find a band. If I could play the guitar, I wouldn’t need one, and my night life would improve significantly.