It’s been called postmodern, high modern, late capitalist, postsecular. It’s been characterized as both fragmentation and pastiche, both individualism and the disappearance of the subject, both reflexive narratives of self-identity and the loss of the grand narrative. It connotes a certain shallowness and self-absorption. Its connection to politics would seem to be apathy; its connection to religion, a navel-gazing form of spirituality. It is twenty-first century industrialized culture, and debates over its characteristics have occupied academics for decades. What can we say about politics and religion in this era?
Let’s take politics first. In his famed work on postmodernism, Fredric Jameson suggests that in postmodern culture, parody gives way to pastiche. While both involve “the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, [pastiche] is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives.” Later, however, Jameson adds that the “postmodern political aesthetic [. . .] would confront the structure of image society as such head-on and undermine it from within (in the postmodern, paradoxically, offensive has become at one with subversion [. . .]).” These statements could be seen as contradictory. Isn’t parody a form of subversive offensive, while pastiche, as Jameson describes it, would lack the motives for such an offensive? This is not, as the saying goes, politics as usual.
Enter the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Formed almost by accident in 1979, when three gay men put on retired nuns’ habits and strolled through the predominantly gay areas of San Francisco, the Sisters soon became an icon of the gay community in that city and later spread internationally; a member of the national council has told me that there are over 1,100 Sisters in sixty-three chapters worldwide. Though most are white, gay men, the Sisters come in many ethnicities, genders, and sexualities. They can be recognized by their remarkable coronets (wimples) and the long veils cascading down their backs: white for novice Sisters, black for fully professed in formal settings, and any other color for fully professed when informal. They are also easily recognized by the whiteface makeup they wear, and the glam makeup, jewels, and glitter that adorn the whiteface.
The Sisters consider themselves “twenty-first century nuns,” in the tradition of Catholic, Episcopalian, and Buddhist nuns, but they are most closely modeled on the Catholic tradition. Each member undergoes an aspirant period, a postulancy, and a novitiate before becoming fully professed. Some chapters (called “houses,” though the organization is not residential) have formal habits that are unmistakably modeled on Catholic nuns’ habits (in informal settings, most Sisters wear dresses or skirts). Yet they are most definitely not Catholic, or even an explicitly religious organization, though individual members adhere to many varieties of religion, spirituality, and atheism. In fact, conservative Catholics take great offense at the San Francisco Sisters’ annual anniversary celebration, which happens to be on Easter Sunday, and one house has in the past performed an exorcism of the Pope.
The Sisters are a social service organization. They were among the first on the scene when the AIDS crisis struck in the early 1980s and, along with Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City, were the first to develop sex-positive safer sex materials. They continue to produce and distribute these materials, along with packets containing safer-sex supplies, to the public at many of their gatherings. They are skilled fundraisers, and the vast majority of the money they raise goes directly back to the community, and especially to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) communities, supporting everything from summer camp for queer youth to police department hate crime initiatives to scholarships for LGBTQ college students. They support a variety of causes, both within and beyond LGBTQ communities, by participating in marches and helping out at gatherings. They often serve as confidantes to individuals in their communities. And, through it all, they pursue their mission: “to promulgate universal [some say “omniversal”] joy and expiate stigmatic guilt.”
Promulgating joy and expiating guilt may not seem political at first glance. But what about a die-in in the middle of San Francisco’s Castro district, in which every time a Sister reads a quotation from Pope Benedict, several other Sisters collapse in the street? What about safer-sex outreach, fundraising to support causes in LGBTQ communities, marching against sexual assault, or—and here’s the key—appearing like Catholic nuns, and then again, very definitely not like Catholic nuns? Jameson argues that parody has given way to pastiche, and yet, in this very postmodern group, I see parody alive and well. This is imitation with an ulterior motive—to heal the guilt that many traditional religions have inculcated in LGBTQ people, to protest against religious homophobia, and to serve the community in ways that traditional nuns have not done and cannot do. This is “offensive . . . at one with subversion.”
Just as the Sisters are postmodern, they are also, somewhat paradoxically, postsecular. This term, drawn originally from a 2001 speech by Jürgen Habermas, refers to an era, in Gorski and Altinordu’s words, “in which religious and secular worldviews could coexist and even enter into dialogue with one another.” Baker and Smith have used the term to refer to sociological perspectives that take into account the rising popularity in many postindustrial societies of non-institutional and anti-institutional forms of religion, such as the religious “nones” they’ve studied, Davie’s “believing without belonging,” and Voas’s and Storm’s versions of “fuzzy fidelity.” It is here that we find the “spiritual but not religious,” as well as Barker’s “soft secularism” (similar to Davie’s “believing without belonging”), “apathetic secularism,” and “hard,” or atheistic, secularism. It is here, too, that we find the Sisters.
I have certainly spoken with Sisters who consider themselves atheists, or who identify as spiritual but see no connection between their spirituality and their work as Sisters. On the other hand, there are many others who describe their spirituality and their Sisterhood as deeply intertwined. Sister Mona Little-Moore, of the Portland, Oregon-based Order of Benevolent Bliss, explained to me that her spirituality, or “philosophy for [her] life,” centers on the belief that “we’re here to learn certain lessons. . . . You repeat your lifetime until you learn the lesson that you have to learn to get to this next plane.” She carries this philosophy over into her work as a Sister, “especially,” she says, “when I’m doing community outreach.” “You know,” she told me, “the Sisters talk about no judgment, no guilt, and I think that’s where my beliefs come in, is that there is no judgment, there is no guilt. You made a mistake, but what did you learn from it, and where are you going to go from there? . . . That’s what I bring to my ministry.”
Sister Krissy Fiction, also of the Order of Benevolent Bliss, is a particularly spiritual Sister—to the extent that she jokingly describes herself as “a spiritual slut.” A member of the United Church of Christ, she is also interested in Gnosticism, Neopaganism, and Buddhism. “Being a Sister,” she told me, “is a manifestation of my spirituality.” She distinguished between the ritual aspect of her spirituality and “the physical expression” of it, and explained that her work as a Sister is that “physical manifestation.” As Sister Krissy, she dedicated herself to the goddess Aphrodite at a Neopagan ritual. “A lot of what I do as Krissy,” she said, “is Aphrodite’s work.” While other Sisters are not as detailed in their responses, many have told me that their spirituality—ranging from vague beliefs to daily conversation with God—is deeply intertwined with their work as Sisters. A few have even spoken of having a calling, or a ministry.
Spirituality has often been cast in sociological writing as self-absorbed and anti-communal—a sort of “bowling alone of the heart,” to borrow from the titles of two well-known books. In fact, there has long been both academic and public concern that the growing popularity of spirituality, when defined as a kind of “religious individualism,” will draw people away from the religious communities that formed such an important part of social life at earlier times in American history (but see McGuire’s Lived Religion). This may not be the case, however. Spirituality draws many of the Sisters to their work and to the close family of each house. As Faver has found, it is not just organized religion that can drive a commitment to activism and community, but also what people today are calling “spirituality.”
Perhaps the upswing in religious individualism in this postmodern, postsecular period doesn’t herald the breakdown of community after all—nor does the rise of a postmodern culture mean the death of parodic political activism. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, though a small organization, may be indicative of larger patterns that we as sociologists have yet to thoroughly study: the roles of postsecular religiosities in community and activism, and the force of parody in postmodern politics.