Publications

MonkeypoxMy most recent article, “Making monkeypox the new leprosy repeats our past public health mistakes,” appeared in Religion News Service on October 7, 2022. Following a Reuters fact-check of a popular Facebook post declaring that pox (monkeypox) was indistinguishable from “biblical-era leprosy outbreaks,” I point to media attempts to (literally) capitalize on this suggestive conflation by packaging “monkeypox,” “leprosy,” and even “plague” in news titles. I then document how leprosy has a long history of being used to disenfranchise already socially marginalized populations. In order to support mandatory quarantine of leprosy sufferers in the 19th century, pro-segregationists appealed to (fictional) medieval public health measures. Over time, this rhetoric adopted a decidedly more racists and xenophobic tenor often directed at indigenous peoples or Chinese immigrants. This xenophobic rhetoric about leprosy was effectively recycled during the AIDS epidemic, resulting in the systematic stigmatization of Haitian immigrants. I argue attempts to conflate leprosy and mpox follow this problematic script. Moreover, the exploitation of leprosy for shock value is disrespectful to the thousands who still suffer from the disease and its stigma.

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Thomas Moore before and after admission to Regina Indian Industrial School, ca. 1897

My article, “Reckoning with Re-education: Christianity’s Role in Native American Boarding Schools,” appeared in Sightings on July 6, 2022, and was later republished by UChicago ReviewThe article details the prominence of religion in the first investigative report released by the US Department of the Interior’s Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. That report documents the US Government’s extensive deployment of boarding schools as a tool to culturally assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children and to facilitate Indian territorial dispossession. Religious institutions are omnipresent actors throughout the report, specifically Christian denominations and organizations. I point to the present need for these denominations to participate in truth and reconciliation initiatives and to transparently share their historical records. I also provide further contextualization regarding the threat that Indigenous healing practices, especially medicine men, posed to such cultural assimilation strategies.

The Conversation published my article, “The Catholic Saint Who Dedicated His Life to a Leprosy Colony in Hawaii–and Became an Inspiration for HIV/AIDS Care,” on May 6, 2022. I briefly outline Father Damien’s historical role at the Molokai leprosy settlements, as well as his journey to sainthood and global recognition as the “Leper Priest.” I then explain the surprising process by which Damien became associated with HIV/AIDS. The role of the Catholic Church during the AIDS Crisis was extremely complex–often highly fraught–so it is all the more remarkable that Father Damien would become an inspiration for AIDS care, even in non-Catholic circles. Damien, I argue, became a way people–HIV/AIDS patients, in this case–could use their faith to reshape their experience and gain agency, even as that same religion often stigmatized them as powerless “others.”

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Engraving of a plague doctor in 17th century Italy (Wikimedia Commons)

My article, “Science and Religion in Times of Plague,” was published by Sightings on January 21, 2021. I reassess the massive influence (and unfortunate intransigence) of the Draper-White “conflict thesis” regarding the relationship between religion and science/medicine. Specifically, I point to recent resistance to public health measures by religious groups–and the subsequent championing of “religious liberty” by the Supreme Court’s conservative justices. For some broader contextualization, I turn to John Calvin and Martin Luther, both of whom lived through times of plague. Calvin and Luther both attributed a pedagogical or edifying function to illness, but their overriding support for the art of medicine evinces a theologically motivated alliance between church communities and public health initiatives. Of course, scholars of religion will have much to consider once the COVID-19 pandemic is successfully behind us, but we should be wary of allowing the response of some religious practitioners to cement a historically dubious oversimplification. Throughout history, as today, plenty of religious groups have made a responsible view of science central to their ministry; when considering groups that do not, we must examine their specific context and history, rather than assuming they stand in for some essentialized “religious” perspective on science.

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Beshay and his travel companion, Obama (screendaily.com)

Published in the October 31, 2019 issue of Sightingsmy article, “Judging Illness and Living Like Kings in Yomeddine,” examines the relationship between religion, stigma, and illness in the acclaimed 2018 Egyptian film. Yomeddinethe first feature-length project by writer and director Abu Bakr Shawky, is a touching road trip movie that provides a thoughtful commentary upon appearances and the ability to see beyond platitudes and prejudices. The film follows Beshay, who has lived his entire life with leprosy/Hansen’s disease (and portrayed by first-time actor Rady Gamal—himself a patient with leprosy) as he travels across Egypt in search of the family that abandoned him decades ago. In the article, I demonstrate how Yomeddine capitalizes upon the historically fraught interpretation of leprosy in both Islam and Christianity, two religions that feature prominently in the film. Aside from pointing to religion’s role in interpreting illness, I also argue that scholars should note Yomeddine’s portrayal that Beshay’s “leprosy” affords him a certain authority in both challenging said interpretations and seamlessly moving between ritual domains.

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Tom Price testifies during his confirmation hearing in January (Al Drago | The New York Times)

The Trump Administration, Immigration, and the Instrumentalization of Leprosy,” was published as part of the September 2017 issue of the Religion & Culture Forum. The piece was featured as part of a scholars’ roundtable on healthcare and religion. According to the Forum: “In light of Congress’s ongoing effort to reform the US healthcare system, we have invited a handful of scholars of religion to discuss the role of religion in the broader national conversation about health and healthcare as well as the potential contribution(s) of scholars of religion to this national dialogue.” My article explains the complicated history behind the question on immigrants and leprosy posed to Representative (Dr.) Tom Price during his confirmation hearing for Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

M0001845 John Haygarth. Line engraving by W. Cooke, 1827, after J. H.

Poster from ACT Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power)

Published in the February 2, 2017 issue of Sightings, my article, “The Acquittal of ‘Patient Zero’” reflects on the legacy of Gaëtan Dugas as the so-called “patient zero” of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I comment on the new study, published in the journal Nature, which demonstrates that Dugas’s blood, sequenced in 1983, possessed a viral strain already present in New York years before Dugas started to frequent gay bars in the city in 1974. But I also gesture to the wider temptation to scapegoat and stigmatized those with HIV/AIDS in our country, especially given the intertwining of religion and politics in the 1980s. The scapegoating of those with HIV/AIDS remains prevalent as evidenced by President Trump’s repulsive comments about Haitians.

Contagious Armadillos: Spreading Leprosy and Archaic Biblical Narratives,” published in the October 1, 2015 issue of Sightings analyzes media reports on a surge in leprosy cases in Florida. I focus on the tendencies to label leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, as an “ancient-scourge,” “disfiguring,” even “Biblical.” A brief discussion of our own country’s history with the disease, as well as matters of biblical translation, and the global status of Hansen’s disease explain why these media labels are so unfortunate and misleading. But the recent news stories illustrate a continued fascination with Hansen’s disease, but also expose this fascination as rooted in misconceptions, with little awareness of the painful realities of the disease for people in the present and not-so-distant past.

Featured image: Nine-banded Armadillo in the Green Swamp, central Florida, courtesy: www.birdphotos.com