Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism by Isaac Weiner (review)
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Reviewed by
Isaac Weiner, Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism. New York: New York University Press, 2014. 264 pp.

inline graphic The opening chapter of Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, An American Tragedy, describes a small family proclaiming the (very Christian) word of God on a street corner of a large midwestern American city. Dreiser’s rich prose hints, albeit indirectly, at the density of sound in the cityscape: “throngs” of people streaming on the sidewalks, lines of cars with clanging bells, towering buildings creating “canyon-like” spaces. Against this backdrop of the densely layered sounds—the noise—of urban public space, the family breaks out a portable pump organ and sings psalms and preaches from the Bible, struggling both to be heard against the din of the city and to be listened to amidst the noise of secular life that the city both represents and enables, even as their preaching adds to that noise.

Like Dreiser, Isaac Weiner’s fascinating book, Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism, takes as its starting point that “religion” consists not simply of systems of substantive content, moral claims, and theological arguments (199), but rather is fundamentally constituted by the expressive practices that enact such systems, and a recognition that such practices involve, in most cases, acts of public sounding. Weiner uses this observation as an inroad to examining how Americans have historically negotiated religious differences in urban contexts since the early 1800s by detailing select disputes concerning religious sound in the public sphere that made their way through legal and legislative channels in various parts of the country at different points in time. In particular, Weiner focuses on instances in which people complained that religion was, simply, a source of unwanted noise. Putting words in the mouths of a hypothetical complainant, he asks, “Does spirituality have to be so noisy? Does religion have to be so [End Page 213] loud?” (195). The answer, or course, is that not all religious sound is noisy per se, but that “noise” is subjectively ascribed from within a context of social relations and social difference. The history of complaints about religious noise in the US is, Weiner argues, one in which “noise demarcated difference more generally, threats to a dominant social order that had to be carefully contained. Sensory values expressed social hierarchies, and cacophony signified social chaos. Noise marked the limit of what could be tolerated” (5). Thus “loud” religion is not simply measured in terms of decibels (though that may be part of the ascription of noisiness), but across other, multiple dimensions such as intelligibility, location, and perceived temporal and spatial appropriateness. While Religion Out Loud provides a detailed analysis of several instances in which religious practice was contested on the basis of its noisiness, Weiner’s ultimate questions concern the ways in which religious pluralism has been historically negotiated in the US, and he argues that sound, because of its potentially uncontainable nature, is a particularly insightful locus in which to examine the intricacies of those negotiations.

Weiner relies heavily on the analysis of specific court cases in which the right to make religious sounds was challenged, as well as specific legislative instances such as the drafting of municipal noise ordinances. He argues that the US courts have routinely “functioned to domesticate religious enthusiasm and restrain religious dissent” and have thus “served to encourage alternative forms of piety that can more readily be kept quiet” (7). The courts, in other words, have participated in the establishment of constraints upon religious expression, and these constraints have largely taken the form of “circumscribing” religion’s public presence, keeping it “contained” in ways that are consistent with “liberal-Protestant and Post-Enlightenment ideas about ‘good’ religion, conceiving it as properly internalized, individualized, and intellectualized” (196).

The book is divided into three major sections (“The Sounds of Power,” The Sounds of Dissent,” “The Sounds of Difference”), each of which is built around a two-chapter structure consisting of a case study and a brief historical contextualization of the chosen case. The first section, “The Sounds of Power,” concerns a lawsuit filed in 1877 against St. Mark’s Episcopal church in...