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It all started with a Reddit post. A couple asked fellow members of the site whether they were bad people for choosing not to serve food at their Disney wedding in favor of paying for Mickey and Minnie Mouse to stop by. Soon, a surprisingly large chunk of the internet was debating the eccentricities of Disney fans who are no longer kids, a group that’s known as “Disney adults.”
Jodi Eichler-Levine, a religion professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, joined the fray on June 6, sharing the Reddit post on Twitter along with some thoughts on why Disney adults deserve more respect. Many people see Disney as an important source of meaning, she wrote, noting that, in some cases, Disney fandom is much like a religious faith.
Her tweets, like the Reddit post before them, were shared widely — and often mocked. Other religion scholars and plenty of regular people, as well, took issue with what Eichler-Levine had said. Some felt that her comments were heretical, while others accused her of being too protective of Disney adults.
“Twitter is not good for nuance,” Eichler-Levine told me during a phone interview last week.
I had reached out to her to hear more about why a religion professor was studying Disney. Here’s what I learned about Eichler-Levine’s effort to understand the brand.
Kelsey Dallas: How did you end up studying Disney as a religion scholar?
Jodi Eichler-Levine: It’s unusual, but I’m definitely not the first. I have a Ph.D. in American religion, and I focus on the 20th and 21st century. I’ve previously written about religion in children’s literature and Jewish American women and crafting, among other topics.
To be honest, I did grow up a Disney fan. I’ve always noticed parallels between religious structures and the way Disney fandom functions. I’ve always want to write about religion and Disney and I reached a point a few years ago where I said why not.
KD: I think we can all agree that some people find immense meaning in the Disney parks. But I’d imagine some people take offense when you compare Disney fandom to a religion. How do you respond to them?
JEL: Some evangelical Christians reacted very negatively to my tweets because they saw it as heretical to raise up any power that isn’t God to the level of a religion. But that wasn’t my intent. Drawing a comparison between religion and Disney is just that: you’re doing a structural comparison. I firmly believe that comparing things is an intellectually compelling exercise that causes us to notice things in sharper relief.
So much of what I study is ritual and practice. And what I’ve been pointing out is that there are Disney-related ritual practices that intersect with religious ritual practices.
KD: Why, in your mind, is it valuable to understand the meaning people get from Disney?
JEL: Disney — for good or for ill — is one of the most powerful media corporations in the world and in history. It now owns so much intellectual property that it owns much of our remaining cultural lingua franca.
We live in a very polarized country but both liberal and conservative people love Marvel and “Star Wars.” Both liberal and conservative people may love Disney.
For these reasons and others, I think it’s important to pay very serious attention to Disney fandom. Disney is one of the last places where a large number of Americans and a large number of people around the world are making common meaning.
It’s rare to find a site where people are so emotionally and ritually invested — so eager to return to the parks year after year and even get married there.
KD: Did Disney set out to be religiously significant? In other words, did religion play a formal role in its formation?
JEL: That’s a really complicated and interesting question. The quick answer is that Disneyland, at least, was not supposed to be religious. There’s no church on Main Street USA.
However, the opening day of Disneyland did feature chaplains from the faiths that were thought of as the three main American religions in the 1950s: Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism. One of the Protestant ministers, who was Walt Disney’s nephew, spoke at the opening ceremony and consecrated Disneyland in a very religious way.
Walt Disney was not known to have gone to church very often. But his father was profoundly congregationalist and Walt Disney was named for his parents’ minister.
In terms of morality, Walt Disney was aligned with the patriotic push to build up the nuclear family and oppose communism. He was sentimental about the kind of small-town communities that often celebrate classic Protestantism.
Fresh off the press
Term of the week: Christian nationalism
Christian nationalism refers to an oftentimes toxic mix of political and religious beliefs that can lead to a blurring of the distinction between being a proud American and a committed Christian. It suggests that “only Christians are ‘true’ Americans,” wrote Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, for Religion News Service this week.
Christian nationalism has been in the news a lot over the past few days because of the role it played in the Jan. 6, 2020, assault on the U.S. Capitol. Some of the rioters carried crosses or the Christian flag as they stormed into the capitol. They and others believed that God was on their side even as they put other Americans’ lives at risk.
Congressional hearings on Jan. 6 “provide an opportunity for the public to see Christian nationalism for what it is: a clear and present danger to American democracy,” Tyler wrote.
What I’m reading ...
The Southern Baptist Convention will meet in California this week as the fallout from a shocking — and heartbreaking — report on sexual abuse within the church continues to grow. My friend and mentor Bob Smietana recently wrote an important piece for Religion News Service explaining why the investigation that led to the report almost didn’t happen.
In the aftermath of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Abdullah Shihipar, who is Muslim, wrote for The Atlantic about the right kind of prayer.
One of my new interns, Rebecca Olds, tuned into a webinar last week on the relationship between faith leaders and mental health professionals. Check out her story on the discussion and help me welcome her to the Deseret team!
Odds and ends
Interested in reading more about Disney fandom and its potential religious significance? NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour team touched on it in their newsletter last week.