I have a theory about Donald Trump’s success. I think that one reason he manages to survive the terrible things he says and does is that he gives liberals too much material. With so much insensitivity, racism, and misogyny pouring out of his campaign, it’s hard to focus on one thing. Complimenting Saddam Hussein? Racist slurs about Mexicans? Misogyny? It’s like being at Ikea—I feel overstimulated and exhausted.
The notorious Star of David Hillary graphic, however, seems to be holding people’s attention. After tweeting the image of Clinton accompanied by a six-pointed star over a pile of money with the words “most corrupt candidate ever,” Trump denied that he intended to imply anything anti-Semitic. It was, he says, a simple sheriff’s star; he never meant to invoke anti-Semitic tropes that link Jews to corruption and money. The country western explanation was rejected not only by media commentators but also by David Duke, former Grand High Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan—and he should know anti-Semitism when he sees it.
While this particular invocation of the Star of David invokes dangerous anti-Semitic caricatures, Trump is hardly the first person to appropriate the religious symbols of another group. Religious appropriation has a longer history and is more prevalent than you might think.
Syncretism, appropriation, cultural mingling—call it what you want, religious appropriation is as ancient as imperialism. The Romans, in a magnanimous display of noblesse oblige, allowed conquered subject peoples to continue to worship their own deities and imported those religions to Rome. The cult of the Persian god Mithras proved exceptionally popular among soldiers, as did the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis. In the cafeteria of ancient paganism, people enjoyed sampling the full length of the buffet.
The first Christians, too, appropriated the religious imagery of their predecessors. In the catacombs of Rome, some of the earliest visual images of Jesus portray him as a shepherd with a sheep slung over his shoulders. The idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is well known to any readers of the New Testament, but the image was based almost entirely on depictions of the Greek god Hermes. Other images show him in the guise of Orpheus, the romantic poet of Greek mythology, who descended into the underworld to rescue his beloved Eurydice, or as Helios, the sun God.
The reason for this adaptation is two-fold: in the first decades of the Christian Era artisans were skilled in carving Orpheus and Helios. Assimilating Jesus to mythological figures was pragmatic. At the same time, the assimilation was communicative: both Jesus and Orpheus were believed to have descended into the underworld. Both Jesus and Helios were believed to be deities with power over the order of the universe. Appropriating pagan symbolism allowed the fledgling religious movement to communicate something about their beliefs in a way that would be broadly intelligible to their contemporary audience.
But today and in recent history religious appropriation has a different kind of history. The most blindingly horrific example of appropriation must be the lifting of the Hindu symbol of auspiciousness or good fortune—the svastika—to make the Nazi swastika. But Nazi fondness for the symbol didn’t emerge out of vacuum: as Steven Heller showed in his book The Swastika: Beyond Redemption?, the beginning of the twentieth century saw a huge fad in which everyone from Coca-Cola to the Girl Scouts to the British and American military adopted the symbol.
Children of the 80s will remember the sacrilegious imagery of Madonna videos and the frequent juxtaposition of the rosary in her attire. The trend of ironically wearing Catholic “jewelry” as an act of subversion or mockery is prevalent to this day. Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim symbols are also favorite accessories for Westerners, but there’s something a little less sacrilegious in their application. In the case of the latter there is usually aesthetic appreciation that accompanies the blissful ignorance about a symbol’s origins. As many have pointed out, there’s no merit to be had in appreciating the beauty of a culture if you don’t also want to understand its history and suffering.
In many cases religious appropriation is well-intentioned and shrouded in blissful ignorance. There is a fierce debate over whether or not the Western practice of yoga and meditation is inherently colonialist. Full disclosure: I am exactly the kind of Lululemon-wearing yoga practitioner you might accuse of this. I have none of the knowledge of my sensitive and well-informed yoga teacher Lauren Harris, and it’s convenient for me to follow this argument about why yoga isn’t cultural appropriation. But colonialist or not, good intentions don’t obscure the fact that very few of us aspiring yogis could name the elephant-headed god in the room. (Wikipedia tells me that it’s Ganesh.)
Interestingly, religious appropriation is generally more accepted than other aspects of cultural appropriation. The pushback against appropriating Native American dress receives less attention than the appropriation of Native American spirituality at sweat lodges or on Oprah. This is in part because of the commodification of religion in general and in part because of our cultural commitment to the process of conversion. Sometimes the line between cavalier accessorizing and sincere religious practice is hard to discern.
What’s the difference between adaptation and appropriation? Two things: knowledge and power. The ill-informed appropriation of a marginalized and/or oppressed religious group’s heritage by members of the dominant group is more problematic than the ironic critique of mainstream religious power. Madonna’s use of Catholic religious imagery in her music videos may have been in poor taste, but it was better informed than her appropriation of “vogue-ing” from Latino and African-American dancers.
At the end of day, whether or not it’s your body or your propaganda, accessorizing with religious symbols matters, especially when those symbols belong to someone else.