Disney and religion: What is a Disney adult? Is love for Disney a religion?

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It all started with a Reddit post. A couple has asked other site members if they were bad people for choosing not to serve food at their Disney wedding in favor of paying for Mickey and Minnie Mouse to show up. Soon, a surprisingly large portion of the internet was debating the eccentricities of Disney fans who are no longer children, a group known as “Disney adults.”

Jodi Eichler-Levine, a professor of religion 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 very much like religious faith.

His tweets, like the Reddit post before them, were widely shared — and often mocked. Other scholars of religion and many ordinary people have also disputed what Eichler-Levine said. Some felt her comments were heretical, while others accused her of being overly protective of adults at Disney.

“Twitter is not good for nuance,” Eichler-Levine told me in a phone interview last week.

I had contacted her to find out more about why a professor of religion was studying Disney. Here’s what I learned about Eichler-Levine’s efforts 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 doctorate. in American religion, and I focus on the 20th and 21st centuries. I have previously written about religion in children’s literature and Jewish American women and crafts, among other topics.

To be honest, I grew up a Disney fan. I’ve always noticed parallels between religious structures and how Disney fandoms work. I’ve always wanted to write about religion and Disney and reached a point a few years ago where I thought why not.

KD: I think we can all agree that some people find immense meaning in the Disney parks. But I imagine some people take offense when you compare Disney fandom to a religion. How do you respond to them?

JEL: Some evangelical Christians have reacted very negatively to my tweets because they consider it heretical to elevate any power that is not God to the level of a religion. But that was not my intention. Drawing a comparison between religion and Disney is just that: you are making a structural comparison. I firmly believe that comparing things is an intellectually compelling exercise that makes us notice things in sharper relief.

Much of what I study is ritual and practice. And what I’ve pointed out is that there are Disney-related ritual practices that overlap with religious ritual practices.

KD: Why, in your mind, is it helpful to understand the meaning people get from Disney?

JEL: Disney – for better or worse – is one of the most powerful media companies 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 liberals and conservatives love Marvel and “Star Wars.” Both liberal and conservative people can love Disney.

For these and other reasons, I think it’s important to pay very serious attention to the Disney fandom. Disney is one of the last places where a lot of Americans and a lot of people around the world are forming a common sense.

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 want to be religiously important? In other words, did religion play a formal role in its formation?

JEL: This is a really complicated and interesting question. The quick answer is that Disneyland, at least, wasn’t meant to be religious. There is no church on Main Street USA.

However, Disneyland’s opening day featured chaplains from faiths considered the three major 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 dedicated Disneyland in a very religious way.

Walt Disney was not known to go to church very often. But his father was a deeply Congregationalist, and Walt Disney was named after his parents’ minister.

In terms of morality, Walt Disney was aligned with the patriotic push to build the nuclear family and oppose communism. He was sentimental about the kind of small-town communities that often celebrate classical Protestantism.


Fresh off the press

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Term of the week: Christian nationalism

Christian nationalism refers to an often toxic mix of political and religious beliefs that can blur the line between being a proud American and a committed Christian. He suggests that “only Christians are ‘real’ Americans,” wrote Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, for Religious News Service this week.

Christian nationalism has been in the news a lot in recent days because of the role he performed in the January 6, 2020 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Some of the rioters carried crosses or the Christian flag as they stormed into the capital. They and others believed that God was on their side even as they put the lives of other Americans in danger.

The Jan. 6 congressional hearings “offer the public an opportunity to see Christian nationalism for what it is: a clear and present danger to American democracy,” Tyler wrote.


What I read…

The Southern Baptist Convention will convene in California this week as the fallout from a shocking – and heartbreaking – report of sexual abuse within the church continues to grow. My friend and mentor Bob Smietana recently wrote an important article 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, took a webinar last week on the relationship between religious leaders and mental health professionals. Check out his chat story and help me welcome him to the Deseret team!


Tips

Interested in learning more about Disney fandom and its potential religious significance? NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour team talked about it in their newsletter Last week.

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