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Posts Tagged ‘fundamentalism’

Evangelical Fundamentalism and the Command-Supply Chain: A Short Historiography of the Retail Revolution

Janine Giordano Drake

A few years ago, I read an outstanding book that helped me understand how and why Walmart products were so cheap and big-box stores were impossible to competete with. Nelson Lichtenstein’s The Retail Revolution articulated how Walmart cut out the “middle man” within production and distribution and extracted the maximum labor from their employees. It was easily one of the best books I ever read. Yet, I still wondered: how does Walmart really get empoyees to be willing to part with their labor so cheaply? How did it sell so many Americans on the idea that “cheap goods” are part and parcel of the good life?

Another outstanding book quickly came along to answer these questions. Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Walmart articulated how evangelicalism fostered a culture of selfless, undercompensated Christian service, particularly among women. Its upper South/ Populist roots also fostered a near-religious belief in the value of bulk-buying and in the economic waste of “middle men.” Moreton showed direct connections between the supporters of Sam Walton and evangelical Populists within the rural South and Midwest. We learned that evangelicalism helped foster the rise of the supply-command chain that made Walmart successful. This book, too, weas so outstanding that it left a cliffhanger: How and when did evangelicals fall in love with cutting-out-the-middle-man? How and when did the love for bulk buying compute to a love for big business?

More books have already come along to help answer these questions. I want to briefly illustrate two of them here, and elaborate on each in coming posts. Both of these new books are not only excellent, but they build off the work of their predecessors remarkably. Considering the books currently in the pipeline which add to this conversation, I would call all this a veritable subfield in “Evangelicalism and the Retail Revolution.”

Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God  illustrates how American business leaders branded capitalist free enterprise as Christian in their efforts to oppose the New Deal. Eisenhower built upon this Christian support for free enterprise in selling the Cold War to the American public. That is, Kruse confirmed Moreton and Lichtenstein’s analyses that suggested the relationship between evangelicals and business leaders began in the 1930s. He found evidence of extensive relationships between business leaders and evangelicals (informing both sides) during that time. Kenneth and Elizabeth Fones-Wolf found the same in their Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South.

Yet, finding a definite confirmation of a relationship only stirs more questions. The most visible questions for me were: Why the 1930s? What was it about this Depression/New Deal era which catalyzed a new era for American evangelicalism and American capitalism? Though the Fones-Wolfs thougfully discussed the role of apocalypticism in the creation of this new labor/religious regime, nobody had yet discussed the strange confluence of the rise of Fundamentalism and the rise of Big Business.

Tim Gloege’s Guaranteed Pure answers those questions and more, for it effectively weaves back in our earlier discsusions on the retail revolution itself. His book has illustrated the budding relationship between premillenialists and free-market capitalists throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century through the history of DL Moody’s anti-denominational church. He argues that Fundamentalists like DL Moody stole the “middle man is bad” marketing techniques of folks like Sam Walton to in order to sell Fundamentalism itself–directly to religious consumers. Meanwhile, business leaders rode the wave of this “Old Time Religion” when they marketed goods like Quaker Oats and Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix as genuine, authentic, old-fashioned, pure, and direct-from-the-source. That is, they built new “old fashioned” brands (the brands Sam Walton would later try to destroy) around the very idea of cutting out middle men.

Future posts will explore all this more carefully, but some preliminary reflections are in order: Once we have learned that both “Old Time Religion” and “No More Middle Men” were in fact two sides of the same marketing campaign, we must consider twentieth century evangelicalism (and particularly Fundamentalism) as the product of a retail revolution. Lichtenstein described this revolution as the building of a new command-supply chain that controlled the markets from the very top. As Gloege has explained it, Fundamentalism was so successful because it cut out the local preacher as a religious authority and recentered control within the Fundamentals themselves (directly marketed to consumers). To what extent is the history of twentieth century evangelical/Fundamentalism an effective transfer of control and authority up the supply-chain? To what extent did this lead to gains in “efficiency” of mass-distributed ideas? And, who profited from this transition? More on all this next month.

Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Race in the Cold War Era

Randall J. Stephens

“The position of Fundamentalism,” wrote Frederick Lewis Allen in 1931, “seemed almost hopeless. The tide of all rational thought in a rational age seemed to be running against them.”[1] Half a century later a Milwaukee reporter figured that “conservative Christians always regard politics as ‘a dirty business’ unworthy of men of the cloth,” until fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell and the Reagan landslide victory proved otherwise.[2] That was the line that Falwell himself took in his March 1965 sermonic response to civil rights activism: “Ministers and Marches.”  “Our only purpose on earth is to know Christ and make Him known,” he counseled members of his Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.[3]  Of course, this was at the same time that Falwell was preaching adamantly against communism, statism, liberalism, and meddlesome civil rights agitators.

Vic Lockman’s cartoon of MLK running roughshod over
law and order, Christian Beacon, June 11, 1964. Click to enlarge.

The recent scholarship of Matthew Sutton, Darren Dochuk, Molly Worthen, Uta Balbier, Axel Schäfer, Daniel Williams, Kim Phillips-Fein, and a host of others has pretty much buried this notion of political/cultural disengagement.  Things were not as they’d often been reported. No, fundamentalists did not retreat into their dark, dank church basements, to sit quietly and wait for the second coming, surrounded by walls decked out with colorful premillennial charts.  No, the saints did not throw in the political towel after W.J. Bryan’s botched 1925 exegesis in Dayton, Tennessee.  

I wanted to know a little more about how evangelicals and fundamentalists engaged with politics and culture in the 1950s and 1960s.  So, for an article I recently published in the Journal of American Studies, “‘It Has to Come from the Hearts of the People’: Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, Race, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” I zeroed in on believers’ reaction to and understanding of civil rights legislation and race relations during the high season of the Cold War.  What did stalwarts make of some of the most important legislation to pass through congress since the tumult of the Civil War and Reconstruction?  How did white responses range across the spectrum of center to far right?  (The cartoons I include here from the Christian Beacon represent one end of the field.) Here’s one of the takeaways from the article:

In the more than fifty years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act evangelicals have grappled in new ways with important questions concerning race, the individual and larger society, as well as local versus national political issues.  Yet in many ways certain features have remained the same.  Racism, like adultery or blasphemy, was still considered the product of a sinful heart.  Indeed, notions of personal responsibility, individual salvation, along with a suspicion of an impersonal, controlling state have continued to shape evangelical and fundamentalist beliefs and behavior.*
Vic Lockman’s gendered and racialized rendering
  of state authority, Christian Beacon, May 7, 1964.

Fortunately for me, the combination of excellent primary and secondary sources provided plenty to sift through.  I mostly drew from local and national newspapers, evangelical and fundamentalist magazines like Eternity, Moody Monthly, King’s Business, various state Southern Baptist periodicals, Sword of the Lord, Christian Crusade, Christian Beacon, the sermons and press conferences of Billy Graham and a variety of other materials.  Of course, the flagship evangelical Christianity Today was a goldmine.  Editor Carl F. H. Henry (1956-1968) and his writers certainly spent a great deal of time and ink on the perils of ecumenism, communism, and the slippery slopes of modernism and theological liberalism.  But they also asked—especially in the early 1960s—about the role the church and the state should play in supporting racial and social equality.  In a typical May 8, 1964 editorial in Christianity Today, Henry wrote: “While the church should not engage in politics, it is nevertheless an inescapable obligation for Christians to take part in public affairs.”[4] If some of the faithful chose to support the cause of black equality, then so be it.  But what about a civil rights bill? asked Henry.  Without officially endorsing it, and cryptically alluding to problems of enforcement, he concluded by remarking that fellow believers had far too often lagged behind on matters of racial justice.  If conscience led men and women to support legislation, then they should do so.

This stance was confirmed by another excellent trove of sources I was able to get my hands on, thanks to the generous folks at Wheaton College.  The National Association of Evangelicals records on civil rights (1964-1965) includes numerous letters to the organization from pastors and laypeople, as well as letters back to constituents from Clyde W. Taylor, an Arkansas native who served as Secretary of Public Affairs for the organization from 1944-1963.  The NEA’s attempt to chart out a middle-to-right-of-center position was met with angry missives from across the country and especially in the South.

To get a better handle on the regional dimensions of the debate, I turned to a great source from the long-running Christian Herald, based out of New York City.  It was one of the most popular religious magazines in the country, holding a massive readership of 431,000 by the early 1960s.  Martin Marty called it a sort of Reader’s Digest of conservative protestantism.[5]  In late 1964 the Herald included survey cards in one of its issues. Would you object to a neighbor who was of a different race than you? the survey asked. The poll also asked if readers would accept someone of a different race into their church if he/she met all the other membership criteria.  The editor was depressed by the stark regional divide evident in the results.  Concerning race and church membership, 68% of Alabama respondents replied with “no,” they would not accept a person of a different race into their church, even if membership requirements were met. The same percentage of South Carolina subscribers responded that way as well.  By contrast, only 5% of New Yorkers said “no” and only 8% of Californians said the same.[6]

One thing I wasn’t able to do in the article was include this map I made from the 1964/65 poll data.  I also didn’t have time to include the vicious/not-for-the-faint-of-heart cartoons from above.

Click to enlarge

Finally, with the recent news of Tony Compolo’s about face on homosexuality, I can’t help but wonder if, in thirty to fifty years from now, evangelicals will look back at our era with palm planted firmly on face.  Here’s the foghorn of literalistic biblicism Albert Mohler: “The forces driving this revolution in morality will not allow evasion or equivocation. Every pastor, every church, and every Christian organization will soon be forced to declare an allegiance to the Scriptures and to the Bible’s teachings on marriage and sexual morality, or to affirm loyalty to the sexual revolution.” It sounds like a scene from Thief in the Night.  Anyhow, in Mohler’s words I hear unmistakable echoes of fundamentalists on the race issue in the 1950s and 60s.  Here’s a relatively “nuanced” position from the Presbyterian Journal (Asheville, NC) in early 1964: “Our interest in civil rights these days makes it almost impossible to see clearly the demerits as well as the merits of every effort to ‘overcome racial, social and religious prejudice.’ But not every individual and not every group is worthy of support; and not every prejudice is bad.”[7]  More to the right, but not at all uncommon at the time, is a comment from a disgruntled white Baptist preacher from the Mississippi Delta town of Greenville.  He was responding to an article in Eternity magazine, which suggested that integrated churches just might work: “[Christians] would act the fool and be instruments in the hands of the devil to bring spotted babies into the world.”  Apparently, he scoffed with wonder, do the editors at the magazine “think spotted babies bring honor and glory to our lord Jesus?”[8]

I don’t have a crystal ball.  Still, when it comes to homosexuality and same-sex marriage, it certainly seems that decades from now evangelical grandparents and great grandparents will have some embarrassed explaining to do. 


1. Frederick Allen Lewis, Only Yesterday: Informal Treatment of the 1920s (1931; reprint, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997), 151. Christopher Pieper and Michael P. Young, “Religion and Post-Secular Politics,” in Handbook of Politics: State and Society in Global Perspective, eds., Kevin T. Leicht and J. Craig Jenkins (New York: Springer, 2010), 355. Arthur Emery Farnsley, Southern Baptist Politics: Authority and Power in the Restructuring of an American Denomination (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 65.
2. James M. Johnston, “Conservatives Shook Religious World in ’80,” Milwaukee Sentinel, January 3, 1981, 8.
3. Falwell’s “Ministers and Marches” sermon quoted in Macel Falwell, Jerry Falwell: His Life and Legacy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), 96.
4. “Civil Rights and Christian Concern,” Christianity Today, May 8, 1964, 29.
5. Martin E. Marty, “The Protestant Press: Limitations & Possibilities,” in The Religious Press in America, eds., Martin E. Marty, John G. Deedy, Jr., David Wolf Silverman, and Robert Lekachman (New York: Holt Rinehart, and Winston, 1963), 58. Stephen Board, “Moving the World with Magazines: A Survey of Evangelical Periodicals,” in American Evangelicals and the Mass Media, ed., Quentin J. Schultze (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 128-129.
6. “The Poll Report: Integration and You,” Christian Herald (February 1965): 22-26.

7. (Rev) John C. Neville, Jr., Prattville, Ala, “Let’s Be Prejudiced,” Presbyterian Journal, February 26, 1964, 16.
8. “Letters: Color-Blind,” Eternity (June 1964): 2. For a typical middle-of-the-road stance, see “What of Racial Intermarriages?” Christianity Today, October 11, 1963, 26-28.

Guaranteed Pure: A Conversation with Tim Gloege

Heath Carter

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Tim Gloege regarding his important new book, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (UNC Press), which led us into some larger questions having to do with the histories of evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and capitalism in the United States.  The book is available now and qualifies as a must read.  

HC: For those who haven’t read the book yet, can you offer a sneak preview of some of the ways in which you argue the Moody Bible Institute and Business contributed to the Making of Modern Evangelicalism?  

TG: Yes, absolutely, and thanks for this opportunity to talk about the book, Heath. 
Guaranteed Pure tells the story of a group of businessmen, ministers, and evangelists that developed a particular strain of evangelicalism—what I call “corporate evangelicalism”—during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The center of gravity of this network was the Moody Bible Institute (MBI), founded in Chicago in 1889 by the salesman-turned-revivalist Dwight L. Moody. The story begins in the 1870s when Moody stood at the center of a dynamic, if unstable, network of self-described “Christian workers” committed to evangelizing the urban “masses.” It traces the failure of that project and MBI’s transition, after Moody’s death, to a new focus on influencing middle-class Protestantism. Under a new regime, headed by the promotional genius and president of Quaker Oats, Henry Crowell, they battled liberal theology and modified its evangelical message to insure it was safe and attractive to the “respectable” middle classes. During the 1910s and early 1920s, MBI became a virtual headquarters for an emerging fundamentalist movement. 
The book traces a number of ways that MBI and business contributed to the making of modern evangelicalism, but I’ll highlight three. First, it brokered a set of connections between evangelicalism and a new set of economic identities, assumptions, and techniques. It began with Moody’s construct of a “Christian worker.” This constituted a new religious identity for laypeople, based on new realities of industrial work and especially the desires of elite businessmen for submissive employees who worked hard. This identity in turn influenced their interpretation of holy writ. The Bible became analogous to a work contract—filled with promises and requirements for God’s employees. Under Crowell, MBI shifted the primary identity from Christian worker to savvy consumer. What God required of faithful believers, they taught, was to choose and consume “pure religion.” 
But perhaps more important were the bedrock assumptions that underlay both these economic identities and their religious analogs. It was a vision of the world in which society consisted primarily of individuals constructing identities by making rational choices. Thus, it was not coincidental that modern conservative evangelicalism developed contemporaneously with modern consumer capitalism; they share a similar ideological foundation (one, interestingly, that is often at odds with the findings of modern post-Darwinian science). 

The second key contribution of MBI and business was the creation of what can only be described as an evangelical brand, which serves as the centerpiece of a conservative evangelical identity today. I find it interesting that despite years of concentrated study, no one has been able to formulate a substantive doctrinal definition of evangelicalism. Even Mark Noll, the leading historian of evangelicalism, has argued that it does not exist in any real sense. I think that understanding evangelicalism as a brand helps to explain this failure. Conservative evangelicals claim to represent “old time religion” a “conservative Protestantism” that embodies an interdenominational “orthodoxy.” But try to delineate that orthodoxy with any specificity and it falls apart. Quite simply there is no stable set of doctrines uniting everyone claiming the evangelical label, any more than there is a stable definition for the Pepsi generation. 
The technique of using branding as a stand-in for traditional creeds and coherent theological traditions began with The Fundamentals: the twelve volume manifesto against modernism that was distributed like a massive promotional campaign to every minister, missionary and religious worker in the United States. Funded by Los Angeles oilman Lyman Stewart, the project, under Crowell and other MBI leadership influence, was envisioned as a statement of an interdenominational orthodoxy that would rally and unite conservatives from across denominations. But it quickly became clear that, apart from a shared distrust of modernist theology and higher criticism, there was very little common ground in the coalition. The project organizers took pains to garner a broad denominational representation among the authors, but as an actual creed or substantial theological statement, it fell far short. In the end it was the physical publication itself—printed on good paper and presented in book form—that served as the representation of an orthodoxy they could not formulate. It was this that ultimately became the namesake of the fundamentalist movement. When the “fundamentalist” brand became tarnished in the 1920s, corporate evangelicals at MBI and elsewhere shifted to using the older label “evangelical,” which has been the preferred name ever since. 
Related to this evangelical brand was a final contribution that MBI and modern business made to modern evangelicalism: a means of generating trust for persons and institutions without denominational affiliation. One of the major hurdles that modern corporations faced early on, especially those selling processed foods, was to generate trust among a population used to buying products from people they knew personally. Companies overcame this challenge with “old fashioned” trademarks, like Crowell’s iconic smiling Quaker on each sealed box, while simultaneously raising suspicions of the traditional sources of product, the open oat barrel. MBI under Crowell’s direction was among the first religious institutions to use these same methods. Raising doubts about the theological reliability of traditional mainline denominations, they positioned MBI as a provider of “old time religion.” Dwight L. Moody’s longstanding distaste for theology and creeds over a practical and personal faith made him the perfect religious trademark. It did not matter that the specifics of this “orthodoxy” were never stable, any more than that the recipe for a breakfast cereal or pancake mix was never set in stone. What mattered was that the consumer experience remained the same. So long as it did, religious “customers” could trust the purveyor of this nondenominational product, guaranteed pure. 
Our religious landscape today is dominated by non-denominational churches and para-church organizations that rely on these same methods to create their reputations and constantly recreate the “old-time religion” they peddle. Figureheads with impeccable moral credentials and loads of charisma serve as replacements for denominational affiliation or established theological traditions.
HC: Can you highlight some points of continuity and discontinuity between your interpretation and two other important books on the subject: George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture on the one hand and Matt Sutton’s American Apocalypse on the other?

TG: Marsden of course has been the gold standard in describing the various religious sources of the fundamentalist movement—that is to say, tracing the theological genealogy of the key ideas that many conservative evangelicals hold. It is a story of continuity and how evangelicals held to older beliefs and methods while the world around it became “modern.” My book is much less focused on theology than Marsden. But inasmuch as I addressed these issues, I asked the opposite question: notwithstanding the claims to represent “old time religion” and real points of continuity to antebellum Protestantism, what were its novelties, and how do we account for them? I found it striking how fundamentalists thoroughly decontextualized the beliefs they borrowed or inherited. Yes, most of the theological raw materials fundamentalists used (though certainly not all) had been around for some time, but they were used like pieces of glass in a mosaic or words cut out of a magazine for a ransom note. They ways they used those “traditional” bits were far different from the ways they functioned in their original context. 
But the major difference in my book is that the theological story is secondary to the cultural story. A central theme is that everyone’s religion—even those claiming to be proponents of “old time religion”—is a product of their cultural milieu. In fact I think those who are least willing to acknowledge the influence of their cultural surroundings are those most affected by it. The implication of this is that I see fundamentalism to be more of a product of modernity than a reaction to it. 
Given the different starting places of Matt Sutton’s and my book, I think they are surprisingly compatible. (Full disclosure: my final revisions to my manuscript were made in light of having read and wrestled with a draft of his landmark work.) It’s true that for my story, premillennialism and the accompanying apocalypticism often serves as the tail more than the dog. In some cases, especially before the 1910s, I see premillennialism as a belief that some of my key figures had been forced to accept because they wanted to read the Bible “plainly”—like a businessman would read a daily newspaper. Ultimately, it became indispensable to conservative evangelicalism, but for many it was less from an interest in the end-times per se, than for what it allowed them to do in other arenas.
Regardless, once premillennialism and the apocalyptic state of mind that accompanied it became attached to corporate evangelicalism, it most certainly exerted the enormous influences on evangelical cultural engagement that Sutton describes—both a motivation to “occupy” and the source of their deep suspicion of government. My story, then, is the other side of the coin: explaining why evangelicals’ suspicion of government intervention is paired with an irrepressible faith in business and markets to solve social problems. 
HC: Your book crosses over into any number of different fields.  What do you see as its main contributions to the “new” history of capitalism?
TG: In some ways I feel like more of a debtor to histories of capitalism, since much of my work lies in mapping well-known economic developments to religion. But my work might have two broader points of interest to historians of capitalism. First, I wanted to challenge the surprisingly-resilient assumption that modern consumer capitalism is antithetical to religious adherence. Whether evangelicalism is better or worse for its dependence upon capitalism, I leave to the theologians to debate. The important point to my mind it that there is a striking compatibility between the two; evangelicals did not accommodate capitalism, they used it as a tool for survival in the modern world. 
Second, I wanted to note some significant ideological tensions that I saw between modern business ideology (including some allied professions like engineering and law) and modern science. The longstanding assumption (at least in the caricatured form it takes in public discourse) has been that “modernity” stands as a unified thing over and against things “traditional” or “anti-modern” like religion. But the unity of conservative evangelicalism and modern consumer capitalism offers an alternate explanation. Perhaps modernity is bifurcated and the grand battle between religion and science is in fact a battle between an individualistic, choice-oriented, and certitude-seeking business ideology and a more corporately and scientific understanding of the world oriented to statistical populations, development by means of nature or nurture, and probabilistic knowledge. 
HC: In the last decade a number of younger scholars have investigated the relationship of religion and class in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.  Do you see a coherent picture of this relationship emerging or are there unresolved tensions in this growing literature?
TG: I think the mere fact that class and religion are being investigated in this way is itself representative of a coherent picture—and an exciting one at that. For far too long a fear of “reductionism” led many historians of religion to ignore class altogether. We now have important theoretical groundwork laid by Sean McCloud, and work on elites, middle classes, and working classes (which I won’t try to enumerate for fear of leaving something out—especially since I have some catching up to do in the field). The consensus, as I see it, is a growing sense that class must be taken seriously and on its own terms—that is, using models and theories developed by those fields devoted to labor, class, and capitalism. Thus, religion has become part of the story of class in two ways. On the one hand, religion plays an important role in what have often been seen as “secular” class developments. For example, we know it was being used both by business elites and many of their middle-class allies (including both conservative and liberal ministers) to justify some pretty terrible treatment of working class folks. But it was also used by working class Christians and their allies to resist and challenge that aggression. Religion also played a continuing role in internal class formation during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era—this especially among elites and the “respectable” middle classes. Second, our understanding of religion is being shaped by a sensitive reading of class dynamics in religious contexts. This means that some battles that used to be seen as purely theological disagreements might also have important class dimensions. This again speaks to the embeddedness of religion in culture. 
If there are unresolved tensions in this literature, it may lie in the lingering temptation to equate the entirety of a particular religious identity or theological orientation to a particular class position. I think the reality is a little more complicated than that. There is no doubt that class shapes religion, as I state above, but it is not a one-to-one or absolute correlation. Not everyone that went to a church from a “mainline” denomination was upper-middle class, for example; and although Pentecostalism began as a working class religion, it was also adopted by upwardly mobile middle-class people who put their own stamp on it.

After the Monkey Trial: Christopher M. Rios Interview

I recently received a copy of Christopher Rios’s After the Monkey Trial: Evangelical Scientists and a New Creationism (Fordham University Press, 2014), and posed a few questions to the author. Dr. Riosteaches at Baylor University, and also works as the Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies.
Phillip Luke Sinitiere (PLS): What is the main argument in After the Monkey Trial, what central points do you make about modern evangelicalism and scientific thought?
Christopher Rios (CR): My main argument, simply put, is that the most prominent evangelical scientists of the twentieth century actively resisted the antievolutionary movement that developed after World War II. That is, between the 1950s and the 1980s, when “creationism” came to dominate American evangelicalism and gained considerable international support, a noteworthy group of evangelical scientists in both the US and UK sought to demonstrate that Christianity and science, or more properly theology and science, were not mutually exclusive categories that required acceptance of one only by rejection of the other but were complementary ways of viewing the world. My book thus furthers our understanding of how modern evangelicalism was never monolithic in its view of science. Even when considering the mid twentieth century, the attempt to define evangelicals or evangelical faith according to a particular view of science is misguided.  Clearly, no small number of evangelicals, especially fundamentalist evangelicals, rejected evolution. Many did so for theological reasons, others on scientific grounds. A few even claimed to demonstrate scientific evidence against it. But as demonstrated by the groups that I wrote about, the American Scientific Affiliation and the Research Scientists’ Christian Fellowship, other evangelicals accepted and even advanced modern science, including evolution.
PLS: The birth of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), and a splinter group, the Creation Research Society (CRS) in the US, was contemporaneous to the birth of the Research Scientists’ Christian Fellowship (RSCF) in the UK. This seems to add a crucial transatlantic component to the story. Yet it also occurred around the same time that modern evangelicalism was undergoing tremendous intellectual evolution, in essence what historian Molly Worthen has recently termed a “crisis of authority” about the Bible, history, and modern life. Can you talk about the intellectual currents of the mid-twentieth century that influenced these scientific groups, all of which in one way or another attempted to live their faith in relationship to modern intellectual life?
CR: Yes. The transatlantic bit of this story is important, in part because of how it demonstrates the influence one side had on the other, in part because of the way similar events on both sides occurred without awareness of the other. This last point is best explained by common cultural forces at work in both parts of the world. Let me mention three.  
First was the culmination of the professionalization of science. The development of modern science, of course, occurred over centuries. But there was an acceleration of its professionalization from about the mid nineteenth century to the mid twentieth.  In nearly all the fields, science became more esoteric, requiring an understanding of data and methodology that put it beyond the reach of non-specialists. Yet whereas scientific work moved behind the veil, its effects were front and center.  From household conveniences to the awe inspiring developments of modern warfare, science and technology touched nearly every aspect of life.  As a result, science became the dominant authority for most of the modern world.  How Christians viewed and interacted with it thus became one of the major theological questions of the century.  
Second, as Molly Worthen has so eloquently described, the development of neo-evangelicalism, with its desire to engage mainstream scholarship and willingness to redefine some of its theological commitments, provided fertile ground for those who wanted a more positive relationship with science. Debates about the validity of evolutionary theory went hand in hand with debates about the Bible’s inerrancy or questions about its historicity.  
Third were similar theological developments in the UK, where evangelical groups such as Inter-Varsity Fellowship (today UCCF) attempted to reach a new generation of university students by restoring intellectual respectability among both church leaders and the laity. The RSCF, in fact, was founded as part of IVF and remained so until 1996. These efforts were more systematic and encountered less cultural resistance than those in the US, but there were still those in the UK who rejected anything that resembled accommodation to the secular world. Significantly, ASA and RSCF leaders denied the accusation that they were unjustly accommodating their faith.  Rather, they were convinced that antievolutionism was not just bad science but also bad theology, and they were helped on this front by new trends within evangelicalism on both sides of the Atlantic. 
PLS: Your book also helps to historicize the development of what became known as creationist science. Can you explain how its growth tracked alongside of social, political, and cultural changes from the 1960s onward, and how this fits into your rendering of a “new creationism”? What do you mean by a “new creationism”? In this context, what made creationism enduringly attractive to some, while others roundly dismissed it as religious propaganda? With these trends in mind, how does your scholarship on science and religion help us to make sense of the cultural meaning of the recent Bill Nye/Ken Ham “debate”?

CR: That’s a big question. Let me offer two responses, and you can prod me about the bits I ignore. First, by “new creationism” I mean an understanding of creation that was opposed to “modern creationism”—the antievolutionary views that dominated American evangelicalism from the 1960s onward. Several historians, most notably Ron Numbers, have shown how individuals such as Henry Morris and John Whitcomb convinced a generation that true Christian faith required antievolutionism. Prior to this period “creationism” could refer to a variety of theological ideas, but beginning in the 1960s the term became almost exclusively associated with antievolutionary thought. Being a creationist meant that you rejected evolution. This idea won widespread acceptance, especially in the US, in part because it confirmed what many Americans within and outside evangelicalism assumed. But it was never universally accepted, and ASA and RSCF leaders dedicated considerable energy to refuting it. They saw themselves as creationists because they believed that God created the world and they affirmed the truth of passages such as Genesis 1-3.  But they were also scientists who affirmed the scientific truth of evolution. Creationism, they argued, thus did not equal antievolutionism. The new creationism I’m talking about, then, is evolutionary creationism, the acceptance of both the biblical account of creation and the scientific understanding of evolution.  I hope readers will keep three points in mind as they evaluate these groups. First, there’s little that’s actually new about this view, or at least about the motivation for it. What made it seem new was that most mid-century evangelicals had forgotten that before the infamous Scopes trial of 1925, some of the most respected evangelical theologians attempted to reconcile creation and evolution. Second, it’s important to recognize that the ASA and RSCF were talking to both the churches and scientific communities. The RSCF, in fact, was originally aimed primarily at the scientific community. They assumed that science was a valid, meaningful enterprise.  Their message was that it shouldn’t be an obstacle to faith. Third, the membership of neither group was fully accepting of evolution. The leaders were often in agreement, especially the RSCF, but dissenters existed in both organizations. In fact, some of the most insightful debates occurred among the members themselves.  
Second, the attention given to the Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate demonstrates and reinforces the perception that Christianity and science are opponents. It also reveals the limited success the ASA and RSCF (today called Christians in Science) have had in spreading their message. More than making sense of the debate, my work demonstrates that Nye and Ham represent a false dichotomy. Their positions aren’t the only ones available. I was encouraged to read some of the social media commentary on the event and see some frustration over the lack of a third voice.  The Nye-Ham debate also perpetuates a conversation (if you can call it that) that misses the more important questions. That one can believe in both creation and evolution is a simple historical fact demonstrated by the many Christians who have done so. How Christians have reconciled creation and evolution is the more interesting question. How they read Scripture, viewed science, understood the relationship between divine activity and natural laws—these are the more interesting kinds of questions, ones that the public debates often miss, and ones into which I hope my book offers some insight.
PLS: What projects are you working on now?   
CR: The major project underway is a manuscript with the working title “Beyond Evolution.” In After the Monkey Trial, I wrote that both the ASA and RSCF became reluctant participants in the creation/evolution debates. Both groups understood the importance of the evolution issue, but its cultural popularity required them to spend more time on it than either desired. Unlike other organizations that focused almost exclusively on questions of origins, the ASA and RSCF sought to address a much wider variety of subjects. My next book examines some of these issues, including psychology, the environment, and philosophy of science. This last issue, philosophy of science, was a perennial and explicit concern for the leaders of the ASA and RSCF. While they never settled on an answer, their attempt to affirm orthodox science and orthodox faith produced thoughtful views of both. The others issues came up because they were important cultural questions, and also because key leaders were prominent researchers in these areas. R. J. (Sam) Berry, for example, was a noted ecological geneticist who had considerable influence in both the Church of England and British government’s response to environmental concerns. Malcolm Jeeves was an esteemed research psychologist and admired evangelical scholar whose efforts to reconcile Christianity and science has spanned over a half century.  (I speak of these men in the past tense out of habit. They’re both retired, but still contributing to our understanding of science and religion.) 

Under the Big Top: Big Tent Revivalism and American Culture, 1885-1925 (Review)

Paul Putz

Janine Giordano Drake recently suggested that it might be time to stop using the language of a “Fundamentalist/ Modernist Crisis” when explaining early-twentieth-century U.S. Protestantism. Books by Matthew Bowman and Priscilla Pope-Levison have certainly pointed towards a more cautious use of the ”fundamentalist/modernist” binary. Work that is a bit older, especially work done by scholars of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century holiness movement, has made similar claims. In his 2004 biography of early Pentecostal leader A.J. Tomlinson, for example, R.G. Robins argued that “there are sectarian modes of modernity” and that, instead of providing a shelter for rural values in the city, the radical Holiness movement adapted “old cultural forms to new social realities.” Josh McMullen’s Under the Big Top: Big Tent Revivalism and American Culture, 1885-1925 (Oxford, 2015) continues this push to rethink how we organize early-twentieth-century U.S. Protestantism.

Taking the most popular turn-of-the-century revivalists and the spectacles they produced as his subject of study, McMullen suggests that big tent revivalists should be understood not as anti-modern reactionaries or fundamentalists but as participants in the transition away from a Victorian culture (with its emphasis on self-control and the importance of character) to a modern consumer culture (with its emphasis on self-fulfillment and personality). This view of big tent revivalism challenges and refines the Fundamentalist-Modernist binary, mainly by consigning its usefulness to the narrow bounds of particular theological debates. Since McMullen is not concerned with those theological debates — his revivalists “were not primarily theologians,” he writes — the fundamentalist/modernist categories are not especially helpful. Instead McMullen is interested in the interaction between the rise of a mass consumer society and evangelicalism, especially the “unique and important role” big tent revivalists played in combining “the Protestant ethic of salvation with the emerging consumer ethos” (6).

So who were the big tent revivalists? For McMullen they were the professional traveling evangelists who drew the largest crowds in the years between the 1880s and 1920s — years when attending revivals was an especially popular American pastime. Maria Woodworth-Etter, Aimee Semple McPherson, “Gipsy” Smith, Billy Sunday, and Sam Jones are the main players in McMullen’s narrative, with supporting roles played by F.F. Bosworth, J. Gordon McPherson, and Burke Culpepper. Although Dwight Moody’s career overlaps with some of McMullen’s big tent revivalists, McMullen does not focus on Moody. He sees big tent revivalists as the competitors for Moody’s mantle and the builders on the foundation that Moody laid.

The diverse religious affiliations and affinities of McMullen’s big tent revivalists may cause some to question how “big tent revivalist” can be viewed as a coherent category. In McMullen’s study, individuals associated with Pentecostalism and divine healing join those who rejected such signs of the Spirit; evangelists like Smith who thought women had no place in the pulpit join women evangelists; and revivalists like Sunday who often garnered community-wide Protestant mobilization for revival campaigns join those who, like Woodworth-Etter or Bosworth, operated on the margins of the Protestant establishment, even if they did manage to gather crowds.

McMullen is aware of the individual differences between revivalists. Indeed, one of the great strengths of this book is his attentiveness to nuance and complexity. But he is usually more interested in what the revivalists had in common. McMullen’s diverse group of revivalists clearly shared recurring themes in style, particularly “the quest for authentic experience, emphasis on personal/physic abundance, and the desperate need for the old-time religion” (88). It is on those similarities that McMullen most often dwells.

A crucial aspect of McMullen’s argument is his claim that revivalists were not “Victorian holdouts” but instead were critics of Victorian culture. He argues that revivalists viewed the Protestant church of the late nineteenth century as spiritually sedate, devoid of passion, and all too comfortable with the trappings of fashion and respectability. The Victorian church had let the world enter its walls and had all but given up on its mandate to reach the lost with the message of salvation from sin. What was needed, then, was religious passion: Christians who would go out into the world to convert it before the world came into the church.

To reach the world, Protestants — and especially those Protestants who made evangelism their profession — had to go where the people were: the cities. Once there, they needed to make their message resonate with an urban culture increasingly influenced by a mass consumer ethos. Thus, even though big tent revivalists “retained nineteenth-century Protestant language that emphasized sin, character, salvation, and hard work” they increasingly spoke this language “with a consumer accent” (4). Their desire to make their message appealing led them to an ambivalent relationship with mass consumer culture. While they certainly criticized some cultural developments, they also sanctioned new trends and relied heavily upon new forms of communication, technology, and marketing. The bulk of McMullen’s book charts the complex relationship that big tent revivalists had with broader cultural trends: the rise of entertainment and celebrity culture; the emphasis on personality and self-fulfillment; the therapeutic search for well-being; anxieties over American manhood. Through it all, big tent revivalists charted a path which made their brand of Protestant religion a viable option for Americans who shared both their concerns about the potentially dangerous affects of cultural shifts and their acceptance and even celebration of some aspects of the emerging mass consumer culture.

The trope of the “old-time religion” looms large in McMullen’s book, and is worth mentioning briefly since his interpretation of it is indicative of his overall approach. As he does elsewhere, McMullen eschews a theological analysis. While recognizing that revivalists generally adhered to conservative Protestant tenets regarding the need for individuals to receive salvation from sin through faith in Jesus in order to avoid eternal damnation, McMullen argues that theology was not the defining element to revivalists’ emphases on old-time religion. Instead McMullen focuses his attention on the packaging of the message of old-time religion, viewing it as an evangelical adaption of a broader cultural trend. Specifically, McMullen argues, old-time religion was primarily about the quest for authentic religious experience; it “overwhelmingly meant the restoration of spiritual passion” (39). Viewing revivalists’ calls to return to old-time religion in this way places the emphasis on evangelical Protestantism as a style, rather than as a set of doctrines — similar to the approach Matthew Bowman took in The Urban Pulpit.

Although there is much that I love about this book, it would have been interesting to see more comparisons between big tent revivalists and other Protestant leaders. This is especially pertinent because McMullen’s book seems to be doing for revivalists and for conservative evangelicals what Susan Curtis did for social gospelers in A Consuming Faith (1991). In that book, Curtis argued that social gospelers “helped ease the transition from Protestant Victorianism to a secular consumer culture.” Given such similar themes, it would have been nice to see McMullen engage more with Curtis’s cast of characters.

That being said, scholars interested in American evangelicalism and in the relationship between religion and mass consumer culture will find Under the Big Top an engaging study. McMullen has a knack for making careful, nuanced arguments, and he does an excellent job of placing turn-of-the-century revivalists within the context of an emerging mass consumer culture. I mentioned at the start of this review that Under the Big Top stands with other scholarship challenging the fundamentalist/modernist binary. I should end by pointing out another trend into which McMullen’s work fits: like Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor, Matthew Sutton’s American Apocalypse, Lerone Martin’s Preaching on Wax, Kate Bowler’s Blessed, and numerous other recent works, McMullen emphasizes the ways in which those who hold conservative evangelical beliefs have been very much a part of the American cultural (and in Sutton’s case, political) mainstream in the twentieth century. For scholars continuing to rethink, rewrite, and reorganize how the recent history of American evangelicalism is told, McMullen’s book is a must-read.

Putting to Bed the Term "Fundamentalist/ Modernist" Crisis

Janine Giordano Drake

We’ve all heard the old version of the story. “Modernism” took hold of the academy–indeed, the world–in the early twentieth century, and influenced Bible scholars and theologians to understand Scripture as set of fallible historical documents. American institutes of higher education, as well as the entire Protestant clergy, were forced to decide how much they adhered to the teachings of these “Higher Critics” and with it, what really was the central message of the gospel. Many chose to reject the application of scientific and research principles to the study of Scripture. They held on to older versions of the Bible, and even reinvented the Scripture itself for what they saw as the defensive battle for “Old Time Religion.” They focused heavily upon personal conversion. Others dismissed Scriptural literalism in favor of a message of the gospel that emphasized “social salvation.” Hence, the Fundamentalist /Modernist crisis was a battle over the relevance of science, the meaning of the gospel, and the purpose of churches.

Scholarship throughout the last thirty years has added to this story significantly. We now know more about premillenial dispensationalists, especially women,  who spent years dedicated to revivals and care for the poor and needy–on behalf of a kind of Social Gospel. We know that the rise of Scriptural literalism coincided with fears about women’s participation in the public sphere–the attention to Scriptural literalism was not divorced from social issues of the day. We also know more about the modernists, their overlap with other movements for social uplift and Progressivism, and their sophisticated, if different, Biblical hermeneutic for the Social Gospel. Yet, despite the many elements that complicate the binary of a Fundamentalist/ Modernist crisis, we have largely continued to use the term within conference panels and syllabi. That is, we have largely accepted as a field that the crisis, however complicated and multifaceted, can be captured in the battles over the acceptance or rejection of Modern Scriptural translation.

I think, however, this terminology no longer fits our scholarship. I’d like to point our attention, briefly, to two books published in the last few years–Matthew Bowman’s The Urban Pulpit and Priscilla Pope-Levison’s Building the Old Time Religion. While the books are very different, they each look to orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy as a source for understanding religious life. That is, they focus upon religion not as it was prescribed (for example, in sermons and Bible editions) but as it was practiced within the functioning of religious institutions. What they each find is that a focus upon significant sermons, Bible editions, and even political orientations of significant Liberal and Fundamentalist leaders only tells a small portion of their story.

Bowman emphasizes the extent to which both Liberals and Fundamentalists selectively appropriated and rejected aspects of “Modernity.” First, he said, liberals wanted to hold on to certain pre-modern concepts of an ineffable Christ, and hold that at the center of their sacramental theology. Through studies on the congregational practices of prominent New York “liberal” ministers, he shows that they ought to be rightly categorized as “evangelicals.” For, their institutional churches, missions, and other ministries were evangelistic in focus. Their work throughout other organizations, as well, was motivated by an evangelistic impulse. In fact, Bowman argues, the stakes involved in fighting with Fundamentalists was the very defense that their work was evangelistic. Bowman shows that Fundamentalists, meanwhile, did not reject all aspects of “modernity” at all. After all, they deployed many modern assumptions about what Scripture could tell us. They deployed modern communication practices in churches. They were moderns in certain key ways.

Pope-Levison’s primary goal is to reclaim the histories of women evangelists in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era–women who mostly adhered to premillenialist, Holiness, and Pentecostal doctrines, and therefore who would later be categorized as Fundamentalists. However, her book accomplishes much more than simply retelling these women’s histories. She shows that the Pentecostal movement of this era was everything but a rejection of modernity. Her subjects, such as Martha Avery Moore (a socialist turned Catholic convert), Emma Ray (African American Methodist), and Iva Durham Vennard (white Methodist) are primarily institution builders. They are similar to their “social betters”–the iconic elite women of the Progressive Era–in their drive to create institutions to serve and educate the poor, and they utilize every tool at their modern disposal to maintain their ministries. While they may have preached about the dangers of “modernity,” they were also moderns. They were women who either lived as single women or put their ministries ahead of their marriages–and worked as public figures in an era when they could not even vote. They built Bible Colleges, new denominations, vocational training institutes, and evangelistic rescue missions.

I wrote a review essay on both these books for a forthcoming issue of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. There is much more to say about the merits of each of these books and what they have to offer to scholars of religion and the era overall. Others writing on the blog have reviewed these books individually as well.

What I want to emphasize here are the stakes involved in putting to bed the “Fundamentalist/ Modernist Crisis” as a term we readily use in our teaching and writing.

When we abbreviate the story to say that the battle was over Scriptural interpretation, we privilege the side of the story that demands the battles should be about scripture. When we assent to the categorization of Biblical literalists who use modern showmanship, print ephemera, new colleges, and new denominations as the opposite of “Modernists,” we agree to a very limited and historically pointed definition of the term “Modern.” That definition reduces the term to an embrace of the scientific method and university education, while it conceals the many ways that Fundamentalists embraced other modern aspects of bookkeeping, commercialism, close study, and communication. What would the story look like from a perspective that naturalized the evangelicalism of the Modernists, and showed Fundamentalists as the aggressors–in relief against them?

Matthew Bowman takes on that challenge and shows us how the church crisis and schism of the 1920s can look very different. But it is also much more complicated than any intellectual binary. It was about the possibility of an American and Protestant theology. It was about the purpose of Protestant churches in twentieth century America and the challenge of how to Americanize–and “Christianize” immigrants and Catholics and urban African Americans. 

The point here is not, of course, to defend one side against the other. The point is to recognize that so much history of religion in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era  has been written over the last 30 years–attention to race, class, gender and region–and so little of it can be explained through the Fundamentalist/Modernist prism. We now have an abundance of research that directly shows the limits of a methodological focus upon sermons, print ephemera, and Bible editions which fight over Scripture. We should now feel comfortable moving on and describing the Progressive Era and its aftermath as the complicated mess of social and intellectual schisms that it really was.

Religion and US Empire Part 2

Today’s guest post comes from Sylvester A. Johnson. Professor Johnson and Professor Tracy Leavelle are leading the Religion and US Empire Seminar, which includes both a working group and an AAR Seminar. Johnson’s first post discussed the role of Christian fundamentalism in promoting a populist, mainstream embrace of US empire. In this post, he explains the linkage and resonance between US government approaches to engaging Communism and the broader religious imaginary of Christian nationalism.

The Refashioning of Christian Nationalism
Sylvester A. Johnson

In mainstream US media and the public imaginary, the specter of Communism was a fundamental threat that bore directly on national security, the prospect of whose annihilation seemed palpatable and immanent both on a mass scale and individually. During the Cold War years, the perceived threat of Communism exceeded all others in importance and uniqueness on a scale comparable to that commanded by terrorism in the twenty-first century. The grammar of theology, moreover, was at work in the discursive rendering of Communism among even secular US state officials and institutions. In its historic report to President Harry S Truman in April of 1950, for example, the National Security Council (NSC) argued that the Soviet Union, in contrast to any previous aspiring state hegemon, was rooted in “a new fanatic faith, anti-thetical to our own…” The Council insisted that the uniqueness of Communism lay prinicipally in an act of idolatry because the Kremlin deployed a perverted “faith” that rejected “submission to the will of God” in favor of “submission to the will of the system.” As a result, “the system becomes God.” In this way, the NSC proffered a theological rationale as part of its larger argument for a forward-deployed US military and an arms build-up that might dwarf the very aspirations of the Soviet Union. [1]

One should note that the NSC did not identify a specifically “Christian” or “fundamentalist” nature of US religion. Rather, the Council’s theological claims presumed that freedom itself–as embodied by Western civilization and the US nation preeminently–was constitutive of American religious fidelity and genuine submission to god–”the God”–whose exclusive claim to the complete loyalties of humankind the Council set in juxtaposition to the Kremlin’s putative ambitions for an unbound totalitarian regime. This was a cosmic, Manichean struggle. It is important to appreciate the full implications of this point. Once should not be led to think, in other words, that Protestant Christian fundamentalism or even Christian nationalism was the provenance of the anti-Communist “faith” espoused by secular institutions of the state. This was not at all the case. The issue, rather is resonance and intersection.

One might keep in mind, for instance, that during the height of the Cold War, the US Department of Justice viewed the Roman Catholic Church as an essential ally in the preservation of national security, depsite the strident anti-Catholicism that dominated public sentiment. [2] Since the summer of 1949, in fact, the papal office of the Catholic Church had repeatedly excommunicated Catholic parishioners (eventually excommunicating Fidel Castro) for supporting Communism, sympathizing with its ideals, or at times simply for reading periodicals like the Daily Worker.  This drew high praise from federal officials, who emphasized the religious implications of Communism. As one representative of New York City’s St. Peter’s Cathedral emphasized in the wake of the excommunications, Communism was no mere “philosophy” but “a practical religion–a religion without God.” [3] In this context, mainstream US media companies even found positive regard for Islam in the Soviet Union. It was impossible, opined one editorial, for one to be a “good” Muslim and a “good Marxist,” since Muslims were “not half-believers nor lip servers.” Muslims, supposedly, were almost “uniformly devout” because Islam was no mere “profession of faith” but a “mode of life.” [4]

The religious understanding of Communism and the security imperatives of US militarism spanned far and wide among US state officials. The intelligence division of the US Army, for instance, published a pamphlet in 1955 entitled “How to Spot a Communist.” The document was meant to provide recruits a primer in vigilance and intervention against the nation’s chief threat. The intelligence agency devoted roughly one-third of the content to religion, claiming that Communism filled an essentially religious void that army recruits should take notice of those who lacked a foundation in religious belief. This line of reasoning, which viewed Communism as an especially compelling system of belief for the religious vulnerable, had already been popularized by 1951. At that time, President Harry Truman created the Psychological Strategy Board, which included explicit emphasis on religion. The board claimed that Communism was not able to exist in a “spiritually healthy” world, so promoting religion figured as an important strategy for undermining Communism.

When US state officials, media corporations, and popular anti-Communist activists rendered Communism as as global threat of Soviet provenance, they normally did so by identifying it as a religious formation (inter alios), one who essential power and substance lay in the dual ability of Communism to act against religion (as an idyllic, beneficent force) and to act as religion (e.g., as an ontological, evil force at enmity with the divine). In doing so, they were not denying that Communism was a political, state-supported phenomenon. The point, rather, is to understand the simultaneity that inhered to Communism’s plural constitution as conceived by US actors. The intersection of religion and empire, thus, obtained and manifested at multiple levels and registers. This is why it is important to discern the resonance and overlapping logics that rendered the political project of US empire coherent as a religious aim with profoundly religious consequences.

It was in this context that Christian fundamentalism defined the problem of national security in terms of restoring a lost Christian past. By this account, liberalism–along with its attending threats like secular humanism–was culpable in leading the nation astray from its true Christian past. [5] Fundamentalism promised to bring it back. One of the pivotal institutional expressions of this trend was the Moral Majority, a national organization that Jerry Falwell established in 1979. This movement adopted as its mission the aim of “Saving the Soul of America,” the very same motto the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been using for over twenty years to promote its activist aims rooted in the social gospel tradition. Communism, moreover, fueled the broad appeal of fundamentalism, which in turn was reshaping the deep texture of Christian nationalism. Fundamentalism, of course, did not create Christian nationalism. Rather, by the 1960s, fundamentalism had refashioned a pre-existing Christian nationalism by amplifying a consensus or expansive sentiment that the secure future of the nation (its political identity and its vitality as a Western civilization) depended on defeating Christian liberalism and particularly the social gospel, which was rendered as spiritually weak and lacking authentic religious substance. This trend equally evident in regard to liberation theology, which took root with a strong Third World presence. Given the discourse of Communism as a threat to the freedom to be religious (read “authentically Christian”), this intensification of fundamentalist zeal easily equated the promotion of fundamentalism with the defense of the right to be religious. The ensuing narrative or etiology proposed that authentic (i.e. fundamentalist) Christianity was besieged.

By the 1970s and 1980s, a broad-based Christian nationalism was functioning as an exceptionally efficacious matrix for espousing free market absolution as simultaneously a fundamental of the Christian, a sine qua non of US American identity, and the touchstone of capitalism (an essential core of Western civilization). The consequences of this became remarkably clear in Latin America. As Greg Grandin has correctly observed, US empire achieved a moral force of remarkable scale. This is striking in light of the sheer brutality and murderous policies that characterized, for instance, Ronald Reagan’s deployment of the CIA to disrupt and control Latin American states like Nicaragua and Guatemala. [6] The years of the Reagan administration were marked by an explicit religious promotion of market absolutism. Of further importance was the broad mobilization of Christian nationalism to advance the ability of the US to control, through military and other means, a global array of polities and regions.

The success of the US in managing democracy and controlling Latin American states was directly tied to vigorous alliances between the US government and a range of US Christian nationalists who operated in Latin America to propagate a message of Christian gospel distinctly opposed to liberation theology and the anticolonial struggles of the rebels fighting against military dictatorships. Virginia Garrard-Burnett’s study of religion and genocide in Guatemala is just one of many reminders that militarism and US imperial strategies became inextricably wed in the twentieth century precisely because Cold War politics thrived partly on religious claims about the stakes of freedom, capital, and security. [7]

In my next post, I will turn attention to the elemental structures of US empire, attempting to explain its specific architecture accounting for why the very status of the US as an empire is rooted in its specific architecture and the political ideologies that have defined the periods of its formation.

[1] “NSC 68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security (April 14, 1950): A Report to the President Pursuant to the President’s Directive of January 31, 1950.” http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsc-hst/nsc-68.htm.
[2] Steve Rosswurm, The FBI and the Catholic Church, 1935-1962 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009).
[3] David Priestland, The Red Flag: A History of Communism (New York: Grove Press, 2009), 294. “Communism Held Godless Religion: Catholic Supporters Apostates, Priest Says in Explaining Ban on Red Publication,” New York Times, 25 July 1949.
[4] “Communism and Islalm,” New York Times, 19 June 1949.
[5] David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 255-58.
[6] See Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), 6-8.
[7] Virgina Garrard-Burnett, Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit: Guatemala under General Efrain Rios Montt, 1982-1983 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Thanks, Mom: Christian Approaches to Motherhood

Today is Mother’s Day (or perhaps Mothers’ Day, but definitely not Mothers Day). So, first of all, thank you to my mother, grandmothers, and especially my wife for being such great moms. That is the point of the holiday after all—to show our moms gratitude for the sacrifice and love they shared with their children. It is such an important role in our society that Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists have often been outspoken in support of traditional mothers. Even in conservative churches, the models of motherhood continue to change as biblical interpretations of submission and marriage intersect with cultural understandings of feminism and sexuality.
Woodrow Wilson first declared Mother’s Day a national honorary holiday 100 years ago, co-signing a proclamationwith Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan on May 9, 1914. The official purpose was to call for the public display of the American flag on public buildings and residences, as a show of patriotic support and “public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.” Americans had honored their mothers on a special day for a few years prior to the Wilson proclamation. The holiday was spreading even while Americans were voting on whether to grant suffrage to their mothers and other women in various states. The Senate considered the Susan B. Anthony amendment, to grant women’s suffrage just a few weeks later on May 24, 1914. The amendment failed at that time, but would later be passed after the resolution of World War I. A century of change for women has redefined the concept of motherhood, and Christian church groups have been very outspoken over the years on the proper place for women and mothers in society. 

1914 White House Proclamation of Mother’s Day

An example of the traditional Christian model of women and motherhood is the book God’s Ideal Woman by Clifford Lewis of Kansas City Bible College, with an introduction by Mrs. Billy Sunday. Originally published in 1941, the book remains for sale in print, but is also available onlinein its entirety. 

Practical suggestions for women are clearly presented in chapter titles such as “Don’t Be a Silly Girl,” and “Advice to the Old Maid.” In chapter five, “The Responsibility of Motherhood,” the author cited odes to the bravery, music, kiss, prayers, and love of a good mother. There was a tale of a heavenly angel who collected a mother’s love as one of the most beautiful things of earth. There were also cautionary tales about a careless mom who dropped her baby in the bear pit at the circus, and an undiscerning mother who taught her son to play cards, which led him to life in prison. The lesson: mothers are filled with the sweetest love, but could use a little help around the wild animals. Also, avoid worldly pursuits.

More recent approaches reflect the challenge of combining traditional Christian models with modern feminist influences. Marabel Morgan became a pop icon of conservative, yet frisky Christian womanhood in the 1970s. Her “Total Woman” embraced the traditional role of Christian submission and motherhood, while integrating Seventies openness to sexuality within marriage. Other church-sponsored role models for mothers have included 1980s “Facts of Life” star and “Personal Mom CoachLisa Whelchel. Whelchel gained some attention for her advocacy of “hot saucing” as a corrective method to verbal misbehavior of her children. Crowdsourcing motherhood advice is a popular method today, and Pinterest has a collectionof the best “must-follow” Christian moms.

The most influential resource for church moms today is MOPS, or Mothers of Preschoolers. A support group for 8 moms in Colorado grew into an international network of mostly church-based local chapters, along with publishing ventures including a regular magazine. They use a basic leadership structure built around MOPS Mentors, and to answer your next question: yes, they do sponsor an annual convention, and yes, it is called Momcon. The 2013 Momcon brought more than 3000 MOPS members to Kansas City to hear speakers including Beth Moore and Jen Hatmaker. They also participated in workshops and social events including a dance party. Groups like MOPS demonstrate a savvy approach to networking and providing resources to support the work that moms face every day.

The feminist movement, and changes in society dramatically reshaped the role of women over the last 100 years. Christian church groups responded to these changes by working to preserve a place for traditional motherhood. As the feminist movement brought birth control, abortion, and expanded opportunities for women in the workplace, conservative Christian groups worked to elevate the dignity of working in the home. The growing popularity of home schooling built on this strategy as well. Christian fatherhood initiativesare not as popular. Men’s groups typically focus on managing the workplace and family balance.
Early Mother’s Day ad, 1913
What can often be missed in these traditional efforts is a sensitivity and acceptance for those who do not fit the very traditional models of women in the home and men in the workplace. Single mothers and fathers, working mothers, stay-at-home fathers, and couples without children may be left out of national efforts to recognize and support families. As conservative Christian churches continue to wrestle with cultural shifts in the definition of marriage, it will be worth noting how these programs respond to those changes.
As Mother’s Day officially enters its second century today, be sure to honor the mothers around you today. And be careful around the bear pit.

Shepherds of the Empire: Mark Correll on German Fundamentalism

Actually, Mark would say “fundamentalism” is a pretty misleading word to describe his subjects.  Mark Correll is Chair of the History, Politics, and Geography Department at Spring Arbor University, and my colleague (I’m known as Mark “the Lesser” around campus).  Correll’s recent book is entitled Shepherds of the Empire: Germany’s Conservative Protestant Leadership, 1888-1919 (Fortress, 2014).  It’s received strong endorsements from the likes of David Bebbington, Gary Dorrien, and Mark Noll.  When not counseling Lord Vader on his serious anger issues, Correll’s pastor-theologians were busy interrogating, erecting, and erasing boundaries between “believing” (conservative) and “critical” (liberal) church leaders, between the church and the imperial German state, between theological conservativism and political radicalism, and between seminarians and clergy.  His book is a wonderful addition to religion and politics studies that place theological controversy and reform at the center of nation-state building.  It would also make for excellent comparisons and contrasts with George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture.  Correll offers some interesting reflections on American and German Christianity in his following guest post.   

Mark Correll

I am a product of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy. The churches I have attended, my undergraduate university, and my current employer all bear the imprint of this century-old conflict. In many cases the wound is still fresh and the conflict is still fought. I recall a poignant moment as a graduate student when I introduced my interest in modern German theology to a trained historian visiting our church. He told me that he was not much familiar with the theology of my dissertation, but he knew that Albrecht Ritschl’s theology arrived straight out of hell. While I am confident that I would have never drawn such distinct lines, the origin of my project was immersed in this thinking. At the beginning of my graduate studies, I told my advisor confidently that I was seeking to show that Germanysecularized because Germany’s churches liberalized (in my mind liberalization was code for losing contact with spiritually genuine doctrines). Being informed by a far richer mind, greater life experience, and his own battle scars from the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, my advisor warned me to not be so confident that I would find any such evidence.

I’m exceedingly grateful for his warning. It began the long process of redefining my assumed fault lines when interpreting Germany’s own lively debate about the means and meaning of modern epistemology and historical method. It also showed that the early pugilists of the American fundamentalist/modernist debate were terribly selective and ethnocentric (excepting elements of the Lutheran churches) in their adoption of ideas and theology from Germany. By the end of the long nineteenth century, the sharp divides in theological interpretation that marked the American church of the period had been worn away. These extremes were bridged by a group known as mediating theologians (Vermittlungstheologen) who rejected the extremes of literalism on the one hand and speculative Hegelian thought on the other, and who limited themselves to careful historical study using the best techniques of the field. Surprisingly to Americans, these self-defined mediating theologians included Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf von Harnack as well as the figures of my study: Adolf Stoecker, Martin Kähler, Adolf Schlatter, and Christoph Blumhardt whose theology would be acceptable to American fundamentalists, even if not exactly embraced by them.

The perceived threat of critical scholarship to living faith by these conservative theologians was no less acute than it was to American fundamentalists, however differently they may have responded. Faced with a similar concern over the continued faith of the nation, the theologically conservative church leaders developed a two-pronged attack on unbelief. First they sought to engage critical scholarship at the universities. Many of the leading conservative theologians tried to defend belief in the supernatural even in an age of enlightened skepticism. Yet, unlike their American counterparts, affirmation of Scripture’s supernatural records was not their main focus. Instead they developed a hermeneutic of belief. These theologians argued that Christianity’s obligation to faith was not fulfilled through affirmation of the Bible’s factuality, but through obedience to the Bible’s commands. This obedience generally presupposed an act of faith that accepted the Bible’s narratives as essentially factual, but the onus did not lie on conservatives to prove the historicity of the Bible’s miracles – only to discern true Christian obedience from the Biblical texts.

The second attack against unbelief was political. Conservative Christians (conservative both in their politics and their theology) controlled the church synod. They defrocked pastors who refused to affirm the historical creeds of the church and limited liberal pastors’ advancement through the church hierarchy to Dekanates and Bishoprics. Likewise the conservative church leaders exercised their muscle with the Prussian Culture Ministry and the Kaisers to ensure that each major theology faculty had at least one conservative professor of theology, plundering the most conservative faculties of Greifswaldand Erlangen in the process. The result of this was that German university seminaries never experienced the cloistering effects of the American fundamentalist/modernist controversy. The other political attempts were less focused and less unified ranging from Adolf Stoecker, who founded the Christian Social Party that tried to use a foothold in parliament to attack perceived enemies of traditional faith: socialism, freethinking, and predatory capitalism (which Stoecker saw embodied in Germany’s wealthy Jews) to Christoph Blumhardt who joined the Socialist Party in Germany to try to bring the worldview of a worker’s party in line with Jesus’s preaching of compassion for the poor. Most churchmen, however, found themselves in the middle waxing nostalgic for a pre-industrial Germany where family bonds and the village church helped give order to Germans’ lives.

Already at the advent of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, cultural editorialists were christening the American Century and historians were identifying possible elements to explain American exceptionalism. It is useful to reflect on how the twentieth century was also the German Century, with historians lining up to see what dysfunctional elements led to the unique German modernization (Sonderweg). These kindred cultures and kindred Christianities uphold mirrors of each other. Only by realizing the creative, dynamic actions of these societies and representative churches can we gain a full understanding of each.

The Age of Evangelicalism: An Interview with Steven P. Miller

The following is an interview with friend of the blog Steven P. Miller about his groundbreaking new book, The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years (Oxford, May 2014).  Miller is also author of the critically acclaimed Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (Penn, 2009).  If you backmask this post, a surprising revelation will appear: The Philadelphia Eagles will win the Super Bowl in 2015.

1. How does The Age of Evangelicalism relate to your first book on Billy Graham?  Do you see it as a natural outgrowth or a new direction?
In most respects, the two books are quite different.  After completing the second one, though, I do have a greater appreciation for how Billy Graham was simply the opening chapter of a larger evangelical renaissance.  My emphasis is on the diffuse nature of that renaissance by the late 1970s.  People like Harold Lindsell were trying to define theological moderates out of evangelicalism, while someone like Jerry Falwell was trying to reassert the label fundamentalist.  Yet no one person or institution could control a discourse about evangelicalism and fundamentalism that also involved Larry Flynt, Ruth Carter Stapleton, and even Ayatollah Khomeini.  Such were the terms of influence, as I argue.
As for how I go about evaluating that influence, there are definitely some similarities between the two books.  My approach has been to weigh the categories that my subjects delineated (“religion” here, “politics” there) against the inevitable “lived worldliness” (as I have elsewhere put it) that came with being an important historical actor.  The resulting tension is not an indicator of hypocrisy, but rather a gauge of significance.  Historical empathy, for me, means respecting the ideas of my subjects enough to state them clearly.  Historical analysis requires connecting those ideas with related phenomena.  Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman tapped profoundly into the needs of her audience, including many non-evangelicals.  Her book would have been a best-seller even had the Equal Rights Amendment or abortion remained marginal issues.  Yet to describe her in terms of “therapeutic antifeminism,” as I do, is not to impose a secular category.  Rather, it is to explain why she made the cover of Time magazine.  Likewise, it is not unfair to call Jim Wallis a member of the “religious left,” even if he has tried to reject that label.  Wallis was precisely the kind of politically progressive Christian whom Democrats sought out in the mid-2000s as they obsessed about the electoral “God gap”—and he reciprocated.  One of the most underappreciated aspects of evangelical entrepreneurship is the use of strategically self-limiting language.  But Morgan sold millions of books, and Wallis helped to make the Obama brand possible.  They were not bit players.
2. Could you talk a bit about your thesis by way of explaining the title of your introduction: “An Age, Not a Subculture?”
I’m not suggesting that an evangelical subculture doesn’t exist (far from it).  Rather, I would contend that the evangelical subculture is just one part of a larger story about evangelicalism and its impact on recent American history.  In other words, I am interested in writing a history in which evangelicals (whether one defines them using a loose Gallup-style formula or a tight Barna-style one) were not the only protagonists in evangelical history.  People for the American Way, the new atheists, and the West Memphis Three were part of the story, too.  I run into Christians all the time whose religious identity is very much linked with notbeing evangelical.  That dynamic, in and of itself, could be a chapter in the history of evangelicalism.
3. You write that “the recent history of American evangelicalism looks different . . . when it is not solely about evangelicals themselves” (pp. 7-8).  Would you consider your book a kind of reception history–of how once-subcultural ideas and practices were mainstreamed?  How did you navigate the tension between broad descriptive survey and proving what we might call your evangelicalization thesis?
I am not sure if “reception history” is quite what I was writing, although perhaps I am just parsing phrases.  I see my book as a story of how the public presence and awareness of born-again Christianity (which, in the vast majority of uses, was synonymous with “evangelicalism”) shaped how Americans understood and evaluated their times.  Sometimes, specific evangelical arguments were very influential in their own right.  Other times, they served as foils.  Either way, millions of Americans came to understand themselves in relation to evangelical phenomena.  The “satanic panic” tapped into deep anxieties about American popular culture and equally deep cynicism about media culture.  Megachurches informed debates about civil society.  The “public square” and the “culture wars” became the dominant metaphors for how Americans talked about the public status of religion.  And on and on.
I am drawn to writing in a manner that is both chronological and thematic.  This can be a tricky scheme.  Decades are handier for chapters than for big arguments.  Still, a chronological approach can offer readers a sense of how similar ideas were voiced in very different contexts and how specific actors popped in and out of certain stories.  Forty-plus years of American history is a good chunk of time, although it seems easier to keep this in mind when comparing 1930 and 1970, as opposed to 1970 and 2010.  I do not include Barack Obama in the same chapter as Jimmy Carter, even though Obama sought to recover the kind of evangelical politics that seemingly disappeared when Carter left office.  I made a similar decision to divide my discussions of the evangelical left.  The evangelical left’s influence on American politics was most striking in two very different contexts: in the early 1970s, when it helped to foster a new evangelical salience amid the fallout from Watergate; and in the mid-2000s, when it demonstrated that the Christian Right was not the only story about evangelical politics.  There was a rich, rich history in between, as David Swartz and Brantley Gasaway have shown us.
4. You open the book with a quotation from Alan Wolfe about how “we are all evangelicals now.”  And yet your study in some ways appears to be an autopsy of an Age which, you suggest, died in 2012 (pp. 162-63).  Have we now passed through evangelicalism’s middle ages into its memorial service?  Or, do you imagine something like the liberal Protestant “cultural victory” argument (Demerath, Hollinger, Hedstrom) now passing to the evangelicals—i e., evangelical numbers and institutions will shrink even as their beliefs and values become normalized among the general population? 
My epilogue is not an autopsy.  It is an invitation to take stock of a moment in recent American history.  I was very intentional about using the expression “winding down,” rather than the more concrete “ending.”  The Alan Wolfe line points to the recognition of evangelical ubiquity, which was a going concern during the period I consider.  For the moment, evangelicalism retains its spectacle quality.  I have secular, politically liberal friends who love Duck Dynasty (or at least they did before that Esquire piece).  At the same time, it is a bit weird how so many popular articles about evangelical phenomena read like they might have been written in 1976, which George Gallup, Jr., famously declared the “Year of the Evangelical.”  What I would say, then—as I suggested earlier—is that we need to appreciate that a lot of things happened after Gallup made his pronouncement.  Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell are not yesterday’s news; they are a generation ago’s news.
5.  Where do you see your own work fitting among recent studies in evangelicalism?  Where do you see the field going? 
               There have been so many great works in recent years, and there are more to come.  As I state in my Introduction, we can now clearly connect evangelicalism with any number of huge demographic, economic, and political shifts since the mid-twentieth century.  My book owes a tremendous debt to the historians who drew those connections, as well as to the journalists who tried to make sense of evangelical phenomena that seemingly came out of nowhere.  I should note, too, that I do not intend my book as a corrective to these newer works, even if my approach is (I think) different than most.  I have no idea whether anyone will run with the idea of a more expansive historical use of evangelicalism.  Looking ahead, an exciting angle is the global turn, and there are a number of studies in the works along those lines.  The political narrative is far from exhausted (and the cultural angle is inexhaustible, one supposes).  We have so much more to learn about the anti-abortion movement, for example, as well as about policy in general.  The influence of theology is so obvious that it has actually been understudied.  A number of recent and forthcoming works refreshingly treat theology as the stuff of intellectual history.  There are so many fantastic scholars who deserve a shout-out—too many to attempt to name in one place. 
               I’m no Hal Lindsey, but I will offer a closing prediction: In the coming years, fewer and fewer historians of evangelicalism will have a childhood or existing connection to evangelical faith.
               Ok, here is one more: The historiography of recent American evangelicalism will become livelier—which is to say, more contentious.
Steven P. Miller, for the Religion in American History blog
22 January 2014

The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism (Review)

Paul Putz

Those of us interested in the study of American religion in the Progressive Era and early twentieth century have had some fantastic reading material in the past year. I’ve previously covered two examples in new books from David Burns and Priscilla Pope-Levison. Now I get to turn to Matthew Bowman’s The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism (Oxford, 2014), a book derived from a dissertation completed under Michael Kazin at Georgetown.

The subtitle seems to indicate that this book will be primarily about liberal evangelicals, and Bowman does indeed have much to say about that group. However, the fundamentalist antagonists loom large in the text as well. This may as well have been subtitled “the fate of evangelicalism.”

Bowman argues that the fracturing of evangelicalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is best understood as a response to the crisis of the city. That sounds familiar enough on the surface. But Bowman’s Orsi-inspired approach is unique. For him, evangelicalism should be seen as a religious style, a “set of behavioral expectations and methods of practice” rather than a “coherent theological proposition” (p. 10).  Bowman zeroes in on three elements that united evangelicals in the nineteenth century: conversion (although there were competing notions about this process), a desire to interact with God through language, and an emphasis on the preached sermon and the read Bible as the means towards that end.

American cities in the postbellum era, with New York as the penultimate example, shattered the confidence evangelicals had in the “connection between the city’s cultural and physical landscapes and evangelical piety” (p. 13). The written and spoken word of God did not seem to be as powerful in a city teeming with immigrants and filled with mass media and new forms of entertainment. Thus, the assurance that evangelicals had in their dominance of New York City in the 1850s (Bowman is careful to note that this was a perceptual confidence, not necessarily a lived reality on the ground) began to fall apart in the 1870s and 1880s. The sense of crisis experienced by evangelicals was a reaction to their inability to effectively reach the city with the Word through the Bible and preached sermons. As evangelicals sought to preserve the faith, the divergent methods of liberal evangelicalism and fundamentalism emerged, both of which were the “product of pastoral experimentation” to find the most effective way of proclaiming the Word in the modern city of New York (p. 13).

With that background in place, it becomes clear why Bowman’s title, The Urban Pulpit, is so important. In his telling, it was in the response from the pulpit to the crisis of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century urbanization that liberal and fundamentalist forms of evangelicalism developed.

Bowman makes his case in eight chapters that stretch from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1920s. He is attentive (especially in the first two chapters, but also throughout) to the material aspects of lived religion in the city: physical space, soundscape, ritual actions, and so on. At the same time, he analyzes the thought of a number of leading New York evangelicals, both liberal and fundamentalist. This is not a study in which the city of New York is merely the geographic selection criteria used by Bowman in order to decide which theologians he should analyze. Rather, the sights and sounds and spaces of the city shape the spiritual sensibilities of Bowman’s protagonists.

As the book progresses, Bowman moves chronologically through what he sees as key developments in the emergence of a liberal evangelicalism (and its ever-present fundamentalist counterpart). He argues that the proto-liberal evangelicals began to diverge from the evangelical consensus in the late nineteenth century by imagining and enacting new ways in which the Word could be spread in the city. More than a verbal proclamation, they began to see that the Word could be embodied and lived out in physical spaces through social service, and it could be revealed in the “aesthetic and the numinous.” The transition of the Word from “verbal proclamation to affective embodiment,” (p. 97) was propelled by a Romantic impulse that emphasized experience and emotion rather than precise doctrinal meaning, and by Charles Briggs’s theology, which gave intellectual legitimacy to a view of Scripture which emphasized imitating instead of idolizing the Bible. As Bowman put it, Briggs argued that the Bible “must be understood in terms of archetype and typology: it did not embody God, but it taught humanity the ways of living that would bring them into tune with the divine presence” (p. 99).

Bowman suggests that a “self-conscious” liberal evangelicalism emerged in the time in between Brigg’s 1890s trials and a speech made by Henry Sloane Coffin in 1915 in which Coffin claimed the label “liberal evangelical” as his own. In the time in between, social reform flourished, and liberal evangelicals began to understand their activism as a form of liturgy, a sacramentalism of sorts in which their presence in the city was meant to embody the Word. Redemption had come from hearing since the Reformation, Bowman wrote, but “it would now come by doing” for liberal evangelicals in New York (p. 112).

It was on this last point, action as a liberal evangelical trait, that Bowman’s New York-centric approach brought up some questions. He does briefly mention antebellum evangelical activists, but he does not discuss precursors like Washington Gladden, who in the 1870s was already advocating an “applied Christianity.” By the 1880s, the notion of practical Christianity was so deep-seated in some Protestant circles that liberals (like Chicago divine David Swing) and conservatives alike congratulated revivalist Sam Jones for his efforts in emphasizing action over theology. Nor does Bowman give a nod to any of the radical figures of the postbellum holiness movement, people who left established denominations in the 1880s and 1890s to set up shop in the urban slums of American cities precisely because they believed the church was not practicing what it preached. How did those earlier notions of practical Christianity shape liberal evangelicals’ emerging social activism in the 1890s? If they did not have much of an impact, what were the differences? Bowman’s story is so deeply tied to New York that what was happening outside seems not to matter much, even if what was happening outside certainly must have influenced what was going on inside New York.

Related to that point, Bowman does such an excellent job throughout the book of making room for nuance and complexity that I would have loved to see how groups that emerged from the holiness tradition fit in with his story. He gives Pentecostalism some space, but only briefly and only in its 1920s form. Part of this omission may stem from the evangelicals Bowman highlights: this book primarily includes Baptists and Presbyterians, with some Episcopalians thrown in. Methodists, who had more adherents in New York than Baptists and from whom many holiness movement denominations emerged in the 1890s, are no more than an afterthought — perhaps because they did not have a dramatic fundamentalist-modernist split in the 1920s.

After explaining how a new liberal evangelical style developed in New York by 1915, Bowman turns to analyzing the tensions from left and right that rose in opposition. While liberal evangelicals like Charles Parkhurst responded to the diminished importance of the pulpit by trying to broaden the nature of their preaching, nascent fundamentalists took a different tactic. Continuing to “assert faith in the unaltered Word,” they became more “strident and aggressive” in their verbal proclamations (p. 165). The increasingly vociferous assertion of the verbal Word became a feature of fundamentalism. The amped up aggressiveness revealed desperation caused by the diminished power of the Word in the city. But in fundamentalist preachers like Billy Sunday, the power of the Word was re-energized, and in John Roach Straton, the “first master” of fundamentalist provocation, it took on an even more sensationalized style.

By the 1920s, liberal evangelicals and fundamentalists viewed each other as dangerous threats. While both sought spiritual power from God as the means of coping with an increasingly pluralistic city, their methods had become drastically different. Bowman argues that Harry Emerson Fosdick, for example, was not concerned so much with conservative doctrine, but rather with the fundamentalist style that was turning off young cosmopolitan New Yorkers to the gospel. On the other side, fundamentalists lamented Fosdick’s imprecise doctrinal language and his focus on conduct as the defining characteristic of Christianity, which seemed to indicate to them a lack of regard for proclaiming the true unadulterated Word.

Liberal evangelicals also had to worry about the boundaries to the left. Pluralist progressives, who were becoming increasingly secular by the 1920s, shared with liberal evangelicals belief in the importance of social activism and public involvement. However, they rejected the liberal evangelical emphasis on conversion and spiritual experience, as well as a Christocentric theology, and instead placed their confidence in technocracy and pluralism. Bowman identifies these progressives who continued to work within Protestant denominations as “modernist” or “mainline,” terms that he uses in contrast to liberal evangelicals (p. 8). Thus, liberal evangelicals in the 1920s, while embracing a generally tolerant attitude towards non-Christians, still held onto hope that the city could be converted to Christ…not converted in the way fundamentalists might like, but converted nonetheless. Pluralist progressives, meanwhile, were more interested in managing America’s diversity than in assimilation to an evangelical Protestant ideal. (As an aside, Bowman uses a fascinating story in chapter six from a short-lived Union School of Religion class to illustrate the boundaries between pluralist progressives and liberal evangelicals)

By 1946, Fosdick and Coffin, “guardians of liberal evangelicalism” had retired. In the preceding decade, “the pressures of fundamentalism on one hand and progressivism on the other narrowed the ideological space for liberal evangelicalism to near nothing,” (p. 15). And by the 1950s, Bowman notes, Billy Graham represented a conservative resurgence in claiming the evangelical label.

Although Bowman does not mention this, some “mainline” Protestants — in particular figures like Charles Clayton Morrison who were associated with the Christian Century – tried to keep the evangelical label for themselves when Billy Graham rose to prominence. (Check out this Baylor ISR video lecture from Elesha Coffman on the subject). That they jockeyed for ownership of the label may indicate that liberal evangelicalism maintained vitality for longer than Bowman gave it credit for. At any rate, I was struck by how similar the debates between fundamentalists and liberal evangelicals in the early 1900s were to more recent battles within evangelicalism, especially between the emergent camp, the young/restless/reformed crowd, and (what now seems to be) more traditional conservative evangelicals. In both cases, doctrinal differences were highlighted, yet it seems that Bowman’s emphasis on the differences in style and method is worth taking into consideration.

As scholarship on liberal Protestantism moves forward, Bowman’s work stands, in my mind, as absolutely essential to anyone interested in the field. His book is a reminder of the complexity within American Protestantism both then and now. Beautifully written with a compelling argument (although one that needs to be tested outside the confines of New York), Bowman manages not only to shine a light on some individuals who have been overlooked but also to bring a fresh lens of analysis to well-studied individuals (like Sunday) and topics (like fundamentalism v. modernism). It’s early in the year, but I imagine this will be on my short list for favorite books of 2014.

Religion and Toys

Mitzvah Kinder (Photo by Amudart)

Laura Arnold Leibman

Why is it that Christian Fundamentalists have had better kitsch than Charedi Jews?  Will this always be the case?  To answer this question, I turn to one segment of American kitsch industry, the religious toy.  Childhood in general and toys in particular can enhance our understanding of what is “American” about in American religion. In a recent post on gender, the family, and modern evangelicalism, Randall Stephens noted, “the story of Christianity in America has often centered on childhood as well as parenting and the family.”  In this post I look at recent Charedi engagements with the toy industry and consider how concerns about the relationship between American life and religion are played out in the world of toys.  In addressing the intersection of religion and toys, I return to a question raised by Randall Stephens, but in slightly modified form: What does the study of family life, parenting, and children add to our understanding of American Religion?

Child’s chair from Plimoth
Plantation, Indian Converts
Collection. Photo L. Leibman, 2005

Current Christian toys are part of a long history regarding the intersection of childhood and religion in American life.  Scholars of American Religious History have generally accepted that children’s toys reflect both religious ideology and changes in American notions of childhood.  As I have noted in my Indian Converts Collection, before 1750 it was rare in New England to find objects expressly for the use of children:  the objects that did exist were utilitarian: cradles, swaddling clothes, leading strings, walking and standing stools.  Perhaps more crucially these objects were designed to restrain rather than entertain: they “forced the child to lie straight, stand straight, or walk erect” (Calvert 7). When children did possess “toys” such as rattles, they were given them because they helped with toothaches, not because they were developmentally important or entertaining (Calvert 49).

“The Mansion to Happiness”
(W. & S.B. Ives, Co., 1843).
(The Board Game Craze)

As this view of childhood and play was gradually eroded by the influence of the Enlightenment, children’s toys began to change in quantity, quality, and meaning. By the middle of the nineteenth century, children’s paraphernalia had also multiplied. Rather than restraining the “beast” within the child, children’s cribs, high chairs, and swings were intended to protect the sweet and innocent child from “physical injury, temptation, and worldly contamination” (Calvert 7-8). Children’s games became socially acceptable and encouraged (Calvert 81).  Some of the earliest American board games such as the “Mansion to Happiness” (1843) were explicitly religious in message and content and helped the child progress on his or her spiritual journey.

Tales of Glory Galilee Boat 15pc Set
“Imagine what it would have been like to sail
the Sea of Galilee with Jesus and his disciples!”

Contemporary Christian toys work with this post-Enlightenment vision of actively nurturing children, particularly in a spiritual sense, through toys.   For several decades, Christian Supply stores and Christian Bookstores have supplied the fundamentalist movement with a wide range of biblical action figures and morally upright toys that have nurtured Christian values and ideals, and engaged children in biblical narratives (left). Equally interesting are a subset of Christian toys that seem to merely relabel “pagan” ones in a way that encourages children to rethink how everyday objects could support Christian ideology (below).

“Finally there is a Christian toy manufacturer that is brave enough to save Christian children from the pagan influences of secular and worldly toys. Below we have a prime example of this in the new ‘Faith Works Tool Set.’ We’ve put the Faith Works Tool Set next to the standard pagan tool set that sells at Toys R Us so that you can see the stark difference between these two products. Aren’t you blown away by the difference?! Imagine how many children the Faith Works Tool Set will save from becoming pagans!” (http://www.alittleleaven.com)

Here’s a fashion doll you can feel good about!
She loves dancing and praising God.
Recommended for ages 4 to 8.”

Other contemporary Christian toys such as the God’s Girlz dolls (right) likewise suggest that “pagan” American culture and Christian America are not so far apart. God’s Girlz substitute a “religious” vision of American womanhood for the secular vision of American women and girls promoted by Barbies and Bratz. Although proponents of the dolls suggest that the dolls are “modest, yet fashionable, and packed with meaningful content designed to encourage thoughtful play,” critics have noted that other than sporting Christian T-shirts,  these dolls aren’t “any different from Barbies.” One skeptic wonders, “What’s the point of creating a Christian alternative if that supposed alternative isn’t all that different from its secular counterparts?”  Such critics have probably missed God’s Girlz’s essential message.  The overlap between God’s Girlz and secular dolls’ representations ideal American femininity suggests some Christians see the secular and sacred as nearly compatible.  Such a message competes with forms of fundamentalism that disparage “worldly” Americanism.  While certain Christian toys may seem to combat secular notions of what it means to be an American, toys like God’s Girlz provide a alternate narrative in which Christian fundamentalism and American culture are inherently compatible with only minor tweaks.  Dancing isn’t sinful when directed to the proper end.  Likewise sleeveless, hot pink tank tops become “modest” when decorated with Christian messages.

“Your child will remember the discussions
of water buffalo in Shulchan Aruch (YD 28:4).
Some say buffaloes are the “meri” of II Samuel 6:13
and I Kings 1:9,19 or the “t’oh” Deuteronomy 14:5
or even the “re’em” of Numbers 23:22, 24:8,
Deuteronomy 33:17 and Job 39:9-12″

Enter Charedi toys.  Charedi (חֲרֵדִי) Judaism is a subset of orthodox Judaism that emerged in response to the Enlightenment.  Although by no means homogeneous, Charedi Jews are characterized by an adherence to Jewish law that seeks to separate itself from modern society, in contrast to modern orthodoxy which tends to embrace modernity and see modernity and orthodoxy as potentially compatible.  This engagement with “modernity” impacts toys:  whereas modern orthodoxy has often had a fairly liberal policy with respect to children’s toys, various Charedi communities have tended to reject certain types of modern toys not only because of a dislike of materialism, but also because of the specific messages about a “good life” embedded within in the toys themselves.  Sometimes communities have taken issue with certain dolls, either because they are potentially a violation of the second commandment, or because they valorize a way of life and dress that is considered immodest.   Other communities such as the Lubavitcher Hasidim have (fairly unique) prohibitions against stuffed non-kosher animals as well as the representation of non-kosher animals on baby and children’s clothing and blankets.  One company has emerged to help families abide by the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s directive against such toys by making a wide range of kosher stuffed animals easily available.  Like the “Christian” Toy Tool Set, the kosher stuffed animals largely help the devout rethink what they already see around them.  For Lubavitchers, even stuffed animals have a impact on the child’s soul, since “Everything that occurs around the child affects his soul, and this effect will become manifest in later years” (Shaarei Halacha U’minhag, Vol. 2, pp. 221-222; translated by http://asimplejew.blogspot.com). Thus rethinking the world by seeing certain toys has enduring importance for a person’s spiritual life.

Binyan Blocks Large Shul Set

In order to help foster more toys that influence souls in positive ways, in recent years several Charedi companies have entered the toy business.  I am interested in two such toys: Mitzvah Kinder and Binyan Blocks, both of which have been advertised in Charedi magazines like Mishpacha (Hebrew: family) and online venues.

Although previously mainstream toy companies have occasionally produced “Jewish” lines like the Hannukah set for Fischer Price’s Little People, Mitzvah Kinder and Binyan Blocks represent a specifically Charedi vision of Judaism.  As the New York Daily News notes, Mitzvah Kinder and similar toys are “aimed at religious parents who want to keep mainstream toys like Angry Birds, Rockin’ Elmo and Battlefield 3 away from their kids.”  Mitzvah Kinder creator Toby Horowitz runs the company out of her living room in Borough Park (a Charedi neighborhood) and designed the series because “We want to keep our children entertained without the street influence” (Simone Weichselbaum Daily News, 12.22.11).

Women of the Fischer Price Little
People Hannukah Set

One aspect of the “non street influence” of  Mitzvah Kinder and Binyan Blocks is their message about Jewish gender roles and identities.  Mitzvah Kinder and Binyan Blocks women strictly adhere to orthodox laws regarding women, though they accurately display the diversity of opinions within Charedi communities about how such laws can and should be kept.  Whereas Fischer Price’s Hannukah set takes a non-Charedi approach to hair covering (Jewish mother wears a doily on her head and the grandmother’s head is adorned solely with naturally grey hair; right), the women of both Mitzvah Kinder and Binyan Blocks wear hair designed to look explicitly like a sheitl (wig), tichel (head scarf), snood (thick hair net), or sheitl topped with the type of small cap used by certain groups of Hasidic women (below).  While the nuances of the clothing codes which distinguish various subsets of Charedi families available in the figurines should be fairly obvious to insiders, Mitzvah Kinder also usefully identifies what type of Charedi family is being presented in each set (e.g. Litvish, Hasidic, Yeshivishe).  The Charedi world of Mitzah Kinder is explicitly diverse, respects that diversity, and does not seek to privilege one form of Charedi observance above all others.

“The Mitzvah Kinder Mommies Daven in shul and then throw pecklech at a Mitzvah Kinder aufruf!!” [Translation: the Mitzah Kinder Mothers Pray in Synagogue and then throw candies at a at the groom when he is called up to the Torah in the Mitzvah Kinder synagogue the Shabbat before his wedding.] (http://www.toys4usa.com)  Note head coverings.

Moreover, both Mitzvah Kinder and Binyan Blocks send fairly explicit messages about the distinctive spatial and spiritual roles of women in Jewish life.  While the Mitzah Kinder women definitely attend synagogue and pray, the “Mommy” play set helps children role play women fulfilling their special role before a wedding (throwing candy). Similarly Binyan Blocks’s “Large Shul” (Synagogue) set separates male space from female space and male from female roles and comes complete with a mechitza (the partition separating men’s and women’s sections of a synagogue).  The display copy places the female figurines behind the mechitza in a smaller women’s section at the physical margin of the synagogue while the male figures read from and handle the Torah at the central bimah, or reading platform (below).  As one consumer noted, even the Binyan dreidel sets are gendered: “Identical pieces, different colors: pink with purple for girls, blue with white for boys.  If the colors weren’t clue enough which gender these sets target, one miniature figure is included, like a guiding spirit presiding over the package:  a modestly dressed, pearl necklaced Mamele for the pink dreidel, and a bearded Tatele in black hat and suit for the blue” (“Bible Belt Balabusta“).

Large Shul Set of Binyan Blocks: “Large shul building block set with over 750 pieces, including 10 Heimishe [friendly] people.  Shul has many benches, a bimah, seforim shank [book case] and an aron kodesh [torah ark] with 2 sifrei torah [torah scrolls]! Set includes special stickers that are reusable. Beautiful step by step instructions are included. Will keep kids entertained for hours on end.” (binyanblocks.com)

Despite these commonalities, the toys have distinctive elements with respect to gender.  While Binyan Blocks and Mitzvah Kinder both emphasize the centrality of seforim (religious books) and the synagogue to Jewish life and include women in the synagogue itself, Mitzvah Kinder provides a wider range of positive women’s activities.  Whereas all of the community helpers in Binyan Blocks are male emergency workers (Ambulance, Rescue Car, Shomrim Command Center, Fire Truck), the “Community Helpers” set of Mitzvah Kinders is one-third female.  Likewise other Mitzvah Kinder sets explicitly provide a variety of avenues for female role playing.  This difference may represent a perception that legos appeal more to male children than do figurines, or it may reflect the fact that the Mitzvah Kinder were created by a Charedi woman.  In both sets there is an emphasis that orthodoxy does not involve merely praying or observance of rituals, but also involves helping people, whether through emergency work, or via other communal and charitable activities (below).  Whereas Binyan Blocks makes this communal statement through “modern” activities and vehicles, both sets explicitly reference a non-urban, non-American “shtetl” past, either through farmer figures, a “shtetl road map,” or merely by calling the sets a “shtetl series.” This shtetl talk suggests a continuity between old world values and current observance.

The Mitzvah Kinder toy collection has been designed to represent a yiddishe lifestyle in the world of children’s play and imagination.  This set includes:  Chesky from Chaveirim Hershel from Hatzolah [Emergency Medical Service], Pinchus the Postman, Mendy the Fire-man, Esty from Oseh Chesed [a Charity Organization], [and] Brucha from Bikur Cholim [a group that visits and aids the sick].” (http://www.toys4usa.com)
Male Binyan Block

In both instances the toys reflect a vision of American Judaism that is at largely odds with larger American culture. Yet strangely, they have taken a distinctly American and modern idiom–the plastic toy–to teach this lesson.  Through the idiom of the toy, Binyan Blocks and Mitzvah Kinder make ties between the current distinctive way of life and older non-American traditions.  Unlike God’s Girlz, the women’s clothing is tznius (modest) according to the rules of orthodox law, and contrasts sharply with how female legos and figurines are usually clothed. Similarly the male binyan and kinder can be distinguished from secular toys by their adherence to elements of orthodox dress codes that set men and boys apart from larger American society such as payot (sidelocks), tzitzit (ritual fringes), streimels (round fur hats), yarmulkes, beards, suits and black hats (left and below).  These toys not only draw the line between women’s space and men’s space, but also highlight the space of American Judaism: here American Judaism revolves around adherence to Jewish law in the home, the synagogue, the book room, and helping people, not through “cultural” Judaism. Both toys are a good example of fundamentalism’s ability to adapt and use modern forms even as it presents itself as adhering to a traditional way of life.

The Mitzvah Kinder Totties [Fathers] daven in shul and dance in shul on Simchas Torah!” (http://www.toys4usa.com)

Further Resources:

A Culture of Conspiracy: An Interview with Michael Barkun

I had the pleasure of interviewing my colleague Michael Barkun, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Syracuse University, about the new edition of A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, first published by the University of California Press in 2003, and reissued this past summer. A scholar of millenarian and right-wing movements, Barkun is also the author of Crucible of the Millennium (Syracuse University Press, 1986), Religion and the Racist Right (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), and Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security since 9/11 (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). For other discussions of Barkun’s scholarship on the blog, see here and here.

The first edition of A Culture of Conspiracy ended with the impact of September 11, 2001 on conspiracy theorists. How has the subculture of conspiracy evolved since then?

I finished the manuscript in fall 2001, and it was almost completed when the 9/11 attacks occurred. I couldn’t send it off without saying something about the events of September 11. At the time, all I could do was look at what professional conspiracy theorists had to say. They had an immediate response, and their short version was: I told you so.

      After ten years, I looked back and saw a number of important developments. First, the development of a 9/11 conspiracy culture, which drew in people who had not been conspiracy theorists before the 9/11 attacks. Second, the election of Barack Obama created a new form of conspiracism around him. The most conspicuous element were the birthers, who believed he was hiding his true origins. Third, the decade witnessed a rise in militia activities as well as attacks by lone wolves motivated by the belief that a social catastrophe was coming. I was supposed to be an expert witness on conspiracy theories for the trial of one militia group in Michigan, though my testimony was not allowed.  This heavily-armed organization, the Hutaree militia, allegedly planned to kill one or more law enforcement officers and then launch an attack at the funeral, which would involve police from all over the country. The legal charge was sedition. There were other examples of militia activities in Georgia, where a group planned to use ricin, and in Florida. Fourth, the Mayan prophecy of 2012 was an example of the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories described in the first edition of the book. So much had happened that I proposed new chapters to the press, and they responded with enthusiasm.

Your book highlighted the place of anti-Semitism, and to a lesser extent, anti-Catholicism, in “improvisational” conspiracy theories, which draw from a range of influences. Are anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism still prominent?

Yes, I think they are. I don’t see them as having a larger place in conspiracy culture, but I don’t see them going away. They have a certain resilience. In the first edition, I wasn’t surprised at the anti-Semitism but I was surprised at the anti-Catholicism. It is still there—as is anti-Masonry. But again, I don’t think there is more of it.

The new edition considers the “birther” movement. Do you think racism has gained new influence in conspiracy circles since the election of President Obama?

I thought a lot about this question when writing the chapter on Obama. It is very dangerous to try to infer motives of people that you don’t know. There have always been conspiracy theories about the presidents, but I don’t recall, at least since FDR, when there have been so many. I don’t think it is an accident. The volume of conspiracies is greater than in the presidencies of the Bushes and Clinton, and that has to have something to do with race. The question of his birth is a way of making a radical attack on legitimacy without overtly raising the issue of race. Discussions of Obama’s birth also raise the issue of Africa. I think race is there, even if it is not overt.

As you argue, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a common target of conspiracists, who accuse the agency of using emergencies to establish martial law and build concentration camps. Did the federal response to Hurricane Katrina change or confirm their views?

When the Department of Homeland Security formed, I predicted an upsurge of conspiracy theories about FEMA, and its integration into DHS, but it didn’t happen. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security does not seem to have changed anything. And I have not seen anything tying Hurricane Katrina to concentration camps. Suspicion of the agency has not disappeared, though the connection to DHS has not changed the way it is perceived.

      The conspiracy theories focusing on FEMA go back to the 1970s. Conspiracists believed the Carter administration established these emergency capabilities so they could quickly set up concentration camps. I know an FBI agent in Michigan, and a local person told him there was a FEMA concentration camp nearby. He asked to see it, but unsurprisingly, that individual never took him to see it.

One of the things that struck me when I read the first edition was that conspiracists seem to be non-partisan. Have conspiracists become more partisan since 2001?

My research has focused on the extreme right, so I have not looked at the extreme left, though I know they exist, and they share the same characteristics. Conspiracism is not exclusively a right-wing phenomenon. A main characteristic is a deep suspicion of authority—religious, political, academic, etc. As a result, it doesn’t matter whether the political authority is Democratic or Republican. Conspiracy theorists are as suspicious of Republican presidents as they are of Democrats. For example, a tremendous amount of conspiracy developed around the figure of George H.W. Bush. So there is a non-partisan aspect to conspiracism. Their tendency is not to believe any authority.

You cite Pat Robertson’s The New World Order as the most mainstream conspiracy text. Do Christian fundamentalists still produce and consume conspiracy theories that predict the end time?

Yes, I just received an article on the apocalyptic significance of the Syrian war. I also receive a newsletter from Armageddon Books, which features books for prophecy-oriented fundamentalists, and the newsletter’s title is “Welcome to the End-Time Informer.” The most recent newsletter features a book on The 9/11 Prophecy by James Fitzgerald (“Startling Evidence that the Endtimes have Begun”) and has a reader poll, asking “Could a United States strike on Syria become the fulfillment of Isaiah 17:1 which says ‘…Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap’?”

      Millennial thought is very resilient and adaptable, even though the end time seems to be constantly changing. Millennialists rarely make specific predictions, more often they are vague like Pat Robertson.

Another date for the millennium (12/21/12) has come and gone. How have conspiracy theorists adjusted?

The Mayan prophecy advocates formed two wings. The first group said that 12/21/12 would bring a new period of spiritual enlightenment and millennial bliss. The second faction predicted apocalypse, with numerous natural disasters, such as those depicted in the movie “2012.” When the date passed, there were three responses. First, some said that there was a change but it was intangible, or in the mind, and only evident to those who were spiritually attuned to the universe. Second, some said that the date was miscalculated. Mayan scholars had disagreed as to the exact date. The third reaction was simply to admit they had been wrong.

We have already discussed some examples of how conspiracy theory has become mainstreamed. Are there other examples of its acceptance in American popular culture?

One example is the popularity of Dan Brown’s novels. He has made an industry out of mainstreaming conspiracy theories. What is amazing is how many people read his novels. Why do people buy them? They clearly resonate. Another recent example is cable TV shows about survivalists, or “preppers,” that air on National Geographic and Discovery channels. One of the titles is “Doomsday Preppers.” They expect a terrible calamity to happen to society and they are preparing for the consequences. This is an interesting sociological phenomena, but programmers also made a judgment that there was an audience for these shows about people preparing for a societal upheaval.

A Culture of Conspiracy: An Interview with Michael Barkun

I had the pleasure of interviewing my colleague Michael Barkun, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Syracuse University, about the new edition of A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, first published by the University of California Press in 2003, and reissued this past summer. A scholar of millenarian and right-wing movements, Barkun is also the author of Crucible of the Millennium (Syracuse University Press, 1986), Religion and the Racist Right (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), and Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security since 9/11 (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). For other discussions of Barkun’s scholarship on the blog, see here and here.

The first edition of A Culture of Conspiracy ended with the impact of September 11, 2001 on conspiracy theorists. How has the subculture of conspiracy evolved since then?

I finished the manuscript in fall 2001, and it was almost completed when the 9/11 attacks occurred. I couldn’t send it off without saying something about the events of September 11. At the time, all I could do was look at what professional conspiracy theorists had to say. They had an immediate response, and their short version was: I told you so.

      After ten years, I looked back and saw a number of important developments. First, the development of a 9/11 conspiracy culture, which drew in people who had not been conspiracy theorists before the 9/11 attacks. Second, the election of Barack Obama created a new form of conspiracism around him. The most conspicuous element were the birthers, who believed he was hiding his true origins. Third, the decade witnessed a rise in militia activities as well as attacks by lone wolves motivated by the belief that a social catastrophe was coming. I was supposed to be an expert witness on conspiracy theories for the trial of one militia group in Michigan, though my testimony was not allowed.  This heavily-armed organization, the Hutaree militia, allegedly planned to kill one or more law enforcement officers and then launch an attack at the funeral, which would involve police from all over the country. The legal charge was sedition. There were other examples of militia activities in Georgia, where a group planned to use ricin, and in Florida. Fourth, the Mayan prophecy of 2012 was an example of the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories described in the first edition of the book. So much had happened that I proposed new chapters to the press, and they responded with enthusiasm.

Your book highlighted the place of anti-Semitism, and to a lesser extent, anti-Catholicism, in “improvisational” conspiracy theories, which draw from a range of influences. Are anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism still prominent?

Yes, I think they are. I don’t see them as having a larger place in conspiracy culture, but I don’t see them going away. They have a certain resilience. In the first edition, I wasn’t surprised at the anti-Semitism but I was surprised at the anti-Catholicism. It is still there—as is anti-Masonry. But again, I don’t think there is more of it.

The new edition considers the “birther” movement. Do you think racism has gained new influence in conspiracy circles since the election of President Obama?

I thought a lot about this question when writing the chapter on Obama. It is very dangerous to try to infer motives of people that you don’t know. There have always been conspiracy theories about the presidents, but I don’t recall, at least since FDR, when there have been so many. I don’t think it is an accident. The volume of conspiracies is greater than in the presidencies of the Bushes and Clinton, and that has to have something to do with race. The question of his birth is a way of making a radical attack on legitimacy without overtly raising the issue of race. Discussions of Obama’s birth also raise the issue of Africa. I think race is there, even if it is not overt.

As you argue, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a common target of conspiracists, who accuse the agency of using emergencies to establish martial law and build concentration camps. Did the federal response to Hurricane Katrina change or confirm their views?

When the Department of Homeland Security formed, I predicted an upsurge of conspiracy theories about FEMA, and its integration into DHS, but it didn’t happen. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security does not seem to have changed anything. And I have not seen anything tying Hurricane Katrina to concentration camps. Suspicion of the agency has not disappeared, though the connection to DHS has not changed the way it is perceived.

      The conspiracy theories focusing on FEMA go back to the 1970s. Conspiracists believed the Carter administration established these emergency capabilities so they could quickly set up concentration camps. I know an FBI agent in Michigan, and a local person told him there was a FEMA concentration camp nearby. He asked to see it, but unsurprisingly, that individual never took him to see it.

One of the things that struck me when I read the first edition was that conspiracists seem to be non-partisan. Have conspiracists become more partisan since 2001?

My research has focused on the extreme right, so I have not looked at the extreme left, though I know they exist, and they share the same characteristics. Conspiracism is not exclusively a right-wing phenomenon. A main characteristic is a deep suspicion of authority—religious, political, academic, etc. As a result, it doesn’t matter whether the political authority is Democratic or Republican. Conspiracy theorists are as suspicious of Republican presidents as they are of Democrats. For example, a tremendous amount of conspiracy developed around the figure of George H.W. Bush. So there is a non-partisan aspect to conspiracism. Their tendency is not to believe any authority.

You cite Pat Robertson’s The New World Order as the most mainstream conspiracy text. Do Christian fundamentalists still produce and consume conspiracy theories that predict the end time?

Yes, I just received an article on the apocalyptic significance of the Syrian war. I also receive a newsletter from Armageddon Books, which features books for prophecy-oriented fundamentalists, and the newsletter’s title is “Welcome to the End-Time Informer.” The most recent newsletter features a book on The 9/11 Prophecy by James Fitzgerald (“Startling Evidence that the Endtimes have Begun”) and has a reader poll, asking “Could a United States strike on Syria become the fulfillment of Isaiah 17:1 which says ‘…Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap’?”

      Millennial thought is very resilient and adaptable, even though the end time seems to be constantly changing. Millennialists rarely make specific predictions, more often they are vague like Pat Robertson.

Another date for the millennium (12/21/12) has come and gone. How have conspiracy theorists adjusted?

The Mayan prophecy advocates formed two wings. The first group said that 12/21/12 would bring a new period of spiritual enlightenment and millennial bliss. The second faction predicted apocalypse, with numerous natural disasters, such as those depicted in the movie “2012.” When the date passed, there were three responses. First, some said that there was a change but it was intangible, or in the mind, and only evident to those who were spiritually attuned to the universe. Second, some said that the date was miscalculated. Mayan scholars had disagreed as to the exact date. The third reaction was simply to admit they had been wrong.

We have already discussed some examples of how conspiracy theory has become mainstreamed. Are there other examples of its acceptance in American popular culture?

One example is the popularity of Dan Brown’s novels. He has made an industry out of mainstreaming conspiracy theories. What is amazing is how many people read his novels. Why do people buy them? They clearly resonate. Another recent example is cable TV shows about survivalists, or “preppers,” that air on National Geographic and Discovery channels. One of the titles is “Doomsday Preppers.” They expect a terrible calamity to happen to society and they are preparing for the consequences. This is an interesting sociological phenomena, but programmers also made a judgment that there was an audience for these shows about people preparing for a societal upheaval.

“Confused as a termite in a YO-YO”: Appleby Baptist and Religion in the South

“Confused as a termite in a YO-YO”: Appleby Baptist and Religion in the South
By Charity R Carney

            The folks at Appleby Baptist hate a lot of things. Here’s just a sampling of the targets of the Independent Fundamentalist congregation: interracial marriage, Obama, cowboy churches, other Independent Baptists, the NIV, tattoos, Southern Baptists, Beth Moore, flashy clothing, John Calvin, oh, and interracial marriage. That last one deserved repeating because it comes up A LOT. Most of the church’s vitriol is aimed at evangelicals themselves, who are not living up to Appleby’s standards of Christianity and confronting these “sins” head on. The small church a few miles from my house has received some national attentionlately for promoting racist and sexist doctrines, especially with is insistence on preaching the Curse of Ham. But there is more to Appleby than racist theology. The church promotes a range of fundamentalist doctrines that make Southern Baptists look liberal. In fact, Dennis Anderson (the lead pastor for Appleby) uses the word “liberal” interchangeably with “Southern Baptist,” in his writings.  
            As I’ve talked to locals who are just discovering this congregation, I’ve found myself contextualizing in the midst of their many condemnations. We should condemn these doctrines but to dismiss them as wacky or ignorant is to forget our own history.  For southerners especially, Appleby Baptist offers a real opportunity for us to take a closer look at our past and how it’s informed the present—beyond the walls of one fanatical congregation.
At first listen, Anderson’s fire-and-brimstone sermons seem like some strange sampling of Billy Sunday, Jonathan Edwards, and antebellum proslavery Baptists like Thornton String-fellow. Anderson has very real connections to Edwards in terms of dark prophetic imagery, combining a reliance on the vernacular with an obsession for jeremiads. He also borrows from Sunday’s theatrical intonations, using anecdotes and flamboyant metaphors to articulate his points. And those points incorporate themes and arguments reminiscent of proslavery apologists who used Scripture to justify the peculiar institution. The influences of these predecessors are apparent but wrapped in a particular perspective unique to Appleby Baptist that is at once offensive and laughable. (In a recent article, for instance, Dennis Anderson addressed other ministers who do not follow his creed as the “liberal minded, sissy acting, silk panty wearing wimps, who will no doubt have the opinion that I shouldn’t be calling names.”)
Beyond incendiary rhetoric, what may be more distressing to many Christians is that Appleby is not an anomaly within the larger history of evangelicalism in the South. In fact, its core beliefs are very similar to those held in the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth (some gender inequalities are obviously still being debated and negotiated within larger denominations). The Southern Poverty Law Center rightly picked up on the church’s open devotion to the Curse of Ham and their loud protests against interracial marriage. The church proclaims that “God is a separator, not a mixer” and Anderson lays out the antiquated justification for slavery and segregation based on a very specific interpretation of the curse placed on Canaan in Genesis. This kind of racist doctrine was used in the antebellum South to promote slavery and in the Jim Crow South to support racial discrimination/segregation. Stephen Haynes’s work—including his article in a 2000 issue of the Journal of Southern Religionand monograph Noah’s Curse (Oxford UP, 2002)—has rightly situated the myth within southern honor culture. Sylvester Johnsons’ The Myth of Ham presents the ways that Hamitic identity affected black Christians. In many places throughout the South, the Curse of Ham is still taught but the churches simply aren’t publishing articles on the Internet promoting the myth.
But in addition to its racist doctrines, Appleby also promotes outmoded (but not unheard of) spiritual sexism. In a scathing review of Beth Moore’s leadership at First Baptist in Houston (a megachurch about two hours away), Anderson calls Moore a “spiritual whore” for preaching that God can call women into ministry, using the NIV Bible (the King James is the only acceptable version at Appleby, being “pro-Christ” rather than “pro-Roman Catholic”), and drinking too much coffee from Starbucks, indicating her worldliness and affluence. (There is an interesting intersection of gender, class, and religion here that needs further dissection.) Moore “has trouble with authority” and “is not happy with being a woman, wife, mother, and homemaker.” Women who follow her have husbands who are “HOUSEBROKE” and “HENPECKED.” Anderson urges them: “Stand up and be a man! Take charge of your home, and get your family under some real Bible preaching that the gates of Hell cannot shake. God told you to take command of your house by the Word of God. Quit being a SISSY and STAND UP and be a man for God.” The gender politics at Appleby is fascinating and the masculine rhetoric is overpowering. But it is not wildly distinct from the positions taken by other, mainstream denominations in the South. Appleby sits squarely within the long history of gender inequality in Christianity and debates over women’s religious leadership. Elizabeth Flowers’s excellent new book, Into the Pulpit: Southern Baptist Women and Power since World War II (UNC, 2012), details the struggles over female ordination in the SBC. Baptists, Methodists, Mormons—all have experienced recent discourse over the subject of women’s role in the church. Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism (edited by Margaret Bendroth and Virginia Brereton; Illinois, 2002) offers insight into this discourse in many Protestant groups. Evangelicalism has wrestled with this conflict/crisis for a long time, in other words, and Appleby is simply contributing to that narrative.   
Despite any congruence with mainstream religious history, Appleby preaches these messages with a certain… how shall I say this… verve? Anderson has translated past evangelical beliefs into modern terms (with additional offensive flare). There are no gentlemen theologians at the church but, instead, its leaders rely on crude analogies and language to stir the emotions of their congregants. When addressing the minister who does not denounce interracial marriage, Anderson calls him a “TURD CHUNKING MONKEY.” When denouncing Christian authors Henry Cloud and John Townsend, the preacher argues that they may be “sweet on each other” since they took their author photo together, and launches into a series of attacks that utilizes a myriad of epithets for homosexuals. Anyone who reads Cloud and Townsend’s books, Anderson claims, is as “CONFUSED as a termite in a YO-YO.” This incendiary style of preaching mirrors that of Westboro Baptist and presents a twist to other racial or gendered religious doctrines presented by other churches. It’s angry and offensive and intentional, but it’s not new.
Although Appleby presents its beliefs in a different way, they are beliefs that were widely held for much of American religious history. The same prejudiced doctrines were crafted with care in the slaveholding South, promoted into the twentieth century, and are still practiced in small congregations throughout the region. Within this historical context, Appleby offers much in terms of revealing the connections between past and present in southern religion and forces us to consider the lasting effects of lost causes on our belief systems. In criticizing Appleby, perhaps we are revealing our own revulsion with past sins. Appleby’s doctrine is not unmoored, but is connected to earlier trends/beliefs that simply do not mesh with our current culture, and that is what makes us so mad. It would be worthwhile to heed the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hatewatch” warning: “the same seeds of hatred proudly displayed by Appleby and an unknown number of other independent fundamentalist churches are scattering, planted to grow in coming generations.” But what this statement ignores is that Appleby and other independent fundamentalist churches did not plant the seed; they are instead sowing the seeds of southern religious history that were planted well before Dennis Anderson ever picked up a King James Bible.

Four Questions with Peggy Bendroth

Randall Stephens

The historian Peggy Bedroth is the executive director of the Congregational Library in Boston, MA. Since her first book appeared 20 years ago, she has shaped the field of American religious history in profound ways.  Her insightful work on gender, childhood and family, and the cultures of

fundamentalism is as familiar to the grad student as it is to the established professor.  Among other things Bendroth has explored the day to day lives of believers and helped us understand how men and women, young and old, came to terms with the tumultuous 20th century.

I first encountered her excellent book Fundamentalism and Gender: 1875 to the Present (Yale University Press, 1993) in a graduate readings course with David Hackett at the University of Florida. Douglas Frank praised Fundamentalism and Gender in The Journal of Religion as “a remarkably stimulating read, offered in graceful, well-paced language by a generous spirit . . .” Agreed. In the years since Bendroth has written Fundamentalists and the City: Conflict and Division in Boston’s Churches, 1885 to 1950 (Oxford University Press, 2005); Growing Up Protestant: Parents, Children and Mainline Churches (Rutgers University Press, 2002); and has edited several other volumes, including Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism (Illinois 2002). Her most recent book is A School of the Church: Andover Newton across two Centuries (Eerdmans, 2008)

In this second installment of Four Questions, Peggy reflects on the twists and turns of her academic career and discusses her recent work.

Randall Stephens: When and why did you decide to study American religion?

Peggy Bendroth: You could say that I simply fell into it.  I majored in history as an undergraduate, and back in the heyday of the liberal arts (i.e., before college students worried about finding jobs), thought I’d love to study American intellectual history in graduate school.  For reasons that don’t make as much sense now as they did then I decided to take a side route into seminary to learn some theology, and ended up smitten with church history, and was then looking for grad school programs in American religion. 

Of course, in other ways I was probably predestined.  I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, a small Dutch Calvinist denomination and actually started learning theology from a very young age, memorizing the Heidelberg catechism, arguing with my Sunday school teachers, testing the patience of my fellow Calvinettes, and harassing my parents with complaints and questions.  The religion I grew up with was not about feelings—it was more like a life-long intellectual project.

I suppose what first interested me in religious history was the way it provided a context for my fairly narrow upbringing—it put us somewhere on a map, i.e., not the center—and helped me make personal and intellectual sense of what I’d grown up with.

Stephens: What do you think is different about the field now compared to when you completed your graduate work?

Bendroth: In the early 1980s there were few places outside of theological seminaries to study American religion. I was not interested in spending any more time in one of those, so I went to work with Timothy Smith (Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War [1957]) in the history department at Johns Hopkins. It was a challenge being both female and interested in religion in that very male and extremely secular setting.  It may seem surprising now, but the reigning assumption was that people who came to history with a “grid”—i.e., Marxists, women, or religious people—could not be objective like other scholars.  At least I was not a Marxist.

Sometime, somewhere after I left graduate school, we all became post-modernists.  By the time my children were old enough for me to begin writing again, I discovered that being female and interested in religion was not a drawback.  The new project was to understand religious belief and behavior in all its wild diversity. The experiences of previously unknown people, like fundamentalist women, were suddenly important, as windows into an American religious culture far more complex and diverse than most scholars had been willing to guess.

Stephens: How do you think theory should inform the study of American religion?

Bendroth: I learned to do research and write from a mentor who had never seen a footnote that was too long or too complicated. Tim Smith sent me right off into primary sources, armed with the understanding that if I immersed myself in them long enough they would begin to talk back, and the story began to become clear.  I encountered theory mostly in discussions of method, with the anthropologist Clifford Geertz and his concept of “thick description” front and center. As Hopkins had no department of religion, I received little direct training in religious theory.  I was in a history department after all, at a university founded on the importance of empirical research.

It is so easy for historians to fall in love with primary sources.  This is why most of us do what we do; we love treasure hunting through mazes of forgotten material in search of a narrative.  Too much theory, especially with dense, impenetrable prose, can feel like it’s slowing us down.

But over time I have learned the importance of going in with a map, knowing some of the markers I might encounter in those primary sources.  This meant figuring a lot of things out as I went along—it was kind of too late to go back to graduate school, so a friend and I agreed to read books about feminist or postmodern theory together, picking out ones that neither of us would have gotten through on our own, and hashing them out over many lunches of Indian food.  When I started my latest project, before I headed to the archives I spent my mornings reading big thick books on secularization, in short manageable chunks. I did not read line by line as if I was preparing for an exam—it felt more like marinating, mostly trying to see how another group of scholars talked about ideas that interested me. (Yes, this paragraph does contain a lot of food metaphors.)  Doing primary source research did not mean looking for material to fill in a theoretical grid but entering in at a deeper level than before, with a head full of good questions asked by thoughtful people. 

Commemorative stamps from 1920.

Stephens: What projects are you working on now?
Bendroth: After many years of thinking about fundamentalists, I became interested in mainline and liberal Protestants.  I realized early on how much of their story has been filtered through the lens of their conservative evangelical critics—liberals were the ones who capitulated to modern culture (whatever that means), fading into the dull beige background.  My suspicion is that they probably represent a type of religious faith that we just haven’t defined very well—they may sound inarticulate or waffling, especially alongside their highly verbal fundamentalist and evangelical cousins, because they don’t have a good language for what they believe.  Until pretty recently they just haven’t had to explain themselves all that much.

Seeing that I now direct the Congregational Library in Boston, where my office is deep in the stacks, I am writing more specifically about Congregationalists.  This is not easy to do, I’ve found, since the historiography of all the mainline denominations drops off somewhere after the 1850s.  I’ve had to reconstruct a century or more of denominational history almost from scratch.

Right now I trying to finish a “history of history,” analyzing the ways my Congregationalists (cultural insiders all) imagined and used their past—in their case the Pilgrim and Puritan Fathers, as they called them. The sources are surprisingly rich: Congregationalists loved everything from turgid “historical discourses” and paeans to the “Pilgrim Fathers” to over-the-top pageants and re-enactments in full costume.  The primary question isn’t just how they used their past, though—it’s how the idea of the past itself was changing over time, becoming more linear, more abstract, and more alien to the present. If we think about secularization as the accumulation of many small changes over time, then all those discourses and pageants have a lot to say.  It’s been a lot of fun to coax the story out of the old books and archive boxes just outside my door—the Congregational Library has a solid but quirky collection and I’m always happy when other scholars come by to discover it too.

Embattled Majority: Part II of Jason Bivins On His Work Embattled Majority

Today is Part II of our two-part series featuring Jason Bivins’ reflections about and on his ongoing work Embattled Majority. Read Part I here.
by Jason Bivins

On one level, Embattled Majority is a genealogy of the tropes of persecution and victimization among religious conservatives since the 1960s, as well as among their vocal detractors. The book tells the story of this discursive formation – locating its origins in judicial decisions, school desegregation, and grassroots campaigning – but also focuses on how new media, religio-political celebrity, and the emotional registers of affront and offense give it shape and prolonged life. As meditations and exemplars, the book looks to a series of performed outrages that give life to the religion of embattlement: David Barton’s pseudo-history, Glenn Beck’s tears, legislation outlawing Sharia in Tennessee and Oklahoma, the political celebrity of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry’s prayer gatherings, and birtherism. The topic is not an unfamiliar one, and some authors have treated it admirably. Randall Balmer and Jeffrey Sharlet – whose works are diametrically opposed in many different ways – have each limned the institutional or movement contours of this sense of embattlement. Elizabeth Castelli has sharply located some of the discursive features of this notion in her important piece on the Justice Sunday conferences. Historian Grace Elizabeth Hale has written a provocative chapter on the 1970s conservative Christian appropriation of erstwhile leftist outsider tropes. And social and political theorists such as Wendy Brown, William Connolly, and even madcap Slavoj Zizek have written provocatively about discourses of victimization in contemporary culture. Yet I focus not just on the frank existence of such claims, on targets and practitioners, but on the technologies of their deployment; on the role of speed, intensity, and virality therein; on their emotional contours; and of course on what their ubiquity reveals about our religio-political moment, and what may come.

A central focus is on two discursive constructions of “religion,” which share revealing groups of similarities. One is spoken by a group we might call “Whistle-blowers,” whose media expressions – including NPR commentaries, websites like Salon, Christo-phobic texts by Christophers Hedges and Hitchens, and blogs like The Rude Pundit – have sought to “blow the whistle” on evangelicals said to be seeking theocratic rule and attacking the First Amendment. The tone of these allegations – enraged, panicked, dismissive – has had a large role in constructing one model of political “religion” in recent years. The other discourse issues from a group we might call “Martyrs,” shaped largely by institutionally powerful, heavily-funded speakers – from media personalities like Glenn Beck to pop authors like Tim LaHaye to Presidential hopefuls like Ricks Perry and Santorum – with significant connections to Christian Right organizations. They claim to be victims of “religious bigotry,” an unjust marginalization of Christians from public life at the behest of secular liberals who oppose America’s Christian legacy.

The discourse favored by the “Martyrs” has been the shaping influence during this period; the discourse of the “whistle-blowers” is in every way a reaction to the growing power of a conservative subculture shaped by the emergence of the New Christian Right (NCR) in the 1970s. The sense of cultural crisis found so widely in conservative evangelical communities is one that has been publicized for decades by NCR figureheads and organizations, yielding both a broad sensibility about political morality and specific points of advocacy that are reflected in the conceptual grammar of “religious bigotry.” But it struck me over time that the real story was in how both groups see themselves as an Embattled Majority, as representatives of the “real” America, unfairly victimized by zealots. Each advances their criticisms not only through rhetorics of alterity – and the two epistemological modes noted above – but with constructions of “religion.” To the Martyrs, “religion” is precisely the register of identity which renders them targets of victimization and embattlement. They believe that “religion” as they understand it – specifically a kind of Christocentric nationalism – is firmly rooted and evident in a providential history that spans the roughly four centuries between John Winthrop and the War on Terror. A central index of patriotism and good citizenship, “religion” here is not only a rightful political participant but a force of cohesion, a foundation that undergirds political virtue, a barometer by which the nation’s health is measured. On this account, recent American history chronicles both an unprecedented corruption of this “religion’s” flourishing – a claim supported by arguments about the activist judiciary, the secularization of public life, and so forth – and a reassertion of the proper power of religion in those efforts seeking to roll back the forces of “religious bigotry.” To the Whistleblowers, “religion” is not benevolent but dangerous, a divisive and disruptive presence in public life which deflects attention from material concerns or accepted forms of recognition onto scrims and screens that lure people from real world engagement with promises of messianic glory. Here, “religion” is not what has been corrupted (though there is a sense that “religion” is okay if thoroughly privatized and neutered) but rather what corrupts and corrodes the secular, rational character of American ideals and procedures. Even while Whistleblowers acknowledge that these have been only imperfectly realized, “religion” represents to them a dangerous return of the Enlightenment’s repressed other, a pre-echo of the real American history that began with philosopher kings in Philadelphia and which is in danger from reactionary mobs. 

These uses of “religion” in public discourse then take shape via the changing deployment of shared images (the wall of separation), legal norms (“public reason”), and tropes (“the people”). Each vision reflects not only particular religio-political orientations, but historical ones: the history of the American Left shapes the disbelief and rage of the “Whistle-blowers”; the history of the 1970s New Right and its offspring shapes the institutional network and rhetoric of the “Martyrs”; the political apathy and disenchantment of post-1960s American life shapes the chastened outlook of both discourses; and understandings of American history itself (its origins and moral character) are at stake in each conversation. Perhaps most provocatively, the shared features of these discourses constitute a larger sign of political exhaustion in the United States, something to which political constructions of “religion” contribute even while promising remedies. As both commentary on and contribution to political life, these discourses employ a conceptual grammar that advances the categories “good” religion (like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, whose politics happen to mirror our own and are thereby seen as acceptable participants in public life) and “bad” religion (ones, like Rick Perry’s, whose politics we do not share and are therefore seen as dangers in public life). 

What, then, are the implications in terms of political culture broadly speaking and the study of religion? First, I try in this book to think how context – political, affective, technological – shapes the emergence and the effects of these claims. It’s here that I’m using the term Techular Swirl. Why “Techular”? The word “Techular” aims to capture how the technologies of our imagination produce categories like “religion,” but also suggests how we produce and perform our Embattlements in ways that are literally technological: we depend on it, are facilitated by it, produced by it. In other words, the processes by which Embattlement claims circulate resemble, and sometimes partake of, the technological, of the modes by which new social media act. The word also connotes the secular because the very emphasis on investing blank time and space with meaning is a possibility and longing that characterizes the secular. We see their fusion in the Embattled Majority’s productions of “religion” itself. And the word “Swirl” conveys the disorientation, the ceaselessness of motion, and the sheer sense of being overwhelmed that characterizes our politics. 

            Second, I try to think about the significance of how persecutionist claims are articulated. Historically, one of the big stories – and one of the leitmotifs of this book – is how the ubiquity of political liberalism (as a logic shaping discourse and self-understanding) and the identitarian shape the agonisms that seek to undermine them. This has become clearer to me in thinking about Nietzsche’s famous notion that those who perceive themselves as “victims” use this status to become oppressors and “killers” themselves. The fervid imagination that cooks up liberal and/or theophobic hostilities also depends, unknowingly, on liberal identitarian formations of rights of immunity, demands for recognition, and an insistence on the singularity (what I’m calling the “thingness”) of the discrete category “religion” as a central feature of American life. The surest way to “kill” one’s other is to perform – using these features of liberal identitarianism – one’s “victimhood.”  

What are we to make of this “religion” that is detectable in this flashes and sudden onrushes of dense verbiage? How do we locate it amidst the emotional intensities that seem at the heart of this culture of accusations, and where does “religion” originate in this complex lattice of technology, velocity, and relationality? Certainly one of my main claims is that “religion” is constituted through and by the evanescent outrages of the discourse. But it also is partly the point that “religion” eludes thingness, eludes conventional formulations of time and place and practice too. And the thingness of these notions is precisely what has preoccupied those seeking to profess outrage about these matters, these moments, these clouds that suddenly appear to us as the familiar strange. The emotional focus of this discourse, its necessary urgency, comes not just through the moment of exposé seen in “Gotcha!” Epistemology, whereby primary objects or categories like “religion” become known to us in moments of outrage, but also in what I call the Epistemology of Favorites, wherein knowledge is gathered and organized as one puts together a favorites list for internet browsing, iPod listening, and the like. This is relevant since those who use this discourse are shaping a mode of perception whereby the fundaments of knowledge and identity (the “favorites”) act as battlements, filters, and authorities that on the one hand engage in rigid boundary maintenance yet on the other hand generate a continual feedback loops between already settled convictions and onrushing data, all of which can only inevitably confirm what is already felt to be true, with feeling now understood as knowledge. Wiki expertise is crucial to both epistemological modes, where we all become experts in Sharia, the Federalist Papers, or education jurisprudence.  

            As I worked up these categories in the wake of the 2008 election, and began writing them up in earnest in 2010, I’ve tried to remain focused on how in these Embattlement discourses it is “religion” that is the engine of engines. Along the way, I revisit my earlier writings about political exhaustion, the religious supplement as a response to apathy and delegitimation, and the flourishing agon of American politics, and I garnish these themes with excursuses into disaster movies, reality TV, academic blogging, and – yes, my colleagues in fantasy football – Tim Tebow (rhymes with below). Through the “religion” the Swirl coughs up, we learn that the base experience of political life now is this frustration, this throwing up of hands, this furious internet scuttle to oursources, our people, our truths. Embattled Majority, then, is about the emergence and movement of “religion” in this discourse, in this particular kind of political environment. It is, more specifically, about the kind of “religion” that defines itself as embattled, as persecuted, as a victim and a martyr in a hostile secular America. And it is also about the outraged responses to such claims. This mutuality, this co-dependent and shared affront is what gives shape to “religion” in our America. These languages are now nearly universal. Nothing can be said without outraging someone. I have chosen to focus on the masters of this discourse and the eddies their presence creates, as a way of building a portrait of the present, already slipping away even as I type this. 

It is the performance of “religion” – always outraged and outrageous – that gives vitality to this technologically overgrown secular, speaks languages run riot with competing claims to rational facticity and emotional authenticity, and moves with the speed and character of collective impulse. Attending to these things, not merely ideology and institution, tell us far more about our shared orientation to “religion,” I hope, and about the shared world we make and remake with our language. Beyond our fascination with elections (which crystallizes the dominance of celebrity culture in the U.S.), our collective obsession with metaphors of place (as in, is there a “proper” “place” for religion in politics?) commits us on some level to an image of overlap and separation, either desired or dangerous, that turns on our propensity to see “religion” (or “religious belief”) as a thing, a separate and “special” quality or domain of experience to be protected or separated or given special license to “shape voter decision-making” or fashion arguments or justify behaviors. And it is the very specialness and discreteness of the category – its fragility and combustibility – that makes it so central to the languages of embattlement and the cultures of outrage. This is what it means to be an American now.

Embattled Majority: Religion and Its Despisers in America (Or: The Long-Lurching Wreck of American Public Life)

I’m psyched to guest post this two-part series from Jason Bivins, well-known to many of you out there for his books and articles, including Fracture of a Good Order (2003) and Religion of Fear (2008), which I reviewed several years ago on the blog here.

The Fracture of Good Order: Christian Antiliberalism and the Challenge to American PoliticsJason is currently at work on  a couple of projects. One of them, Spirits Rejoice, is about jazz and religion, and we’ll have much more about that exciting book down the road. The other project is the one we’re featuring for the next couple of days, from a book project entitled Embattled Majority. The work takes (as is characteristic of Bivins’s work) an original and compelling look at what one would otherwise assume to be a well- trod topic, religion and the culture wars in contemporary America. I’ll let him explain further below.

Part I is today and discusses both current projects and the genesis of the current Embattled Majority book and provides a first-person intellectual autobiography. Part II is tomorrow, and features an extended analysis of our current “embattlements,” in which, as he says, we are all engaged. It’s our way of celebrating the end of the election season, with all its attendant hyperbole and bluster, with some scholarly analysis that forces us out of our customary ways of thinking into something deeper and more interesting.

Embattled Majority: Religion and Its Despisers in America. (Part I)

Jason C. Bivins

             I’ve been meaning to write some posts for this blog for about three or four years. Having recently spent a fantabulous couple of days with Paul Harvey, and with his kind encouragement, I thought I might write a bit about the state of two lengthy research projects I’m working on. The first one is about jazz, and will be the subject of a subsequent entry. The one I’m writing about here comes from my ongoing enquiry into American political religions. Since a lot of the posts here are first-person and anecdotal, I thought I might write not just about the project’s particulars but about its inception. Here goes. 

            Over the last few years I’ve thought a lot not just about political religions but about my own motivations in writing about them. What does it mean to write about such matters amidst such an absolute, overwhelming abundance of discourse, much of it assuming some form of outrage, David Hume’s “common blaze.” Was there anything more to say about religion and politics in this context? Would academic complexity and nuance, assuming I could conjure them, be noticed at all, matter at all? Would my attempt to write partly in the idiom of social criticism be a risky one in a field often committed to the documentarian position (or what I sometimes think of as the Sunday newspaper magazine mode)? What in fact was I seeking and locating: the emotional experience of religions in political life, a distinct kind of religious expression (that we might clearly distinguish from other kinds), a mode of discourse? 

            My interest has generally been in the latter, with the clear sense that it gives insight into the former. I’m compelled by the notion that the political is, despite being so obvious in American religions, elusive and resistant to conventional descriptive efforts. What I’ve tried to do in my major writings so far, and continue to do in my current work, is to stage theoretical interventions into what is often a dusty discourse, stuffed with enumerations of practitioners and pamphlets and often bereft of suggestions about how to rethink these fundamental tropes and experiences in American life. In these, I’ve tried to excavate and analyze American cultures of religio-political discontent and to propose for my readers new interpretive languages, my own terms for the study of political religions.
In The Fracture of Good Order, I contend that undergirding many Christian criticisms of political order since roughly the Vietnam era is a series of complicated relations with certain fundaments of political liberalism: individualist conceptions of citizenship, a clear separation between the public and private realms, the priority of negative liberty over agonistic participation in public life, and the constraint of certain kinds of speech and action in the realm of the political.
In Religion of Fear, I explore the role of sentimental education in establishing or nurturing religio-political resentments, focusing on the changing shapes of conservative evangelical popular cultures – their shifting articulation, their differing audiences, their socio-political role and foci – in delineating a particular instantiation of a “fear regime” in post-1960s American life. Beyond the admixture of popular culture, fright talk, and conservative evangelical politics, I contend in Fear, we see in the growing normalization of the religious discourse of horror and fright a disturbing parallel to (and energizer of) other trends in American politics: the preponderance of conflict rhetoric and imagery, the creep of apathy and despair, and a vivid sign of the distance between Americans’ aspirations for themselves and what they believe of the world they share. What compelled me was not the snarky, derisive discourse by which some seek to confine evangelicals to a hokey, backwards, reactionary place on the margins of seriousness (however great the numbers, the influence) nor the sensationalist charges of theocracy one hears regularly. I wanted to explore how the popular narrations of a particular brand of religious fear revealed the complexities of religio-political identity, the centrality of the horrific to American self-understandings, and the growing power and ubiquity of combat language, demonology, and an occluded relationship between technology and rationality. So to answer the question “how did such fearful sentiment become normalized,” this chronicle was a possible answer. 

In 2008 I told myself I would concentrate on the jazz book, and I have. But I had to admit to myself that I was a faithless author and was cheating on that book, even before I knew it. That autumn and into 2009, I gave a bunch of talks and started writing for a couple of online forums, and it was in these spaces that I now know I was working out the ideas that now make up this book: the shared and even ubiquitous uses of the discourse of embattlement and victimization; the context of what I call the Techular Swirl, which combines the sense of being emotionally and techonologically overwhelmed with the construction of Wiki Worlds in which “religion” plays a central role; the articulation of embattled identity through what I call “Gotcha!” Epistemology and the Epistemology of Favorites; and the desire to meet the exhaustion of our political moment with a fabulist history in which We Matter, because we know that something called “religion” is embattled or signals our embattlement. So as the long-lurching wreck of American public life has continued to compel me, I realized beginning in late 2010 that I was in fact writing a second book alongside my jazz book.  

            As Fear built on Fracture, this project seeks to account for another dimension of religious agonism in political life in post-Vietnam America. I call it Embattled Majority, which signals my intention to give shape to a third religio-political discourse in the United States: one by which different groups of Americans proclaim their majoritarianism while also performing their victimization, oppression, and persecution. In most of my published work on political religions, I have addressed this discourse – it is more accurate to link it to a religio-political style, than to a movement – but my sense was that its importance to American conservatism (and conservative Christianity, that shifting assemblage of identities lumped together for authorial convenience) deserved a fuller theorization. But now my sense is that it is a critical claim shared far more broadly. It is this darker truth that the book is really about. Nobody escapes.

Part II to follow tomorrow.

Reviews from 30,000 Feet

Will Jerry Falwell Blame Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. for Hurricane Sandy?
Ed Blum

1979 was an annus mirabilis in American religious history. Working tirelessly along the east coast, three men responded to the racial, political, gender, technological, and cultural momentums of the past decades to create something that would transform the entire nation, if not the world. When they hit the airwaves, millions of Americans took notice. It began simply enough: “I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie / to the hip hip hop a ya don’t stop.” Fifteen minutes of rhymes followed and we’ve never been the same. The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” introduced countless Americans to the new genre of music, “rap” and the broader culture of “Hip Hop.”
Oh, and something else happened in US religious history in 1979. Three other east coast men, Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich, and Richard Viguerie, incorporated the Moral Majority.
What does Hip Hop have to do with the Moral Majority? Or, to channel my inner Makaveli:
Does the H-H revolution
have any God talk to incarnate
for the graying M&M delusion
or do these two form naked hate?
what finger you gonna point
D’evil Falwell at Jay-Z
You both bad men to anoint,
Still no Jesus piece for me.
Two new books had me riveted on the topic during my recent trip to and from upstate New York. As I traveled to enjoy the company of Richard Bailey at Canisius College, Josh Dubler at the University of Richmond, Dai Newman and the graduate students of Syracuse’s religious studies program, and the race and secularism gang at Syracuse University, I carted along Ebony A. Utley’s Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God and Matthew Avery Sutton’s Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious Right: A Brief History with Documents. Both were a treat on their own, and when brought together showcased how dynamic the past forty years have been vis-à-vis religion in the United States and how many ways there are to study it.
Utley’s work asks “why do rappers include God in their raps about murder, misogyny, and mayhem?” Examining rap lyrics, videos, and liner notes, she suggests that God and devil talk allow rappers to address a series of problems, including the history of urban crises, drug culture, urban violence, government withdrawal, and the emergence of the carceral state. Rappers invoke a God “out there” (importantly not “up there”) and also a God “down here” as ways to address problems of power, agency, and social traps. For male and female rappers, God as a father figure holds important, although often conflicted, meanings. When it came to the devil, he came in various forms: sometimes as a white man who offered wealth and authority; sometimes as a sexy woman who could derail the rapper from other delights; and sometimes as the rapper himself who wielded demonic strength. At the end of Rap and Religion, Utley provides statistical data from a survey of religious views about rap from students at CSU-Long Beach and interviews with several scholars, choreographers, and music producers.
Perhaps the best example in Utley’s book is Ice Cube’s “When I Get To Heaven” (1993). In it, as Utley points out, Ice Cube “lambasts Christianity for its hypocrisy, moneygrubbing, and racism.” The church is a fashion show; the priest is a beast; and the minister loves materialism. Ice Cube’s God is a “killer from the start,” which in the rap universe is not necessarily bad (who is killing, why, and who is being killed matters – just as the metaphorical killing of another can simply mean besting).
Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious RightJerry Falwell probably never listened to any of this music, but he did like the Christian “rap” group DC Talk, and his ilk certainly expressed concern over it (which means attacking it). Matthew Avery Sutton places Falwell at the center of the nexus of religion and politics during the late twentieth century, and the findings are tremendous. After a short introduction where Sutton maps out Falwell’s life vis-à-vis larger shifts in American history such as the civil rights movement, political scandals of the 1970s, contests over women’s rights and shifts in normative family definitions, reproductive and individual rights, and the relationship between “the church and the state.” Sutton’s book is part of the Bedford/St. Martin’s series that has some of the best teaching volumes out there.
Sutton’s volume is definitely teachable (and I’m using it for my US history survey in the spring). We are brought into the evangelical universe of political, social, and cultural problems. How shall they engage society, the new evangelicals ask the old fundamentalists? How will they respond to racial integration that is forced upon them (or at least desegregation if any women or men of color want to join) by a federal government that also wants to ensure that these churches, organizations, and colleges are not defrauding investors? How should they respond to abortion, since it has typically been a prominent issue for Catholics? And should they reject public schools, the domains that had been so important in developing the patriotic fervor many of them had felt as youths? Sutton’s documents illuminate all of these problems and more, and I cannot wait for my students to wrestle with the evangelicals’ positions and how they continue to impact contemporary politics.
So much about this book is outstanding. Unlike some other works in the Bedford/St. Martin’s series, Sutton’s introduction is manageable for the classroom. In 25 pages, he narrates not only Falwell’s history, but the contours of the broader histories we teach for those decades. The documents are terrific as well – ranging from Billy Graham and Hal Lindsey worried about the state of the nation and world to Larry Flynt eulogizing Jerry Falwell with whit and ire.
My favorite document was Tim LaHaye on “A Christian View of Radical Sex Education.” LaHaye explains that “Jesus Christ … was the originator of sex.” Cool! Then LaHaye provides some examples of “RADICAL SEX EDUCATION.” Sadly, there are no pictures. LaHaye then denounces teachers for showing videos where high school teachers learn how to put on contraceptives (banana + condom = sex education) or where seventh graders are encouraged to ask their parents how many times they have intercourse. All of this is part of an atheist agenda to destroy the home and the nation.
newgolden 027.jpg
diamond-studded Jesus piece
Returning to my original question, what has hip hop to do with the Moral Majority, we can bring Utley and Sutton together through an emphasis on masculinized material and performative cultures. Falwell may never have worn a “Jesus piece,” as rappers like Notorious B.I.G. did to link Jesus to excessive wealth and ostentatious show, but Falwell certainly enjoyed financial benefits from his ministry and celebrity status for his over-the-top rants. Similarly, while Kanye West would not have blamed lesbians, feminists, and gays for 9/11, he and other rappers certainly point fingers at those they oppose. What joins the so-called righteous rappers and the so-called moral majority together seems to be assertive and aggressive claims to knowledge of what is holy and what is evil, what is worth preserving and what must be destroyed.

The Antichrist and the Making of American Antiliberalism

By Steven P. Miller

FDR, Hitler, Mussolini, Obama, Nicolae Carpathia . . . It’s hard to keep up with all of the possible Antichrists, past and present. We need someone to keep the record straight. More importantly for students of modern American history, we need someone to tease out the connections between eschatology and politics—specifically, between dispensationalism and antiliberalism. That’s where Matthew Sutton comes in. Readers of the New York Times op ed page and viewers of MSNBC know that Sutton is up to the task. His recent presentation at the American Historical Association provided another window into his eagerly anticipated (and NEH-supported) project, tentatively titled American Evangelicals and the Politics of Apocalypse (Harvard). Sutton’s forthcoming piece in The Journal of American History, “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age,” shows how eschatology-fueled opposition to the New Deal laid the foundation for the rise of the Religious Right. As the final part of the title suggests, Sutton pays special attention to the inescapably global frame of politically attuned eschatology. Before the March issue hits the newsstands (or, rather, slides into your departmental mail slot), check out this fascinating podcast with JAH editor Edward Linenthal in which Sutton discusses the prophetic—and by extension, the political—implications of Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and FDR’s National Recovery Administration. Beware the Blue Eagle . . .

Reappraising the Significance of Religion in the Modern U.S.: 2012 AHA Session

Paul Harvey

Some of you blog readers may be getting ready for the 2012 American Historical Association meeting in sunny Chicago Jan. 5-8 2012. Because the AHA meets in conjunction with the American Society of Church History and the Catholic Historical Association, there are really too many sessions on American religion to list usefully. So instead I’ll feature a few sessions of interest that particularly catch my eye in the coming days here, and invite the rest of you to promote sessions of interest to you, either in the comments section or by sending me a guest post.

To start with, here’s hoping you’ll drop by our session, pasted in below, on “The Evangelical Century: Reappraising the Significance of Religion in the Modern United States.” Details below.

Saturday, January 7,2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Kansas City Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Anthea Butler, Universityof Pennsylvania
World War II andthe Birth of Modern American Evangelicalism
Matthew Avery SuttonWashington State University
Paul W. Harvey, Universityof Colorado Colorado Springs
Session Abstract
The twentieth century United States, according to the standardnarratives, was defined by growing secularism and pluralism. Heavy immigrationof Jews and Catholics in the progressive era, and of Hindus, Buddhists, andMuslims since the 1960s, created what scholar Diana Eck calls “a new religiousAmerica,” one in which no single group has a monopoly on power. The members ofthis panel are not so sure. While there is no doubt that the United States isfar more diverse today than it was in 1900, American evangelicals havenevertheless managed to shape the nation’s trajectory in important ways in thelast one hundred years. Building on new archival research, these papers seek toreappraise the significance of American evangelicalism in the modern UnitedStates.

Alison Greene focuses on an important shift that began in the1930s. Until the Great Depression, the nation’s established churches were on anupward trajectory in both numbers and influence. But the Great Depressioncrippled the Protestant establishment. At the same time, the economic crisismade room for evangelical and pentecostal churches that emphasized individualsalvation and authentic religious experience. While the established churchesstruggled to maintain programming and participation, upstart evangelicals andpentecostals employed creative techniques and a core of committed volunteers tokeep church operations afloat and expand membership. While it would be decadesbefore evangelicals and pentecostals rivaled their established counterparts in numbersand national influence, the Great Depression marked the beginning of a gradualtransition of power from the mainline to its upstart rivals.

Matthew Sutton’s paper (revised since the original proposal) discusses the reaction of fundamentalists to World War One, tracing that era as one of the creation of a religious movement that grew to be hyper-patriotic and suspicious of government at the same time.

Steven Miller examines more recent expressions of evangelism. Heargues that the growing prominence of Reagan-era evangelicalism produced twometaphors that profoundly informed subsequent discussions of faith and publiclife: Richard John Neuhaus’ “naked public square” and James Davison Hunter’s“culture war.” Neuhaus argued that secular elites had “systemically excludedfrom policy consideration the operative values of the American people, valuesthat are overwhelmingly grounded in religious belief,” while Hunter described aconflict between “progressive” and “orthodox” forces in American society. Inthe end, neither metaphor could transcend a defining characteristic of latetwentieth-century America: the complex, often ironic influences ofevangelicalism on U.S. politics and culture.

Reviewing the Anointed

by Matt Sutton

Part I: Anointing the Anointed

Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson’s book The Anointed has officially been out for two weeks. As reviews begin to appear, it is clear that this is one of the most important—and controversial—books on religion in modern America to appear in some time.

Booklist summarized, “[Stephens and Giberson] rise triumphantly to the challenge of explaining the leaders and the culture of the religious Right without rancor or condescension.”

The ever present Kevin Schultz wrote a smart review for the Wilson Quarterly concluding, “One of the principal virtues of The Anointed is that it represents an effort to demonstrate that the evangelical community is not a monolith of the unthinking.” He did, however, include a caveat. “Yet if that were as true as the authors hope, they probably would have felt less pressed to write this book.”

The Weekly Standard also wrestled with Stephens and Giberson’s arguments. But rather than praise their work, the review admitted half-heartedly that the authors were “not wrong.” I guess that’s as far as the Standard can go in praising a book that does not line up with the magazine’s politics. Nevertheless, “not wrong” is certainly better than being “not right.”

On the Huffington Post, Mark Pinsky used The Anointed to discuss the relationship between evangelical Zionism and the 2012 campaign.

Finally, my review of the book is in the current Christian Century. I conclude,

The Anointed is one of the best and most important books on religion published this year. It is a well-written, well-argued study that penetrates to the heart of modern evangelical culture. Stephens and Giberson have done an excellent job of critiquing what Mark Noll previously called the ‘scandal of the evangelical mind’ (the scandal is that there is no evangelical mind) while also empathetically explaining why so many evangelicals are smitten by dubious experts. This book deserves a wide reading, which it is certain to have. Evangelicals who take the intellect seriously as well as outsiders struggling to understand the evangelical subculture will benefit from the hard work and keen insights of Stephens and Giberson.”

Part II: Annoyed by the Anointed

But it is not all butterflies and sunshine for Giberson and Stephens. They have managed to offend a few of the most influential (or at least a couple of the loudest) voices in evangelicalism.

First, as Randall has explained, Ken Ham has been complaining about this book, inferring that the authors might be wolves in sheep’s clothing. In fact, the title of one of his blog post was the none-too-subtle “Beware of Wolves.”

Then Al Mohler jumped in. In a blog with the equally none-too-subtle title “Total Capitulation: The Evangelical Surrender of Truth,” Mohler too questions the faith of the authors—not the argument of the book, but the faith of the authors. He writes, “Giberson and Stephens are far outside of the evangelical mainstream, and they know it.”

Apparently he gets to decide what is and is not the evangelical mainstream (which also means that Eastern Nazarene’s administration and tenure committees are not as capable of determining what counts as an evangelical as is this Southern Baptist).

The response of Mohler and Ham is predictable. They are afraid to let their audiences think for themselves. They simply want to teach them what to think. So when a book comes along that challenges what they teach and believe, they react by questioning the faith of its authors. Rather than trusting that their followers are smart enough to analyze critically a book like The Anointed, they choose instead to scare their disciples into not reading at all. It’s easier that way. If their followers don’t read, they won’t ask questions.

In 1940 fundamentalist leader and Moody Bible Institute president Will Houghton lamented to Wheaton College president J. Oliver Buswell, “it takes very little to start a fight with some fundamentalists.” Because fundamentalism by that time had developed such negative and combative characteristics, men like Houghton and Buswell began calling themselves evangelicals.

Seventy years later, the evangelicalism of Ham and Mohler suffers from the same problem as old time fundamentalism. Rather than celebrate the fact that two Christian professors from a Nazarene school have published a wonderful—although not perfect—book with one of the most prestigious academic presses in the world, they insinuate that the authors’ faith is suspect. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Houghton certainly would not be. Fundamentalism is still alive and well as Stephens and Giberson so carefully document.

NY Times Editorial: The Evangelical Rejection of Reason

Kelly Baker

While John Turner aptly describes “dominionists on the loose” and the media brouhaha over the threat of theocracy via Christian dominionism, our own Randall Stephens, writing with Karl W. Giberson, had a New York Times editorial aptly titled, “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason” published yesterday. Coming on the heels of their book, The Annointed Age: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age (reviewed here by Chris Beneke), they argue convincingly about the war on science as “part of a politically monolithic red-state fundamentalism, textbook evidence of an unyielding ignorance on the part of the religious” as well as map out the anti-intellectualism inherent in these attacks. Randall and Giberson make distinctions between their own evangelicalism and the politicized vision of current Republican nominee hopefuls.
Here’s an excerpt:
As one fundamentalist slogan puts it, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” But evangelical Christianity need not be defined by the simplistic theology, cultural isolationism and stubborn anti-intellectualism that most of the Republican candidates have embraced….

Fundamentalism appeals to evangelicals who have become convinced that their country has been overrun by a vast secular conspiracy; denial is the simplest and most attractive response to change. They have been scarred by the elimination of prayer in schools; the removal of nativity scenes from public places; the increasing legitimacy of abortion and homosexuality; the persistence of pornography and drug abuse; and acceptance of other religions and of atheism.

In response, many evangelicals created what amounts to a “parallel culture,” nurtured by church, Sunday school, summer camps and colleges, as well as publishing houses, broadcasting networks, music festivals and counseling groups. Among evangelical leaders, Ken Ham, David Barton and James C. Dobson have been particularly effective orchestrators — and beneficiaries — of this subculture. (Continue reading here.)
Editor’s note: Also check out John Fea’s discussion of the editorial here.

All the World in One Cartoon: Or, A Picture Contradicts a Thousand Words

Randall Stephens

On Wednesday Chris Beneke posted a review on this blog of The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, a book I coauthored with Karl Giberson. I especially liked Beneke’s response to a populist, misguided review that appeared on the Creationist Answers in Genesis site. (The reviewers whipped up readers by claiming that Giberson and I are snoots who look down our noses on salt-of-the earthers who don’t have PhDs.) “Credentials aren’t irrelevant,” Beneke writes, “but they aren’t the real issue here (see: Herberg, Will). Rather, it’s the misuse or wholesale neglect of critical facts that distinguishes rigorous, honest scholarship from the work of self-anointed experts such as Ham.”

One of the things that struck me most about the Answers in Genesis review was a short paragraph in which the two reviewers claim we misrepresented Ham and his organization’s mission.

They write:

The authors also asserted that ICR [Institute for Creation Research] and AiG argue that evolution is “responsible for much of what’s wrong with the world” (p. 36). Answers in Genesis has never stated or implied this. We have both—in countless articles and even in the 2008 online debate between Ham and Dr. Giberson—declared instead that the teaching of evolution has caused many to doubt or disbelieve the Bible.*

It made me wonder if they’ve spent much time reading what’s on their own website. Ham and company do repeatedly “imply” that evolution leads to all sorts of horrors. That’s plastered all over the Answers in Genesis site. (See here, here, here, here, here . . . I could go on.) How could these Answers in Genesis reps write that “Answers in Genesis has never stated or implied this.” Are their pants on fire?

But my favorite example of Answers in Genesis and Ken Ham’s view of evolution being “responsible for much of what’s wrong with the world” is this wonderful, ubiquitous cartoon that is still up on the AiG website. This picture has been teaching children about the real issues that are at stake for over a decade now.