Swords Into Plowshares – A Conversation with Kristen Tobey

tobeyKristen Tobey is Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at John Carroll University. Her book, Plowshares: Protest, Performance, and Religious Identity in the Nuclear Age, examines the methods of Plowshares activists, a small group of Catholic radicals known for infiltrating nuclear weapons sites, smashing warheads with hammers, and painting the walls with vials of their own blood.

ECM: What is Plowshares activism, exactly?

KT: Plowshares activism is a strand of high-risk Catholic antinuclear activism consisting of civil disobedience actions (Plowshares activists prefer the term “divine obedience”). Participants trespass onto sites where nuclear equipment is manufactured or stored—such as the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where a high-profile Plowshares action was carried out in 2012—in order to “symbolically disarm” the equipment.

Typically in a Plowshares action, symbolic disarmament involves pouring blood—the activists’ own—over the equipment and hammering on it with household hammers, in a nod to the Hebrew prophet Isaiah’s image of beating swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4) from which these activists take their inspiration and their name.

The first Plowshares action was conceived by Philip Berrigan and others as a way to continue the momentum of the Vietnam-era Catholic Left, but in a way that would be more truly faithful, riskier, and hence more efficacious. Actions are still taking place today, though far less frequently than in earlier decades.

Plowshares activists in the United States have never been acquitted of the charges brought against them, which include conspiracy, sabotage, and destruction of government property. They have received prison sentences of up to eighteen years. Because these actions carry such a high risk of legal consequences and bodily harm—many take place in deadly force areas—many in the larger Catholic Left regard Plowshares actions as virtuosic: Catholic resistance par excellence, so demanding that it is admired more than it is emulated.

ECM: You note that trespassing, blood, and hammers are the hallmarks of Plowshares activism. But there must be more innovative options available. Why stick to these three?

KT: That’s a polite way of putting it. The critique that what they do is ineffective and irrelevant—not only that their tactics are unproductive but that the nuclear issue is no longer a pressing one—comes at Plowshares activists from all directions—even, sometimes, from people who support the idea of religious resistance.

But in the Plowshares’ worldview, faithfulness to a Biblical ideal of nonviolent witness is the orienting value. Plowshares activists approach nuclear weapons as both a symbolic and a real threat, and they employ trespass, blood, and hammers as both symbolic and real means to disarm them.

On the one hand, Plowshares actions are willfully symbolic because nonviolence depends on it. On the other hand, activists do want to disable the equipment in a “real” way. They want to be destructive, but, as I discuss in the book, there are theological and social risks bound up with being too destructive, and there are no clear demarcations telling activists how much is too much.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Great Redemption – A Conversation with Alison Collis Greene

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 2.02.01 PMAlison Collis Greene is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Mississippi State University. Her book, No Depression in Heaven: the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta, was published in December by Oxford University Press. It tells a story of faith, famine, and the fight for survival in the Great Depression South.

ECM: Your book issues a corrective to one popular but inaccurate narrative about the Great Depression and those who struggled through it. What is that narrative, why is it inaccurate, and how did it come to be so popular?

ACG: The book opens with what I call the myth of the redemptive Depression. I guess you could call it our nation’s welfare origin story. Basically, it’s the idea that the Great Depression really wasn’t all that bad—or it was bad, but from adversity came redemption. People gave up luxuries they didn’t need, turned to their families, their communities, and their churches, and together rediscovered a simpler life and also maybe Jesus.

But then, the story often goes, Franklin Roosevelt took office and put the government to work to end the Depression, and maybe people needed a little help getting back on their feet or maybe not, but either way, he really should have left things alone after a year or two. But he didn’t. So even though the Greatest Generation came through the Depression and WWII strong and self-sufficient, their kids and even more so their grandkids were weak and came to depend on all kinds of extra help from the government.

I think it’s fairly obvious why this narrative is popular. It falls in line with a general nostalgia for a simpler time and with complaints about big government and welfare dependents. And it’s a very comforting story of triumph over adversity.

But it mostly skips over the adversity, in part because that’s not a fun part of the story, or one people like to remember. The Depression brought the kind of suffering that tore families and communities and churches apart as often as it brought them together. Mothers handed over their starving children to orphanages because they couldn’t feed them; fathers hit the road to look for work and didn’t come home. That local supply chain fell apart in villages and small towns where drought ravaged the crops, falling prices made the rest worthless, and bank failures wiped out people’s savings. The churches that were for many rural people the only place to turn in crisis were broke too.

In fact, I found over and over that religious leaders—conservative, Southern ones—led the call for federal intervention because they were powerless in the face of suffering. They applauded the New Deal, even claimed it as a religious accomplishment modeled on the social teachings of the churches.

ECM: You note that, initially, many Southern clergy judged the Depression to be a religious problem with religious solutions—prayer, repentance, revival. They often claimed that the government “dole” posed a more serious threat than poverty. What changed their minds?

ACG: They changed their minds for a few reasons: people needed help and churches couldn’t provide it. Calls for revival didn’t bring in either souls or dollars. A widespread critique of capitalism reemerged to characterize suffering as a result of systemic rather than personal failings.

It’s also worth noting that most folks didn’t change their minds entirely. In general, clergy still opposed direct aid to the poor—the dole—because they thought poor people were irresponsible. The New Deal only provided such aid briefly, in limited fashion, and at the discretion of local administrators. Roosevelt instead touted “the joy and moral stimulation of work,” and that was his real focus—work relief was popular among Americans of all classes. Of course, other programs regulated the economy and protected workers, and then Social Security created a social safety net. But it was based on a payroll tax and really a very conservative program.

In many ways, the New Deal seemed to many religious reformers to be an extension of what churches had been doing as they had helped patch together a limited safety net in the early twentieth century. Many southern cities did not offer municipal relief. Instead, denominations and municipalities provided institutional care: poorhouses, hospitals, settlement houses, orphanages, and so forth—all of them segregated, with far more resources for whites than for blacks. Local churches sometimes helped people with food, clothing, and fuel.

At its best, religious aid was limited, and churches scrambled for donations to keep benevolent institutions afloat. Then the bottom fell out. The stock market and agricultural markets crashed, unemployment soared, banks failed, and a drought withered a year’s crops. National income dropped by 50 percent. People were starving, and sick, and broken.

Churches weren’t doing well either. Until 1933, church giving held steady as a proportion of national income, but that still meant a 50 percent loss as demands on church resources peaked. Churches cut benevolent spending first, so now there were more people in need than ever before, and they had nowhere to turn.

Churches that could no longer offer help began to ask for it. Religious leaders spoke less about the inadequacies of poor people and more about the inadequacies of a system that kept people poor. Alongside many other Americans, clergy began to demand that the federal government intervene to aid the suffering.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Rhetoric, Religion, and Freedom

Now soliciting submissions for the NCA Pre-Conference.

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Before Roe v. Wade – A Conversation with Daniel K. Williams

WilliamsDaniel K. Williams is Associate Professor of History at the University of West Georgia. His book, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade, was published in January by Oxford University Press. It charts the ideologically complex roots of the abortion controversy, tracing them back to a time when liberal Democrats opposed abortion with vigor and conservative Republicans remained largely indifferent.

ECM: In the four decades after Roe v. Wade, the anti-abortion movement was largely defined by dual commitments to conservatism and Christianity. Your book suggests that things were very different before the ruling. How so?

DKW: Before Roe v. Wade, there was a vibrant pro-life movement, but it was not allied with political conservatism or with evangelical Christianity. Most of the pre-Roe pro-life activists were Catholics with liberal political sympathies shaped by their Church’s social justice teachings and the New Deal. They viewed their campaign to save the lives of the unborn as a human rights cause, which is why much of their rhetoric closely paralleled the language of the civil rights and anti-war movements.

Several state pro-life organizations of the pre-Roe era coupled their demands for restrictive abortion laws with a call for expanded social welfare programs for pregnant women and infants, and some called for the expansion of the War on Poverty. Many pro-life activists opposed the Vietnam War. Pro-lifers’ insistence on using the arguments of secular human rights liberalism enabled a movement that had started among Catholics to begin attracting the support of a number of liberal Protestants and a few Jews in the early 1970s.

The movement’s supporters in this era included such nationally known liberals as Eunice Kennedy Shriver (sister of John F. Kennedy), Ted Kennedy, Senator Mark Hatfield, Jesse Jackson, and a host of others.

By contrast, many of the nation’s best-known Republicans had little regard for the pro-life movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most of the nation’s first abortion liberalization laws were signed by Republican governors such as Spiro Agnew in Maryland, Nelson Rockefeller in New York, and Ronald Reagan in California. The nation’s leading conservative Republican, Senator Barry Goldwater, was an early supporter of abortion rights, as were many of the more moderate members of his party, such as Senators Howard Baker, Lowell Weicker, and Robert Packwood.

Evangelicals had mixed views on abortion in the early 1970s. Although a number of prominent evangelicals denounced abortion, very few joined a pro-life organization, which meant that the campaign for the rights of the unborn was led almost entirely by Catholics and a few mainline Protestants whose political views were well to the left of the nascent Christian Right.

In short, there was little evidence of a connection between political conservatism and the pro-life movement before 1973. The pro-life movement at the time was politically diverse, but its arguments were grounded in the language of human rights liberalism, and many of its leaders were liberal Democrats who supported an expanded social welfare state.

ECM: If the pre-Roe abortion debate amounted to a disagreement among political liberals, did religious difference play the divisive role?

DKW: In one sense, the debate over abortion that began in the 1930s and 1940s certainly reflected a religious divide. After all, the doctors who advocated abortion law liberalization were usually liberal or secular Jews or, in a few cases, liberal Protestants, while those who denounced abortion were Catholics.

If it were not for the religious difference, the activists on both sides of the debate would have seemed remarkably similar. Most were physicians. Most were also New Deal liberals who wanted to help the less fortunate and improve societal well-being. Both sets of activists thought that their own position on abortion advanced liberal values.

Yet in another sense, the divisions over abortion were about more than a difference in religious identity; they also reflected a clash of moral values. The early proponents of abortion law liberalization were moral utilitarians who believed that an action was morally justified if the benefits of the action outweighed the harm involved. They conceded, in many cases, that abortion destroyed a human life and was therefore “evil.”

Yet they also believed that abortion prohibitions drove thousands of women to their death each year by denying them access to safe hospital abortions and thereby encouraging them to terminate their pregnancies by more dangerous means. Abortion legalization would save women’s lives and was therefore justified as the lesser of the two evils, they thought.

By contrast, opponents of abortion were also opponents of a utilitarian value system, so their moral reasoning rested on a different framework. They believed in inalienable human rights that could never be compromised, and, invoking the language of the Declaration of Independence, they argued that those “inalienable rights” began with the right to life. Human life had absolute value, so it was never right to kill an innocent human being, even for the sake of saving other lives, protecting someone else’s health, or promoting societal well-being.

The “defenders of the unborn” in the 1930s and 1940s thus believed that they were fighting for something much larger than merely the prohibition of abortion. In their view, they were defending the foundation of all human rights. Their fight against abortion was not an effort to defend a sectarian religious teaching, they argued, but was instead a human rights campaign to defend the absolute value of all human life.

Read the whole thing at Religion and Politics.

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Rescuing Jesus – A Conversation with Deborah Jian Lee

jesusDeborah Jian Lee is an award-winning journalist and radio producer. She has written for Foreign Policy, Forbes, and Slate, among others, and has taught journalism at Columbia University. Her book, Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, & Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism documents a generational shift in evangelicalism—from white, conservative, Republican demographic to something much more diverse and progressive. 

ECM: You trace the beginning of this book to your college days in the George W. Bush administration, when your progressive commitments clashed with your mostly conservative evangelical community. At one point, a friend asked whether you were “even a Christian anymore.” I relate to this very personally, and I think many young evangelicals can tell similar stories. Was writing this book cathartic for you?

DJL: It was cathartic to give language to this experience and to explore the history of how exactly evangelical culture became about boundaries and scarcity rather than diversity and abundance.

I grew up in a wonderful non-religious immigrant home in a white Chicago suburb. Because of my ethnicity, I encountered a range of racism, from subtle discrimination to violence against my body. When I came to faith at a Chinese immigrant church in my teens, I received the gospel as a healing salve to my wounds. It was through this community and Jesus’ words that I became restored.

I was so moved by how Jesus subverted the status quo by lifting the lowly to high places, by healing the broken and by calling his people to serve the least of these. And as I committed my life to Jesus, this is what my faith became about: radical inclusion and justice.

So when I became a leader of my college Christian fellowship group, Intervarsity, I was stunned by the entrenched conservatism of so many of my Christian peers. Sure, the group had some theological and political diversity, and I had some amazing young staff mentors (some of whom were people of color) who totally got me, but the overwhelming culture resisted my initiatives on racial justice and gender equality, equated voting Republican with authentic Christianity, called homosexuality a disease, celebrated female submission to male leadership and called conversations about social justice distractions from the “core gospel message” of converting others.

As a liberal, queer-affirming woman of color I was living in the crosshairs of the culture wars. I didn’t recognize their Jesus or their gospel. Sadly, I believed conservative leaders when they said that crossing their theological and political boundaries disqualified me from the faith.

When I finally left evangelicalism, I felt extreme liberation and extreme loss, and I was left with these burning questions. How did everything fall apart? Why did my Christian friends celebrate me when I conformed to their values but reject me once I started asserting my whole identity and my belief in a radically inclusive gospel? Was I the only one who experienced this? How did conservative white men come to define evangelical culture? Where did evangelicals from the margins – people of color, women, queers – fit in? Was there any hope for evangelicalism’s future? Could Jesus be rescued from the corruption of the religious right? And if so, who would do that and how?

Over the course of reporting and writing this book I dug into these questions. I was floored by what I uncovered and felt my own life changing with every new discovery.

ECM: The book intertwines the stories of several young evangelicals as they grow and develop from conformists to skeptics to radicals—a path you know something about. How did you find these folks, and how did you decide to tell their stories in this way?

DJL: I interviewed several hundred people for this book, so as you might imagine, I used a range of journalistic strategies to find the people I featured. I immersed myself in the progressive evangelical scene by attending meetings and conferences. I interviewed leaders, friends, strangers and everyone in between. I read thousands of articles. I cold called and Tweeted at a lot of people whose stories intrigued me. The people I chose to feature had stories that I found emblematic of and significant to the broader progressive evangelical movement.

One person I feature is Lisa Sharon Harper, whom I met when she was launching New York Faith and Justice, an organization working to end poverty in New York City. I watched as she built a movement of believers around tackling issues of police brutality, racial profiling, environmental injustice and the country’s broken immigration system.

I followed Lisa’s career from her New York Faith and Justice days to her work at Sojourners, where today she works as the Chief Church Engagement Officer, mobilizing leaders around the common good, with an emphasis on racial justice. When I interviewed Lisa, I was surprised to learn that she came to faith in a white fundamentalist church and once lent her voice to the conservative cause.

Toward the end of college she joined an urban mission trip where she spent time with fellow African Americans and was “reintroduced to myself as a black person.” She began to see herself through God’s eyes “as someone made in the image of God whom God loves.” Lisa learned to embrace her identity as a black woman, but when she brought her newly empowered self back to her conservative white community, she was rejected.

Eventually her vision of evangelicalism took a sharp departure from the Religious Right’s vision. She went on a decades-long journey of disentangling her faith from the Religious Right and centering it on living out the justice calling of the Bible. She spends much of her time bridging the conservative and progressive worlds, like the way she’s been traveling the country convincing conservative white evangelical pastors to lend their support to Black Lives Matter events and protests against police brutality.

Rescuing Jesus follows the conformist-skeptic-radical arc because over the course of all of my interviews, this was the most common trajectory most of progressive evangelicals had followed. I thought it was important to show this in intimate detail because it helps answer important questions. What are the greatest obstacles in disentangling from the Religious Right? How do people change? What are the consequences of change? What are the rewards? Why is inclusivity so difficult and how are people changing the infrastructure of their faith, life and communities to pursue radical inclusion and justice?

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Rally ‘Round the Family – A Conversation with Seth Dowland

DowlandSeth Dowland is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University. His book, Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right, charts the influence of Christian “family values” advocacy across three decades and a variety of issues. I recently spoke with Dowland about the project, the politics, and the significance of family in the United States.

ECM: You introduce “family values” as the key term of the Christian Right in the late twentieth-century United States. Why was this term so influential for this group in this place and time? 

SD: Many of the political reforms enacted from the 1930s through the 1960s—particularly the expansion of the welfare state and the passage of civil rights legislation—attempted to expand equal rights to all people. Political liberals celebrated these developments, while conservatives looked around the nation at the beginning of the 1970s and saw economic stagnation, riots, sexual revolution, a decline in patriotism, and an increase in crime and drug use. Ministers and political conservatives argued that America was in decline. They believed that decline happened because of the demise of the “traditional family.”

Scholar Stephanie Coontz has shown that the concept of a traditional family—breadwinning father, stay-at-home mother, and children who enjoy a lengthy and protected childhood—is a fiction. In fact, even idealizing this version of the traditional family is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Democrats in the 1970s agreed with Republicans that they ought to promote families, but they wanted to broaden the concept of family to include single-parent families, multi-generational households, and, in some cases, gay couples. Political conservatives rejected the attempt to broaden the concept of family and placed defense of the traditional family at the center of their political agenda.

This agenda—defending and promoting family values—resonated with evangelical Christians because it spoke to two of their central convictions.First, evangelicals believed that gender was part of the created order, that men and women were created by God to fulfill different roles. In traditional families, men provided and protected, while women bore, reared and nurtured children. Movements that viewed gender roles as the product of patriarchal social constructions—such as second-wave feminism—represented a denial of God’s good creation, which spelled out biologically appropriate roles for men and women.

Second, evangelicals believed that God designed institutions like the family and the church to run under certain authority structures. While evangelicals voiced support for equal rights, they wanted to retain the authority structures that kept human sinfulness in check. Traditional families exemplified those godly authority structures: Husbands led their wives, and parents had authority over children. Promoting family values gave evangelicals a way to uphold their beliefs about gender and authority in the broader culture.

ECM: If gender played an overt role in the rise of the Christian Right, class and race were implicit as well. The single breadwinner model of the family presumed middle-class stability, and the movement as a whole was almost entirely white. So is it fair to say that “family values” merged a diversity of issues that mattered specifically to conservative, middle-class, white, evangelical Christians?

SD: That’s exactly right. While I talk mostly about gender, certain assumptions about race and class were part of pro-family politics. Christian schools are a perfect example of this.

During the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the number of Christian schools opened by conservative evangelical Christians skyrocketed. By the early 1980s, evangelical ministers like Jerry Falwell were claiming that evangelicals opened three new Christian schools every day, ostensibly because public schools had become anti-Christian. Yet this surge in Christian school growth coincided with public school desegregation. The student bodies in most of these Christian schools were overwhelmingly or entirely white.

Even so, viewing these schools simply as “segregation academies” obscures both diversity within the Christian school movement and the ways that segregationist schools changed over time. Falwell’s own K-12 school, Lynchburg (later Liberty) Christian Academy is a good example. Launched in 1967—the same year Lynchburg public schools desegregated—LCA was all-white for two years. But as desegregation became normalized in Lynchburg public schools (which had a small proportion of African-American students relative to other southern locales), LCA would need other rationales to sustain enrollment.

The school found a winning strategy in promoting family values. LCA portrayed its mission as supporting Christian families and promised to shape young men and women who knew their place. A 1975 promotional brochure for the school advertised, “we have no hippies” and “you can tell our boys from our girls without a medical examination.”

The relative lack of explicit racial rhetoric in the family values movement would later open the door for change among some conservative evangelicals. In 1990, University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney founded Promise Keepers, an evangelical men’s organization that became one of the most important pro-family groups of the decade. As shown in the recent ESPN film “The Gospel According to Mac,” McCartney was talking about structural racism twenty years ago. He made racial reconciliation a centerpiece of Promise Keepers’ ministry.

McCartney’s understanding of systemic injustice never prevailed among a majority of conservative white evangelicals, who insisted that racism was foremost a sin of the heart. This understanding constrained white evangelicals’ ability to forge interracial alliances in support of family values. The pro-family movement found some nonwhite allies among socially conservative minority Christians, but its normalization of white, middle-class values limited its reach.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches. Also at Salon.

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In and Of the World

From the Journal of Communication and Religion, a critique of pop evangelicalism in four book reviews.

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Divided on the Right – A Conversation with Neil J. Young

YoungNeil J. Young is a historian and co-host of the Past Present Podcast. His book, We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics was published last month by Oxford University Press. In it, Young argues that, despite repeated attempts throughout the second half of the 20th Century, conservative evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons were never able to form a truly united “Religious Right.”

ECM: Is it fair to say that accounts of a cohesive “Religious Right” have been exaggerated?

NJY: Absolutely. The prevailing narrative has been that conservative evangelicals, Mormons, and Catholics – the three pillars of the Religious Right – came together in response to Roe v. Wade, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the Supreme Court cases outlawing prayer and Bible reading in public schools. This coalition quickly put aside their longstanding divisions and disagreements in order to unite politically. My book challenges this standard account in two ways.

First, I show that Mormons, Catholics, and evangelicals had been drawing closer together since the 1950s in response to religious developments, not political and social changes in the nation, as has been typically argued. This demonstrates that these three faiths were actors of history, rather than reactors to political and social change.

Beginning in the 1950s, these groups recognized each other as outsiders of the liberal Protestant establishment and fellow critics of the powerful ecumenical movement. As liberal Protestantism loomed dominant at midcentury and as the ecumenical movement threatened to wipe out religious distinctions for the purposes of “Christian unity,” Mormons, Catholics, and evangelicals all challenged the theological claims of mainline Protestantism and rejected calls to ecumenism.

Yet they did so from their own very particular theological positions and out of the conviction of their exclusive possession of “true” Christianity. So Catholics, Mormons, and evangelicals began to recognize themselves as having more in common with each other than with mainline Protestants, but that recognition also required each of them to further distinguish and promote the important and intractable differences among them.

Second, I argue that the political alliance that emerged in the 1970s was not as cohesive as most scholars have contended. In my book, the Religious Right is not a sudden political alliance that emerges in response to Roe v. Wade just in time to elect Reagan, but rather the latest iteration of a religious debate that had been going on since the 1950s. Because that debate was as much about what these groups differed on as it was about what they had in common, the political alliance that emerged among them also reflected those internal divisions and disagreements.

The Religious Right I show is loosely aligned, fraught with internal religious divisions, and often in tension with itself. This had political consequences. While the Religious Right succeeded in electing Republican candidates to office, they failed to accomplish their political agenda at the federal level in part because of these divisions.

ECM: I think that’s the central irony of the book – that a movement like the Religious Right could become at least tenuously ecumenical based on their shared opposition to ecumenism. Given how antagonistic these groups were in the 1950s, would you say that Vatican II made this possible?

NJY: The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was incredibly important to this overall development. For one, Vatican II drastically changed the Catholic Church’s position on ecumenism and its relationships with other faiths.

Until Vatican II, the Catholic Church had forbidden ecumenical interactions through a series of papal decrees. But now Pope John XXIII indicated he wanted the church to engage ecumenism, and the American bishops were particularly supportive of this new direction. The “Decree on Ecumenism” declared that other Christians were “separated brethren,” a remarkable shift from prior church teaching that regarded them as “heretics.” This and other council documents also encouraged Catholics to work with other Christians on common concerns—particularly those related to the family. Vatican II also authorized bishops to become politically active, and it indicated that abortion should be a chief concern.

All of this set the stage for closer connections with evangelicals and Mormons, but Vatican II also established important limits on Catholic ecumenism. Ecumenism had to be Catholic-led, directed by church authorities and with the purposes of promoting Catholicism to other Christians rather than establishing “Christian unity.”

Mormons and evangelicals watched Vatican II closely, appreciating some of the reforms but ultimately using the council to affirm their own exclusive possessions of truth.

Mormons viewed Vatican II skeptically. They praised the Catholic Church’s new support for religious freedom. But LDS leaders argued that whatever reforms Vatican II made could never change the fact that it was the Catholic Church’s apostasy from true Christianity that had ultimately led to the need for Joseph Smith’s restoration of the true church.

Evangelicals were far more critical of Vatican II’s reforms. In keeping with their longstanding attacks on Catholicism, evangelicals largely saw Vatican II as part of the Catholic Church’s plans to monopolize Christianity and make all Christians submit to Rome. However, evangelical leaders did appreciate Vatican II’s encouragement that lay Catholics read their Bibles more and participate in Bible studies. Evangelicals lauded this development, imagining that those Catholics who did so might become evangelical, transformed by reading the Bible just as Martin Luther had once been.

This development also helped evangelicals see Catholics as distinct from the Catholic Church, a change that was critical to building interfaith political partnerships. While maintaining that the Catholic Church itself was corrupt, evangelical leaders contended some Catholics might be Christians that evangelicals could partner with to tackle the nation’s social ills. This new understanding proved critical to the rise of the Religious Right.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Religious Left – A Conversation with Brantley W. Gasaway

GasawayBrantley W. Gasaway is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Bucknell University. His book, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice, was published last fall by University of North Carolina Press. In it, Gasaway situates Progressive Evangelicalism primarily within the past four decades, assessing its influence on a variety of contemporary issues.

ECM: You trace the history of progressive evangelicalism back to the 1970s, rather than to the “Social Gospel” advocacy of earlier years. Why focus on the last four decades?

BWG: As the pioneering leaders of the progressive evangelical movement began insisting in the late 1960s and early 1970s that Christians have a religious obligation to promote social and political reforms of injustices, they certainly sounded similar to Social Gospel advocates. Yet the Social Gospel tradition played almost no role in inspiring or influencing the rise of contemporary progressive evangelicalism. In fact, early leaders disavowed any connection to the Social Gospel tradition, for they wanted to maintain credibility within a branch of American Christianity that regarded the Social Gospel as heretical.

The stigma of the Social Gospel within modern evangelicalism resulted from its association with liberal Protestantism. The Social Gospel tradition arose in the midst of theological controversies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that divided evangelicals from more liberal Protestants. With many adopting the name “fundamentalists,” evangelicals accused theological liberals of heresy for revising or even rejecting central traditional doctrines (the “fundamentals” of the faith) in light of modern biblical criticism, scientific advances, and increasing awareness of religious pluralism. Evangelicals especially condemned Protestant liberals’ embrace of the Social Gospel, which emphasized “the sinfulness of the social order” and progressive reforms of social injustices.

Liberal Protestants began prioritizing social and political activism as much as—and often more than—proselytization and individual salvation. In response, fundamentalist evangelicals denounced the Social Gospel for disparaging evangelism and deemphasizing the necessity of personal conversions. They distanced themselves from liberal Protestants’ concerns for social justice, largely shunning politics in order to focus on religious campaigns and spiritual issues.

This disdain for the Social Gospel was still strong among evangelicals in the 1960s and 1970s, and therefore the founders of contemporary progressive evangelicalism insisted that they were not following in the footsteps of liberal Protestants. These leaders appealed first and foremost to biblical arguments in order to challenge most evangelicals’ narrow spiritual concerns and apolitical conservatism. While faithful Christians must never minimize or neglect their evangelistic duties, they declared, they must also fulfill biblical commands to care for people’s physical welfare and to combat social injustices.

Thus the coalescence of the progressive evangelical movement in the early 1970s marked a new chapter within twentieth-century evangelicalism. When contemporary progressive evangelicals have looked for historical precedents and inspiration, they have pointed not to the Social Gospel but rather to nineteenth-century evangelicals who participated in both revivals and social reform campaigns.

ECM: There are certain gatekeepers on the right who would argue that, since modern evangelicalism was born out of fundamentalism, it is conservative by definition. Some on the left have also been wary of progressive evangelicals, due to their ambivalence on gay rights and opposition to abortion. Is “evangelical left” a contradiction in terms?

BWG: Even though the combination of theological conservatism and political progressivism has been anomalous in recent American history, “evangelical left” and “progressive evangelical” are not oxymorons.

“Evangelical” is a religious rather than political identity. While scholars and partisans debate the exact definition of the label, most agree that evangelicals are Protestant Christians dedicated to (1) the primary authority of the Bible; (2) the necessity of spiritual rebirth (conversion) through personal faith in Christ’s atonement for one’s sins; and (3) activism in spreading “the good news” (evangel) of Christ’s redemptive work. In relative terms, these characteristics and their usual adherence to traditionally orthodox doctrines do make evangelicals more theologically conservative than liberal Protestants.

But theological conservatism does not necessarily entail political conservatism. A significant number of nineteenth-century American evangelicals—inspired by leaders such as revivalist Charles Finney, Frances Willard of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan—participated in progressive and sometimes radical campaigns to end slavery, redress economic injustice, promote women’s rights, reform prisons, enhance public education, and promote peace.

In more recent times, President Jimmy Carter and Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield were both well-known progressive evangelical politicians. Outside of the American context, evangelical Christians have always been found across the political spectrum depending on historical, cultural, and social factors. Pointing to these facts, contemporary progressive evangelicals have responded to critics by arguing that the staunch political conservatism of recent American evangelicals is the true anomaly.

Several years ago, a broad coalition of prominent leaders issued a public statement—“An Evangelical Manifesto”—in order to combat perceptions of all evangelicals as political conservatives. “Evangelicalism must be defined theologically and not politically,” they maintained. “[W]e Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party [or] partisan ideology.” Progressive evangelical leaders such as Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, and ethicist David Gushee were among the charter signatories to this document.

To be sure, some vocal leaders of the Religious Right have questioned the evangelical identity of those with left-leaning politics. At the same time, many on the political left have not welcomed contemporary progressive evangelicals as allies based upon their opposition to abortion, conservative sexual ethics, and calls for the robust role of religion in public life. These suspicions from both the Religious Right and political left have resulted in progressive evangelicals’ marginalization in America’s culture wars and partisan politics over the past four decades.

Read the whole thing at Religion and Politics.

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Organized Religion – A Conversation with Heath W. Carter

CarterHeath W. Carter is Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University. His book, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago, was published this month by Oxford University Press. In it, Carter credits the working people of turn-of-the-century Chicago with the advocacy and gradual success of the Social Gospel.

ECM: Your book focuses on Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when social Christianity was championed by working people rather than established clergy. In fact, the two groups were often at odds.

HWC: That’s exactly right. While many think of the Social Gospel as a creation of the middle classes, the book argues that it was in fact working people who fueled its rise in industrializing cities such as Chicago. Throughout the Gilded Age the institutional churches were anything but bastions of progressive reform. Clergy of nearly every denomination eyed the era’s fledgling working-class movements with deep suspicion and, in many cases, outright alarm.

There were a number of reasons for this. Protestant ministers enjoyed close ties—social, political, financial, and more—to Chicago’s industrial elite, which predisposed them to be skeptical of trade unionism. In the turbulent 1870s and 1880s, as the rank and file, increasingly predominated by the foreign born, repeatedly took its protest to the streets, Protestant leaders called for violent suppression of “the mob.”

The Catholic hierarchy was less prone to such nativist excesses and yet harbored deep reservations of its own about organized labor. Even as the Vatican articulated growing support for unions in encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum, many a prelate worried that they might prove a gateway out of the Church and into the clutches of godless radicalism.

This tale of churchly opposition to the early labor movement is a relatively familiar one. What’s new in Union Made are the stories of printers, glovemakers, blacksmiths, seamstresses, and the like, who insisted that trade unionism was fully compatible with Christian faith.

More than that, these ordinary believers argued that God was on the side of the worker and that, therefore, those churches which had arrayed themselves against labor had in fact abandoned the true gospel. Intellectually, the clergy were inclined to reject such views out of hand, so workers devised another strategy to get their attention. Leveraging the working classes’ allegiance, they warned that they would have nothing to do with the churches unless the latter changed their collective tune on “the labor question.” Increasingly gripped by anxiety about a potentially catastrophic loss of influence, church leaders finally caved.

At the turn of the century—a generation after workers had first started preaching and practicing social gospels—denomination after denomination embraced the conservative brand of labor reform promoted by the American Federation of Labor. Social Christianity was union made, indeed.

ECM: The alignment of theology with class appears pretty stark. You document the growth and ornamentation of church buildings as wealthy industrialists began filling the coffers, as well as the practice of charging “pew rents,” which was new to me. Is it fair to say that these Gilded Age churches had “sold out” to the upper class?

HWC: That was certainly what many working people argued. There is no question that, as industrial warfare broke out across the late-19th-century United States, the Protestant elite sided almost exclusively with capital. Of course, even that way of putting it makes it sound like the two could be differentiated, when in many cases they could not.

In the book I discuss how Chicago’s wealthiest citizens predominated on Protestant church boards and vestries. In the early 1870s, for example, the First Congregational Church’s 14-member governing council boasted at least one prominent attorney, two influential physicians, two insurance moguls, two lumber tycoons, and two grain commissioners, one of whom was also the President of the Board of Trade.

The church paid its pastor, E. P. Goodwin, a $5,000 salary—more than ten times the earnings of the average worker—and there were other fringe benefits besides, including lucrative investment opportunities. One member at First Congregational, who was also a leading man on the Board of Trade, advised Goodwin to invest in his watch company rather than the mines. The pastor did so and received a congratulatory note in advance of a handsome dividend.

Given such material realities, working-class believers were hardly taken aback when someone like Goodwin vociferously opposed labor. During an 1885 streetcar strike, he vowed from the pulpit, “The police should clear the streets if they leave a corpse at every step.” His words earned “the silk stocking board of trade preacher” much enmity in working-class circles. One critic wrote to the Knights of Labor—borrowing a line from Sam Jones, a famed late-19th-century evangelist— “‘Hell is full of just such Christians as that.’”

Yet the “sold out” paradigm may oversimplify the dynamics at play in the sense that the alliance between the religious and economic elites was about more than money. They inhabited a shared social world within which it was difficult to imagine labor as anything other than dangerous and threatening.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Phyllis Schlafly, Liberty, and Women’s Liberation

From Rhetoric and Public Affairs.

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Superchurch – A Conversation with Jonathan J. Edwards

EdwardsJonathan J. Edwards is Instructor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of South Carolina. His book,  Superchurch: The Rhetoric and Politics of American Fundamentalism, was published in April by Michigan State University Press. In it, Edwards examines fundamentalist politics since the early 20th century, from the early days of separation to the rise of the modern megachurch.

ECM: What prompted you to write a book about fundamentalism? It’s a pretty slippery term.

JJE: This project started out at Northwestern University as a dissertation proposal on the political influence of American megachurches, but I discovered pretty quickly that, in and of themselves, megachurches were not nearly as interesting (or unique) as they seemed at first. What did interest me was a narrative tension that kept popping up in my research between local churches and a constructed “enemy,” variously described in terms of ecumenical federation, superchurch confederacy, a world church, and secular humanism.

As I studied further, it became clear that, while some authors had fixated on some of the more public aspects of this tension (e.g., the Moral Majority vs. secular humanism in the late 1970s), no one had studied its roots and evolution in depth. That became the focus of my eventual dissertation project and ultimately this book. By focusing on how the tension evolved, I’m able to provide more comprehensive (and hopefully more persuasive) explanations for the relationships that exist between the religious beliefs and political demands of Christian conservatives.

As for the word fundamentalism, “slippery” is a pretty good way to describe it. For practical purposes, there are two relevant definitions. On the one hand, fundamentalism refers to a specific movement within Protestant Christianity, which coalesced around a set of inter-church disputes in the early twentieth century. For my work, that definition includes groups who call themselves “fundamentalists,” but it also includes contemporary Christian evangelicals who would reject the label but who are—knowingly or not—party to the same disputes and tensions.

On the other hand, fundamentalism has become a kind of catch-all term for describing movements or orientations that are both politically significant and militantly irrational.

Basically, it’s a word we use to denigrate perspectives and people we don’t like.

Usually this second definition is linked with religion—as when people talk about Islamic fundamentalism—but not always. For example, you’ll see authors who write about market fundamentalism or political fundamentalism. All this is confusing, and that’s part of the reason many authors choose to save themselves the trouble and avoid the term altogether.

Despite the difficulties that the term presents, however, the concept of fundamentalism is important to me for a couple of reasons.

First, it more clearly highlights the stakes for many Christian conservatives who enter into politics. When fundamentalists and evangelicals rally against abortion or same-sex marriage, for example, it’s not primarily about their right to stand on a street corner and preach good news to the unconverted. It’s about their right to authoritatively define the fundamentals of truth and public morality, based on an authoritative interpretation of an authoritative Bible.

The truth-demands of fundamentalism stand in sharp contrast to notions like compromise and pluralism, and that’s a contrast that a term like “evangelical” doesn’t quite capture.

Second, perhaps in part because of its slipperiness, the term can help us to think broadly about the disputes and tensions that each and every one of us have to navigate as we struggle to communicate with, live with, and govern with one another.

As democratic citizens we all have to ask ourselves: What is fundamental? And who decides?

ECM: In a deliberative democracy, compromise is a value, but for hardliners it is often viewed as a character flaw. Many of us think of fundamentalists as people who can’t be reasoned with, which is a problem for democratic politics. But you reassert fundamentalism as a “church movement” first and foremost, representing localism against “superchurch” ecumenism. How does that translate to politics?

JJE: It’s important to understand, as I argue in the book, that fundamentalism is a paradox. Fundamentalists describe themselves as both marginalized and a majority. They speak of national revival and theocratic dominion, but both are always deferred. They celebrate local victories while announcing imminent national destruction. This paradox is rhetorical—meaning that it’s constructed in and through language. I’m a student of rhetoric and, in this book, I’m not particularly interested in whether fundamentalists “really” represent localism or really speak as an oppressed minority. What’s important is that they say they do, and this paradoxical claim drives and justifies political action.

In the book, “superchurch” is one of the words that speaks to this paradox in fundamentalist rhetoric. There was a big push for Protestant unity in the immediate aftermath of World War I, and many of the early fundamentalist leaders denounced ecumenical organizations like the Federal Council of Churches and the Interchurch World Movement as elements in a “super church confederacy” that would eliminate denominational distinctions and eventually destroy “Bible-believing” churches altogether.

There was a kernel of truth in these arguments; some ecumenical leaders were pushing, for example, to consolidate under-staffed rural churches by merging congregations from different denominations. But this kernel of truth became part of a much larger narrative in which national religious and political leaders were joining together to crush local churches and outlaw fundamentalist belief. This narrative, in turn, has continued in different guises over the past century—linked with apocalyptic fears of communism, secularism, environmentalism, socialism, and so forth.

The flip-side of this narrative, however, was that of churches that resisted. Magazines published anecdotes about local pastors who stood up to ecumenicists and local churches that broke away from their corrupted denominations. Fundamentalist publications began celebrating large, independent churches as islands of local resistance. By the 1960s, pastors like Jerry Falwell had begun arguing that local, “superaggressive” churches could “capture” their communities for Christ, reform local politics to reflect fundamentalist authority, and become media centers for global evangelism. These fundamentalist “superchurches” would eventually provide the foundation for national political organizations like the Moral Majority in the late 1970s.

Of course, even as fundamentalists have become more nationally visible and politically active, the paradox remains. Just a couple of months ago, for example, when Senator Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for president at Falwell’s Liberty University, he encouraged Christian conservative voters to think of themselves as both an oppressed minority and an untapped majority. He described the federal government as a monolithic and mischievous force that crushes the dreams of small business owners, the relationships between individuals and doctors, the rights of parents, and the freedom of religious believers. At the same time, he spoke of “millions of courageous conservatives” and “born again Christians” whose votes could restore an idealized constitutionalism and drive the big-government bureaucrats out of the American temple.

Part of my goal in Superchurch is to help us better understand the history and context behind arguments like Cruz’s, so we can develop a better sense of how and why they continue to resonate with so many fundamentalist and evangelical voters.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches. Also at Salon and Alternet.

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The Fate of Freedom – A Conversation with Steven D. Smith

SmithSteven D. Smith is the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego. His most recent book, The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom, advocates a return to what he calls “the American settlement”— an arrangement under which the Constitution is read to be neither religious nor secular, but rather open to the best argument of either persuasion.

ECM: In recent years, scholars of law and history have published a lot of interesting books about religious freedom in America. Your book is on the “rise and decline” of religious freedom, and I’ve read others on “the myth,” “the tragedy,” and “the impossibility” of religious freedom. Why is there currently so much interest in this subject, and why is it cast in such dramatic terms?

SDS: I think there are two main reasons (which may ultimately come down to the same reason) for the interest, and for the woeful tone. One reason is that religion is at the core of the culture wars, which seem to be intensifying. A stark manifestation of this fact was a finding in the opinion of Judge Vaughn Walker, the federal district judge who invalidated California’s Proposition 8. The judge found that something like 85 percent of voters who attended church regularly voted in favor of the measure—in favor of traditional marriage, basically—while close to 85 percent of people who never attend church voted against it. Given divergences like this, people on the “progressive” side of the culture wars often come to view religion as the enemy. And they may come to see religious freedom as empowering that enemy.

Which leads to the second reason for the interest, and the apocalyptic tone: the traditional commitment to religious freedom seems more embattled today, and more vulnerable, than at any time in the modern period. Just a few years ago it was liberals (like Justice Brennan) who were the champions of religious freedom; today they are often opponents or skeptics (as the recent furor over the Hobby Lobby decision reflected). And the dominant opinion among legal scholars who work in this area seems to be that special constitutional protection for religious freedom is a product of contingent features of the founding period but is not something that could be justified today.

My book tries to offer some background for and insight into these developments. I suggest that the traditional “American settlement” with respect to religious pluralism centered on a principle of open contestation under which both providentialist and more secularist interpretations of the Republic had an assured place in the public square. This settlement was theoretically inelegant and sometimes messy in practice, but it allowed for peaceful engagement—and for an expansion of religious pluralism.

Beginning with the school prayer decisions in the early 1960s, however, the Supreme Court in effect repudiated this settlement, elevated a secularist interpretation to the status of constitutional orthodoxy, and demoted the providentialist view to the position of constitutional heresy.

One consequence of this repudiation was a sort of revival of the old “wars of religion” (in a less violent form, thankfully). The older battle lines had been between Catholics and Protestants; the newer division is between secularists and providentialists. A second consequence has been that the classic justifications for religious freedom, as articulated by Locke, Jefferson, Madison and others, were rendered inadmissible, because they were all theological in character. As a result, the commitment to religious freedom comes to be less defensible.

ECM: I really enjoyed your book, in part because it challenged some of my progressive assumptions about the American settlement. But it seems to me that much of the concern—in the culture war realm, anyway—focuses on exception rather than rule. Religious people remain perfectly free to practice their faith in countless ways without any governmental interference. But in a few cases—like Prop 8 and Hobby Lobby—religious citizens have claimed the right to impose their beliefs on people who don’t share them. Isn’t it fair to draw a line here?

SDS: I have to say, Eric, that the all-too-familiar objection to “imposing beliefs [or values] on others” is in my view a rhetorically potent but question-begging and wholly unhelpful way of addressing these kinds of conflicts. That is because the description equally applies to both sides of the controversies.

You mention the Hobby Lobby controversy. Hobby Lobby’s owners, the Green family, evidently believe that abortion is a sin, and that it would be a violation of their Christian commitments for them to facilitate that sin by providing insurance that covers some prescriptions they regard as abortifacients. If the Greens are excused from providing such coverage, you can say if you like that they are “imposing their beliefs” on their employees. (Although I confess that this description seems to me a bit strained, and tendentious: no employees are required to believe anything, or to forgo abortion or contraception.) Conversely, if the government forces the Greens to provide such coverage, this is clearly a case of the government imposing some set of (to them) alien values or requirements. “Imposition” occurs either way.

As it happens, in this particular instance the burden of the imposition on the Greens seems considerably more severe than the burden of an exemption on the employees. If an exemption is given, the burden on a Hobby Lobby employee who wants or needs contraceptives is that she will have to obtain them in some other way, or else try to find another employer. That is a burden, to be sure. Still, contraceptives are readily available, and there are lots of employers in America. If an exemption is denied, conversely, the burden on the Greens (if they remain faithful to their convictions) is, basically, that they will probably have to shut down their business.

Of course, you may not share the Greens’ beliefs—not many people today do—and so you may not sympathize with them. But, seriously, which burden seems more onerous?

In Rise and Decline I suggest that our contemporary approach to religious pluralism might accurately be characterized as one of denial (or self-deception). We intone, over and over again, that government must be “neutral” toward all religions. And then we desperately try to ignore or obfuscate the fact that in cases of genuine conflict, there simply is no meaningfully neutral position.

In this vein, a pervasive strategy is to criticize your opponent’s position for departing from neutrality (as it will, inevitably) while distracting attention (other people’s and your own) away from the fact that your own position is equally a departure from neutrality. There are various techniques for accomplishing this. But the language of “imposing values on others” is one very common (and often rhetorically effective) way of practicing this sort of deception or self-deception.

Read the whole thing at Religion and Politics.

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Creating Conservatism – A Conversation with Michael J. Lee

LeeMichael J. Lee is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the College of Charleston. His book, Creating Conservatism: Postwar Words that Made an American Movement, was published this summer by Michigan State University Press. In it, he traces the evolution of American conservatism across the middle of the 20th century, analyzing the notable books and authors that ushered the movement to national prominence and political power.

ECM: Your book tells the story of movement conservatism as an internal struggle between two opposed factions—traditionalists and libertarians. The first faction values religious belief and social order, while the second is primarily concerned with individual freedom. Over a few decades of antagonism, the two became fused. How do you evaluate the state of the movement currently? Is the struggle ongoing?

MJL: In my judgment, the history of the American conservative movement suggests its adaptability and flexibility. It is certainly possible that one faction or the other could take hold of conservatism and drive out the rest, but, in the main, conservatives, both historically and in our present political circumstances, have accepted a fusion of Christian morality and free market economics as their bedrock beliefs.

There is a great deal of room to maneuver between these poles, which allows conservative campaigners to emphasize a more socially conservative platform or a more libertarian conservative platform depending on the circumstances. I don’t mean to suggest that conservatives’ adaptability sets them up to win in 2014 or even 2016, but I do take issue with those pundits, and there are many, who have argued that conservatism is a “dead” ideology.

ECM: You identify “fusionism” as a concerted strategy to unite the factions into a viable coalition. It seems to me that, lately, conservative arguments themselves have become fused. The prevalence of “religious liberty” complaints, for instance, seems to cast traditionalist commitment in libertarian language. Do you buy that interpretation?

MJL: That’s an astute point. “Religious liberty” is a perfect example of fusionist rhetoric and fusionist ideology. After Reagan succeeded so dramatically with a fusionist “God and markets” message, there have only been a few non-fusionist conservatives to gain much national traction. Pat Buchanan’s 90s-era culture warriors are one example; although, by my reading, it remains to be seen whether Rand Paul’s ideological adjustments will bring him closer to standard fusionism. His father’s more stridently libertarian message, which rankled the feathers of social conservatives, is another. There are certainly more, but these are exceptions to the fusionist rule.

“Religious liberty” is an illustrative phrase for another reason as well: the threat of fracture. Hardline libertarians of Ludwig von Mises’ or Ayn Rand’s ilk found phrases like religious liberty revolting because they urged the freedom to practice a religion that itself denies individual freedom. In fact, I’ve been consistently amazed at how well fusionists have done in managing what I see is the inherent tension between a morality chiefly based on individual freedom and market processes, and one grounded in Judeo-Christian values.

Fusionists like Frank Meyer insisted that people who saw these as contradictory were wrong, that market-based values and religion-based values actually required one another for legitimacy. That is, freedom required religion’s ethical guidance, and religion required a defense of freedom to avoid theocracy.

Fusionism’s success was, however, more due to its ability to fashion resonant appeals to lots of constituencies than to its uncomplicated synthesis of mutually dependent ideologies. After all, I have never seen an effective answer to the question hardline traditionalist Brent Bozell posed to early fusionists in the 1960s: freedom or virtue? Is it more important to exercise freedom of choice regardless of the moral outcome, or is it more important that an individual’s choices align with traditional moral dictates?

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Defining the Marital Union – A Conversation with Leslie J. Harris

HarrisLeslie J. Harris is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Her book, State of the Marital Union: Rhetoric, Identity, and Nineteenth-Century Marriage Controversies, analyzes the rhetoric surrounding five marital issues from the 1800s: domestic violence, divorce, polygamy, free love, and miscegenation.

ECM: Your book is concerned with nineteenth century marriage controversies, so same-sex marriage is seldom mentioned. But it was on my mind the whole time I was reading. Did it inspire or influence your writing in any way?

LJH: Yes, the same-sex marriage controversy was an important factor in inspiring the book. I’ve been very interested in the issue for years, but I was particularly intrigued by the rash of state constitutional amendments in the early 2000s. I couldn’t help but wonder why marriage mattered so deeply to so many people.

For those advocating the amendments, marriage seemed to function as a status and idea that was much larger than any particular relationship. War metaphors were common as advocates declared that marriage was “under attack” and needed to be “defended,” and marriage was commonly represented as a sacred and unchangeable institution. While the other side of the debate emphasized the huge number of laws and policies tied to marriage, simply changing laws and policies quickly became an inadequate response. Marriage seemed to function as a status that enabled full citizenship, and advocates often made the analogy to nineteenth and early twentieth-century bans on interracial marriage.

By examining the history of these controversies we can better understand what is at stake today. In the nineteenth century the topic of marriage arose in almost every major controversy of the time including women’s rights, westward expansion, slavery, immigration, religious diversity, temperance, and state’s rights. Marriage functioned as a lens through which complex issues of belonging, identity, and status were debated.

I’ve become convinced that today’s debate about same-sex marriage is not simply about preserving a seemingly sacred and unchanging institution, or securing particular rights and privileges. Rather, it is about negotiating the boundaries of American-ness. I reference the recent Supreme Court decisions about marriage in the book’s conclusion because they illustrate this point well.

The court said that marriage enables “pride” and “dignity,” especially in reference to raising children (who were said to be humiliated by DOMA). Even as the Supreme Court seemed to open space for same-sex marriage, it (perhaps inadvertently) limited the acceptable gay family to one that models the traditional nuclear family.

ECM: Contra those who claim that marriage has always been stable and static, you show that it has been controversial for a long time. Did you observe any particular consistency or development in the arguments from controversy to controversy?

LJH: One reoccurring theme across controversies is marriage as a religious institution and the role of religion in public life. Arguments against expanding grounds for divorce, for example, consistently invoked arguments about marriage as ordained by God. If God created marriage as a permanent union between a man and woman, humans could not legitimately change the institution of marriage. Much like many current advocates for same-sex marriage, some proponents for expanding divorce laws argued that religion should be separate from politics and that marriage was essentially a civil institution.

Religious tropes were also used in attempts to change understandings of marriage. Polygamy (nineteenth century Mormons) and free love (some groups of Perfectionists) were two dramatic attempts to change marriage that were based in religious and often explicitly biblical justifications. Religion can be a malleable tool in negotiating the meaning and significance of marriage in public life.

The perceived connection between marriage and the future of the nation also has a long history. Commentators warned, for example, that increasing rates of divorce would lead to the fall of the United States, much like the fall of the Roman Republic. Similarly, polygamy was seen as causing social decline into barbarism. This technique of linking changes in marriage to a slippery slope to the nation’s destruction instilled fear of change. More importantly, however, these claims revealed underlying ideological norms about what constituted a “good” nation.

Within this reasoning, the family represents a microcosm of the nation as a whole; so it was problematic if the American family replicated seemingly barbarous families of the East, which were assumed to be polygamous. If the family looked like the racial other, the nation would begin to look like the racial other—so there were racist assumptions hidden within the image of a “good” nation.

There are, however, some temporal differences in marriage controversies. During the first half of the nineteenth century Americans were experimenting with public identity, and marriage became one site of experimentation. During this time, for example, Oneida Perfectionists practiced free love (or communal marriage) and Mormons began practicing polygamy. They were certainly controversial during their time (both groups were run out of various communities), but there seemed to be cultural space for experiments in marriage, religion, and public identity.

On the other hand, today’s marriage controversies are not only able to incorporate the powerful rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement, but they’re further enabled by new technologies. In the nineteenth century, for example, newspapers would print vivid descriptions of individuals such as the innocent and worthy “girl” who was deceived by a violent and unscrupulous husband, which helped promote identification with audiences. Today, however, such profiles are supplemented by actual visuals. Images of hard-working and non-threatening gay couples with their children enhance that audience identification even further.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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