Review – The Great Complacency

Neall W. Pogue is Senior Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. Robin Globus Veldman is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Texas A&M University. James Morton Turner is Professor of Environmental Studies at Wellesley College, and Andrew C. Isenburg is Hall Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of Kentucky. They are the authors of three new books on conservative Christian attitudes toward environmental problems, especially climate change.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan selected Wyoming attorney James G. Watt to serve as Secretary of the Interior, tasked with managing the nation’s public lands, federal parks, and natural resources. Then president of the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation, Watt’s past relationship to the Department of the Interior had been primarily antagonistic, pressing the federal government to loosen regulations and to make public lands more accessible to timber, mining, and ranching interests. His nomination thus signaled that the Reagan Administration intended to develop lands that had been protected in the past, drawing immediate scrutiny from environmental organizations and advocates. Though Watt’s posture toward conservation and resource management may have been defensible within a secular conception of politics and policy, his approach quickly became entangled with the tenets of his evangelical Christian faith. It was around this time, according to an array of contemporary sources, that Watt drew the connection himself. The United States may not need to conserve its natural resources at all, he quipped, because “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” Thus with one careless remark, Watt established and substantiated a popular association between evangelical theology, conservative policymaking, and an exceedingly transitory, entirely disposable planet.

Though Watt’s tenure was short—he was forced out in 1983 after some jarring comments on affirmative action and a public feud with the Beach Boys—his profile has proven durable. Over the four decades that followed, the claim that “end times” thinking has left evangelical Christians complacent on environmental conservation has been oft-repeated and published, with former Vice President Al Gore and journalist Bill Moyers among its more prominent proponents. In 2015, when a Pew Research poll revealed that only 28 percent of white evangelicals accepted the science behind anthropogenic climate change—far fewer than any other religious demographic—the theory seemed to be confirmed. As far as most evangelicals are concerned, environmental problems either do not exist or do not matter. God is in control of the world and will end it on his own terms, however much oil and coal we burn.

If this dismissive characterization feels intuitive or cathartic to critics of the evangelical movement, the reality of the situation is somewhat more nuanced and complex. In recent years, scholars from a range of disciplines have investigated the matter and sought to clarify the relationships between evangelical belief, conservative politics, and environmental protection. Their careful labor has yielded a variety of fascinating reads, including the three books under consideration in this review. Each of them discusses James Watt, but all locate the problem in a discursive environment far larger than any one man or idea. Together, they explain how forty years of shifts in the American religious and political ecosystems have left evangelicals largely dubious of or indifferent to climate change, a problem that the United Nations has termed “the defining issue of our time.”

Read the whole thing in the Journal of Communication and Religion.

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How We Got Here – A Conversation with Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College. He is a contributor to The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and the New York Review of Books, and author of 20 books of his own. His latest, The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened, reflects on his life of activism.

ECM: You’ve been around now for six decades of American life. What’s changed?

BM: I think the biggest change has been our transition to a kind of hyper-individualized, political-religious consumer culture. The America that I was born into in 1960 was still the America that had come out of the Depression and World War II with a great deal of solidarity. The tensions of the 60s and 70s still arose from our collective effort to complete a sort of joint project—trying to build what Lyndon Johnson called a “Great Society” or what Dr. King called a “Beloved Community.” In my mind, the great turning point was the election of 1980. It was the moment when we rejected that powerful idea in favor of another powerful idea—that we were essentially individual actors, that markets solved problems instead of people working together, that our job was to go every man for himself and become as rich as we could. I think that notion has continued to dominate our life and politics and culture ever since, and I think it has a lot to do with the excruciating troubles that we have now landed ourselves in as a society.

ECM: How did growing up in Lexington shape your understanding of America?

BM: I gave tours of the battle green—that was my job in junior high. You know, wearing a tri-corner hat, walking through fields, telling busloads of visitors the story of the first battle of the Revolution. It was a story that I loved and love. I think what it taught me then was that there is no contradiction between dissent and patriotism. On the one hand, these guys were thought of as patriotic heroes from the beginning; on the other hand, they were underdogs standing up against global colonialism, empire, and imperialism. I have no doubt that one of the reasons I went on to spend my life fighting difficult fights from the underdog position is that I internalized that early lesson.

ECM: In what ways has your engagement with American history and identity become more complicated as an adult?

BM: We’ve all learned a lot more about American history in the last 50 years, and especially in the last five or ten. There’s no question that these disclosures have to color our understanding of our past. While doing research for this book, for example, I was rereading Paul Revere’s account of his famous ride to Lexington, which provided the material for Longfellow’s most iconic of poems. There’s this moment in Revere’s account when he says, just in passing, that he narrowly escaped capture near the Charlestown common, right by “the place where Mark hung in chains.” That’s all it said. So I went and did some digging, and I learned that, about 20 years before the Revolution, there was a slave in Charlestown by the name of Mark Codman. His master, Captain John Codman, was an especially brutal man, so Mark poisoned him. He was charged with and convicted of treason, hanged, tarred and feathered, and his decomposing body was displayed in an iron gibbet and left there for years afterward as a deterrent against insubordination. It was such a well-known landmark that Revere could refer to it casually and take for granted that everyone would know what he meant. That gives us a slightly different sense of who the sons of liberty were and what kind of a world the minutemen were fighting to defend. As we can now understand through crucial work like The 1619 Project, these sorts of threads run all throughout American history. They certainly run throughout the history of Lexington, which became an extremely white and relatively affluent place in which that affluence was not broadly shared.

ECM: How has your Christianity contributed to your thinking on these matters, and how has your thinking on these matters changed or complicated your view of Christianity?

BM: I grew up in several different flavors of what was then the dominant mainline tradition. I was baptized Presbyterian, confirmed a Congregationalist, and as an adult I’ve been a Methodist, but all are basically branches of the same shrinking institution. I’m very thankful for those churches and those experiences, as they’ve been important to me. It has always seemed to me that one of the virtues of the gospels is that they are not hard to understand. We are constantly reminded that our job is to love our neighbor, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to care for the sick, and so on. I take all of that very seriously, and it has certainly informed my work on climate change.

If one accepts this idea that people everywhere are our neighbors, we need to confront the reality that our carbon-fueled economy has sickened our neighbors, has drowned our neighbors, has made it impossible for them to grow food in their fields, and has in many other ways revealed that we, as a nation or as developed nations, have done the exact opposite of what Christ instructs us to do. From an Old Testament perspective, we are running Genesis in reverse right now. We are steadily de-creating the planet. We are taking all the creatures that God created and declared to be good and we are driving them to extinction. It doesn’t seem hard to me to understand the Christian imperative to work on these issues, and my understanding of the fix that we’re in has probably darkened my view of American Christianity, or at least parts of it over the past several decades.

As my own tradition has dwindled, an evangelical Christianity has been on the rise, and that strain has been instrumental in driving these other trends in our political life post-Reagan. It’s a highly individualized form of the faith with a transactional orientation that always asks what’s in it for me. That doesn’t resonate with the Christian tradition that I recognize or, it seems to me, with any straightforward reading of the Bible. There are times when I wonder why anyone coming of age in this country decides to become a Christian anymore, because it no longer seems like a very attractive proposition. And I guess there must be something to that, because not many people coming of age these days are deciding to become Christians.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Review – Thinking About Talking About Climate Change

Katharine Hayhoe is Professor of Political Science and past co-director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University. She is chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, an Oxfam “Sister of the Plant,” and a UN “Champion of the Earth.” Her new book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, proposes to fight climate change through better communication.

One strange wrinkle of the climate crisis is that evangelical Christians, who have for decades anticipated the end of days, do not believe in it. Given the apocalyptic resonance of an overheating planet, one might assume that evangelicals would identify the chaos and catastrophe as telltale signs of God’s avenging hand. But the polls indicate otherwise. Perhaps because of their close affiliation with the Republican Party, broad support for a “pro-business” platform, and deep culture war alienation from anything associated with liberals or the Left, evangelicals simply do not buy it. A large fraction of the American population and an extremely powerful voting bloc, they are more skeptical of climate change than any other religious demographic. Their help is at once vital to any concerted response to the climate crisis and practically impossible to court. 

Of those doing the courting, Katharine Hayhoe may be the most important—and most anomalous. An atmospheric scientist and an evangelical Christian, Hayhoe is uniquely positioned to make the case to this particularly skeptical audience. A regular churchgoer and a daughter of missionaries, she is also chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, an Oxfam “sister of the planet,” and a United Nations “champion of the Earth.” A faculty member at Texas Tech University in ultraconservative Lubbock and a frequent contributor to online venues with comment sections, she has plenty of experience engaging with questions and absorbing critiques. Among the fruits of that experience is a systematic and strategic approach to public engagement; a heightened discernment that knows when to take the conversational bait and when to leave it alone.  

Hayhoe’s book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, marks the culmination of several decades spent thinking about talking about climate change. More communication handbook than scientific treatise, the text is neatly divided into five sections that build cumulatively on central themes—the persuasive importance of various audiences and identities, the limited potential of facts and evidence, the ubiquity and urgency of the exigence, the sense of empowerment attending the most promising policy solutions, and, finally, the importance of committing one’s own decisions, habits, and speech to rousing others to action. In her very popular TED Talk, Hayhoe declares that, given the relatively peripheral positioning of the climate discourse among other hot topics of the day, the most important thing that any individual can do to fight climate change is to talk about it. Her book explains in detail how to do this well.

Among the main and most practical of Hayhoe’s observations is that some people do not warrant engagement at all. Scorning the old believer-denier dichotomy, Hayhoe endorses a classification system developed by Tony Leiserowitz and Ed Maibach that sorts American attitudes on climate change into six separate categories, ranging from the Alarmed on one end to the Dismissive on the other (with the Concerned, the Cautious, the Disengaged, and the Doubtful in between). If her readers want to make efficient use of their time, energy, and persuasive force, they can start by ignoring the extremes, and so wasting no breath on the already converted or the ever out-of-reach. (One need not accept the dismissive critique of climate science as a form of religion to identify obvious parallels between certain religious and climate discourses, like their shared interest in belief, doubt, conversion, salvation, apocalypse, and how best to evangelize the world in time.) Hayhoe pays special attention to Dismissives early on, noting that their combative posture and online presence may create the impression that they are everywhere and that confronting them is important. On the contrary, she argues, Dismissives account for only about 7 percent of all American adults. The other 93 percent are out there as well, and necessarily more receptive by degree. 

Read the whole thing at Reading Religion. You can also read my conversation with Hayhoe for Religion & Politics or watch her webinar hosted by the Bloomsburg CCL on YouTube.

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White Christian Nation – A Conversation with Philip S. Gorski

Philip S. Gorski is Professor and Chair of Sociology at Yale University. His latest book, co-authored with Samuel L. Perry, is The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to Democracy. It defines and diagnoses the ideological movement that helped inspire the January 6 insurrection, and that continues to inspire anti-democratic action in the United States.

ECM: What is white Christian nationalism?

PSG: White Christian nationalism can be understood in two ways—as a deep story about the past and as a political vision for the future. As a deep story, it claims that America was founded as a Christian nation, that its founding documents are based on Protestant Christianity, that its power and wealth are reflective of divine favor. If the nation becomes less white, less Christian, less patriotic, it falls in danger of losing those blessings. As a vision for the future, it imagines that the country will continue to be led by native-born white Christians, with everyone else here basically on their sufferance. But it is also connected to views on a variety of other issues, including gun rights, voting rights, economic policy, and so on. These are linked together by what we call the “holy trinity” of white Christian nationalism: freedom, order, and violence. Freedom for us, order for everyone else, and violence for those who transgress.  

ECM: Do white Christian nationalists self-identify as such?

PSG: There is a small but growing minority who openly speak about America as a Christian nation and might even accept the term for themselves. I think that has happened, in part, because of criticism voiced by scholars and journalists who work in this area. It’s not uncommon for people to embrace a stigmatized label as a marker of group identity, and I think that is beginning to happen here. But the vast majority of individuals that we would term white Christian nationalists would probably think of themselves, instead, as members of the religious right, conservative Christians, culture warriors, God-and-country patriots, or something like that.

ECM: You’ve borrowed the concept of a “deep story” from Arlie Hochschild and it is important to your analysis. Can you tell us a bit about that?

PSG: The term “deep story” is similar to what cultural linguists like George Lakoff refer to as a “frame” or a “metaphor.” It’s a kind of a script that explains how the world works and how one fits into the world. For some people there is a conscious sort of storytelling that plays out in their minds, but for most it works in the background. It’s like a set of glasses that you forget you’re wearing but that nonetheless color everything that you perceive. This particular deep story is transmitted in various ways. For one thing, there is a Christian nationalism culture industry comprised of books and seminars and YouTube videos. There is also an array of Christian homeschooling textbooks, for example. For many people within this conservative Christian subculture, it’s just the air that they breath or the water they swim in. They wouldn’t even think of it, consciously, as a story. But if you arrange these ideas into a story and tell it to these individuals, as Arlie Hochschild did, they would probably recognize it as something that they feel or that feels true to them.

Sam Perry and I think about the white Christian nationalist deep story as being woven together by way of three stories that appear in Christian scripture. The first is what we call the “promised land” story, drawing on the Israelites’ conquest of the promised land. This dates back to the Puritans, who once looked upon North America as their promised land, given to Christians by God, and who came to see the native peoples as the biblical Canaanites or Malakites—people who were unjustly occupying the land and needed to be driven out, exterminated, or, in some cases, assimilated. The second thread is what we call the “end times” story, comprised of beliefs about the second coming of Christ and the end of the world, a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil, natural and supernatural, that provides a means of understanding contemporary events. As a character in this story, you are not simply engaged in political conflict, you are engaged in spiritual conflict. Your partisan identity is tied up in a great final struggle between God and Satan. Those two stories account for the Christian and the nationalist part of the equation. The white part is visible in the third thread, which once identified enslaved Africans with the biblical Ham, on whom God had placed a curse and destined for eternal servitude. I don’t think many people embrace that idea explicitly today, but it is echoed in subtle and persistent forms of anti-Black bias and racism, as well as subtle and not-so-subtle ideas about the cultural and moral superiority of whites in modern America. So those are the three threads of white Christian nationalism, and they are woven together into a single deep story.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Anti-Christians – A Conversation with Obery M. Hendricks

Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. is Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary and Adjunct Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Columbia University. His new book, Christians Against Christianity: How Right-Wing Evangelicals Are Destroying Our Nation and Our Faith, charges conservative evangelicals with undermining the Christian tradition.

ECM: Members of the Christian Right seem to believe they are defending a tradition that liberal Christians have betrayed. But you argue that, on issue after issue, the Christian Right has taken positions antithetical to those of Christ. So in what sense can this modern movement claim to be true to that ancient tradition?

OMH: I think part of the answer lies in this moment, but the modern innovations are founded on a legacy that goes way back, at least to the fourth century. When the Roman Emperor Constantine declared himself the thirteenth apostle appointed by God, he transformed the faith that Jesus preached to the oppressed and institutionalized it as the official religion of the powerful empire that had executed Jesus. From that time, throughout history mainstream Christianity has had a virtually uninterrupted alignment with the powers that be, with few exceptions. That continues to be the case with American Christianity in the 21st century. However, the right-wing evangelical movement has gone further, being openly and shamelessly animated by a will to dominate, control, and exclude. In that sense it is true to the tradition of mainstream Christianity, but neither are true to the liberating Gospel of Jesus the Messiah, in that they are committed instead to accumulating and maintaining power, privilege, and the status quo.

ECM: American Evangelicals like to trace their lineage back through the 19th century abolitionists, but today they are leading the charge against critical race theory. What do you make of this?

OMH: It is true that many, perhaps most of the major abolitionists were evangelicals, and in a number of respects the greater evangelical movement had a prominent egalitarian strain, with evangelical figures also supporting women’s rights, universal education, workers’ rights, and in the early 20th century opposing racial segregation and urban poverty of both domestic and immigrant populations. But I think that changed in an important way around the time of the New Deal. When FDR altered the philosophy of government in America, turning the force of government away from the interests of big business and wealthy elites and toward the interests of the struggling masses—away from a laissez-faire toward a welfare state, if you will—certain members of the capitalist elite enlisted the help of evangelical preachers to push back on New Deal provisions that threatened their power and bottom lines. During these years, up to and including the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942, evangelical elites and capitalist elites found areas of common cause that would solidify and expand during the decades to come. Their efforts to defend and reclaim the old status quo necessarily reinforced the racial status quo, which was racist by any measure.

This movement coalesced in the late 1970s, when the Carter Administration sought to crack down on educational institutions that practiced racism as policy. Many of these were avowedly Christian institutions, and one of them, Bob Jones University, had the enthusiastic support of evangelical conservatives including Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich, and Timothy LaHaye. The fight over integration and tax exemption at Bob Jones motivated the founding of Christian Right institutions like the Moral Majority. By now it is well-established that the Christian Right can trace its history to the rotten roots of racism, and not to abortion politics, as many continue to claim. So while it is true that white evangelicals have ancestry in abolitionism, their perspective is so drastically different that we should not be surprised that they are so stirred and angry at the prospect of a history curriculum that takes seriously the Black perspective. Things have changed.

ECM: Let’s focus in on that relationship between evangelical Christianity and American capitalism for a moment. Though Jesus had a lot to say about money and the dangers associated with greed, right-wing Christians have not lifted a prophetic voice where wealth and inequality are concerned. Why not?

OMH: The simplest way to answer all such questions may be to observe that right-wing Christianity is a form of what I call ideological religion, which is to say that its proponents always sacralize their own interests above the demands of the Gospel witness. So if certain kinds of political power serve their interests, then for them that expression of political power is Christian. If white supremacist policies or practices serve their interests, then for them white supremacy is Christian. If they are interested in wealth, then Christianity and wealth get conflated. And so on. When it comes to wealth, they have either ignored Jesus’ teaching on greed, or they have misinterpreted them in ways that justify exploitation and unjust accumulation.

Reading the whole thing in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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Church / State – A Conversation with Steven K. Green

Steven K. Green is the Fred H. Paulus Professor of Law and Affiliated Professor of History and Religious Studies at Willamette University, a position he accepted after serving for ten years as legal director and special counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. In his new book, Separating Church and State: A History, Green charts the long legacy of an important American idea.

ECM: You write that the concept of church-state separation appears to be “on the ropes” under the Roberts Court. How so?

SKG: As a historian and a lawyer, one thing that I have found very curious is just how often the conservative members of the Supreme Court now criticize the idea of church-state separation, an idea that the Court did not create but has adopted and embraced ever since a unanimous decision back in 1947. The hostility that we are seeing from these justices seems to reflect a perspective that separation has somehow been forced upon the Court. Justice Thomas has been very critical and, as recently as January, Justice Gorsuch has referred in passing to the “so-called” separation of church and state. It’s very strange, because this is a principle that the Court has roundly endorsed over the years, but now they act like it’s some kind of an alien concept. The purpose of this book is not necessarily to get into a debate about the merits of separation, but rather to explore the bona fides of the principle as well as why it has become controversial.

ECM: What’s the origin story of church-state separation? Is it traceable directly to the Constitutional Convention, or only as far back as the Warren Court?

SKG: In this book I am very interested in the historical pedigree of the concept, and how it has evolved over time. I therefore open with some attention to the western Christian origins, dating back to the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church was trying to free itself from the control of the Holy Roman Empire and so drew a line in the sand. St. Augustine wrote about the two cities separated by a wall, the one temporal and the other sacred. So the concept goes back to the Church doctrine of separate spheres of influence. Later it acquired an Enlightenment strain. In each case it predates the colonies, and it certainly predates the Constitution. Now, there was nothing in the Constitution initially that dealt with religious issues except for the “no religious test clause” that was put into Article 6. Separation of church and state wasn’t really debated during the Constitutional Convention, though it would come up two years later with the drafting of the First Amendment. Even then, the phrase was not explicitly used.

ECM: What is the distinction between “separation” and “disestablishment,” and why does it matter?

SKG: Disestablishment is the disentanglement of the public and private religious spheres, in terms of both regulation and support of religion. That does not necessarily imply entirely separate spheres of activity with no crossover, as separationism does. We need to keep in mind that these are not synonymous. The book does not make the claim that the majority of the Founders, who voted for disestablishment, necessarily supported complete separation of church and state. Separationism remains a very fluid concept that can have multiple meanings. It wasn’t a concept that was alien to the Founders, but I don’t claim that there was any consensus around it. There was far greater consensus around disestablishment. Even the three states that retained their colonial religious establishments—New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Massachusetts—all claimed that they did not have establishments. This was a bad word even then. So the movement toward disestablishment was well underway even before the Constitution. There was no turning back on that. But it’s different and more difficult to determine the extent to which certain of the Founders may have believed in one version of separation over another.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Hijacking History – A Conversation with Kathleen Wellman

ECM: Your book is interested in the Christian Right’s “polemical” use of history. What is the Christian Right and why is its approach to history polemical?

KW: The Christian Right is a coalition of religious-political activists for whom religion and politics are inextricably linked. The argument advanced by the Christian Right is that you truly cannot be a Christian without espousing the political positions of the Right. In many cases, the key spokesmen for this movement have sought to ground their work in history, and so their approach to history has been necessarily polemical. Examples of this date back to the turn of the twentieth century with attacks on Darwinism and European social welfare measures. It became especially pronounced in more recent decades, when the Republican Party decided to use Christianity as a centerpiece of its political strategy, maintaining that capitalism and patriarchy are Christian values and that feminism and social welfare programs are antithetical to them. These positions have found a receptive audience among evangelicals. The religious message of Christianity, then, has become increasingly distorted by contemporary political issues.

ECM: Your project focuses on a trio of publishers in particular. Who are they, and why have they drawn your attention?

KW: The publishers are Bob Jones University Press, Abeka Books, and Accelerated Christian Education. I was led to these three publishers when I got involved in the discussion around Texas state standards that our conservative Board of Education mandated for 2014 textbooks. I’m an historian of early modern Europe, and I was appalled to see that, suddenly, John Calvin was being inserted into state standards as one of the key figures of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Thomas Aquinas, too, very peculiarly received pride of place. When I looked into some of the textbooks under review for the Texas market, I learned that Moses was an essential figure to all of the founding documents of the United States. I realized then that, clearly, these standards were being constructed to advance a very particular understanding of history, but I had no idea where these views could have come from. When I found the three curricula, I was able to connect some of the dots. As my book documents, the materials produced by these three publishers provide a fascinating window into how history is being refashioned and deployed in the service of conservative politics.

ECM: What are some other examples of claims made in these texts that struck you as ahistorical or as motivated by a partisan agenda?

KW: Though they are published by conservative fundamentalists, these materials present themselves as generically Christian sources, presenting the Christian understanding of history. Much of their narrative is ahistorical because it intends to tell a clear and consistent story of the emergence of “biblical truth” during the Protestant Reformation. Thus all prior civilizations are found wanting; they are heretical and destined to fail. When “biblical truth” triumphed over earlier civilizations and other religions, God’s favor fell first on England, and then on the United States as manifest in its economic success and international hegemony. In their treatment of recent history, these curricula serve an explicitly partisan agenda as they make clear that these positive developments, as well as God’s continued favor, are due to the alliance of “biblical Christianity” and the Republican Party.

ECM: Do we have a sense of how many students have been taught this material?

KW: These curricula have been in circulation since the early 1970s when all three of the publishers entered, first, into the secondary school market, and then expanded into K-12. Initially developed during opposition to desegregation, they flourished in the segregation academies that were opening, sometimes several per week, around that time. They persist today because they are popular both in Christian schools and within the homeschooling movement. We don’t have any idea how extensive that movement is because many states do not require reporting from homeschoolers about which curricula they use.Several reporters have tried to gain that information. Rebecca Klein of HuffPost has tried to survey schools in Florida where vouchers are used to support private education with public funds and has found that these are the curricula predominantly used in those schools. The same is true for North Carolina. We don’t have hard numbers because publishers won’t share them, the nation doesn’t compile them, and the largest states, like Texas, Pennsylvania, and New York, don’t require any reporting at all. There are a number of legal entities devoted to the “parental rights” movement, which is explicitly committed to preventing states from acquiring this information. Another feature that makes these curricula significant is that they are multigenerational at this point. Some kids who went to school in the 70s first learned this material, their kids probably learned it a couple of decades later, and their kids may now be learning it as well. There is substantial depth of penetration at this stage.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Hidden Mercy – A Conversation with Michael J. O’Loughlin

Michael J. O’Loughlin is the award-winning national correspondent for America Media and the host of the podcast Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, National Catholic Reporter, and The Advocate. In his new book, Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear, O’Loughlin documents where these stories intersect with the Catholic Church.

ECM: The book documents “untold”stories of Catholics during the AIDS crisis. Why have these stories gone untold until now?

MJO: I think a lot of the stories have gone untold because there is still a taboo within Catholicism about sexuality, especially during the height of HIV and AIDS, and there’s no natural way of sharing these stories within the Church. In the book, I talk about how it’s difficult to relay LGBT history in general because it’s rarely talked about in families or schools, and almost never in church or religious education. There was a very real risk that these stories would be lost to time, and my goal was to capture them and share them with an audience that might benefit from knowing this history. 

ECM: Throughout these stories, there seems to be a tension between Catholic clergy and gay parishioners who were at once repelled by and drawn to one another. Can you speak to that?

MJO: What I found interesting about these stories is that they reveal the standard narrative to be far too simplistic. You have the Catholic Church on one side, the gay community on the other. That understanding was formed, in part, by the ACT UP campaign in New York City, where you had an activist group targeting the Church because of its opposition to same-sex relationships, and that confrontation created some clearly defined rivals. Even in that story, though, I was surprised to learn that about a third of ACT UP members in New York were Catholics. This clued me in that something interesting was happening in the overlap. As I started doing more research, I realized that there was actually a pretty large contingent of LGBT Catholics at that time who felt really torn over which side they belonged on. Sometimes they got in trouble with the gay community because they were Catholic, and of course they got in trouble with the Catholic community because they were gay. They inhabited this middle world. I wanted to hear from them what that experience was like, how they navigated that space. I think that, for a lot of LGBT people today, even though the stakes might not be quite as high, that tension is still there. They often don’t know quite where they belong.

ECM: The tension was internalized by gay priests, some of whom were closeted and some out. How did they cope?

MJO: I think it was very difficult. There were relatively few openly gay priests back then. I profile one of them, Father Bill McNichols, who decided pretty early on in his priesthood that he had to be honest about his own sexuality in order to minister effectively, at the time, mostly to gay men with AIDS. This openness came at great risk to his vocation. He took a fair amount of abuse from fellow Catholics, he experienced some professional setbacks, and in these ways he sort of validated the fear felt by other gay priests who had chosen not to come out. Interestingly, though, it was around this time that HIV and AIDS started to affect priests as well, so there was a sort of forced reckoning among gay members of the priesthood who now had to risk going public about their HIV status, perhaps revealing that they had not lived up to their vows or to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. The result was this firestorm of identity and publicity. In the book, I talk about some priests who went public with their HIV status because they wanted to use their own lives to help others feel less shame, stigma, and isolation. But it was never easy, and I don’t think we ever got a full reckoning of what it meant to be a gay priest during the crisis. 

ECM: What role did nuns play in the Catholic response to AIDS? Was their experience different from that of priests?

MJO: Nuns always seem to be the unsung heroes of the Church’s story, and during HIV and AIDS this was no different. They were staffing wards at Catholic hospitals throughout the country. They were leading outreach efforts. I write about one nun who really wanted to serve HIV and AIDS patients in her small city in Illinois, but lacked the education. So she moved to New York to immerse herself in the gay community, volunteer at the hospitals, answer calls at AIDS hotlines, and eventually returned to Illinois to serve as a strong advocate and ally for the gay community there.

As to whether their experience was different, I do think that nuns historically have had a little more freedom to engage in innovative forms of ministry. Sometimes their superiors grant them greater flexibility or less oversight. They’ve had a little more leeway to go out and serve in what Pope Francis has called the “field hospital of the church,” and I think we see that play out in the 80s and 90s.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Colorblind Christianity – A Conversation with Jesse Curtis

Jesse Curtis is Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University. His book, The Myth of Colorblind Christians: Evangelicals and White Supremacy in the Civil Rights Era parses the theories and practices animating white evangelical thinking on race since 1960. He shows that, over three decades, “Colorblind Christianity” went from a Civil Rights call-to-arms to a rearguard action in defense of whiteness.

ECM: What is Colorblind Christianity? Or, rather, what has it been?

JC: Around the middle of the twentieth century, black evangelicals really challenged white evangelicals over segregation and racism. They argued that God is colorblind, so Christians should not divide themselves according to race. Because we are one in Christ, they said, you must include us. It is a theological scandal that we are being discriminated against. This was clearly a mode of colorblind theology, deployed in the interest of unity and equality. By the end of the century, however, white evangelicals had completely turned the tables. They argued that God is colorblind, and so Christians should not concern themselves with racial consciousness, racial injustice, etc. If we are one in Christ, they said, why are you talking about race? If you were a mature Christian, you would recognize that race doesn’t matter. This, too, was clearly a mode of colorblind theology. The book is about the transition from the one to the other.

I frame the final product as a new theology of race. Put simply, over the course of several decades, white evangelicals went from thinking that God is a segregationist to thinking that God is colorblind. It’s not the case that white evangelicals were borrowing something from secular racial ideology or assuming the colorblindness of conservative politics. Their version came up indigenously within evangelicalism, rooted in evangelical ways of thinking, reading scripture, the words of the Apostle Paul—you know, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, we are one in the Body of Christ.” These kinds of ideas and idioms really shaped the evangelical racial imagination in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement. This new theology offered a way for white evangelicals to sacralize their own uses of race. It was racial consciousness for me but not for thee. When we use race, we’re using it to promote the gospel and advance the kingdom. When black evangelicals use race, they’re distracting from the gospel and threatening the unity of the Body of Christ.

ECM: We’ll put a pin in that white evangelical “use” of race and return to it in a moment. But first, you write that, initially, white evangelicals tried to integrate the faith via their college campuses. How did they do that, and how did it turn out?

JC: In the late 60s, there was a sincere effort to make changes on evangelical campuses. College presidents, administrators, and thought leaders conceded that they had dropped the ball here. They recognized that, in their concern for maintaining academic standards and providing a full evangelical experience for students, they had not been concerned with opening these opportunities to black students. So there was a new wave of recruitment efforts in the late 60s that marked a dramatic shift, from campuses that were theoretically willing to accept black students but also likely to subject them to demeaning and discriminatory policies, to campuses that were actively pursuing black students and working to incorporate them into campus life. Messiah, Wheaton, Calvin, and other major evangelical institutions all got on board for this effort, and they began to enroll larger cohorts of black students than ever before. This is all richly ironic, of course, because it’s race conscious to go out and deliberately recruit black students. But it’s race consciousness in the service of building a colorblind Christian campus. In the new world that the Civil Rights movement had wrought, an all-white campus was an indictment of Christian credibility, so black students were needed, even though whiteness and blackness were supposed not to matter. I don’t mean to be overly cynical. There were good intentions at work here.

On a lot of these campuses, though, things kind of blew up in their faces. There was a lack of understanding about the kind of institutional and systemic changes that would have been necessary to make it work. At some colleges, you had this wave of recruitment between ’68 and ’71, and then, by the mid-70s, there were with fewer black students enrolled than ever before, because of the severity of the conflicts, controversies, and backlash from white students, parents, and donors. White administrators, in many cases, simply threw up their hands and admitted that they didn’t know how to integrate a campus properly. It became a generations-long project that, in many ways, continues right up to the present.

ECM: Segregated churches and campuses—whether de facto or de jure—received some support in these years from the Church Growth Movement. What was this movement, and why was it so influential on evangelical thinking with regard to race?

JC: The Church Growth Movement (CGM) came out of India in the 1930s. Donald McGavran was a missionary to India at that time, and he was very interested in finding approaches to spur mass movements to Christ. McGavran was looking at the mission field and concluding that the churches were foundering. Missionaries were doing good work, in his view, but the people of India were not converting in any numbers. So he was drawn to this theory that, instead of converting individuals, missionaries could move entire people groups to Christ at the level of caste. Groups could convert as groups, without crossing caste lines, without being pressured to change their culture or to become “Western.” The people of India would be permitted to live their lives as before, without undue demands on their lifestyle. They would simply come to Christ. By the 1950s, this theory—later articulated as the “Homogenous Unit Principle” (HUP)—had become very popular in evangelical missionary circles, and even among those in the more ecumenical World Council of Churches. In the 1960s, it came home to the United States.

Prior to the Civil Rights movement, Black Power, and this widespread ethnic revival, McGavran hadn’t considered applying this sort of approach to the US because he thought of it as being, essentially, homogenous. Racial distinctions notwithstanding, the US wasn’t like the rest of the world with their castes and clans and tribes, at least in his view. But as the 60s wore on and different identity groups became more clearly defined and pronounced, the US started to look a lot like the rest of the world. So McGavran, working with a number of other evangelical missionaries, began to argue that, even in the United States, homogenous churches grow faster. This was not just an observation—it was a prescription. Church leaders and planters in the United States, according to this reasoning, should actively pursue homogenous congregations. These didn’t need to be racial, necessarily, but they certainly could be. Class would work, occupation, or some other unifying quality—the point was that, according to McGavran, people like worshipping with people like themselves, and churches should give them that.

Of course, the ethical implications of this idea, introduced into a racist society, are enormous. Critics pointed this out immediately. Far from colorblindness, this was explicit race consciousness, deployed toward greater division and separation. But McGavran pitched it as a sort of cultural sensitivity. Back in the 50s, writing about his experience in India, he had argued, basically, that it does no good to say that tribal peoples shouldn’t have racial prejudice. They do have it, he argued, and we ought to use it to spread the gospel. This allowed him, in the 60s and 70s, to argue the same thing about Americans—they have racial identities and allegiances, and we should use these for Christ.

At the grassroots level, this thinking ends up facilitating worship spaces in which race doesn’t seem to be in play at all. When congregations are all white, congregants don’t have to think about whiteness. White evangelical Christians think of white evangelical Christianity as nothing more or less than the norm.

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The New Midwest – A Conversation with Kristy Nabhan-Warren

Kristy Nabhan-Warren is the V.O. and Elizabeth Kahl Figge Chair of Catholic Studies and Professor in the Departments of Religious Studies and Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. In her new book, Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland, she examines the how meatpacking plants are changing the face of the Midwest.

ECM: How important is the meatpacking industry to the economies of heartland states like Iowa?

KNW: Incredibly important. In the 1960s and 70s, the meatpacking industry moved from urban bases like Chicago out to small towns and rural settings in states like Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. They did this for a number of reasons, from cutting costs to preventing unionization among their workers. In Columbus Junction, Iowa, where I did a lot of my fieldwork, the meatpacking plant is the economic lifeblood of the community—for better and for worse. The plants have revitalized towns that once were struggling, but they have done so by polluting the air, the water, the land, and the bodies of the people who live there, all while killing tens of thousands of animals every day. It’s a complicated story. I didn’t intend to demonize the industry, but I didn’t want to let it off the hook, either.

ECM: What goes on in these plants, and who does the work?

KNW: When I started this project, the working title was Cornbelt Catholicism. I was really focused on parishes in rural Iowa and how these places are changing with the arrival of migrants from Africa, Asia, and Central America. When folks think about Iowa, they probably imagine a population of white farmers. But what’s really fascinating—and what ultimately changed the course of my project—is that meatpacking plants, specifically, have become an engine of diversification in the Midwest and on the plains. When you walk into one of them, you hear a variety of languages being spoken. The first time I walked into the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction, the first thing I saw was an enormous sign stating “welcome” in fifteen languages. It is obvious, right away, that white folks are a minority in that building. The majority are brown and black folks from Central America and Africa.

Refugees—and in the book I refer to all of the immigrants as refugees, regardless of their legal status, because they have all fled a certain kind of violence—perform all sorts of job within the plant. On the slaughter side, also called the “hot side,” they cut, slice, and trim fat before the carcass goes to the chiller. Some jobs are gendered as trimmers who use whizzer electric knives tend to be women. The sawing of carcasses tends to be done by men. They are “hide rippers,” “kidney poppers,” “de-jowlers,” and they burn the hair from the sows to give them the clean pink piggy look. In short, they do difficult, dirty, dangerous jobs and at a very fast pace. Refugees who work on the fabrication or “cold” side dissect the dehided carcass into the various cuts of meat that we find in supermarkets. Others work in the distribution centers, or as translators. Refugees literally run the plants, and without their labor meat would not be served on tables across the United States and around the globe.

I learned in the course of my research that the rural Midwest is much more complicated than most people assume. When we put in the time and do the work—and I should note that I did my fieldwork over more than six years—we can see that these are dynamic places where refugees, migrants, and asylees from all over the world are coming together to find work and provide for their families. Their presence is changing the face of the heartland.

ECM: How are religious traditions tied up in this work?

KNW: One of my goals with this book was to demonstrate how workers in meatpacking plants bring their faith to work with them—often in the form of material objects like rosaries and scapulars, or inscribed in their bodies through tattoos, and many of them incorporate prayer into their work routines because their jobs are very dangerous. At Iowa Premium Beef, another site where I did fieldwork, there is a group of Sudanese Muslim women who have cleaned a small area in the locker room where they go a couple times during a shift to pray. They perform ablutions in the sink, they cleanse themselves, they unroll their prayer rugs, and they say their prayers. In these ways, individuals are able to craft meaning in a really violent, bloody, profane place. Another thing that fascinated but also troubled me was that Tyson has the largest chaplaincy program of any company in the United States. Every one of their plants has a chaplain, whose responsibilities include counseling workers, taking them to the doctor when they get hurt, and serving as a sort of spiritual guru. That program is part of a larger effort at companies like Tyson—Bethany Moreton documents this really well in her book about Wal-Mart—to implement a corporate religious lexicon from the top down. I try to show how religion permeates the plant from the grassroots, originating with a diverse group of workers, as well as from the CEOs, CFOs, and the managerial class, who promote a business-oriented version of evangelical Christianity.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Active Passive – A Conversation with Stephanie A. Martin

Stephanie A. Martin is Associate Professor of Corporate Communication and Public Affairs at Southern Methodist University. In her new book, Decoding the Digital Church: Evangelical Storytelling and the Election of Donald J. Trump, she analyzes scores of sermons delivered at evangelical megachurches to document how evangelical pastors framed the 2016 electoral contest.

ECM: Between 2010 and 2018, you listened to, transcribed, and examined hundreds sermons delivered at evangelical megachurches across three dozen states. Why?

SAM: I did it for a couple of reasons. My animating interest, when I first began, was the reaction to the Great Recession and the popularity of the Tea Party among evangelicals. There had been, since the time of Reagan, a merger between the “free market” economic rhetoric and the social values rhetoric coming out of evangelical communities, but the cataclysmic impact of the Great Recession made me wonder if evangelicals—and really, the nation writ large—might reconsider its commitment to “trickle down” economics.

But then Obama came into office and the Tea Party arose and evangelicals started joining up. The great reckoning that I thought might on its way turned out not to be. So my central research question ended up being something like, how can I understand the grassroots movement bent on maintaining evangelical allegiance to free market economics?

I was pretty familiar with the popular media framing of evangelicals, and had recently watched the documentary Jesus Camp, which offers this very polemical presentation of evangelical life, and neither bore much resemblance to the evangelical people that I knew personally. So I started to wonder how I might get inside the movement to observe and understand their thinking firsthand. It made sense to attend their churches and listen to the sermons. This was pretty easy to do with megachurches, in particular, because so many of them stream and archive their sermons online. They’re “digital” churches.

ECM: Do the sermons given in very large churches (and streamed online) accurately reflect grassroots evangelical thought and opinion?

SAM: I think so, for a couple of reasons. The first is that they demonstrate a high degree of rhetorical resonance—or what I call esprit de finesse—which refers to the idea that rhetoric always reaches out to and connects with other, related conversations, and these become mutually reinforcing.The sermons that I heard drawing upon conservative social positions, conservative economics, personal responsibility, etc. were grounded within the same ideas and values that routinely feature on Fox News, that Republican politicians tout in their campaign speeches and rallies, and that get shared as common sense every day at diner counters and barrooms. Because there is such pervasive esprit de finesse within the conservative political movement in the United States, it’s easy to see how that rhetoric also pervades the discourse within the churches that conservative people attend.

But also, I learned in the course of this project that pastors share and edit sermon content kind of like how Internet readers use Wikipedia. The preachers that I studied are among the most charismatic, most famous religious figures in the United States, even if they may not be as well known outside of evangelicalism. And they upload their sermons to places like Sermon Central, or simply onto their church websites, which allows pastors of smaller churches to search for and browse those sermons, like I did, and borrow from or mimic them in their own pulpits. So evangelical sermons are not always created out of whole cloth. Very often they get replicated and reused again and again. Sometimes I would hear a sermon that sounded very familiar to me, and when I compared the transcripts I could see that it was almost word-for-word, indicating that there was some copying going on here. That validated my hunch that this mutual reinforcement was at work.

ECM: Having set out to draw some conclusions about economics, you end up making an important observation about politics. You observe that, during the 2016 campaign, these megachurch pastors did not openly advocate for Donald Trump, as many might suspect. Instead, how did they frame the race?

SAM: I don’t think I ever heard a pastor tell a congregation who to vote for. Instead, practically all of them embraced a rhetoric of what I call active passivism, which has several elements.

First of all, you have to understand that white evangelicals are one of the most politically active subcultures in the United States, and pastors encourage this. The pastors that I studied would routinely remind their congregations that America is an exceptional nation, chosen and blessed by God, a city on a hill, and therefore Christian citizens have an almost divinely mandated responsibility to vote. It would be disrespectful to the nation, its founders, its troops, and others if they didn’t.

But then, second, the evangelical pastors making this appeal in 2016 were confronted with a pair of presidential nominees who carried historically low approval ratings. So in pressing their audiences on the vital importance of voting, the pastors would also acknowledge that the options were very bad. If you think these candidates are abysmal, they would say, we agree. If you feel depressed about it, we do too. Nobody is happy with this situation. This created a sort of cognitive dissonance in the message. Congregants were told that it was important for them to vote, but also that they had no good candidate for whom to vote.

And this set up the third part of the appeal, the piece that relieves the tension produced by the first two. To listeners who felt at once obligated to vote and dismayed or anxious about the difficult political choice before them, the pastors said, almost across the board, don’t worry, because God is in control. Vote the issues, vote your values, and trust that He will take care of the rest. If the strong entreaty to vote was the active part of the appeal, this was the passive. It essentially drained the election of all significance, because it assured these voters that their votes didn’t really matter in the end. It made them feel that, while they were obligated to vote, they were not responsible for whatever real world effects their votes might have on vulnerable people. God would handle all of that for them.

Because most white evangelicals consistently vote Republican, and because this particular Republican candidate had a unique set of moral failings that might have given them pause, this active passive appeal had the practical effect of soothing their troubled consciences, directing their attention past the candidate and onto the issues, and ultimately excusing them from accountability in any case. This is the mindset that millions of evangelicals likely carried with them into the voting booth, and as we know, 81 percent of them voted for Donald Trump.

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Public Confessions – A Conversation with Rebecca L. Davis

Rebecca L. Davis is the Miller Family Early Career Professor of History at the University of Delaware. In her new book, Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions that Changed American Politics, she documents famous changes-of-heart from across the twentieth century, noting how the public reception of each was influenced by important political and cultural trends.

ECM: Over the course of the twentieth century, the religious conversions of famous people generated an immense amount of public interest. Why did average Americans feel so invested in personal decisions made by celebrities?

RLD: These conversions generated a lot of public interest because they spoke to broader cultural anxieties at work across the United States in the middle of the twentieth century. These included questions of personal authenticity and fears about brainwashing, among others. In the context of the anti-communism that preceded and followed World War II, there was a lot of concern about communists in our midst—people pretending to be patriotic Americans who were actually subversive agents of the Soviet Union. The first religious conversions that became cultural events of the sort that I discuss in the book were among Americans who were explicitly describing their religious conversions as an ideological defense against communism. That’s not to say that they weren’t sincere in their belief—I think they were. But at the same time, they argued explicitly that being converted—to Protestantism, to Roman Catholicism—offered a way to protect the American mind and soul from the danger of infiltration by communist ideas.

ECM: The first example you consider is that of Clare Booth Luce, who converted from Protestantism to Catholicism in 1946, and in 1947 published a series of magazine articles explaining “the ‘real’ reason” why. How is her situation representative of the tendency that you describe?

RLD: Discovering the sensation that Clare Booth Luce’s conversion made was one of the first surprises in my research for this project, and something that really sent me down the trail of archival research to learn more. I was stunned that more historians hadn’t talked about how culturally significant her conversion was. Luce was a member of Congress serving her second term from a district in Connecticut, she was a renowned playwright, her husband was Henry Luce, the incredibly influential magazine publisher. So her decision to become a Roman Catholic made waves. A lot of people wrote her supportive letters, a lot of people wrote very critical ones, and of course she decided to defend her decision in a series of articles for McCall’s. The more I learned about her conversion and the public response to it, the clearer it became to me that she had created the model for the politically significant religious conversion. It’s a model that others would follow later on without giving her much credit, and I don’t think that historians have given her enough credit for how politically and culturally important her conversion turned out to be.

ECM: Whitaker Chambers left the Communist Party and became a Christian to great celebration, and his sincerity was never really questioned in the way that a conversion from Christianity to communism might have been. Does this suggest that, in the public mind, sincerity depends a lot on what the figure is converting to and from?

RLD: Absolutely. I think that Chambers is a good example of how these religious conversions packaged together several ideas that were important at the time. His conversion was emblematic of the intense anti-communism of conservative politics in that moment. It was an early example of the melding of Christian fervor with anti-communist conservatism. But it was also important because of the way that it featured a kind of heterosexual family morality as part of what the conversion had accomplished. In his memoir, Chambers wrote that he had heard the voice of God as he gazed at his young daughter, he was converted at that moment, and he knew immediately that he had to leave communism. In a statement he delivered to the FBI, Chambers revealed that he had had sex with men while he was a Communist, but claimed that he had rejected same-sex desire when he converted to Christianity.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Saving Us – A Conversation with Katharine Hayhoe

Katharine Hayhoe is Professor of Political Science and past co-director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University. She is chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, an Oxfam “Sister of the Plant,” and a UN “Champion of the Earth.” Her new book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, proposes to fight climate change through better communication.

ECM: You like to say that the most important thing individuals can do to fight climate change is to talk about it. What do you mean, exactly?

KH: Well, I don’t mean talk more about the science—about melting glaciers or rising seas. We need to talk about why these things matter to us and what we can do to fix them. Though we have been very focused on the divide between the people who think that climate change is real and those who do not, we should be more concerned with the divide between those who think it’s real and those who think it matters to them. You can concede that climate change is real and important and even serious, but if you don’t think it matters to you, then you’re unlikely to do anything to fix it.

I should add, too, that polling data shows we are not talking about it. We are not having conversations about climate, and the media is not covering it. I saw a pretty shocking statistic recently, that Jeff Bezo’s space launch had received as much media attention in a single day as climate change had received in the previous year. So we aren’t talking about it, and talking is a window into our minds. It’s our means for showing others what we think about, what we care about. We can’t read each other’s minds. So if we, as individuals and as a nation, are not talking about climate change, then it will never receive the priority that it requires.

ECM: Climate change is factual, so persuading people to care about it should be as simple as sharing the facts. But it’s not?

KH: On issues that are not politically polarized, that do not carry weighty moral or ethical implications, that do not require a significant and potentially costly response, facts are usually enough to change people’s minds. If a new understanding of dark matter were suddenly to arise, most people would simply consider it interesting. They might not understand it, but they wouldn’t accuse scientists of being shills in the pay of Big Green or Big Telescope. The reasons that people object to climate science have nothing to do with the actual facts of the matter. If they truly doubted the science of thermodynamics, they would never get on an airplane. They would refuse to use a refrigerator or a stove. But of course they do those things all the time.

The real political problem of climate change is that we don’t want to fix it. Often, we don’t even believe we can fix it. So when faced with an enormous problem that we doubt our willingness or ability to solve, our natural defense mechanism is to deny. We all want to be good people, to live according to values. Nobody wants to say, “Yes, climate change is real and present and devastating to plants and animals and low-income countries and all future generations, but I don’t want to fix it.” That would make us bad people. Instead, we come up with reasons not to act. We may claim that climate change is not real, or it is real but we aren’t causing it, or it’s not serious, or it’s actually all of those things but there’s nothing we can do about it. Psychologically, this gets us off the hook. But it does nothing to mitigate climate change, unfortunately. So while facts are important, we need to develop arguments that go beyond the merely factual to tap into people’s beliefs and values. 

ECM: So is political will essentially a communication problem? A matter of matching an appeal to an audience?

KH: Yes and no. I note in the book that, when the Green New Deal was first introduced, it was quite popular even with conservative Republicans. I believe the figure is that 57 percent of conservative Republicans supported the Green New Deal initially. But that support dropped off quickly, and not because the Green New Deal changed—it didn’t. What changed was the coverage it received, especially in conservative media. So clearly, how we talk about things does matter. At the same time, our lived experience also matters. When people can connect the impacts of climate change to a place that they love or live in, or experiences that they’ve had, the problem suddenly becomes deeply personal in a way that surpasses whatever the world’s talking heads have to say.

I’m convinced that we will act on climate. The question is when. Because in the meanwhile, the impacts are getting worse and worse and worse to the point that, wherever you live today, you can point to the effects in your own region, and these will continue to accumulate and intensify until the populace rises up and demands action. The question, from a scientific perspective, is whether this will happen in time to avoid the most dangerous impacts. The best time to quit smoking is not after you develop lung cancer—it’s before. The best time to develop healthy lifestyle habits is not after you suffer a heart attack—it’s before. And so our concern as scientists, the reason we’ve been sounding the alarm so loudly and so consistently for decades, is that we are sort of like the physicians of the planet. Our task is similar to that of the doctor who has the tools to scan your arteries and prescribe diet, exercise, and medication. Or to scan your lungs and identify the troubling spots, and to tell you that now is the time to stop smoking. We see the warning signs, we know what’s coming, and we’re telling people that it’s past time for us to change our ways. It’s a very prophetic ethos.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Review – The Eyes of the World Upon Us, Again

Abram Van Engen is Associate Professor of English at Washington University of St. Louis. Daniel T. Rodgers is Emeritus Professor of History at Princeton University. Richard M. Gamble is the Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Chair of History and Politics at Hillsdale College. Each has a recent book on the image of the “city on a hill” in American history.

About two thousand years ago, in Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth delivered his famous “Sermon on the Mount.” As part of that discourse, he encouraged the audience to set a godly example in public, styling his followers “the light of the world,” their virtue radiating as though from “a city that is set on a hill.”

Sixteen centuries later, the Puritan John Winthrop employed this image in his A Model of Christian Charity, drafted aboard the flagship Arbella as it approached Massachusetts Bay. “We shall be as a city upon a hill,” Winthrop wrote of the colonists, “the eyes of all people are upon us.” His words went unpublished for 200 years after that, then languished in obscurity for 100 years more, before achieving 20th century prominence first in the work of select New England historians and later in the campaign speeches of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Suddenly ubiquitous, Winthrop was retroactively lauded as author of the American mission statement, his address canonized as an essential founding document with standing somewhere between the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence. It was cited routinely in schools, revered in churches, and for a time awarded primacy of place in the Norton Anthology of American Literature. Winthrop, it now seemed, had been progenitor of it all; the intellectual grandfather of the American experiment.

But he wasn’t really, and so finally, in the second decade of the 21st century, three serious scholars wrote three excellent books recounting the singular story of his remarkable comeback. Each is a compelling piece of American historiography; all demonstrate the rhetorical value of past discourses to present purposes—even when the connections are tenuous between.

Read the whole thing in the Journal of Communication and Religion.


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On Biblical Womanhood – A Conversation with Beth Allison Barr

Beth Allison Barr is Associate Professor of History and Associate Dean for Professional Development at Baylor University. Her new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, blends personal memoir with history to examine how submission became a central requirement for women in conservative Christian denominations.

ECM: What is biblical womanhood, and how is it made?

BAB: Contrary to much popular belief, biblical womanhood is a very modern construct. It’s the idea that God created women and men with separate roles in life, and that women are destined for home and hearth, children and family, while men are destined for work outside of the home. It suggests that women and men are uniquely made in these ways, so while they may sometimes have to overlap their roles—as when, in time of financial hardship, a woman may have to get a job to help pay the bills—the ideal is that women manage the household and men participate in public life. It suggests, further, that when women and men adhere to these standards, God will bless them and their families.

This is biblical womanhood in a nutshell. There are two versions of it—one that originated in the nineteenth century and that we call the “cult of domesticity,” and another that emerged in the twentieth century, in response to the surge of women in the workplace brought on by World War II. When the men came home from Europe and Asia, there was a concentrated push to move women back into the household and restore those jobs to the men who had left them. Christians joined that effort and, by the 1970s, had tailored their “complementarian” arguments to counter those of the Second Wave feminists, who they believed to be antithetical to Christianity. 

ECM: Though proponents of complementarianism position themselves as standing boldly against the secular culture, you argue that they are actually products of it. How so?

BAB: The one aspect of biblical womanhood that has historical continuity is patriarchy. Christians often don’t like to use that word because we associate it with feminism, but it’s really just a simple historical construct. It suggests that, wherever you are in time, women’s ability to make choices about their lives is always limited by the men around them, and that they always have fewer options than men do. Legally, politically, socially, religiously—in all of these realms—women are to a significant extent under the control of men.

Complementarianism—the idea that women and men have different and complementary gender roles to perform—is simply another manifestation of the patriarchy that has been at work since the beginning of civilization. So while complementarians are correct that their belief has historical continuity, they are incorrect that it is a Christianphenomenon. Essentially, the thesis of my book is that biblical womanhood is a product of historical circumstances. It has been refashioned throughout history—by Christians and non-Christians alike—but it always insists that women are less than men, that there is something innately wrong with them, and that they cannot exercise authority in the same way that men can.

ECM: The discussion around women in Christian ministry and in leadership always arrives eventually at the Apostle Paul. Has he been misread on the matter?

BAB: He has! I’m a medieval scholar—not a biblical scholar—so when I started writing the book, I decided that I was not going to tackle Paul. My husband is a pastor and when I told him my plan, he challenged me on it. He said the reason that Christians think biblical womanhood is biblical is because they are so accustomed to reading Paul that way and that if I didn’t address it, I was going to lose them. I listened to him, and I’m really glad I did.

I went back to the drawing board and wrote a chapter on Paul, drawing largely from scholarly sources that I’ve been using in my lectures at Baylor since 2008. I try to show that, to paraphrase Beverly Roberts Gaventa, we’ve missed Paul’s point. Because patriarchy is so central to everything we do, and because we look for the points in Paul that seem to support the world around us, we inevitably see Paul supporting a patriarchal world. But if we read Paul in his context, rather than ours, we see that he was calling Christians to be unified and to use their skills in God’s service. We see him celebrating women in positions of leadership. This includes Phoebe, to whom he entrusted his letter to the Romans. She was the carrier of that letter in the same way that Timothy had been previously, meaning that she would have taken it around and read it to audiences. In other words, the book of Romans was first preached by a woman, with Paul’s blessing. We miss those details when we read Paul in this post-1970s understanding. I want readers to know that you can be a faithful Christian and read Paul differently.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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