Review – Freedom As and Against Democracy

Annelien de Dijn is Professor of Modern Political History at Utrecht University. Paul E. Johnson is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh. Stephanie A. Martin is the Frank and Bethine Church Endowed Chair of Public Affairs at Boise State University. And Robert Asen is the Stephen E. Lucas Professor of Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture at the University of Wisconsin. Each is author of a recent book on freedom and democracy.

As Annelien de Dijn tells it in her Freedom: An Unruly History, the political story of the West has been written between two concepts of liberty—one democratic, the other modern. The first of these dates to ancient Greece and Rome and defines freedom in terms of democratic self-government. In this understanding, citizens are free to the degree that they are able to participate in the selection and maintenance of the laws to which their community is subject. Unlike slaves—and understood, in fact, as their political opposite—free citizens are empowered to act in the public square. They have the agency to acquire knowledge, to form opinions, to take stands, to persuade others, and perhaps thereby to assist in guiding the course of the state. Along the way, they may enjoy the satisfaction and assurance that accompany the free practice of their citizenship on equal footing with their countrymen, who enjoy that practice as well. This democratic concept of liberty was the original of Western civilization, and remained dominant across the two millennia that followed.

Its usurper is de Dijn’s second concept, with allies as ancient as Plato but without widespread purchase until the turn of the 19th century. This modern concept defines freedom in terms of non-interference from the state. For proponents of this view, citizens are free only to the degree that laws do not bind them, effectively casting government of whatever sort as the antagonist of liberty. Following the turmoil of the 18th century’s Atlantic Revolutions, especially the Terror in France, political thinkers including Benjamin Constant and Edmund Burke reacted to democratic excess by locating freedom within the private individual. Though others have traced this development to the Protestant Reformation and the emergence of market economies, de Dijn asserts that it is best understood as a counterrevolutionary riposte. The presumption that individuals must be prioritized and popular power contained has been widely touted ever since. Today its influence is carved into our increasingly undemocratic institutions.

Unsurprisingly, then, this story of long rise and short but dramatic decline follows a trajectory similar to that of rhetoric itself. Crafted by the Greeks and refined by the Romans, democratic freedom fell out of favor in Medieval Europe but bounced back during the Renaissance, found champions during the Enlightenment, and provided the vital theoretical framework for a generation of revolutionaries who were defiant of subjugation and committed to self-government. In rejecting monarchy, the architects of the United States insisted also on a degree of popular sovereignty. And in securing the franchise for (some) citizens, they built a political system in which persuasion matters, in which good ideas and rhetorical polish could wield real influence. Attractive to the rank-and-file, this model necessarily threatened the elites, who quickly set to work fortifying their institutions against the mass. Early in the 21st century, their work remains evident in gerrymandered districts, disproportionate Senate representation, the Electoral College, and the passage of state-level voting restrictions, including thirty-four new laws across nineteen states in 2021 alone. Because rhetoric and democracy are so closely linked, the deterioration of democratic freedom unavoidably presages the forfeiture of rhetorical power.

De Dijn’s narrative is clearly oriented around this sense of loss. She recalls the Atlantic Revolutions as a collective eruption of democratic potential, ultimately confounded by internal complexities and class antagonisms. If the modern conception of freedom was first animated by fears of democratic anarchy and mob rule, it was refined and popularized by continental liberals such as John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville who were anxious at the plight of powerless minorities. Adopted then by Federalists and Whigs, it was made to serve primarily as a rampart around the wealthy and a check upon the rest, effectively recasting equality as a threat to liberty rather than its actualization. Challenged by radical movements including abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and labor, modern freedom was revived during the Cold War and represented by a fresh host of intellectual advocates. “Today,” de Dijn laments, “the West’s most ardent freedom fighters (who are now more likely to call themselves conservative than liberal) remain more concerned with limiting state power than with enhancing popular control over government.” Indeed, freedom now serves as “a battering ram against democracy” rather than its raison d’être.

Long and sweeping but precise and detailed, de Dijn’s account provides an illuminating backstory to the present, a compelling context in which to understand what’s happening now. In the United States and Western Europe especially, diversifying populations are altering the composition of the citizenry and so threatening the traditional, hegemonic whiteness of the power structure. In response, resurgent right-wing movements and politicians are relying on restrictive institutions to save them, and the modern conception of freedom to justify that project. By insisting that government remain small and its purview limited, by creatively sorting and containing the voters, and by challenging the legitimacy of elections themselves, the dominant agents of the American Right have worked hard to constrain democratic freedom and to secure their advantages. Over the three sections that follow, this review will consider their progress within three specific venues, applying de Dijn’s two concepts of freedom to the work of rhetorical scholars examining politics, religion, and education in the United States.

Read the whole thing in Rhetoric & Public Affairs.

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American Individuals – A Conversation with Alex Zakaras

Alex Zakaras is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont. In his new book, The Roots of American Individualism: Political Myth in the Age of Jackson, he returns to the early nineteenth century to trace the mythology of the self-made man in the United States, an ideological tradition that has shaped our national identity ever since.

ECM: Your book grounds American individualism within three political myths. Can you tell us about them?

AZ: My approach to Jacksonian America is focused on the political stories that were told over and over again in the newspapers, sermons, and political speeches of the time. In considering these, I found myself drawn to certain foundational myths—narratives that establish what America is and who its people are. These glorified stories claim to reveal what is exceptional or distinctive or virtuous about the nation, and they ground powerful forms of collective identity that help Americans understand who they are as citizens. At the same time, they usually dramatize some sort of urgent threat. So, in celebrating and idealizing American liberty, for example, they foreground the danger that liberty might be extinguished. The more I immersed myself in these texts, the more I came to believe that there were three powerful myths, in particular, that structured the political arguments of the period.

The first of these is the myth of the individual proprietor, which says that America is distinctive for the ubiquitous presence of the property-owning farmer. This is a man who owns his own plot of land, who is not beholden to anyone economically, and who is, therefore, independent in both body and mind. The second is the myth of the rights-bearer, which is grounded in the Declaration of Independence and the Bills of Rights, and which says that Americans are distinctive because they enjoy a broad slate of rights, understood primarily as immunities from interference by government. The third is the myth of the self-made man, which emphasizes social and economic mobility. It says that Americans can be who they want to be, they are not restricted by the limits of inherited social caste or station, and, if they work hard and live frugally, there is no upper limit on what they can achieve. It imagines America as an essentially fluid society in which the talented and meritorious are constantly rising while the lazy are falling, which creates a relentless churn that ensures everyone is always where they ought to be. 

ECM: Are these ideas rooted in America itself? Were they imported from Europe or elsewhere?

AZ: Americans certainly borrowed and adapted European ideas, especially from British political culture. But they changed when they arrived in America, and it’s fascinating to trace the ways that they evolved and were reformulated for a new political, social, and economic reality. In England, for example, the idea of the independent proprietor often described a middle-class minority, a middling sort of farmer or artisan wedged between the landed gentry and the propertyless masses. But in America, independent proprietorship was much more widely accessible. It melded with the democratic idea and was asserted as an entitlement for all white men that then anchored the populist politics of the Jacksonian Democratic Party. The idea of natural rights followed a similar trajectory: White men in America used it, increasingly, as a weapon against social and economic inequalities. The idea of the self-made man was more of a distinctly American bit of lore, traceable to Benjamin Franklin and others who authored and exported the claim that anyone could succeed in America.

ECM: Were they influenced by the religious currents of the time?

AZ: The Jacksonian Era was a time of tremendous religious upheaval. The Second Great Awakening was sweeping through and transforming America into a much more devoutly religious nation. One of the tendencies that you find among the popular evangelical preachers of the time is a real emphasis on individual conscience and judgment. Theirs was an egalitarian and anti-authoritarian religious movement that was constantly criticizing the religious establishment and the book-learning and the paternalism of the religious elites who dominated the churches of the Eastern Seaboard. Its message was simply that the only reliable way to know God was through your own experience and your own direct encounter with Scripture. Religious authorities were denounced, more often than not, as sources of corruption. Evangelical preachers placed a lot of emphasis on the fact that Christ was the son of a carpenter, Peter was a fisherman, and the Gospels were conveyed by men who did not have a great deal of education but who were chosen to receive and share God’s word. The example suggested that individuals should cast aside received truths, heed their own intuitions, follow their own prophetic visions, and that the individual might read Scripture for himself and receive instruction directly from it. This sort of anti-elitism featured prominently in the political rhetoric of the time as well—in the belief that politics, like religion, was a simple affair, that everyone is equally qualified to weigh in, that we should trust our own judgments, etc. Many evangelical preachers also embraced Arminianism: They criticized the old Calvinist notion of election and replaced it with the claim that individual conversion is a matter of individual choice. This too fit with the ethos of the emerging market economy and with a political culture centered on individual rights and liberties.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Book Bans & Apple Pie

Since 2021, American public school boards have been targeted by a coordinated campaign intent on revising curricula, altering policies, and banning books. Especially after Glenn Youngkin’s surprise victory in the Virginia Governor’s race that fall, the rhetorical power of child- and school-based concerns has been revealed and cultivated. This movement is active here in Pennsylvania, where it has staked a claim on American values.

Back in 2010, I began writing a doctoral dissertation on the role of classically liberal language in culture war rhetoric. Specifically, I was interested in the various ways that terms like liberty, freedom, and rights had been adopted by religious-political movements to align their goals with core American values. I was especially focused on conservative movements, since they seemed to do this sort of thing a lot more often (and a lot more successfully) than their counterparts on the left. After completing and defending the manuscript in 2012, I sliced it up and sent it out as a series of six journal articles. The crux of the argument appeared in the first of these, “Fighting for Freedom: Liberal Argumentation in Culture War Rhetoric.”

That essay considers the speech and writing of conservative columnist and National Organization for Marriage founder Maggie Gallagher, who worked tirelessly to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States prior to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. A devout Catholic, Gallagher might have opposed same-sex marriage from an explicitly religious angle, arguing that it violates God’s will for the institution—a view that she plainly held. But because she was also a shrewd politician, she instead pressed the argument that legalization would violate the religious liberty of its opponents. Her rhetoric advanced a religious claim in a liberal frame, in other words, hoping thereby to persuade centrists at a time when public opinion was trending steadily against her. Allies rallied, but critics smelled a rhetorical bait-and-switch.

There’s nothing wrong with religious figures drawing on liberal premises to make arguments in public, of course, and ultimately I endorsed the view that the strategy is beneficial if it allows competing factions to confront each other in a shared vocabulary. But as Gallagher demonstrates, it may also have limited prospects for success. If you’re really out to represent God, on any issue, then your claim to represent liberty may make for an awkward fit. The extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples did not really violate the liberties of conservative Christians who disapproved, and the concerted effort to claim otherwise survived only as long as it seemed useful to Republican politics. When it became a liability, Gallagher lost her platform. I, too, have mostly moved on from these sorts of questions. But I’ve been thinking through them again since learning about “Moms for Liberty.”


I might not have learned about the Moms at all except that they turned up at Warwick High School, my alma mater in Lititz, Pennsylvania. A national advocacy organization established in January of 2021 and based in Florida, Moms for Liberty is “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” Its co-founders are former school board members, and its advocacy is focused on local politics. As of last year, the group claimed 195 chapters in 37 states, with nearly 100,000 members. Their website features a map on which these chapters are documented, with many clustered in Florida, South Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. One of these is in Lancaster County.

The Lancaster chapter is led by a woman named Rachel Wilson Snyder, who addressed the Warwick School Board on December 20. Also present were members of “Warwick Parents for Change,” an affiliated group that has been frequenting school board meetings and raising concerns about district policies and curricula. Their objections have focused so far on gender definitions, approaches to “equity,” and the inclusion of certain books in the high school library or among course assignments. At a meeting on November 29, speakers identified a pair of books as particularly troubling. One of these, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, is an assigned reading in sophomore English classes. The other, Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel Gender Queer, is not assigned but is available in the library. Both appear on American Library Association lists of most frequently challenged books from 2020 and 2021, meaning that each is a popular target of groups that claim to stand for liberty, animated by what they call parental rights.

Critics of these groups question whether liberty or rights are really at stake, and they seem to doubt that this top-down campaign is really about books. Citing a local effort to mobilize pastors and churches against Warwick’s curricula, some in Lititz have decried an effort to impose a “Christian worldview” on public school students. Others have pointed out that, though most objections focus on bad language and racy images, All American Boys and Gender Queer serve as conversation starters on race and gender, a pair of topics that the largely white, straight opposition evidently does not want to discuss. For district supporters, freedoms just another word for letting students read.

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Recommended Reading II – Revolution to Civil War

In 2022 I read a bunch of books on American history from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, spanning the period that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. famously termed “the Age of Jackson.” The reading list is included here, along with some reflections on the process and product. In the coming year, I plan to make another pass at this period, with a tighter focus on religion and reform.

If I were to do college over again, I would do many (maybe most) things differently, starting with a major in history. In the past decade or so, as history majors and offerings have declined nationally, I have come to appreciate more and more the vital importance of broad historical awareness to effective citizenship. Every aspect of our political and social life together exists in historical context, and we simply cannot understand where we are without properly grasping where we were. Our views on social problems, policy solutions, politics, religion, the news media, and other important topics are all grounded in our conception of history, whether well- or poorly informed. Careful historical awareness is a central component of civic literacy, which is a central component of good citizenship. If we want good citizens, we need good historians, and therefore I think all students should major in history. If they prefer to major in something else, they should double-major in history and something else.

And had I known then what I know now, I would have liked to build my history major in a more coherent fashion than the offerings typically allow. Learning styles vary, of course, but I find that I’m able to learn and arrange information more cohesively when it arrives in some systematic fashion. Sometimes I worry that, once students have declared a major in any subject, they are confronted with a dizzying array of classes offered at more-or-less regular intervals, some with prerequisites, to be taken or not based on considerations like where they fit among remaining requirements or whether their meetings fall on desirable days and times. Though it would have placed an obvious restriction on my freedom to choose a schedule, I think I would have benefited from a clearly defined slate of courses to be taken in order, by each succeeding cohort, like what they offer at St. John’s College.

Having spent the past two decades in various roles on various university campuses, I have read a wide range of books on diverse subjects, forming a web of connections and associations between. But I have often felt a certain disorientation, as though my understanding of various religious, political, social, philosophical, and literary currents cohered only loosely, like puzzle pieces imperfectly cut. A few years ago I started trying to fix this subject-by-subject, often with help from syllabi that various professors had shared online. If I wanted to learn about Latin American literature, or abolitionism, or climate change, or some other subject, I would try to identify ten of the best books available, arrange them in some order that made sense to me, and read my way through over a period of several months. That way, instead of retaining whatever episodic knowledge I could pick up from one book, I would place ten good takes in conversation with each other, and try to integrate that exchange into my general idea of the world.

When on sabbatical in the fall of 2020, I got the idea to expand on this method year-by-year, devoting each of the 2020s to a particular era or area of American history and reading at least thirty books on the subject, arranged in chronological or thematic order such that each year cohered internally, and all built upon each other into a larger, cumulative whole. If I stick with the plan, by 2030 I should have something like the orderly, encyclopedic understanding of America that I’ve been after. It’s basically ten consecutive New Year’s resolutions building steadily toward the fulfillment of a decade-long project.

I don’t claim that any of these lists is exhaustive or properly representative or anything like that. If you see books that I need to add, feel free to share! If you’d like to give any particular project a try, have at it! They will appear here, syllabus-style, for anyone who cares to consult them. One of the great ironies of our own moment is that, even as history departments contract, history scholarship is enjoying something of a golden age. There is more available now, of higher quality and easier access, than ever before. In 2021, I tried to fill in my blanks from the Puritans to the Great Awakening. In 2022, I went from the Revolution to the Civil War, building my selections largely around the Oxford series, tending otherwise toward surveys, and with disproportionate input from Alan Taylor. I followed some threads into the French, Haitian, and Spanish American Revolutions. I dug into early American fiction, reading the best of Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Richard Henry Dana. And I closed out with Ibram X. Kendi and Nikole Hannah-Jones to add a racial context absent from or slighted by many of the earlier works. Here’s what it looks like in all its glory.

In 2023, I plan to stay in Revolutionary and Jacksonian America, orienting my reading around the religious reform movements of the day — especially those connected to Unitarianism and Transcendentalism. I may also move away from surveys and toward primary texts and biographies. Though focused mostly on New England, this reading will start here in central Pennsylvania, with Northumberland transplant Joseph Priestley.

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Christian Dialectic – A Conversation with David A. Hollinger

David A. Hollinger is the Preston Hotchkis Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. In his new book, Christianity’s American Fate: How Religion Became More Conservative and Society More Secular, he recounts the long-running, dialectical relationship between conservative evangelicals and the liberal mainline in American history.

ECM: As you tell it, the story of American Protestantism in the twentieth century is the story of evangelical rise and ecumenical decline. Who are these factions, and how do they differ?

DAH: The ecumenical side is what we have often referred to as the “mainline” denominations or the “Protestant establishment.” They have also been referred to as the “seven sisters,” the denominations that the Pew Foundation, Gallup, and other polling outfits classify as “liberal” Protestants—the Congregationalists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Northern Baptists, Evangelical Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, and Presbyterians. These denominations enjoyed tremendous power and influence during the first half of the twentieth century and saw that influence decline precipitously in the second half.

The evangelicals are a less institutionally integrated body of American Protestants, those most easily associated with several institutions: the National Association of Evangelicals as founded in 1942 by members of the old fundamentalist leadership trying to recast itself; Fuller Theological Seminary, established in 1947 by people who were really annoyed at the liberalism of Union Theological Seminary, the divinity schools at Yale, Harvard, Chicago, and others; and Christianity Today, founded with Howard Pew’s money and Billy Graham’s charisma in 1956 to counteract the liberalism of the Christian Century.

So, even though there would be a variety of people in the pews of the various churches who did not identify strongly with one or another of these categories, this is the divide as painted in broad strokes. Interestingly, the term “mainline”came into being just a few years before it was rendered crashingly anachronistic, about 1960. That term did register the strong class position of the old, classic denominations, but a better term for them is “ecumenical,” because it indicates the willingness of this tribe of Protestants to cooperate with a great range of Christians and with an even greater range of non-Christians. It is really odd that so many people today continue to speak of liberal Protestants as “mainline” when they are a dwindling percentage of the national population, and the evangelicals have far greater membership and public standing.

ECM: Why has evangelicalism grown and ecumenicalism contracted?

DAH: Back in 1972, Dean Kelley wrote a book suggesting that evangelicalism was on the rise because it placed such strong moral demands on its adherents, and ecumenicalism was struggling because of its contrasting moral laxity. That theory has gained a lot of traction in the decades since, especially among evangelicals, but I think it’s wrong. Instead, I find that the evangelical churches flourished in the last third of the twentieth century because they offered a safe harbor to whites who wanted to be counted as Christians without having to confront the challenges of life in an ethno-racially diverse society and a scientifically informed culture. The old mainline church leaders were often out there promoting civil rights and Martin Luther King, they were very internationally minded and supportive of the United Nations, they were responsive to modern scientific advances, etc. In the 1940s and after, the liberal ecumenical intelligentsia mounted a vigorous campaign for a more cosmopolitan Protestantism committed to racial diversity, economic justice, a global consciousness, and a more welcoming and inclusive approach to the community of faith. Around this same time, the evangelicals were sending signals that none of this was strictly necessary in order to be a Christian. You could be a member in good standing of the Southern Baptist Convention, or the Assemblies of God, or the others without committing yourself to social justice or to any of these onerous, liberal standards. I think that the demands made by the ecumenical Protestants were simply too much for many white people who preferred Christianity in the evangelical mold.

ECM: Does that mean that evangelicalism was attractive to racists?  

DAH: I would put it a bit differently. If you were a racist, the ecumenical churches made you feel guilty about it. The evangelical churches were more likely to put up with it as an unfortunate evil, a failure of the human heart that might eventually be overcome. When Billy Graham said in 1963 that the Black and white children of Alabama would walk hand in hand “only when Christ comes again,” he was not necessarily voicing a racist attitude, but a view of what the nation could expect from civil authority (not much of anything) and from faith in Jesus (lots).

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics. I wrote about the book for Religion Dispatches last month.

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Review – Conservative Christians and Climate Change

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. 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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