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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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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White Evangelical Racism – A Conversation with Anthea Butler

Anthea Butler is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. In her latest book, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, Butler provides a sweeping survey of American history since slavery, documenting the various ways that white evangelicals have contributed, through active collaboration and passive complicity, to the racist status quo in America.

ECM: The book is White Evangelical Racism—three words with which we’re all familiar, but that have been variously defined. Either separately or together, what do they mean to you?

AB: I chose this title because I wanted to set certain parameters for the book. I specified white evangelicals to show that I’m using the term in the way that it is used colloquially by the media and the political pundits, rather than in some academic sense. That popular understanding of evangelical can be traced to self-identification, to the demographic of white, Christian conservatives who consider themselves evangelical. And I included racism because it is a very particular type of racism that I am discussing. That is, the racism that hides behind “moral” issues.

I address these questions at some length in the book, exploring how the meaning of evangelicalism has changed over time, and recognizing that there are a lot of people out there who don’t realize they’re in this thing because their self-concept leans heavily on theological considerations, allowing them to pretend that they’re not political. But nobody cares about your commitment to the Bebbington Quadrilateral when you’re arguing about the Supreme Court or judges or abortion. They care about how your belief informs your politics, which candidates you vote for, and what they stand for. So I wanted to pull evangelicals out of this safe little realm in which they’ve placed themselves and press them to confront how other people see them.

ECM: That theological/political distinction seems important here, because evangelical scholars have characterized the tradition primarily in theological terms. Has that emphasis left us misunderstanding who evangelicals are?

AB: Absolutely. Here’s the thing—and I can say this, having once been a part of this movement and studied it now for many years—evangelicals care about theology insofar as it remains an internal argument. It is not the external argument. But the theological emphasis allows them to insist on a high-minded conversation that doesn’t have to grapple with racism or gender issues or sexuality or anything else. The problem is, the theological positions they’ve taken end up shaping their political positions on moral issues. Complementarianism, for example, is one way that theological beliefs drive the political discussions.

ECM: Can you say more about that example? How does a theological belief in complementarianism drive political discussions?

AB: In 2008, when John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate, I recall Tony Perkins made the comment that, while she could be the vice president, she could not be the head of her home—something like that. It made me start to think about the bounds of what is appropriate for women where evangelicalism is concerned. A lot of evangelicals derive their views about gender, family, and politics from the belief that God created women to perform certain roles and men to perform others and that they complement each other in various ways. So when we talk about gender equity in public life or wages or some of these things, there’s an assumption that men should hold a privileged position because it’s part of God’s design. That theological belief is brought to bear on the political discourse, with consequences for the public.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Craft Practice – A Conversation with Jodi Eichler-Levine

Jodi Eichler-Levine is the Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization at Lehigh University. To complete her new book, Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community, Eichler-Levine took up needle and thread with Jewish crafters from across the United States to document how small acts of tactile creation have helped preserve an ancient culture in a modern world.

ECM: What prompted your interest in Jewish crafting, and what inspired you to begin work on this project?

JEL: Well, for starters, I am a Jewish crafter. When I was in graduate school, I took up knitting because it provided me with something to create immediately, unlike my dissertation, which seemed very amorphous by comparison. Soon I began to notice that there were books with titles like Zen and the Art of Knitting or Mindful Knitting or The Quilting Path: A Journey Into Quilting and Kabbalah. So even though I was writing a dissertation about children’s books—which also featured textiles—I was intrigued by the idea that creating something with your hands could be understood as a religious practice and have an intimate connection to religious identity. Once I had finished my first book and moved to Lehigh University, where I now teach, I was able to focus on these themes and begin work on the project.

ECM: Early on, you grapple with a pair of interesting definitional questions—which works count as Jewish, and what distinguishes art from craft?

JEL: I define Jewishness very expansively. I like to think of Jewishness as a horizon rather than a container. I’m not interested in normative or legal definitions of Judaism, and I’m not after a one-size-fits-all understanding of who counts as Jewish. Many of the people in the book were born Jewish, many others converted, some had Jewish mothers, others had Jewish fathers, and overall they demonstrate that there are lots of ways to be Jewish. Similarly, Jewishness is not something that takes place only in a synagogue, and it’s not simply about religious belief. I was looking for a fluid way to approach both Jewishness and crafting, and in that sense the very action of crafting informed how I understood Jewishness. Crafting is a process. The people that I spoke with never talked about their work only as finished projects. They talked about going to the store, picking out the fabric, the meditative quality of stitching by hand, etc. That’s true for Jewishness, too. Jewish life isn’t a nice, neat pattern that you cut out and apply perfectly. Rather, it’s a lot of little actions, all the time, every day, that make up Jewish life. For many people, especially in 21st century America, informal Jewish activity and Jewish education have become much more important than whether you follow every single Jewish law. But that’s been true throughout history—there’s always been wide variability in Jewish practice.

To your second question, there’s a really gendered power dynamic at work in how we talk about art and craft. I started out primarily interested in craft, which has been distinguished from art especially since the modern period when the notion of “fine art” emerged and we began to see areas dominated by men, like the Royal Academy of Art, in which oil painting was recognized as a “high” or “fine” art, while forms generally associated with women, such as knitting or spinning, were increasingly consigned to “craft.” It’s important to keep this in mind, and feminist artists have been pointing it out. I wanted to capture both, and to think of art and craft as a continuum rather than a binary. Anyone can make art; anyone can make crafts. Some of the women in the book have studied art and hosted shows, while others make blankets for charity and never show a thing. There’s a whole range in between. There’s something very political in deciding whose work matters, whose creation gets recognized.

ECM: Most of your interview subjects were women, and your analysis is informed by gender questions throughout the book. Why did you choose this approach?

JEL: I started out very interested in women in an unapologetic, second-wave feminist kind of way. There are certainly important things to be said about gender queer participants and about men, and a few do feature in the surveys. But I opted to focus primarily on older Jewish women, because Jewish Studies as a guild has tended to privilege younger people, and it’s a field that has often focused narrowly on official texts and synagogues and institutions.

Looking at gender and crafting allows me to get at the texture of everyday life for these women, and to disclose a Judaism of feeling—literal feeling, in terms of the tactility of the objects, but also of the emotions that go into the work. This allows me to re-read Jewish practices in new ways. Historically, for example, when Jewish women have made wimpels—swaddling clothes associated with circumcision—and these are then wrapped around a Torah scroll, women crafters have been able to insert themselves into a part of the synagogue from which they are otherwise excluded. There’s actually something quite subversive about the history of Jewish women and crafts, and I was interested in getting at that. We have enough books about famous rabbis. I wanted this book to be about everyday people and to center women’s experiences.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife – A Conversation with Ariel Sabar

Ariel Sabar is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and other publications. His new book, Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, recounts a modern-day detective story of biblical proportions.

ECM: What was your initial reaction when you learned that you would be doing a story about the possibility that Jesus was married?

AS: Well, I wasn’t really investigating the possibility that Jesus was married. I was investigating the possibility that a recently discovered ancient text claimed he was married. I was doing some freelance work for Smithsonian magazine back in 2012 when an editor there reached out to me about a discovery that a Harvard scholar had made—a fragment of papyrus on which Jesus is said to utter the worlds, “My wife.” It was clear from the very beginning that this was never considered to be evidence of a married Jesus. It wasn’t a marriage certificate or a biography. At best, it meant that there had been a group of early Christians—perhaps as early as the second century—who believed that Jesus was married and that his marriage was theologically significant. It would still be a very big deal, though, because there was nothing else like that in antiquity.

I thought it was wild. I didn’t know a whole lot about the subject. I’m Jewish, and I didn’t study the New Testament closely growing up—certainly not the non-canonical or gnostic gospels. For about three mostly sleepless weeks I did a ton of research, conducted a bunch of interviews, and produced a 6,000-word story on deadline. It was published around the time that Dr. King made her presentation in Rome. As a journalist who covers scholars and is fascinated by their work, I recognized that this could be a pretty exciting find. But I didn’t have any idea in 2012 where it would ultimately lead.

ECM: When the papyrus was discovered, it sparked a scholarly debate over authenticity. Dr. King thought it might be legitimate; her critics said it was fake. As you reported that debate, were you persuaded that the piece was real?

AS: Well, I’m a journalist, not a scholar, so I don’t have the qualifications to judge whether a text that a Harvard professor dates to the fourth century is authentic. But I entered the story with an open mind. I really didn’t know one way or the other and I didn’t think it was my place to say. My job was to interview the people who were involved and try to understand their various arguments. But journalists always have to be skeptical, so I was careful to ask the sorts of questions that would encourage these scholars to identify the relevant gaps, silences, and problems. I wanted to know their levels of confidence in its credibility. If there were reasons to doubt it, then I wanted to know what they were.

ECM: If the papyrus wasn’t authentic, then it would most likely be a finely crafted forgery. Are these common? Is there a market for forgeries of ancient texts?

AS: From the dawn of archeology—and even the dawn of treasure hunting—there have been people searching the world for important artifacts, and that has created an incentive for other people to fabricate them. Whether it’s a piece of the cross that Jesus was crucified on, a part from a famous sunken ship, or an artwork that went missing hundreds of years ago—as long as there are people who are willing to pay for these items, there will be others who are willing to produce and sell them. If you’re good at forgery, you can make a lot of money. And in some cases, forgers are after something else—a chance to rewrite history, a chance to embarrass the experts, or even just a chance to have a chuckle at having fooled someone. This sort of thing has been around forever.

One thing that is relatively new, however, is the practice of using papyrus as a medium for forgery. In this particular case, the experts found the piece compelling in part because there hadn’t really been a history of papyrus forgery. Papyrus was the throwaway paper of the ancient world. It was seen as so ephemeral, and the languages it contained were often so obscure, that such a forgery would be really difficult to do. It was hard to imagine that anyone would have the classical education, the artistic skill, the motivation, and the nerve to produce something like that. But in recent years the market for ancient papyri has grown considerably, largely thanks to some wealthy evangelical Christians—especially the Green family of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain. They’ve spent millions of dollars acquiring biblical artifacts for their Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, and among these have been a bunch of fake Dead Sea Scrolls and thousands of looted antiquities from Egypt and Iraq, which they are now being forced to return. When they entered the marketplace in about 2009, there was suddenly a brand new demand for ancient manuscripts.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Republican Jesus – A Conversation with Tony Keddie

keddieTony Keddie is Assistant Professor of Early Christian History and Literature at the University of British Columbia. In his new book, Republican Jesus: How the Right has Rewritten the Gospels, Keddie situates popular Republican perceptions of Christ within a historical context both ancient and modern. He explains in detail how right-wing actors have revised Christian values to suit purposes very different from—and often at odds with—the historical Christ.

ECM: Who is Republican Jesus, and what inspired you to write about him?

TK: The short answer is that Republican Jesus is a version of Jesus invented by the Christian Right over the past century to place conservative talking points into the mouth of Christ and to give them the authority of the divine Word. The book is devoted to fleshing out that process.

I was inspired to write it at this moment because, though there have been a lot of great books coming out about contemporary evangelicalism and contemporary religious politics in America, most are not talking about the biblical texts or the politics of biblical interpretation in any depth. As a Bible scholar, I wanted to write about these things with special attention to the Christian Right and its agenda.

My students at the University of British Columbia played a role, too. In Canada, you know, everyone is always sort of keeping an eye on America, and they tend to ask different questions than the ones you get in the US. These students have often been self-identified evangelicals or conservatives, but they didn’t understand the economic conservatism or the xenophobia of Christian Right interpretation. So their curiosity prompted me to try to explain how so many Americans have come to understand Jesus as a prophet of small government and secure borders.

ECM: Those who worship Republican Jesus today don’t think of him as Republican Jesus—he’s just Jesus. They think of themselves as supporting the Republican Party because that’s what Jesus would do, not as worshipping a Jesus that the Republican Party has created. How did this happen?

TK: Well, this understanding of Jesus has been in development now for a few generations. Much of it is traceable to the conservative reaction to the New Deal, when corporate leaders and conservative clergymen partnered to promote a fiercely individualistic Jesus who scorned government intervention in the private sector. They did this consistently, all while concealing the entire interpretative enterprise. So instead of understanding this Jesus as the product of specific interpretative choices made by human beings with certain worldly commitments, their audiences were encouraged to see him simply as the way it is. Over time, that opportunistic rendering gained traction.

It’s also the case that there have been concerted efforts by Christian Right influencers all along to hide their politics—to suggest that what they’re doing in the political realm is actually apolitical. Billy Graham, for example, was this great evangelist who was constantly and performatively spurning the Civil Rights movement because it was “political,” but then also appeared on stage or in conference with Republican presidents and supported their aggressive foreign policy decisions as part of his generic anti-communism. When religious leaders choose to act or not to act in public, the choice is always political, and their religious views must be understood alongside their politics.

We’re seeing this same thing now with Graham’s son, Franklin. About a month ago, he organized a “Prayer March” and promoted it with the persistent refrain that “this is not political.” And yet everyone knows where Graham stands politically. Mike Huckabee was one of the anchors, and the event was clearly intended to mobilize conservative evangelical Christians—an important Republican voting bloc—shortly before a national election. So here again we have a disingenuous disavowal of politics by obviously political actors. It’s a dangerous conceit because it creates a sense of unity around faith and prayer, but the entire event is dominated by perspectives that are particular to American economic conservatism. They’re pro-privatization, anti-regulation, and anti-taxes, with gestures toward authoritarianism—emphasizing prayers for the police following a summer of mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter protests, for example. All of this allows participants to think of their faith as purely biblical, when in reality it has been carefully molded by a particular set of political influencers.

ECM: At this point, Republican “family values” advocacy is based primarily on opposition to abortion and to same-sex marriage. You suggest that Jesus probably wouldn’t actually take these positions. Why?

TK: Throughout the book, I try to answer questions like this in reference to two historical contexts: the context in which the biblical texts were written, and the context in which the interpretations were first devised. Where family values are concerned, I note that there is an entire right-wing discourse that was developed in the 1960s and 70s to sacralize the white patriarchal family in reaction to Civil Rights, second-wave feminism, gay rights, and other progressive movements. That discourse was then pushed upon the gospels by way of cherry-picking certain useful verses and ignoring others that were inconvenient.

Matthew 19, for example, includes the phrase “God made them male and female,” which has been cited frequently in defense of the simple gender binary that conservatives value. But then, just a few lines later, in an integral section of the text, Jesus goes on to talk about eunuchs—those who were born as eunuchs, those who have been made eunuchs by others, and those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. So, three different types of sexual minority. Eunuchs in the ancient world were perceived—pejoratively—as a sort of third class of half-males; as neither entirely male nor female. To make claims about “biblical manhood and womanhood” in a chapter like this involves a really sloppy use of sources while entirely missing the historical context around Jesus, who is also not very family oriented. He shuns his family in some of the gospel accounts, and otherwise thinks of his disciples as his family. So the imposition of a “nuclear family” model on Jesus and his teaching is a distinctly modern imposition.

As for abortion, the Bible doesn’t mention it anywhere, at least not explicitly. This is why conservative Christians were debating over whether they thought abortion was a blessing or a curse all the way up to the years just before Roe v. Wade. That divisive case played a major role in generating the right-wing biblical cases against abortion that are so common today, but conservatives rarely approached the biblical evidence with such certainty before this historical moment.

Jesus and his earliest followers probably understood when human life begins in one of two ways—either as beginning with the first breath, the “breath of life,” which seems to be the view of the Hebrew Bible and was taken up in this way by the ancient rabbis; or as beginning at some uncertain point during gestation, following the popular gradualist theory best known from some Greek philosophers (the fetus begins as a seed and endures a plant-like stage before gradually becoming more like an animal and then more like a human). We don’t really know what Jesus would have thought about when human life begins, but I can say with confidence that he would have been totally perplexed by the modern right-wing discourse on “fetal personhood” and “unborn citizens” that need to be saved from the government.

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Unholy Union – A Conversation with Sarah Posner

PosnerSarah Posner is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Mother Jones, among other outlets. In her new book, Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Alter of Donald Trump, Posner draws on years of reporting to examine the close relationship between the president, his famously religious base, and the explicitly racist elements that have rallied to his political coalition.

ECM: Around the end of 2016, a narrative emerged claiming that white evangelical voters “held their noses” and voted for Trump because he was the only alternative to Hillary Clinton. You were there reporting it all. Was that your sense at the time?

SP: I wouldn’t say they were holding their noses. They converged on Trump during the Republican primary, but they did so from two separate tracks. Many white evangelical voters were supporting him from the beginning, while many white evangelical leaders were favoring another candidate, like Ben Carson or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. Some leaders, like Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell, Jr., understood from the outset that the base was falling for Trump, and so went ahead and endorsed him early on. Eventually the rest of the leadership came around based on conversations in which Trump pledged to enact their favored policies and appoint their favored judges, and things like that. By then they were enthusiastic, based on the energy that they felt radiating from the base and on the promises that Trump had made.

ECM: You write that Trump was attractive to white evangelicals who wanted a strongman to press their issues, and that his executive order on religious freedom amounted to a “blueprint for an assault on civil rights.” Is the Christian Right agenda as dark and illiberal as that sounds? And is Trump enacting it?

SP: Yes and yes. Some of it is not being enacted by Trump himself—it’s being enacted by cabinet secretaries, political appointees, and agencies. But his administration is working on it. What we saw in the first draft of that executive order was a plan to give broad religious exemptions to people and businesses and government officials who opposed LGBT rights, reproductive rights, and other kinds of civil rights on “religious” grounds. Trump didn’t sign that version, but he authorized the Justice Department to put these religious freedom guidelines into place, which Jeff Sessions did. Sessions launched a “religious freedom task force” within the Justice Department, and Bill Barr has been even more aggressive in promoting the “religious freedom” of conservative Christians through guidance, threats of litigation, and intervening in litigation. These same policy initiatives have played out in other agencies. The Christian Right agenda demands exemptions from many of the important civil rights advances that have been made over the past two decades, and works to replace them with what it would characterize as government from a “Christian worldview.” But that simply means elevating the rights of conservative Christians over other citizens.

ECM: How would you characterize the relationship between the Christian Right and the so-called “alt-right” since 2015? Is it reciprocal? Transactional? One-sided? Or something else?

SP: It’s something else. It’s not operational because there was no coordinated planning to bring the groups together behind Donald Trump. The alt-right as a movement is a separate entity from the Christian Right, but there is some overlap—some people who affiliate with both groups and who saw Trump as a sort of political savior. They were electrified by his campaign rallies, his demonization of immigrants and people of color, and his pledges to enact policies that would deal harshly with members of those communities. As Trump was energizing the alt-right, the Christian Right leadership mostly refused to criticize him for it. (The few figures who did—like Russell Moore—were quickly isolated and marginalized.) So when you look at how Trump has conducted his presidency, putting someone like Stephen Miller in charge of his immigration policy, trying to ban Muslims from entering the country, separating children from their parents at the border, and then you hear Christian Right figures praise him as the most pro-life president ever or the most pro-religious-freedom president ever or the greatest ally they’ve ever had in the White House, you can see a meeting of minds even if they never got together to formalize a partnership. Now, there was one notable person who did think about this, and that was Steve Bannon. When I interviewed him in 2016, he told me that the alt-right needed the Christian Right in order to win elections, and so he hoped the two groups could come together behind a candidate.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Jesus Wayne – A Conversation with Kristin Kobes Du Mez

dumezKristin Kobes Du Mez is Professor of History and Gender Studies at Calvin University. In her new book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, Du Mez documents about eighty years of white evangelical gender discourse, tracing the various ways that a strong emphasis on masculinity has shaped the beliefs, lifestyles, and politics coming out of white evangelical pulpits, publications, and practices.

ECM: What is the relationship between evangelicalism and masculinity, and what prompted you to write about it?

KKD: Evangelicalism isn’t just about theological doctrines, and “family values” evangelicalism isn’t just a set of political commitments. Evangelicalism is a way of life. For over half a century, evangelicals have been “focusing on the family,” and distinct gender roles have been at the heart of this. Evangelicals have bought and read millions of books about how to raise boys and girls, how to be a man, and how to be a woman. To understand American evangelicalism, we have to take gender seriously, to understand how gender connects to theology and politics, and how it is at the heart of the evangelical worldview. To be clear, there isn’t just one evangelical masculinity, and individual women and men respond to prescriptive advice in all sorts of ways. But in Jesus and John Wayne, I trace the history of a particularly militant strand of evangelical masculinity that has been a defining feature of conservative white evangelicalism.

It was my students who first brought this to my attention, back in about 2006. I was doing a unit on Teddy Roosevelt, focusing on the relationship between gender and foreign policy and things like that. Some of my students brought in this book, Wild at Heart by John Eldredge, and told me that I had to read it because of the way it fashioned a manly Christianity. So I looked into it and found that it was practically ubiquitous. At that time it was hard to find a church anywhere that wasn’t holding a Wild at Heart study for men and a Captivating study for women. My home church was doing them. I started paying attention to this popular literature, coming to it through the lens of gender analysis, and reading it against history. This was all happening at the same time as the Iraq War, so as I was having these conversations with my students, I was also paying attention to the surveys showing that white evangelical Christians supported the war at much higher rates than other Americans, supported torture at much higher rates, and I started drawing some connections.

ECM: This book grew out of a piece that you wrote for Religion & Politics, correct?

 KKD: Yes! Since about 2010, I had been giving talks on evangelicalism and masculinity and had been approached by publishers, but there were two things at that point that made me a little hesitant to dive into a book project. For one, the things that I was uncovering were very depressing. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to live with that for the years that I knew it would take to write a book. For another, I wasn’t sure at first how mainstream it all was. As a Christian myself, I wanted to be careful about shining a bright light on this dark underbelly of American Christianity if it was merely a fringe phenomenon. Around this time I finished my first book, began another on the religious history of Hillary Clinton, and committed myself to that project through 2016. However, just before the election, things clicked for me. The Access Hollywood tape came out, white evangelical elites continued to defend Trump, his support among white evangelical voters remained strong, and I thought, “Ugh, I think I know what’s going to happen and I think I know why.” That’s when I pulled some of that old research and wrote “Donald Trump and Militant Evangelical Masculinity.”

ECM: You distinguish evangelical theology from evangelical culture, and place this idealized hyper-manliness squarely in the cultural camp. Can you explain that distinction?

KKD: Well, there is an important difference between the pure theology that is investigated by scholars and the popular version that trickles down to the average person in the pew. My students, many of whom are nondenominational or evangelical, often seem to know very little formal theology and have a hard time articulating theological concepts in detail, but they have been immersed in evangelical popular culture. They’ve grown up in families in which James Dobson’s radio show was on all the time, they’ve read popular books on masculinity, on femininity, on dating, and these cultural influences have been at the center of their religious practice. So rather than focusing only on the finer points of doctrine, I want to look at the faith that evangelicals really inhabit.

Recently, I was teaching a class in which I had students read the first three chapters of Genesis. Afterward, in the course of our discussion, one of my students raised her hand and said that she just realized she had never read these chapters before. She thought she had, but now it occurred to her that her knowledge of their content had been drawn primarily from the Veggie Tales videos. One by one, other students raised their hands and said, “Me too.” So that’s one of my operative questions: What has really formed the faith of most evangelicals? Is it the Scriptures? Is it formal theology? Or is it something else?

Theology does play a role here, but theology is shaped by culture as much as it gives shape to culture. In my research, I came across fascinating instances where commitments to certain gender roles ended up altering traditional theological beliefs. So it’s the interplay between theology and culture that’s key.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Religion in Public – A Conversation with Melissa Rogers

RogersMelissa Rogers is Visiting Professor at the Wake Forest School of Divinity and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She served as President Obama’s executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2013 to 2017. In her new book, Faith in American Public Life, she examines a wide variety of issues pertaining to faith and law, tracing the boundaries of acceptable religiosity in American public life.

ECM: This book provides a thorough examination of important legal questions pertaining to First Amendment religious protections. What motivated you to write it?

MR: I wrote the book because I believe the rules that apply to religion’s role in American public life are critically important, yet they have often been mischaracterized and misunderstood. One often hears that the United States Supreme Court has kicked religion out of the public square, that presidents cannot talk about their faith, or that public schools must be religion-free zones, for example. None of that is true. The book seeks to serve as an accessible guide to these issues, one that I hope will be useful to government officials and religious and other civil society leaders alike. I also wrote the book to warn against certain threats to religious pluralism and freedom, the most serious and urgent of which is hostility against and attacks on minorities in this country, including religious minorities.

ECM: When President Bush opened the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2003, critics suggested that it marked an inappropriate mixing of faith and politics. Were they wrong about that?

MR: The office President George W. Bush opened broke new ground, but not as much as critics feared or supporters claimed. For the first time, a White House office had the word “faith” in it. It was certainly not the first time, however, that the job description of some White House staff included outreach to the religious community or work on issues where religion, law, and public policy intersect. During the Clinton administration, for example, the Office of Public Liaison included staff whose job was to engage with religious leaders and organizations, the portfolio of the deputy of the Domestic Policy Council included policy issues touching on religion, and the White House Counsel’s Office included staff who were scholars on church-state issues.

Having a White House office with the word “faith” was unprecedented, but it was not unconstitutional. The Constitution prohibits the government from advancing or denigrating religion, preferring one faith over another, or becoming excessively entangled with religion. As long as a governmental office respects such limits, there is nothing unconstitutional about having an office of faith-based and neighborhood partnerships, even in the White House.

ECM: To what degree is it appropriate for a president to practice a faith while in office?

MR: Presidents do not have to leave their faith behind when they take the oath of office. They may continue to practice their faith, including by attending houses of worship and speaking about their faith when they choose to do so. As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens recognized, “when [government] officials deliver public speeches, we recognize that their words are not exclusively a transmission from the government because those oratories have embedded within them the inherently personal views of the speaker as an individual member of the polity.” Government officials should always speak about their religious beliefs and practices in ways that are consistent with the spirit of the Constitution. They should make clear, for example, that they will protect the right of every American to practice a faith, or not, as they choose.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Defining Evangelical – A Conversation with Mark A. Noll

NollMark A. Noll is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame. The author or editor of over thirty books, Noll is legendary in the field. Alongside George M. Marsden and David W. Bebbington, he is co-editor of Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be, published last year by Eerdmanns. With a prestigious cast of contributors, it may be the most important work on evangelicalism in this historical moment. 

ECM: This volume is structured as an intervention into the history of evangelical history. What inspired this approach, and how did it all come together?

MAN: Authors are sometimes not the most reliable sources for explanation of how their books have been written. But the current political debates over white evangelical support for Donald Trump have obviously elicited a lot of commentary, and, a couple of years ago, David Bebbington, George Marsden, and I were attending some meetings together, where we were engaged in a conversation about the history of evangelical history writing. So it just seemed natural to try to pull together some coherent report on that project with this other debate over white evangelical Protestants in American politics. It might be a book that we fell into, and it might violate the rule that says that books should be about one particular thing, but we concluded that the two topics had an interesting connection that might be fruitful to explore.

ECM: Douglas A. Sweeney’s essay focuses in part on the “observer-participant dilemma” in evangelical history, and the risks confronting historians of evangelicalism who are practicing evangelicals themselves. Given that so many observers of evangelicalism are also participants, has our understanding of the tradition been compromised?

MAN: I think that danger is clearly present. Of course, all history is written from an angle, and there is nothing unusual about people who enjoy or take part in a movement to be active in studying the history of that movement, but it’s a danger in any case. In my mind, what has kept the danger under control in this book is that most of our authors have one foot in the academic world and one foot in the evangelical world. In their churches, these folks often have to defend the intentions of a more neutral, academic approach, and in the academic world, they are often asked to defend the motives of the people they study. I think the same situation prevails if you are a Catholic scholar writing on the history of Catholicism, if you are a gay man writing on the history of homosexuality in America, or something similar. You can be too close, and observer-participants sometimes fail to see things that outsiders see clearly. But they may also catch the feel of a movement in a way that outsiders cannot. So in recognizing this concern, we felt that it was appropriate nonetheless to go ahead.

ECM: Your co-editor David Bebbington famously defined evangelicalism according to four theological tenets—conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism—that most of the subsequent historical work has responded to in some way, including several chapters in this book. Why has it been so influential?

MAN: The “Bebbington Quadrilateral” identifies four characteristics—and I want to emphasize that he is very serious about calling these characteristics rather than pitching them as an a priori definition—that gave structure to his 1989 book, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. I think the reason why the fourfold characteristics became so important is that there is a considerable body of historical literature and—particularly since the rise of the Christian Right in the United States—a considerable body of media attention that together have called out for a definition that is relatively simple and transportable for different purposes. As someone who appreciates with some dissent the characteristics, that is in part a good thing, but the negative effect may be to over-simplify evangelicalism and to ease out some of the real complexities that come with its study, either historically or in the contemporary world. So, in short, I think Bebbington provided a straightforward, direct, exportable language that could be used in many different discussions—more, I think, than he originally intended in his book.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Family Matters – A Conversation with Hilde Løvdal Stephens

hildeHilde Løvdal Stephens is Visiting Associate Professor of English at the University of Southeastern Norway. In her new book, Family Matters: James Dobson and Focus on the Family’s Crusade for the Christian Home, Stephens traces the history and influence of Dobson’s famous organization from the early 1980s to the present, with attention to all of its implications for gender, race, culture, and politics, among other areas. 

ECM: Who’s James Dobson, and why is he so focused on the family?

HLS: James Dobson is a family expert, author, radio personality, and the founder of Focus on the Family (1977), Family Talk (2010), and a number of other ministries that deal with family matters. At the height of this career, Dobson presided over a massive ministry that reached millions of families. He also exerted more indirect influence over the broader evangelical movement, serving as a promoter and gatekeeper of evangelical ideas.

Dobson was one of many concerned with the family in the aftermath of the 1960s, but his academic background gave him extra pause when he saw what was happening. A son of Nazarene preachers, Dobson decided not to pursue the ministerial track and gained a PhD in child development from the University of Southern California instead. He worked in academia a few years, working on children with intellectual developmental issues as well as a marital counselor.

ECM: Officially, conservative evangelicals’ preoccupation with sexuality stems from their belief that sex is the glue that binds heterosexual marriages, which create families, which form the building blocks of society. Do you accept that account, or do you think there is something else at work?

HLS: That is very much a part of the rationale, although what came first is a matter of the chicken or the egg. The two are closely tied together. I find myself in agreement with much of what Sara Moslener writes in her book Virgin Nation, which chronicles the longer history of such beliefs in America.

Dobson used theorists from earlier eras when conservatives had voiced concern over lax sexual mores and gender roles in flux. Dobson seems to have been especially enamored with the work by J.D. Unwin (1895–1936), a British anthropologist. Unwin’s book Sex and Culture proposed that controlling sex was the organizing principle that kept civilized societies together. Unwin’s theories started to circulate among Southern California conservatives after one of his addresses was republished by a SoCal activist concerned about the 1960s sexual revolution.

But even though such ideas have been common in American history, there are also historically specific considerations. In Dobson’s case, he repeatedly turned to this kind of rhetoric in way that borrowed rhetoric of sex and civilization common in the Cold War context as described by Elaine Tyler May. At times, Dobson uses the very words of the Cold War era, comparing sex to the hydrogen bomb and warning of the devastating effects sex outside heterosexual marriage can have on society.

But then again, you cannot remove any conversation of sex and civilization in America without considering race. In the 1970s, Dobson was trained by Paul Popenoe, a pioneer in the eugenicist marital counseling movement who urged white middle class people to marry, stay married, and have children not just for the sake of personal happiness but also to preserve Western civilization.

ECM: Critics saw Dobson’s endorsement of gender complementarity as a patriarchal effort to control and dominate women. On the contrary, he claimed to stand in defense of women. Who persuades you?

HLS: I don’t think the story is about Dobson controlling and duping women into certain roles. Many conservative women undoubtedly saw their way of life as under threat from the feminist movement as well as the changing economic reality of American families. Instead, it is more useful to see the support of gender complementarianism as an issue tied in with broader issues important to conservatives, such as the role of the state when it comes to child-care. Moreover, it’s important to remember that Dobson was acutely aware of how much he relied on keeping his audience happy.

I think it’s underestimated how often women were pushing for gender complementarianism. Books like Emily S. Johnson’s This Is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right have rightfully pointed out the key role women played in shaping the movement. Women’s contribution is also key to Dobson’s success. Dobson started his career as family expert together with Joyce Landorf and never shied away from having women as guests in his broadcast and praised the work of women like Phyllis Schlafly, Beverly LaHaye, and later on Kay Coles James.

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