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 His words went unpublished for 200 years after that, then languished in obscurity for 100 years more, before achieving 20th century prominence first in the work of select New England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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Gospel of Denial – A Conversation with Robin Globus Veldman

VeldmanRobin Globus Veldman is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Texas A&M University. In her new book, The Gospel of Climate Skepticism: Why Evangelical Christians Oppose Action on Climate Change, Veldman provides a rigorous inquiry into evangelical climate skepticism, tracing the phenomenon to important relationships among theology, culture, media, and politics.

ECM: This book offers an extended examination of what you have called the “end-time apathy hypothesis.” What is that, exactly?

RGV: The basic idea is that evangelicals don’t care about the environment because they think that Jesus will return soon. It has been widely accepted, especially among environmentalists, but had never been empirically investigated. It was always just kind of thrown out there. E.O. Wilson, Al Gore, and Bill Moyers, for example, have all talked about the potential for end-time beliefs to discourage concern about climate change. As Moyers says, why care about the earth when you and yours are about to be rescued in the Rapture? But I wanted to treat it as a hypothesis because no one had actually examined it. Though I could have approached evangelical attitudes on climate from the angle of politics or theology or anti-science prejudices, this struck me as a more productive research question. There seemed to be a lot of lay interest, and it was something that I was curious about too. So that’s where I started.

ECM: Is the hypothesis correct?

RGV: My argument is that it’s onto something, but it’s not the best way to conceptualize what’s going on. End-time beliefs are a very important part of modern evangelicals’ religious worldview. They are a key element of the faith, and they play a central role in a lot of evangelical culture. But I found that end-time beliefs are deeply enmeshed in a larger matrix of influences from which they can’t be separated. They can’t be considered in isolation. I spend the rest of the book mapping that matrix.

ECM: The hypothesis relies on an end-times eschatology known as premillennialism, and you divide your subjects into “hot” and “cool” millennialist camps. What is this distinction and why is it important?

RGV: One of the tricky things about this research is that it required a deep dive into evangelical eschatology—the study of end times—and that required learning some jargon, especially as it concerns two key ideas. Premillennialism refers to the belief that Jesus will return to earth before the millennium, which is understood as a thousand-year period of righteousness over which Christ will preside. Postmillennialism, by contrast, refers to the belief that Jesus will return after a thousand-year period. Premillennialism suggests that the condition of life on earth will deteriorate until Christ returns, while postmillennialism suggests that it should improve. This is how evangelical theologians divide the different beliefs about the end times.

But when I went into the field and started speaking with people, I found that these categories did not map cleanly onto actually existing beliefs. Since most people who hold these viewpoints have not studied them in-depth or gone to seminary or anything, they don’t have this sort of erudite understanding. Instead, the clearest distinction that I saw in terms of how to categorize people was between what I call “hot” and “cool” millennialists. Hot millennialists are people who are really excited about the end times. They think that Jesus is coming back soon, they’re paying attention to signs, and the possibility gives them a feeling of hope. Cool millennialists are people who believe in Christ’s return but do not believe that it can be predicted with accuracy, and so are less directly motivated by the anticipation. As one gentleman told me, “We live like he’s coming today, but plan like he’s coming tomorrow.” This is by far the more common view, which ends up being very significant for attitudes on climate change because the end-time apathy hypothesis imagines a large constituency of hot millennialists. But these are far fewer, and I ran into a very small number of people who seemed to be enthusiastic about climate change as a harbinger of the end. If the hypothesis were correct, you’d expect to see a lot more of that sort of energy.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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The Evangelical Identity – A Conversation with Thomas S. Kidd

KiddThomas S. Kidd is the Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University. In his new book, Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis, Kidd challenges the popular association between evangelicals and the Republican Party, tracing the history of the faith to situate the current movement in relationship to its past, and so more clearly define what—and who—is an evangelical.

ECM: So, who is an evangelical?

TSK: The simplest answer is that an evangelical is a born-again Christian. But in addition to the conversion experience (being born again), evangelicals have been marked by the “felt presence” of God in their lives. Sometimes they describe this presence as a personal relationship with Jesus. Evangelicals also have a very high view of Scripture. This last attribute did not originally distinguish them much from their Reformed or Protestant brethren, but starting with the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, evangelicals have emphasized that they trust the authority of the Bible in ways that modernists, liberals, and mainliners ostensibly do not.

ECM: Is it fair to say that this book, more than your others, is inspired by current events?

TSK: I think so. Of course I’m trained as a historian and a lot of my work has been on eighteenth century history, the Great Awakening, the American Revolution, and so forth. But this book is a history of evangelicalism that runs through the present day, and so is obviously concerned with controversies around evangelicals and politics—especially white evangelical support for the Republican Party and Donald Trump. This project has grown out of my blogging at The Gospel Coalition, where I felt like there was a need to speak to current evangelical alignments in politics, what these have to do with evangelical history, and in some cases how they’ve departed from that history. This book has also taken me into more social science and polling than I’ve considered in any of the others. So it’s definitely engaging with current events, but still from a historical perspective.

ECM: “Evangelical” is not a short word, but it’s become shorthand for a particular voting bloc, and you seem to be bothered by the imprecision.

TSK: Yes. I think that, by implication, the media has come to discuss evangelicals in a very narrow way. The implication is that, when we use the term, we are talking specifically about white Republicans in the United States. But when you think about the evangelical movement on the world stage, this is very misleading. In the U.S., evangelicalism has been politicized within the last 50 years or so, especially since 1976 when Jimmy Carter’s candidacy prompted the first polling about the term “evangelical.” Since then, the designation has been based on self-identification, with pollsters simply asking whether each respondent is evangelical, recording the answer, and moving on to questions about political behavior. Some polls go deeper, but a lot them—exit polls, for example—are purely based on self-identification.

So while I think the polls can tell us something about people who consider themselves evangelical and how they behave politically, there are a lot of groups who get excluded. Some polls won’t even ask people whether they’re evangelical if they’re not white, and much of the political polling doesn’t consider the large numbers of self-identified evangelicals who don’t vote. So, often, when you read a story about “evangelicals,” you’ll find that it actually refers specially to white voters who call themselves evangelicals. That’s a pretty small segment of the movement, and it’s not reflective of the diverse global population.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Lear on the Left – A Conversation with L. Benjamin Rolsky

rolskyL. Benjamin Rolsky is Adjunct Instructor in the History and Anthropology Department at Monmouth University and part-time lecturer in the Religion Department at Rutgers University. His The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond, charts the influence of producer, writer, and activist Norman Lear on the development of a religious forerunner—and eventually, counterpart—to Jerry Falwell’s Christian Right.

ECM: Your title suggests a sweeping movement history, but the book is mostly about Norman Lear. In what sense is this one public figure representative of a larger Religious Left?

LBR: Indeed it does, but it also depends on how we define “the religious left” moving forward in both academic and popular studies of American political life. Luckily, Columbia recognized the timeliness of the subject matter and suggested a title that reflected the growing interest in all things Religious Left. This book is a revised version of my dissertation, which examined the work of Norman Lear in the television industry and his not inconsiderable role in organizing the liberal religious resistance to the America represented in the Reagan presidency. The book tracks the rise and fall of the religious left through Lear’s television programming, non-profit activism, and theatrical performances in the public square. It argues that Lear is representative of the most significant characteristics of the Religious Left as I understand it, including defenses of the first amendment, religious diversity, and public reason as the civic bedrock of the public good.

In this sense, my interests are less in the “religious” figures that shaped ideas of either the Christian left or the Christian right in the 1970s, and more in how religious liberalism itself cultivated the conditions of its own eclipse by more conservative religio-political forces. In this sense, Lear’s degree of influence on the Religious Left during the early 1980s certainly spoke to his ability to lead as well as his willingness to think pragmatically, but it also pointed to the mainline’s utter lack of success in making its vision of America and its public life palatable to the masses in a conservative age. Despite their proximity, the victories of the 1960s were but a distant memory by the time Carter and Reagan had recast American politics in a born again key.

ECM: How would you characterize Lear’s personal religious practice, and how did it animate his politics?

LBR: Lear’s personal religious practice animated his politics in so far as it made possible the framing of his various television programs as didactic. Compared to the “electronic church” of the late 1970s, Lear arguably used the American sitcom genre as the backdrop for his “electronic classroom.” This form of communication possessed a civil religious understanding of the public square such that its most influential inhabitants would be mainline in denomination and progressive in theological sensibility. Not unlike their early 20th century forebears of the social gospel, religious liberals like Lear saw society in obligatory terms, having forged the public square itself out of sheer determination and a form of civic vigilance. In this sense, Lear’s personal practice informed his decision to frame debates and arguments in the name of the public interest instead of positing the one and only moral option. While the latter’s polarizing nature was built for the realm of politics and conservatives social actors therein, belief in such a level of certainty has never been the strength of the religious left—quite the opposite in fact.

ECM: Lear is perhaps most famous for his work on All in the Family, which you identify as a comment on the cultural politics of the early 1970s. Why is the cultural emphasis important, and how did it inform the still nascent culture wars?

LBR: As I argue in the text, the cultural emphasis is important because we arguably cannot understand the nature of religio-political encounter during this period, or even our own, without such a framework. The Culture Wars are nothing if not the utter and complete contestation of culture itself—from what it comprises, to who determines such categorical certainty. The events of the 1960s single handedly recalibrated the nature of American political life according to a cultural register. This meant that the personal had become the political in the sense that the typical subjects of political discourse began to reflect less what the GDP should be, and more with what unfolded in the privacy of one’s own home.

Stagflation certainly still lay ahead in these regards, but on the whole the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s ushered into American public life a concern with and a deployment of various forms and definitions of culture, popular and otherwise. In other words, the cacophony known as the public sphere found a peculiar coherency around issues pertaining to the body, and its subsequent regulation in courts of law and public opinion. Lear’s All in the Family literally embodied this type of politically charged programming in the name of the public interest.

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Christian Diplomacy – A Conversation with Mark T. Edwards

edwardsMark Thomas Edwards is Associate Professor of US History and Politics at Spring Arbor University, where he researches the intersection of religion, politics, and diplomacy in the United States. In his new book, Faith and Foreign Affairs in the American Century, Edwards examines the convergence of Protestant Christianity and secularism in the shaping of American diplomacy since the Spanish-American War.

ECM: To what, specifically, does “the American Century” refer?

MTE: Historically, the phrase “American Century” refers to an editorial written in February 1941 by Life magazine publisher Henry Luce. Luce was part of a group of East Coast elites, centered around the Council of Foreign Relations, wanting the United States to declare war on Germany. In the essay, Luce argued that the United States should give up its misguided “America First” isolationism, in large part because it was self-defeating. A realistic assessment of American interest would recognize that the United States should be building a world order or “environment” friendly to American economic and cultural expansion.

Luce believed American military endeavors would be temporary; following victory, the United States would rather invest in peace-making policies of global capitalist development, modernizing “backward” states, and humanitarian assistance. His thousands of respondents, as detailed in the introduction of my book, were divided over whether or not his vision was imperialistic. They were also split over the question of the place of Christianity in either promoting or restraining American globalism.

The phrase “American Century” was quickly forgotten but then revived after 1980 in both scholarly and popular literature. A lot of the focus has been on the question of whether the American Century is now over. My book is in part a genealogy of the American Century concept, especially as it might be considered a religious icon.

ECM: The book opens with a discussion of missionary diplomacy as a forerunner to public diplomacy. Can you explain the significance of these terms?

MTE: I challenge current definitions of public diplomacy. Most historians since 2000 have followed the foreign policy establishment in defining public diplomacy as propaganda aimed at winning foreign audiences over to American values, policies, and interests. Historically, the term was more fluid and, at first, involved elite efforts to persuade Americans themselves to support their country becoming a great world power. Public diplomacy, between the world wars especially, also meant experiments to democratize foreign policymaking—this was sometimes called “popular diplomacy.”

Public diplomacy in the American Century can also be understood as a secularization of nineteenth-century missionary diplomacy. By “missionary diplomacy,” I mean two things: missionaries were primary (if often unreliable) creators of information about the world beyond North America; and missionaries and their home front administrators were chief cheerleaders for American expansion. Missionaries often justified US economic, cultural, and even military imperialism in terms of bringing “civilization” to “savage,” “backward,” and/or “undeveloped” peoples. New post-WWI think tanks like the Foreign Policy Association and Council on Foreign Relations were fairly explicit in rejecting missionary authority in favor of public diplomacy built upon a foundation of social scientific expertise. As I show, missionary discourses of “civilization” still pervaded the work of the Council on Foreign Relations well into World War II. 

ECM: Who were Francis and Helen Miller, and why are they so central to the story you tell?

MTE: This book began as a biography of the Millers, and they remain the “connective tissue” of the broader narrative I crafted. As a pastor’s kid whose brother became a missionary, Francis was steeped in the missionary diplomacy of the nineteenth century. Miller went on to serve as a college YMCA organizer at home and abroad, a private during World War I, a Rhodes scholar, and eventual chairman of the World’s Student Christian Federation, a missionary coordinating organization and forerunner of the World Council of Churches. Miller served a turn in the Virginia House of Delegates before becoming a leading coordinator of interventionist activity and entering World War II as a member of the spy agency, the Office of Strategic Services, and General Eisenhower’s staff in postwar Germany. Miller unsuccessfully ran for Governor of Virginia in 1949, and Senator in 1952, in an effort break up the conservative Democratic “Byrd Machine” and bring New Deal liberalism to the state. He ended his career in the State Department working on a variety of public diplomacy projects.

Helen, meanwhile, during the 1920s worked in the trade union movement and earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. With Francis, she wrote one of the first American analyses of the rapid Americanization of Western Europe after World War I. Also with Francis, she worked on behalf of the Foreign Policy Association to establish a nationwide network of local, city-based Policy Committees that would bring primarily middle-class representatives together for political deliberation. She, too, was an equal partner with Francis in coordinating interventionist activity, including meetings with British ambassador Lord Lothian, a family friend. Helen went on to become one of the most well-known and respected Washington insider journalists and reporters during the 1950s and 60s. Though she never considered herself a feminist, Helen would write the first report on the Presidential Status of Women commissioned by John F. Kennedy.

Many people helped “draft” Luce’s American Century concept in the years between 1898-1941. The Millers were often working behind the scenes to bring those people into contact with each other. So an examination of this power couple shows both how the public diplomacy of the American Century was made possible and how it remained a contested ideal.

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