Art of Gratitude – A Conversation with Jeremy David Engels

EngelsJeremy David Engels is Sherwin Early Career Professor in the Rock Ethics Institute and Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at the Pennsylvania State University. (In the not too distant past, he served on my dissertation committee!) In his new book, The Art of Gratitude, Engels traces the genealogy of the concept back to Greek antiquity before following it forward through Rome, Christianity, and the contemporary self-help literature.

ECM: After your last book, The Politics of Resentment, I was expecting The Art of Gratitude to be really uplifting. But it’s not, exactly. What’s the problem with gratitude?

JDE: Initially, I hoped to pivot away from negative emotions like fear and resentment and focus instead on a more positive emotion, gratitude. I hoped to write a book in the tradition of the affirmative philosophy that I associate with Emerson, Whitman, and William James, who argue that our writing should be about inspiration rather than condemnation or critique.

But as I dug into the gratitude literature, I found a persistent theme of indebtedness. For many authors, gratitude is not about thanksgiving, but instead about calculating what we owe in return for the things we are given. And I was alarmed to see how this sense of gratitude as debt was leveraged politically to articulate positions that, to me, stand contrary to the aims of a democracy that seeks to ensure that everyone, not just the well off and well connected, is able to live and live well.

In a nutshell, I think the problem with the contemporary literature is how closely it ties gratitude to debt. Recognizing this, my book shifted pretty radically during the literature review stage, because to write an uplifting book I first needed to wrestle with a long history of power and exclusion.

ECM: You write that, historically, gratitude has functioned as a tool of social control. How?

JDE: In Politics of Resentment, I argued that resentment is a natural and often completely justifiable democratic emotion. Anytime you have a stratified society in which there is a strong divide between elites and masses or between rich and poor, those who find themselves in a disadvantaged position naturally feel resentment. That resentment can be a powerful tool of democratic social change, but it can also be a tool of oppression—depending on where the emotion is directed.

Historically, resentment has been the emotion that elites feared the most—because it inspired the masses to rise up and demand whatever they were lacking. In the twentieth century, however, many elites found that they could wield it themselves. Resentful people are always desirous of targets for their resentment, so by shifting targets, elites could pit the masses against each other, creating a vertical divide between the people in place of a horizontal divide between the classes. That’s how it stops being a democratizing force and starts to insulate the status quo.

Gratitude operates in a similar way, with similar potentials. When we find ourselves in a position of owing—and people in a democratic society always owe something to other people—we may become vulnerable to control. Certain Roman figures, like Cicero and Seneca, recognized the power of gratitude to maintain social stability. Cicero argued that, when we accept a gift from someone else, we enter into a contractual arrangement whereby we owe something in return—a reciprocal gift—but we also owe a feeling of thankfulness. That feeling allows us to become more comfortable in the position of owing.

Since wealthy Romans were always providing something to the poor, whether it was grain or protection or some other resource, the debt of gratitude owed from poor to rich had the power to stall their resentments and keep them contented. That’s how gratitude can counteract the positive potential of resentment as a democratic emotion.

ECM: At a couple of points in the book, you describe Christianity as “beautiful and dangerous and democratic” because of its emphasis on forgiving our debts and debtors. Should this faith be understood as a response to the Roman conception of gratitude?

JDE: It’s difficult to talk about Christianity since there are so many Christianities. I recognize that, and I would love for someone to write a detailed history of Christian visions of gratitude. My book is not that.

But when I began this project, I took the time to the read the New Testament in full, in a few different translations, with attention to the original Greek text as well. One of the things that I found to be really beautiful and dangerous—and here I mean dangerous to the status quo—is the radical rhetoric of equality and debt forgiveness that Christ espouses. I was shocked, then, to see how his words were reinterpreted later, especially in the Middle Ages, to defend the debt of gratitude.

So, yes, I understand Christianity to respond to Roman discourses concerning gratitude as debt. And I am persistently vexed when contemporary Christians invert this message and argue the opposite, ignoring Christ’s message that debts should be cancelled and instead arguing that, in various ways, Christianity means learning to be comfortable living in debt.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Believing Donald Trump – A Conversation with John Fea

FeaJohn Fea is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Messiah College. In his new book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, Fea draws upon four centuries of Christian history to diagnose the troubling persistence of conservative evangelical Trump support. Among other insights, he observes that modern evangelicalism is primarily driven by fear, nostalgia, and the will to worldly power, a trio of decidedly unChristian qualities.

ECM: Why do evangelicals believe Donald Trump?

JF: Donald Trump drew upon a political playbook that conservative evangelicals have been employing since the 1970s. Jerry Falwell Sr. drafted it when he founded the Moral Majority in 1979, and it responds to a variety of familiar social and cultural issues—the “wall of separation” between church and state, the removal of prayer and Bible reading from public schools, the desegregation of evangelical academies in the south, Roe v. Wade, gay marriage, new immigration patterns, and a host of others.

Trump has learned to speak this political language with fluency, and so was able to convince a strong majority of white evangelicals that he would deliver on these issues. He’s a unique character, certainly, but he positioned himself as the rightful heir of this historical legacy. So as surprising as his victory was, we shouldn’t be too surprised that he rallied evangelicals to achieve it.

ECM: If evangelicalism is supposed to be rooted in faith, hope, and love, you note that it’s now primarily driven by fear, nostalgia, and a will to power. Has this always been true, or has the movement been corrupted?

JF: American evangelicals have been fearful, nostalgic, and desirous of political power to varying degrees since the 17thcentury. In a chapter titled “A Short History of Evangelical Fear,” I try to show that fear of social, cultural, and demographic change has been present throughout the nation’s history and, whenever these changes have occurred, they’ve been followed by backlash in the form of nativism, racism, isolationism, etc. Historically, evangelicals have always been at the forefront—often leading that backlash. They have always been nostalgic for what they imagine to be better, holier times, relying on declension narratives to chart America’s fall from grace. And there have been various moments during which evangelicals have pursued political power rather than self-sacrificial love.

I do think that the 1970s and 80s (which were largely a response to the 1960s) represent an important moment. Prior to this, evangelicals felt much more comfortable in the culture. We can debate whether or not America is a “Christian nation” in a legal or Constitutional sense, but it has certainly been culturally Christian since the founding. Once these bedrock Christian social and cultural beliefs and practices—traditional marriage, prayer in schools, the celebration of Christmas as the only legitimate holiday in the month of December, to name a few—lose their privileged position, many evangelicals turn to politics to save them.

ECM: In Trump’s speech, these appeals often have racial dimensions. Why are white evangelicals comfortable with this?  

JF: I am hesitant to say that all evangelicals are comfortable with this, but many of them are.

One way to look at this is to observe that evangelicals have always prioritized certain social issues over others, and race has never been one of their priorities. Abortion, they would argue, transcends race. People of all races have abortions and “kill babies.” Traditional marriage, similarly, is an institution that transcends race. I think such a view goes back to one of the defining beliefs of American evangelicalism—that all humans, of all races and ethnicities, can be saved by the gospel. Abortion and marriage are universal, race is particular. This is how many evangelicals see it. Many of them may be uncomfortable with Trump’s racist remarks, but they are willing to look the other way because Trump has the right policies on the issues they deem to be more important.

But we also must remember that American evangelicalism has always been a very white version of Christianity. Evangelicals have always been fearful of African Americans and the threat they are perceived to pose to a white Christian America. For example, much of the Southern evangelical approach to reading the Bible was forged in the context of their defenses of slavery. So there is a long tradition of racism in white evangelicalism, just as there is a long tradition of racism among white Americans writ large. Yet evangelicals claim to follow the teachings of Jesus, a set of moral principles that should motivate them to fight racism.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Fundamentalist U – A Conversation with Adam Laats

LaatsAdam Laats is Professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning & Educational Leadership at the State University of New York at Binghamton. In his new book, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, Laats documents the challenges and opportunities confronting evangelical and fundamentalist colleges and universities dating back to the early twentieth century.

ECM: How have the challenges faced by evangelical and fundamentalist colleges in the last century compared with those faced by secular institutions?

AL: Evangelical and fundamentalist colleges and universities have had all the same challenges of their secular counterparts. These days, for example, smaller non-evangelical colleges often struggle to keep their enrollments up and their bottom lines secure. They face a continual existential threat. And evangelical schools are in the same position. Some, such as Cedarville and Liberty, are doing very well and expanding rapidly, meaning that smaller schools are being squeezed out of the market. This is the sort of concern that has always confronted institutions across the spectrum.

The difference is that evangelical and fundamentalist schools have the additional challenge of keeping a promise—not an implied, but a specific promise—to stay true to an essentially indefinable sense of religious purity. So, in addition to all the other challenges facing higher education, evangelical and fundamentalist institutions have to make the changes that are necessary without changing a central mission that is supposed to be unchanging. It is supposed to deliver an eternal religious truth to young people. 

ECM: What have fundamentalist schools had to do in order to qualify as “real” colleges?

AL: The concern about “real colleges” cuts right to the heart of the book. Fundamentalist and evangelical schools have always had to maintain their status, not just as “real” colleges and universities, but as real Christian colleges and universities. Neither of those is an easily definable concept.

In the 1920s, for example, when the fundamentalist movement got its start and began to establish a network of fundamentalist institutions, the meaning of a “real” college was very different from what it would later become. Back then, real colleges were elite colleges. Evangelical and fundamentalist schools worked hard to negotiate the fact that they were religiously on a non-elite mission—a revival and missionary mission that was intended to reach every single human—while also establishing themselves as real colleges on par with more prestigious secular schools. Schools in that era worked hard to cultivate a sense of prestige. This was true even at the Bible institutes.

At Moody Bible Institute, for example, the student dress code was not intended simply to influence morals, but also to keep up appearances. Male students had to wear the coat-and-tie and women had to wear skirts and dresses because that formality was understood as a way to establish both Christian and academic bona fides. 

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Christian Rock – A Conversation with Randall J. Stephens

StephensRandall J. Stephens is Reader and Associate Professor of History and American Studies at Northumbria University in northeast England. In his most recent book, The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll, Stephens documents the turbulent relationship between conservative Christianity and popular music in twentieth century America, a relationship that features opposition, acquiescence, and ultimately, embrace.

ECM: How did Christians inspire rock ‘n’ roll?

RJS: I focus quite a bit on Pentecostalism; especially in chapter one, which focuses on the origins of rock ‘n’ roll. I argue that, in part, the music and the worship styles of Pentecostal churches proved instrumental in inspiring the first generation of rock ‘n’ roll musicians. In particular, you have Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, James Brown, B.B. King, and others who grew up in Pentecostal churches or attended Pentecostal worship services throughout their formative years. Fortunately, we have good documentation of them speaking about their youth in these churches and about how influential it was for them.

Elvis, for instance, grew up in the congregation of Memphis First Assembly of God, and he talked often about his admiration for the gospel quartets who came through, including the white Statesmen Quartet and the Stamps Quartet, along with African-American groups like the Golden Gate Quartet. Asked by a reporter about why he moved the way he did on stage, Elvis replied simply, “I just sing like they do back home.” And continued: “When I was younger, I always liked spiritual quartets and they sing like that.

Ray Charles, too, was famous for retooling spirituals and black gospel music into love songs and releasing them as secular mega hits.

ECM: Why then, were Christians so quick to demonize—and racialize—rock?

RJS: Well, they demonized it, in many cases, because of what they saw as a sort of sinful appropriation. Black and white Christians accused Ray Charles of blasphemy because of how he was secularizing sacred music. Blues legend Big Bill Broonzy certainly believed Charles had gone too far. A former pastor in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Broonzy claimed that Charles had “got the blues,” but “he’s cryin’ sanctified. He’s mixing the blues with the spirituals.” Or, as the critic Hollie West said about Aretha Franklin, whereas she “once said Jesus, she now cries baby. She hums and moans with the transfixed ecstasy of a church sister who’s experiencing the Holy Ghost.”

There were some white Pentecostals who thought that rock and rollers were thieving from church music. One of these, the Pentecostal youth pastor and author of the Cross and the Switchblade, David Wilkerson, called it “Satan’s Pentecost” and portrayed rock ‘n’ roll concerts as a kind of inverted Pentecostal worship, with demonic speaking in tongues. A lot of this was in the vivid imagination of believers, of course, but it shows that, for many of these observers, there was a thin but important line that was being crossed. In the 1950s, white and black conservative Christians worried that even their church music was becoming too “worldly” or too vulgar.

On the race end of things, because I focus largely on the American South, I looked at the white Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Presbyterians, and Southern Pentecostals, and found that their reaction to rock was almost uniformly negative and very often racialized. They attacked rock as “jungle music,” “congo rhythms,” and “savagery.”

In some cases this is ironic because these are some of the very things that Pentecostals were criticized for themselves—for race mixing and having “debased” music in their services, whether that be Hillbilly, boogie-woogie, or some kind of hybrid black and white styles. So there were all of these interesting, and specific, interconnections that I thought deserved more attention. 

ECM: Is this racist impulse inherent to evangelicalism? Or southern evangelicalism? Or was it just a sign of the times? 

RJS: It’s indicative of the times, in a way, because that kind of racist rhetoric about rock and roll also appeared in national newspapers and magazines. But what I found in the case of the American South was that there was often this funny discourse about the missionary enterprise of these organizations—the experiences that their missionaries had had in the field—and how these experiences were supposedly applicable to the music. They referenced the “caterwauling” and the driving tribal drums that they had heard in the jungles of the southern hemisphere, and noted how this had a parallel in the music now blasting out of the mean streets and teenage hangouts of American cities.

So for white fundamentalists and conservatives it took on this different kind of religious dimension. There was also a lot of talk about witchcraft and demon possession—I even remember hearing some of this as a kid in the 1970s and 80s in the Church of the Nazarene. Some of that rhetoric persisted for decades after the 50s.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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The Protestant Way – A Conversation with Alec Ryrie

RyrieAlec Ryrie is a professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University in northeast England, and an ordained minister in the Anglican Church. His most recent book, Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World, seeks to to survey the history and assess the significance of a Protestant tradition that now extends back over five centuries.

ECM: The subtitle of your book states that Protestants “made the modern world.” How? 

AR: The Protestant Reformation is a huge event in the history of the modern world. You can find its fingerprints almost everywhere. But I’m not just saying that this is a really big thing that is woven deeply into the story. I’m saying that there are some specific parts of modern life that derive directly from the Protestant Reformation. We couldn’t have these features if it hadn’t happened. In the book, I pick out three in particular.

The first is free inquiry. It’s not quite the idea of freedom of speech, but it is the idea that nobody can compel anyone else to think something. In the end, no intellectual authority can force you to think that you are wrong. There’s nobody who stands authoritatively between you as a human being and God. That’s Martin Luther’s great insight, and that refusal to accept human authority over other people’s minds is something that he established—despite himself. He was not out to create an age of intellectual freedom, but nonetheless, that’s what he produced.

The second is what I would call—and I use this term warily—democracy. Not that Luther or the early Protestant reformers were democrats in any sense. They would have been horrified by the notion. But the idea that the individual believer has a right—even a responsibility—to stand up against a tyrannical or an anti-Christian ruler is implicit in Protestantism from the beginning. It led Protestants who really wanted nothing more than to live in peace into a series of religious wars and revolutions against leaders with whom they could not live on religious terms. They developed new political theories, and carved out a theory of defiance against anti-Christian secular authority, as well as an insistence that they should be able to legitimate and even create appropriate government. You can see how that might have led to theocracies, and there are times—famously in Puritan New England—when Protestantism seemed to be moving in that direction. But in practice it tends to go another way.

Which brings me to the third feature, which is the notion of limited government. It’s the idea that a ruler, no matter how legitimate, has jurisdiction only over outward things, over practicalities, over people’s bodies but not their souls. There are certain spheres where the authority of the government simply does not apply. And it creates a sense that even the godliest government should be strictly limited in the amount of authority that it can exercise over people.

That combination of free inquiry, democracy, and limited government is pretty much what makes up liberal, market democracies. It runs the modern world. And though it seems obvious to us that liberty and equality should go together, it is not at all an obvious combination. It is that distinct heritage of Protestantism in holding those models together that is its most significant contribution to the modern world. 

ECM: When Martin Luther challenged the authority of the Church, he—perhaps unwittingly—inaugurated a tradition of challenges to authority. How has that rebelliousness shaped the faith? 

AR: It was definitely unwitting. Luther didn’t want people to be free to believe what they wanted; he wanted them to be free to believe the truth. He assumed that truth would be self-evident to everyone who picked up the Bible to read it. But he discovered very early on, to his horror, that people were reading the Bible in wildly different ways, sometimes discovering messages that were much more socially and politically radical than he anticipated. It inaugurated this tradition of using the spiritual insights you gained from a direct encounter with God, through the words of the Bible, to stand up against human authority. It goes right back to the beginning.

The most obvious example concerns one of the great crises in Luther’s life. In the years 1524-1525, seven or eight years after his first emergence as a public figure, the so-called “Peasants War” broke out in Germany. This was the biggest mass rebellion in European history prior to the French Revolution. It was largely tied up with all the standard issues that peasants would sometimes rise in rebellion about—land holding and tenancy and that sort of thing. But what really held it together, unifying what might otherwise have been a series of isolated incidents into a continent-spanning mass rebellion, was the religious glue that Luther provided. He made it possible for peasants to reflect that, as Christians, they should be free, but the conditions that defined their lives were not freedom. And although that rebellion was suppressed—with Luther’s assistance—that notion that spiritual freedom has to have political consequences is one that recurs right through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and on into our own day.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Conservative Liberals – A Conversation with Andrew R. Lewis

LewisAndrew R. Lewis is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati. His book, The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars, was published last fall by Cambridge University Press. In it, he argues that the anti-abortion activism of the 1980s and 90s inaugurated a shift toward liberal language on the Christian Right.

ECM: Your book argues that anti-abortion activism has prompted the Christian Right to embrace liberal discourse. How so?

ARL: The primary argument is that the politics of abortion have taught conservative Christians about the value of public arguments grounded in the language of rights, as rights are one of the most accessible forms of American political discourse. This is particularly true as American culture has become more secular and less apt to embrace calls for public morality.

Going back to the early days of the pro-life movement in the 1960s, there was a strong liberal, human rights element to anti-abortion activists, seeking to defend the right-to-life of the unborn. Much of this came from Catholics. As evangelicals and the Christian Right joined the cause in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was often more rhetorical focus on the immorality of abortion than the rights of the unborn. This reflected the politics of the “Moral Majority.”

A rights-based stream within the pro-life movement persisted, however, and by the late 1980s and early 1990s, the right-to-life rhetoric triumphed for both the elite activists and the rank-and-file. Importantly, this right-to-life-based framework has allowed for opposition to abortion to compete with the liberal right-to-privacy based argument, serving as a quality public counter-argument. Even more, as conservative Christians have increasingly become a cultural minority in the past two decades, they have begun embracing rights-based rhetoric first learned and used in the pro-life movement in a whole host of other areas of public life, specifically free speech and religious liberty politics. 

ECM: The minority angle is interesting since many scholars have traced the founding of the Christian Right back to desegregation, rather than abortion. Does racial politics factor into your argument?

ARL: My book is not specifically about the causes of the Christian Right or the shifting of partisan alignments in the South in the latter half of the twentieth century, though I do think my work has some implications for these arguments.

I point readers to those debates, particularly about the role of race versus abortion in the launching of the Christian Right. But I am particularly interested in how conservative Christian politics have been transformed after partisan realignment has occurred—after the conservative Christians have been largely integrated into Republican politics. It is the later period, from the mid-1990s to the present, when the politics of rights have emerged as a dominant force in Christian Right politics. Some of the most thorough quantitative analysis suggests that racial politics were more responsible for partisan change prior to 1990, but after 1990 abortion and other cultural issues played an important role. And so I think I can say with confidence that abortion politics were particularly important in this period.

That said, I do think my book provides a challenge to the historical narrative that minimizes the importance of the politics of abortion in evangelical and Christian Right politics. My book shows how central this issue has been to a host of conservative Christian issues over time, both in elite and mass politics. Abortion is central to conservative Christian politics because it is what political scientists call an “easy issue”—an issue on which people may develop strong, stable opinions. Therefore, it can be used to expand the scope of political conflict into new arenas, and over the past few decades it has been used to teach conservative Christians about the value of rights.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Why Donald Trump – A Conversation with Stephen Mansfield

TrumpStephen Mansfield is a historian, speaker, and best-selling author of books about George Whitefield, Booker T. Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, among others. His latest book, Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him, seeks to explain why so many devoutly religious voters cast their ballots for such a famously immoral candidate.

ECM: Just over a year ago, 81 percent of white, evangelical Christian voters supported a presidential candidate who could be the perfect avatar for everything they claim to oppose. Why?

SM: They did it mainly because they felt traumatized in the wake of the Obama years and terrified by the possibility of a Hillary Clinton presidency. You have to realize that, if you were a religious conservative in America, coming out of the Obama years you felt like the administration had bombarded your faith. There was a strident LGBT agenda, a strident pro-choice agenda, lawsuits against—for instance—the Green family of Hobby Lobby for not wanting to fund abortifacients in their employee insurance, and even small orders of nuns were sued.* In the culture of conservative evangelicalism, there was a feeling that there had been a war declared upon their tradition. And Clinton would be more of the same.

So there was a very strong sense of fear and shared anger that turned people toward Donald Trump. We should remember, though, that he did not have the majority of the evangelical vote in the primaries, but as it became clear that Clinton would be waiting in the general election, I think it became obvious to a lot of religious conservatives that there was only one candidate who was—call it what you will—crass enough, harsh enough, bombastic enough, or strong enough to defeat her, and so they put their hopes in him.

As I say in the book, I think they vastly overdid it. They let their fear and their anger drive them to a virtual religious re-branding of Donald Trump, and I think it will have serious blowback for religious conservatives in America. But that’s what they attempted, and that’s why I think there was such broad acceptance of Trump among religious conservatives.

ECM: Your presentation of the white evangelical case against Obama is generous. But as I read this familiar list of complaints—about contraception, same-sex marriage, Planned Parenthood—it still seems to me that they are claiming the “religious freedom” to strip away other people’s freedoms, and that they feel embittered when they can’t. Having presented their case, are you sympathetic to it?

SM: Well, I’m a Christian and a right of center conservative—not extreme right, but right of center—so I do understand some of that case. I do think that the Obama administration was overly strident against certain forms of traditional religion. But I take a different view on some issues. To put it bluntly, I am free of the fear about the future that many of my fellow Christians seem to feel, and I take a more libertarian attitude toward the acceptance of views other than my own in a healthy democracy.

I think the average religious conservative in America is afraid because they feel their America slipping away, that they’ve lost their position—their “privilege” if you want to call it that—and certainly their liberties. They feel like there is a fight for an America that once was and no longer is. Because I am a historian, but also because I think differently about the issues, I don’t share that same sense of paradise lost. I think we are stepping into a new world and a new order, and that evangelicals are going to have to learn to live within it rather than always raging against it.

ECM: You seem amenable to the idea that a lot of white evangelicals were so angry about Obama and the last eight years that they were willing to support just about anyone to get the Democrats out of the White House. So, as the saying goes, they “held their noses” and voted Trump. But political scientists have investigated this claim and found that “Evangelicals who voted for Trump felt the same level of warmth for him as did other Trump voters.” Have they been claiming a reluctance that they didn’t actually feel?

SM: I think there is a capacity for American voters to convince themselves that they are voting for the best of candidates in the worst of worlds. Many of them, when they leave the polls, will say yes, this is someone that I am enthusiastic about. But the speed with which Trump has lost popularity among evangelicals since taking office makes me wonder if they weren’t simply convincing themselves that he was the best option at the time and that, somehow, their vote was a “righteous” vote.

He’s had about a 10-15 percent drop-off in support from the evangelical community since taking office. So while there may be a sort of exaggerated self-reporting around the time when an evangelical casts a vote, there is some indication that there was never really that depth of devotion. I don’t think their support was ever very deep, and it seems to be weakening quickly.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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America the Gullible – A Conversation with Kurt Andersen

andersenKurt Andersen is a distinguished author, editor, and social critic. A former editor of New York magazine and founder of Spy, Andersen is the co-founder and host of Studio 360 from Public Radio International. His writing has appeared in Time, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, among others. His new book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, offers a sweeping, 500-year history of the oddly American propensity to believe the unbelievable. 

ECM: Compared to people from other nations, are Americans uniquely credulous?

KA: The short answer is yes. Now, credulity is not unique to the United States, and one person’s credulity is another person’s deep faith, and I don’t want to minimize that. But I would make two points:

First, the great historian Daniel Boorstin—who I quote in the book—has said that, at the very beginning, Americans self-selected for their belief in advertising. The “New World” was this empty slate being advertised to English settlers, and the people who came over in those first few decades were people who believed the promises when, in fact, there was nothing here. Does that count as credulity? It certainly counts as a wishful pre-disposition to believe.

Second, the United States has always been far more religious than its peer nations, with a far more fervent belief in prayer, in divine intervention, in faith healing, and all the rest. On these points, we in the United States are outliers among the developed world.

So, all that to say—yes, I think we are more credulous than other people. Not uniquely credulous, but more so and in more ways than most other people, and it defines us in a way that it does not define other people.

ECM: At various points, you cite an anti-establishment streak in the American temperament. Would you say that Americans are generally too quick to disbelieve official accounts and too quick to believe alternative theories?

KA: Yes, I think that is precisely correct, and I think it is in large measure a result of the nation having been born of the Enlightenment and of fervent Christianity. These are flipsides, too. This extreme credulity and extreme skepticism are yin and yang, or flipsides of the same coin—the operative word being extreme. Skepticism is fine, and good, and necessary. Belief, too, is fine, and good, and necessary. But when either of them gets extreme, it becomes problematic. And when you combine the two into this American hybrid—as we have in recent decades—they become very problematic.

ECM: Since you mention the founding influence of Christianity, how much of this is traceable to forces in American religious history?

KA: Well, I haven’t quantified it, but a good chunk! As you know, I talk about American religious history at great length because I think it is the most powerful driver—it’s not exclusive, and may not even account for the majority of the explanation, but certainly a strong plurality. And to be clear, I am not referring simply to church-going or nominal Christianity, but what has become, especially in the last half-century, the sort of extravagant and flamboyant Christian belief and practice that is virtually unique to this country.

I would also note that, in the last couple of decades, one of our major political parties has become explicitly and aggressively Christian in this unique sense. Many of its members believe more and more empirically insupportable things about supernatural interventions in contemporary life, and that then bleeds over into believing things that are untrue outside of the religious realm, as with the claim that climate change is a hoax, for example.

Just in the last 15 years, it has become Republican orthodoxy to disbelieve in evolution and to challenge evolution instruction in the public schools. This is a uniquely American phenomenon, and it is a product of a religious tradition that, starting about a half a century ago, decided to make that stand in favor of creationism.

So religion is important, but it is not the only thing. It’s in the mix with other forces, such as our over-amped Enlightenment skepticism, our extreme individualism, and even our knack for show business fantasies and our obsession with entertainment. And there are others. Religious belief is a major driver of this tendency, but it is synergistic with these other factors.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Another Orientalism – A Conversation with Michael J. Altman

AltmanMichael J. Altman is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His book, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893, was published in August by Oxford University Press. In it, Altman documents almost two centuries of  speech and writing about the subcontinent, noting the various ways that American Christians fashioned their own self-concept against that of an imagined India.

ECM: Your book is less about “heathen,” “Hindoo,” and “Hindu” than it is about the American people who used those terms to describe Indian people. Can you give us some of that background?

MA: It’s funny because, when I first started this project, I thought its contribution was going to be finding Hinduism in American history earlier than we thought, based on some of the sources I was digging through. But the more I worked on it the more I realized that the story wasn’t really about Hinduism at all—it was a way of thinking about how Americans thought about religion and religious difference and others, and the way that they used these representations of Hindus to argue about what it meant to be an American in a variety of ways.

So there was a real transition in the project in which the punch line went from something like “Hey, there were Hindus here earlier than you think,” to a broader theoretical argument about American identity and the role of outsiders in the formation of American identity.

ECM: You document these representations across a variety of outlets and venues, but they are almost always used by white, Protestant Americans in ways that advantage white, Protestant Americans. What exactly is the function of this language?

MA: I was just joking the other day that I’ve written a book about Hindus that is actually about Protestants. The language functions in lots of ways. This was the nineteenth century, the period of Protestant ascendency, when a lot of the mainstream Protestant culture arose, before the split that divided Protestants between modernists and fundamentalists in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. And so, for white American Protestants this was a time to solidify their cultural establishment. All of their descriptions of others were connecting American identity to Protestant identity. In the minds of almost all of the individuals I discuss in the book, to be American is to be Protestant. This is at the height, in various ways, of American anti-Catholicism, and there is a firm sense of unity between American identity and Protestantism.

The flipside is the racial side, since it is very much a white Protestant identity. So Hindus, as non-white, as “heathens” or “Hindoos,” are always there on the outside of Protestantism, even in what we think of as the more positive encounters, as in the case of the Transcendentalists.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, read a lot of Sanskrit texts and translations and developed a reputation for appreciating Indian thought and literature, but to his mind India, and Asia more generally, was essentially contemplative and essentially mystical in contrast to the active and industrious West. So even those characterizations that we are tempted to see as positive are based on a vision of India as outside of or other than American identity.

ECM: It seems that, at this time, a lot of what was commonly known about India came from letters written by missionaries who were serving there. How central were these missionary dispatches to this discourse?

MA: Missionaries had an important role early on in communicating what contemporary Indian culture was like through their eyes. For the missionaries, it was always about what they were seeing around them day-to-day and their interpretation and representation of that in letters to their boards back home. There was always a disconnect between the missionaries—whether it was American missionaries beginning in 1812-13, or British missionaries before that—and the folks who were more interested in ancient India or ancient Sanskrit texts. And it carried through all the way through the century. The missionaries constructed images of what on-the-ground “Hindooism” or “heathenism,” or whatever they chose to call it, looked like through their eyes.

There were kind of two rails of thought about India in the period. The missionaries were the ones who brought the popular contemporary image, not just to other Christians and Protestants or even missionary magazines, but to the entire public when that image was reproduced in school books and national periodicals. And that was a big contrast from other Americans who were mostly interested in ancient India, whether it was ancient Indian texts or ancient Indian philosophy.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Origin Story – A Conversation with Frances FitzGerald

francesFrances FitzGerald is a decorated journalist and historian. She is a recipient of the Bancroft Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Award. Over the past five decades, her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and The Nation, among many others. Her latest book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, provides a comprehensive history of the evangelical movement in the United States from the 18th century to the present.

ECM: Let’s start with some basics. What is evangelicalism, who are the evangelicals, and why commit yourself to documenting their entire history in the United States?

FF: Evangelicals are a product of the two Great Awakenings in the 18th and 19th centuries that turned virtually all American Protestants into evangelicals—people who believe in a high view of the Bible, salvation coming from Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and the need to be born again in Christ. They also believed in spreading the good news of the gospel.

I began doing journalism on fundamentalists and evangelicals some time ago—in fact, somewhat by accident. I ran into Jerry Falwell’s church in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1979 and was fascinated by what I found. I’m a New Yorker and a born Episcopalian, and I had never met a fundamentalist before. The community seemed very exotic to me, from the way people dressed to the way it organized its social life. And it turned out that Jerry Falwell was, at that point, organizing the Moral Majority and planning to fight the 1980 election.

I did a piece for The New Yorker then, and [since then] I’ve done pieces on evangelicals, particularly in the last years of the second Bush administration. That naturally led to a book. It is really impossible to understand evangelicals—particularly the Christian Right and fundamentalists—without understanding their history. This was my effort to do that.

ECM: Is it fair to say that early evangelicalism was mostly defined by denominational infighting, but that it has become increasingly public and political over time?

FF: No, I would say that during the Great Awakenings, denominations didn’t play much of a part. It’s true that they were led by Methodists and Baptists, who were essentially rebelling against the established churches. In the late 19th century, when the liberals and conservatives began to divide, there was a series of intra-denominational conflicts, but these were not political but religious.

ECM: Christianity has a long tradition, with a wide array of themes that range from the inclusive, compassionate, and forgiving to the exclusive, condemning, and punitive. The Social Gospel, for instance, represented the leftward side of the scale. But evangelicals have always preferred to emphasize the harsher elements on the right. Why?

FF: Until the fight between the fundamentalists and the modernists, this wasn’t true. The Social Gospel began before that, and some of the conservatives certainly believed in it. But right around the time of World War I, the tears that already existed in the fabric—at least in the north—began to open as the war created a climate of anxiety and heightened national consciousness.

At that point, the fundamentalist groups battled the liberals in their denominations over religious doctrines. At the same time, they rejected the Social Gospel and continued to believe that society could not be improved except by the conversion of one individual after another. And that continues to be the issue between the Christian Right and the more progressive evangelicals.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Meaning Making – A Conversation with Emily Esfahani Smith

smithEmily Esfahani Smith is a columnist for The New Criterion and an editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Time, and The Atlantic, among other publications. In her recent book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, she argues that, contra much pop self-help advice, meaningful living is about serving others.

ECM: Your book responds to a “meaning crisis” in modern life. How would you characterize that crisis, and what inspired you to respond in this way?

EES: There are all kinds of signs of a crisis of despair. The suicide rate in the United States reached a thirty-year high recently—and the suicide rate has risen 60 percent worldwide since World War II. For decades we have also seen a rise in depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

This shouldn’t make sense. Life is getting better by so many objective measures: The world is a less violent place, people are being lifted out of poverty in record numbers, and the world is much wealthier than it ever has been before. And yet, there’s so much misery and hopelessness. When I looked at the data to figure out what was going on, the research suggested that the problem is a lack of meaning in people’s lives. People feel like their lives lack meaning, so they are falling into despair and hopelessness.

I thought this was really heartbreaking. If this is a crisis of meaning, then what is meaning? How do we define it, and how can people go about finding it?

What I discovered is that we can all create lives with meaning, no matter who we are, where we are, or what we do. I wrote this book because I wanted to bring hope to those who might be struggling, either in a severe way with depression, or who just feel unmoored and adrift from time to time and are wondering what it takes to make their lives meaningful.

ECM: In the beginning, you say a bit about your childhood in a Sufi community.

EES: Right. I grew up in a Sufi meetinghouse, and that meant that twice a week dervishes would come over to our home to meditate, tell stories, and drink tea. There was just a real sense of community. For the Sufis, the goal was to diminish their egos so that they could grow closer to a higher reality that we might call God. Part of the way that they got there was by practicing love, kindness, compassion, and service toward all of creation.

And that wasn’t always easy. It’s hard to respond with love to a relative who is driving you crazy or to the person at work who is really mean, but that’s what they were called to do—to practice love and to engage in other spiritual disciplines such as meditation so that they could transcend themselves. As I got older, and started tuning into our culture’s messages about wellbeing and the good life—messages that are so focused on happiness—it occurred to me that, for the Sufis, the pursuit of their own happiness wasn’t really the point. They were devoted to leading meaningful lives, which is different from a happy life. Ultimately, it’s the meaningful life that brings you a lasting sense of contentment and satisfaction.

ECM: You identify four “pillars” of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. How did you arrive at these four, and how do they combine to generate meaning?

EES: I wanted to figure out how exactly people can go about finding meaning in their lives. Are there certain sources of meaning that we can all tap into? Or do we just need to go out on our own to find meaning?

So I traveled all over the place and interviewed dozens of people about their own stories of how they found meaning. I also read through thousands of pages of psychology, sociology, philosophy, religion, and literature. As I organized and synthesized the research, I noticed a few themes arising again and again. When people talked about what makes their lives meaningful, they mentioned their most important relationships; they talked about doing something worthwhile with their time; they mentioned crafting narratives about their lives that helped them understand themselves; and they talked about having experiences of transcendence and awe. Those are the four pillars of meaning—belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence.

Read the whole thing at Religion and Politics.

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Over the Empathy Wall – A Conversation with Arlie Hochschild

hochschildArlie Russell Hochschild is Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. For five years she traveled in the bayous of southern Louisiana, interacting with Tea Party conservatives and trying to understand their thinking about life, hope, faith, and American politics. Her book, Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, tells the story of that experience. It has been nominated for the National Book Award.

ECM: What motivated you to try to empathize with the Tea Party?

ARH: In 2011, when I began researching the book, I was increasingly concerned about a growing divide in America between liberals and conservatives, left and right. Congress was at a standstill and I felt it was time to get out of my bubble in Berkeley, California, go to an equal and opposite enclave, and turn off my alarm system—to permit myself a full curiosity as to why very good people come to such very different conclusions about what is true and good.

ECM: You talk a lot about your struggle to make sense of the “great paradox” of Tea Party thinking. What is it, and why is it such a roadblock to empathy?

ARH: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a roadblock to empathy. It is rather how the world actually looks on one side of the empathy wall. That is, from where I stood, things didn’t make sense. On the whole, in the United States, the red states are poorer, they have worse education, worse medical care, more family disruption, more accidents, more alcohol and substance abuse, worse health, lower life expectancy—all of those problems. Red states also receive more in federal aid than they pay in taxes. And yet, they are politically conservative and take a very dim view of the federal government.

So the paradox is this—if you had that many problems, wouldn’t you want help to get rid of them?

In Louisiana, where I chose to do my research, this is a super paradox. In 2014, it was the poorest state in the union, and 44% of its state budget came from the federal government. But the citizens there heavily favor the Tea Party, and now heavily favor Donald Trump.

None of this got in the way of my empathy, but it did present me with a problem to try to understand—how it all made sense to the people of the state.

What I discovered was that they knew about the paradox, but it was less important to them than what I came to call the “deep story.”

ECM: What is the deep story?

ARH: We all have a deep story—a story that we tell ourselves about the world, what it is, and how it came to be the way it is. For Tea Partiers, the story imagines America as a long line of people waiting for their shot at the American dream. They see themselves waiting patiently in that line, but up ahead they see people cutting in front of them. Some are black, some are Latino, some are women—and the government seems to be helping them do it.

A deep story is a story that feels true. You take the facts out of it, you take the moral judgments out of it, and you are left with a feeling. That, in a way, is the goal here. That is what the book leads to—the discovery that, on the other side of the empathy wall, this is what people feel. So to empathize with it is to imagine the feeling of being pushed back in line, disrespected, and ultimately, humiliated.

So that’s how I came to empathize with the people I studied. It’s not to say that I agree with them, but I did my best to understand that this is how they feel.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Conservative Media – A Conversation with Nicole Hemmer

hemmerNicole Hemmer is Assistant Professor of Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report, and co-host of the Past Present Podcast. Her book, Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, tells the origin story of activist conservative media.

ECM: You identify Rush Limbaugh and Fox News as “second generation” conservative media institutions. Who were their predecessors? How far back do they go?

NH: All the way back to the mid-1940s! The first generation begins with the founding of Human Events, a little four-page newsletter published out of Chicago. Human Events grew out of the anti-intervention movement in World War II, both in terms of personnel and patrons. Its founders, Frank Hanighen and Felix Morley, were conservative pacifists who drew their start-up funds from some of the most prominent members of the America First Committee.

When Hanighen and Morley launched Human Events in 1944, their goal was to further a non-interventionist foreign policy to promote a lasting peace after the war ended.

That may not sound like it has much to do with the postwar conservative movement. But as Human Events developed, it focused increasingly on national sovereignty, limited government, and anti-communism.

Hanighen and Morley brought on a young Chicagoan named Henry Regnery to handle their promotional work. Regnery soon got the publishing bug, and left Human Events to start his own company, Regnery Publishing. Soon he was putting out some of the most important conservative books of the era, including William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951) and Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953).

It was in this moment, the early 1950s, that conservative media outlets began to multiply. In 1954, Clarence Manion, a former dean of Notre Dame Law and a refugee from the Eisenhower administration, started his weekly radio program, the Manion Forum. He was soon joined by fellow broadcaster Dan Smoot. And just one year after that, in 1955, Buckley brought together a talented group of conservative writers at his new magazine National Review. William Rusher, another major figure in the first generation, joined National Review as its publisher in 1957.

By the mid-1950s, then, there were a number of conservative periodicals, publishing houses, and radio shows. And they weren’t just isolated outlets scattered across the country. They were intimately connected through overlapping donors, personnel, and relationships.

Regnery was an early sponsor of the Manion Forum. Manion sat on the board of National Weekly, which oversaw National Review. Editors at Human Events and National Review appeared on the Manion Forum and wrote for Regnery. These conservative media activists didn’t agree on everything—in fact, they often fought over which politicians to support, what policies to promote, and where to draw the boundaries of conservatism. But at the end of the day, they all agreed that the best way to advance conservative politics was through conservative media.

ECM: Contemporary conservative media personalities tend to draw pretty heavily on a God-and-Country ethos. Were these earlier figures overtly religious?

NH: Yes, but in different ways depending on the person in question. The first generation of conservative media activists can be divided into two groups. The central figures, like Manion, Regnery, and Rusher, were driven primarily by politics. Their religious faith informed their politics, but religion was not their central cause. Another, somewhat tangential group like Billy James Hargis of Christian Crusade and Carl McIntire of The Twentieth Century Reformation Hour wanted to win souls first, votes second.

Though there was a lot of common ground between these two groups—they were committed anticommunists and anti-New Dealers—the organizational ties between them were quite thin. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Christian right was distinct from the conservative movement.

That’s not to say, however, that figures in the political right were not overtly religious. The history of Catholic anticommunism has been well documented by historians like Patrick Allitt. But the religious faith of someone like Clarence Manion went much further than that—it was integral to his theory of government.

Manion believed that the restraints of a religious moral code were necessary to keep government small. A people who lived by religious edicts would not need government regulation to create a well-functioning society. So long as society was godly, government could remain small.

In the 1960s, atheism became a new dividing line at National Review. In 1964 long-time contributing editor Max Eastman published a piece in the magazine asking if atheists could be conservatives. Buckley answered with a resounding “no,” and Eastman left the magazine shortly thereafter.

But honestly, these conservative media figures run the gamut when it comes to religion. Rusher rarely had much to say on the matter. Human Events grew out of a Quaker devotion to pacifism that soon dissipated. Brent Bozell, Buckley’s brother-in-law, broke with National Review because he felt the magazine was insufficiently Catholic. Though, to be fair, Bozell also broke with the Catholic Church during the Vatican II reforms because he felt the Church itself was insufficiently Catholic.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Swords Into Plowshares – A Conversation with Kristen Tobey

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

ECM: What is Plowshares activism, exactly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Great Redemption – A Conversation with Alison Collis Greene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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