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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Before Roe v. Wade – A Conversation with Daniel K. Williams

WilliamsDaniel K. Williams is Associate Professor of History at the University of West Georgia. His book, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade, was published in January by Oxford University Press. It charts the ideologically complex roots of the abortion controversy, tracing them back to a time when liberal Democrats opposed abortion with vigor and conservative Republicans remained largely indifferent.

ECM: In the four decades after Roe v. Wade, the anti-abortion movement was largely defined by dual commitments to conservatism and Christianity. Your book suggests that things were very different before the ruling. How so?

DKW: Before Roe v. Wade, there was a vibrant pro-life movement, but it was not allied with political conservatism or with evangelical Christianity. Most of the pre-Roe pro-life activists were Catholics with liberal political sympathies shaped by their Church’s social justice teachings and the New Deal. They viewed their campaign to save the lives of the unborn as a human rights cause, which is why much of their rhetoric closely paralleled the language of the civil rights and anti-war movements.

Several state pro-life organizations of the pre-Roe era coupled their demands for restrictive abortion laws with a call for expanded social welfare programs for pregnant women and infants, and some called for the expansion of the War on Poverty. Many pro-life activists opposed the Vietnam War. Pro-lifers’ insistence on using the arguments of secular human rights liberalism enabled a movement that had started among Catholics to begin attracting the support of a number of liberal Protestants and a few Jews in the early 1970s.

The movement’s supporters in this era included such nationally known liberals as Eunice Kennedy Shriver (sister of John F. Kennedy), Ted Kennedy, Senator Mark Hatfield, Jesse Jackson, and a host of others.

By contrast, many of the nation’s best-known Republicans had little regard for the pro-life movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most of the nation’s first abortion liberalization laws were signed by Republican governors such as Spiro Agnew in Maryland, Nelson Rockefeller in New York, and Ronald Reagan in California. The nation’s leading conservative Republican, Senator Barry Goldwater, was an early supporter of abortion rights, as were many of the more moderate members of his party, such as Senators Howard Baker, Lowell Weicker, and Robert Packwood.

Evangelicals had mixed views on abortion in the early 1970s. Although a number of prominent evangelicals denounced abortion, very few joined a pro-life organization, which meant that the campaign for the rights of the unborn was led almost entirely by Catholics and a few mainline Protestants whose political views were well to the left of the nascent Christian Right.

In short, there was little evidence of a connection between political conservatism and the pro-life movement before 1973. The pro-life movement at the time was politically diverse, but its arguments were grounded in the language of human rights liberalism, and many of its leaders were liberal Democrats who supported an expanded social welfare state.

ECM: If the pre-Roe abortion debate amounted to a disagreement among political liberals, did religious difference play the divisive role?

DKW: In one sense, the debate over abortion that began in the 1930s and 1940s certainly reflected a religious divide. After all, the doctors who advocated abortion law liberalization were usually liberal or secular Jews or, in a few cases, liberal Protestants, while those who denounced abortion were Catholics.

If it were not for the religious difference, the activists on both sides of the debate would have seemed remarkably similar. Most were physicians. Most were also New Deal liberals who wanted to help the less fortunate and improve societal well-being. Both sets of activists thought that their own position on abortion advanced liberal values.

Yet in another sense, the divisions over abortion were about more than a difference in religious identity; they also reflected a clash of moral values. The early proponents of abortion law liberalization were moral utilitarians who believed that an action was morally justified if the benefits of the action outweighed the harm involved. They conceded, in many cases, that abortion destroyed a human life and was therefore “evil.”

Yet they also believed that abortion prohibitions drove thousands of women to their death each year by denying them access to safe hospital abortions and thereby encouraging them to terminate their pregnancies by more dangerous means. Abortion legalization would save women’s lives and was therefore justified as the lesser of the two evils, they thought.

By contrast, opponents of abortion were also opponents of a utilitarian value system, so their moral reasoning rested on a different framework. They believed in inalienable human rights that could never be compromised, and, invoking the language of the Declaration of Independence, they argued that those “inalienable rights” began with the right to life. Human life had absolute value, so it was never right to kill an innocent human being, even for the sake of saving other lives, protecting someone else’s health, or promoting societal well-being.

The “defenders of the unborn” in the 1930s and 1940s thus believed that they were fighting for something much larger than merely the prohibition of abortion. In their view, they were defending the foundation of all human rights. Their fight against abortion was not an effort to defend a sectarian religious teaching, they argued, but was instead a human rights campaign to defend the absolute value of all human life.

Read the whole thing at Religion and Politics.

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Rescuing Jesus – A Conversation with Deborah Jian Lee

jesusDeborah Jian Lee is an award-winning journalist and radio producer. She has written for Foreign Policy, Forbes, and Slate, among others, and has taught journalism at Columbia University. Her book, Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, & Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism documents a generational shift in evangelicalism—from white, conservative, Republican demographic to something much more diverse and progressive. 

ECM: You trace the beginning of this book to your college days in the George W. Bush administration, when your progressive commitments clashed with your mostly conservative evangelical community. At one point, a friend asked whether you were “even a Christian anymore.” I relate to this very personally, and I think many young evangelicals can tell similar stories. Was writing this book cathartic for you?

DJL: It was cathartic to give language to this experience and to explore the history of how exactly evangelical culture became about boundaries and scarcity rather than diversity and abundance.

I grew up in a wonderful non-religious immigrant home in a white Chicago suburb. Because of my ethnicity, I encountered a range of racism, from subtle discrimination to violence against my body. When I came to faith at a Chinese immigrant church in my teens, I received the gospel as a healing salve to my wounds. It was through this community and Jesus’ words that I became restored.

I was so moved by how Jesus subverted the status quo by lifting the lowly to high places, by healing the broken and by calling his people to serve the least of these. And as I committed my life to Jesus, this is what my faith became about: radical inclusion and justice.

So when I became a leader of my college Christian fellowship group, Intervarsity, I was stunned by the entrenched conservatism of so many of my Christian peers. Sure, the group had some theological and political diversity, and I had some amazing young staff mentors (some of whom were people of color) who totally got me, but the overwhelming culture resisted my initiatives on racial justice and gender equality, equated voting Republican with authentic Christianity, called homosexuality a disease, celebrated female submission to male leadership and called conversations about social justice distractions from the “core gospel message” of converting others.

As a liberal, queer-affirming woman of color I was living in the crosshairs of the culture wars. I didn’t recognize their Jesus or their gospel. Sadly, I believed conservative leaders when they said that crossing their theological and political boundaries disqualified me from the faith.

When I finally left evangelicalism, I felt extreme liberation and extreme loss, and I was left with these burning questions. How did everything fall apart? Why did my Christian friends celebrate me when I conformed to their values but reject me once I started asserting my whole identity and my belief in a radically inclusive gospel? Was I the only one who experienced this? How did conservative white men come to define evangelical culture? Where did evangelicals from the margins – people of color, women, queers – fit in? Was there any hope for evangelicalism’s future? Could Jesus be rescued from the corruption of the religious right? And if so, who would do that and how?

Over the course of reporting and writing this book I dug into these questions. I was floored by what I uncovered and felt my own life changing with every new discovery.

ECM: The book intertwines the stories of several young evangelicals as they grow and develop from conformists to skeptics to radicals—a path you know something about. How did you find these folks, and how did you decide to tell their stories in this way?

DJL: I interviewed several hundred people for this book, so as you might imagine, I used a range of journalistic strategies to find the people I featured. I immersed myself in the progressive evangelical scene by attending meetings and conferences. I interviewed leaders, friends, strangers and everyone in between. I read thousands of articles. I cold called and Tweeted at a lot of people whose stories intrigued me. The people I chose to feature had stories that I found emblematic of and significant to the broader progressive evangelical movement.

One person I feature is Lisa Sharon Harper, whom I met when she was launching New York Faith and Justice, an organization working to end poverty in New York City. I watched as she built a movement of believers around tackling issues of police brutality, racial profiling, environmental injustice and the country’s broken immigration system.

I followed Lisa’s career from her New York Faith and Justice days to her work at Sojourners, where today she works as the Chief Church Engagement Officer, mobilizing leaders around the common good, with an emphasis on racial justice. When I interviewed Lisa, I was surprised to learn that she came to faith in a white fundamentalist church and once lent her voice to the conservative cause.

Toward the end of college she joined an urban mission trip where she spent time with fellow African Americans and was “reintroduced to myself as a black person.” She began to see herself through God’s eyes “as someone made in the image of God whom God loves.” Lisa learned to embrace her identity as a black woman, but when she brought her newly empowered self back to her conservative white community, she was rejected.

Eventually her vision of evangelicalism took a sharp departure from the Religious Right’s vision. She went on a decades-long journey of disentangling her faith from the Religious Right and centering it on living out the justice calling of the Bible. She spends much of her time bridging the conservative and progressive worlds, like the way she’s been traveling the country convincing conservative white evangelical pastors to lend their support to Black Lives Matter events and protests against police brutality.

Rescuing Jesus follows the conformist-skeptic-radical arc because over the course of all of my interviews, this was the most common trajectory most of progressive evangelicals had followed. I thought it was important to show this in intimate detail because it helps answer important questions. What are the greatest obstacles in disentangling from the Religious Right? How do people change? What are the consequences of change? What are the rewards? Why is inclusivity so difficult and how are people changing the infrastructure of their faith, life and communities to pursue radical inclusion and justice?

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Rally ‘Round the Family – A Conversation with Seth Dowland

DowlandSeth Dowland is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University. His book, Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right, charts the influence of Christian “family values” advocacy across three decades and a variety of issues. I recently spoke with Dowland about the project, the politics, and the significance of family in the United States.

ECM: You introduce “family values” as the key term of the Christian Right in the late twentieth-century United States. Why was this term so influential for this group in this place and time? 

SD: Many of the political reforms enacted from the 1930s through the 1960s—particularly the expansion of the welfare state and the passage of civil rights legislation—attempted to expand equal rights to all people. Political liberals celebrated these developments, while conservatives looked around the nation at the beginning of the 1970s and saw economic stagnation, riots, sexual revolution, a decline in patriotism, and an increase in crime and drug use. Ministers and political conservatives argued that America was in decline. They believed that decline happened because of the demise of the “traditional family.”

Scholar Stephanie Coontz has shown that the concept of a traditional family—breadwinning father, stay-at-home mother, and children who enjoy a lengthy and protected childhood—is a fiction. In fact, even idealizing this version of the traditional family is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Democrats in the 1970s agreed with Republicans that they ought to promote families, but they wanted to broaden the concept of family to include single-parent families, multi-generational households, and, in some cases, gay couples. Political conservatives rejected the attempt to broaden the concept of family and placed defense of the traditional family at the center of their political agenda.

This agenda—defending and promoting family values—resonated with evangelical Christians because it spoke to two of their central convictions.First, evangelicals believed that gender was part of the created order, that men and women were created by God to fulfill different roles. In traditional families, men provided and protected, while women bore, reared and nurtured children. Movements that viewed gender roles as the product of patriarchal social constructions—such as second-wave feminism—represented a denial of God’s good creation, which spelled out biologically appropriate roles for men and women.

Second, evangelicals believed that God designed institutions like the family and the church to run under certain authority structures. While evangelicals voiced support for equal rights, they wanted to retain the authority structures that kept human sinfulness in check. Traditional families exemplified those godly authority structures: Husbands led their wives, and parents had authority over children. Promoting family values gave evangelicals a way to uphold their beliefs about gender and authority in the broader culture.

ECM: If gender played an overt role in the rise of the Christian Right, class and race were implicit as well. The single breadwinner model of the family presumed middle-class stability, and the movement as a whole was almost entirely white. So is it fair to say that “family values” merged a diversity of issues that mattered specifically to conservative, middle-class, white, evangelical Christians?

SD: That’s exactly right. While I talk mostly about gender, certain assumptions about race and class were part of pro-family politics. Christian schools are a perfect example of this.

During the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the number of Christian schools opened by conservative evangelical Christians skyrocketed. By the early 1980s, evangelical ministers like Jerry Falwell were claiming that evangelicals opened three new Christian schools every day, ostensibly because public schools had become anti-Christian. Yet this surge in Christian school growth coincided with public school desegregation. The student bodies in most of these Christian schools were overwhelmingly or entirely white.

Even so, viewing these schools simply as “segregation academies” obscures both diversity within the Christian school movement and the ways that segregationist schools changed over time. Falwell’s own K-12 school, Lynchburg (later Liberty) Christian Academy is a good example. Launched in 1967—the same year Lynchburg public schools desegregated—LCA was all-white for two years. But as desegregation became normalized in Lynchburg public schools (which had a small proportion of African-American students relative to other southern locales), LCA would need other rationales to sustain enrollment.

The school found a winning strategy in promoting family values. LCA portrayed its mission as supporting Christian families and promised to shape young men and women who knew their place. A 1975 promotional brochure for the school advertised, “we have no hippies” and “you can tell our boys from our girls without a medical examination.”

The relative lack of explicit racial rhetoric in the family values movement would later open the door for change among some conservative evangelicals. In 1990, University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney founded Promise Keepers, an evangelical men’s organization that became one of the most important pro-family groups of the decade. As shown in the recent ESPN film “The Gospel According to Mac,” McCartney was talking about structural racism twenty years ago. He made racial reconciliation a centerpiece of Promise Keepers’ ministry.

McCartney’s understanding of systemic injustice never prevailed among a majority of conservative white evangelicals, who insisted that racism was foremost a sin of the heart. This understanding constrained white evangelicals’ ability to forge interracial alliances in support of family values. The pro-family movement found some nonwhite allies among socially conservative minority Christians, but its normalization of white, middle-class values limited its reach.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches. Also at Salon.

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Divided on the Right – A Conversation with Neil J. Young

YoungNeil J. Young is a historian and co-host of the Past Present Podcast. His book, We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics was published last month by Oxford University Press. In it, Young argues that, despite repeated attempts throughout the second half of the 20th Century, conservative evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons were never able to form a truly united “Religious Right.”

ECM: Is it fair to say that accounts of a cohesive “Religious Right” have been exaggerated?

NJY: Absolutely. The prevailing narrative has been that conservative evangelicals, Mormons, and Catholics – the three pillars of the Religious Right – came together in response to Roe v. Wade, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the Supreme Court cases outlawing prayer and Bible reading in public schools. This coalition quickly put aside their longstanding divisions and disagreements in order to unite politically. My book challenges this standard account in two ways.

First, I show that Mormons, Catholics, and evangelicals had been drawing closer together since the 1950s in response to religious developments, not political and social changes in the nation, as has been typically argued. This demonstrates that these three faiths were actors of history, rather than reactors to political and social change.

Beginning in the 1950s, these groups recognized each other as outsiders of the liberal Protestant establishment and fellow critics of the powerful ecumenical movement. As liberal Protestantism loomed dominant at midcentury and as the ecumenical movement threatened to wipe out religious distinctions for the purposes of “Christian unity,” Mormons, Catholics, and evangelicals all challenged the theological claims of mainline Protestantism and rejected calls to ecumenism.

Yet they did so from their own very particular theological positions and out of the conviction of their exclusive possession of “true” Christianity. So Catholics, Mormons, and evangelicals began to recognize themselves as having more in common with each other than with mainline Protestants, but that recognition also required each of them to further distinguish and promote the important and intractable differences among them.

Second, I argue that the political alliance that emerged in the 1970s was not as cohesive as most scholars have contended. In my book, the Religious Right is not a sudden political alliance that emerges in response to Roe v. Wade just in time to elect Reagan, but rather the latest iteration of a religious debate that had been going on since the 1950s. Because that debate was as much about what these groups differed on as it was about what they had in common, the political alliance that emerged among them also reflected those internal divisions and disagreements.

The Religious Right I show is loosely aligned, fraught with internal religious divisions, and often in tension with itself. This had political consequences. While the Religious Right succeeded in electing Republican candidates to office, they failed to accomplish their political agenda at the federal level in part because of these divisions.

ECM: I think that’s the central irony of the book – that a movement like the Religious Right could become at least tenuously ecumenical based on their shared opposition to ecumenism. Given how antagonistic these groups were in the 1950s, would you say that Vatican II made this possible?

NJY: The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was incredibly important to this overall development. For one, Vatican II drastically changed the Catholic Church’s position on ecumenism and its relationships with other faiths.

Until Vatican II, the Catholic Church had forbidden ecumenical interactions through a series of papal decrees. But now Pope John XXIII indicated he wanted the church to engage ecumenism, and the American bishops were particularly supportive of this new direction. The “Decree on Ecumenism” declared that other Christians were “separated brethren,” a remarkable shift from prior church teaching that regarded them as “heretics.” This and other council documents also encouraged Catholics to work with other Christians on common concerns—particularly those related to the family. Vatican II also authorized bishops to become politically active, and it indicated that abortion should be a chief concern.

All of this set the stage for closer connections with evangelicals and Mormons, but Vatican II also established important limits on Catholic ecumenism. Ecumenism had to be Catholic-led, directed by church authorities and with the purposes of promoting Catholicism to other Christians rather than establishing “Christian unity.”

Mormons and evangelicals watched Vatican II closely, appreciating some of the reforms but ultimately using the council to affirm their own exclusive possessions of truth.

Mormons viewed Vatican II skeptically. They praised the Catholic Church’s new support for religious freedom. But LDS leaders argued that whatever reforms Vatican II made could never change the fact that it was the Catholic Church’s apostasy from true Christianity that had ultimately led to the need for Joseph Smith’s restoration of the true church.

Evangelicals were far more critical of Vatican II’s reforms. In keeping with their longstanding attacks on Catholicism, evangelicals largely saw Vatican II as part of the Catholic Church’s plans to monopolize Christianity and make all Christians submit to Rome. However, evangelical leaders did appreciate Vatican II’s encouragement that lay Catholics read their Bibles more and participate in Bible studies. Evangelicals lauded this development, imagining that those Catholics who did so might become evangelical, transformed by reading the Bible just as Martin Luther had once been.

This development also helped evangelicals see Catholics as distinct from the Catholic Church, a change that was critical to building interfaith political partnerships. While maintaining that the Catholic Church itself was corrupt, evangelical leaders contended some Catholics might be Christians that evangelicals could partner with to tackle the nation’s social ills. This new understanding proved critical to the rise of the Religious Right.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Religious Left – A Conversation with Brantley W. Gasaway

GasawayBrantley W. Gasaway is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Bucknell University. His book, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice, was published last fall by University of North Carolina Press. In it, Gasaway situates Progressive Evangelicalism primarily within the past four decades, assessing its influence on a variety of contemporary issues.

ECM: You trace the history of progressive evangelicalism back to the 1970s, rather than to the “Social Gospel” advocacy of earlier years. Why focus on the last four decades?

BWG: As the pioneering leaders of the progressive evangelical movement began insisting in the late 1960s and early 1970s that Christians have a religious obligation to promote social and political reforms of injustices, they certainly sounded similar to Social Gospel advocates. Yet the Social Gospel tradition played almost no role in inspiring or influencing the rise of contemporary progressive evangelicalism. In fact, early leaders disavowed any connection to the Social Gospel tradition, for they wanted to maintain credibility within a branch of American Christianity that regarded the Social Gospel as heretical.

The stigma of the Social Gospel within modern evangelicalism resulted from its association with liberal Protestantism. The Social Gospel tradition arose in the midst of theological controversies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that divided evangelicals from more liberal Protestants. With many adopting the name “fundamentalists,” evangelicals accused theological liberals of heresy for revising or even rejecting central traditional doctrines (the “fundamentals” of the faith) in light of modern biblical criticism, scientific advances, and increasing awareness of religious pluralism. Evangelicals especially condemned Protestant liberals’ embrace of the Social Gospel, which emphasized “the sinfulness of the social order” and progressive reforms of social injustices.

Liberal Protestants began prioritizing social and political activism as much as—and often more than—proselytization and individual salvation. In response, fundamentalist evangelicals denounced the Social Gospel for disparaging evangelism and deemphasizing the necessity of personal conversions. They distanced themselves from liberal Protestants’ concerns for social justice, largely shunning politics in order to focus on religious campaigns and spiritual issues.

This disdain for the Social Gospel was still strong among evangelicals in the 1960s and 1970s, and therefore the founders of contemporary progressive evangelicalism insisted that they were not following in the footsteps of liberal Protestants. These leaders appealed first and foremost to biblical arguments in order to challenge most evangelicals’ narrow spiritual concerns and apolitical conservatism. While faithful Christians must never minimize or neglect their evangelistic duties, they declared, they must also fulfill biblical commands to care for people’s physical welfare and to combat social injustices.

Thus the coalescence of the progressive evangelical movement in the early 1970s marked a new chapter within twentieth-century evangelicalism. When contemporary progressive evangelicals have looked for historical precedents and inspiration, they have pointed not to the Social Gospel but rather to nineteenth-century evangelicals who participated in both revivals and social reform campaigns.

ECM: There are certain gatekeepers on the right who would argue that, since modern evangelicalism was born out of fundamentalism, it is conservative by definition. Some on the left have also been wary of progressive evangelicals, due to their ambivalence on gay rights and opposition to abortion. Is “evangelical left” a contradiction in terms?

BWG: Even though the combination of theological conservatism and political progressivism has been anomalous in recent American history, “evangelical left” and “progressive evangelical” are not oxymorons.

“Evangelical” is a religious rather than political identity. While scholars and partisans debate the exact definition of the label, most agree that evangelicals are Protestant Christians dedicated to (1) the primary authority of the Bible; (2) the necessity of spiritual rebirth (conversion) through personal faith in Christ’s atonement for one’s sins; and (3) activism in spreading “the good news” (evangel) of Christ’s redemptive work. In relative terms, these characteristics and their usual adherence to traditionally orthodox doctrines do make evangelicals more theologically conservative than liberal Protestants.

But theological conservatism does not necessarily entail political conservatism. A significant number of nineteenth-century American evangelicals—inspired by leaders such as revivalist Charles Finney, Frances Willard of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan—participated in progressive and sometimes radical campaigns to end slavery, redress economic injustice, promote women’s rights, reform prisons, enhance public education, and promote peace.

In more recent times, President Jimmy Carter and Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield were both well-known progressive evangelical politicians. Outside of the American context, evangelical Christians have always been found across the political spectrum depending on historical, cultural, and social factors. Pointing to these facts, contemporary progressive evangelicals have responded to critics by arguing that the staunch political conservatism of recent American evangelicals is the true anomaly.

Several years ago, a broad coalition of prominent leaders issued a public statement—“An Evangelical Manifesto”—in order to combat perceptions of all evangelicals as political conservatives. “Evangelicalism must be defined theologically and not politically,” they maintained. “[W]e Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party [or] partisan ideology.” Progressive evangelical leaders such as Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, and ethicist David Gushee were among the charter signatories to this document.

To be sure, some vocal leaders of the Religious Right have questioned the evangelical identity of those with left-leaning politics. At the same time, many on the political left have not welcomed contemporary progressive evangelicals as allies based upon their opposition to abortion, conservative sexual ethics, and calls for the robust role of religion in public life. These suspicions from both the Religious Right and political left have resulted in progressive evangelicals’ marginalization in America’s culture wars and partisan politics over the past four decades.

Read the whole thing at Religion and Politics.

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Organized Religion – A Conversation with Heath W. Carter

CarterHeath W. Carter is Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University. His book, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago, was published this month by Oxford University Press. In it, Carter credits the working people of turn-of-the-century Chicago with the advocacy and gradual success of the Social Gospel.

ECM: Your book focuses on Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when social Christianity was championed by working people rather than established clergy. In fact, the two groups were often at odds.

HWC: That’s exactly right. While many think of the Social Gospel as a creation of the middle classes, the book argues that it was in fact working people who fueled its rise in industrializing cities such as Chicago. Throughout the Gilded Age the institutional churches were anything but bastions of progressive reform. Clergy of nearly every denomination eyed the era’s fledgling working-class movements with deep suspicion and, in many cases, outright alarm.

There were a number of reasons for this. Protestant ministers enjoyed close ties—social, political, financial, and more—to Chicago’s industrial elite, which predisposed them to be skeptical of trade unionism. In the turbulent 1870s and 1880s, as the rank and file, increasingly predominated by the foreign born, repeatedly took its protest to the streets, Protestant leaders called for violent suppression of “the mob.”

The Catholic hierarchy was less prone to such nativist excesses and yet harbored deep reservations of its own about organized labor. Even as the Vatican articulated growing support for unions in encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum, many a prelate worried that they might prove a gateway out of the Church and into the clutches of godless radicalism.

This tale of churchly opposition to the early labor movement is a relatively familiar one. What’s new in Union Made are the stories of printers, glovemakers, blacksmiths, seamstresses, and the like, who insisted that trade unionism was fully compatible with Christian faith.

More than that, these ordinary believers argued that God was on the side of the worker and that, therefore, those churches which had arrayed themselves against labor had in fact abandoned the true gospel. Intellectually, the clergy were inclined to reject such views out of hand, so workers devised another strategy to get their attention. Leveraging the working classes’ allegiance, they warned that they would have nothing to do with the churches unless the latter changed their collective tune on “the labor question.” Increasingly gripped by anxiety about a potentially catastrophic loss of influence, church leaders finally caved.

At the turn of the century—a generation after workers had first started preaching and practicing social gospels—denomination after denomination embraced the conservative brand of labor reform promoted by the American Federation of Labor. Social Christianity was union made, indeed.

ECM: The alignment of theology with class appears pretty stark. You document the growth and ornamentation of church buildings as wealthy industrialists began filling the coffers, as well as the practice of charging “pew rents,” which was new to me. Is it fair to say that these Gilded Age churches had “sold out” to the upper class?

HWC: That was certainly what many working people argued. There is no question that, as industrial warfare broke out across the late-19th-century United States, the Protestant elite sided almost exclusively with capital. Of course, even that way of putting it makes it sound like the two could be differentiated, when in many cases they could not.

In the book I discuss how Chicago’s wealthiest citizens predominated on Protestant church boards and vestries. In the early 1870s, for example, the First Congregational Church’s 14-member governing council boasted at least one prominent attorney, two influential physicians, two insurance moguls, two lumber tycoons, and two grain commissioners, one of whom was also the President of the Board of Trade.

The church paid its pastor, E. P. Goodwin, a $5,000 salary—more than ten times the earnings of the average worker—and there were other fringe benefits besides, including lucrative investment opportunities. One member at First Congregational, who was also a leading man on the Board of Trade, advised Goodwin to invest in his watch company rather than the mines. The pastor did so and received a congratulatory note in advance of a handsome dividend.

Given such material realities, working-class believers were hardly taken aback when someone like Goodwin vociferously opposed labor. During an 1885 streetcar strike, he vowed from the pulpit, “The police should clear the streets if they leave a corpse at every step.” His words earned “the silk stocking board of trade preacher” much enmity in working-class circles. One critic wrote to the Knights of Labor—borrowing a line from Sam Jones, a famed late-19th-century evangelist— “‘Hell is full of just such Christians as that.’”

Yet the “sold out” paradigm may oversimplify the dynamics at play in the sense that the alliance between the religious and economic elites was about more than money. They inhabited a shared social world within which it was difficult to imagine labor as anything other than dangerous and threatening.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

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Superchurch – A Conversation with Jonathan J. Edwards

EdwardsJonathan J. Edwards is Instructor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of South Carolina. His book,  Superchurch: The Rhetoric and Politics of American Fundamentalism, was published in April by Michigan State University Press. In it, Edwards examines fundamentalist politics since the early 20th century, from the early days of separation to the rise of the modern megachurch.

ECM: What prompted you to write a book about fundamentalism? It’s a pretty slippery term.

JJE: This project started out at Northwestern University as a dissertation proposal on the political influence of American megachurches, but I discovered pretty quickly that, in and of themselves, megachurches were not nearly as interesting (or unique) as they seemed at first. What did interest me was a narrative tension that kept popping up in my research between local churches and a constructed “enemy,” variously described in terms of ecumenical federation, superchurch confederacy, a world church, and secular humanism.

As I studied further, it became clear that, while some authors had fixated on some of the more public aspects of this tension (e.g., the Moral Majority vs. secular humanism in the late 1970s), no one had studied its roots and evolution in depth. That became the focus of my eventual dissertation project and ultimately this book. By focusing on how the tension evolved, I’m able to provide more comprehensive (and hopefully more persuasive) explanations for the relationships that exist between the religious beliefs and political demands of Christian conservatives.

As for the word fundamentalism, “slippery” is a pretty good way to describe it. For practical purposes, there are two relevant definitions. On the one hand, fundamentalism refers to a specific movement within Protestant Christianity, which coalesced around a set of inter-church disputes in the early twentieth century. For my work, that definition includes groups who call themselves “fundamentalists,” but it also includes contemporary Christian evangelicals who would reject the label but who are—knowingly or not—party to the same disputes and tensions.

On the other hand, fundamentalism has become a kind of catch-all term for describing movements or orientations that are both politically significant and militantly irrational.

Basically, it’s a word we use to denigrate perspectives and people we don’t like.

Usually this second definition is linked with religion—as when people talk about Islamic fundamentalism—but not always. For example, you’ll see authors who write about market fundamentalism or political fundamentalism. All this is confusing, and that’s part of the reason many authors choose to save themselves the trouble and avoid the term altogether.

Despite the difficulties that the term presents, however, the concept of fundamentalism is important to me for a couple of reasons.

First, it more clearly highlights the stakes for many Christian conservatives who enter into politics. When fundamentalists and evangelicals rally against abortion or same-sex marriage, for example, it’s not primarily about their right to stand on a street corner and preach good news to the unconverted. It’s about their right to authoritatively define the fundamentals of truth and public morality, based on an authoritative interpretation of an authoritative Bible.

The truth-demands of fundamentalism stand in sharp contrast to notions like compromise and pluralism, and that’s a contrast that a term like “evangelical” doesn’t quite capture.

Second, perhaps in part because of its slipperiness, the term can help us to think broadly about the disputes and tensions that each and every one of us have to navigate as we struggle to communicate with, live with, and govern with one another.

As democratic citizens we all have to ask ourselves: What is fundamental? And who decides?

ECM: In a deliberative democracy, compromise is a value, but for hardliners it is often viewed as a character flaw. Many of us think of fundamentalists as people who can’t be reasoned with, which is a problem for democratic politics. But you reassert fundamentalism as a “church movement” first and foremost, representing localism against “superchurch” ecumenism. How does that translate to politics?

JJE: It’s important to understand, as I argue in the book, that fundamentalism is a paradox. Fundamentalists describe themselves as both marginalized and a majority. They speak of national revival and theocratic dominion, but both are always deferred. They celebrate local victories while announcing imminent national destruction. This paradox is rhetorical—meaning that it’s constructed in and through language. I’m a student of rhetoric and, in this book, I’m not particularly interested in whether fundamentalists “really” represent localism or really speak as an oppressed minority. What’s important is that they say they do, and this paradoxical claim drives and justifies political action.

In the book, “superchurch” is one of the words that speaks to this paradox in fundamentalist rhetoric. There was a big push for Protestant unity in the immediate aftermath of World War I, and many of the early fundamentalist leaders denounced ecumenical organizations like the Federal Council of Churches and the Interchurch World Movement as elements in a “super church confederacy” that would eliminate denominational distinctions and eventually destroy “Bible-believing” churches altogether.

There was a kernel of truth in these arguments; some ecumenical leaders were pushing, for example, to consolidate under-staffed rural churches by merging congregations from different denominations. But this kernel of truth became part of a much larger narrative in which national religious and political leaders were joining together to crush local churches and outlaw fundamentalist belief. This narrative, in turn, has continued in different guises over the past century—linked with apocalyptic fears of communism, secularism, environmentalism, socialism, and so forth.

The flip-side of this narrative, however, was that of churches that resisted. Magazines published anecdotes about local pastors who stood up to ecumenicists and local churches that broke away from their corrupted denominations. Fundamentalist publications began celebrating large, independent churches as islands of local resistance. By the 1960s, pastors like Jerry Falwell had begun arguing that local, “superaggressive” churches could “capture” their communities for Christ, reform local politics to reflect fundamentalist authority, and become media centers for global evangelism. These fundamentalist “superchurches” would eventually provide the foundation for national political organizations like the Moral Majority in the late 1970s.

Of course, even as fundamentalists have become more nationally visible and politically active, the paradox remains. Just a couple of months ago, for example, when Senator Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for president at Falwell’s Liberty University, he encouraged Christian conservative voters to think of themselves as both an oppressed minority and an untapped majority. He described the federal government as a monolithic and mischievous force that crushes the dreams of small business owners, the relationships between individuals and doctors, the rights of parents, and the freedom of religious believers. At the same time, he spoke of “millions of courageous conservatives” and “born again Christians” whose votes could restore an idealized constitutionalism and drive the big-government bureaucrats out of the American temple.

Part of my goal in Superchurch is to help us better understand the history and context behind arguments like Cruz’s, so we can develop a better sense of how and why they continue to resonate with so many fundamentalist and evangelical voters.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches. Also at Salon and Alternet.

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