Nixon Kids – A Conversation with Seth Blumenthal

BlumenthalSeth Blumenthal is Senior Lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University. In his new book, Children of the Silent Majority: Young Voters and the Rise of the Republican Party, 1968-1980, Blumenthal considers the conservative youth of the Nixon era, the young voters long overshadowed by their counterparts in the counterculture. In his outreach to young people, as in so many other ways, Nixon offers an interesting comparison to Donald Trump.

ECM: Richard Nixon imagined his supporters as a white, patriotic, God-fearing, Middle American “silent majority.” Your book is about their kids. Why focus on them?

SB: They were an example of Nixon’s counter-intuitives. Most people don’t really think that there was a story here, because the common narrative suggested that the children of the silent majority did not support Nixon, but rather his opponent, George McGovern. But as I began to dig down beneath the surface image of this group, I realized that there was a lot more substance.

ECM: There was a lot of discussion about a “generation gap” in those days, suggesting that young adults held positions sharply at odds with those of their parents. Was that perception incorrect?

SB: There was a generation gap to a certain extent, and it’s true that young people did identify with each other in a way that set them apart from their elders. Nixon’s people, especially after the 26th amendment to lower the voting age, tried not to attack the young as a generation because they felt that an attack on one was an attack on all.

But as we’ve seen in a lot of generational theory going to back to Mannheim’s notion of generations, there are cohorts within generations, and a generation is defined not by shared values, but by issues that divide. Nixon’s approach to young voters was correct but limited, and he could certainly segment off the patriotic or square young voters to do what he wanted, which was to split the youth vote. I don’t think he was particularly concerned with what it would take to attract the young people who did not fit the description of his preferred voter.

ECM: How did he split the youth vote?

SB: The fascinating part is that it was sort of a détente for young people in the middle. In that way, Nixon did more than just divide and conquer—he marginalized and conquered. He worked to attract the people from the middle, appealing to moderate interests like ending the draft or protecting the environment. Even his youth campaign, in a lot of ways, was a gesture to a more moderate political campaign, at least in 1972.

ECM: Billy Graham was famously chummy with Nixon. Did he—or other Christian elites—play a role in moving young voters into the GOP?

SB: Certainly. Evangelical leaders were essential to Nixon’s youth effort that expanded the GOP reach in the Sunbelt. Nixon spoke at Graham’s Youth Night rally of 100,000 evangelical young people at the University of Tennessee, but also Graham put the campaign in touch with fifty major Christian youth groups and their vast mailing lists. Bill Bright, for example, was very important because of Campus Crusade for Christ. In 1972, he held a huge gathering called “Explo” that drew almost 100,000 people.

It was an interesting relationship between those two, and I think it reveals the extent to which politicians were pursuing evangelicals much earlier than most historical narratives testify. Even before 1980, before the appearance of the Moral Majority, that important relationship was developing. And while there is a general sense that evangelicals imposed themselves upon politics, the story of 1972 shows that it was Nixon who really wanted to ingratiate himself with evangelicals. He wanted to go to Explo, but Bill Bright was resistant. Instead, he sent a taped message and, when they took a straw poll of the 100,000 attendees, Nixon won 2-1.

Continue reading

Posted in Culture War, Politics | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Nixon Kids – A Conversation with Seth Blumenthal

A History of Violence – A Conversation with Paul Hanebrink

hanebrinkPaul Hanebrink is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University. In his new book, A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, Hanebrink traces the violent history of European anti-Semitism from the Russian Revolution to the present. Because some Communists were Jews, many across Europe took for granted that Jews were Communists, identifying the entire population as a threat to established order.

ECM: Much of your work traces the history of anti-Semitism, and you’re doing that work at a time when anti-Semitism seems to be resurgent once again. How do you situate this political moment within that larger history?

PH: That’s an interesting question. Conspiracy theories flourish in times of political and social turmoil. The Judeo-Bolshevik myth was born amid a general crisis in Europe at the end of World War I that saw revolutions, labor unrest, and in places civil wars. For many people, it seemed a way to explain the breakdown in social and cultural order and the threats that a global ideological force posed to national sovereignty. Of course, the political instability in Europe and here in the United States today is nothing like that earlier crisis in terms of levels of violence.

Nevertheless, the nationalist Right in many countries is again talking about the erosion of traditional cultural norms and the fragility of national sovereignty in the face of global forces. As they do, certain anti-Semitic tropes are returning to public discourse. I first began tracking these questions in post-1989 Eastern Europe, where they expressed dissatisfaction with the way that communism had ended, and with the way that a new liberal democratic order had arisen, which many of them understood as anti-national and global in scope. In recent years, I’ve really been struck by how these issues have become a continent-wide and even an American concern.

ECM: You suggest that much of this is traceable to the “Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism” in twentieth century Europe. What do you mean by that?

PH: At one level, the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism is an updating of older myths of worldwide Jewish conspiracy, which you can find in the middle ages or in the nineteenth century. The Judeo-Bolshevik myth adapted these older paranoid fantasies to the ideological climate of the twentieth century. In this form, the Judeo-Bolshevik myth asserts that Jews as a population were uniquely responsible, not just for creating Communism as an ideology, but for perpetrating its crimes. In the twentieth century, the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism became a template for focusing more general fears of Communism, revolutionary unrest, or any dangerous ideas onto Jews as a group. The fact that some Communists were Jews (or came from Jewish families) helped to make this idea plausible for many people.

ECM: To what extent did this idea motivate Nazi anti-Semitism? 

PH: It was definitely an important factor. The opportunity to attack Judeo-Bolshevism is very important to Adolf Hitler in his early career, but at the same time, I don’t want to suggest that communism caused his anti-Semitism. It had many different facets. But the association of Jews with communism was very central to Nazism from very early on and remained so until the very last days. And it was also one of the aspects of Nazi anti-Semitism that had the most popular resonance and support. You could find it in Christian circles—both Catholic and Protestant—among people who had other doubts about aspects of the Nazi regime but could believe that this was a threat to Germany and were quite thankful to the Nazis for protecting them from it. And when Nazi Germany went to war against the Soviet Union in 1941, the idea—spread by Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda office—that the invasion was a crusade to defend Germany and all Europe against the Judeo-Bolshevik menace in the East, was widely popular, both in Germany and abroad—at least, as long as the Germans seemed to be winning the war.

ECM: After World War II, as Communism spread across Eastern Europe, it carried the widespread fear that Jews were intent, not just on implementing Communism, but on taking revenge against their enemies. To what degree did this fear drive post-war anti-Semitism? 

PH: I think that’s one of the most important driving forces behind the pogroms that you see in Poland in 1946. The other kinds of anti-Semitic violence and persecution that you see in other countries at this time can be linked to the idea that the Jews who had survived the Holocaust were going to come back and use Soviet occupation to take revenge on the societies around them. Scapegoating Jews for Communism was one way to make sense of the very real fears of what Soviet occupation and Communist rule would mean.

It also reflected how astonished many people were that Jews were visible again after the war years, during which they had been stripped of their rights, forced out of the public eye and often into hiding, and deported to camps. Many people connected these two things in their minds as a way of interpreting what was a very turbulent time in the history of the region.

You can see this, for example, in all of the real anger and fear that was directed against the criminal proceedings against fascist collaborators in Eastern Europe. Those courts were largely dismissed in popular media as being “Jewish courts.” You could also see it in the ways that many people across Eastern Europe picked out specific individuals in the communist regimes, noted their Jewish ancestry, and then implicated them in a larger conspiracy perpetrated by all Jews.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

Posted in Judaism, Politics, Scholarship | Tagged , , | Comments Off on A History of Violence – A Conversation with Paul Hanebrink

The Evangelical Crackup – A Conversation with Paul A. Djupe

DjupePaul A. Djupe is Associate Professor of Political Science at Denison University. He is the former editor of the journal Politics & Religion, and current editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics, a new book series from Temple University Press. With Ryan L. Claassen, he is co-editor of The Evangelical Crackup? The Future of the Evangelical-Republican Coalition. In it, more than two dozen scholars weigh in on the future of white evangelical politics.

ECM: What is the “evangelical crackup,” and why phrase it as a question?

PAD: Well, it didn’t start out as a question! The project was inspired by David Kirkpatrick’s article from 2007 in The New York Times that detailed a splintering of the Christian Right—a fading generation of Christian Right elites, new and less polarizing issues on the agenda (e.g., human trafficking and global warming), and shrinking organizations. Of course, in the run up to the 2016 election, we also thought that Trump would provoke some sort of rebellion given his proudly admitted sins, his profound unorthodoxy, and his past support for abortion and gay rights. Needless to say, 2016 forced new punctuation. But that question mark was always going to work better given the diverse ways that we define and inquire about the political behavior of this important religious group. We began to think about a crackup not just in terms of the religious-political coalition, but internal to the religious group in particular.

ECM: The book has eighteen chapters and more than two dozen contributors. How did you select and arrange these?

PAD: I began arranging this while I was the editor of the journal Politics & Religion and, as such, had an eagle-eyed view of the field. I invited some of the usual suspects who have been doing this a long time, but was lucky enough to know of younger scholars doing excellent work on a wide range of questions—about Latino evangelicals, the emergent church, Christian conservative legal organizations, and others. The volume is much richer for their inclusion. The organization is “political science” in that it follows the political targets. The first group of chapters addresses political targets, such as vote choices, party activists and party platforms, rights support, and state parties. The second thinks about the politics of religious change, looking at shifts in social networks, views of salient groups, and religious movements. The third section loops in public policy targets, such as the spread of “In God We Trust” mottoes in locales across the country. The final section offers big picture thinking about the Republican-evangelical coalition.

ECM: In a chapter co-authored with Brian R. Calfano, you suggest that evangelical elites were not particularly influential in determining evangelical attitudes toward Trump. Can you explain?

PAD: This chapter is key to how I approach religious influence, and it follows a simple premise. In order for elites to have influence, they need to communicate clear, consistent messages. So, we did the radical thing of asking people who attend church whether their clergyperson had spoken out about Trump as well as how supportive of Trump they were. Few clergy of evangelicals had reportedly spoken out (9 percent in September and 23 percent by the week before the election) and perceptions of where they stood on Trump were all over the map. In most cases, people appeared to be guessing. We also asked about their perceptions of evangelical elites—people like Paula White, Rick Warren, Tony Perkins, etc. And here too, many had no idea who these people were and most didn’t know where they stood on Trump. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (their main advocacy arm) was a prominent NeverTrumper, but perceptions of his Trump support were around 50/50, suggesting that people were guessing. Under these conditions, it’s not at all surprising that partisanship is the best explanation for evangelical vote choices in 2016.

ECM: In his chapter, your co-editor Ryan L. Claassen argues that conservative racial attitudes—rather than “moral” commitments—secured the alliance between evangelicals and Trump. How so?

PAD: Ryan is riffing off of a 2014 piece by Randall Balmer in Politico that argues that the early Christian Right leadership had their roots in efforts to protect segregated Christian private schools. Those schools sprang up when the federal government mandated integration after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. According to Balmer, the shift to social issues like abortion in 1979 (yes, six years after Roe v. Wade) was a strategic decision that would do the work of the racial politics without having to go on the record about race. Ryan, a specialist in this sort of analysis, wanted to see if he could find supportive evidence in public opinion data. He takes advantage of the shift in partisanship of white Southerners across this time period to assess the extent to which the growing Republicanism is more tightly linked to racial attitudes or abortion attitudes. Not surprisingly, he finds evidence for both driving increasing Republicanism, but in the South more of the change (about double) is due to racial conservatism. Together, these two accounts provide a challenge to the typical origin story of the Christian Right linked to Roe.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

Posted in Christianity, Culture War, Politics | Tagged , | Comments Off on The Evangelical Crackup – A Conversation with Paul A. Djupe

Christian Liberation – A Conversation with Lilian Calles Barger

bargerLilian Calles Barger is an independent historian, speaker, and podcast host. In her new book, The World Come of Age: An Intellectual History of Liberation Theology, she traces the legacy of liberationism back to its initial rise in the latter half of the 20th century, situating it atop the prior movements and thinkers who paved the way. Her work is vital for understanding the potential for Christian Leftism in the Americas, both then and now.

ECM: In a nutshell, what is liberation theology?

LCB: Liberation theology is a radical theological and social movement that emerged in the late 1960s and 70s. It is a product of the political radicalization of that era. Its key ideas have a much longer history which I have attempted to trace.

ECM: You situate liberation theology as part of a shift from transcendence to immanence within theology writ large. What do you mean by that?

LCB: The tension between transcendence and immanence has been at work in theology for a very long time. At certain points, God has been imagined as a distant, otherworldly figure, while at others, God has been very much an interventionist in human affairs. With the social gospel in the early twentieth century, theologians began to swing decisively in the latter direction, emphasizing a God at work in the everyday of every day. By the 1960s and 70s, liberationists were situating God, not simply among human beings on earth, but specifically among the poor and the oppressed, to advocate on their behalf. God was not only close at hand, but God was found among oppressed people in their struggle against oppression. This was a shift in the character of God from one who had equal universal regard to one who was partial to black people, the poor, and women.

ECM: How significant were Latin American theologians in affecting this shift?

LCB: They were critical. Liberation theology was an intellectual movement of the Americas, and Latin Americans played an enormous role. In part, this was because Catholicism was so prominent in those nations, and it was very hierarchical. The religious leadership had been very much removed from the people who had developed their own folk Catholicism. So these theologians were working with people in revolutionary situations—they were seeing the poverty, they were seeing the struggle—and they recognized that the theology they learned in Europe and the United States was too esoteric, too hierarchical, and too aloof to grapple with the situations they faced. They began to think about the differences between how theologians think about God and how people in shantytowns think about God. They were trying to capture the popular understanding of God and amplify that voice and give it legitimacy as theology.

Liberationists were active in base ecclesial communities and para-church groups where ordinary people read or heard biblical stories. The people would then express what those passages meant to them in their situation of oppression. One example is the well-known story of the Good Samaritan that becomes a story of oppression by elites and an example of solidarity between the Samaritan and the victim of violence. It is no longer a story of charity but of solidarity. Contact with the grass roots allowed liberation theologians to see the Bible through a different lens and to critique readings that assumed elite objectivity. The text was always political and its interpretation depended on who read it.

ECM: What about black thinkers in the United States?

LCB: There were many of them, but I focus in particular on James Cone. He was trained in modern theology at Garrett Theological Seminary, wrote a dissertation on Karl Barth, and emerged from a very European theological mold. When he graduated, the civil rights movement was ongoing, Black Power was emerging, and he came to think that his theological education could not speak to the black radicals who were rejecting African American churches. He also struggled with how to respond to criticism from Malcolm X, especially the claim that Christianity was a white man’s religion that would always keep black people in bondage. Cone recognized that black people were being oppressed, not only by political systems, but also by religion itself. He joined black pastors and other religious leaders who were calling for a black theology not dependent on white theological categories—one that would speak to and for black people in their freedom struggle. In his work, he tried to develop a fitting response to these problems. The product of this effort—in addition to a serious existential crisis for Cone—was a theology of Black Power.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

Posted in Christianity, Politics | Tagged , | Comments Off on Christian Liberation – A Conversation with Lilian Calles Barger

The Trappist and the Rock Star, Sort Of

HudsonRobert Hudson is a recognized Bob Dylan scholar, a member of the International Thomas Merton Society, and a veteran editor. In his The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966, he documents a series of connections between the two iconic figures. Though the two never met, Hudson argues that Dylan was influential in shaping Merton’s final years.

On December 10, 1941, three days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and in fear of military conscription, Thomas Merton became a Trappist monk. It was a decision reached after several years of thought and study, driven by his adult conversion to Catholicism and his desire to find silence and solitude upon what he called “this miserable, noisy, cruel earth.” When Merton took his vows at Our Lady of Gethsemani outside of Louisville, Kentucky, he committed himself to a monastic life that would both nurture and frustrate his deepest desires. Robert Hudson’s The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966 is about this tension.

If other biographies relay the entirety of Merton’s life and times, Hudson is focused specifically on moments when the monk’s more worldly interests ran up against his order’s consistently rigid rules. Through a series of “interludes,” Merton’s (mostly) obedient monasticism is cast against the various rebellions of the young Bob Dylan, with whom Merton became increasingly absorbed. As the book progresses, Dylan provides the free-spirited foil to Merton’s religious asceticism. Though Hudson identifies points of congruence between his subjects, these are less compelling than the general contrast.

In particular, the Merton-Dylan pairing demands some reflection on the nature of commitment. Merton’s developing interest in Dylan’s innovative work is traceable, it seems, to his own repeatedly stifled ambitions—to live alone, to travel, to write without censors, and to marry a woman. Again and again Merton makes requests that his abbot denies, in part to protect his vows and—perhaps in larger part—to retain his very lucrative pen. Though he grumbles about these rejections, Merton honors them as attendant to the promise that he freely made and to which he is eternally bound. The effect is at once impressive and a little annoying. At the time, certain of Merton’s friends wanted him to flee the suffocating monastic life and fulfill his significant potential—to rebel, in other words, like Dylan. Instead, Merton stays put, fulfilling his obligations at the expense of his desire—submitting, that is, like Merton.

Merton’s fidelity is undeniably impressive. Like marriage vows, monastic solemn vows restrict certain behaviors en route to a higher order of being. Made while young, they remain binding long after they have lost their initial charm. At that point, the vow may be broken or merely endured if it is not persistently renewed. In Merton’s case, the temptations were strong and—from the present vantage—persuasive. You only live once, we often reason, so suppressing desire is a terrible waste. Each time Merton considers leaving, it seems like a sensible thing to do. When in each case he stays, his dedication is moving.

Read the whole thing at Reading Religion.

Posted in Book Reviews, Christianity | Tagged , , | Comments Off on The Trappist and the Rock Star, Sort Of

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anglican Orthodoxy

BrittainChristopher C. Brittain is Dean of Divinity and Margaret E. Fleck Chair in Anglican Studies at Trinity College, University of Toronto. Andrew McKinnon is Senior Lecturer of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. In their book, The Anglican Communion at a Crossroads: The Crises of a Global Church, Brittain and McKinnon assess the controversies and challenges facing global Anglicanism in the twenty-first century.

Friendly and mild-mannered, Gene Robinson doesn’t seem like a rabble-rouser. And yet, when he was elected Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire in the summer of 2003, the ensuing controversy was fierce enough to prompt a realignment of the continental Anglican Church. Because Robinson was openly gay and in a relationship with a man, and because no Anglican Bishop had ever been both of those things at the same time before, a significant faction of theological conservatives decided to leave the Episcopal Church in the United States (TEC), formally establishing the rival Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) in 2009. Though Robinson retired from his post in 2013, the aftershocks of his election continue to rattle the Anglican Communion.

In The Anglican Communion at a Crossroads: The Crises of a Global Church, theologian Christopher C. Brittain and sociologist Andrew McKinnon undertake an interdisciplinary examination of Anglican dynamics in the years since the Robinson controversy. Historically rooted in the Church of England, Anglicans now comprise a sprawling global community with provinces on six continents. (The term Episcopalian has traditionally referred to Anglicans within the United States and since 2009 only to a subset of these.) Citing the vast scope and diversity of the body, Brittain and McKinnon are primarily interested in the ties that somehow manage to bind—even when stretched by controversies (and the ongoing debates over LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage have been more controversial than most).

Indeed, the authors note that in recent years homosexuality has emerged as a “presenting symbol” within global Anglicanism. It is an issue that speaks to fundamental commitments within the tradition and so deepens divides between while fostering realignments among three primary factions—Anglo-Catholics, evangelicals, and liberals. If the first “emphasize the church’s traditions,” the second “prioritize scripture and the Reformation,” and the third “emphasize reason and adaptation to modern society.” To subscribe to any one of these is not to discount the value of the others so much as to privilege a particular source of authority when making judgments and arbitrating disputes. Not since the ordination of women have the three faced a comparable challenge, and this time the divisions are even more pronounced.

This is in part because sexual matters have historical-cultural implications that often run deeper—or at least wider—than doctrine. In the United States, official recognition of LGBTQ sexualities within the church has arrived alongside the broader recognition of LGBTQ sexualities within the culture at large. Since 2000, public opinion has shifted dramatically in favor of same-sex marriage, for instance, and the courts have honored that shift via a series of increasingly consequential rulings. So whatever arguments may be applied to thetheologicalquestion today, the cultural context imposes itself upon the ecclesiastical proceedings. For those living outside of the United States and so beyond the limits of that social evolution, the implications are sharper still.

Read the whole thing at Reading Religion.
Posted in Book Reviews, Christianity | Tagged | Comments Off on What We Talk About When We Talk About Anglican Orthodoxy

Disruptive Witness – A Conversation with Alan Noble

nobleAlan Noble is Assistant Professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture. In his Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, Noble argues that the constant stimulation of the social media era poses a variety of challenges to evangelism. In addition to changing the way people speak, social media platforms change the way people think, feel, and (dis)believe.

ECM: What is witness, what is disruptive witness, and what does disruptive witness disrupt?

AN: I wanted to frame this book around a broader phenomenon than what is traditionally thought of as “evangelism.” When we talk about evangelism, the term often conjures an image of someone knocking on the door, leaving a tract, or going on the street and accosting people. I didn’t want to exclude actions like that, but I wanted to think much more broadly about how we as Christians bear witness to our faith. I think that includes moments when we are very explicitly and intentionally going out to share the gospel, but I also think it includes how we live so as to display the beauty and the goodness of the grace that Christ has given us—and everything in between.

A disruptive witness, in the context of the book, is a kind of witness that upsets popular expectations in two ways. First, it upsets expectations of what Christianity is. In the book, I’m working with Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s notion of secularism, including the idea that, within a secular age, we are hyperaware that there are always other options. We can always believe something else, and so our options become sort of flattened. I think it’s essential for Christians to present their faith in such a way that it is not just another lifestyle choice in the consumer marketplace of worldviews.

The second type of disruption involves inviting people to enter into spaces of contemplation and reflection so that the truths of the gospel can take root and prompt them to examine their lives and beliefs despite the distractions of our time.

ECM: When I was growing up in evangelicalism, I recall thinking about witness as kind of a moral or spiritual reputation. I never wanted to do anything that would compromise my witness and maybe turn people away from Christ. Does that fit here?

AN: That’s not quite how I was thinking about it, but it is related. We can imagine witness as existing on a spectrum from explicit to implicit, with overt evangelism on one end and a Christ-like lifestyle on the other. At one extreme you preach with words, while at the other you preach by living in a certain way.

So, for instance, if you cheer when children are separated from their parents at the border, that will damage your witness because it will be in direct conflict with Christianity as your neighbors understand it. But the book itself is not really about that kind of witness beyond living by Christ’s standards and therefore not bringing shame on the Church.

ECM: How central is witness to evangelical life? As a strategic matter, do individuals and churches spend a lot of time thinking about how to craft or improve their own?  

AN: I believe that evangelicals do spend quite a bit of time thinking about how they witness to the public, and I think that takes two forms. One is the very intentional sort of evangelism training that you can go through—something like Evangelism Explosion that was popular for a time and may still be. It’s the sort of program where your church signs up and you get all of these resources and reading materials about how to share your faith and your testimony and things like that.

But the much more common form comes along when, for instance, you’re on Facebook and you see someone share a Christian meme. It will probably be something like a lovely image with an uplifting Bible verse and you’ll think to yourself, “I want to share this because I’m a Christian and I want my friends on Facebook to note this.” That kind of thinking about how to craft your witness is very common, but the level of intentionality is very thin and not very discerning and its telos—its end—is what Taylor would describe as a desire for expressive individualism rather than a desire to winsomely present the gospel. It’s about you and the identity that you want to create for yourself rather than about glorifying God.

There is a similar problem at the level of churches. Most churches have unintentionally accepted an individualist concept of the church experience. It yields what Taylor calls excarnation—rather than being embodied and communal, each congregant experiences the service very much within his or her own head. This experience doesn’t really focus on the solemnity, the awesomeness, or the transcendence of God. There tends to be a lightness to it. Services are tailored to be entertaining, but not awe-some in the traditional sense.

Continue reading

Posted in Christianity, Civility, Evangelism | Tagged , | Comments Off on Disruptive Witness – A Conversation with Alan Noble

Back to the Bible – A Conversation with Rachel Held Evans

EvansRachel Held Evans is a New York Times best-selling author of four books, each covering changes and developments in her Christian faith. Her most recent, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Finding the Bible Again, approaches the Bible as a collection of narrative types. Rejecting a literalism that would treat these accounts as history and science, Evans connects ancient biblical stories to those we routinely craft to make sense of our lives.

ECM: This is a book about coming back to the Bible after being alienated from it. Can you describe how your faith has developed throughout your adulthood?

RHE: I grew up a conservative evangelical, so I was pretty into the Bible. I had memorized large portions of the book of Romans before I was eleven. As I became a young adult, I started to question some of the things that I had learned within that conservative evangelical culture, including some things about how I was supposed to read the Bible.

I encountered stories in scripture that troubled me, like the ones where God commands the people of Israel to commit genocide against their enemies, stories about women that were squarely rooted in a patriarchal culture, and these weighed on my mind to the point that I started to question everything about my faith. I’ve written a lot about that—it’s been the main story that I have shared throughout different iterations in my writing career.

For this book, I wanted to focus on the Bible because I feel like it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been able to get back to the Bible and really to love it again—not just tolerate it or deal with a faith crisis every time I open it up. And that’s thanks to the work of some scholars that have really resonated with me and introduced me to some different perspectives. I wanted to share that with people in a way that they might find entertaining and intriguing and fun. Biblical scholarship is not everyone’s cup of tea, so I wanted to show people why it brings me so much joy.

That’s not to say that I don’t still have hang-ups, because I do. There are still stories that I haven’t made sense of and that still bother me. But I hope that this book helps people navigate that experience and be honest about it and recognize that they don’t have to check their brains or their hearts at the door when they read the Bible.

ECM: Are you still an evangelical?

RHE: No. I think that ship has sailed! There are a lot of people who want to stick around and reclaim the evangelical label, and I support them in that. But I think the election of Donald Trump was a final nail in the coffin for me. Plus, now that I attend an Episcopal church, it feels a little disingenuous for me to say that I identify as an evangelical. My views are now so far afield from the typical political—and sometimes theological—views of most evangelicals that I guess I would say I am squarely Episcopalian now.

ECM: Do you give much thought to the—invariably male—pastors and seminarians who will be on Twitter criticizing your hermeneutics or your exegesis?

RHE: What?! Do you think that will happen?

Actually they don’t criticize my hermeneutics or my exegesis. They just say, “This woman has no authority to write about the Bible.” They don’t even attempt to engage the arguments that I make, and that’s what irritates me. The other day one guy was like, “Rachel Held Evans bases her Biblical interpretation on all the feels,” which is like the most gendered criticism, it’s so obvious. So I took a picture of my endnotes, which are lengthy, and sent them to him with the note, “All the feels, page 1,” “All the feels, page 2.”

Because here’s the thing—I know I’m not a biblical scholar. I’m aware of that. I think it’s important that writers know what they don’t know. But I am a voracious reader and I cited my sources. I also had two biblical scholars look over it and give me feedback. I’ve never had a book reviewed as thoroughly as this one was before it went to press. I sent it to everybody to make sure that I was on the right track.

My thinking is that reading and engaging the Bible is not left to the scholars. As a writer, I’m going to approach the text with a different set of questions than a scholar would ask, and I think that’s a good thing. I’m asking, for instance, in an early house church, what would they be eating? What would the floor be made of? What would they be sitting on? Who would be there? What would it smell like? These are the questions that I’m asking that scholars might not think to ask.

But every page of this book was significantly informed by the work of biblical scholars. People like Walter Brueggemann and N.T. Wright, of course, and significant portions were informed by womanist scholars. When I wrote about Hagar, I was influenced by Delores Williams and Wil Gafney, black women who read the story of Hagar in a way that I would never think to read it. Also some feminist theology, some liberation theology—I did my research for this book and I stand by it.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

Posted in Christianity, Culture War, Politics | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Back to the Bible – A Conversation with Rachel Held Evans

American Christian – A Conversation with Matthew Bowman

ChristianMatthew Bowman is Associate Professor of History at Henderson State University. In his new book, Christian: The Politics of a Word in America, he documents a few of the many forms that Christianity has assumed over the past 150 years. Beginning just after the Civil War and working forward to the rise of Donald Trump, Bowman demonstrates how the faith has lent itself to a fascinating array of campaigns and causes, always revising itself along the way.

ECM: What is a Christian in America?

MB: I argue that there is no single definition of that word. Instead, Christianity can be understood as an essentially contested concept—an abstract notion like justice or art that is by its very nature disputed because there is no single authority to render a definitive judgment.

Throughout American history, Christianity has been endlessly disputed and, by virtue of that disputation, has injected a great deal of dynamism into American politics and society. Paradoxically, by lending itself to so much appropriation and contestation, it has helped inspire religious, social, and political pluralism in the United States—which is not the way Americans are accustomed to thinking about the role of Christianity in their society.

ECM: What is Christian republicanism?

MB: Christian republicanism refers to one way in which Americans have defined what Christianity is and what implications it has for American politics and society. It derives from American Protestantism and associates Christianity with two essential elements.

The first of these elements is individual liberty. Protestants have long stressed individual autonomy and the importance of an individual encounter with God and Jesus Christ for salvation. In the American context particularly, that notion has influenced Americans’ political emphasis on autonomy and personal liberty.

It’s tempered, though, by the second element, which is the emphasis on virtue. This is owed in part to the traditional Protestant understanding of what it means to be a Christian, but it’s also derived from the early American admiration for classical societies like the Greeks and the Romans. The Roman writers that the American founders were reading emphasized that a self-governing society requires a virtuous citizenry. Christianity provided an effective means for promoting civic virtue because of its particularly Protestant emphasis on character and moral behavior.

This way of thinking about Christianity has been common—though not uncontested—throughout American history. It has taken different forms at different times in different places and been spoken of in a variety of different ways, but the presumed relationship between Christianity and American democratic government has been widely present since the founding.

ECM: The Christian republicanism that you document is very white and very Western—it arises in Europe and culminates in the triumph of “Western Civilization.” How have African American Christians responded to this standard Christian story?

MB: At points, many African Americans have seized upon Christian republican ideology, asserted their faith in it, and then used it to attack white Americans’ complicity in and complacency with slavery, segregation, and racism. These African Americans have argued that, for Americans to live up to the ideals of Christian republicanism—including liberty, autonomy, and virtue—slavery and racism and injustice must be rejected.

But there have also been African Americans who have rejected this notion and have argued that the ideology of Christian republicanism has wedded Christianity to the West and to whiteness, and that this is both a corruption and a limitation of Christianity. Instead, according to these Christians, true Christian values are found elsewhere—often in Africa. During the 1950s and 1960s, many African Americans argued that true Christian civilization was in South Africa, in the struggle against Apartheid, or in Ghana, where people of color overthrew white colonists.

So, at times African Americans embraced Christian republicanism, and at other times they rejected it, which I think is a nice microcosm of the contested nature of Christianity in the United States.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

Posted in Christianity, Politics | Tagged , , | Comments Off on American Christian – A Conversation with Matthew Bowman

On Religious Freedom – A Conversation with Heath Brown

coverThough The Rhetoric of Religious Freedom in the United States is arguably not new, and quite arguably not political science, it was featured this week on the New Books in Political Science podcast. In this episode, host Heath Brown and I chat about the first amendment, issue framing, liberal language, same-sex marriage, and a little bit about Donald Trump. Our conversation is relatively brief (23 min), ideal for the average American commute. Listen to it here.

Posted in Christianity, Culture War, Politics | Tagged , | Comments Off on On Religious Freedom – A Conversation with Heath Brown

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.

Posted in Civility, Philosophy, Politics | Tagged , | Comments Off on Art of Gratitude – A Conversation with Jeremy David Engels

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.

Posted in Christianity, Culture War, Politics | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Christianity, Culture War, Politics | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Fundamentalist U – A Conversation with Adam Laats

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.

Posted in Christianity, Culture War, Politics | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Christian Rock – A Conversation with Randall J. Stephens

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.

Posted in Christianity, Politics, Reading | Tagged , | Comments Off on The Protestant Way – A Conversation with Alec Ryrie