The Evangelical Identity – A Conversation with Thomas S. Kidd

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

ECM: So, who is an evangelical?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christian Diplomacy – A Conversation with Mark T. Edwards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christian / Democrat – A Conversation with James D. Bratt

FDRThe late John F. Woolverton, an Episcopal priest, taught church history at Virginia Theological Seminary, the College of William and Mary, and the University of Texas. After his passing in 2014, his A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt was ushered to publication by James D. Bratt, an emeritus professor of history at Calvin College. The book documents the faith and politics of one of America’s great Presidents.

ECM: Your work on this book was somewhat atypical. How did you end up finishing it? What was your process?

JDB: The editing process was actually kind of fun. Professor Woolverton had done such an excellent job of research in the archives and secondary literature that I didn’t have to worry about correcting or supplementing things. Only one addition was required—the brief chapter on FDR’s death, funeral and burial rites. The folks at Eerdmans said that readers expect biographies to end with this sort of wrap, and so I supplied it.

For the rest, the job involved trimming and reorganizing the manuscript so as to bring out the main theme of each chapter in clear focus and efficient development. It’s probably easier to do this with someone else’s writing than with your own because you’re looking down at a landscape from some height rather than having hacked out a path thru the thicket in the first place. So I just plowed along, chapter by chapter.

My copy editors were sharp and kind and saved a number of errors. The most difficult part here was tracking down quotations that had come untethered from footnotes in my editing process. (A couple different word-processing programs had been involved along the way, and weren’t always compatible with the new system into which I integrated everything.) This did set me off sleuthing through FDR’s published speeches and personal correspondence, which is a very revealing road into the nuts and bolts of a person’s life and mind. I managed to track down every reference but one, which felt like quite an achievement, and I got in better touch with FDR as a person along the way.

ECM: Readers are likely familiar with Roosevelt the Democrat. What kind of a Christian was he?

JDB: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a lifelong Episcopalian. He was taken to St. James’ Church in Hyde Park, [New York], as a lad, even though he didn’t much care for it at the time. His father was on the vestry, and Franklin himself became a member of the vestry in adulthood. He was loyal to his church, he knew the liturgy and revered the music, and he cared much more about the ceremonial aspects than about the theology. He loved the social ethics most of all.

His attachment to the liberal branch of Episcopalianism was solidified during the years that he spent studying at the Groton School in Massachusetts, under the famous headmaster Endicott Peabody. Groton at that time was one of the heartlands of the Social Gospel movement. So I think you could say that he was a liturgical Episcopalian and a Social Gospel Christian.

ECM: Did the Social Gospel influence his politics?

JB: Very much so. To understand its influence, you have to go back to his time at Groton. FDR was raised in splendid isolation at the family home in Hyde Park. He only left the house to attend boarding school when he was 14, and at that time his father was a pretty old man. Sara Delano was James Roosevelt’s second wife, and he was old enough to be her father—old enough to be Franklin’s grandfather. He was frail, and sickly, and far removed from his son. So when FDR arrived at Groton, Peabody assumed a paternal role and became a new father figure.

Peabody was also very devoted to Social Gospel thinking. He brought a steady stream of Social Gospel figures to the school to deliver lectures, and the boys were sent out to do social mission work—often in the rough neighborhoods of Boston. I think FDR very clearly absorbed the principles of the Social Gospel and quickly became acclimated to the lifestyle associated with it. The movement sort of burned out following World War I in the prosperity decade of the 1920s, but I think Roosevelt revived and incorporated it into political and social policy during his presidency. Much of the New Deal legislation is very clearly indebted to Social Gospel ideas.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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American Sutra – A Conversation with Duncan Ryūken Williams

SutraDuncan Ryūken Williams is Professor of Religion and East Asian Languages & Cultures at the University of Southern California, where he directs the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture. In his new book, American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War, Williams documents the struggle of Japanese American Buddhists in the months and years following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

ECM: Clearly the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II concerned nationality and race. You frame it as a religious freedom issue. Why?

 DRW: Generally speaking, when we think about why people of Japanese ancestry were targeted for incarceration during World War II—even though the United States was also at war with Germany and Italy—we think of race and national origin. But while researching this book I discovered that, well before December of 1941, the Office of Naval Intelligence, Army G2 [military intelligence], and the FBI already had Buddhist temples under surveillance. They had registries and lists of Buddhist priests who were to be arrested in the event of war with Japan. In fact, on December 8, 1941, at 3pm, before martial law had been declared, the first person arrested was Gikyo Kuchiba, the head priest at the Honpa Hongwanji temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Honolulu. So religious leaders were identified by military intelligence as a special category of threat to national security.

Later, when the mass incarceration was underway—when ultimately 120,000 or so of the West Coast Japanese would be sequestered in camps—religion would be implicated as well. In 1943, Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, the architect of forced removal, issued a report in which he justified mass incarceration based explicitly on the “race, customs, and religion” of the prisoners.

So religion played a key role in both the initial roundup and the mass incarceration. That’s why I like to cite this combination of race and religion as central to determining who gets included and excluded in America.

ECM: How did the treatment of Japanese Buddhists differ from that of Japanese Christians, or either from that of Germans and Italians?

DRW: If we stick to the question of the Japanese, as I said, Buddhist priests and Shinto priests—that is, the non-Christian clergy—were identified specifically by intelligence agencies as threats to national security that needed to be monitored. Christian ministers were not identified, even though they were also important community leaders. There were fewer of them, of course. The Japanese American community as a whole—both in Hawaii and the continental United States—was majority Buddhist, so its religious leadership was also majority Buddhist. But from the start of the roundup, religious difference factored into how arrests were conducted—into who was targeted and who was not.

From there, the government used religion to determine which members of the community were loyal and which disloyal. In 1943 the camps were issued a document called the Leave Clearance Form that sought to make this determination. Question #16 was on religion. Those who responded that their religion was Christian were given two points, those who responded that their religion was Shinto were automatically denied clearance, and those who identified as Buddhists were docked a point. This is just one example among many. The government differentiated clearly between Buddhists and Christians as to their relative loyalty to the United States. It was presumed that Christian faith indicated a higher degree of Americanization and therefore a higher degree of loyalty to the country.

And in terms of the difference with Germans and Italians, during the internment process, very few German and Italian nationals were interned for the duration of the war compared to the Japanese. And there was no mass incarceration of the German and Italian American communities.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics

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Crude Christianity – A Conversation with Darren Dochuk

dochukDarren Dochuk is Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. In his new book, Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, Dochuk charts a partnership between Christian missions and oil exploration dating back to the Civil War, explaining along the way how fossil fuel evangelism created the American century–and may have inaugurated a climate apocalypse.

ECM: Since Christianity overlaps with everything in the United States, there is limitless potential for books that focus on Christianity and something. What prompted your focus on Christianity and crude oil?

DD: Christianity and crude oil each enjoy sprawling influence in American society, and perhaps that is why they have not yet been written about together. I wanted to see what I could learn about modern America by considering them simultaneously. While researching and writing my first book, I spent a lot of time in the Southwest and in California, where I noticed the overlapping prevalence of evangelical Christianity and oil production. Having grown up in Alberta, Canada—another land of oil and evangelicalism—I sensed there might be a story to tell.

Initially, I had planned to follow the money in order to see how oil capital has flowed into American Christianity and supported its institutions and missions abroad, as well as funded its cultural enterprises and political interests at home. We know about the Rockefellers and their generations-long support of liberal Christian philanthropy, and to a lesser degree about the Stewarts and Pews, whose funding of conservative causes made the fundamentalism of the early twentieth century possible and the “new evangelicalism” of the post-WWII period so powerful.

As I dug into the subject and did more research and writing, though, I found that there were many other connections to flesh out—points of deep contact that I had not imagined at the start. Ultimately, they proved to be more exciting finds. For instance, I found it fascinating how oil’s discovery during the Civil War seemed to guarantee both its mythological sanctity as a healing balm for a broken society and as a catalyst for its political, economic, and religious ambitions on a global stage. In the years that followed, missionaries and oilmen, statesmen and engineers, churches, and petroleum companies naturalized America’s imperial project as God-ordained, and—fueled by petro-dollars and a passion to win souls and discover more oil-rich soil—together helped make the twentieth century the “American Century.” The allegorical power of petroleum was pretty potent, in other words, and helped provide a narrative of American exceptionalism that would last until the energy crisis of the 1970s. Along the way, it transferred that sense of God-ordained, petro-fueled exceptionalism to other societies—like Saudi Arabia—as well.

ECM: Texas and Oklahoma are often referred to as the “Buckle of the Bible Belt,” Pentecostalism is traceable to Southern California, and there are other religious associations that fall within sectors of oil country. Did oil production help to shape the geography of Christianity in the United States?

DD: I believe so. One can ask which came first in each case. Did oil shape the values and beliefs of the tucked-away regions in which it was discovered, or did the values and beliefs of those regions impose themselves on the oil industry? Reciprocity was certainly in play. But I would argue that even when oil was discovered in regions where conservative faiths were already established, it accentuated certain aspects of local religiosity. In distinctive ways, it made religion at the regional level more pronounced, and over time it remapped religious belief on the national, even continental, level.

One of my claims is that the oil patch is itself a sacroscape—borrowing from Tom Tweed—that recreates and reinforces its own distinctive spiritual life. I show how the patch nurtures certain eschatological and theocratic tendencies. There, amid boom-bust cycles, Christians are attuned to a messianic time that promises cycles of societal rupture in advance of Christ’s sudden, salvific return—which is why the hunt for petroleum in these regions always transpires with an end-times feel. Amid jungles of derricks and refining fires, risk-filled labor and violent swings of fortune, oil-patch Christians embrace a cataclysmic view of the here and now and of life beyond, as well as a dependency on an all-powerful being who gives and takes and tests his people but is always there. A curiosity that I do not pursue entirely in the book is the comparative dimension to this—how the fleeting nature of oil and time, and belief in an omnipotent God, are theological hunches shared by oil patch residents around the world. Perhaps Oman and Odessa, Texas, are not as different as American oil patch residents would like to believe.

Another related aspect to this is the peculiar workings of Christianity and petro-capitalism in mapping out power in the oil business, in churches, and in politics. Of course, the relationship between Christianity and capitalism has been written about at length, especially in the last ten years. My project explores the multiple spirits of capitalism at work in the oil industry and ultimately in modern America. First, we have what I call the “civil religion of crude,” based in the major oil companies of the East—Standard Oil and its offshoots, especially—and represented by major oil’s founding clan, the Rockefellers. Illustrative of Max Weber’s vision of a Protestant bureaucratic outlook and quest to capture and organize the marketplace, the Rockefellers not only sought to rationalize their chaotic corporate world—and early oil was chaotic—but also to reform society and transform the globe with a social and technocratic gospel.

Running alongside and often opposed to that ethic is what I call “wildcat Christianity.” This refers to the Western independent oilmen who exhibited the charismatic and heroic qualities of capitalism that Weber thought would die out in modern America. I attempt to show how, in the oil business, this speculative, fiercely free-market, wildcatting ethic was remarkably sustained throughout the twentieth century and into the present. That has a lot to do with geography. Pushed out of Pennsylvania by the Rockefellers, these “warrior heroes” of oil moved West where, because of the surprising shift of oil production to California and Texas at the turn of the twentieth century, they were able to seize leverage, build their own empires, and ultimately fight the Rockefellers for control of their industry, of Western terrain and its subsurface riches, of Washington, Wall Street, the Republican Party, and ultimately of the pulpits and pews of the American church.

Scholars today are looking at our present neoliberal order and recognizing the degree to which, nationally and even globally, this wildcat ethic is flourishing. By tracing the long history of oil, I’m saying that it has always been there, and it is especially evident in the religious-political cultures of the West, where the tendency to take risks and pursue profits as if there is no tomorrow has always been strong—so, too, the tendency to hold tightly to a theology premised on the power of personal encounter with an active creator, the mysteries of an earth whose hidden riches enchant and elude reason, and the need to labor tirelessly, be it drilling or evangelizing, before time runs out.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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Beating Guns – A Conversation with Shane Claiborne

gunsShane Claiborne is the author of nine books; a co-founder of The Simple Way, a Christian collective in Philadelphia; and co-director of Red Letter Christians, a non-denominational progressive movement. His new book, Beating Guns: Hope for People Who are Weary of Violence, is co-authored with Michael Martin, a professional blacksmith and the executive director of RAWTools, an organization committed to transforming weapons of death into implements of life.

ECM: What inspired you to start beating guns into gardening tools?

SC: We just got tired of seeing so much violence and death in the world and, in a very particular sense, in our own neighborhood of Kensington in Philadelphia. As we go through the neighborhood there are many things that we’re proud of, but one of the things that grieves our hearts is that, on just about every corner, we can tell the story of whose life was lost there, in almost every case to a gun. There are memorials sprinkled all over north Philadelphia to lives that were taken too soon. Martin Luther King said that we are all called to be the Good Samaritan and to lift people out of the ditch on the road to Jericho, but after you’ve lifted so many people out of the ditch, you start asking whether we need to rethink the road.

That said, we’re hopeful people. We’re people of faith who believe that life is more powerful than death and love is more powerful than hatred. We try to speak with a prophetic voice and to remember that the prophetic vision is positive. It’s a vision committed to turning tools of death into tools of life. Walter Brueggemann has written that, while we often think of the prophets as trying to predict the future, they were usually trying to change the present. They were trying to name where we’re at and challenge us to imagine something better—the type of future that God would want for us. So that’s what inspired us to start beating guns. We started in Philly about six years ago. Mike founded RAWTools, and we’ve been doing it ever since.

ECM: The statistics in the book are devastating, and they throw the political failure into sharp relief. Did you feel like symbolic action filled the void when there was nothing left to say?

SC: We felt like the political debate on gun control had come to a stand still, and you can only argue about the Second Amendment for so long. In our work, we go deeper. Instead of trying to appeal to the head, we reach out to the heart, and often the head comes along. I don’t know too many people who have been argued into thinking differently, but I’ve met a whole lot just while doing this tour who have found that, when they ground themselves in the reality of gun violence in America, something shifts for them.

I grew up around guns, and many in my family are still gun owners. The fact of gun ownership doesn’t have to divide us. Over 90 percent of Americans want to see stronger gun regulations, and over 80 percent of gun owners agree. There are sensible things we can do, like expanding background checks, preventing domestic abusers from acquiring guns, putting people who are on the no-fly list also on a no-gun list. We can place restrictions on semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles. It’s been very important to us to stress that gun owners are not the enemy. Our events have attracted a lot of hunters who oppose gun violence. One even wore a t-shirt that said, “A good hunter does not need ten rounds to kill a deer.” That’s encouraging.

ECM: You’re very diplomatic in your outreach to gun owners, and very critical of gun makers, dealers, and lobbyists. Can the producers and consumers be so cleanly separated?

SC: In the book, we quote Henry Ford saying, “Tell me who profits from violence and I’ll tell you how to stop it.” From the very beginning, a lot of the major profiteers of violence were not big fans of guns—they were big fans of money, and guns emerged as very profitable products. Winchester started out in the shirt industry. Smith was a carpenter and Wesson was a shoemaker. Colt was a traveling showman. Remington began as a pacifist and a poet. But all found their way into the gun business and created a thriving market.

When the National Rifle Association says that it represents 5 million people, we need to remember that this is a small fraction of American gun owners. Ninety percent of gun owners are not members of the NRA, and most find themselves at odds with the extremism of the gun lobby. The more that people learn about it, the more disturbed they get. For instance, a gun is stolen every single minute in America, and in many states you don’t have to report stolen guns, even though about a third of them are eventually tracked to violent crimes. The gun lobby made that happen. There’s a lot we don’t know about the effects of gun violence because the research has been held hostage, just like when tobacco companies fought to oppose cancer research. And we already have the technology to make smart guns that operate off of a finger print—which would prevent a lot of suicides and accidental deaths—but the industry does not have the will to pursue it.

So it’s not a matter of ability; it’s a matter of will. The gun industry has the power to protect lives, but it would rather protect profits. Too often we have allowed questions of rights to dominate our discourse around guns. Our goal right now is to reframe the conversation from a focus on rights to a focus on conscience, and to stir the public conscience to create change.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics

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The Color of Compromise – A Conversation with Jemar Tisby

TisbyJemar Tisby is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Mississippi. In his new book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, Tisby surveys American history with an eye toward the innumerable moments when white Christians could have interceded on behalf of racial justice, but did not. Together, these trace seemingly ancient atrocities straight into today’s headlines.

ECM: As the subtitle states, your book is a sweeping survey of the American Church’s complicity in racism. To your mind, what constitutes complicity?

JT: The book opens with the story of four girls who died when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Shortly after that event, a white lawyer named Charles Morgan Jr. got up in front of an all-white business club and gave an address in which he asked who was responsible for throwing that bomb. In answer to his own question, he said, “We all are.”

He went on to explain that every time that the white community—especially Christians—failed to confront racism in its everyday, mundane forms, they created a context of compromise that allowed for an extreme act of racial terror like planting dynamite at a church. That’s the idea of complicity. It’s not that every Christian was a foaming-at-the-mouth racist hurling racial slurs and burning crosses on peoples’ lawns. It’s that when they had opportunity to intervene in everyday ways, they chose complicity over confrontation, and this enabled a larger atmosphere of racial compromise.

ECM: Though some American Christians were enthusiastically racist and others were anti-racist, most just accepted racist institutions. To what extent are we free to judge that, and to what extent do we have to accept them as products of their time? 

JT: I think some would argue that most of those who I am identifying as complicit in racism were merely men and women of their time. But I would respond that the abolitionists and civil rights activists and others who struggled for black freedom were also men and women of their time. So it’s not as though Christians—particularly white Christians—didn’t know there were alternatives. It’s that they must have had some investment in maintaining the status quo, or that they had some fear of what other people would say or what they would risk if they stood up for racial equality.

R&P: Was the situation in the South markedly different from that in the North?

JT: A lot of people like to point a finger at the South and say, “Those are the real racists.” The implication is that there is no comparable problem in the Midwest or the West coast or the Northeast. But the reality is much more complicated than that.

I purposely included a chapter in the book on Christian complicity in the North, and by North I mean anywhere outside of the South. There are examples from various geographic regions. The bottom line is that bigotry knows no boundaries. It’s not that racism stopped at the Mason-Dixon line. The thing that makes the South stand out is that this was the physical site where race-based chattel slavery occurred. It’s the place where the plantations were located. But the entire country was implicated because the agricultural production in the South fueled industrial production in the North and other parts of the United States.

Later, when the country played host to race riots—and here I mean white race riots—these occurred in urban areas outside of the South, like Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and others in the Northeast as well. So there was no region that was free from complicity and no region that was free from racism.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Review – 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.

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Review – On 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.
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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.

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