Court Evangelical Eric Metaxas Continues to Play Fast and Loose With American History

Eric Metaxas is one of the court evangelicals in attendance tonight at the White House.  Here he is with Mike Pence:

Metaxas at Party

Earlier tonight, Metaxas tweeted this:

Metaxas Tweet

I am thankful to several folks who sent this tweet to me.  Eric Metaxas blocked me from seeing his Twitter feed after I wrote a multi-part series criticizing his fast-and-loose (and mostly erroneous) use of American history in his book If You Can Keep It.  You can read that series, and Metaxas’s dismissal of it, here.

Just a few quick responses to this tweet

1. There were some founding fathers who might be described as “evangelical.”  They included John Witherspoon, John Jay, Roger Sherman and Samuel Adams.  But just because a given founder was an evangelical does not mean that he was indispensable to the American Revolution or that his evangelical faith informed the quest for independence from Great Britain.  I have written extensively about the myth of an evangelical founding in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  But perhaps Eric Metaxas is suggesting, as he did in If You Can Keep It, that there was a direct correlation between the First Great Awakening (an evangelical revival in the 1740s) and the American Revolution.  I critiqued that view here.  The bottom line is this:  The American Revolution would have happened with or without American evangelicals.

2. Evangelicals were very active in the abolitionist movement, but so were non-evangelicals.  The question of whether abolitionism would have happened without evangelicals is a debatable point.  For a nuanced picture–one that treats religion fairly–I suggest you read Manisha Sinha’s excellent book The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.  We also interviewed her on Episode 16 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

3.  The idea that the Civil Rights Movement would not have occurred without evangelicals is absurd.  While there were certainly black preachers involved who might be labeled “evangelical,” most of the clergy who led the movement were deeply shaped by the Black social gospel.  White evangelicals in the South defended segregation.  White evangelicals in the North did not have a uniform position on civil rights for African-Americans.  The white evangelicals associated with magazines like Christianity Today did little to advance the movement.  Some good stuff on this front comes David Chappel in A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Chappel’s student, Michael Hammond, has also done some excellent work on this front.  Mark Noll’s God and Race in American Politics: A Short History also provides a nice introduction.

4. If you are a fan of the Reagan Revolution, I suppose you could make the argument that conservative evangelicals had a lot do with it.  The 1980s was the decade in which evangelicals made an unholy alliance with the Republican Party.  There are a lot of good books on this subject.  I would start with Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right.  I also write about this story in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Don’t get me wrong–evangelicals have played an important role in the shaping of our nation.  I recently wrote about this in a piece at The Atlantic.  You can read it here.

Black Evangelicals and the Masterpiece Cakeshop Decision

Cake baker

We have done a few posts already on Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

According to a recent piece by Kate Shellnut at Christianity Today, a 2016 Pew survey found that 35% of white evangelicals support same-sex marriage, while 44% of black Protestants support same-sex marriage.

Only 22% of white evangelicals favor requiring businesses to serve same-sex weddings.  46% of black Protestants favor this.

Notice that the survey compares white EVANGELICALS with black PROTESTANTSso the comparison does not tell us as much as we think it does.  (Although it is also fair to say that a large number of black Protestants are evangelical in theology).  Nevertheless, it is clear that African-Americans are more than open to same sex marriage than are white evangelicals.

Shellnut asked four African-American Christian leaders to reflect on the Masterpiece case.  They are:

Charles Watson of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty

Lisa Robinson, editor of Kaleoscope blog

Kathryn Freeman, director of public policy for the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas

Justin Giboney, founder of the AND Campaign

Here is Robinson:

As an African American woman, it might seem reasonable for me to have qualms about the recent ruling the Supreme Court delivered in support of a Christian baker. Jack Phillips’s refusal to serve these individuals smacks of the same kind of infringement that African Americans in this country experienced. However, three factors give me pause in this line of thinking and lead me to applaud the Supreme Court’s decision.

First, the case is not about discrimination, but religious conscience. The civil rights movement was started because a whole class of people were pervasively denied acceptance based on who they were biologically. Discrimination ensued because they weren’t deemed to be fit to share the same services, space, or civic obligations in a white society.

The Masterpiece Cakeshop case wasn’t about the people, but the ceremony. I think likening the two cases—discrimination against blacks and denial of cake-baking for a ceremony—undermines the cause of the civil rights movement, which was about affirming the dignity of personhood irrespective of lifestyle choices.

I can appreciate arguments that say whites believed upholding the purity of races was rooted in their Christian convictions; however, the racist line of thinking that prevailed for so long has no basis in Scripture (consider the marriages of Solomon and Moses), whereas endorsing same-sex marriage is explicitly prohibited.

Second, reliance on state-sanctioned intervention can have negative implications for how we value fellow image bearers apart from their choices. I confess that I have a love-hate perspective toward the governmental intervention needed to address discrimination against African Americans. Unfortunately, we ultimately had to rely the state to define discrimination rather than God himself and his requirements for what kind of activity his people should or should not support.

Lastly, equating refusal to participate in same-sex ceremonies with active discrimination against a class of people puts us in a precarious position of lending support to same-sex marriage because we don’t want to reject people. We ought to be free to distinguish between the value of persons and the values they espouse. At the end of the day, commitment to Christian convictions matters most.

Read the entire piece here.

African American Anglicans

Curry

In the wake of bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the recent royal wedding, Grant Shreve offers us a brief introduction, with scholarly links, to the African American experience in the Anglican Church.  Here is a taste of his piece at JSTOR Daily:

Curry’s message was made all the more urgent and vital by the fact that the history of the Anglican Church in America—which came to be called the Protestant Episcopal Church here—is marred by centuries of complicity and neglect on matters of race. Indeed, as historian Robert A. Bennett has argued, black Episcopalians have had to struggle mightily to maintain their “ethnic-racial identity in a larger Church body which has not readily acknowledged [their] presence.”

This lamentable history began in the eighteenth century when the Anglican Church devised one of the first concerted efforts to evangelize to slaves. In 1701, it established the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), an organization whose mission was to spread the Christian gospel to non-Christian peoples across the globe—including American Indians and enslaved Africans. Although the message of its early missionaries did not fully distinguish between spiritual and political freedom, the SPG eventually caved to the demands of slaveholders and preached a theology maintaining that “conversion did not . . . imply manumission.”

Read the entire piece here.

“The born-again/evangelical population in this country is highest among blacks…”

latin evangelicals

According to a recent Gallup survey, the born-again/evangelical population in this country is highest among blacks, “who are overall the most religious racial and ethnic group in the United States.”  Gallup reports that 61% of blacks identify as “evangelical” or “born-again.”  38% of “non-Hispanic whites” claim the labels and 44% of Hispanics identify with the labels.

There is a lot more to unpack in this study.  Read it here.

Cushwa Center Seminar on Judith Weisenfeld’s *New World A-Coming*

Here is a taste of Ben Wetzel’s summary of the event:

The Seminar in American Religion convened on March 24, 2018, to discuss Judith Weisenfeld’s prize-winning book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (NYU Press, 2016). About 80 people attended the seminar, which was moderated by Thomas Kselman, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame.

Weisenfeld is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor in the department of religion at Princeton University and has written several other major studies analyzing African American religious experiences in the early 20th century. The seminar’s commentators included Paul Harvey, distinguished professor and presidential teaching scholar in the department of history at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs; and Jennifer Jones, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame.

In 2017, New World A-Coming received the Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize for the best book in Africana religions. Raboteau (Weisenfeld’s colleague at Princeton, now emeritus), while studying most facets of African American religions, tended to focus on Protestant and Catholic Christianity. New World A-Coming, by contrast, highlights smaller religious groups like the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, the Ethiopian Hebrew congregations, and the Peace Mission of Father Divine. These movements merged religious and racial identity, offered stark contrasts to mainstream Christianity, provided hope and vision to their adherents, and flourished in the urban north during the Great Migration even while they remained on the margins of American religious life as a whole.

Read the entire piece here.

Randall Balmer on Bishop Michael Curry

Curry

This past weekend we did a quick post on Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding.  Yesterday at The Washington Post, American religious historian Randall Balmer offers a more extended take on the sermon.  Here is a taste:

Curry, a cradle Episcopalian (his father was an Episcopal priest), is often mistaken for a Baptist. His preaching style draws on the long and venerable tradition of black preachers dating to the days of slavery. At St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle on Saturday, he opened his sermon in measured tones, beginning with a reading from the Song of Solomon. This was to be a sermon about love, one appropriate to the marrying couple, but also — and here Curry demonstrated his artistic mastery — to the gathered audience and to the world at large. “There is power in love,” he said. “Don’t underestimate it.”

As he developed his argument, Curry drew from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, pointing out that Jesus summarized all the law and the prophets as love for God and love for your neighbor as yourself. And here, in the classic African American tradition of preaching, the bishop’s pace began to quicken; his tone grew more insistent and his gestures more expansive. Curry quoted King and Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, and added his own touches of humor.

Markle, the bride, sat transfixed from the beginning; Harry’s expression suggested skepticism. The cutaways to the other royals suggested that they, too, were not sure why this stem-winding African American preacher had been invited to participate.

Read the entire piece here.

Reverend Michael Curry Stole the Show at Today’s Royal Wedding

I finally got a chance to watch Rev. Michael Curry‘s sermon at this morning’s royal wedding.  Wow!

The message itself was not particularly groundbreaking, but the occasion made it more powerful than it would have been if Curry preached the same sermon at his church in the United States.  I also thought Curry was pretty constrained when compared to what I know of the African-American prophetic preaching tradition. Having said that, an African-American preacher amid the royal family was amazing to watch.  And I am also glad that a billion people around the world got to hear a sermon about the redemptive power of love.

Quick thoughts:

  • Meghan Markle’s face said it all.  The ambassador for the evangelical relief agency World Vision clearly enjoyed Curry’s sermon.
  • Harry also seemed to enjoy the sermon, but his facial expression communicated something like: “I am OK with this, but I’d like it to be over soon.”
  • Many of the royals were clearly squirming as Curry preached.
  • Oprah was fully engaged with Curry’s message.
  • Kate seemed to secretly enjoy the fact that the royal family was squirming.

Curry stole the show with his authenticity in this setting.

My Review of Gary Dorrien’s *Breaking White Supremacy*

DorrienThe Christian Century just published my review of Gary Dorrien’s Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel.

Here is a taste:

Pick up any general survey of Christianity in America and turn to the section on the social gospel. It is likely that the narrative will be dominated by the names of two white pastors: Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschen­busch. Along with some other lesser-known white social gospel Prot­estants, they sought to Christianize America through reforms, government programs, and voluntary societies de­signed to address poverty, disease, immorality, and all forms of injustice resulting from industrialization, urbanization, and immigration.

It is highly unlikely that the names Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, or Howard Thurman appear alongside Gladden and Rauschenbusch in the typical textbook narrative. But according to Gary Dorrien, these leaders of the black social gospel movement represented an intellectual tradition in American Chris­tianity that was “more accomplished and influential” than the white movement led by Gladden and Rauschenbusch.

Read the rest here.

Conference on Faith and History Session: “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History”

BibleEarlier today I chaired a session titled “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History.” It was co-sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Conference on Faith History.

In recent years, several important monographs have been published examining the role of the Bible in American culture and politics.  In 2015, Oxford University Press released Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783, the first book in his projected multi-volume work on the history of the Bible in America.  In 2017, Oxford also published The Bible in American Lifethe culmination of a four-year interdisciplinary study by the Center for the Religion and American Culture at IUPUI.  The study focused on Bible-reading as a religious practice.  Two of today’s panelists–Amy Easton-Flake and Emerson Powery–contributed to this volume.

The editors of The Bible in American Life–Philip Goff, Arthur Farnsely, and Peter Thuesen–write: “According to Gallup, nearly eight in ten Americans regard the Bible as either the literal word of God or as inspired by God.  At the same time, surveys have revealed–and recent books have analyzed–surprising gaps in Americans’ biblical literacy.  These discrepancies reveal American Christians’ complex relationship to Holy Writ, a subject that is widely acknowledged but rarely investigated.”

The panel I chaired today reflected on the history of the Bible in American history with four scholars who have contributed to this ongoing conversation.  I asked each panelist to take a few minutes to describe their ongoing work.

Daniel Dreisbach of American University talked about the challenges–both real and imagined–of writing about the Bible’s contributions to the American founding.  He is interested in the question whether the Bible’s contributions are sufficiently significant that it merits mention alongside other intellectual influences on the founding, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism (in various forms), and classical and civic republicanism.  He also addressed criticism that some of his work has been used by the defenders of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

James Byrd of Vanderbilt Divinity School focused on the relationship between his book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution and his current book project, “The Bible and the American Civil War.”  Byrd is particularly interested in the ways the Bible was used to justify and explain war.

Amy Easton-Flake of Brigham Young University spoke on women’s deployment of the Bible in late nineteenth-century America.  She used three case examples: the portrayal of Latter-Day Saint women in the journal Women’s Exponent, Harriett Beecher-Stowe’s portrayal of biblical women in her Women and Sacred History, and the Suffrage Movement’s use of the Bible in Revolution and Women’s Journal.

Emerson Powery, my colleague at Messiah College, offered a few thoughts on the integral use of the Bible in arguments surrounding slavery during the antebellum period, especially from the perspective of those whose bodies were most affected.  His way into this discussion was through the voice of the formerly enslaved though the so-called “slave narrative.”

It was a lively session.  I encourage you to explore this subject further by reading the books and articles of these panelists:

Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers

Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible in the American Revolution

Easton-Flake: Mormon Women’s History: Beyond Biography

Powery, The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved

Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society

Does the National Museum of African American History and Culture Need to “Get Religion”

National-Museum-of-African-American-History-and-Culture-1-1020x610

My colleague Jim LaGrand teaches courses in African American history, Native American history, and Public History in the Messiah College History Department.  LaGrand recently visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. and has reflected on his visit in the Trinity 2017 issue of The Cresset.  LaGrand’s review of the museum is generally positive, but he believes that it could do a better job covering African American religion.

Here is a taste of his piece:

So what is the difference between the language of the individuals quoted by the museum and the language on the text panels? The words about religion and religious experience from Walker, Turner, and Tubman bristle with energy. In contrast, the words on many of the text panels are vague, abstract, and sterile. Written in the language of “social-science-speak,” these text panels end up flattening and taming religion.

This is wrong, bizarrely wrong even, given the subject matter. In their time, David Walker, Nat Turner, and Harriet Tubman were compelling and notorious. They all divided opinion. More than this, Turner led one of the most ambitious and deadly slave revolts in American history. After receiving the last of his visions in the summer of 1831, Turner and a group of followers killed fifty-five whites in southern Virginia before being caught and executed and initiating a time of white mob violence against local blacks. The various degrees of controversy that Turner and many other museum subjects engendered centered on how they responded to their religious beliefs. Unfortunately, this point is lost in many of the museum’s text panels on the subject. Too many of these panels are tone deaf and biblically illiterate and, as a result, do not help us to better know and understand their subjects.

Yes, African-American Christians (like all Christians) were moved by messages “emphasizing God’s love.” More important, though, was the social levelling in Christianity—that God is no respecter of persons, that he drowns Pharaoh and his army, but rescues his children. The biblical types and patterns that filled the messages, prayers, and songs of Black Christians during the nineteenth century (and since then) are missing from text panels at the museum.

Too often, these panels miss the main point, especially this: even while enslaved, African-American Christians came to know and celebrate their full and equal humanity, and they connected this to being children of God. There is remarkably little mention about this at the museum, nor about the democratic influence of the Second Great Awakening. Instead, visitors read anodyne statements about the “transformative power of religion,” and truly head-scratching lines about how the Bible and gospel songs helped Black Christians “find grace in their communities.”

The language on the text panels on religious topics never seems sure-footed. This leads to some confusion about the role of the church during the civil rights movement. In the exhibit “Upon this Rock—The Role of Black Churches,” a text panel states: “All civil rights organizations recognized the vital importance of Black churches and sought to work with them whenever possible.” The suggestion here is that the movement developed first, by itself, and that then it discovered there were churches and church people to make use of. This gets the role of the church and Christianity in the movement backwards, as many historians have demonstrated.

In general, the museum takes a functional approach to religion and especially to Christianity. Many of the summative statements on text panels suggest that the primary purpose of religion through history was to play a part in making the world a better place and to serve as a vehicle for social movements. This view might be popular in many circles today. But it does not do justice to the experiences of countless religious believers now and in the past. It especially compromises the telling of African-American history.

Read the entire piece here.

An African American Minister Renounces His Ordination in the Southern Baptist Convention

Ware_tall

Lawrence Ware

Earlier today in a piece at The Washington Post, I suggested that Donald Trump’s presidency is threatening to change the course of American Christianity.

At the same time my piece appeared, The New York Times published a piece from an African American clergyman who is leaving the Southern Baptist Convention because he believes it is “complicit in the disturbing rise of the so-called alt-right.”

Here is a taste of Rev. Lawrence Ware‘s piece:

To be sure, many prominent convention leaders have opposed Mr. Trump and the alt-right. Indeed, one of them, Russell Moore, went so far as to voice his criticism before the election.

But not enough has been done to address the institutional nature of white supremacy in the convention. Many churches are still hostile to the Black Lives Matter movement, and even more were silent during the rise of Mr. Trump and the so-called alt-right. For all of its talk about the love of Jesus Christ, the Southern Baptist Convention’s inaction on the issues of racism and homophobia has drowned out its words.

I’ve discussed my concerns with many other black ministers my age, and virtually all of us have questioned our membership. At least five of them have quietly left the convention over the past year. (To be sure, I will still remain a minister in the Progressive National Baptist Convention, a liberal black Baptist organization, founded in 1961 by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

Read the entire piece here.  Indeed, as I wrote this morning,

The court evangelicals are changing the religious landscape in the United States. The Trump presidency is only six months old, but it is already beginning to alter long-standing spiritual alignments. It seems as though Christians are not changing Trump, but rather that Trump could be changing Christianity.

Phillis Wheatley: “On Virtue”

Wheatley

Michael Monescalchi is a graduate student in English at Rutgers University.  Over at Common-place he reflects on Phillis Wheatley‘s poem “On Virtue” and her engagement with the theology of Jonathan Edwards.

Monescalchi writes: “Wheatley’s saying that her soul touched by Virtue can ‘guide [her] steps” is thus more than just a metaphor for God’s ability to change a converted person’s life: it is an acknowledgment of the immense power that God’s virtuous character can have over a person’s body and soul.”

Here is a taste of this piece:

In agreement with Edwards, Wheatley argues that Virtue is a divine and “sacred” quality (it is “array’d in glory from the orbs above”). Yet Wheatley additionally alludes to Edwards when she asks Virtue to “embrace” her soul and “guide [her] steps to endless life and bliss.” For in Freedom of the Will, Edwards also claims that one’s soul is capable of influencing the way one walks: “And God has so made and established the human nature . . . that the soul preferring or choosing such an immediate exertion or alteration of the body, such an alteration instantaneously follows. There is nothing else in the actings of my mind, that I am conscious of while I walk . . .” The reason that Edwards is conscious of nothing while he walks is because his newly converted soul has suspended “the actings of [his] mind.” By saying that his body only moves as a result of his soul’s and not his mind’s “preferring or choosing,” Edwards argues that when one undergoes a conversion experience and gives one’s self up to God, one no longer has complete control over one’s own body. Wheatley’s saying that her soul touched by Virtue can “guide [her] steps” is thus more than just a metaphor for God’s ability to change a converted person’s life: it is an acknowledgment of the immense power that God’s virtuous character can have over a person’s body and soul. 

This idea that one’s spiritual status is reflected in the way one walks recurs in black evangelical writing in the early-national period, most especially in Lemuel Haynes’s sermons. Like Edwards and Wheatley before him, Haynes, in his 1776 sermon on John 3:3, argues that a converted man “evidences by his holy walk that he has a regard for the honour of God.” Though she was not a minister, Wheatley was, like Haynes, deeply invested in Edwards’s theology and advanced his theory of conversion. Placing Wheatley’s “On Virtue” in dialogue with the writings of other evangelical ministers, black or white, is one of the many ways that scholars can begin to value Wheatley as a formidable theological thinker in the colonial era.

Read the entire piece here.

 

African Muslims in Early America

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The National Museum of African American History & Culture website has a very informative feature on African Muslims in early America.  Online exhibits of this nature will go a long way toward debunking the myth, popular among many conservative evangelicals today, that the arrival of Muslims in the United States is a relatively new phenomenon.

Here is a taste:

While we do not know exactly how many African Muslims were enslaved and transported to the New World, there are clues in legal doctrines, slaveholders’ documents, and existing cultural and religious traditions. African Muslims were caught in the middle of complicated social and legal attitudes from the very moment they landed on our Eastern shores, and collections at the Museum help provide insight into their lives.

African Muslims were an integral part of creating America from mapping its borders to fighting against British rule. Muslims first came to North America in the 1500s as part of colonial expeditions. One of these explorers was a man named Mustafa Zemmouri, also known as Estevanico, who was sold by the Portuguese into slavery in 1522. While enslaved by Spanish conquistador Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Estevanico became one of the first Africans to set foot on the North American continent. He explored Florida and the Gulf Coast, eventually traveling as far west as New Mexico.

African Muslims also fought alongside colonists during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Multiple men with Muslim names appear on the military muster rolls, including Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali (also known as Joseph Benhaley), and Joseph Saba. Other men listed on muster rolls have names that are likely connected to Islamic practice, such as Salem Poor and Peter Salem, whose names may reflect a form of the Arabic salaam, meaning peace. These men often distinguished themselves on the battlefield.

The founding fathers were aware of Islam and the presence of Muslims in America. Thomas Jefferson, who owned a copy of the Qur’an, included Islam in many of his early writings and political treatises. Campaigning for religious freedom in Virginia, Jefferson argued in the proposed “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” that, “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” Unfortunately, this language was amended before ratification to remove references to non-Christian groups. Jefferson was not the only statesman who recognized religions other than Christianity in his work. However, their knowledge of and theoretical openness to Islam did not stop them from enslaving African Muslims.

Read the piece and see the artifacts here.

Beinart: Secularism is Bad for American Politics

Nones

I am not used to seeing Peter Beinart write about religion, but his recent piece in The Atlantic makes sense to me.  Here is the argument:

As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

And a taste:

When pundits describe the Americans who sleep in on Sundays, they often conjure left-leaning hipsters. But religious attendance is down among Republicans, too. According to data assembled for me by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990. This shift helped Trump win the GOP nomination. During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” A Pew Research Center poll last March found that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week. But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not.

Why did these religiously unaffiliated Republicans embrace Trump’s bleak view of America more readily than their churchgoing peers? Has the absence of church made their lives worse? Or are people with troubled lives more likely to stop attending services in the first place? Establishing causation is difficult, but we know that culturally conservative white Americans who are disengaged from church experience less economic success and more family breakdown than those who remain connected, and they grow more pessimistic and resentful. Since the early 1970s, according to W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, rates of religious attendance have fallen more than twice as much among whites without a college degree as among those who graduated college. And even within the white working class, those who don’t regularly attend church are more likely to suffer from divorce, addiction, and financial distress. As Wilcox explains, “Many conservative, Protestant white men who are only nominally attached to a church struggle in today’s world. They have traditional aspirations but often have difficulty holding down a job, getting and staying married, and otherwise forging real and abiding ties in their community. The culture and economy have shifted in ways that have marooned them with traditional aspirations unrealized in their real-world lives.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Judith Weisenfeld

New World A Coming.jpgJudith Weisenfeld is Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton University. This interview is based on her new book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (NYU Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write New World A-Coming?

JW: I have been interested in the black new religious movements of the Great Migration period since I read Arthur Huff Fauset’s 1944 ethnographic study, Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North, in an undergraduate course. Fauset was concerned with questions about what the religious creativity fostered by the migration and urbanization of African Americans in the early twentieth century revealed about the dynamics of black religion, particularly with regard to connections to African religious traditions. In this way he was participating in a broader scholarly conversation among anthropologists about “African retentions” in African American culture. As I thought about revisiting some of the groups Fauset had profiled and my fascination with their charismatic leaders, distinctive theologies, and novel rituals and social organizations grew, it became clear to me that I brought different questions and tools to the project than had Fauset.

Two aspects of Fauset’s approach remained important for me as I researched and wrote the book, however. First, although a number of wonderful historical and ethnographic studies have been published in recent years examining the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission, congregations of black Jews, and the Moorish Science Temple – the groups on which I focus in New World A-Coming – most examined a single group of a number of groups under the same religious umbrella. Like Fauset, I wanted to think comparatively and, as a historian, to think about what gave rise to these novel movements in the early twentieth-century urban North, about commonalities, and differences. Second, Fauset attended not only to the leaders of the movements and their theologies but to the members, asking questions about what appealed to them and what they gained in joining these groups. Trying to recover some sense of the experiences of members of the groups was what really motivated me to take up the project, and the challenge of finding sources to do so was both exciting and frustrating at times.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of New World A-Coming?

JW: Through attention to the theologies and religious practices of the leaders and members of these groups, I explore how people of African descent debated the nature of racial categories and discussed their impact on political, social, and spiritual opportunities. I argue that the appeal of the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, Father Divine’s Peace Mission, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews lay not only in the new religious opportunities that membership in them afforded, but in the novel ways they formulated an inseparable, divinely ordained religio-racial identity.

JF: Why do we need to read New World A-Coming?

JW: The book provides a fresh look at the black religious movements of the Great Migration period, emphasizing the experiences of both leaders and members who proposed new ways of thinking about black history, individual and collective identity, and sacred future. The book’s attention to African American religious diversity is also significant. Because religious African Americans have largely been affiliated with Protestant denominations, the field has focused on church history. Yet, African Americans have demonstrated great religious creativity and have challenged black Protestant orthodoxy in ways that have important implications for our understanding of the history of religion in American life.

New World A-Coming also adds to the literature on the history of race in the U.S. by highlighting the work of black peoples to challenge or redefine categories of race. Moreover, by locating religious identity and narrative at the core of the study, the book demonstrates the critical role that religion has played in shaping understandings of race in early twentieth-century African American life. As a study of modes of interaction between religion and race in the American past, the book also provides valuable insight into contemporary trends, particularly in light of racially-inflected religious discourse and religiously-inflected racial discourse in American public culture. Current discussion of America’s achievement of or failure to reach the status of post-racial society have taken place without full understanding of the complexities of black racial identity in nation’s past. The book breaks the limited binary of racial/post-racial and provides a more complex picture of racial identities and discourses.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JW: I came to the study of American history through Religious Studies. My undergraduate work as a Religion major at Barnard College explored the transnational history of black theology in connection with the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and, in deciding to go to graduate school in Religion, I knew I wanted to focus on African American religious history specifically. In fact, I proposed a project something like New World A-Coming in my application, but ended up writing a dissertation on another aspect of African American religion in the period: a history of African American women’s political and social activism in the New York City Young Women’s Christian Association. I remain fascinated by early twentieth-century African American religious history, particularly in arenas outside of churches and denominations, and I enjoy the archival challenges of telling these sorts of cultural histories.

JF: What is your next project?

JW: My current research examines late nineteenth and early-twentieth-century psychiatric discourses that connected race, religion, and mental illness among African Americans and explores how these racialized discourses shaped the approaches of mental hospitals, courts, and prisons to people psychiatrists deemed disabled by virtue of religiously grounded mental illness.

JF: Thanks, Judith!

The Author’s Corner with Emily Clark

aluminousbrotherhoodEmily Clark is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. This interview is based on her new book, A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write A Luminous Brotherhood?

EC: A Luminous Brotherhood is a much-revised adaptation of my doctoral dissertation. Initially my dissertation was a huge (way too huge) telling of religion and race in New Orleans with a focus on Afro-Creole communities. New Orleans Afro-Creoles were primary Catholic, often bilingual (or even trilingual), often educated, and many of them were free during the antebellum period. The Cercle Harmonique, the name the Afro-Creole Spiritualist community gave themselves, was only going to be a chapter of the project. They practiced Spiritualism from 1858 as the country was on the verge of a civil war through the end of Reconstruction in 1877. The dissertation I envisioned myself writing went beyond a group of men holding séances for 19 years, but as I began to read their séance records I realized that they told a much bigger story.

The spirits communicating with the Cercle Harmonique included Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte, John Brown, Voltaire, Toussaint Louverture, Robespierre, Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Jesus, and Confucius to name just a few. Their messages covered issues of politics, gender, racism, equality, poverty, power, and social injustice. Messages responded to local massacres of black politicians, the death of beloved martyrs for black rights, and issues of religious corruption. The Spiritualism of the Cercle Harmonique situated their practice in their immediate world of New Orleans, the region of the American South, the nation-state of the U.S., the politics of the Atlantic world, and issues of cosmic proportion. Their séance table opened up a vast and complex world.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Luminous Brotherhood?

EC: This book contends that the Cercle Harmonique envisioned the proper social, political, and religious ordering of the material world through communication with a wise spirit world. Through their séances the Cercle Harmonique connected with an idealized society whose members provided the Afro-Creoles with a republican ideology to combat politically destructive forces on earth and create a more egalitarian world.

JF: Why do we need to read A Luminous Brotherhood?

EC: A Luminous Brotherhood weaves together a number of threads about the long nineteenth century in America: race, liberal religion, politics, anti-Catholicism, the Atlantic world’s age of revolutions, reform, utopian impulses, republican thought, slavery, and more. Though it focuses on a small group of Afro-Creoles, the story it tells is much bigger. The practice of the Cercle Harmonique allows us to sharpen our conclusions about those topics.

The Cercle Harmonique articulated a strong critique of racism and white supremacy that still has resonance today. They and the spirits they communicated with argued that racial identity had no real meaning. Bodies were only material envelopes that temporarily encased our spirits. Bodies only had meaning in the material world, whereas our spirits existed long after. One spirit even wondered if people would have followed Jesus had he been black. White supremacy was a real problem for the Cercle Harmonique and remains one today. The Afro-Creole Spiritualists I studied offer a rich example of the intersections between religion and race in America, and A Luminous Brotherhood provides a close look at how religion can provide strong critiques to societal norms and injustices. The book also reveals how religion simultaneously supports such societal norms and injustices. As I tell my students, American religion is complicated, and my book reflects that too.

Additionally, A Luminous Brotherhood is the first full-length study of the New Orleans Cercle Harmonique and one of the first academic texts on American Spiritualism to provide a close look at the practice and records of a nineteenth-century Spiritualist group. Previous works on American Spiritualism typically focus on major figures and ideas but fail to offer a deep look at the everyday practice of Spiritualism. Since much of the Cercle Harmonique’s séance records are intact, A Luminous Brotherhood looks at the spirits who communicated with the Cercle Harmonique, explores the significance of their presence, and situates them in the context surrounding their communication. The book examines what the spirits said and asks why.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

EC: I’m not so sure that I decided to become an American historian but rather just became one. During my time as an undergraduate student at Austin College and then an M.A. student at the University of Missouri, I was drawn to the interplay between religion and culture but not from a historical perspective. It wasn’t until I started my doctoral work at Florida State University that I began to study American religious history proper. I describe myself as being haunted by the stories that archives hold and feel the need to tell them. I encourage my students to consider the historical context of every source we examine. Just about all my academic work and class materials examine people, trends, communities, practices, ideas, and conflicts from America’s past. Even now there are times that I think of myself as a historian—I am trained in historical methods, after all—but I also think of myself squarely in the field of religious studies. I’m not surprised that I’ve become an American historian, but I think of that as one element of my academic identity.

JF: What is your next project?

EC: I have a couple projects in the works. I’m working on two edited volumes, one on digital humanities and material religion and the other on race and new religious movements. I’m also in the early research stages of my next full-length monograph, Jesuits, Native Americans, and Colonialism in the Pacific Northwest. While the historiography on Jesuit missions typically focuses on the seventeenth-century evangelists in New France, this work will interrogate the interactions between Native Americans and Jesuits in the Pacific Northwest. Unlike those earlier Jesuits, the Italian Jesuits out west operated more systematically and as part of the federal push to “civilize” and evangelize Native tribes in this region.

JF: Thanks, Emily!

The Author’s Corner with Matthew Harper

the-end-of-daysMatthew Harper is Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Mercer University. This interview is based on his new book, The End of Days: African American Religion and Politics in the Age of Emancipation (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).  

JF: What led you to write The End of Days?

MH: I was researching something else, what probably would have been an uninspired account of black institution building in the post-emancipation period, when I kept running across black writers’ references to the millennium or the end of days. Each time, I would make a note and tuck it away in a separate file. The small file kept growing, until eventually, it was bigger than my main file. I threw out the first project. And the more I dug into black political conversations after emancipation, the more I found talk of the end times, of God’s unfolding plan for human history. I couldn’t ignore it. I became fascinated with the experience of emancipation as a dramatic intervention by God. How did slaves imagine a social order drastically different from their own? How did they make sense of multiple reversals of fortunes in their own lifetime?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The End of Days?

MH: Black Christians prophesied emancipation and when it occurred they became convinced they were living in the end of days when God would inaugurate a new era. In the following decades, when black southerners debated politics—be it a question of voting rights, land reform, temperance, Populism, migration, or segregation—they argued about what exactly they thought God had done and would do in human history; so we’d be hard-pressed to understand their politics without also understanding the theological meaning they gave emancipation.

JF: Why do we need to read The End of Days?

MH: In the political conversations I describe in the book, we see a lot of disagreement. Fist-fighting even, in one case. Black Christians argued about the meaning of emancipation, deployed competing biblical narratives to make sense of their circumstances, and chose quite different paths. I think it’s tempting to look at the sources, to see lots of references to biblical stories, and then to argue simply that religion helped inspire black political activism. We end up with monolithic descriptions of “the Black Church.” But if we do that, we skate right past what I argue is most interesting about religion and politics: that different religious ideas led to different political strategies. 

It’s also tempting to narrate the decades after emancipation as a long descent into the dark night of Jim Crow. But the people in my book resisted that kind of declension narrative. For them, God’s work in emancipation overshadowed the work of white supremacists. Even in the 1890s, they lived in the Age of Emancipation, and I hope we can tell a story that they would recognize.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MH: Strange as it may sound, I took a historiography class in high school, which cemented my desire to become a historian. But if you ask my mother, she’ll tell you that I was checking out African American history books from the library when I was 8. I was always curious about people. Growing up in small southern towns where schools were integrated and churches weren’t, I had plenty curiosity about religion and race. Reading stories about people and places were they only way I could get at the complexity of what I saw.

JF: What is your next project?

MH: It’s too early to give a precise answer, but I’m investigating the Baptist War in Jamaica in 1831. I’m still asking the question, how did slaves imagine a world radically different from their own? And there’s nothing more intriguing about the relationship between religion and politics to me than a black Baptist deacon leading an uprising of tens of thousands of slaves while the British Parliament debated abolition.

JF: Thanks, Matt!