The Author’s Corner with John Hayes

51eS3fj0YsL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_John Hayes is associate professor of History at Augusta University. This interview is based on his new book, Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: The original idea was to see if, as a Southern historian, I could find real-world evidence for the imaginative landscape of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction—if I could demonstrate that O’Connor, with her literary insight, had evoked something real but perhaps opaque to historians. As I moved into the project, I realized that the type of Christianity embodied in her middle-class characters was well analyzed in the historiography; it was the Christianity of her poor characters (her primary characters) that had little presence in the scholarship beyond a few hints and fragments. The book is my attempt to excavate this distinct Christianity of the poor and to interpret it in its context.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: In the circumscribed world of the New South, poor whites and poor blacks exchanged songs, stories, lore, visual displays, and other cultural forms with each other, crafting a distinct folk Christianity that spoke from the underside of regional capitalism. Their folk Christianity was a fragile but real space of interracial exchange and a fervent attempt to grasp the sacred in earthy, this-worldly ways.

JF: Why do we need to read Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: 

* It’s the first historical monograph on folk Christianity in the American South.

* In the face of a culture that continues the well-established tradition of denigrating and dismissing the poor, it shows the inner complexity, cultural creativity, and rich interiority of the poor of a certain time and place.

* It complicates what we think we know about religious life in the American South, especially by debunking the abiding trope of religious homogeneity on either side of the color line.

* In the face of scholarship that insists that Jim Crow was the culture of the New South, it argues for the fragile but real presence of interracial religious exchange among the poor.

* Where else, in the pages of a single volume, can you read about haunting songs of personified Death, anti-Mammon odes to the Titanic, and praying spots deep in the woods; about cows kneeling in reverence on Old Christmas night, graves decorated with bedsteads and grandfather clocks, and initiates emerging from imminent death to the sights and sounds of bright green trees and birds chirping away?

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

JH: I had an a-ha moment a few years after college: I realized that history was a way to take the abstract philosophical/theological questions that obsessed me and pursue them in concrete, tangible form—to explore the “big questions” not in open potentiality but in flesh-and-blood actuality. That was the initial impulse, but as I’ve worked as a historian I’ve also come to see another impulse that was there at the outset, but subconsciously: history is crucial for understanding identity. Nothing falls from the sky; everything has a story behind it. I’ve driven to seek the stories behind our society so that I can make sense of it. To know the past is to get a handle on the present.

JF: What is your next project?

JH: It’s very much in the coalescing stage, but I want to look at religion in “moments of possibility” before and after the circumscribed world of Hard, Hard Religion: in Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. In both moments, sacralized social structures were being destabilized, and new religious conceptions had to emerge—though what exactly they would look like was very much an open question. That’s a very different context from my book, where poor people carve out meaning within stable, confining social structures.

JF: Thanks, John!

Will a Post-Religious World Be an Improvement?

Church

Writing at The Week, Damon Linker is not so sure.

Here is a taste of his reflection on some recent polling data suggesting Christianity is in decline in America:

Liberals tend to assume that those who have left religious traditions and institutions behind will end up being … secular liberals, which is to say paragons (in their own eyes) of liberal tolerance and moral virtue. But not only is this belied by the occasionally harsh anti-religious fervor of many secular liberal pundits and public officials. It’s also contradicted by the rise of the post-religious right.

There is no guarantee at all that those who leave religious institutions and traditions behind will end up on the liberal left. As Trump’s strong support in the GOP primaries among non-religious Republicans attests, a significant number of the post-religious (especially those who are less well educated) could well end up on the nationalist alt-right.

Ross DouthatPeter Beinart, and The Week’s own Pascal-Emmanuel Gobryhave all noted the ominous emergence of a post-religious right, and have made the point that the left’s most vociferous critics of the old religious right (of which I was once one) may well end up ruing the decline and fall of their former opponents.

A post-religious America will be very different from the country we’ve known up until quite recently. Not all (or even many) of the changes will be improvements.

Read the entire piece here.

More on David Barton’s Use of That John Adams Quote

Barton Quote

Yesterday we did a lengthy post showing how Christian Right activist David Barton manipulated a John Adams quote to make it sound like Adams supported the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

Barton is up to his old tricks here.  He is being deliberately deceptive. He seems to have no problem manipulating the past in this way to promote his agenda.

After I published my post, Southern Methodist University historian Kate Carte Engel took to twitter to give her take on Adams, Christianity, and the American founding.

Here it is:

The Court Evangelicals in Today’s Washington Post

Trump Jeffress

Here is a taste of my piece “Trump threatens to change the course of American Christianity.”

If you want to understand white evangelicalism in the age of Trump, you need to know Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas.

Jeffress is not a household name in the United States, known mainly in Southern Baptist circles. But he has recently gained national attention as a “court evangelical” — my term for a Christian who, like the attendants and advisers who frequented the courts of monarchs, seeks influence through regular visits to the White House.

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.

Historians will write about this moment in terms of both continuity and change. On one hand, court evangelicals are part of a familiar story. For nearly half a century, evangelicals have sought to influence the direction of the country and its laws through politics. But Trump has forced them to embrace a pragmatism that could damage the gospel around the world, and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.

Read the rest here.

Scholars Tackle White Supremacy and American Christian History

Good_Citizen_Pillar_of_Fire_Church_July_1926

Alma White founded the Pillar of Fire Church in 1901.  She was associated with the KKK and anti-Catholicism.  This is a 1926 issue of the church’s magazine (Wikipedia Commons)

The Religion & Culture Forum is running a series of posts on the history of the relationship between white supremacy and Christianity in modern America.  A taste:

The June issue of the Forum features Kelly J. Baker’s essay, “The Artifacts of White Supremacy.” Discussions about racism—and white supremacy in particular—tend to treat it as a matter of belief, while there’s considerably less talk of how racialized hate becomes tangible and real. And yet, we know the Ku Klux Klan, the oldest hate group in the U.S., by their hoods and robes. Artifacts signal (and often embody) the racist ideology of the Klan, along with their particular brand of Protestantism and nationalism. Robes, fiery crosses, and even the American flag were all material objects employed by the 1920s Klan to convey their “gospel” of white supremacy. The Klan’s religious nationalism, its vision of a white Protestant America, became tangible in each of these artifacts, and each artifact reflected the order’s religious and racial intolerance. Nationalism (or “100% Americanism”), Protestant Christianity, and white supremacy became inextricably linked in these material objects. Examining the historical artifacts of white supremacy helps us to better understand how white supremacy manifests today and might also help us better identify and analyze the presence and effect of racism in American life and politics.

Over the next few weeks, scholars will offer responses to Baker’s essay. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.

Responses:

Fred Clark, aka Slacktivist, has written a nice post on the forum.  Read it here.  I was particular struck by his use of a quote from Randall Stephens’s response to Baker.   Here it is:

In the 1920s, America’s most famous crusading fundamentalist, Billy Sunday, made some efforts to keep his distance from the Klan. But Klansmen tended to see the revivalist as a kindred spirit. Without cozying up too much to the organization, Sunday found ways to praise the robed terrorists. Other traveling preachers like Bob Jones, Alma White, B. B. Crimm, Charlie Taylor, and Raymond T. Richey lauded the white supremacist groups in their sermons and publications. Billy Sunday’s ardent prohibitionism, biblical literalism, and nativism made him particularly attractive in the eyes of Klan members. In 1922 a South Bend, Indiana, newspaper cracked a bleak joke about their mutual affection. “Down in West Virginia the other day,” an editor noted, the Klan “slipped Billy Sunday the sum of $200. With Sunday’s O.K., that ought to put the K.K.K. in good standing with old St. Peter.” Sunday returned the favor with kind words about Klansmen who lent a hand in police vice raids. The revivalist would accept other larger-than-average donations from the Klan at revivals in Indiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana between 1922 and 1925. In Richmond, Indiana, Klansmen showed up to give him their donation decked out in all their full regalia. Fittingly, in 1923 a Klan-supporting editor in Texas rhapsodized: “I find the preachers of the Protestant faith almost solid for the Klan and its ideals, with here and there an isolated minister … who will line up with the Catholics in their fight on Protestantism, but that kind of preacher is persona non grata in most every congregation in Texas.”

Again, check out the entire Religion & Culture Forum series here.

The Benedict Option and Christian “Persecution” in America

baptistpersecutionvirginia01

Baptists were persecuted in colonial Virginia

Are American Christians being persecuted for their faith?  I am not sure persecution is the right word.  No one is coming into the homes of Christians with weapons threatening to kill them if they do not publicly denounce their faith.

But if this was happening, wouldn’t it be a good thing?

Didn’t Jesus say “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12).

The other day, while lecturing on seventeenth-century Quakers and the deaths they suffered as martyrs for their faith, I recalled my old friend Tim. Back in the day Tim and I used to exchange letters.  Rather than end his letters with the standard “Sincerely Yours” or “Warmly,” he would often write “May You Suffer and Die for Christ, Tim.” My Christian students got a good laugh when I told them about Tim, but I wonder how many of them took such a call to martyrdom seriously.

I should also say that claims of persecution by American Christians make them look foolish and petty in light of the real persecution Christians are suffering around the world.

But I digress.

It seems everywhere I look online these days someone is debating whether or not American Christians are experiencing persecution (or perhaps discrimination) for their beliefs. Over at Commonweal, Julia Marley suggests that the “evangelical martyr complex” was partially fueled by the 1995 D.C. Talk song “Jesus Freak.” More on this below.

But most of the discussion on this front has stemmed from Rod Dreher’s recent book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Some of you may recall that we blogged about this book a couple of weeks ago and tried to find common ground between “The Benedict Option” and what law professor John Inazu has called “Confident Pluralism.”

Recently Calvin College philosophy professor James K.A. Smith thought it was necessary to criticize Dreher’s book from the pages of the website of The Washington Post.  (I am still a bit confused as to why Smith would turn to the Washington Post to debate how Christians should live in a secular world. But in an era of social media where everyone is privy to intramural debates among Christians I guess it doesn’t really  matter).  Smith’s points about Christians living in fear are well taken.  I have made a similar argument in the context of the evangelical support of Donald Trump’s refugee policy.  But Smith’s suggestion that he was trusting in “a savior who rose from the dead” (and by implication Dreher was not) seemed a bit over-the-top.

Dreher was particularly upset by the way Smith, who Dreher claims was an early supporter of the “Benedict Option,” apparently changed his mind about the book when writing for his Washington Post audience.  Dreher responded with a post at his blog titled “The Benedict Arnold Option.” (This is not the first time Smith’s assault on a Christian writer has led to a strong push-back. The Smith-Dreher exchange reminds me a little bit of Smith’s scuffle in 2010 with Baylor philosopher Frank Beckwith).

Meanwhile, Darryl Hart offers some historical context.  Evangelicals, he argues, have felt marginalized in American culture for over a century.  This is why, for example, they founded faith-based “Christian colleges” like Calvin College to protect them from the secularizing tendencies of the outside world and to instill them with a “Christian world view.” (In the process he reminds Smith of the location from which he writes).  As Hart notes: “As I have indicated many times, what bothers me about the BenOp is that Rod seems to understand a cultural crisis now when some Christians (the mainstream calls them fundamentalists) saw it at least a century ago.” Hart is right. At the turn of the 20th century when evangelicals were ousted from the denominations, and by extension the culture, they turned inward and founded a host of institutions that we now often describe as the “evangelical subculture.” Joel Carpenter wrote about this in Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism and a couple of oft-cited articles.  Was this development something akin to a “Benedict Option?”

This leads me to best review of The Benedict Option I have read so far.  It comes from Damon Linker at The Week.  While Hart argues that the persecution complex in American evangelicalism began over a century ago, Linker takes an even longer view.  He wonders if there was ever a moment when Christianity was powerful enough to hold sway over American life:

Yet it’s worth asking whether Christianity as both Neuhaus and Dreher understand it ever exercised rule in quite the way they imagine it did. Certainly it did in Puritan New England, and in certain regions of the country during the Great Awakenings of the 1730s and early 19th century. And clearly American civil religion, partly derived from Puritanism and reinvigorated countless times by various religious and cultural influences down through the centuries, has always had a broadly Protestant and deistic character.

But was this default Christianity anything like the doctrinally, liturgically, and morally rigorous forms of worship and belief that Dreher advocates? I don’t think so. Yes, rates of church attendance were higher in the past, but those rates fluctuated quite a bit from time to time and place to place. And in many of those times and places, the forms of worship were decidedly low-church, with tent revivals, renegade preachers, and faith healers barnstorming the country, while in most white churches the message broadcast from pulpits either explicitly endorsed a racist status quo or passed over it in silence.

But Linker’s approach is more nuanced than this.  He differs slightly from those like Julia Marley who suggest that the sense of persecution felt by evangelicals is built on a false understanding of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire and the belief that the United States is a Christian nation.  Linker argues that there have been significant changes in the culture–particularly in the area of sexual morality– that might justify evangelical concern.  He writes:

Intercourse outside of marriage, masturbation, the use of contraception, homosexuality (including same-sex marriage), transgenderism — none of it will register as raising significant moral or theological issues and problems. That wasn’t true in the 19th-century U.S., in 17th-century Prussia, or in 11th-century France. In all of those times and places, news of what growing numbers of people (including people who define themselves as Christians) think of as sexually acceptable behavior would have been received as inexplicable, and an abomination.

That is what makes our time decisively different from past eras in the history of the Christian West: We live on the far side of the sexual revolution. Neuhaus thought that revolution could be at least partially reversed through concerted democratic action. Dreher has no such hopes and so advises withdrawal and self-protection.

If traditional sexual morality is an absolutely necessary component in an authentic Christian life, then America may well be the post-Christian nation Dreher insists it is, with devout Christians reduced to the status of exiles within it and facing the prospect of outright persecution in the workplace and elsewhere. (Dreher’s book discusses some of these persecutory possibilities, and he regularly highlights and ponders them in considerable detail on his blog at The American Conservative.)

Dreher’s concerns about persecution may be somewhat exaggerated, but they aren’t delusional. Now that same-sex marriage has been declared a constitutional right, the full weight of anti-discrimination law is poised to bear down on those whose faith precludes them from accepting the licitness of such arrangements. That has inspired many religious conservatives (and a few liberals, like myself) to demand new laws to strengthen the First Amendment’s religious liberty protections, specifically to clarify that the “free exercise” clause is not limited to what takes place within the walls of a church.

I appreciate Linker’s approach here because it acknowledges what I and others believe are real threats to religious liberty that should not be dismissed. At the same time, it affirms a lot of my own historical work on the problematic assertion that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

Linker concludes:

What if Dreher and other conservative Christians could know that they would not be forced to bake cakes or provide other services for same-sex weddings, that religious colleges would not be forced to permit same-sex cohabitation, and that employees would not be fired or otherwise penalized for holding traditional views about sexuality? Would that render the Benedict Option unnecessary?

I doubt Dreher would think so — because Christians would still find themselves living in a country in which a range of authorities within civil society constantly convey the message that same-sex marriage is good and opposing it is bigotry, in which pornography is ubiquitous, and in which gender is increasingly treated as a human construct entirely disconnected from nature, marriage, procreation, and a divinely authored order of things.

But why is that such a problem? Don’t Orthodox Jews and observant Muslims, who hold analogous views about sex, manage to live and thrive in the United States, despite its sexual turmoil and lasciviousness? Indeed they do. But they are and have always been tiny minorities in America — which means that, in the decisive respect, they already practice something like the Benedict Option. They don’t need to be taught how to preserve themselves in the face of constant counter-religious temptations.

Perhaps that consideration partially explains why Dreher sometimes seems to hype the persecution that conservative Christians already confront or will soon face — as a kind of shock therapy for the complacent, as if to say: “We’re no longer in charge here! If we don’t start protecting and preserving ourselves soon, there won’t be anything left to protect or preserve!”

Read Linker’s entire piece here.