The Benedict Option and Christian “Persecution” in America

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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.

Nicholas Kristof to Tim Keller: “Am I a Christian?”

22cb0-kristof-new-184Today Nicholas Kristof devoted his New York Times column to a conversation with Tim Keller, prominent evangelical minister and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.  The title of the column is “Pastor, Am I a Christian?

Kristof is not the first New York Times columnist who seems to be on a spiritual journey that involved a consideration of Christianity. His colleague David Brooks has also talked openly about such a journey.

Kristof’s conversation with Keller is one of the most openly religious pieces I have ever read in The New York Times.  

Here is a taste:

Kristof: Tim, people sometimes say that the answer is faith. But, as a journalist, I’ve found skepticism useful. If I hear something that sounds superstitious, I want eyewitnesses and evidence. That’s the attitude we take toward Islam and Hinduism and Taoism, so why suspend skepticism in our own faith tradition?

Keller:  I agree. We should require evidence and good reasoning, and we should not write off other religions as ‘superstitious’ and then fail to question our more familiar Jewish or Christian faith tradition.

But I don’t want to contrast faith with skepticism so sharply that they are seen to be opposites. They aren’t. I think we all base our lives on both reason and faith. For example, my faith is to some degree based on reasoning that the existence of God makes the most sense of what we see in nature, history and experience. Thomas Nagel recently wrote that the thoroughly materialistic view of nature can’t account for human consciousness, cognition and moral values. That’s part of the reasoning behind my faith. So my faith is based on logic and argument.

In the end, however, no one can demonstrably prove the primary things human beings base their lives on, whether we are talking about the existence of God or the importance of human rights and equality. Nietzsche argued that the humanistic values of most secular people, such as the importance of the individual, human rights and responsibility for the poor, have no place in a completely materialistic universe. He even accused people holding humanistic values as being “covert Christians” because it required a leap of faith to hold to them. We must all live by faith.

Kristof: I’ll grudgingly concede your point: My belief in human rights and morality may be more about faith than logic. But is it really analogous to believe in things that seem consistent with science and modernity, like human rights, and those that seem inconsistent, like a virgin birth or resurrection?

Keller: I don’t see why faith should be seen as inconsistent with science. There is nothing illogical about miracles if a Creator God exists. If a God exists who is big enough to create the universe in all its complexity and vastness, why should a mere miracle be such a mental stretch? To prove that miracles could not happen, you would have to know beyond a doubt that God does not exist. But that is not something anyone can prove.

Science must always assume that an effect has a repeatable, natural cause. That is its methodology. Imagine, then, for the sake of argument that a miracle actually occurred. Science would have no way to confirm a nonrepeatable, supernatural cause. Alvin Plantinga argued that to say that there must be a scientific cause for any apparently miraculous phenomenon is like insisting that your lost keys must be under the streetlight because that’s the only place you can see.

Read the entire column here.

Do Historians Privilege “Change Over Time” Over “Continuity?”

ChangeOverTimeBack in January 2007 historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke wrote a piece in Perspectives on History titled “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?”  In this essay Andrews and Burke synthesized the concepts that historians use to make sense of the world into five “C’s”.  They are change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency.

Over the years I have managed to get a lot of mileage out of this piece.  I discussed the 5’c of historical thinking in the introduction to my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction in 2011 (which will appear in a revised edition in 2016) and I elaborate even further on these ideas in my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past in 2014.

If I were to add another “C” to the historical thinking toolbox it would be continuity. Andrews and Burke mention continuity as part of their discussion of “change over time.” They write:

The idea of change over time is perhaps the easiest of the C’s to grasp. Students readily acknowledge that we employ and struggle with technologies unavailable to our forebears, that we live by different laws, and that we enjoy different cultural pursuits. Moreover, students also note that some aspects of life remain the same across time. Many Europeans celebrate many of the same holidays that they did three or four hundred years ago, for instance, often using the same rituals and words to mark a day’s significance. Continuity thus comprises an integral part of the idea of change over time.

Whether we think about continuity as part of change over time, or describe it as a 6th “C,” I think most historians agree that is should be an important part of their thinking as they try to make sense of the past for their audiences.

This leads me to the question in the title of my post.  Do historians tend to privilege change over time over continuity?  I ask this because I have been part of a few social media conversations over the past week in which these issues have been raised.

The first conversation took place in a social media exchange over Christopher Lasch’s 1979 best-seller The Culture of Narcissism.  I spent some of my Memorial Day weekend re-reading Lasch with Donald Trump in mind.  As I read I kept asking myself what parts of Lasch’s analysis were unique to the late 1970s context in which he wrote and what parts of his analysis of narcissism were still relevant today, almost forty years later.

In the end, without going into details (you can find my tweets at #narcissism or @johnfea1), I found a great deal of similarity between the “culture of narcissism” of the 1970s and today’s “culture of narcissism.”  Yes, narcissism today has been greatly enhanced by the internet and social media, but many of the ideas Lasch put forth are still relevant.  In other words, I saw continuity between the past and the present.

A couple of historians, however, wanted to dismiss my argument about continuity.  They argued that Lasch is dated, overrated, and no longer useful.  Someone even questioned why I was reading him, as if his work, written in 1979, could say nothing to our contemporary culture.  When I said in this post that “things have not changed much,” one scholar, invoking change over time, called the phrase “baloney.” It seems here that my critics privilege change over time over continuity.

The second conversation took place over Twitter. (Always difficult to tackle these kinds of complex issues on Twitter, so what I say below should be taken with a small grain of salt).  I was discussing Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs with some scholars of Jefferson and some American religious historians.  In the process we got into a debate over the meaning of Christianity.  (Again, this is probably not the kind of debate that should take place over Twitter!).

Several folks in the debate appealed to change over time.  In other words, Christianity is always changing and redefining itself.  Jefferson, with his rejection of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the resurrection, still believed he was a Christian.  He was expanding the definition of Christianity, a belief that changes and has changed over time.

As I said in the debate, I have no doubt that Thomas Jefferson thought he was a Christian. This is a historical statement that I would agree with.  See my chapter on Jefferson’s religion in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?  It is entitled “Thomas Jefferson: Follower of Jesus.”

But I also think Jefferson was wrong to think he was a Christian.  Yes, I am more than willing to admit that this is a theological statement, not a historical one.  By suggesting that Jefferson was not a Christian some might say (although no one did in this debate) that I am inappropriately bringing my own beliefs about what is a Christian to bear on this conversation.  In other words, the fact that I am an orthodox Christian has crept into my work as a historian.  Maybe.  But if this is the case, I also wonder if the progressivism of many in the historical profession also functions as a type of theological or ideological view of the world that shapes their approach to the evidence.

To put it differently, and perhaps more historically, this debate also seems to have something to do with the tension between change over time and continuity in historical writing.  A historian who emphasizes change over time might argue that Jefferson is simply expanding the definition of what it means to be a Christian.  Thus to question Jefferson’s definition of Christianity could be a form of discrimination.

A historian who emphasizes continuity, however, might argue that there are certain beliefs that all Christians have embraced through time–non-negotiable or common-denominator beliefs such as the resurrection or the Trinity or the deity of Christ or the teachings of the Nicene Creed–that have always defined what it means to be a “Christian” and continue to define what it means to be a “Christian.”  Those who want to embrace an ever-changing definition of Christianity over time, without any continuity, are at risk of stripping the label “Christian” of any real meaning.  (I am sure some might be pleased with such a development).

So back to my original question:  I wonder if progressive historians tend to be more favorable to “change over time” than “continuity” when studying the past.

Just some thoughts here.  Still working on all of this, particularly as it relates to the relationship between history and theology.  But I do think its an issue worth thinking more about.

The Tragedy of Marco Rubio

Rubio

Have you had a chance to see Marco Rubio’s stand-up comedy act?  He has been getting a lot of laughs on the campaign trail at the expense of Donald Trump.  When Rubio says that Trump has an orange face, has “small hands,” or wets his pants, the crowds at his rallies go wild.

I recently saw a spokesperson for the Rubio campaign talking about the need for his candidate to “hit back.”  Rubio is trying to beat Trump at his own game–insults and personal attacks.  Many politicos are wondering why he did not do this earlier.

Rubio’s raw ambition has been on display during the last week.  He is desperate.  He is willing to do anything to stop Donald Trump, even if it means getting down in the mud with the GOP front-runner.

It wasn’t too long ago that Rubio was in Iowa and South Carolina trying to paint himself as the evangelical alternative to Trump and Ted Cruz.  What happened to this apparently Christian candidate?

This kind of eye-for-eye campaigning is embarrassing for the GOP.  But it is especially problematic for someone who goes out on the campaign trail and names the name of Jesus Christ.

I imagine that Rubio still thinks he is a Christian candidate.  In a world in which “evangelical” is defined by one’s position on abortion, marriage, and religious liberty for Christians, Rubio remains faithful.  As long as he tows the line on these issues, no matter how he behaves, he can claim the Christian mantle.  On this front, he is no better than Trump.

Rubio appears to be yet another product of the unholy alliance between Republican politics and American evangelicalism that came with the rise of the Christian Right in the 1980s. The leaders of the Christian Right–Falwell, Dobson, LaHaye, Bauer, Kennedy, Perkins, Reed, and Robertson–were successful in politicizing American evangelicalism by boiling it down to two or three moral issues.

I am beginning to wonder if it is possible in this day and age to run for President of the United States and still keep one’s integrity as a Christian.

Maybe Stephen Prothero was right when he said that Jesus would vote for Bernie Sanders.

The Author’s Corner with Christopher Cantwell, Heath Carter, and Janine Giordano Drake

ThePewandthePicketLineChristopher D. Cantwell is Assistant Professor of History and Religious Studies at University of Missouri at Kansas City;  Heath W. Carter is Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University; and Janine Giordano Drake is Assistant Professor of History at University of Great Falls. This interview with Cantwell is based on their new book, The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

JF: What led you all to edit Pew and the Picket Line?

CC: In one sense this collection grew out of a panel on “Class and the Transformation of American Protestantism” that Janine, Heath, and I put together for the American Society for Church History’s 2012. In another sense, however, this project emerged from the growth of scholarship on the religious histories of working people that has emerged over the last ten years. All of the contributors are early- to mid-career scholars whose work is situated in those spaces where American religious history and American labor history intersect or overlap. And what’s remarkable, I think, is the breadth of this new work. The collections has essays on everything form the esoteric theology of nineteenth-century labor activists to the faith-healing practices of Midwestern metal miners to the role syncretic religious beliefs plaid in galvanizing a strike of female pecan shellers in San Antonio. We had hoped to have the collection cover as much temporal and geographic ground as possible, and we’re excited to have essays on working men and women from a range of racial, ethnic, and geographic categories. It gives the collection a decidedly multivocal quality. Indeed, we three editors occasionally argued at length over the consequences of blending religious and labor history–and I should note that the opinions here are my own. But we all agreed of the importance of this intervention.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Pew and the Picket Line?

CC: There is no history of American religion that is not also a history of labor. Conversely, there is no history of America’s working people that does not also attend to the history of religion.

JF: Why do we need to read Pew and the Picket Line?

CC: In an era in which the history of capitalism is currently in vogue among scholars of religion, the collection argues for the inclusion of working people in this emerging field. While scholars have examined the faith of corporate leaders at great length few have ventured down to the shop floor. We think it’s important, indeed essential, to do so. The beliefs and practices of working people not only shaped their social lives, but also impacted the places they worked. This impact, in turn, could potentially effect the shape of entire industries. The collection is a call to attend to this complexity.

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?: Christian Theologians Weigh-In

If you are following the Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton College you know that she was placed on administrative leave by the college not for wearing a hijab in solidarity with her Muslim “sisters,” but because she said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  

I am not a theologian, but one cannot deny that historically both Christianity and Islam trace their roots to Abrahamic faith.  So in that sense, they do worship the same God.  Of course there are some big distinctions between the way Christians and Muslims worship this God, understand His identity (the Trinity, for example), and view His plan for His creation.  (And these distinctions, as I argued in the post I linked to above, are extremely important and should be paramount at evangelical Christian colleges).  I think Hawkins is trying to say that we all belong to the same family–the human family. And there are times, even in the life of an exclusively Christian college, when those human connections should be acknowledged. And they should be acknowledged, and even celebrated, for Christian reasons–namely the Imago Dei.  So I am not sure that someone saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is a statement that is necessarily out of bounds at a Christian college, but it must be carefully nuanced and explained.  Unfortunately, this nuance is often lost on much of the constituency of evangelical colleges.

But I digress…

In the last twenty-four hours, two respected Christian theologians have made a case that Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God.

Here is Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, a Protestant theologian cited by Hawkins, in The Washington Post:

What is theologically wrong with asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, according to Hawkins’s opponents — and mine? Muslims deny the Trinity and incarnation, and, therefore, the Christian God and Muslim God cannot be the same. But the conclusion doesn’t square. And Christians, though historically not friendly to either Judaism or the Jews, have rightly resisted that line of thinking when it comes to the God of Israel.
For centuries, a great many Orthodox Jews have strenuously objected to those same Christian convictions: Christians are idolaters because they worship a human being, Jesus Christ, and Christians are polytheists because they worship “Father, Son and the Spirit” rather than the one true God of Israel. What was the Christian response? Christian theologians neither insisted that they worship a different God than Jews nor did they accuse Jews of idolatry. That’s a step that would have been easy to make, for if Jews don’t worship the same God as the Christians, then they worship the false God and, therefore, are idolaters. Instead of rejecting the God of the Jews, Christians affirmed that they worship the same God as the Jews, but noted that the two religious groups understand God in in partly different ways.
Why is the Christian response to Muslim denial of the Trinity and the incarnation not the same as the response to similar Jewish denial? Why are many Christians today unable to say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God but understand God in partly different ways?
Read the entire piece here.
And here is a post from Francis Beckwith, a Baylor theologian/philosopher and former president of the Evangelical Theological Society who had to resign his post when he converted to Catholicism:
Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? To answer it well, we have to make some important philosophical distinctions. First, what does it mean for two terms to refer to the same thing? Take, for example, the names “Muhammed Ali” and “Cassius Clay.” Although they are different terms, they refer to the same thing, for each has identical properties. Whatever is true of Ali is true of Clay and vice versa. (By the way, you can do the same with “Robert Zimmerman” and “Bob Dylan,” or “Norma Jean Baker” and “Marilyn Monroe”).
So the fact that Christians may call God “Yahweh” and Muslims call God “Allah” makes no difference if both “Gods” have identical properties. In fact, what is known as classical theism was embraced by the greatest thinkers of the Abrahamic religions: St. Thomas Aquinas (Christian), Moses Maimonides (Jewish), and Avicenna (Muslim). Because, according to the classical theist, there can only in principle be one God, Christians, Jews, and Muslims who embrace classical theism must be worshipping the same God. It simply cannot be otherwise.
But doesn’t Christianity affirm that God is a Trinity while Muslims deny it? Wouldn’t this mean that they indeed worship different “Gods”? Not necessarily. Consider this example. Imagine that Fred believes that the evidence is convincing that Thomas Jefferson (TJ) sired several children with his slave Sally Hemings (SH), and thus Fred believes that TJ has the property of “being a father to several of SHs children.” On the other hand, suppose Bob does not find the evidence convincing and thus believes that TJ does not have the property of “being a father to several of SHs children.”
Would it follow from this that Fred and Bob do not believe that the Third President of the United States was the same man? Of course not. In the same way, Abraham and Moses did not believe that God is a Trinity, but St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Billy Graham do. Does that mean that Augustine, Aquinas, and Graham do not worship the same God as Abraham and Moses? Again, of course not. The fact that one may have incomplete knowledge or hold a false belief about another person – whether human or divine – does not mean that someone who has better or truer knowledge about that person is not thinking about the same person.
For these reasons, it would a real injustice if Wheaton College were to terminate the employment of Professor Hawkins simply because those evaluating her case cannot make these subtle, though important, philosophical distinctions.
Read Beckwith’s entire post here.

Does the Left Need Religion?

During the 1980s American historians began paying a lot of attention to religion and politics. This interest has not waned over the last thirty or so years.

Most of the studies of religion and politics, however, have focused on the roots and origins of the Christian Right.  Only until recently have historians made connections between Christianity and the political left in the 20th century. Books by David Swartz, Molly Worthen, Heath Carter, and Brantley Gasaway come immediately to mind, but I am sure there are others I am missing.

In the Fall 2015 issue of Dissent, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, a staff writer for The New Republic, joins the chorus of writers calling attention to the historic links between Christianity and progressivism. Here is a taste of her essay, “Why the Left Needs Religion.”

Viewing the relationship between Christianity and leftism as inherently antagonistic is firstly a disservice to history. Despite the efforts of the busi-ness leaders who conquered Christian thought during the Great Depression, American Christians have never supported capitalist domination of governance or of society. Consider, for instance, a recent study by historian Heath Carter of the Christian roots of labor union organizing in Chicago during the Gilded Age. In Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago, Carter recovers what has been lost to the rhetoric of the Christian right, namely that Christianity (even its evangelical iterations) aligns very well with the goals of organizers fighting for justice and dignity in their work. Indeed, America’s labor movement has long enjoyed support from Christianity of all stripes, from the Catholicism of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, to the peace-oriented Protestantism of A.J. Muste and the Society of Friends.

Outside of labor organizing, Christian theology has also influenced other leftist social movements, such as black power in the United States and liberation theology in Latin America. American civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked this theology of liberation to agitate not only for racial justice, but for equality everywhere and for everyone, including in the sphere of economics. today, the same line of reasoning is evident in the words and writings of Pope Francis, who has added environmental concerns to the issues we must address so that all can flourish equally.

Christianity, in other words, is no more destined for a cozy relationship with neoliberal, free-market politics than any other ideology, and perhaps less so, given its longstanding interest in the poor. the fact that Christian-ity is reflexively associated with conservatism in the United States is not so much an accident of history as it is a concerted effort on the part of vested, moneyed interests. Still, making a bad match for American conservatism.

The Author’s Corner with Bill Leonard

Bill Leonard is James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies and Professor of Church History at Wake Forest University. This interview is based on his new book, A Sense of the Heart: Christian Religious Experience in the US (Abingdon Press, November 2014).


JF: What led you to write A Sense of the Heart​?

BL: An editor from Abingdon Press called me to ask if I would be interested in writing a new text that would survey American Christianity, or religious experience in the US. I chose the latter opportunity since for many years I have taught graduate seminars on Religious Experience in America. I have often thought of writing a text on the topic and this was just the incentive I needed. I have long understood religious experience to be an important resource examining the shape and diversity of American Christianity in its various forms. The phrase, “a sense of the heart,” comes from Jonathan Edwards’ work, A Treatise on Religious Affections, and describes something of the nature of religious experience within and beyond Edwards’ own understanding of religious experience and conversion.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Sense of the Heart?

BL: The book explores the nature and diversity of religious experience in light of such distinct religio-cultural issues as pluralism, voluntarism, religious freedom, democratic idealism, and Protestant privilege in the US. This unique environment not only shaped the nature of experience with the Divine, but also provided a milieu in which multiple individuals and groups cultivated encounters with the Sacred.

JF: Why do we need to read A Sense of the Heart​?
BL: The book can be a helpful resource for several reasons: 1) It provides a one-volume survey of the history, theology and practice of religious experience in multiple contexts from the colonial period to the 21st century; 2) Americans have nurtured varying, often intense, religious experiences that informed spiritual identity, united and divided Christian communities, and made some type of “conversion” normative for all who would claim a relationship with Christ and the church; 3) Through it all, religious experience became one way in which the “objective” idea that God loves human beings and offers them salvation, becomes a “subjective” reality in the lives of specific individuals. This text pursues those issues. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
BL: I grew up reading and loving history. My father passed on to me his love of history, reading history to me before I learned to read for myself. As native Texans we read Texas history together from early in my life. I think I learned the heroes of the Alamo before the names of the Apostles! My interest in history was nurtured by multiple mentors at every phase of the educational journey–men and women who were themselves captivated by historical studies with different approaches and specializations. Dr. Alice Wonders, chair of the Religion Department at Texas Wesleyan University, was an important mentor who encouraged me to pursue historical studies with an eye toward teaching. Dr. William Estep, well know church historian from my seminary studies, shaped my interest in teaching Christian history; and Dr. Earl Kent Brown at Boston University helped me focus my work in areas of American religion. He guided my dissertation in elements of American Protestant mysticism. My own experiences among Baptists in the South–conversionism, revivalism, varying “plans of salvation” led to some of my earliest research into religious experience and my concern to communicate those studies to new generations of students. 

JF: What is your next project?
BL: Right now I am preparing a new edition of an earlier work entitled, Word of God Across the Ages: Using Church History in Preaching. It offers suggestions at to utilizing historical studies homiletically and provides a variety of sermons with focus on the theology and spirituality of certain historical figures from St. Paul to Sojourner Truth, to Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am also doing initial research for a study of religion in Appalachia, particularly as much of the region’s religious culture is being impacted by the impinging mass culture of the larger American religious and secular society.

JF: Good stuff, thanks Bill.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Is Great Britain a Christian Nation?

Some of you have been following this debate occurring across the proverbial pond. Callum Brown concluded that “Christian Britain” is dead.  Prime Minister David Cameron disagreed. Rowan Williams landed somewhere in the middle.

If you want to get caught up on this debate I encourage you to read Brantley Gasaway’s recent post at Religion in American History.  Here is a taste:

For those of us who study American religion, this recent British debate can remind us once again of the ambiguity of identifying a country as a “Christian nation.”  What qualifies a country as “Christian”?  Is it the official establishment of a Christian church (but if so, then is Great Britain “Christian” while the United States is not)?  Is it a matter of the historical influence of Christianity upon a nation’s laws, politics, and culture (but if so, when does this historical influence matter less than the contemporary relevance of Christianity in the public sphere)?  Is it a matter of demographics (but if so, does a simple majority of self-identified Christians qualify a nation as “Christian”)?   Is it the close alignment of a country’s policies with the Christian ethics of peace and justice?  Or it is the number of references to God in a country’s passport?

As some of you know I took a shot at this whole issue in the context of the United States.

"Christ the Lord is Risen Today," 1922

I should have posted this on Easter.  A great Charles Wesley hymn courtesy of the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox:

http://media.loc.gov/player/flowplayer.commercial.swf?0.738723476184532<!

  • Recording Title

    Christ the Lord is risen today
  • Other Title(s)

    • Lyra Davidica (Work title)
  • Author

  • Composer

  • Contralto

  • Genre(s)

    Religious
  • Category

    Vocal
  • Description

    Contralto vocal solo, with orchestra
  • Language

    English
  • Label Name/Number

    Victor 87354
  • Matrix Number/Take Number

    B-26435/1
  • Recording Date

    1922-04-26
  • Place of Recording

    Camden, New Jersey
  • Size

    10″
  • Duration

    03:07

He Leadeth Me

From Library of Congress National Jukebox

http://media.loc.gov/player/flowplayer.commercial.swf?0.8042101915925741<!–

  • Recording Title

    He leadeth me
  • Vocal group

  • Composer

  • Lyricist

  • Soprano vocal

  • Tenor vocal

  • Genre(s)

    Religious
  • Category

    Vocal
  • Description

    Female-male vocal duet, with orchestra
  • Language

    English
  • Label Name/Number

    Victor 16465
  • Matrix Number/Take Number

    B-8586/2
  • Recording Date

    1910-02-01
  • Place of Recording

    Camden, New Jersey [unconfirmed]
  • Size

    10″
  • Duration

    02:33

"American Creation" Migrates to "Old Life" or Would George Whitefield Think George Washington Needed to be Converted?

There is a fierce debate going on at Darryl Hart’s “Old Life” blog about how to define “Christian” in the context of the American founding era.  After writing a rather straightforward post on Donald Lutz’s study of the books quoted by the founding fathers, all hell broke loose in the comments section. It looks like the good folks at American CreationJon Rowe and Tom Van Dyke particularly–are holding forth in a conversation that includes a host of other voices as well.

If you can endure the long-winded posts, it might be worth your time. 

My favorite line so far: Hart asks commentator Bill Fortenberry if George Whitefield would think George Washington needed to be converted.  (My answer to this question is a resounding “yes”).

The Resurrection and The Washington Post

Did anyone read the recent article at The Washington Post by Liberty University professor Gary Habermas entitled “Five Reasons to believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead?”  Habermas offers several standard arguments for the resurrection of Jesus.  As expected, the article has provoked many Washington Post readers.  It currently has 591 comments and by the time you read this it will probably have many more.

Since I am a Christian, I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This is what Easter is all about.  But what interests me is the fact that The Washington Post decided to run this piece.  Would a major national newspaper have printed this kind of article twenty, or even ten, years ago?  Would The New York Times run such a piece today?  What does all of this say about religion and the so-called mainstream media?

Thoughts?

Jubilee Recap

Every Winter thousands of college students converge upon the Pittsburgh Convention Center for an event called Jubilee. (This year it shared the Convention Center with the Pittsburgh Auto Show). Jubilee is run by CCO (formerly the Coalition for Christian Outreach), an organization committed to helping undergraduates grow in their faith and think Christianly about their world.

This was my second visit to Jubilee.  The organizers asked me to offer a seminar on how Christians should approach the study of history.  I think they know that I will go anywhere to discuss the ideas found in Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation and my forthcoming Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past

On Friday night I attended the opening plenary session.  Someone from CCO convinced “Kid President” to send a video greeting to the conference-goers.  It was great.  Byron Borger of Hearts & Minds Books was honored for his faithful service to the CCO and Jubilee.  And Anthony Bradley of The Kings College gave a phenomenal talk on what it means to be created in the image of God.

After the session I wandered through Byron’s book exhibit.  I chatted a bit with my old friend Bob Robinson about his new non-profit organization, (Re)Integrate (check it out).  I also bought a couple of books–Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books and Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.

Much to my surprise, my history session on Saturday was packed with history majors, history buffs, and students who were just trying to make sense of how to get more out of their required history classes.  I discussed some of the theological resources available to history students of faith and how the study of the past can teach us virtues necessary for sustaining a more vibrant democratic society.

After my session, I went to see my friend, former groomsman, and Wheaton College theology professor Vince Bacote conduct a seminar on Christianity and politics.  Vince warned against letting a disgust over the culture wars deter participation in political life, especially at the local level.  It was a great session.

Due to responsibilities at home, I did not get a chance to attend the Saturday evening and Sunday morning sessions, but I am sure they were good.  The CCO puts on a real show each year in Pittsburgh.  Jubilee is a wonderful venue for college students to connect their faith to everyday life.  I hope I get to return one day.

David Kuo

David Kuo was the Deputy Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the George W. Bush administration.  In 2006 he published Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction.  Here is a description of that book:

David Kuo came to Washington wanting to use his Christian faith to end abortion, strengthen marriage, and help the poor. He reached the heights of political power, ultimately serving in the White House under George W. Bush. It was a dream come true: the chance to fuse his politics and his faith, and an opportunity for Christians not just to gain a seat at the proverbial table but also to plan the entire meal.  

Yet his experience was deeply troubling. He had been seduced, just as so many evangelical conservatives had been seduced by politics. Tempting Faith is a wrenching personal journey and a heartfelt plea for a Christian reexamination of political and spiritual priorities.

In 2003, while he was working for the president, Kuo was diagnosed with brain cancer.  He has been fighting it ever since.

Over The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan has been posting videos of Kuo answering questions from readers.  Here him discuss prayer, Christianity, Obamacare, and conservatism.  Listen to them here.

http://c.brightcove.com/services/viewer/federated_f9?isVid=1&isUI=1

Ross Douthat on Newtown

In case you haven’t read it yet.  Here is a taste:

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous novel, Ivan is the Karamazov brother who collects stories of children tortured, beaten, killed — babes caught on the points of soldiers’ bayonets, a serf boy run down by his master’s hounds, a child of 5 locked in a freezing outhouse by her parents.
Ivan invokes these innocents in a speech that remains one of the most powerful rebukes to the idea of a loving, omniscient God — a speech that accepts the possibility that the Christian story of free will leading to suffering and then eventually redemption might be true, but rejects its Author anyway, on the grounds that the price of our freedom is too high.
“Can you understand,” he asks his more religious sibling, “why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? … Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much?”
Perhaps, Ivan concedes, there will be some final harmony, in which every tear is wiped away and every human woe is revealed as insignificant against the glories of eternity. But such a reconciliation would be bought at “too high a price.” Even the hope of heaven, he tells his brother, isn’t worth “the tears of that one tortured child.”
It’s telling that Dostoyevsky, himself a Christian, offered no direct theological rebuttal to his character’s speech. The counterpoint to Ivan in “The Brothers Karamazov” is supplied by other characters’ examples of Christian love transcending suffering, not by a rhetorical justification of God’s goodness.
In this, the Russian novelist was being true to the spirit of the New Testament, which likewise seeks to establish God’s goodness through a narrative rather than an argument, a revelation of his solidarity with human struggle rather than a philosophical proof of his benevolence.
In the same way, the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.
That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.
The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.
In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now. 
Read the entire piece here.