Some Thoughts on James Dobson

Dad

My grandparents’ house in Montville (Taylortown), New Jersey, 1972.  My Dad is on the left.  I am standing by the car in the back.  The woman is my mother’s cousin.

I have been a critic of James Dobson for a long time.  I hit him pretty hard in my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I am no fan of his Christian nationalism, his culture-warrior approach to public life, or his court evangelicalism. My wife and I raised two strong and independent daughters who both describe themselves as feminists in the best sense of the word.  Unlike millions of our fellow evangelicals, we did not turn to Dobson for advice on how to raise them.  On marriage, we are not complementarians, as Dobson suggests we should be.

You can read my posts about James Dobson here.  Almost all of them are critical.

But history is complicated.  And Dobson’s influence is much more complex than the story that those of us who want to demonize him often tell.

Back in the early 1980s my father, a general contractor, son of Italian immigrants, and former Marine, converted to evangelical Christianity.   My entire family–myself included–soon followed him out of our white ethnic Catholicism and into a non-denominational Bible church.  My family’s conversion experience changed the direction of my family’s life.  My parents, my brothers, and my sister would be quick to agree with this statement.  Those who knew and continue to know our family would say the same thing.  I am sure extended family members would also agree.  My conversion changed the direction of my life.  As I have written elsewhere, I became an academic historian and a better and more thoughtful person because of, not in spite of, my born-again experience.

I think it’s fair to say that my father raised his children, especially his boys (my sister came later), with an iron fist.  He was tough on us.  He was a stern disciplinarian who could get angry easily.  He used corporal punishment on us, but I never thought he was abusive.  When he spanked us, we usually deserved it.  My Dad is now 77-years-old and I am sure he would agree with everything I just wrote.  He was a good Dad, but we also feared him.

When my Dad converted (I was in high school), his life changed.  Someone in our new church suggested that he read books by James Dobson.  My Dad was never much of a reader, but I remember Dobson’s books sitting next to his chair in our family room.  Since my Dad spent a lot of time during the day in his pick-up truck, he would listen to Dobson’s Focus on the Family programs as he drove between jobs.   James Dobson helped my Dad become a better father. Though I have never talked about this with my mother, I think she would say that he became a much better husband as well.  Our home became more loving, more peaceful, and more God-honoring.  We had a long way to go, but we were on the right track.

The point is this:  My Dad did not need James Dobson to teach him how to be a  masculine, authoritarian, patriarch.  He already knew how to do this and he was pretty good at it.  Dobson softened him.  He raised my younger sister very differently, partly as a result of Dobson’s advice.  He learned to love my Mom better because James Dobson spoke into his life through his books and his radio show.

I am sure there are thousands of stories like my Dad’s. Who will tell these stories?  Some might say Dobson taught evangelicals how to be patriarchal jerks who represent everything that is wrong with American evangelicalism.  And perhaps there is some truth to such a diagnosis.  But my mother, my sister, my brothers, and I have never seen it that way.

History is complex.

Evangelical Praise Songs and the “Manilow Effect”

Earlier this week we posted about the power of the key change in evangelical praise songs.  Read the post here.

Fred Clark noticed our post at his popular Patheos blog “Slacktivist.”  He has obviously thought more about this.  Here is a taste of his wonderfully-titled post “When will this strong yearning end?“:

I call this the Manilow Effect. The fact that a well-timed key change may be predictable, cheesy, and transparently manipulative won’t prevent it from working. You don’t have to like the song or to admire the song or to enjoy the song. You can even viscerally resent its contrived schmaltz. But none of that will prevent you from experiencing a brief sensation of exultation that you have, at last, made it through the rain and found yourself respected by the others who got rained on too and made it throooough.

That is what it is, but it shouldn’t be confused with an experience of actual worship any more than it should be confused with actual heartbreak for Mandy, who came and who gave without taking before you sent her away.

On a related note, I’d bet that in the hands of a talented worship band “Weekend in New England” could — with very few changes to the lyrics — inspire a very successful altar call. That’s partly because of the genius of Barry Manilow’s key changes, but mainly it’s because we haven’t really understood or examined what it is we’re doing or measuring when we think of “a very successful altar call.” 

Read the entire post here.

A friend on Twitter sent this along:

The Key Change in Evangelical Praise Songs

I am sure someone has written on the phenomenon of the key change in evangelical praise songs. If not, it would make a great scholarly study at the intersection of anthropology and music.  Whenever a praise band makes a key change I notice that the number of raised hands in worship rises significantly.   Any thoughts?

Before the key change:

before key c hange

After the key change:

after worship

🙂

Jemar Tisby’s New Book and People Who Read The Gospel Coalition’s Twitter Feed

tisbyJemar Tisby‘s much-awaited book The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism is now available.  Jemar is a graduate student in American history at the University of Mississippi and an African-American evangelical in the Reformed tradition who over the last several years has become an important voice in the evangelical community.

I am looking forward to reading Jemar’s book and perhaps reviewing it here, but in the meantime I recommend historian Daniel Williams‘s review at The Gospel Coalition.  Here is a taste:

Tisby claims that the black exodus from white churches in the last two years is principally a reaction to white evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump, so any attempt at racial reconciliation in the church must address white evangelicals’ political choices. Citing religious sociologist Michael Emerson’s view that Trump’s election was “the single most harmful event to the whole movement of reconciliation [in evangelical churches] in at least the past 30 years,” Tisby argues that white evangelicals bear responsibility for the racial polarization that ensued when they cast their ballots for Trump—regardless of their reasons for doing so. Furthermore, he says that white evangelical repentance from racial sins should include specific steps to remove the political symbols of white supremacy, starting with Confederate monuments.

How should white evangelicals react to this indictment? If Tisby and other Christians point out ways in which the president’s actions or rhetoric have hurt racial minorities, white Christians shouldn’t hesitate to join their brothers and sisters in condemning these sins and advocating for justice—even if they voted for President Trump. To pretend that any politician or political party is above criticism is theologically dangerous.

Finally, Tisby claims that Christians who insist they can simply preach the gospel without talking about systemic racism are complicit in racial injustice. Is this correct? This may sound, on the surface, as though Tisby is doubting the gospel’s power to change lives, but it actually accords with historic Reformed theology. Reformed Christians who believe in the “third use of the law” have insisted for five centuries that Christians need to hear the law of God to grow in sanctification. A simple proclamation of a narrowly defined version of the gospel, without application of God’s moral law, is unlikely to correct spiritual blindness and sins. Biblical teaching on God’s call for justice in social relationships and on specific ways in which whites can love their neighbors of another race is required. And when white Christians see ways in which their own church traditions’ records on race are laced with sin, they should admit the wrong and seek justice and racial reconciliation.

Read the entire review here.

Not everyone, however, seems happy that The Gospel Coalition chose to feature a review of Tisby’s book.  Check out some of these tweets:

I know that The Gospel Coalition can’t control what happens on Twitter, but those of us who are not connected to TGC would like to know if these tweets are representative of this organization.  At the very least, these tweets reveal there are still many, many conservative evangelicals who have not come to grips with systemic racism.

ADDENDUM (10:15AM–January 24, 2018):  And the hits keep coming!

These tweets explain a great deal about conservative white evangelical support for Donald Trump.  I wish I had them when I was writing Believe Me.

The Metaxas-Milo Bromance

Eric Metaxas, the court evangelical, author, and radio host, recently had the controversial former Breitbart blogger Milo Yiannopoulos on his show to talk about the latter’s new book.  Check out Andrew Egger’s piece on the Metaxas-Milo bromance at Charlie Sykes’s conservative  website, The Bulwark.

Here is a taste:

What’s interesting is how quickly it becomes clear that Metaxas—although he has apparently read and enjoyed Diabolical—seems to be blissfully unaware of most of the more revolting moments in the Milo oeuvre. He genuinely seems to think that calling Leslie Jones names was the worst thing Yiannopoulos has ever done. After a Milo monologue about the importance of trampling the left’s “speech codes,” Metaxas offers some slight pushback: “You have done it admirably throughout your career in every nanosecond of your media appearances, but it’s only when you say something that a woman is ugly or looks like a man that I say, I wish you hadn’t said that.”

One can only assume Metaxas has never run across the media appearance in which Milo suggested that his biggest problem with Planned Parenthood is that their murdering black babies prevents him from the possibility of having sex with them twenty years down the road. Or when he said that “behind every racist joke is a scientific fact.” Or when he railed against women who reported unwanted sexual molestations: “Our parents’ generation would have turned around and said keep your fucking hands to yourself and moved on with their lives. They wouldn’t have gone in to university administrators and tried to destroy the guy’s reputation and life over it. It’s not that big a deal. Someone touched your tit. Get over it.” And that’s not even to mention Milo’s most infamous transgression, the one that lost him his book deal in 2017, when, in a radio discussion concerning the silliness of consent laws, he waxed eloquent about the psychological benefits of pedophilic relationships between young teens and older men—“those relationships in which those older men help those young boys discover who they are and give them security and safety and provide them with love and a reliable sort of rock, where they can’t speak to their parents.”

But don’t for a second think that Metaxas isn’t a paragon of virtue. Because he has a real problem with one thing about Milo—his swearing. “Now this book Diabolical, I have read it, I think it’s in many ways spectacular,” he informed his listeners. “But I want to caution my audience—there are words and things in this book that I cannot recommend . . . So I can’t really recommend this book in that way. But I think having you on my program says all that it needs to say.”

Read the entire piece here.

7 Historic Meanings of Evangelicalism

latin evangelicals

Earlier today published a post calling your attention to Michael  Gyrboski’s piece on the way historians understand American evangelicalism.  Over at Anabaptist Visions, David Cramer enters the fray with a post on Tim Erdel‘s  “7 Historical Meanings of Evangelicalism.”

Erdel lists seven ways in which the word “evangelical” was used in the history of the West.

  1.  At the time that the New Testament was written, “evangelical” was used to define the “good news” of the “gospel.”
  2.   During the Middle Ages, “evangelical” was used to describe reforming movements inside and outside Catholicism.
  3.  During the Reformation-era, “evangelical” was used in a way that was synonymous with “Protestant.”
  4.  During the 17th-19th centuries, “evangelical” was used to describe revival and renewal movements in Protestantism
  5.  During the early 20th-century, “evangelicals” turned toward fundamentalism.
  6.  During the mid-20th-century, “evangelical” was adopted by the “neo-evangelical” movement associated with Carl F.H. Henry, Billy Graham, Christianity Today, and Fuller Seminary.
  7. During the 21st-century, “evangelical” is used to describe the global spread of the Christian gospel.

I like these categories.  They provide a nice starting point.  Read more about them at Cramer’s post.

The Many Evangelicalisms

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Over at the Christian Post, Michael Gryboski reports on a recent session at the American Historical Association (sponsored by the Conference on Faith and History) on race and the meaning of American evangelicalism.  Some of you may recall that Matt Lakemacher also reported on this session here at the blog.

Here is a taste of Gryboski’s piece:

There are “many evangelicalisms” and people should be wary about trying to attach a single definition to the religious movement, a history professor says.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez, associate professor of History and Gender Studies at Calvin College, presented a paper on Saturday titled “Race, Gender, and the 81 Percent: Defining Evangelicalism and What’s at Stake” at an American Historical Association conference in Chicago, Illinois.

The ”81 percent” in the title refers to the much touted yet highly disputed 2016 presidential election exit polling data that claimed 81 percent of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.

Some, including Joe Carter and Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition, and Napp Nazworth at The Christian Post, argued that the polling data was problematic on multiple fronts. The 81 percent, they point out, only includes whites, doesn’t include people who didn’t vote, and is based upon self-identification, rather than beliefs or participation in an evangelical church. 

Further illustrating the problem, a 2017 LifeWay poll found that less than half of those Americans who identify as evangelical hold evangelical beliefs, and one-third of Americans who hold evangelical views don’t identify as evangelical. 

Du Mez explained in her presentation the modern debate and different perspectives over how to define the term “evangelical,” including whether to accept self-identification or to base it on theological views.

Read the rest here.

 

The Mind of Ben Wesley

wesley face

I met Ben Wesley once.  He came to one of my book talks for Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and introduced himself as the man behind this video (which I have posted here before):

If I remember correctly, Ben is a student (or maybe a graduate) of a local state university here in central Pennsylvania. (I am sure he will correct me).  He is also a very entertaining guy who is trying to make sense of the evangelicalism in his own unique way.  Consider this chart that he recently posted to Twitter:

Here is a larger image of the chart:

wesley chart

Go Ben!  Keep up the good work and consider me a fan!

What Hath Anabaptists To Do With Evangelicals?

PICKWICK_TemplateA few years ago I wrote an essay in a book, edited by Jared Burkholder and David Cramer, titled, The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism.  Since I self-identify as an evangelical, work at a college with Anabaptist roots, and study American evangelical movements, I have had an informal interest in this subject for a long time.

Cramer is a pastor and seminary professor who works at the intersection of these two Christian movements.   I met him for the first time in the Fall when I spoke about Believe Me at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.

Cramer writes about that visit in a post at his new Patheos blog “Anabaptist Revisions.”  Here is a taste of “Does ‘Anabaptist Revisions’ Belong on the Evangelical Channel?“:

“Are you sure you belong on the evangelical channel?” the Patheos director of content asked me over the phone. It’s a fair question.

A couple months ago over breakfast a pastor friend from my evangelical denomination expressed his concern with what he called my “Mennonitism.” He seemed to think Anabaptist theology is incompatible with evangelicalism and to equate Anabaptism with liberalism.

The irony is that the denomination in which we both pastor was started by Mennonites who had been kicked out of the Mennonite church for their progressive methods and ideals—like singing four-part harmony, holding tent revivals, and embracing women in leadership.

The suspicion can run both ways. Last fall evangelical historian John Fea spoke at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS, the seminary where I work) and was told in no uncertain terms by one Mennonite theologian in attendance that evangelical theology is itself responsible for the violence and racism prevalent in American society. After the interaction Fea wrote that he “realized that Anabaptism and Evangelicalism are quite different, especially when it comes to the theology of the atonement and the role that doctrine plays in Christian identity.”

Read the rest here.

Race and Evangelicals (#AHA19)

Wheatley

Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL attended a session sponsored by the Conference on Faith and History at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  You can read all his posts here. Enjoy! –JF

Right out of the gate in today’s Conference on Faith and History session at AHA19, both Kristin Kobes Du Mez and Jemar Tisby responded to the recent Twitter debate over whether or not Phillis Wheatley should be considered an evangelical.  Esteemed historian of Evangelicalism Mark Noll also entered the fray in the Q&A session that followed the presentation of papers.

For those (like Noll) who hadn’t followed the social media discussion, here’s a short summary.  In early December of last year, historian Thomas Kidd tweeted a Gospel Coalition post he wrote, titled “Phillis Wheatley: An Evangelical and the First Published African American Female Poet.”  Religion journalist Jonathan Merritt replied, “Assigning her the label of Evangelical is weird,” to which Kidd asked, “Why?”  As Du Mez put it in describing the exchange after that, “things devolved quickly from there ….”

In her paper, “Race, Gender, and the 81 Percent: Defining Evangelicalism and What’s at Stake,” Du Mez posed the question: Who are evangelicals and does that label even mean anything anymore?  Her answer to both parts of that question, in short, was that it depends on who’s asking.  To make that point she briefly discussed themes that she’s written about extensively over at the Anxious Bench, such as the ideas that “Evangelicalism is an imagined religious community” and that “there are, in fact, many Evangelicalisms.”  When considering the more nuanced and seemingly academic responses (compared to the Twitterbate) given to the question by LifeWay in December of 2017 and the Voter Study Group in September of 2018, she referred to a piece by Tim Gloege on Rewire.News, in which he questioned the motivation, methodology, and conclusions of such studies conducted in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.  Noting the vested interest that people such as Russell Moore and Ed Stetzer had in rehabilitating the image of evangelicals both during and after that election, Du Mez also stated that it’s worth interrogating why mostly conservative, white, male evangelicals are the ones trying to define what the word evangelical means today.

As one would hope and expect, Du Mez insisted that we must approach the question historically.  It is not appropriate to use a static definition of the word.  “History didn’t end in the early to mid-nineteenth century,” she noted wryly.  To study more closely that change over time, Du Mez conducted a linguistic analysis of the word evangelical.  What she found was that before the 1970s and 1980s, the word was primarily used as an adjective.  Since that time, it has primarily been used as a noun.  She also found that from 1996 on, the word has been used to connotate a political alignment, not a theological one.  And as she came to discover during one fortuitous visit to Hobby Lobby (also a post worth reading on the Anxious Bench), to contextualize evangelicalism in our current time is to realize that much of it is a white religious brand rooted in consumer culture, Christian Nationalism, and patriarchy.  Today, sadly, “James Dobson and Duck Dynasty have more to do with Evangelicalism than Whitefield or Edwards.”  And while many people view the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention that started in 1979 as being about orthodoxy, Du Mez argued that it was far more about gender.

For Du Mez then, the issues of race, gender, and power (not belief alone, as the Bebbington Quadrilateral lays out) must be considered when defining the cultural meaning of the word evangelical.  To that end, it’s understandable how Merritt found labeling an enslaved African woman such as Phillis Wheatley an evangelical weird in the context of today, even if historically she was part of the trans-Atlantic movement of protestant Christian revivalism that swept the Anglo world in her lifetime, the influence of which is evident in her writings.

Du Mez’s examination of the question who is evangelical dovetailed nicely with Jemar Tisby’s paper, “Are Black Christians Evangelicals? A Multi-perspectival Assessment.”  To answer that query, he used theologian John Frames concept of Tri-Perspectivalism, examining it from a normative, situational, and existential framework.  From the normative perspective, using the Bible and Bebbington, it is quite easy to label most Black Christians evangelical.  According to Tisby, the normative frame only considers a person’s theological beliefs, and this is what Kidd did with Wheatley.  Using the situational perspective, however, forced Tisby to ask if Black Christians in America could be considered evangelical in every historical, cultural, and geographic context.  The answer there was clearly no.  Sunday mornings only became the most segregated time of the week after the Civil War – it wasn’t always that way.  Lastly, the existential frame required him to take personal experience and self-identification into account when deciding who is and isn’t evangelical.  From that perspective, he pointed out, there are many blacks today who do claim the label (as evidenced by organizations such as the NBEA), even if, according to Pew, more than three in four black protestants belong to historically black churches, as opposed to evangelical or mainline denominations.

In the end, Tisby was comfortable with not answering the question, claiming that such a response was the best way to think historically about it.  “Let the ambiguity remain,” he concluded.  As he had just demonstrated, when deciding whether Black Christians are evangelicals, the answer should always depend on the angle of inquiry.

During the question and answer session, Mark Noll provided his own tweet-sized take on the debate and the topic before the panel.  “Whether Wheatley was an evangelical or not is irrelevant,” said Noll.  “Who is or isn’t an evangelical is really not an important historical question.”  He continued, “I don’t think evangelicals exist … evangelical movements exist, evangelical theology exists, but evangelical individuals are a useful fiction.”  From Noll’s perspective, the session had been a valuable one, but he hoped that nobody would follow up on it.

Thanks, Matt!

Does Your Church Have a Trendy Name?

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Over at The Federalist, G. Shane Morris has categorized trendy evangelical church names.  Here are his categories:

  1. “Just Random Words” (“The Journey,” “The River“)
  2. “The Grocery Store Romance Novel” (“Burning Hearts,” “Word Aflame“)
  3. “The Gated Community” (“Centerpoint,” “Grace Pointe,” “Crossroads“)
  4. “The Night Club” (“180 Church,” “Ignite,” “The Alley“)
  5. “The Gym” (“Action Church,” “Champion Life Church,” “No Limits Fellowship“)
  6. “The Internet Startup” (“Catalyst Church,” “Engage,” “Netcast“)
  7. “The Spa” (“Renovate,” “The Healing Place,” “Wellspring”)
  8. “The Jeb Bush” (“Relevant Life,” “Dream Church,” “Compassion Church“)
  9. “Huh?” (“Caleb’s Foot,” “Scum of the Earth Church,” “Cowboy Church“)

Read the entire piece here.

Jerry Falwell’s “Two Kingdoms” View is Not Only Wrong, It’s Dangerous

File Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr. at a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa

Many of you have seen court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr.’s interview with Joe Heim of The Washington Post.

Falwell Jr. says:

There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country. Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.

When Heim asked Falwell if there is anything Trump could do that would endanger evangelical support for the President he answers, based on his political theology, with one word: “no.”

Over at Slate, writer Ruth Graham responds to Falwell’s one-word answer:

At one point, reporter Joe Heim asked Falwell whether there is anything Trump could do that would endanger his support from Falwell and other evangelical leaders. He answered, simply, “No.” His explanation was a textbook piece of circular reasoning: Trump wants what’s best for the country, therefore anything he does is good for the country. There’s something almost sad about seeing this kind of idolatry articulated so clearly. In a kind of backhanded insult to his supporters, Trump himself once said that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing his base. It’s rare to see a prominent supporter essentially admit that this was true. 

Graham also notes that Falwell’s views seem to contradict the mission statement of Liberty University.  This is true.

In its “Statement of Mission and Purpose,” Liberty claims to “promote the synthesis of academic knowledge and a Christian worldview in order that there might be a maturing of spiritual, intellectual, social and physical value-driven behavior.”  This kind of “worldview” language suggests that students at Liberty will learn to think Christianly about all things, including the ways Christianity intersect with politics and government.  After all, wasn’t this Falwell’s father’s vision for Liberty University?  Wasn’t Liberty University directly linked to Falwell Sr.’s Moral Majority–an attempt to bring Christianity to bear on government and politics?

Falwell Jr. seems to believe that the only thing Christianity teaches Christians about their responsibility as citizens is that Christianity has no role to play in our responsibility as citizens.  If I am reading him correctly, he is arguing that the promotion of capitalism, entrepreneurship, free-markets, and the accumulation of wealth is the essence Christian citizenship.  In other words, Falwell Jr. assumes that Christianity and capitalism are virtually the same thing.  I would love to hear from a Liberty professor on this point.  Is there anything about capitalism (as defined by the accumulation of wealth, free markets, and entrepreneurship) that contradicts the teaching of Christianity?   I know some Liberty professors and I DO think that they would say there is a difference between the two, but I wonder how free they are to make that critique in public.

I also wonder if Falwell Jr. believes that there is anything within the Christian tradition that might provide a critique of government.  I don’t have the time to search, but I am sure it is pretty easy to find Falwell Jr. making some kind of theological or Christian critique of Barack Obama.

It is important to note here that Falwell is not arguing, as other court evangelicals have done, that evangelicals should support Trump because he will deliver a conservative Supreme Court or defend religious liberty.  Remember, in this interview he says that there is NOTHING Trump can do to lose his support.  NOTHING!  This, of course, means that if he would commit adultery in the oval office, appoint a radically pro-choice Supreme Court justice, call for the end of the Second Amendment, or shoot someone on 5th Avenue, Trump will not lose Falwell’s support.  I don’t know of any American–Christian or not– who would be so confident about a political candidate.

The Statement of Mission and Purpose also notes that Liberty University will “encourage a commitment to the Christian life, one of personal integrity, sensitivity to the needs of others, social responsibility and active communication of Christian faith….”  Apparently Falwell believes that all these things can be practiced without any connection to politics or government.  In other words, Falwell wants to train students to live personal lives of faith, but never apply that faith to democratic citizenship.  I am not sure his father would have agreed with this.

Which leads me to one more question:  What is taught at the Jesse Helms School of Government at Liberty?  (Yes, THAT Jesse Helms). According to its website, the Helms School of Government develops “leaders who are guided by duty, honor, and morality.  It also claims to instill “a Christian sense of justice and civic duty in our students….”  Dr. Stephen Parke, the Associate Dean of the Helms School, lists his favorite Bible verse as Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do right!  Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.  Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”  This is an interesting choice for a dean at a Christian school of government and politics at a university run by Jerry Falwell Jr.

It is also worth noting that legitimate advocates of a Two Kingdoms approach to church-state relations would also reject much of what Falwell has to say in this interview.

Again, here is Falwell:

It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation. Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. He went out of his way to say that’s the earthly kingdom, I’m about the heavenly kingdom and I’m here to teach you how to treat others, how to help others, but when it comes to serving your country, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving, and just hand over everything we have to every other part of the world. That’s not what Jesus taught. You almost have to believe that this is a theocracy to think that way, to think that public policy should be dictated by the teachings of Jesus.

Martin Luther also believed that government action should not be based on the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings of Jesus.  For example, Luther defended the right to private property.  As a result, he believed government should not be based on Jesus’s idea of abandoning all of our material possessions and giving them to the poor. (Although he would have certainly warned against materialism rooted in the accumulation of private property).

But Luther’s Two Kingdom belief, as I understand it, is more nuanced and complex than what Falwell Jr. makes it out to be.  (I am happy to be corrected here by Lutheran theologians). In fact, I don’t think Luther would have recognized Falwell Jr.’s political theology.

Ruth Graham links to Missouri-Synod Lutheran writer Lyman Stone’s First Things piece titled “Two Kingdom Theology in the Trump Era.”  Stone writes:

Is it the case that Lutheran theology favors brute political realism, mercilessness in state operations, perhaps even docility in the face of tyranny? Historically, the answer has often been “yes.” But it needn’t have been, if Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine had been understood correctly.

The Two Kingdoms Doctrine originates in Martin Luther’s 1518 tract, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” though before that it has resonance with Augustine’s City of God, which had influenced Christian church-state relations in the West for a millennium. In the 1518 tract, Luther lays out an idea that is central to all Lutheran teaching: There are two kinds of righteousness, civil and spiritual. By civil righteousness, Luther meant that people, by the powers of reason with which they are endowed, can refrain from murdering one another, or stealing, or lying. But no amount of civil righteousness amounts to spiritual righteousness, that is, the right-acting that may earn salvation. Perfect civil righteousness does not undo the basically sinful nature of man; only spiritual righteousness does that, and spiritual righteousness is nothing else than faith in Christ. Without faith in Christ, no amount of civil righteousness obtains salvation. With faith in Christ, no felonious indecency can forestall the saving power of grace.

Stone reminds us here that God has ordained the civil kingdom–the realm of government.  God rules in both kingdoms and he rules, according to Lutheran theologian Paul Althaus, in “goodness, mercy, and love.”  Althaus adds: “Through the political authorities, God protects his people from the violent acts of evil men.” Luther believed in a state where justice prevails as a glimpse–but only a glimpse–of the kingdom of God.

As Christians, we are called to different vocations in this civil kingdom  As Stone writes, “without faith in Christ, no amount of civil righteousness obtains salvation.”  But this does not mean that Christians are not called by God to be engaged citizens.  We must exercise citizenship as a vocational act.

Stone adds:

Does this mean that Luther’s Two Kingdoms should be viewed ignominiously today? I do not think so. Rather, Lutherans should reconsider this doctrine in light of Luther’s teaching on vocation.

In this light, several facts become clear. Citizens have a different vocation than subjects. Modern governments place a duty and a burden upon citizens, demanding that they participate in governance. No modern American has a ruler, in the sense that the Christians did to whom Paul wrote his letters. All the scriptural teachings about governments apply, but the reality of democratic and participatory governments means that a vocation-centered theology cannot view Christians as merely the subjects of the state: By having voice, Christians are participants in the rulership of their state. As such, when considering what sins they should confess, they must consider sins of rebellion against lawful sovereigns and sins of misgovernment, that is, failures to discharge the duties of self-governing citizens.

Beyond this, Lutherans must avoid the mistake of the Reformation leaders who failed to cry out against the sins of monarchs. We must exhort all “sword-bearers,” that is, all agents of the state and public servants, from schoolteachers to the president, to live up to the demands of their vocations. Our Lutheran forefathers failed in this task; all the more reason Lutherans today must not.

Conservatives who fear that President Trump may be more like the decadent Belshazzar, feasting while the kingdom falls, than like the liberating Cyrus must pray that Lutherans remember the Two Kingdoms Doctrine. How we discharge the duties of citizenship—whether by accepting the creeping authoritarianism of the last two decades, or by raising our voices on behalf of the laws and democratic norms of our country—is a question of moral conscience, suitable for confession, and demanding repentance if we err.

A similar Two Kingdoms argument comes from Glenn Tinder in The Political Meaning of Christianity: An Interpretation.  He writes:

Christianity, then, requires acceptance of society, and such acceptance cannot be a matter simply of bowing to bitter worldly necessity.  It is more appreciative than that.  Even if society is not community, it serves community in various and essential ways; and a responsible person will feel obligated to defend society when it is threatened…. (pp. 56-57).

Christians are traditionally, in their relations with governments, obedient yet disrespectful.  Thus, they violate the ethos of both secular radicals (disobedience grounded in disrespect) and of conservatives (obedience grounded in respect).  Eschewing absolute principles, they are unreliable allies of either left or right.  Their attitude, however, is anything but frivolous.  It goes down to the first principles of Christian faith.  Estranged from God, from human beings, and even from ourselves, and in our perversity continually reaffirming our estrangement, we would be overwhelmed by chaos if we did not ordinarily submit to the order contrived by political rulers.  On the other hand, we are, in the Christian vision, recipients of the mercy of God, and if we obeyed unconditionally, we would replace the exalted individual with exalted governments…As an eschatological being, man is always critical, normally acquiescent, and potentially rebellious. (p.210-211).

Falwell Jr’s view of government is dangerous.  It is a corruption of the Two Kingdoms view.  Such a corruption is what led German Lutherans to sit quietly as the Nazis took control of Germany in the 1930s.  Here is University of Virginia theologian Charles Marsh in Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Acting in the name of Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms–that God has established two kingdoms (zwei Reiche): the kingdom of the earth, which he rules through human government and law; and the kingdom of heaven, which he directs by grace and through the church–the German Christians determined to achieve an accommodation (however tortured) of the Fuhrer principle and Aryan paragraph under church law.  And this they would do in a spirit of obedience to God!  Under this accommodation, baptized Jews, being a difference race altogether, could no longer serve in the German Protestant Church, whose identity was now rooted in ethnicity, or racial sameness, rather than in the confession of Christ as Lord. (p.162).

In 1938, Freidrich Werner, the director of Germany’s Protestant consistory, was tasked with bringing Lutheran clergy into line with Hitler.  He required that all clergy swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich.  Marsh writes:

Refusing the oath subjected one to dismissal and criminal detention.  To some degree, the underlying idea was consistent with the traditional Lutheran doctrine of two kingdoms: Christians must be obedient to the earthly authorities unto God.  But Werner went to an unprecedented extreme, turning a doctrine that had historically yielded a variety of views on church-state matters into an absolutist principle: make a “personal commitment to the Fuhrer under the solemn summons of God,” and forge an “intimate solidarity with the Third Reich” and with the saintly man who both “created that community and embodies it.”  “Submit to Hitler with a joyful heart, in gratitude, as pleasing to the Lord.

In the end, Christians–whether they embrace the Reformed, Catholic, or Lutheran tradition–are called to live out their vocations as citizens.  In this sense, they agree with my good friend Philip Vickers Fithian who believed, with the authors of Cato’s Letters, that “political jealousy” is a “laudable passion.

Some Misunderstandings About “Evangelical Historians” and the Study of History

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Some of you may recall back in July 2017 when we featured University of Alabama religion professor’s Mike Altman‘s book Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu at The Author’s Corner.  It is an excellent book from an excellent scholar of American religion.

Today on Twitter, Altman, in response to ongoing debates about whether or not Phillis Wheatley was an evangelical, wrote this:

I can’t speak for other historians who share my evangelical faith, but I call Wheatley an evangelical not because I want to claim her today, but because the word “evangelical” is the best way of understanding her in her 18th-century context.  Most early American historians would agree.  Here is J.L. Bell, the prolific historical blogger from Boston 1775 (and my response):

So, in other words, I argue that “evangelical” is a term we can use to describe Wheatley because I think it best explains her religious beliefs in the context of the world in which she lived.  Just because the word “evangelical” has now become associated with other things (as I argue indirectly in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump) does not mean it is not useful in the eighteenth-century. If I were to quit evangelicalism, as I threatened to do after November 8, 2016, I would still say “evangelical” is the best word to describe Wheatley in her time. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

This whole debate is part of the reason I wrote Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  Some critics have said that the book errs too far to the historicist side, but it is precisely for the issues under debate here that I wanted to use this book to call attention to what Gordon Wood calls the “pastness of the past.” It takes discipline to understand the past on its own terms.  This requires putting aside our contemporary views and trying our best to see the world from the perspective of those living in the past.  As Sam Wineburg writes, it is our “psychological condition at rest” to find something useful in the past–something we can use to advance our agenda in the present.  But mature historical thinking–to understand the foreignness of the past–is an “unnatural act.”  As I argue in Why Study History, it can also be a transformative act.

Moreover, if Altman is right about “evangelical historians,” then why have so many of us (myself perhaps more than most) written extensively about the fact that Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and many other founders were not Christians?  And why are we so critical of those, like David Barton, who argue that the founders were Christians? Wouldn’t we want to argue that the founders were evangelicals so they we can get them our side in the present?

 

Was Phillis Wheatley an “Evangelical?”

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(This is the third and final post in a series on the word “evangelical” in the eighteenth-century and today.  Read the first post here and the second post here).

So is it fair to call Phillis Wheatley an “evangelical?”  Despite what some people may believe, I really don’t have a stake in this debate apart from historical considerations.  As far as I know, Phillis Wheatley never called herself an “evangelical.” That is because virtually no one used the term as a noun in the 18th century.   Historian Ed Blum, who is back on Twitter and, according to his Twitter bio, claims he is no longer interested in “contemporary politics,” will be pleased that I admitted this:

But was Wheatley part of the network of 18th-century men and women who made up the evangelical movement I tried to define in the first post in this series?  I would answer yes.  So would Tommy Kidd.  So would John Turner.  But let’s not stop there. Here, for example, are some quotes from literary scholar Vincent Caretta’s definitive biography Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage:

p.34: “[George] Whitefield and [Selena Hastings, Countess of] Huntingdon linked Phillis Wheatley to the larger transatlantic network of evangelical Christians that had brought Margate to Georgia.  They consequently also connected her to the earliest authors of African descent.  Whitefield’s American preaching tours exposed several members of the first generation of black authors to Methodism.  They use of lay ministers by Methodists and other Dissenting sects gave black authors like Equiano, Briton Hammon, Jupiter Hammon, James Albert Ukasaw Gronniosaw, John Marrant, George Leile, David George, and Boston King the opportunity and authority to exercise agency and influence in person and print.”

p.73: “In light of the catechetical “A Conversion between a New York Gentleman & Phillis” and the contemporaneous evangelical value placed on bearing witness to one’s faith, Wheatley’s emphasis on religious themes in her early poems is not surprising.  Evangelical Protestantism gave people of African descent, whether free or enslaved, access to literacy to enable them to read the Bible.   Short are the steps from reading the Bible to interpreting it for oneself, and from there to sharing interpretations with others in the forms of religious poems and spiritual narratives.  Wheatley began writing very soon after the first works by authors of African descent appeared in 1760s, inspired, authorized, and validated by the Great Awakening.  The works of the first such authors concern the faith shared between author and reader, rather than the complexion and social conditions that separated the black speaker and his or her overwhelmingly white audience.”

p.84: “Phillis Wheatley’s first published work, the poem “On Messrs. Hussy and Coffin,” appeared in the 14-21 December 1767 issue of the Newport Mercury, no doubt through the support and contacts of Susanna Wheatley.  The most likely contact was Sarah Haggar Wheaton Osborn (1714-96), a member of the First Congregational Church in Newport who was instrumental in the evangelical Newport revival of 1766-67.  She and Susanna Wheatley were acquainted with each other and shared a mutual correspondent in Rev. Occom.  The preaching of Whitefield and the Presbyterian evangelical Gilbert Tennent (1704-64) inspired Osborn to help create a female prayer society that met in her home weekly from the 1740s until her death.”

Caretta is also the editor of the Penguin edition of Wheatley’s complete writings.

Other Wheatley scholars agree with Caretta.  Wheatley was part of an 18th-century transatlantic evangelical movement.

Here is Phillip M. Richards in an essay titled “Phillis Wheatley: The Consensual Blackness of Early African American Writing,” in New Essays on Phillis Wheatley (University of Tennessee Press, 2011)

p.256: “Wheatley deploys this sentimental and aesthetic language vividly in her letters, which embody and enact a form of Christian friendship with her correspondents, moving in much the same way as does Osborn’s writing.  She thus writes her evangelical mentor, the British missionary John Thornton, referring to the Puritan convention of awakening on a sickbed: ‘O that my eyes were more open’d to see the real worth, and true excellence of the word of truth, my flinty heart Soften’d with the grateful dews of divine grace and the stubborn will, and affections, bent on God alone their proper object, and the vitiated palate may be corrected to relish heav’nly things….’ Wheatley’s observations not only describe her spiritual state but signal her shared sensibility of broken will, ambivalence toward the self, internalized authority, and benevolent love of God–all of which establish her membership in the company of saints constituted by Thornton’s missionary group….From her earliest poetry, Wheatley fashioned a literary persona based upon the language of evangelical conversion…”

Here is historian Catherine Brekus in Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America

p.185: “Perhaps the most remarkable female author in the eighteenth century was Phillis Wheatley, a slave who had been kidnapped from Africa as a child.  In order to gain acceptance in the republic of letters, Wheatley emphasized the depth of her Christian faith, and in 1770 she published an elegy lamenting the death of George Whitefield.  Because she was young, female, and a slave when she published her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, in 1773, the volume included a testimonial signed by eighteen of Boston’s leading gentlemen, including the governor, swearing that an ‘uncultivated Barbarian from Africa’ had indeed written her own poems.  No other female author in early America faced the same degree of skepticism or hostility.  Yet as Wheatley made clear in her poems, her authority to write came from her rebirth in Christ–on other words, from God himself.”

I could quote other scholars as well, but I think you get the idea.  Wheatley was an important voice in the 18th-century movement defined by a shared commitment to the new birth.  We can call that community “evangelical,” “New Light,” Whitefieldarian,” or something else, but in the end it was a spiritual fellowship of believers, certainly ensconced within 18th-century views on race, gender and social class, that came together around the shared experience of the new birth.

During the Kidd-Merritt debate, Merritt sought out a few religious studies scholars to bolster his view that it was “weird” to call Wheatley an evangelical.  Under fire from scholars and some of his Twitter followers, he needed to find a usable past quickly.  And he found a few scholars to help him:

It seems like this debate offers an excellent opportunity for historians to teach their students the importance of historical thinking.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez gets it:

Both Bass and Ingersoll assume that Kidd and me are trying to take 21st century evangelical religion and impose it on the 18th century and Wheatley.   We are accused of anachronistic thinking and “pasting” modern evangelicalism onto the 18th-century.  I can’t speak for Tommy Kidd, but I don’t think I was doing what I have been accused of doing.  As I have tried to show in the the posts in this series, there was an 18th-century evangelical movement and Wheatley was part of it.  That’s it.  No agenda except trying my best to interpret Wheatley’s life in its historical context.

Modern scholars of religion may not like the way white men and women used Wheatley, or may not like the fact that her membership in this community of the new birth does not offer them a usable past in their present-day battles against evangelicalism in America, but to suggest she was not an evangelical in the 18th century requires mounting a case against the best Wheatley scholarship and the best scholarship in early American history.

More on “Fairness for All”

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What is “Fairness for All”?  Get up to speed here.

Over at Religion News Service, Yonat Shimron covers a motion championed by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and the National Association of Evangelicals that is bound to bring more division to the evangelical community.  I was happy to contribute to Shimron’s reporting.

Here is a taste:

Last week, World Magazine reported that two respected evangelical institutions, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, both quietly adopted a set of principles that call for comprehensive religious freedom protections combined with explicit support for LGBTQ protections in employment, education, housing and adoption, among others.

Neither group is backing down from the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman. But the two groups want to work toward federally recognized protections for sexual orientation and gender identity alongside strong religious exemptions.

Specifically, they plan to soon unveil a draft of a bill they are working on with input from legal scholars, theologians and LGBTQ advocates that they say accomplishes those goals. The evangelical groups hope several members of Congress will sponsor the bill, tentatively called “Fairness for All,” in the session that begins Jan. 3.

“Fairness for All says we have to do this together because there are interests on both sides that ought to be protected,” said Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance and a consultant in discussions about a possible bill.

Read the entire piece here.

Anxious Benchers Weigh-In on the Kidd-Merritt Dust-Up

Death of ExpertiseHere is a taste of historian John Turner‘s post at The Anxious Bench:

To what extent should non-academics defer to academic historians on matters of history? John Fea faulted Merritt for being snarky and dismissive (“maybe you should think some more”) to a historian who has written books about precisely the subject matter at hand. Rather attempt to define the word “evangelical” on Twitter, Kidd recommended that Merritt “check out my books on the topic, including my definition of evangelicalism.” Good idea!

I’ve of two minds here. If someone told me that I should think more about whether Mormons are Christians, I might point him or her to my book on the subject. On the other hand, the recommendation of one’s books as an answer to a question rarely goes over well.

Read the entire piece here.

And at his personal blog The Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gehrz (editor-in-chief at The Anxious Bench), reflects on the dust-up in the context of his own work as a historian and generalist.

A taste:

I’ve only half-followed the recent Twitter dust-up between historians Thomas Kidd and John Fea and journalist Jonathan Merritt. You can get caught up to speed with this morning’s Anxious Benchpost from John Turner. Throw in editor John Wilson (who rose to the historians’ defense), and you’ve got several of my favorite Johns/Jonathans sparring over what it meant to be evangelical in the 18th century — especially if you were an enslaved African American like poet Phillis Wheatley.

All of that is interesting, and pointing at some philosophical questions about doing the history of evangelicalism (as Fea explained this morning in part two of a new series on the topic). But I was actually more struck by a larger issue: the place of expertise in an age of Twitter.

Read the rest here.

Should Evangelicals Be Defined By Their Spiritual Commitments or Something Else?

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(This is the second post in a series on the word “evangelical” in the eighteenth-century and today).

In my first post in this three-post series, I made the case that there was a religious movement in the eighteenth-century that can be identified as “evangelical.”  Of course I could never make this case in just one blog post, so I cited several prominent scholars who have made the case in a much more thorough way.

I also noted in that post that the word “evangelical” is a contested term.  Today there are historians who believe that doctrine, theology, or spirituality is not the best way to define the word.  In other words, these scholars believe that the “evangelical” movement in America (and elsewhere?)  is really about something other than religious experience.  It is really about white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism or nationalism (at least primarily).

Tim Gloege is a historian who believes that the definition of  “evangelical” should not be tied primarily to theological. religious, or spiritual principles.  In a January 2018 piece at the old Religion Dispatches, he took a few shots at the “Bebbington Quadrilateral,” historian David Bebbington’s four-point definition of what it means to be “evangelical.”  For Bebbington, an evangelical is someone who believes in:

  1. Conversionism: The belief that one must be “born-again” through a conversion experience that will result in a life of following Jesus.
  2. Activism: The belief that one must express one’s born-again faith in the proclamation of the gospel through missionary and social justice efforts.
  3. Biblicism: The view that the Bible is the word of God and the ultimate guide to Christian living
  4. Crucicentrism: The belief that Jesus redeemed humanity through his death on the cross.

Gloege argues that there are many manifestations of Christianity, (and even non-Christian religions) that affirm Bebbington’s four points.  If this is true, he asks, what makes the Bebbington Quadrilateral unique to evangelical religion? (“Muslims convert too,” he writes).  Writing in the context of evangelical support for Donald Trump, Gloege believes that anyone who uses the Bebbington Quadrilateral to define what it means to be “evangelical” is trying to advance an “agenda.” In this case, he casts his net widely.  Those who believe that the Bebbington Quadrilateral is a useful interpretive tool are ignoring the fact that being “evangelical” has less to do with one’s sincerely held religious beliefs and more to do with racism, patriarchy, free-market capitalism, or the policing of sexual ethics.  (I responded to this piece, in the context of present-day evangelicalism, here).

I am not sure if Gloege would say that the Bebbington Quadrilateral is useful for understanding 18th-century evangelicals.  His piece in Religion Dispatches seems to be mostly concerned with twentieth and twenty-first century evangelicals.  (Gloege’s wrote his dissertation and book on Moody Bible Institute). If he does not find the Bebbington Quadrilateral useful to interpret the evangelical movement in the 18th century, he is not alone.  Many historians of the period agree with him, but for very different reasons.

In my last post, I noted that some eighteenth-century historians, including Doug Winiarski, believe that the Bebbington Quadrilateral does not go far enough in defining 18th-century evangelical religion.  But rather than seeing the 18th-century evangelical movement as a guise for racism, patriarchy, or something else, Winiarski thinks Bebbington’s category of “conversionism” is too “flat.”  He thinks that evangelicals in early New England were defined by a spiritually powerful experience of the New Birth that transformed their lives in profound ways–a type of conversion that was much more radical, Holy Spirit-empowered, and instantaneous than the old Puritan “morphology of conversion.”  Thomas Kidd makes a similar argument in his history of the First Great Awakening.  If Gloege wants to apply his Religion Dispatches argument to the 18th-century (and, again, I am not sure he does), he is going to have to engage with these historians and others.

In my view,  the eighteenth-century evangelical movement must be defined primarily by the born-again experience (as Jesus taught in the Bible, as centered on the cross, and as an impetus for evangelism, missionary work, and social justice). This, it seems, is the only way to distinguish someone associated with the evangelical movement from someone who was not.

Gloege says that “a definition should connect to a movement’s most salient features (what sets it apart).”  Agreed.  Were 18th-century evangelicals patriarchal, racist (by today’s definition), entrepreneurial, etc.?  Of course they were.  So were most other 18th-century British-Americans:  Old Lights, Old Sides, Deists, continental Protestants (Lutherans, Huguenots, Dutch Reformed), Catholics, Jews, etc….  Even the Quakers, if recent historiography is correct, were a bunch of wealth-seeking slave-holders who “prayed for their enemies” on Sunday and “preyed on their enemies” during the rest of the week.  I am not suggesting that we should ignore these darker dimensions of eighteenth-century life, but none of them really make evangelicals unique or set them apart from the rest of British provincial culture.  But their religious beliefs do set them apart.  And most people living in the 18th century also believed that the religious beliefs and spiritual practices of evangelicals set them apart.

Another scholar who wants to suggest that “evangelical” is more than a spiritual term is Calvin College historian Kristen Kobes Du Mez.

I embedded this tweet for its final sentence.  Du Mez notes that she is part of a group (“us”) who have been “contesting a (primarily) doctrinal definition” of evangelical religion.  Gloege is part of that group.

In a piece at The Anxious Bench blog, Du Mez historicizes the term “evangelical” in a way Gloege does not..  She writes (along with her co-author Hannah Butler):

Thinking of evangelicalism as a historical and a cultural movement invites closer scrutiny to the centrality of racial identity, patriarchal power, and Christian nationalism in shaping the contours of the movement, and to the politicization of American evangelicalism that has occurred over the past half century.

It’s important to realize that this isn’t the first time “evangelicalism” has been a topic of public conversation. And it’s not the first time that the term has been reinvented. In fact, linguistic analysis reveals multiple shifts in meaning, and these shifts often correlate with spikes in public usage. In other words, people talk about evangelicalism more when its meaning is shifting. (Or, the more people talk about evangelicalism, the more its meaning can shift).

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term emerged in Germany and Switzerland as a way to distinguish the Lutheran from the “Reformed,” or Calvinist church. In Germany, “evangelical” came to signify Lutheranism specifically, or Protestantism more generally. Circa 1537, the OED reports that “evangelical” also began to signify being “characteristic of the Gospel dispensation,” and did so until 1875. During the 18th century, “evangelical” also came to specify a particular doctrine of salvation by faith, a definition continuing into the 1890s.

Looking to American history, one can observe shifts in the meaning of the term “evangelical” through corpus analysis, the study of linguistic phenomena through analysis of language corpora, or collections of words.

Again, if we examine evangelical religion historically, should we conclude that it has always been a movement defined primarily by “racial identity, patriarchal power, and Christian nationalism”?  Are these the things that “set evangelicals apart,” to use Gloege’s phrase?  How do we distinguish an 18th-century evangelical from everyone else in the century who believed in white supremacy, patriarchal power, and Christian (British) nationalism?

Once we establish that 18th-century evangelical religion was defined primarily by a belief in the new birth and the spiritual power associated with such an experience, then we can move to a debate over historical continuity.  In other words, we can then advance to a discussion about whether or not the new birth and the life-transforming faith that millions of people claim to have experienced is what defines (primarily) an evangelical today (or in the 19th century or in the 20th century).  A lot of early American historians who study the eighteenth-century, whether they have a stake in twenty-first century religious debates or not, have suggested that such continuity does exist.  For example, Winiarski writes :

Incited by Whitefield and fascinated by miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit–visions, bodily fits, and sudden conversions–countless New Englanders broke ranks with family, neighbors, and ministers who dismissed their religious experiences as delusive enthusiasm. These new converts, the progenitors of today’s evangelical movement, bitterly assaulted the Congregational establishment.

But, of course, this does not mean, as Du Mez notes, that we historians should not also be concerned with change over time.

Finally, these attempts to define evangelical religion as something other than a deep spiritual commitment to an instantaneous and radical new birth remind me of the argument American religious historians have been waging for a long time about the necessity of treating religious belief as a legitimate category of analysis rather than as a guise for something else.

The First Great Awakening, and the larger evangelical movement, as understood in its 18th-century context, was a ultimately a religious movement–a movement about spiritual experience informed by an encounter with God through the new birth.  This encounter, many believed, had the potential to transform a person’s life and launch it in a new direction characterized by service to Jesus Christ.  When historians make it primarily about something else–the coming of the American Revolution, a manifestation of racism and patriarchy, an example of consumer culture–they miss what the movement meant to its participants and they undermine spiritual belief and lived religion as a legitimate category of analysis.

So why am I making such a big deal about how to define 18th-century evangelicals?  Because I will address this question in my next post in the context of the fallout from the Kidd-Merritt debate and the role I played in it.  And yes, Phillis Wheatley will be mentioned!  🙂

Yes, There Was an “Evangelical” Movement in the Eighteenth Century and it Should Be Defined Theologically

Darkness(This is the first post in a series on the word “evangelical” in the eighteenth-century and today).

If the Jonathan Merritt dust-up had a positive result, it was that it got historians thinking again about the meaning of the word “evangelical.”  There has been a lot of good Twitter banter on the subject.

(Caveat:  My criticism of Merritt had less to do with the definition of “evangelical” and more to do with his attack on a historian I respect and the idea of historical expertise in general. If you go to his Twitter page he says that I attacked his credentials and platform.  He is right.  I did criticize his platform, but not because I don’t think he uses it well or it  is bad to have a platform.  I criticized his platform because I wanted to make clear that his Twitter followers and “influencer” accolades do not qualify him to denounce historians like Thomas Kidd, a historian who has spend his whole career studying a subject.  In other words, you cannot simply dismiss decades of scholarship in a few tweets.  But I digress).

In the age of Trump, everyone seems to have a definition of the word “evangelical.”  As Linford Fisher has argued in a recent essay in Religion & American Culture, the meaning of “evangelical” has been contested for a long time.

What is interesting to me is the way that evangelicals and former evangelicals seem to be so invested in the definition of the term.  Everyone is angling for a definition that will support their present-day understanding of American religious life.  Some are ex-evangelicals or progressive evangelicals trying to find a usable past to justify their belief that white evangelicals are racists, patriarchal, too wed to nationalism, etc.  Others are descendants of the neo-evangelical movement that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s and want to find a historic definition of evangelicalism that helps them strengthen that identity in the present.

There is nothing wrong with trying to find a usable past.  The past must always speak to the present in some way.  But when we get caught up in searching for a usable past there is always a danger of forgetting that the past is a foreign country.  This is especially the case when we start to dabble in eighteenth-century evangelical history, the subject of the debate between Kidd and Merritt.  And when you bring an African-American poet like Phillis Wheatley into the mix, the debates will take on added weight.

So let’s start first with the meaning of the word “evangelical” in the 18th-century British Atlantic World.  (I say “British Atlantic World” and not “13 Colonies” because historians of the 18th-century English-speaking world are in almost universal agreement that we cannot understand what is going on in British North America without understanding these colonies as part of a larger culture that spanned the Atlantic and included Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Caribbean, and other so-called British provinces.  Today the students in my “Colonial America” answered a final exam question on this very topic.  My favorite book on this subject is Ned Landsman, From Colonials to Provincials: American Thought and Culture, 1680-1760).

As Fisher, and more recently Daniel Silliman, has noted,  the word “evangelical” has pre-18th century origins.  But in the 1730s and 1740s, a distinct Protestant culture emerged that was centered around a belief in the “new birth” or the “born-again” experience.  The phrase comes from the Gospel of John when Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3).  There was an eighteenth-century religious movement that rose-up around the idea of the “New Birth and the inward-looking pietism that came with such an experience.  Some used the adjective “evangelical” to describe this movement and to separate it from other forms of Christianity that may have still believed in something akin to a born-again experience, but did not privilege it.  (I should add that I am talking here about the word “evangelical.”  The word “evangelicalism” does not appear in any 18th-century works published in America in the 18th century or at least the books, pamphlets, and broadsides that appear in the Evans Early American Imprints database).

For example, in Scotland those who favored the new birth and the Holy Spirit-infused experiential piety that it produced were called, and called themselves, the “Evangelical Party.”  (As distinguished from a “Moderate” Presbyterian party that drew heavily from the Scottish Enlightenment and opposed revivalism).  It is telling that when the champions of evangelical religion who founded the College of New Jersey at Princeton needed a new president in 1768 they turned to the Scottish clergyman John Witherspoon because he was the leader of Scotland’s Evangelical Party.  There was clearly a transatlantic evangelical movement that was discernible and real and it was defined by a commitment to the new birth.

Some historians go even further when using the term “evangelical” in the eighteenth-century context.  Historian Douglas Winiarski is one of them.  Here are a few passages from his Bancroft prize-winning book Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakening in Eighteenth-Century New England (Omohundro Institute/UNC Press, 2017):

p.8: “Darkness Falls on the Land of Light examines the breakdown of New England Congregationalism and the rise of American evangelicalism during the eighteenth century.”

p.15-17: “The…term ‘Whitefieldarians’ comes closest to naming those eighteenth-century Protestants who contemporary historians have identified as evangelicals.”

If I read him correctly, Winiarski thinks the Bebbington Quadrilateral” is weak because it does not do enough to define 18th-century evangelical religion as a predominantly spiritual movement.  (Tommy Kidd makes a similar argument in The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America.  Winiarski writes (p.16-17):

David Bebbington’s frequently cited quadrilateral definition–conversionism, biblicism, activism, and crucicentrism–masks far more than it illuminates the popular religious cultures of the eighteenth-century British Atlantic.  In New England, Whitefield’s fascination with conversion as an instantaneous event was quite unlike the more traditional seventeenth-century puritan morphology of conversion, which ministers and lay people often conceptualized as a lifelong pilgrimage through the wilderness of the world.  Although provincial Congregationalists were steeped in the scriptures, during the Whitefieldian revivals and the decades that followed new converts such as Hannah Corey learned to think of the Bible as a detextualized voice that pierced their minds with supernatural force…The “people called New Lights” diverged from their puritan ancestors in two specific ways: their preoccupation with Whitefield’s definition of the new birth and their fascination with biblical impulses.  

It appears that those scholars, like Winiarski, who do not have a political or religious stake in the historical meaning of the word “evangelical” today seem to have no problem using the term or identifying it primarily with a theological/spiritual definition.  Winiarski uses “evangelical,” “evangelicalism,” “New Lights,” and “Whitefiedarians” as synonyms.  Whatever “evangelical” or “evangelicalism” means today, it was always understood as a spiritual movement in the eighteenth century.

So Winiarski seems to think that there was definitely some kind of spiritual “movement” that we can describe as “evangelical.”  He is not alone.  These works also make a similar case:

Frank Lambert’s Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals (Princeton University Press, 1999)

Frank Lambert, Inventing the “Great Awakening” (Princeton University Press, 1999)

Thomas Kidd, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (Yale University Press, 2009)

Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Eerdmans Publishing, 1991)

Peter Choi, George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire (Eerdmans Publishing, 2018)

Susan O’Brien, “A Transatlantic Community of Saints: The Great Awakening and the First Evangelical Network, 1735-1755,” The American Historical Review (1986)

Timothy Hall, Contested Boundaries: Itinerancy and the Reshaping of the Colonial American Religious World (Duke University Press, 1994)

Catherine Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (Yale University Press, 2013).

Mark Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys (Inter-Varsity Press,  2011).

John Fea, “Wheelock’s World: Letters and the Communication of Revival in Great Awakening New England,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 2001).

So I think it is safe to say that there was an evangelical movement in the 18th-century.  It revolved primarily around a commitment to the New Birth.  All of the authors above would also agree that changes in consumer culture, print culture, increased human mobility, celebrity, and other non-religious factors became staples of this movement or helped it grow, but these are all secondary factors in explaining what the movement was, in essence, all about.

I will stop there.  In my next post I want to talk about some folks who want to define evangelical as primarily something other than a spiritual movement.  And I also eventually want to discuss how Phillis Wheatley may or may not be related to this eighteenth-century movement.

Stay tuned.

Why I Defended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Statement on its Racist Past

Southern Sem

Below is a version of what I wrote in the comments of this post.  You can read that post to get up to speed.

I responded to a post by someone named Justin S.  He wrote:

We are all in different stages of processing our racial heritage and identities, and I like you’re “walking” analogy. The trouble is–it seems to me–that a lot of people come from such a retrogressive perspective that they expect affirmation for taking a step or two forward when they have miles left to go.

It is commendable that SBTS is making an effort to more-clearly assess its trouble past, and I think you make a good point when you observe that we are all in different places. But when you lobby for more understanding and equanimity from their critics, it sounds like you are saying, “Hey, let’s cut them some slack now because–even though they are still pretty racist–they are slightly less racist than they used to be.” It’s unrealistic to expect people to treat dogmatic racists kindly just because they’re trying to be less racist about their dogma, especially when they’re still hurting people with their slightly-less-toxic racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and nationalism.

I know some of the folks who wrote the SBTS statement and I can attest to their integrity and serious commitment to racial reconciliation.  Justin, what do you want them to stop doing? Seriously, would you rather they not have written the report? Are their past sins so great that cannot be redeemed? (I don’t think you believe this). These folks know the work is not done.

As far as I know, no one at SBTS is “expecting affirmation” for the statement. So far they have been quiet about the criticism they are getting. (By the way, when I say I know these folks I do not mean Al Mohler. Frankly, I am afraid he will open his mouth and make things worse. I am referring instead to some of the historians who authored the document).

I have defended the SBTS publicly because I felt someone had to do it. I don’t want to “cut them slack,” I want to encourage my fellow evangelicals to walk with them on the journey. Of course we will all be watching to see where they go next.

In the end, I think SBTS is going to have to turn for help to people with whom they might have theological disagreements.  Non-conservative evangelical Christians have more experience on this front.  For example, what might it look like if SBTS takes a meeting with Chris Graham and his racial reconciliation committee at St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond, the so-called “Cathedral of the Confederacy?” Of course SBTS will never embrace St. Paul’s progressive liberal theology, but they can certainly learn from the way this historic church has tried to deal with its racist past.

I understand that progressive Christians want more out of this statement. Many have suffered as a result of the Southern Baptist Convention’s racist past. This should not be ignored. There is time and space to be angry, but I am a Christian and I cannot dwell in anger any more than I can dwell in fear.

Right now progressive Christians should be getting on the phone and calling SBTS to ask how they can help the seminary on its journey.  Isn’t this the kind of work progressive evangelicals want to do?  Instead, they are criticizing the seminary in public and on social media.

I tend to view the SBTS statement through the eyes of hope.  And God knows we could use more hope in the world right now.

What Happens When an Evangelical Pundit, Armed Only with 58K Twitter Followers and a Reference to the Bebbington Quadrilateral, Takes on a Historian

On Thursday night a very interesting, revealing, and somewhat disturbing Twitter exchange took place between religion writer Jonathan Merritt and historian Thomas Kidd.  Here is what happened:

It began when someone retweeted Kidd’s Gospel Coalition post on eighteenth-century African-American poet Phillis Wheatley.

Here is a taste of Kidd’s post:

Wheatley’s most popular poem was her 1770 elegy to George Whitefield, who died in Massachusetts that year.

Hail, happy Saint, on thy immortal throne!
To thee complaints of grievance are unknown;
We hear no more the music of thy tongue,
Thy wonted auditories cease to throng.
Thy lessons in unequal’d accents flow’d!
While emulation in each bosom glow’d;
Thou didst, in strains of eloquence refin’d,
Inflame the soul, and captivate the mind.
Unhappy we, the setting Sun deplore!
Which once was splendid, but it shines no more;
He leaves this earth for Heav’n’s unmeasur’d height,
And worlds unknown, receive him from our sight;
There WHITEFIELD wings, with rapid course his way,
And sails to Zion, through vast seas of day.

Then she implored her fellow African Americans to accept Whitefield’s savior.

Take HIM ye Africans, he longs for you;
Impartial SAVIOUR, is his title due;
If you will chuse to walk in grace’s road,
You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to GOD.


A variant edition of the poem ended that line with, “He’ll make you free, and kings, and priests to God.” This undoubtedly reflected Wheatley’s desire for her fellow slaves.

Read the entire post here.

Merritt entered the conversation when he took issue with Kidd using the word “evangelical” to describe Wheatley.  (Kidd uses the term in the title of the post).

Kidd requests an explanation:

These are all legitimate questions. The meaning of the word “evangelical” has been debated by historians for a long time.  And this debate is raging again in the age of Trump.

But then Merritt tells one of the most prolific American religious historians of this generation to “think on this some more.”  I guess this is the kind of bravado that comes when Outreach Magazine names you one of the “30 young influencers reshaping Christian leadership.”   Just for the record, here are just some of Kidd’s books:

  • The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (Yale University Press, 2009)
  • George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2016)
  • God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic Books, 2010)
  • American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism (Princeton University Press).

I think its fair to say Tommy Kidd has done some “thinking on this” topic.

At this point in the exchange Merritt has wandered into the deep end of the pool only to prove that he is not a very good swimmer. He follows his “think about this” line with a bold, strange, and inaccurate claim to his 58K Twitter followers:

After reading this tweet a day later, I decided it was time to insert myself into the conversation:

By the way, I just spent a week in my colonial America class at Messiah College reading Yale historian’s Harry Stout’s Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism with my students.  One of the central premises of the book is that the “evangelical” movement in the eighteenth-century was characterized by those who, to use Merritt’s phrase, endorsed “Whitfield’s (sic) new birth.”

And here is a description of Peter Choi’s recent book on Whitefield titled George Whitefield: Evangelists for God and Empire (foreword by Mark Noll):  “GEORGE WHITEFIELD (1714–1770) is remembered as a spirited revivalist, a catalyst for the Great Awakening, and a founder of the evangelical movement in America.”

And here is Frank Lambert in Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals (Princeton University Press, 1994): “By printing and preaching throughout the colonies Whitefield standardized evangelicalism.  He created a common language of the new birth that evangelicals everywhere employed to distinguish themselves from those who had not undergone a spiritual conversion.”  (p.131).

Perhaps Merritt doesn’t “know” these scholars.

But back in real time, Kidd responds to Merritt’s “exactly zero scholars” line with references to some of the best American religious historians working today.  He could have cited his own books, but instead he cites Catherine Brekus and Bruce Hindmarsh.

And then former Books & Culture editor John Wilson enters the fray:

Back to Kidd:

Wilson adds this:

Merritt turns the conversation back to definitional issues:

Wilson, a veteran of these conversations about the definition of evangelicalism, is tired:

And then he awakens and tweets:

Merritt responds to his 58K Twitter followers. Remember, Merritt fashions himself as a public intellectual who “trains hundreds of young writers” and is a “sought after speaker at colleges, conferences, and churches.”  (Also, don’t forget he writes for The Atlantic). He decides to pontificate with a vast and universal claim:

Wilson brings the conversation back to the original issue.

Merritt has some choice words for Wilson:

I can’t let such disrespect slide without pushing back:

Kidd has had enough:

But Merritt is in attack mode:

Kidd is a bigger man than I am. I can’t let Merritt get away with this:

Later, Kidd places it all in a larger cultural context by quoting a review of Thomas Nichols’s book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters:

By the way, here is the Kirkus review of The Death of Expertise:

As a veteran governmental adviser and think-tank participant, Nichols (National Security Affairs/U.S. Naval War Coll.; No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security, 2013, etc.) has experienced firsthand the decline of respect accorded specialists in many disciplines, as the internet has leveled the playing field to the point where all opinions are more or less considered equal, and a Google search substitutes for decades of research. “These are dangerous times,” he writes. “Never have so many people had access to so much knowledge, and yet been so resistant to learning anything,” However, the author sounds less like an alarmist than like a genial guide through the wilderness of ignorance. There are no startling revelations. Media in general and social media in particular tend to function as echo chambers, reinforcing biases. Some of those whose conclusions are the shakiest tend to shout the loudest, basing their arguments on spurious evidence. Credentials are suspect in an age when university degrees are everywhere, grade inflation runs rampant, and colleges woo prospective students as customers and clients. Little wonder, then, that “if in a previous era too much deference was paid to experts, today there is little deference paid to anyone at all.” Students challenge teachers, patients challenge doctors, and so-called experts argue with other so-called experts (often in territory beyond the expertise of either). “People who claim they are ‘experts’ are sometimes only about as self-aware as people who think they’re good kissers,” he writes. Not that Nichols lets the experts off the hook—some hide behind the impenetrability of academic jargon; others have even faked the data or cooked the books. The answer to this pervasive problem lies in greater media literary and in citizens having a better idea as to what they can trust from whom.

And now I want to give Jonathan Merritt “something to think about.”  Kevin Kruse tweeted this in the context of his ongoing debate with Dinesh D’Souza about race and the Democratic Party.  The content of their debate is different from the Kidd-Merritt debate (and Merritt is not a Trump supporter), but the message is the same: