Discrimination Against Evangelicals and the Evangelical Victimization Narrative

Evangelicals 2

Earlier this month I was at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the Boston area for a panel discussion with Dartmouth religion scholar Randall Balmer on “Evangelicals and Politics.”  Mark Massa of Boston College’s Boisi Center served as the moderator.

Massa asked us if evangelicals had a “distinctive political style.”  I suggested, as I did in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, that much of evangelical politics is defined by fear, power, and nostalgia.

Balmer summarized evangelical’s political style in one word: “victimization.”  I thought about his answer again after reading Griffin Paul Jackson’s recent piece at Christianity Today: “Half of Americans Say Evangelical are Discriminated Against.”  Here is a taste:

Though evangelical Protestants remain the largest faith group in the country, as clashes over their beliefs turn up in the public square, half the country has come to believe evangelicals face discrimination in the US.

A new report from the Pew Research Center reveals that Americans see discrimination on the rise or holding steady across demographic groups, with evangelical Christians and Jews experiencing a significant uptick over the past few years.

Fifty percent of US adults agree that evangelical Christians are subject to discrimination, up from 42 percent in 2016. One in five (18%) say that evangelicals—about a quarter of the population—face “a lot” of discrimination.

Read the rest here.

Evangelicals only represent about 25% of the American population.  This means that a lot of non-evangelical Americans also believe that evangelicals face discrimination.  As the readers of this blog know, I am not a fan of the victimization narrative that defines much of political discourse on the Christian Right.  Balmer is right.  But I also think some of the discrimination of evangelicals is probably real.  Perhaps we brought it upon ourselves, but it is nonetheless real.  I wrote about this a few years ago at Aeon.

Tony Bennett, Evangelicalism, and University of Virginia Basketball

Bennett

Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia, was no evangelical.  But he was a champion of religious liberty and had a lot of support among Virginia evangelicals when he ran for president in 1800. So it is unclear what he would have thought about an evangelical running his school’s national championship basketball program.

UVA coach Tony Bennett has been outspoken about his evangelical faith.  His faith has been covered by the Billy Graham Evangelistic AssociationThe Daily Progress,  the Baptist Press, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Heavy.  (The Washington Post discussed how he handled racism during 2017 white nationalist invasion of Charlottesville, but says nothing about his Christian faith).

Following his team’s national championship victory on Monday night, Bennett told Jim Nantz that he had played a Christian song titled “Hills and Valleys” to get his team ready for the game.  This song must have had special meaning for Bennett.  Last March, Bennett’s UVA program was definitely in the “valley” after it became the first #1 seed to lose to a #16 seed (UMBC). (It should be no surprise that Bennett received a text from former NFL coach and motivational speaker Tony Dungy after the loss to UMBC).

The lyrics of “Hills and Valleys” focus on God’s faithfulness during the joy and pain of life:

I’ve walked among the shadows
You wiped my tears away
And I’ve felt the pain of heartbreak
And I’ve seen the brighter days
And I’ve prayed prayers to heaven from my lowestplace
And I have held the blessings
God, you give and take away

No matter what I have, Your grace is enough
No matter where I am, I’m standing in Your love

On the mountains, I will bow my life
To the one who set me there
In the valley, I will lift my eyes to the one who sees me there
When I’m standing on the mountain aft, didn’t get there on my own
When I’m walking through the valley end, no I am not alone!
You’re God of the hills and valleys!
Hills and Valleys!
God of the hills and valleys
And I am not alone!

I’ve watched my dreams get broken

In you I hope again!
No matter what I know
Know I’m safe inside Your hand

On the mountains, I will bow my life
To the one who set me there
In the valley, I will lift my eyes to the one who sees me there
When I’m standing on the mountain aft, didn’t get there on my own
When I’m walking through the valley end, no I am not alone!
You’re God of the hills and valleys!
Hills and Valleys!
God of the hills and valleys
And I am not alone!

Father, you give and take away
Every joy and every pain
Through it all you will remain
Over it all!

Father, you give and take away
Every joy and every pain
Through it all you will remain
Over it all!

On the mountains, I will bow my life
To the one who set me there (to the one who set me there)
In the valley, I will lift my eyes to the one who sees me there
When I’m standing on the mountain aft, didn’t get there on my own
When I’m walking through the valley end, no I am not alone!
You’re God of the hills and valleys!
Hills and Valleys!
God of the hills and valleys
And I am not alone!
You’re God of the hills and valleys!
Hills and Valleys!
God of the hills and valleys
And I am not alone!

Frankly, it’s refreshing to see Bennett invoke a song that celebrates God’s faithfulness in the wins AND the losses.

The role that Bennett’s faith plays in his coaching is covered well in Jonathan Adams’s piece at Heavy. Here is a taste:

Virginia coach Tony Bennett is outspoken about his Christian faith and how it shapes his work with players. During the 2019 NCAA tournament, Bennett noted his faith helps him through stressful situations in games.

“You certainly feel things – things bother you, but where does peace and perspective come from? And I always tell our guys: It’s got to be something that is unconditional,” Bennett said, per Christian Headlines. “And I know I have that in the love of my family – unconditional acceptance and love. That’s huge. And I know I have that in my faith in Christ. That’s, for me, where I draw my strength from – my peace, my steadiness in the midst of things.”

Bennett committed to being a Christian while he was attending a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp when he was 14, per Decision magazine. The Virginia coach emphasizes five pillars to his players, and the tenets have become a staple of the Virginia program. Bennett drew upon Biblical principals to create the five pillars: humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. Former Virginia player Joe Harris spoke with Decision magazine about the impact these pillars have had on his life beyond basketball.

“You can apply those pillars to the rest of your life, not just basketball,” Harris noted to Decision. “I always tell people that being at Virginia with coach Bennett helped me in a huge developmental standpoint as a basketball player, but that I developed even more as a person.”

Something tells me Jefferson would still be happy with the UVA win.

Haugen: Young Evangelicals are Committed to Social Justice

Black Lives Matter

At the recent Faith Angle Forum in Miami, Gary Haugen, founder and CEO of the International Justice Mission, said that there is a major divide between older and younger white evangelicals on issues of race and social justice in America.  I think one finds the same age-based division in white evangelical support for Donald Trump.

Here is a taste of Jon Ward’s piece at Yahoo News:

The generational divide among white evangelicals over issues of race and social justice has given the group a more conservative reputation than is merited, but that will change in the coming decade, according to the head of an influential Christian aid group.

Speaking with a group of journalists here this week, Gary Haugen, founder and CEO of the International Justice Mission (IJM), which mostly works outside the United States, also addressed questions about what insights he might have about injustice in America.

Haugen avoided commenting directly on issues of racial injustice, or on the question of why white evangelical Christians have been stalwart supporters of President Trump, who rose to power by demonizing immigrants. But Haugen stood by his assertion years ago, before the rise of Trump, that there is a “sea change” among evangelicals as it relates to issues of injustice. However, he qualified that much of this change is not yet being seen among older white evangelicals.

In particular, Haugen pinpointed the world of conservative philanthropy, which intersects closely with nonprofit and aid work. The tension, he intimated, is between a money sector in evangelicalism dominated by wealthy individuals who skew older and much more conservative in their politics, and an activist sector that is younger and far more progressive in its worldview.

This report is very interesting in light of the debate taking place right now between the followers of California megachurch pastor John MacArthur and the Calvinist conservative evangelical group The Gospel Coalition.  Some of you may recall that MacArthur is the megachurch pastor who claims that the Bible does not teach social justice.  The Gospel Coalition includes evangelical theologians and pastors such as Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, Russell Moore, Al Mohler, and John Piper.  They have a long way to go before someone would call their constituency “social justice warriors,” but they are making efforts, particularly as it relates to racial reconciliation.

Here are few examples how this debate is playing out:

In a recent blog post, a MacArthur follower from an organization called Sovereign Nations argues that the Gospel Coalition is drifting towards identity politics by replacing the central message of the Gospel (salvation through Christ) with social justice.

Both MacArthur followers and some Gospel Coalition followers attacked Jemar Tisby on Twitter after the Gospel Coalition published a positive review of his The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.  (We talked to Tisby about this in Episode 48 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast).

Here are some of the authors of MacArthur’s social justice statement.  This is Sovereign Nations event:

If you don’t want to watch the whole video above, you can get a taste here:

If Haugen is correct about generational shifts, and I think he is, these anti-social justice crusaders are going to be in for a rude awakening.

Evangelicals Call for Renewable Energy in Indiana

Kyle Schaap

Kyle Meyaard-Schaap

21,000 evangelicals that is.  Learn more from Rebecca Thiele’s piece at WFYI (Indianapolis).   A taste:

A group of evangelicals in Indiana wants the state to expand wind and solar energy. The Evangelical Environmental Network delivered more than 21,000 signatures to Gov. Eric Holcomb Wednesday demanding 100% renewable energy in the state by 2030. 

“It gives [lawmakers] freedom to pursue solutions at the speed and scale that we need to address environmental pollution and the climate crisis,” says Rev. Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, director of outreach for the EEN.

The EEN calls itself a ministry that mobilizes christians to care for God’s creation, which includes the environment. It says Indiana’s reliance on coal led the United Health Foundation to rank the state near the bottom for air quality.

Read the rest here.

 

Trends Regarding Race and Evangelicalism

latin evangelicals

Here are three trends from Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University:

  1. “Evangelicals are not keeping pace with America’s racial diversity”
  2. “African Americans and Hispanics are on the forefront of the rise of ‘nothing in particular’ category of religious affiliation”
  3. “Non-white evangelicals often have higher rates of religious attendance.”

See how Burge unpacks these points at Christianity Today.

Franklin Graham Wants to Transfer the Billy Graham Papers from Wheaton to Charlotte

Billy Graham Library

Here is the official Wheaton College statement:

Wheaton College has received a request from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) to transfer Dr. Billy Graham’s papers and the BGEA’s organizational records from the Billy Graham Center Archives on the campus of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., to the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C., in order to consolidate Dr. Graham’s historical records.

College leaders are in communication with the BGEA regarding its planned consolidation. Wheaton College affirms its longstanding respect for the BGEA and looks forward to continuing the positive relationship that the College and the BGEA have enjoyed for decades.

Wheaton College is grateful for the life and legacy of Dr. Graham, who graduated from Wheaton in 1943 and received an honorary doctorate in 1956. His relationship with the College spanned eight decades, including 27 years as a member of the Board of Trustees, after which he was a Trustee Emeritus for the rest of his life. His vision for global evangelism continues through events, initiatives and academic programs of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.

Forty years ago, Dr. Graham entrusted his papers and other materials to Wheaton College. Since then, Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center Archives has had the honor of curating and making available primary sources regarding Dr. Graham and the BGEA, as well as organizational records, personal papers, and oral histories from other sources documenting the history of evangelism and missionary activity of North American nondenominational Protestants. More than 19,000 scholars, journalist and other researchers have spent 67,000 hours in the Billy Graham Center Archives since it opened, producing dozens of books, articles and papers annually.

Wheaton College remains committed to the vision that Dr. Graham articulated at the dedication of the Center in 1980: “I hope and pray that the Billy Graham Center will be a world hub of inspiration, research, and training that will glorify Christ and serve every church and organization in preaching and teaching the Gospel to the world.”

The Billy Graham Center will continue to house the archives of numerous organizations and individuals central to American evangelism and missionary work worldwide, including InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the Lausanne Movement, Overseas Missionary Fellowship, R. A. Torrey, Billy Sunday, and Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, in the building that bears Billy Graham’s name.

Wheaton College (Wheaton, Illinois) is a coeducational Christian liberal arts college noted for its rigorous academics, integration of faith and learning, and consistent ranking among the top liberal arts colleges in the country. For more information, visit wheaton.edu.

I don’t have horse in this race, but I do hope that scholars will have the same access to the Graham papers now that they are with Franklin.  Will the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte have a professional archivist to care for the papers? What kind of research facilities do they have? How will the papers be managed?

Right now, it appears that the “Billy Graham Library” in Charlotte is little more than a museum, Christian bookstore, snack shop, and prayer garden. The website says nothing about research.  Meanwhile, the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College has the most extensive archive collection in the country devoted to American evangelicalism.

Even White Evangelicals Oppose Trump’s Bible-Signing

Trump BIbles

Check out journalist Joanna Piacenza piece at Morning Consult.  According to a Morning Consult poll, most white evangelicals think that Trump’s signing of Bibles at an Alabama Baptist church earlier this month was “inappropriate.”  U.S. adults, Republicans, Christians, white Catholics, and white mainline Protestants also think Trump’s signing of Bibles was “inappropriate.” The only identity group that thinks the president’s signing of Bible is appropriate are Trump voters, but only by a 43% to 42% margin.

Read the piece here.  I was happy to help Piacenza with her story.

Evangelicals Love Trump’s “National Emergency” Declaration

Border WallPerhaps you have seen the new NPR/PBS/Marist Poll on Americans reaction to Trump’s declaration of a “national emergency” on the Mexican border. I used this poll to begin my lecture yesterday at the University of Southern California.  If you haven’t seen it yet, here are a few things worth noting:

  • 61% of all Americans disapprove of Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency.  36% approve.
  • But only 26% of white evangelicals disapprove of Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency.   67% approve

 

  • 39% of Americans believe that there is a national emergency at the Mexican border.  58% of Americans do not believe this.
  • But 70% of white evangelicals believe that there is a national emergency at the Mexican border.  22% of white evangelicals do not believe this.

 

  • 36% of Americans believe that Trump is “properly using” his presidential powers by declaring a national emergency on the border.  57% do not.
  • But 69% of white evangelicals believe that Trump is “properly using” his presidential powers by declaring a national emergency on the border.  23% do not.

 

  • 54% of Americans said that they are “less likely” to vote for Trump in 2020 because he has declared a national emergency to build a border wall.  33% of Americans said they were more “likely” to vote for Trump because of the national emergency and the wall.  12% of Americans said the wall will not make any difference in how they vote in 2020.
  • Only 22% of white evangelicals said that they are “less likely” to vote for Trump in 2020 because he has declared a national emergency to build a border wall.  60% said they are more likely to vote for Trump in 2020 because he wants to build a border wall.  15% of white evangelicals said the wall will not make any difference in how they vote in 2020.

These are very revealing statistics.  They tell us a lot about white evangelicals today.  Why are they so supportive of Trump’s national emergency and his border wall and why are they so out of step with the rest of the American population?  Read the report here and draw your own conclusions.

As I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, white evangelicals are fearful that their white Christian nation is eroding and they believe Trump’s immigration policies are the best way to save it.

Thanks to John Haas for calling this poll to my attention.

Believe Me 3d

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

🙂

Alan Jacobs: “Demanding that others stop criticizing your preferred group is a cheap identity-politics move”

Pence

Baylor University scholar Alan Jacobs reflects on Mike Pence and the journalists who cover him:

VP Mike Pence says, “Criticism of Christian education in America must stop.” No it musn’t. Nobody and nothing is above criticism. Demanding that others stop criticizing your preferred group is a cheap identity-politics move. It would simply be a good thing if the critics made some effort to understand what they’re criticizing, though of course that’s not going to happen. I can’t imagine a cohort less likely to inform itself about conservative Christianity than the cohort of American journalists.

My caveat: There is a growing number of excellent journalists covering the religion beat who do try to understand conservative Christianity.

Trump is Down 13% With White Evangelicals

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Here are the results of the latest National Public Radio/PBS/Marist poll:

A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll finds Trump’s approval rating down and his disapproval rating up from a month ago. He currently stands at 39 percent approve, 53 percent disapprove — a 7-point net change from December when his rating was 42 percent approve, 49 percent disapprove.

And the movement has come from within key portions of his base. He is:

  • Down significantly among suburban men, a net-positive approval rating of 51-to-39 percent to a net-negative of 42 percent approve, 48 percent disapprove. That’s a net change of down 18 percentage points.
  • Down a net of 13 points among white evangelicals, from 73-to-17 percent approve to 66-to-23 percent approve.
  • Down a net of 10 points among Republicans, from 90-to-7 percent approve to 83-to-10 percent.
  • Down marginally among white men without a college degree, from 56-to-34 percent approve to 50-to-35 percent approve, a net change downward of 7 points.

Read the rest here.

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!

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?

 

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.