How the history of white evangelical racism has led to Donald Trump’s election and continues to shape support for his presidency

Believe Me 3dI begin with a caveat. This post is not implying that all white evangelicals are or have been racist. Many white evangelicals have been anti-racist and have fought hard to curb systemic racism in American life. But, as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, these are not historical forces that led many white evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. They are not the historical forces that have led many white evangelicals to continue to support Donald Trump. They are not the historical forces that will lead many white evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump in 2020.  And they are not the historical forces that have led many white evangelicals to reject systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

But here is some history:

1 .After Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, which resulted in sixty white deaths in Southampton County, Virginia, fearful white evangelical Christians in the South began to fight harder for the expansion of slavery to the west in the belief that its spread to more open country might reduce the proximity of slaves to one another and thus make insurrections more difficult. White churches responded to Turner’s rebellion with missionary efforts in the hope that the chances of passion-filled revolts might be reduced if slaves could be monitored more closely by white clergy and lay church leaders. Yes, the idea of African Americans rebelling and causing disorder has been around for a long time.

2. The anxieties stemming from slave insurrections led Southern ministers to develop a biblical and theological defense of slavery. These ministers argued that anyone who read the Bible in a literal, word-for-word fashion (as God intended it to be read) would conclude that God had ordained this system of labor. Commonsense interpretations of Bible passages that referred to slavery were often difficult to refute. Old Testament patriarchs such as Abraham owned slaves. Slavery was a legal institution in the New Testament world, and the apostle Paul urged the Roman Christians to obey government laws. In the book of Philemon, Paul required the runaway slave Onesimus to return to his owner. Writing in the immediate wake of the Nat Turner rebellion, Thomas Dew, a professor of political science at the College of William and Mary, used the Bible to defend the view that all societies had a fixed and natural social structure. Citing 1 Corinthians 7:20-21, Dew reasoned that Africans should remain slaves because God had created them to fulfill such a role in society. Slaves had been given a divine “calling” and, in Paul’s words, “each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.” One South Carolina Presbyterians went so far as to say, “If the Scriptures do not justify slavery…I know not what they do justify.” I am reminded here of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler’s remarks about slavery.

3. Evangelicals thought that the South’s social order, and its identity as a Christian culture worthy of God’s blessing, was grounded in a proper reading of the Bible. In other words, the people of the South–and eventually the Confederate States of America–believed that they were living in a Christian society precisely because they upheld the institution of slavery.  The abolitionist argument against slavery was not only heretical because it violated the explicit teaching of Scripture; it also threatened the Christian character of the United States. Robert L. Dabney, a Virginia Presbyterian clergyman and one of the strongest defenders of slavery and white supremacy in the South, contended that the notion that slaves–or any Africans for that matter–had “rights” and thus deserved freedom was a modern idea introduced in the eighteenth-century by the progressive thinkers of the Enlightenment, not by the expositors of God-inspired Scripture.  James Henley Thornwell, another powerful theological voice in support of slavery, understood the Civil War as a clash between atheist abolitionists and virtuous slaveholders: “The parties in this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders–they are atheists, socialists, communist, red republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. Sound familiar? Watch this or most other episodes of the Eric Metaxas Show. One of Thornwell’s students, New Orleans Presbyterian minister Benjamin Palmer, said that the South had been called “to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of slavery as not existing.” It was a duty to “ourselves, to our slaves, to the world, and to almighty God.”

4. Southern evangelicals also feared the mixing of races (even though the races were mixed mainly because of the long history of master raping slaves). Slaveholders believed that their defense of a Christian civilization was directly connected to the purity of the white race. One Presbyterian minister in Kentucky claimed that “no Christian American” would allow the “God-defying depravity of intermarriage between the white and negro races.”  South Carolina governor George McDuffie, who  said that “no human institution…is more manifestly consistent with the will of God, then domestic slavery,” also claimed abolitionists were on a “fiend-like errand of mingling the blood of master and slave.” In the process, McDuffie argued, they were contributing to the “end of the white republic established in 1776.”

5. Longstanding racial fears did not fade away with the Union victory in the Civil War. Reconstruction amendments that ended slavery (Thirteenth) and provided freedmen with citizenship rights (Fourteenth) and voting rights (Fifteenth) only reinforced Southern evangelical racism. A classic example of this was Dabney’s opposition to the ordination of freedmen in the Southern Presbyterian Church. During an 1867 debate over this issue, Dabney said that the ordination of African American minister in the white Presbyterian church would “threaten the very existence of civil society.” It was God, Dabney argued, who created racial difference and, as a result, “it was plainly impossible for a black man to teach and rule white Christians to edification.” He predicted a theological version of “white flight” by suggesting that black ordination would “bring a mischievous element in our church, at the expense of driving a multitude of valuable members and ministers out.” Dabney would not sit by and watch his denomination permit “amalgamation” to “mix the race of Washington and Lee, and Jackson, with this base herd which they brought from the pens of Africa.”

6. Northern Protestant fundamentalists at the turn of the 20th century were aware of the moral problem of racism, but they did very little to bring it to an end. While they did occasionally speak out against lynching and other acts of racial violence, they failed to see how their literal views of the Bible contributed to systemic racism in American life. White terror groups seemed to understand this better than the fundamentalists did. As historian Matt Sutton has shown, the Ku Klux Klan regularly sought partnerships with fundamentalists. The Klan’s leaders believed Protestant fundamentalist crusades to save Christian America made them a natural ally in the war against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. Some fundamentalist commentaries on race could have been lifted from the collected works of 19th-century pro-slavery theologians such as Lewis Dabney or James Henry Thornwell. A.C. Dixon, the fundamentalist pastor of the Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn, called the Fifteenth Amendment (the amendment that gave African Americans the right to vote) “the blunder of the age” because African Americans were “ignorant” and thus ill-equipped to cast a ballot. Other fundamentalists upheld typical racial stereotypes that portrayed African Americans as rapists, murderers, and threats to white women. In 1923, Moody Monthly, the flagship publication of fundamentalism, published articles defending Klan activity. Fundamentalist fears about the decline of Christian America regularly manifested themselves in racism.

7. In the wake of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, an event which historians have called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” several evangelical and fundamentalist clergymen were quick to put their white supremacy on display. Edwin D. Mouzon, the bishop of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, said he did not know who was to blame for the massacre. But if you read the front page of the June 6, 1921 edition of the Morning Tulsa Daily World, “black agitators,” including black activist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois, were to blame.
Mon, Jun 6, 1921 – Page 1 · The Morning Tulsa Daily World (Tulsa, Oklahoma) · Newspapers.com

Mouzon said, “there is one thing…upon which I should like to make myself perfectly clear. That is racial equality. There never has been and there never will be such a thing. It is divine ordained. This is something that negroes should be told very plainly…At the same time, we must have a Christian attitude toward the black man; he is made by the same creator; he is subject to the same Christian laws, he is our brother in Christ.” On the same day, Reverend J.W. Abel of Tulsa’s First Methodist Church said, “What other nation in all human history has done as much [for] a people as the white race has done for the race which but a brief century ago emerged from slavery? A race which even in slavery was a thousand times better off than the black princes who ruled their race in Africa.” Abel continued, “But the sin of this [black] race is that they are all too ready to protect a member of the race in crime, for no other reason that he is a negro…some day the negro will come to know that the white race is his best friend.” Dr. Howard G. Cooke, pastor of Tulsa’s Centennial Methodist Church, noted that “there has been a great deal of loose-mouthed and loose-minded talking about the white people of Tulsa being equally to blame with the blacks. This is not true.” He added, “[The massacre] should be the beginning of a new regime of law and order in this city.” This is is an interesting observation in light of the fact that a self-proclaimed “law and order” president will be holding a rally in Tulsa tomorrow night, only a few weeks after the 99th anniversary of the massacre.  (Thanks to historian Kenny Brown for bringing this material to my attention)

8. In the mid-20th century,  white evangelicals had a mixed track record regarding racial issues facing the country during the civil rights movement. Billy Graham was famous for desegregating his evangelistic crusades, and many evangelical leaders and publications supported the Brown v. Board of Education decision ending segregation in public schools, just as they supported the Civil Rights Acts (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). But very few Northern evangelicals actually participated in the movement, and strong pockets of segregationist thought and practice continued to exist in the evangelical South. Most white evangelicals were not particularly interested in the civil rights movement; they were far more concerned about–and opposed to–the way the federal government used its power to enforce desegregation and oppose Jim Crow laws in their local communities. Historian Mark Noll has argued that race and civil rights served as an entry point for the white conservative evangelicals critique of active government.

9. This relationship between race and evangelical opposition to “big government” intervention into state and local affairs is best illustrated in the evangelical response to two Supreme Court cases. Green v. Connally (1972) removed tax-exempt status from private schools and colleges that discriminated against students based on race. At the center of the controversy was Bob Jones University, a school that banned interracial dating and denied admission to unmarried African Americans. In 1975, the IRS moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of the university, a case that was eventually decided in favor of the IRS in Bob Jones v. United States.  Green v. Connolly and Bob Jones v. United States also had implications for the hundreds of private Christian academies cropping up (at the rate of two per day) all over the United States. Many of these schools were in the South and had discriminatory admissions policies, which is not surprising given that many such schools were founded in the immediate aftermath of public-school integration. When President Jimmy Carter, a self-proclaimed “born-again Christian,” supported the Green v. Connally decision, he alienated many conservative evangelicals who ran these academies. To be fair, many segregationist academies were already beginning to admit African American students in the early 1970s, but the leaders of these schools, true to their Southern heritage, wanted to deal with the issues of segregation, race, and civil rights on their own terms. They certainly did not want the federal government forcing them to desegregate.

10. Thus, when Jerry Falwell and like minded conservative evangelicals created the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, they already had experienced the power of the central government when the Supreme Court intruded on the affairs of their segregated academies. In fact, historian Randall Balmer contends that it was this fear of big-government interference as it related to desegregation of institutions like Bob Jones University and Falwell’s own Liberty Academy that prompted the formation of the Christian Right. Paul Weyrich, one of Falwell’s closest associates and one of the leading organizers of the movement, told Balmer in a 1990 interchange that the Christian Right was originally founded, not on evangelicals’ opposition to abortion, but rather on opposition to the attempts by the IRS to desegregate Christian academies.

11. Many of Trump’s evangelical supports came to Trump’s rescue when, in August 2017, he drew a moral equivalency between white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia and those who came to the city to try to oppose them. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church–Dallas, went on Fox Business Network and said that Trump “did just fine” in his statement(s) about the event. He performed a rhetorical move that court evangelicals and other Trump supporters have perfected: he changed the subject and went from defense to offense. Jeffress warned Fox viewers that an “axis of evil” (Democrats, the media, and the “GOP establishment) were plotting to take Trump down. He then reaffirmed America’s Judeo-Christian roots without any sense that many of the Judeo-Christian influences that have shaped United States history were intricately bound up with the kind of racism that the nation had witnessed in Charlottesville. Watch:

It is time that white evangelicals take a hard look at its past and stop trying to “Make America Great Again.” It is time, as theologian Jurgen Moltmann once said, to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.” The operate word is reconciliation, not “renew,” “restore” or “reclaim.”

Evangelicals Hit the Streets for Justice

Washington March

Christians, including white evangelical Christians, led many of today’s anti-racism protest marches.

Here is The Washington Post:

Hundreds of evangelical Christians sang, prayed and banged tambourines Sunday afternoon as they crossed the Anacostia River, headed downtown from Southeast Washington. The group, diverse in age and race, was organized a few days ago among conservative evangelicals who felt the marches haven’t had enough explicitly Christian voices — and because, some leaders said, they personally wanted to repent.

Starting off the march on a nondescript side street off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Anacostia was David Platt, pastor of one of the nation’s largest and most high-profile evangelical churches, McLean Bible.

“We pray that you would forgive us for our history and our present,” Platt, who is white, said as he marched.

Platt was introduced by Thabiti Anyabwile, the pastor of Anacostia River Church, one of conservative evangelicalism’s more outspoken black figures on issues of racism.

“We praise you in particular today, Jesus, as this group, for taking the judgment we deserve,” Platt said.

“As your children we pray you would forgive us for our history and our present. God forgive us,” he said, pausing a long time, “for the sin that so infects our heart.”

“We’ve not represented our Lord well,” said Kay Walker, 35, who carried a sign reading “Jesus is for justice.”

“If you say you’re with Jesus, you have to be for justice,” she said. “It should be the church in front but it’s a shame, in past years we haven’t been.”

Anyabwile said he helped organize the event after watching all week how few events were clergy-led.
“This iteration of civil rights is not located in the church, so the church is playing catch-up when it was once the vanguard,” he said.

His church is racially mixed but, he said, but conversations about the causes and solutions for racial inequality are challenging.

“One skill we don’t have as a country or a church is conversation,” Anyabwile said. “We’re unpracticed at that and so we’re wrestling with hope.”

Read the entire piece here.

Meanwhile, another group of evangelicals are paralyzed by their loyalty to the president and their denial of systemic racism.

 

Mitt Romney Marches With Evangelicals

Here is The Washington Post: “Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) joined a group of hundreds of evangelicals marching Sunday as the tenth day of demonstrations took on themes of faith and prayer.”

 

Ron Sider: It is the “Hour of Decision” for White Evangelicals

sider_horz

Ron Sider is one of the most prominent voices of the evangelical center-left. Here is what he wrote last night at his blog:

The video of a white policeman with his knee on the neck of a black man. As I told my wife, George Floyd could have been our African-American son-in-law.

But I did not think I had anything special to say. So many people like the African-American mayors of St. Paul and Atlanta and Senator Cory Booker, among many others, were saying so well what needed to be said.

But today as I participated in my church’s Sunday School (via zoom of course), I reflected on the painful statistics that were presented. African-American men are 21 times more likely than white men to be shot by the police. One national poll asked people if they thought that today in most cities, the police treat blacks as fairly as whites. 47% of white respondents said yes. Only 6% of blacks said they were treated as fairly as whites by the police. Another national poll asked if the local police treat minorities more harshly than whites. Only 19% of white people said yes. 54% of blacks said yes they are treated more harshly.

Month after month, year after year, there have been new stories of white people (the police and others) killing African-Americans. We all know that African-Americans continue to experience a wide range of disadvantages. Inner city, urban (largely minority) schools spend less money per capita and have education inferior to much better funded white suburban schools. One in every three African-American men go to prison but only one in 17 white men do. In the current COVID-19 epidemic, African-Americans have been dying at twice the rate of white folk. The average white family has 13 times as much wealth as the average black family – – a gap that was wider in 2015 than in 1983! Year after year, the black unemployment rate has been double that of the white unemployment rate.

We know – – we have known for years!– these and many other indicators of continuing structural racism. We all know that racism is America’s original sin – – a racism that has crushed African-Americans for 400 years.

But what began to churn in my mind – – and compel me to to write this blog–was my reflection on the failure of white evangelicals to deal with white racism. Indeed it’s much worse than that! White evangelicals have too often participated in, and even led, that racism.

It was white evangelical Christians in the South (helped by northerners) that passed the laws and organized the violence that effectively squelched the progress made by African-Americans in the first two decades after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It was white evangelicals who led or tolerated thousands of lynchings for about 100 years. After the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision ending “separate but equal” school segregation, it was white evangelicals who organized segregated private “Christian” Academies so their white children would not have to go to school with black children.

When some courageous Jews and Mainline Protestants joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s great civil rights movement against racism, white evangelicals were at best overwhelmingly silent. When Frank Gaebelein, then coeditor of Christianity Today, moved from reporting on, to joining, Dr. King in one of his great civil rights marches, Gaebelein promptly experienced opposition and hostility from other white evangelical leaders. Jerry Falwell denounced Dr. King, condemning him for getting into politics instead of sticking to his proper role of evangelism. The seminary where I taught for 41 years was founded in 1925 as an evangelical alternative to theological liberalism. But the seminary refused to allow black male students to sleep overnight on campus and closed their swimming pool instead of integrating it. When the news of Dr. King’s assignation came to the white Los Angeles Baptist College where Dolphus Weary (one of John Perkins’ young black proteges) was studying, Weary discovered to his horror that the white students were celebrating! In 1989, George Gallup published a survey showing that white Southern Baptists were the most likely of all Christians to object to having black neighbors.

It’s true that many white evangelical institutions have made some progress in recent decades. There have been significant statements repenting of racism – – including one by the Southern Baptists.

But in 2016, a man ran for president making clear conscious appeals to white racists. He claimed –totally falsely–that President Obama had not been born in the US and was therefore not legitimately president. He did not reject support of his candidacy by white nationalists and even David Duke, the former head of the Klu Klux Klan. Paul Ryan, Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives, publicly declared that one of Trump’s statements was a “textbook” case of racism. But in spite of these clear, blatant, racist appeals, 81% of white evangelicals voted for him. And longtime Republican leader, Peter Wehner shows in his book THE DEATH OF POLITICS, that a major factor in the 2016 vote of white male Christians for Trump was their anxiety about losing their cultural dominance in the society.

And now in the midst of this most recent tragedy of the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman, President Trump fails to try to unite the country as previous presidents – both Republican and Democrat – have done. Instead of speaking in ways to bring Americans together, he continues to stoke racism. Instead of helping us better understand the long history of racist discrimination that fuels the angry response to Floyd’s death, he makes partisan tweets. He denounced the “very weak radical left” Democratic mayor of Minneapolis. Trump said he would send in the National Guard and added in the tweet: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.“

This is the president white evangelicals have elected and continue to defend. There may or may not be some valid reasons for voting for Trump (that is the subject for other posts).

But unless white evangelicals rise up in large numbers to condemn Donald Trump’s racist, divisive response; unless the many prominent white evangelical leaders who vigorously support Trump’s presidency loudly and publicly condemn his failure to lead the nation away from racism; unless that happens, white evangelicalism loses whatever credibility it still retains.

This is white evangelicalism’s hour of decision. We must condemn Trump’s racist actions. We must repent of our long history of racism. We must throw ourselves into a decade-long peaceful struggle to end continuing structural racism in our schools, prisons indeed all areas of society.

If Billy Graham were still with us, he would call us to respond courageously in this hour of decision.

Most of California’s Evangelical Megachurches are Still Online

Saddleback

Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA is online this weekend

1200 California churches will open this weekend in defiance of the governor’s orders. We posted about this here.

But before the press paints California evangelicals with one broad brush, as they are prone to do, it is worth noting that nearly all of California’s largest and most influential megachurches will continue to conduct services online this weekend. Most of them are not listening to Donald Trump. They are making their own decisions in conversation with local government and health officials. This is also the case with evangelical churches across the country.

These churches are online only (though dated (10 years old), we are using the Hartford Institute for Religion Research megachurch list for attendance numbers):

Saddleback Church in Lake Forest (Rick Warren): 22,055

Bayside Church in Roseville (Ray Johnston): 22,286

The Rock Church and World Outreach Center in San Bernardino (Dan Roth): 14,550

Mariners Church in Irvine (Eric Geiger): 13,567

West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles (Charles E. Blake):13,000

Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside (Greg Laurie): 13,000

The Rock Church in San Diego (Miles McPherson): 12,864

North Coast Church in Vista (Larry Osborne): 12,521

Calvary Chapel Golden Springs (Paul Ries): 12,000

Templo Calvario Assembly of God in Santa Ana (Daniel de Leon): 11,000

Shepherd Church in Porter Ranch (Dudley Rutherford): 8675

Valley Bible Fellowship in Bakersfield (Ron Vietti): 10,300

Faith Community Church in West Covina (Dan Reeve): 10,000

Sandals Church in Riverside (Matt Brown): 9559

Calvary Church in Costa Mesa (Brian Broderson): 9500

Calvary Chapel South Bay in Gardena (Jeff Gill): 9200

The Church on the Way in Van Nuys (Tim Clark): 9032

Calvary Chapel in Downey (Jeff Johnson): 9000

Angelus Temple in Los Angeles (Matthew Barnett): 8975

Eastside Christian Church in Anaheim (Gene Appel): 8960

Cathedral of Faith in San Jose (Ken Foreman): 8000

Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood (Kenneth Ulmer): 8000

Grace Community Church in Sun Valley (John McArthur): 8000

Shadow Mountain Community Church in San Diego (David Jeremiah): 7513

Cottonwood Christian Center in Los Alamitos (Bayless and Janet Conley): 7000

Horizon Christian Fellowship in San Diego (Philip Macintosh): 7000

Emmanuel Faith Community Church in Escondido (Ryan Paulson): 6500

High Desert Church in Victorville (Tom Mercer): 6313

Lancaster Baptist Church in Lancaster (Paul Chappell): 6000

Bethany Slavic Missionary Church in Sacramento (Adam Bodnaruk): 5700

Crossroads Christian Church in Corona (Chuck Booher): 5221

Sunrise Church in Rialto (Steve Garcia): 5000

Rock Harbor Church in Costa Mesa (Bart Scharrer): 5000

Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena (Jeff Mattesich): 5000

 

ADDENDUM: When I posted this on Facebook I wrote: “Most California evangelicals will worship online this Sunday, but the media is obsessed with those that want to open-up.”

A reader responded:

The media is obsessed.” If I’m a journalist, it’s my responsibility to cover things like the Liberty Counsel’s “ReOpen Church Sunday” announcement which was made over a month ago. That’s not obsession, it’s simple reporting.

My response:

No argument here…You have to cover it. You are doing your job. But part of my job is to remind people that the reporting of individual cases–like the Liberty Counsel “ReOpen Church Sunday”– is used to create a larger narrative that informs programming and a given outlet’s approach to the news. You are covering facts. 24-hour news outlets are taking those facts and telling a story over the course of a given news cycle. CNN and MSNBC want to paint evangelicals as rights-obsessed, anti-science crazy people. FOX wants to portray them as patriots. Neither represents the everyday lives of most conservative evangelical Christians. A historian would tell this story very differently. 50 years from now, the story of Pentecost Sunday 2020 in California will be that the attendees of the largest megachurches in the state stayed home.

ADDENDUM #2 (Saturday, May 22, 2020 at 11:00am): John MacArthur of Grace Community Church is opening.

 

Interpreting Evangelicals Who Go To Church During This Pandemic

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Rodney Howard-Browne held services at his Florida church during the pandemic

Here is religion scholar Robert Orsi at Notre Dame’s “Contending Modernities” blog:

The woman leans confidently out of her car window, her right hand at high noon on the steering wheel. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” she tells the reporter for CNN, who has just asked about her decision to attend a crowded late afternoon evangelical church service in the middle of a deadly global pandemic. “Aren’t you concerned you could infect other people inside?” the reporter presses. The woman swings her head defiantly, her straight black hair catching the overhead lights. “No, no, I’m covered in Jesus’s blood,” she says. People who don’t go to her church “could get me sick,” she says, when she goes to Walmart or Home Depot, “but I’m not, because I’m covered in Jesus’s blood.” Then she drives off.

It may protect this woman against infection, but Jesus’s blood paints me into an epistemological corner. I have argued for an approach to religion I’ve been calling plural ontological realism, which in this case means I take this woman at her word: her experience of Jesus being really present to her in the community of other Christians (she was clear in her brief comments how important the church was to her) protects her from infection (and perhaps from infecting others, although she seemed to care less about this). I am committed to resisting the impulse, deep in the theoretical inheritances of the modern study of religion, to lift this woman out of the ontology in which she became (or remade herself as) a subject and through which she lives her subjectivity in relation to others, among whom are, in this instance, the people she meets in Walmart and Home Depot. Any theoretical work about the role of religion must begin (although it does not end) with the reality of this woman’s claim of immunity, within her world, without translating it, and relocating her, into alien ontologies. This is not to suggest that her world is singular: it is adjacent to and cross-cut by other ontologies (such as the reporter’s). Amid this ontological diversity, evangelical Christianity of a particular sort is determinative for this woman, at this moment in history and in her life.

Every sentence of the preceding paragraph requires discussion, but this is not why I am here right now. Rather, I want to think outwards from the corner. I begin by wondering why, ever since I heard this woman’s comment on the night’s news, I have been feeling I needed to do something about it. What is this imperative and where does it come from? Is it the disciplinary impulse to speakforothers (she seems to be doing ok on this front); or, is it the drive to translate her to others? If it’s the latter, then to what end? The way the question insisted on itself to me was specifically in the form: what is to be done about this woman? Eventually, I came to see this as an articulation of the drive to power that moves through the study of “religion” in modernity. We scholars of religion are more aware of this drive now, but, still, the temptation exists to offer our services as deputies of law and order. Resisting this is the first thing to do in response to this woman’s statement about being washed in Jesus’s blood. I accept the ontology of facts as given: she continues to shop at Walmart in a pandemic because she is protected by the blood of the Lord in which she has been washed.

Read the rest here.

What Happened to the Moral Clarity of Some American Evangelicals Between 2016 and 2020?

Trump and Bible

Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s recent story at The Washington Post adds to what I posted about  earlier this week (here and here).  Here are some new things we learn from her piece:

  •  Mohler’s son-in-law is a Trump appointee in the State Department.
  •  Dwight McKissic, a prominent African-American Southern Baptist pastor in Arlington, Texas, will no longer recommend Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (where Mohler serves as president) to African-American young people who want to attend seminary.
  • Karen Swallow Prior, a prominent voice in the evangelical community, has taken this moment to say that she will vote for a third-party candidate in November.
  • Wayne Grudem, a conservative evangelical theologian, praised Mohler’s decision. Grudem said, “It is hard for me to think of someone who’s done much good for the country in that short amount of time.  (I re-affirm what I said about Grudem back in December).

Some quick thoughts for my fellow evangelicals who will be changing their vote to Trump in November:

1. On abortion: I am still convinced (as I argued in Believe Me) that overturning Roe v. Wade and winning the federal courts will not end abortion in America. In a broken world, abortions will continue. We must work, as citizens of the Kingdom of God, to reduce them. As someone who cares about the dignity of human beings and the protection of the vulnerable unborn, I think expanded health care and poverty relief, both staples of the Democratic Party platform, will keep the number of abortions in America on a downward trajectory. As a Christian, I thank God for this downward trajectory and I want to do everything I can to keep lowering the number of abortions in America.

2. As someone who has watched and studied Trump every day of his presidency, I think his presidency has been a moral disaster–for the country and the church. Nothing has changed in four years. If anything, it has gotten worse. Trump has succeeded in weakening (even further) the moral clarity of American evangelicals. And not just the court evangelicals.

3. Religious liberty issues are real. I will continue to push for a more pluralist society in which Christian institutions are permitted to exercise their faith–even on sexual issues–with freedom. On the other hand, we can’t be afraid of persecution if and when it comes. We can’t turn to an immoral strongman to protect us. Perhaps persecution may be exactly what the church needs right now. I hope not. It doesn’t sound fun. But if this happens, Jesus promises that we will be “blessed.” It will reveal our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. And if history is a guide, it just might draw more people to consider the Christian faith.

4. Mohler says in his video that his decision to vote for Trump in 2020 is based on his “Christian (or Biblical) worldview.”

What is this thing called “Christian worldview?” Here is the twitter feed of The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia:

Here is a friend on Facebook:

I love how targeting tax breaks towards the .01% and eliminating basic rights of worker protection, championing measures to exacerbate gross inequalities of income and generational wealth, eradicating by executive agency fiat already precarious regulations about not dumping chemicals in water, engaging in a non-stop campaign to demonize even the slightest efforts to increase access to health care, and engaging in deliberately targeted efforts at voter suppression (targeted against black voters “with an almost surgical precision,” as the North Carolina Supreme Court put it) is now defined as the “Christian worldview” in politics, while the other side is “anti-Christian.”

I agree with the idea of viewing the world from the perspective of Christian faith–all of Christian faith. But I object when “Christian worldview” is invoked in a narrow and limited way that focuses on one or two issues. The idea that a Christian approach to politics should center around abortion and Supreme Court nominations is a very new phenomenon in the history of American evangelicalism and, more broadly, in the history of the global church. It is only about forty years old. This does not mean that evangelical political witness was perfect before the rise of the Christian Right (for example, the evangelical movement’s commitment to the Civil Rights Movement was weak at best),  but it does suggest that Al Mohler’s understanding of political engagement was shaped, and continues to be shaped, by the concerns of a group of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists who developed a successful political movement in the late 1970s. Mohler even admits this in the video when he talks about his unswerving support of Ronald Reagan.

As I have argued, this approach to politics is rooted in fear, power, nostalgia. It is deeply rooted in the false idea that the United States was founded as, and continues to be, a Christian nation. It is deeply rooted in the idea that big government was a threat to local  practices such as segregation. It is deeply rooted in the belief that new immigrants posed a threat, and continue to pose a threat, to white America in the wake of the 1965 Immigration Act. It is deeply rooted in the idea that public schools should be teaching Christians about God and, when prayer and Bible reading was removed from public schools, somehow God was removed as well. (This, it seems, is a pretty small view of God and a pretty weak view of the church as a site of spiritual formation for young people).

If one believes that a Christian worldview means we should always vote for a candidate who wants to overturn Roe v. Wade and defend the “rights” of evangelical Christians, then it makes perfect sense to vote for Trump.  What I am suggesting is that this entire playbook is too narrow and relies too much on fear, power politics, and nostalgia. It ignores the vast majority of Christian teaching, especially as it relates to the poor, social justice, and the care of God’s creation. This is ironic for someone like Mohler who no doubt believes that his Christian worldview is built upon a belief in an inerrant Bible.  All of those mentioned in Pulliam-Bailey’s article are operating under this mostly unbiblical playbook.

 

The “My Pillow” Guy’s Comments at Yesterday’s Press Conference Represent Everything Wrong With the Public Witness of the Christian Right

Watch Mike Lindell, CEO of My Pillow:

Lindell turns a coronavirus press conference into a Christian Right campaign ad for Donald Trump.

Outside of the United States, political leaders don’t like Christians because they proclaim a Gospel that speaks truth to power. Many are persecuted and even killed for their convictions. When this happens, unbelievers see the authenticity of Christ-followers and consider Christianity’s claims.

Inside the United States, people don’t like evangelicals because they act like complete idiots. They hijack press conferences with words that link the will of God to a corrupt president. They suggest that God “has been taken out of our schools and lives” and extol Donald Trump as some kind of divine agent who will bring God back.

How did Mike Lindell advance the Gospel yesterday?

What is Going on in the World of (Evangelical) College Wrestling?

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Liberty University wrestling coach Jesse Castro

Dozens of matches took place between the three daily mat cleanings. No social distancing among participants and spectators. No communication with the Center for Disease Control. A Liberty University coach claiming the coronavirus is “overhyped.”

Bill Trollinger, a historian at the University of Dayton, is on the case at his blog, Righting America:

Unsurprisingly, Giunta and other tournament officials maintained no communication with the Center for Disease Control (CDC). But it is not difficult to imagine what the CDC would have had to say to them.

While the Dallas Morning News reporter failed to point this out, the NCWA is an organization with a strong evangelical flavor. One of its programs is the 6:12 Project, the name coming from Ephesians 6:12:  

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. 

Not only does the 6:12 Project encourage wrestling teams to come up with community service projects, but it also, through a link on its website, provides member teams with BeliefMap, described as an “advanced debate simulator” that prepares Christians to successfully convince unbelievers not only that God exists, but that 

We are all guilty of sin (lying, stealing, lusting etc.) and, in virtue of His holiness, God’s wrathful final destruction of evil and evildoers is coming soon. There is only one way to be saved from it: you must throw yourself at the mercy of God, and freely accept Jesus’s cleansing of you and transformation of you into a sinless person for heavenly living.

As reported by the Dallas Morning News, executive director Giunta explained that he chose not to cancel the NCWA tournament because he thinks a lot of the response to the escalating pandemic “is driven by fear,” and “we’re going to operate on faith rather than fear.” 

Then there is coach Jesse Castro, whose Liberty University wrestling team came away with top honors at the tournament. Echoing his boss (Jerry Falwell Jr.), Castro said that he thinks the coronavirus is being “overhyped” by Democrats as a way to impeach Donald Trump:

Call me a conspiratorist [sic] or whatever. Is that to minimize what’s going on? Absolutely not. But you cannot view this from a prism without being political to some degree. It’s too obvious.

Read the entire piece here.

Does “End-Time Apathy” Explain Why So Many Evangelicals Don’t Care About the Environment?

The Gospel of Climate ChangeIf Jesus is coming back at any moment to “rapture” his church, why should evangelicals care about the environment? As religious studies scholar Robin Globus Veldman writes, this theory has been “widely accepted” by environmentalists to explain evangelical apathy about climate change.  But is it true?  Veldman is the author of The Gospel of Climate Skepticism: Why Evangelical Christians Oppose Action on Climate Change.  Here is a taste of her interview with Eric C. Miller at Religion & Politics:

Religion & Politics: This book offers an extended examination of what you have called the “end-time apathy hypothesis.” What is that, exactly?

Robin Globus Veldman: The basic idea is that evangelicals don’t care about the environment because they think that Jesus will return soon. It has been widely accepted, especially among environmentalists, but had never been empirically investigated. It was always just kind of thrown out there. E.O. Wilson, Al Gore, and Bill Moyers, for example, have all talked about the potential for end-time beliefs to discourage concern about climate change. As Moyers says, why care about the earth when you and yours are about to be rescued in the Rapture? But I wanted to treat it as a hypothesis because no one had actually examined it. Though I could have approached evangelical attitudes on climate from the angle of politics or theology or anti-science prejudices, this struck me as a more productive research question. There seemed to be a lot of lay interest, and it was something that I was curious about too. So that’s where I started.

R&P: Is the hypothesis correct?

RGV: My argument is that it’s onto something, but it’s not the best way to conceptualize what’s going on. End-time beliefs are a very important part of modern evangelicals’ religious worldview. They are a key element of the faith, and they play a central role in a lot of evangelical culture. But I found that end-time beliefs are deeply enmeshed in a larger matrix of influences from which they can’t be separated. They can’t be considered in isolation. I spend the rest of the book mapping that matrix.

R&P: The hypothesis relies on an end-times eschatology known as premillennialism, and you divide your subjects into “hot” and “cool” millennialist camps. What is this distinction and why is it important?

RGV: One of the tricky things about this research is that it required a deep dive into evangelical eschatology—the study of end times—and that required learning some jargon, especially as it concerns two key ideas. Premillennialism refers to the belief that Jesus will return to earth before the millennium, which is understood as a thousand-year period of righteousness over which Christ will preside. Postmillennialism, by contrast, refers to the belief that Jesus will return after a thousand-year period. Premillennialism suggests that the condition of life on earth will deteriorate until Christ returns, while postmillennialism suggests that it should improve. This is how evangelical theologians divide the different beliefs about the end times.

But when I went into the field and started speaking with people, I found that these categories did not map cleanly onto actually existing beliefs. Since most people who hold these viewpoints have not studied them in-depth or gone to seminary or anything, they don’t have this sort of erudite understanding. Instead, the clearest distinction that I saw in terms of how to categorize people was between what I call “hot” and “cool” millennialists. Hot millennialists are people who are really excited about the end times. They think that Jesus is coming back soon, they’re paying attention to signs, and the possibility gives them a feeling of hope. Cool millennialists are people who believe in Christ’s return but do not believe that it can be predicted with accuracy, and so are less directly motivated by the anticipation. As one gentleman told me, “We live like he’s coming today, but plan like he’s coming tomorrow.” This is by far the more common view, which ends up being very significant for attitudes on climate change because the end-time apathy hypothesis imagines a large constituency of hot millennialists. But these are far fewer, and I ran into a very small number of people who seemed to be enthusiastic about climate change as a harbinger of the end. If the hypothesis were correct, you’d expect to see a lot more of that sort of energy.

Read the rest here.

Evangelicals, This is How Republics Fail

Donald_Trump_delivers_remarks_at_the_Liberty_University (1)

My latest piece at Sojourners. (Readers of this blog will note that it is adapted from a few posts that originally appeared here).

A taste:

The United States is not a Christian nation. Nor was it founded as such. The Founding Fathers argued over politics and policy just like we do, but they were united in the belief that republics fail without virtue. They believed people must always exercise what they called “political jealousy.” A jealous citizen kept a principled watch on government leaders to guard against vice and corruption. Political jealousy served as a unifying force, a common ideology of resistance to tyranny grounded in a shared morality. By keeping our heads in the sand as Trump proves he is incapable of living according to the most basic standards of decency, evangelicals neglect to do their part in sustaining our republic.

We have failed to be good citizens. We have become complicit in the president’s nativism, racism, xenophobia, narcissism, and fearmongering. Sadly, Trump-supporting evangelicals have now lost much of their moral authority to speak out on matters related to government corruption, pornography, sex and violence in movies and television shows, racial reconciliation, school bullying, and the decline in civil discourse.

I left this discussion with my friend wondering: Am I being too hard on evangelicals? Perhaps. But this is my tribe. I have chosen, for better or for worse, to save my strongest criticism for my own people.

The political problems in our community run deeper than just our failure to speak with a prophetic voice. Donald Trump will be gone one day. But the political playbook that evangelicals follow will not go away unless we decide to burn it and start over. There is a very good chance that this playbook will lead evangelicals into the arms of another immoral tyrant who promises conservative Supreme Court justices and offers platitudes about religious liberty.

We need a new political playbook. We need to replace our lust for political power with heavy doses of humility. We must forge a new kind of politics defined, at its very core, by human dignity. It is imperative that we teach our children and grandchildren a way of engaging the world that offers it a glimpse of a coming kingdom defined by love, justice, mercy, and compassion. We need to offer hope, not fear.

Read the entire piece here.

What Are the Court Evangelicals Saying About the Coronavirus?

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According to Ruth Graham’s piece at Slate, they feel pretty calm about.  Here is a taste:

In the 2015 book Countdown to the Apocalypse: Why ISIS and Ebola Are Only the Beginning, Robert Jeffress described a world on the brink of chaos. “Never in my lifetime have I sensed so much unrest in the air,” the Dallas pastor wrote. “Will an Ebola epidemic or an outbreak of some other super virus spread across America?” But today, as an actual “super virus” advances across the United States, Jeffress seems to be feeling much more sanguine. “I do predict this will be under control in the not too distant future,” Jeffress told me on Thursday. “I would encourage any Christian to take sensible precautions without being overrun with anxiety.”

Jeffress, one of Donald Trump’s most full-throated evangelical supporters, plans to preach a sermon on the coronavirus this Sunday at his church, First Baptist Dallas. Its title is “Is the Coronavirus a Judgment From God?” Jeffress strongly suggested to me that the answer is no: “Many times illness is just a consequence of living in the fallen world.” In other words, the virus is nothing to fear nor anything to draw theological or political conclusions from.

Graham asked me to weigh-in:

Few other prominent pastors would speak from the pulpit in such blunt political terms. But that doesn’t mean their politics aren’t influencing their theology. “It’s hard not to think of this as a political story,” said historian John Fea, who has written about white evangelicals’ loyalty to the president. Fea suggested that some Trump-supporting pastors and prophets may be taking their cues from both the president and from Fox News, even if they don’t see it that way. The president himself has gone out of his way to minimize concerns about the virus. In an interview with Sean Hannity this week, Trump said he had a “hunch” that the coronavirus death rate is actually significantly lower than the WHO’s estimate of 3.4 percent. “Personally, I would say the number is way under 1 percent,” the president said. At a Pennsylvania town hall on Fox News on Thursday night, he said that widespread travel cancellations might be good for the economy, since “people are now staying in the United States.”

Read the entire piece here.

Where is this “we have nothing to fear” and “trust God” mentality when it comes to the demographic and cultural changes that they think are undermining their Christian nation?

John Wesley and the Life of the Mind

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“I am an evangelical Christian, so it was nice to hear a lecture about evangelicalism that was not related to contemporary politics.”

This was our intern Annie Thorn‘s response to Bruce Hindmarsh’s lecture “John Wesley, Early Evangelicalism, and Science.” Hindmarsh, the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology and Professor of the History of Christianity at Regent College in Vancouver, delivered this lecture on Tuesday night at Messiah College.  Hindmarsh is the author of three books published by Oxford University Press: John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (1996),  The Evangelical Conversion Narrative (2005), and The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism (2018).  He is the past-president of the American Society of Church History.

Hindmarsh, whose lecture drew upon his 2018 book on early evangelicalism, argued that the rise of evangelicalism coincided historically with the reception of modern science in mainstream eighteenth-century culture.  The new science was generally embraced by evangelicals as a source of what Hindmarsh describes as “wonder, love, and praise.”  Few did more to popularize the new science than John Wesley.

According to Hindmarsh, Wesley accepted the findings of the new science, but he “nested” these new ideas in the “glory of God.” In other words, there was no tension between the two. Wesley was not an anti-intellectual. He wrote a host of books and pamphlets on science. His contemplation of the created order, and his advancement of society’s understanding of the new science, aroused the same kind of “doxology and praise” that stemmed from his conversion experience, that moment in Wesley’s life when his “heart was strangely warmed.”

I left the lecture with several thoughts.

First, like Annie, I was glad to hear again about evangelicals, like Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, who were intellectuals. If you read this blog regularly, you know I have been re-reading Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectual in American Life.  In his chapter on evangelicalism, Hofstadter argues that New England Puritans were people of the mind, but the project integrating faith and learning all but disappeared with the revivalism of the First Great Awakening.  (Edwards, Hofstadter argues, was the exception here).  Hindmarsh is one of several scholars of evangelicalism who has challenged this idea. (Although I am not sure Hofstadter is completely wrong.  I am inclined to think of Edwards and Wesley as outliers).

As I listened to Hindmarsh in the context of my fresh reading of Hofstadter, I realized again that much of the motivation behind the work of the previous generation of evangelical historians–George Marsden and Mark Noll come immediately to mind–was to challenge Hofstadter’s portrayal of evangelicalism as anti-intellectual. Marsden, Noll, and others authors showed us that evangelicals did care about thinking. They also showed us with their lives and work that “evangelical intellectual” is not an oxymoron.

Hindmarsh’s lecture, and my post-lecture conversation with Annie, made me think about Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll argues that the anti-intellectual populism of present-day evangelicalism was more of a 19th and 20th-century phenomenon than an 18th-century one.  Modern day evangelicals can find serious thinkers in their history.  Noll showed that it is possible to explain the evangelical move toward anti-intellectualism as a rejection of the intellectual pursuits of evangelicals like Edwards and Wesley.

Second, it was good to listen to a scholar talk about the 18th-century. I told Bruce that his lecture made me long for the days when I used to spend most of my time doing early American history. Indeed, it’s a lot safer there. 🙂 I hope to return to this world once this whole Trump thing dies down!

Third, I left with a question about Messiah College, the school where I teach.  Messiah is rooted in the Anabaptist, Wesleyan, and Pietist traditions of the Christian faith. Of these three traditions, Anabaptism seems to be the one that gets the most attention.  I think this is because Anabaptism’s commitment to peace and social justice often fits well with the progressive mindset of many academics.  But if there are Anabaptist and Pietist intellectual traditions, they often get overshadowed by a kind of activism (Anabaptism) and experiential religion (Pietism) that does not always draw heavily on the life of the mind. (This, I might add, is changing–especially on the Pietism front). But Hindmarsh made me wonder if Wesleyanism, at least as articulated by Wesley himself, might help us with the heavy intellectual lifting necessary for a Christian college to sustain a robust life of the mind.  I will continue to ponder this.

Darryl Hart Reviews *Believe Me*

Believe Me 3dDarryl Hart reviews Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump alongside Peter Wehner’s The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.  I must have missed this review when it appeared in the Winter 2019 edition of the traditionalist conservative quarterly Modern Age.  Apparently the Intercollegiate Studies Institute saw fit to republish the review at its website.

Anyone who follows Hart on twitter (@oldlife) knows that he is a regular critic of my blog, public writing, and views on Donald Trump, but I at least appreciate his willingness to engage with my ideas.

The only place where I would quibble with Hart’s understanding of my argument is when he writes about my “credentials.”  Hart writes:

Recent books by John Fea and Peter Wehner…are remarkably useful for understanding how broad swaths of American Protestants assess not simply the presidency of Donald Trump but the history and character of the United States. Both authors are laymen in evangelical churches and have no professional standing as church officials. But both writers are also experts in professions that encourage members to make judgments about American politics and society. Fea teaches U.S. history at Messiah College, an evangelical liberal arts school in central Pennsylvania, and Wehner has been a staffer in three Republican presidential administrations and is now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

These credentials distinguish Fea and Wehner from the ordinary evangelical in the pew. At the same time, both authors vehemently critique President Trump and the evangelicals who voted for him on grounds that rely little on the expertise that comes with historical inquiry or political experience. Instead, they rely on the moralistic squint that born-again Protestants have made a trademark of Christian devotion.

Anyone who has read Believe Me knows that the book is filled with American history.  So while I have never understood my book as a work of history, I think my training in American history has indeed contributed to my moral critique.

Read the review here.

The *Believe Me* Book Tour Comes to Mechanicsburg Church of the Brethren

Church of Brethren

I had a great visit yesterday with an adult education class at Mechanicsburg (PA) Church of the Brethren.  The class is reading Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and it was a privilege to be present to answer questions and talk more about the book.

We spent a lot of time exploring theological, political, and historical factors that led so many evangelical to support Trump in 2016, but we also talked about a vision for Christian politics defined by hope, humility, and an informed understanding of American history.  Class members had questions about abortion, “end times” theology, environmentalism, the 2020 election, and how to think more Christianly about political engagement.

As Christian political scientist Glenn Tinder explains, politics requires “attentiveness” and “availability.”  Attentive people are aware of what others are “doing, suffering, [and] saying.” But they also make themselves available.  They see the needs of the world and ask: “Is there anything I can do about it?”  If we think about politics this way, then churches are always engaged in political activity.  And if churches are always engaged in political activity, then it also has a responsibility to think deeply about how to exercise such engagement in accordance with scripture.

Thanks to Warren Eshbach for the invitation.

The “Age of Fracture” and Evangelicalism

RodgersIn his 2011 Bancroft Prize-winning book The Age of Fracture, Princeton intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers writes:

Across multiple fronts of ideational battle, from the speeches of presidents to books of social and cultural theory, conceptions of human nature that in the post-World War II era had been think with context, social circumstances, institutions, and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, and desire.  Strong metaphors of society were supplanted by weaker ones.  Imagined collectivities shrank; notions of structure and power thinned out.  Viewed by its acts of mind, the last quarter of the century was an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture. (p.4).

Lately I have been wondering how Rodgers’s ideas in The Age of Fracture apply to the last eighty or so years of American evangelicalism.  A few of the questions I am asking:

  1. To what extent did the neo-evangelical movement of the 1940s and 1950s represent some kind of “evangelical” (as opposed to the “fundamentalism” of the folks like John R. Rice, Bob Jones, and Carl McIntire) consensus?
  2.  Rodgers writes, “What is important are the significant breaks–where old lines of thought are disrupted, older constellations displaced, and elements, old and new, are regrouped around a different set of premises and themes.” (p.4)  If there was a period of mid-century consensus, how do we define it?  In the 1940s and 1950s, the average American knew evangelicals through the Gospel message of Billy Graham.  Since the 1980s, the average American knows evangelicals through their commitment to conservative Republican Party politics.
  3.  In the “age of fracture, Rodgers writes, “notions of power moved out of structures and into culture.  Identities became intersectional and elective.  Concepts of society fragmented.”  To what extent did evangelical “structures” or institutions (controlled by white males)–seminaries, publications (I am thinking about Christianity Today here), organizations (National Association of Evangelicals?)–give way to categories of cultural identity such as politics (e.g. Christian Right), class (e.g. Trump evangelicals vs. “elitist” evangelicals), race (e.g. we now refer to “White” and “Black” and “Hispanic” and “Asian” evangelicals); and gender (e.g. the #metoo movement has come to evangelicalism).
  4. What role has the Internet and social media played in the fracturing of American evangelicalism?  Did social media cause the fracture, or merely reveal it?

Just to be clear, I am thinking about this historically.  This is not an endorsement or criticism of the “age of fracture” as it relates to American evangelicalism.

New Editor, Old Debate

183a7-wheatonAbout fifteen years ago I encouraged a student of mine at Messiah College to pursue an M.A. in American Church History at Wheaton College.  After his first semester was complete we exchanged a few e-mails.  He commented on how Wheaton was very different from Messiah.  I asked him to give me a few examples how these two Christian colleges were different.  He responded by saying that the faculty and students at Wheaton were “obsessed” with defining the word “evangelical.”

I thought about this student today when I read Christianity Today‘s editorial, “What Does ‘Evangelical’ Mean?”  This is certainly a timely topic in the age of Trump, the court evangelicals, and the 81%.  It is also a debate that gets rehashed every 5-10 years or so.

It looks like Daniel Harrell, the new editor at Christianity Today, wants to start off his tenure by revisiting this time-honored conversation.  Check out the editorial here.  It includes essays by evangelical insiders Mark Galli, Bruce Hindmarsh, Leith Anderson, Ed Stetzer, Ron Sider, Brandon Washington, Craig Keener, Richard Mouw, and Ted Olson.

A History of the Jerks

The Jerks

Image accessed at douglaswiniarski.com

No, this is not a political post.

Over at The Panorama, University of Richmond religion professor Douglas Winiarski writes about the jerks, a “fascinating spirit possession phenomenon” often associated with certain forms of evangelical Christianity.  It looks like this short piece draws from Winiarski’s recent William and Mary Quarterly article,”Seized by the Jerks: Shakers, Spirit Possession, and the Great Revival.” Winiarski also wrote about the jerks in an August 2019 piece at the Uncommon Sense blog.

Here is a taste of his piece at The Panorama:

It was long after sunset on a brisk fall evening in 1804 when Joseph Brown drew the reins on his horse near the summit of Cumberland Mountain and settled in for the night. He had been riding all day along Avery’s Trace to attend a treaty meeting with the Cherokees at the Tellico Blockhouse in East Tennessee. Slipping down from his saddle to prepare a small meal of corn for himself and his mount, Brown paused in prayer. Suddenly his body began convulsing uncontrollably. Brown had been “taken with the Jirks,” the latest and most extraordinary of the somatic exercises that exploded across the trans-Appalachian west during the Great Revival (1799–1805). He continued to experience them over the next five decades until his death in 1868.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the jerks recently. They’re a fascinating spirit possession phenomenon that complicates our understanding of the origins of the southern Bible Belt. Once dismissed an bizarre curiosity in the history of evangelicalism, the jerks and other bodily exercises of the Great Revival loom especially large in the controversies that precipitated what Nathan Hatch famously called the Democratization of American Christianity—a landmark study that turns thirty this year. Jerkers like Joseph Brown pose a special problem for historians of the early republic. After all, his first experience with jerking occurred on the road to a treaty council in which the Federal Government sought to dispossess the Cherokee of their homelands. Was there a connection between frontier revivalism and western expansion?

Read the rest here.