Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Back in 2015 I joined George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Tracy McKenzie to discuss this topic at a conference on racial reconciliation hosted by Wheaton College.  You can watch the conversation here:

I wrote about this conference in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Here is what I wrote:

In early 2013, I received an email from Rev. Ray McMillan, the pastor of Faith Christian Center, a conservative evangelical and largely African American congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio.  McMillan was writing to ask me if I might be interested in participating on a panel at an upcoming conference on evangelicals and racial reconciliation, to be held later that year on the campus of Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college in western suburban Chicago.  I was initially surprised by the invitation.  I cared about racial reconciliation, but I had never spoken at a conference on the subject.  I was not an expert in the field, and even my own historical work did not dive explicitly into race or the history of people of color in the United States . I was even more confused when Rev. McMillan asked me to be part of a plenary presentation on the subject of my recent book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?.  I thought I could probably say a few things about race and the American founding, but I also wondered if someone more prepared, and perhaps more of an activist in this area, might be better suited to speak in my time slot.  After a follow-up phone conversation with Rev. McMillan, I began to see what he was up to.  He told me that he and other Cincinnati pastors were noticing a disturbing trends in their African American and interracial congregations.  Many of their parishioners had accepted the idea, propagated by the Christian Right, that the United States was founded as a Christian nation . McMillan believed that such an understanding of history was troubling for African American evangelicals.  The promoters of this view were convincing many African Americans in Cincinatti that they needed to “reclaim” or “restore” America to its supposedly Christian roots in order to win the favor of God.  McMillan could not stomach the idea that a country that was committed to slavery, Jim Crow laws, and all kinds of other racial inequalities could ever call itself “Christian.”  Why would any African American want to “reclaim” a history steeped in racism?  If America was indeed built on Judeo-Christian principles, then its Founders would one day stand before God and explain why they did not apply these beliefs to African Americans.  And if America was not founded as a Christian nation, McMillan needed to tell his congregation that they had been sold a bill of goods.

Is the Southern Baptist Convention Evangelical or Fundamentalist?: Some Thoughts on the Beth Moore Controversy

Beth Moore

As many readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I am not a cradle evangelical.  I spent the first sixteen years of my life as a Roman Catholic.  I had a conversion experience as a sophomore in high school and I left the Catholic church for a non-denominational Bible church.  In other words, I became an evangelical.

When I converted, the word “evangelical” or “evangelicalism” meant nothing to me. I don’t think I ever met a born-again Christian until I started attending the youth group at Gilgal Bible Chapel in West Milford, New Jersey.  I went from the cloistered community of a working-class Catholic upbringing (I seem to remember mostly Catholics and Jews in my public high school, although I am sure there were Protestants as well) to a similarly cloistered evangelical world.  My only exposure to evangelical Christianity came through Gilgal, a church plant with an authoritarian pastor located on a multi-acre site that included a Christian camp and a conference center. (Gilgal had its own unique approach to evangelical Christianity, and its authoritarian pastor had a tragic fall from grace, but I will need to save that for another post or perhaps another book!)

My conversion was real and life-altering.  I put aside a journalism career and prepared for a life in the evangelical ministry.  My pastor recommended I go to Bible college.  So I did.  I initially thought I would be spending the next four years in residence at a place similar to a monastery, but I soon realized that most Bible college students were no different than the students who attended my public high school.  They dressed the same way, had the same haircuts, listened to the same music (despite the fact they were not permitted to listen to “secular music”), drove the same cars, and had the same ambitions and vices.  They baptized these traits with their “calls” to ministry and a sense of Christian piety.  For some, these “calls” were real and I had much respect, and continue to have much respect, for many of my classmates.  For others, I had no idea why they were in Bible college.  In the end, I had a great time at Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University).  I played basketball and made some great friends.  It was like I was attending a four-year Christian youth retreat.  But I digress…

By my senior year I realized that I wasn’t getting much of a liberal education.  In the 1980s Philadelphia College of Bible was a dispensational school.  Bible and theology professors taught us that God had different plans for Israel and the Church.  (One professor, John McGahey, would scream at us: “ISRAEL IS NOT THE CHURCH!). The purpose of this Bible college education, if you could call it that, was to indoctrinate students in dispensational premillennialism. We were required to buy a copy of the Scofield Bible.  We read books by dispensational luminaries such as Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, and J. Dwight Pentecost.  We waited for the rapture–the moment when God would raise-up the true believers to meet him in the air.  And our teachers made sure that we knew the rapture would come before the seven-year tribulation.  All of my Bible professors had advanced degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary, the intellectual home of dispensationalism.

Upon graduation, I knew that I wanted to continue my theological education. But I did not want to go to Dallas with some of my other classmates.  I enrolled at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) in Deerfield, Illinois.  TEDS was an evangelical seminary, but it was not dispensational in orientation (although it did have a few dispensational professors).  I chose TEDS because I knew that I would find evangelical professors who would expand my horizons.  My goal was to pursue a Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree and use my time to figure out what I might do with such a course of study.  At the very least, I thought an MDiv would allow me to think theologically about the world.  I had no real long-term plan.  My parents helped me out with the tuition, but I also worked as a security guard at various places to get myself to graduation.  I eventually fell in love with history, added an M.A. in church history to my vita, and headed off to pursue a Ph.D in American history.

When I arrived at TEDS in the late 1980s, the school prided itself on its commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible.  Kenneth Kantzer, the retired dean of the seminary, had attracted some of the best evangelical theologians to TEDS for the purpose of providing an inerrancy-based alternative to Fuller Theological Seminary, the Pasadena, California school that abandoned the doctrine of inerrancy in the 1960s.  (See George Marsden’s book Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism).

Some professors made a big deal about inerrancy.  Others rarely mentioned it. I took Scot McKnight for a Greek refresher course.  The subject of inerrancy never came up.  (Nor did it come-up much in his Synpotic Gospels course).  John D. Woodbridge, who taught me how to think historically and encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D in history, was a staunch defender of inerrancy.  My other church history professor, Tom Nettles (who I did not know as well as Woodbridge), did not say too much about inerrancy despite the fact that he was an important historian of the doctrine during the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Church.

But what I remember most about TEDS was the theological diversity of the faculty.  While some of my readers might wonder how a school that upholds biblical inerrancy could be theologically diverse, at the time I did not see it that way . TEDS was not Philadelphia College of Bible or Dallas Theological Seminary.  During my three years on campus I took courses with dispensationalists (Paul Feinberg) and covenant theologians (Ray Ortlund Jr and Walter Kaiser).  I took courses with faculty who opposed women’s ordination (Wayne Grudem) and those who championed women’s ordination (Walter Liefield).  There were Presbyterians and Baptists, Calvinists and Arminians.  I even had one professor (Murray Harris) who did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. I sat-in on courses taught by some of the founders of the neo-evangelical movement:  Carl F.H. Henry, Kantzer, and Gleason Archer.  I took theology with Harold O.J. Brown, the Harvard trained scholar who was one of the leading voices of the pro-life movement.  I made a few visits to a class on Puritanism taught by English theologian J.I. Packer.

I don’t know how all of these professors got along in the faculty lounge, but they always modeled a spirit of conversation and debate.  Evangelicals had core convictions, but what made them evangelicals was their irenic spirit and acceptance of those with whom they differed.  This spirit, perhaps more than anything, was what made them “evangelicals” and not “fundamentalists.”  As Marsden once put it, “a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.”

At TEDS I learned that evangelicals championed orthodox beliefs– the deity of Christ, the redemptive work of Christ on the cross, the resurrection, the inspiration of the Bible, the Holy Spirit’s role in the pursuit of holiness, and the necessity of living-out the Great Commission through evangelism.  But I also learned that evangelicals differed on what my professors called the “secondary” or “minor” doctrines: the ordination of women, the proper form of church government, the proper mode of baptism, capital punishment, the relationship between God’s providence and human free will, the gifts of the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy, etc.), war and peace, and the way one’s faith should manifest itself in the political sphere, to name a few.

I had classmates from every Protestant denomination imaginable–Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites, Anglicans, and Presbyterians.  Students were preparing for ministry in evangelical denominations like the Evangelical Free Church, but they also trained for work in non-denominational megachurches and mainline Protestantism denominations.

At this particular moment in my life (it was the early 1990s), I needed a place like TEDS.  I loved the fact that evangelicals could disagree on some matters of biblical interpretation.  (I even co-wrote a song about it titled “So Many Views,” sung to the tune of the Monkey’s “I’m A Believer”).  I learned how to think critically and theologically.  I knew that there was a larger theological world out there beyond the evangelical boundaries of TEDS and my experience in Deerfield gave me the skills to navigate it.

I understood the culture at TEDS as representative of the spirit of American evangelicalism.

I have been thinking lot about my experience at TEDS as I watch the debates over the role of women in the church currently taking place within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In case you missed it, last month there was a pretty significant Twitter battle on this topic.

It all began when the bombastic Southern Baptist seminary professor Owen Strachan of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary published a piece on women in the church at his blog “Thought Life.”  Here is a taste of that May 7, 2019 post:

Biblical teaching on the sexes is not bad. It is not harmful to women. It is good–thunderously good–for women and for men. If we take the Bible at its word, then we recognize that there is no way for a woman to instruct the gathered church, whether in an authoritative or “non-authoritative” way. Congregational preaching and teaching is authoritative, for the Word of God is authoritative. There is no “non-authoritative” way to preach and teach the Bible. Any who doubt this point might recall how Paul contrasts the “word of men” with the “word of God” in 1 Thessalonians 2:13. If you speak and interpret the Scripture, you speak with the weight of eternity upon you. It cannot be otherwise.

Beth Moore and J. D. Greear are two popular Southern Baptist voices. Both Moore and Greear are gifted individuals, respected within the SBC and beyond it. In recent days, I was surprised to see these two figures endorse, in the context of the church’s gathered worship service, a woman teaching and preaching to the corporate body (see here and here). This was new to me; Southern Baptists have never embraced such a view. As mentioned above, there is no New Testament precedent for a woman teaching the corporate body of Christ (Priscilla’s words in Acts 18 to Apollos came in private, not in public), nor were women called to serve as priests in the old covenant era. Christ did not appoint a woman to be an apostle, nor did any woman serve as an elder in the first-century churches spoken of in Scripture.

And here is his Strachan’s conclusion:

Though many paint women monolithically today, seeing them as instinctually feminist, there are many women in submission to God who wish for men to lead them well and preach the Word faithfully. They do not see the Bible’s teaching on womanhood as “restrictive,” nor the complementarian movement as “afraid” of womanly gifting. Rather, they approach the Word of God with great reverence and awe. They wish to know the will of God, and do it. They take no pleasure in quieting or softening the Bible; they recognize the order that God has established, and they love it. There are scores of such women in church history, in Baptist history, in the modern SBC, and in the broader evangelical world. I know they are out there; I have heard their testimony firsthand. With the whole church of God, these women gladly confess that the counsel of the Lord stands forever (Psalm 33:11), and that the law of God’s mouth “is better…than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (Psalm 119:72).

There is much the Word frees women to do as mentioned above. But for the women I speak of, where the Word gives them a prohibition for God’s glory and their good, they receive that commandment with gladness. They submit to God, as we all must do (James 4:7). In our God-defying age, this posture stands out sharply. It is driven by our total confidence in the unerring mind and will of God. We think of Psalm 119:89 on this count: בַּשָּׁמָֽיִם נִצָּ֥ב דְּ֝בָרְךָ֗ יְהוָ֑ה לְעוֹלָ֥ם, “Forever, Lord, your word is fixed in the heavens.” It is not man who has “fixed” the word of God, and written it in the sky. By God’s own hand and mind, there is order in the home; there is order in the churches; there is order in the world God has made.

Let no one defy this order.

There is a lot that could be said about Strachan’s post.  I disagree with him on the role of women in the church and the family, but my intention here is not to get into these theological and interpretive weeds.  There are indeed a lot of denominations that do not ordain women, including the Roman Catholic Church.  But I will say this:  by ending his post with the words “let no one defy this order,” Strachan reveals his dogmatism on this issue.  I wonder what he would think about someone who does “defy this order?”  Are they living in sin?  Are they outside the fold of Christian orthodoxy?  Of evangelicalism?  Will Strachan still have Christian fellowship with them?  Should they be cast into perdition? What is at stake here?

After he wrote this piece, Strachan turned to Twitter to promote it:

It was at this point that the wildly popular evangelical preacher Beth Moore entered the fray:

Strachan initially responded politely:

But then his Twitter feed got snarky.

For example, he retweeted this:

And then his many followers and others of like mind started chiming in:

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And then this week Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, added fuel to the fire with this tweet:

Those familiar with Mohler will remember that he was instrumental in making Southern Seminary a complementarian school and the Southern Baptist Convention a complementarian denomination.  When one listens to Mohler and Strachan, one gets the impression that they believe their view of what the Bible teaches on the role of women in the church and the home is not a secondary issue of faith, but one that is essential to Christian orthodoxy.  I honestly don’t believe that they really think this, but their rhetoric is so definitive and dogmatic that it certainly sounds like they do.

Strachan is not letting go of this position.  He sees the denial of the pulpit to women such as Beth Moore and others as a non-negotiable theological view in the SBC. In other words, those who take a different position do not belong in the denomination. Here is his tweet in response to Mohler (notice how he continues to see himself in the vanguard of those who led the conservative resurgence, even going to the point of capitalizing the word “Resurgence”):

Of course the Southern Baptist Church leadership has the right to define the role of women in the church in any way they want to define it.  This is what religious liberty is all about.  Millions of evangelicals attend churches that do not ordain women.  As noted above, the largest religious body in the world–the Catholic Church–does not ordain women.  But Strachan and other Southern Baptists also like to fancy themselves as heirs to the evangelicalism that I experienced at TEDS nearly thirty years ago. Strachan writes books and edits books for conservative Christian publishers extolling people like Carl F.H. Henry, Charles Colson, and other members of the neo-evangelical movement.

My professors at TEDS had firm convictions on a whole host of issues, but they did not promote them with the fundamentalist spirit to which I see coming from Strachan and his followers.  In fact, it was this very spirit–the kind of militant spirit I see in their tweets–that made fundamentalism so repulsive to people like Carl Henry, Ken Kantzer, and the other neo-evangelical leaders who broke from fundamentalist militancy in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Southern Baptist Convention can work out their issues on women in the church on their own, without my help, but if you are going to try to make complementarianism a defining and non-negotiable characteristic of SBC orthodoxy please stop writing about how much you love the neo-evangelical movement.

On the other hand, if you do want to claim the Henry/Kantzer/neo-evangelical mantle, perhaps it is time to rethink the Convention’s position on this issue and broaden the tent a bit.

A Visit to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Gordon Conwell

I spent Monday night at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts (Boston-area).  Thanks to Gordon-Conwell president Dennis Hollinger for the invitation and Mary Ann Hollinger for her hospitality.

The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life sponsored conversation on evangelicals and politics that included Boisi director (and Jesuit theologian) Mark Massa, Dartmouth historian of American evangelicalism Randall Balmer, and yours truly.

A few takeaways:

  1. Gordon-Conwell is a seminary founded by mid-century evangelical stalwarts Billy Graham, J. Howard Pew and J. Harold Ockenga.  Over the last fifty years it has been an institutional fixture on the evangelical landscape.  During the course of the evening I did not meet a single Trump supporter.  This is the first time that I have been at a self-identified evangelical institution where I did not meet someone who wanted to make the case for Trump.
  2. I talked with several pastors-in-training (MDiv students) who wanted advice about how to deal with Trump supporters in their future congregations.  My advice:  preach the Gospel in season and out of season.   I hope they will avoid bringing politics into the pulpit, but rather preach in a positive way about what the Bible teaches regarding truth and lying, welcoming the stranger, caring for the “least of these,” loving neighbors,” the dignity of human life, and the pursuit of holiness.  I encouraged them, to borrow a term from Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, to be “faithfully present” in the congregations and communities where God calls them to serve.
  3.  All of the evangelical millennials I chatted with were fed-up with Trump and the Christian Right.  It seems like a sea-change is coming.
  4.  During the formal conversation, Gordon-Conwell theology and missions professor Peter Kuzmic talked about how his fellow evangelicals in Eastern Europe were appalled that American evangelicals supported Trump.  I asked him publicly if the evangelical support of Donald Trump was hindering the work of the Gospel in Eastern Europe.  He did not miss a beat in saying “yes.”  This is tragic.  It is the case I have been making during the Believe Me book tour.  I told Kuzmic that I would like to take him with me on the road.  His testimony was a powerful one.  While court evangelicals continue to take victory laps over securing an originalist judiciary that might overturn Roe v. Wade, the witness of the Gospel is becoming more difficult, especially for missionaries.
  5. We talked a lot of about “fracture” within the evangelical community.  The days of a unified neo-evangelicalism (if there ever was such a thing) are over.  George Marsden once said that an evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham.  Well, Billy Graham is now dead and there will be no one to replace him.  This is not a statement about whether or not there are any potential heirs to Graham.  It is rather a statement about the current state of American culture, a state that Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers has called the “Age of Fracture.” I want to write more about this.
  6. It was an honor to share the stage and the evening with Randall Balmer, a scholar who has taught me so much about evangelicalism.

Meeting George Marsden

Marsden and Ally

Some of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog will recognize the name George Marsden.  He is the author of many award-winning books on American religious history and higher education including Fundamentalism and American CultureReforming FundamentalismThe Soul of the American University,  The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (winner of the 2004 Bancroft Prize), and The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.  He spent his academic career teaching at Calvin College, Duke Divinity School, and the University of Notre Dame.

I did not study with Marsden, but his books and work are part of the reason I entered the historical profession.  When I think of a Christian historian, I think of George Marsden.  The opportunity I had a few years ago to share the stage with Mark Noll and George remains one of the highlights of my career.  Since then, he has blurbed one of my books and I have had the honor to blurb a couple of his.

Yesterday, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Calvin Theological Seminary  in Grand Rapids, Michigan (where George now does some teaching in retirement) honored his life and career by having one of his former students, James Bratt, do a public interview with him.

Since George moved back to Grand Rapids after his retirement from Notre Dame he has attended a few Calvin College women’s volleyball games and has become a fan of the team.  As many of you know, my daughter Allyson, a history and psychology double-major at Calvin, plays on the volleyball team.  Whenever George would tell me that he attended a game I would pass the news along to Ally.  (“Hey Ally, a famous historian came to your game last night!”).

So when I learned about the event at Calvin Theological Seminary I sent a text to Ally:  “George Marsden has come to your volleyball games.  You need to return the favor and go to this interview.”  I did not expect her to attend (what college student listens to her father when he tells her to go to a lecture on campus!), so needless to say I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that she not only attended but also introduced herself to George and asked for a photo with him! Very cool.

George, if you’re reading this, thanks for being so gracious with Ally!  And Ally, I hoped you learned something by attending this event!  🙂

What if Trump Were a Democrat?

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Janesville

George Marsden teaches us all an important lesson in historical empathy.  Here is a taste of his guest post at The Anxious Bench:

For those who are (as I am) puzzled and sometimes troubled by how so many fellow believers support and even celebrate Donald Trump and so seem to be ready to subordinate some of their religious and moral convictions to political expediency, I suggest a thought experiment:

Let’s suppose that in some slightly altered historical circumstances, Trump, or someone a lot like Trump, had decided he had a better chance playing the role of a populist Democrat.

Then, by promising everything to almost everyone, he had unexpectedly been elected.

Even if the Democratic Trump would have had to hide his racism, he would have been the same in his essential dishonesty, his constant attacks on the line between fact and fiction, his narcissism, his background of corruption, his record of exploitation of women (despite the Democratic Trump claiming to champion of equality and male accountability), his lack of discernible principle, his disdain for the Constitution and the rule of law, his intimations that his critics in the press should be suppressed, his vilification of his enemies, and his ignorance combined with reckless and ungenerous “America first” ventures in foreign policy.

At first, we can imagine, many principled Democrats would have deeply opposed his nomination and some would have declared themselves to be in the “NeverTrump” camp. But the rank and file would have been energized and many of the working classes would have been brought back to the party.

And then let’s say that the Democratic Trump administration would have succeeded in establishing a single-payer health-care system, tightened environmental regulations, instituted sensible gun-control laws, and appointed several Supreme Court justices who would ensure protections of progressive views for the next generation.

Read the rest here.

Thoughts on Michael Gerson’s “The Last Temptation”: Part 2

Last temptation

Read Part 1 of this series here.  Read Gerson’s Atlantic piece here.

Anyone who reads my work knows that I am a big fan of George Marsden‘s essay “Human Depravity: A Neglected Explanatory Category” in Wilfred McClay’s ed., Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans, 2007).  In this essay, Marsden writes: “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification.  The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems to increasingly confirm it.”

In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image and thus have value, worth, and dignity.  More specifically, the Christian faith teaches that all human beings–past and present–are important because Jesus Christ died for their sins.  People have dignity because they are eligible for redemption.  For Christians, history should drive us to hope in the eschatological culmination of our redemption. It should instill in us a longing for a time when there will be no more sin and suffering.

Sin, the imago Dei, and the Christian understanding of hope and redemption inform my work as a historian.  When I do my work I should not be surprised that human beings are flawed and do horrible things.  I should also not be surprised when men and women perform acts that might be described as heroic or just.  Such acts bear witness to the fact that they are created in God’s image.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have sinned.  They have failed to live according to New Testament standards.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have lived-out their faith in acts of mercy, justice, and love.  Yes and yes.

In his Atlantic piece, “The Last Temptation,” Michael Gerson discusses the first half of the 19th-century as a time when evangelicals led social reform movements to end slavery.  We could also add other reform movements to his story, including efforts to curb the negative effects of alcohol, the crusade to win the vote for women, the movement to reform prisons, and the evangelical commitment to the education of urban young people through Sunday Schools.  All of these reform movements had roots in the genuine desire of “revived” evangelicals (products of the Second Great Awakening) to apply their faith to public life.

But let’s not forget that evangelicals were also, often at the very same time, involved heavily in some of the darker moments in the American past.  They were trying to limit Catholic immigration out of fear that Catholic immigrants would undermine their Protestant nation.  The Southern ministers and laypersons who experienced intense revivals in Confederate army camps were, in many cases, the same people constructing a sophisticated biblical and theological argument in defense of slavery.

Gerson needs to be careful about asking us to return to an evangelical golden age when all born-again and revived Christians were truly living-out the justice-oriented message of Jesus.  His historical analysis in this piece is only half right.  But having said that, I am willing to give him a pass since there is only so much one can do in an essay format.  As I said in my first post in this series, “The Last Temptation” is a very good piece.

More to come.

The President of Fuller Seminary on Evangelicalism and Race

Fuller

Mark Labberton is president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.  If you have never heard of Fuller, I encourage you to read George Marsden’s history of the school: Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism.

In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, Labberton responds to Randall Balmer’s recent Times piece on evangelicals and race.   Here is a taste of Labberton’s letter:

There are white people in America who call themselves evangelical yet demonstrate complicity with a white supremacy that scandalizes the gospel — and there are other white evangelicals in America who categorically and publicly disagree.

Balmer points out what many evangelical leaders have been decrying for years and what this election made apparent: that culture sometimes overshadows the gospel in determining the evangelical political vision. Evangelicalism is a movement dedicated to the primacy of faith in the way of Jesus, so this confusion of priorities is a crisis.

The word “evangelical” has morphed from being commonly used to describe a set of theological and spiritual commitments into a passionately defended, theo-political brand. Worse, that brand has become synonymous with social arrogance, ignorance and prejudice — all antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Balmer’s claims, while not new, are deservedly painful for millions of white evangelicals who are deeply offended by racism, repelled by Trump, and who vocally deny the false theo-political brand that co-opts the faith we hold dear.

Read the entire letter here.

Fuller Theological Seminary Students, Faculty, and Alumni Urge Administrators to Make It a Sanctuary Campus

fuller

Fuller is an evangelical seminary in Pasadena, California.  (Check out George Marsden’s excellent history of Fuller, Reforming Fundamentalism).  

This letter to the administration was signed by hundreds of students, faculty, and alumni.

Here it is:

21 November 2016
Dr. Mark Labberton, President
Dr. Joel Green, Provost
Dr. Steve Yamaguchi, Dean of Students

Re: Fuller Theological Seminary Sanctuary for Undocumented Immigrants

Dear President Labberton, Provost Green, and Dean Yamaguchi:

We the undersigned students, faculty, staff, and alumni of Fuller Theological Seminary write in response to Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States to express our commitment to the safety and dignity of all students and workers in our seminary community. We request that Fuller begins the necessary process to declare every campus a sanctuary for undocumented students and workers.

We, like Dr. Labberton, are dismayed and disoriented concerning this election. Moreover, we are fearful of the hatred that has spread across the country such as xenophobic chants directed at Latina/o youth, bullying of Muslim and LGBT individuals, incendiary graffiti and vandalism. As you know, our own Pasadena campus and its students of color have not been exempt from the hostility that this election season has provoked.

President Elect Trump proclaimed his intention to deport undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States as well as repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—which provides relief from deportation and work benefits to hundreds of thousands of young people in the United States, including Fuller students and staff. If these policies are enacted they will prove devastating, subjecting students and workers who are integral to our community to punitive measures, and in contrast to Fuller’s stated commitment to “work for the good of human society.”

Jesus Christ commanded us to love God and neighbor—thus as Christians we are called to seek the wellbeing of all people, particularly those who are poor, marginalized, discriminated against, and mistreated. Furthermore, Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that however we treat the least of these among us, we have treated him.

In light of our Christian convictions and the very real and immediate threats faced by members of our community, we ask the seminary take the following steps immediately, if it has not taken them already:

1. We ask for an unequivocal, public declaration of Fuller’s support for and protection of undocumented students, staff, and their families on our campus.
2. We ask that Fuller guarantee privacy by refusing to release information regarding the immigration status of students and staff.
3. We ask that Fuller refuse to comply with immigration authorities regarding deportations or raids.
4. We ask that Fuller publicly reaffirm the admission and financial aid policies toward undocumented students.
5. We ask Fuller to educate members of the Fuller community, including faculty, staff, and students, on the potential implications of immigration policies on our community.

This past week Dr. Labberton and Dr. Mouw wrote of Fuller Seminary’s non-negotiable commitment to the evangel, the gospel, which calls us to faithfully enact God’s good news of love, justice, and mercy. This is not a time to wait and see how federal policies develop. To the contrary, it is a time to courageously affirm our Christian convictions and proactively work to safeguard the wellbeing of our community. We ask that Fuller act now to fulfill its mission “to put our biblical convictions into practice, even when the price is high.”

Awaiting Your Action,
In Christ The Undersigned:

Report: Society of Biblical Literature Bans InterVarsity Press From Selling Books at Annual Meeting

ivp

Here is Rod Dreher at The American Conservative:

This is extraordinary. The Society of Biblical Literature describes itself like this:

Mission, Visions, and Values
The following Mission Statement and Strategic Vision Statements were adopted by the SBL Council May 16, 2004, and revised October 23, 2011.

Mission Statement:
Foster Biblical Scholarship

Strategic Vision Statement:
Founded in 1880, the Society of Biblical Literature is the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible from a variety of academic disciplines.* As an international organization, the Society offers its members opportunities for mutual support, intellectual growth, and professional development through the following:

  • Advancing academic study of biblical texts and their contexts as well as of the traditions and contexts of biblical interpretation
  • Collaborating with educational institutions and other appropriate organizations to support biblical scholarship and teaching
  • Developing resources for diverse audiences, including students, religious communities, and the general public
  • Facilitating broad and open discussion from a variety of critical perspectives
  • Organizing congresses for scholarly exchange
  • Publishing biblical scholarship
  • Promoting cooperation across global boundaries

Here are what the SBL says are its “core values,” in a statement revised in 2011:

Accountability

Openness to Change

Collaboration

Professionalism

Collegiality

Respect for Diversity

Critical Inquiry

Scholarly Integrity

Inclusivity

Tolerance

You might wonder why an academic organization devoted to Biblical scholarship holds as its core values “respect for diversity,” “openness to change,” “inclusivity,” and “tolerance”? Isn’t this just one of those typically euphemistic liberal ways of saying, “No Biblical scholars who don’t accept progressive views on LGBT issues allowed”?

Why yes, apparently, it is. SBL has reportedly banned InterVarsity Press from having a booth at the 2017 SBL convention in Boston because of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s recent decision to hold firmly to orthodox Christian teaching on homosexuality, and to ask employees who dissent to resign.

Read the entire piece and the links for the full context.

Here is another piece on the topic from World magazine.  If someone is aware of any other posts or articles please let me know.

I am holding judgment on this story until I get some more information.  Certainly the Society of Biblical Literature is not suggesting that men and women and organizations (IVCF) who believe that the Bible teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman should be banned from their annual meeting.  There must be more to the story.

InterVarsity Press publishes some great books.  Some excellent historians and theologians have published with the press, including Mark Noll, Tracy McKenzie, Harry Stout, David Bebbington, Thomas Oden, Douglas Sweeney, Justo Gonzalez, Crystal Downing, Alister McGrath, Gerald McDermott, Roger Olson, G.R. Evans, Brian Stanley, Richard Mouw, and Kevin Vanhoozer.  I don’t know what most of these authors think about gay marriage, but it would be a shame if their scholarship is banned from the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion meetings.

I am also an InterVarsity Press author.  I wrote the foreword to John Wilsey’s excellent American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea

I mentioned the American Academy of Religion above.  They have not made any announcement yet on the fate of IVP.   I have never been to a meeting of the AAR, but in November there will be an entire session at this conference devoted to my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible SocietyTo be honest, I am not sure what to think about attending a conference that plans to have an entire session on one of my books, but will not allow another book with my name on the title to be displayed in the book exhibit.

Let me be clear:  For me this whole thing is not a matter of the correct definition of marriage.  It is a matter of principled pluralism or what George Marsden describes as a “more inclusive pluralism.”

I need to think this through a bit more and, as I mentioned above, gather more information.

Historian George Marsden Elected to the Academy of Arts and Sciences

OutrageousCongratulations, George Marsden!  Here is the University of Notre Dame press release:

George Marsden, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, has been elected a member of the 2016 class of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS). He will be formally inducted at a ceremony at the AAAS headquarters Oct. 8 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Marsden is one of 213 members elected to the AAAS 236th class, which includes novelist Colm Tóibín, La Opinión publisher and CEO Monica Lozano, the jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, former Botswanan President Festus Mogae, and Temple Grandin, the author and spokesperson on autism.

A member of the Notre Dame faculty since 1992, Marsden holds degrees from Haverford College and Westminster Theological Seminary and a doctorate from Yale. His historical scholarship concerns the interaction between Christianity and American culture, and particularly Christianity in American higher education. In addition to an award-winning biography of the New England clergyman and theological writer Jonathan Edwards, he has written or edited more than a dozen books including “Fundamentalism in American Culture,” “The Soul of the American University,” and, most recently, “The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief.”

Founded in 1780 by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock and others, the AAAS is one of the nation’s oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers. Convening leaders from the academic, business and government sectors to respond to the challenges facing the nation and the world, AAAS research concerns higher education, the humanities, and the arts; science and technology policy; global security and energy; and American institutions and the public good. AAAS has elected leading “thinkers and doers” from each generation, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, Daniel Webster and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 19th, and Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill in the 20th.

George Marsden on *Mere Christianity*

Marsden on MereOver at The Gospel Coalition, Justin Taylor interviews George Marsden about his new book C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2016).  Marsden’s book is part of Princeton’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series.

Here is a taste of the interview:

You write in the book that you were not influenced at an early age by Mere Christianity, as so many Christians in the academic world have been. Can you tell us a bit about your own relationship to Lewis’s work?

In the early 1950s, when I was a boy, my father (who was an Orthodox Presbyterian minister) suggested that I read The Screwtape Letters. I enjoyed that and was impressed that such a well-educated writer still believed in the supernatural beings. But I don’t remember encountering Mere Christianity before I was in my twenties. Then I would run into other young Christians who were very enthusiastic about it and others of Lewis’s works. I cannot remember when I first read Mere Christianity and, although I had a good impression of it and others of Lewis’s works, I do not think I read Mere Christianity very carefully. But I was well aware of its soaring reputation. So when, Fred Appel, the Princeton editor, asked me if I wanted to contribute to his series, I suggested writing on that. I had written a couple of books on Jonathan Edwards, and I was looking for a subject that would be similarly inspiring to work on. And I was well rewarded. Almost everything of Lewis is edifying and a pleasure to read.

For Americans in the 21st century, it may be perplexing to know that the origin of this work was as radio addresses for the British Broadcasting Company. How did it come about that a Christian professor was able to give unabashed talks on the truth of Christianity over the public airwaves?

That is an interesting aspect of the origins of the book. The BBC was a noncommercial company serving the British people under a royal charter. It included a substantial religious dimension. Great Britain was officially a Christian nation, and the company leadership took that more seriously than did most of the British public. For instance, until World War II, Sunday programming not only included church services and religious programs, but also had to be tasteful, so that there was no jazz or comedy shows on Sundays. During the war, when the BBC had a monopoly on broadcasting, those rules were relaxed a bit for the sake of the troops. But the religion department oversaw quite a few weekday religious programs as well as Sunday broadcasts. Lewis fit their purposes well. Because of the war, they did not want anything controversial. And Lewis’s talks could be of interest to people of all sorts of Christian backgrounds.

Read the entire interview here.

Calvin’s Beatles

Calvin gang

l to r: Wolterstorff, Marsden, Mouw, Plantinga  Cartoon credit: Jack Harkema

Four of the greatest Christian thinkers of the last generation once taught together at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  They are philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, historian George Marsden, and theologian/philosopher Richard Mouw.

Plantinga taught at Calvin from 1963 to 1982 and spent the rest of his career at the University of Notre Dame.

Wolterstorff taught at Calvin from 1959 to 1989 and at Yale University from 1989-2001.

Marsden taught at Calvin from 1965 to 1986, Duke Divinity School from 1986 to 1992, and finished his career at the University of Notre Dame (1992-2008).

Mouw taught a Calvin for seventeen years and then moved to Fuller Theological Seminary, where he was eventually elected president.

 

 

 

 

George Marsden’s History of American Evangelicalism Syllabus

Last year I taught an undergraduate course on the History of American Evangelicalism. Unfortunately, only four students and one auditor showed up.  Nevertheless, I though the course went well.  Here is my reading list.  We also devoted the Fall 2014 season of the Virtual Office Hours to this course.

I just learned from Paul Putz’s post at US Religion blog that George Marsden is teaching a graduate course on the history of American evangelicalism as a visiting professor at Baylor University.  Here is his reading list:

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

Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale University Press, 1989)

Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006)

George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, Second Edition (Oxford University Press, 2006)

Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Harvard University Press, 2001)

Edith Blumhofer, Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993)

Matthew Sutton, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism(Harvard University Press, 2014)

Kevin Kruse, One Nation under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic, 2015)

Paul Harvey, Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2005)

Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (W.W. Norton, 2011)

Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Mark Noll, The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (IVP Academic, 2009)


What a great class!  

*The Secularization of the Academy* Turns 25

It all started in 1990 with a conference at Duke on secularization and the academy.  (At the time I was a first year divinity school student.  The internet did not exist yet and I had no idea that this conference was happening and even if I did hear about I probably would not have cared). The conference proceedings were edited by George Marsden and Bradley Longfield and published in 1992 as The Secularization of the Academy.

Then, in 1994, came Marsden’s magisterial The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Unbelief.  Three years later Marsden expanded the postscript of this book and published it as The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship.

Now, twenty-five years later, Books & Culture is running a symposium on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the conference that started it all.  Marsden, Longfield, James Turner, Darryl Hart, and David Bebbington have written reflections.  Mark Noll introduces the symposium here,

Here is a taste of Turner’s response:

That collection of essays opened a debate that sizzled for 20 years. What counts as “secularization”? What brought it about? What gains did it bring to higher education? What losses did it inflict?

The question of gains turned out to have easy answers. In an ever more pluralistic America, a de-facto Protestant establishment ruled even state universities until about 1900; all sides in the debate agreed that dismantling it came none too soon. When students and faculty might profess any faith or none, the once-universal imposition of Protestant chapel services is a corpse no one wants to disinter. Likewise, all accepted that religiously committed colleges and universities may continue to set standards of faith and behavior in line with their beliefs. Finally, everyone agreed that denizens of secular campuses, public or private, should be free to pursue any religious—or anti-religious—activity, so long as the institution remains even-handed in facilitating their doings. The debate thus revealed consensus on how secularization should express itself institutionally—and wide agreement that, in creating this new framework, secularization liberated American higher learning from a past it had outgrown.

The question of losses, however, proved neuralgic. Should faith—or religious intellectual traditions—play any role in research in now-secular disciplines? Some of America’s most distinguished Christian scholars, including Marsden, argued for a limited rollback of secularization here, insisting that Christian perspectives (like feminist ones) could enrich research for all scholars. Skeptical opponents saw instead new religious fetters on reason, and they strenuously defended secularized knowledge against non-rational pollutants. These arguments grew sharp, even heated.

Vigorous though the latter debate was, it is unclear to me today how much it mattered. Religion has won a certain autonomy in the secular academy. More scholars now than two decades ago treat faith as a first-order phenomenon that cannot be reduced to biology or sociology. But Christian professors (in contrast, say, to feminist ones) have not proven adept at drawing on Christianity to propose new methodologies or fresh lines of research in their disciplines. Nor have Christian colleges and universities spent much capital egging them on.

Such Christian scholarship as exists today (beyond biblical and theological studies) lies in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. (Methodist astronomy, anyone?) And arguments around it have lately been drowned out by wailing over the “crisis” of the humanities. If all humanistic learning is to give way to scientific research and technical training, what’s the point in arguing about the Christian piece of it?

The fascinating debate set off by The Secularization of the Academy begins to seem a relic of a moment that has flown.

"Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?" at Wheaton College

In October 2013 I participated on a panel on Christian nationalism at “Inhabit,” a conference on religion and race held at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. (I wrote about it here).  I was honored to sit on this panel with three historians who I deeply admire: Tracy McKenzie, Mark Noll, and George Marsden.

Someone recently called my attention to a video of the event.  Here it is: