John Turner on David Garrow’s MLK Essay

Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the Web and Elsewhere

Like John Turner, I am really surprised by how little conversation has taken place about historian David Garrow’s bombshell article about Martin Luther King Jr.’s  moral indiscretions.  If you are unfamiliar with the argument or the debate, get up to speed here and here and here.

The George Mason University religion professor has weighed-in at The Anxious Bench blog. He is correct to note that “we have an obligation to think through the issues involved in this unsavory subject, which is bound to turn up the next time we assign Letter from a Birmingham Jail or discuss King in the classroom.”

His post is worth reading in full.  Here is a taste to whet your appetite:

6. The most explosive charge, though, relates not to adultery but to King’s presence during an alleged rape and his encouragement of this violent crime.

From Garrow’s essay:

The group met in his [Logan Kearse’s] room and discussed which women among the parishioners would be suitable for natural or unnatural sex acts. When one of the women protested that she did not approve of this, the Baptist minister [Kearse] immediately and forcibly raped her,” the typed summary states, parenthetically citing a specific FBI document (100-3-116-762) as its source. “King looked on, laughed and offered advice,”Sullivan or one of his deputies then added in handwriting.

Ransby’s analysis here is spot-on :

Mr. Garrow walks the reader through the graphic details of what 1960s F.B.I. agents described as Dr. King’s consensual encounters with numerous women. Whether or not Mr. Garrow intended it, the attention in his essay to these reports reads to me as an effort to offer circumstantial evidence to support an allegation of a rape that purportedly occurred in Dr. King’s presence.

Moreover, Ransby observes that Garrow rests his most explosive claim on a parenthetical comment. I would add that that parenthetical comment would almost certainly be difficult to derive from the audiotape.

The claim is a bombshell. Is it outlandish to think that there might be some chance of learning corroborating (or non-corroborating) evidence from other sources, even from interviews with the children of the people allegedly involved in this crime?

If more evidence comes to light that King egged on a rape, then, yes, of course, Americans would have to collectively think through how we commemorate this man.

7. All of this points to the danger of making saints out of historical figures. Undoubtedly, humans have a need for heroes, but we have every reason to be very cautious in our construction of heroes. Historians have an obligation to sift through all of the available evidence when it comes to reaching conclusions about the people we study. Christians, moreover, have a mountain of examples from the Bible about the likelihood that humans will exhibit  feet of clay. Abraham. David. Peter.

8, and finally, I entirely agree with David Greenberg’s denunciation of the “troll-like schadenfreude peppering right-wing media in the last few days.” It’s not even just right-wing media. It’s the human desire to see those on pedestals taken down a notch or two (or in this case ten). Sometimes this serves to make us feel better about ourselves. Or sometimes we just enjoy the salacious details and drama of a story such as this. These sorts of reactions are mean and misguided. No one should take pleasure in this story. Even setting aside Garrow’s bombshell, think about the pain that King’s extramarital behavior must have caused many individuals. There’s a subset of Americans who have never come around on the Civil Rights Movement, who feel about King much the way that many white Americans felt in the 1950s and 1960s, or the way that Jesse Helms felt in the early 1980s. It is a shame that they would relish the potential posthumous fall of an American hero.

Read the entire post here.

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

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

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

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

Read the entire piece here.

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

A taste:

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

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

Read the rest here.

Is Evangelicalism Primarily a Political Movement?

latin evangelicals

No, it is not. I think John Turner is correct in his recent piece at The Anxious Bench blog.

Here is a taste:

John Fea, in what has become a must-read age-of-Trump blog about American religion, quotes from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters in a recent post:

Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause”, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of [the cause] … Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours-and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours.

It’s possible that I am entirely misreading the present climate, but if one did not know anything about religion in the United States and merely relied on media coverage of contemporary politics, one would presume that evangelicalism is a political movement. A HUGE majority of evangelicals typically vote Republican, and an even HUGER majority voted for Donald Trump (just about the least Christian major-party nominee since … perhaps Richard Nixon?). [As an aside, it’s worth noting that Australia now has an openly evangelical prime minister]. The relationship between Trump and a small number of men and women whom John Fea terms “court evangelicals” receives considerable attention, as has the fact that large majorities of evangelicals support Trump’s policies on matters such as immigration. And this week President Trump hosted a dinner for his high-profile evangelicals supporters at the White House. Sadly, my invitation got lost in the mail.

Evangelicalism is first and foremost a religious movement.  It is a movement that celebrates the centrality of the cross, the born-again experience, evangelism, service, and the inspiration of the Bible.  Yes, there are American churches that bring politics into the pulpit, but the majority of evangelical churches do not dwell on politics.  Most clergy do not think it is a good idea to preach on political themes or endorse candidates.  I have yet to find an evangelical church with a “politics ministry.”

Evangelical congregations are primarily concerned about living holy lives of faith–a vertical relationship with God.  When most evangelicals think about moving beyond the walls of church, they think primarily in terms of missionary activity, serving neighbors in local communities, caring for the vulnerable, feeding the poor, and exemplifying acts of compassion.  I would even argue that this is true of evangelical churches and ministries run by court evangelicals such as Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, and others.

Because the day-to-day acts of compassion and love performed by evangelicals rarely make headlines, the general public only sees politics.  And because many evangelicals have not thought deeply about political engagement, when they do try to bring their faith into the public square it usually results in a big mess.

All of this reminds me of the generation of early American historians who tried to make connections between the First Great Awakening and the American Revolution.  Rather than interpreting the First Great Awakening as a religious movement, many historians, driven by their Whig sensibilities, seemed to suggest that this deeply spiritual movement was only useful for what it told us about the coming of American independence.  In the process, they failed to understand this important historical event.

Today, when we define evangelicals or evangelicalism in a solely political way, we get a  very limited understanding of what the movement is all about.  Turner’s post is a good reminder of what really happens in evangelical congregations and para-church ministries.

Turner: “The Pilgrims receive far more attention than they deserve.”

plymouth

John Turner of George Mason University is writing a history of the Plymouth Colony.  In his recent piece at The Anxious Bench, he reminds us that the “Pilgrims” and the “Puritans” are not the same thing.  As Turner notes, popular culture loves the Pilgrims, but early New England historians spend most of their time discussing the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay.

This is certainly true in my U.S. Survey course.  We spend a week (in a MWF course) on colonial New England.  On Monday I lecture on the English Reformation (ending with the difference between Puritans and Separatists).  On Wednesday I lecture on 17th-century Massachusetts Bay and the so-called “City Upon a Hill.”  On Friday we read and discuss the trial transcript of Anne Hutchinson.  I mention Plymouth very briefly in Wednesday’s lecture, mostly for the purpose of debunking commonly held myths about “Plymouth Rock” and the First Thanksgiving.

Here is Turner:

Not all historians have accepted the marginalization of Plymouth in the history of New England puritanism. (Morgan, like David Hall in the latter’s study of the New England ministry, devoted considerable time to separatism and the Pilgrims before proceeding to narrate events in Massachusetts Bay). Perry Miller, for instance, argued that the Bay colony churches “would have proceeded along essentially the same line had there been no Plymouth at all.” Miller wrote against earlier historians who assigned responsibility for the very emergence of congregationalism in New England to Plymouth’s separatist example.

Recently, Michael Winship has posed a very vigorous challenge to the post-Miller consensus. In his Godly Republicanism, Winship argues that there is no evidence that the Salem colonists came to New England as Congregationalists. One major piece of evidence for Winship’s argument is that there were very, very few committed Congregationalists among English puritan ministers. Two as of the late 1620s, to be precise: the exile William James and the London “semi-separatist” Henry Jacobs. There is no evidence that the ministers who came to Salem in 1629 were “Amesians.” By contrast, seventeenth-century sources assert that they came to New England with no agreement about how to proceed in the formation of churches.

Read the entire post here.

What is the Christian Position on Immigrants?

immigrants

John Turner, a religion professor at George Mason University, answers this question in a post at The Anxious Bench.  Here is a taste:

While I disagree with some of Trump’s actual policy positions (to the best I can discern them) on immigration, on many issues Christians might very reasonably disagree. Do porous borders lead to gangs smuggling unaccompanied minors into the United States? Do high levels of immigration depress wages in the United States and strain city and state budgets? And so forth. There is no single Christian position on immigration, from my vantage point.

There is, however, a Christian position on immigrants. It is to remember that an ancient people who followed our God were once aliens, exiles, and refugees.

I like the way both the NRSV and the NIV render Leviticus 19:34:

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. (NIV)

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (NRSV)

Why should one treat people from elsewhere as one’s own? Because the Lord is our God, and He has commanded us to do so! Simple.

Read the entire piece here.

John Turner’s Forthcoming Book on Plymouth

John Turner

George Mason University historian John Turner is a versatile historian of American religion.  He has written books on 20th-century evangelicalism, 19th-century Mormonism, and is now writing a book on the Plymouth Colony. It is scheduled to be released in 2020, the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower.

Over at The Anxious Bench he gives us an update:

Certainly, many historians, politicians, and others have mischaracterized the Plymouth separatists over the last two hundred years. They were not sailing to the New World for anything approaching our ideals of democracy or religious freedom. The separatist leaders sought liberty, by which they meant organizing their church according to their understanding of the Bible. They asked kings James and Charles for “liberty of conscience,” but at first only as a means of ensuring their colony’s survival. In a letter written shortly before the colony’s dissolution, Thomas Hinckley explained to officials in New England that residents of New Plymouth enjoyed religious freedom, as long as they were not “Papists” or “Quakers” (whom he defined as not Christians). Those who dissented from the established orthodoxy were left in peace, as long as they helped support the town minister from whom they dissented. One can read the correspondence of Plymouth’s Quakers for a sense of how that went.

In the end, even as historians question everything from landmarks to outdated interpretations, the Pilgrims have retained their importance. It helps to be associated with turkeys and football, for sure. But the Pilgrim myths created in the early nineteenth century have stuck in part because the story itself is so good. A tiny religious minority sets off for “northern Virginia” under incredibly inauspicious circumstances. They cannot finance their voyage on their own. They cannot obtain a royal patent. One of their boats proves unseaworthy. A portion of the group stays in England (a larger portion had chosen to stay in Leiden). They leave too late in the fall and show up on Cape Cod in the midst of winter. Half of them die. And yet the colony survives.

Read the entire post here.

Evangelical Historians and Alienation

harvard-history

Over at The Anxious Bench, George Mason University religion professor John Turner writes that as an evangelical Christian he has never felt alienated from the secular academy.  In the process he reflects on Christian historian Jay Green‘s presidential address at last months biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.

Here is a taste of Turner’s post:

Jay Green’s talk resonated deeply with me because it reflects my own ambivalence. As I reflected on the end of Books & Culture, I noted that I attended graduate school in history shortly after the appearance of Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, and B&C‘s launch. I took it for granted that evangelical historians could gain a hearing for scholarship, not least for scholarship on evangelicals. Certainly, as Jay Green explains in his book, some forms of “Christian historiography” are utterly beyond the pale of academic respectability. But as I came onto the scene, I saw books by Marsden, Noll, Nathan Hatch, and Joel Carpenter gaining not just a respectful hearing, but outright respect. And there have been a veritable flood of historical scholarship about and by evangelicals in the last two decades.

Thus, I never felt alienated from the academy the way that prior generations of evangelical scholars did. Certainly, I have heard a fair amount of anti-evangelicalism from academic colleagues, but this seems to have more to do with evangelicalism’s association with conservative politics than with religious matters per se. And with the waning of the Religious Right, I have not heard as much of that sort of talk recently. In other words, it is very easy to feel at home in modern academia (especially if one has tenure!). At least it is for me.

Turner has spent his entire career at public universities (South Alabama and George Mason) and has written important books in the field of American religious history.  He has not experienced the stigma that comes with teaching at a Christian college and I am guessing he does not spend much time having to explain the mission of Christian colleges to secular historians in the way that I do whenever I visit a campus to give a lecture or run into someone at a conference.

Having said that, I do think that the historical profession rewards good scholarship. University presses also tend to publish good history regardless of institutional affiliation. In this sense I have not felt completely alienated from the academy even as I ply my trade on the Christian periphery.

Turner uses the rest of his post to reflect on his feelings of alienation from evangelicalism.  He writes:

Do I feel alienated from evangelicalism? To some extent. Like many evangelicals, however, I have a complex religious identity. I grew up in a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation that involved me in things such as Young Life. And I’ve remained Presbyterian and evangelical despite the fact that both my church and evangelicals often do things that perplex or dishearten me.

But that needs some clarification. As D.G. Hart contended in his Deconstructing Evangelicalism, “evangelical” no longer has a meaningful connection to the mid-twentieth-century “neo-evangelical” movement of disaffected fundamentalists. I’m not convinced the term “evangelical” is meaningless, but it certainly obfuscates as much as it illumines. Am I alienated from evangelicalism? Well, which evangelicalism?

I’m certainly alienated from Jerry Falwell, Jr., but then I never was connected with Falwell, Sr. I’m alienated from David Barton, but not from John Fea. Joel Osteen does not resonate with me, but Billy Graham still does.

On this point, I agree wholeheartedly with Turner.  I think any evangelical scholar/intellectual/academic will always be uneasy evangelicals as long as evangelicalism remains a largely anti-intellectual faith.

I wrote a bit about this here.

Big Changes in the Christian Historians’ Blogosphere

AnxiousBench_P30_bh

The Supreme Court of the United States is not the only “bench” that is experiencing a change of personnel.

As John Turner of George Mason University reports, Thomas Kidd, the prolific historian of American Christianity at Baylor University, will be leaving The Anxious Bench to help start a new blog (with Justin Taylor) at The Gospel Coalition. (More on that below).

Turner writes:

This week, one of our other original contributors has taken up a new post at The Gospel Coalition. I have known Thomas Kidd for nearly two decades, since we were in graduate school together at Notre Dame. It was through his initiative that The Anxious Bench came into being, and he has enriched us with a steady stream of thoughtful and powerful posts over the past four years. He has also served as our blogmeister.

I greatly admire the way that Tommy writes with purpose, clarity, and faith. What my friend has modeled through his publications has greatly inspired and shaped my own work. We will miss you at The Anxious Bench, but we offer our best wishes on your new assignment, Tommy!

Kidd will be replaced at the Anxious Bench by one of our favorite bloggers: Chris Gehrz, the chair of the history department at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Gehrz will take over Kidd’s regular Tuesday slot and will serve as blogmeister.  Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know Gehrz from his own blog–The Pietist Schoolman.

Gehrz recently announced his new gig in a post at The Pietist Schoolman.  Here is a taste:

Even after the imbalanced swap of Kidd for Gehrz, this particular bench remains a deep one, with some truly impressive “historians of broadly evangelical faith [sharing] their reflections on contemporary faith, politics and culture in the light of American and global religious history.” I doubt that Philip Jenkins needs much introduction, and John Turner (for the leading role he’s played, as a historian from outside the LDS fold, in the “Mormon moment“) and David Swartz (for his groundbreaking work on politically progressive evangelicalism) may be familiar to long-time readers of this blog. Beth Allison Barr regularly corrects my mistaken assumptions about medieval Christianity. And each month Agnes and Tal Howard each contribute thought-provoking posts on everything from Puritanism to snake handling.

Fans of The Pietist Schoolman will be happy to know that Gehrz will continue to maintain his regular posts at the site.

As for Kidd, he has teamed up with Justin Taylor (of Between Two Worlds fame) to start Evangelical History.  Here is a taste of Kidd’s description of the new venture:

Welcome to the Evangelical History blog of The Gospel Coalition! This blog is a partnership between Justin Taylor and Thomas Kidd (me). Many of you will know Justin from his influential Between Two Worlds blog, which will be continuing at TGC while he and I also collaborate on this initiative.

What do we mean by “evangelical history”? Justin and I both have broad interests in the history of evangelical Christianity, and the history of Christianity, so those will be a major focus here. But we’re also interested in a Christian view of all kinds of history: political, military, social, and other topics.

I don’t know if I can handle all this movement before the August 1, 2016 MLB trading deadline!

Muslims are the New Mormoms

Mormon pioneers heading to Utah, circa 1850s

John Turner of George Mason University explains over at The Anxious Bench:

Those rightfully appalled at Donald Trump’s insistence that all Muslim visitors to the United States are potential terrorists and should therefore be banned from entering the country should remember that anti-religious bigotry was woven into the fabric of nineteenth-century American politics and culture. The vitriol that late-nineteenth-century politicians of both parties employed against Mormons far exceeded what Donald Trump uses against Muslims today. And such ideas touched not only Mormons, but Catholics, Jews, and other groups as well. The free exercise of religion in American history has been contested, sometimes violent terrain.
Read Turner’s entire post here.

Some Reflections on Religion (and Christians) in the Academy

Some of you may recall our post on a recent Books & Culture article revisiting the “Secularization of the Academy” conference on its twenty-fifth anniversary. 

Over at The Anxious Bench, John Turner of the Religion Department at George Mason University wonders to what degree the academy remains “secularized” today.  As a Christian working at a research university, Turner feels quite comfortable.

Here is a taste:

I mostly agree with Darryl Hart that the secular university — for historians, at least — provides a high degree of academic freedom, though I think many Christian institutions do as well (more so today than in past generations). I’ve never felt unable to say anything I wanted to say in the classroom.
The same is true of my scholarship. When I was attempting to place my dissertation on the history of Campus Crusade for Christ with a university press, I did get questions about whether or not I was “one of them.” It is not an irrelevant question, though probably less likely to arise had the subject been something more ideologically attractive to most academics. Especially with tenure, though, I feel rather unconstrained in terms of research and writing. Moreover, it helps that publishers, as far as I can deduce, are quite interested in religious history topics.
Another reason for my comfort is that I do not feel a need to adhere to a particularly Christian understanding of the discipline of history in my teaching and writing. In other words, although my faith informs my understanding of past events and their connection to the present and future, my faith has far less to do with how I understand the academic discipline of history. The latter rests on a fair-minded interpretation of primary-source evidence coupled with a fair-minded assessment of the historiography. Christian historians, in my view, should be quite content to play by the academic rules of the game.
Finally, it is worth noting that the “academy” and the “campus” are not the same thing, by any means. And if the academy is at least as secular as it was a quarter-century ago, most American colleges and universities are still relatively hospitable environments for religion. That has been changing in recent years, as some administrations and politicians have sought to drive out religious organizations that do not conform to current campus standards of “diversity” or sexuality. Nevertheless, most public universities remain fairly open marketplaces of religion. Which always makes me feel much better about “Sin Awareness” days.
I largely agree with Turner, though I have argued that some Christian historians will approach their work with certain presuppositions about the nature of human beings that stem from a theological outlook.  I would also argue that the study of history could lead to the cultivation of certain virtues that are compatible with Christianity. 
Turner’s remarks about being asked “whether or not I was ‘one of them'” is interesting.  I have been asked similar questions on job interviews at non-sectarian universities.  At one campus interview at a research university I was grilled about my Christian college and seminary degree over lunch by a member of the search committee and then later faced a similar onslaught of questions from at least four different members of the faculty.  A few of these faculty members wanted to make sure that I had “moved on” from the Christian beliefs that my educational pedigree revealed.  (I should add that this was a mid-career job interview that happened about six years ago. The Way of Improvement Leads Home had already been published). 
At another on-campus job interview at a research university, one of the members of the search committee noticed that I attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  He wanted to know why I would ever enroll in such a place.  When I told him that at one point in my life I was considering a career in the ministry he responded, rather abruptly, “so are you are historian or a minister?” (Of course I did have Ph.D in American history from a reputable program).  
On yet another on-campus interview I was driving in a car with three faculty members of a research university history department.  They were showing me potential neighborhoods. During the entire ride they asked me what it was like to attend an evangelical seminary.  I answered their questions politely and even laughed along with them about some of the strange practices of American evangelicalism. Finally one of them said, “Wow, this is so cool.  So you are a Christian?  We need one of you on the faculty.”  It was a delightfully postmodern moment.  I turned down the job and accepted an offer at Messiah College.
But these are exceptions to the rule.  Like Turner, I have found the academy to be a welcoming place for Christians. It is much more welcoming today than it was fifteen years ago when I was on the job market. 
It is certainly possible that I have been discriminated against because of my faith and I just don’t know about it.  It is also possible that I have not had some opportunities because of the kind of college at which I have spent most of my teaching career.  But I continue to be an idealist who thinks that my academic colleagues will judge my work as a teacher and scholar on its merits. And for the most part, I have not been disappointed on that front. 
Having said that, I have always felt that I had to work twice as hard as the next person in order to win a voice.  Sometimes I wonder if this has less to do with my faith and more to do with the chip on my soldier that comes from my working-class roots.  Whatever the case, I still feel like I operate from the margins. The older I get the less I worry about.  I have even come to embrace it.

Historian John Turner Responds to Historian Thomas Kidd’s Donald Trump Piece

Yesterday we did a post on Baylor historian Thomas Kidd’s call for evangelicals to abandon the Donald Trump candidacy and leave the Republican Party if Trump is the eventual nominee.

Today John Turner, Kidd’s friend, fellow George Marsden student at Notre Dame, religion professor at George Mason University, and co-blogger at The Anxious Bench, responded.  I am guessing that Turner has as much distaste for Trump as Kidd, but that was not the point of his post.  Turner is addressing two issues.  First, whether or not Trump has a legitimate shot at the nomination.  Second, whether or not evangelicals would ever abandon the Republican Party.


Here is a taste:

My co-blogger Thomas Kidd suggests that church-going evangelicals and a group he calls “paleo-evangelicals” (already disaffected with the Republican Party) should desert the Republicans should Donald Trump capture the GOP nomination.
I am in the camp of those who consider that outcome an improbability in two respects. First, despite widespread dissatisfaction with “establishment” politicians, Republicans will probably not nominate a recent convert. Evangelical voters in Iowa will probably deny Trump a victory in that state’s caucuses. The field will narrow considerably by January, and when it is Trump versus one or two credible candidates, the more mainstream Republican candidate will probably prevail. Of course, there is no good reason to misidentify historians for good political prognosticators.
And then this:
Politics is as much a habit as a matter of thoughtful deliberation. Evangelicals are used to voting for Republican presidential candidates, regardless of whom the party nominates. John McCain and Mitt Romney? No problem. If the Republican Party somehow nominated Donald Trump for president, he would promise to appoint pro-life judges and argue that Hillary Clinton (no suspense there) would appoint judges that would trample on the religious freedom of Christians. Perhaps the Republicans would get 75 percent instead of 80 percent of evangelical votes (admittedly, the difference could be significant), and perhaps a percentage of evangelicals would stay home. But I suspect at least three-quarters would vote for Trump.
Major political realignments in U.S. History are rare. When African Americans began voting for the Democratic Party (outside of the South) beginning with the New Deal, they did so not only because Republican politicians ignored their concerns but because Democratic politicians competed for their votes. When white southerners in turn left the Democratic Party, they did so in the midst of a full-court Republican press. In our two-party system, options are limited. Conservative evangelicals who care deeply about abortion and religious liberty might feel alienated from the Republican Party, but the other party doesn’t think it needs their votes and doesn’t want them.

Turner has been making this argument about the staying power of the evangelical-GOP alliance for a long time.  And I agree with him. I am not a pollster or a political scientist, but I do have a foot in the politically-charged (sadly) world of American evangelicalism.  I spend a lot of time with evangelical Christians and from where I sit the alliance between the GOP and evangelicals is as strong as it has ever been.

I just don’t see how Trump will last through November 2016.  I also don’t see how any of the Christian Right candidates can seriously win the nomination if the GOP expects to beat Hillary in November 2016.  If Ted Cruz wins the nomination, moderate Republicans will stay home on election day just like many evangelicals did in 2012. 

Perhaps we underestimate the degree to which the Republican Party is fractured right now.  The current debate over the Speaker of the House is an obvious example of this. This fracturing will be a major theme in the work of future political historians studying our era.  I just don’t see how the GOP can overcome their differences, come together, and support a candidate for president.  

Can a GOP candidate come along and bridge this divide between moderate republicans and the Christian Tea Party crowd?  I doubt it. But until one does, Democrats will continue to win presidential elections.  In my opinion, the GOP’s best bets on this front are Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and perhaps Carly Fiorina. 

One more thought.  There is one way that the GOP could win in November 2016.  The Republican Party’s hatred for Hillary Clinton is so strong that the factions within the party just must come together to defeat a common enemy.

John Turner’s New Course: Race and American Christianity

John Turner of George Mason University is teaching a course this semester on race and American Christianity.  Over at The Anxious Bench he tells a great story about his own encounter with these issues.  Here is a taste:
Jesus and I were the only white people in the room.
After my freshman year of college, I spent the summer on an uncompensated internship in the Washington, DC, area. (The experience gave me a lasting desire to be compensated for work performed). The internship did come with one perk — free housing in a cottage in the backyard of a suburban couple’s home. Being from up north, the cottage without air-conditioning was not exactly paradisiacal. It was a hot and somewhat lonely summer away from family and friends.
Nearly across the street was a small Baptist church, which I decided to visit that first weekend. If I had known it was a black church, I probably would have walked farther. It was an intimidating experience to be the only white person in a church building. At this church, there were four elders who sat in front, looking out at the congregation. I was certain they were thinking that I should not be there. I noticed a painting of a white Jesus on the wall, which I even then found somewhat odd. (It was Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, I later realized).
As it turns out, and as you could imagine, the congregants and elders made me feel quite welcome. I worshiped there all summer.
One week, the couple who owned the cottage went out of town. They let me drive their van to work each day (much more pleasant than the usual bus route), and they told me to feel free to drink the alcoholic beverages in the fridge. So one Saturday night, I drank a lot of them.
I was half an hour late to church the next morning. That day, the minister had invited me to lunch at Red Lobster. Over lunch, he told me about his decades-long struggle with alcoholism. The reason for my tardiness must have been obvious. I don’t think I was headed toward a decades-long struggle with the bottle, but I did feel God’s protective hand.
One week, I attended the church’s Wednesday night Bible study. I don’t remember very much about it, but I thought about it earlier this year when Dylan Roof attended a Bible study at an African American class and murdered nearly all of those in attendance.
This fall, I’m teaching a seminar on “Race and Religion in U.S. History.” I wanted to develop this seminar to enable me (and my students) to reflect many of the subjects within American history I find of enduring fascination: missions (ranging from early European-Indian interactions to African American missions to Africa), slavery, the civil rights movement, and Mormonism. I’m beginning the course with the Civil Rights Movement, then moving back in time and proceeding from white-native encounters to slavery to nineteenth-century Mormonism to contemporary Latino Catholicism. I’m also going to try to use InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as a case study of how evangelical approaches to race have changed over the past four decades. Despite the title, it’s really a course about “Race and American Christianities.”
Read the rest here.

I Wish We’d All Been Ready: John Turner on "A Thief in the Night"

Over at The Anxious Bench, John Turner of George Mason University writes about showing the 1972 evangelical apocalyptic classic “A Thief in the Night” to his class on religion and film.  

Watch the entire movie below.  If you don’t have time, the first five minutes should give you a sense of what it is all about:



I have seen “A Thief in the Night” and its sequels several times over the years.  As a young evangelical these movies scared me to death.  The guy with the lamb chops who is secretly working UNITE is frightening.  

As a divinity school student, I organized a “Thief in the Night” marathon in which we watched all three movies in the series.  This viewing party could best be characterized as a mix of entertainment and theological reflection, but we also made fun of the 1970s evangelical subculture. 

We have mentioned this film several times here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  You can find those posts here and here and here.

And here is a taste of Turner’s post:

My church — a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation that straddled the worlds of evangelical and mainline Protestantism — did not screen the film when I was a teenager. We were encouraged to make a personal decision to follow Jesus Christ, but not because the world was about to end or because we might be left behind to suffer the assaults of Satan after the rapture. So while thousands or millions of American evangelical young people watched A Thief in the Night in the 1970s and 1980s (the film’s producer claims that in all, three hundred million people have seen the movie), I watched it for the first time this week.

Here are a few thoughts:

– Laugh and groan all you want. It’s no small accomplishment to make a $60,000 film and have millions of people see it. A Thief in the Night is certainly one of the very few most significant evangelical movies ever made. As Randall Balmer observes, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that A Thief in the Night affected the evangelical film industry the way that sound or color affected Hollywood.”

– People make films for all sorts of reasons. The primary purpose of A Thief in the Night was evangelism, to persuade nominal Christians to make a heart-felt prayer asking Jesus to come into their hearts. What the film intended to do it apparently has done rather well. “I have found,” writes Heather Hendershot in her Shaking the World for Jesus, “that A Thief in the Night is the only evangelical film that viewers cite directly and repeatedly as provoking a conversion experience.” Many successful altar calls followed screenings of the film.

And let’s not forget the movie score, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” written and performed by Christian rock legend Larry Norman: