The Many Evangelicalisms

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

Here is a taste of Gryboski’s piece:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

 

Race and Evangelicals (#AHA19)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Matt!

Was Phillis Wheatley an “Evangelical?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kristin Kobes Du Mez gets it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critiquing Liberalism

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A map of Wendell Berry’s Port William

Over at The Front Porch Republic, Jeff Bilbro has a fascinating and brilliant review of a conference at Calvin College titled “Faith and Democracy in America: Christianity and Liberalism Rightly Understood.”

Here is a taste:

In early December, the Acton Institute and Calvin College’s Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics co-hosted a conference ambitiously titled “Faith and Democracy in America: Christianity and Liberalism Rightly Understood.” The dueling keynote titles caught my attention. Patrick Deneen was slated to give the first one: “Liberalism is Not Free: The Myths of Religious Liberty.” The next day, Jamie Smith would speak in defense of liberalism: “Thank God for Liberalism: An Alternative History Without Nostalgia.” Since I respect the work of both these scholars and have learned much from their writings, I made plans to attend. The conference didn’t disappoint, though I do wish the format would have allowed for a more genuine back-and-forth between Deneen and his critics. In what follows, I’ll try to avoid too much inside baseball and, rather than attempting to summarize all of the talks, will distill some of the central questions the conference raised for me.

Kristen Johnson, a professor at Western Seminary, articulated the conference’s animating questions when she asked whether Christians can find within a pluralistic space opportunities to live radically faithful lives. The danger, of course, is that a liberal, pluralistic space will so malform Christians that the distinctive character of a gospel-formed life is warped. In Smith’s book Awaiting the King he draws on Oliver O’Donovan to claim that “liberalism itself lives on borrowed capital and is only possible because of the dent of the gospel and the formative effects of Christian practices on Western societies” (17). But as liberalism draws down this moral (and, I would add, ecological) capital, can churches sustain the kinds of vibrant communities and institutions and practices necessary to form virtuous citizens, citizens whose first allegience is to the Kingdom of God? (I pursued this line of questioning further in my review of Smith’s book.)

Several of the speakers sidestepped these difficult questions by defending liberalism’s promises of equality and freedom without reckoning with the growing evidence that American liberalism is increasingly failing to deliver on these promises. Speakers such as Samuel Gregg, William Katerberg, Kristin Du Mez, and others pointed out that women and peasants and racial minorities were oppressed in pre-liberal social arrangements, as if that, in itself, answers Deneen’s critique of liberalism.

To this end, several potshots were lobbed at Wendell Berry as a nostalgic reactionary. It is much easier, however, to make fun of Berry for being nostalgic than it is to respond to his warning that our liberal way of life is causing irreparable ecological, cultural, and moral damage. (Even my three-year-old daughter has mastered the art of criticizing Berry: if I am too engrossed in my writing, she leans toward me and repeats “Wendell Berry is a bad dude,” knowing this is a sure way to get my attention.) Yet there are grave consequences when a culture forms its members to pursue wealth and happiness by cutting themselves loose from place and community and tradition. (One of these, as Comment recently explored, is loneliness, which is just one of liberalism’s fruits.)

These defenders of liberalism’s benefits, then, tend to criticize a straw man rather than actually responding to the arguments of people like Berry or Deneen. Indeed, Deneen himself explicitly acknowledges liberalism’s Christian origins and its good results:

Nor does reflecting upon what follows liberalism’s self-destruction imply that we must simply devise its opposite, or deny what was of great or enduring value in the achievements of liberalism. Liberalism’s appeal lies in its continuities with the deepest commitments of the Western political tradition, particularly efforts to secure liberty and human dignity through the constraint of tyranny, arbitrary rule, and oppression. In this regard, liberalism is rightly considered to be based on essential political commitments that were developed over centuries in classical and Christian thought and practice. (Why Liberalism Failed 19)

In other words, liberalism can be marked by the gospel and still be a political and cultural dead end. As Ivan Illich argued, corruptio optimi pessima.

By not acknowledging this possibility, these speakers largely failed to grapple with Deneen’s argument that liberalism is not, in fact, bringing about genuine freedom or just forms of society. Instead, it is sorting society into a small group of winners and a large group of losers. As Deneen puts it, “Society today has been organized around the Millian principle that ‘everything is allowed,’ at least so long as it does not result in measurable (mainly physical) harm. It is a society organized for the benefit of the strong” (148). Smith has elsewhere made a similar case himself, noting that “the dismantling of cultural jigs makes the poor especially vulnerable.”

Deneen’s book is a tour-de-force.  Berry, of course, is a prophet. 🙂  Both offer powerful critiques of liberalism.  It seems like their arguments and the implications of their arguments need to be engaged with something more than just an appeal to liberalism’s defense of oppressed groups.  I think we need less, not more, of this kind of identity politics, especially when it comes to any discussion about the future of democracy and the common good.  (And I include white identity politics in all of this, which is one of the reasons I  am such a critic of Trump).  Bilbro, Deneen, and Berry are drawing us to things that affect all of us as human beings–environmental degradation (and its impact on the poor), the destruction of places and local economies, the decline in vibrant communities defined by loving one’s neighbor over self-interest, and the “sorting of society between winners and losers,” to name a few. (Of course such universal human appeals like the ones I mentioned above are also part of the Enlightenment liberal project.  This is complicated).

Once could look at this another way.  Bilbro names conference speakers such as Samuel Gregg, William Katerberg, and Kristin Du Mez who “defended liberalism’s promises of equality of freedom without reckoning with the growing evidence that American liberalism increasingly failed to deliver on these promises.”  I was not at the conference, but I have read Du Mez’s paper (which is linked in Bilbro’s essay).  If liberalism has been so successful, then why is it necessary for Du Mez to ask “where are the women?”  I am sure Du Mez would respond to this question by saying that the work of liberalism is not yet done.  Or perhaps she would point to some of the limits of liberalism.  But it does sound like she believes that the liberal democratic order is still the best hope of progress for women and other oppressed groups.  And there’s the rub.  Bilbro, Deneen, Berry (and I would add others like Geneva College’s Eric Miller, Syracuse’s Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, or Pomona College’s Susan McWilliams to this list) do not think liberalism is, ironically, our best path forward.

Read Bilbro’s piece here.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez Reviews *Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump*

Believe Me 3dKristin Kobes Du Mez teaches history at Calvin College and she is writing a book about evangelical masculinity, militarism, and Donald Trump titled Onward Christian Warriors.  I appreciate her review of my Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump at Christianity Today.

Here is a taste:

John Fea has two intended audiences for his new book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. On the one hand, he dedicates this book “to the 19 percent”—to the segment of white evangelicals who (at least according to exit poll data) voted against Trump in the presidential race. But in another sense, Fea is also writing to the remaining 81 percent, to those who decided that Trump could best advance the cause of Christianity in America.

Fea writes as both a historian (he teaches at Messiah College) and a self-identified evangelical. In this second vein, he offers a sympathetic portrayal of the predicament in which evangelicals found themselves during the 2016 election season. He frames his discussion of the Obama administration as a period of intensifying fear for American evangelicals. Once the Obama administration sided with progressives on the same-sex marriage issue, he writes, it “became relentless in its advocacy of social policies that not only made traditional evangelicals cringe but also infused them with a sense of righteous anger.” According to Fea, the speed with which evangelicals found themselves “marginalized and even threatened” is “difficult to overestimate.” With important institutions seemingly “crumbling around them,” they were increasingly worried about the health of American society. At that point, many Republican candidates were more than willing to exploit these fears for political gain.

Read the entire review here.

Another Patheos Blogger Wants to Know What is Going on at Patheos

Anxious-Bench-squarePatheos bloggers continue to ask questions after the website unceremoniously dumped Warren Throckmorton.

Here is a taste of historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez‘s latest post at The Anxious Bench:

Does Patheos in fact host the conversation on faith? Or is this a sign that it will be hosting a censored, invitation-only conversation? Are there topics we would do well to avoid? (To be clear, these questions are not meant to “disparage” the site, simply to inquire about its strategic objectives going forward).

As someone who writes on feminism, on Focus on the Family, on racism and Christian nationalism, on conservative Christians and sexual abuse, on #MeToo and the church, and, yes, on Donald Trump, this question is of particular interest to me. (To be clear, I’ve never received any editorial directives from Patheos leadership; Throckmorton’s removal, however, seems to have come without warning).

Beyond censorship, I suppose there’s also the question of whose pockets we’re padding. The revenue generated from the ubiquitous ads goes somewhere. I can’t imagine my blog posts contribute in any significant way to the net wealth of folks like President Trump’s personal lawyer—he has other more lucrative streams of income, I presume.

Read the entire post here.

Did 81% of White Evangelicals Vote for Donald Trump? Who Knows?

 

Trump and Bible

According to political scientist Tobin Grant, when pollsters talk about “evangelicals,” what they “really mean are ‘white, non-Hispanic Protestants.”  Polls, of course, are not perfect, and this is particularly true when it comes to religion.  Many polls have claimed that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.  This number is based on a voter’s self-description as “born-again or evangelical Christian.”  It says nothing about the theological or spiritual content of that voter’s faith, or whether he or she attends church on a regular basis.  As a result, the number of devout, theologically orthodox, born-again, weekly-church-going evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump is probably lower than 81%.

As I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I wrestled with how to explain the term “evangelical.”  In the book, I focus specifically on white evangelicals.  Black and Hispanic evangelicals did not vote for Donald Trump in such large numbers.

If the number of white evangelicals voters who voted for Trump is indeed lower than 81% percent, the real number (which is virtually impossible to nail down) is still quite large.  This, I argue, is a serious problem for white evangelicals and their witness in the world.

Finally, whether the the evangelicals who voted for Trump are church-going, born-again Christians or nonpracticing cultural Christians who simply claimed the label “evangelical” during the exit poll, they still made a public declaration of their religious identity, which I take seriously.

For another recent discussion of the 81% see Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s recent piece at The Anxious Bench: “Defining Evangelicalism and the Problem of Whiteness.”

Pro-Life Feminists

Pro Life Feminists

Over at Religion and Politics, Ellen Duffer asks “Where Do Pro-Life Feminists Belong?” It’s a great piece.  It reminds me a lot of Emma Green’s article at The Atlantic written a few days before the Women’s March on Washington.

I must admit I felt a little uneasy about the title of Duffer’s piece.  (I realize that she may not be responsible for the title).  It seems to imply that pro-life feminists need to be defined by a political affiliation or by a particular side in the culture wars. (Are they Democrats or Republicans?  Liberals or Conservatives?).  Most pro-life feminists I know do not like labels because they see little separation between their feminism and their defense of a culture of life. (And Duffer makes this clear in her piece).  In other words, they do not necessary fit into a category.

Perhaps some of the pro-life feminists who read this blog can help me with this one.  I am guessing that the word “belong” in the title could also have something to do with the loneliness pro-life feminists might feel.  As Duffer points out, they have been marginalized by the larger feminist community.  At the same time, many of them who are part of conservative religious communities have also felt or been isolated.  This certainly seems to be the case with Karen Swallow Prior (see the excerpt below).

Here is a taste of Duffer’s piece:

These younger Christian feminists—including those coming from communities that have been intricately linked to the pro-life movement for decades—are eager to have a conversation about abortion (which 57 percent of Americans believe should be legal in most cases), especially if it means becoming closer to the feminist movement overall.

Historically, feminist voices have often been religious, according to Kristin Kobes Du Mez, chair of the history department at Calvin College, and author of A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism. She credits religious women with pushing through the suffrage movement and assisting in the creation of the National Organization for Women. Christian feminism “helped transform” the suffrage movement to a mainstream movement, she said. Cochran agrees, having written at length about the theology of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Both sides of the abortion debate have, in the past, tried to have an open dialogue. Karen Swallow Prior, a writer and English professor at Liberty University in Virginia once worked with the anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue, and she served as president of Feminists for Life. She was also involved with the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, which tried to bridge the gap between the pro-life and pro-choice movements in the 1990s. The group held formal conversations between pro-choice advocates and ardent pro-lifers until each side came to some sort of understanding. Finding “common ground” was and continues to be a big part of Swallow Prior’s perspective on abortion. “Most pro-life people and most pro-choice people care about women and children,” she said, and focusing on what benefits woman and children and families provides the foundation for a conversation.

In practical terms, this emphasis has often meant supporting welfare programs meant to reduce the economic burden of child-rearing for women, increasing access to childcare, and, most controversially for some Christians, advocating for sex education and an array of contraception options. But Swallow Prior is uncertain about how attaining policies that appease both sides would go over now. “The political climate today is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “It is so fractured and filled with animosity and division.” She added, “Vigorous debate and vigorous disagreement is based on at least an acknowledgement of the other. I don’t even think we have that in common anymore, in culture in general.”

Within the Christian feminist movement, these contentious debates are often made more fraught, since many of the women involved are having to relearn decades of religious and social teachings. Micah, who wrote her master’s thesis on women in leadership roles in the Christian Church, now believes, “The Bible has to be read in proper context.” She said, “We see Jesus do some pretty radical things to empower women in a culture that was extremely patriarchal.”

Read the entire piece here.

Christian Feminism

Thousands Attend Women's March On Washington

Kristin Kobes Du Mez of Calvin College writes about what it is and what it is not.  It’s a very helpful piece.

Over at The Anxious Bench, Du Mez lists “ten things Christians get wrong about feminism.”  They are:

  1. “Christian feminism” is an oxymoron
  2.  Feminism is only about abortion
  3.  Feminism provokes violence against women
  4.  Feminists hate men
  5.  Feminists want to make women just like men
  6.  Feminists are anti-motherhood
  7.  Feminists have no sense of humor
  8.  Feminists are ugly
  9.  Feminists are crass
  10.  Feminism is a “diverse and varied” movement.

Read how Du Mez unpacks these points here.