Randall Balmer: Evangelicals “have been outsourcing their judicial appointments to conservative Catholics”

Back in July 2018, National Public Radio reporter Sarah McCammon asked me why there are no evangelical Christians on the Supreme Court. Here is the part of my answer that made it into her story:

MCCAMMON: A major goal for many conservatives, and one supported by Catholic theology. Trump’s shortlist for the next justice was overwhelmingly Catholic. One major religious group known for its social conservatism that’s notably absent from the court is evangelicals. That’s despite white evangelicals’ influence in the Trump administration and critical role in helping him win the presidency. John Fea is a historian at Messiah College, an evangelical institution in Pennsylvania.

JOHN FEA: A lot of that has to do with the direction that the evangelical movement has taken in America.

MCCAMMON: Fea says unlike Catholicism and Judaism, which both have a long intellectual tradition, American evangelicalism has been more practical in focus.

FEA: Evangelicals are primarily concerned with preaching the gospel, with service. So as a result, you have a lot of evangelicals doing great things, but they’re not necessarily pursuing this kind of intellectual vocation because they’re out trying to win people to Christ.

Most of the evangelical lawyers with a public profile are people like Trump’s impeachment lawyer Jay Sekulow, men and women who specialize in church-state law and believe that the primary way of being a Christian lawyer to help the Right win the culture wars.

In a recent piece at CNN, Ron Brownstein explores the place of conservative Catholics on the Supreme Court. If Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed, she will join John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Brett Kavanaugh as Catholic justices with a conservative judicial philosophy. (Sonia Sotomayor, a liberal justice, is also Catholic).

Brownstein’s piece draws heavily from the work of Dartmouth American religious historian Randall Balmer. Here is a taste:

“You have a situation where the evangelicals have been outsourcing their judicial appointments to conservative Catholics,” says Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth University, who has written extensively on the history of evangelical political activism.

The Catholic dominance in these selections, many observers say, simultaneously reflects an ideological convergence and an institutional divergence. The ideological convergence is that conservative Catholics, including those in the legal field, have displayed as much commitment to conservative social causes, particularly banning abortion, as evangelical Christians. The institutional divergence is that there is a vastly stronger legal network — from well-respected law schools to judicial clerkships to lower court appointments — to provide conservative Catholics with the credentials required to obtain a Supreme Court nomination than exists for evangelical Protestants.

The Republican tilt toward Catholics over evangelicals “has to do, in really simple terms, with supply and demand,” says Joshua Wilson, a political scientist at the University of Denver and co-author with Amanda Hollis-Brusky of “Separate But Faithful,” an upcoming book on conservative Christians in the legal world. “You don’t have a robust pool of evangelical Protestant lawyers and judges, whereas you do have a robust pool of conservative Catholic judges and lawyers and academics.”

Read the entire piece here.

Syndicate Symposium: “Sins and Virtues in American Public Life”

Over at “Syndicate,” Dartmouth religion professor Jeremy Sabella has put together a symposium on the Seven Deadly Sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride), the Four Cardinal Virtues (prudence, courage, temperance, and justice), and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. It is titled “Sins & Virtues in American Public Life.”

New posts will appear on Tuesday and Fridays. Writers in this series include Bharat Ranganathan, Daniel Schultz, Chris Jones, Vincent Lloyd, Stanley Hauerwas, Jamie Pitts, Jennifer Knapp, Christian Sabella, David Cloutier, Robin Lovin, Jon Kara Shields, MT Davila, Aaron Scott, Colleen Wessell-McCoy, Scott Paeth, Randall Balmer, M. Shawn Copeland, and Briallen Hopper.

My piece on the theological virtue of faith and American public life will appear on November 3, 2020.

The series began last week and will run through November 13, 2020. Here is a taste of Sabella’s introduction:

To paraphrase William Shakespeare: something is rotten in the state of our union.

We see it in our toppled monuments and overcrowded hospitals, feel it in the clouds of tear gas and welts from rubber bullets, hear it in the chants of protest slogans and the shouting at town halls. Yet we struggle to articulate what, exactly, has gone wrong.

The language we typically deploy to name political problems—the system is broken, our government is gridlocked—analogizes society to a massive machine, priming us to seek machine solutions to its dysfunctions. In a machine, if we identify the broken part, the blown fuse, the errant line of code, we can get it up and running good as new. By implication, if we can replace the defective parts of our social machinery—elect the right commander-in-chief, nominate the right Supreme Court justice, redraw gerrymandered districts—we can restore society to functionality. Both political parties have made such changes to great fanfare. Yet as a society we remain as broken and gridlocked as ever. Put simply, the changes aren’t working.

By evoking the breakdown of organic matter, Shakespeare’s language of rot points to an older understanding of society: not as a machine, but as a kind of organism. This biological imagery captures acute social crisis in ways that machine imagery does not. Machines break down and get fixed; organisms get sick, and with the right measures, can heal. But once the organism starts to rot—once the gangrene sets in—drastic measures are required to keep it from dying. Biological imagery clarifies what our moment requires: not another targeted, one-time intervention, but rather, full-scale transformation.

Which is where this symposium comes in. The reflections featured draw on the moral language of sin and virtue to describe contemporary social problems. This language presupposes the ancient image of society as a body politic. Plutarch’s Life of Coriolanus, for instance, describes the senate of the Roman republic as the stomach of the body politic, which digests nutrients and distributes them to the rest of the members. Similarly, Paul the Apostle uses bodily imagery to describe the relationship of individual Christians to the Christian community as a whole: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). Both sources depict society, not as a machine composed of discrete parts, but as a body of interconnected parts that fall ill and heal as a single unit. And the language used to shape the morality of individuals can help diagnose and mend the body politic.

As they faced waves of famine, pandemic, and political unrest, medieval thinkers developed and refined the categories of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Four Cardinal Virtues, and the Three Theological Virtues. In tandem they comprise a kind of toolbox for the care of souls, where the sins diagnose types of spiritual illness and the virtues identify states of spiritual health. This symposium deploys this toolbox to cultivate a comprehensive view of what ails our own body politic and how to nurse it back to health. Each contributor has been tasked with choosing one of the sins or virtues to answer the same basic question: What does sin/virtue x look like in American public life?

Read the rest here.

Emma Long: “Why Donald Trump still appeals to so many evangelicals”

Trump St. Johns

Here is Emma Long of the University of East Anglia on the anti-Trump evangelicals:

recent Pew Research Center poll indicated that although Trump’s approval ratings among white evangelicals have slipped slightly to 72%, eight out of ten still say they would vote for him again in November.

Yet given the focus on evangelical Trump supporters, it’s easy to overlook the 19% of white evangelicals, and those evangelicals of colour, who did not support Trump in 2016. Among the most prolific and high profile are John Fea, Messiah College professor of history, and Randall Balmer, professor of religion at Dartmouth College.

But there are others, such as the Red Letter Christians, a group who seek to “live out Jesus’ counter-cultural teachings” and whose focus on social justice tends to see them allied more often with the political left. In December 2019, even the leading evangelical publication Christianity Today published a widely reported editorial supporting Trump’s impeachment.

Although these divisions run deep within the evangelical community, they have scarcely caused a ripple in American culture more generally. So why has the political impact of these anti-Trump evangelicals been relatively small?

First, the “evangelical left” has always struggled to achieve political impact, often attracting enthusiastic support but not huge numbers. Second, the anti-Trump category is so large and diverse, and based on so many different issues, that it’s easy for any one group to be submerged into the larger howl of protest.

And third, evangelicals are a diverse group who disagree on many issues. Significant as it is within the evangelical community, the evangelical left is probably neither big enough nor sufficiently cohesive to have much of an electoral impact in November.

Read Long’s entire piece titled “Why Donald Trump still appeals to so many evangelicals.”

When progressive evangelicals held the national stage

George_McGovern,_c_1972

George McGovern

Over at Sojourners, American religious historian Randall Balmer traces the history of progressive evangelicalism in the 1970s. Here is a taste of “Before the Religious Right, Progressive Evangelicals Gained the National Spotlight“:

Richard Nixon’s promise of a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam, which boosted him to presidency in 1968, turned out to entail expanding the war to Cambodia in the spring of 1970, thereby prompting protests across the nation and the shooting of four students by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. Nevertheless, Nixon rallied his “silent majority” in advance of the 1972 presidential election, and he entered the campaign with decided advantages.

The Democratic nominee was George McGovern, senator from South Dakota who grew up in the parsonage of a Wesleyan Methodist minister and who himself studied for the ministry at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary before going on to earn the Ph.D. from Northwestern University. McGovern, a decorated war hero in World War II, brought his campaign to Wheaton College’s Edman Chapel on the morning of October 11, 1972.

I was a first-year student at Trinity College, and I persuaded several of my classmates to skip our daily chapel and accompany me to Wheaton. I shall never forget the scene. Students paraded around the chapel with Nixon campaign banners. McGovern opened by saying that he had wanted to attend Wheaton, but his family couldn’t afford it. He went on to explain that his understanding of justice and social responsibility was derived from the Bible. By the end of his remarks, McGovern had won a respectful hearing from many of the students.

Nevertheless, Billy Graham had endorsed Nixon, and white evangelicals followed the evangelist’s lead.

Read the entire piece here.

For more on this history, I recommend three books:

Balmer, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter

David Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism

Brantley Gasaway, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice

Mark Lempke, My Brother’s Keeper: George McGovern and Progressive Christianity

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

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

But here is some history:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al Mohler’s Former Church History Professor: “I think you can make the case that there was an expediency to Al’s hard-right turn in those days.”

mohler

Check out Jonathan Merritt’s Religion News Service  piece on Albert Mohler‘s recent “flip-flop” to Donald Trump. (We broke this story early. See our posts here and here and here.). Some of the scholars and SBC-insiders he quotes are quite revealing.

Here is Merritt on Mohler’s church history professor and Southern Baptist historian Bill Leonard:

As a fresh-faced student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Kentucky, in the early 1980s, Mohler hardly cut the figure as a paragon among far-right conservatives. As Dr. Bill Leonard, Mohler’s church history professor at SBTS reflects, “In my experience and the experience of others, he was mostly an academic and not a part of the conservative contingent at the school. There was no sign that he was going toward the hard right.”

But Leonard, founding dean and professor of divinity emeritus of Wake Forest University School of Divinity, says that Mohler’s theology quickly evolved in the ’80s when theological conservatives moved to take over the Southern Baptist Convention. Mohler pivoted to the right just as it became clear that conservative factions were going to win.

“I think you can make the case that there was an expediency to Al’s hard-right turn in those days,” says Leonard, author of “Baptist Ways: A History.” “He saw where things were headed in the denomination and turned toward it.”

Wow!

And here is Merritt on Mohler’s early support of women’s ordination in the Southern Baptist Convention:

One of Mohler’s most stunning theological flip-flops came at the denomination’s gathering in Kansas City in 1984, when SBC conservatives introduced a resolution declaring that only men were qualified to serve as church pastors and that women should instead concern themselves with the “building of godly homes.”

His opposition was so strong that he helped purchase an ad in the Louisville Courier-Journal declaring that God is “an equal opportunity employer.”

The resolution passed despite Mohler’s fierce opposition (though he later preferred to say he merely “took umbrage”). Rather than fight on, Mohler simply changed his position on women in ministry.

Ouch!

Here is baptist historian Barry Hankins:

Barry Hankins, chair of Baylor University’s history department, who interviewed Mohler extensively for his book, “Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture,” said, “I’ve always believed (Mohler) wanted to be president of Southern Seminary and the SBC’s most influential theologian. The problem is he’s spent way more time on culture wars over the past 20 years than on theology.”

Here is historian Randall Balmer:

Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth University historian of American religion, quoted a Southern Baptist friend who put it more succinctly: “Al Mohler is a soundbite in search of a theology.”

Read the entire piece here.

I am reminded of this:

Randall Balmer Explains Southern Baptists to the People of Upper New England

SBC

Here is a taste of Dartmouth religion professor Randall Balmer‘s piece at Valley News titled “Those Liberal Southern Baptists.”

The Southern Baptist Convention has gone liberal. That’s the message of a new, insurgent group of right-wing Baptists called the Conservative Baptist Network of Southern Baptists. This group of pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention announced the new network several weeks ago, on Valentine’s Day. The organizers claimed that 2,500 congregations signed on in the first two days.

“There are a lot of great people in Southern Baptist life leading, but there are some very concerning things happening in Southern Baptist life,” Brad Jurkovich, pastor of First Baptist Church in Bossier City, La., and spokesman for the new group, declared. The group is especially concerned about “the apparent emphasis on social justice, critical race theory, intersectionality, and the redefining of biblical gender roles” in the Southern Baptist Convention.

The group is also upset that some “messengers” (delegates) to the 2018 national convention in Dallas protested the presence of Vice President Mike Pence at the gathering. They staged a walkout when Pence began to address the assembly. All of this, apparently, is evidence of a drift toward liberalism in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Who knew?

Read the rest here.

Is Evangelicalism Dead? If So, What Should We Call “followers of Jesus in the evangelical tradition?”

Wallis Jim

Jim Wallis, founders of Sojourners

Randall Balmer thinks evangelicalism died on November 8,. 2016.  I appeared with him last Spring at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and he made the same assertion.

If evangelicalism is dead, what shall we call “followers of Jesus in the evangelical tradition?”

Here is Balmer at Sojourners:

Since the 2016 election stripped evangelicalism of all claims to moral credibility, what are those of us who formerly claimed that label to do? Some have suggested Followers of Jesus, which has the virtue of simplicity. Others favor exvangelicals, which may be a tad too cute; besides, I resist defining myself in negative terms. Red Letter Christians is a worthy choice (and, if memory serves, I’m a charter member), but it’s a term that needs explanation these days, and there’s a perception that, however loosely configured, it’s an organization, not a movement.

I propose instead Sojourners Christians, which is a bit more generic. This is not an attempt to elevate or to reify this magazine, but since its earliest days as the Post-American, Sojourners has taken seriously Jesus’ mandate to be peacemakers, to welcome the stranger and care for the least of these. In addition, Sojourners has matured to take into its orbit Catholic spirituality, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the best of the peace church and the black church tradition. Even mainline Protestantism finds a place in the Sojourners spectrum, although many of us remain properly wary of its vanilla, anything-goes ethic.

If I were younger, more ambitious, and technologically savvy, I’d set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account for Sojourners Christians. If this idea has any merit, I’ll leave that to others. In the meantime, and for the foreseeable future, I shall refer to myself as a Sojourners Christian.

I respect Randy’s decision to search for a new name.  Indeed, the Christian Right has tarnished the Gospel by mixing it with a power politics.  But I think I am still with Ron Sider on this one.  The word “evangelical,” the “good news” of the Gospel, is too good to surrender to a political movement like the Christian Right.  Let’s try to steal the word back.  I have a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, a book, and a speaking schedule that, among other things, is trying to do this.

What It’s Like to Talk With Pro-Trump Evangelical Family Members

Court

A gathering of court evangelicals

Check out Alex Morris’s Rolling Stone essay “False Idol–Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump.”  Morris talked to a lot of the right people, including commentators Greg Thornbury, Randall Balmer, Peter Montgomery, Charles Marsh, and Diana Butler Bass and court evangelicals Robert Jeffress and Eric Metaxas.

The most telling part of her piece is her description of a conversation with her pro-Trump evangelical mother.  Here is a taste:

In a dimly lit room, with a bottle of red wine, my mom, my aunt, and I pull our chairs close. I explain that I’m taping our conversation, that I love and respect them, and that I want to discuss why my Christianity has led me away from Trump and theirs has led them to him.

For a while, we just hit the typical talking points. There’s some discussion of Trump being a baby Christian, some assertions that the lewd behavior of his past is behind him, that in office he would never actually conduct himself as Bill Clinton had. But when I really double down, my mom and aunt will admit that there are flaws in his character. Though not that those flaws should be disqualifying.

“I don’t think he’s godly, Alex,” my aunt tells me. “I just think he stands up for Christians. Trump’s a fighter. He’s done more for the Christian right than Reagan or Bush. I’m just so thankful we’ve got somebody that’s saying Christians have rights too.”

But what about the rights and needs of others, I wonder. “Do you understand why someone could be called by their faith to vote against a party that separates families?”

“That’s a big sounding board, but I don’t think that is the issue,” says my mom.

“But it’s happening, and I’m not OK with it.”

My mom shakes her head. “No one’s OK with it.”

“If that’s your heart, then vote your heart,” says my aunt. “But with the abortion issue and the gay-rights issue, Trump’s on biblical ground with his views. I appreciate that about him.”

“As Christians, do you feel like you’re under attack in this country?” I ask.

“Yes,” my mom says adamantly.

“When did you start feeling that way?”

“The day that Obama put the rainbow colors in the White House was a sad day for America,” my aunt replies. “That was a slap in God’s face. Abortion was a slap in his face, and here we’ve killed 60 million babies since 1973. I believe we’re going to be judged. I believe we are being judged.”

Read the entire piece here.  Morris’s conversation with her family is almost identical to some of my conversations with Trump supporters over the past several years.

Randall Balmer on the “Other Evangelicals”

Wallis

Jim Wallis of Sojourners

In his recent op-ed at the Concord Monitor, Dartmouth College scholar of American evangelicalism Randall Balmer reminds us that not all evangelicals were part of the 81% who supported Donald Trump in 2016.  Here is a taste of “The Other Evangelicals“:

The emergence of the Religious Right was surely a turning point – a sharp and unmistakable turn to the right – but it wasn’t inevitable. The 1970s, in fact, saw a remarkable resurgence of progressive evangelicalism, a version of the movement consistent with the legacy of 19th-century evangelicals.

Two geographical areas, northern Illinois and the mainline of Philadelphia, served as the focus for progressive evangelical activity in the early 1970s. In the greater Philadelphia area, Tony Campolo, a sociologist at Eastern College (now Eastern University), and Ronald Sider, a theologian at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (now Palmer Theological Seminary), led the charge.

Campolo was (and remains) a tireless advocate for progressive evangelical values; he is one of the founding members of an organization called Red Letter Christians, which seeks to remind the faithful to heed the teachings of Jesus.

Sider was founder of Evangelicals for Social Action and author of a bestselling book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, published in 1977.

The other locus of progressive evangelical activity in the early 1970s was Deerfield, in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago. There, Jim Wallis, a seminary student, together with his friends at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, formed a community in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago and began publishing a tabloid called the Post American. When the group relocated to Washington, D.C., in 1975, they took the name Sojourners.

On the same Deerfield campus, a cohort of young faculty at Trinity College, led by Douglas Frank, David Schlafer and Nancy Hardesty, began challenging their students to question the morality of the war in Vietnam and to take seriously both the teachings of Jesus and the example of 19th-century evangelicalism. I was one of those students. We learned about Jesus’s concern for the poor. We started to think about protecting the environment and defending people of color. We debated how to pursue justice.

Read the entire piece here

Discrimination Against Evangelicals and the Evangelical Victimization Narrative

Evangelicals 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

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

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.

Some Historical Perspective on the Trump Evangelicals

I am happy to contribute to this video posted today at The New York Times.

Retro Report spent over an hour interviewing me at Messiah College back in August.  I was apparently not as engaging as Cal Thomas, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Randall Balmer since I only got a quick soundbite.  (They even made me go home and change my shirt because it had too many stripes and did not look good on the camera!)

Whatever the case, it is a nice piece:

https://www.nytimes.com/video/players/offsite/index.html?videoId=100000006182547

Randall Balmer on Bishop Michael Curry

Curry

This past weekend we did a quick post on Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding.  Yesterday at The Washington Post, American religious historian Randall Balmer offers a more extended take on the sermon.  Here is a taste:

Curry, a cradle Episcopalian (his father was an Episcopal priest), is often mistaken for a Baptist. His preaching style draws on the long and venerable tradition of black preachers dating to the days of slavery. At St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle on Saturday, he opened his sermon in measured tones, beginning with a reading from the Song of Solomon. This was to be a sermon about love, one appropriate to the marrying couple, but also — and here Curry demonstrated his artistic mastery — to the gathered audience and to the world at large. “There is power in love,” he said. “Don’t underestimate it.”

As he developed his argument, Curry drew from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, pointing out that Jesus summarized all the law and the prophets as love for God and love for your neighbor as yourself. And here, in the classic African American tradition of preaching, the bishop’s pace began to quicken; his tone grew more insistent and his gestures more expansive. Curry quoted King and Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, and added his own touches of humor.

Markle, the bride, sat transfixed from the beginning; Harry’s expression suggested skepticism. The cutaways to the other royals suggested that they, too, were not sure why this stem-winding African American preacher had been invited to participate.

Read the entire piece here.

Randall Balmer on Billy Graham

Graham and Nixon

Last week I was giving a lecture on American evangelicalism to the members of the Board of Trustees of a Christian college.  I told them that some future historian of American evangelicalism is going to write an article about how the election of Donald Trump influenced the first wave of articles about the legacy of Billy Graham.  It will make a great little project.

There have been a lot of glowing things written about Graham’s legacy.  There have also been a lot of really critical things written about Graham’s life and his legacy.

Randall Balmer does not fall into either category.  I appreciate his even-handed approach in this piece at New Hampshire’s Valley News.  A taste:

The burden of this very long prologue is to say that I approach the question of Graham’s place in history with an enormous reservoir of good will. I think he was a remarkable man, a person of integrity and rare talent.

To take one tiny example, anyone who has looked into a television camera knows how difficult it is to deliver one’s lines, even if they are prepared and memorized; to do so extemporaneously — and flawlessly — is an achievement. When I’m asked by reporters who will be the next Billy Graham (a favorite question), my answer is unequivocal: no one. Graham came to prominence at a unique moment in history, when new media were emerging. He and his associates exploited those media brilliantly to create the 20th century’s first religious celebrity.

No, there will never be another Billy Graham.

If I were to offer a “Yes, but” on Graham’s legacy, it would center around his political machinations. And here, in the interests of transparency, I should probably confess that I have never quite forgiven Graham for endorsing Nixon over George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election, even though Graham himself apologized to McGovern for his comments during the heat of that campaign.

Read the entire piece here.

Indeed, Graham was the original court evangelical and that is how I treat him my forthcoming Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Randall Balmer on the Christian Right’s Changing Code of Ethics

Trump court evangelicals

Randall Balmer, a lifelong observer of American evangelicalism, reflects on the “flexible” values of the Christian Right.

Here is a summary of Balmer’s sense of the “new” Christian Right ethical code:

  1. “Lying is all right as long as it serves a higher purpose.”
  2. “It’s no problem to married more than, well, twice.”
  3. “Immigrants are scum”
  4. “Vulgarity is a sign of strength and resolve”
  5. “White live matter (much more than others)”
  6. “There’s no harm in spending time with porn stars”
  7. “It’s all right for adults to date children”
  8. “The end justifies the means”

See how Balmer develops this points here.