Randall Stephens Reviews Michael Medved’s New Book on America and Divine Providence

Medved

Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know the name Randall Stephens for his historian’s baseball cards and Christian Right photo-shops of Library of America covers.  Check out the Randall Stephens Collection here.

Randall is also an excellent historian of American evangelicalism. Some of you may recall our interview with him in Episode 38 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  We talked about his book The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Stephens currently teaches American and British Studies at the University of Oslo.

Over at The Washington Post, Stephens reviews God’s Hand on America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era, the latest book by conservative pundit, film critic, and radio host Michael Medved.  Here is a taste:

It’s one thing to appreciate how religion or ideas about providence inspired Americans in the 1860s or the 1890s. It’s quite something else to say that modern Americans should read the distant past as confirmation of the nation’s divine appointment. Medved wonders why Americans are not more thankful “for winning life’s lottery through your American birth or upbringing.” America being blessed by God, he writes, may defy “the ordinary odds but conforms to our lived experience.” That perspective, while full of hope and optimism, amounts to a selective reading of the past. It ignores a large swath of the U.S. population such as African Americans and Native Americans whose lived experience often has not felt like winning a lottery.

Medved’s style of popular conservative history is in large measure defined by what he leaves out. The shameful, racist, violent aspects of the American narrative are swept away or excused. He gives little attention to the treatment of Native Americans, the crucial role slavery played in the country’s development, wars of imperial expansion and colonial acquisition, and the horrors and follies of the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

In his celebration of the glories of the Transcontinental Railroad, Medved makes little or no room for discussion of the exploitation of workers, unfair and criminal business practices, the destruction of wildlife and natural habitats, or discrimination against Chinese immigrants. Those, too, are essential parts of the story. The racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned immigration of Chinese laborers, is not even mentioned. How should modern Americans read these episodes, which earlier Americans explained and justified in explicitly religious terms?

Read the entire review here.

*The Devil’s Music* Playlist

StephensOn Episode 38 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, we talk to University of Oslo historian Randall Stephens about his new book The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Randall talks about his new book and I reflect on my own experiences at the intersection of evangelicalism and rock music.  The episode will drop next weekend.

In the meantime, head over the the website of Harvard University Press and listen to a Spotify playlist of songs and artists that Stephens considers in The Devil’s Music.  It includes music by Sam Cooke, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley & the Comets, The Beatles, Cliff Richard, Larry Norman, Phil Keaggy, Andre Crouch, Sha Na Na, Bill Gaither Trio, Bob Dylan, Amy Grant, Keith Green, DeGarmo & Key, Michael W. Smith, Stryper, DC Talk, and Sufjan Stevens.

And if you are a Randall Stephens fan, don’t forget to check out “The Randall Stephens Collection.”

Scholars Tackle White Supremacy and American Christian History

Good_Citizen_Pillar_of_Fire_Church_July_1926

Alma White founded the Pillar of Fire Church in 1901.  She was associated with the KKK and anti-Catholicism.  This is a 1926 issue of the church’s magazine (Wikipedia Commons)

The Religion & Culture Forum is running a series of posts on the history of the relationship between white supremacy and Christianity in modern America.  A taste:

The June issue of the Forum features Kelly J. Baker’s essay, “The Artifacts of White Supremacy.” Discussions about racism—and white supremacy in particular—tend to treat it as a matter of belief, while there’s considerably less talk of how racialized hate becomes tangible and real. And yet, we know the Ku Klux Klan, the oldest hate group in the U.S., by their hoods and robes. Artifacts signal (and often embody) the racist ideology of the Klan, along with their particular brand of Protestantism and nationalism. Robes, fiery crosses, and even the American flag were all material objects employed by the 1920s Klan to convey their “gospel” of white supremacy. The Klan’s religious nationalism, its vision of a white Protestant America, became tangible in each of these artifacts, and each artifact reflected the order’s religious and racial intolerance. Nationalism (or “100% Americanism”), Protestant Christianity, and white supremacy became inextricably linked in these material objects. Examining the historical artifacts of white supremacy helps us to better understand how white supremacy manifests today and might also help us better identify and analyze the presence and effect of racism in American life and politics.

Over the next few weeks, scholars will offer responses to Baker’s essay. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.

Responses:

Fred Clark, aka Slacktivist, has written a nice post on the forum.  Read it here.  I was particular struck by his use of a quote from Randall Stephens’s response to Baker.   Here it is:

In the 1920s, America’s most famous crusading fundamentalist, Billy Sunday, made some efforts to keep his distance from the Klan. But Klansmen tended to see the revivalist as a kindred spirit. Without cozying up too much to the organization, Sunday found ways to praise the robed terrorists. Other traveling preachers like Bob Jones, Alma White, B. B. Crimm, Charlie Taylor, and Raymond T. Richey lauded the white supremacist groups in their sermons and publications. Billy Sunday’s ardent prohibitionism, biblical literalism, and nativism made him particularly attractive in the eyes of Klan members. In 1922 a South Bend, Indiana, newspaper cracked a bleak joke about their mutual affection. “Down in West Virginia the other day,” an editor noted, the Klan “slipped Billy Sunday the sum of $200. With Sunday’s O.K., that ought to put the K.K.K. in good standing with old St. Peter.” Sunday returned the favor with kind words about Klansmen who lent a hand in police vice raids. The revivalist would accept other larger-than-average donations from the Klan at revivals in Indiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana between 1922 and 1925. In Richmond, Indiana, Klansmen showed up to give him their donation decked out in all their full regalia. Fittingly, in 1923 a Klan-supporting editor in Texas rhapsodized: “I find the preachers of the Protestant faith almost solid for the Klan and its ideals, with here and there an isolated minister … who will line up with the Catholics in their fight on Protestantism, but that kind of preacher is persona non grata in most every congregation in Texas.”

Again, check out the entire Religion & Culture Forum series here.