Church historian Richard Hughes on how white evangelicals “lost their way”

Here is my friend and former Messiah University colleague Richard Hughes at Baptist News Global:

Finally, a book published a quarter-century ago pointed to another guardrail that white evangelicals would abandon over time. That book was Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, whose opening sentence says it all: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Noll lamented then that evangelicals have “largely abandoned the universities, the arts, and other realms of ‘high’ culture.”

Today, the “scandal of the evangelical mind” includes not only failure to seriously engage the biblical text or know history. It also includes failure to engage in critical thinking. That failure helps explain why they so often take blatant and demonstrable falsehoods for objective truth, why they fall prey to conspiracy theories, and why they so readily imagine that demonstrable good is really evil and demonstrable evil is really good.

Having lost their cultural dominance, white evangelical Christians in the United States now live in a perfect storm — a storm defined by their ignorance of the biblical text, their ignorance of Christian history, and their loss of any significant measure of critical thinking.

And having abandoned all those constraints, it is little wonder that 81% of those Christians still pay homage to a man who promises to defend and exalt them, even as that man promotes policies that exalt the rich, that undermine impoverished and marginalized people, and that stand opposed to Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom of God.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Richard Hughes

myths america lives by

Richard Hughes serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University. This interview is based on the second edition of his book Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning (University of Illinois Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning?

RH: At the national meeting of the American Academy of Religion that convened in Chicago in 2012, I was one of five scholars who responded to James Cone’s new book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. As part of my comments, I spoke of the five national myths that I identify in my earlier book, Myths America Lives By (Illinois, 2003), and how those myths shaped my understanding of both the nation and race when I was growing up in West Texas some sixty years ago. When I completed my remarks and took my seat at the panelists’ table, one of the panelists—the late Professor James Noel of San Francisco Theological Seminary—leaned over to me and whispered, “Professor, you left out the most important of all the American myths!” When I asked what I had omitted, he told me straight up, “The myth of white supremacy.” That simple comment launched me on quite a journey of reading, reflection, and introspection. In time I began to see Noel’s point, that even whites like me—whites who strongly resist racist ideology—can escape the power of the white supremacist myth only with extraordinary effort, if at all. That is because assumptions of white supremacy are like the very air we breathe: they surround us, envelope us, and shape us, but do so in ways we seldom discern.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning?

RH: The book draws three conclusions—first, that the myth of white supremacy is the primal American myth that informs all the others; second, that one of the chief functions of the other myths is to protect and obscure the myth of white supremacy, to hide it from our awareness, and to assure us that we remain innocent after all; and third, that there is hope, but only if whites are willing to come to terms with this reality. An important sub-theme in this book is the role white churches in America have played in perpetuating the doctrine of white supremacy since the birth of the nation—and especially now

JF: Why do we need to read Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning?

RH: As far as I know, no other book systematically explores the mythic structure of American identity and roots that mythic structure squarely in the myth of white supremacy.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RH: I was raised in a very narrow, sectarian Christian tradition that claimed to be the one true church. My deeply held, existential questions about those claims first led me into the history of American religion. In time I saw unmistakable parallels between the sectarian dimensions of my church and the sectarian dimensions of my nation, and the mythic structures that sustained both

JF: What is your next project?

RH: Sidney E. Mead was widely recognized as the dean of historians of American religion and was my teacher at the University of Iowa. Mead always claimed that the Enlightenment stood at the heart of the American experience. Much later, a group of evangelical historians placed American evangelicalism at the heart of the American experience. I want to do a project that compares the work of Mead and the work of the evangelical historians on the way those two traditions helped shape the American experience.

JF:  Thanks, Richard!

Congratulations on Your "Retirement" Richard Hughes!

Richard Hughes speaking at this retirement reception

Eight years ago Richard T. Hughes, the distinguished scholar of Christian primitivism and the author of books on Christian America, the vocation of the Christian scholar, and Christian higher education, joined the faculty of Messiah College. Hughes came to the tiny village of Grantham, Pennsylvania from the beaches of Malibu where he taught religion at Pepperdine University.

As a Christian scholar, Hughes was attracted to the mission and community of Messiah College.  I know that several American religious historians and gurus in the world of church-related higher education were surprised by the move, but for Hughes, who had added a healthy dose of Anabaptism to his Churches of Christ background, it made perfect sense.  Messiah College was the type of Christian intellectual community where he wanted to end his academic career.

Today we celebrated the tenure of Richard and his wife Jan at Messiah College.  Messiah president Kim Phipps had a few words to say about how she was able to lure Richard and Jan away from Malibu.  The reception was well-attended by students in Richard and Jan’s First Year Seminar “Learning to Tell Our Stories” and a former student shared some thoughts about how this seminar changed his life.

I am privileged to call Richard a friend and a colleague.  He is one of the most gracious scholars I have ever met.  Before I had the chance to wish him warm regards on his retirement this afternoon he had already invited me and my wife Joy to dinner with him and Jan “sometime soon.”

Richard is not done writing.  He plans to stay in south central Pennsylvania and continue work on several projects.  Stay tuned.