Tag Archives: evangelicalism

Christians Don’t Go to Church. So What?

A new Pew study finds that most Western Europeans who are subject to church taxes are content to pay those taxes even if they generally don’t actually go to church. The taxes, which are mandatory for Christians in six countries and voluntary in three others, go to keep churches open in spite of generally low levels of attendance and engagement throughout much of Western Europe. In each of the six countries where the tax is obligatory (unless you officially leave the church), a substantial majority of those subject to the fee pay it and an equally substantial majority of those who pay it say they are likely to continue rather than resign membership in churches that they do not attend.


webRNS-Pew-Church-Tax1-043019A news article about the report sees the results of Pew’s study as something of a curiosity.

From the outside, Western Europe is often seen as a highly secularized region where established religion is dying out….

Besides attention to church taxes, the report highlights some anomalies about Europeans’ attitudes about religious observance. In Finland, 77% of those surveyed called themselves Christian while only 10% said they attended church regularly. In Germany, the figures were 71% Christians compared with 24% churchgoers.

In several countries, half or more of those who approve of church taxes said they also favored the separation of church and state. In Scandinavia, about three-quarters of respondents who pay church taxes through the state they say should stay out of religion.

In many significant ways, Western Europe has secularized in the last two and a half centuries, but those who look at rates of church attendance to illustrate this trend (as well as those who look at a willingness to finance the church as an anomaly contradicting that trend) fundamentally misunderstand the traditional, historical relationship between Christians and their religion.

Particularly in the US, a nostalgia for the 1950s when weekly church attendance was at its high watermark has skewed our understanding of the historically robust symbiosis of religious identification and truancy. In the medieval period, church was a luxury of the wealthy and the rank and file would often take the sacrament only rarely on high holy days. In the vaunted early days of the Puritan experiment in New England, many cities in Connecticut regularly had attendance rates below 15%. In colonial Virginia in the 1660, only one in five parishes even had resident clergy. (Even the priests weren’t going to church.) When you look at that golden age in the 1950s, the level of attendance was only roughly 50%–even as an overwhelming majority of Americans did (and do) identify as Christians.

Church attendance has never been an adequate measure of religious belief or adherence. We may imagine that in the days before Constantine when most or all Christians were devout believers rather than cultural conformists that Christians gladly gathered every Sunday for fellowship. But there’s no way to substantiate that statistically. What we know from the rest of Christian history is that being a Christian didn’t have much to do with going to church until the pietist/evangelical movements really caught fire in the 18th century and made the connection between personal devotions and religious adherence.

This observation is not, importantly, a justification for skipping church; I am still one of those American Christians who makes an effort to attend services weekly. It is, however, a call to stop being confused by the historically regular (if not normal) state of things. The simplistic equation of religious affiliation with church/mosque/synagogue/temple/shrine attendance misunderstands the role religion has historically played in society. As long as only 16% of the world’s population identifies as secular or non-religious, we can safely say that religion as such is secure no matter how few Europeans or Americans are in pews on Sunday morning.

Tagged , , ,

Sexual Assault: What’s Doctrine Got to Do with It?


That’s a pretty simple answer to a pretty simple question, but for some reason Christians of many stripes and commentators on religion seem to be struggling with the idea that a denomination’s doctrines cannot be blamed for the prevalence of sexual assault in our society or our churches. In the span of less than twenty-four hours, I have encountered three different occasions where this correlation between doctrine and sexual assault has been bandied about, and it is time to lay it to rest.

The first example comes from an old interview between NPR and Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mohler answered questions on the then-upcoming annual convention over which several high profile incidents of sexual misconduct had cast a pall. The interviewer brought up an earlier blog post wherein Mohler admitted his surprise that this sort of behavior could take root among the Baptists:

We thought this was a Roman Catholic problem. The unbiblical requirement of priestly celibacy and the organized conspiracy of silence within the hierarchy helped to explain the cesspool of child sex abuse that has robbed the Roman Catholic Church of so much of its moral authority. When people said that Evangelicals had a similar crisis coming, it didn’t seem plausible — even to me. I have been president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twenty-five years. I did not see this coming.

I was wrong. The judgment of God has come.

It’s to Mohler’s credit that he can see now that he was wrong, but he never should have fallen into the trap of blaming sexual abuse on doctrine to begin with. This is a particularly egregious myth among Protestants, one that has roots particularly in the nineteenth century, when clerical celibacy was blamed for a host of comically hyperbolic Catholic shortcomings: orgiastic lesbian nuns, masturbation-induced madness, and predatory pedophile priests. An institutional culture of silence surely contributes to the problem of abuse among Catholic priests, but doctrine cannot be blamed. It’s time to shed that Victorian paranoia.

Even so, that paranoia finds a progressive voice to parrot it in the NPR interviewer who turns a form of Mohler’s own doctrine-produces-assault logic against him:

But the question is, why do you think that is? I mean, certain people looking at this…[p]roblem say that it is a consequence of your theology, which they believe elevates men to the detriment of women. I mean, it’s considered to be complementarianism, which is a belief that the Bible reveals that men and women are equally made but that – in God’s image but that men and women have different roles. And there are those who say no, this is a consequence of a belief that whatever you call it, it really means that men are put in an elevated position of authority and that women are demeaned.

Celibacy isn’t the problem, but maybe complementarianism is? This is an argument that would likely resonate with critics of evangelicals more broadly. It certainly appears in the organizing logic of complaints about the recent summit at Wheaton on how evangelicals can respond to the #metoo movement. By most accounts, this was a productive meeting with the right attitude of reflection and repentance. Beth Moore, significantly, was a featured speaker; her voice has been critical in convincing evangelicals to reckon with this crisis.

Not everyone, though, thinks repentance and reflection are enough. ReligionNews reports:

Former evangelicals Emily Joy and Hannah Paasch, the creators of the #ChurchToo hashtag, were not invited to speak at the summit. The two offered their responses to its sessions throughout the day on social media, stressing the view that evangelical beliefs, including the claim sex should be reserved for a man and woman within the context of marriage, help create an environment where abuse can occur.

The parallel is pretty precise. Baptists believe that if only Catholics had the right view of sex (no clerical celibacy), sexual misconduct would disappear. Post-evangelicals believe that if only evangelicals had the right view of sex (no heteronormative sex-shaming), sexual misconduct would disappear. Both ideas are equally ludicrous, and someone should probably sit Christians down and explain to them what most secular commentators understand: sexual assault is not about sex. And if it isn’t about sex, then correcting our doctrine of human sexuality is not going to fix it.

The third instance of this flawed logic is more muted. I found it embedded revelations about the independent fundamental Baptist churches, published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (there are several parts). Shocked independent fundamental Baptists shared some of the old anti-Catholic prejudices of their Southern Baptist counterparts:

“It’s a little bit trippy, looking at the independent Baptist world I grew up in and thinking, ‘We’ve always heard bashing on the Catholics for their system of religion, for the way they shuffle around perverts,’” said Pat Cook, who unknowingly started a church in 2013 with a suspected abuser, on the recommendation of his pastor.

“Unfortunately, we’ve definitely seen it in the independent Baptist world.”

The article doesn’t stop there though, suggesting that a more intimate knowledge of the denomination was the key to understanding how sexual misconduct could occur there:

To understand how this systemic, widespread abuse could happen again and again, some former members say it is necessary to understand the cult-like power of many independent fundamental Baptist churches and the constant pressure not to question pastors — or ever leave the church.

Evidence of this cult-like (and unscriptural) belief in male authority can be seen in testimonials like these:

To go against the advice of the pastor of an independent fundamental Baptist church is almost unthinkable. The “man of God” is chosen by God and is the church’s direct link to him. To question the pastor is to question God.

“I see a culture where pastoral authority is taken to a level that’s beyond what the Scripture teaches,” said Tim Heck, who was a deacon at Faith Baptist Church in Wildomar, California, and whose daughter said she had been abused by the youth pastor there. “I think the independent fundamental Baptists have lost their way.”


“My late mother, not long after we had started going to church, my stepfather had asked her to spend no more than $50 at the grocery store. Unfortunately, the bill totaled $52. Rather than put something back to get the bill under $50, she gave the cashier a weak smile and explained apologetically, ‘I’m so sorry, but I’m going to have to call my husband about this. You see, we’re a Christian family, and I believe in submitting to my husband.’ So off she went to the other end of the store to use the phone and call my stepfather at work while my brother and I waited at the counter. I could feel my face turning red, and my brother didn’t really understand what was going on, either. Our mother came back with a satisfied smile and informed the cashier, ‘I’m so sorry for holding up the line, but my husband said it was fine. I just had to ask him first because we’re a Christian family.’”

I cannot stress enough that there is clearly something in these churches that is on a different order–structurally and doctrinally–than the other groups surveyed here, and my point is not to excuse or endorse those beliefs. It is only to suggest that the implicit link between bad belief and bad practice is bad logic. Sexual assault is happening even outside the cult-like hyper-masculine space of the independent fundamental Baptists churches, outside the hierarchical and celibate ranks of the Catholic church, outside the complementarian ranks of the Southern Baptists, outside the heteronormative ranks of evangelicals. It’s even happening in the halls of higher education where, if conservatives Christians are to be believed, every sacred orthodoxy that religion holds dear has been publicly pilloried and executed. What is the root of all this evil?

The problem is not doctrine. The problem is sin. It’s not a new problem–sin generally or this problem of sexual assault. It’s arrogant to assume that if we can simply concoct the right doctrinal formula about sex, about men and women, about clerical behavior or authority, then we can purge sin from the world. The way to alleviate the problem of sin is to acknowledge it, repent of it, and to rely openly and actively on Christ and his church to ward it off in the future. In that respect, the Southern Baptists, Wheaton College, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram all seem to be doing important work. Let’s keep it up.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

The Moral Minority

President Donald Trump attends the Liberty University Commencement Ceremony

Jerry Falwell Jr. pledging allegiance to…God, I hope.

This morning I stumbled on an article by Adam Laats–Professor of Education and History at Binghamton University–in advance of his latest book on conservatives and higher education, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education. Laats joins a host of other recent commentators trying to make sense of the relationship of socially conservative, “moral majority” white evangelical values voters to the crass, vulgar, grabby,  unrepentant philanderer-in-chief. Using the bipolarity of Liberty University’s relationship to the president as a backdrop (Jerry Falwell Jr.’s ongoing endorsement of the president and the students symbolic and highly significant protests over that endorsement), Laats poses the following questions:


Do these protests show a new evangelical outrage at jingoistic, sexist, racially coded appeals to right-wing politics? Or do most college-age white evangelicals—like most of Liberty’s students and alumni—join Falwell in embracing Trump?

The answer, it seems, is yes on both counts, and Laats’ new book (which I’ll be interested to find time to read) explores the history of this paradox, this struggle for the evangelical soul between politically conservative white nationalism and Christian moral protest.

The examples Laats offers in the article demonstrate impressive range, chronologically and geographically, from the colonial establishment of the core of the Ivys to the fundamentalist educational resurgence in the 1920s to Cold War red scares to modern resistance to anti-Muslim bigotry. For every institutional expression of jingoism and xenophobia there is, if not quite an equal and opposite reaction, at least a voice in the wilderness crying out against it.

My alma mater doesn’t make the cut in the article, though I hope to see it in Laats’ book. Certainly Harding University fits the paradigm being described above. Here is a university that was founded by a pacifist and Christian anarchist, named after a pacifist and Christian anarchist, that was nearly forced out of existence during World War I for promoting conscientious objection to military service. It is also a university that is now regularly included at or near the top of most lists designating America’s most conservative institutions of higher education. This is largely based on the strength of its American Studies Institute, a pure Americanist Cold War holdover that has attracted as speakers such luminaries as Margaret Thatcher, Condaleeza Rice, Henry Kissinger, and George W. Bush. (I was there when Dubya visited, and let me say that two hours of his personal charisma and folksy charm undid a lot of the personal animosity I cultivated through eight years of watching him enact terrible policies.)

It as also brought in less dignified–but by some warped measures more influential–conservative figures like Sean Hannity. Hannity’s visit, perhaps better than anything, embodied Laats’ depiction of the two opposing poles in evangelical higher education. The radio and TV pundit’s speech (in advance of a live-from-Harding show) was generally well received by an audience primed by years of indoctrination to accept uncritically the marriage of conservative Christian morals and conservative American politics.

The mood changed, however, during the question and answer phase, when a young student got up and asked Hannity if he was aware of the irony or even absurdity involved in delivering a “kill the Muslims before they kill you” sermon (my words not the student’s) at a university founded by pacifists. Hannity gave a dismissive, offensive, and profoundly fallacious response about hypothetical burglars and rapists and sent the student on his way, but illusion of ideological harmony had been shattered. Most of the audience left still agreeing with Hannity–just like most Liberty students will not be returning their diplomas in protest–but everyone understood that xenophobia and Republican politics did not hold uncontested sway over the narrative of Christian conservatism in modern America.

As an anarchist, environmentalist, and pacifist who comes to all of those positions using a decidedly conservative logic, I find myself sympathizing most often with those lonely voices shouting down evangelical hypocrisy from within. Yet it is somehow reassuring to read Laats and be reminded that I am shouting from within and not from beyond the walls of my own faith community. There is a sense of alienation that festers when you’re a conservative Protestant who is nauseated by the current political climate of “dog-whistle racial nationalism” and the role of other conservative Protestants in legitimizing it. It’s good to know that we too stand in the historical fullness of the evangelical tradition even if only as its harshest and most persistent critics, a moral minority fighting an altogether different battle from the outraged, culture warriors who surround us.

Tagged , , , , , ,

A Southern Nation of Speechifiers: Heyrman and Eastman in Conversation

University of Chicago Press

Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross makes a wonderful companion piece to Caroline Eastman’s A Nation of Speechifiers. More precisely, Heyrman preemptively corrects a historical oversight in Eastman’s much more recent work. Both authors are concerned with identifying the relationships of nonelites to structures of power in the early national period. Both argue that the changes which took place after the turn of the century were not the rosy picture of democratization which has been the academic orthodoxy for politics, society, and religion for some time. Both excellently demonstrate their cases. Yet, while Heyrman treats her subject comprehensively within her limits, Eastman claims a broader scope than she is ultimately able to encompass.

In Nation of Speechifiers, Eastman argues that far from a great triumph of democratization that once dominated thinking on Jacksonian politics or even the perpetual repression of nonelites that has dominated some feminist and minority histories, the period immediately after the Revolution was one of profound cultural negotiation in which nonelites were able to seize access to public participation in limited but meaningful ways. She looks at politics, education, voluntary associations, trade organizations, publishing, and professional oratory to see the ways that women, children, and racial minorities had a public voice prior to 1810. After that, however, culture shifted as the nation solidified. A war won, a peaceful party transition, and a new vision of suffrage for white men all functioned to close the previously permeable borders of public participation and exclude nonelites.

Yet Eastman glaringly omits religion as an arena in which women, children, and racial minorities had a public voice, a curious oversight particularly in view of Eastman’s stress on oratory as a means of public power. The omission might have made a good avenue for further research had not Heyrman perfectly tackled the question more than a decade earlier. Heyrman takes the same period Eastman considers, treats the same nonelites that Eastman does, but focuses narrowly on religion in the South. The conclusions she draws are largely the same. A newly formed (at least in the South) evangelicalism is initially open to the public voice and at least informal authority of women, children, and racial minorities. After the turn of the century, however, Heyrman exhaustively and convincingly traces the restriction of power into the hands of older white males. She concludes, much as Eastman does, by attacking facile notions of democratization by asking the question democratization for whom.

Eastman’s omission of religion—and of the South and transmontane America almost in their entirety—clearly could have been corrected by reading Heyrman, and the failure to do so borders on inexcusable. Yet readers of Heyrman can benefit from consulting Eastman as well. Heyrman explains the changes in evangelicalism largely as evangelistic necessities. “To put the matter bluntly, evangelicals could not rest content with a religion that was the faith of women, children, and slaves” (193). Growth required appeasing and then appealing to white men, in whose hands all temporal power rested. Eastman suggests there is something more at work in the culture at large here. Eastman’s exclusion of the South from her study may throw this observation into doubt for the arena of Heryman’s work, but nevertheless the question must be raised whether or not evangelistic necessity adequately explains the need for a more male-oriented, “traditional” religious structure. Even if it does, do the broader cultural changes charted by Eastman explain what is driving this evangelistic need? In Heyrman, essentially, evangelicals hit a glass ceiling above which a movement of women could no longer ascend. The time of the early nineteenth century as the period of change is incidental; it is just when the need for change outweighed the inertia of convention. Eastman’s work suggests there is something more happening in the period.

Both books are supremely readable, and Heyrman in particular has a literary flourish rarely seen among historians. Though my interests and preferences tend toward Heyrman’s work, I confidently recommend either for general reading. Eastman’s more theoretical framework may scare off non-academics, but anyone who has even a hobbyists interest in the period will be more than amply rewarded by putting in the effort to understand her argument. Together, these two works give a picture of early national American democracy that will challenge the narrative taught in most colleges not to long ago and still, consequently, taught in most grade schools.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Dorothy Day, the Activist

Having reflected on the the false tension between Catholicism and social justice from the perspective of Day as a Catholic, it is time now to turn to that more familiar persona of Day as an advocate for social justice. That Day should be an powerful voice for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized should by no means surprise anyone. But as I read The Long Loneliness, I was struck by the emotional depth and theological richness of her conviction as she narrated the very painful and very personal journey from a child who understood only the impossible gap between what was real and what was right to a woman who could blur those lines so that even what was possible would come in to doubt. Whatever the success or the validity of her methods as they began to express themselves practically, the acute connection that Day shared to society’s outcasts crafted in her a moving ethos in which the active pursuit of social justice was central. Writing of time she spent imprisoned with other activists, Day said:

I lost all feeling of my own identity. I reflected on the desolation of poverty, of destitution, of sickness and sin. That I would be free after thirty days meant nothing to me. I would never be free again, never free when I knew that behind bars all over the world there were women and men, young girls and boys, suffering constraint, punishment, isolation and hardship for crimes of which all of us were guilty. The mother who had murdered her child, the drug addict—who were the mad and who the sane? Why were prostitutes prosecuted in some cases and in others respected and fawned on? People sold themselves for jobs, for the pay check, and if they only received a high enough price, they were honored. If their cheating, their theft, their lie, were of colossal proportions, if it were successful, they met with praise, not blame. Why were some caught, not others? Why were some termed criminals and others good businessmen? What was right and wrong? What was good and evil? I lay there in utter confusion and misery.

What is striking here is just how profoundly Day the activist differs from both traditional evangelical activists and from contemporary left-wing activists. Unlike the conventional evangelical rendering of social ills, Day could not see poverty, prostitution, murder, greed, and the host of other evils merely as problems of sin in individuals. She recognized the truth which is attested in the most antique Christian tradition’s reflection on sin: it is everywhere. Beyond the individual, sin perverts institutions, cultures, and even the physical world itself. Preaching repentance to sinners and charity to saints would never be enough to combat an all-pervading sin like this.

I had an ugly sense of the futility of human effort, man’s helpless misery, the triumph of might. Man’s dignity was but a word and a lie. Evil triumphed. I was a petty creature, filled with self-deception, self-importance, unreal, false, and so, rightly scorned and punished.

The solution advocated by so many activists now, activists who have laid hold to Dorothy Day as a patron saint, is institutional reform. That can never be the essence of Day’s activism though because, like all Christian anarchists, she realizes that sinful people cannot employ sinful means to redeem sinful institutions. Instead, she recommends a different path, one that can all too easily be misconstrued–in the decontextualized form I offer it–to be just another admonition to charitable works. To interpret it this way is to admit a complete ignorance of the Catholic Worker movement and of Day’s life, an ignorance I was supremely guilty of before starting this project. What Day advocates here is not charity (in the sense of material benevolence) but empathy. It is an actual, existential participation in the life of the oppressed. It is Christ eating with prostitutes and publicans. It is a living out of the radical equality which has been reduced to rhetoric in our sanitized relationship to the “least of these” Christians exist to serve.

Going to the people is the purest and best act in Christian tradition and revolutionary tradition and is the beginning of world brotherhood.

Tagged , , , ,

Transgressing the Boundary Between History and Myth

Cover ArtThe American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement is, in fact, not a history. Douglas A. Sweeney’s rather liberal use of the term “history” in the subtitle ought to fool noone. It is, at a point approaching the critical mass of generosity, a historically themed apology the purpose of which is to offer a palatable rendering of evangelical history intended to make the term invoke a pleasant warming sensation rather than the rancor the politicization of “evangelical” now produces. In truth–insofar as the book is a narrative construction by evangelicals, for evangelicals, about evangelicals in an effort to define and order evangelicalism–Sweeney’s work is a myth, in the most neutral, academic sense of that term.

Part of my (hopefully obvious) disappointment with this offering is that it was recommended to me as a scholarly work for history, a fact which the title and the author’s own preface seemed to reenforce. Sweeney purports to present the reader with a serious but brief introduction to the history of evangelicalism which avoids “the sins of the worst scholarly texts” by writing in an accessible, narrative style. The deliberately nonacademic style, however, only serves to accentuate the nonacademic content of the work.

The first and personally the most grating, though by no means the most serious, flaw in Sweeney’s work presented as a history is the constant and undefended (because it is indefensible) presentation of God as an agent in history. The reader need not wait long before encountering, I hope with shock and incredulity, this explanation for the Great Awakening:

In a work of amazing grace and by the power of the Holy Spirit, untold numbers of Protestant leaders began to join hands across these [denominational] boundaries and to collaborate in the work of Gospel ministry.

I wonder if it ever occurred to Sweeney that non-Christians, non-evangelicals, or even evangelical historians with a firm grasp of academic standards might shy away from the belief that it was “amazing grace” and the intervention of the “Holy Spirit” which were the primary causes of the Great Awakening. That is, after all, the problem with appeals to the historical agency of God. As a Christian, I believe (and struggle with the reasoning of those who do not) that God is an active agent in the movements of history. The problem in an academic history arises in trying to lay claim to what events are the products of His machinations and which are not. That is why historians, even Christians historians, restrict themselves to historical agents who act within history rather than those (i.e. God) that act on history from without. Sweeney, not having received that memo, goes on to make various other historically untenable assertions: God elected George Whitefield, Charles Wesley, and John Wesley for a special purpose, God used George Whitefield’s fame to spread the Gospel, God provided an “amazing outpouring of the Holy Spirit” at Cane Ridge, and more.

Coupled with this minor hermeneutical faux pas of baptizing his particular history in special providence, Sweeney offers up several historical “imprecisions” (because “errors” would seem incendiary, which is clearly not my intention). For example, he mentions in passing that the Southern Baptist Convention was formed for the purpose of more effectively coordinating Baptist evangelism. He never seems bothered by the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention actually organized in reaction to the more racially egalitarian, anti-slavery position of northern Baptists. Again, he mentions that Jonathan Edwards split with his church over his revivalist tendencies, when in fact Edwards was forced out of his church because he took a much stricter view on formal membership than had Solomon Stoddard. The biggest issue with these types of inaccuracies is not that Sweeney could have avoided them with even a Wikipedia level education (though, one has to wonder about the fact that Sweeney is an Jonathan Edwards specialist), but that in each case they seem to be glossing over historical realities which do not accord with the author’s purpose.

In fact, the entire text reads like a hagiographical rendering of the Great Thinker model of history. One wonderful evangelical man (and token woman) after another is extolled for his virtue, evangelistic excellence, and furtherance of the movement as a whole. (I was particularly struck by the decidedly subjective and ahistoric pronouncement that Charles Wesley was the “greatest writer of hymns in all of history,” an honor I reserve for Fannie Mae Crosby.) Add to this the not-at-all-subtle, but duly disclaimed, suggestions that evangelicalism has been a champion of racial equality, women’s rights, global missions, and social reform. His bias and willingness to downplay features of history that do not accord with it are thinly veiled, if at all. He seems to have no qualms showing his marked preference for Pentecostalism (and its spiritual relatives)–which he prophesies “those who walk the privileged corridors of worldly power” will soon be forced to take note of–over against fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism, which he stops just short of depicting as a self-defeating drag on evangelicalism as a whole.

The worst feature, however, the most unforgivable sin (so to speak) is that Sweeney never accomplishes what he sets out to do. After outlining the contemporary debate over the scope of evangelicalism–one of the few bright points in the entire work–Sweeney offers his own definition of evangelicals as orthodox Protestants with an eighteenth century twist. The rest of the book, he promises, will be outlining what precisely that definition means. Only, the meaning of the “eighteenth century twist” proves to be as vacuous as its wording is flippant. The reader searching for a historically rooted, taxonomically sound understanding of evangelicalism (as I was) is left no better off than for having read the work. It ought to go without saying, but I cannot imagine any circumstance in which I think it would be prudent to recommend this book to anyone. In fact, my only recommendation is that scholars with any social conscience find this book at their local or university library and reshelve it in a dark and dusty corner where even the librarians never venture. That way, anyone who is looking for it will be saved the mental anguish of finding and reading it.

Tagged , , , , , ,

The Myth of the Founding Fathers: Answering the Wrong Question

Having established in the last installment that the faith of the Founders is ultimately irrelevant, it may seem odd or even self-defeating to turn now and attempt to shed light on the question of whether or not the Founders were Christians. I can offer only two excuses. The first is a reiteration of Thomas Kidd’s assertion quoted in the previous post that, no matter how inconsequential the faith of the Founders may be, it nevertheless presents an interesting topic for inquiry. Additionally, even while the debate over the faith of the Founders is ridiculous because the topic is ancillary at best, there is a whole additional layer of absurdity in the way it is being argued. The arguments are so utterly superficial and historically naive that they couldn’t be said to demonstrate the point one way or the other, even if the point were relevant. With that in mind, I would like to suggest two misconceptions in the popular discourse which when corrected allow for a clearer insight into the religious make up of the Founders.

Most attempts to co-opt the Founding Fathers suffer from the common flaw of anachronism. This is particularly true in the discussion of their religion, as people fail to recognize the fluidity of language and the concepts which it represents. This is certainly true of the deism of the more liberal Founders. When people read the critiques of contemporary Christian concepts (e.g. biblicism, election, hierarchy), they transport them too readily and too directly into modern discourse. What modern pundits do not seem to be aware of is that eighteenth century deism was a movement within Christianity. E. Brooks Holifield, in his Theology in America, points out that not only did deists at the time typically not see themselves as a religion separate from Christianity, deists actually “saw themselves as contributing to a reform of Christian thought in accord with eighteenth-century norms of reason.” Certainly there were some exceptions, and Thomas Paine would likely be in that category, but Holifield stresses that the strongest and most influential deists, among whom he includes Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, “tended to be sedate, aristocratic, prudent, and willing to identify themselves with a purified Christian theology.” It is critical to remember that Thomas Jefferson self-identified as a Christian and assumed that the freedom of religion he thought to enshrine at every level of government would lead to a generation of Americans who were predominantly Unitarian Christians. Deism, pluralism, and even Unitarianism have all been caught up in a liberal, secular drift that wants to, and perhaps rightly does, claim people like Jefferson in their intellectual heritage. These are the movements of history, however, and an intellectually honest appraisal of religion among the Founding Fathers must admit that, almost to a man, the Founding Fathers were Christians. They were diverse in their shades of Christianity, certainly, but Christians nonetheless, both by self-identification and contemporary standards.

But before anyone gets too excited, I am not endorsing any argument that the Founders were Christians in any way that is meaningful in the present and certainly not in a way that legitimates an understanding of America as a Christian nation. Just as the contemporary understanding of Deism is read incorrectly back onto the Founders, so too is a contemporary understanding of what it is to be a Christian. Those who argue most ardently that the Founders were Christians tend to be of a certain conservative, democratic, conversion-oriented brand. In short, they are almost uniformly evangelicals. It is important for evangelicals to remember that to whatever degree the Founders may be have been Christian, they were not the kind of Christians that most politically vocal Christians are today. Evangelicalism certainly contributed to revolutionary thought because the movement had its inception in the First Great Awakening. Nevertheless, as it would not reach its ascendency until the Second Great Awakening, one should not overestimate the degree to which even the most Christian Founders would have felt at home in the religious context of modern Christianity. Positions of power, intellectual and political, were as likely or more likely to be occupied by the theologically liberal, socially progressive patriots than any of the new revivalist groups. Add to these the Anglican power structures which dominated spheres of power in the South in the earliest republic and the ultra-conservative Reformed thinkers of New England, and what is left is a religious landscape in which the radically revivalistic, individualistic, and socially conservative evangelicals of modern times would have been largely without a home. Modern Catholics are even more self-deluded in appealing to the faith of the Founders, because for early Americans Christianity was synonymous with Protestantism. They had no qualms for centuries resorting to oppressive legislation to stem the power of Catholicism in the States. The same is true of Mormons.

In short, people who appeal either to the secular humanism of the Founders or to the pious Christianity both misunderstand the religious climate of the earliest days of the nation. Were any of the Founders whisked into the present on a time machine, they would like be considered by most liberals to be Christians and by most Christians to be nominal adherents if not outright pagans.

Tagged , , , , ,

"We’re not sorry if we tricked you."

I recently stumbled across an interesting article entitled Insane Clown Posse: And God Created Controversy. It was written this October by Jon Ronson (of “Men Who Stare at Goats” fame, among other things) about the revelation (some years ago now) that ICP has been secretly infusing spirituality into their lyrics in an attempt to prompt their fans to think about God, life, and death. Most interesting of all was the subtitle: “America’s nastiest rappers in shocking revelation – they’ve been evangelical Christians all along.” Curiously, in reading the article, neither of the rappers that make up ICP ever use the word Christ or Christian at all, much less to describe themselves. They certainly never label themselves as “evangelical Christians.” I’m not sure when, but at some point generic theism seems to have become evangelical Christianity by default. I didn’t get the memo.

See you Sunday Shaggy 2 Dope.

Tagged , , ,