Should we compare American Atheism and American Christianity?: An Impromptu Twitter Discussion

The following conversation emerged on Twitter between myself and Per D. Smith, a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University. Check out Per’s great stuff over at irritually. Per specializes in studying irreligion and so I sent him a link to a CNN article and, well, click on the storify link and you can see what ensued.

[View the story "Atheism, Humanism, Prosperity Gospel, and the Mainline" on Storify]

The question I’m left with is this: Is there a force within American society/culture that is shaping atheists and Christians in similar ways such that evangelicals look like New Atheists and old school humanists look like the mainline? What could it be? How could we find it? Is it the market? Politics? What?

What do yall think?


The Invention of American Evangelicalism; or, Why Ed Blum is Mad

The following is a cross-post from Religion in American History. Check out the great comments on the original post.

(If you’re unsure what made Ed mad read this post.)
[Update: Ed says he's not mad anymore, just passionate. Also, read this post from Ed where he expands his thoughts on race and evangelicalism. His thoughts echo much of what's in this post.]

Evangelical history is a lot like this plaque from the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts. The plaque was affixed to the spacecrafts in order to communicate some basic information to any extraterrestrial life they might encounter as they zoomed toward Jupiter and beyond. The plaque is rife with information but the most obvious elements are the map of the solar system and the drawing of a man and woman. The plaque was meant to represent us (humans) to them (aliens). But more than that, the plaque also represents us to us. It shows what we thought was really important (hydrogen) and who we thought we were (that shapely white heterosexual couple with the man standing tall and waving while the woman extends her leg Angelina Jolie Oscars style). It represented us to ourselves.

This is the same dual work that much “evangelical history” does. On the one hand, the history of evangelicalism represents what evangelicalism is or has been to those not within the fold. It’s a project that says, “See, we have been at the heart of democracy and republicanism in America. Ours is the religion of freedom, liberty, choice, and reason.”  It’s also a project that represents itself to itself–that is, to evangelicals. Often these representations are meant to call today’s evangelical Christians to be a better sort of Christians by reminding them of what they once were. “Once we had the social passion of the great abolitionists and the depth of thought of Edwards. We can have that again.” I think it is this dual work of representation that creates the blindspots around race and gender that engendered Ed’s battle cry and Kelly Baker’s questions.

That said, I don’t think the problem is really about representation. It’s not that there aren’t enough African American, Latino/a American, or Asian American evangelicals in our indexes and lists. The problem is not representation but construction. Or, to put it as a question, why do we think there even is such a thing as evangelicalism? Or evangelicals? To be blunt, why do we care who is or isn’t an evangelical?

The term “evangelical” has a long history that I won’t get into and that I’m sure many readers of this blog know more about than I do. However, it seems that the term has been self-applied or imposed upon a variety of Protestants since the Reformation. It is a “native term” batted about by Protestants throughout their various squabbles with themselves and others. For some American Protestants at certain places and times “evangelical” signified “true.” Evangelical Christianity stood in contrast to infidel Christianity (be it liberal or deistic or what have you). Or conversely, to put myself in the shoes of the Unitarians I’ve been reading all week, “evangelical” Christianity is stiff mindless orthodoxy that lacks the refined reason and liberty of liberal Christianity. The question of who is or isn’t “evangelical” or what is or isn’t “evangelicalism” is a Protestant debate between Protestants and has become a historiographical question within American religious history insofar as American religious history is still under-girded by Protestant sensibilities and categories.

The real question for historians of American religion and especially historians of American evangelicalism is “what are the politics of the category evangelical?” Why do we want more African Americans in a list of evangelicals? Why do we want more women? Because it is a privileged category. It is also a constructed category. It is, to use my favorite Jon Butler phrase, an interpretive fiction. It is an invention, first within the minds of Protestants since the Reformation and then within the minds of historians from Robert Baird to the guys at Patheos. Rather than worry about who is or isn’t an evangelical or adding more diversity to the list, historians should be investigating the process of this invention. We should be tracing the politics of the term and what is at stake in various places and times when people take, leave, fight for, argue about, or compromise over what it means to be “evangelical.” We don’t need more or different histories of evangelicalism or evangelicals, we need a genealogy of the term. We need to trace the invention of American evangelicalism. We need to stop assuming that evangelicalism is something out there for us to track down in the archive or research field and label correctly. Instead, let’s pay attention to how various subjects imagine evangelicalism and the political, cultural, and social forces at work in those imaginings. Let’s find out what’s at stake when people get included or excluded from “evangelicalism.” I’d do it but I have this other thing I’m working on.

Let me be clear, I don’t think evangelical historians should stop doing what they are doing. The work of representing evangelical history to outsiders and other evangelicals is important and I’m glad there are wise and talented folks doing it. However, the ways these historian construct “evangelicals” is ripe for analysis by those investigating how “evangelicals” are invented. In this way “evangelical history” can be the source material for a genealogy of evangelicalism. For folks like Ed who are unsatisfied with our current constructions of “evangelical,” adding a bunch of new names to the list or changing the category will not solve the problem. For a while “Puritan” stood as the privileged category of religious history. Perhaps we’re now realizing that it’s been replaced by “evangelical.” (A process that itself is worth investigation). We have to deconstruct these categories and dig up the processes that have bestowed their privilege upon them, whether by historical subjects or historians. We can’t just change the plaque on the spacecraft. 


Things that are still true about American Christianity…

Jerry Falwell going down a waterslide in a black suite

“The new formation [born-again Christianity] was part fundamentalist, part pentecostal, part charismatic, part evangelical, and then something else in a way that none of its parts had been: morally outraged, socially engaged, and routinely politically active.”

– Susan Friend Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell (2000)

I was preparing my lesson for Monday’s class about the Scopes trial and Christian fundamentalism when I came across this quote from Harding. I assigned her chapter on Scopes to students in my (team taught) History of Religions in America course because it does a good job of situating the trial in the larger 20th century history of American Christianity and also emphasizes the fragmented nature of conservative Protestantism. This quote comes from the end of the chapter as she moves from the exile of the fundamentalists to the resurgence of born-agains in the 80s. What struck me, now a decade removed from Harding’s publication, is just how right she was. Since her book, we’ve heard the “end of the religious right” narrative trotted out again and again, but here we sit on the other side of Harding’s text, 9/11, two wars, and the Tea Party and it seems that  moral outrage, social engagement, and political activism still define the Christian right. This three part recipe has roots in the evangelical reform movements of the nineteenth century and the revivalism of the early republic, but in the past thirty years it has mingled with late-modern capitalism, imperialism, free-marketism, and militarism. This Voltron of religious conservatism, call it Pentevangelamentalism (or born again Christianity, as Harding does), will always look like it’s about to fall apart at any moment. It is criss-cross with internal ruptures and lines of fissure. However, the shared outrage practiced in the social and political spheres will always hold it together in the end.


Not Theology, but Authority: Rob Bell and the Evangelical Institutional Establishment

Note: Originally posted at State of Formation

The criticism of Rob Bell’s Love Wins is not about theology. It is all about authority.

In case you missed the hubbub surrounding Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, I point you to Sara Staely’s post where she outlines John Piper and the neo-Calvinist establishment’s response to the book. She sums up the conflict nicely:

Over the past few days, one three-word tweet has put the evangelical world into a tizzy:Farewell Rob Bell.  The tweet came from John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN and the veritable Godfather of the neo-reformed evangelical establishment (for more on Piper’s influence, see my previous post on evangelicals and inter-religious dialogue).  Piper was referencing Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Church in Grandville, MI, a celebrated speaker and author among a younger, more progressive evangelical crowd.

Largely based on this two-and-a-half minute promotional video for Bell’s forthcoming book,Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Piper has determined that the book will come a bit too close to universalism for his sensibilities.  And so, with a few clicks of the keyboard, a tap of the mouse and one trite tweet, it seems Bell has been expelled from what Piper deems to be the One True Church.

Sara goes on to discuss her own response to Piper et al.’s theological self-congratulations for securing orthodox evangelicalism, but I want to take things in a different direction. Sara is quite right to dwell on the theological implications of the “Bell’s Hell” controversy, however, I think at bottom the dispute is not about heaven and hell or heresy and orthodoxy. It is about authority.

Rob Bell challenges the authority of the (Calvinist) evangelical establishment and they don’t like it. For example, Bill Walker has compared Bell’s ideas in Love Wins with conservative evangelical darling and Presbyterian Church in America pastor Tim Keller’s ideas in The Reason for God. As Walker lays it out, the two share a lot in common. They both lean heavily on C.S. Lewis for their ideas and Bell even cites Keller’s other book Prodigal God in his “further reading” section of Love Wins. Yet, Keller is beloved by those in the pews and quoted by those in the pulpits while Bell is dangerous. As Walker puts it:

So here’s my second question.  Why is the evangelical right threatened by Bell if his theology is the same as one of their own (Keller)?  Is it because Keller’s allegiances prevent him from being scrutinized?  Or, is this not even really about theology?  Might there a deeper political element of power underlying the supposedly righteous rhetoric?

The short answer to Walker’s questions: Yes.

The controversy is not about the book or its theology. Look at this list of responses to the book from Southern Baptist leaders, put together by the Baptist Press. It seems like half of the respondents have not even read the book. They just know it was written by Rob Bell and so it must be opposed. The ones that do try to engage Bell’s writing either misread it or pan it as erroneous without giving good reasons why.

So, if it is not about theology, then what is is about? Why is Keller in but Rob Bell out? Why are old man Piper and the good fellas at the SBC hassling pastor Bell? Piper, the SBC, and other “orthodox” evangelical critics of the book are defending their own privileged place in American evangelicalism. Tim Keller is okay because he is a PCA pastor. He is inside the establishment. He is safe. Rob Bell is not.  Bell is not part of any major denomination and so, to Piper et al., he answers to no one. He is a rogue pastor with a HarperCollins book deal.

The response to Bell reminds me of the disputes between the Old Lights and New Lights in colonial America. During what some historians call the Great Awakening, pastors like George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards preached an evangelicalism that emphasized God’s grace and personal experiences of salvation. Revivals broke out up and down the East coast as Whitfield preached to crowds. Along with this exuberant evangelical “experimental religion” came challenges to the old guard of church leadership. The revival came because of a new kind of ministry the mended the failures of the old lights.

While Bell is  not giving sermons on “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry” like Gilbert Tennent, nonetheless, his book and his overall project challenges the power of the existing denominational establishment in America. The Baptists, the PCA, and the various Wesleyan and Pentecostal denominations have provided the institutional structures and the doctrinal orthodoxy for their particular corners of the evangelical community. But Bell and others like him come from outside of these structures, challenging their theology but, more importantly, challenging their authority. There is no assembly, council, bishop or court to drag Bell into and strip him of his post. This lack of control scares evangelical elites like John Piper.

In the pursuit for control over what counts as “evangelicalism” in America, it remains to be seen if love wins or not.


Less Than Half of Evangelicals Are Tea Partying

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has a new analysis of religion and the Tea Party. The whole thing is an interesting read and offers solid evidence for the religious forces driving the movement. Sara Posner and Mark Silk have offered their takes on the findings.

One thing jumped out to me:

Surveys from November 2010 through February 2011 show that white evangelical Protestants are roughly five times as likely to agree with the movement as to disagree with it (44% vs. 8%), though substantial numbers of white evangelicals either have no opinion or have not heard of the movement (48%).

If my math is right, less than half of evangelicals agree with the Tea Party and the rest either don’t care or actively disagree. This is important because while Pew has ample evidence to prove that most Tea Partiers are also part of the religious right (read conservative evangelicals), the majority of evangelicals are not affiliated with the Tea Party. So, Tea Party rhetoric, Tea Party leadership, and Tea Party activists must always be contextualized as a (sizable) minority within American evangelicalism.

When we hear Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, or Michele Bachmann invoking their evangelical street cred we have to remember that half of the folks in churches on Sunday morning don’t care about, don’t know, or don’t like them.


Things Sacred & Profane: New FRC study, Star Wars Nativity, and Evangelical Environmentalism

- The conservative Family Research Council is jumping into the indices game. It’s soon to be released Index of Family Belonging and Rejection is an attempt to measure the health of families in our society. The study defines an ‘intact family’ as one where “a child’s birth mother and biological father (were) legally married to one another since before or around the time of the child’s birth.”

- Another story at USAToday about the recession’s impact on church collection plates.

- A Star Wars display appears next to a traditional nativity and eight other holiday set ups in a Virginia town.

- Evangelical environmentalism has reached a critical point–how aggressive and how far to the left should it be?

- A historian’s approach to WikiLeaks.


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