Justice, Bin Laden, and American Civil Religion

As I sat on my couch scanning Twitter and listening to the President describe the killing of Osama Bin Laden, I realized that this was a high moment in American civil religion. Thanks to a couple colleagues here at Emory and our writing group, I’ve had civil religion on the brain lately. As the president repeated “justice…justice…justice,” I began to wonder what Robert Bellah would say.

In 1967 Robert Bellah published his famous article “Civil Religion in America.” Bellah argued that there was an American civil religion that stretched from the founding of the nation up to his day and time. It was a religion born in the Revolution, matured through the Civl War, and at work in the midst of Vietnam. It was a transcendent understanding of the American experience that borrowed from biblical sources but existed alongside traditional religious commitments. It was enshrined in national rituals, inauguration speeches, and historic documents. It included the God in whom we trust, the God who blesses America, and the Creator who endowed us with inalienable rights. Its saints are Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy. It’s shrines are Gettysburg and Ground Zero.

Bellah identified three trials in American history that produced our civil religion. The Revolution brought us questions of independence and the rights granted by God. Then the Civil War challenged us to think about sacrifice–most notably the sacrificial death of President Lincoln–in the face of a moral evil like slavery. In 1967, Bellah saw the third crisis as the contemporary problem of “responsible action in a revolutionary war.”

We still live in the third crisis. The Revolution birthed a civil religion of rights and a God who grants them. The Civil War added a God who demands sacrifice for our national sins. Last night added a God of justice to our civil religion. George W. Bush said that America would bring those responsible for 9/11 to justice or bring justice to them. President Obama declared last night that “Justice had been done.” But what kind of justice?

The Creator in the Declaration of Independence is egalitarian and humanistic. The death of Lincoln is sacrificial. But the justice of American civil religion is retributional. Death requires death. Destruction requires destruction. We see it in our country’s domestic drug policy that locks away young minority offenders and sucks them into a prison industrial complex. We see it in a litigious society that demands all harm be ameliorated with a check. We see it on the streets outside the White House where people celebrate the death of a mass murderer like it was a Super Bowl win. An eye for an eye until we’re all blind.

Osama Bin Laden committed immeasurable evil. In the face of such evil, justice becomes confusing. Justice is easy if someone steals your bike or smashes your car. Justice is harder when someone is killed. Justice seems almost impossible when someone’s evil destroys thousands of people and their families. On a day like today, it feels like justice and evil are incommensurable.

But perhaps the civil religion of Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy can produce a justice that isn’t based in retribution.

Bellah concludes:

“[American civil religion] does not make any decision for us. It does not remove us from moral ambiguity, from being in Lincoln’s fine phrase, an ‘almost chosen people.’ But it is a heritage of moral and religious experience from which we still have much to learn as we formulate the decisions that lie ahead.”


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.


Reagan Religion

Tenured Radical is spending time at the Reagan Library:

I say in all seriousness:  if you are too focused on your own authority as a historian you will learn nothing from the people who love history and are out there practicing it beyond our scrutiny.  For example, I learn a great deal when I ask total strangers why they are visiting the RRPL and how often they come.  Informal research suggests that a great many elderly California Republicans who are hoovering up social security (while voting down the taxes that might allow anyone else to retire)  are frequent repeat visitors to the RRPL.  I suspect one reason is the desserts at the cafe, which are outstanding.  Ronald Reagan loved dessert and so do I; therefore, I often assume that other people come to the RRPL for the dessert too.

But people tell me other things too, which indicate that the worship of Ronald Reagan is approaching a civil religion in this part of the world.  “I just come to be close to him,” one woman said to me in front of the grave.  Another commented, as we looked out over the replica of the South Lawn donated by Merv Griffin, TV talk show host and closet queen, “I find this to be a very spiritual place.” Many non-Californians may visit for spiritual reasons too, as the numerous mobile homes parked outside with plates from other states suggest.

The beauty of the building and grounds itself, which look out over vineyards, mountains, and neatly kept subdivisions, project the grace and reassuring, modest, upper-class folksiness that Reagan himself embodied.  Reagan, we need to remind ourselves, cultivated his image as a cultural bulwark between order and disorder for a great many working and middle class white people who were dismayed and frightened by the determination of gays, women, and people of color for full citizenship.   Because of this, the RRPL successfully evokes nostalgia for those prosperous Cold War years of white privilege and compulsory heterosexuality that the president and his conservative allies began to dismantle for good in the 1980s.

Two things.

First, I think it’s finally time for a real deep study of Ronald Reagan in American popular culture. I haven’t read Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah book yet (it’s sitting in a pile on my desk) but I think Reagan is a cultural icon ripe for just such a gender/culture/political/sacred analysis.

Second thing, every graduate student  should read the whole post because TR reminds us all that we are not in control of history. I think those of us who study religion may be a little more aware of this because we know we are not in “control” of religion, but rather, that people will practice and believe and live in ways that confound our theories and arguments. I think a lot of historians do believe that they are the keepers of historical orthodoxy and that it is there job to smack down those that might not use history correctly. I know I feel this way a lot. But I look at TR’s post and Jill Lepore’s Tea Party book and I realize that people deploy, mutilate, repurpose, and play with history in some amazing ways (in the same ways they do with religion). I think historians should offer strong critiques of “bad history” in the public sphere and should always be ready to interrogate the relationship between historical knowledge and power. However, we should also be aware of the ways people make use of history in creative and quotidian ways.


NIMBY Mosques and the Taxonomies of Religion in America

Cross-posted at the Religion in American History Blog

In case you missed it, there are plans to build a mosque in New York two blocks from the the site of World Trade Center attack.  The proposed mosque has ignited a variety of discourses about religion in American culture.  Opponents of the mosque have various reasons for their opposition but a recent ad from the National Republican Trust PAC offers the most obvious examples of the “us” and “them” language opponents are employing.

The ad was rejected by by CBS and NBC.  As Entertainment Weekly reports:

CBS and NBC have rejected an ad by the National Republican Trust PAC that seeks to rally viewers against a proposed mosque that would be built two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York City. The one-minute spot (embedded below) begins with the words “the audacity of JIHAD” flashing on the screen followed shortly thereafter by the image of a plane flying into the World Trade Center; an accompanying voiceover declares that “to celebrate that murder of 3,000 Americans, they want to build a monstrous 13-story mosque at Ground Zero.”

The national spot “didn’t meet our broadcast standards,” said a spokesperson for CBS, confirming the network’s decision not to run it. An NBC spokesperson also confirmed the decision to reject the spot, but did not offer an explanation why. Nonetheless, EW obtained a letter from NBC Universal advertising standards manager Jennifer Riley to the NRT PAC explaining that: “An ad questioning the wisdom of building a mosque at ground zero would meet our issues of public controversy advertising criteria. However, this ad which ambiguously defines ‘they’ as referenced in the spot, makes it unclear as to whether the reference is to terrorists or to the Islamic religious organization that is sponsoring the building of the mosque. Consequently the ad is not acceptable under our guidelines for broadcast.”

As I read it, the basic message of the ad is “If the mosque gets built then the terrorists win.”  Patrolling the borders of acceptable religion has been a mainstay of American culture: colonial Quakers, nineteenth century Catholics, twentieth century Communists, and now, twenty first century Muslims  What is remarkable about this ad is just how unremarkable it is in its rhetoric.  The same strategies always work.  Slap on a foreign label (“Jihad” or “Papist” or “Pinko”), add violence (terrorism, nuclear threat, licentious priests and nuns), predict the downfall of “American values” (read Anglo Protestantism) then stir until a nice foment of emotionalism forms.

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Power, Authority, and the Academic Journal: Thoughts on UC vs. NPG

Why do we need academic journals?

In the midst of the ongoing dispute between the University of California system and the Nature Publishing Group over the rates of science journals, I’ve been wondering what exactly is the function of the academic journal?

I see two.  First, journals like those published by NPG function to distribute knowledge.   Second, journals act to authorize academic work.  The current spat between UC and NPG is beginning to reveal the ways these two functions are related and how they are also falling apart.  What is missing from the current discussion of the UC vs. NPG battle is an analysis of how power and authority move through the current journal publication structure, which at bottom, is a question about how journal publication functions .

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