Are Christian Conservatives “Christian” or “Conservative?”



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BY JOHN FEA

A recent Rasmussen Report reveals that Mike Huckabee now has a slight lead (28%-25%) over Mitt Romney in Iowa. With only a little more than a month remaining before the Iowa caucuses, a Huckabee victory in the Hawkeye state is not out of the question. His performance recalls another folksy evangelical southern governor, Jimmy Carter, who rode his victory in the Iowa caucuses all the way to the White House in 1976.

Most of Huckabee’s support in Iowa comes from evangelical Christians. According to the Rasmussen poll, nearly half of the state’s evangelicals will caucus for the former Arkansas governor. What is most interesting about Huckabee’s surge is that it has occurred in spite of the fact that he has yet to receive a major endorsement from an evangelical leader of national prominence. Pat Robertson has backed Giuliani. Bob Jones University endorsed Mitt Romney. James Dobson would rather stay home than throw his support behind Huckabee. Even the National Right to Life has taken a pass on Huckabee in favor of Fred Thompson. At the moment, Huckabee’s most high-profile backers are former action hero Chuck Norris and fifty-nine year old professional wrestler “Nature Boy” Ric Flair.

Most evangelicals united behind George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, but today there is no such political unity among the Christian Right. While the movement’s leaders are divided over the candidate they think can beat Hillary next November, they seem to be united in the belief that Mike Huckabee, a former evangelical Baptist minister with the best pro-life credentials of all the candidates, is not him.

Yet ordinary evangelicals continue to climb aboard the Huckabee bandwagon. Twenty-eight percent and counting….

Could it be that Dobson and others do not support Huckabee—the most obvious Christian candidate in the race-- because he is not conservative enough? If this is indeed the case, I wonder whether today’s Christian conservatives are more “conservative” than they are “Christian.” Let me explain.

Most evangelical Christians that I know—and that includes members of my largely working-class family, the people with whom I go to church, and the students I teach at Messiah College—describe themselves as “conservative” based upon their convictions on moral issues such as abortion, gay marriage, or stem-cell research.

Fair enough. But what most of these evangelicals do not realize is that these moral concerns have only become part of the conservative movement in the last thirty years or so.

Historically, conservatism has been less about abortion and “family values” and more about freedom from government’s intrusion on one’s individual rights. The conservative agenda has always played out practically in the support of big business, free-market solutions to social problems such as poverty or health care, reduced government spending, and cutting taxes, especially for the wealthy. Most conservatives today would agree with Thomas Paine when he said at the beginning of Common Sense that “government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.”

It is indisputable that Mike Huckabee holds traditional views on social issues, but he fails to meet conservative standards when he talks about the purpose of government. Recently Robert Novak, the Washington Post columnist who no one would mistake for a liberal, denounced Huckabee as a “false conservative,” calling attention to his “tax and spend” approach to government while he was governor of Arkansas. Jonah Goldberg of the National Review hammered Huckabee for the same reason in a recent Los Angeles Times column and in a video conversation with Peter Beinert on the New Republic website. Many of these conservatives consider Huckabee dangerous. Their attacks are similar to the ones that the Right level regularly on Bush for his lack of control over government spending.

According to Novak, Goldberg, and others, Huckabee is little more than a liberal with a culturally conservative moral agenda. And they are probably right. He represents the second coming of Bush’s compassionate conservatism—a brand of conservatism (if you can call it that) that his former speechwriter Michael Gerson continues to hawk.

Huckabee wants to use the power of the state to end abortion (as opposed to many of his Republican/Federalist rivals who want to turn the matter over to the states), help the children of illegal immigrants, end gay marriage, ban smoking, and aid the poor. Though I would not push the analogy too far, Huckabee can occasionally sound a lot like Lyndon Johnson, whose Great Society reforms were also driven by the virtue of “compassion.”

Perhaps the lack of support for Huckabee among leaders of the Christian Right can be explained by their refusal to support a candidate, despite his convictions on abortion or same-sex marriage, who does not toe the Goldwater-Reagan conservative line. Which brings us to the pressing question: Is it more important for the leaders of the Christian Right that a candidate be pro-life or a true conservative?

If it is true that prominent Christian leaders will not support Huckabee because he is not loyal to the conservative movement, then it is also true that the people of Iowa are not buying it. Huckabee is their man because of his views on social issues. Most of them want to end abortion and could really care less about whether it is accomplished by the states or the federal government. If big government is the way to accomplish their moral goals for the nation, then so be it. And if a host of commentators, including the New York Times’s David Kirpatrick, are correct, then these ordinary evangelicals are also concerned about fighting poverty and caring for the environment--not historically conservative causes.

Huckabee’s ability to draw supporters without a major endorsement from an evangelical power-broker (and in some cases the outright rejection of his candidacy by Christian Republicans) tells us that the evangelical rank and file have a mind of their own. They will support candidates that their religious and moral convictions and common sense tells them are right, regardless of what Dobson or Robertson or Bob Jones or the people at National Right to Life have to say on the matter. Huckabee may not be the most conservative Republican candidate, but he is certainly the most Christian Republican candidate, and that is the kind of person that many ordinary evangelical Republicans, in Iowa and elsewhere, want in the White House.

Sacred Places, Evangelical Crackups, and Religion in the News



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BY ART REMILLARD

Here’s some notes from the news world…

First, check out the series “Sacred Places” in U.S. News and World Report. Articles examine the sacred features of Karnak, the Dome of the Rock, and the Golden Temple, just to name a few locations. An article on the Cathedral of Sandiago de Compestela caught my attention because I’m temporarily overseeing a study abroad program that is located southwestern France, near one of the principal pilgrimage routes to Compestela. Pilgrimages were all the rage in the Middle Ages, and Compestela became one of the “big three” destinations, alongside Rome and Jerusalem. In the years following the Protestant Reformation, travel to Compestela decreased; but in recent decades, due in large part to a vigorous tourism industry, pilgrims have returned, seeking everything from spiritual renewal to physical exercise.
In my program, students take a course on religious pilgrimages. Nancy Louise Frey’s ethnographic study of the Compestela pilgrimage, Pilgrim Stories, is required reading. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested. Another article from “Sacred Places” discusses the evolution of American worship centers, and shows an image of a prototypical New England Puritan church. Seeing this prompted me to recall a conversation with a colleague about religious aesthetics. He speculated that the Puritan attention to visual sterility is something of a funhouse mirror image of the Catholic fascination with grandeur. He may have had a point. Ken Burns’s documentary on the Shakers convinced me that simplicity is hard work. Their spiral staircases reveal the complicated nature of plain design. And Shaker chairs, while a far cry from a La-Z-Boy, are, as Thomas Merton wrote, “made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.” I’m no angel (just a lowly demigod), but I wouldn’t mind having a Shaker chair on my porch.

Second, in light of recent posts on the “evangelical crackup,” blog readers may be interested in Jim Wallis’s appearance on NPR’s Speaking of Faith. Here’s the description…

“The first in a two-part series on influential leaders who are reshaping Evangelical Christianity from within progressive and conservative circles. Jim Wallis founded Sojourners and now advises presidential candidates and world leaders in what he calls the ‘post-Religious Right’ era. He is determined to put poverty at the top of America's ‘moral values’ agenda.”

Finally, I just noticed that a new issue of
Religion in the News is available.

For those who don’t know, the journal is edited by Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College. From Atheism to South Park, this issue promises to be another good one. Here’s the table of contents…

Beating Up on the New Atheists Journalists are skeptical of the atheist offensive. by Bernard Lightman

DOUBLE ISSUE WITH A SPECIAL SUPPLEMENT:
Science Education & Secular Values

Potterdämmerung by Mark Silk

Romney and the Mormon Moment Mitt Romney's candidacy puts pressure on the church to open up. by Jan Shipps

The Democrats Get Religion But, journalists ask, are the candidates religious enough? by Mark Silk

No More Mr. Nice Pope Pope Benedict's conservative proclivities emerge. by Andrew Walsh

Establishing Religion by Executive Order The Supreme Court defends the Bush faith-based initiative. by John Cosgriff

The Gospel According to South Park A cartoon series takes on religion in America. by Abe Silk

People Who Loved Tammy Faye In the end, the gay community returned her embrace. by Christine McCarthy McMorris

When the Church Became Theatre -- In Paper!



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BY ED BLUM

A few weeks ago I complained in a review that Jeanne Kilde’s wonderful book,
When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America, was not published in paper. I was wrong. It’s in paper; it has been since 2005; and it’s a good price.

Take a look: When Church Became Theatre explores the social and religious contexts that informed the development and the widespread adoption of the neomedieval auditorium church type by evangelical Protestants in the late nineteenth century. The building type is characterized by an architecturally eclectic exterior facade, emphasizing Gothic or Romanesque vocabularies, and an amphitheater-like main auditorium with theater features. Blending social, religious, and architectural history, the book examines the buildings as texts that bear witness to significant changes in religious creed, code, and cultus.

The democratic and homelike character of these buildings indicate shifts in Protestant creed, the facilities for musical performance and congregational participation attest to changes in cultus or worship practice, and the integration of a variety of functional rooms into these churches evidence significant negotiations between the traditional evangelical code or mission of proselytizing and a new mission centered on family ministry. Adopted by Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists across the U.S., these buildings attest to the existence of an evangelical social and theological unity in the final decades of the century, a united Christian front on a public landscape that many feared was marred by social unrest. By the 1920s, that evangelical Christian unity would rupture, congregations would be rent as religious, and social conservatives split from liberals throughout the country. This rupture would significantly reduce the popularity of the neomedieval auditorium church in the twentieth century.

New Book: Sean McCloud's Divine Hierarchies



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BY KELLY BAKER

Sean McCloud's Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies (UNC Press) explores the intersection of religion and the oft-ignored class in American Religious History and in religious studies as a whole. McCloud, the author of Making the Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives and Journalists, 1955-1993, draws upon history, ethnography, and sociology, among other fields, to make his case that scholars who work on religion in America need to take class seriously as a dynamic concept that signifies more than socioeconomic status. I began this book on a plane from San Diego to Albuquerque, and I was hooked. McCloud provides a heady dose of theory to present his nuanced definition of class. Through a variety of case studies, including eugenics (did I mention that I like this book?), McCloud provocatively inserts the issue of class into religious studies to complicate previous arguments that provide all too common representations of class within religious movements (for example, ecstatic religious movements draw their membership from the lower classes and the impoverished, which the author shows to not necessarily be the case). This fresh take on the necessity of incorporating class into our historical or ethnographic work is a worthwhile read. As I read, I could not help but analyze how my own work on whiteness and religion becomes a more complicated tangle if I have to take account for the understanding of class by my historical actors. This provocative book might prove useful to those of us, myself very much included, who perhaps pay to little attention to class.

Here's the blurb for UNC Press:

Placing the neglected issue of class back into the study and understanding of religion, Sean McCloud reconsiders the meaning of class in today's world. More than a status grounded in material conditions, says McCloud, class is also an identity rhetorically and symbolically made and unmade through representations. It entails relationships, identifications, boundaries, meanings, power, and our most ingrained habits of mind and body. He demonstrates that employing class as an analytical tool that cuts across variables such as creed, race, ethnicity, and gender can illuminate American religious life in unprecedented ways.

Through social theory, historical analysis, and ethnography, McCloud makes an interdisciplinary argument for reinserting class into the study of religion. First, he offers a new three-part conception of class for use in studying religion. He then presents a focused cultural history of religious studies by examining how social class surfaced in twentieth-century theories of religious affiliation. He concludes with historical and ethnographic case studies of religion and class. Divine Hierarchies makes a convincing case for the past and present importance of class in American religious thought, practice, and scholarship.

Baptized in Blood: A Roundtable on Mark Noll's Civil War as a Theological Crisis



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BY PAUL HARVEY

The new issue of Fides et Historia (vol. 37, Summer/Fall 2007, pp. 1-38) carries a symposium on Mark Noll's Civil War as a Theological Crisis, beginning with Douglas Sweeney, "Conference on Faith and History Roundtable: Mark A. Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis." From there we have:

Randall Miller, "The Civil War as a Theological Crisis: A Comment"

Beth Barton Schweiger, "Mark Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis"

Robert Tracy McKenzie, "Reflections on Mark Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis"

Paul Harvey, "Moneyball History: Some Thoughts on Mark Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis"

The roundtable concludes with Mark Noll's responses. A couple of excerpts, to whet your appetite:

Beth Schweiger: Noll "demonstrates how virtually all Americans mistook a national theology for a universal one and were unwilling (or unable) to consider the Christian tradition in terms apart from the republican synthesis that Mark has described. This is ingenious, for it finds fundamental agreement between Protestants North and South, and liberal and conservative, where others have seen irreconcilable differences. All were equally culpable; even antislavery liberals hung themselves on the hook of providentialism. . . . [all] agreed on what might be termed the 'Blues Brothers' thesis: the United States was on a 'mission from God.' "

Randall Miller: Noll's canvass is wide, but "if that canvass included the writings and speeches of black religious leaders and intellectuals, it would add an important variant reading on who indeed were God's chosen and what the Bible of Moses and Jesus and Christian conscience commanded the American people and the state to do about a social evil. For blacks, 'The Word' demanded action, not mere words. . . Indeed, moving beyond the swirl of words uttered by evangelical Protestant religious leaders and intellectuals to inquire what laypeople thought and did begs the quesiton of what significance the theological crisis had for 'the people.' Noll's fine book hardly ventures from the seminary lecterns and church pulpits to enter the pews. Doing so would require taking the people on their own terms, as it also would invite considerations of the ways music, popular imagery, and folklore expressed biblical beliefs and people's use of Scripture. It also would raise questions about the extent to which religious leaders spoke for anything or anyone by themselves."

Tracy McKenzie: "Finally, though for the most part implicitly, Professor Noll is also speaking to the church. Indeed, there is a sense in which the entire book can be read as an admonition to contemporary American evangelicals. It warns us how easily cultural conventions can shape definitions of 'orthodoxy.' It cautions us that a commitment to Biblical authority and an aversion to exegetical complexity are not the same thing. It powerfullyi demonstrates the pitfalls that accompany our commitment to the 'voluntary and democratic appropriation of Scripture.' "

Paul Harvey: "It seems to me that one of the most – maybe the most – fundamental paradox and tension of American religious history is the fault line between religious freedom and democracy on the one hand, and religiously-sanctioned intolerance and repression on the other. Both, I think, come from American republican providentialism; that which is most honorable, and that which is most execrable, in the dominant story of American religion emerges from the same source. African-Americans (and, I would add, Native American writers and theologians such as William Apess) were quicker than others to pick up on and bring to light this deeply contradictory impulse in American religion, and in American life more generally.

Democratic politics and the rapid rise of populist Christian sects created a new context for American ideas of religio-political freedom. The ebullient expressions of popular nationalism and the expansive and millennialist visions of religious groups such as the Methodists were part of a democratic culture that was at a far remove from the more deferential and hierarchical cast of American thought and life in prior decades. During the disruptions of the Revolutionary era, evangelical Christianity was at a relative low point. In 1780, few could have predicted the explosion of democratic Christianity that so deeply imprinted American culture by the 1830s, replacing Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a secular rationalist Republic with something more akin to a Methodist millennium. From the underside of that millennium, however, American ideas of freedom promised universalist visions but delivered a Republic that was, in practice, racially exclusivist and white supremacist. That paradox lay at the heart of native and African-American religious thought and practice.

Cliopatria Awards -- Best Group Blog. Vote Late But Often!



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BY PAUL HARVEY

Dear Religion in American History Readers: Please nominate us or write letters of support for us for the "Best Group Blog" category in this year's Cliopatria Awards -- click the link for information. Nominations and notes of support are due by the end of this week, so please hurry!

And while you're at it, send along your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and guest posts to pharvey AT uccs DOT edu.

Stonewall stonewalled; or The Lost Cause on the Christian Broadcasting Network



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BY PAUL HARVEY

At Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin directs some withering skepticism towards the continued worship of Lee and Jackson among some contemporary southern evangelicals. He begins:

I came across this entertaining little video from the Christian Broadcasting Network which examines the religious convictions of John Jasper, R.E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. It is somewhat humorous to find these two men being raised to something along the lines of civil rights activists. The questionable story of Lee accepting communion in a Richmond church next to a black man and just after the war is explored along with Jackson's mission to educate his slaves and other blacks in the Lexington area.

He continues on to ask:

Here is what I don't understand. If God brought slavery to black people than how is it possible that Jackson "hated" or was "opposed" to it? To put it another way, isn't God's ordaining something to be the case a justification of its existence?

And he concludes:

Is the lesson of Jackson that as long as we apply the Golden Rule within our own set of assumptions regarding its extension than it is safe to conclude that we are living a moral life or carrying out God's expectations?

Strange Fruit



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BY RANDALL STEPHENS

On Sunday night, November 25th, James Cone appeared as a guest on Bill Moyers’ Journal. Cone discussed his work on race and religion in America and offered a provocative account of lynching as a type of crucifixion. I turned back the pages in my mind to Donald Mathews’ challenging article “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice” that appeared in the Journal of Southern Religion vol 3 (2000). (More recently, Ed Blum has analyzed these connections in W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet, 2007). Cone’s comments on the subject were powerful:

BILL MOYERS: That old Billie Holiday number that--that we played, Strange Fruit-"Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree." I mean, nobody sings that anymore. You don't hear it. But, yet, that is deep in our DNA, is it not?

JAMES CONE: Yes, it's deep. Because lynching is so deep. And that song is about lynching. It's about black bodies hanging on trees. And that's deep in the American experience. . . .
The lynching tree is transcendent of defeat. And that's why the cross and the lynching tree belong together. That's why I have to talk about the lynching tree. Because Christians can't understand what's going on at the cross until they see it through the image of a lynching tree with black bodies hanging there.

BILL MOYERS: Why?


JAMES CONE: Because the Christian Gospel is a transvaluation of values. Something you cannot anticipate in this world, in this history. But, it empowers the powerless. It is-- what do you mean by power in the powerless? That's what God is. Power in the powerless.


Lynching is, says Cone, something that Americans must come to terms with. It will help “break our silence on race in American history.” Cone looks back to Reinhold Niebuhr’s timely classic, The Irony of American History. That book still allows Americans to understand that they are, in fact, not innocent.

JAMES CONE: The core of it is, is helping America get over its innocence. Helping America to see itself through the eyes of people from the bottom. And you see, America likes to think of itself as innocent. And we are not. No human being is innocent.

Of course, that’s exactly why Niebuhr appealed to C. Vann Woodward, who incorporated some of Niebuhr’s ideas into his essay “The Irony of Southern History,” a piece that still resonates. Niebuhr, too, is no less relevant today. Niebuhr’s legacy, like that of Winston Churchill, is claimed by both conservatives and liberals.

I can think of little that sheds light on the many ironies of American history and American religious history more starkly than the subject of lynching.

Faith in Thrall to Power



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BY PAUL HARVEY

D. Michael Lindsay's Faith in the Halls of Power has received some admiring attention lately, including this review in Christianity Today, which notes that "from Hollywood to Harvard, evangelical elites are consistently less culture warriors than culture shapers." It sounds like a useful and quick read for the holiday season.

Today's New York Times Book Review features a partially contrarian review by Alan Wolfe. Wolfe gives Lindsay due credit for his extensive interviewing and his work at introducing a multi-faceted view of evangelicals to a readership likely beholden to a more simplistic view. Nonetheless, Wolfe challenges the author to interrogate his subjects more than he does. An excerpt:

Lindsay conducted 360 interviews in all, including one with Michael Gerson in 2005. “Christianity is not just a statement about personal piety,” Gerson told him; “it’s a statement about social justice.” It is, I guess, a worthwhile sentiment, not so much for what it says — don’t we all profess to believe in social justice? — but because the person who said it worked for a president singularly intent on cutting taxes to redistribute income to America’s wealthiest. It would be interesting to know how Gerson reconciled his faith with the priorities of his party. But don’t look to Lindsay’s book for an answer.

I haven't read this volume, but I also haven't heard much serious analysis coming from evangelicals (apart from a few of the usual suspects, Sojourners et al) about the wielding of economic power in our new culture of market uber alles, so I'm certainly sympathetic to Wolfe's point there. Time for some good evangelical populism, a la William Jennings Bryan? I'm not waiting with baited breath.

CD Selections for the Solstice Season -- Separating the Wheat from the Tares



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BY PAUL HARVEY

I know what I want for the solstice season: the latest offering from the songcatchers and folklorists Art and Margo Rosenbaum, The Art of Field Recording, Vol. I, their latest 4-CD set (to be followed by Vol. II, according to the advertising).

Here is Ben Raitliff’s description, from Friday’s New York Times:

THE ART OF FIELD RECORDING, VOL. 1

Every day the past of American music has a better future. Four years ago the Dust to Digital label put out “Goodbye, Babylon,” which some called the greatest anthology of American gospel music ever assembled. Now the label, based in Atlanta, has produced “The Art of Field Recording, Vol. 1,” four extraordinary discs culled from tapes recorded by Art Rosenbaum, a professor of art at the University of Georgia who has pursued musicology as a 50-year sideline. Obviously it isn’t definitive; it’s just one man’s work. But it’s a gold mine, an ark. There are string bands, acoustic blues, ring shouts, “hambone” chants, Sacred Harp and Georgia Sea Island singing, the “lined-out” hymnody of Southern churches, unaccompanied fiddlers and banjoists and jew’s-harpists. A great deal of it is spooky and blindingly beautiful, and the set owes its power to Mr. Rosenbaum’s judicious ear. Almost all of these performers, often recorded in their homes or churches — including members of the W. B. Thomas Gospel Chorus, above — transcend the clichés of their style. There will be more: Volume 2 arrives next year. (Dust to Digital. Four CDs. $69.98.) BEN RATLIFF

This new boxed set comes to us courtesy of the great outfit Dust-to-Digital, which previously put out my all-time favorite CD compilation of religiously-themed music. I’ve blogged before about Goodbye Babylon, a 5-CD compilation of great folk religious music from the early 1900s through the 1940s, plus one full CD set of 25 recorded sermons, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s. It’s classic from beginning to end, but for me the true find was the 1937 recording of Mahalia Jackson’s “God’s Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares.” This was one of four recordings the young Jackson made, which have largely been forgotten and eclipsed by the classic sides Jackson cut later (after World War Two) when her career (and that of gospel music as a whole) as a gospel singer took off. But for my money, the 1937 side from Goodbye Babylon was a revelation, with a power that hit me with the force of my first playing of Charlie Parker's "Cherokee," or Bruce Springsteen's "Incident on 57th Street." Like those recordings, the 1937 side from Goodbye Babylon captures Mahalia in her first flowering of talent, like seeing a lily first burst from its pod.

I’m expecting (hoping for) more of the same from the forthcoming Art of the Field Recording CDs. Since these are not formerly commercially recorded 78s now collected on compilation discs, but instead the fruit of the Rosenbaum's labor, it's harder to know just what to expect, but I can't wait to hear.

The first volume appears to be divided by genre, one per CD: “Survey,” “Blues,” “Religious,” “Instrumental and Dance.” Of course, the genres weren’t so readily distinguishable in earlier eras, with bluesmen such as Charley Patton recording under names such as “Elder J. J. Hadley,” in that case putting down the memorable two-part “Prayer of Death," which for me stands on a par with Blind Willie Johnson's haunting query, "What is the Soul of Man?" (the link takes you to Wim Wenders's contribution to the seven-part series on "The Blues" put together by Martin Scorcese a few years ago -- a bit too artsy for its own good, maybe, but it makes effective use of my favorite Blind Willie release).

So much of this music explores darkness, evil, and struggle, and is deeply shot through with almost medieval notions of God and the Devil battling it out on earth. Much southern religious history recently (including my own) has been about the way southern denominations propagated progressive visions of a New South, full of upright citizens who worked hard and behaved right at church (translation: no shouting, and no visionary conversions). Some have suggested that this conflict between this vision and that of the religious worldview of many rural southerners, white and black, defined the making of religious culture in the post-Civil War South.

But much religious history remains bound by printed sources and thus stays focused on what religious organizations and leaders said and did. That's fine up to a point, of course, but documents such as these CDs provide us a way out of a too-slavish devotion to the printed record, and a different way for historians to access religious experience in American history.

The dissertation from John Hayes just completed at the University of Georgia is the best exploration that I know about of the entire religious universe of the rural South through the first half of the twentieth century: “Hard, Hard, Religion: The World of Johnny Cash” (that’s probably not exactly the right title, so someone from UGA, please send me the final correct title). Hayes uses Cash, the man in black, as a take-off point to capture the religious mentalite of rural and small-town southerners, those who were left out of bourgeois denominational visions of the “New South," and those who expressed views of the world far more profound than in a thousand Moody-Sankey hymns combined. John, if you're out there, feel free to comment further for our blog readers!

These CDs capture that world in sound, and make up some of the most important documents in American religious history.

The full listing of tracks on the 4 CDs may be found here. With a compilation that begins with Sister Fleeta Mitchell and Rev. Willie Mae Eberhart's "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down," you can't really go wrong. Be blessed.

Black Friday



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George McKenna's The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism is reviewed here by John Gray, author of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. Gray concludes:

This sense of being divinely chosen to save or redeem humanity, which was an integral part of Puritan thinking more than three centuries ago, is still at the heart of American identity today.

Rev. Stevie's Vision -- And We're Not Talking Stevie Nicks



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Rev. Stevie's Vision
By Jon Pahl

The reviews are in, and Stevie Wonder remains America's preeminent gospel preacher in-the-guise-of-a-songwriter/singer-and-transcendent-musical-genius. I recently caught his current tour when it stopped here in Philly. It was simply sublime. Wonder is touring for the first time in a dozen years. The reviews have been remarkably consistent, nearly rapturous, and with good reason.

Joel Selvin in The San Francisco Chronicle (August 28) called the show "an outpouring."
Erik Pedersen in The Hollywood Reporter (September 7) summed it up as "a joyful celebration."
And Ben Ratliff in The New York Times (November 19) put it well, if a bit stiffly. Wonder specializes, he suggested, in "secular music with gospel rhetoric."

But the performance I saw drew its power from more than rhetoric. This was ritual. Wonder was a preacher. And the created world--with all its sounds and sorrows, was both his congregation and the source of a profound vision. For one who is physically blind, he surely sees an awful lot.

The religious themes are unmistakable in Wonder's music once you start paying attention. I first took note of the spiritual and political potential of Stevie Wonder in 1981. I was a young seminarian on an "urban immersion" trip to Detroit. The family I was staying with had tickets to Stevie's concert at Cobo Hall, and managed to snare me an extra. It was the night before Wonder was due to go to Washington DC to lobby Congress in support of a national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. It was also a night I'll never forget, and for which I've always been grateful. Stevie's last song that night was, fittingly, his tribute to Dr. King, "Happy Birthday." One-by-one the band members left the stage, but Wonder remained at his piano singing the chorus over and over again. Gradually, the entire crowd joined him.

And then Stevie himself was led off the stage. We all kept singing. We sang as we walked down the steps of Cobo Hall. We sang as we exited into the corridors. We sang all the way out to our cars in the parking lots. We sent Stevie Wonder to Congress on a wave of song. After that, I never doubted that the holiday would be established.

I have more doubt, now, more than twenty-five years later, that Wonder's broader and deeper vision will come true. But it won't be for lack of effort or skill on his part. And it won't be for lack of clarity from him about how to get there.

His last album (2005) was entitled "A Time 4 Love." And although he didn't play a single cut from it during this tour--astonishingly, love was the beginning, middle, means, and end of the show. This was a God-tinged love-fest. It was a demonstration of how liturgy can help us transcend fear and self-interest through the collective, embodied power of love. It was a call to respond to the wonder of love with some loving acts of our own.

Wonder began the night by invoking his mother--Lula Mae Hardaway, who died last year (in fact, he's currently working on a new album, "The Gospel Inspired by Lula.") After her death, she spoke to him from the world beyond, Wonder claimed, telling him: "Boy, you need to get your ass out there."

The reason became clear in his first tune: "Love's in Need of Love Today." A chorus of back-up singers--including his daughter, Aisha, began the song with a lilting lament, backed by a soft piano and light rhythm section. The verses then laid down the main point of the song, of the concert, and of Rev. Stevie's vision:

Love's in need of love today/
Don't delay, send yours in right away/
Hate's going 'round, breaking many hearts/
Stop it, please, before it's gone too far.

After an excursion into the funky "Too High," which I interpreted as a commentary less on drug use than on the American empire and its "superficial paradise," Wonder returned to the theme of love again, asking the question: "Is This a Vision in My Mind?"The song featured acoustic guitars and a quiet bass, as he sang in a plaintive minor key:
People hand in hand/
Have I lived to see the milk and honey land/
Where hate's a dream and love forever stands/
Or is this a vision in my mind?

That this vision has a social edge became apparent not only during "Living [Just Enough] for the City," his 1973 critique of police brutality and racism, but when he broke into a vamp and shouted, in his best preacher's voice: "I can't believe it! Here we are in 2007, and we're still practicing the same bad habits that we had centuries ago. We love the God that we serve . . . but we still ask our God to give us the right to kill. . . . It's unacceptable. I can't believe it!"

Later, during a call and response on "Ribbon in the Sky," yet another ode to love, Wonder added the erotic as one way to overcome hate and violence. He invited first the women, then the men in the audience to join him in singing on various choruses, if one can call them that. As we did, we celebrated human passion in ways that evoked laughter across the Wachovia Center. It was a vivid demonstration of the embodied truth his music insistently conveyed, like a "higher ground" or "innervision" to which he was calling us.

An extended series of tunes in the middle of the concert celebrated various other kinds of love. "Overjoyed" invited listeners to wonder whether "if you would believe/You too might be/Overjoyed." "If It's Magic," set to the heavenly sound of solo harp, asked "why can't it be everlasting/like the sun that always shines/like the poet's endless rhyme/like the galaxies and time?" And "You and I," a truly beautiful love song set to an acoustic piano with a synthesizer backing, imagined how "In my mind/we can conquer the world/in love, you and I." During this tune, seated at his piano, Wonder broke down in tears. If he was recalling his Mom--to whom he has long given the credit for his courage and convictions, other audience members, including me, cried as we felt our own loves and losses.

But along with the moments of personal pathos and social critique came a whole lot of straight-out, fun-filled funk. "Don't You Worry About a Thing" framed the gospel in a Latin form. "Sir Duke" remembered Duke Ellington and how his "Music knows it is and always will be." And "Superstition" simply slammed home the point: "When you believe in things/that you don't understand/then you suffer. Superstition ain't the way."

But the night was, first and last, about love. The final tune, "As" has always inspired me with its beautiful Fender Rhodes piano line, gentle bass line (Wonder's bassist, Nathan Watts is brilliant), and hopeful words:

As around the sun the earth knows she's revolving/
And the rosebuds know to bloom in early May/
Just as hate knows loves the cure/
You can rest your mind assured/
That I'll be loving you, always.

As he left the stage, Stevie Wonder told us, again and again, that he loved us. And throughout the night, he asked us to love each other. It's a vision born of suffering, channeled into music sublime. And if believers around the world took the same truths from their own faiths with half the seriousness, half the grace, and half the beauty that this bard has done, we might actually find some higher ground, well beyond rhetoric, indeed.

Goodbye, Gideon!



4 comments

Kelly Baker

According to Newsweek, the staple of the Bible in bedside table is a tradition that is fading away. Roya Wolverson writes:

In the rooms of Manhattan's trendy Soho Grand Hotel guests can enjoy an eclectic selection of underground music, iPod docking stations, flat-screen TVs and even the living company of a complimentary goldfish. But, alas, the word of God is nowhere to be found. Unlike traditional hotels, the 10-year-old boutique has never put Bibles in its guest rooms, because "society evolves," says hotel spokeswoman Lori DeBlois. Providing Bibles would mean the hotel "would have to take care of every guest's belief."

Bible-free hotel rooms appear to be the trend at least for boutique hotels because they are adding trendier amenities to woo younger customers (the Bible, it seems, is not as trendy as iPod docking stations). Wolverson notes that this is partly because business travel is decreasing, and leisure travel is increasing. She writes:

Even the staid Marriott chain, founded by a Mormon, is debating whether or not to include Bibles in its yet to be named boutique chain, which is set to launch in partnership with hipster hotelier Ian Schrager, who created the '70s disco Studio 54 and later New York City's Morgans, Royalton and Paramount hotels—which are largely credited with kicking off the boutique hotel craze. Schrager says he hasn't yet discussed the Bible amenity with Marriott, though he adds that his properties have never had in-room Bibles.

Thus, even Marriot boutique hotels might not carry the Book of Mormon. Moreover, some of these boutique hotels are replacing the Bible with pleasure kits, which include condoms among other things. While surfing channels this weekend, I happened upon Fox News and their debate about this very topic. Not surprisingly, the correspondents were agitated that condoms were now in the bedside table. One correspondent disagreed with the majority when she noted that people do not usually go to hotels to find religion.

As I read the Newsweek article and watched the Fox correspondents quarrel, I could not help but wonder if this quiet trend suggests larger changes in our culture. Are hotels removing the Bible because they don’t want to have to include other religious texts? Or are vacationers less interested in reading biblical text precisely because they are on vacation? Demographically, who is a leisure traveler or a business traveler? Was the Bible by the bedside an artifact of a bygone era anyway? (Or to ask this in a cagey manner, is it an artifact of nostalgia for a previous time and place?) The more interesting question to me is: did people use the sacred text during their travel? Were the bedside Bibles worn with use? Were the texts crisp and pristine with the aroma of newness? Again, how was this artifact used?

As a recent traveler myself, it did not occur to me to open the drawer to the bedside table to check for a Gideon. Perhaps, if I had, I could examined its presence or lack thereof.

The House Divided Against Itself That Still Stands



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A House That’s More Divided Than You Think
By Randall Stephens

Nicholas Guyatt has written an enlightening piece on American evangelicals and conservative politics in the London Review of Books: “Blackberry Apocalypse” (November 15, 2007). (The article is only partially a review of Chris Hedges hyperbolically-titled American Fascists.) I imagine Benjamin Britain opening the LRB—dipping his scone into a cup of Darjeeling—and becoming so flummoxed by America’s Bible-belters that he has to readjust his monocle several times. “What, what! Have God-deluded Yanks gone fascist?” Hedges is not “the first to indulge in reductio ad Hitlerum,” Guyatt reminds us. In Richard Dawkin’s whirlwind tour of America’s flyover states he met Ted Haggard. The pre-scandal preacher’s megachurch services reminded Dawkins of Nuremberg rallies. Of course, minus Albert Speer’s Aryan Cathedral lighting affects.

Guyatt explores Hedges basic points about the looming Theocratic putsch, one that will not occur in a beer hall, presumably. Perhaps a fellowship hall? He then discusses Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, in which Frank claimed evangelicals were lured by the never-attainable values carrots of conservative Republicans. Guyatt asks: “How to make sense of the contradiction between Frank’s analysis and the desperate alarm sounded by Hedges?” My first thought was that both authors had exaggerated the issues to such an extent that neither had considered the real, far-more complicated world of evangelicals.

Like Dawkins, or David Livingstone, Guyatt has spent some time in the bush, trying to understand why these natives behave as they do. Guyatt has found that the apparent conservative Christian homogeneity is deceiving. He notes that American evangelicals are, indeed, divided by a range of issues:

Beyond the personal rivalries and posturing of evangelical celebrities, there are deep divisions within the religious right, as there are among conservatives more generally, over political issues such as climate change and immigration. Pat Robertson, who is probably the country’s best-known evangelical now that Falwell has died, declared himself a ‘convert’ on the issue of global warming last summer, insisting that ‘we really need to address the burning of fossil fuels.’ Even on immigration, an issue that traditionally unites conservatives, the religious right has struggled to adopt a single position.

This, I think, is the most interesting thing about Guyatt’s essay and what makes new research on post-War evangelicalism and conservatism so challenging, contentious, and potentially rewarding. Trade presses have rolled out plenty of Jeremiadic tomes on the dangers posed by conservative Christianity. Enough hardbacks to build a small chapel. Yet what has been missing until recently are works like Michael Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, a book that takes the divisions within the movement seriously.

“The religious right should not be treated as a monolith;” Guyatt warns, “nor should it be assumed that its adherents are interested in the same political outcomes. It may be that the liberal obsession with theocracy rather than apocalypse has distracted attention from some of the threats posed by Bible prophecy enthusiasts, especially in the field of US foreign policy.”

Hence, Guyatt weighs in on another hot topic, the Second Coming. “John Hagee’s recent book urging the US to attack Iran sold more than 700,000 copies in a few months. And Joel Rosenberg will send the latest Bible prophecy news to your Blackberry.” I’m still not sure what this means when it comes to how voters vote or legislators legislate. Yep, a Pew survey tells us that the vast majority of pentecostals, more than 80%, believe in the “rapture of the church.” Roughly 90% of adherents think Jesus will make his return trip in their lifetime. Still, that does not tell us much about actual behavior. I’m left scratching my head. What are we to make of the widespread belief in the premillennial return of Jesus or that avalanche of Left Behind books that has swept over the U.S. since the mid-1990s?

Pat Robertson, American History Textbooks, and Free Market Love



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Editor's Note: This post was supposed to have gone up a while back -- apologies to John Fea for not posting sooner. This might also be read in tandem with my post from Friday on the Giuliani/Robertson alliance and the blogosphere's response to "The Evangelical Crackup."
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Pat Robertson, American History Textbooks, and Free Market Love

John Fea

If you have not heard by now, Pat Robertson has endorsed Rudy Giuliani for president in 2008. The press is baffled. The rest of the Christian Right is baffled. The Christian left is baffled. I have yet to see a response from James Dobson and the rest of the Christian Right, but on the Christian Left Jim Wallis weighed in rather quickly on his Sojourners website. Wallis excoriates Robertson’s support of Giuliani, calling the endorsement “unprincipled hypocrisy.” Check out this scathing excerpt:

What exactly goes on in Pat Robertson's head has puzzled many of us for a long time. This endorsement ranks as one of the most unprincipled in recent political memory. Maybe principles never mattered much to Pat Robertson after all. Perhaps the pro-business economic conservatism of the Republican Party was always more important to the televangelist than saving unborn lives. Robertson's longstanding support of murderous Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and his diamond investments thanks to Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko speak louder than words when it comes to Robertson's ethic of life. And that's not to mention the more than $400 million Robertson's empire made when he sold his International Family Network to Rupert Murdoch, after building it on tax deductible contributions of thousands of CBN donors, many of modest means. He has been putting profits over principles for years.

Wallis may be right. Or maybe Robertson can’t bring himself to vote for a Mormon. Or perhaps his support of Giuliani is explained by the simple fact that he can’t stand Hillary. If I were a betting man I would say that the pursuit of political power might be involved somehow. (You think?) Indeed, the endorsement is as puzzling as Robertson’s claim to have leg pressed 2000 pounds.

But if Wallis is correct when he says Robertson’s endorsement is driven by his commitment to the “pro-business economic conservatism of the Republican Party,” it should not surprise us. Since its birth in the mid-1970s, the agenda of the Christian Right has been inseparable from traditional Republican issues such as tax cuts, free market solutions to social problems, and military defense. This is why it seems out of the realm of possibility that Robertson, Dobson, and company would support Hillary or Obama over Giuliani, despite the fact that both of these Democrats have been much more interested in integrating Christian faith and policy than the former New York mayor.

My intention is not to debate whether or not Republican economic principles are compatible with Christianity. (There are well-argued positions on both sides—some more convincing than others). What interests me here, however, is the way that the Christian Right uses history, particularly history schoolbooks, to educate their constituency in free market and other republican principles. Recently I have been reading through the colonial and revolutionary-era sections of American history survey texts published by some of the leading Christian Right textbook publishers. What I expected to find in these secondary school texts were unending references to the way God has providentially intervened in history on behalf of the United States. While there is plenty of this stuff there, I was also struck by the way the authors strongly push free market principles by weaving them into the historical narrative.

Because of time and space, just one example will have to suffice for now. In United States History in Christian Perspective: Heritage of Freedom, published by A BEKA, a subsidiary of the very conservative Pensacola Christian College, I found more passages pushing the importance of free market principles than I did references to God’s providential intervention in the nation’s affairs. (For those who are unfamiliar with A BEKA, it is one of the most popular publishers of home school and Christian school textbooks). Here are a few excerpts from the chapter on colonial America:

On the problems at Jamestown:
Jamestown’s biggest problem was the common-store system established by its charter. Under this communal system, each man was required to place the fruit of his labor in a common storehouse, and each was entitled to receive food and supplies from the storehouse according to his needs. In reality, the industrious workers were required to provide for the idle. With everyone benefiting from the common storehouse but few contributing to it, the food supply was quickly depleted. America’s first experiment with a form of communism failed miserably.

On the eventual survival of Jamestown:
The key reason for Virginia’s new prosperity was a chance in the basic economic system. Recognizing the failure of communal living, the leaders of Jamestown abandoned the common-store system and gave each man a parcel of land on which he could produce his own food. In essence, Jamestown adopted a system of private enterprise (capitalism). Under a capitalistic system, individuals are free to make a living and prosper on their own enterprise (initiative)…Private enterprise would become a cornerstone of America’s greatness.

On Plymouth Colony:
Plymouth grew and prospered under Governor Bradford’s leadership, particularly because of an important decision he made in the spring of 1623. The Pilgrims’ original charter had established a communal, or common-store, system, similar to the early system of Jamestown. This system had failed in Jamestown, where greedy men spent their time seeking wealth instead of working to produce food. But even in Plymouth, where most of the people had a deep Christian commitment, the communal system promoted a lack of diligence and efficiency and threatened to destroy the colony in its infancy. To solve the problem, Governor Bradford divided the land among the colonists and made each family responsible for itself, establishing a free enterprise system….. Americans learned from the experience of Plymouth that, even among the godly people, the free enterprise system is far superior to the communal system (Socialism or Communism). After Bradford instituted free enterprise in the colony, Plymouth began to prosper.

Granted, the first edition of the textbook was written in 1982 (I consulted the second edition, published in 1996, which no longer seems to be in print), so conservative Christians would have been concerned with distinguishing themselves economically from the Soviets, but these explanations for the success and/or failure of Jamestown and Plymouth are also obviously driven by a belief that the success of the colonies can be attributed to free market principles and capitalism no matter how anachronistic those terms might be to describe 17th century British-American life.

In the end, Robertson endorsement of Giuliani is “unprincipled” only if abortion and homosexual marriage, and stem cell research are more “principled” than tax cuts, free markets, and limited government. Wallis clearly thinks they are. So do Dobson and Southern Baptist spokesperson Richard Land. But with Robertson I am not so sure.

So Giuliani gets the nod. Something tells me that many viewers of the 700 Club—those liberty-loving free market Christians who learned their American history in home-schools and fundamentalist academies-- will not be too disappointed with the decision.

Has John Turner Been Left Behind?



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Left Behind
John Turner


Sometimes I worry that we're (as in the Turner family) being left behind. We have an old cell phone for emergency use, but we don't know where it is. We have an inherited television (not flat screen, certainly not plasma) without a functioning remote. We don't even have Cable TV (which saves me a lot of time by preventing me from watching meaningless sporting events). I've never text messaged or used an Ipod. We just bought a used baby crib.

I've decided that our outdated ways just might be both spiritually enlightened and reflective of a trend within modern American evangelicalism. Evangelicals, although this is not widely noted because of their support for pro-business Republicans, have frequently sounded alarms about rampant materialism in American society for decades. Billy Graham, in addition to denouncing fifth-columnists in Los Angeles, also warned his early audiences about the sin of materialism. Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ encouraged his followers to "wear the cloak of materialism loosely." However, such occasional rhetoric never seemed to resonate with their upwardly mobile followers.

Spiritual stands against materialism seem to be picking up steam in recent years, certainly on the evangelical Left. As Ronald Sider -- an expert at identifying moral scandals among evangelicals -- argues, "Materialism continues to be an incredible scandal." [By the way, John Stackhouse's response to Sider in Books & Culture is worth reading].

Today I read two reviews of an amusing new documentary, "What Would Jesus Buy?", powered by the activism of Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping. See a brief mention in the New York Times and a more insightful analysis by Frederica Mathewes-Greene. Alas, Mathewes-Greene reports, Reverend Billy apparently makes very few converts in his attempt to take $ out of Christma$. For further thoughts on money and spirituality, see a year-old discussion of the topic on Speaking of Faith. [Thanks to Paul, by the way, for mentioning the Reinhold Niebuhr episode].

As someone who takes pleasure in both giving and receiving at Christmas, I probably won't alter my spending habits very much. And if everyone else pared back too much, I'm sure our economy would collapse and our meager portfolio would become valueless.

Still, I'm curious whether others feel this strain of anti-materialism (if I'm properly labeling it) reflects a significant recent trend in American evangelicalism. Building up fewer treasures on earth seems to be a movement that evangelicals of many political stripes might embrace, as it isn't necessarily partisan or divisive.

Of course, after listening to Niebuhr's emphasis on false pride and humility, I have to admit that our Luddite habits reflect finances and frugality (even that last noun is a nicer way of saying cheapness!), rather than spiritual enlightenment.

The Crackup: Not all It Is Cracked Up to Be?



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A couple of skeptical followups, from politically divergent but intellectually compatible perspectives, on David Kirkpatrick's piece "The Evangelical Crackup," from the New York Times Magazine a couple of weeks ago.

First, Jeff Sharlet notes that "The New York Times Declares the Religious Right Dead. Again." In it, he finds a merging of "social" and "market" conservatism, precisely the blending that Lisa McGirr traces in Suburban Warriors -- she calls them "normative" and "libertarian" conservatism. Sharlet believes Democrats will lean rightward to capture evangelicals concerned with "values" but disenchanted by the current administration, under a sort of "One Market Under God" paradigm. An excerpt:

Kirkpatrick writes of the "new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty — problems, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers." Left and right do compete to offer the best answers on those issues. And the new moderate evangelicals are weighing in heavy for the right. The difference between this new narrative and the old spittle-flecked Falwell rants is that the issues involve technocratic responses from both the left and the right. Most significantly with regard to the environment -- much has been made of the "green evangelicals." They're not "environmentalists" mind you, they're interested in "creation care." Six of one, half dozen of the other? Not at all.. Creation care proposes free market solutions to environmental problems. One market under god, as Tom Frank puts it. Evangelicals now sound more like the economic conservatives establishment media has always been more comfortable with.

I kind of doubt they would like being cast together here in the same blog post, but Naomi Riley makes some complementary points in her piece in today's Wall Street Journal, where she explores the history of evangelical anti-communism (in the process quoting our friends John Wilson, Mark Noll, and Darren Dochuk to good effect), and how Giuliani fits that model now that Islam is the enemy. If you want to know why Pat Robertson endorsed Giuliani, Naomi Riley provides a succinct answer that corresponds with the now-famous conversation about the key role of Israel that Giuliani and Robertson had on some long plane trip back from the Middle East. An excerpt:

In a recent New York Times Magazine piece, David Kirkpatrick describes the "evangelical crackup"--pastors being pushed out of churches for placing too much emphasis on protesting abortion and not enough on combating poverty. It is a liberal's sweetest dream, this idea that the evangelical rank and file is longing for a return to the social gospel. But Mr. Kirkpatrick's acknowledgment that Mr. Giuliani was easily the most popular candidate among the evangelicals he interviewed should put that notion to rest. The former New York mayor is many things, but Dorothy Day he's not. . . . .

[Mark] Noll notes that in the 1950s "you would find Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, as well as all of the religious leaders, basically saying the same thing, promoting the virtue of Judeo-Christian civilization over against the communist menace." Indeed, in his quintessential Cold War account, "Witness," Whittaker Chambers (a serious Christian, though not an evangelical) describes communism and freedom as "the two irreconcilable faiths of our time."

No reader in 1952 would have found a religiously tinged call for engagement against freedom's enemies remarkable. The same could not be said today. Most Americans no longer use the language of faith to describe our foreign conflicts. But luckily for Mr. Giuliani, some still do.


Whether Robertson's endorsement will prove "lucky" or not remains to be seen, since Robertson, for my money, more or less embodies the worst vices of a pinched, parochial, and pseudo-intellectual evangelical bigotry, lacking even the down-home and occasionally self-effacing humor that took a little bit of the edge off Jerry Falwell. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

Also related: the New York Times yesterday on Mitt Romney's mission in France during the height of the Vietnam War, and how his experience gave him a "great appreciation of the value of liberty and the value of the free-enterprise system." It's a fascinating look at the young Romney, chafing at the bit to use his obvious business acumen to get the Mormon mission organized and energized, and the resistance he felt from his elders. Romney's letters home may be compared to the previously published NY Times piece on Hillary's letters to a friend during her years at Wellesley. The two moved in different political directions during those years -- Hillary from Goldwater Republican to moderately liberal Democrat, Romney from Stanford moderate to a confirmed Republican -- but the two evince a winsome tandem of idealism and frustration in their youthful strivings.

Faith, free enterprise, and a foreign policy that combats demons abroad still form a potent combination, one with deep appeal to a considerable body of the electorate.

Vote for Your Favorite Religious Historian! By John Fea



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Which American Religious Historians are the Best Writers?

Over the last day or two the subscribers to the H-Net listserv H-Teach (devoted to teaching college history) have been discussing which historians are the best writers. The responses continue to pour in, but the American historians mentioned include: Simon Schama, William Hogeland, John Perkins, Patricia Limerick, Joseph Ellis, Jill Lepore, Robert Gross, Camilla Townsend, William Cronon, Eric Foner, Tim Tyson, Walter MacDougall, Edward Larson, Carol Berkin, H.W. Brands, David McCullough, Allen Nevins, and Samuel Eliot Morrison. Someone also mentioned J.G.A. Pocock!

Let me modify the question for the readers of our blog. Which American religious historians are the best writers? I look forward to reading your responses.

Art Remillard's Assorted Links: Religion, Politics, Science



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BY ART REMILLARD

Below are some news items that I thought readers of this blog may enjoy…

First, Edward J. Larson’s “Declarations of Faith,” in Time Magazine shows how religion has been a tool in presidential politics since the era of Jefferson and Adams. This could be a great class conversation starter.

“In their [Jefferson’s supporters] party publications, they characterized Jefferson as ‘an adorer of our God’ and ‘a real Christian.’ They wooed disaffected Protestants, Catholics and Jews by contrasting their candidate’s defense of religious pluralism with Adams’ purported support for an evangelical establishment.”

Here’s something truly miraculous: Lisa Miller of Newsweek offered something thoughtful about the decidedly thoughtless “completed Jews” comment of the attention-craving-pundit Ann Coulter.

“The difference between Jews and Christians is 2,000 years old and rests on this fundamental: Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Jews believe the Messiah is yet to come. Each group believes at some basic level that theirs is the right, best path, or they would choose a different one. In a nation that protects the religious freedom of all with all its might, at a time in history when Jews in America may proclaim their own religious truth without fearing for their lives, why not imagine a polite way to talk about our differences instead of pasting them over or throwing rhetorical bombs?”

In this week’s Newsweek, Miller addresses the increased presence of God talk in politics, focusing on John Kerry’s “conversion” on the matter.

“Kerry, a divorced, pro-choice Democrat with a foreign-seeming wife, ran for president in 2004 against an incumbent whose personal Christian-conversion story was intricately woven into his public persona. Yet, out of principle or stubbornness, Kerry chose not to expound upon his own faith until late in the race—too late, he says in retrospect.”

In a year when social conservatives are grasping for a presidential savior, I’ve been wondering when they would notice Mike Huckabee. A Baptist minister and southern conservative, his ability to deploy folksy charm is matched only by his superior skills on the bass guitar. My favorite Huck line: “I'm a conservative, but I'm not mean about it.” Interestingly, I’ve seen acclaim coming from the right and left. Could he be a “consensus candidate”?

David Brooks, “From the Back of the Pack”— “Huckabee is something that the party needs. He is a solid conservative who is both temperamentally and substantively different from the conservatives who have led the country over the past few years.”
Jonathan Alter, “
The GOP’s Best Bet”— “…the least cowboyish and bombastic Republican will have the best chance a year from now to win the White House. That’s Mike Huckabee.”

Finally, check out PBS’s recent documentary, “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.” It promises to give a close look at the “Intelligent Design” trial in Dover, PA. Paula Apsell, the senior executive producer of NOVA, commented…

“This is not just any case; it’s an historic case as well as a critical science lesson. Through six weeks of expert testimony, the case provided a crash course in modern evolutionary science, and it really hit home just how firmly established evolutionary theory is. The case also explored the very nature of science—how science is defined. Perhaps most importantly, the trial had great potential for altering science education and the public understanding of science.”

JFK and MR -- by JOHN FEA



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JFK Speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association

Sunday night CSPAN’s “Road to the White House” ran Kennedy’s September 12, 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. (You can also watch it at American Rhetoric) This speech, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, is JFK’s attempt to put to rest the notion that one could be a faithful Catholic and a faithful American president. Interest in this speech, of course, has been revived in light of similar questions about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism.

I have read the speech before, but never seen the footage. The Houston Protestant clergymen grilling Kennedy in the Q&A portion is worth your time. What a wonderful teaching tool.

The Civil Religion of Celebrity



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BY KATHRYN LOFTON

Today I did not weep because of war, but because of woman. The November 19, 2007, issue of US Weekly included no fewer than eight specific mentions of a specific sort of woman: Britney Spears. First, there was a financial reminder: Britney’s perfumes “Curious” and “Fantasy” have earned more than $84 million (a scented sale superior to Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sarah Jessica Parker). (p. 14) Second, there was the celebrity comparison: “The paparazzi kind of figured out that we’re quite boring and Britney’s far more interesting, so they go to her house,” remarked Victoria Beckham on owing her privacy in L.A. to Spears. (p. 18) Third, there were the “Brit Look-alike Winners!” (p. 20), the notification of her tanning salon visit on November 3 (p. 23), and the cover page declaration that her parenting coach had declared her “SICK!” as “mental illness signs worsen” and she “leaves boys in car while shopping” and “denies them trick-or-treating” and (inexplicably, it seems) “swaps clothes with bartender.” Deep inside, reporter Kevin O’Leary offered a 6-page answer to the headlining question: “Does She Even Care?” Pictures of “zombie-like” Britney “chugging” a Red Bull, shopping for two $18,000 chandeliers, and offering “interactions with her boys…that were not child-centered.” (p. 55) Her “deteriorating personal appearance” and “emotional disconnect,” her “delayed adolescence” and “prolonged apathy” were all are detailed with breathless glee. We learn: “She’s Wearing Tops As Dresses!”; “Runs Over a Cop’s Foot!”; and “Parties Till 3 A.M.” Pictures with neon outline blared the collapse of a national icon, the demise of a once-upon-a-time princess of bubble gum pop.

Remembering the before Britney will cause morning-after headaches, ones where you shake and shake but still can’t quite see how you got from there to here. Then, it seemed so shiny and pink: her dance moves, her teen bop boyfriend, her short skirts and chewy chorus lyrics. All of it seemed easy and inconsequential, purchased merely for the price of prime time years with Mickey Mouse and an exported, eviscerated southern lass from rural Americana: “Britney Spears was raised as a Southern Baptist in her home state of Mississippi, part of the Bible Belt, and supposedly entered the music scene as a relatively devout Christian,” explains another reporter, “supposedly” his way into snark.

Now, we gorge on her contrasting decline, watching every wig and whacked out maneuver (accessorized by two toddler children) with pleasure oddly explained. What could be so very good about this public snuff film, the viewing of a body mad maggot by self-mutilation and tasteless expenditure? Something is good. Something is very, very good, or else her face (and her boys’ faces, and her mother’s face, and her sister’s face, and her multiple ex-husbands' faces, and her current paramours' faces, and her personal assistant’s faces) would not become, for us, easy insignias, more quickly read than tea leaves or reversals in Iraq.

The October 30, 2007, issue of Christian Today gave some version of hope: “A megachurch in Kentucky is collecting letters of love and support to send to pop singer Britney Spears amid drugs and alcohol problems and a rocky battle with her ex-husband over custody of their two children… The pastor of the 8,000-member congregation said that Spears had made ‘devastating life choices’ but encouraged members of the church to offer the same compassion and prayers as they would to those with non-celebrity status.” Prayer pops up from a pastor's grocery cart, as check-out lines squeal about her absent underwear, driving delinquencies, and pediatric abandonment.

Someday, though, no matter the megachurch maneuver, we’re going to feel badly. Alongside our mute tolerance of an impossible set of guerrilla wars, we’re also going to wonder: how could we let her get this far gone? Someday we will place the most symbolic Britney Spears smack in the middle of our 21st century decline; she will become a cruelly ironical counterpane to the claims of sacral nationhood and moral family re-making. As we squabble over religion in public discourse (the public display of religious ideation), it is well worth wondering where stands the religious imagination of this most public sacrifice.

Boot Camp Religion



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Here are some reflections on military service and civil religion, from our contributing editor Art Remillard.
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“Boot Camp Religion”

by Art Remillard

Saturday marked my 15th anniversary of graduating from Marine Corps boot camp. When I enlisted, friends and family were confounded. There was no noteworthy history of military service in my family. And college seemed inevitable, particularly since my father was a professor of French literature—or as I like to call it, “Freedom literature.” Nevertheless, enlisting was my form of teenage rebellion (rather than just getting an earring), and soon after signing the papers I landed in Paris Island, South Carolina. Overall, my four year enlistment was relatively uneventful. I never served in a war zone. (Oh those horrid years of peace and prosperity known as the Clinton era). After my discharge, I followed a predictable path through higher education to where I am today, blogging away with a terminal degree. One of my primary areas of interest has become civil religion, that indistinct category denoting a blend of national pride and religious commitment. While civil religion draws scorn from some scholars, it makes sense to me, perhaps because of boot camp.

Sundays on Paris Island were—to borrow from Victor Turner—profoundly liminal. Raised Catholic, I tended to associate mass with complete boredom. But at Paris Island, Mass became an escape, an energetic exercise marked by lively hymns and uplifting homilies. The liturgy would probably have made any bishop wince. But for us, it was one brief moment when we could be assured: 1) that we wouldn’t be yelled at; and 2) that we would leave with our batteries recharged, ready for the week of constant berating. Something else happened at Mass. Our decision to serve became spiritually validated. The line between patriotism and faith blurred. The priest repeatedly assured us that our duty was noble, and endorsed by the Almighty him/herself. Non-church rituals also had a civil religious feel. I recall on my first night on the island, our platoon was instructed (not asked) to recite the Our Father. We prayed with calm reverence. “Hell No!” interrupted the drill instructor. “You WILL NOT whisper my Lord’s Prayer!” So each night, we shouted the Our Father, along with other “prayers” such as the Rifleman’s Creed. With equal intensity and volume, our various ritualistic declarations became indistinguishable, leaving little sense that there was any difference between them.

I remember having a lingering sense of discomfort. I couldn’t then, and can’t now, stop thinking about God’s relationship with the “enemy.” In Tim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried, one of the book’s departures describes a Viet Cong soldier, drafted against his will, and killed in the war. We discover that much like the American soldiers, he too had a life defined by loving attachments to family and friends. Most recently, films from Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) offer a similar image, providing both Japanese and American perspectives of Iwo Jima. While fiction, all of this challenges my moral imagination. I’m confronted with the distinct reality that I may not be much different than my enemy. How, then, could any God chose my cause over another, protecting me and not them? I have no good answers. So perhaps my feelings of discomfort and ambiguity fifteen years ago have led me to where I am today. I can’t say for sure. But the subject of civil religion remains intriguing to me, and I suspect I’ll continue studying it for a long time to come.

Review of Authentic Fakes



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Today we're pleased to post a review of a book that already had gotten much attention on our blog: David Chidester's Authentic Fakes. The reviewer is Kyra Glass von der Osten, a student in Amy DeRogatis's Religion and American Culture graduate seminar at Michigan State University. Her review below furthers our ongoing discussion of how to treat products of popular culture within the symbol systems of religious studies. Enjoy ---
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Review of Authentic Fakes
by Kyra Glass von der Osten

Throughout David Chidester’s book Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture, religion and popular culture are referred to frequently as essential aspects of American culture as well as two of its most influential exports to the rest of the world. They become in his text the center of the “sacred” America both at home and abroad. His use of this term underlines Chidester’s basic proposition that there is a strong relationship between religion and popular culture.

What this relationship is seems to shift throughout the book. The simplest relationship concerns how religion is portrayed in popular culture and how popular culture affects, antagonizes, or is used by religious groups and institutions. Chidester also posits the more extreme position that kinds of popular culture from Disney to Tupperware can be seen as a kind of religion. Much of the book explores phenomena in between these extremes. Chidester looks at how popular culture can do religious work and exist in a religious framework, without quite defining the popular culture itself as a religion.

Some chapters in his book venture away from the topic of religion and popular culture, centering on issues of globalization, consumerism, politics, and the perception of America abroad. In these chapters religion plays only a cursory role, as an aspect underpinning a specific ideology or in playful terminology like the “sacrosanct” French Fry. It seems best to take Chidester at his word and assume that the book’s purpose is “investigating religion in American popular culture” (5) and considering “how popular culture works in characteristically religious ways” (2).

Chidester’s sources and topics are varied, ranging (for example) from academic intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois and Walter Benjamin, to pop-cultural figures like Ken Burns, and representatives of corporations, journalists, films, and the creators of internet religions. Despite this diversity, there are no visual references like comics, artwork, or advertising anywhere in the text. The book is successful in raising several fascinating questions about the way we define religion, religious work, and its place in culture. Although some chapters in the book clearly address these issues, others do not as centrally. Because of this, the book is not completely clear on what exactly Chidester sees as the ultimate connection between popular culture and religion.

The problem of definition and language emerges as an important theme throughout the book. Chidester begins by presenting a wide variety of definitions of religion. These definitions are extremely varied and occasionally contradict each other. This allows Chidester to question the very meaning of the term religion. The wide range of definitions allow Chidester to claim that while Coca-Cola may not be a religion, it could certainly appear like one. He also puts forth his own definition of religion as essentially “ways of being a human person in a human place” (vii). His framing of the term may help to tie the disparate chapters together because everything he discusses from globalization to sacrifice to the Human Genome project are ways that we negotiate what it means to be human and as humans how we relate to the world.

Another way these chapters can be tied together is through the question of language. He refers frequently to religious language used to discuss popular culture topics. He quotes a Coca-Cole executive claiming “Coca-Cola is the holy grail” (135) McDonalds workers describing the restaurant as a place of “celestial joy” (139) and discusses Disneyland as a place of “pilgrimage.” Here religious language frames corporate entities as having a religious quality. But why this language is used is not addressed.

Authentic Fakes is more interesting for the questions it fails to answers than those it addresses. Why do people use religious language to discuss consumer products and corporate entities? Is it because they find religious elements in these entities, or is it because many Americans place religion in a central position in their life and therefore use religious terms to discuss the things that are important to them? While it is easy to locate examples of religious speech in seemingly non-religious popular culture situations, it is difficult to ascertain the intention of the speaker. The intentions and beliefs of the participants in the popular culture worlds discussed are largely neglected in this book.

This is one of the central problems in the chapter on internet religions, otherwise one of the most compelling chapters in the book. Chidester discusses the major aspects of virtual religions but seems to consider most of them either a parody of or a commentary on traditional religions. He considers them “fake” religions doing “authentic” religious work. He does not discuss how those involved with internet religions see themselves. For example, he discusses the Discordians efforts to be classified on Yahoo as a real religion, not a parody religion, but he does no virtual ethnography to determine whether or not this was part of their intellectual and cultural commentary or if they perceived themselves as a religion. While there is clearly something authentic about virtual religions and Tupperware and while these things may be couched in religious terms, it is unclear that they are truly doing religious rather than intellectual or corporate work. An argument for the religious work they perform could be better made with closer attention to how consumers of Coke, hosts of Tupperware Parties, and creators of on-line religions experienced these investments. While he does give a few first-hand accounts of adherents to the “church of baseball” and the rite of the Tupperware party, they are not necessarily presented as the norm of these experiences or even as clearly religious as they appear to be.

The book also fails to address how popular culture itself negotiates these questions. The reptilian conspiracy of David Icke discussed in the book is dealt with in an episode of the television series CSI: Las Vegas. Tupperware Parties were re-cast in Eerie Indiana as a cult of women who placed themselves and their children in giant Tupperware containers so they would never age. In both cases these groups are painted as cults, not religions, a distinction that plays an important part in Chidester’s work. His argument would have benefited significantly from a greater consideration of how popular culture has negotiated its own religious elements.

Dealing with fascinating topics from Shamans to the Americans gang in South Africa, to the plastic fetish of Tupperware, Authentic Fakes brings up important questions of how religion is defined and how religious work is performed in the culture. More work needs to be done then this book accomplishes in order to really address these questions.
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