by Edward J. Blum
When W. E. B. Du Bois remembered his time as a student at Harvard University in the late nineteenth century, he recalled an unsettled feeling toward science. It was there than he “began to face scientific race dogma” in the form of “evolution and the ‘Survival of the Fittest.’” Beyond the classroom, he walked into a museum and stood before a demonstration of humankind’s supposed development. He witnessed, “a series of skeletons arranged from a little monkey to a tall well-developed white man, with a Negro barely outranking a chimpanzee.” Needless to say, Du Bois wasn’t happy with what he saw. He spent the rest of his career trying to undermine the “scientific” evidence that placed people of color below whites, and Du Bois saw it as his religion to destroy white supremacy.
I was reminded of Du Bois’s museum experience at the American Academy of Religion. On the way there and then home, I read two new books on the power and place of religion in twentieth and twenty-first century America, beginning with The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age by Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson. Although for very different reasons, the characters studied here shared Du Bois’s displeasure with modern science and especially its focus on evolution. Evangelical experts hate The Anointed, even though many of them haven’t even read the book yet. Some who did thought Stephens and Giberson should have published with another press, one that evangelicals would pay attention to and respect. Liberals seem to love it, even though many of them acknowledge having only read the New York Times piece on it and not the entire book.
Having actually read each page, I can say that this is a terrific book of American religious history. Stephens and Giberson take the reader through the “parallel culture” of many contemporary evangelicals. We tour Ken Ham’s creation museum in Kentucky; we read primary sources with David Barton as he searches for any and all connections between the founding generation and Christianity. We struggle with James Dobson on how to raise children in a multicultural, pluralistic, media-driven world that seems to accept homosexuality as never before. And we rambunctiously and anxiously await Christ’s return with Hal Lindsey and Tim La Haye. We search with Paul Miller, an earnest Christian in New England, to find the right kind of ideas to satisfy evangelical souls.
Sure, evangelical readers won’t like the tone of the book. Stephens and Giberson don’t pull punches. They think Creation Science is “weak science”; they think David Barton is an “amateur.” They think Dobson is “strangely obsessed with homosexuality.” And they wonder about the credibility of some Christian colleges. It strikes me that there is a problem with the tone of the book, but not for the same reason that evangelicals dislike it.
I think the tone issue could have been transformed by a more sophisticated analysis. Stephens and Giberson seem so intent to pull the curtain back from these so-called experts that they miss when and where their expertise becomes a civic problem: their parallel cultures are fine, interesting, indeed even fascinating, until they run into the public, civic, and legal spheres of classrooms and courtrooms. If Stephens and Giberson had clarified when and where “experts” become social problems, then perhaps the authors could have embraced the ingenuity of many of these “evangelical entrepreneurs” or "holy mavericks" (as Shayne Lee and Phil Sinitiere refer to some other leading evangelicals) on their own terms but then challenged them when the issue became the “common good.”
Let me give one farcical example, but other, more realistic ones, are easily imaginable. As scholars, we can think deeply about the meaning of bumper stickers that read: “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned.” On one hand, this is an inventive commodification of theology; it is a humorous display of one’s faith – a kind of missionary effort that subtly cajoles others to consider that at any moment Jesus could come back. This theology becomes a problem, though, if this individual is so certain of his end times theology that he doesn’t pay taxes, that he refuses to vaccinate his child yet sends her to public schools, or that he refuses to wear a condom when having sex with an individual and hides his knowledge that he has a sexually transmitted disease. At this point, his claim, “trust me, the end is near” is a major problem. It directly impacts the lives and well beings of others. It would have been nice if Stephens and Giberson worked out how and why the distinct contexts where “expertise” is deployed matter.
The Anointed may not convince a lot of evangelicals to abandon their experts, but I fully expect it to work well in US religious history classrooms. Each chapter could be the focus of a particular historical theme: David Barton could be used to discuss how historians have characterized the place of religion and the role of God; Ken Ham could be used to discuss the intersections of religion and science that would include the Scopes trial; James Dobson could get a class into religion, family, and sexuality; and Hal Lindsey can bring us into notions of prophecy, millennialism, and the end times. I imagine teaching this book by developing historical narratives to get to each chapter’s character, have students locate documents in the genre, and then debate the histories, what students found, and what they think of the folks Stephens and Giberson discuss. I think it will lead to a vigorous dialogue, where hopefully no evangelical in the class would feel threatened or discriminated.
After a wonderful time at the AAR, which each year should commission a team of ethnographers to detail the enigmatic people, events, and performances that make it the New Orleans of conferences, I flew home with a treasure in hand: James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. It’s a book I’ve been long waiting for, since Professor Cone and I had many e-conversations about how to consider lynching as a fundamental religious problem in American history. The book is simply marvelous. Part autobiography, part history, and all cutting theology, The Cross and the Lynching Tree argues that in the United States neither the cross, nor the lynching tree can be understood independent of one another. Individual chapters detail the centrality of lynching to the spiritual core of black American faiths, the failure of Reinhold Niebuhr and his Christian realism to deal with lynching and racial violence, the brilliance of King’s theological vision for his ability to live his theology of the cross, the creative renderings from African American writers and artists of black lynch victims as Christ figures, and some particular ways black women have grappled spiritually with racial violence. Cone concludes that the lynching tree “is the window that best reveals the religious meaning of the cross in our land.”
The Cross and the Lynching Tree is terrific book. Readable, short, and to the point, it re-paints our thinking about race, religion, violence, and theology in the twentieth century. When it came to racial violence, Reinhold Niebuhr stands out neither as ideologically prophetic nor as intellectually powerful. He stood by as his former church in Detroit refused to integrate; he wallowed in self and group pity when African Americans died. Black writers and artists, in contrast, take on the “wild beast” of white supremacy and “fight it” with poetry, paintings, and prose. I couldn’t agree more with the wonderful theologian Shawn Copeland’s endorsement of the book: “At the heart of Cone’s critique lies a passionate quest and challenge for the beloved community. James Cone teaches us still. Will we finally learn?”
After finishing Cone’s wonderful book, I felt grateful that I had learned so much from him over the years. And then I looked back at The Anointed and I thought about all the fuss and fury it has and will evoke. I thought about the earnest Paul Miller and his search for a “secular” friend. I wondered if he had any African American friends. I thought about evangelicals pouring millions of dollars into a Creation Museum, but bristling at any reference to reparations for past wrongs. I thought about end-times theology and how it so often justified white “realism." Billy Graham responded to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech by saying that only after Jesus returned would white and black children play together. Almost a century earlier, Dwight Moody told revival stories of African Americans knowing that their “freedom” and “liberty” would only be true in heaven. Given the other forces evangelicals have been willing to fight with fiery speeches, bloody battles, and billions of dollars – Communism, secular humanism, abortion – why they were so unwilling to put power and military might to work against racism makes them sound either as cowards or as liars.
The white evangelicals in The Anointed and those who so militantly attack Stephens and Giberson for analyzing them without kid gloves may be blind to the world Cone discusses and the work race does. Evangelicals can obsess over issues of museums, child-rearing manuals, and the Founders relationship to religion because they have not and do not suffer as African Americans have or as gays, lesbians, and transgendered individuals have. All individuals suffer – to be alive is to suffer at some point. But white evangelicals don’t suffer from structures; they don’t suffer from systems. They may not like certain venues in American society, but no water fountains have been designated “liberal only” and no evangelical has been murdered in the United States because he or she was evangelical. Cone ends where white evangelicals refuse to begin, the places where they never have to go: racial realities of everyday life.
Where is “the gospel of Jesus’ cross revealed today”? Cone asks at the end of his work. His answer is specific and off the radar of the anointed evangelicals: “the criminal justice system where nearly 1/3 of black men between ages of 18 and 28 are in prisons, jails, on parole, or waiting for their day in court.” If one really believes that the age of the dinosaurs, or the private letters of the founders, or the possibility of their sons coming out as gay, or the possibility that Obama may be the Antichrist, are the most pressing moral problems of our age, then a bunch of black men in prison will concern them about as much as the history of enslavement, the plethora of violated land treaties, the brutal past and present of American colonialism, and the lynching of black America. They probably won’t read Cone’s book, but we can wonder. Why do they cry so loudly about The Anointed when they could sob softly and humbly about The Cross and the Lynching Tree?