Marsh Redux: The Gospel and Politics

Recommended reading: a give-and-take between John Wilson of the journal Books and Culture and the blog Fire and Rose, from their different readings of Charles Marsh's new book on religion and politics -- part of the possible resuscitation of the religious center/left which I've discussed further below. In "The Gospel and Politics: A Response to John Wilson," Fire and Rose summarizes and gives the links, here's a snippet:
Yesterday, John Wilson posted a response to my blog post of last week which was itself a (rather hastily written) response to his review of the new book by Charles Marsh on the partisanship of contemporary American Christianity. I have to admit: I am flattered that of all the responses John Wilson (editor of the consistently excellent Books & Culture) received, he chose to respond to mine in his
latest column
. Wilson calls Fire & Rose a “thoughtful blog,” and from such a well-read and intelligent person, this is high praise indeed. I am grateful to Wilson for taking the time to read these random musings of mine.


Seth Dowland said…
I've been following the exchange between Wilson and Fire & Rose, and it's fascinating. I really appreciate this comment from the most recent post on Fire & Rose: "Marsh is only half-right in criticizing the partisanship of American Christianity, and Wilson is only half-wrong when he says that partisan politics is not the main feature of evangelicalism. To both I would say that partisanship is the symptom, not the disease. As a result, it rears its ugly head in some places but not others."

I find this distinction important and helpful in my own work, which posits a "partisan captivity" of sorts among southern conservatives, even though many do not participate in (or even know about) the debates I discuss. There is an underlying worldview that makes certain assumptions normative among southern evangelicals, and I see it is my job (as a religious historian) to draw out the implications of that worldview.

But that raises an issue John Fea addressed in his second post on Christian America (and forgive me if my paraphrase alters his meaning somewhat): do we at some point abandon our role as historians when we begin to make judgments that conflict with our subjects' understanding of themselves? (In Fea's case, can we call Confederates un-Christian because they supported slavery, even though they would not have agreed with our assessment?) In the case of Marsh/Wilson/Fire & Rose, we're talking about contemporary subjects, rendering the problem of presentism less dangerous. But we're still confronted with the need to make judgments that may seem strange or even perverse to our subjects (which is why Wilson, an evangelical, finds Marsh's assessment of evangelicalism lacking). I think we have to press forward with our judgments, adding nuance and context as much as possible. I'm not sure if that makes me into something other than a historian, but I feel like it's the way I ought to write.
Randall said…
I wonder if the creator Fire and Rose was referencing John Wilson's review of Randall Balmer's recent book:

The exchange between the two of them following that review was pretty intense. Wilson's Nov 06 editorial in the NYT showcased some of his criticism of the left on the right:

Much more has been written about the "cultural captivity" of southern evangelicalism. Does the 20th cen South offer a much clearer example of this?
John Fea said…
I too have been following this Wilson-Marsh debate. (And remember the Balmer-Wilson debate. In fact, Balmer was on our campus right about the time the Wilson review came out).

I am still interested in pursuing this question of moral judgment. I appreciate Seth's call to "press forward with our judgments" and I largely agree with him. As a historian, however, I want to make sure that I understand the past on its own terms first, before I critique it. (I have never met Seth, but I am guessing he would agree with me here). For example, when I give my students documents written by 19th century religious pro-slavery advocates they immediately want to make appeals to their Bible courses about how certain passages are being misinterpreted by these southerners. While this is a worthwhile exercise, it is not the kind of historical thinking I want to encourage. Yes, there may be time for explicit moral critique (and in my courses there usually is), but not before the hard historical work of understanding the past is done.

For what it's worth...
Seth Dowland said…
John - Your assumption is correct; we must begin with the "hard historical work" before making judgments, and students often want to skip that step. Thanks for your comment.

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