The Sense of Loss Fueling Christian Right Politics

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Last night some remarks Roy Moore made several months ago resurfaced. Back in September, the LA Times reported:

In response to a question from one of the only African Americans in the audience — who asked when Moore thought America was last “great” — Moore acknowledged the nation’s history of racial divisions, but said: “I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another…. Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”

I want to hear from the reporter about what might have been contained in the ellipsis, but it’s hard to imagine a context that makes this ok. There are two main ways to read this. One is that the united families he speaks of were white and he is ignoring the existence of black people. The other is that he is resurrecting the old saw that says while slavery wasn’t good, at least black families were together.

Either way you read it, the statement is hateful and dehumanizing. For the record, historians of slavery estimate that around a third of enslaved families in the antebellum period were broken up by sale. In any case, these families were not legally constituted and had no legal recourse in the face of every imaginable assault on the family: sale, assault, rape, child abuse, and so on.

Though Moore’s words reveal the mind of a racist extremist, they also reflect a sensibility that is quite common in the Christian Right. The movement’s politics are fueled by an extraordinary sense of loss and nostalgia.

Christian Right activists are forever trying to recover a lost golden age. They look to that nineteenth century moment when evangelicalism was at the center of American life. From public schools to universities, religion was honored. The nation’s foundation was secure. Then came the inroads of Darwinism, mass migration, urbanization and industrialization, then the sweeping cultural changes of the 1920s. Suddenly the country seemed so much more complicated.

The 1950s were an echo of that nineteenth century golden age. Never had the American public been so faithful in church attendance, and in the battle against communism America’s leaders publicly called for divine aid. Faith was once again honored in the public square. Hierarchies of sex, gender, and race were intact.

Then it all came crashing down in the 1960s. Sexual revolution, youth rebellion, Supreme Court decisions taking God out of schools. For the white nationalist evangelicals, the oppression of black people in these supposed golden ages is a feature. Others in the Christian Right are simply not thinking about black people at all. Because black people are not a part of their imagination, not a part of the community of full human beings, it is possible to read American history as a story of unmitigated decline.

Most people fueled by this politics of loss say that of course they think slavery was bad. Of course they don’t want a return to Jim Crow. But they fail to see how even such basic claims—“slavery is bad”—if taken seriously, challenge their politics of loss.

What’s most striking about the Christian Right’s nostalgia is its extraordinarily narrow scope. The narrative of loss speaks to the historical experience and memory of a minority of Americans, but they insist that it defines the national story. For Roy Moore and his supporters, the idea that there are people in the world who aren’t white middle-class Christians, and they matter too, is a disorienting shock.

The Civil Rights Movement Doesn’t Automatically Belong To You

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John Lewis and Jim Zwerg after being beaten, 1961

A new civil rights museum is about to open in Mississippi, and President Trump is planning to attend. That this would be taken as an affront and would cause veterans of the movement to boycott the event ought to have been obvious. Trump is an opponent of what the civil rights movement stood for. When John Lewis duly announced today that he will not attend, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded:

We think it’s unfortunate that these members of Congress wouldn’t join the president in honoring the incredible sacrifice civil rights leaders made to right the injustices in our history.

Does Sanders know Lewis led SNCC? Does she know about Bloody Sunday? Does she care? Does she know that Lewis has taken criticism over the years for his willingness to sit down with white segregationists who claimed to be repentant? John Lewis, of all people, has shown himself willing to give second chances to people who don’t deserve them. He would probably do the same for Trump. But repentance has to come first.

It is impossible for Trump to honor the movement without first repenting of his open and flagrant racism. Unless he does so, he’s making a mockery of the movement.

If the absurdity of the administration’s position isn’t immediately obvious, it’s only because of the general ignorance the American public has about the civil rights movement.

This is a good occasion to return to my article on white memories of the civil rights movement, published this year in History & Memory. In that piece, I show how white Americans came to mythologize white resistance to the civil rights movement as inherently violent, extremist, and ultimately vanquished. Instead of grappling with the way opponents of the civil rights movement helped create “colorblind” America, white Americans began to believe there was a vast distance between the contemporary United States and the bad old days of the 1960s. This mythology has proven so strong that even when President Trump actively promotes racism many Americans are unable to accept the plain historical meaning of what he is doing.

But others know better, as the Washington Post reported today:

JACKSON, Miss. — The president is coming to America’s poorest, blackest state to open a civil rights museum on Saturday, and people in the neighborhoods surrounding that gleaming tribute to the past would rather have Donald Trump visit their present.

“It’s hostile now, more hostile than in a long, long time,” said Pete McElroy, who employs three men at the auto repair shop that has been his family’s business for three generations. “People almost boast about it: ‘We got our man in the White House, and this is the way the ball’s going to roll now.’ ”

Three miles from the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, over rutted roads, past littered lots, abandoned houses, and shuttered plants and warehouses, McElroy, 69, and other black residents of this struggling capital city say that after nearly a year of the Trump presidency, they have a definitive answer to the question candidate Trump posed when he spoke at a rally in Jackson in August last year.

“What do you have to lose?” Trump asked, making a quixotic and ultimately failed bid for black votes to a nearly all-white crowd.

“We’re losing a lot,” McElroy said here this week. “Losing Obamacare. Where are people going to go? Losing money. He’s making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Mostly, we’re losing respect. No way you can evade that. The way he speaks, the racists feel like they can say anything they want to us.”

Trump supporters: the civil rights movement doesn’t belong to you! Have the courage of your convictions. The rest of us already see where you’re coming from. Time to be honest with yourself.

Searching for a Christian Sense of the Common Good

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I was seventeen years old when I started my sociology 101 class at my little community college in Garrett County, Maryland. I hated it, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. In fact, it took several years to become clear. The discipline of sociology studies groups, a category that I barely recognized. I couldn’t completely articulate it at the time, but what I knew in my bones was this: the world is made up of autonomous individuals making choices. What happens to those individuals depends on the choices they make. Hurrah for the individual! Hurrah for the market that judges justly!

Had my imagination been formed more by the Bible than by the fragmenting individualism of the late twentieth century United States, I would have had many intuitive connections to sociology 101. But I had managed to read the Bible cover to cover more than once and missed the point every time. What I didn’t realize is that the Bible is less a story about people than it is a story about a people.

The arc of the Christian scriptures doesn’t follow the journey of righteous individuals. It tells of God’s faithfulness to a group, culminating in the creation of a new kind of human community, the kingdom of God on earth. Throughout the story, the people of God are called to weave their lives together in patterns of mutual dependence.

When the prophet Isaiah declared, “pour yourself out for the hungry” (Isaiah 58), it was a demand placed on the community, not a suggestion for charitably-minded individuals. Yahweh called his people to repentance for their failure to take collective action. All of this was lost on me to such a degree that I literally didn’t know systemic injustice was a major biblical theme. I made that shocking discovery in 2005. Before that time, all that mattered was my salvation, my faith, my piety, my charity.

So I sat in my sociology 101 class, chafing against liberal academia and its efforts to divide people into groups and deny them their personal responsibility. I raged against politically correct talk of “disparities” and “inequality” and “systemic racism.” Individuals make their choices and have to live with them, I knew.

My radical individualism not only contradicted the communal emphasis of the scriptures, its practical effect was to eviscerate any notion of Christian public action or Christian concern for the collective good. In my zealous pursuit of personal piety, I declared vast domains of human life and flourishing no-go zones.

Do you see a social problem? Let me check my ledger. I’m sorry, that problem falls on the “individual responsibility” side of my ledger; Christianity has nothing to say about it.

Having made that claim, it doesn’t mean I don’t act in those public spheres. I simply do whatever I want, basically. In these spaces where my imagination and habits and heart ought to be captured by the values and practices of the Kingdom of God, there is instead a vacuous selfishness filled by the gods of capitalism, individualism, safety, comfort, race, nation.

Do my politics endanger you? I’m sorry, my Christianity lets me have whatever politics I want as long as I’m charitable in my personal life.

This is one of the dark sides of a certain radical evangelical tradition that has thrown off every hierarchy, every structure, every tradition. What remains is the individual alone before God, free to choose pleasing artifacts of the Christian past to enliven spiritual life, but not be governed by any of it.

At the core of this ungoverned Christian is the Bible and the feelings it provides. When alone before God with Bible open, he speaks to us. Don’t worry about your social location. Don’t fret about your bias. You came by that insight honestly, in fervent prayer. It’s good as gold.

So if in the privacy of your prayer closet God told you he’s a white nationalist, don’t let anybody tell you different. If God told you to support despicable leaders because it’s actually all part of his plan, stand firm! If God told you Roy Moore is a good man, don’t you dare hold his words and actions against him!

Unfortunately, this isn’t even satirical. For Trumpist evangelicals, the judgment and wisdom of Christians most affected by Trump’s cruelty count for nothing. Listening to the global church and Christians of color in the United States is absurd. After all, if God has told me to support Trump, who are they to tell me otherwise?

This kind of radical individualism twists Christianity into a bizarre inversion of itself. The message that Jesus saves is an invitation into a community. Instead, we’ve turned it into a cry of self-absorption.

Choosing Books for the U.S. Survey

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An accurate representation of my book-selection process.

I’m teaching the second half of the U.S. survey for the first time next semester and it was a challenge to figure out what books to assign. The perennial questions about teaching the survey—depth or coverage?—play out in book selection too. Do we use a textbook? Do we go for certain kinds of texts—novel, memoir, monograph, synthesis? Do we focus on a couple themes and build the book selection around that? Do we want the students to get historiography? Do we want them to get lots of primary sources? How much do we think about the social location of the authors?

I actually don’t know what the good answers are to these questions but I can report the books I ended up with after a haphazard process that tried to take account of all these questions and more.

I almost went with a textbook. Gilmore and Sugrue’s new survey, These United States, seems impressive. But in the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t figure out what the textbook would be for in my classroom. The general consensus seems to be that most students don’t read the textbook from week to week but might use it for exam-prep. But I’m only giving one exam, and it will be based on my lectures. Furthermore, I expect students to not only read what I assign, but, most weeks, write something about it. I’m not sure I could get good writing assignments out of a textbook reading.

Textbooks don’t seem to help much in promoting historical thinking, understanding of historiography, or analysis of primary sources. But those three things sum up most of what we do, right? So what’s the point? Textbooks fill in the gaps and give students a fall-back, but I’m not sure that’s relevant in the age of Wikipedia.

The one thing that the textbook supposedly has going for it—that it gives students a narrative structure for American history so they can place events in time and context—isn’t actually operable if students aren’t reading it anyway. My sense is that it’s more important to grab students interest, even if it makes them confused, than to try to convey an orderly historical narrative. Students who are engaged can question their way toward a synthesis. Perhaps I’m being utopian, but there’s my rant for the day.

Ok, here are the books I chose:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland

Mine Okubo, Citizen 13660 

Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to Black Power

Eric Foner, Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History, Volume Two

The Foner collection is my concession to textbook-like features. As a collection of primary sources, it allows me to put a lot of documents in front of my students without spending a lot of time tracking down sources, scanning, uploading, linking, and so on.

The other three are each very different sorts of books. Herland is an early twentieth century utopian feminist novel, Citizen 13660 is a graphic memoir of Japanese internment, and At the Dark End of the Street is a narrative history from a professional historian. Gilman and Okubo are both short enough to read in one sitting if someone were so inclined. These books also have the considerable virtue of being cheap.

I didn’t set out to have this set of books, but what I’ve ended up with is a rather feminist group that seems relevant to our #metoo moment. Since women’s history is a weakness of mine, assigning these books is one way for me to push against that and try to become more informed.

Can the Senate Simply Refuse to Seat Moore?

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In 1946, the notorious demagogue Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi won reelection to the senate after inciting violence against black voters. The Senate refused to seat him. Bilbo died of cancer the following year having never actually reassumed his seat.

Can’t the Senate do the same thing if Moore wins in December? There would be ample cause.

In addition to the allegations of sexual assault of a 14-year-old child, Moore has said Muslims should not be able to serve in congress and homosexuality should be illegal. He’s also a birther, because of course.

I assume the Republican leadership would be utterly unwilling to go to war like this, but if the Senate didn’t want to seat a new member I’m not sure it would have to.

Some Thoughts on a Crazy Week

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Roy Moore, champion of righteousness against the godless liberals

A few miscellaneous thoughts I gathered during the week:

Roy Moore’s response to the allegations that he preyed on children is damning. He all but admitted it in what was supposed to be an exculpatory interview with propagandist Sean Hannity. Now he is going to cast himself as the embattled Christian being persecuted by liberals. He’s only under fire because he’s one of the few willing to boldly stand for truth. The message is: Alabama voters, don’t think about Moore preying on children; think about how the liberals sneer at anyone who dares to stand up for God.

Will it work? Probably. People who weren’t bothered by President Trump’s history of sexual assault are unlikely to be upset about this.

It’s a shame Bill Clinton didn’t resign during his presidency. Of course, the religious right would still find some case somewhere for their whataboutism, but I wonder if Clinton’s behavior had a deeper culture-forming effect. To what extent did it encourage Americans to make the (absurd) calculation that private character does not bear on public leadership?


In a speech in Vietnam yesterday, President Trump said this:

From this day forward, we will compete on a fair and equal basis. We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore. I am always going to put America first the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.

This is a perfect summation of Trump’s bizarre view of global politics and trade. Everything is zero-sum, and history is absent from his thinking. He doesn’t show any awareness that he is raging against the very global system that the United States set up. He effectively said, “We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of by the U.S.-led global order anymore!”

It is certainly reasonable to believe that the costs of sustaining America’s post-World War Two posture in the world are too high, or to believe that in various ways the U.S. harms other regions of the world with its policies. But what we see from Trump is something different. He takes his gut zero-sum instincts and is pretending to make a foreign policy with them. And he shows no understanding of why every other U.S. President since FDR has opposed his view of the world.


This week was the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Isn’t this a good candidate for the most catastrophic turning point of the twentieth century? Or does all of that get categorized under the heading of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination? It’s easy to imagine something else sparking the Great War even if the flukish assassination had never happened so my vote is for the Russian Revolution.

As for consequences of the Revolution, on the minus side we have tens of millions of people dead in futile attempts to impose social and economic relations that free people never willingly choose. On the plus side we have, I don’t know, Sweden? Does the Russian Revolution get to claim credit for the peaceful social democracies of Western Europe? It’s hard to believe we couldn’t have found our way to Sweden without tens of millions of deaths in the process.

On a teaching note, in my experience we seem not to do a good job contextualizing for our students the global history of communism in the twentieth century. We emphasize the Red Scare in the United States and its victims, and how absurd the hunt for communists was in the 1950s. We should do that. But we sometimes fail to contextualize that fear in the broader global context in which there was in fact a murderous ideology that was at that very moment needlessly killing millions, most notably during the The Great Leap Forward. That’s scary!

Upcoming Talk

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Next Friday I’ll be at Rutgers-Camden to give a talk about how some white evangelicals used their colleges to respond to the upheavals of the 1960s and forge a presence in the American city. It will be interesting to get some feedback from scholars of other fields/disciplines. Fingers crossed!

Living and Teaching in an Age of Crisis

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We’ve hit the one year anniversary of a shameful moment in American history. Donald Trump’s election showed us, finally, that the American people have no special love for liberty or decency. We’re just like everybody else. We might have known this, if only in our heads. But gaining that self-knowledge through hard experience has changed us.

That moment a year ago has not faded away into history. It was the curtain-raiser on an age of crisis. Now we think about the country and our fellow Americans differently. We try to engage and love and persevere, but we do not do so with the illusion that our neighbors want the same future we do.

Immediately after the election, a lot of us were alarmists. Some envisioned a rapid slide into an authoritarian dystopia. If the alarmists were not entirely correct, their posture was more productive than those who wishfully believed that this is a normal political moment. Indeed, the alarmists are still needed. They may have overestimated the chances of rapid disintegration, but the rest of us are now underestimating the possibility that this is the beginning of the end for liberal democracy.

Donald Trump showed that it was possible to run against the liberal democratic American ideal—the vision that animated everyone from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama—and win. If you’re on the radical left or right and want to destroy the social order, you might be happy. Everyone else, liberal or conservative, ought to be very concerned.

We have taken too much comfort in Trump’s incompetence. We can be sure that every power-loving would-be strongman is learning the lessons of this moment. The key lesson is that many Americans—perhaps a majority—want their party to win more than anything else. They would rather win than defend abstractions like the bill of rights, democracy, and separation of powers. They’ll support all manner of racism and cruelty if it means winning one for the team. A cunning politician with a clear end-goal in sight can use this new knowledge to bring our democratic experiment to a close.

These are the stakes for the nation. Don’t even get me started on the Church. I care much more about the church than I do about the nation, and am much more grieved about it. I hope in it like I hope in Jesus himself—with a faith that doesn’t yield to the whims of circumstance. The church will continue. But those who seek to follow Jesus will do so in communities of faith beyond the white nationalist and prosperity heresies that have overrun much of American Christianity.

So how do we live in this age of crisis? How do we teach? For me, these are really thorny questions.

Before Trump’s rise, it never occurred to me that many people I know and love could support such an awful person. How do I conduct myself on the other side of that knowledge? How do I live with this knowledge that I desperately don’t want to have? What do love, humility, and patience look like in this moment? How do I deal with the resentment and bitterness I harbor so that I can approach people openly and in love?

Normally, we have several strategies that help us be respectful toward people with whom we disagree. We remind ourselves that we all have different experiences, different social contexts, different bases of knowledge. We remind ourselves of our own fallenness and limited perspective. We seek to learn from perspectives we find disagreeable. But in the age of Trump, the overt celebration of evil and cruelty often make these strategies seem hollow. Those of us who are Christians may find more meaning in how Jesus instructed us to love our enemies. We do not need to pretend that we have common ground. But we are commanded to love.

Part of the reality of living in the Trump era is feeling profoundly affected by it and then feeling guilty and silly for how much it’s affecting you. Endless cycle. But it does affect us. Continuing to feel that, though exhausting, is an important part of maintaining our integrity.

I’ve also found that teaching history in this moment is a bit disorienting. How does, or should, a moment of crisis affect our teaching of the past? I don’t have an answer for that. I’ve mostly tried to steer clear of the present, but whichever path I take I keep wondering if I’m doing my students a disservice.

On the one hand, making the current moment a big presence in the classroom can distort the past and encourage bad habits of mind in students. Our inclination is to read everything in light of the present moment and that’s exactly what we as historians are positioned to resist. On the other hand, it seems odd to not explain, as best we can, how the past led to our current age of crisis. If students leave the course not knowing that this political moment is unique, why didn’t I bother to make the class more relevant to them?

These pedagogical questions would be easier to grapple with if I could do so dispassionately. But the reality is I can’t. While it might be nice in theory to have a class discussion about putting Trump in historical context, I’m not confident in my ability to lead that discussion productively, especially if a student strongly defends Trump.

To talk about Trump in the classroom is to talk about someone whose politics are an existential threat to some of the students in the room. That makes it a loaded conversation, and I can’t hide that my sympathies are with those students.

Perhaps there aren’t any good answers for life and teaching in this age of crisis. But let’s try to lean on each other and support each other. Shout out especially to those who feel isolated in pro-Trump communities. Keep up the good fight!

Notes from the Classroom: Teaching Evangelicalism at Temple

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What happens when you try to teach the history of evangelicalism in a Temple University GenEd class made up of mostly freshman with majors from all over the university? This month I found out.

As we came to the end of our unit on evangelicalism Friday, I asked the students how their view of evangelicalism differs from a month ago. Here are a few paraphrased responses:

I knew that it was around but I didn’t know it was such a big deal.

I had no idea it was so big and influential or had such a large effect on American politics.

I thought it was an old-timey religion and didn’t realize it was something still going on today.

I had never heard of it before.

I had never thought about how religion connects to history.

My favorite response came from another student who said she told her friend she was learning about evangelicalism and he said, “Oh yeah, they’re all assholes, right?” While she may not have a favorable opinion of evangelicals, her first instinct was to complicate her friend’s breezy assumption. She now knows there is a much longer, more diverse, and more complicated story than she had realized.

If I do something like this again, I will take more time and be more explicit in laying a theoretical foundation to explain to the students why we’re studying religion in a history class. The course is called “The Making of American Society.” They intuitively understood why we would study immigration under that heading. And civil rights? Of course. But evangelicalism? That needed some justification.

The telling comment came from the student who said she hadn’t thought about how religion connects to history. In other words, even at the end of the unit she was thinking of religion as something separate from history instead of something that occurs inside history.

At a place like Temple, it seems that students who may be right there with you when discussing complicated and fraught questions of race, gender, and politics are suddenly adrift when the conversation turns to religion. This dynamic alone shows how dramatically the country has changed and how many students live in a secular environment or one where religion is so privatized they have difficulty understanding basic features of the American past and present.

I did talk to them briefly during the unit about Robert Orsi’s work, but in the future I need to be much more direct and careful in laying a foundation for discussion and understanding. If students subconsciously think religion is outside history, then studying it can seem not only confusing but inappropriate or irrelevant.

This is only one variation on the constant challenge that is at the heart of what we do: provoking students into trying to understand people and worlds unlike their own. Even if everything goes pretty well, the result feels incomplete. But if the student’s world seems more complex than it did a month ago, that’s a partial victory to take home and try to build on next time.

Notes from the Classroom: Teaching Evangelical Popular Culture

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Stryper, 1980s. Evangelical popular culture? Not what you were expecting, huh?

In class today I talked about or showed video clips from:

A Thief in the Night

Larry Norman

Stryper

Amy Grant

DC Talk

Michael W. Smith

Left Behind

God’s Not Dead

Now, if the world imagined by the God’s not Dead film series is accurate, I guess this is the part where my godless, secular institution fires me for saying the name “Jesus” in the classroom.

I used these varied snippets of evangelical cultural production to illustrate several salient themes of late 20th century evangelical popular culture. I argued that it is:

Populist and frequently apocalyptic

We talked a good bit about an evangelical persecution complex (see Alan Noble’s Atlantic article), which seems tied to the apocalyptic trend. Through films like A Thief in the Night and books like Left Behind, evangelicals could imagine a not-too-distant future where Christians would be hunted down and killed.

My working hypothesis is that the apocalyptic theology of the fundamentalist movement only became prominent in cultural production after the upheavals of the 1960s. Notice that this was also the era when revived narratives of “Christian America” took off, with the publication of Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s The Light and the Glory. Apocalyptic popular culture appealed to people who felt that the country had suddenly gone to hell right before their eyes.

The populist dimension of this is obvious on the surface. Evangelical popular culture is anti-elitist and anti-intellectual. But it’s deeper than that. It has to do with what is considered authoritative. Evangelical theory says the Bible is authoritative. In practice, as Todd Brenneman has argued, emotion and feeling have pride of place in evangelical culture. Much evangelical cultural production is extraordinarily sentimental.

A driver of group identity/cohesion

Every community needs to define itself and tell its members who they are and where they belong. Evangelical popular culture does that, especially for kids.

An expression of enduring insider/outsider tension

This goes all the way back to the tensions George Marsden identified in early 20th-century fundamentalism. Are we insiders or outsiders? Alienated from the nation, or its truest defenders? In late 20th century popular culture, it means evangelicals want to influence the culture, but also assert their difference from it. So when someone like Amy Grant wins great mainstream success, does that mean she is faithfully “witnessing” to the culture, or does it mean she sold out and betrayed her Christian commitments?

Implicitly political

This one is probably pretty obvious. Evangelical popular culture is political if for no other reason than it provokes an us vs them mentality, the Christian vs the secular, the conservative vs the liberal, the insider vs the outsider.

The lecture was not as well-put together as it should have been, but I think it was still a fun one. A better crafted synthesis would bring these various features of evangelical popular culture together into a more coherent whole. But I wasn’t sure how to do that.