Finding Community In A Book Tour

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John Fea is on the road for his new book. Today he reflects on the experience thus far:

As I talk with the folks who come to these events for Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, a narrative seems to be emerging.  People are deeply troubled about the state of evangelical Christianity in America.  Last night I heard stories of men and women deeply scarred by experiences with authoritarian, politically-driven evangelical Christianity.  Some have left evangelicalism for the Protestant mainline.  Others have left Christianity entirely.  Still others are in search of a more hopeful Christianity.  Evangelical pastors are wondering how they can minister to congregations divided by politics.

These people are telling me their stories–sometimes through tears.  The other night I spoke with an evangelical Christian who said that he felt more at home with the people he met at the book signing than he did at his own evangelical church.  What does this say about the state of the evangelical church?

I expected a lot of knock-down, drag-out political debates on this book tour.  Instead I am hearing from a lot of hurting people.  I am trying to offer encouragement and prayers.  But mostly I am just trying to listen.

This sounds about right. Of course, the people who show up to a bookstore to hear an anti-Trump evangelical author talk about his work are a self-selecting group. My question is how large this group is. I was just in the library this morning looking at some alienated and angry white evangelicals in the 1980s! I see lots of anecdotal evidence that the sense of alienation from evangelicalism is larger now than it was then, more pervasive. But we will probably have to wait several years for the trend lines to become clear.

How Can Trump’s Presidency Cause A Crisis of Faith?

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Is it possible for Christianity to be true if it doesn’t appear to have any significant effect on most Christians? Evangelical Christianity, in particular, makes rather grandiose claims about what happens to people when Jesus saves them. They are fundamentally transformed and given new lives. The love of God spills over, from the inside out, to every dimension of their being. They are not only given a new relationship with God and a subjective consciousness of the nearness of his love, they are empowered by the Holy Spirit to make practical changes in their lives leading to ethical improvement and concern for others.

In the Trump era, this looks an awful lot like fake news.

In recent years it’s been like one punch in the gut after another as people who seem to be sincere followers of Jesus reveal themselves as followers of Trump. Before it happened, I never would have dreamed that they were capable of this kind of behavior. At my most cynical, I couldn’t imagine it. But then it happened.

I don’t think I’m wrong to be bothered by this. It is reasonable for me to be saddened and angry. The betrayal I feel is real; there’s no sense denying the potency of these feelings. And I have to admit that all of this has made it much harder to be a Christian. If my faith says Jesus changes people but my eyes say he doesn’t, what am I supposed to think? I know I’m not alone in feeling this.

If you feel this too, I encourage you to take it seriously. Don’t tell yourself you’re wrong for feeling it. Do the work you need to do to make your way through it. Find support and fellowship if possible. What follows below is my story and my processing of it. It may be very different from yours. If it resonates with you, wonderful. But I hope you won’t use it to diminish what you’re feeling or to think that you should just “get over it.”

For me, there is something deeply provincial, even narcissistic, about my faith being upset by Trumpist Christians. Christians enslaving and commodifying people didn’t give me a crisis of faith. Christians conquering a whole hemisphere and slaughtering people in the name of Christ didn’t give me a crisis of faith. Christians colonizing the whole globe in pursuit of power and wealth didn’t give me a crisis of faith. Christians supporting the Holocaust didn’t give me a crisis of faith. Christians opposing the civil rights movement didn’t give me a crisis of faith (ok, well, maybe a little since I study it so much).

But now Christians support the latest American President and my foundations are shaken. Obviously this final act is real to me in a way the others are not. The immediacy of experience and emotion and relationships in a given time and place is part of what makes us human. We are here, not there, we are of this time, not another. We feel it more. This is inevitable.

But a Trump-induced crisis of faith is not inevitable. It shows how invested I have been in ideas and hopes far beyond what Jesus has promised. If you just read the gospels, I’m not sure you would expect there to be many Christians. And I’m not sure you’d expect many of the people who are Christians to actually give a whit about following Jesus. I mean, these passages are not exactly thrilling:

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’

The message of Jesus is counterintuitive and humbling. It is upsetting to people who are moralistic, wealthy, or successful. It is upsetting to people who want to live comfortably. That most people would not want to follow Jesus is about the least surprising news in the world.

So why would I be so disillusioned by Christian followers of Trump? My disillusionment reveals that I have been invested in narratives of Christian progress and evangelical truth.

I have assumed, often subconsciously, that contemporary Christians are more apt to get things right than Christians in the past. We’ve learned from the past, I often thought, and have stripped away many of the cultural blinders that so clearly got in the way of prior generations of Christians. I have assumed that our generation is the tip of the spear in a long forward-moving story of Christian progress. Maybe, instead, we’re just another iteration of the usual reality: selfishness the norm, faithful following of Jesus the exception.

And for all my quarrels with evangelicalism, I have continued to believe in its truth. I have thought of it as the most potent and “correct” form of Christianity. These are my people. In other words, it is not that big a deal if those Christians over there go off the deep end. What could we really expect of those [liberals, Catholics, etc., etc.,] anyway? But evangelicals—my people, bearers of truth—can’t go wrong.

My hopes have been built not only on the life of Jesus. I have also erected an elaborate and far more unstable scaffolding of cultural Christianity dependent on illusions of progress and evangelical innocence. This has come crashing down.

Ironically, this brings to my mind a very evangelical hymn. It has a line that goes like this: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.” I thought I could rely on evangelicalism. I thought I could trust in the things I had been taught and the people who taught me. It turns out I couldn’t. But what I really want to say, to myself and to everyone who shares the ache of disillusionment, is that Jesus himself does not disappoint.

Are You Raising Racist Kids?

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This is what I call bad parenting.

Do you want your kids to grow up to be colorblind, or do you want them to be anti-racist? There is a difference. A lot of well-meaning white parents are unwittingly raising their kids to be colorblind racists rather than anti-racists. Here are some do’s and don’ts for parents of white kids.

Do teach them that race is a silly idea people made up. Don’t teach them race doesn’t matter.

Do put them in environments that will show them they are white. Don’t discourage their questions and explorations when they begin to realize this.

Do expose them to race through the rhythms and structures of their daily lives. Don’t expose them to race through contexts of charity and pity.

Do teach them race as a product of history. Don’t teach them race as a product of biology.

Do teach them to value other cultures. Don’t let their own culture be normal or invisible.

Do teach them that racism is about power and resources. Don’t teach them that an absence of racial prejudice in their hearts makes them anti-racist.

Do teach them that they have advantages because of their race. Don’t teach them that everyone has equal opportunities.

Do teach them that race profoundly affects them. Don’t teach them that race is something only people of color have or deal with.

Do teach them the history of white supremacy. Don’t sacrifice historical accuracy to protect feelings of patriotism or white innocence.

Do teach them to take responsibility. Don’t teach them to feel guilty.

Each of these can be unpacked and reflected on. Many well-meaning white parents have their own issues to work through before they can instill these things in their kids. What do you do when your kids take note of race? Do you subtly send the message that you’re uncomfortable and don’t want to talk about it? Or are you equipping them to understand that what they see is a result of history and power and that they have the responsibility to fight against racism?

Many good parents struggle with these things and are accidentally training their children to misunderstand their world. But we can learn and do better. On any other issue, we can readily admit we’re not perfect parents. But for some reason we want to pretend we have never ever instilled negative racial messages in our children. I’m sure I have. There’s no need to feel defensive or guilty.

Now, if you’re a parent who thinks white people don’t have advantages and this is all liberal gibberish, that’s a different story.  You’re actively harming your children and you need to reckon with why and how you came to depend upon lies to make yourself feel ok in the world. It is much more liberating to face the truth.

Civility Is A Strange Hill To Die On

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John Stennis, one of the most civil white supremacists you’ll ever see.

A restaurant owner asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave and suddenly we’re all debating the future of the republic. Civility or else! We’ve been here before. In my article on the colorblind consensus in the 1990s, I show how the idea of civility was integral to the memorialization of white supremacists in mainstream media. Here’s what I had to say about Mississippi Senator John Stennis:

Stennis had long embodied a particular kind of civility—what William H. Chafe in his classic study of the black freedom movement and white establishment in Greensboro called “a way of dealing with people and problems that made good manners more important than substantial action.” As the memorialization of Stennis would reveal, this sense of civility still held considerable purchase in the white American imagination. As the nation remembered the career of one of its longest-serving senators, Stennis’s civility loomed larger than his policy aims. Many memorializers held up civility as an ultimate good, without scrutinizing the limitations of Stennis’s brand of civility or the white supremacist purposes for which he deployed it.

To be historically minded is to understand that civility has often been used as a deliberate strategy to oppress people. This fact does not in itself mean that we should be actively uncivil. But it should give us pause and remind us that there are higher values–love, justice, peace—which are far more sturdy and uncomfortable and disruptive to the status quo than the concept of civility.

A Sermon Suggestion for Tomorrow

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Michael Gerson has an idea for tomorrow morning’s sermon:

You know I don’t preach politics from this pulpit. There are many political and policy views among Christians, and many represented here in this sanctuary. But our faith involves a common belief with unavoidably public consequences: Christians are to love their neighbor, and everyone is their neighbor. All the appearances of difference — in race, ethnicity, nationality and accomplishment — are deceptive. The reality is unseen. God’s distribution of dignity is completely and radically equal. No one is worthless. No one is insignificant. No one should be reduced to the status of a thing. This is the changeless truth in our changing politics. You can argue about what constitutes effective criminal-justice policy — but, as a Christian, you cannot view and treat inmates like animals. You can disagree about the procedures by which our country takes in refugees — but you can’t demonize them for political gain. And you can argue about the proper shape of our immigration system — but you can’t support any policy that achieves its goal by purposely terrorizing children.

Those of you who are churchgoers, what do you think? Would this message be welcomed in your church?

I wonder if most Trump followers in the pews would be ok with this sermon because they would just say Trump isn’t actually doing any of these things. If people just sidestep this message, what’s a pastor to do? I don’t envy pastors in this time.

How Children’s History Books Teach Kids Whose Lives Really Matter

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Going to the library and picking up some history books for your kids seems like a wholesome activity, right? Be careful, it’s actually very treacherous terrain! The books you give your kids might be teaching them to be racist. You won’t know it if you’re only on the lookout for overtly offensive passages. You have to pay attention to what’s not there.

Yesterday we went to Valley Forge National Park. In advance of our trip, we picked up the Magic Tree House nonfiction book on the American Revolution. I started reading it to my kids. Whoooo boy.

The book begins by explaining what colonies were and how people got there:

People often sailed from Europe and Britain to begin new lives in the colonies. Some came for freedom to worship as they pleased. Others came for land. Still others came for work.

Red flags. Alarm bells. Why is it only describing why Europeans came? A page after describing what the trip was like, there is a brief aside:

The colonies also had slaves, who were brought over from West Africa. Most slaves lived on large farms called plantations in the southern colonies. They worked in the fields or as house servants.

There were also American Indians in the colonies. They were there long before the colonists arrived. Many lost their lands as the colonies grew larger.

This is a master class in passive voice and obfuscation. “slaves…were brought…” by who knows who. Indians “lost their lands as the colonies grew larger” because this was inexorable and there was somehow losing without taking. Worse, by putting this material in a separate section after describing why and how people came to the colonies, the authors have made the curious decision to explain what it was like for Europeans to come to America while not describing the same for Africans. They’re reinscribing the hierarchy rather than explaining it.

The next chapter is titled, “Life in the Colonies.” It describes technology, material culture, work, food, education, dress, and the gendered experience of children. It does not mention the experiences of enslaved people or Native Americans. Not. One. Time. After this chapter the groundwork is laid and the rest of the book is a narrative of the Revolution. The whole chapter on “Life in the Colonies” is actually about European life in the colonies.

It is a particular narrative masquerading as a universal one. Instead of trying to describe what colonial society was like, it affirms its exclusions. When your narrative omits vast numbers of people, you’re just reproducing the racist logic of the time: these people don’t belong in the same way; these people don’t matter as much.

These stories are extremely destructive. They teach young minds who belongs, who is important, who has a history. These narratives are racist.

I must emphasize that I’m not talking here about the difficult question of how to craft age-appropriate narratives of traumatic pasts. Good luck telling your 6-year old about the Holocaust! That is a real discussion worth having, and it’s not easy. But this is something else. It’s a deliberate decision to prevent kids from knowing, in a general and age appropriate way, what life in the colonies was like!

It would not have been even a little bit difficult for the authors to at least write a transition sentence like, “For enslaved people, life was much harder.” Then you write a few sentences about what daily life was like for them. Likewise, you mention the diverse approaches different Indian nations took to the expansion of the colonies. This is not rocket science.

I can imagine a certain kind of reader saying that my concerns smack of political correctness. This is not so. If the racism of these narratives doesn’t concern you, can I bother you with the fact that they’re false? At the time of the first census in 1790, African Americans were nearly 20% of the population. There is no good historical reason to decide not to tell kids about 20% of the people in your story. So the political correctness runs in the opposite direction. The story sacrifices historical accuracy to protect white feelings and promote a brittle kind of patriotism that can’t acknowledge the complexity of the nation’s past.

So, go ahead and get those history books from the library. But read them with your kids. And don’t worry, you don’t have to be an expert. You only need to be able to ask some basic questions: what’s not here? Is the story doing what it is claiming to do? What is the author’s goal? What or who is being left out? I went ahead and read that awful chapter on life in the colonies to my kids. But then we debriefed.

Cartoon of the Day: Evangelicals & Watergate Edition

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Paul Conrad, Los Angeles Times, May 30, 1974

Evangelicals have been getting themselves in compromising political situations for a long time. Here, Paul Conrad lampoons Billy Graham’s slavish support for Nixon in the waning months of a doomed presidency. The scene is a typical Billy Graham revival, except the seats are empty. It’s time for the altar call. “All those wishing to make a ‘Decision for Nixon’ will please come forward,” Graham says. But the only person in the audience is Nixon himself, looking grim. The joke is on both men—Graham, for politicizing the gospel, Nixon, for having lost the public’s trust. No one is going to answer that altar call.

I’ve written before about Graham’s dalliances with political power and how he came to regret them. When I stumbled across a reference to this cartoon yesterday I wanted to track it down and see it for myself. It’s a humorous and apt reminder of the damage done when Christians become enablers rather than prophets in the public square.

On Being Changed By The Other

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I’ve watched with some astonishment as people defend the separation of children from their families. I’m not talking about the people trying to shift blame or deflect attention. Those efforts to defend Trump are asinine, but they reveal people’s moral discomfort with the policy. There’s another set of more extreme arguments on my facebook feed: these parents are law breakers, they’re getting what they deserve, they’re bad parents.

When people make these arguments, my impulse is not to fire back with a counterargument. Instead I simply want to say, “What happened to you?” Or perhaps better, “What hasn’t happened to you?” Let me explain.

Entering deeply into the pain and experience of people who are not like us is among the most life-changing things that can happen to human beings. And when it happens, it doesn’t just change our understanding of that particular group of people. It colors our whole moral sense and the way we see people to whom we have no connection. It rocks us back on our heels, it disrupts our certainties. It moves us. Try as we might to get back to our comfortable starting place, the effect turns out to be enduring. We find ourselves permanently decentered. The needs and perspectives of others are not so easily dismissed.

I’m very worried that our churches are full of people who have never experienced this at all. This is what hasn’t happened to them. We are formed by media that teaches us to fear others, by a culture that tells us things are more important than people, by a church that preaches a narcissistic gospel.

We approach the other as a matter of Christian duty, with an episodic and paternalistic sense of free agency. I will be happy to help you. But I will not be changed by you.

I grant that this question of entering into the pain and experience of people unlike ourselves is not an all or nothing proposition. My failure to do this much more than I have is probably my greatest sin. And yet the hint of it that I’ve tasted is the most transforming thing I’ve known.

I’m concerned that many Christians have not even glimpsed this. Which, by the way, would be deeply ironic. The message of salvation we claim to believe in is all about this. Jesus entered into the pain and experience of human beings, emptying himself of that to which he was entitled. When Jesus does it, it’s more than an example. It’s salvific. We can’t do that. But it tells us something about the way God has ordered the world. The fact that rescues us is the same principle God uses to make us a little less monstrous and a little more caring. When we encounter the other in a deep way we become a little more like what we were meant to be.

In this age of Christian callousness, I sometimes fear that the old advice to “read your Bible and pray every day” has become an exercise in self-absorption. Without neglecting those spiritual disciplines, we must add to them an openness to seeing God in unexpected places, like in the faces of strangers.

Sex Was The Last Defense of Segregationist Theology

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Eternity Magazine, July, 1972.

As growing numbers of white evangelicals adopted colorblind theologies in the 1960s and 1970s, many of them continued to draw a sharp line at the question of interracial marriage. Even as they came to believe that we’re all the same in God’s eyes, when it came to sex, it turned out that race still mattered a lot.

White evangelical elites tended to be of the opinion that there was nothing in the scriptures that forbade interracial marriage. They thought it was unwise, but not sinful. When they said as much in magazines like Christianity Today and Eternity, they had to tread carefully. Many white evangelical laypeople were quite certain that interracial marriage was an affront to God. So even moderate views usually generated some irate reader responses.

An example of this comes from Eternity in the summer of 1972. After publishing an article concluding that “Biologically, biblically, socially and statistically there is not cause for alarm” about interracial marriage, the magazine heard from some angry readers. Like the Michigan man who wrote,

I am a Christian and love every child of God regardless of race or color. I have a niece and nephew in Africa who are missionaries.

But when it comes to interracial marriage I am very much against it. We should notice that it is very seldom that a white man marries a black woman. Usually a black man marries a white woman; it’s nothing but lust and sensual desires.

Of course your modern churches, liberals, communists and civil rights forces are in favor of it. Take my name off your mailing list.

A Kentucky woman put it more succinctly:

I did not like the article…I do not and never will believe in mixed marriages. If this trend continues, there will eventually be no white or black people…Discontinue my subscription.

You might chuckle at the “there will eventually be no white or black people.” But it’s a line revealing of this woman’s rejection of the emerging colorblind theology. Why was it self-evident to her that it would be bad if there were no black and white people? Because racial difference, she was quite sure, was part of God’s design. There were very important differences between groups, and though God offered spiritual salvation to all, he did not intend for them to merge together socially, much less biologically. This was her common sense.

Another woman from Albany, Georgia wrote that the article obviously wasn’t true,

judging by the nations that have fallen because of interracial marriage. Therefore, please cancel my subscription.

This is a fascinating window into a different world. Apparently there was a belief that interracial marriage had led to the downfall of nations in the past. From where did this idea come? How widespread was it? I hadn’t heard that one before!

And finally, a Texas man thought the whole idea of interracial marriage was a moral absurdity:

Now that you have so readily removed all barriers to the marriage of blacks and whites, perhaps you can give us another article in the near future proving to us that cohabitation of humans and beasts is also permissible?

These attitudes—expressed and printed openly in the 1970s—are a sobering reminder of just how anti-Christian much of our evangelical heritage is.

The Pleasures of Finding Gold in the Archive

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While working on a dissertation chapter this morning I was perusing notes I made months ago on archival documents. In this particular case I had been trying to establish a timeline for what I suspected was an incriminating series of events, but the documents were jumbled and fragmentary and I just wasn’t sure what exactly happened, or when.

Sometimes you find tantalizing pieces of evidence and you wonder if you’ll really be able to use them. Can you establish with clarity what exactly they mean?

That was the state of play months ago when I made some notes that made me chuckle today when I rediscovered them. One document is tagged, “smoking gun.” I was on my way to confirming the timeline. Then, dozens of pages later, my notes say:

“Earlier smoking gun! More smoke! The bullet is visibly exiting the chamber!”

I guess I was pretty excited. I established my timeline. And that’s a good feeling.