Books for Our Moment: A Conversation with Todd Brenneman

During the election of 2016 and its aftermath, my thoughts kept returning to Todd Brenneman’s Homespun Gospel. Brenneman argues that evangelicalism has become a religion defined largely by sentimentality, as expressed through three tropes: “the fatherhood of God, the infancy of human beings, and the nostalgia of home and nuclear family.” Evangelicals have discarded the centrality of doctrine and have embraced a religion of feeling. Evangelicalism, Brenneman writes, is more an “aesthetic worldview”  than a set of intellectual beliefs.

Dr. Brenneman is Assistant Professor of Christian History at Faulkner University, and a keen observer of contemporary evangelicalism. Recently he very graciously agreed to answer a few of my questions about how his book relates to our current moment.  Our lightly edited conversation is below.

Part of what drew me into your book when I read it was that at the time I was just entering into this long-running conversation about how to define evangelicalism. Theologically? Institutionally? Is it a brand? And then you come along with a very different answer to that question, emphasizing feeling, emotion, aesthetics. It was startling and intriguing to me. And part of what I appreciated about the book was that it was an exploration of people’s religious worlds, not just a story of political mobilization. We’ve seen a whole stream of historiography on evangelicalism that seems to think the only story worth telling is the rise of the Christian right. You’re doing something different. And that raises my first question: Why should people who aren’t evangelicals themselves, or scholars of religion, care about the triumph of sentimentality in evangelicalism?

I would say recognition of the triumph of sentimentality is important because of why anything about evangelicalism is important.  Outside observers have often been “late to the party” so to speak when trying to understand evangelicalism and its staying power.  Right before the recent election many newspapers and even some scholars were hailing the end of the Religious Right only to see that backfire.  The power of evangelicalism, though, is not in whether or not evangelicals can intellectually defend it but in the feelings of evangelicalism.  More than that, scholars of religion have been emphasizing the practice of religions over the beliefs of religions, except when it has come to evangelicalism.  Only recently have scholars begun really investigating the practice of evangelicalism and to fully understand that, I believe we need to understand sentimentality and its function.

What connection, if any, do you see between the kind of sentimentality you write about in Homespun Gospel and a political context in which 4 of 5 white evangelicals are said to have voted for Trump?

I believe that what motivated evangelicals the most (and this is not unique to me) to stand behind Trump were the very issues at the center of evangelical sentimentality.  Many observers pointed to the vacancy in the Supreme Court as a pivotal reason why evangelicals lined up behind Trump even though his Christian credentials in beliefs and morality were suspect in the most generous reading.  So what does the Supreme Court have to do with sentimentality?  The issues of marriage and abortion still politically motivate evangelicals.  Domesticity and its protection are ideals that evangelicals are willing to line up behind in large numbers.  I also think Trump’s nostalgic call to “Make America Great Again” played on the sentimental heart of evangelicals.  The claim being there was a time when America was great and many evangelicals probably believed that such a time was when they had more moral authority in the country or at least when Christians had more moral authority.

In your final chapter you write about the relationship between sentiment, fear, and evangelical politics. What role do you think fear played in evangelicals’ political posture in 2016?

Scholars of sentimentality in philosophy, literature, and American studies have noted that it is unfortunately a very small step between sweet sentimentality and fear/hatred.  Sentimental appeals often rely on conceptions of universality.  Sentimentality is built on the assumption that everyone feels the same way or at least should feel the same way.  When those political drives motivated by nostalgia and domesticity are frustrated, it can lead to fear of the future or even hatred toward those who do not hold similar positions.  I believe that motivated some evangelicals.  President-elect Trump played on those fears of the others, even encouraging (intentionally or not) hatred of them for what they (whoever “they” are) have done to America’s greatness.  So, we see this mix of decades of political frustration with respect to the conservative evangelical agenda, fears of what will happen to marriage and what is happening to unborn children, and there was a backlash to the progressive direction the country had been taken.  This fear, though, I believe for evangelicals was born out of sentimentality.

Where do we go from here? How do we use sentiment in a healthy way and work for a more robust evangelicalism? (ok, big question!)

Christianity should be a religion of both heart and head.  Distortions happen when one aspect is emphasized over the other.  Sentimentality can be a powerful force in motivating people, but if the head isn’t guiding and harnessing that sentimentality, it could go in diverse directions.  When one looks at the leaders currently in evangelicalism, we can see abuses, we can see the encouragement toward stances or positions or beliefs that border on unbiblical if not anti-Christian, and yet if there is no voice calling for introspection, examination, logical dialogue, churches can be led in dangerous directions.  What needs to happen is heart-directed evangelicals and head-directed evangelicals need to see that they need each other.  The New Testament especially talks about how God brings people with diverse talents together in community and no one with a specific talent or preference can say to someone else not directed the same way that they are unnecessary.  Both components are needed for a vibrant community that will have a significant, transformative effect on local communities and even globally.

Finally, what’s next for you? Is another book on the horizon? 

I am department chair, so that requires a lot of administrative work.  One of the projects I do have on the back burner though is an examination of the “Bibles” of evangelicalism.  Although evangelicals claim allegiance to the same Bible, how that Bible is used and depicted in the political realm, in inspirational literature, in children’s literature, etc., indicates that there are essentially multiple “swords of the Spirit” at work in evangelicalism.  I hope in the near future to pursue this some more.

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