Thoughts for Sunday


Ecuadorian theologian C. René Padilla

In 1974, C. René Padilla shook up the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization with his criticisms of American evangelicalism. Here’s an excerpt that remains relevant today:

A Church that is not faithful to the Gospel in all its dimensions inevitably becomes an instrument of the status quo. The Gospel is meant to place the totality of life under the universal lordship of Jesus Christ, not to produce cultic sects; it is an open break to the status quo of the world. Therefore a Gospel that leaves untouched our life in the world — in relationship to the world of men as well as in relationship to the world of creation — is not the Christian Gospel, but culture Christianity, adjusted to the mood of the day.

This kind of gospel has no teeth — it is a gospel that the ‘free consumers’ of religion will want to receive because it is cheap and it demands nothing of them…The gospel of culture Christianity today is a message of conformism, a message that, if not accepted, can at least be easily tolerated because it doesn’t disturb anybody. The racist can continue to be a racist, the exploiter can continue to be an exploiter. Christianity will be something that runs along life, but will not cut through it.”

The Power of a Good Biography


I’m reading George Marsden’s Bancroft Prize-winning biography of Jonathan Edwards, and it’s reminding me of being a kid. When done well, biographies can be incredibly immersive experiences, far more so than any movie or television series (in my humble opinion, of course). When I was young biographies were key entry points into history and they made my imagination run wild. It was, and still is, hard to believe that other people have existed and lived different lives from mine. (Think about it).

Entering into the life of a person in another time and place and following it through to its conclusion can be extremely sobering and inspiring. It also has the happy effect of assuring me that I’m thoroughly average, will always be average, and can bask in the freedom of not being A Great Man of History.

I think I would like to write a biography in the future. But I am puzzling over the ethical dilemmas of the genre. I remember when I finished my master’s thesis (which, though not strictly a biography, had some biographical features and focused in particular on John Stennis) the chair of the history department asked me, “Wait, do you like this guy?” Because Stennis was a white supremacist it was a loaded question! And I thought the answer ought to have been obvious, but perhaps it wasn’t. I had tried very hard to understand Stennis, and I firmly believe that there’s no such thing as a historian understanding their subjects too well. But…who we try hardest to understand is an important choice, one with consequences.

At the outset of Jonathan Edwards, Marsden asks us to try to understand Edwards in his time. He wasn’t an American or an evangelical, and he couldn’t imagine social hierarchy as anything but a good thing. So far so good. But I’m not sure Marsden’s commendable sensitivity to understanding Edwards extends very well to other actors in the book.

As much as I feel I understand Edwards, so much of the world around him seems largely invisible in this book (so far; I’m 300 pages in). Why are the Indians so opaque? Why are the enslaved so invisible? To say that they were so for Edwards for long stretches of his life tells us a little about Edwards but isn’t itself a reason to render them so in a new history.

These are old qualms that have been much discussed and argued over, but I’m still confused about them. And it seems to me that biography may be a genre particularly vulnerable to this problem. Nonetheless, I see why Marsden won the Bancroft Prize. It’s a great book.

Jonathan Edwards strikes me as the sort of person I want to encounter from the safe distance of the printed page and several hundreds years. From that distance he is quite fascinating. I don’t know that I would have wanted to hang out with him. He was incredibly intense about everything.

That reminds me: the other biography I’m just now getting into is Victor Sebestyen’s new life of Lenin. If only to prove that you can always make connections between things, I would say what makes Edwards and Lenin similar is their singular focus to see their principles through to their conclusion (I admit the results were considerably bloodier in Lenin’s case).

Back to Edwards: I didn’t know anything about him beyond the sorts of things you read in general surveys of the era. (Indeed, the dirty little secret of this whole enterprise I’m engaged in is that I don’t yet know much about the history of evangelicalism!). I’m fascinated by the way Edward’s views appear to scramble and upset so much of the evangelical tradition that in one way or another claims some descent from him.

He was a revivalist who believed deeply in hierarchical authority. He sought and achieved ecstatic spiritual experiences, and he was obsessed with reason. He brooded over the machinations of the Devil and the depravity of people, and he believed the millennium might be close at hand.

I’m especially interested in Edwards’ views of the relationship between church and state and of God’s plan for New England. Do we see in Edwards the “poisoned root” I referred to the other day? I need to know more.

The Collapse of White Evangelicalism: Was It Poisoned at the Root?


The King’s Business lampoons Bolsheviks and Darwinists, 1925.

If you haven’t yet read Michael Gerson’s cover story on the decline and fall of evangelicalism in the latest edition of the Atlantic you should go read it. It is historically and theologically informed, and Gerson’s own evangelical background gives it a useful personal weight.

Gerson tells an evangelical declension story that is in broad strokes like the one I told my Temple students last year. Understanding the contemporary moral collapse of white evangelicalism, Gerson tells us, “requires understanding the values that once animated American evangelicalism. It is a movement that was damaged in the fall from a great height.” This is exactly right. I told my class that American evangelicalism is a movement haunted by the lost glories of its past. It is driven by the fears, resentments, and nostalgia that this extraordinary sense of loss creates.

Gerson describes a nineteenth century evangelicalism that is confident, post-millennial (we’re going to usher in the Kingdom and then Jesus will come back), pulsing with abolitionist fervor and dreams of social renewal. I described this for my class as well, but I paired it with the realities of a white supremacist and pro-slavery evangelicalism that Gerson conveniently ignores. His declension story is real, but it looks more simple and obvious if you exclude the South.

Most white evangelicals couldn’t tell you the history of their loss with any accuracy. But the story is in their theological and cultural bones. It’s in the memory of their community. They know the country was theirs, and it’s not anymore. In Gerson’s words:

In the mid-19th century, evangelicalism was the predominant religious tradition in Americaa faith assured of its social position, confident in its divine calling, welcoming of progress, and hopeful about the future. Fifty years later, it was losing intellectual and social ground on every front. Twenty-five years beyond that, it had become a national joke.

The horrors of the Civil War took a severe toll on the social optimism at the heart of postmillennialism. It was harder to believe in the existence of a religious golden age that included Antietam. At the same time, industrialization and urbanization loosened traditional social bonds and created an impression of moral chaos. The mass immigration of Catholics and Jews changed the face and spiritual self-conception of the country. (In 1850, Catholics made up about 5 percent of the population. By 1906, they represented 17 percent.) Evangelicals struggled to envision a diverse, and some believed degenerate, America as the chosen, godly republic of their imagination.

But it was a series of momentous intellectual developments that most effectively drove a wedge between evangelicalism and elite culture. Higher criticism of the Bible—a scholarly movement out of Germany that picked apart the human sources and development of ancient texts—called into question the roots, accuracy, and historicity of the book that constituted the ultimate source of evangelical authority. At the same time, the theory of evolution advanced a new account of human origin. Advocates of evolution, as well as those who denied it most vigorously, took the theory as an alternative to religious accounts—and in many cases to Christian belief itself.

Religious progressives sought common ground between the Christian faith and the new science and higher criticism. Many combined their faith with the Social Gospel—a postmillennialism drained of the miraculous, with social reform taking the place of the Second Coming.

Religious conservatives, by contrast, rebelled against this strategy of accommodation in a series of firings and heresy trials designed to maintain control of seminaries. (Woodrow Wilson’s uncle James lost his job at Columbia Theological Seminary for accepting evolution as compatible with the Bible.) But these tactics generally backfired, and seminary after seminary, college after college, fell under the influence of modern scientific and cultural assumptions. To contest progressive ideas, the religiously orthodox published a series of books called The Fundamentals. Hence the term fundamentalism, conceived in a spirit of desperate reaction.

Fundamentalism embraced traditional religious views, but it did not propose a return to an older evangelicalism. Instead it responded to modernity in ways that cut it off from its own past. In reacting against higher criticism, it became simplistic and overliteral in its reading of scripture. In reacting against evolution, it became anti-scientific in its general orientation. In reacting against the Social Gospel, it came to regard the whole concept of social justice as a dangerous liberal idea. This last point constituted what some scholars have called the “Great Reversal,” which took place from about 1900 to 1930. “All progressive social concern,” Marsden writes, “whether political or private, became suspect among revivalist evangelicals and was relegated to a very minor role.”

And so here we are. Today’s white evangelical mainstream has inherited the reactionary spirit of fundamentalism, while little of the earlier positive evangelical social ethic has survived.

Gerson is  insightful in his discussion of the battle lines fundamentalists chose to draw. He asks, what if fundamentalists had opposed social Darwinism instead of Darwinism? Another way of putting this is to ask, what if fundamentalists had actually held to the orthodoxy they claimed? What if they had opposed hatred and dehumanization? It’s a great thought experiment but it’s also a little bit like asking what would have happened if fundamentalists had been completely different sort of people from who they actually were. We quickly find ourselves moving back into the tangled maze of decades and centuries of causation and contingency.

But Gerson is surely right to see the battle over evolution as one of enduring importance. In generation after generation, it has contributed to an evangelical epistemology that is based not on expertise or evidence as much as identity. When people are taught that science cannot be trusted, it contributes to a broader disposition in which the key question to ask when you want to evaluate a claim is not what the claimant knows but what she believes. “Are you a Christian?” becomes at least as important as “What is your evidence?” However you feel about identity politics, an identity epistemology is considerably more radical and all-encompassing.

A question that has been lingering in my mind is whether the poisoned root of all this can be discerned in the 19th century moment of evangelical triumph. Gerson alludes to this briefly, but doesn’t draw out the implication I’m getting at. He writes,

In politics, evangelicals tended to identify New England, and then the whole country, with biblical Israel. Many a sermon described America as a place set apart for divine purposes.

Fundamentalists may have cut themselves off from much of their 19th century inheritance, but they kept a version of this conflation of the United States and the Kingdom of God. Perhaps the seed of the decline was present at the height of evangelical dominance. A movement that had not bound its identity to the nation’s would have nothing to fear when it lost the nation.

Without that basic error, it’s hard to believe Gerson would have an article to write. For one thing, Trump wouldn’t be president.

In the coming months I want to explore the deeper tensions American evangelicals have inherited from the Protestant Reformation. I’m almost entirely ignorant about this, but one of the core questions coming out of the reformation was whether the ideal society was coextensive with the church, or whether the church was a separate organism called to be apart from society. I want to know more about how 18th century struggles over religious disestablishment relate to popular 19th century conflations of kingdom and country. Though legal religious establishment had been abolished, was not evangelicalism a kind of establishment in practice?

Losing that authority was a trauma whose aftershocks we are feeling today. And yet, I wonder if this story is too simple and present-minded. A few years ago, Gerson would not have written this article. A few years ago, we might have looked to different parts of the evangelical past as the key to understanding its present. What stories will we be telling ourselves a few years from now?

The “Quiet Exodus” from White Evangelical Churches


Pastor Robert Morris, Gateway Church, Dallas. Ilana Panich-Linsman, NYT.

The New York Times has an interesting read today on the “quiet exodus” of African Americans out of predominantly white evangelical churches. It’s an anecdotal piece, but it comes with this dynamite quote from Michael Emerson:

“Everything we tried is not working,” said Michael Emerson, the author of “Divided by Faith,” a seminal work on race relations within the evangelical church. “The election itself was the single most harmful event to the whole movement of reconciliation in at least the past 30 years,” he said. “It’s about to completely break apart.”

Anyone who’s interested in the intersection of evangelicalism and race has at least heard of Divided by Faith. It’s a great book. Emerson’s opinion carries real weight. Let’s assume for a moment that he’s right. It raises some questions.

On what were the movements for reconciliation and integrated churches really based? A movement that can be shattered by an election clearly wasn’t as robust as people thought.

What did leaders of these movements think they were doing?

What did laypeople in the pews think they were doing?

What did white Christians think was happening? What did black Christians think was happening?

How do these nominally integrated churches continue to make white racists feel comfortable?

Are there consistent differences between the sorts of black Christians who join predominantly white churches and those who do not?

How did white evangelicals cover up their past, and how conscious were they about the coverup? The links between the white supremacist Christians of prior generations and the leading pastors of today are not just ideological or theological; they’re tangible and personal!

Just as surely as southern white evangelicals now know that God is colorblind, they knew 60 years ago that he had established the races and did not want them to mix. How exactly did one unchristian folk theology replace the other?

How much of the “reconciliation” movement has been cynical? In the post-civil rights movement era, diversity is a consumable experience. People like a little color in their religion. Even white evangelicals can see that.

White evangelicals’ vote for Trump revealed that the racial reconciliation movement was a) really small, and/or b) not actually anti-racist. I’d say both. The article tells us about how Robert Morris, pastor of a megachurch in Texas, dealt with racism after the 2016 election. It perfectly captures the selfishness and arrogance of the white evangelical mainstream:

As a tumultuous 2017 unfolded, Pastor Morris understood that some wanted him to address race directly.

“As I prayed about it as I talked with black pastor friends of mine, I realized I don’t really understand the depth of the pain they feel,” he said. “This is personal to them — it was history to me. I would talk to my friend and it was personal to him because it was his great-grandfather.”

In October 2017, he preached a message entitled “A Lack of Understanding.” Addressing “all the ignorant white people,” and acknowledging his own past grappling with prejudice, the pastor listed reasons that racism was evil — among them that it was an affront to God’s creation, given that Adam and Eve were probably brown-skinned. A video played of a black pastor talking of the racism he experienced as a child in East St. Louis in the 1960s. Pastor Morris concluded by urging people of color in the congregation to spread out and pray with whites in small groups.

The response, Pastor Morris said, was “overwhelmingly positive,” and indeed the reaction on Facebook suggests as much. Pastor Lewis remembers a black woman weeping in her seat, and was thankful that he finally had an answer for black worshipers questioning how their church truly felt about racism…

The message was not better received among the black worshipers who had already left the church. It did not, several said, address the enduring structural legacy of racism, instead adhering to the usual evangelical focus on individual prejudice. Most significantly, they said, it gave no sense that Pastor Morris had ever wrestled with his support of Donald Trump.

“I wasn’t wrestling,” Pastor Morris said of his feelings in 2016, going on to explain that he was not wrestling now, either. “We were electing what we felt was the person who held the values that the church loves dearly the most. That doesn’t mean that he’s perfect. But I do believe after spending time with him that he really wants to learn, that he really wants to do a good job for all Americans. I really do.”

There are larger racial injustices in the country, he said, and those injustices need to be fixed — though not in ways that would enable dependence, he clarified, but rather to “give people a hand up, not a handout.” He noted the low black unemployment rate under Mr. Trump. The answer to racism lies primarily in the church, not the government, he said, and now that white pastors are waking up to the pain that black people have felt, it is in many ways a hopeful time.

“I think that there’s an anger and a hurt right now, and a fear,” he said, “and I think that people are going to get past that.”

A few thoughts:

–No real plans. No restitution. No redistribution. No change in power. No theological change. People are somehow “going to get past” the “anger” and “hurt” and that’s all that matters. Once the black people calm down the white people can be comfortable again.

–Yes, it’s personal to your “black pastor friends.” Why isn’t it personal to you? You’ve got all sorts of advantages because you’re white, you’re seeing people around you being dehumanized and you’re a Christian pastor, and somehow it’s “history” to you.

–That sermon put an awful burden on people of color in the congregation. Many no doubt handled it with grace. Some probably enjoyed it. But the method seems burdensome, and misses the point.

–He titled the sermon “A Lack of Understanding,” and now turns around and wants to clarify that he doesn’t regret voting for Trump or encouraging his congregation to vote for Trump. They were merely “electing what we felt was the person who held the values that the church loves dearly the most.” He condemns himself. I bet Mr. Morris imagines that he has a “pro-life” outlook on things.

–He reveals himself as either a liar or a fool. He says, “I do believe after spending time with [Trump] that he really wants to learn, that he really wants to do a good job for all Americans. I really do.” In other words, my sermon was about trying to understand how black people feel, but I did not mean that my thinking should change. My opinion is the only one that really matters.

–Then he lays out a politics of church supremacy. The church will somehow solve racism. It’s not the government’s job. (I will respect that position as soon as you hold to it on more than one issue).

I’ve continued to hope against hope that the church will move against racism. It certainly won’t do so under the leadership of people like Pastor Morris. All of this would look different if there was a legitimate debate to be had about Trump’s racism. Since it is a known quantity, those who deny it, like Pastor Morris, are twisting a knife into their fellow Christians. Megachurch pastors don’t get to plead ignorance. People like this should not be in any position of church leadership.

Remembering Billy Graham


Here’s how historians (and a few smart pundits) are remembering Billy Graham.

Melani Mcalister says Graham helped to take evangelicalism global:

He used his status as the most important American religious figure of the 20th century to help lead American evangelicals into a more robust engagement with the rest of the world. He was also an institution builder who was deeply invested in Christianity as a global faith.

There were other people who taught more missionaries, and some who reached more people on television; there were even those whose preaching events rivaled Graham’s in size. But no one else did as much to turn evangelicalism into an international movement that could stand alongside—and ultimately challenge—both the Vatican and the liberal World Council of Churches for the mantle of global Christian leadership.

Mark Noll and George Marsden think about historical context and Graham’s influence:

Noll: My own sense as a historian trying to look at circumstances is that several things came together to make Graham so effective and influential: his own charisma and his life-long faithfulness to his preaching vocation, but also the fact that he emerged (a) immediately after World War II when audiences were prepared for a fresh gospel message, (b) just as leaders like Carl Henry and Harold John Ockenga were leading a wide portion of northern American fundamentalism toward a broader and more positive evangelical witness, (c) when an audience consisting of the moderates of conservative Protestantism and the conservatives of moderate Protestantism were able to work together, and (d) just as modern means of communication like TV were making possible wide impact by photogenic personalities.

Marsden: During and just after World War II there was an upsurge of interest in religion in America at just about every level, from healing-oriented tent revivalists to intellectuals. Especially in the late 1940s even some mainstream thinkers talked about whether some sort of Christian renewal might be necessary if Western civilization were to recover from its recent debacle. The war and its aftermath also generated popular interest in religion as veterans and others married, moved to the suburbs, and raised families. Youth for Christ already had an effective ministry during the war, and Billy was only one of quite a few effective evangelists of the time. His personal charisma and effective intense preaching style just brought him to the top among these. The combination of a traditional gospel of personal salvation and declarations that the future of civilization was at stake (in the age of anxieties over the bomb and the Cold War and also about the corrupting influence of prosperity and mass culture) helped him speak exactly to the mood of the times for many people.

Matthew Avery Sutton says Graham was a failure:

When Billy Graham stands before the judgment seat of God, he may finally realize how badly he failed his country, and perhaps his God. On civil rights and the environmental crisis, the most important issues of his lifetime, he championed the wrong policies.

Graham was on the wrong side of history.

The world’s most famous evangelist let his apocalyptic anticipation of the coming kingdom of God blind him to the realities of living in this world.

John Turner says Graham took evangelicalism mainstream but also politicized it:

Graham played a major role in dragging much of American fundamentalism into the camp of the “new evangelicalism,” meaning among other things a greater openness toward popular culture and a less combative tone toward theological moderates. Certainly, one should also credit Carl F. H. Henry, Harold Ockenga, and many others, but Graham’s influence dwarfed all others during the internecine fundamentalist battles of the 1950s.

Graham played an important role in the post-WWII politicization of American evangelicalism. His early sermons strongly reflect the anti-communism of the early Cold War, and his relationship with Richard Nixon accelerated the courtship between Republicans and evangelicals in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While Graham himself pulled back from more overt forms of political activism after Watergate and signaled a shift toward political moderation, many evangelicals followed the trail he had blazed during Nixon’s first term.

Jonathan Merritt praises Graham for distancing himself from the Christian Right later in his career:

Today, when Mr. Graham passed from this life into the next, we lost perhaps the last true evangelical statesman. Filling the space he vacated is a new crop of religious leaders who would do well to live as Mr. Graham did — resisting the pull of partisanship, standing courageously in the middle; speaking with love and mutual respect for those who claim other parties; clinging to the Gospel, but not in a way that marginalizes listeners based on their political affiliations.

America’s preacher has left us, and we need him now more than ever.

George Will says Graham was no prophet:

Jesus said “a prophet hath no honor in his own country.” Prophets take adversarial stances toward their times, as did the 20th century’s two greatest religious leaders, Martin Luther King and Pope John Paul II. Graham did not. Partly for that reason, his country showered him with honors.

Michael Gerson says Graham was “consumed by grace”:

Billy Graham was easily the most influential evangelical Christian of the 20th century — a man at home in the historical company of George Whitefield and John Wesley.

But this would be hard to tell from reading his sermons, which even close associates described as ordinary. His books are hardly more memorable. So what was it that compelled hundreds of millions of people to attend and watch his evangelistic “crusades” and to find personal transformation in his words?

Graham’s global ministry was the triumph of complete sincerity, expressed with a universally accessible simplicity. “There is no magic, no manipulation,” said publicist Gavin Reid. “The man just obviously believes what he says.” Graham could display charisma in meetings with presidents and queens. In the pulpit — the place of his calling from an early age — he was nearly transparent, allowing a light behind him to shine through him. He had the power of a man utterly confident in some other, greater power.

In my fundamentalist childhood, I remember Graham being variously an object of suspicion (for his ecumenism) and admiration (for his commitment to preaching the gospel). Encountering him as an adult, a Christian, and a historian is a different and complicated experience. His flaws are apparent, but I can’t judge him harshly. He grew toward goodness. On many days, that’s more than I can say for myself.

Billy Graham Has Died

graham la

Advertising the 1949 Los Angeles Crusade that made Graham a national figure

Billy Graham has died. There is much to criticize in Graham’s long career, but much to learn from as well. What stands out to me about Graham’s life is growth. Like other great historical figures, he was not static. As Graham’s influence expanded, so too did his moral vision. We’re all flawed. Only some of us become better as we age. Only rarely do powerful people become more compassionate as their power grows. But that’s what Billy Graham did.

He came from a provincial southern fundamentalism. Graham was so unsophisticated that even Wheaton College was a new world for him. As a young man he had a taste for fancy clothes and finer things, perhaps an early hint of how in his worst moments he would become blinded by his proximity to power. But Graham’s meteoric ascent also revealed a growing maturity.

In 1956 Look Magazine asked Graham if he was a fundamentalist. Graham replied,

If by fundamentalism you mean ‘narrow’, ‘bigoted’, ‘prejudiced’, ‘extremist’, ‘emotional’, ‘snakehandler’ without social conscience – then I am not a fundamentalist. However, if by fundamentalist you mean a person who accepts the authority of the scriptures, the virgin birth of Christ, his bodily resurrection, his second coming and personal salvation by grace through faith, then I am a fundamentalist. However, I much prefer being called ‘Christian’.

The cynic’s take is that this was nothing more than rebranding on the part of Graham and a cadre of elite white neo-evangelicals. It certainly was that. But that’s not all it was. Graham’s desire to simply be known as a Christian indicated a broadening of his vision. As he aged, Graham would become increasingly ecumenical and respectful of other traditions. For that he earned the contempt of fundamentalists.

Graham’s failures were many. At times he preached a vague civil religion, a Cold War religious nationalism that had little to do with following Jesus. He struggled to see beyond his investments in American nationalism and American whiteness. He could have struck a major blow for the civil rights movement, but instead his faith in individual conversion made him a useful avatar for colorblind reactionary politics. He conflated Christianity and Republicanism. Indeed, it is fair to ask if Billy Graham was the first court evangelical.

But if he was the first court evangelical, it’s a role he came to regret. Graham’s post-watergate career was not without problems, but the direction of his movement was clear. While a newly visible Christian Right would embrace the politics of fear and hatred, Graham tried to keep his distance. He seemed to stand for something more simple and more winsome: we’re all sinners, Jesus loves us, turn to him.

As we mark Graham’s passing it is easy to dwell on his failures. But I hope we will also appreciate how he grew over time and became a figure of comfort and inspiration to millions. In an age when many Christian voices promote hatred, Graham’s sermons offer a different message: God loves you. Tragically, Graham struggled to instill this message in his own children. Franklin Graham’s current behavior is not just a slander against the name of Jesus, it is a profound repudiation of the arc of his father’s life. Billy Graham was willing to learn and change. We need more people like that in public life.

Searching for a Christian Sense of the Common Good


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.

Living and Teaching in an Age of Crisis


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!

Two Presidents: One Godless, One Christian


President Obama in Charleston, South Carolina, June, 2015.

Shout out to Alicia for drawing my attention this morning to the following juxtaposition. In the first video, we have President Trump speaking this week to the Values Voters Summit:

In the second video, we have President Obama delivering a eulogy after the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina:

In the first video, you see a President with no understanding of Christianity. He has no internal knowledge of faith to draw upon that might render his religious words credible. And so he speaks in the only language he knows: that of transaction and identitarian symbols. He speaks to an interest group, muttering tinny phrases remarkable only for their shimmering hollowness.

The words he uses are only those he has figured out his audience wants to hear. This base kind of cunning is perhaps his only distinguishing feature of intelligence. It’s a calculation not unlike that of a puppy which has learned how to get a treat.

Trump would find it impossible to explain why Christmas might be theologically important. But he’s damn sure going to say the word!

President Trump has not tried to hide his distaste for Christianity and what it stands for. While Christians look out on a world governed by grace and seek to be agents of reconciliation and forgiveness, Trump boasts that might is right, that power and power alone counts in life. And he promises to deploy his power on behalf of scared Christians. They love him for that.

The “Christian” Right’s affection for a Godless president is not so surprising. For among the many things and people the Christian Right has always seemed to dislike is Christianity itself. They’re too busy trying to take over the country to bother with someone as naive as Jesus.

In the second video, you see a President immersed in theological reflection, attuned to Christian idioms, inviting his audience explore the possibilities of Christian hope. President Obama’s extended meditation on grace shows a thorough understanding of orthodox Christian theology. It is moving and profound. It comes from a place of understanding. It is impossible to imagine President Trump delivering such a message.

There are reasons to be cautious about President Obama’s religious language. He often deployed it for nationalist purposes, using Scripture meant for the church and applying it to America. That’s dangerous. But if white evangelicals believed their own claims—that this is a Christian nation—they ought to have loved Obama’s rhetoric.

Why were most white evangelicals unable to appreciate the faith of President Obama? As Alicia pointed out this morning, the problem was not only that Obama often spoke in the tradition of the social gospel. The problem was that—as you see in the Charleston eulogy—his faith was black. In the white evangelical mainstream, true Christianity—that which is mature, biblically correct, normative—is implicitly white.

You might argue it’s not fair to compare speeches given in such different contexts. But that’s actually part of the point: President Trump is incapable of giving the kind of speech President Obama gave. And the reason for that is not only because President Trump is an inferior public speaker. It’s because he’s so hostile to Christianity.

It’s Too Bad Billy Sunday Isn’t Around To Campaign for Roy Moore


While doing lecture prep today it occurred to me that Roy Moore and Billy Sunday might have gotten along really well. Moore has cultivated an image as a fighter, as God’s man standing against the forces of liberalism and secularism. He believes America is a Christian nation. On Tuesday Moore defeated incumbent Alabama Senator Luther Strange in the Republican primary. The Senate is probably about to have its first contemporary full-fledged Christian nationalist. But Moore’s brand of reactionary politics and populist appeal under the banner of Christian nationalism is not at all new.

Billy Sunday, a popular fundamentalist preacher in the early twentieth century, leveraged his former career as a professional baseball player to garner crowds with the overt physicality of his preaching. His message, like Moore’s, was nationalistic and reactionary. As Frances Fitzgerald relates in her recent book, The Evangelicals, when the 100% Americanism craze swept across the country during the Great War Billy Sunday was happy to ride that wave. “Christianity and patriotism are synonymous terms,” he declared. During the Red Scare he supported the Palmer Raids and urged on the racist immigration restriction laws.

In his book, American Apocalypse, Mathew Avery Sutton describes Sunday concluding one of his revival meetings by leaping onto the pulpit and waving an American flag. On another occasion, Sunday declared, “No man can be true to his God without being true to his country.”

Sunday was a premillenialist who believed the world was going to hell in a handbasket. But that didn’t stop him from conflating faith and nation in the meantime. With a little poking around on Google I haven’t confirmed that Moore is a premillenialist, but I’d be a bit surprised if he isn’t.

Billy Sunday died in 1935 but he remained something of a legendary figure in some circles. His influence is suggested in this photo of a very young Billy Graham: