Chosen Nation: A Conversation with Benjamin W. Goossen

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Benjamin W. Goossen is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in A Global Era (Princeton, 2017). He is also the co-founder, along with Devin Manzullo-Thomas, of the Anabaptist Historians blog. In a recent email exchange, I asked Goossen a few questions about his excellent book.

What is the argument of Chosen Nation?

My book is an exploration of the relationship between Mennonites and German nationalism over the past two centuries. When members of the general public think about Mennonites, they probably think of two things right away: 1) Mennonites are German, and 2) Mennonites are pacifists. Chosen Nation describes how, in fact, neither of these assumptions is necessarily true. Prior to about 1850, few to no Mennonites worldwide thought of themselves as German (that’s a self-identity that came later), while since about 1990, most Mennonites worldwide are people of color. Perhaps even more surprising, by the end of the First World War, most Mennonites in Europe had given up pacifism, and during World War II, thousands fought for the Nazis.

I use these stories in Chosen Nation to make a larger point about the relationship between religion and nationalism. As a case study, Mennonite history demonstrates that religious and national identities are not necessarily distinct. Rather, they are often quite fluid and can even be swapped in and out with each other.

Why is it important for American Mennonites to read this book? 

Chosen Nation tells a story of Mennonites’ involvement with Nazism and the Holocaust that, until now, has not been widely known. At the height of the Second World War, about a fourth of the denomination lived in Hitler’s Third Reich, and Mennonites in Europe disproportionately benefited from racism and genocide. After the war, church organizations on both sides of the Atlantic helped to cover up that story, arguing that those Mennonites involved had been peaceful anti-fascists who suffered like Jews. It’s important that Mennonites talk about this history and think critically about how we as a peace church can and should respond.

More generally, I hope that Chosen Nation can help many people – Mennonites, but also others – recognize that many of the identities we inhabit have unexpected histories, and that often, the beliefs we hold are not as clear-cut as we might think. What does it mean to be an American or a Christian or a Mennonite or a pacifist? These are some of the questions that I hope readers will come away thinking about for themselves.

One of the really striking things about your book is the way you describe historical narratives (or myths) being constructed and contested in efforts to define who Mennonites were and where they belonged. It seems to me that in the act of describing and analyzing this, you are becoming a participant in it. Did you consciously set out to give Mennonites new usable pasts? Or is the sustenance religious communities want from historical memory hopelessly separated from what academic historians are prepared to provide?

Historians have for decades been uncovering how the stories that groups tell themselves about their pasts are frequently “invented traditions.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that such stories are fabrications (although some are), but more often that the way they’re told reveals a carefully curated process of selection, and that such tales are intended to advance certain political or ideological objectives. A classic example would be the mythology that we in the US have built up around the American Revolution and our “founding fathers.” Early colonists had many things on their minds – such as military expansion and slavery – but a lot of that gets lost in, say, stories about chopping down cherry trees, sewing the star-spangled banner, or sharing the first Thanksgiving.

My point is that the stories we as communities tell about the past – whether as Americans, Mennonites, or anyone else – are at once deeply political and also vitally important. Chosen Nation offers an account of Anabaptist history that is factually grounded in extensive archival research and through dialogue with previous historical scholarship. But to the extent that all historians must make choices about which stories they tell and what elements of those stories to emphasize, I have very intentionally tried to construct a history that pushes Mennonites to be the best church that we can be. We should be honest about the dark parts of our past, and we should constantly strive to recognize and alleviate injustice in the world around us. That’s a project shared by a great number of other historians of Christianity, including my wonderful fellow contributors at Anabaptist Historians.

Writing academically about a religious community to which you have a personal connection can be complicated, to say the least. How have you navigated that tension?

Being Mennonite is actually what got me interested in history. Many historians learn about their subjects through the research process, so in some ways I did it the other way around. Chosen Nation began as a way for me to learn about and think through some of the incongruities I felt between my religious tradition and my theological faith. For example: why did I grow up thinking about myself as a member of a persecuted minority when I am in fact a white Christian male – someone with about as much privilege as it is possible to get? Why did I grow up in an ethnically exclusionary community proud of being “German” when in church every Sunday I heard preaching about the value of humility and the universality of God’s love?

As a historian working within the broader social sciences, I’m lucky to be part of an academic tradition that has considered extensively how scholars can and should interact with the communities that they study. There are many schools of thought here, but I’d like to highlight a distinction made by Kim TallBear, a professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. Rather than “giving back” to the indigenous communities she writes about, TallBear prefers to think about her scholarship and advocacy as “standing with” those people. For me, similarly, the Mennonite church is not a separate entity, but a community with which I am entangled; our futures develop together.

How does your book help scholars of other religious and national communities to think more carefully about the intersection/fluidity of religious and national identities?

My hope is that other scholars who read Chosen Nation and who read it in light of their own research projects will come away with a desire to think about religion and nationalism together. Instead of separating them into distinct categories, it’s important to acknowledge that religious and national factors, strategies, and ways of being often influence each other. Too many scholars, not to mention members of the general public, still think about religious and national history as being separate from each other – but I don’t think it’s possible to tell the full story of, say, American Christianity without thinking long and hard about how that first part – “American” – is modifying “Christianity,” and vice versa.

The second idea is that the fundamental practices and beliefs espoused by religious and national communities can and frequently do change dramatically over time. I don’t think it makes sense to talk about “Mennonites” or “Germans” (or any other group, such as, say, “Buddhists” or “Brazilians”) as having stable, eternal essences or identities. It’s worth differentiating exactly what these labels mean to individual practitioners as well as how they develop in particular moments and spaces. At the same time, it’s important not to get lost in debates about tiny differences between branches of otherwise similar groups. We should keep in mind larger pictures of how group narratives and myths cohere. As often as not, disunity and discontinuity are in fact critical to how collective identities are both formed and articulated.

Thanks Dr. Goossen!

A Must-Read White Evangelical Self-Critique

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If white evangelicalism is ever to become a force for good in the world (you may disagree with the premise but I take it as axiomatic that it is not that now) it must confront its history and tell it anew. It must realize that the story of an evangelicalism that held fast to the faith while the modernists betrayed it is a self-serving myth.

In reality, the white evangelical mainstream in the 20th century was generally a heresy. Instead of carrying the undiluted good news faithfully through the choppy waters of modernity, it bowed down to the most insidious gods of the age—race, nationalism, materialism. White evangelicalism was often the opposite of good news. It was not, to put it in evangelical lingo, a saving faith. It was not news worth sharing.

As both a historian and an evangelical, I reject the idea that the bleak picture sketched above is the whole picture. There were moments of redemption, places of good news, people of noble faith. But when white evangelicals turn this happy story into the whole story they don’t just obscure the darker side, they actively reinforce the hubris of a religious community seeking to avoid repentance.

We won’t act righteously in the present without rebuilding our story from the ground up. The task at hand is not to hold true to the faith of our ancestors as much as to recognize and repent of the sins—their and ours—that have formed us.

At a recent meeting of evangelical leaders at Wheaton College, Dr. Mark Labberton, the President of Fuller Seminary, gave a speech showing what this can look like. The speech is remarkable for its honesty, moral clarity, and historical consciousness. There’s very little excuse-making here. Instead, in a spirit of humility, he reckons not only with what white evangelicalism has become, but with what it has long been:

This is not a recent crisis but a historic one.  We face a haunting specter with a shadow that reaches back further than the 2016 election—a history that helps define the depth of the sorrow, fear, anger, anxiety, and injustice around us. Today’s egregious collusion between evangelicals and worldly power is problematic enough: more painful and revealing is that such collusion has been our historic habit. Today’s collusion bears astonishing—and tragic—continuity with the past.

Right alongside the rich history of gospel faithfulness that evangelicalism has affirmed, there lies a destructive complicity with dominant cultural and racial power. Despite deep gospel confidence and rhetoric, evangelicalism has been long-wedded to a devastating social self-interest that defends the dominant culture over and against that of the gospel’s command to love the “other” as ourselves.  We are not naïve in our doctrine of sin that prefers self over all, but we have failed to recognize our own guilt in it.

Our professed trust in Jesus has not led evangelicals to die to ourselves, but often to justify our own self-assertion—even when that means complicity in the suffering and death of others. The scandal associated today with the evangelical gospel is not the scandal of the Cross of Christ, crucified for the salvation of the world.  Rather it is the scandal of our own arrogance, unconfessed before the Cross, revealing a hypocritical superiority that we dare to associate with the God who died to save the weak and the lost.

Labberton goes on to identify “the top four arenas in which this violation of spiritual and moral character has shown itself.” He names power, race, nationalism, and economics. Here he is on the question of race:

The Bible knows all people to be fully human, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image, knit together in our mother’s womb. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, not just those who arrive as poor, hard-working immigrants fleeing violence or those wasting away in private prisons.  All are dead and in Christ made alive, and the evidence of the resurrection is that the peculiar body of God’s people, a new humanity of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are to be the evidence of a resurrected God. This is the glory of creation and new creation.

Those of us who are white evangelicals must acknowledge that our story is intertwined with, and often responsible for, much of the violence and oppression around racial injustice in our American story.  The stories of Native American, African American, Latino/a, or Asian peoples in the history of the United States cannot be told truthfully without naming the role of white evangelicals who testified to a God of redemption but whose theological, political, social, and economic choices contributed to suffering and injustice.  Stories of devastation are often absent from a happier white evangelical narrative of promised-land life, or buried in a sanitized story that claims that past injustice is not relevant for people of color today—despite the fact that nearly all people of color experience racism and its implications every day around the nation, including those in this room today.

This unreckoned-with reality of white evangelical racism permeates American life, and its tinderbox was lit on fire by the rhetoric of our national life in recent years—whether in reference to Ferguson, or Charlottesville, or “shithole countries” deemed without value. White history narrates the story of America’s heroes, and white evangelical history views those “good guys” as the providence of a good and faithful God.  When some white evangelicals triumphantly pronounce that we now have “the best president the religious right ever had,” the crisis it underscores to millions of people of color is not an indictment of our President as much as it is an indictment of white evangelicalism and a racist gospel.

Read the whole thing. Note the lack of defensiveness and simple honesty. Insofar as his views represent the kind of training seminary students are receiving at Fuller, will these future pastors be able to get jobs in the white evangelical mainstream? I don’t know, but it’s encouraging to see such careful Christian thinking from a white evangelical leader. If only the average white evangelical cared even a little bit about Christian thinking.

Martin Luther King 50 Years Later

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King at the front of a march that descended into violence. Memphis, March 28, 1968

In his last Sunday sermon before he died, Dr. King said this:

It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism.

In the final months of his life, Dr. King wasn’t beating around the bush. White Americans, he said, embraced racism as a way of life. One way to honor him half a century after his death is to speak in similarly blunt terms. Racism is not just acceptable among white Americans in 2018, it is often honored. Racism is honored every time someone proudly tells you they support the President.

This reversal of norms against public racism is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy when the President of the United States speaks in proto-genocidal language and the American people don’t even realize it. It’s a double-tragedy because it is harmful all by itself while also inflicting wounds by distraction. Many of us (myself very much included) have withdrawn our attention from the ongoing crises of poverty, segregation, incarceration and police brutality. Instead, we focus on the lowest of low-hanging fruit: critiquing the racism of Donald Trump and his supporters.

It’s as if Martin Luther King had spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to convince white people that, actually, George Wallace really was racist. You almost laugh out loud at the thought of it. Of course he didn’t bother with that. King kept his focus on the bigger picture.

50 years after his death, we’re reluctant to face the man who appeared in the Spring of 1968 as a despised and declining figure. Heckled by black power advocates and hated by white conservatives, King struggled to stay relevant in a society that seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The left increasingly saw his program of militant nonviolent activism as irrelevant, while the right looked on it as a profoundly cynical method of extortion.

We honor him now, but 50 years ago most Americans just wanted him to admit defeat and go away. When he died, some white evangelical leaders implied he had only reaped what he sowed.

In our time, American across the political spectrum find their way toward admiration of Dr. King by erasing key parts of his theology and agenda. Much of the left doesn’t want to learn from King about the moral and strategic imperative of nonviolence. To them, King’s Christian activism reeks of respectability politics. The right doesn’t want to learn from King’s radical challenge to the American economy and way of life.

Plenty of people are happy to think of King as a Christian or as a radical. It is harder for us to grasp that there was no or for Dr. King. He was both. Switch the order of the words and you get slightly different connotations—radical Christian, Christian radical—but both connotations work for King.

King’s Christian activism has much to teach us. Among the lessons are these:

The ends don’t justify the means. Your goals don’t make you righteous. Your actions do.

Love is not a sentimental abstraction. It is what enables oppressed people to pursue justice without the struggle devolving into zero-sum score settling.

Formal equality is hollow without economic empowerment.

The purpose of economic empowerment of the poor is not to expand the debt-addled money-worshiping middle class. It is to promote the dignity and worth of every human being. Economic justice for the poor is not possible without a spiritual assault on the lies of materialism. People are more important than things. And people will not have their deepest needs satisfied by things. A materialistic society can try to buy off the poor with charity, but it cannot do justice to the poor because materialism causes us to treat human beings as disposable.

Nonviolence is not merely a tactic. It is a way of life that rebukes everything from the violence of American policing to our obsession with guns to our militaristic foreign policy around the world.

Nonviolence does not mean acceptance of double-standards or treating all violence as equal. King rejected violence, but refused to put all violence in the same category. With black neighborhoods engaged in a series of deadly uprisings in the 1960s, King refused to provide the condemnation the white media craved. The violent selfishness of the oppressor is of a different kind and magnitude than the violent groans of the oppressed. King kept the focus where it belonged and rebuked the real purveyors of violence.

Nonviolence does not mean passivity or accepting the premises of your opponent. King bluntly called most white Americans “racist” and “sick.” They saw this as deeply unfair and mean-spirited. But if you limit yourself to discourse within the boundaries of the oppressor’s epistemology you can’t be truthful.

With these lessons in mind we can begin to see why at the end of his life King was talking about the need to fight the interrelated problems of racism, materialism, and militarism. All three are dehumanizing forces. All three are alive and well today. 50 years after Dr. King’s death, we have so much work to do.

Thoughts for Sunday

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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

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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?

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.