Notes from the Classroom: Teaching Evangelical Popular Culture

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

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

A Thief in the Night

Larry Norman

Stryper

Amy Grant

DC Talk

Michael W. Smith

Left Behind

God’s Not Dead

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

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

Populist and frequently apocalyptic

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

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

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

A driver of group identity/cohesion

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

An expression of enduring insider/outsider tension

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

Implicitly political

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

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

There is Still Hope for Evangelicalism

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My imagined self in my study: the Christian scholar at work.

John Fea has been reporting on his experiences at last week’s “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference. The gathering took as its theme a revisiting of Mark Noll’s classic book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (the scandal is that there is no such thing as an evangelical mind). In a post yesterday titled “Evangelicalism as a Mission Field for Evangelical Scholars,” Fea reports that Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith really brought the heat in the final plenary session:

Very early in his talk Smith announced that “everything going on in this conference has no connection whatsoever to evangelical churches.”  He was right.

Smith began by addressing the “elephant in room.”  Up until this point all of the speakers danced around the links between the the so-called “scandal of the evangelical mind” and Donald J. Trump.  Smith called out the 81% of American evangelicals who voted for the current POTUS and even gave a shout-out to my work on the “court evangelicals.”

Smith was not optimistic about the state of the evangelical mind.  The “evangelical mind,” he lamented, is a “minority report at best.”  If such an evangelical mind does exist, it is found almost entirely in “confessional groups.”  In other words, it is not thriving, or perhaps even existing, in non-denominational churches. These congregations have grown from 194,000 in 1990 to eight million today.  According to Smith, those concerned about the evangelical mind should be devoted to closing the gap between the scholarly world and these churches.  Evangelicalism, he argued, is a “mission field for evangelical scholars.”

Following Smith’s call will require boldness on the part of Christian scholars.  Smith urged us to consider a “scholarship for the masses,” a “scholarship without condescension,” an “outreach scholarship, and a “translation scholarship.”  Our work with the church should be something akin to the work we do in undergraduate classroom teaching.  Smith imagined bringing our general education programs into the churches

Smith calls Christian scholars to critique American evangelicalism while at the same time working for reform.  The Christian Right, he said, is “invested in the anti-intellectualism of evangelical churches.”  They rely on non-thinking Christians in order to advance their political agendas.  The fulfillment of Smith’s vision will require evangelical scholars to stay in their churches and engage in a “come alongside scholarship.”  He reminded us that “you can’t be a prophet on your way out the door.” Such work will require scholars dedicated to the church, Christian colleges and universities willing to provide time to faculty who want to pursue this work, and patrons willing to fund such an effort.

This really resonates with me, but I’m not optimistic in the near term. It often seems that the space has all but closed for evangelical scholars to do work that is both appealing to ordinary evangelicals and committed to intellectual integrity. We want to serve a constituency that doesn’t want to be served. We want to serve God with our minds, and many of our co-religionists find the very idea absurd.

This is also an intellectual problem for my dissertation because part of what I’m exploring is evangelical colleges. At the outset of my work, I just assumed that they mattered, that they have real influence in evangelicalism. But I’ve become increasingly skeptical of claims of broad influence. It seems that most evangelical colleges are either largely impotent in their attempts to reach the evangelical mainstream and they’re actually training students for roles outside evangelicalism, or they are not actually fostering the intellectual and social environment they imagine themselves to be creating. Maybe it’s a little of both.

There is still hope for evangelicalism. The movement that has transformed into an anti-intellectual crusade of hatred and fear is—broadly speaking—the movement that contributed to America’s religious disestablishment in the 18th century and paved the way to abolition in the 19th century. And beyond its often positive social and political effects, evangelicalism has always captured something essential about the Christian life. It has scorned respectable religion and insisted that an encounter with Jesus radiates outward through the whole life, engaging the heart, the mind, and every dimension of our being.

We are witnessing the splintering and shrinking of evangelicalism, but what is being lost is dead weight, worse than useless for the Kingdom of God. And as any good evangelical should know, nothing is reborn until it dies.

Song of the Day

In his new album out this week, Christian rapper Lecrae says a definitive goodbye to all the colorblind Christians who wanted him to be their puppet:

There is so much to be said about this song, but for now, I think I may have found a header lyric for my entire book:

Hey, you want unity? Then read a eulogy
Kill the power that exists up under you and over me
I said, you want unity? Then read a eulogy
Kill the power that exists up under you and over me.

What do you think that means?

And I have some colleagues who will appreciate this:

You grew up thinkin’ that the Panthers was some terrorists
I grew up hearin’ how they fed my momma eggs and grits.

Evangelical Leaders Support DACA. Does It Matter?

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When you study evangelicalism in the civil rights era, you quickly begin to realize that there was a dramatic divide between elites and ordinary people. Denominational bodies–even white evangelical ones–tended to publish moderate or supportive statements on civil rights. At the same time, the opinions of laypeople in the churches were much more hostile to the civil rights movement. Ordinary people often felt that their denominational leaders did not speak for them.

In the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the DACA program, evangelical leaders of all stripes have spoken out in support of the Dreamers. For example:

The President of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities

My denomination

The National Association of Evangelicals

Lots of other groups. Including the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, National Latino Evangelical Coalition, and World Relief. This is just a sampling. These are not minor organizations.

But the history of evangelicalism in the twentieth century makes me skeptical that these evangelical elites have much power to shape opinion, much less action, among their constituents.

I’m still quite uncertain about how these networks of influence and resistance to change work in evangelicalism. If evangelical leaders are so impotent, what and who are more formative influences on evangelical opinion?

Specifically, I’m thinking of evangelical talk radio. While evangelical leaders spoke supportively of DACA this week, evangelical talk radio hosts were busy explaining why the Trump administration had actually made a reasonable and compassionate decision. Do we have any reliable metrics of the listening audience of these shows? Has anyone tried to quantify their influence? Are these under-the-radar media companies actually more influential than the leaders of major evangelical organizations?

I’m thinking of shows like Point of View, Focal Point, The Line of Fire, In the Market, and so on. There are important differences between these shows—for example, Bryan Fischer is often overtly hateful, while Janet Parshall is more winsome and sincere in her brand of patriotic conservative Christianity—but they share a common conflation of the gospel and Republican politics. I wonder if they have more influence in many congregations than the pastor.

Evangelicalism is diffuse. Leaders speak for themselves. There is no army marching in lockstep behind them. It is nice that so many evangelical leaders made supportive public statements about DACA. But when it comes to the hard stuff of politics—money, votes, civil disobedience—will they show up, and do they have a real constituency? I’m not hopeful. My gut says most white evangelicals are content with the hateful public witness that has become the norm for our faith.

Jonny Rashid, pastor of a Brethren in Christ church here in Philadelphia, gets it right:

You might read this and just think I’m being political. You have to know that this is a deeply personal issue because of the meaning assigned to my skin color by the dominators. Thank Jesus, I’m freed from their judgment and condemnation. I am one-in-Christ, not because of their whitewashing, but because my Lord conquers racism. I gladly relinquish my assigned racial identity for the cross, but it goes both ways, the dominators must reject theirs which offers the initial assignment.

I do not just care about this issue, though, because I am brown. As it turns out, both of my brown children are citizens, and so were my sister and I when my parents immigrated here. So we are “safe.” But the rhetoric that this spews into the air, and the violence that always follows, is not good for us or for others.

Furthermore, the Bible is littered with passages about welcoming the stranger. Jesus is explicit in Matthew 25, so is the Levitical law, and Paul, himself, in what is the greatest masterworks of the New Testament is enraged at the prospect that we would separate anyone as a result of their cultural or ethnic heritage. The Christian witness has consistently been to stand with the oppressed and the immigrant.

And now, with a small, but loud, segment of the Evangelical community making up the bulk of Trump’s base, Christians have a chance to reject and denounce the heartless end to the program and take a stand. I doubt they will, though.

The Trump Administration gives Christians, whose reputation is tattered in the media (need I mention the fundamentalist Nashville Statement or Joel Osteen’s reputation risk management last week?), a chance to redeem themselves almost every day. There is always something evil that the administration is doing that Christians should oppose. And I’m not talking about complex policy, these issues are simple: oppose white supremacy, support safety for children of immigrants, care for the environment, don’t start another war or escalate a nuclear one. No theology or political science degree required.

For Christians, we are not to submit to evil institutions that do not follow the way of Jesus. You can twist Romans 13 to justify any of that, I suppose, but as a Christian the law is not the final word or final answer. And that is my hope, despite the evil of the state, for all the children who might be affected by the end of DACA. Your safety, ultimately, is in Jesus, not in the state or the country—it is not exactly hospitable for you here. We serve a God of all nations who commands us to welcome the stranger. This is not just a question of peace and justice, it is a question of obedience to God.

Resisting evil is not just a matter of saving our witness, but follow God. Jesus made it clear. You are either with him or you are not. I am sure Trump will give us more chances to stand up for our witness, but I pray we stand against the evil of the government for the sake of the Gospel now. I want to do it before it becomes increasingly ridiculous to entertain the notion of following Jesus. There are cosmic consequences to Christian inaction if we really believe what we say we do. And Jesus might be preparing a millstone for inaction of his purported followers who lead people astray from him. Lord, have mercy.

This, Too, Is Evangelicalism

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I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months drawing attention to the pathologies of evangelicalism. So I want to mention three items in the aftermath of Charlottesville that show a different side of the evangelical movement. First, an open letter signed by hundreds of Christian scholars, many of whom work at white evangelical colleges.

​Like many Americans, we are grieved by recent events in Charlottesville. The white supremacist rally there showed that overt racism is alive and well in America, and that it can turn violent and murderous. As Christian scholars of American history, politics, and law, we condemn white supremacy and encourage frank dialogue about racism today.

​As Americans, we love our country. As Christians, we know that no individual, people, or nation is perfect. Among the most grievous sins committed by early Americans was the enslavement of and trafficking in Africans and African Americans. Slavery was formally abolished in 1865, but racism was not. Indeed, it was often institutionalized and in some ways heightened over time through Jim Crow legislation, de facto segregation, structural inequalities, and pervasively racist attitudes. And other persons of color, including Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans, have often been subjected to official and unofficial discrimination. What we have seen in Charlottesville makes it clear once again that racism is not a thing of the past, something that brothers and sisters of color have been trying to tell the white church for years.

​Racism should be denounced by religious and civic leaders in no uncertain terms. Equivocal talk about racist groups gives those groups sanction, something no politician or pastor should ever do. As Christian scholars, we affirm the reality that all humans are created in the image of God and should be treated with respect and dignity. There is no good moral, biblical, or theological reason to denigrate others on the basis of race or ethnicity, to exalt one race over others, or to countenance those who do…

We also recognize that white-majority churches and denominations have too often lagged in discussions of racial injustice and inequality, or have even been sources of the perpetuation of white cultural dominance and racial injustice. Because of that history, we pray that America’s churches and Christians will renew their commitment to practical, proactive steps of racial reconciliation and friendship in our cities and towns.

It’s not as strong as I would like, but it’s not nothing. Second, a stronger declaration from the Reformed African American Network:

In Charlottesville, VA, the violence of white supremacy visited our nation once again; its demonic presence has not been exorcised from us. From the founding of this nation until the present hour, the idolatry of whiteness has been a pro-death spirit within our republic. It is easy for us to scapegoat the domestic terrorists who incited violence that ended in the deaths of three Americans. We can call them extremists who do not represent American values, but upon closer examination, the ideology deployed as a weapon in Charlottesville haunts every institution of the country, including the Church.

Thus, it is with great concern for the soul of this nation that we, the undersigned, covenant to “cry loud and spare not” (Isaiah 58:1) against America’s national sin, beginning within the body of Christ. White supremacy—often called by many names including racism, white privilege, “alt-right” and the KKK—is an insidious doctrine that in manifold ways steals, kills, and destroys the inviolable dignity of all God’s children (Genesis 1:26-28). It suppresses the truth of God (Romans 1:18), and walks out of step with the true Gospel (Galatians 2:14). All that is left for an unrepentant stance toward sin is God’s justice and judgement. Alas, many of the Lord’s followers remain hard of heart and hearing, making God’s judgement upon this nation seemingly inevitable.

Judgment begins with the household of God, which has been particularly instrumental in the creation and maintenance of racial inequity. From Puritan pilgrims to Evangelical revivalists, churchmen have been seduced by the spirit of the age, calling evil good and good evil. The blood of indigenous peoples, Africans, and other people of color cries out from American soil to God our Maker. As premature calls for peace seek to silence the pregnant rage of this generation, the words of Scripture come freshly to mind: “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division” (Luke 12:51-53)…

[W]e call upon white leaders and members of the Evangelical church to condemn in the strongest terms the white supremacist ideology that has long existed in the church and our society. Nothing less than a full-throated condemnation can lead to true reconciliation in the Lord’s body. Additionally, this condemnation must not be in word only, but also in deeds that “bring forth fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). As Dr. King notes in Letter from Birmingham Jail, white apathy is worse than white supremacy…

And finally, after Randall Balmer wrote another one of his perennial editorials decrying the racism of white evangelicalism, the President of Fuller Theological Seminary responded:

Randall Balmer shines a light on the scandal embroiling white evangelicalism: President Trump and some evangelicals found one another by mutual resonance with toxic white supremacy. (“Under Trump, evangelicals show their true racist colors,” Opinion, Aug. 23)

There are white people in America who call themselves evangelical yet demonstrate complicity with a white supremacy that scandalizes the gospel — and there are other white evangelicals in America who categorically and publicly disagree.

Balmer points out what many evangelical leaders have been decrying for years and what this election made apparent: that culture sometimes overshadows the gospel in determining the evangelical political vision. Evangelicalism is a movement dedicated to the primacy of faith in the way of Jesus, so this confusion of priorities is a crisis.

The word “evangelical” has morphed from being commonly used to describe a set of theological and spiritual commitments into a passionately defended, theo-political brand. Worse, that brand has become synonymous with social arrogance, ignorance and prejudice — all antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Balmer’s claims, while not new, are deservedly painful for millions of white evangelicals who are deeply offended by racism, repelled by Trump, and who vocally deny the false theo-political brand that co-opts the faith we hold dear.

The call now to these white evangelicals is to subvert the racism within and around us. This must be fueled by honest self-examination and lead to an understanding that we are far more complicit in white supremacy than we might understand. Then, we must repent our guilt.

Repentance is not the seed of shame; its fruit is to empower the repentant ones to actively change course toward justice, both personal and systemic.

Lots of good words here. The scandal is that these intra-evangelical calls to repentance are decades-old, and seem to fall on deaf ears.

 

Was Billy Graham the First “Court Evangelical”?

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Record-cover for the Billy Graham-inspired Honor America Day, July 4, 1970

In the Spring of 1970, President Nixon felt embattled as the growing anti-war movement shut down college campuses and rallied thousands of people just outside the White House. The secret war in Cambodia had come to light, galvanizing protests. The National Guard shootings at Kent State and Jackson State in May added to the sense of crisis.

As Nixon searched for ways to mobilize his “silent majority” of patriotic Americans who believed in the war effort and old-fashioned American values, Billy Graham came to the rescue.

Graham was a lot of things to Nixon: friend, confidant, spiritual and political advisor. But most of all, Graham was someone Nixon could use to sacralize his politics. Just weeks after the shootings at Kent and Jackson, Graham invited Nixon to speak at his Knoxville Crusade. In such a heated atmosphere, Nixon’s appearance was inherently political, and Graham’s words at the rally made it more so. While Nixon sat on stage, Graham reminded his audience that the Bible commanded obedience to authority. When some protestors heckled Graham, he said, “All Americans may not agree with the decisions a president makes, but he is our president.” ¹

And Graham had bigger plans to support his president. Nixon aide Bob Haldeman wrote that Nixon wanted to “try to implement Billy Graham’s idea about a big pro-America rally, maybe on 4th of July.” In June, Graham and conservative comedian Bob Hope duly announced an “Honor America Day” celebration to be held on the national mall on the fourth of July. The event was a great success, but its meaning was in the eye of the beholder. To supporters of Graham and Nixon, the festivities were a wholesome celebration of God and country. To critics, the event was transparently political and cheapened true religion.²

Here’s a clip from Graham’s Honor America Day sermon at the Lincoln Memorial:

Graham isn’t offering evangelical Christianity here. Instead, he promotes a vaguely religious nationalism in which the American Dream is assumed to be sacred. The sermon culminates not in a call to repentance or invitation to follow Jesus, but in a stirring appeal to “pursue the vision, reach toward the goal, fulfill the American Dream.”

Graham would deeply regret his close association with Nixon. He had stuck with him even as the Watergate scandal consumed the administration. Perhaps Graham was naive, or blinded by power and celebrity. Perhaps there is a more generous explanation. In any case, he catastrophically misjudged Nixon’s character, and when Nixon’s true nature could no longer be denied, Graham felt betrayed.³

Later, when the Nixon tapes revealed anti-semitic conversations between Graham and Nixon, the damage to Graham’s reputation was severe. Graham came to believe that his close identification with partisan politics was one of the great mistakes of his career. From then on he tried, with varying success, to distance himself from partisan politics.

Graham had his time at the King’s court. And he realized that the cost—his credibility as a minister of the Gospel—could not be justified. Graham’s mistakes caused many Americans to write him off. But his trajectory in subsequent decades—toward greater inclusion and openness, toward more good news and less partisanship—make him a beloved figure to millions of people in the U.S. and around the world. Say what you will about Billy Graham, but he grew and changed over time, for the better.

Billy Graham’s history makes the present-day activities of his son Franklin and the other Court Evangelicals that much more remarkable. It seems the children have not learned from the sins of the father. Witness Franklin Graham’s prayer at Trump’s Phoenix rally this week:

Graham prays against a variety of evils without seeming to realize that President Trump embodies those very things. He appears, in short, either incredibly foolish or willfully dishonest.

Franklin Graham’s behavior puzzles me. Surely he knows of his father’s regrets. Does he believe Billy took the wrong lesson from being burned by Nixon? His trajectory is the opposite of his father’s, but he seems to want to trade on his father’s name. Does anyone know if Franklin has publicly commented on this?

Franklin ought to already know, but he is likely to learn soon enough: when Christians support a wicked ruler, the end can only be a bitter harvest.


¹ This account relies on Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God (New York: Basic Books, 2015). It’s a fascinating book. You should read it! For the Knoxville Crusade and Graham’s words, see Kruse, 260-263.

²Kruse, 260-274.

³See Grant Wacker’s sympathetic treatment of this and other aspects of Graham’s career in America’s Pastor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

*As always, credit to John Fea for the “court evangelical” term.

A Glimpse of the Evangelical Id

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Paula White

Perhaps I should put “evangelical” in quotes, because I don’t believe the prosperity-gospel preachers have any good news that you couldn’t get more simply from Oprah or a lottery ticket. If you’re looking for the good life, Christianity is the last place you’ll find it. But a lot of evangelicals apparently don’t see it that way.

A year ago, I would not have bothered to bring attention to the video I’m going to show you below. I thought of these folks as fringe figures who had little or nothing to do with evangelicalism. I’ve spent my whole life in evangelical worlds and I can’t recall anyone expressing any respect or support for these people. In fact, we’ve probably mostly thought of them as “so-called” evangelicals. Well, now I wonder if they were the mainstream and I was the fringe.

Brace yourself:

Several things stand out to me about this video.

–“We were sent here to takeover.” This is funny, but you should also take this seriously.

–The unabashed celebration of access. The mood here is, “Praise the Lord, we’re important again!” This is like the pastor with the new Cadillac when the congregation is proud of him instead of wondering why he’s taking all their money. Paula White can go into the White House “anytime she wants to!” And look, the President blurbed her book! If Paula is important, you’re important.

–The importance of a rhetorical posture against abortion without any need to actually pursue abortion-reducing policies.

–The overwhelming triumph of symbolism. What happens in the real world counts for nothing. Instead, let me just touch the pen with which President Trump signed a symbolic statement that didn’t actually role back the Johnson Amendment.

–Throughout this clip, I have no idea when they’re talking about the church, when they’re talking about the nation, or both. The conflation is deliberate. Don’t you know God made a covenant with America?

It seems obvious to me that these folks are promoting fake Christianity and making fools of themselves. But I’ve long since given up believing I have the pulse of mainstream white evangelicalism.

my friend the enemy

After encountering black evangelical William Pannell in the archives, I picked up his 1968 book, My Friend, the Enemy. It’s a fascinating read. Deeply relevant and contemporary in parts, while also being a clear product of the peculiar 1968 moment. If you think American society is more divided than ever, you don’t remember 1968. Pannell’s book came out in a time of rioting and violence and bitterness. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse and people really didn’t know where the bottom was.

In that moment, Pannell wrote with righteous anger to the white evangelical community (refer back to the title!). Pannell was deeply embedded in evangelicalism. A longtime professor at Fuller, he also worked with the campus ministry Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, the black evangelist Tom Skinner, and had a hand in numerous other projects and organizations. He received his early education at Wayne Bible College, a white fundamentalist school in Indiana. He was straddling the often separate worlds of black and white evangelicalism.

According to a retrospective article from Fuller Studio, white colleagues who thought they knew Pannell were shocked when the book came out:

It came from some place so deep in Bill that longtime white friends said they did not believe he wrote it. One insisted it was written by an outside agitator, because “that’s just not the Bill Pannell that I knew.” Both had grown up in the same small Michigan town, so Bill’s reply was harsh but true: “That’s because you didn’t know Bill Pannell,” he said, “or the world I lived in.” It was possible for a white person to call Bill a “close friend” and still know little of a black man’s life in a white world. Often white colleagues would say, “We never thought of you as a negro.” That, he says, was supposed to have been a compliment.

Here are a few choice quotes from My Friend, The Enemy. On his Bible college days and indoctrination into white fundamentalism:

I sometimes shudder when I recall that upon registering at Bible College I signed up in the missions course. I didn’t dream that mission boards would not have accepted me anyhow. My involvement in white culture hadn’t prepared me for that eventuality. All I knew was that the blacker the person’s face, the more desperate his need of salvation…

On the kind of Christianity taught at many evangelical colleges:

Sadly for me, and conceivably for non-white students on similar campuses today, this conservative brand of Christianity perpetuates the myth of white supremacy. It tends also to associate Christianity with American patriotism (it’s called nationalism when we criticize it in Africa), free enterprise, and the Republican party. I hope this is not intentionally done although I have outgrown most of my naivete. It’s not brainwashing, of course, for this is not done systematically or calculatedly. But it is perversion and it is subversion, the former with reference to Christianity, the latter with reference to the minds of young Christians.

And finally, on his friends, his enemies:

Don’t preach love to me. Especially if you intend I do all the loving. Amazing how white people who have owned black people have a way of demanding that we love everybody. What right has the oppressor to demand that his victim be saved from sin? You may be scripturally and evangelistically correct, but you are ethically wrong. You have the right message, but your timing is off. You have forfeited the right to be heard. Physician, heal thyself.

Because you see, I know that the same conservative brother who refuses to link my social needs with his preaching of of the Gospel is the same man who lobbies against the Supreme Court, fluoride in the water, and pornographic literature. “Something,” he declares, “must be done about creeping socialism. We must speak out against the Communist menace, and by all means we must support the Dirksen Amendment on prayer in the public schools.”

But mention the inhumanity of a society which with unbelievable indifference imprisons the “souls of black folks,” and these crusaders begin mumbling about sin. All right. I’ll play the game, my brother. Whose sin shall we talk about?

From here it is easy to write the script, for these friends are conservative Northern Christians. Increasingly, these are the roughest people to understand. They are so elusive, so committed to being uncommitted. What amazing indignation is theirs when moral issues are far away! What profound silence when threatened by similar issues next door! How earnest are their discussion groups!

As if this wasn’t provocative enough, Pannell went on to defend black power. Despite being rooted in the circumstances of the late 60s, it’s hard to avoid the prophetic implications for our own time.

Rediscovering the History of African American Evangelicals

doctrine and race

For too long, the historiography of evangelicalism has reproduced the racial assumptions of its white subjects rather than challenging them. Black evangelicals have been written out of the story and whiteness has been treated as incidental rather than formative to fundamentalism and evangelicalism. That’s why Mary Beth Swetnam Matthews’ new book is so important.

Matthews shows that while white fundamentalists largely ignored African Americans, black Christians did not ignore white fundamentalists. Though they shared many of the social mores and theological claims of white fundamentalists, African Americans were unwilling (and unable) to join the racially exclusive white fundamentalist movement. So they created an evangelicalism of their own in the 1920s and 1930s.

Black evangelicals were keen observers of the fundamentalist-modernist debate. According to Matthews, they saw both modernism and fundamentalism as white phenomenons from which they stood apart. White fundamentalism presented American Protestants with a stark choice: “Are you with us or against us?” Black evangelicals heard the question and replied, “neither.” They deplored fundamentalism’s embrace of injustice, but they also decried the higher biblical criticism of the modernists. They forged a faith that was generally theologically and socially conservative, but progressive in its concern for social justice.

By simply shining a light on the voices of black evangelicals, Matthews has complicated the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. The racial and racist character of the white fundamentalist movement becomes immediately obvious when we turn our attention to the people excluded from it. Yet generations of historians treated this as a minor feature of the movement. Take one example: how many historians have written that copies of The Fundamentals were mailed to every Protestant minister in the country? As Matthews shows, there is no good evidence that they were ever mailed to black pastors.

White fundamentalists usually ignored black Christians, except when they wanted to hear them sing, or when they wanted to portray themselves as guardians and spiritual superiors to childlike believers. Had white fundamentalists bothered to listen, they could have learned some valuable lessons. For instance: black evangelicals generally didn’t buy into a full-fledged dispensational premillenialism. Instead, they used eschatological language to dramatize the suffering of African Americans. In other words, black Christians were living through present catastrophe from which Christ would deliver them. Speculating about an end-of-the-world apocalypse was less urgent to people who were living an end of world experience already.

Matthews also draws attention to a fascinating feature of black evangelical rhetoric that  I need to think much more about. While white fundamentalists embraced white supremacy, black evangelicals sometimes used colorblind language to imagine the millennium and to attack segregationist theology. In their context, such language was a threat to the social order. But by the time the descendants of the white fundamentalists took up similar language decades later, it had become the language of the status quo. In the space of a few decades, colorblind Christianity shifted from a spur for reform to a tool of reaction. At least, that’s my early read on it. But I need to think more about this.

Doctrine and Race is flawed but important. One could wish for more context and analysis around the black evangelical voices Matthews has unearthed. Yet simply bringing them to the surface is a significant achievement. Historians of evangelicalism can no longer ignore this important part of the story.

The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism

first baptist church
Sunday service at First Baptist Church, Dallas Texas. June 25, 2017.

Evangelicalism is splintering. And Trump’s presidency is hastening the process. John Fea, professor of history at Messiah College (and an evangelical himself) has a perceptive column in the Washington Post this week about the people he calls “court evangelicals” and how they’re changing evangelicalism:

If you want to understand white evangelicalism in the age of Trump, you need to know Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas.

Jeffress is not a household name in the United States, known mainly in Southern Baptist circles. But he has recently gained national attention as a “court evangelical” — my term for a Christian who, like the attendants and advisers who frequented the courts of monarchs, seeks influence through regular visits to the White House.

The court evangelicals are changing the religious landscape in the United States. The Trump presidency is only six months old, but it is already beginning to alter long-standing spiritual alignments. It seems as though Christians are not changing Trump, but rather that Trump could be changing Christianity.

Historians will write about this moment in terms of both continuity and change. On one hand, court evangelicals are part of a familiar story. For nearly half a century, evangelicals have sought to influence the direction of the country and its laws through politics. But Trump has forced them to embrace a pragmatism that could damage the gospel around the world, and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations….

[Trump’s] campaign and presidency has shed light on a troubling wing of American evangelicalism willing to embrace nationalism, populism, fear of outsiders and anger. The leaders of this wing trade their evangelical witness for a mess of political pottage and a Supreme Court nomination.

Not all evangelicals are on board, of course. Most black evangelicals are horrified by Trump’s failure to understand their history and his willingness to serve as a hero of the alt-right movement.

The 20 percent of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump — many of whom are conservative politically and theologically — now seem to have a lot more in common with mainline Protestants. Some in my own circles have expressed a desire to leave their evangelical churches in search of a more authentic form of Christianity.

Other evangelicals are experiencing a crisis of faith as they look around in their white congregations on Sunday morning and realize that so many fellow Christians were willing to turn a blind eye to all that Trump represents.

Read the whole thing. Fea provides additional historical context for thinking about how we got here.

When I say that evangelicalism is splintering it’s not to say that evangelicalism ever was unified. But the Trump presidency is intensifying longstanding fault lines.  A huge swath of evangelicalism is increasingly acting as if it’s a state-established church here to give divine sanction to state policy (that is, when Republicans lead the state). The false gods of nation, prosperity, and safety are held up as proper objects of worship alongside Jesus Christ. Evangelicals who seek to turn their backs on these false gods are often accused of being less mature believers, or perhaps not even true Christians at all.

There is a divide between evangelicals who see “God and country” as comfortable bedfellows and those who see the same phrase as shorthand for heresy. In the age of Trump, as we see just how far God and country evangelicals are willing to go, the divide has become a chasm.

The deadly embrace of nationalist evangelicals and their president is likely to intensify a curious phenomenon:  there are growing numbers of people of color in historically evangelical denominations, but they do not claim the label and feel no affinity for its heritage. Then there are white evangelicals who do not embrace the cultural trappings of the movement and are tired of being treated as less-than because of it. They may seek a home elsewhere.

What all this means for the future of evangelicalism is not yet clear. These are fascinating and troubled times.