God with Us: A Conversation with Ansley Quiros

Ansley L. Quiros is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Alabama. Her new book, God with Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976, is available now.

Curtis: What is the main argument of God with Us?

Quiros: The struggle over civil rights was not, for many, just about lunch counters and waiting rooms or even access to the vote; it was also about Christian orthodoxy. God with Us examines this theological struggle through the story of one southern town–Americus, Georgia–where ordinary Americans both sought and confronted racial change in the twentieth century.

Curtis: What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?

Quiros: For me, the most challenging aspect of actually writing the book was balancing the narrative and the historical argument. I found myself, at moments, getting swept up in the story and momentarily abandoning the analysis, and then at others interrupting the sweep of events with more abstract historical musings. Balancing those impulses– presenting a swift narrative while also making a real argument—proved difficult but I’m thankful to great editors and readers who helped smooth the whole thing out. One thing that was delightful to realize was how even one careful word can hold the thread of analysis, one name drop can keep a story in mind.

Curtis: Your book is very theological and it wears that on its sleeve. Did you get pushback from other historians? It seems to me that historians, theologians, and religious studies scholars are often talking past each other even if we’re writing about similar things. Was it difficult for you to situate your book disciplinarily?

Quiros: It was, but just a bit. After an initial explainer of my choice to foreground theology, I found most historians to be quite supportive. Most know instinctively that historical research has tended to diminish the role of faith in people’s lives, not the institutions so much, but the content and effects of belief in the past. This is partly because these things are obviously difficult to get at, but also because the academy can skew secular. The religious studies/theology folks I spoke to occasionally wanted more theologizing, but most understood this was primarily a history book and appreciated the effort to bring lived theology into the conversation.

Curtis: You make a point of showing that white southern Protestants had theologies of segregation that were robust, sincerely held, and internally consistent. In doing so, I think you make a convincing argument against the cultural captivity thesis. Was that something you knew early on in the project you wanted to do, or did it take shape as your research developed?

Quiros: This actually developed as I read David Chappell’s work and the responses from Charles Marsh and Jane Dailey in particular. Truly, this question of theology and culture/politics —the chicken and the egg in some senses—is a perplexing one. On different days, especially in our current political moment, I find myself wondering about it. (I did so here, in fact!)

Curtis: Where do you see the field going from here? What is next for you?

Quiros: I don’t know where the field will go from here, but I think broad evangelical support for the Trump Administration and what I see as consistently racist policies will provide a lot of fodder! As for me, I have two projects in the works. One is an exploration of the Atlanta street party known as Freaknik. It’s a wild story, but one that reveals much about the city of Atlanta, the rise of the black new South, and the limits of black governance in the multicultural 1990s. The other project is spiritual biography of Charles and Shirley Sherrod, racial justice activists who have spent their lives in Southwest Georgia. I guess I’m not done with Georgia yet!

Books for Our Moment: A Conversation with Todd Brenneman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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