A couple of weeks ago, my grad school collaborator and fellow Christian college sociologist friend Mike sent me an NPR story from last month about how the vast majority of white evangelicals in a Pew survey reported that they saw President Trump as “honest” and “morally upstanding“.
I clicked through to the Pew report (published on March 12) and found some of the primary results even more striking than attitudes toward Trump’s character. One of the questions asked “how important it is to have a president who stands up for your religious beliefs“. The contrast between white evangelicals and the population overall is striking.
Two-thirds cited having a president stand up for your religious beliefs as very important. This contrasts with 38% of the overall sample. Two-thirds see it very important or important that the president “share your religious beliefs.” Notably only 39% of the survey overall thought this was important or very important.
On another question, over half of white evangelicals said that Trump “fights for what I believe in” very well. Only a quarter of the overall sample agrees with that position.
Taken as a whole, this data suggests an interesting pattern — white evangelicals privilege their views over that of the society as a whole.
If I was attaching a sociological label, I’d call this “evangocentrism.” If ethnocentrism is using your home culture as the lens through which you read another culture, evangocentrism is seeking the common good only as an expression of your group’s religious beliefs.
It’s been clear for sometime that the religious freedom battles in the courts have more to do with protecting the interests of white evangelical beliefs and policy than abstract notions of religious freedom. It is very rare to hear those same concerns raised around minority religions, as first amendment purists might do.
It’s hard to say how much of this is a function of the Christian Nationalism that Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry explored in their book or what Katherine Stewart and Chrissy Stroop wrote recently. But I’m pretty confident that the sentiments Pew captured help us understand those churches who insist on staying open in the face of stay-at-home orders.
The general sentiment of these pastors seems to be that government cannot tell them what to do (even if that government cites them for misdemeanor violations of the orders). Their right to continue their beliefs and practices uninterrupted supersedes that of the health of the public at large.
Evangocentrism also helps explain why “Mr. Pillow”, Mike Lindell, felt free to give his comments about religion in America during the daily press briefing on Monday. As Politico reported, he said,
“God gave us grace on November 8, 2016, to change the course we were on,” Lindell began, referencing the day Trump was elected president. “Taken out of our schools and lives, a nation had turned its back on God.” Lindell then offered advice to families stuck at home because of various social-distancing guidelines: “I encourage you to use this time at home to get back in the Word, read our Bibles and spend time with our families.”
Liddell clearly has the right to his beliefs. To not recognize how they would go over in a public statement in the midst of a national crisis is evangocentrism. It reflects the assumption that the American public would be eager to hear such a sentiment and likely agree with it. It took away from the more important news that his company was going to be producing much needed masks for health care workers.
The future of the evangelical voice in America will require a moderation of evangocentric sentiments. If the gap between evangelicals and the broader American public continues to widen, the very fears that evangelicals have had about religious discrimination will become that much more visible.
The picture above is one I took last August on my “Last First Day of School”. In Part One of this reflection, I outlined many of the changes that have impacted Christian Higher Education over the last four decades. In Part Two, I want to address the “what now?” questions.
What do all of these structural and missional changes mean for the future of Christian Higher Education? First of all, let me say that claims of scores of Christian colleges closing are mostly alarmist. It is true that costs are increasing and that there is a limit on how fast increases in tuition and fundraising can offset those increases. Yet most institutions have enough elasticity in their operation to offset those challenges for the foreseeable future. The exceptions will be those institutions who have been financially unstable or facing accreditation challenges for a long period of time or who’s mission niche is so narrow that it can’t diversify. In short, it is hard to kill a college in the absence of significant mismanagement.
That said, there will clearly be winners and losers going forward. The winners share some common characteristics while the losers will face ongoing budget challenges and mission drift. They may not close but will be a shadow of their former promise. So who are the likely winners?
The first set of winners will be those Christian institutions of higher education with a national reputation. These are the schools that journalists contact when looking for trends in Christian higher ed. They are the names that get selected in the US News and World Reports reputational survey. While I’m sure I’ll leave some out, it’s clear to me that Wheaton, Calvin, Taylor, Seattle Pacific, Bethel (MN), Azusa Pacific, Gordon, Messiah, Belmont, and Abilene Christian are in this group.
The second set are those school who are located in destination locations. A recent story highlighted the success of three Christian universities in Nashville. It is a booming market in general and is not surprising that students would see it as a vibrant place to study for four years. On the other hand, many Christian universities were founded in areas far away from metropolitan areas. My non-exhaustive list of destination schools would include Wheaton, North Park, Seattle Pacific, George Fox, Point Loma Nazarene, King’s, Colorado Christian, and Bethel (MN).
A third set may not represent destination locations but serve as the major Christian university in their region. Given that students are staying close to home, there is an advantage to those schools that are one of a handful of Christian institution in a two-hour radius. Those schools may not draw large numbers of students from far away but control their local market. Some examples of this group would include Northwest Nazarene, University of Sioux Falls, Colorado Christian, Gordon, Belhaven, and Cedarville.
The fourth set of winning schools are those who, in the face of the gen-Z religious changes discussed earlier, have held most closely to their theologically (and politically) conservative bona fides. They take pride in their non-accommodationist stance and will guarantee to pastors, trustees, donors, and parents that this is not going to change. In fact, many of these schools have taken stances in the last several years to guarantee faculty adherence to traditional positions. Those faculty who don’t align are either not renewed or made to feel unwelcome so that they go elsewhere. Examples of this pattern can be seen at Cedarville, Bryan, Oklahoma Wesleyan, College of the Ozarks, Asbury, and Bethel (IN).
I’ve long argued – it was a major reason for my first book – that there is an alternative to this last group of schools. It would be a Christian university that embraced the changes occurring in a post-Christian economy and found a way to ground those questioning students within a Christian liberal arts tradition, seeing their questioning as the raw materials of education rather than a challenge. Such an institution would likely be in a destination location, would have a diverse non-denominational mission, and would be willing to be on the front lines of the most challenging issues of our day. It would have a clear sense of creedal orthodoxy without requiring narrow alignment of viewpoints.
As I wrote that last paragraph, I suddenly remembered that in 2014 I wrote a case position for something I called “The Center for Cultural Engagement” that would exist at one of our Christian institutions of higher education. I still believe that this is a critical need if Christian Higher Education is to do more than survive in mediocrity but thrive as a center of Christian formation for a post-modern age.
Pictured here is Burke Administration building at Olivet Nazarene University, where I began my career in 1981. My office was between the second and third floor, the top half of the left-hand window above the portico. This May I retire from Spring Arbor University, marking the end of a varied career.
I am happy with what I have done over the past 39 years as teacher and administrator and the small impacts I have had, not least of which was impact on students, hiring some outstanding faculty members, and standing alongside numbers of both groups who needed support.
And yet there are many things that trouble me as I look back over my career in Christian Higher Education. As a Spring Arbor colleague of similar age shared with me recently, he and I may have begun our careers in something of a “golden age” of Christian Higher Education. There was great promise in the early 80s, but much has happened over the intervening years which has dramatically changed the character of the Christian University.
The role of faculty has undergone a significant change over the four decades. Even without returning to the long-past visions of the college president as dean of the faculty, there was a sense that we were all working together toward the institutional mission. As business organizations became a default model for colleges, the faculty role was diminished. There was a sense, partially deserved, that faculty stood in the way of innovation because they wanted to protect their own positions and favorite courses. Yet as trustees were increasingly drawn from the public sector (because they could help with donations and reputation), the faculty were increasingly seen as employees who should simply be happy just to have their positions. Especially as institutions came to rely more and more on adjunct faculty, the privilege of having a job at all was something to be appreciated. It’s not that faculty members wanted to run the institution, but they did want to have input regarding the place where they had invested their future. In many cases, they may have had expertise that could have been valuable to the cabinet, but any inputs were seen as interference with those cabinet officers who “got paid the big bucks.”
As college administration went through the business model transition, a sort of “shared misery” developed. When cuts were made at one institution, it was used as the model for many more in the region. The more administrators argued that “everyone is going through the same challenges”, the less they thought about alternative approaches or the impacts those challenges presented to faculty, staff, and students. We were told that the environment for Christian Higher Education had changed dramatically and we needed to accept the adjustments necessary.
Draconian steps to eliminate majors at one institution became a model for the institution down the road. In part, this was a response to an increased focus on efficiencies that examined data on ‘program production” that hadn’t been part of the equation in the past. In my early years, it was easily recognized that academic programs varied in their cost effectiveness (chemistry and instrumental music are expensive, sociology isn’t) but we were all contributing to overall institutional success without seeing our individual programs as competitors in a zero-sum game. Once we focused on program metrics, that shared sense of mission was eroded. It was rare, indeed, to hear administrators brag about the legacy programs that had shaped so many students over generations when they could extol the virtues of the new money-maker.
The rationale for getting a Christian college education shifted in response to the economic challenges of the Great Recession. Parents and grandparents may have once relied on home equity to support a student’s education. With the housing crash, that equity either evaporated or fears of the future inhibited the ability to use it in ways that had worked in the past. Student loans became the way of covering the gap between ability to pay and the increased costs of higher education. Even with tuition discounting, the inflationary pressures of higher education (especially as incorrectly reported by mass media) became ever more challenging. In response to this and other pressures, Christian colleges sought to place a higher value on job preparation. The public perception that a Christian liberal arts education was a luxury, meant that schools responded by emphasizing access to a first job. Employable skills, while never lacking before, became a primary marketing position.
Another impact of the changing economy can be seen in the diversification of program offerings at Christian colleges. Degree completion or graduate programs were added to offset the instability of the undergraduate market. Yet these programs operated in contrary ways. When the economic outlook was great, traditional enrollment benefited and non-traditional enrollment went down. When the economic outlook was challenging, the opposite occurred. But institutions needed to figure out ways of controlling this uncertainty along with predictions on auxiliary enterprises. The risk of revenue shortfalls actually increased with the diversification of program channels.
The never-ending chase for new markets encouraged institutions to focus on the “big winners”. Programs were designed to meet niche markets, often with the assistance of a third-party vendor who could connect potential students to the new program. Those programs assumed a never-ending growth cycle which proved remarkably vulnerable to market fluctuations. While the big-winner markets had the potential to shore up challenging revenue situations, they feel like a ticking time-bomb because the market bubble could pop at any moment. Unfortunately, too many institutions respond to this instability but searching for more big-winner markets.
Increased competition for students and market wariness on behalf of families caused additional pressures. Applicant pools were smaller than in the past and the expectation that applications would lead to enrollment became more uncertain as families deposited at multiple institutions, often waiting to commit until they saw who had the best financial aid package.
Stories about the growth in student loan debt further complicate the market situation. Even though a detailed analysis of the college debt situation shows that the bulk of the increase over the last two decades has been disproportionately impacted by professional degrees, graduate degrees, and for-profit institutions, the general social consciousness became more risk averse. Evangelical financial planners arguing that Christian should avoid debt in all forms only exacerbated an already troubling context.
Relatedly, denominational loyalty to particular schools disappeared. Where once students had grown up planning to go to their denomination’s school, that became an option among many. As increasing shares of the evangelical population became non-denominational or go to churches who don’t advertise denominational connections, the impetus to favor “your school” over others diminished.
The decline in denominational loyalty was offset by an increase in regional focus and a growth in intercollegiate athletics. For the former, data suggests that a post-9/11 world expects students to stay closer to home than was true in the past. A college might be selected for convenience as opposed to institutional mission or denominational orientation. As an aid to enrollment, many Christian colleges diversified their athletic programs and expanded the rosters of existing teams. Athletes are vital members of the college community but their loyalty to their teammates may far exceed their commitment to the institution. It’s where they got to continue playing the sport they love for another four years. Of course, those students come with scholarship and travel expenses which make their contribution to net revenue smaller than the student body in general.
Important changes were also happening among the student market as a whole. It is easily demonstrated that the percentage of young people who claim to be evangelicals, long the preferred market for Christian colleges, was shrinking drastically. This increased the competitive spiral as the regionally based Christian schools attempted to go after this smaller share of the overall market. Those that were interested in Christian colleges were far more diverse than was true in prior decades. For every group of students who was pushing envelopes and wanting their institution to engage broader cultural issues like LGBTQ inclusion or criminal justice reform, another group of students saw any movement away from conservative principles as an abandonment of core values. This latter group was known to publish underground newsletters and push for sanctions against “the liberals”. This asymmetry (which is mirrored in our religious and political spheres) creates a set of pressures that encourages the administration to clamp down while simultaneously driving the progressive group away from the institution – if not literally, at least in terms of their long-term commitments. Meanwhile, even careful dialogue on these issues in often seen by the conservatives as abandonment of orthodoxy.
For all these and many other reasons, the next several years will likely prove pivotal for Christian Higher Education. I’ll explore those implications in Part Two.
Preface: I think this is the longest I’ve every gone between blog posts. I could say I was busy, but the reality is that I wasn’t sure I had anything compelling to add to the various crises swirling around us. That changed the last couple of days as I read Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry’s Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. And so I’m back!
I have been following Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry on social media for some time. I have read with interest the pieces they posted online and heard their presentations at conferences. It is good sociology that adds far more to our social and political moment that nearly all of the “Why did the white evangelicals support Trump?” opinion pieces.
In my own work on the question, I come to the same easy conclusion that Ryan Burge reports: White Evangelicals are Republicans. What has nagged at me for years is the motivation behind that correlation. Is it because white evangelicals are more likely to be rural or Southern? Less likely to have a college degree? More likely to hold a certain social class position? Concern over morality? A deep application of theological/scriptural understandings to their voting preferences?
It has proven nearly impossible to disentangle the mess of causal factors (which, admittedly, we are doing with correlational data). The search for a Grand Theory keeps failing us in the data. And so I was very excited to finally get Andrew and Sam’s book last week and put it on top of my things to do with my spring break.
It’s a quick and compelling read. The data is rich but easy for a lay reader to interpret and there’s an entire appendix on regression stuff for those who want the details.
Andrew and Sam argue that there is something of a central thread that begins to make sense of what we saw not just in 2016, but a host of things related to contemporary society. That central thread is support for Christian Nationalism. This is not a historical understanding of the nation’s founding, although it is related. It is a belief about the primacy of Christianity in our society’s social organization.
They measure Christian Nationalism through a scale made up of six questions. The measures of agreement with CN are 1) the government should declare the US a Christian nation, 2) the government should endorse Christian values, 3) separation of church and state should be minimized, 4) display of religion (read Christian) symbols should be allowed on state property, 5) American success is part of God’s plan, and 6) the government should allow prayer in public schools. They then divide the scale into four groups: Rejectors, Resisters, Accommodators, and Ambassadors.
Using data from the Baylor Religion Studies, they explore the relationships between these four groupings and a host of contemporary issues. They supplement the quantitative data with 50 personal interviews representing the four orientations.
Notice the division in the chart above. Those distancing from Christian Nationalism make up just under half of their study population (48.1%) while those in favor are just over half (51.9%). It is also interesting that the two extreme categories (Rejecters and Ambassadors) are also nearly equal in size (21.%% to 19.8%, respectively). In the very first chapter, then, we have data that roughly mirrors the polarized socio-political moment we find ourselves in.
The authors unpack this data looking at three broad areas: Power, Boundaries, and Order. The first has to do with voting, legislation, and rights. The second has to do with in-group protections and out-group exclusion. The third has to do with issues of family structure and heterosexuality.
In the Power chapter, they provide a powerful counter narrative to the “white evangelicals and Trump” arguments. They show that Rejectors were very unlikely to have voted for Trump (around 5%) and Ambassadors were overwhelmingly likely to have done so (around 75%).
Moreover, this pattern repeats across a variety of subgroups (though with different percentage magnitudes). For example, 85% of evangelical Ambassadors (regardless of race) voted for Trump but so did 82% of Mainline Ambassadors and 79% of Catholic Ambassadors. Among white evangelicals, there is nearly a 60% gap between support for Trump between Ambassadors (90%) and Rejecters (31%). Even within political parties differences emerge — while 92% of Republican Ambassadors voted for Trump, only 31% of Republican Resisters did
The same patterns hold for attitudes toward refugees, military spending, and gun control. Interestingly, when they examine how a scale of religious practices relates to these same topics, the find that the more religious one is the more positive they are toward refugees, for example. So Christian Nationalism isn’t a mask for religious practice but a separate dimension altogether.
The Boundaries chapter deals with issues of immigration, race, and non-Christian religious groups. In each case, Ambassadors take the most conservative position and Rejectors the relatively liberal one. Again, these patterns are tested against religious practice with the same opposite effect as the previous chapter.
The Order chapter has a “focus on the family“. It deals with questions about mens’ role in leadership, stay at home mothers, opposition to same-sex marriage, opposition to transgender rights, and belief that divorce laws should be more stringent. In each case, the Ambassadors are highest in these measures and the Rejectors are lowest. In this chapter, as opposed to the others, religious practice does not move in a counter direction. As Sam Perry’s other books (on evangelical adoption and pornography use) show, this may because the family taken a central role in understanding contemporary religious practice.
As I was reading the book, a couple of questions kept recurring. I found myself wanting to do much more about the Accommodators. Are they conscious participants in Christian Nationalism or do they simply take its assumptions as background noise and implicitly act upon them? The same is true about the Resisters. Are they taking their objection to Christian Nationalism seriously or are somehow mildly annoyed at the Freedom Sunday celebration at church?
In the introduction, Whitehead and Perry describe Christian Nationalism as “a complex of explicit and implicit ideals, values, and myths — what we call a ‘symbolic framework’ — through which Americans perceive and navigate their social world.” I think is an apt description, yet the social psychologist in me wants to know how that symbolic framework is activated and how it is addressed by those whose ideals are at odds with an Ambassador or Accommodator. Specifically, are there mechanisms through which Accommodators become Resisters?
Furthermore, if the church is to be an active yet not fearful part of the social discourse surrounding contemporary politics, how do pastors and congregations begin to reshape these implicit understandings. The data on people leaving the church due to what I would consider inappropriate political posturing is pretty clear. As Ryan Burge pointed out on Brad Onishi’s podcast last week, the alternative is to suffer in silence.
What do I mean by “inappropriate political posturing”? I mean the assumption that 1) we are all on the same side and 2) we can’t talk about broad social issues because that would be “divisive”. If the church is to the body of Christ in the contemporary word, it must be able to model church-state relations in a way that goes beyond hoping our side wins.
Andrew and Sam have provided us with an excellent starting place in terms of conceptualizing Christian Nationalism and how it is operating in contemporary society. Now it falls to other sociologists, political scientists, and religious leaders to figure out how to take their ideas into our everyday worlds in search of a more compassionate society.
When I saw the news that Mark Galli had penned a pro-impeachment editorial in Christianity Today on December 19th, I wasn’t sure what to think. Obviously, it was good to see an evangelical opinion leader speak out on the current political moment. Having read and heard Mark over the years, I knew he was not the kind of evangelical leader who would come to such a conclusion easily. I think it is fair to label him a traditionalist and certainly no bomb-thrower. Sure, he was a never-Trumper early on, but lots of evangelical leaders wrote similar things over the years.
Galli centered his critique on two principal pillars: the illegality of the Ukraine scheme as documented in House Intelligence Committee testimony and the president’s moral challenges (lying, attacking, demeaning, damaging norms). For the first, he recognizes that impeachment is a feasible (if unlikely) remedy. For the second, he is advocating discernment when it comes to the 2020 election, especially in consideration of the witness of the church to a world in need of the Gospel.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure that Galli’s editorial would make much of a splash. After all, many others like Micheal Gerson and Peter Wehner have been regularly raising the same critiques for years. In addition, releasing such an important editorial the week before the world shuts down for Christmas suggested that it would make a brief splash and then fade away (I realize that Galli wrote the piece when he did because he was about to retire).
Of course, my supposition that this would be an important but soon forgotten editorial was way off the mark. Here we are, over a week later, and the story has been the center of both broadcast and social media discussions. By the end of the first day, a number of what John Fea calls “Court Evangelicals” plus the president himself, had pushed back. They argued that Christianity Today represented “cosmopolitan evangelicals” and the magazine was “left-leaning” and “progressive. Another common refrain was to suggest that somehow CT was arguing that Democrats would better match evangelical values (which nobody had suggested). CT President Tim Dalrymple, himself no liberal, wrote a wonderful follow-up underscoring that the real issue presented by the Trump-aligned evangelicalism is the diminution of the witness of the church itself. He concluded, “We nevertheless believe the evangelical alliance with this presidency has done damage to our witness here and abroad. The cost has been too high.”
What is also intriguing to me is that it is the CT critics who have kept this story in the center of the media narrative. They regularly list the imagined harms that would come if Democrats were to win election. As John Fea said on MSNBC the other night, this is the result of 40 years of rhetorical excess that resulted in the current political alignment. The letter from the 200 pastors identified themselves as “Bible-believing Christians and patriotic Americans”, which is one of the clearest statement of Christian Nationalism I’ve seen in print. The critics have also argued that Trump has accomplished many things that directly benefit these political evangelicals: pro-life judges and justices, support for Israel (including moving the embassy to Jerusalem), fighting for “traditional” stances in terms of religious accommodation (Masterpiece and Hobby Lobby), and standing for Christian values in the public square (Merry Christmas, everybody!).
But nearly all of those anti-Democrat and pro-Trump arguments seem focused on what primarily benefits conservative evangelicals. This view, which last week I labeled “evangelical ethnocentrism”, suggests that these evangelicals are less concerned about the common good than on protecting their own interests. Today, Grudem’s response focused on the promise of liberty in the Declaration of Independence which is distinctly different than the Constitution’s “in order to create a more perfect union.”
They have also adopted right wing talking points verbatim. They dismiss Galli’s concerns about Ukraine, arguing that there was nothing wrong with the July 25th call. Never mind that the Ukraine incident ran from May to September and involved attempts to subvert normal governmental process through private, non-accountable actors. They list Trump’s accomplishments in ways that sound as if they came out of the White House press office (Record Stock Market! Low unemployment! Executive Orders! No Iran Deal!).
Every Court Evangelical response to the CT editorial has resulted in careful analysis by scholars and opinion leaders identifying the challenges evident therein. It has caused moral stances like that of Napp Nazworth who left his role at Christian Post upon learning how that site was responding to CT. The news of Napp’s courageous resignation made news and launched another media cycle.
It encouraged a fascinating and disturbing analysis from Paul Djupe in which he identified an “inverted golden rule. Expect from others what you would do to them.” It spurned PRRI’s Robbie Jones to update his argument of demographic change among religious populations and how that relates to the fears the Trump Evangelicals have.
It must be noted that most evangelical churchgoers may not be paying any attention to these conflicts. They are happy to go to their Sunday Services and worship Jesus in song and word. Emma Green had a great interview with former head of the National Association of Evangelicals Leith Anderson. He argues that evangelicalism is about faith and not about politics. Emma tries valiantly and compassionately to get him to address the conflict therein, but he never gets there. Sarah McCammon interviewed a pair of Southern Baptist pastors (note: lots of evangelicals are not Southern Baptists!) on Saturday’s Weekend All Things Considered. The pastors argued that while there are broad social conflicts, people “at the level of the pew” don’t experience that division.
It needs to be recognized that the privatization of faith is what has allowed a public political stance that is largely divorced from deep theological insight. If we ever need serious work on political theology, it is today. Even though it runs the risk of causing short-term discomfort within local congregations, it would create a more healthy body of Christ as it interrogates matters of politics and public policy.
The most intriguing outcome over the last ten days is that way in which the media has begun to be more articulate on the definition of evangelicalism, what the core values ought to be, and how we square the circle of public and private belief. While they are often stumbling in their coverage (at best), the fact that we have been talking about morality, politics, and faith within the public sphere has been a net positive.
For a variety of reasons, it is unlikely that the Galli editorial will change the forty-year alignment between evangelicals and the Republican vote that John Fea mentioned. There are many correlates of voting (rural, education, age, race) that disproportionately represent evangelicals.
And yet, there is a sense that something has shifted in the last week and a half. There is a conversation underway about how evangelicals should relate to the broader culture, especially in this pluralistic age. The coming weeks likely will prove to be just as problematic, but I’m moderately hopeful that these dialogues will strengthen religion in the public square. As Dalrymple suggested, this could be good for the witness of the church to the broader culture.
I’m spent this weekend in Denver, attending the second Evolving Faith conference being held in the hockey arena of the University of Denver (which I’m pretty sure is considered sacred space). The conference is the brainchild of Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans. After Rachel’s tragic death this past Spring, it seemed more important than ever to attend especially when the conference fell during our Fall Break. Plus, our daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter live in Denver and it gave us an opportunity to visit while I attended the conference.
Meeting in a hockey stadium is a little less intimate than the gathering in the Montreat auditorium last year. Everyone is pretty far way but the messages seemed to resonate with those present.
I have no data to back this up, but the crowd was larger this year and seemed more diverse in terms of age (but still mostly female and white).
The conference opened, appropriately, with an acknowledgment of Rachel’s loss. Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu shared their thoughts. Then Rachel’s husband, Dan, shared his own reflections. He reminded us that Rachel’s writing mantra was “Be Honest, Be Yourself, Be Kind” and then read a passage from her final book which will come out next year.
The first session of the morning was on what it means to be in the wilderness. Sarah Bessey, Eric Barreto, and Barbara Brown Taylor shared some of their own journeys of displacement. Living outside the dynamics of imposed structures is a characteristic of the wilderness journey. Barbara Brown Taylor pointed out how much Jesus didn’t just encourage the wilderness living, he dragged his disciples into danger. It takes deep faith to move beyond the comfortable structures of religious institutions.
It struck me that this may be a common perspective for Evolving Faith folks. Their past religious lives haven’t provided the space to ask questions are take a more complicated, ambiguous, deconstructed view of faith. As frightening as the wilderness is, it appears more authentic than quietly going through church motions.
The second session was on scripture. Pete Enns unpacked the story of Nicodemus in John 3 to illustrate that Nicodemus needs a new perspective, as radical as being physically born again. Pete went on to talk about his own journey and ended with a wonderful analysis of left brain/right brain approaches to faith. While he can do all kinds of deconstruction in the left brain, there is a source of assurance (he didn’t use this term but I’m making the Wesley reference) that shows up in the right brain. Area UMC pastor Jasper Peters filled in for Renita Weems and offered a fascinating re-interpretation on the authority of scripture. Because authority is often used to buttress other power and institutional claims, he affirms instead the power of the scripture in terms of impacting one’s life. This sentiment was underscored by the three speakers as they debriefed the session.
The first afternoon session revolved around themes of life’s struggles and how faith is impacted. Tanya Marlow described her multiple health challenges and how all attempts at theodicy failed. In time, she drew solace in knowing that God was part of her story and she was part of God’s. It wasn’t healing but it was faith affirming in small ways. Blogger and podcaster B. T. Harman described his journey of coming out as a thirty-year-old Southern Baptist. He described how his personal story and the political moment combined to interfere with his art and his faith. He described how he had settled on a discipline of gratitude, giving people space to be who they were, and appreciation as a means of restoring balance. Reflecting on Miriam’s song in Exodus, Cece Jones-Davis reflected on the need to know the key refrains. In the midst of transition, it is important to know what to hang on to and remember that “what the Lord requires also requires the Lord.” The conversation that followed invited the three speakers to reflect on what they hold on to from their more structured religious upbringing. All looked fondly upon those early years for what it contributed to their current journey. A similar question was asked last year with some pushback from those in attendance.
The final set of speakers spoke to important sociological issues of race, decolonization, and structures of assumed power. William Matthews used horror films to describe how we are told the dread that is before us and especially addressed this in terms of racial power dynamics. Listening to the powerless would provide a clearer sense of the challenges that are just around the corner. Kaitlin Cortice spoke of her Potawatami roots through her father’s side and what she has learned about re-appropriating a cultural identity that was taken from her when she was young. She said that American culture prides itself in being a toxic empire. I found this a helpful way to tell the story rather than focusing on individual expressions. Chaneque Walker-Barnes shared her journey of trying to “fit” into a variety of local church expressions that never quite worked. She raised the question of why congregations expected her to shave parts of herself off in order to fit in, deciding instead to take a sabbatical from church to figure out how she worshipped and what part she played before trying to return. In the summary conversation, Jeff Chu pushed the speakers to address the big challenge of the event: we were an overwhelmingly white group meeting at an overly white campus in an overly white city. This in turn led to an important conversation about the ways in which white liberal progressive churches fall well short in terms of addressing structural (rather than personal) issues of race, politics, and justice.
Day one ended with a “grief and lament” service that included Rachel’s sister, Amanda. I didn’t attend since I’m went to dinner with the family.
The second day opened with devotions, Matthew Paul Turner reading his children’s book, and singing “Spirit in the Sky”. Then we split up among varied breakout sessions.
I attended a live taping of the podcast “Pantsuits and Politics“. Hosts Beth Silvers and Sarah Stewart Holland explored the challenges of the Ukraine/impeachment conversations and then moved on to other topics. Much of the hour was spent on discussions of the #MeToo movement, Weinstein, Kavenaugh, and the church. They addressed importance of hearing womens’ stories, but especially those stories told TO women. The immorality and capitalist assumptions of non-discloure agreements that force women to deny their trauma while protecting the powers and structures that sustained the abuse in the first place. The challenges of pushing back on dominant political narratives for those who see politics differently was also a major theme. If you listen to the podcast when it comes out, you can hear me asking a questions about Trump’s claim of a Third Great Awakening and why Franklin Graham supporters in North Carolina supporting the president isn’t news.
The second breakout session I attended was on the enneagram, which is a big deal among young religious folks. Mickey ScottBey Jones led the session describing exactly what she jokingly called “this cult” is all about. I hung out for awhile and even retook an enneagram quiz online (it’s says I’m a 5; last time I was a 3) but I really can’t get into the whole idea.
Over the lunch break, I had a great conversation with Roxanne Stone, now managing editor of Religion News Service and formerly with the Barna group. She was very kind in listening to my ramblings about my book project, evangelicalism, and evolving faith. Watch for an Evolving Faith report from Roxanne in coming days.
The afternoon session was focused on personal testimonies of faith journeys. Musician Jennifer Knapp shared her coming out story and discussed the realities of having people react to her. Jen Hatmaker spoke on Jesus’ parable of the good fruit and bad fruit as part of telling her story of evolving faith (it was very interesting to compare it to last year’s testimony). She spoke at length about the ways in which the religious power structures made the Gospel mostly about themselves and justified the exclusion of others. She called it one of the greatest examples of “gaslighting” to have the bad fruit (LGBTQ exclusion, abuse, celebrity, power) called “good” in the process. Lisa Sharon Harper spoke at length about the centrality of the Image of God throughout our Christian history. The problems of exclusion and dismissal are based on the denial of that central image. Jess Chu wrapped things up with a reflection on water. He opened by describing the morning mists at the Princeton farminary and how moving it was to see things come clear. Drawing from Ezekiel, he described how that fresh water is central to the renewal of all life. He connected that renewal to Ezekiel and the dry bones being given new life.
Sarah Bessey closed out the session by discussing the status of Evolving Faith itself. There was a period after Rachel’s death that she and others thought that maybe they couldn’t go on. But they prayed and talked and realized that there was a need for this group. There is now a mission statement and a set of core values. The 2020 conference has been scheduled for Houston.
The conference closed with communion, with Nadia Bolz-Weber giving the sermon. I left early as I had on Friday so I could have dinner with the family.
So here’s my takeaway. This year’s conference felt different. Some of that was to be expected: Rachel was gone, we were in a hockey arena, the crowd was bigger and slightly older. But the real difference was in tone. Last year the message seemed to be “you’ve left your prior church experience and it’s going to be okay here in the wilderness.” This year still gave permission for people to doubt or question, but it had for me a sense of movement. It was more like “you’re out here in the wilderness and it’s time to do the work to figure out where the path leads.” There is work to be done.
I told a few people about this outlandish prediction I made five years ago. I had argued that there was a coming convergence between progressive evangelicals rethinking boundaries and theologically grounded mainliners seeking to connect their faith in Jesus to a complex culture. Here is how I ended that piece:
I have a friend in Portland who once wrote some wonderful stuff on “confluence”. His metaphor is based on what happens with the Willamette and the Columbia come together. It’s not just that they are flowing the same way. It’s that their waters intermingle and at some point you can no longer tell which water came from which source. The current, however, is still strong.
This is where the future of evangelicalism will be found. It the midst of the stream, following God’s leading into that future he has been building all along.
I can’t say that my prediction was coming to pass in that hockey stadium in Denver, but I could begin to catch the glimmers of it in the mist that Jeff Chu described. Something is happening here and it seems to say a lot about the future of faith in America after we’re done with the politics of the current moment.
Last week Daniel Silliman reported out a fascinating story for Christianity Today. The centerpiece of the story involved research conducted by Southeastern University scholar Jennifer Clark on how students’ faith patterns change during their educational journey. She found that students at evangelical colleges commonly “feel unsettled about spiritual matters, unsure of their beliefs, disillusioned with their religious upbringing, distant from God, or angry with God.” Surprisingly, these doubts occurred not when they arrived at college (which was true for more secular institutions) but later in their college careers.
People outside Christian higher education may find this surprising. They too often assume that Christian universities are indoctrination institutions, where students simply learn the Christian answers. Those of us on the inside recognize that students have selected a Christian university for a variety of reasons (or had it selected for them) but haven’t really thought deeply about what they expect — which may be why admissions viewbooks sell the images of happy Christian community. You can make that mean whatever you want.
If students arrived on our campus this past week as eager Christian learners, what accounts for the faith challenge? There are as many reasons as there are students, but I can make some general suggestions. First, there is the obvious separation from family and home church. No longer being at home and now being challenged to take personal responsibility for one’s positions creates anxiety. Second, there are the classes students take. One of the “liberating” parts of liberal arts is that the students are exposed to ideas and readings that are hard to square with one’s upbringing. (It’s very important not to demonize that upbringing — students have enough challenges on their own.) Third, they take classes from Christian faculty who have walked similar paths. To see a biology or sociology or english faculty member who has engaged the complexity of the world without abandoning faith provides an encouragement to students that confronting that complexity has rewards and that one’s faith is strong enough to handle it. Finally and maybe most importantly, students are shaped by their peers. To discover that students at one’s dinner table are also Christians yet have very different viewpoints from what you grew up with can be disconcerting.
Yesterday The Atlanticposted a piece from the president of Wesleyan University, Michael Roth, on the role of religion in his classroom. As a Wesleyan, I was happy with his acknowledgement of John Wesley’s impact on both personal spirituality and social impact. Yet Roth’s reflections on religion raise questions about the nature of critical engagement in secular institutions (even if formerly religious):
Yet classroom discussions of these very subjects often seem threatening to even students of faith, who tell me they don’t want to be “outed” on campus. These undergrads encounter mostly secular professors who sometimes treat religious believers as somehow intellectually deficient, or as morally compromised by their commitments to traditions that their teachers have left behind.
To be fair, most students at Christian universities are not likely to share their faith challenges in class for exactly the same fear of being “outed” –except reversed. They don’t want professors (and mostly peers) to think that they’ve “lost their way”.
And yet most Christian universities provide the space and climate for students to wrestle even with the most challenging issues: justice, racial animus, sexual orientation, war and peace, and the role of the church in modern society. Silliman’s story shows that many leaders in some fairly conservative evangelical schools are aware of the faith challenges our students face. The parents and donors may not like having that publicly noted, but it is key to the educational journey.
Molly Worthen wrote an excellent op-ed in The New York Times this weekend exploring conservative concerns over perceived exclusion of conservative voices on college campuses. She does a great job of showing that while the concern of activist groups is overblown, there may be some valid critique:
The conservative boogeyman of the tenured atheist radical who brainwashes innocent undergraduates is more myth than reality. It’s true that academia has long leaned to the left, especially in the humanities and social sciences, and activist professors do exist. But they are a minority. Where professors more commonly fall down, I suspect, is in our failure to grasp how changes in the broader culture — like omnipresent social media and polarized, cruel politics — have made students reluctant to embrace the freedom that we like to believe our classrooms provide.
This is likely true on Christian campuses as well. Increased polarization and expectation that one’s views will simply be affirmed without engagement is a problem to be addressed. In my experience, this usually happens by expecting students to grapple with the implications of their sociological readings while not mandating specific policy outcomes that their author (or their professor) might prefer.
Worthen explores campuses where the ethos of hospitality to ideas is more available than others. She cites Great Books programs and Civil Discourse Clubs as examples. It makes me think that an overarching campus culture that affirms conversation while maintaining the interdependence of its members (faculty, students, and staff) goes a long way toward supporting the kind of inquiry that allows both faith and learning to be affirmed.
As recent analysis has suggested, the road ahead for Christian universities will be a rough one. As the percentage of today’s rising generation is less likely to be evangelical (8% by recent measures), the market for students seeking a Christian university will become much tighter with noticeable winners and losers. Financial pressures from external costs to internal amenities to attract that share of students will be real.
Those pressures are pushing many schools to rethink their curriculum. To pick one significant example, Gordon College announced this year a major shift in their programmatic focus, shrinking some traditional liberal arts majors to create room for other, more vocational, majors. As they explain on their webpage:
Gordon is once again making necessary adjustments to respond to the market realities of today that demand greater affordability and adaptability. The next chapter not only retains the core Christian liberal arts foundation, but makes it more accessible and relevant for what students and families want from college and what employers want from graduates.
The shift of liberal arts education to a core foundation is somehow set against what students, parents, and employers want. As a cabinet member of CCCU institutions over 17 years, I understand the market sensitivity the changes reflect. And yet I fear that the changes reflect a move away from the community orientation of the Christian university toward a balkanized pursuit of personal economic worth.
Where, exactly, will future Christian university students find the support as they work through the faith crises of learning seen as part of the process of affirming both faith and work? I wish I knew the answer.
As I have begun my final year of teaching before retirement, I will work to be acutely aware of the students Jennifer Clark identifies in her research. They will work to navigate the doubts they are confronting and I want to support them in that journey.
Fall classes started this week. This semester I’m teaching a section of the second level of SAU’s required core curriculum titled “Community, Place, and Responsibility.” One of the defined objectives for all sections of the course is to “Reflect critically and productively on the main categories of cultural identity, including but not limited to family, nation, race, and sex.” This can be a challenge for students as many grew up in relatively small, homogeneous communities.
I wanted to illustrate the ways in which our individual origin stories are seen as normative — the model against which all others are evaluated. On the first day, I decided to show parts of The Truman Show; especially the sections where Truman first begins to realize that there is something seriously wrong with his world.
Only a few of the students had seen the movie (what’s wrong with you kids today?) and I’m not sure the concept made complete sense to them but we’ll come back to it throughout the course.
Since I’d rented the movie through Amazon, I figured I might as well watch the whole thing again. It really is a terrific film and received multiple nominations for best picture, best actor, best director, best supporting actor, and best screenplay. It allows Jim Carrey to show his quirky side but also to show him as thoughtful and struggling.
If you haven’t seen it (what’s wrong with you kids today?), the premise of the film is that Truman has spent his entire life on a studio set. Everyone he interacts with are actors and extras. Daily conversations turn into options for in-show product placement ads. Storylines are manipulated to maintain the global audience interest and allow drama to build. This premise gets shattered when technical glitches occur on the set. Truman discovers that he is the central character in this artificial drama and sets out to find the answers that might lead to his breaking free.
Because I’ve been immersed in trying to make sense of the sociology of evangelicals for the last several years, I saw parallels everywhere between the Truman Show and the evangelical subculture, especially as millennials have experienced it.
Truman Burbank, while being the central character in the story, has spent his life being sheltered from the world. He is told that it’s better to live in Seahaven Island (which is literally cut off from the world). A fear of the sea was instilled early in his life which prevented him from giving way to his curiosity about broader world (namely, Fiji). He is content to go through the motions of his life, relying on the structures surrounding him (both physical and narrative).
When one of the stars falls from the sky he is curious. When he finds that the radio is reporting on his daily drive, he is unnerved. When he sees his believed-to-be-drowned father on the sidewalk, he enters into a full crisis. Once he discovers that the bank next to where he works is simply a facade, he sets out to leave Seahaven.
Truman realizes that everyone he has come to know and love is in on the charade. They knew they were manipulating him. Overcoming his fears, he sets out to flee the island.
The show’s director, played brilliantly by Ed Harris, is named Christof (a not very subtle move on the screenwriter’s part). He tries to play on Truman’s fear of the water by having his assistant (a young Paul Giamatti) churn up a major storm. When Truman survives the storm, Christof tries to get him to stay, to affirm that love and support he had received his entire life in this fictional community.
Truman’s quest ends (and begins) when the boat reaches the edge of the soundstage. Faced with a decision to stay or go, he walks through the door into the unknown.
The movie occasionally shows scenes of the audience watching The Truman Show. They are enthralled with the action and yet become even bigger fans as Truman makes his escape quest. Once that has happened, they simply move on to see what’s on the other stations in their pursuit of entertainment.
In recent months, multiple evangelical “stars” have made statements about changes in their faith. Most notable among these is Joshua Harris. Emily Miller summarized these shifts in her story yesterday for Religion News Service. Figures like Harris were known in the evangelical community as “influencers” and continue that role as they announce their struggles via social media.
We don’t know all that went into Harris’ decision or those who struggle in similar ways. But my research on millennial evangelical memoirs allows some reasonable guesses.
When one grows up embedded in a highly structured evangelical world, there are a lot of taken-for-granted pieces that are simply accepted. It is the air one breathes. All the self-perpetuating dynamics of apologetics training, youth groups activities, and slightly proud separation from the world can be a remarkable mix.
It’s hard to say what triggers the beginnings of the questions. Perhaps it is realizing that the cool kids at school are just as messed up as everybody else. Or it’s realizing the challenges of purity culture and the double standards present in the church. Maybe it’s a growing awareness that the pastor’s sneakers are really expensive. Or church leaders who require allegiance without room for questions. Or systems that have ignored abuse and moral lapse for years.
Up until that point, perhaps everyone had gone along with the program. Questions are uncomfortable for everybody because they manage to highlight the compliant nature of their faith.
I think a major part of what happens is that the questioners start seeing the structures that make the whole system work. And then it’s no longer like the air one breathes or the water you swim in. Those structures sometimes seem more important to keeping the story moving for the sake of the audience. Questioners are encouraged to keep their thoughts to themselves and just have more faith.
And like Truman Burbank, they start wondering what’s behind all of the structures, who can be trusted, and whether there is a place for them within the structures at all.
So the time comes for them to look for an exit. Like Truman, they battle storms of doubt. At the end of the day, they don’t know where they are headed but prefer the unknown to the artifice they are leaving behind.
As a Facebook friend observed, what they find isn’t really freedom. But it is hope for an authentic faith that can sustain them.
Over the past three weeks, I’ve read three excellent books that created new understandings of our religious world and then tested them in real life settings.
I’ve been following David Fitch’s work since attending a Missio Alliance Learning Commons nearly five years ago. His presentation was based on Prodigal Christianity that he co-wrote with Geoff Holsclaw. I have used the book in my sociology capstone class ever since. The book raises questions about the end of Christendom and makes suggestions on how the church could rethink its stance relative to the broader culture. His next book, Faithful Presence, built upon the ideas in Prodigal as they relate to ministry in a particular local context. As I’ve written here before, Faithful Presence is a concept that James Davison Hunter raised in To Change the World but didn’t expand as much as he could have. David’s work begins to flesh that out in concrete terms.
So when I heard that David’s newest book was dealing with the church in conflict with society (also a theme in Hunter’s book), I eagerly awaited its release date. When The Church of Us Vs. Them arrived in my mailbox, it only took me two days to finish it. I immediately bought copies for a long-term friend in Oregon and for my new pastor, now in her sixth week at our church.
Us Vs. Them is a really important book in light of everything we read in the media, in scholarship, and in commentary regarding evangelicalism in modern society. It has echoes of John Fea’s Believe Me, but adopts an even more useful frame than John’s focus on fear. I will undoubtedly oversimplify what is a complex and interesting argument, but I will try nevertheless.
David adopts the language of political theology and communications in considering how the church has often operated. Central to his argument is the idea that evangelical churches have had a tendency to raise “banners” that separate those who are in (and right) from those who are out (and wrong). This process of creating enemies is important because it breeds in-group solidarity and manages to distance the other.
But the important concept in making this work is that the banner is often a signifier without substance. We know this is the case because no one ever explains precisely what support of the establishment position entails. David uses three primary examples: biblical inerrancy, conversionism, and nationalism — particularly interesting as two of these are components of the Bebbington Quadrilateral (and nationalism is getting close — more below).
Each of the banners serves to create antagonism with those outside the camp. This in turn allows one to caricature the other, minimizing their worth and any value present in their position. One is therefore justified in not engaging with those outside.
These banners are nothing new. The Fundamentalist movement developed in opposition to what the Modernists were up to at the turn of the 20th century. Four decades later, the Evangelical Movement tried to split the difference, claiming the Fundamentalist were too conservative and the Mainliners were liberals who believe in nothing. We’ve always relied on negative referents rather than trying to engage the similarities that exist among the various parts of Christ’s Church (looking at you, Eric Erickson) to say nothing of values we might share with out unchurched neighbors.
When the signifier lacks substance, it is adopted as a component of identity. Decades ago I had a friend in a conservative denomination tell me that if all the rules disappeared tomorrow, he wouldn’t know who he was. I tried to gently ask that if the rules didn’t have meaning beyond in-group identity, then what was the point?
We can see this in recent “apostasy” claims about Josh Harris and Hillsong’s Marty Sampson. Both have used language that sounds much more like banners than substance. Harris says “based on everything I thought Christianity was about,” he’s not sure he would consider himself a Christian. Sampson’s language is very similar. They find themselves examining assumptions rather than simply adopting the signifier.
The same thing can be seen in recent excellent writing about the challenges of purity culture two decades later. Following the rules and going with the program had consequences for teens and again as they became adults. [It was also big business, but that’s a different post.] When the impacted women began excavating the assumptions that they had absorbed, it created challenges in their view of the evangelical church, their sense of self, and their relationships.
There’s much more I could write about Fitch’s argument that would be more faithful to his book rather than my reactions to his book. But this post is going to be pretty long, so I’ll leave it for now and move on to Lyz Lenz’s God Land.
Lenz’s book came right after I finished David’s book. Her story is a combination of her own personal journey out of an evangelical church and her marriage and her reportorial treatment of religion in the Midwest. The themes from Us Vs. Them show up but not as explicitly. Her challenge with her evangelical church, including the church plant she was part of, was that she dared to ask the deep questions about what was assumed in the banners of the day. She was then seen as a problem to be fixed. Finding her space on her own terms is part of the personal journey of the book.
But the reportorial part of the book deals with banners and the assumptions of difference as well. Central to the book is people’s belief in small town America, especially “fly-over country” as the real America — the backbone of good values. This is opposed to those other parts of the country — liberal coasts and elites (which causes some leaders to delight in the urban decay of coastal cities while ignoring the infrastructure and economic crises in the small towns). In such a context, church stands in for “community values”. Nostalgia is celebrated as normative, even thought it cannot be recaptured.
In the chapters of Lyz’s book, you can find evangelical opposition on culture war issues, muscular Christianity, and an unreflective self-assurance from religious leaders. In the end, she at least finds a Lutheran church where she can worship on her own terms (even though her former church would likely consider that becoming “one of them”).
Immediately after I finished God Land, Angela Denker’s Red State Christians arrived from Amazon. Angela is a Lutheran pastor and journalist who spent a year traveling to the parts of the country where Christians were most fervently in support of Donald Trump both in 2016 and today.
Her travels took her to a variety of settings, many of them big-name churches. She attended a patriotic service in Texas that managed not to mention Jesus once. She was at Joel Osteen’s church and at Rick Warren’s church. She visited Paula White’s church. She was in Appalachia and Orange County and spent time (which freaked me out) at extremely conservative Catholic Thomas More College.
Denker’s book uncovers some of the same exclusionist patterns that Lenz’s and Fitch’s do. While some people were quite pragmatic in their voting (needing things to be shaken up, dislike of Clinton), others were supporting Trump because that’s what “our people” do. Especially when he’s “fighting for you” as Ralph Reed told Julie Zauzmer recently.
The differing banners that groups are using to organize their members become quite problematic in a complex democracy such as ours. While many argue for the need to pay attention to some “mythical middle” in the electorate, it is hard to see that there is any merit in doing so. The oppositional forces Fitch identifies are too strong.
For all my friends who keep arguing that democrats need to reach out to pro-life moderates, I’d observe that there is no reward for doing so. One of the problems with rigid antagonism is that both side are involved in what Amatai Etzioni called “inverted symbiosis”. They each push the other farther away. Any ground given is a betrayal of the cause. The polling data can be spliced six ways to Sunday. But as long as the right claims that liberals want to abort babies after they’re born and the left claims that the conservatives are doing end-runs around Roe, nobody has any need for a middle.
David Fitch offers hope to move beyond these rigid antagonisms. Consistent with his other writings, it requires us to honestly engage those around us. To avoid the tendency to organize around banners and instead to practice being part of the Kingdom of God unfolding all around us. He closes Us Vs. Them with an optimistic and hopeful challenge:
Can my church be this Jesus in my neighborhood? Gifted with a new practice of reading and preaching the Scripture together, a broader and deeper practice of conversion and mission, a thicker and fuller way of thinking about being his church in the world, can we become his reconciling presence in the world full of strife all around us where we live? Can we make space for his presence in our own lives and in the lives of those around us? Can we be used by God to bring his healing, transforming power into the world? “For he himself is our peace (Eph. 2:14 NIV).
“Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.” Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985: 87)
I spent yesterday watching former special counsel Robert Mueller testify before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees. It’s often difficult to process events like this. Early responses are superficial. We really won’t know the impact of Mueller’s testimony for several news cycles.
To be fair to Mueller, he didn’t want to testify. There was a lot of negotiation between the committee leadership and Mueller’s people to find the right balance in the hearing. Mueller didn’t want to be a media figure reading from his report. The Department of Justice issued guidelines steering him away from questions about the investigation’s origins or other ongoing investigative matters. Mueller himself was clear that he wasn’t going to add interpretative gloss, which he had earlier referred to as “going beyond the four corners of the report.”
Last night, California representative Jackie Speier was on Brian Williams’ “Eleventh Hour”. Asked if she was surprised at Mueller’s taciturn and minimalist style, she said she wasn’t. These were the issues the Intelligence Committee had discussed with Mueller’s team and this is what she expected given those limitations.
By the break of the morning session with the Judiciary Committee, NBC’s Chuck Todd had tweeted “On substance, the Democrats got what they wanted: … But on optics, this was a disaster.” Todd was rightfully roasted by the public editor of the Columbia Journalism Review later in the day, but he actually captured most media sentiment.
“The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. ‘Credibility’ here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality-testing. It refers only to the impressions of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability, or attractiveness (choose one or more) conveyed by the actor/reporter. This is a matter of considerable importance for it goes to the question of how truth is perceived on television news shows. If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude.” Postman (102)
So the optics are a disaster because Mueller did not come off as Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird. I read a couple of references yesterday to the McCarthy hearings: “At long last, sir, have you no decency?” If there was no such moment, could the hearings be worthwhile?
The notion of verisimilitude being primary provided cover for Republican members to frame their favorite conspiracy theories about Mifsud, FISA warrants, and Fusion GPS. Never mind that my Google searches on some of these items (Simpson had dinner with the Russian lawyer!) only showed right-wing media sites. The inquisitors were pushing their sincere outrage at even being in the hearing while maximizing their messaging (“Excuse me Mr. Mueller, I have a limited amount of time remaining.”).
Not that the Democrats were better, especially in the Judiciary Committee. Their attempt to maintain message discipline by referencing each of the ten obstruction examples and ending with their forced litany “no one is above the law” simply underscored the performative aspect of the day.
One of the aspects of modern popular culture that Neil Postman so accurately foretold three decades ago is our reliance on a Good Story. We affix narrative to daily events and treat them as ongoing seasons in a serial drama. President Trump may be a master at incorporating the tropes of reality television (Mr. President, are we going to war with Iran? “We’ll see what happens“) but that’s only because the culture is so accustomed to the idea.
The news media had been telling the story of this ongoing drama with breathless anticipation and countdown clocks. What will happen when Mueller testifies? What will the president say/tweet? Will this be the pivotal moment this story has been building toward?
It was inevitable that the hearings would fall well short of their advance hype. Real life does not measure up to our dramatized imaginings (does anybody actual live like the women in Big Little Lies?).
At the end of the day, we were left with the same key issues one could glean from reading the actual Mueller Report (as Postman would have encouraged): Russian interference, openness to outside information on the part of the Trump campaign, lies to investigators, reluctance to be forthcoming with information, and attempts to impede or obstruct the investigation. Whether these rise to the level of chargeable offenses — regardless of OLC guidelines or legal standards — does not resolve the matters that were in the report. As Congressman Schiff said at the close of the afternoon, these were moral and ethical breaches even if they fell short of legal violations.
At the lunch break between the Judiciary and Intelligence hearings, MSNBC commentator Chuck Rosenberg, former US Attorney and Counsel to FBI Director Mueller, gave the quote of the day: “Sometimes the book is better than the movie.“