Tag: John Fea

Evangelical Simulacra

Scholars continue to wrestle with the important question of “who is an evangelical?”. Some look at historical pedigree, looking for continuity of belief, behavior, and lifestyle (see Thomas Kidd, for example). Others have observed the cultural and political dynamics as a defining characteristic. Yet others have focused on developing the apologetic Biblical worldview that would protect evangelicals against the onslaught of secularism.

None of these approaches are able to adequately define contemporary evangelicalism.

Why? Because evangelicalism has taken on the form that Jean Baudriillard called simulacra. He argues that symbols take on particular meanings within a community. Eventually, the symbols become independent of the reality they are supposed to convey and become hyperreality — operating in the performed life space while no longer conveying specialized meaning.

Famous

This occurs as media culture creates a context in which identifiers are exchanged and language allows the maintenance of shared perspective. I took the above picture today on a walk in suburban Denver. The first thing that got my attention was the idea of “making Jesus famous“. I’m not sure what help Jesus needs or what theological principle is involved therein. The second thing I noticed was the word “Champions“. Not servants, not believers: winners.

This is an illustration of evangelical simulaca. I was violating the terms of identity by trying to plumb the various intended meanings. I wanted to know what the phrases meant. But they do not function to communicate meaning. The operate to communicate identity in a visceral, unreflective manner.

This week, my friend Kristen DuMez posted in The Anxious Bench about a family trip to Hobby Lobby. Walking through this Christian craft store (that of the “closely held religious beliefs” of SCOTUS fame) and taking remarkable photos allowed Kristen and her daughters to explore the impact of symbolic expressions of the nature of gender, true Americans, and religious identity.

By this point it had become clear to me that Hobby Lobby wasn’t just a Christian company because its owners were Christians, because they contributed a large chunk of their profits to evangelistic charities, or because they had emerged as heavyweight champions in the latest round of the culture wars. But Hobby Lobby also reflects (and, by selling Christian material culture, reinforces and shapes) a distinctive white evangelical cultural identity.

What does it mean to put wall plaques up in your house adorned with Bible verses? What is the purpose of bumper stickers that share stock Christian phrases or vanity plates that read GOD 1ST?

One might assume that this is an evangelistic tool, designed to coax people into asking questions after which the owner would share the Gospel. But survey data regularly report that people are almost as uncomfortable talking about religion as they are to hear about it.

Baudrillard would have us recognize that the essence of the simulacra is performance. One acts as an evangelical, embracing the signs and symbols evangelicals are expected to embrace. It is a statement of anticipatory identity — say it and it becomes true.

This process explains why 12% of self-identified evangelicals, according to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape survey, seldom or never go to church. They perform evangelicalism in other ways through the manipulation of symbols. Going to church simply may not be necessary to maintain the identity.

The media and politicians become adept at manipulating these symbols: religious freedom, protect the unborn, stop secularists, MAGA. One doesn’t have to agree with the religious sentiments underlying these positions, as Jonathan Merritt observed today. You just need to know how to perform the rituals that are present in the hyperreality.

This makes the study of “real” evangelicals remarkably difficult. It is true that many operate in the realm of church attendance, orthodox beliefs, and Bebbington’s quadrilateral. But all of that is conflated with the performative aspects of American Evangelicalism, which results in us never knowing exactly whom we are talking about.

 

Engaging the Evangelical Mind

Just under thirty years ago, sociologist Robert Wuthnow wrote a prescient little book titled The Struggle for America’s Soul. The book documented the separation between the religious right concerned about massive social change and the educated elite who championed it. I remember that he ended the book with an optimistic hope: that scholars at faith-based institutions might play a unique role in bridging that chasm because they understood both groups. They could play something like the role of translator explaining each group to the other side. This would be done, he suggested, by conducting and reporting research in their role as evangelical scholars.

I found myself thinking of Wuthnow’s book last week when attending a gathering on “The State of the Evangelical Mind” in Indianapolis. The gathering focused on a book written five years after Wuthnow’s: Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

Scandal

In part a retrospective on Noll’s book and in part a recognition of the service John Wilson performed as editor of the journal Books and Culture, it involved a series of papers reflecting on issues both deeply related to the conference question and some slightly more tangential (yet still interesting).

The evening began with a paper from Noll himself (at the last minute he wasn’t able to attend so his paper was read but he did participate via speakerphone in the q&a session). Noll reflected on the book and highlighted four successes that demonstrated an advancement in the evangelical mind: The Reformed Journal, the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicalism, the Pew Scholars Network, and Books and Culture.

I was struck that, like in Wuthnow’s book, the evangelical minds being developed were those of academics. There is real value in seeing the evangelical perspective engaging broader scholarship, but unfortunately too much of it happens in isolation from everyday evangelicals.

John Fea offered a wonderful reflection on the challenges of the evangelical mind within the context of a Christian college (Messiah). His two history colleagues shared somewhat more optimistic visions than John’s but his perspective stuck with me through the whole meeting.

Friday opened up with former Wesleyan General Superintendent Joanne Lyon reflecting on her role in seeing the development of the evangelical infrastructure. Part of her personal story involved being in the vanguard of a complex evangelical group that was engaging the larger world. She saw evangelical leadership move away from those options toward the goals of the Moral Majority and similar groups in the late 1970s. And yet Joanne remained hopeful, arguing that “love, mercy, and justice set evangelicalism apart from civil religion.”

My colleagues Jack Baker and Jeff Bilbro shared insights from their recent book, pointing out that much of evangelical subculture has generated a parallel structure to secular society (illustrating with stories about Christian bookstores and the market-orientation of Christian liberal arts institutions). They offered insights from Wendell Berry as an important alternative.

The keynote address (which sort of wrapped up the meeting) was given by Jamie Smith from Calvin College. He returned to the problem of the gap between academics and the evangelical subculture. His evidence: compare attendance at Bible Prophecy conferences with the attendance at academic-filled conferences. The way forward, he argued, was for academics and their institutions to embrace the role of evangelical public intellectual. For all of us bloggers, it was an encouraging challenge.

I came away recognizing three primary challenges in pursuing an engagement with the evangelical mind. First, I was stuck on John Fea’s earlier point about our Christian colleges. Even though I’m a tenured full professor with 36 years of experience and have served as a senior administrator, I wonder how the culture of Christian higher education can advance the call to address the evangelical mind. If I expand my public advocacy in addressing the complexity of contemporary issues that evangelicals need to engage, how will my students, their parents, my administration, and the trustees respond? Would they prefer that I keep these thoughts to my narrow blog audience? Would they see engagement as a legitimate role? Is there ever a possibility that such activity would take the place of one of my classes?

The second challenge I notice even in how I have written this reflection. I want the evangelical church to think more deeply about sociological and political issues. But I can’t simply show up to explain where they’ve been wrong on a host of issues. As Jamie challenged us, we have to use our role as educators to illumine where we’ve all fallen short. Hubris will kill any attempt at engagement.

The third challenge was present in Jack and Jeff’s analysis. It strikes me that the evangelical communication infrastructure is so balkanized that I don’t know how academic voices can even gain access. There are so many websites, magazines, blogs, videos, and celebrity books serving up a particularized version of the evangelical mind. This is what feeds the feeling among evangelicals that they are being actively discriminated against in modern society. Given the evangelical  infrastructure’s rhetoric about liberal bias and faith challenge endemic to higher education (even Christian higher education), we need real strategies to “seed the clouds” so that our message is receptive.

And yet I return to Joanne Lyon’s optimistic perspective. She pointed out our special role as academics to address the key issues in society. Advocacy, she challenged us, is part of discipleship.

I don’t have a clear path on how to better engage the evangelical mind. But I recognize that I have a responsibility to stay with it anyway.

A Political Sociology of Evangelicals

While I’ve been in the midst of two major projects, I’ve been following some fascinating online conversations about evangelicals and politics. The overlaps and distinctions between these positions speaks directly to themes I’ve been raising on this blog since it began.

The larger backdrop, as has been the case since the presidential campaign began, is about the 81% of white evangelicals who supported Trump in November and who largely continue to do so. I argued just over a year ago that these patterns made sense if we consider covariants, demographic shifts, and subcultural influences within evangelicalism. This past April, I presented an analysis at Calvin College arguing that evangelicals act like Republicans when culture war issues aren’t particularly salient.

While followers of John Fea know that he’s been talking about Court Evangelicals for a few months, his argument hit the big time this week when he wrote a piece in The Washington Post. As John explained on his blog, the Court Evangelicals wanted to be near to Trump and made much of his comments on religions freedom, including the curious focus on the Johnson Amendment. (I wrote about this last July as well.) Emily Miller reported in Religion News Service that the new House budget contains language the keeps the IRS from taking action to enforce the Johnson Amendment, even though evidence is scarce that it has ever been enforced. Yet this largely symbolic step is seen as a win for Court Evangelicals.

Having visited Versailles twice during my recent France trip, the image of Court Evangelicals has taken on a particular meaning for me. One of my favorite parts of the tour of the “hunting lodge” is the dining room. At one end is the table where Louis XIV ate with his family. At the other end one finds a series of divans where the courtiers sat to observe and comment on how well the King was proceeding on his meal. The recent Oval Office prayer meeting has echoes of Versailles.

Trump Evangelicals

These Court Evangelicals have built a rhetorical frame that allows them to see Trump as a Cyrus figure whom God rose up “for such a time as this.” However, while they are important in providing the President with the ability to say “I won the evangelicals”, it’s less clear how their influence may be influencing rank and file evangelicals (although Robert Jeffress’ MAGA celebration July 4th weekend was pretty unnerving.)

On Tuesday, Neil Young (not that one!) argued in Religion and Politics that “Evangelical is not a political term”. Reacting to Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals, Young suggests that she makes too much of the alignment between evangelical strength and the rise of the religious right, spending nearly half of her tome on the rise of Moral Majority and Culture Warriors. (I’m only up to 1918 in my read of Fitzgerald but I get his critique.)

It is not at all clear how much of rank-and-file evangelicals are influenced by the political positionings of Court Evangelicals and Culture Warriors. Lydia Bean’s excellent The Politics of Evangelical Identity (summarized in the first link above) finds that church people weren’t directly influenced by the Religious Right or even pastoral jeremiads. Rather, the link between evangelical identity and Republicanism was framed in the informal interactions of folks in church. In her US churches (as opposed to her Canadian churches) people assumed that society had changed for the worse and this was due to direct actions by liberals (no prayer in school, abortion, LGBT rights). The nature outgrowth of such belief is to oppose Democrats. If one doesn’t hold those views, it’s real work to remain in fellowship. It might be much easier to find a nice Methodist church.

Shortly before Young’s piece appeared, Tim Gloege wrote in The Anxious Bench reflecting on Heath Carter and Laura Rominger Porter’s Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism. Gloege argues that there is much to explore in terms of additional social and political dynamics that shape the development and self-presentation of evangelicalism.

Self-identification leads to confusion because it meant something fundamentally different to the nineteenth century Protestants who used the term (which nearly all did). “Evangelical” was a political term, not an analytic category. And because it was political—because it held social, cultural, and even economic power—it was contested. As far as I can tell, there was no coherent, agreed-upon, set of beliefs and practices associated with the word; rather its meaning approximated a vague combination of “respectable” and “orthodox.” (emphasis in original)

I think Gloege is exactly right. Understanding evangelicalism at any point in time in dependent upon understanding which forces are involved in the contest. Are there tensions between Protestants and Catholics? Mainline churches and Fundamentalist churches? Arminians and Calvinists? Working class and Middle class? Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics? Those in the South and Midwest or those in the Northeast and Northwest? Suburban or Rural?

These contestations will work out differently for different subgroups at different points in time. They will differ in terms of which issues have salience (for example, RFRA issues are remarkably geographically bounded). They will differ on how the relate to various national issues as sides are determined in ways that Bean describes.

The difference between Young’s and Gloege’s arguments is important even though each have a part of the political reality. Chris Gehrz closed his blog post yesterday with a nice framing of the question:

Do you buy the argument that Protestants are basically “apolitical” (as Ryrie means it), or at least that politics is not nearly as important to (white, American, present-day) evangelicals as horrified anti-Trump Christians like me tend to assume?

If we use Young’s definitions, the answer comes closer to Ryrie’s. If we use Gloege’s, politics runs through evangelical identity. Not just in the narrow terms of partisan elections but in the broad context of definition and representation.

Consider the triumphalism some evangelicals expressed when the 2014 Pew Landscape survey showed that evangelicals held their own between 2007 and 2014 while Mainlines lost ground. I read far too many critiques about “cultural Christians” who believe but don’t act. (Actually working through the Pew data shows two problems with this: a large number of evangelicals don’t attend church and a large number of evangelicals belong to mainline churches.) That’s a political argument about how “we’re winning” which is then often used to justify our view as “the Christian view”.

One key point of contestation involves demographic changes. Robert Jones The End of White Christian America demonstrates how the share of the society fitting those characteristics is shrinking significantly. This is why he argued that evangelical support for Trump was made up on “nostalgia voters.” John Fea picked up this argument this morning suggesting that the 2016 election bore a resemblance to Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. It was a last gasp effort to turn the tide against overwhelming odds.

All of these discussions have been valuable as I’ve been refining the argument I’ve been making for several years: that millennial evangelicals are approaching the political question in Gloege’s framing while older evangelicals my age have tended to approach the political question in Fitzgerald’s framing. In other words, Millennials are attempting to move from their lived experience to their understanding of Christian faith while Boomers are more likely to move from Christian Positions to lived experience. Millennials may have a higher sensitivity to authentic and holistic expression where Boomers may be more likely to tolerate dissonance between institutional expectations and lived experience.

Why is that that the case? Pew research from early last year provides a clue. Between 2010 and 2015, loyalty toward institutional religion increased for all generations except millennials. Where 59% of Boomers saw churches and religious organizations as positive in 2010, they increased to 62% in 2016. This is in remarkably sharp contrast to millennials whose support for institutional religion fell from 73% (which seems artificially high to me) in 2010 to only 55% in 2016. This actually reflects a lessening of millennial institutional loyalty in a variety of contexts.

The Court Evangelicals, with some exceptions, are my age or older. They reflect the efforts of a pro-institutional identity attempting to take advantage of political opportunity. But there is not a general mobilization of millennials to join that bandwagon.

All of this takes me back to Lydia Bean. If the church is not a place where one can express disagreement on issues of either definitional politics or partisan politics, the costs of staying may simply be too great.

Robbie Jones makes an interesting argument in The End of White Christian America. He observes that social attitudes usually moderate among groups as younger generations take on a larger share of the demographic mix. Yet on some issues (like same-sex marriage) he didn’t see that happening. He hypothesized that those younger generations who disagreed with institutional positions were simply leaving the evangelical fold. The result is an increased homogeneity among the population that says behind.

It seems that those tension are playing out on a weekly basis on my twitter feed. The most recent example was the did-he-or-didn’t-he coverage of Eugene Peterson’s views on same-sex marriage. These are political questions revolving around demographic shifts, lived experience, region of country, educational level, and yes, political party.

I certainly appreciate all of the historical analysis of evangelicalism and how it got where it is. To understand where it may be going we’re going to need new political definitions.