History, not Faith

Why do so many white evangelicals support President Trump? Not just in a passive, least-worst, anyone-but-Hillary sort of way, but actively and even enthusiastically? Why have some white evangelical leaders become what historian John Fea calls “court evangelicals?” After all, President Trump is no one’s idea of a Christian. One recent argument ties evangelical Trumpism to faith, but not surprisingly, I think it has a lot more to do with historical imagination. For people who fantasize about a lost American “Shining City upon a Hill,” Trump’s “take-back-America” rhetoric punches important buttons.

Trump make america great again

It’s the hat, stupid.

Over at Religion Dispatches, Eric C. Miller interviews Kurt Andersen about Andersen’s new book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve got it ordered. It sounds fantastic and I’m looking forward to reading the whole thing.

I can’t help but spout off a little, though, about some of Andersen’s arguments in this interview. Andersen describes his explanation of the odd relationship between the starchy moralists of America’s evangelical subculture and the wildly careening leadership of President Trump. Andersen makes connections between charismatic belief and Trumpism, but I think there’s a much more obvious and important explanation. Trump appeals powerfully not to anyone’s ideas about God and worship, but rather to white evangelicals’ implicit vision of American history.

On a side note, I couldn’t help but shudder at one of Andersen’s other statements. Like a lot of pundits, he makes some major goofs about the nature of creationism these days. As Andersen puts it,

Just in the last 15 years, it has become Republican orthodoxy to disbelieve in evolution and to challenge evolution instruction in the public schools. This is a uniquely American phenomenon, and it is a product of a religious tradition that, starting about a half a century ago, decided to make that stand in favor of creationism.

I added the emphasis to point out the problem. Andersen’s not alone on this point, but he is deeply wrong. Radical creationism’s political oomph is not at all uniquely American. To cite just one example, Turkey’s government has made even more aggressive moves in favor of creationism. This is not a minor error, but a major misreading of the nature of modern creationism. As I’m arguing in my current book, following in the footsteps of the great historian of creationism Ron Numbers, radical young-earth creationism is not “uniquely American,” but rather a popular and politically potent response to the dilemma of post-modern life, worldwide and across many religions.fantasyland

That’s a big intellectual problem, but it is not my major beef with Andersen’s argument this morning. No, the real question today is about the relationship between America’s politically active white evangelical Protestant community and the shoot-from-the-hip political style of President Trump. How could it happen?

For Andersen, the connection can be tied in part to one wing of evangelical belief. For charismatic Christians, Andersen explains, belief in the unbelievable is part and parcel of their culture of dissent. Here’s how Andersen made his point, with emphasis added:

[Miller]: Then I have to ask you about Donald Trump. He is now America’s Conspiracy-Theorist-in-Chief, a position that he attained with support from 81 percent of white evangelicals. Does this research help account for that?

[Andersen]: It’s bizarre. It’s interesting, because he is not, in any meaningful sense, a Christian. So why is it that our most fervently Christian fellow citizens support him so strongly? Well, as you say, our most fervently Christian white citizens. I think there is something there—it suggests that there are other reasons, cultural and economic reasons, together with the religious motivations that are driving that support.

But for my purposes, within this Fantasyland template, I think that they have some things in common beyond resentment of the elites and some of these other traits that are not necessarily connected to belief in the untrue—a lack of respect and all that. But Trump has shown a unique willingness to embrace claims that are demonstrably untrue—that Barack Obama wasn’t born here and a conspiracy covered that up; that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination; that five million illegal immigrants voted against him in the 2016 election; and on and on and on. The fact that he is so indifferent to empirical reality and so willing to stand up and embrace explanations that simply confirm his pre-existing ideas or are convenient for him because they make him seem better or his enemies worse—it’s somewhat unkind, I understand, to say that he shares that tendency with religious people, but I think that is shared.

There is no evidence that people who speak in tongues are speaking a holy language. There is no empirical evidence that faith healing works. There is no real evidence that Jesus was resurrected. I could go on. So, if believing these sorts of things as a matter of faith is central to your identity, then you might identify with a guy who is willing to take strong stands on unprovable claims. If he also shares—or pretends to share—your cultural biases and resentments, then you’re going to like him! That’s about as close as I can come to explaining this strange embrace. Certainly in terms of his lifestyle, his brutal disdain for the least among us, he is so, so unchristian. I haven’t entirely figured that out—it’s another book.

Now, I agree with a lot of what Andersen has to say. I agree that “cultural biases and resentments” are the key to understanding white evangelical Trumpism. But I disagree that we can best explain Christian Trumpism by invoking “religious motivations.”

Not that there aren’t plenty of white evangelicals who justify their Trumpism in religious language. Some leaders like to say that Trump is their modern David or Cyrus. But they wouldn’t say or even allow themselves to think that they can support Trump because they already believe in unbelievable things. I get what Andersen’s saying: If you are accustomed from your religious background to a conspiratorial or fantastic mindset you are more likely to choose and support a conspiracy-theorist president. However, it’s misleading to suggest that such religiously driven beliefs are a leading explanation for Christian Trumpism.

If it’s not mainly due to their religious beliefs, why DO so many white evangelicals actively support Trump? I think Andersen is on the right track when he talks about “cultural and economic reasons,” and “cultural biases and resentments.” As I’m arguing in my new book [have you pre-ordered your copy yet?] about evangelical higher education, a leading theme in evangelical intellectual life has been the story of evangelical exile, of being kicked out of the centers of political power. Among white American evangelicals, a unique historical vision of themselves as the true Americans has fueled a century of culture-war vitriol.

From the 1920s through today, white evangelicals have been goaded and guided by this unique sense of usurpation. Unlike other powerful religious minorities, such as American Catholics, white evangelicals tell themselves over and over again that the United States used to be solidly theirs. Unlike other religious groups—even groups that are closely connected to them by theology such as African-American evangelical Protestants—white evangelicals have been sure that they deserve to claim or reclaim their role as America’s religious voice.

In short, we can’t look to theology or faith to understand evangelical Trumpism. It’s tricky, because evangelical Trumpists will explain their decisions in the language of faith. But if we listen only to such biblical justifications, we’ll miss the far-more-important real reasons for evangelical Trumpism.

For almost a century now, white evangelicals have wanted to “take back America.” Their college campuses have been seen as both citadels and havens for an imagined real America, the kind of America from which the rest of America seemed to have strayed. When a political candidate comes along and declares his wish to “make America great again,” it resonates powerfully. Just ask Reagan.

It is this history of resentment, of a sense of historical exile, of usurpation, that best explains white evangelical Trumpism.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Leaves are falling and campus speakers are speaking. What else is going on out there? Here’s our ILYBYGTH collection of stories of interest:

Almost two-thirds of colleges/universities missed their enrollment targets this year.

The Wall Street Journal agrees with Ed Stetzer. There is no call for anxiety about religious judges or other officials, they note.

Ben bucks Berkeley boos: What happened when Ben Shapiro brought his in-your-face conservatism to California?

What does it mean for a public school to be “public?” Sarah M. Stitzlein of the University of Cincinnati wonders in the pages of EdWeek.Bart reading bible

“Is this heaven?” Some Iowa schools lock bad kids away in “little dungeons,” from The Progressive.

Should we defend Professor Wax’s right to be wrong? That’s Jonathan Zimmerman’s argument at IHE.

Across the (other) pond: South Korean ministry nominee and professor of engineering testifies about his belief in a young earth.

Free-Marketeer Arthur Brooks in the NYT: Universities need to “form communities that do not just tolerate conservatives but actively embrace ideological diversity.”

Is fundamentalism roaring back? John Fea looks askance at recent developments at Southern Baptist Seminary.

Who blocks campus speakers? A reminder from IHE that progressive speakers are being shouted down, too.

…still Think “Evangelical” Is Not a Political Label?

Albert Mohler can say what he wants. To this reporter, there is a much more obvious conclusion. For those of us who struggle to understand evangelical identity, another recent poll seems like more evidence that we can’t rely on religious ideas alone.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing about it, but I can’t stop mulling it over. In my upcoming book about evangelical higher education, for example, I argue that a merely theological definition of American evangelicalism will not suffice. The reason it is so important to study evangelical colleges, universities, seminaries, and institutes—at least one of the reasons—is because these institutions make it startlingly obvious that religion and theology are only one element defining evangelical identity, sometimes a remarkably small one.

Smart people disagree. Recently, for example, Neil J. Young took Frances FitzGerald to task for over-emphasizing the political element of evangelical identity. And a few months back, John Fea called me on the carpet for over-emphasizing the culturally and politically conservative element of evangelical higher education.

And smart people will surely disagree about the implications of recent poll results from the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation. To me, they seem like more proof that American evangelicals are more “American” than “evangelical,” at least when it comes to their knee-jerk responses to poll questions.

The poll asked people whether poverty was more the result of personal failings or of circumstances beyond people’s control. As WaPo sums it up,

Christians, especially white evangelical Christians, are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual failings.

Now, I’m not much of a Christian, and I’m not at all evangelical, but I can’t help but think that blaming the poor’s lack of effort for their poverty is not a very Christian attitude. And plenty of Christians agree with me. According to Julie Zauzmer in WaPo, African-American Christians tend to blame circumstances by large margins. The divide stretches beyond race. Democrats tend to blame circumstances. Republicans tend to blame individual failings.

Zauzmer reached out to experts to try to explain why white evangelical Christians might feel this way. She gave Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminar a chance to explain it away. And Mohler did his level best. The reason white evangelicals blame the poor for their poverty, Mohler told her, was because

The Christian worldview is saying that all poverty is due to sin, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the sin of the person in poverty. In the Garden of Eden, there would have been no poverty. In a fallen world, there is poverty.

I just don’t buy it. If we really want to understand why white evangelical Americans tend to blame the poor for their poverty, we are better off looking at Reagan than at Revelation, at Goldwater than at Genesis. Blaming the poor has deep political and cultural roots. American conservatives—at least since the early twentieth century—have insisted that poverty in the Land of Opportunity must be due to individual failings rather than to structural problems in society. When American evangelicals mouth such notions, they are allowing those political and cultural beliefs to speak louder than their strictly religious or theological beliefs.

If we want to understand American evangelicalism—especially among white evangelicals—we need to understand that the “conservative” half of “conservative evangelicalism” is just as vital as the “evangelical” half. We need to understand that white evangelicals are complicated people, motivated by a slew of notions, beliefs, and knee-jerk impulses.

Why did so many white evangelicals vote for Trump? Why do so many white evangelicals blame the poor for their poverty? If we really want to make sense of it, we can’t focus on the merely religious beliefs of evangelicals. We have to look at the big picture.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Your humble editor has been doubly distracted this week. My book about evangelical colleges is entering its final stages and I’ve been poring over copy-edits. Plus, we got to spend time with some long-lost family members. In the meantime, the interwebs kept spitting out stories. Here are some we might have missed, with extra history added in so you can follow along at home…

More trouble at troubled Bryan College. Long-time faculty member fired, anti-administration petition makes the rounds.

What’s wrong with Frances FitzGerald’s new book? Neil Young says it misses the real point of being evangelical.Bart reading bible

Peter Greene: Don’t believe the talk about a “teacher shortage.”

Is evangelical support for Trump a good thing for progressivism? John Fea wonders if Trumpist evangelicals are making their “Pickett’s Charge.”

From the archives: What did progressives think of William Jennings Bryan in 1945?

  • A taste: “The man who had never been a bigot associated himself with the most narrow-minded religious fanatics. The man who had been the apostle of democratic freedom and of public education had become an advocate of governmental restrictions on the freedom of learning. . . . And it’s high time some serious study was given to the social applications of Bryanism rather than of Darwinism.”

Teaching religion in Chicago’s public schools. Is the answer “religious literacy?” I’m still skeptical.

What’s the latest scheme for predatory faux-profit colleges? Fake Latin names.

From the archives: Glenn Branch gets his hands on a rare 1925 anti-evolution pamphlet.

What’s so “classical” about Classical Schools? At National Review, John Miller gives a short history and endorsement.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

As we Americans get ready to celebrate our nation’s heritage by blowing up some small portion of it, here are a few stories you might have missed:

A new plea for an old idea: Nobel laureate explains how to improve science education in colleges.

SCOTUS decides in favor of religious schools. Government can be forced to include churches in grant-funding schemes. Blaine Amendments are out.

What could a religious conservative dislike about “worldview” education? Rod Dreher thinks it misses the point of true education.

How can we encourage career-changers without allowed untrained teachers? Curmudgucrat Peter Greene makes his case for high-quality alternative teacher certification.Bart reading bible

Historian Daniel K. Williams explains the “Democrats’ religion problem” in the NYT.

Amy Harmon follows up on her story about teaching climate change. What are real teachers doing?

Historian John Fea blasts the “Christian Nation” rhetoric of Trump’s “Court evangelicals.”

Do “evangelicals” oppose same-sex marriage? Or only old evangelicals? In WaPo, Sarah Pulliam Bailey looks at new survey results.

What does it mean to learn something? Daniel Willingham wrestles with a definition.

Who is protesting on campuses? It’s not “liberals,” Jacques Berlinblau argues.

Peter Berger, RIP. D. Michael Lindsay eulogizes Berger’s influence among evangelical academics.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

It happens. Every once in a while, especially in May, some of us leave our computer screens. Sure, we might smell a flower or two, but we miss the torrent of news stories that keeps flowing through the interwebs. Here are some of the stories SAGLRROILYBYGTH might have missed over the past week:

Should schools do more to include controversial issues? An interview with Jon Zimmerman about his new book, The Case for Contention.

Have Jerry Falwell Jr. and other evangelical Trumpists turned themselves into “court evangelicals?” Have they “sacrificed the prophetic voice of their Christian faith for a place of power and influence in the current administration”? John Fea says yes at Religion News Service.

Who is the extremist here? Texas A&M students protest that Professor Thomas Curry is not an anti-white violent radical.

READING man in chair

Words, words, words…

Bill Nye’s new show stinks. Tyler Huckabee argues in WaPo that Nye should have studied evangelical outreach first.

Remember MOOCs? They were going to spell the end of traditional higher education. Why haven’t they? At IHE, Joshua Kim offers three reasons.

Regulating homeschool: A dramatic Kansas case draws attention to the lack of rules about homeschooling. Is homeschooling to blame for this seven-year-old’s murder?

Thanks to everyone who sent in stories and tips.

Is Jerry Falwell an Idiot? Part Deux

If you bet for VHS against Betamax and won a billion dollars, what would you do with your loot? If you’re Jerry Falwell Jr., second-generation president of Liberty University in Virginia, you would invest the money in Betamax. Is he an idiot? Or is he a savvy reader of higher-ed tea leaves?

Here’s why we ask: John Fea directs our attention this morning to another mind-boggling story from Lynchburg. Falwell’s Liberty has guaranteed a whopping $1.32 million to Old Dominion for an early-season football game, according to local news reports.

liberty football

Flame out?

Liberty University has that kind of money to throw around. Over the past fifteen years, the school has reaped obscene profits from its online platform. In addition to splashing out for its sports programs, Liberty has poured money into brick-and-mortar campus amenities.

As I noted after the first research trip to Liberty for my new book, that sort of investment seems either stupid or prophetic. If the old-fashioned model of higher education is dead, then why put so much money into it? Why invest in sports and campus gyms if modern higher ed means online ed?

Maybe Falwell is right. Maybe people still want a campus. Maybe they still want eccentric professors. Maybe they want huge sports stadiums. When people think “college,” maybe they want all those things.

If so, Falwell is investing wisely; building his school into a new higher-ed powerhouse.

Or maybe he’s just stuck in a twentieth-century rut. Maybe he’s still insecure about the reputation of fundamentalist colleges and he’s willing to spend whatever it takes to rub his success in the face of Notre Dame and Harvard.

Jesus and the Ivy League

Religious conservatives often insist that America’s colleges and universities used to be “our schools.”

For example, Protestant fundamentalist educational writer A. A. “Buzz” Baker pointed out in the 1970s that, although “it may come as a surprise to some,” most of America’s leading colleges “used to be ‘our’ schools.”[1]  Similarly, B. Gray Allison, a conservative evangelical from Louisiana, noted in 1968 as campuses nationwide roiled with cultural conflict that not only Harvard, Yale, and Princeton began with explicitly religious missions, but “even the early state-supported institutions had a concern for the perpetuation of what might be termed religious culture.”[2]

Over at the inimitable The Way of Improvement Leads Home, historian John Fea offers some evidence from the archives to back up those assertions.

On March 19, 1761, Fea reports, the College of Philadelphia’s (the future Penn) Board of Trustees approved some student rules that might warm the heart of twenty-first century religious conservatives.

Every student had to attend chapel.  Slacking off or not paying attention during prayer or Bible readings could call for punishment.

Plus, no sauntering!  Check out Fea’s full post here.

 


[1] A.A. Baker, The Successful Christian School: Foundational Principles for Starting and Operating a Successful Christian School (Pensacola, FL: A Beka Book Publications, 1979), 34.

 

[2] B. Gray Allison, “The American Campus as a Spiritual Force,” Christianity Today 12 (May 10, 1968): 5.

 

Shake Up at King’s College

If you look at the $30,000,000 box office sales for his film 2016: Obama’s America, it would seem that Dinesh D’Souza is very in.

But at King’s College in Manhattan, D’Souza is out.  According to a recent story by Warren Cole Smith at WORLD magazine, D’Souza has stepped down as the high-profile president of King’s College.  Smith had reported a few days earlier on the tensions among King’s leadership.  D’Souza had ruffled some feathers when he appeared with a woman who was not his wife, shared a hotel room with her, and introduced her as his fiancee.  D’Souza had separated from his long-time spouse, but had not yet been officially divorced.

More interesting for ILYBYGTH readers than the Gossip Girl-ing involved, the story sheds some revealing light on the nature and institutional structure of King’s College itself.  As historian John Fea has remarked, the leadership of King’s College embarked on a remarkable re-branding in the mid-1990s.  It shifted from a small, quiet, conservative evangelical Westchester County college to an aggressive culture-war college in the heart of Manhattan.  The “new” King’s College narrowed its scope, offering only business and politics/economics majors.  The goal of the revised school was to bring conservative evangelical leadership to the heart of New York City.

As journalist Amy Sullivan noted in her piece in The New Republic about the King’s College shake-up, the rivalry between long-time provost Marvin Olasky and D’Souza likely contributed to the scandal.

It seems charismatic conservative evangelical leaders will continue to struggle with such issues.  King’s College represents a long tradition of “new” approaches to fundamentalist higher education.  Liberty University was founded in 1971 with the same purpose.  Even further back, this goal of teaching a new generation of conservative evangelical students to compete for the levers of cultural and political power has roots in the culture-war struggles of the 1920s.  As I argued in my 1920s book, college and seminary founders such as those at Dallas Theological Seminary and Bob Jones University explicitly set out to create schools that would train fundamentalist leaders for mainstream politics, religion, and culture.

Back in the 1920s, such schools wrestled with the same tensions that bedevil King’s College today: How can we institutionalize the uncompromising theology that so often thrives only under the leadership of charismatic individuals?  How can we remain true to our mission of training students in the specific doctrines of our faith while preparing them to engage with the wider world?  How can we retain the loyalty of those who want a firmly conservative evangelical institution, while convincing the world that our graduates have had the kind of broad education they might get at a more pluralistic college?

John Fea and Christian America

Messiah College historian and author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? John Fea posted a terrific article today.  In his Anxious Bench piece, John Fea shares a series of intriguing glimpses of his travels and travails through Christian America.

He tells of his run-ins with main-line Protestant ministers, right-wing talk-show hosts, and even Therapy Dogs International.