Dayton Dilemmas II: The Devil Made Them Do It

SAGLRROILYBYGTH: If you want small, unsatisfying, boring meals, don’t come to Dayton. As far as I can tell, thanks to hospitable hosts, life in Dayton is a steady stream of fantastic meals and challenging, thought-provoking conversation. At a talk yesterday at the University of Dayton about the connections between white evangelicals and “Make-America-Great-Again” patriotism, one grad student brought up an absolutely essential point. Namely, when it comes to understanding fundamentalist politics, we can’t leave out Satan.dayton flyers

We’ve talked about this topic recently when it comes to the specific topic of creationism. As I’m arguing in my upcoming book about creationism, secular folks like me have often misunderstood the nature of creationist thinking. We have assumed that creationists are making decisions based on secular reasonings. We forget that many creationists understand the world in supernatural terms, at least in some measure. When we do, we give up any chance of really understanding radical creationist thought.

The same is true for understanding the politics of conservative evangelical intellectuals.

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From the Bob Jones University archives…

In my talk yesterday, I tried to explain the long tradition of MAGA patriotism among white evangelical intellectuals and academics. Today’s leading evangelical intellectuals often don’t like the idea, but in the twentieth century evangelical higher education was firmly committed to the notion that their schools would teach a certain sort of defiant, nostalgic patriotism.IMG_1648

One graduate student—a self-identified “recovering fundamentalist”—brought up a key idea: If we really want to understand how conservative evangelicals could combine their faith so tightly with their nationalism, we need to remember the supernatural context. Especially in the twentieth century, this student pointed out, the cold war often took on the shape of an apocalyptic showdown between the Soviet Union and the United States.

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How to mix church and country, Bob Jones style…

For many fundamentalists at the time, the supernatural connections were too obvious to need explaining. The Soviet Union was the political incarnation of Satan. It was a nation and empire wholly guided by the devil’s machinations. Its goals were nothing less than both worldly and eternal domination.

It wasn’t much of a leap, then, to mix together a patriotic faith in the United States with a religious devotion to evangelical Christian values. Defending traditional Americanism was entirely equal to defending true evangelical religion, and vice versa. When the eternal mixed so profoundly with the national, it was not at all difficult or unusual for white fundamentalists to mash together their religious faiths with their patriotic fervor.

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Dayton Dilemmas I: WBR and Christian Nationalism

How could they do it? How could earnest, intelligent, educated Christians ever mash together their faith with their patriotism? That’s the tough question people were asking yesterday at the University of Dayton. I don’t have an easy answer, but I do think the case of William Bell Riley helps shed some light on it.dayton flyers

First, the background: Thanks to the dynamic scholarly duo of Professors Bill and Susan Trollinger, authors (among other things) of Righting America at the Creation Museum, I’m down in sunny Dayton, Ohio these days. Yesterday I talked with members of the Flyer community about my recent book, Fundamentalist U. I focused on the long tradition in evangelical higher education of combining conservative evangelical Protestant faith with a certain sort of Make-America-Great-Again patriotism.

The argument I tried to make is that white fundamentalists have always felt a deep sense of proprietary interest in the United States. For white fundamentalists, America has always been “our” country. Over the course of the twentieth century, in schools and society, fundamentalists have felt kicked out by trends toward secularism and political liberalism. They have repeatedly rallied to politicians who have promised to Make America Great Again.

righting america at the creation museumTrump’s not the first. As audience members pointed out, we can go back to Reagan and Nixon to find coded and not-so-coded appeals to “law-and-order,” the “silent majority,” and “shining cities on a hill.” For white evangelical voters, particularly the more politically conservative among them, those campaign promises have always been enormously appealing.

Some of the intellectuals in the audience—steeped in a very different tradition, the Catholic intellectual tradition—asked the tough question: How could any Christian of any denominational background ever mix up their priorities so badly? How could any Christian confuse his (primary) devotion to his religion with his (secondary) devotion to his country?

I had the chance to talk with Professor Bill Trollinger about the question. Bill is the universe’s greatest expert in the life and career of 1920s fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley. Riley, like many early fundamentalists, was a devoted Baptist. For Riley, in the early 1920s fundamentalism was a campaign to take back his denomination from the worrisome liberal trends that had begun to creep in.

American Baptists, ever since the days of Roger Williams, have placed an enormous emphasis on the freedom of the church from the government, and on the inviolate primacy of religious devotion over any political loyalty. By the twentieth century, however, Baptist fundamentalists like William Bell Riley seemed to have lost their yen for avoiding entanglement with government. Riley and other Baptist fundamentalists pushed hard to establish (or, as they would put it, re-establish) their evangelical religion in a more prominent place in public life. They wanted greater influence on public affairs. They hoped for increased influence on government decisions, such as banning alcohol, gambling, and other immoral activities.gods empire

How did that happen? How did ardent Baptists become so enthusiastic about “taking back America”?

Professor Trollinger and I came up with a short list, and I hope SAGLRROILYBYGTH will add their two cents.

How did fundamentalists like Riley combine their devotion to their religions with their devotion to the USA?

1.) Riley would always agree that church and state should be separate, but that the church must always represent the conscience of the society.

So although there must never be church control of government, government leaders should always be guided by religious leaders. Riley’s career could be characterized, in fact, by his increasing bitterness and resentment at his perceived lack of Main-Street influence. By the end of his life, Riley had become a vengeful, anti-semitic extremist, dedicated to sour conspiracy theories to explain his failure to establish himself in the level of public leadership to which he felt entitled.

2.) Riley wanted influence and was in part blinded by patriotic tradition.

Like many fundamentalists since, Riley failed in some measure to maintain his own Baptist tradition, even though he would never admit that. For Riley, as for many fundamentalists of later generations, America became representative of a Christian community. The division between church and society—if not church and state—became blurred in Riley’s mind and in his activism.

3.) The devil made them do it.

For many fundamentalists, political activism was intimately, necessarily connected and equated with religious activism. Patriotism was inseparable from faith. Why? Because of their belief in literal, incarnate supernatural entities acting through political entities. But we’ll save that for our next post.