In the News: Update–Chick fil A, Traditional Values, Gay Rights, and Boycotting as Culture War

We’ve been reading with interest the developing story of Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-A.  Defenders such as Mike Huckabee have called for a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.  Opponents have rallied for a boycott of all Chick-fil-A branches.  Why?  Cathy’s comments and philanthropic donations have supported what he would call “traditional families.”  His opponents call them anti-gay.

The questions in this story have attracted the attention of everyone interested in today’s culture wars:

  • What does it mean to support traditional families?
  • What role do businesses play in promoting cultural values?
  • Is a consumer boycott a viable tactic for culture war victory?

So far we’ve refrained from posting any more news on this developing story.  But yesterday Darren Grem on Religion in American Life posted an analysis that was so insightful, we thought we’d recommend it.  If you’re following this story, or even wondering about it, Grem’s article is a great place to start.  He offers a cash-flow chart of where every dollar spent at Chick-fil-A likely goes.  We are looking forward to reading more when Grem’s book comes out.



Berger on the Pentecostal Elephant in the Room

Peter Berger at American Interest has offered this week a helpful reminder about the importance of understanding Pentecostalism.  Berger’s article reminds us of a few looming intellectual traps that anyone hoping to understand Fundamentalist America must avoid.  The first is that conservative religion in America is some sort of monolith.  Far from it.  The first generation of Protestant fundamentalists that I’ve studied vehemently disputed the legitimacy of the Pentecostal style.  One typical fundamentalist writer in the early 1920s dismissed Pentecostalism as a kind of “hysterical fanaticism,” arguing that “Disorderly confusion in the assembly is not of God.”   Another agreed: “Usually people carried away by this movement are of a nervous, mystical, hysterical temperament, such as are considered a bit queer.”

Historian Grant Wacker has called this division the “Travail of a Broken Family.”  As Berger notes, even among the Pentecostal tradition there are a variety of sub-traditions.  As a generalization, though, Pentecostals emphasize an immediate connection with, and a baptism by, the Holy Spirit.  Pentecostal worship can be characterized by distinctive physical manifestations among worshippers, including “jerking,” laughing, or glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”).  The faith has also long been known for its emphasis on divine healing.  But beyond those headline-grabbing outward signs, Pentecostal faiths are also focused on a very “fundamentalist” reading of the Bible.  And although Pentecostals can be less noticably political than their evangelical cousins, they often have equally conservative political and cultural beliefs.

Berger’s article also reminds us of the danger of dismissing any intellectual tradition much different from our own.  As Berger notes,

I think that even today the notion of Pentecostal scholarship, especially if undertaken by scholars who are themselves Pentecostals, must strike many people as an oxymoron. Evangelicals in general are still widely regarded as backwoods provincials, like those described with contempt by H.L. Mencken in his reports on the 1925 “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee—or, in the profoundly revealing 2008 comment by Barack Obama about folk in small towns (revealing, that is, about him, not about the people he was talking about): “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” These stereotypes were never empirically correct, and now are grossly incorrect. What has been happening in recent decades is the emergence of an increasingly sophisticated Evangelical intelligentsia, some of it based in a network of Evangelical academic institutions, publishing houses and journals, some (more interesting) infiltrating secular elite academia. Pentecostals are still lagging behind other Evangelicals in this development, but they have started to move in the same direction in America and elsewhere.

I would add that another disturbing part of this tendency to ignore the intellectual aspect of Pentecostalism is its heavy load of racial and class prejudice.  In the United States, Pentecostal churches have long been popular among low-income folks from ethnic minorities, especially Latinos and African Americans.  If those of us outside of conservative religion dismiss all emotive, traditional worship as mere snake-handling, we risk misunderstanding the cultural experiences of huge numbers of people who don’t have a lot of money or a lot of cultural clout.  This is the sort of misunderstanding that fuels the bitterness of America’s culture wars.  When activists on each side wholly misunderstand one another, the amount of wiggle room for compromise and mutual respect vanishes.  Berger’s article reminds us of the importance of approaching different cultural traditions with a healthy dose of humility and open-mindedness.


Over at Religion in American History, Janine Giordano Drake offered a thoughtful review of James Barrett’s The Irish Way.

For outsiders who hope to understand Fundamentalist America, Drake opens her essay with a interesting disclaimer:

People usually laugh when I tell them that, though I went to public school all my life, I didn’t meet a white, self-identifying Protestant until I got to college. Nobody ever “witnessed” to me; there were no “youth groups” around to my knowledge, and certainly nobody told me to read (or adhere to) the Bible. There were no “Christian groups” at my high school, and school prayer was never an issue. I usually don’t know what to say when people think I’m exaggerating. No, I’m not from an Old World immigrant community. I’m a fourth generation New Yorker, and I’m from the suburbs of New York City.

As Drake explains in her review, Barrett’s book offers a vision of multiethnic America that challenges casual assumptions about the historical dominance of white evangelical Protestantism.  I’m not sure how many academic historians these days assume that such was really the case for America’s past, but I agree that such assumptions are common among non-academic folks, and especially among conservative evangelical Protestants themselves.  Or, to be more precise, such assumptions are pointedly insisted upon among a segment of conservative evangelicals.

In any case, Drake describes Barrett’s book as giving us a “thick urban world” dominated not by evangelical Protestants but by Irish Catholics.  In Drake’s words,

The Irish, Barrett argues, were America’s first “ethnic group.” That is, Barrett finds that the Irish effectively taught subsequent ethnic groups how to be both respected as White Americans and simultaneously not-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant. He writes, “The Irish Catholic version of civic identity differed… from that of the WASP mainstream. At its best, it stressed a broad American Catholic identity that nonetheless recognized the integrity and worth of distinct ethnic cultures, and the rights of ethnic minorities to maintain these cultures” (102). In inventing an American way to be ethnic, Barrett argues, Irish Catholic Americans taught subsequent groups how to comfortably sustain their own culture and religion while also becoming American. In many ways, of course, this maintenance/reinvention of one’s ethnicity revolved around rejecting the Anglo-Protestant concept of civic identity that required Protestant religious sensibilities.

For those of us interested in understanding Fundamentalist America, this is a useful reminder of why we need to expand our definition of “fundamentalism.”  When we talk about Fundamentalist America including all sorts of conservative religious folks, including (some of) the urban Irish Barrett’s book describes, we use a definition most academic religious historians would not like.  The traditional academic definition of fundamentalism still insists that the term necessarily includes only a subset of conservative evangelical Protestants.  For academic religious historians, the best working definition of “fundamentalism” still comes from historian George Marsden.  In his 1980 Fundamentalism and American Culture, Marsden defined the term as “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism.”

But such a restricted definition ignores the ways conservatives of different faiths have come together in the past generation to form a powerful cultural bloc.  If we leave militant conservative Catholics–some of them the heirs of Barrett’s Irish Way–out of our definition, we won’t be able to grasp the ways Fundamentalist America really works.

Of course, the other option is to change our terminology.  If we called this bloc of traditionalist Americans something besides “Fundamentalist,” we could avoid this whole mess.  For instance, we could call it “Moral Majority” America, or “Christian America,” or “Bible” America, or something.  In my opinion, though, none of these alternatives captures the energy and drive of Fundamentalist America.

To return to Drake’s opening, I certainly would not laugh if she told me that no one at her public school ever asked her to join her prayer circle.  No one ever asked me.  I went to public high school in the very Irish northern suburbs of Boston.  Officially, however, I suppose my family would fit as WASPs, though we were only half “AS” and only very vaguely “P.”  Nevertheless, for most of my life I assumed that the borders of Fundamentalist America remained somewhere far south and west of me.  Only once I began working as a high-school teacher did I realize that I was simply unaware of the fact that I had been living all along deeply within those borders.  My ignorance of the strong culturally conservative presence all around me didn’t mean that it wasn’t there.  It was there among the Irish who trod Barrett’s Irish Way, just as it was among the “WASP” successors to Dwight Moody who still maintained their strong Boston presence.


Bible in America: RAH interview with Robert Alter

Fundamentalists don’t always make the best historians.  American fundamentalists tend to insist on an American past that is far too rosy.  When she was still an up-and-coming Presidential nomination contender, for example, Michele Bachmann insisted that the Founding Fathers had “worked tirelessly” to end slavery.   Though she later tacked away from her statement, noting that she meant John Quincy Adams, it doesn’t take a slanted leftist historical perspective to notice that her claim is just not true.  The Founding Fathers may have accomplished a good deal.  Some of them may even have tried to improve the conditions of slaves, or to hurry the day when human chattel slavery would be abolished.  But overall, the issue of slavery was one that the Founders explicitly pushed off on a later generation.

However, as we’ve noted here in the past, one of the historical claims of fundamentalists in America lines up more neatly with the findings of non-fundamentalist academics.  On the Religion in American History blog, Randall Stephens recently interviewed scholar Robert Alter about his newish book, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible.

Alter’s book is focused on the ways Biblical themes and language infuse American literature and culture.  In the RAH interview, he makes the point that American culture in the past was thoroughly Biblicized:

“In nineteenth-century Protestant America, the Bible, almost always in the King James Version, was a constant companion for most people. They not only heard it in church, but very often it was regularly read out loud in the family circle at home.”

Fundamentalists often make the case that America is and should remain a Christian, Biblical society.  They insist on a vision of American history in which early European settlers and Founding Fathers planned to create a Christian Nation.  (For the leading example of these kinds of arguments, check out David Barton’s Wallbuilders articles.)

Academic historians have noted that these historical claims must be treated carefully.  John Fea, for instance, has argued that there was indeed a good deal of Christian intent among the founding generation, but this is often used by activists in unfair and ahistoric ways.

However, it is only fair to notice that in some cases, the vision of the past promoted by fundamentalist activists lines up neatly with that of non-fundamentalist scholars.  According to Robert Alter, at least, American culture in the past really was thoroughly infused with the KJV Bible.