Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
The Devil’s Music, Part Two | Righting America

by Randall Stephens with William Trollinger

In Righting America we note that “in the twenty-first century, the study of American fundamentalism has really come into its own, with a surfeit of outstanding works, many of which pay close attention to economics and politics” (315). Now add rock ‘n’ roll to the list of topics, with Randall Stephens’ The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘N’ Roll (Harvard University Press, 2018). In this post and the next we feature Randall’s interview with rightingamerica, which certainly should motivate readers to purchase the book!

Randall J. Stephens is an Associate Professor and Reader in History and American Studies at Northumbria University, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK. He is the author of The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South (Harvard University Press, 2008);  The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011); and editor of Recent Themes in American Religious History (University of South Carolina Press, 2009). Stephens has also written for The Atlantic, Salon, Wilson Quarterly, Christian Century, The Independent, Chronicle of Higher Education, and The New York Times. In 2018 he will be taking up a new post as Associate Professor of British and American Studies at the University of Oslo.

Read Part One of our interview here.

One of the arguments in your book is that Christian rock involves a fusion of popular culture and political conservatism. Could you elaborate on this argument, and are their progressive strains within Christian rock that work against this fusion?

This is a point that religion scholar David Stowe has made before me, and probably more effectively. For all of the experimentation and use of innovative, new music, much of the energy behind the genre comes from the right end of the spectrum. Of course, some artists and fans would say that they are not political. But, it’s pretty clear from the theology of the music and the social outlook over the decades that it has been more conservative than anything else. In 1972, an AP reporter did a short feature on the Jesus people in California who were registering as Republicans. One of the young enthusiasts the reporter interviewed said bluntly that “The conservative Republican viewpoint is closest to the laws of God.” Also in ’72, a peak year for Jesus people and Jesus rock visibility, a Southern Baptist seminary professor thought that the Jesus people represented a “strange shotgun marriage of conservative religion and a rebellious counterculture.” Most might have kept their distance from partisan politics, especially in the early years. Still, the widespread premillennialism, the biblical literalism, conservative views about gender and sexuality and the family, and a range of other topics put them in a certain camp. A preacher like the pentecostal Jimmy Swaggart spent quite a bit of time and energy denouncing Christian rock. In fact, though, performers and fans had views that were quite similar to those of Swaggart.

In the final chapter and the epilogue I spend some time talking about more recent developments that don’t quite fit this pattern.  There’s also groups like Jesus People USA, which Shawn David Young writes about, that also had a strong progressive/social justice dimension. Progressive views or just more of an openness to culture and the variety of human experience are evident in a minority of bands and solo artists.  I’m thinking of Mark Heard, T-Bone Burnett, Sam Phillips, Over the Rhine, Bruce Cockburn, the Lost Dogs, Adam Again, and other more recent ones.

There’s good evidence from the Pew Foundation and other sources that younger evangelicals also are now not animated by the same old red-meat conservative issues that inspired their parents and grandparents. Church worship in emerging churches and magazines like Relevant, Sojourners, or one I used to read long ago called Prism, reveal an alternative way of being Christian.  Environmental issues and concern for the poor and the oppressed might now be more central than in previous years. In some ways, Bono is a kind of patron saint of this version of the culturally and socially aware Christian.     

Ok, your book just came out, so it is probably not fair to ask. But what is your next project?

Thanks for asking. I just finished up a chapter for an edited volume on anti-communism and the stirrings of political activity among 20th century evangelicals and fundamentalists. I’m planning some work on a few transatlantic topics around evangelicalism, politics, and pop culture. My new post at the University of Oslo will be in British and American Studies, so my new work will reflect that a bit more. I’ll be heading to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library soon to dig into a new, related project.

Another work in progress covers environmentalism, religion, and the Dust Bowl. There’s a good story to be told here about how liberal and conservative groups diverged on how they handled the environmental calamity that shook the nation and forever changed the region and its inhabitants. The apocalyptic element is strong among evangelicals, pentecostals, and fundamentalists, while more socially conscious denominations like the Congregational Church and their Social Action Committee were at the forefront of relief and support of the New Deal and conservation efforts.

Another project, at a very vague/early stage, is one I’ve toyed with about sham evangelists and revivalists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Tales of jackleg preachers, frauds, hucksters, and the like have such an interesting history, from the days of newspaper reports about swindles and Mark Twain’s interest, to coverage and parodies by H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, to more contemporary tales of televangelism, the prosperity gospel, and corruption. Anyhow, it’s early days on all of these.

Thanks for the great questions and the interest in the book!

P.S. In an event sponsored by the Ohio Humanities Council, this Saturday at noon (Feb. 24) Bill is speaking at the Milan (OH) Public Library on the topic,

“Terrorizing Immigrants and Catholics: The Ohio Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.”