The Moody Crisis: Part 2

And now, the second of two posts from the best possible scholar to comment on what is going on at Moody Bible Institute. (Read Part 1 here.)

Tim Gloege is a historian and independent scholar based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He earned his Ph.D. in United States History from the University of Notre Dame in 2007. His first book, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2015. (See Bill’s glowing review of Guaranteed Pure.) Most recently, he contributed an essay to The Business Turn in American Religious History (edited by Amanda Porterfield, Darren Grem, and John Corrigan). Thanks to a grant from the Louisville Institute, he is researching a second book on Protestant liberals in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. You can follow Tim on Twitter @timgloege.

The Moody Bible Institute in Chicago (MBI), a venerable evangelical institution, is hot news. Christianity Today, the Christian Post, even Inside Higher Ed have reported allegations of excessive compensation for administrators and “liberalism” among its faculty. But despite these sensational charges, heresy hunters will search in vain for a whiff of liberalism at this hopelessly conservative school. More than this, and as the chart below reveals, management costs were 4.19% of expenditures in 2017, historically low for MBI and well-within the non-profit norms for administrative overhead.

MBI’s Major Expenses, 2005-2017. Chart produced by Tim Gloege, 2018.

No, evidence of the real crisis is found in its annual financial and ministry reports, which are summarized in the charts below.

MBI’s Revenue Sources, 2005. Chart produced by Tim Gloege, 2018.

MBI’s Revenue Sources, 2017. Chart produced by Tim Gloege, 2018.

 

MBI’s Revenue, 2005-2017. Chart produced by Tim Gloege, 2018.

While it is difficult to trace the precise timing of MBI’s current crisis – given that online financial records begin in 2005 –  several contributing factors are clear enough. First among equals is when mainstream publishers discovered the lucrative world of evangelical publishing in the 1980s, and consolidation ensued. Where the sector once was dominated by mid-sized firms, most major evangelical publishers today are subsidiaries of publicly-traded behemoths like News Corp. They have access to resources that dwarf independent publishers like Moody. Today, sure-sellers already have a platform and a following; they go with the deepest pockets, or perhaps form their own in-house publishing concern. Only the unknown, risky, propositions need the validation of the Moody brand.

That MBI’s publishing revenues have recovered to pre-recession levels is no small accomplishment, but signs of future trouble abound. While Moody Press published 120 new titles annually in the 1960s, last year it released only 56. Annual ministry reports suggest their most profitable title is Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, first published in 1995. I’m no expert in this sector, but I see no equivalent on their current roster. This lack of marquee authors hurts their bottom line today and diminishes their brand in the future.

Moody Radio shows similar signs of stagnation. The million listeners it reaches weekly is unchanged from the decade before. Media forecasters predict steep declines in radio audiences, displaced by the fractured world of podcasts, streaming music, and other on-demand services. Where Moody could have positioned itself as the evangelical NPR of religious podcasting, it is frantically playing catch-up instead.

MBI’s biggest miscalculation came with its flagship magazine, Moody Monthly. Like many other periodicals, subscriptions had fallen calamitously in the 2000s. But while others cut costs and shifted operations online, MBI shuttered the magazine through which it had spoken into the issues of the day for a century. This effectively rendered MBI mute; alienating the Moody brand from its longstanding corporate personality.

Having rested on the laurels of its old media empire for thirty years, MBI is paying the price today. Evidence of its severely weakened brand is starkly represented in its donation revenues; adjusted for inflation they have yet to recover to 2005 levels. The only thing preventing truly apocalyptic budget shortfalls are increased revenues from student fees. (Today they constitute 31.4% of MBI’s total income, versus 16.5% in 2005.) The cost of providing education has risen also, and now makes up over half of total expenses, up from 42% in 2005.

But this focus on education is a historical anomaly at MBI, and given the state of higher education, as risky as a hand of cards with Jerry Jenkins. When enrollment declines, as happened last year, the fixed costs remain. From this perspective, the decision to shut down its Spokane campus may simply be a return to its traditional ratios. MBI’s newest building project, the Gary D. Chapman Center, seems to be another investment in public ministry. Opening this spring, it will house both the publishing and radio departments and provide space for new digital publishing and multimedia production.

But all this will be for naught without a concerted effort to rehabilitate the Moody brand. As it stands, the 79 million self-identified evangelicals who have never listened to Moody radio are as mystified by the “Moody” label as the average Katy Perry fan. For these evangelicals, the names that they trust lie elsewhere.

Moody has become the Sanka of evangelical brands; it’s still around, but you probably don’t know it. Whether Moody is still with us in twenty years remains to be seen.

The Moody Crisis: Part 1

And now, the first of two posts from the best possible scholar to comment on what is going on at Moody Bible Institute.

Tim Gloege is a historian and independent scholar based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He earned his Ph.D. in United States History from the University of Notre Dame in 2007. His first book, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2015. (See Bill’s glowing review of Guaranteed Pure.) Most recently, he contributed an essay to The Business Turn in American Religious History (edited by Amanda Porterfield, Darren Grem, and John Corrigan). Thanks to a grant from the Louisville Institute, he is researching a second book on Protestant liberals in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. You can follow Tim on Twitter @timgloege.

The Moody Bible Institute in Chicago (MBI), a venerable evangelical institution, was hot news last week. Christianity Today, the Christian Post, even Inside Higher Ed reported allegations of excessive compensation for administrators and “liberalism” among its faculty.

The most sensational accusations revolved around MBI board member Jerry Jenkins, author of the spectacularly successful Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels. He apparently has a penchant for poker and was given sole use of a luxury suite in an Institute-owned building. All this came to light amid a financial shortfall that led MBI to close its Spokane campus and cut ten percent of its Chicago faculty.

MBI “is facing what is arguably one of the most serious crises… [of] its 132-year history” declared Julie Roys, a radio personality and self-described whistleblower who publicized these allegations. MBI leadership apparently agrees; both its president and COO resigned and its provost announced retirement (it also summarily fired Roys). The future of accused faculty members remains unclear.

I agree with Roys’ claim of crisis, but for none of the reasons she outlines. Heresy hunters will search in vain for a whiff of liberalism at this hopelessly conservative school. Management costs were 4.19% of expenditures in 2017, historically low for MBI and well-within the non-profit norms for administrative overhead. Her charges of “reverse racism” are bizarre (and particularly troubling in light of MBI’s ongoing struggles addressing white supremacy). Given the fresh, Trump-grade, scandals we are forced to endure each week, I can’t imagine folks remembering any of this in February, presuming MBI simply does nothing.

No, evidence of the real crisis is not found in gossipy blogposts from MBI’s rightwing fringe, but in its annual financial and ministry reports. The numbers they contain suggest a crisis of marketing, not morality. For most of the twentieth century, MBI could claim ownership of a premiere (perhaps the premiere) conservative evangelical brand. Its longstanding tagline touted Moody as the “name you can trust.” Today, it is the name hardly anyone remembers.

***

MBI was founded in 1889 by Dwight L. Moody: a celebrity revivalist to middle-class Protestants. It began as a training school for men and women who wished to engage in religious work, but were unable to attend college or seminary. (Ironically enough, it offers accredited undergraduate and seminary degrees today.)

If education were the measure, MBI would be long-forgotten; but its real significance came elsewhere. In the 1910s, MBI had been remade into a new type of religious corporation: an unaffiliated producer of religious media. Such organizations are so commonplace today we assume they always existed; but MBI helped create the template. Its techniques, rooted in modern business principles, have been imitated by nondenominational churches and parachurch organizations across the country. It radically transformed American Protestantism.

MBI’s transformation was inaugurated by a man who knew the power of modern media. Henry Parsons Crowell made a fortune by promoting his Quaker brand as the only oatmeal guaranteed pure. At MBI, he redirected its educational mission to promoting his brand of “pure religion” and fighting liberal theology. A wide array of products drew many evangelicals into MBI’s orbit: magazines, radio, books, music, evangelistic meetings, and later, evangelistic films and satellite broadcasts. Education continued, but these “public ministries” were responsible for both the majority of outlays and revenues: most importantly, the steady stream of small donations that kept the lights on. Donors believed in MBI’s mission because they consumed its products.

Crowell brilliantly leveraged the reputation of Dwight L. Moody as a virtual trademark, guaranteeing that their message was neither “liberal” nor “fanatical,” but simple, wholesome, “old-time religion.” Even as people forgot Moody the man, they still associated Moody the brand with trustworthiness.

MBI maintained the Moody brand by studiously avoiding flash, fad, and controversy of any sort. It was stylistically stodgy and corporate by design; controversy was enemy number one. The strategy served them well into the 1990s; its white evangelical constituency might sample the exotic flavors of the fringe—the counterculture of the Jesus People or the new breed of prosperity-oriented tele-evangelists or the cathartic political tantrums of Jerry Falwell. But like oatmeal for breakfast, they considered Moody’s inoffensive products a staple of their media diet. And when push came to shove, Moody was the name they could trust.

With MBI demonstrating proof of concept, innumerable non-denominational churches and para-church organizations imitated its strategies. Many early competitors had direct ties to MBI (its personnel were regularly poached by other evangelical institutions in the mid twentieth century). But by the 1980s, the landscape was thick with competitors from all corners of the evangelical ecosystem. Media-savvy mega-churches and parachurch organizations like Focus on the Family began undermining MBI’s privileged position.

“Our” Sin at Ark Encounter

Last fall, Sue taught an upper-division (undergraduate) course in the English Department at the University of Dayton on visual rhetoric. In that course, her students read a variety of theoretical/critical books and essays that explore how images, sculptures, memorials, museums, and the like make meaning; how the people who view/visit them make (often contested) meanings from them; and how all that meaning-making is deeply rooted in history and politics. The class took as its shared visual texts the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter. After visiting both sites, students wrote a rhetorical analysis of one (or both) sites and then transformed their rhetorical analysis into a blog post. Today, we are pleased to publish Karen Naim’s blog post from Sue’s class.

Karen Naim is a senior at the University of Dayton studying English and International Studies.  She chose to major in English because of her interest in rhetoric and composition and the fascinating relationship between language and culture. Karen has thoroughly enjoyed her time at UD and the wide array of classes she has taken. Among her favorites are Rhetorical Theory, Literature and Human Rights, and Visual Rhetoric. Following graduation, Karen plans on working for a few years before continuing her education in either law or public administration. Karen is a Cleveland native, but is looking forward to where the future will take her.

“Our” Sin at Ark Encounter

Polygamy, giants, music, civilization, and metalworking. What do these have in common? According to Answers in Genesis (AiG), they are five of the sins that God saw as punishable by a worldwide flood. Ark Encounter’s exhibit, “Descent into Darkness” illustrates the sins that inspired God to punish all of humanity by way of a worldwide flood. These images are designed to appear as though they represent ancient cultures and peoples, but there is an air of familiarity in many of the images. Is this exhibit at Ark Encounter purposefully asking visitors to examine the sin in their own lives?

As visitors walk through Ark Encounter, they encounter a series of placards titled,  “Descent into Darkness.” The placards offer representations of sin that are supposed to justify a catastrophic world-wide flood. AiG believes in a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis; therefore, they believe that human sin inspired God to cause a flood that would drown all of humanity, and along with it all of human sin. Ark Encounter’s exhibit reflects AiG’s belief that sin deserves whatever punishment God sees necessary, and the suggestion is that today’s world is equally deserving of such catastrophic punishment.

Importantly, “Descent into Darkness” features images of sin that are surprisingly familiar. The polygamy panel shows a man sitting with seven girls in front of him. Two of the girls  are waiting on him, giving him food and water. Visitors familiar with popular culture will likely be reminded by these placards of popular music videos that we see every day. The music video for “Dynamite” by Afrojack & featuring Snoop Dogg, for example, wherein two women are dancing around the rapper as he sits on a throne, provides an obvious case in point. But it is just one of many possible examples.

The illustrations become only increasingly familiar as the music panel shows three people playing instruments and dancing. The people are dancing around a fire, which may be suggesting some sort of Satanic ritual, but the dancing is more of the focal point. As audiences look at this panel, they may ask “What is different from this and parties I go to? Is my dancing punishable too?”

As visitors continue to move through the exhibit, they are greeted by a mini-diorama that looks like a stadium. The stadium depicted there looks a lot like today’s large sports stadiums, complete with cheering fans. This scene looks like any professional sporting event until the visitors take notice of the humans fighting each other and the torture that is happening on the main field. But if one brackets the torture, they are likely to recognize a familiar scene they can easily insert themselves into. Thus, I wonder if like me many visitors think back to a time they were in a stadium with friends and family cheering on their favorite teams. What is so sinful about that?       

Through its “Descent into Darkness” exhibit, Ark Encounter places visitors in a position to look at the sin in their own lives based on AiG’s interpretation of sin and God’s punishment. If the images and dioramas were not enough to make the visitors catch the subtle hints of modern culture, the next section explicitly asks them to consider their own lives. As one panel specifically asks, “The pre-flood world was exceedingly wicked and deserved to be judged … Does our sin-filled world deserve any less?”

The question is not whether AiG meant to create a powerful parallel to today’s culture. Instead, the question is about how powerful this exhibit is in sending a message to visitors that damnation is close at hand.

Ken Ham and Westboro Baptist Church

As Ken Ham reported in a recent post, members of Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) recently came to Cincinnati to protest a local high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance Club. A local newspaper responded by publishing an article – “endorsed by a number of pastors” – which proclaimed that

a deep study of our holy scriptures [reveals that] neither gender identity nor sexual orientation impedes God’s ability and willingness to love us just the way God created us [as] God is an inclusive God of unconditional love who loves us all.

Such sentiments did not sit well with Kevin Landis, a local fundamentalist pastor and Answers in Genesis (AiG) supporter. So he published his own article (included in Ham’s post) in which he asserted that – while he does not “endorse the methods or mean-spirited stance taken by Westboro Baptist Church” – he rejected the notion that “God approves us as we are,” and in which he asserted that gays and lesbians will be condemned unless they turn from their sin. As Ham notes in his concluding paragraph,

Of course, we join with Pastor Landis in decrying the hate of the Westboro protesters, but we also agree that pastors and other believers cannot twist God’s Word and misrepresent God in an attempt to be “inclusive” of everyone.

As Rebecca Barrett-Fox powerfully documents in God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right, WBC is a convenient foil for the Christian Right: “They are hateful, and we are not.” But in the end, fundamentalists like Ham turn out to be strikingly similar to the folks at Westboro. In fact, as Barrett-Fox has argued here at rightingamerica, the Christian Right may actually take a more hateful stance:

In WBC’s view, God sends you to eternal torture because he hates you for reasons that you can never know and, out of his rejection of you, you become gay. Is it more compassionate to be taught that God loves you so much that Jesus died for your sins but that’s not enough to make up for the fact that you love a person of the same sex? I think I rather prefer a God who is a bit more honest, if inscrutable, than one who says his love is endless but somehow can bring himself to condemn you to eternal torture anyway.

It really is difficult to see much space between Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG), and the late Fred Phelps and WBC. Underscoring this point is one particularly bizarre similarity. On the front page of the Westboro Baptist website – www.godhatesfags.com – one learns that one learns that God (while rescuing Noah and seven others) killed 16 billion people in the global Flood. Amazingly enough, however, Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter goes even further, suggesting that God drowned upwards of 20 billion people.

The reason for such outrageous numbers seems obvious. The God of WBC and AiG was willing to slaughter 99.999% of humanity in the past, and – if necessary – is willing to do so again. Such are the wages of sin.

Talking Young Earth Creationism with Historians

Well, that was fun!

At yesterday’s American Society of Church History session here in Washington on “Christianity in 20th Century American Politics” – which was ably and energetically chaired by Rebecca Koerselman (Northwestern College) – our paper on Ark Encounter and Creation Museum was well-received, as there was a lively discussion with many good questions. Here are a few of the questions, with our responses:

Is Answers in Genesis (AiG) the work of one person? No and yes. No, in the sense that there is a small cadre of creationists who produce the overwhelming flood of print, online, and social media materials (a task made easier because they say the same things, again and again). Yes, in that Ken Ham is the driving force that makes AiG go. As is the case with many other evangelical parachurch organizations, the question of who will succeed the leader remains to be seen.

Has young Earth creationism simply won the day among evangelicals?  No. There are evangelicals who also hold to evolution; BioLogos is the best-known evangelical organization making the case that one can be a person of faith and accept evolution, and they are also – as we discuss in Righting America at the Creation Museum – one of Ken Ham’s favorite targets. There are also evangelicals who reject evolution but who accept the old Earth; at the Creation Museum – as we also discuss in Righting America – they are blamed (along with Descartes, Darwin, et al.) for the rapid decline of Western civilization. But young Earth creationists have to worry about “more literal” creationists, such as those who hold to an earth-centered universe, who make exactly the same sort of arguments against young Earth creationists as young Earth creationists make against old Earth creationists.  

Does the Creation Museum simply dismiss Intelligent Design arguments? No. The museum makes great use of ID claims that the design and beauty of creation are evidence that there must be a Creator, while then going beyond this to specify the particulars of Who this Creator is. For all of young Earth creationism’s critiques of ID, we see at the Creation Museum that ID and young Earth creationism can work together very well.   

How do you compare the Bible Museum with the Creation Museum? As we have not been to the Bible Museum, we cannot make any definitive comparisons. It is clear that the Bible Museum is working much harder than the Creation Museum to be academically “respectable” and more “neutral” in its presentation. On the other hand, Ken Ham proudly attended the Bible Museum’s black tie opening, and Hobby Lobby Bibles remain on display at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter. (For a fascinating comparison of the Bible Museum and the Creation Museum from someone who has been to both, see this Weekly Standard article).

What’s the deal with evangelicals and fundamentalists building “museums”? What is the appeal? The short answer is that museums attract more than 850 million visitors a year. The term “museum” carries with it a particular cache, a sense of cultural authority. Of course, whether this understanding of “museum” can survive the likes of the Creation Museum is an open question.

Given that Ken Ham and AiG focus so much on cultural and political arguments, have they given up on “creation science”? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that – as we point out in Righting America – Ken Ham figured out that the way to appeal to evangelicals and fundamentalists was to focus on cultural and political issues, especially given that “creation science” has produced such meager results. But no, in that AiG remains interested in trying to produce a “science” that will overturn evolution. Most recently that appears in the person of AiG’s Nathaniel Jeanson, who claims — with breathtaking hubris — to have overturned Charles Darwin with his book, Replacing Darwin: The New Origin of Species.   

One final point. We concluded our paper with the argument that, in the effort to fuse evangelical theology and culture war politics, Christian Right institutions such as the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter may actually be accelerating the advance of secularization by driving evangelicals into the category of the religiously nonaffiliated. While Ken Ham and AiG would vehemently disagree, to the church historians, this seemed to make sense.

Righting America Goes to Washington!

We kick off the New Year by heading to Washington, D.C. for the winter meeting of the American Society of Church History. At 1.30pm on Thursday we are participating in a session that is entitled “Christianity in 20th Century American Politics,” and that includes papers on Christian patriotism and fundamentalism in World War II, and Pentecostals, Civil Religion, and the two World Wars.  Our presentation – ok, Sue is staying home to be with our high schoolers as they start spring term, but it is our paper — will be on “Ark Encounter and Creation Museum: Political Enterprises in the Guise of Christian Apologetics.”

This should be an interesting session. One way we are trying to do our part to make it interesting is by making a counter-intuitive argument:

Answers in Genesis (AiG) explains its efforts to fuse evangelical theology and Christian Right politics as necessary to combat the forces of secularism threatening to destroy American civilization. But it seems that institutions such as the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter may actually be accelerating the advance of secularization in the United States.

Wouldn’t it be strange if AiG’s labors were actually benefitting their culture war enemies? Who knows where the discussion goes in DC, but it should be fun!

RACM Year in Review for 2017

This past year marked a number of “firsts” for the RACM blog.  This past April we celebrated one full year of our site. In June we reached the highest number of readers yet, with over 1543 unique visitors over 30 days. And as we end 2017, this marks the 177th post (with regular postings twice per week) on the RACM blog. An impressive collection for our small operation!  

This year also marks the first full calendar year for rightingamerica.net & the RACM blog. As 2017 comes to a close, we’re taking a long view of our year’s worth of posts – a year that was significant for our blog not only in the number of posts but in the variety of authors’ voices and topics featured on the blog as well as readers reached and visitors to our site.  Today we review our top five most popular posts from the year.

5. Who is Twisting the Truth? (179 views) Published February 7, 2017.

Infuriated by Americans United’s critique, Answers in Genesis CEO Ken Ham attempts a defense of state-supported financing of Ark Encounter.

4. Terrorizing Immigrants and Catholics (185 views)  Published November 4, 2017.

Today, it isn’t clear whether the KKK has been on the winning or losing side of the argument about what it means to be an American.

3.The Materialist Assumptions of Creationism (202 views) Published January 6, 2017 and written by our colleague Frederick W. Schmidt.

The creationist supposes that if God is to be found anywhere, it is just beyond the place where our knowing and our senses fail us. That logic surrenders far too much.

2. Joel Osteen, Evangelicals, and Donald Trump (207 views) Published October 16, 2017 and written by our colleague Emily McGowin Hunter.

Because they voted for him and continue to defend him in droves, evangelicals are now associated with Trump’s excesses.

1. The Sinking of a Small Town (221 views) Published March 3, 2017.

What Ken Ham and AiG sold to community leaders who were desperate for an economic boost is not coming to pass. Ark Encounter may be doing great, but the local community is not.

Indeed, this has been a productive year for the RACM blog!  What is very interesting about this list is that these posts are quite varied both in topics and authors. We are thrilled about that! As we look back across the year, we acknowledge that we are less a site about a unifying topic or theme and much more a community of engaged scholars who seek to understand what is underway in the worlds of evangelicalism, fundamentalism, young Earth creationism, and beyond.

As we look ahead we know one thing for sure—there’s no predicting what this community will have to say. And we cannot wait to watch it unfold. We hope for more authors and features in 2018.  If you, our kind readers, would like to write a post or have topic suggestions or questions you’d like us to address, feel free to leave us a comment below.

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!

Quivering Families, An Interview with Emily McGowin: Part II

Emily Hunter McGowin has a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton and MDiv from Truett Seminary. Her work is at the intersection of religion, theology, and ethnography. Her book, Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family, will be published by Fortress Press in May 2018. Her work has also appeared in Ecclesial Practices and New Blackfriars. She serves as deacon and theologian-in-residence at Church of the Resurrection in Arvada, CO. You can learn more about Emily at her website

Read Part I of this interview.

Many evangelicals would claim that Quiverfull theology and practice is beyond the pale. They would insist that they aren’t really evangelicals and shouldn’t be taken seriously as such. What would you say to this?

I’ve actually had this conversation a number of times. A couple of years ago I presented some of my findings at a national conference. I received mostly positive feedback from those in attendance, but one evangelical scholar was visibly perturbed. As he explained his grievances to me and everyone else in the room, it became clear that this scholar did not have a problem with what I said, but what I didn’t say. He didn’t think I had been careful enough to distinguish the members of the Quiverfull movement from other evangelicals. He viewed Quiverfull proponents as completely beyond the evangelical pale. He didn’t say it this way, but the crux of his consternation was that I had made them look too much like us.

He certainly did understand what I was arguing! I don’t carefully distinguish between Quiverfull practitioners and evangelicals in general because I’m not convinced there is a significant difference between them. In terms of daily practice, there’s no doubt that a Quiverfull family looks and behaves differently than most of their evangelical neighbors. For many, this distinction is intentional. But, there’s no getting around the fact that Quiverfull families are evangelical in whatever way you construe that term: theologically, historically, politically, and culturally. In fact, when you view the Quiverfull movement in the context of evangelical history in America, the similarities vastly outweigh the differences. My evangelical colleague saw in Quiverfull a bizarre aberration from the norm while I see a movement that is thoroughly evangelical and thoroughly American.   

That leads right into the newly revived debate about the term evangelical. How do you define evangelical and evangelicalism?

This question was fraught long before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but the victory of Donald Trump with the overwhelming majority of the evangelical vote really compounded the issue. The historian in me wants to wait till the dust settles a bit more before attempting an answer.

I know many people who still use evangelical mostly as a theological term for a defined stream or wing of the Christian tradition. They draw on David Bebbington’s quadrilateral as a starting point so that evangelical is taken to mean people characterized by conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism. My concern with this approach, though, is that the focus is mainly on beliefs, which are private, personal, and very broadly conceived. Also, it is a definition detached from the concrete stuff of daily life, such as habits, communal practices, discourse, and cultural institutions.

Molly Worthen gets closer, I think, by imagining that evangelicalism coalesces around the crisis of authority manifested in several unresolved questions, like how to know Jesus and how to act publicly on faith. (I might add the unresolved question of gender, which has always been a focal point of evangelical culture.) This approach makes the concept of evangelical/evangelicalism a little more three-dimensional. Evangelical then refers not to people who all think the same way but people who are consistently engaged with the same questions. Unity consists, therefore, not in uniform agreement but ongoing debate around key focal concerns.

With all this in mind, I tend to see evangelicalism as a social and cultural phenomenon. So, evangelicals are participants in a subculture created and sustained through the interactions of churches, societies, publishing houses, TV and radio networks, music production companies, books and periodicals, blogs and websites, local co-operatives and non-profits, practices and rituals, and more. Not all participants in this evangelical subculture agree on the questions of gender, authority, or how to know and follow Christ, but all of them are engaged in the ongoing dialogue and debate.

In the book’s conclusion, you suggest that the problem with Quiverfull is not that they are too radical but that they are not radical enough. Can you say more about this?

Because the Quiverfull vision and practice of the family is an intensification of longstanding American evangelical tendencies, it is not, in fact, as counter-cultural as they intend. I do not think it constitutes a compelling Christian witness to an alternative way of life and I do not believe it can transform society in the long term. What is needed, in my view, is something more radical than Quiverfull, not less. Where there is privatization, families need connectedness to local churches and local communities. Where there is individualism, families need tangible obligations and contributions to the common good. Where there is isolation, families need healthy institutions and networks of support. All of this is stated in broad-strokes, I realize, but that’s the direction I’m thinking. Some Catholic theologians have already begun writing about this in compelling ways, including Julie Hanlon Rubio and David Matzko McCarthy. I think there remains work to do among Protestants, especially evangelical Protestants.

Could you say a little about what you’re working on now?

I have a few projects in the works right now. I want to do a follow up to this book that considers the adult children of Quiverfull families and their religious practice today. Do Quiverfull families, with their intense focus on childrearing, succeed in producing adults with a vibrant Christian identity and practice? I suspect that they are not any more successful than other evangelical families, but more research is needed to explore that. Also, as I hinted at above, I think more theological reflection is needed on the Christian practice of family in America today. The “traditional” nuclear family has proved to be quite unstable and, due to a variety of social, economic, and political factors, the form of the family in America is changing rapidly. What does Christian theology have to say about the family in the face of such shifts and transformations? I have a long-term project planned to explore that question in a more constructive way. Finally, I’m also working on a memoir that will tell some of my spiritual and theological journey as a Christian convert, student, minister, scholar, and mother.

Quivering Families, An Interview with Emily McGowin: Part I

Emily Hunter McGowin has a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton and MDiv from Truett Seminary. Her work is at the intersection of religion, theology, and ethnography. Her book, Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family, will be published by Fortress Press in May 2018. Her work has also appeared in Ecclesial Practices and New Blackfriars. She serves as deacon and theologian-in-residence at Church of the Resurrection in Arvada, CO. You can learn more about Emily at her website

Before asking why you chose to write about Quiverfull, we should probably ask a more basic question: What is Quiverfull?

The term originally comes from Psalm 137:3-5: “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” During the rise of the Christian homeschooling movement in the U.S., some leaders began to teach that Christians have a moral obligation to have large families, educate their children at home, and practice male headship (or “biblical patriarchy”). If the Bible teaches that children are a divine reward and a “full quiver” of children is a blessing, they asked, why would Christians seek to limit the number of children they have? The more, the better! As far as I can tell, some time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, families who embraced this way of life began calling themselves “Quiverfull.” So, by the time Kathryn Joyce published her book Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement in 2009, it seems the term had been in use for 15-20 years.  

In the book, I use the term Quiverfull to refer to a subculture of American evangelicalism identifiable by the three practices mentioned above: pronatalism, homeschooling, and gender hierarchy. Pronatalism means that they are forgoing all family planning and seeking to have as many children as possible. Homeschooling means they are educating all of their children in the private family home, under the leadership of the mother, from pre-school through high school (and sometimes beyond). Gender hierarchy (or patriarchy) means they subscribe to explicit male headship in all spheres of life and teach their children accordingly. I suggest imagining the three elements of Quiverfull like circles in a Venn diagram: it’s where they overlap that Quiverfull discourse is found.

Of all the things you could have researched, why Quiverfull?

At first, I was simply interested in Quiverfull on a personal level. The movement came to my attention when I was a first-year doctoral student. I had a toddler and another baby on the way. I was juggling a lot of responsibilities, living on a grad student stipend, and struggling with my dual vocation as a mother and scholar. While Sheryl Sandberg was telling women like me to lean in to their careers, Quiverfull mothers were leaning in to an elaborate form of domesticity focused on raising godly children. I was fascinated by their willingness to live out their ideals in such a thoroughgoing way. Also, their commitment to patriarchy seemed to be at odds with the mother-centered and mother-directed nature of their daily lives. I wanted to explore their lived religion at a deeper level and take their domestic work seriously.

Alongside my personal interest in Quiverfull, I had also been inspired by a number of theologians like Mary McClintock Fulkerson and Christian Scharen who employ ethnography to better understand and learn from the lived religion of Christian communities. The Quiverfull movement seemed like an ideal subject for ethnographic research because (1) Quiverfull is a decentralized movement with no structured leadership or canon of authoritative texts and (2) most practitioners live out their faith in the private home, at a significant distance from the notable leaders that get most of the attention. I say in the introduction that because of their TLC reality show, 19 Kids and Counting, the Duggar Family is known as “Quiverfull royalty.” But they are to real life Quiverfull families what the Real Housewives of New Jersey are to housewives. There are similarities, of course, but they only go so far. I knew ethnography would help me better understand the complexity of Quiverfull lived religion and help me make it more intelligible to outsiders.

At the center of your project is two years of in-depth interviews with Quiverfull mothers. What was it like to interview the women of this movement?

Speaking to the mothers of the movement was my favorite thing about the project. I think people in general are infinitely complex and interesting. Even beyond that, though, the women I interviewed were remarkably forthright, especially regarding their doubts and struggles. I had assumed there would be some attempt to gloss over things or make things seem easier than they are. But, right from the beginning, they were eager to tell the nitty-gritty truth about their daily lives. The hospitality they extended to me—sharing their lives and families at such an intimate level—made my work as a researcher much easier. Of course, that also made it challenging to be critical sometimes, as I was worried about their feelings. At the same time, though, my concern for them as a personal level caused me to take even more seriously the obligation to handle their words with care. It was vitally important to me not to mischaracterize or do violence to their stories.

What are you hoping your readers will learn from your book?

I want curious outsiders to understand Quiverfull as a form of evangelical lived religion in America. I think I’ve provided enough historical and cultural detail to help readers understand the movement in a general way. More than that, though, I want readers to think more deeply about the way Christian constructions of motherhood, childhood, and “the family” contribute to or undermine the flourishing of real families in the U.S. My major premise is that Quiverfull practice constitutes an intensification of longstanding American evangelical tendencies toward individualism and privatization. I think these tendencies are not only against the grain of the Christian tradition (broadly conceived), but also fundamentally bad for families in real life. So, I hope my readers are encouraged to think more critically about the way Christians conceive of and practice family in America today.

So, would you say your book is pro-Quiverfull or anti-Quiverfull?

Can I say both and neither? I am quite critical of Quiverfull practice in the book but I hope it’s also clear that I’m deeply sympathetic to some of their concerns. For example, I resonate with their desire to help Christian families raise their children with a vibrant Christian identity. But, I find their exclusive focus on the family problematic. In some cases, the nuclear family has even come to replace the church entirely. But in the Christian tradition you can’t understand the family rightly without the church. And, practically speaking, children need to be initiated into the practices of a larger, flesh-and-blood faith community in order to develop a Christian identity. The private family alone is not enough.

Thinking more broadly, I also share Quiverfull concerns about the stability and health of American families in our tumultuous cultural moment. But the answer on offer from Quiverfull is to focus exclusively on the ordering of the private sphere with no consideration for the environmental factors that can help or harm families in a big way. They seem to believe if more people would simply conform to their particular blueprint of the family, which is hierarchically arranged and inwardly focused, then society would be transformed for the better. But that’s simply not the way it works. There are large systemic, social issues that must be addressed, along with private, personal issues. We need to be discussing matters like healthcare, education, and maternity leave policy alongside issues of personal responsibility, household debt, and “grit.” It’s both-and, not either-or.

Evangelicals, Racism, and Ken Ham

In his very charitable review of Righting America on the BioLogos website Ted Davis notes that he “partly dissent[s]” from our treatment of racism:

They acknowledge that Ham and his Museum unambiguously oppose racism and blame evolution for advancing it. However, in the context of their larger narrative, they seem to imply that Ham’s opposition to racism is just trendy, part of a relatively recent change of heart among American Evangelicals, who increasingly disown racial prejudice. I don’t think they’ve been entirely fair to Ham, who has shown admirable leadership on that score.

As many black evangelicals have noted in the year since Donald Trump was elected president, it would seem that racism remains strongly rooted in white evangelicalism (to the point that some evangelicals of color have disavowed the “evangelical” label). So it seems plausible to suggest that it is a sign of Ham’s “admirable leadership” that he continues to say that racial discrimination is not biblical.

But here’s the problem. Ham’s statements opposing racism are remarkably abstract. While his blog attacks on efforts in behalf of LGBTQ rights (34 in the past 17 1/2 months) are very specific – including, most recently,  a vitriolic post regarding the legalization of gay marriage in Australia – his comments about racism rarely seem to land anywhere. He has so much material to work with, but he is silent when it comes to specifics. As we note in Righting America, from Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG) there was

silence about the 2013 Supreme Court decision gutting the Voting Rights Act, . . . silence about the Confederate flag controversy, and . . . silence about the persistence of institutional racism in the United States. (190-191)

That was 2015. Since then – as we discussed in a September 2017 post – Ham has said nothing (as far as we can tell) about white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, and the rise in racially-motivated hate crimes. Regarding Charlottesville, in the past week an article on the AiG website finally made reference to it . . .  but only for the purposes of attacking the antifa movement for its illogical authoritarian anti-authoritarianism. Where is the critique of neo-Nazis and white supremacists?

Given Ken Ham’s location in the Christian Right, we recognize that it would take courage for him to forthrightly condemn both particular racist acts and the persistence of racism in white evangelicalism. But if his stance against racism is to mean something, then it needs to be specific. That would be leadership.

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