Decoding the Digital Church: Evangelical Storytelling and the Election of Donald J. Trump: An interview with Stephanie A. Martin
by Patrick Thomas
Sam (Stephanie A. Martin) is a scholar of public address and political communication, with a particular interest in the public discourses of conservative social movements, especially evangelical voters. She has written or edited three books, most prominently Decoding the Digital Church: Evangelical Storytelling and the Election of Donald J. Trump (University of Alabama Press, 2021). Her research has also been published in top journals including the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Rhetoric and Public Affairs, and Visual Communication Quarterly. Martin frequently appears as an expert commentator and consultant for news stories, and has appeared in USA Today, NPR, NBC, the Boston Globe, the Texas Tribune, and The Dallas Morning News, among others.
We are thrilled to feature Sam’s work and to welcome another new voice to the RightingAmerica blog!
- Your book examines storytelling as it relates to evangelicals’ political support for Donald Trump. This support is well-documented, so can you say a bit about where your study comes from and what insights you’re contributing to the study of contemporary American evangelicalism?
My study reaches back a decade, to the end of the Bush Administration. In part, the questions I ask percolated in response to Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank’s book wondered why so many highly religious but not wealthy voters from his home state of Kansas had become such strong supporters of the Republican Party and their platform of low taxes and business deregulation, and had abandoned the Democrats who agitate on behalf of the middle-class, marginalized, and working poor. As Frank might have written had he wished to put it so plainly: Why is a party that seems to be against poor people supported by so many, well, poor people? And, again, why don’t those poor people care about others like themselves? Isn’t that supposed to be the Christian way?
As an answer, Frank reasoned that evangelical believers privilege social issues at election time, and so subordinate other political priorities in order to escalate values questions in the public sphere. They vote for GOP candidates who spend campaign seasons promising to pass abortion restrictions, crack down on the encroachment of Hollywood values into middle America, and defend the traditional family structure, and they cast these votes at any cost, to any constituency. The problem with this strategy, Frank wrote, is that it ultimately fails. When Republican candidates become Republican officeholders, they forget all about those values issues their evangelical base holds dear, preferring to use their actual governing time passing tax cuts, deregulating business, and eliminating the social safety net. All in all, it is a classic bait and switch.
Frank’s answer is compelling but, to me, it always felt incomplete. For one thing, I had spent time in evangelical churches and had evangelical friends, and I knew they did care about the people and the issues Frank claimed they spurned. I found his answer reductive or, at least, incomplete. My evangelical friends do care about poor people, and they care about themselves, too. But they also have other political priorities. Votes and elections are very blunt instruments—people can only vote for one side or the other. Political motivations are complicated. So, my research is trying to understand the nuance between the votes that get cast, and the stories and thinking that sits behind them.
- Your research uncovers conservative White evangelicals’ epistemic commitments through a study of rhetorical strategies employed in evangelical sermons from American megachurches. In your introduction, you mention that many of these commitments are based on a “founder’s rhetoric.” What features characterize founder’s rhetoric, and how does it play out in the sermons you study?
Founder’s rhetoric is fascinating, and is related to the idea of Christian Nationalism that scholars like John Fea and Samuel Perry, among others, write about. It refers to language that evangelicals use when they frame their American citizenship. Founder’s rhetoric positions evangelicals as the rightful heirs and so natural defenders of the values of the truest Americans: The men who founded the country and knew best what they intended for the future. This rhetoric and storytelling style—which is very popular among pastors— situates a conservative Protestant narrative and conservative Protestant truth at the center of the American story, from the beginning. This narrative claims that those men who led the Revolution and wrote the founding documents were not only Christians, but conservative evangelicals, who intended for the United States to be a nation with God at the center of the public sphere. Moreover, these are the people who decided, once and for all, the character of the nation, forever. Because of this, many evangelicals hold a worldview of the United States as a particular kind of nation, whose citizens have particular kinds of (traditional) values. Reaching back to Thomas Frank’s argument about why these believers might not vote with economics or vulnerable constituencies in mind, I argue that founder’s rhetoric offers part of the answer. For many evangelical voters, the constituent of foremost concern is always the nation itself. Defending the country and maintaining its presumed status as the most “exceptional” land always comes before any person or group, no matter how marginalized or at-risk. Thus, believers might well be worried about “poor people,” but their foremost political concern is restoring the country to the founder’s intentions, and keeping God at the center of the public sphere.
- Part of what is so compelling about your book is the digital rhetorical ethnographic methodology you develop to examine American megachurches across their local cultures. What are the features of this methodological approach, and how might other rhetorical scholars benefit from such an approach?
Digital rhetorical ethnography is a hybrid methodology that allowed me to go both wide and deep into American evangelicalism, as it exists on the Internet. Ethnography, as it is traditionally practiced, allows a researcher to join a single community and participate as much as possible as a member—to learn the rhythms of a people, including their language, their customs, their habits, and more. It is a way to “deeply hang out”—to use Clifford Geertz’s famous phrase—in a place, to study a culture systematically and respectfully. But I wanted to do more than this. I wanted to ascertain whether the rhetoric—by which I mean the stories pastors told— in California sounded much like the ones pastors told in Florida. I also wanted to know if the stories in California and Florida resembled those being told in Minnesota. To find out, I had to find a way to attend church in a lot of places, at once. Enter, the digital church. Megachurches across the country have created vibrant online spaces where individuals can find virtual community and join believers in the act of worship. By going to church online, I was able to both shift and freeze time, to attend church all across the nation, at the same “hour” (even though I might really be attending days or weeks after a pastor preached a message), and on the same “day.” So where other ethnographers of evangelicalism have had to re-order their lives to join a church or a movement, I was able to “join” the digital church across the evangelical internet while also remaining in my own home. To write Decoding the Digital Church, I compiled a collection of sermons that spanned years, and included hundreds of messages from 37 different states. This allowed me to understand how evangelicals tell a political narrative about the United States that is incredibly uniform and powerful, and that is much more nuanced than popular media tropes tend to suggest.
As far as how other researchers might use this methodology, my hope is they would. Many other such digital communities exist online for discovery, though they may not be immediately obvious. While not every experience can be replicated via digitization, the fact of digital space makes it possible to move into the quiet of one’s own home or office and then go around the loudest voices in the public sphere, to enter some of the most important sites of public engagement. This act, in turn, opens possibilities for creating new conversations or suggesting new stories across constituencies. Doing the work to discover these narratives is long and painstaking (it took me nearly ten years!), but it reaches beyond easy understanding—and misunderstanding, as well. I think it may well represent some of the most important work waiting for us to move beyond the polarization and division now happening in the public sphere.
- Your analysis focuses primarily on evangelical rhetorics surrounding the 2008 Great Recession and the 2016 presidential campaign. What narrative tropes have evangelical pastors maintained over the last 13 or so years? What aspects of these narratives have changed?
Probably the most important narrative pattern that I discovered is what I call the “rhetoric of active-passivism.” This rhetoric was especially popular during the 2016 campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, each of whom had historically poor approval ratings and were also perceived as lacking in character. So, the pastors who I listened to during my research faced the task of talking about the election, but also acknowledging how debased the whole thing seemed. To negotiate this tension, pastors framed the main characters in the election—Clinton and Trump—as unlikeable, but to the side of what was most important when it came to thinking about politics. While it was true the public sphere had become depraved, pastors still wanted their audiences to participate and to vote. Casting a ballot was their basic duty as citizens and believers. Doing so honored the American constitutional legacy, along with those soldiers who had died to protect freedom and democracy, including the voting franchise. Voting represents the “active” part of “active-passivism.”
But for those who were worried about not having a good choice in either Clinton or Trump, pastors wanted their audiences and congregations to take heart. They reminded their hearers to remember God’s providence. God is always in control, they said, even during campaign seasons, and even when the presidential candidates were dreadful. Pastors further encouraged evangelical believers to embrace the idea that they were dual citizens—residents of heaven first, and the United States second. This meant that no matter what happened in the election, true Christians were always already protected and safe as denizens of the Kingdom of God. So once a believer had voted—and this was the crucial rhetorical step—that same believer could divest their interest in the election’s ultimate outcome. Whatever the result of a vote, God had ordained that result and so God would make of it whatever He chose. Because God could be trusted, true Christians should trust Him, full stop. In any event, good or bad, the Bible-believing evangelical could be sure God maintained divine control and would protect His subject in love. By rhetorically emphasizing trust—and this is key—pastors exempted believers from any bad effects their votes might cause, either to the nation or to marginalized, at-risk constituencies. Perceived “good” outcomes, like reduced access to abortion, lower taxes, or laws defending traditional marriage were because Christians came together to vote for these things. Perceived “bad” outcomes, as were seen with children separated at the border, white supremacists finding support in the White House, or women being disparaged by the President of the United States were not for evangelicals to understand, but for God to work out. In effect, active-passivism allows those who speak it to offload their democratic responsibility and agency onto God, and so refuse responsibility for harms that could be traced back to the very votes they cast.
The rhetoric of active-passivism also marks a discursive shift in the rhetoric of non-elite American evangelicals. My research suggests that the pastors of the nation’s largest churches have begun to leave out of their political narratives those hot-button issues—the values rhetoric—that outsiders imagine takes up so much of the conversation inside of these institutions, and that is often used by elite conservative evangelicals when they talk about politics. This is surprising because popular media framing of Bible-believing Christians typically situates them as foremost concerned over the rhetoric of the so-called culture wars, as they are framed as opposition to a set of conservative values issues. However, that the discourse inside churches may less heavily emphasize opposition to abortion or gay marriage, among other issues, does not necessarily mean they have lost salience or that these voters are open to persuasion or changing their minds. Instead, I argue this conversation is now submerged under active-passivism. Thus, evangelical voters have created a storytelling logic that lets them have it both ways. They can both vote and be interested in politics and say politics don’t matter, at all. Via the rhetoric of active-passivism, pastors and other evangelical believers can both claim to be on God’s side when it comes to what happens to the American democracy and the American democratic system, and to say God isn’t worried about it, at all.
- Related to the question above, how do you think the social movements (#MeToo and #BLM) and political activities (the Mueller investigation, the Kavanaugh nomination, anti-immigration Executive Orders) that characterized Trump’s presidency have impacted evangelicals’ storytelling since 2016?
Conservative evangelicals are trying to talk about these issues, and there is no one approach that characterizes everyone. When it comes to Black Lives Matter (BLM), many pastors and believers acknowledge the problem of racism, but emphasize how unity and reconciliation among citizens are more important—or more workable solutions—than engaging in systemic change or acknowledging systemic injustice. By emphasizing reconciliation between people of different races, evangelicals frame the problem of racism as being solvable through creating understanding and building relationships. If white people and black people would only come together as friends to acknowledge and forgive the past, the nation could heal. Crucially, this reconciliation is framed as two-sided. It is about restoration and imagines a past based in equality, rather than one rife with injustice of that included disparity of access to opportunity. It also privileges conversations—talking and understanding—over taking direct action. At most, white citizens are called to repentance; never to reparation.
In terms of #MeToo and the follow-on hashtag #ChurchToo, the story is complicated. Many evangelicals and evangelical women embrace complementarian theology and resist feminism and feminist ideology. However, there is a sizeable and growing constituency of born-again women who are actively challenging the inherent patriarchy within evangelicalism. I have written a lot about Beth Moore, the popular speaker and Bible study writer, who has been especially vocal in asking evangelical leaders, particularly evangelical men, to consider how the emphasis on female submission has curated a sexist culture that is rife with abuse. For example, some might remember when, just before the 2016 election, the Washington Post leaked audio tapes of Donald Trump seeming to brag about treating women badly, maybe even criminally so. Evangelical leaders including James Dobson, Ralph Reed, Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. said they were disappointed, but refused to withdraw their support. In response, Moore tweeted, “Are we sickened? Yes. Surprised? NO.” Since then, Moore has continued to gain and lose followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, as she has pushed back against calls for women to remain silent and subordinated to men within the church. In March 2021, she announced she no longer identified as a Southern Baptist or with the Southern Baptist Convention—as she had her whole life, and she distanced herself from complementarian theology. While she did not say why she had left the Southern Baptist Convention, many speculated it was because the Convention had become too sexist, while refusing to wholly repudiate its racist past (and present). The best example she could set for other women was to leave.
- Of course, you’re celebrating the recent release of your book (as you should!), but can you say a bit more about your upcoming work or your next book project?
Getting Decoding the Digital Church across the finish line was a big project. It has been nice to take a deep breath. I am now beginning research on a new project, which is writing a history of the case that went to the Supreme Court in 2017, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. This is a very different project than Decoding the Digital Church, because it involves telling a story and getting it right—and doing so in a way that is honest and fair to both sides—but is less interpretive than the work I’ve done before. But I’ll still be hanging out with conservative evangelicals, a community that I both love and shake my head at. I’m also enjoying extra time with my husband and twin seven-year-old boys. They are growing up too fast and it has been a joy to spend time with them over the past several months.
Many thanks to Sam for her interview! Decoding the Digital Church is now available from the University of Alabama Press! Use code DChurch30 for 30% off at checkout!
by Dara Coleby Delgado
Dara Coleby Delgado is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Black Studies at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA. Coleby Delgado is a third-generation Pentecostal, reared in the Apostolic/Oneness tradition. In 2019, she completed her doctoral work in theology under the direction of William V. Trollinger at the University of Dayton. There, Coleby Delgado examined the life and work of Bishop Ida Bell Robinson, founder of the Mount Sinai Holy Church of America, using a social-historical frame that employed both feminist/womanist theology and Critical Race Theory. Currently, Coleby Delgado is working on her forthcoming book on the same topic. In addition, she is a 2018-2019 AAUW Dissertation Fellow, and she has written about Pentecostals in scholarly journals and popular news outlets alike.
Dr. Coleby Delgado’s essay originally appeared at the Political Theology Network. It is reposted here with permission from the author.
Since announcing his run in 2015, Donald J. Trump has enjoyed almost unwavering evangelical support. Included in the evangelical lot of those who believe that “God wanted Trump to be president” are Pentecostal-Charismatics.
In “President Trump’s Hidden Religious Base: Pentecostal-Charismatic Celebrities,” Erica Ramirez and Leah Payne observe, “Not everyone considers Pentecostals and Charismatics to be evangelicals, but they are to this president.” Why did Trump need to categorize Pentecostal-Charismatics as evangelical? What did he, or his team, understand about this group, and what might this preference disclose about politics, race, and religion in the United States?
Without question, the Trump campaign knew that American evangelicalism formed a spurious alliance with the Republican Party in the 1970s. Anthea Butler notes that this shift rendered evangelicals, as a group, “not just religiously or culturally white” but also, “politically white.” By aligning with the Republican Party to sustain cultural whiteness, evangelicals became a powerful voting bloc and a formidable lobbying presence on Capitol Hill.
But in their collective overt appeals to Pentecostals as evangelicals, the Trump campaign proved savvy and highly pragmatic. By taking a cue from the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), who first coupled Pentecostals with evangelicals in 1942, Trump significantly extended his political reach among conservatives—because while Baptists are fully 15.4 percent of the adult US population, for example, there are something like 10 million Pentecostals and charismatics in the US. This isn’t always obvious in ways that demographers track denominational categories. But somehow Trump’s campaign circuit targeted several non-denominational megachurches, whose memberships sometimes reach into the tens of thousands and make up a big slice of the evangelical pie.
If the world of megachurches is a challenge to trace, it might be even harder to navigate from within. Yet, Trump seemed almost drawn to Pentecostal-Charismatics and their sumptuous houses of worship. Most likely he was drawn to Pentecostals-Charismatics’ affinity for him: for their ready appreciation of his affluence and wealth. Of course, Pentecostal-Charismatics’ affinity for wealth and affluence did not begin with Trump: a whole sector of Pentecostalism runs on the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel emphasizes divine health and wealth as the reward for extraordinary faith. It provides ecclesial jargon for the neo-liberal values of American evangelicals.
In a capitalist society, the prosperity gospel perpetuates the cultural myth within the Protestant work ethic, insisting that health and wealth are the exclusive benefits of those who attend to some esoteric formula of hard work, thrift, and resourcefulness. It thereby ignores problems around access, privilege, and structural/systemic oppression. Preferring instead narratives of personal success (sans socialist ideas of collective care, communal responsibility, and shared resources), the prosperity gospel, much like the evangelical doctrine of salvation, is woefully individualistic. Trump readily became emblematic of this popular theology.
Critically, like evangelicalism as a whole, adherents of the prosperity gospel are not all white. Take, for example, Darrell Scott, the pastor and co-founder of the New Spirit Revival Center, “a Bible-based, Non-Denominational church with a Pentecostal/Charismatic persuasion” in Cleveland Heights, OH. Scott is a Black evangelical who so embraces the unholy merger of Christianity and American capitalism that he promotes a disturbing “bootstrap” philosophy—one that reduces the state of Black America to wealth-building sans a critical examination of the impact of systemic racism in this country. In 2015, Scott was introduced as part of Donald Trump’s Transition Team.
Though Scott pastors a predominantly Black church with a Black Pentecostal religio-racial aesthetics, in joining Trump’s team, he performed what Butler calls “Christian Blackness,”—the performative expectations and values of the Religious Right vis-a-vis the Christian Coalition of the late 1980s.
Noting Scott’s surrogacy for Trump, David Wiegel asked “What makes a Black Cleveland Pastor back Donald Trump?” Yet, I am more inclined to ask another question: why did Trump take an interest in Scott? In truth, at the time of their first meeting at Trump Tower in 2011, Scott was a fledgling televangelist with aspirations of being a leading megachurch pastor. Essentially, Scott lacked appreciable religio-social capital in the Pentecostal-Charismatic arena and the Black Church in particular. In other words, in the Black Pentecostal world, Darrell Scott was no T.D. Jakes.
Recalling the details of that first meeting, a flattered Scott claims to have found Trump to be “a prayerful Christian” and not the irascible business tycoon portrayed on television. Moreover, he said that he left this first meeting believing that Trump was “someone who would fight with [him] to defend his community and his faith.”
In Scott, Trump found a black ally for whom his partnership could make a material difference. By 2015, Scott’s wife Belinda was a failed reality TV star, but in exchange for his steadfast, if not recalcitrant support of a Trump presidency, Scott gained access to previously unimaginable platforms and media outlets. Eventually, he assumed an advisory role as a member of Trump’s executive transition team and, later, an opportunity to co-found the National Diversity Coalition for Trump.
Amidst the growing number of Pentecostal surrogates, the media coverage of Trump’s evangelical base, and the burgeoning scholarship around the history of evangelicalism in America and its political influence, no one seemed to inquire about what Trump knew about Pentecostals as a distinct voting bloc and how he imagined someone like Scott advancing his appeal among its Black constituency?
I submit that Trump intuited that Pentecostals, especially those with an affinity for prosperity, revered the materially “blessed.” Consequently, his purported wealth and public persona made him particularly desirable, if not enviable. He also understood—what Wiegel and others did not—that Pentecostals like Scott tout morality, but immorality itself is never really a deal-breaker. From the biblical King David to televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, practitioners of prosperity theology are trained to believe that “sin” does not preclude one from a protagonist role in the divine narrative. Being categorized as the anointed/most blessed one, divine protagonist Trump would not be disqualified but rather readily absolved.
Beyond believing that the anointing which is evinced by material blessing includes impunity, Trump-supporting Pentecostals of the prosperity sort also believe that the anointing is transferable. Because blessings are contrived as a matter of proximity, endorsing Trump meant being aligned with God’s favor. Sadly, this cast of religionists, eager to be prosperous “like Trump,” failed to consider how in doing so, they became co-conspirators of the injustices fashioned in our inequitable and capitalistic society.
Following the November election, several Pentecostal-Charismatics either have repented of their false predictions or nuanced their original claims. Still, there are those whose loyalty to Trump remains unbroken. In choosing to double down on their allegiance to Trump, Pentecostal-Charismatics have joined the fray of other supporters in normalizing false political propaganda and conspiracy thinking—with theories ranging from the precarious state of American religious freedom to the events of January 6.
Scott, in particular, took to his iHeartRadio program to assert that on January 6, Congress set up Donald Trump. According to Scott, their goal was to impeach Trump to prevent him from holding public office again. He went on to say that
“The Capitol riots were pre-planned, and they knew days in advance that it was coming. The Capitol Police were told to hold back on the response[;] they were given a stand-down order. This was no coup, it was no insurrection, it was no attempt to overturn the election. They were told to stand down. It was a setup.”
Here, Scott is acting as Trump’s protector; in doing so, he is proving to the former president that election results aside, he is an uncompromised surrogate who will attend to the Trump cause even if it means defying reason or logic. But why? I contend that Scott’s discourse reflects a larger gendered [Black] Pentecostal hermeneutic given to a radical practice of obeisance to male authority. Often summed up by paraphrasing Psalm 105:15—“touch not my anointing and do my prophets no harm”—this form of radical deference to God-ordained authority shows up as a form of Pentecostal anti-Donatism that shies away from holding leaders accountable for their actions as long as they continue to do the work of the ministry on behalf of the church.
In the classical sense, the Donatist controversy focused on the unity and holiness of the church. In opposition to Donatism, St. Augustine maintained ex opere operato: “by the work having been performed.” In short, anti-Donatists like St. Augustine felt that the sacrament’s validity does not depend on the sinlessness of the minister but the celebration of the sacrament. Moving away from the context of origin to our contemporary religio-political climate where Trump is King Cyrus, we can understand Scott’s claim that Trump was set up as an extension of his reverence for Trump as both most blessed and commander-in-chief. By saying that Trump was “set up,” Scott solidified his conviction that everything Trump did as president was above reproach—including but was not limited to inciting a riot.
Today, in the post-election and post-January 6th shadows of the Trump Era, the roll call of evangelicals who paved the way for a Trump White House very rarely, if ever, includes Scott. Generally, that honor goes to Scott’s white counterparts. For all of his work, he is now little more than a footnote in this larger story. Although he still pastors, his political impact has been reduced to 140 characters on Twitter and a poorly publicized memoir.
Is Scott’s less than subtle erasure from the annals of the Trump Era because of his ineffectiveness at getting the former president the Black Pentecostal-Charismatic vote? Or, is it because he was just one [Black] pawn among many in the political game of evangelical chess? Whatever the case, failing to include Scott in this chapter of America’s religious history is a grave mistake.
For all of his vitriol and lambasting and the shame he brought to the legacy of Black evangelicals, Scott is symbolic of a small but noteworthy voting bloc of Black evangelicals. To disregard his role during the Trump Era is to miss an opportunity to interrogate Black Pentecostal-Charismatics as a distinct group with particular political sensibilities.
Red Dynamite: Creationism, Culture Wars and Anticommunism in America: An Interview with Carl Weinberg (a.k.a., the perfect post for Labor Day)
by William Trollinger
Carl R. Weinberg is Senior Lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of History at the Indiana University Bloomington, where is also the Director of the PACE Institute for Role-Immersive Teaching and Learning. He is the author of Labor, Loyalty, and Rebellion: Southwestern Illinois Coal Miners and World War I (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005).
He is also the author of Red Dynamite: Creationism, Culture Wars, and Anticommunism in America, which has just come out from Cornell University Press. We here at rightingamerica are very pleased that Carl is willing to be interviewed about this very important book.
- You have been at this project for a while. What originally prompted you, a labor historian, to head down this research road?
First, my own background in socialist activism acquainted me with the fact that Marxists liked evolutionary science. I learned that in 1983 when I walked into the Militant bookstore in Washington, D.C. and bought a copy of Stephen Jay Gould’s Ever Since Darwin, which I still have. Knowing that socialists and communists were pro-evolutionary made it likely that antievolutionists might notice and point this out. Which of course they did.
Second, when I was researching my PhD dissertation on Illinois labor history in the World War I era, I came across articles about a pair of inveterate anti-socialist activists, both former Socialists and converts to the Catholic faith: David Goldstein and Martha Moore Avery. Reading Goldstein’s autobiography, I learned that a pivotal moment in his conversion away from socialism was his horror upon reading Frederick Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, in which Engels affirms the truth of humanity’s ape ancestry. This always stuck in my mind and suggested some possible connection between anti-socialism and anti-evolutionism.
Last but not least, in 2002, when I was teaching at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega, Georgia, the nearby Cobb County school board ordered that a creationist-inspired disclaimer sticker be attached to all district high school biology textbooks. It read, “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” Pro-evolution parents, led by Jeffrey Selman, sued Cobb County, while other parents defended the school board’s decision. All of this prompted me to offer a course on the history of the controversy—which I’ve now taught at four different institutions—and set me on the road to writing this book. So, thank you Cobb County?
- Why the title, Red Dynamite? How does this title connect with your book’s central argument, that – as you assert – “Christian conservatives have succeeded in demonizing Darwin” by “convinc[ing] their followers that evolutionary thought promotes immoral social, sexual, and political behavior, undermining existing God-given standards and hierarchies of power”?
I stole, ahem, borrowed the title from George McCready Price, the godfather of young-earth creationism. He used it as a title of a chapter of a book he wrote in 1925 called The Predicament of Evolution. Price saw evolution and communism as twin evils. “Marxian Socialism and the radical criticism of the Bible,” Price wrote, “are now proceeding hand in hand with the doctrine of organic evolution to break down all those ideas of morality, all those concepts of the sacredness of marriage and of private property, upon which Occidental civilization has been built during the past thousand years.” For Price, and those who followed him, the main problem with evolution was NOT that its claims lacked scientific evidence or even that it contradicted the Book of Genesis. Rather, evolution was bad because it made people who believed in it do bad things. It made us behave in an immoral, “beastly” or “animalistic” way. In the 1920s, perhaps the height of Red Dynamite rhetoric, Price, William Bell Riley, Gerald Winrod, J. Frank Norris and others explicitly connected that bad behavior—centered around sex and violence—with evolutionary science and communism. What really concerned them was not biological evolution, but social evolution—particularly the notion that morality can evolve as society changes.
- To what degree were/are fundamentalists correct to connect Darwinism with Marxism/communism?
They were more correct than we commonly think. To be sure, the vast majority of evolutionary biologists were and are not communists or socialists. But left-wing “social Darwinism” was real. As I show in my first chapter, Marx and Engels, the founders of the modern communist movement, were fervent evolutionists. So were the leaders of the American socialist movement in the early twentieth century. As were the central Russian Bolshevik leaders Lenin and Trotsky. In an interview with Max Eastman, Trotsky explained that when he was thrown in prison by the Tsarist regime for labor organizing, he was attracted to Marxism but still resisted its lure. Reading Darwin in prison, Trotsky recalled, “destroyed the last of my ideological prejudices” against a fully materialistic outlook. Darwin, Trotsky told Eastman, “stood for me like a mighty doorkeeper at the entrance to the temple of the universe.” I love that quote. In any event, the fundamentalists weren’t totally imagining things.
- Most readers will be unfamiliar with the story you tell about the Scopes Trial in your introduction, particularly regarding John Scopes and the town of Dayton, Tennessee. Could you share a little about this, and explain why this story of the Scopes Trial is so germane to Red Dynamite?
As many people have learned, high school science teacher John Scopes went on trial in 1925 for violating the Butler Act, a Tennessee law that made teaching human evolution illegal. The usual story of the trial focuses on the legal titans clashing in (and outside) the courtroom—Clarence Darrow for the defense and William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution. John Scopes, who never testified, seems a hapless victim of circumstances, almost a footnote to the story. As is Dayton, the sleepy, Southern town that sought to use the trial as a publicity stunt to revive its economic fortunes.
The real story is much more interesting and relates directly to my anticommunist theme. It was no accident that Scopes agreed to serve as a test case of the Butler Act. His father, Thomas Scopes, was a British-born Socialist labor organizer who arrived in America with a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species under his arm. Thomas Scopes raised his son to question everything including organized religion and the capitalist war machine. And the elder Scopes was well acquainted with Socialist activists who proudly flouted norms of capitalist morality. Not shockingly, on the first day of the trial in Dayton, a front-page story in the Chattanooga Daily News, outed the elder Scopes as a dangerous socialist, Red-baiting the younger Scopes by association.
The real Dayton, Tennessee was not isolated and sleepy, but rather a bustling center of coal production and labor unrest. English investors sunk millions into the area’s mines and blast furnaces to produce coke for the steel industry. Their paternalistic labor policies aimed at labor peace. But in the early 1890s, East Tennessee union coal miners revolted against the hated convict lease system, which aimed to undermine wages and labor solidarity by pitting imprisoned (mostly) African American workers against free white workers. Dayton miners signed a petition in sympathy, even though the rebels were accused of being “anarchists” and “communists.” Soon after, repeated mine explosions in Dayton that killed dozens, along with repeated wage cuts, produced a series of strikes (some involving dynamite attacks on company facilities) and the formation of a local branch of the United Mine Workers of America.
The real historical context of the Scopes Trial, that is, points to the real stakes in the controversy over evolution—what kind of society do we want to live in, and whose morality will prevail?
- One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the way in which you connect a century of creationist anticommunists, from George McCready Price and William Bell Riley to Henry Morris and Ken Ham. Could you say a little about this lineage, in the process noting both the continuities and the changes in the message?
The creationist anticommunism that Price launched in the World War I era runs through “creation-science pioneer Henry Morris’s work from the 1940s through the 1980s. In his first book, That You Might Believe (1946), Morris warned readers about the “deadly philosophies” of Marx and Nietzsche who were “profoundly influenced” by Darwin. Thought it’s rarely noticed, Morris and Whitcomb’s young-earth creationist blockbuster, The Genesis Flood (1961) also featured anticommunist arguments. In a section tellingly titled, “The Importance of the Question” (of whether evolution or creation was valid)—almost certainly authored by Morris—the authors explain that evolutionary science was the “backbone” of communist philosophy. Communism, they write, “is the most dangerous and widespread philosophy opposing Christianity today.” Morris’s magnum opus, The Long War Against God (1989) expands his anticommunist focus to charge that the pro-evolution Karl Marx was a practicing Satanist, linked to an international conspiratorial cabal.
But creationist anticommunism has evolved. By the time that Morris-protégé Ken Ham founded Answers in Genesis (AiG) in 1994, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and “secular humanism” had replaced communism as the bugbear of the right. Whereas the creation museum run by the Institute for Creation Research in Santee, California, showcased Karl Marx as a (possibly) Satanic evolution supporter (and under new ownership, it still does to this day!), the AiG Creation Museum avoids explicit anticommunism. Still, the link between evolution and communism rears its head in AiG publications. The Pocket Guide to Atheism (2014) includes an article by Bodie Hodge that attributes tens of millions of deaths to wars and revolutions led by various communist leaders. And Ken Ham has continued to link Marxism, evolution, and Satan. (See here.)
Creationist conspiracy theory has also morphed. When William Bell Riley wrote about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the 1930s, he cited Protocol No. 2 which claims that Darwinism and Marxism were part of an alleged international Jewish conspiracy to demoralize the Christian masses and pave the way for the rule of the Antichrist. But after World War II, it became politically problematic to make the argument with the explicit Jew-hating language. Thus, when Henry Morris and Tim LaHaye wrote about evolution, communism, and conspiracy in the 1970s and 80s, they were more circumspect. In The Battle for the Public Schools: Humanism’s Threat to Our Children (1983), LaHaye defended what his critics called “bizarre” allegations of an international plot, writing that “many people” believe in a real conspiracy fomented by the Illuminati, Bilderbergers, and the Rockefeller-funded Trilateral Commission and Council on Foreign Relations. Similarly, D. James Kennedy Ministries, with a long history of linking evolution and communism, says nothing today about Jews as such, but points to billionaire investor George Soros as the “master puppeteer.”
- In your epilogue you say the following: “From Trump’s reference to the Eucharist wafer as the ‘little cracker,’ to his rendering of 2 Corinthians as ‘two Corinthians,’ to his admission that he never asks forgiveness of God for his sins, he has difficulty convincing anyone that he is part of any Christian faith community. Yet it would be a mistake to imagine that conservative evangelicals’ embrace of Trump is a radical departure from the norm.” Why do you say this?
A superficial analysis of Christian political commitments would suggest that evangelicals respond to “faith-based” appeals, and so it seems puzzling that so many (white) evangelicals would gravitate to such an obviously profane, un-religious character. And yet, if we take a look at the central characters in my book going back to the early twentieth century, we find that even if they expressed their ideas in a Christian, Bible-based idiom, their worldviews were deeply political in the broadest sense. They were ultimately concerned with the questions of power—who should wield it over whom and on what moral basis?
The clearest explanation of all this comes from Rev. Robert Jeffress, a vocal Trump supporter, an ally of the Institute for Creation Research, and pastor of the Dallas First Baptist Church. Asked how he could support Trump, Jeffress answered that if the American president were at war with ISIS, “I couldn’t care less about that leader’s temperament or his tone or his vocabulary. I want the meanest, toughest, son of a gun I can find.” It’s no accident that Jeffress grew up at First Baptist hearing Rev. W. A. Criswell preach, a fundamentalist and fierce segregationist, who inherited his role from prominent antievolutionist and anticommunist J. Frank Norris. As I note in the book, Norris retained the fanatical loyalties of his congregation at First Baptist in Fort Worth despite the fact that he stood trial for shooting a unarmed man to death in his church office (Norris claimed self-defense). It’s hard not to recall candidate Donald Trump’s boast that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
- Do you have any new projects in the works, or are you simply relaxing after having completed this terrific book?
The main project I’m working on is an author’s website where I can share a sample of the voluminous amount of material that didn’t make it into the book but is still relevant and compelling. How did twenty-first century Christian conservatives employ Red Dynamite rhetoric to demonize President Barack Obama? How does pioneering sex researcher Alfred J. Kinsey fit into my story? And why did I voluntarily get into an armored car and drive into Mexico with Tom Cantor, the owner of the Earth and Creation History Museum in Santee, California? Stay tuned.
Thanks Carl . . . and I can’t wait to read about the armored car excursion into Mexico!
by William Trollinger
Every time I think that Ken Ham cannot go any lower, he does. And he takes his followers with him.
On his Facebook page, Ham posted this image of a Daily Wire article entitled “’Satanic’: [Tucker] Carlson, [Jason] Whitlock Agree Left Driven by Ideas ‘In Direct Objection to God.’”
In this article Carlson claims that the idea that “some races are morally superior to other races” is one of “the core ideas of the Democratic Party.” This is nonsensically dreadful on so many levels, including the fact that white supremacists absolutely love Tucker Carlson – he speaks their language.
And in the end, so does Ken Ham, never mind all his assertions that he is against racism. If Ham were truly anti-racist, then one would expect him to speak out against white supremacist groups, to speak out against Carlson’s racist tropes, to have spoken out against the white nationalism and horrifying racism at the heart of the Insurrection, on and on and on. But Ham maintains a very convenient silence about all this, just as he maintains a very convenient silence about QAnon.
As regards Whitlock, it is not surprising that white conservatives love having an African American speak their language. But Whitlock’s grasp of American history is appallingly flawed. From the article:
I think a lot of what the Left supports is satanic. I’m just sorry. It’s in direct objection to God, in direct objection to the Judeo-Christian values that were at the foundation of this country . . . Yes, it was hard, but our Christian values compelled us to sacrifice our lives for the freedoms of other Americans, of slaves. And through the civil rights movement, our Christian values compelled us to take risks and fight for equality.
What? “Our”? “Us”? Does Whitlock not realize that millions of Bible-believing white evangelicals fought to preserve slavery? From Righting America:
In antebellum America millions of white Christians (in both the North and the South) held tight to a “plain-sense” reading of the Bible, one which, as Mark Noll has pointed out [in his brilliant The Civil War as a Theological Crisis], emphasized “the natural, commonsensical, ordinary meaning of the words” in order to construct a powerful argument justifying the enslavement of African Americans. These white Christians stood on their literal reading of the Word of God to issue forth a raft of proslavery polemics and to deliver an almost-infinite number of proslavery sermons; Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese observed that, in the South, “evangelicals, having cited chapter and verse, successfully enlisted the Bible to unify the overwhelming majority of slaveholders and nonslaveholders in defense of slavery as ordained of God.” These white Christians argued that opponents of slavery, who struggled mightily to combat the straightforward biblical arguments of the proslavery advocates, were undermining the authority of the Bible with their unbiblical antislavery arguments that depended more on Christian experience, humanitarianism, and morality than on the “literal” meaning of the text (186).
And then, after the Civil War, millions of white Christians (in both the North and the South) used this literal reading of the Bible to make the case for segregation and a rigid racial hierarchy. And they did it again in the 1950s and 1960s against the civil rights movement. As Carolyn Renee Dupont points out in Mississippi Praying, Mississippi’s white evangelicals
fought mightily against black equality, proclaiming that God himself ordained segregation, blessing the forces of resistance, silencing the advocates of racial equality within their own faith tradition, and protecting segregation in their churches (231).
But the bad history advanced by Whitlock is precisely the bad history advanced by Ken Ham. As part of his “color-blind” project, Ham suggests that – as of 1963, or so – we achieved racial equality in America, that whatever racism remains is the product of Darwinism, and that the real problem in America is that Christians are being persecuted by satanic secularists and leftists.
In introducing the “’Satanic’” article on Facebook, Ham – in true fundamentalist fashion – deposits Bible verses and parts of Bible verses that establish that true Christians in America are at war
- “against the spiritual forces of evil”
- against “the devil [who] prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour””
- against Satan who “was a murderer from the beginning” and who “is a liar and the father of lies.”
Ham’s acolytes definitely get the Great Leader’s message. A sample of the responses to his Facebook post:
- “I absolutely agree that the left is Satanic.”
- “The left is satanic.”
- Obama and Biden “are traitors.”
- “The Marxist, communist Dems are following Satan and they all lie like their father Satan.”
Once you convince people that folks who disagree with you are satanic, then no response is too extreme.
Of course Ham has had nothing to say about the Insurrection. It would seem that he is too busy doing his part to foment another one.
The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump: An Interview with Rodney Kennedy
by William Trollinger
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY.
Most important here, his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – is forthcoming in the next few days from Wipf and Stock (Cascades). The Immaculate Mistake is a book very much worth reading, and we here at rightingamerica are delighted that Rod was willing to be interviewed about his book.
- In my preface to your book – a preface I was honored to write – I noted that “the Rev. Dr. Rodney Kennedy is the quintessential example of a Protestant preacher who cannot be shoehorned into either the conservative or the liberal ‘party.’ Instead, Kennedy is (to quote from his introduction) the ex-fundamentalist ‘misfit who believes Jesus, who he was and is, what he taught and preached.’” Could you elaborate on this point, in the process explaining how you became the Jesus-believing ex-fundamentalist misfit?
My original impulse was my dissatisfaction with “biblical inerrancy,” which seemed to be more about the Bible than Jesus. The longer I actually read and dealt with biblical texts, the more I realized that our faith has no foundation other than Jesus. This put me in a distinct minority in my Southern Baptist tribe. Louisiana Baptist College, of all places, provided me with the intellectual framework to escape the strictures of my fundamentalism. My religious studies professors opened my mind to new possibilities. As laughable as it may sound, I changed sides forever when I realized that Cain found a wife, given that I had always been taught there was Adam and Eve and two sons and no other humans. This started me on a pilgrimage that led me to the far left bank of liberalism. After a few less than helpful years, I didn’t exactly move back to the middle. Instead, I reclaimed some of the icons of my youthful Christian experience. By that I mean that I reclaimed the Bible as the primary text for my faith, but not the Bible as read by fundamentalists. I was disenchanted by a liberal faith that basically dismissed the Bible as too patriarchal, classist, xenophobic, and bloodthirsty. Accepting that the Bible reflected all those cultural factors, I still knew the Bible was the book for me. The critical study of the Bible gave me the tools I needed to investigate this history of abuse and take the Bible seriously. This made me a “misfit” among liberals, and thus I was now suspect in both tribes. I applied Flannery O’Connor’s term, “misfit,” to my ministry without pressing her analogy too far. Later I also, after reading Cornel West, saw myself as an “outcast.” An outcast is someone not considered to be part of the normal world. I embrace this stance in my preaching and in my writing.
- One of the fascinating things about your book is that you argue that “evangelicals have been misunderstood, mischaracterized, and maligned as a bunch of dummies, a multitude of misguided Christians easily conned.” Why do you make this point, and why does it matter?
I make this point because all Christians are “evangelicals” in the biblical sense and the historical sense, but not in the contemporary political sense. The media didn’t seem to have the theological/historical perception necessary to explain evangelicals, and this bothered me a great deal. In 2016 nothing came as a greater shock than the wholesale commitment by evangelicals to Donald Trump. At the same time, I found myself, as an evangelical (ABC USA). disgruntled by the media coverage of evangelicals. The template of evangelicals, forged in the steel-trap mind of M. L. Mencken, remained the go-to description now. Mencken had written, his tongue dipped in vitriol, that the South (a synonym for evangelical) consisted of a “cesspool of Baptists, a miasma of Methodists, snake charmers, phony real estate operators, and syphilitic evangelists.” A liberal media piled on the stereotypes, and added that evangelicals were mostly poor, uneducated, angry white working-class folk.
As a Southerner and an evangelical, I found myself insulted as the indictment of my kinfolk unfolded in the media. The condescension was almost unbearable. The sneering, mocking, insulting barbs were made more painful by the undisguised glee that pundits displayed in attacking evangelicals. The result bordered on a sense of ressentiment – a group of like-minded persons (the media) enjoying one another enjoying being cruel to evangelicals. “We so obviously despise them, we so obviously condescend to them,” the conservative social scientist Charles Murray, who co-wrote The Bell Curve, told The New Yorker, “The only slur you can use at a dinner party and get away with is to call somebody a redneck—that won’t give you any problems in Manhattan.” Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain minced no words in his gumbo of contempt: “red-state, gun-country, working-class Americans as ridiculous and morons and rubes.”
Somewhere in the back of my mind Garth Brooks was wailing, “I got friends in low places.” I confess being injured by these attacks. In this moment of pathos, I decided to challenge the conclusions of the liberal media. The Immaculate Mistake’s originating idea was born in the heat of this hot-blooded moment. Not to mistake me as an evangelical defender, I attempt to make the case that evangelicals have been in the business of bringing to life, of giving birth, to Donald Trump for more than a century of resentment, mistrust, and anger. My defense of the stereotypes gives way to my own assessment of what I believe is the evangelical sellout.
- What do you mean by the title of your book, and on what basis do you claim that “evangelicals are the organ grinders” and “Trump is the monkey”?
I believe that the appearance of Donald Trump was the culmination of almost a century of fundamentalist/evangelical attempts to be in charge, to force the rest of the nation into their template of faith. In my view, the moment the evangelicals walked out of the courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee, they returned to the woods and hammered out an alternate universe. They nurtured a deep resentment that I trace from the Scopes Trial to the election of Donald Trump. My thought was that evangelicals were the grandparents and parents of Donald Trump. I investigated numerous evangelical leaders and finally selected three representatives of this version of faith: Billy Sunday, J. Frank Norris, and Jerry Falwell. In my mind, the conservative evangelicals had been looking for a “strong man” to enable them to exact revenge for the loss they perceived happened to them in evolution. In fact, I believe that every anti-science stance the evangelicals take, including the refusal to wear a mask, is rooted in the originating anti-evolution stance. Ken Ham and Robert Jeffress frequently assail evolution as the root cause of every evil that has come down the pike in our culture. Evangelical dissatisfaction with President Jimmy Carter (they sold him out for Ronald Reagan), with Bush I and Bush II, with the conservative appointees to the Supreme Court who refused to do evangelical bidding, led them to seek a candidate who was, in the words of Robert Jeffress, “the meanest s. o. b.” in the country. What comes out here is the evangelical lust for winning at any costs and with any ally. They betray their own faith by using the weapons of the devil for what they deem good ends. In other words, faced with the temptation like those faced by Jesus in the wilderness, they accepted the devil’s deal. The devil didn’t just come down to Georgia; the devil came to the entire South and the entire evangelical nation formed by southern religion and offered them control and they said “yes, yes, yes!”
My title is thus a bit of satire or sarcasm aimed at the self-righteousness of evangelicals who believe they possess a holiness that all other religious groups lack. The word “immaculate” seemed a perfect fit for a bunch of “inerrantists.” The idea that Trump was their baby led me to the trope that evangelicals were the organ grinder and Trump was their monkey. The liberal media was wrong, in my view, to think that the evangelicals were duped, deceived, and made fools of by Trump. Instead, the two were a perfect match of perfidy – each using the other for dubious means. Trump and the evangelicals engage in what rhetorical scholars dubbed “ressentiment” and “jouissance.” Trump and the evangelicals nurture and cultivate resentment and deep anger. Trump took out this resentment on the media, the liberals, and all other groups despised by evangelicals. At a Trump rally, you can witness the speaker and his audience enjoying Trump’s cruelty and doing it together – “jouissance.”
- Given your knowledge and love of the Bible, I know it infuriates you that evangelicals have mangled the Bible in their defense of Trump. Could you give a couple of examples?
When Pentecostal journalist/preacher/evangelist Lance Wallnau suggested that Trump was the new Cyrus, I knew that the attempt to make Trump “God’s anointed” would be a full-blown campaign. Wallnau said that when he realized that Trump would be the 45th president of the United States, he was led by the Holy Spirit to read Isaiah 45. I have no idea why he didn’t read Psalm 45, Jeremiah 45, or Ezekiel 45. He read Isaiah 45 because it fit his notion that Trump, like Cyrus, was God’s anointed. No one seemed to notice that Trump was nothing like Cyrus. All that mattered was the sound bite: “Trump Is God’s Anointed.” From here, the full-orbed defense of Trump bellowed forth from the pulpit of First Baptist Church Dallas and the Rev. Dr. Robert Jeffress. Every mistake, every slip, every awful word, and every dreadful deed of Trump was defended and glossed over by Jeffress. In defending Trump’s payoff to a porn star, Jeffress even invented an 11th commandment “Thou shalt not have sex with a porn star,” and said that even if Trump had violated that commandment, what evangelicals supported were his wonderful policies. At the same time, evangelical preachers unleashed a veritable army of biblical tropes for Trump. Trump was lauded as King David. This shows a shallow reading of the story of David because David repented of his sexual abuse of “the wife of Uriah,” while Trump swore he didn’t need to repent. Trump was heralded as Samson and again the reading is shallow. Samson was deceived by a beautiful woman and then pulled down the temple of the Philistines on all of his enemies. This may, in light of January 6, be exactly the Trump trope that we should utilize.
- In your conclusion you suggest possible rhetorics that could be used against white evangelicals and their “secular preacher,” Donald Trump. Could you say a little about this?
An important rhetorical strategy is “naming” the negative and destructive tropes of Trump. As a debater I am aware that an argument stands in the course of a debate until it is refuted. The false assertions and outright lies of Trump need to be refuted over and over again. A second strategy is to align Trump supporters with his racist, xenophobic rhetoric. Trump supporters are endorsing and celebrating a legacy of white supremacy, homophobia, and misogyny that we thought had passed from the scene. In the face of evangelical denials of these behaviors, the pedagogy of shame from civic virtue and progressive thought has to continue with full-orbed zeal. We must recognize the danger that Trump branding, braggadocio, and demolition rhetoric creates for democracy. This means that the most positive strategy is the rhetoric of real democracy. When Trump scapegoats, we name and shame. We offer fierce resistance to his hateful, hurtful rhetoric. By showing our nation the vitality and energy of real democracy, by engaging in empathy and compassion, we not only contrast with Trump’s rhetoric of hatred, we offer a viable alternative. Frank and honest speech is an important part of our democracy. By realizing this, perhaps more rhetors will be willing to engage in American democracy as truth tellers.
- Could you talk about your next book project?
When I finished The Immaculate Mistake, I realized that I had not gone far enough in my critique of evangelicals. What was even more pressing was a move beyond insisting – as rhetorical scholars had done — that Trump was a perverted populist, a demagogue, a serial liar, and a danger to democracy. In my newest project, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, I develop the argument that Trump is the personification of evil: Theologically, philosophically, politically, and rhetorically. He is the essence of what Sheldon Wolin labels, “inverted totalitarianism.” Trump is the Evil One incarnate.
Thanks Rod for this interview, and for your new book!
by William Trollinger
Referring to the image displayed here, which Ken Ham has circulated via Twitter and Facebook, a friend asked if, by adding the “pedophilia” flag to the “secular worldview” fortress, Ham “is trying to appeal to QAnon” devotees?
It seems obvious that the answer is yes.
For those of you who have remained blessedly ignorant of this particular form of right-wing lunacy, the QAnon conspiracy theory holds that (quoting from Wikipedia)
a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles operate a global child sex trafficking ring and conspired against former President Donald Trump during his term in office . . . One shared belief among QAnon members is that Trump was planning a massive sting operation on the cabal, with mass arrests of thousands of cabal members to take place on a day known as the Storm. QAnon supporters have accused many Hollywood actors, Democratic politicians, and high-ranking government officials of being members of the cabal, with [this is not a shocker] little or no evidence.
More than any other group of Americans, white evangelicals – 27% – believe that “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers led by prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.” So, in linking “pedophilia” to the “secular worldview,” Ham is playing to his base.
Now, to be fair, I have not seen articles or blog posts or Facebook comments in which Ham specifically affirms the QAnon conspiracy theory. On the other hand, Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG) have not critiqued QAnon, unlike evangelical pastors who are asserting that QAnon in particular and Christian nationalism in general (of which QAnon is a part) are at odds with the Gospel.
In fact, and on the contrary, just a few weeks before the 2020 election Ham turned over Ark Encounter to QAnon enthusiast Trey Smith. Smith, whose previous video “credits” include The Day of Reckoning: the Q, entitled his Ark Encounter film, The Coming Storm: A Donald J. Trump documentary inside Noah’s Ark. In this almost unwatchable video Smith – who expends a great deal of energy praising Ham and his boat – asserts that:
- The spirit of the Antichrist has been with us throughout history, as evinced by Hollywood actors and their “witchy people” lurking behind them.
- Facing soon-to-be-revealed scandalous revelations, two Supreme Court justices will step down.
- God will take a simple stone (perhaps Roger Stone), and folks will mock him, and then we will hear the sounds of victory as Trump emerges triumphant.
- God has dictated that Donald Trump will have two terms.
All of this would suggest – more than suggest, actually – that in adding the pedophilia flag to the secular worldview fortress, Ken Ham is making a pitch to white evangelical QAnon devotees. Besides everything else, he can’t afford to alienate them, just like he can’t afford to alienate white nationalists.
One other thing about Ham’s fortress image. In Righting America at the Creation Museum Susan Trollinger and I argue that Ham and AiG and the Christian Right hold to a radical binary (149). In this binary the world is divided into two groups, Christian and Secular. Each group is identified with a set of linked terms that necessarily are the opposite of the other group’s set of linked terms.
So, according to this image, to be secular is to be a racist pedophile who supports the killing of babies and the disabled, and who suffers from gender confusion. To be Christian is to be “color-blind,” anti-pedophiliac, life-affirming, and very clear on the gender binary and one’s place within it.
So much to be said here. Especially about race. More later.
by William Trollinger
One thing is for certain. White Americans need lots of tender loving care.
The latest campaign to prop up white folks has its origins in the furious response to the 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine production that won the Pulitzer Prize, and that sought “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
The notion that the long shadow of slavery is a central feature of U.S. history seems as commonsensical as it can get. But apparently this is too much for the tender psyches of white conservatives. For example, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) – who, as one blogger observed, is “on a mission to turn himself into an actual cartoon character” – whined that the 1619 Project completely fails to take into account that, as our glorious Founders understood, “slavery was a ‘necessary evil’” that made it possible for America to become the extraordinary nation that it is today.
Cotton was soon followed by then-President Trump, who cried that the 1619 Project was – in words he clearly did not write – “toxic propaganda, ideological poison that if not removed will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.”
(The fomenter of the January 06 Insurrection cares about “civic bonds that tie us together”?)
In an effort to re-establish patriotic education in U.S. schools, Trump created the 1776 Commission, which pronounced that its goal was to tell America’s “true history.” Oddly (or, not oddly), the Commission included no historians who work in U.S. history. On the other hand, the Commission did include two presidents of very conservative colleges who apparently had no problem with the fact that 26% of the report was plagiarized (without citations).
(Are Hillsdale and College of the Ozarks ok with their students submitting papers that are ¼ plagiarized?)
- “The most common charge levelled against the founders. . . is that they were hypocrites who [in their protection of slavery in the Constitution] didn’t believe in their stated principles . . . This charge is untrue, and has done enormous damage, especially in recent years, with a devastating effect on our civic unity and social fabric.” (10)
- Let me get this right. What has damaged America is not its 250 year tradition of enslaving human beings, and not the “long shadow of slavery” that resulted in a pervasive individual and institutional racism that continues to this day (e.g., the January 06 insurrection). Instead, what has really damaged America is noticing and commenting on the huge gap between the founders’ ideals and the institution of slavery. Check.
- “The Civil Rights Movement culminated in the 1960s with the passage of three major legislative reforms affecting segregation, voting, and housing rights. It presented itself, and was understood by the American people, as consistent with the principles of the founding.” (15)
- The second sentence is, not to put too fine a point on it, ridiculous. Whole swaths of the American public (including my family and my church) hated the movement and hated Martin Luther King, Jr. And there were not just angry words, as the segregationist resistance to the movement involved vicious and violent attacks. Finally, and as Kevin Kruse has pointed out, these furious opponents to civil rights claimed “that it was their resistance that reflected the ‘principles of the founding.’ When Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957, for instance, he pointedly recited the entire Declaration of Independence to link his act of defiance to the colonists’ acts.
Upon taking office President Biden disbanded the 1776 Commission. But the conservative obsession with ensuring that fragile white people feel good about themselves has now taken a legal turn.
In the past few months 28 states have passed or are debating laws that “restrict education on racism, bias, [and] the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. history.” And given that these laws come from the white Right echo chamber – where Tucker Carlson is a godlike personage – it is not surprising that many of them are nearly identical.
For example, in May Oklahoma passed a law prohibiting teachers “from using lessons that make an individual ‘feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” The next month Tennessee banned any discussion of race that might cause a student ‘discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress.’” And according to guidelines proposed by the Tennessee Department of Education, teachers who violate this law “may have their teaching licenses suspended or revoked,” and districts that “knowingly” violate this law may lose up to $5 million in state funding.
Make a white person feel uncomfortable, and you are going to pay.
Of course, none of these laws specifically reference “white” individuals or “white” students. They can’t.
But here is a thought experiment. Imagine an African American student who complains to a local school board or state department of education that she feels “discomfort,” “anguish,” and other forms of “psychological distress” because her teachers and her textbooks:
- elide the horrors of slavery (i.e., the “necessary evil” that really was not so bad)
- assert that the Civil War was not about slavery but, instead, “state’s rights”
- claim that Reconstruction was awful (all those uneducated ex-slaves running amuck) and Redemption was necessary and good
- declare that white Americans happily supported the civil rights movement (see: the 1776 Commission report) until the moment in 1963 or 1964 when African American leaders became “divisive”
- pronounced that racism has been banished from the land, and that there is certainly no “systemic racism” (and to claim this is to reveal that you are an anti-American Marxist)
How would a school board or state department of education respond? Would they revoke the teacher’s license? Would the school district be forced to surrender millions of dollars in state funding?
Of course not.
(That said, I would love to see these laws challenged on these grounds, if only to have the chance to marvel at the convoluted responses from school boards and state departments of education).
In a brilliant New York Times Magazine essay, historian Timothy Snyder has it exactly right:
Our memory laws amount to therapy, a talking cure. In the laws’ portrayal of the world, the words of white people have the magic power to dissolve the historical consequences of slavery, lynchings, and voter suppression. Racism is over when white people say so. We start by saying we are not racists. Yes, that felt nice. And now we should make sure that no one says anything that might upset us. The fight against racism becomes the search for a language that makes white people feel good. The laws themselves model the desired rhetoric. We are just trying to be fair. We behave neutrally. We are innocent.
At their very core these white fragility laws are anti-democratic, authoritarian at their core, very much in keeping with – as Snyder pointed out – laws established in Putin’s Russia. That said, the game is not over. As Nashville’s Margaret Renkl pointed out in a New York Times article earlier this week:
People here are already standing in defense of history against the attempts of our Republican leaders to prevent the teaching of truth, and I have faith that more and more Southerners will work to overturn these laws that bar the teaching of truth, just as they worked last summer to bring down those Confederate statues.
The anti-truth forces have not yet triumphed.
But the threat is real.
by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – is forthcoming in the next few months from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).
In The Political Mind George Lakoff asks a disturbing question: “Why are conservatives so much better at getting their ideas across?” (5).
I believe one answer is that liberals are reluctant to engage in the kind of metaphorical warfare required to refute conservative talking points.
But as a unabashed warrior in the cultural disaster that is contemporary America, as a believer in Nietzsche’s insistence that it is always about a “war of metaphors,” I believe we should tell our story more forcefully, more passionately, and more violently. With Flannery O’Connor I insist that we must shout to the hard-of-hearing and exaggerate for the unbelievers. I take this as license to dispute the arguments that the conservatives keep peddling with triple layers of certainty, piling on the toppings as if they were serving a banana split rather than reading the Bible.
As a case in point, nothing infuriates me more than the constant ranting of fundamentalist preachers going on and on till doomsday about the stories of Genesis. Take your pick from an entire array of bad readings and worse interpretations. Whether it is a literal creation, an actual flood, or the incredulous claims about how many people God slaughtered here and there, there is no end to the charade.
For example, if one more preacher or creationist theme park mogul tells me that Sodom was a city of homosexuals in rebellion against God – and hence its destruction – I will throw up. To be more specific, when conservative Christians ignore Canaanite and Israelite customs for a peculiar Western reading of the story as a condemnation of homosexuality, they have – for all their alleged commitment to inerrancy – violated both the biblical text and biblical tradition.
So it is that I offer an alternative reading of Genesis 19.
It is indeed true that when Israelites talked about depravity, “Sodom” was their “go to” example. But as Gerhard Van Rad points out in Genesis: The Old Testament Library (217-28):
- for Isaiah the sin of Sodom was the barbarity of their administration of justice (Isaiah 1:10, 3:9).
- for Jeremiah, Sodom’s sins include adultery, lying, and an unwillingness to repent (Jeremiah 23:14).
- for Ezekiel, “this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).
In all of this there is no reference to homosexuality.
Instead, the story of Sodom may best be defined as a reliance on victimized, toxic masculinity (See “The Art of Masculine Victimhood: Donald Trump’s Demagoguery” by Paul Elliott Johnson, Women’s Studies in Communication, 2017). The men of Sodom believe Lot and his male guests are a threat to their personhood and existence. Men, men, manly men – that’s the story.
And the daughters of Lot are mere pawns in this display of toxic masculinity. They are objects to be used, lacking power, will, or choice. They might as well have been sticks of furniture. There are no more frightening words for women than Lot’s offer to the mob of Sodom males: “Do to them as you please.” This has been the history of women.
The Genesis 19 story revolves around the hyper-heterosexual insistence that Lot turn over his guests so that they can be violated sexually. This act of rape doesn’t involve sexual pleasure; instead, the rape would be proof of the male superiority of the men of Sodom.
Deborah Tannen says that men view the world as being individuals in hierarchal social order in which he is either one up or one down” (Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand, 24). She adds: “Life, then, is a contest, a struggle to preserve independence and avoid failure.” The proposed action of the men of Sodom would have given a gross visual representation of one up and one down. The men of Sodom have a hard on for the abuse of power. There are no homosexual acts in the story. In fact, Lot attempts to ward off the crazed crowd by offering his daughters to them. Here the sexuality is suggestive. Lot tells the toxic heterosexuals at his door: “Do to them as you please.” And that would have been rape.
And there’s more to this story. The reality is that Lot had never been accepted in Sodom. Even though he has married a woman of Sodom, is a property owner, and a man of the city, he is still an outsider, a stranger. Again, the story is not about sexuality, but about masculine, nativist, racial issues of status and place and power.
The men of Sodom call Lot “this fellow.” He remains an outsider despite all his attempts at assimilation. He has been cast as an enemy, and toxic masculinity thrives on the creation of enemies and their destruction. Toxic masculinity is the real culprit in the story of Sodom. The Sodomites are a bunch of greedy, testosterone-fueled toxic males. Anger and the desire for dominance are the driving factors here.
But generations of evangelical preachers who drank from this same well of toxic masculinity have gone to great lengths to scapegoat Sodom as a den of homosexuals. Blame it on the Queers, even when there are no Queers in the story.
Sodom continues to be replayed in our own culture. There is a toxic, paradoxically masculine style, whose incoherence is opaque to critics but meaningful to its adherents, as it helps white males – against all evidence to the contrary – to imagine themselves as persecuted, to imagine that they have been displaced from the political center by a bunch of feminist killjoys, angry blacks, and immoral gays. White males now imagine themselves as persecuted even though they are the ones pressing hard against the doors of democracy and are coming “near the door to break it down.” It is an amazing magical trick of smoke and mirrors, but its horrifying power was demonstrated in Washington, D.C. on January 6. And of course, this act of sedition has now been recast, in the conservative magical hat, as a benign tour of the capital.
The argument that white males have been marginalized in America is simply absurd. That said, a host of white males are projecting themselves as victims, and this facilitates demagoguery, a demagoguery that finds its parallel in Sodom. As Patricia Roberts-Miller has argued, Sodom was a case of “polarizing propaganda that motivated members of an ingroup (a rabid mob) to hate and scapegoat an outgroup, largely by promising to save the city from those foreign elements” (“Democracy, Demagoguery, and Critical Rhetoric,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 8 (2005), 462).
At the end of this very strange story, the last remaining person of Sodom heritage, Lot’s wife, is turned to a pillar of salt because she looked back at her burning home. Victimize the innocent. Make it criminal. And then pretend that the toxic male is actually the one whose existence is precarious. The well-off, privileged, and powerful white men are allowed to put on the robes of victimhood at the expense of the gays who occupy more objectively fraught positions.
And that is the true story of Sodom. Cue Ezekiel for the postlude: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
by William Trollinger
Update: This post is republished over at Red Letter Christians on July 30, 2021.
The headlines tell the story.
- White evangelicals are in decline and now find themselves “outnumbered” by mainline Protestants
- Survey: White mainline Protestants outnumber white evangelicals, while “nones” shrink
- The unlikely rebound of mainline Protestantism
- “Jesus was definitely a Republican”: Why some younger evangelicals are leaving the faith
- The Christian Right Is in Decline, and It’s Taking America With It
All of these articles are responses to the 2020 Census of American Religion, released by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) earlier this month. Salient findings of that report include:
- White evangelical Protestants now make up 14% of the population, down from 23% in 2006. On the other hand, white mainline Protestants have now surpassed white evangelicals, with 16% of the population (up from 13% in 2016).
- With an average age of 56, white evangelical Protestants are the oldest religious group in America. (White Catholics are next, at 54.) More than this, white evangelicals constitute only 7% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29. while 12% of this age group are white mainline Protestants and 8% are white Catholics. Most striking. 36% of Americans in this age group identify as “nones,” i.e., religiously unaffiliated.
- Overall, the percentage of Americans who are “nones” has dropped from 26% in 2018 to 23% in 2020. Regarding one of the above headlines, I don’t think this qualifies as a “shrinking,” given that the religiously unaffiliated is easily the largest “religious” group in the United States (white mainline Protestants are second), and given the dramatic rise of the “nones” over the past three decades.
- 51% of white evangelicals identify as Republican, while only 22% identify as Democrat. On the other hand, white mainline Protestants and white Catholics lean toward the Democratic party as opposed to the Republican party (35% v. 33% and 38% v. 32%, respectively). Christians of color are overwhelmingly Democratic, as are the “nones.”
Earlier this year Oxford University Press published Empty Churches: Non-Affiliation in America (edited by James Heft and Jan Stets), which includes a host of essays by terrific scholars such as Nancy Ammerman, Joseph Baker, David Campbell, Matt Hedstrom, and Bernard Prusak. I am honored to have an essay in the volume: “Religious Non-Affiliation: Expelled by the Right.”
At the heart of my essay is a conundrum that, it turns out, is not a conundrum at all. On one side of this apparent conundrum is the triumph of political evangelicalism. Despite prediction after prediction that the Christian Right was dead or dying, white evangelicals have become the most dependable and influential constituency in the Republican Party. More than this, the takeover of the GOP by Trumpism was/is, first and foremost, a triumph of white evangelicals, who supported Trump by overwhelming numbers in both 2016 and 2020.
It is not an overstatement to say that the contemporary Republican Party is tightly tied to – and dependent upon — the evangelical Right. This has been, of course, a huge political score for white evangelicals and, especially, their leaders. But simultaneous with this development has been the dramatic reduction of white Americans who identify as evangelical, a fact further evinced by PRRI’s 2020 Census of American Religion.
So here’s the conundrum: evangelical political success, on the one hand, and the decline of white evangelicalism, on the other. But as I argue in this essay, it turns out that these two phenomena are related. That is to say, the success of the Christian Right in conflating evangelicalism/Christianity with conservative culture-war politics is a primary factor in the shrinking of white evangelicalism, in particular, and religious disaffiliation in the United States, in general.
As always (says the historian), a little historical perspective helps here. In the decades after World War I many or most white evangelicals in America were staunch and sometimes vocal political conservatives. But they had not been galvanized into an organized political movement, nor had they been attached to one political party. This began to change in the late 1970s, when political operatives connected with the Reagan presidential campaign aggressively worked to mobilize these politically conservative evangelicals into a reliable Republican voting bloc. Over time the Christian Right became politically sophisticated; over time evangelical leaders and pastors merged their religious and political identities, making it quite explicit that to be a Bible-believing Christian means that one is an ultraconservative Republican who is stridently (even viciously) opposed to LGBTQ+ rights, denies or elides climate change, aggressively opposes immigration (especially if the immigrants are people of color), and rejects the reality of historical and structural racism.
It should thus not be surprising that many political moderates and liberals have been persuaded that to identify as an evangelical or even as a Christian is to identify as an intolerant right-wing culture warrior. And many of these moderates and liberals have been so convinced that they have disaffiliated from religion altogether. In my essay, I highlight some excellent social scientific research that provides solid evidence that political backlash is pushing people away from evangelicalism in particular and religion in general. As confirmed by the 2020 Census of American Religion, this is particularly true when it comes to youth, who find – thanks to the identification of Christianity with the Christian Right – religion to be homophobic, hypocritical, and judgmental. And so they disaffiliate.
In short, as I argue in the essay, the quantitative and qualitative evidence – and, I will add, my own anecdotal evidence – strongly support the argument that the Christian Right has been a primary factor in the decline of white evangelicalism in the last decade and the dramatic rise of the nones since the 1990s. And given the past four years, and given the January 6, 2021 insurrection (with the Jesus flags and Bible T-shirts at the U.S. Capitol), it makes sense to me (as I suggest in my essay) that the Christian Right is pushing even greater numbers of Americans out of evangelicalism.
The editors of Empty Churches pressed me to conclude my essay with a personal response. I resisted this, rather strongly, but in the end I surrendered. So here’s how I conclude “Religious Non-Affiliation: Expelled by the Right”:
In the days of Jerry Falwell, Sr. and the Moral Majority, the claim was that [the Christian Right] was all about Christian values, all about rescuing America from sinking into a morass of immorality. So, for example, the Christian Right’s aggressive campaign against President Bill Clinton was explained as an attack on his egregious sexual sins and in defense of a now-bygone virtuous Christian America. But now, with the Christian Right’s enthusiastic support of Donald Trump – led in part by Jerry Falwell, Jr. – their cover is blown. We can now see (some of us had already seen) that the Christian Right is not about personal morality and Christian/religious values, but is instead about a particular right-wing politics – a politics in keeping with the history of fundamentalism – involving white nationalism, hostility to immigrants, unfettered capitalism (which includes a disinterest, at the least, in global warming), and intense homophobia.
So as a scholar, I appreciate the clarity that we now have about (much of) white evangelicalism, the clarity about what the Christian Right is all about, and the clarity about the fact that the Christian Right is but one more sign of the secularizing of America. That said, it is of course true that one could argue that it is not just (much of) white evangelicalism and the Christian Right that has been unmasked. One could argue that Christianity itself has been unmasked, that the above values – white nationalism, homophobia, and the like – are actually Christian (maybe even religious) values. Certainly many of those who abandon religion because of the Christian Right have come to something like this conclusion. And I get it. It makes sense to me. If I thought the Christian Right = Christianity, or Christian Right = religion, I would want nothing to do with it, either.
But as a person of faith, I understand Christianity to be something else. I understand it to be centered in the Gospels, in the message (stated quite clearly in Matthew 25) that in the end we are to be judged on how we treat our brothers and sisters, on how we treat “the other.” So while I appreciate the clarity with which we can now see (much of) white evangelicalism, I am also saddened by the fact that the secularizing of America occurs in part because the Christian Right has been so successful in articulating what it means to be Christian.
And if you are so inclined, here’s a link to “Religious Non-Affiliation: Expelled by the Right.”
by Susan Trollinger
Beth Allison Barr (PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is professor of history and associate dean of the Graduate School at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where she specializes in medieval history, women’s history, and church history. She is the president of the Conference on Faith and History and is a member of Christians for Biblical Equality. Barr has written for Christianity Today, the Washington Post, and Religion News Service, and is a regular contributor to The Anxious Bench, the popular Patheos website on Christian history.
Thank you so much for writing this book and agreeing to this interview! I loved reading it and am already aware of multiple ways in which it will impact both my research and my teaching. One of the big reasons that your book is so compelling, in my opinion, is the way that it weaves together brilliant historical research with memoir. As a rhetorical scholar (of, in recent years, evangelicalism/fundamentalism) and a committed Christian (whose personal experience with evangelicalism/fundamentalism has impacted my life in profound ways), I have so many questions for you. But, in the interest of a blog post that is not too long, I am going to keep my questions to just six.
- Would you please talk about how and why you made the decision to weave together your historical/theological analysis with your personal story? How did you come to that decision?
The first words I wrote for Making Biblical Womanhood were about Lynn Hybels. I still remember that moment I heard her speak so well—watching her stand small on the conference stage, confessing the script that she had tried to live until it almost destroyed her. I didn’t mean to start drafting the book at this moment, but when I thought about how I wanted to tell the story, she came to mind. I realized while historical evidence would carry my argument, it was people I needed to reach. Women like Lynn Hybels who lived and breathed the world of biblical womanhood and couldn’t find a way to escape it. I decided to meet the audience I wanted to reach through the language we share as evangelical Christians—the language of our testimony.
It wasn’t an easy decision to weave my testimony throughout the book. It required a vulnerability that I normally do not display. I was afraid of letting people know the hardest parts of my life. I was afraid of the critique I would receive from those who would dismiss my story as experiential instead of evidential. I was afraid of the critique I would receive from scholars who might dismiss me academically because I showed too much bias toward my Christian faith. I was afraid of what it would mean for my children and husband when strangers knew so much of our personal story.
Yet I knew it would be worth it. I knew that if this book was going to stand a chance of changing the conversation about women in church, I had to reach both hearts and brains. I had to share not only the historical evidence that so powerfully undermines biblical womanhood, but I also had to testify about how the message of biblical womanhood played out it my own life.
- One of the things I’m learning as a rhetorical scholar married to and co-authoring with a historian is how rhetorical history is. It’s not like I didn’t know that—intellectually. But I know it now in a much more profound way. How did you come to the realization that history has so much rhetorical power? How did you come to understand that the stories that have been told and the stories that we tell of the past make all the difference?
This is a wonderful question. Would you believe that it was medieval sermons that first convinced me of rhetorical power? It was in the midst of my early graduate school days that the dustup exploded over gender inclusive Bible translations. I remember reading Wayne Grudem and Vern Poythress’ damning critique of replacing “mankind” with “human” and “brothers” with “brothers and sisters.” The Christian sky was collapsing, according to their furor, yet I was reading texts penned by medieval clergy more than 500 years earlier that regularly incorporated gender inclusive language in both their sermons and translations of bible verses within sermons. I also realized that medieval sermons, although written in a patriarchal world too, incorporated many more stories about women—both from the Bible and church history—than I had ever heard in my Baptist Sunday School classes. It had never occurred to me that Mary Magdalene was the first preacher, bringing the news of the Gospel to the apostles on that first Easter morning, until I read about it in a fifteenth-century sermon. I find it so ironic that it took a medieval priest to open my eyes to a significant problem in American evangelicalism.
It was also my study of medieval history that made me realize the dominant male-bias of seminary history textbooks. My husband was working on his MDiv while I was working on my PhD, and I remember flipping through some of his texts. I was shocked by how quickly the church history textbooks jumped from the ancient church to the Reformation, barely glazing the 1000 years of medieval history. When I begin to dig deeper, I found that when medieval Christianity was discussed, it focused mostly on male clergy and male monastics, and when women entered the conversations, they were almost never discussed as leaders or preachers. The message sent to pastors-in-training, then, is that men have always been the preachers and leaders of the church. Is it any wonder that so many pastors believe that women preaching is a modern idea based on American culture rather than the reality of church history?
I think, though, it was my daughter who really made me understand the importance of including women in the stories we tell. She was around 6 or 7, reading a book for school (she has always been a voracious reader). She was hanging over the side of the chair looking bored. It surprised me because the book was about gladiators. Isn’t it interesting, I asked her? No, she answered. “But the page with the girl gladiators, I liked that page,” she said. And just like that my daughter taught me how critical it was for women to see ourselves in the story. Because we write women out of the Bible—using androcentric language and minimizing the stories about women—it becomes much easier to write women out of church history. And, like my daughter, evangelical woman who cannot see themselves as part of the story become less interested in being part of the story. Because women don’t realize the significant roles we have played as leaders and preachers in history, women are less likely to recognize their calling as preachers and leaders today.
- As I read your book, I got a pretty good sense of your target audience. The closing lines of your book are especially moving in that regard. How did you come to know who your target audience would to be? And how did you think about that from the perspective of your position as a historian and a scholar? In some ways, my question is about your sense of your calling or vocation. How do you understand your vocation as a historian and as a woman of faith in these times? How is your scholarship a realization of your vocation?
A friend just told me last week that I was the only one who could have written this book. I’m not sure if I am the only one who could have written it (or one like it), but I can see clearly how God made it possible for me to write this book. Indeed, that is why I decided to do it. I never intended to write a book like this, much less share my story with such a large audience. But when Katelyn Beaty suggested I should think about writing a book, I realized that I had all the pieces to do so. All my life I knew God called me to be a teacher and scholar; all my life I knew I was also called to ministry. I have never been interested in preaching, but I have always been interested in teaching and mentoring women. This book brought all my callings together, perfectly aligned. The reality is that much of the evidence I present in Making Biblical Womanhood isn’t really new (except for my own medieval sermon research). Most of it has been known by scholars for years, and explained clearly in numerous articles and books. But evangelical Christians are not reading this scholarship. I realized that God had situated me perfectly to reach this evangelical audience by speaking the evangelical language of testimony. I could tell my testimony, the impact of Christian patriarchy on my life, and combine it with the historical evidence that the evangelical world simply did not know. I cannot tell you how amazing it is to think how God brought all the threads of my life together to write this book. It is humbling and awe-inspiring. It also reminds me how complex a vocation can be—I’m not just called to be a historian or Sunday School teacher; I’m called to use my gifts as a historian and teacher in numerous outlets: in my college classroom, with my graduate students, in my Sunday School class, and in my writing.
Was I called to write this book? Yes, I am certain I was.
- The world of evangelicalism/fundamentalism is, so far as I can tell, in a really bad place right now. It seems like the right phrase is something like “a scandal a day.” Of course, all that has everything to do with the powerful history that you tell about how biblical womanhood came to be and how the patriarchy attendant to it is strenuously being maintained. Your book introduces a powerful fissure into the otherwise hegemonic (in the Gramscian sense—dominating but not fixed) discourse of evangelicalism/fundamentalism. How are you reading the efforts today to keep the patriarchal discourses of evangelicalism/fundamentalism afloat? What story do you imagine historians will tell 20 years from now about this seemingly pregnant (if I may) moment?
Well, historians really don’t like to predict the future. We are much more comfortable arguing about the past. But I think you are right. We are at a pregnant moment. Expectation is thick in the air as evangelicals grapple with the sobering reality of what we have been and the determined reality that we cannot be that anymore. We must be better. I hope that the story historians tell 20 years from now is one of freedom for evangelical women. That Christian scholars working from the inside out challenged the church to revisit long-held ideas about women and race, and that the church listened. This is the story I hope we can watch unfold. As a historian, however, I know that change comes slowly. I’m playing the long game with The Making of Biblical Womanhood. If I can help people begin to consider that they might be wrong and perhaps begin to make some small changes within their churches and seminaries, then—over many years—we will see women begin to move back into serving alongside men rather than underneath them. I think, I hope, that this change has already begun.
- What responses have you received from evangelical/fundamentalist women to your book? Do they contact you directly? Are you hearing things indirectly? And, more generally, what are you sensing of the impact of your book? And what do you think it means?
Releasing this book is the hardest thing I have ever done; harder even than writing it. But the response has made everything worth it. Not a day goes by that I do not receive messages from women all over the world telling me how much this book has changed their lives. Some of the messages are heartbreaking—women with stories very similar to mine who are still broken. So many of them have told me that my book has brought them hope again; that it has restored their faith knowing that God has always been for them. Some of the messages are just encouraging—women and men reaching out to cheer me on; to tell me how important my book has been to them and how they are sending it to all their friends. Some of the messages have been very interesting—from complementarian men who are in leadership positions telling me that my book has challenged them. While I may not have convinced them, they are thinking hard. Some of the messages have been funny—women and men reaching out with their own stories about purity culture or taking pastors’ wives classes. One woman told me a story that made me laugh and laugh for like 20 minutes. It was about the day her pastors’ wives class taught them how to get out of a car “like a lady.” They had diagrams and had to practice in their classroom seats. I still laugh thinking about that story!
I cannot count how many messages I have received so far through email, Twitter, and Instagram. But the overwhelming response shows me that not only are people reading The Making of Biblical Womanhood, but they are listening to it. And it is impacting their hearts and minds. The response gives me hope, as I told one of my readers, that this might actually work. I wrote a call to action in the final chapter, reminding women that complementarianism only works because women continue to support it. So, what if we stopped supporting it? When I wrote that, it was a pipe dream. But now I am beginning to think it might work.
- Finally, what is next for you? What are you thinking about? Writing about?
I honestly intended this book to be my only foray into the broader publishing world. My academic heart is in the medieval archives, and I want to finish my monograph on Women in Late Medieval English Sermons. But I also feel God working on my heart. There might still be more work to do, so I recently signed with a literary agent and we will see what might be next.
Again, many thanks to Beth for allowing me to interview her! What a joy! We here at rightingamerica hope to hear a lot more from her, both in this blog and through books not yet written but, perhaps, already in the works in one way or another.