God Hates, Part One

In Righting America we note that “in the twenty-first century, the study of American fundamentalism has really come into its own, with a surfeit of outstanding works, many of which pay close attention to economics and politics” (315). One of the best and most provocative of these books of these books is Rebecca Barrett’s God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism,and the Religious Right (University Press of Kansas, 2016). In this post and the next we feature Rebecca’s interview with Righting America, which should induce readers to read the book for themselves! (See also Bill’s very positive review of God Hates in the Journal of American History.)

Today’s post is written by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, professor of sociology at Arkansas State University. The author of God Hates, she researches and writes about religion, hate, and sexuality and gender. Her work has appeared in The Journal of Hate Studies, Thought & Action, Radical Teacher, and elsewhere. You can follow her research at her blogAny Good Thing, or read her commentary on politics, culture, and family from a (mostly) Mennonite perspective at Sixoh6, and elsewhere.

University Press of Kansas

Of all the topics about which you could have written, you selected Fred Phelps and the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. How did you make the decision to spend years working on this topic?

My initial motivation for visiting Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) was simple curiosity. I’d spent my college years in central Pennsylvania during a time of high anxiety among conservative Christians around the turn of the millennium. A student of religion even then, I saw pastors preaching messages about stockpiling food, water, and weapons, and I saw people—including people I knew and had always thought to be rational—building bunkers in the Appalachian Mountains in preparation for Y2K. So I’d had a lot of first-hand experience with the more extreme versions of Protestant Christianity, and I was pretty comfortable in such spaces and felt at ease having conversations with believers who take the word of God very seriously, even if they understand it in ways that might be quite different from mainstream Christianity.

So it was an easy decision to visit WBC, which is located about half an hour from the University of Kansas, where I earned my PhD. I’d seen them on TV and in person at pickets, and I wanted to see them in their own space to understand them from their own perspective, even just a little bit. I was very naïve about that project, I see now. I knew the church was virulently homophobic from their pickets, but I had expected some additional message to church members that made them come back week after week. Instead, the church service focused on people outside the church and how they were hell bound. Over time, I came to understand that such messages reinforce one of the church’s key beliefs: there is hope (not assurance) for those within the church, but there is no hope for sinners who reject the church’s teachings, and that includes anyone who leaves it.

I quickly became interested in why congregants would sacrifice so much—reputations, respect, careers, safety, a wider dating pool—to be part of a group that was so reviled and provided what seemed, on the surface, so few rewards, though I have come to see WBC as offering all kinds of benefits for its members. I was knee-deep in research when the church began picketing at military funerals, changing the course of my research to consider the relationship of the church to the broader American culture, specifically to the Christian Right and its defense of the invasion of Iraq and war in Afghanistan. At the same time there was a sea change in public opinion and law regarding the rights of LGBTQ+ people that was making many conservative Christians aware of how marginal their attitudes toward sexuality are—and we’re living in the backlash of that moment now.

You could just answer this question with “Read my book!” That said, in a few sentences could you explain what compels WBC members to picket military funerals with signs such as “Fags Doom Nations” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” and how it has nothing to do with “converting people to their church or changing people’s sexual orientation”?

You get right to the most challenging paradox of WBC! As hyper-Calvinists (a term I use with no pejorative connotation), Westboro Baptists believe that God chose each person’s salvation or damnation at the start of time. Why, then, do they preach at all?  And Westboro Baptists have been told to shut up by other hyper-Calvinists who agree with their theology – including their belief that if God loved you in the first place, you wouldn’t be gay – but find their tactics both unnecessary and embarrassing.

Westboro Baptists would say that they picket for a few reasons. First, God tells them to, and they must obey God, just as Noah built the ark out of obedience. Second, while they don’t believe that you can convert to Christianity on your own, they do believe that God can convert you. It could be that you are one of God’s elect but just don’t know it, but through encountering Westboro Baptist Church, you will hear God’s voice calling you—and when God calls you, it is always an “effectual calling,” so you will respond by obeying.  This also means that if you hear WBC and don’t hear the voice of God in their words, you know that you are one of the damned. WBC doesn’t preach just to find the elect—they also preach to make sure the damned know that they’re damned. Finally, they preach because everyone, elect and damned, must obey. In WBC’s perspective, all humans are totally depraved. We’re like prisoners on death row—and we’re guilty of our crimes. The governor may pardon some of us, but the rest of us can’t complain that he’s unjust if he doesn’t pardon all of us, since we all deserve death. But even if we aren’t pardoned, we still must obey the law. Your obedience won’t save you from hell, but it is still what we owe to God. WBC wants you to know that.

I would also add that the picketing tests who is committed, and makes them commit further. When you picket, you are guaranteeing that your face will be in the news and on social media, thus risking your employability and incurring lots of other opportunity costs. Those sacrifices keep you in the church. Finally, counterprotests are often, in the church’s eyes, lewd and violent, and thus they illustrate how terrible the world outside the church is. Taking children to counterprotests teaches them that they don’t want to join the world of hopeless sinners.  

One of the most striking aspects of your research is that you conduct interviews with Westboro Baptist church members, and you do so with compassion and without condescension, even as they are articulating remarkably repugnant theological ideas. How were you able to do this?

I know a lot of Christians who hold what I think are “remarkably repugnant theological ideas.” They use them to justify war, racism, violence against children, the sexual abuse of women, allowing refugees to drown rather than welcoming them. Most Christians don’t say that God hates these people, and they may even claim that these kinds of violence are acts of love.

But that sounds cynical, which I am not, despite my long foray into hyper-Calvinism. I can listen to Westboro Baptists because I see in them—or at least, most of them–a desire to love and obey God.  It’s easy to see how a certain kind of fundamentalism, especially when it’s practiced outside of relationship with any other churches, trains the direction of those desires. I can be sympathetic to that because I can imagine how many of us, living within those confines, could end up on a picket line and truly believing that the hurt we are causing someone else is an act of love. I wish that weren’t the case for Westboro Baptists, and I’ve had to wrestle with very personal forms of anger and hurt when they targeted people I love, but I think it’s important for us to understand how particular theological views push people toward particular actions.

It may also help that I don’t believe in hell, of course.

Joel Osteen, Evangelicals, and Donald Trump

Emily Hunter McGowin has a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton and MDiv from Truett Seminary. Her work is at the intersection of religion, theology, and ethnography. Her first book, Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family, will be published by Fortress Press in May 2018. Her work has also appeared in Ecclesial Practices, New Blackfriars, and a collection of essays, Angels on Earth: Mothering, Religion, and Spirituality. Emily is a regular speaker in Denver, CO, where she is theologian-in-residence at Church of the Resurrection. You can learn more about Emily at her website

After hurricane Harvey made landfall in Houston and scenes of catastrophic flooding began to circulate on the internet, Twitter was whipped into a whirlwind of hatred and snark about one particular Houston resident: Joel Osteen, mega-church prosperity preacher and author of the best-selling book, Your Best Life Now. Twitter users across the religious and non-religious spectrum made Osteen an object of their derision because it appeared as though Osteen’s gigantic Lakewood Church (housed in the former Compaq Center Arena, home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets) refused to shelter Harvey’s flood victims. Eventually, the church did open its doors but the PR damage was already done.

In response to the social media storm, Kate Bowler, professor at Duke Divinity School and author of the critically acclaimed Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, offered her perspective in an article in The Washington Post, appropriately titled, “Why people hate Joel Osteen.” Bowler’s assessment is on point and I don’t want to review her argument here. Rather, I want to suggest another reason for the anti-Osteen outrage: People hate Joel Osteen because he represents the excesses and contradictions of evangelicalism, something brought to the forefront by their overwhelming support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. The fact that evangelicals continue to have very favorable views of the president, despite increasing support for impeachment among the rest of the population, continues that trend.

Evangelical leaders would certainly take issue with the claim that Joel Osteen represents evangelicalism. They have never considered Osteen one of their own, criticizing him as much, if not more, than anyone else in America. Across the evangelical spectrum, Osteen’s critics target him for his less-than-fully-orthodox theology and the perceived dangers of his prosperity preaching. And there’s no doubt that, in terms of intellectual genealogy, Osteen’s gospel owes as much to the mothers and fathers of New Thought in the late 19th Century as to the evangelical Great Awakenings (see Bowler’s book for more).

Yet, by all other cultural markers, Osteen is representative of evangelical culture. Osteen reveres the Bible as God’s word without error and mines it for truths that have immediate, practical application to believer’s lives. Osteen’s gospel is privatized, individualistic, and therapeutic, focused on one’s personal relationship with God and its benefits. This simplistic Jesus-fixes-everything approach to faith is ubiquitous in evangelical culture, demonstrated in bestselling books, contemporary Christian music, Christian radio, and innumerable self-help blogs, podcasts, and conferences across the country. The underlying message is one of individual responsibility: You are responsible for your situation in life and the right decisions can change everything. Osteen sees a direct correlation between personal effort and God’s blessing, something evangelicals share, even if they don’t put it quite so starkly.

Osteen pastors a non-denominational church, like most evangelical mega-churches in the US, with an emphasis on emotive music, dramatic preaching, and calls for immediate response (often called “invitations”). Although he pastors one church, Osteen makes creative use of technology and new media to spread his message around the world. (Osteen reaches every US television market and over 100 countries worldwide. He even has his own Sirius XM channel.) Osteen shares the evangelical culture’s commitment to the free market’s invisible hand, never passing up an opportunity to capitalize on prior successes. (Osteen’s personal net worth is estimated to be around $40 million.) Newer and bigger is most definitely better. [Editor’s note: our colleague Zach Spidel has shared his first-hand account of Christian leadership training, which mirrors Osteen’s model.] Osteen also shares in the widespread evangelical myopia regarding broader socio-economic and cultural context for personal problems. By and large, theirs is a decidedly “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” approach to political issues that necessarily fails those who, in Dr. King’s words, have no boots to begin with.

Yes, evangelical leaders try very hard to distance themselves from Osteen and his prosperity preaching, but such call-outs are standard fare. Evangelicals (and fundamentalists before them) make a habit of publicly condemning those with whom they share the closest family resemblance. In this regard, evangelicals have retained the separatist tendencies of their fundamentalist forebears, who often split from those theologically closest to them over differences in biblical interpretation and ministerial practice. They may criticize Osteen on a regular basis, but evangelical leaders simply cannot disown him. Especially not when their people tune in for his TV broadcasts, stream his sermons over the Internet, listen to his 24-hour XM channel, and help make his books bestsellers.  

Interestingly, a similar dynamic plays out between some of the same evangelical leaders and President Donald Trump. By now everyone knows 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 election. When Trump proclaims, “the evangelicals love me, and I love them,” it is for good reason. Even as some evangelical leaders seek to separate themselves from Trump, by and large, those sitting in their pews are not following suit.

Yet, what few leaders seem to recognize is the resemblance between Osteen’s message and Trump’s. It’s no coincidence that prosperity preachers occupy Trump’s inner spiritual circle and he has expressed great admiration for his childhood pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Indeed, the slogan “Make America Great Again” is perfectly attuned to prosperity gospel logic while also playing on nostalgia for white evangelical dominance.

Yet, the failings in both Osteen and Trump’s approach to the world are rendered painfully clear in light of disasters like hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Mere weeks after Osteen offered “prayers” rather than housing for displaced flood victims in Houston, Pres. Trump chose to remind Puerto Rico, an American territory devastated by Maria, of their heavy indebtedness to “Wall Street and the banks” and criticized their response to the disaster by suggesting, “They want everything to be done for them.” If God favors “winners” who make their own success, then there’s no good reason to help “losers”, relieve the indebted, or bring good news to the poor. Blessed are the strong, the brash, the bold, those who do for themselves and do not depend on others.

For better or worse, because they voted for him and continue to defend him in droves, evangelicals are now associated with Trump’s excesses. And Trump’s excesses are Osteen’s excesses. Donald Trump offers a less polished, more nationalistic version of Osteen’s prosperity preaching. So, when Twitter explodes over the perceived hypocritical behavior of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church, evangelicals are being targeted too. Hatred for Osteen is also about hatred for evangelicals and what they have come to represent, fairly or unfairly, in the American cultural imagination.

Some evangelicals will interpret this reality as proof they are on the right track. There are always those happy to be hated as evidence they are doing God’s will. But I think more circumspection is in order here. If both Osteen and Trump represent a perversion of the gospel and its truth, and if so many evangelical leaders preach against Joel Osteen and some evangelical leaders cautioned against Donald Trump, then why do so many of their people still throw in their lot with both of them?

Free to be Feminist?

“I grew up evangelical, I became a feminist, and ever since I have felt consigned to the evangelical margins, in my family and in the church. Your paper fits my personal experience, but I find this so depressing. Is there any sign that mainstream evangelicalism is starting to embrace feminism, or are evangelical women just doomed to be subordinate?”

This was one of the questions we were asked last Thursday after giving our paper, “Feminist Rhetoric and the Hegemonic Struggle of Patriarchal Fundamentalism,” at the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference here at the University of Dayton. And it is a question that continues to haunt us.

In our paper we argued that from its very beginnings in 1919 Protestant fundamentalism has been resolutely committed to the idea that, in home and in church, women are to be subordinate to men. For the first few decades the theological argument was that female subordination was rooted in the divine Curse pronounced on woman as punishment for Eve’s successful temptation of Adam to violate God’s prohibition against eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. But as second-wave feminism made inroads in evangelicalism in the 1960s and 1970s, fundamentalist leaders shifted their argument; drawing upon Calvinist theology, they argued that patriarchy was part of God’s plan from the very beginning. Women were not cursed to be subordinate; instead, women were cursed to be unhappy with their subordination. That is to say, the Curse is Feminism.

All this plays out at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter. At the Creation Museum there are very few representations of women and very few female voices in the videos and voiceovers; Eve is the one exception, but, in keeping with conservative evangelical theology, all moral responsibility for the Fall rests on Adam’s shoulders. Eve plays, at best, a supporting role. Adam is the moral agent.

There are considerably more representations of women at Ark Encounter, most notably in the ark’s “living quarters,” where the wives of Noah and his sons are given names, ethnicities, and hobbies (as none of this is in the Bible, the degree of “artistic license” taken by folks committed to biblical inerrancy is breathtaking).

The most interesting of these is Japheth’s wife, Rayneh, who is the only (as far as we can tell) animatronic female figure in the Ark.  Rayneh stands on a raised platform and laments that her best friend did not get on the Ark while also wondering why her friend had to perish in the Flood. Rayneh appears here to be raising important moral questions about the kind of God depicted at Ark Encounter—a God that (according to a digital display elsewhere in the Ark) created a flood that killed as many as 20 billion human beings. Are we to understand Reynah to be a female figure who is also a full-blown human agent wrestling with tough moral and theological questions?

No. Instead of screaming in torment at a genocidal God who found it necessary to drown 19 billion-plus people, she wants someone (God, perhaps?) to “help her understand” why her friend had to die.

It turns out that it is all rather simple. According to the placards arranged around her head,

“First, God created all living things, which gives Him authority over all things. Since He is the one who gave life, He has the right to take life. Second, God is perfectly just and must judge sin. Third, all have sinned and deserve death and judgment.”

In other words, all those 19 billion-plus people drowning in the Flood waters are getting exactly what they deserve. No lament needed or, perhaps, even appropriate. The question for Rayneh, then, is not whether she ought to worship a God like that but, rather, whether she is willing to submit to the authority of that all-powerful male God. Notably, no “men” in the Ark struggle with this question. Instead, they are busy praying to that God, operating the Ark, and so forth.

Rayneh’s distress about her friend’s death at the hands of an angry God is not to be taken as a sign of moral complexity. It is a sign of moral immaturity. Just read the placards, Rayneh. Patriarchy, indeed.

When the powerful rhetorics of second-wave feminism made their way into conservative Protestantism – inspiring evangelical women to challenge patriarchal fundamentalism – fundamentalist rhetoric became more radical, rooting female submission in the very structures of God’s Creation. The Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter instantiate this rhetorical shift.

And yet, feminist rhetorics remain a profound challenge to patriarchal fundamentalism. So in an effort to “lock down” patriarchy once and for all, in the last two decades fundamentalist theologians (echoed by the folks at Answers in Genesis) have developed the argument that the Trinity (God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit) is hierarchical, and that the eternal submission of Jesus to the Father and of the Spirit to Jesus and the Father is the model for men and women in the family and in the church. If patriarchy in home and church can be tied to patriarchy in the Trinity, so the argument would suggest, then any claims for equality between men and women would be forever rendered illegitimate.

The Councils of Nicaea (325 CE) and Chalcedon (451 CE) established that the equality of the Father, Son, and Spirit is orthodox Christian theology. So it is remarkable that the folks making the argument that patriarchy in home and church is analogous to patriarchy in the Trinity are the same folks who are allegedly obsessed with maintaining the “fundamentals of the faith.” That they are so willing to flirt with what has traditionally been defined as heresy so as to keep women in their place seems dramatic evidence of the threat that feminism poses to fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

Perhaps, just perhaps, such theological desperation is an indication that evangelical women who want gender equality in home and church may someday get their wish.  

Religion at the Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference

The 2017 Feminisms and Rhetorics conference here at the University of Dayton was a huge success, with approximately 475 attendees, and with – by our count – 188 separate sessions over four days.

Not surprisingly, we gravitated toward sessions that dealt with religion.  Here are four highlights:

  • Ashleigh Petts (North Dakota State University), “Writing and (Re)Reading Julian of Norwich into the Rhetorical Tradition”: Julian was a late 14th-century/early 15th-century anchorite who is best known for her 1395 collection of mystical visions, Revelations of Divine Love (which happens to be the first English-language book published by a woman). As Petts pointed out, Julian articulated a notion of God the Father and Mother, and – more provocatively – the idea of Jesus as our divine Mother. All of this was perfect for the feminisms and rhetorics conference, as was Petts’ argument that, when it comes to Julian’s rhetoric, it is past time for scholars of rhetoric to let it stand on its own, as a woman’s voice, as opposed to evaluating it on the basis of comparison with the male rhetoric of, say, Augustine.
    • From chapter 60 of Revelations of Divine Love, here’s Julian on “Mother Jesus”: “The mother may give her child suck of her milk, but our precious Mother, Jesus, He may feed us with Himself, and doeth it, full courteously and full tenderly, with the Blessed Sacrament that is precious feed of my life.”
  • Rebekah Trollinger (Earlham College), “Religious Rhetoric and Alternative Feminisms: Rebecca Cox Jackson and Black Womanhood in a Shaker Community”: Jackson was an African-American woman who in 1830 had a very dramatic conversion experience during a thunderstorm, an experience that led her to commit to obeying her inner voice/God’s voice – which came to her in dreams and visions – for the rest of her life. Obeying God’s voice meant preaching, leaving her husband and committing to celibacy, joining the Shakers (and then challenging the Shakers regarding their racial discrimination). For Trollinger, Jackson’s story highlights the challenge that religious women may pose to the idea of “agency”: while Jackson was all about obedience to God (a notion that seems to work against agency), this obedience actually led her to challenge racial and gendered inequalities.
    • In this regard, when it comes to both Jackson and Julian (not to mention Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers), it is interesting to consider the ways in which direct revelations from God have liberated women from aspects of patriarchy.
  • William FitzGerald (Rutgers University-Camden), “Erasure and Authority: Recovering a Feminist History of the Serenity Prayer”: The Serenity Prayer is a commonplace in devotional writings and various twelve-step recovery programs. It is also commonplace to attribute the prayer to Reinhold Niebuhr, especially after Fred Shapiro – who in 2008 suggested, as Laurie Goodstein reported in a front-page New York Times article, that Niebuhr did not write the prayer – affirmed in 2014 that the author was indeed Niebuhr. But now here comes FitzGerald, who after exhaustive research argues that credit for the prayer should be given to Winnifred Wygal, a long-time YWCA official and student of Niebuhr’s at Union Theological Seminary. As FitzGerald noted at the end of his paper, this is certainly not the first time a woman’s voice has been silenced by a man’s voice.
    • Here’s the most popular form of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
  • Meghan Henning (University of Dayton), “’Hell Hath No Fury’: Gendered Bodies in Ancient Medicine and Early Christian Hellscapes”: In this paper (which is part of a larger book project) Henning, who is the author of Educating Early Christians through the Rhetoric of Hell, discussed how, in early Christian apocalyptic literature, the bodies in hell were “feminized,” in keeping with how ancient medical texts described the ‘weaker’ and more problematic bodies of women. For example, just as Galen and others posited that the uterus produced worms, so some of the Christian hellscapes made much of the fact that bodies in hell were often covered with worms.
    • An academic paper that featured a graphic description of worm-covered bodies?

So it was at the 2017 Feminisms and Rhetorics conference! In the next post we will talk about our conference presentation, which, sad to say, did not include worms (but did include waste removal).

Feminisms, Rhetorics, and . . . Fundamentalism?

It is a big week here at the University of Dayton (UD). Thanks in great part to the heroic efforts of the conference organizers – our colleagues and friends Liz Mackay, Peg Strain, and Patrick Thomas (who also happens to be the rightingamerica.net website guru) – UD is hosting the 11th Biennial Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference. The conference features a great program that stretches over four days, and that includes a keynote address by Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen: An American Lyric and recipient of a 2016 MacArthur “Genius” Award.

On Thursday afternoon Bill and Sue will be speaking on “Feminist Rhetoric and the Hegemonic Struggle of Patriarchal Fundamentalism,” a presentation that uses the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter as case studies. In keeping with Righting America at the Creation Museum, this paper has as its starting point the notion that from the movement’s origins in 1919 Protestant fundamentalism has been distinguished by a strong commitment to a set of core principles:

  1. Biblical inerrancy, that is, the Bible is factually accurate and without error. (Note: while there may be the occasional fundamentalist who disagrees with one of the following principles, in particular #3, we argue that to be a fundamentalist is to be committed to biblical inerrancy.)
  2. Creationism, that is, the first few chapters of Genesis provide a factually accurate account of the creation of the universe.
  3. Apocalyptic premillennialism, that is, the Book of Revelation (in particular) provides a factually accurate account of the “end times,” including the fact that the end is “imminent” and will result in the rescue of true Christians and the mass slaughter of non-Christians and not-really-Christians.
  4. Economic and political conservatism, including strong support for unfettered capitalism, strong opposition to the expansion of the welfare state, and a deep desire to return America to its former status as a “Christian Nation.”
  5. Patriarchy, that is, wives are to be subordinate to their husbands and women are to be subordinate to men in church.

But as we argue in the paper, while the commitment to patriarchy has remained consistent, the arguments in behalf of patriarchy have changed over time, in part because of the pressures placed on patriarchal fundamentalism by feminist rhetorics. About this, and about how all this plays out at the museum and the ark, we will have more to say after the conference!  

Ministry in a Post-Christian Society: Part 2

Herbie Miller is the pastor of Corinth Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Dayton, OH. He has a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton’s Department of Religious Studies. His academic work centers on historical theology and American Christianity. He has published in U.S. Catholic Historian and is an adjunct lecturer for Emmanuel Christian Seminary.

In my last post, I described how the history of Corinth Presbyterian Church in east Dayton reflected the general decline of mainline American Protestantism. I also discussed how this church is finding hope and direction amidst this decline by redoubling our commitment to our neighborhood. Doing this has led to developing unexpected friendships with its new neighbors, refugees from Burundi, the Congo, and Tanzania.

In early 2017, a member of Corinth — a Rwandan who happens to be one of the main translators for Swahili speakers in the Dayton area – was approached by the local Shoes 4 The Shoeless to identify east African refugee families who might be in need new shoes. When he asked our leadership if we would open our cavernous multipurpose room for a shoe giveaway, we were delighted to say yes!

On the day of the event, over 200 refugees received new shoes. At the shoe giveaway, plans were made for Corinth to host a joint prayer service which would be co-led by myself and one of the ministers from the refugee community. Attended by members of Corinth and a few refugee families, this service was a special time of connection and bonding. Wanting to deepen our friendship with our neighbors, Corinth then welcomed them to our “Family Game Nights,” where we play games, enjoy snacks, and have a pretty epic dance party at the end (using our 70s era disco ball and all!) Then we had Vacation Bible School together. And not long after that, our church kitchen was the site of cooking and nutrition lessons administered by the Ohio State Extension Office of Montgomery County.

Soon an opportunity presented itself that would give us a chance to use our space for the long-term benefit of our new friends, thanks to Robin, a local advocate in behalf of refugees who has made a special effort to connect them with local churches. Robin approached Corinth Presbyterian to ask if we would let her administer a tutoring program for these families in our church building. Recognizing that tutoring and English language instruction are crucial elements in helping these families succeed in American society, we gave the tutoring program a green light.

Currently, the church hosts two nights of tutoring per week, each session lasting from 6:30 to 8pm. Approximately 25 children from elementary school age up through high school are coming to get help with their homework and practice English, while five adults are receiving ESL instruction. The volunteers who tutor are a mix: there are Corinth members; interested individuals (and sometimes their children) from the Dayton area who want to serve the immigrant population; and, local high school and college students. The desire to volunteer has been so great that on nights when volunteer turnout is low we “only” have a student to tutor ratio of 2:1!

As a minister, what inspires me most are the stories of changed lives. Just the other night, Robin exclaimed in writing: “It’s so easy to take education and literacy for granted! Tonight, a young mother of two children read a book for the first time! She asked if she could take it home and read it to her 2 year old! Her excitement is contagious!” All of those exclamation points are not just grammatical excess; there is real, ongoing excitement about changed lives.

Our new neighbors’ excitement is breathing new life into our church. Their grit and faith are inspiring us give sacrificially of our time and finances. And, in a way, they’re welcoming us back into our own neighborhood. They’re reminding us of the importance of knowing our neighbors; responding to their actual needs; and being flexible enough to go where God is leading.

Ministry in a Post-Christian Society: Part I

Herbie Miller is the pastor of Corinth Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Dayton, OH. He has a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton’s Department of Religious Studies. His academic work centers on historical theology and American Christianity. He has published in U.S. Catholic Historian and is an adjunct lecturer for Emmanuel Christian Seminary.

I’m the pastor of a small and lively Presbyterian church in a working class neighborhood in east Dayton, OH. Like most Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations, my church’s membership numbers have followed the downward trends of mainline Protestantism. Yet, the 70 or so people who attend our weekly services have not gotten the memo that they should be pining for the 1960s when their membership rolls swelled to 700. Instead, they’re leaning into the future in hopeful anticipation of what God has planned for them. One source of this lively (yes, Presbyterians can be “lively”!) congregation’s hope comes from its belief that God has placed them in a specific neighborhood at a specific moment in history to carry out the work of Christ.

From its beginnings in 1942, Corinth Presbyterian Church understood itself to be a “neighborhood church,” primarily serving the (mostly) white, working-class or middle-class families who lived in the Hearthstone neighborhood that surrounded it. Having never moved from its current location on Corinth Boulevard, the congregation has always felt a deep connection with its neighborhood. Historically, Corinth was populated by people who lived within walking distance of the church. Corinth’s membership swelled to 769 in 1960, in large part, because of something all realtors know about what drives up property values: location, location, location!

But the subculture of mainline Protestantism has been dissolving for the past 50 years. And it’s not just mainline Protestantism. Rapidly increasing numbers of Americans identify themselves as religiously “nonaffiliated.” As a result, the social pressure to attend church has radically declined. In the case of Corinth Presbyterian, as individuals and families from the neighborhood moved away and found other churches, the people who moved into the neighborhood didn’t replace their predecessors in the pews.

In early 2017, Corinth’s leadership formed a self-study committee (so Presbyterian!) that would ask three basic questions about the congregation:

1) What is our history?

2) Who are our neighbors?

3) What is God calling us to?

Among the many valuable insights this study produced, one stood out: Dayton’s immigrant population has doubled in the last decade, and these immigrants have included a good number of refugees from east Africa. Between 250 and 400 refugee families a year are resettled in this region, with about 40 percent coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And east Dayton – where Corinth Presbyterian is located – is one of the targeted resettlement areas for these African refugees.

In short, what Corinth’s self-study team learned was that while its building hadn’t changed in the last forty years, its neighbors had. With this in mind, this little church has decided to double down on its commitment to being a neighborhood church. Other churches can pick up stakes and head for the suburbs. That’s not what we are doing. The place we occupy in East Dayton is not superfluous to the ministry God has called us to. It is integral to who we are.

In the following post, I will discuss the ongoing relationship between Corinth and the refugee families, and how it is enriching for both.

Charlottesville, Evangelicals, and Anti-Semitism

Emily Hunter McGowin has a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton and MDiv from Truett Seminary. Her work is at the intersection of religion, theology, and ethnography. Her first book, Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family, will be published by Fortress Press in May 2018. Her work has also appeared in Ecclesial Practices, New Blackfriars, and a collection of essays, Angels on Earth: Mothering, Religion, and Spirituality. Emily is a regular speaker in Denver, CO, where she is theologian-in-residence at Church of the Resurrection. You can learn more about Emily at her website

Charlottesville, Evangelicals, and Anti-Semitism

There’s a very large evangelical church where I live that is known for its ardent support for the nation of Israel. Every year the church hosts a large public event featuring a speaker on the topic “God’s plan for Israel.” They celebrate with an evening in honor of Israel with Israeli food, music, and dancing. They also send teams to Israel multiple times a year in order to send a message of “unconditional love and support for Israel.” The teams visit holy sites, perform for Israeli citizens, and visit with Zionist leaders. Their devotion to Israel even makes it into their statement of faith. Naturally, I watched with interest to see how the church’s leadership might respond to the reports coming out of Charlottesville, VA.

As most know by now, on August 11 and 12, hundreds of white supremacists converged on Charlottesville, VA for a “Unite the Right” rally. They were met by a large group of counter-protestors, including religious leaders, members of antifa, representatives of Black Lives Matter, and unaffiliated citizens of Charlottesville. In the end, 35 people were injured and three people died, including 32 year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors. Two Virginia State Police also died in a helicopter crash. They had been monitoring events from the air.

Widely circulated footage of the weekend’s events showed the anti-Semitism of the rally on full display. Armed marchers were throwing Nazi salutes and chanting, “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and soil” (an English translation of the Nazi slogan Blut und Boden). They held signs that read, “Jewish media is going down” and “Jews are Satan’s children.” They displayed swastikas on banners, flags, and T-shirts. On Saturday, a faction of the marchers surrounded Congregation Beth Israel during Sabbath worship, threatening to burn down the synagogue. Fear and hatred of Jews was the dominant theme of the rally, as well as a core tenet of many participating organizations.

The publicity received by the “Unite the Right” rally and the violence it precipitated led some evangelical leaders and churches to issue statements condemning white supremacy and hatred. But few called out the marchers’ anti-Semitism directly. I wondered: What would my Israel-supporting local megachurch have to say?  

The answer: nothing. There were no announcements in church, no mentions in sermons, and nothing on Twitter, Facebook, or the church website. And they weren’t the only ones. Many evangelical leaders and churches that would typically trumpet the cause of Israel were silent about the virulent anti-Semitism on display in Charlottesville. Also troubling was the lack of response to President Trump’s “blame on both sides” rationalization.

Of course, Christianity has been implicated in anti-Semitism almost from the beginning. Early church fathers often blamed “the Jews” for killing Christ. Christian leaders like John Chrysostom, Jerome, and Martin Luther openly promoted anti-Semitism (with the writings of the latter contributing to the anti-Semitic furor that ultimately led to the Holocaust). Jews throughout Christian Medieval Europe were subject to humiliating restrictions and forced to live in ghettos or even be expelled from their communities. Following the horrors of the Holocaust, though, many Christian thinkers, churches, and denominations became self-critical about the anti-Semitism in their traditions and sought to root it out.

Yet, the white evangelical relationship with Jews and Jewishness is distinctive. As Robert O. Smith has documented in his book, More Desired Than Our Own Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism, when the Puritans came to the New World they brought with them a “Judeo-centric” interpretation of prophecy. They understood the Jewish people to be divinely ordained allies against the perceived evils of Catholicism and Islam, as well as the symbolic referent for their own covenant with God in America. This led to the view of America as a “redeemer nation” like Israel. This American affinity for Israel and Judeo-centric prophetic interpretation was later popularized by the dispensational premillennial interpretation of the Bible (spread first by the Scofield Reference Bible and popular Bible conferences and, much later, the Left Behind series).

When Jerry Falwell and his evangelical colleagues founded the Moral Majority in 1979—the beginning of the activist Religious Right—the sixth plank in their platform articulated support for the state of Israel. Falwell often declared in his preaching: “To stand against Israel is to stand against God.” Many white evangelicals today have adopted the same position, seeing their political support of Israel closely linked to faithful Christian practice. Because these evangelicals understand the nation of Israel to occupy an irrevocable place in God’s plans, they are some of the most vocal backers of the nation of Israel, even as they also seek the religious conversion of Jews to Christianity.

But, if evangelical Christians are so committed to the nation of Israel, why were so many silent about this nationally publicized anti-Semitic event in Charlottesville, not to mention the surge in anti-Semitism nationwide over the past year?

Smith demonstrates that the premillennial dispensational interpretation of scripture often leads practitioners to see Jews less like real people and more like symbols in their eschatological narrative. It is possible, therefore, that many evangelicals who offer full-throated support for the nation of Israel still see Jewish people simply as supporting actors in the Christian story. Many evangelicals are eager to trumpet the cause of Israel as a national player in their eschatology, but they are not as concerned with individual Jews, and their safety and well-being in America. The aftermath of Charlottesville has made clear that the ideological, political, and even financial support for Israel does not translate into evangelical solidarity against anti-Semitism. Perhaps this is especially true when such solidarity would require acknowledging the failed moral leadership of Donald Trump, for whom 81% of them voted.

Pure Fundamentalism, Guaranteed: Part Two

In the “Suggested Readings” section of Righting America (313-316) we note that “in the twenty-first century, the study of American fundamentalism has really come into its own, with a surfeit of outstanding works, many of which pay close attention to economics and politics.” One of the very best of these books is Timothy Gloege’s Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (2015). Below is the second half of Tim’s interview with rightingamerica.

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

You make much of the point in the book about the difference between “churchly conservatives,” on the one hand, and fundamentalists on the other. Can you summarize that difference, and why it matters?

“Churchly” is a sort of shorthand name I give to a much older and fundamentally-communal way of being a Christian. Ask a churchly person how they know they have an authentic faith and they’ll say “because I’m an active and sincere member of my church.” For them, church and tradition, creeds and sacraments are central to their faith.

I contrast a churchly orientation with the evangelical orientation (fundamentalists are evangelical in this sense). For evangelicals an authentic faith means, first and foremost, a radically-individualistic “personal relationship with God.” Most conservative evangelicals (but not all) say that church attendance is important, but this only because they think it is helpful to their individual faith—not because it is an essential part of it. Nor do they believe or do something simply because it is what past tradition has always taught; they must be personally persuaded that it is helpful or effective or true.

I make a big deal of this for a few reasons. First, it challenges the unhelpful definitional habits in our field of equating “evangelical” with “conservative.” In fact, for most of its history, the evangelical orientation has been a liberalizing force—whether during the Great Awakening, among nineteenth century sects, or even someone like D. L. Moody. (This is not to minimize the real damage it did to non-Christian faiths, only to say that it was not seeking to maintain the churchly status quo.) Even today, the notion of “spiritual but not religious” faith of someone like Oprah Winfrey partakes in an evangelical orientation.

The “churchly” category also helps us get away from trying to define evangelicalism with traditional doctrinal categories. Doctrine has never been a rallying point for evangelicals. At best, it has been a problem to solve; more often, it has just been ignored. That’s why evangelical “theology” is so disjointed and self-contradictory. Evangelicals are not stupid; rather they just don’t care about systematic theologies. Contrasting it with churchly conservatives who do care about doctrine for its own sake, helps us see this.

Finally, the “churchly” category helps us to better historicize evangelicalism and Protestantism. It helps us situate the birth of evangelicalism in the (primarily British) Enlightenment, and tempers overreaching definitions of Protestantism as religious individualism.

One of the most brilliant parts of Guaranteed Pure has to do with your discussion of the creation of “the fundamentals” as the rallying point for the movement. What’s weird here — but not talked about by fundamentalists themselves — is that not only are “the fundamentals” not rooted in creeds or church history, but there is not agreement among fundamentalists as to what constitutes “the fundamentals.” Could you say something about this?

This gets at one of my big pet peeves. Too many historians of American Protestantism act as if there is this united thing called Protestantism that broke away from Catholicism. But that’s not what happened. Instead, many independent reform movements broke away from the Roman Church around the same time, in different places and under different circumstances. There was no unity between these groups (Lutherans and Calvinists could not broker a cooperative arrangement, and that’s not even including Baptists or Anabaptists or Anglicans.) So what exactly is there about “Protestantism” to conserve? Apart from rejecting the Roman Catholic church, there’s nothing holding Protestant sects together. Thus the later impulse to reject denominations – to simply be a “Society of Friends” or “Christians” — ironically resulted in additional denominations.

All that’s background to The Fundamentals project. This publication was not conserving what was; rather it was attempting to create something that did not yet exist.

What was new about The Fundamentals were the techniques they used to that end. They didn’t rally around a charismatic leader or get a bunch of trained theologians into a room to hash it out. Instead, a small coterie of ministers, evangelists and businessmen—appointed by no one other than the oilman who was funding the project—decided they would formulate the “essentials” of conservative Protestantism.

They created it as one creates a mosaic. Although the project organizers recruited some reputable scholars, it was the organizers, not the authors, who chose the topics. They assembled these bits of and pieces into a whole that few of the participants would have created, or even signed on to, had they been asked. More than this, there were major disagreements among the organizers, contradictions between individual essays, and nothing approaching consensus in the movement that arose in the 1920s. The only thing that everyone agreed on, it seems, was that they didn’t like Biblical higher criticism.

Thus, the major accomplishment of The Fundamentals was to model a set of techniques, borrowed from modern business, to create (and quietly recreate when necessary) a system that appeared coherent (if one did not look closely. What the Protestant essentials entailed changed based on the situation. These same techniques are still used today.

In the book you make the provocative and insightful observation that, in the fusion of capitalism and evangelicalism, “conservative evangelicals [have] effectively hobbled their ability to offer systematic critiques of capitalism.” But in Bill’s review he wonders if your book actually suggests a more radical conclusion. Borrowing from The Communist Manifesto, he posed the following question: “Has evangelical Christianity in the United States simply melted into the capitalist ether, leaving in its place an unholy religious consumerism that is much more about niche brands and market shares than it is about anything faintly recognizable as the Gospel?” How would you respond to this question?

I love this question and agree (mostly) with the basic premise. Without consumer capitalism, the conservative evangelical movement as it operates in the United States today—that network of institutions and celebrity leaders, those assertions about who God is, how God interacts with humanity, how believers engage their faith—all that wouldn’t exist. The religious ecosystem that is evangelicalism and the cultural system it fosters doesn’t hold together without it. Show me a conservative evangelical who rejects the premises of modern consumer capitalism and I’ll show you a person on their way out.

Where I’d stop short is in calling evangelicalism an “unholy” or an “inauthentic” form of Christianity. And I do that because making such evaluative statements is not my business as a historian. To be clear, it certainly is not a form of Christianity I personally have any interest in. I also think it is entirely different animal from the Protestantism that existed in the United States before the Civil War. And post-Trump there’s little evidence that it really promotes the “gospel of love” adherents think it does.

But I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying that, because of all this, it therefore this isn’t “real” Christianity. That’s really a fundamentalist move: no different from saying that because liberal Christianity accepts evolution and questions the historicity of biblical miracles and rejects biblical inerrancy and holds a different theory of atonement, it therefore is an entirely different, non-Christian faith. It isn’t.

Also, that claim makes it sound like there is a “real” Christianity “out there,” independent of historical context. I don’t think there is. Religion is culture in the same way that water is hydrogen and oxygen. It is a particular cultural formation that is both unique, but also inextricably entwined with other arenas of human experience.

Could you say a little about your next project?

Yes, my current project tackles the other side of this story—Protestant liberals—in a more systematic way. If what I (and other recent scholars) have claimed about fundamentalism is true, then we need to rework the ways we talk about liberals as well. What were the core differences between fundamentalists and liberals? Why did they have a falling out in the early twentieth century? What were liberals saying about fundamentalists in their correspondence? How were they understanding self and society and ways of knowing and how were they applying it to their religious beliefs and practices? How did they relate to modern capitalism?

Pure Fundamentalism, Guaranteed: Part One

In the “Suggested Readings” section of Righting America (313-316) we note that “in the twenty-first century, the study of American fundamentalism has really come into its own, with a surfeit of outstanding works, many of which pay close attention to economics and politics.” One of the very best of these books is Timothy Gloege’s Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (2015). In this post and the next we feature Tim’s interview with Righting America, which includes discussion of the book’s main arguments and their implications, and which should induce readers to read the book for themselves! (See also Bill’s glowing review of Guaranteed Pure.)

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

How did you end up writing on this topic? Why fundamentalism, and why Moody Bible Institute?

I started writing on fundamentalism while working on a MA degree as an attempt to understand my personal background. (I was raised in this milieu, though I found myself increasingly out of step with it.) When I started a history Ph.D. at Notre Dame I thought I was done with fundamentalism. But I got sucked back into the topic while reading for my comprehensive exams. I realized there was an untold story about the intersection of fundamentalism and consumer capitalism, and that I was in a good position to tell it.

Using the Moody Bible Institute (MBI) to tell this story was an obvious choice. A key figure in its history was Henry Parsons Crowell, who helped modernize MBI in the early 1900s, and who is known to business historians as President of Quaker Oats and one of the pioneers of modern marketing techniques. And as I continued to research, I stumbled upon faith healers, labor uprisings, and corporate barons. What more could you ask for?

What do you mean when you say in your introduction that, in fundamentalism, conservative evangelical leaders created a “new form of ‘old-time religion’ that was not only compatible with modern consumer capitalism but also uniquely dependent on it”?

One of the major findings of the book is that fundamentalism’s reputation as “traditional” is itself a fundamentalist invention. And they created this impression by using modern promotional techniques, developed in the 1880s, that corporations have been using ever since. But it wasn’t just specific techniques. The ways that they understood self and society were also taken from modern capitalism. Unlike other forms of Christianity, they treated believers and potential converts as modern consumers (rather than citizens or family members). Saving faith was a product to be acquired, not a pilgrimage, as the Puritan John Bunyan imagined it. All that to say that conservative evangelicalism—what we think of as “old time religion” today—is radically dependent upon modern consumer capitalism in a way that other forms of Christianity are not.

In our work on young Earth creationism we have been struck by how many creationists have backgrounds in engineering (including, at Answers in Genesis, the ubiquitous Bodie Hodge). This is no surprise to you, given that, in Guaranteed Pure, you make the point that there is a strong connection between business, law, and engineering and conservative evangelicalism. Why is this the case, and how does this relate to the fundamentalist rejection of Darwinism?

Many historians have tried to explain the differences between fundamentalists and liberals as the difference between old and new, “anti-modern” and “modern.” But a number of scholars (myself included) think this obscures more than it reveals. It suggests, for example, that people can live independent of their social and cultural context, which of course goes against the core insight of the historical profession.

So how do we explain the difference? My reading of the evidence suggests that there are two fundamentally different “modernities” at work. One of these, the one in which fundamentalism is rooted, is also foundational to modern business, our legal system, engineering, and medicine. The other is rooted in post-Darwinian science.

Take our understanding of “the self” and its relationship to society. Our political, economic, and legal systems presume an Enlightenment understanding of the self as a rational, autonomous, decision-making individual. We are who we are (and do what we do) because of the choices we make. Societies are simple aggregates of individuals, nothing more. A scientific understanding of humanity starts at a different place. The self is, at root, a combination of nature and nurture, genetics and environment. Individual choices are always encumbered, constrained, and shaped by many factors beyond an individual’s control. Societies and social systems are more than the sum of their parts; each has their own logic that affect those who are enmeshed in it.

You can map most major political debates to these different understandings of the self: poverty, drug abuse, racism, sexism, LGBTQ rights, and so on. Evangelicalism’s intrinsic individualism aligns them on the Enlightenment side of these debates.

The second major distinction has to do with how knowledge is created: the process or method of investigation. Once again, law, business, and especially engineering cluster together. They focus on reaching a specific goal and using whatever method is best for getting you there. The other approach, common in academic research, focuses on creating and executing a specific method of investigation and then accepting whatever results that method produces. The first method works great if you are an engineer wanting to build a bridge or increase battery life. It is great for a defense attorney trying to muster the best defense for a client or a doctor treating a specific disease. The other approach is best for open-ended investigation. It’s the method we historians use and it regularly produces surprising and unexpected results.

Where things go wrong is when the engineering/legal approach is applied to an unsuitable scientific or historical question. This explains why so many fundamentalist projects go so terribly wrong, since this is the only valid mode of knowledge creation they recognize. Creation science isn’t trying to discover the origins of life. It’s trying to prove what they think they already know: that God created all species directly and the human race out of the dust of the earth. They are not discovering truth, they are solving a problem. Nor are fundamentalists trying to discover the complex history of the ancient biblical text; rather they are proving that God inspired an inerrant text. They are not investigating whether America was founded as a Christian nation, but proving that the founders were all “orthodox” Christians who saw the world as they do today.

And it’s not just fundamentalists who are guilty of this. Oil companies try to disprove global warming. Secular libertarians try to prove free markets fix everything and government “interference” makes everything worse. Drug companies try to prove that their multibillion dollar drug is safe and effective. Intentionally or not, all are making the same basic mistake.

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