IT is Happening Here (Re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale)


by Steven P. Miller

Recently, I have been thinking about how the rise of the evangelical right influenced late twentieth-century American liberalism. My inquiry led me to take another look at Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). I first encountered the novel during my high school days in the mid-1990s. Reading it—or at least knowing about it—was something of a rite of passage for aspiring members of the new class. (I never went through an Ayn Rand phase, thankfully, and hence never aspired to join the productive class.) The Handmaid’s Tale may or may not have inspired some of its readers to spray paint X’s across the ubiquitous Oliver North for Senate signs in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a riveting story driven by the alternately righteous and resigned, but always ironical, narrative voice of “Offred.” She is the handmaid of Commander Fred; which is to say, she exists to bear his seed; which is to say, the Republic of Gilead (nee New England) is a nightmarish patriarchy. In fact, the “early Gilead era” is the conflation of all things right-wing; not merely patriarchal, it is also theocratic, nativist, racist, and belligerent. The only thing missing is capitalist, although Offred’s Commander does have a background in market research. The regime is a composite of past models: the predictable Stalinist USSR-Nazi Germany template (Born of a coup, Gilead is in a continuous state of mobilization; the state police force is known as the Eyes), antebellum slavery (The handmaids are breeders subject to the whims of Commanders and the spite of Commanders’ wives), and Puritan Massachusetts (The book is dedicated to convicted witch Mary Webster, an ancestor of Atwood’s). More striking are the contemporaneous analogues: apartheid South Africa, Khomeini’s Iran, Ceausescu’s Romania . . . and, most importantly, the religious right’s looming Christian America, which in the novel is firmly in place by the 1990s. Thus, fundamentalism—a category then in the process of being conceptually stretched from Dayton, TN, all the way to Tehran—was the new “it” (more like an IT) that can happen here (or there, for the Canadian Atwood), specifically, in a city not unlike Cambridge, Mass. (not too far from Canada, when you think about it).

If Gilead’s complementarian view of oppression is a little too convenient, its religious politics are downright incoherent. (Why exactly does Gilead war against the Baptists down South? Are they the Socialist-Revolutionary Party to Gilead’s Bolsheviks?) Theo-ideological consistency was not really the point, though, in this unabashedly political novel. Fundamentalists, after all, are not averse to making up some rules as they go along; they’d rather play Geneva than wait for the promised new Jerusalem. Gilead’s basis for legitimacy is the law-and-order God of the Old Testament. But the basis could just as well have been some other IT rooted in some other reactionary resource, so long as IT provided an alternative to a sexual revolution that, by late 1970s and early 1980s, had created an opening for counter-revolution. As Norman Lear said during the early days of People for the American Way, “every generation must deal with its own Infallibles.” For Atwood, the more historically distinctive thing was the target: sexual freedom and, by extension, women’s bodies, and by further extension, women’s humanity. (Here, Atwood’s own targets included feminist anti-porn activists as well as anti-feminist female dupes.)

So much for my very impressionistic re-reading of Atwood. Has this novel served any serious political significance—other than to scare the hell out of impressionable readers? Atwood’s attitude toward the Christian Right is that of the distant literalist; fear trumps contingency as a heuristic device. Thus, the book offers little in the way of counter-intelligence. It tells us next to nothing about the Christian Right’s appeal, save to point out its ironic—in the novel, tragic—overlap with feminist moralism. While gallows humor spills forth from the oppressed, the villains remain predictable in their two-dimensionality: The Commander is a traditionalist who makes an exception for himself; his wife, a former televangelist (“Serena Joy”) who now chafes at her separate sphere.

Still, The Handmaid’s Tale undoubtedly reminded many readers of what they had to lose. Perhaps Colorado Springs was the Salem of our time, and the Republican National Convention the new Munich. At the very least, the novel gave young liberals such as myself a handy foil during the mid and late 1990s—a time when, amid my mistaken belief that Michael Kelly’s The New Republic really was a liberal publication, it was not always easy to gauge the stakes of political discourse (Boy, did Michael Kelly hate Bill Clinton). Opposing the Christian Right seemed a clearer vantage point; if liberalism was anything, it was not fundamentalism. In an age of presumed backlash, it seemed more pressing to be libertarian than liberationist on social issues; the best way to celebrate freedoms was to defend them. But what about religion? If The Handmaid’s Tale was to be believed, then religion was an inherently destabilizing force in politics. But didn’t such talk play into the hands of the opposition? Wise figures on the right long had warned (with a wink) that, should the decadent tide fail to ebb, the back-lashing masses would find recourse in authoritarianism.

Then came “W.” A decade later, I teach this stuff. So many of my students interpret religion-in-general through the lens of politically-conservative-religion-in-particular. They may have read The Handmaid’s Tale (I will take a poll next semester), or perhaps they have just absorbed its echoes.

Forgetting Why We Remember: David Blight on Memorial Day in Charleston, May 1, 1865

Paul Harvey

From historian David Blight (HT John Fea), an essay on Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865, an event of enormous symbolic significance at the time but forgotten afterwards in the "national reconciliation" mode of late 19th-century Memorial Days following their semi-official beginnings in 1868. Blight begins by describing how the "Lost Cause tradition thrived in Confederate Memorial Day rhetoric; the Southern dead were honored as the true 'patriots,' defenders of their homeland, sovereign rights, a natural racial order, and a 'cause' that had been overwhelmed by 'numbers and resources" but never defeated on battlefields."

But before the Civil War was over, black soldiers had established a meaning for that day consonant with their experience of fighting for freedom:

But for the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day, we must return to where the war began. By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender.

Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.

The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

The symbolic power of this Low Country planter aristocracy’s bastion was not lost on the freedpeople, who then, in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged a parade of 10,000 on the track. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.

After the dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantrymen participating were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite.

The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.

Despite the size and some newspaper coverage of the event, its memory was suppressed by white Charlestonians in favor of their own version of the day. From 1876 on, after white Democrats took back control of South Carolina politics and the Lost Cause defined public memory and race relations, the day’s racecourse origin vanished....

2nd Biennial Conference on Religion and Am. Culture -- Calling all Guest Bloggers

Paul Harvey

By now, I assume those attending the 2nd Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture this coming Thurs. - Saturday in Indianapolis have made their plans, but just in case some more information posted below. The conference features an all-star lineup and is going to be good times for sure.

Kelly Baker and I will post thoughts here on the conference after it's over, or even during it depending on how much the J. W. Marriott in Indy charges for its internet connection (i.e., if it's not free, then it's not for me).

But, this post is really to invite anyone else who is going to be there, and has any thoughts on any of the sessions, to send those along to me (pharvey AT uccs DOT edu) and I'll put them up as a guest post. I'm especially interested in the latter session of the conference, including the finale on "The Future of American Religion," because thanks to American Airlines I have to leave Sat. afternoon and miss the last couple of sessions. So, consider this an open invitation to send along your thoughts. And that goes for those unknown to me presently as well as our contributors who are conference participants, as well as other contributors not on the program but attending (yeah I'm looking at you Janine, Heath, and perhaps some others).

Here's the schedule. See some of you there, and looking forward to making the acquaintance of a few others. Party on!

Jesus and Jefferson: Mark Noll Reviews Dochuk and Williams in The New Republic

Paul Harvey

Here's a discussion of interest to many: Mark Noll reviews Daniel Williams, God's Own Party, and Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, in the most recent New Republic -- a teaser is online, but you'll have to get the magazine for the rest (or, email me and I'll send to you). Here's a small excerpt:

Recent studies have begun to do better, with two of the best being these books by Daniel K. Williams and Darren Dochuk. Williams, who works from the top down in attempting a broad national perspective, does as well as any writer to date in answering the basic questions of what went into making up the religious right and specifying when the movement coalesced. Dochuk, who works from below in a superbly researched study of grassroots political mobilization, goes far to answer the question of where it came from. The solid history in these volumes should be applauded by all as a welcome alternative to the frenzy of earlier efforts. Yet neither Williams nor Dochuk addresses directly what should be one of the most compelling questions about the political history they describe so well: what exactly is Christian about the Christian right

You will remember we have posted extensively about these important new works, and have put up interviews with Williams here and Dochuk here. Noll adds to the discussion with an interesting conclusion reflecting on historians' own moral evaluations. Noll writes: "neither of these writers carries out the moral evaluation, that, especially, in tandem, their volumes make possible," and then a bit further down,

The merger of Jesus and Jefferson that propelled the New Christian Right was neither made in heaven, as in the eyes of its proponents, nor was it a cynical exercise in hypocritical self-interest, as often portrayed by its opponents. It was rather a historically constructed contingency that, judged from a broad Christian perspective, deserves to be both applauded and denounced."

And he concludes:

Theirs [evangelicals'] is not the tradition of Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, or Mater et Magistra. It is instead the tradition of Charles G. Finney, who in the 1830s declared that the problem of slavery could be resolved “in three years’ time” if only slaveholders would recognize that slaveholding was a sin. It is the lineage of Billy Sunday, who in 1919 predicted that Prohibition would empty American prisons and transform the country into a heaven on earth.

The flourishing of conservative evangelical politics in recent American history has done considerable good through the exercise of instinct, anger, energy, and zeal. It would have done much more good, and also drawn nearer to the Christianity by which it is named, if it had manifested comparable wisdom, honesty, self-criticism, and discernment.

"To Normalize the False Teachings of Mormonism the World Over"

Paul Harvey

As the long -- very long -- Republican primary season just begins to get going, here's a little reminder that anti-Mormonism didn't die out in the 19th century, or in the 20th century, or after that: Warren Cole Smith, "A Vote for Romney is a Vote for the LDS Church." A little taste:

Placing a Mormon in that pulpit would be a source of pride and a shot of adrenaline for the LDS church. It would serve to normalize the false teachings of Mormonism the world over. It would also provide an opening to Mormon missionaries around the world, who could start every conversation: "Let me tell you about the American president." To elect a Mormon President is to advance the cause of the Mormon Church.

Yes, like the election of Richard Nixon normalized the teachings of Quakerism, and the election of Clinton the teachings of Southern Baptists. Anyway, further discussion of the evangelical division about Romney's faith may be found here, and doubtless in a million other places in the months to come. As for said pending discussion, don't you know that you can count me out.

Our friend Joanna Brooks is about to fire up a post about this, so I'll update here when that is up.

Update: It gets worse. Joanna recounts her conversation with the author here.

In the meantime, that little blast from the past requires an antidote, so here's an interview with the South Park-ers Trey Parker and Matt Stone talking about their musical The Book of Mormon, the full soundtrack of which I'm looking forward to hearing sometime soon. Maybe they'll follow with a sendup musical about the United Church of Christ, or the Unitarian Universalists.

Update: Also, I meant to put this in the original post, but blog friend and part-time basketball analyst Matt Bowman of Georgetown University reflects here, in The New Republic, on the comparative "business Mormonism" of Romney and contrasts that with the much hipper public image of Jon Huntsman. Taking the two together, he says, suggests a sort of generational shift in internal LDS dynamics and culture. Very interesting reading.

How Oprah Became a Messiah: Prophet and Profit

Paul Harvey

As Oprah departs, to much media coverage, let us turn once more to our contributor Kathryn Lofton for a summing up of "What is Oprah"?

K. Lofton's book Oprah: Gospel of an Icon, has engendered a lengthy, multi-part, fascinating set of responses from numerous other scholars at Immanent Frame, and on the occasion of Oprah's departure from the network airwaves, Lofton's reflections on her career and meaning in the context of American religious history can be found at CNN Belief Blog, in the Los Angeles Times, in the New York Daily News, and in the Washington Post. Over at Killing the Buddha, Nathan Schneider also provides these links as well as a link to his own interview with Lofton, and gives his own thoughts, here.

Perhaps the easiest place to connect in to all this discussion is at the piece at the CNN Belief Blog, where our valued colleague writes:

As she departs from her ritual slot, there will be a vacuum for some. Yet if history has taught us anything, it is that the void will not be left gaping for long. “The false messiah is as old as the hope for the true Messiah,” wrote Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig. “He is the changing form of this changeless hope.”

Oprah represented humanity’s ceaseless interest in spiritual responses to personal problems. We now live in her world: one of first-person confessions, required makeovers, and spiritual consumption.

The measure of her consequence will be not in whether or not she mattered to you, but whether the world you occupy looks more like hers than you know.

Graduate School Opportunities at the University of Virginia

The following comes to us from Matt Hedstrom, at the Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia:

The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia is pleased to announce a newly redesigned graduate curriculum in American Religions, offering the MA and PhD degrees. The program focuses on the religious cultures of the United States and the Americas in both historical and contemporary contexts. As such, the program is interdisciplinary in its methodology, incorporating historical, theological, literary, and anthropological approaches, and draws on the expertise of the department's large faculty across traditions and methods. Students in this subfield are encouraged to work with faculty in various other departments at the University of Virginia, including Anthropology, Art and Architectural History, English, History, Media Studies, Politics, and Sociology. Students may also draw upon the resources of interdisciplinary programs such as the Carter G. Woodson Center for African American and African Studies, the Program in American Studies, the Program in Jewish Studies, and Studies in Women and Gender (SWAG).

For more information, please go here.

Heaven is a place...

Michael J. Altman

So, with rapture week and its pet preparations behind us, what's next? It seems to me that we were all so worked up about the end that we forgot about what comes after the end: Heaven. In his new book Heaven in the American Imagination Gary Scott Smith outlines (mostly Protestant) American ideas about heaven from the Puritans to Michael Jackson's memorial. In the process, Smith effectively gives a narrative account of American Christian history by following heaven. By tracing the changing images of heaven in American minds, Smith narrates changes in American Christianity and culture.

Two questions about heaven recur again and again as Smith moves through American history and become the themes that tie the book together.

How do we get in?
Americans have had two major responses to this question. First, some have said that good people or people who do good things will make it to the place where "the streets have no name."  For others, only acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior will grant one entry through the pearly gates. While it is easy to cast liberal Christians or non-Christians on the good works side and evangelicals or conservatives on the other, Smith's account offers a bit more nuanced view. He notes that the Cotton and Increase Mather, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield, and Charles Finney all lamented the number of Christians who thought they could rely on their good works for heavenly admittance in the life to come. The split, then, was not between liberals and conservatives or Arminians and Calvinists, but rather, it was between the pulpit and the pew. American preachers from Edwards to Billy Graham kept preaching salvation by faith in Jesus was the only airline to heaven because Americans consistently believed they could reach heaven by being good.

Scott also presents other beliefs about qualifications for celestial citizenship that didn't require Jesus. For example, many slaves believed that their suffering in this world was enough for admittance to heaven in the next. Also, during the Civil War both sides proclaimed that death in battle would send one to heaven. In the 20th century, according to Smith, the "be good" theory of heaven triumphed in American popular culture and, at the same time, the idea of hell lost most of its influence. Perhaps that's why everyone was so excited and self-assured in the past week--we all thought we were good enough to get into heaven and no one really considered the other option.

What's it like up there?
Through the first three chapters of Smith's chronological narrative heaven remains fairly stable. With some variations of emphasis, clergy and theologians from the Puritans through the early national period all thought of heaven theocentrically. That is, heaven centered around the Triune God. The saints would worship the father, enjoy communion with Jesus, and experience the joy of the Holy Spirit. Jonathan Edwards emphasized God's heavenly love while Charles Finney focused on heavenly rewards, but until the Victorian era American clergy agreed that heaven was about humans being with God.

American Christians had always looked forward to meeting biblical heroes like Abraham and the Apostle Paul in heaven, but they soon began to look forward to meeting each other. As the American home became more important through the emergence of the cult of domesticity and the cult of True Womanhood, heaven became less about eternity spent with God and more about eternity spent with loved ones. Heaven became the perfect peaceful and loving Victorian home where all the family would be together again and the home became a place where one could experience heavenly love in this world. As American's lost sons, brothers, and husbands in the Civil War this notion of heaven gained in power.

As Americans became busier their ideas of heaven shifted again. A place of eternal dwelling with the presence of God seemed boring. It seemed like a place where nothing ever happens. Smith narrates how the rise of industrialization, the reforming furry of the Progressive age, and the fast pace of the 20th century prompted Americans to imagine heaven as place of activity.  For Christians in the Gilded Age heaven was a place of joyful work. For Progressives it was a place of service and ministry. By the twentieth century various groups imagined heaven as a place of worship, work, growth, or play. And by the twenty first century it was "the ultimate playground" of celestial bliss. Americans continually remade heaven in the image of the desires of their earthly lives.

Smith does an admirable job of covering a lot of ground in the book--as the breadth of material shows. However, his narrative of American understandings of heaven is embedded within a larger narrative of American religious history that is a bit too Puritan. We start with the Mathers and proceed through the usual cast of white male clergy (Edwards, Whitefield, Finney...). Indeed, mainstream Protestant clergy and theologians are the central subjects of the book. There's little mention of laity or of outsider groups like the Shakers or even the Ghost Dance (which would add much to the discussion of heaven as a place of family reunion.) Furthermore, there is an underlying back-and-forth between "liberals" and "conservatives" in the narrative where the liberals are most often "assaulting" orthodoxy. Nevertheless, the book provides a remarkable example of how one can tell a history of religion in America by picking one theme and tracing it out over the centuries. The shifts from theocentric, to domestic, to workaholic heavens reveals larger shifts in American culture and values. Also, the moments where Smith is able to bring in views of heaven that depart from the mainstream, such as the New Age or his analysis of Michael Jackson's memorial service, are fascinating and provocative. It is an accessible book that would be worth experimenting with in the classroom, perhaps as a parallel reading (or even a replacement) for the usual survey text in the "Religion in America" survey course.

Women, Vatican II, and the Remaking of American Catholicism


I'm very happy today to post this guest contribution from Julie Ingersoll, well known for her contributions to Religion Dispatches, where lately she's been following the doings of Christian Reconstructionists and Tea Party Patriots (and the connection between the two). Julie is the author of Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles, and is currently writing a book on Christian Reconstructionism.

But today's post is about something very different. Below, Julie gives some thoughts on Colleen McDannell's new book The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America. Colleen will be well known to many blog readers here for previous works such as Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America, and Picturing Faith: Photography and the Great Depression. Colleen's new book is both an academic as well as a very personal reflection on the role of Vatican II in the lives of American Catholics. Also, for some other reflections on the book (and interviews with the author), see here, here, and (from the Salt Lake Tribune paper) here. A bit down the road on the blog, our contributor Kathleen Sprows Cummings will give us her thoughts on the book as well, but for now, thanks to Julie for these reflections.

Women, Vatican II and the remaking of American Catholicism
by Julie Ingersoll

“Where are the people?”

That’s the question historian Colleen McDannell always asks. In her new book, The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America, (Basic Books, 2011) she gives us a distinctly new view of those reforms to America’s largest denomination. Part institutional history, part social history, part family memoir—and in places strikingly funny-- McDannell’s story has a very special person at its center: her mom, Margaret.

Instead of a traditional “church history” that explores the history of doctrine and the conflicts and negotiations among church leaders --all of them male—McDannell traces the impact of Vatican II on the people in the pews. This shift in focus gives us a glimpse into the religious lives of laypeople, especially women.

McDannell begins with the daily life of Catholics under Vatican I with Margaret’s immigrant grandmother who came to the U.S. in the late 1800s. Margaret herself grew up during the rise of the parochial school system intended to keep Catholic children separated from Protestantism. The practice of Catholicism was formal and stiff; ordained men were in charge and laypeople rarely questioned them. The Mass was said on behalf of the people, in Latin, by a priest with his back to the congregation.

Women’s roles were so limited they were even prohibited from participation in the choir that sang during mass. Of course, no women were part of the Vatican Council’s deliberations (toward the end some women were permitted to listen). McDannell writes:

None of the reporters who covered the opening of the Council noted the irony of the crowd of over two thousand men dressed in lace and silk solemnly striding into St. Peter’s on the feast day of the Maternity of the Virgin Mary without being accompanied by a single woman.

Vatican II brought an emphasis on lay leadership; the priest now faces the congregation; the Mass, in the US, is said in English. Women serve as lay leaders and the roles permitted to lay leaders, whether male or female, are greatly expanded. Traditional hymns are now often replaced with contemporary music and church architecture represents these changes materially.

With this shift in authority toward laypeople, Vatican II empowered women and created in them a sense of the significance of their own voices in terms of parish life, religious practice, and even political issues. While remaining conservative, Margaret’s views on issues like the anti war movement and the civil rights movement were tempered by her church life. Catholics came to see themselves, as McDannell describes them, as “deciding people” even on official church positions on issues such as birth control:

“As father Bill was finishing up Mass with a list of announcements, he looked out at his uncomfortable flock. “Well…regarding…and then came a pause and a big smile; “Big Daddy says no!”

Nancy (one of McDannells’ interviewees) never forgot the moment. “The place roared and everyone clapped and laughed,” she reported. Pope John Paul VI had just announced that artificial birth control would remain off limits. “that was the sign of the times,” Nancy observed, that so few at St. Jude’s took the pontiff’s conclusion seriously that day.”

This is a great book on the impact of Vatican II in the daily lives of American Catholics’ as well as changes in the Catholic influence on American culture and politics (there’s so much more than what I can include here).

McDannell also raises important questions about what counts as “religion.” We often privilege the ideas of leaders without even realizing that those make up the religion of only a few. And religious leaders are all too happy for us to consider them the sole authorities on what counts in their traditions. But, in de-centering religion to examine the cultures, practices and material dimensions, McDannell gives a much more complete picture—a picture that includes real life Catholicism.

The Historical Society Announces a Competitive RFP-Based Research Program

Randall Stephens

I posted this notice at the HS blog the other day. A very relevant request for proposals for this blog as well!

Religion and Innovation in Human Affairs: Exploring the Role of Religion in the Origins of Novelty and the Diffusion of Innovation in the Progress of Civilizations

With generous funding from the John Templeton Foundation, the Historical Society is launching a major interdisciplinary grants program in September 2011. It will provide $2.0 million in research support for empirical, conceptual, and interpretive work exploring the role religion may play as a driving force of innovation in human affairs.

The competitive RFP-based research program will award approximately 15 two-year grants of $100,000 each and a few larger grants of $250,000 to support archaeological fieldwork and traditional social science and historical investigation, as well as conceptually-oriented analysis.

Donald A. Yerxa will serve as the Program Leader for Religion and Innovation in Human Affairs. And a distinguished board of advisers will be announced this summer.

A request for proposals will be forthcoming later this summer. For more information, visit the RIHA website (under construction) at

The John Templeton Foundation ( serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. The Foundation supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. It encourages civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights. The Foundation’s vision is derived from the late Sir John Templeton's optimism about the possibility of acquiring “new spiritual information” and from his commitment to rigorous scientific research and related scholarship. Its motto, "How little we know, how eager to learn," exemplifies its support for open-minded inquiry and our hope for advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries.

Post-Rapture Pet Care

Post-Rapture Pet Care
by J. Michael Utzinger

In a famous quotation, often misattributed to Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Henry Rowland once preached about the effectiveness of the Gospel on the Christian's conduct claiming that it makes "husbands better husbands, and wives better wives; parents better parents, children better children, masters better masters, and servants better servants; in a word, I would not give a farthing for a man's religion, whose cat and dog were not better for it!" Rowland might have been pleased with the sentiment behind the various post-rapture services offered to evangelicals, whose beloved pets might be "left behind." Kelly briefly mentioned these pet services in her last post, and I became intrigued.

Religious concerns about pets are hardly new for Protestants. Martin Luther, if the Table Talk can be believed, thought there would be dogs in heaven with silver fur and gold tails. Billy Graham's Swedenborgian vision of heaven included dogs and golf. Likewise, post-rapture services for pets existed long before Harold Camping's predictions became part of the recent media frenzy. Modern premillennialists love their pets too. In the words of one online company, After the Rapture Pet Care, the pets of raptured Christians are a real concern, and a legitimate concern. Our pets are given to us by God for us to care for. We are stewards of their lives. Should we simply forget them at the Rapture, allow them to starve or worse? Therefore, they promise immediately after the Rapture that all pets registered with them will receive the following:

1. Our non-Christian administrators will activate our rescue plan.
2. Volunteers will be alerted immediately by email and telephone that they have been activated.
3. Pets will be assigned to our Volunteer Pet Caretakers based upon location and other factors.
4. Our administrators and Volunteer Pet Caretakers will do whatever it takes to find and rescue your pets. If your pet has a location chip, they'll use that, or they'll go to every location you've registered with us, and, if your pets are not at one of those locations, they'll search for your cars as well as stay in contact with the local pet shelters. If they are unable to reach a Volunteer Caretaker in your area for whatever reason, our administrators will communicate with local animal organizations, like the Humane Society, to advocate for your pet's rescue and care.
5. Our administrators will stay in touch with our Volunteer Pet Caretakers regarding each and every pet to be sure everything is being done to rescue and care for them.

If all of the true Christians are raptured, one might well wonder how these services could be guaranteed. The typical answer is found in the FAQ of one company, Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, USA:

Q: How do you ensure your representatives won't be Raptured.
A: Actually, we don't ensure it, they do. Each of our representatives has stated to us in writing that they are atheists, do not believe in God / Jesus, and that they have blasphemed in accordance with Mark 3:29, negating any chance of salvation.

The cost of these services really vary. If premillennialists like anything besides charts it is calculations, so the savvy post-rapture shopper will find that it pays to do some prophetic math:
While there are many monthly subscription plans on the market, flat fee plans seem more reasonable. Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, USA, for example, charges a $135 fee for its services. (They raised the rate earlier this year by $20 because of the large volume of requests that Camping's predictions apparently caused). The pre-tribulationist dispensationist of the Scofield-Lindsey-LaHaye ilk understand that after the rapture there will be seven years before Armageddon. Using Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, USA's services, therefore, will add up to $19.28 per year of care. Of course, the fine print makes clear that the rapture must take place within ten years or your contract will expire. This means that buyers risk spending more if the Lord tarries more than a decade (and there is a precedent for this). However, there is a silver-lining that a portion of the proceeds are donated to area food-banks.

Those pet-lovers following Camping would have a greater annual cost for care. Because the end of the world will be in September, the monthly cost of $33.75. Further, since rapture will come by this Saturday there will be no fear of one's contract expiring. No hidden costs.

With a one-time $10 flat fee After the Rapture Pet Care is the best buy of these pet services. In the meantime you can also purchase gear from their online store, including t-shirts, coffee mugs, and wall clocks (the irony/humor of this last item is not lost on me, especially since it is not clear you can definitively tell what time it is with this clock. I think I may have to order one for myself). Ultimately, one will have to balance cost and risk: the key factor being credibility.

According to an LA Times article, "Entrepreneurs Offer Post-'Rapture' Services," (19 May 2011) there have a been a proliferation of businesses, well beyond pet care, that cater to the needs of premillennialists who are concerned about maintaining their affairs after the rapture. In a very cursory surfing of the web I found post-rapture wills, videos for non-raptured family members, and encrypted document storage and "rapture"-triggered email messaging systems.

Opponents of dispensationalism have often argued that its otherworldly preoccupations lead to quietism. Charles Erdman, long-time professor of practical theology at Princeton Seminary, felt compelled to challenge this view in 1916. A premillennialist himself (though not a dispensationist) he noted that belief in Christ's premillennial second coming compelled people to act concretely in this world because of this belief not in spite of it. Put another way, for believers, the imminent rapture creates one of the parameters that dictate moral behavior in and for this world. Indeed, buying services to warn, alert or care for non-believing family members (whether human or animal) after the rapture is not so much lunacy as reasonable behavior for a true believer. Kelly Baker has reminded us that the rapture is not just "rhetorical and absent but material and present."

The consumption of post-rapture services is a means to concretely express faith and act morally, which in turn reinforces the belief in the rapture and makes it satisfying. Donning a t-shirt that expresses one's belief in the end witnesses to one's faith, while the risking of stigma from non-believers confirms and proves the seriousness of that faith. And Saturday, one might see these beliefs embodied in a variety of interesting ways, maybe even "On the Dance Floor" with Britney Spears or Jennifer Lopez right up "Till the World Ends."

Rapture Ready (Or Not)

Kelly Baker

While Paul, Chris, and Emily review excellent books in American religious history, I have spent a couple of days basking in the news coverage of the impending Rapture, at least according to the octogenarian Harold Camping and his Family Radio. As many of you likely know (thanks to Emily and Charity or the deluge of media coverage), Camping has proclaimed that the God’s Judgment signaled by the Rapture, the “catching” or “snatching up” of righteous Christians, will occur this Saturday, May 21, 2011. This is not the minister’s first calculation for the beginning of the end (1994), and it will likely not be his last. The beauty of millennialism is not in its rigidity but its malleability and adaptability. Camping fits securely into a long line of doomsday prophets, millennial visionaries, and according to the less gracious, religious hucksters who prey on people’s fears, money, and naiveté. Huckster or not, I don’t really care. Rather, I do care about what Camping’s media-frenzied stint says about the pervasiveness of millennial fervor in North America and the popularity of the vengeful fantasies of judgment that inundate apocalyptic belief, practice, and products.

As someone with an ongoing scholarly obsession with the apocalypse, consumption, and materiality, I am surely following my bliss this week with each mention, web click, Facebook status update, and journalistic attempt to understand the appeal of Camping and his billboard/caravan campaigns. The coverage of the impending Rapture runs the gamut of pet care services for the dogs, cats, and iguanas of the Raptured to Richard Dawkins’ grumpy commentary about said press coverage to Killing the Buddha’s Apocalypse Week 2011 to Salon’s explanation of Camping’s mathematical equations and dating of the end. The coverage ranges from somewhat sympathetic to downright hostile. Some admirably tie Camping a larger history of millennialism in North America, while others declare him a false prophet outright.

In August, I have an article coming out on rapture readiness (seems a little late considering the climate now), in which I document two other sources of Rapture information and practice, the prophecy work of Tim LaHaye and to document how the Rapture emerges as not only rhetorical and absent but also material and present. Why, for instance, is there such a thing as rapture practice or rapture pranking?

LaHaye is the co-author of the Left Behind books and avid author of prophecy books including one aptly titled The Rapture, and I have blogged about him before. In the competitive market of prophecy knowledge, LaHaye and the team at all deride Camping’s dating of the end. LaHaye notes that Camping has been wrong before and further proclaims:

You can be sure the rapture will not occur when anyone sets a date because God wants us all to live every day as though Christ could come today. A great motto for daily living is PERHAPS TODAY. For one day it will happen and we don't know when, but we don't want you to be left behind!

LaHaye’s reaction to Camping is not really surprising since they have competing visions of the Rapture for Christian consumption. Even, the self-proclaimed most visited (Christian) prophecy site on the web, provides a fascinating take down of this particular dating of the Rapture (“we can’t possibly know the date” is the usual refrain). Moreover, the founder Todd Strandberg writes:

In a dubious way, Camping is helping to set the stage for the Rapture. His failed predictions are helping to create the element of apathy that Jesus warned about. I read a report this week that said America is on track to have its most costly year ever for natural disasters. If people knew the Bible, they would understand the likely root cause of these disasters.

Strandberg designed the site to provide Christians, and those who might become Christians, with all the tools they need to become rapture “ready,” which includes belief in God, commitment to Jesus, and righteous action and living. houses information on biblical prophecy, readiness, and survival tips for the Tribulation period for those who are unlucky enough to be left behind.

While Camping might appear less credible if the 21st comes and goes without the Rapture, LaHaye and Strandberg will continue to plug along prophesying an almost-but-not-yet end. I can’t help but wonder whether Camping’s ministry has aided in the sale of the Left Behind series or the web traffic to, which posted record-breaking site visits earlier this year. While prophets of doomsday come and go, the idea and artifacts of apocalypse remain. Perhaps, the larger lesson for May 21st is the fervent wish for the end cannot be tamped down by disappointment or lack but reinvented in another form for another (or a remarkably similar) set of consumers. Rapture or not, just remember the Mayans and the zombies are lurking around the corner for their respective turns at the end.

Malcolm X: Minister, Trickster, Black America, and Person

Emily Clark
I apologize for the length, but the book took two decades and is 500 pages – not something quickly summarized!

Manning Marable died of health complications just days before the release of his magnum opus Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. I posted about it during the few days between his death and the book’s release, but getting around to reading the book had to wait until the spring semester wrapped up. Marable’s task is clear from the title of the prologue; he sought to discover the “life beyond the legend.” With a particular focus to Malcolm’s religious and political evolution over his short 39 year life, Marable found that reinvention best describes Malcolm’s life. No single stage in Malcolm’s life “ever captured him fully.” Arguing that Malcolm’s personal story “is a brilliant series of reinventions” at first may seem a simple claim. After all, don’t all people undergo changes throughout their lives? The strength of Marable’s book comes from his painstaking contextualization of each reinvention, the main reason why the book runs 487 pages prologue to epilogue. These multiple layers obscure the historical Malcolm, but Marable demonstrates how each reinvention emerged from the previous one and this narrative is able to make sense of all these Malcolms. Malcolm Little, Jack Carlton, Detroit Red, Malik Shabazz, Omowale, Malcolm X – none of these alone can describe Malcolm’s life. The reinventions don’t emerge as abrupt but rather the culmination and intersection of multiple factors – be them economic, familial, racial, religious, political, or often all these at once.

In Marable’s telling, the transitions in Malcolm’s perspective from strict racial separatism to a more humanistic worldview are presented in context with the rest of his life story and the environment around him. His Garveyite parents, the poverty of his childhood, his self-education in prison, his admiration for and later criticism of Elijah Muhammad, his hajj, his respect for Ghana, etc. all shape his reinventions. Marable identifies and explores the increasing instances in Malcolm’s speeches and writings where he becomes more interested in human rights and global unity than radical black separation. His departure with the Nation of Islam does not come as a surprise in Marable’s telling. More than just his hajj experiences praying with Muslims of different races and the resulting epiphany and more than just the possible jealousy Elijah had of his famed minister, Malcolm’s schism with the Nation of Islam fits with his developing political and religious philosophy. Despite their talk about militancy, the Nation of Islam continually failed to act in Malcolm’s view; Malcolm wanted to engage the system around them. Fellow black Americans needed action, and he wanted to be a part of it. His pan-Africanism and pan-Islam perspective and his humanism all develop as his way to respond to the needs of black Americans. While Dr. King wanted America to become blind to race, Malcolm wanted to end all racism.

Along the way, Marable discredits some of the popularly accepted knowledge about Malcolm. Marable calls into question the accuracy of the famous Autobiography. In Marable’s estimation, this book was hardly an autobiography and the “as told to” author Alex Haley took a very active role in its creation. Haley disagreed with Malcolm on many political issues, and their goals for the book differed. According to Marable, Malcolm severely exaggerated his criminal past because this would help present his life as “a tale of moral uplift” – a gangster lifted from his ghetto past by Elijah Muhammad, while Haley wanted to illuminate “the tragedies produced by racial segregation.” In addition to his appraisal of the Autobiography, other provocative elements in Marable’s book involve Malcolm’s sexuality and his death. Marable suggests that Malcolm had a homosexual encounter in his earlier years and that the story about Rudy in the Autobiography was really about Malcolm and wealthy white William Paul Lennon. Adding to this, Marable’s depiction of Betty and Malcolm’s marriage is that of a tenuous one. Malcolm feels obligated as a minister to get married, and he is largely absent from his family’s lives, leaving town shortly after the birth of each child. Marable also believes that the assassination was not only horribly investigated (a cleaning staff mopped up some of Malcolm’s blood four hours after the shooting to prepare for the ballroom’s next reservation), but that most of the assassination conspirators and shooters remain uncharged for their role. He names these Newark Mosque members and attempts to recreate their planning and execution of Malcolm’s murder.

Marable’s book has received largely positive reviews, and I think they are deserved. Marable makes Malcolm human – he isn’t a saint or a demagogue, but a flawed, complex, at times beautiful, and at times troubled human being. Beyond the larger than life image, the powerful speeches, and the political action was a person, and in Marable’s book, you get a sense of that person, his trials, and his triumphs. Marable spent much time reflecting upon and wrestling with his own personal opinion of Malcolm. One can read both disagreement with and admiration for Malcolm in Marable’s biography, and despite his flaws, Marable saw Malcolm as “a representative for hope and human dignity.” But Marable may have stumbled at times with his objectivity in regards to Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad. There is a sense of disappointment laced in Marable’s assessment of Malcolm’s brief 1961 meeting with the KKK – “Malcolm’s uncritical adoption of Elijah Muhammad’s conservative, black separatist polices led him to an ugly dead end” – it is Elijah’s dogma that is the source of Malcolm’s bad choice.

Some reviewers call Marable’s prose bland and at times uninspired and find his depiction of international politics vague. These are fair criticisms, and though some may find Marable’s prose “bland,” it also flows smoothly and hardly seems 500 pages. Most of the negative feedback to Marable’s book focuses on the brief mention of Malcolm’s possible homosexual encounter and his allegations against Malcolm’s uncharged “murderers.” One particular negative review comes from Karl Evanzz, whose review “Paper Tiger: Manning Marable’s poison penwas rejected by Later published on Evanzz’s blog, he calls the book “an abomination” and “a cavalcade of innuendo and logical fallacy, and is largely ‘reinvented’ from previous works on the subject.” Evanzz was most upset with Marable’s speculation on Malcolm’s life – claims he bluntly called “lies.” I am grateful for and I am intrigued by his investigation into Marable’s speculations, but I think Evanzz perhaps downplays Marable’s main point. According to his review, “Marable has two primary arguments: (1) the intelligence community and the New York Police Department deliberately ignored serious threats against Malcolm’s X life, and (2) there is overwhelming evidence that the five assassins came from the Nation of Islam’s Newark mosque. That’s it.” At the risk of sounding like a Marable apologist, I don’t think these were the primary goals or arguments of Marable’s book. Though Marable certainly wants to draw attention to the assassination and its investigation, the point of his book was to identify, contextualize, and explore the reinventions of Malcolm’s life and how they illuminate his developing political and religious views. To focus on just Marable’s depiction of Malcolm’s sexuality and/or the assassination conspiracy misses what this book offers. Zeroing in on these claims would be like only focusing on just brief flashes of Malcolm’s life; both miss the big picture.

Marable calls Malcolm “the embodiment of two central figures of African-American folk culture, simultaneously the hustler/trickster and the preacher/minister.” Furthermore, Malcolm “embodied the spirit, vitality, and political mood of an entire population – black urban mid-twentieth-century America.” And answering how Malcolm can embody so much can certainly be found in the pages of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

Witchcraft in Early North America

Paul Harvey

Some of you may be looking for a good classroom resource for teaching about popular religion or witchcraft in early America. If so, this might be the book for you, so I'll reprint the Choice review below of Alison Games, Witchcraft in Early North America, put out as a pretty short classroom-usable volume by Rowman & Littlefield in their "American Controversies" series, edited by excellent historian Douglas Egerton. These volumes come with primary document selections, chronologies, and other pedagogical helps. (I have a volume coming out in late summer or so in the Rowman & Littlefield African American History series, entitled Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity -- more on that as the pub. date gets closer, but the experience of the close editing of that book, with an eye towards readability for a general non-expert audience, gives me confidence in these other volumes that R & L is putting out).

Anyway, here's more on this volume, and check the book's website here for table of contents and more info. What particularly attracts me here is the clear effort to provide a broader context for popular religious beliefs in the supernatural throughout 17th century America, and including Natives and African peoples as well as British North Americans. In other words, this isn't your father's Buick, the usual Salem-centric story of witchcraft in the colonies.

Games, Alison. Witchcraft in early North America. Rowman & Littlefield, 2010. 216p index afp; ISBN 9781442203570, $36.95. Reviewed in 2011jun CHOICE. Games (history, Georgetown Univ.) makes a vital contribution to the pedagogical resources on early American witchcraft. With its introductory essay and interdependent collection of primary materials, the book demonstrates how accusations of witchcraft mediated colonial encounters between mutually illegible cultures: characterized by flagrant "coercion and cruelty," such conflicts demanded justification and frequently provoked resistance, and therefore lent themselves to prevailing supernatural explanations and persecution. Games's historical introduction broadens the scope of witchcraft study beyond New England to incorporate less familiar outbreaks in New France and New Spain. The author traces as well the conflicting beliefs European, Native, and African peoples brought to these encounters. A modest selection of Salem materials are among the 29 brief primary documents, which include legal documents, reports of first encounters, and possession narratives from across the continent. Games's premise is that the historical record tells the story slant; accordingly, this volume represents a necessary and ethical, albeit brief, attempt to counter the Anglo-centrism that has characterized witchcraft historiography. The author resituates episodes of witchcraft in the context of cultural contact and conflict in which they occurred, incorporating them into larger scholarly trends in the study of early America as a space of contact zones. Summing Up: Recommended. All readers. -- A. T. Hale, University of Puget Sound

Judeo-Catholic-Protestant America

Chris Beneke

Kevin Schultz’s Tri-Faith America begins with the story of a priest, a rabbi and two Protestant ministers. It might be the first line of a joke, but it's deadly serious. The four chaplains were aboard the U.S.S. Dorchester when it was sunk by a German torpedo in February 1943. They all went down with the ship, prayerfully, arm-in-arm after having given their life jackets to sailors who lacked them.

The sacrifice of the Four Chaplains represented something of a landmark in the history of American religious comity. These men were "celebrated ... as emblems of the new tri-faith nation." Yet, as Schultz shows, Americans were already prepared to appreciate the larger significance of their heroism because of the ecumenical groundwork that had been laid over the previous decade by the anti-prejudice proselytizing of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ), which confronted a revitalized Ku Klux Klan and a swelling, virulent strain of Western antisemitism in the 1920s and 30s.

Schultz's assiduous research demonstrates that the NCCJ wasn'tmerely engaged in a half-ass exercise of holier-than-thou idealism. During WWII alone, the organization sponsored traveling "tolerance trios"--consisting of a rotating roster of priests, rabbis, and Protestant ministers--who visited nearly 800 military installations and addressed 9 million Americans. This was missionary work on a par with the massive evangelizing and Bible distribution efforts undertaken by American Protestants during the Civil War.

In the early postwar period, such everyday features of American culture as films, manners, and educational programming were shaped by the tri-faith model that the NCCJ had so carefully cultivated. Postwar liberalism was in turn infused with the mostly tolerant and religiously derived moral imperative that went by the name of the "Judeo-Christian tradition."

Upon this somewhat narrow foundation, postwar Americans would adopt broader conceptions of tolerance that included a larger range of religious groups. Religious bigotry and discrimination certainly didn't disappear, but they were largely driven from public life by the early 1960s. Though groups such as the NCCJ proved slow to promote civil rights for African Americans, the trope of inclusion that they popularized resonated throughout the 1960s. Meanwhile, before the Judeo-Christian tradition was appropriated by the Religious Right in the 1970s, it was employed by Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders to discredit racist institutions and policies in the 1950s and 60s.

There were deep, intangible costs accompanying the triumph of the tri-faith ideal, which Schultz details. Among them was the loss of communal identity by Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. Also endangered were some of the vibrant, distinctive traditions within each of these larger faith categories. Prophecy withered as ecumenism bloomed.

Still, Schultz provides us with an unapologetically progressive account. He makes clear how profoundly important religious differences were to early twentieth-century Americans and how tirelessly some worked to transcend, or at least mediate, them. Tri-Faith America gives religious tolerance its due as a crucial component of postwar liberalism. In this, it represents a sharp rebuke to the fashionable idea that American religious freedom and religious tolerance have been little more than subtle exercises in coercion

History Lessons: Creation of American Jewish Heritage

Paul Harvey

A bit later today or early tomorrow Chris Beneke will be posting his thoughts on Kevin Schultz's new and very important book Tri-Faith America. Before we get there, I thought I would call your attention to this new work on American Jewish history from Beth Wenger, reviewed in this month's Choice: History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage. This book is about the creation of history and meaning in American Judaism, about how "memory" becomes "history" and "heritage" within this religious community, and about how history creates identity. I'll post a brief bit from the book's website first, and then the review from Choice.

From the book's website:

Most American Jews today will probably tell you that Judaism is inherently democratic and that Jewish and American cultures share the same core beliefs and values. But in fact, Jewish tradition and American culture did not converge seamlessly. Rather, it was American Jews themselves who consciously created this idea of an American Jewish heritage and cemented it in the popular imagination during the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. History Lessons is the first book to examine how Jews in the United States collectively wove themselves into the narratives of the nation, and came to view the American Jewish experience as a unique chapter in Jewish history.

Beth Wenger shows how American Jews celebrated civic holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July in synagogues and Jewish community organizations, and how they sought to commemorate Jewish cultural contributions and patriotism, often tracing their roots to the nation's founding. She looks at Jewish children's literature used to teach lessons about American Jewish heritage and values, which portrayed--and sometimes embellished--the accomplishments of heroic figures in American Jewish history. Wenger also traces how Jews often disagreed about how properly to represent these figures, focusing on the struggle over the legacy of the Jewish Revolutionary hero Haym Salomon.

History Lessons demonstrates how American Jews fashioned a collective heritage that fused their Jewish past with their American present and future

And now, the review from Choice:

Wenger, Beth S. History lessons: the creation of American Jewish heritage. Princeton, 2010. 282p bibl index afp ISBN0-691-14752-3, $35.00; ISBN 9780691147529, $35.00. Reviewed in 2011jun CHOICE.
American Jews created narratives about Jews in US history in order to establish a collective heritage. Wenger (Pennsylvania) demonstrates that these stories related a Jewish past to US histories in ways that were sometimes celebratory and sometimes critical, but they always sought to establish a place for Jews within US myths and thereby the US present. Wenger analyzes a "dual agenda" in which Jews both "wrote themselves into the narratives of American history" and narrated their own lives as hopeful endings to the "long history of the Jewish people." In exploring these narratives and counternarratives, Wenger provides fascinating primary sources, from didactic Yiddish poetry to letters hotly contesting the erection of a statue. The volume includes examinations of the particular political and cultural facets of US life that allowed Jews to "create" their own heritage and identity; the representation of US Jewish soldiers; children's literature; efforts at memorializing the Revolutionary financier Haym Solomon; and a standout chapter on Jews' relationships to US national holidays. Although Wenger's conclusions may not be surprising for those familiar with US Jewish history, her readings are subtle and compelling. Summing Up: Recommended. All academic levels/libraries. -- S. E. Imhoff, Indiana University / Bloomington

From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, Redux: Part II of Darren Dochuk Interview

Paul Harvey

Below I'm reposting part II of my interview with Darren Dochuk, author of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism. Part I of the interview is here. Part II was posted last week, but Mr. Monster-Blogger program ate it, so let's try this again. Hey, Mr. Blogger Man, play this post for me, I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to.

PH: You begin the book with one of the most famous tropes of American religious history -- the errand in the wilderness -- and use it to situate the plain folk from the South/Southwest that you are going to follow through the book. You write: "these white southern evangelicals envisioned themselves as pilgrims carrying out their own errand into the wilderness." Can you describe briefly how they saw that "errand," and more about what kind of world they hoped to create in that "wilderness"?

DD: While reading church newspapers like the California Southern Baptist and the Assemblies of God’s Informant I was struck by the way southern evangelicals approached their new home as if on a mission; pastors, editors, and denominational leaders all spoke of being on an “errand.” This isn’t uncommon among migrant groups, since uprooted-ness tends to encourage notions of exceptionalism, but I thought it was suggestive that southern evangelical migrants approached their move this way. Considering their impressive numbers, southern evangelicalism’s built-in entrepreneurialism, and the freedoms of Los Angeles’ hinterland, it seemed significant that southern evangelicals encountered their new home with a confidence that could affect change. Able to move from the small town south to self-contained suburbs, these sojourners didn’t feel the jarring effects of migration that we see in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, in which Old Testament motifs of banishment (“exodus” and “exile”) are stressed. This isn’t to discount Steinbeck, or historians like James Gregory, who rightly and beautifully describes the hardships southern migrants faced in California. Still, I think the errand motif is a helpful qualifier, because it stresses the empowerment southern evangelical migrants felt (and were told to feel) when resettling on the West Coast.

And to be honest, I also found it intriguing that these sojourners did what they set out to do—impose their will on their wilderness in order to awaken their people back home. Meant to give hope to an uprooted people, the “errand” motif (as exaggerated or skewed as it may have been) in fact became a blueprint of sorts that these sojourners followed to a tee. In the immediate, they used it as justification to carve out strong, independent churches, ministries, schools, and communities in which they could codify principles of individualism, local autonomy, laissez-faire economics, and family values. In the long-term, they used it to help fashion this amalgam of beliefs into a coherent political strategy—the GOP’s Sunbelt strategy—that would win the hearts and votes of the people they left behind in Oklahoma and Texas, and ultimately win them access to Washington’s halls of power. So, although a neat rhetorical device (another reason why I used it), the errand motif also points us to a real, lived experience that few historians have fully appreciated in the context of post-war religious and political change.

PH: As you know, the role of race within the "silent majority" is a major controversy of the historiography of twentieth-century conservatism. How did the people you write about conceptualize race in their worldview, and to what degree could they be seen as wanting to build communities, consciously or not, that preserved the privileges of whiteness?

Part of the challenge in writing a character driven narrative, as I tried to do, is that it’s tricky to delineate between subtle but important shades of racial views and measure structural forces of exclusion alongside attitudinal ones. It’s difficult to unpack this entire complex; others, like Paul Harvey, David Chappell, Joe Crespino, and Ed Blum, have done a more thorough job of it. That said, my book tries to offer a basic insight or two.

First, I think the racial “backlash” storyline is too simplistic. Other historians have stressed this point, but the sense that evangelical conservatives have acted (and continue to act) out of some sort of race rage remains strong. In terms of attitudes, the southerners I study came west with assumed notions of white privilege, and throughout the 1940s and 1950s they built churches and communities that sought (consciously or not) to protect this privilege. Southern California’s decentralized suburbs made this easy. But there was room within this worldview for preachers and parishioners to reconsider their views in light of California’s multicultural landscape; during the 1960s and 1970s many did, some didn’t, at least initially, and a few took it upon themselves to ensure that their neighborhoods remained white only. What is important, though, is the degree to which California evangelicalism’s moderates rose to the forefront and, through increasingly interracial ministries and interracial alliances (with black Baptist and Latino Pentecostals, for example), forged a post-racial, “color-blind” conservatism that celebrated the virtues of free markets and family values beyond white-nonwhite divided. Part savvy, part sincere, California’s color-blind conservatism certainly had its internal contradictions and limitations, but the point is that it allowed evangelicals and conservatives generally to turn their political attention to other pressing matters, like gender, women’s rights, and sexuality, and form a more centrist Right that could win the nation.

Again, this isn’t to diminish or write race out of the story as much as it is to complicate it a bit. Certainly, in terms of structural forces, my subjects contributed to a much larger system of racial exclusion, one in which their conservatism (either in its Jim Crow form or in its color-blind dispensation) was ill equipped to provide systematic answers. But then again, few Californians, liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican, could locate or agree on answers at the time. Southern evangelicals didn’t have to teach Southern Californian’s how to be racist, in other words, nor did they alone make Los Angeles the most segregated American city; systemic economic inequities created these divides, and whites of all class and partisan persuasion perpetuated them. To pin too much on evangelical conservatives is to miss a master narrative of prejudice in which everyone is implicated. At the same time, to downplay or lose sight of race and racism in evangelical conservatism’s history is equally dangerous. However explicitly or not, however innocently or not, the people I study made decisions based on a range of social, economic, theological, and political motivations that had lasting, negative consequences for race relations in California and the country, and that legacy is still with us today.

PH: Talk briefly about how much influence the John Birch Society and like minded groups played for the coming together of evangelicalism and conservatism which you trace in the book? Would you agree with Lisa McGirr that, while the Birchers eventually of course got pushed out of mainstream conservatism by politicians such as Reagan when he was governor, that the Birchers nonetheless were central for a certain time in galvanizing people at the grassroots?

Lisa McGirr rightly emphasizes the John Birch Society’s key role in Southern California’s Right. The JBS certainly nurtured a sharper-edged, fundamentalist conservatism that responded well to the “extremism…is no vice” side of Goldwater’s GOP. But what I found so remarkable, when tracking this group, was how “normal” it seemed as a type of social club for average suburbanites. Political ideas mattered to JBS members, and they acted on them with strong conviction, but the society also functioned as a gathering space in which businessmen, engineers, and housewives could debate free market principles and talk about neighborhood issues and current events.

This was just as true (if not more so) among transplanted southerners who worshipped in fundamentalist Baptist churches associated with J. Frank Norris and the Baptist Bible Fellowship—out of which John Birch emerged as a missionary during World War II. Whether they joined the JBS or not, members of BBF churches held John Birch in high regard, and viewed the JBS with respect as a front-line organization fighting the good fight for all patriotic Christians. Such steadfast commitment to the JBS cause, in fact, made JBS leaders nervous. Churches like Tim LaHaye’s in San Diego were so welcoming of JBS members and ideology that they made the JBS redundant; who needed a JBS cell group when megachurches offered the same teachings in a livelier setting? JBS leaders tried to steer their members away from LaHaye and other Baptist churches, but to no avail.

The larger point, though, is that the JBS was critical to California conservatism’s pre-1966 history. Even after Reagan purged JBS members from the GOP—a key step in conservatism’s move from the Goldwater margins to the Reagan center—Southern California’s independent Baptists would remain fiercely loyal to the JBS message. And in a way, their pulpits and pews would become even more important conveyances of this message after the JBS was forced underground.

PH: Your book traces the triumph of your subjects in reorienting the politics and culture of a nation, yet the book's epilogue ends with some of your key characters (such as Oklahoma migrant Jean Vandruff, whose entire life trajectory your follow as emblematic of the broader processes you discuss in the book) wondering about their "community's moral fabric and political future." Do you think the main subjects of your book perceive their "errand in the wilderness" from the New Deal to the present day to have been a successful one?

I begin and end the book with Jean Vandruff because he’s the man who got the project rolling—I started thinking about the southern migration angle soon after interviewing him. It was striking to hear Jean talk about his community’s life story in a rise and fall pattern—as if the errand was achieved by 1980 then lost again. On one hand, this isn’t that unusual—generational change is easily couched in these terms.

But on the other, I thought it was quite suggestive of how evangelicals saw their movement after 1980. When talking to others, I got the sense that the Cold War era was really good for evangelicalism, and that this prosperity crested in the 1970s, but then declined. And it’s true—this decade did see California evangelicalism emerge as a national trendsetter. As I point out in the book, the “born again” phenomenon that swept America was, in many ways, a California creation. And things in Southern California did change dramatically after 1980—the loss of defense contracts and tax bases meant local economies struggled (leaving some communities, like Orange County, bankrupt, and churches struggling to stay afloat), and shifting migration patterns meant that California’s Cold War evangelicalism was no longer primed for the future.

Of course, it’s easy to stress this too much. Evangelicalism has always thrived on the declension narrative—the first generation’s tribulation is always viewed by the next as opportunity calling, and in evangelical circles the “errand” is never done; this, after all, is evangelicalism’s life source. So it’s dangerous to overplay this rise and fall pattern. Moreover, as a religious movement, evangelicalism did adjust its vision—its “errand”—and find new frontiers after the 1970s, in newer suburbs built between Anaheim and San Diego, west towards Riverside, and north towards the Central Valley. By the 1990s it would also find its way back into the city as a movement that new immigrant groups and more diverse communities could revitalize according to their own emphases. As a political movement, evangelicalism continued to extend its grassroots influence into the 1990s and 2000s as an arm of the GOP. It would do so, however, amid the rising influence of other conservative constituents (Catholic and Mormon), and an empowered liberal Democratic opposition.

So, by adopting the language of an errand won then lost, perhaps my book contributes to a slightly skewed outlook. Overstated or not, however, I think Jean Vandruff’s assessment isn’t far from the truth: that the Reagan years (1966-1974) were California evangelicalism’s golden years.
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