Religion & Politics Fit For Polite Company Wed, 22 Oct 2014 21:26:44 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Atheists in Foxholes: The Military Chaplaincy’s Humanist Problem Tue, 21 Oct 2014 15:11:47 +0000 (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) U.S. Navy Chaplain Father Bill Devine holds Mass for Marines in Baghdad in 2003.

(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) U.S. Navy Chaplain Father Bill Devine holds Mass for Marines in Baghdad in 2003.

Do American military chaplains need to believe in God? Or, as the Navy Times once asked, “Who supports the atheists in the military?” These questions attracted renewed attention this year after the Army formally recognized humanism as a religious preference for soldiers in April, and the Navy rejected the application of a humanist chaplain to join its ranks in June. The issue of how to meet the needs of non-theists in the military is neither new nor incidental. Rather, “who supports the atheists” is a question that has vexed the military for the better part of a century, as the U.S. tries to determine how to best serve a religiously diverse population.

More recently, a growing percentage of the military population has identified as non-theist. A 2012 Pentagon survey found more than 13,000 atheist or agnostic personnel, along with 276,000 troops (nearly a fourth of all personnel) who claimed no religious preference—a proportion of whom may also be non-theist. Since 1993, the chaplaincy has welcomed Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist chaplains, but Christians still comprise more than 90 percent of the current chaplain corps. For humanists, atheists, and their allies, the absence of any representative leaders within the chaplaincy remains a significant problem as it leaves them without any official support.

The military chaplaincy is as old as the nation itself, but its recognition of and commitment to ecumenism and pluralism developed slowly over the twentieth century. When the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, only mainline Protestants and Catholics served as military clergy. Six months—and a successful lobbying effort—later, Congress formally opened the chaplaincy to Christian Scientists, the Eastern Orthodox, Jews, Mormons, and the Salvation Army. Military demobilization after the war ended may have thwarted this tentative step toward a more religiously inclusive military, for only a small percentage of chaplains remained in the peacetime armed forces. The 1920 National Defense Act granted the chaplaincy organizational autonomy and permanent leadership in the form of a Chief of Chaplains. Buoyed by positive feedback about interfaith cooperation in the midst of war, the chaplaincy embarked on an expansive effort to define and refine its work in times of peace.

In 1926, the Army convened an array of military, civilian, religious, and lay leaders for a “Pan-Denominational Conference” on the moral welfare of soldiers. The invitation list was extensive, spanning numerous denominations, crossing the color-line, and bridging political differences. But one group was explicitly not invited: the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (AAAA).

Feeling spurned, the AAAA lodged a complaint with the secretary of war, who saw little merit in their plea. Without a commitment to the paired mission of God and country, atheists seemed to fall outside the chaplaincy and the conference’s ecumenical rubric. Then again, the AAAA’s concurrent effort to sue the military for breaching the First Amendment’s establishment clause by paying chaplains presumably didn’t help their cause.

During the interwar years, atheists couldn’t shake this antagonistic relationship. By the late 1930s, critics lambasted atheists as a threat to American ideals and to the country’s preparedness for war. Opponents lumped together atheists and pacifists (a rather odd pairing, given the deep religious roots of many pacifist groups in the 1930s). They perceived atheists as agitators rather than interlocutors. Irreligion and unbelief imperiled the nation, as the imagined atheist-pacifist threat menaced religious patriots and loyal soldiers alike.

During World War II, as chaplains surveyed the religious preferences of their units, some acknowledged the presence of atheists among enlisted men and officers—not as dangers, but as an unremarkable, if tiny, presence. Moreover, when the military desperately needed more chaplains to serve its rapidly swelling ranks, the Humanist Society of Friends (the predecessor group to today’s Humanist Society) offered their services. A nontheistic division of Quakers who had split off from their theistic, pacifist counterparts, these humanists strove to meet their patriotic obligations as non-combatant chaplains. The Army chaplaincy again resisted, declining to take up the humanist offer.

But this time the refusal was different. Unlike the 1920s rebuff, lack of belief did not propel the War Department’s response. Instead, insufficient numbers did. Army policy dictated that chaplains were allocated to groups with a minimum of 100,000 adherents according to the 1936 Census of Religious Bodies. The Humanist Society of Friends—like a number of fundamentalist Christian churches who also volunteered their ministers—failed to reach the necessary threshold.

Demographics have long played an important but inconsistent role in determining how to apportion chaplains. For almost 50 years, from World War II until 1988, the military used a quota system intended to reflect the religious composition of American society. On the one hand, this policy enabled some minority religious groups, like Jews, Christian Scientists, and Mormons, to establish a foothold in military chaplaincy. On the other hand, numbers could be dismissed. When Japanese-Americans petitioned for Buddhist chaplains during World War II, the Army conducted a half-hearted search that concluded when Christian chaplains assured military leaders they could do the job. The Buddhist experience is telling because it highlights how the absence of even a single religious representative eliminates an internal voice of expertise about the actual, rather than perceived, needs of a faith.

The Cold War continued the specter of atheism as dangerous and atheists as potentially disloyal. But the 1950s also offered non-theist American soldiers a glimmer of hope. For the first time, men could use their dog tags to announce they were not Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. Initially, non-theists, like their religiously excluded counterparts—such as the Eastern Orthodox or Buddhists—acquired the abbreviation of “X” for “Other” or “Y” for “no statement” to signify they stood apart from the nation’s dominant tri-faith religious configuration. By the early 1960s, all Americans could write out their religious preference—in 18 letters or less. Atheist or humanist would fit, although regulations did not highlight these options.

In 1969, a landmark court case heightened awareness of non-theists and the military—but through resistance to military service, rather than through participation in it. In Welsh v. U.S., a plurality of the Supreme Court ruled that conscientious objection to war need not be rooted in religious belief. Rather, moral and ethical convictions, so long as they were not “essentially political, sociological, or philosophical” views could earn conscripts exemption from the reach of the draft.

Although the Welsh decision enabled non-theists to stay out of the armed forces, it did little to aid those who wore the uniform. Michael Dean Hagen, an atheist Naval corpsman, acutely felt the exclusion of services for men like him and launched a concerted effort to bring atheist leaders into military space. Being lumped together with “various indecisive Christians, apathetic individuals and agnostics” in the “no religious preference” category bothered him because, he stated, “I do have a preference. I don’t believe in God.”

In 1979, the petty officer proposed the creation of an Armed Forces Atheist Council. Backed by several other Naval personnel and civilian supporters, Hagen asserted that the group would “provide unparalleled opportunity for non-theist oriented military personnel to find and create more meaning in their lives.” To do so, it would serve as a clearinghouse for material “recommended by various national atheist groups” as well as organizations such as the American Humanist Association. It would also unite non-theists in fellowship and provide non-spiritual pastoral counseling to those in need. Its mission would be educational as well, providing information to those personnel who self-identify as “other” or “no religious preference” because they were unaware of the full array of options and ease the way for those “frightened by the traditional social stigma.”

Hagen and the chaplaincy regarded one another with wariness. The non-believers wanted an atheist alternative to the religious chaplaincy because, like some current non-theist personnel, they found it difficult to relate to “Judeo-Christian indoctrinated clergy.” The military acceded to the view of “a basic incompatibility between the military chaplaincy and the envisioned Armed Forces Atheistic Council” because the former emphasized a belief in God and the latter disbelief. Dismissing atheism as mere “philosophy,” the Department of Defense denied the application to create an atheist council.

Still, Hagen had some support from within the service. Unitarian Universalist Navy Chaplain Jim M. Bank cautioned that the Hagen’s efforts highlighted the failure of the military chaplaincy to do its job. The military’s “commitment to religious pluralism” worked only when “all chaplains help all people” and “aid them in achieving religious wholeness as they—not we—see it.” Prospective Muslim or Buddhist chaplains, he remarked, could not be commissioned if they didn’t aid Christians or Jews. Why, then, would humanist or atheist chaplains be any different? Just as religious chaplains needed to find ways to reach non-religious personnel, he insisted, so too would non-theist chaplains need to serve religious personnel.

Civilian Unitarian Universalist clergy, whose congregations and pastoral leadership often included atheists, agnostics, and humanists, also advocated for the appointment of a Humanist chaplain. In Sacramento, the Rev. Theodore A. Webb explained that definitions of religion vary widely, and the decision to exclude atheists and humanists as non-religious was just “a statement of opinion.” He warned that legal trouble lay ahead.

While Webb did not articulate the legal problem, the Welsh plurality opinion had, in fact, implicitly disclosed the crux of the problem non-theists posed to the chaplaincy—and the issue that continues to bedevil the military today. The five votes that earned Elliot Welsh conscientious objector status in 1969 arose from two very different lines of reasoning. On the one hand, four justices led by Hugo Black saw non-religious belief as functionally equivalent to religious belief, and thus warranted the same accommodations. On the other hand, Justice Harlan argued that religious and non-religious belief were distinct but nevertheless required equal and non-preferential treatment. Meanwhile, the 3-justice dissent saw Welsh as non-religious and thus standing outside First Amendment protection.

These positions—that non-belief and belief are equal and deserve comparable treatment, that they are unequal but merit comparable treatment, or that they are unequal and don’t need comparable treatment—reflect the arguments made in current debates about whether the military ought to employ humanist chaplains and/or make space for atheist events.

Jason Torpy, a West Point graduate and former Army captain, serves as president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. In an interview with The New York Times, Torpy argued, “Humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews. It answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values.” In contrast, Representative John Fleming of Louisiana, who introduced legislation to forbid the Department of Defense from appointing humanist chaplains, asserted in a statement, “The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it’s an oxymoron.” Despite the chasm between their views, Fleming and Torpy agree on one thing: that all chaplains must serve all personnel. For Fleming, this means there is no need for a non-theist chaplain because what he deems a “true chaplain” will provide adequate coverage for atheists, while for Torpy, the commitment to serve all means that a humanist chaplain is just as capable of organizing a Catholic service as any other non-Catholic chaplain is.

When a reporter from Religion News Service recently asked the Department of Defense why there are no non-theist chaplains, a DOD spokesman said the department “does not endorse religion or any one religion or religious organization, and provides to the maximum extent possible for the free exercise of religion by all members of the military services who choose to do so.” This position ducks answering the question posed by the Navy Times in 1979—“who supports the atheists in the military”—by failing to address exactly how the military understands atheism. Is atheism, per the Welsh rubric, functionally equivalent to religion? Is it distinct but sufficiently like religion? Or, is atheism not at all like religion?

If there seems to be a stalemate about how to respond to the prospect of humanist and atheist chaplains, it’s because there is. But it’s clear that the experience of atheists and humanists in the military follows historic patterns of resistance and accommodation experienced by other minority and marginalized groups. And, unlike in previous eras, there is a significant and growing population of non-theists in the armed forces. Whether the chaplaincy extends its mottos of “unity without uniformity” and “cooperation without compromise” to include non-believers remains to be seen.

Ronit Y. Stahl is a postdoctoral research associate at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Meet Chad Connelly, the Republican Party’s Faith Ambassador Tue, 14 Oct 2014 15:40:08 +0000 On left, Chad Connelly prays on the floor of the 2012 Republican National Convention. (Getty/Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

(Getty/Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) On left, Chad Connelly prays on the floor of the 2012 Republican National Convention.

On a Thursday morning in early September, a handful of Louisiana pastors gathered at a Baptist church on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain to meet with Chad Connelly, the GOP’s first-ever director of faith engagement. The former head of the South Carolina Republican Party, Connelly was tapped by the Republican National Committee (RNC) in June of last year to be the party’s new religious ambassador. His job is to travel the country with a sales pitch, of sorts. “I’m there to tell them that voting isn’t political, it’s spiritual,” he says. “I ask them to preach biblical values from the pulpit so the people in the pews can go vote those values.”

In Louisiana, where I reached him by phone, Connelly was juggling both a long and a short game. His immediate task was to urge pastors to shepherd their flocks to the polls in the upcoming midterm election, when incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu faces a challenge from a Republican congressman, Bill Cassidy. Over the past few months, Connelly says he’s brought the GOP Faith initiative’s message to 29 states, but competitive Senate races merit extra attention; the September trip was Connelly’s sixth visit to the Pelican State. But he’s also sowing seeds for the 2016 presidential election by assuring religious leaders—primarily evangelical Christian pastors—that the GOP isn’t taking their support for granted.

The Southern Baptist Connelly insists that large numbers of Christian voters are politically unengaged—either unregistered or so disillusioned with the GOP that they don’t see a point in going to the polls on election day. His strategy is top-down: he’s asking pastors to tell churchgoers that political participation is a spiritual matter. “If we can get those people to vote their values, that’s a game-changer,” he says. “That’s why I ask pastors to host voter registration drives, and to start voicing their political concerns from the pulpit.”

The GOP Faith initiative, a nine-person team led by Connelly, was born out of the Republican introspection that followed Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential defeat. The exit polls painted a bleak picture for Republican strategists: Barack Obama won thanks to a young and diverse coalition, while Romney’s supporters were older and far more racially homogenous. A 2013 RNC report dedicated to revamping the GOP’s strategy warned that Republicans “have comfortably remained the party of Reagan without figuring out what comes next.” The bulk of its recommendations had to do with engaging voters of color, low-income voters, young voters, and women. Yet in the report, religious voters’ concerns were barely a footnote. The idea of an outreach director for religious groups within the Republican Party appeared almost in passing, on page 79 of the 100-page document.

Still, Connelly came on board four months later. Even amid the wider demographic realities, he believes reassuring values voters, long a dependable pillar of the GOP base, is crucial. “We’ve been so focused on getting our message out to new folks that we’ve forgotten to engage with people of faith, who are really the bedrock of our party,” Connelly says. By meeting with pastors, he’s hoping to breathe new political vigor into a group that—he says—is increasingly marginalized in American public life. “I talk to so many of these religious leaders who say, we feel neglected, we don’t know what we can preach, and we don’t know if it’ll matter,” he says. “So they’re not telling Christians to go vote Biblical values in the way that they used to. I want to change that.”


THE GOP FAITH PROJECT isn’t reinventing the wheel. Ties between evangelical Protestant religious leaders and the Republican Party are long and deep, stretching back three decades to the 1980 election, when evangelical mobilization helped propel Ronald Reagan into the White House. The difference is that now the GOP is taking responsibility for maintaining this storied relationship, rather than relying on independent evangelical organizations like Focus on the Family or the Christian Coalition.

The GOP’s decision to step into this role could mean one of two things. The Christian Right’s influence has been on the wane in Washington over the past few years, and the decision to task a Republican party operative with outreach to pastors could be a sign that the GOP no longer trusts evangelical leaders to do this work on their own. But it could also signal that the party is worried about losing touch with its evangelical base. The GOP Faith outreach initiative’s goals are, on one level, rhetorical—maintaining the status quo by reassuring evangelical Christians that they remain integral to the party’s future. Connelly’s second aim—marshaling truly disengaged GOP supporters into voting booths in November—will be more of a challenge.

There is little evidence that the evangelical voters who make up the party’s base are deliberately sitting out elections. Questions about whether conservative Christians would withhold their votes first emerged in 2008, when John McCain, a longtime critic of the Christian Right, received the Republican presidential nomination. Similar concerns resurfaced in 2012 with the rise of Mitt Romney, a Mormon, as the GOP frontrunner.

Despite their purported reservations, evangelicals turned out in large numbers in both elections. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of white evangelical Protestants voted for McCain in 2008, and almost 79 percent of white evangelicals cast their vote for Romney—the same margin of support that George W. Bush received in 2004. Moreover, white evangelicals’ share of the electorate remained constant at 21-23 percent. According to a September poll from the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants identify with the Republican Party, a number that hasn’t budged since 2008. “This is not a group that’s tuned out politically,” says Greg Smith, associate director of research at Pew. “And most of their support goes to the Republican Party.”

Convincing unengaged white evangelicals to get involved in the political process will be a harder sell. Corwin Smidt, a professor of political science at Calvin College, says that a slice of every demographic group is composed of people who simply aren’t interested in politics, and evangelicals are no exception. White evangelical Protestants turn out at roughly the same rates as other groups. In the past three presidential cycles, nearly 75 percent of white evangelical adults reported that they voted. In Smidt’s view, it will take more than a pastoral plea to get the remaining 25 percent involved—at least, in numbers that could swing an election. “I think it’s a strategy that could work on the margins, maybe in a close Senate race where you need to mobilize a few thousand extra people,” he says. “But in something like a presidential race, I just don’t see white evangelicals voting at a significantly higher level. Let’s just say it’s not low-hanging fruit.”

If white evangelicals show no sign of straying, the growing diversity of evangelical Christianity provides both an opportunity and a challenge for Republican strategists like Connelly. Latinos—a traditionally Catholic constituency—are increasingly identifying as Protestants, with a sizeable number claiming the mantle of “born-again” or evangelical Christians. “Evangelicalism is becoming less white and southern, more ethnically diverse and urban,” says Brian Steensland, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University. “I think with this mobilization effort, Republicans are reading the tea leaves and trying to engage with a more diverse base of evangelicals.”

Latino Protestants tend to side with the GOP on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, but they don’t reliably support Republican candidates, nor do they turn out as reliably as white evangelical Protestants. In 2004, 54 percent of Latino Protestants cast their votes for George W. Bush, but majorities swung back to the Democratic candidate, Obama, in 2008 and 2012. There’s certainly room for GOP outreach among this constituency: According to a new survey (which I consulted on) from the Public Religion Research Institute, half of Hispanic Protestants say they did not vote in the 2012 election.

But an appeal to traditional culture war issues isn’t a guarantee of success. In the same survey, 30 percent of Hispanic Protestants reported that the most important issue for their 2014 vote was immigration, while fewer than 1-in-10 said the same of same-sex marriage or abortion. “I can’t see the Republicans picking up large numbers of Latino Protestants without making a serious effort to reform their stance on immigration,” Smidt says.

That won’t stop Connelly from trying. A video posted on GOP Faith’s website in August features the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, declaring that Hispanic Christians will be a “firewall of righteousness and justice and the preservers of our Judeo-Christian values system.” Connelly wants to shore up support from Latino Protestants with conservative views on same-sex marriage and abortion. “Hispanic Americans are deeply values-oriented people,” Connelly says. “Making sure they know they have a home in the Republican Party—that’s going to be a huge part of our outreach effort.”


THE GOP FAITH ENGAGEMENT project is relying almost exclusively on pastors to get the word out, so Connelly spends his days talking up the spiritual value of political action. Part of the challenge, he says, is that religious leaders are confused about whether they’re even allowed to preach about politics. Churches, as tax-exempt organizations, are forbidden from endorsing political candidates. “A lot of pastors have been intimidated into thinking that means they can’t preach about the issues of the day,” Connelly says.

By focusing on voter registration and pastor engagement, Connelly is drawing a leaf from a venerable playbook. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority famously coordinated church voter registration drives and distributed voter guides, urging evangelicals to vote against the past decade’s tidal wave of social change. Leading up to the 1980 presidential election, the guides and drives were tacit messages to vote for the conservative candidate Ronald Reagan and against the liberal Jimmy Carter. That election cycle, Falwell claimed to have registered four million evangelicals to vote, according to Dan Williams, an associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia. “He was doing precisely the same kind of work that Connelly and the GOP Faith initiative are setting out to do, and he was wildly successful.”

The question is whether the strategy that propelled Reagan into the White House can help the Republicans take the Senate in 2014—or the White House in 2016. Williams warns that evangelical Christians today, especially younger evangelicals, may not be as hungry for political engagement as they were in the 1980s. If Connelly is following a script from another era, his overtures run the risk of sounding tone-deaf. Messages that resonated in the 1980s aren’t likely to have the same meaning for younger evangelicals, who don’t have the same cultural perspective. “There was a real sense when Reagan was emerging that the country was changing in a profound and disturbing way but that people of faith could turn the country around,” Williams says. “Evangelicals who are young today don’t have that frame of reference. They’ve grown up in a pluralistic society and they’re comfortable, for the most part, with the idea that they’re a minority.”

Pastors, too, may have lost some of their appetite for overt political discourse. Corwin Smidt conducted surveys of white evangelical and mainline Protestant clergy in 1989, 2001, and 2009, finding that political participation declined in the intervening decades. Smidt chalks this up to pastors’ fear of dividing their congregations by invoking political issues, not fear of retribution from the IRS. He says that pastors who use religious language to promote a political agenda run the risk of alienating churchgoers who might have a different point of view. According to the most recent wave of his survey, a slim majority (53 percent) of evangelical pastors approve of taking a stand on a political issue while preaching, while only 1-in-10 say it’s their role to endorse a candidate from the pulpit.

Connelly contends that his strategy isn’t to convince clergy to infuse their sermons with partisan talking points. Rather, he wants pastors to see voting as a spiritual practice and to bring that message to their flock. The stakes, for him, are higher than any individual political contest. In his view, evangelical engagement is a crucial facet of the campaign to reclaim religion’s place at the center of American public life. Telling them that they are vital to the GOP’s success is, more than anything, what he believes will energize evangelicals who feel beleaguered.

Driving away from the pastors’ meeting in Louisiana, Connelly was optimistic about his chances. Pastors are eager to be taken seriously again, he says. When he makes his pitch, he emphasizes that they are the bedrock of GOP Faith—he’s only the messenger. Religious leaders have to take up the call to galvanize their communities, and so far, he says, they’ve responded enthusiastically. “I think they’re going to realize that the GOP’s the party that’s going to keep faith alive,” he says.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a freelance writer based in Chicago and a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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The Sources of Creationism’s Disjointed Science Wed, 08 Oct 2014 18:50:14 +0000 AP Photo/Ed Reinke

Ken Ham, founder of Answers in Genesis, at the Creation Museum in Kentucky (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

Once upon a time, in the West, sacred history, human history, and natural history were one. The Hebrew Bible, refracted through the prism of the Christian New Testament, told a story in which time, nature and humanity came into being together. From that beginning, history, with its low spots (Eve, the serpent, the apple) and its high marks (the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ) was the unfolding of God’s plan for the redemption of a fallen humanity. For Christians, time had a plot, and its beginning and end were both part of written history: even as its bright unfolding was traced in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, its ending in cataclysm, judgment, and eternal life was laid out in the Book of Revelation.

Humans were there from day six of creation, made by God in his image. Both free will and the moral and ethical understandings that allowed us to live in community with each other were grounded in divine creation: they were gifts of God. Nature was understood to be fitted to human use and to operate on something of a human scale. As this story was told in medieval Europe (roughly, the centuries between the fall of Rome and Columbus’s voyage to the lands that became the Americas) the earth was nested at the heart of the cosmos. Ringed around it were the moon, the planets, the sun, and the stars, all encompassed by the heaven where God reigned in majesty. We looked up from the center not at infinite space but at a mansion made of nested spheres spinning in perfect harmony.

Once upon a time, indeed. Though very few would argue any more that the earth is at the center of the cosmos, many find the notion that humanity is as old (or as young) as the earth to be a true, and immensely satisfying, story. According to the latest Gallup poll on this question, some 42 percent of Americans—a number that has hardly budged in over 30 years of surveys—claim to believe in young-earth Creationism. Drawing on the work of Biblical chronologists active in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, young-earth Creationists date the origins of the cosmos to roughly 6,000 years ago. Organizations like Answers in Genesis, whose director Ken Ham recently debated Bill Nye on the scientific merits of young earth creationism, defend it ardently.

Assenting to this vision of history requires a series of strategic denials. First and foremost for Ham and his organization is the denial that science, and scientists, can say anything at all about history. “Historical science” cannot be proved: no matter what geologists, biologists, and paleontologists might infer about the past by applying their knowledge of natural processes to the present conditions of the rocks, living organisms, and fossils, they were not physically present to witness the events their sciences explain. History is a thing written in a sacred book.

Yet Ham is not eager to deny science altogether: rather, he attempts to discredit “historical science” while preserving “observational science.” Observational science is responsible for the technological innovations that smooth modern life, a point Ham illustrated in his debate with Nye with a Powerpoint slide of an iPhone. Yet in attacking “historical science,” Ham (and Answers in Genesis more broadly) creatively appropriate scientific language and scientific methods. In doing so, they pay a backhand compliment to scientific modes of apprehending reality, suggesting that for all it appears to be under threat in this postmodern world, scientific ways of knowing the world remain our primary means of securing publicly shared knowledge.

Perhaps surprisingly to those of us weaned on the “two cultures” divide between the humanities and the sciences, many of the sciences—especially those that tend to invalidate literal readings of the book of Genesis—are fundamentally historical in nature. They read “the book of nature” in ways that are analogous to the ways in which historians read written documents and archaeologists ancient artifacts. If the earth is an archive, fossils, and even living species, with their information-rich genomes, are documents.

It was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—at least two hundred years before Charles Darwin and his intervention into our understanding of the development of human life—that science first began to be historical. At that time, natural philosophers seriously began wondering what fossils were. Marine fossils posed a particular problem. Robert Plot, an English natural historian and museum curator, and others argued that they were naturally produced in rocks, “jokes of nature,” in which the rock mimicked organic forms. Others, the mechanical philosopher Robert Hooke among them, began to suspect that they were the remains of living animals. But, if they had once been living animals, how could it be that fossils of sea-dwellers were now found on dry plains and the tops of mountains? The naturalist John Woodward, reasoning from the shared understanding that natural, human, and sacred history were one, produced a sweeping theory that fit fossils into the unified, biblical history that he and his colleagues knew so well. Marine fossils in unusual places were natural evidence that confirmed the biblical story of the flood, which had swept across the earth, lifting ocean dwellers up to the highest heights and destroying everything and everyone except for Noah, his family, and the animals he packed on to the ark.

This debate was perhaps the closest thing the seventeenth century had to 2014’s “Ham on Nye”—with one exception. God was on both sides. Robert Plot promoted the “jokes of nature,” theory because he could not conceive of a mechanism that would move ocean animals to the tops of mountains and also accord with biblical history. Those on the other side, including Robert Hooke and Woodward, could not accept that God would create something so apparently purposeless as a rock that mimicked the form of a shell yet had never sheltered a soft bodied sea dweller. God was a being of loving and rational purpose; he did not play jokes on his human children.

Though both camps were trying to reconcile the evidence of nature to the biblical record, they each slung accusations of atheism at the other. Proponents of the “jokes of nature” theory were atheists because they seemed to deny that God operated in rational, purposeful ways that could be understood by human observers. Eyebrows were raised at Woodward, as well: in his theory, the flood was a product of natural laws. These natural laws were ordained by God. But still, Woodward’s flood was not a miracle—it did not involve God breaking into the world in violation of the laws of nature—and it just happened to coincide with a period of extraordinary human sinfulness, as required by the Genesis narrative.

In the short term, the diluvians won the day—most naturalists were persuaded that the spread of marine fossils was due to the biblical flood. The unified timeline of human, sacred, and natural history was preserved, as was the notion that nature was authored by a loving, rational God. Yet over the course of the eighteenth century, as fossil evidence became more fully integrated into a developing knowledge of geology, this explanation came to seem less and less satisfactory. The earth’s terrain, and the spread of the fossils in the layers of rock that cloaked the earth, were too varied to be explained by a single global flood. Geologists began to argue that there were no miraculous, global cataclysms. Rather, one could argue backward to the past from forces visible in the present—volcanoes erupted, spreading magma that hardened into rock, which wind and rain eroded, grinding it into soil. Rivers carved canyons and deposited silts. Glaciers gradually pushed great boulders immense distances.

But these processes were slow, so slow, that, to produce the earth as it now existed, they had to operate across many more centuries than the time scale allowed by the biblical story. Eighteenth century geologists largely refused to specify precisely how old the earth was, believing they had insufficient evidence to make such judgments, but they generally agreed that it was much older than the human race, possibly by as much as a million years (to a people that had previously agreed the world was about 6,000 years old, an almost unimaginable span of time). Yet, though they dramatically expanded natural history, setting human history adrift in a sea of time, many natural philosophers continued to believe that nature’s past was legible because the natural order was underwritten by God.

For Ken Ham, as for many young-earth creationists, the history of science stopped in 1700: Ham’s theory is essentially Woodward’s. Ham’s distinction between historical and observational science is not merely a curiosity: real harm is possible, for example, in that Answers in Genesis uses it to discredit the science behind global warming, which relies on reconstructing many millennia of climate history. Yet, living in the twenty-first century, Ken Ham is also forced to defend his distinction between historical and observational science in modern scientific terms. Answers in Genesis provides essay after essay dissecting the latest fossil finds, and explaining how geological evidence can be read in terms of a catastrophic flood. In order to do so, they delve deeply into the sciences of radiometric dating, fluid dynamics, stratigraphy, and even quantum mechanics. The question of whether Christians should “believe in ‘weird’ physics” (a category which, in the Answers in Genesis view, includes relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory) animates a long, detailed essay on the history of physics. (Short answer: yes.)

Although a scientist might read Answers in Genesis’s engagement with scientific knowledge as disingenuous, it can have unpredictable effects—a curious reader might well find the detailed scientific explanations of geological phenomena more convincing than their rebuttal. Or, she might ask: if I’m allowed to accept quantum mechanics, why not radiometric dating, which relies on quantum mechanical understandings of the atom to establish the ages of human and fossil remains? Answers in Genesis also seeks to preserve the products of scientific and technical research that are integrated into our lives—in addition to that iPhone, the slides that Ken Ham threw up during the debate with Bill Nye included an image of Craig Venter, the lead scientist on the Human Genome Project. Venter may be an atheist, Ham admits, but he does good “observational science”—the kind that produces new medical breakthroughs that many rely upon. Yet analysis of the genome leads to enriched understandings of human evolutionary history, as well as new cancer treatments. Ham’s distinction between historical and observational science is incoherent, as Nye pointed out in their debate.

Yet it is also true that we owe the notion that fossils, rocks, and genomes are documents from which we can read nature’s history to a theological conception of nature. Seventeenth-century natural philosophers turned against the “jokes of nature” theory of fossils because they refused to believe that Nature’s God played tricks on humans. Their God was an author, one who wrote a Book of Nature that humans were meant to be able to read. Modern science (as a matter of general methodological principle—this is to say nothing of the beliefs of individual scientists) may have declared the divine author dead, yet a way of divinely-inspired reading continues on in the belief that nature operates according to rational laws that humans can decipher. That assumption is so fundamental that, for scientists, it is an article of faith.

Elizabeth Yale is an historian of science and adjunct assistant professor at The University of Iowa Center for the Book.  

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Illinois: An Autoworker Reconciles God and Mammon Wed, 01 Oct 2014 17:00:44 +0000 An Autoworker Reconciles God and Mammon


(AP Photo/Paul Beaty) The Chrysler Automotive Plant in Belvidere, Illinois

Growing up in an Illinois factory town that seemed to have as many corn silos as smokestacks, I often wondered why everything around me sounded so cosmopolitan and French. My grandfather, for example, worked more than half his life in a Chrysler Automotive Plant in Belvidere, a town named after a French term of Italian origins that described a decorative garden summerhouse. He’d tell me our town and other Illinois place names like DuPage, Bourbonnais, and DesPlaines conveyed just how prized the region was when Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet first mapped the territory in 1673 while expanding the French empire. As a youth, I wondered if the whole thing was a colossal miscalculation, because there was nothing decorative about Belvidere. The 3 million-square-foot factory where my grandfather worked dominated the town, its parking lot filling the landscape not with greenery but with rows and rows of hauntingly uniform cars awaiting shipment. Do belvederes, as the term is more commonly spelled, even have parking lots?

Though odd to me as a child, I have come to appreciate Illinois’s curiously French origins. They seem to embody something essential about the state. As my amateur historian grandfather taught me, Marquette and Joliet initially sought out the territory of the Illini Indians for ostensibly different purposes. Marquette, a Jesuit, hoped to find new communities of Native Americans to Christianize. Joliet, a merchant, wanted to map new routes for trade. But as the state’s history makes clear, their endeavors were actually quite complementary. Over the next century, missionaries followed Joliet’s maps into the territory Europeans now phonetically spelled Ee-lee-nwah, while trappers utilized the missions Jesuits founded as outposts on the fur trade.

The priest and the merchant. One wanted to build a church, the other wanted to make money. They ended up making Illinois.

To talk about the religious and political life of a Heartland state such as Illinois is to talk about how capitalism in America often mediates the relationship between the two. As one of the few states in the union—and the only one in the Midwest—to be both a top manufacturer and agricultural producer, Illinois is defined by its economic largesse. Residents invariably describe themselves and even their sports teams as “blue collar” or “hardworking,” as if some kind of unrelenting labor was required to live there. Yet Illinois’s industriousness has also long been accompanied by an ambitious religiosity. Indeed, it’s often been difficult to distinguish one from the other. Home at varying points to the nation’s largest factory, tallest skyscraper, and biggest bakery, Illinois still boasts America’s highest church steeple, tallest freestanding cross, and largest Catholic Mass in American history.

In its business and its religion, Illinoisans make no little plans. For more than two centuries residents like Marquette, Joliet, and my grandfather have flocked to the state with equal parts economic aspirations and religious concerns. The result of this interplay has made the Prairie State what it is today.


MY GRANDFATHER WAS NOT an Illinoisan by birth, but, then again, few are. Even favorite son Abraham Lincoln was born elsewhere, a product of Kentucky’s rolling hillsides. Yet the successive waves of immigrants and newcomers that have made and remade Illinois have all come to the state in search of a prosperity imbued with spiritual significance. Lincoln’s arrival in 1830, for example, was a part of the first wave of white settlers who migrated from as far as New England to farm the rich, black topsoil that lay beneath the state’s unbroken prairies. To these largely Protestant pioneers, the farms they plowed would not only enhance their personal fortunes but also yield the towns, villages, and churches that would save the frontier. In the century and a half that followed, millions of immigrants from across the globe similarly flocked to the state in search of their own kind of redemption. Catholics and Jews from across Europe and Latin America joined Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other traditions from Africa and Asia in transforming Illinois’s small towns into some of the most religiously diverse cities in the world. To them, the jobs they found, the shops they opened, and the communities they built were more than just material necessities. They were also refuges from the famines, revolutions, and pogroms of home. As many of the half-million black Southerners who fled Jim Crow for Illinois in the decades between the World Wars put it, cities like Chicago, with their industry and community, were nothing short of a “Promised Land.”

This almost religious belief in capitalism’s power to transform and uplift families, communities, and nations has long informed Illinoisans at the polls. In addition to accounting for the state’s fervent pride in the value of hard work, it also helps explain why a state more known for the strength of its unions has also produced and elected some of the nation’s most pro-business conservatives. Ronald Reagan, for example, claimed to have learned the importance of unfettered entrepreneurship while growing up in Dixon, where his parents owned a small dry goods store. The state voted handily for him twice, helped elect his Republican successor, and continues to regularly send a number of conservative leaders to Congress. And while Reagan and many of these elected officials are in many ways the ideological opposites of a fellow party member like Lincoln, their politics were quintessentially Illinoisan in their attempts to use public policy to unlock capitalism’s sacred potential. Lincoln’s support for free labor was as much about atoning for the nation’s sins of slavery as it was about ensuring its prosperity. Reagan, meanwhile, cast economic regulation not only as detriments to America’s financial growth but as impediments to a soul’s access to the sacred market.

I don’t think my grandfather ever thought he would save the country working in an auto factory, nor was this white, native-born Protestant fleeing oppression. But his move to the state was just as much an economic pilgrimage. Like Lincoln, he too hailed from Kentucky, a part of a much smaller migration of white Appalachians to Illinois’s industrial centers in the decades after the Second World War. He followed an implausible rumor northward that factories in the state were paying more than two dollars an hour for entry-level work. Such wages were unheard of in the coal towns where he was from. So in 1964, he moved my grandmother and mother to a small town with a funny French name, Belvidere, where he got a job at what was then the largest automotive plant in the world. To him the job was a godsend, a chance to provide his family with opportunities he thought unavailable in Appalachia. Where I would later see an eyesore, my grandfather looked at that Chrysler Automotive Plant and saw a blessing.

In Illinois, wealth, prosperity, and economic ambition have rarely been in conflict with religious faith. Rather, they have been integral to the state’s development, collaboratively fostering an abiding faith in the American marketplace.

But with such high hopes have also come steep expectations.


AS A WHITE, WORKING-CLASS, former Southerner, my grandfather was in many ways the quintessential evangelical, right down to his membership in a Southern Baptist church. He believed deeply in Scripture and would occasionally remark upon the world’s moral decline, wondering if it might mean that Jesus was returning soon. The church he attended near Belvidere was full of the rants against liberals and secular humanists that often define stereotypes of American evangelicalism. Yet my grandfather departed from such conventions of American religious life in crucial ways. In addition to being a church deacon who took pride in his perfect Sunday school attendance, my grandfather was also an active, loyal, dues-paying member of the United Auto Workers who knew how to vote his economic self-interests. While pundits, the press, and even academics would define my grandfather’s faith by the sermons he heard on Sunday, his religious world was never so narrowly defined. Rather, it also included such seemingly worldly rituals like paying the mortgage or feeding my mother. His politics almost always emerged from these latter spaces. Rarely did the dictates of the former determine them.

Such practical economic concerns have long been the most accurate barometer of Illinois’s political life. Its voting record notwithstanding, Illinois’s faith in the opportunities capitalism affords has rarely blinded it to the inequalities capitalism invariably yields. The conditions in which many have lived often made such disparities unavoidable. Even Illinois’s midsized cities contained, and continue to contain, the industrial slums and blighted neighborhoods first described by Chicago-based novels like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) or Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). The low wages, poor housing, and lack of services endemic in these communities has meant that campaigns in the state are often about ameliorating or rectifying capitalism’s most immediate injustices.

This is not to say, however, that the grassroots efforts of everyday Illinoisans did not shape national concerns. The infamous Pullman Strike of 1894, which eventually shut down railroad traffic nationwide, began as a protest of 3,000 Chicago factory workers over a wage cut. Out of the conflict emerged an association of Illinois railroad executives who worked closely with the U.S. Attorney General to perfect the use of federal court injunctions to break organized labor. The practice remained in place throughout much of the twentieth century, curbed only by the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s. Workers in the Prairie State proved essential here as well, helping to “make a New Deal,” in the words of one historian, by joining steelworker, coal miner, and meat packer unions by the millions.

Religious institutions and ideas have been central to these efforts to engage and shape capitalism. Often the most recognized and respected members of working-class communities, religious leaders have been essential allies in advancing and publicizing Illinois’s economic struggles. The minister of Pullman’s Methodist Episcopal Church, William Carwardine, became the strikers’ religious spokesperson, reminding both the company and the general public of Scripture’s own injunction that “the laborer was worthy of his hire.” Religious spaces have also been vital in providing a safe place for Illinois’s dispossessed to coordinate and organize. The devotional societies and religious associations of the state’s largely Catholic industrial workers became staging grounds for the formation of CIO locals, while parish priests became key interlocutors in building the New Deal coalition.

Yet Illinois’s religious communities have done more than just logistically support political campaigns. They have also spiritually sustained them. As a young, more secular Barack Obama learned while organizing black communities on Chicago’s South Side, faith has often been the most potent weapon of the oppressed. After years of writing off African American ministers for their emphasis upon preparing for the next world over changing this one, Obama has said his entire view of the black church changed after attending Trinity United Church of Christ when it was led by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. There he discovered how worship, prayer, and congregation were essential for steeling one’s soul for the fight. And while Obama’s association with Trinity and Wright has since become beset by controversy, it should not distract us from the power of its devotions, where Obama recorded an elderly woman praising God amidst the city’s violence and poverty for “carrying us this far.”

Indeed, religion has carried Illinois’s politics of late. This fervent faith in the cause of justice and economic equality has knitted together a number of labor, immigrant, African American, and community organizations into a loose coalition whose ardent support for economic equality has made Illinois the Democratic stronghold it is today. Last spring, more than one hundred ministers, priests, and rabbis sent an open letter to Senator Mark Kirk letting him know their support for his reelection hinged upon extending the nation’s unemployment benefits. After twice rejecting the measure, the senator caved. Illinois’s Interfaith Worker Justice has similarly coordinated with religious communities in the cause of economic justice, sponsoring “Labor Sunday” rallies with the Illinois AFL-CIO. Participating churches invite local union leaders to talk to their congregations about their community’s most pressing labor struggles. And in South Chicago, Crosswalk, an interfaith organization founded at All Saints Episcopal Church, has organized a number of rallies, marches, and summits to advocate for an increase in both firearm regulation and economic development in order to stem the tide of gun violence that has wracked Chicago of late.


MY GRANDFATHER GOT OUT of the factory while the getting was good. He retired after 35 years on the line and lived comfortably on his pension and Social Security until his death a decade ago. His coworkers, however, have not been as lucky. In 2006, Belvidere’s Chrysler factory became the first automotive plant in the world to assemble vehicles entirely by robotics. The transition sent waves of unemployment through town, a trend the Great Recession of 2008 only escalated. And unlike the rest of the Heartland, Illinois has yet to experience much of the Rust Belt’s recent recovery. The state’s credit rating remains the nation’s lowest, while its 8.3 percent total unemployed rate is surpassed only by Nevada and Rhode Island. Conditions are often even worse at the local level where double-digit unemployment rates recently ranked among the nation’s highest. In fact, the Belvidere region’s enduring 9.4 percent unemployment rate is less than a half a point below that other paragon of postindustrial America, Detroit.

But as before, Illinois’s religious commitments and economic realities continue engage and shape each other. In light of the current downturn, one local congregation now offers its long-term unemployed members career transition services, as if the church is recommitting to its belief in capitalism’s transformative power. Others, however, continue to draw inspiration and resources from religious sources to engage in direct action over economic issues, as when a number of priests, rabbis, and local ministers took the streets alongside striking fast food workers in support of turning America’s minimum wage into a living one. And as the economy continues to improve while rates of inequality persist, there is no reason to believe such debates will cease.

Capitalism in America has generated some of the globe’s greatest prosperity. Yet Americans have benefited from this prosperity in unavoidably unequal ways. How these benefits and blessings should be apportioned has been one of America’s most enduring political questions. And in Illinois, as elsewhere, it has also been a decidedly religious one.

Christopher D. Cantwell is assistant professor of public history and religious studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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Passages: A Glimpse into the Hobby Lobby Family’s Bible Museum Wed, 24 Sep 2014 17:29:42 +0000 (Courtesy of Passages Exhibit)

(Courtesy of Passages Exhibit, Museum of the Bible)

On a humid afternoon in early July, I pulled into the parking lot of a nondescript warehouse just off Highway 65 in Springfield, Missouri. Flanked by a used luxury car dealership and organic food grocer to the west and a Sam’s Club wholesaler to the east, this was the 30,000 square foot home of Passages: Treasures of the Bible, a traveling exhibit comprised of a selection from evangelical business magnate Steve Green’s private collection of biblical artifacts. A Southern Baptist from Oklahoma and the president of the highly profitable craft store chain Hobby Lobby, Green has made headlines this year as chief litigant in the fight against the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Yet as consequential as the Hobby Lobby decision has been, Green’s footprint in American public life extends beyond the arenas of policy and law. Passages is one aspect of a larger effort to shape the very narratives Americans use to make sense of their lives, their faith, and their nation.

I grew up in Springfield, “the Queen City of the Ozarks,” in the southwestern corner of Missouri. I’ve never met Green or his family, but I recognize them in my own family and childhood community, in the people with whom I often disagree on matters of politics and religion but whom I love and admire for their faith and their convictions. It would be easy for many commentators to reduce Passages to the periphery of American culture, or to prop it up as a pivot point in the unrelenting culture wars. I had a hunch that this was bigger, of greater consequence, than a Hobby Lobby coattail. Still, I found something curious in the promotion of a “Founding Father’s Exhibit” on the Passages website and in the installation’s glossy presentation of academic credentials. Was this Sunday School or civics? Biblical scholarship or public history? Could it be both, and to what end? I had to find out.

Passages is one arm of the Museum of the Bible, the official name of the Greens’ nonprofit organization. In 2012 the organization purchased the Washington Design Center for $50 million as the location for the Green Collection’s permanent home in the still-to-be-named museum—scheduled to open in 2017—a location five blocks from the U.S. Capitol. The Museum of the Bible also includes the Green Scholars Initiative (GSI), which focuses on research relating to the collection’s artifacts and oversees the development of an “elective Bible curriculum for high school students.” (The Greens had planned to launch the curriculum this fall semester in a school district near Hobby Lobby’s Oklahoma headquarters; in July they announced a delay until January, after experts deemed their textbook needed revisions to correct bias.) Speaking directly about the planned D.C. museum, but indicative of the Museum of the Bible generally, the nonprofit’s public relations firm stated its intent “to showcase both the Old and New Testaments, arguably the world’s most significant pieces of literature, through a non-sectarian, scholarly approach that makes the history, scholarship and impact of the Bible on virtually every facet of society accessible to everyone.”

But beyond official rhetoric emphasizing accessibility and inclusion, there is also a subtle message that is communicated in the collection’s arrangement of artifacts, historical data, and exhibit space. This other, tacit but quite palpable, message is the cultural work that shapes visitors’ interpretation of the objects on display and that, like museum dust, is carried out of the exhibit and into the world around them. This message is the good news affirmed by insiders and extended to outsiders: we are on the right side of history. The Museum’s collecting habits, exhibit curation, and academic efforts combine technological savvy and strategic planning to advance a particular history of the Bible in American public life.

From its debut at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art in 2011, through installations in Atlanta, Charlotte, Colorado Springs, and Springfield, Passages has changed in modest ways in each of its five locations. The installation in Springfield, which will run through January of 2015, is a professionally curated exhibit of approximately 400 artifacts ranging from ancient papyrus fragments to medieval illuminated manuscripts to a full-scale, operating replica of Gutenberg’s press. As the eager khaki-clad docents remind patrons, despite the expansive breadth of the traveling exhibit—my self-guided tour was five hours, and I skimmed a great deal of the Renaissance and Reformation periods—Passages comprises a mere one percent of the Green Collection. Internal calculations gush that the entire collection amounts to “more than 40,000 antiquities [and] includes some of the rarest and most valuable biblical and classical pieces … ever assembled under one roof.” All told, Green has spent more than $23 million amassing his collection, which he began in 2009.

On the day I attended Passages, almost all of the other visitors were women, some with school-aged children; but the website claims a far more diverse audience. My request for attendance figures was declined by the Museum of the Bible’s marketing manager, but it seemed well attended for a stormy Tuesday afternoon. Location likely matters as much as anything when observing an audience—Springfield is nearly 90 percent “white alone,” overwhelmingly Protestant, and the warehouse is located in the city’s affluent southeast. Admission is just shy of $16 for adults, with another $3 for the self-guided iPod Touch tour.

Passages’ displays are designed to immerse patrons in situ, or in an imagined context of direct encounter with the artifacts—the caves of Qumran, a monastic scriptorium, the door to Wittenberg’s Castle Church, an early modern English print shop, Anne Boleyn’s chamber in the Tower of London, a Holocaust ghetto. The orchestration of a wealth of technical historical information—carbon dating, multispectral imaging, scholarly commentary—within an ideological framework of evangelical politics is not a new strategy. The collection joins a trend in antiquities collecting by affluent evangelical enterprises, such as the Scriptorium exhibit at the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Florida, and the Dunham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University, each of which asserts their academic qualifications to audiences both sympathetic and critical. That such collections are founded on evidence, and not faith alone, is the unstated claim. Passages emphasizes that artifacts have been studiously acquired through the counsel of the Green Scholars Initiative, an arm of the Museum of the Bible that includes “Distinguished Language Scholars,” “Senior Scholars,” and “Senior and Distinguished Scholars and Consultants” from institutions including Pepperdine, Baylor, University of Chicago, Oxford, and King’s College, London (among a host of largely evangelical liberal arts schools conducting GSI Projects).

But, like most exhibits, Passages is as concerned with interpretation as it is with display. The Museum of the Bible is particularly successful at ironing the seams between data and interpretation (at least one early consultant has severed ties with the Museum, citing concerns over the “balancing” of history and evangelical message ). The Museum conveys political arguments through various spokespersons—Martin Luther, Anne Boleyn, St. Jerome—who speak directly to audiences either as video displays or animatronics and who bear witness to the twin virtues of accessibility and individual authority in matters of scriptural interpretation. Passages is decidedly Protestant in conceptualization, positioning Jewish scriptures as incomplete antecedents to Christian scriptures and collapsing the sweep of Jewish history—no matter how recent—into an uncontested “past.” A display early in the exhibit, for instance, moves seamlessly from first-century papyrus fragments to nineteenth-century Torah tiks with no reference to the intervening centuries of cultural, social, or theological development. Catholic history is likewise presented as a historical backdrop, full of textual inaccuracies, deliberate obfuscations, and compulsory interpretations that the Reformation corrected through vernacular translations that “folks like us can understand,” as a peasant woman pleads with her unconvinced neighbor in a video display; and the theological privileging of individual interpretation, as Martin Luther explains in an imaginatively staged video debate with Desiderius Erasmus and Johann Eck in the “Reformation Theater.” The entire sweep of Western history is stitched into a synchronized narrative of the birth of freedom.

These messages are materially reinforced in the exhibit’s gift shop, where patrons can purchase full-scale reproductions of Sebastian Adams’s 1871 Chronological Chart of Ancient, Modern, and Biblical History. Demonstrating a nineteenth-century obsession with classification, the Chronological Chart is an ambitious catalogue of world history divided into epochs, empires, and nations, from the beginning of time through the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. Adams was a Unitarian born in Ohio who ended up teaching in Oregon, but his chart has been reclaimed by twenty-first century evangelicals who promote it as a model for conceptualizing history. The illustrated and color-coded chart is a conceptual fragment of the exhibit—a token—that patrons can take home (for $39.95) and, along with the exhibit catalogue, experience the marvels and promises anew. Not unlike the theories in Adams’s chart, Passages is designed to demonstrate not only the history of the Bible as a religious document but also as a narrative of political and religious interdependence.

Throughout the exhibit, political messages surface in oblique references to individuality, religious freedom, technological discovery, and popular sovereignty. The exhibit’s conclusion, however, leaves little room for ambiguity. The final displays break with the chronological organization of the rest of the installation and take visitors back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the founding of the American republic and to the Civil War that threatened to sever it. A new addition to the Springfield location, the Founding Father’s display case, is anchored by an oversized poster board facsimile of the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson’s 1809 letter to Richard Douglas of the Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. A selection from Jefferson’s letter is quoted in such a way as to nudge attentive patrons to the Greens’ contemporary political battles:

No provision in our constitution ought to be dearer to man, than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprizes of the civil authority. [I]t has not left the religion of it’s citizens under the power of it’s public functionaries …

Using eighteenth-century erudition, the display frames “civil authorities” and “public functionaries” as threats to citizens’ “rights of conscience.” In his 2011 book, Faith in America, Green attributes a great deal of his training in early American history to the counsel of David Barton. Barton is a highly polarizing evangelical historian whose credibility among many earlier sympathizers evaporated after his book, The Jefferson Lies, was recalled by its publisher, Thomas Nelson, in 2012 for gross factual errors. Despite the additional blow to his credibility, Barton remained influential among Americans who found reassurances in his narration of history. Central to Barton’s historical imagination are founding fathers seeking to establish Christianity in American law—rather than creating a public commons that protected individual conscience and conviction—and his influence has remained especially palpable in energizing forms of evangelical patriotism in conservative American politics. The selective framing of Jefferson’s 1809 letter is indicative of Barton’s influence.

The conclusion to the exhibit, however, is not Jefferson but the holographic testimonies of Abraham Lincoln and Julia Ward Howe, the nineteenth-century Unitarian abolitionist who composed the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The display includes the manuscript of the original lyrics that Howe composed after a restless night in the early days of the American Civil War. The song, audiences learn, “derives much of its imagery directly from the Bible, particularly the Book of Revelation, which deals with the Final Judgment.” The connection to the rest of the exhibit may seem tenuous, but the display is the final punctuation in an orchestration of history that positions today’s political landscape not only as the most recent cultural battle in which the Bible will emerge victorious, but also as analogous to the sectional division of the 1850s that erupted into Civil War in the 1860s. We, too, live in a house divided. The holograms do not speak to each other so much as they make direct appeals to the audience. Here, no one has to mention abortion—the exhibit is careful not to reduce its message to a specific issue—but within the exhibit it is difficult not to anticipate this as one of any number of unspoken political, ethical, and religious scourge to the twenty-first century that the morally charged political issue of slavery was to the nineteenth. And as were Howe and Lincoln, today’s Americans must answer “the trumpet that shall never call retreat.”

Passages is a carefully crafted public history that demonstrates to receptive audiences how, in Julia Ward Howe’s voice, the Bible is “the book that assured the very foundation of our country.” This is a space in which, not unlike Sebastian Adams’s illustrated chronology, biblical history and national heritage are part of a common story that is still unfolding. Modern-day political battles emerge quite clearly as the “hidden transcript” to the official message of the Bible’s “indestructability”—as another layer of meaning lying just beneath the surface. The traveling exhibits, no matter how extensive, will reach limited audiences. But the national museum is another matter entirely. Sitting a stone’s throw from the nation’s cathedrals of national mythology—monuments, museums, and the landmarks of each of the three branches of federal government—the permanent location of the Green Collection in Washington, D.C., will undoubtedly attract national and, just as likely, international attention. There is, of course, nothing wrong with making ideological claims, particularly within the context of religious convictions. But the Museum of the Bible offers a particularly timely example of the house of mirrors refracting history, religion, and politics in the United States—of how the accumulation of facts is preamble to the consequential work of storytelling. Perhaps it is worth our while to pay attention to the museum dust.

Rachel McBride Lindsey is associate director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Us v. Them: The Pitfalls of Righteous Rhetoric Tue, 16 Sep 2014 17:33:13 +0000 (Beverly LaHaye, courtesy of Concerned Women for America)

(Beverly LaHaye, courtesy of Concerned Women for America)

Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America
By Leslie Dorrough Smith
Oxford University Press, 2014

On June 19 of this year, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) hosted its second annual “March for Marriage” in Washington, D.C. An article posted on NOM’s website two days before the march expressed hope that the event would “encourage each of us to continue standing up without fear in the legal, political, and cultural spheres to preserve marriage and every child’s right to both a mother and a father.” In an email to supporters sent out the same day, the national lobbying group Concerned Women for America (CWA) also promoted the march, saying that “God’s model for marriage is under attack, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to stand for truth in this area.” This urgent, battle-ready language is typical of conservative Christian rhetoric on the issue, which depicts gay marriage as a force that will debase American families, victimize children, and ruin the nation as a whole. Meanwhile, supporters of gay marriage portray groups like NOM and CWA as the real threats to the nation’s values, its children, and its families. The pro-gay Family Equality Council recently filed an amicus brief in a Virginia gay marriage case, focusing on the children of same-sex couples and arguing that “the denial of marriage as an option for their parents affects their legal well-being, personal self-esteem, and sense of purpose.” On both sides of the debate, activists and spokespeople identify themselves as “supporters of marriage” and portray their adversaries as dangerous forces, not only in terms of this issue but also in terms of Americans’ well-being and the well-being of America.

Leslie Dorrough Smith has a new name for this kind of political reasoning, which she argues has deep roots in American political history. She has coined the term “chaos rhetoric” to describe it, and she offers a rich analysis of its uses and significance in her new book, Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America. Smith defines chaos rhetoric as a particular kind of “emotion-laden” narrative of national decline, which focuses so intently on a perceived threat “to a beloved entity” that it draws attention away from any gaps in the speakers’ logic or any shifts in their priorities. Smith argues that “chaos rhetoric’s signature is not necessarily its connection with reality, but its persuasive value.”

Smith takes as her case study the recent rhetoric of Concerned Women for America (CWA), the self-proclaimed “largest public policy women’s organization in the United States,” and a powerful force within the modern Religious Right. CWA was established in 1979, the same year that Jerry Falwell inaugurated the Moral Majority. Beverly LaHaye, the group’s founder, is a well-known figure in conservative evangelical circles, both for her political engagement and for her popular books on Christian marital and family life. To people outside of these circles, she is more commonly recognized as the wife of Tim LaHaye, a co-founder of the Moral Majority and author of the bestselling apocalyptic fiction series Left Behind. Over the past 35 years, CWA has grown into a powerful lobbying organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., and supported by hundreds of local chapters across the country.

Smith focuses on the CWA website as a rich and representative source of chaos rhetoric, which operates, first and foremost, through a division of the world into categories of “us” and “them.” This is perhaps most obvious in CWA leaders’ frequent appeals to the “real women” of America—women whom they represent as conservative and religious, proudly feminine and “family-oriented.” In CWA rhetoric, women who fall outside of these categories—especially feminists, lesbians, and pro-choice women—are not “real women,” and they pose significant dangers to American values.

This is another function of chaos rhetoric. By focusing on looming threats to “the nation,” chaos rhetoric reflexively defines what the nation is and whom it excludes. Or, as Smith puts it, the chaos rhetoric that CWA employs is “almost always constructed in such a way that the reader cannot identify with CWA’s opponent while considering herself reasonable and moral.” CWA presents an understanding of the nation that conflates national priorities with the organization’s priorities and national health with the organization’s gains. Thus, feminists are represented not only adversaries of CWA but as enemies of the nation as a whole. At the same time, chaos rhetoric allows the organization to set the nation apart from the government or even from public opinion by arguing that the government is controlled by elites who do not have the nation’s best interests at heart, while most members of the public have been duped by those same elites into acting against their own well-being.

A defining feature of chaos rhetoric is its flexibility, and this too is particularly apparent in CWA’s approach to feminism. The organization is centrally opposed to liberal feminism, and has been since its founding. In my own work on CWA’s early years, I examine how Beverly LaHaye relied on the specter of feminism to explain why she founded CWA in 1979. When she moved the organization’s headquarters to Washington, D.C., four years later, she announced at a press conference: “This is our message: the feminists do not speak for all women in America, and CWA is here in Washington to end the monopoly of feminists who claim to speak for all women.” More than 30 years later, opposition to liberal feminism is still a central CWA concern. Yet CWA has also recently joined with other conservative Christian women’s groups in identifying with the label “conservative feminism.” They claim to be the rightful heirs of an early twentieth-century feminist movement that the Left has distorted and betrayed. This simultaneous identification with and against feminism is made possible through chaos rhetoric, whose binary logic allows CWA to argue that feminists are not real women, and are therefore disqualified from representing women’s interests.

The book’s focus on CWA in particular and conservative Christian politics more broadly requires a discussion of the ways in which religion and politics interact. Smith offers a nuanced discussion of religious and political diversity among American Protestants. In an effort to avoid essentializing religion or implying that it is something that exists outside of culture, Smith chooses to treat “religious speech as political speech, and presume that separating the two creates a false dichotomy.” But while the religious speech of organizations like CWA is almost always also political speech, Smith’s decision to treat “religion as a tactic” risks implying that her subjects are insincere in their religious beliefs or that they only deploy religious rhetoric cynically, for political gain. The book’s focus on rhetorical analysis ends up characterizing both religion and politics as mainly strategies for gaining power, without making room for considering how religious and political belief function in people’s lives. This analytical gap stands out in a study that otherwise deftly balances empathy and criticism.

Smith rightly notes that both popular and scholarly interpretations of the Christian Right in the United States often situate this movement as uniquely absolutist, argumentative, and even illogical. In a predominately liberal academy, Smith argues, scholars have tended to characterize the language of the Religious Right as unique in part because it is easier to recognize chaos rhetoric in the language of groups whose political views clash with one’s own. Indeed, Smith asserts that scholarly interpretations of the Religious Right have sometimes amounted to “chaos rhetoric about chaos rhetoric,” which presents conservative Christian groups as particularly uncompromising, strident, and detrimental to civil political discourse.

Smith argues that the Religious Right is not especially absolutist, although conservative Christians often portray their values as unchanging and rooted in tradition. Tracing the history of conservative Christian activism through the twentieth century, Smith demonstrates that the priorities and positions of Religious Right organizations have shifted along with the dominant culture just as in any other political movement. CWA’s changing approach to feminism is one example; its stance on working mothers is another. Whereas Beverly LaHaye once blamed working mothers for juvenile delinquency and national moral degeneracy, CWA now officially condones mothers’ choice to work outside of the home as long as they continue to put family first.

CWA stands in as the case study at the center of Smith’s analysis, but the book offers much more than a narrow examination of a single organization. In her final chapter, Smith broadens her scope beyond CWA in order to make a compelling case for applying the framework of chaos rhetoric not only in analyzing the language of the Religious Right, but also in considering arguments from across the political spectrum. Analyzing the language of two liberal groups—the National Organization for Women and the People for the American Way—Smith highlights how both rely on the tools of chaos rhetoric, including a binary “us vs. them” worldview, an insistent focus on impending danger, and a conflation of the organization’s values with the values of the nation writ large. So while CWA represents “radical feminists” as “anti-family” militants “blinded by a searing lust for a woman’s right to abort her child,” the National Organization for Women characterizes Religious Right groups including CWA as “anti-woman” fanatics for whom “[m]isrepresenting ideology as science is a favored tactic.”

Indeed, what makes this book so valuable is not just that it offers an insightful analysis of an important national organization. It also provides a significant new framework for understanding contemporary political rhetoric across the political spectrum. Chaos rhetoric is not solely a mechanism of the Right, as Smith’s final chapter makes clear. While CWA lauded the recent Hobby Lobby decision as a victory for religious freedom, one Planned Parenthood appeal presented it as evidence that “we can’t count on lawmakers and politicians to do the right thing—protecting women’s health and rights is up to us.” Smith’s framework offers new insight into the rhetorical strategies embedded in each of these claims, and helps to explain how—and why—groups like these continue to talk past each other in such critical debates.

Emily Johnson is a Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She completed her Ph.D. in History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University in 2014.

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For Michael Brown, Justice Is Not a Gift. It’s a Right. Tue, 09 Sep 2014 14:05:28 +0000 (Alex Wong/Getty)

(Alex Wong/Getty)

“This whole Michael Brown thing,” a local white business owner informed me, “is a case of reverse racism!” The Saint Louis native continued, “Those people over there on the north side kill and shoot each other all the time and nobody says a word. Now that it’s a white cop, it’s suddenly a big deal.” As he brazenly brushed aside the “no free refills” sign at the coffee shop in order to refill the beverage he bought yesterday, he continued without a hint of irony, “And I’m glad they released that video of him stealing, they tried to paint that kid as an angel. He wasn’t no angel. He was a thief!”

Black and/or impoverished people steal. White and/or wealthy folks enjoy customer perks.

“This kid was a criminal,” he maintained, “plain and simple. You can’t expect to steal, assault a store clerk, and then expect to get away with it.”

I asked him why, then, Wynona Rider or Lindsay Lohan do not end up fatally shot when they shoplift or engage in familiar, reckless young adult behavior? Or why police officers did not accost the seven privileged 18 and 19-year-olds who recently broke into NBA all-star Ray Allen’s Tahiti Beach home in Coral Gables?

He responded, “Look, I don’t have all the answers okay.”

But he did have the parameters by which a just inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown should occur. He concluded his lunchtime soliloquy by stating, “Look, those people over there just need to work on their own problems before they blame or ask the police for anything and expect any sympathy.”

Residents of a nearby suburb expressed similar sentiments to a New Republic reporter. Under the condition of anonymity, a group of white residents gathered in a coffee shop chimed in with disputed narratives about the crime, followed by certainties such as “I don’t even know what they’re fighting for.” Another embellished, “The kid wasn’t really innocent … he’s got a rap sheet already, so he’s not that innocent.” In reality, Mike Brown does not have a criminal “rap sheet.” In fact, Mike Brown’s juvenile record is stellar compared to that of white teen idol Justin Bieber. But Brown does have another kind of rap: he is black. African Americans and those living in underserved communities, are expected to somehow pull off the herculean feat of proving themselves fit for justice in the eyes of the wealthy and elite before they can “rightfully” petition for a just investigation.

These local spokespersons resonate with their national religious counterparts.

MSNBC host and activist, the Rev. Al Sharpton, spoke for many when he employed a similar trope during his eulogy for Michael Brown. The Obama administration, according to one former top Obama aide, “sort of helped build him [Sharpton] up” because the White House needed someone “to deal with in the African-American community.” As the anointed one, Sharpton is considered the point person in all things black and B/brown. At the funeral he sharply and rightly criticized national policies but then made a caveat: “What does God require?” he asked rhetorically. “We’ve got to be straight up in our community!” Certain expressions of youth and hip-hop culture and especially “black-on-black crime,” he told the congregation, are seen by many (and perhaps himself) as “justifying” malicious and neglectful policies toward black communities. Since the expression “white-on-white crime” (also an all too common occurrence) does not exist in the everyday lexicon, black communities are stigmatized and pathologized. Justice is then intricately tied to the perceived communal standing of black people. When black neighborhoods (finally) begin the process of internally rectifying all their ailments, the plot lines goes, then black and poor people will prove themselves ready for justice. Sharpton made it plain: “Nobody,” he enlightened mourners, “gone help us if we don’t help ourselves.”

Perhaps Iyanla Vanzant best put this sentiment in motion. The acclaimed spiritual guru, celebrity life coach, and star of her own show “Iyanla: Fix My Life” on the Oprah Network (OWN) has helped countless followers and admirers navigate personal and family crises through her spiritual wisdom. The stated purpose of her special televised visit to Ferguson was to “join the community in finding a path from violence into healing.” Looking into the OWN cameras she stated, “We are heading off to Ferguson, Missouri, hopefully to bring a healing bond to a very hurt and angry outraged community. A community that’s calling for justice.” After praying, singing a Negro spiritual, and making a water offering to pay homage to Michael Brown, she talked with locals, and then sat down with Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson and Brown’s great uncle, the Rev. Charles Ewing. After Ewing expressed his emotions and fears, Vanzant asked the chief several apropos questions about the investigation—How did this shooting happen on his watch? Why was there no police report made immediately? Why the tear gas, etc. Seeing the chief flummoxed, however, she relented and asked what he needed in order to conduct a thorough investigation. “Fourteen days of peace,” he responded. Vanzant asked Ewing on camera if he could agree to such terms. He did. The peaceful protests were actually the result of an incompetent investigation shrouded in secrecy and nondisclosure (the lack of an officer statement, no immediate police report, etc.). However, for Vanzant and her crew, black protest was the cause of the slack legal proceedings. Stopping the protest would be a show of good faith by African Americans, and the condition by which justice and transparency would flow freely.

My respective encounters with these echoing critiques left me with one question: Why must black people and black communities always prove themselves worthy of receiving justice?

Local and national discussions in the aftermath of Brown (as before the shooting) continually link just proceedings in the case to black performances of respectability and decorum. Justice is held up as a gift bestowed upon “model” minorities and their communities. Equal treatment under the law is not deemed a right. It’s a prize.

As my coffee shop lecturer kindly told me, “See, look at you,” he said, dressed in his shorts, t-shirt, and sandals. “Look at how you dress. You aren’t scary and intimidating like those folks over there on the north side.” My necktie won me the prize of his gracious presence, comments, and the benefit of presumed innocence and worth. Glad I wore a tie on my day off.

This local and national mood, and the religious language that complements it, is deeply flawed. Spiritual guidance that calls for racial minorities to prove their individual and collective abilities and respectabilities before they can expect justice or seek the accountability of their elected officials is paralyzing. Moreover, as Howard Thurman wrote in The Luminous Darkness in 1965, it further entrenches the ideology that the wealthier classes and those in power are the rightful and “sole judges of who should and who should not be granted the rights and the responsibilities of citizenship.” Everyday people are rendered as idle patients of democracy or undeserving beggars waiting on the diagnosis and alms of elites. Once black communities get in line, “black leaders” can then bargain for equality on their behalf.

When a local or national religious professional and/or celebrity cleric unintentionally espouses such “politically debilitating” spirituality, as Jeff Stout points out in his book Blessed Are the Organized, that minister can be said to be negligent at best. If the spiritual guru is intentional in such effects, “something harsher should be said.”

One thing can certainly be said now: Part of the work of doing justice and pursuing equal treatment under the law in the aftermath of the Brown shooting is to eschew all rhetoric, monologues, dialogues, and reasoning that unwittingly or purposely supports ideas of black pathology (black-on-black crime) or places black and/or poor communities in the position of proving that they are worthy of due process and the resources of justice American law provides all its citizens.

This kind of freedom language may not be abundant in the chatter of coffee shops across the region and nation or in the pronouncements of national media, celebrity ministers, and life coaches. However, I have heard it echoed countless times during peaceful marches, in local faith communities like Christ the King, Washington Missionary Baptist Church, and Eden Theological Seminary, as well as in the meetings of local groups, such as the Organization of Black Struggle and the Metropolitan Congregations United and their partners, and in many classrooms at Washington University in St. Louis. The call is the same: Just investigations are guaranteed under our constitution for all U.S. citizens regardless of race and class. It is not a gift. It is a right.

Without this shift pervading both our local and national conversations, we will have missed one fundamental lesson of “this whole Michael Brown thing.”

Lerone A. Martin is Assistant Professor of Religion and Politics at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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The Religious Roots of the Wilderness Act Tue, 02 Sep 2014 14:00:47 +0000 (David McNew/Hulton Archive/Getty).

(David McNew/Hulton Archive/Getty)

When Howard Zahniser was drafting the Wilderness Act—which marks its 50th anniversary today—he confided to a colleague that he wished he were writing poetry instead. “If I had to do this again,” he wrote, “I would much prefer to state all this in iambic rhyming couplets or even in the sequence of sonnets.”

Zahniser drafted his bill in prose, of course, and its details, at least initially, seem prosaic. The Wilderness Act bans all kinds of motors, roads, and permanent structures from large tracts of American territory. It provides a legal definition of wilderness, as land that’s “untrammeled by man” with a “primeval character and influence.” Over the last half-century, the federal government has used the Act to preserve more than 100 million acres of land. It may be the most comprehensive, stringent land protection bill in legislative history.

We take it for granted that wild, inhuman areas are beautiful, uplifting, and worthy of protection; that the natural is superior to the artificial; and that something pristine and untouched by human hands is better than something that’s been touched by human interference.

None of these ideas, though, just emerge automatically in the depths of our modern souls. When we drink bottled water with a picture of an alpine waterfall on the label, seek out foods free of genetically modified ingredients, try to mimic the eating habits of our Paleolithic ancestors, or visit one of the country’s wilderness areas, we’re reflecting a very particular way of thinking about purity, and a very particular kind of skepticism toward humanity’s ability to improve upon nature.

These ways of thinking aren’t religious, exactly. But they’re entangled with religious stories, and religious experiences. With the Wilderness Act turning 50, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the religious roots of our fascination with primeval lands, “untrammeled by man.” After all, that fascination owes much to Romantic spirituality, mountain mystics, and the Book of Genesis. Zahniser wasn’t kidding: the Wilderness Act is policy founded on poetry.

It all starts, of course, at the beginning, with a tale of three gardens.

The first is the Garden of Eden, as depicted in Genesis. Eden is portrayed as very much an agricultural paradise, as the Biblical scholar Theodore Hiebert has pointed out. Eden’s trees are selected for the quality of their fruit. The garden needs human cultivation: “God took the man and placed him the Garden of Eden,” says Genesis, “to till it and tend it.” In a description that spans fewer than 300 words, the author of Genesis still finds time to explain how Eden is irrigated.

Eden is neither a desert nor a wilderness. When the Bible does talk about wilderness, it’s usually as a kind of testing ground: the harsh lands through which the Israelites would be forced to wander for 40 years, and where Jesus would face his Satanic test. In Isaiah, the prophet foresees a time when a voice will proclaim “Clear in the desert / A road for the Lord! / Level in the wilderness / A highway for our God!” Suffice it to say that such activities would not be permitted under the Wilderness Act.

Over time, Eden evolves, which brings us to our second garden, the earthly paradise that issued from the imagination of John Milton. In Paradise Lost, Milton takes the spare prose of Genesis and elaborates it into thousands of lines of elegant pentameter. Milton’s Eden, like that of Genesis, is watery and lush. But Milton takes the Garden and makes it a bit wilder. The agricultural details fade away. Eden, now, is ringed by mountains and dense forests, “a steep wilderness” that’s “grottesque[sic] and wild.” Eden’s river, in Milton’s rendering, has a rapid current and a waterfall. There are grottoes and caves nearby. The land is beautiful, pastoral, and poetic. Eden isn’t just a garden. It is, in Milton’s words, “a Lantskip.” A landscape.

Paradise Lost was a bestseller, and Milton’s description of Eden would, among other effects, help revolutionize English gardening, making it more apt to mimic natural forms. (In this detail, and others, I’m indebted to the work of the historian Mark Stoll). It would set off, too, a slow-burning Eden fever. In the 1790s, a certain Thomas Butts visited the poet William Blake and his wife, Catherine, at their home in London. They were in their garden, naked, reciting sections of Paradise Lost. “Come in!” Blake is reported to have said. “It’s only Adam and Eve, you know!”

To Romantic thinkers like Blake, Eden wasn’t necessarily an actual geographic place waiting to be discovered (as many explorers have hoped), nor was it a kind of theological promise, the Zion to which one could return through piety and divine grace. It was, more than anything else, a state of mind—a state of mind that ran counter to the strictures of civilization. It could be discovered, perhaps, in the back garden of a London suburb. As Parita Mukta and David Hardiman write in “The Political Ecology of Nostalgia,” “During the 19th century, the search for Eden became displaced. No longer was it looked for in the form of a contemporary social and geographical reality, but as a state of being which had existed in the past of human society, and which would be resurrected in the future.”

That state of being could be found in certain landscapes. Our final garden sits in the mountains of California. Waters wend their way right down the middle. There are waterfalls nearby. It’s a pleasant park, ringed by steep mountain slopes. Throughout the nineteenth-century, poets, writers, and travelers visited Yosemite Valley and, as Stoll writes, they regularly compared it to Eden, with both explicit and implicit nods to Milton.

It should be noted, though, that the Romantic ideal of wilderness, which was later enshrined in the Wilderness Act, is in large part an illusion. The New World, after all, had been inhabited, for millennia, by cultures perfectly capable of trammeling the land. The landscape of North America was much further from its primeval state than most European settlers realized.

Nevertheless, Yosemite would also become the world’s first protected wilderness park in 1864. But it wasn’t just Yosemite that evoked thoughts of Milton in its visitors. Comparing the American backcountry to Eden, or to Zion, or to Arcadia, was a common pastime among nineteenth-century Americans. In a famous painting, now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole, rendered the expulsion from Eden in the style of an American landscape painting. As many critics complained at the time, Cole had blatantly plagiarized—and Americanized—some recently published illustrations, by the British artist John Martin, for an edition of Paradise Lost.

It wasn’t necessarily that Cole and others thought they had found the literal Eden. They had found a landscape that seemed to conform to their expectations of what an Edenic experience would be like: a place that seemed primeval, untouched by man, and separate from society, where the governing law was not the law of man, but a law of nature, or a law of God. This vision of Eden sounded different from an orderly agricultural paradise, tilled by Farmer Adam. It’s closer to Milton’s sublime Eden-scape, with its waterfalls and grottoes. And it expresses a very upper class, very civilized yearning for something—anything!—that seemed uncivilized.

THE URGE THAT NINETEENTH-CENTURY Americans felt to connect with a landscape untouched by the conscious working of human hands remains a force in modern society. With greater technological power, it seems, comes a greater yearning for the un-technological (the Wilderness Act, with its lengthy provisions against road-building, was passed in the midst of Interstate construction). Pay a visit to farmer’s market today, and it can feel as if you’ve entered a kind of reverse Jetsons, in which people in sleek cars, with substantial material comforts, imagine a future that looks like the past. Or chat with Paleo Dieters, who try to model their way of eating on the hunter-gatherers. These phenomena share a sense—seen in fantasies of Edenic submission; in ideas of the Noble Savage, in tune with the workings of nature; in polices that, like the Wilderness Act, ban technology—that there exists something purer, something realer, once you cross beyond the edges of human control.

Fittingly, what characterizes the heroes of the wilderness movement in the United States, above all, is their capacity for total abandon. Reading the memoirs of John Muir, it’s astonishing to realize how often Muir nearly died—trapped under a waterfall on a frozen night, after trying to glimpse the moon through the watery veil; sitting high in a tree during a mountain storm; stuck while free climbing a high cliff. Muir’s writing is ecstatic, laced with Biblical imagery and wild adventure. “Adam and Eve lose paradise through an act of choice,” writes the historian David Wyatt in The Fall Into Eden. “Muir regains it through an act of abandon.”

In a milder way, the same can be said of Howard Zahniser, the author of the Wilderness Act. The son of a Free Methodist minister, Zahniser was a devout, albeit unorthodox, Christian. After a stint with the federal government, he spent the last twenty years of the his life working for the Wilderness Society. Zahniser died in 1964, just weeks before the House of Representatives passed his Act, by a margin of 374-1.

In 1957, Zahniser had a mystical experience while camping in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. “As I lay there, inspired to worship, the words from some psalm came to mind: ‘Great peace have they which love thy law,’” Zahniser later wrote, quoting Psalm 119. “It came to me—a thought—that the peace of wilderness is indeed a peace of orderliness, of law.”

Zahniser was a bureaucrat, but his epiphany isn’t all that different from Muir’s mountain reveries. Nor it is all that different, I suspect, from the search for Eden in the vistas of the New World: namely, a hope that, when one sets aside the laws of civilization, another kind of law will appear, one that’s older, truer, and better than whatever humans have devised. Eden, after all, wasn’t just the landscape of primeval innocence. It was a fine-tuned mechanism, prepared to tick perpetually, and blessed with the most inhuman—the most divine—of designs.

BY THE 1960s, ZAHNISER was, perhaps, unusual for his explicit mixing of faith and preservationism.  “Early on, the environmental movement was deeply suspicious of religious people, and religious people were deeply suspicious of the environmental movement,” said Rebecca Gould, a senior lecturer in environmental studies at Middlebury College, in reference to the budding environmentalism of the 1960s and ’70s. As we spoke by phone, Gould was feeding her flock of five sheep. Her research focuses on the growing alliances between evangelical Christians and environmental groups, “a process that began the 1990s and has continued since.”

This deepening of Christian environmental activism, much of it oriented toward climate change, can feel fresh. But, as the roots of the Wilderness Act remind us, American attention to the environment has long been inflected with religious overtones. At times, those overtones may sound more pantheistic than Biblical. But, as Gould says, “I think underneath there’s always this love of nature as part of the American story.”

In 1967, Robert Bellah wrote a landmark, controversial essay about the concept of an American civil religion. Civil religion, in Bellah’s mind, isn’t specific to Christianity or Judaism or any other faith. It is, instead, “a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals” that permeates the public sphere, and that help the nation make sense of itself and its purposes.

Strangely, discussions of civil religion rarely touch on the idea of wilderness, even as wilderness areas become a kind of American sacred space, with sharp boundaries dividing them from other kinds of land, and with allusive names (Zion National Park). Wilderness protection, like so many religious searches, involves a search for something permanent, with a kind of order that transcends human law. In its own way, the Wilderness Act is a legislative attempt to grapple with the idea of eternity. Dealing with primeval landscapes, and with the idea of permanent protection, Congress addresses itself to timescales that are more commonly the purview of priests and paleontologists. As Zahniser told the Sierra Club in 1961, “We are working for a wilderness forever.”

Michael Schulson is a freelance writer in Durham, North Carolina. 

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The Hope of Ferguson Mon, 25 Aug 2014 17:56:39 +0000 Canfield Drive in Ferguson

A shirt and roses are left at the spot where Michael Brown was killed by police Aug. 9 on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

In May 1970 four unarmed college students were shot to death by members of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University. The iconic image from that horrific episode is a photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a fourteen-year-old girl, kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller on a university road. Its details—the mundane particularities of green lawns and academic buildings juxtaposed to students walking and standing around randomly, enveloped in a moment of collective disbelief and shock around the fact of a dead body—evoke both the startling specter of mortality and the terrifying suddenness with which tragedy can intrude on the business of ordinary life. Bodies ground us. At once unrelentingly specific and yet universal, flesh and blood keep us undeniably tied to the forces of life and death that we can’t escape. During the Civil War, the body of abolitionist John Brown, martyred for his attempt to foment a slave insurrection in 1859, gave birth to a song sung by Union soldiers and eventually transformed into a nationalist theme, the Battle Hymn of the Republic. And the body—first crucified, then resurrected—forms the core of the message for Christian believers, who celebrate both the particularity of the incarnation, of God in Jesus, and celebrate the universal message of salvation that Christ’s triumph over death offers them.

So, too, the mental picture of Michael Brown’s body on Canfield Drive in Ferguson has been evoked, memorialized, and etched into the minds of people within and beyond the limits of that small town over the last few weeks. The blood that escaped from Brown’s lifeless body as it lay for four hours in the road has now been replaced by rose petals, posters, balloons, and stuffed animals. But the memory of that body endures and has, indeed, been invoked as a powerful symbol in these days of frustration and sorrow. For some protesters and residents, it represents an enduring history of black bodies enslaved, lynched, and shot down senselessly, a struggle that continues. For others, it offers the hope of a renewed movement to combat injustice.

For the Rev. Traci Blackmon, the pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri, bodies are the business of the Christian church. She was already a formidably busy woman, working both as a pastor and a nurse, both professions in which intensive care for others plays a prominent role. But she has been on the run since Michael Brown’s shooting: less than five miles from Canfield Drive, Christ the King has served as a community gathering place for residents and their supporters. The church has hosted several packed meetings, and has collected goods for the residents of the Canfield Drive neighborhood who have been terrified by nights of unrest. Rev. Blackmon has counseled congregants and local residents, she has run to the grocery store for mothers stranded by the suspension of bus services, she has organized food distribution, and she is now planning a candlelight vigil for one evening and a session with Elder Bernice King, of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violence and Social Change, for the next. She attends to the bodies that remain, helping them both to commemorate the dead and to move on and work for a better way.

She is not the only shepherd of black bodies in Ferguson and beyond. Clergy and their community supporters in social work and mental health care have been meeting on a regular basis, organizing voter registration, food drives, career counseling, childcare, and even finding alternate housing for residents affected by tear gas. Karen Anderson and Tommie Pierson, two other local pastors, among numerous others, have been equally consumed in caring for bodies. To be sure, there are plenty of visitors—media, ministers, politicians, and others—who have claimed Michael Brown’s body for larger purposes: as a symptom of pressing social ills, of state sanctioned control of African Americans, of enduring economic structures that prevent social mobility. And white ministers locally have also been involved in protests, support, and community workshops to educate local Christians about the history of a city that they may never have heard.

All this is critically important, Blackmon reminds us. Christians need to advocate for peace, for justice, and for healing. But being in her presence for even a short amount of time reminds you that her focus starts with the body and its immediate needs. She is unrelentingly particular in her approach. The first week after Brown’s death, she preached a guest sermon in Kansas City, taking as her theme “The Blood Did It.” In her address she spoke about the body in Ferguson, relating it both to her own role as a mother of three children and as an African American who shared a history of distrust of the legal system. And she connected it to the blood of Jesus and the unity of believers made possible by his sacrifice. This week, her message back at her home church ranged widely, circling around Michael Brown’s death. Her main focus was on the interconnection of people: “We are not alone,” she insisted. Not the protesters, not the looters, not the police, not the Brown family. We need one another to get through this and to move on.

The essayist Rebecca Solnit has written persuasively about the need to use the past, to learn from it, but to move into the future with hope: “The past guides us; the future needs us.” So much of what has been written about Ferguson lingers on the anger and frustration, and keeps people trapped in cycles of recrimination. And there is plenty of anger to go around. Many folks, mostly whites who are sick of hearing about their complicity in racist institutions and structures, just want everyone to get over the past and move on. For African Americans, and for others who were inescapably shaped by the racial injustices of the last century, the past has been a touchstone as well as a burden, providing hope and solace along with grief. It’s a body that they can’t give up, but need to use to move forward.

But if anyone will help us find a way forward, it is the Traci Blackmon’s of this world. Traditionally there has been a division within black churches, between those who saw their main mission as advocating for political change and social justice, and those who provided food and solace, ministering to bodies but not seeking to reform structural impediments to full equality. The black churches around Ferguson reveal a very different, and more hopeful strategy. Heal the bodies, be present with bodies, resurrect the deadened bodies, and you can help them change the world.

At the conclusion of the service yesterday morning at Christ the King, the Rev. Blackmon invited those who wanted to join the church to come forward. She was met there by a young mother from the Canfield Green apartments who will join the church soon. In her introduction of the new member, Blackmon quipped that some people have said the role of the pastor is to give voice to the voiceless: “I don’t believe that there is anyone without a voice. There are only people without an audience.” Her role, as she sees it, is to find the audience, to let the residents of Ferguson speak up, participate, vote, and bring their own voices to life.

Such a strategy may bring social order, she asserts. But peace may not be the ideal outcome, as she says, “We don’t need peace right now—we need unrest.” Maybe she is implying that only death brings peace, while life offers something more complicated but more vital. A movement, not a memorial. Many clergy in St. Louis, both black and white, are hoping that communal resurrection will come from the tomb of Canfield Drive.

Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. 

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Amnesty Is Not the Answer Without Genuine Border Security Tue, 19 Aug 2014 15:45:57 +0000 Over the last several years numerous prominent evangelical officials and agencies have assertively advocated mass legalization of illegal immigrants as a biblical imperative. They joined more liberal Mainline Protestant agencies and officials, who have for many years urged this same policy. Both liberal Protestants and evangelicals frequently cited Old Testament commands to offer hospitality to strangers as their theological justification for sweeping immigration legislation.

Evangelicals are an important Republican constituency. So mobilizing evangelical support for legalization was considered key to persuading the GOP-run U.S. House of Representatives to acquiesce to the U.S. Senate’s version of comprehensive immigration reform, which included legalization first followed by later border security enhancements.

The Evangelical Immigration Table, a program of the National Immigration Forum, was formed to rally evangelicals for the legalization cause. With generous funding, it gathered an impressive list of endorsing organizations and individual religious leaders, from Jim Wallis’ Sojourners on the left, to the National Association of Evangelicals in the center, to Southern Baptists on the right. Hundreds of clergy were flown into D.C. for rallies. There were national radio and newspaper ads. There was a very successful media campaign, with almost every major news outlet announcing that immigration “reform” was the new key issue for evangelicals.

But as one Southern Baptist supporter of the immigration push regretted, it was largely a “grass tops” and not a “grassroots” campaign. Supposedly countless polls proved that evangelicals, along with nearly all other Americans, backed mass legalization over mass deportation. But almost no House Republicans were persuaded. The surprising defeat of GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his June primary in Virginia against an outspoken legalization opponent helped to ensure the death of sweeping immigration legislation in this Congress.

The Evangelical Immigration Table after Cantor’s loss was defiant, and prominent evangelicals signed a letter to the GOP House leadership insisting they pass immigration legislation before the August recess. But soon even President Obama acknowledged publicly that immigration “reform” was dead for this year.

Why were the evangelical advocates for mass legalization not more effective politically, despite tremendous funding, organization, and media? They perhaps believed their own media hype. Polls usually show evangelicals and others favoring legalization over mass deportations, if forced to choose between the two, although almost nobody advocates the latter. But polls also show most Americans, and almost certainly most evangelicals, favor security first before mass legalization. And when asked, most evangelicals favor reduced levels of even legal immigration. Even when forced to choose between legalization or deportation, evangelical support for the former actually dropped earlier this summer, despite the massive media blitz, according to a report at The Atlantic.

So why have evangelicals not followed many of their elites urging mass legalization? What is the right way for churches and people of faith to address illegal immigration? And how does the recent influx of minors from Central America affect the debate?

Nearly all polls show that evangelicals are the least supportive among religious groups of legalization proposals. Most evangelicals are conservative, and shifting them into a new cause not seen as conservative is naturally difficult. Like other skeptics of immigration “reform,” many likely are doubtful that the promised increased security that would follow mass legalization, as in the Senate legislation, would ever actually happen. The Evangelical Immigration Table pledged support for “secure national borders.” But the rhetoric of its leaders often implied otherwise. Some evangelical elites emphasized that all immigrants, legal or otherwise, are biblical style “sojourners” meriting full hospitality. Some faulted political opposition on racism and xenophobia, disregarding serious arguments for security.

Evangelicals have for decades often politically mobilized for issues like abortion, marriage, and religious freedom. These issues are closely tied to historic Christian teachings. Despite claims of “biblical” immigration policy, the Bible offers no specific policy guidance on U.S. immigration law in the twenty-first century. Christian teaching broadly affirms the dignity of all persons, and the state’s vocation for maintaining order. But the details of immigration law, like most of politics, are matters of prudential judgment about which Christians and others of good will can disagree.

The Catholic bishops, like some evangelical elites, strongly favor mass legalization. But Catholic teaching, with more nuance than often found in evangelical thought, suggests a hierarchy of teachings. Not all public policy issues have binding direction from Christian faith or equally compelling urgency. For example, Catholic teaching asserts that church strictures against abortion and euthanasia are absolutely binding. But what bishops may say about economic policy, or immigration law, while instructive and important, doesn’t claim the same binding moral authority, leaving room for prudential judgment. Evangelicals, among whom I number, can learn from Catholic thought.

Groups like the Evangelical Immigration Table, to be more effective, might take more seriously the deep concerns of legalization critics. What is the economic impact on working-class natives and legal immigrants of increased immigration and mass legalization? What are the theological imperatives for governments to secure borders? When does justice require deportations? And why not prioritize security first, which might facilitate a broader coalition for a legalization process later?

Finally, the dramatic arrival of many underage illegal immigrants at the border has aroused calls by many religious legalization advocates for the U.S. to embrace all minors who arrive at our shores. Churches are right to offer their ministry of compassion to all. But too many religious activists confuse the church’s vocation with the state’s. And often they succumb to narrow sentiment of the moment while disregarding potential unintended consequences of the future.

Many minors and adults illegally rushing to our borders did so believing de facto U.S. policy would permit their entry. Further talk of legalization or non-enforcement inevitably will encourage others to make the dangerous journey. Meanwhile millions around the world, many of whom live amid greater poverty and violence than Central Americans, wait for years for legal entry.

Evangelical elites and other religious advocates for mass legalization would be less polarizing and more persuasive if they listened to, instead of speaking for, their own constituency. They would do well to show more interest in genuine border security and to stop stigmatizing its advocates, recognizing that the Bible is not a detailed political manifesto. Churches would be more faithful to their vocation if they encouraged conversation and consensus on issues like immigration instead of contentious and dogmatic advocacy for only one side in the debate.

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