Religion & Politics Fit For Polite Company Tue, 25 Nov 2014 20:53:52 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Protestant Mainline Goes to Washington Wed, 19 Nov 2014 17:14:08 +0000

(Getty/LIFE/Paul Schutzer) President Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles arrive at National airport in Washington, DC.

On a Sunday morning this past October, some 1,500 preachers and ministers across the country joined in a nationwide protest they called Pulpit Freedom Sunday. They spoke defiantly from their pulpits about political campaigns and pending legislation. They even endorsed politicians, knowingly violating laws meant to prevent such mixing of church and state. Organized by the Alliance Defending Freedom, this group of evangelicals targeted the Johnson Amendment, which forbids tax-exempt organizations from endorsing political candidates and getting involved in campaigns. By violating these rules in an act of civil disobedience, they hoped to trigger a court case to get the amendment overturned. The issue, as they see it, is too much involvement by the government in religious life. The government should not tell Christians how to run their businesses, how to teach their children, or—as the Pulpit Freedom Sunday protesters asserted—how to write their sermons.

These sermons of protest were part of a broader political mobilization among religious institutions in the United States in recent years. The number of “Nones”—those professing no religious affiliation—is on the rise, and a small but vocal group of atheists are challenging Christian displays in public spaces. And the Christian Right appears to be losing the battle on gay rights. In response, many of the leading conservative religious organizations are mobilizing politically while also shifting their strategy. Their new aim is to mark off a part of life that can remain Christian, to protect Christians as a minority that can stand apart from the demands of a national culture they see as being dominated by secularism. The Hobby Lobby case was only the most prominent example of this trend.

On the other hand, a broad swath of American Christians sees things entirely differently. Although they receive far less attention, members of the religious left do not feel besieged by their country. Instead, they are pushing law and politics in the very directions the religious right is resisting. The United Church of Christ filed suit in April 2014 to overturn the prohibition on gay marriage in North Carolina. In the same state, many ministers are participating in the “Moral Monday” campaigns, a movement that is saturated in religious language. And Jim Wallis and Cornel West were arrested last month for protesting police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri. Although the left differs with the right on cultural policy, both groups see political mobilization as being at the heart of religious thought and practice.

How did politics become so central for religious life? The most familiar story goes something like this: in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, feminism, and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, and neoliberal Jews agreed to overlook their differences and work together to combat these trends. In the late 1970s, groups like Moral Majority mobilized religious conservatives, who threw their collective weight behind Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement. Emboldened by the rise of the New Right, religious conservatives launched the Culture Wars, which thrust their cultural agenda into the political sphere, leading to the polarization that we live with today.

The political mobilization by evangelicals in the seventies is important. But the moment when politics became inseparable from Protestant life came earlier, in the 1940s, and it came not from the religious right but the religious left.


WRITING IN 1950 FOR a small religious journal, two Protestant activists noticed a strange development in the decade that had just passed: Twenty mainline denominations and ecumenical organizations had opened up permanent lobbying offices in Washington, D.C., without much fanfare or notice. These lobbying offices pushed for progressive policies, in line with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal agendas. One of the authors of the article was Thomas B. Keehn, himself a registered lobbyist for the Congregational-Christian denomination, which today is part of the United Church of Christ. Working from a small office near the Capitol, Keehn was at that very moment lobbying for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, which would ensure access to jobs without racial discrimination, and for the removal of racial quotas from immigration law. The Cold War was beginning and Keehn protested against universal military training. He also pushed for the expansion of Social Security and the creation of a European-style universal healthcare system. Mainline Protestants had pushed for progressive policies in the past but never in such a sophisticated and direct way.

The affinity between Protestantism and progressive politics was well-known in the mid-twentieth century. And the opinions of mainline leaders carried weight. Like today, American Protestantism was largely a two-party system in the 1940s, and it was clear then that the liberal Protestants affiliated with the mainline denominations were winning against their evangelical opponents. Their churches were not growing as fast as evangelical ones but they were being filled with the right kinds of people: America’s middle and upper classes. Virtually every president, senator, big business leader, Supreme Court justice, and university head of that era was a member of one of the mainline denominations. Strangely, the religious representatives of America’s elite, especially those who were responsible for lobbying, were promoting a progressive political agenda.

It was World War II that made this confluence of power and politics possible. Largely forgotten leaders like the Rev. Henry P. Van Dusen believed that “secular” forces caused the war and that only religion could ensure a prosperous and safe postwar world. Van Dusen enlisted John Foster Dulles to coordinate a massive political and publicity campaign to keep America from making the same mistakes it made after World War I, when the country rejected the League of Nations. In the early 1940s, Dulles was working as a lawyer but he also actively advised Republican leaders and the State Department on foreign affairs. Later, he would become secretary of state, after a Republican (Eisenhower) was elected to the presidency in 1952, after 20 years of Democrats in the Oval Office. But even before he assumed a cabinet position, Van Dusen believed that Dulles’ political and religious connections made him the perfect advocate for what became the United Nations.

Dulles was raised in a pious Protestant household. He first got involved with Protestant politics in the 1920s, during the modernist-fundamentalist debates, when he was asked to defend Van Dusen and others in heresy trials for denying parts of the Presbyterian creed, like the virgin birth of Christ. Dulles acted as a lawyer in some of these cases on behalf of the modernist faction. By the 1930s, as the world was heading toward war, he attended international conventions of Protestant and Orthodox churches. The unity of these churches impressed him at a moment when the League of Nations was falling apart. Before the start of World War II, Dulles was already convinced that Protestants would lead the way in creating a new world order.

Once World War II began, Dulles and Van Dusen got to work. In early 1942, they organized a conference in Delaware, Ohio, at which they laid out a 13-point program for world peace. The nearly 400 delegates in Delaware included 15 bishops, seven seminary heads, eight college and university presidents, along with important intellectuals and ecumenical leaders. Fearing that this program would suffer the fate of Woodrow Wilson’s 14-point program, Dulles whittled their plan down to “Six Pillars” the following year. “The peace must provide the political framework for a continuing collaboration of the United Nations,” the first pillar declared. Moral persuasion was not enough to avoid a Third World War: Protestant values needed to be expressed politically.

The Protestant values elaborated by the Six Pillars did not seem especially “Protestant.” They included the creation of international economic treaties, continuously renegotiated political treaties, autonomy for colonial peoples and diminution of racism, control of militaries, and religious liberty. Some of these values, like religious liberty, were longstanding Protestant concerns. Others, like anti-colonialism, had emerged only recently. But the major development was the widespread understanding that all of these values needed to be expressed politically, or else the world would go through war after war without end.

To promote the Six Pillars, Dulles orchestrated the World Order movement. He enlisted members of Congress, along with America’s cultural and economic elite, to go from city to city and implore Americans to support the United Nations on religious grounds. At the same time, denominations used radio programs, sermons, the press, and church curricula to mobilize churchgoers. In total, tens of millions of Protestants participated in one way or another in what became the biggest political mobilization by mainline Protestants since Prohibition. While the grassroots were becoming enthusiastic about the U.N., Dulles kept his eyes on the political sphere. He met with American and world leaders, and attended the 1945 U.N. conference in San Francisco to make sure this organization was being created in line with Protestant principles.

Through the World Order movement Protestant lobbying was born. At a time of widespread enthusiasm for the United Nations, there was little objection to using modern bureaucratic techniques to express religious principles in national and international politics. Mainline leaders wanted to keep watch over legislation affecting the postwar peace process because they believed that Washington politicians might repeat the mistakes of World War I, when the Senate rejected the League of Nations. Offices began popping up on and around Capitol Hill. The Congregationalists opened theirs in 1944, and the Federal Council of Churches office opened during following year. The first religious lobbying offices were often no more than a room in a larger building, with a single person in charge of most of the work. The Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Northern Baptists crowded together in a building on 11th Street. A secretary or two would help organize some of the day-to-day work for lobbyists like Keehn, the Congregationalist, and an advisory council made up of local leaders met regularly to discuss the latest legislation. When needed, lobbyists could also tap into the broader national network of influential political players, like Dulles. Although they started small, these lobbying offices could be quite effective in Congress.

The organizing was clumsy at first, but over time the Protestant mainline became a sophisticated political animal. Budgets and staffs grew, drawing praise from some and condemnation from others. As early as 1946, one Congregationalist minister protested at a national gathering by carrying a placard that read:

When the overwhelming majority of our Congregational Christians who hold to the free American way of life, find out how their tithes and offers for ‘missions’ are being misused by [the denomination] to maintain a left wing lobby in Washington and to promote state socialism, how are they going to react? Eighty thousand dollars for political action in 1945!

The consequences of Protestant political mobilization during the 1940s transformed both American religion and American politics. Keehn focused on creating an international organization at first but soon switched his attention to other concerns, like ending segregation and fighting poverty. Mainline Protestants were not the only ones who pursued these goals but they were unique because they represented disproportionately a white, wealthy, and Republican constituency. In the short term, they helped create a modicum of bipartisanship on some of the important social questions of the mid-century.

In the long term, however, the “left wing” lobbies split their community. The policies they pursued had alienated some conservative members of the Protestant mainline. At a 1942 meeting in Oxford, Dulles had promoted “something like a ‘new deal’ for the world” to his British colleagues. But by the 1950s, he was telling acquaintances that the National Council of Churches was full of people with “Left Wing and Socialist tendencies.” As mainline leaders moved to the left, they left people like Dulles behind, who found new allies among evangelicals, and later, likeminded Catholic and Jewish conservatives.


WHAT WAS THE PROPER relationship between church and state? Could church leaders make policy on their own or did they need the approval of the laity? The architects of these lobbying groups could only plead caution and non-partisanship.

When the Johnson Amendment passed in 1954—the amendment that was the target of the recent Pulpit Freedom Sunday—it was in the context of the political mobilization of mainline Protestants, not evangelicals. That same year, “Under God” had been inserted into the pledge of allegiance and two years later “In God We Trust” would become this country’s national motto. Yet Congress concluded that there ought to be limits to church-based political activity. Political mobilization, voter registration, lobbying, and preaching on controversial subjects was fine. Political partisanship, especially the promotion of specific candidates, was not. Mainline leaders were on board with such caution. Even though vigilant denominational lobbyists kept an eye on the legislation, there was little reaction to the amendment at the time, either from politicians or from religious organizations. At a time when denominations did not clearly align with party goals, the desire to keep these groups nonpartisan was widespread.

The prominence of mainline Protestants has dwindled since their heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. Their most important institution—the National Council of Churches—has faced funding problems for decades and has recently relocated from its historic home in Manhattan to a cheaper location in Washington, D.C. Yet their move to D.C. was not just a matter of finances: it was also an affirmation of the importance of politics for the National Council. In fact, the current National Council president, James Winkler, was previously the director of the United Methodists’ lobbying group. With a staff of nearly two dozen, Winkler was in charge of “the implementation of the Church’s Social Principles through Capitol Hill advocacy work,” according to the Methodists’ website. Now Winkler works to translate the moral vision of his ecumenical organization into a political force.

Today, segments on both the left and the right insist that they must fulfill their religiously inspired missions in the realm of politics. No simple call for church-state separation is a plausible solution to the challenges that religious political mobilization creates. To ask Protestants to stop getting involved in politics is to ask them to stop fulfilling what they see as a religious injunction. What must be carefully considered, from the perspective of the religious groups who engage in politics and from the perspective of those who are more generally concerned with the relations between religion and government, is if and how this relationship should be regulated.

Gene Zubovich is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. His dissertation, completed in 2014, is titled, “The Global Gospel: Protestant Internationalism and American Liberalism, 1940-1960.”

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After the Midterms, Where Can Congress and Obama Find Consensus? Wed, 12 Nov 2014 16:40:45 +0000 (Getty/Pool)


Abetter-than-expected performance in the recent congressional midterm elections left the Republican Party in control of both houses of Congress. Not only did the GOP capture control of the Senate by ousting a slew of Democratic incumbents, Republicans also added to their majority in the House by at least 13 seats. The result is a very divided government, which has already prompted renewed concerns about gridlock. Will the next two years promise to be an unfortunate sequel to the last two in terms of legislative accomplishment?

Some analysts are expressing cautious—albeit perhaps unwarranted—optimism that the new congressional configuration might actually jump-start the legislative process. Carl Hulse at The New York Times noted that Obama and a GOP Congress might find common ground on trade and energy issues, such as the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Even newly minted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who once vowed to make Obama a “one-term President,” has promised a productive session. At a recent news conference, he promised to end the “gridlock” and “dysfunction” stifling Washington in recent years.

If our political leaders are serious about identifying areas of common purpose they might consult the public, which both reelected Obama by a significant margin in 2012 and gave him a robust Republican congressional majority to work with two years later. Although recent acrimony among elected leaders might suggest otherwise, there are a number of issues about which the public agrees.

Over the last five years, my colleagues and I at Public Religion Research Institute have found that there is widespread support for increasing the minimum wage to $10-an-hour—a move which consistently garners the approval of roughly 7-in-10 Americans. And although Americans differ sharply by race and class on many economic issues, white college-educated Americans (58 percent) approve of this policy almost as readily as white working-class Americans (66 percent). Meanwhile, black and Hispanic Americans overwhelmingly support a minimum-wage hike.

Any doubts about how the public feels about increasing the minimum wage were answered resoundingly with the passage of ballot initiatives raising state minimum-wage laws in four unlikely places—Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. Every state that had minimum wage on the ballot in 2014 saw it succeed, most by fairly wide margins.

Policies that address sick and family leave also engender strong support. Nearly 8-in-10 (78 percent) Americans favor requiring businesses to provide all full-time employees with paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child. Support is similarly robust for a policy that would require companies to provide all full-time employees with paid sick days (81 percent favor). Regardless of where Americans place themselves on the political spectrum, support remains strong for both policies. Fully 70 percent of Republicans favor paid sick days for full-time workers, compared to 82 percent of political independents and 90 percent of Democrats.

Another area of consensus has emerged around eliminating mandatory minimum sentences—policies that dictate the length of a prison sentence based on the crime and that may lead to long prison stays for non-violent offenses. The issue of mandatory minimums has received increased media attention of late after it found an unlikely advocate in Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Paul has already co-sponsored legislation with Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that would give judges more discretion to ignore mandatory minimum sentencing requirements in certain cases. But in leading on the issue, neither Paul nor Leahy is advocating a position that would alienate their base supporters. Quite the contrary. Nearly 7-in-10 (69 percent) Americans who are part of the Tea Party movement agree that mandatory minimum prison sentences for non-violent offenders should be eliminated. Ninety-one percent of liberals also agree. There are few issues that put liberals and Tea Party members on the same side, but eliminating mandatory minimums is one.

Popular accounts of the current cultural and political landscape consistently portray the public as hopelessly divided. Increasing polarization among our legislators is a reflection of the growing divisions in the public. Certainly, policy differences between Democrats and Republicans are real, and recent work has shown that the ideological rift between them is growing. However, media accounts often exaggerate our differences and inflate the volume of disagreement to gin up interest and boost ratings.

As pollsters, we are at times complicit in promoting this narrative by spending an inordinate amount of time cataloguing America’s many fault lines. Few would argue that this is unimportant. It would be impossible to fully understand the increasing diversity and complexity in the U.S. without highlighting the ways we are distinct and unique from one another. But by focusing unrelentingly on our differences, we sometimes fail to identify the issues that unite us. Certainly, when it comes to governing, the reasons we differ and the issues we disagree over are less important than the areas of consensus that we are able to find. It may not appear dramatic or interesting to political observers, but perhaps no issues better define who we are as people or where we are as a country than the issues about which we all basically agree.

Dan Cox is director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute.

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The State of Interfaith Work: An Interview with Welton Gaddy Tue, 04 Nov 2014 13:26:19 +0000 (Courtesy of the Interfaith Alliance) Welton Gaddy

(Courtesy of the Interfaith Alliance) Welton Gaddy

The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy might seem like an unlikely champion for interfaith activism and for the separation of church and state. Raised in what he describes as a staunchly conservative Christian household, Gaddy completed his undergraduate education at Union University, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and earned a doctorate from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Gaddy became a prominent member of the SBC’s national leadership, which included a term on the convention’s executive committee (1980-1984).

And yet for Gaddy, it was the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC that launched his career as a leading voice among progressive Christians calling for the inclusion of people of all faiths, and of no faith, in the American political process and against what he calls the “prostitution of religion for the advancement of partisan politics.”

In 1998, Gaddy became the president of Interfaith Alliance, which bills itself as “the only national interfaith organization dedicated to protecting the integrity of both religion and democracy in America.” In 2008, with the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Gaddy co-authored First Freedom: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State. Gaddy also hosts a nationally broadcast weekly radio program, “State of Belief,” and serves as senior pastor at Northminster Church in Monroe, Louisiana.

At the end of 2014, Gaddy will retire from Interfaith Alliance. He recently spoke to R&P about his years as president of Interfaith Alliance, a position that Gaddy describes as having two roles. “The first is to help people to understand that you can be very religious, but you also have to be understanding of people that are different from you. And the second is to teach Americans that the role of the government is not to support one particular religious view, but to give all Americans the right to practice their religion.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. –M.P.M.

R&P: What is the theology behind your interfaith work?

WG: Theology is very important to me as a foundation for ministry and also a foundation that provides the kind of security to think broadly and deeply—and to have the right to change your mind.

You will understand where I’m coming from better if you know that I grew up in a very conservative home. My parents were wiser than they were smart in terms of formal education. But they did understand the importance of love and honesty and trying to apply faith to every dimension of life. My move—a theological move an institutional move away from fundamentalism, personally and institutionally—was grounded in those original values. They weren’t divorced from them.

The further I got into ministry, the more I realized that there was a scarcity of real honesty, within both the church and the government. That was important to me because I understood that religion and government are the two institutions that I consider the most influential in relation to our lives together, whether in a small community or in the global community.

R&P: Your upbringing and formal theological training come out of a tradition that many consider intolerant of other faiths and explicitly and openly engaged in the political process to make the government reflect its particular conservative social values. How has this background affected your own understanding of the proper relationship between church and state?  

WG: I was very fortunate to be at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary when we had top-notch scholars that did not want to indoctrinate but instead wanted to educate their students to think for themselves and to come to their own conclusions. But even in that institution, the two issues that, in my opinion, now have to be at the center of theological education were on the periphery.

One is how the individual and the house of worship relate to government. And the second is how we relate, personally and institutionally, to people who are of different religions and people who hold to no particular religion. And so it was imperative for me to come at both of those questions with a level of honesty that made me very uncomfortable sometimes in my thoughts because they were not just different, but were often contradictory to what I had grown up believing.

R&P: You often speak critically of the SBC’s turn to fundamentalism in the 1970s and 1980s. How did that experience affect your later advocacy for interfaith work and for the separation of church and state?

WG: I was right at the center of leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention when the fundamentalist takeover of that convention started. Much of the change that has taken place in me regarding the theology that I embrace, as well as the theological principles that influence my decision making and actions, grew out of the disappointment that came with what happened in Southern Baptist life.

But then the surprise, the joy of freedom [that I found] in a larger community, changed my mentality and worldview. My work at Interfaith Alliance grew out of that change in theology and the broader vision that showed me that most religious institutions, like other institutions, have their own selfish purposes, and sometimes even divert from their mission in order to preserve the institution.

The realization that the SBC was not going to be my home was directly related to my decision to pastor a congregation that was not within that convention, and to embrace a profession and leadership in an interreligious community. And it was directly related to what I saw happen in the name of religion that wasn’t religious.

R&P: Religion was thus a cover for a political agenda?

WG: Yes, and let me be very specific. The issues of divisiveness in the Southern Baptist Convention were always portrayed as theological issues. In reality, they were issues of politics, power, and economics.

For a long time, there was talk about the inerrancy of the Bible being at the center of the controversy in the SBC. That was a flag under which a power-based, independent, fundamentalist movement worked in order to take over the convention. Not necessarily to make it a new and revived kind of Baptist institution, but to make it an institution that reflected the politics of the leaders of the movement and handed to them the power to try and shape that convention, and ultimately to shape the nation, according to their politics.

I remember one of the first speeches that I gave after coming to D.C. [in the late 1990s] was a presentation to Republicans. I remember saying to them, “the same people that stole my spiritual home in the Southern Baptist Convention are the same people that want to steal this nation and your party.”

Today we’re seeing changes to the nation’s perception of what counts as religious liberty, which is much more about politics than it is about religion.

You know, when I was growing up, if you asked what does it mean to be a Christian, the answer to that was, you believe in Jesus as the revelation of God and commit to following him with devotion in both belief and behavior. Now the measurement of religious authenticity in much of Christianity is not about that confession, but about where you stand on abortion, where you stand on gay marriage, where you stand on the role of women in the church, the method of interpretation you use while studying the scripture, whether or not you believe that members of the GOP community are the people of God, or whether they’re sinners that God looks away from, and whether or not government money should be used to advance religion. Those are the issues now. So, being a Christian—and I’m talking about this because I am a Christian—being a Christian now has a political interpretation of it that I never knew in the simplicity of an earlier stage of my life.

R&P: So these fights over theology in the SBC, for example the inerrancy of the Bible, weren’t about Bible. The Bible became a proxy fight for politics?

WG: That’s exactly right. The fundamentalist movement in the Southern Baptist Convention used the Bible as a tool for organizing a political movement and claiming authority for it. I grew up believing the Bible. I have, from day one until this day, taken the Bible very seriously. My understanding about interpretation of the Bible has changed, but not my respect for the authority of the Bible. I think what has been most helpful in that pilgrimage has been understanding the nature of the literature of any biblical text, which ought to determine the way in which we interpret that text.

In a study of the Bible, you find passages that textually don’t make any sense in relation to the whole sweep of biblical truth. When that happens, you have to measure that text over and against texts that seem to be out of step with others.

Let me just say to you, I have struggled with passages of the Bible. My own changes in thought about race, about homosexuality, about government, all of those changes have come as a result of not only looking carefully at what was around me, but also studying the Bible, which I have always considered an authority.

R&P: So, are there particular passages that you find not to fit into the Bible’s comprehensive truth? Are we talking about Leviticus, for example?

WG: Leviticus is a good illustration. Most people had never read Leviticus until LGBT movement started. Often in speeches to LGBT groups, I thank them because they’ve done more for the popularity of Leviticus than any other group in the history of the world.

But interpretation of Leviticus within the larger context of the biblical message is important. I think the same is true in understanding key passages in the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John was written in a very specific historical setting, which highly influenced some of the passages that we read. What we have in the fundamentalist mission, the phrase, “No one comes to the father but by me,” on the lips of Jesus, has perpetrated a kind of exclusivism in Christianity that I find without credibility when looking at the ministry of Jesus. One verse does not a Bible make.

We’re seeing right now the danger of “proof-texting” because not only have many people used it to prove Christianity, now proof-texting is used to peddle hate against Islam. This whole controversy about whether or not Islam is a religion of peace is based on people citing out of context various parts of the Qur’an. One Sunday in the church that I pastor, I started a sermon by reading several passages from the Bible, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures, intermingling with those some verses from the Qur’an. And the people couldn’t tell the difference.

My point is that I respect the authority of sacred scripture, but I also know that sacred scripture has been manipulated to make people comfortable with and even to justify behavior that is anti-biblical in every sense of the word.

R&P: Let’s talk about leadership. You talked recently to Paul Raushenbush on your radio show about the legacy and import of the Social Gospel, with which Paul is intimately familiar. What does it mean to be a religious leader both inside the pulpit and away from it, in the city streets, for example, as the Social Gospelers would teach?

WG: I’ve always liked as a definition for preaching that of Phillips Brooks, “Preaching is truth through personality.” I think there cannot be an inconsistency between what a person says in the pulpit and what a person does in the community. When you get that separation, you have a sense that the faith is not for all of life, but for only part of life, and that’s not, of course, the case.

I found that one of the best decisions and the most freeing decisions that I ever made was when I decided to be the preaching minister in a congregation while at the same time being the leader of a national interreligious agency. I take into the pulpit the great debates that go on in the national and international community as well as what’s happening in our own local community.

R&P: And yet when it comes to politics, at least formally speaking, you believe that there should be a bright, red line?

WG: I do not believe that you can be faithful to the Christian tradition and not be interested in and involved in politics. But, there is a difference between doing partisan politics and what you do in the pulpit and what you do in the community.

Philippians (1:27), it says, “Let your conversation be worthy of the gospel.” The word there is polis, the word from which we get politics. So I try to talk about the politics of the gospel. And the politics of the gospel are all about justice and equality, and breaking down barriers in the community, and seeing to it that people are not hungry, and that we are working for peace. And those are the politics to which I’m called.

But the demarcation has been greatly blurred in the last years of our nation. I do not want any politician telling me what I need to believe or how I need to pray or to what source I should turn for ultimate authority. I don’t trust any politician to tell me that. In my experience, when religion and politics, especially partisan politics, become totally entangled, religion loses. And politics wins.

R&P: Recently, you’ve been particularly critical about how religion has influenced politics, in particular the politics of the Supreme Court. You’ve called the Hobby Lobby decision a “grave error.”

WG: I think that the Hobby Lobby decision was a sea change moment in America’s dedication to religious freedom as historically interpreted in the Constitution. What we’re seeing now is one case after another of individuals or corporations saying that their religious freedom is being denied because they can’t practice something that they’ve been practicing or they can’t refuse to do something that they’ve been refusing to do. This is out of step with the historic interpretations of religious freedom.

R&P: And yet you have not only been critical of the Religious Right’s entanglement with politics.

WG: From day one, I personally, and the agency that I have led, opposed faith-based funding from the government, and certainly a faith-based office in the White House. And my hope was, and it was perhaps an unrealistic hope, that President Obama would simply do away with the faith-based office in the White House.

I’ve done enough testimony in congressional hearings with people who worked in the Bush Administration and otherwise to know that there is widespread support to do away with the faith-based initiative. This is the kind of hope that Obama gave us with his initial run for the presidency that has not come to fruition. And so we now have a very confused situation that has worsened the entanglement of religion and government.

We now have government funding religious ministries and, at the same time, we have religious organizations lobbying the government successfully to be exempt from regulations that were born out of religious freedom concerns. That’s one of the sea changes that got us to Hobby Lobby.

R&P: So when you say government funding of religious ministries, do you mean, for example, drug and alcohol facilities that are explicitly faith-based?

WG: I’m talking about what most houses of worship would call social ministries. And they could be related to a drug rehab program or they could be a children’s education program like Head Start.

Here’s the rub. I am for all of those programs. I want to see to it that organizations that work on feeding hungry people have the money they need to do that ministry. But I don’t want any of it done in a way that compromises the integrity of religion or further entangles religion and government to the point that the government has a reason and claims a right to intrude on the religious house of worship or organization involved.

And that’s what we’ve seen. As early as I can remember, in my Baptist tradition, we said government regulations follow government dollars. That’s exactly what happens. The faith-based office, especially during the Bush Administration, became a political tool. It was always interesting to see that some of the biggest grants from the faith-based office went to some of the most politically close districts in election years. We’re not naïve enough to think that there weren’t politics in that.

R&P: One of the things that struck me listening to your radio show is that you highlight a very pluralistic religious calendar, from Jains to Jews to Orthodox Christians to evangelicals to Catholics. What purpose does highlighting this diversity serve?

WG: For one thing, it is a decision rooted in my approach to Christianity. I view Christianity as a religion of respect and reconciliation and a religion that points towards cooperation for the common good. Secondly, I’m aware that the United States is the most religiously pluralistic nation in the world. And I am convinced that the religious vibrancy in our nation stems from the religious liberty clauses in the Constitution that brings respect for all religions. I want listeners of “State of Belief” to know that we can’t exclude anybody from the religious groups in our nation. And we have an obligation to know something about them and to give them at least respect to do what they do. And one small way to do that is to know what’s going on in various religious communities across the country on any given day.

R&P: I’d like to raise a question of a different kind of diversity, that is of the inclusion of LGBTQ folks in American politics, in American culture, and especially in American houses of worship—efforts that you have championed. Take the rainbow flag: For many, seeing that flag flying on a church door is a sign of inclusivity. But for folks who are honestly grappling with the question of marriage, it could feel like a sign that they aren’t welcome. Does the Religious Left need to be careful about the limits of its own inclusivity?

WG: That’s a great question. And it’s one that I appreciate because as a minister, this question has been a source of controversy for me because of my position on LGBT issues.

If you look at the church where I’ve been for 22 years now, you will not see a rainbow flag. And my strong conviction is that it is a redundancy to have to prove that a church is inclusive. I think we have to start with the assumption that a church is inclusive, so the people that come to that church come with interest in being recipients of ministry. I would no more ask a person wanting to become a member of our church if they were gay or straight than I would if they were a Democrat or a Republican or if they were affluent or poverty-stricken. The church is for persons.

This is relevant to what you’re saying. I have always argued against the idea that Interfaith Alliance be considered a part of the Religious Left, in opposition to the Religious Right. The things that are wrong with the Religious Right remain wrong if they are done in the same way by the Religious Left. What I’m interested in is an open-minded approach to religion that is willing to embrace distinctions within various congregations without those distinctions becoming barriers for cooperation.

Let me talk specifically then about marriage. Marriage is one of those issues in which neither the leaders [on the left or right] of the government have been as honest as they out to be. The same is true for many religious leaders. Marriage is, in the United States, like it or not, a civil issue. It is a religious issue for a lot of people, but marriage is totally a governmental issue. I cannot perform a wedding ceremony that’s recognized by the state unless I get a license from the government. And so if marriage is a governmental issue as it is, then every person in this government ought to have the same rights.

I remember when we were dealing with the hate crimes bill, and I had lots of calls from people about [Interfaith Alliance] supporting the hate crimes bill. I remember the day the vote was taking place, and a guy called me, and he was just outraged, and I said: “Listen. This bill will not affect your right to hate. You still have it. They can’t take it away from you. You just can’t go into your pulpit and preach a message based on hate that would cause someone to want to go out and kill someone they disagreed with.” And it’s the same thing that I say to people who get so upset about same-gender marriage. That is a civil rights’ issue. If we’re not going to give the same rights to every citizen in the nation across the board, then we’re not being true to our Constitution.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t still preach against that kind of marriage, if you want to do it. That’s your prerogative. But the prerogative that you claim for your pulpit, you can’t enforce on the nation. That’s the way I’ve come at that, and I understand there’s differences in opinion on it, as you would expect there would be. But we’re a nation that can manage differences of opinions, and we can still work together on our democracy.

R&P: Can politicians learn anything from the model of civility and respect that you and other interfaith leaders foster?

WG: One of the great joys of this job at Interfaith Alliance was getting to know Walter Cronkite and getting to be one his close friends. And I remember one day Walter and I were talking about the low levels of trust in Congress, when they hit under 10 percent of people trusting them. I said what do you think should be done about that, and he said, “Well, it would help if they would just tell the truth.”

Now, I go back to that because I still believe that is essential. You cannot tell me that the partisan votes on issue after issue actually represent the opinions of every member of Congress. I want to elect people to office who will tell us what their values are and then be honest about how they apply them.

Sure, they can learn something important by looking at the interreligious community, but they have also got to get off the high horse of thinking that every political decision is also a moral, religious decision. That’s what’s caused the hard-lining on both sides of the aisle. Unless we can return to the basic definition of politics, which is the art of governing, and work on that art without bias and without prejudice and with honesty, knowing that compromise is the way forward, then the gridlock will not stop. I think there’s more to be learned about our historic, American tradition than there is to be looking at the interreligious model.

R&P: I know that you have to run and we’ve gone well over our allotted time. I thank you, sir.

WG: You’re welcome.

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A Theme Park, a Scandal, and the Faded Ruins of a Televangelism Empire Tue, 28 Oct 2014 17:28:56 +0000 (AP Photo/The Charlotte Observer, Diedra Laird) An abandoned site at what was the Heritage USA theme park in Fort Mill, South Carolina

(AP Photo/The Charlotte Observer, Diedra Laird) An abandoned site at what was the Heritage USA theme park in Fort Mill, South Carolina

If you happen to find yourself on I-77 just south of Charlotte, North Carolina, consider a detour to the crumbling ruins of what used to be the third-most-visited theme park in the United States. Heritage USA was founded in the late 1970s by Pentecostal superstars Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker as part of their ministry, PTL (Praise the Lord, or People that Love). Conceived and built during the rise of the modern religious right, Heritage USA combined the Bakkers’ growing televangelism empire with theme-park hedonism, offering an immersive experience in the sights, sounds, and practices of American conservative evangelicalism.

In its heyday, the “Inspirational Park for the Whole Family” boasted something for everybody. A miniature train carried visitors around the main campus, where activities included tennis, horseback riding, and swimming. In 1986, the Bakkers added a $12-million waterpark that included the world’s largest wave pool and a 52-foot waterslide. Heritage USA also included an extensive campground and R.V. park, timeshares, mid-range and luxury hotels, and even condominiums for PTL supporters—mainly retirees—who wanted to live near the ministry’s headquarters year-round.

Heritage USA’s size made it remarkable—spanning approximately 2,300 acres, it was more than 10 times larger than Disneyland in California and nearly 20 times larger than Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Florida. But size was not the main feature that set Heritage USA apart from its secular rivals. This getaway spot was intended to be, as one park map put it: “A Special Place for God’s People.” Included among its other attractions were Billy Graham’s boyhood home, a shop that replicated the experience of shopping in a Jerusalem marketplace, and a passion play depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ, with the aid of light-show special effects.

Another major draw was the park’s life-size version of the Upper Room, which Christians believe was the site of both the Last Supper and the Pentecost (when the early disciples first received the Holy Spirit and found themselves able to speak in many tongues). Like the Jerusalem shop, the Upper Room offered a curated version of the Holy Land for Christians unable to or uninterested in travelling to the Middle East. In fact, Jim Bakker expressed his hope in 1986 that the park would one day include a “full-scale replica of Jerusalem as it was in the time of Jesus.”

But these attractions weren’t intended to be mere facsimiles. In promotional literature and on their television programs, the Bakkers described the Upper Room as a pilgrimage site in itself. They shared the testimonials of people who had received spiritual and even physical healing by praying in the Upper Room, or even by having someone else pray for them there. “Michelle was unable to afford a lengthy hospital stay,” one report began, but luckily she “knew of a physician who worked for free and was on call 24 hours a day.” Prayer in the Upper Room reportedly healed Michelle’s foot; it also saved people “from the brink of suicide” and “delivered [a man] from the practice of witchcraft” one Halloween night. The room was open and staffed by PTL pastors 24 hours a day. And for those unable to visit in person, the lower level housed PTL’s International Prayer Phone Center, where volunteers answered calls and prayed for believers around the clock. Within a year of opening, the Upper Room had its own show on the PTL television network that invited viewers to call in to share their prayer requests and testimonies. In this way, the Bakkers’ theme park and their media enterprise readily supported one another. The Upper Room provided content for PTL’s television programming, and PTL broadcasts advertised the Upper Room to potential visitors.

Heritage USA—as a part of the Bakkers’ broader ministry—offered visitors a very specific brand of Christian devotion and spectacle. During the 1980s, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were among the most prominent examples of a reinvigorated prosperity gospel. (Interested readers should pick up a copy of Kate Bowler’s book Blessed for an in-depth analysis of this fascinating movement). Often derided as “health and wealth” theology, prosperity gospel ran through the Bakkers’ ministry, from their promises of divine healing to their own conspicuous consumption and flashy lifestyles. During a historical moment in which more and more Pentecostal believers were climbing into the middle class, the over-the-top experience of Heritage USA helped to reinforce the message of a new Pentecostalism. Far from banning makeup, soda, and leisure activities as their forebears had, this new generation embraced some measure of self-indulgence and they gave it Christian outlets, including a theme park. The Heritage Herald, a weekly newspaper published for visitors to the park, emphasized earthly pleasures like dining and shopping alongside testimonials about spiritual healing and renewal.

Believers who chose to vacation or even to live at the park were drawn in part by the opportunity to become a part of the Bakkers’ world. Guests were almost certain to be able to see the Bakkers in person by attending any number of live tapings throughout the day. By the mid-1980s, the PTL Satellite Network was broadcasting 24 hours a day. Many programs—from talk and variety shows to televised church services and Bible studies—required studio audiences, which were made up of Heritage USA visitors and residents. A visit to Heritage USA offered fans the opportunity to become a very real part of the shows that they were accustomed to watching at home.

The Heritage USA campus was also home to several of PTL’s other ministries, including Bible study retreats and Christian counseling services that were open to visitors. Supporters who had donated to any (or many) of PTL’s ongoing fund-drives could benefit from these services, but they could also come to see their money at work and to be reassured that their dollars were doing good. Park guests were also encouraged to spend part of their vacation time volunteering for the ministry in order to help “save the ministry thousands of dollars a year which can then be spent on other PTL ventures such as world missions.” And for those who wanted a more direct return on their investment in the ministry, PTL “lifetime partnerships” (offered for donations of $1,000 or more) promised three free nights annually at the Heritage Grand Hotel.

As much as Heritage USA offered a specific version of Christianity, it also demonstrated a particular vision for America, intertwining Christian and patriotic themes to the point that they were inseparable. Though Heritage USA was a centrally religious venture, its name did not directly evoke religion or even the PTL ministry. Instead, it called out to the nation and its past. The park itself was a pastiche of iconic Americana, from “Fort Heritage” to a stylized “Main Street” lined with pastel restaurants and old-timey shops, including Susie’s Ice Cream Parlor, the Noah’s Ark Toy Shoppe, and a “General Store.”

These features were not unique to this park—consider, for example, the Magic Kingdom’s “Frontierland” and “Main Street, USA”—but their inclusion in a religious theme park should not be taken for granted. Heritage USA exhibited a particular fusion of religious and national symbols that was becoming widespread in conservative Protestant theologies at the time, even within ministries that did not make political activism a central concern. Appeals to an idealized American past relied on the same assumptions about national decline that were fundamental to the religious right, and places like Heritage USA demonstrated what the nation could be if it returned to its moral, Protestant roots. It is not surprising, then, that the Heritage Passion Play had its opening day on July 4, 1984—one facet of the park’s annual Independence Day celebrations that year.

Less than three years later, a scandal broke that would spell the beginning of the end for PTL and Heritage USA. In March of 1987, The Charlotte Observer was finally able prove the persistent rumors that Jim Bakker had had a sexual liaison with a young woman named Jessica Hahn seven years earlier. More than that, he had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in PTL funds to buy Hahn’s silence during the intervening time. On March 19, the Bakkers stepped back from PTL and bestowed interim leadership to Jerry Falwell. Once at the helm, Falwell fanned the flames of controversy. Working with other prominent evangelists, he opened a broader inquiry into moral and financial misdeeds within PTL and added new allegations to a rapidly growing list.

In 1988, following a 16-month federal investigation, Jim Bakker was indicted on a total of twenty-four charges related to the ministry’s financial dealings, including 15 counts of wire fraud, eight counts of mail fraud, and one count of conspiracy. He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 45 years in prison, though he ultimately served a little more than five years.

While the scandal captivated national and international media attention, Heritage USA became emblematic of the excesses of contemporary television ministers. For detractors, the park’s amenities stood alongside the Bakkers’ mansions and air-conditioned doghouse as evidence that their focus had never really been on God, but on money. One of the most iconic images of the Bakkers’ ouster from PTL was the widely published photograph of Jerry Falwell zooming down the park’s enormous waterslide, fully dressed in a business suit and tie.

The park’s financing was also central in the federal case against Jim. Internal memos revealed that although the ministry had raised more than double the money needed for a new hotel called Heritage Towers, the hotel had not been completed, and more money was still being solicited. Money donated specifically to Heritage USA had been diverted to other things, including high salaries and generous bonuses for the Bakkers and PTL board members. The ministry had also sold so many lifetime partnerships that if every eligible person claimed his or her three free nights at Heritage USA, the park would not have been able to accommodate them all.

In the decades since the PTL scandal, the Heritage USA property has been at the center of several legal battles and failed plans. In 1988, the new executives at PTL hoped that Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn would buy the land to build a new professional sports complex. When that deal fell through, the Bakkers bid $165 million on the property but missed a critical deposit deadline and lost the opportunity to continue negotiations. Other potential buyers emerged during that year, but each of them also failed to meet the conditions of sale.

In 1991, the Pentecostal evangelist Morris Cerullo bought the property and attempted to reinvigorate both the Christian theme park and the televangelical network, but a disagreement between Cerullo and his investors eventually led to Cerullo’s ouster from the venture. A secular iteration of the resort run by Radisson Hotels was ultimately unsuccessful.

To see what remains of the park today, interested explorers can take exit 90 off I-77 in South Carolina. Driving southeast on Carrowinds Boulevard for a mile, you will pass subdivisions and townhouses that have sprouted up on much of Heritage USA’s former 2,300 acres, courtesy of a local real estate developer. Pass by the refurbished golf course and stop a moment to notice the brass-capped pyramid that once held PTL’s main offices as well as the PTL World Outreach Center. It is now the U.S. headquarters of Welsh textile company Laura Ashley, a fully owned subsidiary of the Malaysian MUI Group.

You will eventually come to a crumbling parking lot, with the still-unfinished Heritage Grand Towers ahead of you and the remains of Heritage USA on your left, bordered by a chain-link fence and overgrown with weeds. If you peer through the fence, you can see the lake that sat at the center of the park and you can make out the island on which the Heritage USA waterpark stood. You are unfortunately too late to see the fiberglass “King’s Castle” that had become emblematic of the park’s excesses. Intended by Jim Bakker to be the world’s largest Wendy’s restaurant, it was eventually repurposed as a go-cart track but was demolished last year.

Across the parking lot and behind the Towers, in the building that was once the Heritage Grand Hotel, you will find a burgeoning evangelical ministry that in some ways resembles the vision of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Rick and Julie Joyner founded MorningStar Ministries in 1985 and began buying former Heritage USA properties in 2004. What was once the Heritage Grand Hotel is now the headquarters of their sizeable ministry, which includes regular church services as well as conferences and retreats, a K-12 school and a university, an online television broadcast, and targeted ministries for men, women, youth, and children as well as those interested in particular spiritual gifts including healing and prophesy. The Joyners are currently involved in a legal battle over the right to finish and restore the Heritage Grand Towers. But while they envision a Christian retirement community adjacent to the MorningStar church, many in the Fort Mill area are desperate to see the deteriorating towers torn down.

The Joyners are not the only ones to have reclaimed pieces of the park for evangelical purposes. In late 2010, local Christian concert promoter Russell James reopened the Upper Room, which is once again staffed by volunteers and open for prayer on weekends. The Billy Graham boyhood home is now a part of the Billy Graham Library site in Fort Mill, which also houses museum exhibits, “Ruth’s Attic Bookstore,” and the “Graham Brothers Dairy Bar.”

Tammy Faye Bakker died in 2007, but Jim Bakker now leads a new televangelist ministry based in Branson, Missouri. That town has become a center of kitschy Christian tourism in itself (explored in-depth in Aaron K. Ketchell’s Holy Hills of the Ozarks), and a powerful reminder that the spirit of religious tourism is alive and well in the United States. Indeed, even if you don’t find yourself driving down I-77, just south of Charlotte, chances are you’re not far away from a vacation spot brimming with religious sights. Heritage USA did not survive, but its ruins are a persistent reminder of an important era in American religious history—and of the ways in which the country’s landscape is marked by the legacies of this changing but still-popular brand of Christian Americana.

Emily Johnson is a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Tennessee. She recently completed her doctorate in history at Yale University, where she wrote a dissertation entitled “Activists, Authors, Apostles: Women’s Leadership and the New Christian Right.”

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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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