Know Your Place: Helping White, Southern Evangelicals Cope with the End of The(ir) World (A Review)

Justin R. Phillips
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2021
Buy Now: [ IndieBound ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

The following review was originally published in Englewood Review of Books and is republished with permission. The author is Tell It Slant editor, Jeanne Torrence Finley

In Know Your Place Justin Phillips examines the formative communities of his life: his racial community, white; his geographic community, southern; and his religious community, evangelical. He writes about how they shaped his racial imagination and about how the blind spots in each overlap and reinforce each other. The subtitle names both his main audience and his purpose:  “Helping White, Southern Evangelicals Cope with the End of The(ir) World.” He approaches his task as an insider who knows how to tell the truth in love to his fellow white, Southern evangelicals, and he does so with grace, eloquence, and vulnerability. As he wrote this book, he held in mind his childhood Sunday school teachers, the people he knew in the small northwest Tennessee community in which he grew up, the high school students he used to teach, and his grandparents, with whom he regrets not ever having a deep conversation about race. A consummate scholar and storyteller, Phillips is the executive editor of The Other Journal. He holds an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School and a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from Fuller Theological Seminary, where his focus was on how white evangelicals in the South responded to the Civil Rights Movement. He has taught at the high school, college, and graduate levels.

Phillips structured Know Your Place around these communities—racial, southern, and evangelical. He starts with whiteness, then adds the layer of southernness, and finally turns to the evangelical layer. Bookending it all are stories about his grandparents.  A common theme in all three communities is represented by this formula: “Disembodiment + Division = Disorientation.”  Disembodiment names the idea that human beings are not bodies, nor do they have to pay attention to physical matters. If we don’t see a problem, then we have no responsibility to address it. Add to that a propensity toward division, and then we become so disoriented that we cannot “know our place.”

Phillips claims that being raised in whiteness promotes a sense of disembodiment through encouraging white people to be “colorblind” and therefore unaware that we do have a racial identity that works most of the time in our favor. When we experience whiteness as the norm, we tend to get defensive when our worldview is challenged by the history of slavery and by current conversations about white supremacy. In the last twenty years our nation has experienced an awakening about discrimination, both on personal and systemic levels, in ways that can disorient white, southern evangelicals and keep them from understanding their history.

For Phillips “racism is a problem of the imagination”(13). Having accumulated power and wealth, white men imagined that their skin color gave them the qualifications to rule and justification for their conquests, which then shaped the way they structured the world. According to their logic, race had nothing to do with being successful. They believed and perpetuated the lie that anyone who worked hard could be successful.

Being southern adds another layer of disembodiment and division. One reason is that we can’t agree on our boundaries. If our northern boundary is the Mason-Dixon line, then are D.C. and Maryland in the south? Is Texas? What about West Virginia and Missouri? Then within each state, there is diversity. Phillips says, “We are not, and never have been, one people” (55).  Echoing Wendell Berry’s writings about the concept of “place,” Phillips says that loyalty to place is good for human flourishing, but places are also subject to self-deception—for example, the South’s justifying slavery through the myth of the Lost Cause after having lost the Civil War. It allowed southerners to maintain white supremacy during the Reconstruction period and to shape their future by reframing their past.

Additionally, there’s the southern problem of having the skill to talk out of both sides of our mouths. As a white southerner, I both smiled and winced when I read this sentence: “Only a people so steeped in deploying ‘bless their heart’ as a fleet of stealth drones could easily say so much by attempting to say so little.”(70). The phrase “heritage, not hate” (in reference to Civil War monuments and symbols) is not simply “a failure of language. It’s a deception that begins with the soul”(70).

Phillips also explores the “siege mentality” of the southern imagination. It began with fear of freed slaves, continued throughout the Jim Crow era, and still hangs around. He contends that we are born resisters who are adept at finding enemies, such as Yankees and government intervention. The southern talent for resistance grew to gigantic proportions in1954 when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that maintaining racially segregated schools was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Phillips writes, “The Brown ruling was a crushing indictment of the South’s way of life, reinforcing their rejection of northern influence as equated with federal power. One need not understand the legal minutia of the Brown decision to see how white Southerners’ response to a foundation-shaking federal imposition was little more than a continuation of the original narrative of victimhood”(84).

When Phillips turns to white evangelicalism, his critique is wide-ranging and incisive. After providing a brief history that culminates in the ties between evangelicals and the contemporary Republican party, he attends to how evangelical theology promotes disembodiment—heavenly mindedness and earthly neglect. Evangelicalism’s huge emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus inhibits its ability to understand how love of neighbor involves grappling with systemic evil and working for justice. In other words, white southern evangelicalism has become so disoriented that it cannot see racial injustice.

In Know Your Place, Phillips makes a convincing argument yet keeps the tone invitational.  When he was a high school teacher, he learned the art of translating the material so that high school students could grasp it. That’s the approach he takes here. He knows that language matters, and he models how to engage in conversations about race that will make a difference. In an interview with Brian Allain, he said, “I wanted to begin to provide language that readers could translate for people they love and to begin to help them have tough conversations.” He has succeeded.

The phrase “know your place” has often been an admonishment to recognize one’s place in the social hierarchy and not to step out of it, but that’s not what Phillips means. He wants readers to know and claim the history of their region and to have the courage to talk about it in constructive ways.  When Know Your Place was published a year ago, it addressed a pressing need in our society. That need is even more dire now as our country witnesses increased voter restrictions, book banning, and political pressure to keep teachers from telling the truth about white supremacy. Thank you, Justin Phillips, for this gift.

Bad Faith: A Review

The following review was originally published in Englewood Review of Books and is republished with permission. The author is Tell It Slant editor, Jeanne Torrence Finley

Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right
Randall Balmer
Hardback: Eerdmans, 2021

Randall Balmer’s Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right disabuses the commonly held notion that the Religious Right originally coalesced around what he calls “the abortion myth.” Balmer, professor of religion at Dartmouth College, knows the evangelical subculture as the son of an evangelical pastor, a graduate of an evangelical college and seminary, and the author of numerous books on the history of evangelicalism in the United States.

In 1990 Balmer was invited to a gathering in Washington, D.C. that celebrated the tenth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s election. It changed the course of his scholarship for the next three decades. There, Balmer found himself among major leaders of the Religious Right, including Paul Weyrich, who made the startling statement that abortion had nothing to do with his movement’s origins. Later Balmer questioned him to be sure he’d heard correctly. Weyrich said yes, that he’d been trying since the Goldwater campaign in 1964 to arouse evangelicals’ interest in politics and mobilize them as a political group. He’d tried all sorts of issues:  abortion, school prayer, the Equal Rights Amendment, pornography, but none had grabbed the attention of evangelicals.

Balmer’s research on the origins of the Religious Right concurred with Weyrich’s statement. The Religious Right was not formed in response to the 1973 Roe V. Wade Supreme Court decision on abortion rights, but in response to the 1971 Green V. Connally decision, which challenged the tax-exempt status of segregationist academies and universities, most notably Bob Jones University.

It will come as a surprise to many readers, including a large percentage of evangelicals, that there was a period in the 19th and early 20th centuries when “evangelicals were engaged in a broad spectrum of social reform efforts, many of them directed toward those on the margins of society” (3). They included public education, peace, the abolition of slavery, prison reform, and women’s rights. Theologically, these efforts were related to postmillennialism, the doctrine– according to an evangelical interpretation of the book of Revelation—that Jesus will return after the millennium, a thousand year period of righteousness and peace. This doctrine led them to work “to reform society and pave the way for the ‘second coming’ of Jesus” (9). Balmer points out that progressive evangelicalism then and now—it still exists—has more affinity with the political left than with the political right.

Progressive evangelicalism started to crumble in the U.S. under the influence of John Nelson Darby’s doctrine of premillennialism (the belief that Jesus would return before the millennium), “which meant that Christians could anticipate the second coming at any moment, at which time they would be ‘raptured’ into heaven and those ‘left behind’ would face divine judgment” (11). Darby, an Anglo-Irish Bible teacher, popularized the doctrine in the 1830s in the U.K, but its influence in the U.S. was delayed until the 20th century when the Scofield Reference Bible became popular. This doctrine influenced its adherents to abandon responsibility for social reform. Why make the world a better place if Jesus might return at any moment?  Their only responsibility was to focus on individual salvation and win souls to Christ.

It may be difficult for non-evangelicals to imagine the influence that rapture theology had among evangelicals– especially among young people– in the 1970s and 80s. Balmer describes an extremely popular film among evangelical audiences. Produced in 1972,   A Thief in the Night  opens with a scene in which a woman awakens to the sound of “her husband’s shaver buzzing in the bathroom sink.” He has been raptured. The film preaches “the imminent return of Jesus, warning that anyone who is not saved will be damned” (13) and features composer Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”

Premillennialism, which Balmer calls “a theology of despair” (11), led to political apathy among evangelical voters. Another influence in that direction was the Scopes trial of 1925 in which a high school teacher was found guilty for teaching evolution, in defiance of Tennessee law. Evangelicals won the battle, but they “lost decisively in the larger courtroom of public opinion” (17). The event symbolically marked an evangelical retreat from politics and the larger culture that had been happening for years. During the 1920s and 30s evangelicals began to build a distinct subculture—”an interlocking network of congregations, denominations, Bible camps, Bible institutes, colleges, seminaries, missionary societies, and publishing houses” that provided “a refuge from the dangers of an increasingly secular society” (18).

Many readers of Bad Faith will be surprised to learn that evangelical leaders in the 1970s had diverse opinions on abortion. Two successive editors of Christianity Today magazine voiced support for the legality of abortion. In 1971 delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution that  called  Southern Baptists to support legislation allowing the possibility of abortion in some circumstances. There was room for nuanced conversations on the ethics of abortion. The change started to occur during the 1978 midterm elections in which Democrats were frontrunners for all four available Senate seats. On the weekend before the election pro-life Catholics leafleted church parking lots in those states and all four democratic candidates lost. That’s when Paul Weyrich realized that he had found the issue that would take his movement’s focus off of defending racial segregation.

The practical result of the Religious Right’s embrace of the abortion myth was seen in the 1980 election, when evangelicals rejected a “born again Sunday school teacher, Jimmy Carter, and supported instead a Hollywood actor whose campaign rhetoric included “racially coded language and gestures would appeal to voters—including, perhaps, newly enfranchised Religious Right voters” (71).

Readers familiar with Balmer’s work know that he’s been writing about the abortion myth for a long time. Bad Faith is different in that it’s a short, focused primer on the subject.  Another difference is that it takes into account the 2016 and 2020 elections, which are a clear indication of why the abortion myth matters. It helped elect a president in 2016 and continues to encourage single-issue voting, thus preventing thoughtful discussion of other important issues.

Balmer’s argument is not that all evangelicals are racist, but rather that the leaders of the Religious Right have made the movement more appealing “by rallying behind such high-minded issues as opposition to abortion . . . but that does not change the inconvenient fact that the founders of the movement in the 1970s rallied to allow evangelical institutions to perpetuate their policy of racial exclusion.” He points out that a building can be made beautiful in all sorts of ways, but if the timbers that make up its foundation are rotten, the entire structure is compromised (80).

Balmer writes as a friend of evangelicalism, one who loves the tradition deeply enough to seek its redemption and to be one of its best critics. Bad Faith shows how important basic knowledge of church history and theology is to understanding aspects of politics and culture. Leaders of the Religious Right have managed to ignore– or never to learn about— their forebears who were social justice activists. The same can be said of the evangelicals influenced by these leaders and of people—religious or not—who are shocked  that in 2016 a large percentage of white evangelicals helped elect a president whose behavior and values stand in stark contradiction of the teachings and example of Jesus. History matters. Theology matters. Bad Faith is a good place to explore the reasons why.

Freeing Jesus: A Review

The following review was originally published in Englewood Review of Books and is republished with permission. The author is Tell It Slant editor, Jeanne Torrence Finley.

Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence
Diana Butler Bass
Hardback: HarperOne, 2021

By some strange coincidence, on the day before the launch of Diana Butler Bass’s new book Freeing Jesus, Gallup released a new report that began, “Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend.” That’s a decline from 70% in 1999.[1] For many within the institutional church, that news is disturbing.  For Bass, who has been writing about this trend since her Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening was published in 2012, this report is not surprising or necessarily alarming.

Since reading Christianity After Religion, I’ve been hoping that Bass would write a kind of sequel, updating her astute observations and her optimism that despite declining church affiliation, a spiritual awakening is still happening in America. Her next two books, Grounded (2015) and Grateful (2018) were of a different order, addressing spirituality in a more personal way.  Now in Freeing Jesus, I find that sequel, but in a quite different genre than I expected– “memoir theology”–which she defines as the “making of theology–understanding the text of our own lives and taking seriously how we have encountered Jesus” (264).  Although it is not a new genre, it has been highly underrated by the academy, especially before the coming of feminist theologians in significant numbers.

Bass recalls asking a seminary professor (in an evangelical seminary, circa 1980s) why class readings were all from male theologians. He answered that women didn’t write theology. She named some who lived way before the twentieth century:  Perpetua, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena. He replied, “That’s not theology. That’s memoir”(264). Later she concluded that when men write about Jesus from experience the tendency has been to call it “theology,” and when women write theology from experience, their work is more likely to be called “memoir.”  What about Augustine? Luther? Wesley? Bonhoeffer?  All great theologians; they too wrote out of their experiences.

“Memoir theology” is inviting to audiences that Bass understands so well: people who question the version of Christianity that they have been exposed to (whether directly through church or indirectly through culture and politics), people who have left the church but still want to follow Jesus, people who remain in church and want to be able to talk about Jesus at Sunday brunch with their friends, but who are painfully aware of the baggage often attached to Christianity in contemporary society.  She is writing for all people who ask of Jesus, “‘Who are you? A question with myriad answers”(264).

In Freeing Jesus Bass bypasses the constraints of doctrine and correct belief by writing about the Jesus of her experience and beaconing readers to reflect on their own experience of him.  She does that by sharing stories of six of the Jesuses who have been with her through the stages of her life: friend, teacher, savior, Lord, way, and presence. Through her story she tells “the story of the Jesus of experience, who shows up consistently and when we least expect him.  Freeing Jesus means finding him along the way” (xxvi).  I don’t want to give away the arresting story that begins this book because it is too funny, too poignant, and  too profound to be paraphrased. But the title alone makes clear that Jesus wants a life outside of the church and indeed wants to be free from all the boxes we put him inside.

Bass seamlessly moves from her story into theology, church history, biblical studies, and culture. In chapter 4, “Lord,” she recounts her experience as a student at a west coast evangelical liberal arts college in the late 70s and early 80s. There she found the protection and security that she’d valued in her church youth group as well as the motivation and resources to stretch her understanding of Jesus beyond the savior of individuals. She read Your God Is Too Small by J.B. Phillips, who criticized Christians who “put God in a box” (118). There she learned a radical notion that to proclaim “Jesus is Lord” is to assert that Caesar is not and that to act on that notion requires privileging the poor and working for justice: “If you hung around with Jesus, it was easy to believe that some sort of political revolution was at hand” (136). This was not a message she’d heard in the church back home. 

As good memoir should be, Freeing Jesus is gentle persuasion, never telling readers what we should do or think or be. In addition, Bass is gracious in telling about growing away from evangelicalism toward a more progressive Christianity. She presents a multifaceted view of evangelicalism, claiming the ways it fostered her growth as well as the ways it held her back. Her vulnerability invites us into her life but doesn’t hold us there. She wants readers to reflect on the kinds of questions her stories raised for them and to recognize that our lives are important in understanding the life of Jesus. 

Having written this book during the pandemic, Bass, in her conclusion, comments on the irony of the project. Her mission was to set Jesus free, but in fact during this last year, church doors were locked and Jesus had left the building. Congregations were having to find creative ways to be church outside their buildings, and some have succeeded.  She writes, 

But as millions have discovered in these many months, Jesus was not confined to a building. Jesus was around our tables at home, with us on walks and hikes, present in music, art, and books, and visible in faces via Zoom. Jesus was with us when we felt we could do no more, overwhelmed with work and online school. Jesus was with us as we prayed with those sick in the hospital over cell phones. Jesus did not leave us to suffer alone. COVID-19 forced Jesus out of the cathedral into the world, reminding Christians that church is not a building. Rather, church is wherever two or three are gathered, even if the ‘two’ is only you and your cat . . . (266-267).

Some commentators are already speculating on the effect COVID-19 will have on church life when the doors are opened again. Will church attendance continue to decline? Or will congregations grow through the creativity learned this past year to reach beyond their walls and follow Jesus into the world? We don’t know. Bass says that many people will not return because “they are already discovering what it meant to follow Jesus beyond the church,” but many will.  She continues,  “Whatever happens, however, I hope none of us will forget the Jesus we have met in our own lives, who has been with us in fear and confusion and loss, in forced isolation and surprising moments of joy, and through the ministrations of our shared human priesthood.  It all matters. All of it”(268).

Indeed.

[1] Jeffrey M. Jones, “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for the First Time,”  Gallup, March 29, 2021. https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx

Nicholas Black Elk – A Review

Nicholas Black Elk
Medicine Man, Catechist, Saint

Jon M. Sweeney
Liturgical Press, 2020
Reviewed by Jeanne Torrence Finley
Originally published in Englewood Review of Books and used by permission

From the beginning of Nicholas Black Elk, Jon Sweeney makes it clear that his subject has been misunderstood because of the complicated life he lived as both an Oglala Lakota wicasa wakan, or “holy man,” and Catholic catechist. Sweeney attributes part of the misunderstanding to another book, published in 1932, Black Elk Speaks:  Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux as told through John G. Neihardt.  Two  years earlier Neihardt, the poet laureate of Nebraska and an amateur anthropologist, had gone to Pine Ridge reservation in 1930 because he wanted to find someone to be the hero of an exotic tale of a Native American who was “a living icon of the tears and epic struggle of the native peoples of the Americas” (xii).  Black Elk Speaks became the most popular book ever published about a Native American, and especially so in the 1960s and 1970s, a time of great spiritual search and fascination with non-Christian religious traditions. It has formed the mistaken notion that Black Elk’s faith was strictly and only Native American until he died.

In Nicholas Black Elk, Sweeney tells the other half of the story– the one that Neihardt intentionally did not tell–of Black Elk’s life as a Catholic catechist. As Sweeney explains, “”Black Elk’s passionate involvement in historic  Catholicism would have dampened the message of any mythic portrayal of a saddened, aging Lakota who had seen his people humiliated, the Plains decimated, and a pristine nomadic way of life gone forever.  A Native man teaching the Gospel in a church was not the picture a mythmaker wanted to paint” (xvi).

Born in Lakota territory in 1866,  Black Elk was the son and grandson of medicine men, and as such, they had powers of healing for their people.  As expected in a child who would also become a medicine man, Black Elk had a number of mystical experiences.  The most formative was his “Great Vision” in which he was taken into the clouds to see his grandfathers from all over the world, who gave him gifts and told him that he would have great powers to heal as well as the vocation to lead his people down the red road toward the sacred hoop to become a great nation.   Nevertheless, they would also have great troubles.  As the vision continued Black Elk went with his sixth grandfather to the world’s highest mountains where they could see those troubles, but there was more.  As Black Elk told Neihardt: “I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of the many hoops that made one circle” (26).  Sweeney explains the results of this vision, “Black Elk came away called to heal more than just his own people; the sacred hoop was a symbol that stood for all people everywhere. This same broader understanding of the sacred–and his own calling–would allow him, later, to see another religious tradition and how it might make sense of himself and his place in the world” (26).

Also formative in Black Elk’s  childhood was hearing much talk among his people of the threat of White Europeans coming from the east and pushing Native tribes further west as they came seeking  gold, natural resources to plunder, buffalos to shoot, and land to clear for their homesteads and farms.   Driven in part by the economic depressions of 1837 and 1869, the White people came west practicing a self-reliance that had a vicious underbelly of disregarding and debasing Native American land and rights.  Black Elk confronted this threat up close when at age 10 he fought in the Battle of Little Bighorn in which his second cousin, Crazy Horse, led the Lakota to kill Lt. Colonel George Custer and defeat his Seventh Cavalry.  

Not long after the Battle of Little Bighorn, Buffalo Bill Cody created his Wild West Show with alternate versions of Custer’s death.   Black Elk joined the show, traveled across the U. S. and played for weeks at Madison Square Garden before going on to England and France.  While in England the troupe performed twice for Queen Victoria, the second time at Windsor Castle.  The show ran six months in London with an average daily attendance, according to one source,  of thirty thousand and then went on to France.

This episode of Black Elk’s life  raises the question of why he would knowingly participate in such blatant exploitation of his own people.  Sweeney thinks that he saw the Wild West Show as a way to fulfill the vision seen by his grandfathers for his future–to bring wholeness and healing to his people.  In other words, he believed that joining the Big Show and traveling to Europe would help him learn about the White people of European descent who were such a threat to his people.  Sweeney quotes Black Elk as saying, “Maybe if I could see the great world of the Wasichu, I could understand how to bring the sacred hoop together and make the tree bloom again at the center of it.” Then Sweeney comments that in Lakota the word for Whites wasichu, literally means “a greedy person who takes the fat.” (36)

Some years after Black Elk’s return to the Pine Ridge Reservation and to life as a medicine man, he married Katherine War Bonnet, a Catholic convert, and the couple had three sons.  After her death in 1903, he also converted to Christianity, and on St. Nicholas day in 1904, the thirty-eight year-old Lakota holy man took the baptismal name Nicholas. Missionary work on the Pine Ridge Reservation had been going on for decades, an activity related to the colonialism of Native American lands and a part of the complexity of Black Elk’s story.  The Catholic Jesuit missionaries under whom he was baptized had a theological understanding  that was different from most other missionaries.  They recognized that the Lakota religion and attitude toward the Divine was not antithetical to Christianity.  In Nick they saw a person who had the gifts to become a catechist, a teacher of the faith.  His memorization and communication skills were remarkable, and he himself saw a seamless transition from his vocation as a Lakota holy man to a Catholic catechist.  

Sweeney presents Nicholas Black Elk as a powerful Christian witness who was credited with bringing more than 400 people into the church in his decades of work as a catechist and missionary.  He became so highly regarded and led such an exemplary life that  in 2016 his grandson led a group who presented a petition for his canonization and that case has now proceeded to Rome.

In his introduction, Sweeney writes that Black Elk

“. . . bridged Western and Native religious life in a way that is sure to make people on both sides somewhat uncomfortable.  So, just as Native people may feel that the integrity and sanctity of their spirituality and practices are being threatened, Christians can feel the same when faced with someone who, in himself, incorporates Indigenous spiritual traditions into a historic faith that they thought they knew”(x).  

For those who are baffled by the life and work of Nicholas Black Elk, Sweeney quotes a line from Nostra Aetate, one of the documents of Vatican II:  “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in [non-Christian] religions.”  And he adds that though the statement is shocking to many of the faithful, “it would have made good sense to Black Elk” (83). In our time of huge religious and cultural division, Sweeney’s book gently but powerfully offers a way forward.

Originally published in Englewood Review of Books and used by permission

Review of Evangelicals, ed. by Mark Nolls, David Bebbington, & George Mardsen

Evangelicals

Up front I confess that I read this book as a progressive clergywoman baffled by the reported 81% “evangelical support” of Donald Trump in the 2016 election and beyond.   I came to Evangelicals:  Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be (Eerdmans, 2019)  with the questions that the subtitle proposes to answer: What are the differences between the evangelicals who voted for Trump and the ones who didn’t?  What happened in the history of this movement that results in such wildly different understandings of Christian faith and practice, all described under the umbrella term evangelicalism?

The book didn’t disappoint.  I discovered that many evangelicals ask the same kinds of questions and that there are no simple answers. I was left with a deep appreciation for the complexity of the issues, for the writers represented in this extensive anthology, and especially for the creative curation of editors Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington, and George Mardsen.  These three globally respected historians bring their vast scholarship to address “the contemporary American controversies posing the greatest difficulties for a coherent, factual, and responsible understanding of ‘evangelicalism’” (1).

In the introduction  co-editor Mark A. Noll, Research Professor of History at Regent College who previously taught at the University of Notre Dame, identifies three crises related to the word “evangelical.” The most obvious is the support that a huge majority of white U.S. evangelical Christians give to Donald Trump.  When Daniel Deitrich’s “Hymn for the 81%” went viral in January, only a small percentage of followers of American politics failed to recognize its subject matter by its title alone. While not denying that support, Noll points out that pollsters usually identify evangelicals as those who say they were born again.  Then he asks this question: “ . . . if significant numbers of African Americans have been born again and have been voting for Democrats–in even higher proportions and over a longer period of time than white evangelicals have voted for Republicans–how can anyone speak responsibly about “evangelical support” for Donald Trump?” (3).

Part 1, covering over half of the four–part book, deals with “The History of ‘Evangelical History” and leads off with co-editor George Marsden’s introduction to his 1984 Evangelicalism and Modern America Marsden, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame, calls evangelicalism as a “conceptual unity” defined by its emphasis on five beliefs: “1) the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of Scripture; 2) the real, historical character of God’s saving work recorded in Scripture; 3) eternal salvation only through personal trust in Christ; 4) the importance of evangelism and missions; 5) the importance of a spiritually transformed life” (22-23).

Co-editor David Bebbington, Professor of History at the University of Stirling in Scotland and currently a visiting professor at Baylor University, has also articulated another widely used characterization of evangelicalism which is less theological and more descriptive than Marsden’s.  He describes a “quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism” [a term capitalized in the U.K.]: “conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort;  biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross” (34).

The rest of Part 1 contains essays reflecting on the meaning of evangelicalism, the difficulties in defining it, and debates evoked by Mardsen’s and Bebbington’s descriptions of its characteristics.  All of the writers in Part 1 focus on the long, rich, and complex history of evangelicalism.

The essays in Part 2 attempt to explain the origins and growth of evangelical support for Trump.  The titles themselves are intriguing: “A Strange Love? Or: How White Evangelicals Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Donald” (Michael S. Hamilton);  “Donald Trump and Militant Evangelical Masculinity “ (Kristin Kobes Du Mez); “The ‘Weird’ Fringe Is the Biggest Part of White Evangelicalism” (Fred Clark).  Part 3 contains 5 essays that assess the meaning of evangelicalism today. Thomas Kidd asks whether the term is redeemable. Timothy Kelly reflects on whether evangelicalism can survive Donald Trump and says, “The movement may abandon, or at least demote, the prominence of the name, yet be more committed to its theology and historic impulses than ever” (255).

One of the most provocative essays in Part 3 is Molly Worthen’s “Idols of the Trump Era.”  For it she interviewed Kaitlyn Schiess, a student at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of The Liturgy of Politics:  Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor  to be released later this year [1]. Schiess describes a new ritual that has taken the place of Sunday worship and Bible studies–nightly viewing of conservative cable news.  Worthen quotes Schiess: “The reason Fox News is so formative is that it’s this repetitive, almost ritualistic thing the people do every night.  It forms in them particular fears and desires, an idea of America” (257). Worthen, intrigued by Schiess’ ideas, writes, “When I sought out conservative and progressive critics of white evangelical politics and asked them how to best understand it, this was their answer:  pay attention to worship, both inside and outside of church, because the church is not doing its job. Humans thrive on ritual and collective acts of devotion. And the way we worship has political consequences” (257-58).

In his essay  “To Be or Not to Be an Evangelical” Brian Stiller contends that the  word evangelical has been “disfigured by political pundits, muddied by protestors from the left and right, and brought into dishonor by self-proclaimed spokespeople who excuse inappropriate behavior and language as the necessary price for political power.  The center has shifted, and many Evangelicals now wonder where they fit” (273). Then he examines the term’s global nature, the way it defines “a major, self-conscious stream of Protestantism,” its roots and history, and the polarization with the U.S. and concludes that he will keep it because it will outlive the current controversy.   However, he rejects the term’s baggage: “To impose this first world debate on hundreds of millions of Christians world-wide would be worse than a mistake; it would be a new form of first world intellectual colonialism” (277).

In Part 4 the editors reflect on how evangelical history might inform current American debates,  George Marsden offers a global perspective on American evangelicalism, and David Bebbington reflects on the political history of British evangelicals. In the concluding essay Mark Noll writes,  “In the United States, it may be the case that the ‘e-words’ should be put to rest for a season because of their excessive entanglement with national political controversy. But even where ‘evangelicals’ and evangelicalism’ lose their cogency in one location, it does not mean that the words are irrelevant for those with the world in view.”

To reflect on and appreciate this book is to live in the tension between the historical perspectives of Noll, Bebbington, and Marsden and the immediacy of the political / religious controversies in the U.S.  I found myself wanting to skip over some of the historical essays to the ones about the current situation. At times I wished that the editors had found a way to integrate the historical with the contemporary.  On the other hand, this tension is embedded in the nature of anthologies, and this one offers the equivalent of a college course on evangelicalism past and present. For those who seek to understand who evangelicals “have been, are now, and could be,” this book is an excellent place to start.

[1] https://www.apologeticssimplified.com/podcasts/2020/1/13/interview-with-kaitlyn-schiess-exploring-political-theology

This review appeared in April 2020 edition of Englewood Review of Books.