Jason Bivins, “Religion of Fear” (2008)

Jason Bivins, Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (2008)

Grant Wacker insists that students in his seminars learn to distinguish between what is important and what is merely interesting. Religion of Fear makes important contributions to the study of evangelicalism. At the intersection of conservative politics, evangelicalism, and American popular culture, a “religion of fear” has developed. Emerging after the 1960s, this religio-political impulse used the medium of popular culture to scare the Hell out of people—literally. The religion of fear offered readers and audiences an “interpretive template that posits demonological causes for political decline… [one that situates] readers in a historical framework and [defines] for audiences a coherent, unchanging place therein” (9). Part of Bivins’s project consists of documenting the rhetorical and affective strategies of anti-rock preaching, Hell Houses, Jack Chick’s cartoons, and the Left Behind novels. The creators of these works, he argues, act as savvy “technicians of identity,” engaging fear and horror in specific ways to create a politically charged range of acceptable religious identities (16).

Despite its claims to fixity and stability in a declining culture, Bivins declares that the religion of fear is actually animated by two instabilities: 1) the erotics of fear and 2) the demonology within. The “erotics of fear” describes the fact that fear’s discourse, though strongly condemnatory toward American culture, nonetheless displays deep fascination with what is forbidden. Evangelical teenagers compete heartily for the right to play the sexually active, unmarried couple in a Hell House play. Jack Chick’s most interesting drawings show sinners writhing in pain for their wrongdoing. The final book of the Left Behind series contains about a hundred pages of Jesus unleashing blood-drenched wrath on God’s enemies. In the religion of fear, forbidden evil goes on display. The “demonology within” describes the basic irony of using popular culture to condemn popular culture. The pure Christian self is constituted by its Others. You define yourself as a Christian teenager by not listening to Slayer—but this means that you know what Slayer is, that the demons behind the Slayer lyrics might grab hold of you at any moment.

But it’s Bivins’s approach to his subject that makes the most important contributions to the field. Far too few books explore the felt-life of evangelicalism. Emotion takes center stage in this book about political religion—“fear” isn’t some clever heuristic for explaining evangelical theology or its “relation” to governmental politics, it’s a feeling that certain religio-political popular culture artifacts engage and frequently try to produce in viewers, readers, and listeners. Bivins offers new ways of thinking about conservative evangelicalism: rather than an agglomeration of cleanly theological or political “movements,” conservative evangelicalism emerges from this text as a messy mélange of discursive strategies, techniques of identity, body practices, products of entertainment. And Bivins doesn’t shy away from criticizing this religion of fear when he thinks it warrants it. If scholars of religion abandon all claims to normativity and all forms of social critique in the name of taking our subjects “seriously,” we play the conservatives’ game: Bivins doesn’t want to play that game, and argues that scholars should counter fear with “sober political vision” instead of reactionary disavowal or willful indifference (228). Fear thrives when democratic culture atrophies. The point is not for scholars to proceed recklessly against our subjects, but rather to suggest that we scholar-citizens have a responsibility to remain politically engaged. That responsibility doesn’t disappear when we put on the mantel of scholarship. Bivins models his vision of social critique by engaging fear’s political vision seriously and carefully: “fear’s political vision should be contested in the name of politics itself, with the goal of a reaffirmation of a democratic process allowing for the pursuit of reasonable compromises of principled differences” (235).

Francis Schaeffer, “A Christian Manifesto” (1981)

Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto, 1981.

At one point in A Christian Manifesto, Schaeffer laments the low turnout for his anti-abortion seminars in the early 1970s (67-68). He blames evangelical leaders who held an incorrect view of Christianity, who limited its sphere of influence. Whatever the reason for their absence, it’s the absence itself that sticks out now—anti-abortion activism, or at least anti-abortion sentiment, seems part and parcel of evangelicalism itself. Clearly, it wasn’t always so. Lest we forget, Schaeffer served as an important intellectual architect of what we have come to call “conservative evangelicalism.” His book and video series Whatever Happened to the Human Race? helped turn opposition to abortion from a “Catholic issue” into a broadly conservative issue. More than that, he helped to popularize the view that Christian America was under siege by a competing “world view” called “humanism.” This book serves as nothing less than a call to arms for an emerging culture war.

It’s more than a catchy title: A Christian Manifesto. On a flyleaf, Schaeffer names his book’s predecessors to mark his as a Christian political document: “The Communist Manifesto, 1848/ Humanist Manifesto I, 1933/ Humanist Manifesto II, 1973.” Keeping in mind that this book came out in 1981, it’s clear that this move serves two purposes: 1) it places Schaeffer’s book both in the tradition of and in opposition to these other manifestos, and 2) it posits a genealogical connection between communism and humanism—even in the capitalist world, Schaeffer implies, “humanism” springs from Marxism. For Schaeffer, Christianity and “humanism” are mutually incompatible “world views.” A “world view” describes “the overall way people think and view the world and life as a whole” (17). According to Schaeffer, humanism considers ultimate reality to be a random flux of energy and matter, our world to be nothing but the result of pure chance. In the period from 1933-1973, this world view took over American culture, which was founded on “Judeo-Christian” values (55). Worse still, says Schaeffer, many Christians have been complicit in this humanist takeover of their culture (he specifically names Martin Marty as an offender in this regard on p.22, though my beloved professor Yaakov Ariel insists Marty is one of the tzadikim nistarim). Schaeffer calls Christian America to wake up and do something to save their culture.

This book offers rich primary material for historians of conservative evangelicalism because it brings a number of issues to the fore. 1) Schaeffer shows deep concern about the legalization of abortion, but it actually seems to be a symptom of his deeper concern for American youth. References to school, education, and students occur frequently in this book (e.g. 83-86). Whether through abortion or the lack of prayer in public schools, the key concern remains the same: Schaeffer believes America’s future is at stake, society’s most vulnerable members under attack. 2) Schaeffer insists on treating “humanism” as a coherent, singular entity. More specifically, he treats it as a religion. By drawing his definition of “humanism” from the Humanist Manifestos, Schaeffer provides a clear, “religious” origin for the cultural changes that rocked America from the 1940s-70s (see 54). As he sees it, the First Amendment has hijacked by a particular religion opposed to the Judeo-Christian democratic principles of America’s founders. Rulings concerning prayer in public schools, public displays of the Ten Commandments, and abortion reveal how this religion has used the courts more effectively than Christians. 3) Somewhat surprisingly, Schaeffer flatly rejects the circumscription of religion usually associated with the rise of evangelicalism in the early republic. He laments that “spirituality has… been shut up to a very narrow area”—namely, individual belief in the supernatural, which he calls “platonic, overly spiritualized” Christianity (63). He insists that Christian truth applies to all of life on earth—and that Christian truth is the only firm basis for a just, harmonious society, the only fixed point from which to measure the external world scientifically. For Schaeffer, Christian spirituality extends completely into the material realm. At the very least, we can say that this complicates our usual scholarly understandings of evangelicalism, which focus heavily on individual beliefs. Even in a book by Francis Schaeffer, an intellectualized product of “fundamentalist” evangelicalism if ever there was one, “belief” happens materially.

Review by A.T. Coates

Kelly J. Baker, “Gospel According to the Klan” (2011)

Kelly J. Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930. (U Kansas P, 2011).

Like most significant historical works, this one makes important contributions in two ways: historical and theoretical. Baker not only sheds new light on the history of religion in 20th-century America, she also offers a compelling new model for scholarship in the field. Not bad for a dissertation book.

First, the history. Baker’s bold thesis declares that we can’t understand the KKK “revival” of the 1920s without understanding the movement’s Protestantism. That is, the KKK of the 20s was a thoroughly Protestant movement. Mainstream, “normal” Protestantism motivated and fuelled the Klan’s nativism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, gendered ideology, and white supremacy. The KKK didn’t “twist” or “distort” Protestantism for its own ends, but created an Invisible Empire of white knights as the last “manly” defenders of an imperiled Christian nation. And in the 20s, millions welcomed these protectors and their “twin messages of nation and faith” (6). Drawing on the Klan’s print culture and, to some extent, their material culture, Baker employs an ethnographic method to unpack the movement’s presentation of Protestantism, nationalism, white masculinity, white femininity, racial purity, and anti-Catholicism. As just one fascinating example, she discusses how the Klan’s iconic white robes and conical “hoods” functioned as part of its racial ideology. Klan photographs tended to show large groups in which everyone appears in white robes. The robes thus magnified whiteness and showed the racial homogeneity of the group. But the hoods also gave anonymity, protecting members from those who would persecute them for supporting the cause of the white race (189). In the eyes of members, the robes did not inspire fear (with their ghostlike appearance) or to make it easier to conduct violence anonymously. The white robe bolstered particular ideas about the persecution of white America, and encouraged concerned men to step behind it in order to protect their race.

Now, the theory. The Gospel According to the Klan also presents a new model of “engaged scholarship” (see 30). Like the best topics in our field, the 1920s Klan sits at the intersection of several important theoretical debates and enlarges our understanding of each. Baker attempts to “see with” the Klansmen and Klanswomen of the 1920s, to “take seriously” their perspective on the world. In this respect, Baker’s project resembles many other ethnographic works that use thick description to generate sympathy with their subjects. But, for Christ’s sake, this is a book about the KKK—and Baker never lets readers forget that. In some respects, this group doesn’t warrant sympathy, and certainly Baker does not want to create uncritical sympathy for their positions on race, gender, or nationalism. Rather, she insists that it is possible to be a careful ethnographic historian without resorting to mere description: “Seeing with the Klan does not mean that we have to like its rhetoric, agendas, or politics, nor does it mean that we need to avoid criticism and analysis” (240). In short, it’s possible to take our subjects “seriously” without pandering to their white supremacy, for example. More still, Baker demonstrates that we don’t need to check our politics at the door to write our histories effectively. Avoiding facile comparisons with the contemporary political right, Baker nonetheless shows how conservatism’s self-image as defenders of an embattled (white) Christian America resonates deeply with the perspective of the Klan. More than that, she argues that the 1920s Klan forms the historical bridge between nineteenth-century nativism and twentieth-century political conservatism. The point here is not to create straw villains out of her political enemies, but to show that ordinary people, even Christian people, can “commit heinous acts without evil intentions and …can promote a worldview founded on intolerance even as they describe its tolerance” (238).

Review by A.T. Coates

Charles Colson, Born Again (1976, 2008)

Charles Colson’s Born Again presents a paradigmatic “faith story” of 1970s evangelicalism—with a few twists. Here we get the inveterate sinner, the man whose hubris gave him success and rewards in “the world.” But he always felt empty. When Colson ought to have been on top of the world, the night in 1972 when he won President Richard Nixon a second term by the biggest margin in history, Colson felt hollow. Worldly success was nothing. In fact, it was downright sinful. The Nixon White House, in which Colson thrived, encouraged a cutthroat, take-no-prisoners machismo culture that led ultimately to the disgraces of Watergate and the first resignation of an American president. For now, it all seemed like guts and glory. Colson, “Nixon’s hatchet man,” knew how to get things done: he could destroy political enemies, stand loyally behind his commander in chief in the bloodiest political knife fights, and punish those who dared question the tactics of the administration. But all along the way, Colson felt like something wasn’t satisfying.  As the noose of Watergate began to tighten, a friend’s faithful Christian witness showed Colson a better way. God’s presence became real. He asked Jesus to “Take me.” Suddenly, the world made sense. He wasn’t alone. God was faithful and would see him through anything. After admitting to a crime for which he hadn’t even been charged, Colson went to prison. The great man of the world had been made to pay for his crimes. Even in prison, God was working. Colson entered fellowship with other prisoners, fought off the powers of darkness, brought dramatic bodily healing, and clung to a faith that sustained him through many dangerous nights. His very last night in the pen, he received a vision of thousands of men and women coming to Christ in prison. It was a sign from God, a call to a new ministry.

For me, this book operated on two levels. On the one hand, Born Again presents a thoroughly engrossing political memoir of a turbulent period in American history. Colson is a talented writer with a knack for narrative. The book flows seamlessly from high-level policy decisions made over cocktails with Kissinger and Nixon to the frantic pettiness of arranging a last-minute theater visit for the president. I spent far too much time imbibing the minutiae of the Nixon White House and of 1970s prison life. Colson crafts his story masterfully and the book reads like a novel. On the other hand, the symmetry, the conversational and situational details, the characters, indeed everything about this book serves a different purpose than merely telling a good story. This is a faith story. A conversion narrative in the tradition of Wesley’s “strangely warmed” heart. If you know what you’re hearing, evangelical terms and concepts reverberate throughout this book. Early in the book, Colson was seeking. He finds Jesus. He receives a vision of his ministry that serves as his call. When he’s casually being witnessed to in a Christian friend’s home, he isn’t even offered a drop of his customary scotch. If you’re not paying attention, or don’t know what you’re hearing, it’s easy to miss the fact that this book serves one goal: it’s trying to convert you. As a window into the inner working of the Nixon White House or the embodied practices of 70s evangelicalism, this book proves invaluable.


Matthew Avery Sutton, “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age.”

Matthew Avery Sutton, “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age,” Journal of American History 98.4 (March 2012): 1052-1074.

Matt Sutton’s recent article “Was FDR the Anti-Christ?” breaks important ground in the study of conservative Christian antiliberalism. Though they agreed that FDR probably wasn’t the anti-Christ himself, many fundamentalists interpreted his New Deal policies in apocalyptic terms. With the Bolshevik revolution, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of the reconstituted Roman Empire under Mussolini, and the return of the Jewish people to Israel (after the British capture of Jerusalem in 1917), fundamentalists knew the Last Days were near at hand. Says Sutton, “Premillennialism served as the filter through which the faithful understood American politics” (1061). They saw the expanding powers of the US federal government under FDR as a sure sign that the anti-Christ was about to appear on earth. If Roosevelt wasn’t personally the antichrist, he surely wanted to usher in the kind of world where the antichrist would feel at home. Fundamentalists would not stand for it.

Sutton draws two arguments out of fundamentalist responses to FDR. First, he concludes that fundamentalist antistatism did not emerge in the NAE of 1942 nor the Moral Majority of 1979, but instead “developed among fundamentalists during the 1930s, parallel to and corresponding with the birth of modern liberalism” (1053). Second, he suggests that international politics and global events importantly shaped fundamentalist theology and politics in America. No navel-gazing isolationists, fundamentalists understood their faith in global terms and looked to international events for evidence that the rapture was coming soon. Premillennialist political critiques at home arose as fundamentalists carefully scanned the globe for signs of the times.

Sutton’s argument about fundamentalist interest in international affairs corrects a glaring oversight in the field. Sometimes, we scholars lose sight of the fact that fundamentalists were referring to real events, real places, and real people when they talked about “wars and rumors of wars,” Gog, Magog, and the Beast. With his characteristic artistry, Sutton beautifully depicts an encounter between two fundamentalist missionaries and Mussolini that illustrates this point: “by the time the Nortons had finished with Mussolini, he apparently believed—and maybe even hoped—that he was the long-awaited world dictator, the antichrist, prophesied in the book of Daniel” (1059). The story reads as a kind of humorous aside in the article, but it stands on the tip of an iceberg. The very fact that American fundamentalists could have detailed knowledge of Mussolini’s activities, travel to visit him, and read reports of such encounters soon after they happened speaks volumes about the cultural world in which fundamentalism thrived. As Sutton’s title suggests, this was indeed a global age, one in which industrial presses churned out international headlines around the clock, Lindbergh flew an airplane to France, and people’s home radios plucked world news right out of the air.

This article left me wanting more. I felt especially unsatisfied by the one-paragraph treatment of the late 1920s. From about 1925-1932, fundamentalist premillennialists went from supporting “big government” initiatives like prohibition and anti-evolution to vehemently opposing FDR. This essay simply skims over these crucial years, attributing the premillennial critique of the New Deal to a renewed interest in eschatology prompted by the nation’s economic collapse. In his book on this topic, I hope Sutton will spend more time in these crucial years—I think there’s an interesting story to tell there.

Susan F. Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics

Susan F. Harding. The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics. Princeton, 2000.

Susan Harding’s masterful study locates language at the epicenter of the “born-again Christianity” that shook America’s political landscape in the 1980s. Pioneered by people like Jerry Falwell, this language consisted of powerful Bible-based narratives with which people made sense of their lives and transformed their culture. Falwell’s language morphed fundamentalism from a separatist movement into one with major presence in public life. Drawing on her extensive fieldwork among fundamental Baptists in Lynchburg, Virginia during the 1980s, Harding attempts to hear Jerry Falwell as his fellow Christians heard him, to understand the stories that mattered most to Bible-believing Christians of the “new Christian right,” to examine the kinds of worlds born-again discourse brought into being. In so doing, she takes aim at the popular misunderstanding of fundamentalists as supernaturalistic survivals of a premodern era, disenfranchised dupes incapable of dealing with modern reality. By her reckoning, born-again Christianity became politically powerful because it told stories many modern Americans found compelling. It offered complex narrative resources for engaging the modern world.

As an anthropological account of fundamentalist language, this book succeeds spectacularly. It would enrich any course on evangelicalism, the religious right, fundamentalism, or anthropology of religion. Harding opens with a careful explanation of her scholarly terms: fundamentalism (with a lower-case “f”) refers to a self-declared group of Christians committed to criticizing modern society and separating themselves culturally from it. Capital “F” Fundamentalism refers to Bible-believing Protestants globally: invented by Modernists, this denotes a supernaturalistic Christianity that supposedly refuses to come to grips with modern history, science, feminism, etc. Most of Falwell’s people called themselves Bible-believing Christians, evangelicals, conservative Christians, or—far more commonly—just plain old Christians. Evangelicalism separated from fundamentalism in the 1940s and 50s, but Falwell negotiated their rapprochement in the 1970s and 80s and gave birth to “conservative Christianity.” But the book offers much more than a precise set of scholarly terms. Its first chapter has become a classic in anthropology because it attends to the subtle ways that fundamentalist language shaped Harding herself during her research. In fundamentalist circles, you are either saved or lost—the language casts you as one or the other. Having come from a marathon session of “being witnessed to,” the lost anthropologist gets into a car accident and immediately thinks, “What is God trying to tell me?” She explains, “It was my voice but not my language. I had been inhabited by the fundamental Baptist tongue I was investigating” (33). Harding in the car is Archimedes in the bathtub. In her eureka moment, she discovers that conversion happens linguistically: “it involves joining a particular narrative tradition to which you willingly submit your past, present, and future as a speaker” (59). Harding takes it one step further. Since conversion happens linguistically, the critical anthropologist occupies a position of “narrative belief” (xii). The anthropologist cannot tell her own Christian story, but she believes her informants’ stories in all their details and knows why the story sounds like it does.

The Book of Jerry Falwell works at its best when examining the subject positions and discursive effects of born-again Christian language. Harding pays especially careful attention to the ways fundamentalist language works with gender. Falwell’s jokes, his baritone voice, his aggressive tone, his stories, his jeremiads, his rebukes of contemporary sexuality and especially (male) homosexuality, addressed men and expected women to “overhear.” Harding calls fundamentalism, especially the Moral Majority, a “men’s movement” because it implicitly privileged men, criticized men, and called men to repentance for their (usually sexual) sins (176-177). But she does not stop there. Although fundamentalist language spoke mostly from men to men, Harding calls Falwell a “flexible absolutist” (155). This runs counter to caricatures of Falwell as a simplistic antifeminist. Through the late 1970s and into the 80s, Harding argues, Falwell proved remarkably flexible with the kinds of behaviors and family structures that earned the distinction of being “absolute,” divinely ordained values. While he insisted that God appointed men as “heads” of their marriages, he came to consider companionate marriage the norm—quite a different set of “family values” than the fundamentalists of the 1940s had preached. Falwell insisted that women should submit to their husbands, but he softened his position on women working outside the home. Falwell was by no means a feminist, but he was aware of feminism and he did not respond to its effects in his community monolithically. Harding explores Falwell’s flexibility and other crevices of fundamentalist language with verve: its themes, its performativity, its multivocality, its ruptures, its hybridity, even its self-parodies.

For an anthropology of fundamentalist language, this book sings. As a historian of material culture, it raises two varieties of quibbles for me. First, the historical. The book frequently makes historical claims without sufficient justification. For example, Harding argues that Clarence Darrow’s nitpicking cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial represented his attempt to out-literalize Bryan—supposedly, an old fundamentalist preacher’s way of defeating a theological adversary (73). The great agnostic Darrow played the fundamentalist language game better than the Great Commoner Bryan. Interesting idea, but Harding does not cite a source when she declares this is an “old” trick Darrow executes well. I cannot find any such argument in Larson’s definitive Summer for the Gods (1997). Here, I suspect that Harding reads the literalist one-upmanship of Falwell and his fellow preachers onto Darrow and Bryan. It’s a fascinating argument, but the historian in me chafes at the thought of doing this. Show me the source. Give me a footnote. If it’s a new argument, demonstrate its freshness by contrasting it to the stale. Shout new ideas proudly in your notes. Convince me by perching your claim atop a mountain of carefully read primary sources.

Next, materiality. This book oddly deemphasizes material and visual culture. For fundamentalists, Harding flatly declares, “spiritual realities are not communicated through sensuous, nonlinguistic means” (37). The demons in Jack Chick’s tracts beg to differ. So do the dinosaurs at the Creation Museum. Elsewhere, Harding skims over the vivid images (e.g.: babies in cages) of Schaeffer’s influential anti-abortion movies Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, but then lengthily exegetes narrative positions in Falwell’s book If I Should Die before I Wake… What could have become a voice in the wilderness priming us for Jason Bivins’s Religion of Fear instead becomes a narratological soup full of shaky typologies (Isaac is to Jesus as teen mom is to Falwell). I’m quibbling for a reason: scholars frequently dismiss fundamentalist visual and material culture as kitschy, propagandistic, or secondary to the textual-linguistic main event. Harding’s book does not completely ignore these sensory aspects of fundamentalist culture, but they always play second fiddle to language. For this reason, the book offers a powerful check to my scholarly instincts, a hill I have to climb to make my argument. Any of my future work in fundamentalist visual and material culture has to grapple with Harding’s thesis about the significance of language for this community. Period.