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).

LaHaye and Jenkins, “Left Behind” (1995)

Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of Earth’s Last Days (1995).

Suddenly, without explanation, people disappear en masse. Cars crash into medians, driverless. Passengers vanish from airplanes midflight. Piles of clothes suddenly replace loved ones. All the world’s children, gone. A woman in labor finds her belly suddenly deflated; she delivers only a placenta (46). Welcome to the world of Left Behind. Boasting a company of characters named like the cast list of a 1970s porno—Buck Williams, Chloe Steele, Bruce Barnes, and Dirk Burton among others—Left Behind narrates a spy-thriller version of old-fashioned dispensational end times theology. The book operates on two levels. On the one hand, it’s an entertainment novel. Pure airport fare. A band of stock characters needs to solve a mystery, but forces ranging from the paranormal to the United Nations frustrate and complicate their efforts. In the end, the conspiracy goes much bigger than they thought, one problem (why did everyone disappear?) finds resolution but reveals bigger problems to follow (the antichrist is rising, but who?).

On the other hand, Left Behind is a thoroughly, unabashedly, Christian book for a conservative Christian audience. It puts a creative spin on the old dispensationalist practice of reading current events for signs of the times. Left Behind imagines a not-too-distant future that looks and feels suspiciously like the present (c. 1995): one character (Buck) finds that “the connection to his ramp on the information superhighway was busy” (32). Another character, searching for an explanation for his wife and son’s disappearance, pops in a DVD made by his wife’s pastor—the DVD player having first appeared in, that’s right, 1995 (202). So the book’s setting is the future, but it might as well be tomorrow. This gives practically unlimited creative license when the authors to get down to the dispensationalist business. This book does not read signs of the times as dispensationalists traditionally do, but rather conjures the times. Working backwards, it drapes the prophetic future onto the form of the present rather than looking at the present for signs of the prophetic future.

Bethany Moreton, “To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise” (2009)

Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Harvard, 2009).

Wal-Mart Moms forged today’s America. It seems a cheap compliment to call a book smart and well-written, but this one sets a new bar for each adjective. First, the smart argument. Moreton tells a new story about the rise of conservatism after World War II. Instead of towing the party lines of economic, political, and religious history, Moreton demonstrates that neo-evangelicalism, free enterprise, and political conservatism mingled promiscuously. And they met each other in Wal-Mart. By wedding value with family values, Wal-Mart turned consumerism into a Christian duty. A responsible Christian mom became a Wal-Mart mom. By modeling the service industry on a patriarchal Christian family, Wal-Mart managed to bring the evangelical wives of Sun Belt yeomen through the doors as employees and customers; they also made it culturally acceptable for old-fashioned Sun Belt men to work in the service industry. This family business headquartered in the Ozarks helped shift the nation’s economic and political might from the unionized industrial northeast/Midwest to the freewheeling Sun Belt—and the nation shifted, so Wal-Mart’s fortunes lifted. They ran the best mom and pop store in small towns across the country, then became global missionaries of down home capitalism. In Moreton’s telling, the story of Wal-Mart’s rise does not represent manifest destiny or commonsense logic: “[Christian free enterprise] was an unstable compound, the product in part of impressive agglomerations of power and money. But it was also the progeny of pragmatic responses to real needs, of idealistic hope in redemption, and of the elevation of service from its devalued position in the broader culture” (269-270).

Second, the sizzling writing. Moreton’s prose cooks. Practically every paragraph includes an apt metaphor, a clever turn of phrase, a spicy verb, or some kind of witty wordplay. Here is an arbitrary example: “Like postwar evangelicalism, the country music industry, or the Republican Party’s ‘Southern Strategy,’ the [Sun Belt] region’s service sector spun traditional straw into radical new gold” (50). This sentence sits mid-paragraph. Mid. Paragraph. This is how Moreton’s book works so well: she shows how ingredients as diverse as country music and Richard Nixon stewed together in the world of Wal-Mart. There’s no monocause or grand narrative here, but only ad hoc, unstable mixtures of cultural ingredients held together by superb writing. Form supports content.

Review by A.T.

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