Nov 20, 2014

Billy Sunday hawks Liberty Loans

An advertisement for government bonds to finance World War I, featuring evangelist Billy Sunday:


This full-page ad was run in the Washington Times on March 3, 1918, in the final edition. Sunday, arguably the most famous evangelical of the era, was an outspoken advocate of the war, as were most Protestant clergy at the time.

In the text of the ad, Sunday says praying for the soldiers is meaningless without material support. "Some old geezers are strong on prayers for 'the brave boys in the trenches and on the battleships,' but their names haven't appeared on any Liberty Bond subscription list yet," the ad states. "Prayer of that kind don't get as high as a gas jet."

Sunday also appeals to the aspirations of the reader. "The men who saved this country are going to fill every office from Justice of the Peace to President," it says. "Where will you be then if you're a shirker now?"

If Sunday's moral authority and the reader's self-interest are not convincing, the ad copy suggests another reason to buy Liberty Bonds: threat of violence.

"Life in America won't be worth living," the last paragraph says, "for the man or women who didn't buy U.S. Government bonds of the third Liberty Loan."

At the time, there were official and quasi-official bands of vigilantes enforcing American loyalty. One could become a target of violence by not buying the bonds that financed the war effort. Sunday's ad would have been read as a tacit endorsement of this enforcement.

Nov 18, 2014

Amy Grant and the tensions of 'mainstream'

In her memoir of growing up evangelical Addie Zierman writes that she learned the word "mainstream" the day Amy Grant's 1991 single "Baby Baby" came on the radio.
Baby, baby
I'm taken with the notion
To love you with the sweetest of devotion 
Baby, baby
My tender love will flow from
The bluest sky to the deepest ocean 
Stop for a minute
Baby, I'm so glad you're mine, yeah
You're mine
Listening to the song in the car, Zierman's mom "let it slip that the evangelicals were less than enthusiastic about the new album. It had to do with the shift in focus from sacred to secular, from praise to pop, from Christian to mainstream."

This was an interesting moment in recent history of evangelical cultural engagement. For Zierman and many like her, the controversy around Grant's popular success was a revelation about how invested evangelicals were in maintaining borders. It was experienced as a kind of warning. Crossing certain lines could be very consequential.

There is an "us." There is a "them." And you can fall over that line even without meaning too.

Nov 17, 2014

Eastern Orthodox inmate fights for religious recognition

An Eastern Orthodox prison inmate won a small but important victory in his legal fight to have the Indiana Department of Corrections recognize his religion. A federal district court has ruled that Dolen W. Glenn, a 52-year-old man from Valparaiso, Ind., can proceed with his case against the IDOC. Glenn is arguing his right to practice his religion has been substantially burdened because the prison system’s handbook of religion does not list Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Read more at Religion Dispatches: "Christian Inmate Suing Indiana to Recognize Religion"

Nov 15, 2014

'And why not every man?'

The moon run down in a purple stream
The sun refuse to shine
Every star did disappear
Yes, freedom shall mine 
Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel
Deliver Daniel
Deliver Daniel
Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel
Deliver Daniel
And why not every man?
Albert J. Raboteau writes on the history of spirituals such as "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?" and the use of religious language among American slaves:
Slave preachers led the meetings of the 'invisible institution' and exercised a good deal of influence among the slaves in general. Although illiterate, their verbal artistry earned the slave preachers the respect of blacks and sometimes whites as well. The slave preachers had to be careful not to mention freedom or equality for black people in this life, but only in Heaven -- at least in the presence of whites. Preachers and their followers developed ingeniously indirect and veiled references to fool any whites who might be listening . . . . The flexible structures of the spirituals allowed the slaves to comment on the daily events of their lives, so that the community heard and shared the cares and burdens of the individual expressed through song.

Nov 14, 2014

Matthew Avery Sutton

Matthew Sutton, talking about the partnerships between missionaries and spies in World War II, with a picture of John Birch, a missionary/spy killed in China.

Nov 11, 2014

What the religious right cares about

The religious right is defined by its issues. The "social issues": Abortion, the family, prayer in schools, traditional values, bringing America back to God, and so on.

And yet, maybe that's wrong.

Last week's election saw massive turnout from voters identified with the religious right. White evangelicals, other conservative Protestants and white Catholics arguably made up the most significant bloc of voters in the midterms. They decided the election decisively for the Republicans. The landslides were their landslides. The victories their victories.

However, there's very little in those victories that really seems to connect with the social values that are supposed to be the big concerns of the voters who voted in such numbers last week. If you look at how Republicans won, if you look at how the elections were defined, if you look at how the results are being understood, it's not in terms familiar to definitions of the religious right.

The group that was, according to the data, so critical, did not seem to care about the things that they are said to care about most of all.

There are several explanations of this: Possibly this is a problem of a bad narrative, where the religious right's issues don't fit the expectations of those telling the story of the election, and thus get de-emphasized or even ignored. Possibly the religious right gets hijacked into an agenda it doesn't share.

Another possibility, though, is that this bloc of voters has been misunderstood and mischaracterized. Perhaps the issues of this election were their issues.

Maybe the media's not wrong and the voters actually know what they're doing. If that's possible, then there is another alternative account of the midterm election that opens up, where the religious right was influential even as none of their signature issues were at play, because they have been misunderstood, defined too rigidly and also just wrongly.

Nov 10, 2014

Religious right continues to be a force in electoral politics

The religious right is still a powerful force in American politics.

Judging by the exit polls from last week's election, the credit for the Republican's decisive midterm victory looks like it should go to conservative Christians, who got out to vote and overwhelmingly went for Republicans.

White evangelicals made up 26 percent of Tuesday's voters -- more even than in 2004, when white evangelicals made up slightly less than a quarter of the electorate but were credited with giving George W. Bush a second term. Not all of the evangelicals voted Republican, then or now, but most of them did. Nearly 80 percent marked their ballots for GOP candidates on Tuesday.

White Catholics also made a strong showing at the polls and put their weight behind Republicans. Nineteen percent of Tuesday's voters were white Catholics and 60 percent of them voted GOP. This is slightly more than the 2010 election, the last midterms, where white Catholics made up 17 percent of voters and 59 percent of them voted Republican.

Together, white Catholics and white Protestants -- a category that includes evangelicals but also mainliners, Mormons, and non-evangelical conservatives -- make up nearly 60 percent of the vote and more than 60 percent of them voted Republican. This is a solid bloc, and shows the religious right is still dominant in American politics today.

The significance of this bloc is even more noticeable when it comes to specific states:
  • In Arkansas, where Republican Tom Cotton was running for senate against incumbent Mark Pryor, 51 percent of voters were white evangelicals or Catholics. A full 73 percent of them voted for Cotton (despite the fact that Pryor himself is an evangelical and ran campaign ads invoking the Bible).
  • In Kentucky, the percentage of evangelicals in the population has dropped to 32 percent, but they turned out to vote disproportionately. They made up more than half the voters on Tuesday, and 68 percent of them voted for Senator Mitch McConnell over his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes.
  • In North Carolina, white evangelicals made up 40 percent of the electorate and 78 percent of them voted for the Republican Thom Tillis to replace the Democratic Senator Kay Hagin. Tillis won by a tiny margin, with about 47,000 more votes than Hagin. If evangelical support had been down even by 5 percent, Tillis would have lost.
  • In Georgia, where there was another close race for senate, white evangelicals also made a difference. They made up 39 percent of voters and 61 percent of them went for the Republican David Purdue, versus just 12 percent who voted for the Democratic candidate, Michelle Nunn. 
As Sarah Posner wrote in Religion Dispatches, the "religious right spent decades building get-out-the-vote operations and candidate recruitment and training grounds," efforts that have long-term pay-off at the polls. The Faith and Freedom Coalition, run by Ralph Reed, reports it distributed 20 million voter guides to 117,000 churches ahead of this election, and made 10 million get-out-the-vote calls.

These numbers would seem to disprove the narrative about the declining importance of the religious right. Less attention has been given to this bloc as a bloc in recent years, but that doesn't mean it has gone away.

Nov 8, 2014

'Praise God and let's have a good time'

Claude Ely, pentecostal preacher and gospel singer, cries holy to the Lord:


The podcast Radio Diaries did an excellent story on Claude Ely, called "The Gospel Ranger":

Nov 4, 2014

On the slipperiness of slopes

Without any solid evidence, Francis Schaeffer was sure that infanticide was happening. It was going to be happening. It would happen very soon. The slope from legalized abortion to infanticide was just too slippery for it not to happen.

More than 30 years later, pro-life conservatives are still waiting for the slip down that slope. They expect it any day, and so unfounded rumors of a new acceptance of infanticide are greeted as outrageous, but also long expected. Thirty years later, however, it's still an urban legend.

Many people, it turns out, do not generally feel compelled by the argument that either life begins at conception or infanticide is acceptable. The typically rhetorical question, "But where do you draw the line?", is not impossible to answer. In their real lives, people draw these lines in many different places, often with a lot of nuance and careful consideration of the actual situations of human beings.

For more than 30 years, pro-life advocates have believed they understood pro-choice logic and they've warned about its inevitable conclusion. But as report after report of that conclusion turn out to be fakes mistaken for fact, it's hard not to think the pro-life people are just wrong: The slope isn't that slippery.

Read the full essay, "Infanticide Still Not a Growing Movement," at Religion Dispatches.

Nov 3, 2014

'Zip, we are outclassed'


Cartoon from the Atlanta Constitution, July 1, 1925. The cartoon depicts the view -- not uncommon -- that the famous Scopes trial, where a school teacher was put on trial for teaching evolution, was more of a publicity stunt for the town of Dayton, Tenn., than anything else.

Zip the Pinhead was a freak show character played by William Henry Johnson, an African-American man from New Jersey who had an oddly shaped head. P.T. Barnum billed him as one of a tribe of "missing links" discovered in Africa. He also advertised Zip as Zip the What Is It.

Zip the Pinhead illustrates how evolutionary ideas were linked, popularly, with a racist ideology.

Other cartoons from Southern newspapers depicting the trial can be found here, along with cartoons from Northern newspapersnational magazines and fundamentalist publications.

Nov 2, 2014

Marilynne Robinson goes to church

Marilynne Robinson, author of Lila, talking to Sarah Pulliam Bailey:
If you go to a church and stay there over time, you see babies baptized, and children confirmed, the middle-aged becoming the elders, becoming the much lamented. It actually configures your sense of things around the defined arc of human life I have lived in a college town, which can create the impression that everyone is 22, but in my little village I have a very different sense of people, which I value very much.

. . . Only religion fully realizes the arc of human life.

Oct 30, 2014

Jesus on the battlefield

Jesus Christ and the church on the battlefield in a WWI poster:


The poster was raising funds for the Red Cross by identifying the soldier on the field in France with Christ. This is not unusual. The image of Christ and the idea of sacrifices' sanctifying effects were commonly used by leading Christian ministers in America to advocate for the war. 

Three examples from Richard M. Gamble's excellent book, The War for Righteousness
  • A joint statement signed by mlore than 60 ministers during the presidential campaign of 1916, ranging from the social gospelers Lyman Abbott and Harry Emerson Fosdick to the evangelical Billy Sunday: "The just God, who withheld not his own Son from the cross, would not look with favor upon a people who put their fear of pain and death, their dread of surfing and loss, their concern for comfort and ease, above the holy claims of righteousness and justice and freedom and mercy and truth."
  • The Rev. Ernest Stires, of the Episcopal St. Thomas' Church on Fifth Ave. in New York: "If Christ so loves the world that He bids us to bear the sword of Justice to save it, tell Him to-day He will find us ready; that before this Altar we dedicate our country and ourselves to the Christ who died to save men . . . . America will be faithful to her high ideal, bearing her ross, cost what it will."
  • Harold Bell Wright, the first American author to sell more than 1 million copies of a novel and a Disciples of Christ minister: "Our army is the army of this nation, but is more: It is the army of the liberty-loving world. It's blood is the blood of humanity, the humanity of Jesus, the humanity for which Jesus lived and died . . . . A man may give his life for humanity in a bloody trench as truly as upon a bloody cross. The world may be saved somewhere in France as truly as in Palestine."
Congressman Claude Kitchin, a North Carolina representative who lead opposition to the war, noting that pro-war ministers had no trouble getting their views reported by the pro-war newspapers, griped that "big predatory interests . . . can always count upon plenty of support from both pulpit and press."