Whose Evangelicalism is in Ruins?

Inside of Old Sheldon Church ruins

The American Academy of Religion, the national scholarly association for religious studies in America, just sent out its program of plenary addresses for its upcoming annual meeting this November. The abstract for David Gushee’s Presidential Address caught my eye.

There are a number of things to say about this. First of all, I told ya’ll this would happen during the nomination process three years ago. Looking closely at the abstract, the phrase “will perform ‘religion in public’ in a confessional vein” jumps out at me right away. The theme of the annual meeting, chosen by Gushee as president, is “religion in public” and this sentence shows the versatility of that phrase. The phrase “religion in public” usually connotes the area where scholars investigate how things called “religion” show up in the public sphere. Or sometimes, especially within the AAR and it’s mission to “enhance the public understanding of religion,” religion in public means that scholars share their knowledge about things called religion with the public. But this is neither of those. Gushee will be performing religion in public. He will be bringing the thing called religion into the public. But what public? A room full (or maybe not full) of scholars in a massive conference center who paid the exorbitant registration fees of the AAR? That’s not exactly Times Square or a CNN studio.

But it’s the last half of the sentence that reveals what I think is really going on here: “in a confessional vein.” Gushee will address the AAR members, not as a scholar of religion, not as a humanist, not as a social scientist, not even as an ethicist, but as a confessional “evangelical” within so-called “evangelicalism.” Furthermore, this will be an address that seeks to redeem so-called “white American evangelicalism.” So what would one call a public performance of religion in a confessional vein by a white American evangelical about the redemption of a ruined white American evangelicalism? A presidential address? An act of scholarship? A public relations stunt? A sermon?

And then there’s the entire question of whether so-called white American evangelicalism is even in ruins, as these tweets point out:

 

For example, if you asked the so-called evangelicals from a small town in Alabama interviewed in this recent Washington Post article you’d find that they also see moral ruin, but for very different reasons than Gushee. As one woman in the article said,”we’re moving toward the annihilation of Christians.”

“We are in mortal danger,” Linda said.

“We are in a religious war,” Sheila said.

Linda nodded.

“We may have to fight and die for our faith,” Sheila said. “I hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, we will.”

Yet, the President of the United States, a white man, is the candidate chosen by 80% of self-identified white evangelicals and the President of the American Academy of Religion, also a white man, is a self-identified evangelical. What exactly is in ruins? Whose evangelicalism is in ruins? Because it seems like within the political culture of the United States white American evangelicalism of the kind that supports the President is ascendant. And within the American Academy of Religion, the kind of white American evangelicalism that Gushee has promoted and the kind represented by so-called progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis (also a plenary speaker at the AAR this year) is getting center stage.

For the scholar of religion, Gushee’s abstract and the WaPo story are two interesting pieces of data. Comparing the two evangelicalisms reveals stark political differences. Gushee plans to draw on African American intellectuals resources in his address  while the white evangelicals from Alabama fear an impending race war. But what they share is more interesting. While the disagree about their role, both of these two forms of white American evangelicalism rely on the images of black people. Gushee sees African American intellectuals as a source for white American evangelicalism to redeem itself. Black religion as the savior of white religion, as many pointed out on twitter.

Meanwhile, the Alabama evangelicals cannot shake the fear of a black president and violent black revenge that drive their politics. Indeed, both Gushee and the folks in Alabama see themselves at risk. They both agree that it’s not a good time for white evangelicals in America.

I won’t be able to attend the AAR meeting this year but I encourage my colleagues to attend Gushee’s presidential address. It will be a good place for the scholar of religion to conduct field work. Pay attention to Gushee’s argument. Watch for the ways that he tries to distance himself from the white evangelicals in Alabama. Also pay attention to the audience. Does he get any amens? What’s the feel in the room? Does he get any cheers? Any jeers? What happens when the “other” evangelicals talked about? Because, if the speech is anything like the abstract, it will be an opportunity to study how social actors fight over important categories and identities like “evangelicalism.” If Gushee plans to perform religion in public then scholars of religion should be prepared to study him.

Photo credit: Old Sheldon Church Ruins, Beaufort, SC by Ckhopper [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “Whose Evangelicalism is in Ruins?

  1. I’m wondering if others have had a chance to read Aisha Beliso-De Jesús’s recent JAAR article, “Confounded Identities: A Meditation on Race, Feminism, and Religious Studies in Times of White Supremacy.” Here’s the abstract:
    “This article addresses the pervasiveness of white supremacy in American identity-thinking. Challenging the use of identity to structure unity platforms in academia, I advocate for Black-transnational feminist-queer strategies that demand coalition-based politics oriented around a transformative radical potential. Religious studies is used as an interdisciplinary case study to understand the problem of academic identity-thinking, where I show first, how white privilege is maintained in the “scholar-practitioner” divide, and second, how white supremacy is naturalized in identity-thinking. Eschewing relative or comparative approaches that reify identity-based logics, I move towards analytic and technical approaches that are productive of an activist-oriented decolonial stance. This gesture draws on the relationality, conflict, tension, power, and politics of studying racialized religious and spiritual subjects with an unapologetically transformative agenda.”

    It is more than possible that I have not fully understood Beliso-De Jesús’s arguments, but it occurs to me that they are not dissimilar to and would seem to support what it appears Gushee plans to do.

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