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The New Pew Study: A Victory in the War on Christmas?

Friday, December 19th, 2014

by Emily Johnson

“The War on Christmas is Over,” reads the headline at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, “Jesus won.”

Reporter Christopher Ingraham is referring to a new study from the Pew Research Center, which asked 1,507 American adults about their religious and political beliefs surrounding the holiday, as well as their feelings about various Christmas activities.

Two sets of questions within the study are especially relevant to the rhetoric surrounding the War on Christmas: those asking respondents about their belief in various miraculous aspects of the Christian nativity story and those asking respondents whether nativity displays should be allowed on government property.

The study asked respondents whether they believe that four elements of the Christian nativity story are “events that actually occurred,” including: 1) that Jesus was literally born to a virgin, 2) that the “baby Jesus was laid in a manger,” 3) that “wise men, guided by a star, brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus,” and 4) that “an angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds.”

A strong majority (between 73% and 81% of respondents) answered in the affirmative for each question, and a total of 65% said that they believe in all four elements that the survey mentioned. Perhaps unsurprisingly, positive responses were highest (between 94% and 96%) among those identifying as evangelical Protestants. What is more surprising is the rate of positive response among “nones” – those who claim no religious affiliation. More than 1 in 5 (21%) of respondents in this group said that they believe in all four of these elements of the Christmas story, while 37% said that they believe in at least one element but not all of them. (Among almost all groups, the greatest number of respondents believe that the baby Jesus was laid in a manger. Among evangelical Protestants, the virgin birth and the angel’s announcement received slightly higher rates of affirmation than did the other two elements of the story).

The second component of the study that is particularly relevant here has to do with respondents’ support for Christian displays on government property.  A plurality of respondents (44%) said that they support the display of Christian symbols on government property “whether or not they are accompanied by symbols from other faiths.” Another 28% support these displays as long as they are accompanied with symbols of other faiths, while 20% say that Christian symbols should not be displayed on government property at all.

It’s worth noting here that the Pew survey question did not specifically reference Christmas displays, but rather asked: “Should Christian symbols be allowed on government property?” However, the question was asked in the context of a survey focusing on Christmas, after 23 other questions about Christmas had already been asked. It would be interesting to see how the same question would be answered outside of this context.

So, is the war on Christmas over? The majority of Americans believe in Jesus’ nativity as a literal historical event. An even stronger majority believe that Christian symbols should be allowed on government property, at least within the context of Christmas, as long as other religious symbols are also allowed.

But while these findings would seem to bode well for Bill O’Reilly and his fellow champions of Christmas, it is much too early to strike up the band or to roll out the ticker-tape parade.

Indeed, these data are much more likely to serve as ammunition in the ongoing battle than to signal its end. Those who worry about the War on Christmas have never doubted that a majority of Americans are Christians. Nor are they likely to be surprised that many “nones” also support the holiday. That is precisely the point. The rhetoric of the War on Christmas is not about whether the United States is a Christian nation. That is an idea that is taken for granted. Instead, believers in this war emphasize the persecution of an American majority (including, in this case, devout Christians as well as religiously ambivalent celebrators of Christmas) by a culturally powerful minority that includes militant atheists, misguided liberals, and the “political-correctness police.”

From this perspective, the recent Pew study does more to affirm the War on Christmas than to refute it. If the majority of Americans believe in the Christmas story and (at least conditionally) support Christmas displays on government property, then the ire raised by stories of elementary school “winter” parties, or pet store “holiday” displays, or atheist “X-mas” billboards may seem that much more justified.

The War on Christmas is likely to keep its place as a new American holiday tradition for years to come, because it so succinctly captures so many of the contradictions that sit at the heart of the ongoing culture wars. The United States is a Christian nation, demographically speaking, with just over 78% of adults claiming some Christian affiliation. But this is also a country that is at least nominally committed to pluralism and to a separation between church and state, however divergently defined and ambivalently implemented both of those concepts might be. These are tricky issues for any American to unravel, but they are especially resonant for conservative evangelical Christians whose faith calls on them to “courageously defend” a belief system that is both already widely accepted in this country and that is typically used as the standard model in state decisions about appropriate and inappropriate religious expressions.

Discussions about Christmas decorations and holiday nomenclature are easier to have than are direct conversations about national identity, pluralism, and privilege, but the War on Christmas is bursting with all of these things. As scholars of religion, we must not dismiss or ignore it, nor should we too quickly accept rumors of its demise.

Emily S. Johnson is a Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee. She recently completed her doctorate at Yale University, including a dissertation entitled “Authors, Activists, Apostles: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right.” Her work focuses on gender, politics, and popular culture in recent American religious history.

Five “First Books” of Note in 2014

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

by Paul Putz

‘Tis the season for arbitrary end of the year lists. In the spirit of the season, I’d like to recognize five of my favorite “first books”* (revised dissertations) published this year that cover the history of Christianity in the U.S. Due to the constraints of the arbitrary boundaries I’ve imposed upon myself and the limits of time (I can only read so much), I am undoubtedly leaving off numerous worthy books. Feel free to add to my list in the comments.

*technically, Matthew Bowman’s book listed below is not his first. However, it is his revised dissertation.

Shelby Balik, Rally the Scattered Believers: Northern New England’s Religious Geography


The Gist: Balik examined the ways that competing religious denominations organized space in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine in the years between 1780 and 1830. She argued that there were essentially two competing religious geographies in play: the town-church system, represented by the Congregationalists, and the itinerant system, represented by Freewill Baptists, Methodists, and Universalists. In Balik’s view, the changes to northern New England’s religious landscape in the early nineteenth century were not determined by a new democratized theology, doctrinal disputes, or disestablishment. Rather, they were determined by the way denominations mapped out new religious communities.

More Context: I briefly discussed this book at the Religion in American History blog.

Kathryn Gin Lum, Damned Nation: Hell in America from Revolution to Reconstruction

The Gist: Subverting the notion that all Americans thought of themselves and their new nation as harbingers of progress (a “redeemer nation”), Gin Lum explored the prevalence and impact in America of the idea that one (or that someone else) might be damned rather than saved. From the Revolution to Reconstruction, Gin Lum argued, hell was a powerful force. Far from being marginalized by Enlightenment thought and the challenge from upstart denominations like the Universalists, the doctrine that some would be damned grew in power and importance in the new American republic. It provided urgency to evangelize and to reform both oneself and the nation, and it loomed large in debates over slavery and in missionary campaigns to “tame the savage.” While it also inspired a backlash in which some rejected the evangelical understanding of hell, the idea was not – and is not – going away.

More Context: Check out interviews at Religion Dispatches and The Way of Improvement Leads Home

Matthew Bowman, The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism

The Gist: Bowman used late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Protestantism in New York City as a lens through which to analyze the fracturing of American evangelicalism. He argued that liberal and fundamentalist forms of evangelicalism are best understood as responses to the crisis of the city (i.e. the loss of evangelical Protestant cultural authority). As evangelical Protestants sought to maintain the authority of the Word in their changing urban environment, they relied on the pulpit. But liberals and fundamentalists developed divergent ways of understanding how the Word was to be proclaimed in the city. Importantly, Bowman argued that evangelicalism should be seen as a religious style, a “set of behavioral expectations and methods of practice” rather than a “coherent theological proposition.”

More Context: I wrote a review of the book at the Religion in American History blog.

Lerone Martin, Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion

The Gist: Martin set his story primarily in the 1920s and 1930s, a time when America’s leading record labels turned towards black performers to record “race records” and give the phonograph industry a spark. While black musicians and singers became celebrities as a result, Martin focused on the black ministers like James Gates who became just as popular, selling tens of thousands of sermons on wax. Martin not only brought the voices of forgotten black ministers to life, but he also contextualized them, placing them within the currents of cultural, commercial, and religious change in interwar America. Martin’s work speaks to numerous themes: urban migration, the commodification of religion, the transformation of African American religious authority, and racial politics, to name a few.

More Context: This book was just released about a month ago, so I haven’t seen any interviews or reviews yet. However, at NPR’s First Listen they are currently streaming a newly remastered collection of black gospel tracks from 1926-1936. Included among the tracks are some by the “preachers on wax” who Martin featured in his book, including J.M. Gates.

Brantley Gasaway, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice

The Gist: Gasaway traced the development of a progressive evangelical public theology as it emerged from the 1960s until today. He organized his study thematically, demonstrating how the theology of community articulated by progressive evangelicals (represented by Sojourners, ESA, and The Other Side) was applied to and transformed by issues like racism, feminism, abortion, homosexuality, economic injustice, and militarism. By organizing his chapters thematically, Gasaway was able to demonstrate how progressive evangelicals’ theological ideas and articulations on specific issues were shaped over time by their American political and cultural context.

More Context: David Swartz had a two-part interview with Gasaway at the Anxious Bench blog.

Paul Putz is a PhD student in history at Baylor University. He can be found online at or you can follow him on twitter p_emory.


Emmanuel Goldstein, Simon Magus, and Early Christian Propaganda

Monday, December 8th, 2014

By Thomas Whitley

In George Orwell’s famously popular dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Emmanuel Goldstein is the former Inner Party member who strayed and started the revolution. Goldstein, the story goes, authored The Book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, which every member of his group, The Brotherhood, was required to read. As I have been re-reading Nineteen Eighty-Four I have been struck by the similarities between Emmanuel Goldstein and Simon Magus, especially as regards how Goldstein was used by the Party and how Simon was used by early Christian authors.

Simon Magus was, according to early Christian heresiologists, the quintessential arch-heretic. Irenaeus calls him the heretic “from whom all heresies got their start” (AH 1.23.2). The same claim is made of Goldstein:

He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity. All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. (14)

The Party employs the same genealogical technique that early Christian heresiologists used. All who have strayed from the Party find their origin in Goldstein and his teachings. Likewise, all who have strayed from the Truth find their origin in Simon and his teachings. The similarities do not end here, though.

Perhaps the most interesting bit about Goldstein and The Brotherhood in Nineteen Eighty-Four is the ambiguity surrounding their existence.

“Does the Brotherhood exist?”
“That, Winston, you will never know. If we choose to set you free when we have finished with you, and if you live to be ninety years old, still you will never learn whether the answer to that question is Yes or No. As long as you live, it will be an unsolved riddle in your mind.” (214)

The strong implication is that the Brotherhood does not exist, but is simply a creation by the Party to identify and trap would-be members of a resistance. O’Brien has trapped Winston in just this way. The Brotherhood is a tool of propaganda. It serves to unite the citizens of Oceania behind the Party and to establish clear boundaries for what counts as being inside and what counts as being outside.

Simon Magus is first mentioned in Acts as one who formerly practiced magic, comes to believe the message of Peter and John, and then attempts to buy the Holy Spirit from them. Acts suggests that Simon repented of his wickedness (Acts 8.9-24). The tradition that springs up around Simon, though, does not build on his actions after his repentance, but rather continues to associate him with magic and fornication. Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Epiphanius all offer highly augmented critical assessments of Simon. Their portrayals all seem to ignore the conclusion offered by Acts. Is Simon Magus, then, especially as he is used by post-New Testament Christian authors, an invention? This certainly seems to be the case.

The result and usefulness of this invention is the same as that of Goldstein in Nineteen Eighty- Four. Goldstein and Simon Magus are both tools of the propagandists. Simon is the enemy against whom all Christians can unite, no matter the particular heretic being addressed at any given moment. The numerous mentions of Simon in heresiological literature as the forbearer of all other heretics can be likened to the Two Minutes Hate in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both serve to regularly and repeatedly remind the audience whom it is that they should hate, and, by extension, whom they should support. The stakes are life and death in Nineteen Eighty-Four and they are one’s spiritual life and death in early Christian heresiological literature. Neither the propagandists in Nineteen Eighty-Four nor the early Christian authors who employ propaganda as regards Simon Magus and others are overly concerned with the veracity of their claims about their opponents, only that their claims serve their purposes and affect a particular outcome — namely, support and adherence to orthodoxy among their constituencies.

Thomas J. Whitley is a PhD Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University where he studies sexual slander and identity formation in early Christianity. You can follow him on Twitter.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

A School Calendar’s Reminder about U.S. Public Education and “Civilizing”

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

Today’s post is from our newest contributor, Leslie Ribovich. Leslie is beginning a dissertation at Princeton on moral education in New York City public high schools after the U.S. Supreme Court deemed devotional exercises unconstitutional. Her research interests include religion and law, women’s religious history, race and religion, and the history of education.

by Leslie Ribovich

When the Montgomery County, Maryland Board of Education removed the names of religious holidays from their academic calendar last month, the story went viral. While commentators discussed whether the decision was equitable or equal, the Board’s decision also reflected a significant aspect of the history of public education: the United States and its public schools have privileged Christian, particularly Euro-Protestant, holidays and constructions of time—not to mention Euro-Protestant understandings of pedagogy and moral formation.

Although Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur will not be listed on the Montgomery County school calendar for 2015-16, school will be out on the dates of those religious holidays. The reason for the change? Muslim community leaders wanted the calendar to list Eid al-Adha, the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. For years they had requested that the county close school on one of two major Muslim holidays. Although the effort had not succeeded by the time the Board was deciding on the calendar for next year, Muslim community leaders encouraged the Board to list Eid al-Adha with equal billing to Yom Kippur since the two holidays will take place on the same date in 2015. In response, the Board decided it would not recognize any religious holidays on its calendar. News outlets quoted Board member Rebecca Smondrowski remarking: “‘This seems the most equitable option.’”[1]

Muslim community leaders have questioned the Board’s rationale, using the language of equality, not equity. For instance, the Washington Post quoted Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state delegate and co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition: “‘By stripping the names Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they have alienated other communities now, and we are no closer to equality.”[2] The Muslim community leaders indicated that the Board’s decision to treat religions “equitably,” or technically the same and therefore fairly, did not match their request for equality. When Board member Smondrowski used the word “equitable” instead of “equal,” she acknowledged, deliberately or not, that the calendar change would not afford Muslims equality. In fact, Smondrowski implied that the conditions of the public school could not provide Muslims with equal rights, even as the Board said it did not want to disrespect Muslims. The most practical solution, according to the Board, was to continue with a calendar that privileged a Christian understanding of time.

An assumed Christianity, specifically an assumed Euro-Protestantism that by the 1950s was framed as “Judeo-Christianity,”[3] has historically undergirded public school calendars. Indeed, it has done more than that: an assumed Euro-Protestant pedagogy has aimed to “civilize” “uncivilized” populations through public education—a practice that identified the “uncivilized” as inferior because of disobedience of Christian laws, appearance, phenotype, country of origin, or religious practice. Although nineteenth century public education proponents were considered progressive in their time and claimed to provide education for everyone, public schools were never as inclusive as supporters maintained they were. For instance, common school creator Horace Mann hoped to “civilize” Catholic immigrants into Euro-Protestant norms in the nineteenth century, as Tracy Fessenden has described.[4] In this light, the Board’s decision demonstrated acceptance of the assumed Euro-Protestantism codified by the Federal government and school districts around the country. Yes, school has been closed on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah since the 1970s, but Jewish holidays were recognized because of high absenteeism, not because of substantial structural changes to the Euro-Protestantism framing of public education. Furthermore, rates of Muslim staff and student absences did not convince the Board to close school on Muslim holidays. [5]

Given that Muslims have frequently been targets of racial, religious, and ethnic bias in the United States, the Board’s decision invites further attention. Even if the calendar itself does not aim to teach particular Euro-Protestant values, it is helpful to remember the Euro-Protestant history of public schools as “civilizing” “uncivilized” populations when an assumed Christianity is reiterated in the public school context. From examples in my own research on the moral education of juvenile delinquents in special public schools in the 1950s, I suggest that the 2015-16 calendar decision participated in the history of U.S. public education as a “civilizing” process, with Euro-Protestant standards for what the civil looks like.

Indeed, providing Muslim students and families with equal rights in public schools would be far more difficult than even allowing them a holiday off. Even if Eid al-Adha became a school holiday, Muslim students might still have to miss school for Eid al-Fitr, the last day of Ramadan. Furthermore, Jewish students who observe the Sabbath are not able to participate in Friday night arts or athletics events. Many religious calendars do not mirror the Gregorian, Christian calendar.

Repeating familiar arguments on religion and public life, supporters have claimed that the Federal law is on their side and opponents have said that the decision does not provide anyone equality, and even that the overwhelming inequality may unite religionists of different faiths.[6] Nevertheless, the public and media analysis in the last few weeks has taken for granted that the United States and its public schools run on a Christian calendar.[7] In particular, the calendar change demonstrates how deviations from a Euro-Protestant norm bring the norm into relief.[8]

In my research, I have recently been thinking about deviations from the generally Euro-Protestant norms of public education. I currently focus on students in the 1950s whom court or school authorities labeled “juvenile delinquents.” These students defied the Euro-Protestant norms of the public school by allegedly misbehaving or seeming emotionally, mentally, or physically unstable to authorities. Although the context is quite different from the recent events in Montgomery County, some approaches to preventing juvenile delinquency similarly drew on the idea that Euro-Protestantism was universal and therefore the assumed logic of the school day.

Throughout the country in the 1950s, many religious leaders, educators, and even students believed that religion could prevent delinquency. In addition to turning to religious institutions,[9] some educators thought schools could teach moral values derived from the country’s assumed Euro-Protestantism—at this time framed as its “Judeo-Christian heritage”—to prevent delinquency. One op-ed stated: “In a time when our national morals are at a record low, when our crime and juvenile delinquency rates have become objects of shuddering horror to the rest of the world, we need more moral and spiritual values in our schools, not fewer. And you just can’t duck the fact that there are no spiritual values without God.”[10]

Educators addressed delinquency in many ways, including through film. For instance, one New York University research project studied the impact of showing films to male students in the “600” schools, New York City (NYC) special public schools created “for children who are in conflict with themselves and at variance with and rejected by their homes, schools, and society…for such children with grave emotional and behavioral problems, for whom regular school procedures had been unsuccessful.”[11] “600” represented the name of the schools, for example, P.S. 612. Many students in “600” schools were students with disabilities, from “broken homes,” and likely from racial and ethnic minorities, immigrant families, poverty.

The researchers began by showing the Academy Award winning 1952 short antiwar film Neighbours, which told the story of two male neighbors, played by live action actors, whose fight over a flower turned into a bloody turf war that ended with both men killing each other.[12] Animated fence pickets that the characters had built to distinguish their territories reassembled on screen to form crosses over the men’s graves. Then the New Testament phrase “Love Thy Neighbor” appeared on the screen in many different languages, including languages in countries where Christianity was not the predominant religion, and, finally, in English. The assumption was that all cultures and religions shared the belief that everyone should love their neighbor; and therefore, they could practice that phrase and learn to stop fighting with each other.[13]

Underlying the film was the notion that in order to really get along, everyone around the world must live by the New Testament. And, by showing the film to the “600” schools student population, the researchers aimed to reform the “600” students into moral, “civilized” young adults in accord with the ideals of the New Testament. Neighbours displayed an implicit assumption that particular people did not love their neighbors—the particular people who spoke the languages on the screen. The film was supposed to remind the people who spoke those languages, and by extension the students in the classroom where it screened, that it was their duty as participants in American public (school) life to do so.

The “600” schools’ researchers addressed students they saw as defying Christian ideals through delinquency or disturbed behavior by implying that all cultures could understand the values behind “Love They Neighbor.” There was no attempt to show the equality of all the cultures by identifying significant values to each culture; rather, the presentation of the film’s moral was more equitable. Every language could translate and grow to live by the phrase. An assumed Euro-Protestantism aimed to “civilize” students out of their deviance.

Montgomery County in 2014 and NYC “600” schools in the 1950s differ. Different places, different decades, not to mention different kinds of public schools, contribute to different contexts. But the “Love They Neighbor” message in Neighbours serves as a reminder that the context for assuming that everyone shares certain values has historically been a vehicle for “civilizing” non-rule abiding, non-Euro-Protestant populations in U.S. public schools. I do not intend to critique any of the individuals involved in the Maryland situation but rather to suggest that the choices they have made are entangled in a public school system, legal understanding, and country that have privileged Euro-Protestant conceptions of behavior, morality, and time.

I use entangled as Courtney Bender and now Winnifred Fallers Sullivan do to talk about how spirituality is entangled in history, religious institutions, and “religious experience” as a sociological category, as well as in U.S. law, where a prominent legal test on whether an activity has violated the First Amendment presumes it is possible for statutes to avoid government entanglement with religion.[14]  With religion entangled in public schools in the Bender/Sullivan understanding, the questions surrounding the school calendar are not about whether the Board should have removed the names from the calendar. Instead, I have asked what the Board’s removal of holiday names illuminated about the historical conditions of the public school. I have suggested that it underscored public education’s project of “civilizing” non-Euro-Protestant, non-rule-abiding peoples and communities. The Muslim community leaders in Montgomery request equality within the terms of this historical project.

Leslie Ribovich is in the PhD program in Religion in the Americas at Princeton University. 


[1] Valerie Strauss, “Why a Story about a School Calendar Went Viral,” The Washington Post, November 13, 2014,; Donna St. George, “Holidays’ Names Stricken from Next Year’s Montgomery Schools Calendar,” The Washington Post, November 11, 2014,;  Donna St. George, “Muslim Leaders Seek Equal Billing with Jewish Holiday on Montgomery School Calendar,” May 18, 2014,; Andrea Noble, “To Appease Muslims, School District Drops Christian, Jewish Holidays from Calendar,” The Washington Times, November 11, 2014,

[2] St. George, “Holiday Names Stricken.”

[3] See: Kevin Schultz, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (New York: Oxford University Press)

[4] See: Tracy Fessenden, Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 66-67.

[5] Noble, “To Appease Muslims.”

[6] On supporters and opponents: “Montgomery Co. Schools Scrap Religious Names from Calendar,” The Baltimore Sun, November 12, 2014,; “School District’s Decision on Religious Holidays Outrages Community,” CBS News, November 14, 2014, On interfaith coalitions uniting in opposition to the same educational decisions, see: Kathleen Holscher, Religious Lessons: Catholic Sisters and the Captured Schools Crisis in New Mexico (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[7]The influence of agricultural demands on early public schooldays also deserves attention—but that is a different story.

[8] Although the district does not hold school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, the main cited reason is because of high level of absences—an argument born of the secular purpose test in the second half of the twentieth century that Christian holidays never had to live up to. Although school is closed on these two Jewish holidays, the rest of the school calendar, as the rest of the federal calendar, is still marked by Christian understandings of time.

[9] David W. Barry, “Religious Values as Aid to Juvenile Delinquents,” Letter to the New York Herald Tribune, July 12, 1955.

[10] Max Rafferty, “Spiritual Values Stem From God; Schools Need More, Not Less,” Los Angeles Times, December 29, 1965.

[11] Carol Cordes Smith, “The 600 Schools,” Education 80 (1959): 215-218, 215.

[12] Ibid.; Smith, “Using Films in Group Guidance With Emotionally Disturbed Socially Maladjusted Boys” Exceptional Children 24 (1958): 205-209, 206.

[13] Neighbours, Film, directed by Norman McLaren (1952; Montreal: National Film Board of Canada),

[14] Courtney Bender, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 5-18, 182-83; Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, A Ministry of Presence: Chaplaincy, Spiritual Care, and the Law (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), 9-10. On the entanglement of race, religion, and citizenship: Judith Weisenfeld, “Post-Racial America? The Tangle of Race, Religion, and Citizenship,” Religion and Politics, October 24, 2012, The legal test is the Lemon test, derived from Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), a U.S. Supreme Court case on government aid to parochial schools. One prong of the three-part test is that a statute must not produce “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”

* Image courtesy Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post.

Demonization and Racialization in British North America: Slave Revolts, Devilish Priests, and Infernal Landscapes

Monday, December 1st, 2014

by Jeffrey Wheatley 

(Although in my last post I proposed that I would use the next few posts to explore historical and historiographical trends related to the study of capitalism, I want to take a brief detour. I have adapted what follows from a paper I gave at the Florida State Department of Religion graduate symposium in 2014.)

The two things that British North Americans feared most in the colonial era were slave revolts and the Catholic Church. Within the colonial imaginary these two threats occasionally coalesced into one. The result was an infernal spectacle that forced colonial anxieties about the basic structures of colonial society to the surface. The soundness of the institution of slavery, emerging conceptions of the public, and the British Protestant beachhead in the overwhelmingly Catholic Americas all came into question.

Read the rest of this entry →

Progressive Evangelicals and Christian History

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

Paul Putz

The history of contemporary progressive evangelicalism has now been the subject of two excellent scholarly books: David Swartz’s Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Penn, 2012), and Brantley Gasaway’s Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit and Social Justice (North Carolina, 2014).

Although I am in the middle of a typical busy graduate school semester, I couldn’t resist the temptation to immediately read Gasaway’s book when it arrived in my mailbox last week. Having previously read Swartz’s book, I can attest that the two books complement each other quite well. For example, while Swartz analyzed in greater depth the pioneering personalities involved in the movement, Gasaway focused more on tracing the development of a progressive evangelical public theology (as articulated in the leading publications associated with the movement). If you have an interest in the subject I highly recommend reading both books, which are available in affordable paperback or e-book editions.  And if you want a more thorough introduction to the themes and arguments of Gasaway’s book, you will find Swartz’s two-part interview with Gasaway at the Anxious Bench blog quite helpful (here is part 1 and here is part 2).

With the substance of the book set aside, I’d like to mention a more peripheral item that caught my attention while reading Gasaway’s introduction. Specifically, I was struck by his brief discussion of the connection between the rise of contemporary progressive evangelicalism and shifts in historiography related to American evangelicalism. As Gasaway pointed out, in the 1970s progressive evangelicals looked to the history of nineteenth-century American evangelicalism for “a ‘usable past’ that helped to justify their own activism.” Indeed, it was through the pages of progressive evangelical organ Sojourners (then the Post-American) that historian Donald Dayton first published the essays on nineteenth-century progressive evangelicalism that formed the foundation for what became his 1976 book Discovering an Evangelical Heritage.

While that book, which drew on the work of previous scholars like Timothy L. Smith, was intended for a popular audience, its rediscovery of socially conscious nineteenth-century evangelicals made it an influential force in both the academic world and among evangelicals on a more popular level. For progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis, it “helped us understand that our longing to embrace the world was grounded in both Scripture and history” and “revealed the public evangelical faith that is our great inheritance.” Within the academic world, it was part of a larger trajectory in which Dayton became a leading critic of what he called the “presbyterianization of evangelicalism and evangelical historiography” represented by figures like historian George Marsden (in 1991, Church History published an article by Douglas Sweeney on this historiographical debate.)

Reading Gasaway’s brief mention of Dayton and of the way that some progressive evangelicals sought to position themselves as the true heirs of evangelicalism made me think about the different ways that the full scope of Christian history has been appropriated by the evangelical left and the evangelical right. While much attention is given to evangelical conflict over how to interpret the Bible, it’s clear that interpretations of Christian history hold at least some authority in evangelical debates as well. But since I’m unaware (largely for lack of searching) of a robust analysis of this topic, please feel free to use the comments to help me out.

As it turns out, Dayton’s 1976 book could have renewed relevance in today’s evangelical debates: next month Baker Academic is publishing a second edition, re-titling it Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage. “There is a desire, especially among young adults, for a form of scripturally based Christianity in which social justice is perceived as the natural outworking of deep faith,” Douglas Strong writes in the introduction, “an evangelicalism much like the one Dayton discovered from the 1800s, uncovered for the 1970s, and that can be rediscovered again for today.”

Molly Worthen’s blurb for the new edition seems to me a fitting way to end: “…the fight to determine who counts as an authentic American evangelical…continues today.”

Paul Putz is a PhD student in history at Baylor University. He can be found online at or you can follow him on twitter @p_emory.

A Transgender Thecla?

Monday, November 10th, 2014

By Thomas J. Whitley

The Acts of Thecla tells the legendary story of a woman from Iconium (modern day Konya, Turkey) who, after hearing Paul’s preaching, left her mother and her betrothed for a life of asceticism and sexual renunciation. Her story is a fascinating one to read. She escapes death, with God’s help, multiple times and even baptizes herself in a pool of seals that intended to devour her. She was praised as an apostle, a martyr, and an ideal ascetic woman. Her gender, though, is not stable in the text.

On the one hand, Thecla is feminized throughout the text. At one point Thecla is to be burned at the stake, “and when she came in naked the governor wept and admired the power that was in her” (Acts of Thecla 22; emphasis added). The author forces the reader to imagine Thecla’s naked female body tied to the stake.

Later, she tries to convince Paul to let her follow him wherever he goes. He denies her request because “times are evil and you are beautiful. I am afraid lest another temptation come upon you worse than the first and that you do not withstand it but become mad after men” (25). Thecla’s beauty and her apparent weakness (inherent in her femaleness) preclude her from doing what any male would have been able to do.

Thecla is in a different arena when she is thrown to the lions having been stripped, but having received a girdle (33). She then baptizes herself in the seal-filled pool and after a flash of lightning kills the seals Thecla is surrounded by a “cloud of fire so that the beasts could neither touch her nor could she be seen naked” (34). Again, the reader is directed to imagine Thecla’s nude feminine form behind the cloud.

On the other hand, Thecla is also masculinized in the text. She is independent, fends off an attempted rape, makes the attempted rapist a “laughing-stock” in the process (26), and baptizes herself (f.1). Masculinization of women is nothing new in early Christianity and it is always seen as a positive change in the status and gender of the person. In the Gospel of Thomas, for instance, Jesus says of Mary,

Look, I will draw her in so as to make her male, so that she too may become a living male spirit, being similar to you. Every woman, if she makes herself male, will enter the kingdom of heaven (f.2).

The masculinization of Thecla comes to a head, though, when she crossdresses and presents as male:

And Thecla longed for Paul and sought him, looking in every direction. And she was told that he was in Myra. And wearing a mantle that she had altered so as to make a man’s cloak, she came with a band of young men and maidens to Myra, where she found Paul speaking the word of God and went to him. (40)

While there are theories as to why Thecla crossdresses here, the text is silent as to the motivation. Was it so that she did not have to travel as an unaccompanied female? Was it to help her gain some authority or autonomy? Did it shield her from unwanted advances? Was there a spiritual motivation behind it? Did she see herself as having “become male,” as Jesus vowed to help Mary do in the Gospel of Thomas?

The answer is not clear, but it is clear that Thecla’s gender presentation changes throughout the text. Thecla does not simply shift from presenting as female to presenting as male, as if it were a gradual shift with a clear end goal. Indeed, early in the text in her request to follow Paul she said, “I will cut my hair off and I shall follow you wherever you go” (25). She offers to present as male but continues to present as (and be presented as) female throughout the text until the crossdressing episode. She then returns to presenting as female after the crossdressing episode.

Stephanie Cobb has written about how both masculinizing and feminizing females in early Christian martyrological literature served to keep them in their place (f.3) While on the one hand, it would have been unacceptable to present Christian women as becoming completely male and so the masculinization need to be balanced by a healthy dose of feminizing. On the other hand, this feminizing also served to reinforce the ideals of modesty and submission (f.4). I think that Cobb is completely right in her interpretation, but I wonder if it is time to add another layer to our interpretation, namely, one that reads characters like Thecla as transgender. This question seems especially crucial when a character has not simply been portrayed as having masculine characteristics like strength or autonomy, but has presented as male in the text. In other words, should we couple our analyses of gender construction with analyses of gender presentation in early Christian texts?

Thomas J. Whitley is a PhD Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University where he studies sexual slander and identity formation in early Christianity. You can follow him on Twitter.


(1) On autonomous women as “manly” see Stephanie Cobb, Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 92.
(2) Gospel of Thomas 114. Translation from Uwe-Karsten Plisch, The Gospel of Thomas: Original Text with Commentary (Stuttgart, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2008), 243.
(3) Cobb, Dying to Be Men, 92-123.
(4) Cobb, Dying to Be Men, 93.

*Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

What Year Is It? On women, authority, and the roots of Christian tradition

Monday, October 27th, 2014

by Jenny Collins-Elliott

“Did I just wander into the 17th century?” reddit user “Zrk2” asked in response to a discussion thread on the subreddit /r/TrueChristian (1) entitled: “Christian woman culture thoughts?” [sic] The poster, “SpecialU,” wanted to know what fellow, anonymous users of /r/TrueChristian—an online message board for “Bible-believing Christians” to discuss their religion and to answer questions from non-believers—thought about female Christian preachers like Joyce Meyer and women’s retreats, and if these pro-women messages didn’t constitute or lead to idolatry. In response to “Zrk2’s” 17th century comment, user “PetevonPete” wanted to push their ignorance even further into the past, saying, “Worse. /r/TrueChristian, more like 2nd century. BC. Don’t ask how that’s possible, they found a way.” Though writing in jest, I think “PetevonPete” was on to something.

The concerns raised in response to this question about heresy and women’s Bible study were interesting in that they were so predictable. One reddit user said that women lapse more easily into heresy because they aren’t as theologically educated as men. Some suggested that this was a result of institutional sexism, while others cited the oft repeated paraphrase of 1 Timothy 2:13-14, “Eve was deceived, not Adam.” This kind of verbal shrug points to an essentialist understanding of the spiritual capabilities and limitations faced by Christian women—at least according to the Pastoral Epistles. But, as “PetevonPete” so wisely suggested, this idea—that women are naturally more prone to wild excesses, to making poor decisions, to being fooled, to creating chaos when challenging their natural role as submissive to men—does not start nor end with Christianity.

Suspicion of women and women’s religion is scattered throughout the annals of classical Greek and Latin literature, with the fingerprints of these cultural attitudes being found later in early Christian writings. Euripides’ play Bacchae (405 BCE), to take but one example, warns of the deadly and unnatural consequences of letting women run free in the wild, worshipping the god Dionysus (aka, Bacchus). In the play, the worship of Dionysus was troubling because it was new, and it encouraged women of all ages and social stations to leave behind their responsibilities to their families and city in order to head into the woods and hills to engage in women’s-only worship of this new god. The play’s anxiety around women-only worship is not unlike the one voiced by reddit user “injoy,” who suggested that women-only church groups can foster an attitude in which it is permissible and even exciting to “ditch” ones husband and children to have a ladies night, which she deems idolatrous behavior. At the root of both the play and many of the comments on the reddit thread is a fear of instability, of the disruption of the standard order as having been put in place by (the) god(s). In the case of the Bacchae, traditional Greek religion helped to maintain a well-order polis (city-state), one in which good women and wives stayed at home, tending to the loom (which represented more than mere weaving, as being at or leaving the loom are topoi in Greek literature that can signal order and disorder, respectively). The arrival of the god Dionysus and his brand of worship to the city of Thebes immediately causes this traditional order of life to become disrupted, with the Theban women having been driven from their homes in a craze.

Reddit users in the /r/TrueChristian thread displayed skepticism of “you-go-girl” theologies, led by break-out female ministers and expressed concern over the creation of a “church within a church” for the same reasons—these are subversive messages that are contrary to the order that God has already laid out. But the behavior of women is of special concern because women are believed to be (naturally) more prone to being deceived, misled, or corrupted than men. Euripides pointed to the unnatural sway that Dionysus exerted over women. In the Wisdom of Ben Sira (2), the author warns that fathers should not let their daughters spend time with married women “for from garments comes the moth, and from a woman comes woman’s wickedness” (Ben Sira 42:13). “Paul,” writing in the 1st century CE, pointed to the example of Eve’s being fooled by the serpent in the Garden of Eden in 1 Timothy as explanation for why women cannot teach men. Celsus, a 2nd century CE “pagan” (3), argued that the early success of Christianity was a result of their converting “the silly, and the mean, and the stupid, with women and children,” whereas men of sound-mind were not so easy to win-over (Origen, Cels. 3.44).

Users commenting on this thread about women’s heresy weren’t merely harkening back to the 17th century, as “Zrk2”suggested, or even the 2nd century BCE, as “PetevonPete” suggested. Rather, those expressing concern over women-only religious groups and calling for (male) leadership to provide oversight are engaged in a much older, much wider-ranging anxiety over the disruption of familial and social order believed to have been put into place by god(s) and enforced by male leaders and other female followers, an order naturalized by its sense of timelessness.

Jennifer Collins-Elliott is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. Her research interests include the body, gender, and sexuality, as well as martyrdom and violence in late Antique Christianity. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on rape in early Christian literature and is tentatively titled, ““Bespattered with the Mud of Another’s Lust”: Rape and Physical Embodiment in Christian Literature of the 4th-6th Centuries CE.” She is on Twitter @JCollinsElliott.


(1) reddit is, according their faqs, “ a source for what’s new and popular on the web.” It is a free, user-driven website, in that individuals who have reddit accounts can submit content (links from other sites or original content, like text,  images, and videos) and other users vote (either up or down) on those posts. Material that is highly “up-voted” is more visible on the site. reddit itself is actually composed of thousands of “subreddits”—discussion boards centered around specific topics or interests. For this post I’m drawing from two subreddits, /r/SubredditDrama and /r/TrueChristian. /r/SubredditDrama is a meta-reddit, meaning that it is a board in which people link to other posts on reddit in which there is “drama” unfolding. These are sometimes silly disputes between users, other times they are heated debates about racism or sexism. I discovered the /r/TrueChristian discussion covered in this post via /r/SubredditDrama, which is where the comments from users “Zrk2” and “PetevonPete” come from. /r/TrueChristian, which currently has 5,916 subscribers, is a relatively new subreddit. Its creation was driven by users who were unhappy with what /r/Christianity, with 88,540 current subscribers, had to offer. /r/Christianity is a larger, less ideologically driven community than /r/TrueChristian, which is more conservative and whose stated goal is to create a “safe-haven” for Bible-believing Christians to discuss their faith. While /r/TrueChristian doesn’t describe itself as being in direct competition with /r/Christianity, they are making a claim to authority over what it means to be Christian in their title. Moreover, this is in the face of other denominationally differentiated Christian subreddits, such as /r/Catholicism or /r/Anglicanism, while /r/TrueChristian is more ecumenical in its membership.

 (2) Ben Sira (aka, Sirach) is a 2nd century BCE book of Jewish wisdom literature that is canonical for Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but not Protestants.

 (3) Celsus’ writings come to us only indirectly, as portions of his work were perserved by Origen (185-232 CE) in Contra Celsum

“It is just as easy to reach the portals of Heaven from Cappadocia as from Jerusalem”: Rereading Gregory of Nyssa’s Position on Pilgrimage

Friday, October 24th, 2014

by Tara Baldrick-Morrone

In the section on John of Lycopolis in the History of the Monks of Egypt, sayings 13–64 detail the three-day visit that seven brothers (i.e., monks) had with John. Upon their arrival, when John inquired about their journey, they responded that they had come to see him “for the good of [their] souls so that what [they] ha[d] heard with [their] ears [they] might perceive with [their] eyes.” John then replied, “And what remarkable thing did you expect to find…? Those who are worthy of admiration and praise are everywhere.” These sayings point to the different positions on a subject of much dispute in late antique Christianities, namely, the undertaking of pilgrimages. Similarly bound up in this discussion of sites and people was the cult of relics that emerged during the fourth and fifth centuries. Pilgrims undertook journeys just to be near the relics of the martyrs, perhaps in order to be healed or simply to show reverence. However, some, like Gregory of Nyssa, thought that the veneration of these “holy objects” — holy sites, particularly — could possibly constitute some form of pagan idolatry.

Specifically, in his letter on pilgrimage (Letter 2), which is thought to have been written after 381, Gregory expresses concern about pilgrimages not in terms of ordinary people, but for “the perfect,” those monks and virgins who had set themselves apart from the world Here, he writes that such travels “impose a harmful worldly occupation on those who have undertaken to lead the strict life.” One of Gregory’s main points of deterrence is the description of the potential harm that a pilgrimage (to Jerusalem, mainly) could cause. Directing contemplation toward a place shifts their focus of attention away from the monastic life and puts it on “a practice that neither renders [them] blessed nor directs [them] to the Kingdom.” Moreover, as Gregory explains, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem does not bring one nearer to God; instead, it appears to do the exact opposite, as the land around Jerusalem itself appears to embody a pit of sin and death:

 Again, if grace were greater in the vicinity of Jerusalem than anywhere else, sin would not be so entrenched among those who dwell there. But as it is, there is no form of uncleanness that is not brazened among them: fornications, adulteries, thefts, idolatries, drugs, envies, murders. This last kind of evil especially is so entrenched that nowhere else are people so ready to murder each other as in those places, where even blood relatives attack each other like wild beasts for the sake of lifeless profit. Well then, where such things go on, what evidence is there that in those places grace abounds more? Moreover, what gain shall he have when he has reached those places? Is it that the Lord still lives in the body today in those places and has stayed away from our regions? Or is it that the Holy Spirit abounds among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, but is unable to come to us? Really, if it is possible to infer God’s presence from the things that appear, one might more justly consider that he dwelt in the nation of the Cappadocians than in places elsewhere! For how many altars are there in these places through which the name of the Lord is glorified? One could scarcely count so many altars in all the rest of the world!

 While his condemnation does seem to be about pilgrimage, I think it can also be seen as an argument about place. As he says, grace is in no greater quantities in Jerusalem than that which is found in Cappadocia. For him, it does not appear that no place is holy, or should be labeled as such, for as Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony has argued, Gregory often uses the phrase ieros topos for certain sites around Cappadocia. If his concern may not be about the problem of holy sites in general, what reason would there be for Gregory to have issues with Jerusalem? One way to answer this question is to look to the economic aspects and advantages that emerge in the practice of pilgrimage. In his discussion of Jerome and Vigilantius’ differences over the cult of the saints, Peter Brown details the kind of fundraising that occurred in Rome for its provinces and the Holy Land:

 Funds continued to flow out of Rome and the West toward the Holy Places and the monasteries of Egypt. Rome could afford this drain. But in the provinces propaganda for the ascetic movement and the fostering of pilgrimage to the Holy Land threatened to undermine the finances of the less well-endowed local churches. In the years before 406, the issue exploded. The monasteries around Jerusalem came under attack. They were accused of having diverted the wealth of rich Christians away from their local churches through soliciting overseas donations to the Holy Land.

 Although Gregory does not address such issues in Letter 2, and Brown does not specifically mention him, reading Gregory’s position on pilgrimages in the letter through the lens of economic interest serves to, in the words of Bruce Lincoln, discuss “the temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions” of Gregory’s discourse that represents itself as “…transcendent, spiritual, and divine.”

Tara Baldrick-Morrone is a doctoral student at Florida State University. Her research interests include rhetoric about the body and disease in late antiquity, ancient medicine, and issues of method and theory in the academic study of religion by way of critical pedagogy. She can be contacted at tbaldrickmorrone at fsu dot edu and on Twitter.

* Image from Anna Silvas’ translation and commentary on the letters of Gregory of Nyssa, published by Brill in 2007.

Capitalism’s Turn?

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

by Jeffrey Wheatley

The Greenstone Church in Pullman Town, ca. 1883

Scholarly interest in capitalism has been on the rise. The most obvious sign of this interest has been Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which received a surprising amount of media attention for being a rather dense book with new methods but an old argument. Piketty is a French economist, but scholars from a variety of disciplines have also sought to incorporate capitalism into their research. Last year, The New York Times pronounced a capitalist turn in history departments. The article highlighted Cornell’s History of Capitalism Initiative, which, by the way, is hosting a conference November 6–8 that is worth paying attention to if you are an Americanist. To give another example, Edward E. Baptist’s new book has joined a body of work that situates the expansion of capitalism, and specifically finance capitalism, in the Atlantic slave trade and slave labor.

Not to be left behind, scholars of Christianity and religion generally have also been especially interested in business, wealth, and trade. This interest, of course, is not unprecedented, but I want to list some of the more recent works for this post. Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart, which was noted in The New York Times article, explores the rise of “Wal-Mart Moms” and the political impact of their faith in God and market. Kathryn Lofton has already given us Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, which explores the relationship between modern American religiosity and consumerism. She is also working on a project that does something similar with the financial practices at the Goldman Sachs Group. Thomas Rzeznik’s Church and Estaterevels in the Gilded Age by looking at the intersection of religious claims and business practices among the Philadelphia elite. Christopher Cantwell’s essay over at Religion & Politics sketches out some of the links between big capitalism and big Christianity in Illinois.

This interest is not limited to scholarship on the United States and modernity. A number of works have explored the relationship between Christianity and economics broadly. To provide one example, Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle, which won ASCH’s Philip Schaff Prize in 2013, traces the problems and products of wealth in Christian churches during and after the decline of the western Roman empire.

These works rely upon a variety of methodologies. Some highlight a type of religiosity present in economic practices. Others show the mutual relationship between religious and business organizations. In my last post at the blog I suggested how the tracing of metaphorical motifs might allow us to traverse archives in order to undo the impact of compartmentalization. Specifically, I wanted to draw connections between anti-monopoly, anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon, and other popular late nineteenth-century protestations in order to illustrate a broad sense of dread of invisible systematic subversions.

Taken together, I think this growing interest in capitalism is interesting because it tests how scholarly vocabularies from cultural studies, history, religious studies, and economic theory can (or, perhaps, cannot) mingle. I do not believe that interdisciplinarity is always a good in and of itself, but the particular junctures created and debated seem to me to be productive in bringing together conversations whose separation has made sense disciplinarily but not historically. As Winnifred Sullivan notes in her critique of liberal reactions to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, beliefs and practices under the sign of religion have always been—and she is speaking within the context of American religious history—entwined with business.

I think it will be especially productive to examine formations of religion and business within the context of state projects. How have states adjudicated the economic and the religious? How, at the same time, have they replicated certain economic and religious assumptions and practices within the body politic? Or among colonized groups? In future posts on this blog I hope to address these questions with some historical examples while also laying out some of the theoretical and methodological problems that have resulted from the disciplinary intersections that have occurred due to rising interest in capitalism.

Jeffrey Wheatley is a graduate student at Northwestern University. His research explores formations of religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. Of late he has been researching the epistemologies at work in missions to Native Americans, representations of Catholic exceptionalism in the American West, and Gilded Age corporate religious sensibilities. He is on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

*Image courtesy of the Pullman Virtual Museum.