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Religion and the GOP Presidential Hopefuls, Part II

Monday, July 20th, 2015

Emily Johnson

Since I last wrote about the GOP presidential candidates in May, the already-crowded field has seen its membership double in number. It is time, then, for an update on the religious affiliations and moral positions of the nine candidates who have now joined the race. (Click the link above to go back and read about Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Mark Everson, Jack Fellure, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio).

Such a “cheat sheet” is necessary not only for the pure pleasure of amassing trivia. Indeed, it’s not trivial at all. In recent years, a rapidly growing field of scholarship on the New Christian Right and the Culture Wars of the 1970s and 1980s has begun to reveal the significant, nuanced, and long-lasting influence of conservative Christian movements in American politics across the twentieth century. As we gear up for the 2016 election, the populous field of Republican candidates speaks to the continued relevance of this history as well as some important shifts over the past four decades. Many of the central issues are the same: abortion, homosexuality, government overreach, and the crumbling Christian foundations of the nation. The denominational diversity of the candidates reveals a continuing trend toward conservative Christian ecumenism, while the similarity of the rhetoric from candidate to candidate evinces the still-overarching influence of certain evangelical Protestant frameworks. More than anything, the prevalence of religious and moral framing among the GOP candidates contrasts sharply with the priorities and language of their Democratic opponents, indicating important assumptions about the place of religion in twenty-first century American politics, even despite a long history of leftist religious activism in this country.

Without further ado, then, part two of our examination of the religious orientations – personal and political – of Republican presidential candidates for 2016.

Chris Christie (announced on June 30): The governor of New Jersey (since 2010) has a reputation for outspoken brashness, which he embraces in his campaign slogan: “Telling it like it is.” He explains this tendency by way of ethnic identity in a video on the front page of his campaign website: “I had an Irish father and a Sicilian mother.” Readers of Matt Jacobson’s excellent book Roots, Too will recognize that this proud claiming of these national heritages ties Christie firmly to a particular narrative of American immigrant identity, connecting him to a romanticized notion of the Ellis-Island-era immigrant, once downtrodden but now firmly pulled up by bootstraps. Christie’s ethnic heritage is also deeply connected to his identity as a Catholic, which has informed his opposition to abortion and his support for government vouchers for parochial schools. His position on gay rights has been more complicated, however. Christie stated in 2011 that: “My religion says it’s a sin [but] . . . I think if someone is born that way it’s very difficult to say then that that’s a sin.” In 2013 he signed a statewide ban on reparative therapy (popularly known as “ex-gay” or “pray the gay away” therapy) but also vetoed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in New Jersey, and he recently criticized the Supreme Court’s decision on this matter.

Lindsey Graham (announced on June 1): Graham has represented South Carolina in the U.S. Congress for twenty years, first as a member of the House of Representatives (1995–2003) and now as a Senator (since 2003). A lifelong Southern Baptist, Graham generally hews to the moral positions typical of the religious right. His campaign website identifies “Securing Our Values” as one of Graham’s top three priorities, elaborating that: “Strong families, constitutional liberties, and the sanctity of life form the bedrock on which our nation was founded.” He recently reintroduced a bill into Congress that would criminalize abortion after 20-weeks’ gestation, even naming the bill for himself on his campaign website. His opposition to “Radical Islam” is the centerpiece of his foreign policy platform and has also informed his response to domestic issues. Last month, he reacted to the massacre at a historically black Charleston church by comparing the shooter’s motivations to “Mideast hate.” He has also recently made headlines for advising the GOP to “accept” the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, but notably – in the same statement – renewed his commitment to “protect the religious liberties of those who believe that opposing same sex marriage is part of their faith.”

Bobby Jindal (announced on June 24): The son of Indian immigrants, Jindal was raised Hindu but converted to Protestant Christianity, based in part on the influence of a high school classmate (who was Southern Baptist). In college, he converted to Roman Catholicism and now identifies as an “evangelical Catholic.” Religiously and politically, Jindal speaks the language of evangelical Protestantism. In 2014, he gave the commencement address at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, focusing on his conversion to Christianity but glossing over his move to the Catholic branch of the faith. At a Good Friday prayer breakfast in April this year, he eloquently captured a core premise of modern conservative Christianity in his statement: “I don’t know about you, but sometimes it feels like evangelical Christians are the only group that it’s okay to discriminate against in this society.” In May of this year, Jindal signed an executive “Marriage and Conscience Order” in response to Louisiana legislators’ refusal to pass a religious freedom bill similar to the recent Indiana law that sparked controversy for its potential to promote discrimination against members of the LGBT community. Jindal has also been an outspoken opponent of abortion and “radical Islam.”

George Pataki (announced on May 28): In a GOP field with a surprising number of Catholic candidates, some (like Jindal, Bush, Rubio, and Santorum) have foregrounded their faith and underscored their commonalities with other conservative Christians. Others (including Christie and Pataki) have chosen not to make religion a central feature of their campaigns. Pataki served as Governor of New York for nine years, from 1995 to 2006. He frequently highlights his service as governor during and after the September 11 attacks, and has said that “radical Islam” is one of the most pressing threats to American freedom. However, he has not made his opposition to radical Islam central to his campaign in the way that both Graham and Jindal have done. Instead, Pataki’s campaign announcement centers on an appeal overcome “those things which might seem superficially to divide us.” He has chastised the national GOP for focusing on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, which he sees as “a distraction” in federal politics. As governor, he signed an important 2002 gay-rights bill and more recently asserted his opposition to Indiana’s religious freedom law in light of its potential to authorize discrimination against gays and lesbians. Pataki’s record on reproductive issues is more mixed. He identifies as pro-choice, and signed a 2002 law requiring insurers to cover contraception regardless of religious objections. However, he also vetoed a 2005 bill that would have made emergency contraception available without a prescription, and he supported a measure requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortions.

Rick Perry (announced on June 4): The former Texas governor (2000–2015) was raised as a Methodist, but now attends the nondenominational Lake Hills megachurch in Austin. In 2014, he publicly renewed his commitment to his faith with a baptism in Little Rock Creek, where Texas hero Sam Houston was baptized 160 years earlier. This easy mixture of religious and political symbolism is typical for Perry, who famously announced during his 2012 presidential campaign that he had “been called to the ministry,” while comparing his political career to a “big . . . pulpit.” Perry is also a staunch opponent of abortion and gay marriage. As governor, he passed an omnibus abortion bill that included some of the most restrictive legislation in the country and that resulted in the closure of most of the state’s abortion clinics. His response to the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage neatly summarized his multivalent stance on this matter: as an issue of tradition, of states’ rights, and of government overreach.

Rick Santorum (announced on May 27): The former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania (1995–2006) is another Catholic candidate who fluently speaks the language of the religious right. He recently made headlines for criticizing Pope Francis’ stance on climate change, asserting that the pontiff should “leave science to the scientists.” His initial response to last month’s shooting in Charleston mirrored early Fox News coverage of the massacre, acknowledging it as a “crime of hate” but connecting it to “assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before” rather than to racial animus. (He later said that the shooting was “clearly racially motivated.”)The father of seven is strongest on “family values” issues, including his committed opposition to abortion and homosexuality. His 2003 statement that the “definition of marriage has never included man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be” prompted sex-columnist Dan Savage to “memorialize the scandal” by popularizing a new, sexually explicit definition of the word “santorum.” The former senator has also expressed broader concerns about threats to the institution of marriage, including not only the legalization of same-sex unions, but also declining marriage rates and a concern that “marriage is not about children anymore.”

Donald Trump (announced on June 16): Trump is Presbyterian, but religion has never been a conspicuous feature of his public persona. His most extensive commentary on his faith comes from an interview that aired on the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2011, when Trump was considering a possible presidential run in the last election cycle. He emphasized his belief in God and asserted that “the Bible is certainly the book; it is the thing,” but he also made it clear that church attendance is not necessarily a top priority in his life, although he said that he goes to church as often as he can and always on Christmas and Easter. Not mentioned in the interview was his daughter Ivanka’s 2009 conversion to Judaism; he told the Jewish Voice this year that he feels “very honored” to have a Jewish daughter and Jewish grandchildren. Trump has been an outspoken opponent of radical Islam, and this week criticized President Obama for being too “politically correct” on the subject. His campaign website largely focuses on his business accomplishments, but also asserts that Trump’s priorities include promoting “the Free Market, the importance of a strong family, a culture of Life, a strong military and our country’s sacred obligation to take care of our veterans and their families.”

Scott Walker (announced on July 13): Governor of Wisconsin since 2011, Walker made a national name for himself less than one year into his governorship, when the protests surrounding his Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill made national headlines. Walker is also socially (and religiously) conservative. He grew up as a pastor’s kid in the First Baptist Church of Plainfield, Iowa. He attended Underwood Memorial Baptist Church in Wauwatosa, WI until 2003, when that church joined the LGBT-friendly Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. Walker denied that he left Underwood for that reason, however, stating that his family wanted a church with a larger youth group for his two sons. He now attends the Meadowbrook Church in Wauwatosa, which is nondenominational in affiliation but strongly evangelical in leaning, emphasizing Biblical inerrancy and the necessity of personal redemption. Walker has said that he would support a constitutional amendment to allow states to overturn the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage. He has also been a strong supporter of a Wisconsin bill that would ban abortion after 20-weeks’ gestation, with no exceptions for cases of rape or incest. His campaign website centrally emphasizes personal freedom and small government: “In America we celebrate our independence from government, not our dependence on it.”

Emily 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.

*Image Credits: Christie (Official Portrait); Graham; (Official Portrait); Jindal (Gage Skidmore); Pataki (Michael Vadon); Perry (Gage Skidmore); Trump (Michael Vadon); Walker (Gage Skidmore).

On De-Reifying Traditional Boundaries: Christian vs. Greco-Roman

Monday, July 13th, 2015

Thomas J. Whitley

Last month I wrote about a group of early Christians that believed in the transmigration of souls (or, reincarnation). One of the factors that I suggested contributed to modern scholars not accepting the Carpocratians as Christians or transmigration as a “Christian” belief is the delineation between the categories “Greco-Roman” and “Christian.” Thus, when a person or a group looks less like the “orthodox” group that a scholar has set up as true Christianity, then they must be described in terms other than Christian. That is, a group that is found to accept transmigration must be removed from the “Christian” category and placed in another category, most often “Greco-Roman.”

Scholars have no problem admitting that many ancient Greco-Romans accepted transmigration, but often become much less accepting when one claims to be a Christian who accepts transmigration. In this case, they are moved out of the “Christian” category to the “Greco-Roman” category because they have “philosophized” or “Platonized” Christianity. In other words, they have perverted real Christianity by mixing it with Greco-Roman philosophy.

This tactic is not new with modern scholars, but is rather a continuation of the heresy/orthodoxy battles of late antique Christianity. The group that I study, for instance, the Carpocratians, are dismissed by other Christians as heretics for their belief in the transmigration of souls and are regularly connected with Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras pejoratively. Many modern scholars shirk their duty and belie their own acceptance of one form of Christianity as real when they uncritically accept the claims made about a group by that group’s opponents. Karen King laid out how modern scholars did this with the category “Gnostic” in her brilliant book What Is Gnosticism?. We as scholars of Christianity, though, should not stop our de-reification of categories and labels there, but rather should see where else we have blindly accepted the categories handed down to us.

Much work has been done to more accurately contextualize Jesus and his early followers within Second Temple Judaism and to not view them as completely and categorically different from their wider culture and the dominant social forces. But we as a field have been slow to do the same with late antique Christianity, allowing the division between “Christian” and “Greco-Roman” to remain unchallenged. When we examine the landscape without our preconceived notions of who and what counts as “Christian” and who and what counts as “Greco-Roman,” we see that ancient groups and individuals of many different stripes do not fit either category as they have been handed down neatly. Carpocrates is one such person, but so is Clement of Alexandria, a staunch opponent of Carpocrates who is deeply indebted to Plato and regularly praised philosophy, calling it “a gift granted to the Greeks by God” that served as a prefatory “guide to righteousness” (Stromateis 1.2.20.1; 1.4.28.1).

We are not witnessing syncretism here, as earlier scholars have suggested. Rather, we are pushing against the very notion at the heart of syncretism by claiming that “Christianity” and “Greco-Roman” are not distinct, unrelated entities. For too long we have allowed those whom we study to determine the way we view the ancient world, accepting their classificatory schemes as truths as opposed to truth-claims. Yet, when we are able to divorce our work from the categories that have for so long guided the way we order the ancient world and simply examine the evidence as we have it, the dividing lines between many “Christians” and the world around them begins to fade.

Thomas 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 courtesy HUP.

Ministers Don’t Use Libraries, and Nobody Knows Why

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Meredith Ross

In 1970, Dwight A. Huseman contributed an article to Drexel Library Quarterly in which he argued for wider use of ministerial book allowances. He found that the Lutheran ministers he studied spent a great deal of money on books, and were often forced to choose between, Huseman evocatively claimed, “the book or the baby’s shoes.”

The image of the minister who lacks the means to access books is a well-worn one. Thomas Bray’s concern that young ministers sent to 17th-century Maryland would have nothing to read, after all, led to the establishment of some of the earliest libraries in the colonies. More intriguing than the noble, bookless minister, however, is Huseman’s finding that many of his subjects thoroughly rejected Bray’s solution: 26% reported using no libraries at all. [1]

This finding is not particularly shocking in and of itself. Huseman himself concluded that ministers in general made “reasonable use” of available library resources. A closer look at the data, however, reveals that Huseman’s work, like other early Information Studies research of ministers, does not account for what IS researchers call “work-role.” Huseman sought to determine ministers’ overall reading, book purchasing, and library-use habits. His approach assumes that the ministerial profession influences one’s information-seeking and use across all contexts – that if a minister expresses a particular information-seeking behavior when preparing a sermon, his information-seeking behavior will be similar when he has to, say, select the best pair of shoes for the baby.

But, of course, information-seeking is context-specific. We search for information differently depending on why we’re searching for it. Later studies accounted for work-role, and found that ministers searched for information differently in the context of their professional duties – their behavior differed, in fact, depending on whether a minister was wearing the hat of “preacher,” “administrator” or “councilor.” These studies bring Huseman’s data into focus. They consistently found that the “pastor-as-preacher” relies heavily on a limited number of formal information sources, often drawing from personal libraries and files.[2] Pastors in the early days of the internet behaved similarly, tending to stay within clearly-defined formal territory. They most frequently utilized the web-presence of their denomination, although a substantial number of those interviewed (30.1%) indicated that they did not use the internet in their pastoral capacity (a further 11.5% explained that they did not use the internet at all).[3] What ministers seeking information in their professional capacity generally do not do, researchers found, is go to a library.

In a 2010 study of ministers’ information use, all ten of the ministers interviewed indicated that they did not use libraries.[4] A 1974 survey intended specifically to aid in helping the Case Memorial Library of the Hartford Seminary Foundation better serve its patrons found that only 5.5% of respondents reported to using the library weekly, and that “the usage by others spread almost evenly among monthly, weekly, bi-weekly, quarterly, annually, and nil categories.”[5] Earlier studies that, like Huseman’s, do not account for work-role nevertheless indicate low library use. A 1961 article in Christianity Today found that of 100 ministers surveyed, only six reported regular library use[6]. A 1944 study – after bemoaning the number of Union Theological Seminary graduates who wasted their time on Readers’ Digest – found that most ministerial books were purchased rather than borrowed.[7]

This consistent finding across time and space is difficult to ignore. But anything one might extrapolate from such data is hamstrung by the lack of studies specifically targeting ministerial library use, and by a general lack of diversity in the studies that have already been conducted. The ministers focused upon are in many cases Southern and Midwestern, and almost exclusively protestant – sampling is limited to Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, members of the Church of Christ, two Roman Catholic Priests, and pastors of murkily defined “evangelical” communities.

So why do (many Protestant) ministers avoid the library? Could it be a lack of academic-theological materials in the collections of most public libraries? A lack of access to specialized religious libraries? A misperception of library resources on the pastors’ part? Or do ministers simply prefer the advantages of the personal library? Answers to these questions would help scholars better understand the information worlds of contemporary ministers, and how they choose and use information to create their religious worlds. Information matters. It must. Why else choose it over the baby’s shoes?

Meredith Ross is a doctoral student in American Religious History at Florida State University. She holds a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science, also from Florida State. Her research focuses upon religion and information, particularly mid-20th century church libraries. You can contact her at mr09@my.fsu.edu or on Twitter @Memo_Ross.

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[1] Dwight A. Huseman, “Books, Periodicals, and the Pastor,” Drexel Library Quarterly 6, no. 1 (1970): 26.

[2] Joshua D. Lambert, “The Information-Seeking Habits of Baptist Ministers,” Journal of Religious & Theological Information 9, no. 1–2 (June 30, 2010): 1–19; B. Porcella, “The Information Gathering Habits of the Protestant Ministers of Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” 1973; R.L. Phillips, “The Relationship Between Work Roles and Information Seeking Behaviors Among Selected Protestant Ministers in Tarrant County, Texas.” (University of North Texas., 1992).

[3] K.L. Smith and V.L. Smith, “The Impact of the Internet on Parish Ministry: A Survey and Annotated List of Web Resources,” Journal of Religious and Theological Information 4, no. 1 (2001): 9–24.

[4] Lambert, “The Information-Seeking Habits of Baptist Ministers.”

[5] Duncan Brockway, “Reading and Library Habits of Connecticut Pastors,” American Theological Library Association Summary of Proceedings 28 (January 1, 1974): 125–27.

[6] “How Much Do Ministers Read?,” Christianity Today 5, no. 15 (1961): 647.

[7] H. Lancour, “The Reading Interests of the Graduates of the Union Theological Seminary,” Library Quarterly 14, no. 1 (1944): 28–35.

Image Credit

Purging Landscape in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

Friday, June 19th, 2015

Brandon W. Hawk

Pope Francis yesterday released an encyclical letter addressing the environment, an event garnering quite a bit of discussion.[1] As others have noted, this encyclical is just one instance of the Catholic Church addressing environmental issues over the past few decades, but it marks a particular milestone.[2] Environmentalism as such may be a recent development, but Christian thinkers have long been interested in issues of space, place, and landscape. After all, the overarching narrative of the Bible is closely linked to issues of place and environment: the lost paradise of the Garden of Eden; the ecological catastrophe of the Flood; God’s promise to Abraham about the land his descendants would inherit; the Israelite conquest of the holy land—and this list of ideas linked to environment could go on. Early Christian and medieval writers also reflected on how their own lives related to the environments of this world.

One such author was the English monk Bede, whose many ideas about his own environment of England stand out in his Ecclesiastical History.[3] He begins with a geographic overview of England’s place in relation to the wider world: “Britain, once called Albion, is an island of the ocean and lies to the north-west, being opposite Germany, Gaul, and Spain, which form the greater part of Europe, though at a considerable distance from them” (I.1). This is a historical convention of classical history (like Pliny and Caesar before him), but from the start it also establishes Bede’s interest in space and place—particularly the environment of the island of Britain.

Bede’s famous account of the conquest of Britain by the Germanic Angles, Saxons, and Jutes continues his interest in environment (I.15). After an invitation by the Britons to fight against the Picts, the Anglo-Saxons discovered how nice the island was and decided to take it over. Turning against their allies, they created a ruse to break their treaty with the Britons, threatening and then undertaking to “lay waste every part of the island.” All of this, Bede relates, was sanctioned by divine anger at the Britons for their sins: “To put it briefly, the fire kindled by the hands of the heathen executed the just vengeance of God on the nation for its crimes.” Bede alludes to divine anger in the Hebrew Bible to make his point: “It was not unlike that fire once kindled by the Chaldeans which consumed the walls and all the buildings of Jerusalem.” His more general historical trajectory points toward the inhabitants of Britain (now the Anglo-Saxons, soon to be Christianized) as typological descendants of the Israelites, inheritors of God’s promise of holy land and the role of the chosen people.

This narrative, it turns out, addresses not only the Anglo-Saxons as inheritors but also the land as subject. Indeed, throughout his Ecclesiastical History, Bede is concerned with spaces dedicated to God—including Britain generally as well as regions of land, churches, and monasteries more particularly. His account of the Anglo-Saxons scourging Britain includes a host of descriptions about effects on the environment, with the result that “the fire of their brutal conquerors should ravage all the neighboring cities and countryside from the east to the western sea, and burn on, with no one to hinder it, until it covered almost the whole face of the doomed island.” In this apocalyptic rhetoric, then, Bede establishes both the scathing of the old as well as the way it purges the land for the new inhabitants. In a sense, this account may be read as a microcosmic, typological foreshadowing of apocalyptic fires at Judgment Day: through retributive fire, Britain’s environment is reinstated to purity through purgation.

While they have largely shifted from Bede’s purposes, apocalyptic rhetorics concerning the environment similarly pervade our own television, film, and news media. While recent box-office films like Noah (2014) tap into longstanding Judeo-Christian anxieties, not all of our depictions are aquatic; post-apocalyptic Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) imagines a world much more suggestive of flames. The purge found in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History may be read ultimately as positive in his overarching narrative, but it is a stark reminder of how environment has mattered to Christian thinkers considering the need to live in the world under our feet.

Brandon W. Hawk is currently a Teaching Post-Doc and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; in fall 2015, he will start as Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Rhode Island College. His research interests encompass the afterlives of texts (particularly Christian works), including circulation, translations, adaptations, and re-presentations in various cultures and media. He may be contacted via email at brandonwhawk [at] gmail.com, or found on Twitter @b_hawk.

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[1] Excitement is so high, in fact, that a version had previously been leaked (read about it at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/15/pope-francis-destruction-ecosystem-leaked-encyclical), but this is only a draft of the official letter.

[2] For just a few stories at Catholic and secular media sites, see http://www.cruxnow.com/church/2015/06/14/environmental-manifesto-may-confirm-pope-francis-as-benedict-2-0/; and http://www.newrepublic.com/article/122020/moral-case-renewable-energy.

[3] For accessible edition and translation, see Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1969; repr. with corrections 1991), cited by book and chapter.

Image: Jeffrey Bruno on Wikimedia Commons.

 

Early Christian Reincarnation

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

Thomas Whitley

Some early Christians believed in reincarnation. At least this is part of what I am arguing in my dissertation. Scholars of antiquity and early Christianity don’t call it reincarnation, though. We call it metempsychosis, a transliteration of the Greek, or transmigration, for the dominant Greco- Roman understanding that a soul transmigrated from body to body.

This is a well established belief in Greco-Roman philosophy, being espoused by Pythagoras, Plato, and a multitude of others. Yet, for many people, the idea that a Christian would accept such a belief is not just historically inaccurate, but bordering on blasphemous. Some may point to Origen, who taught that the soul pre-existed the body and was accused of teaching transmigration, and his denouncement as a heretic by the early church to make the point that Christians did not believe in reincarnation and that Christians were unified on this point.

I am trying to make the point with which I started, though, mostly with the little-known group known as the Carpocratians as my main example. The Carpocratians (named such after their apparent founder Carpocrates) were consistently labeled heretics in antiquity. Multiple sources indicate that this group believed in the transmigration of souls from body to body until one experienced every experience in life and the soul could escape this world (Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius all make such claims about the group, though not all of these sources are independent). Indeed, the Carpocratians’ acceptance of transmigration was one of the main reasons that many other early Christians counted them as heretics and not as true Christians.

Unfortunately, modern scholars followed suit and often reproduced what ancient authors like Irenaeus and Epiphanius wrote about their opponents, accepting it as the unbiased truth. If, however, at least some portion of what their opponents from antiquity say about them is true —I think this is the case and argue as much in my dissertation —then we have a group that identifies as Christian and that teaches the transmigration of souls. It is at this point that two main factors come together that have prevented both our modern acceptance of Carpocratians as Christians and our acceptance of the fact that some early Christians found transmigration to be fully compatible with their faith. First, we see the blind acceptance of what ancient authors wrote about the group, including that they were not Christian. This is then reproduced in encyclopedia articles and other scholarship. Second, we see an understanding of the categories “Christian” and “Greco-Roman” as mutually exclusive. Thus, the Carpocratians are dismissed by ancients and moderns as more like a philosophy than Christians, or they are said to have philosophized Christianity, making it less pure.

Yet, I think the Carpocratians show us that there was even more diversity in early Christianity than we have realized and they offer us further avenues of study. Just how did they reconcile transmigration with other early Christian doctrines, for instance? How have modern scholars contributed to a reification of a particular “orthodox Christianity”? How much can we actually know about these “heretical” groups whom we know only through their opponents’ writings?* With the Carpocratians, and the numerous others about whom we have very little information, we are given a window into the world of early Christianity that is dim, to be sure, but that, if we look carefully enough, still has much to teach us, not the least of which is a realization that for at least some in the ancient world reincarnation and Christianity were not incompatible.

*While this post is not intended to be a “plug” for my dissertation, I do address these questions and many more. My dissertation is an examination and reconstruction of Carpocratianism and its place in early and late antique Christianity that examines not only the ancient literature about the group but also the sporadic modern pieces and how these have shaped our understanding of the Carpocratians and similar groups. It is titled, “The Greatest Blasphemy: Sex, Souls, and the Carpocratian Heresy.”

Thomas 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.

On Interdisciplinary Religious History: Thoughts on Studying the Past Productions of Academic Disciplines

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

Leslie Ribovich

Nineteen and early twentieth century works by psychologists and sociologists frequently line the shelves of scholars of religion as canonical works in the theory and method of the field. Current historians of religion often admire and cite the work of contemporary sociologists, such as Robert Wuthnow and Wendy Cadge, and, increasingly, psychologists of religion, including T. M. Luhrmann. In light of the many layers of interactions among the disciplinary studies of religion, sociology, and psychology, a specific methodological issue arises for scholars of religion studying the past: when scholars of religion encounter historical works of disciplines in which they are not trained, particularly the social sciences, how can scholars respect the historical and current practice of the other discipline and also situate it within a history?

Scholars of religion have long attended to the historically-constructed category of religion and have more recently studied the history of the academic study of religion, both as heirs to assumed Euro-Christian or Euro-Protestant male ideas and practices. I contend that the practice of examining key categories in the field of the study of religion, whether one thinks scholars do it too much or too little, provides a repertoire for situating the historical works of other disciplines in their time, place, and relationship to religion. The repertoire includes approaching a text—be it scripture or sociology—from a variety of perspectives. Scholars might close read the text for the assumptions the author makes or what ideas the author prioritizes. They might search for whom the author of the text was in conversation, who read the text, whom the text was about, how the text was written, how the text was received, or how the text was read and used. Asking such questions will likely lead the scholar into the historical moment of the text, and of the discipline in which it participated. I do not mean to imply that the study of religion is the only field that has the tools to explore the historical works of other disciplines. Rather I suggest that the study of religion’s attention to the historical construction of seemingly quotidian categories, as well as to a range of methodological approaches, can inform the scholar of religion studying disciplines of the past. Approaching the text thoroughly and precisely can limit the scope such that the claims the scholar makes about the text from another discipline are specific analyses of particular conversations.

That said, writing about works in other disciplines can feel delicate. When I identify assumptions about how a sociologist from the 1950s understood the relationship of morality, ethnicity, neighborhood, and crime, I worry that I am inadvertently critiquing the present discipline of sociology, and therefore making a much bigger claim than I am prepared to make. The concern points to a difficult aspect of interdisciplinarity: a scholar in one discipline simply might not know the foundational theories and methods or the current state of the field in another discipline. Such disciplinary distinctions might not matter in the broad sense that anyone from any discipline ought to be able to study any text, or any aspect of culture for that matter, as Kathryn Lofton might posit. Yet, even if the distinctions should not be limiting, scholars practice and have practiced habits of disciplinary distinctions so long and so seriously that they merit consideration when studying a scholarly text of the past. So what might thinking about the categories and assumptions of other disciplines historically look like?

The Example of Studying G. Stanley Hall

Judith Weisenfeld’s analysis of psychologist G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) in a section of African American Women and Christian Activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905-1945 and Mark Jordan’s in a chapter of Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk about Homosexuality provide instructive examples for how scholars of religion can approach studying the disciplines of the past. Hall founded the Journal of American Psychology, served as the first president of the American Psychological Association, and pioneered thinking in the United States about the psychological development of the adolescent. Serving as the first head of the National Education Association’s child-study department, he thought that the scientific study of child development could influence education reform. Though his own religious narrative is of moving away from Puritan orthodoxy, Jordan says, religion nevertheless remained a key category in his research.

Both Weisenfeld and Jordan focus primarily on Hall’s two-volume 1904 tome Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education, and Jordan also investigates Hall’s other writings in relationship to Adolescence. They approach Hall’s work with questions about how Hall characterized religion, race, gender, and sexuality, uncovering how central these categories were to Hall’s goals for civilization, and how in fact Hall categorized people(s) as more or less advanced by these categories.

Jordan studies patterns of church rhetoric about sexuality over time and thinks it is important to start with the emergence of English-speaking discussions about sexuality and adolescence, both found in Hall before in churches. He says that Hall describes adolescence in terms of Christian conversion or baptism—as an opportunity for an adult life of Christian values. In this time of life, already characterized on Christian terms, the adolescent is both religiously and sexually malleable and vulnerable. On Jordan’s account, without religion, Hall thinks that adolescent “‘perversion,’” “‘hoodlumism, juvenile crime, and secret vice’” abound. To uncover the relationship among sexuality, religion, and adolescence in Hall, Jordan explores Hall’s silences. Hall barely mentions the sexual character other psychologists at the time termed “homosexuals” or “inverts.” Nevertheless, Jordan says that fears about “homosexuality” shaped Hall’s rhetoric and meaning. Adolescents would begin to learn about sexuality that was “good and normal”, meaning sex within marriage, sexuality that was “bad and normal,” such as adultery, but Hall primarily left sexuality that was “dangerous” in references to other scholars’ work. Jordan also describes Hall’s concern that a group of “inverts” were attracted to the church and subverting it.

Weisenfeld too is conscientious of Hall’s rhetoric, and additionally how Hall’s ideas about gender and race shaped practice in the YWCA. She shows how Hall’s aspirations for producing the most advanced civilization directly influenced YMCA and YWCA programming. As the YMCA and YWCA “emphasized ‘character building,’” they “placed [Hall’s] recapitulation theory of human development at the center of their programs,” Weisenfeld shows, drawing on David MacLeod’s extensive discussion of the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, and Hall. Weisenfeld writes that “In ‘primitive’ civilization, Hall asserted, the roles of men and women were similar; the divergence of these roles reflects the advanced stage of white American civilization.” Hall thought that girls should be socialized to bring out their “intuitive natures” and should avoid higher education “based on the ‘scholarly consensus’ that excessive mental activity results in infertility in women or the creation of ‘bachelor women,’ that is to say, unmarried women or, worst of all, lesbians.” Weisenfeld goes on to write that Hall thought that certain peoples, including African Americans were “‘adolescent race[s]’” and needed guidance similar to girls. Weisenfeld argues that this view “incorporated aspects of fear of black sexuality as well as the construction of people of African descent as ‘natural’ and ‘childlike.’” These ideas influenced programming, particularly at the YMCA, as MacLeod shows, but also to a degree at the YWCA. Weisenfeld describes how Harlem’s black YWCA, comprised largely of people considered “less advanced” according to various aspects of Hall’s theory, did and did not apply his theory to their organization. She shows that the YWCA was equally concerned with ideas of personal morality found in the Social Gospel as they were in “character-building.”

Weisenfeld and Jordan explore both how Christian ideas influenced Hall and how Hall influenced Christian institutions—with Jordan putting more influence on rhetoric than practice and Weisenfeld attentive to both. In order to address their questions about Hall’s influence on Christian rhetoric and YWCA practice, they describe who Hall was reading and how Hall’s work influenced various organizations. Categories relating to gender, race, sexuality, and religion had particular meanings in Hall’s early twentieth century and to Hall specifically. Weisenfeld and Jordan illuminate how Hall’s contributions shaped understandings of religion, gender, race, and sexuality in the YWCA and Christian church contexts. By studying how Hall approached these categories, both scholars are able to make specific claims about a psychological work from the past.

Social Scientific Research in the Context of Religion and Public Education

Weisenfeld’s and Jordan’s approaches have aided my own research on religion and public education later in the twentieth century. In one example, psychologist and education researcher William C. Kvaraceus’s 1945 Juvenile Delinquency and the School provides a novel frame for studying the history of religion and public education. Based on Kvaraceus’s Harvard dissertation research in Passaic, New Jersey through his appointments as Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Charge of Guidance, Research, and Curriculum, as well as Director of the Passaic Children’s Bureau, the book was an early effort by Kvaraceus on the topic of juvenile delinquency and the school. By the time the book was published, Kvaraceus was Assistant Professor of Education at Boston University. He went on to be a leader in the field, running the National Education Association’s Juvenile Delinquency Project in the late 1950s.

Like Hall’s, Kvaraceus’s study does not claim to be primarily about religion. Yet assumptions about what religion in public life looks like and the relationship among religion, juvenile delinquency, and the public school inform how Kvaraceus suggests schools approach delinquency prevention. One chapter focuses on a study on the relationship between church attendance and delinquency. The results of the study suggest that church attendance seemed to have little impact on delinquency rates, although the results vary some by religious affiliation and gender. Taken on its own, the study might indicate that religion and juvenile delinquency have little to do with each other; however, the assumptions behind even the study’s set-up suggest otherwise.

First of all, Kvaraceus and his research team use the term “church” to mean site of religious worship. In the category of “church,” they include the synagogue, meaning that the Christian idea of church symbolized all sites of religious worship. Secondly, “church attendance” signifies the most significant part of religion, even though the study mentions that the Jewish tradition finds certain activities at home to be sacred. Thirdly, and most importantly, the study pits church attendance against juvenile delinquency, indicating that the church ought to foster behavior that would prevent delinquency, an idea dating back to Hall’s Adolescence forty years earlier. Delinquency is characterized as a deficit in students’ moral behavior that a church might instill.

The study goes on to suggest that organizations such as the YMCA and church-influenced youth groups might be more effective in preventing delinquency than simply church attendance. Kvaraceus thus divides religion into two categories: the “old” religion of rules and the “new” religion, which is more relaxed and focused on religious ideals such as friendship and brotherhood. While I am certainly interested in how religious institutions incorporated the ideas in Juvenile Delinquency and the School, my main focus is how public schools included religious and social scientific ideas in their moral education curriculum. I have found that many public school programs on moral and spiritual values cited Kvaraceus or scholars doing similar research on how religious activities could prevent delinquency. The public school is not a religious organization as a church, the YMCA, or the YWCA is, but, historically, public schools’ moral education has mirrored Christian practices of moral instruction in certain ways. It is therefore unsurprising that schools found some of their values represented in Kvaraceus’s work, as churches and Christian community organizations did. Studying Juvenile Delinquency and the School involves becoming familiar with the sociological and psychological concerns about juvenile delinquency in the 1940s-50s, from academic experts and government institutions, in addition to the ones in religious communities.

Towards a Critical Interdisciplinary Religious History

Weisenfeld’s and Jordan’s discussion of Hall and my brief introduction of Kvaraceus suggest that schools, churches, and Christian organizations often cited psychological and sociological research as science to support their programming and rhetoric. At the same time, they may have been drawn to some of the Christian ideas and framing in Hall’s or Kvaraceus’s work. Studying the past social scientific work of these disciplines suggests that the works are not value-neutral. That does not mean that the current practices of the disciplines are any less robust; it just goes to show that all disciplines have histories and assumptions.

My initial question asked about simultaneously respecting the past and present of a discipline other than one’s own and situating the past productions of a discipline in its historical context. By the very practice of taking seriously the claims and circumstances of Hall’s psychological texts, Weisenfeld and Jordan do respect the past and present of the discipline. Respecting disciplinary difference and situating disciplines historically are not at odds—rather, the practices inform, if not rely on each other. If one can come to understand, however modestly, the past and present language of the discipline one engages, then the interdisciplinary conversations can produce fruitful explorations of the intersections of past and present ideas.

Leslie Ribovich is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religion in the Americas at Princeton University. She is writing a dissertation on the history of moral education, racial desegregation, and religion in New York City public high schools from the 1950s-1980.

*Image Credit: Wikimedia (Public Domain) and unz.org.

Review of Elizabeth Pritchard’s Religion in Public: Locke’s Political Theology

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Jeffrey Wheatley

I have spent the past year thinking primarily about the relationship between religion, race, and political order through both the particular history of the US nation-state and a global comparative framework. Somewhat to my surprise, I have found Elizabeth A. Pritchard’s Religion in Public: Locke’s Political Theology to be one of the more productive books for re-thinking the normative force that liberal political theory has had in conceptualizing “religion” in a certain way. Pritchard provides us an impressive and intriguing re-reading of Locke that scholars interested in secularism, conceptions of public(s), or religion and the state will find useful.

Whether in critiques or celebratory accounts, political theorists have highlighted Locke’s ideas about the social contract, the right to property, and the “separation of church and state.” Re-imagining the relation between these pillars of liberalism, Pritchard aims to provide an alternate reading of Locke by exploring his “political theology.” Locke, she argues, did not simply separate religion from politics by relegating religion to private life. Rather, Locke conceptualized religion as discourse that could circulate by way of textual and linguistic persuasion, thus abstracting religion from embodied and emplaced contexts. This process, she notes, constitutes a type of “secularization of religion.”

Pritchard sets herself up with a difficult task. Locke’s treatises are full of lines about “inward true religion” and the dangers of jumbling heaven and earth together. These oft-cited quotes might work against her argument. But Religion in Public is a project of recovery. The book uses Locke to address contemporary political controversies over the relationship the acceptable role of religion in publics. In a clever maneuver that pulls the rug out from under political liberal canon, Pritchard provides an alternate reading of Locke to critique the persistent salience of a “mainstream” Lockean legacy—one in which the secular and the religious are, if properly understood and practiced, worlds apart.

She builds her alternate reading by attending to a recurrent problem for Locke and his interlocutors—the slippage between persuasion and coercion. If Locke re-fashioned religion from a vertically-defined embodied disposition (e.g., for Locke, Catholicism) to a horizontally-defined circulating discourse, did he conceive of religion as separate from power? If religion is an opinion or a “fashion” that a subject subscribes to or can possess, does religion have no force? Does the state have no mandate to regulate religion? And wasn’t this conceptualization of religion as freely circulating and choosable particular, not universal?

Locke, Pritchard argued, sought to resolve the tension between religion as persuasive and religion as coercive by acknowledging that certain preconditions must be in place before religion could circulate freely in a public. Indeed, certain cultural preconditions are necessary before consent, which is a necessary capacity for legitimate persuasion, is possible. A properly functioning public must rely upon a shared belief in god and property, both of which are necessary to guarantee the trustworthiness of citizen-subjects who had to persuade others in honest ways and give consent to be persuaded. The “secular,” within which religion becomes portable, relies upon the sacralization of property, both in the sense that people are the property of god (and thus responsible to god) and that human-owned property is sacred (along with the oaths and obligations that follow). A legitimate political body depends on a legitimate political theology, which is why, for Locke, tolerance need not apply to Catholics, Mormons, atheists, or “heathens.”

Pritchard insists that in Locke we can see a subtle “force at a distance” become allowable. This force at a distance is the coercion that is legitimated through a sacralization of the preconditions for public participation—they are non-negotiable. The secular, even when set as the medium within which religion becomes portable, has been premised on conditions that are not universal, and that Pritchard defines as “religious” themselves. “Consequently,” she argues, “what we must learn to see and feel in the secular is force at a distance become ambient, penetrative, enchanted, injurious” (153). In her final chapter Pritchard draws parallels between the mainstream Lockean secular and the “overlapping consensus” of John Rawls, noting that the sacralization of human rights and “public reason” might function in a similarly exclusionary or coercive manner as Locke’s godly property. Building on insights from Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Saba Mahmood, and others, Religion in Public forcefully reminds us that we can no longer conceptualize the “secular” as a mere medium for discourse that is open to all. The secular has content. The secular has particular preconditions.

Religion in Public prompted, for me, a host of productive questions about my own research interests and the historical contexts of classic political theorists, especially Locke. Why did it become intelligible (eventually) to re-fashion religion into a circulatory discourse in the Lockean mode? Why tie it to property? As she notes, Locke understood the protection of private property to be a precondition for both a legitimate state and full participation in publics. Locke theorized this legitimacy by reference to the illegitimacy of Native Americans and Africans, as Pritchard briefly notes (102–106). Locke, like many early modern political theorists, was intellectually and financially invested in European overseas commerce and colonies. The importance of the European colonial context for Locke is clear in his Second Treatise on Government. I hope that Religion in Public signals a future with more research on this context, which would, I suggest, open up spaces to connect the theological (or “religious” or “cultural”) preconditions of publicity to historical processes of racialization, gendering, and nationalization. These are the very conditions that I would argue might explain the endurance and resonance of the “mainstream” Lockean legacy.

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. You can contact him at jwheatley@u.northwestern.edu or on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

Pulling the Holy Spirit off the Bookshelf: Towards a Theory of Prayer and Information

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Meredith Ross

In his 2008 dissertation examining sermon preparation, Daniel R. Roland found that consultation with the Holy Spirit was an important part of the sermon-writing process for his informant, a Midwestern Lutheran minister. The informant, in fact, identified his sermons as work produced in “collaboration” with the Holy Spirit’s guidance.[1] However, Roland seemed uneasy with considering the Holy Spirit a run-of-the-mill information source:

The Holy Spirit is something other than an information resource because the clergy member cannot just pull the Holy Spirit off a bookshelf, turn to the proper page, and get an answer. The Holy Spirit is the active presence of God, mysteriously and timelessly at work in the world and in the informant’s life. The informant understands the Holy Spirit to be unpredictable and that he is never able to know how the Holy Spirit is going to lead.[2]

The Holy Spirit is not a book, nor is it any other objectively verifiable resource with which those in the Information Studies field, like Roland, are used to working. In this passage, Roland seems to identify standard “information resources” as set and fixed, well-organized for easy access, and clear and unambiguous. He casts the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, as something wilder and stranger than these established information resources: unfixed, disorganized, sometimes inaccessible or obtuse, and ultimately subjective.

Roland is not the only scholar in Information Studies to feel that there is something funny going on with prayer. For decades, studies examining how church leaders use and think about information have found that they consider prayer to be a vital and primary source of information – and, for decades, virtually all of the researchers confronted with this finding skirted the question of how to position prayer as an information resource. The avoidance is understandable: in a field where the meaning and boundaries of what constitutes “information” has been debated for decades, the inclusion of prayer as a type of information seems to stretch an already broad category past its breaking point. Religious subjects are quite clear that prayer constitutes an information resource. Scholars of information are not so sure.

It is the fate of interdisciplinary scholars and busybodies everywhere to know two people who really must meet and never quite manage it. In the case of prayer-as-information, scholars of information and religion always seem to show up to the party right after the other has left. But combining approaches from both disciplines would create new ways of thinking about prayer and information, illuminating new avenues of exploration in both fields.

Michael Buckland’s classic article “Information as Thing” argues for a three-pronged definition of information: information-as-process, information-as-knowledge, and information-as-thing.[3] The primary challenge in reconciling prayer as informative is that, thus far, scholars have attempted to understand prayer as an information resource, akin to something, as Roland put it, one could “pull off the shelf.” The unstated inclination has been to consider prayer as a kind of information-as-thing – which, as Buckland himself pointed out, is a clear mistake.[4]

A more useful perspective might be to consider prayer, in Buckland’s terms, as a kind of information-as-process – the act of being informed of something. Yet this, too, presents a theoretical problem, posed by the field’s roots in communications theory: the information “process” in question has typically been understood as a person-to-person communication, an informative message passing between a sender and a receiver. To some scholars, then, prayer as information-as-process assumes a two-way communication, and posits the existence of a sender – a theological claim. If the Holy Spirit is neither something one can “pull off the shelf,” nor someone with whom one can objectively communicate, how can prayer possibly be considered informative?

The answer rests in a seemingly semantic point of order: prayer is not “information.” The act of prayer (for some believers in some circumstances) constitutes information-seeking behavior. Researchers must pivot from looking at “prayer” itself to truly considering the process of prayer. Prayer is neither a “thing” that can be pulled from a shelf nor a message sent like a telegram. When prayer is informational, it is not an information resource – it is a learned behavior used by people in order to seek information.

This can be seen in T.M. Luhrmann’s examination of evangelical prayer in When God Talks Back. Luhrmann focuses upon her subjects’ means of realizing God’s presence through prayer, the techniques by which they “learn to identify some thoughts as God’s voice, some images as God’s suggestions, some sensations as God’s touch or the response to his nearness.”[5] Luhrmann’s focus rests in what is undeniably the process of prayer: the accepted practices that constitute prayer, and how those practices are understood and interpreted by the church community as a social body (what scholars of information might think of as “knowledge domains” or “communities of practice”).

Brenda Dervin famously argued that information-seeking is prompted by one’s recognition of a “knowledge gap,” which often leads us to feel mildly anxious. We seek information to close the gap, to increase our knowledge, to allay our anxieties. When we feel satisfied that we have done so, our information-seeking process is over, at least for the time being.[6] Prayer, as Luhrmann and others have shown, can and does fill this function.

After all, is consulting God so different from consulting a public library catalog? In both situations, a subject, having been trained in a specific information-seeking technique, takes a socially-constructed action to initiate an information-gathering process, which they believe in good faith will be informative. Successful pursuit of this process requires the subject to follow a set of ritualized rules, clearly defined by their community. After completing that process, the subject feels better informed, despite having at no point communicated directly with another sentient being.

Is prayer information? No. But neither is that exactly the right question. Prayer is informative: we know because our subjects tell us that it is. By considering prayer to be a kind of information-seeking – less information-as-process than information-action – we validate our subjects’ experiences of their information worlds, and deepen our understanding of both prayer and information. Religious subjects have long recognized that information behavior and religious behavior cannot be easily separated or even distinguished from one another. It’s time for scholars to realize it as well – and share notes.

Meredith Ross is a doctoral student in American Religious History at Florida State University. She holds a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science, also from Florida State. Her research focuses upon religion and information, particularly mid-20th century church libraries. You can contact her at mr09@my.fsu.edu or on Twitter @Memo_Ross.

[1]D.R. Roland, “Interpreting Scripture in Contemporary Times: A Study of a Clergy Member’s Sense-Making Behavior in Preparing the Sunday Sermon,” 2008, 137.

[2]Ibid.

[3]  Michael K. Buckland, “Information as Thing,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42, no. 5 (June 1991): 351.

[4]  Ibid, 353

[5] T. M Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), xxi.

[6] Brenda Dervin, “More Will Be Less Unless: The Scientific Humanization of Information Systems,” National Forum, 63, no.3, 25-27.

* Image Credit

Religion and the GOP Presidential Hopefuls

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

Emily Johnson

The Republican Party’s field of Presidential hopefuls is getting crowded, with eight candidates officially running and four more expected to announce by June 1. We’re into double digits already, without counting the half-dozen others who have publicly expressed interest but not yet filed with the Federal Election Commission. This last group includes some big names: Governors Chris Christie (New Jersey), Scott Walker (Wisconsin), Bobby Jindal (Louisiana), and Jeb Bush (Florida).

Religion has already emerged as a major theme in these campaigns. This is perhaps unsurprising, but worth examining for what it reveals about the evolving relationship between religious rhetoric and political conservatism in American electoral races. The 2016 GOP field is religiously diverse in important ways, while also being exclusively Christian and heavily evangelical Protestant. The religious rhetoric of most serious candidates attempts to address this complicated diversity in direct appeals to ecumenism that nonetheless draw heavily on evangelical language. It is also clear that these candidates feel obligated to address religion in some way, which is particularly interesting given the notable absence of religious themes from the campaign announcements and websites of the lone Democratic candidates: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Independent Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders.

Let this article serve, then, as a cheat sheet (alphabetically organized) of the major GOP candidates’ religious orientations, both personal and political. Included here are all those who have officially announced so far, plus Jeb Bush.

Jeb Bush (no official announcement yet): The famous second son of the Bush political dynasty, former Florida governor Jeb Bush has not yet announced his candidacy, but he has been raising money through his Super PAC “Right to Rise” since January 2015, and it is widely presumed that he will run. Religiously, Bush is something of a mixed bag – a fact that could easily work to his advantage or disadvantage as the election cycle wears on. Raised Episcopalian, Bush converted to Catholicism in 1995 (a conversion that was likely influenced by his marriage to Columba Garnica Gallo, but that did not occur until twenty-one years after their wedding). Bush will also likely draw on the evangelical credentials of his brother George W., who famously converted to Methodism in 1977. Jeb Bush has been vocal in his opposition to gay-rights legislation and (to a lesser extent) abortion, most recently critiquing Hillary Clinton for her contention that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed” in order to improve women’s rights worldwide. Bush offered his response in an email to backers that emphasized his support for religious freedom and “strengthening families.”

Ben Carson (announced on May 4): A former pediatric neurosurgeon, Carson gained national and international fame in 1987 after leading the first successful surgery to separate twins conjoined at the back of the head. He has no electoral experience, but is well known to conservative evangelicals, having published seven books of memoir and advice (including six bestsellers) with the Christian publishing house Zondervan over the past twenty-five years. He gained attention from political pundits on the right after his keynote address at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast, where he cautioned against political correctness and made remarks about education, healthcare, and taxation that conservatives broadly interpreted as direct critiques of the Obama administration. Carson opposes same-sex marriage (which he has compared to bestiality) and the Affordable Care Act, and he has gone on record to say that he does not believe in human evolution. His affiliation with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church may prove to be an issue for some potential evangelical supporters given the church’s deliberate self-positioning outside of the evangelical mainstream.

Ted Cruz (announced on March 23): Texas senator Ted Cruz is a born-and-bred Southern Baptist. An early (and continued) advocate of Tea Party platforms, he has been a frequent speaker at the Values Voter Summit hosted annually by the Family Research Council and at the Heritage Foundation’s Conservative Policy Summits. He announced his 2016 candidacy for the GOP nomination at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Cruz’s campaign website highlights his understanding of the United States as a fundamentally Christian nation, with particular emphasis on “the liberties endowed to us by our Creator” as well as his support for the preservation of “the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance.” The website also centrally focuses on Cruz’s family values politics, including his opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, and the controversial contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

Mark Everson (announced on March 5): Everson served as Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service under George Bush, and went on to be CEO of the American Red Cross for less than a year in 2007 (the organization demanded his resignation after discovering his extramarital relationship with a subordinate). His candidacy has not yet received much serious attention so far (perhaps best represented by the Washington Postheadline: “Mark Everson enters the 2016 race, because sometimes random people run for president.”). Everson’s original six-pronged platform did not include social issues, focusing instead on tax reform, banking regulation, reinstating the draft, reducing “entitlement programs,” limiting immigration, and imposing a single-term limit on the presidency. He has since added to his website that he opposes new gun control legislation and stands against abortion “unless the life of the mother or child is at stake.” He also takes responsibility for his own “failed” marriage and states that “those who cite the unraveling of the institution of marriage as a cause for alarm are right.”

Jack Fellure (filed with the FEC in 2012, for 2016): A retired engineer, Fellure is a perennial candidate who has run in every presidential election since 1988. He registered his 2016 candidacy with the FEC immediately after the 2012 election (in which he ran as the official candidate of the Prohibition Party), but has not yet set up a website for 2016. Fellure has consistently stated, since the 1980s, that his platform is the 1611 King James Bible. He is particularly concerned with what he sees as rampant sexual immorality, and he supports a flat tax based on Levitical tithing guidelines.

Carly Fiorina (announced on May 4): Attention toward the former Hewlett-Packard CEO has so far focused on her failure to register the domain name carlyfiorna.org, which is now populated by 30,000 sadface emoticons, representing the 30,000 workers that she laid off during her time with HP. Aside from being the only woman to announce her candidacy for the GOP nomination so far, Fiorina (who was raised Episcopalian) is also notable for her lack of engagement with religious rhetoric. Her campaign website focuses almost exclusively on her business experience with virtually no reference to social or cultural issues, aside from her refusal of “the false notion that conservative ideas and principles amount to a ‘war on women.’”

Mike Huckabee (announced on May 5): Before entering politics, Huckabee was a Baptist preacher and televangelist who opened two twenty-four hour Christian television stations in Arkansas during the 1980s. The former governor of that state (1996-2007), Huckabee emerged early in the 2008 election cycle as the evangelical candidate to watch, placing second in the Iowa straw poll and producing a memorable December campaign commercial reminding voters that “what really matters” is not politics but “the birth of Christ.” He dropped out of the race in March 2008 and decided not to run in 2012, offering reasoning evocative of evangelical epistemology: “all the factors say ‘go’, but my heart says ‘no.’” Huckabee’s 2016 campaign announcement underscored his conservative evangelical credentials by invoking his support for Israel, his opposition to “jihadis,” and his concern about the “criminalization” of Christianity in the United States (an oblique reference to a host of issues ranging from gay-rights and anti-discrimination legislation to the recent uproar over Indiana’s passage of a state Religious Freedom Restoration Act). Huckabee’s official website heavily emphasizes his opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and gun control.

Rand Paul (announced on April 7): The junior senator from Kentucky leans more libertarian than many of his opponents, though less so than his father (former presidential candidate Ron Paul). Baptized in the Episcopal Church, Paul presently identifies as Presbyterian. His major policy priorities align with the evangelical conservatives’ rhetoric of small government, but with significantly less emphasis on social issues than other contenders. Instead, his attention has been focused on reining in NSA surveillance programs, setting congressional term limits, applying “real free-market principles” to the American healthcare system, and “counteracting excessively burdensome government regulation.” His primary appeals to evangelical voters have been through his pro-life and pro-Israel platforms. Although he described gay marriage as a “sin” in 2012, he has since said that he supports official recognition and benefits for same-sex couples as long as the definition of marriage does not have to be changed to include these relationships.

Marco Rubio (announced on April 13): Like the only other Catholic currently in contention, Marco Rubio’s personal religious history is complicated. He was born and raised in a Catholic family, but attended the Church of Latter-Day Saints with extended family for “a little less than three years when [he] was very young.” He was baptized as a Mormon at the age of eight, but his immediate family soon returned to the Catholic Church and he received his First Communion five years later. He and his wife and children attend Catholic services in Miami, but are also affiliated with the Southern Baptist Christ Fellowship, which was briefly their primary church and where they still occasionally attend services. Rubio toldChristianity Today in a 2012 interview: “I’m a Roman Catholic. I’m theologically in line with the authority of the church, but I also have tremendous respect for my brothers and sisters in other Christian faiths. I recognize, as the Catholic Church, that there are excellent teachings of the Word throughout other denominations of Christianity.” He is pro-life and opposed to same-sex marriage, although he has said that legislation surrounding both issues should be in the hands of the states.

Emily 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.

Image credits:  Jeb Bush (Gage Skidmore); Jack Fellure; Carson (Gage Skidmore); Fiorina (Gage Skidmore); Huckabee (David Ball). All other public domain images hosted by Wikimedia.

Are We Seeing the Fall of the Religious Right?

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Thomas Whitley

I must admit that I’ve grown quite accustomed to using the phrase, “the rise of the Religious Right.” It’s a phrase that hearkens back to the coalescence of the “moral majority” and the linking between the religious right and the Republican party during the late 1960s and 1970s. The Religious Right was ostensibly galvanized around Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. However, Randall Balmer argued last year that this is a myth and that it was support for segregation that provided the original impetus for the forming of the Religious Right.

The Religious Right and evangelicals have held a considerable amount of influence over electoral politics and conversations around social issues in this county for four and a half decades. The movement largely begun under Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich continues under the leadership of Jerry Falwell, Jr., Tony Perkins, and James Dobson, though more loosely. While “Religious Right” is not synonymous with “evangelical,” the two categories significantly overlap and evangelicals make up the vast majority of the Religious Right. Indeed, evangelicalism, especially in its national identity and in its identification as a prominent voting bloc, seems to have replaced the Religious Right, at least in popular usage. I wonder, though, if we are seeing the initial stages of the waning of the power and influence of evangelicalism.

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal study caught the eye of many this week and produced headlines like this one from Slate: “Too bad, Mike Huckabee — Americans would rather have a gay president than a Christian evangelical.” And indeed the study seems to indicate that this is the case: 61% say that they would be enthusiastic or comfortable with a gay or lesbian president, compared with 52% who say the same about an evangelical Christian. This represents an 18 point increase since 2006 for those who say that they would be enthusiastic or comfortable with a gay or lesbian president. But has support been waning for evangelicals? According to this study, those who would be enthusiastic or comfortable with an evangelical Christian president has hovered around 50% since 2008, a jump from 41% in 2006 (2008: 51%; 2011: 50%; 2015: 52%). The unfavorables —those who have some reservations or would be very uncomfortable —have likewise hovered around 45% since 2008, which was a decrease from the 2006 number of 54% (2008: 45%; 2011: 47%; 2015: 44%). When it comes to the presidency, evangelicals appear to be holding serve among Americans.

This coupled with the strengthening of the correlation between evangelicals and the Republican party seems to paint a positive picture. From 2008 to 2011, Republicans increased their evangelical advantage over Democrats from 65%-28% to 70%-24%. On the surface, this looks like evangelicalism is moving toward a stronger position, but them becoming the main constituency of one political party does not equal broad political or social influence. The shift toward support of same-sex marriage in this country is low hanging fruit in this discussion. Not only has the country shifted quite decisively to the left on this issue over recent years, but many evangelicals are rethinking their traditionally held positions and are coming out in favor of same-sex marriage. Rachel Held Evans’recent departure from evangelicalism over this issue (and many others) is a particularly devastating blow, even if those who still identify as evangelicals wrote her off long ago.

The recent spate of Religious Freedom Restoration Act laws being proposed or passed and subsequently amended (such as the high-profile case in Indiana) appear to be last ditch efforts, of sorts, to cling to a time that is quickly fading. Despite recent conservative victories rolling back abortion rights, public opinion has remained largely unchanged for 40 years, even as the “pro-choice”moniker has suffered since the mid-1990s.

Evangelicalism may well be entering a time when it is feeling more consistent and stronger pressure and has thus begun to batten down the hatches. The boundaries are being drawn tighter and the movement is becoming more insular (see: John Piper “Farewells” Rob Bell). The evangelical vote will still be decisive in the upcoming Republican primaries and the eventual Republican nominee for the 2016 general election will have to perform well among evangelicals. Case in point: Convert to Catholicism Jeb Bush, who is my (not very bold, but quite practical) prediction for the Republican nominee, gave the commencement address at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University this weekend. Yet, the 2016 election may be the last election in which the evangelical vote has the potential to sway the outcome of an election, especially as the evangelicals have lost serious ground on some of the most important social issues and as the country continues to grow less white and less religious.

Thomas 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.