May 16, 2018
Invited by the Council of Bishops of France in early April, President Emmanuel Macron delivered a rare speech addressed to French Catholics. In it, he presented his purpose as “repairing the damaged relationship between Church and State.” This was a marked divergence from his predecessors, who had kept their distance from the church and it provoked hysteria on the left. A large number of radical leftist politicians expressed fears that the long-cherished tradition of French secularism – laïcité – was under threat.
In contrast to the liberal tradition that understands state neutrality as indifference to religious matters, President Macron seemed to present himself as a shepherd caring for all his sheep, including Catholics. By doing so, he embraced a classical pastoral understanding of political power which is directly founded on a Christian theological pattern.
In fact, the general tone of his speech was quite unfamiliar to French citizens, especially Catholics, who are accustomed to being reduced to a block constituency whose function is to guard good morals in a liberal society without boundaries. Instead of such generalizing statements, he recognized the diversity within the Catholic community and, like a priest from his pulpit, he urged members to get involved in politics. “A Church pretending to be disinterested in temporal questions would not fulfill its vocation, whereas a President of the Republic pretending to be disinterested in the Church would fail in his duty,” he said.
What kind of engagement did he mean? What can we do in a world where we witness the disintegration of social ties, growing economic inequality, and massive environmental degradation? How can we become more involved in a political future shaped by the fear of decline relayed by so many intellectuals, and among them plenty of Christians?
It is disheartening to hear so many of them holding counter-cultural discourses that criticize modernity, appeal to the past, and deny their mission, as Christians, to improve their society. In fact, after decades of passive withdrawal from public life, some Catholic movements in France have been remobilized and broadcast their suspicion towards the secular world. In 2013 for example, conservatives organized demonstrations to protest against the legalization of same-sex marriage. This movement sparked a conservative resurgence, and it has grown since then.
Their narratives of distrust have expanded in the Church, where many believers and some of the clergy keep their distance from Pope Francis. His encyclical Amoris Laetitia (2016) has not been warmly welcomed, nor have his prophetic calls for caring about refugees generated much enthusiasm. However, while these conservatives are increasingly vocal, they remain a minority.
Religious sociologist Jacques Lagroye characterizes the Church as split into two regimes of truth. We see a fracture line between what he calls the “regime of certainty,” which appeals to an authoritarian statement of incontestable affirmations concerning God’s design, his revelation and the role of the Church. The second, the “regime of testimony,” focuses on the witness of a person who presented himself as the Son of God, and proposes hope and the possibility of renewal for everyone.
This split can be seen in the very practices of the faith, in the understanding of morality and in the attitude towards the Church’s hierarchy. But it also manifests in the political preferences of believers. The proponents of a faith shaped by certainty are more likely to prefer conservative programs where they believe that their patrimonial values – the defense of a certain conception of work, and a deep attachment to property, Christian culture and heritage – and their cultural identity as Christians are best defended. Whereas the followers of a testimonial faith would rather concern themselves with such issues as racism, economic inequality, or ecological catastrophe.
The Church celebrates the diversity within it and yet at the same time fears the threat of disintegration. With contradictory injunctions, the “unity in diversity” proclaimed quickly turns into a barren uniformization. The church subscribes to pluralism in its principle, but there is no real translation into action. It means that those who subscribe to the regime of certainty, a majority of believers, will almost certainly vote for conservative parties.
But political engagement is not limited to elections. Official texts of the Episcopate urge the Catholics to take part, as citizens and as Christians, in political and union fights, regarding pluralism and the secularization of society. Such exhortation is embedded in the idea of a consubstantiality between spiritual experience and engagement in social and political activities.
The last encyclical Gaudate&Exultate (2018) underlines the deep joy that activists experience and the holiness of their engagement for others. Nevertheless, many Christians prefer charitable work over political involvement. As though this kind of engagement would be more legitimate and more adequate to their faith, as though it would be easier or more proper to incarnate a Christian identity in the framework of political-free associations.
It is no bad thing if President Macron seeks to rebuild the relationship between church and state, not if it re-engages Christians in politics in a real and meaningful way and prompts believers to explore their faith more deeply and more coherently.
Anne Guillard is a doctoral candidate in Political Theory and Theology at Sciences Po and the University of Geneva.
May 3, 2018
The past century or so of evangelical history in America might best be understood as a story of multiple rebrands. In the 1910s, evangelicalism drew on the expertise of business leaders like Henry Parsons Crowell of Quaker Oats fame to rebrand itself as “fundamentalism” through a massive print campaign that cast evangelical doctrine as authentic old-time religion. By mid-century, many fundamentalists felt their “old-fashioned” branding had come to be associated more with backwardness than trustworthiness, so they underwent a second rebrand, reclaiming the name “evangelical” to signal a more respectably modern presence in the public square.
Last week, some fifty evangelical leaders met at my alma mater, Wheaton College, for yet another exercise in branding, this time to reclaim the name “evangelical” from its negative association with President Donald Trump’s allies such as Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham.
Often, as in the case of the fundamentalist image invented a century ago, the recovery of a brand’s public authority and legitimacy is based on the invocation of a more authentic past and a promise to restore it. But often these calls for restoration are deeply selective, choosing to overlook contested issues from a group’s past and present in order to construct a streamlined, positive basis for restoration.
As a case in point, Wheaton’s brand of respectable evangelicalism often invokes the positive legacy of its founder, Jonathan Blanchard, who was a noted opponent of slavery as early as the 1830s. But as evangelical historian, Mark Noll, has argued, by 1860 the majority of evangelicals, both southern and northern, actually believed in a biblical basis for slavery. When leaders choose to remember Blanchard’s stance on slavery without bothering with that of the majority of evangelicals, they engage in selective memory. This enables the construction of a respectable brand whose cultural authority might go unchallenged by difficult questions from its past and whose white American adherents might go unperturbed by their connection to it in the present.
Not all in attendance at Wheaton were so enthusiastic about this selective remembering. Katelyn Beaty, writing in the New Yorker, observed a rift between an older, largely white group of leaders who wanted to focus more on unity and civility (including one who worried that calls to repent from racism might seem “too political” to his followers); and a younger group of leaders, many of whom were women and people of color, who expressed a desire to deal directly with the movement’s less-than-spotless record on white supremacy.
In addition to their troubled history on domestic issues, many evangelical leaders have used their public platforms to sanctify American military aggression abroad. Billy Graham, whose legacy in mid-century evangelicalism’s respectable brand was what these meeting organizers had hoped to revitalize, wove Cold War nationalism into much of his preaching. He even recommended military intervention in Vietnam to Eisenhower, promising to “do [his] best through radio and television to make [his] contribution in selling the American public” on the president’s decision.
Recently, former George W. Bush speechwriter and Wheaton alumnus Michael Gerson, wrote an extensive criticism of religious conservatives and their loyal adherence to Donald Trump. In a subsequent reflection on the Wheaton meeting, he joined these calls for restoration.
For Gerson, Bush’s brand of compassionate conservatism embodies the kind of respectable evangelicalism that should be restored. Gerson is particularly selective, saying that Bush’s compassionate conservatism was derailed by “global crisis,” but he fails to mention the direct hand his former boss had in creating that crisis when he launched a war in Iraq. Gerson, himself, coined the infamous phrase “Axis of Evil” which was instrumental in shepherding the nation into a war whose massive civilian death toll is yet another troubling memory too often hidden away from American public discourse.
By forgetting the troubled history of white evangelicalism on race, evangelical leaders allow their followers to continue comfortably in a respectably-branded evangelicalism that makes room for white supremacy. And by building their brand around civility and legitimacy, evangelical leaders can go on sanctifying a militaristic nationalism that has enjoyed an all too long moment in the sun of American public life.
What is called for now is repentance from racism and a frank, direct reckoning with the way evangelicalism has legitimated and sanctified state violence in the public square. This applies not only to those who have enthusiastically fused the evangelical brand with that of Donald Trump, but also to those who see themselves as trying to rescue it from such a legacy.
Kevin Stewart Rose is a doctoral student in American Religious History at the University of Virginia.
April 26, 2018
As the already mountainous evidence of Trump’s immorality, or amorality, steadily grows, the commentariat is searching for a way to explain how he retains any Christian support. Michael Massing places Trump in a religious tradition with its origins in the pointed, sometimes vulgar rhetoric deployed by Martin Luther against those he considered enemies of the true faith. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson argues that the term “evangelical” must be reclaimed so that we can see how far Trump-friendly evangelical leaders depart from American evangelicalism’s greatest moments: its 19th century support for social reform and abolitionism. The historian John Fea coined the term “court evangelicals” to deride those Christian leaders intoxicated by their proximity to power, offering Trump the absolute loyalty he so desires while compromising their moral principles.
While white evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Trump, that support was even stronger among the subset of evangelicals who practice charismatic Christianity. Some of Trump’s most visible support from Christian leaders has come from charismatic preachers such as Paula White. Charismatic Christians emphasize gifts of the Holy Spirit, “charisms,” available to believers and witnessed in worship services. These gifts include the ability to prophesy, to speak in tongues, to heal the sick, and for some, to handle snakes. Charismatic Christianity is the second largest type of Christianity globally, just behind Roman Catholicism.
Trump, the brusque New Yorker, seems at quite a distance from Appalachian snake-handlers or megachurch healers, but there are affinities that go beyond pragmatic political alliance. After all, Trump clearly has something like charisma. According to the sociologist Max Weber, charismatic authority is found when norms derive from an individual perceived as having extraordinary characteristics rather than from tradition or from a codified legal system. Weber formulated his account of charisma by learning from his theologian colleagues studying the gifts of the Holy Spirit and applying their insights to the secular analysis of politics – even though the social scientists that now use charisma rarely consider the term’s religious origins.
Trump indisputably flouts legal norms and traditions, and his oft-mentioned conflation of his self with his office suggests a view of authority as issuing from his person. But does he have extraordinary characteristics that resemble supernatural gifts? Obviously he thinks he possesses such characteristics: he reports possessing “one of the greatest memories of all time,” an IQ that is “one of the highest,” the personality of a “very stable genius,” a superior knowledge of the economy, the military, politics, and even the Bible, and of course incomparable business acumen. In a sense, an objective measure of extraordinary characteristics is irrelevant: charisma functions by fueling a narrative about the extraordinary. That narrative matters more than whether the snake-handler is occasionally bitten, the “healed” go back to their hospital beds, or the “tongues” spoken are gibberish.
When we think charisma in politics, we usually think eloquence, perhaps eloquence embodied: Franklin D. Roosevelt or Martin Luther King, Jr. or John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama. The rhetorical heights of their speeches have little in common with Trump’s boastful proclamations and tweeted jabs. However, charisma is always relative to a context. What appeared charismatic centuries ago, or decades ago, or, in our age of rapid media evolution, even a few years ago does not appear charismatic today. Just try teaching Cicero to college freshmen. Moreover, charisma is relative to a medium: the charismatic silent film actress could fall flat in the era of talkies, and what charisma looks like in a scripted drama of the 90s is quite different than that of today’s reality TV stars.
In short, when the relevant media are Twitter and cable news, not network television, presidential charisma looks quite different. Whether we like it or not, Trump has an extraordinary gift for expressing himself via tweet, a gift harnessed to secure his personal authority over against norms derived from tradition or bureaucracy. Charismatic Christianity, too, embraces the authority derived from extraordinary gifts over against institutional forms of Christianity or traditional religious norms. To staid Episcopalians or Catholics, charismatic Christians can appear ignorant, chaotic, and vulgar.
While charismatic Christians are now classed as a subset of evangelicals, a dialectic between charismatic moments and institutionalizing moments has long infused American Christianity, and American culture as a whole. The revivals that swept the nation in the early nineteenth century featured all sorts of strange, supernaturally-inspired responses: trances, uncontrollable laughing, barking like dogs, and running in circles. The spiritual energy expressed there would come to be institutionalized in what are now cornerstones of mainline Protestantism: the Methodist and Baptist churches. The hotbeds of religious charisma were, a few years later, centers of abolitionism, a movement pioneered by fringe activists and prophets like John Brown and Sojourner Truth that would eventually move to the center of American politics with the Emancipation Proclamation.
When we focus on charisma, Trump’s electoral success appears far less surprising. He defeated a candidate who lacked charisma and who was committed to the norms of the status quo. The narrative around Obama, especially in 2008, was also driven by charisma: an extraordinarily gifted man whose candidacy represented a turn against institutional norms through the symbolism of his blackness. George W. Bush had his own sort of charisma legible to those in Middle America in 2000, in stark contrast to Al Gore’s uninspired competence and embrace of bureaucracy. And there was Clinton and Reagan and Carter. Obviously American politics is more complex than such a story allows, but the impulse toward charismatic (even more than populist) politics is worth pondering, particularly when we attend to the ways that charisma looks quite different as contexts vary.
Once we understand political charisma as inextricable from religious charisma, we can access religious resources to make judgments about charisma. Charismatic Christians have thought long and hard about how to discern whether some extraordinary ability is a gift of the Holy Spirit or a gift of the Devil. Does a gift lift us up toward the true, the good, and the beautiful, giving us a new perspective on the ways the world is sinful? Or does that gift merely advance worldly interests? Further, charismatic Christianity at its best affirms that extraordinary gifts are available to all, and those who possess such gifts are charged with opening others to them. This charge, to evangelize, breaks boundaries of race, class, and gender.
The origins of modern charismatic Christianity are found in Los Angeles during the first years of the twentieth century. The black preacher William J. Seymour led the Azusa Street Revival where Christians who were white, Asian, Latino, and black, rich and poor, old and young spoke in tongues and witnessed miraculous healing. This does not sound like a Trump rally, but it also does not sound like a Bernie Sanders rally. It sounds more like Occupy Wall Street, like the Women’s March, like airport protests against the travel ban, like protests against racial profiling at a Philadelphia Starbucks. In grassroots social movements we find democratic charisma, not authoritarian charisma, not the Devil’s charisma. Discerning the difference is one of the fundamental challenges of American life.
Vincent Lloyd in an Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova and a senior fellow of Religion and Its Publics.
March 23, 2018
Religion and Its Publics Co-Director Paul Dafydd Jones writes in response to Peter Ormerod’s recent article for The Guardian, “So Christianity is no longer the norm? Going underground will do it good.”
‘It’s quite a statement. “Christianity as a default, as a norm, is gone, and probably gone for good,” said Prof Stephen Bullivant this week, in response to figures showing widespread rejection of Christianity among Europe’s young people. He adds a slender caveat: “Or at least for the next 100 years.”’
So begins a short article in The Guardian by Peter Ormerod, which notes recent research on the disavowal of religious identification among sixteen to twenty-nine year olds across Europe, particularly in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. (Although (i) it’s possible to critique the methodology and construction of sociological studies of contemporary religion; and (ii) Omerod’s own piece doesn’t reckon with the fact that things look very different in some European countries, such as Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, and Poland.) The article’s positive claim is even more interesting, at least for those fascinated with the prospects for religion in a late modern age: Christianity should embrace its “weirdness,” its oblique and often complicated relationship with established conventions and norms, for in so doing it stands some chance of recovering a distinctive identity.
Now it should be said that Ormerod’s position isn’t original. A commendation of a Christianity that “goes underground” bears some resemblance to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s interest in “religionless Christianity,” and Ormerod’s positive reading of the (apparent) demise of “Christendom” is anticipated – and, in fact, lauded – in the work of Karl Barth. The question of how studies about European religious life relates to religious life in the Americas, and to religion in the “global South,” must also be raised; it’s important that one doesn’t fall into the trap of thinking that Europe leads the way, and the rest of the world is playing catch-up. But unoriginality and parochialism do not negate the significance or Ormerod’s claims. If Christianity in particular, and “organized” religion in general, no longer commands the field in Europe – if the era of Christian hegemony is really nearing an end – what comes next?
Paul Dafydd Jones is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and Co-Director of The Project on Religion and Its Publics.
March 15, 2018
Religion and Its Publics Co-Director Charles Mathewes writes:
“This is a nice bit of public theology, both in illuminating a contemporary situation by the organic use of theological categories, and also by explaining the meaning of those theological categories through applying them to a contemporary situation.”
Read Nadia Bolz-Weber’s full piece, “We’re in the midst of an apocalypse. And that’s a good thing.”, and read an excerpt below:
“In Greek, the word apocalypse means to uncover, to peel away, to show what’s underneath. That’s what this country has been experiencing in the past six months. There has not been a sudden uptick in sexual misconduct and assault in our country, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are simply exposing what was already there. The reality that some men comment on, threaten, masturbate in front of, intimidate and assault female bodies is finally being brought out of the dark ubiquity of women’s personal experience and into the light of public discourse. The male domination at the center of the sexual harassment issue — how those in positions of power (usually, but not always, men) have used that power to sexually gratify themselves at the expense of those who are subordinate to them (usually, but not always, women) — is being revealed apocalyptically in prime time.
March 8, 2018
Below, Religion and Its Publics Co-Director Charles Mathewes weighs in on Daniel Silliman’s recent Washington Post article, “Protestantism was born in Germany, but it was Billy Graham who brought evangelicalism there.”
In Germany, “Evangelische” meant someone who was Protestant—who was for the “good news” (evangelion) of Christianity, in a distinctively Protestant way, as was traditional (after the Reformation) for most of Germany outside of Southern Germany, which remained mostly Roman Catholic. But when American Evangelicalism came to Germany after World War Two, in the form of Billy Graham, the Germans realized that their word “Evangelische” did not exactly capture what Graham was offering. So a new word was created: “Evangelikale.” We should realize, too, the distinctive nature of white American Evangelical Protestantism, which is very much a product of American history, for good and ill.
This is part of a larger truth, one captured well by the Oxford historian of Christianity Diarmaid MacCulloch. There have been multiple Christianities throughout history—a Greek or Hellenic Christianity begun around the Eastern Mediterranean in the Roman Empire, a Latin Christianity in the West, a “West Asian” Christianity which was eventually subsumed by the rise of Islam. Perhaps the rise of American “evangelical Protestantism” in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries is one of the Western Hemisphere’s contributions to the history of Christianity—a radically new kind of Christianity, which is now shaping Christianity worldwide, through missions and perhaps especially the rise of is Pentecostal variant. Perhaps the Germans’ confusion about what to call what Graham was selling is indicative of that.