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Descriptions of Religion as Explanations of Religion

In this week’s podcast, Kathryn Lofton and John Modern join Adam Miller for a conversation that hovers around the relationship between description and explanation in the study of religion, and the notion that the way scholars of religion think about their categories of analysis shapes what they say about a given set of data and how they say it. Given the entanglement of description and explanation, Lofton and Modern stress the responsibility scholars of religion have to know their material deeply, to be aware of the history of their field and categories of analysis, and to speak to issues/questions beyond their areas of speciality.

Kathryn Lofton is the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Yale University. She is the author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, the soon-to-be-published Consuming Religion, and is currently working on the religious contexts of Bob Dylan. John Modern is the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Franklin & Marshall College. He is the author of Secularism in Antebellum America and is currently pursuing two book projects—one on machines and cognitive science, and another on Devo and rubber. In addition to their solo-enterprises, they have worked together on a couple of things—Frequencies, a collaborative genealogy of spirituality, for example, and most recently a book series to be published by the University of Chicago Press titled Class 200.

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Can Religion Explain the KKK?

Describing the story of the Ku Klux Klan as “lovely”, as Kelly Baker does in her interview with David Lewis, is initially perplexing.  Fortunately, Baker goes on to clarify what she intends, noting that the Klan’s history of racism and violence in no way qualifies as “nice.”  Her description of the Klan’s “story” as “lovely,” according to Baker, does not refer to the Klan’s violent history, but to a vast print culture that enables methodological access to the ways Klan members constructed their “ideologies” and “worldviews” in the years spanning from 1915 to 1930. Citing her own motivation for studying the group, she tells Lewis that “lots of people say things about white supremacists, but understanding their motivations and why they’re drawn to these ideologies was not so much the context [or goal].”

In her book, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (2011),  Baker uses the “second Klan’s” newspapers and magazines as “an invaluable entrée into the Klan’s worldview…”[1]  Importantly, her endeavor to understand the Klan’s “worldview” and “ideology” aims to problematize scholarly and media representations of the group as primarily uneducated, rural, male, and southern.  Despite the persistence of these representations, Baker shows that Klan membership consisted of southerners and northerners, men and women, the uneducated as well as “bankers, lawyers, dentists, doctors, ministers businessmen, and teachers.”  Rather than a “fringe” movement, then, Baker points to the widespread appeal of the racist and gendered agenda of the Klan leading up to the 1930s.

While much of the interview involves a discussion of the representations of the Klan in popular media, Baker’s book emphasizes scholarly representations of the group.  In her work, she makes an intriguing and important argument regarding specifically the omission of the Klan’s “religion” from scholarly analyses.  Scholars have, according to Baker, focused on economic, social, and political factors in explanations of the Klan, diagnosing it primarily as a movement motivated by “populist” anxieties and fears in a changing national environment.  Against the trend of dismissing the Klan’s “religion” as “false”, “inauthentic”, and thus analytically irrelevant, Baker finds it a necessary component in understanding how the group organized and mobilized a particular self-identity and national vision in the early twentieth century.

Baker emphasizes that a failure to take seriously the religious motivations and worldview of the Klan not only limits our understanding of the group.  More than that, the designation of their “religion” as false serves to conceal the uglier aspects of Protestant hostility and power in U.S. history.  Put simply, “true” Protestantism is preserved through the delineation of “false” appropriations of it by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.   Arguing that the Klan’s anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic national vision possessed wide, non-fringe, appeal from 1915-1930, she asks, “How might narratives of American religious history be told if the Klan was integrated rather than segregated? If a white supremacist movement proves pivotal rather than fringe, then what might happen to our narratives of nation?”[2]  She suggests that a religious studies approach helps to make sense of Klan “religiosity”, as well as scholarly de-legitimizations of it.

Baker’s focus on the mechanisms through which scholarly representations participate in desired definitions and tellings of “religion” in “American” “history” is important work.   Indeed, the project that Baker mentions of separating “true religion” from “false religion” has a heavy presence in U.S. history and historiography.[3]  Yet, while Baker’s interventions regarding the need to take seriously the “religion” of the Klan is noted, I question whether she does not herself reinforce problematic epistemological and methodological assumptions about “religion.”  More precisely, does her search for the “worldview” and “ideology” of the Klan through its newspapers — absent a rigorous situating of these texts and their readers in particular economic, political, and geographic contexts — reproduce reductive and essentializing definitions of “religious” causation?

The project of distinguishing “true” from “false” religion, referenced by Baker, has most often referred to the normative and racist assumptions of such projects.[4]  Scholars have traced how religious theorization, definition, and comparison of “true” and “false” religion emerged in the context of colonial encounter and economic domination.   More precisely, these scholars have argued that theories of religion have been and continue to be connected to racist anthropological assumptions that deem racialized “others” incapable of rational “belief”[5] — whether in the writings of E.B. Tylor or in, arguably, the persistence of definitions of Protestant religiosity as more “liberal” and “democratic” than, say, Islam.

Baker’s invocation of the project of religious definition is quite different.  She does not point to how constructions of “true religion” are linked to racist anthropologies.  Rather, the argumentative implication of her work is that the scholarly denial of the Protestant “religion” of the Ku Klux Klan — a white supremacist group with its own racist anthropological theories — actually helps contemporary Protestants to conceal and forget the prevalence of Protestant racism in U.S. history.   It appears that her book, then, is in some way aimed at — even though she does not state this — helping readers recognize the prevalence of racist “worldviews” and “ideologies” through the un-fringing of the Klan’s Protestant religiosity.

The connections between religious theorization and imperial racism, however, might lead us to bigger questions regarding the extent of the relationship between Protestant religion, its definitional assumptions, and racism.  I say all of this not to dismiss Baker’s argument that we need to take seriously how the racist ideologies and worldviews of the Ku Klux Klan extend beyond those wearing white hoods and carrying torches.  We should take seriously, indeed, her argument that the dismissal of the Klan’s “religion” as false and inauthentic plays into the desire to occlude the ugly moments of Protestant and American racism.  Yet, she attaches this ugly history to a particular and identifiable ideological formulation, a particular worldview — whether found in the Klan of the early twentieth century or in the contemporary Islamophobia of the Tea Party.

Considering the long relationship between religious definition and racist anthropologies, we see that Protestant racism not only exists in the form of conservative “ideologies” and “worldviews.”  More importantly, and perhaps dangerously, it pervades the most well-intentioned and “enlightened” disciplinary practices.  Instead of locating white supremacy only in the persistence of the Klan’s “brand” today[6], it might be more productive for scholars of race and religion to consider the challenge posed by Black Lives Matter and other groups.  For, as they are showing in their confrontation of police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and the capitalist exploitation of black and brown bodies, U.S. racism runs deeper than a “worldview” that we can easily recognize and help others to see.  These challenges demand a self-reflexivity that goes beyond identifying racism in a worldview we do not possess.  More significantly, they call us to examine how our own institutional, disciplinary, and economic practices help to perpetuate a racist system.

[1] Kelly Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKKs Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (U Kansas Press, 2011), p. 22.

[2] Ibid, 19.

[3] Baker, The Gospel of the Klan, p. 17.

[4] For a helpful overview of this issue in regards to the disciplinary subfield of American Religious History, see Finnbarr Curtis’s essay “The Study of American religions: critical reflections on a specialization” in Religon, no. 42, issue 3, 355-372 (June 21, 2012).  Found here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0048721X.2012.681875#.VuNZYJMrL-YFor another helpful work on the assumptions of religious comparison and the construction of the category “world religion”, see Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Inventions of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (U Chicago Press, 2005).

[5] To hear more about the distinction between race and ethnicity, as well as the co-construction of religion and race as social categories, it will be helpful to listen to Rudy Busto’s podcast interview on The Religious Studies Project titled “Race and Religion: Intertwined Social Constructions,” found here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/race-and-religion-intertwined-social-constructions/.  Also, see his book King Tiger:  The Religious Vision of Reies López Tijerina (U New Mexico Press, 2006)

[6] Baker, The Gospel of the Klan, 249.

Rebecca Rushdoony Once Condemned a Cat as a Heretic

Rebecca Rushdoony once condemned a cat as a heretic.

The eldest child of R.J. Rushdoony, an American theologian dedicated to helping Christians learn to build God’s kingdom on earth, Rebecca was mad the stray cat wouldn’t stay put. So she pronounced the cat damned, much to her father’s amusement.

This is one of only a few family anecdotes in Michael J. McVicar’s book, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, the first in-depth history of Rushdoony and the religious movement he started. This might not seem remarkable. McVicar’s highly anticipated work is an intellectual history. It examines Rushdoony’s theology and the influence that theology has had on Christian conservatives. The focus is not on the small, intimate moments of family life.

It is worth remarking on, though, because Rushdoony was deeply invested in the idea of the importance of the family. His life’s work was aimed at changing the world. He thought that change would happen through Christian families.

As McVicar explains in his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Rushdoony’s plan for transforming the world started with biblically “reconstructed” fathers.

“They are going to take control of their families,” McVicar says, “by applying the strictures of biblical law onto first themselves, the male agent, then onto their wives, then onto their children. Rushdoony’s idea was that over time, this would create interlocking networks of godly families that would eventually swell to fill the earth and create the kingdom of God on earth.”

If Rushdoony tried to live out that vision in his own life, with his own family, it is not examined in McVicar’s book.

Christian Reconstruction is not the study of a culture-changing patriarch. It isn’t a book about a father reconstructing himself and his family according to theonomy, God’s law. Rushdoony’s familial relationships and roles are noted only briefly here, evidence of the complexity of his personal character, before receding completely from the narrative.

In this way, McVicar’s historical work on Rushdoony dissents from Rushdoony’s idea of historical change. Christian Reconstruction, the book, starts from and demonstrates a theory of history different than that of Christian Reconstructionism, the movement. McVicar focuses on social networks and institutions as the primary agents of historical change. He does this with great acuity. He is persuasive, not just explaining Rushdoony’s theological work but also in implicitly arguing he can explain this history without attending to Rushdoony’s life and times as a patriarch.

There are compelling reasons to attend to this disjunction. McVicar manages to engage the reader with the ideas that Rushdoony considered crucial even before explicating them. He gives readers an opportunity to examine the generally unreflected-upon assumptions at work in every historical narrative, whether it be recent American religious history or an answer the question, “How was your day?” He gives readers, further, ground to critically examine some of Rushdoony’s basic ideas about the historical change he was attempting to effect.

McVicar also calls attention to this disjunction—which is not to say contradiction—in Rushdoony’s own thought and practice. With unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s correspondence, journals, and unpublished papers, McVicar is able to document Rushdoony’s daily intellectual life, looking not just at what he thought but also how.

What these sources show, McVicar writes, is “a singularly focused, almost mechanical man driven by an all-consuming ambition to build ‘a world-wide ministry through writing.’” Even in his most personal diaries, Rushdoony isn’t particularly interested in applying biblical law to his family. Rather, “Rushdoony’s diaries disproportionately recount his confrontations with theological critics, intellectual ne’er-do-wells at academic conferences, battles with Presbyterian officials, or run-ins with ignorant lay-people,” McVicar writes. “The result is a written record that displays a man more likely to note anger over personal slights and the perceived intellectual vapidity of his enemies than he was to document the happier moments of his life” (11).

Rushdoony, as he emerges in McVicar’s narrative, does not seem inspired by his own vision of biblical families. He seems more compelled by some of the conspiracy-minded thinking that permeated right-wing thought in the mid 20th century.

He was very interested, for example, in a 19th century British group named the Fabian Society. One of the fascinating details McVicar turns up in his archival research is multiple versions of an unpublished essay on the Fabian Society, showing that Rushdoony believed their gradualist and reformist approach to advancing socialism had been profoundly influential. In a memo circulated among conservative think tanks, Rushdoony used the Fabians as a model for what conservatives should be doing. Even as he believed that the kingdom of God would come through reconstructed families, Rushdoony wrote that think tanks could dramatically change the course of history if only it could really coherently unify right-thought with right-practice.

“History,” McVicar quotes Rushdoony, “has never been commanded by majorities but only by dedicated minorities, and the need today is a strategy for the development of that minority into an instrument of thought and action power” (64).

Rushdoony spent large amounts of energy criticizing people who agreed with him on particular issues for their failure to sufficiently unify their thought and action. He thought most Christians and conservatives had under-theorized their activities. At the same time, he struggled to find effective ways to put his theory into practice.

Sometimes, his practice seemed entirely disconnected from his theory.

McVicar looks at Rushdoony’s failed attempts to work inside academia. He looks at Rushdoony’s failed efforts to work with modernist and fundamentalist Presbyterian denominations and then his ill-fated struggle to gain influence over the flagship journal of American evangelicalism, Christianity Today. McVicar follows Rushdoony’s varying success working with right-wing political organizations. He looks at how Rushdoony tried to found a Christian Reconstructionist college, but only managed to build a one-man research organization. He looks, further, at Rushdoony’s conflicted relationships with a younger generation of Christian intellectuals he mentored, notably Greg Bahnsen, John Whitehead, and Gary North.

Even as Rushdoony wrote that the kingdom of God would come through reconstructed families, he was actively engaged in a lot of different ways of trying to influence society.

And some of them were successful.

“Christian Reconstruction, in some important ways, but limited ways, contributed to what Americans would now think of the Christian Right or the New Christian right,” McVicar tells RSP. “I … got to see exactly how much of an influence he had on the rise of things like the religious right, the moral majority, the Rutherford Institute, a handful of really important think tanks, legal advocacy firms, and public defense legal firms that developed in the 1980s. I got to see his influence here, and it did reveal a network of relationships that simply had not been covered in this history before.”

One of the most significant ways Rushdoony had an influence, McVicar shows, was by having his ideas appropriated. Sometimes his thought was adopted quite faithfully, as in some the more conservative streams of the homeschool movement. Other times, the ideas were adapted freely, as was the case with televangelist Pat Robertson, for example, and Tim LaHaye’s somewhat secretive religious-right group, the Council for National Policy. “From Rushdoony’s perspective,” McVicar writes, “CNP participants simultaneously stole his ideas and denied their fundamental truth” (210).

In this way, the story about Rebecca Rushdoony and the cat turns out to be somewhat important. As the theologian was theorizing how Christian patriarchy would bring about the kingdom of God, his daughter was demonstrating the kind of influence he would actually have. She took Rushdoony’s words and repurposed them…

In that case, to condemn a cat as a heretic.

References

McVicar, Michael J. Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2015.

The Risks of Reconstruction

This week’s interview with Florida State University Assistant Professor Michael McVicar highlights two important, but competing elements of recent work on Christian conservatism in the 20th century United States. On the one hand, McVicar’s scholarship fills an important gap in the existing literature on conservative Christian figures. Despite significant advances in the last decade of scholarship, the networks of influence that lay behind the rise of the Religious Right are not fully established. McVicar does the vital work of connecting theological figures like R. J. Rushdoony to the movement’s figureheads like Pat Robertson. Generally, this kind of scholarship lags behind biographical or cultural approaches documenting the broader shifts in the American context. This delay is caused by something that is easier to identify than the diverse elements of the rise of the Religious Right–the problem of primary scholarship on recent conservative figures. The challenges McVicar experienced and the concessions he made to complete his work on Rushdoony appear natural, but they are also highly reflective of the challenges facing further inquiry in this area. If there is a wealth of scholarship today on the Religious Right, it is also the case that much of it treats its subjects altogether too forgivingly. Thus, the work of reconciling the movement’s rise with elements of its racist and sexist past seems to be forever left to other works and other scholars.

First, let me commend McVicar for giving an excellent overview of the rise of reconstructionism as an outgrowth of the fundamentalist/modernist split of the post WWI era. As we will all soon be able to read in his work Christian Reconstruction (UNC-CH, 2015), McVicar shows how theologian R. J. Rushdoony helped establish critical elements of the theology that Billy Graham, Frank Schaeffer, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others used to promote turning away from secular values toward Christian ones. Unlike their liberal and moderate counterparts who saw cultural compromise as inevitable, conservative American Christians redoubled their efforts to be as Jesus described in John 17:16 and avoid being “of the world.”

Reconstructionism was a religious revolution that sought to overturn secular governance in favor of (selected features of) Biblical law. The Christian homeschool movement, for instance, coalesced as a response to the secularization of the public school system, particularly in the wake of court decisions in the 1940s-1960s that reshaped the boundaries between religion and state in the classroom. McVicar lays the Christian response to these defeats squarely at Rushdoony’s feet: “He challenges a lot of Christians to think in legal terms…. Here he is instrumental in setting up or creating a context in which some of the major Christian public defense advocacy firms begin to develop in the late 1970s.” Thus we get the Rutherford Institute and later Paula Jones’ legal case against President Clinton. It is a multi-faceted network that remains characterized by parachurch leadership, extra-church organizations, and a strong affinity toward the values that were identified with the Republican party by the early 1980s.

Today the influence of these ideas persists. In a recent U.S. election cycle, some argued that the legacy of Rushdoony lay in the way that Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry adopted dominionist models that were rooted in the theocratic legalism that reconstructionism brought to the Republican party. (See, for instance, Michelle Goldberg’s work at the Daily Beast, Julie Ingersoll  and Anthea Butler at Religion Dispatches, or Sarah Posner at Salon). So, the legacy of Rushdoony survives, albeit in heavily modified versions that combine a back-to-basic’s theocratic vision with Republican populist rhetoric. With such widespread roots, McVicar is surely making an important contribution by filling in an otherwise-absent backstory.

However, though McVicar’s stands alongside other recently published works on 20th century U.S. Christianity (see the brief appended bibliography), one thing that stands out regarding Rushdoony are the sacrifices that scholars seem to need to make in order to discuss controversial contemporary figures. McVicar identifies the challenges he had obtaining unfettered access to Rushdoony’s private materials at the Chalcedon Foundation. “Over time I gained a little bit of trust and support from them,” he says, “but they still were nervous that I might be coming in to do a smear job on Rushdoony and were really reluctant to let me see his personal correspondence and his diaries.” Only after McVicar submitted his work-in-progress and had published a relatively neutral piece on Rushdoony did Chalcedon grant him permission to access additional unpublished materials. While we don’t know the terms of McVicar’s use of Rushdoony’s private documents, given the inflammatory content of Rushdoony’s public works, we might reasonably expect they could paint him in decidedly negative strokes. So, what do we do when our access to documents is contingent on our neutrality? How much of what we can say about the rise of the Religious Right is similarly hindered by restrictions of speech or limited by access to sensitive personal documents?

I certainly will not fault McVicar for the way Christian Reconstruction turned out. A moderately even-tempered portrayal of Rushdoony in his historical context is no small feat. I would rather have an imperfect portrait to help bridge the gaps in the scholarship than be without one because I insisted on some kind of brutal exposé. And yet I would also expect the Chalcedon’s gate-keeping to inevitably color such a project. The question for the rest of us may be just how much we are willing to be a part of the historical revisionism that sterilizes controversial figures by limiting our ability to discuss their deplorable views on race, sex, colonialism, etc. When we know a figure has been controversial on such topics, are we not obliged to discuss them?

Since McVicar connects Rushdoony directly to the Quiverfull movement that has in recent weeks sent the Internet ablaze with commentary on the Josh Duggar scandal, these questions are also not merely hypothetical nor hyperbole. What should the role of scholars be in interpreting and evaluating these groups? Must we be methodological agnostic about their vices? If we abstain in order to present our subjects neutrally, then what other obligations fall on us. Must we wrestle with Rushdoony’s blatant racism and misogyny? Ignoring them hardly seems neutral, but how does one address them without bias? How can we do so without offending those that hold our primary source documents? As is the case with nearly every figure in the Religious Right, there is ample kindling for the flames. At what point will academic scholarship feel free to raise these issues? And what difference will they make for the study of the Religious Right?

In a recent ethics course I taught, I relied on Sarah McFarland Taylor’s Green Sisters to discuss the intersection of Catholic religious obligations and environmentalism. Taylor retells the story of Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan, who supposedly gave a commencement speech at a high school in New York whose only lines were “Know where you stand and stand there.” In the moments where the rubber meets the road, I wonder whether more of us as scholars are becoming unable to know where we stand, unable to stand where we feel we should, and even unable to feel like we can stand where we are. The climate of academic crisis in the United States makes scholarship itself feel at risk. Who among us in the future will still feel secure enough to wrestle with the obvious spectres that haunt our work, but which speaking about brings risks to us and to our continued access to sources?

Selected Recent Scholarship on the Rise of the Religious Right

Christian Reconstruction

Rousas John Rushdoony might be one of the most important Christian theologians you’ve never heard of. As the primary architect of a unique version of conservative protestantism referred to as Christian Reconstructionism, Rushdoony worked for several decades to implement Old Testament Biblical law in contemporary America. Though he never realized his vision, and though his movement largely died with him, Rushdoony remains an important figure because his comparably extreme vision for Christian America challenged contemporary conservatives on a number of religious and theological issues and helped pull them farther to the political right

In this interview, Professor Michael McVicar discusses Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction. McVicar gained unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s personal files, archives, and correspondence, which provided invaluable data for McVicar’s book on Rushdoony.

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Demons, Exoticism, and the Academy

Something that strikes me about contemporary spiritual warfare is how it’s not so radically different thematically in its interests and its languages than a lot of contemporary American religion. So the argument that ‘this is something out in left field’ really isn’t true, I don’t think. -Sean McCloud

 Dave McConeghy’s interview with Sean McCloud offers so many potential avenues of discussion that it is difficult to pick only one; spiritual warfare is, after all, one of the most-discussed theological issues in contemporary Evangelicalism/Charismaticism today, yet one of the least-discussed points in the Academy: a point which leads McCloud to quip that “most scholars of American religion are completely blind to [spiritual warfare],” and that the study of it still engenders reactions of “Ugh. Why would we study those silly people?”

Often, discussions of American religion seem to start with Cotton Mather and end with Billy Graham, and, in my experience, spiritual warfare is indeed often seen as something that is “out in left field,” a “fringe” practice, or “weird” religion. (For those unfamiliar with the term, “spiritual warfare” refers both to the battle waged between God and demons, as well as the battle waged between Christians and demons.) Many (if not most) of the major texts in the academic canon of American religious history—even those books focused exclusively on church history—omit the practice altogether.  So McCloud is right: while a supernaturalistic demonology may seem exotic to those who have not often encountered it, there is a large swath of Christians who consider spiritual warfare to be both frequent and mainstream.

 Pervasiveness in Evangelical Circles

If there is any useful statistical data on the demonological practices of present-day Evangelicals, I am unaware of it.[1] However, if we look to some of the largest and most influential churches, pastors, or texts in the American landscape, spiritual warfare seems to have a kind of omnipresence. Take Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, for instance, which has eleven branches in the Seattle area alone, in addition to being the “flagship” of the Acts 29 Network, an umbrella group for more than 500 likeminded ministries.[2]  Driscoll asserts that “demons are real and they attack God’s people,” and has developed a rigorously organized theology that seems to have gained a lot of traction, particularly among those who believe in demons yet shun what they see as a kind of looser, laissez-faire mentality amongst their more Charismatic counterparts. It’s worth noting that Driscoll’s demonology has even made its way outside of Christian circles, in the form of a Nightline debate with Deepak Chopra and “heretic” Carlton Pearson.

Similarly, Bethel Church is among the most influential Charismatic groups today, if not the most influential. Spiritual warfare is far from a “fringe” practice for them, nor for Charismatics in general. The many books that Bethel pastors have published are full of the “prayer walks” and “generational inheritances” that McCloud mentioned.  Beni Johnson, for instance, details how she led a prayer walk and ritual cleansing of “Panther’s Meadow,” a space on Mt. Shasta that she claims is used for “ungodly practices,” by which she means New Age and occult spirituality.[3] According to her story, the Pagans practicing there go feral as a result of her prayers, hissing and fleeing the scene. And then there’s Kris Vallotton’s Spirit Wars, in which demonic, generational inheritances are a central feature of the text. At one point, Vallotton claims that when his mother was a young woman, a fortune teller had read tarot cards for her. This reading had caused a curse, which released demons to kill his father, haunt his mother, and which were now haunting he himself in the present day.[4] While these specific cases are on the more extreme end, the point here is that for Bethel and likeminded Charismatics (of which there are many), demons are a very real threat that must be dealt with.

There are, of course, countless other figures we could examine to demonstrate salience: John Hagee, T. D. Jakes, Rick Joyner, Joyce Meyer, to name only a few of the prevailing voices today. And McCloud and McConaghey are right to identify that this isn’t something brand new, but something that has been developing for quite some time. Tanya Luhrmann’s recent book on Evangelical experientiality which depicts an increase in spiritual warfare amidst the spiritual innovation of the 1970s and Cuneo’s argument that The Exorcist birthed the rise of deliverance movements in the years following the film are both legitimately observing real social trends, yet what we think of spiritual warfare today has been a part of the American landscape for much longer than this; whatever spike in spiritual warfare occurred in this period, it was working with material that was already present in the mix.[5]

This, of course, only addresses the contemporary forms, for if one looks deeper into church history, its absence is the exception rather than the rule. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony, for instance, is almost entirely about spiritual warfare, from the ritual cleansing of Pagan temples to demonic manifestations of corporeal abuse.[6] Nancy Caciola has given a wonderfully insightful account of demon possessions (and treatments) that antedate the medieval witch scares.[7] Heiko Obermann’s biography of Martin Luther depicts him as constantly at war with the devil, not just in mind, but physically as well: Satan troubled his bowels and thumped his stove.[8] John Wesley, Thomas More, St. John of the Cross, even the Gnostics had their demons in one form or another. Spiritual warfare doesn’t look the same in every case (and often quite different from how contemporary Evangelicals practice it), but the point here is that demons and spiritual warfare aren’t something that snake handlers invented just yesterday, it is a major thread woven through the entire history of Christianity, and one that continues to be woven through it today.

 Comparable Trends

McCloud’s most important point is that spiritual warfare isn’t some outlying fringe practice, but one that completely dovetails a wider world of supernaturalism in contemporary America. Part of the problem of the Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model of American religious history is that it tends to emphasize the Scottish Common Sense Realist, rationalist, denominational, naturalist, cessationist leitmotif of Calvinist Protestantism. As he pointed out, there is something to be said for contemporary media presenting demonology as something strange and outdated, and of course, these media are part of the issue here: as he argued elsewhere, the mainstream/fringe dichotomy has largely been constructed by those authoring the media, who themselves privileged a white, middle class Protestantism.[9]

In recent years, this Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model has gradually been getting more complicated, as some scholars have started drawing attention to the supernaturalist counternarrative that has always existed alongside rationalism, but in terms of popular perception—including that among many academics—there still seems to be a sense that American religion shuns these hierophantic irruptions. Though we have largely abandoned the idea that “religion” means five world faiths that can be broken into neat little denominations, we often tend to still organize our research (and faculty posts) along such lines. Embedded in that inherited arrangement is decades of scholarship that has omitted the supernatural for ideological reasons: first, in seeing all religions through the lens of Victorian Protestantism, the supernatural has traditionally been deemphasized in favor of texts, beliefs, and rituals, and then second, why dwell on demons, ghosts, or channeled spirits when the juggernaut of secularization is going to eradicate them anyway? The religion of the future was to be logical, heady, and amenable to scientific narratives—the collected repertoires of our fields were forged in this mindset, and though secularization may have fallen by the wayside, it seems like topical reorientation has been slower to acclimate.

Closing

Spiritual warfare is ubiquitous, both in the contemporary American Evangelical milieu, but also in the broad and far-reaching history of religion. It is worth examination, for numerous reasons—phenomenologically, it’s a central part of the experience for many, both as individuals and as groups. Ideologically, it can enshrine social opposition as demonic. Ritually, it can be a means of demarcating space. Sociologically, it can establish the boundaries of group membership.[10] Psychologically, it can be a means of interpreting and moving past one’s own moral failings. Theologically, it is central to theodicies. No matter how you cut it, spiritual warfare is important and needs to be addressed as such.

 Bibliography

Bramadat, Paul. The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Brown, Candy Gunther. Testing Prayer: Science and Healing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Cuneo, Michael W. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

McCloud, Sean. Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Obermann, Heiko. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

 

 


[1] There is a Pew survey from 2008 which registered 68% of Americans as believing “that angels and demons are active in the world today,” but this says nothing about whether they actually believe those demons ought to be confronted, let alone how they should be confronted. I am unaware of any surveys that pry deeper than this one. http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf

[2] Such “networks” are arguably replacing the model of Protestant denominationalism, allowing for individual churches to maintain ideological autonomy while still remaining linked to other churches with similar viewpoints. See Candy Gunther Brown’s Testing Prayer for a more thorough explanation. Candy Gunther Brown, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 21-63.

[3] Beni Johnson, The Happy Intercessor, (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc, 2009), 95.

[4] Kris Vallotton, Spirit Wars: Winning the Invisible Battle Against Sin and the Enemy, (Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 2012), 160-161.

[5] Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 26, 30-32; Michael W. Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, (New York: Doubleday, 2002).

[6] Athansius, The Life of St. Anthony and Letter to Marcillinus, ed. Robert C. Gregg, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.)

[7] Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[8] Heiko Obermann, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 104-109.

[9] Sean McCloud, Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 4-11.

[10] It’s noteworthy that in Paul Bramadat’s ethnography of a Canadian Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter, this was one of the more explicit ways he interpreted their spiritual warfare as functioning. “The sense of living among, if not being besieged by, often demonically cozened infidels contributes to what Martin Marty has described as a form of “tribalism” which unites the group…in short, because spiritual warfare discourse is based on a sharp dualism between the saved and the unsaved, it helps believers to retrench their sense of superiority (since that is what it amounts to) and to accentuate the fundamental otherness of non-Christians.” Paul Bramadat, The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000), 115.

Podcasts

Descriptions of Religion as Explanations of Religion

In this week’s podcast, Kathryn Lofton and John Modern join Adam Miller for a conversation that hovers around the relationship between description and explanation in the study of religion, and the notion that the way scholars of religion think about their categories of analysis shapes what they say about a given set of data and how they say it. Given the entanglement of description and explanation, Lofton and Modern stress the responsibility scholars of religion have to know their material deeply, to be aware of the history of their field and categories of analysis, and to speak to issues/questions beyond their areas of speciality.

Kathryn Lofton is the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Yale University. She is the author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, the soon-to-be-published Consuming Religion, and is currently working on the religious contexts of Bob Dylan. John Modern is the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Franklin & Marshall College. He is the author of Secularism in Antebellum America and is currently pursuing two book projects—one on machines and cognitive science, and another on Devo and rubber. In addition to their solo-enterprises, they have worked together on a couple of things—Frequencies, a collaborative genealogy of spirituality, for example, and most recently a book series to be published by the University of Chicago Press titled Class 200.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, camping gear, masquerade masks, and more.

 

Can Religion Explain the KKK?

Describing the story of the Ku Klux Klan as “lovely”, as Kelly Baker does in her interview with David Lewis, is initially perplexing.  Fortunately, Baker goes on to clarify what she intends, noting that the Klan’s history of racism and violence in no way qualifies as “nice.”  Her description of the Klan’s “story” as “lovely,” according to Baker, does not refer to the Klan’s violent history, but to a vast print culture that enables methodological access to the ways Klan members constructed their “ideologies” and “worldviews” in the years spanning from 1915 to 1930. Citing her own motivation for studying the group, she tells Lewis that “lots of people say things about white supremacists, but understanding their motivations and why they’re drawn to these ideologies was not so much the context [or goal].”

In her book, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (2011),  Baker uses the “second Klan’s” newspapers and magazines as “an invaluable entrée into the Klan’s worldview…”[1]  Importantly, her endeavor to understand the Klan’s “worldview” and “ideology” aims to problematize scholarly and media representations of the group as primarily uneducated, rural, male, and southern.  Despite the persistence of these representations, Baker shows that Klan membership consisted of southerners and northerners, men and women, the uneducated as well as “bankers, lawyers, dentists, doctors, ministers businessmen, and teachers.”  Rather than a “fringe” movement, then, Baker points to the widespread appeal of the racist and gendered agenda of the Klan leading up to the 1930s.

While much of the interview involves a discussion of the representations of the Klan in popular media, Baker’s book emphasizes scholarly representations of the group.  In her work, she makes an intriguing and important argument regarding specifically the omission of the Klan’s “religion” from scholarly analyses.  Scholars have, according to Baker, focused on economic, social, and political factors in explanations of the Klan, diagnosing it primarily as a movement motivated by “populist” anxieties and fears in a changing national environment.  Against the trend of dismissing the Klan’s “religion” as “false”, “inauthentic”, and thus analytically irrelevant, Baker finds it a necessary component in understanding how the group organized and mobilized a particular self-identity and national vision in the early twentieth century.

Baker emphasizes that a failure to take seriously the religious motivations and worldview of the Klan not only limits our understanding of the group.  More than that, the designation of their “religion” as false serves to conceal the uglier aspects of Protestant hostility and power in U.S. history.  Put simply, “true” Protestantism is preserved through the delineation of “false” appropriations of it by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.   Arguing that the Klan’s anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic national vision possessed wide, non-fringe, appeal from 1915-1930, she asks, “How might narratives of American religious history be told if the Klan was integrated rather than segregated? If a white supremacist movement proves pivotal rather than fringe, then what might happen to our narratives of nation?”[2]  She suggests that a religious studies approach helps to make sense of Klan “religiosity”, as well as scholarly de-legitimizations of it.

Baker’s focus on the mechanisms through which scholarly representations participate in desired definitions and tellings of “religion” in “American” “history” is important work.   Indeed, the project that Baker mentions of separating “true religion” from “false religion” has a heavy presence in U.S. history and historiography.[3]  Yet, while Baker’s interventions regarding the need to take seriously the “religion” of the Klan is noted, I question whether she does not herself reinforce problematic epistemological and methodological assumptions about “religion.”  More precisely, does her search for the “worldview” and “ideology” of the Klan through its newspapers — absent a rigorous situating of these texts and their readers in particular economic, political, and geographic contexts — reproduce reductive and essentializing definitions of “religious” causation?

The project of distinguishing “true” from “false” religion, referenced by Baker, has most often referred to the normative and racist assumptions of such projects.[4]  Scholars have traced how religious theorization, definition, and comparison of “true” and “false” religion emerged in the context of colonial encounter and economic domination.   More precisely, these scholars have argued that theories of religion have been and continue to be connected to racist anthropological assumptions that deem racialized “others” incapable of rational “belief”[5] — whether in the writings of E.B. Tylor or in, arguably, the persistence of definitions of Protestant religiosity as more “liberal” and “democratic” than, say, Islam.

Baker’s invocation of the project of religious definition is quite different.  She does not point to how constructions of “true religion” are linked to racist anthropologies.  Rather, the argumentative implication of her work is that the scholarly denial of the Protestant “religion” of the Ku Klux Klan — a white supremacist group with its own racist anthropological theories — actually helps contemporary Protestants to conceal and forget the prevalence of Protestant racism in U.S. history.   It appears that her book, then, is in some way aimed at — even though she does not state this — helping readers recognize the prevalence of racist “worldviews” and “ideologies” through the un-fringing of the Klan’s Protestant religiosity.

The connections between religious theorization and imperial racism, however, might lead us to bigger questions regarding the extent of the relationship between Protestant religion, its definitional assumptions, and racism.  I say all of this not to dismiss Baker’s argument that we need to take seriously how the racist ideologies and worldviews of the Ku Klux Klan extend beyond those wearing white hoods and carrying torches.  We should take seriously, indeed, her argument that the dismissal of the Klan’s “religion” as false and inauthentic plays into the desire to occlude the ugly moments of Protestant and American racism.  Yet, she attaches this ugly history to a particular and identifiable ideological formulation, a particular worldview — whether found in the Klan of the early twentieth century or in the contemporary Islamophobia of the Tea Party.

Considering the long relationship between religious definition and racist anthropologies, we see that Protestant racism not only exists in the form of conservative “ideologies” and “worldviews.”  More importantly, and perhaps dangerously, it pervades the most well-intentioned and “enlightened” disciplinary practices.  Instead of locating white supremacy only in the persistence of the Klan’s “brand” today[6], it might be more productive for scholars of race and religion to consider the challenge posed by Black Lives Matter and other groups.  For, as they are showing in their confrontation of police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and the capitalist exploitation of black and brown bodies, U.S. racism runs deeper than a “worldview” that we can easily recognize and help others to see.  These challenges demand a self-reflexivity that goes beyond identifying racism in a worldview we do not possess.  More significantly, they call us to examine how our own institutional, disciplinary, and economic practices help to perpetuate a racist system.

[1] Kelly Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKKs Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (U Kansas Press, 2011), p. 22.

[2] Ibid, 19.

[3] Baker, The Gospel of the Klan, p. 17.

[4] For a helpful overview of this issue in regards to the disciplinary subfield of American Religious History, see Finnbarr Curtis’s essay “The Study of American religions: critical reflections on a specialization” in Religon, no. 42, issue 3, 355-372 (June 21, 2012).  Found here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0048721X.2012.681875#.VuNZYJMrL-YFor another helpful work on the assumptions of religious comparison and the construction of the category “world religion”, see Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Inventions of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (U Chicago Press, 2005).

[5] To hear more about the distinction between race and ethnicity, as well as the co-construction of religion and race as social categories, it will be helpful to listen to Rudy Busto’s podcast interview on The Religious Studies Project titled “Race and Religion: Intertwined Social Constructions,” found here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/race-and-religion-intertwined-social-constructions/.  Also, see his book King Tiger:  The Religious Vision of Reies López Tijerina (U New Mexico Press, 2006)

[6] Baker, The Gospel of the Klan, 249.

Rebecca Rushdoony Once Condemned a Cat as a Heretic

Rebecca Rushdoony once condemned a cat as a heretic.

The eldest child of R.J. Rushdoony, an American theologian dedicated to helping Christians learn to build God’s kingdom on earth, Rebecca was mad the stray cat wouldn’t stay put. So she pronounced the cat damned, much to her father’s amusement.

This is one of only a few family anecdotes in Michael J. McVicar’s book, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, the first in-depth history of Rushdoony and the religious movement he started. This might not seem remarkable. McVicar’s highly anticipated work is an intellectual history. It examines Rushdoony’s theology and the influence that theology has had on Christian conservatives. The focus is not on the small, intimate moments of family life.

It is worth remarking on, though, because Rushdoony was deeply invested in the idea of the importance of the family. His life’s work was aimed at changing the world. He thought that change would happen through Christian families.

As McVicar explains in his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Rushdoony’s plan for transforming the world started with biblically “reconstructed” fathers.

“They are going to take control of their families,” McVicar says, “by applying the strictures of biblical law onto first themselves, the male agent, then onto their wives, then onto their children. Rushdoony’s idea was that over time, this would create interlocking networks of godly families that would eventually swell to fill the earth and create the kingdom of God on earth.”

If Rushdoony tried to live out that vision in his own life, with his own family, it is not examined in McVicar’s book.

Christian Reconstruction is not the study of a culture-changing patriarch. It isn’t a book about a father reconstructing himself and his family according to theonomy, God’s law. Rushdoony’s familial relationships and roles are noted only briefly here, evidence of the complexity of his personal character, before receding completely from the narrative.

In this way, McVicar’s historical work on Rushdoony dissents from Rushdoony’s idea of historical change. Christian Reconstruction, the book, starts from and demonstrates a theory of history different than that of Christian Reconstructionism, the movement. McVicar focuses on social networks and institutions as the primary agents of historical change. He does this with great acuity. He is persuasive, not just explaining Rushdoony’s theological work but also in implicitly arguing he can explain this history without attending to Rushdoony’s life and times as a patriarch.

There are compelling reasons to attend to this disjunction. McVicar manages to engage the reader with the ideas that Rushdoony considered crucial even before explicating them. He gives readers an opportunity to examine the generally unreflected-upon assumptions at work in every historical narrative, whether it be recent American religious history or an answer the question, “How was your day?” He gives readers, further, ground to critically examine some of Rushdoony’s basic ideas about the historical change he was attempting to effect.

McVicar also calls attention to this disjunction—which is not to say contradiction—in Rushdoony’s own thought and practice. With unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s correspondence, journals, and unpublished papers, McVicar is able to document Rushdoony’s daily intellectual life, looking not just at what he thought but also how.

What these sources show, McVicar writes, is “a singularly focused, almost mechanical man driven by an all-consuming ambition to build ‘a world-wide ministry through writing.’” Even in his most personal diaries, Rushdoony isn’t particularly interested in applying biblical law to his family. Rather, “Rushdoony’s diaries disproportionately recount his confrontations with theological critics, intellectual ne’er-do-wells at academic conferences, battles with Presbyterian officials, or run-ins with ignorant lay-people,” McVicar writes. “The result is a written record that displays a man more likely to note anger over personal slights and the perceived intellectual vapidity of his enemies than he was to document the happier moments of his life” (11).

Rushdoony, as he emerges in McVicar’s narrative, does not seem inspired by his own vision of biblical families. He seems more compelled by some of the conspiracy-minded thinking that permeated right-wing thought in the mid 20th century.

He was very interested, for example, in a 19th century British group named the Fabian Society. One of the fascinating details McVicar turns up in his archival research is multiple versions of an unpublished essay on the Fabian Society, showing that Rushdoony believed their gradualist and reformist approach to advancing socialism had been profoundly influential. In a memo circulated among conservative think tanks, Rushdoony used the Fabians as a model for what conservatives should be doing. Even as he believed that the kingdom of God would come through reconstructed families, Rushdoony wrote that think tanks could dramatically change the course of history if only it could really coherently unify right-thought with right-practice.

“History,” McVicar quotes Rushdoony, “has never been commanded by majorities but only by dedicated minorities, and the need today is a strategy for the development of that minority into an instrument of thought and action power” (64).

Rushdoony spent large amounts of energy criticizing people who agreed with him on particular issues for their failure to sufficiently unify their thought and action. He thought most Christians and conservatives had under-theorized their activities. At the same time, he struggled to find effective ways to put his theory into practice.

Sometimes, his practice seemed entirely disconnected from his theory.

McVicar looks at Rushdoony’s failed attempts to work inside academia. He looks at Rushdoony’s failed efforts to work with modernist and fundamentalist Presbyterian denominations and then his ill-fated struggle to gain influence over the flagship journal of American evangelicalism, Christianity Today. McVicar follows Rushdoony’s varying success working with right-wing political organizations. He looks at how Rushdoony tried to found a Christian Reconstructionist college, but only managed to build a one-man research organization. He looks, further, at Rushdoony’s conflicted relationships with a younger generation of Christian intellectuals he mentored, notably Greg Bahnsen, John Whitehead, and Gary North.

Even as Rushdoony wrote that the kingdom of God would come through reconstructed families, he was actively engaged in a lot of different ways of trying to influence society.

And some of them were successful.

“Christian Reconstruction, in some important ways, but limited ways, contributed to what Americans would now think of the Christian Right or the New Christian right,” McVicar tells RSP. “I … got to see exactly how much of an influence he had on the rise of things like the religious right, the moral majority, the Rutherford Institute, a handful of really important think tanks, legal advocacy firms, and public defense legal firms that developed in the 1980s. I got to see his influence here, and it did reveal a network of relationships that simply had not been covered in this history before.”

One of the most significant ways Rushdoony had an influence, McVicar shows, was by having his ideas appropriated. Sometimes his thought was adopted quite faithfully, as in some the more conservative streams of the homeschool movement. Other times, the ideas were adapted freely, as was the case with televangelist Pat Robertson, for example, and Tim LaHaye’s somewhat secretive religious-right group, the Council for National Policy. “From Rushdoony’s perspective,” McVicar writes, “CNP participants simultaneously stole his ideas and denied their fundamental truth” (210).

In this way, the story about Rebecca Rushdoony and the cat turns out to be somewhat important. As the theologian was theorizing how Christian patriarchy would bring about the kingdom of God, his daughter was demonstrating the kind of influence he would actually have. She took Rushdoony’s words and repurposed them…

In that case, to condemn a cat as a heretic.

References

McVicar, Michael J. Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2015.

The Risks of Reconstruction

This week’s interview with Florida State University Assistant Professor Michael McVicar highlights two important, but competing elements of recent work on Christian conservatism in the 20th century United States. On the one hand, McVicar’s scholarship fills an important gap in the existing literature on conservative Christian figures. Despite significant advances in the last decade of scholarship, the networks of influence that lay behind the rise of the Religious Right are not fully established. McVicar does the vital work of connecting theological figures like R. J. Rushdoony to the movement’s figureheads like Pat Robertson. Generally, this kind of scholarship lags behind biographical or cultural approaches documenting the broader shifts in the American context. This delay is caused by something that is easier to identify than the diverse elements of the rise of the Religious Right–the problem of primary scholarship on recent conservative figures. The challenges McVicar experienced and the concessions he made to complete his work on Rushdoony appear natural, but they are also highly reflective of the challenges facing further inquiry in this area. If there is a wealth of scholarship today on the Religious Right, it is also the case that much of it treats its subjects altogether too forgivingly. Thus, the work of reconciling the movement’s rise with elements of its racist and sexist past seems to be forever left to other works and other scholars.

First, let me commend McVicar for giving an excellent overview of the rise of reconstructionism as an outgrowth of the fundamentalist/modernist split of the post WWI era. As we will all soon be able to read in his work Christian Reconstruction (UNC-CH, 2015), McVicar shows how theologian R. J. Rushdoony helped establish critical elements of the theology that Billy Graham, Frank Schaeffer, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others used to promote turning away from secular values toward Christian ones. Unlike their liberal and moderate counterparts who saw cultural compromise as inevitable, conservative American Christians redoubled their efforts to be as Jesus described in John 17:16 and avoid being “of the world.”

Reconstructionism was a religious revolution that sought to overturn secular governance in favor of (selected features of) Biblical law. The Christian homeschool movement, for instance, coalesced as a response to the secularization of the public school system, particularly in the wake of court decisions in the 1940s-1960s that reshaped the boundaries between religion and state in the classroom. McVicar lays the Christian response to these defeats squarely at Rushdoony’s feet: “He challenges a lot of Christians to think in legal terms…. Here he is instrumental in setting up or creating a context in which some of the major Christian public defense advocacy firms begin to develop in the late 1970s.” Thus we get the Rutherford Institute and later Paula Jones’ legal case against President Clinton. It is a multi-faceted network that remains characterized by parachurch leadership, extra-church organizations, and a strong affinity toward the values that were identified with the Republican party by the early 1980s.

Today the influence of these ideas persists. In a recent U.S. election cycle, some argued that the legacy of Rushdoony lay in the way that Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry adopted dominionist models that were rooted in the theocratic legalism that reconstructionism brought to the Republican party. (See, for instance, Michelle Goldberg’s work at the Daily Beast, Julie Ingersoll  and Anthea Butler at Religion Dispatches, or Sarah Posner at Salon). So, the legacy of Rushdoony survives, albeit in heavily modified versions that combine a back-to-basic’s theocratic vision with Republican populist rhetoric. With such widespread roots, McVicar is surely making an important contribution by filling in an otherwise-absent backstory.

However, though McVicar’s stands alongside other recently published works on 20th century U.S. Christianity (see the brief appended bibliography), one thing that stands out regarding Rushdoony are the sacrifices that scholars seem to need to make in order to discuss controversial contemporary figures. McVicar identifies the challenges he had obtaining unfettered access to Rushdoony’s private materials at the Chalcedon Foundation. “Over time I gained a little bit of trust and support from them,” he says, “but they still were nervous that I might be coming in to do a smear job on Rushdoony and were really reluctant to let me see his personal correspondence and his diaries.” Only after McVicar submitted his work-in-progress and had published a relatively neutral piece on Rushdoony did Chalcedon grant him permission to access additional unpublished materials. While we don’t know the terms of McVicar’s use of Rushdoony’s private documents, given the inflammatory content of Rushdoony’s public works, we might reasonably expect they could paint him in decidedly negative strokes. So, what do we do when our access to documents is contingent on our neutrality? How much of what we can say about the rise of the Religious Right is similarly hindered by restrictions of speech or limited by access to sensitive personal documents?

I certainly will not fault McVicar for the way Christian Reconstruction turned out. A moderately even-tempered portrayal of Rushdoony in his historical context is no small feat. I would rather have an imperfect portrait to help bridge the gaps in the scholarship than be without one because I insisted on some kind of brutal exposé. And yet I would also expect the Chalcedon’s gate-keeping to inevitably color such a project. The question for the rest of us may be just how much we are willing to be a part of the historical revisionism that sterilizes controversial figures by limiting our ability to discuss their deplorable views on race, sex, colonialism, etc. When we know a figure has been controversial on such topics, are we not obliged to discuss them?

Since McVicar connects Rushdoony directly to the Quiverfull movement that has in recent weeks sent the Internet ablaze with commentary on the Josh Duggar scandal, these questions are also not merely hypothetical nor hyperbole. What should the role of scholars be in interpreting and evaluating these groups? Must we be methodological agnostic about their vices? If we abstain in order to present our subjects neutrally, then what other obligations fall on us. Must we wrestle with Rushdoony’s blatant racism and misogyny? Ignoring them hardly seems neutral, but how does one address them without bias? How can we do so without offending those that hold our primary source documents? As is the case with nearly every figure in the Religious Right, there is ample kindling for the flames. At what point will academic scholarship feel free to raise these issues? And what difference will they make for the study of the Religious Right?

In a recent ethics course I taught, I relied on Sarah McFarland Taylor’s Green Sisters to discuss the intersection of Catholic religious obligations and environmentalism. Taylor retells the story of Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan, who supposedly gave a commencement speech at a high school in New York whose only lines were “Know where you stand and stand there.” In the moments where the rubber meets the road, I wonder whether more of us as scholars are becoming unable to know where we stand, unable to stand where we feel we should, and even unable to feel like we can stand where we are. The climate of academic crisis in the United States makes scholarship itself feel at risk. Who among us in the future will still feel secure enough to wrestle with the obvious spectres that haunt our work, but which speaking about brings risks to us and to our continued access to sources?

Selected Recent Scholarship on the Rise of the Religious Right

Christian Reconstruction

Rousas John Rushdoony might be one of the most important Christian theologians you’ve never heard of. As the primary architect of a unique version of conservative protestantism referred to as Christian Reconstructionism, Rushdoony worked for several decades to implement Old Testament Biblical law in contemporary America. Though he never realized his vision, and though his movement largely died with him, Rushdoony remains an important figure because his comparably extreme vision for Christian America challenged contemporary conservatives on a number of religious and theological issues and helped pull them farther to the political right

In this interview, Professor Michael McVicar discusses Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction. McVicar gained unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s personal files, archives, and correspondence, which provided invaluable data for McVicar’s book on Rushdoony.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, hamster cages, vintage VHS tapes, and more.

Demons, Exoticism, and the Academy

Something that strikes me about contemporary spiritual warfare is how it’s not so radically different thematically in its interests and its languages than a lot of contemporary American religion. So the argument that ‘this is something out in left field’ really isn’t true, I don’t think. -Sean McCloud

 Dave McConeghy’s interview with Sean McCloud offers so many potential avenues of discussion that it is difficult to pick only one; spiritual warfare is, after all, one of the most-discussed theological issues in contemporary Evangelicalism/Charismaticism today, yet one of the least-discussed points in the Academy: a point which leads McCloud to quip that “most scholars of American religion are completely blind to [spiritual warfare],” and that the study of it still engenders reactions of “Ugh. Why would we study those silly people?”

Often, discussions of American religion seem to start with Cotton Mather and end with Billy Graham, and, in my experience, spiritual warfare is indeed often seen as something that is “out in left field,” a “fringe” practice, or “weird” religion. (For those unfamiliar with the term, “spiritual warfare” refers both to the battle waged between God and demons, as well as the battle waged between Christians and demons.) Many (if not most) of the major texts in the academic canon of American religious history—even those books focused exclusively on church history—omit the practice altogether.  So McCloud is right: while a supernaturalistic demonology may seem exotic to those who have not often encountered it, there is a large swath of Christians who consider spiritual warfare to be both frequent and mainstream.

 Pervasiveness in Evangelical Circles

If there is any useful statistical data on the demonological practices of present-day Evangelicals, I am unaware of it.[1] However, if we look to some of the largest and most influential churches, pastors, or texts in the American landscape, spiritual warfare seems to have a kind of omnipresence. Take Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, for instance, which has eleven branches in the Seattle area alone, in addition to being the “flagship” of the Acts 29 Network, an umbrella group for more than 500 likeminded ministries.[2]  Driscoll asserts that “demons are real and they attack God’s people,” and has developed a rigorously organized theology that seems to have gained a lot of traction, particularly among those who believe in demons yet shun what they see as a kind of looser, laissez-faire mentality amongst their more Charismatic counterparts. It’s worth noting that Driscoll’s demonology has even made its way outside of Christian circles, in the form of a Nightline debate with Deepak Chopra and “heretic” Carlton Pearson.

Similarly, Bethel Church is among the most influential Charismatic groups today, if not the most influential. Spiritual warfare is far from a “fringe” practice for them, nor for Charismatics in general. The many books that Bethel pastors have published are full of the “prayer walks” and “generational inheritances” that McCloud mentioned.  Beni Johnson, for instance, details how she led a prayer walk and ritual cleansing of “Panther’s Meadow,” a space on Mt. Shasta that she claims is used for “ungodly practices,” by which she means New Age and occult spirituality.[3] According to her story, the Pagans practicing there go feral as a result of her prayers, hissing and fleeing the scene. And then there’s Kris Vallotton’s Spirit Wars, in which demonic, generational inheritances are a central feature of the text. At one point, Vallotton claims that when his mother was a young woman, a fortune teller had read tarot cards for her. This reading had caused a curse, which released demons to kill his father, haunt his mother, and which were now haunting he himself in the present day.[4] While these specific cases are on the more extreme end, the point here is that for Bethel and likeminded Charismatics (of which there are many), demons are a very real threat that must be dealt with.

There are, of course, countless other figures we could examine to demonstrate salience: John Hagee, T. D. Jakes, Rick Joyner, Joyce Meyer, to name only a few of the prevailing voices today. And McCloud and McConaghey are right to identify that this isn’t something brand new, but something that has been developing for quite some time. Tanya Luhrmann’s recent book on Evangelical experientiality which depicts an increase in spiritual warfare amidst the spiritual innovation of the 1970s and Cuneo’s argument that The Exorcist birthed the rise of deliverance movements in the years following the film are both legitimately observing real social trends, yet what we think of spiritual warfare today has been a part of the American landscape for much longer than this; whatever spike in spiritual warfare occurred in this period, it was working with material that was already present in the mix.[5]

This, of course, only addresses the contemporary forms, for if one looks deeper into church history, its absence is the exception rather than the rule. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony, for instance, is almost entirely about spiritual warfare, from the ritual cleansing of Pagan temples to demonic manifestations of corporeal abuse.[6] Nancy Caciola has given a wonderfully insightful account of demon possessions (and treatments) that antedate the medieval witch scares.[7] Heiko Obermann’s biography of Martin Luther depicts him as constantly at war with the devil, not just in mind, but physically as well: Satan troubled his bowels and thumped his stove.[8] John Wesley, Thomas More, St. John of the Cross, even the Gnostics had their demons in one form or another. Spiritual warfare doesn’t look the same in every case (and often quite different from how contemporary Evangelicals practice it), but the point here is that demons and spiritual warfare aren’t something that snake handlers invented just yesterday, it is a major thread woven through the entire history of Christianity, and one that continues to be woven through it today.

 Comparable Trends

McCloud’s most important point is that spiritual warfare isn’t some outlying fringe practice, but one that completely dovetails a wider world of supernaturalism in contemporary America. Part of the problem of the Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model of American religious history is that it tends to emphasize the Scottish Common Sense Realist, rationalist, denominational, naturalist, cessationist leitmotif of Calvinist Protestantism. As he pointed out, there is something to be said for contemporary media presenting demonology as something strange and outdated, and of course, these media are part of the issue here: as he argued elsewhere, the mainstream/fringe dichotomy has largely been constructed by those authoring the media, who themselves privileged a white, middle class Protestantism.[9]

In recent years, this Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model has gradually been getting more complicated, as some scholars have started drawing attention to the supernaturalist counternarrative that has always existed alongside rationalism, but in terms of popular perception—including that among many academics—there still seems to be a sense that American religion shuns these hierophantic irruptions. Though we have largely abandoned the idea that “religion” means five world faiths that can be broken into neat little denominations, we often tend to still organize our research (and faculty posts) along such lines. Embedded in that inherited arrangement is decades of scholarship that has omitted the supernatural for ideological reasons: first, in seeing all religions through the lens of Victorian Protestantism, the supernatural has traditionally been deemphasized in favor of texts, beliefs, and rituals, and then second, why dwell on demons, ghosts, or channeled spirits when the juggernaut of secularization is going to eradicate them anyway? The religion of the future was to be logical, heady, and amenable to scientific narratives—the collected repertoires of our fields were forged in this mindset, and though secularization may have fallen by the wayside, it seems like topical reorientation has been slower to acclimate.

Closing

Spiritual warfare is ubiquitous, both in the contemporary American Evangelical milieu, but also in the broad and far-reaching history of religion. It is worth examination, for numerous reasons—phenomenologically, it’s a central part of the experience for many, both as individuals and as groups. Ideologically, it can enshrine social opposition as demonic. Ritually, it can be a means of demarcating space. Sociologically, it can establish the boundaries of group membership.[10] Psychologically, it can be a means of interpreting and moving past one’s own moral failings. Theologically, it is central to theodicies. No matter how you cut it, spiritual warfare is important and needs to be addressed as such.

 Bibliography

Bramadat, Paul. The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Brown, Candy Gunther. Testing Prayer: Science and Healing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Cuneo, Michael W. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

McCloud, Sean. Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Obermann, Heiko. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

 

 


[1] There is a Pew survey from 2008 which registered 68% of Americans as believing “that angels and demons are active in the world today,” but this says nothing about whether they actually believe those demons ought to be confronted, let alone how they should be confronted. I am unaware of any surveys that pry deeper than this one. http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf

[2] Such “networks” are arguably replacing the model of Protestant denominationalism, allowing for individual churches to maintain ideological autonomy while still remaining linked to other churches with similar viewpoints. See Candy Gunther Brown’s Testing Prayer for a more thorough explanation. Candy Gunther Brown, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 21-63.

[3] Beni Johnson, The Happy Intercessor, (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc, 2009), 95.

[4] Kris Vallotton, Spirit Wars: Winning the Invisible Battle Against Sin and the Enemy, (Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 2012), 160-161.

[5] Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 26, 30-32; Michael W. Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, (New York: Doubleday, 2002).

[6] Athansius, The Life of St. Anthony and Letter to Marcillinus, ed. Robert C. Gregg, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.)

[7] Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[8] Heiko Obermann, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 104-109.

[9] Sean McCloud, Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 4-11.

[10] It’s noteworthy that in Paul Bramadat’s ethnography of a Canadian Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter, this was one of the more explicit ways he interpreted their spiritual warfare as functioning. “The sense of living among, if not being besieged by, often demonically cozened infidels contributes to what Martin Marty has described as a form of “tribalism” which unites the group…in short, because spiritual warfare discourse is based on a sharp dualism between the saved and the unsaved, it helps believers to retrench their sense of superiority (since that is what it amounts to) and to accentuate the fundamental otherness of non-Christians.” Paul Bramadat, The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000), 115.