Tag Archives: teaching

“American Jesus” – The Movie

I watched last night a documentary by Aram Garriga, who I believe is Catalan. The title (ripped off from a book by Stephen Prothero) was American Jesus. Here’s how Garriga describes the film:

The film focuses on a nation-widespread variety of Christian organizations, controversial and relevant figures of the Evangelical community, Christian Pop Culture & Music specialists, secular analysts, Apocalyptic Preachers and the End Times, Prosperity Pastors, Christian Bikers & Cage-fighters, Mega-churches, Snake Handlers, the Creation Museum, Atheists, Christian Surfers and Cowboys, to name just a few. Their personal testimonies and perspectives will draw a map with all of the ideological and social positions covered and properly represented.

The main goal of the film will be triggering the debate and the questioning, from a non-judgmental perspective, on what’s the current state of American Faith and what are its real social and political implications.

“Non-judgmental”–ha ha. That’s a good one.

american-jesus-posterThis film was both intriguing and disappointing. Intriguing because of its whirlwind tour of proliferating American evangelical identities, especially in relation to forms of popular culture: Christian rodeo, Christian bikers, Christian cage-fighters, Christian stand-up, Christian alternative music, Christian outsider art. Although the film didn’t overtly call attention to this, I was particularly intrigued by how many of these forms of evangelical practice were trying to make evangelicalism compatible with some conventional image of masculinity. That is, these are often contemporary iterations of “muscular Christianity.” Judging from this film, American evangelicals are struggling to get men into the pews but take for granted the commitment of women–although why evangelicalism appeals to them, this film has little to offer by way of explanation.

Which is one of the things that’s disappointing about the film. Additional disappointments–thinking especially about this film as a potential resource for teaching–are as follows:

1. The film lands so briefly on the different groups it showcases that there’s not much material to work with for the ethnographic purpose of understanding these adherents’ worldviews from the inside out. That’s because…

2. The film is basically an American evangelical freakshow. The film isn’t really trying to help viewers understand why these evangelicals organize their lives the way they do. The film shows you just enough to give you grounds to think, “Oh my God, these people are crazy!” before hustling you along to the next freak in the line-up. Leading to…

3. The film is ultimately a rant against the New Christian Right. Frank Schaeffer is featured at length–here’s a interview subject on whom the film finally settles down to linger–explaining how evangelicals have become the “fifth column of insanity” in American politics. All those crazy people we saw earlier in the film vote! They’re driving the policies of the Republican Party! They’re gleefully promoting apocalypse in the Middle East! I’m a European filmmaker who had no idea! I must warn the world!

But “from a non-judgmental perspective,” of course.

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“Missionary” horror film

A couple weeks back, students in my “Religion and American Popular Culture” read an essay I’ve published on representations of Mormon missionaries in film. Basically, I identified four trends in the films:

  1. Mormon missionaries provide a model for generic Christian evangelists (an association which should please Mormons, though I imagine evangelicals aren’t happy about it).
  2. Mormon missionaries represent a sectarian style of religion that is treated as annoying or humorous.
  3. Mormon missionaries figure in stories about sexual repression and liberation.
  4. Mormon missionaries serve, in sometimes complicated ways, as moral grounding or agents of transformation (though not in the sense of converting people to Mormonism).

Now someone has forwarded me the trailer to Missionary, a horror film that came out a couple of years ago but which had not yet registered on my radar. It looks like theme #3 is in play. Maybe #4 if the female protagonist discovers reserves of inner strength or learns not to endanger her family by having illicit sex, especially with a repressed young sectarian.

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Booze and the Mainstreaming of American “Ethnic” Holidays

Walking into today’s session of my course on “Religions of the American Peoples,” I bellowed, “Mardi Gras! Woo-hoo!” in honor of the holiday. After students’ nervous we’d-better-humor-the-professor chuckles had subsided, I remarked, “So–is Mardi Gras an ‘American’ holiday?” That was an allusion to a thought exercise students wrote their first short paper on: Is Hanukkah an “American” holiday?

Suddenly, I had one of those brain flashes that can follow when I throw my inhibitions to the wind. Why do certain “ethnic” holidays–like Mardi Gras–become mainstreamed into more broadly “Americanized” holidays?

My brain-flash hypothesis: Booze.

Think about it. Mardi Gras. St Patrick’s. Cinco de Mayo. There’s a pattern there.

Bars as a driving force in the Americanization of minority cultures. Bars as a site of lived religion. There’s a course offering that would fill–especially if we did field work.

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Israel Zangwill’s “The Melting Pot”

I’m teaching a course this semester called “Religions of the American Peoples” (an inherited title), which I’m using to explore how religious minorities “become American.” In other words, I want students to think about “American” identity as socially constructed and contested. We’re starting the course with a historical survey of shifting ideas about “American” identity, starting with WASP ideologies of the late 19th century and running up through contemporary debates about multiculturalism.

This past week, I gave students three short selections to read from Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot, the 1908 play that made that metaphor famous. There’s a certain quotation from the play that gets widely circulated, but until prepping for this course, I’d never actually read the whole play. It’s a Romeo-and-Juliet story, basically: David, a Russian Jewish emigrant, falls in love with Vera, the exiled revolutionary daughter of a Russian baron–who, in Dickensian fashion, turns out to have led the pogrom that massacred most of David’s family, plus there’s something of a love triangle as a snooty anti-immigrant WASP conspires to win Vera’s affections. David’s uncle Mendel pleads with him not to marry a Gentile, but David rejects that parochial prejudice as unworthy of the melting pot. The play ends with David and Vera united, looking out over the New York harbor toward the Statue of Liberty, while a choir sings “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” Really.

The whole play can be read online, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. The three short excerpts I prepared for my class (David’s first exposition of the melting pot metaphor, his fight with Mendel about intermarriage, and David’s grand closing speech) are here as a PDF, for colleagues who might want to use this for teaching. As you’ll see, Zangwill’s melting pot has a strong religious dimension along Social Gospel lines. America becomes the Kingdom of God–America becomes the Savior, in fact, beckoning the world’s weary and heavy-laden to come find rest. Also, there’s an interesting struggle between loyalty to “the God of our fathers” versus “the God of our children.” Guess which God wins.

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Snow Angels as “Zen”

I’m teaching a course on minority American religions in which we just wrapped up a unit on Buddhism. Yesterday, as the class was meeting, our first snowfall was drifting past the windows, distracting students. The snowfall had made me pretty giddy, too; I performed a couple verses of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” with dramatizing gestures and soft shoe, as class was beginning. (Video of that display has not surfaced online, to my knowledge.)

At five minutes to dismissal time, after we’d finished dissecting a video about the Hsi Lai temple in Los Angeles (which will be the subject of my next post to this blog), I said: Okay, folks, officially I have you for five more minutes, but I’ll let you go early if you promise to do something “zen.” I hasten to add here that I was consciously using “zen” in its now-popularized meaning of “quirky” or “bizarre” (as in The Daily Show‘s “moment of zen”). We had discussed in a previous session how that usage arose from the post-1950s and -1960s surge in Zen’s popularity among majority Americans and thus their passing familiarity with the tradition of koans.

Anyway, back to my speech to the class: I told them I’d let them go early if they promised to do something “zen”–specifically, if they would make snow angels. In fact, I said, improvising off the looks of disbelief I was getting, if you send me a selfie of you making a snow angel, I will give you an extra participation point. Boy, did that create a happy buzz. (Students invariably overestimate the mathematical significance of an extra credit point. Are people in general suckers for things “extra,” or is that a more particularly American cultural trait?)

So now I have photos of students making snow angels showing up in my inbox. “Practicing my zen!” was one student’s subject line–which would itself be an interesting cultural artifact to unpack: In what sense is she “practicing” zen? What’s meant by that possessive pronoun “my”? And, of course, what popularized perceptions/conceptions of “zen” have I now reinforced in her mind?

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John Eliot’s “Indian Dialogues”

In my intro course to American religion, we recently read some excerpts from John Eliot’s “Indian Dialogues,” written around 1670. The dialogues were intended to help train Native converts to Christianity (Massachusett converts to Puritanism, to be more precise) to serve as missionaries to their people. In the imagined dialogue, a missionary named Piumbukhou returns to a village called Nashaurreg (apparently after an absence of 20 years, based on clues dropped during the conversation), where he tries to explain to his relatives why their traditions are now dung in his mouth compared to the sweet honey of Christianity. The style of Piumbukhou’s preaching feels quintessentially Puritan–systematized, long-winded, and, let’s be frank, boring except when he’s unleashing polarizing metaphors to condemn unregenerate Native ways (like the dung/honey metaphor I just paraphrased).

I presume that the questions and challenges posed to Piumbukhou by his Native interlocutors are based on questions Eliot had actually encountered. I was particularly intrigued, therefore, by this interchange. (Note that the non-Christian Natives, unlike the Christianized Piumbukhou, don’t get names.)

KINSMAN. […] But how shall I know that you say true? Our forefathers were (many of them) wise men, and we have wise men now living. They all delight in these our delights. They have taught us nothing about our soul, and God, and heaven, and hell, and joy and torment in the life to come. Are you wiser than our fathers? May not we rather think that English men have invented these stories to amaze us and fear us out of our old customs, and bring us to stand in awe of them, that they might wipe us of our lands, and drive us into corners, to seek new ways of living, and new places too? And be beholding to them for that which is our own, and was ours, before we knew them.

ALL. You say right.

Note that Eliot represents this as a generally held suspicion on the part of the Natives: “All” the spectators agree with the Kinsman. Eliot’s response, in the mouth of Piumbukhou:

PIUM. The Book of God is no invention of Englishmen. It is the holy law of God himself, which was given unto man by God, before Englishmen had any knowledge of God; and all the knowledge which they have, they have it out of the Book of God. And this book is given to us as well as to them […] Yet this is also true, that we have great cause to be thankful to the English, and to thank God for them. For they had a good country of their own, but by ships sailing into these parts of the world, they heard of us, and of our country, and of our nakedness, ignorance of God, and wild condition. God put it into their hearts to desire them to come hither, and teach us the good knowledge of God; and their King gave them leave so to do, and in our country to have their liberty to serve God according to the word of God. And being come hither, we gave them leave freely to live among us. They have purchased of us a great part of those lands which they possess. They love us, they do us right, and no wrong willingly. If any do us wrong, it is without the consent of their rulers, and upon our complaints our wrongs are righted. They are (many of them, especially the ruling part) good men, and desire to do us good.

Eliot seems a touch sensitive here. “We could have stayed back in England, where things were fine for us,” he insists, “but instead we crossed the ocean to bring the gospel to you naked, wild savages out of the goodness of our hearts”–except, of course, being a good Calvinist, he has to clarify that God put that goodness in their hearts. I note that Eliot feels the need to invoke two different sources of legitimation for English colonization: first, the charter that the Puritans received from the king of England; but of course that doesn’t mean squat to the Massachusetts, so he adds, “Plus, you gave us permission to live here.” And, he continues, we’ve paid for, um, “a great part,” at least, of the lands we now possess.

Eventually a “kinswoman” tries to shut Piumbukhou down this way:

KINSWOMAN. You make long and learned discourses to us which we do not well understand. I think our best answer is to stop your mouth, and fill your belly with a good supper, and when your belly is full you will be content to take rest yourself, and give us leave to be at rest from these gastering and heart-trembling discourses. We are well as we are, and desire not to be troubled with these new wise sayings.

“Here–accept our hospitality, and stop trying to push your religion onto us.” A losing strategy–in the imagined dialogues and in real life.

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500 Years of Religion and Empire

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I’ve completed the syllabus for one of the courses I’m teaching this semester. Although this is a first run, which will need revising in future semesters, I’m very pleased with how it turned out, which is code for “I’m feeling a bit vain.” (Which in turn is code for just plain “I’m feeling vain.”) If nothing else, I think the syllabus is pretty to look at–I certainly enjoy looking at it.

The most important thing is that this syllabus represents a new approach, for me, to teaching an “intro to American religions” course. My theme this semester is “religion and empire,” which I’m using to construct a new kind of grand narrative for U.S. religious history, a more geographically expansive narrative than is conventional. I’m not aware of a textbook on this subject, so I pulled together a collection of short historical documents as readings–that was a lotta effin’ work. Click the link to admire the results with me.

REL 101D Fall 2014 Course Policies and Schedule – Duffy

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Protestant Christian Values in Country Music

This is the last in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).


Protestant Christian Values in Country Music
By Zachary LeCompte

When you listen to country music what do you hear? Or more importantly what don’t you hear? While you may say, “I hear songs about trucks, girls and farms”, would you believe me if I said one could also include “I hear a Christian parable”? Would you believe me if I said that in country music, we can see Christian themes and ideas reflected in both the lyrics of the songs and the music videos released by popular country artists? Do you believe that this would be possible in a culture where you seem to be encouraged to suppress religious expressions in order to achieve mainstream success?

Religion In Mainstream Music

As detailed in William Romanowski’s article “Evangelicals and Popular Music”, located in the publication Religion and Popular Culture in America, if popular artists want to achieve mainstream success they have to be willing to suppress or minimize the religious influence of the songs. That is to avoid using overtly religious lyrics that may go against the general population’s idea of what popular music should sound like. This can be credited to our cultures increasing secularization, as well as the increasing tendency to avoid explicitly religious expressions to avoid offending those of different beliefs.

And according to Campbell et al. in Media and Culture, country music is the most popular radio format in the United States. That is there are more country music radio stations than any other music format and only talk radio has more across all formats.

So on one had we see Romanowski say that popular music has to be secularized and on the other hand we see Campbell et al. say that country is the most popular music form, and yet we see Christian themes in country music. Themes such as individualism and pre-millennialism; Individualism being the focus of the individual’s personal relationship with God and pre-millennialism being the idea that Jesus will return to earth and bring a period of peace and the return of the kingdom of God.

Protestant Themes In Country Music Lyrics

Rich Tiner states in his article “Positively Country” from the periodical Christianity Today, “Non-Christian listeners are getting tired of some of the messages in mainstream country”, showing that many have begun to notice this trend. Tiner goes on to define two kinds of country music that contain theses messages or themes. The first is “positive country” or “implicitly Christian, conveying Biblical values but not necessarily a gospel message” which tends to find its way to mainstream more often. The second is “Christian country” or “overtly Christian with an explicit gospel message” which is often less welcomed on the mainstream stations but enjoys great success on its own.

Individualism

One perfect example of individualism is the radio single from artist Thomas Rhett named “Beer With Jesus”. This song received ample airtime and peaked at number 19 on Billboard’s US Country Airplay. The song paints of picture of what Rhett would ask if he were to garner some alone time with Jesus. In the chorus Rhett sings, “Do you hear the prayers I send, what happens when life ends? And when you think you’re comin’ back again?” Within these words we can see distinctly Christian messages like praying to Jesus, the idea of an after life and the return of Jesus to earth.

Later he asks, “What’s on the other side? Is mom and daddy alright? And if it ain’t no trouble tell them I said hi.” Again we see the idea of an after life. However, now we also see the idea that if you believe in God, you will go to heaven to be with Jesus when you die. This is portrayed when Rhett asks if Jesus could tell his deceased parents that he said hello, implying that Jesus would see them upon his return to heaven.

Another example of individualism is Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel”. This song enjoyed success across the board, peaking at number 1 on Billboards US Hot Country Songs and number 4 on Billboards US Christian Songs. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Country song as well as and Academy of Country Music Award for Single of the Year and a Gospel Music Association Award for Country Recorded Song of the Year.

The song tells the story of a young woman driving to visit her parents in Cincinnati when she loses control of her car. After it comes to a stop she decides to pray and to devote herself to Jesus, asking him to “take the wheel” of her life. We see here the Christian message of prayer as well as the idea that one should devote their lives to Jesus and leave their lives at his mercy.

Another song that carries a Christian theme of individualism is the 1948 Hank Williams song “I Saw the Light”. This song was discussed in the article “Preaching and Country Music” by Lamar Potts from the publication Journal for Preachers. In the song Williams talks of how he lived a life of sin, unwilling to accept change until one day he let Jesus in and it changed his life. We see this in the opening verse:

I wandered so aimless life filed with sin, I wouldn’t let my dear savior in, Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night, Praise the lord I saw the light.

The song also presents the idea of good vs. evil, which is very prevalent in Protestantism in several ways. The first is the more conservative view of the battle of living life morally and spiritually holy and avoiding a life filled with sin. The second view of good vs. evil is more of a liberal view of society trying to combat the evils that plague the community as a whole and trying to eliminate evils such as poverty, oppression and injustice.

In this case the view is more conservative, and focuses mainly on the narrators life and experiences. It is for this reason that the song is a good example of individualism.

Pre-Millennialism

Ted Olsen of Christianity Today points out in the article “Johnny Cash’s Song of Redemption” that the country legend had more that one hit that carried a Christian message. Perhaps the best example of this is his song “The Man Comes Around”. It was one of the most successful songs from the back half of his career, selling 500,000 copies before his death.

The songs centers around a main theme of the end of the world, and more specifically the apocalypse as described in the book of revelation. The song opens and closes with two spoken verses from the book of Revelation, one introducing the first horseman of the apocalypse and the other introducing the last horseman.

Open: “And I heard as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying come and see and I saw, and behold a white horse” – Revelation 6:1-2

Close: “And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts, and I looked and behold, a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” – Revelation 6: 7-8

We also see many other allusions to the Bible in the lyrics of these songs such as “Then the father hen will call his chickens home” as well as “It’s Alpha and Omega’s kingdom come”. Both of these lines stick to the songs pattern of using biblical references to illustrate its story. And it is the use of these references we see not only a Christian influence, but also more specifically a pre-millennialist Protestant influence.

Christian Images In Country Music Videos

We also see Christian messages portrayed in music videos for songs. One music video we see a Christian messages in is Carrie Underwood’s “See You Again” video. Throughout the video we see crosses on the screen in a variety of places. One in an elderly widows living room, and another at a cemetery. We also see make shift crosses left made from debris left after a deadly tornado.

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We also see messages written near sites of tragedies. One shot shows a wall that is spray-painted with, “God Bless Sandy Hook”, referring to the school shooting. Another shows a heart with the message, “keep faith Moore, OK” in response to the deadly outbreak of Tornadoes. We also see a tombstone flash on the screen with the inscription “God heals all wounds”. In addition, we also see people raise their hands towards the sky, as you would see one doing in church or in prayer on multiple occasions.

Perhaps the strongest Christian image we see is a video clip of a father and a son being baptized together during a church service. By placing this clip in the video for the song, “See You Again”, it is implied that the father and the son will eventually meet again in heaven now that they have accepted the Lord as their savior.

Another example of a country song having Christian messages portrayed in its music video is the video for “Hurt” by Johnny Cash. This video actually contains clips of a reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus as well as other images. Some of the other images include a portrait of Jesus and an arch with a golden cross on top.

Other music videos we see Christian messages in include the video for Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” and Eric Church’s “Give Me Back My Hometown”. In Keith’s video we see a soldier praying and kissing a crucifix necklace as he prepares to go into battle, showing the importance of prayer and faith in God to protect you from your enemies.

In Church’s video we see many of the scenes at a cemetery where we see many crosses throughout. We then see the burial plot the main character is visiting, which has a cross placed at the head of the plot and a minister standing and reading from a Bible. The minister is praying for the soul of the deceased to be accepted to heaven.

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What’s the Explanation?

In a culture that is increasingly secularized, and promotes silenced religious expressions in mainstream music, how is it that we can see such distinct messages make it into mainstream airplay? It may have to do with the fact that despite the increasing secularization, we are still a nation with a strong heritage of Christianity in our culture as well as a strong Protestant influence in today’s culture. And due to this influence, many Americans are still accepting of Christian expressions.

Another reason could be that Christian culture had a large influence in the southern United States, a region also known as the “Bible Belt”.

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The Christian influence in the “Bible Belt” is important because the region is the “home of country music” (Nashville, Tennessee) and also produces a large number of country musicians, especially from Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Therefore, the personal beliefs of country musicians, and listeners may also contribute to the tolerance of Christian messages in the music.

But regardless of the reason, country music shows us that the American culture may not be as opposed to religious expression as it seems. It shows that the culture is still tolerant of Christianity. Not much unlike “moments of silence” replacing moments of prayer. We see the secularized context, but we still understand the original Christian concept. And while many still view it as a moment to pray, or exercise their faith, we allow it because it isn’t demanding our participation nor forcing us to alter our beliefs. This is similar to Christian themes being shown in country music, because while they are there, they don’t dominate the landscape. There are plenty of secular country songs to balance out the tone of the music.

In fact we even see this balancing demonstrated inside the genre of country music. Positive country, as described by Tiner, serves as the more toned down, or modest version for mainstream stations, whereas Christian country tends to be more vocal and dominating, therefore being marginalized for niche audiences.

So while religious messages may not be supported in mass, from time to time, they are still welcome in moderation. And this shows us that Protestantism has shaped American culture to be tolerant of religious expressions in mainstream culture, as long as they don’t dominate the landscape.

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Evangelical Protestants and Secular Conservatives Form a Political Alliance

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).


A Rocky Relationship: Evangelical Protestants and Secular Conservatives Form a Political Alliance in Spite of Ideological Differences
By Matthew Durot

If you are at all like me, a 22-year old college senior with a merely casual interest in politics, it is unlikely that you have given much thought to the complex inner-workings of the Republican Party. However, if you paid any attention to the most recent presidential election, I would assume that you are at least vaguely familiar with a group commonly referred to as the Religious Right. Berated by Democrats and embraced by Republicans, the group appeared to command the media’s constant attention.

Lacking any historical frame of reference, it seems logical to assume that the Religious Right’s relationship with the Republican Party has been longstanding and mutually beneficial. However, as you will soon find out, the series of events that strategically bound these two allies together occurred more recently than you might think. Furthermore, despite their public expressions of commitment to the alliance, each party has suffered a series of disappointments that have led them to reconsider their support of one another.

Origin of the Alliance

For the first hundred years of the Republican Party’s existence, an alliance with the white evangelical Protestants that make up the current Religious Right was unfathomable. As Robert Booth Fowler points out in his book Religion and Politics in America, “the traditional Republican party promoted business interests” and had been responsible for ending slavery. This legacy placed it at odds with a group primarily made up of poor southerners. Furthermore, Fowler notes that “evangelicals long viewed with distaste political participation, which they saw as an engagement with the sinful world from which god wished them to abstain”.

The 1960’s counterculture was viewed by evangelicals as a threat to their traditional values.

The 1960’s counterculture was viewed by evangelicals as a threat to their traditional values.

However, this all changed with the arrival of the countercultural 1960’s. A postwar increase in affluence described by Fowler resulted in the movement of many evangelicals to cities and suburbs where they could no longer avoid what they saw as an “increasingly secular and intrusive culture that threatened their traditional values”.This led evangelicals to mobilize politically through a series of successful grassroots movements. Among the most significant achievements of these campaigns was the defeat of a 1977 gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida.

Having suffered consecutive electoral defeats in 1974 and 1976, the Republicans took notice and sought to embrace this energetic and previously unaccounted for demographic that made up 35% of the American population (Gallup Poll).

Compromising on Priorities

In his book Religion and Politics in the United States, Kenneth D. Wald describes how secular Republican strategists “offered assistance in the form of financing and political infrastructure to the emerging leaders of the evangelical conservative movement”. In return, these leaders were expected to “embrace a more comprehensive conservative program”. Although traditional social issues remained the priority of evangelicals, they agreed to dedicate their resources to a wide array of secular conservative causes. In order to justify this arrangement to their followers, evangelical leaders framed initiatives like increased defense spending “as a way to keep the nation free for preaching of the gospel”.

Together, the allies would launch what Wald describes as a “a full-frontal attack on big government as a threat to traditional religious and economic values”. Having, at least in principal, entered into this mutually beneficial alliance, the parties set out to retake America from their liberal opposition.

The Elections of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush

Republican candidate Ronald Reagan consults with Jerry Falwell, founder of evangelical political organization the Moral Majority

Republican candidate Ronald Reagan consults with Jerry Falwell, founder of evangelical political organization the Moral Majority

During the 1980 presidential election, the Republican Party’s efforts to appeal to its new constituency were on full display. According to Wald, “the leaders of the GOP granted considerable symbolic recognition to the Religious Right, featuring the group at its national convention and adding to its platform a constitutional amendment to restrict abortion as well as legislation to legalize prayer in public schools”. In return, the Religious Right mobilized for the GOP’s candidate Ronald Reagan, “encouraging pastors to sign up churchgoers to vote and to impress upon them the necessity to express their religious convictions in the polling booth”.

Due in large part to the unprecedented number of votes cast by evangelicals, Reagan went on to win the presidency in a landslide. The fact that evangelicals were so united in their support of Reagan is symbolic of their newly steadfast commitment to the Republican Party. After all, Reagan who is described by Fowler as “a divorced Hollywood veteran and intermittent churchgoer” had been opposed by an evangelical in Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Evangelicals remained politically active throughout Reagan’s successful reelection campaign as well as that of his successor George H.W. Bush. During his first campaign, Bush gave limited emphasis to conservative cultural themes. However, facing reelection with a struggling economy, Wald observes that “Bush pushed evangelical’s pro-family agenda much more aggressively”. Although he would go on to lose, Wald argues that Bush’s defeat can be attributed primarily to “the concern of moderate voters about the Christian Right’s capture of the party”. Therefore, it should not be viewed as an indication of diminishing evangelical support, but instead a sign of the group’s influence within the GOP as perceived by both party elites and the American public.

Unfulfilled Promises While in Office

Despite twelve consecutive years with a Republican White House, the Religious Right failed to secure any significant policy reform. In his article “Dead Wrong”, conservative columnist David Frum argues that many within the Republican elite viewed the Religious Right as nothing more than “a nuisance to be managed.” Evangelicals could not have been fully aware of these ulterior motives purportedly held by many of their supposed allies. However, Wald argues “it was clear to them that neither Reagan nor Bush had made social conservative issues clear priorities of their administrations”.

The proposed amendment to legalize prayer in public schools was voted down in the Senate. Additionally, a tuition tax credit championed by evangelicals for religious schools was never implemented. Yet the Religious Right did not turn away from the Republican Party. Instead, Wald argues that they reasoned their failed efforts had merely been the product of an American political system “whose fragmented structure and multiple centers of power were designed to resist radical policy change”.

A Change in Strategy

Ralph Reed, Executive Director of the Christian Coalition, is featured on the cover of Time Magazine

Ralph Reed, Executive Director of the Christian Coalition, is featured on the cover of Time Magazine

Having experienced the difficulty of achieving major policy reform at the national level, the Religious Right underwent a significant strategic shift in the years that followed. According to Wald, many leadership positions previously held by ministers were turned over to “seasoned political operatives recruited from secular conservative organizations.” Under the direction of these campaign veterans, newly created organizations such as the Christian Coalition were able to expand their outreach and fundraising capabilities through streamlined networks of local chapters and churches.

However, while these new leaders proved to be valuable from an operational standpoint, their secular influence was increasingly pervasive. All of a sudden, expansion had become the top priority. In an attempt to garner votes from outside of the evangelical community, Wald notes that the Religious Right “modified its agenda to include a broader set of issues appealing to other religious and secular conservatives”. Similarly, the language with which evangelical groups communicated their message was fundamentally altered. In his book The Evolving Politics of the Christian Right, Matthew C. Moen argues that in order to avoid alienating this new target audience, religious messages were disguised and replaced with “the liberal language of rights, equality, and opportunity”.

By placing the secular conservatives in power, the Religious Right risked losing its own identity. Having done more than their fair share to promote the alliance’s success, evangelicals expected to be repaid for their loyalty this time around.

The 1994 Midterm Elections

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich outlines the Republican’s “Contract with America”, for which the Religious Right lobbied enthusiastically

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich outlines the Republican’s “Contract with America”, for which the Religious Right lobbied enthusiastically

Despite how you may feel about this secular shift in evangelical politics, there is no denying that the new leaders of the Religious Right transformed the movement into a well-oiled political machine. Wald notes that “during the 1994 congressional election, the Christian Coalition alone distributed thirty-five million voter guides and made telephone calls to three million voters”. Such efforts played a pivotal role in a sweeping Republican takeover of both houses of Congress. However, in what was becoming a recurring nightmare for evangelicals, these elected representatives again proved unreceptive to their needs once in office.

The Religious Right had lobbied aggressively for the Republicans’ “Contract With America”, which Wald describes as “a legislative program emphasizing secular policies such as welfare reform and a balanced budget amendment”. However, in spite of their support for the plan, evangelical priorities such as “a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration” were absent among the legislation ultimately enacted. Furthermore, major components of the Religious Right’s own “Contract with the American Family, including traditional calls to restrict abortion and shield Christian schools from state regulation” were repeatedly put off by the Republicans and ultimately ignored.

According to Wald, this was the last straw for many of the movement’s most influential activists, prompting them to call for “an evangelical retreat from politics”.

George W. Bush: One of Their Own

President George W. Bush speaks at a gathering of fellow evangelicals

President George W. Bush speaks at a gathering of fellow evangelicals

This may very well have signaled the end of the Religious Right’s alliance with the Republican Party had it not been for the candidacy of George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential election. Frank Lambert’s book Religion in American Politics argues that “in George W. Bush, the Religious Right found a born-again Christian who, unlike Jimmy Carter, spoke their language and subscribed to their views.”

According to Wald, Bush was not shy about declaring “that he regularly talked to God for political guidance”. Furthermore, Lambert notes that in addition to his belief in “the right of religious groups to a fair share of public funds”, Bush framed his policy in distinctively Protestant terms. For example, in promoting the War on Terror following the attacks of 9/11, Bush described America as a nation “called on a mission to root out radical Islam”.

If there was ever a candidate well-suited to promote the interests of the Religious Right, George W. Bush was certainly it. In spite of their past dissatisfaction with the GOP, evangelicals proved willing to give the Republicans one more chance. According to Fowler, Bush would go on to win the presidency “in large part thanks to a surge in conservative religious voters”.

Abandoned By Its Golden Child

President Bush looks on as his pro-life candidate, Samuel Alito, is sworn in as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

President Bush looks on as his pro-life candidate, Samuel Alito, is sworn in as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

During his Presidency, George W. Bush, made a concerted effort to provide evangelicals with what appeared to be unprecedented access to power. Wald notes that “in order to signal to evangelicals that his candidates belonged to pro-life churches, Bush made opposition to abortion a litmus test for Supreme Court appointees”. Furthermore, he “appointed a large number of evangelical stalwarts and approved their appointments of fellow activists to lower-level positions”. According to Wald, the evangelical presence within the Bush administration was so pronounced that it led Jimmy Carter to “alarmingly announce the Christian Right’s capture of American public life”. However, evangelical support for Bush would eventually sour.

Reflecting on his time in office, evangelicals found that like Reagan and his father before him, the younger Bush had not made their goals a priority. Wald argues that “secular goals central to the GOP agenda got all of the administration’s resources and generally secured legislative approval”. Meanwhile, Bush gave only a “half hearted effort to cherished goals such as faith-based federal programs and the ban on gay marriage”. These policies were either victimized by severe compromise in Congress or were voted down all together. The candidate who had provided the Religious Right with so much hope ultimately proved to be as disappointing as his predecessors.

Future of Evangelical Politics

Decades of disappointment with the Republican Party have left many evangelicals questioning their involvement in politics altogether. Whether due to a system resistant to radical change or an abusive ally concerned only with electoral gains, the Religious Right has been largely unsuccessful at accomplishing its social goals through the political process. Furthermore, in his book What’s the Matter With Kansas, Thomas Frank argues that by aligning themselves with the Republican Party, “less affluent evangelicals have effectively promoted economic policies that further undermine their life chances”

Additionally, Wald notes that many evangelicals worry “involvement in politics, an inherently messy business, has compromised the integrity of evangelicalism”. In addition to the secular influence examined previously, a number of infidelity and corruption scandals involving evangelical politicians have angered a religious group for whom morality reigns supreme.

Does the GOP Even Want the Religious Right?

On the other hand, its experience with the Religious Right has a faction of the Republican elite wondering if an alliance with conservative evangelicals might no longer be in its best interest. In fact, Wald argues that many within the party have long opposed the courting of a group whose agenda contradicts their libertarian stance on social issues. These same Republicans attribute the party’s recent string of defeats to the alienation of its traditional base in response to an increasingly intrusive social agenda. Despite the size of its evangelical constituency, the Republican Party cannot obtain a national majority with the support of the Religious Right alone. The question is, can the GOP survive without it?

Conclusion

Having become increasingly integrated into mainstream American society, it is no longer possible for evangelicals to abstain from the political process that dictates how they live their lives. Furthermore, the Republican Party simply cannot afford to lose the support of a religious group that as recently as 2012 made up 39% of the American electorate (Pew Research Center). Therefore, in spite of their growing disillusionment with one another, it is likely that evangelicals and secular conservatives will continue to co-exist as a political alliance moving forward.

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How Protestants Tried and Failed to Influence Television

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).


How Protestants Tried and Failed to Influence Television
By Stephanie Garber

Television has been part of American culture since the mid 1940s. It quickly replaced radio and became a staple in homes across the country. Families would sit around the tube and watch programs together. The shows that were on back then promoted values that lined up with what Protestants believed. They saw television as an opportunity to get faith into homes quickly and efficiently. Despite their best efforts, Protestants had little to no effect on the development of American television.

vg392842Growing up, I remember watching VeggieTales on Saturday mornings and thinking it was the greatest show of all time. Vegetables singing about Jesus and hairbrushes, what could be better? Every episode ended with, “God made you special, and he loves you very much!” I was raised on shows like this and I didn’t understand the religious aspect at the time because I was so little. There were plenty of other blatantly Christian shows on TV and since my childhood they have become more and more rare.

Shows that were not openly religious also portrayed Protestant ideals. Every night at nine o’clock my family and I would watch an episode of I Love Lucy before bed. One night I asked my mom why the main characters, Lucy and Rickey, slept in two twin beds instead of one big one, she said, “Back in the 50s when this was on TV they didn’t like to show couples going to sleep in the same bed.” This was true because back then American values were still Protestant values and that meant not promoting sex on television.

Since then Americans have gotten farther away from these values and so have TV shows. Protestants tried in the beginning to keep TV clean and “wholesome” but scandal and competition eventually lead to the downfall of Christian TV. Some people these days would go as far as to say that most TV now is antireligious.

fkb079183In the mid 1940s the television set because commercially available and Protestants saw an opportunity to put Christian shows on the air. They thought they could air shows focusing on God and good morals and it would reinvigorate people’s faith and get them to go to church again. This worked at first and shows like Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, Bonanza, The Wonderful World of Disney, and many others came about in the 50s. A lot of them were very successful and lasted into the 80s.

All of these shows portrayed wholesome family lifestyles and had strong Protestant values like work ethic, strong family ties, abstinence and so on, but television quickly became a way to spread material that was not Jesus friendly across America. Elvis’s gyrating hips had everyone in an uproar, as did shows that question protestant morals rather than reinforce them. Programs that highlight comedy and musical acts became very popular and the Protestant community saw that they needed to step it up a notch.

After failing to keep television a clean space to spread the good word, Protestants decided they could still use TV to at least get the word out through televangelism. TV evangelists were very popular. Big names like Jimmy Swaggart were extremely successful. A People Magazine article on Swaggart form 1988 said he had tree houses and owned a private Jet. Televangelists helped to organize American Christianity by building audiences composed of many different ethnic, regional and religious backgrounds. A person does not have to be literate to watch TV. These evangelists could reach a lot more people than they could through Christian pamphlets and newsletters or once a week sermons.

Televangelism worked in the beginning but it brought about the problem of mainline versus evangelical Protestants’ battle for airtime. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) made television stations give time to things that would help better the communities called “sustaining time.” One way they could do this was to give time to religious programming. The stations gave preference to the mainline Protestants in the Federal Council of Churches and made everyone else (Jews, Catholics and Evangelicals) pay for it.

Evangelical Protestants were upset because they had to spend money to get their programs on TV. At one point NBC refused to sell airtime to religious programming other than the Federal Council of Churches. The National Association of Evangelicals formed in 1942 and tried to counter the influence of the Federal Council exercised on religious broadcasting.

When that did not work televangelist Pat Robertson bought a bankrupt station and devoted more than 50 percent of his time to religious programming. This station was the first of its kind. This is where shows like The 700 Club started.

Eventually, in 1960, the FCC made a decision that commercials could be used as free time not just religious programming so TV stations started making everyone pay, not just the Evangelicals, Catholic and Jews. This really made mainline Protestants mad because they were use to getting their airtime for free. Evangelicals, however, did not care because they were use to paying for it.

After the FCC opened up sustaining time to everyone in 1960 all religious groups that wanted to have airtime were able to get it.

These days there are still some Christian stations but they are not very prominent. Trinity Broadcasting Network is the biggest one and it mostly plays The 700 Club and live sermons.

All in all televangelism ends up dying out because some major scandals take place.

sw128605One of the biggest and most well known televangelist scandals happened in 1988. Jimmy Swaggart was one of the most prominent TV preachers. He had around 8 million people tuning in to hear him preach until word got out that he had committed transgressions that were not accepted in the Protestant church. He had been preaching on living a moral life and preaching against adultery when his followers found out that he had cheated on his wife of 35 years with a New Orleans prostitute. This was not the only scandal televangelism had to deal with. Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, and Bob Larson also all had moral failures. Listening to these people preach on TV and then hearing about their indiscretions made a good majority of their audiences tune out.

Some of these men have been forgiven by their listeners and followers and are back on TV, but these days televangelism is not what it used to be. Shut-ins and elderly people are the main audience for it today. It was not bringing anyone to church or to Christ. The magazine Christianity Today states that the numbers of viewers and contributors have dropped by almost three-fourths compared to its peak in the 80s.

Most people had a major problem with the hypocrisy of the TV ministers. They spoke on purity and abstinence and then went against everything they had said. One 47-year-old woman member of Swaggart’s Assemblies of God Church said in the 1988 article in People Magazine, “How could he stand up there in the pulpit and preach against adultery and promiscuity when he was doing that kind of thing all this time? I think he ought to stay out of the pulpit.”

csi552984Hypocrisy is still an issue in TV today. The book Small Screen, Big Picture brings out some interesting arguments of how television today can be viewed as antireligious. Some people say that CSI is portrays religion in a negative light because the lead character, Grissom, was once a Christian but doesn’t hold to it anymore because of the hypocrisy that comes along with it. He did not just talk about Christianity though. One episode centered on Monks and another around Buddhists.

CSI is not the only major show that addresses religion. The hit televisions series House centered on an angry man who was an open atheist. In multiple episodes he would comment on how there was no God and that anyone who believed opposite was an idiot. In one particular episode House and a comparative religion major go head to head because he tells her that the only reason she believes in religion is so that she can feel good about herself at the end of the day.

House, CSI, Law and Order being antireligious along with shows like Family Guy and South Park openly making fun of religion is why the Protestants lost a lot of their weight in television. Most secular shows that bring up religion make fun of it of portray it in a negative light. TV these days really contradicts older shows like I Love Lucy and Leave it to Beaver in this way.

In 2014 Protestants have little to no say what goes on television. All of the Protestant values they fought so hard to preserve have fallen to the wayside and the “troublesome material” they were trying to keep off the air shows up on most shows. In fact TV is almost antireligious. TV shows portray religion in a negative light. Shows like Family Guy and South Park openly make fun of religion and frequently have Jesus as a character on their shows.

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