Bad Religion in the Ivory TowerRoundup
tags: religion, Christianity, evangelicals, White Nationalism
“I just felt like the spirit of God wanted me to go in the Senate room.”
—A Capitol rioter, quoted in The New Yorker.
The January 6 insurrection at the nation’s Capitol — call it “John Locke’s nightmare” — was something a scholar of secularism could have predicted. If you study this subject, religious believers gone wild are part of your data set. Then again, you needn’t be an expert to have foreseen that afternoon of faith, flags, and fury.
I’m guessing that many nonspecialists foresaw it too. They intuited that a president who gave us a “Muslim ban” in Act 1 would exit like Samson in Act 3. These folks sensed that Donald Trump’s crew of “court evangelicals,” as the historian John Fea has called them, were not likely to tack our ship of state toward tranquil harbors. They grasped that followers of Christ blowing their shofars (wait, what?), conducting Jericho Marches, and waving “Jesus 2020” banners might not be beyond trashing the marble HQ of liberal democracy. Most people could see January 6’s violence coming down Constitution Avenue, so to speak.
My concern is that many who study the intersection of religion and politics could not. Their lack of prescience isn’t based on ideological sympathy for the insurrectionaries. Rather, their blind spot is due to their embrace of what I call the Olden Rule: “Always posit religion at its best, secularism at its worst.”
I recall a published exchange with the talented Yale scholar Kathryn Lofton in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney. She reasoned that Christian influence on public affairs was dwindling, “not because I believe we have arrived at the end of the power of Christianity as a social experience, but because I think we have arrived at the end of its usability as a conservative political platform.” Lofton buttressed her observation by reference to numerous recent “exemplary studies” of evangelicalism. These monographs disproved the “constant iteration and reiteration of the lurking potency of the Christian right” by secular critics like me.
Well, the presence of more than 20,000 heavily armed National Guard troops at the Biden/Harris inauguration suggests the potency of the Christian right has advanced well beyond the “lurk” stage. Every scholar is capable of a bad take. I am no exception. But this type of oversight is quite common in discussions of what is called “public theology.”
Take, for example, the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. You can identify the Olden Rule in the thought of the anti-secular conservative Ross Douthat — perhaps the most gifted opinion columnist of his generation, albeit one who has been colossally wrong in his most-consequential predictions (“There Will Be No Trump Coup”). But this reverence for people of loud faith, and impatience with those of us who are less reverent, is not confined to the right.
Consider the Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, who, in a 2013 Times piece entitled “Belief Is the Least Part of Faith,” tried to help “university-educated liberals” understand evangelical Christians. For them, explained Luhrmann, the world “is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church.” “But secular Americans,” Luhrmann wrote, “often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice.”
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