About a month ago I gave a plenary address at Regent. The conference was well planned, the discussions were stimulating and I left with a renewed sense of my work as an academic. The conference, on Latin American and U.S. Latino/a Pentecostalism, was a first of its kind. As someone who has spent a couple of decades studying the latter, it was heartening that such a conference finally occurred. That it occurred at Regent, I will be honest, was a bit of a surprise, since evangelical colleges are not normally known for being academic vanguards, and if nothing else, are often of very divided minds as to what academic work is for and if academic freedom is worth the price.
What price you may ask? Well, faculty, as part of our intellectual DNA, are curious and analytical. If we are doing this thing right, we ask difficult questions, grow weary of simplistic answers, and have little patience and more of our fair share of frustration with “the powers that be” that simply don’t understand what we do. Evangelical universities, I have heard many more perceptive writers than myself, note, crave respectability and love to highlight how many academics they have with Phd’s from elite universities–trouble is, as Peter Enns has noted in more than one of his columns, they really like our shiny degrees but don’t like our illuminated minds. See Peter’s blog: More Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
For my plenary, I called for a de-colonization of the field. Latino/a academics, even if they share confessional affinities with Pentecostalism, have to come to terms with the fact that they have historically and to a great degree today–are treated like a mission field. We are subordinated to a dominant white evangelical/Pentecostal culture that insists we spend our time re-educating people on our fields, explaining why Latino Pentecostalism is even a separate discipline worthy of study, and why Latin Americans and U.S.Latinos/as are viewed as different, since, for some, Latinos are basically all the same.
I called on my colleagues to de-colonize themselves and not to be lulled by the subtle power of guilt and false loyalty to conform. Conformity to political whims, which often have nothing to do with faith claims, but rather are methods to maintain power. Controlling the narrative is about power. If we are an insignificant number, we don’t have to be counted. If we have no stories, those stories don’t have to be uncovered. An examination of American religion graduate programs, textbooks, national conferences, not to mention the invisible status of Latinos/as on many evangelical campuses–will tell you that we are still trying to be heard. We are playing both sides really, demanding recognition from the elite schools, where we don’t have faculty presence, student body presence, or curricular presence, to evangelical schools; where it is much the same story. What the academy does like about Latino/a Pentecostals is that they can study us, we are a data set for some, they hire some of us, because we are outliers, we add to the diversity game. Which is really just a game, a Potemkin Village of different faces that masks a dominant white culture in love with the idea of diversity, but in reality, scared to death of its consequences. If you doubt my descriptions, here is a lecture on “Hispanic Pentecostalism” for “Diversity Week” at the Assemblies of God’s Southwestern Assemblies of God University (SAGU) held about a week after my talk at Regent, which lauds the missions work of Henry C. Ball, without so much as mentioning his racist patronizing views towards Mexicanos and Tejanos in the 1910s-30s. SAGU Diversity Week What SAGU and other like-minded universities count on is that their Latino/a students will accept a white-washed history, and not start digging around, not start de-colonizing their own history–because when they do, SAGU’s attempts to maintain control of the “white savior” narrative are over. Tick-tock.
But Regent is to be lauded, under the all-seeing eyes of Pat Robertson, not particularly known for his progressive sympathies, I was able to say whatever I wanted, and I was pretty animated. I received great feedback and made many new friends–comrades in arms, many of us, plowing those same white evangelical fields. Regent hosted this first of its kind conference–not Claremont, not Yale, not Harvard, not Duke–Regent? For that very attempt, to break up the monotony of blandness that plagues evangelical higher education, Regent is to be praised. The faculty were wonderful, the place immaculate, it was one of the best conferences I have attended, and I attend way too many of these where inconsequential esoterica passes for depth and the level of self-congratulatory pretension is something you just have to get used to and ignore.
Let’s be real though, Pat Robertson, odd rants aside, is still an evangelical power broker. American evangelicalism has descended into what amounts to competing camps of cult of personalities who resonate only to the realities of financial and political power. As long as Pat Robertson’s money talks, there will be a constant chill in the intellectual air at Regent.
These power brokers, whether they fund universities, sell stencils, or lobby Congress are not terribly interested in civil discussion, in critical engagement, or in sharing the immense, but diminishing power that they have amassed by claiming for themselves the mantle of defenders of the faith. If the numbers are correct about the loss of the millennial generation among this white evangelical power base, Regent will look and sound very different in a very short time–tick tock.
Millennials, God love ‘em, are a wonderful bunch of kids. They are tired of the Old Guard, they don’t shop at Hobby Lobby, and probably have just given up on that job at World Vision. With their student loan debt crushing their financial futures, and their continued exasperation at having to explain to their “non-believer” friends why evangelicals are such a joke–they will simply stop listening, demand more of their leaders than the same tired talking points, and realize that “nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear.”