Evangelicalism as Bad Religion

Evangelicalism as Bad Religion February 25, 2021

What’s the most disliked religion in the contemporary United States?

Until recently, “Islam” would have been the runaway answer to this question. Back in 2002, less than half of Americans held favorable views of Muslims, compared to the nearly three-quarters who had favorable views of “[some] Protestants,” “Catholics,” and “Jews.” In 2017, half of Americans asserted that Islam is “not part of mainstream American society.”

In the mid-to-late nineteenth-century, Mormons were almost universally disliked by other Americans.  The Latter-day Saints are the subject of Peter Coviello’s recent Make Yourselves Gods. Actually, the subject of the book is “the fractious, entangled, ongoing project of secularism.” Coviello draws on the scholarship of Talal Asad, who notes that under the regime of secularism, “only religions that have accepted the assumptions of liberal discourse are being commended.” In this way of thinking, explains Coviello, “good religion by the lights of secular distinction, is that which elevates us in virtue, teaches us compassion and forbearance, adheres us to senses of awe and wonder before the universe, organizes our charitable impulses, directs our ethical conflicts, nourishes our spirits.” Bad religion does the opposite of these things.

Coviello moves from these basics to more complex arguments. Secularism, he argues is “biopolitics.” By that, he means “an order of power that operates through a discplinary investment in the biological life of mass social phenomena … designed to former some forms of life, inhibit or disallow others, and regulate them collectively in a flexible economy of interaction.” Religion, race, and gender become intertwined in this lens of analysis, which leads Coviello to some arresting conclusions about the nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints. Take polygamy. Joseph Smith’s teachings about the human potential for joy and divinity promised – at times – significant spiritual and practical power to women, but subsequent Mormon patriarchs restricted female meetings and female-led rituals. “The early Mormons were rarely more secular,” Coviello explains, “than in their concerted curtailments of female power.” Other Americans, meanwhile, depicted Mormon women as “white slaves.” Coviello quotes from the scholar Nancy Bentley: “Polygamy is the bondage that sanctifies monogamy as freedom.” Moving forward, in part because of their suspect marital practices, some other Americans depicted the Mormons as non-white, which prompted the Mormons to embrace their whiteness all the more vigorously.

But back to first principles. Coviello’s book caused me to ruminate on the respective places of “good religion” and “bad religion” in contemporary America. What religious traditions have starred as “bad religions” in U.S. History? Certainly nineteenth-century Mormons. Disliked by nearly all non-Mormon Americans. Native religious traditions, which various white American entities attempted to eliminate. Jehovah’s Witnesses for a spell. And for Protestant Americans, Catholicism was public enemy #1 for several centuries.

What about more recently? Perhaps Islam, as noted above, and this began prior to September 11, 2001. And as with the Latter-day Saints in the nineteenth century, a significant amount of discussion focused on the role and treatment of women within Islam. At the same time, even in the wake of 9/11, American Muslims had powerful defenders, such as former President George W. Bush, and significant portions of the American cultural landscape pushed back against Islamophobia.

What else? The Church of Scientology? Although Scientology is far less salient as a public issue than was nineteenth-century Mormonism, most Americans who are aware of the Church of Scientology regard it very negatively.

That leads me to the point I want to make here. (Yes, burying the lead). What about evangelicalism as “bad religion” in contemporary America? Certainly, this is an inexact parallel. Evangelicals are the largest voting bloc in one of our two major political parties.

Nevertheless, in much of contemporary America, evangelicalism is the quintessential bad religion. Why? First and foremost, because of politics. For many Americans, bad politics = bad religion. And Donald Trump in particular. We could stop there. But what else? Bad beliefs, about everything from human evolution to the supernatural. More in line with Coviello’s analysis, sexualities and marriages regarded with suspicion by many Americans. Repressed, patriarchal, or both.

Perhaps even more to the point, evangelicals are simply out of step with emerging American values on two key issues: race and sexuality. A recent study from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia found that white evangelicals are now far outside the mainstream of American opinion on a cluster of issues that pertain to race, racism, and white supremacy. While evangelical views toward gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals have changed far more in recent decades than non-evangelicals recognize, there’s also a cultural gulf on these issues. “Why do they hate us?” asks David French. “There is a growing cultural divide between white Evangelical America and much of the rest of the nation.”

My conclusion is that white evangelicals increasingly play the role of bad religionists in American culture.

A few notes:

  1. I’m sketching out this idea here in an impressionistic way.
  2. My point is not that evangelicals and their institutions do not deserve much of the criticism they get. They do. But back to Coviello’s analysis of nineteenth-century Mormonism. Other Americans were not wrong to criticize Mormon patriarchy, but, for starters, they weren’t looking at the beam in their own eyes. And if we focus exclusively on the “sins” of Mormon polygamists we might miss larger stories about patriarchy in nineteenth-century America and even larger stories about the development of American secularism. Correspondingly, when we focus on the bad politics and bad beliefs of American evangelicals, we might miss a lot in the process.
  3. Many histories and contemporary portraits of American take as their starting point that there’s something fundamentally wrong with American evangelicalism. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Some of my co-bloggers have written outstanding books for which that is at least part of the story! I wonder, though, if too much scholarship on evangelicalism operates in this vein. (Note: see point #1).
  4. There are great books about nineteenth-century evangelicalism and the development of American secularism, such as John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America. I would love to read a book that applied this sort of lens to post-1945 American evangelicalism. What I envision is a careful analysis of how evangelicalism and American secularism have interacted, collided, and sometimes shaped each other. Steven Miller does some of this in his The Age of Evangelicalism. In a very different way, but perhaps more to the point, my mentor George Marsden did this superbly in his Soul of the American University. But more could be done. More probably has been done that I’ve overlooked. (Sorry!). The burgeoning scholarship on secularism points to some fresh approaches that historians and other scholars might take to the evangelicals who have often occupied religious center-stage in the post-WWWI United States.

 

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