My apologies for the tardiness of this next post. When I started writing about this in late October, the open letter from Asian Americans to the evangelical church had just been published. Things have died down a bit now. In light of that, you’re probably expecting that I should ask you to forgive me for reviving the issue.
I make no apologies. This is because the central issue, as far as I’m concerned, is far from dead. After all, my question has always been: was the open letter just about Asian Americans contesting how they are represented within American evangelicalism? Or was it about so much more?
This post picks up my argument that the open letter is about so much more than Asian Americans picking a private identity politics bone with American evangelicals. We’ll first review what I said last time. And then we’ll begin a discussion of where the open letter fits into the world of American evangelical social media spats. I’m also going to tell you that there’s this one evangelical journalist, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, who’s really important in this whole story, but I’m not really going to tell you why…yet!
First, then, the open letter.
If you haven’t read part 1 yet, you should. Here’s what I said in a nutshell:
As I participated in some Asian American evangelical activism that produced an open letter to the evangelical church, I began to think about how something big was happening in American religion. What I’m basically trying to say in this series is that there was a consensus that was constructed around the 1970s and 1980s that religious institutions were private organizations. Private organizations are private operations: they’re not run by any form of external governance, especially not by the state, and while some may comment about them in the public sphere, they’re not really beholden to the ‘critics.’ Private religious institutions got to do their own private thing, and that was part of a privatizing trend within North American civil society more generally (and arguably, throughout the world; it’s certainly true of the Asia-Pacific). However, events in recent weeks have suggested that the private consensus may be unraveling. This is due to the ability of some who have rearticulated what the word ‘public’ actually means in American religion. I argued that the Asian American evangelical open letter certainly had the potential to participate in this larger process.
I don’t know what will come of the open letter itself. I know that Lifeway Ministries has officially apologized for their 2004 orientalizing Vacation Bible School curriculum, Rickshaw Rally. I do know that the letter has led to a series of posts about ‘cultural stereotypes’ on church planter Ed Stetzer’s blog on Christianity Today. I understand that most people think that it’s just about Asian Americans complaining about how they are represented, and I am aware that some in fact think that the mission is accomplished: we’re on the Stetz’s blog, we got an apology from Lifeway, we have the ear of evangelical organizations.
Or is it?
I don’t think so.
Framed as an exercise in the politics of representation, I can see where people might get the idea that Asian Americans formed a sort of private interest group to lobby the rest of American evangelicals to pay attention to them. The problem is, as far as I’m concerned, that’s not what the open letter was ever about. The open letter was, well, an open letter. We were saying that the organizations that we were writing about had gotten the whole thing about privatization wrong. By their actions, they were implying (likely unintentionally) that it’s OK for evangelicals writ large to treat Asian Americans as exotic others without voices, or that is, with voices that will always speak with some pan-Asian “I love you long time’ accent. By suggesting this, they were not offending a niche private identity group. They were addressing an evangelical public by showing everyone in that public how a racialized group should be treated. Beyond the vocal Asian American evangelicals themselves, then, the affirmation that it’s OK to treat Asian Americans as exotic others has massive implications for how American evangelicals might deal with race more generally, as well as with their involvement in economic development in the Global South, their newfound interest in international human trafficking issues, and their longtime work in missions. In short, we saw that the evangelical public being addressed was a bit of a mess.
However, the organizations that we wrote about still thought there was a private consensus going on. After all Rick Warren said, ‘If you take this seriously, you really shouldn’t be following me!’ However, he made that privatizing statement on a public fan page after he publicly posted a Red Guard photo. He was arguing, in short, that his public actions are actually private. Likewise, until they publicly apologized, it took some time for Exponential, youth specialties, Zondervan, and Lifeway Ministries (especially the last one on this list) to realize that publishing and performing orientalizing publications and skits are not private endeavours that only their targeted audience will see and hear. When you publish or perform something, you are making a public statement. This lack of realization indicates that they were operating within a private consensus. The open letter challenged this private consensus. The letter argued that if private actions are actually public, then more public accountability is required.In short, we were saying that the private operations of private evangelical institutions are not really private. Because they have public implications and are usually set out to call publics into existence (see Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics), their public actions should be accountable to a public.
But that’s only the race and orientalization slice of this whole not-really-private thing. Especially over the last year, this argument has in fact already been presented to private evangelical organizations along many other axes, especially sexuality. What I’m describing, then, is about so much more than Asian American evangelicals picking a private bone with American evangelical institutions. This is about a rearticulation of American evangelicalism altogether.
And that’s why evangelical social media spats are important.
Let’s use another evangelical social media spat to illustrate, one that runs along a sexuality axis.
On 16 November, Reformed theologian James K.A. Smith and evangelical feminist blogger Rachel Held Evans had a Twitter spat. When Evans tweeted her support (‘I’ve got your back’) to an emerging LGBTQ+ group at Calvin College, Smith responded that Evans should take her ‘savior/martyr complex elsewhere.’ Puzzled by this response to her supportive tweet especially because she considered herself one of Smith’s ‘fans,’ Smith replied that Evans had presumed too much about Calvin College as an institution. As you’ll see from the link posted above, United Methodist pastor Morgan Guyton lost no time in castigating Smith for his ‘curmudgeonly’ ways, insinuating that the liturgies that had formed Smith into an online troll may have caused him to lose respect for him.
In many respects, the conversation that has ensued has moved forward per Guyton’s prescription. Guyton tells us that he has Evans’s back because she is an author that he has promoted; that is, Evans and Guyton have a private business pact that he is honouring. On the other hand, Guyton suggests that Smith is acting to defend his private academic institution, suggesting that it is the liturgies of the academy that have formed Smith into a curmudgeon.
In other words, Guyton frames the debate within the private consensus: it’s either Evans’s pet private cause (LGBTQ+ solidarity in evangelical colleges) or Smith’s pet private cause (defending the Calvin College brand).
Guyton doesn’t get it. While Guyton himself is certainly promoting his own pet private cause (the cause to promote Evans at all costs, including by taking a rhetorical strike-by-insinuation against ‘curmudgeonly’ academics more generally), neither Evans nor Smith are actually privatizing the conversation. They may be talking past each other, but this isn’t a clash of private interests. It’s a contest of different articulations of how an evangelical ‘public’ should work. Evans is defying what she thinks is a private institution’s default homophobia by declaring her public solidarity with LGBTQ+ students. For Evans, an evangelical public is de-institutionalized in favour of online solidarities. On the other hand, Smith is saying that Calvin College isn’t as private as Evans thinks it is. No one is getting in trouble. The LGBTQ+ group is making for great on-campus discussion. Calvin College is promoting public conversation.
In short, Smith and Evans are talking about two conceptions of how evangelical ‘publics’ should work. Evans thinks that the ‘public’ is a de-institutionalized solidarity. Smith thinks that institutions still matter but can be re-articulated outside the private consensus. Those two theories clashed. But they weren’t about their pet private causes. They were both about the operations of evangelical publics.
If Evans and Smith are both articulating new conceptions of an evangelical public, the real question is, how did they get to this new public articulation? After all, there was a private consensus, one into which Guyton still buys, and as I showed with the open letter, one in which many private evangelical organizations still exist. But if Evans and Smith are really saying what they’re saying about the public, how did they get past the private consensus?
Here’s what’s coming next, then. Both Asian American open letter and the Christian college sexuality Twitter spat point to work within evangelicalism in the last few years that is beginning to unravel the private consensus. A significant part of that work, I’ll suggest, has been accomplished by ground-breaking pieces authored by religion journalist Sarah Pulliam Bailey, including articles about LGBTQ+ activities on Christian college campuses and about Asian American evangelical activism. I’ll tell you why this is so in the next post. You’re probably also wondering why I’m singling out Bailey among all the other fine evangelical journalists out there. You’ll probably also want me to tell you what Rachel Held Evans and Jamie Smith have to do with an Asian American open letter.
Stay tuned. The private consensus is unraveling.