Soap, soup, and salvation

Soap, soup, and salvation October 22, 2021

• Good piece from Matthew Avery Sutton, “[White] Evangelicals are one step closer to the ultimate prize: ending abortion in America.”

Sutton gives a good lightning-round history of white evangelical attitudes toward legal abortion. He finds a very few early examples of evangelicals preaching abortion-is-murderism — Billy Sunday and John R. Rice. But those isolated voices weren’t so much anti-abortion as they were anti-hussy, as Sutton writes, they: “Linked abortion with promiscuous sex.” Neither Sunday nor Rice made anti-abortionism a central part of their mission, but I suppose their influence persists in the contemporary white evangelical belief that abortion must be criminalized because most women are sluts who can’t be trusted.

John R. Rice was a prolific author, but he only wrote about abortion when it bolstered his arguments against uppity women and against integration.

The much-later, wider, emphatically mandatory embrace of abortion-is-murderism by white evangelicals linked abortion to both “promiscuous sex” and to feminism — both of which they opposed absolutely. What Sutton highlights, though, is the way that these same white evangelicals had railed against both of those things for decades before linking them to abortion.

Sutton’s chronology of white evangelical anti-abortionism is important, I think, because it’s not possible for subsequent events to be a cause of prior ones.

• From responsible, truthful history to its opposite: “The premise behind President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives program was that churches and private charities could do a better job than the government in helping the poor escape poverty,” Daniel K. Williams writes. “In making this claim, Bush echoed the ideas of one of his evangelical advisors: Marvin Olasky, whose book The Tragedy of American Compassion argued that federal antipoverty programs from President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society kept poor people in poverty and were thus detrimental to their long-term best interest.”

Williams is right to note the massive influence that Olasky’s Tragedy had on Bush administration policy and how it stands as the distillation of the mythic individualism of white evangelical anti-anti-poverty ideology. But we should never mention Olasky’s book without also mentioning that its one of the most brazenly mendacious pieces of hackwork ever produced.

Hence my practice, every time that book is mentioned, of recommending Norris Magnuson’s Salvation in the Slums: Evangelical Social Work 1865-1920. This is basically a very slightly popularized dissertation, but it’s the perfect antidote to Olasky’s dishonestly selective history because it covers the same time period and cites all of the same primary sources. That exposes the drastic alterations and omissions in Olasky’s use of those sources, the scope, amount, and trajectory of which make it impossible to regard as unintentional.

In any case, we have a much more contemporary example for evaluating the effectiveness of Olasky’s archetypically white evangelical anti-anti-poverty ideology. This utopia of minimal government replaced by a massive constellation of unfettered white evangelical mission agencies and nonprofits already exists. It’s called Haiti.

• Here’s an utterly unremarkable story, blandly mundane to the point of boring: “House of worship receives final approval from Manalapan planners.”

This is a church-and-state story that touches on all of the very same legal and constitutional and jurisdictional matters involved in all of those angry, firestorm-of-controversy, Peter-Finch-in-Network-style stories about churches freaking out over public health measures during a pandemic. And yet no one is freaking out here. This story is a yawn-fest, apparently even for the participants. It’s practical, bureaucratic, routine, common-sensical, necessary, and dull as homework.

The Manalapan Township Planning Board informed the Evangelical Church of the Assemblies of God that their new building would have to include sprinklers to meet local fire-safety codes. And then, please note, that the Evangelical Church of the Assemblies of God did not freak out, calling for a march and demonstration and a Sean Feucht concert before rushing off to appear on Fox News, complaining to Todd Starnes that they were being oppressed and persecuted by tyrannical Big Government that was worse than [insert appallingly inappropriate historical analogy here]. They didn’t take to Facebook announcing their intent to defy this tyrannical and probably Soros-funded interference with their religious liberty and proclaiming that Jesus Christ is all the fire-safety anyone ever needs.

That didn’t happen because no one in this story is a disingenuous idiot.

Instead, what happened here is that the Evangelical Church of the Assemblies of God hired responsible contractors who did their homework and drew up plans for the new church building that are up to code, and so the planning board approved those plans and, in a few weeks or months from now, will publish another dully mundane story with a photo of the AofG pastor “breaking ground” at the site with a ceremonial shovel.

That’s how this stuff is supposed to work. And that’s how it still does work in the few corners of our lives together that haven’t yet been polarized by the white-resentment grievance machines of Fox and Facebook. Those corners are the few places where we’re still capable of anything like government or self-government.

• The title of this post comes from a Lone Justice song about stumbling drunk into one of the rescue missions that Magnuson documented (and Olasky lied about). Think of it as a cowpunk version of “How a Resurrection Really Feels” as sung by Aimee Semple McPherson.

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