When they say ‘the 1960s’

When they say ‘the 1960s’ May 11, 2022

• Tim Alberta’s Atlantic piece on “How Politics Poisoned the Evangelical Church” is an intimately reported lamentation and maybe also the most impressive swing-and-a-miss I’ve seen since Bartolo Colon retired.

I’ll sometimes bracket in an editorial correction for headlines like Alberta’s — “How [White] Politics Poisoned the [White] Evangelical Church” — to highlight the unspoken assumption of contextualized theology that doesn’t recognize it’s own contextual contingency. Whiteness is, in this piece, assumed, invisible, and normative. Alberta knows and loves the fish he writes about. But because he’s one of them he’s never heard of water.

The clearest sign of that is in Alberta’s conception of “the 1960s,” the pernicious evil against which righteous white evangelicals are reacting or, perhaps, over-reacting. It’s this nonsense:

Beginning in the 1980s, white evangelicals imposed themselves to an unprecedented degree on the government and the country’s core institutions. Once left to cry jeremiads about civilizational decline — having lost fights over sex and sexuality, drugs, abortion, pornography, standards in media and education, prayer in public schools — conservative Christians organized their churches, marshaled their resources, and leveraged their numbers, regaining the high ground, for a time, in some of these culture wars.

No. The Greensboro sit-ins were not a protest against official prayers in schools. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was not a Grateful Dead show. And John Lewis didn’t march across the Pettus bridge in support of drugs and pornography, dammit.

This is not Wavy Gravy or Abbie Hoffman. Open your eyes.

The Civil Rights Movement and the brief Second Reconstruction it produced were not about sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Woodstock was a sideshow. (It was a reaction to and against the moral bankruptcy of white Christianity — it was the response of children traumatized from learning that the “morality” preached by their parents and churches was, in fact, evil and unjust.)

I’m grateful to Alberta for demonstrating the confusion of white evangelicalism in response to the Second Reconstruction, but he’s too busy embodying it to be of any use to anyone trying to understand it. And thus he can’t quite understand or explain the rift between the two pastors he profiles and their opposing forms of Redemptionist backlash. The MAGA conspiracist Bill Bolin is Nathan Bedford Forrest. The thoughtful, “moderate” conservative Ken Brown is Rutherford B. Hayes. They’re on two different paths toward the same destination.

• Ryan Zickgraf writes about “The Two Souls of Pentecostalism“: “Early Pentecostal preachers railed against elites and uplifted the oppressed — a far cry from their recent efforts to elect right-wing populists like Donald Trump. There are deep contradictions at the heart of Pentecostalism, and they aren’t resolved yet.”

This strikes me as a bit strained in its search for hopefulness — insisting that the glass is 5% full and not 95% empty. I appreciate the shout-out to Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice. I love those folks, but their efforts and the role they play — in American Christianity generally and in pieces like Zickgraf’s article — is also dismayingly familiar. Thirty years ago, I was them.

In my basement office at Evangelicals for Social Action back in the ’90s I had a whole file drawer filled with photocopies and clippings of similar articles lifting up ESA as evidence that #NotAllWhiteEvangelicals, etc. I’ve seen this movie. I was in this movie. It doesn’t end well.

• But even if hope ain’t easy, it’s still a duty. So here’s a hopeful reminder from, of all people, Atrios:

It is worth remembering, as various Democrats (some – not all!) attempt to sabotage Biden rolling back Trump’s “unthinkable” border policies, that the first big mass popular resistances to Trump were about the Muslim ban and “kids in cages.”

Related to my expressed disgust for elites, I actually think The People are better than elites give them credit for, as they are quite often projecting their own bigotry and general contempt for other people onto “the white working class” or “suburban moms” or whoever happens to be convenient at the moment.

Lots of people are assholes, but also lots of people have a healthy level of disgust against obvious injustices, and rarely require more than a slight nudge, if that, from respected leaders to get there.

• That bit about “a slight nudge, if that” from leaders recalls the conclusion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s essential essay “On Folly”:

But there is some consolation in these thoughts on folly: they in no way justify us in thinking that most people are fools in all circumstances. What will really matter is whether those in power expect more from people’s folly than from their wisdom and independence of mind.

• Which brings us to this tweet from Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut:

“Picking on gay kids isn’t popular,” Murphy said. And that’s true, in a way, even though it’s not how most of us remember middle school and high school.

Back in school, picking on gay kids was practically a daily ritual for the “popular” kids. It was part of how they maintained and enforced their status as the “popular” kids. It was a constant reminder of the existence of a clear pecking order, and of everyone’s place in it. And I’m sorry to say that most of the time, most of the school went along with that.

But that still didn’t mean their picking on gay kids was, itself, “popular.” It wasn’t an esteemed practice that won the favor and admiration of the rest of the school. It was, rather, a threat and a warning to everybody else: Stay in line; know your place. If most people went along with that as passive and complicit bystanders, it wasn’t because they liked it. It was ugly and uncomfortable, with the tinfoil taste of shame. That’s part of why the “popular crowd” in many schools wasn’t so much beloved as widely resented.

My theory — or, at least, my wager — is that it wouldn’t take much to turn many of those bystanders into protesters. “A slight nudge, if that” might be enough to let them realize that the bullies are outnumbered and that the populace need not be ruled by the “popular.”

That nudge could come from those officially or formally recognized as “leaders.” But if it doesn’t come from them, it could also come from anyone willing to stop standing by and simply say, “No. Stop. Leave those kids alone.” Those who do that will, in fact, prove to be leaders, whether or not they’re ever given official titles recognizing that.


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